Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Taiwan Years - Introduction

[Originally published on Lai Wongbao]

Okay, well, this blog has been dead for a long time, but I've never forgot about it. I really wanted to do something with it for a long time, but never really had the chance or the mindset. Now, after being sick for a number of days, I've had the time to sit down and think about what I wanted to do. I've written a short retrospective of my time here in Taiwan, because since being here, time has flown by--not in the proverbial fun and frolic of a lad overseas, but rather in a flurry of tempestuous trials that have challenged me and really changed my thinking. I guess in a way I am posting up my memoirs of this time as a continuation of what I hoped to be a travelogue of my first years in Taipei.

First, for those of you who don't know the story. I was hoping to document my return to Taiwan and China in a week after week travelblog. The problem is that the first few posts were more negative rants and I didn't want the blog to take that direction. I always wanted it to be more of a current issues/satire kind of blog. A kind of prose-based Feign-esque commentary: humourous, witty and a bit sarky at times. That has been achieved with the opening of my second blog Taiwan Introspective which I have also started recently. I'm going to keep this one for more personal reflections and the other for more current affairs-based commentary.

The chapters for this blog evolved as I began editing an original post of Wednesday, April 05, 2006. Catharsis set in, and half a day and a box of gumdrops later, I am sitting here posting this... enjoy!


On to Chapter 1: "The Great Wait"-->

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Chapter 6: Moving out (Part 1)

My sick leave passed very quickly due to several events. While getting a proper visa was high on the list, one unexpected and sudden event, however, became moving out of the residence that I was in at the moment. Although I was still recovering from bronchitis, the rest of March was spent packing and by April, I had found a new place and signed a lease. Basically, my welcome kind of wore out and my friend's girlfriend turned on me.

When I visited Taipei for the first time in 2005, I had a great time. I stayed with my friend for a couple of weeks, and he was happy to have a visitor of his own. Prior to my arrival his girlfriend invited some guy she met on the internet to stay with them and he basically took over the place. He became the golden boy and my friend became the pariah. After getting rid of him, it was hard not to be appreciated with my friend following me around saying 'see? He would never say/do/ask about that', etc.

Also, for some reason, my friend's girlfriend went out of her way to introduce me to her coworkers. I spent several nights attending these kind of cutesy, cheesy match-up situations which I used as a great opportunity to practice my Chinese. Also, it was not hard to feel the gallant bachelor being the only guy around and a visitor to boot.

Nothing really came of it, but I did hit it off with one of her colleagues and had a quick date before I left in 2005. That was when I saw the other side of my friends girlfriend. I had a nice time with 'the colleague' I had been introduced to and just before I left, this girl took me to a tea house on the side of the mountains in Miaokong. It was a beautiful and very romantic time drinking tea, but to be honest, nothing happened except for a few cute glances across the table over the steaming water. Besides, she was dating a judge in the south of Taiwan anyway.

To make a long story short, when I left Taipei, I wrote the colleague a nice letter and left some souvenirs for my friend's girlfriend and her. I stopped by Hawai'i on the way home and also sent the colleague a cheap necklace I found at Hilo Hattie's.

That's when I came home to MSN messages with long lists of how bad this colleague had suddenly become and why I shouldn't talk to her anymore. Apparently, the colleague had said something to the effect of me having unnaturally good taste in Taiwan women. My friend's girlfriend took this as an insult as the implication was that most foreigners--including the friend I was staying with--end up with homely women in Taiwan. From then on it was war with gossip and her private life being streamed to me daily from my friend's girlfriend.

Also added to the list was the fact that I sent the colleague something and never sent my friend's girlfriend anything. I was slightly astonished about this, because of course, I never knew I was dating my friend's girlfriend. It didn't matter I was told, and I should have been sending equal gifts to everyone. Was this Taiwanese culture, I wondered.

Anyhow, looking back now, I saw how manipulative, jealous and insane my friend's girlfriend could be. This played directly into why I had to move out the second time I visited, because although I had forgotten her little eruption after a year, my friend's girlfriend quickly turned on me after I arrived again in 2006, leading to the first item of business on my agenda when I got better being that I had to move out. Forget the resident visa for now--I had to get my sanity first.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Chapter 5: Disaster Strikes!

Things had been stable for first few weeks after starting class. I had settled into a routine either taking the bus, the subway or hitching a ride with my friend's girlfriend in the morning. I even had been able to have breakfast a few times before class.

Unfortunately, about three weeks after class began, the friend I was living with had a car accident, something infinitely more common than in the West. He was pretty wrecked up so I stayed home to help him that (Monday) morning and ended up going in to teach his classes as well. That was two hours off my ten hours I was allowed to miss that month. Oh well, I had holidays coming up anyway, so I could use that time to go to HK and get my student-visitor visa.

After six hours of teaching my friend's classes in a small sauna with hyperactive kids, I was so washed out the next day that I missed another class. Four hours missed. I was just totally exhausted. On the Wednesday, I made it in to class but really didn’t do too well because my voice had become very deep and hard to understand. Thursday, I woke up with a fever and trouble breathing. Six hours missed. Friday, I knew I had bronchitis. Eight hours missed.

By the next week, I missed my ninth and tenth hours because the bronchitis had turned into rales (pronounced rawls, I’m told). This is when your lungs fill up with putrid sputum and you get that bubbling effect. It’s kind of like breathing through a hookah or a sponge. I had this problem once before when I had viral pneumonia. I knew this was not good, because only severe bronchitis has this kind of problem. Anyhow, the rest of the week was spent going to doctors, taking antibiotics and just generally feeling like crap. I didn’t lose the fever for several weeks. The end result for those of you keeping score: eighteen hours of class missed.

Luckily the next week was my holidays because I was in the third week of a heavy lung infection. The doctor was scaring me because he kept telling me I should have cleared up by now.Also scary was waking up on the second day of my holidays to realize that I had stayed in Taiwan almost 60 days. That's right, my visa was expiring and by law, I needed to go to the 'foreign affairs police' to get an extension. The only problem was, I did not have a student visa and an extension was only given to visitors with the note that I was studying. I was supposed to be leaving. Even if they were to make an exception, a requisite document for visa extension was my attendance record--something that showed I had already missed twice the allotted hours.

So here I was faced with the fact that since I had already missed 20 hours of school, I couldn’t present the requisite attendance record and I was likely to be denied an extension. I decided to throw myself on the mercy of the cops and got the ‘we’ll do it this once but never again without the proper records’ treatment and I renewed for another 60 days. They also mentioned that, since I missed over 10 hours under Ministry of Education stipulations, I was to be booted out of school and never allowed to re-enroll. From being ill, my marks weren’t that hot either so I didn’t have much to stand on.

Finally, and most sadly, I was a bit beyond the point of no return, financially. There were no refunds for my schooling and I had invested money in rent and had other expenses that made it tough to back out and just go home. Plus, it kind of became a challenge to me to see if I could actually work within this crazy system. So after some reading and talking to people, I came up with a plan to apply for sick leave. As long as the doctor cleared me, I could opt out of the rest of the semester, losing the money I had paid, but buying myself time to get well, go to Hong Kong and apply for the proper visa. With the new visa, I would be able to start my studies anew next semester and work towards the four months I needed to get the resident visa. Or so I thought.

On to Chapter 6: "Moving Out (Part 1) -->

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Chapter 4: School Daze

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, er, university, things continued to get interesting. First, I got my class schedule. Yes, even though I didn't have the proper visa, I was enrolled and I found I had been assigned classes that started at 8:10 in the morning. That's when the leisurely one hour commute that I had been taking at noon became and grueling early morning rush hour trek with added time because of the volume of people. My heart sunk thinking that I was now going to have to be getting up at 5:30 to be ready to catch an overcrowded bus so I could get to class on time.

Of course, I checked the university rules. ‘Classes cannot be changed without a valid reason. Work schedules are not a valid reason’ it said. If work was not a valid reason, I supposed commute times and buses wouldn’t be valid, either. Anyway, after a few classes, I kind of liked my teacher and the small class (no one comes that early) so I decided to stick with the up and at 'em.

After about a week of being packed into an over-crowded, unsafe minibus that was standing room only at 6am, it was much easier to start giving into my friends who were urging me to drive illegally. And hey, I was an illegal student, so why shouldn’t I be an illegal driver? I could buy a scooter registered to someone who had already left Taiwan and drive it to school. All perfectly normal, I was assured by the folks here.

Luckily, the guy I was living with had a girlfriend who started giving me lifts to school in the morning. After about a week of driving downtown, I became much more rested and could actually form words in class, but the polluted air was beginning to take its toll. The morning commute on a scooter was horrible on the lungs. Every time one would stop at the light, he would be wedged in between busses and cars in a veritable cloud of exhaust.

Soon, I wasn't just sitting in class tasting exhaust fumes, but I was starting to cough too. I started driving to the nearest subway (MRT) station instead. Less polluted, way less dangerous, and hey, between driving illegally and attending class illegally, I don’t think I was violating any law bytaking the subway--until, one day, I took a drink of water to stop coughing. People glared at me like I had lit a cigarette. (Drinking is illegal on the subway.)

On to Chapter 5: "Disaster Strikes!" -->

Friday, January 23, 2009

Chapter 3: Rude Awakenings

Returning to Taipei was nice, except that on arrival I had some bad dumplings served to me (a friend was too cheap to replace his broken fridge) and that laid me up with food poisoning for about 5 days—lost about 10 lbs. Oh well, I needed to lose weight anyway. Since I was spending most of my time on the porcelain throne, I phoned the school and told them my difficulty about getting down to registration. No problem, they said, just come in the same week and register late. Nice enough.

Around this time, it started to sink in what kind of a locational predicament I was in. I had hoped to live with my friends at the other end of the city and commute to school, at least part of the way, by scooter. Of course, to do that I would need to purchase a scooter and convert my license. This is where the first shoe dropped. I found out to do any of this—that is to register a scooter or even get a license to drive one—I needed to have an resident visa and an ARC (kind of like a SIN number). What was I going to do in the four months to get to school? ‘Drive illegally,’ I was told, ‘everyone else does’.

Determined to obey the laws, I started taking the bus to school, because let's be honest, it wasn’t really that difficult. It made the commute in just over one hour. I could leave around 11am and arrive just after noon. Perfect to have lunch and then get to an afternoon class!

So I arrived at school fresh from my commute the first day for orientation. ‘Visas’ our cheery, church-going, mandarin-speaking, white-guy host informed us, ‘are so complicated here. You can talk to our visa specialist if you have any questions.’ So I cued up, well, mobbed up with the throng of others who were trying to figure out what the hell was going on. After a moment, I was told that my ‘visitor’ visa, needed to have a note saying that I was allowed to study at the university. That’s funny: that was what I was told not to do when I got the visa in the first place. Oh well, I'd have to go down to the government buildings and fix that.

So I asked the ‘visa specialist’, "how do I get the 'little note'?"

“I’m very sorry,” he apologized hatter-of-factly, “but you have to leave Taiwan and apply for another visa.”

I stood looking at him dumbfounded.

“Sorry,” he said again, “so many students are in this same situation.” Also, I was told that the ‘four months’required to get the resident visa would not start until I had the little note on my visitor’s visa.

How was I supposed to know that the visitor's visa was supposed to have a note in it? What was this crazy half-way between visitor and student?

It took a minute before the logic kicked in…you see in Taiwan, students studying Chinese are not considered real students. They are not permitted to be residents until they study for four months, unlike university students who enrol and are accepted at a university and given an ARC for the duration. I had no idea about this strange 'visitorness' of Chinese students at home in Canada where I taught and when I studiedin Hong Kong it was very different. Stupidly, I had assumed that the residency issue would be handled, like many places, once I got here. I was learning the hard way.

Then the frustration began: How could this university let me walk in and register without the proper visa? I mean, I wasn’t even told until I actually asked! Were they just going to let me study there without a proper visa? Didn't they care that I was illegal? Why wasn't there a big red warning about this? Flashing lights?

“So you let me enroll here illegally?” I asked him. He didn’t seem to like the tone of my question and went on to someone else. So there I was, an illegal student in Taiwan. The concept of illegal student seemed so funny to me. Like if I was caught at an intersection with a dictionary or Chinese book, the policeman upon examining my passport would yell out, “you can’t be learning here! You’re not allowed!”

The rest of the orientation was a blur. The good thing was I was allowed to miss 10 hours of class a month, and since classes were two hours long, I could probably take a week and go to Hong Kong and reapply for a visa. Considerable expense, that: preparing a whole new application and then buying a ticket, hotel, etc. not to mention missing class I had paid for. Again, I wondered why all this wasn't clear.

Anyhow, I figured, since I was illegal, but enrolled, I would take a few weeks and then escape to Hong Kong to become a bona fide, legal, quasi-student-visitor. Now I was getting the hang of it. I didn't want to skip the first week of class, because of course everyone had happily taken all my money and I just kind of assumed they weren't going to give it back because I had screwed up my visa.

On to Chapter 4: "School Daze" -->

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Chapter 2: The Underground Consulate

The term 'underground' consulate came to me from a Taiwan academic friend. At the time, I was not aware of the depth of its meaning, but after learning more of Taiwan's situation and the fact that it could not have an embassy of its own, the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) was a front for an agency that provided consular services to those traveling to the island. Call it de facto or underground, it did seem a little strange that the place was so unofficially official.

I thought it was interesting that as I entered the TECO I was met with the sounds of some white guy raving about being treated like a criminal. He told them he wanted all his visa materials back and there was no way he would ever think of going to Taiwan now. He was obviously an English teacher of some sort, raving about how his grandfather fought against communism and how only communists did things like this (seems they had made him sign some sort of confession or something.) Obviously, this guy was LOONIE…

Next, it was my turn. I walked up with my bank statements, air tickets and other items for the visitor visa and laid out my application for the attendant. She looked it over and told me that I had to change my plane ticket because I could only stay in Taiwan for a maximum of 180 days. I told her I had intended on studying for two semesters so I booked a September return, but I understood and I would arrange another ticket to leave Taiwan, probably to visit some friends in Hong Kong.

“You must declare this statement on a piece of paper and sign it,” was the attendant's response. Was this the ‘confession’ the other loonie was talking about? Boy, was he touchy…

As I took a piece of paper and began writing ‘I solemnly swear to leave Taiwan before 180 days’, the attendant quickly added:

“Also, you must write that you will not work or study while you are in Taiwan.”

Study, how? “You mean teach?” I asked her. “No, study… like study Chinese.” But that was why I was going!

“So if I want to study, do they change the visa once I get to Taiwan?” I asked. It seemed reasonable after my experience in British Hong Kong, the HKSAR and Mainland China. Most of these places make you enter as a visitor and then you have to go and register to become a permanent resident, student, or whatever. I’ve done this a lot of times on HK and the mainland. This prevents people from getting in on a student visa and then not showing up. Plus, the university website had mentioned about after 4 months of study you must apply for a resident visa.

“I don’t know anything about that” was the attendant’s response. So standing there, pen in hand I had a choice. I surmised that this was just some legal red tape and that I would be instructed on what to do after registering at the university. After all, I wasn’t yet a registered student, so it still kind of made sense… I could reapply at the proper government office when I got there. So I took the pen and wrote, "I understand that I cannot work or study under a visitor’s visa" and then handed her the form.

And off the visa went to be processed. My friends assured me that everything was fine. In fact so many foriegners are working illegally there, they were bound to be very lax on students. Plus, it was either that or don’t go at all.

The visa was returned the three days later and after a great deal of stupidity from Air Canada, off I went to Taipei.

On to Chapter 3: "Rude Awakenings" -->

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Chapter 1: The Great Wait

It all started when I visited Taiwan about four years ago around this time. Like many, I was impressed with the people, the place and the general air of sophistication that goes with living in many large Asian cities. Also with a few friends here, I had a really good time. It’s always more fun when you are visiting friends.

My first two degrees have focused on China-related topics and though Chinese competency was requisite for my degrees, I have always dreamt of really ‘mastering’ my Chinese. After living and studying in both Hong Kong and the mainland, I got in into my head that maybe I should give Taiwan a try. After all, Taiwan is also a Mandarin speaking region (as much as can be said for China—every place has its regional dialects). So I went about looking for the best Chinese language program. From advice from various friends and forums, I was told that National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU) was the best place to study. So I applied by the required date in January and looked forward to starting my studies in March 2006.

There was nothing from NTNU for about two weeks after my application, so like any student anxious to get going, I wrote the school and told them that I needed to get prepared if I was going to arrive in Taiwan early enough to be there for registration, which was around February 21. The university website stated that you should register as early as possible in order to get the proper classes, etc.

Anyhow, I had hoped to arrive a few days early—five, actually—so I could actually take my Chinese placement test without worrying about jet lag. So there I was, writing in the second week of February saying that I had the application in a week before the deadline and I should be making plans to buy a plane ticket, etc. I received a short one-line email saying that I was indeed accepted and a letter of admission had been sent but might take a few weeks to arrive. (Please remember that I had told them that I really needed to get going in order to make it in time.) Also note that there was no mention of any specific visa processes that I needed to follow.

Knowing that I was accepted and had a formal letter on its way, I quickly booked my plane ticket and got about readying my visa application. Checking the university website, I read that once you had a formal letter of admission you could apply for a visa, so knowing the letter was on its way, I hurried off to the ROC ‘underground’ consulate to get my visa.

On to Chapter 2: "The Underground Consulate" -->

Monday, January 19, 2009

KLIM is back with more cheese than ever!

Ah, KLIM, you old friend of Taiwan's supermarket shelves, you're back! And all NEW, no less.

It makes me wonder why you ever left in the first place! It obviously wasn't to think up a better name, say like ENIMALEM, which might be very popular with the new rap generation.

No, you're back and you're all new with 100% New Zealand and Australian Milk. I wonder why that would be so important to promote these days?

Ah well, I'm not going to take pot shots at an industry which has obviously been destroyed by tainted milk from that place we are not to mention in the local Taiwan media these days. (Unless, of course, it's totally positive--just ask those poor Buddhist Monks who, for some reason, seemed to hardly make a blip on Taiwan's scandal-hungry media radar.)

No, I just wanted to ask: KLIM, you old chemical standby of fresh milk, is the cheese you put into your advertising 100% New Zealand and Australian, too? (That opening shot, however, is very realistic, I must say. The early morning in Taipei--sunlight streaming in over a smoke-filled kitchen.)

In the end, well done, KLIM, for not giving up and going home. Because Planet KLIMTON is just so far away to visit!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Illegitimi non carborundum

Illegitimi non carborundum

“Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” I always seem to pull this phrase out when dealing with Chinese bureaucracy.

Now, just so you don’t think I’ve suddenly turned racist (I know all of you had your suspicions), I should note that Western bureaucracy is just as annoying, but has different characteristics. This is bureaucracy with Chinese characteristics.

One of the major differences between Chinese bureaucracy and Western bureaucracy is that Western bureaucracy tries to find legitimacy in its confusion. It is this way, because it has to be this way and this, o one of little knowledge, is the best way we can do it, at least for now.

In bureaucracy with Chinese characteristics, however, they make no excuses: you don’t understand it, we don’t understand it, and nobody knows why and we are caught in this horrible agonizing trap… oh and sadly, you’re holding the stinky side of the stick. This is often referred to this as the 'meiyou banfa' culture (沒有辦法).

Illegitimi non carborundum isn’t actually proper Latin… the ‘bastards’ part is Latin, but carborundum is actually the name of an abrasive used for sanding and grinding surfaces. The phrase was made popular by the American WWII General, ‘Vinegar’ Joe Stilwell, who was a China hand assigned to the Sino-Japanese War.

I can figure that this probably became old Joe’s slogan when he found himself charged with helping the Chinese fight the Japanese, only to have his progress hampered by infighting among the Chinese (communists vs. nationalists). Although both camps had united to fight the Japanese, there was still a war going on within a war. For example, when Stilwell attempted to distribute weaponry, the nationalist leader refused to let him give any to the communists, which were often at strategic points holding off the Japanese. Thus poor Joe couldn’t get his objectives accomplished because of conditions like ‘help us win the war, but don’t give half the army any weapons’. Meiyou banfa.

Thus, any time I can’t get things done overseas due to bureaucracies, be it China, Hong Kong or Taiwan, I find this phrase leaping to mind. The only thing more exhausting than dealing with red tape, is doing it in another language and culture. While I’d be the first to say that all bureaucrats are bastards (ABAB), the 'grinding' part is such an apt description of the process of trying to deal with things when you don’t have the wit or analytical abilities that help you manage your native cultural landscape.