Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Time Out in Taiwan!

Note: My brand-new digital camera was stolen shortly after I returned to Shanghai. So you'll have to believe me when I say I had awesome pictures of the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, Taipei 101 (the world's tallest building), Shilin Night Market, and cool Taiwanese girls.

Normally, I keep my language clean. But when I opened my backpack and saw my camera was gone, the call of "Motherfucking bastards!" carried far and wide.

I was looking up apartments on Tealit.com and got really excited when I saw they had dryers! In China, everyone hangs their clothes on poles that stick out from their building. They look like this:

(photo courtesy of Ed at the Aidohua blog).

Holy crap, if the thought of electric dryers is exciting, then I've been in China too long.

That's why I was so glad to be taking a vacation in Taipei, Taiwan. I envisioned it has having all the good stuff about China, with few of the bad things. I felt the same way about Hong Kong. Both were more Westernized and more Chinese.

One thing that intrigued me was how friends said that Taiwan and Hong Kong felt more "Chinese" than China. Huh? The reasoning was that all the people with money, culture, art, and talent fled the motherland with the rise of Communism. Many traditions in China were destroyed by the new regime. A Chinese student actually admitted to me that it was a good thing people escaped to Taiwan and Hong Kong, or the old ways would have been totally lost.

Having done a fair bit of traveling by now, I looked through my files for people I had met from Taiwan. A regular habit of mine is to collect e-mails. Never know when I'll be in their neighborhood . . . or their country.

I came up with a few names and zapped off e-mails. These were cool girls I'd met while studying abroad in England. I was looking forward to hanging out with them again.

The first reply was a disaster. Like an idiot, I bought my plane ticket before contacting the Taiwan girls I knew. Ashley was working on her Master's degree in England. She said that she'd be back in Taipei for vacation 3 days after I returned to Shanghai. I blew it. Game over.

Then the next response came in. Jessie was actually working in China! But she'd be home for vacation at the same time as my trip. Too cool! We'd definitely have lots to talk about. She said to call her up when I got into town.

The North Korea-South Korea thing gets a lot of press. I didn't know until I got here that there's a lot of tension between China and Taiwan (a.k.a. "cross-strait relations"). The short version is that China considers Taiwan a renegade province, a part of China. Taiwan sees itself as an independent country.

The residue of this political flack is that there's no direct flights between China and Taiwan. Flights have to go through Hong Kong, sometimes through Macau (a Chinese island famous for casinos). I ended up going through Macau. It used to be a Portuguese colony, so everything in that airport is in Chinese and Portuguese! That was so weird, like I was in some parallel world.

I flew on EVA airlines. I thought it was good, but my Taiwan students preferred China Airlines (not to be confused with Air China). China Airlines is the other major Taiwan carrier, but my Lonely Planet guidebook said they had a sorry history of crashes!

Riding the bus from the airport to downtown Taipei was surreal. Green mountains rippled around the city, lush trees tipped their leaves in the wind. If it weren't for the street signs in Chinese, I would have sworn I was back in Hawaii!

Somehow, I felt comfortable right away. The weather, the scenery, the Japanese cars, it all reminded me of home. I spoke some Chinese now, so I could get around without as many problems. Compared to the culture shock of Shanghai, Taipei was a leisurely vacation.

I called Jessie as soon as I checked in. We arranged to meet at the MRT station near my hostel. I got there early and just soaked up the atmosphere, as well as the exhaust from the million scooters whizzing around. While I waited, I conjured up memories of her. When we were in England, she had dressed simply. Casual sweaters and pants.


I turned and did a double-take. This was a new Jessie. She sported a denim jacket, cowboy boots, and a black skirt so short if defied existence. This wasn't the modest, sweet girl I remembered.

"Jessie?" When I meet someone I know from a while back, it's like all the time between the past and present are gone. The intervevening years disappear and it's as if they never happened.

We talked as she took me to a restaurant she liked. Her questions came hard and fast, all business: "What's your purpose in coming here?" "Which things will you see?" "What's your plan?"

I fumbled some words out and totally failed to impress her. She eased up on the interrogation when we got to the restaurant.

It specialized in Sichuan cuisine. It's a province in China with a famous saying: "In Sichuan, their girls are like their food: hot and spicy."

I asked her about work in China. She did marketing for a Taiwan company that had a factory in Guangdong province. Her company was near Guangzhou, a city that unanimously got bad comments from all my Chinese students.

So it wasn't a surprise when Jessie said she came back to Taipei because she couldn't stand it in China.

I told her some of my problems, and she was completely sympathetic.

"You don't like it, and you live in Shanghai!" Jessie exclaimed. "Shanghai is the most Western city in China." (not counting Hong Kong)

"That's why I'm visiting Taipei," I said. "It's part vacation, partly a trip to check out what it'd be like to live here."

She brightened at that, and went into a big move-to-Taiwan sales pitch. "Many foreigners teach English for a year, and go traveling."

That was my dream! "How long does it take to go to places from here?" I asked.

"Taipei is the core!" Jessie said. "Japan, China, Thailand, they all take less than four hours."

"Whoa!" It took me longer to fly to Los Angeles when I was in college.

Everything she said made me want to relocate tommorow. The only downside she mentioned was that my classes would be bigger, 10-20 students. I was surprised, because I had expected to have big classes when I first came to China, the world's most populated country. I lucked out in that my school capped the classes to five students each. Ironic that the smaller country would have the bigger classes.

After we finished off the spicy pork and fish with rice, Jessie took me to another restaurant for dessert. We had shin ren doufu, almond-flavored tofu in a bowl of sweet soy milk. Never ate that before.

I so intent on spooning up the great food that I didn't notice the pretty Taiwanese girl that walked up to our table. I thought she was one of Jessie's friends. But she was looking at me.

"Marcus!" Jessie whispered.

"What?" I looked at her and then up at the girl.

"Excuse me," the stranger said.

"Yes?" I took another bite of tofu.

"Did you study in England at the University of East Anglia?" she asked eagerly.

I almost choked on my tofu, I was so surprised! "Yes, yes I did! Have we met?" I asked.

She pouted. "Marcus! Don't you remember me?"

Oh no! Can't ever achieve pimp status if I forget girls' names. I looked at her closely. She had a nice tan. Back in England, we all had pale skin from the lack of sunlight. Forget skin, look at her face. She started to look familiar. Then I had it, she was at the International Party at UEA.

"Lucy?" I ventured.


"Oh." I was sad.

She broke into a big smile. "My English name is Lianne now!"

I motioned for her to sit with us.

Lianne and Jessie spoke in rapid-fire Mandarin, laughing and catching up.

"How did you recognize me?" I asked Lianne.

"Your shirt," she said.

I was wearing a surfer shirt that said Hawaiian Style on the back. Always gotta represent the 808 state when I travel.

"When I saw the Hawaii, I thought of Marcus," she continued. "You're the only person I've met from Hawaii. I had to come and check. I thought impossible!"

"Good thing you did," I said. I was still in awe at the serendipity of it all. In a city of 6 million people, what were the chances of visiting another country and have a girl recognize me?

Ashley, Jessie, and now Liannne. Three good reasons to return to Taiwan!

Monday, April 10, 2006

Shipped to Shanghai! Vol. 14 -- Dialing for Dollars

"If you don't want anyone to know, then don't do it."
--Chinese proverb

I was in a bind. My vacation was getting closer, and I still hadn't found a way to convert my Chinese yuan into U.S. dollars. Every bank I hit said they couldn't do it. China is the roach motel of foreign exchange policy: dollars go in, but they don't come out.

I was wary of street currency traders, for reasons I detailed in an earlier story. But they seemed to be my only option.

Luckily, Xiao came to my rescue. She's one of my students, a Chinese businesswoman preparing to relocate to the United States. Part of that preparation included converting her money into dollars before the big move. Xiao offered to set me up with her money man.

So that was how I found myself in the lobby of a crumbling office building on a side street, wondering if I'd been set up to be robbed. Xiao was with me, answering her cell phone every few minutes to give the money man directions to the building. Her eyes flitted to everyone who walked in. Was she watching for cops?

Finally, a disheveled-looking man in tattered clothes walked in. Everything about him screamed "homeless bum!" except for the big, gleaming leather satchel he held under one arm. Totally shady. I felt like I was doing a drug deal.

Xiao introduced him as Yang Li. He grunted and got straight to business, opening up the satchel. Packs of cash nearly burst out of the bag. Yuan, euros, dollars, he had it all.

Through Xiao, I told him I wanted to exchange 1600 RMB. Yang Li muttered something.

"He says you pay 5 RMB for each 800 RMB you exchange," Xiao translated. "So for 1610 RMB, you get 200 dollars."

That meant his fee was like 50 cents for every 100 dollars! That was way too cheap. Now I was worried he'd pass me counterfeits.

Yang Li presented two crisp, new hundred-dollar bills to me.

Being prepared, I took out a hundred-dollar bill I'd brought from America. I held his bills and mine to the sunlight. Mine had a slightly smaller picture of Ben Franklin on the right side of the bill that appeared in the light. His also had them. I rubbed the paper between my fingers. Felt the same, too. Hard to believe such clean money could come from such a dirty man.

I nodded and gave him 1610 RMB.

Yang Li counted money the way all Chinese people do. He curled the bills around his middle finger and flipped down each bill with his other hand.

Business done, he closed up the case and left without saying goodbye. Xiao left soon after.

I was still feeling disoriented. My first foray into the dark side went entirely too fast. It was really easy too, which was frightening. I didn't want this to be the start of a trend.

Now that I had real money, I concentrated on happier things. My next destination offered 32 to the dollar, so I felt rich already!

For more on this subject, check out Lost in Transaction, an article by travel writer Rolf Potts.