Thursday, September 27, 2007

Taiwan Times Vol. 3 -- Wordmaster

My dream was to become a paid writer when I first went to college. By the time I graduated, I had given up, because it seemed like all the cool creative jobs were

A) Too difficult to get


B) Really low-paying

The irony of life is that after I gave up on writing professionally, I get a job as a copy editor at a newspaper. As a bonus, the salary is enough to save money to chip away at my Great Wall of Student Loans.

I'm learning that writing for journalism is a lot different than writing fiction. Having to stick to the facts is so restricting! I can't put in cool plot twists, snappy dialogue or spectacular John Woo-style action sequences like I would with my own material. Everything needs to backed up.

Only half my job is actually moving words around. The other half is harassing writers to fact-check everything they've written and doing research myself. My rudimentary Chinese skills are really holding me back on this front, so I need to study if I want to get to the next level.

The funnest part of my job is coming up with the headlines. I love puns and wordplay, so it's a great creative outlet. The front page tends to be serious, so those headlines are pretty dry. But with the other pages, I just go crazy. You have idea how dorky I can be when I have too much time on my hands and nothing but words to work with. Below are some of my favorite headlines, linked to the actual articles I edited. They'll give you a taste of what Taiwan is like:

Nation closes chapter on publishing ban

Companies work the late shift to serve insomniac customers

Kung fu dishes hit New Year dinner tables

Wedding photos and Taiwan are a picture-perfect match

Banks lay down their bets on running the national lottery

Local video game companies free their Seoul from Korea

Kinmen takes sweeping action against China's wave of trash

Taipei's jazz bars keep music fans from feeling blue

I remember one headline in particular that I'm proud of. The article was about how Taiwan was planning test trials of unmanned convenience stores, which ran without needing human employees. I think I wrote something like "Taiwan tests out automated convenience stores."

That headline was too boring, so I tried to dream up something better. I imagined giant convenience stores with cybernetic arms and legs running amok in a big city, stomping on buildings and shooting lasers out of their eyes. That would be awesome! I tried to capture the feel of that scene in a headline.

There was no way the editor-in-chief would run it, I thought as I handed it to him. The editor took one look, burst out laughing, and called the other writers over to take a look. The headline said:

Robot convenience stores invade the island

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Taiwan Times Vol. 2 -- Living & Working

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My cubicle at work.

Now that the crisis period has passed, and I can take some time to give you guys an update.

Luckily, everything worked out! I got the Taiwan visitor visa in Bangkok, and I got the newspaper editor job in Taipei.

This is the first 'normal' job I've ever had, so it was kind of strange. When I taught English in Shanghai, I worked from 1:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Waking up at noon was routine. Now I had the same 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule everyone else does. Instead of standing up and talking to students all day, I'm isolated in a cubicle with a computer. At an English school, there's a high turnover of students and teachers, so there's always new people to meet. Wow, I sound like I miss teaching English! Most English teachers would kill to get out of that racket and do something more professional.

With spoken English, you can mess around and there's a lot of room for error. As an editor, I deal with written English and when you make a mistake, everyone who reads the paper will see it. With teaching, you leave your work at school. With the newspaper, I'm constantly working overtime and sometimes on weekends to make the deadlines. Everyone reads over your work and comments on it before it gets printed. In a lot of ways, working at a newspaper is much more stressful than I imagined.

Then there's the actual editing itself. I have to revise and polish English-language articles written by Taiwanese reporters. I sometimes get handed articles that are abominations of English. Some of my friends think my job is just moving around commas and correcting spelling. It's a lot more complicated than that. I spend countless hours questioning writers and making sure my edited drafts match the stories they were trying to tell. There's a lot of communication needed, you can't just rearrange words on the computer and avoid talking to people. Cultural differences, historical background, and other factors make it more complicated than I realized when I first took the job.

One of my favorite things about working at a newspaper is that I get paid to learn about Taiwan. Now that I've been doing this job for almost a year, I feel like an expert on the place compared to fresh-off-the-plane English teachers. For example, an interesting fact about Taiwan's economy is that over 90% of the businesses here are small and medium-sized enterprises. So Taiwanese people will do almost anything that makes money. As a result, Taiwan excels at the most random industries, like bicycles, umbrellas, wedding planning and laptop computers.

Taiwanese are very outward-looking, so almost all my co-workers have worked or studied abroad. They're all fluent in English. Being around Asians all the time who speak English, I sometimes get lulled into thinking I'm back in Hawaii. I got a shock, however, the first time I attended a staff meeting. It was all conducted in Mandarin Chinese! I was completely lost and had no idea what anyone was saying. In Shanghai, my meetings were always with other English teachers, so English was spoken.

One thing I got confused by was how the boss called out to each writer by number; I understood enough Chinese to get that much. I asked a reporter why the boss did that. The others heard and burst out laughing. "The boss isn't calling us numbers, just the pages we write for!"

Managing these kinds of cross-cultural issues will be great material if I need to write an admission essay for grad school or talk about my experiences abroad in a job interview.

Now that I had a job, it was time to get an apartment. I'd lived at a hostel for five months, and I should have moved out a long time ago. I kept putting it off for various reasons: I'll wait until I get a job, I'll do it after my probation period at work ends, I'll save money for a deposit first. One of the big ones was having the opportunity to meet travelers from all over the world on a regular basis.

Eventually, it was the noise that drove me out. While I love World Scholar House, it's not really good for people who have to get up in the morning and need their sleep. Although I had my own room, I could still hear the noise from the common area. I have some great friends there, and I still go by to visit every week to round up people to go clubbing.

It's easier to get an apartment in China and Taiwan than Japan and South Korea. Landlords are more willing to rent to foreigners and they don't require ridiculously huge deposits. In Japan and Korea, your employer needs to be the guarantor and 6-month deposits are not unheard of.

I'd learned in Shanghai not to judge apartments by their buildings. The outside may look ripe for demolition, but often the apartments themselves are reasonably nice. That said, I saw a lot of hellholes during my apartment search. I had to watch my costs, too. Since Taipei is the capital of Taiwan, it's the most expensive city. At first, I wanted to get the lowest rent I could, in the NT$5,000 range (US$150) for shared housing. I quickly discarded that goal after I saw a few places. Since I was making a decent salary, I decided to go it alone without roommates and get my own studio.

This is a trivial point, but it was really important for me to find an apartment that had a dryer. In China, I'd gone for a year without a dryer. I was overjoyed when I first discovered that my hostel in Taipei had a dryer. If I moved out, I wasn't going to give up that luxury.

It took a lot of time before I found a nice studio in the middle of a university district. The rent is NT$12,000 (US$360). Besides deciding whether to have roommates, the other big decision is location. Get a smaller place in a central area or get a bigger place further away? When I was in college, an alumni told my class, "Live as close to work as you can. It's easier to work overtime when you have to and you get home that much sooner when you want to relax."

Commuting is the most stressful time of day for a lot of people, so I wanted to avoid that. My apartment is close to the MRT (Taipei's subway) and my office is only 3 stops away. I get to work in 15 minutes. My apartment is also convenient for getting to restaurants and nightclubs where young people hang out. I can't believe I was considering living further away to save a few bucks on rent. Cutting down my travel time is paying off in so many ways. When friends want to meet up, I can be there straight away.

When the landlord handed me the keys, I felt like I had finally become an adult. Now I had a real job and my own apartment at last.