Monday, September 26, 2005

Lost in translation in Taiwan

Once again it is time for a long-winded and overdue update. I hope you have the patience to read through it…

We just had a very strong, albeit brief, thunderstorm. I stayed dry in the computer lab, but it really poured for about 30 minutes. It really reminded me of the summer storms we have in Missouri, so it was nice to have a bit of home right here in Taiwan.

Last Thursday my “Cross-Straits Relations and Asia-Pacific Security” class officially began. The room was packed with international students, many more than they were apparently expecting. We gave brief introductions, and though this is a pretty diverse group, about half of the students are French students majoring in management. Many of them seem to be taking the class because it sounds interesting, but I don’t think they will be returning this week. We still have another week before we have to finalize our schedules for the semester, so a lot of these students still have time to choose another class. I think many of them had a hard time understanding the professor because it was a large classroom and he has a bit of an accent. I feel very lucky to be a native English speaker with a lot of experience dealing with accented English, because I understood pretty much everything we talked about.

Our professor, Dr. Lin, is the Vice President of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, a think tank based in Taipei. He got his Ph.D. in the U.S. and seems to be really well-connected. I got to talk with him one-on-one outside of class later that day. He filled me in on some interesting aspects of Taiwan’s foreign policy decision-making process, something I found quite interesting. I am thinking of writing my research paper in his class about Taiwan-Japan relations. Dr. Lin offered to help me set up interviews with current and former Taiwanese government officials to interview as part of my research. This is another great opportunity to build my network of contacts that really got off to a good start this summer in Japan.

On Friday I had to get up early to ride the bus to a “resort” out by Cheng-ching Lake on the outskirts of Kaohsiung. We had a two-day event sponsored by the Political Science Department to welcome new graduate students. We spent most of our time in an over-air conditioned room (yes, too cold even for me) playing children’s games. It was pretty bizarre, and being the only foreigner there, I didn’t have much of a grasp of what was going on most of the time. Some of the students translated for me every once in a while, but I kind of lost interest during many of the games. The most frustrating times were the ones when everyone laughed. Of course I wanted to know what was so funny, but the punch line was always lost on me. Humor is probably the most difficult thing to translate, and the Chinese (like the Japanese) seem to use a lot of puns and other word-play type jokes that cannot be accurately translated. It doesn’t matter how funny a joke is, if someone has to explain it to you, you will not think it is very funny.

On the upside, we had a barbeque on Friday night and I got to play paintball on Saturday. I also met some really cool students, including a few police officers who are apparently taking classes here. Two of them are Taiwanese SWAT team officers who work as mounted police on the weekends. They were really friendly and one of them gave me his card, telling me if I ever had any trouble in Taiwan I should call him and he will help me out. Now I am not planning on doing anything that would get me in trouble with the law while I am here, but you never know when the Taiwanese might get the idea in their head that I look like a terrorist. Hey, it happened in Japan, why not here?

The barbecue was really good. We had all kinds of pork, chicken, beef, and fish on the grill. I ate a little too much (big surprise, right?), but slept like a log. We stayed in a big room with about 20 mats to sleep on. It was really nice, and I was going to get a picture of the room in the morning, but I was rushed out the door to breakfast, so in my haste I forgot. I managed to find the one English station on the TV (CNN) and watched reports on Hurricane Rita as it approached the Texas/Louisiana coast. Thank God it wound up losing strength so quickly; it really seemed ominous on the approach.

Paintball was fun, but I think I was a little too gung-ho. We only had 30 bullets and I ran out about halfway through the second game. I didn’t get shot, but since I was hiding behind and oil drum and peeping out to shoot at about 10 different people, I am not sure if I got anyone or not. I think I got at least one guy, but it was kind of hard to tell.

It was nice to get back home and shower and sit in the AC for a while. We had pretty mild weather on Friday, but Saturday was as hot as any day we have had so far. I went to the beach for a little while in the afternoon, but we couldn’t swim, so I went home shortly afterwards. We went out for pizza on Saturday night, which was really good. It’s been so long since I had a good pizza, and I was starting to get a little tired of Chinese food all the time. Some of the food here is amazing, but some of it is not very good at all. Trying something new is always a crap shoot, and after a few days of having some really good and some not-so-good dinners, I was ready for a safe bet. It’s hard to go wrong with a really good pizza…

In other news, about 10 of us (8 international students and 2 Taiwanese) are taking a road trip to Kenting National Park this weekend. It should be a blast!!! Check out their website with this link and see for yourself. We are going to rent a couple of cars and drive there because there is no public transportation once you enter the park and it is supposed to be pretty large. There are beaches, waterfalls, mountains, hot and cold springs, and many other features that we are all dying to see. Hopefully the weather will agree with our travel plans. I will be sure to load plenty of pictures on flickr!

I also got a package from Maiko today. She got me a 240-page guide to the Simpsons. What can I say? Does this girl know me or what? Thanks babe!

My mom has also managed to swing us three free nights at a four and a half/five star hotel in Rome on her hotel points! Wow!!! I can’t use enough exclamation points for this one!!! Thanks mom!!!

That’s all for now. Since I’ll be gone this weekend, it’s just going to be study, study, study until Friday. Well, mostly studying…

Sunday, September 18, 2005

School sort of starts...

Well, once again, I have waited too long to update, so I have to now bring you up to speed on the last several days of my life here in Kaohsiung.

Classes sort of started last week. I say “sort of” because my Thursday class (Cross-Straits Relations and Asia-Pacific Security) was canceled. The professor wasn’t there, but we received the syllabus and an article to read for this week. My Friday class (Taiwan Government and Politics) was held, but we only met for about half an hour. It should be an interesting class because we don’t have one instructor. We will have a different lecturer every week, including Missouri State’s very own Dr. Dennis Hickey (one of my “bosses” when I am a graduate assistant). Unfortunately, Dr. Hickey is scheduled to lecture the week I will be in Italy. Maybe I will get lucky and he will have to come a week later…

That’s about all the school news I have. Now that I have my syllabi I have an idea of what my study schedule will be like this semester. I will have a paper, a couple presentations, and a couple of finals, but I don’t think it will be too rough. That is a good thing, because I plan on traveling Taiwan as much as I can over the next three months, I will also be taking Chinese classes, and I have to study for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test in December. I have also signed up for Tai Chi classes with a bunch of the other international students. I am really excited to be doing some kind of martial art while I am here, even if it is a slow-moving one. We got a group discount at a local martial arts academy, so it should be fun. We start on Tuesday.

Before I begin telling you about the weekend, I have one gripe about our schedule here at the university. We don’t start our Chinese lessons until next week. That means we are here for three to four weeks before we learn any Chinese. I have picked up bits and pieces here, but from what I gather, you really need an instructor to help you with the pronunciation and tones in Chinese. Fortunately there are enough bilinguals around to help us out when we venture into the city…

Anyway, it was another good weekend. On Thursday we went to the beach during the day to do some swimming. For all those who care, yes, I did wear sun block (SPF 30). The beach here isn’t great, but being from the Midwest, I have no room to complain. I mean come on, we have a beach ON CAMPUS! Not bad…

The lifeguard told us in plain English that we weren’t allowed to go out very far. He made sure to blow his whistle any time we wandered out beyond waste-deep water and bring us in a bit. It’s still typhoon season, and though we haven’t had any bad weather recently, there are debris floating about in the water. Tree branches (some deserve to be called trunks) and other small and medium-sized debris were scattered all over the shore line and occasionally brushed us as we waded and kung-fu kicked our way around. I don’t think the water in this ocean is all that clean, either, being as one of the world’s busiest harbors is not far away. Health concerns aside, however, the water was warm and it felt really good to swim for the first time in a while.

On Friday, I was back on the beach, but this time to eat. They had a barbeque for students at the Chinese Language Center. These international students do not take regular classes at the university – they are just here to study Chinese. About half of the students were Japanese, so I enjoyed the ego-massage I received from all of the praises for how good my Japanese is. Unfortunately, I let this go to my head and didn’t pay attention to the rapid pace at which the food was disappearing. I managed to get enough to tide me over until I could stop by the convenience store, however, so it was still fun. I loaded some pictures on flickr of one of the Japanese students doing some crazy fire-dance, that was really cool.

On Saturday, we went out for Thai food. This was probably the best Thai food I have ever had. I wish I had pictures of everything we ate, but we ordered about 10 dishes to be split among eight people and it didn’t all come at the same time. Needless to say, most plates were empty too fast for me to snap a picture. Afterwards we went to an outdoor café, aptly named “The Outdoor Café”. They had a live band and a lot of tables under palm trees. It had a great atmosphere, and the mosquitoes weren’t biting too hard. We all had fruit smoothies, which were about the best we had ever had. They come topped with a scoop of ice cream the same flavor as your smoothy (I had raspberry). Excellent. We then had a good night of watching Family Guy on someone’s laptop in my room.

Sunday was the Moon Festival, which this year apparently coincides with some mid-Autumn festival. Most of the Taiwanese on campus left to visit their families for the weekend, so we decided to go down to the Love River and watch the fireworks. Again, we enjoyed smoothies and live music at an outdoor café (I really like this routine!) and watched the fireworks over the river. There’s really not much to say about this… The fireworks were nice, but nothing compares to the fireworks show I enjoyed in Yokosuka this summer (especially with VIP seats right next to the water!) and this doesn’t seem like a major public festival. I guess this was more of a family holiday…

Well, that’s it for now. This week I have to start studying. I hate to admit it, but I haven’t read a book in a while now, so I have to start getting used to the study part of being in school. I will try to get around to posting again before I go to the lake this weekend. Until then!

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

A long awaited update

Last night's dinner: Yum!

Well, it’s been a few days, so I guess it’s time to update. My classes start tomorrow, so I figure now is as good a time as any to catch up on the past week.

I went to the Liuhe Night Market again on Saturday and Sunday nights, both times with an empty stomach. Here I discovered some of the best grilled chicken on the planet. You get a chicken breast with two skewers through it for about $2 U.S., which is pretty large. They season it to perfection and you have to hold it at an angle because it drips juice on you if you hold it straight up. On Saturday, I tried a few other things, but nothing compared to the chicken so on Sunday I just pigged out on chicken. I have decided to try the frog the next time I go. Now I have eaten my share of frog back in Missouri, but here they cook the whole frog, not just the legs. I also thought about trying the duck, but after seeing the whole head grilled, it didn’t seem as appetizing. The fishy dumplings and rice balls were good, but they looked much better than they tasted.

Another favorite for everyone was kind of blended fruit soft drink that seems really popular here. They take crushed ice and blend it with fresh fruit juice, then pour some kind of milky liquid (maybe soybean milk?) on top, and top it with fresh fruit. I tried both strawberry and blueberry, of which blueberry was my favorite. The fresh fruit toppings include strawberries, blueberries, kiwi fruit, and mangoes. This is seriously one of the best dessert items I have ever had! It beat the Turkish ice cream by a long shot! (Yes, they actually have “Turkish ice cream” here. It is basically regular ice cream sold by a Turkish guy who spins the ice cream cone around in his hand and speaks Chinese.)

On Sunday night we also stopped by a night market that specializes in clothing and other consumer goods. I have a couple of interesting pictures of it on flickr, so check them out. It wasn’t too exciting, so we headed home early and watched some American TV in my dorm room. Note to the FOX Network – you should consider broadcasting Family Guy in Europe. Nobody had seen it before (save for those who had seen it while in the States) and everyone really liked it. If you do decide to begin broadcasting in Europe, you can contact me on information on where to deposit my paycheck for consulting. I think a 10% share of all advertising revenue is fair…

On Monday, we had to take care of some paperwork for the school and pay for our dorm and some school fees. Although I don’t care for dorm living, it’s hard to argue with less than $240 for a semester of rent and school fees.

That evening, we went to Chichin Island. There is a ferry that picks up right outside the tunnel exit to the university. For about $0.30 and four minutes, you can take the ferry to this long, skinny island with plenty of seafood restaurants. Junpei, one of the Japanese students here, told us we should eat at one of the restaurants that the professors had recommended. They have a ton of fresh seafood out on display (again, check out pictures on flickr), which you pick and they cook up for you. We had oysters, shrimp, some kind of delicious mountain vegetable, breaded and fried fish, fried rice, and one large fish between six people. It was one of the best meals I have had in a while! I would have liked to try the lobster, but like everywhere else, that is the priciest thing on the menu. Still, they had the largest lobster any of us had ever seen for about $136. That might sound expensive, but you should have seen it! It was a monster!

Yesterday (Monday), I went to a brief welcome party for new students in the political science department. I gave a brief introduction to the president of the school and the dean of the social sciences department. Although we only met for a minute or two, they gave me a warm welcome. I then enjoyed a free buffet lunch and chatted with some of the other political science graduate students. I met a doctoral student from the U.S. (I can’t remember his name at the moment. Sorry!) who got his M.A. here and is doing his PhD here, too. Needless to say, his Chinese is fluent (as far as I can tell anyway). There was also a German M.A. student who is going to get an M.A. both here and at his university in Germany. I am still amazed at the internationalization of the student body here. They were both really nice and I look forward to seeing them over the course of the semester.

Other than that, I spent most of the day lazing around the dorm. My throat has been a little irritated the last couple of days. I think this is due to the smog here, which is really bad. Unfortunately the recent typhoon went to the north and we hardly had more than a few drops of rain. I was hoping at least to get a few thunderstorms to wash the air out, but oh well. I am enjoying my last day of vacation, so to speak, by staying at home and organizing my room and my Japanese emergency management notes. I will only have classes on Thursday and Friday from 9:00 am to noon for the first two weeks, but when our Chinese classes start, I will have Chinese class from 12:10 to 2:00 pm Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. This means that on Thursdays, I will have almost five hours of class in a row! Ugh…

The political science classes I am taking this semester are “Cross-Straits Relations and Asia-Pacific Security” and “Taiwanese Government and Politics”. They both sound very interesting, but I will have a better impression after I get the syllabi in the next couple of days. Don’t worry, I will be sure to share my thoughts of my classes once they get underway.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

First monkey sighting!!!

Taiwanese monkey on campus in a tree between my dorm and the cafeteria

I saw my first monkey today! Yeah! I was eating some really greasy noodles mixed with pork bones (not the best thing I have had here) at the cafeteria, when Ken (my exchange buddy) yelled, "Monkey!!!" I turned to see a pretty big monkey jump into the tree out front. I ran to my dorm room to get my camera and made it back to snap this picture. Sorry it's not the greatest shot in the world, but he was pretty far up the tree by the time I got back, so this picture is fully zoomed.

Well, enough of this excitement. I am in my dorm now and it seems like a lot of people are moving in today. My roommates still aren't here, but I am supposed to have one foreign roommate (a Canadian). We have international student orientation tomorrow, so I assume he's going to show up some time today, but we'll see. In the meantime, I am blaring my stereo until they get here (enjoy it while you can!) and waiting for the phone company guys. I have a cell phone, but I am trying to get a phone up for my room. It's going to be for incoming calls only. It's more expensive to call a Taiwanese cell phone from abroad and my reception is terrible in my room, anyway, so I will post my room number later if anyone wants to call.

Not much other news to report now. I am going to dinner with an American friend tonight and I have orientation tomorrow. So I will probably just take it easy the rest of the day. I will keep my eyes out for more monkeys, though.

Dinner, night market, and moving day...

Dinner with the PhD candidates at the mountain restaraunt.

Well, last night the political science PhD candidates picked me up about 5:00 pm and took me to meet the other political science graduate students. After a quick introduction, we drove up the mountain past the university to a small outdoor restaraunt perched on the side of the mountain overlooking the ocean. We had some traditional Taiwanese food, which was pretty good, and watched the sunset into the ocean. We chatted about East Asian politics, work, school, and travel. They were really nice, had a good sense of humor, and all spoke excellent English.

After dinner, Julien (yellow shirt) and Harlin (the girl) took me to a Kaohsiung night market. Kaohsiung apparently has a lot of these. It was a great experience, but I promised myself that next time I am going with an empty stomach, because the food looked excellent! Crabs so fresh they are still kicking, eels, snakes, Turkish ice cream (with an actual Turkish guy selling it), "pan cakes", and many other dishes were being sold out of carts. There was also a plethora of cheap clothes, shoes, perfume, lighters shaped like anything imaginable, and many other consumer goods for sale. I bought some cheap sunglasses, but didn't see any other "must-haves".

I loaded pictures on flickr, so check out my photo gallery. I also bought a headset, so I can chat over the good-ol' Internet without paying ridiculous international calling fees. If you use skype, then you can add me (my user ID is straydog16) if you want to chat. If you don't use skype, then get on it! The address is (pretty easy to remember). Skype users can chat for free. You can also buy time on Skype Out so you can call people on their home or cell phones in another country and you are charged domestic rates. I can now call people in the U.S. from Taiwan for $0.02 a minute! Good deal...

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

A warm welcome

Dr. Liao and me in her office

I just got back from lunch with Dr. Liao, the director of the Institute of Political Science, and Dr. Hwang, an associate professor of political science. We ate at a nice western restaraunt on the beach at a table with an oceanfront view. The professors gave me a warm welcome and some advice on what courses to take while I am here. I have a mailbox in the political science department for announcements and they gave me a magnetic card and I will receive a key tomorrow so I can use a political science graduate student computer lab 24 hours a day. Since I don't have a laptop of my own, this is a lifesaver! I should be able to chat and hopefully make international calls from this room, so I will be in touch regularly with my family and girlfriend while I am over here! Sweet...

Anyway, I don't have much more to report at this time. Some of the political science graduate students and doctoral candidates are coming by in a couple of hours to give me a guided tour of campus and take me out to dinner. I was going to go swimming at the pool today, but I think that can wait. I have decided I need to go swim or lift weights or something at least a few days a week if I am going to be eating a ton of Chinese food every day.

I have a few pictures to load on flickr, but it seems to be down right now. I will get those up as soon as I can.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Taiwan, Kaohsiung, and NSYSU - first impressions...

My first impression of Taiwan was – “Wow… This isn’t Japan…”

Now that might sound a little too obvious, but this is something I really have been trying to drill into my head since arriving. Half of the reason I decided to come here was that this is “not Japan.” I have a B.A. in International Affairs and come May 2006 (if all goes according to plan), I will have an M.A. in the same field. I have come to realize that it seems a little strange for me to call myself a ‘master’ of international affairs (or relations, or whatever name you feel like giving it) when all of my travels abroad have been in one country. I have been to Japan four times (spending a little more than two years there in total), studied the language in school for eight years (I like to think I am fairly fluent), and studied the politics, administration, culture, and social issues extensively. I have not completely ignored issues affecting other countries, but I have studied them less intensely and with no actual ‘experiential’ learning. Part of the reason I came here was to remedy this problem.

I have spent so much time studying Japan in the U.S. and Japan that Japan has ceased to feel very foreign to me. I speak the language well enough to talk to most people about many different issues. Things that seemed strange and mysterious to me when I first went there ten years ago on a study tour as a high school student know seem ordinary. Another major reason for coming here was to renew my zeal for travel – to ‘discover’ an exotic land, meet new and interesting people, and broaden my perspective on the world around me.

Taiwan has already amazed, baffled, and inspired me. Naturally, my biggest problem so far has been a linguistic one. It has been so long since I have been completely unable to carry a conversation with 90% of the people around me that it feels like I have almost completely lost the body language skills I effectively employed as a high school exchange student. Most people have been extremely understanding, however, and most young people are able to speak enough English to help out when I need something to eat or need to know which bus stop to get off at.

That being said, however, I have not yet spent all that much time exploring the city or talking to the locals. Ken, my exchange buddy (a Taiwanese student here at the university assigned to help me adjust to life here), has been a real lifesaver. He is a genuinely nice guy, with a positive attitude and a good sense of humor. Not only did he help me manage an intercity bus trip with all of my luggage and the subsequent move-in to my dorm, but he has been really helpful with setting up my dorm room and answering my questions about Kaohsiung.

He has taken me into the city for brief trips to eat and shop every day I have been here. We use the preferred mode of transport here, the motor scooter. I was a bit nervous to hop on the back of a motor scooter for the first time with a guy I just met driving me around a brand new country, but who else am I going to trust over here? Traffic here is crazy and it seems like there are more motor scooters than people. Driving down the main streets sometimes seems like a free-for-all, but I think (that is I hope) there is some method to the madness that is Kaohsiung traffic.

I had to buy bedding on my first day. Dorm bedding is a thin mattress affixed to a straw mat. I bought the most comfortable-feeling one at the store, but there was only one left, so I am stuck sleeping on teddy bears for the rest of the semester. For sheets, I went for cheap ones (again, I am only here for four months), so I have a pink flower pattern on top of my blue-teddy bear mat. Thankfully, the beds are raised up above our desks and are accessible only by ladder, so I don’t think anyone will laugh at me too hard.

My dorm building is really old and dirty. It is strange having to walk down the hall to take a shower or go to the bathroom, but I am getting used to it. Fortunately, air conditioning was just installed last month, so I have a brand-new, fully-functioning AC unit in my room. It has been a lifesaver as I have scrubbed and dusted my room for the past several days so I could unpack in confidence that my clothes wouldn’t be covered in dirt during the first week of class.

Getting used to life in the tropics is a bit rough because it is so humid here. The temperature isn’t unbearable (somewhere in the upper 80’s – lower 90’s), but the humidity is even worse than Japan. Walking around in the air conditioner-less hallways for more than a minute or two will leave a fine coat of sweat on your skin, even if you just took a shower.

I feel like I have many pets here to keep me company. There are stray dogs all over the city, but they don’t appear to be really dangerous. They don’t roam in packs, and I haven’t seen any foaming at the mouth, but I don’t call them over to me just to be safe. Little green lizards crawl all over the inside and outside of the dorms. As a reptile fan, I love this, but as a bug-hater, I love it even more. There are supposed to be many monkeys on this mountain, but I haven’t seen one yet. All the same, I keep my windows locked because they are notorious thieves.

The food is great and the prices are even better! You can go to a small food stand/restaurant and eat a three-course meal for about $3 U.S.! A decent sized meal (just enough to fill you up) goes for about $1.50! I am a big fan of dumplings and dumpling-like food, which seem to be one of the main dishes here. The noodles and soup are also great. One of my new favorites is a kind of Taiwanese bread, which is basically deep-fried batter. It is crispy and puffed-up, so the inside is mostly air, but it looks like a small version of the French baguette. It tastes a little like an unsweetened, crispy donut, and it is considered traditional Taiwanese breakfast food.

It is amazing how few Taiwanese are obese, considering how oily the food is here. In Japan, I was told this is because they drink so much oolong tea, but when I told this to Ken, he said he had never heard this before. I have heard Japanese say that oolong tea breaks down fat, but I am not sure if this is based on science or just good advertising for oolong tea in Japan. Personally, I think it is because it is so humid here that everyone sweats out everything they eat. Just to be safe, though, I am consuming mass amounts of oolong tea. Taiwanese oolong tea, however, differs significantly from Japanese oolong tea in that the Taiwanese add sugar. Japanese oolong tea is unsweetened, but I have not had any unsweetened tea since arriving, except for one small bottle of Japanese green tea I bought at 7-11.

National Sun Yat Sen University really has a good location, if you don’t mind being a little separated from town. This university owns a beach resort (yes, it is on campus!), it is set up on a mountain overlooking the harbor, and it is massive. I haven’t been all around campus yet, and I am sure I could easily get lost because all of the buildings are red brick. The area is heavily forested and I am told there is a zoo somewhere on this mountain (the monkeys I spoke of earlier are wild, so I don’t know if they have any on display at the zoo). There is a ferry that picks up just outside the main gate of the university that takes you to a thin island in the harbor. This island, I am told, contains nothing but seafood restaurants as far as the eye can see. I am looking forward to going there.

I am sorry I haven’t taken any pictures yet, but I have been busy moving in. I will be sure to take many tomorrow, as I am finally going to one of the famed Taiwanese ‘night markets’. I am going with some of the other foreign students. So far I haven’t met any other American students, but most of the foreign students are not here yet. The ones I have met represent many countries: Japan, South Korea, Panama, Paraguay, Hungary, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Israel, and Thailand. It should be an interesting semester to learn international relations with such a diverse group in such an exotic location. I will be sure to keep you all posted! I will also try to post a little more frequently, with slightly shorter posts. I always feel like I have forgotten something when I wait this long and I know I tend to ramble.

Well, it’s out! I will try to get back to posting tomorrow night! Until then…

My first night and morning in Taiwan...

Well, I finally have the time and energy to sit down and write about my first night in Taiwan. This happened last Thursday night and Friday morning, but I thought it was an interesting experience, so I will get it out now before I forget the details.

We arrived in Taipei at about 10:00 at night, and I was one of the first to get their luggage and go through customs. The customs officials didn’t even stop me – they just waved me through. This was a welcome sign that I might not actually look like a terrorist after all. I spent about eight hours in the Osaka airport because I had to check out of my hotel at 11:00 in the morning and my flight wasn’t until 8:00 at night. I was stopped by the police once in the airport on a random passport check of foreigners, had my bags searched while in line to check them at the Northwest counter, and had my carry-on bags and shoes searched just before I boarded the plane. I was a little tired because I was too excited to get much sleep the night before, but I still don’t think I looked that much like a terrorist or international drug smuggler. Glad the Taiwanese didn’t think so…

Anyway, I called my ‘exchange buddy’ Ken and asked him which bus I needed to get on to go to Kaohsiung. I didn’t know how to use the phones here, so I asked a younger guy. I heard most young Taiwanese speak pretty good English, so he seemed like a safe bet. He turned out to be Japanese, though, and he had just arrived as well, so he didn’t really know much, either. Somehow, the two of us managed to figure it out and I got in touch with Ken. The lady at the bus counter spoke enough English to sell me a ticket and point me in the right direction.

My impression of the Taiwanese intercity bus system was a bit negative at first, since the bus driver made me load my own luggage and seemed to be in a really bad mood, but this all changed when I got on the bus. The seats on these busses are recliners! There is a switch to lean your seat back, armrests, and PLENTY of leg room! When I transferred to another bus, the bus driver put some movies on. There are two or three screens on each side of the bus, one screen every two or three seats back. They play two movies simultaneously, which you think would be nothing but an annoyance, until you find the volume switch on your chair. There are speakers built into the headrest! There are left and right speakers on each side of your head that you can bend a little toward your ears and a volume and channel changer on the armrest so you can select which movie you want to listen to and at what volume. This sounds a little nicer than it actually was, however. They were playing American movies with Chinese subtitles, but since this was an older bus with older speakers, the dialogue didn’t come out to clearly. The explosions and dramatic chase scene music, however, came in clear as day. Thankfully, they were playing movies like Van Helsing, which don’t require a thorough comprehension of the plot.

I got off at the bus stop in Kaohsiung, which is really just the street corner, at 3:30 in the morning. As I got off, one of the cab drivers came up to me and started speaking to me in Chinese. I speak all of three words in Chinese, so this must have been an interesting sight. I tried to explain to him that a friend was coming to meet me, but he kept motioning that I put my luggage in his taxi. I decided to try the best communication method I know when it comes to a non-English speaking Chinese speaker – I resorted to Japanese. Since many characters are the same, I decided to whip out my Japanese cell phone and type in the name of my university here in Kaohsiung. Then I typed in the characters for ‘friend’ and tried to gesture out the sentence “My friend is coming to pick me up and take me to National Sun Yat Sen University.” This didn’t quite go through, so I showed him Ken’s phone number, at which point he took the phone out of my hands and held it up to his ear. Again, I TRIED to explain that this cell phone was Japanese, so it doesn’t work in Taiwan, but it didn’t seem to work, because he tried again after I managed to get him to give me the phone back. He finally called Ken, who, being from Taiwan, speaks the local language and managed to explain what gestures don’t seem to cover.

So I got to my dorm room at about 4:15 in the morning, at which point I realized I was starving. He took me to a local all-night eatery for some kind of large dumpling filled with meat, a convenience store to buy some necessities like soap and drinking water, and brought me back home. I didn’t manage to get to sleep until about 6:30 am, so I wasn’t too concerned with my lack of a mattress. I spent my first night on a board, sleeping on a pile of clothes and towels, with a borrowed blanket. It was uncomfortable, but I was tired enough to sleep until well into the next afternoon.

Well, that is enough for one story. I will give some of my impressions in the next post…

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Safe in Taiwan

I just found a computer that allows me to post on blogger, so I will update later tonight. For now, just a note to say I am safe and sound in Kaohsiung, Taiwan!