it's well past 1:00am and the interweb is down. i tried to fix the router by unplugging it, but that made it worse because it reset the damn thing and sends every webpage i attempt to visit to a portal asking for the username and password. i have no choice but to wait until tomorrow morning and hope one of the employees know how to unlock the router. i don't think it's my fault but not even 24 hours living here and i've managed to take down the internet (at least i'll be blamed).
so i'm kind of writing this half asleep already, because i'm tired. i don't believe in jetlag, but i was pretty sleepy all day. i could've blamed it on a bunch of other factors: walking around in this tropical heat, not getting enough sleep last night (went to bed around 1:00am, woke up before 7:00am), eating too much (3 whole meals by the afternoon). but jetlag is probably a major contributing factor. my body is still sync'ed to boston time, and nothing more evident than the fact that i now take a dump at night instead of my daily morning ritual.
i've got the AC on tonight. i slept with the windows open last night which was fine. there was a cool breeze, and the little bit of traffic noise was kind of soothing, reminded me in a nice way that i was living in the heart of the city. the only thing i was worried about was rats scurrying up the pipes and into the room. i'm not even sure that can happen but i was worried nonetheless. i woke up in the middle of the night in a few seconds of panic attack, completely obviously to where i was. i felt like i was back in boston, but the noises were different and i couldn't understand why. but however fine sleeping with the windows open was, i did sweat a little bit overnight and wanted to take a morning shower.
but here's the thing: any attempts at taking a shower would drench the bathroom floor in water. and no way would it dry up before the employees started showing up. so i was reluctant to shower pending further clarifications about morning shower etiquettes. but i just had to take a shower otherwise i wouldn't be able to function, so i kind of crawled underneath the sink and pointed the shower head in the corner to minimize the splashing. it was the best i could do, but there was a puddle underneath the sink. so much for low impact swatting.
continued after the next morning, when the interweb magically restored itself
i was scheduled to leave at 8:00 with an expectation to arrive at 9:00 in xindian, but i couldn't wait so i left early. stepping out in taipei for the first time in 8 years, i felt both excited and scared. it was warm outside, and ladies were already carrying umbrellas to shield themselves from the heat. it wasn't too bad, plus i was already expecting the heat anyway, so the reality met my expectation. i crossed the street onto the island and caught a 642 bus. since it was going outbound, it was pretty much empty. the public transportation card my aunt gave me didn't seem to work and i ended up paying in coins (NT$30, equivalent to US$1). i turned on the gps map feature on my tablet PC but it couldn't find any satellites yet from a cold start, but the route was straightforward enough that i could follow along on the offline map without gps. i didn't recognize anything i saw outside, until we arrived at gongguan, the station around taiwan university, sort of the unofficial midway point between xindian suburb and taipei city. things had changed here too, but there were enough landmarks that i could still recognize the place. the next area i recognized was the bridge following jimgmei, the town i used to call home before immigrating to the US more than 3 decades ago.
i got off at quizhang station. although the station had changed, i recognized the place from the nearby mcdonald's restaurant (a multi-floored structure, once perhaps a prestigious establishment, but now probably viewed the same way fast food is seen back at home). there was still a bit of a walk to my big aunt's place (i call her my big aunt because she's the oldest of my mother's sisters), but i was there early and i didn't mind the walk, a chance to soak in the scenery i hadn't seen for almost a decade. i went into the station briefly to check the balance on the transportation card (NT$325, plenty of money). i also picked up an english version of the taipei metro map (i got one from the airport last night, but it was in japanese).
when i arrived at the intersection of my big aunt's house, i went in the opposite direction to explore further. that's when i saw a sign for "beef noodle soup." it seemed a little early (8:30), but they were surprisingly opened, and since i had time, i decided to start my taiwanese eating tour early, kicking it off with some traditional beef noodle. the proprietors of the establishment warmly welcomed me into their restaurant. besides a small bowl of "beef noodle soup" (牛肉湯麵, NT$50), i also got some sliced cuts of pork sprinkled with garlic chives and ginger slices, and a can of carambola juice (NT$120 total). the side dish was better than the main dish. i also slightly ordered the wrong thing: "beef noodle" is what i really wanted (牛肉麵), but i ordered "beef noodle soup" (牛肉湯麵) instead. both comes in a natural beef broth, but "beef noodle soup" doesn't contain any meat while "beef noodle" has chunks of it. that would explain the price difference (which i later discovered), although i still wasn't quite sure what the taiwanese-to-dollar exchange rate was (i was guessing 30:1). the noodle portion was pretty good, and i wondered if it was handmade. the broth was dark and so-so, made better by a dollop of hot sauce. i drank the bowl of broth afterwards, since leaving any would be a sign of displeasure on my part, even though i didn't really want to drink it (especially on a hot day).
i still had some time and wanted to find a convenience store to stock up on my favorite taiwanese snacks. there was a 7-11 just a block away, and i bought a can of hey-song sarsaparilla soda (NT$20), 2 bags of beihai fish snacks (NT$50 each bag, but a sale reduced them to NT$40 each), and a box of milk caramel candy (NT$12). i didn't see any apple "sidre" soda but i would've bought a can if i did.
with items purchased, i left for my big aunt's place. now i'd been there enough times that i had sort of an idea where it was, but this was a good opportunity to bust out the GPS-enabled tablet PC to play around with. while standing on the sidewalk looking to acquire enough satellites, by coincidence my big aunt was also out on the streets. she came out to buy some breakfast for her husband. i followed along, and went back to their place.
my big uncle at age 80 has sort of mellowed out, but still prickly as ever. his hair had turned completely white since i last saw him, including a little goatee action (i figured it wasn't on purpose, just too old to care about shaving). he'd gotten fatter, and sat directly in front of the large HDTV because of his bad eye-sight, in nothing more than a white tank top and a pair of red bikini briefs. he was holding out a needle for my aunt, asking her to administer his insulin shot.
we stayed briefly before my cousin betty called us from downstairs from her car. she gave us a ride to the rice noodle shop so we could all have some breakfast. maybe it was because i already had breakfast, but the rice noodles didn't taste as delicious as i'd remembered it in my mind. perhaps it really wasn't that good anymore, because my cousin said the broth wasn't thick enough and stopped eating halfway, told us she'd wait in the car. didn't want any of that food to go to waste, i finished her share as well, plus all the side dishes. meal 2 of the day in less than 30 minutes! this food odyssey is on!
before driving off to work, my cousin gave us a ride to the place where my aunt (now retired) was helping me to get a taiwanese residency card. i didn't know what to expect but the place was a lot like the DMV in many ways. here in america, a driver license is sort of the standard form of identification. in taiwan, the residency card is the standard id. everyone has one, and when you move to a different town, you have to register yourself in your new home, and have them update the old one. you do this so the government can track you, whether it's for tax reasons or to collect government benefits. a residency card is required as a form of id for most transactions here and without one i can't do a lot of my paperwork.
just like the DMV, you pick up a number when you arrive and wait to be called. we were lucky and got seated right away, but our luck quickly ran out because it then took more than an hour before i could get my residency card. the problem was i was born before the advent of computers, so my birth certificate records hadn't even been recorded into their database yet. they had to track down a hard copy and then manually enter the data, but first they had to verify the information was correct. our agent was also a young guy who wasn't sure about the details and kept asking various supervisors, all sporting purple vests with "xindian" blazen on them. they were all young, and most of them wore jeans.
once the paperwork was finished, we waited a little bit more for them to print out my laminated id card. the actual paper documentation of my updated residency change (i was using my aunt's address) wouldn't be ready until later in the afternoon, because they needed to verify my last official permanent place of residence (jingmei, the place i passed by earlier on the bus).
next stop was the post office. it was already noontime by that point. there was a smaller one nearby, but we took the bus just a few stops to one of the bigger ones for speedier service (actually across the street from the qizhang train station). we stopped briefly at a below ground supermarket to get some drinks (my aunt told me it was cheaper here than at 7-11).
at the post office i was opening up a checking account. i needed one to get national taiwanese health insurance (yeah, even taiwan has universal health care), where they'd draw from the account to pay the monthly premium (at this time, something like NT$600, which is just US$20, a good bargain). i didn't really need it because i have health insurance back at home, but my father thought it'd be a good idea if i was seriously ill or injured in china and needed to go to taiwan to get better medical attention. anyway, besides delivering mail, apparently in taiwan you can also open up a checking account at a post office, just like at a bank. it kind of makes sense that a simple form of money service would be nationalized, but it still seems strange from an american standpoint where we go to banks for our money business. once again, this took a bit of time, but not as long as getting a residency card. it was a lot of waiting around watching the clerk sift through paperwork, writing and stamping things, occasionally as me (or in my case my aunt, since i can't really read or write chinese) to fill out certain forms. i ended up depositing NT$2000 into my new bank checking account (about US$67).
it was already 1:00 by that point, and my aunt still needed to go to the outdoor market. not to get any produce, but to look for protective arm sleeves that people here wear to shield themselves from the sun's rays when they ride a scooter (mostly women wear this, since it's a mark of chinese beauty to have pale skin). we got there too late (outdoor markets are morning events) and a lot of vendors were already closing up their stands. i did buy some sanzapian, a much beloved confection i share with my aunt lili (NT$50 a bag, i got 2 bags) and more than a kilo of wax apples (NT$80/kg). both instances, my aunt tried to haggle the price for me, even though i was already willing to pay the asking price. haggling is a way of life at these outdoor markets, but as a foreigner, the things i was buying were so rare or virtually impossible to get back at home, i would've been willing to pay pretty much anything.
we walked back home, but stopped at a little shop for a late lunch of "rice noodle threads" (a thick broth of thin rice noodles with bits of fish balls and oysters) and smelly tofu. the noodles was just something extra; what i really wanted was the smelly tofu, which i'd been dreaming about for the past 8 years. it was good, but maybe i built it up too much in my head, because it was this mind-exploding experience i'd imagined. or maybe because this was my 3rd meal of the day in less than 4 hours. i was starting to hit my eating wall.
we then returned home. my uncle was sleeping, but came out to have some noodle threads my aunt got for him (not before urinating with the bathroom door open in full view of the living room, his house, his rules). i knew i wouldn't be able to leave taiwan without him saying a few mean things and sure enough, he made some cracks at my family (questioned my parentage, said my father wasn't filial piteous enough, and made some disparaging remarks about my sister). i said nothing, best not to get too worked up over someone who has a known history of nastiness.
my aunt has a new aquarium hobby and we shared notes. not sure if it has something to do with the fact that taiwan is an island, but buying fish here is supercheap. you could easily buy a dozen fancy guppies for only a dollar (price back home in the US, $3-4 a guppy if there's a sale). she had a bunch of a 5 gallon tank, and a smaller thank that held some fries she managed to raise. they were super pretty and the tank was immaculate (her secret: she empties the tank when she cleans it, you can do that if you have a small tank, a pain if you have a bigger tank).
we rested at the house until 4:00. i managed to take a shower (borrowed a towel, changed back into my dirty clothes) and watch some taiwanese news. the big story: a typhoon is heading our way this weekend! the edge of the system is expected to make landfall tomorrow, and the eye will pass over northern taiwan (where i am!) saturday. so much for the nice weather. my uncle went back to bed, while my aunt slept on the leather sofa chair. at one point she began snoring so loud i got confused for a few seconds as to where the sound was coming from.
we returned to the residency administration building, going by a backway i never knew existed. there was a little bit of wait to get the paperwork, but much faster than this morning. with documents in hand, we went around the corner to the health insurance administration building (it's nice that all the various services are located in the same area). we were afraid they'd be closed but they're opened until 6:00 on weekdays. the clerk told us that my taiwanese health insurance won't kick in until 6 months later. this is pretty standard practice with a lot of health insurances, a waiting period to weed out any preexisting conditions that you needed treated right away. i think the wait period used to be only 4 months, but i guess it's changed. so she said to come back in january to fill out the paperwork and i could have insurance immediately. it wasn't too big a deal because this was more of a secondary insurance anyway, but it's nice to know the details.
the only thing left to do was to get my taiwanese-china visa. for that, we needed to visit my cousin eric in the city, where he works at a travel agency. we grabbed a 642 bus. once again my metro card didn't work when i swiped it. this driver was a bit nicer, and told me that sometimes if i have multiple RFID cards stacked together, it causes interference on the metro card. sure enough, when i swiped just the metro card, it worked.
in the city, we got off at the closest stop and started walking. my aunt wasn't exactly sure where my cousin's office was, so we poked our heads into every foyer, reading the names of listed businesses. finally a doorman asked us if he could help, and he actually knew where spunk tour was and pointed us to the correct building.
it was 5:30 but upstairs in the office it was still super busy, everyone seemingly oblivious to the fact that it's already time to go home (or close to it). my cousin was on the phone, and a secretary led us into a conference room so we could wait for him to finish. when he finally came to see us, he looked pretty much the same as i'd remembered him from 8 years ago, except now he had a large gut which seemed to be almost bursting from his tight-fitting shirt. even his mother gasped, even though she'd seen him more recently than i have. he couldn't chat long because he had to go back to work (he actually fielded several phone calls while talking to us), but made copies of my taiwanese passport and taiwanese residency card, and asked one of his underlings to work on my visa (it costs NT$1400, US$47, better than the US$180 for a america-to-china visa).
my cousin walked us downstairs, lighting up a cigarette along the way. he also took out a betel nut to chew on, and when he mother saw this, she slapped him in the arm and got angry. betel nuts are considered bad in taiwan, like an indigenous form of chewing tobacco (it also causes the same frequency of oral malfeasances, like gum cancer). my cousin said he'd call me after work to take me out to dinner, around 8:30 or so.
i stayed with my aunt so she could catch her bus back to xindian (she had to take my niece tangtang to her art class at 7:00, it was already close to 6:00), and then proceded to walk back to my cousin betty's office since i was told it was pretty close. pretty close is all relative, and i guess if you were on a motorcycle it's take just a few minutes to get there, but in terms of walking distance, it took probably close to half an hour. i didn't mind, and i took some photos, but mostly of the convoy of scooters returning home during the rush hour.
it was close to 7:00 when i got back to my office residence. i was hoping the place would be empty so i wouldn't have to face the awkwardness of explaining myself to the employees there, but there were still a handful of workers there. i told them i was betty's cousin, staying here for a week or two. i think they all knew, but it was still awkward. i retreated to the adjoining room behind my cousin's office and stayed there, passing away the time with some web browsing and general relaxing.
i think by 8:00 all the workers had left. the last guy had the courtesy of asking me if i wanted the lights outside to be on or not before leaving. once they were gone, i could really relax, opening up a video chat with my parents back in cambridge. i used the bathroom (old dirty bastard) and took a soothing shower to wash away a day's worth of stickiness.
my cousin didn't end up calling until 9:00. i had my cellphone plugged in because this morning i realized the phone was dead because i didn't recharge it. and my cousin didn't just call, he came upstairs, knocking at the door instead, after charming the doorman to gain entry into the building. i gave him his david ortiz player jersey. he told me what he was really asking for was just t-shirts. if i'd known i would've bought him a bunch because they're much cheaper than jerseys (although i probably would've got the size wrong, now that i see him in person).
we left to go eat, me wearing an oversized plastic helmet riding in the back of his scooter. it was a new scooter, purchased less than a year ago, all suped up with lights and better suspension. saying my cousin is an aggressive rider would be an understatement. he was weaving in and out of traffic like he had a death wish. at certain points i was afraid of falling off the scooter (or loosing stuff from my pockets) or scratching up my knees from being within inches of cars traveling at high speed. the documentarian in me wanted to somehow film this horrifying but thrilling experience, but i need both arms to hold on tight to the backrest and didn't want to drop my camera accidentally.
we went to a cantonese place in east taipei. i thought it was dim sum, but it was just greasy cantonese meals. i had the pan-fried beef noodles, which was kind of awful, but i enjoyed it anyway just to hang out with my cousin and listen to his stories. they closed at 10:00 and were already stacking up chairs, so we quickly finished and left. my cousin suggested we buy some beers and hang out at the roof of the office building so we could chat some more. we returned to the office, where they were a hidden below ground supermarket next door. we bought an assortment of beers, including classic taiwan beer and a pear cider. i thought maybe the doorman would hassle us but he let us inside without any problems.
before we even went into the office i noticed something was amiss. i'd closed all the lights when i left, but now there were several opened. from the glass door i could see what appeared to be a meeting, a group of guys at the conference room table. we went inside and found my cousin betty with his husband a few of her friends having a drink party. we brought beers, but they were soaking in the hard stuff, 59% alcohol content taiwanese moutai. they'd been drinking for nearly 2 hours and all in various stages of drunkenness. one particular loud and obnoxious guy wanted me to do shots with him, but i only took a few sips, coughing each time. he was the kind of drunk that was all happy and loud, but then obnoxious and loud, and said he hated me for not joining in the fun and didn't talk to me the rest of the night (which was a very good thing). they had another friend who was back in taiwan from america. he was an environmental scientist, and kept speaking to me in english, like he was trying too hard to show off to his friends that he was bilingual. he made some comment about not being able to find any samuel adams here.
my cousin betty and the gang left about half an hour later. my cousin eric stayed behind, and we went up to the room to drink beers and so he could smoke. we chatted a bit before he said he had to go home. he'd leave the scooter behind because he was a little drunk, taking the taxi instead.
my cousin betty left a mess in the conference area. i decided to clean up, washing all the glasses and throwing away any leftover liquor and snacks. it was the least i could do for squatting in her office. i used the bathroom one more time (action jackson) and took another shower to get ready for bed. then the internet went down.