feels forever since i've blogged. i simply don't have the time. i don't usually get back to my office hideaway until 9-10pm, and after a shower and getting ready for bed, it's almost 11pm, and since i have to wake up around 7am (to beat the influx of office employees arriving to work), i have no choice but to sleep early, trying for a midnight bedtime. i could work on my blog during the daytime, but then it takes away from precious hours i could be spending exploring taiwan. rest assured, i'm taking plenty of photos, documenting everything i see, but just haven't had the chance to write everything down yet. many days feel like two days in one, which when you're traveling is a good thing, it means you're cramming as much into a day as possible. but it's pretty exhausting. i find myself moving slowly, partly because it's hot, but partly because i'm too tired. i can't believe i haven't been here in taipei a week yet; although if you count the day i left boston (monday morning), and factor in the weird timeshift traveling east to west, i guess right now marks the first full week of travel.
i'm back from getting my physical exam at the ren ai taipei city hospital. they drew 4 vials of blood, shot an x-ray of my chest, and i left a test tube of urine. the price for this once-in-a-lifetime experience? NT$2135, or US$71. not too bad, especially compared to how much medical services cost back in the US. when the doctor (whom i'll get to later) told me it might be expensive to run all these tests, i was bracing myself for the worst. "about NT$1000-2000," he told me. i almost laughed. but i put on a stoic face and said i was willing to eat the cost, since i was in a hurry to get this done.
so this all started because i received an e-mail last thursday saying one of required documentations when i arrive in shanghai is a health exam certificate. i wish they could've told me that earlier, back in the US, when i could've easily had this done. but here in taiwan, without local taiwanese health insurance (i can't get it until january 2014), i'd have to pay out of pocket. and the audacity! if anything, they should be the ones giving me a health certificate, so i can be sure i won't catch any weird diseases while i'm in china! it's all bureaucracy, but if want a certificate, i have no choice but to get one if i want a smooth transition.
the news also came right when typhoon soulik was approaching the island, so offices were closing early (friday). i asked my big aunt for help, and my parents remember a few clinics around xindian (where my big aunt lives) that might do a basic physical exam and draw some blood to get a few tests done. my parents estimated it'd cost NT$2000-3000 (US$67-100) and would take around 3 days to get the results back. my big aunt didn't think there were any such places in xindian, and wanted to take me to the hospital instead. the only problem was it might cost more at the hospital, and i wanted to keep the price down. hospitals might also only do exams by appointment, and i was in time crunch, planning on leaving mid-next week for china.
i don't know why i didn't think of it earlier, but i should've checked online first. maybe i got complacent in relying on the assistance of my extended family, and stopped thinking up a solution for myself. but i did some online research and discovered that ren ai taipei city hospital offers walk-in health certificate service for foreign travelers. the original posting was from back in 2007, but comments on the traveler's blog showed that as of february 2013, they were still offering this service. and the price? around NT$1000, not bad for a hospital.
so instead of going to xindian this morning to rendezvous with my big aunt to find a place to get a physical, i left for ren ai hospital on my own. another bonus: it was within walking distance from my office home, about 20 minutes away. this would give me another opportunity to explore the city. by 8am i was already dressed and ready to go, waiting to leave at 8:30am. my cousin betty showed up for work, which was a surprise, because i rarely see her here, and never this early. she told me normally she's here pretty early, especially if she has to drop off her daughter at school (but not so much now with school summer vacation in effect).
i was going to call my big aunt at 9am to let her know i wouldn't be coming to xindian today, but she beat me to it, called me at around 7:30am to remind me not to eat anything before the exam. i told her of my plan to visit ren ai hospital.
the walk was pretty straight-forward, east along xinyi road, then north along fuxing road until i hit ren ai road. along the 4th section of xinyi road i saw a lot of sports stores, selling all forms of hiking gear. some were brands i've never heard of before, but there were also many name brands (columbia, merell). i remember reading something about it online. it was still early and most hadn't opened yet, but i made a note to visit when i come back. i needed to buy another ultra-absorbent hiking towel.
the lady at the info table pointed me in the direction of the health certificate office on the first floor almost right next to the hospital entrance. there's a bit of bureaucracy involved, but overall things ran smoothly. i went into an office where i was given 2 identical forms to fill out. both required a photo, which i read about earlier so i brought some. at the filling station, i told one of the assistant ladies that i can't read chinese, and she said that wasn't a problem, she would help me out. i got as far as name and birthdate (using the taiwanese republic of china calendar system, which requires subtracting 11 to get the ming guo year) but i couldn't read anymore. one box required a phone number. i have a cell phone but i don't know my own number, so i did the next best thing by writing down my big aunt and cousin eric's phone numbers. another box was the address. taiwanese street addresses have things like lane and alley numbers. the lady filled this part out for me, using my big aunt's address (which is the address on my residency card). and finally i glued on the photos. it's been a while since i've done all collage work and i used way too much glue that squeezed out from the edges when i pressed down the photos.
i was then told to take my 2 forms to the check-in counter outside in the main room off the hospital. this is also where you pay for the services, but the girl clerk told me i pay after seeing the doctor first. she stamped a bunch of different badges onto my forms and gave them back to me.
i returned to the health certification room, where this time i was given a number (19) and told to sit in the waiting area. on the board the next number was 10. when i saw the number at the EKG room was 19, i went over to wait there. minutes later an attendant told me i was in the wrong place so i returned to my previous seat. there was a television screen broadcasting some local taiwanese news. in terms of awfulness and sensationalism, nothing can compare to taiwanese news. they were doing a story on school bullying, showing a group of school children beating up another kid on the slide, and stories about the typhoon aftermath, repeatedly showing disaster reels on a neverending loop.
the primary function of this room was to fill out the necessary paperwork, consult with a doctor, and then get your weight/height/blood pressure/eyesight checked before paying and then getting the fun stuff done like blood and urine samples. it wasn't all foreigners, and the only foreigners i saw were an inter-racial couple of indiscriminate nationalities (british?) and an older caucasian man reading a book. i wanted to chat with them, but kept my distance. for some reason i'm just drawn to caucasians, or anyone who's non-chinese (like all those filipino and indonesian women at the taipei train station yesterday). i identify with those foreigners more than i do the natives. there might also be foreign asians in the waiting room but i can't tell them apart from the locals. but most of the people there were taiwanese, and skewed mostly senior citizens in various states of health, from seemingly normal, to wheelchair-bounded pushed by a filipina caretaker.
when my number was called, i went into a private room to met with the doctor, a young man wearing a surgical face mask which made it hard to talk to him. he seemed annoyed that i didn't know what tests i wanted done. he also warned me that requirements for health certificates can be fairly strict, and i might run the risk of arriving with my certificate and having it denied because i forgot to get a particular test. i asked him what were the common tests people usually get done when they go to china, and he said he couldn't answer that because every situation is different. i wanted to just tell him to run everything, but i didn't know how much it'd cost, and how long it'd take (i was in a time crunch after all). he told me to get in touch with my china contact person, but i told him that was very difficult. exasperated, he said he'd just run a suite of tests including an HIV test, but warned me i might have to come back because the certificate could get denied, and he wouldn't be responsible. he told me it'd take 7-8 business days before i could get the results. i told him i was in a hurry and if there was any way i get it earlier, or maybe just check on it a few days in advance. he looked at me like we were about to tussle and said there was no way to get it any faster, and if i didn't want to wait, i could go try a different hospital, and he could rip up my forms. how rude! but i was afraid that going to someplace else would take just as long, so i told him i'd get my exam done here. he printed out a stack of paperwork for the various tests and told me to go outside and get my preliminary tests done.
the pickup date the doctor wrote down was 7/23 (tuesday), which is actually earlier than 7-8 business days, but only because he was counting today and saturday as well. originally i was thinking about leaving for shanghai next wednesday or thursday, so everything is still according to schedule. it makes purchasing a ticket still a little risky though, because in the off chance i don't get my results on he date specified, i'll be a little screwed if i already leave for china beforehand.
the nurse took my weight and height. i asked for the weight, but was given two different numbers, and promptly forgot both because they were both in unintelligible metric. my blood pressure was a little high, 146/84, and my eyesight is a little blurry in one eye. so far nothing that would disqualify me from service. i was told to take my forms and go back to the registry counter and pay the bill before getting my lab work done.
back at counter 11, the girl clerk (wearing a surgical mask as well, but with pretty eyes) asked for my national health insurance card. i told her i didn't have one. the final price came out to NT$2135 (US$71). that's amazingly cheap for out-of-pocket expenses. at that rate, i could afford to go see a regular taiwanese doctor without health insurance and not go bankrupt trying to pay the bill like i would in the US. why is the health care so crazy expensive in america? it's not like it's VIP treatment, where's the markup coming from?
i went upstairs to get my lab work done. the hospital administration is runned like the DMV, and i was given a number and asked to wait. there was a semi-circle blood drawing station, where half a dozen nurses drew blood from patients almost like a blood work factory. my number was 235, the current number was 203, but the wait was fairly quick. i saw those same foreigners from downstairs earlier. because of all the tests i was doing, i had to get 4 vials taken instead of just 1. the nurse also gave me a cup and a small plastic tube and told me to leave a urine sample afterwards. i figured they'd have a special room but it was just the bathroom. the 2 stalled were occupied, so i had no choice but to use the urinal, fumbling with the cup and test tube like an amateur chemist.
the last thing i needed to do was to get an x-ray taken. once again, it was runned like a factory. patients changed out of their clothes into a hospital gown (more like a dress, it didn't open in the front or back, no embarrassing exposure, i only had to remove my t-shirt). there were shopping baskets in the changing room to carry your street clothes but i just threw my shirt into my bag. there was 3 x-ray rooms (with imposing radiation symbol lead doors) but only one was in use. people were called by name, unless you were a true foreigner, and then you were just assigned a number. health certificate x-rays went the fastest, just a chest x-ray, and they were done so fast the exam room door was already sliding seconds after the x-ray was taken.
returning home, i visited a few hiking stores looking for super absorbent traveling towels. the first place i went to didn't have any and told me to try the store next door, which may or may not be columbia, but i tried them anyway, and they didn't carry anything like that either. finally in the 3rd store i found what i was looking for. it cost NT$350 (US$11.67), which about the price of what it'd cost in the US, maybe even a little more. the girl there gave me a 10% discount though, with a final cost of NT$315 (US$10.50). she asked me where i was going, whether it was for pleasure or work or both, and i explained i'm only visiting taiwan for a few weeks then going to china. she pointed to some place down the road but i didn't understand her until i left the store and saw what appeared to be an american embassy, but called the american institute in taiwan.
at the daan MRT station, i had some yiou-yu-gen for lunch (NT$60). it was a little pricey for that kind of taiwanese food but still US$2. after paying, i left and returned to the office. my cousin betty wasn't there anymore, i retreated to the privacy of the office bedroom. the sky had turned grey and soon after coming back it started raining steadily. i waited for the rain to stop before going back outside again.
i'm back in the air-conditioned comforts of the office hideaway. i went out around 2:30pm after it looked like it stopped raining. with 2 bundles of dirty clothes in my bag, i went off looking for a laundromat. passing by the matsusei supermarket, i remember seeing an offer for NT$100 haircuts, and decided to visit for a quick trim. haircuts are so devalued here that you can essentially get one for around US$3 (and there's no tipping either). you don't need a lot of space to open up a simple haircut place either, so the overhead is low. a woman was already getting her haircut inside (the place is unisex). outside were a couple of stools but a chinese lady sitting on one had her bags on the other. she was talking with a young woman with long eyelashes. they directed me to the vending machine to buy a haircut ticket. i slipped in an NT$100 bill (about US$3) and out came a credit card with a number. it seems a lot of work that could've been simplified by having people wait in line, but i guess the idea is you can buy your haircut ticket, and go do some shopping, and have your name be called when it's your turn.
i browsed the store a bit, but returned to the haircut stall. i found another stool and sat down. the lady smiled at me and said in chinese, "your chinese is very good." i told her, "it ought to be, i was born in taiwan." that set the confusion wheels spinning in her head. she had already sized me up and thought for sure i was japanese. i gave her a quick synopsis of how i immigrated to the US when i was 6 years old. "people must get you confused with japanese all the time," she said. i agreed with her. with that my number was called.
i think my hair is already short enough, but it'd be nice to get a trim before i leave for china. there wasn't much for the lady barber to do, other than shorten the sides and back with a pair of electric clippers and then blend in the hair on top of my head. i told her the top was fine, and she just gave it a light trim. afterwards she used some sort of hanging vacuum to suck up the hair clippings on my neck. it went back pretty quickly, i wished it was longer because there's something soothing about getting a haircut.
after that i continued on way to the "automatic wash" place i saw friday morning. i wasn't exactly sure where it was and i found it by feel and recalling landmarks. i was wearing my khaki pants today (wosley brand i purchased in shanghai 7 years go) and was afraid of what happened to me one rainy night in hanoi where i got splattered in dirty water. miraculously, i surprised unscathed, despite the light drizzle. i found the shop but right away it didn't look promising, too small to be a real laundromat. it was a dry cleaning store, and the "automatic wash" meant they'd wash your clothes for you. the minimum load size of 3kg, so even if you have less, you still need to pay NT$150, which is US$5, too expensive to wash a few underwears and t-shirts (that i could do on my own in the sink and hang them up to dry on the upstairs balcony). even the lady agreed with me that it wasn't a good deal with a small load. i had nothing to lose, so i asked her if she knew of any real laudromats in the area. she said no.
slightly dejected but already doing the calculus in my head (i still have plenty of underwear, clean t-shirt just one, and a bunch of sleeveless undershirts that could serve as hot weather t-shirts in a pinch), i moved on to my next objective, which was to buy a pair of flip flops. i should've gotten a pair days ago, would make taking a shower much easier. also i could go out in wet weather and not have to worry about soaking my shoes.
this being taiwan, it wasn't hard to be distracted by food, and when i saw the mango shaved ice place, i knew i had to stop and treat myself to some mango shaved ice. in the middle of the afternoon, the place wasn't crowded. i picked no.1, fresh mango ice with milk. at NT$140 it was kind of pricey, nearly the price of the "automatic wash" that i was too cheap to pay for (but apparently i have no qualms about spending that money on food). it was pretty good: shaved ice covered in fresh mango, drizzled with some sort of milky syrup, topped with a ball of mango ice cream. it was as mango as you can get, the only other way to eat more mango would be to just inject it directly into your vein. i saw by the window, looking out at some scooters getting soaked in the light drizzle.
continuing onwards, i found a "living supply" store on the other side of the street near the dongmen MRT station. this was a great place, 3 floors of useful everyday items, from bike lights, to kitchenware, to toiletries, to washing supplies, and finally flip flops of all shapes, sizes, and colors. they even had the traditional taiwanese flip flops that i'm tempted to get as souvenirs before i go home. i found a pair that me perfectly but they didn't have a price. turns out they're just NT$35, little more than US$1. score one for bargain shopping!
i then tried to find dongmen market, to return to that smelly tofu place. finding the market itself was a challenge. i walked right by one of the entrances the first time, distracted by a shattered tree (aftermath of the typhoon). i also failed to see it initially because so late in the afternoon, all the stalls were closed and it looked nothing more than a dark alleyway. then we i snaked through the maze of the shuttered market, it took a while to find the smelly tofu place. i was happy when i finally found it, but sad when the owner told me they were closed (they're only opened until 2:30). an old lady across the street was laughing at my predicament. i smiled back to show her it wasn't a big deal but i really wanted my smelly tofu fix! so far i've only eaten it twice, which is just not enough, because i have to eat so much that i'll last me until the next time i can come back to taiwan.
with that my adventuring was over, at least the afternoon portion of this program. i returned home, wary of getting splashed on my pants, but the sun was starting to peek out a bit from the rain clouds. outside of matsusei there was a little shop selling soft sponge cakes stuffed with an assortment of edible goodies. i bought 2 red bean filled sponge cakes and ate them outside the office building, too early to go back.
2 caucasian girls riding bikes were waiting for the light to change. i asked them if they spoke english, they spoke brilliant americanese (although they could be canadians). i asked them if they knew of any laundromats in the area. they said they'd never seen one before in taipei. they were wearing name tags but i didn't want to be rude to stop and stare. one of the girls was super pretty until they told me they were missionaries (mormons?) and i saw the "sister" designation on their name tags. they're probably going to convert a lot of young taiwanese men while they're here. the other girl had been in taipei for almost 7 months, with another year and a half to go. the pretty one had only been here for a month. i think they were caught off guard that i spoke fluent english, until i explained i was born in taiwan but immigrated to boston when i was young (i pretty much have to tell this same story a few times everyday when i meet anyone here).
before heading upstairs i even asked the doorman if he knew of any laundromats. he knew what they were but never seen them before in taipei. back in the office, there were only a few employees. it's so quiet, i tiptoed back into my hidden bedroom. my beard was getting a little unruly so i decided to shave the sides to better match my new haircut. i then retreated to my room to work on my blog. current time is 5:40pm. later i might head out to ximending to do some browsing, at the very least get some smelly tofu! my cousin eric may or may not contact me to go to shilin night market.