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The Art of Packing for Travel

Some people have a difficult time packing for a trip, no matter for how long they’re going away. I’ll admit to being a last-minute packer, and, on occasion, I’ll overpack. But that last part doesn’t happen often.

I was reminded about packing habits after reading the New York Times article “What Anthony Bourdain Can’t Travel Without,” in which the food travel icon mentions always packing notebooks, a pillow substitute, books, and a hidden knife. Bourdain also advises against getting angry when dealing with airport security/immigration and preparing for security checks with minimal attire (i.e., no belt, jewelry, other complicated things to remove).

Yangon airport

Welcome to Yangon

When I was traveling around with my work-from-home full-time job, I had a large suitcase and a Patagonia Chacabuco 32L backpack, which has served me well over the past four years and is no longer sold. My plan was to avoid winter weather, so that cut down on the heavy clothes, though I still had my two-layer coat that I needed toward the end of my time in Tokyo.

Getting through security

No one likes airport security and the TSA makes the process more miserable than in any other country I’ve been through. Singapore’s Changi Airport makes the security check easy, friendly, and efficient. Of course, there was also the wooden metal detectors in Myanmar, which I’m pretty sure didn’t work.

singapore security bin

Organized security tray at Singapore Changi Airport

Anyway, to prepare for the security check I ensure I don’t wear a belt. I’m still lagging behind in buying easy slip-on shoes (in Asia I didn’t have to remove shoes). I take off my watch while in line and put in the top compartment of my backpack along with my keys. All my travel documents and money are in a pouch around my neck, which is also useful for traveling through areas known for pickpocketing. And my backpack has an easily accessible laptop compartment to get the computer in and out quickly.patagonia backpack

All of this means I spend less time getting my belongings into the bins. Of course, there are times I forget to pull something out because my mind is usually on what I forgot to pack for the trip.

All liquids–by that I mean toiletries, sunscreen, etc.–are in Ziploc bags. I always have them split into at least two bags, which is helpful in case one breaks during travel. When I stay at hotels, I take a few containers of shampoo and body wash to use for travel later in case I end up staying at a hostel. I also have an empty reusable water bottle that I can fill up at water fountains before my flight.

travel pouch

All travel documents go here

It’s best to organize everything to prevent backing up the security line, which will get backed up anyway because of unprepared travelers and the general work ethic of the average TSA employee.

The essentials

Here is what I absolutely needed while traveling, all of which was packed in my carry-on:

  • Laptop (it’s a bit heavy and large because it was given to me by my job)
  • Panasonic Lumix DMC-G5 (I thought this would prevent me from missing out on shots like in Iceland)
  • Travel neck pillow (since upgraded)
  • Kindle (because I need to read and don’t want to carry heavy books)
  • Universal power adapter
  • 1 regular-size notebook and at least 1 pocket-sized notebook
  • 1 hoodie

I now have an Acer 2-in-1 mini laptop/tablet that I use for travel, while my larger laptop is reserved for home use. This has cut my backpack weight down significantly. I could downsize my camera as well–I wish I had bought a compact mirrorless camera with a better zoom lens instead, but that that’s something I’ll consider purchasing another time.

travel camera

The camera would take up even more space if I bought a new lens.

I had been resistant to getting a Kindle, but my parents gave me an old one that they didn’t use. It was great because it was light and easy to carry everywhere. I also enjoyed using it on the metro systems in Tokyo and Seoul–it made reading with one hand on a crowded train easy. It helped me catch up on some classic literature, all of which was free to download.

Everything else is quite light. My universal power adapter even has two USB slots for charging, which was a reason to buy it. The Cabeau Evolution memory foam neck pillow was worth the investment–it’s more comfortable and can be used as a great regular pillow.

Cabeau Evolution pillow

This thing is comfortable

The hoodie was to stay warm on flights and to use as an extra layer on the pillow.

Everything in the backpack is organized according to need–anything I need during the flight is on top so I can pull it out quickly and shove the backpack in the overhead. The only things I really need for the flight are the Kindle, pillow, hoodie, and water bottle. I always book a window seat, so I don’t want to bother everyone in case I forget something in the backpack.

As for my larger suitcase, here’s what was generally packed:

  • 8 short-sleeved shirts (including button-down shirts)
  • 1 long-sleeve pullover
  • 8 pairs of socks
  • 9 pairs of underwear
  • 1 pair of shorts
  • 1 pair of light pants (something that could double as business casual)
  • 1 extra pair of lightweight hiking shoes
  • 1 microfiber towel
  • Extra travel toiletries
  • Electric Razor
  • Cup-top hand-drip coffeemaker and reusable filter
  • An emergency supply of coffee (single cup filter packs/some instant)

Doesn’t seem like much, but it was enough to live week to week. Of course, while traveling and working I ensured that every apartment I rented had a washing machine.

All this stuff easily fit in my suitcase and it was well under the general weight limit for checked luggage. It also left space for small souvenirs, of which I bought few.

Packing changes for vacations

Of course, when I settled into stationary expat life, I took shorter vacations and had no need for that enormous suitcase. I realized this prior to my weeklong trip to Myanmar, at which point I had to go in search of a new suitcase just two days before departure.

suitcases

These suitcases are too big for even a weeklong trip

My new suitcase turned out to still be too large. I managed to fill up about half of it with essentials for the trip. I added some extra clothes and left the rest of the space for souvenirs (I still bought few).

When I traveled home last year for my birthday, I again managed to only fill up half the suitcase. I filled out the rest with a huge container of Taiwanese tea for my mother and a bottle of Kavalan whisky for myself, as well as a few other small gifts for friends and family.

Lao Skyway

My backpack barely fit on this flight in Laos

When I took shorter trips, I managed to borrow a small suitcase from a friend in Taipei. It could be used as a carry-on if I didn’t pack any items that had to be checked. A few times I had to check that tiny suitcase–when I traveled to Laos and Vietnam I decided to pack insect repellent and sunscreen, so it had to be checked. I could still pack a week’s worth of light clothes in that little suitcase.

And if I was heading out of Taipei for three or four days, I managed to fit everything I needed in just my backpack.

What are your essentials for travel? How much do you need for a weeklong trip?

Things I Won’t Miss About Taipei

I’ve already made my list of things that I’ll miss about Taipei after I depart–the most important of which would be the friends I’ve made. This city certainly isn’t all bad. While this city has been a decent place to live while I’ve been here, there are certainly reasons I want to get away.

Let’s get some of the small stuff out of the way first. Obviously, I could do with out the noise created by all the ill-maintained motorbikes (I welcome the day that they’re all replaced by Gogoro). Also, the awful drivers who don’t care that they create dangerous situations–at least in Vietnam the poor driving habits are more consistent.

Air pollution is another good reason to get out. Taiwan is better than some other nearby nations, but my lungs will be happy to move to cleaner air.

There’s also the weather. I can’t step outside for more than five minutes in August without bursting into flames.

There are other things I won’t miss about Taipei that would require further explanation.

Wasting Space

A common complaint around Taipei is that extremely slow walkers can take up entire sidewalks–it doesn’t matter how many people or how wide the sidewalk either. There are sidewalks in my neighborhood that can accommodate three people, but one person who walks slower than a snail will inevitably occupy the entire space and not allow anyone to pass in either direction.

Of course, the space on sidewalks is littered in many places with illegally parked motorbikes, and sometimes cars. At least it isn’t as bad as in Tainan (I didn’t take photos of the ones in Taipei).

Tainan Sidewalk

Most sidewalks looked like this, but worse in Tainan

There are also plenty of people who take up unnecessary space at libraries and cafes. There are many days I go to the National Library near my apartment to write only to find that the desks are occupied by people sleeping or who have simply left their belongings and gone for a walk.

These people will leave laptops and other electronics on the desk for hours. In any other country, their stuff would get stolen and everyone would blame the victim. There are also signs at the desks that say you shouldn’t leave your seat for more than an hour, which is still excessive.

I have taken seats at which someone has only left their belongings. When they return and say, “Excuse me, that’s my seat.” I respond with “You haven’t been here for more than two hours. It’s not your seat anymore.” I hope these people get it through their thick skulls that they shouldn’t be inconsiderate.

Taiwanese Food

While night markets can be fun and the availability of some non-Taiwanese food is plentiful around the city, overall I’m not a fan of Taiwanese cuisine. I’m sure more than a few people will chastise me for this, but it needs to be explained.

I consider most Taiwanese food as bland. More than that, it relies on gooey textures that I find repulsive (I didn’t like mochi in Japan or toppokki in Korea either). And much of the food is sweet. And people can shut up about how much they love stinky tofu–it’s a foul odor and it’s still bland tofu.

taipei street food

Nothing special from a street vendor

Don’t get me wrong, there are some good foods in Taiwan. I like beef noodle soup, three cup chicken, and xiaolongbao. However, there is little in Taiwan that I would ever crave. In almost three years, I have had ONE meal here that made me say, “Wow, that’s amazing,” and it certainly wasn’t at Din Tai Fung. The best Taiwanese meal I had was a roasted chicken restaurant in Jiaoxi–it ranked up there with the fried chicken I had in my neighborhood in Seoul.

Also, I’m fairly certain I’m the only person in Taiwan who loathes bubble tea. I don’t like sweetened tea and I certainly don’t want gelatinous globs in it.taipei night market

Before anyone starts ranting about the quality of American food with references to fast food, you can shut up too. I don’t eat fast food. I rarely eat a burger unless it’s guaranteed to be a really good one. I happen to prefer the food from every other country I’ve visited to that of Taiwan.

Company Management and Culture

Taiwan is resource rich but management poor. This doesn’t mean that everything that goes on here is of poor quality, but it does mean that there is a lot of room for improvement and the reason that improvements don’t come is because management gets in the way of progress.

Many Taiwanese companies demand loyalty from employees, but they also pay paltry wages. Managers often complain about the lack of qualified employees and why so many talented Taiwanese move abroad. They blame the government and society for their ills. They should take a look in the mirror.

I went to an interview and was told that the company has had two people in this position in the last six months. When I mentioned the salary I wanted, I was told it was far too high (the company wanted someone for about $25,000 per year). Gee, I wonder why that company couldn’t find a suitable candidate.taipei 101 xiangshan

As my friend and former coworker noted, many companies reward mediocrity while putting pressure on high performers. If you do more than the bare minimum, you will always be expected to do that without any incentives or increased salary. Meanwhile, your coworker who slacks off will be seen as a model employee because he/she does exactly what is expected despite the poor quality. This is especially true of employees who have been with a company a long time–if someone new comes along and performs better in the same job, the older employee will still be given more money and possibly a promotion.

I had another coworker who said Taiwan doesn’t attract the more repulsive expats as other East/Southeast Asian countries, but it also doesn’t attract the best qualified either. You won’t find as many entrepreneurs heading for Taiwan to start a business–they’re more likely to go to China or somewhere else.

I’m sure I’ll encounter plenty that I can complain about when I return to the US. Corporate culture isn’t much better in the US with companies attempting to pay the lowest possible salaries, but I’m sure there are companies that recognize the differences in quality.

Taipei Bar Prices

Alright, this is not something that I should complain about considering how many times I’ve gone out for drink in Manhattan. But considering the cost of living in Taipei, bars are ridiculously expensive. I understand that the cost of running a bar is high and there are a lot of taxes on alcohol (beer in particular), but the prices can be outrageous.

Redpoint TaiPA

How much did I spend on this beer?

When the median salary in Taipei is just over NT$40,000 (US$1323) per month and the minimum wage isn’t even US$5 per hour, it’s a luxury to have a drink. While I made significantly more than the median salary, I wasn’t willing to pay more than US$10 for a drink, even I was only having one or two for the evening. I can get the same quality of drinks for less in Manhattan.

Fortunately, I managed to find some bars that were less expensive–and those are the places I went to  more often.

Is it really that bad?

The positive of Taipei still outweighs the negative in these cases, though the work environment was definitely a drag on the desire to stay long term. And considering the friends I’ve made here, there’s a decent chance I’ll return to visit and see a few sights that I missed during my time here.

What I’ll Miss About Taipei

It’s almost time for me to depart the city I’ve called temporary home for almost three years. Taipei has been a decent place to live, though there have been some bumps in the road and inconveniences. Overall, my time in Taipei has been mostly positive, though I’ll have another post on things I won’t miss about the city.taipei 101

Accommodation

During my time in Taipei, I have lived in four places–one long-term hostel and three apartments. I’ve looked at plenty of other places to live as well.

My first apartment was through Airbnb, and that host did not mention that the neighborhood is known as the high-end prostitution district. It was a shock when I arrived, but the apartment was quiet and comfortable enough for my three months. I had looked at moving to northern Taipei as well as a place just south of where I’m living now, but decided it wasn’t worth the hassle of moving considering the prices would be the same anyway.

The long-term hostel was not a place I’d recommend. I lived there for far too long as I awaited news on a new job that didn’t come. I wasn’t sure where I’d want to live, so I remained in the private room in the hostel for NT$10,000/month. I knew I could find a cheaper place with roommates, but I didn’t want to be locked into a long-term lease at the time. In that room, the bed was uncomfortable and the walls were so thin I could hear every footstep.

taipei apartment

You can’t tell how poor the construction is from this photo

My first leased apartment was an illegal two-bedroom rooftop for NT$17,000. My friend came to stay for a few months and split rent, which was certainly helpful. But that apartment was falling apart. It didn’t help that the landlord thought that he was “doing a favor” when fixing or replacing broken things in the apartment. He didn’t seem to understand the landlord-tenant relationship.

Then there’s the place I’ve lived for about a year and a half. When I complained about the rooftop apartment, my friend Tom asked if I’d like to rent his extra room. The rent was the same as that rooftop but utilities weren’t included. Of course, I’d only have to pay half. Plus, I got to live with Tom’s two dogs.

Cheap rent, a friendly roommate, and two lovable dogs. That sold me. Plus our landlady is nice and gets things fixed when needed. Of course, we sometimes need to use a bit of translation as she doesn’t speak English.

tom's dogs

Who wouldn’t love these dogs? Zenko (left) and Yazhou (right)

I will miss this apartment. I’ll definitely miss the dogs. Sorry, Tom, but I’m sure you understand.

The downside to accommodations in Taipei is that the buildings are not well constructed. There’s no insulation and some electrical installations (mainly air conditioners) are half-assed. There are also far too many disgusting places for rent–I’ve come across landlords who just don’t maintain the apartments. I’ve seen photos posted on the main Chinese-language rental site that look like horror movie sets.

I think I got lucky with this last apartment.

Healthcare

This is an obvious one, especially as the US government seeks to undo everything the previous administration did to improve healthcare. I’m not saying that the Affordable Care Act was actually good, but it was at least a small step forward. Ever since I graduated college, I’ve found that the US healthcare system is absurdly expensive and inefficient.

After living in Taiwan, which has national healthcare, I’ve found that the US healthcare system downright sucks. This is why Taiwan is one of the top expat destinations. If I go to the doctor here for a blood test, I pay NT$150 ($5), and it includes three months of medication. The last time I went to the doctor, she overprescribed my medication so I’ll go home with six months worth of medication that I won’t need to buy at about $30/month in the US.

If I want to see a dentist, it’s another $5. Even without insurance (because I have gone to have a checkup when I wasn’t insured), medical care is reasonable. The only problem in healthcare here is eye doctors–it’s not covered by insurance. The first time I got new glasses here the shop messed up the prescription and the glasses…twice. It was still much cheaper than back home.

Public Transportation

Another easy one. I’m used to the New York subway system, the PATH, and NJ Transit. I’ve also taken Amtrak. I have nightmares about returning to all that.

The Taipei MRT system is wonderful and efficient. It goes almost everywhere I want. It can get crowded and some people are rude when they try to get on the train before people exit (I’ve gotten in the habit of elbowing people on my way off the train), but it’s still clean and comfortable. It’s also really cheap.

taipei riverside park

Riding a public bike along the riverside park

The buses are also pretty good. I live a long walk from the MRT station, so sometimes the buses are more convenient and cheaper. As long as I check the time of the next bus, I might be able to catch it instead of walking in the rain or unbearable humidity to the MRT station.

Then there are the wonderful YouBikes. They’re everywhere. And unlike the CitiBike in New York and Jersey City, there’s no membership fee. It’s just pay as you ride. Of course, if you don’t know where the YouBike stations are, it could get complicated, but there’s an app for that.

YouBike

The cheapest way to get around Taipei

There is room for improvement with the YouBike system, but it’s better than anything I’ve seen before. Of course, when I return home I’ll have my bike and won’t need to worry about bike share programs.

Hiking

I love hiking and Taipei makes that easy. There are a lot of hiking trails within the city and even more just outside. When I get back to New Jersey, I’ll have to drive somewhere to find a decent hike.

I’ve taken a few of the hikes numerous times, particularly Elephant Mountain while I was training to run up Taipei 101. I also enjoyed the views from Mt. Hemei in Xindian; it was even better because fewer people take that hike.

yangmingshan national park

The from a rainy hike in Yangmingshan National Park

My biggest regret in Taiwan is that I didn’t get to the central mountains. Every time I attempted to plan a trip, something went wrong and prevented me from going. It’s also not easy to get to those mountains via public transporation.

Friends

How could I not mention the people I’ve met during my time here? It wasn’t easy to start as most people I met were here temporarily. Then I got a job with odd hours and couldn’t meet people as easily. But I managed to make a few good friends here in Taipei.

Those I’ve kept around me have been helpful and kind, willing to share stories while wandering the city and enjoying a meal. And some of them even joined me on a some hikes in the city.

I hope the friends I’ve made here will be able to visit me in the US.

Authenticity and Travel Photography

There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”
– Ansel Adams

I love to take photos when I travel. Even when I’m in my hometown, I enjoy taking pictures to share. It’s something I’ve enjoyed since I was a child with my first camera that my parents weren’t even sure I could handle–they were surprised by the quality of my first shots back then. But sometimes I have to wonder if my photos tell the story I want to tell, whether those photos I share portray the moment.

saigon traffic

Daily life in Saigon

There’s a level of authenticity in travel photography, just as there is in travel writing. There’s a trust between the writer and reader–the writer must convince the reader that he/she is a reliable source or at least a capable storyteller.

I came across a Vice article published a couple years ago titled “Why Most Photos You See of Feudal Japan Are Deceptive,” and it explains the lack of authenticity in those historic photos. The photos were taken and sold as souvenirs–they exoticized Japan and life at the time. Of course, at the time the photos had to be staged because of the time it took to produce a single photograph.

Tachiaigawa

Street leading to Tachiaigawa Station in Tokyo, Japan

Today, the art of photography has changed in ways that were unimaginable in the 19th century. Digital photography allows travelers like myself to take hundreds of pictures at a time and later sift through the slush pile for the best ones. Unlike some photographers, I don’t take dozens of photos of the same place with almost identical angles and settings–I might change the settings a couple times to see what I like at that time, but I don’t see a reason for continuously shooting the same thing.

It’s within those multiple images of the same subject that we come to the vetting process for publication. What is it that our readers want to see? What is the story we want to show our readers?

street food yogyakarta

Nightlife in Yogyakarta, Indonesia

When we read travel stories in magazines and newspapers, we read all the positives about a destination–those publications don’t want readers to see the negative in any travel destination. In many cases, the same goes for travel blogs. Plenty of travel bloggers just want to give readers the basics of going to a destination rather than the story of the experience. Of course, there are some exceptions–some of the better travel bloggers will write about negative experiences to serve as warnings for travelers.

But again, even showing the negative side of destinations isn’t showing the greater picture. It isn’t portraying life.

croquet in seoul

A game of croquet in the park in Seoul. I forgot about this until I perused my photos

I’m guilty of not showing the lives I encounter while traveling. Part of it is that I’m more interested in the sights–the buildings, the artwork, the nature that surrounds. I rarely take pictures of people and often crop out crowds before sharing.

Even with photos of landscapes and cities, there’s a trend of over-editing in post processing. With programs that make editing photos so much easier, people have pushed the limits on processing colors–it has gotten to the point that the colors are unnatural. The photos are supposed to inspire people to visit a destination, but it ends up creating unrealistic expectations.

kuang si

Those colors were real. No, really

But is there a solution? Can travelers and travel writers/photographers portray the authentic experience and will readers accept it?

The final part of that question is what matters most. Writers and photographers desire to be seen and read–there’s a level of marketing involved in the process. And the marketing strategy depends on the reader. If the market demand for authenticity in travel stories and photos is great enough, then the creators of those stories and images would more likely cater to the demand.

Taipei balcony

These colors are not natural, but they look cool

But readers of travel stories are generally more interested in escape.

We want to be taken away on a virtual vacation. For those stuck in a cubicle all week, the travel stories provide a vicarious adventure. For some, it’s a dream–a plan for a future that gets pushed back as life gets in the way. For others, it’s a more immediate plan that gets added to a bucket list (and sometimes I hope for that term to disappear).

to-ji kyoto

Distorted sunset outside Tō-Ji in Kyoto

If I were to write about everything I see when I travel, would my readers (all five of them) respond? I have seen extreme poverty when traveling, and I’ve attempted to convey my thoughts, but I didn’t take any photos of what I saw. Part of me refused to take pictures of people living in such conditions. I may not have photographic reminders, but I have memories that I carry with me. I don’t need to look at a picture to recall what I saw on those streets.

The advantage I have over a photographer is the ability to tell a story that isn’t included in my pictures. While I can share the beauty I see when I travel, I can also share the stories of the people and places. The stories may be honest, but there is still a level of trust between writer and reader, and there is no control over whether the reader sees the story as reliable.

cooking bagan

A woman prepares curry in Bagan. I was invited to try.

The search for authenticity in travel photography is not only up to the photographer as the viewer must also share responsibility. And even if travel photographers share what they perceive as authentic photos, the viewers must still accept them as such.

Is there a balance between beauty and authenticity in travel photography? How can we achieve it?

Experiencing Seoul for the Second Time

I felt myself to be, for an unknown period of time, an abstract perceiver of the world.”
-Jorge Luis Borges, The Garden of Forking Paths

When my parents visited Taipei last spring, we decided to take a week outside Taiwan–it was a national holiday and I wanted to show my parents more of Asia that they might enjoy. After my dad decided that a trip to Kyoto and Osaka would be too expensive, we settled on Seoul. This was actually my third time in Seoul, but I don’t count the second trip as it was just a long layover to satisfy my 72-hour visa for Shanghai.

seoul mountains

Welcome back to the views of Seoul

I left my parents to themselves for a good part of the trip; I was tired from trying to plan things that I thought they’d enjoy. Instead I gave them suggestions of the major sights I had already seen–the palaces and museums that I found interesting on my first trip through Korea. The times I was with my parents, we went to eat and took a tour of the DMZ, for which we chose the wrong tour (we missed out on the shared border with all the guards).

Korea DMZ

Welcome on the Korean border

In my free time, I wandered from our hotel through the streets in search of things I hadn’t seen before. I also met up with my former coworker for dinner and a social media connection for drinks. Meeting up with friends reminded me how much I enjoyed my time in Seoul.

After my time of living in Taipei, I realized how different other major Asian cities can be–the history, culture, and architecture. It made Taipei seem smaller and less impressive. I don’t know why, but I enjoyed the fact that things are a little more difficult for English speakers in Seoul than in Taipei–in some cases it meant that I had to ask for help.

Admiral Yi Seoul

Admiral Yi watches over the city at night

I love the architecture of Seoul–the modern structures throughout the center of the city and the redeveloped classical-style buildings in neighborhoods like Bukchon Hanok Village. In the case of the latter, my father chose a hotel nearby, so I got to wander those streets a bit more this time around. Of course, I still enjoy gazing at the futuristic Dongdaemun Design Plaza, which looks like an alien UFO landed in the center of the city and was designed by Zaha Hadid and Samoo.

Dongdaemun Design Plaza Seoul

View of the neighborhood from Dongdaemun Design Plaza

In between my own wanderings without my parents, I took them to a few areas I had been before, such as Dongdaemun and Bukchon Hanok Village. I introduced them to food I hadn’t eaten since my first time in South Korea–they admitted that the fried chicken at the market in Sindang was good, but they didn’t like sitting on stools and eating in the middle of a market. I still believe this fried chicken is the best in the world, especially as it only costs $6 for a whole chicken.

Bukchon Hanok Village Seoul

Bukchon Hanok Village with a glimpse of the N Seoul Tower in the distance

While the first days in Seoul back in 2014 felt overwhelming and were a little frustrating, I felt more comfortable this time around. Maybe it was because I wasn’t living in a closet that was more claustrophobic than my current bedroom. Perhaps it was that I was on vacation and didn’t have to worry about work for a week. Whatever it was, the comfort made me feel more welcome in this enormous city.

Bongeunsa Seoul

Seoul from Bongeunsa Temple

Memories of evenings out talking with people I had just met returned as a couple struck up a conversation with me at an outdoor bar–the woman wrote foreign names in Hangul calligraphy and offered to write my name on a postcard as a souvenir of the kindness I encountered.

I thought about the days I spent walking for miles through Seoul because I wanted to see what was along the way instead of traveling underground in the subway–my feet ached and my shoes wore out to the point I had to purchase new ones so I could hike in Bukhansan.

Cheonggyecheon stream seoul

Cheonggyecheon stream, my favorite park for a stroll

After my time away, I found that I had missed out on so much of Seoul because I half-assed my weekend tours–I know I could have combined more of the tourist attractions had I planned a bit more, but I was unprepared on the first journey. Now, I wanted to stay and see it all again.

It’s been a year since that trip and I’ve thought about returning to Korea yet again, though I would hope to see Jeju and Busan instead of Seoul. The atmosphere and the aromas that waft from restaurants and street vendors call to me to see and taste everything again.

Yeoeuido Park Seoul

View from Yeoeuido Park

There are few cities I desire to return to, but Seoul is near the top of the list.

The Attraction of Vietnam: Not Quite a Love Story

This was the problem with a walk down memory lane. It was almost always foggy, and one was likely to trip and fall.
– The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

There’s something about Vietnam’s major cities, Hanoi and Saigon, that attract me. I had a love-hate relationship during my time in both, which is why I chose to depart Vietnam after two months rather than explore for the additional month remaining on my visa.

Hoan Kiem Lake street

The streets around Hoan Kiem Lake

I could identify what drove me to dislike both cities, and to some extent that is my own fault. I didn’t get out of Hanoi’s Old Quarter and I was in Saigon during Tet. Both of those conscious decisions caused me to dislike Vietnam. That my stay in Hanoi ended on a sour note tainted the first part of my stay in Saigon. It’s disappointing because I have wonderful memories of my two months in the country.

power lines hanoi

I’m not sure how this is supposed to work

But then there are the little things that made me love the cities, or at least enjoy my stay. This is a reversal of perception–usually it’s the little things that lead me to find fault in a place. There were moments in Vietnam that made me smile uncontrollably and laugh, tastes that made me stop to savor, and sounds that calmed me. While I believe I couldn’t live in either city long term, I have admiration of joyful memories to take me back.

Chaotic life & oases in Hanoi

In Hanoi, I found a few spots in the Old Quarter or just outside of it that I could return to for a moment of peace. The narrow, crowded streets that could give one a heart attack while attempting to cross made each day an adventure when all I wanted to do was find dinner or grab a beer. And after moving at a snail’s pace through the streets, dodging motorbikes and hawkers, I could find myself at a destination that provided breathing room, where I could tune out the noise and watch the lights of the city appear as the sun set behind the hazy sky.

bike hanoi

Woman rides a bike along Truc Bach Lake

Sometimes it was just a matter of reaching Highlands Coffee–a local coffee chain that had clean banh mi for lunch–to grab a meal and take in the view from three floors above Hoan Kiem Lake. It was the only view of the lake that was undisturbed by hawkers or students who approached requesting photos and English conversation.

Hoan Kiem Lake Hanoi

Hoan Kiem Lake at night

Other times it was a matter of fighting my way from my room at Hanoi Graceful Hotel where I was working online all day to go grab the 2-for-1 75-cent happy hour special at Central Backpackers Hostel. I was able to meet some travelers there who had tips on places to see in my limited free time. It certainly wasn’t the same atmosphere as the dirty Bia Hoi around the corner from my hotel that served 33-cent draught beer, but that dingy little place was for other evenings.

Truc Bach Lake

Quiet view of Truc Bach Lake at night

More than anything, it was making a friend in Hanoi. A young woman stood on the side of the road inviting people into a restaurant a block or so from my hotel, and one night I decided to stop in. After talking with her during my time in the restaurant, I decided I’d find her again after my trip to Cambodia. We became friends and have kept in touch since then–she even visited Taiwan during my second stay. She gave me my first ride on the back of a motorbike, a rather terrifying experience as I don’t like being a passenger and Hanoi traffic is not exactly organized. That experience gave me a little more courage when I needed a motorbike taxi ride back to my apartment in Saigon a few times.

Away from the crowds in Saigon

I found a bit more breathing room in Saigon, or maybe it was sidewalk space. I rented a large private room in a building through Airbnb–it was down a quiet alley off Le Van Tam Park in District 1. The area was surrounded by embassies and consulates, which meant that there was more security and fewer crowds.

Saigon riverside walk

Is this really Ho Chi Minh City?

I encountered plenty of frustration in my first two weeks in Saigon–the local market refused to bargain and tried charging ridiculous prices for produce, so I ended up only buying bananas because the one vendor gave me a fair price that was still likely higher than the local price. There was also a lack of restaurants in the immediate area for lunch, which meant I spent most of my break walking in the oppressive heat to get take-out to eat while I worked.

After Tet, I found a little shop in my alley that had cheap lunch for local workers–it wasn’t anything special, but rice, fried fish, and vegetables for about $1 was good enough for me. A quaint cafe also opened at the end of the alley, which I headed to a few times to grab a drink after work and play with a couple kittens that hung around outside.

saigon kitten

Curious kitten at the local cafe

Every now and then I headed out in the early morning to one of three Highlands Coffee shops within a 15-minute walk that had a breakfast buffet. For about $6 I could eat all I wanted and drink as much coffee as possible for about three hours while I worked–the coffee shop had decent Wi-Fi and an outlet for my laptop. By the time breakfast was over, I was over-caffeinated and so full that I wasn’t hungry until dinner. If that location was full, I went to the one down the street that was in an old wood building–it was beautiful architecture, but it had no air conditioning, making it difficult to work.

During my first weekend in Saigon, I took a tour of the Presidential Palace. As I entered the grounds, I found two young women taking photos of each other and I offered to take photos for them. They were both recently returned students from the US, so it was easy to talk with them. For the rest of the day we walked around the Presidential Palace and talked; we exchanged Facebook contacts before parting ways. Only one of them lived in Saigon, and she contacted me after Tet to go out to dinner. She introduced me to her friend and some Korean exchange students she had just met.

Vietnam presidential palace

Presidential Palace on a hot day (now known as Independence Palace)

Before I left Vietnam, I met up with the two women for meals a few more times–they introduced me to some good food and interesting streets. Most importantly, they directed me to the Co.opmart, a government-run supermarket with set prices so I could easily buy tons of tropical fruit to enjoy for breakfast. After our second dinner together I regretted already booking my flight out of Vietnam–I was beginning to enjoy my time in Saigon and had found routines that made life easier.

restaurant saigon

Cool restaurant my new friends invited me to try

After the city returned to life following the Tet holiday, I found places to relax and enjoy myself. I found a roadside restaurant that opened in the evenings–small plastic chairs and tables with cheap food and beer. I discovered a few good noodle shops that were much cleaner than the street vendors and set out to find more high-end restaurants farther from my apartment. I grew more comfortable wandering the streets each day.

There was still plenty of daily frustration–hawkers approaching far too often and the ever-present danger of crossing the street. There was even a moment when I couldn’t physically cross a street with idle traffic because there wasn’t enough space between all the motorbikes–I was trapped on a narrow curb until the traffic began to move again.

More than anything, I have the friends I made in Vietnam to thank for my time in the country. Without them, I would have written off much of my time there. I have been fortunate enough to meet all three in Taipei and hope to be able to show them around again if they choose to return.

Have you ever had a love-hate relationship with a place? What made you love and hate it?

The Wonders of Coffee and Travel

It’s not secret that I love coffee. Or maybe it’s that I constantly need coffee. Either way, I seek out plenty of it when I travel, sometimes with more success than at other times. Most of the time, I make my morning cup at home, even when on the road. Coffee and travel go hand in hand–it’s what fuels my adventures.

There were times I had to find a cafe in Hanoi when the Wi-Fi or electricity cut out at my hotel in the Old Quarter and I had to find a quick place to work until service was restored. It was the first time I got to try egg coffee–a thick, sweet specialty coffee drink of Vietnam. It was good, but too sweet for me.

egg coffee vietnam

Egg coffee in Hanoi

While traveling through East and Southeast Asia, coffee is nearly everywhere. Even here in Taiwan there’s a great coffee culture–I can get a cheap cup at a to-go shop or a fancy cup at a trendy cafe, and the prices vary widely. It was similar during my stay in Seoul, though Korea seems to prefer the higher-end coffee shops. Seoul also holds the title of most Starbucks for a city, not to mention the dozens of other local/regional chains and independent shops. Tokyo’s culture is closer to Seoul, but with fewer reasonably-priced options.

Taiwan has some good coffee

I learned not too long ago that Taiwan grows a fair amount of coffee, but it’s difficult to find. There are specialty shops and some vendors in touristy areas, but the coffee is not sold in most grocery stores. Even at the airport, I have seen locally-grown kopi luwak (civet coffee), but I have never seen it anywhere else.

One of the few highlights of my trip to Tainan was drinking a cup of Alishan coffee from a vendor at Sword-lion Square, which is a small touristy shop area. The coffee helped relieve the stress of almost getting run over by cars and motorbikes at every street crossing. And as the coffee was take-out only, it was inexpensive.

Sen Gao Coffee

How coffee is served at Sen Gao

In Taipei, I usually head for Cama or Louisa if I drink outside–the former is my favorite but the shops are not comfortable for relaxing with the coffee, so it’s more of a to-go shop. There is one shop that specializes in Taiwanese coffee, though. Sen Gao Coffee (森高砂咖啡館) serves nothing but coffee grown in Taiwan, and they have their own way of serving it, which made me feel a little better about spending more than $7 on a cup. Unfortunately, they do not offer the local kopi luwak.

What is in my coffee?

The prize for most surprising coffee flavor goes to Singapore. At the Old Airport Road hawker market I found a vendor who had kopi halia (ginger coffee). I figured for about a dollar I’d give it a try–it’s two flavors I like separately but had never imagined combining. It was good. The sharpness of the ginger balances out the bitterness of the coffee–it’s almost refreshing on a hot day in Singapore.

kopi halia singapore

kopi halia in Singapore

Other than the few specialty coffees, I haven’t had much worth mentioning while traveling–as I said, I like to make my coffee at home. Usually, I end up buying coffee on my trips to bring back home. The best I bought was in Yogyakarta–of course, I tried the Java Preanger blend before buying a pound of it; it was the only blend that was grown nearby. It was also by far the most expensive thing I bought in Indonesia. I suffered a bit of sticker shock, but decided that this was the best shop to buy quality coffee.

Organic Burmese coffee at the airport

When I visited Myanmar, I only had coffee with breakfast at the hotel (and it wasn’t very good). But on my way back to Taipei, I had some leftover kyat to spend at the Yangon airport. I browsed the shops looking for little souvenirs to buy. With only a couple dollars worth of kyat left, I spotted some local organic coffee. It cost a little more than half of what I had–I asked the vendor what I could buy with the remaining money and she offered a discount on a second purchase of coffee.

Coffee in Laos

My experience was similar in Laos, though I did stop off for coffee a few times because I was on a real vacation and didn’t feel like making it myself. As I was exhausted on my first day in Vientiane, I found Cafe Sinouk, a local chain that serves great coffee. Of course, it’s geared toward tourists and expats and the prices reflect that. It was at least good enough for me to buy a half pound of local coffee to bring back to Taiwan.

saffron coffee luang prabang

Coffee with a view at Saffron

I would have preferred to buy coffee at Saffron, which focuses on organic fair-trade coffee in the Luang Prabang region. The owner of the shop even offers tours of coffee plantations (by reservation only). I enjoyed a cup while staring out the window toward the Mekong River–it is a relaxing cafe. This is definitely the cafe to try when visiting Luang Prabang. They even sell coffee soap–I was tempted to buy it but I wasn’t so sure I wanted to smell like coffee all day.

saffron coffee luang prabang

Saffron Coffee, Luang Prabang

On a couple early mornings in Luang Prabang, I grabbed a cup (and even breakfast) at Joma Bakery Cafe, which is a popular place throughout the day. It was near my hotel and breakfast was reasonable–most tourists there in the morning stay at hotels that don’t serve breakfast or that serve little more than white bread and instant coffee. Every time there, I opted for the large Americano mainly because it includes a free refill–almost $3 for a cup is expensive in Laos where the average annual income is only about $2000.

On my way out of Laos, I stopped in Sinouk once more to buy a half pound of local blend coffee. It’s a pleasant, earthy blend for the mornings (I don’t make my coffee too strong at home) and it’s not too acidic or bitter.

collagen coffee laos

I did not buy this coffee in Laos. I was too scared

Of course, while waiting in the tiny Vientiane international airport, I decided to buy more coffee with my leftover kip. I had enough for a snack and a half pound of organic Lao Mountain coffee. This coffee was much more earthy than the Sinouk blend. It wasn’t earthy in a good way either; when I say earthy, in this case it means that it tasted like dirt. After a few cups, I started to think it wasn’t so bad. But I was much happier after finishing the half pound that I bought.

Where have you found great coffee on your travels? 

2016 Travel Review

I didn’t travel as much as I had wanted to over the last year. Part of that was because of work and an attempt at saving my vacation days so I could enjoy a longer holiday. Of course, that job didn’t work out and I ended up with a three-month paid holiday at the end of the year. It sounds great, but I had already planned a trip home for my birthday and Thanksgiving, which I extended by a week. Mixed in with searching for a new job and some freelance work, I didn’t have as much time as I had hoped to travel. But, I still managed to start and end the year with travel (and a new job).

sashimi

Every year should include good sashimi

There were some amazing adventures and some journeys that I’d prefer to forget. I also managed to spend a full 24 hours in the Bangkok airport spread over four layovers. It’s a very nice airport, but I hope to not see it again for at least a year.

bramble cocktail

…and more fancy cocktails

I also had some visitors this year. My parents came to Taiwan for the first time and my friends from Hong Kong (we met in New York) came for a long weekend. I’m still waiting on others to visit, if that ever happens.

 

 

My first trip of 2016 was to Myanmar

It was a trip that I had wanted to take for a long time. And I screwed up on that trip. I made the best of my mistake and had a wonderful time getting “stuck” in Bagan. Missing out on Inle Lake, Mandalay, and other parts of the country gives me another reason to go back. I’m sure I would’ve had a great time had I had access to my bank accounts, but it was relaxing to ride a bike around the dirt roads of Bagan for a few days.

Bagan balloons

Balloons over Bagan

I took a long weekend in Tainan

I will never go back to Tainan unless my new job forces me to go there. I have no idea why people seem to love this city so much.

Tainan bridge night

At least Tainan had some decent views

My parents visited Taipei

I showed my parents around Taipei, but they weren’t all that impressed. They did enjoy a few days at Sun Moon Lake, though. It was a relaxing place and a great way to end their trip. I also took them to Seoul for a week (I have not written about the new adventures I had there).

A last-minute trip home

I didn’t get to see friends on this trip. It was only a few days with family for a funeral. Not the best trip.

I found new adventures in Hong Kong

Sok Kwu Wan

Sok Kwu Wan, Lamma Island

It had been a long time since I had been in Hong Kong. And I really never got to explore the city before this trip. Thanks to some friends, I found some new places for sightseeing and eating. This was probably the best time I’ve had in Hong Kong. I’ll definitely plan more trips there because a round-trip ticket from Taipei is only about $125.

A day-trip to Keelung

I needed a day out of Taipei and decided nearby Keelung would be a good choice. I hadn’t heard much about the city, but it was easy to get to. There wasn’t much to see or do there, but the weather was clear (and hot) for a long day of walking. Really, the only thing worth doing in the city is Zhongzheng Park–a small hill with a large statue of Guanyin, which you can go inside. There are great views of the port from the top of the hill. There’s probably more to see on the outskirts of town along the coast, but I really didn’t plan the day too well.

I took a last-minute trip to Tokyo

Another friend I met years ago in New York was taking a trip to Japan. He had originally planned to take a few days in Taipei, but couldn’t squeeze it in. Instead, he convinced me to head to Tokyo again. Our Airbnb plan fell through, but we ended up with a nice hostel stay. I got to see other friends in Tokyo as well. And we ate a lot on this trip.

Tachiaigawa

Street leading to Tachiaigawa Station in Tokyo, Japan

There is still so much in Tokyo I haven’t seen. I feel like it’d take a lifetime to get through the city.

I visited my friend in Kaohsiung

My friend came back from a year in Canada (and promptly returned). I still got a couple days in her hometown though. It’s a pleasant city, but I had seen most of the highlights on my previous trip there. The only new adventure this time was a short stop at Shoushan, where visitors can see a lot of wild monkeys (Formosan rock macaque, to be exact). We also checked out the new national library, which is an impressive building inside and out–there are some really cool art exhibits there as well.

My birthday trip home

I decided I wanted to celebrate my birthday with family and friends this year. And as my birthday is right around Thanksgiving, I got to double up on celebrations. And I was able to extend my stay by a week for only $37 (I have no idea how, but it worked). It would’ve been a more exciting trip home, but my brother’s house was being renovated so I couldn’t stay in Jersey City. Instead I spent most of my three weeks at my parents’ house in the quiet suburbs with very little to do. At least I got to sleep a lot.

 

Final trip to Laos

I was offered a new job and accepted, so I decided to take a last-minute trip before I’d have to get back to an office. I booked my flight to Vientiane via Bangkok two days before I left. It was more expensive than other flights, but it didn’t include an overnight layover in Hanoi. (Note: there is a capsule hotel in Hanoi airport, but it is outside the transit area, which means you need a visa.) Overall, the trip was wonderful with a few minor problems. I do think the town of Luang Prabang is overrated, but it’s still worth visiting mainly for the sites that are nearby. Although there wasn’t that much to do, I preferred Vientiane–it’s a lot less touristy and there’s a greater opportunity to interact with locals, whom I found to be quite nice.

 

And that is it for 2016. I know I still have to write about more of the adventures I had throughout the year, and I will get to them as soon as I can. I hope everyone enjoyed reading about my travels this year.

I wish my readers a happy, healthy, and travel-filled 2017!

Do you have any travel plans for the new year yet?

Is Taiwan Really the Top Expat Destination?

The media has embraced Taiwan’s distinction as the top place to live for expats, according to a survey from InterNations. Of course, local Chinese-language media made a big deal of the ranking because they love surveys (no matter how mundane) that portray Taiwan in a positive light. I’m generally skeptical of surveys that include rankings, like the expat cost of living survey. But was this survey worth all the hype?

For those unfamiliar with InterNations, it’s an online community for expats. Its goal is to provide information and services as well as organize events for expats and locals in cities around the world. This is a profitable website as they charge entry fees for all events (I paid ¥1000 to join a crowded bar meet-up in Tokyo at which I discovered it wasn’t worth the money). I have rarely checked the website since joining and haven’t even updated my city to Taipei.

Roads running through the mountainside at Taroko Gorge

Roads running through the mountainside at Taroko Gorge

As InterNations compiled the survey, mostly members of the site voted (I don’t know if outsiders had to register before voting). And if I’m any indication, not a lot of the members voted. There are other flaws in the survey as pointed out by Taiwan Explorer, who makes some valid points about Taiwan’s ranking. As he’s already evaluated the survey, which the media should have done, there’s no point in me adding to the criticism.

Dragon & Tiger Pagodas

Dragon & Tiger Pagodas in Kaohsiung

Rather than beat the dead horse that is a flawed survey, I can focus on what makes Taiwan (or Taipei, as it is my home) a good destination for expats and what makes it a less desirable home.

Taiwan is affordable

I’ve mentioned this before. It’s the primary reason I moved here. While freelancing and job searching it was a great place to lower my cost of living. I don’t need to have a roommate, but sharing an apartment provides me with a little bit of socialization and even cheaper rent (plus there’s the advantage of having two dogs without all the responsibility). And transportation is cheap–my 35-minute subway ride from the office to home is only 77 cents (minimum fare is 51 cents). Buses are 50 cents, but some can be around $1 when crossing from New Taipei to Taipei.

YouBike

The cheapest way to get around Taipei

Of course, it isn’t all so affordable. Sure, a lot of food here is cheap, but it’s unhealthy. If I want to eat healthy, I need to cook or eat at higher-end restaurants. My grocery bill is probably slightly higher than it was in New Jersey, but it’s not a significant difference. It’s partly because I want to eat healthier. There’s also a lack of mid-end hotels if I want to travel to other parts of Taiwan, which means I’d have to either stay in a hostel or spend more money. But the hotels even out when I factor in the low price of a train ticket.Taipei 101

Taipei is convenient

7-Eleven and FamilyMart are everywhere, sometimes across the street from each other. Hell, I’ve even seen a 7-Eleven across from another 7-Eleven. But that’s not what’s so convenient here. Buses (thanks to the wonderful Taipei Bus app) are fairly easy to navigate. And the MRT system is ridiculously easy. It also helps that a lot of people speak English, making it easier for people who don’t speak Mandarin.

Healthcare

While it is probably not sustainable, the healthcare system is cheap and simple. I pay about $5 to see a doctor or dentist and my prescriptions are free. The downside is waiting at a hospital to see a doctor. Also, because there’s so little money coming into the system, doctors over-prescribe medications to inflate bills to the government. I’ve been given enough pills that I never took.Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall Taipei

Safety and friendliness

For a major city, Taipei is safe. Of course, there are incidents and Taiwan has its share of violent crime that rarely gets reported in English-language news. The violent crime is rarely directed at foreigners though. And people in general are willing to talk or help if asked.

Personality

I’m not talking about the overall character of Taiwan. I’ve heard this complaint from multiple expats in Taiwan: people here are flaky. A lot of people are noncommittal when making plans or offering to help out, but that’s not the downside. They’re also consistently late, sometimes by a half hour or more. If you ask where someone is just before a scheduled meeting, they might say, “I’m on my way,” which really means, I should be leaving my apartment in the next 10 minutes or so.

Longshan Temple

Longshan Temple

This seems to have influenced the expat community as well. I’ve talked to employers who complain about finding reliable employees, e.g. people who are on time and not drunk. People will also make plans and then not follow through. It seems acceptable to cancel plans at the last minute as well.

As one acquaintance mentioned, Taiwan doesn’t attract the worst of the expats in East Asia (alcoholics, sexpats, etc.) but it also doesn’t attract the best (innovators, entrepreneurs).

Language

I mentioned that it’s easy to get around Taipei without speaking Mandarin. The problem with this is that it can make an expat lazy when it comes to learning the language. Unless you’re enrolled in a class, which is why many foreigners come to Taiwan, it’s difficult to sit down and study on your own. Unlike Mainland China, I’m not forced to learn Mandarin to survive, thus eliminating much of the motivation to continue studying.

Taiwan Presidential Office Building

Presidential Office Building

Information

Obtaining information from websites in Taiwan is not as easy as in other places. Other major cities around Asia have publications like Time Out or their own similar magazine (China has That’s [insert region] for a few metro areas). To find event listings in Taiwan, expats have to go through each venue’s Facebook page. I don’t want to like every venue’s Facebook page and would prefer if a venue had its own website. Also, the newspapers here are slow and don’t report enough actual news. To put this in perspective, I started my other site Total Taipei over a year ago and I have since beaten the main English-language media to multiple stories by TWO days. I’ve also published news that never got reported elsewhere in English.

Weather and pollution

This is self-explanatory, but over the last year I’ve experienced some of the worst weather. Summer lasts almost six months and can be brutally hot. Winter is humid, rainy, and chilly (it feels colder because of the humidity and rain). The weather makes it difficult to enjoy outdoor activities. There’s also a lot of pollution–partly blown over from Mainland China but also from all the poorly-maintained motorbikes. Taiwan is making strides to improve pollution, but it still has a long way to go. I’m surprised Taipei isn’t using hybrid/electric/natural gas buses for public transportation.

Eslite mall at Songshan Creative Park

Eslite mall at Songshan Creative Park

Work culture and career advancement

Taiwan inherited a bit of Japanese work culture–long hours and overly formal dress codes (my office doesn’t have casual Friday, we have slightly less formal Friday). It is more laid back than Japan, but it’s still a similar hierarchy of seniority and brown-nosing. Wages have been stagnant for a long time–and for English teachers the wages have actually decreased. Fortunately, the low wages are offset by the low cost of living. I can still manage to save a lot more of my salary than I could in the US.

But how far up the ladder can one climb in Taiwan? It depends on the choice of career, but it’s generally not as high as it would be in say Europe, or even in China or Japan. For an editor like me, there is nowhere to move up. Major publishers and media outlets that pay better wages don’t have offices here or are phasing them out–most media outlets cover Taiwan from Hong Kong.Wulai

Is Taiwan the best expat destination?

Perhaps. For some people this is the perfect destination–low cost of living and low-stress work (for some careers anyway). Any destination will have its positives and negatives–the determining factor is the individual expat’s personality. I’m sure with the right job and people around me, I could enjoy life in almost any country. And even still, I’d find something negative about the place. What’s important is whether the positive outweighs the negative, which in the case of Taiwan I believe does.

The Cost of Being an Expat

Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination.
― Oscar Wilde

Every year there’s a list of cities around the world that are most/least expensive. These lists are made to give potential expats an idea of what the cost of living might be abroad. So, what is behind the numbers? What is the cost of being an expat?

This year’s list includes a few cities that I have been to–one of which I lived in for five months. Beijing, Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Tokyo are all in the top 10 most expensive cities for expats. Those last three are on the list mainly because of rent, though there are options for affordable housing in Tokyo as I found out.

Singapore Bayfront

Yes, Singapore can be an expensive city

The expat cost of living is a bit biased as it focuses mainly on Americans and British abroad, which is why Silicon Valley, Manhattan, and London aren’t in the top 10.

One bit I find odd in determining cost of living is that it mentions the cost of owning a car in Tokyo. I wonder why an expat would own a car considering the public transportation system in the metro area is convenient, albeit not as affordable as other major cities in east Asia.

Bund Shanghai

Shanghai along the Bund

Let’s look at some of the expenses listed in the report

Cost of coffee in Hong Kong is more than US$7. Seriously!? I know I haven’t been in Hong Kong in many years (I’m heading back in September), but I’m sure I could go to a coffee shop chain for less. I’m certain Starbucks is only about US$3. But hey, it claims a small imported beer is only US$1.2–but there are probably better beers for a bit more than that.

Victoria Harbor Hong Kong

Victoria Harbor from the Star Ferry

Of course, this also assumes one is paying more than US$12,000/mo for a three-bedroom apartment in the city. Rent is expensive (think about US$1000 for a closet in Kowloon or Central), but not that many people need a huge apartment in Hong Kong. It also mentions that a two-bedroom apartment in New York is more than US$5000/mo. I know people who have found cheaper places to live in the city.

From what I got from talking with my former coworker, Singapore is still more expensive for rent–mostly because it’s non-locals who rent. He told me that he was paying about US$1600/mo for a room in an apartment and still had a 40-minute commute to work.

sambal stingray

It’s possible to find affordable food in Singapore

And when it comes to drinking, many cities are expensive. My uncle once bought us martinis in Hong Kong for US$17 each (coming from Manhattan, even he was surprised by the price). Other than Seoul, developed cities in east Asia are expensive for drinkers, and expats tend to enjoy going out more often. Even in Taipei, where rent, food, and transportation are cheap or reasonable, a decent drink will set you back more than US$5 (about US$3 on the cheap end). I won’t complain about beer prices back home when a cheap beer in a Tokyo bar is US$7.

Taking the survey with a grain of salt

Obviously, the cost of living survey does not include expats who are teaching in these cities and living on a budget. A lot of those surveyed are likely to be sent abroad by their companies on an expat package, which provides a much higher standard of living. When I lived in Shenzhen, there were neighborhoods designed for people on expat packages–houses that cost more than my monthly salary. Many of those people ate out at high-end restaurants and took taxis everywhere (or had a private driver). Meanwhile, I could rent a three-bedroom apartment in a decent neighborhood for about US$500 (I know the rent has gone up significantly since 2009).

View of Tokyo from the Sumida River

View of Tokyo from the Sumida River

My friend in Tokyo has mentioned a few times how the city isn’t as expensive as everyone claims. The problem is that most tourists end up at restaurants with English menus, which immediately raises the price of a meal. I actually found the average meal in Seoul to be more expensive. Overall, I thought Venice was more expensive than Tokyo.

The point is, judging a city based on the prices in such surveys is ridiculous. The surveys also ignore living standards and ideas of happiness. There’s plenty to do in every city that costs little or nothing–hiking in Tokyo and Seoul is free.

Rialto Bridge in Venice, also known as the bridge of shops I cannot afford

Rialto Bridge in Venice, also known as the bridge of shops I cannot afford

It also doesn’t mention anything about healthcare. While I wouldn’t recommend most hospitals in Beijing and Shanghai, Tokyo and Singapore are top notch. Universal healthcare keeps those costs to a minimum. Sometimes it’s worth paying a little more for rent or food in exchange for cheap healthcare. I only pay about US$5 to visit the doctor in Taipei, and medication is free with the prescription.

What is the real cost of being an expat?

This answer varies on the person and region. I’ve found it easy to live well within my means anywhere in the world. It comes down to habits.

Generally, I don’t take taxis. I’ve taken quite a few more in Taipei because they’re affordable and sometimes I want to stay out past midnight, but I tend to avoid the added expense. Walking is free and public transportation is always affordable.

It's possible to find cheap espresso in Venice

It’s possible to find cheap espresso in Venice

Before moving anywhere, it’s best to consider how much space you need to live. If you’re not staying long term, why splurge on a huge apartment? I’ve found that I can live comfortably with a smaller apartment than I would typically consider back in the US. It means that should I move back, I could save on rent with a smaller place.

How often do you really need to go out for coffee? I’ll admit I’m starting to go out for coffee more often, but that’s as a treat and to get out of my apartment. In Tokyo, I’d have a coffee at Starbucks (only half-decent coffee shop within 2 miles of my apartment) so I could sit and write for a few hours. For US$2-4 I can afford to treat myself every now and then–it’s cheaper than a good beer at a bar in Taipei.

Redpoint TaiPA

I prefer to spend a bit more on local craft beer

Also, who are these people who pay US$120+ for a pair of jeans? Last pair I bought here in Taipei was about US$20. I also noticed that, in general, clothes in Tokyo and Seoul were much cheaper than in Taipei–I bought a suit in Tokyo for US$50 and one in Taipei for US$150 (I like the one from Tokyo more).

Cheonggyecheon Seoul

Some of my favorite entertainment in Seoul was free

Of course, no matter where you live, it’s cheaper to cook than to eat out (healthier, too). An advantage I found in Tokyo was going to the grocery store around 6 pm or later when they began marking down things like fruit, vegetables, and fish as well as pre-made meals. It’s similar in Taipei, but there’s no set time that the stores begin marking down food.

How do you feel about such surveys? What costs do you consider before moving/traveling to a new city?

A Different Expat Experience

If I am not Ulysses, I am
his dear, ruthless half brother.
Strap me to the mast
so I may endure night sirens
-Yusef Komunyakaa, Latitudes

This is not my first time being an expat. It is, however, my first being an expat for purely economic reasons. But should that change my overall expat experience, or is it a matter of place and age?

How is this expat experience different from all others? I feel like I’m at the Passover seder trying to avoid reading the four questions. But this time around really is different.

I'm not sure what's going on here

I’m not sure what’s going on here

I don’t count my semester abroad as being an expat–it wasn’t a long enough time, and I was mainly there for education and adventure. Plus it was my first time outside the country, excluding a family vacation to Canada [insert Simpsons Canada-related joke here]. But that did partially influence my decision to move to China for almost four years after grad school (I really just wanted better fortune cookies, which I discovered don’t exist in China).

While expat life isn’t all travel and sunshine, I haven’t regretted my decisions yet. I’ve had my reasons for taking on the challenges and adventures of a life abroad. But that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t appreciate some changes to routines while I live this life.

The first expat stint

When I first arrived in Shenzhen, I was part of a small community of foreigners at a school located more than an hour from the central business district–I didn’t realize how spread out the city was before moving.

Being outside China’s first Special Economic Zone meant that there wasn’t much to do near my apartment. However, as the apartment was provided by the school, all my foreign colleagues lived in my building (on two floors); it felt a bit like a college dorm with everyone having a private room. This meant we could all easily knock on each other’s doors to make spur-of-the-moment plans.

It was a more enjoyable ride than the bus.

It was a more enjoyable ride than the bus.

As we were all fairly close in age, with a few exceptions, we had plenty in common. Most of us were in China for the experience of spending time abroad. A few coworkers were taking a gap year, which meant that they were technically working illegally as China required a college degree for a work permit (there are always ways around the rules if you have enough guanxi).

As this was the first time for most of us to live outside our home countries, we tried to support each other–we shared information we found, like the discovery of cheese at Walmart. We also celebrated holidays together despite not having a day off–the first year, my American coworkers and I found a non-Chinese restaurant nearby for Thanksgiving; during subsequent years a few friends hosted holiday potluck dinners.

Sometimes you get to live in a nice neighborhood

Sometimes you get to live in a nice neighborhood

Most evenings were spent at the restaurants below our apartments sharing meals and plenty of Tsingtao beer. On weekends a few people would go around the hallway and knock on doors to see who would join in for an excursion to more popular expat areas of the city–once or twice a month was about all we could afford on our salaries.

The friendships I forged during that first year continued–in some cases, I still talk with those people. During the final year or so in China I didn’t meet as many new friends; I had fewer coworkers and less desire to go out to noisy bars (though I still would every now and again). I had my circle of friends and we met often enough for cheap food and beer.

I saw too many days with pollution like this

I saw too many days with pollution like this

I left that life behind years ago, but, as I said, I have kept in touch with a few people from that time. That first expat experience was the most memorable, as are most firsts.

The second expat stint

My second experience as an expat came when I grew weary of working overnight from home in New Jersey and set out to work during daylight hours in Asia. If I wasn’t going to talk to anyone while working, why not not talk to people in a foreign country while enjoying a little sunlight through my window?

The plan was just to be out of the country for a year and then either hope for a better shift at the job back home or search for a new one. I really wanted to see new sights, and taking my work abroad was an easy way to do that–I could spend a month in one place and go sightseeing on weekends. And a weeklong holiday abroad didn’t require a long flight and jetlag. When I took my vacation in Cambodia, it was only a short flight from Hanoi.

This is not where I bought dinner

This is not where I bought dinner

The downside to taking this approach to being an expat is that it can get a bit lonely. I was constantly eating meals and sightseeing alone–I deliberately booked some group tours so I could meet people. I managed to make some friends, but I couldn’t always see them, especially during the week (particularly in Tokyo where we lived on opposite sides of the metropolis). I constantly had to go out because spending nearly 50 hours a week in an apartment/hotel room working was more than I wanted to see of any room.

My workweek isolation forced me out to meet people–I was more willing to approach people for conversation to make up for the lack of human interaction during the week. Because I wasn’t staying in any one place for long, I didn’t mind finding short-term friendship or just someone to talk with over a beer; there wasn’t much long-term planning then.

Maybe I should talk to them

Maybe I should talk to them

Of course, it was more difficult to talk to locals in some places. In Tokyo and Seoul, I encountered significant language barriers that led me to just read a book in a bar. In Hanoi and Saigon, fewer people were willing to sit with a foreigner unless they were looking to sell something (fortunately, I found a few exceptions who became friends).

The current expat stint

The third expat experience was made almost entirely for economic reasons. I could take a job in my field that paid close to what I’d make in a major US city, but the cost of living is significantly lower–I currently pay about $260 for rent and my cell phone costs $4 per month; the landlord provides Wi-Fi and cable (not that I really watch TV here). Food costs are similar to back home if I cook all the time, and I tend to spend a little more eating healthy in Taipei because I can afford it. Compare that to paying around $1000 in rent plus $50 for cell service and another $70-90 for cable and internet.

View from my (previous) balcony

View from my (previous) balcony

There is a downside to life in Taipei though. While I enjoy all the convenience and, in many respects, simplicity of life here, it’s not as easy to meet people. Most of the people I’ve met are short-term expats–students studying Chinese for a few months or even just travelers. There were friends I made during my other two stays in Taipei, but they’ve all departed; not all of those friends were non-Taiwanese either.

Typical view in Taipei

Typical view in Taipei

I do accept some of the blame for not meeting more people here. My work schedule has made it difficult–when I started, I worked afternoons/evenings and then switched to early mornings (before dawn). I didn’t go out after work when I got home in the evenings because I also taught three days a week in the morning. I don’t usually go out after work now because I can’t stay out late–I’m asleep by 10 (seriously, I have to wake up before 5 am).

I have attempted to use meetup.com a few times, with mixed results. I’ve shown up to meet ups to find no one showed up. I’ve gone to some that were so disorganized, I couldn’t find the group in a crowded bar. I went to one that had a decent group, but it started late and I had to leave early, just as most people arrived. There are other meetup groups that sound interesting, but they tend to meet at times I can’t attend.

Part of the problem with using meetup.com is the problem with some expats in Taipei: they’re flaky. Of course, there are flaky locals too. This was pointed out by others, but I’ve heard it numerous times from a guy who runs a small English training school with his wife. I worked for him for almost a year and still fill in when he needs a hand. He pays much better than other schools but still has a difficult time finding reliable people, let alone people who can do the work he wants. And I have made plans with people who see nothing wrong with showing up a half hour late without saying anything or canceling at the last minute.

Xindian

I get to see these sights on solo excursions around the city

This lack of a social life has led me to search for additional work (I already teach four hours per week in addition to editing full time), as well as continue with my habit of long solo bike rides and hikes. I should spend more time reading in coffee shops though.

The fact that I’m not in Taipei as a young adventurer certainly has changed my attitude, particularly when I meet younger expats who are more interested in drinking than establishing any sort of life in the city. I don’t admonish those types of expats; I would most likely join them if I was younger. You might get the impression from the blog’s name that I drink a lot, but I usually only have a couple drinks on weekends. Those younger expats also tend to be on tighter budgets and less willing to splurge on more exquisite dining experiences. The downside to this attitude is that it’s more difficult to make a connection with those people and convince them to join in an excursion.

So, what have I learned from all this? And how have I survived?

I’ve been advised that I should hang out with my coworkers, but that’s not practical. Working in finance means that my local colleagues work long, often late hours, including weekends. I also tend to keep my distance as I prefer to maintain a separation between work and personal life. Of course, I wouldn’t say no if a coworker invited me for out for a beer.

Zenko likes to take selfies. Me, not so much

Zenko likes to take selfies. Me, not so much

I wouldn’t say I’m friendless in Taipei. I have my roommate and his two dogs. Of course, we work different hours and don’t see each other much to hang out (it’s ok, I get to play with the dogs instead). I also have a friend who speaks only a few words of English, which forces me to practice my dwindling Chinese skills–I admit to being a bit lazy about continuing to study Mandarin. We did manage to go out to a Peking opera adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the National Theater (it’s not easy to follow a play that requires subtitles).

I’ve also met a few other people whom I see on rare occasions. But I mostly take my time to explore the city on my own with the hope that I might find someone along the way who wants to join in my idea of fun. It all comes back to what I learned during my first time abroad in China–that I should seek out appropriate expat communities that fit with my life.

What have your expat experiences been like? If you’ve moved multiple times, has the experience changed?

Home Cooking: Fish cakes

I enjoy eating out and trying new foods, but it’s not always practical. For one thing, if I’m traveling solo, I have no one to eat with, which means I can’t share meals and try more than one dish without looking like a glutton. There’s also the health factor. I’ve discussed staying healthy while traveling, and it’s just as important to eat healthy as an expat.

Cooking up some fish cakes in the wok

Cooking up some fish cakes in the wok

As I sit on my butt for eight hours a day (no standing desks in this office), I’m reminded that I need to bring my lunch to work to avoid unhealthy eating habits. The inexpensive options near my office are certainly not so healthy–and really, who knows what goes into some of the street food around here. So, I’m better off cooking at home and reheating my lunch in the microwave at work.

Riesling goes quite well with fish cakes

Riesling goes quite well with fish cakes

Unless I’m feeling ambitious, I generally cook variations of a few simple dishes–it requires less prep time and thought. Also, meals of lentil soup (or mung bean soup as the case may be in East Asia), are inexpensive and healthy.

One dish that I enjoy making when I have some extra time is fish cakes. This is a recipe my mother taught me and I adapted. No matter how you alter the recipe, fish cakes are best served with sweet Thai chili sauce, because that sauce is great on almost anything.

The mixture before making them into cakes

The mixture before making them into cakes

Ingredients:
  • 1/2 lb. of fish (flaky white fish like cod or pollock, but I prefer salmon for flavor)
  • 2 medium-sized potatoes (I prefer red potatoes with the skin on, if possible)
  • 1 cup chopped green onion (I’ve also used red onion)
  • 1 egg
  • 3-4 garlic cloves
  • 2 tbsp bread crumbs (optional, but helps with texture)
  • Ginger (optional)
  • Spices (I use chili powder, curry powder, cumin, but basil, oregano, etc. would be good as well)
  • Fresh cilantro (if it suits your taste)
Cooking Instructions:
  1. Cut and boil the potatoes.
  2. When the potatoes are almost soft enough to mash, add the fish to the pot.
  3. After a few minutes, drain the water and mash the potatoes and fish.
  4. Mix in the green onion, garlic, ginger, bread crumbs and spices. Let it cool in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.
  5. Add the egg to hold the fish cakes together.
  6. Heat olive oil in a deep pan (alright, any oil will do, but olive oil is best).
  7. Form fish cakes about 1/2″ thick and the size of your palm.
  8. Fry them in the pan until golden on both sides.

    Cooked this batch with fresh pineapple

    Cooked this batch with fresh pineapple

This should make at least five fish cakes, but sometimes I’ve gotten six to eight because I don’t normally measure. You can freeze the fish cakes and reheat them in an oven, but they are more likely to fall apart.

Let me know how you enjoy this recipe and if you have any suggestions for recipe alterations.

Birthday Borobudur Sunrise

What ever became of my youth?
I wanted to stop a stranger and ask.
“It went into hiding,” said an old woman
Who’d read my mind.
“Swimming with sharks,” a drunk concurred
-Charles Simic, from The Stray

There wasn’t much time to prepare. I had a long overnight layover in Kuala Lumpur on my way to Yogyakarta–a three-day trip that required five days because of travel time.Borobudur-stupa-sunrise

As I was exhausted upon arrival, I figured I’d probably be able to wake up early on my first full day to watch the sunrise at Borobudur, the main reason I chose to visit Yogyakarta. What I didn’t realize was that Borobudur is located about an hour outside the city, meaning I had to leave my hotel almost two hours before sunrise.

First glimpse of the sunrise

First glimpse of the sunrise

This temple visit was different than others. This one was special, not because Borobudur holds great significance to me but because this was the first time I had taken such a trip on my birthday. It was a way to celebrate having a new job for a few months that offered vacation time that I had to use before the end of the year. I had never watched the sunrise (or sunset) on my birthday. This was reason enough for me to drag my butt out of bed at 3:30 in the morning to climb some ancient stairs for a view of the sun breaking through the clouds and mist.Borobudur-mist-2

Borobudur is a 9th century Buddhist temple with nine stacked platforms and huge central dome surrounded by 72 Buddha statues inside stupas–the platforms and central dome represent attaining nirvana. It is the single largest Buddhist temple in the world. For comparison, Angkor Wat dates back to the early 12th century. While the Angkor Wat complex is much larger than Borobudur, no single temple within the complex is as large.borobudur-stupas

The temple was supposedly abandoned around the 14th century as Islam swept across Indonesia. It wasn’t until British rule in the early 19th century that the temple was “rediscovered.” Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the governor of Java, was introduced to the temple by locals, and he shared the information with the world in his book The History of Java in 1817.

Buddha inside the stupa

Buddha inside the stupa

The Indonesian government has made efforts to restore Borobudur to its original glory with the help of UNESCO. Of course, this means that tourists must pay an admission fee, which is quite a bit more expensive for a sunrise visit that includes a very light breakfast on the way out.Borobudur-detail

By the time I reached the top of Borobudur, dawn had broken through the clouds–I wondered why ticket office handed me a flashlight when it was light enough at that hour to see my way (I needed more signs pointing in the right direction for the entrance as I was still rather bleary-eyed).Borobudur-mist

The sun was already high before 5:30–the mountains surrounding the temple were illuminated as I watched the mist hang over the trees and smoke from morning cooking fires rising before the day’s heat settled in. The stones of Borobudur shone brighter as the sun escaped from behind the clouds–the cool morning air with the sun shining through made this sunrise a wonderful birthday gift to myself.

Who needs a selfie stick when your camera has a timer?

Who needs a selfie stick when your camera has a timer?

I sat by a stupa and reflected on turning another year older and considering my theory that birthdays abroad don’t count and, therefore, I’m still only 27 (despite repeatedly celebrating my 25th birthday because it was the last one I celebrated before becoming an expat for the first time).Borobudur-mountains-2

After wandering through the temple in the daylight to take a closer look at the intricate stone carvings that surround this enormous temple, I walked back down to the entrance to have my “free” breakfast (it was part of the inflated admission fee) and a cup of coffee before meeting my driver and heading to a few smaller temples on the way to Prambanan on the other side of Yogyakarta.

Brief Break in Kaohsiung

“To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world.”
― Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children

Adjusting to life as an expat, settled into one place rather than country hopping, can be a slow process. As I’ve been in Taipei for an extended period before, the expat honeymoon phase is long gone and reality has set in for the most part.

That doesn’t mean I’m no longer adjusting to this life and already settled in. Far from it.

Walking through Pier-2 Arts Center with Kaohsiung in the background

Walking through Pier-2 Arts Center with Kaohsiung in the background

Most of the adjusting is with my apartment and making it livable (I finally have a functioning kitchen) and relearning what it’s like to work in an office after 12 years in other jobs. It’s not that I have any problems with editing; it’s that the process at this job is much different, and it’s not an editing process I would choose on my own. Plus I sometimes have to work a half-day on Sundays in addition to my side work. After a little more than a month, I was exhausted.

That’s when my friend, whom I met my first time in Taipei, invited me to Kaohsiung for the weekend. Actually, she ulterior motives–she wanted me to help her move to Kaohsiung before leaving for Canada. While I’m always willing to help a friend, my late shift at work prevented me from helping (though I still moved some boxes when I arrived).

Lotus Pond

Lotus Pond

Early Saturday morning after a slightly stressful week, I got on the high speed rail headed southwest–a journey that took a little less than two hours, during which time I slept instead of reading my new book. There was a sense of excitement and relief as I boarded my train to escape Taipei.

Travel destinations are not always about the place–there’s the experience of a place, which is influenced by our moods and the people around us. Kaohsiung could’ve been the ugliest city in the world, but it would nonetheless be wonderful because of the timing and my friend.

Noodles drying on the roadside. Birds were pecking at it later

Noodles drying on the roadside. Birds were pecking at it later

As we drove around in the car we borrowed from her mom, we talked–there wasn’t much catching up to do, but still plenty to talk about. And I saw another side of my friend in her hometown. There was nostalgia in speech as she pointed out the sights–not tourist attractions, but places from her past like her old home and schools, and parks she visited as a kid.

Kaohsiung's knock-off Transformer. It isn't more than meets the eye.

Kaohsiung’s knock-off Transformer. It isn’t more than meets the eye.

We did stop to see some tourist sights–Lotus Pond, Pier-2 Art Center, and the Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts (all of which I’ll write about soon). And while those tourist sights were great to see, they weren’t the highlight of my brief time away from Taipei.

I’m all for adventure in new destinations, but sometimes it’s better to experience a place through someone else, especially if that someone is a good friend.

Returning to Stable Expat Life

Their baggage
was all in cardboard boxes. The plane was delayed,
the rumor went through the line. We shrugged,
in our hopeless overcoats. Aviation
had never seemed a very natural idea.
-John Updike, Flight to Limbo

I returned to Taipei at the end of July; the sweltering heat and humidity had yet to subside as I arrived at Taoyuan Airport to discover that my luggage hadn’t arrived.

A sign at baggage claim had my seat number listed with a different name next to it—I headed to the EVA Air customer service desk to see what the problem could be. I was informed that my only bag—the suitcase that held all my clothes, toiletries, etc. for my new life in Taiwan—had not made my connecting flight. I had a two-hour layover in San Francisco and United did not transfer my suitcase to my onward flight (never mind that I had to walk across the ENTIRE airport to change planes and I was exhausted because I couldn’t sleep on the Newark-San Francisco flight because of multiple crying children, which added to my bout of jetlag upon arrival in Taipei).Taipei-Street

EVA was kind enough to deliver my suitcase two days later—it took more than 24 hours for United to put it on a flight to Taipei. They also gave me NT$1200 (a little less than US$40) to purchase necessities (United grudgingly offered an apology and said I should request compensation from EVA for United’s failure). I was able to buy a tshirt and underwear at Uniqlo and a cheap towel, deodorant, and toothbrush at the grocery store to help me survive those two days (the towel was most important as I hadn’t showered in 30+ hours). I desperately wanted my shorts from my suitcase as the late-July heat made wearing jeans uncomfortable.

Once I had some clean clothes and a shower, I set out on my adventure to find more permanent accommodations. I knew in desperation I could head back to my previous hostel and save a little money, but I didn’t think it’d be worth the hassle of returning (plus the bed was rather uncomfortable). I managed to find two options rather quickly through a Facebook group. I chose the larger, more expensive apartment in the more convenient neighborhood. We’ll see if I stay long term or break my lease (there’s a clause in it so I can leave early) and search for an upgrade of sorts.

View from my balcony

View from my balcony

Despite some problems with the new apartment (the landlord promised to fix/replace the hot plate a month ago and the washing machine is broken as well), I’ve been happy that it’s the quietest place I’ve been in Taipei (it’s nearly silent in the evening). I also invited a friend from my time in the previous hostel to stay in the extra room so I could save on rent. His friend and business partner even came to live on the couch for a month.

Of course, I haven’t spent that much time doing anything other than sleeping in the apartment since I started working. Not to mention my part-time tutoring to earn a little extra–as I wrote before, the life of an expat is not a permanent vacation. Most of my time has been spent adapting to life in a cubicle farm (what do you mean I have to follow a dress code!?). I realized I haven’t worked in an office in 12 years—that was my first job out of college when I was an assistant editor for a newspaper.

Taipei 101 in the distance from my balcony

Taipei 101 in the distance from my balcony

Adapting to this more stable lifestyle hasn’t been entirely easy, especially since I finished training and now have to work the afternoon-evening shift. It also seems that everyone I’ve known in this city is leaving soon—four friends have either left or are leaving in the next month (and then there are the numerous acquaintances who were only here temporarily to study Chinese–this is a temporary city for many people). I either need to start going out with my coworkers or make new friends in my limited free time.

I’ve also managed to break into the in-flight magazine industry. It’s only a small sidebar article on craft beer in Taiwan, and I have no byline because it was my interview with a beer connoisseur, but it’s still my idea and writing (though it was edited quite a bit for space). You can read it here. I plan to pitch a few more stories before the end of the year to other magazines.

The Pink Panther greeted me near my new office. I have no idea what he was selling.

The Pink Panther greeted me near my new office. I have no idea what he was selling.

Despite the usual hassles and difficulties of starting a new life abroad, it’s the decision I wanted to make. I wouldn’t have been averse to taking a job back home, but I doubt I any job in my field of expertise would pay enough for me to live comfortably. The job I have here in Taipei is a step forward career-wise and affords me the ability to live in relative comfort (although I’m foregoing some comforts in favor of rebuilding my savings for future travels and a new camera). Overall, I think this move was the best decision at this point in my life. Such a move isn’t for everyone–even I have my doubts about it every now and then despite being through it before—but somehow I’ll make it work.