Reflections on Taiwan

Lately I have been focused on endings: the end of a relationship, the end of the school year, the end of my time in Taiwan, and a sick grandmother at home whom I can’t visit because I am halfway around the world. I’ve been tearing up at every little thing. This happened last year around this same time even though I had far fewer changes happening.

That’s the downside of this life – there are lots of endings and lots of good-byes at the end of every year.

But I started randomly reading journals entries from the past few years, and I realized something. I’d forgotten the impetus that brought me to Taiwan to begin with.

Man, I was in a bad place. I was unhappy, and I felt stuck. And, worst of all, I couldn’t see a way out or anything better in my future. So I quit my job.

When I quit my job, I had no idea what I was going to do. I just knew I had to make a change. It took me three months to figure out that I didn’t want to teach in the U.S. and that there were opportunities to teach abroad. It took me another four months to get here.

But I did it.

And the first few months here were hard. I was exhausted and overwhelmed and there were times when I didn’t think I could stick it out, that I could live this life that was so different from what I had at home.

  • I was living in a country where I didn’t speak the language and was at the mercy of people who spoke English or asking for help from people I’d just met at work.
  • I was living in a studio apartment with no kitchen, one tiny window, and a mattress that was hard as a rock.
  • Without a car, I found it hard to shop for anything more than what I could carry plus I had to figure out where to shop. There are very few big box stores here that sell everything.
  • I had a mold issue in my apartment and my shoes were growing mold and I didn’t know if that was normal in Taiwan or what I could do about it and it made me feel dirty.
  • I had baby roaches that woke up at night and crawled around on the floor and I would see them every time I would get up to go to the bathroom and I would lie in bed at night and pretend they didn’t exist. I felt like a little kid again who was afraid that her hands would fall over the edge of the bed and get grabbed by a monster only it was a baby roach that might crawl up my arm and into my ear and lay eggs.
  • I had trouble sleeping at night because that’s when everyone at home was awake, and I was afraid someone would need me and I’d be asleep.
  • I was teaching students who barely spoke English, and I had no Mandarin language skills so getting to know them was impossible and teaching was a challenge.

Yes, these were the crazy and real things that, by month three, were making me wonder if I could do this.

But the idea of going home and leading the life that had been slowly strangling me was far worse.

So I stayed. I spent my weekends literally wandering around and seeing this new world I was living in and taking pictures and reveling in the strangeness that gradually became familiarity. And I got to know people who became close friends who were amazing when I was hospitalized and who went on trips with me and were there for me when I needed them.

And it’s two years later, and I have to say good-bye to a city I have come to love and people I have come to think of as another family and it’s hard. But I am so grateful that I have had these experiences and met all of these people who will forever be in my heart and have memories that will last a lifetime.

On top of that, I now see three or four different futures that all seem equally as good. I wish I had more than one lifetime to do all the things I dream of and now believe possible.

I couldn’t have known where I would be today when I got on that plane two years ago, but I am so glad I didn’t allow that to hold me back. I honestly have no idea where I’ll be in five years, but I know I’ll be in China for the next two – and I can’t wait to see what happens next!

Keep Dreaming

I was talking to my friend Holly the other night about growing older and dreams and regrets. Holly and I have been friends since were 15 and are now in our mid-40s. Both of us are only just starting to figure out how to attain the things we’ve dreamed of our entire lives and, although we are pursuing it, the self-doubt and the self-hate chases behind.

Am I too old? Is it too late? Why didn’t I do this before? Why did it take me so long to figure all this out? Is it worth it at this point in my life?

Am I too old?

I’ve literally been asking myself this question about decisions for the past 10 years, and I wouldn’t be where I am today if I had ever considered the answer “yes.” The best thing my mother ever told me was this, “You are going to be xyz years old anyway. Why not be there with whatever it is you want to achieve as well?” I tell myself this all the time when I question my age.

Is it too late?

The only time it will be too late to do something is when I’m in my grave. Yes, naturally, there are things that it may be too late to do in a traditional sense – such as having a biological child for a woman. But it may not be too late to get a child some other way at any age. There are no obstacles except the ones we place on ourselves. If we are open-minded and creative about achieving our dreams, anything truly is possible. Sometimes you just have to step outside the box you may have built yourself and consider another angle.

Why has it taken me so long to figure all this out?

This is probably the most difficult question, but looking back in regret only slows you down. The one thing I know above all else is that everyone’s journey is different. Embrace your path and don’t compare your journey to anyone else’s. This isn’t easy, but it’s necessary to move forward. If you are ready now, then now is the right time for you. Go for it!

Is it worth it at this point in my life?

I don’t know. Is it? When you look back on your life, do you want to see that you went for it or is there something else you’d rather do? You have to decide how important this goal is to you. If you think it’s worth it, don’t let anyone tell you differently. Take charge of your own life, and decide if YOU are worth it.

 

If we stop focusing on that one dream that got away instead of thinking of our lives as a journey with many pit-stops and dreams and beautiful people along the way then, yeah, it’s easy to get stuck in the tar-filled pit of regret and bitterness. But the journey isn’t over until you can’t do anymore.

Keep going, keep trying, keep dreaming, and appreciate the little things along the way because, believe it or not, they are all taking you to the right place even if it seems like it’s taking a really long time.

When I feel like I should give up – a) I get a sick feeling in my stomach and b) I picture myself giving up an inch from the surface and drowning, not realizing that I was almost there.

What if you’re an inch from that dream, and you give up?

Keep going. Keep trying. Keep dreaming.

Because you might only have another inch to go.

Sanben Ramen: A Review

Sanben Ramen is a vegetarian ramen restaurant in the Zhongshan District in Taipei. One of my friends, Blair, happened to pass by it on a walk and, knowing I was now looking for vegetarian places to eat, discovered it had an English menu and great reviews online. We decided to check it out last night.

We arrived around 6:30 pm without a reservation and were immediately seated. The waitstaff had limited English but enough to get by and were extremely attentive throughout our meal. We were served hot tea while we perused the menu.

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The menu is not huge but has a nice variety of options. There are five options of very different ramen dishes: Japanese curry, sweet tomato, miso, vegetable broth, and flaming. In addition, there is the option of rice dishes or skewers for your main dish if ramen isn’t what you want. I selected the curry ramen and Blair chose the Japanese miso.

There are also a variety of side dishes such as golden kimchi, deep fried tofu, crispy burdock chip, daikon with miso brulee, and stir-fried organic vegetables. We selected the deep fried tofu and crispy burdock. There are fruity tea and juices for drinks, but we stuck with the hot tea. I didn’t see any alcoholic options.

We got our soup first. The bowls are large but shallow; however, it’s enough that neither one of us could finish ours. My curry broth was light but still had a strong Japanese curry flavor. There were three different kinds of mushroom in the dish along with a green vegetable, one tiny tomato, seaweed, two large squares of firm tofu, and half of a soft-boiled egg for additional texture and flavor. Blair’s Japanese miso broth was also very light and her soup had two different kinds of mushrooms, a green vegetable, corn, one tiny tomato, seaweed, two squares of the same tofu, and half of a soft-boiled egg. The noodles are thin, the size of regular spaghetti noodles, and made in-house.

Our two side dishes came out next: the deep fried tofu and crispy burdock chip. Both of these dishes were delicious! The deep fried tofu had some crisp on the outside but soft tofu inside; it was very different than the tofu that came in our soup. The crispy burdock chips had the texture of chips flavored with seaweed, salt, pepper, and sesame seeds. I could eat them any time, any where. The crunch and flavor was very satisfying.

I honestly have no suggestions for improvement. Our food was delicious and the service exceptional. I can’t wait to go back and would recommend this to anyone who loves ramen!

Taiwan: Taipei Zoo

Yesterday Blair and I went to Taipei Zoo. It took me over a year to get there because I have mixed feelings about zoos. On the one hand, I understand that they do important work in conservation, education, and research. On the other hand, I know that not every zoo does a great job of providing quality environments for the animals and that breaks my heart. Regardless, I visited the zoo yesterday and had mixed reactions.

The Taipei Zoo just celebrated its 103rd birthday. On their website, they state that they are “committed…to serving as a leader in environmental education and wildlife conservation.” I believe that most zoos do their best in taking care of the animals and kept this in mind throughout the afternoon.

We got there around 1:30 pm. It’s easy to get to, being the last stop on Wenhu (brown) line, and only costs 60 NT (about $2 US) to get in if you use your EasyCard and only 90 NT (about $3 US) to pay cash. Using the EasyCard gets you in a lot faster as well so use that if you can.

Apparently, the zoo is the place to be on a sunny Sunday! Since it is very inexpensive to get in and is in such a scenic area, people must have decided it was a good way to spend time as a family. There were too many people, many of the little people variety who needed strollers and took up too much sidewalk space. We tried to be understanding but knew we weren’t going to make it long. So we set up a plan to see certain animals and set out.

The koalas were the first animals we saw, and I’ll admit that I squealed and practically jumped up and down in excitement. They are so cute! After a few minutes, I got upset because I thought their enclosures were way too small and felt sorry that they were on display the way they were. But they are adorable.

The pandas were not out, and there was a long line to go indoors to see them. We moved on. We saw African elephants, zebras, orangutans, turtles, hippos, white rhinos, giraffes, camels, donkeys, chimpanzees, antelopes, and a gorilla while dodging people and avoiding some of the more congested areas.

Most of the enclosures appeared to be fine, and there are areas for all that I cannot see. The gorilla and the elephants broke my heart more than any others. They are such intelligent creatures and their enclosures did not appear to offer the stimulation they need. They stared at the people staring at them and taking pictures and laughing and were just sad.

The setting for this zoo is one of the most beautiful I have ever been to with the backdrop of Maokong Mountain, but I’m not sure the enclosures are as good as they should be. I may go back when it is less crowded so I can see the other animals they have, and I may have a different experience then. For now, I am happy I had a beautiful day at the zoo with my friend; that I had the opportunity to visit these animals; and will hope they are being cared for the way they should.

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Live a Deliberate Life

Three outlandish wishes today:

  1. I want make a living on my writing and photography.
  2. I want to travel the world.
  3. I want a family.
  4. I want all of my loved ones to be safe, happy, and healthy.

Okay, I made four. The first three are selfish ones focused on me – ha, ha! It’s the three things I want the most. The last one, though, is the most important. I want everyone I love to be safe, happy, and healthy.

I’m really struggling right now trying to figure out what I want most so this was a good exercise to think about. On the one hand, I want to continue to be selfish and on my own and travel and take pictures. But, in many ways, this is a very empty life. In 20 years, what will I have to show for it? Just a lot of pictures and maybe some friends and some writing. I’m not saying I don’t think it’s worth it, but life is about friends and family. I want a family.

With that, though, I still want to write and travel and take pictures as well. But, mostly, I want people to love who love me back and support me and vice-versa. Life is nothing without goals and without a purpose. Family and loved ones give an obvious and important focus.

I have been thinking a lot about when I first graduated from college and got a job in purchasing. Man, that was a boring job. I came home from work after a month or so and asked my mom, “Is this it? Is this life?” She said, “Yeah. This is it.” I thought that was incredibly depressing. I mean, we just got up and went to work every day then made dinner, watched tv or worked out, went to bed and did the same thing all over again the next day. It sounded horrible.

But she was right.

And she was wrong.

Yes, life is an endless cycle of work, errands, sleep, and meals. But it’s up to each of us to imbue meaning into every day. Smile at someone. Listen to someone. Have a goal for a promotion or to learn a new skill or make a new friend. Volunteer. Spend time with friends. Find a reason to laugh.

That’s the lesson I’ve learned over time. Not every job is going to one we feel passionately about or be something we want to do – but every job should meet a need. That need may be as simple and important as paying the bills. If that’s the case then find meaning elsewhere. Use that job to pay the bills and put a few dollars aside, if possible, to save for a fun night out with friends or a gift for a loved one. Or use your free time to visit someone in the hospital or mow the lawn for your dad or cook dinner for a friend or knit a hat for a cancer patient.

Live a deliberate life. Know why you work. Know what you want to accomplish. Know how you want to feel every day and what it takes to make that happen.

Every day is a new beginning, not part of an endlessly dreary cycle. It’s a chance to make your piece of the world a little better. You may not do something big that saves the world in an obvious way, but everything creates a ripple. And the ripple you create could save the world in such a subtle way that you never even know. So be your own hero every day by living life with joy and purpose.

Taiwan: Danshui, Fisherman’s Wharf, Treasure Hill, The Grand Hotel, Yangmingshan National Park

I’ve been in Taiwan for five months now. It’s gone by so fast and yet, in some ways, it feels like I’ve been here forever. Since this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, I have been visiting places in Taipei that are listed as “must see” spots. I’ve been to the following over the past few months: Danshui, Treasure Hill, the Grand Hotel, and Yangmingshan National Park. I’ve even been to a hospital although that was left off the “must see” list. I can’t imagine why!

Danshui/Tamsui is only a 20-30 minute MRT trip from my apartment. The day Jon and I went was overcast and rainy. The area where we started, Danshui Old Street, has cobblestone roads and a quaint feel. It is right on the water with a volcano on the opposite side – an impressive view even with the fog from the rainy day. There were colorful, wooden boats lining the coastline, ferry boats and fishing boats cruising slowly past.

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There were vendors with carts, small restaurants and small shops away from the water. They were selling fried calamari, fried mushrooms, and other types of seafood. Everything appeared fresh and enticing. As we walked away from Danshui toward Fisherman’s Wharf, the scenery changed to seaside cafes. I could’ve been anywhere in the world. Other than some Chinese characters on signs, there was nothing Asian about the area where we were walking. Trees grew out of the stone walls and water slammed against the shore, spraying up on bridges and café porches. Pedestrians, bicycles, scooters and cars kept the area lively but not too crowded.

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Fisherman’s Wharf
was busier. We walked over the Lover Bridge of Tamsui, a Subway sign the first sight then a tour bus that pulled up near the restrooms. Anything worth taking pictures of was covered with people posing and taking any shot they could get. Even crossing the bridge was an obstacle course of people staring up at the bridge to get the best shot. I’ll admit that I did pause to take one, but I didn’t linger long.

We had a beer at a café outside on the water then headed to Din Tai Fung for the “must eat” pork xiaolongbao or soup dumplings. They were worth all the rave reviews I’ve read about them. They have a very thin skin that bursts in your mouth, flooding it with the savory soup and minced pork inside. Absolutely delicious along with a unique experience – but make sure they aren’t too hot or you will burn your mouth!

Treasure Hill was far more interesting than I expected although be prepared to walk up a lot of stairs as you explore. Originally a settlement of military veterans, it is now an artist’s community. The settlement is tucked into a mountain with all these rooms off stairs and built with a maze-like feel. There were old people shuffling around inside rooms right next to shops selling metal jewelry or paintings so you never knew what you’d find around the next corner.

I didn’t know much about it before I went, and the most interesting part for me was a documentary randomly shown in one of the rooms. It didn’t hurt that they showed the documentary in a cool, air-conditioned room on a very hot day, but I enjoyed learning about the place. Like most of Taiwan, their history seems closer to them somehow. I think they work harder to preserve it and retain it than we do in the US. I walked away feeling thoughtful and humbled by how easy my life is.

The Grand Hotel is grand indeed. The architecture on the outside is a stereotypical Chinese building. I pass by the hotel every day on my way to work and, the first few weeks, I would strain for a view of it every morning. It is awe-inspiring. The inside is just as good. The detail in the carvings and the designs just blow my mind. I’ve heard that there are comments that the building is outdated, but I wouldn’t change anything. The history brings even more beauty to an architecture that is not considered modern but deserves respect. We didn’t eat there, but that is on my “must do” list as well so I’ll be back! They have an afternoon tea that I want to try.

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Yangmingshan National Park: I didn’t even know that’s where I was headed as we got off in Beitou. It wasn’t until later that I realized we were on one of the many, many trails in the park. The hike was a killer on my legs as I am not in hiking shape, but it was worth the views. I’m not sure my hiking partner, Jon, would agree with me as he had to keep waiting on me to catch up, but I loved it! The trees, the foliage, the people, the hidden stone building falling down off the beaten path, the vegetable stands popping up occasionally on the side – it was peaceful and relaxing (when I ignored the burning in my thighs!). If you are interested in more details about how to get to this trail or what some of the trees are, visit Jon’s blog. I’m more like, “Oh, pretty” then I move on.

Although I am trying to see as much as I can, I have been doing less sight-seeing in the last month than when I first got here. I am finally settling in and have realized that, as much as I enjoy the sight-seeing, I also need to enjoy the day-to-day. Everything is a different experience than in the US. Some things are finally becoming mundane, and I’m noticing far less of the day-to-day than I was because it is becoming ordinary to me. That’s both good and bad. I don’t want to lose the awe I felt when I first came so I keep reminding myself to look around and not get stuck too much in a routine. Every moment of every day offers something new if I just look for it.

Now that we’ve kicked 2016 off, I am looking toward the year ahead with excitement and wonder what I will see around the next corner. For this year, I’m leaving exact planning on the side of the road and heading off to explore the known and the unknown. I’m learning that even the familiar can bring new things if I look for them.

What do you hope to see this year?

Taiwan: Elephant Mountain

I made it to Elephant Mountain today. I’ve been talking about going since the first week I got here as the pictures I saw of the city from the top of the climb inspired me. Despite someone telling me it was an easy 15 minute climb, I found the steepness a bit challenging. Stopping to take pictures along the way helped, but there were a lot of people all around me so I couldn’t stop for long. There was an older guy with a cane (I kid you not) who passed me and put me to shame on the climb up.

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The people climbing with me were a diverse group. They were wearing everything from high heels to running shoes, had age differences from small children to older people, and I heard at least four different languages being spoken. There were locals there for a good workout, another older man running down backward (again, I kid not), and a lot of tourists there to take selfies as well as professional shots of the city from the top of the mountain or on top of rocks on top of the mountain.

Taipei 101 Elephant Mtn View

It was a foggy day so my shots aren’t that great.

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One of my favorite climbers was a young woman wearing high heels, panty hose, dressy shorts, and a lacy blouse. I thought she was crazy to be dressed that way, and I could tell she was struggling on the stairs. At the top, I saw her boyfriend and her taking selfies with Taipei 101 in the background, and she looked beautiful. No one would know from the pictures how humid it was or that she had hiked up 300 steep stairs a few minutes before.

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I also got to eavesdrop on several interesting conversations. One guy who was from South Africa suggested they put in a slide to get down the mountain (which would be awesome). I had to laugh when I heard his idea – especially when he said it could be a water slide when it rained. It was fun to be able to eavesdrop as most of the conversations around me these days are incomprehensible to me.

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Since I had barely eaten all day, I went for food at the nearby shopping center – ATT4Fun. I found a Chili’s – one of my favorite restaurants from home – and got the comfortable feeling of the familiar when I saw the menu and ordered the avocado burger. It was excellent – and so was the service there. Then I followed it up with something new – popcorn ice cream from a company called Unicorn. I’d never heard of the company or the dessert, but the display and presentation of their products was very classy and pretty. I had to try it. Wouldn’t you?

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