Sunday, October 21, 2007

There's No Place Like Home

I'm back from my short trip to Japan, with a new visa in hand (multiple-entry, good through April 2008, extendable), and it's so nice to be back home in Taiwan. I like Japan, don't get me wrong, but this is truly home and I missed it.

I arrived at Kansai Airport in Osaka the evening of October 14, where I spent a good 45 minutes in line at immigration. They were moving folks through quickly, but there were hundreds of passengers. My dear friend Kayun was there waiting for me, though, with a big smile on her face. After a bit of discussion with a not-too-friendly clerk at the counter and at Kayun's urging, I bought a three-day Kansai Thru Pass which was supposedly good on all the subway and rail systems in the area, unlimited rides to anywhere, plus some discounts at tourist attractions, for about $44US. Now, I usually only spend around that same amount for a whole month of travel on Taipei's system, so I was a bit shocked. Kayun and I both kinda figured that three days was like 72 hours, beginning the first time I used the pass, which was for the 15-minute ride from the station where the airport bus dropped us to her house, and that I'd be using it up through Wednesday evening. Nope, wrong. I got two days of travel out of it, because the first "day" was that 15-minute ride! And it turned out that I couldn't use it on one of the main systems, either! I therefore ended up spending another $21US to see me through the two other days. That was my biggest trip expense - $65US on subway/rail fees plus $40US on the airport bus. Crazy. I guess one must pay for punctuality - you can set your watch by the transit system in Japan, truly amazing.

Luke and Kayun have a nice little apartment located in the country-like suburbs. The neighborhood is quiet, with small rice paddies and gorgeous trees and flowers. I was totally impressed with Japanese toilets and thought the shower area was really interesting. Luke and Kayun don't have a lot of space, but they make the most of it, and Kayun keeps it all sparkling clean. I slept on a comfortable sofa in a little room with a sliding door, and it was sooo quiet at night, not used to that!

Got up bright and early Monday morning, because Luke was taking me to the visa office before he went on to his school. Kayun rode with us on her way to her Japanese classes (every day from 10:00 a.m. to 2:35 p.m.), and Luke and I continued on to Umeda Station, where we had to switch trains. The subway/rail system in Osaka is so ridiculously complicated that one could never, ever find one's way alone. We got off one train, walked a long, long way underground to a different station, and took a different line to a station close to where we needed to go. After I submitted my application, Luke left me at that station, and I decided to explore a bit. Yeah, I explored all right, the underground shopping area that stretches for miles in many directions with confusing signs and no one who speaks English! I was starving, hadn't eaten a thing, so I ducked into a Doufor Coffee for a bite. Part of the menu had photos, so I could pick out a sandwich, but the rest was all in Japanese. I can read it if they use the traditional Chinese characters (kanji), but if they use katakana (used for words that come from foreign places) and hiragana, which they normally do, I can't read a thing. So, I'm trying to ask what kind of cold drinks they have, and the guy points to the Japanese menu. I mutter in Chinese, "But I can't read Japanese." and the girl next to the guy says, in Chinese, "Wow, you speak Chinese!" What a blessing - she was from Fujian, China, and she got me my orange juice. Turns out she is also a Wu Bai fan, so it was fun chatting a bit to her.

After I left there it took me at least 45 minutes to find my way back to the station I needed in order to get to Osaka Castle. I was exhausted when I got there and still had a bit of a walk to get to the castle itself. The park is huge (and Blogger is having photo issues now, so you'll just have to click the links to get to the pix, and then you can see all the other ones, too), very quiet and beautiful. Actually, most of Osaka was very quiet and beautiful, and unbelievably clean. I found a spot to sit and rest for awhile and then continued on to the castle area. Swarming with grade-school kids, it was, as well as high schoolers. Seems to be my luck that any time I visit a museum, I can't see anything because there are hoardes of children blocking the view. The castle itself was packed from top to bottom, but I still went in and all the way to the top for the view. I like the way this building gives the illusion one can see through it.

Kayun called after she got out of class, and we made plans to meet back at the station near her house. Took me forever to get there, as I got lost under Umeda Station again, but I finally showed up. We went for dinner at a great place that had salad bar and fresh bread for about $9US (and Kayun treated). The bread, OMG, the bread! A waitress with a huge basket of various slices of bread made the rounds, and we got to eat a lot. There was this one kind that had figs and nuts in it, totally divine. I do miss good bread, which is next to impossible to find in Taiwan. The Taiwanese like bread the texture of Wonder Bread and about as flavorful, it's just nasty. I brought back two half-loaves from this bakery, the fig one and another swirl type that is just lucious. Probably have them totally gone by tomorrow! The salad bar wasn't like US salad bars, as it actually featured various types of pre-made salads, all very good and probably even healthy. Before dinner we had gone to the grocery store across the street, where I was shocked at the prices for fresh fruit. Actually, lots of prices were very high, and Japanese beer turns out to be more expensive in Japan than in Taiwan because of their taxes. Made the delightful discovery that there's a Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop near Kayun's home, so we indulged ourselves there, too. Oh man, it's been a long time since I had Jamoca Almond Fudge ice cream! Cost me $3US for their "king-sized" scoop, but I didn't mind paying that. Went back the next day, too, ha.

Tuesday it was up early again and out of the house with Kayun, because I didn't think I could find my way to the station without her. I planned to pick up my visa and then explore a bit on my own before meeting Kayun after her class. Got the visa no problem, but once again ended up wandering around underground, searching for a place my little Kansai Thru Pass guidebook mentioned. Never found it. Finally decided I'd rather just go early to the station where I was meeting Kayun and look around there. Found the airport bus station there and checked what time I'd have to be there Friday morning (7:55 a.m.), looked around the area a bit, then found a Starbucks and sat reading my Chinese book and waiting for Kayun. When she got there, we headed for Kobe for the evening, where we ended up eating in Chinatown, because it's one of the few places a vegetarian like Kayun can manage to find food without meat in it. I got a small plate of guo tie (potstickers) that would have cost me $1.50US in Taiwan but was $5US in Japan (and not as tasty). Then we walked to the harbor area, arriving just as the sun was vanishing for good. Everything was decorated for Halloween, and we just wandered around the shops (best find, the Ghibli Studios shop - Totoro everywhere!) enjoying the evening.

Wednesday, and yet another early rise and out the door, this time to meet Kieko in Nara. This time I didn't get lost at Umeda, because Kayun was with me, on her way to the China embassy to apply for a visa for her Shanghai trip. We parted ways before Namba Station, and there I managed to find the right train for Nara, arriving much later than I'd expected, causing poor Kieko to wait about an hour for me at Starbucks. She's a good sport, though, and wasn't angry about that. We wandered a shopping district for a bit, looking for a reasonably priced place for lunch, found one that wasn't bad, ate and chatted, then headed for Nara Park, home of the sacred deer, which terrify Kieko. Seems she was chased by them when she was a child, so now she doesn't care much for them. They are pushy little things, that's for sure. You can buy deer food for them, flat crackers that are yucky (yeah, I tried 'em) but they love them. The deer will bow their heads to you, and then you feed them.....and then you're surrounding by a troupe of bowing, butting, biting deer. They'll tug on your clothes and get deer snot all over you, but they're so cute! Watch this movie, then pop on over to YouTube for two others, including a mating season battle.

Nara Park is also huge, and there are so many wonderful shrines and temples. We walked and walked and walked, took some rest and ate ice cream (mango for me and "some kind of citrus" for Kieko). The deer are everywhere in the park, and the deer poopie is also everywhere, but as soon as they let fly, some little lady comes out with a broom and dustpan and sweeps it up (at least, in front of the shops they do). I bought some Deer Poopie Chocolates to give to a friend, just chocolate covered peanuts, but they do look almost exactly like what was emerging from the deer's hind ends.....yum. After we left the deer park, we walked around other parts of the area to view other shrines. It's so pretty everywhere, even the manhole covers in Japan are artistic. We walked until we could walk no more (well, I couldn't, maybe Kieko could have), then found a place for coffee and chat. Finally, I had to leave for the two-hour trip back to Kayun and Luke's, so Kieko and I parted. I hope she'll come back to Taiwan for a visit - I miss her!

Luke was already home when I arrived (normally he gets in after 9:00 p.m., poor guy, long hours), and Kayun had made quesadillas, saving one for me. Damn, it was so delicious! She's really a good cook, that girl, using sausage, pork, and gouda cheese to create a uniquely flavored quesadilla. And there was enough for me to have one for lunch on Thursday, too. I definitely need to make a trip to Costco here for salsa and tortillas to make my own Kayunsadillas!

I spent most of that day hanging around at their place, relaxing, finally sleeping in until 8:45 a.m. I went to the 100 Yen Store (awesome shop, so many cool things for only $.87US, wow!) and walked around the neighborhood. I was meeting Kayun in Takarazuka City at 4:00 p.m., so I headed out early to give myself some time to check it out on my own. Lovely little town, home to the Takarazuka Revue , an all-female musical theater troupe. I strolled along the flower road to the river and across, then back to the station, meeting Kayun and walking back along the same route I'd taken, but then in another direction for a different part of town. Honestly, by this time I was pretty tired of walking, so after hitting the 99 Yen Store (one yen cheaper!) for groceries for Kayun, we took a cab back to the station, caught a train back to her house, and met up with Luke for dinner. He treated us to all-you-can-eat BBQ (meat for us, curry and veggies for Kayun), and we were the only customers in the whole place. This was the kind of place where you cook your own stuff on the grill set into the table, and they offered all kinds of beef cuts, some marinated, some not, and chicken and perhaps pork, too. Plus sushi, desserts, curry, takoyaki (not as good as the stuff sold close to Kayun's house), chicken nuggets, too many things to even remember. It was a lot more expensive than the same type of place in Taiwan ( about $18US per person versus about $9US in Taiwan), and we thought it was good, but Luke said the Japanese are picky about quality and likely the reason there were no other customers was that this was not a good place!

Friday morning it was up at 6:00 a.m., to the bus by 7:55 a.m., sad parting from Kayun, and a 90-minute ride to the airport. I was on Cathay Pacific for this trip, nice airline, decent food, very comfy seats - and punctual, too. When I got back to Taoyuan International Airport at 1:15 p.m., I was shocked to see no lines at immigration! I was able to walk right up to the counter and got through in less than two minutes. That has never happened before. Caught the bus back and was home by 3:30 or so, I think. DZ was so happy to see me, and she didn't seem as distressed as she'd been the last time I was gone for a long time. Guess she has now realized that I will eventually come back, so she doesn't panic.

Japan: quiet, clean, good air quality, cars that yield to pedestrians, people who actually wait for passengers to get off the train before trying to get on, coffee shops playing quiet background music. Taiwan: noisy, not so clean, air full of smoke from people burning ghost money, cars that try their best to run you over in a crosswalk, people who push and shove to scramble onto the train hoping for a seat, coffee shops blasting music so loud one must yell to be heard across a table.

Japan: somber people dressed in neutral tones, homes that are beautiful and serene but lifeless, residential streets that have no people in the evenings, old people standing on trains because they get insulted if someone would offer a seat, silent subways and railways packed with people afraid to look at one another. Taiwan: people dressed in a riot of mismatched colors and patterns; homes that are decorated with colorful banners and plants - and laundry drying on the balcony; residential streets full of life - kids, dogs, chatting neighbors; people more often than not yielding their seat to older folks and them grateful for it; trains crowded with laughing, happy people madly chatting away to each other.

Japan: a nice place to visit, but wouldn't want to live there. Taiwan: full of life and loudness, annoying at times but oh-so-preferable to a life of stilted politeness. This is my home, and I love it.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Japan Ho!

Having survived both Super Typhoon Krosa (which really pounded us) and the last hectic week of the semester (3 tests), I am now ready for my trip to Japan. I'm leaving on Sunday the 14th on a 4:00 p.m. flight, which puts me in Osaka at 7:40 p.m. I have all my visa application documents ready to go, including incredibly bad photos taken at the automatic photo both last week, right after I had my hair cut. Scary, really scary. In the mirror I don't look so old, but in photos? OMG. It sucks when your only choices are 1) be fat and look younger or 2) be thinner and look old. I'm not sure I want to continue to lose weight now!

I spent over six hours on my day off Wednesday preparing for my semester final, and it paid off. I got a 93 on it! And miracle of miracles, the test on Monday, where the teacher reads sentences and we have to write the Chinese correctly - for the first time I got them all right! I used to get 100% on the tests Miss Wang gave, because she didn't use words I hardly ever write, but Miss Cao is always using weird words that we've forgotten how to write. So I was dancing around the classroom after that one, yelling "終於!" That means, "Finally!"

I've been looking over my tests for the semester, and I did well on all but one. Scores are:
89, 89, 95, 97, 92, 89, 80, 92, 95, 89, and 93. Those scores plus the fact that I turned in every bit of the homework, and some extra stuff on top, will hopefully get me a high final score, which I need for the next scholarship application. The teacher wrote me a very nice letter to take to the visa office, telling them how studious and self-motivated I am and what a pleasure it is to have such a great student. :) I felt warm and fluffy all over when I read it. So yeah, visa office, I'm a good girl and study hard, please let me continue!

So there I was Wednesday evening, studying hard, when I got a phone call from Natari. She said my landlady called her (she signed the original contract) and said I have to move, because her family is moving back to this apartment. Now, I've been talking about moving for some time, because those little shits upstairs are still incredibly noisy and annoying, and I've been thinking I should find a cheaper place anyway. But now that I have no choice, I'm a bit sad! I really love this apartment and the location. Hopefully I can find something just as nice in this area, maybe for less. My friends are helping me look around online, so I expect when I get back from Japan I'll start going to check out places. My contract is through March 6, but the landlady said I can move sooner if I want, and she won't keep my deposit. It sounds as if she'd prefer the sooner the better, so I'll try to oblige. Sorry to everyone who didn't have a chance to visit me yet, because I may not have much room in the new place, and visiting me may not be nearly as comfortable as it is now! But hey, ya'll had your chance, so pfffft to you. :)

Autumn is finally here, with lovely cool weather that has the Taiwanese wearing jackets and sweaters and me still working up a sweat after walking for a few minutes. But the breezes are nice and the evenings are lovely. This year perhaps we'll have a proper winter, since we sure didn't last year.

Charlene and I decided we're going to Hualian for the Wu Bai & China Blue concert, trading the two tickets I have and can't sell for two Hualian ones. She found a hostel for $37US a night, and split between us that's cheap. The train fare is $24US, not bad. Charlene will buy one of my tickets, and my total cost to attend this show will be $127. I'd rather pay that than return the tickets for only a 70% refund! I mean, what the hell, I'm here in Taiwan, I might as well attend every concert I can, right? Charlene and I joked that we'll just eat instant noodles for a few weeks, ha. So, wow, four Wu Bai and China Blue concerts coming up, how great!

Hopefully I'll have some fun stuff to write about Japan after I get back, and some photos to share.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Getting Krosa to You

Once again we have a super typhoon paying a weekend visit. This time it's Krosa, and it's been krosing in on us for a few days, putting panic into the hearts of many, who say it's one of the biggest, baddest storms in the last 100 years. Jury's still out on that one, since it seems to me that typhoons in Taiwan always remind me of the little boy who cried "Wolf!" all the time. However, it's better to be prepared, so I have a bathtub full of water to use for flushing toilets should our water supply be cut off (apparently this happens) and boiled water to make coffee and for drinking. I think the water problems are more apt to happen in areas like Taichung, though. We had a typhoon on September 17, and everyone got the day off work and school. It hardly even rained in my area and it was sunny most of the day! The wind was howling at times, but not that bad. Didn't even stop the workers from continuing on the buildings that are going up close by.

So, right now I have rain, rain, rain, and then there's a little rain on top of that. Wind is still pretty mild, but I don't guess I'll be hanging my laundry on the balcony to dry today. Nope, the dryer will be put into use (as long as the electricity doesn't go out).

Next week is the last of the semester. Wednesday is a national holiday. Monday I have a small test, Tuesday I have a bigger test, and Thursday I have my semester final. Gee, the teacher just loves tests! We had a four-day holiday for Mid-Autumn Festival, Saturday through Tuesday. The Friday before she gave us four pages of homework to complete and told us we'd have a test on the first day back. So, I spent most of my holiday time studying. Paid off, though, because I did well on the test. I have no idea which teacher I'll have next semester and what the textbook will be like. Part of me is hoping for less homework, but another part of me knows that being pushed is good for me and helps me make progress. I'm a lazy soul and if no one prods me, I tend to not do anything on my own.

I still haven't gotten a working ATM card. The password never did arrive for the first one, so the bank cancelled that one and issued a new card pre-pinned with a password I'd selected. That one arrived, but when I tried to use it at the bank, no luck. Wrote back to the bank asking what the problem was, and got the reply that apparently foreign banks don't accept US cards with passwords beginning in zero! Would have been nice for both me and the patient woman who's been helping me to have this knowledge in advance. So, she sent yet another card, pre-pinned with a different password that I know. That was on 9/21, and it's still not here. What worries me is that I just received my September credit card statement, and stamped on the front was "Missent to Bangkok Thailand." Oh, hooray for the US postal service, which doesn't know one country from another! My friend Wendy, who works for the USPS, once mailed a package to Nigeria. It got sent to Nicaragua instead and took a whole year to finally get to Nigeria! So who the hell knows if my ATM card ended up in Thailand? Thankfully the card for the second account is still working, or I'd be SOL for sure.

My trip to Japan is set for October 14 through 19. I'll arrive very late on the 14th and will return on a 1:00 p.m. flight on the 19th, so really I'll just have four days there, and two of those will be used for visa application and (hopefully) pickup. Kayun is so sweet, she's going to meet me at the airport because she's worried I'll get lost. I think I'd be OK, but it will be nice to have someone to talk to on the hour ride to her part of town. I'll meet up with Kieko, too, and might spend one night in Kyoto at a guest house that's pretty cheap. I'm not looking forward to spending all the money for this, but I need the visa, and the Hong Kong office most likely won't give me one, so it's to Japan I go. And of course I'm very happy about seeing Luke, Kayun, and Kieko!

I'm still on the diet, but I haven't lost much more. The total lost is 9kg, not too bad, but for the last two weeks I haven't gotten as much exercise as I'd like, so the weight ain't budging. Nat and Charlene are doing so well on the Herbalife diet that I'm tempted to try, but I don't think I have the discipline to not eat in the evenings. We'll see, maybe I'll try it for a month or something.

I'm really bummed that Carol can't come for the Wu Bai concerts. Now I need to sell the tickets I got for her, and if I can't, Charlene and I might just go to the Hualien show, because we can exchange the tix for that venue. Originally, we had decided it would just be too expensive, because there's no way to get back at night and we'd have the expense of the hotel. But what the heck, we may do it anyway. If I return the tickets for a refund, I only get back 70% of the cost, so I kinda hate to do that. And besides, I've never been to Hualien yet! But dang, I really wish Carol could have come, since I didn't have a chance to see her when I went back to the US last year, and it's been five years since she's been to Taiwan for a Wu Bai concert!

Another friend, Krista, is mulling over the idea of perhaps coming for a visit during Chinese New Year. I have two weeks off, and even though so many places are closed, there's still a lot to do and see. She thinks perhaps she could come during the last week and then stay on a bit longer when things are back to normal. It sure would be nice to have company, because I'm always so bored then. Maybe I can talk Cheryl into coming over for the first week! Or maybe I can actually go to Hong Kong to see her (depends on what sort of visa I can get).

My friend Ye Ying, who went to Leiden, Holland, to study is finding that the Dutch are not very friendly. Her boyfriend, Xuan Yi, went with her and stayed a couple of weeks, and they traveled to Brussels and to Amsterdam, and he said they ran into some incredibly rude people. It's quite sad, really. I find the Taiwan people so friendly and helpful, always willing to assist me, asking me if I'm lost if I'm looking at a map at the MRT station or on the street. I recall how the first time I needed to take the airport bus from Minquan W. Rd. station, and I couldn't figure out where it was, a complete stranger went out of her way to walk with me and ask people where the bus stop was, making sure I got on the right bus before going on with her own business. I hope Ye Ying will soon be accustomed to the unfriendly atmosphere in Leiden and not let it bother her so much.

I miss my language exchanges sessions with Ye Ying, and next week will be the last language exchange I have with Xuan Yi, because now that he has graduated, he needs to move out of the dorm and go back to Tainan. Then he needs to do his army service before looking for a job. He's going to help me find a new partner. I get to see Shannon sporadically, which is nice, but she's working every single day, not even one day that's completely free, so it's not easy. She's going to spend the night Tuesday, since we have Wednesday off, and that should be some fun (but I have to spend a lot of time Wednesday afternoon and evening studying for my final!).

My Wednesday afternoon brother and sister students flaked out. Pisses me off, because I met with them first, told them that learning English wasn't something that could be done in a once-a-week, one-hour lesson! I told them they'd need to spend time themselves working on it. The brother is just too busy with his business, and since he was paying for the lessons, both and his sister have quit. Now I'm only teaching Claire for one hour on the weekend, and her friend Jessica is supposed to start, also for one hour on the weekend. Meaning: no money coming in. I guess it's OK, because I do need a lot of time for my own studying. I've decided that I'm going to be picky about students. Just like I pay for three months in advance and if I don't go to class, I don't get any money back, any new student is going to have to do the same. I want a commitment out of them! If they aren't willing to do this, then they aren't serious about learning, so forget it. I hate wasting my time, no matter how much someone is paying me. This way I should weed out the flakes for sure.

Oh, here's an ad I happened across, can't even recall where:
"Don't strees any more over which tense to use and how to rearrange your sentences on your college application essay. Let a Berkeley graduate help you to create the best written expression of your qualifications and get into your dream school. I'll get into your head and help you turn your cognition into English. A coheret and fluid essay makes a vast difference!! $2/per please contact via email (removed)

Rather pitiful for a college graduate to produce such a poorly written advertisement with spelling and grammar errors. I can't figure out what her actual charges are, either. Per word? Per essay? Huh? But hey, she could get a job teaching English in Taiwan, because she has a degree!

My friend Aaron is back from England, yay! So nice to see him again, and so funny for him to be talking about how fat he got there. Yeah, right, if he walked outside today, the typhoon would blow him away. I'd be surprised if he even weighs 140 pounds! His sister's wedding celebration is today, and I'm afraid it's going to be ruined by the typhoon. Part of it is supposed to be in Keelung, and that's on the coast and getting battered severely right now. Relatives from Hong Kong were supposed to fly in this morning, but I'm sure they weren't able to. He said when his other sister got married, there was a typhoon that day, too!

I guess I've written enough. I should be doing homework, but I can't get into it right now. Still, the wind is picking up, and the power might not last, so I suppose I'd best get to it while I still have the 'puter to use.