The Visa Collector

A blog about travelling with a Filipino passport, and life overseas

Archives for Taiwan

Light, shade, and temperature


In February of last year, a good friend stayed at our apartment for a long weekend. On his second day, I took him to a Filipino restaurant in San Mateo for brunch. We arrived early, so the place, called Kuya’s, hadn’t opened yet.

As we waited outside the establishment, I noticed how my guest started to shiver from the late-morning cold. So I found a patch of sunlight, stood there, and asked him to join me. When he stepped into the light, relief from the cold was almost immediate. It was as much a surprise to him, as it was to me the first time I noticed the temperature differences between light and shade in my first winter in Taiwan. I snapped the following photo to commemorate the “aha” moment.

Under the blazing tropical sun, shade is associated with relief. Leaving the shade for relief was a foreign concept. It’s a lesson that you learn quickly, however, even in sub-tropical countries that don’t really have snow — like Taiwan.

I experienced an even sharper contrast between light and shade when I went to Kanata, Canada (a suburb of Ottawa) on a business trip a couple weeks short of Christmas. This is what greeted me on my first morning.

Overnight, a layer of frost had formed on the cars in the hotel parking lot. This wasn’t California-style, turn-on-the-wiper-and-you’re-done frost. You actually had to scrape this stuff off. Surprising as that phenomenon was (it was the first time I’d ever had to drive in that kind of weather), what even more surprising was how the curvature of the windshield was enough to keep the morning sun from melting all of the frost. Hence the powder-white patch on the right side of the car.

For most of my stay at the hotel, I parked where the photo above was taken. However on Thursday night, there was a hockey game at a nearby stadium and game parking spilled over to the hotel parking lot. So I ceded my usual spot and parked behind the hotel building. It seemed like a good idea at the time since there was virtually no competition on that side of the building.  I found out why the following morning.

The parking slots there were completely shielded from the sun. So I had a whole lot of scraping to do. I know my east coast and European friends who are more accustomed to full-blown winters will look at that picture and laugh. But hey . . . we don’t have that issue in the tropics . . . or California for that matter. It was as new to me, as the light-and-shade revelation my friend experienced in February.

The things I enjoy most about travelling are the little discoveries that tell you “you’re no longer at home”. A close second is taking visitors, who are new to my part of world, around to experience the sights, sounds, and tastes of my living space. Through their comments and questions, things that had become routine and mundane become fresh all over again.

Thank you for that visit my friend, and for that re-discovery of the non-tropical relationship between light, shade, and temperature.

Jun 17, 2012

Taiwanese honesty


A good friend in Taiwan, a former co-worker and fellow Filipino, posted this on his Facebook status today:

I left my son’s national ID card and insurance card in a cab on the way to the hospital. An hour later at home, the doorbell rang and when I opened the door, it was the cab driver returning the cards. He said he couldn’t find us at the hospital so he decided to try finding us at home. I am among very honest and considerate people. Thank you, Taiwan

My wife and I both also have generally positive experiences with Taipei taxi drivers. Drivers giving discounts for getting confused with directions because of our foreign accents, and thus getting lost, are not uncommon.

I’m not saying that the place gives you license to be careless. But it is indeed more forgiving than many other places.

Stories like this make me miss what had been our first home as a couple.

Filed under Slices of life, Taiwan
Mar 24, 2011

Book review: Lonely Planet Taiwan


By Robert Kelly, Joshua Samuel Brown


Take your tastebuds touring around the buzz of food stalls at Taipei’s Shilin Night Market
Soak yourself in the steaming, smooth waters of the Taian hot springs
Hike the Walami Trail to the sound of monkeys crashing through the jungle canopy
Emerge from the temples of Penghu straight onto some of East Asia’s finest beaches.

Other reviews for this book available here

This is an updated version of the book that I bought before I embarked on my first overseas adventure: Taiwan. I bough my book way back in 2000, so there are arguably quite a number of updates to this book by now. I found the original book very very helpful in providing the lay-of-the-land so to speak. General locations of points of interest, what one could actually do on the island for recreation, and very basic survival tips. Briefings about social norms, for example, were quite useful.

Coverage of the island was also excellent. Information was not restricted to the capital or the cities. Even details about the smaller islands around the main island were available. For my first few months, the maps within were a God-send.

There were even attempts at pointing out useful phrases for everyday use. However, if you’ve never really spoken Mandarin, or some other tonal language, these tips will — quite frankly — be of very limited use. You have to hear the language, and learn the phonetic rules, to say them effectively. It will do any traveler good to remember that tones change the meaning of words. On one occasion, I met with friends, who were helping me learn Mandarin in exchange for my helping them with English, at a McDonalds. I had picked up the Mandarin word for “secret”, and wanted to practice it with them. Unfortunately I messed up the tone by saying the word with a flat tone, instead of a downward one. So instead of saying “I have a secret”, I instead said “I have breasts”, to the amusement of the people in the adjacent tables.

The book was, and it appears to still be, written from the standpoint of a Westerner seeking to get a taste of Asia. While it did provide insights into what such a traveler would encounter when seeking to reside on the island over an extended period of time (e.g., work considerations, etc.), these are often not applicable to Filipino workers whose job options, as well as nature of entry, are quite different. Nevertheless, it remains a good book to have.

Dec 20, 2010

Street signs


Street signs are so much a part of city life; it’s very easy to take them for granted. At the corner of any street of consequence back home, you’d find a post from which hangs, or sticks out, a sign that indicates the name of the street. In the case of some low cost subdivisions, the subdivision block number would substitute as a street name. Some signs were large and fancy, with reflective coatings. Others were more austere.

But you could always count on these rectangle-shaped signs to be where they needed to be, and to look the way you expect; as surely as the sun’s rise in the morning, and its replacement by the moon at night. After all, why would anyone do it any other way, right?

Ah . . . assumptions . . . assumptions.

My first overseas destination, Taiwan, was a harbinger of things to come. For one thing, naming conventions there were different. Major thoroughfares were called “roads”. My company’s Taipei office, for example, was situated along Tun Hwa North Road, which could be loosely likened to a wider version of Ayala Avenue in the Makati Central Business District. Yet it was still called a “road”. “Streets” were smaller than roads, and relatively less prominent. Small alleys and side-streets were called “Lanes”.

Taiwanese roads were divided into sections and compass directions relative to a point of reference — a concept that has no Philippine equivalent. This was designed to give people a rough idea where on the road they were. Tun Hwa, for example was divided into North and South by its intersection with another road: ZhongXiao. The further away from the intersection you were, you’d transition to different section numbers. Our office, again as an example, was at the southern end of Tun Hwa called Section 2. Other roads ran from East to West. Some had as many as 7 sections which actually stretched outside Taipei City, deep into Taipei County.

Taipei street signs were also squarer than rectangular. They had to be, because they were bilingual. In keeping with efforts to make the Taiwanese capital an international city, English approximations of Chinese street names, and Hindu-Arabic numerals were included in all signs as an accommodation for the city’s foreign residents.

Canadian streets, at least in Ottawa, had an interesting implementation of a bilingual street naming policy. Since the street names were the same for both French and English, and utilized the same letters, it was a simple matter of adding “St.” and the French equivalent “Rue”. The following photo taken near Parliament Hill shows how they do it.

The Irish like to put both old-Irish and English names of their streets on their signs, as with the sign below for St. Patrick St. in Cork, Ireland.

The photo above also captures a common theme amongst European signs. They often use plaques mounted on the sides of buildings. I first noticed them on a trip to Paris. I didn’t immediately recognize them for what they were, because I instinctively associated signs with posts. It also didn’t help that at the time I hadn’t done my homework and figure out that “Rue” was French for street.

Once I wrapped my head around the fact that the street-name-on-a-post was not a “sacred” rule by any stretch of the imagination, Irish and more recently Italian, street plaques were less of a surprise.

Assumptions are funny things. Sometimes, you can’t even distinguish between fact and assumption because it never occurs to you to re-verify what you’ve already accepted as gospel truth. The nice thing about visa-collecting is that you’re often forced into situations that make re-verification necessary.

I wonder which assumption will be challenged next.

Oct 3, 2010

Chopsticks required


One humongous mistake I made before moving to Taipei, Taiwan was to neglect my chopsticks skills. I could pick up large pieces of meat, so it didn’t seem like such a big deal. “After all” I thought “all restaurants should have forks and spoons, right?” Dead wrong.

While pricier restaurants do provide forks and spoons, common-man restaurants where most folks eat, did not. Needless to say, my first week in Taipei became very interesting . . . food-wise. I soon learned two things: hunger is a great incentive to look for alternatives, and that I was, in fact, left handed.

So unless you plan to bring utensils with you everywhere you go (which is what a Filipino officemate did on one trip) . . . it would be a good idea to brush up on this skill before moving over.

Filed under Slices of life, Taiwan
Sep 18, 2010

Taipei taxi language laboratory


Taipei taxis weren’t just a means of getting around. They were also an interesting way to work on my Mandarin.

All the foreigners I knew that managed to get over the hump between between language classes and actual conversation all told me the same thing: “Just do it”. I had to find as many opportunities to speak Mandarin as I could, and just try to be understood.

Being surrounded by Taiwanese in the office, you’d think practice would be easy. But I really wasn’t getting much practice at work. My vocabulary was so limited, my Taiwanese co-workers simply found it easier just to use English. So I had to find other ways.

Enter . . . the Taipei taxi.

Taxis were as ubiquitous as chopsticks. There never seemed to be a shortage of them, regardless of the time of day. Although the bus and rail systems were pretty good at getting people to key points of interest, some destinations just required the flexibilty of these bright yellow cars. Rarely did a week go by without a cab ride.

Most folks liked to ride in the rear seat. Right or wrong, my intuition told me that riding in front somehow humanized me to the driver, hopefully making him less inclined to drive me around in circles. This configuration also facilitated my “lessons”.

At the bare minimum, the taxi presented a very simple language test whose results were immediately available and easy to understand: “if I didn’t get to where I want to go, I failed”.

The basic taxi vocabulary was easy enough: “Hello“, “I want to go ____“, “intersection“, “at the corner“, “turn left“, “turn right“, “make a u-turn“, and “stop here“. In my early taxi rides always I brought written instructions to my apartment so that I could always find my way home. I also asked my friends to write down destinations on slips of paper that I could show the driver. With the destination out of the way I focused, and gained confidence with, the limited vocabulary mentioned earlier.

After watching how my friends gave instructions to drivers on a number of shared rides, I started giving instructions myself. Mandarin is all about the tones. Use the wrong tone and you end up saying something you didn’t intend (more about that in a future post). Some destinations were easy enough to pronounce. Other streets sounded dangerously like others, and were therefore vulnerable to butchery by unpracticed foreign tongues. Sometimes I got to where I needed to go, other times . . . lets just say it was an interesting way to discover new and interesting places.

The vast majority of taxi drivers I met were courteous and mindful of the fact that I was trying to learn their language. Upon detecting the awkwardness in my delivery, they would invariably ask (in Mandarin of course) “Where are you from?”. Small talk and polite probes would follow, until my vocabulary ran out and I said “sorry, I don’t understand, I know very little Chinese”. The probes would then end with polite smiles.

One day, I didn’t have to end the conversation prematurely. By then I had been engaged in a language exchange arrangement with a couple of Taiwanese friends. They were helping me with my Mandarin, and I was helping them with their English. Because of the latter, English was always a readily available safety net. That was not the case with taxi drivers, and this one was no exception.

The usual small talk ensued, and I was even able to ask a few questions myself. It wasn’t until the ride ended that I realized: “I had just completed my first Mandarin-only conversation!!!!” It was a fantastic realization comparable to riding a bike, unassisted, for the first time.

The fondness with which I recall that moment, is only matched by the regret in not having written down the time and day it happened. That milestone is lost to me forever. Hopefully with blogs like this, I won’t let moments like that pass me by again.

Filed under Slices of life, Taiwan
Jun 15, 2010