Taiwan bloggers 1: Marisol of getupandgetlost.com!

 

In my latest interview series, I’d like to introduce Taiwan-based bloggers. Since coming here, I’ve already met many promising writers and it is my pleasure to share some of the greats I have come across.

Marisol is a Canadian who runs getupandgetlost.com, a blog about travel and her unique take on raising a family while living abroad. Check out the post Camping at Wuling Farm for a good example…

She even happens to live in the same region of the ROC as myself, Hsinchu.

Well, she can introduce herself best in her own words. Interview begins here: 

 

First off, how would you best introduce your website?

My blog getupandgetlost.com is about our life as a travelling family, currently based out of Taiwan. It’s about our family experiences here as we navigate this new culture and discover the beauty of this diverse country. It’s about the ups and downs and funnies of everyday life for us. It’s also veering towards becoming a guide for other families wanting to live or travel in Taiwan.

 

What originally brought you to Taiwan?

The answer to that is more complicated than one might expect. The simple answer is that my husband accepted a position as a high school math and art teacher in Taiwan. It was in our plans for a long time that after baby number three, that we would embark on a yearlong adventure abroad. In Canada, one parent receives a maternity/parental leave salary for the first year after the birth of a child. This factored greatly into our timing. We chose Taiwan, in part because of it’s proximity to Beijing. Our oldest child is my husband’s daughter from his previous marriage. My husband’s ex wife was eager to move to Beijing, but we were no so inclined. Taiwan’s proximity to Beijing means that our daughter can live with one family while still visiting the other family frequently.

 

You write about raising a family while living in Taiwan, how would you rate the country when it comes to kids and families?

From this expat’s point of view, I would probably give it an overall pretty good or 7/10. For us, we don’t speak Mandarin, and we have found it very hard to find things to do for our kids. Luckily, I made local friends soon after our arrival here, so they have helped me navigate the language barrier.SAFETY: For the most part, Taiwan feels very safe. I send my 10-year old to run errands for me in the community. I don’t have to worry about my kids walking on drug needles at the park. Community members generally keep an eye out on each other’s children. Streets safety is basically our only issue here. Cars and scooters are not very pedestrian friendly.

COMMUNITY: If you put some effort into connecting with people here, both locals and expats, you will become part of a great community. People here are very welcoming and supportive of each other. From my experience, the locals are incredibly kind to foreigners.

MEDICAL: The medical system here is efficient and inexpensive, but it feels very transactional. You can easily access things here that would take months to access back home, such as an MRI. From our experience, however, we find most clinics to be very busy, and doctors tend to treat the symptoms first (and quickly! – five minutes would be a long visit), rather than look for the root of the problem.

EDUCATION: I think education varies from city to city, and I don’t know enough yet to really comment much on it. It seems like many schools here are very focused on rote learning. Outdoors time, brain breaks, inquiry-based learning, and other current trends of learning are less common here. I have seen some schools, however, that are implementing very impressive and contemporary methods of learning.

AMENITIES: These seem far and few between. As an expat parent who doesn’t speak Mandarin, it’s been tough to find kid-centric centres that are free or low cost. I’ve found one free government run play centre for kids in my city. Pools, for the most part (in my city at least) are very dull and not that exciting for kids. I feel like there are pockets of great things for kids to do, but it’s not consistent within cities or in the country. It would be great to see the government take a bigger initiative here.

OUTDOORS: Taiwan has amazing natural diversity. If you are committed to the outdoors, you can definitely go out and find things to do as a family. There are natural water holes and lovely walks. Again, as an expat, I often struggle to easily explore outdoors because I am simply not aware of where to go.

 

What are some of your favorite places you’ve been to in the world?

Ollantaytambo, Peru:
One of the favorite places I’ve been to was a small town in the Sacred Valley of Peru called Ollantaytambo. Our time there was very chilled out. The town is built on ruins, and there are hundreds of ruins surrounding it. It’s a great place to chill, hike, explore and enjoy work by local artisans.

British Columbia, Canada:
I may be biased, but my home province is such an amazing place! For anyone wanting to visit, you won’t go wrong visiting any one or more of the following places: Vancouver, Victoria, The Okanagan, The sunshine Coast, Tofino/Uclulet and the Rockies.

Avignon France:
This is just such a cool town. I lived there for a year during a university exchange. The old city is beautiful and the history is super cool.

 

What were some of your best experiences living in Taiwan?

The first would honestly have to be becoming part of my community. Most of my friends here are locals who live within a block of me. Connecting with locals and making friends has given me such an insight into the culture here. It’s been awesome! The second would be a 200-kilometer cycling trip we did along the East Coast. We tugged our two younger kids in the trailer and the older one rode her own bike. We joined another family and cycled from Hualien down to Taitung, camping along the way. It was amazing!

 

How would you compare life in Taiwan with Canada? 

DIFFERENT! Life here is less expensive than back home. We can kind of manage on one salary in Taiwan. In Canada this isn’t remotely possible. Life here is simpler and runs at a slower pace, or so it feels. Taiwanese people here are extremely friendly, more so than Canadians on the whole. I know there are different aboriginal groups in Taiwan as well as people who have immigrated here, yet I feel like in Taiwan, there is a firm cultural identity and set of rules or normative values which dictate how we behave towards one another. In Canada, it’s less set in stone as people have so many different beliefs and backgrounds. As a family, life is a bit harder for us, but that could be due to the language barrier. I feel like many families spend a lot of time inside. We struggle with this as we love to be outside with the kids, but the weather makes that challenging at times.

 

Would you recommend Taiwan more as a place to visit or a place to live?

It depends on your purpose I suppose. You could easily spend a week or two in Taipei, eating great food, strolling the streets and exploring the nearby hikes and hot springs. I think you would come out of that having had a meaningful trip. That said, Taiwan is so diverse and the people so kind and interesting… I really believe that you only truly experience and understand this when you’ve lived in Taiwan (or maybe slow traveled).

 

Do you think you will be inspired by travel writing in Taiwan for the long-term?

I’m inspired by the humanity I encounter as I travel and meet people. I’m also inspired by the resilience that I see in my family – especially my children – as we travel and discover the world.
My husband’s contract is for two years and we’ve just started year two. We’re still not sure of what’s to come. 

 

Lastly, do you have any advice for other travel writers passing through Asia/Taiwan?

I can only really speak to Taiwan, but I would advise: 1.) Learn as much Mandarin as possible, starting with numbers (buying things). 2.) Get to know the locals. This is how you truly get to know Taiwan. When a stranger starts to talk to you, engage with them for a few minutes. Taiwan is very much about who you know. Connections get you very far here!
 

 

Thanks, Marisol! Look forward to reading more of your adventures in the future…

 

 

 

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Eating Smoke: review of memoir, and audio

 

Chris Thrall’s memoir Eating Smoke (sensationally subtitled One Man’s Descent Into Drug Psychosis In Hong Kong’s Triad Heartland) was published in 2011 but resparked buzz last year when the book was adapted into a radio dramatization for Hong Kong’s RTHK station.

The memoir is about Thrall’s time in Hong Kong in the 90s when he found himself addicted to ice—that is, methamphetamine—and indeed written in the style one would expect while on speed.

It is a dazzling ride, full of flowing neon and inebriation. First, the British Royal Marine suddenly quits his military position and moves abroad with dreams of making it big in the business world. Before he knows it, his business fails and he has to start hustling. The bulk of the story consists of jumping from one sketchy employment opportunity to the next, constantly maneuvering through new scams which grow increasingly desperate. He stays in the infamous Chungking Mansions, then hangs out among the hippie scene on Lamma Island where it starts out innocently enough with some strong weed, and ends up in the seediest parts of Wan Chai addicted to crystal.

“Quiss” Thrall meets a seemingly never-ending parade of colorful characters who live on the very edge of Hong Kong society, the caliber getting lower and lower as he is dragged down to the dregs. But there are so many he meets that it becomes difficult for the reader to follow what’s going on after a while.

The subtitle of the book declares his descent into the “Triad Heartland”, but the part when he becomes a doorman for a Triad-connected club is just one section among many, which comes rather late in the book. The stakes do get higher as threats of violence and death race towards the climax.

The radio drama, an audiobook really, overall can be quite superior to the book because as an edited abridged version it can get to the point quickly and highlight the best sections. Many odd jobs are skipped over in order to focus on the Triad and drug-crazed scenes. I did miss some, such as the English-teaching episode, although that is a story that has been told before. The unique nature of Thrall’s perspective is worth focusing on, though my personal favorite was the weekend-long DJing gig in China which unfortunately didn’t make it to the radio for some reason.

The narration from RTHK is excellent, with acting that can be funny when necessary as well as solemn, and always powerful. One noted part details the time a woman passed out due to a possible overdose at the club, Thrall calls an ambulance but the boss coldly stated he just wanted her thrown out. Stories like these are best listened to and not only read, so be sure to download the free podcasts…

For the most part, Thrall remains likable through it all until perhaps the finale of the memoir when he descends deeper into madness. His greatest talent is his ability to get by in Cantonese, which grants him a window into an authentic world which most foreigners never get to see. Eating Smoke is a fascinating insight into 1990s Hong Kong that readers and listeners from all over the world would do well to appreciate.

 

The radio drama is available free as a downloadable podcast on the RTHK website here: http://podcast.rthk.hk/podcast/item_all.php?pid=1130

Eating Smoke is published by Blacksmith Books, and available at Hong Kong bookstores and Amazon.

Challenges of moving to and living in and writing about Taiwan

 

As I get used to living in and occasionally blogging about Taiwan, I have been trying to be as optimistic as I can get. But there are times when I have to admit certain challenges in changing locales, figuring out new ways to live, finding inspiration to write, and how I don’t always take it as well as I’d like.

Moving is always a bitch, even though in many ways going from PRC China to ROC China still contain many similarities. It’s not like I’m totally new to the whole Mandarin-speaking Asian country thing. And there are so many convenient things about Taiwan, from the high speed rail to those kiosks at convenience stores where you can pay phone bills and order taxis.

Also it’s quite clean. Taiwan is an incredibly efficient and well run little country.

But it’s not all good times, least not for me. Sure overcoming minor challenges is of course positive in it’s own right, of course, yet I’d like to take this time to share the slightly complainy perspective if you will.

 

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I canz #scooter~ #Taiwanlife

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There is the subject of transportation. On this I terribly miss Shenzhen. Even with all the China-police state crap, it was so easy (and so cheap) to get around by the subway or bus or hail a taxi. Taipei does have great public transportation, but I’m living a bit out of the big city for now… So that means a scooter.

I had to learn a new skill and everything. I was nervous at first, having zero experience with motorcycles. I was never the kind of expat to rent a motorbike and ride around Southeast Asia. I do like to bicycle, and I cannot say that’s the same. Now I am getting more and more used to zipping around town at 40-60 kilometers an hour, and the left turns are particularly tricky.

It is kind of awesome, actually.

 

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#OnePiece: the Restauarant!

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Food. Not that Taiwan food isn’t great, as everyone knows. I mean, the night markets!

I just miss my life in Shenzhen when I could order in inexpensive Chinese food at any time of the day. The grocery stores are well stocked with domestic and foreign items here, and health inspection laws seem to be much better than in the mainland. It’s a great culinary delight to live just about anywhere in Taiwan.

I was however really used to my routine of ordering in tomato-eggs rice from the Hunanese restaurant, and vegetable curry from the cha chaan teng Hong Kong diner, and those peanut noodles from the little stands, and so on.

Currently I have more routines that I’m slowly getting accustomed to, which so far has mostly consisted of ordering inpizza from Dominoes. Soon I will learn better.

Meanwhile in Taipei, what’s better than discovering a One Piece-themed restaurant!!!

 

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Fulong beach #Taiwan

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Travel is a blessing and a curse. I will probably take the high-speed rail to Taichung over the upcoming Mid-Autumn Festival holiday weekend. Even though everyone says the nature and beaches are better along the east coast, which doesn’t have high-speed rail connection.

I was something of an expert at traveling in mainland China, if I do say so myself, that vast land with no end to history and tourist traps and epic cities and quaint villages. Etc., etc. I knew all the good websites to book guesthouses and where to stand in line for train tickets. Guess airbnb does work anywhere though.

It is amazing that the relatively small island of Taiwan contains so many places to go, and it will be years before I travel it all out. For now I am slightly intimidated on how to organize trips to new places.

I did enjoy taking the slow train to Fulong beach a couple of weekends ago; that wasn’t bad.

 

Then, there’s most important aspect of wherever it is I live: creative output.

Writing-wise, you see, I am in a bit of a rut.

I only got here fairly recently, and it takes time to get a feel for a place in order to write about with a sense of authenticity…

Do not expect a barrage of travel articles any time soon. I’m no expert on the place yet. Inspiration, for me, is more often a train of the slow-running variety.

Do stay tuned for a certain fictional writing project, which is far from ready to be announced and I will give away no hints as yet, but when the time comes then the time will come.

 

 

And also, the people. I don’t know too many here as of this writing. I know some. Honestly, the caliber of expat on average is a grade or so higher than many of those crazed outcasts who end up in China.

That’s just one of those things that happen when one moves, making friends can take time and all that.

It’s not that I’m super lonely. I am only a bit lonely.

That is what the internet is for.

Eh, mostly can’t complain.

 

 

 

Still, to everyone out there who’d like to keep in touch and maintain friendships and moreover check out Taiwan, please hurry up and come visit me!