Take classes at a local university

Adding to my list of things to do in Zhongli…

One of my 2017 resolutions was to study Chinese more. I have tons of textbooks, access to the wealth of resources online, loads of free time, and I fucking live in Taiwan, but somehow every single day goes by and I don’t commit any time to studying Chinese.

I do speak a fair amount of Chinese while I’m teaching at a certain school, which is not at all how I think these things should be done, but since my coworkers there cannot speak English very well, the whole thing is kind of a shitshow.

I digress: I only wanted to point out that I speak Chinese sometimes, but not in a context where my language skills would improve.

So on an impulse (yay ADD!), I decided to give up all my free mornings and sign up for Chinese classes at the local university.

They were actually really accommodating because I don’t need to have a student visa. I opted for the two-hour sessions instead of three, and because I teach Wednesday mornings, I can’t go to class, but then I don’t even have to pay for those sessions. That seemed more than fair to me!

It’s the first time in forever that I’ve been a student in a classroom environment, and the first time since my very first semester of Chinese that I’ve been around other Chinese learners. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so much like a fish in water, and so fast. The other learners are very young, college-aged, and from other countries: Vietnam, Indonesia, and Russia. Chinese is our lingua franca. We don’t share another language, so we have to rely on Chinese to express ourselves. It makes my heart skip a beat to realize that because of my years of half-heartedly studying Chinese, I can not only communicate with native Chinese-speakers, but also people from other countries.


My classmates are awesome! They are chatty and curious, unafraid to ask questions, intent on learning the language, and enthusiastic. And we can make jokes! I haven’t been in a class like this before, where we can make each other laugh in Chinese. Sometimes the jokes are intentional, sometimes somebody has a cold and says something ridiculous like “my nose is sick.” Good times!

Anywho, it’s been a wonderful first week. We have a test coming up on Tuesday, and I’m not really sure what to expect, but I feel so good about this. I am doing something useful and constructive with my time, I am meeting new people, improving my language skills, getting out of the house–all wins!

 I am taking my Chinese class at Chung Yuan Christian University (CYCU) because it’s not far from where I live and I know the neighborhood. There are like half a dozen universities in Zhongli and Neili, and I know of foreigners studying at CYCU, Chung Yang (National Central), and Yuan Ze (where we play kickball on the first Sunday of every month). Coming from the States, the cost of tuition here is crazy low. I’ve also seen that there are yoga classes and cooking classes at CYCU, and I’m not sure about enrolling in anything else right now, but how fun does that sound?

Winter is Coming, Zhongli edition

Winter is coming. We tell people in America it gets cold here in the winter, and they are sympathetic. They know cold. Cold is not great.

“How cold does it get?” they ask.

We cringe when we tell them it gets down to 50°C (around 10°C) because we know they will laugh.

“That’s nothing!” they say.

Yes, but: the houses here are built to be cool in the sickeningly hot and humid summers. So they are built of concrete, often with tile floors and even tile walls. The windows are often big to allow for creating cross breezes, and the ceilings are high. The kitchens are tiny in the newer houses, because nobody wants to be stuck inside cooking in a hot kitchen when you can get dinner outside for cheap.

There are often air conditioners in the apartments, but never heaters. The weather starts to get unpredictable, from day to day, then hour to hour, then one day it starts raining and doesn’t stop raining for two weeks and your clothes and the linens and the bathroom start to smell of damp.

The cold seeps into the wet concrete walls and settles on the ceramic tiles. You want to cuddle up for warmth, but keep your icy feet to yourself if you aren’t wearing socks. You can see your moist breath in the living room. You hang your clothes, but they take three days to dry. By then they are stiff and they smell weird. Room temperature water is cold, and even if drinking cold water weren’t culturally proscribed, it’s hard to do on a cold day. Stick to tea or coffee.

There’s no hot water in the taps to wash your hands. You do it anyway, bracing yourself, cursing if a drop gets on your sleeve. The students’ sleeves are wet and dirty all day. Your contact-lens solution is cold. The toilet seat is very, very cold. The shower is hot and you never want it to end because when you step out it will be cold.

It also starts getting dark earlier and earlier, so that the sun is rising with you in the morning and sets by dinner time. If you’re working 9-5, you might miss it.

You know how in the U.S., if you’re lucky enough to have a car, and lucky enough to have a car-starter, you can stand in your living room, drinking your first cup of coffee, and turn the car on by pressing a button, so that even if you have to move some snow to get to work, it will be melted by the time you get outside?

Yeah, well, in Taiwan you drive a scooter, rain or shine. You don’t want to get wet at all, because any part of you that gets wet on the way to work is going to be wet all day, and cold. You put on rain boots, rain pants and a giant poncho over your winter coat. You don’t want to wear the kind of gloves that will get wet, so you wear big waterproof winter gloves (they are never really waterproof though); or you put industrial rubber gloves over your nice woolly ones. Then you do up your poncho over your scarf, and then put on your helmet, visor down. That’s how you drive to work. In the summer, you would have stopped on the way for a coffee or a sandwich, but in the winter you’ll have to take off half your gear just to go in the store. Then it’ll get wet and so will you, so no coffee today, no sandwich. Just drive in the cold rain, your nose running and your hands too encumbered to wipe it.

You take off your rain gear when you get to school. But not your coat, your gloves, or your warm rubber boots because even if you have a space heater at home, there’s no heater in the schools, and you and the kids are all bundled up for the whole class. (Some of the babies will come to class in so many layers of shirts that they get damp with sweat in the cold and can’t move their arms very well, so out of compassion you and your co-teacher remove three or four undershirts and only put them back on again right before Gramma comes back to pick them up.) It’s too cold these days for the kids to go outside, so we all stay inside, locked up germ-incubators, always sputtering and coughing, red-eyed and hoarse, until spring.

“You think that’s cold? Back in Russia…”

Okay, yes. But it still stands that 50°F is a lot colder here than a crisp autumn day is back in Pennsylvania…

Maybe next time I will stand up for myself by myself

So let’s flashback to when I was fresh out of college, a new teacher in Taiwan. I had just turned 23. My co-workers and I, we didn’t have an office: we all shared a giant table with cupboards underneath, so there was plenty of opportunities for everyone to interact. I worked with a woman who became my best friend, a couple of other people, and this older guy named — who was married and had a kid, male pattern baldness, and literal war stories.

This is what -- looked like when I met him in 2004. He looks older now.
This is what — looked like when I met him in 2004. He looks older now.

Here’s what I remember about –:

  • He asked me to do a recording session for an English test with him. I did it. In the car on the way home, the man driving asked him how long he’d been in Taiwan. He said, “Taiwan very good.” The man stopped talking to us. I’d been in Taiwan less than six months at that point and knew he didn’t have a clue what was being said.
  • He used to talk about being in the military and fighting in the Gulf War. But he always said that driving in Taiwan was more dangerous than being in the infantry.
  • When we all had an hour break between evening classes on Wednesdays for a spell, he invited us into an empty classroom each week to watch Northern Exposure. But then he started making us watch videos about government conspiracies, so we stopped going, which sucked, because Northern Exposure was good TV.

Anyway, I started working elsewhere after two years and did not keep in touch with –.

Jump ahead to just a few weeks ago when we end up at dinner with friends of friends and — is there. Quelle surprise! He’s looking a little more worn, a little more tired, but whatevs, it’s been like a DECADE. So I introduce him to my hubs and that’s it.

Now, I didn’t miss –, and the rest of the people at the table I either don’t know or don’t like, but we’re at like my favorite restaurant that we never go to because J doesn’t like it. Fine. I resolve to love the shit out of my bamboo pork. These people are not gonna take that away from me.

I overhear — telling somebody about being in the military and I think, man, those stories were already old when you were dropping them in 2004, but, bamboo pork. I don’t care.

Then comes the part where someone mentions that a foreigner they know is a “know-it-all”. This strikes me as funny because basically every person at that table falls into that category. (Note to self: do some soul-searching, cause you probably do this shit, too.)

So I say something: “Dude, every foreigner who’s been here like a year is a know-it-all.”

“Do you mean foreigners in general, or specifically people at this table?” queries –. I instantly regret making him think I want to talk to him, but J is on the job.

“No, not necessarily people at this table, but like anybody who’s been here for a while thinks they know all about Taiwan and Chinese culture and whatever,” says J.

“Well, really, that’s funny, because I seem to remember Rae talking a whole lot when I knew her before. It was like, jeez, you couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Isn’t that right, Rae?”

So all at once I’m feeling hot and embarrassed, and I can feel some anger in there somewhere, but it’s not gonna beat the apology out of my mouth, and I am already doubly pissed for apologizing to this guy…

“No,” says J in his nice, big boom.

“What?” says –.

“No. Whatever you just said, no.”

Granted, the rhetoric could be polished up a bit, but that’s how it went down. And — got the point, because now he turns back to me to say, “C’mon, Rae, don’t you remember? I know you’ve changed a lot…”

But something snapped in me when J interrupted him. It wasn’t only that J defended me, because that was cool, but when he did that, I realized I was defendable. That I wasn’t automatically wrong, that I didn’t have to apologize, that I could talk back to this guy. That my apology-reflex is on steroids, but I have other muscles to flex.

“I don’t know about that, but I seem to remember someone not letting us watch Northern Exposure until he proselytized us with government conspiracy theories,” I said.

Again, you know, with time, I could have scripted a wittier exchange, but this is how it went down.

The gall! Even if I did or do talk too much, coming from him, that’s a textbook example of the pot calling the kettle black. And then to observe me during a dinner where I was flanked and outnumbered by my enemies and had resigned myself to just enjoying my meal, and to deduce that I had “changed” in any way…and then to ask me to publicly disagree with my husband while he’s standing up for me was just so stupid.

We all were leaving anyway, so we left, and — shot us a few awkward, possibly conciliatory glances as he left, but we did not acknowledge him. But I got a taste of what it could be like if I don’t automatically cringe and say sorry every time someone drops a complaint at my door. And yeah, shriveled-up, bullshit, ten-year-old complaints are not being received here. Take that shit right to the trash.

Bye, –.

10 Things to Do in Zhongli, Taiwan

I first moved to Zhongli in 2004, and it would have been very cool of me to come up with this list when I arrived. Instead I waited so long that my beloved Zhongli (Chungli/Jungli/Jhongli) stopped being a city in Taoyuan County and was absorbed into the sprawl of Taoyuan City as a district.

At least now we mostly agree on the name.

Here are just a very few of my favorite things to see or do in our fair town:

  1. The River: If you’re so new to town that you don’t know about The River, then you should definitely go there first. You’ll meet the friends you need to help you complete your quest.
  2. Paris Bar: Met somebody special at The River? Invite them to a more private, romantic bar where you can impress them by buying NT$300 cocktails.
  3. Bowling: Every Wednesday at the lanes on Zhongmei Road, not too far from The River.
  4. Kickball: The first Sunday of every month on one of the fields at Yuan Ze University in Neili. (Be sure to connect with someone from the group before you go so you know where everyone will be.)
  5. The Yilan Beer Place: Tasty Taiwan brews on tap, including my favorite green spirulina beer. There’s also an extensive menu of pan-Asian bar food. Great place for a small party.
  6. Roasted Duck: If you’re trying to get this duck for a dinner party, make sure that three or four other people aren’t already doing the same thing.
  7. Daxi Old Street: Nifty little neighborhood just a short scooter drive away from downtown Zhongli. Famous for it’s delicious and cheap tofu.
  8. Xinming Night Market: Your one-stop shopping destination for your dinner, your clothes, your sex toys, your pet hamsters, your milk tea, your incense, your cellphone accessories, etc.
  9. Shrimp Fishing: One of the more unfamiliar things a Westerner can experience in Taiwan is fishing for super-sized shrimp in a big concrete pool in a building the size of an airplane hangar. Some people love it.
  10. Sanmin Bat Cave and Tuba Church: A lovely day trip into the mountains of Fuxing. Check out an old, tiny church in a nearby aboriginal village and quiet, beautiful “cave” and waterfall a little further down the way.

Kickball in Zhongli

amateur vagrant things to do in zhongi taiwan play kickball

On the first Sunday of every month, a group of people from Zhongli/Neili/Taoyuan get together to play kickball at Yuan Ze University in Neili.

The core group is made up of local foreign teachers, but many different people come every time. Anyone who wants to play kickball or just meet new friends is welcome.

You can get in touch with the group members via their Facebook page. They use the page to confirm the date, time, and which field they’re playing at every month.

I’m not super athletic, but I have fun when I go. And it’s nice to see everyone outside of the bar now and then. (And by “outside the bar”, I mean further away than the River patio.)

The best reasons to live in Zhongli

View from our old apartment.
View from our old apartment.

Zhongli is not a very beautiful or famous city, though it’s certainly nicer now than it was when I got here in 2004. Now there are more parks, some nice walkways for morning walks, lots more restaurants, and two cultural centers.

None of that draws the big crowds, though.

This exciting typhoon season is what got me thinking about the really good reasons to live in Taiwan. My friends and family in the U.S. started messaging me frantically ahead of the recent super typhoon, Meranti. It was such a big storm that it was making headlines back home.

But any time a typhoon comes to Taiwan, Zhongli doesn’t get the worst of it. If you’re worried about typhoons, you’ll be much safer in Zhongli than you would be in the east or the south. The east and the south are more beautiful, though. Zhongli is in the northwest, which means it’s closer to the narrow China Strait than the wide-open Pacific Ocean, so we don’t get full-strength storms coming at us. And on the other side, Taiwan’s formidable mountains take a beating protecting us from the high-speed winds and torrential rains.

That’s not to say we never feel the impact of typhoons in Zhongli: We have lost running water before, and we could lose electricity.

Another big concern for people living in Taiwan, especially new foreigners, is the earthquakes. Taiwan has had terrible earthquakes. The worst one in recent memory was just last year during Chinese New Year. Hundreds of people in Tainan had to worry about where they and their kids were going to sleep on a day meant to be spent with family, celebrating hopes for a new beginning. Eighteen people lost their lives.

And in 1999, a massive 7.6 earthquake killed thousands of people in central Taiwan, in Nantou and Taichung.

We certainly feel earthquakes in Zhongli, but we don’t usually expect any serious damage. (I am furiously knocking on wood.)

Actually, now that I’ve looked at the fault-line maps, I might not want to get too cocky about the earthquakes. But trust me on the typhoons.

In addition to being a wee bit safer during typhoons and earthquakes, it’s also fairly easy to find jobs teaching English here. I know people in prettier places like Taipei, Taidong, Taichung, Tainan, Yilan, or Hualien have said it’s harder, anyway. My guess is that plenty of foreigners want to live in those lovely places, giving schools the upper hand when it comes to picking and paying teachers.

But not so many foreigners want to live in Zhongli. Zhongli doesn’t have the nightlife, the beautiful beaches and mountains, or the arts scene of any of those other places. It does have a good public transportation system, including easy access to the HSR, to get you to those other places, though.

Also there are lots of people here with more cosmopolitan (i.e. “in Taipei) ambitions who want to learn English or want their kids to learn English, and are making enough money to pay for it. That’s apparently not the case in Taidong (based on what some surfers/teachers told us).

So in Zhongli, you have a better situation for employment: fewer foreign teachers competing for jobs, and more students with more money to pay for English classes. That does give foreign teachers a better situation for negotiating salaries, etc., and if you’re reliable and professional, you might be able to get yourself a pretty good situation.

These are my three most practical reasons to live and teach in Zhongli: Weaker typhoons, probably weaker earthquakes, and better employment opportunities.


Taiwan lunchboxes

amateur vagrant zhongli taiwan taoyuan lunchbox bento box chinese takeout what to eat

Taiwanese lunchboxes are the offspring of Japanese bento boxes, which provide a full meal on one tray or in one box: rice, a protein, some sides, and usually some soup. Most also have a little bit of some kind of pickle lurking in the corner.

The shallow rectangular white box of the lunchboxes is ubiquitous here, as iconic as the oyster-pail used for Chinese food back home. Ironically, an American new to Taiwan might find that the contents of a lunchbox feel almost familiar.  A “standard” lunchbox (the kind that your boss might order for you without having the tedious conversation about what you want before you understand what’s available), is often a piece of fried chicken or a fried pork chop laid on a slab of rice, with three vegetables on the side. Just like mamma used to make for Sunday dinner!

Here are some of my favorite, or at least my regular, lunchbox meals in Zhongli.

amateur vagrant zhongli taoyuan taiwan lunchboxes bade grilled chicken

This is by far my favorite lunchbox, a grilled chicken meal from a place in Bade called Qiao Wei Lunchbox (巧味便當). I used to have it every Friday when I was teaching out there. Unfortunately, Bade is not in my neighborhood and I am lazy, so I don’t get to eat this much anymore. This chicken was grilled to perfection, every time, and this place was always crowded at lunch time.

amateur vagrant zhongli taoyuan taiwan lunchboxes zhenzhong ribs meal grilled chicken leg rice lunchbox

This is a grilled chicken lunch box from  a “famous” local place in Zhongli called Zhengzhong Ribs Meal (正忠排骨飯). It’s very good, and also, you can choose your three sides. Here I got some greens, some eggplant, and some curry-potatoes. But I still love the chicken from Qiao Wei the best.

amateur vagrant zhongli taoyuan taiwan lunchboxes railway lunchbox

This is a railway lunchbox from place in Pingzhen. This particular lunchbox place is not special, it was just next to the school I taught at last semester. It smelled of stale oil and they used the microwave a lot…

But, this railway meal is pretty cool. According to Cathy Erway in her awesome book, The Food of Taiwan, the first lunchboxes in Taiwan were the lunchboxes served on the trains and at the train stations. And in the beginning, that was the only place they were served. Now lunchboxes are so popular and such a part of the Taiwanese diet that school children typically eat lunchboxes for lunch every day, if not also for dinner in between cram-school classes. But now a lot of lunchbox places have gotten nostalgic, offering these “railway meals” in the old-school, round, bamboo boxes. There’s no little compartments, and there’s usually a bit of Taiwanese sausage as well as a pork chop included.

amateur vagrant zhongli taoyuan taiwan lunchboxes fried chicken lunchboxThis is a fried chicken lunchbox from that same place in Pingzhen. I ate this so often last year that I got sick of it. It’s a pretty dense meal.

amateur vagrant zhongli taoyuan taiwan lunchboxes macau five-meat lunchbox

This is a pretty unique lunchbox. I found it at a place that makes Macau- (澳门) and Hong-Kong style food called Macau Xin Hao Ji Char Siu Shop (澳門新濠記燒臘店) Because it was my first time here, I went for broke and got the “five-meat” rice box. It was tasty, but too much meat for me. I had the duck meat over rice the next time, and that was good. Duck meat lunchboxes are usually more expensive, around NT$100 each.

amateur vagrant zhongli taoyuan taiwan sushi for lunch

Not technically what people mean when they say “lunchbox,” but this is often my dinner. Each piece of “sushi” is NT$10. Obviously, this is really Taiwanese with the mayo-corn mixture and the pork floss in the sushi rolls. But it’s good, it’s cheap, and it tastes fresh. You can also get salmon, tuna, etc. I love the steamed egg, too. I got this set from a little street vendor called Black 5 Sushi (黑武藏10元壽司). These vendors are everywhere.

My only complaint is that if they give you condiments, it’s not enough, so I usually roll with my own bottle of soy sauce and my own tube of wasabi when I’m planning on having street sushi for dinner. Also, they don’t give you chopsticks. Sushi is actually finger food, but if eating with your fingers puts you off, you better pack your own pair of chopsticks.

amateur vagrant zhongli taiwan taoyuan 7-11 lunch kimchi cold noodles

Also not a lunchbox, but this is a fairly low-calorie option from 7-11. I avoid carbs as far as possible, but every once in a while, I’m stuck between classes, the nearest 7 is out of apples, the melon chunks have seen better days, and I don’t want to eat another tea egg, so I’ll throw in the towel and have some kimchi noodles.

If you’re eating a lot of convenience-store lunchboxes, I don’t judge, but you’d do yourself a favor to check out the calories on some of those boxes. It might come as a shock that even the innocuous-looking fried rice has 600-800 calories. I am not opposed to 700-calorie meals, but if I am gonna go out like that, I’d rather have something that wasn’t microwaved at a convenience store.

I’ll leave you with my lunchbox pro-tips:

  1. Order the “famous” lunchbox at any lunchbox place, particularly if it’s your first time. This is what the owners are putting all their effort into. It will be fresher and your meal will come faster.
  2. Along the same lines, avoid “interesting” offerings like Thai-style chicken or Three Cup Chicken lunchboxes. It’s usually something they’re gonna have to remember how to prepare and then microwave, and it’s never as good as what you’d get in a sit-down restaurant. In my experience. There are exceptions to every rule.
  3. I avoid simple carbs and grains (when I’m on the wagon), so I’ll often get a roasted sweet potato with to have with my lunchbox, and then skip the rice. Most convenience stores offer roasted sweet potatoes. A piece of fruit would also do the trick. I find that eating the rice guarantees I’ll want to succumb to a food coma. Ever notice how Taiwanese offices shut down for a little shuteye after lunch? Mmmhmmm…
  4. Cheaper is not better. If you’re counting dollars, you’ll appreciate the savings, but there’s a reason some lunchboxes are NT$50 and some lunchboxes are NT$80.
  5. If you can’t speak Chinese and there’s no English menu, have a friend help you find a self-serve buffet where you fill up your box and pay by the weight or the item. (Beware of Mama’s Lunchbox, though. One of my favorites, but you might get a surprise at the cash register!)

What’s in your favorite lunchbox? I’d also love to get suggestions for excellent local places!

Getting cupped


I woke up yesterday morning with a stiff neck that had escalated to a region of sharp pain by lunch. I took some painkillers and got through my evening classes, but the pain woke me in the middle of the night and I could barely move. As soon as I got up this morning, and carefully put on some clothes, I walked down to the local Chinese medicine clinic.

I might never have noticed the clinic just around the corner from my house if someone hadn’t taken me there once already when my knee was sore. It’s got a wooden sign and a glass front obscured by a lush garden of potted plants. Today, the whole front of it was hidden behind a formidable black SUV, parked nose-to-nose with a white SUV.

There’s a high wooden counter in the entrance, facing the big window looking out at the SUV. The wall behind the counter is stacked with packs of Korean ginseng and other boxes and jars that look like they might be the ingredients for a witches’ potions.

The doctor wasn’t right there, so I took a seat on the bench in front of a sign suggesting that I call ahead to make an appointment. I could hear him talking to a patient in the examination room. I could hear her protests and shrill gasps of pain. I felt like I was eavesdropping, even though there wasn’t a door. I considered taking a card and going home or just outside to call for an appointment. But it seemed silly, since I was already there, and the shock of pain I felt every time I moved my head or left shoulder convinced me to just wait and see.

From the bench, I was looking into what could have been any traditional Taiwanese living room. The furniture was all made of heavy wood. There was a full tea set on the low table. The big flat screen TV was on: I watched the news about the impending typhoon with shots of all the damage done in the last big storm, and interviews with people who are getting ready for this one. There was a shrine against the far wall and a big, green, glassy Buddha.

A middle-aged woman walked in carrying what must have been gift sets of mooncakes this time of year, and a small bag of green beans. She noticed me, but didn’t say anything to me and didn’t slow her quick march to the seat facing the TV. She shouted a greeting at the doctor; he shouted back. He came out and saw me.

“My neck really hurts. I can’t move,” I told him in Chinese.

“Where? Here?” he asked in English. He probed at my neck with firm fingers. “Ah, here.”

“Ow! Yes! I want to cry!” I felt my eyes tearing up.

Say what you want about Chinese medicine, but it always impresses me how immediately Chinese traditional medicine doctors can locate the exact source of your pain.

He walked back into the waiting room. I thought I could quickly take a picture of the very intimate scene of his living room. He came back out just as I was focusing my cellphone camera. I dropped it guiltily. He smiled at me.

“Come here,” he said. I followed him into the exam room. A woman was straddling the low bed, bent over with her forehead on the surface of it. Three suction cups were pulling up big bubbles of the skin of her neck. The doctor sat me in a chair and immediately started rubbing my neck and shoulder.

“Right here,” he said, pushing a finger into my neck, “and right here.” He pushed a finger into a spot between my shoulder blade and spine and I saw the world flooded by the blindingly clear light of terrible pain.

“Mmmm,” I whimpered. He wiped some Vaseline on me and stuck a suction cup on, pressing whatever it is that forms the vacuum seal and pulls your skin up in an ugly bulge.

“Oooh, very bad,” he said. He clicked his tongue against his teeth. “Very black.” He dragged the suction cup around my neck and shoulder and it pulled at my skin. I know what it would look like: a big, ugly hickey. All I could do was bite my index finger and concentrate on not embarrassing myself and all other foreigners by shouting or crying.

Imagine the good air goes in, and the pain goes out…

I thought about that from yoga class and the visualized all the little blood vessels in my neck and back bursting open so that the pain would not be trapped inside but could be released and flushed away.

The other patient sat up and continued chatting with the doctor. I didn’t try to understand what they were saying. She was very pretty. Probably older than me, but with short hair, a shock of purple in the front. That’s so trendy right now. I want a purple streak in my hair. I bet she drove the big, black SUV out front. A rich lady coming for relief of the sore neck that comes with having lots of things to worry about. I was in my pajamas, wearing crocs. I felt self-conscious.

“Don’t play with your phone too much,” said the rich lady.

“Oh, no,” I said in agreement. I wasn’t sure if that had anything to do with it. Had she and the doctor agreed that was her problem? Had the doctor told her that was my problem when I wasn’t listening? But I would agree to anything now to stop this pain.

The doctor put four suction cups on my neck.

“Do you want ___?” he asked the woman. I didn’t know what he said.

“Do I need to?” she asked.

“You should,” he said. The doctor sat in a chair at the end of the bed. He laid a pink hand towel on the bed behind her, and told her to lay down. The towel was under her neck, and grabbing either end, he pulled her toward his lap, until her head was hanging off the table. He took off his shoes in one smooth lift and put his feet, in clean white socks, against her shoulders and pushed with his feet and pulled her head with the towel.

I watched, trying not to stare, trying not to move too much. Then he used the towel to pull her back up to a sitting position, slipped on his shoes, and bounced back over to me to remove the cups.

“Do you know why you have this pain?” he asked me.

“I don’t know. I just woke up yesterday…”

“You don’t sleep well,” he said. Before I could agree, he added, “You eat too much cold things.”

More likely from playing with my phone too much, hunched over in bed or in the sofa in weird positions, I thought. Or maybe it’s the result of my recent exercise binge, or the new dumbbell dancing I came up with, where I dance around with dumbbells to Uptown Funk before I go to work.

But I did have ice cream the past two nights. I’d skip it if it meant never feeling like this again.

The doctor told me to relax and cracked my neck on the left, on the right, and my back between my shoulder blades.

“Can you move your head?”

I could. It was still sore, but a shrug wouldn’t make me shriek.

The doctor slapped on two medicinal patches, the ones that feel cold against your skin and smell the way Chinese lozenges taste. He told me I was done and I walked out with him behind me. He walked behind the counter and I went in front of it.

“Two-hundred dollars,” he said.

I gave him the money and we smiled at each other and gave little nods of our heads, like bows.

I forgot to ask how long I have to keep these patches on. It still hurts, but it’s closer to being terribly uncomfortable than intolerably painful. Despite all the strange herbs and roots in jars, Chinese medicine isn’t magic. I can’t expect to feel great immediately, bippity-boppity-boop. I do have this bottle of ibuprofen, and as long as I don’t take it with cold water, I think I’ll be fine to teach tonight.

Hair care products in Taiwan

I have really thick, dry, kinda curly-wavy hair. I don’t do much with it: it’s usually just pulled back with a scrunchy. When I got (back) to Taiwan in 2013, I started experimenting with different shampoos and conditioners. Within a year, I had to cut six inches off my hair because it was so damaged. That was a big bummer for me, so I’ve grown a lot more conscientious about choosing hair care products.

I had a lot of trouble finding English reviews of products I was considering buying, usually from Watsons, so I wanted to put this info out there for anyone else who might be trapped in the shampoo aisle, eyes glazing over from trying to decipher Chinese labels and the gibberish lists of ingredients.

I learned a lot. Many products that claimed to be “natural” still contained sulfates, silicones, parabens, or other ingredients that I want to avoid. Not everyone is or has to be so picky, so don’t stress out about hair care products more than you have to. This is just a post to remind you that labels can be deceiving, especially if labels are all you have to go on.


Sea Venus Ka’fen Green Tea Benefits Treatment

I grabbed this one off the shelf at random, just because the label kind of gives the impression that this would be a product with natural and healthy ingredients: Green Tea! Benefits! Green Leaves! But then I got to googling and discovered this conditioner has a couple of questionable chemicals in it. Behentrimonium chloride can cause damage to the mucous membranes of your eyes in anything but the smallest quantities. Dimenthicone is a silicone that will coat your hair, making it silky soft and smooth the first few times, but with regular use, no water can get to your hair and it ends up drier and more damaged than ever. Propylparaben is a paraben and by now we have all been told to not use products with parabens because they cause cancer.

This is why I did all this homework!

be careful
be careful

Diane Botanical Moist Treatment

This conditioner didn’t look half bad, ingredient-wise, but it contains dimethicone. It already destroyed my hair once and I won’t let it happen again!


Watsons Naturals Argan Oil Conditioner

This argan oil conditioner looks okay, except that argan oil is the ninth ingredient. Generally, the first five ingredients are the active ingredients, so it’s misleading to call this “argan oil” conditioner. Oh and it contains methylisothiazolinone. I don’t want to cry wolf, but some tests done on rats (sorry, rats) have indicated the exposure to this compound for too long or in too high quantities can cause nerve damage. Companies insist that it’s very diluted and you rinse it all off down the drain. So maybe it’s fine…or maybe you can just pick a different conditioner. Seems to be a lot of products that don’t contain this preservative, least of all with a label that says “Naturals”.


Watsons Naturals Argan Oil Shampoo

C’mon, guys, we know the rules: no parabens, no silicones, no sulfates. And here the second ingredient is sodium laureth sulfate. It’s the stuff that makes your shampoo bubble and foam, but it can dry out your skin and hair, cause skin irritation or allergies in the long-term. You’re better off without it, and plenty of products no longer contain SLS. And just like with the matching conditioner above, argan oil is so far down the list that it can hardly be considered an active ingredient.

just no
just no

Herbal Essences Naked Shampoo

I was so excited when I first saw this American product at Watsons that I bought the extra-large shampoo and the extra-large conditioner. But then I got home, and, bummer: it contains SLS, which can dry out or irritate your hair and skin.

It especially annoys me because the bottle is like “no parabens, no silicones, no colorant” but then it has other problematic ingredients. Truth: I used the shampoo and conditioner as shaving lotion for my legs. I guess I’m not that opposed to sulfates, mostly just opposed to having split ends that necessitate losing inches of hair.

amateur vagrant taiwan hair care products watsons avalon organics clarifying lemon shampoo

Avalon Organics Lemon Clarifying Shampoo

Hey! We may have a winner. The ingredients all check out in terms of being safe and natural. However, my hair is dry, so I would personally avoid anything harsh enough to call itself “clarifying lemon.” Sounds like split ends to me! But at least there are some not-bullshit products available at the drugstore.

amateur vagrant hair care products taiwan watsons amma garden coffee strengthening shampoo

Amma Coffee Strengthening Shampoo

This is another contender for “possibly not going to destroy your hair.” I haven’t tried this particular product, but I’ve use some other Amma Garden shampoos and conditioners, and I felt like they were very drying. Really, my hair like an underloved horse and I have to be intentional about not doing much with it to make it stay healthy and long like I like it.

Ascience Treatment Hair Mask

I don’t even have a picture of this product, that’s how bad the breakup was. It started off so well: after months of dryness and split ends, my hair was gorgeous. And then things started to go downhill. I tried using more product in my hair; I tried using it more often. Then I did some research found out that the dimethicone was the culprit. It coats the hair shaft, makes it silky soft and smooth, but after a while, no moisture can get to the hair and it just breaks and breaks.

Maaaybe you could use this like once in a blue moon when you need your hair to look amazing for a special event. Using it more often than that will destroy your hair.

After experimenting for two years, I actually ended up losing like six inches of my hair. I was bummed! But I learned a lot and now I am happy with my no-poo routine. I have been ordering all-natural conditioners (many different types) from iherb.com (affiliate link) because I couldn’t find anything natural in the stores.

Zhongli Bowling on Wednesday nights

amateur vagrant things to do in zhongli taiwan taoyuan bowling zhongmei road

Nearly every Wednesday night in Zhongli, you can find a big group of foreigners and locals bowling together at the lanes on Zhongmei Road.

Many of them play in the official Jungli Bowling League. Anyone can join, but you have to commit to being there every Wednesday for the length of the season (there are two per year). If you miss more than two weeks…you turn into a pumpkin or something. I don’t know. No one is begging me to be on their team.

If your team wins, you get a prize.

amateur vagrant things to do in zhongli taiwan bowling league 2016 flyer

Alternatively, you can just show up on Wednesday nights and linger until someone assigns you a lane.

BYOB if you want to drink anything other than regular Taiwan Beer. But how cool is that? There’s a 7-11 just across the street, full of icy cold ones.

amateur vagrant things to do in zhongli taoyuan taiwan bowling lanes

As with all these activities organized by Zhongli foreigners, some people take it very seriously. You can usually identify them by the way they thump their chests and feel the need to explain themselves when they don’t bowl a strike.

Many others view the weekly bowling night as a different venue for drinking with the same people.

I take the extreme position that bowling actually interferes with consuming beer, so I’d rather just go to the bar. Except I don’t drink during the week (anymore).

It’s NT$240 per person per game. The shoe “rentals” are free. You literally walk behind the desk and get your shoes yourself. Wild!

Anyway, it’s a lot of fun and an excellent way to meet people.