TGIF: Taiwan’s Got Insane Food

I work on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings, so I have nothing to look forward to except extra playground time with the students I see every day during the week. But since I don’t drink lots of sweet coffee drinks every day like I used to, Friday is my day for caramel macchiatos and xiao long bao  from the best little vendor in Chung Yuan.

This guy:

good xiao long bao tang bao in chungli taiwan chung yuan university
Best Little Tang Bao in Chungli

The reason this picture is so vague and far away is because I am too scared to be like, “Can I take a picture?” Instead, I creep around the streets like a nutter taking photos and shuffling away.

Here is another surreptitious photo I took:

soup dumpling guy boxing them up in chungli taiwan
My mouth is watering!

“Soup dumplings” are awesome: they’re delicious little meatballs wrapped in a noodley casing that leaks a flavorful broth when you bite into them. And the hot sauce this guys gives away with each box is downright addictive. I’m practically purring by the time I take my first bite. Here’s a picture of my lunch most Fridays:

xiao long bao tang bao soup dumplings chungli taiwan

Also…don’t get mad now, but that box cost NT$50, which is like US$1.66. It’s been the same price since I first went there in 2007 or so. I was having a laugh about how cheap and delicious they were with the owner of this tea shop (scroll down), which I also started frequenting in the late ‘aughts.

“You ever been to Din Tai Fung?” she asked me. That’s a Michelin-starred dumpling restaurant that first opened in Taipei, but now has branches all over the world. Same little soup dumplings, but a lot pricier and you generally have to make reservations weeks in advance or risk standing in line for a long time.

“Yeah! Super expensive and not any better! Actually, I think the ones over there are better.”

“You’re right!”

Here’s the tea shop where I get my iced caramel macchiato to keep me from getting parched while giving my students their Friday spelling tests. Obviously I hid across the street when taking this photo, too:

my favorite tea shop in town chungli taiwan
My long-time favorite tea shop.

I was so excited when I came back after four years and found out that not only was this place still open, but they actually have franchises around the city now. My enthusiasm was slightly dampened when the mom/owner recognized me and she was like, “Wow! You got fat! What happened?” and then later when the daughter said, “You’ve been studying Chinese for so long, why is your Chinese still so bad?” At least we still have our favorite tang bao in common…and neither of them were looking none too thin, anyway.

I grab a spring roll from this place (scroll down) for dinner a couple nights a week. Traditional Chinese spring rolls (LOOK AT HOW THEY TRANSLATED IT AS “TRADITIONAL CHINESE BURRITOS” OMG LOL) are thin cakes stuffed mostly with boiled vegetables and just a pinch of pork floss (that’s a thing) and like three shitty little strips of pork. My Chinese friends insist they aren’t bad for you, they cost NT$35 (like about a US dollar), they are crazy filling, and I can get one and finish it off at 7-11 in the short time I have between classes.

I would have liked to get a picture of the store front, but the owner really wanted me to take this picture standing in front of the restaurant. This is me in my awesome teaching clothes. You’re welcome.

spring rolls chungli taiwan
Nice old Vespa sitting out front of my favorite spring roll place in Chungli, near Chung Yuan University.

Sweet buns

My first thought when I saw a picture of the Donut Burger (TM) was that it was everything that’s wrong with the world. That’s just so many calories and carbs and things that are bad for you, there’s no way you wouldn’t feel like shit. It brought to mind Bill Burr saying, “You eat one egg McMuffin and you’re just on the couch, “Eh, y’know what? Fuck my dreams””and a Cake lyric, “Excess ain’t rebellion.”

Cause that’s what it is, right? You order it, it comes, you Instagram it, post it on Facebook, eat it, tweet about it, then lay around in a food coma for four hours and probably get a headache. Life is a terrible thing to waste.

And besides all that, Taiwan has New York beat because they’ve been serving up sugar donuts that are roughly the size of hot dogs, with a hot dog inside, slathered with mayonnaise. (And because Taiwanese bakeries are basically Japanese, Japan probably has everyone beat.) I have never eaten one. In fact, it’s one of the few things in Taiwan I refused to even try, and I’ve at least tried pig intestines, congealed duck’s blood, and chicken feet. The sight of a hot dog with the yellowish mayonnaise squirted decoratively over the top, on a fried, sugary doughnut just made my stomach turn a little.

“It’s a famous food!” my friend said. (But that’s what Taiwanese folks say about everything so I am no longer swayed.)

But…that was a long time ago, and when I went to the bakery downstairs, I could only find these:

hot dogs in buns at the bakery in chungli taiwan
not quite fresh-off-the-grill, nor refrigerated (you get used to it)
bakery goods in chungli taiwan
Other baked goods stuff with tuna, ham, fried chicken, processed cheese, etc. Ketchup and mayo are decorative and tasty.

bakery hot dog chungli taiwan
This is what a hot dog that’s been fried then left to sit on a bakery shelf for hours looks like. (The kewpie doll is my writing talisman.)

The buns were more like bread than I wanted for this picture, but here they are, and I can only promise to keep looking for the dogs of legend. When I find them, I’ll update this post accordingly.

Also, it occurred to me in writing this post that I was pretty excited to move back to the US after I found out Dunkin’ Donuts had added those sausage-pancake balls to the menu, so I can’t judge.

Bonus picture of a potato-salad bun. It’s just potato salad in a soft bun, with some ham and cheese for decoration. The tiny ham-funnel of ketchup in the middle of the bun was a nice touch and a real boost to the flavor.

potato salad sandwich from chungli taiwan bakery
A potato salad sandwich. This is not even leftovers; I straight up bought this.

Living behind the language barrier

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

My Chinese isn’t great. The most I can say is that it’s inconsistent. For example, I’ve managed to have a conversation with a woman who explained to me that she met her husband late in life and they were only able to conceive after a few rounds of in vitro fertilization. And then I order “shoes” instead of “shrimp” and the waitress claps her hands at me like I’m a gifted parrot.

However, the most frustrating occasions are when my Chinese is on point and I know what I’m saying and and some silly bitch starts barking, “Hot-tuh, hot-tuh? Cold-duh? Cold-duh?” at me like I’m not only a foreigner but also someone who shouldn’t leave the house without an escort.

I have a friend who’s lived her twenty years and is married to a Taiwanese man. She speaks Chinese to her husband, to his family, to their kids, to all her Taiwanese friends. She knows the language, right? She told me that once when she tried to initiate a conversation with a stranger in Chinese, he said, “I’m sorry, no English.”

She told him in Chinese, “No, but I’m speaking Chinese to you.”

“No English!” he said, turned, and fled. (I like to imagine that he ran down the beach waving his arms above his head while my friend stood there with her mouth open and her eyebrows furrowed.)

I try not to get angry because so many foreigners here really don’t speak Chinese. Stereotypes exist for a reason, and I can’t expect to be treated like a unique special snowflake every time I rock up when 9 times out of 10, some grumpy foreigner is going to stand in front of the counter at 7-11 wagging his index finger and saying “Marlboro Reds” like the clerk is stupid instead of not bilingual. Also, if you’ve never heard your language being botched by someone who isn’t a native speaker, you might not have an ear for my American-accented Chinese. (I’ve seen foreigners struggle to understand Chinese accents. I have a friend with an Australian accent so thick it takes a committee of Westerners to figure out what he’s saying.) Fair enough.

Also, I think a lot of people who reply to me in English know that they studied English for years in public schools here and assume that I didn’t study Chinese until I was an adult, which is true. It’s humbling to have a local person here apologize for his/her poor English without complaining about my bad Chinese.

Can you imagine how that would play out in the US or Canada? Yeah…

My favorite strangers are the ones who listen to what I am saying and toss out predicates like candy at a parade whenever I am struggling to complete a thought. They can get past my accent, they get the gist of what I’m saying, they’ve even figured out that I can understand a lot more than I can say. I love you people. I promise to start studying again because I owe it to people like you to stop being such a lazy dead-weight.

Shout out specifically to the nice lady at the dentist office and the nice lady at the bank who have called me up personally to have me come in and sort something out. It’s not their job to give me one-on-one attention, but they call me, struggle through what usually starts off as a very weird conversation, and get me in there to sign documents or whatever. After the hours I racked up waiting in lines watching customer service employees and government clerks berate immigrants in Small Town, Virginia, I know that Americans won’t always go out of their way to help people who don’t speak the language. (Okay, I knew that already.)

now speak English :(
This is America (Philly). In Taiwan, they just have English menus. Or picture menus. Or a young person who’s been studying English since s/he started school. We’ve even had a whole family of customers come and help us order from a seafood menu when I was struggling.

Conversations with Chinese bosses

angry me
This is me telling it how it is in front of a waterfall in Wulai.

I was thinking about my two landlords and also how a lot of the people I work for and with are like my first landlord, the one who wasn’t really bothered about the terms of the lease because he assumed we weren’t going to be dicks, and seemed to think we should have expected him to come to us with six months’ of electricity bills because he was too busy to get in touch with us at any other time.

A lot of my issues with this way of doing things can be explained by an exploration of the differences between high-context and low-context cultures. Chinese culture is high context: they assume every one is on the same page and asking questions is weird. American culture is low context: we assume we have no idea what anyone else is thinking, so we want it all spelled out for us, in writing, with dotted i‘s and crossed t‘s. For example, I’d like some numbers multiplied by some other numbers on a piece of paper showing how many hours I worked when they give me my pay every month, and they seem to think I should trust that they probably got it right. (And if not, c’mon, we’re all friends here. We’re practically family. It’s barely about the money.) (That being said, they are more accurate than the HR at Rosetta Stone who used to screw us all coming and going when it came to recording our pay and benefits.)

I’m not an anthropologist, so I’ll just tell you some of the things that frustrate me less as time goes on, but still baffle me even after years here. Sometimes, you have conversations, very explicit, where you say, maybe, “Okay, but you have to watch our performance rehearsal a month before the show, two weeks before the show, not two days before the show, because if you want us to change something, you have to give us time. We’re working with young learners here, and we can’t change things on them too fast or they’ll get confused and that’s not fair.”

“Of course, of course,” your manager says. It’s nonsense to imply she is not reasonable or that she does not realize how long it takes to teach a class of kindergartners your original choreography for Katy Perry’s Firework.

But then, she walks into the gym two days before the show and the kids are near tears because they are sick to death of being told to smile and sing loudly and dance properly NO NOT LIKE THAT NOBODY TOLD YOU TO KICK HIM FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THINGS HOLY DO NOT I SAID NO I AM SO DONE WITH THIS I HAVE A PHILOSOPHY DEGREE I NEVER WANTED THIS FOR MYSELF and she asks you to change the choreography because there isn’t enough dancing in circles. “It’s boring, they’re just dancing in lines.” No one ever mentioned anything about any kind of standards, let alone circles, and you didn’t think it would be possible for twenty kids dressed as baby zoo animals to be at all boring, so you tell them you have to go to the bathroom and you run to parking lot and flail your arms and smoke a cigarette and wait for a foreign teacher to walk by so you can complain about unfair life is and how she agreed weeks ago not to change anything two days before the performance.

But then, if you’ve lived here a while and you like living here, you knew that was going to happen anyway and you just go with it. You smile and you spend six hours over the next two days begging twenty four-year-olds to please remember to make two circles and turn around for the chorus of Katy Perry’s Firework.

Or you go to a job interview, you tell them you’re available to on Tuesday and Thursday for NT$700 an hour. You do a demo and they tell you “Good, good” and they write down your phone number. A month later you ask your buddy who told you about the job if they are still looking or if they’ve found someone else, and he’s confused because they said they were going to hire you. So he reaches out to them and they say, “Yes, yes, we want her. Classes start in September and we’ll contact her then.” (As in the week before classes start. No need to try to prepare ahead.)

Then when they contact you, they say, “Sorry, how about NT$650 an hour instead of the NT$700 we agreed on?”


“Oh, okay. And did your friend tell you about exercise time?”

“No, what’s that?”

“Oh, I thought he told you everything!”

(Friend: “I brought her in for the interview. It’s your job to tell her what her responsibilities are.” And that made perfect sense to me.)

“You have to come in ten minutes early and lead the entire kindergarten in an exercise routine. It’s unpaid. You have to find your own music.”

“I can do that.” [← That is how a teacher who’s been here almost a decade responds to this kind of request.]

“Okay, great. Exercise time is on Wednesday.”

“I told [Manager] I could do Tuesday and Thursday.”

“But exercise time is on Wednesday.”

“Okay, let me rearrange my schedule with my other school, see if I can accommodate you…Okay, great, we’re sorted. I’ll come in on Tuesday and Wednesday.” [← Ten years of being overruled.]

“Okay, then Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning.”

“I said Tuesday morning, not afternoon.”

“Okay, let me talk to the manager and see if that’s okay.”

Not gonna pretend like I didn’t work at an American office that wasn’t rife with miscommunications and inefficiencies, but they usually came about after meetings where at least some people tried to drag everyone onto the same page. Here, it’s more like the assumption is that everyone is already magically on the same page, or once the boss has spoken, everyone will be on the same page. You can voice your opinion if you want people to know you’re difficult and insubordinate, but then you had better just get on with it.

Big spider vs big cockroach

Taiwan has lots of Bugs of Unsual Size (B.O.U.S.s). The ones I hate the most are the spiders the size of a man’s hand and the cockroaches the size of mice. They are very upsetting. However, they are everywhere, even in the cleanest of houses. Living in a new building and/or on a high floor can minimize your chances of running across these creeps, or rather, minimize their chances of running across you, but you still have to wake up every morning knowing this might be something that happens to you today.

Taiwan spider in an apartment in Chungli Zhongli
A spider in my friend’s apartment in Chungli. He took the picture. I wouldn’t have stopped to pull out my camera.

I personally hate giant spiders AND giant cockroaches, but there is a portion of the population (definitely mostly local Taiwanese people or foreigners dating Taiwanese people) who think the spiders are better because they eat the cockroaches. As in, “I was going to kill that spider, but then I saw him eating a giant cockroach in the corner of my kitchen, and I decided he was a spiderbro.”

Second Taiwan spider in an apartment in Chungli Zhongli
Another spider in my buddy’s apartment. He lives in an old building. I’d move. Like leave all my stuff behind and just start over. His girlfriend is from Taiwan; she’s all like, “Don’t kill it, it eats the cockroaches!” Nope.

If I walked into my kitchen and saw a giant spider eating a giant cockroach, I’d have to move. It’d be like walking in on your grandparents doing it. You can’t unsee that. That is not okay. That is horrifying.

And seeing one of your grandparents naked instead of the other is not better. I refuse to choose. I don’t want to see either of these creeps in my living space. What do you say: are eight legs better than six?

big spider outside in Taiwan east coast
Bonus picture of an outdoor spider, taken somewhere on the east coast of Taiwan.

Do I have to buy a birthday gift every weekend?

Birthday wine!

When I was in the States, I felt like it took forever to make friends. And then there were different levels of friendship, and it was impossible to advance to the level of I’ve-known-you-as-long-as-So-and-so because So-and-so was there for two years before I got there, and she’d only been there four years, and that was already twice as long as I’d been there.

It was exasperating.

And then people would have parties, but only some people were invited, and you were instructed in the invite not to tell other people about the party. But then everyone knew each other (small town, small company), so you’d hear about it and you’d just feel bad/you’d mention it and make someone else feel bad.

“I miss Taiwan! We always invited everyone to our parties!”

Now that we’re in Taiwan, though, I see the other side of the coin: Every fucking weekend, it’s somebody’s birthday, a Western holiday, a Chinese holiday, or a local holiday.

It’s exhausting and expensive. People buy each other gifts here, too, like a bottle of wine or some fancy lotion. I’m of the opinion that because we are in our 30s and because we’re so busy seeing everyone we have to see every weekend that we don’t even spend that much time with any one group of people, that we don’t need to keep showing up to restaurants for dinner and drinks and a present. I’m not going to have a dirty-diaper tantrum because somebody didn’t buy me a bottle of wine they know damn well I can buy for myself.

When we have to buy someone else a gift, I’m like, “I haven’t seen this kid in three months and I don’t even know if he gives a shit about good wine.” So I bought an inexpensive bottle, and a couple more for our upcoming housewarming party because it’ll probably be fruity and easy to drink, if it isn’t flat and doesn’t taste like stems.

…Except that my friends were super generous when they came to my birthday gift. I didn’t say “don’t bring a gift” on the invite because I thought it was tacky and unnecessary. I didn’t know that people were asking J what to bring, and he was telling them all to bring wine, or that some of my lovely friends would bring me handbags and even clothes. I felt ashamed for not wanting to buy gifts, and so overwhelmed by everyone’s thoughtfulness…

Yet, if they hadn’t brought gifts, it still would have been a wonderful birthday.

How much are we supposed to budget for birthdays every weekend? I don’t even want birthday gifts, seriously. Not in a mean kind of way, but if people want to spend money to have dinner and drinks with me, I’m pumped! You don’t need to drop cash on buying me booze or handbags or dresses, too! I don’t want to seem ungrateful, either, and I don’t want to opt out of this nice community, but it gets expensive. Are we too old for this?

Two landlords, and some superficial musings on culture

When we first arrived here last October, we heard about a beautiful place that was available immediately. I even tried to arrange to have it leased in our name before we arrived. That didn’t work out, but we landed on a Friday and had moved in by Sunday. Our landlord was chill. We signed a contract, but he agree to shorten the length of the lease to seven months (the end of the school year), and still said it didn’t matter: as long as we gave him two months’ notice, he wasn’t bothered.

Turned out there were some problems in the apartment that needed fixing, like giant gaps between the drain and the tub in both bathrooms.

Anything that was obviously a problem got fixed, but when I asked him to swap out the horrible tarp-covered sofa in the living room, it was a no go.


We found a much more beautiful place downtown. It’s also furnished, but very well-maintained. We gave our landlord two months’ notice, and even told him we were going on holiday for three weeks…so he could maybe sneak in and give the walls a little painteroo or get rid of all the unused appliances taking up the closet in the spare bedroom.


We’d given him two months notice, and started mentioning that we’d like to know what was going on with our deposit whenevs. He never got back to us. I finally started getting firm on Line (one of a million fucking chat services; very popular here in Taiwan). He finally got back to us that yeah, sure, deposit, whatever, but we hadn’t paid the electricity bill in months.

That is true. Because the electricity bill was being sent to his house. Because I’d been very straight with him from the beginning and said I wanted to know about the bills as they arrived so we could pay them right away. And that hadn’t happened. So I told him I was pissed. Basically: We’re happy to pay you what we owe you. We certainly want to to do that. But we told you a really fucking long time ago that we didn’t want to find out that we owed you thousands of NT because you just hadn’t mentioned the bills.

I said very explicitly: We have a problem. I said that because I was pretty annoyed, because I know that out of all the things Taiwanese people hate, having a problem with someone else is at the top of the list.

After two months of asking him what was going on, he showed up at our door, with his sister to translate and help us through the quagmire.

Landlord: “Here is what I’ve paid, and what you owe!”

Me: “Ha! You missed a bill. We didn’t pay this one, either.”

Landlord: “Oh, yes. Okay. And the water bill!”

Me: “I know nothing about the water bill.”

Landlord: “Okay, the water bill doesn’t matter.”

Sister: “What do you mean it doesn’t matter? You need to show her the receipts or something.”

Landlord: “Okay, okay.”

Me: “Okay, that’s like NT$10,000. We paid you two months’ security deposit.”

Landlord: “Really? The last guy paid like a month, month and a half or something.”

Sister: “She can understand you.”

Me: “I can understand you.” Also: “Here’s the lease.”

Landlord: “Oh, it was two months’. Okay, we’ll wait for the last bill, then pay you the remainder in September.”

Very annoying. My boss here, a fabulous British man, occasionally has to remind me that we’re in Taiwan, not back in the US. Like when I don’t get a receipt or statement with my pay (in cash) every month. Basically everyone functions as though they can trust everyone else, which just can’t be true. And I got screwed by an American corporation not that long ago, and they’re supposed to keep things above board, so excuse me if Joe Landlord (actually, he called himself Richard) not knowing how much our security deposit was gets me a little irked.

“This is Taiwan!” = Just give everybody the benefit of the doubt. Okay, but I’d like the rest of my deposit back.

But then we’re ready to move into the new place and:

New landlord shows up to one of the three meetings we had before we even moved in with files and clipboards and a DVD with a tour of the house, detailing all known faults. We sat down with the current tenants and watched them receive their deposit while we handed over ours, we swore on our grandmothers’ graves we would not move out before the lease was up, and we dipped our thumbs in red ink and put our fingerprints next to every signature on the contract.

Not gonna lie, I prefer dealing with someone who has his docs all in a row. I don’t know where new landlord learned how to get everybody on the same page, or why old landlord thought it wasn’t worth the trouble. I do know that the only time I’ve felt even slightly screwed by a landlord, it was an American landlord in the US.

The 環島: One week in Dulan 都蘭

beach near dulan taidong taiwan
A beach south of Dulan.

Dulan is such a small and unremarkable place at first glance it would be easy to cruise straight through without realizing what you were missing, like this guy apparently did. You can drive right past the one 7-11 and the one gas station in town and without noticing if the ocean here is any more beautiful than the ocean is all along the east coast.

Pro-tip: “Water Running Up” is not really worth stopping for. It’s a place on the side of a road where there’s basically a nice-looking gutter next to the parking lot and the water is crawling–not running–up a gentle slope. Unusual, unless you’ve ever seen a fountain or any other instance of water pressure in action. If you’re in Dulan, yeah, stop. Just don’t try to make a weekend of it.

But the waves here break against warm sand instead of intimidating walls of stone, and they come in fast and high enough to attract surfers from all over the world. There’s actually an international surfing competition held at nearby Jinzun Bay every year since 2011. If you just pass through Dulan without stopping, you’ll miss some of the most awesome beaches in Taiwan–an island blessed with plenty of breathtaking shoreline, but few accommodating spots to lay down a towel for the afternoon.

scenic beach in Dulan
scenic spot in Dulan, or just south of it

We booked a room at a hostel called Wagaligong at the recommendation of a friend, who knew one of the owners because he was also South African and had also lived in Chungli for many years. He and I spent a long time tossing out names of other people we knew who’d lived in Chungli at the same time we had, only to conclude that we didn’t know everyone like we’d thought we did, and that we’d led parallel lives for years. It’s always unsettling to realize your world is bigger than you thought it was.

at the beach in Dulan, Taiwan
On the beach at Dulan, a short walk from where we stayed. The rocks come and go with the tide, and there’s plenty of soft, black sand where you can sit and read or just watch the water.

After a few drinks the first night, none of that mattered. I went to bed early after booking a surfing lesson for the next morning, but Tieney and J stayed up all night drinking with other expats who wandered in and out of Wagaligong. Obviously, J was in rough shape for the surfing lesson the next morning, but our instructor was Irish so it didn’t faze him. In fact, he turned out to be a super friendly and generous guy. For the next few days, we followed him to wherever the local surfers were surfing whenever we weren’t too hungover or lazy to get ourselves out of bed.

The expats we met in Dulan were a loosely-assembled motley crew of teachers, surfers, chefs, businessmen, and fathers. The only expat women I met were guests at the hostel where we were staying, though I saw the same fair-skinned, light-haired family in 7-11 almost every morning. There were dogs and naked kids all over the place; wives, kids, and college students taking orders for expat chefs locked in hot kitchens to cook. In between orders, the men would come out to smoke and chat with the customers until they were chased back to their stoves.

I got the impression that if I sat at the bar at Wagaligong for enough nights in a row, I’d eventually lay eyes on everyone who lived in town, either as they walked by or when they stopped in for a drink and some gossip. I could collect a book’s worth of secondhand stories to share as  they drank and shared stories of past lives already used up before they got to Dulan, where they can live the next thirty years by the beach, swimming and surfing and cooking for tourists. I met so many men and women who spoke two or three languages, who were multiskilled in music and arts. Everyone could surf; asking about the waves served as a greeting. They moved from chair to chair at friends’ houses, dogs and children and instruments and surfboards in tow. In their company, I felt filled up with inspiration and empty, as I have nothing to offer. I wanted to be one of them, people who make the easy yet impossibly bold decision to live lives that will make them happy, even if they have to “sacrifice” being encumbered by the artificial trappings of conventional successes.

sculpture at sculpture park south of Dulan next to Xiaoyeliu Taidong County Taiwan
A head made of driftwood at a park next to Xiaoyeliu, just south of Dulan.


xiaoyeliu dulan taidong county taiwan
Interesting rock formations at Xiaoyeliu south of Dulan. They would have been a whole lot more interesting if it weren’t literally 100°F+ the day that we decided to walk around and looking at f$#%ing rocks.


twilight at the beach near dulan taidong county taiwan
Twilight at a beach just north of Dulan. That’s Green Island in the distance.
Dulan Beach Taidong County Taiwan
We didn’t take many pictures of the beach at Dulan because we went there to get in the water, so here’s another picture of me carrying a surfboard.

I felt lovesick after leaving Dulan. When I unpacked my bag a few days later and I saw the sand in my bag and the tan lines on my chest, I felt sad because it ended, the same way anyone feels when they find tokens of an old love and regret that a special time in their life was over too quickly. I want to go back and learn how to surf, get a dog or three and walk them on the beach in the mornings and evenings when the sand is cool, walk down the street with a cold six-pack in a plastic bag and see who wants to share it with me. But I don’t want to keep working for a paycheck or open a restaurant where I’ll be locked up cooking food for hours every day, so I still have a long road back to Dulan, or some place like it.


The 環島: What we spent traveling around Taiwan for three weeks

J and I decided a while ago that we wouldn’t leave Taiwan this year. Part of that was my concerns about how Obamacare might affect expats and our tax status, etc. Basically nobody had any answers by late 2013, so I felt like playing it safe by not going into the US for all of this year was the best policy.

It also costs a lot of money to pare all your stuff down to two suitcases then get set up again in another country, and the trip back home is extremely expensive: about US$2000 for one round-trip plane ticket back to the States, plus the wages you miss by taking time off, plus the cost of hotels, car rentals, meals with friends, shopping to stock up on things we can’t find as easily or as cheaply here, etc. We figured there was plenty to see in Taiwan, and when you’ve got a job, time off is at least as precious as discretionary income, so we wanted to use the time we had to explore the island.


somewhere along the northeast coast of Taiwan
Somewhere along the northeast coast of Taiwan #nofilter #nomakeup

Staying in Taiwan was far cheaper than travelling back home, but J and I did not travel on the cheap at all. We drove scooters, but that was part of the romance and adventure (and discomfort) of it all, and not necessarily because we wanted to save money. The cheapest we spent on lodging was NT$700 (about US$23) for one night in what was essentially somebody’s spare bedroom in Fulong. The most we spent was on a hotel room our last night in the road, when we stayed in Taichung. That stupid room cost us NT$2,500, orUS$way-too-fucking-much, and didn’t even include breakfast. We stayed at a hostel in Dulan for NT$900 a night for a private room with air conditioning, but we did share a bathroom with a few too many other people: we were always waiting for a chance to use the toilet or take a shower. However, we saved a lot by staying there since staying in the Japanese-style rooms in at the hot spring in Ruisui cost us NT$1400 a night, and we were still sharing a bathroom. In Kenting, we paid NT$1500 a night for a nice clean, comfortable room that was at a hotel a short drive from the shore.

a peek at our Japanese-style room with the tatamis at the hot spring hotel in Ruisui, Taiwan
A peek at our Japanese-style room with the tatamis at the hot spring hotel in Ruisui, Taiwan (taken with a potato)

If you were on a tighter budget, you could definitely find cheaper digs. For example, our hostel in Dulan, Wagilong, had rates as low as NT$300 a person, but that was for sleeping on a mat in a big community room with no air conditioning. We were basically paying NT$450 a person to stay in a private room with air conditioning (they had some discounts running as the rooms we stayed in usually cost NT$1000 a night), so travelling with a friend or two could help cut down lodging costs.

Our gas costs were incredibly low, as it doesn’t cost much to fill up a scooter in Taiwan. My scooter takes about NT$120 to fill it up when it’s empty, and J’s takes up to NT$150. We got gas every day or two, but we weren’t necessarily filling up empty tanks. The gas meters in our scooters aren’t very sensitive, so we stopped anytime the needle started to fall below “F” to get NT$60-80 worth of gas each.

our noble steeds, SYM and Kymco
our noble steeds, SYM and Kymco

We spent some money on tickets to national parks and scenic areas, which were usually NT$50-100, so it was really cheap. Rafting down the Xiuguluan River cost us NT$750 each, including transportation there and back to our hotel. We took a surfing lesson in Dulan which cost NT$1500 each: $1000 for an hour with the instructor and $500 to rent the soft boards for the whole day. We also would have liked to hire a guide to do river tracing in Hualien, and for the two of us that would have cost NT$4000 for the day, but the typhoon made that impossible. The ferry to Green Island and back cost NT$900 or so each, and we also paid NT$300 to take over one of our scooters to get around. That was unnecessary, but we had our reasons. We missed out on whale watching and snorkeling basically because we didn’t really plan for them: the days went by so fast that it seemed like all our time was accounted for before we knew it. I’d happily go back to Taidong/Green Island for either of those adventures, though.

Baqi, on the east coast of Taiwan
Baqi, on the east coast of Taiwan

Our biggest excessive expense was food and alcohol. We could have saved a ton of money by eating more cheaply, and I’m ambivalent about how we did it. Basically, we could have driven around Taiwan sampling local fare, especially night market and street food, and eaten our fill for NT$100-150 each every night, not including breakfast and lunch. Instead, we had cheap meals at breakfast shops and convenience stores (they have food like Wawa or Sheetz back home) and then we had a pretty extravagant meal for dinner. Almost every night. It was kind of ridiculous. Basically, we do eat Chinese food a lot, we love it, but we took every opportunity to try some really authentic Italian pizza, Mexican food, Indian fusion, South African boerewors, Japanese okonomiyaki, or dessert prepared by a real French person.

nachos as Dos Tacos in Hualien
Nachos as Dos Tacos in Hualien. You don’t get nachos like this in Chungli, but you can get delicious kung pao chicken or beef noodle soup. I eat Mexican/TexMex when I can get it, and this place was great.

Those kinds of meals are definitely more costly, so we easily spent as much on our food every day as we did on the lodgings, so between NT$700-1500 per dinner for two. As we were coming home, I started to feel some regret for not searching out the local “famous foods” in every city as Taiwanese travelers will do, but then I remembered the equally fantastic food we’d had instead, so I am not going to beat myself up about it. However, if you’re travelling on a budget, you can get so much really good food here for really cheap, so don’t let me scare you. We just eat cheap, delicious Chinese food all the time in Chungli, so we opted to try foods we can’t get here while on vacation. Also, I had some kickass margaritas, mojitos, and caipirinhas that cost between NT$180 and NT$220 each, but fuck it. You go get beer at 7-11 if you want to.

And yes, I love to be self-deprecating:

All in all, we spent about NT$60,000 on three weeks travelling around the island, which like I said is about the cost of one round-trip plane ticket from Taiwan to Virginia. We could have saved a lot by staying in hostels the whole time or intentionally eating cheaper local food, but without even trying to budget, we had a pretty epic vacation for US$333 per person per week, including food, transportation, and lodging. Depending on your destination and budget, that might sound like a good deal or an unfeasible dream, I don’t know. I know that you can definitely do it cheaper here,but we had fun, good food, and made memories, so life will go on.

Now, how can I reconcile spending so frivolously on vacation when we are trying to get out of debt, as in 100% debt-free, and trying to save and invest big money? I can’t. We did not budget and that is always our downfall. But we didn’t use our credit cards or deplete or savings to take this trip, and we’re still on track to pay off one and maybe two of our remaining student loans before the end of this year, so I am not totally disgusted with us.

 Here’s the post about what it was like to ride scooters around the island for three weeks.

The 環島: Driving around Taiwan on scooters

The 環島/huándǎo is the trip around Taiwan that loads of people make every year: expats, students, families, and soul-searchers. You can drive a car, ride scooters, ride a bike, or even walk, as we saw one man doing.

A man walking around Taiwan.
When we stopped to ask him, this man said he was three months into a six-month walk around the island. The banner on his back says,”Wǒ zài huándǎo,” “I’m going around the island.”

I know a (much younger) guy who on a whim took two weeks of his summer holiday to bike around the island. It all depends on how badass you are. You kind of have to go out of your way to make it difficult since Taiwan isn’t very big and it’s probably the most convenient place on earth. There are 7-11s, coffee shops, and guesthouses everywhere. Only once were we worried about getting gas, but then we got gas. No big deal.

If you know me, you probably know that I drove “around the island” by myself during the summer of 2008 because it’s one of the few things I think I can brag about. I took just three days to go west from 中壢/Chungli/Zhongli, then up and along the northern coast, down the breathtakingly beautiful east coast, and started back up to Kaohsiung, where I surrendered because I cannot read maps, my butt hurt, and I wanted to make it back in time for French class that Friday. I put my scooter on the train and I took the high-speed rail home, sitting on each butt cheek in shifts.

Granted, I didn’t see much, but riding 70 km/h for hours and hours along an incredibly beautiful highway with the blue, blue ocean almost constantly in sight is not an experience that should be underestimated. It was amazing. I took that trip after a particularly tough breakup: I learned how to be alone, I learned that I could rely on myself (except when it comes to reading maps), and I did something not a few people told me I couldn’t or shouldn’t do. It was my own quick gloss of Eat, Pray, Love.

J being the extremely enthusiastic man that he is, we decided to take our time, stopping at major cities around the island for a couple of nights consecutively so we could explore. We took three weeks to go around the whole island during the height of summer, which turned out to be hours and hours of driving in humid, tropical heat that reflected off black asphalt and burnt our legs and arms pink.

me on my scooter
I think this is in Taroko Gorge or thereabouts. Anyway, it was hot.

The first day, I was dressed entirely wrong. I had on my denim shorts, a tank top, and a crop top over that, which only meant that my thighs and arms were getting mercilessly pummeled by the sun. I thought slipping on my lightweight cargo pants and a very lightweight nylon jacket would help because the extra layers would protect my skin, but they only made me so hot that I was incredibly irritable whenever we stopped so J could take a picture, which was every.fucking.where. Dude got a new camera right before we left, specifically for this trip, and he wanted to record every gorgeous thing he saw. Taiwan is an incredibly gorgeous place, so you do the math. He took like 2000 pictures, no joke.

After a few days, I had a system of covering up my legs with a sarong tied at my waist and wearing the light jacket over only a tank top, and quickly shedding that outer layer as soon as we stopped before the humidity made me want to rip off all my clothes and run naked into the ocean. Even still, I resented every second that I had to wait for J to finish a cigarette or quadruple-check the map once I had already put my full-face helmet on. It was temper-tantrum hot, every day.

me at Yushan National Park
This is me in my driving outfit, sans helmet. It was so hot I actually wanted to cover up instead of strip down.

Then when we got back on the scooters, I’d fall in line behind J because he’d plotted our route and looked at the map, but then I would get pissed if he drove too fast, or too slow, or missed a turn, or stopped to look at the GPS, or asked me if I’d bothered to look at any of the road signs we’d passed. I hadn’t. I looked at nothing except his back for hours and hours every day, it felt like. Sometimes, I’d realize that I wasn’t even breathing, and I’d remind myself to breathe, until I started to wonder if my body was no longer really doing that automatically, then I’d panic and concentrate on my breathing until I forgot about it again.

For hours every day, we sat in shallow swamps of our own sweat. For relief, I’d drive with my right hand and bundle the sarong into the jacket, then stand up and lean over like a jockey on a racehorse and let the wind flow between my legs and dry the sweat off my seat. When the sweat dried, then the skin of my thighs stuck to the plastic seat like masking tape and hurt just as much to pull off. We got heat rash on our butts and we both smelled like gym bags left in a hot car at the end of every day.

We drove so much that it was almost like I couldn’t hear the engine of my scooter anymore. Also, because we drove separately, I had hours to myself to think about important things, like the lyrics to The Impression That I Get, that alliterative line up there about butt sweat, and what kind of cancer I’ll eventually die from. Evidently, this trip was a good time for me to start smoking again, so with that and the regular sunburn, just about any cancer is on the table right now.

But, despite all that, this trip was the adventure of a lifetime. It was the first time J and I got to go to the beach together, it was our first long vacation together, and I love rediscovering the island with him, and falling in love with him and this place all over again. Traveling can really make or break any relationship because you’re out of your element and you can’t fall back on roles that might only make sense in certain contexts. You have to figure out how to relate to each other differently, and find out if you can depend on each other in times of stress and uncertainty. I definitely learned that it would be to my benefit to give a shit when he takes three months to plan out everything he wants to do for a three-week vacation instead of making suggestions and complaining when we’re actually on the road.

Anyway, this was just about the drive itself, which was beautiful and grueling like the best things in life, so there are more posts to come. Let me know if you’ve gone around the island or do any epic scooter trips.