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…

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!

the worst people in the world

I see this almost every day when I am driving to work at the intersection of Zhongfeng Road and the Ring Road. Some inattentive person closes the gap between the scooters and the cars and the dozens of scooters coming up behind have to line up between the cars or block the right-turn lane trying to get out of the way. There’s a big ol’ scooter box and it’s mostly empty. Everyone just sits there in between buses and garbage trucks, breathing in fumes and trying not to get when the right lane starts moving.

It makes me crazy mad.  the worst drivers in taiwan zhongli