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This week’s guest post for the ‘Day-to-Day’ series comes from Tom at Waegook Tom who’s currently working and living in Taipei, Taiwan. If you’re an expat and interest in sharing the day-to-day details of your city shoot me a message at thepaperplanesblog @ gmail . com.
Ever since I was a little boy, I always knew I’d wind up living in a big city somewhere. Growing up on a farm had its benefits, but my village of less than one hundred people wasn’t what I wanted for myself. London wowed me on school trips there, and I’d spend hours poring over atlases and looking at photos of cities like New York, Rome and Sydney. Asia isn’t where I thought I’d wind up, but I’ve been living on the continent since 2009, and since January this year, I’ve been living in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan.
I was a little freaked out at first, mainly due to the language barrier that rears its head now and again. Prior to living in Taipei, I was in South Korea for three and a half years. Now, Korean has an alphabet, and it’s pretty easy to learn – once you know it, you can read anything. Even if you don’t understand it, at least you can sound things out. Mandarin? That luxury doesn’t exist. I’d find myself standing in restaurants just staring at a menu with no pictures, and after a few minutes it would dawn on me that no matter how hard I looked at something, I wouldn’t miraculously be able to understand what was written down on the paper in front of me. It’s still like that now. I know a few characters, but there’s a lot of pointing and mime involved whenever I venture to a new restaurant either alone, or with a friend who, like me, speaks no more than about twenty words of Mandarin.
One of the words I do know, though, is peigen danbing, and I order this for breakfast a few days a week. It’s a type of bacon pancake served up at a hole-in-the-wall breakfast shop, just a three minute walk from my apartment. I order it with iced milk tea and a hash brown. I live in a studio in Wanlong, on the green MRT line. It’s a quiet neighbourhood and doesn’t have much going on, but luckily it’s pretty close to Gongguan, which is where National Taiwan University (NTU) is. NTU is the country’s best university, and the area around it is crammed full of cheap eateries and cute cafes. It’s where I spend most of my time, and it’s only one stop on the MRT from me, or just five minutes on the bus or a twenty minute walk, if the weather’s nice.
There are Buddhist shrines all over the place in Taipei, adorned with LED lights. I see them when I walk from the MRT station to my workplace. I see them if I decide to walk to the gym, or head to a night market. The worshippers at the various temples around Taipei – Baoan Temple is my favourite so far – don’t seem to mind outsiders wandering around. I feel welcome if I decide to visit a temple, not like if I venture to a mosque or a church, when I feel that beady eyes are watching me. I love the detail in the paintwork at the temples, the unabashed use of anything glitzy, and the incense pots that are shaped like dragons.
Now, work. I, like many other foreigners in Taipei, work here as an English teacher. I work in a cram school, teaching kids who are in elementary, middle and high school. I love the job. Children make every day different, and I really enjoy getting to know their different personalities, which is possible since my largest class has no more than eight students. I usually work from around 2 or 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and finish no later than nine thirty. It takes me quite a while to get to work – my school is located out near Touqianzhuang MRT station, on the yellow line – with the commute being around an hour. I don’t mind it, though. Commuting has a way of making me feel like I belong in the city. It gives me a sense of normalcy that I don’t get when I just visit somewhere for a week or so. The walk to work from the MRT station is anything but scenic, past apartment buildings, and a bizarre amount of motorcycle repair shops. I recognise the random dogs that hang out outside each one, and I’m not sure if they belong to the mechanics, or if they’re strays. I’d guess a mixture of both. Dinner depends on whether or not I’ve been organised enough to a) buy food and b) cook said food. If I bring my own dinner, it’s usually chicken with sweet potatoes. If I order at work, I’ll usually wind up with a combination of rice, meat and vegetables. Sometimes it turns out good, sometimes nothing short of disappointing, prompting me to hit up a late night eatery when I finally get back to my neighbourhood. I’m usually pretty wiped out by the time I’m home, so I generally just do some work on my blog, watch perfectly legal downloads of my favourite shows (Game of Thrones and RuPaul’s Drag Race), and chatter with friends on Facebook. Pretty much what I’d do back home in the UK, actually.
I try to stay relatively healthy, and hit up the gym a few times a week. Every district in Taiwan has its own sports centre, which costs 50NTD (about $1.65) per visit, with you getting one hour of allotted exercise time. The facilities in my district gym, Wenshan, are great, and the time limit means I’m actually focused on getting my workout done, rather than lingering on equipment and texting my friends on LINE (the free messaging app of choice in Taiwan). Yet I do love my food, and love to hit up the street food stands in Gongguan. There’s a great place I go to for steamed pork buns with coriander, I have my personal favourite Thai joint, there’s a great pita bar called Saibaba, an awesome frozen yoghurt shop, a place that serves up delectable dishes from Xinjiang, in western China. I could go on and on about all the amazing food that’s on offer in this city. In fact, that’s what spurred me to find out about my district gym – my only pair of work trousers got tight to the point of me worrying that they’d split if I stretched a leg too far while walking.
On my days off, I’m usually in Taipei. My days off aren’t consecutive – I get Sunday and Tuesday off – so I’m pretty limited in where I can go in terms of taking a day trip somewhere. The south of Taiwan is way too far away to do in a day. Fortunately for me, Taipei’s MRT system is super easy to use, and super cheap, so I take full advantage of that when I’m not working. Sometimes I’ll have a particular thing in mind that I want to see, other times, I’ll just hop off at a random station and see what’s there. I’ve come across some pretty cool things that way. On Saturday nights, I’ll often head to Red House in Taipei’s Ximen neighbourhood, which is an open courtyard full of gay bars, and partake in a few beverages with friends. Taipei is very gay friendly, and it’s a refreshing change from my small hometown (no gay scene), and the rather homophobic attitudes that are commonplace in Korea. On a Sunday, you’ll tend to find me hunkered down in a cafe getting some writing done, or walking along one of Taipei’s many riverside parks.
Would I recommend Taipei as a place to live in? Absolutely. The locals here are incredibly kind and friendly and it’s still pretty easy to get by if, like me, you don’t understand Mandarin. Taipei also has the shortest average flight time from every major city in Asia, so it’s a great place to base yourself if you plan on travelling in both north-east and south-east Asia. This little island has been described as a ‘fully realised China’ and Taipei is the perfect showcase for that. I’m not sure how long I’ll live in this city, but I suspect it’ll be a little while yet before I get the itch to move on.
Tom is a 27 year-old Brit, hailing from pretty but boring Harrogate, in North Yorkshire, and is the mind, voice and fingers behind travel and expat blog, Waegook Tom. After quitting his call centre job in Newcastle in 2009, he upped and moved to South Korea, where he stayed until March last year, proceeding to travel for a few months after that. Now in Taipei, Tom enjoys eating all the delicious food, swooning over Taiwanese men, and plans to see more of Asia. You can keep up with Tom’s adventures through his blog, on Facebook, and by following @waegook_tom on Twitter and Instagram.