Great people

This picture was taken during a somewhat yearly lunch get-together between some of the original team members of what was then ITRI’s web communications department. These people set the standard for all work experiences to follow. It’s amazing that as we approach close to 20 years since I first met them all we still manage to keep in touch and meet regularly.

Other than fostering a fun and enjoyable work environment we enjoyed so many early “firsts”, a few included: 20% rule whereby you spent a portion of your time on self-directed study, then share and apply; business blog networks before it was a thing; early standards based web development; and we established a robust information architecture practice within a very early for Taiwan UX team (there were no other UX teams for web at that time that we knew about).

It wasn’t all flowers and unicorns of course, there was conflict, we got emotional, but by and large we were more family than work colleagues.

As I prepare to leave Taiwan for the next chapter of my life, I will always remember fondly the experiences I had working with my other Taiwan family.


The Miracle of Taiwan’s Architecture

In the summer, it’s hotter inside than it is outside. In the winter, it’s colder inside than it is outside. Only Taiwan builders could accomplish such a feat.

What passes for winter in northern Taiwan has arrived. That means 10˚C or colder temperatures, which is fine, but the cool temperatures are accompanied by a constant drizzle, the dampness of which makes everything feel much worse. It also makes most outdoor activities too unpleasant to consider. Yesterday that meant a mind numbing 25km run on a treadmill, followed by an afternoon of binge watching Netflix, and capped with a dinner composed of 鮭魚丼 and miso soup. Not a bad day, all considered. Unfortunately, while I have lots of work to keep me busy for most of the day, the kids, my son in particular, would rather be outside riding their bikes or playing basketball. Now they are relegated to their rooms, trying to keep warm under their blankets.

To rub salt in the wound, last year at this time we just capped off a week on the beach in southern Thailand, after which I returned to my apartment in China, which had a great heating system. Of all the things wrong I found with living in China, at least as compared to Taiwan, I at least had heat.

Taiwan’s apartments, aka cement prisons, with the exception of some newer builds are all outfitted without concern for interior temperature, making them feel like ovens in summer, and fridges in winter. Many offices are somewhat the same, with scenes of workers wearing parkas and gloves, while trying to type on keyboards with numb fingers. In our apartment, I’ve complicated things by sealing all the windows, limiting air flow, to keep out as much dirt and pollution that fills the air as I possibly can.

The saving grace is that misery lasts less than a month, after which we can go on about complaining about other things, like scooters driving on the sidewalk, and how it is possible Costco doesn’t have butter.


Christmas weekend Star Wars

Big City lights up for Christmas so people can take pretty selfies.

Though I make a habit of photographing as a means of remembering even the most minor of events, I have nothing to show for yesterday’s Christmas celebration. Just ugly shots of what was a delicious meal. Taiwan is only international when it comes to government sponsored propaganda so celebrating Christmas here can sometimes be a challenge but we manage each year to have a great time.

The above photo was taken on the 23rd after we had seen the latest Star Wars which left me with a distinct feeling of deja vu. Dinner was at a mall joint – expensive and not all that satisfying. Catriona introduces here dish here and Camren here.


CHOCO RUN巧克力路跑

We took photos but I think my faced destroyed the camera as none turned out. I think the map was included on your shirt since there were no race officials to guide you.

We participated in the chocolate run 5K yesterday that was held in Zhubei. I think we were envisioning a repeat of a similar event in Taoyuan a few years ago, which was great fun for the kids (chocolate donuts at the aid stations) but unfortunately this race was poorly organized and poorly attended. Holding events is hard but for the most part, with the exception of some rough spots, most races in Taiwan are well done. Being as this was a branding opportunity for the sponsoring company, it must have been perceived as a disaster – there weren’t even many representatives from the company helping to run this slipshod event.

Complaints aside it was a fun run and the weather cooperated with cool temperatures and no rain. And what other time can you have chocolate ice cream for breakfast?

I ran with Sheryl for the first 3 and a half, then ran through a red light (they weren’t holding traffic) and ran at race pace for the last 2. It felt fine but for some stiffness in leg leg, likely my IB band. Unfortunately, my plantar fasciitis hasn’t disappeared despite 3 months of relative rest and daily training. I now doubt whether I’ll return to marathon training at the start of December.


Been a long time

Interior courtyard at Tsing Hua University

It almost feel like I’ve come full circle. I started studying Chinese at Tsing Hua University years ago, I started slowly with only a few classes a week and later left for an intensive program at Zhong Yang. So if the class gets approved I’ll be returning for 1 class a week as a sort of refresher course. It’s not a difficult class but it will give me an incentive to study and an opportunity for correction. It will be a nice change of pace too.

I’m back in Hsinchu for awhile to focus on a new project and do some necessary learning. It’s great to be wife family again.


I hate HDMI

We’ve gone 19 years without subscribing to cable. Half that time without a TV. But after spending time in Canada and China where each place I lived came outfitted with large screen TV’s, I felt like something was missing upon returning to Taiwan.

So I bought a large screen TV. And an incredibly overpriced soundbar (Taiwan import tax).

It worked well for a while but yesterday I spent over an hour trying to find the reason for nothing but snow coming from the Apple TV, and no sound coming through the soundbar. And all those cables are in the back of the TV, making every change a chore. I now hate HDMI. I feel like I’ve gone back in time to when plug ’n’ play was marketing speak only.

It’s apparent that the incredibly overpriced soundbar that has failed, which will necessitate wasting some afternoon taking it back to where I bought only to be disappointed by their customer service.


6 photos from last week

A trip outside of of Hsinchu almost instantly changes your perspective of this place. The beautiful scenery no doubt plays a big part.

Sun moon lake – resting during bike a ride

Sun Moon Lake – at the end of a run around the lake.

合歡山 – no hiking but a drive over the top. Remarkable the change in temperature 3500m up.

Cross Island Highway

Near Hualian


Resident Visa Journey

My Taiwan ARC expired while I was in China this year (the misfortunes due to that adventure continue to mount), and with trips to Thailand and Canada, I couldn’t get to Taiwan for any length of time to renew it. So I’ve found myself flying in and out of here on Visa exempt stamps. Which is fine, but not having an ARC (Alien Resident Certificate) means also no health coverage. Taking advantage of Taiwan’s excellent health care system before I return to Prince Edward Island is a priority, as PEI is better known as the land of “wait a year or more for a simple check up”.

It’s been years since I’ve had to apply for any kind of Visa here in Taiwan and I had forgotten all the rules and regulations. I figured I would have to fly to Hong Kong but the TECO office website there has depreciated from awful to really awful, so I relied on the wisdom of the internet to fill me in on the process. To my delight I was informed that you can apply for a resident visa in Taiwan, and since I vaguely remember doing so in years past, I set off to Taipei today. I ignored others advice and didn’t call ahead, part of my general aversion to talking on the phone; email replies from the Taiwan government are about as rare as they are in PEI.

When I arrived the whole process was about as informal as you would expect here (bless you Taiwan), and the official helping me was as polite any you would meet.

I was planning on applying for residency based on my wife’s employment but unfortunately you cannot get said visa in Taiwan when you arrive on a different date than your spouse. These little details, which I’m sure make sense somehow, matter. You can however get a resident visa if you gain employment.

So I am off to Hong Kong (I had a ticket booked already), or perhaps I can delay the process until November to coincide with a marathon in Bangkok.


Canada Day in Taiwan

The kids are still enjoy getting their face painted.

This year being Canada’s 150th birthday I decided to forgo my usual stay at home social tendencies and went with family to Taipei to enjoy the birthday celebration held by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Taiwan.

Unfortunately it rained.

While the rain cancelled most of the family friendly activities during the afternoon, it stop later and had we stayed we could have enjoyed more than our token Moosehead and listened to some live music in the park. But thats not really our thing.

Other than some Canadian-style treats, including an unconvincing poutine imitation that Sheryl lined up 30 minutes for, the highlight for me was listening to our national anthem. Don’t hear it enough.

Afterwards, we enjoyed some frozen yogurt, which was pleasantly sour, at the shopping center that sits atop and beside the bus station by the main train station. I forget the name of the shopping center, as there are so many. Before catching a bus back to Hsinchu we visited the theatre on the top floor to see if there was anything worth sticking around to see, there wasn’t, but I realized while there just how different the theaters are here than in Eastern Canada. Much better of the most part, and a far more encompassing experience. The Charlottetown moving going experience is sad by comparison.

We made it home just in time for the rain to stop.


Taiwan Flora

A photo posted by Clark MacLeod (@kelake) on

A photo posted by Clark MacLeod (@kelake) on

A photo posted by Clark MacLeod (@kelake) on

A photo posted by Clark MacLeod (@kelake) on

A photo posted by Clark MacLeod (@kelake) on

As time passes, one aspect of living here in Taiwan that I have come to appreciate more, is that no matter the time of year, there is always something in bloom. It’s a great escape from the dull office environments that we often find ourselves in by taking a short walk and seeing brilliant splashes of color. They stand in contrast to the often polluted gray skies that they must exist in.


Taiwan home office soundtrack

I started working from home on a new project this week and am aiming for a good 6 week effort before heading to Canada to finish. There I hope to spend some time at the beach and bathe in the fresh clean air. I was supposed to be in China but with all the delays that’s been put on hold until the fall. This past Monday was spent cleaning my workspace, setting up a new monitor, and planning out the week.

This is the sound I was greeted with yesterday morning.

Naturally as this is Hsinchu, the Science Park working crew decided to schedule 2 weeks of tearing down walls, thereby producing what is for me the most irritating noise imaginable. Spend any time at home and you are bound to be greeted with similar noises, as it seems the tile walls they use in homes here seldom last for any great length of time. Below was the sound track to our Christmas one year.

In fact if there was a soundtrack for urban Taiwan it would have to feature the concrete drill as it’s main instrument.

But few people seem to complain. My last company moved into a new building months before it was even finished. They were practically building the place around us.

It looks like the nearby Starbucks might be my new home for the next week or so.


The Sound Of China

Though recorded in China, it’s such common part of Taiwan’s soundscape I often call it Taiwan’s National Anthem.

It’s so common that I’ve given up considering spending any extended time at home, be it for study, work, Christmas or recuperation, because without fail someone will start making this or similarly aggravating noise.


Comparing Taiwan and Prince Edward Island

After living for 17 years in Taiwan it’s interesting to come home to Prince Edward Island, see the changes (or lack of), and do some comparisons between the 2 places. Some of the differences I’ve noticed during this visit home.

  • I’ve always enjoyed a good cup of coffee but with great Cafés like Ink in Hsinchu, and great small roasters seemingly everywhere, drinking and brewing cofee has taken on an obesession for me. Not a morning goes by where I try to perfect my pour over method. Hsinchu, of all places, has a rich coffee culture. Coffee culture in Prince Edward Island unfortunately consists of Tim Hortins and Keurig machines.
  • Running is all the craze in Taiwan at the moment, and with the Taiwanese penchent for looking the part, there are lots of places to gear up. I’ve yet to see another runner, yes it’s winter, and the sports stores I have been to have little in the way of gear – with the exception being underarmour. I’ve never seen some much of that brand in my life.
  • Groceries here are generally expensive and it’s difficult to find cheaper options, like cheaper cuts of meat. It’s winter so all vegetables are imported. But just like in Taiwan, it would appear that most people fill their shopping carts with crap processed food.
  • No PM 2.5 air quality warnings here. Often times being outside in Asia is a hazard to your health, not so here. You haven’t seen clear skies or breathed fresh air until you’ve been here, at any time of the year.
  • Clothes are ridiculously cheap here. Or at certain times of the year and if you are willing to be behind a season, ridiculously discounted. Levis jeans can be a quarter of what they are in Taiwan. Even Taiwan/Hong Kong brand names aren’t as inexpensive. I’ve been told that young ladies wear is cheap in Taiwan but I’ve no experience.
  • Going to the hospital here is a pain in the ass, unbelievable waits, but at least in my recent experience the care when you finally get it stands in stark contrast to Taiwan. Lots of questions, smiles and empathy abound. I love Taiwan’s easy access but it’s a factory model and the feeling is they either don’t have time to care for you as a person or just don’t care. While I would like to have a relationship with a family doctor, at this point in my life I prefer Taiwans easy quick access.
  • People in Prince Edward Island greet each other and are friendly to strangers. Taiwan is often characterised as an extremely friendly place, and I have met some the nicest people there imaginable, but I could go months there without a single person saying hello or sharing a smile. And it’s no due to my scary face, people in Prince Edward Island are constantly striking up conversations with me wherever I go. Imagine as a Chinese language learner how much easier it would be if you didn’t have to make herculan efforts to get someone to speak to you in Taiwan.
  • People talk to each other on the job, laugh even. They also work regular hours and sometimes take breaks. I’m sure there are problems here in the workplace but the feeling is it is far different from workers being treated like cattle in Taiwan. (I’m treated well and have been treated excetionally well, but I’m the exception and I still put in 47+ hrs week as a minimum with no holidays except cny.)
  • People give you an enormous amount of space when driving by pedestrians vs. not seeing/caring or lets see if we can hit that guy behaviour in Taiwan.
  • I’m walking far less, driving far more. It would depend I guess on your location but I’m walking very little here. The distances are too great. In Taiwan I tried to walk everywhere and due to the horrible driving conditions took transit to and from work. I could see living outside the city in Prince Edward Island would force me to set aside time for walking, in addition to my regular runs. Easy to see how easy it is to be sedentary here.
  • I’ve been conditioned from years of living in Taiwan to ask for a discount or a special price. It’s possible in PEI but people seem to get embarrased.
  • Thus far I have noticed that people take lines far more seriously here. I made the mistake in Toronto of accidently standing in front of someone in a line when I was told in no uncertain terms that they were ahead of me. Even seniors need to wait. Lining up in Taiwan is much more ordered affair that years past but people tend to be far more gentle in their reminders.

A cause to support

“Taiwan’s immigration policies reflect an official view that Taiwan is essentially a monocultural nation state based on shared ethnicity and culture. This illiberal view, combined with Taiwan’s isolated political situation and national development strategy have created immigration and labor laws that discourage immigration by tightly controlling residence, work rights, and the acquisition of Taiwanese nationality.”

Forward Taiwan believes that if Taiwan is to have an international economy, it also needs to have an international social and cultural environment.

From Live Wire: Ease up on foreign performers


Do you feel it’s possible for an American to call China home?

I think it’s possible for an American to think of China as home. Whether or not Chinese people accept that is probably another story. It’s part of the expat arrested development thing – everything about your existence is contingent, from visa runs to rentals to whatever. The baseline assumption is that you will be going home after a few years. That includes the assumption that you don’t really “get” China.

Whenever I’m asked “but do you really understand China?”, I just say “yes”, because fuck you. Ask a stupid question, get a flippant answer. People don’t really have a rebuttal to that. Try it sometime. I mean, I grew up in the US, but I don’t know that I “understand” the US – I don’t even know what that would mean.
Why I’m Not Going to Be Living in China Anymore But Might Be Back

You could substitute China for Taiwan and you would have something close to how I think about being a long term resident here. You are a welcome guest, treated well as such, but eventually long for a title with a bit more permanence or at least something other than your special status.


Casa de socrates redux

03/16/2009
While the atmosphere is somewhat unchanged, the music is a bit louder and a bit heavy on the easy listening cover tunes, it’s hard to recommend a restaurant that treats it’s customers with such indifference. I was there yesterday hoping to use one of the comfortable couch and tables to work with a Taipei based artist. Alas they reserved those tables for seemingly mystical customers as the waitresses kept saying ok have a seat and the boss kept coming over and saying no. No one ever came to sit in them.
It more inconvenience than anything else and perhaps not worth mentioning but if I can’t rant about the omnipresent poor customer service in Hsinchu here than where can I.
Previously: Casa de socrates


Overnight at Flying Cow Ranch

Mooo
We spent this past weekend on a quick getaway at Taiwan’s version of the American farm, Flying Cow Ranch. It’s nice to get some exercise, fresh air, and drink some tasty milk. The weekend was timed to coincide with Camren’s 3rd birthday.
While it’s a nice place to visit it starts to loose it’s appeal after you have been there a few times. But it’s close and there are very few places where you can go and experience some wide open fields. The overpriced pony rides and farm animal feeding provide some fun for the kids. It’s also nice to provide Camren and Catriona with some kind of connection with the food they eat and drink.
They used to have some fun classes at night where you could make butter and ice cream but they were replaced on this trip with DIY pizza which was disappointing. I bake with the kids all the time but how many times do you get to make butter?
Food choices were pretty slim this trip – overpriced Taiwanized Italian pasta, hot pot, or fried chicken and french fries. Non of it was very appealing. Breakfast was a slight improvement with boiled eggs, bread, and yogurt. They used to sell nice fresh brewed coffee at the outside concessions but it was replaced with some kind of boiled tofu junk that you see in 7-11. Perhaps there demographic is changing.
My wife has suggested we go back every month but I think a picnic in the hills near our house might be almost as satisfying. We’ll head back next year to milk the cows though.
More photos in my Flickr set.


A ‘gifted’ child

Our ongoing saga to enroll Catriona into local school continued Saturday with a parent information meeting held at Beimen elementary in Hsinchu. It was a long and well presented session on how to prepare, and what to expect from the upcoming ‘early’ entrance tests process.
In Taiwan a child must have a birthdate by September 1st in order to attend elementary school in that calendar year. Any child born after that date, no matter how close the date, cannot attend without first being tested. There are no exceptions to this rule. The testing process itself is incredibly laborious and secretive with the result being not whether or not your child is ready for elementary school but whether she/he is ‘gifted’.
Here is how the process could work. You have two children, one born on August 31st, and the other on September 3rd. The child born on August 31st is off to elementary school, the child born on the 3rd of September must be tested in order to prove herself to be a ‘gifted’ child. Gifted is defined as being showing great promise in a particular area, like music, language, math, or dance. In addition the child must pass a group IQ (socio-emotional) and an intellectual test. To pass these tests they must receive a score of 97 or higher. Correspondingly, only 3 out of 100 students who take the test will pass. Furthermore, it was stated that the other children, in this example the child born on the 31st, might score 85 or less.
The child born a few weeks later than the others may well overall be better prepared for elementary school but because of a slight happenstance of birth must prove herself to show ‘genius’. Something is amiss in this whole process but we have little choice but to go along with it.
It would be interesting to look at the differences in August and September birth rates. I’m told there are a rise in c sections and premature deliveries during this period.


Wrong on traffic and economy

It looks like my post last week proclaiming that the traffic slowdown was proof of Taiwan’s economic slowdown was a bit premature. The drive to work today was rife with the usual idiocy of morning traffic in Hsinchu. The three lane abreast slow moving trucks (blocking the highway exits), left lane to right lane to highway exit changers, and the general huge volume of traffic were all present. If there is a decrease in traffic it wasn’t noticeable today.
There goes the only positive of having a recession.
Perhaps the traffic purge last week had as much to do with winter vacation as the forced holiday for local employees.


Proof of slowdown – no traffic

If there is any evidence that work has slowed in Hsinchu it must be the complete lack of traffic around the Science Park last Friday morning and a noticeable let up in traffic this morning on a Monday. Last Friday the areas I drove seemed like a veritable ghost town.
Today it was busy but it felt more like the roads were at capacity versus the clogged conditions I usually experience.
With no products shipping everyone is staying home.


New Hsinchu Park


View Larger Map
The above map is an approximation of a new Hsinchu park that encompasses a series of hiking trails, look out points, large fields, and general ‘get the heck out the noisy city’ ephemera. I don’t know the exact name due to my stumbling through the characters but it’s really worth the effort if you can find it. It has the feel of a closely held secret. I’ve been going there off and on prior to it’s recent opening and it’s truly a great escape. And it’s only a short distance from our house. Amazing.
Someone deserves a big bonus this year for making this area happen.
It feels much bigger than what I drew on that map.


Why Mandarin for our children

Our efforts to enroll our daughter in local school for the September 2009 semester have largely failed. She is just past the September cut off date for admission and this rule is seemingly the one rule in Taiwan that you cannot gain some flexibility. I think the following passage, from Mandarin for BC schools, generally illustrates why we feel it’s important for her to be educated in a bilingual environment and why it should be Mandarin. It is the major reason why we stay in Taiwan.
“Mandarin is the most spoken language in the world (1 in 6 people speak it worldwide) and currently the second most prevalent language of business, after English. As the “Gateway to the Pacific” we believe that providing a Mandarin language option for our children will provide them with significant advantages, both from a global citizenship and economic perspective. Foreign countries have prepared their children for decades by teaching them English as a second language, it is our desire to also reach beyond our official second language of French and provide options.
Even educators such as Mr. Emery Dosdall, former BC deputy education minister who now heads a new provincial government office charged with improving relations between BC and Asia-Pacific countries, recently stated: “French is great…but as a language of industry, I’d certainly recommend…Mandarin. They’re going to create great opportunities for your children in the future”. He goes on to say that, “Parents who really want to give their children an edge in the global economy should be clamouring for Mandarin immersion”.
There are cognitive advantages as well: as a level III* difficulty language (it takes about four times longer to learn Mandarin than French or Spanish), Mandarin’s complexity stimulates the brain more than, and differently from, other languages, thus improving the child’s ability to learn other subjects as well, including English and mathematics.
For optimal results, starting as early as possible, ideally in Kindergarten, is the key to success in second language mastery. An early start will also ensure our children can speak without an accent.
Though there is presently a Grade 4 entrance Mandarin program at Jamieson Elementary School in Vancouver (which is the only formal bilingual program besides French in BC), starting so late means those early critical years for developing oral fluency are lost. A K/Grade 1 start would certainly enhance the acquisition and development of oral fluency in this already difficult to learn language.
*The Foreign Service Institute, a major US government language school, ranks languages according to the length of time needed for a native English speaker to achieve oral fluency in a language. For French, it is 24 weeks. For Mandarin, it is 88 weeks, or about 4 times longer. See for further details: http://www.nvtc.gov/lotw/months/november/learningExpectations.html
I’m less interested in the practical applications as I am the positive effects it has on her as a person.
Via MandarinForBCSchools.org. I’ve removed my usual blockquote quotes for readability.