Day 5: More relatives, then TPE to SZX

I feel like every day, we are ramping up for what is to come next.  We’re getting more accustomed to Asia with each experience and having our hands held less and less every step of the way.

I have also noticed a tactic that my relatives often use to get me to accept gifts. They tell me that a particular gift is for my dad, friend, etc., and then I don’t even think to refuse it! This has happened 4 times on this trip now, and I can’t think of any way to counter it. Sigh.

Christmas Day, our last day in Taiwan, I started off the day by taking a leisurely stroll down the small mountain from the International House of Taipei. It was beautiful and low-traffic, with the occasional funny-looking bus.

I went and visited my relatives on my mom’s side, and of course they were wonderful. We went for hot pot, and it was a style of hot pot where each individual has their own little pot for cooking whatever. Everything was so delicious and I definitely forgot to take pictures. Apparently, at the moment, the cabbage was the most expensive thing there, even more expensive than all of the various meats. Afterward, I visited Jenny, my favorite dog in the entire world, and I think she might still remember me, even after 7.5 years!

Then it was off to the airport for our flight out to Shenzhen.  By the way, everything is so cute in Taipei, including at the airport.

The travels to Shenzhen was pretty uneventful, and we were all a bit intimidated by the amount of smog we saw upon landing. A short car ride later, we met my dad at our hotel, which had been operating without power for the entire day.  But about 15 minutes after our arrival, the power came back and everything was well. Also, the rooms are extremely nice (Western style, clean, etc.), and I feel like we’re getting spoiled. We are staying in Changan (…), about 40 minutes from Shenzhen.  Changan is sort of like Vegas in that the government there has a lot of money, and the people who reside and work here don’t necessarily have much money, but the native peoples of the area get a lot of benefits for existing. We walked around Changan a bit, and it’s pretty amazing. There are 800K residents, and roughly 700K of them are young people (roughly college age).

Day 4: Taipei Metro, Long San Temple, gondola, and relatives

One day behind. We’re on our way to China now, the land of the Great Firewall. The plane should be landing in Shenzhen (深圳) soon.  To be honest, I’m nervous… and cautiously super excited, if that makes sense.  I’ve been told for the last several weeks how much of a mess China is around this time of year (migrant workers, pollution, food and water safety), especially Shenzhen.

Julian didn’t join us for our adventuring on Saturday due to his architecture paper (from this past semester), but it sounds like he’s almost done so that hopefully won’t ruin any more fun for his trip.

We started the day off by making our way through the Taipei Metro subway system.  The subway system is actually amazing, the best I’ve seen yet; everything is super clean and orderly. No food is allowed, and indeed, I never saw any food in the stations. The escalator has a sign that tells people to hold the handrail, and indeed all the way up, everyone was holding the handrail. The other amazing thing is that there are marked queues on the platform for entering the train, and people line up along them waiting for the train. Sometimes, the lines are so long that they extend down the platform to the next line / train door, but even when it is boarding time and there is another opening nearer to someone, the people still follow the queue they are in! No one seems to be particularly in a hurry, and everyone is amazingly friendly. Once, we got off a train and only looked around for about 3 seconds before an employee came over to ask us where we wanted to go.

The trains are beautiful too, and some lines have trains that don’t have doors between cars. I can’t comment much on the train engineering, but the stations and station maps are extremely well designed. Everything is intuitive and labeled well. After taking the subway just 1 stop the day before with Peter and Jessica, I felt like there was absolutely no problem navigating the subway system, even with only a vague grasp of the language. On the contrary, Boston’s MBTA took a bit of getting use to (inbound, outbound), and NYC’s MTA is still too much for me. Some of the bathrooms even have panels that indicate occupancy.

Later, we even visited the (or just one of?) Taipei Metro gift shop! They have a gift shop for their subway system! I appreciate their value of public transportation.

Anyway, we met up with Peter and Jessica again and had wonderful Shaobing (烧饼) and rice milk (米浆) for breakfast, followed by a visit to Long San Temple (龙山寺), a beautiful Daoist temple for Guanyin (观音), goddess of mercy. It’s about half tourists, half locals, and it houses shrines for all kinds of gods/dieties (I’m not sure the proper term). Sometimes, parents will come to pray that their kids do well on their college entrance exams, and so they will place a copy of their kid’s exam paper with their offerings. There are posters that inform you of whether you will experience bad luck in the coming year and it instructs you on how to best pray. Praying has been a bit commercialized as well. Essentially, people can pay for more luck and consolation, in the form of a small light that holds a person’s name is placed and lit around the temple for the new year.

We took a gondola (cable car) ride up a few hundred meters to Maokong (貓空) into the mountains of Taiwan and saw pretty trees and things. I saw (probably) the tallest giraffe in the world, which was painted onto a smoke stack sticking out of a garbage processing facility that we could see from a distance on the gondola. Unfortunately, I can’t find the picture now, but it definitely made my day. By the way, the gondola is just a part of the metro system in Taipei. The awesome view doesn’t cost much more than a normal subway ride (about 1.3USD instead of 0.60USD).

I rode a scooter for the first time on the way to visit my paternal grandparents, my aunt, and my uncle’s dog Happy, and that was really really great.

Red bean bing (红豆饼), oyster omelette (蚵仔煎), small sausage in large sausage (大腸包小腸). More nom!

Another thing. Taiwan is crazy about recycling. They hit about 45% recycling rate in 2009, higher than the rate in the US (but I couldn’t find by how much).  Almost 100% of people sort and discard their trash properly. Beautiful.

Somewhere along the way, we snuck off and got Jessica a cake because it happened to be her birthday!  Happy 21st, Jessica!!

Day 3: Advantech, ZyXEL, Tsinghua University, and the Night Market

Merry Christmas! 大家圣诞快乐!

Mmm, blogging on the subway in Taipei (台北), 2 days behind. I’m on my way to visit my mom’s side of the family now, abandoning everyone else at the International House of Taipei, but we’ll all meet up at the airport in a few hours for our flight out.

Friday was our first day of company visits.  We awoke to soy milk and my favorite variety of scallion pancakes (葱抓饼), as we got into the car with my uncle for the first company on our tour, Advantech (台湾研华).  Advantech is a huge Taiwanese technology company that design business solutions for basically everything and about 1000 products (eeep!).  They’re also focusing on hard on the Internet of Things and a smarter planet initiative (they actually work with IBM), which may turn out to be The Next Big Thing.  They have a bit going on with traffic optimization and fleet management, which I’ll need to look into more.  At Advantech, Secretary General Mr. Tsai emphasized quite a bit that Taiwan is amazing at hardware, but extremely weak in software.  This is of course a very interesting point for me.  Rather than computer science, apparently electrical engineering is what you study in Taiwan if you want to be basically guaranteed a job (thought studying to be a doctor is probably the most popular).

On the way to the next company, we got stuck in a traffic jam for 20-30 minutes, where the cars just didn’t move at all.  We were conveniently stopped next to a bus with a lot of good-to-know Chinese characters (出口, 巴士, etc.), so we got out of the car and had a mini-Chinese lesson for Josh and Julian with the bus as our blackboard (not really).  I’m impressed at how much Chinese they now know, after about 3 days.  During our Chinese lesson, other people got out of their cars too and we were offered Binglang (槟榔), a pretty popular tobacco-like recreational substance here that turns your teeth funny colors.

We had lunch at 7-11, which is worlds apart from the ones in the US.  Taipei has a 7-11 basically in every streetcorner, so it’s sort of like Starbucks in the US, but with your standard delicious Taiwanese food and convenience store things.  I am told that 7-11s are only good in Taiwan and Japan. And for future reference, FamilyMart is also good, but HiLife is considered more low-end in terms of these convenience stores in Taiwan.  Food is not as ridiculously cheap as I remember from 7 years ago, but it’s still way cheaper than in the US… and I could be looking in the wrong places without my parents around.  Lunch was about 3USD for a bun and a big bowl of soup.  Snacks on the street are commonly priced at about 0.33USD, which is simply wonderful.

The second company of the day was MitraStar, which recently merged with ZyXEL.  They are a telecommunications design company based in Taiwan.  That means routers, switches, network security, etc. For consumers, they do power over ethernet, ethernet over power, digital media centers, etc.  Interestingly, two-thirds of the engineers work on software, and they seem to be better at software than other Taiwanese companies.  They were wonderful and got us an impromptu tour of their quality assurance (QA) and software testing facility and we got a peak of their factory, but it was the Friday before Christmas, so there weren’t enough people around to actually give us a full tour.  Testing the network configurations on the XBox is just part of the job of the facility.  And just to be clear, both company visits were conducted in English (phew).

After the visits, we went off with my cousin Peter who is a junior at Tsinghua University (清华大学 in Taiwan, not in Beijing), which is known as the 2nd top college in Taiwan.  We toured around a bit and went to his class on materials (semiconductors).  Apparently, despite the fact that Taiwanese students don’t know English that well, about 90% of college materials are written in English.  About 40% of EE classes are also taught in English.  The one we went to was taught in Chinese, but the powerpoint presentation was all in English.  All I can say is, I’m glad I know the language that my textbooks are written in.

We also went to a Night Market (台湾师大夜市), where we were joined by Jessica (a college Junior studying English Literature)!  Night markets are just streets lined with little shops and food stands that run from about 5pm to 3am.  Taiwan is famous for these, and they’re full of cheap delicious food, as well as endless shopping opportunities.  We walked and ate and ate and ate.  Broth o’ everything, bubble tea, chicken butts, sausages, butter buns, dumplings, stinky tofu.  Nom.

At the end of the day, we all felt like we had been in Taiwan for way more than a day.  I have a feeling our entire trip is going to be this jammed pack full of fun things.

Day 1: NYC to SEA, home for a night!

We got to NYC and then JFK swiftly, and there are no photos of JFK even though the airport was so shiny because photography isn’t allowed there.  My inner asian tourist had to pause a bit for that part of the journey.  On the other hand, there were little birds in at the JFK airport and, as Josh pointed out, these birds would make excellent spies because they get to skip through security.

Anyway, below is the plane to Narita that was too full for us (we’re flying standby, and yes, we stood around until the plane left), followed by the next flight we couldn’t get on.  The result of all this plane-missing is that we were starved by the time we got out of the airport, and we devoured every last bite of our Szechuan dinner, and we were joined by my friend Jason (friends in Seattle, yay!) and my family.  The dinner quickly turned into a Chinese lesson too, when we crammed to learn the names of Chinese dishes.

And the upside of all this, of course, was that I did get to see my family, albeit for just a few hours, during winter break.  Plus, a small amount of Geometry Wars and this new racing game.  I also read 1 of 120 papers.. an OK start!

Tomorrow, we try again!