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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Taiwan and great friends

Taipei, Taiwan

Thankfully the Spirit of Manila got me into Taipei safely. I talked about SOM in my previous post but I still feel they deserve more press time! It was a very smooth flight over and the service was incredible! Every single person that I encountered from the company was extremely friendly. With the price being extremely affordable, we all carried nervous looks on our faces (SOM is relatively new), but managed to arrive safely. If you're ever thinking about going to/from Philippines, consider flying the Spirit of Manila! Not only will your wallet thank you but you'll be in good spirits after you deplane.

So I safely arrived in Taipei on Friday, January 22. One day before my time in the Philippines would expire. I have been to Taipei before so I didn't anticipate having a busy schedule trying to see and do all the sites like I normally do when I touchdown into a new city. Instead, my days would be filled with spending time with friends and of course eating!

My first stop from the airport was to Dennis and Vicky's home. I did this ride before when I was in transit from Honolulu to New Delhi in September 2008. Somehow though, my first time around was a smoother ride than this time.  This time I got on a bus that drove me a little further and required me to get on the MRT (rail) and then walk a bit to their place. Last time the bus had dropped me off less than a block away and all I had to do was walk over. Oh well, it gave me an excuse to practice my Mandarin.

How do I know Dennis and Vicky? I actually met Dennis back when he was a bachelor, when I was still a teenager! I think I was 19?! So young, where did all the time go??  Circa 1999 I was working at LLX law firm in Beijing as an intern and part of our job duties (that day) was to represent our company's softball team in a friendly match. Dennis being a baseball player himself played on his company's team (the same company that he's been employed at for the last 15 years!). Not sure how we actually met as we were on opposing teams but I found out that he was from Greenwood, IN and I was attending school in Greencastle, IN. A fellow Asian from IN? I didn't think that was a common occurence. I also found out that he went to Purdue which isn't a great, I would just tell him that to get under his skin! We've been friends for over 10 years now and Dennis has always been like a big brother to me.  Soon after we met, Vicky agreed to marry him and boy is he lucky! Since then, the two have always welcomed me whenever I was in their neighborhood.  This time was no different.

I arrived at Dennis and Vicky's house to be greeted by Vicky's aunt and cousin. Dennis, Vicky and their son Austin were out of town that night attending Dennis' company's End of the Year (Chinese New Year) party. The cousin came around because he had majored in Japanese in college and wanted to meet me so that he could practice. It was a three way translation game which was time consuming but probably a lot more effective than if it were just done in my poor Mandarin. They explained my responsibilities with Max and even gave me some tips on places I should check out while in town.  I was no sooner greeted by Max, the couple's (big) rottweiler or more commonly known as the four-legged family addition.  

Max and I go way back....close to 10 years now. Since the couple was out of town that night for a company party they had asked if I could take Max out for his evening and morning walk.  No problem! I always used to do this to earn my stay!  I did this for the couple back when I lived in Beijing in 2003. Whenever I needed a place to crash, Dennis would include Max into the bargaining agreement.  Dennis thinks that he needs to bribe me but I'd help out with Max any day! In the early days, Max was quite a handful, always jumping and running, 7 years later, you can see how time is non-discriminating and how Max has aged over the years. I miss the old active Max even though it was hard to control him!  Max is even cuter than ever, maybe because he's older and I have a thing for the old ones.

After walking Max, I went to walk around the neighborhood to find something to eat. I didn't know what to eat or where to go, I eventually stumbled upon a local noodle shop.  The noodles lacked flavor but it was real cheap NT100 ($3.30).  The lady was really nice too and tried so hard to help me with my ordering.  I don't know, I could have probably ordered if I tried but sometimes I get into this mode where I play dumb and make the other person do the work. Maybe I was just too tired to try.

The following day, I met up with my friend Jenn and her two boys Kaden and Koen. Jenn and I actually met back in 1997 when we both found ourselves on the same study abroad program to Japan.  Although Jenn and I didn't keep in touch after our time in Japan, fate would bring us back together when I spotted Jenn one day as I was driving into Chinatown in Hawaii! How random!  Her husband was stationed there and they had been living in Hawaii for a few years. She was pregnant at that time with Kaiden was soon born on the best day of the year - my birthday, October 8!  A native of Taiwan, Jenn actually resides in the Netherlands with her family of 4 now.  However, because her husband is currently out-of-town for work, she decided to bring her boys back to Taiwan to celebrate the Chinese New Year with her family. It was pure coincidence that she was in town while I was stopping through!

I also couldn't have been any luckier because Jenn offered me to stay at her aunt's house since she is currently residing in China! How awesome is that? I'd be able to stay in a really nice 1 bedroom apartment for FREE? I'm so thankful!  Of course Dennis and Vicky were generous and offered me their place as well but I didn't want to become an imposition especially since they have their little one. At least at Jenn's aunt's place, I could come and go as I please so long as I take care of her aunt's things as if they were cultural relics (I can't say as "my own" because many know how I'm rough with my things).

The second day, Jenn helped me settle into her aunt's place and then we spent the rest of the day at the new SOGO department store. It's so funny, I don't believe SOGO is that big in Japan (maybe it's not even there anymore) but it's huge in Taiwan. I think it's big in Hong Kong too.  So many Japanese department stores fail locally but flourish abroad. One such example was Daiei in Hawaii.  Daiei had filed for bankruptcy long ago but in Hawaii, it was the go-to store for Japanese speciality products as well as your regular grocery shopping! Anyway, we had lunch at a really nice Taiwanese restaurant!

Later that day, I returned to Dennis and Vickys' place to meet up with them for dinner and see them for the first time since I'd been in the city. I finally would get to see Austin too!  The last time I saw him, he was barely one and now he's well over 2 with Mandarin skills far more superior to mine! I'm jealous! It's great that they're raising him bilingual; Dennis will only speak to Austin in English while Vicky (born and raised mostly in Taiwan) speaks to him in Mandarin. He's going to be a smart one!  They took me out to eat at 101 that evening at an Italian restaurant which was also very good!

101 (one-oh-one) was at one point, the tallest (inhabited) building in the world (there are just too many classifications!) until the Dubaians stole the title from them by erecting a building that stands 828M (2,720 feet) tall and celebrating its opening earlier this year - January 4, 2010 (not even a month ago!).  It took us a while to decide what to eat but finally settled at the Italian restaurant on one of the lower floors.  The meal was great and even better with great company. That night I had one of the best sleeps in a while! Thanks guys!

The following day I was invited to celebrate Jenn's second son, Koen's, 3rd birthday! How special it was to be able to celebrate his birthday together with her family. Joined together that night were Jenn's parents, Jenn's mother-in-law, Jenn's brother Howard, his wife, Jessica, and her best friend Susan. It was a nice intimate group at the ACC (American Club in China) which is a private and exclusive membership club that Jenn's mother-in-law belongs to. Really good American food too; it probably tasted so good because it was a drastic change from the Filipino and Chinese food that I had been consuming as of late.

The following evening, I got to meet up with Jenn again for a fun night at the night markets of Tong Hua Street. Clothes, gadgets, snacks and even sushi! We had great food, the best I had so far (well our first lunch together was very good too); definitely the tastiest for the price we (she) paid! Jenn helped me pick up some warm clothes for a really good price since I'll be going to Japan where it is about 20 degrees colder than here and it's cold here! She even bought me a cute wasabi kleenex/toilet paper holder. I couldn't eat too much though because I would be meeting up with a fellow Hawaii boy through the introduction of another friend Lorraine who I actually just saw in Manila for Lavie's wedding!

Calven Klain - get your own pair!

Met up with Elroy and Annie for my second dinner which was at a local Taiwanese restaurant. We ordered about 8 dishes and only spent about $10 a person! Great value! The food was good and it was nice to be able to go to a nice hole-in-the-wall type place. I love those places! Later, they took me to a famous Taiwanese dessert place. Even though I was so full and typically not a fan of Asian desserts, I thought I should take advantage of the opportunity and try it. I settled on tofu and peanuts.

Finally on my last full day here, I met up with Vicky (another Vicky) and her very adorable daughter Ezri.  Vicky and I also met during my study abroad period in Japan, close to 12 years ago!  The fact that we're still in touch is quite amazing actually as if I recall correctly, we only spent one weekend together! It was an inter-college retreat in which we were both invited to attend.

She took me to have dim sum which was quite good.  We had the regular dishes as well as some new delights that I had never had before including the chang fen which is made with rice noodles and filled with fried crispy dough which I think may be a Taiwanese dish since all the times I have had it, I've had it with Vicky (Dennis' Vicky).  Lunch was filling and I think my stomach has finally started to shrink! I don't feel like I am able to put away what I was so proud of doing just a month ago.  Yeah, am I finally starting to shed the weight?? Highway Inn gave me 25 pounds and now I'm zealously trying to get rid of it again!

Later, I mentioned to Vicky that I wanted to get my eyebrows waxed. God knows, I needed to take care of them as it was starting to get very messy up there. Can't help that I'm Okinawan too (The people of Okinawa are known for being blessed with so much (long) hair, facial, arms, legs, etc...) so it was getting long! A few more months and I could be mistaken for an ancient Chinese sage. She mentioned that typically when she gets here eyebrows done, it is offered for free when she gets a facial. I wasn't willing to pay for a $65 facial so she suggested we try to pretend to buy some make-up and maybe we could get it done for FREE! Thumbs up for Vicky's thinking (I love my Chinese!) and agreed that that would be the best strategy. Of course when we started looking at the cosmetics, we knew right away that it was too cheeky and we kept giggling trying to think of how we'd be able to accomplish the free eyebrow trim challenge. Finally, Vicky said she really wanted to get a new blush; still not sure if she just wanted game over and wanted me to get my eyebrows done because she couldn't bare to look at them anymore or if she really needed it. After settling on a color she liked, she asked the guy where we could get my eyebrows done. BINGO! He offered to do it for me for FREE! woot! So, that was how I got my eyebrows done. Of course, it will never be as good as Linda Mae Skin Care out in Waipahu but if it's free, you really can't complain!

Later Vicky needed to be home to meet someone so I was on my way.  I passed a lot of shoe shops and saw all the boots lined up. I wanted my own pair of boots too! The only nice shoes I had brought along on the trip were sandals that I bought before I left. I wore them a few times here in Taipei but 60 degree weather is probably not the most appropriate for those types of shoes.  Since I'd be going to Japan where it is 20-45 degrees (especially in Hokkaido where I plan to visit), I knew that I needed nice boots! Found one that I was okay with but it was selling for almost $40 USD.  In my best Chinese though, I was able to negotiate an additional 10% off the already 10% discounted price and got my shoes for a little more than $32!  Today, I was totally sporting a new look (from night market shopping with Jenn the night before) and my new boots, also for less than $60!  This will be my new winter look until I meet my dad who is bringing me a suitcase of warm clothes!

Had my last dinner tonight with Dennis, Vicky and Austin.  We had shou juan"spring rolls" or otherwise known as hand rolls." At first I thought they were burritos!  We had pork, veggie and shrimp flavor and I think I liked the veggies the best, minus the cucumber!   I guess I was really hungry because I forgot to take a photo like I normally do!

Tomorrow, I am making my way to Tokyo. Found a ticket for $450.  Also thanks to the help of Jenn, got a 14 day rail pass which cost me an arm and a leg ($525USD) at the last minute today.  I'll be in Japan for a month with plans to go up north to Hokkaido to view the annual Snow Festival for the very first time and down to Kyushu where I worked for two years, almost 10 years ago.  My dad will also be coming to Japan so it will be a nice reunion to see him and spend time with him (outside of the family business).

My time in Taiwan was short and very busy.  I got to meet with everyone I know here and what became so evident is that I am so much more grateful for all the relationships I have and have developed over the years. These reunions with old and new friends have made me so grateful of the (small) interactions that I have had that have led up to this moment; these relationships have truly developed into something significant in my life.  All of my friends have done so much for me while I was here and the time that we shared, talks, laughs, memories will forever be priceless.

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