August 21, 2009

Hell Holes and Studios: The American Searches For A Home OR You'd Be A Grouch Too If You Lived in a Trash Can (and other lessons from Sesame Street)

Once again, we return to Miro International School, which has now become ground zero for operation "Get Tommy Taiwanized". The campaign is spearheaded by both Connie and David, who have been nothing but incredible throughout this entire experience. One day I may find a way to repay them for the kindness, hospitality, and love they have shown me in the last three days. Or maybe it doesn't quite work that way. Maybe instead, someone will stumble into the small circle of my self-centered life, confused, hungry, and alone, and I will then get to show this new person what has been given to me: the love that I have saved, tucked away in the small, hidden places of my heart. It's funny, this simple idea is so basic, it transcends religious lines and connects us to everything we know to be good; love everyone, and love will find you in return.

A new recruit has been added to the mission of finding an apartment, a tiny Taiwanese girl named Yayako who is very pretty and weighs around 80 lbs. I can't tell how old she is; she may be 18 or possibly 30, but just as in America is it impolite to ask a woman her age, so I keep mum. We head back to the office, which is actually about three feet from the lobby and separated from the public eye by a half wall. The office area is hot despite the two oscillating fans working tirelessly to kill the humidity that creeps in every time the large glass front door slides open, and I feel for them as the slowly shake their heads back and forth in discouragement. David I take a seat at one of the computers and he quickly begins typing in a web address. He seems a little impatient, I wonder if there is something else he'd rather be doing than helping this unprepared newbie get his shit together? I immediately switch to apologetic mode as he begins asking me about the specifics I would prefer. Roommate? Preferably not. I have never lived by myself before and welcome the new experience. Also, although some of my past roommates have been amazing, the last few places I lived came fully equipped with jerks-offs (ask me about the Jamaican who slashed my tires), so I think I'll play it safe this time around. Cable? Not necessary. I usually only watch T.V. for sports, but they don't really have sports over here, so I can opt out. Air Conditioning? Please, unless you prefer me to show up everywhere completely soaked, dehydrated, and fetid. The Kindergartners would simply adore me, I'd be like one of the Garbage Pail Kids (ten points if you REMEMBER the Garbage Pail Kids). Price Range? Well, since I am going to be rather destitute until I get paid (this is not an uncommon theme in my life), I tell David as cheap as possible while still maintaining a degree of living slightly above homelessness. We settle on something in the range of 5000 NT to 8000 NT, which comes out to between $150 US and $240 US. He enters my criteria into the website which is entirely in Mandarin - once again, where would I be without David? - and we wait for the results as the girls talk in Chinese and giggle in the background. I assume by their mannerism that they are talking about boys. Then I remember we are no longer thirteen years old.

The search yields a surprisingly high number of apartments, almost all of them studios and all similar in size and description to prison cells (window bars included). David and I begin the arduous task of weeding out those that are simply out of the question, either because they are too far away from the school, too small (room size in Taiwan is measured in "ping", where one ping is a little bigger than a king-sized mattress), or because they don't come with an air-conditioner. By David's reaction to those apartments that don't list an air-conditioner in the amenities, this is a death sentence in Taiwan. One MUST have an air-conditioner. When we come across one that fits our narrow criteria, we call over Yayako to call and set up an appointment, and she smiles and giggles as David reads the number for her to call in Mandarin. She speaks quickly to the landlords/real estate agents, writing down things on the back of a third grade workbook page. We go through this process several times, and within the hour have three appointments to go determine if any of the selections live up to my high standards of Western living. The first appointment comes sooner than expected, so we hurry outside, sending Yayako a quick "thank you" on our way out the door, and board our scooters. By now the terror of riding on the scooter has worn in, and my shrieking inner voice of self-preservation has grown hoarse and can only whisper a faint plea for survival's sake, which is quickly drowned out by the whine of the tiny scooter engine. I am still wide-eyed and white-knuckeled all the way to the first apartment, but I'm allowing myself to smile a little this time, painfully twisting my contorted facial expression of fear into a sort of horrified grin. Any Taiwanese person who happened to see me me en route now believes that all Westerners are hideous creatures and should be avoided. My role as a diplomat is already off to a great start.

The first apartment is located in the shadow of the Ambassador Hotel, which at five stars is the nicest hotel in Hsinchu and also the tallest building in the city. We park our scooters in the small alley that seems cool despite the mid-day heat, and patiently wait for our contact to arrive. A minute later two Taiwanese men ride up on one scooter, both dressed in white short sleeve button-down shirts, black slacks, and shined black shoes. They seem to be in a hurry, and Connie makes unknown inquiries in Chinese as we are rushed down the alley to a small concrete stairway leading up to a large gated door. Presently, a man in a blue polo shirt comes to the door, smiling and nodding enthusiastically. He wipes the sweat from his balding forehead and beckons us to follow. We walk down a short hallway and up a small set of stairs, exposed wiring slithering through holes in the drywall. The building smells like paint and hot air. Down another short hallway and we arrive at a small door which opens into a small room. The walls glow white under the single florescent bulb, and the hardwood floors creak quietly under my Chucks. The room was advertised as five ping, and looks to be about an 12 ft x 12 ft square. A full sized bed occupies much of the area, and also a desk and a flat-panel television, which I must admit, is a selling point. In the corner sits a bright red armchair that seems completely out of place, and begs for my eyes' attention. The bathroom is little more than a coffin with the shower, toilet and sink all within 3 feet of each other. This is the first time I have been exposed to this kind of bathroom arrangement, wherein there exists no partition to separate the shower from the rest of the bathroom. Water, therefore, completely floods the bathroom floor after every bathing and exits through a drain located in the center of the room. Connie tells me this is very popular in Taiwan, and even some nicer homes will have their bathrooms arranged this way. Bath mats are out of the question. So much for making my bathroom cute and color-coordinating all my accessories. (I will later find out that they don't even HAVE a Bed, Bath and Beyond here! This truly IS the third world!).

Because there is not much to see the apartment viewing is over in a matter of minutes. We are taken up five more flights of stairs to the top floor where the single washer (for the entire building) is kept. Apparently this floor is where the steam and sweltering heat are kept as well. In a matter of seconds we are literally dripping, and I allow my face to convey my obvious discomfort. The landlord in the blue polo takes note and herds us back downstairs and out the door into the alley. Even though it is still in the 90's the slight breeze coming from the nearby ocean flirts with my skin and makes everything feel cool. We thank the landlord, glancing at our cell phones and realize that we are late for our next appointment which is, of course, across town. Back on the scooters, throwing caution to the wind as we dart amongst cars, running red lights, speeding along while the angels try and keep up.

The next apartment starts out promising; It has an amazing location, about a five minute walk from my school and on the same street as the Teppanaki place David, Connie and I ate at the day before. As we try and find a place to park our scooters, David tells me that the street, Jiangong, is where one of the Hsinchu night markets is located. Night markets are popular in Taiwan, and usually have a variety of street vendors, open-air fruits stands, busy restaurants, and surprisingly loud Taiwanese men selling knock-off purses and watches. Also, there is a temple close by, which means that during celebrations the streets will be filled with parades and fireworks. I am very excited by this until Connie says "good luck getting to sleep", which makes me think of something someone once told me: "Don't live where you party, because eventually you'll want to STOP partying and if you can't escape it by going home, then you're screwed", or something along those lines but far more eloquent. I begin reconsidering my former enthusiasm. It WILL be loud all the time. Also, if I DO choose to fill out my organ donor card and purchase a scooter, then it will be a bitch finding parking all the time. By the time we find the front door, I've almost made up my mind to turn it down. However, the sign on the glass says "Hotel" in english. Huh!? "Most hotels are okay", I think to myself, "maybe this won't be so bad". Wrong again.

We are greeted in the hotel lobby by another young Taiwanese man wearing an identical outfit to the two real estate agents from the last apartment and an older gentleman who is gruff, and wearing a button down shirt which is allowing his chest hair to blossom out from his collar. He reminds me of a Russian mob boss or something, if that makes any sense. As we board the mirrored elevator the old Taiwanese Russian is talking A LOT, and Connie is shaking her head at me with an expression that says "Oh my GOD" on her face. I suppress a grin and try to look interested in what he has to say. Finally on our floor, we stop to admire the water cooler. The old man seems to be very impressed by the water cooler. Then it's down the hall to the last door on the right. I can't help but notice that past my door at the end of the hall, there should be a wall. But there is not. Instead, I can see clearly through to the street and pieces of mellowing sky, my view only obstructed by a massive pile of old furniture and other junk which, I assume, is supposed to take the place of the wall. I wonder if bats are a problem here? The deadbolt clicks and we enter the room; my heart drops. It looks like scene from a movie where someone is doing far too much heroine to notice the general state of hellishness around him. The walls are a dingy yellow, the color of the walls in a two-pack-a-day smoker's house after 30 years of constant tar-ish assault. The smell is a mixture of urine, mold, and the indescribable but easily recognizable scent of general decay. On the floor, the tiling is broken and covered in dirt. The bed has rocket ship sheets on it. Fix-er Up-er. The one positive thing about the room is that the window has an excellent view of the street, where I can see the activity already picking up as people begin to get off work. Hardly enough to save this place. I give Connie and David the "no way" look and they return with a "thank God, because if you liked this place we would seriously reconsider hanging out with you" look, and Connie begins to make excuses to the Taiwanese Russian about how we must get to our other appointments. He is an avid storyteller, and keeps talking even as we enter the elevator and the mirrored door closes on his raspy voice. "What was he saying?" I ask Connie. "Something about fire or murder or something" she replies a little too calmly. Two down, one to go.

The third and final stop for the day is situated in between the first two prospects and is, conveniently, about two blocks from David and Connie's place. The traffic is picking up as we leave the Night Market area, but my confidence on the scooter is growing with each second that I am not pulverized by a bus. We make it to our appointment without incident, and meet a plain but attractive girl named Maggie who is to show us around. I'm not sure why, but I always feel more comfortable around women than I do around men in the same position, so I warmly embrace the change in gender of our real estate person. Also, Maggie speaks a little English, and she smiles more than I expect her to.

This apartment is located right next to a maternity store, and the entryway is narrow but made out of something substantial-looking, like granite or marble. We walk through the metal entry door which could keep out large bears or dinosaurs and nod at the glass-eyed Chinese woman manning the front desk. Security is good, but as I've come to find out, there is very little crime in Taiwan, and often people leave their houses unlocked for weeks during holiday and their keys in their scooters when they go shopping. The Taiwanese are a very trusting people. Up to the seventh floor the elevator hauls its passengers, squeaking out complaints along the way. I learn that seven in Chinese is "qi" pronounced "chee" in English. The seventh floor is small, only a landing really, with four doors placed around the walls. At #2 Maggie opens the large metal security door and then the blood-red door leading into the apartment.

As I enter, I already start to feel a warm sense of comfort that comes with familiarity, although to be sure I've never lived in a place like this. It is by far the largest of the three apartments, and feels roomy and open compared to the others. The "living room" has white tiles which extend out from the door and back to the "sleeping area" which is raised and covered in hard-wood flooring. There is a small kitchen-ish area with a mini-fridge, a sink and lots of cabinets to keep all of the kitchen-ware that I do not possess. On one wall, a red entertainment area is built with a desk closer to the bed, and across the room a black love seat hunches against the opposite wall. On the far wall a glass sliding door leads to a small enclosed patio, not big enough to entertain, but large enough to have a wash machine. The bathroom is similar to the other apartments, with no definite shower area, but is quite a bit larger than the other places, and with a large mirror. I glance at my face. It looks excited. I go and try out the couch, but discover that It is not actually a couch, but rather a giant block of wood dressed up to look like a couch. I go and try the naked bed, but realize quickly that it is just a box spring, and the mattress is M.I.A. The people who lived here previously must have had very cushiony clothing. In spite of the less-than-comfortable surfaces for sitting and sleeping, this place is my favorite. We talk to Maggie for a while about the cost ($7000 NT a month plus utilities - that's about $215 US) and other specifics. I tell her that I really like it and ask if she can talk the land-lady down because I'm so poor. She says, in broken English, that she will see what she can do. I offer a very appreciative "xiexie" and we make our way back out into the late-afternoon sun. I am all smiles as we bid Maggie farewell, saying we will call her after we look at one more place tomorrow. I ask David and Connie what they think, and they both say it is nice for the price, and not too far from school. I am glad they approve, and a little relieved that I have found somewhere I like so quickly. Hopefully, unless the place we have scheduled to look at tomorrow is amazing, we can finalize everything first thing in the morning and I will be on my own, out of David and Connie's way. With an overwhelming sense of accomplishment, I am in the mood to celebrate. "What now, gang?" I nearly shout. "How bout the Flower Market?" Connie says, and with that we are off to explore the famous Hsinchu Flower Market. This day cannot get any better.


  1. I'm so happy you are finding a place to live alone. Being alone really can be a wonderful thing, but I'm happy you're close to David and Connie. Don't let yourself get lonely. The third one sounds awesome. Oh and I thought my place was small!!! I think you should buy a scooter too. I miss you brother. I love you so much. God is smiling on you, look at all the love and goodness that is happening to you. Good luck!

  2. Given your general retardedness, this scooter story arc is trending inevitably toward a purchase. You would be a fool, sir, not to at least inquire as to whether you could travel by hang glider, or even Batmobile.

    That said, I nearly acquired a job covering MU football and basketball for the Associated Press, which would have likely taken me out of the running to be your future bunk mate. Of course, I said nearly.... here's what happened:

    Dude from AP, in a reply to an email from two months ago: "Sam, we'd love to have you as our stringer this year...when can you start?"

    Me, next day: "A year ago. What's the pay? No, wait, scratch that, I don't care. Yes."

    Dude from AP, the next day, on the phone: "Sam, just verifying that you'll be workin....oh, my boss just emailed me and told me you'll have to compete for the position.Can I CALL you back tomorrow?"

    Me: "Whatever. I hate Applebee's. I'll do anything."

    Dick from AP, next day, via EMAIL: "Sam, we're sorry to inform you that the job that we contacted you about and gave you will not be yours. Thanks, and we'll call you if we need anything."

    Me, next day, from ledge of window...