Relearning a language

Today was our first full day in Taipei. It wasn’t exactly as how I imagined it. The buildings aren’t as tall as I thought (they look especially small of course when standing around Taipei 101), and it’s really nowhere as crowded as the streets of Tokyo and Seoul were. I guess it’s an unfair comparison given the population sizes of both Tokyo and Seoul are massive next to Taipei, which sits on the little island of Taiwan.

One thing I did expect, though, was the friendliness and willingness to help from the Taiwanese. Twice, when we were looking at maps or waiting for a car, people offered to help. A couple times in an Uber, the drivers made small talk and gave helpful suggestions about where we were going. For the electronics plaza, the driver told us that the two buildings were connected on a higher floor, so there would be no need to exit the building to enter the other, and that the building he’d drop us off at would be a better starting point. At Shilin night market, the driver pointed out where the food was vs. the shopping vs. the games, and also told us that there was more food in the basement level. I never actually asked any questions, but they volunteered all this information to me. I’ve never had that experience anywhere before, whether it’s been in the U.S. on work travel or abroad. I’m sure it’s partly because I can speak the language here, but the proactivity was so kind and thoughtful.

That’s the other thing. I only know basic Mandarin Chinese after studying 3.5 years in college, and because I don’t speak it every day, it took some time to adjust to listen properly and understand what people were saying to me. What has been fun about this trip so far is that as I’m listening to more (and eavesdropping on other people’s conversations so I can remember vocabulary again), I’m realizing even more so that it just takes changing the environment to understand the language better and speak better. I still get annoyed with myself when I can’t always understand what should be a simple question or response (e.g. “are you traveling anywhere other than Taipei?”), but it is what it is, and many basic things will get lost based on accents and speed of speech. It’s actually been a little thrilling when I hear something, think for a few seconds, and recognize what people are saying. Given that the last time I took a Chinese class was in 2007, I think I’m doing fairly well so far.

“salty snack”

We arrived in Taipei this evening after a layover in Tokyo, and since Chris has status at this hotel chain, they offered us a number of welcome refreshments and treats and had them sent to our room. One of them was literally called in English and in Chinese a “salty snack.” I had no idea how to interpret that, and I figured it must just be a bowl of rice crackers or something quick and, well, snack-like. The front desk attendant said she would call the kitchen immediately to place our order since they’d be closing soon. I thought to myself… why would they need to call the kitchen for a snack? What I was not prepared for was when room service came to the room and presented a plate of hot braised five-spiced beef, tendon, and cow stomach. This is what they are giving to us as a “snack” before bedtime?!

Change in travel approach

When I was younger and traveled far less frequently, whether it was for work or vacation, it was never about the journey. It was always about the destination. I paid as little as I could for what were probably the worst flights and the worst (unassigned) seats, and one time, my cheap plane ticket to Singapore required me to lay over in Beijing for over nine hours. There’s oftentimes a cost to being cheap when traveling, and in this case, it was probably my sanity, not to mention the fact that in the Beijing airport in March, they didn’t turn on the heat despite the fact that it was freezing in the terminal I was in. So, that was all fun and games. At least I had two friends to freeze together with me.

Chris, being the son of avid and frequent travelers, made fun of me then for my un-reserved-in-advance seats, my “pleb” airlines (I few Air China once – never, ever again), and my hostel stays. Once upon a time, I didn’t understand or want loyalty to an airline or hotel chain because I didn’t see the value in it. My thought was – I’m not going to said city to enjoy the hotel; that’s just the place I’ll be sleeping and showering. I’m also not going to Malaysia for the actual flight; the flight is just the method to get there. But now, having been loyal for years and seeing the benefits reaped, I think this is the best way for a frequent traveler to go.

Airplane food sucks – if you fly economy, or if you fly a U.S. airline. It is amazing when you fly premium economy or above, where you can get gorgeous bento-box-like presentations of Japanese deliciacies, like fried soft-shelled crab and salmon and salmon roe rice balls, or miso soup that tastes exponentially better than your standard, generic Japanese takeout. On Qantas, even in economy, though, the food is good. You can get mango Weis bars (the best fruit-cream frozen dessert bars in the world), Varlhona chocolates, and basically whatever wine or spirit you want as often as you want it. And you always get real tableware. Nothing comes in a disgusting TV-dinner-like setup.

Now, it’s about the journey and the destination. I still don’t love sitting for 14 hours on a plane to get to Asia or Australia, but I do love the Dreamliner windows, the food and dessert, and the lay-flat bed seats when I have them.

Life connection to job

After work, I had to stop by our friends’ house to pick up glasses that Chris left the last time we came over. Our couple friend, who we met just two years ago, have become regular hangout buddies for us in Manhattan. We really don’t have that many couple friends we see on a regular basis, and we’ve bonded pretty well over the last couple of years. The guy of the couple has been in a deep job search switching industries for the last ten months and hasn’t had luck in securing a role.

Although I intended to stay only about 10 minutes, I probably stayed over 40 given that he was so down about the search and how long it’s taken, especially given that he’s trying to switch industries. I can empathize given that I’ve had periods of unemployment before, and I do truly feel bad for him given that I know he has been actively searching, applying, prepping, and interviewing, so it’s certainly not due to a lack of effort at all. But what made me the most sad about the conversation is how I’ve realized that for so many of us here in the U.S., our jobs are our livelihood and so much of our identity, even if we are not the Steve Jobs or the Elon Musks of the world who are creating massive changes and are billionaires. We’re just everyday workers soldiering on. When we don’t have a job, we feel as though we are worth less, and we need that job, that income, that form of stability to feel “worthy,” as though our lives truly matter. He said he’s felt ashamed and embarrassed a lot during the last ten months. I get that, as I’ve had similar feelings in the past. Would people coming from other cultures feel the same way if they were unemployed for that long? It’s not really about him as much as it is about the society we are born into and live in every single day. When Chris’s cousin’s wife from France didn’t work for over a year and half between the time she graduated from business school to our wedding, we spoke and texted often, yet not even once did she mention feeling bad about not working, not making money, or feeling like being jobless made her feel like she was worthless or incapable of being.

I told him what I really think, which is — I’m not friends with him because he was working at a large company before and because he had an MBA; we’re friends with him because he’s a good, interesting person who is enjoyable to be around. That’s why most of our friends are our friends. He’s the same person to us now without a job as he was before when he was working full time. None of that really matters to us or to anyone who really should matter to him. It just makes me sad that so much of what we all do is tied to paid work that at the end of the day, probably isn’t going to matter a lot when we’re all on our death beds. All of us may work really hard, but there are plenty of people higher on the ladder who do less work who will inevitably get compensated more and think they are worth more. Work, work, work; money, money, money. The capitalist way. That’s our world.

Monday night comedy

Chris’s cousin is in town from London for work, so we’ve been spending our evenings with him and took him to the Comedy Cellar tonight. During one of the comedian’s acts, he talked about the Pride parade that just happened and how although he didn’t go to the parade, he was still a supporter of gay rights. He doesn’t actively do anything for gay rights, but he doesn’t actively do a lot of things; he just knows that he doesn’t really care about what other people are doing — as long as they aren’t harming anyone.

So the argumentative points here are: how do you define “harming” others? Someone could argue you are harming an unborn child by having an abortion. Another person can say that by not preaching the Bible’s words that you are harming others by not giving them the chance to be saved. Smoking cigarettes could be “harming” others by exposing them to second-hand smoke. There’s too much grey area on a statement even as simple and well-meaning as that one.

Brunch dysfunction time

Today, we had brunch with my cousin’s cousin and her family visiting from Montreal. The funny thing about my cousin’s cousins is that although they are technically not my cousins, they seem to enjoy seeing me more than they want to see their own blood cousins. So the times they’ve come to New York since my New York cousin’s wedding, they’ve always reached out to me first to see if I’m available, and sometimes they don’t even see their own cousin here.

Chris always thinks the situation is odd, and he knows it’s odd primarily because when these group meals happen, the table tends to get very divided, as we’re not all actually interacting with each other. My local cousin and I barely speak, mainly because I find him one-dimensional, boring, and always a complainer who thinks his life is the worst of the worst (never mind the fact that there actually are people living in poverty in New York City, much less the world, but he seems to think he’s the worst off since he lives in a working class neighborhood where people oftentimes gets his takeout order wrong). I really only see him when it’s his little son’s birthday, or when we have family visiting from out of town. He is the kind of person who makes the best situations seem the worst (one of the latest texts from him includes “(my wife) doesn’t get that New York sucks” simply because his train is delayed going home). Sounds like he really fits into my bloodline, then, right?

His cousin from Montreal is a world away from him, though. She’s actually really fun, positive, and enjoyable to speak with. She has four kids, and they’re all upbeat and healthy. “How is someone normal like her related to the rest of your three cousins?” Chris asked me. I don’t know?

Joys that await

One of the joys that awaits me in the new apartment is finally being able to use so many of my kitchen items again that I haven’t used in five years — so since I lived in Elmhurst. There, I had a full sized oven, stove, and refrigerator, and here… well, I don’t. So things like my cookie sheets and baking racks just didn’t fit into the oven here. So I’ve stowed them away in the back of our closet in hopes that one day when we moved, I’d be able to use them again. That time is very close now!

The cookie sheet that doesn’t fit into this oven was given to me by Ed as part of my birthday gift in 2012. It’s a very solid, non-stick sheet that even has rubber grips on it. And it still looks brand new. It only got a handful of uses before I moved into our current apartment. Thinking about it makes me sad that he’ll never be able to see me use it in the new apartment… or ever again. It’s an odd thing to remember when thinking about what I’ll be able to use again in the new apartment, but the thought still lingers.

RIP white Macbook

The white Macbook I bought with a fairly considerable Harvard student discount back in 2009 is now no longer mine. After several failed attempts to remember the password last Sunday, I was able to get it after remembering the number patterns I used to use for my passwords. Once I unlocked it, I changed the password settings and posted to Craigslist, and the first response I got was willing to pay $100 for it. It feels like I have my own little side business going, selling my used items on Craigslist from now until July.

This guy not only arrived early at the apartment, but he paid me in two $50 bills; who carries around $50 bills? He was friendly and told me he was planning to use it for some programs that were compatible only with my operating system. I still can’t believe I got $100 for this eight-year-old Apple product. Now, if only everything I owned that I wanted to sell before our move had that type of resale value…

Making progress

I hauled a bunch of flattened boxes and bubble wrap from my office back home this week. I figure that since my office move just happened that our office manager would be fine to give me all the moving supplies that she’d inevitably throw out, so that was a big bonus for me. And today, I finally sold our first item, our coffee table. The guy who picked it up apparently had some freak accident in his apartment and broke his coffee table in half, so he was looking on Craigslist for a cheap but sturdy replacement. After inspecting our table and looking at the few scratches on top, he paid me and took it out of our building. I’ve sold another item on eBay, and someone is coming to the building to buy one of my old computers tomorrow.

We’re making progress on the move, and we’re still over a month away from moving. This is feeling pretty good so far.

Uber CEO resigns

One of the greatest things that happened this year is when the female engineer named Susan Fowler, who formerly worked at Uber, wrote an expose piece about the blatant sexism and discrimination she faced while working at the once-respected tech startup. It highlighted the fact that women are still not considered equals in society no matter what all these ignorant morons out there say, and that we’re not even close. We’ve made mere baby steps since the feminist movement of the 60s and 70s, and that’s pretty embarrassing for what is supposedly one of the most developed and richest countries in the world. Some say, be grateful for what you have and that you are even allowed to even work or own property or go to school alongside men in your country. I say… no, Dumb Shit, we need to be improving ourselves and getting better and better every day. As in everyday life, why would I want to compare myself to someone who is a low achiever when I want to be a high achiever?

But the saddest thing for me in seeing the eventual downfall and resignation of Travis Kalanick is that I know that the atrocities I faced at my last company are so small and insignificant in comparison, and the strong women I know who have left that company will likely never speak out against them, partly due to not wanting attention, and mostly due to wanting to move on and forget the hell that they left. But as in Susan Fowler’s case, one person’s voice could make massive changes. In cases like the horrible place I left, it feels like justice will never be served, and they will continue to live in their delusional and discriminatory world.