Taiwan: My New Frontier

The coastline keeps going on and on, seemingly forever

Part 2 of the story behind the story of “Taiwanese Feet: My walk around Taiwan.”

The captain announced that we’d be touching down soon, and we soared over the land from the flat blue ocean, overflying hectares of farm ponds dotted with white ducks, and then glided past the outer fences of Chiang Kai-shek International Airport to bump down on the big black runway. I had arrived! The airport mechanism duly ingested, processed, and ejected me with dreary efficiency, and then I was in for a bit of excitement: a Formula 1 racer wannabe type taxi driver showed me his need for speed along the highway into Taipei. Heart pounding, I peered out the windows and got my first view of the city: green hills, grey buildings and rivers, Mandarin characters everywhere. He dropped me off in Dadaocheng, one of the oldest parts of the city. I was on my own in this new land.

I had a hook-up though. I was to stay with friends of my Canadian buddy Sarah for a few nights at what turned out to be a weird old house, an elegant if somewhat faded Japanese-era mansion, invisible if you walked by because it was completely surrounded on all four sides by grubby, somewhat newer buildings. In fact, you had to enter through a small door at the back of a shop which had a roller belt for moving big bags of rice flour. The outside of the house had no number plate, I had zero Chinese, and no cell phone, so finding it the first time was an interesting challenge!

One of the oldest and most interesting streets in Taiwan

My first week in Taiwan was more than simply “a week”. It was a timeless period, present in the now and full of newness. An intense but random series of seemingly unconnected sights, sounds, and smells quickly coalesced into my first basic view of Taiwan on the ground. There was mad traffic, and funky old markets and temples that contrasted with gleaming new buildings and high-tech prosperity. There was a large variety of interesting food that was affordable, often delicious, and sometimes weird. Public spaces were crowded, and often very noisy with touts, announcements, or just people speaking loudly. Everywhere you went there were lots of people, the vast majority of them East Asian. There was not too much obvious ethnic diversity, so foreigners like me stuck out like sore thumbs, and I got lots of curious looks. But most people were very friendly and helpful.

The Goddess Mazu at Bangka Lungshan Temple

After a few days I got my first basic idea of how to function in Taiwan. It was quite a bit harder back then, as there was no Facebook or Google Maps. I soon moved into the cheap-ass “Taipei Hostel” near the main train station, where I shared a room, bathroom, and a common area with various other international travelers. They were mostly new Western arrivals like myself, looking to teach, but also a few older teachers hard up on their luck, drunk most of the time, as well as a group of traders from India. They were OK.

My first priority was making money, as I’d only arrived about $1200 Canadian. One of Sarah’s friends in the mansion hooked me up with a job at a private English-language kindergarten for Taiwanese kids. The work scene of the newbie foreign teacher here was a bit of a zoo: there was a high demand for teachers but low regard for quality. Those without real training or experience were usually relegated to “singing, dancing clown” types of jobs where Teacher Funny Foreigner makes the kids giggle. My first gig was no exception. There were 12 preschool kids to look after, who were very sweet but extremely exhausting. Controlling the kids, having to use the required educational materials – some of them way too tough for the level – and learning how to deal with local managers and teaching assistants, was a tough challenge at first. The days seemed to last forever. Then, somewhat worse for wear, I’d make my way through the crowded streets or subways to find food, and then back to the hostel lounge to swat mosquitos, watch HBO, and chat with my fellow residents.

The cows of Yangmingshan (some of them)

The deal was to work during the week, but live it up on the weekends! After a few attempts, getting around turned out to be quite easy. There were many attractions in and around Taipei: lush mountains covered in forest or tea farms, hot springs, temples, lovely rivers, museums, beaches, fishing harbors, night markets, quaint little towns and neighborhoods; it was a day-tripper’s paradise. Downtown, there was a lively party scene, with many bar and dating options. Us new arrivals soon became dandies, strutting about town with our white skin, high-bridged noses and “double fold” eyelids, all considered attractive by many of the local lasses. Once we got a few paychecks in, we found apartments, and then we could have house parties. During holidays we’d go down with our girlfriends to the south or east coast of the island, where the beaches were better, and things a bit more laid back. It was also an amazing blast to explore the wider region: Japan, Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia were all a short hop away. Life was good! Not only was my urge to travel being well satisfied by all the new sights and activities, but I was living in a safe, friendly society with universal health care, and I could easily find well-paying jobs. It seemed like the best of both worlds, traveling in a foreign country while living a stable lifestyle at the same time. Kind of like my dad used to do.

Teafields of Maokong

Flash forward five years: I was working at a much better teaching job with greatly improved confidence, and living with my new Taiwanese wife in a nice apartment. I’d visited all the special sites around Taipei, and many around the island. I had a posse of friends, and knew most of the major streets, subways, buses, restaurants, pubs, and markets. Taipei had become familiar and comfortable, and life had started to become something of a routine, albeit a generally pleasant one. But wait….Uh-oh! Was that a flashing yellow light on my dashboard? Had real life finally caught up with my endless escape?

If I’d had kids or a job that had room for real growth in scope and complexity, I might have invested my energies there. But I didn’t. Something else had to be done. The idea to walk around the island just seemed to float into my brain one day. I instantly fell in love with it, although it came as a complete surprise to my wife and friends. The usual response was a confused silence followed by some version of “You aren’t serious!” Of course, they probably hadn’t read the same books I had. When I still living back in Canada, and dreaming of traveling the world, I had become very interested in a certain sub-genre of travel literature you could call “adventurous expedition stories”. These were stories of people who skied across Antarctica (Shadows on the Wasteland), rode a motorbike around the world (Jupiter’s Travels), paddled a canoe from Winnipeg to the mouth of the Amazon river (Paddle to the Amazon), walked from the mouth of the Orinoco to the mouth of the Amazon (Mad White Giant), or walked across the island of Borneo (Stranger in the Forest). I even remembered something from some other foreigner in Taiwan who had started his book talking of his plan to walk the mountainous spine of Taiwan, before his dream was dashed by the 921 Earthquake. Why not do my own little adventure, I thought? Why not walk around the entire island in stages, following the coast as much as possible?

Lai Lai wave-cut platform

It would also help me in another way too. I was starting to realize that there was an invisible barrier separating me from the Taiwanese, a force field that they were unconsciously projecting from deep in their minds. I was not and could never be Taiwanese. I was a foreigner, just as I was human and male. In time, people I was close to would come to see me as just “John”. But to the wider society, I would always be “a foreigner”. If I were to feel part of the island, I would have to do it on my own terms.

Good times with Jerry

One fine day, I set out on my merry adventure. I was once more moving forward into the new. The first few days felt a bit weird, but I was still excited. I soon settled into a rhythm, and did my coast walking thing on nice days, so there was just endless blue sky, blue sea, and coastal greenery. It was cool as well because I was seeing the stuff you usually whiz past as you’re going from one tourist attraction to another. Now I was walking past quiet “nothing special” beaches with a group of old guys fishing, a few scruffy dogs for an entourage, or simple houses by the sea, a lady sweeping up a courtyard, a small fishing boat coming into a tiny little harbor. At times the only coastal route was the highway, and I’d face down trucks, buses, cars, and motorcycles as they zoomed by. Then I’d arrive at a proper town, and because sometimes the side streets were closer to the water, I’d take them instead of the main drag. I often cut through the back areas of fishing harbors where the Southeast Asian fishermen were working, sometimes directed by short, tough, gnarly-looking middle-aged Taiwanese men: captains or senior crew members. When I did chance upon the main tourist areas, I was sweatier than anyone else, and felt more like the cowboy who had ridden his horse across the dusty plains than the rich folk who took the train or stagecoach. So I’d keep moving on.

I was in it for the long haul. As I followed the coast, there was always the new view around each bend, and then the next outcrop or promontory in the distance, the new farthest point along my route I could see. And always I was getting farther and farther away from “home” in a strange land. I had been through most of this area by bus or train before, but it felt like a different place when I walked it. The experience was intimate, laborious, lonely, strange, and addictive. And then one day I met another traveler, who suggested I take the journey to another level. He said, “Why not write a book about your trip? I’ll help you.” He turned out to have a lot of interesting stories of his own. And shit did he like to drink beer!

To be continued …

Coming soon! Part 3 of The story behind “Taiwanese Feet: My walk around Taiwan”

Interested in the book? Check us out on Facebook. https://Facebook.com/Taiwanese.Feet/

Or look for us on Amazon

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Part 1 of The story behind “Taiwanese Feet: My walk around Taiwan”

Finally! After 83 days of walking spread out over eight years, I finished my walk around the entire coastline of Taiwan. Day after day, I marched along beaches, trails, roads, seawalls, or rocky shorelines. I got broiled by the sun, buffeted by the wind, attacked by dogs, and almost hit by flying rocks. At various times I felt exhausted, bored, sad and lonely, or amused and fascinated, and was inspired again and again by the beauty of the island. I got to know the coastline extremely well, forged a deeper personal bond with Taiwan, and enjoyed a confidence boost from the achievement.

Then came the next part of my journey, spanning another six years: turning my original blog record of the trip into a readable book. This took hundreds of hours of online research to get deeper background knowledge of the natural, geological, and human history of the island, as well as further hundreds of hours of writing, rewriting, and editing on my own – not easy, as this was my first book. On top of this were endless emails and phone calls with the book team, discussing the editing, layout, and graphics, followed by me, with no artistic training, hand-drawing four maps. Then, at long last, my self-published travelogue “Taiwanese Feet: My walk around Taiwan” was finally born. Oh yes, it felt good, and still does!


So there were two journeys, each one difficult yet fascinating in its own way. But it was contemplating the relationship between the two that gave me the deepest insight into my own life. By actually writing an adventure story, after having read so many over my lifetime, I realized how closely this behavior we call travel is linked to storytelling. It’s not the only source of infection, but travel literature – as well as traveler’s tales in other forms – is a carrier of the contagious travel bug, for which there is no known cure. The first symptom is the escapist pleasure of consuming the tale, which seems more interesting than the mundane life around you. This then progresses to day-dreaming, in moments of boredom, of exploring distant, exotic lands. In the final stages you get unbearably itchy feet, and there’s only one form of relief: off you go. That’s what happened to my dad, who grew up reading stories from around the British Empire as a boy, and then traveled all over the world when he grew up, taking his family with him. This got most of us infected (two of five kids were immune), and set me on my own life of travel, aided and abetted by the literature that constantly fueled the fire in my imagination to see The World. Somehow books were better for that than TV or movies; I don’t know why. Much later it became my turn to write about my own adventures. And if one person decides to travel because they have read my stories, I’ll have come full circle.

This chain of realizations was the end of the process. Now here’s the story of the beginning, of how my walk around Taiwan and the book about it – Taiwanese Feet – came to be. As it turns out, both of these journeys started the day I decided to come to Taiwan.  

September 22nd, 1999: I was living in Montreal, Canada, and seeing TV news reports about Taiwan’s massive 9 21 “Jiji” Earthquake, I called my good friend Sarah, who had been living in Taiwan for several years. Fortunately, she was fine: rattled by the quake, but unharmed. I had seen her just a few weeks earlier, when she came home for a visit during her summer break from teaching at the Taipei European School. She told me then that she thought I would love Taiwan. Her obvious happiness with life there was a strong recommendation, but it was her stories and descriptions that intrigued me. I wasn’t ready to jump just then, but the seed had been planted.  

Of course, I wasn’t exactly a tough sell. Before I arrived here in the early days of the 21st century, I had been ready for another foreign adventure for some time. It was in my blood. By my mid-30’s I had accumulated more travel experience than most of my friends, largely thanks to my dad, who had a bad case of wanderlust. He had done quite a bit of traveling as a young man, first to Karachi (then India, now Pakistan) with the RAF just after the end of World War II. Naturally, as an Englishman, he went over to do his bit for the Empire, although he joined up during the sunset of that great and terrible thing. But I am certain he would have been very curious to see it. I can imagine him as a teenager, hungrily reading accounts of Captain James Cook meeting Polynesians in the South Pacific, Stanley and Livingstone in the jungle, or battles between Shaka Zulu and the red-coated British regiments. And perhaps he’d read boys’ stories of tigers, jewels, and suttee in the Raj, tea and opium traders braving typhoons and pirates in the South China Sea, or fur traders killing bears and bargaining with the Iroquois in Canada. Such was the literary legacy of the British Empire, and my father, an avid reader, was always a sucker for “a rattling good yarn”.

My dad was taking the picture, so he’s not in this one! (Lol ; )

After he came back from Karachi, he never stopped traveling. First there were the motorcycle trips to southern France with his mates from university. Then, work as an engineer in Scotland, and later still emigrating from England to Canada with his Scottish wife – my mom – to start a family. But this stone (and my dad was as steady as a rock in most ways) kept on rolling. In 1975, when I was 10 years old, he took the whole gang off to Lesotho – a small mountainous land-locked nation enclaved in South Africa – where he had gotten a job working as an engineer for a Canadian government “Third World” development project. His own parents and his older sister had also emigrated from the UK, but instead of going to cold-ass Canada, they’d opted for warm South Africa during the apartheid era. From my dad’s perspective, the job in Lesotho meant a stable way to have a travel adventure, as well as a chance for the two branches of his family to interact.

The barren beauty of Lesotho

It was pretty exciting for all of us. I remember hiking the barren Lesotho hills with my dad and brothers, going to a very stiff British-style middle school, and then after class, running wild with my squad of multicultural mates, executing pigeons and mambas with our pellet rifles. There was also tennis and swimming – or occasionally sneaking into the movies – at the posh Maseru Club. At Christmas, our family would pile into the Kombi and do the all-day road trip to Durban, first through earth-toned rangeland, then next to the stunning Drakensberg Mountains, and finally, at night, winding down the long slope into the lush, humid, coastal belt with its smell of the sea and multitude of flowering trees and bushes. There lived my Aunt Mary, her husband, and their kids, as well as my grandparents. These were my best Christmases ever: Meeting new family, braaing by the pool, checking out the Indian markets of Durban, and playing in the waves on the white sand beaches of Zululand. But we all definitely felt the apartheid energy too, a kind of precise racial segregation that was clinical and surreal.

Segregated beach in Durban in the 70’s

We went to other fascinating places as well. In South Africa, we visited Kruger National Park, one of the world’s best game reserves. I was totally dazzled by the incredible variety of antelopes around every curve in the road. Then one day, it was time to go back to Canada. But the trip wasn’t over yet: On the way home we stopped off in Kenya for a turf and surf holiday: first Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya, an amazing place. I recall one timeless moment there. From a hilltop, early in the morning, I could see Mount Kilimanjaro in the distance, and all around me were dozens of dust-covered elephants, like huge red marbles with ears, moving through the bright green brush. I also saw lions mating next to a zebra carcass, which was quite an impressive spectacle. Then the surf: happy family beach life at the Two Fishes Hotel on the stunning Indian Ocean coast near Mombasa. For dessert, we saw Israel and, after that, a few days with my mom’s side of the family in Glasgow and Inverness. Finally, we landed in Ottawa, at that time a stodgy government town, where I was treated to reverse culture shock, being a newcomer at school, and a cold, cold winter. Ooph!

Ottawa’s Rideau Canal in winter

My next Groot Escape came about 10 years later. I spent six months in India, where my parents had moved. With the kids grown up, my dad had taken a job there. I traveled with parents, or more often solo, around this incredible place, thoroughly enjoying the carnival of intense sensations and impressions: riding in madly honking 3-wheeled motorcycle taxis through chaotic streets, being wowed by the Taj Mahal, tripping out on the fantastical religious multifariousness of Varanasi, sipping sundowners on the beach in Goa with free-spirited European travelerettes, and checking out the old market streets and colonial bling of Delhi and Calcutta. And of course, there was the quintessential travelers’ experience in India, taking the train: hours of relaxed people-watching, gazing out at ever-changing landscapes, and then the rude but amusing confrontation with the madness of an Indian railway station. On the other hand, there was certainly a very dark side to India: homeless families, squalid slums, public defecation, horrible air and water pollution, and incessant beggars. These all took quite some getting used to. But throughout my journey in these strange lands, (before the invention of the World Wide Web) the Lonely Planet guide became my Bible. I always brought the Good Book with me!

Varanasi, India: Possibly the most interesting city on Earth

At the end of this, skinny, tanned, and ready for some “normal”, I arrived back in Canada in the dead of winter. It was back to the grind for a while, and then a few years later I was off to Venezuela for three months, where my sister had moved and started a family. I made full use of my time, hiking the misty Andes, riding up the Orinoco in a motorboat to visit indigenous communities in the rainforest, relaxing on the beaches of the Caribbean coast, and enjoying my first taste of Latin American culture: the spontaneity and warmth of the people, the passionate backbeat to life, and the interesting new food – all set against the crime, inequality, and corruption that plagues this beautiful country. Again, the Lonely Planet was my faithful guide.

“The Jungle Toboggan” near Puerto Ayacucho, Amazonas, Venezuela

And then back to Canada again, all grown up now. I moved around a bit between east and west, trying to find myself. Although I had some exciting projects and wonderful human relationships, I was more turned on by my adventures away than by my normal life. I loved Canada, but often felt uninspired there. I had to face facts: I was a travel junkie. And in confronting that, I did find myself, in part at least.

So, what to do about it? By then I had started to become very curious about the “Far East”, i.e. East Asia and Southeast Asia. I hadn’t been there for one thing, and it seemed like a very important region not to miss out on, if one wanted to see The World. I’d read a fair amount about China and Japan, a mix of academic stuff and historical novels by James Clavell. I had heard stories about English teachers living the good life in Japan, but also reports that the scene was in decline. China still hadn’t quite fully opened up at that time, but Taiwan was newly on my radar thanks to Sarah, and sounded like a solid choice. The final push came when I got a copy of the 1998 Lonely Planet guide to Taiwan by Robert Storey. His lively and vivid descriptions of the island really appealed to me, and gave me a sense of where I would be heading. Considering my past experiences with Lonely Planet, it was a good omen. So, on to Taiwan! This time there were no family or friends waiting for me; Sarah had moved on, and so had my dad, permanently. This trip would be solo, like so many I had read about. I just made my basic plans, got onto the plane, and soared off into the night over the wide Pacific Ocean, toward my new life, whatever that would be.

To be continued …

Coming soon! Part 2 of The story behind “Taiwanese Feet: My walk around Taiwan”

Interested in the book? Check us out on Facebook. https://Facebook.com/Taiwanese.Feet/

Or look for us on Amazon

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Dancing Dragons, Running Bulls

Last year (2018) I attended some fascinating traditional festivals in Taiwan and Spain, worlds apart in physical and cultural space, but both wild and compelling. Mixed in among the noise, smoke, laughter, animals –real or magical – and general craziness, I learned a few things about myself. Travel can do that for you, at its best.

Bull-Dragon - Copy

Bull-Dragon - Copy (2)

In April, I went to the Luohanmen Welcoming Buddha Event in rural Neimen Township, Kaohsiung City, southern Taiwan. It’s a temple procession in honor of Guanyin – “the Goddess of Compassion” – a Buddhist Bodhisattva that plays a major role in Taiwanese religion.

Early on a fine spring morning, me, the wife, and her “temple-granny” mom from the neighborhood, elbowed our way through the throng outside the Neimen Purple Bamboo Temple, a venerable community institution. The wide plaza in front of the building was punctuated by pools, pagodas, and big brick ghost money burners. The far end of the square was skirted by a narrow lane, dominated to our left by noisy puppet-show trucks. (These maniacally squawking entities are so ridiculously loud they could plausibly be used by the residents of that Russian arctic town Belushya Guba to fend off invading polar bears. However, perhaps the locals would think it a poor bargain.) On the right there was a row of traditional shops selling stuff like beverages, noodles, steamed buns, and peanut candy.



Directly in front of the temple doors, where the crowd was thickest, an open space was cordoned of by men in Qing dynasty garb. We went there to take a look, and soon the spectacle began, starting with some acrobat shows and campy old musical folk plays. But soon it was time for the main act: the palanquins emerged, carried forward out from the dark, incense-fumed temple interior. The crowd parted to let them pass, although some of the devout chose instead to lie face down in a single-file line along the path so that the palanquinned deities would be carried above their bodies. Thousands of people marched along behind: locals and their families, tourists, and various traditional groups that played a major role in the event. These included Dragon Dancers – my personal favorite – Lion Dancers, spirit mediums, and the stars of the show, troupes of Song Jiang Battle Array performers.

Off we went, our procession continuing for hours on a carefully planned “divine inspection tour” of the countryside, following winding lanes through fields, small villages, and hamlets. As we passed, locals set off huge chains of firecrackers, and presented food and drink offerings to the gods – and to us marchers as well.


From time to time, the parade stopped at key temples, where tables groaned under the weight of dozens of freshly slaughtered pigs, beautifully presented fruit, and many other foods. Out front, the Song Jiang Battle Array performers displayed their martial arts moves, weaving, bobbing, jumping, twirling, thrusting and parrying with swords and spears, as the drums beat on and on and on, and massive explosions of firecrackers rent the air, creating clouds of grey smoke. Boo ya!


The tradition of the Song Jiang Battle Array troupes dates back to the time when settlers from China during the Qing dynasty had to band together and form militias to defend themselves from bandits and irate Formosan Aborgines. Song Jiang is the name of the legendary leader of 108 righteous men whose lives were ruined by corrupt Song Dynasty officials, forcing them to become the heroic outlaws of the Liangshan Marsh in Shandong, China. The legend is depicted in the brilliant novel Water Margin, written by Shi Nai’an during the Ming Dynasty. Song Jiang is a symbol of integrity, military success, and resistance to a corrupt regime.

Song Jiang

When the Empire of Japan occupied Taiwan in 1895, it imposed strict law and order. The militia that had safeguarded villagers from real threats were no longer as necessary for security. However, they were encouraged by the Japanese to carry on practicing and performing their Song Jiang Battle Arrays as a folk art. This they have done to this day: Neimen Township has a population of just 20,000 people, but boasts over 30 Song Jiang troupes of around 40 members each. Maybe one household in three has a member in one of the troupes, which add color and fun to temple events, promote local pride in a healthy way, and attract money-spending tourists.


I had a great day marching with the procession, positioned just behind a long, colorful, undulating dragon figure. But the event was more than just fun: it was also a window into the fascinating diversity of legends, deities, numerology, geomancy, and superstitions that make up Chinese folk religion. This is a colorful alternative universe of the imagination to explore, and one which is preserved better in Taiwan than anywhere else.


My main connection to that universe has always been my wife’s “temple granny” mother, who loyally follows all the customs of her creed and temple. One of these is the bai-bai, or ritual obeisance to the gods, performed with incense. Every Lunar New Year I go with her and my wife to the Neimen Purple Bamboo Temple. We wave the burning sticks first in one direction, then another, then put them into the brazier. I go along just to make her happy. After all, everyone else is doing the same thing. It is kind of an interesting process, and the artwork in the temple is quite impressive, so I do it. It makes me wonder how popular religion would be if the acts of worship were solitary and dull!

I doubt that most of the people at the Luohanmen Welcoming Buddha Event under 60 years old really believed in the gods. Probably the majority of attendees were there for a bit of fun or to appreciate the traditional culture as an art form. The event was about remembering the past, yes, but was also in tune with the modern world.


Bull run

In stark contrast, the Running of the Bulls at the Festival of San Fermin, Pamplona, Spain, is in no way in tune with the modern world. Although the outer skin resembles a modern tourist event, the core is a bloody taurine ruckus bubbling up from deep in the past. Six Spanish Fighting Bulls and six oxen run an 825-meter course along narrow, twisting, cobblestone streets in Pamplona’s medieval town center, through a throng of thousands of idiots brave men dressed in white and red. The men wait for the bulls, the bulls come, and the men run with them. Every year people are injured; since the beginning of record keeping in 1922, 15 men have died in the run, usually gored by a bull’s horns. Most injuries are not very serious, such as bruises or contusions, but one year a guy actually got gored up the ass. I’m not sure how macho he would feel telling that story, although it doubtless came as some consolation to him that Spain has the finest bull-related-trauma surgeons in the world!

The encierro originated 700 years ago, when young herders taking the bulls through the streets from their corrals to the bullring danced around them to show off their bravery. Today’s runners are still known as mozos – lads.

For hundreds of years this local tradition would be virtually unknown to the English-speaking world, until a young Ernest Hemmingway popularized it in his classic modernist novel “The Sun Also Rises.”

Soon, macho dreamers from all over the world were traveling to Pamplona from July 6 to 14. They became mozos, wore the white pants, white shirt, and red cap, neckerchief and waist bandana, and ran with the bulls like locals.

I hadn’t even read that book until after I came back, but I had seen some YouTube videos of the encierro that touched a chord in me I hadn’t even known was there, one that Hemingway had mentioned.


I don’t remember the exact moment when I decided to participate in the “encierro de Sanfermines”, but once I had announced that I would, I had to go through with it. It was that kind of thing. Hem would have agreed.

So, when the time came, I got on a plane. Twenty-one hours later, stiff-legged and jet-lagged, I landed in the Spanish capital. I took the metro downtown, emerged into the streets, and then fell in love – with Madrid. The warm morning sunlight illuminated elegant old sand-colored buildings. In little café-bakeries, men stood at the counter reading newspapers over their breakfast of churros, orange juice, and coffee. A real reading culture it was indeed. People chatted at newsstands, and I even saw even people reading books as they walked by! I cut through Parque El Retiro; full of fountains and statues, its verdant trees shimmering in the sun, then crossed the flamboyant avenue Paseo del Prado near the Fountain of Neptune. As I walked into the Centro Historico, striking architecture delighted the eye. It was a testament to Spain’s many layers of history.


Palcio 1


Modern waves of change were also evident: there was a big LGBTQ festival in town, and many prominent buildings displayed the rainbow flag. There were also a lot of African migrants illegally selling stuff like cheap bags on the street. These guys had a tough, wary, dried-up look in their eyes, the mark, I thought, of real hardship. In the old public square called Puerta del Sol, there was a peaceful demonstration by FEMEN, a radical feminist group based in Paris. Spain’s old right vs. left divide, which dates from before their civil war, is still very much alive. In Pamplona, I was definitely going to be interacting with the older, conservative side of the culture. Bullfighting and running with the bulls was something “the Left” would ban if they could.

After a brief stay in stunning Madrid, I took a bus north to San Sebastian (Donostia) in the Basque country. It was a fantastic day by the window, gazing out at endless dry grassy plans and shrub-forested mountains. As if for foreboding, several times I saw bulls grazing on the slopes. We got into the coastal mountains, and the forests grew lusher. A rainstorm hit while we were switchbacking down toward the Atlantic Ocean. Finally the bus let us out in San Sebastian, and I fell in love again: “Donostia” as the locals call it, is a hauntingly beautiful place with a picture-postcard beach and delightful Napoleonic era buildings. The cool fresh soul of the Atlantic permeated the city. I happily tramped about, enjoying its amazing food and views for a couple of days.



Then, early on the morning of July 6, I took the one-hour bus ride to Pamplona. Festivities were well underway! The city was awash in citizens bedecked in the traditional white and red of San Fermin. Even grannies and little babies in strollers were dressed up in the colors! As I walked through town, drunk youth were shouting and running about, and were empty beer bottles and cans were everywhere.

I checked into my hostel, and then got my first surprise. As I was having lunch in a little café-bar next door, live on TV they were showing the opening ceremony for San Fermin, meaning of course that I wasn’t actually there! A small rocket called the chupinazo was set off from a balcony in Pamplona’s city hall, formally starting the festival. An official shouted: “Viva San Fermin! Gora San Fermin!” and the crowd cheered wildly and threw wine all over each other – while I sat in a café eating a damn sandwich! How had I missed that? Anyway, I wasn’t going to miss the bull-run encierro. No way!

I walked back into the old town. It was full of really cool old medieval buildings, albeit on a smaller and quainter scale than Madrid. You could picture a drunk guy riding a donkey through these streets, singing in the moonlight, in the time of Don Quixote. But today the narrow alleys were absolutely jammed with partygoers, thousands and thousands of people guzzling booze: calimocho – half wine and half coca cola – proper wine from wineskins, and one-liter bottles of San Miguel beer. It was totally nuts, but quite merry and unaggressive, and here and there small bands played traditional music.




Google Maps helped me trace the route that the bulls would follow the next day, and I gently barged through the fiesta madness, walking each part of the course. That done, I relaxed and chatted with other festival-goers over a few drinks – but not too many! Tomorrow was the big day.

The next morning, I woke up at 5 a.m. Time to face the music. I had hatched this crazy plan, day-dreamed about it, and now it was today, not tomorrow. I strode through the streets at dawn, in awe at the evidence of truly massive drinking from the day before: an army of garbage trucks and men were getting rid of hundreds of thousands of booze containers; people were sleeping it off in parks or simply passed out on the sidewalk, and others were still at it.

On the encierro route, crews of workmen were quickly and expertly putting up the stout wooden barrier fences that would contain the beasts and protect the spectators. The spaces between the slats were wide enough for a runner in danger to slither through, but not a bull.

I arrived at the rallying point, the Plaza Consistorial, in front of the town hall, a lovely building from 1760. Other beautiful structures framed the small square, with people out on little balconies looking down at the gathering crowd. My fellow mozos were a mixed bunch: drunk young backpackers trying to sneak wineskins in past the sharp-eyed cops; groups of Spanish men in their 20s and 30s; and gringos like me. Excited, I chatted with people standing next to me. Some had done this before, others seemed not even to have done much homework on the run. Outside the fence, it was the modern world, with TV cameras, ambulances on stand-by, and people using their smartphones; inside the fence was something far more primitive.


Excitement was building. By 7:45 a.m., 15 minutes before the release of the bulls from their corrals, the square had become much more crowded, and there was a sense of heightened expectation. Disturbingly, however, I noticed that a line of policemen had formed a cordon around the group of about 50 guys I was in at one corner of the square. The cops suddenly extended their arms and shoved, compressing and jamming our group together. It was scary and totally unexpected, and none of us knew what was going on. After a couple of minutes of this, it was becoming hard to breathe. Suddenly a wooden barrier was thrown open nearby and we were unceremoniously ejected! Later on I figured out that we had been standing in a dangerous turn where the bulls might careen into us. I get the cops’ logic, but not why they were so rough. It seems that is a local tradition too:

Hem 2

What a letdown! But I still wanted to see the bulls. I ran around to one of the wooden fence areas where people could watch the run. It was jammed with onlookers, police, and TV cameras. I ran to the next one, which was much less crowded, and told a young Spanish couple standing there: “I wanted to run with the bulls but the police kicked me out!” The woman said: “Just go back in! There are no police here right now.” Aha! I slipped through the slats on to the street, and was back in the game.

I jogged down to “Dead Man’s Corner”, a sharp turn at the bottom of a hill which has proven particularly deadly over the years, and turned right on to Calle de la Estafeta, a long straight lane where the bulls don’t have to deal with tight corners on slippery cobblestones. I had read that this was the easiest and safest place for newb runners like me. After going along Estafeta for about 30 meters, I turned around and waited for the bull herd. The crowd roared at the sound of the two rockets signaling that the bulls were on their way. Soon they arrived.

The YouTube videos I’d seen of the encierro were always from an elevated angle, with a clear view of the approaching bulls. But bulls are shorter than men, so as runners on the ground we couldn’t actually see them coming until they were right on us. What we did see and hear was an approaching shockwave of panicked people shouting and jumping out of the way. When that wave got close, the bulls shot out, black and scary as hell. Those animals were as juiced up as anything I have seen: fierce as tigers, glossy and beautiful, lively beyond belief. Mixed in with them were the brown steers there to guide them. The herd ran by much faster than I had expected, at about the sprinting speed of a college athlete. Transfixed and without a programmed reaction, I watched them gallop by from the other side of the lane. One bull slowed down for a second, cast me an angry eye, then carried on. Another bull and a steer ran by. Was that the last of them? I looked back warily, and saw a strange thing, three oxen joined by a belled wooden yoke, followed by a bull herder. It was the sweeper team. I ran behind them all the way to the entrance to the Plaza de Toros, but immediately after the oxen entered, a line of security guards blocked the path, and the door to the arena was shut. My run was over!

Later that night all six bulls would be killed at a corrida, or bullfight. I had seen one before in Mexico City, a brutal, graceful, and bloody spectacle. But here in Pamplona, at San Fermin, which has more than 1,000,000 visitors from around the world, the bullfights had been sold out long ago; getting in would have been impossible.

Feeling happy about the entire experience, I had a few drinks with some other mozos and foreign travelers, then finally walked back to my hostel.

It was only in retrospect that I realized what I should have done, and felt some regret and disappointment. In addition to having missed the chupinazo, I had also missed the San Fermin procession on the morning of July 6, when thousands of people follow a 15th century statue of the saint that gets carried around the old part of town. (Funny the similarity to Taiwanese religion.) I also should have actually run with the bulls instead of just watching them go by and chasing them. Why hadn’t I? The bulls went by so fast I hardly had time to react, so I just went on instinct. Believe me, if you were there you would not have instinctively run toward those bulls! But the bottom line was that I had not programmed myself with the correct response for the occasion once I was actually next to the bulls. I hadn’t imagined the moment.

Despite that fact, I don’t feel that my performance was a failure. I did it! But it was only Act One. I must go back to Pamplona and finish it right. I’m going to do it. Next time, I will wait in exactly the same place, and when the bulls appear, I’ll start running as fast as I can. I know they will catch up with me! When they do, I’ll do my best to run with them all the way into the Plaza de Toros. And then my mission will be accomplished. Ole! New program uploaded.

How about the bulls’ point of view? Many people feel that the encierro and subsequent bullfights are brutal and unethical. I agree. However, they are far less unethical than the routine slaughter of meat animals. Spanish Fighting Bulls – Toros Bravos– live wonderful lives until their moment of truth, an average of five years under almost ideal conditions, grazing peacefully in open fields. That’s far better than the slaughtered pigs I saw in Neimen, which had lived for a maximum of one year in a crowded barn reeking of feces and urine. Think of battery chickens, veal calves, the slaughter of lambs: the list of meat cruelties is a long one, and on a scale millions of times greater than blood sports with bulls. But that’s old news. Enjoy your pork chop!

Looking back on the whole thing, it was very interesting to learn first-hand how programming can affect behavior under stress. I guess we are all behaviorally programmed to a large extent, so if we learn how to program ourselves, that’s a step forward then, isn’t it?

Other than that, I can only share the clichéd observation that as societies with long histories move forward into an increasingly weird future, it is emotionally important for them to maintain their connections with the past. Taiwan and Spain both do so in a lively and enjoyable way, and outsiders like you and me – travelers for life –-are welcome to join in. So I’ll end with a very sincere xie xie damas y caballeros! Nimen de cultura antigue zhen de hen hao!


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Taipei Baboons RFC: Living it

Rugby, it has been said, is a hooligans’ game played by gentlemen. However, in Taiwan, it is a hooligans’ game played by baboons – the Taipei Baboons Rugby Football Club, to be exact, Taiwan’s oldest expat Rugby Union team.

Baboons FB pic (2)They comprise three teams: the Taipei Baboons (men’s rugby); the Babeboons (women’s rugby); and the Silverbacks, (men’s over 40 rugby).

They’re a tight-knit crew, a band of brothers and sisters with many stories to tell, some of which can actually pass the censors and be printed. Others, well, “What happens on tour stays on tour!”

But their most central story, and one they don’t keep quiet about, is literally a bloody tragedy. Fifteen years ago this fall, on October 12, 2002, terrorists blew up Paddy’s Pub in Kuta, in Indonesia’s resort island of Bali, and then a minute later, exploded a car bomb outside the open air Sari Club across the street. The blasts killed 202 people.

The Baboons, down for a rugby tournament, lost five of their own: James Hardman, 28, of Australia; Daniel Braden, 28, of England; South Africans Godfrey Fitz, 39 Craig Harty, 35, and Eve Kuo, 24, of Taiwan.

Baboons Bali2


Australian Max Murphy was one of the lucky ones: “I was talking to Peter Chworowsky about opening a sports bar before I went to the toilet. On the way back I stopped to watch Emenim dressed as a Taliban singing “Without You” – This was the song playing when the bomb went off. The first bomb went off  at Paddy’s Bar across the road. …Then the second bomb – the car bomb – went off. C4. It was just a wall of force that’s all…I’m not sure if I passed out. It was just pitch black and silent. Then I heard the fire and the screaming. I was under the roof but could get free. I am sure all around me died. I got up and saw a wall of fire and thought to myself that I am going to have to run through this to survive. Then I heard my brother screaming at me from up the wall. I went towards him. As I went that way there was one guy buried under rubble from the wall that had fallen in. He looked too far gone. His face still haunts me. … Walking out to the main road – it was chaos. Bodies everywhere. We ran to the store to get water and pour it on burns etc. and try to get people on bikes that the locals were riding to get people to hospital. There was flat bed bikes full of bodies – not sure if living or dead. After a while we weren’t sure what to do and headed back to the hotel to see if others made it.”

“The timeline over the next week is hazy. I remember fielding lots of calls from relatives and telling them that we don’t know what happened to their loved ones – that was extremely difficult….There were lots of meetings at the Hard Rock Hotel that were full of emotional relatives demanding answers. There was shouting etc. At the end of one of these emotional meetings, James Hardman’s dad pointed a shaking finger at us and said “Live it guys, just live it”. This is now the Baboons motto, and is written on their jerseys.

Mark Blank


“After about a month, I called Peter from my car driving back from Taoyuan and said. ‘Remember we were talking about opening a sports bar before the bomb went off? Let’s do it’”, said Murphy. So they opened the Brass Monkey on Fuxing North Road, which became the team’s hang out. A memorial jersey was hung on the wall with the date of the attack on it. The jersey has since been taken down, but Bali will always be one of the defining moments for the club.

Another key moment for the Baboons’ was their beginning, 12 years prior to Bali. The man that helped them get organized was a Taiwanese rugby enthusiast named Best Wu. “One rainy day in 1990, down at National Taiwan University, I was playing rugby with some friends,” said Best. “Afterward a French guy called Pascal came over and asked me how he could get involved in rugby in Taiwan.”


It turns out that there was a bunch of French guys who used to meet up regularly at the Landis Hotel, where one of the chefs was an avid rugby player. But for expats back in the days before the World Wide Web, figuring out how to get things organized here in Taiwan was a real challenge.

This Frenchman had asked the right guy. Not only did Best speak English, but when it came to rugby in Taiwan, he knew the score. Involved in rugby since his teens, he had been captain of his high school rugby team down in Tainan. “Back then, rugby was very popular. In 1967, there were rugby championships between northern and southern league teams at a former baseball stadium in Tainan. About 15,000 people attended.”

Best said that rugby continued to be popular in Taiwan through the 1970’s and 80’s, largely because it was supported by Chiang Ching-kuo, (the son of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek). Chiang Ching-kuo was ROC Defense Minister from 1965 to 1969, premier from 1972–78, and then president from 1978 until his death in 1988. All through his time in government, he actively promoted rugby as a training sport in the military both for teamwork and rough-and-tumble athleticism. Many boys who knew they’d be doing rugby in their two-year military stint got into the sport in high school.



Best studied at National Chengchi University, where he became both rugby player and team coach. Later, he played rugby hard during his own two years in the military.

When he got out of the army, rugby union in Taiwan was going strong. There was a national team, and many club teams. One team in particular, the Old Boys (OB), former students from the elite Taipei Municipal Jianguo High School, dominated club rugby in their distinctive black jerseys. “For ten years, they beat every other team,” said Best.

This led to the creation of their would-be nemesis, the Giants. “We wore white jerseys, to be the opposite of the OB!” When they finally beat the Old Boys in a game, with Best as one of their star players, it was a sweet victory!

But Best said that the glory days of Taiwanese rugby were coming to a close. When Chiang Ching-kuo died in 1988, the subsequent change of the guard left no high-level supporters for military rugby. In addition, sports universities had started offering full scholarships for top rugby athletes. This meant that the non-sport universities soon couldn’t compete with them, and their programs faltered. With no clear future in rugby, high school programs withered as well. Things were looking glum for the game. The glory days of 15,000 people in a stadium for Taiwanese rugby were over. “The biggest games now only got a few hundred people,” lamented Best.

He played on as a top club player until he was 38 years old, and then started to tone it down a bit. Until one day in 1990, when Pascal Deville approached him on a muddy field.

Best generously offered to share his local knowledge and help the expats organize. Soon they got together the requisite 15 players for a team: 7 Frenchmen, and 8 players from New Zealand, the UK, Canada and the USA. There were two ideas for a name put forward, “the Frogs” and “the Baboons”. The French went for “Frog” en bloque, but they were outvoted 8 – 7. And so in 1991 the Taipei Baboons came barking into the world!

In these early years, Best says that the members were mainly expats here for a couple of years. Some of them were businessmen, others engineers working on the MRT. There were also some government officials, including David Hughes, Canada’s de facto ambassador to Taiwan. Best was a key part of the team, serving in different years as president, honorary president, and then general secretary.

During the ’90s, The Baboons started getting involved in international rugby, going to places like Bali and Manilla. Best wasn’t usually playing in competition games anymore, but remembers how in the 1994 Manilla 10’s, one of their players wasn’t allowed into the Philippines due to a visa glitch.  Best had to fill in for him on the pitch. He nailed it! “People still remembered me for that game when I went back to Manilla in 1995 and 1996!”

Best baboon


And so the team played on, time neatly divided between pitch and pub! But their style of play started to evolve, partly due to demographics and partly due to growing cultural awareness.

“You play to the ref,” says Australian Mark Goding, aka Mr. Sausage. But this message was lost on some of the more experienced expat guys who just played rugger the way they had grown up to. According to Peter Chworowsky – Dan Ryan’s and Brass Monkey co-founder, Bali survivor, and former Baboons president – these old school guys had a more aggressive “on the edge” style of play, pushing the envelope on static with opposing players, and talking back to the referee. One former Baboon told me that direct physical violence, like an elbow to the head, used to be common between opposing forwards, when they could get away with it. Mr. Sausage said that there were also some miscommunications, as in if you said “Fuck!” after a ref’s call, that would be interpreted as telling the ref to fuck off, which was not the intention. Chworowsky said, “We got the reputation as a bit of a dirty team, so some teams wouldn’t play us.”

Then the demographics began to shift, and with it the team culture. In the 2000s, there were starting to be fewer business expats and more English teachers. (More recently, there have been many foreign students as well.)

“These new guys tended look up at us older guys who had been here longer, and we were able to help them meet the local cultural expectations,” said Chworowsky. Hence, the playing style became looser and less “mano a mano.” This is probably a good thing. Chworowsky himself has had his neck broken while playing in Manilla. Fortunately, he recovered. Not so fortunate was Jack Liu, a young Fu Jen University student who had tragic spinal damage in 2009 and is paralyzed. Rugby is a violent game.



Mr. Sausage is one of the older “new school” ESL guys who got into the game. Like his hairy appearance, kangaroo Dundee accent, and oft-successful attempts at humor, his personal history is good for of comic relief. “When I started playing rugby, the Baboons had a lot of South Africans who didn’t like to pass the ball to a newbie with two left feet. They also tended to speak with each other in Afrikaans. So I decided to make some boerewors (traditional South African farmers’ sausage) and share it with them. But I got the recipe wrong: instead of using dried coriander seed, I used cilantro. I remember sharing it with the Saffas and they were like, ‘What’s this green stuff man?’ But at least they opened up to me a bit more.” This led to him becoming a sausage maker by trade, opening Mr. Sausage’s Kitchen, which supplies sausage to many prominent local restaurants.

Current president Welshman Andrew Leakey says that now there are lots of Baboons who have married Taiwanese women, have kids, and who speak Chinese. This also helps them get along better with the locals. Mr. Sausage, married to a lovely Taiwanese lass, said that he can show up at a game of the local team “Giants RFC” and they’ll happily let him play with their jersey – a huge step forward in cross-cultural relations. It’s also part of what Leakey says is the special nature of club rugby in Asia, the social side. “Back in Wales, if you play rugby, you play rugby, and it’s very serious. But here, almost anyone can play.”

But this evolution from old school to new school didn’t happen overnight, and the Baboons had yet to get through their roughest year ever: In 2002, stalwart Best Wu moved to China, and key members and former presidents Pascal Deville and Roger Rosbenburger left Taiwan. The changing of the guard had begun. Then came the carnage in Bali.

Best said that, after the bombings, “The Baboons were really lucky they had Peter Chworowsky to take over and lead them”. Chworowsky became president in 2002 and held court as “El Dictator” until 2007. After that, there were a series of presidents doing shorter terms, including Bernie Moore and Travis “Trash” Boyer (There’s a great story about “Trash” in Manilla I can’t tell!) until 2010 when Andrew Leakey took the wheel. Leakey’s biggest club-related peeve is that they don’t have a real home pitch to play at, and instead must use the Bailing public pitch in Shihlin District.

Leakey said that there are about 80 Baboons in total, but there are hundreds of ex-players, friends of the team, and family members who are connected because of Bali and other events. The Baboons went back to Bali for the 10th anniversary of the bombings in 2012, and on Saturday, October 14 this year, they played a memorial game to honor the fallen five for the 15th anniversary of the blasts.

Liu Bo 2 (2)

Sadly though, they also had two more fallen rugby brothers weighing heavily on their hearts. One of these was rugby legend Liu Bo-Yi, who died of cancer this summer at the age of 57. Mr. Liu was integral to Taiwanese rugby since the 1970s, being on the national team and participating in the Hong Kong 7’s, Asia’s premier rugby event. After retiring from pro-rugby, he helped develop youth rugby in Taiwan, and played with the Giants RFC. The other was a Baboons player: Logo Alimau Nafatali, a 22-year -old Tuvaluan business student at Ming Chuan University, who perished along with his girlfriend in a rooftop fire in Shilin in August.

Logo 4.jpg


“It’s been a rough summer,” Leakey said.

But the club carries on, draining kegs of beer, training or playing matches at Bailing field, rain or shine – or going on tour in Taiwan and around SE Asia. There’s always the next party, practice or game, and in the face of the death the team has endured, what else can they do but live? So, faithful to their motto, the Baboons are living it.



The Taipei Baboons RFC would like to thank their sponsors:



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Big Hearts, Big Plans: Haxstrong Charity

Sometimes life slaps us in the face. It’s annoying as hell, we curse and moan, then get over it. But sometimes life knocks us to the ground and kicks us in the head: a serious traffic accident, a child in the ICU, a cancer diagnosis – or mental and emotional problems that take us to the edge. That’s when the language and cultural obstacles in a foreign land can be maddening, and we really need our extended family and deep social network back in our other home. But they aren’t here. So how can we cope?

Hax logo

Contact the Haxstrong Charity, that’s how! This newish group led by Gregg Haxton, Shaun Bettinson, and a team of dedicated volunteers, have made it their mission to make sure that in your time of crisis, should it come, you will never, ever, be alone.

And they mean business. It’s a dedication based on personal experience. Haxton, from Queenstown, South Africa, is a totally likeable guy with a big smile and an even bigger heart. Back in 2010, after teaching English at Hess schools for three years, he parlayed his charisma into a gig working as a manager at the Pig and Whistle pub (for Max Murphy of Brass Monkey fame) down in Kaohsiung. This helped cement his status as one of the most universally loved figures of the Kaohsiung scene, who would befriend – genuinely – anyone who came into the pub.

“He was like a 1-man welcoming party (and I do mean party) who made an instant impression in the best way on all who met him,” said one of his friends, Ryan Jones.

But the laws of biology and physics do not spare the charismatic. “One night at the pub, I’d had a few too many. My friends took my motorcycle keys away from me,” relates Haxton. “But then another friend got them back for me. “ Oops!

His friend Henry was the first on the scene at the hospital. “It was a Sunday morning around 4:00a.m. and I was called by the police and asked if I knew Gregg, then when I said yes, I was told to go to the hospital because he’d had an accident.” But when Henry got to the hospital he was told that Haxton was near death. “There was no real expectation of his survival except from the brain surgeon Dr. Yang, who vowed to save him through sheer force of will.”

Another friend, Yero Rudzinkas recounts: “I remember finding my way into Gregg’s hospital room a couple of hours after the accident, before anyone else was allowed in, and man–It was something else. A twitching mass of bloody purple bandages, unrecognizable as anything except damaged.”

Drunk, Haxton had collided with a car whose driver was also drunk. (Don’t drink and drive folks!) Among other physical injuries, he had a burst eyeball and a fractured skull with brain hemorrhaging. He also lost a femur, since replaced with a titanium rod. But in the days and weeks after the accident, he was hanging on to life by a thread.

His Kaohsiung buddies took over management of his affairs. And thus unofficially, the Haxstrong Charity was born. Ryan Jones coined the term “Haxstrong” because he wanted Haxton to be strong again. To cope with his grief, he created a poster of Haxton – nicknamed “the Plesh”- looking hale and hearty, as he had been before, and as they all desperately hoped he would be again.

Another friend, Henry George Young, took charge of the situation: “I had to make the medical decisions for him. I got hold of his mum a few hours later. I also contacted a trauma surgeon friend in South Africa whose son is a mutual friend of Gregg’s and mine, who was able to liaise with the Taiwanese doctors.” He also took care of Haxton’s family when they came to Taiwan a few days later, and kept the steady stream of visitors to his room down to a manageable level.

Rudzinkas called a meeting to get fundraising started. Haxton was in a coma (at his worst, a 3 on the Glasgow Coma Scale) and even in Taiwan, intensive care isn’t cheap.

There were a series of fundraisers at venues such as the Brickyard to cover the lion’s share of the expenses. The love energy at these events created what Jon Hemmings called, “a sense of unity, fire and purpose” that helped people overcome their despair.

By all accounts, it was Haxton’s warm and loving nature that had inspired the intense emotional response to love him back to life.

And then seven weeks after his accident, he came out of his coma.

His mom was there, and he asked her why, and Haxton said she told him, “You’ve already asked me that question five times.”

“My perception of reality had become severely distorted – the only way to describe it to imagine that you are in one of those dreams that that feel so incredibly real that you cannot believe that you are dreaming –until you wake up, that is.

“But for me, there was no waking up…. this was my reality. Indeed, due to the damage done to the frontal lobe area of my brain, I did not even know who I was any more.”

After several operations and court cases, Haxton went back to South Africa to cocoon with his family. But he was far from happy. “I began to suffer from severe depression.”

Mood swings are a normal part of recovering from head trauma. But part of what brought him down was his diminished physical capacity: being weak and damaged, and hobbling around on crutches was frustrating to the former rugby player and outdoorsman. His mental capacity was also diminished, and he was plagued by the constant sense of unreality.

“It was a very dark time full of sadness, confusion, anger and other negative emotions. It got to the point where I was feeling so overwhelmed by negativity that suicide began to become a very real possibility.”

But then he made a breakthrough. Counseling helped him understand that the sense of unreality would fade with time, and that he would get stronger and better. This was a huge relief to him. But there was another understanding as well, sad but useful: he would never be the old Gregg Haxton again.

So he embraced a new one. He became inspired with a mission: return to Taiwan and turn Haxstrong into a charity to help anybody who needed help – and emotional support – in a desperate hour. “What I stand for is sharing love and being by the side of those that need it.”



February 2012, one and a half years after the accident: Back in Taiwan, Haxton and his fellow big hearts started to get busy helping others. One case was José “Miguel” Rios, an American yacht designer who was stricken with a bad case of Japanese Encephalitis back in 2012, and has been in various stages of ill health ever since. They helped with fundraising and also visited him frequently to brighten his mood.

Haxstrong holds an annual fair called “Life’s Peachy”, in honor of a 28-year-old American woman named Debbie Peachy who passed away suddenly from cancer in 2012 in Kaohsiung. The event gives hope to patients and family members and helps Peachy’s loved ones deal with their loss. It also raises money for cancer charities.



Haxstrong also helped with some famous cases of infants with medical issues born to parents who were both non-Taiwanese nationals. Until the age of six months old, such infants aren’t covered by Taiwan’s national health insurance, often leaving the parents with huge medical bills.

One famous baby case in 2016 was Bas and Erica Brull whose identical twins had in utero complications, and required incubator care after birth. Haxstrong and many others helped publicize their GoFundMe campaign. The hubbub over this case and others helped get a draft law automatically granting coverage to such infants passed in May 2017. It is awaiting final acceptance.

Another well-known case that Haxstrong was a big part of was of Canadian John Kelly, who was struck by a car in Taichung last October, receiving serious head trauma. Doctors suggested he be medevacked to Canada, but that plus his already considerable bills was more than his family could afford. So another GoFundMe campaign and fund raising events helped out by Haxstrong. Unfortunately, Kelly passed away in Canada last December.

This is where the current president of Haxstrong, Shaun Bettinson, came in. If Haxton is the heart and soul of the organization, Bettinson is the business brain. He has a degree in Business Computing, and experience in sales to the IT sector in Belfast. He also currently has his own company that sells indoor air quality meters called a “Laser Egg”.

Bettinson also had a history of event management, fund raising, and generally helping out. Back in 2009, an expat named Patrick Byrne in Taichung had a young child who had a serious health problem. “There was a text message going around looking for blood donors,” said Bettinson. Apparently, prevalence of blood types in Taiwan among locals is different than for many foreigners. “Then I heard later that he might have developmental problems. It cost about 15,000NTD per day in the intensive care unit (ICU). The parents owed almost half a million NT dollars!”

Bettinson and others put together a sponsored walk in Metropolitan Park in Taichung, and raised 250,000NT in a day. The news coverage of the event caused the hospital to take 100,000NT off the bill. With other donations, and a BBQ/raffle, they raised 750,000NT and cleared his bill!

Lads and lasses


Bettinson had actually met Haxton years ago in Singapore at a Hess training event. So when the John Kelly accident happened, and it became clear that Haxstrong was getting involved, Bettinson offered to consult as “their man in Taichung.” Over time, he became the vice president, and then president; his organizational acumen was exactly what was needed to grow a stable and efficient charity.

The Haxstorng team has big plans: Bettinson says there’s a list of about 700 donors for rare blood types who donate on a regular basis. “I bet not one of them is a foreigner.” He’d like to get expats on that list to reduce the time between needing and getting a transfusion. He also is creating an online database listing reliable lawyers and doctors, legal and health insurance information, and so on. They are signing up volunteers -vetted volunteers, actually willing to do work – who can be mobilized when needed. Long term, they even hope to have offices with staff and drop in centers in some locations in Taiwan.

It’s an ambitious goal, and some might shake their heads and doubt they’ll achieve. It. But in response, Haxton would only smile and quote his hero, Nelson Mandela: “When people are determined they can overcome anything.”




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Expats With a Heart: The Community Services Center in Tianmu Turns 30

When people think of the Community Services Center, they often think of what British author and classical musician Richard Saunders calls “that whole Tianmu tai-tai scene”. Indeed, the Center is often associated with survival Chinese classes, cross-cultural orientations for newcomers, and even cooking lessons. Located in Tianmu, and having links with the international schools, the Center certainly is a convenient neighborhood fixture for Tianmu expats.

Finding the light

But Saunders, who has published numerous books and articles through the Center, also says “It’s much more than that. It’s much better than that. People should really use it more.”

The Center’s primary work is mental and emotional health counseling, issues so private that they are rarely talked about publicly. But on the occasion of the Center’s 30th anniversary, as it is still struggling to make ends meet, perhaps it’s time to take a closer look at this fascinating and vital Taipei institution and how it has evolved to fill a painful need in the expat community.

“Nice place you’ve got here!” I said to Adam McMillan, the director of the Community Services Center, which has three floors of offices, counseling rooms, and even a teaching kitchen. “It is now!” he said, “But it was in pretty bad shape when I first took over in 2012.” The carpet was moldy, the furniture old, and the whole place badly in need of renovation. The problem then (and now and always) was money. “We were broke!” he said, and so he had to soldier on with the endless quest for donations. He very gratefully received 300,000NT worth of furniture from IKEA. (Lots of DIY work on that one!) McMillan also secured a targeted donation from a multi-national company to pay for a complete renovation.


The Center conducts an average of 5000 counseling sessions per year by highly qualified psychologists, who help people with anxiety, depression, marital problems, parenting issues, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and substance abuse.

“We’ve helped thousands of people. We’ve saved lives” said McMillan. “I see people’s faces a month to six weeks after they’ve started the counseling. Many of them make full recoveries. It’s nice to watch.”

This good work done by the Center got started because of a ghastly tragedy.

Back in 1985, three boys – students at an international school – walked into an area of abandoned and overgrown military housing in Tianmu. They got stoned on cough syrup containing a now-banned psychoactive ingredient. Then two of the boys beat the other one to death with a baseball bat.

The body was found the next day by a man out taking his dog for a walk. When the news broke, the expat community was completely stunned.

In the aftermath, expat community leaders – business, religious and AIT – met to figure out the implications of this horrible incident. What emerged was that there was a foreign teen drug problem bigger than anyone knew, and a lack of community resources to deal with it. More meetings, and then a stroke of luck. In 1986, thanks to the US State Department, they found a model to emulate: The Community Services Association of Cairo, an expatriate mental health program started in Egypt by two Americans, Joel Wallach and Gale Metcalf. They were contacted, which eventually resulted in them moving to Taipei to become The Center’s first directors. On August 1st, 1987, the “Community Center” became officially operational under the legal auspices of the Taiwan Adventist Hospital.

In 1993, it was agreed that the Center was “growed up” enough to become its own entity, the “Taipei International Community Services Cultural and Education Foundation” in Chinese (國際社區服務文教中心) or in English, the Community Services Center. They were permitted as a foundation on February 13th, 1993, and registered by the Taipei District Court on April 1st of that year. No fooling!


As the Center conducted its work, the whole range of mental and emotional health issues affecting the expat community gradually became clear. Of course, any population of people is going to have a certain amount of these problems. But for expats, the situation is more complicated. For one thing, studies have shown that expats have a higher incidence of mental and emotional health issues, especially anxiety and depression. Dealing with a foreign culture can be a genuine stress factor, especially if one’s spouse has some resistance to moving abroad, or the kids have a hard time fitting into their new country after being yanked away from their peer group.


And if things do go sideways, who can you turn to? Your familiar network of extended family and old friends back home aren’t there to keep a friendly eye on you. And local counselors may not have the cross-cultural experience to make a good connection with you. So who’s going to give you the tough-love advice, the shoulder to cry on, or organize an intervention for you when you are far from home? Well, maybe the Center will.

McMillan told me about one case the Center handled. About a year ago, a European woman just stopped showing up for work. Her friends were worried about her, but she wasn’t answering the door or her phone. However, she trusted the local Li Zhang (neighborhood leader). What she said to him worried him, so he called the foreign affairs police, who called her country’s trade office (de facto embassy), who called McMillan at the Center. So, out he went to her place. With the Li Zhang with him, he got her to come out and talk. Her behavior was very odd, recounts McMillan, as she avoided making eye contact with him. But then she said, “Mr. Director, occupant conditioning, and ocular implants!” Clearly the woman was suffering from a psychiatric condition. Eventually, she let the foreign affairs police drive her to a hospital and she was able to get the care she needed. She also got free outpatient housing from Taipei City. Her condition stabilized, and a family member came out from Europe and took her home. A happy ending!

McMillan says this case is now cited in Taiwan as a textbook model of how cooperation between city services, foreign affairs police, the health department, together with institutions like trade offices and the Center, can help deal with expat health crises.

Urgent cases are dealt with almost once a week at the center. And cases like this show that, at 30 years of age, the Center is coming of age, in more ways than one. By all accounts, McMillan’s management approach has helped this. McMillan, who hails from Tennessee, first came to Taiwan to study Chinese back in 1987, but was not connected to the Center then. He came back in 1998, and worked at various engineering and marketing management jobs as he raised his family. Then there was an opening at the Center. Sick of long commutes to Hsinchu, he went for the job. He brought his tech industry experience with him. “I’m very data driven,” he told me. When he first started, records were poor. But now he uses special software for health care institutions to store and crunch the numbers.

Americans account for 36% of those treated, and Taiwanese for another 24%. People from Europe are at 14%, and those from Asia outside of Taiwan also represent 14%. A total of about 40 nationalities have been counseled.

In terms of age groups, 26% are under 18, and a total of 60% are between 23 and 50 years old, although McMillan says that they have counseled people from 3 to 91 years old!

The magazine Centered on Taipei, edited by long-time Center stalwart Sue Babcock, is published 10 times per year, and puts out 2230 hard copies per issue. The web version of COT gets a monthly average of 325 page views, with a reading time norm of just under 5 minutes.

Some other important figures: the Center’s annual budget is about 23 million NTD per year. In terms of how much of that money is on programs, McMillan says that it’s a whopping 75%, way above the 68% that’s considered the “gold standard” for NGOs. The bottom line though is a 6 million NTD operating deficit per year. The need for funds is relentless. That’s why the Center has their annual charity auction, which will be on Friday October 20th this year. So sign up for that and give them your support. You never know when you – or someone you care for – might need theirs.




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The Devil is in the Details

Here’s a short bulletin from The Culture Shack!


I remember two years ago when I was active with the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Taiwan’s Small Business Committee, I gave a short talk – one among many other speakers – at DV8 Pub on Fuxing S. Rd (Gary’s place) for one of the events. Carrie K was there, John K was there, Josh Yang was there, Jenna, Andrew Lunman, Joe O’Brien, and many others. Maybe you?

The gist of the talk was slightly uncomfortable: Beware of being in a business relationship with Taiwanese partners – investors, contract partners, etc. – where you lack important leverage or knowledge, because they have a home-team advantage that might make you an easy mark.

Who you gonna call? Cross-cultural busters? I don’t think so! Sorry, eh!

Locals have detailed, deep and varied and local knowledge –language, customs, guanxi (connections), legal status, etc. You don’t. If you’re smart, you’ll get that.

In my brief talk, I summarized a few sob stories about expats who’d put a lot of  time, passion and money into small enterprises here, only to get burned badly.

Two years later, looking back, after various experiences, inputs and considerations, I’d like to reiterate this message:

Nothing has changed at all. Be very careful about the devil in the details in a business relationship with Taiwanese partners – investors, contract partners etc. I mean it.

The locals’ have home-team advantage might make you an easy mark, if they are so inclined.

This is intended for expat small business start up people. The big companies hire big lawyers and avoid this kind of BS. You have to do this using your own noggin.

I’ve just heard two recent stories that only confirm this:

  • One expat I know signed a bogus rental contract for a new business location that was actually scheduled for demolition.
  • Another signed what they thought was a rental contract for a new business, but was actually an agreement stating that they would guarantee payment of the rent if the actual tenant could not.

Both “contracts” were in Mandarin and were not checked out by CPAs, lawyers, or trusted Taiwanese people with close unambiguous relationships.

Both expat guys got screwed, and not in the good way.


  • For any location search and contract negotiation, get the help of a Taiwanese person with local connections to the area in question whose business interests AND social interests align (or at the very least do not conflict) with yours.
  • For any contract, use a CPA or lawyer, for whom YOU (or your very very trusted Taiwanese partner) are “The Client”.

This will probably save you some misery and some money!

Or take your chances and add your list to the “I got screwed in business in Taiwan!” club.

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Hockey Night in Taiwan

The puck drops, and the two forwards Liu and Wang fight for it. Wang hooks it out to Chen, and Chen passes to Chen who return passes it to Chen! Chen to Li. Li takes it across the line. Li can’t get past Hsieh. Li to Wang, Wang shoots! Oh! Deflection off the post! Wang gets it again. Wang to Li, Li shoots! He scores! 2-0 for the Typhoon!

Go typhoon

It’s hockey night in Taiwan! More and more Taiwanese are playing ice hockey, part of the sport’s global growth in popularity. And -Surprise, surprise! – Canadian players and coaches are skating beside them in force.

British Columbian Ryan Lang is head coach for the Chinese Taipei Men’s International Ice Hockey Team, in the International Ice Hockey League (IIHF) Division 3. Manitoban Cullen Revel owns the company ROC Sports which manages two successful programs: The Tigers for kids under 12, and the Typhoon for older kids and young adults. Many Canadians not only coach or play themselves, but get their kids involved as well. It’s part of our national obsession, eh?

Go Tigers!


Ontarian Anthony Van Dyck – a founding board member of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Taiwan – says his 10-year-old daughter Trudi plays with the Tigers. “Trudi is fascinated by the Canadian side of her culture because it’s the one side she can’t express on a daily basis.” Trudi is really into the game after finishing her first season.



Van Dyck says he likes the fact that hockey develops strength of character, because the practices take a lot of effort. “Cullen Revel is really ‘Go go go!’ with the kids. He’s everything you’d expect in a Canadian coach.” He says when Trudi falls down, she always gets back up with a smile. That’s something that can come in handy as an adult. Revel says the most satisfying aspect of his job as a coach is watching the personal development of the players. Lang agrees: “It teaches you teamwork, responsibility and accountability.”

But oddly enough, the recent history of hockey in Taiwan began with a Kiwi! About 25 years ago, New Zealander Geoff Le Cren was walking through Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall when he saw someone roller-blading by. He thought: “That looks cool!” So he got involved in the sport himself, and before long was coaching local kids and had opened up a shop selling equipment. Business was so good he was hiring guys to teach skating for him. “I had one Russian guy and one Canadian guy coaching for me on weekends, and they suggested we do some hockey. I said OK, and I fell in love with the game within a year!” And so the Holiday Cup league was formed, an inline hockey league in Taiwan. They started with just 50 players and the league now has about 100 teams, says Le Cren, who is Bauer Hockey’s sports equipment distributor for Greater China and Southeast Asia. He says there are about 1800 people playing inline hockey in Taiwan overall.

But what about ICE hockey, you know, hockey? Le Cren said that during the Vietnam War, US soldiers used Taiwan as an R&R location. “One of the facilities they had was an ice rink near Yuanshan. Soldiers used to play hockey and some Taiwanese guys used to play with them.” This was the beginning.

Since then, the development of ice hockey has been perennially hampered by a shortage of rinks. Some opened only to close again in a few years, and some of those that did stay open were less than ideal. Le Cren: “There was at a rink in Sanchong that had no insulation, so all the moisture accumulated in the ceiling tiles. One day, just as my class was lacing up their ice skates, half of the ceiling collapsed in the middle of the rink. Fortunately no one was on the ice!”

Some were a lot better: one rink in Xizhi, in the basement of the Acer Building, served as the humble birthplace for a league that has become legend for expat hockey in Taiwan, the Chinese-Taipei Ice Hockey League, or CIHL. It started out on shaky grounds in 2003, but rebooted successfully in 2004, thanks to Le Cren and others. These included  local players Wayne Lin, Eddy Chang, and Michael Lee. Rich Lee was in charge of the ice facility, but the expats ran the league. It was Le Cren, Montrealer Bob Ford, and Craig Crawford from Saskatchewan who were the league’s executive officers.

When the Taipei Arena opened in 2005, with its Olympic sized hockey rink – still the only one in Taiwan – the CIHL really took off, despite a lack of protective glass for the first year. “One day, an innocent fan got a puck in the face, and the league had to pay,” Le Cren said. Then the arena put the glass up!

The teams were starved for ice time though, because to this day, only public skating is allowed from 9 AM to 9 PM, seven days a week. That means all hockey teams compete for the remaining morning and evening ice time not only with each other but also with figure skaters and speed skaters!



Despite this, the CIHL grew in leaps and bounds, and eventually had two divisions: a club level and a more competitive open division, where team leaders would draft players. This led to mixed teams of expats and locals, which was good for the development of hockey in Taiwan. According to Bob Ford: “It allowed the young Taiwanese who were coming into the sport a chance to play a higher, faster, more competitive level of hockey than they had previously.”

There were also some cultural readjustments that took place.

“At first, the Taiwanese players where really sensitive. If an expat drove them into the boards, or there was incidental contact and the Taiwanese player fell over, he’d be gunning for you!” Le Cren said. “Sometimes a Taiwanese player who knocked another over would go back and help him up, in the middle of play!” But gradually the local players adapted.

During the CIHL’s heyday, there were about 120-130 players in the open division, with teams coming up from Kaohsiung, Chiayi and Taichung to play on weekends.

They kept going until 2012, when suddenly, with no warning, the CIHL had all their ice time cancelled – after the season had already begun. It was a bitter blow, a puck to the pills, so to speak!

The reasons were a bit murky, but the general drift was that this was a takeover by some of the Taiwanese involved in promoting hockey who wanted to make money from the sport. So when the national hockey federation (CTIHF) tried to put together a successor league, the expat lads shunned them (Go puck yourselves!) This contributed to the new league’s failure.

The core of Canucks – along with some others – formed the Gentlemen’s Hockey Club. Others played in other clubs, or stopped playing ice hockey. The guys from Taichung, Chiayi and Kaohsiung no longer showed up. “It was like the breakup of the Soviet Union!” says Ottawan Alex Whalen, hockey stalwart and owner of Whalen’s restaurant, which sponsors the Gentlemen’s Hockey Club. “Everyone just went off in their own direction.”

A couple of years later, a local lady named Betty Liu started the Taipei International Hockey League (TIHL). The former CIHL lads joined and actively promoted her effort. The two division system was adopted again, and now there are four teams in the open league operating on a draft system: the Venom, the Black Bears, the Clouded Leopards, and the Snow Leopards. The ex-CIHL guys say that Liu is good at getting them ice time. Sweet!

TIHL (2)


So like little Trudi, when expat hockey was knocked down, it got back up with a smile. And Canadians are leading the way.

Ryan Lang, who coaches the men’s international team, says that Taiwanese punch above their weight at hockey, for such a small country with limited facilities. According to Bob Ford, one reason for this was the CIHL. “Most of the current men’s national team were all kids that were playing in the lower division when they were 12 years old and up and then joining the open [more competitive] division when they were 16.” That’s where they played with the expat lads, elevating their game.

Lang and a player


Lang’s CTIHL men’s teams play in tournaments in China, Malaysia, Thailand and beyond. There they battle other regional teams who also get strong coaching, as well as better financial support than Taiwan gives its team. It’s a tough slog against countries like China that are building ice rinks at a furious rate, Lang says, but: “Our under-18 team won a bronze last year at a big tournament. That’s a big deal. We were pretty stoked about that!”

Bronze (2)


Ontarian Steven Clark, ex-CIHL player and current TIHL player, is the most experienced hockey player in Taiwan. “Clarky” played varsity hockey at Michigan State University, one stop shy of the NHL. He said there is an elite Taiwan Typhoon team that is distinct from the regular program run by Revel. “We got all the best players in Taiwan together,” says Clark. “We used to be the most feared hockey team in Asia.” Clark says they won several major international tournaments, but it’s getting harder. “I’m 36 years old now. Some of the teams we play against have ex-pros from Europe. It’s been a few years since we’ve won a tournament. I’d really like to win one more!”

Canadian Trade Official Tom Cumming played with the Gentlemen’s Club in Taipei, and his two sons played for the Tigers. He also took them to many tournaments in the region. Cumming is moving on (Happy trails, Tom!) to his next posting, Guangzhou, South China, where hockey has yet to take off. “It’s like starting at ground zero. I am not even sure if there is a rink there,” said Cumming. “But I made a promise to my son. I’ll do whatever I can to get ice hockey going there. After all, it’s my duty as a Canadian!”

Sports shrine




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Foreigner with a Taiwan ID

Here in expat haven Taiwan, where residence is easy but citizenship hard, it’s a dream of many long-term foreign residents to become legally Taiwanese, without having to first renounce their original nationality. It’s my dream as well.

World Citizen (3)

I hope never to renounce my Canadian citizenship. Canada is in my soul, and I’d hate to betray that feeling.

But damn! I’d love to have an ROC passport. Banking, getting a cell phone, and other personal and business-related tasks would be simpler. I could never be denied renewal of my residence permit. Last but not least, I wouldn’t feel that annoyance of always being a guest, somehow temporary, in the place I call home.

Yes indeed! I might never really become Taiwanese, but I do relish the thought of being promoted to “foreigner with a Taiwanese ID”!

But if you have the ID, doesn’t that make you Taiwanese? Don’t you mean “new Taiwanese” or some such?

No, dear reader! In my humble opinion, there is a difference.

From the 1950’s until the 1990’s, immigration to Taiwan was very low. But then movements of people between China and Taiwan became easier, which started a flow of “Chinese brides” – women hoping for a better life in Taiwan by marrying rural Taiwanese men. Brides from Vietnam and Indonesia, among other countries, also became in demand at this time, coming either from the blue-collar guest workers who started coming to Taiwan in large numbers in the late 1990’s, or sent over by agencies. A much smaller percentage of men also married into Taiwanese nationality.



Government statistics tally it thus: a grand total of 321,683 spouses from China proper have become Taiwanese citizens through marriage, 100,099 from Vietnam, and 28,191 from Indonesia, out of a total of 495,907 marriage-based naturalizations.

One key point about this demographic is that they are – generally speaking – readily assimilated into existing “Taiwaneseness”. Spouses from China integrate into Taiwanese society quite well due to the close cultural relationship between the two countries.

Southeast Asian immigrants come from societies with key cultural commonalities with Taiwan. They are family-oriented, and have that “work hard, save hard, make your kids study hard” approach to life. They also come from high-context societies with a strong focus on group identity and interdependence. When the spouses marry into the family, they usually adopt the language and customs of Taiwan, and their kids are most often brought up simply as Taiwanese. Some Taiwanese high school students I talked to, with many fellow students with a Southeast Asian immigrant parent, told me that in terms of appearance, language use and behavior, “They are just like Taiwanese, you cannot tell the difference.”

These are the new Taiwanese.



In contrast, most of the Western (or Western-influenced) people I know who want Taiwanese citizenship come from individualistic, multicultural societies. They usually don’t want to be completely assimilated into Taiwaneseness, but rather keep their original heritage alive and on display. That usually means keeping their original citizenship. This can also be pretty important for practical reasons, such as being able to return as needed to care for ageing parents, and also conferring citizenship on kids.

These perfectly understandable desires are usually justified by reasons why it is good for Taiwan to change the law. Foremost is that it is unfair, and even silly, for Taiwan to have a renunciation requirement for aliens who wish to naturalize when the same requirement doesn’t apply to Taiwanese. One scenario: A Canadian man marrying a Taiwanese woman could help her get Canadian citizenship. Taiwan would not cancel her Taiwanese citizenship. The couple could also get Canadian citizenship for their kids. But the man would lose his Canadian citizenship if he became Taiwanese. Kafka would have smiled.

I think that many Taiwanese people would sympathize with these frustrations. But you’re not likely to get enough sympathy to get laws changed by talking about double standards to a country that recognizes your home country but isn’t formally recognized by them. Asking Taiwan to fix laws just because they seem weird to vote-less people affected by them doesn’t seem like a strong play. Essentially this is an appeal to compassion, which is weak because white-collar foreigners are viewed as privileged. Which we generally are.

The second major justification invoked is that Western-influenced foreigners bring in intellectual capital, such as creativity, critical thinking, global mindset, artistic skills and traditions, and tech and business knowledge. Thus, measures that encourage them to settle here are good for Taiwan, especially considering the well documented brain drain of talented locals to China, the USA and elsewhere.

Here I think most Taiwanese would definitely agree. But only to the point of making our life here easier, not equal. It’s common knowledge that the government has done a lot to facilitate the ease of life of foreign permanent residents, with liberalized permanent residence card (APRC) laws being the best example. And for those with a very high level of skills, dual citizenship is now on the table, as of March 24th, this year.

But dual citizenship in general for average Joes and Jills? That idea seems to inspire a certain fear of [threat]. Fill in the box with job losses, scams, social disruption, etc. Call it caution or call it xenophobia: it’s a cultural firewall that’s very hard to hack.



Let’s face it: most of us don’t want to become New Taiwanese: we want to become a completely new kind of Taiwanese. It’s a bold idea, a win win scenario, and one that I support 100%. But it’s not our call, and most locals aren’t there yet. Maybe in 10 years, maybe.

If you let go of your past citizenship, dear reader, take the plunge, you will pass the loyalty test and be welcomed to the fold. And you will be loved. But for now, at least, the dream of being a foreigner with a Taiwanese ID is just that.



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Vibrant Colors: The Indian Community in Taiwan

It was quite a contrast to return last week from multicultural Vancouver to Han-dominated Taiwan. But although there is less global variety here, there are still interesting groups like the Indian community that add new cultural colors – like food, yoga, henna, music and dance – to our everyday lives.


Holi Festival 2017

Speaking of color, I was miffed to find I’d missed out on the Holi festival in Yonghe on March 12th. I’ll definitely be at the next one! It sounds like a great time. Holi is an ancient Hindu springtime “festival of love” where young and old, man and woman, all throw multicolored powders higgledy-piggledy over each other!

It is fitting that Holi has become more global. India’s great diaspora continues. The country now has more people who were born there who are currently living overseas than any other country in the world, 30 million people!


According to Rajan Khera, former president of the Indians’ Association of Taipei (IAT), recently Holi in Taipei has become bigger and more inclusive. This year’s event saw a total of about 1000 participants. “We wanted to invite all the Indian groups,” said Khera. “We also had many non-Indians as well.”

The IAT – the oldest of the Indian groups – was started in the mid-1970s. Back then, Taiwan’s economic miracle attracted a number of Hindi-speaking traders who became exporters of Taiwan-made products to India and other parts of the world. Khera said that the group grew to include about 200 families. They celebrated Diwali and Holi together and other social and religious occasions at their own center in Tianmu.

But in the 90’s, exporting from Taiwan became less viable. Local prices went up, and profits went down. China beckoned with its own much larger economic miracle, so traders left to set up shop over there. At that time, Khera said, there were no direct flights and business links were very difficult. Hence, many families left for China, often settling in Guangzhou. The IAT shrunk to only about 41 families. But Khera says: “Over the last six or seven years, the number has been growing again. Now we are at about 57 families.”

Diwali IAT

                      Diwali with the IAT: Photo by Jefferey Wu

And this is only one group. According to community leader Priya Lalwani Purswaney, “There is a Punjabi group, a Malayali group, a Gujarati group, etc.” Purswaney also talks about the different occupations: “There are also the importers, who import precious stones to Taiwan. This has become the biggest group. Then there are those involved in academic work, doing graduate research, or bachelor’s degrees. Then there are global businesspeople working as managers for 3 or 4 years for multinational corporations like Unilever or Citibank.” There are also a lot of software engineers, she said. Altogether, the Indian community here now numbers about 3000 (numbers vary from year to year) of which 1600 are professionals. About 1400 are university students, attracted to scholarships and the good research components to Taiwanese tech training.

Purswaney knows these occupational groups well because of her direct experience. “My father was a visiting professor in mechanical engineering. I came to Taiwan in 1987 when I was 16. I was the first Indian university student in Taiwan.” She got her business BA from Tatung University, her MBA from NTU, and is now pursuing a Ph.D. in Translation and Interpretation from NTNU. With her top-notch language skills, she went on to work for various companies in marketing and translation, and also for India’s de facto embassy in Taiwan, the India-Taipei Association. Now she works as the only English – Mandarin simultaneous interpreter in Taiwan who is not Taiwanese, she says.


                                      Priya Lalwani Purswaney watching the cricket!

By all accounts, the Indian community here helps each other and hangs together in times of need. Purswaney says that she started the Facebook group Indians in Taiwan to help people get the information they need: good schools for their kids, where to buy Indian food, how to get visas etc. She hopes it will become part of an umbrella that includes all Indians, irrespective of age, occupation, religion, or state of origin.

Rajan Khera said, “Not too long ago a young male Indian student died. He was from a poor family, and his parents didn’t even have passports. But the community took care of it and sent the body back to India.” On a lighter note, one recent post on Indians in Taiwan said, “Is anyone flying from Delhi to Taipei on Flight XYZ on April 25? My old Auntie is flying here and she is traveling alone. If anyone could keep her company, that would be great!”

For many reasons, the Indian community here has also been growing and thriving. One reason is a good cultural fit with Taiwan. Many people I spoke with talked about the Buddhist connection. Buddhism originated in northern India around 500 BCE, and became important in China after 200 CE. According to Purswaney, a further similarity is that “both Taiwanese and Indians are very entrepreneurial. They like to start their own small businesses.“

Another is just that a lot of people love to live in Taiwan, and Indians are no exception. One is Mayur Srivastava. The well-known founder of Mayur Indian Kitchen has been offering great food to local diners, as well as jobs to local workers, since 2011. In addition, he has three children with his Taiwanese wife. Mayur loves Taiwan and is very happy here. Andy Singh Arya – the friendly owner of both Out of India and the Three Idiots Toast and Curry – also offers great food and is married to a Taiwanese woman. He too has nothing but good things to say about the friendliness, helpfulness, humility, and trustworthiness of Taiwanese. What better reason do you need than that?

Big Bums

                                          Andy Singh Arya and friends!




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