Okinawa, You’re Incredible

Maybe it was the fact that we were being chauffeured around in a spacious, air-conditioned bus, or maybe it was because it was an escape from the extra effort of just planning the day (internet research is a little more difficult when it’s all in Chinese). Maybe it was because we got to touch the ocean again, after realizing we didn’t take enough advantage of living so close to it before. Whatever it was, the four days we spent just an hour’s plane ride away from Taiwan on the little island of Okinawa, was exactly what I needed.

I know what you’re thinking – for three months I have literally been hanging out halfway around the world. I’m already on a little island away from the day-to-day for most Americans. Well, I hate to say it, but we are now past the point of everything in Taichung having that new, exciting sparkle to it. We live in the middle of a city – a HOT, HUMID city – with no real wilderness within the reach of public transportation. Poor Kyle can’t ride bikes, and riding bikes is what keeps him sane (for those who don’t know us, I’m talking mountain bikes – we ride city bikes on the asphalt all day, but he needs a few trees and some dirt). Not having friends or family around is starting to take its toll. We have a lot more exploring of this island to do, but without a job, I’m trying to keep spending at a minimum. Lame right?!

It’s definitely not my goal to be pitied, so why don’t I save the job hunt bit for later. I didn’t know much about Okinawa before this short trip, but it is a truly beautiful and culturally vibrant place.

We landed in Okinawa and stopped right away for some katsu and Orion beer. We weren’t looking forward to the shopping mall stop, which apparently caters to the Taiwanese traveler, so we went instead to Mihama American Village. My research before the trip didn’t make it seem like much. I thought it would just be some American-style restaurants and shops, but as we strode along the sidewalk, we saw a beach. The beach had warm, bright blue water and a mojito bar. It’s typically overcast in Taichung, but the sun was shining while we hung out at this beach. I can’t really describe how excited we were to touch that water, and I couldn’t believe it when our Taiwanese counterparts didn’t want to take off their shoes.

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Mihama American Village

After a mojito and a taco, we had to go meet the rest of the group at the mall. Luckily, we found some interesting Okinawan spirits in decorative vessels to explore. We went to a traditional Okinawan spot for dinner and tried the goya chanpuru – a dish which features bitter gourd. It was… bitter. Maybe this is the tourist in me – but it’s the first time I sat on the floor for a meal, I thought it was really cool. Aside from the bitter gourd, we had some really amazing Japanese curry and some coral-ground coffee (versus stone-ground). I tried some kind of intestine (not sure what animal it came from) and some BBQ squid. Didn’t like the intestine due to the chew factor, but the squid was actually quite good.

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Shu & Kyle

We walked through Gyokusendo Cave, saw a traditional Okinawan dance, and walked through Shurei-mon Gate to Shuri Castle, an old Ryukyuan castle inhabited mainly between 1429 and 1879. We also visited Naminoue Shrine (literally, “Above the Waves Shrine”), which is the primary shrine in Okinawa and sits above some more of that clear blue water.

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Pretty Pools in Gyokusendo Cave

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The Entrance to Shuri Castle

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A Place To Wash Our Hands Before Approaching the Shrine

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Naminoue Shrine

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Naminoue Shrine is Just Above This Rock

At night my goal was to listen to some live music, traditional if possible. We found it. We drank a beer and listened to a group play their Sanshins and their Sanba. Very cool.

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Okinawan Sanshins – Translates Literally to “Three Strings”

The next day, instead of spending much time at the Churaumi Aquarium, we walked through quickly and headed over to Emerald Beach. More tropical water with tons of coral and bright fish to wade near.

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Emerald Beach

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Emerald Beach

We also went to a traditional Ryukyuan village, had some afternoon tea, tasted some of the Okinawan spirits and saw some of their pottery. We really enjoyed learning about all of the Shisa statues in Okinawa, which are lion-dogs typically found at the entrances to houses or other buildings. They protect the home from evil spirits.

The hotel on the last night gave us a view of Cape Zanpa, which has a beach on one side, a lighthouse at the end, and some staggering cliffs along the other side.

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It felt like we had done so much more in 4 days than we had in the time since we’ve been to Taiwan. Although there are a lot of destinations on the “Places I Want to Go” list, I really wouldn’t mind going back to Okinawa at some point. It was beautiful, and such a whirlwind. We are also excited to go to the main island of Japan. Okinawa has its own distinct, rich culture and is apparently a different vibe than that of the main island. I can see that, and I appreciate it.

I think we really need to find ways to explore more of this island – we can find ways to appreciate Taiwan which don’t drain the bank.

As for the job hunt, there are good days and bad days. I had an interview for a teaching position at the top private university in Taiwan, to teach critical thinking skills in an English setting. This would be for students who will spend their junior & senior years in the US or Australia, and need to be able to integrate into the same curriculum as their English-speaking peers quickly. How cool would that be?! I’m also helping someone who is opening up a new English school for young students. I’m not sure I can bring myself to sign a year-long contract, but I am helping her as she builds her student base by holding open houses, and am proctoring their placement tests. I have also thought a bit about what it would be like to go back to the US. Would I feel defeated? Potentially. Would I make more money? Definitely. Would I miss Kyle? Uh, yeah, a TON. But I also have to do what is right for me. If teaching English to young students is all I can find, and I can’t bring myself to sign up for a year of it, I’m in a bit of a pickle.

It is still three weeks away, but I look forward to our visit back home for a couple of our friends’ weddings, some family visits, and some pine trees. I think it’s perfect timing. I know we should be spending more time traveling around Asia, but while we figure everything out, it’s nice to know we only have to make it a little longer before we get to taste home again.

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Two Months Detached

Every couple of mornings, when I wake up and yawn and stretch and open my eyes, this wave of shock washes over me and I think, holy crap, I’m in Taiwan.

It takes a few moments to settle in as I look around, while the apartment and my thoughts come into focus. It’s been a little less dramatic as time has passed. I can’t believe it has already been 2 months since Kyle and I donated, stored or shipped everything we own, said our goodbyes, and moved to Taichung. *Clarification: Kyle moved to Taichung for work and I ‘traveled’ here as a visitor, to see if it was somewhere I could call home for a few years.

There was a lot of waiting. Kyle had been approached about this opportunity at his company a couple of years ago. In 2014 it felt so distant, but we both agreed a few years’ adventure sounded rad, and we’d see what the official offer was when it came time. By that point, we hadn’t even been dating for very long (maybe about a year), so who even knew where we would be as a couple by 2017?

Then there was a lot of hurry up. We didn’t have the specific offer until Christmas 2016, so by that point we were practically already packing. Our last night in our apartment was in mid-February and we flew out of SFO straight to Taipei on February 22nd.

Taiwanese Hot Pot

Taiwanese Hotpot

As you can imagine, it has been quite the rollercoaster of emotions since we arrived. On a more surface level (but still very important), some of the food is REALLY good – Taiwanese hot pot complete with coagulated duck blood for the win – and then some of it is REALLY… interesting. I’ve liked most anything that isn’t awkwardly chewy. Granted, some foods I’m only speculating on because I just don’t think I’ll ever want to try, say, chicken’s feet. But the dumplings and the soup and the coffee are all incredible. Oh, and chicken heart. Not sure I can bring myself to try the feet, but a barbecued chicken heart is quite tasty.

Going a little deeper: sticking out like a sore thumb and not having the ability to interact with people can be really weird and draining. Taiwanese people are extremely accommodating and know some English, but in Taichung specifically, there’s a smaller population of foreigners and day-to-day interactions for the Taiwanese hardly ever call for anything other than Chinese. I can get by just fine with my handy Google Translate app, but if I don’t have my phone… Let’s just say I’m glad I learned quickly how to order a latte in Chinese. A few people told me before we moved here that people would just take pictures of me because they aren’t used to seeing foreigners. Well, it’s not really like that. That hasn’t really happened except when I went on a jog one day to the outskirts of the city. But it was weird. I thought someone wanted me to take their picture, and when I agreed they came to stand next to me. Lots of confusion for a moment.

Taking in a new culture, seeing new things and feeling surrounded by a whole new world (sorry, now it’ll be stuck in your head for a week) is just incredible. It’s one of the biggest reasons I love to travel. The first time I went abroad was to tour Italy with my high school Chamber Choir. We sang in some Catholic churches around the country, including at the Vatican during Holy Week. I’m not religious, but the acoustics in those thousand-year-old buildings and the idea that so many people had worshipped in them for centuries gave me absolute chills. That experience, along with so much else – endless pasta and wine, the Colosseum, the sweet people in the small villages outside the city, Trinity Fountain – made me realize I want to see the whole world.

I’ve traveled a fair amount (a handful of times to Europe and to New Zealand), but have never been away from home for longer than a few weeks. And I’ve always gotten by on English. I didn’t get to study abroad for a semester or go backpacking after college for a couple of months, so I’m already experiencing a new feeling of detachment from home. I would say the homesickness comes in waves. One of my friends is pregnant with her 3rd child and her other two are growing up so quickly. Another friend is planning her wedding. My parents are looking for a place to retire. This will all have taken place by the time we move back. Of course we’ll be visiting, but flights are expensive and we really want to spend some time exploring this part of the world while we’re here. 

Also, I’ve never been to Asia. I know, a lot of people wondered why I would agree to move here without ever stepping foot here before, but I felt that a week-long visit really wouldn’t give me a full understanding of what it would be like to live here. And besides, quitting my job so that I can try to find one in a non-English speaking country made me think I should probably save the money. I love learning about different cultures (sociology undergrad major over here), I love traveling when I have the means, and I knew this experience would be unforgettable. My family was a bit confused and they don’t seem overwhelmingly excited to use a squat toilet, but I think it just takes time to get comfortable being uncomfortable. Trying to embrace that sentiment internally, too.

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At least I can run to Rainbow Village

I’ve felt very lucky already. Because Kyle has friends in the industry who also work over here, we have been introduced to a lot of cool spots. We went hiking in Dakeng about a week after we arrived – something that would have been difficult logistically without a car. Speaking of transportation, we haven’t done anything but walk, ride our bikes, or take taxis anywhere since arriving. I’d love to get a scooter, but for now I don’t need one. We will do as much as we can through public transportation, and we’ll be fine. Just have to say, I miss my Mini Cooper back home like crazy, but I would never want to drive it over here – the driving can get pretty wild.

We’ve gotten to try a bunch of amazing cocktail and beer places since we arrived. I can
add a list at some point. We’ve also been to Leefoo Village, which is a theme park similar in some senses to Disneyland. On my birthday, we went to a small night market, played some games, and ate some snacks. Very much like a small county fair.

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Night Market Games

There’s the fascinating angle of being an expat, too. There are some interesting stereotypes which I’ll leave for later. I can’t say whether or not they’re true after only 2 months, but one thing is for certain – I’m sure that after a year of living in a completely foreign country, conversations back home are likely to be a bit awkward. I mean, I only really talk to 1 or 2 people on average per day. After a while, I might find myself completely silent around the millions of people who might hear and understand me when I’m back home, OR I’ll talk so much to people who can actually respond that they’ll be sick of me. Sorry guys, it’s probably going to be the latter.

As far as the job hunt goes, I’m looking for a job that can build on my recent MBA, and I’m also not sure I’m a huge fan of teaching kids, which is why I haven’t already settled into a teaching position. The pay is great in comparison to standard Taiwanese pay, and it is definitely the least hassle to get a teaching contract, but I’m just not sure it’s what I want to do. I’ve heard that the wives and girlfriends of expats (clearly most expats are male) just “end up” teaching or playing golf (?), but I’d like to just be a little picky for the first few months… Until I run out of money. I’m extremely lucky and have been given some work by the company I left when I came here, but I am not sure how long that work will continue to come, and it’s a little scary not having that stability. We’ll see how that all goes and if I can find a stable job in the meantime.

Wish me luck…