Writer's Block

The USA is the place I was born. Canada is the place I was raised. Taiwan is the place in my heart.

Tuesday, February 25, 2003

Back in New York again
February 12, 2003

My second foray into New York since returning to North America in mid-January began with a Super long, Super packed Super Shuttle ride from Newark Airport to Brooklyn. I’ve become Super Shuttle frequenter during my travels into NY. It’s an affordable shared ride service, but best if you are not on a tight schedule to get somewhere immediately after arriving from your flight. The last point, I can most definitely attest to since I was the only one on the shuttle going to Brooklyn. As a result, I had to sit through a series of drop offs in almost every neighborhood of Manhattan before getting to Brooklyn. I think it took almost two hours for me to finally arrive in Brooklyn.

I was the first passenger picked up. I promptly seated myself in the first row directly behind the driver. Gradually the van had begun to fill up with 3 women in the back row, 2 women and a man in the middle row, a gentleman up front beside the driver, and as I sat alone behind the driver, awaiting my seating companions, an elderly man and woman entered in the midst of bickering. Their argument had the fervor and familiarity of an old jaded couple. As the elderly lady in the camel colored coat entered she proclaimed, “I’m taking the outside seat by the door.”

To which the gray bearded scruffy gentleman snidely replied, “I don’t see your name stamped on it.”

“Well that’s why I’m claiming it. I don’t want to be sandwiched in there.”

“Well maybe someone else would have wanted to sit there too.”

The woman stubbornly sat on the edge of the seat indicating that the man step over her to sit in the center position between me, seated by the window and herself, who was firmly planted by the door. The gray haired gentleman begrudgingly squeezed in.

The van was at full capacity with 10 passengers in all. We were off on a mini-adventure… a bunch of strangers with different destinations and at different points in their travel schedules. First stop, the Holland Tunnel toll both into New York, which was teeming with police. Each vehicle was stopped and the police officer asked our driver the following completely useless questions: “Where are you coming from? Where are you going today? Do you have any explosives on you?” “Newark airport. Manhattan. No,” the driver answered behind his mirrored sunglasses. New York city was on a heightened state of terrorist alert and had tightened security at all entrance points into the city. I’m not sure how those questions were supposed to avert any terrorists or the transport of hazardous materials into the city. I hope that the police used astute observation, probing questions and inspections if suspicions were raised or on a random check basis.

Being a vehicle of 10 passengers for close to 2 hours, I couldn’t help but wonder about the other people in the van and about their personal stories and internal dramas. I think most people are usually curious about the people around them, be it on an airplane in some public place or just standing in line at the post office. But at the end of a long plane ride they are not necessarily in the most chatty of moods. One woman, seated in the center row chatted on her cell phone while the three woman seated in the back chatted happily together, apparently traveling together, which was confirmed when the four of them piled out at the first stop, a hotel in Battery Park City. A middle aged man and dark haired woman seated in the center row chatted politely. The man, apparently never having visited New York before, pointed to a laminated map of Manhattan and inquired whether we were in Manhattan yet and where Greenwich Village was. Meanwhile the gentleman seated up front beside the driver spoke in an English accent and called his friend’s roommate every 20 minutes on his cell phone in anticipation of his impending arrival at his friend’s apartment. In my experience people, on the Super Shuttle don’t really engage each other in conversation, perhaps because the ride is usually less than 1 hour or maybe that’s just the aloofness that people project in New York.

Half of the passengers had been dropped off. The cantankerous couple had been sitting beside me in complete silence and my assumptions proved incorrect when the thin gray haired gentleman became the sixth passenger to be dropped off. Leaving me sitting with the woman in the camel coat. As she moved in away from the door she looked around fretfully, as if looking for a lost object. I could have long dismissed her as a bitter, prickly nuisance of an old lady. Never one to rely on first impressions, I asked, “Are you looking for something? Did you drop something?”

“Oh, no. I just can’t seem to find the seat belt.”

“The strap is over there on your right side, the buckle is over here on the left,” as I indicated this, the woman seated directly behind us assisted by pulling the shoulder strap ahead for the elderly woman.

Now that an olive branch had been extended, my seating companion became warm and animated as she asked me where I had flown in from, where I was going and we engaged in friendly banter. I responded to her kind inquiries:

“I’m flying in from Canada, where it’s much colder and there’s much more snow. I’m on my way to Brooklyn to stay with a friend. What about you? I hope you’re coming from a much warmer place.”

“Oh yes, I was just in Florida, where the weather was just beautiful. I try to go there every year. So are you just visiting?”

“Well I was in Canada visiting relatives. I grew up there and I used to live in New York for over seven years. I recently moved to Taiwan- where I now live and teach English. Whenever I come back to North America for a visit I always stop in New York on my way back and forth from Taiwan.”

She was a retired high school teacher in Brooklyn, where she was also born and raised. Now she lived in the east 20’s and wouldn’t trade the convenience of living in Manhattan for anything. As I dug a little deeper by asking if she’d been to Asia, she revealed that she had in fact been to China in the 1980’s, which seemed very adventurous to me. And I clarified that I was in Taiwan, not Thailand… not bothering with details because I felt it was enough to clarify the point that I was in Taiwan, which is often misheard as Thailand and that Taiwan is not a part of China.

The helpful, dark haired, plump woman sitting behind us joined in by pointedly asking, “What part of Taiwan are living in?”

“A city in southern Taiwan,” I stated simply, not realizing the purpose behind her question. Even people who know where Taiwan is have never heard of--

“Kaohsiung?” the dark haired woman asked completing my sentence.

I turned around to face the woman in dark framed glasses which matched her short dark hair, “Have you been there before or lived there?”

It turns out that the 30-ish woman, who was not of Asian origin, had grown up there because her parents were missionaries stationed in Kaohsiung. She had been able to speak fluent Mandarin, since she had been schooled there but since leaving there over 15 years ago, she was uncertain about her language skills. I told her that one of the many reasons that I chose to move to Taiwan was to learn the language which I hadn’t been able to develop or had lost over the years since I never had formal language training in Taiwanese or Mandarin Chinese.

As we neared a midtown hotel the dark haired woman prepared to exit.

“I hope you have a chance to revisit Taiwan in the future, so that you can see how much it’s changed since you left,” I offered as a wish for the woman had reminisced briefly of her childhood.

After the retired schoolteacher was dropped off, the gentleman with an English accent seated beside the driver opened a conversation with me saying how he’d been traveling for almost 10 hours since 8am that morning. It was now close to 7:00pm. I concurred and we compared stories about how our respective planes circled the airspace above Newark airport for over 40 minutes before landing. He mentioned, having overheard that I was from Canada- that he was off to do a story about polar bears somewhere near the Hudson Bay in Northern Canada. I don’t even remember where he was off to- some place I’ve never heard of. The last piece of information that I was able to extract from him before our conversation timed out, as the others earlier had, was that he was a free lance travel writer in from London a visit, staying with a friend in the East Village.

I’ve never really considered myself to be much of a world traveler or very international, but there were certainly some interesting and unexpected common threads between myself and almost half of the passengers on this particular Super Shuttle ride. It just goes to show you never know what someone’s personal story is nor should you make assumptions or judgments based on first impressions alone.

A Canadian Winter
(January 20-February 12, 2003)

Now that I’ve lived in Taiwan for over a year and my body has acclimatized to the humid tropical weather, I am much more intolerant of the cold. But one thing that I have and always will love about the winter is when it snows.

There is truly something magical and wonderful about fresh snowfall, there’s the light happy feeling that I get when I see it snowing outside. I even love walking outside while it’s snowing. Rain, on the contrary makes me feel gloomy because rain is usually accompanied by dark overcast skies. It rarely rains when there are sunny skies. When it snows the skies are not necessarily overcast, and it might even snow when it’s sunny out. If it does snow at night or when skies are overcast, the white luminescent quality of fresh snow changes and brightens the landscape, reflecting light. Rain brings a soaking wet lingering wetness, dampness, and sogginess. Snow never soaks you to the bone. Snowflakes fall gently, look closely for a moment, each one is unique until it dissolves onto the ground or melts away. Silently, snow transforms the landscape like a white fluffy blanket enveloping cozy little communities.

The snow had been falling for over 4 hours when I ventured out begrudgingly to ceremoniously brush off the inches of white fluff that had piled up on the car. As I began uncovering the car my thoughts turned to joy while sweeping off the soft, light snow with an ease that turned into a playfulness. I felt like I was in a snow globe as the snow flew up into the air sparkling like crystal dust under the streetlights.

Perhaps I will always have a special affinity for snow… I was born in Alaska and raised in Ottawa after all.
One of my favorite things to do is hang out in bookstores. While I was in New York I managed to squeeze in some downtime between visits and events. I had heard about this term “starter marriages” in the media and as chance would have it, I came upon a book by the same name. It’s an interesting phenomenon that I do believe is an increasingly prevalent trend. I was curious about what insight the author had to offer so I flipped through the book one afternoon. I'll attempt to summarize some of the key points from memory:

Basically a “starter marriage” is the term for a troubling trend among Generation Xers. I think that most fellow Gen Xers can think of a few friends or acquaintances who have had “starter marriages.” A starter marriage is defined as a marriage between two people under the age of 30 that lasts for less than 5 years and does not produce any children. The author herself had had a starter marriage and the book was not so much about her personal experiences or insights, but she had included some interesting statistics and had conducted interviews with couples of varying professional backgrounds (though not an ethnically diverse sample) who fit the “starter marriage” definition. And of course the book was written in a perspective sympathetic to “starter marriage” victims, handling this discussion with sensitivity so as not to dismiss the people involved as simply reckless examples of degenerating family values or morals. These people entered marriages believing that this would be “the one and only” i.e. they had exceptionally high traditional values ideals, and didn’t necessarily have a history of irrational decision making.

The author also offered some explanations as why people enter into marriages which become "starter marriages." I offer you my paraphrased highlights:

Seeking one’s identity

In some cases, marriage gave a person who was searching for his or her identity an instant sense of purpose or identity. Marriage instantly gave him or her a role, it made her a wife, a Mrs., or it made him a husband. Message: a person should have a clear sense of his/her own identity before entering into a marriage.


Some the individuals interviewed were in fact highly successful overachievers, who were always one step ahead- they had graduate degrees, a promising career, and felt that the next logical step was marriage. Marriage is often seen as a rite of passage into the “grown up” adult world, also known as the real world, and a marker of when life begins.

Idealized concept of marriage/family values

Many of the couples interviewed had very high ideals about marriage. These convictions were influenced by a generation heavily influenced by divorce and the radicalism of the baby boomer generation. Gen Xers are subconsciously rebelling against the radicalism of the baby boomers, who went through the sexual revolution, experienced free love and experimented with drugs. Many Gen Xers are also children of divorce and look to emulate the idealized strong family values of the 50’s. As a result the Gen Xers may have very idealized concepts of marriage and family. They strongly believed that they would marry once in their lifetime. But perhaps the expectations that they had for marriage were too unrealistic. They thought that marriage would be a guaranteed ticket to happiness. Once they married, they were disappointed when reality struck and they discovered their differences and that marriage often requires great effort and compromise to work. A mutual understanding and compatibility of values are important to a successful marriage.

Path of least resistance

In the end since there were no children involved, it was often easier to simply end the suffering by divorcing than to persist and repair the damage or heartache already done by enduring years of counseling in marriage therapy. Many individuals realized that they were not ready to deal with their differences, didn’t want to compromise or to take the time to painfully understand their partner and took away their own lessons from the experience.
January outbound trip from Newark airport to Canada

Thankfully I arrived at Newark at 11:00am, more than 2 hours ahead of my departure time. My trip out of Newark airport to Canada turned out to be a test of patience and perserverence. My trip got off to a rough start from the outset- when I arrived at the check in counter of *#@! Airlines and was informed that the airline didn’t have a record of my reservation. I always purchase airline tickets that allow for open ended return dates within a year. Makes sense right?!- because I don’t always know when exactly I’ll be making a return trip to North America from Taiwan. So my plane tickets are often issued with some randomly selected return date 6 months or 1 year in the future and when I decide on my travel dates, I contact the airline to confirm and change my return date of travel. So of course I had long confirmed the return dates (to North America) of my tickets while in Taiwan with all of the airline companies concerned. My carrier out of Taiwan to Newark was with EVA airlines (no not China Airlines- I would never fly that airline in light of their safety record) and from Newark to Ottawa I was serviced by another airline, one which was about to give me a horrendous headache.

First, the ticket counter clerk was thoroughly confused by my ticket since, according to her computer terminal, there was no record of a reservation under my name and the return date printed on my ticket was not January 22. She first launched in to a spiel about how there would most likely be a penalty fee in the first place for making changes in travel dates, then she started asking me all these questions about how long I’ve been out of the States, what dates I initially flew out to Taiwan on this ticket, why my return dates were different i.e. not January 22, etc., etc… In the midst of this line of questioning I got flustered since I had traveled back and forth between Taiwan and North America three times in the past year. I got confused and told her that I had last flown from Canada through Newark in October, when it turned out it was September. I was confused because I did make a trip between western Canada and Taiwan in October, and from Ottawa through Newark in September. It was her bombardment of questions and the illogical irrelevant questions that caused me to fumble. The only dates in question should have been the return dates (which, as I said are left open with randomly selected future dates- the return dates, once determined were changed confirmed in Taiwan). The initial flight out from Canada to Taiwan should not have been in question; it’s only the return dates back to North America that change. Are you following me- or have I lost you?

Then it occurred to me that this sort of manic questioning and antagonism could really lead any average person to respond incorrectly, thereby unleashing a chain of suspicion. And it made me even more concerned about the state of civil liberties in America. I really feel that it’s a more hostile environment out there where misstatements or misunderstandings can and will be used against people to a greater degree.

At the end of this conversation and the ticket counter clerk’s telephone conversation with their tariff department I was told that there was nothing that they could do for me. As far as they were concerned there was no reservation under my name, this type of ticket was not be subject to change in travel dates and a penalty fee would most likely be imposed for a change in dates. They put the responsibility back on the carrier who issued my ticket, EVA Airlines. They flat out refused to contact EVA Airlines on my behalf, causing me to go into a mini panic attack. Compounding this situation was the fact that *#@! Airlines only had 2 daily flights to Ottawa a day and I was booked on the second one, so if I didn’t get on this flight I’d be done for.

So I lugged my luggage onto the monorail to another terminal to talk to a representative at EVA Airlines, only to discover that their ticket counter didn’t open until after 8:00pm that night. I was panicking big time at this point. Finally I got a hold of EVA’s 1-800 number; I spoke to a representative there who confirmed that I was allowed to make changes on my return dates without any penalty fees. The representative promised to send a message to *#@! Airlines authorizing this. So back on the monorail I went and back to *#@! airlines asking them to see if they’d received this message and whether they would put me on the flight. They hadn’t received any messages from EVA and restated that from their point of view: I was not booked on the flight, that the only way I could get on the flight was pay full price (well over $500), or to get a new ticket physically issued by EVA marked with a return date of January 22. Clearly there had been some miscommunication between EVA and this airline. I pleaded with them to call EVA on my behalf, just one phone call to EVA would have straightened this whole thing out, but again this airline, which I’ll just say rhymes with “MENTAL” refused to call EVA. When I asked if EVA could call them on my behalf, they said that they couldn’t receive calls at the counter. I was infuriated and at wits end. So I lugged by 2 suitcases and carry-ons across the hall to the payphones a few feet away, directly across from and in full view of “Mental” airlines’ ticket counter and again pleaded with EVA’s representatives to do something, anything to get me out of this mess. I wasn’t ready to prepare for the painful possibility that I’d have to take a 10 hour bus ride to get to Ottawa as time and flights to Ottawa were running out.

Finally, EVA sent a message directly to the terminal computers in Newark airport and finally more than an hour after this entire ordeal had began Mental airlines said that they’d put me on the flight all the while scolding me for changing the flight, telling me that they were making a huge exception, that changes usually required penalty fees, faulting EVA’s handling of the situation, telling me to confirm and have my ticket reissued if return dates are changed- all the while hearing this infuriated and antagonized me even more, but I listened patiently and simply said, “Do you think that I wanted to lug my luggage around from terminal to terminal, back and forth making phone calls, and nearly miss my flight? Had I known what your airline required, do you think that I would let this happen or that I wanted this to happen?” What I really thought was: I 've just spent the last hour dragging around my luggage around because you couldn't have made a simple courtesy call to EVA airlines to straighten everything out for me, I could have been stuck in the airport if this didn't situation get resolved and I missed my flight, I literally did all the legwork to get on this flight, and now all you have to do is press a few buttons, to allow me on a flight that I should have been booked on in the first place and you're complaining about making an exception for me?! The nerve of those people to scold me after all that I had just gone through!

After that the extensive security checks were a breeze. My checked luggage was x-rayed and at the security check point to enter flight gates I went through the metal detector, carry-on luggage through the x-ray machine, I was frisked, asked to remove my shoes, which went through the x-ray machine and all of my carry-on luggage was thoroughly poked, prodded and examined. There really are no secrets between airport security staff and passengers. At the end of it I said, “Thank you I feel like I’m a part of the club.”

Reflecting on this security check experience, it’s interesting to note that the security was so rigorous for someone just to enter the airport for a flight out of the United States, but on the other hand when I went through customs upon arrival in the U.S. I went through the standard questioning but my luggage was not physically examined at all. It seems to me that thorough luggage inspections should be done for people entering the U.S. at any point from a foreign country, not just at major airports.
First Stop, New York
January 17, 2003

I arrived at the appropriately, fashionably late by one hour time- though this was not as calculated as it seemed. It was more the result of a last minute phone conversation that delayed my preparation and departure.

As soon as I arrived, I scanned the crowd of stylish and professional singles chatting each other up and clutching the requisite glass of wine or bottle of beer. A man leaned in, absorbed by the witty, charming conversationalist by his side. Others not quite in the moment listened as intently as they could, eyeing for other prospects. Women politely eased their way away from tiresome, flat conversationalists. Others grew bolder and intense as they sensed the interest meter of their counterpart rising.

I never really quite know how to make an inroad into these social cocktail hours. Going in "cold" has never been easy for me. It often helps if you clearly and undeniably overhear someone’s comments (as in loud enough that you can't help but "overhear")- thereby providing a safe space to respond or participate in their conversation. The last thing I’d want to do would be to jump into an eavesdropped conversation in stalker-like fashion. I didn’t even have time to confront any possible feelings of anxiety when to my surprise, I heard someone calling my name. I looked over to see the familiar looking, friendly face of my friend’s younger brother, S. I felt so received and accepted as he introduced me to his friend and asked me what I was doing in New York, about life in Taiwan and other standard questions... It was comforting to know that I could stay in this safe zone catching up with S. But although I had arrived alone, I was not really on my own since I supposed was to meet up with a friend of mine at the cocktail hour, so after I felt that S was sufficiently satisfied with my responses to his questions, I excused myself to search for my friend.

I had forgotten how playful and fast-talking my friend C can be. Before I knew it C had convinced a complete stranger to buy me a glass of wine. I could count the number of times that “strange" men (i.e. non acquaintances) have bought me a drink. It seems that I’m a little out of practice in these settings. Time for an attitude adjustment... perhaps it’s more that while I do enjoy witty conversation and meeting new people I don’t like to take advantage of hopeful single men by playing the game of trying to get a drink out of them. I was back in the game.

Just 48 hours ago I was in Taiwan. Now I was at an Asia Society cocktail hour where in the first hour I bumped into more old acquaintances and I nearly got into an argument with a complete stranger over the sovereignty of Taiwan. Ok, so I didn’t have quite such a colorful exchange- I overheard a woman who quipped that “Taiwan is just a part of China" as she looked at the interactive map showing art collections from the Asia region (a map which labeled Taiwan and China separately); when I pressed my point: "Taiwan has its own democratically elected President and government, its own currency and military... Taiwan doesn't have China to thank for where it is today" she just cowered like a sheep and her friend even stepped in and sided with me. Guess I found the sore spot between them. That led to an interesting conversation with my "ally", who happened to be this guy who was born and raised in Kaohsiung, where I’ve been living and working for the past year.

Later on, somehow my girlfriends C and Sy managed to get all three of us taken out for dinner that night too. I was just “along for the ride." I don’t know how these girls do it?!