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.

Wednesday, December 31, 2003

2003 in a Nutshell
(My Time in Taiwan Up Until 2003)

My first year in Taiwan 2001-2002 was a year of exploration. I lived in Taipei for a fun first two months and life was full of constant socializing and activity- the clubs, bars, happy hours, and the less than six degrees that separated me and the fast friends that I made. It was intoxicating, spellbinding and strangely familiar at times. I cherish all of the days I lived in Taipei, in a three bedroom apartment which I shared with two other bright Asian American women. Our apartment was the setting for many a heartfelt discussion about life, love and anything else that happened to occupy our thoughts. The city girl in me was easily captivated by Taipei. The pace suited this ex-Manhattanite, but it was perhaps a little too fitting. After all, I had left New York because I knew I needed a change of pace; there was a restlessness, a searching for a sense of direction inside of myself and a need to be challenged.

So I moved down to Kaohsiung to take a part-time teaching job at a college for students planning to work in the hospitality industry i.e. travel & tourism, hotel management and airline service. I began teaching students in the airline department. There was a tremendous learning curve for me; I suddenly faced the task of teaching English conversation to a class of fifty students without a viable textbook. The Airline Management Department, as it was called, was quite young, and there weren't any standard textbooks recommended or written for my classes! A visit to the bookstore revealed that there was one English Conversation book written flight attendants. But the book was an uninteresting book that consisted largely of a collection of English airline terms with Chinese translations, and simple conversation examples. So, I began to create my own teaching materials based on the teaching materials used by the previous instructor and that one English Conversation book for flight attendants.

My second year in Taiwan was one of growth. The year began with tremendous momentum and hope energized by my frequent visits to New York. I think I made three or more trips to New York during 2001-2002! Those closest to me noticed the change- that my life in Taiwan seemed to suit me. I had found teaching to be a challenge because of the responsibility I had for the education of the fifty bright, young faces I faced everyday at the Hospitality College. There was pressure to both educate and perform. The challenge was how to teach and present class material in an engaging way to promote the students' enthusiasm and involvement. In the beginning I prepared my lesson plans relentlessly, organizing and spending hours over every detail, but later found that when I simply used my intuition and "listened" to my students' needs and paced myself according to their needs and interests, I didn't have to work so hard at all to be a good teacher. It was then that I really began to enjoy myself and the rewards I reaped from teaching were not simply from my students' various expressions of appreciation, but from what I learned from them or in the process of teaching.

Aside from my actual in-class teaching hours, I had a great deal of flexibility with my time. It was up to me how I organized my time to prepare lesson plans, correct homework assignments, quizzes and exams. I was freed from the daily nine to five obligation that I detested from day one when I entered the real working world. When I began working at my first job out of college, I thought, 'How could it be that I was promising the best hours of the day to someone else for the rest of my life?' I couldn't find meaning in my work, which is what I've been searching for, for most of my working years after graduating from college.

All of this flexibility and time allowed me to focus on myself and to exercise more control over my work and time, something that I rarely felt at my past jobs. The Hospitality College where I had started teaching at was extremely supportive of my teaching methods and ideas, much of which I had personally created due to the lack of appropriate teaching materials. I was my own boss and quickly developed a reputation for being diligent, responsible teacher.

At this time, I started thinking that all of the time and effort that I'd spent in creating teaching materials could be translated into an English teaching book for students in the Airline Management Department. I began to seriously collect and organize my ideas and another teacher at the Hospitality College even agreed to co-author it with me.

By early 2003, I was approaching my second year of living in Taiwan and beginning to revisit why I was here, what was I meant to do or accomplish here, what had I accomplished so far? How much longer did I want to stay in Taiwan? When I left for Taiwan, two years was the magic number. I thought I'd spend about two years here experiencing a different way of life and learning about my roots. There was a restlessness and uncertainty. I became almost obsessed with the idea of having a concrete accomplishment to show for my two years in Taiwan. As I evaluated my experiences and accomplishments over the nearly two years, I came up dry, so I tried to find reasons to stay. I felt that I had to have something to show for my time in Taiwan.

My teaching positions at Hospitality College and elsewhere were part-time and though I made enough to get by, there was still a sense of instability. When I applied for a full-time position at the Hospitality College where I had taught for two academic years, I began to feel hopeless and frustrated. Even with my strong reputation, I was told by my supervisor not to get my hopes up for a full-time position because of their preference to hire people with PhDs. I was stunned by my supervisor's words. He had been extremely supportive of my teaching ideas and methods; in fact, it was he who had even suggested that I consider compiling all of my materials into a textbook. If there was anyone at all who could plead my case it would have been him. Now I knew the situation was really hopeless. His hands were tied because the Ministry of Education had a requirement stating that a university's teaching staff must have be a certain percentage of PhDs. Therein was the clincher, the college that I was teaching at was trying to become a university and had to meet this requirement. It was a case of bad timing because none of the full-time teachers in the English department at that time had PhDs; they all had master degrees.

All I could see were the half empty glasses. In the end, all the time and effort that I had expended at the Hospitality College won me respect, but not enough to get me a full-time teaching position- I felt that it was a slap in the face and I abandoned the idea of writing an English Conversation textbook for Airline Management students. There was no point in pursuing such a specialized project if I had no future at the Hospitality College. The incompleteness of my life began surfacing in various shapes and forms. I still couldn't speak Taiwanese and Mandarin Chinese as fluently as I would have liked, I felt socially isolated in Kaohsiung and other projects ideas that had germinated in my mind didn't seem to have much realistic hope of reaching fruition.

Then, in April of 2003, SARS was in full blown attack and it came to my doorstep (see June 16 blog entry). This brush with SARS forced me to examine my commitment to stay in Taiwan and to evaluate my needs, to make a decision to return to North America.

I compared my reactions to the heightened terrorism alerts in New York in late 2002 to the handling of the SARS crisis in 2003. During a month long visit to New York in late 2002, there were daily announcements of code red and orange levels of high terrorism alert. The threat of terrorism was reported on the television hourly; the hourly news seemed to be all about emergency contingency plans- having bottled water, food provisions, electric generators... experts gave advice on how family members should communicate and reunite (if parents were at work, children in schools) in the event of an emergency. I hadn't seen such paranoia over impending disaster since the Y2K hype. The state of emergency was on everyone's minds and people couldn't avoid mention of it in their everyday conversations. But I had faith in the American people and in how the government was handling things. In the latter case, the bombardment of media coverage over SARS simply fueled disappointment over the Taipei city government's initial cover-up of SARS cases and reports of quarantine violators exasperated my feelings of frustration and hopelessness.

I began to feel like I had been on rollercoaster ride dealing with the extremes of my life in US and Taiwan. My visits back to the U.S. since moving to Taiwan have usually had a twofold purpose- to take care of business with my apartment which is being rented and to catch up with friends and relatives. So of course my calendar jam packed during those visits and suddenly my social life was so rich- catching up with friends, constantly meeting new people, running around, taking care of business and various errands. I was reminded of the dizzying pace that life often operates at in New York. There are so many options- things to do and see, people to meet, etc., etc., etc. but I wasn't sure if I wanted to enter the daily grind again or what exactly I wanted do in the U.S. once I left Taiwan.

In contrast, my social life in Kaohsiung is rather nonexistent. I do have some close friends here in Kaohsiung, but there just aren't as many opportunities to meet new people here. I don't have as extensive a social network in Kaohsiung. It pales in comparison even to the network I had in Taipei. Of course I always welcome opportunities to meet new people, but life here is just a different pace and it's something I've come to accept. My life here is simple, I'm focused on teaching, pursuing my personal projects, enjoying the flexibility of my work schedule by taking occasional weekend trips, traveling during winter and summer breaks, spending time with my family and a few close friends.

During the SARS crisis (April 2003), I thought about what I needed to have balance in my life- psychologically, physically (health wise), spiritually, socially, professionally, personally, where I would be able to accomplish my goals and maximize my skills...

The frustration, anxiety and uncertainty I felt about SARS made me realize that I wasn't committed to staying in Taiwan. I had very little faith in the general public, who didn’t seem to have a sense social responsibility; many people failed to comply with quarantine regulations. Nor was I assured by the government's handling of the situation. I was ready to leave.

Monday, December 15, 2003

My Fragile American Identity

I recently discovered just how fragile my American identity is. The ironic thing is that living outside of the United Sates of America for the past few years has forced me to examine what exactly being American means to me.

I have never been a particularly patriotic person, owing to the unique circumstances of my birth and upbringing. Although I was born in the United States of America and am most certainly a bona fide American citizen, my parents and I moved to Canada before I was even a year old. I was raised in Canada and spent most of my formative years there up until high school. Being American was a point of distinction- like when we went on family vacations and presented our identification at the border (my parents were Canadian citizens, my sister was born in Canada and I was the Yank). And in school, as if being one of few students of Asian descent weren’t enough, being born in the U.S. further differentiated me. But I had never lived in the U.S. and therefore didn’t have any special bond or identification with America, nor did I even know the words to the Star Spangled Banner or much about American history and politics before I left Canada to attend university in the United States.

After having lived in the United States for over ten years, I began to see myself as American. I accepted it as a fact; it was my place of birth.

In July of 2001, I moved from New York City to Taiwan. After the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, I felt a profound sense of loss and vulnerability. The freedom and openness of United States, which is what makes it such a great nation was the very thing that allowed it to be attacked. I felt very protective and proud of America. The rush of emotions and impact of 9-11 left me shaken. Certainly, it shook Americans across the country; the images of destruction in one of America’s greatest cities were powerful. New York is a city that symbolizes capitalism, culture and the melting pot of America. The characteristic strength and resilience of New Yorkers was assuring. For me the tragedy was a particularly personal experience since New York City had been my home for over 5 years and I had worked in the financial district for several of those years. I sometimes felt alone with my distraught feelings of anger, hopelessness, fear and resolve. I was living in Southern Taiwan, where there were few people who could relate to my mixed feelings or with whom I could completely articulate my thoughts. I had never felt more American in my life then at that point in time.

But just easily as I had found a proud new sense of being American, I recently felt embarrassed and ashamed of being American. Recently, there has been a lot of political posturing leading up to the March 20th, 2004 presidential elections in Taiwan. Hot election issues include: national identity (i.e. there is a growing sense of identifying oneself as Taiwanese rather than Chinese), safeguarding Taiwan from China’s military threat, and developing Taiwan into a normal state by rewriting Taiwan’s constitution (Taiwan’s current constitution and political system do not serve or meet the needs of Taiwan today. They reflect a framework for the Republic of China, which was brought over by the Chinese Nationalist Party in the 1940’s). The two latter issues- Taiwan’s security and constitution have prompted debate and discussion over the use of referendums in Taiwan. After considerable debate and resistance, a “bird cage” referendum law was passed by the opposition dominated legislature.

Shortly thereafter, President Chen Shui-bian announced his intention to draft a “defensive referendum” denouncing China’s military threat to Taiwan. China currently has close to 500 ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan. The U.S., being one of Taiwan’s closest “allies” and wanting to manage its relationship with China, has always walked a fine line on the issue of Taiwan independence.

After meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in the Oval Office on December 9th, 2003 (the eve on International Human Rights Day), President Bush reacted to President Chen’s plans for the “defensive referendum” with this statement, “We oppose any unilateral decision, by either China or Taiwan, to change the status quo. And the comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan indicate that he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally that change the status quo. And we oppose that.”

I could not believe that the President of the United States had kowtowed to Communist China’s efforts to exert control over Taiwan. Has the U.S. forgotten how it fought for its hard won democracy and independence from Britain? Don’t the people of Taiwan have a right to denounce the military threats of its hostile neighbor and to democratically assert its independence from a communist regime that has no legitimate claim over it? It seems that the U.S. has double standards when it comes to promoting the democratization of nations around the world. How could the U.S. justify the war in Iraq in the name of democratization, but try to limit the democratic progress of Taiwan? Taiwan is a democracy and its people should have the freedom to vote on matters concerning their country and future; that is what people in democratic societies do: vote and decide on their destinies. I have begun to wonder about the contradictions of U.S. foreign policy.
The other issue is what exactly is the “status quo”? Who is entitled to define what Taiwan’s status quo is? I’m certain that Taiwan, the U.S. and China all have different versions of just what Taiwan’s status quo is. In the case of the defensive referendum, the change in status quo being asked for is an end to China’s military threat. Taiwan’s status quo is always changing; in a democratic society, new precedents are made and there are changes and process made with every election. Introducing the use of referendums could lead to the possibility of future referendums related to constitutional reform, and changing the flag and name of Taiwan (which is actually officially the Republic of China. All of these moves would be construed as a change in Taiwan’s sovereignty (which again, depends on your interpretation of what Taiwan’s current sovereign status is), and that is something that the U.S. does not want to incite China’s aggression or force them (the U.S.) into interpreting their obligation to maintain stability in the Taiwan Strait according to the Taiwan Relations Act.

For more on the U.S.’s ambiguous position and working regarding its position on Taiwan, here is a succinct editorial written by Nat Bellocchi .

Being American carries with it certain connotations and responsibilities because of the proliferation of its culture worldwide and the U.S. government’s foreign policies. The United States of America is a country with citizens of such diversity that being an American is also a difficult thing to categorically describe or explain. Since being in Taiwan, many people have enlightened me with their take on the American personality or psyche: they are lazy, partiers, open-minded, easy going, independent, shallow, bold, outspoken, and ignorant. This last comment is the most common criticism routinely levied on Americans and there may very well be justification for it, and certainly citizens of other nations are just as guilty of being ignorant on world issues. It is most unfortunate; perhaps we could blame the educational system or society for not promoting a worldview in its citizens early on, but it also takes a certain personal commitment to continue educating ourselves over our lifetimes about the ongoing issues in our world.

I’ve often wondered how I would explain being American or what it means to be an American. One of my American friends who is definitely much more proudly patriotic, and firmly American than me, put it this way:

"In Asia, and to a certain degree, in Europe, people tend to see their nationality as an ethnicity. Being American is unique, because you can't be ethnically American. Being American is more of a political affiliation. I am ethnic Italian. But my political affiliation, and my heart, is American."

Even with this working definition, I’m not sure that most Americans would necessarily say that they completely agree with or perhaps worse yet, know understand or care about their government’s foreign policies. It would be difficult to have consensus over all of these issues. Perhaps it is more the values on which the United States was founded and the American Dream that Americans identify with. For me the case still stands…
My Ongoing Computer Woes

I swear the laptop that I purchased not too long after arriving in Taiwan has done me much more disservice than service. It’s spent more time being out of commission than in… which has resulted in so much frustration, wasted time, heartache, inconvenience, many delays and inefficiencies… Can you tell that this is going to be just one long bitch and complaint entry? I generally try to limit the amount of complaining I do on my blog, but I have lost my patience on this and reached a point of resignation in this saga. The problems just seem to keep getting worse I can’t even be bothered to care if the computer really gets fixed. I am at wits end. I am really ready to throw the damn thing out the window. If I weren’t planning to leave in less than a year I’d have done that long ago.

This is an entry to document all the pain and heartache this machine has brought me from day one- and to remind me (and warning to others planning to buy a particular Taiwan brand computer) lest I should ever forget- NEVER TO BUY A

E-xcuse of an
O-rdinateur (French for computer)!

July 2001- purchased laptop, CD-rom malfunctions

CD-rom drive malfunctions within the first week! Unbeknownst to me, the simple favor (that I asked of my friend’s friend) of installing and an English version Windows 2000 on my laptop turned into an imposition of hours of fixing the faulty CD-rom drive. I felt a twinge of guilt for the imposition but little did I know- that this was a sign of things to come with my computer.

November 2001- battery malfunctions

It’s not recharging properly. Into the shop my computer goes for testing and the battery is ordered and replaced by the computer company one week later since it is still under the one year warranty.

December 2001- by the end of the year I’m having problems with Windows 2000.

The system seems unstable and slow. My computer starts crashing and freezing and I’m having problems booting. Windows 2000 is reformatted and reinstalled a few times.

July/August 2002- CD-rom completely malfunctions just days after the one year warranty has expired.

Since this “conveniently” happened only days after the warranty expired and this computer has already brought me so much dissatisfaction and inconvenience during its first year of use- I am outraged that the computer company wants to charge me to fix the CD-rom. After much protestation and complaint the computer company agrees to replace if for a reduced fee.

In hindsight I should have taken the computer in to a shop to get it fixed when the CD-rom malfunctioned within the first week, but the computer was bought in Kaohsiung and I had just moved to Taipei. I had no idea that there was a problem with the CD-rom until my friend’s friend who agreed to install Windows for me also graciously fixed the malfunctioning CD-rom.

September 2002- I’m still plagued by a slow and unstable operating system.

So I begged one of my computer geek friends (M) in New Jersey for advice and help. I lugged my computer back on one of my trips to Ottawa and New York. Hoping that I didn’t have to impose on my friend in New Jersey, a friend of the family (D) offers to look at my computer and we painstakingly spend several hours one weekend afternoon updating and reformatting Windows. In the end the performance of my computer doesn’t seem to have improved much, so when I head to New York later that month, I hand over my computer to M in New Jersey, who spends sleepless hours, taken out of his busy schedule- to completely wipe everything off of the hard drive, and reinstall Windows 2002.

Feeling a big twinge of guilt this time… This computer has caused me nothing but grief at this point and has led me to impose on the goodwill of my friends. Thank goodness for them and their patience.

The performance of my computer seems to have improved somewhat.

I should have known that it was all too good to be true… Six months later I begin having problems again, Windows freezes up and sometimes I can’t boot the computer.

April-June 2003- I’m having problems booting the computer again.

Several times a month my computer won’t boot- each time I hand it over to a friend of the family (Mr. C) who “fixes” it temporarily. This is no solution since the same problem just keeps recurring. It is a waste of his time and mine- all this going back and forth- my computer is out of commission most of the time and I can’t get anything done.

June 2003- Another friend of the family (Mr. L) makes a “house call” –helping me to reformat Windows 2000, showing me step by step how it’s done- ostensibly, so that I don’t have to inconvenience him or others with my computer problems.

July 2003- Screen starts blacking out

At two years old, the screen starts blacking out inconsistently until one day it’s just completely out. Back to the computer company for another fix; it is “fixed” by the computer company. Everything seems fine in the weeks before I get ready for another trip to the U.S. and Canada.

July/August 2003- I have brought my computer with me hoping to make good use of it since my trip back to New York is not all about pleasure but for the purpose of renting my apartment. Not long after arriving in New York, I turn on the computer, only to discover that the screen has completely blacked out again, the hard drive and CD-rom are working, but of course with the screen blacked out, my computer is completely useless.

August 2003- Back in Taiwan, I demand that the computer company replace the screen with a new one- which of course I pay for.

September 2003- Surprise, surprise! I’m having problems booting the #@*$%! computer again!

Windows has also been infected with some viruses. One theory is that my Norton Antivirus wasn’t installed correctly since I had installed a Chinese version on my English operating system. I pay a computer expert (Mr. T) to tweak my system and install English Norton Antivirus.

September/October 2003- I can’t seem to rid my system of viruses and I also have Trojan horses now.

I start to get the resident computer support guy (G) at the college where I teach involved. He reformats Windows for me, gets rid of the viruses. I don’t know what he does- I just know that he puts things back in good working order for me. He’s a godsend.

This doesn’t last for long because I soon discover that my HARD DRIVE is broken! I moan and groan, the guys at the computer shop apologize- they know me well by now…since I’ve probably visited them more often than I have the doctor… So what else is new- I pay the computer company to replace it.

November 2003- Hard drive gets replaced

Now that I have a new hard drive I hope- yes I still have hope that things will settle down with this beast. My system still seems oddly prone to viruses though I have Norton Antivirus installed and run weekly system scans. I’m still getting Trojan horses, which I’ve since learned can’t be prevented or detected by antivirus programs.

G has tried several times to rid my computer of viruses. He’s at my weekly beck and call- resolving my latest computer issue.

Finally after wrestling with all of the virus and Trojan horses, and the constant reformatting Windows 2000, G suggests that I install Windows XP.

A week after Windows XP has been installed…

AGAIN, I start having problems booting my computer. So I take it back to the computer shop- they work on it for a week and return it in working order, but without a satisfactory answer as to what the exact problem was. What else is new?!

I’ve already spent too much time being frustrated, fed up, patient, apathetic, angry, and upset but I can’t shake that superstitious feeling I get anytime the computer freezes on me, or takes a little longer to boot. I wonder if it will reach its third birthday- if I don’t decide to put myself and it out of its misery first…

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

A Hidden Gem of a Mountain: The Highest Peak in Taiwan and North-East Asia

Recently, for the first time since I relocated to Taiwan in 2001, I traveled as a “not quite” tourist with an adventure travel group. Most of my travels in Taiwan have not been very noteworthy; they have consisted of local day trips, occasional short weekend trips and my regular jaunts to Taipei (to visit friends) and Kenting (to practice scuba diving). Sad to say, but I haven’t really explored much new territory in Taiwan since moving here.

Oddly enough, most of us think that we’ll get around to visiting the local sights or discovering our country of residence some day, but never do- Instead traveling to more far flung, exotic locales or putting it off. We all too often overlook the very things in our own backyard.

One thing that I definitely want to do before I leave Taiwan, is to travel to the various parts of Taiwan, including its neighboring islands. Since Taiwan is two-thirds mountainous; one of best ways to enjoy Taiwan’s great outdoors is to go hiking or on active, adventure trips.

So, when I heard about an adventure travel company in Taiwan called Fresh Treks , I decided to do a two-day trek up the highest peak in North-East Asia, Yu Shan (also known as Jade mountain), which also happens to be located in central Taiwan. I was inspired by a group of friends who had made the trek last year.

Yu Shan, which stands at 3952m, is indeed the highest peak in North-East Asia, not the highest in South-East Asia though- as is commonly thought and as so many people joyously hailed upon reaching the peak. It was only later, when I returned from my trip to verify the facts, that I discovered that Yu Shan is the highest peak in North-East Asia, not South-East Asia. Mount Kinbalu in Borneo is widely reported to be the highest peak in South-East Asia at 4101m, but northern Myanmar boasts Mount Hkakabo Razi at 5889m. The world’s highest peak, Mount Everest measures 8848m. Yu Shan is “outfamed” by its more famous neighboring peak, Mount Fuji which is 3776m tall. I was surprised to discover that many Taiwanese, including my own parents didn’t know that their very own less acclaimed Yu Shan is actually higher than Mount Fuji.

Fresh Treks is run by a Frenchman, Jean Marc, who speaks Mandarin Chinese quite proficiently and very impressively, I might add. His clients are Taiwanese and foreign, but I think that Fresh Treks has a tendency to attract English speaking foreigners (those especially of the non-Chinese speaking variety) because there are very few travel companies in Taiwan specifically aimed at foreigners or run by foreigners. Jean Marc was a one-man show- our trekking guide, friend, cook, motivating factor, photographer, and medic. And on top of balancing all of this, Jean Marc was an extremely gracious person who never seemed to loose his cool and had a disarming way with others.

The group I trekked with consisted entirely of foreigners, or more accurately, people bearing foreign passports. Among us were: two Canadian couples (one from Calgary, the other from Montreal, all of them were working as English teachers), three Englishmen (who didn’t know each other before the trip- two were coincidentally working on the high speed rail project but in different capacities, and the third was a Chinese language student), three Australians (who were in Taiwan working on the high speed rail project together), two Taiwanese Americans (a brother and sister- he worked in high tech sales, and she had come back to Taiwan for a prolonged stay, studying and visiting with family), a Philippine woman (who was married to one of the Englishman), a Finnish man (also working on the high speed rail project) and me, a Taiwanese American (back for some soul searching and working as an English teacher). The odd thing is that, as the backgrounds of the foreigners in this group attest, most foreigners traveling around Taiwan are most likely “not really tourists.” In other words, most foreigners traveling in Taiwan couldn’t be classified as standard tourists who have specifically traveled to Taiwan for a holiday vacation. It seems like most of the foreigners who travel around Taiwan are probably already living and working in Taiwan. This is a quirk that some of my foreign, Taiwanese American friends and I have noticed.

Taiwan is Just Not Seen as a Major Tourist Destination

Time and time again, when I was in traveling in various parts of South-East Asia- Thailand, Vietnam or Cambodia, and introduced myself to other foreigners as a Taiwanese American who was raised in Canada, now living in Taiwan- the responses I received ranged from indifference to insulting. “Why would I want to visit Taiwan? What is there to see there? I’ve never thought of visiting Taiwan. When I think of Taiwan, I think about drugs…” I wondered, just what is Taiwan’s international image? Taiwan is probably best known for being an economic miracle. Unfortunately its focus on economic and industrial development has been at the cost of its environment. Pollution from industrial waste and the high concentration of motor vehicle due to Taiwan’s dense population have damaged the natural environment and caused air pollution. Tourism has never been developed since it wasn’t seen as a necessary source of revenue and besides, much of Taiwan’s natural beauty and landscape has been spoiled by pollution and the manmade eye sores of poor urban planning. In recent years, awareness and efforts to promote recycling, the preservation and cleaning of the environment have improved.

Preparing for Yu Shan

Previous to the Yu Shan trek, I’d only done day hikes and treks. The challenge of climbing Jade Mountain would be carrying up to 15-20kg of gear on my back for an average of six hours during the main trek up to the base lodge (Paiyun Lodge), where we’d be staying overnight after the first day of trekking. The next day would call for an early start from the lodge, in the wee hours of the morning- 3am to be exact- with just enough time to reach the peak just before sunrise. Fortunately we’d be leaving our backpacks behind, trading them in for a small daypack for water and essentials during the final 3 hour hike to the summit. I wasn’t really concerned about the physical challenge of the trek since I workout regularly. I was pretty smugly about the whole thing- I had faithfully followed Fresh Trek’s recommended packing list- I was all set. Little did I know just how unprepared I was for what laid ahead.

I didn’t want to invest in a lot of trekking gear since I don’t know if I’d be doing this sort of thing regularly. Hiking/trekking can actually be very expensive at the outset because of all the gear required- proper boots, backpack, lightweight sleeping bag, and high tech clothing i.e. water/wind resistant, heat-insulating, quick dry fabrics. I didn’t have much gear so I had arranged to borrow an inflatable mattress, mini super insulated sleeping bag and raincoat from friends in Taipei. With all of the specialized equipment available these days, more and more people of a reasonable fitness level can accomplish longer overnight treks like Jade Mountain.

When I think of all the technological aids that we have today, it gives me a new respect for those first early mountain climbers. How did people ever manage without all of this “technology” and innovation? Or perhaps we are just victims of the mass marketing and consumerism of athletic wear. Doing sports is not cheap these days- we are convinced that we need suitable hi-tech apparel to protect us from the elements (water proof, wind proof, fire proof, fool proof), to do things in comfort (dri-fit clothes wick away excess moisture which allows us to move in comfort and is a good preventative measure in variable weather conditions), to do things in style (the proper gear and clothing always makes us look and feel like we know what we are doing) and proper equipment which supposedly enhances performance, and prevents injury.

A Reality Check in Taipei

I arrived in Taipei on the Friday night before the Saturday afternoon departure. I was there to visit my ever-obliging friend “B”, who always puts me up when I’m in Taipei. “B” has become quite the experienced trekker, having done several treks, including Jade Mountain the previous year. In fact, it was “B”’s climb up Jade Mountain with mutual friends that inspired me to take on the challenge myself.

After a lovely dinner and lengthy conversation with “B”, it was time to get down to the business of what gear I’d come to borrow for the trek. I took one look at the sleeping bag and inflatable mattress, both neatly rolled up and I knew that once I put them in my backpack, that I wouldn’t have much room for much else. Then began the assessment of what I’d packed- too many changes of clothes, too many layers of clothes, the wrong kinds of clothes, unnecessary items... in short too much weight. “B” told me to imagine myself trekking for hours, with nowhere to go, and my backpack feeling heavier and heavier with each step, even slightest bit of extra weight would quickly become a burden.

And I thought I had done my part in minimizing the weight and volume of things by simply packing mini sample-sized toiletries!

Out went the cotton t-shirts, extra changes of clothes, knit sweater, fleece vest, umbrella, and book. They were replaced by “B”’s water/windproof jacket, long-sleeved fleece jacket, quick dry fabric shirts, a hydration pack (for easier access to water) and I even borrowed her backpack (which was much more expandable and flexible than mine; it better accommodated the air mattress, sleeping bag and other necessities). The only items of clothing of mine that I brought were of course my “unmentionables”, a pair of dry-fit pants, and socks. Fortunate for me, “B” is a much more experienced hiker than me and she graciously shared the experience and hiking gear that she’s acquired along the way.

Departing for Yu Shan

On Saturday afternoon I left “B”’s apartment humbler and lighter in step to start my Fresh Treks experience. 95% of what I’d packed initially was left behind, intact in my backpack in “B”’s apartment when I departed for Jade Mountain.

The group met near Taipei City Hall and took we a five hour bus ride to our first stop, Dong Pu, a busy little village that is a popular overnight stopping point for people planning hikes and treks directly to Ali Shan (another famous and frequently visited mountain in Taiwan) or for the super-zealous, the double challenge of Ali Shan followed by Yu Shan. Dong Pu was basically a paved two lane, sloping road of a few kilometers long, lined with restaurants, small hotels, guesthouses and “souvenir shops”- which sold local food specialties such as dried, preserved fruit and liquor. Dong Pu certainly received a lot of thoroughfare, and I had the impression that the local businesses had sprung up to take advantage of business generated by local Taiwanese tourists making stops en route to their hiking destination. We spent a relaxing night in a simple hotel with a hot springs bath on the balcony, complete with a view of the stars in the clear night sky.

On Sunday morning we woke for breakfast and boarded the bus again for an hour plus ride to the entrance of Yu Shan national park, which was at an elevation of approximately 2600m. Our guide, Jean Marc promptly divided up the supplies- various cooking implements, supplies and food- amongst us, each member of the group taking what they could and loading it into their backpack. We set off around 10 am and planned to hike most of the day (for about 5-6 hours in total), with a stop for lunch, and ending up at the Paiyun base lodge at 3402m by late afternoon, where we would spend the night.

During the 15-20 minute walk on an incline to the visitor’s center, I soon began to feel breathless and weighted down. This was not a good sign since the path we were walking on was in fact a fully paved road leading to the mountain! We hadn’t even actually gotten to the trails on Jade Mountain but all I could think about were the heavy bags of bagels that I had offered to carry in my backpack. As we waited for Jean Marc to register and present our group park permit, I surrendered my pride and found a fellow backpacker who was kind enough to lighten my load and relieve me of a bag of bagels.

Though it was December, the weather was much like autumns of the East Coast of the United States. Once we got moving and felt the sun shining down on us, we quickly peeled off the layers of clothing as our body temperatures rose- but they would later be essential during the following day’s early morning final climb to the summit.

Trekking is not a meant to be a competitive sport or race. In fact it’s somewhat of a solitary sport. To me it’s just you and the mountain; it’s about knowing your limits, setting your pace and pacing yourself. Besides, half of the experience is enjoying the beauty of nature all around you. The hiking trails were quite narrow, which meant walking in single file and yielding to others who were plowing ahead or those who were traveling in the opposite direction. Everyone in the group seemed to be aware of their limits; no one pushed themselves beyond their limits, and as we trekked, the group broke up into three subgroups each going at different speeds. Within each subgroup, people fell into an unspoken pecking order. People maintained an even pace and had the humility to let others go ahead of them if the pecking order got disrupted, or if it became evident that someone behind them was going at a comparatively faster pace.

The trail was like our life support system, taking us to new heights and through various terrains- at first a simple dirt trail wrapped along the rugged barren mountainside, then our guide through lightly wooded areas, then an open path covered in shards of fallen rock. It was our eternally steadfast companion enabling us to cross wide gaps bridged by metal and wooden boardwalks; chain links bolted in the wall of rock provided extra support along steeper, narrower sections.

I was surprised to see that Jade Mountain seemed to be quite regularly frequented by many visitors, though I’m not sure what percentage actually completes the entire climb to its peak. In general, climbing Jade Mountain is very doable if you have the stamina to hike for an entire day, know your limits, and go at your own pace. What made it extra challenging was the fact that I was carrying almost 20 kg of things on my back. Its trails are well marked and established, but it you accidentally stepped off the trail, like I did, you’ll quickly realize just how close to the edge of the mountain you are; dense, dry brush and grass grows along the edge, concealing how close to the edge the narrow trail actually is. But perhaps it’s just as well because this “natural barrier” and “camouflage” helps to sort of manage the trek psychologically - whatever you do, just don’t look down. On another clumsy occasion, I accidentally put my foot through a boarded walkway... confirming that there’s nothing but space underneath and more space underneath there and that it’s a long, long way down. That realization certainly sobered me up.

Arrival At Base Lodge

Finally, between 4:00 and 5:00pm various members of my fellow trekkers started trickling in at their own pace, at the Paiyun Base Lodge (3402m). The Paiyun lodge was a very basic stone structure that didn’t offer many comforts inside. In fact, I don’t even think that there were bathrooms in the lodge itself. On the lodge grounds, was a separate structure that housed very basic public restroom facilities for men and women, it consisted of toilet stalls; there were no shower facilities there or anywhere on the grounds. There was a communal “sink” outside - it was a long tiled “trough” that stretched the length of the building’s front wall, with several faucets providing running water. A step inside the lodge revealed an entrance area that could barely be considered a lobby. There were no chairs or furniture there- it was standing room only. To the left and right of the entrance were two designated indoor sleeping areas. A walk straight through the lobby and down the short hall led straight back to a dimly lit, dingy kitchen with wooden tables, two basic stainless steel sinks and two stand alone counter top gas range units. The dingy little kitchen quickly transformed into bustling, warm, cheery atmosphere, as several groups went to task, merrily preparing meals for their respective trekking groups. Outside was a flurry of activity as many of us pitched in to prepare the meal, drawing water from the faucet outside for cooking, washing and chopping vegetables, etc. A sense of communal camaraderie pervaded the Paiyun lodge, our oasis in the mountains.

Nightfall seemed to be upon us suddenly. We sat on the picnic benches outside of the lodge in the darkness, eating by flashlight. By 10 or 11pm everyone began settling in for a night’s rest, with half of our group in the lodge’s dormitory, which was actually more like barracks and the other half of us slept three to a tent. I was among the half that volunteered to sleep out in a tent, so I got cozy in my sleeping bag, with three of us sleeping side by side in full “winter” wear. The temperature hovered slightly below freezing point. At times I felt a chill despite the wind proof shell, three layers of clothes, hat, and two pairs of socks that I was wearing. Anticipation, anxiety, excitement and an impending 3am wake up call hung in the air, conspiring against getting a good night’s sleep. Then the chorus of snores began. I tossed and turned for what seemed like hours and just when I had given up on getting any sleep- in a wink I was out and the next moment Jean Marc was frantically running around, calling us to grab a quick coffee; he was worried that we’d fall behind schedule. Time was of the essence to ensure that we’d be able to reach the peak in time to see the sunrise

Carefully we made our way up the trail in the darkness, aided by handheld flashlights and headlamps. The trail became steeper and gradually became rocky, icy and windy. The closer we edged towards the summit, the harsher the climate became; the cold wind cut through the fabric of our clothes, thwarting us. In silence we plodded on, with our cheeks and noses colored by the coldness, and our breath hanging in the air. The terrain became rocky, barren and icy. Our gloved hands grasped the metal chain links and posts for support along the steep ascent.

At the peak everyone high fived and congratulated each other- the shared sense of accomplishment bolstered our spirits as camera shutters clicked indiscriminately in anticipation of the main event. At first the sun which was initially obscured by clouds and the dense fog around the peak which mired visibility. Half an hour later the sun finally peaked out just enough to get a shot.

Now that the obligatory photos had been taken, we’d head back down to the lodge for a real breakfast, a quick pack up, and the final trek down to the park entrance- which would take the better half of the day.

The trek down offered a different vantage point which revealed just how close to the edge of the mountain we were; at times I could see straight down over the edge.

Finally, by late afternoon, we arrived at the bottom of Jade Mountain and had only one more mile of paved road to walk- out of Jade Mountain National Park to meet our vehicle. Admittedly, I was feeling pretty exhausted and burdened. I had begun to fall behind, dragging myself along behind everyone else. We were all quite weary, sleep deprived, knees aching and wishing for a shower. A minibus parked at the bottom looked inviting, but alas it was not waiting for us. As we trudged along the road out, vans and trucks drove past us. A couple in our group contemplated hitching a ride in a bus or truck going out of the park; a passing van stopped to offer us a lift out. It was tempting, but I resisted; four people out of our group of seven opted to take the ride.

I didn’t come this far just to throw in the towel in the last mile- on a paved road no less. I would make it completely out of the park on foot. I would walk out of the park just as I had walked in. No matter how long it took, how tired I was, I was not quitting now, it was just a few steps more. I know that I could make it. I’m strong enough and I’m no quitter. I would walk the whole way. There was no taking no shortcuts, I resolved. I would make it ALL the way back on my own two feet just as others in our group who (I knew had already made it down and) were waiting at our bus. No, anything short of _really_ completing the entire trek from beginning to end would compromise the satisfaction and sense of self-accomplishment I had.

No, I stubbornly refused, as Jean Marc persisted in encouraging me to accept the ride. I knew that I could do it. I willed myself to do it. Breaking through the past that I carried with me... the taunting... labels... weakling, laggard... resignation... lowered expectations… I am a woman and I am strong, I am no shrinking violet, not the delicate, weak, wheezing girl who throws like a girl sitting on the sidelines exempt from track and field, hopelessly uncoordinated and useless at team sports. I have found my own individual form of athletic challenge. I have strength of another measure, strength enough pull my own weight.

It was then that I realized- What was I trying to prove and who was I trying to prove it to? Why did I have to prove anything at all?

I tightened the hip belt and supporting straps of my backpack, and picked up my pace with silent dogged determination. Leaving me in my storm of stubbornness, the two other remaining trekkers- Jean Marc and “S” conversed with the familiarity of old friends and we continued on the path out of Jade Mountain National Park. The weight lifted from my shoulders and back. I'd made the same mistake many times before during this trek- an ill adjusted backpack had weighed heavy my shoulders and back quickly exhausting me. In a laconic state, I walked in step with Jean Marc and "S" consumed by my resolve.

Jean Marc took notice and said, “It looks like you've gotten your second wind.”

“Yes,” I beamed and in no time we were out of the park getting ready to board the bus back to Taipei.