Deaf and Illiterate, Why You Should Learn the Local Language

The image is of a bamboo menu written in Chinese. I have no idea what it says because I am illiterate. Very pretty menu though! 🙂

Today with my Taiwan family, we watched a movie called Beyond Silence about Lara who is the daughter of deaf parents.

An emotional scene with her father, he finds out that Lara plans to go to Berlin to study at a dinner with extended family. The only people at the table he can understand are Lara and her sister, since both of them know sign language. The rest of her family speaks German which her father cannot hear.

Lara’s father feels completely alone because he cannot hear the conversation. Her aunt is saying something… what is she saying? He does not know. There is an argument, but he can’t participate. Her father only gets 80% of the conversation.

This is a source of conflict the entire movie, because Lara’s father is an intelligent man, but has to rely on others. When Lara comes home from school, her father needs Lara to speak on the phone for her. She signs what the person on the phone says, her father signs back and she relays to the person on the other end. He feels like a child.

There are many arguments that arise out of this. Both Lara and her father are incredibly kind people, but when things get lost in translation it gets frustrating for both of them. Luckily Lara and her father love each other dearly, so they are willing to work through the difficulties.

I can sympathize with Lara’s deaf father, and this movie really hit home for me. I am currently in Taiwan, where I do not speak Chinese. Due to the Chinese writing system, I can’t read at all either. Like Lara’s father, I am an intellectual who often has no means of communication and I have to rely on others.

I want to take a bus, but I can’t because I cannot read. The bus schedule is in Chinese. When I go to a restaurant, I have to hope that my best friend Abigail understands what I like and picks something good. I am lost, but cannot ask for directions. Where is the bathroom? Gosh… I have no idea.

I got in a taxi the other day, who misunderstood my destination. He started taking me in a random direction across the city. Both of us, good people, got very frustrated with one another because of the situation. I was going the wrong way, and the taxi driver couldn’t fix it.

I am really grateful for my adoptive “Taiwan” family around me. It’s a lesson in humility for me, because I have to trust whoever I am with 100%. Being someone who likes to take charge, and make decisions, this is incredibly difficult for me.

Volcano Hank took me to today. There were some sulfur rocks with water, the water was boiling.

It is difficult having your support family speak a different language. I went out today with Hank and my two “Taiwan” moms. The three of them spoke around 80% Chinese, so I only got to participate in 20% of the conversation which was always directed at me. Any general conversation was in Chinese, like how beautiful the scenery was, and I couldn’t even participate in that.

Two weekends ago I went with them to Mao Kong Gondola. The experience was great, but I have no idea what was said the entire time. It was like I was deaf.

The other week I was with Abigail walking down a nice quiet street. Along each side there were little shops, most of the shops were for selling things during Chinese New Year. As we passed each shop, I was looking inside to see what they sold, then I realized. The signs, in Chinese, that were hanging over each shop said something that meant something to Abigail. She and I had completely different perspectives of this street.

She saw signs and store names “Fabrics, Food, Snacks, Toys”. I saw pretty symbols “出口, 火, 人” (My Taiwanese friends will get a laugh out of that, because that’s the only Chinese I know)

Make sure you spend at least a month doing Rosetta stone, or Pimsleur, or take a class before going to a foreign country. Especially if you intend on living there for more than 15 days, it is important. Even if I couldn’t understand everything going on around me, knowing the words for time, person, counting, food, hungry, thirsty, water and being able to ask where the bathroom is valuable. I still wish I could attempt a conversation with Abigail’s uncle or her dad. Both seem like incredible people I want to get to know, but due to communication issues it is difficult.


John’s Guide to Taiwanese Food

We’ve had one breakfast yes, but what about second breakfast?


I have never been a place where a group of people eats so often. Many of the meals are small, but some days I ended up eating 4-5 meals per day. If you ask someone who visited Taiwan what the most memorable thing was, I would bet it would be food.

My first week here, Abigail’s uncle took me out to breakfast one morning. We had four breakfasts, two different restaurants. The food was incredible, I especially liked the egg “pancakes”, which are essentially these small egg omelet rolls filled with various toppings.

Giant bowl of soy milk and egg roll pancakes I had with Abigail’s uncle!

When cooking at home, often 5-7 different dishes are served. These dishes are actually a fairly decent size, and everyone at the table shares them.

If you have ever been to a sushi restaurant in the US, you’ll be familiar with the ordering style at restaurants used here. Your party is given a sheet of paper that you write on. Next to each menu item, you indicate how many of each thing you want. Just like when cooking at home, it’s normal to choose 5-6 things here for a lunch for two people. Portions are small, and you get to try a variety of things. It’s great!

Be prepared for a difference in food etiquette from a western country. Here in Taiwan, cooks bring out the food as it is ready. Soon as it is out on the table, you are allowed to begin to eat; which is different than the US where usually you wait for everyone to receive their meal. This was difficult for me to get used to at first, but everyone will feel weird if you insist on waiting since they feel like you are waiting on them.

Also, since food is served buffet style, with 5-7 plates on the table you just reach with your chopsticks to whatever food you want to eat. Everyone at the table just reaches over everyone to grab various foods. It’s strange, but you get used to it.

I hope you like soup. In fact, it is common for no beverage to accompany your food choice even at restaurants. Taiwanese soup is normally water, some sort of meat, seafood or vegetable; and occasionally some noodles but not always. The water from the soup serves as your drink for many meals here. At first I complained about all of the soups we had, but over time I have gotten used to it and enjoy them now.

Taiwanese “hamburger” with pork and cork soup.

When searching for restaurants, a common phrase you will hear is “This place is famous!”. It’s important to choose a place that is “famous” because the places that aren’t “famous” generally have poor food quality. You can spot a “famous” place a mile away, because there will always be a gigantic line/queue to get your food. Finding famous places is similar to Yelp or Google reviews in the US.

Clearly, this place is famous. The food here was excellent

Last night Abigail and I went to a night market, where the food was so famous the wait to have our order cooked was over an hour and a half! Remember, people in Taiwan love food, so if you have Taiwanese friends you will likely spend 50% of your time traveling searching and eating food at “famous” places.

Three great examples of popular Taiwanese food that is most unique and interesting are pig blood cakes, Taiwanese sausages, and stinky tofu.

Pig blood cake is Abigail’s favorite food. They combine pig blood with rice and press it into a square. These squares are then either put onto a plate, or onto a stick for convenient eating. The cakes are often topped with ground peanuts, but can be ordered without the peanuts if you have an allergy or do not like them.

Pig Blood, Photo from

By far my favorite food here in Taiwan, is Taiwanese sweet sausage. The sausage looks similar to Spicy Italian Sausage, but its main ingredients are sugar, red/white wine, and soy sauce. The flavor is like a sweet Virginia honey ham, but made of sausage. Abigail is the best, because she ended up combining two of my favorite foods, Taiwanese sweet sausage and fried rice!!!

An older woman prepares me some Taiwanese Sweet Sausage

My least favorite Taiwanese food is stinky tofu, but of all of the foods I think it is the most important thing to try. It is made from fermented tofu which is fried in oils then cut into squares. It is one of those foods that you will either love it or hate it. It is so popular here, that the majority of food stands here sell it. You can smell this stuff a mile away, to the untrained nose it may smell like a public toilet. How do you tell if the tofu is high quality? The stinkier the better!

The stinkier the better!

Heading back to Taipei today, if you have suggestions for posts please let me know in the comments! Special thanks to Danny for suggesting this post on food!!

Importance of Simple Days

Back before I became a minimalist, I would have thought you were crazy if you told me that I would have fun sitting at a waterfall for an hour. Each moment I always had to be doing something, in fact my highschool sweetheart once told me “John, You don’t always have to be doing something.” There is a lot of meaning to those words.

Abigail and I just left Taipei, the capital city of Taiwan. There, life moves at an incredible rate: people move quickly through the subway(almost running), eat their food in less than two minutes, and drive at a reckless pace. All to squeeze an extra minute out.

Trains and buses are filled with people staring at their smartphones, finding the next click, the next little nugget of information they don’t need.

I was like that. I would always be listening to an audiobook while driving to fill that dead time. After waking, I’d immediately leave to work to avoid “wasting time”. On the way home I would grab some fast food before starting whatever personal project I had. Before going to sleep, my phone would be in my hand as I read about something on Wikipedia, or watched an insightful video. I would use my phone until I was so tired I would pass out, and start again the next day.

For people on vacations, at least here in Taiwan, it’s like that too. People all pack into busses, and try to see as many sights and go as many places as possible before going back home.

Yesterday we rode 30 miles through the mountains, crossed two rope bridges 500ft in the air along the difficult hiking trail, walked around 12 miles, explored the Water curtain, and rode back in the rain. We were so exhausted we just got food for delivery.

Today was different.

We took our time. Started the day at this small local place where we ate breakfast. We slowly ate our food, and watched this old man around 75 years old work at his simple shop. He fixed bicycles, and he was working on this woman’s wagon. Huge smile on his face, he excitedly went to work. So strange, but it was fascinating seeing this.


We rode toward Liyu Lake, and ended up hiking through this fantastic cave to the waterfall where we ended up spending close to an hour. Abigail asked me “If you are bored, we can leave”. But I wasn’t, I really just wanted to sit there listening to the waterfall. I explored around, stretched, and even played some music on my Ocarina. It was very relaxing.


It was raining, as we rode back to the lake and stopped at this small coffee shop. The coffee shop overlooked the lake, and we rested there for another hour. We just listened to the rain and watched as a team of kayakers glided across the water. We had some good conversation, absolutely perfect.

Sometimes you need a day to take it easy and just go with the flow. Don’t forget that J


Problems with Packing Ultra-Light

Mistakes were made. My pants are soaking wet right now.

Today Abigail and I went to Taroko National Park, easily one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. As we wound through the mountain passes, I was glad my buddy John Wes Dukes convinced me to get my motorcycle license.

I thoroughly got to test out my gear today, all of it got used. We went to Baiyang Waterfall. It was impressive but not as nice as Shifen; however, next to it was a path to the Water Curtain.

The Water Curtain is this bizarre cave where a huge torrent of water comes out of the ceiling in places. According to the information sign, it was caused when miners attempted to dig a tunnel through the mountain. Cracks appeared in the rock above, and water from a reservoir above poured through.


Photo special thanks to

At the entrance to the curtain was a giant pile of rain ponchos to borrow, but I didn’t need one. In my pack I had with me my trusty Marmot Precip, the successor to the Mica that Tynan recommends. I also put my shoes into my pack, and took out my Earthrunner sandals.

Abigail and I charged into the cave, my belongings protected by the jacket and my waterproof Tom Bihn 19L Synapse backpack. Everything stayed dry, but I ended up being forced to use my smartphone as a flashlight for us. Not a good idea.

Everything stayed dry, and the Precip was able to keep all of the rain off my body and kept my pants dry. I was so proud of myself at my preparedness.

How did my pants get wet then?

Abigail and I got lucky with the weather to the top of the mountain. Absolutely stunning views, sunshine, warm. Perfect day.


On the way back we encountered a rainstorm.

My Icebreaker wool clothes kept me warm, but the sitting position I was in on the scooter meant the Precip couldn’t protect my legs. My pants, socks, and shoes got completely soaked by the rain. Also, I didn’t pull the jacket tight around my waist, so water was getting in under the jacket, and it was also going down my neck because I didn’t Velcro the strap.

When I got back I checked the pockets of my jacket. The jacket has perforated pockets on the inside, so that when you stuff the jacket into its own pocket(which makes it pack down super small), it can dry. I thought the jacket would protect my phone, cash, and my notebook. All three were super wet, my phone was okay but my handy-dandy notebook was completely ruined.

Worse yet, I am only traveling with a single pair of pants. I thought I would be able to get away with it, since these pants convert into shorts and the material all of my clothes are made to resist smells. I just wash my shirts and pants in the shower and hang them up before bed.

Now I realize how critical it is for me to have a second pair of pants. Normally it’s not a big deal because I travel alone, but since I have a traveling companion I need pants. I reallyyy need pants.

I suppose adventure filled days are perfect for me to test out my gear so I can make some changes and plan ahead. Until then, looks like I have to dry these pants with a hair dryer ;D

Pingxi Paper Lanterns

Like something out of Tangled; The Fifth Mountain, or 五分山 in Chinese, towered overhead as our train snaked along. An arm pressed into my side, the train was packed full of people all wanting to see the paper lanterns in the sky. Pushing my way past the people, I caught a glimpse of Shifen Waterfall.

Abigail and I stepped off the train in the small town of Pingxi(Ping she). Groups of people were lined up along the tracks, with big paper lanterns hanging. They were painting their wishes on the side of the lanterns. It is believed if you write a wish on a lantern here, it will come true.

We chose a red one, which stood for good health. Other colors had different meanings: green for wealth and pink for relationships as an example. We hung up our lantern and wrote down our wishes. I wished to meet more people from different cultures; Abigail wished to be a better person every day.

The nice man at the lantern shop took this video for us.

We picked up some food and walked around the road. Many of the buildings in this area are run down; but they have a lot of character. This area of Taiwan is more similar to a jungle, with large ferns and big green canopies.


Abigail was telling me how she didn’t like the new buildings made in Taiwan. They lacked character she told me. As we neared the waterfall we came across an old red building. At least 100 years old, this was the type of building people in Taiwan used to live in.


We pressed on; walking down a narrowing trail with many stairs. As we rounded the corner I finally saw Shifen.


We spent some time at the initial entrance before walking around to the side of the falls. I told Abigail about my experiences at Niagara Falls, and how disappointed I was because it was built into a giant tourist trap. Shifen really should be a natural wonder of the world, not Niagara. It is absolutely breathtaking. I ended up sitting here listening to the falls for a long time.

Unexpected Connections Through Tinder

Riverside park with Yvonne, behind you can see the skyline of Taipei, Taiwan with Taipei 101 towering over everything.

My best friend Abigail here in Taiwan was busy for a few days so I needed to find something to do to fill the time. Since I have arrived she has filled my afternoons with amazing places to see, but I wanted to find another person here in town to show me around.

Tinder is a superficial dating/meetup/hookup app that you pick people based off of a swipe right if you think they are attractive, or a swipe left if you think they are unattractive. In the US I found that this app is ineffective because women are harassed so much by men that it is very difficult to have a real conversation or find a connection. Unfortunately, there isn’t a version of this focused on making friends(At least none that I know of, maybe I should write one!)

In Taiwan, things are a bit different. It is very unusual for you to approach a stranger and speak with them, so the amount of street harassment towards women is very low(it seems to me, I am a man).

What this means is that using Tinder here in Taiwan is a completely different experience. Within 30 minutes of using the app, I had 20 matches who all wanted to talk to me. I had 4-5 women(I wish there was a simple way for me to find men to talk to as well) who all wanted to meet me at a coffee shop, practice their English, and learn about my culture. It was great because out of this I was able to get a few new friends to fill my time and continue to learn about Taiwan.

One person, Yvonne who is a student here in Taipei, stood out and was very interested in showing me around. She actually planned out a bunch of places for us to explore and took me up and down the main river here in Taipei to see some of the natural sights here.

I have been hesitant to continue my travels without Abigail or a different friend. I want to go to Seoul, South Korea and stay in Japan for a while. Since it is unusual to just walk up to strangers in Asia, I wasn’t going to walk up to people and ask if they wanted to hang out with me. The idea of being in Seoul alone didn’t appeal to me either, especially since I don’t speak any Korean. Tinder at least will allow me to find someone who is interested in spending time with me in every country and city I go to!

For now I will continue to use Tinder in my travels to meet people nearby. It is handy, and location based so the people you are matched with are normally less than 10 minutes away from you. If you know of another app that is similar to find someone for conversation, please let me know in the comments.

Duck boats on the river 🙂

Familiar Perspectives

7 Tile Mahjong. I gave him that win. -At Kent’s house in Taipei. Games are a great way to connect with people

It has been two weeks since I have landed in Taiwan. Since arriving my expectations and opinions on life have been rapidly changing. It seems to me the Taiwanese live a rapid life filled with hard work and discipline. Work days often last 10 hours, and students fill their days with school work and study.

As an American, I have a hard time understanding and relating to the people here in Taiwan. My life has always been a dual focus between my work, and my hobbies. During the day, I may spend 6-8 hours doing school work, then the rest of my time might be learning to fix my car. As a result, the way I think about things is very different than many of the people here and what I place my priorities in is different.

Taiwan is the first country I have traveled to and has revealed a different problem. I am now having difficulty relating to the people back home in the US as well.

That was clear today. I spent 8 hours today with Kent, my friend’s English teacher. He has lived here in Taiwan for 20 years, but was born in Maine and grew up in the US.

At first, I thought the reason I enjoyed the conversation with him so much was the ease in which we could communicate since we both speak English; but it was more than that. He understood me.

I find myself often trying to understand what I am seeing while I am experiencing Taiwanese culture. When I try to relate it to my own culture and discuss with my Taiwanese friends, I have to explain a certain aspect of my culture to them to contrast; like the differences in the school system for instance.

Kent understood what the American school system is like, so we could both discuss and contrast the differences between Taiwanese and American school systems. He had even deeper insight, since he is both a father and a long term resident of the island. This meant we could have a long conversation about the pros/cons of each method of teaching.

I can’t do that with my family and friends back home. That’s because none of them have ever been to Taiwan, and when I am trying to describe my experience here it is difficult to understand. Similar to when I describe American schools to my Taiwanese friends, my American friends/family do not understand what life is like here.

Until today I didn’t realize the importance of really being able to relate with someone. I now understand Sebastian Marshall’s blog post about how lonely he feels sometimes. This path I am taking, the farther along I go and the more distant I get from “normal” life, the more difficulty I will find in having people to relate to.

The Million Dollar Question – By Sebastian Marshall