How Donald Trump made my vacation spot an international story

As the results came in on election night and it became increasingly likely that Donald Trump would become the next president of the United States, a few friends who knew I was out of the country jokingly asked whether I was coming back.

I was in Taiwan, a place that — unlike the Chinese mainland — had received little if any attention during the 2016 race. What a difference a few weeks make.

Last week Trump and Taiwan President Tsai Ing-Wen spoke on the phone, breaking four decades of diplomatic protocol and setting off a firestorm with China, which regards Taiwan as a renegade province. Washington broke off diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1979, and since then no U.S. president has spoken directly to his Taiwanese counterpart.

Policy experts and China watchers are still debating whether Trump was unaware the call could cause a crisis or did it intentionally, as a way of sending a message to Beijing that the U.S. president can talk to any world leader, whenever he wants.

With U.S.-Taiwan relations in the spotlight, I thought I’d share something I picked up as a souvenir. The day after the election, I bought a couple of local newspapers in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, to see how they covered the election.

The Apple Daily, the second-largest paper in Tawain, published a special section on the results, in addition to several more pages on Clinton, the protests that followed, and a racy image from Melania Trump’s modeling days.

Beijing, I can see your underpants

Beijing has the world cornered on ugly buildings. And perhaps none has drawn as much criticism as the CCTV Tower. This silver-gray monstrosity opened in 2008 and has been disappointing people looking up ever since.

Some say the 44-story skyscraper, which serves as the headquarters of China Central Television, resembles a pair of boxers shorts. Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, who designed the CCTV Tower, told CNN that it is “a building that is constantly mutable and that emanates creativity.”

I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Fast times call for life in the slow lane

I like walking along the moat that surrounds the Forbidden City because it gives me a feeling that’s hard to find elsewhere in Beijing: peace.

On a clear day the reflections of the trees and towers lining the palace’s outer wall stretch across the moat, their colors preserved in the water. Old men with wooden fishing poles cast their lines a few feet from each other and smoke cigarettes and make small talk as they wait for a bite. Continue reading

Spring, I hardly knew you

The best time of the year to visit Beijing is Spring. The temperatures are comfortable, gusty winds generally keep the skies blue and trees begin to bloom.

Dormant streets come to life, as old men hunker over small tables to watch card games. Vendors pack up their tents and grill barbecue in the open. Children who have been cooped up all winter shed a few layers of clothes and run freely in the warm air.

It sounds romantic, but the truth is Beijing’s Spring is more of an intense fling. That’s because it passes in the blink of an eye. After five months of extreme cold (this winter, which saw the coldest temperatures in Beijing in more than 30 years and long stretches of dangerous air pollution, was especially trying), we get about one month of good weather in May, followed by four months of blazing-hot summer. Continue reading

The heart of Ox Street

Many of China’s temples and churches were wrecked during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when communist leaders encouraged young students and workers to destroy symbols of “old China.”

Fortunately for preservationists, Beijing’s Niujie Mosque survived. The mosque was built in 996, during the Liao Dynasty (907-1125), and is the oldest temple in the capital. It’s even older than the Forbidden City imperial palace, which began construction in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Continue reading

Oh, what an ominous morning

I really wanted to go running outside this morning.

I’ve got a Chinese lesson in two hours, and my brain seems to function better after a long, hard run. I’m also making progress in losing weight, down more than 15 pounds from a year ago.

But when I peeled back the curtain to check the weather, my hopes for a quick workout were dashed. After a couple of blue-sky days last week, the pollution is back. Buildings a couple of blocks away from my apartment are barely visible from my ninth-floor window. The air is a grayish white.

The view from my bedroom window this morning.

The view from my bedroom window this morning.

The latest message from the US embassy, which monitors air pollution and releases readings hourly through its Twitter feed, said the air today is hazardous. The embassy rates air quality based on the amount of PM2.5 in the air – fine particles that are 2.5 micrometers in diameter and smaller. Common sources are power plants, industries and automobiles, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

I’m used to this by now: this process of getting up, looking out the window and checking the US embassy’s Twitter feed – all so I can make an informed decision about whether I can run outside without damaging my health. Continue reading

Sweating in style

In the summer of 2010, while taking a stroll around Beijing’s Chaoyang Park, I saw dozens of couples posing for wedding pictures. The skies were clear, and it was sweltering hot. I’m guessing it was around 95 degrees. The men were sweating through their tuxedos, and the women were having trouble keeping their hairdos in place. Continue reading

What, there are traffic laws here?

When I went home to the United States last summer, I couldn’t wait to drive. I don’t own a car in Beijing, and it had been more than a year since I’d been behind the wheel.

I missed that free feeling of an open highway, stereo up and windows down, the smells of summer whipping your face on a moonlit drive through the country. I missed the ability to go anywhere I wanted, at any time of the day, without having to hail a taxi or cram into a subway full of sweaty young men with no sense of personal space. Continue reading

There’s no space like home

One of the things I miss most about living in a small town is the space: the ability to stretch out my arms without hitting another person or walk for miles without seeing anyone.

It’s a luxury you lose in a city like Beijing, where even the widest streets sometimes feel every bit as cramped as the smallest alleys. The crowds are difficult to avoid, whether you’re riding the subway in the middle of the day or going to the bank on a Saturday. The feeling of constantly cramming into lines and bumping elbows with strangers can become overwhelming.

When I need a break from the crowds, I often head into one of Beijing’s 300 parks. For a city hell-bent on growth and economic development, Beijing has a surprising amount of space committed to leisure and recreation.

The largest is Chaoyang Park. At 713 acres, it is is comparable in size to New York’s Central Park. It’s home to a very unsafe-looking roller coaster (the only thing holding the safety harness down was a seat belt that looked like it had been pulled from a junked car), volleyball courts that were used during the 2008 Olympic games and restrooms that resemble a giant ladybug.

It’s easy to get lost, as I managed to do last summer when I rented a tandem bike with my girlfriend and made the fatal error of letting her lead the way. When we came to the conclusion that neither of us had any idea where we were going, I picked a direction and peddled like a madman to get us back to the rental office before it closed. Despite giving it my all we arrived a few minutes late and had to forfeit the deposit for the bike. Continue reading

Beijing’s indefinite particles

The skies were brilliant blue the day I arrived in Beijing. From the street, you could see the tops of skyscrapers. And from the tops of skyscrapers, you could see the outline of jagged mountains on the horizon.

This kind of visibility wasn’t normal, and sure enough within a few days, a haze began to set over the city. The tops of tall buildings disappeared in the smog. The air became heavier, and I found it harder to breathe, especially when I exercised outside, which I like to do. Cars in my neighborhood that hadn’t been moved for days became coated in residue of some kind. If you left a window open at your home, the dust seeped in and settled on the floor.

The view from the 9th floor of my apartment building on a clear day.

The view from the 9th floor of my apartment building on a polluted day.

You get used to the pollution after a while, at least the sight of it. I treat it as a trade-off for living in a rapidly developing land of opportunity, where jobs for college-educated expats are in high demand.

Continue reading