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.

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Taipei 101: A skyscraper with style

Taipei 101. To those unfamiliar with Taiwan’s tallest skyscraper, it might sound like a stiff drink served at an Asian bar. But, for a five-year period from the time it opened in 2004 to the completion of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa in 2009, it was the tallest building in the world.

With a design that pays homage to Chinese traditions, Taipei 101 is one of the more impressive skyscrapers I’ve seen. Its repeated segments are said to invoke a large stalk of bamboo, the plant of choice for China’s beloved Giant Pandas.

There are eight segments in the main tower, each with eight floors. This was, of course, by design as the number eight in Chinese culture is associated with good fortune and abundance.

This design is best observed from a few blocks away; or at night, when the skyscraper lights up the skies of Taiwan’s largest city.

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Taipei 101, as seen from street level.

When Taipei 101 opened in 2004, it was the tallest building in the world.

The view from an indoor observation deck on the 88th and 89th floors provides a different perspective: a 360-degree view of the city.

After paying a US$19 admission fee, I entered a crowded elevator on the fifth floor that takes visitors to the observation deck. My ears popped as we shot hundreds of feet up the tower, arriving at our destination in what seemed like only a few seconds.

The deck is enclosed, but that didn’t stop me from getting weak in the knees when I pressed my face up against the glass, the only thing separating me and the hordes of selfie-seeking tourists from imminent death.

The view from the observation deck on the 88th floor.


After snapping several photos and checking out the gift store for mementos to bring home, I got in line for the elevator that takes visitors back down to the fifth floor. It was several hundred people deep and — still jet lagged from the travel — I was in no mood to wait.

Forty-five minutes later, I was finally back at ground level, glad I had made the trip but in the mood for a different kind of Taipei 101 — the alcoholic version.

Jim Nesbitt was more than just my namesake

My uncle and namesake, Jim Nesbitt, died suddenly Wednesday while grocery shopping in Sante Fe, New Mexico. He lived out his final years there making friends and making impressions on people that would last a lifetime. He was in his late 60s and had a multitude of health problems, so hearing that he had died was not a shock. But, coming to terms with the fact that someone who was so intimately familiar with my personal failures and triumphs is no longer around, is incredibly difficult to accept.

From the summer of 2010 to April last year, I lived in Beijing, China, working for an English-language newspaper. During that time, Jim and I would talk once or twice a year on Skype. After I moved back to the States, our conversations became a weekly affair. We’d talk basketball, politics, complain about relatives; they were always free-flowing conversations, but the common denominator in every chat was, at the end of every conversation, he’d tell me, “I love you and will talk to you soon.”

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Jim and I in Santa Fe, N.M. in 2013.

My first memory of Jim is visiting him in Columbia, Maryland, with my family when I was around 8 or 9. We were watching a movie — Crocodile Dundee, I think — and I stepped out to use the restroom. Jim and his wife at the time, Marcia, had a stack of magazines near the toilet and while flipping through them I found a Playboy. I lost track of time, but apparently spent quite a while in the bathroom. When I returned to the living room, Jim asked me why I had been gone so long and said something like, “You found my Playboys, right?”

Jim loved women, and women loved him. He was the kind of guy who could steal your girlfriend, but charm you to the point where you’d still like him. On Thanksgiving Day in 2007, Jim got sick while on the way to Lexington, Kentucky, for a family get-together and nearly died. I went to visit him in the hospital and he looked horrible. He was pale, and the doctors had taken off his clothes so they could insert tubes and wires in his body.

I immediately began crying when I saw him. Jim, who couldn’t speak because a tube had been inserted in his trachea, pointed to an attractive nurse in the room, looked at me and then nodded his head.

In case I was having trouble understanding him, he pointed to the nurse again and made a humping motion. Here’s a guy on his deathbed, still thinking with his penis instead of his brain.

Relatives have told me that Jim could be incredibly difficult to deal with, and I believe it. He fought in Vietnam and according to my grandmother (his mom), he was never the same after the war. He struggled with alcohol and drug abuse, and only became sober after my father, his baby brother, died in 1989 at the age of 34. Jim was married several times, but never had any children.

Oftentimes, he would say I was like a son, which in reality was accurate. I only had 10 years with my dad; Jim and I got almost 37 years. He never criticized me, but was always honest when I asked for advice or how to handle a problem. According to friends and family, he always bragged about me and my accomplishments as a journalist.

To lose that kind of support is devastating; there is no replacing it. But I’m going to choose laughter and good memories over crying and being sad. Jim and I talked about death many times, and he always said that he didn’t want a typical funeral when he died. “Fuck that shit. I want to have a party,” he would say.

I’m glad his last moments were in public, because Jim loved to be around other people. I imagine him telling a joke to a stranger, checking out the woman in front of him or thinking about a friend in need.

Jim, who wasn’t into organized religion but was very spiritual, told me several times that if he ever saw my Dad again, the first thing he would do is punch him in the face. My father died of an abdominal aneurysm, but was an alcoholic and that addiction undoubtedly contributed to his death.

If there’s life after death, I have no doubt Jim already hit Dad in the face, and then helped him up and gave him a hug.

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.

Postcards from Yunnan

This is as close as I got to the Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the world's deepest river canyons. I had planned to hike the gorge, but the trail was closed because of a landslide.

View of the Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the world’s deepest river canyons, from my bus window.  I had planned to hike a trail that cuts through the gorge, but it was closed due to a landslide.

Scenery

Some of the scenery at a bus stop between Dali and Shangri-La in southwestern China’s Yunnan province.

Shuttlecock

Men take turns kicking a shuttlecock in Dali Old Town. Shuttlecock kicking is a traditional Chinese folk game.

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Sitting on top of the world — almost

On my last day in Shangri-La, I hiked to the top of a hill overlooking the city. The incline wasn’t steep, but every 20 paces or so I had to stop to catch my breath. The city has an altitude of 3,200 meters, and my body still hadn’t completely adjusted to the elevation.

Along the hike, I passed several tombs that had been dug into the hillside. Some were very elaborate, with sculptures of lions and carvings of people dressed in ethnic attire. I assume families chose this spot as their loved ones’ final resting place because of the view. From the hill you can see a giant golden prayer wheel – the largest in the world – and rows of mountain peaks that grow taller as you look farther into the horizon. Continue reading

Cries of a child left behind

The screaming started before sunrise. A boy with a high-pitched voice was crying uncontrollably and yelling for someone. I couldn’t make out what he was saying — it didn’t sound like Chinese. I just wanted it to stop so I could fall back asleep.

This continued for the next two days I stayed at a Tibetan hostel in Shangri-la, a city in northwestern Yunnan province. Like a rooster greeting the morning sun, at around 5:30 each morning, the boy would begin screaming, shouting out the same word over and over again until he drifted back to sleep. Continue reading

A walk in the clouds

“It’s cold up there,” the young man in front of me said. “You should rent a coat.”

I was in line for the cable car at the bottom of Cangshan Mountain in Dali, Yunnan province. It was sunny and around 80 F, and I was wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt and shorts. How cold could it possibly be at the top of the mountain?

“I’ll be fine,” I said. Continue reading

Thou shalt build more stairs

I think that in the course of building nearly every major temple and palace in ancient China, a conversation like this took place.

Architect: “It looks great, but there’s something missing.”

Lead foreman: “What is it boss?”

Architect: “I just can’t put my finger on it … .”

Lead foreman: “Bigger Lions? Higher walls to keep the bad guys out?”

Architect: “No, that’s not it … I know! More stairs! We need more stairs. Immediately assemble 100 of your fastest working men and add an additional 1,000 stairs to every entrance of this temple.”

Lead foreman: (Sigh). Yes sir. Continue reading

Awestruck in Dali’s Old Town

Dali is so beautiful that it can be downright dangerous.

I was riding a bike through the city’s Old Town, taking in the scenery and historic architecture, but not the giant pothole that lay in front of me. The next thing I saw was concrete.

Fortunately, I landed left knee first, and suffered only a few bruises. I hobbled to a nearby pharmacy and, using broken Chinese and a little point and grimace, described what I needed. I felt embarrassed, but if any Chinese city is going send me head over heels I’m glad it was Dali. Continue reading