Dispatch from Taiwan: channeling Tom Hanks from The Terminal, or how bad I am at international traveling

Greetings from the future.

It’s spring break, and I’m on the other side of the planet in Taipei, Taiwan. I wasn’t quite sure that I’d make it; I woke up with a sore throat Friday morning that turned into a raging migraine and a case of the shakes that kept me from getting much rest Friday night. (Trying to sleep through the impromptu karaoke party in my living room didn’t help, but that’s a story for another time.)

In any event, Saturday morning finds me miraculously feeling halfway decent, and I pack and make my way to JFK. I board my flight and promptly pass out.

The first part of the trip takes around 15 hours, which passes surprisingly quickly, as far as 15 hours in a confined space go. I don’t think I’ve ever flown China Airlines before, but it’s really nice. In true Chinese fashion, the flight attendants give everyone slippers to wear on their feet. I have one of those seats at the front of a section, so there’s no one in front of me, and I can stretch my legs on a flight for once. Even in coach, everyone has a private TV screen with on-demand movie selection. Unfortunately, technology still can’t save airline food.

We have a layover in Osaka, making it the seventh time I’ve been to Japan without leaving the airport. We need to go back through security, and I have a total brain fart moment: I leave the security area and am halfway to the gate before realizing I’ve left behind my carry-on. When I run back for it, I find myself on the wrong way at the top of an escalator. I think about running down the escalator like an idiot, but before I do so I see a uniformed guy carrying my bag and manage to signal him. He comes up the escalator with my carry-on, inexplicably out of breath, and makes me write down my name and cellphone number in his pocket notebook. I can’t figure out whether it’s protocol or a come-on.

The Osaka-to-Taipei leg part of the trip takes about three hours. I figure that going through immigration will be no sweat, since it has never been on any of my previous trips here. It’s kinda sexist of me, but I wait in line for one of the female agents, figuring that the questioning won’t be as rigorous. I’m wrong.

“Where are you staying during your trip?” she asks brusquely, pointing to the part on the immigration card I’ve left blank.

“Oh, I’m staying with my uncle in Taipei,” I say. I use English to be in full dumb American tourist mode.

“Do you know his address?”

“Sorry, I don’t. I’m getting picked up.”

“What about his number?”

“I don’t have it. What about his email? Can I give you that?” I don’t actually have that either, but I figure I can write my father’s or something.

“Sorry. We need the address or a phone number of where you’re staying during your trip.”

“Oh, sorry. I don’t have those written down. Can I go online and find it?”


“Can I get on the internet?”


“Can I get online and check my email for it?”

“Oh. No, sorry.” She was getting kind of exasperated by this point. “What about your cell phone? We’ll just use that, as long as we have a way to reach you during your stay. It works internationally, right?”

“Um, no?” Now I’m starting to get confused. Why do I need to be reachable? I’ve never had to write down an address, here or anywhere before… why now? Is it customary now to have an international cellphone? Just how behind the times am I?

“You’re coming to Taiwan, and you won’t have a working cellphone??” She looks at me like a Chinese mom whose kid’s failed a math test. This doesn’t help to quell my incipient self-doubt.

“Sorry,” I shrug.

She sighs audibly and points down the long room. “Go to the first counter and talk to them.”

“That way?”

“That way.”

I walk past the other agents for the non-residents, the agents for Taiwanese citizens, then find myself between the counter for people with infants or something like that and the counter for diplomats and airline personnel. I’m not sure which is the first counter, if either of them are, if I’m capable of understanding simple directions. The two guys at the diplomat counter have spiffier suits, so I go there and explain my situation. They look just as confused as the original agent. They also ask me whether I have a cellphone for the trip and look stupefied when I say no.

Finally, one of them asks, “Do you know which airline you came on? Okay, you have to go back down that way, then there’s an office on the right, and they’ll help you get online there.”

I head back where I came from, past all the counters and the masses of people still waiting. I find no office for any airline, China or otherwise. At this point I’m wandering around the airport, several yards from freedom, debating my limited options. I think I need to get online, but don’t know who to contact even I’m able to. I wonder whether my ride will think I’ve missed the flight, and if he’d still be waiting if I’m able to get through.

I decide to solicit one more person for help, and I find this youngish-looking guy in an airport security uniform. I explain to him my situation:

“Hey, is there anywhere around here that I can get online? My ride is waiting for me outside, but the agents won’t let me through without the number or the address of where I’m staying, and I don’t have that written down.”

He looks at me and shakes his head. “Sorry, there’s no wifi on this floor. What’s the number of the cellphone you’ll be using this trip?”

I want to dropkick every iPhone Apple ever shat out.

“Okay, okay,” he says. “No cellphone. Let’s see here.” He thinks for a few seconds and then grabs my immigration card and scrawls four characters in the troublesome blank with a blue pen. I stare at it, but my first-grade equivalent Chinese reading level isn’t able to parse out what it says.

“Cool thanks. But um, what does it say?”

He looks around. “It’s the name of a hotel,” he says under his breath. “Just a random one. I know you’re not staying there, but they just need it for the records. It’ll get you through.”

LOL bureaucracy. “Sure, whatever. What’s the hotel called, in case they ask?”

I get back in queue behind all the other passengers waiting to pass through Limbo. I decide to avoid the original agent and take my chances with the first agent, a stern looking man with a close cropped haircut. He takes my passport, grunts, and taps away at his keyboard. I await the inevitable interrogation and receive only this observation:

“Wow, you’re tall!”

Which is true. I can dunk on anyone here. He stamps my passport and waves me through. I’m back in the land where I breathed my first breath.

Bring on the mosquitos and the jet lag.

Stray Observations:

  • When I think about it, it’s still crazy that I spent 15 straight hours suspended in mid-air in a metal cylinder. Flying, like magnets, is still a miracle.
  • Maybe it’s the tailoring, but the security and airport personnel in Japan and Taiwan look seriously official. In comparison, the folks in American airports always look like they’re playing dress-up or they stole their uniforms from their older siblings.
  • It might just be in my mind, but, in terms of accent, the English spoken by the airplane personnel is vastly improved now than even the last time I visited, which was around three years ago.
  • There are cameras on the highways here that take pictures of you if you’re speeding. The GPS in my uncle’s car straight-up tells you, Siri-style, when you’re approaching one of the cameras. Future.
  • Taipei typically has insane traffic, with whole families on scooters weaving between cars. Going from the airport to my uncle’s place though, the highways and streets were pretty deserted. Coming from New York, it’s strange to see empty city streets, even at 11pm on a Sunday night.

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