Friday, May 14, 2010

New Forums for New Adventures (The Motherblog)

Not-so-faithful readers,

As some of you may know, I kept a Taiwan blog last summer. With the prospect of newer and (dare I say?) greater adventures looming, I thought that instead of sticking with the old one ("Ethan in Taipei" might throw people off if I ever start blogging about, say, a visit to Montréal), or creating blog after blog (an "Ethan in ___" series would be cute, but "Ethan in China" is already taken), I would instead create an umbrella blog to encompass my hopefully multitudinous adventures. This is it.

So far all I have are the old Taiwan posts (imported from "Ethan in Taipei"), but once I get to China (June 3 - that's three weeks from now!) I will be updating about my adventures in Shanghai, Shandong Province, Beijing, "The north and west" (specifics undecided), Beijing again, "the center and south" (same), and Taiwan.

The name for this blog, and the two lines in the photo up top, come from the poem Ulysses, by Alfred Lord Tennyson. It is the most beautiful poem ever penned and I encourage you to read it if you haven't yet.


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Wrapping it Up

Things have been crazy lately, what with moving out of Taipei into Banqiao/Penghu, out of Banqiao and into my house, and then out of my house again and into my new Yale dorm. I've also been enjoying the company of people I haven't seen in a long time and/or won't see again for a very long time. So this update comes a bit later than expected (and promised). But it's here! Look for Snapshots 3 sometime next week if I find a few extra minutes.

Moving out of Taipei: On Saturday morning, the day after I posted my last blog entry, I moved out of my apartment. Because I bought way too much in Taiwan, I added another sizeable bag to my luggage; in total I was probably lugging around at least 70 pounds. I made it to the subway and eventually to Jun Xiang's house, where I packed a "Penghu bag." To fast-forward a bit, we all got on a bus, drove to Songshan Airport (the Taipei area's domestic/regional airport), and took a plane to 馬公 (Magong), the main island of 澎湖 (Penghu), a small archipelago off the southwest coast of Taiwan. The Zhangs (and friends) had rented a house from relatives for a low price, and while we all slept about 3 to a room (there were 19 of us in total), it was a clean, peaceful home base with a beautiful balcony view.

I had thought we were just going to hang out on the beach or something to that effect, but the Zhangs had other plans: on each of the two full days that we spent there (not counting the part-days on either end), we got into a car, were driven to a boat, and were then brough to a different one (or three) of Penghu's several small islands. The mornings were for "water recreation" - picture a guy on a small motorboat (Waverunner-type) pulling various inflatable craft behind him, or just taking passengers, in the aquatic version of a roller coaster. Then we would eat some sort of delicious seafood lunch. The first afternoon was spent snorkeling, which was way more fun and amazing than I expected it to be; I saw colorful fish, explored some coral reef, and picked up hermit crabs and a huge sea urchin, among other things. The first afternoon was also when I discovered I had developed a wicked sunburn on my feet, exacerbated before and during snorkeling by the sand in my special coral-friendly socks & shoes; more on that later.

I also had my first encounter with a phenomenon that's apparently very common in mainland China: as Jun Xiang, Yu Zhong and I were exploring one of the smaller 澎湖 islands, a cute little boy who lived in a house we were passing looked up at us, pointed at me, and said, "外國人!" ("Foreigner!") A handful of times in Taipei I was reasonably sure that people were talking about me, but as a Westerner I wasn't rare enough and they weren't impolite enough for that to happen. Penghu, though, feels a little bit like another world: drier and cooler (sea breeze), calmer, quiter, and very rural. There must have been at most twenty houses on the little boy's island, some of them made half out of dead coral, and I imagine they don't often have the opportunity to take a plane to Taiwan proper. Moreover, tourism is largely local; apart from the main town and beaches on 馬公, where (I hear) you can find Western expats vacationing and surfing, none of the smaller islands we went to seemed to cater to English speakers. In fact, I saw two other Westerners during my entire 3-day stay at 澎湖, and that was in the 馬公 airport.

We ended the day on a large restaurant-boat, drifting about and barbecueing various seafood; there was also karaoke and plenty of random family games organized by Dai Ling, the oldest sister.

The second afternoon/evening was all about eating and scooters, which we rented and rode around 馬公 and the adjoining island. For the first time ever in Taiwan, I felt slightly chilly! While on the adjoining island, we enjoyed the most delicious seafood dinner imagineable, which also doubled as my favorite dinner of the entire summer. All I can remember now is that it involved oysters, seaweed, and breaded shrimp as big as my hand, among many other wonderful things.

That night also saw a double celebration: it was Jun Xiang's birthday, which was duly celebrated, but his party kind of took a backseat to my going-away party. The siblings re-performed some of their Father's Day skits; there were games (Dai Ling again); and then there was a slightly uncomfortable but unforgettably sweet section in which all the young people stepped up to me one by one and told me in very simple Chinese what they liked about me and how much they would miss me.

In the morning we woke up obscenely early to try to catch the sunrise, which is apparently a Zhang family 澎湖 tradition. It was cloudy, though, so everyone went back to bed except Jun Xiang and me; we ended up walking around and had probably our most personal conversation of the summer, almost all in Chinese because he was too tired to want to translate.

All too soon, 澎湖 was over; we did all the transportation backwards, ate a delicious but very sweet seafood lunch, and ended up back at the Zhangs' house. It was all a bit jarring because Penghu had been entirely peaceful and carefree, and it was now clearly over - and it didn't help that we all ended up sitting awkwardly in the living room listening to an aunt angrily shouting "Why do you have to be like that?!" (in Chinese) into the phone because she had discovered that a store in 澎湖 boxed the wrong food for her. I was also forced by the fam to go see a dermatologist, because my feet were both very red and the left one was swollen; the aforementioned sunburn had relegated me to wearing thong sandals and made walking very painful. Jun Xiang's mom had chopped up some aloe leaves before my eyes and applied the goo inside, but it never really helped; the doc said she wouldn't expect it to because the burn was so serious. She gave me three different pills to take four times daily, plus a tube of special ointment to ease the pain. Total cost of the visit and meds: $15, because I'm not on the national insurance.

That night, we ate out - our last dinner together, so it was fancy and different (i.e., pretty good pasta, or "Italian noodles" as they call them). Based on an earlier suggestion I reciprocated the previous night's farewells; Jun Xiang and Li Wei actually cried. Like someone (Dai Ling?) wrote to me later, it's a horrible shame that I had to leave just as we were really becoming friends.

Anyway, then we went off to sing some karaoke. The Zhangs own their own little karaoke room above the little general store that they operate, so it was convenient and entirely free. I wish Americans were more into karaoke, but alas! it is not so. I sang the old classic from my SCLCEP days, when I came to Yale once a week to study Chinese almost five years ago (對面的女孩: The girls across the street; pop-y), as well as bits and pieces of a song I had just learned (月亮代表我的心: The Moon Represents My Heart; more traditional but still well-loved by all generations). Then was the last night's sleep, the last breakfast, the last car ride... and the airport. Goodbyes, a sheaf of handwritten notes which I have yet to have translated (can only do bits and pieces on my own), and the long flight back.

I must away - classes start tomorrow morning - but before I go I'll leave you with just a few of the 600 澎湖 photos I have on my computer.

Friday, August 14, 2009

So dawn goes down to day...

I'm taking an executive decision and postponing Snapshots 3 for another week, because I want to reflect on my time in Taipei while it's still fresh enough to be smelt.

These last 48 hours are bringing with them so many endings.

It started last night, when a group of folks got together for dinner at Forkers, a fantastic "美國菜” (American food) restaurant. I had invited them all because I won't be seeing them for a long time, if ever; I won't miss all of them terribly, but there were a few people there - like 怡之 (Angela) and Ma Yen ("Max") - who have definitely claimed a special place in my heart. 怡之 took me back to my house on her motor scooter, which was a wild ride; scootering isn't any less exciting the second time, though this may have had something to do with the fact that I was Angela's first passenger ever and there were some unusually hair-raising moments along the way.

When he got home a little while later, Edward - my housemate, who speaks English and has been my go-to guy for any questions or problems, and who had come to dinner with us - knocked on my door and gave me a gift. It was a book: The Analects (論語) of our good friend Confucius (孔子). (See earlier blog post for a photo.) It's a beautiful, simple, white-bound collection of the most famous sayings of Confucius in (side-by-side) classical Chinese, modern Chinese, and English. I had known that Confucianism was really important here, but it still took me by surprise when Edward told me, "I think that for us this is like your Bible." It seems that by "your" he meant "Americans'," and was assuming that we're all Christian, but I got the idea. Apparently schoolchildren all read it, and are asked to memorize passsages, or as much as they can. Edward thinks that if I read it I will have a much better understanding of how and why Taiwanese think the way that they do, and I don't doubt him; I'll definitely be putting that book to good use in the coming year.

Today was the last day of class. My 單班課 teacher helped me with some grammar and sentence patterns, and then finished it off in grand style by telling my fortune. After she let it slip that she went to something that sounds like fortune-telling school, I extracted a promise from her to tell my fortune on the last day, and she did not disappoint. What is my fortune, you ask? Well, it's a fairly innocuous one, as this is more the traditional style... and I have to say, I wasn't particularly impressed... anyway, I'll tell you another time ;-) I also discovered that I'll miss 李老師, the teacher of my small class (中國寓言), and that my respect for Xu Laoshi, the teacher of my larger class (新編會話), has been growing throughout the summer and I think he's a fantastic teacher. It was also great to see him in a bit less teacher-y setting when he took us out for dinner and tea a few nights ago, and I'll miss him a lot more than I thought I would have at the beginning. I'll also miss Fan Laoshi, who was the tiny, energetic, 40-ish-year-old director of academics; she's just such a cool woman, and I regret that my Chinese has never been good enough (or she's never had enough free time) for us to actually talk for an extended period of time. I'll also miss the office staff, because they're characters in their own right. But regardless, we got our "diplomas" and picture CDs today at the send-off lunch party, and ICLP and I are done - probably for good.

Today also marks my last full day in Taipei. I'll miss so much about the city, from the excellent MRT and bus system to the women who work at my customary hotpot venue. But I'm meeting my landlord tomorrow at noon to pay for utilities and move out. From there I'll be going to the Zhangs' house (張家) in Banqiao City, and then from there to the Penghu islands in the afternoon. There, I hope to do a lot of hanging out without any semblance of responsibility, and maybe also some surfing and motorbike-riding. I'll be getting back on Tuesday sometime, hopefully staying the night, and going to the airport to catch a 4:00 PM flight on Wednesday. After a 16-hour flight plus layover, I'll be back in the states by Wednesday at 10:00 PM. [You read that right. If you think that's weird, consider the fact that I'll arrive in Alaska at 9 AM on the same day I left. It's all about the International Date Line.] Then it'll be off to home, family, finally seeing my brother Michael and his girlfriend Cat after almost a year (they'll be getting in from Scotland that same day! 我的運氣很好!- "I'm really lucky!"), and writing one last, nostalgic, photo-filled blog post for my dedicated readers, should such still exist.

Finally, I want to offer one last reflection on what I've learned. Today, Fan Laoshi showed us the results of the Big Test (TM) a two-hour affair which we took twice, once for placement and once at the end of the year. Although ICLP doesn't give grades, they use it as a quantitative way to show people how much they've improved. Of course, I'm pretty sure it caters to ICLP vocab, but beyond that, I didn't remember a thing from the first time I took it, so I think it was a decent measure. How did I do? Well, you'll recall that in June I guessed that I got about 25% correct. I was about right, I found out today: I had clocked in at 42 out of 173. This week, a still humbling but much improved result: 92.

While I'm obviously really happy with that kind of improvement, the proof is of course in one's ability to speak, listen, read, and write. To be more qualitative, I think that my vocabulary has improved immensely; I can get across a lot of what I want to say. I've also picked up the ability to conduct a certain few simple interactions (ordering guabao, for example) at a speed and with an accent that might fool Taiwanese people into believing that I'm a reasonably fluent foreigner. My listening comprehension has also gotten much better, partly because of the vocabulary and partly from getting using to people talking on the street. My reading has gotten better to a limited extent, and my writing has gotten much prettier and more fluid.

Limitations: They are, of course, still infinite. My reading and grammar are what have improved the least, I think - the former because I chose to adopt a listening-oriented approach to preparing my lessons, which I definitely don't regret; and the latter because Chinese grammar is something that one has to slowly get used to and digest, and my classes focused disappointingly little time and effort on really owning the most basic and useful everyday sentence patterns. Sentences of limited complexity still tend to come out horribly wrong when I open my mouth. Also, it's still too easy for me to get very lost when listening: if I don't immediately understand a phrase, my mind will tend to fall a few crucial milliseconds behind in trying to figure it out, and by the time I've given it up as a lost cause, I'm missing the rest of what's being said. That's why phones are still anathema to me: I miss out on the helpful body language that would otherwise help me skip over those mystery phrases without too much of a problem. Also, my tones and pronunciation have an embarrassing tendency to go out the window when I'm struggling particularly hard to make a particular sentence. Finally, I have some embarrassingly bad habits, a few of which I've somehow managed to pick up here: for example, saying "沒關係" (the appropriate response to "sorry") instead of "bu hui," which is what I should say after someone says "thank you"; I've been known to switch the word for "month" and the word for "hour" ("I'm leaving on August 19:00!"); I also still mix up the numbers themselves sometimes, and am annoyingly slow at thinking of them in Chinese, a problem I've had since Day 1.

My Chinglish, though, is superb.

To conclude before I get to packing and then head out with some Yale 同學 for our last stab at living it up in Taipei, I bring you three recent photos:

1. People waiting for a Comic Convention to open at the university's gym on a weekend morning. The line stretches all the way around the gym and beyond; a few fans are even dressed up, cosplay style.

2. A scene from my main class's final presentation.

3. Eric, Sei (fellow Yalies), and me, with Fan Laoshi.

See you all back in the States!


Saturday, August 8, 2009

"Yes, I told them, I was just there. And I don't know what it's like at all."

More about cultural generalizations. I think that making cultural generalizations is probably a pretty normal thing to do - not that that's a good excuse. Tonight I was listening to This American Life on the way back from the night market, and one of the speakers said something that clarified the problem for me. "The world is a prejudiced place, but it's prejudiced for the weirdest, least meaningful reasons imaginable. A few years ago I toured six German cities over a span of nine days... [I was struck by the fact that] 'The citizens of Germany are friendly and nervous.' ... Now, I can see that my reasons for viewing Germans as friendly is completely unsophisticated. I believe Germans are nice because they were nice to me, which is kind of like trying to be a meteorologist by looking out a window."

That's not to say that it's wrong to try to draw generalizations about a culture or a people from relatively little interaction with them; that is to say, however, that one should look at one's experiences like a skeptic. I've been trying to, but it recently struck me that I may well be failing: a girl at the hot-pot place that I eat at every night (more on that later, when I have more time!) recently expressed some surprise when I told her how nice I think people are here. She said that my being a foreigner probably has a lot to do with it. I may not entirely agree; for one, I think she probably lacks comparison (New York, anyone?), coming from a smaller city in the south, and for another, I've seen evidence of kindness, or at least very good manners (e.g., cosplay photographers and the MRT), in places not related to me. All that being said, when I think back to my original judgment that yes, Taipei people are indeed incredibly nice, I realize that that opinion sprang from a few situations that were centered around me, and it wasn't until later that I had a legitimate basis for that belief.

Anyway, enough with this theoretical nonsense. I've been having way too much fun lately to prep that final Snapshots update (Part III). Yesterday was a typhoon day - school cancelled, raining all day (and more), and pretty windy, but I wasn't particularly impressed. Then again, I didn't go out for long, because an umbrella doesn't really save you from getting soaked in sideways rain. I've been using the extra time pretty well, I think - preparing stuff for the coming year (scholarship issues, coordinating the Bridges ESL program, etc), reviewing a lot of characters, and most importantly... watching Harry Potter movies dubbed into Chinese! I saw #5 yesterday and #4 today, and I have to say, it's a great experience. #5, by the way, was better, for a reason I'd never notice while watching it in English: it has a lot more colloquialisms and simpler/more casual dialogue, whereas #4 is taken up by a lot of Triwizard Tournament discussion and the like.

Don't think that I speak the language nearly well enough to just sit down and watch the movie in Chinese; that would be amazing, but I of course used English subtitles. But I'm really excited to be at the point where I can understand the phrasing well enough to be able to in many cases know which words I don't know, and in some cases even to pick up (and write down!) various expressions. I'm very disappointed in my ability to hear tones, though, which apparently is significantly worse than I thought. In at least half of the new movie vocab I've written down in pinyin in order to look up later, I've gotten the tone mark wrong. (Pinyin is a way of Romanizing characters into Latin-style letters for pronunciation purposes, with numbers or 'accents' for tone markings; e.g., "夢" = "meng4.")

Anyway, here are some photos to fulfill Light Fellowship reporting requirements; look for better stuff later this week.

1. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, dubbed in Chinese with English subtitles. I now know how to say "Merlin's beard!" and "Dumbledore is not a Muggle" in Chinese.

P.S. The subtitle is supposed to show Madame Maxime's accent, but it's pretty close to what Dumbledore sounds like in Chinese - more of a "dwo" sound at the end, though.

2. Two of the very few photos of my bike trip, both taken at the very beginning when I stopped to apply sunscreen. Pictured in the first is the Batmobile - not the scooter, but rather the bike.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

好消息!(Good news!)

I will be going to Penghu! I just found out that they postponed the trip yet again - to the 15th-18th, which also happen to be the exact days I'll be here once class ends. (I leave the 19th, mid-afternoon.) I'll be missing the opportunity to go to those fantastic sites in Taiwan that I mentioned earlier, but I can always do that another time; they'll still be there in a few years.

What complicated my decision a little bit was actually a separate opportunity that I haven't mentioned yet. Because Taiwan's Jade Mountain, the tallest mountain in East Asia, is in the running to be named one of the modern natural wonders of the world [or something along those lines], they're doing a lot of promotional campaigning right now. One of those campaigns involves filming a documentary of folks climbing the mountain - and, surprise surprise, they wanted some foreigners to be part of the group. It would be a 2/3-day affair, and everything would be paid for by the government agency that administers Jade mountain. But because there's still some uncertainty about whether or not I meet the minimal requirements (I'm supposed to be able to "speak Chinese" to "communicate" with fellow climbers, and I haven't heard back on whether they want/will accept novice climbers), and because I might not be able to attend for other reasons (the date is variable depending on weather; they might choose someone else; etc), I've decided that there's really no contest: Penghu it is.

Other good news: After mildly hyperventilating last night when I found that not a single ATM would accept my debit card, I called Wachovia and solved the problem with them. I've said it before and I'll say it again: their customer service is fantastic. I basically had to tell them my life story to get them to unblock the card, so I felt /that/ was a little over the top... but I guess it's better to be safe than sorry. Anyway, I was quite relieved, because I had a total of about $6 USD left in my possession.

News that could go either way: Tonight's/tomorrow's typhoon won't be particularly large, but it's headed pretty spot-on toward Taipei (and is affecting us already, if looking out the window is any indication), so there might be no class tomorrow and/or a loss of power in the area for the day. I'm fine with everything else about the typhoon (including no school!), but the power cut could be incredibly obnoxious, considering the fact that I live in a dark, dank hole. I guess I should buy some sort of light and a small fan at the Everything Store (TM) up the street. As our nickname for the place name implies, I do expect to find those items there - possibly right next to things like party favors, shirts, teacups, and videogames.

If you don't hear back from me within a week, I probably didn't survive the typhoon.