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.



I hate Taiwan's weather.

So there's this typhoon making a beeline for Taipei.

As a result, I will not going to Penghu for what would have been four days of glorious relaxation in the sun with a huge group of my favorite Taiwanese family and friends.

They've rescheduled the trip to begin next Tuesday, but I immediately discarded the idea of trying to somehow tag along, because that would involve 1) un-postponing a 4-person group presentation; 2) taking the professor-administered, listening-intensive final test another time; and 3) missing 4 days of class.

I'm pretty devastated, so I don't really want to discuss it further. I'll make the final, "I Could Be In Penghu Right Now" post of my Snapshots of Taiwan series on Friday, since I'll definitely have the time.

~A very disappointed Ethan

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Snapshots of Taipei, Part 2

The fun continues.

1. I'll start with some of my favorite shots from that cosplay convention I mentioned last time:

Things to know, most of which actually aren't reflected by the images (photographer fail):
a. The female:male ratio of the participants who dressed up was very, very high. Why? Girls, say Jun Xiang and his friend Yu Zhong, like to dress up, and have their pictures taken (more on that later). This is true, but I'd also add that in my opinion at least some of them definitely took the opportunity to break out of the Taiwanese dress code for the day. For while it's okay for a girl to bare as much leg as she wants (short shorts are currently quite popular; I give that fashion trend five thumbs up), tops are a different story. Arms are okay, but anything else is very much not. For example, in the picture of me and the two girls, their belly shirts are very much not kosher and would almost never be seen on the street. I'd say that as few as, say, 1 in every 500 or 1000 girls bucks this trend, and even then not flauntingly. I'm sure it has something to do with the general Taiwanese body type (petite :-p), but there are enough exceptions to make me pretty sure that it's a sign of a slightly more conservative, slightly more moderate youth culture than exists in America. Along the same vein, if you go to bars or clubs in the university area you'll notice a much higher expat:national ratio than normal - and this despite the fact that one can legally drink at age 18 here.

b. Another thing the photos don't reflect: the swarms of photographers. Nearly all of them were male, and judging by the ridiculous equipment, most of them were also either professional photographers or wealthy amateur enthusiasts. Some were probably also taking photos for papers, but by and large I think that they were for collections, blogs, etc. Subjects would by and large be willing to be photographed for several minutes at a time in the sun, oftentimes striking whatever poses the photographers asked for. They were there, after all, to look good.

Despite some things I had read on Wikipedia about problems with creepy male cosplay photographers in some places, the photography had a very Taiwanese air to it. Most photographers would thank the subject when they were done, sometimes adding a little bow for good measure, and move out of the way to let other photographers in; even more telling, when a character was done posing and being photographed, he or she would simply say so and relax or walk away, and everyone would immediately stop taking pictures.

It was fun to watch trends form and dissipate, as particular people/characters became "popular," and at the height of their two minutes of fame were barraged by 20 photographers. I actually started two of those trends, which was kind of cool. I suspect it was because people who weren't available for photos beforehand were willing to start posing again when I asked them; being "the foreigner" has its perks ;-)

2. And now for something completely different: the MRT.

a. Come try the new Neihu Line! Why? Because a popular Taiwanese singer thinks it's awesome, and that guy in the background is so excited that he's even started break-dancing.

b. Hopefully you won't be among the unlucky few...

In early July, Taipei City opened a new set of Metro stations, the "Neihu line," which expands metro coverage to about an additional 40% of the city to the northeast and provides a key connection to the main domestic airport in the north. (With 2,000,000 people, Taipei's a sizeable town, folks. I've only seen part of it.) Still, the line is opening some 13 years (!) behind schedule, and it has had issues: on the first day of operations, a car's main brakes failed (emergency brakes worked fine, so nobody was hurt), and a few weeks ago the entire line - the Neihu portion and the pre-existing stops to the south - was shut down, and 9,000 people were stranded for a few hours due to a technical problem. Fares are currently discounted about 25% to encourage people to continue traveling on the line, and the one time I did (Neihu also opens up the IMAX theater, which is key!), folks seemed to be taking advantage of it.

Fun fact: The Taipei government recently threatened to sue a prominent tabloid (they're very, very popular here) for $100,000,000 NTD (about $3,000,000 USD) over an article about reasons for the problems with the Neihu line. According to ICRT, the English station here, "The magazine fired back, calling the city government 'absurd' and 'evil.'" I'll be interested to see what comes of that...

3. The 228 Memorial Peace Park

(Featuring: A pagoda...

...and a statue of Confucius. And me.)

On February 27, 1947, resentment was building against the KMT, the political party which was then ruling both mainland China and Taiwan. The KMT had just "moved in" very recently, when Japan - which had controlled the island since winning it from China [thanks, Dad] in the late 1800s - re-ceded Taiwan upon losing World War II in 1945. Although many of the locals were descendants of mainlanders themselves, they had basically been been taken over by a fairly repressive regime with an absentee ruler. (Chang Kai-Shek was at that point in China, fighting Mao Zedong's forces; he would lose and flee to Taiwan two years later.) The trouble came to a head, when in the course of enforcing new cigarette laws, two KMT policemen in Taipei deprived an older street vendor of her cigarettes and some of her earnings. The altercation was apparently prolonged, and ended up drawing an angry crowd, which turned violent when one of the officers hit the old woman in the head with the butt of his pistol. The policemen fled, the crowd chasing them, but one of them fired behind him as he ran, killing a young man.

The next day, February 28 (hence "228"), a much larger crowd of protestors gathered, calling for a trial for the officers. To make a long story short, the day ended with soldiers firing into the unarmed crowd and the declaration of a curfew and martial law.

It wasn't until the 1990s, when Taipei became fully democratic and free discussion was allowed, that this park - which has existed for about 100 years - was renamed to honor the dead.

For me, this kind of highlights how young Taiwan's democracy really is. The government has done terrible things on the very streets of Taipei - and plenty of people no doubt remember it all happening. Correspondingly, civil liberties still aren't as strong as what you'd see in America; for example, one thing I've been hearing about is that the most recent president, Chen Shui Bian, has been in jail for something like a year now on corruption charges without seeing any offer of bail or his day in court. But what's even more interesting is that the KMT - whose policy, as I mentioned, involves eventual reunification with China - is currently the ruling party. I feel like any party with such a terrible (and recent) history - and with a policy that most Taiwanese abhor - can only retake power from the opposition party (the DPP) if the latter is incredibly weak. I'm not here long enough, nor do I speak Chinese well enough, to even bother trying to really understand the politics of the island, but at this point I've come to know just enough for it to really interest me.

P.S. There's much more to the park and it's quite beautiful, but I wasn't really in the mood for pictures. Another time.

4. Father's Day at the Zhangs':

Budding actors:

And a special treat...:

[Apologies for the poor sound quality and the clear lack of any sort of skill or common sense on the part of the cameraman.]

The Zhangs have reminded me to be wary about overgeneralizing my experiences in Taipei. For one thing, as I think I mentioned earlier, Xuan Xuan (the low-paid buxiban English teaching assistant) told me that she though the Zhangs were special and uncommonly friendly. And when I went to their house on Tuesday for their early father's day celebration (we'll be at Penghu for the actual date - 8/8, which can be read as "ba ba" ["dad/dy"] ), I was impressed with the idea that this was probably more the case than I had thought. Each of the four siblings invited several friends and encouraged them all to mingle; the snack food/dinner/cake was plentiful and seemed very half-American/half-Chinese; and the socializing was followed by several ridiculous skits prepared over the course of about a week, a public reading of reasons why the four of them loved their father, and then a series organized games. Afterwards, when I was complimenting him on the skits and how friendly the whole atmosphere was, I asked Jun Xiang if their family was different than most in that way, and he uncharacteristically said, "Yes, I think so." Don't get me wrong - I still think Taiwanese people are fantastically nice - but I'm appreciating the Zhangs more and getting the idea that maybe not everyone here would be that amazingly welcoming.

Also, while I've tried to be careful to restrict my commentary to "Taipei" (as opposed to "Taiwan"), and to "Taipei's youth" when appropriate, I'm guessing there have been a few times when I've failed to make that second distinction; I'm also guessing that even some of my "Taipei" generalizations are inaccurate. While I hear that the "poorer" areas nearby are restricted to some of the suburbs (still on the metro line, though), and not the city itself, I do have to remember that I have only lived and traveled through the university districts and the municipal district. There's a lot more of Taipei to see, and maybe I shouldn't be so glib about my generalizations. It's such a temptation, but recognizing it just makes me want to learn more Chinese, so that I can come back and really get an idea of what life is like here.

To end with, a quick recap on my daily life of late:

1. Chinese:

Right now, could be better.
- For one thing, we recently had a friendly but heart-to-heart talk with the teacher who directs the way the main course ("Modern Conversation," both "large" and individual classes) is taught for his students. Boin, a classmate and a Columbia grad, and I both thought that the new characters were fine, but that we should be focusing on a few sentence patterns/phrases/pieces of grammar a day, because we're trying to remember a dozen or so and really not assimilating any of them. The Yale system was great in that one was called upon to memorize, verbatim, a short dialogue every night, and a medium-sized one every week; by the end of it, you really owned those patterns and phrases if you did them right. Here, not so much. I mean, I still can't get across some pretty basic ideas in a gramatically correct way - which I find very, very frustrating, all the more so because a lot of the time I know it's something we've gone over. Briefly. But the professor is only partly changing focus; the bigger change seems to be that we're going slower, which is not what we wanted. Either way, I guess there's less than two weeks of classes left, so it won't have a massive impact either way :-/
- For another, Katie (who's nominally at the same level as me) was telling me a few days ago when we went to get our passports renewed that she finds repeating her one-on-one teacher's sentences to be the easiest thing in the world. By contrast, I have tons of trouble doing that; unless I hear, process, and understand every word in the sentence, I'll always make a mistake or sometimes even forget what I'm supposed to be saying midway through. It's very frustrating.
- Finally, fear is slowly creeping into my heart about placing into third-year Chinese next year. I have a strong feeling that second semester second year would be no good, as I'd be a year behind my classmates and I'm told that second year is slow. I'd also feel like I've wasted a summer of study, which I don't think I would take well at all. Those traditional characters and the comparative lack of intensity (especially as regards the ol' language pledge) might prove disastrous.

2. Health:

Could also be better. I've basically been tired and/or aching every day so far, and even when I get in bed in time for an eight-hour sleep (which is a luxury compared to my Yale days, and especially to my high school years), I don't sleep well and wake up aching. I actually went to the TaiDa hospital on Monday (don't worry; it's just kinda the thing to do here when the health center is closed), and they decided I had a virus and gave me three nights' worth of pills to take for the aching. Maybe it worked, because I took them at dinner and the worst spells have been during the afternoon, but on Monday I may also take them up on their offer to come back if it's not better soon. I kind of want to stick it out until this Thursday (Penghu island!!!), and see if a change of sleeping venue will do the trick, but that will also only work if I'm actually not sick; if I am and I don't get better, I might just be miserable throughout Penghu, which would be... miserable.

Oh, and this whole story brings me to another fun fact: I'm not on Taiwanese health insurance, national or otherwise, so I was charged in full for the hospital bill. Am I going to bother trying to convince the Yale Health Plan that there was really a pressing need for me going to the hospital?


Why not? My total bill, including the pills: $468 NTD, or slightly under $15 USD.

And yet, Taiwan is said to have some of the best healthcare in the world. (They're particularly well-known for eye, liver, and cosmetic operations.) Those who say the U.S. system doesn't need reform, take note.

Next time, expect Part 3, which will mostly focus on a photographic expedition into the middle-class Taiwanese home.

Until then, stay summery.


Saturday, July 25, 2009

Snapshots of Taipei, Part 1

I went on that bike trip today! It was great, but I'm definitely out of shape like it's nobody's business: in a little over 3 hours of riding I probably covered about 25 miles, which I figure is alright considering the fact that I had a backpack with a lot of water and haven't really biked (or done any other exercise, for that matter) in nine months. I wish I could have spent more time on the road, but I got a late start (kept forgetting things at the house; bike rental issues) and had to return earlier than I had thought to be in time for Harry Potter.

(Speaking of which, my Harry Potter verdict: excellent. Possibly my favorite so far, though I'm still a fan of #3 and I can't remember how well I liked #4. The 3D part at the beginning is also epic, if you're considering going that route.)

Back on topic. The bike rental was great, and cheap ($7 for "5 hours"? I can do that.), and I got my first real taste of how glorious it is to ride a modern machine; in the past, I had been riding Dad's old 1984 Huffy road bike, which came complete with gear problems and ten speeds, operated by metal levers in the center space between the two handlebars. Although I brought my camera, I only really took pictures before I got started; I decided that worrying about good photos and stopping to take them would take away from my ride. So instead, today I'm bringing you a lot of explanation of All Things Taiwanese (TM), generally by way of the other photos I've been taking over the past week or so. Enjoy.

1. Obama hits the night market:

Ridiculous, right? But everyone, of course, knows his name. I get the sense that Taiwan collectively looks up to America, in a way. The U.S. is seen as Taiwan's protector; the Taiwan Relations Act allows the U.S. to immediately intervene in the case of an attack on Taiwan, and is seen by most as a defense guarantee (though it only really mandates that the President report such an attack to Congress, says the Brookings Institute). The U.S. is also one of Taiwan's biggest trading partners, for example supplying it with a third of its beef and selling it arms (over China's strong protests). Then there is, of course, the democratic connection, especially in the face of Communist China. Little things also count: Taiwan has a man on the Yankees (surnamed Wang), and most Taiwanese seem to know about him. And finally, while the U.S. does not officially recognize Taiwan as a nation (China has a policy of essentially not dealing with countries that do, which is why some of the mere 23 countries that recognize Taiwan are obscure Pacific islands I've never heard of), it does give Taiwan quasi-nation status in official jargon and diplomatic treatment, running the American Institute in Taiwan ("AIT"; essentially an embassy) and hosting in return the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Office ("TECO"; the same) in New York. Visas are granted by both sides.

2. (A photo in words): One day a few weeks ago, I was walking down a side street to the MRT (metro) station after lunch; when I reached the main road, a divided 4- or 6-lane affair, I noticed that there was literally no traffic. "Wow," I thought to myself (being me), "That's odd. The Taiwanese must really take their lunch hour seriously." Glancing at the blinking red pedestrian light, I crossed, not noticing the policeman on the other side of the street until he blew his whistle at me. "Damn," I thought, "I guess I wasn't supposed to cross at that light." I said I was sorry, and he told me something that involved "don't walk." Assuming he was talking about the crosswalk, when he turned away I headed back up the road in the opposite direction. About 30 seconds later, another whistle, from another cop farther up the road. This time I got the message: "You can't walk." ("Here? Or here?") "No, you can't walk. Rest here for a while." ("How long?") ("Half an hour.") Not sure if I was being penalized, I did as I was told, loitering near a shop doorway and finally taking a better look around. I now noticed that there were also no people on the street, and that others were doing the same as I. Half an hour later, at 2:00 PM, horns sounded from the tops of stoplights, and the flurry of activity that is Taipei traffic began once again.

It turned out that this was an air raid drill. People were supposed to get off the streets, probably both for safety reasons and to make the area look less populated. It's a holdover from times when the threat of Chinese attack was more real, when U.S. backing was nonexistent. In 1949, Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalists were routed from the mainland by Mao Zedong's Communists, and since then Mao's China has claimed Taiwan as its own, first bombarding Taiwan with cannons and then continually threatening it with attack. That threat of attack is not voiced by China today, but Taiwanese still feel it very faintly in the back of their minds. The Communist government's policy has always been and continues to be that Taiwan is an inseparable part of China, and a Taiwanese spokeswoman pointed out in a recent visit to the United States that Taiwan cannot help but feel threatened when the mainland has 13,000 missiles aimed at the island. Taiwan and China share a military border, at which Taiwan's military practices regularly; Taiwan has long held tightly to its outlying islands (besides the main island, it has a handful of decent-sized outliers) as buffers against potential Chinese attack. Most Taiwanese believe that the status quo will most likely continue, though, despite posturing on all sides. And they like that idea - enough that the current president, whose party's platform supports "eventual" reunification with China, had to promise not to pursue that reunification, in order to be a viable candidate for election.

3. Guess the connection: a university, a sign with a laptop on it, and people dressed in fantasy/anime&manga costumes.

Well, it turns out that the costumed people (and the horse) have been hired to make a still ad proclaiming that all freshmen who enroll will have a chance [I don't know what %] to win a laptop computer.

After recent high school graduates take the national university entrance exams and receive their scores back, they can list up to their top 100 department choices (from as many different public universities as they want) on a form, which they then send to the government education ministry. Most people choose public schools, because they're insanely cheap - 台大/TaiDa, Taiwan's one-uni Ivy League, costs around $1700 USD per semester for Taiwanese - and generally better than the private universities. Clearly, the college being advertised is not one of the better ones...

The visual method of advertisement is really interesting too, though, isn't it? I don't know that a horse and some folks in fantasy costumes would ever be well-received in the U.S. when put on a billboard in connection with a university. While still definitely in the minority, the percentage of people who are into fantasy and role-playing here in Taiwan is definitely much greater than that in America, where after a certain age it tends to be seen as absolutely ridiculous. You can see this simply in the sheer amount of media around - on the metro TVs, on billboards, etc - advertising MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online roleplaying games). And, even (to us) stranger: When I first showed a small version of the above photo to Jun Xiang, he said, in a very matter-of-fact tone of voice, "Oh, it's probably cosplay." Cosplay, for those of ye who don't know (probably the majority, is a "performance activity" in which people (usually young) dress up as a character from their favorite fantasy or sci-fi series (usually fantasy here, particularly manga/anime) and either act out scenes, roleplay their character, or just kind of walk around and look crazy/attractive/frightening/awesome/hilarious/a combination of all of the above.

In fact (drum roll please) there is a weekend cosplay convention going on right now at TaiDa, right between my apartment and the ICLP classrooms. And on second thought, I think that's where I'm going to go instead of doing homework; the library's sweltering, I can't find the air conditioning, and I'm meeting my language exchange partner soon anyway. And after all, how many opportunities will I get back home to take pictures with awesomely dressed Asians? That's just... not my crowd, so much.

Look for Snapshots, Part 2, next week. Hopefully I can also include some of David's or my own cosplay convention photos for your enjoyment.


Thursday, July 23, 2009


I've been feeling unnaturally tired for the past few days; for most of the day my entire body will feel like I've been wrestling all night in my sleep, and my lower back goes beyond tired to hurting some. Even got a solid 8 hours of sleep last night because it's really quite uncomfortable, but if it's just because I'm tossing and turning or something, I guess there's not much I can do about it.

I've decided to go on an adventure to see if that solves the problem. (And also because... I really want to go on an adventure.) Tomorrow, barring illness, bike shop issues, or bad morning weather, I'll be renting a bike and traveling around from about 8:00AM to 2:00 PM. What I really want to do is bike along the river and then just hit some side roads to the south of the city, where according to Google Maps I can find hills and less civilization. I'd go earlier if I could, but the rental place doesn't open at 8:00; the 2:00 return time is to 1) beat the classic Taiwan afternoon thundershowers (knock on wood), and 2) get back in time to see HARRY POTTER. Today I've got some language exchange/dinner plans with Jun Xiang & co today, so I'll be blogging tomorrow; don't expect much new information, but hopefully some great pictures will be coming your way.


Wednesday, July 22, 2009


Today's news: The mold is back. I missed the eclipse. I'm up late again. I found myself unable to express myself given 50 minutes to respond to the "[your] life in Taiwan" prompt and 10 sentence patterns to use. Did I mention that the mold is back?

Remember that excellent Livejournal feature? Current mood: discontent.

Better post on Friday, I promise.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

short one, because it's gorgeous outside

And by gorgeous I mean sunny and not too humid, because 95-degree heat + Ethan = <3.

Past week's highlights:
1. Earthquakes and Typhoons
If I understood my teacher correctly, the Taiwan area lies at the intersection of three plates. (Or fault lines... or are those the same? I wish I remembered more from 8th grade Earth Science; I'll Wikipedia it soon to compensate.) Hence why earthquakes are so common here. Apparently Tuesday morning's (about 2:30 AM) was a particularly big one - it registered 6.3 where it struck off the coast, and 3.0 in Taipei city...

...And I slept through it. My first earthquake, and I slept through it.

Ohhhh well. Next time.

In other sad news for someone who wants to (safely) experience some of nature's fury, both recent typhoons - a big one on Tuesday and a small one today - have veered off after early forecasts that they would hit Taipei. According to an old saying, if an earthquake strikes, the typhoon won't come, which turned out to be very true this time around.

2. Chinese, again

I still have mixed feelings about my Chinese skills, but I'm starting to feel a lot better about it, and I think that if I can refrain from comparing myself to mainland returnees when I get back to Yale, I just may end up being very, very happy with my progress and my summer as a whole.

One really cool moment came yesterday when the air conditioning just wasn't changing the temperature in the room. (While I sleep at 28 C - or 82.4 F - it's just not a comfortable temperature to do homework in.) So I tried to fix that. As I was wielding the remote the way I always do - my M.O. involves pushing buttons until the unit does what I want it to - I realized, all of a sudden, that I could actually understand most of it. Whereas when I arrived, the landlord had to explain everything to me because I just couldn't even begin to process the jumble of characters, last night I went through the options: "start, stop, fan, dehumidifier, self-regulating [I think], timer (morning, evening)." Such a simple thing, but it felt great.

Also, today the slightly crazy teacher who leads my largest (4-person) class wanted to focus on pronunciation, and the word "bread" came up, as random simple words are wont to do. While he was writing it on the board for us, he told me that my pronunciation was good enough that people I meet will be surprised when I can't say common words like "bread." He was kind of laughing at me, but at the same time, coming from the Pronunciation Nazi and leader of the twice-a-week "pronunciation clinic," that meant a lot. And maybe it does explain why people on the street slow down less and less often when they talk to me now?

The bad news: More often than not, I still DO need them to slow down :-p While I often can, given time, get my point across in grammatically deplorable Chinese, there are of course many different ways of saying the same thing - and I don't know most of them. For that reason - i.e., because average people are drawing on an incomparably larger array of vocabulary and sentence patterns than I am - keeping up, and sometimes even pointing out the portions that I don't understand ("all of it!"), is still very difficult. I'm really coming to appreciate Jun Xiang's (my language exchange partner's) considerable knack for simplifying his speech when he talks to me. I'm also finding that, in general, adults are better at that - or at least more willing to slow down and simplify things - than young people.

3. Everything's winding down so quickly! Midterms are this coming week, which I find unbelievable. Things I really want to do before I go:
  • Go to the hot springs. I can't believe I forgot about this! It'll probably end up being Beitou, though I think I'd rather go somewhere less accessible and touristy.
  • Eat more of Taiwan's famous food, including xiaolongbao, dim sum, and 臭豆腐 (chou doufu), or "stinky tofu."
  • Go for a day-long bike ride, along the river though southern Taipei and out into the mountains. I recently failed spectacularly at getting up early enough to buy an incredibly cheap used bike ($400 NT, i.e., $13 USD!): I went to bed at 9:30PM so that I could rest well and wake up at 5 AM, but I guess it was just too early because I tossed and turned until after midnight. But there is yet hope, because a (Taiwanese) friend of a friend recently offered to let me borrow hers.
  • Explore more. I'm busy, but if I try I can definitely find time to go seek out new things. Just yesterday I went walking with a Taiwanese friend and discovered some restaurants and cafes near my house that I never knew existed, including this amazing coffee shop that looks more like the hostel than anything else: you take your shoes off at the door, and for 150 NT ($5 US), they'll seat you at a couch; give you a drink; allow you to bring food, study, and stay as long as you want; and order pizza for you (you have to pay for that last one, of course).
  • (totally unrelated): See Harry Potter. I don't know why I thought that ordering tickets two days in advance of when I planned to watch it on IMAX would be fine. Taiwan has exactly one commercial IMAX - in northern Taipei - and the Taipei metro area is home to over 10,000,000 people. The pretty steep price (400NT, or $13 USD) keeps a lot of people away, but it's still tough to get seats for a group. I'm going to order tickets for 5 of us next Saturday as soon as they come out, though, and hopefully they'll accept my debit card and we'll be all set. Pretty psyched.
Well, with that, I want to seize the day a bit, so I'm off. To satisfy some Light Fellowship reporting requirements, the following photographs are brought to you by yours truly:

1. The gang at Danshui.

People in the photo, and their relation to Raphael/Jun Xiang:
Front, from left: Li Wei (older sister), Dai Ling (oldest sister), grandma Zhang, mama Zhang, papa Zhang.
Middle-ish, from left: Lin Lin Lin (sisters' friend), Zhi Qing (younger brother).
Back, from left: Xiao Qi (Dai Ling's friend), Yu Zhong (friend), Wan Wei (friend), me (looking fearsome).

2. Making dumplings in the Sogo department store food court.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

You know you're in a foreign country when...

...the banner ads that in America would advertise a chance to win large amounts of money instead look like this:

...and the "[wo]men at work" signs look like this:

In this post I'll be briefly recapping the past week+, using those and some photos to toss out a bunch of observations along the way. It'll undoubtedly get a bit long, so strap yourselves in. Either that, or skim.

1. News from the Mandarin-Learning Front

In the most recent comment on my blog, my cousin Nick (hey, Nick & Nat!) asked, "are you learning anything," so I'll start with that. On one hand, I've definitely been assimilating a lot of vocab. The pace isn't as crazy as it was in the beginning when I had a lot of new traditional characters to learn, but every weekday I'm adding about 20 characters (listen, speak, recognize, write), and another 5 (just aural/oral) oft-used terms and vocab from my Chinese Moral Tales class. (To be honest, I put very little effort into that class; my main class takes up all of my time.) I'm also becoming much more comfortable with speaking Chinese, even when people answer me in English. On the other hand, I'm still very weak in grammar and sentence patterns; while I can usually understand them when my teachers use them, I don't really have a solid command of what we've covered. Starting today I'm going to be working with Jun Xiang (Raphael, my language exchange partner) on common sentence patterns. Also, I try not to compare but I can't help it: I know from talking to folks that at Princeton in Beijing they're learning about 50 characters a day. I don't know that I could or would want to handle that, but I fear for my relative proficiency when I return to Yale in the fall. Finally, long sentences still blow me out of the water, sometimes even when I can understand every individual word: I feel like my mind's processing everything just a little bit too slowly to string phrase-ideas together at this point and it's very frustrating. In the end, retention is also going to be a big issue, of course; hopefully next year's Chinese class will keep me on my toes in that regard.

All of this being said, it's very difficult to get a fix on how much I'm improving. On my first day here, I could understand only a tiny fraction of what the ticket agent and bus driver were saying; now, I'm speaking briefly every day with the woman who sells me sandwiches for lunch and the owner of the hotpot shop in the night market. But would I really be able to go back and talk to the bus driver? To find out, I'd be willing to spend two hours going back and forth to the airport if I could find the guy, but right now I just don't know; maybe he had a particularly heavy Taiwanese accent that I would still find insurmountable - like Mrs. Zhang, who I still have a lot of difficulty understanding even when she's using words that I should recognize.

By the same token, Zhangs say I've improved a lot, but to be fair I was pretty complacent the first time I came to their house, and Jun Xiang and his brother (Zhi Qing) translated everything. Still, I'm proud that I'm using more Chinese with them each time. On Tuesday during our trip to Danshui, even though Jun Xiang and Zhi Qing were both there, I spent a lot of time trying my best to communicate in Mandarin. But then, of course, I realized just how ridiculous I must look and sound, with my small pinyin dictionary out, trying to talk about swimming to Li Wei and Zhi Qing: Two English-speaking Taiwanese girls, mistaking me for a tourist desperately trying to use his basic Chinese to ask a question of the locals, stopped and asked me (in English) if I was lost. I thought it was funny, and after I explained what had just happened the Zhangs found it especially hilarious, but clearly I still have a long way to go.

One reason why I fear returning to Yale is because I'm learning all traditional characters. Many are similar to the simplified ones that I will need to use to interact with all of mainland China - and Yale. Some change in a standardized way. Some are the same. But there's also a reason why the Taiwanese government body in charge of commerce just began to offer a simplified character version of its entire web site: a lot of very, very different characters that I will essentially have to relearn as I go. In fact, I imagine that somebody, somewhere is going to be very unhappy with me when I take my placement exam (the one that will tell me if I've really done a year's worth of Yale material) and write everything in 繁體子 (complicated characters, written in the same). (Doesn't that character just look ridiculous?! Compare it to 简体字 (simplified characters; written in the same), and you have an idea of what I'll be up against.

So why am I doing it? I'm not all that sure. Being in Taiwan, it seemed like a much more legitimate road to take, and a challenge; simplified characters felt like a cop-out. Also, my one-on-one teacher strongly suggested that I at least learn to read the traditional characters for our lessons, and I really didn't want to be learning to read the same set of words differently than I was learning to write them. And, one day I hope to be able to both read and write using either system. If that doesn't sound like a strong set of reasons, well, I agree. But I'm doing it nonetheless, and we'll have to wait and see how it turns out.

2. Various Good Times

a. This past weekend, David hosted a Fourth of July party for the Yalies (and one Dartmouth alum, named Paul). We bought the most "American" food we could find at 家樂福 (Jialefu, aka Carrefour, a large French chain), which is basically the Costco of Taipei, samples and all. (Taipei does have a Costco, though! It's far from central, but I plan to visit before I leave.) With six floors of everything you can think of: clothing; food; household cleaners; and everything in between. I've bought a pillow, a pair of sandals, a set of chopsticks, and a camera there, to name a few. (The chopsticks are two-part, screw-in metal ones, and make me feel so Taiwanese. Will I be brave enough to use them back home in real life? I'd love to, but that remains to be seen.) The store has a distinctly 台灣味道 (Taiwanese flavor) to it, and it's secretly one of my favorite places, but on July 3 they were really marketing heavily to the American expats in the area. Besides the few shelves of American imports, the management appeared to have developed its marketing strategy with one key fact in mind: "Americans like meat." Observe.

It was a fun little get-together; Jun Xiang came for a bit, and some of us ended up taking some chairs up to the roof, ending our day drinking wine, chatting, and generally spying on the neighborhood. There was too much Yale talk - though Paul at least feigned interest - and it was all in English, but it was great to kick back and relax with people from home.

b. Sunday night: dinner with "friends of the hostel"; Eight Elephants will always have a special place in my heart, I think, and I wish I could work there for a while. It was also Maxime's last day. I'll miss him a lot - he's a really thoughtful guy with an epic French accent and a fantastic sense of humor, and he makes one forget that he's 30. But he's told me that his house in Montreal has a guest room and I'm always welcome, so if I ever get the opportunity and he's not abroad, I'll definitely take him up on that.

c. On Tuesday I went to Danshui with the fam. It's quite a long metro ride (50 minutes?), but I got to talk to this great, friendly guy from Quebec. He seemed to be around 50 years old, and is working here (I've already forgotten at what). He's trying to learn the language - he was listening to recordings on his iPod before we struck up our very brief conversation - and he seemed happier than I was at the fact that I was speaking Chinglish with Jun Xiang et al. I don't know why, but some people just look like folks I want to get to know, and this man did not disappoint.

I wish I had been brave enough to speak to him first, but instead we did that thing that most foreigners do when they meet each other in Taipei: each clearly looked at the other but failed to really acknowledge the other's presence. The thought process goes something like this: "We have very little in common except that we're white." (I've seen very few black people here, and I can't tell which of the Asians are foreigners.) "We would never even talk to each other back in the West. Of course, we do have something in common - we're both foreigners - but what if the other guy actually lives here and speaks fluent Chinese? And should I suddenly be friends with every white foreigner I meet?" By acknowledging the tie between foreigners, I automatically feel like that much more of a stranger here, set apart by choice. Every time Li Wei sees a white person, the running joke is for her to point and says, "Your friend!" - and something inside of me strongly rebels against that characterization. So the other man and I spent most of the train ride in this way, but he was the outgoing one and broke the silence on the way out, a trick that I should really pick up in the next few weeks.

The trip itself was a big event: five of Raphael's friends (one guy and four girls) came along. Judging from the timing and the fact that they didn't seem familiar with his sisters, I'm guessing that one of the main reasons he invited them was because I asked him why I always saw his sister's friends but hadn't met any of his or his brother's. They were pretty fun, but also pretty shy, and right now I think I enjoy hanging out with the sisters' friends more overall. We ate dinner at a nice restaurant (the older Zhangs also came along on this one, and it was their treat), and then went to Bali (across the river) to go bike-riding for a while in the dark. This was also apparently very much centered around me: Li Wei told me with some embarrassment that they remembered me saying I really like to bike. After that we ate and drank a bit more and played some of the games you find in the bigger night markets here. We all collectively failed at ring-tossing, but, in an extension of this ongoing, multi-event "competition" I have with Dai Ling, the handful of target shooting lessons I've had at Yale paid off and I dominated the (actually very easy) BB-gun game. Dai Ling and I are now at 2-1, advantage me; a pull-up contest is next, so I think I might pull into a pretty solid 3-1 lead, but since she's the family's "games guru" and will undoubtedly devise something crazy after that, I won't get my hopes up.

3. English in Taipei

Here are two photos to get us started, both from the same street on the same day:

People in Taipei want to learn English.

However sweeping and general that may sound, it's true. Out of the many buxibans here - "cram schools," or what we might call "private tutoring services" - offer a variety of subjects as a supplement to public education, either after school or during the summer - English is by far the most popular option. Most people unexpectedly know at least a tiny bit of English, even if they're often too embarrassed use it - people like Jun Xiang's mother, or a worker at the hotpot place in the night market. Even Dai Ling and Wen Hui, who will probably never actually have to use English, have a small and haphazard vocabulary that they can use when pressed, even if they can't make sentences; like many people here, they've always vaguely wanted to learn, and will actually be starting lessons this weekend.

Part of it is because English makes up a significant section of the national university entrance exams, which Jun Xiang just took. (From what I gather, they're kind of like the SATs, but much more knowledge-based, and you only get two shots.) Another reason is surely that English is so useful, even for people who don't work for international companies. If a foreigner is trying to find a place to eat in the night market, you'll be much more likely get his business if your menu is in English or you can understand his questions about foods, prices, seats, and the like. But finally, I also think that English is in. The youths here, if they know enough, all want to practice their English with you, or show of for their friends by talking to you; shirts with English writing abound, even if they don't make sense.

It shocked me when Xuan Xuan told me how much she makes an hour as a teaching assistant, correcting papers and teaching a few classes at a buxiban with a 45+ hour work week: 150 NT. That's less than $5 U.S. - though when you account for purchasing power I'd put it closer to $10. Why? Because she doesn't really speak English all that well either; she's certainly not fit to be teaching the language to any but the lowest-level classes. And yet, for the most part, she's all that Taipei's got. With the huge demand and the (relatively) low numbers of native English speakers coming hear to teach, it's no wonder that the average salary for the latter is more than four times Xuan Xuan's - about 650 NT, in fact. Because without foreigners (and oftentimes even with them), an English buxiban is simply part of an endless cycle that's pretty common here: teachers who speak bad English teaching students to speak bad English, perpetuating a Taipei full of youths who speak a little English and adults who have forgotten almost all of it. In many cases that doesn't seem like a big deal, but in those cases it's also clearly a waste of money.

The upshot of all this for me? A few years down the road, it's very possible that I might come back here to live for a while - and teach some English. It's a fantastic city... and after all, I'm a white, pending Yale graduate with previous ESL experience. I just might be able to command 900 NT per hour, or over $25 USD when exchanged - which ain't bad for the recipient of a BA and a liberal arts education.


Monday, July 6, 2009

A Note to Worrying Relatives

(and my many other fans)

I'll probably be posting nearer to the end of the week, because tomorrow after class I'm going to Danshui with the fam: I've got a ton that I want to write about but I'm currently having to put some more intensity into my studying to make up for all of the relaxing I'll be doing tomorrow. (Sorry about all of the gerunds there.)

One quick health note: Last night I did mercilessly slaughter all of the mold I could get my hands on, though. There was way more than I expected, I cut some corners/did some stuff wrong, and it was not the best experience overall, but what's done is done, and the point is that I now feel like I'm living in a much healthier environment. Though that may just be psychological.


Monday, June 29, 2009

Classes and the Weekend

An update on classes and the language:

Still extremely difficult. I feel like we're starting a new lesson just as I'm beginning to grasp the last one. And I'm putting in a solid 6 hours of studying per day. I guess I could spend more time on the weekend (I only put in about ten hours in total throughout Fri/Sat/Sun), but I also want to live a little. Which brings me to my next point:

I feel that I'm speaking much less Chinese now that classes have started. Because I spend the vast majority of my day in class, studying, or eating, and because I've for the most part settled into Taipei (e.g., I don't have to go buy a SIM card, etc), on weekdays my real-life Chinese interactions are limited to the buying of food every night - and even that's easy, because I've found the places I like best at the nearby night market. I should probably put myself out there a bit and go on some sort of adventure, but I just don't have the time to justify it.

Also, the language pledge here is very weak (only applicable in the building, and even then often ignored). Say what you will about personal perseverance; when a group of people are speaking English and you're quite bad at Chinese, no one really has the patience to include you in a conversation unless you're willing to speak English too. So in those situations, I alternate between English and... not talking. I've also been keeping up on "news &cet" via my favorite podcasts, and while I'm not willing to give up my newfound joy at being informed, that infusion of English isn't helping either.

At any rate, I hope that once I start meeting with my language exchange partner again - he begged off last week and this, because the hugely important national college exams are this Thursday and Friday - as well as with that elusive third language exchange partner (this Wednesday! It's happening!), I'll be able to actually use some of the things I'm cramming into my head right now.

On Saturday we went on an ICLP-arranged trip to the Lin Yu Tang family mansion (not the most exciting few hours of my life), and then to GuGong, the National Palace Museum. It holds that name because many of its holdings were taken from the Imperial Palace in the Forbidden City in Beijing. From my incomplete understanding, most of them were removed 1) during the first Sino-Japanese War [around 1900, I think] or 2) when Chiang Kai-Shek and his Nationalist troops were forced to flee the Maoist forces [late 1940s, I think]. I'm sure someone will mention if I've made any glaring factual errors. Anyway, we were very fortunate in that we had as a guide a former ICLP student and current art history student, who has spent many many class and independent hours in the museum and seemed to know everything there was to know about everything inside. We only saw a small part of the museum: its jade, its bronze, its ceramics, its porcelain, and some of its paintings. Museums only tend to hold mild interest for me, especially if I spend a lot of time in them - I'm quite uncultured, I suppose - and this was no exception. That being said, there were certainly some beautiful pieces with lots of history behind them, and here were some of the things that I thought were especially cool:
- The jade, particularly the weapons. Did you know that "jade" is actually a term that describes two different minerals, both of which are some of the hardest in the world? It is believed that the only way the Chinese could have cut and shaped jade would have been to use quartz, and each piece probably took years.
- The question of how two of the 95-ish pieces of the most precious set of porcelain in the world, of which the vast majority is in Taiwan/China/Korea/Japan, ended up in Saint Louis. (Michael Rauschenbach, weigh in please. I'm sure you were behind this.)
- Despite all of our modern science and years of refinement, some ancient techniques used in making ceramics are either a) still used today, or b) visible on museum artifacts but lost to the modern age.

Lin Yu Tang House scenery; ICLP students on the balcony; trimming the lawn; Dr. Lin's tomb.

From there I went to... the Zhangs' house! Which was tons of fun as always, and here I shall bore you with some details and observations. First we ate a delicious dinner, almost identical to the last one I had there, and then off to the night market where Dai Ling and Xiao Qi work selling shirts. The Zhang family seems incredibly welcoming: some friends - and cousins - stopped by (or didn't), not all with appointments; some ate; some slept over. It was all very fluid and easygoing; I'm also struck by how the sisters' friends seem to also be friends with the entire family; while Raphael does refer to them as "Dai Ling's friend" or "Li Wei's friend," I tend to forget which is which, I don't really see the "age gap" that often exists between American youth of even one or two years' difference. Their 15-year-old cousin was also very much a part of all of the conversation at dinner from what I could tell. I may be getting a slanted view, though, because I've never met any of Raphael's or his brother's friends (the two of them seem much more solitary), and Raphael hasn't been with us for the majority of the time I've spent with a larger group of them. Xuan Xuan, a friend who speaks English reasonably well, also told me that she thinks the sisters really are out-of-the-ordinary in how laid-back and friendly they are. Which is surprising, because their mom always seems a little bit nervous.

On the communication front, they all said I've improved a lot in two weeks. It's possible - I feel a small but noticeable improvement in my listening comprehension - but I think it might also be because I was lazy and relied on Raphael to translate pretty much everything last time. Sadly, Li Wei seems to have lost patience in trying to communicate with me in Chinese; now, she usually either just gestures or asks a friend to translate. Dai Ling, on the other hand, is starting to talk to me more - but she has a tendency to mistake my lack of vocabulary for a speed problem and lapse into really. slow. sentences., which I always find hilarious.

Dai Ling insisted on giving me a t-shirt, and it was kind of a problematic moment because 1) I didn't really like any of them - too girly or too "I'm a hip Taiwanese guy" ish, or both - and 2) she doesn't make much money selling shirts in the first place, so she certainly shouldn't be giving them away. But after I had refused almost the point of rudeness (or maybe slightly beyond), I gave in; I am now the proud owner of a thick black t-shirt shirt with a set of large buttons near the shoulder (I haven't yet checked to see whether they're superfluous or not), and perhaps I'll wear it next time I see them to make her happy. (The shirt could look cool as part of a certain kind of outfit, which I'm not sure I own and definitely don't have with me.)

What really interests me is her job, though. I'm hoping it's a microcosm of the clothing/accessories portion of the night market itself, because I'm always wondering how that whole system works. According to Xuan Xuan, Dai Ling and Xiao Qi took the initiative to rent a spot in the night market (and also another spot to leave their clothes overnight, it looks like). They found a place near the domestic airport, about 30 minutes away by scooter, where they could buy shirts on the cheap. Originally they had to buy in bulk, but now that they're regular customers they can buy smaller amounts, and they pick and choose what they think will sell. As I mentioned, they don't seem to make much a night - 600-some NTD on a Saturday night (about $20 US, though remember that money goes farther here), isn't exactly a huge profit, especially when you're splitting it - but then, the way they do it, the job itself basically involves hanging out with friends by a clothes rack for three hours a night. I'm not sure if Dai Ling has another job or not, and I want to ask her or Xuan Xuan a lot more about the night market, so hopefully I'll get back to you with some better information in a few weeks.

To get back to my exciting life: Two other friends and I slept over. I woke up early, because Raphael woke up early (bah), and learned how to order another common street-vendor breakfast. Xiao Qi and Li Wei went to church, but I wasn't invited this time (which kind of worries me, but hopefully it's nothing), so we just hung out for a little while, and then I headed back. Had an unlikely and creepster day on the subway - twice ran into a girl I knew from the hostel, and twice found myself conspicuously right behind the same group of French people - and did some studying. Some hostel friends also got together for Peking duck and then hung out at the bar for a bit, which was a great time all around.

In other news:

1. The Taipei International Film Festival started this past Friday, apparently. The theme is Germany, since this is the 20th anniversary of the Wall coming down; 30 or so films are German, but I'm not sure if there are any criteria for the other hundred or so. I hear that tickets for the most popular movies are sold out, and I can't really figure out how to get tickets right now, but maybe I can find some time to go see one of them this coming weekend.

2. I'm spending much less money than I did during the first two weeks, and I'm no longer all that worried.

3. I'm definitely going to Penghu with the fam in early August. It's a questionable move: I'll be missing Thursday and Friday of the second-to-last week of class, and I don't know how I'm going to break it to/slip it past my teachers. But I'm told that Penghu is very much worth it, and I can't possibly pass up this golden opportunity to spend time with the Zhangs and about 15 relatives/friends.

4. I've settled into a daily routine:
- 8:00 AM: get up. Wash face/brush teeth/etc; breakfast of corn flakes, milk, and fruit (trying to add some nuts, but all of the almonds I've bought turn out to be sugared and gross); walk to school and listen to a podcast or my lesson; class at 9:10.
- 12:00 PM: finish classes. Relax a bit; facebook/e-mails/etc; walk and take subway to SoGo, a large department store, buying lunch along the way. Buy an amazingly delicious but ridiculously overpriced scoop of dark chocolate ice cream, so that I can feel justified in taking a seat in the food court for the next 4+ hours.
- 6:30 PM: Leave SoGo; come back to ICLP (more podcasts in transit); look things up or do any homework that requires internet in the ICLP student lounge.
- 8:30 PM: go to ShiDa night market and eat a version of hot pot with mushrooms, carrots, noodles, and some surprisingly great tofu. If I feel like my stomach still has room, I then go to get guabao. Guabao is my favorite Taiwanese snack - a delicious treat/partial meal that looks like a hamburger made of fluffy white dough, stuffed with meat and greens and finished off with a sweet peanut-based powder. Dinner is a little sad because I eat it alone, but the food is perfect, so it's all good. (Gotta get those food groups in! Good-tasting protein is especially hard to come by in a night market, at least as far as I can tell.)
- 9:30/10:00 PM: return to the apartment, do some work, shower.
- 12:30 PM: ideally, bedtime.

And that's it for this week, I think. I'll add some pictures of my apartment to this post in the next few days, but you probably won't hear from me til after the weekend. Tomorrow I'll be meeting that last language exchange partner, and one of the Yale folks is planning a 4th of July/"America Day" party; I'm hoping to bring Raphael along for part of the latter, which should be fun.

Signing out,

Update: Photos!

1. My buddy and me.

I got this fella from a random girl in a coffee/tea shop when I was passing by one evening. Carried him with me through the night market and got plenty of strange looks.

1b. Mr. Giraffe finds a home and a job: greeting visitors to my room. (Job's easy; there are few.)

2. The rest of the room: a fairly spartan sleeping space.

3. My response to the fact that there was a hole in my wall: mosquito netting and tape. Lots of it.

4. On ICLP campus. "Falling leaves? That's silly!"

4b. "On second thought, I'll keep an eye out."