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."

1 comment:

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

    Good! Overall, your experience seems to be unfolding really well. Keep up the good work.