Monday, June 15, 2009

Evening with the "Host Family," and Some Observations [Detailed]

Yesterday, Raphael, my first language exchange partner and the one with whom I meet most often, introduced me to his family.

First let me back up and give you a quick recap of the first portion of my day, since this blog has basically become a detailed diary. In my search for a cheap(er) camera, I got off at the wrong (or, not the closest) metro stop and walked the wrong way for a bit. I don't tend mind that at all here, as long as I'm not in a rush, and yesterday was no exception: I found what seems like the "pets" section of HePing Road. Along one side of the road, about two blocks of shops, tables, and stalls were devoted to the sale of pets - nearly all birds, some of them boring (I saw a pigeon...) and some of them gorgeous. In case the humidity wasn't doing the job, the size and color of many of the birds were stunning reminders that this is a subtropical island. I also saw two ferrets, and a dog in a cage just big enough to turn around in.

Then I went and picked up the fourth and last key to my apartment (door #2), picked up a highly unhealthy lunch of three donuts at the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit - metro/train) station because I was worried about being late to meet Raphael, and fell asleep waiting for him by a station in the west of the city.

Intermission for observations, though I'll spare you the surmised explanations:
1. Neither eating nor drinking is allowed on Taiwan's MRT. there are no workers or security watching to enforce the rule; people simply don't do it. A friend from the hostel and fellow newcomer to Taiwan was drinking something on the MRT a few days ago, and a middle-aged woman very politely and kindly informed him of the rule.
2. Trains heading to the main station can get crowded in the morning, as I discovered today, but nobody really crams inside; when the train's pretty full and everyone is down to a certain amount of personal space, the folks on the platform simply wait for the next train. I've never had to wait more than about five minutes, and I find myself thinking of it as an on-demand form of transportation that will always be there waiting for me when I need to get somewhere.
3. In the alleys (i.e., the place to be for lunch), good luck trying to find good stuff from the omnipresent food stalls between 2:00 and 5:00 PM. I'm not quite sure what vendors do - siesta? prepare for dinner? take care of other business? - but most of them just aren't around between lunch and dinner.
4. Taiwanese tend to have four meals a day - breakfast, lunch, dinner, and supper. I'm not sure how heartily or well they eat overall, but I do know that the street vendors are omnipresent and quite popular - in fact, I hear that many people in the city only rarely cook for themselves. And yet, most people here are so thin... Though as a counterpoint to that, I just heard on the news that 1 in 10 people in Taiwan has diabetes, which is higher than the rate in the "land of the fat," i.e., America.
5. Taipei weather is ridiculous. When I got back to the hostel a few hours ago, the sun was beating down on me and the sky was mostly clear. Just now, I heard thunder. Within a few minutes it could easily be raining cats and dogs.
6. Everyone takes their shoes off at the door of a living space - either at the front of a house or at the entrance to an individual room of an apartment. That and the wet weather are themselves becoming a good enough reasons for me to go buy a cheap pair of sandals; everyone here has them, or at least some kind of slip-off shoe as a substitute.
7. Doors (and many walls) here are all made of metal, and the interiors of homes/businesses (recall that they're often one and the same) will often be separated from the street by a large, vertically opening door that I'd associate with a garage. I keep meaning to ask someone why (typhoons? fire hazards?), but I also keep forgetting; I think I'll save that question for Raphael's family next time I see them.

Which brings me to the end of my intermission...

The Zhang (張) Family:
Raphael picked me up at the MRT station in western Taiwan and we took a bus to his part of town, nearby Banciao City. He lives with his parents, younger brother Jordan (16?), two older sisters (Li Wei, 24?, and [can't remember], 25?), and his grandmother. His mother explained to me that in Taiwan, three generations tend to live together, which confirms what I've also read in ol' Lonely Planet. While we waited for dinner he started teaching me some radicals - pieces of Chinese characters that can help identify their meanings or sounds.

We then had dinner, and it was definitely the best meal I've had here yet. Everyone gets a smallish bowl of rice and throughout the meal adds to it pieces of any of the several dishes on the table - the Zhangs' included fish, tofu, eggs and shrimp, a vegetable I don't know the name of, pork, cabbage, some sausage-like meat, and one or two others I can't remember. Note that I'm pretty sure his mother made something fancier than normal; I am the Zhangs' first-ever foreign guest. Note #2: I'm also getting better at chopsticks, and in fact I think they're a fantastic way to eat; I still use them in the easier-to-learn but limited-control foreigners' way, though.

Before and during dinner, respectively, I met Jordan and Li Wei. Jordan is a high school student who's also learning English and in fact has a better accent than Raphael, but a smaller vocabulary - though he's a bit shy about talking to me, so maybe not. He's supposedly "the smart one" of the family, or at least the one who studies very hard. He and Raphael are both extremely thin, medium-tall height (for Taiwanese), and serious-looking; both smile easily, but Raphael's in particular is a huge, slightly goofy grin and I love it. Li Wei works as some sort of para-actuary (I think) in an insurance company, and speaks almost no English. She's absolutely tiny but seems full of energy, with very short hair that tends to stick to her head. She also likes showing people magic tricks, though they're not the best - I figured out most of the four, though one only in part and one by accident. She quite seriously claims that Taiwanese are just much worse at figuring out what's going on when she does her tricks, but I think that maybe I just know what to watch for.

After that, Zhang Taitai (張太太) - Mrs. Zhang - brought out a dish of pineapple; I suspect that Raphael might have told her that I really like it, because it turns out that the majority of the kids don't. I.e., I basically ended up eating the entire plate... whoops. Throughout, we just talked and talked: they all had a lot of questions for me, Li Wei in particular (I think she also thinks I'm cute), and I really just wanted to relax and talk to everyone, so I spoke in English and Raphael and Jordan got some major translation practice in. Earlier last week, Raphael actually mentioned that his brother wanted to set up a similar language exchange with me as well, and I told him I wasn't sure if I had time or not; now I think I might go for it. The two of them kept forgetting that Li Wei didn't speak English, so we had to remind them to translate, which was always funny. At a certain point they told me I should just stay over, because they wanted to keep talking and the MRT stops running at midnight - which for the record I think is a little bit ridiculous. 

The older sister (whose name I can't remember) and her friend came back from work/hanging out; she (the sister) , and we went out and bought a light supper - they insisted on treating me - and a toothbrush. After more talking and eating, at around 1:00 they decided it was time to go to bed, because most of us had to head out early (8:00-ish); they said they usually went to bed at 11:00. I slept in Jordan's bed, next to Raphael's, which reminds me to describe the apartment a bit: It's "thin" (only at most 3 rooms wide each way) but tall - four floors - and, from what I see and hear, bigger than most apartments. It's also spotless, which isn't very important to me at all but probably speaks to the idea I'm getting that the family is upper middle class. Despite the size, though, there are only two (large) bedrooms for the kids, which I think is interesting: in my experience, most American families of that level of wealth/house size would have made sure the kids have separate rooms, and the kids would be very much in favor of that. Although some of the family's questions have made me question for the first time just how "typically American" my experience has been (I really can't say, in some cases). But it seems that in most of America, one's own room - and one's own house - is an important piece of the American dream. But (take note, Phil!) I don't know that that's a universal or objectively "good" goal.

At 8:00 the next morning, I had - drum roll please - my first scooter ride! Motor, of course; on an island trumped only by Bangladesh in population density, there just isn't room for that many cars, so the vast majority of Taiwanese use bikes. Li Wei was going to work at 8:30, so she dropped me off at one of the MRT stops on her way so that I could get to a 9:00 orientation week class on Chinese characters at TaiDa. The ride itself was absolutely exhilarating - I would just laugh at random points for no particular reason - so I can't imagine a motorcycle ride or a ride on a freeway. It was only slightly scary; I've come to accept the fact that Taiwanese motorists will do things that seem insane, but with perfect confidence and... safely?! ("We're not really going to try to fit through there, are we?! ...Oh, yes, I guess we are.") Also, speeds aren't generally very high, at least in the city/urban area, which gave me a possibly artificial sense of security. And in a week here, I haven't seen or heard of an accident nearby, which may not be representative but is certainly encouraging. To further reassure the worried relatives: the good news is that Li Wei has been riding for five years; the better news is that everyone here wears a helmet. Supposedly the opposite was true a few years ago, but the police chose that - as opposed to running red lights, going the wrong way down one-way roads, weaving through traffic, or using crosswalks - as the offense they wanted to crack down on. And I guess if you're only going to pick one, that's the right choice!

Anyway, I have three new invitations to add to my list:
1. This week I'll go to a Christian church here for Sunday morning service in Chinese with "the other older sister's" friend.
2. In two weeks, the Zhang family will spend an afternoon at Danshui, a town on the river northwest of the city proper, and if I have morning classes I'll be there.
3. At the beginning of August, the Zhangs are going on their annual 3-day vacation to Penghu, one of the handful of small Taiwanese islands surrounding the main island. It's said to be "the Hawaii of Taiwan" - gorgeous, not very settled, and with many native Taiwanese. Depending on how much class I'd have to skip and when I have to let the Zhangs know, I just might go; everyone at the hostel who's gone says it's not to be missed.

Anyway, I can't believe I've spent this much time updating a blog. New resolution: every couple of days, I'll just give you the highlights. I've got to get out and do things while I can!

I hope you're all doing well, whoever and wherever you might be. I'm off to brave the storm and move into my new apartment.


P.S. Hopefully I'll be getting that camera today (couldn't yesterday - ATM restrictions and all that), and I hope to spruce up the blog with plenty of photos in the coming week.

1 comment:

  1. Hey E,

    Just thought I'd confirm for you that I'm here on the other side of cyberspace, eagerly reading and "taking note". Keep the observations coming-- your blog's a pleasure to read. Sounds like you're having a great time. Continue to enjoy.