Sunday, May 24, 2009

Shi-da

I had a commenter ask about this so I'll go ahead and post it here (comments box deemed the reply "too long"):

Shi-da

The good points about Shi-da are that they do teach you a lot in a very short amount of time, and even though I whine about the daily quizzes when they're happening, I have to admit that they do force you to study and retain information. You learn a dizzying amount of vocabulary and most of it is useful stuff (I'll get to the stuff that is not useful below). If you study and you spend a good amount of time each week talking to people in Chinese, you will retain it. They are also very good at placing students in the right level.

Now for the critiquue. My biggest annoyances with Shi-da are the teaching methods - go-round, say the vocabulary, read the sentence, move on...same for grammar. It's fine for Asian students who have learned this way before but can be a huge challenge for Westerners who aren't used to this sort of methodology (which I'd argue isn't a very good methodology) - I find after many grammar points that I still don't quite 'get it' because one example and a few exercises is simply not enough.

But...you'd be getting the same treatment at NCCU as at Shi-da, though my sister studies at NCCU and her teacher seems to be a little more into Western teaching methods.

I also find that the vocabulary in the Shi-da books is way too formal for everyday use (mostly). They tell you - with a straight face! - that when you meet someone new you should say "Xinghui" (which is so formal as to be laughable), later on they teach you things like 'xi du' ("to consume narcotics") when your average person says 'ke yao' ('to do drugs'). They teach very formal grammar constructions that you'd never find outside a newspaper and they try to make you use the Beijinghua "er" sound, which is just ridiculous in Taiwan. I used a construction I learned in one of my classes ("Na li you _______________ de daoli?" or "What's the sense in _______ing?"). Sasha, who is commenting here, actually snickered at me! Far too formal. They teach that if someone compliments you you should say 'nali nali' when almost nobody in Taiwan really says that - they say 'bu hui'. That's just a few examples of content that I feel is quite divorced from how Chinese is actually spoken.

I also don't like the politics of the place. Shi-da is a deep blue school and teachers do say things like "Women Zhongguoren" ("We Chinese" but not even "Chinese" as in "people of Chinese origin" - they say it as in "People from China") and the emphasis is on Chinese customs, Chinese traditions - things that came from China. It's as if a unique and parallel Taiwanese culture and populace who hasn't had family in China for 400 years doesn't even exist. It really grates, and I find the whole attitude to be extremely elitist.

I don't find the tests to be entirely fair, either, but that's a separate issue that you'll encounter all over Asia, so no sense bothering about it here. It just reinforces my feeling that the Shi-da program doesn't take into account the needs, obstacles and learning styles of Westerners, which biases the higher levels in favor of the Asian foreigners.

I also don't say this to insult my teacher. She's a very nice lady whose politics I happen to disagree with, but she does to a good job so who cares. It's Shi-da I've got the problem with, not her. I have heard on good authority that the director of the MTC doesn't care about whether MTC teachers have training (the "if you can speak Chinese, you can teach it" attitude, which is so wrong), but haven't personally felt this to be an issue, other than the fact that the grammar is not sufficiently reviewed and practiced.

NCCU -

I'm basing most of this on the review of my sister, who studies there. I feel it's fair to do this, because my critique above was based on my personal experiences at Shi-da and nothing more, so why not base an assessment of NCCU on my sister's experiences?

On the upside, they use the same books as Shi-da, so you get the same vocabulary and grammar at about the same rate. She also speaks highly of her teachers there. The one she has now has a very modern approach to teaching, with lots of reinforcement, activities and practice which she changes around so the students don't get bored.

The thing is, when it comes down to it, NCCU isn't really that much better than Shi-da, and if your NT $30k quote is correct, it's also more expensive.

My sister was shunted around to various levels because the classes at the level she was at were full...and she's a study abroad student so she can't just go elsewhere. She complained that it felt as though they cared far less about her level than their own convenience in terms of class numbers, and therefore didn't care if she learned effectively (seeing as they wouldn't/couldn't place her in the right level). She felt that she was expected to learn an impossible number of new characters per day and that, just like at Shi-da, the testing methods weren't geared well to her level.

I can say in Shi-da's defense that they put me exactly where I needed to be.

And a quick word about TLI and NTU -

As for the specific question of said commenter...

I don't think your placement would be any better at Shi-da, as you have to take a written and oral placement test. If you can't read at all, you'll bomb the written and they'll stick you in a lower level class to compensate for it. Tai-da would be about the same.

So basically, if you want to take a group class, no one university is better than the others (though Taida charges the most so I avoid them, because I don't see any added value to make the extra $ worth spending).

With all that in mind, and considering your situation, you ought to look into TLI (Taipei Language Institute). You can get a one-on-one teacher - for the same price you'd get fewer hours, though - and spend a semester getting your writing caught up to your speaking while setting aside time to work on speaking before enrolling at a university, or just continue there and take a group class. If you can find a few foreigners in a similar situation you could even get a class opened just for your group (Shi-da also offers this but with a minimum of five guaranteed students. I think TLI's minimum is three, but I'm not sure).

TLI isn't a university, it's a business, so in general they're more in tune with their customers' needs. They're a lot more efficient and a lot more flexible and accommodating. They're also cheaper. I really liked my teachers there, and hope to ask at least one for a recommendation I apply for graduate school. The front desk was approachable and efficient. Their class options were more tailored to students' needs, though the standard group classes run about NT$25k per semester and are three hours a day compared to Shi-da's two. I can't take them as I don't have three free hours at the same time every day.

As for prices, it goes something like this:

Tai-da - most expensive (though at NT $30k maybe NCCU can compete for that title)
NCCU - if it's NT$30k as you said
Shi-da - NT $21,000 or so per semester
TLI - NT$25,000/semester, but you get five extra hours of classtime per week

My bone with TLI? For any course, if there is a typhoon day the class is cancelled. For a group class this is no big deal. But at TLI, for a one-on-one, if there's a typhoon day your class is also cancelled and there's no make-up and no refund. That one-on-one student loses the money they pre-paid for the class (same deal if you skip due to illness, work or anything else). I can understand in cases of a person having to cancel, but due to a typhoon day? I lost NT$840 worth of classtime for just that reason and you can bet your butt I was annoyed.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Dai Gi

As most of us know, the Taiwanese language and the local language of southern Fujian (Minnanhua) are almost identical. In Chinese class - I'll post a nice long rant about that later, suffice it to say that I'm a bit fed up with the Mandarin Training Center - my teacher consistently calls Taiwanese "Minnanhua" and everywhere you turn people will testify that they are the same language.

Fair enough. For most purposes, they are. But I posit that "for most purposes" is not quite as comprehensive as it should be, and that Taiwanese is a dialect of Minnanhua...related to it, and more or less the same language, but not exactly. Rather like Indian English, which is, of course, "English" - but who reading this has been to India and can testify that Indian English is sounding the same as American English, only? People are speaking it quite differently isn't it? If you want to be communicating pukka Indian English, of course you have to be changing-changing a few leetle things, only, so it is not same. So then you are having New Yark people or all people in USA speaking in one kind of English only and Mumbai desi speaking other kind.

Now I'm no linguist, but perhaps someday I'd like to be (to be posted forthwith on my rant about Shi-da, the reasons why I'm equally likely to get an MA in Linguistics as I am in Chinese at this point). I don't even speak Taiwanese well...just a few phrases here and there, and the names of lots of food, because food is the ultimate bonding agent between new friends. Food and alcohol. The Chinese and Taiwanese understand this, hence the term jiu-rou pengyou ("liquor-meat friends" - friends who are more 'buddies' that you go drinking with, but wouldn't necessarily confide in).

Even someone like me, however, with a very limited knowledge of, well, stuff, can point out loads of differences between Dai-gi and Minnanhua. The first is the most obvious - if the accent of Taiwanese speakers as well as the slang used changes between Taipei and Kaohsiung (and it does - my Taiwanese-speaking friends from both cities have confirmed this), then how can one possibly expect it to be the same between Taiwan and southern Fujian? From student reports, the difference is minimal - the difference, maybe, between American English and British English. Some words and phrases are different and the accent is quite varied but they're generally mutually understandable.

The next point is a little less obvious, but still quite true: Taiwanese has a plethora of vocabulary that is quite different from that of Minnanhua. Huge swaths of even the most basic vocabulary for everyday communication is completely different. By completely different, I mean from an entirely different language. The most basic subsets of Dai-gi vocabulary do not come from Fujian; they come from Japan.

Here's just a short list of the ones I've discovered so far (some of which were brought to my attention by my friend Joseph, whose Taiwanese is better than mine...for now):

Dai-fu - doctor
Sian-si / Sian-sei - Teacher (from "sensei", which one student says came from "xiansheng"...?)
neku tai'u - necktie, from English via Japanese
hinoki - redwood, clearly from Japanese...the Japanese loved consuming the cypress tree resources of Taiwan
obasan - an older woman, also from Japanese

I could see the argument that having a few vocabulary words borrowed from Japanese makes no difference in the relatedness of Taiwanese and southern Fujianese...and indeed in terms of basic structure or language family lineage, it doesn't. Just like English isn't any more closely related to French than it was when it evolved simply because we borrowed a bunch of words from it.

However, I'd also note that English is a decidedly different language from a lot of languages spoken across northern Europe (most strikingly, Icelandic, which apparently is closer to Old English than the English we speak now is) and one for that is the sheer weight of word borrowings from other languages. There's also the fact that the words that come from Japanese seem to be the most basic vocabulary - we're not talking high-falutin' words or 'elite' or 'literary' terms (the way Korean borrows a lot of Chinese), we're talking words like "doctor", "teacher" and "old lady".

Seems to me that this makes a pretty good case for Minnanhua and Dai-gi to be dialects, not identical languages. But like I said, I'm no Linguist.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Taiwan's own Dream Job

So Taiwan has gone ahead and decided to hold a contest similar to "the best job in the world", which has been making waves around the globe.

Applications will be accepted as of June 1st - 50 teams will be chosen to travel around Taiwan for four days and blog about their experiences, and will be paid NT $7,000 per day to do so. Of those 50, the tourism bureau will choose one and pay them a whopping NT $1 million (not the same as US$1 million but definitely not to be sneezed at - that's a very comfortable sum that most Taiwanese do not make in a year). For that $1 million, they will travel around Taiwan for a month and blog every day about their experiences.

Dude. I am so there. I love talking about how great Taiwan is and uploading lots of photos to prove it. I've said before - after a few beers, mind you - that the tourism department should hire me as their creative director in charge of promoting Taiwan in the West. It'd be fantastic if someone wanted to pay me to do that. I just broached the subject of applying with Brendan and he's all for it, too. Yay!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Postcards from Jiufen


A few weeks ago, we took my kid sister to Jiufen - she's here for a year, studying at Zhengda's Chinese language learning center, and has never been to either Jiufen or Jinguashi. We only made it to Jiufen (though we had planned to visit both towns) because we ended up climbing Keelung Mountain and it took us well into twilight to do so.

Getting to Jiufen was an adventure in itself. We arrived at Taipei 's Main's railway platform at 10:42am, exactly two minutes after the local train to Ruifang had departed. The next one wasn't coming for an hour. Why did we get there so late? We all agreed that we wanted to sleep in a little and not drag ourselves out of bed at 7am. Rather than wait on the platform for an hour (b-o-r-i-n-g) and giving our day a sour start, we boarded the next train, which terminated at Qidu, figuring we'd find a way to Jiufen from there.

When we got to Qidu, all seemed lost - we were simply going to have to wait 40 minutes for that same local to Ruifang (the base from which to take a bus/taxi to Jiufen). The station master didn't know of any other way. Fortunately, at that moment, a nice girl who grew up in the area was heading through the station on the way to visit her mother. She told us that the place where she was planning to meet her siblings to head to their laojia (ancestral home) happened to have a bus stop where the bus to Jiufen came. Woohoo! We climbed in a taxi with her and her recently-rescued stray cat, Meimei, and headed for a 7-11 on the border of Taipei and Keelung Counties (what else would you expect to be there?). She met her siblings, all of whom had adorable pets in tow, and we gave her some cash for the taxi and boarded the bus to Jiufen, which came soon after. Success!

Below are some photos:


Clay masks along the 'stair street' at Jiufen...most people who've been there have passed this house. Someday I really will go inside.



Jiufen and Jinguashi are noted for having lots of old-style houses, most of which have been coverted into museums, teahouses, cafes and other tourist amenities. While I prefer authenticity to convenience, I guess it's a better fate than being torn down or cascading into ruin.

Brendan and I have been to Jiufen several times (I believe this was my fourth visit) but as Becca hadn't, and wanted to buy gifts, souvenirs etc. from Taiwan, we took her down the tourist street. While I'm not too fond of it (you can get the same stuff almost anywhere) I do like their fancypants soap store, which sells great facial soaps made from herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine. I also got a new pair of beaded flipflops for summer and a travel accessory bag made of fake 'Chinese silk'.

The good thing about the market is that there are also lots of different foods on offer. We particularly liked the cup of squid and the deep fried chunks of giant mushroom.

Delicious beans!


Gooey snacks - if you look at the colors, you can see that she's making taro and sweet potato goo-balls, which is a popular flavor combination in Taiwan. And, for some reason I've never figured out, Taiwanese people seem to love gooey snacks...the chewier the better.

The bad thing is that on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, it was packed to the point where even the Taiwanese people there thought it was too crowded (wow). There were times when you couldn't move at all. A good warning to try and visit on a weekday, if at all possible.


Crowds and crowds

Afterwards, hot and tired from the pushing crowd, but well-fed on squid and fried mushrooms, we headed to one of Jiufen's famous teahouses to relax in the sun and have a cold drink. We were the only ones out on the deck except for a couple lounging under the awning, far from the sun...another thing locals seem to hate is getting a tan. But after a winter of clouds and drizzle, we were basking in it.




Traditional buildings have mostly been converted into teahouses. Above is one with Keelung Mountain in the background.


Doesn't that iced green tea look great?




From our balcony perspective, we also got to enjoy Jiufen's famous views over the northeast coast (I actually prefer Jinguashi's views to an extent, but Jiufen's are lovely too).

Afterwards, as the afternoon waned, we decided that we had just enough time to make it to the top of Keelung Mountain and back before sunset. Keelung Mountain is shown in the background of one of the photos above, and it doesn't look all that difficult, does it?

Did we really think we'd have time to make it up and back this late in the day?

Well, it's not a tough climb, per se, but it is all stairs which meant that my knees were creaking as we ascended. It also took longer than we thought.

On the road to the trailhead

Along the way, you can see views of Jiufen on one side and Jinguashi on the other, with strategically placed pagodas from which to view them both. At ground level, the lower levels of the mountain are littered with tiny shrines. As you ascend, the view expands on either end to include Bitou Cape on one side and Keelung City on the other.

Jinguashi on one side...



...and Jiufen on the other

Me and Brendan with a view of Jinguashi's coastline

Tiny shrines dot the sides of Keelung Mountain

Pagodas on the way up give you a chance to rest and enjoy the view.


This may not look like much, but look in the wide valley on the righthand side. Do you see a little stick poking out? That's Taipei 101, as seen from the north coast of Taiwan!

Views of Jinguashi

The sun set on our way down.

As you can see, we didn't quite make it up and back before sunset. It got darker as we descended, and by the time we hit the final pagoda, night had fallen. We walked the rest of the way with barely any illumination, but with the lights of the northeast coast twinkling in front of us, and those of ships out to sea behind us. In the distance we could see the city of Keelung lit up brightly.

We took the bus to Keelung Night Market for dinner, though after all that snacking we weren't very hungry. But Keelung is a great night market spot, so we made room for some delicious, fresh seafood.


Lots of oranges!


Mmmm, sea urchin sashimi. My favorite!

We had sea urchins (visible above), cream crabs (crabs cooked in cream and butter with onions and other seasonings), clams, sweet potato leaves and beer. It was delicious!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Up Late Again

Some xiao tou stole the headlight on my bike (a flashlight-style thing that screws...well, screwed...onto the handlebars). They unscrewed it a bit, popped out the light, and left the screw mechanism on the bar.

It's not a big deal, but I'm still quite annoyed.

So here's my dilemma. Do I:

A.) Forget it, buy a new NT$100 light and remove it each night to store in our apartment when I park the bike in our building's foyer;

B.) Call my landlady's niece and ask her what the right move would be, since the thief almost certainly lives in our building;

C.) A, but Krazy-Glue the new flashlight to the screw-thing. I'd add some bike-chain oil so any potential thieves would get their hands messed up, but that might cause me to inadvertently mess my own hands up.

or

D.) Write a brusk note in Chinese that says "Dear Thief: Why did you steal my bike light? Did you think it was an OK thing to do? Could you not just buy your own light? It's not only aggravating, it's shameful. Did your mother raise you to have such bad morals? Is this the impression you want foreigners to have of Taiwan? Please return it and I won't ask who you are. Or don't return it...and bite me. Sincerely, your foreigner 'friend' upstairs."

(Yes, I can knock out an acceptable translation of that in Chinese, and according to Sasha, 'bite me' is acceptable as a literal translation in Taiwan. Woo!)

Friday, May 8, 2009

Up Late

...so ruminating a bit before bed.

Ever feel like you're sitting on a small island, coddled by mountains, only to realize that not too far away are the knife-drop of cliffs that dive straight into a deep, roiling, expansive and inexplicable sea?

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Two Great, No, Amazing Restaurants

1.) Hui Guan
#15 Lane 265, Xinyi Road (just north of Tonghua Road)

You know when you read a restaurant review in the paper, how you normally think "Oh that sounds nice" and file it away in your mind to try it later, or at best tear it out of the paper and set it aside to check out at some unspecified future date? That's how we usually are, too.

But then the Taipei Times recently reviewed this place (by recently, I mean "yesterday") and instead of our usual "let's keep that in mind" interest, something about it made us sit up and say "We're going to go here. Tomorrow." And boy are we glad we did!

The food is, simply put, amazing. It's "Chinese Muslim" food from Ningxia, and while some dishes are obviously Chinese (the fiery hot sesame chicken), others taste as though they came straight out of Xinjiang or even further west, from the 'stans (the diced mutton with peppers, onions, celery, cumin and salted bread, or the mini-kebabs). While not exactly the same as Uighur food, each bite did bring back some sweet memories of my trip to Xinjiang in 2003, specifically reminiscences of all the wonderful food I horfed down (yes, "horf" is the correct verb here. When food is that good, you don't eat, you horf.)

And horf is what we did at Hui Guan. From the time that the friendly waiter came up to us and made sure we were happy with our order to the time all the food was done and we were picking at the delicious dregs of it over a final bottle of Taiwan Beer, we shoveled all that tastiness into our gaping maws like crazed competitive eaters. Between the four of us, we horfed down three fen (servings) of mini lamb kebabs, the diced cumin-flavored mutton with vegetables and bread, sesame chicken, glutinous bean paste noodles in chili oil and vinegar, a huge cold salad with a vinegary dressing and rice vermicelli, two sour xiao chi and several bottles of Taiwan beer.

Be prepared for a wait - other customers told me that even before they were reviewed in the Taipei Times, the place was quite popular with a loyal following and tables could rarely be gotten immediately. There's nowhere to wait inside, but outside there's a pet grooming store with a few cute dogs in the window to distract you while you loiter outside.

Taipei has some seriously good food, but I have to say that this ranks as one of the best meals I've ever had in this city. That's saying a lot.

2.) Some Korean restaurant in Shida that's really good
Some lane off Shida Road - on the righthand side as you enter from Roosevelt, down a few lanes, before the 7-11 and right around where that guy sells socks on a blanket in the poorly-lit section of sidewalk.

It's authentic Korean food. 'Nuff said. It's not cheap - it'll set you back at least a few hundred NT per person, but the barbecue is the real thing, as is the dolsot bibimbap (which comes in a real dolsot, or hot stone bowl) and the toepboki (glutinous tasty things in sweet spicy red sauce) and all the soju on offer, as well as the bowls and bowls of free kimchi snacks you get with each meal.

There are plenty of not-so-authentic Korean restaurants in Taipei, and some of them are pretty good. I rather like the one in the 101 food court, which is nothing like actual Korean food but hey, it's not bad. The other place - the famous one next to Out of India in Shida, which always has a line, is also perfectly good, but it's not real Korean food - it's tailored to Taiwanese tastes. You'd think with so many Koreans in Taipei and Korea being so close that they'd have more options for 'the real deal' (I mean there aren't many Ningxia Muslims in Taipei, but they managed a really good restaurant serving their food!)...but I guess not.

So, I highly recommend this place, as does Brendan, who lived in Korea for a few years before coming to Taipei. If anyone in my social circle knows his Korean food, it's him, and he gave it a thumbs-up for taste and authenticity.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Reason #6 to Love (?) Taiwan

Happy Labor Day, everyone!

Today I only had Chinese class, which meant I could wear jeans and a t-shirt covered in Engrish ("Hot Space Station Justice") and ride my bike to Shi-da at my leisure instead of donning work clothes and taking the bus or MRT. I tried an alternate route and took the riverside park trail up to Guting, then rode up Tong An street to Heping Road, which I took over to Shida. I didn't like hauling my bike up the ramp, though, so I took my usual route home (Wenzhou Street - NTU - lanes to the west of Roosevelt Road - Jingmei).

The weather was also unbelievably gorgeous. Clear skies, light wind, warm sun, I even got a bit of a sunburn on my arms. It was so nice that on my way back, I decided that I couldn't possibly just disembark at home and go inside. So I turned my bike around and went out exploring the lanes and back-alleys in my neighborhood.

That's what brings me to my next "reason to love Taipei". While the reason isn't Jingmei specifically, it is neighborhoods and backstreets in general. Mine are Jingmei, but I mean your neighborhood and your backstreets.

I love how riding or walking from a major road into a lane-filled neighborhood brings about a palpable difference in sound levels. Once you make that turn you leave behind most of the cars and other noise, and it's replaced mostly by silence on weekdays, especially in late morning and mid-afternoon. That silence isn't diminished by the sounds that punctuate it - if anything, it's augmented. Quiet, except for someone dumping out a bucket of water, or a restaurant laoban chopping up pig parts, or a housewife hanging up wet clothes on a balcony, or one lone scooter meandering along.

South of Keelung Road, the lanes leading down to Jingmei are blessed with lengths of long, tree-lined parks. Starting south from the Broadway movie theater, I ride past the Shi-da branch and turn into the lane (past one of my favorite Hakka noodle joints and a place called Eco Coffee which I haven't tried yet). Greeting me immediately is the faint whoosh of leaves in the breeze, as large old gnarlies with Spanish moss hanging from the branches sway back and forth. The only people I generally encounter down there are the occasional children with parents, or pensioners with dogs.

After enjoying a leisurely ride home past the parks - I think there are three in all and all of them are very long and narrow - I kept going past my own door and stopped to talk to Auntie Wu.

My post earlier in the week on obasan was modeled somewhat on Auntie Wu and her...uh...group? Posse? Crew? Gaggle? Homeys? Sistahs? Social Club? She lives on the second floor of an old-style apartment building with her ancient dog, Mao Mao ("Fur-fur"), who has more fur than he has body mass and who is covered in several benign tumors...so I guess his name is appropriate. There are five or six old chairs in the covered area in front of the apartment, and at any given time Auntie Wu is sitting there with Mao Mao and up to five other women of equally advanced age. They've sort of welcomed me into their gang, with the initiation rites being when Mao Mao decided he liked me. Not as much as the beef noodle laoban next door who gives him leftover cow chunks, mind you, but he likes me well enough even though I don't come bearing hunks of fatty beef for him to eat. The ladies are kind enough to speak Chinese when I am around, but it's obvious that they are more comfortable in the more expressive twangs of Taiwanese. Auntie Wu also used to speak Japanese (having been educated in it - she's that old) and Hakka (from having a family relation who is Hakka, though she herself is not), but says she's since forgotten both.

Besides being a lovely older woman to chat with, a way to get to know the goings-on in my neighborhood (old women know everything - if you haven't already figured this out you don't belong in Asia), and a way to improve my Chinese, Auntie Wu is also one of a dying breed. Sadly, I mean that just as literally as I do metaphorically. There aren't too many people left who remember the Japanese colonial years well enough to have been educated in Japanese, and they are a trove of stories and first-person history that Taiwan is slowly, inevitably losing. She remembers years where most women wore kimonos and nobody spoke Mandarin. She remembers the tumultuous decades between the Japanese ceding Taiwan and the economic miracle, when she was afraid for her life under the White Terror. She remembers when Jingmei's name didn't mean "Scenery Beautiful" but was Taiwanese - Ging Mbi - for "End of the River" and was its own little self-contained settlement, though technically a part of Taipei by that time.

Aside from genuinely being her friend, I feel grateful to have this chance to learn about the history of my neighborhood from someone who saw it with her own eyes, and someone who, frankly speaking, won't be around much longer...and neither will her friends, who flock - well, who walk slowly - to the chairs under her awning each day.

You can still see the shadow - the vague charcoal tracing - of Ging Mbi if you look closely enough. Don't stare at the front of the buildings you pass, look at the sides. Old brick or cement building lines - the kind you still see at the edges of the Old Streets of more touristy areas, are still there. Old walls with capstones on either side of the roof. Curved corner buildings reminiscent of earlier times. Two-level shophouses obscured now by advertisements and store signs. Most people who drive through never notice, but if you turn into the lanes you can still see plenty of century-old brick walls traditional tiled roofs. There are even a few farmhouse-type buildings still around, tucked into corners, surviving because the families who built them still have descendants who live there. There's one with a small but distinct courtyard just north of Sanfu Street and another hidden by low trees on the edge of the hard-to-find Wanqing Park. Look more closely at some of the stores and it'll become quickly clear that many of them have been around a lot longer than their present incarnations give away, from a time when Ging Mbi had its own little 'downtown'.

At about 5:30pm Auntie Wu decided to retire for the evening ("I've also got to pee," she said in her mix of Taiwanese-Chinese , before heading up) and I hopped on my bike to explore some new areas.

I rode down past the Wellcome and to the area where Jingfu Street hits the elevated highway. Stopping at Wanqing Park, I noticed for the first time that the little old house on the edge of it also attracts its own group of old folks who sit outside and chat. One of them had a daschund who crawled into my lap and napped there while I sat.

"You're that girl who spends time with Old Wu and her group, aren't you?"
"That's me. I didn't know you knew Auntie Wu."
"Everyone knows Old Wu. She's been here for longer than many of us have been alive. She has seven kids, you know."
"I know. Her daughter brings her to the doctor and I know she has at least two sons living up by Xingnan Street."
"I know you know Old Wu because Dou Dou" (the aforementioned daschund, whose name translates into 'Bean-bean' or 'Pimple') "can smell Mao Mao very clearly. He's so nice to you because he can tell you were petting Mao Mao."

As the sun began to set I bade the new group of retirees farewell and set off towards a temple roof I'd seen in the distance, which I believe I'd seen from Jingfu Street before but had never been able to get to. Starting from Wanqing Park, I finally found out where the entrance was after weaving through a little colony of single-story houses with old brick walls out front.

The temple was a good metaphor for Jingmei itself. The building was clearly new, with the signature ugly metal awning out front and bathroom tiles on the inside. My guess was that it had been built in the '80s. Looking inside, however, the artifacts within weren't immediately apparent to the eye but once noted, were clearly far older. The temple was to Qingshui Zhuce, whose name I can pronounce but can't spell in Pinyin, and whom I can only remember because it sounds like "Clearwater Registration" in Chinese. There were several da sen - tal god costumes - and quite a few shorter costumes with odd faces. I found one of the only female 'tall gods' that I've ever seen, and she looks like a transvestite. Don't worry, I'll come back and post photos. The bathroom-tile walls were punctuated by strips of wooden sculpture that were clearly over a century old and the shrines themselves were carved in the old Fujian style, dark wood (these were painted) with lots of dragons and such. I asked the Temple Guy (every temple has one) what the deal was, and found that the temple had been on its current site for at least 200 years, but the building was deemed too small and was expanded in the '80s, as I'd guessed.

There'll be a processional with their own tall gods - including the transvestite one - on the 15th day of the 4th lunar month (that's Saturday, May 9) if anyone wishes to go.

On the way home, I took a spin back through the riverside park - the road from the temple heads straight to one of the entrances - and stopped at a bakery I like. The owner and I got into a discussion about the large shrine above the cash register and she explained to me in some detail how one can go about getting those idols - just like the kind in temples - carved for your personal shrine. There are still people, one of whom is in Jingmei, who do that for a living, and next time she goes to get one made, she promised, she'd give me a call so I could arrange to watch some of the carving. Awesome!

Anyway, I hope this post has made you think about your own neighborhood and backstreets, who lives there, what's hidden in the corners and in the faded outlines of streetscapes and how you can better understand its history. I feel privileged to live here as more than a passing traveler, to learn more about one tiny corner of a city beyond how to get from a hotel room to a point on a map, to chat with people as more than just a passing acquaintance and to know that when (if) I ever leave, I'll miss it as though it were my own home town, even though where I was really born is about as far from Ging Mbi as one can get.