Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Low Marriage Rate in Taiwan: Part I

I mentioned that I'd like to share my thoughts on the link at the bottom of this post, about a girl in Taipei who's chosen to marry herself. Apparently at first her mother wasn't convinced but is now on board with the idea, and she's doing it not only to stick her tongue out at the pressure she's feeling to marry, but also:

"I was just hoping that more people would love themselves," said Chen, who will go on a solo honeymoon to Australia.

The short of my observation is that this is a wonderful thing - she's throwing a small party, frankly a party that's smaller than some birthday parties I've had. She's not wasting money or turning it into a Princess Day. She loves herself and is not afraid to say so. I think it's a bold step to publicly vow to be good to yourself, to love and cherish yourself, and to laughingly tell naysayers to shove off.

The comments in this article are, shall I say, mostly very unkind. It was reposted to a forum I frequent where there were no horrifying, imbecilic comments about her looks, weight and age there (I won't re-post any comments from the article here because they don't deserve the bandwidth) - a few people mentioned the Princess Complex and a few said she might be angling for gifts, but mostly there was a more positive reaction.

I tend to agree with this kinder take on things, because living in the same city as Chen, I've made a few observations about women and marriage expectations.

First of all, while it is true that many Asian women bear the brunt of a social stigma called "Christmas Cake" ("nobody wants it after the 25th" - UGH), I have to say that in Taipei city I don't really see this pressure; at least, it's not as strong as many people assume it is. It certainly exists, and I'll cover that below.

I have several good female friends who are between the ages of 28 and 35 and none of them are married. I've actually never been to a wedding in Taiwan because nobody I know well here has gotten married - they're all about 30 and all single! Some have boyfriends, some don't. All seem to be fairly content, although all do share a desire to find someone to share their life with - not because they're expected to, but because hey, who doesn't want love and companionship? (A few people, but that's a different debate). Several of my students and tangential acquaintances of students I've met have expressed a strong desire not to marry. Not "oh, it doesn't matter" or "I don't care" but I DO NOT WANT TO MARRY.

Now, on this other really excellent blog post on women and marriage in Taiwan, not just the post but the comments (especially David's) are really thoughtful: With regards to the lack of material on Google Scholar I will relate a small anecdote. A certain sociology lecturer at NCCU spent an entire semester presenting graphs and tables about marriage rates, fertility rates and female participation in the workforce. Yet she failed to offer a single theory or explanation for any of the trends. It's easy to draw the graphs and identify the trends, but not so easy to understand exactly why.

And Okami: I think the key part they really miss and I get this from talking with lots of Taiwanese women is the total sense of insecurity and lose of control that marriage entails for them.

And finally, in the post itself: In many of the articles I have read the unmarried young woman is typically portrayed as a sort of Taipei Career Girl independent, with her own income. However, authors above note that the reality is more prosaic -- the epidemic of non-marriage is silent and rural, the class that doesn't appear interviewed by researchers or in the media. Foreign brides aren't filling a gap but displacing Taiwanese women at the bottom of the ladder.

I'm focusing mostly on the Taipei Career Girl, because that's my observable reality. That's who my female Taiwanese friends are. And while Michael's post was very insightful, I did notice a dearth of actual Taiwanese females coming to weigh in on the topic (not Michael's or anyone's fault). However, I will try to drum up a few thoughts on the rural implications of this trend.

It's Not Work That's Dissuasive

In my observation, Taipei girls are a lot like Chen - a lot quirkier, more thoughtful and more interesting (and more mature) than one thinks at first glance, but stuck in a culture of "好可愛喔!" and Hello Kitty, trapped in office jobs they don't actually like - who would, given the long hours and dull projects handed to most Taiwanese office workers? - a culture very hard for them to throw off for a few reasons. First, on some level they actually like cute things, like Hello Kitty and those little bobblehead cartoons with very expressive faces (I used to know what they were called - anyone?), and genuinely don't realize that festooning their cubicles with 7-11 toys does, in fact, obscure the insightful and intelligent side of their personalities. Second, it's almost a double-pronged attack with those horrific office jobs. There's family pressure to get one (Mom: "Be an accountant. You'll always have an income. It's very safe." Daughter: "But I hate everything about accounting - the math, the forms, the long hours." Mom: "Just do it. You'll understand when you're older." Trainer: "So why'd you become an accountant?" Daughter: "Because my mother told me to.") Family pressure can be especially hard to shake in Taipei. There's also still a sense of work and work ethic that is starting to change in the USA and Europe but remains firmly embedded in Taiwanese culture: the idea that you are not supposed to *like* your job - it's what you do to earn a living and support a family because you *have* to, because it's just what's done and there is no other choice. It's a very Silent Generation mentality, one that we Gen X/Millenials (I'm on the cusp between the two and thus can be very confused at times!) are turning on its head.

In fact, when looking at office workers - in general, even though my intention is to focus on female office workers, I see a lot of similarities between them and the attributes commonly ascribed to the Silent Generation. This turning-on-the-head of the notion of the silent hard worker whose goal in life is to make enough to support a reasonable lifestyle and nothing more just hasn't made it to Taiwan yet, and I see it affecting women more than men. Why? I can't put my finger on why, but my intuition leads me to embedded cultural sexism. Sons have greater autonomy in what they study as long as it's adequately remunerative. Daughters are told to study accounting, and not really expected to be anything more than OLs (Office Ladies - think gophers and low-level managers or coordinators). In fact, in my observation, to make it from Office Lady to Manager, a woman has to basically be a bitch by Taiwanese cultural standards.

Side note: it's been really interesting, in this cultural milieu, to see the reaction of my students to the ideas presented in this TED talk about the need for autonomy, mastery and purpose in a career.

So what I have found is that my friends (generally in their early 30s and generally Office Ladies) aren't dissuaded from marriage by lofty career goals. Their non-married status has little to do with the jobs they work every day and generally do not like. So I don't buy into the idea of the Taipei Career Girl who doesn't get married because she's got high-flying career ambitions.

Of course there are always exceptions, and I can name a few of my own. I have had several very high-ranking female students who are unmarried by choice or necessity (as in, they'd be married if they met the right guy and could keep their career going, but that didn't happen). One who is corporate counsel, another who is an HR Director. Etc. etc. Those are the women who don't marry because of their career - not the average Office Lady.

I should note here that career prospects for Taiwanese women, before and after marriage, are much better than the rest of Asia - it's still not a perfect situation but then the USA has a problem with glass ceilings, salary disparities and skewed expectations, too. Compared to women in Japan, China and Korea, Taiwanese women have a good thing going and are clearly enjoy greater equality.

That's a topic for a different post, though.

Could it be the men?

Among my female friends in Taipei, it has a lot more to do with men they'd want to marry vs. men who are eligible, and their own selves compared against the Taiwanese Female Ideal is maybe a little less than favorable -which I find ridiculous, but I find all Ideals - male, female, any culture, ridiculous. Unlike the commenters in the article, I agree with the rationales of these friends: there is something to be said for "the world is changing and the men just aren't keeping up". I've heard of mothers urging daughters to be "quieter - no man wants a blabbermouth. Men like quiet girls". I've heard of dates in which the man pulled out a calculator to split up the tab exactly down the middle. (For the record, I am not against going Dutch even on a first date. Just that bringing out a calculator to do it? Really? Seriously? That's just sad and cheap.) I've been told about breakups instigated because the boyfriend wanted his girlfriend to be more demure, to not appear smarter than him in public, to never one-up him, and ultimately to be a good wife who would continue to work and yet still do all of the housework and raise the children.

Unlike commenters on the original article who said that a woman of 30 with a checklist and no boyfriend ought to look inward to see the problem, I think having standards that necessitate avoiding such men is crucial, and a laudable step in the progress of women's rights. No woman should have to put up with those expectations. Much better to hold out for someone who loves you for you, not to change yourself into something you don't even recognize so you can marry before 30.

This is one reason why I love the Chen article - she is who she is. She's doing something brash and ballsy, she's not horfing diet pills in an attempt to resemble a 5'3" Bic pen the way many Taiwanese girls do, and she loves herself. She's not buying into those sad, worn-out sexist ideas. She's not being fake-quiet or self-loathing...if anything, she's doing a great thing by making vows to herself, to love herself and stay true to herself. I've just got to love that.

I think a lot of women in Taipei feel similarly, even if they don't express it in such a public stunt. There is a slowly awakening awareness in women that they shouldn't have to change who they are to fit an outdated ideal, and I can only regard that as positive. The idea that more people should love themselves really hits home - if you need to change who you are to find a man, how can you love yourself if you don't even act like who you are? The fact that Chen is willing to publicly, semi-tongue-in-cheek-but-not-really buck this trend is, if anything, a good sign.

Societal Expectations of a Married Woman's Responsibilities

One thing I do have to say - at least in Taipei there are still issues regarding household chores and child-rearing, as well as of living with and kowtowing to in-laws - but the issues of drinking, abuse, binlang-chewing etc. are minimal. I do, however, believe that these are huge issues rurally (especially domestic abuse - it's a much bigger problem in rural areas than Taipei City).

Taiwan has done an excellent job, compared to other Asian countries, of integrating a feminist perspective into society. Women here have more freedom, more leeway, fewer expectations piled on them and more choice and earning power (and respect) than in pretty much every Asian country. When you compare Taiwan to Japan, Korea or Mainland China, it just kind of makes one sad for Japanese, Korean and Chinese women when you look at all they don't have that Taiwanese women do. There has been a huge change in parental desires to have daughters/sons - daughters are now usually welcomed. They get the same or similar education as their brothers. Nobody finds it odd, at least in Taipei, if they continue to work after marriage. They're not expected to be baby machines except by their grandparents.

However, expectations regarding housework and child-rearing are still a problem - it is apparent in my observation that a lot of women are not marrying for exactly that reason. They may not love their jobs but neither do they love housework, and at least working outside the home entails independence and a salary. Who does, really? They may well expect to live with parents-in-law who expect her to do all the cleaning and a husband who does not help. They often see themselves with a baby that they get little assistance with.

One student of mine said that he'd steer his son towards a well-paid career because he'd have a family to support, but encourage his daughter to study "art, or whatever she likes" because "she will probably get married and have babies". There it is right there.

For women who are beginning to gain a more egalitarian view of the world, is it not excruciatingly obvious why they would choose not to take that path? I would say, far more so than the "Taipei Career Girl" myth, that this is why women in Taipei are hesitant to marry. Would any women reading this right now feel like doing anything other than running the other way if confronted with that set of expectations - you can keep working. In fact, you should keep working. But cleaning the house is also women's work. And taking care of the kids. Oh and my mom is going to come live with us. No, she's not going to help you clean and neither is my dad. (I have to say to this that I have the best in-laws ever and I can only wish others are so lucky).

So the question here is - why haven't Taiwanese men caught up? (More on that below).

Expectations of Appearance

At least one friend has commented that being of darker skin, having very "Asian" eyes and having a figure - a really great figure by Western standards, with all the right curves - instead of being a stick insect has made it hard to find interested men. This just makes me sad. Another friend, whom I happen to think is gorgeous, is a little thicker-waisted but is kind, sociable and intelligent enough that I just refuse to accept that this should be a problem, is also judged harshly by the impossible standards of appearance for Taiwanese women.

All I have to do to conclude that those standards are horrific and, honestly, stacked against most women is look in the beauty section of Cosmed or check the average sizes in boutiques. When Size 8 is "XL" and you need skin bleach, fake eyelashes and glitter gloss to even compete, something is wrong. Then again, where in the world is this not true?

Yet another reason why I love the Chen article - despite the ridiculous comments that she's "overweight", I think that unlike many of the women here to starve themselves (some really are naturally that thin, btw. I don't mean to deride all skinny women in Taiwan) she looks healthy and natural, and she's not letting any expectations about her appearance get in the way of her happiness.

Foreign Brides and Xiao Taitais

This is also an issue, and I think may be the central one on why Taiwanese men just plain have not caught up to the feminist, equalist reality in their own country. To be fair, many have. In the course of my job and social life I've gotten to know quite a few Taiwanese men in a range of ages, careers and backgrounds. A large number of them are, in fact, quite enlightened and receptive to women's equality. I do not mean to tarnish all Taiwanese men...the population I mean here is, if anything, in the minority in Taipei.

This is one issue that I think is split between rural and urban. Taiwanese men who have a Xiao Taitai (a second wife/family in China, where he travels frequently for work) tend to be urban, as they are the ones with the types of jobs that send them abroad on business. I don't see many foreign brides in Taipei, but I know this is a huge issue rurally. (Foreign brides meaning Southeast Asian or Chinese women who come to Taiwan to marry Taiwanese men).

Simply put, if you are a Taiwanese man who is not disposed to or educated to appreciate women's rights, if you can go to China to visit your more traditionally-minded wife or import a wife from abroad who will be basically a maid who shares your bed, there is no push, no necessity, no impetus to gain that respect or at least investigate why Taiwanese women act the way they do, and look inward on your own beliefs vs. those of the modern world.

Does the pressure to marry really exist?

With articles detailing how more and more women not persuaded that married life is better than single life, mothers not encouraging women to marry etc. I'd say least in Taipei the pressure is not that strong. I actually view this as a good thing - in the long term, not feeling pressure to marry means that if you actually do marry, you'll be marrying someone you truly want to be with (like me! heee) instead of a "He'll do". No person - male or female - should feel "pressure" to marry. Ever.

There's also my whole cohort of anecdotal evidence - my single, 30-something Taiwanese female friends don't show any outward pressure. One has been with her boyfriend for ages and is clearly not rushing to the altar. One goes on dates and says she gets flak from her mother and boss, but doesn't seem to feel any intrinsic pressure. None feel compelled by the Christmas Cake myth.

It's there, for sure, but like Chen, while they may feel extrinsic pressure, they don't feel intrinsic pressure. They take their mothers and grandmothers, if those older relatives are pressuring them, with a grain of salt.


What I'd like to see is more general education and public awareness on gender equality - not just aimed at reducing domestic abuse, homewrecking alcoholism and the Xiao Taitai culture. It should also cover the things that get to the root of the problem: the need for equality, gender issues (both related to stereotypes of men and women - there's anti-male sexism too, y'know), the importance of respect and shared housework, shared child-rearing, and good communication with extended well as a basic respect for equality in the workplace.

Heck, I'd like to see this stuff in the USA, too.

Then, and only then, do I think Taipei will see an increase in the marriage rate.

As for rural Taiwan, the post at The View from Taiwan is exactly right - it's the same problem but with very different consequences and very different roots. I don't live in rural Taiwan and don't have female friends who grew up in rural Taiwan (I do have a few students who did, mostly male, and females who are in fact married) so I don't feel comfortable delving into that, given a dearth of experience and observation.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Thoughts and a Feature!

So, since I've had more free time after the wedding (not because women are expected to plan weddings and men can sit back and do nothing, but because I am a natural manager and planner and Brendan worked hard, too!) I've been thinking about what I'd like to do with this blog - how I'd like to edge it along and give it a real niche in the blogosphere beyond "oh yeah, this blog is just because I feel like writing about...y'know...stuff".

Speaking of which, we got featured on another site, which anyone interested in this sort of thing should definitely check out for its own sake: Brave Wedding: Jenna and Brendan's Cross Continent Challenge

Anyway, I've been working through this not because I really care about a high readership - though that is nice - but because it just makes for better writing and better readability to work within a somewhat-defined structure, as long as I can sketch out said structure myself.

What I've come up with is this: I'd like to keep it as a travel blog, outlining things we do and things to do in Taipei and Taiwan in general, and definitely keep up the restaurant reviews, day trip and travel posts and info posts on where to find things in Taipei and Taiwan, be they a great view or a pair of shoes that fit.


I'd also like to nudge it a bit more down the path of being a blog about women, life and feminism in Asia: a bit about the culture, thoughts, lives and expectations of Taiwanese women, yes...but more about something I can write on with authority - being a female expat in Asia. There aren't that many of us, but those of us who are here don't seem to have many resources and everything from clothes shopping to social opportunities to dating are limited in ways that it may be hard to articulate and work around, and harder still to find information on (just try asking about large size women's office shoes on Forumosa. I did. Ay yay yay).

What I mean by this is not just more posts on where to get good haircuts, clothes that look good and shoes (though that's great, too, and I will definitely keep that up), but on life for expat women in Asia more generally: covering topics more related to feminism and psyche, workarounds for tough situations, and frank thoughts on life in what is, to some degree, a sexist culture. (OK, compared to the rest of Asia, Taiwan does not have a sexist culture at all. Opportunities for women here are amazing and women earn respect that women in China, Korea, Japan etc. just don't enjoy. But there is still a traditional and somewhat sexist undertone to a lot of things in Taiwan and I feel that does need to be addressed from a female expat's point of view).

So...I guess what I am trying to say is to expect more of that in the future.

On that note, though not really related to the goals outlined above, I thought I'd share this:

Taipei Woman Marries Herself

More thoughts on that tomorrow. Tonight, I am off to maybe crack a bottle of wine with my sweet and wonderful husband and watch The Daily Show and Colbert Report broadcasting from The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear because I'm young and liberal and hip like that.

Day Trip To Xizhi II

End of a rally for Tsai Ying-wen ("English Tsai"!) in Xizhi on Sunday

Building on this post about "climbing" Da Jian Mountain in Xizhi (汐止), this is about our return to Xizhi this past Sunday.

I know, Xizhi. I told my students that I went there on Sunday and they returned with..."Why?"

"I don't know," I replied honestly, with a smile.

There are things, however, to do in Xizhi. I know. I know. But there are. When we arrived, we grabbed a taxi to a waterfall right by the road up Dajian Mountain. We'd been to the other well-known falls down a path near the temple up there (the one with gorgeous rocks with water flowing over them like a sculpture in a fancy office building) - but this one was to the left of the main road, down another road that no bus goes down, and is quite literally right by the road, up a few easy stairs.

One of the waterfalls on the slopes of Da Jian Mountain in Xizhi

We took a taxi because I have a problem with my right foot (inflamed tendon) and can't walk for long distance, and it is about a 1km walk down the road off the main road, which is fronted by a gate with a pubescent security guard. I forget the name of the waterfall but will try to find out and come back and post it, or the friend who came with us could comment here!

The falls are quite pretty and worth a quick visit - one pool looks swimmable though we didn't try, and there are several tables for lovely picnics, and it's easy to get to. There are several layers of falls, meaning there's a lot to see, and there is theoretically a path up to the very top but thanks to the recent rains it was all mud and unwalkable (I didn't even try with my foot in the condition it's in, but our friend and my husband did).

We then took the taxi down to 慈航紀念堂 (not sure about those characters - it's "Ci Hang Ji Nian Tang"), a temple and monastery on the lower slopes of the mountain. We started at a small temple with a huge Buddha and a very peaceful altar room, which had these little statues outside that I seem to see whenever there is a preserved monk body around.

This complex has the gold-covered body of a preserved monk (金身 - literally "gold body") - the actual corpse of a monk who died in meditation as a result of a fast and who is then worshipped as a deity and idol. This is the second preserved monk we've seen, the first being at Peaceful Country Temple (安國寺 or "An Guo Si") on the slopes of, I think, Datun Mountain near Xinbeitou.

I have no good photos of that because, honestly, it felt weird to take photos of the body itself. I did snap one from a distance but it just didn't feel proper or right so I won't post it.

"Oh, Buddha, teach me more!"

The lower level temple, which is white and looks old from the outside, has an exhibition room on the preserved monk's life and material possessions, including this lovely display of his washing apparatus - I love that they kept his ancient tube of toothpaste. Total class. They had lots of fascinating old pictures from the a Buddhist society that the monk (called "大師" which is not very helpful, it just means "great teacher") was involved in, his old identification papers, and lots of personal items. The big Buddha upstairs is also worth a look.

Then we left that and climbed to the huge formidable monastery above it - easy to find because it's really huge - which had fine views down over Xizhi and even over to Taipei City. That's where the actual monk body is located, in the pagoda at the very top. You have to enter, go up the flight of stairs to a large building at the right, then keep going up until you come to the uppermost structure.

"Hi ho, Hi ho, it's off to fast and meditate until death I go!"

Around the pagoda, the monastery landscape architects clearly thought that some pearlized plaster gnomes were just the thing that it needed for a solemn, meditative atmosphere. From the top you can see Taipei... well as a fine view down the monastery rooftops to Xizhi and surrounding hills.

The monastery itself is a new complex, but it's very well done. Someone put a lot of thought into designing something that had a timeless, antique-but-modern look that mimics traditional buildings quite well. From here it could almost pass for a real historic site.

A snail crawled across the grass near the pagoda.

"Look what I plucked!"
"Look what I plucked!"

After coming back down from the preserved monk, we ate a late lunch in the dark little lanes of downtown Xizhi, passing this lovely scene along the way.

Then we checked out "Xizhi Old Street" which honestly, was kind of not worth it. Apparently there used to be some great buildings there, but they've all been recently torn down and now only a few shophouses and one genuine old residence remain. I love the painting of the boy and his tiny pet elephant on the patio side wall of the one old residence:

That street does turn into an interesting looking market which is worth a look-see if it's going on, and if you follow the lanes behind it you'll get to a lovely bike path with a wall on one side, blocking the river view, and skeletons of old brick buildings fronted by in-use urban gardens on the other, growing all sorts of vegetables and herbs. We also found this awesome old shop selling records, cassettes, CDs and vintage phonographs. Dude. So cool. Not sure what the demand for antique phonographs is in Xizhi, but still. Cooooool.

We stopped to rest for awhile, thanks to my foot, by a temple behind the old street somewhere which was a bit boring from the front but very interesting from behind:

While resting there a man with two buckets of brown goo on either end of a shoulder-stick walked by, and from the stench we could tell it was poopy fertilizer for the urban gardens out back along the bike trail.

"I'm comin' ter git you!"

Oh, and we saw another snail.

All in all it was a pleasant afternoon - not something tourists would want to rush out and see but definitely fun for an overcast Sunday, seeing stuff most people wouldn't think to go find. I do recommend a trip just for Dajian Mountain and the preserved monk, however. Totally worth it.

Next (and probably final) Xizhi trip will be Hsinshan (新山 -New Mountain) and Dream Lake, outlined in Taipei Day Trips.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Drinky Drinky

...or: Jenna's Guide To Drinking (Not Partying) in Taipei

aka "Drinking in Taipei for the Older, Quieter, More Bohemian Set"

I've been asked more than once to provide a complementary post to my previously well-received post on where to eat in Taipei, focusing on where to drink in Taipei. After all, what goes better with gorgeous food than good company and good drinks?

I will begin my review with a caveat that this is not a nightlife post - I am by no means telling you where to go out to have fun if you find yourself at loose ends, find a hopping bar scene or dance the night away to a thumping beat.

Quite the opposite, for three reasons:

1.) I'm a bit of a dork, really. I don't like loud, crowded bars. I was young once too (rather than my current ripe old age of 30 - practically a lao tai tai!) and I tried that scene and it didn't work for me. I like making friends in less frazzled settings, and then going out with them to places where we can actually hear each other talk and hear ourselves think over the music. I have a bias towards the comfy student cafes of Gongguan and Shida - while not actively a student now (I will never return to Shida - they can take their ultra-formal newscaster Chinese with "兒兒兒" that nobody in Taiwan actually speaks, pro-KMT propaganda, antiquated teaching methods and Mainland bias and shove it up their...ahem) I have a studenty mentality and thus feel most at home in these places.

2.) Hopping bars have horrible drinks. It's true: can you say that you had the best mojito of your life at Carnegie's, or that Roxy 99 has an amazing beer selection or crafts a fine kamikaze? You cannot. Maybe you think you can, but acknowledging that this may kill me in the comments, I'll come right out and tell you that you're wrong.

3.) The whole point is where to get good drinks, in a setting where you can really socialize - grinding through a meat market is not socializing, at least not for me. Unless it's a real meat market and I just got some great pork cuts and half a chicken from that betel-juice-stained dude with three teeth from Pingdong and then we had a chat in Chaiwanese (Chinese+Taiwanese) about meat.

These are places that contribute to gastronomic pleasure rather than ignore it, and you can actually talk to the person across the table at all of them. If I had to choose between good alcohol and a good place to talk with friends, I chose talking with friends, because hey, I hafta love on Taiwan Beer.

And with that - enjoy!

I categorized my listing by what's offered, with a list of pros and cons of each. You can assume that the prices are all roughly the same (inexpensive if you are OK with Taiwan Beer, about $160-$200 NT per bottle if you're after premium imported beers). I gave links where I could find them.

I want good beer!

Then go to...

Red House (Shida)

About a block closer to Heping Road than Roxy Junior, same side of Shida Road, this little bar is easy to miss. It's in a narrow old house with some outdoor seats (though it's so narrow that the entire place feels "outdoor", honestly) and is on the edge of the famous Foreign Food Street that boasts two Indian restaurants (neither of them spectacular), a lackluster Tibetan place, a good Korean place that's not really Korean but is still tasty, and...more.

Pros: Good Belgian beer selection, funky atmosphere, very intimate, they never play music so loud that you can't talk, and on a night with good weather the balcony seats are fantastic. It looks out over Shida Park where the people who had the pet goose used to hang out, and you see all manner of interesting things going on. Selections include Leffe, the Floris beers, Duchesse de Bourgogne, Malheur, Delerium, various German beers, Barbar, Kwak

Cons: They don't always stock their entire selection of beer (they ran out of Malheur 12 recently which made me very sad), the music isn't always "right" - on the day Obama won the election we went to celebrate and they were playing sad heartbreak music - and the food has gone downhill. We used to like the Thai chicken rolls and the "sha de meat stick" but now, there's really no food worth ordering.

Shake House (Gongguan)

Just down the road from Cafe Odeon, across Wenzhou St. from Cafe Bastille, Shake House has no sign to announce its name. It's very studenty and funky, with a jazz-heavy music selection that sometimes surprises you. The owners clearly love what they do, and the beer selection is pretty good. It's also one of the few places out where the food is (mostly) kind of good. Try the limoncello cake.

Pros: You always know exactly what beer they have because you get it yourself from a fridge, the sandwiches are pretty good if you are down with fried meat, and their french fries, popcorn and spicy tofu are all good deals food-wise. Also, I can't recommend the limoncello cake enough. It is really just great. Easy to talk to friends, wireless stolen from Bastille, and they have an upstairs area that they can open when too full. If you come often you get old-customer service. Decorations are brown, faded, with vintage chairs and terracotta pot light covers. Excellent coffee, which you can get with Bailey's, and other non-alcoholic options. Beers include Tripel Karmeliet, Chimay Blue, Maredsous, Corsendonk, Duvel, Gulden Draak and more.

Cons: Since wifi is Bastille-stolen, it's fine on laptops but not as good on iPod Touch or mobile wifi devices. No plugs so you need a good battery. Sometimes they play horrible music (the day we came in and they were playing liturgical chants was offputting) but when it's good, it's very good and if you get lucky they'll have the vinyl going (more often they use an iPod). Very Coltrane/Miles Davis-style music usually.

Cafe Odeon (Gongguan)

(Linked below)

Excellent beer selection - the best in Taipei, really. They have everything from Delerium Christmas to Satan Gold to a few boutique American beers. The food is lackluster, though the croque madame/monsieur sandwiches are not bad for the money. Seats are comfy (almost too comfy) and plentiful.

Pros: Plentiful, comfy seats - you can always seat everyone. Excellent beer selection. Friendly staff. Can get really hopping after 9pm on some weekend nights. If you have more than 6 people, have already eaten and want to hang out and drink interesting beer then this is the place for you. I can't even list a sample of their extensive beer selection. It's just huge.

Cons: No wifi - you can steal it with middling luck from Belly Wash next door, food is small in portion and, while not bad, also not great for the money (with the exception of the sandwiches).

Cafe Bastille (with a big "con") - Shida, Gongguan and Xinsheng Road

Snooty as hell and forever earning my ire, I still have to admit that Bastille has a really good beer selection, including some complex brews that are to be analyzed more than enjoyed. The food is atrocious.

Pros: A sleek-yet-funky European cafe feel would make even your visiting mother feel at home, and the beer selection really is good. You can choose from the fridge or pick a bottle off the wall and ask if they have it. Great wifi and usually enough plugs. Seats are comfy.

Cons: SNOTTY! Once I went into the Gongguan branch and there were no seats...OK, fair enough. The girl at the bar gave me the stinkeye ("You're not hip enough to hang out here" is what she thought but did not say) and said "Heh. No seats" and turned away. about a "sorry"? Or an estimate of how long I might need to wait? Blessing in disguise, I went to the cafe behind me and discovered the terminally awesome Shake House.

Oh, and the food is dire. Just don't eat there.

Jolly (Zhongshan, MRT Nanjing E Road)

I love Jolly. Just read my review above. Yay Jolly!

Pros: Excellent, and I do mean excellent, on-site brewed beer. It's really good. All of it. YUM. Food is also amazing, especially the Massaman Curry. They do Thai-style small plates and all of it is excellent, spicy and just...good. Also very easy to get to from Nanjing E. Road MRT. Excellent place to take visiting parents, colleagues, clients etc.. Hopping atmosphere, for good reason. Microbrewed beers include a really excellent stout.

Cons: It's so popular that it's always packed, so on going-out nights you'll want a reservation. A bit expensive, and no (I mean *no*) vegetarian options.

Zabu, Salty Nuts and Rue 216 also have good offerings - will cover them later

I want a great atmosphere with lots of lively talk going on!

Then go to...

Pavilion behind Red House (Ximen, linked below)

Gay bar central, this place has campily named bars like "G-2 Paradise", "Bear Bar" and the now closed "Manu Manu" (now it's "Mudan", with pink molded chairs). On a pleasant weekend night it's lively and fun and the view of Red House can't be beat. On weekends, stop at the artist's market on the other side of the theater. The bars always have great offers going - usually "buy 3 get one free" of whatever beer they've chosen - and there are always seats.

Pros: OUTSIDE! It is so hard to find an outdoor place to drink in Taipei, especially one that's not on a congested road with scooters spewing exhaust driving right by. Special offers are good and the location couldn't be better.

Cons: The beer, especially the special offer stuff, is usually crap (Blue Girl etc.).

Roxy Junior Cafe

You've all heard of it so I'll spare the personal review.

Pros: Despite not having tons of seating, there's always a place to sit, including some outside options. Good deals on Taiwan Beer. Pool available.

Cons: Kind of "meh", a bit cliched, the food is awful (it used to be kind of OK - what gives?) and the beer isn't good. It's just a good choice if you want a place to hang out with friends. Easier to hear others talking when outside.

Though the food is expensive and the beer selection is lackluster, we frequently have larger get-togethers at Saints and Sinners because it's lively but not too loud and you can usually get a table because there is plenty of space. Good deals on bad beer.

Pros: In a group you can do pretty well if you all order the beer on special (too bad the beer on special is never good beer), the food is pretty good, the mixed drinks are pretty good if a bit girly, pool is available, and they have something called Texas Iced Tea that's 12 kinds of alcohol served in a glass cowboy boot that they set on fire. That's fun. We always make people drink it on their birthdays. Staff is nice and if you end up drinking too much and having "the boot" on your birthday and puking into a towel dispenser (you know who you are), the staff will bring you water and a chair in the bathroom. Location can't be beat. Music is loud but not so loud that you can't talk.

Ever since The Bed 2 closed, taking its funky velvet couches and hookahs with it, this is the best larger-group option on Anhe Road if you want to avoid the usual meat markets.

Cons: They say that there's no free water after 9pm but that's not true, they'll give you free water if you are drinking (ie, spending money). Sports matches on TV can get loud, and it is a bit "typical" (ie not funky). Music is not interesting - the usual pop stuff.

Alley Cat Huashan (with a big "con" - read on) - Guanghua Market / Zhongxiao Xinsheng - with other branches

Set in the canteen of the old factory at Huashan, the brick building this place is in can't be beat. The beer and drinks are good and of course the pizza and food is all excellent (except for the Japanese green tea pizza dessert, which is meh. Get the tiramisu instead). The bar is spacious so you'll get a seat. Also has a good outside area.

Pros: Finally, a place to get a drink near Guanghua Electronics Mart! Computer nerds (not that I am one of them) unite! The old factory setting is lovely, crumbling and vintage with interesting stuff going on, and all the other good stuff above. Pizza is excellent. Good Erdinger and other German beer options, good tiramisu, you can talk over the music and on a warm night you can sit on the patio. The front is a real restaurant, the back is more like a bar.

Cons: I've been once and friends have been more than once, and every time they overcharge us on the bill and we have to fix it. This is a huge problem which should never happen more than once. If you go, check your bill carefully.

Or just go and drink at Alley Cat at MRT Zhishan or Alley Cat on Songren Road.

Brown Sugar (Xinyi)

Famous place, I don't need to say much about it.

Pros: Good seating, good music, good alcohol, the food we ordered was great, good location in Xinyi where other bars are just too...trendy or loud to bother. Great place to bring parents or clients.

Cons: because it is live music, you can't always talk over it (nor should you - it's good). Kind of expensive.

Cafe Odeon and Jolly are also good options.

I want enough space to seat all my friends!

Then see above: the ones with the best atmosphere tend to also be the ones with enough space for everyone.

I want someplace tiny and intimate, really funky and "too cool for school"!

Then go to...

Zabu (Shida, linked above)

I can't recommend Zabu enough. The beer selection is small but they also have cider, sake and mixed drinks as well as an extensive tea, coffee, smoothie and juice selection. Their food is excellent (the small eats more than the set meals) and Japanese-influenced. I love the baked rice...things - especially the salmon with citrus flavor and green curry cheese. I also love the ochutsuke - rice with stuff (I got salmon) and green tea poured in like a warm, comforting soup. The desserts are small but high quality. They play super cool music, ranging from acoustic to Pink Floyd to electronica (Skinny Puppy, Leftfield, Komytea) to jazz. Wifi and plugs are abundant, service is friendly and you feel like the trendiness is rubbing off on you just by being there, but not in a pretentious way. It's more like a little Japanese bistro - the kind you'd brag about being a regular at to your friends.

Oh, and they have two friendly cats. Yay! Win!

Pros: Everything. Great place to impress a date with funky, boho or razor's-edge-trendy tastes.

Cons: Seats are small and often uncomfortable, closes earlier than I'd like.

China White is just across from The Diner on a lane off of Anhe Road and is another good option in that area. Sleek and white and antiseptically clean, you'll feel like you're in a postmodernist minimalist high end New York cafe. Seats are small but service is friendly, and they have the best mojitos I've had in Taiwan.

Pros: Sleek, modern, great place to impress a date with high-end "Devil Wears Prada" tastes, great mojitos

Cons: it's so cool that it's almost too cool

Witch House (Gongguan)

In a lane off Xinsheng S. Road across from Taipei Gym, a bit north of the other Gongguan Cafes, Witch House has drinks named with single entendres (I won't post them here...too many family members read this), board games you can play stacked in the back and live music on some weekend nights, often by aboriginal music groups. We've been here once and thoroughly enjoyed it, though the live music was a bit slow and free-form and not conducive to conversation.

Pros: Good music, interesting drinks, games!

Cons: on live music nights it may be packed, there's a cover on those nights, and it's hard to tell if the music will be to your liking (also, hard to talk to friends over it, not that that is polite in such a small venue).

Rue 216 (Zhongxiao Dunhua)

With the ambiance of a classy French bistro, this is the ideal place to bring your culture-shocking parents who are wondering why you didn't just move to Europe but came out here to visit you anyway because they love you. The food is good (portions are French-sized though) and the cook is a trained chef, which means it's about a thousand times better than the microwaved BS that passes for food at Bastille. Small but good beer selection, intimate atmosphere, very friendly service.

Pros: All of the above. Also, friendly English-speaking service. Beers include lots of European selection, including Westmalle.

Cons: It's impossible to find - there are two places in the area with similar addresses and they're both in the confusing lanes between Zhongxiao, Dunhua and Renai. Have a good map handy if heading here for the first time.

Salty Nuts (Shida) - may be called Salt and Pepper - I can never remember

Funky and studenty and across the lane from the only good, authentic Korean restaurant in Taipei, this place looks like it's full of budding novelists and musicians. You can kick back with your low-rent, academically-inclined self over one of their many beers. Definitely get the "Hot Brownie" - a pile of delicious hot brownie with ice cream. Yum! Among the best desserts in Taipei. They have Lindemann's fruit beers, a hops-laden beer and other standard Belgian options.

Popular with travelers and young English teachers, this place has a few good "small eats" if you are feeling peckish, a small beer selection, decent mixed drinks, great location in Shilin if you are in the area, and good atmosphere. Very young-and-proud-of-it.

Pros: Good choice if you are in north Taipei, the food is pretty decent (though doesn't approach Rue 216 or Zabu standards), good atmosphere, very easy to sit and chat with friends, and there are non-alcoholic drink options

Cons: kind of expensive, beer selection is not stellar

I want a funktacular old school place that looks a little down-at-heel, with jazz and dim lighting!

Then go to...

Shake House (above)

Salty Nuts (above)

Red House Shida (above)

Zabu (above)

I want good alcohol and good food!

Then go to...

Zabu (above)

Rue 216 (above)

Brown Sugar (above) - appetizer style food only

Bread, Soup, Chocolate Belgian Beer Cafe (MRT SYS Memorial Hall in that little street with all the cafes - exit 2 I think)

This place is more a bakery/cafe than bar, but they do have a small but quality selection of Belgian beers, tasty looking food that we didn't try, and really excellent desserts that we did try. A great place to go for dessert and drinks if you've just been to the deservedly famous Harbin Restaurant nearby.

Pros: Good dessert and beer. Great location near the MRT.

Cons: isn't really a beer "cafe" - just a bakery with good beer options. They have some of the usual as well as Lucifer beer, which is actually not that good. They close kinda early.

Jolly (above)

Faust (MRT SYS Memorial Hall - on Ren Ai directly across from SYS Memorial, next to Cafe de France)

Actually a pizza restaurant but they do two things and two things only: pizza and beer. The beer is Faust brand German beer and is affordable and excellent.

Pros: Outside seating is great, awesome beer for a good price, amazing, non-oily thin crust pizza that is just to die for.

Cons: Indoor seating is not as good - when outside you feel like it could be a place to drink and relax. Inside it feels like what it is: a pizza restaurant. eat here anyway.

Honestly, I'm all about the good (non-beer) drinks.

Zabu (above)

Good mixed drinks and non-beer selection

Jolly (above)

The beer is great and they do have a full bar.

China White (above)

Best mojitos in Taipei

Addendum though I don't know the name of the place: in Shinkong Mitsukoshi Xinyi, I can't even remember which building, there is a German restaurant that also has some really good beer on offer. It's a restaurant, not a cafe/bar, but you can totally go and just have beer and good chocolate cake.

The weather is actually nice (for once) and we want to sit outside!

Then go to...

Lumiere (Gongguan)

Owned by, and around the corner from, Cafe Odeon, this cafe focuses more on tea and coffee but there is a small selection of wine and beer available.

Pros: great terrace for sitting outside, with plugs and wifi! Plugs and wifi inside and out, lots of seats, never full. Food is not "good" but if you are there and find you are starving but don't want to leave, it's not atrocious.

Cons: beer selection minimal, seats not really comfortable, tables tend to wobble

Red House Shida (above)

Roxy Junior Cafe (above)

Mountain Tea House (Maokong)
Take the Gondola to Maokong Station, exit and turn left, walk past the initial development and first group of teahouses, through a more forested area and you will come across another group of teahouses including this one (same structure as Redwood - 紅木 -Tea House but upstairs...upstairs turn left and go all the way up to the balcony).

You weren't expecting that, were you? Hahaaaa, I surprise again!

Yes, this is a teahouse, and yes, they specialize in tea...but the balcony is outside, the view is spectacular and they DO have Taiwan Beer in large bottles. So you can theoretically come up here just to drink a few Taiwan Beers and enjoy the view.

Pros: Amazing view, outside terrace, cute dog, inside is also attractive if it gets cold, food is great (get the lemon diced chicken, the mountain pig, the three cup mushroom, the sweet potato leaves, the "hong shao" tofu...all of it really delicious).

Cons: yes, it's a teahouse. But they have beer! I swear!

I will also add, grudgingly, Vino Vino to this list. The food is kind of atrocious (I actually liked the salmon fried rice I had the one time I ate there, but the set meal was a joke and nobody else who's been there and told me about it has liked it) but they have a brilliant wooden balcony looking out over the most interesting part of Shida Road and their house wine is not bad at all. Just don't eat there - eat elsewhere and come here afterwards for a bottle of house wine.

Faust (above)

Alley Cat - Huashan, Zhishan or Songren Road. Yongkang Street location has no outdoor seating.

Places I have heard good things about but haven't had the chance to try yet:

- Taiwan Beer Factory (I know, it's a tragedy that I haven't been here yet)
- Artist's Village - there's a bar here
- Insomnia (Shida - near My Sweetie Pie and Grandma Nitti's)
- Cafe La Boheme (on Wenzhou Street closer to Xinhai)
- Le Ble D'Or (microbrewery that I have heard a lot about and never been able to find - need to try harder)
- Belly Wash (next to Cafe Odeon in Gongguan, looks funky)
- That grungy student place down the road from Shida's MTC - the one next above the traditional medicine shop in that row of old shophouses.
- the bar down by Taipei Water Museum (if it's still there) - looks like it's got a huge outdoor seating area

Anyone who has been to these is very welcome to let me know in the comments and I'll check them out - I keep planning to!

I Grudgingly Accept That This Place Has Good Beer:

It's just that when we went it was all old paunchy dorky white guys dancing with local girls wearing glitter bikini tops and cowboy hats and it made me so sad because that's not my scene at all - I actively avoid that stuff. So it's too bad that their beer and cider are pretty good.

Places that should have good drinking options but, as far as I can see, don't:

- Taipei Main Station
- Zhongshan
- Yongkang Street
- Shilin Night Market / Jiantan

Tianmu: I am sure there are great places to go out in Tianmu. It's just that I live on the other end of the city so I've never really felt the pull of trying to find them. I live a bit south of Gongguan so chances to go out in Tianmu are few and far between.

If you have a good suggestion for the kinds of places I've listed above in Tianmu or the above "unknown" locations, please do leave them in the comments. I am always open to suggestions!

Soon: a list of places to drink coffee, tea or other refreshments that is not alcohol-focused as a whole (I'll cover Cafe Goethe, People Say which I've just discovered is actually called "Drop", Black Bean Coffee and a few others).

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Simpsons...messengers of cultural understanding

I just want to point out that nobody understands Latin America like The Simpsons.

Just sayin'.

Top left is a photo I snapped in Copan Ruinas, Honduras of Chaco, the Mayan rain god. Top right is a photo I snapped in Lanquin, Guatemala of a TV playing in the lobby of our hotel. Below, you can see how they compare to The Simpsons' take on Latin American culture.

A Few Photos from Guatemala

Sorry I have been so horrid at updates...we got really busy in Guatemala (hey, what can I say, it was fun), then the trip home was hectic with lots of lost sleep and plane changes, and then we jumped back into work and I came down with an upper respiratory tract infection and inflame tendon in my right yeah. There's that. I am so backlogged on "stuff I need to do online", photo editing, getting what I want on my new iTouch (YAY!), correspondence, and yes, blog updates that I don't know where to begin.

And of course thank you notes, which are starting to go out. Gotta get that done.

A lot to write about but in the meantime, enjoy a few photos - the few I've managed to have time to edit, from Guatemala - Semuc Champey and Lanquin.

Sunset in Lanquin
We stayed at this place - called El Retiro - in Lanquin (rather, just outside it)

The church in Lanquin

The pools of Semuc Champey - touristy (very popular with Israelis for some reason) and hard to get to but 100% worth it. Pure paradise. I kid you not. You should go to Guatemala just for this.

Lanquin streets - locals walking around in the town center.