Sunday, January 30, 2011

Taipei City Mall: Journey to the Bowels of Taipei



Hello Kitty men's (yes, men's) briefs on sale at Taipei City Mall

It's been cold and steely gray all weekend, so we decided to spend our Saturday wandering Taipei City Mall, a long two-aisle shopping extravaganza underneath Civic Boulevard. After writing up a few posts on Taipei Main Station, it made sense to follow up with a post about some of the things to see and do in that neighborhood.

It runs roughly from Chengde Road - if it's called Chengde Road that far south - to Yanping Road just north of Taipei Main Station, and is one of the key components of what locals call "車站後" or "Behind The Station".

Above ground, the area has changed both a lot and hardly at all in the past few years: the new Taipei Bus Station was plonked down in all its hulking glory recently, and include a chi-chi department store. Hoity-toity is clearly trying to make its way to this old area.

That said, the twisted lanes and alleys full of shops bursting with consumer goods - from gray acrylic aprons to silverware to lamb's leather and faux leather handbags - those are still there, creating a bit of a tangle of traffic and Made in China goodness all the way up to Nanjing Road. The entire Circus of Stuff reaches a peak at Chang'an Road, where shop after shop of seasonal plastic junk vies for your attention over the hanging drapes of LED fairy lights, blinking off into the distance. So winding are the roads here that the one clear four-corner intersection (of Chongqing and Chang'an, I believe) is called "Ten Intersection" (十字路口) because it looks like the Chinese number ten: 十.

Stuff, stuff, stuff, stuff, stuff

This is also the neighborhood where one finds DIY makeup and beauty care product stores (you'll find these along Tianshui Road - 天水街), DIY beading and jewelry making stores (those can be found down Yanping, to the far west along Chang'an and all the way up to Dihua Streets) and store after store of precious and semi-precious stones (along Chongqing between Nanjing and Civic).

For that matter, don't miss Jiayi Chicken Rice (嘉義雞肉飯) - actually turkey rice, I believe - along Chongqing Road near Chang'an. They're the best place to try this specialty of Jiayi city that I've found.

Below ground, where we hid out for most of yesterday, is a rough-around-the-edges, slightly downmarket shopping experience that, with its ratio of usefulness to classiness (low classiness, high usefulness, pretty much the opposite of the new Bellavita in Xinyi), reminds me of a down-at-heel suburban strip mall. You know, the ones with a Dollar Plus at one end, a Crazy Cal's Discount Liquor, a hardware store, a Cambio de Cheque and a Szechwan Panda Bamboo Palace. Not to mock any of it - it's all very useful stuff. When I lived in Arlington VA I did most of my errands at places like that.

Such is Taipei City Mall. One end has a dance bar and mirrors, and young'uns come here to practice their moves:

And the other has a whole setup of blind masseurs waiting to give you a backrub (NT$100 for ten minutes, and they do a good job).

In between, you can find stores full of beads and semiprecious gems, stores that sell inexpensively made Old Chinese Lady clothing, shops selling tea items, things to hit yourself with (paddles with magnets, brushes made of semi-stiff bamboo sticks, plastic balls with spikes: there is an amazing array of stuff you can beat yourself up with in the name of "improved blood circulation" available in Taipei), about seventy kajillion toy stores, a few Indonesian restaurants and other shops and an assortment of Random.

Back to the Old Chinese Lady clothing: which I totally wear because it's made for sizes that fit older women, not young stick insects, and I rather like Chinese clothing as old-timey as it may make me look (which is totally fine because as a foreigner I get to bend the fashion rules).

Someday I'll take a picture of my Crazy Obasan Jacket and post it here: a jacket I wear to work sometimes made of shiny blue-green fabric embroidered with purple and pink flowers and green vines and trimmed with blue and purple sequins all the way up and around the Mandarin collar, with frog buttons down the front. It's super awesomepants.

Old Chinese Lady Clothing - Love it!

And here are some assortments of Random for you. I am not sure what Maiden School teaches, though it seems to be something like an etiquette school for girls. Below that, the Tea Shop Post Office. Get some Bubble Tea and send your letters, all in one stop!


The Tea Shop Post Office

A great deal of the toys on sale are definitely not for children:



When I first moved to Taiwan, I knew guns were illegal for all but military and police officers (of course that doesn't stop certain unsavory elements from obtaining them). I kept seeing these stores, though, and wondering how guns could be sold so openly if they were illegal - even in the USA I've never seen a gun shop like this, and I've been to Texas! I've taken a road trip through Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia and never seen such a display of firearms for passerby to notice.

Of course, these are toy guns - they shoot BBs and are exceedingly popular among Taiwan's adult male set. There are entire BB gun shooting ranges where Taiwanese men go to...shoot things with BBs.

The mall has a fairly good selection of food - from tea stalls to full restaurants that look like they serve some tasty meals. There are two Indonesian places - we tried the one at the far end across from M Toko Indo Indonesian grocery, but there's also a place called Nanyang (南洋) that is supposed to be quite good. Both serve decent downmarket Indonesian food - the sort of thing you'd get at a hole-in-the-wall in rural Sumatra. Both places and the grocery are on the western end of the mall.

For more upmarket, take-your-date-there, downtown Jakarta fare, try Milano on Pucheng Street in Shi-da (I'll write a review of it later).

And all down the long corridors, benches are set out where you can find all manner of random people sitting, snacking and relaxing.


Like this guy.

All in all, not a bad place to spend a rainy, overcast day - and I picked up more beading supplies, too!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Cafe La Boheme and Coffee, Tea or Me

On Wenzhou Street just south of Xinhai there are two cafes that we've been going to a lot lately, so I thought a review was in order - especially as they both have cats. One has cheap but strong, well-made cocktails and the other has the best hot chocolate in the entire independent country of Taiwan and I am not even joking, so all the better!

If you enter Wenzhou Street from Xinhai (or walk north), just south of a small shop decorated with hanging CDs you'll find Cafe La Boheme on one side, and Coffee, Tea or Me on the other. The placement somewhat mimics the placement of Cafe Bastille and Shake House down the road (running along Lane 86, catty-corner to the Lutheran church where you often see a guy who walks his Persian cat on a leash). Those cafes are both great - Shake House is better - and so are these two.

Shake House is one of my all-time favorites, with friendly staff, an artfully shabby space, usually decent music, great beer and, for a student beer cafe, pretty good coffee and food. Bastille has a snotty staff and horrid food - though the focaccia sandwich is OK - but good beer, plugs and Wifi. You can use Bastille wifi from Shake House, but there are no plugs.

Anyway, back to the two cafes at hand.

La Boheme, on the west side, has a velvet-furred declawed tabby named Luna, a selection of books in English and Chinese, generally good but more popular-music oriented music, beer (Belgian) and excellent food. I mean truly good: their burgers are stupendous, generous and well-made. The burger choices are unexpected: I recommend the burger topped with apples and white wine sauce.

Their fries are just as fries should be - not too salty, crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. I've also had their herbed lemon chicken, which was quite good. Their hot chocolate is absolutely excellent - dark and chocolatey, you can smell it before it reaches your table. It's rich and tasty, nothing like the wimpy brews of the various "chocolate" cafes found in Taipei. If you love a good hot chocolate, go here and nowhere else. It's more like drinking chocolate than "hot chocolate" (which in my mind conjures up Swiss Miss).

It has its own wireless network and plugs, and is very "local" (foreigners do come, but they're not the norm). With green and yellow walls and a wood-floored raised area, this place is more brightly lit and comfortable like an old chair.

With its decidedly less healthy (but no less tasty) fare, it's Gongguan's answer to Zabu, whose tasty Japanese food feels downright good for you, despite the many fried menu items. That's Japanese food for ya.

It's rare to find cafes in Taipei that have a good atmosphere and good food, let alone genuinely good hamburgers, so this is something to take notice of.

Coffee, Tea or Me (also called "Cafe, Tea or Me") has two, possibly three cats. It's hard to say and only the orange cat is friendly. You have to steal La Boheme's wireless, but they have their own plugs and truly excellent coffee. La Boheme's coffee isn't bad either. They have more space, very odd books and other decorative bits and bobs, more chairs but a limited selection. You can get drinks of all sorts, from good coffee to a very limited beer selection - really just Erdinger, a few boring choices like Heineken and a vanilla-y French beer in a blue bottle. They also do cocktails, and have an impressive bar for what is basically a coffeeshop. They made me a drink at their suggestion: Jameson, some sort of bourbon and Grand Marnier with ice and I assume something that was not alcohol (or maybe not - coulda been pure alcohol). The serving was generous and it cost NT$140. WAY TO GO.

Coffee, Tea or Me's space is more artfully distressed, with dingier walls, a menu board that's impossible to read, hodgepodge chairs and tables - including one low set of chairs in blue faux velvet and another pair of antique-looking Chinese style bamboo wicker chairs. It has a great atmosphere but is not the place to go if you think you'll get hungry.

I strongly recommend both, but for entirely different reasons!

James Kitchen



James Kitchen
#65 Yongkang Street, Da'an District, Taipei
台北市大安區永康街65號
(02) 2343-2275

Last weekend we tried this restaurant in an old building on Yongkang Street just north of Jinhua. They've only been in business for three years or so, but their ambiance makes it seem like they've been around since the '20s. The front has old Japanese-style menu boards, a window painted aqua-green and two red glass lanterns hanging outside.



James Kitchen - named for the owner, James (I never did get his last name or Chinese name) - an affable older man who hangs out by the counter - specializes in fish. A chalkboard near the counter announces fish specials, and gets erased whenever they run out of something. We chose a red fish braised in a broth with fermented "na dou" beans (the same beans used in the slimy Japanese "natto" but not slimy) and tofu. It was firm and delicious: I tend to prefer firmer fish to softer-fleshed varieties.





We also ordered salted clams, which were stewed in a soy sauce concoction, some basic green vegetables, fried oyster rolls (delicious: definitely try these) and minced pork and onion rice. The restaurant also provided a free eggplant xiao chi (small dish).

The overall feel of the place recalls Taiwan under Japanese rule: strongly Japanese (sashimi and sake were both on the menu, as well as some kinds of tempura and fried rolls) but at its core, still Taiwanese (hence the fried oyster cakes and other more Taiwanese foods). The sake was quite good and for 200 kuai, the serving (a small pitcher that is enough for two) is generous.



In the end, we ordered way too much food, but all of it was delicious. I definitely want to go back, and soon. There's something on the menu that is basically deep fried pastry stick (油條) smothered in garlic and oysters. I am all gung-ho to try it, so we have to return with friends!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

English speaking OB/GYN in Taipei

I just wanted to write a quick post to recommend Zhongxiao Xingfu OB/GYN for Western women looking for a female gynecologist. (Walkable from Zhongxiao Fuxing MRT, but far closer to Zhongxiao Dunhua - same building and floor as "Shall We Dance?" ballroom dancing, near the Starbucks on Zhongxiao).

I will not, of course, give details because that's just not something you need to know or want to hear. Normally, I would not post something that is so close to the line of "personal business" but I have been asked in the past for recommendations from other expat women in Taipei, and i do feel info about women's health options in Taiwan are important and should be available online for easy searching in English - so I view this post as a public service contribution to the female expat world.

I just wanted to chime in with an experience-based recommendation for their high level of English - all doctors there speak it - professionalism and competency. I do speak Chinese, and am fine getting a checkup or going to see a doctor for something small (like a sore throat) and using Chinese, but in some situations I simply prefer to be able to use English, or to at least have the option.

So if you are a Western woman (or native English speaker who prefers an English speaking doctor for this particular specialty) in Taipei and want more than a listing on TEALIT, but a recommendation based on personal assessment, there you go!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Muji Oughta Redesign Taipei Main

In my last post, I reviewed the plentiful eating options at Breeze Taipei Main, giving the second floor shopping-and-food court a pretty firm thumbs-up. In fact, I wondered why Taoyuan Airport was so substandard when Taipei Main had such good offerings: to the point where I look forward to eating there. When going to the airport, I have to think ahead: what should I eat now, so I don't have to eat there?

Now, I want to deconstruct some of the aspects of Taipei Main's design that ought to be remedied as soon as possible.

I don't mean to come down on Taipei Main too hard: I realize it was built decades ago, and as such can't possibly meet modern needs as well as a new building could. That said, it was opened in 1989, and I am not joking when I say that I thought it was opened in the '70s.

As there do seem to be imminent renovation plans, I have a few suggestions for Fumihiko Maki that I'd like to throw out into Internetland.

1.) What's up with the downstairs restrooms?

Seriously, they're not wheelchair accessible (at least not easily), hard to find, inconvenient, not nearly plentiful enough and they smell like pee (more so than regular restrooms). Better restrooms with expanded women's stalls to meet the needs of female users need to happen NOW, and they need to be on the first floor. In Taipei Main Station, the solar plexus of Taipei City, I shouldn't have to go down a set of stairs to get to a bathroom.

As it is, I avoid going at Taipei Main at all costs, and wait until I'm on the HSR or in the MRT station. The addition of restrooms at Breeze upstairs has helped, but still, the first floor of Taipei Main needs restrooms. Who on Earth thought it would be acceptable to design them to be downstairs?

2.) A more navigable lower floor with better signage and flow

You've got 3 minutes until your train departs; you're running, You pound down the stairs and look frantically around to try and find the gate for your train. HSR trains here, TRA there, oh, but more TRA over here, and these gates are for that platform, and who knows where those go, but where's the gate for your platform? AHHHH!

It's amazingly difficult to figure out which gates you need for what train if you aren't familiar with the very un-intuitive layout of the lower level of Taipei Main. This needs to be fixed. Like, yesterday.

3.) Easier transit between the MRT and the Main Station building

The entrance to the MRT is practically hidden in a corner: I can never find it quickly, and it takes awhile to go through all the hallways to finally get to it. I'd prefer an exit that opened straight into the lower level, but barring that, designing the lower floor layout to make finding the MRT entrance easier is a key renovation. If you can't do this, how about:

4.) Better signage to the MRT

If that can't be done (though I fail to see why it can't), I am sure you've noticed that the signage is nowhere near adequate on the lower level. If you are on one end, and the hallway that leads to the hallway that leads to the MRT entrance is on the other, there is not even one sign telling you this. You have to cross the entire concourse to find a tiny sign that is only visible from one angle. If you approach it from the wrong angle? Sorry, buddy.

5.) Escalators to the lower level.

I know you can take escalators up from the lower level, and while it won't kill the average person in transit to walk down a flight of stairs, one assumes that the people heading downstairs at Taipei Main will be about to embark on a train journey. This likely means that they'll have a suitcase or heavy bag. People taking the local to Shilin or the HSR for a weekend trip to Tainan can walk down the stairs, but the kid lugging three suitcases full of laundry from Tai-Da to his hometown in Yunlin County should be able to take the escalator to get to his train.

So BUILD MORE ESCALATORS AND TURN THEM ON.

6.) More English

I understand the train signs, mostly (I can't read characters for every town but I know all the major destinations and termini)...but foreign visitors? Do they? No. The MRT has signage and announcements in Mandarin, Taiwanese, Hakka and English. Is Mandarin and English too much to ask of the Taipei Railway Administration? I think NOT.

I realize that they do have some English signage, but they need more, and I know there are English announcements, but there also need to be more.

While we're on the signage tack...

7.) Eliminate those irritating "names" for trains of different speeds.

I still haven't figured out how to remember the difference between the "ziqiang", "fuxing", "qujian" and whatever trains are in between (OK, I know "qujian" is local and that "ziqiang" is pretty fast, but otherwise? No. I've tried to learn but I just can't seem to remember.)

How about trying these new and novel train names? Express, Limited Express, Regular and Local? See, easy.

8.) Less Dead Space

There is a huge surplus of space on the main, ground-floor concourse that doesn't get used. I am sure once a year at Chinese New Year that concourse fills up, but the rest of the time, it really is unused, under-utilized dead space. That space could be used for a larger tourist information desk, more stores and shops (a larger 7-11 would be nice), some restrooms, more ticket kiosks, a bank of ATMs...anything other than what it's used for now, which is nothing.

There honestly isn't much "stuff" on the ground floor, and yet it takes several minutes to cross, and the lines for the manned ticket counters are rather long. Ask yourself: if there isn't a lot of stuff there, why does it take so long to cross?

You have space. Use it.

9.) ATM! ATM! ATM fix everything!

(If you remember that old commercial)

Why are there only two ATMs in the entirety of the main concourse of Taipei Main, both run by the post office? I do applaud there being a small post office on the main concourse - good thinking - but there need to be more ATMs, full stop. It'd be best if they were the kind that dispensed 100s as well as 1000-note bills, since the HSR kiosks give change in coins.

10.) Better ticket kiosks, HSR kiosks on the first floor, and change in bills

I've never been good at those automated kiosks, and the manned ones have long lines. Why not invest in better automated kiosks with more English (I can read Chinese, but others can't) and more manned kiosks to meet demand?

As for the HSR, it's fine except that you can't buy a ticket from a kiosk on the first floor: most of the time you have to go to the lower level, which is, frankly, annoying. There is a manned service window on the main floor, but they don't provide all services.

While I'm at it, what's up with change in 50NT coins? What if I want a one way ticket to Xinzhu, but I only have a 1000 note? Does that mean I have to deal with 700 kuai in 50-kuai coins? That's 14 coins, 15 if you count the 10NT coin too. Seriously?

11.) That giant board above the manned TRA windows?

Make it easier to read. Without my glasses I can't even try, and with my glasses it's mostly incomprehensible, so I don't try. C'mon, you can do better.

12.) A taxi stand that's closer to the main building from which taxis can depart in multiple directions, easing congestion on Zhongxiao W Road.

At the moment you can only (legally) get a taxi by leaving from the East Exit and crossing the street. How about a taxi stand right outside so that people lugging suitcases off of trains or buses from the airport can immediately get into a vehicle, rather than having to drag their luggage across the road?

As it is, if the taxis at the one legal stand want to head west, they have to backtrack to Zhongshan and turn further up on Zhongxiao, which worsens traffic and takes longer. Have a stand from which taxis can depart in more than one direction.

I take taxis to Wugu quite often for work, meaning I cross the Zhongxiao Bridge. I'm so annoyed by the taxi situation that I will generally catch one illegally on Zhongxiao while the traffic attendant isn't watching, or catch one from in front of the Cosmos Hotel, because the taxi stand is so annoying.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Breeze, Taipei Main!




Last Monday, I spent several hours in Taipei Main Station. For Chinese New Year, we're going to Kaohsiung to spend a few days with our friend Sasha and her family. After New Year, we're going to move to a hotel in Kaohsiung city to spend a few days mooching around down south, eating Donggang seafood and enjoying the balmy weather.

To do that, we'd need a hotel, meaning I spent a few hours at the tourism information desk finding a hotel that still had room, was near the Kaohsiung MRT and wasn't charging $5000NT a night and offered private rooms with private baths (I don't mind shared bathrooms for a night or while on a long trip, but for a two day jaunt, I want something nicer). We did find one in the old part of town after quite a long and painful search.

I then went upstairs to Breeze Taipei Main to seek out dinner, and ended up at Lacuz (a branch of the Thai restaurant reviewed by Hungry Girl). I thought while eating there that it was not just worthy of a review of Lacuz but of the entirety of Breeze Taipei.

In a later post, I will address some of the design flaws with Taipei Main itself, but I do feel that is something of a separate topic.

Breeze Taipei focuses on food-based souvenirs (you know, the ones people buy to bring back to their home cities or countries to share with colleagues...and tea) and food, served in a food court layout not unlike the average Taiwanese department store (hence the name "Breeze Taipei": it's run by the Breeze Center of Zhongxiao Fuxing fame).

I am all in favor of this: food courts in the USA are rather dire...no...vile. Kiosk after kiosk of chicken or beef served in various sugary sauces and a load of lard. Greasy pizza, nasty burgers, horrific hot dogs.

In Asia, the same food courts in department stores - the Asian version of shopping malls - are generally pretty good. I never feel trepidation about eating in one.

The same is true for Breeze Taipei Main: food offerings are divided into food-court like areas with kiosks and shared tables, and individual restaurants dotting the square set of aisles in between.

One side offers night-market style snacks and inexpensive Taiwanese fare. Most of the food here is pretty good (I've tried a few) and inexpensive, though of course you can get the same thing more authentically and for less money at an actual night market. It's a good option for a quick local meal when a true hole-in-the-wall with folding card tables, plastic plates and a 90-year old woman in a stained apron dumping duck tongues into a metal vat isn't an option.

For good standard Chinese-Taiwanese fare, keep walking around the bend and eat at stand-alone restaurant Xiao Nan Men (小南門) - no drinks, but you can bring your own. Good, solid dumplings and small snacks (小吃) in a nice atmosphere with a good view over the first floor train station concourse.

Another concourse is dedicated to curry - mostly Japanese, but some Singaporean and Indian curry vendors can also be found. This area used to have a Sai Baba, and I was quite sad to see them close up shop and be replaced with yet another egg-rice omelet with curry shop. The Japanese curry is basically what you'd expect - nothing terribly special but not bad. The Indian curry is unfortunately not very good despite having an Indian cook, and the Singapore curry noodles are good but they don't really compare to the amazing food in Singapore itself.

For good Japanese fare, there are many stand-alone choices. There's a "various pancake" (okonomiyaki) place that looks good (I haven't been), a Genki sushi that is a few steps above Sushi Express, and a few well-appointed restaurants that I figure would all be fairly good. The okonomiyaki restaurant replaced a Vietnamese pho place that I was partial to, so I am quite disappointed about that. You can still eat the same pho in the Taipei 101 food court, at least.

Yet another concourse, decorated with futuristic white egg-shaped booths and colored lights in interesting arrays through Swiss cheese apertures, is for "foreign" foods.



This includes a tasty Japanese kiosk with noodle soups, a fairly good Korean-style place (not authentically Korean) and a few Western options - Asian-style Western, not genuine Western. Your best bet here is the Japanese kiosk: I'd steer clear of the Asian-style-Western places.

The chef's board for the Japanese place I recommend.

Lacuz itself, off in a corner near one escalator across from Beard Papa, is quite effeminately decorated and nowhere near cheap, but the food is quite good. Especially given their limited kitchen space and the fact that much of it is obviously pre-prepared. Stick with the easily-transported and served red and green curries - the red beef curry is quite good - the spicy meat salad, which is excellent, and the easily-prepared vegetables. The wok-fried seafood we got was good, but the sauce was a bit syrupy and nowhere near the "three chilis" indicated on the menu. Fish and seafood are fickle: you need care and space to prepare them to delectability. I just don't think you can do that in the space that Lacuz Taipei Main has.

Do get dessert - the mo mo cha cha is a great choice for culture-shocking friends and relatives who have flown in to visit and want to eat before heading to your apartment or their hotel. With blue tapioca (sago?) balls the color of a Ming Dynasty cobalt paint and tiny neon green balls at the bottom, slices of jackfruit and other tropical delights, you really can't go wrong.

Terrifying Mo Mo Cha Cha

They do have a good beer selection, so if you don't want to while away the time before your train leaves at the Starbucks or Mr. Brown at Breeze Taipei Main, you can always stop in here with friends and have a few beers. Even if you don't order food, I don't think they'd begrudge the business, and you're not going to find a bar up there.

You can also pick up snacks - mostly sweet ones - at Breeze Taipei Main. I strongly recommend cream puffs by Beard Papa, a Japanese brand. They are seriously the best cream puffs I've ever had, and I've been to France! You can really taste the vanilla in the custard and they have a perfect texture. I am sad that the Japanese dessert place with those delicious matcha muaji balls is gone (I used to get them before an HSR trip), though. It's a good place to buy vacuum-packed food gifts for friends and family back home, including muaji, dried meat and tofu, tea and Taiwanese biscuits, cookies or other baked goods.

Beard Papa's: The Perfect High Speed Rail Snack

There is some shopping at Breeze - two stores, Hands Tailung and Muji - both Japanese and both good for a wander.

I just have one question after spending so much time up there (I work in Xinzhu anywhere from one to three days a week, see)...


For serious, Taoyuan. Get your bleepin' act together. All Breeze Taipei Main needs to be an excellent, Singapore-Changi-Airport rivaling food court is a bar.

So GET ON IT.


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Hillary Clinton and Feminist Diplomacy

This article appeared in the Taipei Times today, fed from The Guardian: Hillary Clinton Is Proving That a Feminist Foreign Policy Is Possible - And Works

I enjoyed reading it, and strongly support the publication of similar articles on women in foreign policy. For those interested in reading further on women and diplomacy, I recommend a book I was given a decade or so ago entitled
"All Her Paths Are Peace", and strongly recommend ordering books from abroad from The Book Depository. Free worldwide shipping, none of this $26 bullcrap from Amazon. **** you, Amazon.

Someday soon I am intending to write a review with my thoughts on the book above, but will save that for another post and link it back here.

I also, of course, support a feminist foreign policy, simply because feminist = equal. It doesn't mean "women above men" or "women given priority over men" or "the advancement of a feminazi agenda". It simply means a foreign policy that tips the scales from their previous unevenness - that of a preference for issues of importance to men - to something more balanced and therefore fairer and more whole: giving new, equal weight to issues primarily affecting women.

To that end, Bunting is absolutely correct in stating:

Indeed, it became a credibility requirement for any women with a senior foreign or defence brief to give a wide berth to anything with a whiff of being a woman's issue. Women had to work extra hard to look tough on the world stage. Meanwhile, women's issues were parked in the softer brief of international development.

and:

For a security agenda traditionally dominated by weaponry and military expertise, this is radical stuff. It draws on a powerful consensus built up behind the overwhelming evidence that women are vital to a range of key global concerns.

I do find the following passage rather interesting, and it hits close to home (as in geographically, not regarding my life in particular):

Even in that most delicate and crucial relationship with China – on which the world's attention will be fixed this week for the Chinese president's visit to the US – Clinton has gone out of her way to press feminist issues. In China's case, she has highlighted the country's growing gender imbalance caused by the high abortion rate of female foetuses.

A raging, and fascinating, debate brewed in the comments over that one: a culture that condones the abortion of fetuses
simply based on the fact that they are female, coupled with a law that is intended to reduce population but has the oft-ignored side effect of encouraging this tragic practice, is inherently anti-female and worthy of a good feminist fight. On the other hand, so is the right of mothers to choose. Which one gets more traction here? Can we take away (or encourage the taking away of) the right of Chinese mothers to choose whether to carry their babies to term, because the choice they may make is based on a cultural directive that we find repugnant?

Is it any more 'moral', 'equal' or 'good' for doctors to refuse to divulge the sex of a fetus in China or India, where the chances of that fetus being aborted if female is high...but perfectly OK to divulge gender information in countries where abortion-as-gender-preference is unlikely? I can't say "unheard-of": there are plenty of immigrant communities in the developed world that may well take advantage of abortion rights in their new home for the purposes of a very Old World belief.

...and would we feel the same way if the 'information' regarded the health of the baby or the mother?

This part fascinated me, as well:

Many of her statements can be routed back to the idealistic internationalism of 70s feminism. Astonishingly, she has managed to bring the feminism for which she was loathed in the early 90s (as the first lady who didn't stay home and bake cookies) into the heart of the state department and foreign policy, and is still clocking high opinion poll ratings.

I attribute this to a slow and I hope permanent change in public feelings and discourse, thanks in no small part to Clinton herself. Compared to the lives of our mothers, the '90s was a haven of equality during my formative and teen years. Yet, even a whiff of female empowerment in government institutions, from political wives no less, was received with vitriol and spite. Contrary to what you may see in idiotic Internet comments, things are changing.

I want to add here that I admire Clinton for her feminism and strength. Do I agree with her every move, or many of her other policy goals and motives as a US Senator and now Secretary of State? No. That is a different debate. I have, however, noticed a weird rip tide in the sea changes of American civil rights: slavery ended, and many of the women at the Seneca Falls Convention hoped that women's rights would soon follow. It took another 60 years for that seminal right, the right to vote, to be granted to women. Martin Luther King Jr. led the civil rights crusade of the 1960s, and while women did have a similar wave of feminist outcry, it wasn't until the 1970s and '80s that it gained more common acceptance...and we still haven't managed to pass the Equal Rights Amendment.

So, we elect and mostly accept Obama, and yet the idea of a female president still sparks rage in many. Of course, the idea of a black president also sparks rage in some racist individuals, but society compels them to mostly keep it silent or try to frame it in other ways (not that this makes it any more acceptable: my point is that racism in its pure form is now unacceptable culturally). It is still relatively accepted to attack a female politician from a sexist perspective, and to do so openly, with no veiled words or alt-framed arguments.

More related to this article, a public official is commended for moving forward the cause of civil rights, but advocating for women's rights, globally or locally, is still "risky". It's still something that even female representatives and cabinet members have to approach with care. I applaud Clinton for taking that old paradigm and smashing it to bits.

But I digress.

Finally, I found this interesting:

But for all the enthusiasm, it's clear there are major constraints on this agenda. It gets nowhere in the Middle East, while Afghanistan presents a big challenge – Clinton has insisted peace cannot come at the cost of women's rights. But the signs aren't good that she can hold this line. Meanwhile, there are critics who worry that her advocacy could backfire and antagonise conservative societies, and even prove inimical to US interests.

This is true, and I could see it creating a problem in the future in China - although Clinton is getting away with it now. China has always been touchy about our saber-rattling on their human rights record, and the recent Nobel award to Liu Xiaobo will mean that they are particularly sensitive. It is not inconceivable that when Hu reaches the USA, or at some point in the future, he'll group our pressing of women's issues and human rights together into one messy package of "stay out of our business, you are hurting the feelings of the Chinese people".

I do love how the CCP believes that "this hurts the feelings of the Chinese people" is an acceptable foreign policy, by the way.

This is where Third Wave feminism could prove crucial to a feminist foreign policy globally: in some countries, pressing women's issues gets you somewhere (it's making inroads in India, slightly slower ones in China due to their One Child Policy, for example). In others, it creates pushback that the US can't afford. A feminist perspective more in line with "do what you can, but respect the culture you're dealing with, and trust the women of that culture to make decisions that are right for them, even if they are not right for you" would probably earn more traction for Clinton in the Middle East and other Asian and African countries where women's rights are lagging.

It is true that in many of these places, women can't make the best decisions for them, because they simply aren't allowed to. Although I hate to admit that progress may come with compromises here, I'd say pushing a women's rights agenda that encourages women to do what they can within the framework they're allowed, and hoping that such steps lead the way to eradicating the oppressive framework in the future is the best - possibly the only - way forward.

The example of the cooking stoves in the article is a good one. Clinton not going to suddenly overturn the sexist culture of the Congo by telling their leaders that it should happen. You're not going to get women out of the kitchen (and men in the kitchen) just by saying it ought to be so. By raising awareness and funding to buy new stoves for women to reduce deaths by smoke inhalation and reduce sexual violence while collecting firewood, however, you've taken a step. One can only hope that that step will lead to others.

Shao Shao Ke (勺勺客)

Shao Shao Ke (勺勺客)
#15 Lane 41 Ren Ai Road Sec. 2
仁愛路2段41巷15號

We ate at this Shaanxi restaurant with delicious food on Saturday. I was so looking forward to it that despite my headache and tingling tongue from mouthfuls of crystallized ibuprofen, I made myself venture out anyway. I wasn't disappointed!

As I don't have any photos from the restaurant, I thought I'd share some of my pictures from Xi'an, which I visited in 2002 during my year in China. The one where I got pneumonia. Twice. And three of my teeth rotted from acidic water. The quality is not great, because the originals were scanned at a low resolution and have been transferred from computer to computer to facebook to computer several times.

I like how the poor evening light with my circa-2000 film (not digital) camera makes this photo look far older than it is.

You might know Shaanxi as the province of China that boasts Xi'an (or Chang'an), an old Chinese capital and one of the few large Chinese cities worth visiting*.

The food at Shao Shao Ke is from a range of regions, which makes sense as Xi'an was the end of the Silk Road through Western China, and as a large metropolis and capital it would have a lot of dealings with other parts of the region that is now unified China (unified against the will of many people, but unified nonetheless). Delicious spiced lamb kebabs and fried lamb and pork with cumin are a highlight - the Muslims out west may not have eaten pork, but I am all in favor of food syncretism. The non-Muslim Chinese eat a lot of pork, so taking the spice recipe from their trading partners out west and applying it to their most common meat is fine by me.

Even the terracotta warriors were cold on that snowy day.

The vinegary crunchy potato with chilis was also delicious, as was the "shao mo" - a lamb soup where you tear up two rounds of bread on your own, and they fill the bowl of it again and again with soup. Other dishes were similarly tasty - apologies for not having a clear memory, as I was dealing with a headache at the time - and the fried bread dessert was delicious. My students recommend trying the fried cheese dessert next time (I believe it's called "Fried Mozarell" on the menu). We also had northern Chinese style sesame buns with pork. Delicious, but this is one case in which I believe Do It True (都一廚) does a better job. Generally I was a bit disappointed in Do It True, but their fatty pork in sesame buns was delish. In all fairness, the food at Do It True was not bad at all; it's just that it is so over-hyped that when I got there and realized it's rather standard...well, I fell from the cliff of high expectations.

I am pretty sure you can also find this sign at the edge of the Cliff of High Expectations.

Dishes are not expensive, and sizes are small - you're not going to get a huge steaming platter of food meant to feed 20 with each one. I like this: generally, smaller plates of food means better food, cooked with more attention and care.

Don't believe the final paragraph of the review linked above: there are, in fact, dishes that you need to order in advance: the fried stuffed eggplant and fried stuffed egg, for example.

I think this is a geniunely lovely photo and the next time I am near my original film prints I'll scan a higher resolution copy.

Atmosphere was great: spacious enough to move around, but small enough to not feel like a sterile banquet hall (sorry, Celestial Restaurant, your food is great but your giant banquet table atmosphere is lacking). It's got an intentional cave-like feel, but with white walls so it doesn't feel claustrophobic. You can write on the walls, by the way. Strings of dried garlic decorate the stairway ledge. Call ahead for large groups; it's a large restaurant but by no means massive.

Whatever you do, make sure you try it. It goes on my list of "Best of Mainland Food" from this day forward**.

This, I suppose, is what little kids in Xi'an do for fun. There's nothin' more exciting than dragging broken plastic lamps around by their power cords!

*Not to totally denigrate China: when you can see past the roving clouds of smog, the Chinese countryside is lovely and the people who inhabit that countryside can be quite hospitable. Chinese cities, however, are another thing entirely. To put it mildly, I can't stand them. All the white tile and blue glass and gray skies, the rude people, spitting and exhaust fumes and acres of cement. Taipei has trees and parks. Most Chinese cities have paved esplanades and grayish stumps that cry, "I was once a tree". How sad.

Xi'an has some of this, but it's worth a visit regardless: it's the end of the Silk Road, so you'll see a lot of Central Asian influence, the city walls and bell tower, as well as a few pagodas and temples, are still intact, and of course there are the terra cotta warriors, often grouped in a tour with the bathhouse of Yang Guifeng (which is nice, but not a must-see) and the tomb of the First Emperor, which is fun to climb but also not a must-see. I climbed it in the snow.

** My "Best of Mainland Food" List:


Ningxia: Hui Guan

Beijing: Celestial (though I'm hoping to find someplace better) - see above

Shaanxi: Shao Shao Ke

Guangzhou/Hong Kong: haven't found anyplace exceptional yet

Shanghai: Shanghai Dumpling (need to make sure it's still there) - yes, it's just as good as Dintaifung. YES IT IS. And cheaper, too.

Harbin: Harbin Dumpling King (though the owner admits there's no real "Harbin" food, and he cooks classic, delicious food from across China)

Monday, January 17, 2011

Oh, Mother.

I just wanted to point out two links to Taiwan blogger musings on this piece on "Chinese parenting" (I hesitate to call it that, though) that are worth a read:

Taiwan-Born American

If I'm going to maintain a basic thematic structure on this blog relating to women's / expat women's issues in Asia, then I feel this is an important item to share.

I have things I could add, but honestly I think these two posts sum it up, and anything I would add was already put in a comment on Catherine's post.

I'm still feeling under the weather (not my fault! The weather is atrocious!) and had a headache for most of the weekend, but things are finally looking up and I'm looking forward to blogging more regularly again!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Roasting Bones

A few months ago, a letter to my favorite advice columnist came in from a woman who was in the midst of paying off some massive debts. She had a payment plan and a four-year timeline; her question revolved around how to keep herself happy in that time, when all of her money was going to debt payment and she had none whatsoever left over to do anything "fun".

The letter itself wasn't as memorable as something in the comments: the columnist advised her to continue to eat healthily, among other things. A lively debate ensued about how one could 'eat healthy' on such a tight budget. For the record, I came down on the side of "you can, but it's hard: most supermarket food and vitually all 'cheap' food is either bad for you or not actively good for you, and it's uniformly tasteless" - which I still believe is true: most "inexpensive" produce in American supermarkets is trucked in from across the continent or even the world, and as it is so often GM food that was harvested before it was truly ripe, it tends to lack flavor and has a lower nutritional value than fresher, more local produce.

One person made this comment, that has stuck with me: "it's relatively inexpensive to go to a butcher's and buy some mid-range meat cuts still on the bone. Freeze the meat in single-serve portions and use as you need it. Roast the bones and use it to make soup stock, and freeze that."

It is true that a well-made stock from fats, spices, vegetables and roasted animal bones is miles tastier than a few cubes of concentrated chemical flavor dumped from a box into boiling water. The taste of a real stock has depth and character. In many ways, it's transcendental, creating something beautiful from otherwise functional, flavorless parts.

Well.

I have a lot of free time. I really do. In that regard, I am deeply grateful for my good fortune, even knowing that eventually it will end and I'll be just as busy as the rest of the world. However, even with all my copious hours of free time, I don't have the time to roast the bones of a butcher's cut of meat to make stock. I can't imagine that anyone working a more demanding job would have such time. Does anyone actually do this? Does anyone actually have the time to do this?

What got me thinking wasn't the actual act of roasting bones, but the sort of personality who does, in fact, do so. You know who I mean: that person who always has it together, who always gets everything done and "oh, I had time to spare so I trained for a marathon!", who has the time to read up on and put to active use all the tidbits of advice we're bombarded with online - the one who knows all sorts of weird grammar rules, who knows about nutrition and actually follows it, who works out without any drama four times a week, who never touches caffeine and who has read all those books you wish you had time to read.

A lot of people think I already am that person: I am writing this today to assure you that I am not. Back in August we were in Japan on transit to the USA. We all woke up, had coffee and breakfast, and one of our hosts (they're an engaged couple) said he was heading out - he wanted to get there with enough time to grab another coffee at Doutor and clear his head before work. The other woman and I looked at each other and laughed: we are both the sorts who rush out with no time to spare, probably running five minutes late, grabbing things willy-nilly and most likely forgetting something. We never have time to "have a coffee and clear our head" before class. Our partners, however, do. Brendan consistently (not always, but often enough) leaves a half hour or more before he actually has to and gets a coffee at Dante or Ikari near the office where he'll be teaching. I run out 55 minutes before class when it takes 60 to get there, pray I grab the train I need and barrel into class without that time cushion. I might relax a bit afterwards, but never, ever beforehand.

And that's just it: I want to be the woman who roasts bones to make meat stock because it's healthier, more environmentally sound, more honest (if I'm going to eat an animal that somebody killed, shouldn't I consume as much of it as possible rather than wasting something that was once a living thing?) and tastes better. I want to be the woman who arrives in the right neighborhood a half hour early and can get coffee and a scone.

Unfortunately, I am Normal People. Knowing I should do something doesn't mean I actually do it. There are still little silver-wrapped cubes of bullion in my kitchen.

Forcing yourself to be That Person requires more than knowing you should go to the butcher's to buy fresh meat and bones. It requires changing ingrown habits so that you wouldn't consider not going to the butcher's.

In order to be the person who roasts bones, you have to roast your own bones.

That''s what I'd like to start doing this year. Perhaps not literally making my own meat stock, but changing hard-clinging habits that aren't doing me any good. Of course, to actually do that I need some clear-cut goals, like Brendan's goal of reading 40 full-length books in one year, or Craig, the photographer and photoblogger who committed to writing a photo tip every day for a year.

What are those goals going to be? Well I'm a little late to the New Year's Bandwagon, and I'll have to think some more about that (see, the procrastination is already setting in). Some things on my preliminary list are:

- Cook healthier, more local and more "complete" food...more often
- Commit to getting some sort of real exercise at least four times a week
- Take another Chinese course (but not at Shi-da) and make some concrete improvements
- Become a better photographer (taking a class is not realistic this year)
- Read at least one weighty book per month
- Plan and successfully execute a trip to Turkey to trace my Armenian roots (many of you don't know this but on my mother's side I am Armenian from Mousa Dagh and my family settled in America after the genocide)...and write about it
- Finally obtain a real, recognized teaching certificate
- Make concrete steps towards entering a Master's degree program in 2012 (this one worries me, because I can't actually afford graduate school and don't want to live like a student in terms of income again, but if this is going to be my career, I will need it)
- Blog more consistently - perhaps enter NaBloPoMo to get into the habit?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Sick Puppies




As I mentioned on here recently, I was quite sick last week, to the point of taking Friday off and basically sleeping through it. On Sunday, after taking the copious medication given to me by the eccentric old Indonesian doctor at Jingmei Hospital, I was starting to feel better, so we set a small goal for the day: take a quick stroll through the Taipei Pet Fair (an annual event).

Catherine also has a post with funny pictures about the fair.

This fuzzy creature cracks me up.

I've volunteered at this event for Animals Taiwan, stumbled upon it by accident and come just to enjoy the adowwable cats, dogs, rabbits, fur creatures, flying squirrels and whatever else people bring along.

See? Some people bring rabbits.

I also have students who work for a veterinary medicine company who often host a booth here, so I'll sometimes go to see if anyone I know is representing their company.

This little guy reminds me of John Yossarian from Catch-22. Somewhat insane but not really, in the army, floppy hair.

We never bring along our cat; to do so would only invite disaster. He's sociable but that would have simply not ended well. He hates being in his carrier and squirms too much when you try to hold him against his will. You know, as cats do. In fact, I am not sure how the people who brought cats managed to control them. I've never had a cat as placid as the ones I see at the pet fairs.

Seriously, how is this calico so calm?


Two adorable rat things - or as Brendan says, "more mosquito than dog"!

Another reason I like to come here is to donate to the animal rescue organizations. My volunteering has fallen off since we adopted Stupidface (sorry - Zhao Cai), but I do like to help where I can, and I suggest that if you want to do something of immediate benefit in Taiwan, do donate to Animals Taiwan or one of the other rescue/CNR/pet ownership education organizations (there are a few). You may even want to consider adopting a rescued animal; sure, it won't be a purebreed (though some are, as most strays rescued and placed for adoption were abandoned by families who bought them in pet stores) but it'll be an animal who truly needs a loving home.

You know you want to.

We didn't adopt Zhao Cai from an organization; my sister basically found him begging for food outside the Zhengda girls' dormitory. He was healthy, friendly and house-trained, if bone-thin (we call him Stupidface because he seems to be mentally incapable of hunting). It'll be hard moving around the world with him, but never a day goes by when we're not happy we have him.

Even if his food, left out, did attract mice.

That he can't, or won't, kill.

Meaning we're the first people in the world for whom getting a cat attracts the cat's natural prey.

Now you see why we call him Stupidface?

"I don't kill my natural prey, but I do whine a lot and cuddle in your microfiber blankets."


I bet this colorful fuzzball could kill a mouse. Or maybe not. He(?) might just play with it to death.


Hee hee, double decker dog stroller for the win!

I'll leave you with this happy fellow. Doesn't he just look so pleased at the world?



Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Son's A Son

After reading this lengthy piece in The Atlantic (and watching the more easily digestible TED talk talk that author Hanna Rosin gave on the same topic), I couldn't help but apply Rosin's thoughts to my experience in Taiwan. Let's begin with where it discusses the traditional preference across much of the world (for our purposes, Asia) for a son. Rosin says:

And the global economy is evolving in a way that is eroding the historical preference for male children, worldwide. Over several centuries, South Korea, for instance, constructed one of the most rigid patriarchal societies in the world. Many wives who failed to produce male heirs were abused and treated as domestic servants; some families prayed to spirits to kill off girl children.

Then, in the 1970s and ’80s, the government embraced an industrial revolution and encouraged women to enter the labor force. Women moved to the city and went to college. They advanced rapidly, from industrial jobs to clerical jobs to professional work. The traditional order began to crumble soon after. In 1990, the country’s laws were revised so that women could keep custody of their children after a divorce and inherit property. In 2005, the court ruled that women could register children under their own names. As recently as 1985, about half of all women in a national survey said they “must have a son.” That percentage fell slowly until 1991 and then plummeted to just over 15 percent by 2003. Male preference in South Korea “is over,” says Monica Das Gupta, a demographer and Asia expert at the World Bank. “It happened so fast. It’s hard to believe it, but it is.” The same shift is now beginning in other rapidly industrializing countries such as India and China.

I'm not sure I buy this. First of all, the survey doesn't seem to cover the nuances of male-baby preference in Asia. It asks women if they "must" have a son, and notes that rates of women who feel they must have male issue have plunged.

That's great - I do hope for a world in which parents in all countries welcome children of both genders equally and give them equal opportunities and treatment (though I realize that day is far off) - but the "must" is misleading.

Go back and ask those women if they want a son more than a daughter, or if they would prefer a son. Ask them which gender they'd choose if they could - a conditional statement that's becoming more of a real option to families. I bet you'd get a far higher number. I imagine from my own observation that the results would look something like:

45% (or thereabouts) would actively prefer a son including about 15% who feel they "must" have one

20% (or thereabouts) would actively prefer a daughter, including maybe 2% who feel they "must" have a daughter, if that

35% (or whatever's left) don't mind either way

Of course these numbers are so unscientific it's not funny; do you, however, disagree? (If so, I'd love to hear it in the comments). Does your own observation vary greatly?

So what you still get - according to my guesstimates - is a strong preference for sons, including the small percentage who feel they "must" have a boy plus all the parents who don't feel they "must" have a boy but would still prefer one. The dramatic drop in mothers who don't feel they "must" have sons would be caught mostly in the "prefer" category, or moved to the "don't care" category. Almost none would move from "needing" a son to preferring a daughter.

Who still wins? The sons, as always.

As for those who would actively prefer a daughter, well, one thing definitely is changing. Anyone who lives in Asia knows about the cultural custom where the oldest son, specifically, is charged with caring for his parents when they are elderly. I'm going to argue below that this is slowly changing, and that Western ideas about caregiving are becoming more prevalent.

You still see this in India, for instance: notice how the eldest son of many families rarely moves abroad and, fairly often, stays near the family home - or his parents, at retirement age, move to wherever he has settled and built a career. The son who moves abroad or travels widely is usually the younger brother.

In Taiwan, you'll note how many offspring, as they establish themselves, buy real estate for not only themselves but their parents. I once made the mistake of assuming my forty-ish, single male student, an R&D engineer, lived with his parents when he said that he, well, lives with his parents (you can see how I was confused). Not true at all: his parents live with him; he owns the property. Another student of mine, another elder son: he bought a new apartment for his young family, and moved his parents in with them. His mother didn't really like the apartment and wanted to move back into their old apartment...with her son and his family. So they did. Because Mom said so. He currently rents out his nicer, newer property.

However, most of you also know that in the West, we have a saying: "a son's a son until he takes a wife, but a daughter's a daughter all her life". I don't actually agree with this at all. I personally feel that my relationship with my parents and my husband's relationship with his parents are roughly equal, and neither of us is 'more' or 'less' still a child of our parents than the other...but it is a widely-held notion. (I am curious as to what the actual statistics are of daughters vs. sons as caregivers to aging parents in the USA. My bet would be more daughters than sons take this role, but I'm not sure).

It is becoming so in Taiwan, as well. Again and again, I've had friends and students tell me that they, as daughters, expect to be the primary caregivers or from parents who now feel that their studious, family-oriented daughters will better provide for them in their old age.

Back to the made-up numbers I postulated. I have a few reasons for these estimates in Taiwan, keeping in mind that the survey reflects results from South Korea, not Taiwan. It's sadly clear that there is still a trend of aborting female fetuses in Taiwanese abortion clinics, for starters. If I am remembering correctly, there are still more men than women in the population in Taiwan, and until recently (as in, within the last generation) unwanted daughters were openly adopted out. I have several students who talk about "aunts" who are genetically aunts, but were given to other families as children to be raised. My neighbor, Old Fang, spent thirty minutes telling me in a combination of Chinese and Hakka (which I don't speak) that her parents "didn't want her" and "threw her away" to another family so they could "spend money on her brother". Old Fang is, as you have surely guessed, quite old - my guess is 90 - but she's evidence that this was commonplace even in living memory.

I know another woman who is currently on leave from work because she got married recently and now "really wants" a son: her traditional in-laws expect a grandchild soon, and they expect male issue. Another student, in a toast during a group dinner not long before my own wedding, said "A toast with my best wishes to Jenna...I hope she has a happy wedding party and makes many sons!"

So, Hanna, don't tell me that sons are no longer preferred in Asia. You're skewing the surveys in the way the question was worded.