Sunday, June 26, 2011

Navigating Friendship in Taiwan

Enjoy this horrible photo where only one person looks halfway decent of some of my friends here...before someone asks me to take it down because we all look pretty awful.

I’ve been talking a lot with expat friends about friendship in Taiwan, making local friends and maintaining a social circle in ways that we’re accustomed to, and found a few interesting trends among what those friends are saying (and my own experience).

One thing that people seem to universally agree on – people in Taiwan don’t seem to pick up ‘random’ friends or create diverse groups of friends in the way we do back home. I am sure it happens, but it doesn’t seem to be the norm. Back home, I counted among my circle of friends a guy I met because he was one table over at an Indian restaurant and, as he was south Indian, noted how I was eating like a local. Another I met at a bus stop. In Taiwan, one of my best friends – no longer in Taipei, sadly – I met at a swimming pool. Another few have come from Teh Internets. All of these people have met and more than a few are now independently friends as well.

Of course, plenty of other friends I met in more typical ways – through work, or a club or mutual friends, or my former college friends with whom I’m still close. Maybe I’m the weirdo here – one more shy friend from back home has noted “yeah, you meet people at a bus stop and a month later they’re coming over for dinner and bringing the wine. Some of us just can’t do that!”

I don’t think it’s that weird, though. I do think this happens far more often back home than it does here.

It was noted that it’s typical in both cultures to make friends in groups – classmates and former classmates, colleagues, peers in your industry, and it seems much more common to actually socialize with family as though they’re your friends (and I say this as someone whose sister is also counted as a good friend and who will happily socialize with her brother-, sister- and cousin-in-law). You see a lot more of “I’m going out with my cousins” here and a lot less of “yeah, we met at the bus stop”. It seems like there are three typical circles – colleagues, classmates and family…and not a lot more than that.

I guess my point is I feel more like my friendship “circles” back home are circles that have spokes flying off here and there, and I have a lot more independent attachments to people than many Taiwanese seem to, and I feel more inclined to invite them out together than many Taiwanese seem to. I stick less in tight circles of classmates, family and coworkers than the Taiwanese seem to.

I’ve been told by locals and expat observers alike that it is fairly rare that a typical Taiwanese person will go out of their way to talk to and socialize with someone totally new unless introduced by a mutual friend or that person entered a previously existing circle of coworkers, family or classmates.

Which is all fine if you’re local, but if you’re not it can make it difficult to make local friends. If you don’t have a milieu waiting for you – work, school or family – in which to enter those circles, it’s harder (and made harder still by the aforementioned linguistic and cultural barriers). It does, therefore, make sense that while most foreigners are likely to date locals, they tend to befriend other foreigners with the exception of possibly a few local colleagues and a language exchange partner.

I want to say before I continue that this hasn’t really been a problem for me – I have many local friends, if anything I’d say I have more local friends than expat ones (although I have a fair amount of both). I've written about this before but but it bears repeating: I do feel that there are expected and established communities and circles where an expat would typically make friends: at work or in class, or going out on the weekend with a larger group of people your own age - whether that's 21 or 51 - and joining clubs with those same people. I feel too old for the young buxiban and student crowd but way too young and in a different place in life vis-a-vis the older professional crowd. I don't quite fit into the ABC crowd.

And yes, that makes it hard to socialize, although I like to think I've been successful regardless.

So, some trends I've noticed:

The first is that I think it’s more than language and more than the expected cultural gaps that make it easier, and therefore more common, for expats to socialize with other expats and not as much with locals. If everyone around you tends to socialize with coworkers and classmates, then you will too: and your classmates and coworkers are usually other foreigners. If those around you are less likely to make random friendships, you’re less likely to have the opportunities for connection. So it’s not so much about misunderstanding or misinterpreting actions, and not about communication, but more about a mode of socializing that isn’t so easy to breach for outsiders.

However, I would guess that like me, most longer-term expats have a number of local friends. What I’ve noticed here is that they tend to be one’s girlfriend’s friends (this makes the assumption that a huge number of expats are men with Taiwanese girlfriends, but that assumption is of course based in truth), “Chinese teacher” colleagues from the English schools where they work, and language exchange partners turned friends. Of course, if you’ve got a non-teaching job or are in school with other local students your chances of cultivating more local friendships go up.

What I rarely see, which is a shame, are groups composed of expats and locals in a mix, socializing together. Maybe this does happen more often than I think, but I don’t see it because I’m not exactly a regular on the bar scene and I don’t belong to any local clubs or groups (my work, Chinese study, marriage and current social circle keeps me busy enough). This is where I’d love to hear experiences from other expats that buck the narrative I’m describing.
That said, when I do go out with my mixed group of foreigners and locals – a group that’s ever-evolving as friends are made and friends leave, including Taiwanese friends who have left to study abroad – I feel like we’re the only group like that around.

Another thing I’ve noticed – expat friendships with locals tend to be mostly female. I don’t mean relationships – I mean friendships. This is true for me, as well – and I can’t really explain why (but I’ve discussed it with other expat friends who agree. Making local female friends is fairly easy, but making local friends who are male just doesn’t seem to happen much). I have a few, although all but one are currently not in Taiwan due to work or study. I’d try to suss out some theories on this but none has ever really had enough sticking power that I can confidently post it and defend it. I’ve consistently found, however, that my very small handful of male Taiwanese friends tends to be the exception.

It also seems to be true that while plenty of friendships in Taiwan exist between men and women, it all seems to be in groups: Classmates, Coworkers, Family. Locals I’ve talked to (mostly students) have confirmed this: you rarely get an independent male-female friendship. If you do, people start to gossip and wonder. If a man and a woman are hanging out one-on-one consistently, it’s assumed that they’re in a pre-dating stage, and a married person (such as myself) who has a friend of the opposite gender will sometimes be suspected of an affair. One of my students came out and said that she lost touch with most of her male friends from before her marriage – it wasn’t that she didn’t want to be friends, but it felt “strange” to spend time with them now that she was married.

Which is totally not how I feel at all – one of my closest friends in Taiwan is male (another expat, but still). It would strike me as ridiculous to give up my friendships with men because I’m in a relationship or married. I know it happens in the USA, but it seems to happen on a smaller scale.

Yet another observation – and I’m not quite sure how to word this because it’s supposed to be an observation based on what many of my other friends have said as well as my experience but could so easily be misinterpreted as me complaining, which is absolutely not the intent – is that “foreign friends” of locals in Taiwan seem to get fewer invitations out from their Taiwanese friends than they do from other expats, or that they would back home. I do believe this has to do with the fact that we don’t fit into Classmates, Coworkers or Family, so it would be awkward to invite us to those gatherings, and if you’re the only expat friend of that person, there’s no easy place to fit you in. Almost like a curiosity (although that sounds bad, and conveys a tone I don’t know if I really intend). You might get invitations for lunch or coffee, but you wouldn’t often be invited to, say, a house party or a restaurant gathering. So what happens is that your local friends know all of your friends, but you know few or none of your local friends’ friends (again, exceptions exist in my own life and generally I am happy with the invitation reciprocity I receive).

I can see, though, how a typical expat might cultivate some local friendships and then, after awhile, wonder why he or she doesn’t seem to get as many return invitations, and wonder if he or she is being snubbed, when really the local friend just isn’t sure what sort of gatherings to invite their expat friend to attend. That right there is a huge cultural gap: I remember once someone I know was narrating advice she’d heard aimed at Taiwanese who want to practice their English, and one item was “maintain friendships with foreigners”. “But why would they have to be told to do that?” came the question. Honestly, I can see why. It can make you really think - and question - when your invitations are accepted with alacrity, but you rarely get the same types of invitations in return, and maybe not as frequently (or maybe it's just that I'm a planner and party-thrower and the friends I've made aren't like that).

Another culture gap – family coming before friends. I can see how a foreigner who invites a local out and then gets a cancellation at the last minute because “relative X wants to have dinner” or “mom wants the family to go out” might feel slighted. I’ve accepted that this is how it is – back home we’d tell Aunt Mabel we’re not free that day, sorry. Here, a local friend is more likely to cancel with you to have dinner with Auntie Chen.

I’ve also noticed that parties tend to be a lot quieter. To illustrate this, a tableau: imagine walking into a restaurant to find out it’s been booked out for a wedding that day. A Hello Kitty bride and Daniel groom top a pink-tulle covered arch, and a glittering Double Happiness hangs inside a heart above diners’ heads. Pink tablecloths with white and gold flowers. You are disoriented at first, not sure what’s going on, because it’s so quiet. People are talking quietly at their round banquet tables and music is playing, but you see little of the mingling and inter-table socializing that you would in a lively wedding back home.

This is exactly what we observed when we tried to eat at a famous restaurant in Longtan.

Many Taiwanese friends and students have told me that they and people they know are quite shy when it comes to socializing in a party atmosphere – think like your typical house party back in the USA. My local friends generally aren’t like that, with a few exceptions, but I’m speaking from a few experiences as well as talking to others about their experience. I can name several of my local friends who can be quite sociable at the house parties we occasionally throw (usually on Christmas).

Which – again, I look forward to comments that refute this and tell their own story – but my experience has been that house parties just don’t happen, or when they do, they’re small and contained within a group: Classmates, Colleagues or Family. You sit in a circle; mingling is just different. It looks more like this. (I don't agree with the entire post but the picture is quite evocative).

You don’t see a lot of the sort of parties I throw, where I basically invite everyone I know from every group: Classmates and Colleagues (I have no local family). Locals and expats. People I met at the swimming pool. Former students.

I would cover the psychological differences and toll it takes on people who are not extroverted to have to change out social circles every other year or so - especially if they are here long-term and primarily friends with other expats who come and go - but, I dunno, it strikes me as sort of obvious. I am quite extroverted and it can take something of a toll on me, because one goes through high and low periods. Periods where you have a ton of friends, then a chunk goes home and you have very few until you make some new ones, and then some of those go home, and you are less social until you make still more friends, and then BLAMMO! It's been five years and you're only still hanging out with one or two people from your first year here. If you're not naturally inclined to pick up friends, that can be really hard, and having some local friends who are less likely to leave can help stabilize things a bit.

Finally, I’ve noticed that friendships seem to be conducted mostly in English, even though I do speak Chinese. This is partly because my husband generally comes along and while he can understand most of what is said, he can’t easily contribute in Chinese, and I think partly because the Taiwanese are more used to using English because they have to, whereas Chinese is ‘fun’ for me.

And, you know, after five years I’m still trying to work through all of these things. I’m learning to accept that group gatherings here aren’t done in the same way that they are often done back home. I’m learning to accept that my own gatherings will be a bit quieter and probably end earlier (what often happens is that my Taiwanese friends show up and leave at 11:30pm, and the foreigners stay, talk and drink until 2am). I’m learning to accept that the kinds of reciprocating invitations I get will be different, and that that’s just how it is because I’m not a Classmate, Coworker or Family.

I’m also learning to accept that this is expanding my definition of how friendships are conducted, it’s making me more laid-back and giving me more chances to get to know people one-on-one. That it’s OK to have a quieter gathering, that I don’t have to take it personally when Auntie Chen gets precedence, and that I have to completely abandon my notion of timely and accurate RSVPs because it just doesn’t happen.

And, you know, that’s OK. It’s a new perspective. Some parts of it are awkward and difficult to puzzle out, but that’s life, and if you want to maintain friendships you have to learn to be flexible.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Stressed Out Women

Interesting article in the Taipei Times today, and it's regarding women's issues so I thought I'd give it a nod:

Study finds that women are more stressed than men

I'm not sure what commentary to add, but here's a bit of what I think. From the article:

Women experience more stress than men in the workplace and in life in general, and the sources of stress — such as concerns over sexual harassment at work — are the major difference between female and male employees, a study by the Council of Labor Affairs shows.

...

The survey found that regardless of gender, when it comes to work-related stress, employees are most stressed about “company insolvency,” which received an average of 5.86 points. This was followed by “company’s future prospects unclear” (5.83 points), “lay-offs or mandatory retirement” (5.67 points), “unpaid leave” (5.53 points) and “liability involved in company accidents” (5.00 points).

As to sources of stress at home, employees were overwhelmingly concerned with “decreased income,” which garnered an average of 6.35 points, the survey showed.

This was followed by “injury or illness in the family” (6.12 points), “sudden loss of a large amount of wealth or a large increase in living costs” (5.91 points) and “death of spouse, children or siblings” (5.77 points).

The survey also found that women in general were more stressed both at the workplace and at home.

I have to wonder where this is coming from. Could it be that women just worry more in general than men, or Taiwanese women worry more than their male counterparts? I have a hard time believing this, although I do believe that there are some general differences between the genders that are observable in large trends and groups (but absolutely not on an individual level, and part of the world's problem is taking observed trends in groups and applying them to individuals, a la "you're a woman so you must be like this").

I'd say instead that in terms of work and company culture and modern family life, that while the system has evolved to be more egalitarian regarding opportunities and lifestyle choices for women, that some attitudes have not changed and that while women have opportunities in the workplace and home life, that they're not always fully welcome on a more psychological level - where the attitudes people express and the prejudices and notions they more quietly hold and act on create some cognitive dissonance (I don't think I'm quite using the term correctly, but I hope you know what I mean). As in, "yeah, you can become a manager and work your way up the ladder and expect a household of more equal work-sharing, but culturally we're still going to undermine you in ways that are going to create stress for you, and you won't even be able to pinpoint why."

This can take the shape of longer hours that don't allow families to properly care for their children - something that stresses women out more seeing as women still bear the brunt of household duties (which I also don't like, but one topic at a time). It can take the form of a lack of flex-time and work-life balance, of employers and managers who quietly treat women differently or even hold discriminatory views, but whose actions are so subtle as to be hard to pick out and identify. It could be a lack of help with household duties at home, despite a modern culture that accepts that men should take on a more equal share of housework and child-rearing. It can take the form of employers that discourage taking full maternity leave.

Whatever the factors are, I don't think "women just stress out more than men" is one of them.

The source of work-related stress with the largest disparity between the two genders was “sexual harassment,” which ranked No. 28 on the list of most common sources of stress in the workplace.

Yeah, because women experience more sexual harassment by an exponential amount than men - something which is, of course, totally unacceptable but does, of course, still happen.

The study also showed a positive correlation between an employee’s education and work-related stress. The more educated an employee was, the more stress he or she felt at the workplace. Also, those with longer working hours felt more stressed at work.

The study also found a relationship between the type of employment and the level of work-related stress, with employees under contract or under temporary work experiencing more stress than regular employees or those with long-term employment.

This is all pretty obvious: if you have more education, you're probably working at a higher-level white collar type job and while they might not actually be more subject to the changing winds of the economy, it sure feels like they are. Of course longer hours create more stress, as you tire yourself out, you lack work-life balance and you devote an ever-larger chunk of yourself to work, which can stress you out quite a bit when the work you've devoted yourself to is problematic. As someone who has done contract work (and sort of still does), I can tell you that while it suits my personality beautifully, I can see why it would be very stressful for some, and during slow times of year it can cause small amounts of paycheck stress in me, as well.

Updated Post: The Best Pizza in Taipei

Updated:

I just added Fifteen to my list of the best pizza in Taipei. Enjoy!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Lao Ren Cha's Ultimate Taipei DIY Shop Guide



I bought just about everything to make this necklace from a small bead-and-fixing shop in a lane east of Dihua Street - the crystals, tiny turquoise beads and lapis beads came from Taipei City Mall.

So, I’ve been slowly working on a post about navigating circles of friendship in Taiwan, but I’m not feeling like finishing it right now (maybe over the weekend). It’s hard, writing it in such a way to make it clear that I am observing, not complaining, and that I am in no way talking about anyone specific, just citing trends I’ve noticed. I’m having trouble creating a tone that conveys that, so it’s on the shelf for now.

Instead, I’ll do another, easier post I’ve been meaning to cover for awhile – the best places to get DIY products in Taipei. Many of you know that I’m totally into DIY jewelry making; I do other stuff too, but mostly stick to jewelry (I mostly branched out when it came to making stuff for our wedding, because for every piece of cookie-cutter whatever-whatever I found online, I figured I could make one more to my taste – from boutonnieres to corsages to seating cards to table numbers to bridesmaid jewelry to my own jewelry).

The hair stick came from a shop in the underground mall on Zhongxiao between Main Station and Chongqing Road. The leaf came from the shop near Yanping-Chang'an, the rest came from the small shop near Dihua Street.

I usually get my beads at a small shop in a lane just east of Dihua Street (I can’t find the exact address – the first lane, which I believe is a small street – just east of Yongle Market and walk north just a bit. On the right you’ll pass a lane that houses a small wet market, and where you want to go is the next lane north of that - turn in and it’s about halfway down on the left, across from a shop that sells fringes and ribbons).

The shop also sells real stone beads – if you are willing to get spendy they are behind the counter, and some of the cultured pearls can get expensive. Some strands are more expensive than in Taipei City Mall, so you may want to look there first. Some things I really like here are the large selection of copper-tone beads and workings, the metal-dipped colored glass and the Venetian-glass style beads.

This lane is also great for ribbon lace of all kinds as well as ribbon – the ribbon shop is the best of its lot.

Pretty much all of this except for the lighter amethysts came from the small shop near Dihua Street (the amethysts came from Taipei City Mall, as did the amethyst pendant at the end)

I also get my workings at this shop: the metal bits that hold it all together, such as clasps, jump beads, wires, rods and earring hooks. They also have a good selection of chains and charms including faux keys and you can buy pliers here. I have a pair of needlenose and a pair of fatter, heavier pliers.

For fabric and buttons, I go to Yongle Market. Get your fabric on the 2nd floor, but the button mecca is a small shop on the far south end of the first floor, near the entrance that’s just beyond the outdoor coffee shop and lets out into the lane with the food stalls. For Indian fabric and Thai silk, go to the shop on the 2nd floor of the building with the watch store on the southwest corner of Yanping-Nanjing. Just buzz up if the door is locked.

The whole lot of this came from Yongle Market, either the far side shop on the ground floor or the shop with all the sparkly fabric on the 2nd floor. The copper thing came from the small shop near Dihua.

On the other end of the market, near the street just east of Dihua, the first floor houses the go-to shop for feathers. You can get feathers elsewhere (including inside the market itself just inside the main 2nd floor entrance).

On Dihua itself across the street from Yongle Market you’ll find a shop that sells more beads and other accessories – this is a good place for sew-on patches (they have Chinese dragon patches, which is cool).

Whatever I can’t find here I get in the Yanping-Chang’an area. Just west of Yanping-Chang’an intersection on the north side is a DIY shop that is not as cramped as my favorite one, but is also not that well-organized.

If you head east on Chang’an, Chang’an-Chongqing has a great fake flower and basket shop, for those who are into that sort of thing.

Heading south on Yanping, you’ll pass a DIY shop that has plastic beads (not my thing), lots of yarn and other stuff. I generally walk all the way to Civic Boulevard – on the Yanping-Civic Intersection you’ll find a large shop full of bead, mostly crystals. This is a good place for fake jade if you are looking to make something of that sort. Lots of bracelets that you can cut, take the beads off of, and turn into whatever you want.

Some of these charms are old broken earrings (the bottom one), or I've had for years and didn't know what to do with them (the glass one). The lapis one came from Taipei City Mall, and the Venetian-glass-style beads came from the small shop near Dihua.

Taipei City Mall is also a great place for beads and especially crystals. I can’t even say which shop as the whole thing is so vast and difficult to navigate in terms of remembering what stores are where. I particularly like one shop that sells affordable faux turquoise, real (but low-quality) lapis, real amethysts and interesting charms and pendants. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you just where it is – I believe it’s toward the eastern end and in the southern corridor (there are two corridors separated by more shops), if coming from Taipei Main it’d be on the left. This entire area is the bargain-basement mecca for crystals and real-but-not-stellar-quality stones.

Ribbon: ribbon shops in the lanes around Dihua. Fixings: my favorite shop. Leaf skeletons: Jianguo Weekend Flower Market.

I get my leaf skeletons at Jianguo Weekend Flower Market – the Flower Market is a great place for this and other dried or fake flower DIY stuff, and the jade market, as long as you are careful not to get ripped off, is great for fake jade (don’t even try to buy real jade here) and antique-looking Chinese beads and charms (some might even be real antiques, but don’t bet on it).

This is what I made with the paper I got at Chang-chun Ever Prosperous Co.

I get my paper at Chang-Chun Ever Prosperous Co. paper shop, near Chang’an-Songjiang Intersection (on Chang’an, south side, just east of Songjiang, past Su Ho Paper Museum which also has a nice shop). They sell almost everything you might need at good prices, including Japanese chiyogami paper.

I get all my other stuff – hot glue, regular glue, gold paint and paint pens, cutting implements, ink, paint, brushes, rods etc. around Shi-da – the huge stationery store next to Watson’s in the night market is one good place, and the art shops on the south end of Heping in this area are also great, especially for paint and spray paint. For hot glue, the “everything” shop next to the stationery store can help. Further east, Sheng Li’s 2nd floor (the huge green store on Heping-Fuxing) has a lot of stuff, too, including more leaf skeletons, ribbon, string, paint etc. and gift boxes and bags.

Very occasionally I need sequins or glitter – I like to peruse the more unique offerings at the Hess Bookstore (B1 level) on Minquan/Songjiang. They also have a good selection of fancy gift boxes.

Anyway. I hope this fairly extensive list helps out another fellow DIYer in Taipei who is searching for the perfect beads or needs something weird like leaf skeletons or gold spray paint. Enjoy!



Thursday, June 23, 2011

HOLY CRAP

Blogger in Taichung jailed over critical restaurant review

Really? For serious? If you write on your blog that you didn't like the food at an establishment, can they really file charges? Do you think this would have happened with a foreign blogger (I ask because so often, locals tell me "you think Taiwanese are friendly because they are nice to foreigners, but they are often terrible to each other")? Why is the ruling "final"? Why did she apologize (I wouldn't, even if I had to pay the fine)?

Why did people keep calling the restaurant to ask if the review was true? Did they think the restaurant would say "yes"? Wouldn't you just not eat there?

So, just because I think this is a giant pile of fucktacular crap (sorry, moms, but it has to be said), here goes:

- Cafe Bastille has great beer and terrible food. Never eat there.
- Song Chu (宋廚) has great duck, mediocre everything else, and horrible service. I will never eat there again.
- Sai Baba is pretty good, as it goes, and has a great atmosphere, but my hummus is better than theirs by far. Go ahead and eat there, though. It's still pretty good.
- The food in Shi-da and Shilin Night Markets is actually not that good, as local food goes. Try Raohe, Ningxia or Jingmei instead.
- Dingtaifung is overpriced. Go to 金雞圓 instead.
- Hindoostan has the worst Indian food I've ever tried.
- Exotic Masala House used to be good but their quality really went downhill.
- All Korean restaurants but two in Taipei are inauthentic (and only one of those two is notably spectacular).
- Kiki is not really Sichuanese food at its finest. 天府is better.
- Ice Monster was never all that great. Sugar House in Nanshijiao beats it by a long shot.

I'd write more about smaller, local food stalls and joints, but honestly most of those places where I've eaten have been really good!

So, uh, fuck the police.

Update: Catherine at Shu Flies has worked hard to write a well-grounded post on this issue. While the issue of whether the blogger in the original article was the one who wrote the view in part over a parking dispute (at least it's settled for me), I don't think that really changes anything I've said here - it's still a sign of troublingly harsh defamation laws and excessive punishment, and it's still likely that the beef noodle place did have cockroaches, not because it was particularly unsanitary but because every building in Taiwan has cockroaches!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Reason #21 to Love Taiwan (well, Taipei)


Sometimes, every once in awhile, I can forget I’m a foreigner.
That’s not to say that I never get stared at, or never get a kid on the MRT who’s all “媽媽媽媽,看那個外國人!”

(The last time that happened, I responded with: 外國人不是外星人呵!阿兜仔的鼻子跟台灣人的聞一樣味道喔!- which thoroughly horrified him. “對啊!我們會講國語因為從飛碟聽你們的話喔!” I continued, to his mother’s great amusement).

But what I mean is – it’s hardly uncommon for me to get into a taxi and be asked immediately in Chinese where I am going, for me to respond in Chinese, and have the driver think absolutely nothing of it. Yes, I also occasionally get the “妳會講中文得好好喔!” but I just as commonly…don’t get that. I just get normal, local treatment.

The same in stores. I’ll pop in, ask for things, ask for help, ask for directions, chat with the cashier – and get a friendly service worker who doesn’t seem to think it’s odd that I’m yammering away in Chinese.

Or the random folks who I chat with in the course of any given day – which is a lot, because I am a chatty person – who don’t show any sign of noticing that actually, I look totally different from them.

Sure, I have my days where I get this:


Or I say “你好” and get “OH MY GOD YOU SPEAK CHINESE!” in reply, and I am sure some of those chatty people are only chatty with me because I’m a foreigner – and they’d ignore me if I were local. I wonder if I were local if I’d have such friendly acquaintanceships with my neighbors and the doormen at the various offices where I work.

But, you know, generally I find the special treatment happening less and less often, and if people notice that I am a foreigner – which they must, because how could they not? – I am noticing that fewer and fewer are letting it show. I see a lot of new people every day due to the nature of my work, so it’s not just the regular folks who always see me around. I’ve noticed it as a broader trend.

So yes, on some days I can go through an entire day and not be reminded even once that I look very foreign indeed. I like that – I don’t mind when people visibly react to the fact that I’m a big, tall whitey, but it’s nice to not have it in my face constantly.

Granted, this is only in Taipei. Venture out into the rest of the country and I get way more comments - I only get them on my speaking ability, and not my total foreignness, in Xinzhu where there are tons of foreigners passing through on business to the science park and almost none of them speak Chinese. In Kaohsiung every fifth kid was all "LOOK MOM! FOREIGNER!". Donggang folks don't seem to care - their whole attitude seems to be whatevs, pass the Kaoliang and I appreciate that (I kinda wanna live there). I once had an entire busload of Hakka grandmothers staring at me and gossiping about me in Miaoli (I don't speak Hakka but grandmothers gossiping about you is understandable in any language).

I have to wonder – is it Taipei that’s changing as more foreigners wash up on her shores to teach or study, or is it me and some nonverbal cues that I’m emitting, or do I just no longer notice the fact that people do notice if they don’t come out and say so?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

"Half Taiwanese"

I just want to say.

Last week, in class, I wrote something in Taiwanese on the board, partly to make a point without actually speaking anything but English and yes – I admit it! – partly to show off. The students were all “huh?” except for one, who quickly figured out what I’d written – whose brain immediately perceived the need to read it in Taiwanese, not Chinese.

I asked if he was more comfortable in Taiwanese or Chinese – he said:

"Both…I’m half Taiwanese.”

Wait.

What?!

“My mother was born in Taiwan but my father came from China,” he explained.

Err…

So I said it. “You were born in Taiwan?”


“Yes.”


“So as far as I am concerned you are Taiwanese, not ‘half Taiwanese’.” (I probably shouldn’t say such things in class, but I know from experience with this group that this is a safe class in which to say such things, otherwise I wouldn’t have touched that live wire).

“Thank you!” he replied, and other students nodded.

And that’s just it. I don’t hear it often, but when I do it’s vehement: the idea that if your parents came from China, not Taiwan, then you aren’t Taiwanese…and therefore, something’s wrong with you. The idea that such children of waishengren (外生人 - I don’t hesitate to use the term for people who actually were born in China, because they use it to self-identify) are not and can not be Taiwanese, or do not and can not understand what the “Taiwanese” think - well, I’m sorry, but I just don’t buy it.

I figure, not only are “KMT” and “waishengren” not interchangeable – because they absolutely aren’t (I know plenty of people whose parents came from China who vote DPP, and quite a few old-skool Hoklo who vote KMT), but that if you are born in Taiwan, nobody has the right to say you are not Taiwanese. Your opinions may differ and your home life might have been different as a child – not that different, though – but you have the same set of shared cultural experiences as anyone and in my book, that makes you Taiwanese.

I still may not like who you vote for, but who cares. That's my problem, not yours, and it's not like you have to tell me in the first place, and not like I'll ask unless you're a good friend.

Being There

Recently I taught a class where we talked about change, and one of the questions that came up was “How has Taiwan changed since you were a child?”

I wasn’t surprised by any of the answers I got, although I was struck by how much of a depth of knowledge I don’t have and can’t have, because I wasn’t there. Here are some things students have said:

“When I was younger I always had many opinions. I wanted to say anything I was thinking. My dad told me – ‘don’t do that, be careful, or a truck might stop outside the door.’” (Which meant, as everyone else in the class knew, that he would have been carted away by government operatives, possibly never to be seen again).

“When I was a child we were poor people. I lived in a farmhouse in Shuangxi [Taipei County] and every day we ate rice and vegetables. We grew the rice and vegetables, we did not buy. We also had chickens and pigs. Sometimes we could have chicken or pork. But usually we ate rice and vegetables. We didn’t have money to buy other things.”

“When I was young I couldn’t speak Taiwanese in school, or the class monitor would make us pay five kuai. Of course in that time no local children spoke Chinese. If you were a local one, your parents often did not speak any Chinese at all, so you could not remember the rule to speak only Chinese. But here is my secret: I was the class monitor. If I spoke Taiwanese I forgot to charge myself five kuai. If my friend spoke Taiwanese and there was no teacher, I forgot to charge him. You only paid five kuai if the teacher was there, or if the class monitor didn’t like you” (proving once again that middle school alliances are stronger than cultural solidarity).
“My uncle was taken away by the KMT. He disappeared for many years and then he came back, but he was crazy. He couldn’t remember anything from before his jail time. When he got older he would walk around the street and be confused. One day they found him dead in the street, but he was an old man and totally crazy. But my family still votes for the KMT” (joining a long list of people who don’t deny the atrocities committed by the KMT but still seem to refuse to blame them).

And from a friend – complaining about taxes paid to the current government and asking why he should have to pay so much when there is glass in the parking lot, his apartment building has been robbed twice, and there is no law and order anymore. I said that I thought Taipei was a lovely city – maybe not perfect but I used to live in Washington DC, so if he wanted to see ‘a lack of rule of law’ I could tell him some stories about crime there. “Taipei used to be more beautiful than now,” he replied, but I am pretty sure he was referring to Taipei under the mayoral governance of Chen Shui-bian.

Here’s the thing – none of this stuff was in the least bit new or surprising. Heck, the majority of it contains facts I already knew. And yet, I wasn’t here for it – in part because I’m fairly young (30) and many of my students are noticeably older than I am, and partly because I did not grow up here. I moved to Taiwan in 2006, long after it had become a developed country, a democracy, a country in which the capital city is clean, safe, politically stable and has a better infrastructure than many cities in the USA. I moved here long after Taiwan solved many of its worst problems (the worst of which being, of course, the oppressive and murderous dictatorship of a government, the urban infrastruture and the pollution).

I was born long after the White Terror ended. I didn’t even know where Taiwan was when Chiang Ching-kuo ruled the country. I had only a faint notion of it when Lee Teng-hui did. I moved here long after Chen Shui-bian ceased to be the mayor of Taipei. I look at old pictures of Taipei – which are easy to find, as the government seems fond of scanning them and putting them up in displays aimed at civic boosterism (which always struck me as odd, especially in the area around Ximen and Longshan Temple – why put up pictures of a time when the buildings were far more gorgeous, and have since been torn down, to make people feel good?). I don’t see a past I can share in or fully understand. I wasn’t around when my student was a class monitor and would get charged – or beaten – for speaking Taiwanese. I was not here back when the divide between waishengren (外生人) Hoklo Taiwanese, or Taiwanese and Hakka, was at its deepest during the days leading up to and after democratization. I was not around when many people still mainly lived as subsistence farmers, even in Taipei County. I feel like I know, because I’m here now and I’ve studied a lot of history, but I don’t really know. Deep down in the culturally influenced fibers of my being, I don’t really, truly know.

The same is true from the other end: I have so many acquaintances, students and even friends (not so much friends, but occasionally) who speak as though they were there for events that happened in the USA while I was alive and living there, but they weren’t. You can read about it, study it, have a professor lecture about it or hear about it from foreign friends or ABC cousins, but really, if you weren’t there, can you really understand what it felt like to be American during the Reagan years, when greed was good? Do you really know why ‘80s fashion is currently trendy, and how that feels to someone who was 7 when that stuff was popular the first time around? Just as locals in Taiwan probably think my fetish for the Taiwanese Grandma aesthetic (bamboo paper fans, Chinese-style shirts, 白花油, Japanese-era shophouses, cypress ceilings and floors, old-fashioned tea boxes and tins, kung fu shoes) is odd, do they really understand the idea of “retro” and “vintage” as we would know it back in the USA?
Heck, were they there when we invaded Iraq the first time and people generally supported it, or the 2nd time when they didn’t? Were they there when we elected a false president in 2000? Although I was not there when Obama rode into the White House on a tsunami of hope, I do have an innate feeling for the cultural underpinnings of what that actually meant – how many Taiwanese can say the same thing? Just as I can’t say I fully hold in my gut an understanding for the tide of history that brought a DPP President to Taiwan, and then subsequently brought him down. Even if I”know”, do I really know?

I say much of this tongue-in-cheek – I was not even ten years old under the reign of Reagan. I was actually studying in India in 2000 when George II was unfairly sworn in, and had to deal with the taunts of rickshaw drivers (“we thought your Amrika was different, but I am knowing that compared to Indian politics, you are same-same only!”)

And yet, I feel it every day when I talk about my childhood, or ask students about theirs, in class. I can’t convey the feelings behind the Pledge of Allegiance, and I can’t fully dissect the reasons behind why I always mouthed, never spoke, the words after the 8th grade. I can’t really describe the taste of a Bomb Pop or 4th of July fireworks in Cantine Park in small-town upstate New York (although comparing it to Dragon Boat in Longtan is fairly close). I can’t tell people how it felt, as an American woman, to watch an American woman get as close as Hillary Clinton did to the White House, and then watch her go down in a spiral that was part a lack of charisma, part a surge of support for a younger, ethnically different candidate, and part – honestly – sexism. I was here when that happened, but I have the innate cultural understanding that allows me to really get it.

That’s a gap that I try so hard to bridge with friends and students, and I’m not sure I’ve succeeded yet.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Taipei, the sepia and blue edition


Taken from my bedroom window soon after moving to Taipei

I’ve written before about how much I love living in Taiwan, how I feel that I’m fairly high-functioning in society here, how I’m comfortable just being around, speaking the local language(s) and, hey, sometimes I even forget that I’m a foreigner if those around me don’t treat me like one.

What I haven’t written about much is how hard it was to get my act together when I first arrived. Months ago we jumped all over Lindsay Craig’s “article” (I still hesitate to call it journalism in any sense) on how she fancied herself a world traveler, tried living in Taiwan and after seven months she realized she couldn’t do it, packed up and went home.
I was one of those on the side of “c’mon, it’s not that hard, if anything Taiwan is one of the easiest non-Western countries to live in” – and I still believe that’s true. My opinion that Taiwan is a great place to live, and fairly easy to settle into, has not changed.

That opinion, however, was hard-won, which is something I don’t often talk about. So let me tell you a story.

I moved to Taiwan at the beginning of September in 2006. I was living in a shared apartment with three other teachers, who were all pretty good guys but not people I’d likely become good friends with – I knew that from the first day. We simply had nothing in common. The same held true at work: a few people I really didn’t like, a few that I thought were OK, nobody I could envision becoming true friends with. I hadn’t found any alternate venue for making friends yet.

My birthday is in mid-September – a little over fifteen days after I unpacked my things in Taipei. I had known when I bought the plane ticket that I probably wouldn’t have made many social connections yet, but I celebrated my birthday alone in Laos years before and it was fine; I figured it’d be like it was then. A day alone for me, exploring temples or taking a walk before settling in for a nice cup of coffee with my sketch pad. One of my roommates shared my birthday – same year, and only a few hours difference, in fact – and was going to Taroko Gorge for the day with his new Taiwanese girlfriend. I had no such grand plans.
The days alternated between oppressive and unbearably hot, punctuated with sudden and hellish downpours. So, you know, typical Taipei weather for late summer. I’d lived in India – lived through a monsoon in fact – and was handling it alright.
My birthday, however, was a sky-destroying clamor of rain. Bleak and saturated, I couldn’t see from my window – emblazoned for some reason with a sticker that said “SUPER” – across the lane to the sooty cement building across the way.
Super. Just super.

I felt a bit sick. Despite being used to heat and rain, I couldn’t get used to the heat and rain. My bed smelled a bit musty. The air conditioner buzzed over my head, spilling down cold air that made me cough. The floor was gritty even though I’d just swept it. The balcony had a Coke can full of cigarette butts in it – the guys had been using the balcony to smoke again, something I’d said was fine even though I can’t stand the smell of smoke, figuring it’d stay outside. It mostly did, but damn it to hell, that stupid can was so ugly. On that dirty, cracked plastic table. I hated that table. I hated the apartment – with an endless stream of young foreign teachers coming in and out, nobody bothered to seriously clean and by now the bulging detritus behind the couch had become institutional. It looked like if you touched it you’d get slime on your fingers. The only decorations were Taiwan Beer labels soaked off of bottles and stuck onto the sliding glass of the shelving, which stored more unidentifiable ghosts of teachers past.

I thought I would be fine, but I was absolutely not. I had left the USA thinking my Chinese was better than it actually was, it had been years since I’d dealt with this kind of weather and needed time to adjust – time I had not allowed in my psyche – I had thought I would have at least made superficial “meat and liquor friends” (酒肉朋友) by now, but I had not. Taipei can be a lovely city, but I hadn’t discovered the best things about it yet: I thought the National Palace Museum and the top of Taipei 101 were the height of the city’s attractions. I’d re-injured my back in Japan and it ached. I didn’t particularly like my job and the pay was a joke. I was seriously running low on savings. I didn’t realize it yet, but I was suffering from a kind of “not culture shocked enough” culture shock: I had prepared myself mentally for a challenge on the scale of China. Like many foreigners who have never visited Taiwan, I assumed they were roughly similar, with Taiwan merely being somewhat more developed. I had expected a hard-nosed fight to get myself settled, but one never materialized. As such, I couldn’t get settled.

There was only one good thing going for me – I was recently out of a relationship and not interested in dating generally. I was lonely on the social front but not on the romantic one.

I looked out the window and saw only rain. I looked around the room and saw only dust – and the shell of a dead beetle. I looked around and saw no friends. I suppose I could have invited some not-really-and-never-going-to-be-friends people along, but that felt, honestly, even sadder.

So I laid on my musty bed with the heinous blue-and-yellow poly-blend comforter and cried deep into the pillow.
Then, as I’m not the sort to do wallow for very long – my lowest moods tend to come and go like plum rains, very intense when the sky breaks but clearing up fairly quickly – I decided that I had to do something on my birthday even if it wasn’t perfect, or even all that great.

So I got up and dusted myself off – this wouldn’t have been so bad if I hadn’t had to literally dust myself off – and grabbed my guidebook to find an Indian restaurant. If I was going to have a craptacular pouring birthday with no friends, I would at least have Indian food!

I didn’t know how to navigate the buses yet and took the MRT, transferring twice to Zhongshan Jr. High School station (now I’d just take the 74, 642 or 643). The only Indian restaurant in the book was called Hindoostan, which didn’t sound promising, but it was something and at least I could get some restorative spices in my gut to work their spicy magic.

The ceiling was decorated with Christmas ornaments (?!), the atmosphere was bland and the food, while spicy, had the slightly turgid aura of pre-cooked and microwaved food – the spices were Indian, but otherwise it was equivalent in quality to 7-11 Japanese curry over rice. Fatty mutton chunks swam sadly in oil-slicked rogan josh paste, samosas deflated softly where they should have been slightly crispy, and the gulab jamun was from a can. Around me, diners ate in groups – some of them Indian, which surprised me, because no Indian I know would eat this food twice – only I consumed my repast alone, shoulders hunched slightly over the table, as though I were trying to keep out the driving rain.

I walked back to the MRT, as deflated as a microwaved samosa, and climbed back on the brown line as dejected as I’d been when I I’d ridden it earlier. The rain started up again, and as I flew over Fuxing Road, I looked down at the streets winding away toward other parts of the city. Full of cars, full of people fighting with their umbrellas and sidestepping puddles. Full of people going about their lives, going to see friends or family, going home and enjoying their loved ones. I am sure plenty of them were not so lucky and as I looked out over Nanjing East Road, crammed with the red rear lights of cars, that some of those drivers were winding their way back to an equally lonely home, but at least they were from here, they lived here, they had a life here and they could at the very least speak the language in more than broken bits. From my fast-moving perch, the streets below were ribbons of urban life, and I was not a part of them.

The windows of the brown line were rippled with rain, the city lights creating undulating colors and blurring the scene. I was not crying outwardly now, but I may as well have been. The slashes of water obscuring my view made me see the world as though I was.

I remember thinking – I wish I had friends here. Not nameless, faceless hypothetical friends, but my friends. If I could have any one of them here, which would I pick? Brendan – immediately Brendan (which was not the first clue that he was the person I should be with).

Soon after that, I did begin to form friendships. I met my good friend Becca and through her, Roy and Cherry. I befriended Ray and Cara – some students of mine – and spent Christmas in Lishan with Cara. My friend Julian visited me, as did Brendan (who, as you know, later moved here). I attended a few parties and expat gatherings. I found a new job after my first year contract was up at Kojen – I really couldn’t stand the idea of staying there for even one more year even though I wanted to stay in Taipei – discovered many of Taipei’s hidden gems, enjoyed occasional good weather, moved out of that dismal apartment, made friends and watched a relationship blossom into marriage.

Things did get better – a lot better! – but I can’t deny it, those first few months in Taipei were wretched. Had I been a weaker person, I probably would have packed up and gone home. Today, I’m glad I stuck it out: I want to try and live in other places at some point, but it can’t be denied – it’s hard to imagine leaving Taipei. I love this place.

Only blue skies from now on?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

We Love Cookies and Dai's House of Stink


We Love Cookies
Roosevelt Road Section 3 Lane 283 #17
(next to Sai Baba Pita Bar)
2369-5555
羅斯福路3段283巷17號
MRT Gongguan (捷運公館站)

We found this place while hunting for a place to have dessert and beer - we'd just come from a stinkytofustravaganza at Dai's House of Stink (which has moved, by the way, to Yongji Street - 永吉街 - Lane 120 and can be seen clearly from the multi-road intersection) and after all that stankerific tofu (the raw tofu was actually more rank, vile and, *ahem*, piquant than the last time) we wanted something sweet.

First we tried Crown Fancy on Zhongxiao E. Road across from Songren Road, which was packed. So we walked to Gordon Biersch in Shinkong Mitsukoshi A-11, which was packed. We then split two taxis to My Sweetie Pie, which was likewise packed. We then walked to Cafe Goethe past Insomnia (packed), Salty Peanuts (packed) and Prague Bookstore (packed) before arriving at Cafe Goethe, which was not packed, but was also closing in 20 minutes.

Along the way we'd passed a new and clearly unfinished setup next to Sai Baba with gorgeous looking soft cookies on display. We decided "what the heck, the inside is a bit rustic but it's dessert and maybe Sai Baba will sell us beer if they don't have any".

It turns out that they do have beer - San Miguel - and coffee, but the real deal here are the cookies. They have vegan coffee and oatmeal cookies, peanut butter, chocolate brownie, brown sugar, Bailey's and other flavors, not to mention red velvet macaron-style cookies, but soft and filled with cream cheese frosting. They also have carrot cake and chocolate mint cupcakes.

As we sat in the not-really-ready-for-customers-to-sit-here-yet "seating area" someone showed up with a guitar and there was an impromptu bit of live music. It was very chill, or as one person put it, "like being back at the co-op".

But the cookies. Oh, the cookies. I need to go back and put this place on the "Best Desserts in Taipei" list. They're perfect. They're soft and heavenly (I don't really go for crunchy cookies except for Milanos). I intend to get some for the next time we have guests.

I'd say "try this" or "try that" but...try all of them. Just do it. They're SO GOOD.

Cookies are five for NT100, cupcakes are separate and a little bit more expensive.

So back to Dai's. We had the raw stinky tofu there before - the stuff that "defeated" Andrew Zimmern. It was pretty vile, but still something we could eat. This time...we really couldn't stomach more than a bite, and Joseph didn't even take that bite (but he did gamely try the other forms of tofu we ordered).

Just so you can see how fantastically dire the raw stinky tofu at Dai's is - it's seriously horrific. They ferment the stuff for two weeks in noxious black rotted vegetable slurry...no, I am not making this up.

Here are some photos.

After the photos, I will post a description of what I think it tasted like. It will be a very, ahem, ripe description. If you have any inclination towards a weak stomach, I suggest that you take great pains not to read it.

It translates roughly into "of all the things under heaven, I am the most stinky".


Sandra couldn't take it.


Cathy was thoroughly disgusted by it (her boyfriend's reaction was "Wow...that was something that...was in my mouth").


Joseph wisely refused to go near the stuff.

...


So.

When I was in China, I took a minibus through the winding hills of Guizhou in Miao territory (the Miao are a minority who live mostly in Guizhou) and had to go to the bathroom. I was having digestive issues and everything, ahem, issuing forth was...err...quite violently dire and in some cases painful. The driver, who probably would not have stopped for a local, stopped for me and I was ushered to the town's only real bathroom, which was up rickety old stairs to a hut suspended over an overhang.

"Why is it over this overhang? Did they not want to dig a hole?" I wondered.

The smell was virulently bad - the only word I can think of for it was coined by the Simpsons: it was truly crapulent. It smelled of a the excretion of a hundred different digestive organs convened over a mess of unclean pigs rutting around in a slimy pit of rotted vegetables.

As I entered and stood on the ancient, slimy wooden planks over the expanse of ground below, I heard a snort.

And I found out that it smelled so bad because that was exactly what it was - the village latrine hanging over a hair-raisingly smelly pigsty. I added my own deposit to the Bank of Hell and went on my way.

The smell that emanated forth, redolent of everything that my intestines had rebelled against in China commingled with the smell of the excretory functions of every other villager in that town, perfumed with the stench of giant hogs.

Dai's raw stinky tofu, in my mouth, brought back memories of that day. That horrible, nadir-of-all-that-is-unholy day.

But do go eat the cookies.


Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Longtan Weird House (龍潭怪物房)

I am not sure that's the actual name, but it's something along those lines.

This "house"...thing...is in Longtan, right on the main highway through town (not downtown). Apparently the following things are true:

1.) It was built by the mayor's brother

2.) The mayor's brother is a bit of a weird guy (really, ya think?)

3.) The mayor's brother designed it himself and - apparently, though maybe there was a language-based miscommunication here - built it, too, as he owns a construction or contractng firm. He designed it this way because he liked it.

4.) People still live on the ground floor (it sure seemed that way)

5.) The mayor's brother actually lives on the upper floors (really?! I am not sure I believe this)

6.) The inside is really quite luxurious, in a "太over啦!", European chintz way

7.) You can go inside if you want, and there's even a restaurant (I have a really hard time believing this)

8.) Everyone in Longtan knows it (this has to be true - you can't NOT notice a monstrosity such as this)

9.) People who don't live in Longtan have also heard of it - it's actually quite famous

10.) It was apparently built with the mayor's brother's own funds, not taxpayer dollars


I don't know how much of the above is true and how much is dodgy info from locals, but there you have it.

The Longtan Weird House.

When I showed Joseph and Brendan while we were in town for Dragon Boat (I knew it because I go to Longtan for work fairly often - I teach a seminar at the Acer facility out there on occasion) I said before we got there "it's a really odd building. It won't change your life or anything, but it's really, really strange."

Brendan: "You lied to me! You said this building wouldn't change my life, but it did! LOOK AT THAT THING. I mean...WTF? Seriously?"

So...

...enjoy.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Postpartum Depression in Taiwan

Yeah, not a happy post.

Once again I’m going to apologize for blogging a lot less than usual these days. If you could see my schedule you’d understand why. I now work in Hsinchu twice a week, something I’m willing to do mostly because the pay is good and the clients are high-profile enough that it’s a nice ding on the resume. My schedule is so full that while I need to get a health check to renew my ARC, I don’t actually have any time – at all – during the hours when hospitals offer the checks. I’m making BANK, which is great for Turkey, but it takes its toll on blogging. It’s not that I have no time to blog at all; I could sit down on a Sunday afternoon or on one of the few days when I don’t start until noon, if I have enough time after prepping for work, but the workload is so great that it’s fuzzing up my creativity and siphoning away my energy to think about writing.
Anyway. I do promise that eventually, things will quiet down and I’ll be blogging more. My goal has always been five posts a week, and I’ll try to start hitting that again when I’m not racing all over northern Taiwan (Hsinchu, Taoyuan, Linkou, Tucheng, Zhonghe, Nangang - at least I get a good transportation allowance) for work.

My thought today:

I was recently chatting with a student who works for a pharmaceutical company. He told me about a disturbing story he’d heard – a new mother who’d drowned her young son in the bathtub for no apparent reason. He mentioned other similar stories that occasionally surface, and shook his head with sorrow and wonderment – how could this happen? How could she do that? How could any mother do that?

“It seemed like nothing was wrong,” he said. “I really do not understand.”

Clearly, he’d never heard of the surprisingly common and tragic phenomena of postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis. He didn't know the words in Chinese, and was shocked to learn that such things really existed - that depression and psychosis could be brought on by childbearing and the stress of infant care.

This from a pharmacist who works for a company that produces, among many other things, drugs that treat mental conditions and disorders.

“How could a normal woman do that?” he added. “It seemed she wasn’t insane. The news said she was very logical and calm.”

And of course, the answer is that while she may otherwise have been a normal woman, postpartum depression is a very real issue – while the causes may not be well-understood – have you ever noticed that disorders that affect women seem to be more frequently appended with phrases like “poorly understood” or “not extensively studied”? Why is that? – the effects and treatments are similar enough to depression – a bona fide mental issue – that I do confidently place it in a similar, if separate, category, and do the same for postpartum psychosis and other psychoses.

What scares me is that this is a member of the medical community – while not a doctor, it stands to reason that he should have at least heard of postpartum depression and psychosis. Failing that, why wasn’t it mentioned in the news item he saw?

Postpartum depression and psychosis, at their worst, can result in suicide (attempted or successful) and the murder of young children. The best ways to avoid this are a public understanding of the condition, availability of help and intervention. In the USA it has received a lot of press. I regularly read a well-regarded advice column in the Washington Post and her associated online chats, and discussions of these issues have come up several times, often from other contributors (as well as from the columnist herself).

It worries me that in the USA, these issues are in the public consciousness enough that random contributors to an online chat mention them, and yet someone who works in a medical field in Taiwan had no idea that such conditions even existed. I even had to explain what I meant when I said “she may have seemed logical and calm, but she wasn’t. She was suffering. She had a very real mental condition and it’s deeply sad that she didn’t, or couldn’t, get help for it.”
It makes me wonder – how many new Taiwanese mothers (and fathers) suffer without knowing why, without feeling that they can seek help, without knowing that there is a name and associated treatment they can seek out? How many parents’ and childrens’ lives are at risk due to this stunning lack of knowledge?

I mean, it’s hardly surprising, given the wide berth that psychological and psychiatric issues are given in Taiwan. Therapy and psychiatric care exist, but are not nearly as widely available as in the West. Western-style therapy and psychiatric care exists, but many people are too ashamed to take advantage of it, or don’t realize it’s there, or don’t know how to find it. If you feel stigmatized in the USA for having depression or another issue, try living in Taiwan. I am on a pretty even keel but have experience in my social circle with this, and it’s really an issue that needs to be addressed – not just for new parents suffering from postpartum depression and psychosis, but more generally.

(By the way, if you ever wonder why my students always sound so fluent in my quotes, it isn’t because I’m such a great trainer that I bring them to fluency in mere months – at least that isn’t the only reason, ha ha. I try to keep the cadence of their sentences intact but edit the worst errors, as English errors are really not the point, and I want my readers to focus on the content of their thoughts, not the grammar flubs they may make).

Monday, June 6, 2011

Dragon Boat 2011!

One of my favorite festivals in Taiwan is Dragon Boat - I like it because it reminds me a bit of the atmosphere around a good Forth of July celebration back home, even though the two holidays are celebrated for completely different reasons. The warm weather, the unhealthy food vendors, the carnival atmosphere, the people out and enjoying the day - it's a good reminder that we're all the same around the world, even if we come out to celebrate different holidays. A kid with a balloon and cotton candy watching fireworks or playing carnie games in the USA is no different from a kid with a balloon and cotton candy watching dragon boat races and lion dances (and playing carnie games) in Taiwan.

And because I'm still a kid at heart in so many ways, I love it.



There's also the fact that while dragon boat is a holiday in China, it's hard to find actual races. They do exist, but they're not as common or popular (they seem to be more popular in Hong Kong, actually).

Every year (except for the years when we travel) we find a different place in Taiwan to check out the races. Our first year we were in Penghu, which was cool although there wasn't much of a festive feeling and the races were far out in the harbor. The next year we went to Erlong, near Jiaoxi in Yilan County. One year we missed the races in Hong Kong, but last year we went to Bitan to see them in Xindian.

This year, we ventured out to the aptly-named Longtan (龍潭) in Taoyuan County but not far from Xinzhu, with a large temple holding court over the dragon-named lake - an event we all agree has been the best so far.

Beyond the actual racing, Longtan's dragon boat celebrations include a night-market style area with games and unhealthy food, ice buckets crammed with cans of Taiwan Beer, plays, fireworks (in the evening) and lion dancing over the water.

It's not really so much about the races for us - we don't even know who is competing most of the time - but the atmosphere around it as we're shouting "Go Red!" or "Go Team Blue!" despite having no idea which team represents which group or organization (groups such as schools, clubs, companies, churches, temples and aboriginal tribes will often form a team and enter).

And of course the cute dogs. I'm fairly sure this little guy's eyes were about to fall out of his sockets (his name is Lucky).


Longtan is a bit built-up and is a larger-size city than I expected. I've been through several times to teach classes at Acer's training/resort facility on a hill outside of town, surrounded by tea farms. I'd never been downtown and was surprised at the size of the place.

Despite the concrete jumble of buildings encroaching on the lake, it is a scenic place to watch the races and you can see the goings-on fairly up-close, with the temple in the background.
Longtan is also famous for its Hakka population - the big draw being lots of restaurants serving Hakka food. Our lunch was good - a bit mediocre by Hakka standards, but then there's no such thing as bad Hakka food, methinks, and in wider comparison I would say it was quite tasty.

Longtan is also famous for peanut candy (花生糖) - we bought assorted candies from the famous Longqing (龍情) peanut candy company as well as Chiwei (知味), which makes a coconut peanut candy that I like as well as a dried tea-leaf covered candy that I am fond of. Now we are the proud owners of a ton of caramel-covered peanuts, which threatens to destroy my continued attempts to eat healthier!

Longqing is right on the lake, so it's easy to visit if you ever pass through Longtan (worth it on a non-festival day mostly for the Hakka food, temple and peanut candy), and Chiwei is on the main drag out of town heading towards Zhongli (中壢).

For those not familiar with the history of dragon boat racing, the story is that an official and famous poet named Quyuan who lived during the same period of Chinese history as Confucius and possibly Sun Tzu (of the "Art of War" fame) drowned himself in Hunan province as a protest against corruption. The people tried to save him, beating drums and doing other things to keep evil spirits away. I always thought that people beat drums on Dragon Boat so the rowers could row in time, but it may also be related to this myth. After it was clear that Quyuan could not be saved, people threw rice into the water to keep his spirit from feeling hunger. Because dragons were eating the rice (okaaaay), they started wrapping them up in triangles - the origin of today's leaf-wrapped zongzi, or sticky rice dumplings. I like the meat, peanut and mushroom ones although many kinds are sold.

Side note: I once met a woman in the wet market near MRT Yongchun who made so many zongzi in her life, she said, that she'd worn down the skin on her fingers and as such no longer had fingerprints. She showed me her hands and indeed, she had no fingerprints...I do believe her story, but I have to say...wow.

So now, to commemorate the death of Quyuan, but mostly to go out and have fun as the summer starts rolling in, dragon boat races are held every year. Which, come on, most of us celebrate Forth of July for the same reason...you get a few patriotic sorts who really do celebrate the founding of the United States but really, most of us are in it for the fireworks, picnic blankets and corn dogs).

One thing that you can see in Taiwan is a "flag grabber" at the end of the boat who grabs a flag to determine the race's winner. This is done in parts of the world with large Taiwanese populations (such as Vancouver), as well.

One thing we noticed in Longtan was that instead of drum beats for the boats, there was a drum but they mostly played well-known Western songs such as the James Bond theme, Mission Impossible, Flight of the Bumblebee, something by the Beach Boys and El Cumbanchero. When the aboriginal team was racing, they played aboriginal music (the stuff that goes "oh hei-oh hai oh-ah") which struck us as...well, probably well-intentioned but imagine if a Chinese team had been competing and they'd played some sort of fakey Chinese music (ding ding ding dong dong ding)...which, come to think of it, they probably would do.

Anyway, enjoy some more photos from the day...including the giant roast pig above, the giant balloon orb with legs below, and more!