Saturday, July 30, 2011

Tastes of Childhood: Making Lahmacun in Taipei

OH YUMMY

I've mentioned before that my mom's side of the family is Armenian from Musa Dagh, Turkey and that this is one of the reasons why we chose Turkey as our next travel destination: to seek out my homeland (or rather, one of my homelands - I'm also Polish, Swiss and generic British/Irish). Of all my many threads of ancestry, my Armenian heritage has always been the most vibrant and the biggest part of my life - I do believe that's because that side of the family came to the USA the most recently, and also because that branch of the family has been the most tenacious in terms of keeping heritage and memories alive. That tends to happen when your family lives through a genocide. When one's great grandfather (in my case, Mehran Renjilian) was a freedom fighter (the Turks would say "terrorist" but they're wrong) in the Armenian resistance...later turned minister. When one's family arrives in the USA after being forced to leave not one, but two countries - the second being Greece as the Nazis closed in.

So, after many years of regaling friends with homecooked Indian food, various appetizers and organizing outings to restaurants, I decided that on the eve of the trip that will mark my generation's first return to Musa Dagh, that I will cook some of the best-loved and most familiar dishes of my childhood.

The party will be in two weeks. I can make some of these dishes in my sleep, quite literally: I've had dreams where I have made hummus from scratch and upon waking up realized that even in my dream I followed exactly the right recipe. I have to admit, though, that there are others that I've eaten plenty of but never attempted to make (such as "fish cookies" which are flavored not with fish but with honey, and derive their name from the herringbone pattern cut across the top), and still others that I've attempted once before, failed at miserably, and never tried again...such as lahmacun.

The last time I made lahmacun, or tried to, I was too scared to attempt the dough, being terrified of trying something that included yeast. Instead I put the tasty topping on soft pita. The pita burned. I took the smoking mess of charred bread and raw meat laid out in a glass casserole out of the oven and plopped it on the counter, where the glass instantly shattered.

You can imagine my trepidation at deciding to not only attempt lahmacun again, but to do so with my tiny electric oven and with real dough made with actual yeast (I'm a great baker of cakes, muffins and such but not so experienced with bread products).

So this weekend was the test run.

My beloved husband helps out in the kitchen as I prepare the lahmacun dough.

I mostly followed this recipe, with a few changes to reflect the flavors I remember from childhood. I would never use ground beef - only lamb will do. Beef is a cop-out. I also added extra garlic, black pepper and allspice to the recipe. The "Armenian spice" I grew up with is made of cumin, paprika, cayenne pepper, black pepper and allspice and that's the combination I created and added.

Ground allspice in my tiny marble mortar&pestle.
 Fortunately, I have a wonderful husband who, while not exactly a kitchen god in his own right, is very good at helping out in the kitchen - chopping, grinding, peeling, mixing, stirring - whatever I may need when my two hands and one brain just aren't enough.

Lahmacun is not just flavored with dry spices and lamb - it also includes the pungent flavors of onion, parsley, mint, tomato, lemon and garlic (and, of course, salt).

Mint and lemon - yum!
 My mom once wrote a short story of her experiences making lahmacun, lamenting that Nana - her grandmother - could always turn out perfect dough circles but hers were eternally lumpy and lopsided.

I have to say that I take after my mother, but it doesn't matter: I care about taste, not looks.


Sorry, Nana. I hope as you look down on me from heaven (despite my not being religious) I hope you will forgive my horrifically uneven dough rounds).
Creating this dish in Taipei was - and will be, when I make it again in two weeks - a collision of memories. My life in Taipei with our assortment of friends here, our decrepit apartment that we'll soon be moving out of for better digs, our insane cat, Chinese class, evenings enjoying Belgian beer at various Da'an cafes or going out for some of the best food I've ever had from around China and the world... and commingled with childhood holidays where we'd serve typical American food - turkey or ham, gratin potatoes, green beans, tossed salad, apple pie - alongside hummus, Armenian string cheese, cheoreg (my mom wrote that recipe!), babaghanoush, pilaf, fish cookies, olives and lahmacun. We'd eat scrambled eggs with string cheese, bacon and cheoreg the next morning sitting around Grandma and Grandpa's kitchen table in their suburban house that is so typically American that I once saw their living room in a TV commercial (except it wasn't theirs - it just happened to be the same pre-fab living room). Running around the backyard with my cousins, all much younger than myself and helping Grandma make deviled eggs - it took years for her to realize that I was, in fact, capable of cooking much more than that.



Those flavors - mahlab (a spice made from the ground pits of a certain cherry), tahini, aromatic lamb, tangy lemon, earthy cumin, pungent mint and parsley, fiery cayenne - are the sensory receptacles of my childhood and going back from there, of my heritage. Despite sweating in a kitchen in Taiwan over a plastic table covered in parchment paper, whereas my great grandmother would have done this first on a rough kitchen counter in rural Turkey and later in Athens, and later still in Troy, New York, I did feel a connection to the feisty woman who passed away when I was 9 and who never did quite become fluent in English. It was also meaningful to me to share this first batch of lahmacun - the food of my childhood - with my ever-amazing husband:


...who, you know, certainly appreciates good food. We ate it as I always have, topped with fresh vegetables (onion, cucumber, tomato, bell pepper, all will do) and a squeeze of lemon.

And it means a lot to me to be able to share this food with my friends in Taipei in just a few short weeks, before we say goodbye until October.

Oh yes, and I made a cucumber yoghurt mint salad, too!


Thursday, July 28, 2011

STOP THE PRESSES

For once I agree with a KMT politician!

Wu Dunyi (Den-yih, whatever) did the obvious - but no less right - thing and has rejected in very strong terms the references made by Anders Behring Breivik (I assume I don't need to tell you who he is) to Taiwan as a good model for "monocultural" society.

Although Wu's remarks were said in a very blue way ("Chinese culture with Taiwanese characteristics"? Seriously?), nonetheless I'm with him on the fundamentals. Whatever that Norwegian psycho believes about Taiwan and "monoculturalism" is false, because Taiwan is not monocultural. Anyone who's been here for any length of time can tell you that - and if they can't, they aren't paying attention.

If anything I would say that Taiwan is far more diverse than Japan and Korea, other countries mentioned in Breivik's creepy tirade - not more diverse than China, but then the Chinese like to pretend they aren't diverse - a cultural tic I have not observed in Taiwan except among a very few individuals. Layers of culture of various aboriginal tribes, Hoklo culture that has evolved in Taiwan over hundreds of years, strong Japanese influence, a big wave of Chinese influence, a huge chunk of Westernization that I do not see in Japan or South Korea - I find the Taiwanese to be more progressive in so many ways - and skeins of influence from Southeast Asia (if you don't believe me go hang out in Donggang for a few days, and tell me you don't feel the Indonesian and Filipino influence).

I find Taiwan friendlier to cultural change - and yet amazingly flexible enough to retain many traditional elements - and friendlier to foreigners than I ever felt in Japan or Korea. Mind you I've only visited and not lived in those countries, but that's the impression I got. I find Taiwan to be a great destination for female expats in Asia in terms of equality, respect and rights - something that was not originally a characteristic of the culture here (remember just two generations ago baby girls were given away if the family lacked money, while boys were revered). I find the Taiwanese more open to other cultures and more willing to admit their admiration of other cultures while still taking pride in their own.

I don't see where a "strict immigration policy" comes into it, either. Sure, it's hard to gain Taiwanese citizenship but it's certainly not hard to live here - granted I say that as a privileged Westerner and not a domestic worker or foreign laborer from Southeast Asia, or a bride from China.

So, uh, in short, Wu's right.

Fake Steve Jobs

I just want to make sure everybody sees this. Awesome!

Fake Steve Jobs Shills Bottled Tea

I just wonder who the guy is (clearly it's not Steve Jobs). My guess: some indigent kids' cram school teacher doing at job at age 45 that really better suits a 21-year-old, who was happy to get the $3000 they paid him to model.

Was that mean?

Sorry. I guess I'm feeling mean today.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Book Review - Foreign Babes in Beijing


Foreign Babes in Beijing has been around for awhile, but I've only just gotten around to reading it. As an American living in Asia, I'm always interested in the narratives of other expat women, particularly those in Asia and super particularly those in the Chinese-speaking world. If there was a book written by a female expat in Taiwan (is there? If so, please enlighten me. I do intend to pick up Among the Headhunters of Formosa next, but that's not really the kind of expat narrative I'm talking about) I'd happily review that, too.

Foreign Babes tells the story of Rachel DeWoskin's five years in Beijing in the mid-90s. It focuses on her time filming the campy Chinese serial of the same name - 洋妞在北京- and her role as Jiexi, the foreign temptress who seduces and eventually marries the already-married Li Tianming. While she's doing this, she's also working at a PR firm despite a dearth of experience, meeting new people and settling in.

It's tightly-written with attention to clear prose and contains realistic dialogue - the kind where you hear the speakers' voices in your head rather than being thunked back to the page by a clunky, unrealistic or overly whimsical turn of phrase. She's neither positive nor negative, just pragmatic and grounded. She does touch on issues surrounding being a female expat, but that's not the main thrust of the book. Considering the difficulties facing foreign women in China (and the difficulties facing Chinese women in China, but that's a different tome), I'd like to see someone explore such issues in more depth.

I did find the first few chapters to be a bit jumpy and hard to follow despite long scrolls of clarity and insight - first she's at the PR firm, then she makes a friend, then she's at the Beiying studio, then she's not going to take the part, then she takes the part, and here's this other friend, and now some more talk about the PR office, back to the studio...huh? - although this could be partly my fault, as I covered the first half in 1/2 hour chunks on the Taiwan High Speed Rail to Hsinchu and back. I never did get a clear idea of when she and her Chinese-American boyfriend got together and when they broke up. I never was clear on whether she really was a vegetarian or whether that was a made-up issue to avoid eating fatty meat lunch boxes every day.

It settles, though, into an entertaining and incisive account of what life is (was?) like for foreigners in Beijing at that time. I moved to Guizhou not long after DeWoskin left Beijing, and I can say that my experience was 100% 180-degrees flip-me-on-my-head, what-the-hell-is-this different, but I lived in the countryside. No weird nightclubs, expat bar strips, dangerously sexy Chinese boyfriends, expats (there were three of us kind-of-normals and one perpetually drunk pervert from Los Angeles, that's it), illegal apartments (school took care of that), office towers or Chinese celebrities. We had beer by the river, one kitschy bar, ugly skinny smoking local guys who wore white athletic socks with ill-fitting black dress pants whom you'd never ever date, a pachinko parlor shaped like the Sphinx (I'm not joking) and nights drinking hawberry liquor with locally made lemon lime soda that will probably be the cause of our stomach cancer someday. We had rampant sexism, roaches and pneumonia. We had some great adventures, too.

In short, I lived in China, but I have never lived in DeWoskin's China. That doesn't mean she's wrong, it just means that Beijing is nothing like Guizhou!

Something I want to note that I really loved about this book: it managed to strike a non-political tone while discussing some deeply sensitive political issues, and while it didn't get overly opinionated about the China-Taiwan issue, she pulled no punches over describing her Taiwanese colleague as a fellow "foreigner", albeit a foreigner who doesn't look the part. She never once implies that Taiwan is anything other than a country, although she doesn't say so outright. She uses no pandering language - you won't reading piddling words such as "territory" here. I appreciate that. Rachel, if you ever read this review, as a foreigner who deeply loves Taiwan and supports Taiwanese sovereignty, I want to personally thank you for that. So many authors get all wimpy-knuckled over this issue, and you didn't. You gave your former coworker Gary and Taiwan the respect they deserve. Good job.

There are other parts that I liked - describing what it was like to be called to film at 1am, not going and calling one's parents instead. Descriptions of other foreigners and her interactions with them, and what it feels like to be a part of the expat community (not a feeling I've ever had, mind you, but interesting to read about). Weird nightclubs. Being told that reporters are afraid it will be hard to communicate with you, so they write your views themselves, attach your byline and that you should consider this a compliment.

It also struck me while reading that my life in Taipei is so different - so very, very different - from DeWoskin's life in China that it was a worthy read just to explore and consider the contrasts. It reminded me that in so many ways life here is Easy Street, and why I chose Taipei over Beijing. Beijing has this ring of exoticism and fantasy in the minds of people back home - but I can honestly say that Taipei, despite not being as internationally noted as Beijing, is a better city. I've been to Beijing. I've seen the six lane boulevards with no crosswalks and walls on each side, hacked through the pollution and dealt with the locals who either don't care about you or want to sell you something (and after they sell it to you, they don't care about you unless they think they can sell you more). DeWoskin's portrayal of Beijing is more sympathetic, and yet it still reminded me: yes, sorry, Taipei is better. 

I do strongly recommend this book for any woman moving abroad, especially to Asia and super-especially to China. It's also worthwhile for those moving to Taiwan, mostly for the expat insights which are true in almost any foreign country as well as the counterpoint to what life in Taiwan is like.

Sometimes, the stereotypes are true...or true enough.

Note: Yes, this post is intended to be tongue-in-cheek. Or tongue-in-chicken-rectum. Or whatever. I bang on about not generalizing, not stereotyping etc. and sometimes it's fun to let off a little steam. That's all it is.

Anyway.

As much as I try to practice what I preach in terms of taking Taiwanese culture as it comes and not forming any silly stereotypes based on it, or viewing it through the lens of stereotypes one might have heard about Taiwan (or Asia) back home, I have to say.

Sometimes, just sometimes - and bear with me here - Asia manages to live up to a stereotype in all sorts of hilarious ways. Don't judge me too hard for saying that. America does the same thing:

Australian friend: Damn...Americans and their guns! What a violent country! (or something like that)
Me: That's not true! You don't know...most Americans don't have guns. They're not as common as you think. It's a sad stereotype that Americans are gun-totin' crazies.
Same Australian friend staying at my family's home: Where should I put my bag?
Me: Upstairs, by the guns*.

*hunting guns, like skeet shooting rifles. We're not talking sawed-offs and semiautomatics here. My dad hunts pheasant and shoots skeet.

So...a few things I've noticed that play right into American stereotypes of Asia:

1.) Weird Ass Drinks

From to asparagus juice to tomato-sour plum "fruit juice" to those terrifying health drinks (one says "Chicken Extract" on the bottle), to this lovely concoction:

 YUM!

I have to say that the old '90s website Crazy Asian Drinks was really ahead of its time. It is absolutely true that they drink some weird stuff over here. Of course, weird to me. Not weird to them. To them its perfectly normal. I'm sure I drink something that many Taiwanese people would think is weird, too.

2.) Old Ladies Who Are All Up In Yo' Bidness



Don't let her fool you. She is going to ask you your age, if you're married, if not why not and if so whether you have kids, if not she'll want to know why not and she'll top it off with a question about your salary and an observation that you are too fat, have a zit or need to do something about your nose.

Then she's going to tell all the other old ladies in your neighborhood.

Yes, she is.


3.) Weird Ass Foods

Literally, sometimes. I mean we've all heard the horror stories of cod sperm sushi and, I dunno, cat meatballs and monkey brains and rat-on-a-stick and fried roaches. Some of that stuff is real (cod sperm sushi, rat-on-a-stick, fried roaches - I can vouch personally for the last one but I did not eat them) and some of it is probably the stuff of urban legend.

But let's talk about butt.

It would not be out of the ordinary at all in Korea to go out to a bar with your Korean students or colleagues, order a bunch of beers and watch as a bowl of snacks that the Koreans ordered appear on the table.

You innocently ask "what is that?"
Your new friend replies: "chicken anuses."

And you just got served. You got served a delicious bowl of anus, to be exact.

Recently I had a discussion with a friend about foods I do and don't eat as a relatively adventurous foreigner (not too adventurous - I draw the line at duck tongues and I tried to eat blood but just don't like it).

Friend: You know what is really good?
Me: What?
Him: Chicken...you know...雞皮鼓
Me: Chicken ass? Really?
Him: So you really call it chicken ass?
Me: Or chicken butt. Still. Why?!
Him: Because it's a super match with beer!
Me: No, my friend, Sichuanese food is a super match with beer. Chicken ass...you do realize that it is in fact the ass of a chicken?
Him: Yes.
Me: Like, with the anus?
Him: Yes.
Me: And so you know what chickens do with that?
Him: Yes.
Me: And what comes out of it?
Him: Ues!
Me: And you still like it?
Him: Yes!
Me: OK...

Point is, it's actually quite a true notion that a lot of what gets eaten in Asia would make many a Westerner's stomach turn. That doesn't mean the stuff is objectively weird (OK, honestly I do think eating chicken anuses, on a bowl or on a stick or whatever...that is weird to me. But it's not weird to my friend. It's not objectively weird as much as I wish it were).

Yes, you can go to one of those 'stuff on sticks' vendors and be all "and this is uterus, and this is pancreas, and this is blood cake, and this is rectum, and this is..." - and that's kind of beautiful, in a way.


3.) Blatant Copyright Infringement and Trademark Theft

I'm no fan of Donald Trump (the Golden Helmeted Noise Warrior) but somehow I doubt he gave his name to this organization:


And yes, I once saw but did not have the money to buy a North Farce jacket in Beijing (I was a starving backpacker) and I used to own a Datong fake iPod Nano (at least it wasn't called an iPod Nanoo or something).

4.) Whatever this photo says about ethnicity and privilege:


Actually I just wanted to post this photo because it's adorable. I don't have that much of a reason otherwise. The look on the kid's face is priceless.

 But...it has caused a few quizzical looks as students have asked about my weekend and I've shown them this photo. I've shown it to a few people and made jokes - sometimes gentle, like "oh yeah, they adopted a foreign baby" to something more sarcastic like "every year thousands of underprivileged American children are adopted by loving Asian parents who give them the chances in life that they never would have had in their home country" for people who will get it and laugh.

The truth: these are friends of mine, the kid is the child of other friends of mine and they thought it would be a fun picture.

But, you know, it's kind of true - we do sort of build up these tropes and life stories, or have them built up for us, and in the West it can be hard to admit that sometimes - sometimes (NOT ALWAYS, I want to make that clear) these trajectories have more to do with ethnicity and race than we'd like to believe. You don't see Asian parents with a cute blue-eyed adopted baby - you see white parents with a cute Asian adopted baby.

Yes, you do see white woman/Asian guy couples (I have a friend in one such marriage) but it's so much more common to see the Asian woman and the white guy (which, you know, it's not a bad thing unless you dive into the creepy end of that pool. I'll acknowledge the creepy end but don't want to leave out the two-people-in-love-who-cares-what-race-they-are side, as well).

We do have the foreign English teachers who make more than the Taiwanese teachers who speak flawless English. We do have foreigners who speak excellent Chinese who might well have to battle prejudice for jobs teaching and translating Chinese simply due to their race. We have that taxi driver I blogged about who said that I should be a "boss" because I'm "American", and we have the factory dormitory vs. the W Hotel when it comes to business trips.

We get non-Asians like me who speak pretty good Chinese, and plenty of locals who assume we don't speak it (but to be fair there are plenty who happily accept that many of us do), and Asian-Americans who locals expect to speak Chinese like a native based solely on how they look.

I'm not sure where it puts us, but it does tell me this: if you believe before you come to Asia that it's a place where you will often get pigeonholed because of your race...well, you're kind of right.

I didn't mean to end that on such a serious note.

5.) Weird costumes and cartoons as marketing ploys:



This guy is promoting "cherry" sports drink which I swear to goodness tastes like tomatoes. I actually thought it was tomato sports drink until someone got me to read the Chinese. "Cherry" or not, I'm sorry, this stuff tastes like tomatoes. Also, guy in a giant drink outfit dancing at a major intersection in Taipei. Yeeeeaaaah.


And this guy - I think he's supposed to be a bacteria or virus of some kind, but he's asking if you've prepared your New Year's gifts well enough yet. So really, I have no idea what the deal is with him.


6.) Really Bad English




Enjoy!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

All Our Base Will Never Belong To You





"You will never understand Taiwan."
I haven’t heard this recently…but I have heard it. Heck, someone left it as a comment on this blog once. I’ve also heard it said about or to expats in China, Korea, Japan, India and plenty of other countries.
It used to offend me – who is this person to place limits on what I do or don’t understand? Why does this person think that my range and ability to understand a place is limited in ways they can arbitrarily set, despite the fact that they barely know me? What makes them think I’ll never really get it? Do they think that I’m that dull, that thick, that unadaptable?
Now, though, I have to say, it doesn’t really bug me so much. In fact, I think there’s some truth to it (but not that it’s 100% true). I believe this for several reasons:
1.) Think of first-generation immigrants to your own country – in my case, the USA. It’s a fairly well established trope: the immigrant parents who live their lives in the USA but never really quite ‘get’ America, and their American kids who still have ties to the Old Country but who do get the country they were born in – the country they are therefore from – and who often cringe at their parents’ hijinks. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about: it’s the basis for most of Russell Peter’s jokes, approximately 90% of all “immigrant to a new land” and “child of immigrants to a new land” literature (think Jhumpa Lahiri, Amy Tan, Khalid Hosseini and so many others) and plenty of movies (My Big Fat Greek Wedding, The Joy Luck Club, The Namesake).
We tend to be fairly forgiving of those immigrants – the occasional brain deficient yokel who shouts “learn English!” notwithstanding. We understand that it is hard to get all the subconscious, learned-from-childhood, ingrained-in-culture cues if you didn’t grow up in that culture and your intuition comes from an entirely different set of social rules. So why do we get all defensive when it’s laid bare that we, also as foreigners (some of us travelers, some of us expats, some of us immigrants) in a foreign land, irrefutably face the same issues? That we are not and cannot be any more culturally fluent than those who settle in our home countries?
Of course there are different levels and adaptations regarding cultural fluency – some people who move to a new place do adapt at astonishing speeds and to a great depth and some never stop splashing in the shallow end. I would say even those swimming at the other end of the pool still aren’t totally culturally fluent – just more so than others.
2.) To the person who says “you will never understand Taiwan” (or China, or Japan, or wherever), well, that phrase likely means something different to them than what it means to you. You might hear it as “you will never understand anything about Taiwan”, but honestly, I think it’s meant more as “you will never understand every little thing about Taiwan”. There’s a great gulf of difference in those two phrases.
Sure, occasionally you get some vindictive idiot who does mean to imply that as much as you learn you’ll always be a stupid outsider, but I find that most people around the world are good, and most don’t mean it that way at all, even if it comes across as rude. I used to hear “you’ll never understand _______________” (fill in at your leisure, I’ve been to a lot of countries) and hear an implication that I do not and cannot understand anything about that country. That is not necessarily what the speaker intended – you can understand a lot, you can understand a surprising amount, you can understand in some depth, without understanding everything. As much of an Old China Hand or Old Taiwan Hand or whatever that you are, there will still probably be social cues you miss, culture gaps you can’t bridge, and cultural tics you will always find unfathomable. That doesn’t mean you don’t understand anything, just that you don’t understand totally. There’s nothing wrong with that, nothing to be ashamed of. It’s not the culture you grew up in, so how could you grasp it on the same level as someone who did grow up in it?
3.) You don’t have to listen to people who imply that because you aren’t Taiwanese (or whatever) and so you can’t intuitively grasp the nuances of Taiwanese (or whichever) culture and therefore shouldn’t make any observations regarding it – that basically you have no right to speak. This is 100% wrong. It may be true that you are not totally culturally fluent, but that does not mean you have no right to make observations, give opinions or offer advice based on what you do know. As I said above, you might know quite a lot, and if you’re running your mouth, I would hope you know enough at least to support what you’re saying (I hope…so many people don’t, but I have faith in my readers that you’re not like that)! You don’t need to have been raised in a culture since childhood to
4.) Heck, sometimes I don’t understand my own culture. Or if I have a culture. I don’t mean this as “America has no culture” – it does. It’s just that America is a big place with a lot of different regions, groups and cultures and while there are threads connecting them, I would not say that someone from, say, New Orleans and someone from New York have the “same culture” because they’re “American”. Similarities exist, sure, but you can’t ignore the differences. The same is true in China and in India – both huge countries, neither of which can honestly say that every part of their territory and the people in it falls under an identical cultural rubric (I mean, the Chinese government and many Chinese people try to say that but they’re wrong).
So firstly, as a foreigner I might come to understand fairly deeply the culture of the region I’m living in, but that’s no guarantee if I live in a fairly large nation that I’ll understand the nuances of another region’s culture. I lived in Guizhou for a year – does that make me an expert on Tibet or Xinjiang? Hell no. It doesn’t even make me an expert on Guizhou, Yunnan or Sichuan, although I have far more street cred in those areas. I studied in Madurai, India. I know a lot about Tamil culture. I don’t claim to be an expert, but what I really cannot do is claim that this makes me somehow knowledgeable about Punjabi, Bengali or Gujarati culture. It doesn’t (although I have been to Bengal and Punjab, but only briefly).
Secondly, really, I don’t understand every little thing about American culture (who does?) - and it’s my homeland.  I really don’t get why Americans are so often happy to drive gas guzzling cars everywhere and yet complain about the price of gas and long commutes. DUHHHH. I don’t get why people are so opposed to decent public transportation. I don’t get the widespread – yet fortunately fading – fear of homosexuality. I really don’t get the puritanical ideas that Americans have about drugs like marijuana and alcohol (disclosure: I was allowed to drink at home well before I turned 21. At 13 I was permitted wine and beer and by the end of high school my parents felt they could trust me). I do not understand why the right to own a firearm is so damned important to some people. I don’t understand a lot of political beliefs (don’t even get me started on health care reform and the idiots who think the system we have now actually works). I do not understand big box stores. I do not understand McDonald’s.  I do not understand a lot of American cultural tics regarding personal space, topics deemed interesting and appropriate for conversation or…well, or many other things. I don’t understand why tipping is still a ‘done thing’ (although I do tip, and generously).
If there are things, people, groups, ideas and cultural issues I don’t understand in my own country, how can I claim to understand all the variety and complexity of views, thoughts and actions in another?
In the end I think that in some ways, it’s a strength. There’s an old Chinese idiom floating around that I can’t find now, but it goes something like: the chess game is clearer to the observers than the players. I have heard it used to describe romance, where two people who feel like everything is unclear are blindly feeling their way through whereas everyone around them knows what the deal is, but it works here too. I’m not saying that Taiwanese culture is clearer to me as an observer than it is to a player, but I do have a different viewpoint, and surely some things that are unclear to a local would be quite clear to me.  In fact, it’s happened when I’ve observed some social phenomenon and a friend or student has responded: I never thought about that before, but yes! That’s true!
So, you know, those people are right…sort of. I will never understand Taiwan – or at least, I will never fully understand it. I will never understand it in the way that someone who was born here understands it. That’s OK. As long as nobody tries to say that I don’t understand it at all, I am OK with the idea that I do not and cannot understand it in totality.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Taiwanese Are...

Awhile back my husband said something interesting on his blog:

Lurking within the psyches of Western expats in Asia is the dark figure of the local who has absolutely no clue how to deal with the fact that there are foreigners living in their country. Most often this takes the form of a local who is absolutely determined not to understand anything a foreigner says, even if the foreigner does an excellent job speaking the local's native language. Rather like the running gag in the movieAnchorman, where Will Ferrell's character can't understand Hispanic people speaking English, because he 'doesn't speak Spanish'.


I don't deny that such people exist, although I do suspect they are rather less common in real life than they are in expats' imaginations.


Here is my plea:


Let those people be batty, illogical individuals. Don't smear their individuality all over the culture they came from. Don't use some variation on 'Oh well. People in this country haven't had much contact with foreigners.' Everybody has a right to have foibles.


I like this – not only because my husband wrote it (BOOYAH!) but because it indirectly makes a point that’s been on my mind recently. It’s been on my mind because it’s been lobbed at me recently, both as an expat and as a woman: generalizing vs. stereotyping.

It’s not really important how it has affected me recently, as those events were merely the catalyst for my thinking about the issue, but suffice it to say I’d heard enough of comments along the lines of “Well that’s because women are/do X”, and on another front, a student who made a comment about foreigners that, while it might be true of many foreigners, was certainly not true of all of them. A well-meaning (Asian, if it matters) Facebook friend made a comment about how Asian women accept second-class status and don’t stand up for themselves, which I countered with something along the lines of it’s true that many women don’t and that it’s a problem especially in Asia, but I know plenty of Taiwanese women who kick ass and demand what they’re worth.

I firmly believe that generalizing has a time, a place and a use: making a broad observational statement about a noticed trend is nothing to be ashamed of or avoid, as long as it’s consciously done as such and not used to implicate individuals. Using anecdotes and snippets of conversations with people you know fairly well – something I do frequently on this blog – to make points about Taiwan as a whole – is a useful tool as well.

One thing that makes this more palatable is to acknowledge or clarify that the statement being made may be true on a general level but cannot be applied to individuals, or that the anecdotal evidence is just that: your observations based on experiences that don’t begin to constitute “data”. Words like “many” or “on a general level” or “I’ve noticed” or “my experience has been that…” or “often” help, as well.
The point is that I hear this constantly in expat circles in Taiwan – and in other countries – regarding locals (and from locals regarding foreigners, to be fair) and it really pisses me off.

I’ve heard statements along the lines of “but the Taiwanese don’t care about X” or “The Taiwanese don’t understand their own language” or “The Taiwanese don’t want to be friends with foreigners” or “The Taiwanese are shy” or The Taiwanese X or they Y or they Z.

I get the feeling that some of these beliefs are picked up while socializing with other expats – they hear enough opinions from enough expats (and at the risk of stereotyping I’m going to say that many times those expats are limited to people their own age, male, with Taiwanese girlfriends and not a lot of variation) that they start to believe them despite having no similar direct experience, and from taking a few isolated incidents and using them to project a massive – and often wrong – generalization-turned-stereotype on the Taiwanese themselves.

One such example was a recent letter in the Taipei Times. Kevin Larson – who clearly stewed angrily for several years over a minor incident in which a Taiwanese woman who treated him rudely – took an anecdote about one rude woman:

A few moments later, I ran out of my own supply so I went back to the young boy and asked him if he could give me a small handful of the feed for my son. The boy’s mother saw this and was quick to admonish me, hysterical body language and all.


She yelled at me, saying: “Go buy your own.”
However, when I tried to explain that it was I who bought the feed — expecting an apology — she only grabbed her child by the arm and, in a huff, took him away. She had lost face and did not know how to deal with it.

…and turned it into a truth he believes about all Taiwanese people:

Criticism, and mine was merely a factual observation, turned her plain ugly. However, do not blame the Taiwanese, blame the Taiwanese education system….


How, exactly, did he go from “this woman was so rude” to “blame the Taiwanese educational system”?

He went from “this woman was rude” to “this woman lost face” to “this woman is Taiwanese” to “Taiwanese become rude when they lose face”.

Which I have found not to be true, by the way: I’ve noticed that in Taiwanese culture the tendency is to become reticent, even silent, and beat a hasty retreat or become quite distant when face is lost, after a slapdash effort to preserve some sense of harmony on the surface even when all parties involved know there’s roiling waters beneath.

I have an anecdote that makes my point: I was given insufficient, confusing and incorrect information at work, I screwed up a work-related thing as a result, I lost my temper over it, this caused the boss to lose face, but in the end we pretended to ‘see where the other was coming from’ and shook hands, knowing that the other was still angry and neither of us did in fact see the other’s point at all. I hesitate to flesh that story out, though, because it might seem contrary to my point that such an anecdote cannot be inflated to include All Taiwanese and Their Sense of Face. My boss is just my boss, and yes, I do believe that his actions were indicative of a broader trend or cultural norm, but that still doesn't make my boss any less of an individual and his actions do not speak for all Taiwanese.

I will say one thing in Larson’s defense: it’s true that he used several good modifiers in the beginning – “seems to me” and “many Taiwanese” among them. Only later on does he take one crazy woman and extrapolate her actions to cover All Taiwanese.

When, really, my husband is right. Doing this takes away individuality. It creates a tendency to refuse to see people from other cultures as individual people who are capable of being rude just because they are rude, not because All Taiwanese are rude, or crazy just because they’re crazy, not because All Taiwanese are crazy. It takes away their right, as independent entities, to be kind, caring, insane, temperamental, sexist, wrong, stupid, shy, hardworking, lazy, illogical, straight-laced, inexperienced, promiscuous or any of the myriad of adjectives one might use in a drunken rant about All [X People].

It’s no more OK than “my ex-wife was a bitch so all women are bitches” – err, no, maybe it was just your ex-wife. Or “all New Yorkers are rude because this guy was rude to me” – maybe that guy was just a douche. People are individuals, and they are not any less individuals just because they belong to a cultural or ethnic group different from your own.

Which, as I’ve said, I do this to some degree and I have thought about the limits of how much or whether it’s acceptable: I frequently tell stories and give anecdotes about my social encounters in Taiwan here, and I often do spin thoughts and ideas about Taiwanese culture from them, like cotton candy around a paper tube. I do have to remind myself occasionally not to fall into the trap of “my friend is this way, so all Taiwanese are this way” and that between the slender filaments of my observations is a heck of a lot of air and quite a lot of potential stickiness.

I have to keep in mind the difference between an interesting anecdote and a story that indicates a trend, and be careful to note that neither can be used too bluntly. To stop doing so completely would take away a tool I value in cultural observation, plus, hey, I like to tell stories.

Related but from another angle, there’s generalizing about an entire people and then applying it to individuals (which happens a lot to women – “all women love shopping so you must love shopping!” style) – something else I see in the expat community here. I mostly see it regarding Taiwanese women – Taiwanese girls are sweeter or more accommodating than Western ones so expat so-and-so is going to go off and find himself a Taiwanese girlfriend because presumably she’ll be that way, too. Ugh. Or that Taiwanese bosses are manipulative, dishonest and money-grubbing so I’m going to go into this job assuming that my boss is that way. Or Taiwanese are shy so I am going to assume that this person is shy (and if you think all Taiwanese are shy, come meet my friends Lilian, Sasha or Cathy someday).

Catherine of Shu Flies not long ago said it best: in the comments of this post she noted that she “prefer[s] to avoid making statements that begin with "the Taiwanese are" because it veers too close to crossing the line from cultural analysis to cultural stereotyping for [her] comfort.”


And that’s the crux of it right there. I hope both expats and locals stop doing this regarding each other. It hinders individual friendships and real exchange. Maybe that's too much to ask for, though.

Book Review - Expat: Women's True Tales of Life Abroad


I've decided that I'll very occasionally review books that I feel would be of use to women living abroad or traveling long-term, even if the books themselves are not directly related to Taiwan. I do believe this aids my goal of writing not just about Taiwan and women's issues here but female expat issues generally. All unasked-for and unpaid, simply because I feel the books I write about will be useful to female expats in Taiwan and worldwide.

Expat: Women's True Tales of Life Abroad is a collection of short nonfiction by - you guessed it - female expats in a panoply of countries, there for a variety of situations and experiencing life abroad in myriad ways. I do strongly recommend it for any woman about to move abroad or who has already made the move - there isn't a lot of "advice" in this book as there was in my last review (Expat Women: Confessions) but there are a lot of different experiences and perspectives to draw on. It makes for a good coffeeshop read, especially if you are feeling a little lonely or homesick or just want to feel connected to women who have traveled the expat road as you have, because as we all know, it can sometimes be hard to meet female expats in person.

Some stories that resonated with me: Emmeline Chang's Beautiful New World, Leza Lowitz's Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackboard, Angeli Primlani's When The Skinheads Start to Grow Hair, It's Time to Leave Town, Deryn P. Verity's The Long Conversation and Sadie Ackerman's Growing Season. I single these stories out, but really all of them were well-written and interesting, thoughtful and worth reading.

I especially recommend Beautiful New World to any female expats in Taiwan, as it is written from the perspective of an American-born Taiwanese (Emmeline) who returns to Taipei and wrangles with dueling cultural loyalties as she figures out her life here. Growing Season is a good one to read for anyone who has experienced or is experiencing reverse culture shock - captured beautifully in this post on Kath's blog, and When Skinheads Start to Grow Hair... for anyone who is not white, but who is Western, and living abroad (Angeli describes how she was harassed and often mistaken for a gypsy in Prague, despite her being an American of South Asian origin).

All in all a fine book. Not a handbook, but very much a worthwhile read and a book that I feel, in mnay of the stories and in many respects, captures my own feelings about life abroad. It might help another female traveler or expat out there who is feeling down about life rediscover her sense of adventure or get in touch with her own feelings about being abroad, choosing a life of travel, dealing with life as a woman in a country that doesn't necessarily accord women the respect she's accustomed to at home, or who is just plain sick of the cringeworthy, mostly male expat scene that - despite all I say about not buying into stereotypes, is sometimes too packed with stereotypes for its own good.

Which, unrelated but it reminds me. I was joking with a student about those stereotypes and said "you know, people say that when a white guy gets off the plane in Asia he's basically handed a government-issued Asian Girlfriend at the airport.

Student (a Taiwanese man): "WOW! So cool." Me: "Really?" (laughing, because I know he's a good guy and doesn't seriously agree with chauvinist attitudes and it's just joking around). Him: "Yeah! You can imagine it. You get off the plane - 'oh, here is your girlfriend. You don't like her? Here, we give you another one!' I wish I could do like that!"

I think that's a fine place to end my post, so enjoy!


Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Shocked. Shocked!

Interesting, but also kind of sad, post on YFFM (a blog I don't always like, and don't always agree with, but does offer up some food for thought on relationships in Taiwan).


Taiwanese Man or Western Man?


Yes, this is a group of women aged 16-18, so I can't expect their views to be fully mature on what would make a good husband and marriage, but at the same time I'm letting my post stand because I do hear these views repeated in Taiwanese society (I also hear them back home - some ideas transcend culture I guess). I also remember as a 18-year-old having views that I, in my not-so-humble opinion, would say are more mature than what these women are saying.


What makes it sad is that so many bad, bad, bad reasons to marry or date a Western (or Taiwanese) guy are mentioned here. That's not the fault of the blogger - he clearly just posted exactly what the women were saying. I'm not out to shoot the messenger.


But really: "...he can talk easily to my Mom … my parents can get along with him easier … they (Taiwanese husbands) value family and they obey their wife"?


I have a great relationship with my in-laws, but I certainly hope "she can talk easily to my Mom" was not a reason why Brendan married me! I do realize that family bonds, especially between parents and children, are stronger in Taiwan than in the West but I do believe it is unhealthy to choose to marry someone on the basis of family approval. Better to marry the person you want to spend your life with and agree together on how to fit your new family unit into the greater family whole. Your spouse becomes your new first priority.


(and)


"We don’t need to take plane to see each other … although they could not be as tall as western man … I don’t like the man whose hair is too much … but I really want a foreign child, maybe I’ll adopt one with my husband.”

I will ignore the fact that you wouldn't need to take a plane to see each other if you were married - you could live in the same place. But in such a short paragraph about preferred spouses, I am kind of gobsmacked that body hair and a "foreign child" (gag me - all children are beautiful except the really evil ones) are the things she chose to highlight.

Although she also mentions more fluent communication and a shared understanding of homeland and culture, which I can respect. 

Then there's this: "I think a western man would be better because I think they’re hot" - honey, hotness transcends ethnicity. 


Hotness also transcends looks - if you're saying a Western man is better because you think he's better looking, well, it's your right to think white guys (because you know by "Westerner" one so often means "white" despite that not being how things actually are) are hotter than Taiwanese guys, but true hotness comes from chemistry - both physical and mental - and a sense of connection. It comes from a shared building of a strong relationship together. True hotness comes from kindness, generosity, ethics and humor. For these reasons, my husband is #1 on the hotness scale (also, he's pretty darned good-looking).


(and)

"If we get married, we’ll have many cute kids that they look like lovely dolls … if we have a baby he or she will be very handsome or beautiful"

Gag, gag, gag, gag. 

I realize this is just one girl discussing her views, but still - gag. How your kids will look is not a reason to get married. I mention this because it is so prevalent in Taiwan (and  other parts of Asia and the world) to think this way. I hear it far more often here than back home, where the "oh we'd have such lovely kids" is a rare statement and often one made offhand, not meant to be a part of the core reasons for marrying someone. In Taiwan it's frighteningly common to believe that it's better to marry a Westerner because "mixed babies are so beautiful!"

And...gag. The problem here is not "should I marry a Westerner or a Taiwanese man?" but "we need to knock some sense into people about what's really important in marriage".

Waaaay too much emphasis on looks, and that's scary. That needs to change. But then it needs to change around the world - I only say it for Taiwan because my blog focuses on Taiwan.

However, "Western man is more gentlement [sic] and considerate" - I have met many Taiwanese men who are gentle and considerate and either are or will be excellent husbands. There are plenty who are not, and there is still a cultural undercurrent in which, despite greater numbers of women in the workforce, men still do not shoulder their fair amount of responsibility at home, there is more acceptance of marital infidelity and generally speaking, I can see why a Taiwanese woman would say this when faced with so many romantic prospects with outmoded, chauvinistic views and unrealistic standards for female behavior and beauty. But those men exist in the West, as well, and to be honest, much of the bottom of the Western Man barrel ends up in Asia teaching English so you're not that likely to get a better catch by dating a Western guy. (This is not to say that all Western guys here teaching English are awful, or that all awful Western guys come to Asia to teach English. I don't mean that).


But, at the core of it, gentleness (being a gentleman?) and being considerate are two very good things to consider when looking to marry, regardless of the cultural background of the person you marry. I can't fault that.


There's also this: "I think Western man are more handsome but Taiwanese is ok … but if Taiwanese have much money, I will change my mind.  The most important thing is money.  Second is appearance.”


Do I really have to say anything about this? You can basically fill in the blank, like Mad Libs:

This is a giant pile of ______(noun)_________ because ____(clause)_______, ___(clause)________ and also _______(clause)__________.



Have fun with that.


So, I realize these are just observations from a few women, and that they don't represent all Taiwanese women. I realize that the evidence is purely anecdotal. I realize that it probably isn't entirely fair to rip them all a new one for their views. I'm doing it anyway, because these are short pieces written by women and in such brief paragraphs, I'm bothered by what they chose to include as the most important reasons behind their preferences. A few good things get thrown around, but where are the real issues: chemistry, compatibility, shared values and life goals, strong ethics, kindness, generosity?


I also do see a lot of the same views in Taiwanese society - I also see a lot of the same shallow ideas back home - and it worries me that these would really be reasons why Taiwanese women would marry or date a man. Well, to be fair, I believe you can and should date someone for whatever reason you wish and it need not be serious. When the marriage talk starts, though, things like "we'll have beautiful babies", "they are rich" and "they have beautiful eyes" starts to get scary - are these really the priorities that women have in Taiwan or around the world? How is this not terrifying? 


I do want to emphasize that these less substantial reasons are perfectly OK, if not ideal, reasons to date and have fun (even if they wouldn't be my choices) - it's only when the marriage discussion gets started that it bothers me.


So, before I just throw my hands up and condemn the entire institution of marriage to Hades, I would like to point out the final, neutral piece on that blog:

“I think a person who is match with you is the most important, no matter where he’s from or how does he look like, personalities matter … the most important of all, that man must have to love me and really care about me … true love come I will not refuse, even though he is Taiwanese or Western … finding the person you really love is very important … So maybe I wont obey them (my parents).  Because it’s my life.  I have right to decide what kind for boyfriend or husband I want to have."

THANK YOU.



But then she goes and ruins it with this:

"The most important of all, is if he has enough money, is responsible and is handsome enough … they are both good …  Taiwanese BF/HB is good at normal situations, no culture fights and it’s convenient to communicate.  Western BF/HB is good at if I want to have children, they’ll be very pretty and my language will get well.  I can also travel to his country without reason.  Of course, they (Taiwanese and western men), should all have a villa, a car – audi – and not too poor because if he wants to propose I can’t accept without house and diamond.”



Oh no. No no no. Is it cruel of me to be so dismissive of other women's priorities in a mate? Maybe, but this is my blog, these are my views and that's what it is. But really - no. Just no.


I do hope some other ideas worm their way into Taiwanese and world culture (which includes the USA and other Western countries): better priorities regarding who to marry and why.


I do want to add that I realize not all Taiwanese women are like this. I know so many mature, thoughtful, intelligent and insightful Taiwanese women who are wise and have a good sense of priorities. I'm responding only to the quotes on YFFM and the fact that I hear similar things said by other women - grown women, no less! - in Taiwan. It is not meant as a reflection on all Taiwanese women.









The White Roses

From yesterday's Taipei Times - something worth reading. I intend to go to the protest on the 31st not only to report on it on this blog but to also show my support for the women's movement in Taiwan. 

There was a brief discussion among friends on Saturday after our hike on which party is better for women's rights and women in general in Taiwan.



I still say it's the DPP. It's true that the KMT passed many laws in the late '90s that drastically improved women's legal rights, which has helped pave the way for women's social equality (which we're still working on, but it's getting better). This is right about the time that the rape and abortion laws changed to be, though not perfect, at least more favorable to women. 


One person said - and I don't disagree entirely - that neither party, no politician, around the world, actually cares about issues so you may as well vote for those who have done something about the issue you care about. He has a point, even though it's quite clear that the KMT passed those laws as they saw their chances of election slipping away in the face of the cultural force that was Chen Shui-bian (as much as I don't like the guy, he really was a cultural force) in an attempt to court the female vote. It also seems fairly clear to me that they were laws that would have been passed by the DPP once in power.


That was over a decade ago. Looking at the landscape now, I still see the DPP as the party of women's empowerment. Look at their high-level political figures. How many high-level KMT women can you name? I can't name any (maybe there are a few I haven't heard of, I admit, but I at least know the names of most prominent politicians in Taiwan). Now, how many high-ranking women can you name in the DPP? Tsai Yingwen, Chen Ju, Lu Xiulian...this is the party that is actually aspiring to put a woman in the highest office and the party that already put a woman in the 2nd highest office. This is the party of feminism - the women of the DPP have brought up women's rights as an important platform. 


On the other side, you have a judge nominated by Ma Yingjiu who dismissed a rape case against a six-year-old because she "didn't resist enough" (!!), a rapist let out on bail who then jumped said bail and has only now been apprehended, this mishandling of the Jiang Guoqing case both when it happened and now that the injustice has come to light. You have the party of inertia and seemingly purposeful ignorance and fecklessness. 


Back on the blue end, I hear a lot of rhetoric about how people from the south are "sexist" or "don't respect women" or "are too traditional" and expect women's roles to remain traditional. I don't like to link "south Taiwan" with "DPP" *too* much but, you know, I think in this case I can. It's true that there's still a lot of sexism across Taiwan and a lot of that is linked to traditional values (which you might see more of in the south). But it's also true that those "sexist" south Taiwanese are the ones supporting a female presidential candidate and who voted in a female vice president. And, on a softer more "anecdotal observation" note, considering the power that the obasans of southern Taiwan seem to yield, and the equal stakes that wives have in family business, I find it hard to believe that the "south Taiwanese" (ie those who vote green) "don't respect women" even if there are some ways in which traditional cultural mores could be improved.


So you bet I'll be at the protest, and I do hope to see the women's vote in 2012 coming out to support Tsai for President.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Day Hike to Yuemeikeng Waterfall (and Reason #23 to love Taiwan)



Yesterday we hiked to Yuemeikeng waterfall in Yilan - I have to say, very honestly, that this is not only the most beautiful waterfall I've seen in Taiwan: it's the most beautiful waterfall I've seen in person. Period. And that includes some spectacular falls in Guizhou, Sumatra and the Philippines. You can see for yourself how lovely it is - a spray of water falling down an etched rock face into an idyllic, swimmable pool surrounded by verdant cliff faces, approached from an idyllic gorge.

I can't give exact directions because I didn't lead the hike, although it's not a hard trail to follow. There is are links out there to posts by other hikers/bloggers that I thought I'd bookmarked, but haven't (J, if you want to provide a link in comments I'll link it in the post).

To get there, you begin at Wufengqi (also spelled Wufengchi and Wufongchi...whatever) in the hills above Jiaoxi in Yilan County. You can get there by taxi, a tourist shuttle or your own transportation. The tourist shuttle leaves from outside the train station approximately once every 15 minutes, at least on weekends.

I recommend going during the week if possible, and not on a holiday. The last blogger to pass through here said he felt that this gorgeous spot would soon be overrun with hiking groups and he'd like to see it remain pristine. Our experience is that it's pretty newly popular and full of hiking groups (we ran into several) and so...what's done is done. Weekends promise to be somewhat crowded, as do holidays, and the large hiking groups of which Taiwanese seem to be fond, while friendly, well...the sheer size of them does kind of ruin the peaceful atmosphere.

You do not want to do this hike in heavy rain or after it. Some parts of the trail are really not navigable when wet.

When you get to Wufengqi, head down the path along the river where the mini-dams are (people will probably be swimming) and after climbing the stairs above them, cross the river. This is not the first time you'll be wading in water - a good portion of the hike is essentially river tracing, so wear appropriate shoes (river tracing shoes would be the best choice, but we did it in Teva-style sandals).

There is a trail across the river - not really marked at all. Head up that and you'll walk a very gentle incline for awhile. You'll cross two bridges and pass a simple Tu Di Gong (earth god) shrine.

One of the bridges has a sign saying that only one person may cross at a time.

The trail goes up and down and only one section is a longer, steep climb. I'm not exactly a super-fit hiking maven, but I made it up, so you can too. Huffing and puffing, but I made it. You'll pass lots of lovely hanging branches and vines and a grove of green bamboo on the way up.


At two points you'll hit crossroads...this is where my directions get a little shoddy. For one of them (I believe the first one) you go right. The other path heads uphill and the one to the right is level/slightly downhill. For the other I believe you go left. I'm fairly sure that's the second one.


You'll start heading downhill quite sharply and then hit the stream, which is punctuated by several large boulders. It's a popular rest stop for large hiking groups - when we got there they'd all stopped in the stream and were starting up hot-pot style food. Right in the stream. Which is fine, and it all looked very festive, but we were looking for peace and quiet. 

I don't mean to be too harsh on the tour groups - clearly they enjoy the atmosphere that a large group brings, and they are extremely friendly. It's just...they're loud.  And they take up space. And they make their hot pot right on the trail. 

They also carry far too much gear. Here is a big cultural difference between hiking in Asia and hiking back home. We Crazy Foreigners show up in Tevas - well, fake Tevas from A-Mart - grody t-shirts and comfortable pants or shorts, a backpack with some water and snacks, and we go. They show up in wetsuits, with vests full of dangling gear, carabiners, rappelling ropes, helmets (why? "In case we fall and hit our head"), river tracing shoes and probably crampons and machetes as well (I'm joking about the crampons and machetes...sort of. It's hard to tell under all that rope). We get our shirts wet and whatever, it's cool. They look like they're about to start a deep-sea dive, except in a helmet.

Which is fine, I'm gently poking fun instead of mocking, because I am sure they gently poked fun at the "unprepared" Crazy Foreigners without helmets or rope that we honestly didn't need.

Crazy Foreigners!

At this point in the hike, you need to start following the stream, which means wading (or river tracing). Good shoes are a must - it's worth the money to by dork-tacular river tracing shoes although if you go in sandals with a good grip you'll be fine. Just watch out for slippery or unsecured rocks.

You'll get partway up and then reach a waterfall you may or may not be able to get over - I guess this is where the rope that the Taiwanese hikers had came in handy. There is a trail, though, up and over with ropes to help you. It's slippery, very narrow and if you fall you will probably break something, but I did it so you can, too.


You can, in fact, choose to take that trail - which is muddy, irritating, tiring and a bit dangerous - and skip the rest of the wading until you get to the end, but we found the wading to be more fun and actually easier.


See?
 You might lose a shoe, though. 




After the 2nd mini-waterfall, which also has a trail up and around, you enter a small gorge and can see the top of Yuemeikeng over the trees. Even from that distance it is spectacular.


Didn't I tell you?
At this point I shouted "DUDE! We're HERE!" Even from a distance I could tell it was going to be stunning. 

You do have to start wading again, but it's not that challenging. This area can get dangerous after heavy rains, and flash floods are a concern, so do check the weather and precipitation before heading out.



The trail is populated with butterflies, including small cornflower-blue ones, and dragonflies. There are also a lot of spiders.

Anyway...

...



Dude.


Wufengqi itself - which is a tiered series of three waterfalls (only the final one of which is really impressive) reachable by an easy path pockmarked with stairs, has nothing on this place. If you have to choose between here and Wufengqi for time reasons, choose Yuemeikeng. Don't even bother with the more well-known Wufengqi. Yuemeikeng is just better.



See what I mean about the large number of people ruining the atmosphere for us smaller groups? Again, if one of us got into a serious spot or was injured - which was a possibility in some areas - you know they would have used their fancy equipment to help us (I will never say that Taiwanese are unfriendly or unhelpful) but we did appreciate having about 40 minutes of peace at Yuemeikeng before they arrived.

Also, note the bike helmet, the scooter helmet, the construction helmet...bring a helmet, any helmet seemed to be the directive from the group leader, who had a whistle and everything.

I would never want to hike like that, but good for them.



See how much nicer it is without a lot of people?




It started to rain on the way back - pretty heavily in fact. Fortunately the worst of it hit long after we'd left the more dangerous-when-wet parts of the trail. Ash had already changed into a dry shirt (we hadn't) so he put on his Giant Condom. Brendan, Joseph and I figured, well, we're already soaked, so whatever. We're not going to get any wetter.

Brendan and I changed in the bathrooms at the Wufengqi parking lot near where the shuttle picks up. Although my pants were quick-dry and my shirt was athletic clothing material, I was soaked to the bone and didn't want to get on the bus like that.

I have to say goodbye to the pants though - at many points on the trail I had to get there by scooting on my butt (I call it "ass hiking") and I got a huge tear in the right butt-cheek of my pants about halfway through: another reason to change before heading back to civilization.

In Jiaoxi we sought out some locally-brewed beer that we'd tried previously. This company makes three kinds of wheat beer and something called "green beer". We'd tried the dark wheat beer before and thought it tasted like Oreos - when we first tried it I thought it was pretty good. This time we got that and the Green Beer (below) and, well, it wasn't as good as I remembered. I could drink it, and it was certainly unique, but...well...it's green beer.

If you want to try it (don't say I didn't warn you: it's not that good, but it is an experience), go to the main intersection in Jiaoxi where the road to the train station hits the main road (Rt. 9), turn left and walk to the large blue building under construction. Next to that is a hot spring park with coffee, shaved ice, ice cream and this beer.

They also have snacks - fennel dried tofu, fennel cooked peanuts, smoked duck in a tasty sauce, edamame and more. The snacks, especially the duck, were delicious.


Yes, this is actually beer.

I'll leave you with this: if you live in Taiwan, and you are even reasonably fit, you have to try this hike. Go with a small group, bring good shoes, check the weather and try to go on a weekday, but do go. You won't be disappointed - Yuemeikeng is truly spectacular.

That brings me to my Reason #22 to love Taiwan - wherever you live, especially around Taipei, there are myriad day trip and day hiking options to get out of the city. When I lived in DC getting out of the metro area was an ordeal that required planning and a car. Sure, you could go to Annapolis, Harper's Ferry, Shenandoah, even the Blue Ridge Mountains if you wanted. You could go to Richmond, Baltimore Harbor or the Billy Goat Trail (or other hikes in the area), visit Mt. Vernon or do any number of other things.

The problem was that none of them - not even one - was remotely convenient or in some cases even possible without a car. They were expensive, too. Some of them (such as Harper's Ferry) were better suited to a weekend. Very few of them actually involved nature - most involved going to some other town. Nature was just too far away for a day trip, or close but inaccessible.

In Taipei, if I get up early enough I can do a satisfying hike through some breathtaking natural vistas (or just enjoy the breeze, butterflies, trees and earth) and I can do a different one every time. I could hike every other weekend for years and still not do every day hike available to me from Taipei. And for most of them I don't need a car - there's a bus that goes close enough, or a chartered taxi is in my price range (imagine getting a taxi to take you out to a hiking trail in the USA!). 

It's not that I didn't like hiking in the USA - and I did a lot of it in upstate New York where I grew up because that town really is in close proximity to a lot of day hikes - it's that in the USA if you live in an urban area and don't have a car...forget it. At least where I'm from - I don't claim to have been to every major urban area or spent enough time there to really know. Maybe things are different in another part of the country. 

Even if you do have a car it's hard to get out to a good day hike. From New York City you'd probably want to go to the Shawangunks which are a good 2 hours away. From DC there are precious few day hikes and by the time you get to the best mountains you're looking at an overnight stay in central Virginia. 

I complain a lot about how living in a city in a "basin" (surrounded on three and a half sides by mountains) creates pollution and bad weather, but I have to say that that basin is formed by some great mountains which are etched with some awesome trails - some of which are in Taipei City itself. And unlike China, not all of them are paved over with stairs!

Here, well, we pick a trail, we pack a bag, we catch a bus early enough and we go. And we're back in time for dinner. No car necessary and there are quite literally hundreds of choices.