Sunday, January 29, 2012

Everything's Closed, or, My Chinese New Year Staycation

You know what it's like: the weather is a dark, drizzly Taipei Gray, roads are mostly devoid of people,   accordion metal pull-down doors cover every storefront. Everything's gray, everything's quiet, and everything is closed. What do you do when you're stuck in a city that's shut down for an entire week? When much of the population takes flight and you have expect the horsemen of the Apocalypse to come riding down the empty streets?

It wasn't quite so gray on Saturday, but Dunhua South Road was still dead.

This year, for the first time, I spent the entirety of Chinese New Year vacation in Taipei. Last year we went to Kaohsiung and visited a friend, among other things. The year before that, it was attempting and failing to camp at Cingjing Farm and eventually escaping the rain in Puli. Before that had been trips abroad: Egypt and India (including the gorgeous Hampi), Indonesia, the Philippines.

Never before had I attempted a staycation - in fact, I'd never really done that in my life previously, being a bit of a wanderlust and all, but so soon after our trip to Turkey, our CELTA courses and our new apartment we couldn't justify the expense of leaving town, and we had enough to do in Taipei to keep us occupied.

I have to say that staying home for a week gave me a taste of what it might be like to be a housewife (not stay-at-home mom, since I don't want kinds - that's different) and while I fully support others' choices if that's what they want, I can now say for sure that it's not for me. It was a fun week, but I like my career.  I'm ready to be a breadwinner again.

Taipei is infamous for being the city that shuts down over Chinese New Year. Other cities celebrate briefly, with businesses closing for maybe one or two days. Taipei shuts down for days on end. Why? Because unlike most other cities (Hsinchu may be an exception), most people in Taipei aren't from there - they're from somewhere else in the country and they go home. The incentive to stay open in everyone's hometowns (which always seem to be Taichung, Miaoli or Kaohsiung - I swear Miaoli's tourism slogan could be "Miaoli: Home Of Every Taiwanese Person's 92-Year Old Hakka Grandmother") is greater, because everyone's home. In Taipei, they've all left to go home, so why stay open? A lot of business owners and employees want to go home themselves.

A lot of foreigners stay in - movies, books, TV, 7-11 food - but I find that that's not really necessary - although I didn't set foot outside between Monday evening and Wednesday afternoon. There are things to do, if you know where to look.

So, basically, this is how I spent 11 days off (you all had 9, I had 11, but that's not necessarily a good thing) in Taipei - what does one do when "everything's closed"? For more than a week?

I wish I could have posted this before Chinese New Year, but I couldn't - and didn't - but I had to live it to be able to write about it.

Here are some things to keep yourself occupied:

1.) Walk around Xinyi at night

(no photo for this one yet, sorry)

Shinkong Mitsukoshi and the 101 mall are generally open, and by the second or third day of Chinese New Year, you can bet on it all being open and there being a crowd. The length of the public walking space down Shinkong Mitsukoshi's multiple buildings is decked out with red lanterns and, especially in the evening after the sun sets, bustling with people. Come here to shop if you like, eat - everything's open, including the 101 food court, but expect crowds because this is what a lot of the locals still in town do, too -  or just walk around and take pictures. I didn't get the chance to, although I might head out and try to get a few shots in the next day or two.  There are also outdoor market stalls and public art installations and a stage where I assume there are performances.

If you're feeling like the city has completely emptied out, this is also a good place to go if you just want to be in a lively place to soak up the atmosphere.

2.) Wander Tianmu for awhile

Me, on a romantic sausage-eating excursion with Brendan at Wendel's German Bistro, Tianmu
...and, with glasses!

Things in Tianmu tend to stay open, because that's where expats tend to live, and where businesses catering to them tend to congregate - by the second day or so of the New Year (and often before that), things tend to stay open. Many restaurants that are often crowded and attract foreigners not only stay open but are easier to get into, since much of the city's population is gone. Most likely this will be posted on the websites of such establishments. One example: Wendel's German bakery and bistro. Notice on website ("We still open for Chinese New Year!") and not that hard to get a seat. Brendan and I went the other day for a nice, if expensive, meal out and had no trouble getting a table and fantastic service. I recommend the beef tartare appetizer, by the way, but ask for bread with it - spreading it pate-like on bread helps cut through the sheer...richness of the dish.

3.) All the grocery stores are open - buy ingredients and practice your cooking skills; try new recipes

I made kung pao chicken!
Wellcome is open as usual even on the main Chinese New Year day and all of the fancy groceries, such as Jason's and City Super, stay open (though on Chinese New Year's Day they may have shorter hours). The Indian import store near MRT City Hall is also open.

So, with a quiet city, generally bad weather - we got, what, two days of decent weather over this vacation? - and everything open, if you have the means, then this is absolutely the time to try your hand at recipes that intrigue you. I'm lucky in that I live walking distance from a City Super (we are practically across the street from the Far Eastern Plaza Hotel - I know, faaaancy) and I could make muhammara, babaghanoush, lamb biriyani and other treats without too much fuss (although the biriyani wasn't as good as I would have liked).

4.) Decorate! New paint job!


Our painted bedroom, with cat and man
If your lease allows and you are willing to make the financial investment - ours does, as our landlady is a rockin' Buddhist nun - this is a great time to repaint your apartment - as well as to do various decorating jobs (IKEA is also still open!) and hanging shelves and pictures (Sheng Li, at Fuxing/Heping intersection, is open and sells Dr. Hook for all of your hanging needs, without needing to drill). We did this, and ended up with a gorgeous cranberry and gray bedroom with textiles framed in IKEA frames hung up with Dr. Hook and a crazy colorful purple and green office (the teal living room wall had already been done). The places where you would go to get decorating supplies and paint - Carrefour, B&Q (for paint - one in Neihu near Costco and one in Qizhang above the big Carrefour), IKEA, Ikat (some days), Hola, Sheng Li - all open.

5.) Invite friends over

Biriyani night - don't even ask what they're doing

My food-loving whiskey-drinking Taiwanese friends

Chances are you are not the only foreigner, or friend (Taiwanese or not)  who is in town for some of all of Chinese New Year. There are tons of foreigners who find the weather generally too gross to travel in Taiwan and too expensive to go abroad, and you may have Taiwanese friends who are from Taipei and itching for a chance to get away from family for a night.

With everything open and your gorgeous newly-painted apartment, what a great time to get everyone out of the house and host a dinner party - especially for those poor friends of yours who have been eating at 7-11 for days on end?

6.) Visit temples

The too-often overlooked Qingshan Temple on Guiyang Street is a favorite of mine

Longshan Temple and Xingtian Temple are popular spots for public prayer in Taipei on Chinese New Year - visiting these can get you out and among other people, which might perk up your spirits (it does for me; I'm a natural extrovert). These are great spots to visit anytime during the week, especially on New Year's Day itself, and remain crowded through the vacation period.

Alternately, you could visit Bao'an Temple or some of the lesser-known or less visited temples in Taipei, such as Qingshan or Qingshui temples. They stay open,  are crowded but not as much as the big draw temples, and for these reasons, CNY is a good time to do this kind of sightseeing.

7.) Wander around the Longshan Temple Area

People-watching...or are they watching you?

With so many people pouring into Longshan Temple to pray, the areas around it are hopping, Chinese New Year is a good time to visit Bopiliao, the Longshan Temple Underground Mall, Guiyang Street (linked above) or the street market that pops up along Guangzhou Street and seems to be open in the daytime on most days of the Chinese New Year vacation. If you're feeling isolated or lonely and don't like hoew quiet the city has gotten in your neighborhood (I live in Da'an - it was pretty bad), this is the place to go to get your mojo back.

Also, great for people-watching!

8.) Try your hand at a new hobby or get back into an old one

A necklace I made for a much-loved but rarely-worn jade pendant

My favorite DIY shop
Dihua Street shuts down to scarily quiet levels right after Chinese New Year's Eve - the crazy market selling all sorts of products and foodstuffs goes silent and most of the shops are shuttered. In the days leading up to that, though, it's all open and if you're a crafts freak like me, that's fantastic. My hobbies, besides travel, reading and blogging, are beading and drawing. I have the drawing supplies I need but in the days leading up to the vacation I paid a visit to my favorite bead shop to stock up on stuff for various specific projects I had in mind. I only got one done - I made a beaded chain (faux) for a jade pendant of mine (real). I have a few other things up my sleeve, though, that I might putter around with tonight.

You don't have to be a beader or artist - what do you like to do? Do that! It's a great time to catch up on blogging, even if you write up posts in word to be posted later. It's a fantastic time to meditate, practice yoga, go biking (bike trails are dead quiet), write or do whatever it is you like to do. It's also a decent time to take photographs of Taipei without crowds in your way.

No, really, certain photos are much easier to capture when nobody's around to walk in front of your camera or bump into you.

9.) Get your Taiwanese friends who are still in town (there are probably a few) to teach you how to play mahjong.

(no photo, but check your own Facebook feed. If you have any Taiwanese friends you'll see pictures of this)

Seriously. They're all doing it (got Taiwanese friends on Facebook? Look at their CNY photos. It's all mahjong, all the time) and some of them are probably still in Taipei. See if you can't learn how and get invited to such a party. Could be fun!

All in all, I enjoyed my week off in Taipei. I might be up for another staycation next year. One thing I can say for sure - I didn't feel bored!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Taipei Love: Guiyang Street

The weather yesterday was beautiful - one nice day out of 11 days (for me) off - so before some friends came over, we went to the Longshan Temple area to wander and take some photos on and around Guiyang Street.

Guiyang Street is one of my favorite overlooked streets in old Taipei - it's not as fancy or lengthy as Dihua Street nor as renovated and promoted as Bopiliao, but also usually not as crowded. It really only gets going once a year for 青山王's birthday festival  and otherwise a quiet, lovely place to take a quick stroll, see some old architecture, eat a few snacks, visit two historic temples and have a cup of coffee. The shophouses here aren't as "wealthy" as Dihua's, but that almost makes them more charming in their slightly decrepit way. My not-so-secret: deep down I was hoping I would have the chance to live in this area, and rent a renovated apartment in an old shophouse. That didn't happen - I ended up on the other side of the spectrum completely - but it really would be my Taipei dream come true.

Crab for sale!
First we wandered up Guangzhou Street, which is the non-touristy branch of the popular Huaxi Night Market (this part is often called Guangzhou St. Night market). At one end is Longshan Temple. Midway through you reach Huaxi Street, and if you keep going you'll hit Naruwan Indigenous People's Market and Xuehai Academy (also mentioned in the previous link). You'll also pass Mangka Gate  - worthy of a quick bite of history and also shown in a scene in the Taiwanese movie Monga. We had some food, did some people watching and walked north a bit.

I prefer the Guangzhou Street part of this market to Huaxi - the dingy, mostly-for-the-tourists sex shops (although the area does contain brothels) and mediocre food in the covered market keep me away, but Guangzhou Street is packed with good food, people to watch and interesting stuff to buy.

For Chinese New Year, the entire street was open during the day as it would be at night on other days -  rather like the area around Anping Fort outside Tainan. In fact the entire neighborhood was one big outdoor market that has been running for most of the week.

Shredded savory pancakes on Guangzhou Street
 Then, if you take Xiyuan Road north, up the left side of Longshan Temple (if coming from the MRT station), you'll pass lots of stores selling idols. Some are Buddhist, some are Dao/folk religion, some are for home shrines, other supplies are for actual temples. There's usually a bit of decent people-watching - and dog-watching - to do up this way as well.

I particularly like this one

One thing I really love about this neighborhood isn't just the old shophouses - it's the mid-century architecture of note (some of the stuff from that era is godawful - some is charming, though, and some give Taipei a special "look" that I really haven't seen in other Asian cities.

Other than living in a well-renovated shophouse, which is next to impossible (if not actually impossible) to pull off, though, living options in this colorful neighborhood tend to be run-down and cramped, and probably very much roach-infested (because the whole city is, and this area is a lot older and in many ways not well maintained). For example, I wouldn't want to live here and hang my clothes out to dry directly over a busy street, to pick up all sorts of grime and exhaust fumes:

 But then you make it up to Guiyang Street and more charming buildings come into view. I love this one and hope it can be more fully restored - the outside looks fine, but it seems to be unused, and possibly uninhabitable. I'd love to see that change - I've never seen any sign of life on the upper story, although there is some use made of the first floor.

Turn left and you reach Qingshan Temple - it is said that it was built here when settlers from Fujian carried Qingshan's idol up what is now Guiyang Street (it's that old, yo) and the idol suddenly grew heavy and immovable on that site. The carriers knew this was a sign that the Lord of Green Mountain wanted his temple placed there, so there they built it (interestingly, this story of idols becoming too heavy to move when they don't wish to be moved is not limited to China and Taiwan - Amitav Ghosh mentions similar stories in North Africa, the Middle East and India in his book, In An Antique Land, which I highly recommend).

I tell the story of Qingshan in the link to his birthday festival above.

Of course, these days kids just check their cell phones outside.

One thing I really love about this neighborhood is that it's not all shiny and perfect - that you get lovely little details such as these roof decorations on temples, right next to apartment buildings, many of which are older and downright ugly. There's a strangely pleasing contrast in that.

 Much of the ceiling work in this temple was put in without nails, by the way. Some master craftsmanship, that.

Some more photos of Qingshan Temple:

We didn't visit Qingshui Temple on this walk, because I actually sprained my ankle slightly at Qingshan, and we had to get back to Da'an to greet guests who were coming over (and who showed up five minutes early - a first for people I invite over). It's at the other end of this section of Guiyang Street and well worth a visit (photos in the link above, with some background and photos of Guiyang Street during festivals).

Guiyang Street is quite charming
Other than shophouse architecture and old temples, Guiyang Street is also home to an old incense shop, at least one Pu'er tea shop and a jade store. Many of the shops on this street are also historic, some dating back at least a century.

This is basically my dream apartment - maybe with nicer windows with wooden Chinese screens. It's hard to find something like this, though, to rent in Taipei.

Next door is a coffeeshop, kind of decrepit and ancient with an old cat (who may or may not still be alive) - tables for that shop and the street stand shown are positioned to take advantage of the pleasant street atmosphere. The coffee's dark and bitter, but the neighborhood makes up for it.

Walking back towards Longshan Temple MRT via Kangding Street, you pass a lot of this:

I feel like this is 50 years' worth of hardware, machinery and junk buildup. I have to wonder how long it would take to create something this dense and chaotic. It's almost like a modern art installation exploring neglect, hoarding, decrepitude, industrialism and chaos in the modern world.

Walking back this way you pass Bopiliao and, around New Year, a whole market full of stuff to eat and buy - something worth doing if you're in Taipei over Chinese New Year and want to get out and be around people.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Pet-Owning Redux

Who's afraid of Stupidface? Aren't you just a big genius? Yes you aaaaaarrreeee.
Who's a stupid genius? It's YOU!
Just thought I'd muse a bit on something I've noticed:

A fear of cats among many Taiwanese people - more so than I've ever noticed back home. I grew up with cats, and rarely would people decline to visit my parents' home or act nervous or afraid around my parents' cats (who almost never came out to greet strangers anyway). A few guests just didn't like cats, but that's not the same thing as being scared of them. 

So far since we'ved moved we've had three potential houseguests - all Taiwanese - who are terrified of cats. One is coming over later today and is hoping the cat stays away from her. One is going to be invited over soon (and he knows it) and "really hates cats" (his words). Yet another was invited over with her children, who I teach privately,  but her husband came instead. It might have been work or schedule related, but she's made it clear that she doesn't like any animal but is especially afraid of cats. A friend's mother also fears them - something about their big, searching eyes.

That's four people I know who not only don't like cats, but are actively afraid of them. Four people in five years, as opposed to zero people in 26 years in the USA. Of course they exist, but they're rare enough that I have never met one knowingly.

I don't really know why this is. It's just a thing I thought I'd note. Comments with explanations or ideas are welcome.

In other news, this article is worth reading* for anyone interested in animal rights, pet ownership or animal rescue. One great thing about Taiwan is that rescue groups here aren't so difficult: if you go to an event where Animals Taiwan has a booth, or visit their facility, you can adopt a rescued pet with very little fuss. I mean they still talk to you a bit to make sure you're a decent person who can provide a good home but otherwise you can bring a cat or dog home that day. It's similarly easy to adopt from veterinarian offices - my vet (near Heping/Fuxing intersection, a bit west on Heping, next to the Dante Coffee) often has rescued cats and kittens up for adoption and they're pretty easy to adopt.

I have to say, though, that my brief experience in the USA with rescue agencies mirrors this article. I was playing with adoptable cats in a PetSmart one day - I didn't have a pet at the time but was in there with a friend who had a pet - and I said that if I hadn't been planning to live abroad I would totally take one home, and that I preferred cats because  they didn't mind so much when their owners went to work and didn't need to be  taken out or walked.         

"Oh, you work full time?"
"Are you married?"
"Well, we don't adopt out to homes where people aren't around during the day. You can't leave a cat alone all day" (me, thinking: "you can't? Huh?") "so we only adopt to people who are home in the daytime."
"So, only unemployed people, housewives or those who work at home, huh."
"Certainly not anyone who is unemployed."
"So basically under your guidelines almost nobody should be allowed to have a cat."

I walked away. Even if I'd been seriously about to apply to adopt one of them, that was just too ridiculous for words.  We rescued 招財 - or rather my sister did - directly off the streets of Taipei and he's been a wonderful and happy kitty who doesn't seem to mind that the owners he often ignores go out during the day.

*my one issue with it is that Yoffe didn't really attempt to talk to any rescue organizations to get their perspective. I am on the side of the adopters, but the rescuers deserve a say.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

"First Female President of Taiwan"

I know I should have written about this earlier but it kind of got caught in the undertow of the Chinese New Year wave:

Tsai's "First Female President of Taiwan" Theme Fails to Win Support

I could interpret this in two ways.

The pessimistic view: people care so little for women's rights in Taiwan these days that having a female president (or even strong contender) isn't something that really matters to them; they're happy with the status quo of "boring guy in a suit" (and Ma fits that  perfectly - talk about a plastic model of a boring guy in a suit) and the patriarchy as it is now; sexism is still very much alive in Taiwan (which is true, but it's still better than most Asian countries).

The optimistic view: people take it for granted in Taiwan, unlike in the US, that a woman could be president; her gender is not an issue because they'd be willing to vote for a man or a woman regardless; as such they found the theme uninteresting because, well, "duh"; in this way Taiwan is more progressive on gender issues than not only the rest of Asia but also the USA, where sexism against female political candidates runs rampant (I didn't really see that much in Taiwan).

For my own sanity I'm taking the optimistic view, but the pessimistic one warrants strong consideration.

Marriage and Living Abroad, Part The Second

Beautiful flowers in a beautiful home housing a beautiful marriage

This hasn't happened to me in Taiwan, but what I've seen on various expat forums and even witnessed among expats in China (I was too young, and in a place with too few expats, to see it in India) is an expectation that marriages, when taken abroad, not only often fail for reasons specifically related to the expat shift, but are expected to fail.

Memorably, a thread on one major travel forum in which more than one person proclaimed - or insisted on, or pontificated on, your verb of choice really - the inevitability of most expat marriages failing (the discussion was centered on marriages where both spouses were expats). The main reason for this? If it was a corporate gig the man (it's always assumed that the working spouse is male and the trailing one female - ugh) would either work too hard and not be supportive of his wife getting used to a new environment, or, more likely, he'd inevitably want to, *ahem* dip his wick in the local pool.

Now, most of me wants to say that's ludicrous, and in my experience - both personal and in being around other dual-expat couples - it's not true at all. Various commenters might say it's not true yet, but I'm confident that they're wrong.

A small part of me can't ignore the fact that a lot of expat marriages do fail, and around the world, the community is strewn with examples of exactly what I said was ludicrous above. I've semi-witnessed it firsthand (a couple in China that I got to know during my brief stay in Beijing after my year in Zunyi was up), and it followed all of the tropes and cliches that I like to pretend aren't real. Guy gets job abroad, wife follows soon after, wife thinks marriage is strong (not sure what he thought), within a year guy is cavorting with local women and not-so-secretly thinks his wife is an "aging, nagging, irritating old hag". I'd like to pretend I didn't see it happen (I mean I did not literally see it happen, I just knew them at the time that this was going on, was aware of the issue, and it was more drama than my 22-year-old brain could process at the time). I like to pretend this sort of thing is a Grimm's Expat Fairytale, made up and full of mythical bugbears and boo-monsters, and it doesn't actually happen in real life except to couples that are poorly-matched or the guy's just a douche and his wife, when they married, didn't realize it.

I will say when I met them that they seemed well-matched, and that the husband seemed like a good guy, but I didn't know them that well and I didn't know them for very long - oh yeah, and I was 22 - so my impressions aren't worth much.

Of course there are other reasons why things might not work out, just as their would be in one's own country. People change, always slowly, rarely to a great extent, but they change over the course of their lives. Especially from their mid-twenties (when one is likely to get married) to their mid-30s (when one becomes more likely to be sent abroad). I've found the change is far greater when you travel for an extended period or live abroad. I've changed more in my 5 years in Taiwan than I believe I would have had I stayed in Washington, DC. Brendan  has too, I'm sure.

Culture shock and adaptation affect different people in different ways. I personally have mellowed out a bit - I know, I know, it doesn't seem like it but you didn't know me in college - whereas Brendan's grown a bit more outgoing. Of course, that could be our influence on each other, too. I recently realized that I sometimes take things too personally and how good Brendan is from depersonalizing himself from things other people say, and is better at seeing their quips as a reflection of themselves, not him. These differences in reaction have been small with us, but I could see how they might be huge with another couple, especially one in which each spouse has different experiences: if one spouse is working and the other is at home, their impression of the new country and culture will diverge, probably quite a bit, and they might face huge marital issues vis-a-vis these changes.

To wit - an example I heard online: classic working man and trailing spouse wife in Southeast Asia. He was having a grand old time entertaining clients, going to swanky restaurants, living the big business life. She was at home with little to do (they had a domestic helper) and her experiences mostly made her aware of the unspeakable poverty and rampant sexism skeined throughout the land and culture. She just didn't get why her husband dismissed her shock so blithely, and of course, he didn't understand what she was so shocked about. It was like they were living in two separate boxes, each denoting an aspect of the culture, and couldn't quite reach across and see what was happening in the other box. Exeunt.

Living abroad but having two different experiences can cause two people to
feel as though they're boxed off, eperiencing entirely different things,
even within one culture.
Another example - a couple, also known of online, in which the working spouse had lots of chances to socialize through work but the trailing spouse was having trouble reaching out and making friends, even among other expats. The trailing spouse's friends were basically the friends of the working spouse, and that was the extent of her social life. Financially, emotionally and socially dependent on him,  she felt she didn't have her own true friends or experience and definitely not a support network. She had no one to turn to when they started fighting, and she eventually left. Exeunt.

Then I look at my own marriage, where if anything, life has become more comfortable and culture shock experiences and changes have caused us to bond more deeply rather than grow apart. We don't quite fit the classic mold - we knew each other before but got together abroad and married while abroad, and we both work and hold similar jobs. There's no "working spouse/trailing spouse" and we're a bit younger than many (not all!) married expats. If anything, expat life has strengthened us and turned us into wiser people with a better marriage than had we never had the experience.

I'm not writing this out of worry - nobody knows a marriage like the people in it and I am extremely confident of mine, Internet blatherers be damned - but more that, in knowing that my own expat marriage is quite successful and seeing so many other successful examples - I want to rail against the greater online expat community's belief (or at least the belief of its shrillest voices) in the inevitability of expat marriages failing - and especially the deep-seated belief that expat men will always cheat with local women (for those of you who know Brendan, feel free to laugh at how hilarious that is when you consider his personality. He might cheat on me with a book - "sorry honey, I'm going to be out late tonight reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" - though).

In the end, while the "expat men will always cheat on their wives with local women" cliche does happen (and might even happen for the reasons cited by the worst of the sorts of folks who spout this rhetoric), I don't accept it as commonly true. I accept it as something that happens, sometimes, but not because it's inevitable and certainly not because "all men are like that", or "men prefer the women in Country X because they're Y whereas Western women are Z". Sometimes it's just one bad egg making all men look bad, and a wife who made a mistake in marrying him.

Usually, though, I'd say that the reason things like this happen is because there was a problem with the relationship itself before it got taken abroad. Maybe it would have been fine had nothing ever changed, and the issues that the move to another country uncovered would have never even been issues if they'd never left home, but that doesn't mean they weren't there. Like a buggy software program that you never open, they're still there and still buggy, and the only reason you didn't know it was because you hadn't opened the program.

What I don't accept, and never will accept is "men just prefer Asian (or wherever, but you hear this mostly regarding Asian) women". That not only generalizes about men and makes them look bad, but doesn't say anything nice about anyone else, either.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Being Married and Living Abroad, Part The First

Being a married expat is great, too.

I guess you could consider this the bookend to my earlier post on traveling while single vs. traveling as a couple. I talked about traveling there, but here I'll meditate a bit on married expat life vs. single expat life. Of course, my experience likely differs from many, partly because I'm just a big ol' weirdo, and partly because most expats are male, and partly because there are a lot of aspects of expat culture that are taken as givens that I don't participate in (because I'm a big ol' weirdo).

So I attended a tea and lunch yesterday, mostly other expats, and realized that I was the only married person there. At first I felt that it was a bit strange, because when I organize similar sized events of my own, I'm almost always not the only married person - expat or otherwise - in attendance. Then I thought about it some more and realized that this is true among my social circle - people tend to attract friends who share similar lifestyles after all - but if I were to venture out more among the wider world of expats in my age group (late twenties, early thirties), married folks would be in the minority. Possibly the vast minority. Then I look at my friends back home, and most of them are married (one is divorced). Of my close friends from my old life, only two are unmarried and both of them are in long-term partnerships. I look at my friends in Taiwan and while many are married, a higher proportion are single than back home.

Why? Well, my first gut response was "people my age who end up getting married, now that marriage is no longer the social imperative it once was, tend not to be nomadic types who would move across the world unless compelled to do so for work", which probably has some truth to it, although I know plenty of couples (me&Brendan included) who don't fit that mold. My second gut reaction was "fewer people are getting married at this age generally, which probably bumps the stats up to where they are".

I've also had the chance to live an expat life while single, and I can say that while some things haven't changed, plenty of things have. 

It caused me to contemplate a bit - what's different? What's not?

Well, the occasional bouts of loneliness are gone - and if you're an extrovert and single but don't generally fit into expat social circles where you live, then there will be bouts of loneliness. You go out, you come home, and when you do there's nobody there but you - and possibly some roommates, who may not count as people to talk to. Whatever just happened to you - whether it was an easy-to-digest night out or a deeply jarring bout of culture shock - unless you call someone (assuming you have anyone you're close enough to who you can call), when you get home, you process that alone. It can lead to unhealthy brooding without necessary outside opinions. That's something I learned in China, before the other two foreigners I befriended arrived: when you have no other-foreigner perspective on whatever issue you're facing, you have only yourself and the local perspective to listen to, and that's not  necessarily a good thing.

The financial scraping-by is gone: right around the time I coupled up, I also got a better "non-buxiban" job that can rightly be considered 'professional', and let me just say, being a DINK is great. On my income alone I could just about afford where we live now, but it would necessitate a much tighter budget. I'd probably still be living in foreigner flophouses with a bunch of roommates that I may or may not like. My furniture wouldn't be my own, most likely - although at a younger age I preferred it that way (if the furniture's not really mine, when I move I don't have to deal with it)!

What I think has changed the most, besides the greater financial security of two incomes, has been that "whatever happens, you process it alone"aspect of single expat life. Of course, if I were single in the USA I'd be doing the same thing, but when you include the added difficulties of life abroad, that need for company, that need to talk it out with someone, grows. At least it did for me.

This kind of scrapes the patina off of the "expat life as great nomad adventure, fit for eccentrics and loners"myth. It makes expat life more like my ideal back-home life, more so than my actual (single) back-home life ever was.

Married life has not ruined
the expat adventure!
It has not ruined the adventure, though. Sure, in some ways it feels like there's a universal law that when you're not by yourself, less crazy stuff happens (it could be that the stuff that does happen seems less crazy when someone else you know is there). In China, I was once on a bus that drove up a flight of (outdoor) stairs. I am not joking about this. Nothing of that level of WTF?! has happened since I've been half-a-social-unit. Adventures still happen, though. Pasta'ai, especially the first time around when stuff got crazy, was an adventure. Our unplanned car trip over the North Cross Island Highway was milder but still an adventure. Walking down Heping E. Road at 11pm and seeing a taxi driver with his pet goat - yes, you read that right - and learning that at night the goat drives around with him? Adventure. Sort of. It just hits you in the gut a bit less because there's someone there to share the impact, in the same way that culture shock or upsetting incidents don't cut so deeply, because either I'm not alone when they happen, or if I am, I come home to someone who I connect with deeply, can share some perspective and (if necessary) offer comfort.

Pasta'ai was still a great adventure, even though I did not go alone.

But let's be honest - if I were still single, I would likely have already gone home by now.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Mightiest of Signs

Just a quick observation.

A trawl through Western Zodiac signs, meanings and personalities doesn't really seem to reveal any ranking. Libras are balanced, Virgos are  smart, perfectionistic and a bit cold, Pisces are sensitive and easygoing, Gemini are creative and indecisive, Scorpio are distrustful, a bit dark and passionate, Aquarians and Sagittariuses (Sagittarii?) are independent and a bit emotionless, mean and aloof. Etc. etc. all the way through the signs.  Every sign has negative qualities as well as positive ones.

Then you go look at Chinese Zodiac animals and while most of them are similarly structured - having good qualities as well as bad ones with a reasonably flat hierarchy, when you get to a few of them, you do see some sort of rank.

Dragons are the "mightiest" of the signs and while they're not first in order, they seem to be first in preference. Rats, despite how people feel about them in the West, seem to be similarly prominent, and while tiger-born women are supposed to be bad luck at weddings, generally it seems to be considered a powerful sign. Meanwhile other signs are considered less desireable, sometimes even along gender lines (ie a tiger boy is OK, but a tiger girl is not desired). My point is, faint as it is, there's a bit of a ranking system. You don't hear people in the USA saying "We're going to try for a Gemini baby!" the way you hear "we're going to try for a dragon baby!" in Taiwan (of course one is based on a month and the other a year, so the former is quite a bit harder to "plan" for than the latter - but you don't hear preferences stated regardless).                                                               

I don't actually believe in any of this stuff, mind you, but it is an interesting bit of culture. So I'm not writing this due to any inherent truth in astrology but rather what the astrological organization and belief systems mean regarding culture.

It just made me think - I feel this is an era when "flat hierarchy" is a buzzword back home, and we revere people who made it big on their own rather than via social rank, where everyone dresses similarly (I don't know about you but these days I can't figure out who has money and who doesn't on the streets of New York) and we pretend to be all the same - even though we're not. Does our culturally inherited sense of astrology - different but checked and balanced, varied but mostly equal - point to a cultural tendency to evolve toward flat hierarchies? Can I blow some more smoke into it and say that representative government (including democracy) is a Western invention and did not come to Asia on its own, and that says something too? And does the Chinese system, which has faintly stated but still present ideas about rank and preference, say something about the importance of rank in Chinese culture and the influence of Confucianism?

Which, by the way, I'm no fan of Confucian philosophy. Just to be clear.

Anyway. I swear I'm not high. I don't even smoke pot, even though it sounds like I do from this post. Just an idle thought in my head that I figured I should explore a bit and see what the world has to say. Feel free to shoot me down!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

So Far Adrift

迢遞三巴路, 羈危萬里身。 

亂山殘雪夜, 孤獨異鄉春。 

漸與骨肉遠, 轉於僮僕親。 

那堪正飄泊, 明日歲華新。

Farther and farther from the three Ba Roads, 
I have come three thousand miles, anxious and watchful, 
Through pale snow-patches in the jagged nightmountains -- 
A stranger with a lonely lantern shaken in the wind. 
...Separation from my kin 
Binds me closer to my servants -- 
Yet how I dread, so far adrift, 
New Year's Day, tomorrow morning!

I've written before about how I tend to get a bit brooding and maudlin around the holidays - especially leading up to Christmas. I do consider this a good thing, or a sign of a good thing: I wouldn't feel this way if holidays with family were not not happy memories for me. I don't feel this as strongly around Chinese New Year, because it's not my holiday, but there is something to be said for being in a country celebrating  a major family holiday, when everything is closed, and you don't have many ways to celebrate (although I try to find a few). I have my husband, who is my most immediate family now, and my sister also lives in Taiwan. She's younger, though, and has her own friends and while we hang out often,  she's definitely in a younger expat contingent than her fuddy-duddy boring old married sister. This doesn't bother me: it's normal. I was that age, too. Once. Years ago! I don't have a big family dinner to attend. As I said, this doesn't bother me as much as it does on Christmas, but it does cause me to brood a bit.

Here's the thing. I've written about how the common misconception that expats move abroad because they can't make it back home is not true. People often believe that there's something wrong with folks that run off to Asia or wherever, there's something about those people that makes it hard for them to fit in back home, that they're too weird for their own countries. This is not true for me: I have a lot of close friends back home and I make an effort to see them at last once a year. One has visited me (two if you count Brendan, who subsequently moved here and became my husband) and two others have indicated their intention to. We keep in fairly close touch even as our lives take different paths. I left an active and happy social life. I left a crap job that nevertheless had the potential to be an, ahem, "real" career (whatever that means). I left a large, loving family and a brilliant townhouse rental in a pretty cool city. I left dating prospects, all to be abroad just because I wanted to study Chinese and I wanted an adventure. I'd never intended to stay, or to get married and continue staying, abroad - but stay I did.

Well. All of that is still true. And yet, while I can say that I did fit in well enough back home, that I never quite fit in - but then who among us has not felt that way at some point, especially the more adventurous, intellectual or creative types?

Despite having a large and diverse group of friends, and making new friends fairly easily and quickly wherever I am, I've always felt as though I exist in a liminal space. I was not quite of mainstream life back home and I am clearly not quite of mainstream life in Taiwan - as evidenced by the fact that I'm not celebrating Chinese New Year the way most people do here. I recently said on Facebook that I have this loneliness: I never felt that I fully fit into American culture -  I'm not interested in living a life that requires car ownership or extensive driving, for one, but there are other things, too. I don't fully fit into Taiwanese or expat culture either, so who am I?  Then I attended a company year-end banquet at the invitation of a student and as I was watching the craziness go down, I thought to myself: I have my friends, I have my family, and I may not really be able to settle into any group or culture but I'm me and that's OK.

I'm not sure which came first - did I start to feel like I existed on edges and thresholds before I started living abroad, all the way back in 2000 when I went to India for a semester, or  did I start living abroad because I fundamentally feel this way? I have to admit it is a lot easier to give leeway to this part of myself while abroad, because people generally expect that you won't quite fit in. It's easy to "not fit in" when you're not living in your native culture or ethnicity (and are not married into it, either). It's very different indeed to "not fit in" when you live where you came from.

These two ideas might seem to be contradictory, but I don't think they are. Neil Stephenson said something in The Diamond Age (brilliant book right up until the end, when it got all "what the hell" and had a thoroughly unsatisfying and  not-thought-through ending) that resonated with me. In my own words to summarize Stephenson: there are some people who will fully embrace a system and refuse to see fault in it, who will rationalize away contradictions and problems. There are those who will see the faults inherent in a system - any given system, including a cultural structure in which they are born or raised - and use those to tear down the entire thing, rebel, run away, renounce everything about that system. Finally, there are those who will see shades of color in a monochrome, who can accept seeming contradictions, who can understand how one thing and its opposite can both be true, who can accept subtlety and and complexity.  These are truly intelligent people.

I don't want to go off and be all "haha, I am one of the intelligent people!" because that's not my point.

My point is that this issue, for me, falls into the last category. Having a great social and family life back home and fitting in insofar as living well, loving and being loved by many can co-exist with a feeling of liminality, a feeling of not quite "matching" what's around you, a feeling of constant weirdness or eccentricity. One can feel comfortable and settled in a new country, have friends, participate in events, sometimes stumble and sometimes swim like a sleek fish in that context - and still feel like they live life on the sidelines of that culture. One can have and be both.

Never is this contradiction more clear to me than around the holidays.

雲母屏風燭影深, 長河漸落曉星沈。 

嫦娥應悔偷靈藥, 碧海青天夜夜心。

Now that a candle-shadow stands on the screen of carven marble 
And the River of Heaven slants and the morning stars are low, 
Are you sorry for having stolen the potion that has set you 
Over purple seas and blue skies, to brood through the long nights?

This poem is supposed to be about regret at doing something one was not supposed to do -  such as Chang-yi, who was left to be lonely after stealing an immortality potion not meant for her and subsequently floating up to the moon and ending up trapped there for eternity.

To me, it reads as what happens to a person when they live for a period abroad, especially if they like and allow themselves to be affected by their new surroundings (to be true, plenty of expats, especially the corporate types, are sent abroad, preserve as much of life at home as they can, and return happily unaffected). As a friend of mine once said, once you live abroad, you can't really say you belong to any one place. You don't feel the same way about where you came from and probably never will again, because you've changed. You've become bigger and you no longer fit the mold you were raised in. And yet, you don't really feel totally at home in any new place. You feel like just you - the way I felt during that annual party - and a little bit apart from wherever you are, even if you are home. 

It's just as though you, like Chang-yi, were handed a potion when you got on that plane. You drank it, and now you have floated off to some other place and can't go back again. You're left to brood. You, to steal a cliched Matrix analogy, swallowed the red pill. I will not go so far as to say that you ate the forbidden apple, but you get the point. 

Expat Women: Confessions deals with this feeling, answering a question from an adult who had a childhood that included moves to foreign countries. The question  poser asks where and how to live - she doesn't feel at home in her "native country", the country of her passport, but neither is she fully of any other country. The book wisely dubs this the "international citizen" condition, and people who feel this way often feel most at home among others like them - other long-term expats or adults with a lot of life experience abroad - no matter what country they find themselves in. Find other "international citizens" and you'll be most at home.

And yes, I did drink the potion. I'm left to brood beyond purple seas and blue skies. I can go home but I'm still off somewhere - I can't really go home ever again. I also can't really be Taiwanese or be of any other country where I choose to live. I am most at home among others like me, and let other aspects of my personality out through local friends or friends back home. Home is where Brendan and I live, wherever that might be, and that's really true for us because it can't be any other way. I can form attachments but I can't be of any given place. Not anymore.

I am still working my way through this realization, but I think it's OK. The poem says that Chang-yi must regret her choice, but do I regret mine? If I had known that this would happen, would I have done what I have done with my life? Would I have drunk that potion?


I would have.

I never felt quite 'in place' anyway, so why not? I'm me, and that's OK.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Dihua Street Holiday Market: Year of the Dragon

So I have a camera again. Brendan  dug out his old pro Canon EOS 350D, found the old memory card and charger for it, and has been letting me lug it around town to take lots of great pictures.

The upside is that unlike my old camera, which was good but not the best, this is a real pro machine. They say that it's not what camera you use, it's who's behind the camera (incidentally, they say the same thing about professional musical instruments), and there's a lot of truth to that. On the other hand, I'm still me. Same woman behind the camera, and yet, the photos I've been taking with this giant hulk of a machine are worlds better than what I got out of my dinky little camera. I mean, check out the depth of focus on that first shot. I couldn't do that with my old camera.

The downside is that this thing is heavy and conspicuous. No more quietly taken from-the-hip candids or quick shots. Everyone in a ten mile radius can see that THIS WHITE GIRL IS TAKING A PICTURE. This leads to more posed faces, although I appreciate that people make goofy faces instead of smiling moronically. It's definitely heavier than I'd like. I can't just throw it in my purse. Heck, it doesn't even fit in my messenger bag!

But, it is what it is and I do enjoy the privilege of using a good, solid camera for the time being. It's good enough that in the future, even after I get a tiny digital camera again, I'll probably take it out for fun.        

My first round with this camera was on Dihua Street. We went to the holiday market yesterday - I naively thought that being a weekday afternoon, the crowds wouldn't be so choking. I was wrong. I'm terrified of what it will be like on Saturday. We have the week off and precious little to do other than painting our apartment, so we bought some snacks to enjoy, which will help it feel like it's really Chinese New Year for us and we're celebrating in some small way.

Any foreigner stuck in Taipei on CNY with nothing to do would do well to visit the market before Monday - it'll infuse you with a bit of holiday spirit. Assuming you are OK with crowds, of course.

Everything is sold here, from snack food you can eat right away to canned and jarred goods to dried snacks - the dried vegetables, especially the garlic cloves, are a favorite of mine to ingredients to cook full meals to pre-cooked packed food to clothing to housewares to decorations.

I'm guessing a lot of this stuff gets purchased to either feed relatives descending on one's house while they wait for dinner or watch CNY television specials or is bought by the descending relatives themselves to add to the feast ("Hi Grandma! We brought egg tarts!").

This reminds me of my own family Christmases where we'd show up at Grandma's with cookies, a bowl of hummus, cheese and sausage or whatever else we felt we should contribute. I always made the hummus.

My first run up the street, with Brendan, the camera bag and my purse - and our purchases - in tow, wasn't that fruitful. After leaving Brendan at a coffeeshop - the one outside that's attached to Yongle fabric market - with our bags, I went back up with just my two hands, empty pockets and the camera and did much better.

One thing you can usually see a lot of at the market - as anywhere that's crowded in Taiwan - are people with their small dogs. I'm not sure how the dogs deal with the crowds, but they generally don't seem to mind. Once, I saw a cat at this market. Not a stray cat, mind you, but a couple who brought their giant fluffy orange-and-white cat with huge green eyes to the Dihua holiday market and carried him around like a dog. I can guess what the cat thought of this.

The vendors that sell everything from red envelopes to vacuum-packed squid to peanuts - we bought some of these fiery fried peanuts in seasoned chili powder  (YUM) often wear costumes. These run from the relatively tame qipao dresses that the peanut ladies are wearing to full-on costume insanity.

My personal favorite are the promoters who dress up like the thing that their stands are selling and loudly point you to where you can buy a non-anthropomorphic version of them. My least favorite are the ones who just stand there with a megaphone or bullhorn extolling the virtues of buying their dried squid over, say, A-chen's down the road.

In previous years, I'd thought of the crowds at Dihua Street to be a detriment, not a bonus. This year, as I was riding the human wave with just my camera, it finally hit me - no, this is what the holiday market is all about. It's no fun if it's not crowded. OK, it could be slightly less crowded, but I think a bit of a glut of people is what makes it so much fun. When I was in China, we went to a similar, but smaller, market in Sichuan (we traveled overland from Chengdu back to Guizhou and had a blast along the way). It had people but wasn't crowded. It wasn't nearly as much fun. That was nice, but Dihua Street is the real deal.

Even when crossing the street is an ordeal!

The dried goods are my personal favorite. Dried vegetables - which you can eat like potato chips as you lie to yourself pretending that they are healthy (they are not - they're dried, yes, and they're vegetables, but somewhere in the process they had unholy relations with a deep fryer and never looked back. Fortunately the deep-fryer/vegetable love child is a tasty little morsel). I bought a bunch of these and plan sit on my ever-fattening ass all week when I'm not painting, nom nom nomming on their delicious goodness. My favorites are the mushrooms, apples and garlic cloves.

I plan to write later - possibly later today, seeing as my class postponed and my Chinese New Year vacation began yesterday - about the times when I feel like I'm in a liminal space as an expat. Christmas is one of those times. Elections are another. Chinese New Year is a third. Major events that I can't participate in the way I would back home, or the way people do here. I can recognize them, watch them, be a part of them in a very borderline way but in the end they serve to highlight the ways in which I am not totally a part of any one society of people, and I think that might be true of most expats.

So, going to the holiday market helps me feel less liminal, less borderline, less nominal, less whatever-Latin-term-for-there-but-only-on-the-edges.

It helps that everyone there is in a festive mood. It lifts my spirits and makes me feel more welcome, more participative. One thing that is universal is festivity. You see cute things:

You get free samples:

Dihua Street's market is all about the samples - you could fill up on them just walking down the street. Everything that's not in a can, jar or bottle has a sample on offer, and even stuff that is packed up is often put out in little cups or with toothpicks, or brewed if it's a drink for you to try. No - really no - obligation to buy.

You get lost in the crowd:

You see some interesting things:

...and you can pick up a few new items to munch on or for your apartment. It's a great time to update or add to dishware and other housewares. Good selection and a lot of it is affordable Japanese-style ceramic or china which is fun and funky to use at home.

So, with that, I'll leave you with a few more photos. Something to enjoy if you didn't make it to the market this year, or you just don't want to go because it's too crowded.