Monday, December 31, 2012

Stewed and Cubed Improvisation

I'm going to tell a story. Bear with me if you like, it does evolve into something. It's not just a rambling narrative of the events leading up to Christmas.

Two days before Christmas, my parents held a holiday party.

We arrived almost a week before that, loud and happy - as happy as you can be when your mother is sick - hugs at the airport, promises of a renovated bathroom (no more fighting over who gets to go first!), a prediction of snow, on our way to get a real tree, with real tree smell and pine needles and everything. We'd decorate! There'd be a party on Saturday at a friend's and a party on Sunday at ours, then Christmas.

Of course several issues threatened to bring the whole thing down like a cat latched to a flimsy curtain - some health issues in the immediate family that I won't disclose in full, but I can reveal that basically, my mother will soon be back in chemotherapy, on a different drug. That brought a lot of stress and uncertainty to the holidays. And with it...medical bills.

My parents are having the downstairs bathroom re-done, to make it usable for the first time in years. The work was almost not finished in time, and while it was going on, the well pump broke. We had to have that replaced along with paying the expected renovation bills.

Then, the furnace motor went. It started making an odd sound on Friday, and by Saturday morning it was dead. We found a tech who would come fix it, but the part had to be ordered and wouldn't be in before Christmas. That meant no heat up to and on Christmas Day. Whoopty-freakin'-do. Also, waiting for the tech (who was actually great, this wasn't his fault) on Saturday meant our planned Christmas shopping trip was cancelled. No, I did not get all of my Christmas shopping done, but in the end it didn't matter. At least we have a fireplace.

So...far less money than expected, no heat, medical problems, and the party was on Sunday. I was set to help clean and to cook a few dishes on the day itself, and I'll be honest, I didn't really want to do any of it in a cold house when I was already stressed. To be more honest, I wanted to cancel it.

But Mom, the one who was so insistent we would have a good holiday, was adamant that we had to soldier on. Intractable, even. I did not share her enthusiasm and, as a further confession, did not even try to pretend to. I did, however, agree to woman up and just do what needed to be done if she was so immovable on this. I figured I'd be cleaning in my coat, scarf and gloves (I was right, except for the gloves).

My husband said "this is like one of those Lifetime holiday specials in which the family is subject to trial after trial and problem after problem until the whole house goes up in a ball of flame" (which would have been warmer, anyway, and with all the blown fuses from our many space heaters, seemed to be a distinct possibility. I say: good riddance). "...and at the end, on the eve of the holiday, the family learns the true meaning of Christmas."

Me: "Fuck the true meaning of Christmas, I want heat."
Friend: "You know, Jenna, in those specials, the cynical one always has the biggest change of heart."
Me: "BAH HUMBUG."

For the record, I want Mom to be well more than I wanted heat, but "I want heat" was a funnier thing to say, and since there is no star in this chaotic entropy-verse I can wish upon, hoping it's the eye of a nonexistent God, that will make that happen without the help of modern science (and I do pray to modern science), I may as well say what I please.

So leading up to the party I busied myself helping - I managed to get out of the house to do Mom's Christmas shopping so she could clean. Win-win. Then I came home and started making my various dishes, cold hands and all. One dish - muhammara, which I make regularly - exploded in the far too small blender (no, the tiny food processor is not big enough, and I have no idea why anyone thought we could make hummus, babaghanoush and muhammara, three blended dips, in it in an hour or so). Someone else finished it. I admit I pulled the brat card - you want muhammara at this party, well, this is a disaster, you want it, you finish it, I'm done with it.

What I did make and finish was my beer-stewed beef cubes, which can be prepared as a stew, casserole, toothpick'd appetizer or something you eat with bread or over rice. It's a stew of herbs - mostly dill, but also rosemary, garlic and thyme - beef cubes, beer, grainy spicy mustard, shallots, some butter, and some additions (I'm fond of bell pepper, mushrooms and walnuts personally). Grumble bells, grumble bells, I grumbled all the way to the stove - which had to be lit with a lighter, the pilot was acting up - and started working. I cut the melting butter with olive oil to make the whole thing a tad healthier (ho ho ho, as though that's possible), gently toasted the herbs along with salt, pepper and paprika and added shallots into the fragrant, frothy pan. and browned the beef. Some people began to arrive. My junior high school music teacher was there, some family friends, some of my sister's friends (none of my friends live in the area anymore), a girl who commented that it smelled "gross" (whatever, girl, it's delicious). I dumped in the bottle of beer and mixed the whole thing together. I left briefly to set up some Christmas music on my iPhone. I added a generous dollop of hot, grainy apple cider vinegar mustard and mixed that in. I adjusted for flavor (good ways to improve top notes in this recipe while keeping it rounded is to add orange juice, orange zest or apple cider. For bottom notes, add some toasted nuts, beef boullion, well-toasted paprika or use a darker beer.

I stewed it all together and added the vegetables in order from longest-cooking to shortest (carrots first, then bell peppers, then mushrooms, like that). Really, you can add almost any vegetable. You could throw spinach, cauliflower, squash, potatoes, whatever into there. You might even be able to get away with lentils, Brussels sprouts or zucchini. You can add any herbs as long as you've got dill. You can change the type of mustard or beer. A pilsner and a light, hot English mustard will produce a very different dish from a winter lager with a mottled dijon. You don't even need to use beef, although I hold that a red meat is best. If you make it as a stew you can add butter squash late for chunkiness, or early so they'll disintegrate into the casserole and add more base flavor. In a casserole, I slather fat, soft breadsticks with mustard and place them on top at the very end - it's done when the tops crisp - but you don't have to.

In short, you can improvise. You can do whatever you want. The end product's just got to come out alright.

Finally, I made this dish for my in-laws (fresh dill, butter squash in a casserole with breadsticks), and it was quite different from the one I made for my parents (dried dill, no butter squash, mushrooms, in a stew). In the end, it was the same dish. It was still me. Each time, I improvised. I didn't know the squash would disintegrate, but it came out OK.

I realized as I was cooking it that that's really all we do - we improvise. Mom gets cancer, and we make do. We do what we can, we research, we plan, but in the end, we kinda make it up as we go along. We fight, we make up, and we know we always love each other, even though it's too easy to revert to adolescence when at home, and yes, parents can be just as annoying to adult offspring as those same offspring were as teenagers. The furnace breaks, and we improvise. I huddle under blankets and offer to go Christmas shopping for Mom so she won't have to (NICE WARM SHOPPING MALL), and Brendan does whatever he can, including shoveling snow with a garden spade, to help ease the stress on my chaotic and stressed-out family. Grandma L. calls every day, even though it accomplished nothing other than to stoke her worries.

As an expat, I improvise. As an expat with a parent battling cancer, I improvise. I do the best I can - even when "the best I can" basically means I decide to stay in Taiwan and visit from there, because I can make more money to enable me to visit there than I could doing the same thing at home (and yes, I am experienced and certified, it's not as though I teach kiddie English for $590/hour), and do something I enjoy rather than selling my soul for an office job. I save money as well as I can, I visit in the winter even though I hate the cold, and I try to be supportive even as I'm fighting the impulse to act like a teenager, slamming doors and proclaiming that I hate everyone and nobody loves me anyway waah waah. (I didn't do that, but I kinda wanted to. I don't hate everyone, though). It's cheaper and easier to visit in January, between Christmas and Chinese New Year when work is dead, but I visit at Christmas because it's important. I don't always make these decisions in advance. I want to cancel a party, but I don't 'cause Mom wants it to happen. So I improvise and dance around my bad mood and cold fingers. I made a dish I didn't even really want to make that night, in that cold kitchen.

Life as an expat is a life of improvisation - with an unknown audience, in an unfamiliar theater. Life as an expat whose mother has cancer is a life of improvisation, cubed. You stay abroad and you stew in it - I should be home, I should be there, but I can make the money I need to be supportive here, and anyway here is where I want to live. My life is also important, but I feel selfish for even thinking it. You come home and you stew in it - everyone's emotional, everyone's stressed, you love them but you really want to slam that door. You just want people to acknowledge that it sucks that it's so cold, but instead you get "it's not that cold", "it's fine", "the fire's warm", "the fire makes it pretty OK, don't you agree?" No, you don't agree, it is that cold, can we all please just stop pretending? So you improvise, you stew in it, and you go to the mall.

I even asked if we could just go to Grandma's for the whole deal. Nope...we had to have Christmas at home. That's fine, it's what Mom wanted, but deep down, I wanted heat, and no I did not think the fireplace would be sufficient. We stayed, we improvised. We woke up on Christmas morning, achy, just wanting it to be warm for Chrissakes.

We woke up to snow - a white Christmas, indeed. We started a fire, I made a hot coffee cocktail with cream and Irish Mist and dunked Christmas cookies into it. We opened gifts and it was fun. It was that cold, but we could basically ignore it. I'd like to say I dropped my cynicism and it was all lovely and Christmas special-y, with a soft-focus and white portrait filter, but it wasn't. It was fine, but mostly, we improvised. I was happy to be there, but no, it wasn't rose-tinged and perfect.

We did what we had to do, and for as long as I live abroad and my mother has cancer, we'll continue doing what we have to do, and we won't always know what that is until it happens.

Mustard Cubed Beef

I was going to include a recipe for my beef cubes, but anything I could put on here is something you can add your own flourishes to without much problem. Even I change it up. So...here's a rough outline of the recipe, but the scant information is deliberate:

Melt some butter in a pan with olive oil, on low, add lots of dill, some rosemary and some thyme along with chopped garlic, salt, a red chili if you like, maybe some orange zest, maybe some paprika. Add chopped shallots, and then beef. Brown. Add a can of beer - dark is great, but pilsner or ale would be fine. Mix and add a few dollops of mustard. Add other vegetables - carrots, chopped bell pepper, mushroom. Add walnuts if you like, or any other vegetable that you think would work. Cook, add cornstarch to thicken if needed. Or cook as a casserole with potatoes, squash etc. with mustard-slathered sliced bread at the bottom, and mustard-slathered breadsticks on top (add breadsticks 15 mins before it's done, it's done when they crisp and brown slightly on top). If you make as a casserole, still brown the beef in the herbed butter, but use more shallots.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

It's A Christmas Miracle!

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So we're headed home for a few weeks to celebrate Christmas and New Year's with family (our cat still hasn't seemed to figure out that we're going) after a day in Shanghai on their 48-hour transit visa. As you can see above, I got myself a fancy new haircut, complete with dip-dyed purple ends (hard to see in this photo, but they're there). Can't wait to shock the family!

Anyway, there has been so much tragedy in the news these days that I wanted to post a few photos of something happy before we go. Something that affirms love rather than questions the existence of good in the world: weddings.

Last night we attended the wedding of our good friends CK and Eliza (CK is my former student). Because I'm friends with people who generally don't choose the most normal paths in life - I have very few friends who graduated, got jobs, found a partner, got married and had babies: most have taken different routes - despite having lived in Taiwan for over six years, this was the first Taiwanese wedding we've attended.

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I'm still getting used to my new camera, and while it takes fantastic pictures when you know how to use it, I don't always know how to use it. This image, for example, could have been sharper (and also looks lighter on my computer - I've lightened it some more since uploading for future posting):

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What was great about this wedding, which was held at the Sheraton Taipei, was that it wasn't actually all that similar to what I'd heard about Taiwanese weddings. People said that we should be prepared for bad wine, mediocre food, 500 random people who don't know each other and don't mingle, and interminable speeches by people who seem to barely know the couple.

It just wasn't true: there were a hundred people there at most and all of them seemed to know the couple well - neither has a large family, and the groom especially was adamant about not inviting everyone under the sun, only good friends. There were only two speeches, one of which was short. the other was heartfelt and personal.

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The food was...pretty good. I mean, it wasn't the greatest Chinese food I've eaten in my life, and it didn't shatter my world, but it was fine. Perfectly good hotel standard food. The wine was drinkable - although it's still weird to me to drink red wine with Chinese food, which I usually associate with beer (but then I usually go for spicy Sichuan, not banquet food). There was definitely mingling between tables, although we didn't know enough people to mingle that much - I didn't see any other former students from among CK's work crowd, but we did say hi to a few friends of the couple that we'd met at a party once. Despite joking about it, we were not seated at the 老外桌 ("foreigner table") - we were the only foreigners there!

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I quite liked Eliza's choices of dress - simple and clean lines, flattering colors. She didn't look like a lot of brides in wedding photos I see - like an over-decorated sugar-flower covered cake. Not at all. And she did look like a movie star. As one friend said before they got engaged, "哇!If CK doesn't marry with her, he is the crazy man!" [sic - I left the grammar unedited because the definite article lends a nice emphasis].

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I think one of the reasons I was so touched by this wedding is that I've known CK for several years, and he would always say that he was never going to get married, that he just wasn't interested in family life or married life, that he'd date women but they had to understand he wasn't going to marry anybody (at the wedding itself the emcee said "Honestly, CK, we thought you liked men!"). He had his reasons, and as a friend you can say "so he's an independent guy, that's cool". I admire independent people - I like to think I'm one of them, and married someone who respected, even liked, my need to just be who I am - but as an independent person who met the right guy (or rather, had known the right guy all along) and decided to marry, I was really happy to see my friend keep his independent self and yet still find someone he wants to spend his life with. Love is a great thing and we should have more of it in this world!

You could say that this is why this was a Christmas miracle - CK actually got married! - but I figure it's a Christmas miracle because someone was willing to marry CK!

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The five-year-old daughter of some mutual friends (another kid, who was maybe 1 year old, came up to me, stared at me curiously, and when I said "hi" to him in Chinese, his face wrinkled up like crumpled paper and he ran away crying - no joke - but this kid knows and likes me)

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Mutual friend and former student Linda


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Of course no wedding in Taiwan is complete without wedding games. First, Eliza had to maneuver an egg from her husband's pants cuff to...ah...another place.

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Then CK had to eat something (couldn't tell what) while blindfolded:

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And then he had to eat a cookie or something draped in a suggestive spot on the bride's dress (hey at least it wasn't under the bride's dress):

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Someone asked: "新娘好吃嗎?"

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And because puerile humor carries the day in these wedding games:

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...they had to play a game of...ahem...horseshoes!

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I figured I'd end on that photo because it basically made the whole wedding. To wit: “他應該很外向因為大家都可以看他的香蕉!"

Super fun to watch, but I'm kind of happy this is not an American wedding tradition...

Anyway, Merry Christmas everyone, if I don't post again before then (depends on how much free time I have), and don't eat too many bananas this holiday season.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Strange Gods

So, as you all know, I'm an atheist. Until recently I was a hardcore "I don't know" agnostic, but certain life events have erased even that glimmer of doubt that the universe is unregulated chaos that forms areas of organization - sometimes very detailed organization - only insofar as the laws of physics encourage it. Chaos makes sense to me, because when I look at the world, I see chaos. The organization I do see is just about entirely explainable by science. I don't see the hand of a supreme being.

That said, I'm interested in investigations into the veracity of religious beliefs or paranormal activity (the same thing, as far as I'm concerned), because study of anything curious and seemingly inexplicable is, well, interesting.

That's why I was fascinated to learn that a former student and now friend of mine participated as a researcher in this study on "Chinese character induction" or "finger reading" when he was a student many years ago. (This blog post by Michael Turton, as well as this paper, are the only English-language mentions online of this study that I could find). According to him, the study was more than just writing on paper and then folding it into a small ball - they put the papers under metal sheets and blindfolded the children, and the children could still use their fingers to "read" the characters and accurately tell scientists what the characters were. And that the characters that could be most easily read were ones like "Jesus", "God", "Buddha" and "Guanyin" as well as some Indian gods, among others. "Matsu"was also fairly strong, but other minor deities or supernatural/mythical beings were either barely readable or unreadable. Common characters (like "book", "coffee", "wash" or "jacket") were not readable. The children apparently reported that they could "see" the characters with their fingers, and they'd present themselves in their minds as lights of various brightness (that's not what the paper says, however, not exactly).

This person now has his PhD and is fiercely intelligent. He's not a wacko. He said that before working on the study, he was about as much as an atheist as me, except that he didn't care enough to label himself. Now, he says, he believes that "there has to be something".

Now, as I said, I'm an atheist. I don't believe any of this. At the same time, I don't think he's lying. I think he certainly did work on that study and he probably did see something that freaked him out. That doesn't mean, necessarily, that this stuff is true, just as "there is a God because I feel God's presence" is not solid evidence that there is, in fact, a God. Not even studies showing that there is a slight uptick beyond regular probability that something will happen - like a relative getting well - if people pray for it prove this.

It's a strange middle ground to be in, when you believe your friend and know he's not crazy, but you are also dead certain that this stuff isn't "real", or even if it is, there has to be a scientific explanation that we're just nowhere near understanding yet. I absolutely do not believe there is anything that can never be explained by science: only things that science as it is now can't yet explain, as it is insufficiently advanced. If there were something in this world that could not be explained by science, why have science to begin with?

It also made me think of something else: see, I have another friend who recently became a Christian (his wife is Christian - they are both Taiwanese). While I personally would not have made that choice, I am happy for him insofar as he's made a choice that he feels is right for him and makes him happy, and that's really what's important. In that way, I fully support him.

This friend and I had had a chat many months ago in which he asked me why I go to all these temple parades and festivals in Taiwan. "Because they're COOL," I replied. "Far more interesting than religious services in the USA, and far more interesting than parades by far."

"But do you actually believe in, say, Baosheng Dadi or Matsu or any of that?"

"Honestly, no. I don't believe that Baosheng Dadi is a real immortal being or a god. He was a real person, but I don't go in for gods."

After that, I thought about it for awhile. I don't believe in God or gods, but if I had to choose between the two, I'd go with the folk gods - be they Chinese, or Hindu gods, or any polytheistic pantheon of gods with specific functions and often difficult personalities with their own desires and whims, likes and dislikes and internal disputes.

Why?

Because, while it still makes no sense that there are these immortal powerful beings who can control events in the physical world, at least one thing does make sense: how the world would be if they were the ones in control. It would more or less match up with what we have now. In Taiwan people regularly consult "fortune blocks" (校杯) - those crescent-shaped wood or red blocks that can give one of three answers - no, yes, or "laughing god" (for the final one, imagine if you said "God, will I die of cancer?" and God answered "ha ha ha!"). The answer they give correlates basically exactly to probability, because it cannot do anything else - and so, yes, the world that we have, with correlates with statistical probability, would align pretty well with those blocks, including the times that the blocks are wrong.

Taiwanese will regularly make it clear that the god they are praying to may choose to answer their prayer or heed their request...or not. It really is up to the whim of the god. If you pray they may listen, and so you've upped your chances, but then if you don't pray, it may still happen. Only Baosheng Dadi or Hua Tuo or Wenchang Dijun can really know, and it is pretty well understood and respected that they act on their own preferences or whims. To me, that also correlates pretty well with the world I see.

Gods in folk-grounded pantheons - be they Hindu, Chinese or whatever - tend to have a lot of internal disputes, weird hierarchies and difficult personalities. When you think of them more as brawling, incestuous, clique-forming and reality-show-imitating natural forces, what happens in life fits perfectly with how you envision them acting. Kids are starving in Africa because the god of food either doesn't care, or is busy doing his sister, or is pissed off, or is otherwise occupied. Not "people are starving in Africa, but hey, GOD LOVES YOU, even the starving ones, but you're still starving because...uh..."

Think about it: bad things happen to good people. All the time. Half of Africa is bad stuff happening to good people. Good things happen to bad people: just look at Wall Street. You could say that God is benevolent and kind and this horribleness is the work of terrible, evil, original sinning humans...

...or you could say that that's just how it is, life sucks then you die, or maybe it doesn't suck, or maybe like most of us it's somewhere in the middle, and it's all random because that's how it seems.

You could then decide you want a religious belief, because you want to believe there is something bigger than you, bigger than all of us. That's great - it's a natural human urge. Even I have it. You could either believe in one omniscient, omnipotent God who loves us all (or create a really angry god who then gets a personality makeover a la New Testament), and then try to twist what you see in the world to fit that belief...

...or you could take what you see in the world and empirically try to deduct what the spiritual/godly realm must be like.

Science works based on the latter principle of deductive reasoning. The former is inductive reasoning, and it's just not how we do science, generally (although it sure is mighty tempting). It makes sense to me to base a spiritual belief system on deductive, rather than inductive, thought and explanation.

So no, I'm still not into this whole spiritual thing, although I find discussing it and thinking about it to be fascinating and worthwhile, and I do respect the beliefs of others (if you wanna be Christian, that's fine by me, as long as you don't tell me what I should believe. I'll even join you at the "Jesus was a pretty awesome progressive dude with a strong moral philosophy that we can learn from even today" party. I'll bring the whiskey. I'm pretty sure that although Jesus was a wine guy, he'd probably like whiskey).

But if someone put a gun to my head and told me I had to believe something - hey, it's happened to people - I'd go with polytheistic folk beliefs. Definitely. At least those jive with what I see.






My Name Is Not "Foreign Lady"

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I wrote this just to prove a point


You know how at Starbucks, if there is any sort of a wait or a few people waiting for drinks, they ask you for your name and call it out when your drink is ready? I don't know how common this is in the USA but it's standard practice in Taiwan. So you hear a lot of "陳小姐妳的咖啡好囉" ("Ms. Chen, your coffee is ready") or some such when Starbucks is busy.

Except I've noticed recently that they don't ask foreigners for their names - or at least they don't ask me. This isn't a language barrier, because I always order in Chinese and I know I'm perfectly understandable. Then, when the drink is ready, they may shout the name of the drink (OK, that's not too bad, it still means everyone but you gets personalized service but it's not actively offensive), but they're just as likely to shout "外國小姐妳的咖啡好囉" - "Hey Foreign Lady, your coffee is ready!" and on the cup you get a big F for foreigner, or a 外 (first character in the Chinese word for "foreigner", but it reads as "OTHER" or "OUTSIDER" when used on its own to identify someone).

I whined about this on Facebook, because I was feeling crabby and why not:

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...and learned from the many replies that I'm not the only one this has happened to, and it's also a problem for a friend currently in Nanjing.  Everyone who noted that it was a problem is a foreigner who speaks Chinese.

So my friend wrote this on the Starbucks Facebook page.  Now, Starbucks in Taiwan is owned by Uni-President (the same people who own 7-11 and I believe Cold Stone Creamery in Taiwan), and so a more directed complaint will probably be necessary, but it's a start and someone at HQ might notice and pass it on. If you feel you've been poorly treated at Starbucks in Taiwan, go ahead and leave a comment or "like" the post.

Clearly the baristas don't think we have Chinese names, and are afraid they won't understand/be able to spell or pronounce foreign surnames (I don't blame them for this, imagine if you were not a native speaker and asked someone for their last name while trying to ring up a line of people, and the answer was "Janusciewicz"). The thing is, almost every foreigner in Taiwan who speaks Chinese does have a Chinese surname. Some don't, but  they would at least have some sort of Chinese name. Even that dorky '80s kid with the awful hair in the old Shi-Da MTC videos has one. Mine, as you can see above, is Zhang.

There is really no reason not to ask a foreigner who clearly speaks Chinese what their name is, and treat them like everybody else. For foreigners who don't, ask for a first name or call out the drink name (first name is better - and many Taiwanese people, including most urban Taiwanese, have English first names so this shouldn't be hard).

For Starbucks prices, and for a company that is both an international chain and claims to pride itself on customer service, they can and should do better. There is no excuse for calling everybody else by name, and calling me (or another foreigner), Foreign Guy or Foreign Lady. It's not meant to be pejorative, I know, but it sure comes across that way.

As my husband noted, this only seems to happen at international chains. In local shops and holes in the wall,  you are pretty much always treated like a local. They may say something like "who ordered these noodles?" "The foreign guy", but for a local they just seize on some other obvious aspect of their appearance like "the lady with glasses" or "the fat one in the gray t-shirt". This isn't some deep-rooted unchangeable cultural more, it's a bad habit and it can and should cease.

What's more, you'd think that if you were going to be treated like a Weirdo Alien From Space, that'd happen in local joints, and you'd feel more at home in major international brand shops like Starbucks. Not the case at all - in fact, quite the opposite.

It kind of reminds me of a discussion I had on a Facebook post of another friend, on whether foreigners in Taiwan are made to feel like outsiders they way they often are in Japan (and China, as per my experience). She'd said that yes, that was the case. A specific example was that people would frequently say "You do/know _______ very well...for a foreigner". As in, "You speak Chinese very well - FOR A FOREIGNER", or that she always had to break in new neighbors when she moved so they'd treat her as a local, not an outsider.

I replied that no,  that may be the case for her but it was not for me. That people might compliment my Chinese but I never get "...for a foreigner" and every time I've moved I've been treated more or less like a local from Day 1. I haven't had such problems - people are more likely to assume I'm more local than I really am (I still get culture shock occasionally after all these years), and that  I'm not treated any differently by Taiwanese friends.

This incident, however, has reminded me that no matter how long I live here, whether or not I feel like a "local" or an "outsider" is not a constant, and never will be. It's a constantly changing feeling, pushed one way or another by these sorts of incidents. Neighbor chats with me just like she would anyone else, without even questioning whether I speak Chinese? Local. Barista says "HEY FOREIGN LADY"?  Outsider. It's a thing of constant flux, and there's nothing I can do about that.









Friday, December 7, 2012

BALLIN' at San Jing (三井)

三井 Mitsui Cuisine
B1 #108 Dunhua S. Road Section 1 (lower floor of the Fubon Building at Dunhua-Civic Blvd)
02-27413394 

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Sushi Express This Ain't: fried slices - all edible - of a local fish (金目鯛, I think) with a delicious little swirl of sushi at San Jing

Although I truly enjoy my work and getting to know my students, I know I complain a fair amount about it. The actual work is fantastic - it's the office that can really get me down. Fortunately now that I am a permanent resident, I've rejiggered my contract to be more like a freelancer or consultant than an employed trainer, and I don't have to deal with them often.

The good part of my job (which is quite distinct from the downside) includes several perks - for example, on occasion one of my students will have a dinner obligation when we are meant to have class, and rather than cancel or postpone the class, will invite me to attend as their guest.

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So this week, I was really chuffed to get a phone call from a student who, instead of class as usual, had decided to invite me with his colleagues and peers for dinner at 三井 (Mitsui Cuisine) on Dunhua South Road.

San Jing, for those who don't know, is up there among the fanciest and most high-quality names in Japanese-style seafood in Taiwan. Oh yes, and it's famous. Not like when your neighborhood obasan tells you "this guy's soy milk is famous" famous, or "that dentist is famous" famous, but famous as in everybody has heard of it. When you tell a Taipei local "I'm eating at San Jing tonight", their eyes widen and they look at you like, "oh!" I had a student once tell me as class started that he ate at San Jing the previous weekend, and the entire class stopped and went "waaaah!". This was in Hsinchu, and even there everybody knew about this group of restaurants.

It's also killer expensive - at all locations except for their standing-room-only sushi bar in the Taipei Fish Market (Minzu N. Road), expect to pay NT$3,000+ for a top-end dinner. (At the sushi bar in the fish market, you can expect to pay closer to NT$1000-$1500). Some locations, such as the one in Taipei, are rumored to have an NT$500 lunch special.




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Look at this glazed swordfish. Just look at it! I mean, look at it! SO GOOD.
I am not shy about saying it - I was quite excited to not only get to go to San Jing, and not only as someone's guest (you know how it goes, the bill comes and the foreign guest never even sees it let alone gets a chance to offer to pay or chip in), but also that I'd get paid to go. How sweet is that? So I threw on better clothes and hopped in a taxi.

It's not hard to go - you have to make reservations but they're not that hard to get, it seems. You shouldn't look slovenly (almost everyone else there will be in some form of business-appropriate dress, even if it's just a sweater and slacks), but you don't need to make any fashion statements or worry that you'll stick out. Taiwan is generally not super formal or snotty like that (one reason why I love it here). I've been wanting to go for awhile, but have always put off the splurge. Especially as Brendan, while he enjoys good food and seafood, doesn't find sushi to be among his top favorite cuisines and claims he really can't tell the difference between a finely crafted cut of sushi or sashimi and, say, Sushi Express.


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It would be easy to say "yeah, it's expensive and pretentious and the food is good but frankly the night market is just as good and it's so much more real", but I can't say that. I might get hipster cred for it, but I can't.

Because THIS PLACE IS AMAZING. It would be a lie, a throw-you-into-the-pits-of-hell LIE, to say otherwise. And I can't lie, oh no. It's ridiculous. It's pants-creamingly supercalifragilistic.

First, the obvious: each ingredient, including the main bit of fish, is only of the highest quality, and cut and prepared right before it is served by people who really know what they're doing. That goes without saying. Each piece is prepared in just the right way to bring out the most complex, well-balanced flavors, even if it's just a simple cut of sushi.

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More complex items are torched on the spot and topped with finely-crafted sauces and seasonings, like this tasty little number above (I shoved that delicious thing in my maw so fast that I didn't even think to ask what kind of fish it was, but worry not, I savored it slowly once it was safely in there, safely MINE, out of reach of those who might want to separate me from delicious, delicious sushi, mmmm). The sauce was yolky and lemony, with the seaweed and scallions giving it a hit of umami.

Another thing I appreciated were the details. The service was, as you'd expect, spectacular, with fresh tea appearing or sake filling my glass before I even realized I needed more. Even the smaller things, though, like the carefully designed lighting, this lovely little chopstick rest and the well-chosen plateware, did not go unnoticed.


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Plus this one little thing that's kind of a big deal with me - good wasabi. From a distance it looks like just more of the cheap smeary stuff, but look closely, and you'll see that no, this is the freshly grated real deal. As an avid consumer of horseradish, wasabi, garlic (including raw), mustard and all preserved things (including preserved tofu, Indian pickle and kimchi), I like my strong flavors well-made and high quality.

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Just like at my favorite izikaya, Tanuki Koji, San Jing will recommend sake that tastes best served at your preferred temperature. Some got warm sake - I got some served cold along with another guest because that's just what I was feeling like. The two of us managed to finish the bottle - fortunately, I can hold my liquor.

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But more about the food. This here is trout wrapped in its own skin, with a touch of sliced cucumber and scallion. I usually don't go in for fish skin, but this was done to perfection, served at just the right texture of mouth-meltiness and at a pleasant temperature. We were also served lightly glazed and seared skewers of belly from the same trout, but I don't have a good picture of those.

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Then there was the shrimp. You could eat some of what was in the head, but that was mostly for decoration. The calamansi (that tiny orange) is squeezed over everything else, and then you can enjoy a variety of textures on one plate: soft sea urchin over rice, softshell fried shrimp legs and a slice of shrimp sushi with roe.

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Then there was the eel. I love eel. Look at how perfect this eel sushi is. Most places just plop some braised eel on some rice and hold the slippery mess together with sushi, and don't bother about whether the tiny bones are easy or pleasant to eat or not. Not here - here you get a firm little cut of eel, perfectly seasoned, without being too slippery, sweetly flavored or gooey. The bones are, if anything, enjoyable to eat. The mouthfeel of this little masterpiece was mind-blowing.

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魯肉飯 (stewed meat rice) is a Taiwanese staple, usually made with braised/stewed meat and served cheaply at street stalls, This "stewed meat rice" is made with tendon and is noticeably different from and higher quality than the street version (I didn't say "better" because I appreciate the stuff on the street for different reasons). I usually don't go for tendon, either, but this was so perfectly done that it had the mouthfeel of well-made muscle meat, not the typical hard-and-chewy texture of ligament and tendon. The sauce had a delightful fragrance and was neither too sweet nor too salty, and it was topped with just enough pork floss sprinkles (I believe that's what it was anyway) to give it more complexity without the pork floss flavor overwhelming it or being noticeable on its own.

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And now, for dessert. A fruit plate was to be eaten first - the idea being that the sweetness of the selected fruits (canteloupe, grapes and wax apple) would properly prepare your palate for the sweets to come later. Then, this little delight: grapefruit ambrosia - I don't know what else to call it, the flesh of the grapefruit in some sort of creamy yet firm grapefruit mousse - wrapped in dried Japanese persimmon.

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Then there was matcha tea ice cream (which tasted great - very creamy and flavorful, not like the mostly-vanilla green-colored "matcha ice cream" at many buffets and hot pot restaurants - but looked pretty normal, so I didn't include picture).

And then, this:


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A custardy delight, light and airy, topped with lime zest and a passionfruit sauce (again, the real deal, not the syrupy sweet yellow stuff you see elsewhere) and slices of honeydew and cantaloupe to provide a counterpoint to the sweet, fluffy mousse-like, panna cotta like custard - set atop a not-too-sweet moist cake with a hint of brown sugar, and surrounded by sweet flakes that packed just enough crunch to add texture. They did not detract from but rather highlighted the creamy and fruity textures of the rest of the dish. The coffee and tea that came with it was also quite lovely - the coffee was light, not strong, but while I usually go for richly flavored light and medium roasts or very well done espresso, I admit that the lighter flavor of this coffee better balanced with the delicate, otherwordly flavors of the rest of our meal. It was an appropriate choice.

All I can say is that if you like sushi and want to get spendy, this is the place to go. A few other foreigners were also dining there, and didn't seem to be enjoying themselves (my guess was that they were at more serious business dinners - I felt quite lucky that my "business dinner" was basically laughing it up with my student and his coworkers). I felt bad for 'em - maybe they're not sushi people but had to go, or maybe they just don't care or were otherwise in a bad mood.

It made me realize that I don't want to be the sort of person who eats at San Jing as a matter of course, or who has to eat there for business. I don't want to be the gal who "makes it" and then a few years later complains that she can have all that she wants of the best of the best, and there's nothing new when you're already living your champagne dreams, and none of it means anything (I know, hard to muster sympathy). I'm happy - better off, really - being the gal who doesn't frequently do things like this, even if she can ostensibly afford to. I want to be the one for whom this is a special treat: that way I know I'll always enjoy and appreciate it, rather than it just becoming some typical non-special thing.

And I did enjoy every mouthwatering second of it, and I recommend that you do the same.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

And Now For Something Completely Different: Cafe Dalida Drag Show and Charity Fundraiser (and thoughts on charity in Taiwan)


This is totally the photo I will use from now on to reply to offensive things people say on the Internet.

Before I get into my post - here's my dilemma. I'm out of photo space on this blog, but I don't want to pay and I don't want to change addresses, and I don't want to never again post photos. Any ideas on what I should do? Is there a way out of this?

Anyway, so last night we went to a drag show and charity fundraiser at Cafe Dalida, one of the bars behind Red House in Ximending. I love going to that area - Red House is one of my favorite Taipei buildings, and itself houses a lovely cafe and gift shop. Behind it is a strip of gay bars with hilarious names like G2-Paradise and Bear Bar (you get used to the hilarious names when you live in DC as I did - we had a place called The Fireplace) which, all together, make up the best area for outdoor seating in, well, in all of urban Taipei (Maokong excluded). You can usually get good deals on drinks, although don't ask for anything that needs to be done really well (like mojitos - details like muddled mint are skipped and lemon is substituted for lime), and you can always get a seat to enjoy Taipei's rare good weather. 

Also, no dodgy guys hitting on you! Well, maybe if you're a guy. Brendan claims it's never happened, but he's totally cute, so I figure it's because when we go we always go together. 

Isn't he totally adorable?

The weather last night was crap - but the table umbrellas came out and kept us basically dry. Well-known drag queen Gina (above) put on a drag show for her birthday, which doubled as a fundraiser for  Harmony Home Taiwan, a very worthy organization that cares for people with and children affected by HIV and AIDS.


It could have been a function of where in China I lived (the rural southwest), and the time I lived there (ten years ago - wow) - but one thing I've noticed that sets Taiwan apart from China is the prevalence of charity organizations and willingness to donate to them. I know such organizations exist in China, but my observation was that donating to charity wasn't a *thing*. You might give to a beggar - the most common being kids in tatty school uniforms claiming they couldn't afford their school fees - but a local where I lived wouldn't generally donate a chunk of change or the proceeds of an event to a charity. I'm sure there's more of that in the cities, but even with that in mind I see a greater charitable impulse in Taiwan than I do in China.

Here are some stats.

An interesting paper but only compares a few countries

A study done in the US showing low-income people tend to give more (in the USA that's mostly due to donations to churches).

Charitable giving by country - now we're getting somewhere - this photo shows Taiwan ("province of China" - ICK!!! Do I have to write and complain now?) at about twice the amount of China.

Here it is on Wikipedia - with a quote from Ma Ying-jiu calling the results "unfair" ("President Ma Ying-jeou described the result of a poll ranking Taiwan 72nd among 153 countries for charitable behavior as "unfair, " saying it has transformed itself "from an importer of love into an exporter of love") I can see where that's coming from - if results don't include charity donated abroad - such as sponsorship of impoverished children in other countries - and if it is true that the Taiwanese have done a great deal of that, to the point where it'd affect their ranking, then it is a fair point.

And yet Taiwan also beats out Japan and, in fact much of East Asia. It's beaten out by Mongolia (barely) and Hong Kong (by a lot - I'd say "British influence" but that'd imply a sort of Western supremacist racism that I do not wish to imply - just that Britain ranks far higher, and Hong Kong culture is obviously strongly influenced by the British. Make of that what you will, I won't make anything more of it for fear of it being misinterpreted).

Still...it seems I'm right. Taiwan is a far more charitably giving country than China, which ranks really horribly low. Unconscionably low for a country that openly aspires to become a world - no, the world, superpower. So my powers of observation are pretty dead on in comparing Taiwan and China in this way, although I would not have guessed that we ranked below Mongolia (or Tajikistan etc.).

Small as it is, it's something to be proud of. I'm not just spouting crap when I say that I feel people in Taiwan are kinder, more socially aware and more giving than what I noticed in China. Taiwanese will often say "我們比大陸有人情味“ or something along those lines (I don't think they'd quite say it that way, seeing as I'm a stilted non-native speaker!). I know other bloggers have said the Taiwanese are not as friendly as they think they are - which is not the same as being "giving", but the two are kind of related, are they not? I disagree. The Chinese do not "run ruder on the surface and friendlier below" - there are rude and friendly Chinese, just as in any country, but on average run ruder...and below, will sometimes be nice to you, but will always keep a greater distance from you than your Taiwanese friends, who will treat you like a true friend, not a "foreign friend". I find the Taiwanese to definitely be kinder than the Japanese, who are polite up front, to a fault, but distant down below. I don't have enough experience in Korea to really talk about life there, but my husband has said I certainly would not get along with Korean men as well as I get along with Taiwanese men, due to a more deeply ingrained sexist streak and a cultural inability to laugh at oneself. The only Asian country I've been to where I've felt as comfortable and able to make true local friends is India.

Anyway, those are "on average" observations and not meant to reflect on individuals, so please don't take them that way...and it's on a tangent from "charitable giving". I included it here because I do believe the two things are related. How kind and friendly you are often translates into how charitable, generous and giving you are - and despite some expats claiming the opposite, I find the Taiwanese, on average, to be all of those things in a way that the Chinese, on average, are not.



But back to the drag show.

Woo-woos (sweet, not very strong pink cocktails that include apple, cranberry and rum) were sold, with a portion of the proceeds to Harmony Home, and the queens and staff came through with donation boxes while we were treated to the show. The bar itself was booked out, but we were able to get a small table after some time waiting in the seated area outside the main drag (see what I did there?), and could see just fine by standing. It was not super packed, but it was full.

The show did run a bit short, starting at 10:30 and ending around maybe midnight with a lengthy break. I was hoping for more all-night action, like what you'd get in DC, but hey. This is the first time I've even heard about a drag show in Taiwan, let alone been to one (obviously they exist, I had just never heard about them). And the queens looked great.


Another thing I noted was the diversity of the crowd. Expats and locals mingled much more freely than I usually see on nights out in Taiwan. I have more Taiwanese friends than foreign friends (although I have a lot of both), and I find that when I go out with either group, generally it's a place where most people are either foreigners with some Taiwanese  or Taiwanese with a smattering of foreigners, but not a huge mix of both (or if there are, it's white guys and Taiwanese women, which is fine unless it's a meat market, in which case, OK, have fun, I'm outta here). And when I do go to gatherings that are mostly foreign, I am often one of the only women there unless I organize it!

Here I can't say who was in the majority - the queens themselves were both local and foreign, as was the audience, in a pretty even mix of male, female, Taiwanese and local. That's great - we need more of that. We might have less misunderstanding and cultural posturing between foreign and Taiwanese men, and move away from the old expat-local cliches if we had more mixing.