Saturday, April 30, 2011

Dangly Bits

Brass, treated lapis, turquoise (possibly artificial or color treated) and onyx earrings by Tai&Vin - NT$450 on sale - Yongkang Street #28-2

As I've written two sequentially thought-provoking posts - at least they are to me! - I thought it was time for a little fun. There is more than just frivolity when one starts talking about independent artists and designers, as well as small businesses (even if the product are not hand-designed or made): I do find meaning where others may find fluff.

And what kind of fun do I like more than earrings? No kind, that's what. I'm a total earrings-and-scarves hoarder, which I think may be some sort of weird personality issue (seeing as before earrings and scarves it was nail polish, and for awhile it was colorful striped socks with individual toes). But as quirks go it's not a financially or personally devastating one, so I think it's fine.

I've found that a combination of a strong creative spirit (yes, it's there, if you look for it), massive consumer goods shopping opportunities from department stores to night markets - heck, the streets are filled with stores selling FOOD and STUFF in a way that not even the USA could imagine - and low prices make Taipei an excellent city in which to scout out awesome new earrings, which means I can enjoy my little habit without breaking the bank or pondering seeing a therapist for my compulsive-collector tendencies.

Here are a few of my favorite haunts, interspersed with photos from my own massive collection of earrings:

The lady who sells silver by MRT Jingmei Exit 2 (past Family Mart) - people selling silver from SE Asia - usually it really is sterling, but do check each item for the stamp to confirm - are all over Taipei, but I particularly like this woman's small shop. She goes to Thailand a few times a year and buys items there to sell in Taiwan. Yes, it would be cheaper if I just bought my own stuff in Thailand, but I haven't been since 2003 and if you are a regular she starts giving discounts.

Yongkang Street is full of places that sell cool earrings, both new and old. Be careful for fake antiques sold at real antique prices, though. I bought these gold vermeil and jade beauties there, got them checked and have been told that yes, they are the real deal and probably came off of an old Chinese headdress (the big kind with dangly bits that brides used to wear and that I personally think brides should still wear because they RULE). Tai&Vin is also great to browse in this area - it can get very expensive but some of their items are affordable - it depends on whether you're buying just nicely made earrings or earrings made from real jade and antique pieces.

That Turkish earring guy (sometimes a woman works there and I'm not sure who owns it) at Tianmu International Square weekend flea market. Whenever the area across from the big stationery store in Shi-da opens for a little artisan's market, you can also find them. They sell beautiful "Turkish" (not sure if they really are - who cares) earrings in a variety of colors and shapes, screened and engraved with mehndi-like patterns.

Shi-da night market - I completely love the guy who sells cheap but gorgeous enamel earrings on the busy street in the market - another woman near the big stationery store sometimes sells them too, along with watches. At NT150 each, I couldn't help but build a collection!

Earrings above by Aliko Chen (found her in Shi-da and have not seen her since)

The weekend market at Red House - I haven't been in awhile but I assume it's still around. I bought these beauties there - the chain goes through your piercing and they hang that way. They're well-weighted and don't slip. You can find a lot of cool stuff here - and some of the same jewelry makers (and some who just sell cheaper jewelry that you can wear for fun) can also be found in the mall under Caesar Park hotel approaching Taipei Main Station.

Chinese Handicrafts Market on Zhongshan Road - I know, such a cliche, but they sell cool stuff like this. Well, I made the little puffy stars, but the two cloisonne earrings are from the handicrafts shop. Check out the selection at the National Palace Museum gift shop on the top floor, or wade through bins of ugly faux-silver-abalone earrings for one piece of pure gorgeousness on the first floor.

The Indian import store in the Wuchang Street covered market (Wuchang Street east of Bo'ai, near/across from Zhongshan Hall) - with earrings starting at NT100, you can't go wrong. The styles are ethnic, sometimes overwhelming, and very colorful. Also, extremely cheap: these are wear-for-fun earrings, not investment pieces. Also the best place to get earrings in copper tone if you're into that (I am).

Anyway, that's my fun post for the weekend - enjoy!

Friday, April 29, 2011

A Million Landscapes: One Beautiful Country

We don't think "Taiwan is trash can"!

I’ve been in Taiwan for about five years now, and the questions of “why Taiwan?” and “what’s so good about this place?” are common refrains among locals. How many times have I sat in the back of a taxi with the bamboo tabs, white plastic beads or faux lace mats sticking to my back and thighs and heard it?

Why did you choose Taiwan? But Taiwan’s dirty. We’re not developed like the USA. Why would you leave the USA? Salaries there are so high. Life in Taiwan is hard. You can get better jobs over there. Why come here? There’s of course the common coda of “Why not China?”

This is basically why not China. They're BURNING a BOAT for a GOD. A real, honest-to-god boat. You don't see this kind of thing in stinky butt China.

I hear it from students – both current ones and from children in my former life as an inexperienced English teacher. It all started with one precocious seven year old, in his first year at Kojen, hearing me say “I love Taiwan. Taiwan is beautiful!” and riposting with “No Teacher! Taiwan is TRASH CAN!”

After that came common themes such as “I don’t want to live Taiwan. I want to live in USA!” and “Do you really think that Taiwan is a beautiful island now?”

Taiwan has a poverty rate of 1 percent, and yet more Taiwanese seem to think that their country is second-rate because “it’s not developed” or “not developing quickly enough”. America’s poverty rate is far higher and yet the average drone from the average American is about how great, prosperous or whatever our country is. Taiwan can boast a relatively equal status for women (at least compared to the rest of Asia – more comparable to the USA than to Japan or Korea) and acceptance of homosexuality, and yet locals will tell you it’s ‘backward’.

There are more articulate denials of love for Taiwan – the health care system costs too much money, housing prices in Taipei are too high (that one’s true) and pollution (yeah, but although Taiwan does produce a fair amount of pollution, I generally blame China for that – it wafts across the Strait in noxious brown waves). There’s also “the buildings are so ugly”, “it’s too crowded”, “we work too hard” (also true), “there’s too much traffic” and “people are not nice” – the last of which I usually meet with a “WHAAAAT?!”

There's plenty of art in this country.

Honestly, after five years it’s easy to guess how I feel: hearing these sharp indictments of the Beautiful Isle hurts. I know for every person who says “I’m going to have my baby in the USA because Taiwan is too ugly and crowded”, there is someone who revels in the mountains, relishes the food or takes advantage of Taiwan’s abundant cultural and outdoor activities, who goes to the museums and skips through the night markets and who sees, as I do, the obasans outside fanning themselves and gossiping as a great national treasure.

Yes, Taiwan can be gritty, but it's gritty in a warmhearted, local way, not in an "ew, dirty" way.

I wouldn’t have stayed if I didn’t like – no, love – it here…and it makes me sad. I might even go so far as to say it hurts my heart a bit to hear so many Taiwanese trashing their country.

There is a bright side to all of this: it happens fairly often that my love for this country will infect someone else, like a patriotic disease. My praise of Taiwan helped convince my sister to come spend a year here, and she loved it (she’d previously been to China and yeah…uh…no). I find, however, that it’s even more common to see a change in my local acquaintances as I describe my Taiwan – as I show them their country though my eyes.

This happens everywhere – my mom has said that she began to look at the USA differently after seeing it through the eyes of the Japanese exchange students my folks hosted. I was captivated by squirrels in Washington, DC after seeing how our British/Australian friend reacted to them (it was something like “OMG SQUIRRELS!!!!!!”) I think I even took a picture of a squirrel as though they’re a rarity or something.

It does happen here –

“No way, you think Taiwan is beautiful?”

“Dude, look at this picture I took in Lishan!”

Seriously, can you look at this picture and still think that Taiwan is not gorgeous? No, you cannot.

“Oh…I…oh. I see. I guess it really can be nice.”


“You don’t think the night markets are dirty?”

“No, why would I?”

“Because…they’re dirty. There are rats. The hygiene is not good.”

“Oh, there are rats in the USA too. I think 'night market' and I see the oyster omelets…and the woman who sells weird t-shirts and keeps an English sheepdog in her shop! And the awesome lady who makes lumpia!”

“OK, maybe that stuff is pretty good.”


“But those temple parades are so noisy!”

“I KNOW – isn’t it great?!”

“Why would it be great?”

“Have you ever seen an American parade? Bo-ring. Some guys march, a few cars with flowers, an old guy waving, maybe a band. Blah. You guys have LION DANCERS, and come on, aren’t bajiajiang the COOLEST THING EVER, and the firecrackers…”

“Those aren’t safe!”

“Yeah, but they’re AWESOME.”

“What about traffic?”

“Meh…why rush so much? Why not enjoy the dragon dancers and martial artists?”

“OK…I think I see.”

Temple parades win.


“But the stores are so…dirty in Wanhua.”

“Not dirty – local.”

“Dirty and local.”

“…and so Taiwan. I mean you go into some of those shops and it’s the same tarnished mirror walls, pink tile and polyester floral curtains that were hanging when ‘Monga’ would have taken place…the only difference is that now there’s an HDTV in every shop. It’s not as fancy as some other areas, but it’s really Taiwanese, and the food? Oh, the food!”

“OK, that’s true.”


What do I see when I see Taiwan? Well, it’s true that parts of urban Taiwan are drab and gritty, but just go to the mountains and feel your soul expand. It’s also true that there’s a weird fashion polarization of “far too trendy to look good” and “seriously, brown loafers and black pants?”, but for every dorky Office Lady outfit there’s someone rocking some awesome sartorial taste.

What? Sunset? Awesome. Sunsets in Taiwan are delicately beautiful, as cliche as they are.

Sure, it’s got pollution issues. But what I really see are the rugged northern and eastern coastlines, the soaring central mountains, the smiling Old Taiwanese Ladies who chat with me, the vendors who start positively beaming when I tell them their food is good, and greet me personally when I return as a regular customer. The taxi drivers who chat with you just because they like to chat, the old guys who talk politics in the park. The people who will go far out of their way to help you. Taipei city from Qingtiangang or Maokong. The interiors of funky student cafes. Lavender-and-peach sunsets with streaky clouds across the western sky as I take the HSR to Hsinchu every week. Renting a car and driving the cross island highways (two of them, at least). Creaking copses of bamboo and Japanese-era houses. Truly awesome seafood. Incense-smoked temples and finely carved idols. Raucous street parades and ancient beliefs. Sweeping views. Ornate temple roofs with colorful phoenixes and curlicued dragons. Lanes and side streets bursting with life well after dark.

Flowers, too.

I see an independent streak – not just in the praiseworthy supporters of Taiwanese independence, but in those who don’t believe independence is a good idea now, but admit that they will never consider themselves to be a part of China, come what may. I see a vibrant art and design scene, a notable independent music scene and pride in local specialties (“our town is famous for peanuts!”). I see Touming Magazine, Edward Yang and Yuyu Yang and independent small-time artists and artisans scattered across the country.

Even Taipei City can sparkle.

I see a wonderful amalgamation of history and modernity – calligraphy on the walls of the Grand Hyatt meant to ward off angry spirits, idols carried on subways, captains of industry who visit fortune tellers and feng shui masters (I don’t really believe in these things myself, but I kind of like that they’re there).

It is a great joy to watch my local friends and students see Taiwan through my eyes and, I hope, catch a glimpse of what I think is so great about the place, because when I look at Taiwan, I see what I still think should be Taiwan’s tourism slogan:

A million landscapes. One Beautiful Island*.

Because it's just that super, please enjoy a compilation of just a few of my favorite photos from five years in Taiwan:

Beautiful Yilan County - definitely not trash can.

Taiwan is more than China Lite - and don't let anyone tell you differently.

Send any locals who tell you that Taiwan is not beautiful up the trail behind the Eternal Spring Shrine in Taroko Gorge.

Noisy as they are, drums = awesome.

There's even beauty in the small things.

Plenty of traditional architecture survives.

There's always something new and beautiful to see while hiking.
Jiufen may be touristy, but it's also gorgeous.

Not all festivals are noisy (although I happen to like the noisy ones).

*"One Beautiful Country" would be better, but that'd never make it on TV abroad.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Expat Myth

So, are they in Asia for the beer or the women?

Months ago I received the usual monthly e-mail newsletter from an organization I subscribe to. This newsletter often features articles, essays and stories from subscribers who have just moved abroad.

I scanned the one that was featured that month. The first line read: “A friend and I used to have a theory – that if you live abroad, you are either running from something or running to something.”

Since then, I’ve been mulling over that line and others of its ilk – theories about why people move abroad that are hilariously applied to everyone who has ever moved out of their native country, at least as an expat (immigrants are generally exempt – we all assume they moved for freedom, money or both). Some that I’ve heard:

“They’re losers back home and moved abroad because they couldn’t make it in their native countries.”

“Call them FILTH – Failed In London, Trying Hong Kong.”

“There’s nothing for them – with a degree from a university nobody cares about and no great career ambitions or prospects, it’s easier to move to Southeast Asia to teach English and take advantage of the beer and the chicks.”

“They fetishize the place where they’ve settled and are unhealthily obsessed with the culture – or the women – there.”

“They couldn’t get dates back home so they moved abroad hoping for better luck.”

(Are we noticing a trend here of assuming that those who move abroad are single men?)

“They were too ‘weird’ back home and abroad they feel they can ‘be themselves’. They don’t really consider that the country they live in frowns upon ‘weird’ even more, and they only get away with it because they’re foreigners.”

“They’ve got no innate personality so they think that ‘being a traveler / expat’ will automatically make them cool.”

“They don’t want to work hard, so they go abroad for easy, stress-free employment where nobody expects them to work their butts off to build a career.”

“They think they’re ‘intrepid explorers’, not realizing that thousands of foreigners before them have gone to the same places and stopped in the same haunts. They want an easy way to be unique.”

“They think they want to learn a foreign language, but most of them don’t.”

There are more – but you get the idea. These aren’t direct quotes, but they do paraphrase the different theories I’ve seen and heard banged about on the Internet (on forums full of expats no less!), by travelers who aren’t expats, and by people back home.

Then, of course, there’s my grandfather who proclaimed he didn’t understand my desire to live abroad. He’s been to dozens of countries for work and just didn’t see why someone would choose it as a lifestyle, because “everywhere I go, I think it will be different but really everything looks like Albany” (He was sent abroad to look at manufacturing issues in paper and felt mills, so he saw a lot of bedroom communities, factory towns, the more boring parts of cities and the inside of high-end Western hotels).

And you know – every single one of them has some element of truth and certainly applies to some people. It’s not entirely wrong to guess that the average expat is a single white male (or white male married to a local woman). It’s not entirely wrong to say that a lot of them are super dodgy.

So what’s the big deal – the assumption that they apply to all expats, or that every expat is guilty of living out the stereotype of one or more.

And that’s simply not true, at least not for everyone.

A good half of the stereotypes listed above insinuate that the expat is moving abroad for better dating prospects – which ignores all women who move abroad despite dating being difficult for them in many countries.

(Yes, there are women who move abroad to date in specific countries where prospects for women improve rather than decline – I may write a post about that in the future).

Explorers have been manning ships and caravans for centuries and the idea of moving to a different place simply because you want to, simply because it’s different and simply because you enjoy the challenge or have a non-creepy interest in the local culture or language is nothing new. A desire to see a place and meet people who are interesting, different, even challenging doesn’t have to be the result of some ego-driven desire to be ‘cool’; it can simply be because it’s fun to do, at least for some.

Considering that this has been true ever since the first humans migrated out of Africa and been documented since the Ancient Greeks if not before, I don’t see why it’s such a difficult concept to grasp.

For every expat who goes abroad intending to learn a new language, and never actually does so, there is another who came over and did learn. Taiwan is littered with the non-learners – I won’t judge for not learning unless you’ve been here for years, but I don’t have much regard for intending to do so and then not following through because it’s ‘hard’. I don’t think every foreign expat, especially those who stay for less than two years, needs to be fluent, and I do recognize that learning predispositions mean that learning a language is harder for some than others. As someone who speaks Chinese, I do however take issue with the assumption that we all came over with noble intentions and we all gave up when we figured out that the beer was cheap. Not true.

As for employment, yes, plenty of foreigners do move abroad, get jobs teaching English and do a poor job of it, which gives the entire profession a bad name, and not everyone who came over with no experience, got a job teaching and stuck around is an inept teacher. Some find that they’re quite good at it or become very good at it and many of those go on to become professionals who get lumped in with the rest.

Because, honestly, is teaching English to grade schoolers easy? I happen to think it is (there are people who would disagree). Does it attract early twentysomethings with a college degree but no professional skills? Yeah, it does. Does that mean that everyone who teaches abroad – and there are some very skilled professionals out there doing so – deserves to get lumped in with them? Absolutely not.

The idea that expats move abroad because they can’t make it at home is wrong, too – or at least wrong much of the time. Setting aside those who live abroad because they’re gainfully employed and successful enough to be trusted with an assignment abroad, plenty of expats left good jobs in their home countries to try something new. I worked in finance before moving to Taiwan – it wasn’t that I was unsuccessful (well, considering I was in my mid-twenties before true success generally hits, anyway – I was doing fine for my age), it was that I didn’t like it. It is possible to do non-traditional work in the USA, but let’s face it, these days most jobs involve a carpeted little box and a softly glowing computer monitor. Not everyone is cut out for duty as a cube monkey, and while some of those jobs provide entrée into more interesting work, plenty lead to a dull management position and an office, which is basically just a larger box to sit in all day (as I see it – those who enjoy this sort of work are welcome to it, and I’m happy for them).

There’s also this: I wouldn’t have the job I have now – in corporate training – if it weren’t for my time working at various financial firms. Or rather, I might have been hired simply for being a good teacher, but I wouldn’t bring in the clients I do without that business experience.

Yes, it’s true that plenty of young Americans and Europeans go abroad because the job market back home is so stubbornly stagnant, but I fail to see what’s so wrong with that – it’s what millions of immigrants hope to do (and several hundred thousand achieve) every year, just in the other direction. There’s no shame in it.

So no, I didn’t move abroad because I was running from something – I didn’t like my job much in DC, but it was respectable enough employment. I had an evening job that I loved and a private student from the Japanese embassy. I had an active social life and still have friends. I dated (rather successfully, I might add, despite not being conventionally beautiful. Take that, Beauty Myth). I rented an amazing townhouse that I still miss living in. Life was pretty good.

I didn’t move because I was running to something. Sure, I’m weird (WHEEEE) but not so weird that I felt I had to leave my native surroundings to ‘be myself’. I certainly wasn’t moving for cheap beer (my taste runs towards Expensive and Belgian) or dates. I did move to learn the language in an immersion environment, but followed through and did actually learn Chinese and some Taiwanese. I have an abiding and deep interest in Taiwanese culture but I would not call it a fetishization – it is possible to have a normal healthy interest in the goings-on around you and how things work.

Yes, I do occasionally suffer from “grass is greener” syndrome (I’ll post about that later), wondering what life would have been like if I’d pursued a more traditional career or gone to graduate school earlier. There are definite perks to that life path and I am happy for those who choose it. That said, many of those folks back in DC who still work in my old office park probably sit at their desks and occasionally wonder what life would have been like if they’d packed up and decided to see the world, learn a new language and explore the limits of their comfort zones.

Finally, again, I really don’t see why this is so difficult to grasp for a lot of people. The travel bug bites some and not others, but it’s been biting people since people were people. You’d think those who don’t get it would stop bartering in worn out clichés and stereotypes about those of us who do enjoy life abroad.


An article definitely worth reading:

Reveling in the Real Taiwan


Sunday, April 24, 2011

Tailoring: Taiwan Edition!

(All clearly pro/not in the market photos by Keira Lemonis)

As you may know, I had my wedding dress made in Taiwan, by a seamstress in Yongle Market (the wet market part that smells like pig brains). It was a long ordeal, but I was so happy with the final result in the end that I can’t shout it from enough rooftops. I spent a year trucking every few weekends to the market in light, fitted clothing over which I could pull my dress, occasionally risking embarrassment by quickly slipping off my shirt while the seamstress held up a piece of fabric to hide me so I could get a better idea of fit, and taking my pants off once the skirt covered all the necessary bits.

It was very hard to get my shirt off to try this version of the dress on in a public place. I liked the skirt at the back in this iteration, but from the front it just wasn't working so we ended up changing the whole thing.
I was measured, poked, prodded, told that my ideas wouldn’t work (some of them really wouldn’t) and saw some lovely additions that I hadn’t thought of, butthe tailor had (such as the cross of fabric at the top of the obi sash). I got to know the folks who worked in the market, where my pasty visage became a familiar face. I grew used to meeting Emily, my wingwoman, just inside the main door, and the occasional look of fear on the part of my seamstress, knowing I was there to talk about The Dress.

The tailoring process

My seamstress had never done a wedding dress before, but that was not a problem as I didn’t want a typical dress. It only became a problem when she realized that my standards of perfection were quite high – considering the time, money and emotional capital invested in the project, the result of which I’d wear on the most photographed day of my life to date (I like to pretend I’ll be famous and photographed even more someday) with all of my loved ones around meant that I cared far more about details and perfect fit than her usual customers. She was otherwise mostly employed by Taiwanese opera and drama troupes for whim she made banners for sets and costumes.

After that stress, though, it was done, and it was perfect:

…and I cannot recommend getting tailoring done in Taiwan strongly enough. It won’t be as cheap as Southeast Asia or India but it is still significantly cheaper than home.
Many foreigners don’t consider options when shopping in Taiwan, such as clothing altered, copied or even made from scratch.

This surprises me, but not very much: tailoring and custom-made (or copied) clothes cost far more back home than here. Although plenty of magazines advise you to get everything you buy tailored, the fact is that most of us don’t have the money to follow through on that in the USA, where tailoring one item can cost $50, $100 or more.

It’s also a shame, considering the massive Yongle Fabric Market and its fabric and tailors at your disposal (more on that later).

Here, it’s a great option for people – especially Western women – who can’t find things they like or that fit in stores and are sick of paying international shipping rates or only shopping on visits home.

Here, you’ll pay NT$50 for an easy hem shortening, maybe NT$100 to take something in simply, and upwards for more complex adjustments – but rarely more than NT$300-500 (about $10-15 US).

To get clothing copied you’ll pay more – NT$500 and up depending on complexity.
For a custom made piece with no pattern to work from, you’re looking at NT $2000-$3000 (about US $60-100), which is a lot, but if you buy good fabric and it’s a quality piece, it can be really worth it. This is a great option for suits and formal or semi-formal wear, and for shirts that flatter you that you’ll wear for awhile.

Keep in mind that these prices are for tailoring only, not tailoring with fabric which is purchased separately.

Yongle Market's 2nd floor is full of fabrics of all types. I am a fan of the faux-silk Chinese brocades, which are made in Taiwan (apparently - I've met the owner of the factory that makes them).

Let’s talk first about getting clothing adjusted:

There are tailors who alter clothing, but don’t make it, scattered across Taipei and the rest of Taiwan. Look for these characters:


There is one in Shilin Night Market, visible from the main drag, but nowhere to change into the clothing to show the tailor what you want. There’s one in Zhonghe near Nanshijiao Night Market (if you’d like directions, leave a comment – it’s hard to describe). There’s one in Jingmei, (景美) on the first floor of the shopping arcade that also boasts Lai Lai Jia Jia (來來佳佳) 2nd run movie theater, a bunch of old lady stores, a shoe repair (also useful), a guy who sells fried stuff, a shop selling loose leaf tea and a Taiwan Lottery stand, with Café 85 and the Ha Ha (哈哈) internet café on the other end, near Jingmei Exit 1. The tailor is on the 1st floor. She doesn’t speak English to my knowledge but she does have a curtain so you can change into your clothes to show her what you want.

Yongle Market, both the first floor of the brick building and third floor of the ugly fabric market in the building from the ‘70s, are packed with tailors. Most can both adjust and make custom or copied items.

This means that if you do shop at a plus-size, or even regular size, clothing store and find something you’d love if only…just…that one thing…argh! – if it’s something that can be easily fixed with tailoring, go ahead and buy it and get it adjusted.
Back home I used to say “if it doesn’t fit off the rack, I won’t buy it – I’m not going to get things tailored” – here I am much happier to say “it’s not perfect but I can get rid of this ruffle/change this hem/take it in/add some darts and it’ll work” because I know I can get it done quickly and cheaply.

Some tips:

1.) Keep a piece of chalk on hand so you can draw what you want on the item – where darts should go, how far you want it taken in, etc..

2.) Not always necessary, but you might want to bring a local friend with you if you can’t speak Chinese at all.

3.) Find a place where you can change, or wear light, fitted clothing that you can pull the item over to show what you want altered, pinching it with your fingers.

4.) If it doesn’t come out right the first time, make the tailor fix their mistakes. That’s their job.

5.) If you want to buy an item and alter it, and the altering involves size changes or darts, buy one size up if you can. If it’s just ruffles or hems, don’t worry about it.

6.) Neckline and sleeve changes will cost a bit more, as will taking up pants that have a too-low crotch or saggy butt. Hemline changes should be cheap.

7.) It is possible, just harder, to alter an item that’s too small to be larger – generally it involves adding panels at the sides. Don’t let a tailor tell you it can’t be done – it can. It will involve extra work for you, finding fabric you like or that matches to add to the sides, though. Find this by bringing the item with you to Yongle Market and searching. If you use a tailor at the same market, he or she can probably recommend a few places, as well, if you speak Chinese.

8.) Bring along an item or picture of an item whose shape you love that can be used to demonstrate the alteration you want. This is especially helpful for t-shirts: you can buy t-shirts in fabrics you like in men’s sizes and cuts, bring your favorite women’s t-shirt to the tailor and have her adjust the men’s t-shirt to a more flattering shape for you. I have an Old Navy “women’s perfect tee” that I love, from before they tried to ape American Apparel (which I don’t love) and I regularly buy men’s t-shirts that I like, bring my purchase and the Old Navy tee to the tailor and have her alter the new tee to a flattering women’s form.

9.) Beware the Waist: Taiwanese women’s bodies generally look good with tops nipped at the waist just above the hips, or with a tubular waist/hip shape. This may work for you, or it may not. A lot of tailors don’t work with foreigners often or at all, so they may not “get” that an adjustment that would work for a Taiwanese body won’t flatter a foreign one. Know where the waist curve will look best on you: for some it’s just above the hips, for some it’s midway, for others it’s just below the bust (almost empire style, but you can have a below-bust curve without an empire hem). Know this and demand it, or your item might turn out less flattering than it started. I look best with below-bust curves, so when I take in items I use fingers to nip the item in there, to show that I want it to curve there, and then to be a bit looser over the tummy. I’ve found it works.

Now, for getting clothes copied:

You all know, I hope, about Yongle Fabric Market on Dihua Street near Nanjing W. Road. The second floor of the huge, hideous building (attached to a much more attractive old brick market façade) is a maze of fabric sellers offering every textile you could ever want (except dupioni/Thai silk – for that go to the shop on the 2nd floor of the southwest corner of Nanjing/Yanping Roads above the watch store).

I strongly recommend women leaving for Taiwan or who are home visiting and want more clothes, and have clothes they like now, to specifically bring items they’d like copied. It’s a good way to increase wardrobe by adding similar items in different colors and to replace clothing you love but that’s falling apart and can no longer be worn except around the house.
First, bring the items you want copied with you and wander Yongle Market to find new fabric to copy them in. Pay attention to types of fabric and make sure you buy something that will be just as flattering in that shape: if the shirt you love has a bit of stretch, the fabric you buy should also have a bit of stretch. If you buy a stiffer, no stretch textile, it might not work.
You can change various elements of the item, as well. In the lanes around Yongle Market (especially one that leads off Minle Street – 民樂街 – one road to the east – to Yanping N. Road; it’s the lane that’s north of the lane with the little wet market) you can find ribbons, embroideries, lace, beads etc. that can be added to make your copied items unique and different from the original. In the far south exit of the brick-fronted market itself you can buy all sorts of cool buttons to add.

I haven’t had this done in Taiwan yet (I did it all the time in India), but I believe the Chinese word you want is “fu4 ben3” – 複本 – which means “to duplicate”.

If you want any changes from the original, speak up now. It is perfectly possible to copy the same thing but make it longer/shorter/sleeveless/collarless (or with a collar)/different skirt/different neckline/bigger/smaller/with ties/with a belt/etc..

Finally, be aware that fabric is sold by the “ma” (I don’t know the character, but it’s basically a meter or close to it) – and comes in two standard widths, one wider and one narrower (usually the cheaper stuff comes in the narrow width, as do the faux silk Chinese brocades). You will of course need more fabric if what you buy is narrow – your tailor will tell you how much you need. A short dress might require three “ma”, a shirt might take a “ma” and a half, and you’re looking at 5+ for a full-length dress.

Custom clothing is the hardest, and the most expensive (because it’s also the hardest for the tailor!), but a great option if you are in Yongle Market, see something you like, and think “wow, that bias-cut black cotton would make a great wrap dress” or “I could get a suit jacket made from these two fabrics” or “I’m invited to a formal function in Taiwan, don’t have a dress, can’t find anything to fit me and don’t trust that something I order online will look good” (or just “I need new seasonal clothes and shipping fees if you order from foreign brands online are higher than you want to pay – they usually start at about $26 USD).

Your best bet for this is to find pictures similar to what you want – several pictures to show different features, and if you are talented this way, try to draw a picture with pencil and colored pen to outline how you want it all to come together.

This is also good for you, not just the tailor – I don’t know about others but I get ideas for clothing all the time that seem great in my head, but like various elements of a dream that don’t make sense once you expose them to conscious daylight, all the things I think I want in an article of clothing end up not working out well or even making sense. Trying to draw your idea forces you to confront your idea’s flaws.

Buy a pattern if you wish (I’ve never seen one in Taiwan but you can buy them online), but most tailors will be able to work without one, and will in some cases make their own.
This will likely take longer, cost more and require more trips to the fabric market for you to seek out lining and other necessary fabrics (sometimes your tailor will do this for you, but may charge you for his or her time).

This will also require several visits to the tailor for fittings, and if the final product is not flattering or what you had in mind, it is expected that the tailor will fix it free of charge (unless what you wanted was thoroughly unrealistic – I’m reminded of a story from Australia of a rather zaftig woman who demanded a tube dress with a tulle stick-out mermaid skirt, provided cheap fabric and who berated the tailor who made it because the final product didn’t make her look slender).

For big projects – such as a wedding dress – it’s a good idea to tip. My dress, in the end, cost NT$5000 for custom tailoring (a steal compared to the USA) and took over a year to get right, including one complete rebuilding of the unsatisfactory skirt. I gave my tailor (Li Mei) NT$600 extra in a red envelope and she seemed to appreciate it. She definitely did not refuse it, at least!
Again, pay attention to the fabric – some fabric just won’t drape the way you want or fall the way you want. If you speak Chinese, your tailor can inform you of what will work and what won’t. If you don’t, I advise bringing a Chinese-speaking friend along at least once to discuss all of these things, and a dictionary (I recommend Pleco for iPhone and iPod Touch with the handwriting screen add-on) for tough words like “dart”, “sweetheart neck”, “drape” and “chiffon”. Taking it back to the tailor to say “the skirt doesn’t fall the way I like” when you picked a fabric that will never fall that way can be categorized under “unreasonable”.

Your best bet for a tailor who can create custom works from scratch is Yongle Market – most tailors in other parts of the cities focus on alteration and repair, not creation.

Had clothing made on Dihua Street? Got an experience to share or tailor or fabric stall to recommend? Let me know!

Reasons #18 and #19 to Love Taiwan

Hey, look at the foreigner!

#18 - the way traditional practice and modernity collide in vaguely amusing ways. It is not all that uncommon to see one of the Eight Generals (bajiajiang) toting a cell phone, or see an idol being transported by MRT or high-speed rail.

#19 - the amazing friendliness of people, beyond the usual guidebook platitudes of how friendly the Taiwanese are. Yesterday in my Big Serious Work Thing I had someone say that she didn't really like Taipei - she had studied in Tainan and found that people from Taipei were, in her opinion, rude.

As someone who has lived in Washington, DC, I do find that what constitutes good manners in Taiwan is completely different and sometimes annoying (that slow sidewalk shuffle thing is a personal pet peeve) but I feel it's not at all true that people in Taipei are "rude".

The other day, I was chatting with Mrs. Zhou, our Stinky Tofu Lady (yes, we have one) and mentioned that we have two microwaves and a printer, all broken, that need to be discarded...but we don't know how to get rid of them. I wasn't expecting help or even advice (although advice would have been nice), and yet what was her reply?

"Oh just bring them to me. I take broken appliances to A-Po. Do you know A-Po down the street?"

"I know a lot of women who could be called A-Po but not the person you mean, I think."

"Well, she takes this stuff and sells it for scrap. Just bring it to me - I'll give it to her."

Seriously, even if Mrs. Zhou is going to get some spare change for the broken electronics, who cares? How many people in the USA would respond with "hey, I'll take care of your broken stuff for you!"? Any at all?

Friday, April 22, 2011

Cultural Preservation

Why should the woman on the left be treated with any less respect than the man on the right?

Sometime in the Autumn of 2003, I was heading from Bhubaneshwar to Puri - I had secured a seat by dropping a scarf onto it through the open window and I'd climbed aboard to claim my place. A Telugu man, who looked exactly as though he'd been fashioned out of two balls of gingerbread dough and iced with a white shirt, black pants, glasses and a cartoon mustache plopped down next to me and stuffed a duffel bag under his seat. I rode with my backpack on my lap - partly because I was afraid of razoring and petty theft, and partly because it was so big that I had no choice.

The bus started with a grimace and we began hurtling across the jungled countryside. Mr. Gingerbread introduced himself as Ashok ("My pleasure to make your acquaintance. May I kindly ask your educayshional qualificayshiuns?") and began a thoroughly pleasant discussion with me, mostly asking what I liked about India.

Finally, after assuring him that the dirt was no problem, that I found the auto-rickshaws kind of charming in their way, that saris were beautiful and salwar kameezes comfortable, that I enjoyed studying Tamil, the crowded buses were just par for the course and the food was ridiculously good, he paused.

He then sheepishly asked - "Is there anything you don't like?"

I paused too, because there was something I didn't like. Well, beyond the corruption and poverty, which nobody ever likes. Normally I'd wave this question off with "aaahh, no country is perfect, isn't it? Of course there will be small things, small small things only, that I don't like" (my semester in Southern India made it so that whenever I returned I picked up bits and bobs of the local speech patterns. I do the same thing in Taiwan), "but they are small and generally I like it." With emphatic bobbling of the head.

But I decided I could trust Mr. Gingerbr-err, Ashok - I liked his style. I hadn't told anybody in India about this thing I didn't like - although it ranks right up there in human rights reports with corruption and poverty - because my not liking it (like a little "thumbs-down" on Facebook, not that anyone outside of college used Facebook back then) wasn't going to change anything. Meaningful action would, and saying "I don't like it" isn't meaningful action.

At least I didn't think it was back then. I feel differently now.

Whatever the reason, I told him.

"There is -" intake of breath - "one thing I don't like."
"Oh, and what is that thing?"
"Well, it's...

...the women's rights issue. Basically I think that women have made a lot of progress in India and now you can see many female doctors, politicians and professionals...but in so many ways they're still treated badly."

Should we expect this woman to do her job sweeping the temples and then go home and take care of all the housework?

"What are you meaning by 'badly'?"

"Well, marriages are still arranged and while that affects men, too, it disproportionally affects women - the men's families size criticize the potential brides far more than the bride's family takes issue with the groom. He basically just needs to be same-caste, maybe, and making a good salary. She has to be accomplished, but not more accomplished than he is, and pretty, and fair, and slender, and a good cook and housekeeper. Basically, those marriage ads do care if the woman did well in school but are mostly concerned with looks and housekeeping. I think that's not fair. At home women are still expected to do most of the housework, or supervise the help if they have help - even if they work. If there is a divorce the woman still gets more blame than the man. He can go back to his life - she might get disowned by her family. There are still dowries.

"I just think..." I continued, "I just think it's not fair. It's not good for women. I love India. Don't mistake my meaning. I love to be here, but I want to see this change. I want women to be equal. It makes me sad that I can't do it on my own."

I didn't mention things such as dowry deaths, wife-burnings and domestic violence or emotional abuse because while I did want to be honest, I wanted to wait a bit before delving into those heavier topics with a stranger.

I have no message with this photo, I just like it.

Ashok was silent for a second.

"But...this is our traditional culture! The Indian women understand this! We all have to do what we can to preserve our heritage. The wife will traditionally handle the domestic issue only."

"It may be your traditional culture, but it's not good for women's equality today. It means that women will always have to do these things, even if they don't want to, and men don't have to do them. That means men will always do better in their careers than women. That means women will never have a choice."

"Men don't have a choice either. We have to do our career and make some money, isn't it?"

"Yes, but you can choose your career. You can do what you are interested in. Because men don't really do housework, it's easier to pursue hobbies if they don't like their job. Housework and child-care doesn't give any choice. It's always the same work - you can't choose to do housework you like. You just have to do it, and being in charge of all that means less time for hobbies...although of course many Indian women do have hobbies."

Why isn't this woman allowed to enter a mosque (I know - religious reasons. I'm not actually up for debating that).

"Well, we can't always choose our career. Our parents sometimes choose," he smiled.

I smiled, too, because he had me there. Three years previously I'd sat on the linoleum of a fan-cooled Indian living room while host mother's daughter in law taught her 9-year-old son, Shiva, how to do complex multiplication. Maybe Jenna can answer this one, she said, terrifying me. What's 17 times 42? Errrrrr.... "714!" Shiva had piped up. "Great job," I said. "You could be a mathematician." "He's going to be an engineer," Meena replied purposefully. But he's only nine years old I thought, and said so more politely. "Yes, and he is going to be an engineer."

Shiva's probably an engineer now.

Why should these girls get fewer opportunities and endure more social expectations and criticism - especially regarding looks, marriage and children - than the boy?

Ashok pulled me out of my reverie. We can't be dismantling our traditional culture!

I hear it so often. I heard it in China, too. I've heard of it in Japan and Korea. You'll hear it said in Central America and to some extent the Philippines (although less so). Sometimes I hear it from the far religious right in the USA. I've read it on the Intertubes (I know, but still) and seen it debated in anthropology books talking about groups like the Quechua and tribes of northern Laos. I've seen and heard it all before: women's rights remain an issue, and yet gender roles play a big part in this traditional culture.

I thought then, and still think, that this is utter bollocks (pardon my British).

As I told Ashok, and still believe, it is entirely possible to preserve cultural norms while allowing for greater equality. In cultures where minorities or tribal groups were discriminated against (which is to say all of them, basically), those groups have gained greater rights, treatment and equality without fatally wounding the culture of a place. (I realize some fans of the antebellum south would pause - yes, freeing the slaves did wound pre-Civil War Southern culture, but certain aspects did not die out completely - red velvet cake, debutante balls, certain wedding traditions and cultural norms. Regardless, I think paving the way for a group of humans to be treated as, well, humans was worth the loss).

Look! Men doing laundry! It's a miracle! (I kid - I realize that they're Brahmins washing their own dhotis, and anyway, my husband does laundry of his own volition).

I fail to see how allowing women to be equal members of society with the same expectations as men - physical safety, sharing of housework, career goals, education, right to an opinion, respect regardless of looks, equal work and salary opportunities and freedom from harassment or discriminatory treatment - would "destroy" Indian culture, or any culture.

It might change it a bit, but that change would be heralding half of society gaining equality. I do not think it would change things so much that there would be reason to fear: the fear that Ashok felt, and that many feel even now, is made-up. It's a "Future Bogeyman", a fear of change, not a fear of any realistic outcome.

Seriously, if you start treating women as equals, what will happen? Well, saris and salwar kameezes will still exist because they're fashion items - plenty of women wear them because they want to - not because they have to. Temples and templegoers and the panoply of gods will remain the same, as will their methods of worship.

Does she deserve any less than her husband?

Food might be cooked more often by the men of a household, but it will remain largely the same - expecting men to share an equal burden at home doesn't mean that channa masala will suddenly cease to exist, or that butter chicken will disappear through a space-time distortion.

More women might drink alcohol, and more women might travel alone, but is this such a huge deal? More men will have to pick up dustcloths and brooms and hold crying babies - is this the end of the world? How does this meaningfully change the culture?

(No, it changes it because women traditionally swept the house and held the babies doesn't count, because I used the adverb "meaningfully").

The divorce rate would likely go up, and there might be more pre-marital sexual activity. You could see these as downsides, but really a huge number of those divorces would be as a result of women leaving abusive or loveless (or affair-strewn) marriages - that's a good thing. I don't actually believe that India's currently lower divorce rate means that those who are married are any happier than in any other country, just that they're unhappy but still married. Pre-marital sex is something to be cautious of, for sure, but it would be little more than leveling the playing field (plenty of Indian men have premarital sex, and comparatively fewer women who do not live in major cities do, although it certainly happens and is now more common in bigger metropolises). This is nothing that better sex ed couldn't handle.

I don't mean to say that no Indian men help at home (many do) or that they all have these expectations (many don't). I'm speaking very generally, because there are a billion people in India. If you are going to say anything at all, you by necessity have to be either very general or painfully, almost individually, specific.

Guess what - if we end gender discrimination in India, this bit of cultural history will still be there. It won't disappear.

But, you know, Taiwan has managed to transition to a culture of relatively equal gender relations - problems persist, but it's at the top of the heap in terms of progress in women's rights...and yet has retained a remarkably resilient traditional culture. The food is still there. The night markets are still there. The temples and fortune tellers are still there. Cultural norms, expectations and modes of expression and communication remain largely unchanged other than the normal rigors of adapting to the modern world. The only difference (besides a higher divorce rate, especially in Taipei), is that women can fully participate and not be treated as expectation-laden beasts of burden.

Taiwan is, quite refreshingly, one of the places where I have not heard this pile of steaming crap about how keeping women down is imperative to preserve this amorphous thing called "culture". Taiwan is also one place where I can say with conviction that traditional culture has successfully transitioned into the modern world. Japan and Korea share a similar distinction, but deep gender issues and discrimination persist.

Although there is still work to be done, Taiwan is an example that they don't have to.

My parents have a remarkably egalitarian marriage, as do my in-laws. Choices made are choices made together (I presume, but with confidence), and yet are they any less "American" than couples 150 years ago where the woman had no chance of owning property, voting or having a career in the professional sense?

So...bollocks to all of it. You can have deep cultural roots - roots so deep that you don't even know from where they're growing - and treat women as equals. Yes, you can.