Thursday, April 26, 2012

Ten Random Things I *Heart*: Reason #26 to Love Taiwan

Also, pets in coffeeshops.
Continuing my weird love letter to Taiwan, here is a set of ten things I absolutely love about living in Taiwan - as random (and seemingly annoying, at times) as they are. I'm not going to write about the obvious things, like great hiking, ridiculously beautiful mountain vistas, temple festivals, stinky tofu or friendly people, although those things are all great. I'm trying for something more random - although some entries are obvious, if not obvious reasons to love this country.

With that, please enjoy:

1.) Beer: Anywhere, Anytime

Seriously, you wanna hang out in a manhole and drink beer? GO FOR IT. You can also drink beer in your apartment building's main doorway, at temple festivals, in a temple (just try sneaking a Pilsner into church. I dare you), walking down the street, in many movie theaters (and you can sneak it into ones that don't sell it outside without a problem), in the park with old guys, while rowing a dragon boat. Once, we got beer for free on Donggang, because we wanted to buy some on the street to walk around while the boat burning was starting up. The vendor was so pleased that there were enthusiastic foreigners that the beer was free - I guess he was doing his part to thank the Thousand Years Grandfather, or 千歲爺, for another year of good luck. Whatevs, man. Cheers.

2.) Sleeping Guys in Office Clothes

I know, I'm a total meanie for snapping this picture and putting it on Facebook with the caption "every Taiwanese coffeeshop needs a Sleeping Guy in Office Clothes - it's part of the 風水 (feng shui)". Seriously, I think coffeeshops hire feng shui masters to carefully calibrate the flow of qi through their establishments and then hire a Sleeping Guy in Office Clothes to sleep in an auspiciously-oriented position so as to help control or manipulate the qi for profit, success and customer comfort. That is pretty much the only explanation for why every single coffeeshop in Taiwan, from Starbucks to Dante to Ikari to  more local places has a Sleeping Guy in Office Clothes during all business hours. I'd say I was joking, but peek in next time you walk past a coffeeshop. You'll see that it's basically always true. I love this. And it's not the only place where people sleep.

3.) Ultimate Convenience

Imagine it: it's 3am. You're awake for some reason. You really need whiteboard markers, a bottle of whiskey, disposable underwear, a poncho, 45 AAA batteries, microwave dumplings, six cans of Red Bull, bleach, K-Y jelly, three decks of playing cards, lip gloss, a road atlas, a box cutter or two, a Hello Kitty charm, some Lindt chocolate, a pre-fab apartment rental contract, access to a copy machine, a place to pay your gas bill and bullet train tickets, and you need this stuff like right now. Nevermind why you might need all this stuff - you just do, and you have five minutes. 

Well, you've come to the right country.

In the USA this might sound like a frat house hazing ritual in which you speed to the nearest 24-hour Walmart and run around like a crazyperson before the brothers whip you for failing, but in Taiwan this is a perfectly doable list: you can have all that stuff in a matter of minutes at any time of day or night, and you can usually walk to a place where it's all sold.

Seriously - I know "it's really convenient" and "there are a lot of convenience stores" are easy things to say about Taiwan, but seriously. In Shilin, there's an intersection where, from one 7-11, you can look across the street directly into the storefront of another 7-11. There is a crosswalk connecting them. Around the corner is a 3rd 7-11 and one of the three is next to a Family Mart. It's insane. Near me, there are two 7-11s and a Family Mart within a 2-minute walk, and that 2 minutes includes the time it takes to get out of my building. Sometimes I want a Sam Adams and think to myself, "eh, but the 7-11 that stocks Sam Adams is across the street. It's so inconvenient to have to cross the street! If I stay on this side of the street I can go to the 7-11 that has Asahi Dry." Once, I bought myself a bottle of plum wine (also sold at the 7-11 near me!) and six bags of M&M's to make cookies...and I didn't even worry that the cashier might think I'm weird.

Because clearly I've been here too long.

4.) Ridiculous Dogs

This one is best captured in photos:

This one's my buddy 胖胖 who lives nearby. Don't make fun.

5.) Crazy Things People Say To Other People

And I don't just mean the insane things that locals say to foreigners (although that can get pretty crazy, too). Even things locals say to other locals.

I have a student who is a doctor, and she works with a lot of elderly patients. This particular student is in her late 40s or so, and is married but has chosen not to have children. An example of a conversation (translated into English for you) that she might have with one of the old folks she works with goes thusly:

"Doctor, are you married?"
"I am."
"How many kids do you have?"
"I don't have kids."
"Why? Are you infertile?"
"Oh, I know. Your husband shoots blanks, doesn't he. That's too bad."

6.) Designers of Packaging for Consumer Goods Who Have NO IDEA

Again, I'll express this one in photos for you:
WOW! Frog eggs!

Taken by a friend

My Nuts: a timeless classic

I also want to put up a picture of "American Style 6 Hot Dogs in a Jar" but I can't quite find it (it's a friend's photo).

7.) Random Beautiful Things

You know, you're walking through a Taiwan cityscape, one that's maybe more ugly concrete than usual, or is all motorcycle repair shops and betel nut stands (although betel nut stands have an amazingness of their own), and you look down, or look more closely at something, and see a little bit of beauty amid all that gray:

This is why I just can't get behind the notion that Taiwan is all that ugly, even in cities. It has its bad points - there's a lot I'd like to see torn down - but it has its little points of beauty, too. Most major cities do, but some more than others. I'd say that at street level Taipei is one of the more vibrant cities I've visited.

8.) Signs! Signs Everywhere!

Because everyone loves coffee that tastes of coal.

Well, it makes sense...

This is an eyeglass shop. My husband's glasses came from C*NT. Really.

This company has apparently changed its name. I haven't seen this sign in awhile - it changed on the original establishment where I spied it. Too bad.

Oh good. I wanted some pot plants.

Oh no! You killed Grandma!

I'm a monkey. Please throw bricks on my head. Yay!

9.) The Amazingness of Consumer Goods

From here - go visit

I actually have one of these - I just ganked a photo from the Internet because it's a pain to get out my digital camera and impossible to take a photo of my iPhone in its GameBoy case with my iPhone. You know, because of Physics or something.

These are available outside Taiwan, but I do think their availability in night markets says something about the ridiculous and varied consumer items one can find here. Here is another thing I own, thanks to Taiwan:

Yes, this is a lighter shaped like a crab claw, with the flame coming out when you open it. It used to spit out a much bigger flame - can't say much for the quality of this thing!

I mean it, though - from giant chicken head masks (which I have seen) to bright pink fuzzy pencil cases (bought one for my sister) to glitter pants to lobster lighters, the stuff you can buy in this country never ceases to amaze me.

10.) The Willingness of People to Laugh at Themselves

I don't mean this in a bad or insulting way - I mean a certain willingness in Taiwan to self-deprecate a bit. In China, I felt that if you dared to make fun of anything about China, even in jest, and even in that "we laugh about it because we actually love it" sort of way, you're met with silence: either non-comprehension ("why would you make fun of something you actually like?") or offense ("you disrespect China!!!!"). At best people just don't seem to get what's so funny about, well, any given hilarious thing about their country - and every country has hilarious things. It's a little sad to pretend that your country is to be taken 100% seriously. I felt that "don't laugh at us!" attitude in China, and I also come across it too often in the USA - although these days I look at the USA, especially the political realm, and I just feel sad.

What I love about Taiwan - and also India - is an innate sense of humor about themselves. You can imitate an obasan, make a joke about Kaoliang or 藍白脫 (the iconic blue-and-white plastic sandals you see everywhere) or make a humorous observation about culturally-learned behavior, and people will laugh - really laugh, not a fake "I think this is meant to be funny" laugh - rather than stare at you like a weirdo or offensive foreigner who Just Does Not Understand Our Culture. I appreciate that. It keeps things light.

Colors: Reason #25 to Love Taiwan

An unrelated photo, but one I like
I know I haven't blogged much recently, and that will probably continue into the near future: the family illness issue has turned out to be, while not the worst possible scenario, pretty damn bad. I'll say that words like "prognosis" are now thrown around, with their worst possible connotation. So, if I'm not much into blogging until I process this, or if I don't write much of import or substance, I'm sure you'll understand.

And now, since I don't know how much longer I'll be in Taiwan (at least another year, maybe two, after that who knows, but at some point I'll have to go home for an extended period), I thought I'd eschew substance and write this country a weird little love note. 

I have to admit I don't really know exactly why I love it here so much. I can't pinpoint it. As much as I try to look for the beautiful, and the vibrant, a lot of the architecture really is hideous, or at least completely lacking in aesthetic consideration. That's true even if you are looking past the squat cement buildings and looking for the interesting window grills, little shrines, old bricks, street-level liveliness and all the other things that, aggregated, make the place look pretty interesting if you just seek them out. I have to admit that the weather in Taipei mostly sucks - it's more or less the one big drawback to living here. While I feel the constant sandpapering of culture shock has helped me change and grow as a person, it does get on my nerves on occasion, as it would with anyone living in a foreign country. I can't point to politics and say "it's better than back home" (although in some ways, it is), I can't say that Taiwan is a better place for women to live than most Western countries (it's the best you'll do in Asia, but from a global perspective, you can do better - although I no longer believe that America fully belongs on that list), and there's something annoying I can say for every two great compliments I could give this country.

So why am I so attached to this place? What about it has made it the place where I've chosen to live - rather than New York, Washington, DC, China (shudder), even India, or any other country where I could conceivably live? What about this place makes me so optimistic about life here - what makes me stay? It's not just that the good outweighs the bad for me, because I could also say that about India (but not China). It's not that I've gotten "stuck" here - I've actively chosen this life, and the fact that I have not left it and do not, as much as I can control, intend to leave it, is also a choice. 

All I can say is that when I picture the places where I've lived, each one is tinged with a very specific color. Maybe there are tiny specks of other colors in there, but there's always one dominant one.

With India, it's muddy, sandy brown - sure, the panoply of colorful clothes, signs and even rickshaws (when they're not yellow) come to mind, but under all that is the dun-colored landscape - even down south where it's infused with green. I see dirt roads and dry heaps of rock. I see dust in the air and in a film on the buildings. An appealing, earthy color despite the fact that when you get down to it, what it says is "wow there's a lot of dirt in India". Indeed there is. But not in a bad way - at least mostly not.

With China, it's flat gray. Overcast gray. Ugly cement building gray. Highway underpass asphalt gray. Who would want to live in that? China had dirt just as India did, but something about the whole experience imprinted a more human dirt - a pollutant, a factory made toxic grime - rather than a sunny, muddy natural one.

With Washington, DC it's chalky white. Memorial on the Mall chalky white. Marble white but without the luster. When I lived in Rosslyn, a fairly boring neighborhood in Arlington, VA, I would walk up to the Carillon out past Iwo Jima and look out over the city - and the majority of what you see from there is that marbley-chalky shade of white. This is also a good metaphor for how impenetrable I found that city. Even at young ages (single and twentysomething), people would judge you based on your answer to "What do you do?", and "DC society" was something I felt I'd never really scale, nor did I want to.

And with New York, I would have to say brick red. Sure, it's hard to actually see a lot of that particular color, but something about the vintage architecture and the feeling on the street was very brick-colored to me. And, despite being both bigger and infinitely more complex, I've always felt that New York was a place I could get into, unlike DC - and brick red reflects this.

Finally, Taiwan. For all of Taipei's gray buildings and gray skies, when I think of Taiwan the color that comes to mind is green. Green like Da'an Park. Green like the trees along Dunhua and Ren'ai Roads. Green like the mountains - rising in the background of Taipei and beyond. Green like wet markets and vegetable vendors selling their harvest on the street - like stacks of green onions, fragrant melons and bags of sweet potato leaves. Even in the grayest cityscape of Taiwan you can usually find specks of green. I mean, heck, I even found some along Zhongyang Road in Tucheng Industrial Park - a place you'd expect to be ugly as sin (and it is). And yet, this, just along the side of the road, on a concrete guardrail where the road goes over a creek:

It's a comfortable green, a living green, a farmland green even where there's no farmland. It's a green I can live in, unlike the gray of China or the white of DC.

Not to get too sappy, but I've come to realize that for me, there are places that have a certain synergy - a groundswell of something, that makes a place feel like somewhere worth caring about. It attaches to you, the way a kitten or a dog imprints on a person and bonds with that person quickly and permanently. I felt the same way in India - a weird, almost patriotic bond that ensnared me very soon after getting off the plane (that weekend where I cried with culture shock and homesickness notwithstanding), where you can almost feel the same sort of pride and attachment to a place as the locals or natives of that place themselves feel. Where it hurts a little emotionally to see something bad happening there (like the urban renewal scuffles in Taipei, or the bombings in Bombay - although these events are of course of very different magnitudes) where in any other place you'd just think "eh, that's bad news". 

I really do feel that way - I come from a place of "manufactured civic pride", a hometown that has a school varsity mascot and a "Day" where it comes out to celebrate itself with a street festival downtown, but few people actually seem to feel that pride beyond a few half-hearted cheers. A few might, but most people I know from my hometown might give a few "rah rah rahs" out of obligation, without a true sense of belonging or town pride. There's no synergy - at least not for me - no groundswell, no attachment, no imprint. Highland, New York may as well not exist for all I care, even though I spent most of my childhood and teens there. Its color is a middling yellow, if you're curious.

So coming to Taiwan, where people have a real love for the place, has had an impact on me. The same for India, but I do find life in Taiwan to be easier. The whole "developed country" thing, and the relative ease with which I found good work, and the feeling that I get that learning Chinese is both an endeavor of great utility and beauty all contribute to that (learning Tamil, as little as I did in one semester, was an endeavor of beauty but hardly one of lifelong use). 

All of this has formed a sense of attachment to Taiwan that I can't really explain, but I can at least describe. It's why I look beyond the ugly and search for the lively. Why I look beyond the bad (while acknowledging it as necessary) and search also for the good. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The R-Word

When I went to Turkey, some of my students were given substitute/replacement instructors. Some chose to wait. I knew that even when those classes ended, I would not necessarily get them back: generally the trainer who has a class when it officially ends gets first priority in the renewal. I knew and was OK with that.

Recently it got back to me that one of the students I gave up had “really liked me”, but was “happy to keep her new teacher” because “she’s Asian” (Australian of Cantonese descent) and she feels more comfortable with a teacher of Asian heritage – or, to be blunt, in the words I was actually told, “another woman who looks like her”.

Now, I realize that this was secondhand information and there’s no guarantee that my former student’s true sentiments were reflected in this game of telephone. I also realize that the person who told me might well have been trying to protect my feelings by not saying that, regardless of race, she just preferred the new trainer (which, you know, it happens. Oh well). The person who told me is pretty blunt, though, and the student in question and I had a very good, friendly, dare I say ‘close’ relationship. So…who knows.

What’s interesting is the reaction when I mentioned this on Facebook – when it happened, I felt a bit hurt. Not so much at the possibility that a student would prefer another trainer (although that sucks, I figure it’s a lot like finding a good therapist: even the best ones don’t click with every patient and it’s a patient’s right to find one they ‘click’ with. It doesn’t mean that the one they left was bad). More at the idea that, despite liking me quite a bit, learning a lot and enjoying the class, if my intuition that we’d had a good relationship had been correct, that I’d be passed over simply because I’m white, not Asian.

I realize people face this all the time in the otherdirection – schools and other employers regularly discriminate against Westerners of Asian heritage - and it’s a lot worse going that way. I’m not trying to detract from that or trying for a condescending “I know how you feel”. Just adding my experience. A lot of discussion on racism in English teaching in Taiwan is about discriminating against English teachers who don't look Western - while that's a far more serious problem, I do feel a different perspective based on different experience is valuable.

Generally speaking my Western friends didn’t comment much – but my Taiwanese friends sure did!

And here’s the thing: if you take as a given that the student did, in fact like me and there is no missing information, and it is in fact true that another instructor was chosen purely on the basis of that instructor’s race compared to mine, I personally feel that’s a form of racism, or if you want a less loaded term, “racial discrimination”. I mean it’s judging someone and making a decision based 100% on race – how is that not discrimination?

My Taiwanese friends generally felt differently, though -  few chimed in with agreement that it just sucks, and nobody should judge people based on skin tone, and it stinks that people still feel this way regarding race (which many undoubtedly do).

Most came out and said that they did not, in fact, consider that situation to be “racism”. I’m still at a slight loss as to why, because with one exception from one very eloquent friend whom I routinely mistake for being a native speaker of English (she did go to high school and college abroad, though), all of the reasons given still struck me as, well, as racism. Or “racial discrimination”. Or whatever.

Which may be a bit of culture difference I’ll never get over. I’m not even sure I want to.

The very eloquent answer: that, despite this other teacher being culturally Australian despite looking Asian, that with her family roots in Hong Kong, there would be some sort of gut-level cultural synergy between her and the student that I could not pick up on, because as someone with zero ties to “Chinese culture” besides living here for 5+ years, I wouldn’t have it. There might be cultural concordance that, while not easy to articulate, is there on some fundamental level that makes the student feel more comfortable.

OK, I can buy that. Race isn’t just about race, after all, it’s about culture – and even though I consider anyone born in whatever country, regardless of their family history, to be of that country (so a kid with Chinese parents born in Canada, to me, is Canadian), that they will have cultural ties and cultural traits passed down from their parents that I don’t. I mean, I have that, and my most recently emigrated relative is my grandfather. I have ties to Armenian, especially Armenian-diaspora-from-Turkey, culture that are on some level hard to explain to others. Hell, I even planned an entire seven-week trip around returning to Mousa Dagh to see where I come from. Looking out from that gorgeous orange-tree dotted mountain out to the Mediterranean below is and will continue to be one of the most memorable moments of my life. My grandfather practically cried when I gave him a framed picture of me in the last remaining Armenian village on the mountain.

Although, I couldn’t help but think when we discussed it, that if you’re going to learn a foreign language then you’re kinda-sorta obligated to interact with the culture that comes with that language. In my heart of hearts I do feel it’s sort of a cop-out to want to learn English but interact with other Asians, avoiding the Big White Other as much as possible. It’s really not any better than foreigners coming to Taiwan to learn Chinese and then hanging out almost exclusively with other foreigners (except for maybe a local girlfriend). I can almost-sorta understand that, though, as many people in that situation would probably like to make more local friends, but havetrouble doing so.

On the other hand, I’ve said a few times that I’m going to leave my job fairly soon (this is an open secret so I’m not worried about saying so here), and one of the reasons is that I would really either prefer to work for myself, or have a foreign boss – I just can’t take the constant sandpaper-like scratchy-scratchy culture clash of having an overseas Chinese (not Taiwanese) boss who treats foreigners like they’re Chinese employees and then gets flustered when we don’t act in accordance with that. So…OK. I kind of get it.

Otherwise, I do have to say, I got a bunch of stuff I’d still label as “racist”.

One friend said “if I were a Chinese teacher in the USA and a student wanted an American teacher and not me, I would not consider it discrimination.” Really? Because I would.

One said “Maybe she wanted the Asian teacher because her English is not good” (it is, but that’s not the point) “and she thinks she can speak Chinese with the new one.” Nice try, but I speak far better Mandarin than the new teacher, and is it not racist to assume that someone who looks Asian will necessarily speak better Chinese than someone who does not?

(To digress a bit, but in related news, I do seem to have a few Taiwanese friends who, despite knowing I speak Chinese, still have this idea that I don’t speak Chinese. Not in a malicious “we don’t want you to learn our language” way, but in a really hilarious, although also slightly annoying, “I have to prove to you more than once that I do in fact speak Chinese even if I am not perfect” way. One said “Oh yes, [Cangjie] is too hard for you.” “Come on, I’m not stupid.” “No, you’re not stupid, you’re a foreigner.” I called him out on that and we had a good laugh. Another asked me if I could read a basic Chinese menu after seeing me typing and replying in Chinese on Facebook for months. I was really heartened when yet another – finally, in a show of faith – told someone else I’d be fine at Taiwanese opera because they had Mandarin electronic subtitles and I could read those. THANK YOU SASHA).

Another said “with other Asians we feel comfortable. With foreigners, we like you and we’re friends with foreigners, but sometimes there is a ‘sense of distance’, and maybe she doesn’t feel that with the new teacher.” (translated from Chinese)

OK, but feeling a ‘sense of distance’ based solely on the fact that I’m Big Whitey – how is that not also a subtler, and also sadder, form of racism (even if it’s not the virulent ‘I hate foreign people’ kind)?

I mean, honestly, I wrote yesterday about not having a "best friend" in Taiwan - I mean a female best friend, not in the way that my husband is my best friend - and while I value my foreign and local friendships equally even if we interact in different ways, I have to say I feel far greater chemistry and intuitive understanding with my Taiwanese friends than with any other random foreigner who is not my friend. Maybe I'm weird. Maybe I just don't feel that synergy or that "cultural connection" (although I feel that on some level, I must. I'm not that special after all). I don't feel a "sense of distance" with my Taiwanese friends even if we don't always have the same sort of interactions I do with other Westerners. In Chinese there's this idea of an 'unspoken understanding' or 'chemistry' (默契) - and I do feel that many locals expect that foreigners will feel 默契 with each other. I mean, maybe on some level, sure, but I feel more 默契 with my Taiwanese friends, especially my female friends (my male friends are great but it's a different sort of friendship), than I would with any given foreigner if I didn't know them - because it's based on friendship and knowing someone, not on race and how someone looks, or even entirely on their cultural background. 

So...I dunno. On some level I can sort of understand this but on another I just don't get it. Or I don't agree. I'm not sure which - still processing my thoughts there.

In the end, all I can say is that there really seems to be a difference in how we Westerners perceive racism vs. how it’s perceived by many Taiwanese. This is what I was trying to say in an earlier post – especially the fact that while we might see all foreigners as “foreigners”, locals often group us into “high income white people” (regardless of whether we’re high income or not – I feel we’re generally not, but then most of my students earn six figures NT per month) and “service and factory working Southeast Asians and foreign brides”. It’s fairly common for locals to say 外國人” and mean “white people” – Koreans are Koreans, Japanese are Japanese, Chinese are Chinese or “Mainlanders”, and – surprisingly – Africans and African Americans (or black people of any other country) are not 外國人 but “black people”.  Anecdotally, my friend’s girlfriend has done this, and another local friend confirmed that yes, a lot of people do think that way.

And – for whatever reason, because I still don’t get it, not really – there’s an idea that it’s OK to prefer people of your own race, regardless of their cultural upbringing, simply because they look like you, and that’s not racism. Other things we’d probably call “racist” would not be called so here. It’s not quite as bad as the infamous Lonely Planet China quote from a Chinese person: “There’s no racism in China because there are no black people in China”, but still, it’s there.

I don’t deny that there does seem, in any culture, to be a certain “understanding” between people who have similar ethnic heritage and it makes sense that people would gravitate to those who share a common cultural background, but, I don’t know, I still feel that making business decisions based on that is, on some level, racist. Even if it’s the way of this very unfair world. I am not sure I’d go so far as to say that people – regardless of any language they might be learning – are racist if they make moves towards surrounding themselves with their own race and culture, and don’t exhibit an interest in interacting with, much less befriending, anyone outside of that bubble, but I do question it. And I do wonder.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


My BFFs from college - like Sex and the City except we look like normal people,
don't live in New York and don't sleep around
(this is at my wedding - they're all bridesmaids)
So, recently I've gotten some bad family-related news. I don't really want to give too many details, but it's illness-related, not so serious that I have to move home (which is not a realistic option anyway, although if necessary I would make it happen), not anything terminal, but definitely not good. We've been through it once before, but it's stressful no matter what.

If I don't update as often, it's not because I've got no free time - although often, I don't - but when dealing with stress like this, I might feel like leaving writing alone except for the occasional "cool thing I did on the weekend" or restaurant review. Which is too bad, because I'm still working on a post countering a lot of terrible things I hear said in the expat community about Taiwanese men.

So, with this illness in the family to deal with, I've realized something. I'm very happily married and have an active social life that includes both expat and local friends of both genders (not a lot of people can say that, I've found). I always have something social to do, someone I can call, people to invite places or have coffee with. On weekends when I don't do anything social other than hang with my wonderful husband, it's by choice.

And yet, there's something I don't have: a best girlfriend in Taiwan. Someone I can call up for a moment's notice to get coffee or a 3pm margarita - no joke, I've done that, Taiwan and my job in general are great that way - and complain with, cry on the shoulder of, joke with, go nuts with.

I have a lot of good female friends - I meet up and have frank discussions and fun times with other female bloggers, I go to Taiwanese opera and talk about cultural differences with Sasha, I talk frankly about personal matters and make dirty jokes with Cathy, I complain about work with Aliya, and I'm very close to my sister (who also lives in Taipei), but I don't have anyone who I *know* would call me if they needed someone to drop everything to come over in a crisis, or who would be the first person I'd think to call if a crisis were to hit me. I mean, my sister would come, but at other times she runs with her own younger buxiban teaching crowd, being in her mid-twenties and single and all.

You can accuse me of being too girly if you want, but I do think this kind of BFF friendship is an important part of being a woman, even an adult woman, even a married woman. Yes, of course, in any crisis the first person I'd call would be my husband, but there's something about having a BFF who you can also call - like your girl-husband (or, as one very close pair of friends call themselves, "Wife", as in "WIFE! Skype date!") - because sometimes you just need another woman's perspective. I have been blessed with the best husband on Earth - I really mean that, I do not believe it is possible to find a more wonderful, supportive and good-to-the-core man, and this is not hyperbole - so I'm not talking about someone I can call up to whine about Man Problems, Sex and the City style. Maybe 8 years ago, but not now. I'm talking about, well, that female perspective. The unconditional mutual love and support of someone you are not legally bound to, who enjoys things like shopping and crafts (which, awesome as he is, Brendan unsurprisingly does not really relish or, well, do at all).

Someone you can go wedding dress fabric shopping with, get your hair done with, and drink those all-important 3pm margaritas with.

There's just something about that dynamic - mostly drinking caffeine or alcohol, eating delicious, or deliciously awful food - making crude vagina jokes and BSing, but knowing they'd be there for you, no questions asked, if something really bad happened. Having someone who also possesses lady parts and lady hormones and lady hobbies to talk to, who isn't afraid to get personal.

I'm really not joking. It's Margarita O'Clock!

With my Taiwanese girlfriends, they rule, but they don't generally talk as much about very personal matters (like, oh, sex) - with the exception of one I know. They definitely don't drink as much (no margaritas! Waaaah). I have some awesome expat female friends but we're all very busy people with mismatched schedules, and beyond that, well, there just aren't a lot of expat women in Asia. Certainly not in Taipei, and those who are around are often older and married to men here on business - trailing spouses.

I'm not a trailing spouse so I don't do playdates or coffee mornings. I mean, what is this "morning" of which you speak? Is that even a time? Who does that? "Coffee morning" to me is when I roll out of bed at 9:30am and pour myself some coffee from the kitchen. If I don't have work that day I put whiskey in it, although I try to limit that because I'm not a total train wreck. I'm not gonna haul my ass to Starbucks at that godawful hour). In my younger days I might drink that coffee with whoever was crashed out on my couch from the night before, and we'd sort of mumble pleasantries at each other through bleary-eyed light hangovers. Now I'm much more domestic. I have a living room that doesn't have random people sleeping in it. I haven't had a hangover since January - and even then, it was because I was invited to an annual party and getting a bit sloshed is a requirement at those things. Ah, to hit one's thirties...

My point: we younger-but-not-too-young, say early thirties, female expats are thin on the ground. There are millions of great Taiwanese women to befriend, but there are cultural differences to account for as well.

And, as a result, I'm feeling like I could really use a BFF.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

貴州人怕不辣 ("In Guizhou, people are afraid food is not spicy enough")

"Mi pi" noodles in a sour spicy sauce
Dazhi Road Lane 46 #27, Dazhi District, Taipei (MRT Dazhi - surprise!)

In 2002 and 2003 I lived in Guizhou (貴州), a southwest-central province of China. Specifically, the city of Zunyi (遵義), in the north part not far from the Moutai brewery and, further up, Chongqing.

When I lived there, for most lunch meals that I didn't eat at the school, I would go out for either the town's famous lamb noodles (遵義羊肉面) or get something called "mi pi", or "rice skin" noodles. Like the wide "bantiao" noodles popular in Hakka cuisine in Taiwan (板條), they're basically soft, white, wide, thin noodles - but these are much wider than bantiao and served in a much spicier sauce with ground lamb or pork and vinegary undertones. It tends to be spicier, reminiscent of the flavors of Chongqing hot pot, in the north and more sour, reminiscent of Miao (苗族) cuisine in the south where there are more ethnic minorities - mainly Miao but also Dong and others.

Mi pi quickly became my favorite food IN THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD, second only to dried chilis stuffed with rice gluten and baked until the chili skin crackled. I've tried every Chinese restaurant that does a good job with southwestern Chinese fare - Sichuan, Hunan, Chongqing, Yunnan - and never found my mi pi outside of Guizhou. It was so simple and yet so perfect. And I could only have it in Guizhou - it was too simple, too local, too basic, to be served elsewhere it seemed.

Until now. 

The other day I read a review of "Oriental Cuisine" in the Taipei Times (linked above) and thought "I must go there immediately". It was actually my husband who found the review, but I was the one squealing giddily over it. Finally! MY FOOD! I could have MY FOOD again! I didn't like a lot about China - I got pneumonia twice in one year after all - but I loved, loved, LOVED the food, especially the amazing yet underrated cuisine of my "home state" of Guizhou. It was like Sichuanese food only better. As though Sichuanese food could get better (actually, it can).

There's even a saying: 四川人不怕辣,湖南人辣不怕,貴州人怕不辣. In Sichuan, the people are not afraid of spicy food. In Hunan, the people of spicy food they are not afraid. In Guizhou, the people are afraid food is not spicy enough!

And it is so true. The variety and depth of spice in cool, humid, mountainous and poverty-stricken Guizhou (all true: they also say that "in Guizhou you cannot walk three steps without going uphill, it cannot go three days without raining, and the people do not have three pennies to rub together") is truly a magical, life-changing thing. I tear up just thinking about it - and not from the chilis. The sweat on my brow from a fiery soup steeped in chili oil. The long-term burning of the dried chilis used in many dishes, especially when tempered with nothing but rice gluten. The use of grilling, stewing and adding sour or bitter notes, the sharpness black pepper and flower pepper (花椒, a personal favorite of mine and found in all good Sichuanese food) created a cuisine that I grew very attached to.


Unfortunately, Guizhou cuisine, for reasons I cannot explain, has not caught fire - pun intended - abroad the way Sichuanese and Hunanese cuisines have. Why? Why?! I honestly don't know.  So, after leaving Guizhou, I'd resigned myself to never enjoying that particular beauty again, unless I were to return for a culinary visit (which I fully intend to do, even if I will never again live in China).

And then, there was magic.

A restaurant - in Taipei!!!!!!! - specializing in Guizhou food with a guy who had studied it in depth and in meticulous detail at the helm? Oh, pinch me! Bring my smelling salts! Bring my stuffed dried chilis and my mi pi sauce! BRING IT!

So, it was really not an option: we had to eat there as soon as possible. Which we did, on Sunday.  We ordered many of their most famous dishes, I got my mi pi (not seen on the menu, but he could whip it up for me easily enough) and I had a lot of great banter with the chef about the wonderfulamazingness of the food of Guizhou. Either he was humoring me or he was genuinely pleased to meet another fan of the cuisine who had been there and knew what she was talking about.

The chef explains the history of Miao dry chicken pot as my friend Cathy gazes into the wok
We also ordered a meat dish cooked with a special root which has a bitter-ish taste (one of the only bitter tastes I can handle) and a fishy smell - and not in a good way. I'd seen it many times in Guizhou, and at the time didn't like it. With five years of Chinese cuisine under my belt, I was ready for another go. This time, I can say I honestly liked it. My, how things change.

Scary root dish that is a little bitter and smells of fish
We ordered some of the cheaper Moutai - not the "ten thousand NT a bottle" stuff, but good stuff - to drink to our amazing meal. Despite not being the most expensive kind, it did make us a little lightheaded.

And the meal was amazing. This chef is the real deal - he knows what he's doing and the food delivers.

 We also got the Miao sour fish soup (above), which comes with a "dipping soup" for the fish slices - amazingly boneless - shown below. So good. This reminded me less of Zunyi - mi pi and lamb noodle territory - and more of Kaili, the Miao stronghold in the south of the province, not far from Guanxi.

Good decor, too.

All I can say is that if you live in Taipei like spicy food, you have to eat here. If you don't, I will punch you in the face.

And now, please enjoy some of my photos from Guizhou - this trip down memory lane brought to you by the fine folks at Oriental Cuisine. Just to give you a little cultural and landscape background to the food that you WILL eat because I will MAKE you eat it. You don't have a choice, sorry.

Kaili textile market

Downtown Guiyang - China Construction indeed

A "Chinese horoscope" game in Zunyi - you get a lollipop that looks like the animal
the spinner lands on

Somewhere in Zunyi

Minority woman (Dong, perhaps?)

Phoenix Park in Zunyi

Zunyi wet market spice shop

A very poor area in northern Guizhou

Villager in a Dong minority area

Miao woman outside Kaili, preparing to go to a wedding (which I was invited to, attended,
but could not take photos of as it was too dark - it was amazing)

Zunyi's main wet market

Miao woman outside Kaili

Miao girl and her mother dressed up in a village outside Kaili (we were going to a wedding)

View from the highway between Guiyang and Zunyi, central Guizhou

Miao mother and child Chong'an in southwest Guizhou

Southwest Guizhou

Miao textiles for sale (I own several)

Way up by the Chongqing border

Capital city of Guiyang

Near Chishui (north Guizhou)