Saturday, June 29, 2013

"Hi, can I talk to you? Are you interested in meditation classes? Let's have coffee! What's your phone number?"

I've lived in Taipei for seven years now, and there's something I've noticed that goes on here more than anywhere else I've lived.

It seemed like a good thing at first - a point in Taipei's favor - but after awhile, I started to wonder. Then I had a bad experience, and heard of someone else's bad experience, and started to wonder if there weren't people out there, both local and Western, who were taking advantage of the famous friendliness of Taiwan.

The thing that kept happening to me - and still does, although I deflect it more now - is people coming up to me not only to "chat" but also to "make friends" in a way that seems very purposeful. I'm not talking about the sort of chats where you exchange information after awhile because it seems natural. 

I'm talking about the times when they're aching to be your BEST FRIEND RIGHT NOW. The ones whose initial purpose seems to be chatting, but who are noticeably intent on getting your name, phone number or e-mail address. If they get ahold of your phone number they may call you again and again, inviting you "out" or to "join a cool activity" or to "have coffee with us", and will continue doing so even after you've rejected them a few times.

I am writing about it here because it seems to happen far more often to Westerners, especially women, and because it's really easy to get pulled in by this.

And so, because it seems to disproportionately affect expat women, I felt it was worth it to write something.

The two most common (aside from guys trying to hit on you, occasional people with mental health issues or social awkwardness, and people who want you to be their English-speaking friend or teacher) seem to be people from religious organizations (Buddhist and Christian, mostly) and MLM people (think Amway).

I've been approached several times by the religious people - mostly Westerners studying Buddhism. I live in downtown Taipei, by the way, in Da'an. It seems to happen a lot around Technology Building MRT and Shi-da. There is one organization that seems to do the most recruiting around there, but they are by no means the only one in Taiwan that does this.

What happens to me pretty often is that I'll just be walking  - maybe waiting to cross the street or not, maybe with headphones or not - and a very sincere-sounding person will approach me. In my case it's always been women - a few foreign women and one local. It doesn't seem to matter if I'm moving or if I appear to be listening to headphones. They'll come up and try to talk to me anyway. They might start with just "hi" or "it's nice to see another foreign woman" or "hey, can I talk to you for a second" or "can I ask you a question". One has lots of postcards on hand detailing her organization, another "just happened" to have an artfully rumpled brochure that she could give me ("I'll just get another one!").

In every instance, they start out seeming to just want to chat, but quickly reveal that their main purpose is inviting me to an event or scoring my contact information. These tend to be cultural or spiritual activities, from scenic walks to artistic stuff to, more often, meditation and qigong classes or "studying Buddhism".

The first time someone approached me, I was intrigued and took the brochure. I never did join a class or activity because I didn't have time and am not into religion at all, or even spirituality. I also thought she seemed a bit odd, but hey, I can be socially awkward too so who knows. The second time I began to wonder. The time I got someone who seemed truly dotty who approached me with headphones in I grew suspicious. Why DID this keep happening to me? Wouldn't any reasonable person see 'headphones' and think 'she doesn't want to be bothered'? That's half the reason why I wear them sometimes! Another time, someone tried to approach me with the "it's so good to see another foreign woman" line, "it's tough to be here, alone and single, and all the guys are doing their own thing", she said.

"Yeah...I'm not single, sorry. Actually I'm doing great. But I'm sorry to hear you feel that way. If you'll excuse me, I have to get home." I mean I don't disagree with her that a lot (not all, just a lot) of expat guys are dicks, but I do have a husband and male friends and don't really want to start a conversation by disparaging them. I didn't appreciate the assumption that as a Western woman in Taiwan, I must be single and I must be frustrated. That made me wonder if they specifically target Western women who appear to be single. And if so, it made me wonder why (such women are possibly lonelier, and therefore more vulnerable)?

I started talking to others about it, and found that I'm not the only one. Other female friends have said they've been approached in that area, too. It's weirdly common. Most male friends, including my husband, have not, although my husband says he wears headphones almost all the time in Taiwan. He didn’t in Korea and was frequently approached by Christians inviting him to various church activities. 

So after awhile I started talking to people who have had direct experience with this group. The classes and activities you are invited to are all real. although from what I hear "meditation class" is really just a bunch of people gathering around to chat. It's not a front. But if you start out doing the activities and get more involved in the group, they start to try to get ahold of you. They'll hold classes at odd times of night (depriving you of sleep), tell you that you should talk to "good" people with "good" souls (controlling who you talk to and interact with and making it so that all of your good friends are also in the group), will encourage you to speak about any secrets or past issues that "bother you" so that you can be more "at peace" in studying Buddhism (gathering information about you that they may use against you later), making you feel not "spiritual" enough (think of it as spiritual negging - complimenting you on your achievement but telling you that you must do more, in an attempt to make you feel inadequate) and making you feel that without them - their classes, their teaching, their master - that you will be spiritually bankrupt or are hurting yourself. From what I've learned, most of the bad experiences are among the women - men have an easier time of it. I don't know why.

I've seen it with locals, too. The other day I couldn't help but overhear a conversation between an ABC and a local involved in some Christian group. The ABC was using the same negging tactic and disparaging other Christians and atheists to try to keep the local in the group when the local expressed doubts. It's one thing to be in a group together and support each other - and I don't care if your group is spiritual or not - but another to use manipulative tactics to try to keep people in your group.

And in all cases except the final few, it didn't occur to me to be suspicious because "Taiwan is so friendly". I had my guard down. 

And of course, there are the occasional MLM people.

My first experience of this kind was with a devotee of the Holy God of Amway. I was still pretty new in Taipei. I got to chatting with a Taiwanese woman in a ladies' room at a Zhongshan Hall concert - her being Taiwanese is important to the story, as at the time I had few local friends and I was eager to make more. We hadn't chatted long when she asked to exchange contact information. I thought that was a bit odd, but figured "Taiwan is really friendly, and safer than the USA. Maybe it's a cultural difference or she's just a bit awkward, anyway, you don't have to be as guarded around everyone the way you did in DC."

She kept calling me, inviting me to "have coffee together" and "talk about music" (as we'd both been at a concert and were therefore both ostensibly interested in music). "I know the main performer at the concert," she said, "we're friends. I'll introduce you because I think you would like each other." That was the hook I needed - more local friends! Interesting musician friends! I've missed music so much since graduating from college! Her invitation times were never convenient for me. I actually felt bad turning her down so often, but I just couldn't make the random times she suggested. I think a normal person, feeling like their invitations have been rejected a few times, would probably stop calling. I knew I would. But I was still idiotically duped into thinking "but Taiwan is SO friendly, and the etiquette about this sort of thing is probably different than back home" (hint: it's not).

So one day she suggests a day I happen to be free, and I say yes. Then she says she lives in Taoyuan (!) and can we please meet "in the middle" at Taimall in Nankan. I really wish I'd just said no, it's Taipei or nothing, but I'd already turned her down so many times and felt bad. So we ended up on a bus to Nankan, had coffee not at Taimall but at some Amway center behind it, and then got dragged through a presentation I couldn't wait to get away from. You should have seen me sprinting off that bus with Brendan in tow. She never called me again. I never did meet those musicians, surprise surprise.

I was lucky it was just Amway, in retrospect. I have most certainly heard of young foreign women at the business end of cons to trick them into prostitution rings, cults and worse (I have not heard of anything like kidnapping or murder, or rape - although I feel you could call "tricked into joining a prostitution ring" rape, as by the time you figure out what's up, you're quite likely to also be in a position where it's submit or be beaten, held hostage, threatened or killed).

The second time someone was similarly friendly (an older woman on the MRT), I again had to turn down a lot of invitations, again felt bad. She kept calling "to have coffee" and after awhile I felt - "this is just weird". I decided not to take her calls. My previous experience was telling me something wasn’t right. She finally gave up.

The warning here isn't just "don't be dumb like me" - although that's part of it. It's this: Taiwan is an extremely friendly country and for the most part it's safe. All this "Western women being led to prostitution rings" is the exception, not the norm, and seems to be less common than it was 20 years ago.  Even if you are a savvy traveler and would beat a hasty retreat at such over-friendliness in other countries, it's easy to let the soft lullaby of "it's safe here" dull your instincts. Especially if you are female and you've spent your entire life keeping your guard up, expending energy maintaining your psychic and physical fortifications, and you're just tired. The break - the desire to just trust without worrying too much - can be very tempting. And in Taiwan, for the most part, you can give in a little bit and still be safe. But you can't let that blunt your most basic instincts - you don't need to always be ready to kick someone in the soft&delicates (like I was in DC), but there still needs to be some modicum of savviness.

So let the warning be clear: Taiwan is very friendly. People who come up to chat with you are mostly harmless. But "overfriendliness" to the point of pointedly asking for your contact information before you've even really gotten to know the person...that's just as weird here as it is in other countries. Someone commenting on your Chinese ability and then chatting with you for a second is normal and fine (if you don't find it annoying - I don't). Someone approaching you under no pretext, or a flimsy one, and being just as interested in your e-mail address as actually talking to you - that's not normal here. That's not "Taiwan's famous friendly culture". Don't fall for it.

Don't be taken in. Be on your guard, just a little bit. Chat with people, but know where the line is. Above all, be aware. Don't get pulled into a bad situation.If you feel a group is trying to dig its claws into you, if they are trying to get you to come in at odd hours, attend classes at midnight, call you in for no reason at all, tell you who you should and shouldn't talk to, gather information on your past issues or make you feel inadequate as you are, GET OUT.

If someone you have talked to for a total of two minutes keeps calling to invite you out "for coffee", that coffee will most likely either be at a religious center or an Amway center. Don't go.

Taiwan is safe, but that doesn't mean it's utopia.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Divided We Beg...or do we?


So, I'm not far from declaring officially, to my company, that I won't be signing a new employment contract. I'm posting this online because with only 2 months to go until my current contract is up, I feel it doesn't matter if they find this (although they probably won't). My decision is final. I'll be willing to work freelance for them if there are a few classes or seminars they want me to take (loyally renewing classes, for example, or seminars where they really need someone as deft with the material as me) but I won't stay on contract.

And that got me thinking: I have a friend who, although he does a lot of freelance work, is fiercely pro-union. He's something of a union organizer in Japan, and believes strongly in job security, well-remunerated workers, company-sponsored training and professional development and benefits packages that include fair compensation of annual leave and overtime limits/pay (he's also pro-single payer healthcare, as most of us Asia expats are). I'm totally with him on this - united we bargain, divided we beg and all that. Don't run, organize!

And yet, I'm still giving up employment under a contract and attempting to go freelance, at least for awhile. Why? If I really believe in all that job-security unionized-workers stuff (and I do), wouldn't I be looking for a job with more security, not less? I can't imagine what sort of work has less security than freelance work, and yet I do believe I can make a successful go of it while I start the Delta (I need time and flexibility for that) and look, at my leisure, for a job I want to take at a pay grade I'm willing to accept, with benefits that appeal to me - if I ever find it.

The thing is, my current job does offer flexibility - to me, at least. Not to anyone else. But if I tell them "no", they respect it. The pay is fair. Not as good as it could be, but my main issue isn't the money. I make enough. They generally stay out of my hair. I have to say, honestly, that this past year they've just about been good to me. They've treated me pretty well. I mean they still constantly screw up all sorts of administrative things and haven't quite figured out how to edit materials and keep the edits updated. It took them nine weeks (9 weeks!) to get a non-camera phone for me to bring to a heavily secure client site (I offered to get my own, but I wouldn't have been compensated for it). And they screwed over my husband vis-a-vis residency and work permits in a way that is totally unacceptable. I've stayed this long only because we agreed I'd stay long enough to get my APRC, run out that contract, and not sign another one.

So it's not really true that I am going freelance "for the flexibility", either, even if I am quitting some time after the fact as a direct result of how they treated Brendan.

I've come to this conclusion after a lot of thought: I'm going freelance because while I wouldn't mind a secure job with a salary and benefits*, I have found so far that there are very few companies to which I wish to be obligated. At least not in Taiwan. I mean, certainly when you agree to take on a course you are agreeing to a certain set of obligations and an amount of cooperation. That's not what I mean. What I mean is all the other stuff often found in foreign teacher contracts in Taiwan - from non-competition clauses to deposits (I didn't have one and would never agree to one, but they do pop up) to "we can sue you if" to all sorts of things that give the company power and give the teacher no agency. There is a lot in there about what the teacher must do, what the teacher owes the company, and what the company can do for itself, but often nothing about what the company must do for the teacher or what the teacher is entitled to as a paid employee.

Basically, so many contracts seem to say "We'll pay you X to do Y, and nothing more. We have the right to do A, B and C to you. You are obligated to provide D, E and F to us. You have no other rights. If you do anything we don't like, we can also do Z to you. If we do something you don't like, deal with it. No complaining." The buxiban I worked for in my first year had a contract like that, and my sister had to wade through quite a few preposterous contracts before she found a school she was willing to work for. Even then, it didn't work out - they still treated her (and everyone else) like wage slaves. (Her current buxiban is generally better, although she does not have two consecutive days off).

Wake up and smell the capitalism, I guess.

Why the hell would I sign something like that again, now that I have an APRC and no longer have to?

And as a result, despite my being pro-union and pro-job-security and pro-employer-employee cooperation, freelancing is more appealing to me than formal employment at one firm. No firm, so far, has proposed a contract that enticed me enough to sign it.

One reason, to be honest, I am not signing a new contract is that I see no reason why I can't do just as well taking classes with other companies. I understand why my company doesn't want employees doing that (I wouldn't either), but other companies pay better, can offer classes when mine does not, and so I don't wish to be an employee anymore.

I've met some good bosses in Taiwan - Brendan's current boss seems like a good guy from what I know of him (might be doing some freelance for them, fingers crossed), and the company I'm currently arranging some freelancing classes with for once I'm free are good guys, but the normal obligations of teaching a class are enough for me. I see no reason to obligate myself further. Fortunately, they're on board with that idea. I talked awhile back to another well-known business English outfit. They came pretty close to what I was looking for: paid time off, year-end bonuses, housing allowance, set hours with no overtime, fair teaching hours. At the time they had no openings - it was just an informational meeting - but I'd consider them, depending on salary offered. One turn-off was the fact that the paid leave was set according to their schedule; you really couldn't take time off outside of it. That would normally be fine as the time off given was quite generous, but if I'm going to go abroad to do my Delta Module 2, it may not work for me.

And for other schools and companies, if they can't or won't offer me a contract that gives me real agency, freelancing is still more appealing. I'll take freedom without security to employment without agency.

So, basically that's it. That's how this pro-union, pro-job security, pro-formal employment with benefits girl decided to forgo job security and formal employment with benefits and hit it up freelance-style. I hope things change job-wise in Taiwan for us qualified teachers (I've got nothing to say regarding 22-year-olds with no experience who are coming over for a few years of fun, although maybe some of them will turn out to be solid teachers and will stick with it, who knows?).

Until then, you can find me in my home office, doing my own thing.

*Some benefits bosses in Taiwan might want to consider when hiring qualified teachers: salary with set working hours, REAL year-end bonuses (not NT$6000, try one or two months' salary), regular performance reviews with REAL raises (NT$25/hour is not a raise, it's a joke), paid annual leave and paid Chinese New Year leave, training support - and not the "unpaid worthless training on a Sunday morning that counts toward no qualifications and isn't run by professionals" kind, but the "we'll support you in getting actual certifications and taking actual courses that count for something" kind). Offer me that and I might want to come work for you.

Thursday, June 27, 2013


Actually I just want to compare four Sichuanese restaurants I've been to recently or really just love, because Sichuanese food is kind of a passion of mine.

Tianfu 天府川菜


#5 Ren'ai Road, Yonghe (MRT Dingxi)

I know I am always referencing this place on my blog, but it deserves it. It's just SO GOOD. The boss is an old Sichuanese chef, a master really. It's a small place, easy to miss, and you wouldn't know it was so good unless someone told you (it just looks like a basic restaurant next to a fruit stand on an inconspicuous street in Yonghe).

So far, I feel that their spicy beef (水煮牛), spicy green beans, mouthwatering chicken, pork rib cooked with sweet potato and spicy tofu (麻婆豆腐) are the best in Taiwan. You really can't do better. Once - just once - the spicy tofu missed the mark. We ordered late and I think they were low on ground pork, so they just made what they could. Otherwise it's always been to a high standard of excellence.

Go early - they open at 5:30 and won't take orders after about 7:15pm (and they want you out by 8:30) - there's only one chef, and he sets the hours. If he's tired he closes up early. If he's in a good mood he might cook for you as late as 7:30! With any other restaurant I'd just not go back, but it's so damn good that I'm willing to put up with it.

Lao Sichuan 老四川


Chang'an Road between Songjiang and Jianguo (MRT Songjiang Nanjing, or the area is served by many buses) - I tried to get their address off their website but this is the best I could do (I did get lazy, though).

This is a Chongqing Hotpot restaurant, not a typical "Chengdu dishes" Sichuanese restaurant. It's "famous" in the Taiwanese sense (i.e. very well known and popular) - so famous that in Taipei it's hard to get reservations. I know people who have driven down to Zhubei to eat at the branch there! A friend of ours made the reservation, so we had the chance to go. The hotpot is spectacular, especially the spicy side. I've never been a big fan of the herbal side, at any restaurant. Definitely get their "famous" signature appetizer, which is noodles in a delicious spicy sauce. The edamame are great, too.

The hotpot here reminded me of when I had hotpot in Chongqing itself, and the hotpot I've had in Guizhou (just south of Chongqing) as well. It's the real deal.

I can't "compare" it to the two other restaurants because what they do is different, but it's definitely worth braving their tough reservation competition to go.

Some photos:



Spicy and herbal divided hot pot. You can ask for it with no blood. Look at those fresh sesame seeds!

Fuhua Sichuan 福華川菜


Xizang Road#228, Wanhua (a longish walk from MRT Longshan Temple, a few buses pass nearby including 307, or just take a cab)

This is a place my student recommended in Wanhua. She said "it's cheaper and better than Tianfu". I found it to be roughly the same price - a little cheaper - but not necessarily better.

The spicy beef - above - was very good, with tons of chili, fresh cilantro (Tianfu doesn't give you fresh cilantro) and very high quality tender meat, a bit fatty (a sign of quality in Chinese cooking). It was served on a sterno warmer, which Tianfu doesn't do. It was fantastic, although I would have added an extra handful of huajiao (花椒 - mouth-tingling Sichuan pepper). It also wasn't as complex as Tianfu in flavoring, but really it just needed more huajiao.

Rating: tied with Tianfu


These clams are not really Sichuanese, we just happen to like them.


The green beans were excellent - with more garlic and less black bean than Tianfu, and expertly seasoned and cooked (if you eat the beans without the topping they seem to need salt, but add the topping and the problem goes away).

Rating: as good as Tianfu


The kung pao chicken was AMAZING - cooked to perfection, not overcooked but not rare (rare chicken is, of course, gross and unsafe). It was glazed just so. needed hua jiao.

Rating: as good as Tianfu, would be better if it just had hua jiao.

The problems came later, with the eggplant (魚香茄子) and spicy tofu. The eggplant and tofu both lacked hua jiao totally. The eggplant was too sweet and didn't have enough pork. The tofu was low quality, not savory enough and not NEARLY spicy enough.


Eggplant - not as good as Tianfu

Ma Po Tofu - we almost sent it back. I was not pleased. I wonder when I told them specifically to add hua jiao and make it spicy, if the chef misheard the server (the server didn't mishear me, she'd confirmed it) or just decided there's no way foreigners would want that so I must have meant not spicy. I don't know, but either way it wasn't very good.

Han Chi Tiger Noodle


#203 Jinhua Street (金華街203號)

I can't really compare this place, which mostly does basic noodles and puffed rice soups in spicy Sichuan broth, with the others. I just wanted to include it because daaayum, these guys know how to add spice to a complex and well-flavored broth. They don't skimp on the hua jiao, that's for sure.

It's also the easiest to get to, the cheapest, and does not require a reservation.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Just A Few Delightful Things


Eat here: 台灣原味滷味, 新北市中和區景平路493-5號 / 捷運景安站

Original Taiwan Flavor Lu Wei (braised & boiled things) Zhonghe, Jinping Road #493-5, MRT Jing'an, fastest to grab a 262 next to Sushi Express and take it to Zhonghe District Office (中和區公所) and it's across the street and up a short walk further next to Five Flower Horse (五花馬), which is also pretty good.

First, I have finally discovered the joy of eating pig's feet. I never liked it when I got a big bowl of nothin' but pig foot - kinda gross, actually, it just looks visually unappealing - but I have found when it's sliced up into tender pieces of meat and trotter, that mixed in with rice it's really quite delicious.

I discovered I liked it, after all these years of being too unimpressed with the look of the stuff to take a bite, when I passed the place listed above and this unholy delicious smell enveloped me and I had to try their food that very instant. So I pointed to what some other people were eating, not aware that it was pig's foot with rice (豬腳飯), and ordered that. It comes with tender bamboo shoots, a piece of braised tofu and a braised hard-boiled egg. I also got Taiwanese tempura (甜不辣) - their tempura sauce is also delicious. So good I poured the remainder on my rice.

So that was a good discovery.

Also, this News In Brief feature is just full of gems:

Taiwan News Quick Take

I mean, first there's "Canada Warning Issued", which is the best headline ever. We all should be warned about Canada more often.

Then there's the entire paragraph detailing the state of President Ma Ying-jiu's butthole. It's really more than I ever needed to know about President Ma's ass, but there ya go.

I guess he needs to keep it in good condition so it can be reamed by China. (BAM!)

Finally, there's this website:科技心,醫師情.

It seems on the surface to be just a dating/matchmaking website for Taiwanese professionals, and in a sense that's exactly what it is. The application page (no, I'm not going to apply, obviously, I was just curious) says that not only are engineers and doctors welcome, but that all sorts of professionals, from teachers to entrepreneurs ("anyone with a proper job", to quote it, but I think that comes across a little less offensively in Chinese, more like "any employed professional") may apply.

A student of mine (female, doctor, married) said, however, that their real market niche is setting up single male engineers, who are often (not always!) too overworked, too shy and too socially awkward to go out and date easily, with female doctors, who are too overworked and not in a good place in society* to find a life partner if they didn't marry a classmate (apparently male doctors who didn't marry a classmate are more interested in nurses, and both these women and men generally prefer that a man be on an equal footing, career-wise, to his wife**). Another student, who is a fairly high profile person (tech industry, male, married), said that they called him to ask if he'd be interested in signing up (me: "you could've said 'just a second, let me ask my wife. Hey honey, am I available to sign up for this dating website?'").

I personally think it's brilliant. If female doctors really want men who are at approximately their level professionally (although some engineers in Taiwan might disagree that they are) or acceptably close enough, engineers fit the bill. And while the older generation of Taiwanese men, including engineers, might have preferred a stay-at-home wife (or a wife to help run the family business), the younger crop of single thirtysomething male engineers, observed from my interaction with them as a teacher, seem far more willing to have a wife with a demanding career and the high level of education that goes with it. They wouldn't necessarily be scared off by a female doctor (some would, but I'm speaking in generalities).

Two segments of society that often have a hard time dating, being specifically matched up because they wouldn't have many chances to meet each other normally (it's not like all the single female doctors and all the single male engineers go to the same bars after work) is pure genius. I wish I'd thought of it.

*which is totally sexist bullshit, I know, as it is in any society, but this is a legitimate issue single female doctors face in Taiwan

**I don't care for that opinion either. In the US I'd call it sexist bullshit so I'll call it sexist bullshit in Taiwan, too.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Best Deer Penis Wine in Taipei


Deer Penis Wine (鹿鞭酒)
Huanhe Road north of Guangzhou Street, right side (past all the old appliances and the cool old temple, just past and across the street from Old Lin's Mutton Emporium, just walk to the end of Guangzhou to where the aboriginal market is, don't cross Huanhe, turn right and keep going).

Continue on from there and you'll find another guy with deer meat and, I think, wines, as well as snake and turtle.

First of all, I got new totally hipsteriffic glasses. So the first thing I did was put on my hipster earrings and take a selfie, because I'm totally not concerned about looking cool. At all. Really. I mean it.

Also, our honeymoon (a monthlong backpacking trip around Central America), submitted ages ago, was just featured on Offbeat Home. Go check it out!

Now that that important announcement is out of the way, we also decided (well, I decided and Brendan gamely went along) to finally try some things we hadn't tried in 7 years in Taipei. One of these is Chinese medicinal wine, which is usually made as an herbal tincture with deer parts.

Wanhua, especially the area outside of the Guangzhou Street/Huaxi Street Night Market (also called Snake Alley), has a lot of this sort of traditional stuff - you just have to leave the night market to find it, or head to a different, less touristy part of the market (Wuzhou Street is a branch off of this market that has consistently good food...and a lot of brothels). This is the sort of area where an obasan will sit minding her shop packed floor to rafters with giant colorful dildos, right next to her granddaughter sitting in that shop doing her homework, and maybe there'll be a small poodle, too.

So if you're going to find interesting traditional medicinal wines, Wanhua is the place.

The most common are deer antler (also available at Wellcome and 7-11 - this one is dead easy to find), deer blood (not safe if not made correctly) and deer penis (much harder to track down - PUN INTENDED).


Mmmm, delicious tincture of deer penis.

Correct me if I'm wrong here, but from what I've read, deer blood wine is, I believe, supposed to help with circulation and as a good iron supplement, and is good for bones. Deer antler is good for muscles and joints, and deer penis is good for, well, virility (but can be also good for joints, aches and other weak areas). From what I've read, although it's usually drunk by men as a natural Viagra, it can be drunk by women.

So, here goes.


It was surprisingly good. Like a slightly savory Jagermeister (for the herbal flavor - I know Jager doesn't actually have any deer in it). Think of it as the Jagermeister from an alternate universe in which all the urban legends are true. I'm not even joking.

The deer blood and penis, which might be gray market if not entirely illegal, is not labeled. You have to ask for it. 50 kuai for a glass as big as the one you see me drinking above. So if you want to try deer penis wine, you've just gotta know where to get it. And now you do!

Brendan and our friend Joseph tried some too, but I ended up drinking most of it. The owner wasn't too bothered about serving women his Viagra wine - he said nothing but his smile and body language said "Chhhhh...foreigners. Whatever."


You can also get venison kebab and various foods cooked in medicine, like snails and shrimp - and the chicken sausage (雞肉卷) is quite good. For every serving (two sticks) of venison you order, you get a free small glass of medicinal wine that is just herbs - no penis, no blood, no antler. We drank that too.


This stuff doesn't have any penis in it. Boo.


Afterwards, I felt pretty good. Brendan and Joseph were all like 'eh' I guess the stuff really does work just as well, if not better, on women!


The best part was the dude at the end of the stall with his own bottle of deer blood wine, getting completely toasted. I am not sure how one could get toasted on medicinal wine (I felt great but too much of the stuff can't be good for you), but he was managing that.

Happy deer penis drinking!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Postcards from Hamasen

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 After several months of being too busy and lazy (and just plain lacking the energy thanks to work problems and worries over family illness), in the past few weeks I've started trying to rejuvenate and recoup my old zeal for going places and trying new things.

I know that sounds horribly cliche, but really, I had been in a slump of not doing much, not going out much, for the first half of the year - punctuated only by our trip to Sri Lanka.

I've begun to lift myself out of it - which is why you're seeing so many posts (some of them backlogged from weeks past) on doing stuff in, around and outside of Taipei.

A few weeks ago, when I had a free HSR ticket to Kaohsiung for work, I wrote a post about spending the night in a Batman-themed room at a love motel. Well, the next day we stuck around Kaohsiung, and I feel like our ramblings around the older part of the city - Hamasen (now called Xiziwan or 西子灣, the last stop on the east-west MRT) and then up Chaishan - were also worth a picture-based blog post.

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 First of all, Hamasen may retain its traditional architecture, but it's actually changed a lot in the past decade or so. It's become a favorite spot for a day trip - second only to Pier 2 in local and tourist popularity (and of course there's always the Love River, Dome of Light, Qijin Island, Lotus Lake and the 85 Building and the overrated Sanduo Shopping District) - with "famous" shaved ice shops, restaurants and cafes near the waterfront and ferry terminal. There's even a giant, hideous Hello Kitty store (like really hideous, like so horrible that Brendan said if I went in - and I didn't - he would wait outside. Across the street. Possibly around the corner).

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I just liked this guy's orange cowboy hat.

I have a student from Hamasen - he grew up in a house very close to the ferry terminal. "Damn tourists," he always says. "It used to be a quiet fishing village. Now it's like Danshui."
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This guy's tempura was great. In fact, usually this kind of tempura is better in southern Taiwan than in Taipei. I can't tell you where his stand is (but it's on the road somewhere between the MRT station and the ferry terminal)...if you see him, however, go ahead and get his tempura. I highly recommend it.

My student: "Damn tourists! There used to be really good, famous food stands. They were famous because their food was so delicious. Now, I went back to those places, and they weren't as good, because the tourists don't know. Damn tourists!"

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I like this photo because it's of a building that I think most people - especially expats - dismiss as an eyesore. I don't see it that way - I like the curve, and the style is retro. I think it's a cool reminder of midcentury Taiwan, decades past.

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Chen Chu is the enormously popular mayor of Kaohsiung. Most Taiwanese politicians have a cartoon avatar, but her cartoon is by far the most famous, possibly even more than Ma Ying-jiu's (which is kind of terrifying). Even Chiang Kai-shek has one, which makes him look like a benevolent bobblehead.

Every Chinese New Year, Chen Chu's people give out spring scrolls - the red calligraphy scrolls you see on doors that call for good luck, health and prosperity in the coming year - adorned with her avatar doing something cute vis-a-vis that year's Chinese Zodiac animal. This year's is snake, as you can see. I try to collect them and hang them up in Taipei to annoy my neighbors a little (my immediate neighbors think she's great, though, which I like).

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Old Japanese era shophouses give Hamasen its distinctive character, especially as they haven't yet been turned into shops on an Old Street selling the same old toys and food (although I like the toys and food, I have to admit). Hamasen as you see it today was mostly built up by the Japanese, and as such the buildings, road planning and infrastructure has a vaguely Japanese feel about it. In fact, Kaohsiung's entire layout, with its wider roads and often vintage buildings, have something of the stamp of Japan on them.

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Hamasen's famous shaved ice shops - at the one pictured at top (which features, prominently, the Chinese word for fuck) you can get shaved ice bowls big enough for up to 5-6 people, depending on your appetite.

My student: "Damn shaved ice restaurants. All the tourists go there, then they take the ferry and create traffic problems with the crowds. I hate it. Damn tourists!"

At all of the shops, you can ask for markers and write on the walls - or bring your own colored markers or white-out pens. All of the shops are about the same, although some are more "famous" than others. I recommend in-season fruit ices, and matcha tofu ice (the shop pictured immediately above has a matcha tofu with mango and condensed milk ice that is delicious).

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We also had very good cold Korean noodles. I strongly recommend the place - 韓月冷麵王 on 濱海一路57號, a short walk from the ferry terminal and shaved ice shops.

We passed these two women, as well - one was clearly amused by the foreigners. Wish I'd gotten a clearer photo.

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Here's another building people may be wont to dismiss, but I like. It's plain, but there's clearly some history there, and it's more attractive than a lot of modern buildings. Could stand a lick of paint, maybe (but not to be tiled over)!

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...just a few random things you may see hanging from windows and doors.

Then we made our way to the British Consulate (英國領事館, or 打狗領事館, Dagou being the old name for Kaohsiung). You can easily take Bus #99 to the entrance, which is not far at all - if you wanted to you could probably even walk it. Great views across the harbor, but you'll have to walk up several flights of stairs. Once there, you get a splendid view of Kaohsiung harbor, the old consulate building, a lighthouse on a rock enscarpment and the bay.

Tickets cost NT30 each, but you get the money back as a discount if you buy anything at the coffeeshop or gift shops - it's a way to generate revenue at the shops, I suppose.

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There's a BigTom coffeeshop up here with a shaded courtyard and great views (the best views have no shade though). We saw a cute lizard as we sipped iced coffee under the trees after the hot climb. In fact, it was our first stop, before we even explored the consulate. To be fair, we'd been there before several years ago.

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My student: "I know that view! When I was a boy, the consulate was not open. It was just some old building. Nobody cared about that. Actually, it was closed, but if you are a local you know the ways to go up there. So I would go up there, and I used to take a pee from that side. It was very nice! I had a nice view, sunny day, a nice breeze, taking a nice pee on the hill. I could even see all the ships coming and going in Kaohsiung Harbor. It was very refreshing. You can imagine!"

Other student: "Maybe you could wave to the ships and say 'Welcome to Taiwan'!"

Me: "Well, I can't take a nice pee like that, so I can't imagine. But maybe you could have a contest with your friends to see if you can hit the ships."

Student: "Yes, we would do that!"

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And there are some Chinese! photo 378065_10151681837751202_946937238_n.jpg
Check out these "Chinese People" as imagined by Dutch colonists.

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There is a small temple just near the consulate.

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Windows in the consulate have been changed to colored glass for
pretty light effects.

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From the consulate we took a taxi up Chaishan, past National Sun Yat-Sen University (中大). Chaishan is famous for its views over the bay, rocky shore and monkeys!

Monkeys are my favorite animal - well, monkeys and cats, and I like dogs too, and foxes are cool, and I also quite like birds that can talk and weird-looking fish - I like to joke it's because my Chinese Zodiac sign is monkey (so is Brendan's). So whenever there's a chance to see monkeys, I take it!

The taxi stopped so we could see a few monkeys, and then dropped us off at a famous coffeeshop on the shore.

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No, he's not jumping off.

You wouldn't know that Chaishan Road - the main road up the mountain - is full of cafes taking advantage of the ocean views, if you didn't know the area pretty well.

We went to Hai Jiao (Cape) Coffee & Tea - 海角咖啡 at #103 Chaishan Road, which has basic juices, coffees, teas and smoothies, and a small array of food. We had Thai lemon fish for dinner, which was pretty good. The calamansi lemon juice is nice and sour. The view is great if you can get a good seat, and you can watch the sunset from the rocks just beyond the parking lot.

It's down a steep hill - best to drive, but you can take Bus #99 to get close enough, or take a taxi, get his card and call him to pick you up later.

Another friend recommended 海岸咖啡, a cafe at #31 Chaishan Road, famous for its big mugs of ramen. Also worth checking out.

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Then we watched the sun set over the bay, had our dinner and called the taxi to come take us back to the MRT, from which we returned to HSR Zuoying Station and Taipei.

We were sad to go - one day is too short to cavort around Kaohsiung, even if you've already been. A couple of beers on Love River and a good local dinner would've been nice, or a nightcap somewhere with a good view, but we had to head back to our hectic lives in cloudy, rainy Taipei.

Too bad.

Next time I guess.

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Monday, June 17, 2013

Cool MRT Art (For Once)

I know that's a little unfair - I do kind of like the art at NTU Hospital Station, after all, especially the weird entwined-fingers-and-palms bench.

But otherwise, the MRT seems to be a repository for weird hanging things, fiberglass primary color sculptures without much hidden meaning, sometimes-good, sometimes-not art from winners of local contests, terribly-photoshopped advertisements, and occasional poetry (again from some local contest), most of which I don't particularly care for.

I passed one small bit of public art, though, at Zhongxiao Fuxing Station on the mezzanine above the blue line, that I really liked. 


It's a cartoonish MRT train (eh), but in each window is a lovely diorama depicting different scenes of life in Taipei, with both modern and historical street scenes - in some cases intertwined. There's a night market:


A school building rife with Chiang Kai-shek iconography:


A Dihua-like Old Street:


A shadowbox of evolution from mom-and-pop midcentury store to convenience store:


...and more.

I often lament that the East District, which feels like it's slowly taking over Taipei with its shiny storefronts and air-conditioned department stores, has little of interest. Little to no good public art, few if any historical buildings, and a lot of expensive crap I don't want or need (and a lot of expensive bars I don't care for). I've always preferred looking westward in Taipei - West of Xinsheng/Songjiang and I may like it, east of Xinsheng and I probably don't.

This little smidge of public art proved that it's not all doom and gloom - there are still occasionally bits of actual culture as you head east. It's not all Sogos and Luxys.