Showing posts with label diy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label diy. Show all posts

Sunday, January 29, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some things to keep yourself occupied:

1.) Walk around Xinyi at night

(no photo for this one yet, sorry)

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

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

2.) Wander Tianmu for awhile

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

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

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

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

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

4.) Decorate! New paint job!


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

5.) Invite friends over

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

My food-loving whiskey-drinking Taiwanese friends

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

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

6.) Visit temples

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

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

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

7.) Wander around the Longshan Temple Area

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

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

Also, great for people-watching!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Domestic Hobbies

One of my  DIY projects - I wear it constantly!

I had a day off on Monday. Brendan and I went to Dihua Street to look at fabric for sheer curtains - we also ate lunch, I stopped to chat with my tailor and  got a massage, too. To be honest, I'm the one who cares about curtain colors - Brendan came along to keep me company, give a few opinions, eat delicious shrimp roll rice and make funny commentary (me: "I actually like the idea of this deep taupe color with an intense eggplant purple, but I can't wrap my head around actually using such a Grandma color." Brendan: "I didn't even know 'taupe' was a color until you just said so. This is why you're taking charge of this. If it were me, I'd be all 'Oh, that's not gray? OK, I'll just keep my mouth shut.'")

Generally speaking I've been thinking about home furnishings, paint colors, curtains and other arguably "stereotypically feminine" stuff since we signed the lease on the new apartment. I'm tickled to have a great new space to work with.

After our fabric scouting (Brendan: "I like light colors but let's stay away from anything that screams 'cupcake frosting', 'preschool' or 'retirement home') we stopped for coffee at the outdoor cafe attached to Yongle Market. Brendan was making general social commentary as he read the Taipei Times and later correcting student homework. I was happy to sip my coffee and think about color schemes:  ruby and plum! Persian green and peacock! Cranberry and cerulean!

At first glance this might make us look like the latest thing to step out of Stepford: a silly woman thinking about nothing of substance beyond what color to paint her living room, and a man reading the paper. I realized this, turned to Brendan, and said: "You know, I don't think it's so bad that I'm enjoying one of Taipei's rare sunny days by sitting outside contemplating color schemes. I mean, I have a good job, I can support myself, I'm educated, I'm reasonably politically tuned in and interested in being civically active and have traveled on my own dime around the world. I don't think it's a degradation to my female empowerment that I'm sitting here trying to decide whether to paint a wall of the living room Persian green or peacock blue, or that you are not thinking about it."

Of course I know Brendan realizes this: he married me - clearly he knows me. I just tend to say lot of things like this in a stream-of-consciousness way. It's how I think. Yes, I do tend to keep up a verbal, mumbled, running commentary at home (I can curb it in public) and I'm sure it's annoying as hell!

Which brings me to this piece in The Washington Post - which, by the way, I love the slightly retro hipster art depicting the hipster girl (you can tell because she's wearing Hipster Glasses, has a hipster 'bird' tattoo and totally hipster haircut).   The writer asks:

But in an era when women still do the majority of the housework and earn far less of the money, “reclaiming” domesticity is about more than homemade holiday treats. Could this “new domesticity” start to look like old-fashioned obligation?

I don't earn "far less money" in my field, but the point is taken. And:

Women like me are enjoying domestic projects again in large part because they’re no longer a duty but a choice. But how many moral and environmental claims can we assign to domestic work before it starts to feel, once more, like an obligation? If history is any lesson, my just-for-fun jar of jam could turn into my daughter’s chore, and eventually into my granddaughter’s “liberating” lobster strudel (from the bakery). And as . . . delicious as that sounds, it’s not really what I want on my holiday table in 2050.

Although, to be honest, the societal expectation waaaay back in the day that women would can jam, make clothes and blankets and generally tend the house didn't start because newly settled communities in early  civilizations didn't have legions of just-post-Neolithic women who thought it was "fun", and from there it turned into an obligation such that refusing to do it (or  simply not being inclined to) became a punishable offense. Nobody's really sure why it happened - I don't  entirely buy the evolutionary psychology thing - but I doubt it was because women 11,000 years ago enjoyed housework. 

Women - both in Taiwan, much of Asia and the West - still sometimes suffer these expectations. Women become a target for it when planning weddings and having children especially: it's like everything that people are keeping inside or don't want to admit they actually think comes out.  One person I  knew from Offbeat Bride's planning community was told "learn how to make swan-shaped pastries. Your husband will love that. Men like it when women know how to do these kinds of things."      

Uhhh...really? Because I think Brendan would be all "cool" and then eat the pastry, and he's one of the most in-touch, feminist men I know (which is why I married him, natch)! 

It's true though: I feel that my desire to  decorate, or my love of jewelry-making, or my skill with cooking and baking, don't threaten or contradict my being an empowered woman - but that's because I have the freedom to choose to do these things or not, as I wish. For what it's worth,  men have the same choice. Who chooses to exercise it is really not my concern, although I'd like to see a socialization process from childhood that encouraged boys who are so inclined to pursue these hobbies without fear of being seen as 'effeminate' or 'unmanly'.

Frankly, I'd like to see gender assignment be stricken entirely from the various hobbies one might have. I'd like to see cooking, knitting, quilting, painting, canning, hiking, computer geekery, doing various sports, enjoying good whiskey, wine or beer, stamp collecting, insect collecting etc. lose their 'feminine' and 'masculine' labels entirely.

I would not, however, want my generation's desire to knit, bake and can to become our daughter's expectation that she should enjoy these things, to become her daughter's obligation to do them, to become her daughter's renewed fight for liberation from expectations that she do them. It is all too easy to see she likes to sew and cook become women like to sew and cook, then women like to sew and cook, so they should do those things, then, women aren't predisposed to working outside the home, after all they are naturally better at sewing and cooking, then woman, fix my shirt and cook my dinner!, then you're a woman and you don't like to sew and cook? What's wrong with you? You must be a morally bankrupt harlot! Send her to Dr. Englebert for shock therapy!

I say this, even though it's a bit repetitive, because I've seen a very similar thought process in individuals (usually men, but some women too). I think it's relevant to this blog because, while Taiwan is a much better place for women to live than other Asian countries, I have seen similar thought processes here - again, mostly among men, but you hear it from women too.

Which begs the question - at what point would expectations that a woman should enjoy things that can genuinely be "fun", like sewing and cooking, become an expectation that she should also do things like, oh, say, all that other housework that falls under virtually nobody's definition of "fun"? It's all well and good when one does things that many see as pleasurable, but what about all that domestic stuff - like scrubbing and sweeping - that nobody really enjoys? When does that include giving up gains in the workplace to stay home and do that work, because women "enjoy it more" or "are better at it"? And does that lead to discussions of "nurterers" or "providers"? As the article says:

Many champions of the DIY movement explicitly say that domestic work shouldn’t be about gender. But I’ve also noticed a resurgence of old-fashioned gender essentialism from some surprising sources. I’ve lately been hearing things like “There’s just something natural about women taking on the nurturing role in the home” coming out of the mouths of women’s studies grads and Ivy League PhDs.

This bothers me, because I do think that this tendency is far more 'nurture' and not nearly as much 'nature' as people think. Millenia of social 'nurturing' towards these roles can, in fact, create what seems like a natural tendency. Even if some of it is biological, not all of it is.

It also bothers me because I'm sorry, I just don't feel that way. I like my DIY projects but I am not, not, not a nurturer in the home (this is not a "the lady doth protest too much", this is my reaction to years of hearing people say that "women" are like this, implying that I, as a woman, should also be like this). I'm not a caregiver, really - I'm a natural provider. I'm pretty good at winnin' the bread, bringin' home a large chunk of the bacon. I can be  nurturing but it is not a role I take to long-term. I can provide short-term care but long-term nurturing would drive me up a wall. It's one reason why I'm not inclined to have kids. I'm good at certain types of DIY but not a dynamo in the domestic sphere: I'm terrible at housework, both at remembering to do it and at executing it. 

I have the freedom to enjoy my various DIY hobbies because I can do them without fear that it will lead to an expectation that I would prefer doing them to working, or that I can't or shouldn't be a breadwinner because I'm "just a silly woman" who likes to bake, decorate and make jewelry. I am sure there are still people out there who believe that staying home might be an option that I choose someday (it won't - I guess you never can say but if either of us stayed home it would just as likely be Brendan), but generally speaking they don't say so (thanks!) and most people wouldn't question the coexistence of my career with my hobbies. My mother does  a lot of  DIY and my mother-in-law is an expert quilter, and nobody would question that they are empowered women. 

I also mention this with relation to Taiwan because while back home, the idea of a "house husband", while rare, is basically accepted. At least it's conceived of. I mention the word "house husband" or "stay at home dad" in Taiwan and I get laughs - oh! What a cute word! Haha! - in a tone that clearly indicates that it's a hilarious idea from the West but of course no family in Taiwan would include something so preposterous as a house husband. It's unheard of, and not considered seriously - when it should be.  You still hear stories like that of one of my students:  she once told me she spent the weekend cleaning her apartment, because her mother-in-law was visiting, and expected his (ie her son's) apartment to be clean and would criticize her (the daughter-in-law) if it wasn't spotless. 

I say this believing that these days, for most women in Taiwan and the West (but not necessarily the rest of Asia), staying home is done out of choice, not expectation. In the West, men have the same choice. In Taiwan, they really don't.

Taiwanese women don't seem to be pushed to pursue 'feminine' hobbies, but I do see them steered away from 'masculine' ones. Most people wouldn't necessarily expect a Taiwanese woman to enjoy cooking, scrapbooking or sewing but they would definitely not expect her to enjoy, say, whiskey tasting, woodworking, computer geeking or certain sports - and they might judge her negatively for those things, far more harshly than I would get judged back home (which is not that harshly at all: women can pick up "masculine" hobbies with little problem - it's men picking up "feminine" ones that stirs derision). 

I will say that I have noticed that Taiwanese women are not expected to enjoy cooking - or even to do it regardless of enjoyment - nearly as much as women in other Asian countries.  There are still some old-school mothers in law who do the cooking because they think they should, or are happy to, or have convinced themselves that they're happy to. There are others who expect that their daughter-in-law will do it. Other than them and possibly a few misogynist men, it's far more acceptable for a Taiwanese woman - at least in Taipei -  to say "yeah, I don't cook" or "we eat out a lot because I'm a terrible cook" or "our domestic helper cooks because I can't" or "sometimes I make fried rice or fish, but that's it" than it is  for a Japanese, Chinese or Korean woman to be so  honest.

I can, however, imagine an American man picking up, say, making jam more easily than I could see a Taiwanese man doing it - and I see neither picking up knitting or quilting. Yet you hear so many expats saying that Taiwanese men are 'effeminate' or 'not manly' (I don't agree, though - well, I almost always don't agree. When I see a man walking by holding his girlfriend's glittery pink heart purse, I have to admit...). That brings up a whole new discussion of gender dynamics in Taiwan that I might explore in a later post.

It's also worth pointing out this section: 

"...writer Erin Bried recalls serving her dinner party guests a homemade “rhubarb” pie accidentally made with look-alike Swiss chard. One might chalk this up as a simple goof (hey, they’ve both got red stems!), but Bried sees her mistake as something much more serious: “When did I lose my ability to take care of myself? . . . What is simultaneously comforting and alarming about my domestic incompetence is that I am hardly alone. I’m joined by millions of women, Gen Xers and Gen Yers, who either have consciously rejected household endeavors in favor of career or, even more likely, were simply raised in the ultimate age of convenience and consumerism.”

This vision of what it means for a woman to take care of herself is either radically new or incredibly retro. Bried is a senior staff writer at a major national magazine, yet she’s framing her ability to take care of herself around her ability to bake a pie.
Exactly - this is why I am posting this at all. I frame my ability to take care of myself around my ability to be self-sufficient, to create and  nurture good relationships, to set and achieve goals and have enough time and money to do things I enjoy. This includes being able to take care of a home, but by that I mean "cook myself a decent, edible meal, not give anyone food poisoning, and keep the place relatively clean without ruining my stuff".  You know, not that much more than one normally expects of bachelors. Being able to bake a pie, is really, honestly a bonus. It would  genuinely scare me to see a new generation of women framing their abilities around only what they can do in the home, and not just a part of what they're capable of, and things like pie baking and knitting are placed where they belong: nice skills to have, but not strictly necessary. Not necessary the way being able to earn a living wage (even if you, with your partner, choose not to do so in lieu of equally valuable contributions at home) is, or being able to clean without destroying your floor, cook a basic meal without killing yourself, handle your own finances or have satisfying relationships are.

I guess I don't have a clear point, other than to provide my thoughts on the article above and tie it in a few ways to my own life and  what I've observed in Asia.

It does lead me to a final point, though, that a resurgence of domestic hobbies isn't what we, the new generation of feminists, need to be fighting for - in the West or in Taiwan. We still have a lot of other things to tackle:

Equal Pay for Equal Work: this gets better all the time, but those who say that women's salaries are lower only because of the kind of work they do or amount of work they put in vis-a-vis family time miss the point. The first point is that no, studies clearly show lower paychecks for the same job done at the same level of dedication. Secondly, jobs that typically are done by women (teaching, nursing etc) are generally speaking underpaid - they deserve far more than they get. Especially teachers, who are professionals just like doctors or lawyers, although in a different way.

Equal Dedication to Family: a lot of women drop off in the workforce because the societal expectation is still on them to be the 'nurterers' and 'caregivers' - so  they're expected to cut back at work far more than men.  Flextime for family should be something that both parents can take advantage of without stigma. Making the business world family-friendly is not just something that working mothers need, working fathers need it too. The lack of childcare support, which keeps a lot of women who are not so well off that they can afford a nanny or private day care at home, is also a big problem (less so in Taiwan where many people have family to fill this role, but still a problem).

This also includes equivalent/fair childrearing time done by both spouses -  even if one stays home - and equivalent time doing housework or other domestic tasks. If the family decides they're going to make their own cheese or  jam or grow their own vegetables, then I want to see men getting in on that action, too. 

Insidious Beliefs about (against) Reproductive Freedom: 'nuff said. It just doesn't go away. That's sad.

Virulent Misogynist Beliefs: far worse than "oh she's a woman and she likes making jam" are  people who genuinely believe that submissive women are "better" than assertive ones, who believe that beauty is truly more important for a woman than brains, who believe - openly! - that women are the gatekeepers of sexuality and chastity and that men can never be expected to be responsible, and who place ridiculous expectations on women - that we can't be too smart, that we always need to be just a bit thinner or more buxom, that we should be super skinny and yet still cook amazing brownies and not be afraid to eat them, that we should make less than our spouses or not be quite as successful. This group includes anyone who likes "Asian women" for being "more beautiful, slender, submissive, gentle" or whatever tripe, and especially those who say that openly. (It does not include men who are dating an Asian woman just because he happens to like her for her - I want to be very specific about that).                                          

It's one thing to have a personal preference for certain personality types, and there is nothing wrong with women who are quieter, not as naturally assertive, not as take-charge - and nothing wrong with men who tend to like those women. There's nothing wrong with two people who agree that they want a more traditional home life. 

It becomes wrong when someone decides that submissiveness, quietness and other qualities traditionally pegged to women are "better" than women who are talkative, take-charge, assertive and maybe a little brash. It becomes a problem when you believe that being a woman means you should be a doormat. It becomes a problem when they criticize any other personality type in a woman as 'unfeminine' or 'undesireable', or imply that all women 'should' be a certain way by virtue of them being women.

I will add that those guys are wrong, simply by virtue of the fact that women like me exist. They're just wrong. If they were right I'd be a miserable spinster (not that all unmarried women are miserable or could be called spinsters - I'm using a term they'd use). I wouldn't have a happy life and wonderful husband who prefers me to all the "slender, beautiful, quiet, submissive" women out there.

Equal Representation: those who say "you've won the battle, what are you still crowing about?" clearly haven't looked at the numbers for female representation in politics, the vitriol of attack ads aimed at female candidates that sometimes border on sexist (and sometimes blatantly are sexist). They haven't looked at the numbers at the higher echelons of business or wealth distribution. Oprah is famous for being an extremely wealthy black woman because she's the exception, not the norm. Cher Wang, again - exception, not the norm. We are underrepresented and attacked when we try to represent. This needs to change.

Societal Treatment of Abuse, Rape and Harassment: again, 'nuff said.

Basically, yes, there are issues raised by this resurgence of domestic 'hobbies' among young women, but that's not nearly our biggest issue. Let's tackle the above first, just as our mothers and grandmothers did, and not really worry about who likes knitting and who doesn't.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Glue Dots

While we were in the USA, we bought the materials necessary to make our wedding album in Taiwan. We knew that similar materials would be hard to find and likely more expensive here, even though photo printing is fantastically cheaper.

It's true, too: just try finding a nice, classy photo album that doesn't have pictures of cartoon dogs and cats and stars and babies and dodgy English ("Forever My Always Friend!") and fluffy clouds made with the spray-paint effect of a mid-90s version of MS Paint. Try finding an album that doesn't force you to fit in exact rows of regulation-size 4x6 photos in little slots with no room for sizing, spacing, tableau creation, artistic scrapbook-like additions (I'm not into scrapbooking per se and can't stand the little theme stickers, but the papers are nice and some elements of it work nicely in dedicated photo albums) or any sort of classy presentation. Muji sells a few versions but they're all very plain. A few souvenir shops sell pretty Chinese-style decorated ones, but inside it's all 4x6 photo slots, not blank paper.

And just try finding acid-free photo glue, glue tape or glue dots. They exist, but are frighteningly hard to come by. It seems that in Taiwan you either buy a cheap album covered in puppies and kittens and stick your photos in there, or you get pro photos made and the photographer prints up a book for you - standard for weddings and pictures of daughters in princess costumes and occasionally over-indulged Maltese dogs. Although DIY was a big thing in Taiwan several years ago, these days people just don't make their own fancy photo albums and they certainly don't DIY their wedding albums (we ran into the same issues DIYing our wedding invitations. Apparently nobody does that) - so the materials are hard to come by.

What's my point?

Well, we go into a photo store - you know, similar to one of the Konica ones with the blue sign - which prints photos, sells camera batteries, frames and photo albums with puppies and kittens on them, and a few with roses ("The love is our special bonding") and ask about acid-free glue to make a photo album.

After getting over the initial shock of the idea that two people would make their own wedding album, they said that they did not, in fact, carry such glue.

The thing I noted was that one of the women immediately got on the phone and called not one, but three - three - other stores to find a shop that sold such glue for us. First she was sure that there was a place in Shinkong Mitsukoshi that stocked it (no). Then that there was one "around Taipei Main" (yeah, just try walking around Taipei Main asking random people "Do you know where that store is that sells acid-free glue?") and finally she found it at 誠品.

Now, in the USA it wouldn't work this way. You'd drive to Michael's in your gas guzzler, wander the football-field sized cornucopia of DIY goodies (including whatever you need to make a cornucopia), find your acid-free glue dots in the scrapbooking section, and pay for them. You might not even talk to the cashier. Then you'd hop back in your car, possibly get lunch at Panera, and drive home.

In short: zero social interaction.

In Taiwan, this stuff is harder to find, you're never sure which store or even which kind of store carries what (ask me someday about finding leaf skeletons), and half the time it's just luck or knowing someone who knows where to get it.

But then you walk into a place like this one, in some random lane off Roosevelt Road, and the clerk really helps you, and you chat with her, and she tells you how she'd like to make photo albums too but the materials are so expensive, and you pet someone's dog, and she makes a few phone calls, and the next time you come in she recognizes you and asks you if you found the glue you needed.

This is one reason why I love living in Taiwan.

It's easy to get in the car and go to Michael's, but it's infinitely more rewarding to actually talk to people. Forget real glue dots for photos - these small interactions are figurative, social glue dots that form community.

I realize you can do this in many parts of the USA, but my experience has been that it's just not that common anymore, especially with the rise of suburbs and the patterns of interaction they create between people (ie, no interaction). What I find interesting is that my experience is the opposite of what you hear many Americans saying: you always hear about friendliness and everyone knowing everyone in small towns, and the meanness of big, scary anonymous cities. My small town was OK - not too friendly, not too unfriendly. I couldn't go to the pharmacy on Main Street and have the guy behind the counter know me by sight or name. You can go out and be warmly greeted, but not because people actually know you, and rarely because they remember you. Whereas in cities where I've lived, sure, if you leave your neighborhood you're anonymous but if you are doing anything - shopping, drinking coffee, taking a walk, waiting at a bus stop - people from your neighborhood know you, recognize you and greet you. I think this has everything to do with the fact that in those neighborhoods people got in their cars (if they even had cars) a lot less.

But I digress. I haven't felt the same warmth in the USA as I do in Taiwan, and I don't necessarily think it's just because I'm a foreigner (all those old townies and obasans who sit outside gossiping in their social circles, deeply embedded in their neighborhood community, are not foreigners). I don't think the owner of a store in the USA would be likely to call three other stores to help me find what I needed because she didn't sell it (maybe in some places they would - it just hasn't been my experience). I'm not at all sure that same owner would remember me the next time I came in (although that, in Taiwan, might well have a lot to do with my being a foreigner, especially living in a neighborhood with so few of them around).

Now, I'll end on a sad note. We're moving soon (in a month, in fact). We're not leaving Taiwan, just moving from Wenshan to Da'an, to a gorgeous refurbished apartment that we fell in love with on first viewing (wood floors! a dryer! a water filter! a bathtub! stucco walls! a tatami-floored tea alcove!). I've felt really great about changing apartments but also sad about leaving my little Jingmei enclave and saying goodbye to all the vendors, old folks, shop owners and various loiterers I greet daily. Sad about leaving my favorite night market and knowing the vendors who I buy dinner from. Sad about not occasionally waking up to the sounds of the chickens squawking from the chicken vendor one lane over.

Near my apartment is another residential building of roughly the same era (when everything that was built was ugly), with an awning and old chairs by the entrance. I used to sit outside and gossip with the old ladies who gathered there. The nexus - the glue dot - of this octogenarian (and older) clique was Old Wu, who lived on the 2nd floor and had a decrepit old dog named Mao Mao. He was killed when a scooter hit him a few years ago (I was very attached to Mao Mao and I did shed a few tears). Even if the other old ladies were out napping or taking care of grandchildren or wandering around, I would often sit outside with her, and pet Mao Mao when he was alive, and shoot the breeze. Even when that breeze was the first hint of a typhoon blowing in.

Her health was deteriorating before we left for Turkey. I noticed that the glue was coming a bit loose: the old ladies no longer met under the awning, what with Old Wu in the hospital and not there to hold court. They moved to the temple goods store (you know, gold paper lotus offerings, incense etc.) next to Ah-Xiong's shop. I joined them there a few times, but there aren't enough chairs and it's too close to the chickens, which, frankly, stink.

I knew that Old Wu didn't have long, but I didn't think I'd never see her again. I guess I figured, those ladies are pretty tough, and most of them are surprisingly ancient. Old Taiwanese ladies never die, right?

Well, she succumbed to her poor health and passed away while we were in Turkey. I only found out when we got back, and suddenly those empty old chairs were a lot sadder, now that I knew their unsat-in condition was no longer temporary. I cried a fair bit on the way back up to my apartment and was extra winded when I got to the top from doing so (another reason to move: six floor walkup in this place. No more).

Old Wu was my glue dot in Jingmei. She and her group, whose ages totaled must have topped 500, made me feel welcome, like I was part of a community. I didn't feel like a foreigner, a novelty or something strange or different. They'd seen a lot in their lives (a lot - anyone that age in Asia has) and a young foreign girl was really nothing chart-topping. They just accepted me as another part of their life experience (and also told me all about my husband's arm hair and how many kids we should have, but that's another story).

I don't believe in signs. I really don't - but if I did, a case could be made that the end of an era has come and it's time to leave Jingmei - not because Old Wu passed on (I'm not so self-centered as to believe that the universe killed an old lady just to tell me to move!) but because my old lady gossip circle is no more, and because it's just different now. I feel released, pulled off a page, and it's time to find a new glue dot and adhere somewhere else for awhile...even if that somewhere else is technically just up the road.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Lao Ren Cha's Ultimate Taipei DIY Shop Guide

I bought just about everything to make this necklace from a small bead-and-fixing shop in a lane east of Dihua Street - the crystals, tiny turquoise beads and lapis beads came from Taipei City Mall.

So, I’ve been slowly working on a post about navigating circles of friendship in Taiwan, but I’m not feeling like finishing it right now (maybe over the weekend). It’s hard, writing it in such a way to make it clear that I am observing, not complaining, and that I am in no way talking about anyone specific, just citing trends I’ve noticed. I’m having trouble creating a tone that conveys that, so it’s on the shelf for now.

Instead, I’ll do another, easier post I’ve been meaning to cover for awhile – the best places to get DIY products in Taipei. Many of you know that I’m totally into DIY jewelry making; I do other stuff too, but mostly stick to jewelry (I mostly branched out when it came to making stuff for our wedding, because for every piece of cookie-cutter whatever-whatever I found online, I figured I could make one more to my taste – from boutonnieres to corsages to seating cards to table numbers to bridesmaid jewelry to my own jewelry).

The hair stick came from a shop in the underground mall on Zhongxiao between Main Station and Chongqing Road. The leaf came from the shop near Yanping-Chang'an, the rest came from the small shop near Dihua Street.

I usually get my beads at a small shop in a lane just east of Dihua Street (I can’t find the exact address – the first lane, which I believe is a small street – just east of Yongle Market and walk north just a bit. On the right you’ll pass a lane that houses a small wet market, and where you want to go is the next lane north of that - turn in and it’s about halfway down on the left, across from a shop that sells fringes and ribbons).

The shop also sells real stone beads – if you are willing to get spendy they are behind the counter, and some of the cultured pearls can get expensive. Some strands are more expensive than in Taipei City Mall, so you may want to look there first. Some things I really like here are the large selection of copper-tone beads and workings, the metal-dipped colored glass and the Venetian-glass style beads.

This lane is also great for ribbon lace of all kinds as well as ribbon – the ribbon shop is the best of its lot.

Pretty much all of this except for the lighter amethysts came from the small shop near Dihua Street (the amethysts came from Taipei City Mall, as did the amethyst pendant at the end)

I also get my workings at this shop: the metal bits that hold it all together, such as clasps, jump beads, wires, rods and earring hooks. They also have a good selection of chains and charms including faux keys and you can buy pliers here. I have a pair of needlenose and a pair of fatter, heavier pliers.

For fabric and buttons, I go to Yongle Market. Get your fabric on the 2nd floor, but the button mecca is a small shop on the far south end of the first floor, near the entrance that’s just beyond the outdoor coffee shop and lets out into the lane with the food stalls. For Indian fabric and Thai silk, go to the shop on the 2nd floor of the building with the watch store on the southwest corner of Yanping-Nanjing. Just buzz up if the door is locked.

The whole lot of this came from Yongle Market, either the far side shop on the ground floor or the shop with all the sparkly fabric on the 2nd floor. The copper thing came from the small shop near Dihua.

On the other end of the market, near the street just east of Dihua, the first floor houses the go-to shop for feathers. You can get feathers elsewhere (including inside the market itself just inside the main 2nd floor entrance).

On Dihua itself across the street from Yongle Market you’ll find a shop that sells more beads and other accessories – this is a good place for sew-on patches (they have Chinese dragon patches, which is cool).

Whatever I can’t find here I get in the Yanping-Chang’an area. Just west of Yanping-Chang’an intersection on the north side is a DIY shop that is not as cramped as my favorite one, but is also not that well-organized.

If you head east on Chang’an, Chang’an-Chongqing has a great fake flower and basket shop, for those who are into that sort of thing.

Heading south on Yanping, you’ll pass a DIY shop that has plastic beads (not my thing), lots of yarn and other stuff. I generally walk all the way to Civic Boulevard – on the Yanping-Civic Intersection you’ll find a large shop full of bead, mostly crystals. This is a good place for fake jade if you are looking to make something of that sort. Lots of bracelets that you can cut, take the beads off of, and turn into whatever you want.

Some of these charms are old broken earrings (the bottom one), or I've had for years and didn't know what to do with them (the glass one). The lapis one came from Taipei City Mall, and the Venetian-glass-style beads came from the small shop near Dihua.

Taipei City Mall is also a great place for beads and especially crystals. I can’t even say which shop as the whole thing is so vast and difficult to navigate in terms of remembering what stores are where. I particularly like one shop that sells affordable faux turquoise, real (but low-quality) lapis, real amethysts and interesting charms and pendants. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you just where it is – I believe it’s toward the eastern end and in the southern corridor (there are two corridors separated by more shops), if coming from Taipei Main it’d be on the left. This entire area is the bargain-basement mecca for crystals and real-but-not-stellar-quality stones.

Ribbon: ribbon shops in the lanes around Dihua. Fixings: my favorite shop. Leaf skeletons: Jianguo Weekend Flower Market.

I get my leaf skeletons at Jianguo Weekend Flower Market – the Flower Market is a great place for this and other dried or fake flower DIY stuff, and the jade market, as long as you are careful not to get ripped off, is great for fake jade (don’t even try to buy real jade here) and antique-looking Chinese beads and charms (some might even be real antiques, but don’t bet on it).

This is what I made with the paper I got at Chang-chun Ever Prosperous Co.

I get my paper at Chang-Chun Ever Prosperous Co. paper shop, near Chang’an-Songjiang Intersection (on Chang’an, south side, just east of Songjiang, past Su Ho Paper Museum which also has a nice shop). They sell almost everything you might need at good prices, including Japanese chiyogami paper.

I get all my other stuff – hot glue, regular glue, gold paint and paint pens, cutting implements, ink, paint, brushes, rods etc. around Shi-da – the huge stationery store next to Watson’s in the night market is one good place, and the art shops on the south end of Heping in this area are also great, especially for paint and spray paint. For hot glue, the “everything” shop next to the stationery store can help. Further east, Sheng Li’s 2nd floor (the huge green store on Heping-Fuxing) has a lot of stuff, too, including more leaf skeletons, ribbon, string, paint etc. and gift boxes and bags.

Very occasionally I need sequins or glitter – I like to peruse the more unique offerings at the Hess Bookstore (B1 level) on Minquan/Songjiang. They also have a good selection of fancy gift boxes.

Anyway. I hope this fairly extensive list helps out another fellow DIYer in Taipei who is searching for the perfect beads or needs something weird like leaf skeletons or gold spray paint. Enjoy!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

GET BAKED: Baking in Taiwan

Man-Child Brownies baked in my new-ish oven with my new baking dish from Nitori

Even after four and a half years, I get culture shock in some odd ways. Until recently, one of these was feeling irritated at my inability to bake.

Or maybe they're not that odd: in A Taste of Home (the second story in the book Expat: Women's True Tales of Life Abroad, which I thoroughly recommend), the writer has similar cravings, but for roast chicken, not Christmas cookies or truffle cake.

Back in the USA I was a baking dynamo: I made muffins every weekend - and banana bread when I didn't feel like muffins. I baked tons of cakes, from blueberry to pumpkin to black forest cherry to red velvet to chocolate truffle. I baked cookies every Christmas (and occasionally for the office) and while I didn't make them often, I was able and willing to make crepes, Levantine farina cake, Greek-style baklava and coffee cakes. I made some pretty mean pies, too.

So it was a bit of a shock to me to end up in Asia with a kitchen that had no oven. Like so much with culture shock, intellectually I knew that kitchens in Asia don't typically include ovens, but I never anticipated the feeling of loss that came with it. In India, I didn't stay long enough to try and bake (and it was too hot to bother, really), and in China, ingredients to bake and freestanding ovens were hard enough to come by, and if found, expensive enough, that I didn't try.

But I've been in Taiwan for far longer - I hadn't anticipated staying on this long when I first moved here but I'm happy I have - and the lack of baking was really getting to me. We were home for Christmas 2009 and I baked literally hundreds of cookies - sugar, gingerbread, chocolate melt, chocolate chip, "Swedish almond cookies with jam" (probably not really Swedish) and nutty oatmeal cookies. Even hosting a Christmas party of 14 people, including three kids, we couldn't finish them all.

So, after four years of feeling deprived, we went to Carrefour and bought an NT $2900 oven. Yay!

With an oven, though, one needs supplies. That's where this post comes in - it's taken me months to assemble various things for baking, and I'm still not quite done. Jason's and City Super sell a lot of this stuff, but mostly for jacked-up prices. You can do better.

Here's a reference guide of the best places to buy baking goods for a reasonable price:

(the one off Heping Road is closed)

I go to this one: Roosevelt Rd. Section 5 Lane 218, Number 36 / (02)29320405.
MRT Wanlong Exit 4, turn right to Cosmed, turn right again and it's down the lane next to Family Mart.

Scattered about Taipei, these stores sell all the things that the big department store supermarkets don't, or that they sell too expensively. Some comparisons: sprinkles at Jason's are NT$200+ for some German brand, and it's all they stock. Sprinkles of varying kinds and in varying sizes cost a fraction of that. Candy molds at City Super - NT$300-NT$800. Plastic candy molds at the baking store - NT$30, or silicone molds for NT$350. Icing bags and tips at the supermarkets - hundreds of NT. At the baking store? NT$70. Baker's chocolate is far less, seasonings are far less (at least NT$100 in savings per bottle), vanilla extract is a fraction of the cost, and they stock mid-range baking supplies whereas the department store supermarkets only stock high-end, highly-priced goods. You won't feel guilty about throwing away an NT$50 whisk from the baking store - why pay NT$800 for a fancy European one that you'll now feel you either have to keep or sell, seeing as it cost so much? Cookie cutters: NT$75 at City Super with little selection, NT$20-$30 at DIY baking stores with a huge selection, including little Taiwan-shaped cookie cutters!

In short, don't shop for this stuff at Jason's or City Super - don't let the greedy idiots win.

The DIY tores also sell hard-to-find items such as food coloring, icing gel (I saw it in pots only, not tubes), certain ingredients otherwise hard to come by and for cooks, they sell things like capers and tomato paste for far less than the big supermarkets.

You can also buy items like flour and confectioner's sugar in bulk. These are sold at regular supermarkets but usually in smaller packets.

By the way, you'll have to make your own icing - you can buy gel icing, but if you want royal or buttercream, you're on your own. Nobody sells it. Fortunately, it's easy to make.

Other items you can get here: mascarpone, light sour cream, flour in bulk, candy melts and flavorings beyond vanilla and almond.

Sheng Li
Corner of Heping E. Road and Fuxing S. Road - it's the big green 'everything' store

The third floor of this catch-all discount store sells kitchen supplies - get inexpensive whisks and rolling pins here. I got my super-simple rolling pin for NT $30.

IKEA and Nitori
Asiaworld Shopping Center, Corner of Nanjing E. Road and Dunhua N. Road, basement

IKEA is the place to go for springform-style pans (the kind you use when you need to turn a cake upside down after baking it), coffee cake and bread pans and other baking items. Nitori sells glass and ceramic baking pans - including the old Corningware style baking and souffle dishes, perfect for a chocolate souffle if you think you can handle it. Both of these stores sell baking items at far less than the department stores.

If you need regular, not baking chocolate, the own-brand candy bars sold at IKEA are your cheapest bet for acceptable chocolate.

Great for coconut spread if you are too lazy to make icing (this does work, by the way - buy Indonesian coconut spread and add a bit of food coloring if you want, and use that instead of icing), colored and chocolate sprinkles and interesting ingredients you may find you need such as powdered ginger in good quantities at affordable prices. You can also get coconut flakes at a good price.

Zhongxiao E. Road, ahead of City Hall Exit 4, near Dante Coffee, 2nd floor of a bland unmarked building

Great for coconut flakes, dates, tamarind pulp, almond and rose flavorings, occasionally saffron/safflower (better for color than flavor), jaggery and other elements for Asian baking. You can also get stick cinnamon, whole nutmeg, cardamom and other useful spices for interesting cookies and muffins.

Jason's and City Super
all major department stores

Really only recommended for chocolate chips (often whitened and old, but if you use them to bake they become good again once heated up), mini marshmallows, baker's chocolate. Jason's sells "Almond Dew" which is basically almond extract, and if you're in a pinch they do sell vanilla extract at exorbitant prices. Otherwise don't bother with their crappy baking aisles.

all over Taipei

Believe it or not, Wellcome does stock decent supplies of spices, kinds of flour, egg white powder (蛋白雙), molasses, confectioner's sugar, unsalted butter, cream cheese and other kinds of sugar. You can get a lot of what you need here.

Health Food Stores
I recommend the one on Roosevelt Road between Gongguan and Taipower Building. Get off at the Taipower Building bus stop (after Gongguan) and walk south - you'll see it.

This is a good place to get flaxseed, instant grains/oats as well as whole, non-instant oats that you can use in oatmeal or multi-grain cookies. Also good for flavored oils, healthful flours, organic raisins etc..

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Dreary Day DIY

The purple and silver necklace I made on this chilling, gray Saturday

Every time I've complained about the weather this past winter, I've thought that "well, I'm complaining now, but it's not that bad - I mean it couldn't get any worse than this, so it can only get better from here."

(I'm like that because, as I've said before, I'm an Obasan-in-Training. At barely 30 years old, I am doing a superb job of being ornery and opinionated and - dare I say it? - crotchety. I like to think it's endearing).

Right. So, I was wrong. I didn't realize it was possible for the weather to grow more dismal and dreary but somehow, it did. Clearly the God of Gray Skies (I like to think it's Chiang Kai-Shek) has decided to shed his "favor" upon us with more gloomy vigor.

And when it gets this nasty out, what else is there to do but drink good coffee and do some DIY? You can't go to a museum, because those'll be too crowded on a cold, rainy Saturday. You can go out to eat but how long can you faff about in a restaurant (quite a bit, actually, but only if you don't mind servers "subtly" swiping the broom under your feet at the point where you're staying just long enough to make it awkward).

Not really how I want to spend my Saturday, though. So we headed to George Coffee, where I've done my DIY beading before and they don't mind - I'd feel weird doing it at a lot of the places we otherwise frequent, and many of them have cats. It's fine when my cat bats a bead off the table and I can retrieve it, but a cat in a cafe flinging beads onto the floor is a new level of annoying. The folks at George as so cool about it that the bring me a spare table light so I can see what I'm doing more clearly.

As you may know if you read this blog somewhat regularly, I am totally into DIY, mostly beading and jewelrymaking (I draw, too, but that's different). I made my own wedding necklace:

Photos above and below by Keira Lemonis

...and for our musician (a good friend) and female attendants:

...including the feather-leaf corsage.

And what a good use of the day, too! In weather that would otherwise render me thoroughly unproductive (but I'm also 3/4 of the way through a longer post on vegetarianism and travel, so there's that) I managed to finish off the necklace above. I made a similar one for my friend Emily - in black, green and silver - as part of a "Pay It Forward for Creative People" Facebook challenge, and I wanted my own. So I hunkered down and made it.

The best DIY shops, by the way, are all in the vicinity of (but not necessarily on) Dihua Street. I'm planning to head back to that neighborhood soon, and when I do I'll get the true addresses of my two favorite spots for DIY beading and jewelry supplies and post them here as an update. One of them gives out a discount VIP card (a small keychain you show them) that gives you a 20% discount on most merchandise, and they have some good stuff: from truly expensive pearls and semiprecious stones to crystal to shell to glass to plastic.

The beads in the necklace above are mostly crystal and glass, but the larger ones are all real amethysts (not an expensive stone, so fairly affordable to buy real). The fixtures and findings are, of course, not real silver, but who cares.

Which actually brings me to Reason #14 to love Taiwan: cheap, accessible, generally high-quality DIY materials, especially for jewelrymaking! I bought every one of these supplies in Taiwan, from around Dihua Street, from Yongle Market (the feathers), from the Jianguo Weekend Flower Market (dried leaf skeletons), from Taipei City Mall (a few places that sell semiprecious beads) - all for a lot less than they charge for that stuff back home.

I'm curious to hear how you spend your dreary days in Taipei: we get an awful lot of them and ideas on what to do - what you do - through these depressingly gray months would surely be of help to other bored, gloomy expats in Taipei on days like this.