Showing posts with label obasan. Show all posts
Showing posts with label obasan. Show all posts

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.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

"Got kids?...why not? Is it because you're fat?"

I'd like to throw a big shout-out to all the Old Ladies of Taiwan (and Taxi Drivers of Taiwan) for daring to ask the tough questions - questions that they really need to know the answers to, and if they don't get them, clearly the Earth will stop spinning and the sky will fall in. Questions that generally seem to fall on foreign women - although men get them too - and require either contortions of information and explanation or just reddening silence and a mumbled "我也不知道噁".

They're really quite adept at getting, ahem, all up in yo' bidness:

"Are you married?" ("Why not?")
"Do you have kids yet?" ("Why not? You should have a boy and a girl. But not more than two.")
Variation: "How many kids do you have?" ("None? Why not?")
"When will you have kids?" ("Why not?")
"Why are you fat? Are all Americans fat?"
"Have you gained/lost weight?"
"How old are you?"
"How much is your rent?"
"What do you make per hour?" ("Oh, my granddaughter makes more/less than that.")
"Did you vote for Obama? Did you know that he's black?"
"What do you think of Ma Ying-jiu?"
"Did you have a boyfriend before you got married?"
"Why are Americans so rich?"
"Do you still work after marriage?" ("Why?")
"Why are your boobs so big?"
"Why do you have hair on your arm?"
"Why do Americans let their parents die in institutions instead of taking care of them?"
"Why did Americans elect someone stupid like Xiao Buxi?" (George W. Bush)
"Why doesn't America like Taiwan?"
"It's cold/warm out you shouldn't wear that." (for all values of "that")
"Where did you buy that? How much did it cost?" ("That's too expensive.")
"How much money do you save?"
"Why don't Americans save money?"
"Why do you have an iPhone" (note: I don't have an iPhone, I have an iPod Touch) "you should save your money."
"Why do you travel so much? You should save your money."
"You should cook at home, not eat here" (while the beef noodle joint owner glares) " can save more money and beef noodles will make you fatter."
"Why are you eating that?" ("It's not good for you.")
"Do you believe in Christianity? How about Buddhism?"
And both "Why didn't you stay in the good American economy" and "Why is the American economy so bad?"
"Did you live with your [now-] husband before marriage?"
"Did your father allow you to move abroad/live with a man before marriage?"

I mean, come on ladies, the world needs to know. How will we ever carry on without knowing how old you are, why you don't have babies yet, why you weigh what you do and who you voted for!

And yes, I did say "ladies", because we female expats do get more of this than the men, although they get it too. It's like being female opens you up to being asked so many more probing questions, or maybe it's that the Old Ladies and Taxi Drivers of Taiwan don't think it matters what the men weigh, how old they are, whether or not they're married (and why - they have to know why or it simply does not count), what their rent is and how much they save. Maybe it's a woman-to-woman thing that transcends culture and generation, like when I showed my wedding pictures to my friend's Grandma and we bonded despite age, culture and language barriers. (Note: the same Grandma who talked at length about how she'd run her son's house differently from how her daughter-in-law does it, and who admonished me to have two kids, not three, because she "had three and you can't carry them if you have so many, so don't make my mistake").

You also open yourself up to it more if you clearly speak Chinese; more so if you speak enough Taiwanese to get attention, despite not being nearly fluent (not that I'd know anything about that, ahem).

So. Let's take stock of me.

Young? Check.
Female? Check.
Married? Check.
Speaks Chinese? Check.
No kids yet? Check.
Living in a neighborhood with few foreigners? Check.

I'm like the poster girl for the kind of foreigner Old Taiwanese Ladies and Taxi Drivers like to hurl questions at like streams of betel nut juice at a sewer grate.

Fortunately for them, I'm fairly open. I won't tell them what I weigh and I won't dignify the "No kids? Is that because you're fat?" questions with a response, but I'm happy to talk to them about why I don't want kids right now - I leave the "do you want them someday" debates firmly off the table - what I think of Ma Ying-jiu, how much my rent is, how old I am etc.. I'm not sure if I'm just naturally a sharer or I've been in Taiwan so long that I've become desensitized and I just don't care if they know what I make and the fact that I lean green.

That said, at my non-answer I got the best rejoinder ever from an Old Taiwanese Lady: "if you want to lose weight, you should eat less and exercise more". Thanks, Old Wu. Because I totally didn't know that.

And really, you just have to laugh. The questions are clearly not going away - Taiwan will always have taxi drivers who ask you all sorts of crazy stuff, and those Old Taiwanese Ladies are already pushing 150 and will probably outlive you.

Which reminds me - best conversation ever:

Old lady in night market, grabbing my butt: 妳為甚這麼胖呵?
Me: 妳為甚麼這麼老呵?
Old lady in night market: 因為我小的時候我不是那麼胖啊!

(Old Lady: 1 - Jenna: 0).

Anyway, I figure, they're just trying to be friendly. They don't mean it to be rude, and don't even realize that there are people out there who think it is rude - or they realize it's a bit rude but when it's 2011 and one is old enough to tell stories about one's childhood friend the Dowager Empress Cixi, one simply stops caring.

I can see how this might bother some foreign women enough that they'll choose not to stay, and I've certainly heard my share of Western women mentioning this phenomenon. I do think that most of us take it with a grain of salt ("Don't eat that salt! It's not good for you! How will you have babies?") and adjust to it enough that we can laugh about it rather than be offended.

I have found that if you actually answer their questions, they tend to like you more and sort of adopt you as a surrogate granddaughter. One woman in my neighborhood, who's 75 if she's a day, has taken to calling me 妹妹 ("Little Sister"). Another told me her life story, which was a fascinating insight into life 60+ years ago for a Taiwanese woman, from the perspective of that woman and not a museum exhibit or history book written by a bunch of men, and was totally worth divulging my age and rental fees.

In the end, this isn't a post complaining about the personal questions or asking "What's up with that?" because deep down, I think we all know what's up with that.

It's more of a chuckling recognition, and maybe a bit of a warning for any potential expat women who find this blog before coming, or who are just settling in and dealing with culture shock. Be prepared.

Friday, June 18, 2010

These Women are Super Awesome

The plastic fake Burberry tote. The pink foofy short skirts. The headbands and black pantyhose and gold beadery and glitter.

They are AWESOME. When I am a woman of a certain age, I want to be as awesome as these women, rockin' the gold sequins.

And that's all I'm gonna say about that.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Reason #6 to Love (?) Taiwan

Happy Labor Day, everyone!

Today I only had Chinese class, which meant I could wear jeans and a t-shirt covered in Engrish ("Hot Space Station Justice") and ride my bike to Shi-da at my leisure instead of donning work clothes and taking the bus or MRT. I tried an alternate route and took the riverside park trail up to Guting, then rode up Tong An street to Heping Road, which I took over to Shida. I didn't like hauling my bike up the ramp, though, so I took my usual route home (Wenzhou Street - NTU - lanes to the west of Roosevelt Road - Jingmei).

The weather was also unbelievably gorgeous. Clear skies, light wind, warm sun, I even got a bit of a sunburn on my arms. It was so nice that on my way back, I decided that I couldn't possibly just disembark at home and go inside. So I turned my bike around and went out exploring the lanes and back-alleys in my neighborhood.

That's what brings me to my next "reason to love Taipei". While the reason isn't Jingmei specifically, it is neighborhoods and backstreets in general. Mine are Jingmei, but I mean your neighborhood and your backstreets.

I love how riding or walking from a major road into a lane-filled neighborhood brings about a palpable difference in sound levels. Once you make that turn you leave behind most of the cars and other noise, and it's replaced mostly by silence on weekdays, especially in late morning and mid-afternoon. That silence isn't diminished by the sounds that punctuate it - if anything, it's augmented. Quiet, except for someone dumping out a bucket of water, or a restaurant laoban chopping up pig parts, or a housewife hanging up wet clothes on a balcony, or one lone scooter meandering along.

South of Keelung Road, the lanes leading down to Jingmei are blessed with lengths of long, tree-lined parks. Starting south from the Broadway movie theater, I ride past the Shi-da branch and turn into the lane (past one of my favorite Hakka noodle joints and a place called Eco Coffee which I haven't tried yet). Greeting me immediately is the faint whoosh of leaves in the breeze, as large old gnarlies with Spanish moss hanging from the branches sway back and forth. The only people I generally encounter down there are the occasional children with parents, or pensioners with dogs.

After enjoying a leisurely ride home past the parks - I think there are three in all and all of them are very long and narrow - I kept going past my own door and stopped to talk to Auntie Wu.

My post earlier in the week on obasan was modeled somewhat on Auntie Wu and Posse? Crew? Gaggle? Homeys? Sistahs? Social Club? She lives on the second floor of an old-style apartment building with her ancient dog, Mao Mao ("Fur-fur"), who has more fur than he has body mass and who is covered in several benign I guess his name is appropriate. There are five or six old chairs in the covered area in front of the apartment, and at any given time Auntie Wu is sitting there with Mao Mao and up to five other women of equally advanced age. They've sort of welcomed me into their gang, with the initiation rites being when Mao Mao decided he liked me. Not as much as the beef noodle laoban next door who gives him leftover cow chunks, mind you, but he likes me well enough even though I don't come bearing hunks of fatty beef for him to eat. The ladies are kind enough to speak Chinese when I am around, but it's obvious that they are more comfortable in the more expressive twangs of Taiwanese. Auntie Wu also used to speak Japanese (having been educated in it - she's that old) and Hakka (from having a family relation who is Hakka, though she herself is not), but says she's since forgotten both.

Besides being a lovely older woman to chat with, a way to get to know the goings-on in my neighborhood (old women know everything - if you haven't already figured this out you don't belong in Asia), and a way to improve my Chinese, Auntie Wu is also one of a dying breed. Sadly, I mean that just as literally as I do metaphorically. There aren't too many people left who remember the Japanese colonial years well enough to have been educated in Japanese, and they are a trove of stories and first-person history that Taiwan is slowly, inevitably losing. She remembers years where most women wore kimonos and nobody spoke Mandarin. She remembers the tumultuous decades between the Japanese ceding Taiwan and the economic miracle, when she was afraid for her life under the White Terror. She remembers when Jingmei's name didn't mean "Scenery Beautiful" but was Taiwanese - Ging Mbi - for "End of the River" and was its own little self-contained settlement, though technically a part of Taipei by that time.

Aside from genuinely being her friend, I feel grateful to have this chance to learn about the history of my neighborhood from someone who saw it with her own eyes, and someone who, frankly speaking, won't be around much longer...and neither will her friends, who flock - well, who walk slowly - to the chairs under her awning each day.

You can still see the shadow - the vague charcoal tracing - of Ging Mbi if you look closely enough. Don't stare at the front of the buildings you pass, look at the sides. Old brick or cement building lines - the kind you still see at the edges of the Old Streets of more touristy areas, are still there. Old walls with capstones on either side of the roof. Curved corner buildings reminiscent of earlier times. Two-level shophouses obscured now by advertisements and store signs. Most people who drive through never notice, but if you turn into the lanes you can still see plenty of century-old brick walls traditional tiled roofs. There are even a few farmhouse-type buildings still around, tucked into corners, surviving because the families who built them still have descendants who live there. There's one with a small but distinct courtyard just north of Sanfu Street and another hidden by low trees on the edge of the hard-to-find Wanqing Park. Look more closely at some of the stores and it'll become quickly clear that many of them have been around a lot longer than their present incarnations give away, from a time when Ging Mbi had its own little 'downtown'.

At about 5:30pm Auntie Wu decided to retire for the evening ("I've also got to pee," she said in her mix of Taiwanese-Chinese , before heading up) and I hopped on my bike to explore some new areas.

I rode down past the Wellcome and to the area where Jingfu Street hits the elevated highway. Stopping at Wanqing Park, I noticed for the first time that the little old house on the edge of it also attracts its own group of old folks who sit outside and chat. One of them had a daschund who crawled into my lap and napped there while I sat.

"You're that girl who spends time with Old Wu and her group, aren't you?"
"That's me. I didn't know you knew Auntie Wu."
"Everyone knows Old Wu. She's been here for longer than many of us have been alive. She has seven kids, you know."
"I know. Her daughter brings her to the doctor and I know she has at least two sons living up by Xingnan Street."
"I know you know Old Wu because Dou Dou" (the aforementioned daschund, whose name translates into 'Bean-bean' or 'Pimple') "can smell Mao Mao very clearly. He's so nice to you because he can tell you were petting Mao Mao."

As the sun began to set I bade the new group of retirees farewell and set off towards a temple roof I'd seen in the distance, which I believe I'd seen from Jingfu Street before but had never been able to get to. Starting from Wanqing Park, I finally found out where the entrance was after weaving through a little colony of single-story houses with old brick walls out front.

The temple was a good metaphor for Jingmei itself. The building was clearly new, with the signature ugly metal awning out front and bathroom tiles on the inside. My guess was that it had been built in the '80s. Looking inside, however, the artifacts within weren't immediately apparent to the eye but once noted, were clearly far older. The temple was to Qingshui Zhuce, whose name I can pronounce but can't spell in Pinyin, and whom I can only remember because it sounds like "Clearwater Registration" in Chinese. There were several da sen - tal god costumes - and quite a few shorter costumes with odd faces. I found one of the only female 'tall gods' that I've ever seen, and she looks like a transvestite. Don't worry, I'll come back and post photos. The bathroom-tile walls were punctuated by strips of wooden sculpture that were clearly over a century old and the shrines themselves were carved in the old Fujian style, dark wood (these were painted) with lots of dragons and such. I asked the Temple Guy (every temple has one) what the deal was, and found that the temple had been on its current site for at least 200 years, but the building was deemed too small and was expanded in the '80s, as I'd guessed.

There'll be a processional with their own tall gods - including the transvestite one - on the 15th day of the 4th lunar month (that's Saturday, May 9) if anyone wishes to go.

On the way home, I took a spin back through the riverside park - the road from the temple heads straight to one of the entrances - and stopped at a bakery I like. The owner and I got into a discussion about the large shrine above the cash register and she explained to me in some detail how one can go about getting those idols - just like the kind in temples - carved for your personal shrine. There are still people, one of whom is in Jingmei, who do that for a living, and next time she goes to get one made, she promised, she'd give me a call so I could arrange to watch some of the carving. Awesome!

Anyway, I hope this post has made you think about your own neighborhood and backstreets, who lives there, what's hidden in the corners and in the faded outlines of streetscapes and how you can better understand its history. I feel privileged to live here as more than a passing traveler, to learn more about one tiny corner of a city beyond how to get from a hotel room to a point on a map, to chat with people as more than just a passing acquaintance and to know that when (if) I ever leave, I'll miss it as though it were my own home town, even though where I was really born is about as far from Ging Mbi as one can get.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Obasan - Reason #5 to love Taiwan

I've decided - regardless of whether we move back to the USA or not, when we grow old, I want to return to Taiwan.

My old dream was to buy the Lishan Bingguan off the government and restore it, opening parts to the public and keeping part as our personal villa.

But that's not really necessary. I just want to return to Taiwan when I'm ancient, period.

As any of you based in Taipei know, the weather was absolutely horrid all weekend. In the mornings it looked like - as one of my coworkers put it - Gotham City, and it was chilly, dusty and drizzly without end.

Of course on Friday and today, two work days, the weather has been gorgeous (today is OK, Friday was spectacular).

So I head to my weekly dermatology appointment - cheap, accessible cosmetic medicine! I love Taiwan! - I realize that while I have to go to work later, the obasan (the old ladies who live in the lanes and spend their days sitting outside chatting) are all out, with their ancient dogs on their ancient chairs in their unfashionable clothes, enjoying the good weather.

In most American towns, you can't just pull up a chair outside your apartment building and form a chattering group of pensioners. In the suburbs you don't even live in apartments, and sitting quietly on your own porch gets old. But here, it's perfectly normal. More common in Kaohsiung, but it does happen in Taipei.

So my goal in life is to enjoy traveling and doing work I love while I'm young, and when we get old, we'll get a nice little apartment in the lanes of Taipei, wear dreadful clothing outdated by 50 years and bought at the outdoor market and cloth kung-fu shoes, and hobble down each morning to yak it up with neighbors. When I need to travel, I get my younger relatives to help and I can elbow people with impunity on the MRT and buses.

Sounds lovely.

If I could be an obasan now, I would. Sometimes I act like them; my dress style totally ignores fashion trends. Due to the nature of my job, on some days I don't have to go to work until evening, or I'm done by 2pm. On those days I am quite likely to sit with the old folks outside the building they gather at. They still chat in Taiwanese to each other, but are polite enough to include me by speaking to me in Chinese.

Oh wait. I already wear old lady cloth shoes, too. They're the only women's shoes in Taiwan that fit me and, when worn with pants, are vaguely acceptable in the office.

My transformation has begun!