Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Han Chi Tiger Noodles

We ate at this restaurant - Han Chi Tiger Noodle - on Sunday, and all I can say is Awesome! I got lamb and Brendan got pork, but we both stuck to the spicy (ma la) specialty soup with puffed rice.

This makes two awesome restaurants near, but not on, Yongkang Street that I strongly recommend (the other one is the Japanese fish restaurant I recommended last week). Is it just me, or is Yongkang Street proper really not that great for food? I know it has this reputation as a culinary Mecca, but so far I've mostly been maybe not disappointed but still "yeah, it's OK" while eating there. Nothing stupendous. Not even the erstwhile Ice Monster (Sugar House in Nanshijiao Night Market is much better, and aptly named). I love the shops - jewelry, used books, old furniture, Chinese-style stuff - and the park, but the food? Eh. And no place to get a good drink nearby!

(Some of the old-school xiao chi places with the low brick kangs and simmering pots of meat...things are pretty good, but not better than anywhere else, and my favorite one of these style restaurants is actually on Songde Road on the other end of the city).

Around Yongkang Street, especially around Lishui and Jinhua Streets, however, I'm finding all sorts of great places to hunker down with amazing food. So my advice is: avoid the main Yongkang drag for food, and instead hunt along its outskirts, especially down Lishui Street.

I did forget to tell them that I didn't want duck blood and ended up with a bunch of blood that I didn't eat (I really don't like it; it tastes like pennies!). My bad!

With our main dishes we got beer and two snacks: a tasty cucumber plate and "tofu skin", which I love for its flavor and texture in general. Han Chi's comes with a flavorful sauce.

They also have dumplings and other items, and an area where you can mix your own sauce as such places do. Among their more interesting offerings is flower pepper oil (hua jiao you or 花椒油) and spicy pickled things that I don't commonly see.

Other than that, I can't improve on the Taipei Times' review, so I won't try. Everything they say is true!

Across the street, next to 7-11, is a great little cafe called Vinyl, with a large (but not especially cheap) wine selection, full coffee tea and other drink selection, food, snacks, desserts and a modest beer choice. They have inviting wooden tables, shelves full of wine, plugs and Wifi, too. The music leaves something to be desired but generally a great place to hang out.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Tai Tai

I've had this on my mind for awhile, but am only now really able to articulate it...and am not even sure I can articulate it well!

Basically, as you all know, I got married recently. And I did, against all my feminist impulses, change my name. Not because I thought I had to, or because I took it for granted that I would, or even to make life easier - because, if anything, it's made life more complicated what with all the document changes spread across not one but two countries!

No, I changed my name for aesthetic reasons. My maiden name is long and hard to pronounce in that special way that only Polish names are (it's not quite as mystifying as some you've surely seen, but it's up there on the impenetrability scale). Living in Asia with a name that is quite literally as long as four Chinese surnames all strung together was no easy thing. "And now, please welcome your seminar instructor, Ms. Jenna....err...Jenna....uh...K-K...Ka...Kw...umm...Jenna!" - and that from colleagues who know me pretty well! If you think living with a hard-to-pronounce name in the USA is tough, try doing it in a country where most surnames are monosyllabic. My husband's short, phonetically easy name is easily grasped by even those who speak no English whatsoever - which is a rarity in Taipei city. I changed it, in part, to make things easier on that front, so that I could be introduced or have someone look at my business card without scratching their forehead at a mass of letters. (To my name's credit, it has more vowels than the typical Slavic surname).

What's more, despite being very proud of my Polish heritage (hooray for kielbasa is all I can say), my husband's name plus my own first name are simply more aesthetically and aurally pleasing than the name configuration given to me at birth.

What's been tough is that, really, deep down, I don't believe in name-changing. I realize that a woman's maiden name most often comes from her father, but still, subordinating identity from father to husband? I'm not big on old-skool feminist speak (despite being a staunch feminist) but c'mon. Kind of reeks of patriarchy, does it not? (Don't even get me started on the "Mr. and Mrs. John Smith" method of formal address. If anyone ever calls me "Mrs. Brendan C." beyond some well-meaning but out-of-date ancient relatives, they are gonna get an earful).

I'd like to clarify thanks to the comments my reasons for hating the "Mr. and Mrs. John Smith" style of address: I don't care what the books say, I don't think it's proper usage anymore. It was originally devised as an etiquette rule, a social grace if you will. The point of etiquette is to be just that: socially graceful. To not offend anyone. To make others comfortable in social situations.

Well, "Mr. and Mrs. John Smith" offends not only me but plenty of other women, and as such it no longer serves its purpose. It doesn't make people comfortable, and it has stopped being "inoffensive". There is, therefore, no reason for its continued existence. If it's bad etiquette to offend others, then "Mr. and Mrs. John Smith" is bad etiquette by all reasonable definitions, unless its usage is specifically requested (in which case I don't care - someone can request to be called Mistress Bazoonga the Chimp and I'll do it if that's what she really wants).

I am not judging on any woman who chose to change her name; it's a highly personal decision and now that we live in an area of true choice, I do trust that any woman who chooses to change her name does so with full consciousness, as I did. The important verb here is, of course, chooses. Even if that woman is otherwise traditional or conservative, there is always a choice: I can name at least one good friend of mine, who got married a few months before I did, whose wife chose to keep her name. They are the most conservative Jews I know personally (though not the most conservative ones out there, by a long shot). My parents are Christians of the super-duper-liberal-love-and-acceptance variety which I respect (I have my own very complicated relationship with theology that I won't get into) and yet my mom admits that had the world been a more accepting place when she married, that she would have done so.

It also stinks that women still get a bum deal: we get a choice, but we get all sorts of baggage with that choice; we get invective and judgment that we never asked for and shouldn't really have to deal with. We get a choice between a father's name and a husband's (and, in some states, a made-up new name from letters gleaned from both). We still don't get the choice of a fully female-owned, self-owned name. I did inquire about changing my name to my mother's maiden name, but a.) it's not allowed for a marriage license name change in New York State, and b.) I'm not looking to offend my dad's family; I am fiercely proud of being part Polish. Taking a swipe at a patriarchal system isn't something I need to do at the expense of real people who are related to me by blood.

And yes, some get fiances who insist. Well, I didn't - and I wouldn't have because I wouldn't marry someone who would insist on something like that. So many women do, though (just read catherine_sr's comment for a particularly disgusting example). I don't hold anything against those couples; people make compromises all the time when they choose to pair off, and none of us has the right to judge what another person or couple has chosen to compromise on.

In short, it's been tough. I've been lagging on changing all my documents because, on some level, I don't really want to. I didn't know it was possible to be philosophically opposed to your own name....but here I am. Mrs. Jenna C., with a driver's license, passport, various investment documents, voter registration, business cards, Taiwan residency permit, NHI card etc. all under Ms. Jenna K. because I just haven't changed them.

(Which, I'd like to add, is my right. It is perfectly legal to change your name but continue to use your maiden name as long as you are transparent about it and not using it to hide illegal activity).

Yes, before you ask, I did bring up the possibility with my husband of coming up with an entirely new name for the both of us, but he didn't particularly want to change his own name which I respect given how much of a bother it is to change all of your documents and ID cards, and how hard it is to adjust to the new name - something I am learning firsthand.

Why am I writing about this now, months after making the decision? Two reasons.

The first is that I never realized the depth of my discomfort with the idea of name-changing.

The second is that I live in a country where women don't change their names.

In terms of maintaining identity as a married woman, it is honestly a bit jarring to realize that there's an Asian tradition that is more female-empowering than that of the West. I've never known a woman in Taiwan that has changed her name to her husband's, and while friends assure me that it has been done on occasion, that it's really quite rare and would be seen as "odd" by most people. Despite all of the hype about in-laws wanting the quick birth of a grandson, rather than granddaughter, despite the fact that children generally take their father's surname rather than their mothers, at least the wives themselves generally retain their own names. They don't get junk mail addressed to women who never existed and they don't get judged by random people for retaining their names.

The only time a woman in Taiwan is referred to by her husband's name is if the entire family is referred to under the name of the man ("The Chen Family") or if she's referred to as a Taitai (ie, Li Wen-ya, wife of Chen Baichuan, referred to as Chen Taitai). This is the term of address commonly translated into English as Madame - a la Madame Chiang Kai-Shek.

So, what with all the arguments back home for "It makes life easier if we all have one name", honestly, changing my name has been nothing but difficult so far (though given time, when I meet new people who only know my by my new name, it should get easier as my new name is so much easier to pronounce). People just don't...get it, and I don't mean that in an obtuse way. They don't get it because it's not in their cultural sphere, and until I explain things, it hadn't even occurred to them that women in the West do often change their names (or, if they already knew that, it didn't occur to them to remember it as it so often counts as an esoteric piece of knowledge, not applicable to daily life.) I get asked why, but thankfully without the judgment back home - on both ends, mind you - both the militant feminist sorts who think I sold out by even considering the change, and by the traditionalists who question why I am not enthusiastic about changing.

And it is true that back home there's judgment to spare: everyone has an opinion on what my (by "my" I mean me, as well as all women like me) choice should be, and why their opinion is the only correct one. It's one thing that's refreshingly absent here. I get curiosity; I don't get judgment.

That's so rarely done, though. I don't know any women under the age of 70 who are commonly called, or appreciate being called, (Husband's Name) Taitai.

As one student of mine put it, "I'm Chen S.F., or Ms. Chen. If someone called me Hong Taitai, I'd think 'who is that?' or wonder 'Really, am I so old?' But nobody ever calls me Hong Taitai, so it's OK."

So. Here I am, an American feminist residing in Asia, a woman who supports and fights for equal rights, equal treatment, equal opportunities and equal respect for men and women, going by my husband's name when the 12 million women around me who ostensibly come from a more sexist, anti-female culture happily keep their own names. They're all Ms. Chen, and I'm a Taitai.

No, I don't think that this is because Taiwan has a traditionally more liberal or female-friendly society than the USA does. Clearly that is not the case. I'm not sure why name-changing never caught on in Taiwan, but what I'm concerned with now is the fact that is decidedly not common - I'm curious as to why but that's for another post someday.

It's fairly common to change one's first name, or to have it changed for you by your parents: this can be done twice by law in Taiwan, and for any reason. One student of mine had her name changed from something rather "strong" for a woman to "Wen-ya", which implies grace and feminine demureness. "I was a tomboy and my parents wanted me to be more like a girl," she explained. "Did it work?" "No!" Considering how easy and common it is to change one's first name, I can't imagine there's a huge taboo on changing your surname (though I could be wrong). It's just...not done.

This raises a lot of questions, none of which I can answer clearly.

What does it say about me?
More importantly, what does it say about American culture? Could one not say that Taiwan has some interesting liberal aspects to its otherwise traditional culture that America lacks? Is the USA hopelessly mired in a conservative rut when it comes to women and families?
(OK, I can answer that question. I think the answer is "yes" but there is hope.)
How can I, as a super liberal feminist, keep going on about equality after changing my name because it sounded prettier?
Does keeping a name (or not) have anything whatsoever to do with a woman's status as an equal member of society?
Do I really need to feel as outdated as I do - like a taitai - in a society where the idea of using your husband's name is considered seriously out of date, something that your grandmother may have done but you'd never do?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Christmas Cat

For your viewing pleasure - the best shots from a round of informal photos I took of our cat, Zhao Cai, lounging under our Christmas tree.

漁泊食堂 (Yu Bo Shi Tang)

Yu Bo Shi Tang
Lishui Street #5-5, Taipei
Just a little west of Yongkang Street, between Xinyi and Jinhua Roads

We tried this place out yesterday with Joseph and it was delicious - the setup was Japanese style, with wooden plaques hanging from a series of hooks on a wall indicating the menu (also a popular method in Taiwan), a high hutch between the serving area and the diners, and a long bar-like counter at which one eats.

Front to back - meaty rice, my husband's hands, our delicious fish, the bowl of snails next to the wine-stewed eel, more rice, someone's drink.

As you can guess, the specialty here is fish - when you ask about fish, a giant basket of the catches of the day appears, and you pick the one you want. You can ask for recommendations (for example, if you want a firm or soft-meat fish, with normal or few bones, etc) and get prices - most fish seem to cost approximately NT 500, give or take a hundred kuai.

Our fish, which was firmer-fleshed with fewer bones, came cooked with crispy, flaky skin that had no taste of bitterness, delicious seasoning and a fileting that left one side bone free. Digging into the remnants, Joseph said "I've done all I can to this fish without actually picking it up and chewing it" as he held up its spine and fins, picked clean.

Considering that when we sat down, the man next to me (who had left by the time the comment was made) was doing more or less just that, I'm not sure it would have been a big deal if he had.

With the delicious fish, we got some slightly overcooked but still good and well-seasoned green veggie topped with sesame seeds, a bowl each of something akin to lu rou fan (rice with a meaty stew) but served with pink pickled ginger and seasoned onion slices, red wine cooked eel which was spectacular (seriously - get it. 紅酒鰻魚) which was big and fat and meaty and not slimy with tiny chewy bones the way most sushi eel is. We also got spicy snails which were delicious.

Sake, Coke and water are available (the sake is tasty and a good deal) and the owners friendly.

All in all, a great option in the Yongkang area, which I'd previously found a bit disappointing despite its reputation as a culinary mecca.

My Personal Blog Roll

It's time for the Taiwan blog awards again - yes, that's a link to vote for me, but honestly I'm not too invested in the awards. I write this blog thing because I like doing it and am not terribly concerned with winning. So vote for me if you like, or not, whatevs!

But I figured I'd heed the rallying cry and list a few Taiwan-based blogs I like and regularly follow.

Craig Ferguson Images - Excellent photography from a professional based in Taiwan. Good stuff. If we hadn't had our professional wedding photos done in the USA we would have hired him to do them here.

Shu Flies - a great personal/travel blog about Taiwan written by a fellow female blogger - there aren't enough of us (there was Our Next Great Adventure and New Every Morning but neither seems to post much). There's also Kathmeista whom I've just started looking into.

Other female bloggers based in Taiwan that I haven't discovered yet - hey, tell me. Maybe we could have more of a presence on the Interwebs if we could find and communicate with each other.

David on Formosa - David doesn't really need my introduction or recommendation. He's a fine writer and blogger and far more well-known. :)

The View From Taiwan - You've all certainly heard of Michael Turton, so again this blog needs no introduction from me. I enjoy reading Michael's stuff; I'm somewhat interested in politics (both Taiwanese, American and international) but not to the extent that Michael is.

Bundaegi - This is my husband's blog. He doesn't update often but when he does, I love his insight and dry wit. Fortunately I get to enjoy that every day. You can't vote for him, though, because he's not registered on Taiwanderful.

The Daily Bubble Tea - Again, a well-known and well-liked blog that needs no introduction from me.

Anyway, there you go. Enjoy!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

New Exhibit at MOCA Taipei: Finding India

I strongly recommend that everyone with even the most remote interest in India or in modern art head down to Taipei's Museum of Contemporary Art (Chang'an Road, just south of MRT Zhongshan Station in the old Japanese colonial City Hall building), also called MOCA.

MOCA has rotating full exhibits, so you'll see something different every month or so if you care to visit that often. Admission prices seem to remain at around NT 50 per person, though I swear I heard somewhere that it changed by exhibit. Tickets are provided by exhibit so you get cool different tickets if you visit different ones...which you can do if you go a few times a year to see what's showing, as I do.

The current exhibit is called "Finding India", and it features works of modern art by contemporary Indian artists (not always from India - the bar seems to be set at being ethnically Indian with some cultural connection to India).

The exhibit allows non-flash photography.

The art on display is not necessarily Indian-themed or influenced, though much of it is (huge photographs - the one at the top of this post is a newspaper photograph blown up to the exact dimensions of Picasso's Guernica and decorated - and of Mysore dolls ringed with garlands of world monuments, below...various short films and moving artwork to name a few). Some of it, like "Grow More Food" above has Indian thematic components but is not Indian in and of itself.

Others, like "Dead Smile" below, have no connection to Indian culture but are presented because they are by artists of Indian descent.

Another interesting point is that a huge number of the artists exhibiting as part of the greater exhibit are female: possibly a majority of them, in fact. This is heartening, considering how much the fine art scene is dominated by men (in that way in which women do most of the world's decorating, but men get accolades for 'high art', and women do most of the cooking but men become 'famous chefs'. Grr).

I highly recommend spending the NT 30 on the English-Chinese guide for the exhibit - some of the works (like various interspecies copulating animal pairs, below), are utterly mystifying without a guide prompt. Others, you can muse on yourself.

Do excuse the bad photos - I wasn't prepared for the museum to allow non-flash photography so all I had was my iTouch.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

For China's Women, Part II

Last week, or maybe the week before that, I linked to this article, with a promise to revisit it. I've had a lot going on recently (a family illness, other things) but here I am, finally doing so.

For me, this article stands out with examples of how Asian women, and to a lesser extent all women in Asia (who, hey, are not always Asian) are at a disadvantage not just legally, but culturally.

What I don’t like about this article, though, is that it jumps around between women in the Asian workforce and expectations of women in order to be marriageable. I feel as though those could be two separate articles – one focusing on how difficult it is for women to find purchase on a career track that’s going somewhere, and another on what is expected of women in order to be desireable. They’re two entirely different topics.

Taiwan is not quite as bad as China when it comes to seeking out work if you are female: while classified ads will still, occasionally, go over expectations of height, weight, appearance and age (with other not-lovely add-ons including specifying “with a sweet voice”), those tend to be relegated to hostess, wait staff, masseuse, “assistant” and “secretarial” positions. Nobody at a Big Four accounting firm is going to specify what new auditors need to look like. Nobody at a major bank is going to specify the appearance required for applicants to its management training program.

Of course, you’ll also remember that while hiring requirements for flight attendants in the West have become far less sexist, those in Asia are throwbacks to an earlier, more discriminatory, downright “Mad Men” era. I guess for male airline passengers, the upside shows through with adorable flight attendants. The downside? Looks valued over qualifications. Cuteness over experience. Lingering notions that a woman’s greatest asset is her beauty (ever seen a male flight attendant on an Asian airline?). In fact, many advertising campaigns for airlines put their flight attendants front and center – as if to say, “hey, our girls are sexier than the competition”. That’s demeaning for everyone, but you don’t exactly hear people complaining – except for the very occasional women’s rights group. The fact that they don’t complain is a sign of a deeper problem in Asian society.

I should note that I don’t feel bad using the sweeping moniker of “Asian society”. Yes, Asia is huge, but I’ve visited and lived in quite a few places in it and the same themes keep replaying themselves. I am sure at the individual level there are exceptional stories (I could tell a few – especially from India) but on a broader scale, I don’t doubt that what I say is true.

In short, I’ve noticed that at the lower-paid, assistant/service end of the economy there is still quite a bit of blatant sexism.

One advantage China has over Taiwan is regarding childbirth/maternity leave. While in some sectors of the workforce, and among some Neolithic bosses, I am sure there is still discrimination associated with plans for childbirth, in general I have not observed this to be a problem. Taiwanese women are guaranteed 50 some-odd days of maternity leave (it usually works out to be just about 2 months) – one month of which is usually spent in “坐月子” – the traditional month of total rest for new mothers. I can’t speak for China, but Taiwan even has “hotels” where new mothers go to rest for the duration of this month, with nurses who care for the children except when the mother requests to see her newborn. Alongside this is the still-extant tradition of mother-in-laws swooping in to take care of everything at home.

The main difference here is that Taiwanese employers don’t seem to mind this, while Chinese employers clearly do.

I attribute this to two factors: first, that Taiwan is generally more progressive than China regarding women’s rights, respect for feminine power, and women’s equality. In Taiwan it’s common to take your month off (坐月子) as well as any more maternity leave or saved leave a new mother can cobble together – the difference is that employers generally don’t balk at this – they accept it as necessary. I am sure there are some exceptions, but from my extensive experience working on contract at various offices around Taipei, Xinzhu and Tainan, I say with confidence that it’s usually not a problem.

For those unfamiliar with the idea of “sitting for a month” (zuo yue zi or 坐月子), it stems from a traditional belief that childbirth is a stressful and draining experience, and that new mothers need a month of complete rest before they can be expected to resume even nominal daily duties (whether that’s in the home or the workplace). Traditionally, the woman’s mother would swoop in and take care of everything – the cleaning, the cooking, the baby care – and the new mother would…well, rest. Play with her baby. But mostly rest. Some old beliefs include a rule against ingesting anything cold, drinking water (which is why soup and meat cooked for new mothers used to be made with alcohol and/or oil), washing their hair or doing anything that carried even the slightest risk of illness. Back in the old days when hot water baths were uncommon and water itself wasn’t necessarily safe, this made sense. Now, the new mother’s mother may still come to visit, but often those duties are hired out, or are taken care of in a specialized “hotel” for new mothers, which I mentioned above. Note how new fathers are still not expected to do much heavy lifting for their wives or newborn children, other than bringing home the bacon! Ah, I love the smell of sexism in the morning! I will grant the fathers this: they work hard. Too hard, in fact. All Taiwanese do. A topic for another post, that. But let it be known that I think Taiwanese people work too hard!

Second, National Health Insurance (hey America, listen up!). Employers usually contribute to monthly premiums for individual and family health coverage, but that coverage includes maternity benefits – doctors, tests, hospital stays. The employer may need to provide leave for a new mother, but this is not avoided by not hiring women. The same employer does not need to chip in to cover the costs of prenatal and post-natal care – much of it is covered by National Health Insurance (of course, some of the new, natural-birth or progressive birthing centers are not covered, but necessary hospital tests usually are, and child delivery is, as well as pediatric care).

In many ways, Taiwanese women have it better than American women when it comes to childbirth and natal care. American women are not guaranteed insurance coverage for the extraordinarily high costs of prenatal, delivery and postnatal care. There is no government-stipulated maternity leave (forget paternity leave – Taiwanese men may get a mere few days of paternity leave but that’s more than American men are granted by the US government). Most offices do offer maternity leave as a benefit, but it’s at the discretion of the employer.

It is absolutely true that many American companies quietly, surreptitiously discriminate against married women of childbearing age – there are many articles out there covering this issue. In that way, we Americans are really not that different from China. Doesn’t that just give you a great feeling? I love reading about my home country and getting a pit in my stomach for how sickening it can be.

I am sure it is also an issue at some companies for some women in Taiwan. I don’t mean to say that my experience in offices that generally respect women is the absolute – surely there are exceptions. They seem to be, however, exceptions rather than rules. One of the many ways in which China (and America) can learn from Taiwan.

I don’t mean to say that sexism doesn’t exist here – it certainly does. I’m merely trying to point out a few ways in which Taiwan gets it right.

In a future blog post, I want to address the prevalence of women in accounting and finance positions, and the lack of general belief here that women are bad with money (which is related, in my opinion, to the belief that women are just as capable and qualified to enter politics as men, and Taiwanese female politicians will generally not have sexist hate-speech lobbed at them the same way that American female politicians – Hello Hillary! – will). For now, however, this will do.