Wednesday, December 29, 2010


Our Christmas party this past weekend had me thinking a bit about culture shock and living in Taiwan; specifically how the things that still get to me at times aren't things I really expected, or things I expected would still crop up after a few years. I do believe it's true that you never quite get to a point where culture shock ceases to exist unless you move to a new cultural sphere fairly early in life, so that part is not surprising. What's surprising is the stuff that's stuck vs. the stuff I've gotten used to, or never had a problem with.

The idea that culture shock hits you unaware, from corners you'd never have expected, is nothing new. When I was studying in India, the program head copied the first chapter of a book by a woman who led a study abroad group in the '70s or '80s (I'm not sure it matters which) that covered this very phenomenon: the students would proudly proclaim that they could totally handle the spicy food, or that yeah, I didn't know how to ask for what I wanted but I just used charades - I'm so not feeling the culture shock! or otherwise crowing and preening about their successes vis-a-vis what issues they'd feared would fell them.

What really got them were other things - unexpected things. Being invited to visit a "statewide Gandhian homespun arts exhibit" (or something like that) by a "nearby" high school. The "State-Wide Exhibit" ended up being a sad little room of kids' art projects, which wouldn't be so bad except that by "nearby", the invitation had specified a school that ended up being four hours away by train.

How do you even conceive of that, let alone prepare for it, before you're living it?

Anyway, things that I thought would shock me, but haven't:

- The heat

Yeah, it gets hot. I sweat, I shower, I dab Green Oil here and there. I get over it. I wash my clothes and run through summer clothes more quickly.

- The rain

Once you're resigned to buying a new umbrella every few weeks, and you have plastic shoes to wear in the rain, this isn't so bad, though it can get depressing.

- The cockroaches

I still hate cockroaches and still feel lucky to have a husband who kills them for me, despite the fact that it reinforces stereotypical gender roles (whatever). But...I'm used to them. They're not going anywhere, and anyway they're the size of tanks.

- The more "don't stand out! don't make a fuss!" aspects of this Asian culture

Just gotta roll with it.

Though honestly, how I deal with this in others may be to roll with it (for example, I see what I think is a grave injustice against a friend, but that friend won't stand up for him/herself and do something about it because it is ingrained in them not to make a fuss, I've accepted that there's not much I can do)...but when it comes to me? I just ignore it. I realize that I shouldn't and that it probably sets me back socially and possibly professionally, but if something requires a little fuss-making, I go ahead and make it.

I've noticed recently that "don't make a fuss" has been tied, however loosely, to Western-style psychobabble recently. If you speak up, say what you think, stand up for yourself when you are being treated unfairly, or make it clear that you are not happy, you "have a low EQ". "Having a low EQ" has become the catch-all blame-phrase for people who do make a fuss. I don't know where they heard it, but the phrase has raced through the island - or through Taipei, at least - and been the standard "stay in line!" phrase lobbed at anyone who's gotten the short end of the stick or has a strong contrary opinion.

Honestly, I wouldn't be surprised to see KMT politicians saying something along the lines of "The DPP representatives simply have a low EQ!" - actually, it may have already been said.

- Certain etiquette differences

Yeah...people don't do RSVPs very well (but I've found will come through for you if you state clearly that you need a headcount for whatever reason), and they never do Thank You cards, to the point where when I gave them out for wedding gifts people looked at me funny, but that's OK.

- "Are you married? Why not?"

I kind of like personal questions. I know! But I do. I am fine talking about my age, marital status, why I don't have kids or want them anytime soon (if ever), my religion, politics, weight, whatevs. It's kind of freeing in a way. Just does not bother me. I rather wish the USA could be so open about these things in some ways and people wouldn't guard, say, their age like it's a state secret. In this way, I am totally an obasan in training - kung fu shoes, brightly colored clothes, inappropriate questions and all.

- 妳會講國語得好好喔!

Being told constantly that I speak Chinese well (even when I've just butchered something), or just amazement that I speak Chinese at all: not a problem.

- Cell phone use

I have been cluing my students in on this - back home, when socializing or in a meeting, you turn your phones off. You just do. Or at least put them on silent and don't answer. You don't text through conversations and don't randomly walk out of meetings (or class, or social events) to take phone calls that are not emergencies. happens in Taiwan and I'm used to it. Occasionally I have to keep myself from texting when I really shouldn't now.

- The whole "white man/Taiwanese woman" relationship dynamic

Meh. It happens, and honestly it's not always seedy. Sometimes, it's the real deal and since I have no way of knowing between two people what is and isn't something more than a superficial relationship, I'm just not going to judge. Though I will say - you can pretty much tell based on intuition which couples are together because they genuinely like each other and which are so iffy that they're only a few steps above transactional. I guess people can have those relationships if they want...doesn't affect me that much, because that's not the crowd I socialize with. So...I can't say it's really been an issue for me.

- "Maybe" and "That might be difficult" means "No"

This is going to sound horrible but I totally use it to my advantage. "But you never said no!" You said 'maybe'"! I know. I shouldn't.

- Anything regarding dirt and pollution

After life in China and India, I have to say that the air generally seems clear and the streets clean in Taiwan. In the rain it can look a little drab but compare "a little drab" to, say, a mid-size Chinese city. Gray skies aren't gonna clear up...put a mask on yer face!

And now...

Things that I never expected to still bother me, even after living here since 2006, but do:

- The complete and utter lack of adequate feminine hygiene products

Sorry to have to spell it out, but it's true and needs to be addressed. Seriously, I can walk into any store and see shelves of napkins. That's great and all, but this is a subtropical country with devastating summers and high humidity and JUST NO. Someone needs to introduce tampons and other Like four summers ago. And the teeny tiny ones do not count. NO THEY DO NOT SO DON'T EVEN. I'm not sure if it's that the local women aren't interested (which may be true), or that the local women don't know how interested they would be if the option were there, because nobody's bothered to try to market better options. I do wonder if women have resigned themselves to inferior hygiene products because they don't like to talk about these issues, so it's never been considered that they'd prefer something better if it were offered.

What makes me wonder are the commercials: a woman walks down the street in a typical office girl outfit (may even be a bank teller uniform or the sad little uniforms they put on some office workers, which I also think need to die) and she looks uncomfortable. Then we see as her skirt turns into a bamboo steamer - the kind dumplings are made in - with steam coming out. Then we see a revoluntionary new feminine towel design ("this one has useless flappy things on the side and a stupid indentation that does NOTHING! Look, ladies, we're pandering to you without actually providing you with a comfortable solution!") and she's all happy and walking down the street in her skirt again, la la laaa.

OK, whatever. I don't care if your revolutionary new sanitary napkin poops rainbows, in the Taipei summer that particular product is absolutely not good enough no matter how many stupid flaps you put on it.

Again, it's not like I'm all gung-ho about talking about this stuff, but really, someone had to say it.

- The "family before friends" thing

In terms of etiquette differences, I've gotten used to the things listed above. However, there's one fairly immutable rule of Western etiquette that is simply not followed here: prior commitments take precedence over newly proposed plans. Back home, if you've committed to doing something socially, unless you really can't do it - you're sick, a genuine emergency, you're so tired that you absolutely need a break - you, well, do it. A few months ago we had plans to go to KTV with some friends after dinner, and honestly, I wasn't feeling it. It was pouring, I was tired, and I just wanted to curl up under a blanket and drink ginger tea. But I went, because I had committed to going and that's what you do. I ended up having fun, by the way, but that's almost beside the point.

If someone extends an invitation after you've accepted something already, you politely decline. Doesn't matter who extended the invitation or if it's a "better offer".

Here, it just doesn't work that way: if you are committed to doing something with friends, but suddenly your family wants to do something, you pretty much have to cancel with your friends. You can't tell your Auntie who suddenly decided to visit Taipei that "you have a prior commitment". Along these lines, I once didn't attend a family reunion because I wasn't told about it until after I'd made plans to visit friends in Detroit, tickets bought and all. My Grandma L. was upset, but hey, they shoulda told me earlier. If I were Taiwanese, I'd have been cancelling the trip to attend the reunion.

I understand this on a "culture difference" level - please don't get me wrong, I hold no ill will towards friends who have done this in Taiwan (and it has happened). I get that it's just how things work. But on a gut level, no, I don't think I'll ever accept it as normal.

- The ubiquity of same-same products

Back home, say you want to buy a garbage can. You go to Bed, Bath & Beyond and don't really like their selection - everything's too small, or not really suited to your purposes. You go to Wal-Mart and they have sort of what you want - maybe larger cans, different materials, but it's too flimsy and cheap. You try Target and they have some different designs of slightly higher quality, including the metal well-sealed can you've been looking for but couldn't find at the other two you buy it.

Here, you want a well-sealed metal garbage can for your kitchen, so you go to Ai Mai - they have plastic crap with flimsy lids. You go to Carrefour - plastic crap, flimsy lids. You go to Ikea. Plastic crap, flimsy lids and a few metal office cans. You go to the night market - plastic crap with flimsy lids. Muji has what you want but it costs about $2000 more than you want to pay. Everywhere else - plastic crap, flimsy lids.

There's no variation - every store sells more or less the same things. Chocolate brands are the same, home items are the same, curtains all look the same, laundry bins are the same...if what you want is slightly different from what every single store is selling, then you're out of luck.

(By the way, we did find our metal kitchen garbage can with a sealed lid at Nitori).

- Some of the more institutionalized sexism

A few examples:
- companies that put men in either fairly unassuming uniforms or no uniforms at all, but just a dress code, but stick women in ridiculous, fussy, form-fitting costumes reminiscent of flight attendants

- When a group, during a practice module at work, has to elect a leader, they almost always elect a male leader/spokesperson with all the women in subordinate roles

- General office dress code: I would almost like to write a letter to the entire nation about this. High heels, pantyhose if your skirt is modest enough and light makeup are no longer strictly necessary. Peep-toe shoes and even conservative sleeveless shirts (with wide shoulder coverings mind you) are no longer unacceptable. (OK, in some industries they are - in high finance one could make a case for the old dress codes still being intact for example - but I'm sorry, if you work for a medical supply company, no. Just no.) It's like someone got a Business Dress Code manual from the 1980s and decided that all Taiwanese working women had to dress that way today, without looking at the copyright date on the book.

Granted, it's less and less common now and some companies are bucking the old rules; you can see women in chic sweaters and slacks, comfortable flats and peep-toe shoes in some offices. I've just seen too many examples of women getting "talked to" for not wearing heels to work or some such that I felt it really warranted mentioning.

- The whole "Oh, someone else is also trying to use the sidewalk? Don't they know I own it?" thing

You know what I mean. Yes you do. For a country full of extremely friendly and generally polite, mild-mannered and laid-back people (except at work)...they sure are good at sidewalk hogging!

- The Japanese work ethic

Yes, y'all work too much. From the "this is my job, I must work 12 hours a day" to the "my boss said I have to do this on the weekend so I will" (which, hey, occasionally it really needs to be done, but not to the extent that it happens in Taiwan over things that are really not emergencies) to the ridiculous holiday policy - New Year's on a Saturday so we don't get Friday or Monday off? Really? I don't care if a more reasonable holiday policy was "traded" for a 5-day work week, Taiwanese people deserve both a 5-day workweek and a good holiday policy.

There's also the "oh, I only have to work this hard until I'm 60, then I'll retire and enjoy my life" - a popular sentiment, but really, you're resigned to having no free time at all, or being so tired that all you can do is sleep and watch TV, from the ages of twenty to sixty, with your student years being equally grueling (with the exception of college, which I hear is quite easy), for maybe two decades of peace at the end?

I've written about friends who couldn't attend our wedding due to work: one was given four days off when really, to make the trip worth the expense she needed six (and couldn't get it), and another whose colleague refused to cover for her, so she couldn't take the time off. Just two more anecdotes to support how I am never going to get used to the work ethic, nor do I particularly want to. Fortunately, I've got a job that doesn't force it upon me.

As for the "but there's so much work to do. I have to do it!"....hmm. Or, people could refuse to be overworked, thus forcing companies to hire more people instead of trying to get the work of a team out of one person. Don't want to rant too much about this because in recent times this has also become a problem in the USA. It's shocking even when I'm home!

Just like to add, as well, that salaries are not nearly high enough to compensate for the tedious work hours. The average entry level pay is $25 - $30,000 NT/month, and if you want to make it up to a more liveable salary (say $50,000/month, which honestly speaking is low for me, but very liveable) you have to work your ass off for years. Locals clearly feel differently, but for me, a middling, not entry-level salary like $40,000 is simply not worth the time you're expected to put in to earn it here.

- "Oh, it's 11:30 - I have to go. My Grandma's waiting for me!"

From a 17 year old maybe, but we're all at, nearing or past 30!

Again, please don't think I hold this against my local friends. Not at all. I've accepted that that's just the way it is and if I want to stay out later, I call up foreign friends for a night out (difficult, as most foreign friends have actually left - we still have a few kicking around but it's not like before when we had an actual group). I've otherwise resigned myself to the 11:30 "bedtime"...but I'll never get used to it or particularly like it.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Honeymoon Part I: The Best of Our New York and Washington DC Photos

Nobody can deface a subway advertisement quite like New Yorkers can.

A few interesting snapshots from the days before the wedding and our quick jaunt to New York and Washington DC with friends directly following the wedding:

Brendan's parents having dinner (appetizers are in the photo) at my parents' house the Thursday before our Saturday wedding. Note the matching shirts on both the moms AND the dads. Not planned, I swear!

We got married in Poughkeepsie New York, and so we took a walk on the new Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge, now a walking path/park with fine views of the Hudson River.

From here, Po-town doesn't seem quite so ugly (on the ground, much of it is a highway flanked with strip malls.)

The Mid-Hudson Bridge

After the wedding, we rented a car and drove to DC, which included a stop at the famous Arlington, VA "gas church". Note the gas station on the lower level. And yes, the Gas Church (Our Lady of Petrol?) is legitimately famous, though it's not known everywhere as the "Gas Church" as I call it. We used to live right up the street from it!

A cool dragon-inspired gate in DC's otherwise lackluster Chinatown (seriously, "Chinatown Attractions" include the traditional Chinese Fuddrucker's, the ancient Chinese Bed, Bath&Beyond and of course Chinese Starbucks.

What is now Chinatown used to be an otherwise normal neighborhood. This Wok 'N Roll (I only wish that name were a joke - and it's next to New Big Wong) was once the Surratt Boarding House, where Lincoln's assassination was planned.

The Navy Memorial's world map with view of the National Archives. Very feng-shui if you ask me.

Can you find the typo? I can!

Ford's Theater, with Emily and Becca on the right.

Ah, DC. Where the Crazies (and not-so-crazies) congregate to protest. This protester has had a manned station since the 1980s.

This horse is a fairly well-known DC landmark. Near it is a far funnier statue that, because of the particular reason why it's funny, I've chosen not to post here (northwest corner of Lafayette Park - see if you can find it).

What I love about DC (and New York) is the sheer amount of this kind of architecture - buildings spanning late 19th century, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, pre-war rowhouses, the works.

The World War II Memorial, which is...OK.

Honest Abe.

A young girl poses at the Lincoln Memorial

That evening we drove out to the 'burbs for a friend's birthday party, held for whatever reason out in Fairfax, VA (at a pretty good restaurant, at least). Meliheh seen here with Evan.

In New York, we enjoyed this establishment, with ornery old waiters and two kinds of beer: light and dark. Yes, it stayed open through Prohibition but was almost certainly not founded in 1854.

Ground Zero at sunset.

At a really good coffeeshop somewhere in lower Manhattan.

Being foreign, Emily didn't want to attract attention by looking like a tourist, and did her best to fit in.

Ah, Staten Island. Yeah, it basically looks like this.

Brendan on the ferry (because we had to play tourist)

Another classic Emily moment.

Emily and Becca outside the Stonewall.

Stone face near...I'm not sure actually.

Two graffiti'd buildings near Joseph's parents home in Soho. We are trying to figure out how to inherit his parents' apartment.

At Grimaldi's Pizza in Brooklyn (DUMBO I believe).

After a bit more Brooklyn Beer than is strictly advised.

Emily and Pizza

New York has its fair share of Crazies, too. This guy was down by Ground Zero and is honestly way more offensive than any mosque/community center could be.

Vaguely Pagan Christmas Punch

Feel like your guests might be wallflowers (a common problem in Taiwan)? Want to get them a little more animated? Try this! It really works! Author tested!

It's also got a nice flavor - lemon juice tempers the harshness of all the alcohol (like any good punch), and the herbal elements lend it a vaguely pagan, Solstice-y undertone. The caffeine in the black tea keeps people awake - plus tea was an ingredient in historic punches so it's totally legit. While the alcohol de-wallflowers them. The ginger and cranberry give it a nice Christmassy feel. Enjoy!

Jenna's Vaguely Pagan Christmas Punch

full pot of black tea (5-6 bags of Taj Mahal black tea boiled in a pot is good too)
at least 7-10 ginger "coins", or chopped ginger
a few handfuls of lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves (to taste)
a ton of sugar (a few cups should do) - brown or white depending on taste
a liter of cranberry juice
a large bottle of lemon juice
2 cans ginger ale
a bottle of brandy (500ML is OK) (doesn't have to be fancy)
3/4 bottle of rum (can be cheap but not too cheap)
3/4 bottle of bourbon (can be expensive or just Jim Beam)
1/2 bottle lemongrass liqueur (Marie Brizard is fine)
a tray of ice
a dash of Cointreau or Grand Marnier if you feel like it
a crushed nutmeg if you feel like it


Boil a pot of tea with tea bags, ginger rounds, and lemongrass/kaffir lime leaf to taste, and all the sugar until it dissolves and makes a sweet, strong herbal black tea. Throw in the tray of ice to cool it down.

Once cool, sift out the tea bags and spices and pour into a large punch-making bowl or bucket. Add the cranberry juice, lemon juice and all the alcohol. Stop and taste, add ginger ale, mix and taste again. Adjust for flavor/perosnal taste.

Serve in a punch bowl with a large hunk of ice (ice frozen in a bowl will do well), garnished with ginger if you like.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

I'll Be Home For Christmas

Merry Christmas everyone!

We spent our first Christmas as a married couple drinking coffee, opening gifts and listening to the construction outside. Fun! I got a new camera (yay!) - the PowerShot A3100IS which should suit my hobbyist's needs along with other wonderful assorted gifts from my husband and in-laws (my parents are sending gifts with some clothes I ordered for myself so will get here late).

I took the photo above on my iPod Touch, NOT my new camera!

This is what Christmas really means to me - no, not Maker's Mark! - spending time with family. With the roots of most of our Christmas traditions originating from pagans (both of the German and Roman variety) - from solstice celebrations and Saturnalia/Kalends, I tend to take the "this is a cold, dark time of the year so you may as well drink up and spend it with those you love" tactic.

It's great to spend our first married Christmas together opening gifts, but I do kind of wish that we were home (I have mentioned before that there is a family illness issue, so that makes it a lot harder. Usually I just make merry and throw a party. We are throwing a party but it's harder to reconcile not being home).

Which, not to be to taciturn on Christmas or anything, but does raise some interesting issues as an expat of where "home" is. We've lived in Taiwan for four years, going on five. We've lived in this apartment for three. We're married and have our own traditions. And yet, is this home, or is the USA our home? Am I "home for Christmas" or would that require several thousand dollars and a 12-hour flight?

Also interesting is that I've noticed that while female expats don't necessarily feel any more attached to home, homesick or obligated to visit home for the holidays, they do so more often - in part due to family expectation and the way that family life is still very much mother- (and woman-)centered, even today.

Well anyway.

Merry Christmas! Happy Solstice! A Joyous Saturnalia to you!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Let's See The City's Ripped Backside

I just watched this older TED Talk on the catastrophe of "community space" in the USA and couldn't help but think that much of it could be applied to Taipei, as compared to some of the older towns and old streets scattered across Taiwan.

I'll cover farther down how this relates to Taipei - at least from my perspective. With photos!

I've always felt that space is a manifestation of the mind: that the spaces we inhabit shine a light on our subconscious, whether individual or collective. An example of the more individual level of this manifestation can be seen in where a person chooses to live: an urban area, the suburbs, a small town, the countryside, and what neighborhood they live in. I don't mean in a "she likes to shop so she lives near the shops" way, but in a "her mind is uncluttered and fairly organized, and so she lives in a more open, cleanly delineated area" or "he tends toward meandering thinking processes so he lives in a building in a spiderweb of small lanes" or "she likes to observe everything going on around her from a detached perspective, so she lives on a hill/on a high floor" or "he likes to know what's happening at each market stall and under each building awning so he lives right at street level".

On a more public level, our public squares - their size, their aesthetic, what they're bordered by (is it a Crate&Barrel, or a 1,000 year old church, or City Hall?), how quiet or chaotic they are - and in the USA, our streets - say a lot about who we are as people in a community.

And James Kuntsler is exactly right: the suburban space we've created in the USA is a catastrophe, because there is no arena for that public consciousness. There is no manifestation of self or of community.

Older "small cities" that are now the size of suburbs and genuine small towns aren't a part of this: my parents' town, though I have no strong desire to live there again, is fairly pleasant with country roads and a Main Street downtown. Bangor, ME is the size of most suburbs and has a lovely old red brick downtown that is extremely inviting (the big box stores down the road not so much, but the two are entirely separate - which most suburbs can't claim). Arlington, VA is more of a city than a suburb, but for the most part it's pleasant, easily walkable and is home to many inviting spaces.

Our lizard brains, the instinctive, primitive and unevolved bit of us that still lurks back there, only to come out to save us from imminent danger, to rob, murder and steal (for a few people), and to comment on the Internet (warning: strong language) are there, too - they're in those desolate edges of suburbia where there are wasted fields, maybe an old warehouse, a few scraggy trees, a broken chain-length fence and a space that makes our conscious selves profoundly uncomfortable. They exist in cities, too (note the Iggy Pop reference in the title about the backside of the city) - think of the unappealing parts of Gotham that superheroes and cops find themselves in: old docks at night, barely-used warehouses, stretches of street with abandoned facades in front and looming buildings far behind. The parts you drive through and never stop to look at.

And yes, I do think the part of our brain that causes some people to think it's OK to point a gun at another person in order to take possession of the $10 and a subway card in their wallet is the same part that helps us intuit danger and prompts us to say horrifically rude things that we'd never say to someone's face. After all, the Internet is a kind of city, too.

These "subconscious" spaces will never be eradicated, because they crop up as the underside to our conscious planning. That said, having better public spaces, Kuntsler implies, will lower depression, anxiety and even crime (especially in children).

This exists in office spaces, as well. Good office spaces generate conversations, relationships and ideas in the way that good public spaces do. So it's a triple travesty: cube farms stultify our creative thought at work. Poorly planned "communities" (in quotes) don't allow relationships to take seed, and Starbucks has not brought cafe culture to America: it's destroyed any chance of it growing. Have you ever gone to a Starbucks to socialize and converse the way one might have done in an old style cafe?

So. What does this have to do with Taipei? Well, crime is not really a problem - of course it happens, but it's hardly the screaming issue it is back home - I can walk down the street at 3am in Taipei and know that I am fairly safe. I can't do that in any American city. Public space, however, is. While Taipei has retained its own unique style of streetscape that fits fairly well into the generally-known mold of Asian streetscapes, it's also clearly been influenced by the American and Canadian chucking in the garbage of old-style urban planning and methodology.

That's not to say that Taipei is unappealing. It is filled with gorgeous, inviting public spaces. Dihua Street - a slender street lined with attractive buildings, first-floor shops, a temple, a market area with an open square that has a coffeeshop and ringed with places to eat. Red House and Ximending - pedestrian lanes filled with mid-size buildings, first-floor shopping and a lot to look at both in terms of people and shopfronts (Ximending could be improved with a few more benches and sitting areas and better food - which is honestly not that good) with a more open space for socializing, strolling or shopping around Red House, which has been restored admirably to a place of public interest.

Red House Theater is a prime example of good community space - look at those citizens congregating and conversing, the umbrella-covered tables, the street level accessibility and the inviting building materials and facade.

The area between Longshan Temple MRT, the temple itself and the newly-restored Japanese shophouses by Guangzhou Street and Huaxi Night Market is inviting - you can sit and play mahjong in the park, wander the temple, go shopping, take a stroll, have a peek (or even sit for awhile) in the old Mackay Clinic which has been converted into a small museum about Mackay and the history of medicine in Taiwan - and it's free! All the area needs is a coffeeshop like the one that was replaced so tragically by a Cafe 85 with no seating. The bike trail that starts on the Jingmei River and winds its way up to Danshui is filled with inviting spots for sitting or general outdoor activity. The Wenzhou-Xinsheng-Heping area between Shi-da and Tai-da is quite lovely.

A totally different view from the Ximending area: more modern, but still inviting.

Notice, though, that every place I've mentioned is in the western part of Taipei - the pre-WWII section of town. Even the Japanese colonists knew a thing or two about good urban planning, and considering the extent to which they imitated Western pre-war architecture, I would guess that they extended their architectural mimicry to the delineation of urban space (I'm curious about that, actually, because I'm not sure: what a great thesis topic if I could afford graduate school!).

A few views of Dihua Street - in general a relaxing place to linger. People come here because they want to - the space makes them feel comfortable.

Now let's train our eye on eastern Taipei - Xinyi was clearly designed with public space in mind and in its own way, it's somewhat inviting. You can sit or stroll in the areas around Shinkong Mitsukoshi and there are comfortable outdoor areas around Taipei 101. The tree-lined Songren Road is pleasant enough, there are a few small parks, and that awesome chess set sculpture.

However, something about it just doesn't capture the loveliness of the western part of town. The buildings are too big, and too sterile. The area around SYS Memorial Hall is the one winner - well-planned trees, smaller shops and inviting (albeit expensive) cafes. The Shinkong Mitsukoshi plaza doesn't have floor-level shops; or rather, it does, but they're all behind glass, inaccessible, and once you enter the department store it's rather cold and antisocial. No great conversations are going to start between the glass doors and the Fendi shop, and the Starbucks is a sad little scar of tables right on the concourse. It doesn't invite you to linger the way the old-school coffee stand right in front of Yongle Market or the benches that line the square do. The "border" is impermeable: you can only go there to walk, or shop. You can't linger; you can't socialize. Nothing meaningful can happen when the walking area and the shopping area are separated by plates of glass.

Same for City Hall: you do see locals out and about, but generally it's about as habitable as Boston City Hall - barren, cemented over, no good for anything but skateboarding. The Hall itself is a Brutalist nightmare, a giant wound on the skyline that sears the eye.

Xinyi really tried, but in the end, let's face it, what was created is a bit hollow, steel-and-glass soulless. It needs, if not smaller buildings made of more attractive materials, at least street-level shops and more open cafes. It needs more permeable boundaries. It needs crossings on Keelung Road so you don't have to walk so far to get farther west.

See, Xinyi's not all bad. While this space doesn't invite one to stay long, it is visually appealing and breaks from the scraggy urban sprawl of central Taipei.

Here's the part where I'm going to get all KMT-blasting. Wanhua and Xinyi both have public areas - one showcasing the old school of urban planning, one displaying its somewhat eyebrow-raising renewal. Let's look now at central Taipei: the part of town bordered on one side by Zhongshan Road, Minzu in the north, Heping or Xinyi in the south and Guangfu Road in the east. This is the part of town that mostly developed post-war, though pre-war buildings do exist. That means it was mostly built up by the KMT, and to an extent in living memory. What do we see?

We see very uncomfortable streetscapes. Is there anything less pleasant than walking down Nanjing Road between Linsen and Fuxing? Forget the MRT construction: that's necessary and temporary. I mean the sidewalks, or lack thereof. If you walk on the flat area, you're likely to get run down by a scooter who is not going to stop for you. If you walk in the "pedestrian" (HA!) area, you're going up and down and up and down and "oh look, I would have to jump to keep going but there are no stairs", "let's pave this one in marble so everyone will slip on it when it rains", you never know when there will be an awning above you or you'll get rained on, and you can't see the shops clearly from the street thanks to the combined mask of parked scooters and awnings. This is due to the fact that the businesses lining these halfhearted sidewalks are individually responsible for building and maintaining them: that means they can decide height, material, awning-or-no, steps or slopes - whatever they want. Gotta love the individualism, but what it leads to is an uneven mishmash that is nearly impossible to deal with in a crowd or in the rain.

If you stand in a relatively open intersection (let's say Nanjing-Songjiang) it's basically a hideous sprawl of 1960s and '70s aesthetic horrors and a long, lonely look down unappealing, wide gray roads lines with unappealing buildings.

In short, there is nothing about this part of town that invites people to linger. You pretty much have to escape into a coffeeshop or restaurant for a comfortable place to sit. Could the government have promoted a worse design for urban space? I'm not sure.

Nobody actually goes to the Taipei Vegetable Market on Minzu Road because the road itself is a travesty - it's hard to get to and deeply unattractive. The only roads worth walking down without instead walking in the lanes, honestly, are Fuxing, Zhongshan at times, Dunhua at times and Heping. Civic Boulevard has to be the least interesting road in the entire city. They say that Core Pacific Mall has bad feng shui: worse than that, it's just poorly planned. There is no appealing or pleasant way to walk there, it's too far from transport hubs, and the surrounding area implies nothing but boredom and disinterest.

No wonder it's "feng shui" is off! What is urban planning, after all, than feng shui that actually works? Or, put another way, urban planning is basically feng shui with concrete (pardon the pun) methodologies behind it, rather than superstitious ones. That's why shoppers go to SOGO at Zhongxiao Fuxing - the two department stores and space around them is inviting. You want to go, even if the actual stores aren't the biggest or the best in the city. That's why the SOGO/Takashimaya/Miramar/Shinkong Mitsukoshi area is popular in Tianmu; the walk between them is pleasant; I don't even like department stores and I find myself there on occasion just because I like the space around them. (International Square is another prime example of good public space).

Truthfully, it's not all bad: Minsheng Community is so nice that every time I take a bus through it, I want to pack up and move there. It's like the good parts of Brooklyn. Guanghua Market and the surrounding area (including Huashan) is pleasant enough, some of the lanes between the major roads are nice to walk down - I rather liked the area where our friend used to live, between Jianguo and Yitong Street, north of Nanjing - the lanes are full of interesting things. Yongkang Street isn't as good for food as people say, but it is a pleasant urban street. Da'an Park is in this area and so is CKS Hall which, while I hate the man, the hall and square are quite nice.

There are things that could improve it, though: Da'an Park needs more picnic tables and better grass. CKS is fine on the inside, but just outside the gate and around the sides is rather dire (except for the hilarious Wedding Shops on Aiguo Road, which are fun to look at). Nothing is less inviting than the buildings outside the CKS Hall main gate. The area around the Presidential Building is similarly uninviting for anyone except protesters, and there are some lovely but inaccessible gates in the area.

Architecturally interesting, but I'd like to see less of the bombast:

And more of the community spaces that have sprung up within it:

I don't think I have to spend time dissecting the far south and far north of Taipei - what I've said above basically covers what I'd say about these areas. I will say that I find my neighborhood (Jingmei, near the MRT) can be quite inviting, as well as quite dissonant. I am friendly with my neighbors because the lanes around my house encourage socialization - the old women who congregate in the comfortable Y-intersection of Wanqing Street make their own social spaces, by dragging beat-up chairs under apartment awnings and making the lanes their own. Certain areas of Muzha, by contrast, are just as difficult to walk down as that blasted heath of central Taipei.

People say that Taipei residents "don't care" or "aren't concerned" about public space, but I don't believe it's true. If the old women make their own social space (and the men too: a good friend of mine famously said that "there are no bars on Nanjing West Road because the folks there, when they want a drink, grab a Taiwan Beer from 7-11 and drink it on their stoop. If their friends want to join them, they grab beers and sit, too."), clearly someone cares about it. If the old parts of Taipei have vestiges of space, and the most popular area in eastern Taipei attempts, in its own way, to create it, clearly people care. What causes them to seem as though they don't care is the space itself - the treacherous sidewalks and scooter-congested roads with no meaningful areas that have porous boundaries. The people didn't make the space, contrary to what usually happens. When the government charged ahead with development and construction in the mid 20th century, it created the space, and the space then created the people. Show them that their spaces can be better, and maybe (just maybe) they'll want to make it better, too. But what they have now? It lends itself to apathy. It creates apathy.

In short, I'd like to see more old-style urban planning return to Taipei, which would mean a return to the city as the Japanese colonists who helped build it would plan it, or at least our best approximation. I'd like to see more of this:

Daxi Old Street

A temple courtyard in Tainan

And far less of this:

Quite possibly the ugliest building in Taipei, on Xinhai Road (Muzha).

The view from my first apartment in Taipei. Super!

It's not that the government is not trying - it's that they're often, but not always, getting it right. The little marble tea-and-picnic tables and newer urban spaces are a step in the right direction for Taipei, but they need to be more open, more plentiful and more accessible. We need fewer Bella Vita shopping centers behind glass and granite, and more community shopping-and-strolling areas. We need more indoor-outdoor spaces, more trees and more places to congregate.

We need more bike trails and paths, too. The riverside bike trail that winds its way up the western part of the city to Danshui is chock full of comfortable spaces for activities, walking or chatting - more food vendors (or easier access to food outside the park) and fewer wild dogs would be nice, though.

I've always been a fan of attractive graffiti - urban outdoor art. This one can be seen on the Jingmei-Danshui bike trail, somewhere in the Jingmei or Wanlong area.

To sum it all up in one sentence: we need to undo what was done by the powers-that-be (ahem) from about 1950 to about 1995 and make Taipei a city that is appealing on a large scale, instead of being pockmarked hither-and-whither with a few appealing spots.

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?