Friday, May 6, 2011

Musings on Intercultural Relationships

I want to start this post by saying that I have no answers, I have no conclusions – I only have my own experiences and am approaching this topic with personal thoughts and anecdotes, not proclamations. I don’t even have anything particularly deep to say, because it’s all been said before. All I can do is add my own story to the mix.

That aside, as I mentioned in a previous post, I recently received news that a friend’s marriage had dissolved. The marriage happened to be an intercultural one (American/Hispanic). I won’t give details – that would be inappropriate – but one of the things that caused the whole hot mess is something that is more acceptable in one culture than the other. I’m still not necessarily inclined to believe that the resulting split was caused by cultural issues – in fact, it’s more likely irreconcilable differences between two individuals.

Regardless, it’s caused me to muse on intercultural relationships – both of the romantic and friendly kind. I’ll be focusing on romantic relationships for this post, and am planning a future post musing on making Taiwanese male friends (as a foreign woman)…because, y’know, it’s quite hard to do!

Obviously, “intercultural” does not necessarily mean “interracial”. That’s the first thing I want to mention: I know plenty of couples of different races who share a common culture, and my husband has observed that while we’re very much the same race, there are a lot of cultural differences between our families.

When we first started dating, I didn’t think of it this way: I thought of it in terms of “I’m outgoing, and my family is predisposed genetically to be loud, boisterous and extroverted. He’s more laid-back, and his family seems more predisposed to a quieter approach to life”. It never occurred to me that it might actually be a cultural difference.

Then, in the middle of wedding planning, we rented My Big Fat Greek Wedding Subconsciously, somehow, I wanted him to see it – he had seen it but didn’t remember much, and I remember how the film really hit home for me. If I had such a strong reaction and he could barely remember it, there was clearly something worth exploring there.

After watching the comparison of the two families – one laid-back and the other a big pile of boundary-crushing madness - and as a result of those two environments, some of the differences between Tula and Ian in the film, Brendan turned to me and said, tellingly,

“Now I understand.”

“You understand what?”
“All this stuff with the wedding planning, and all of the stress…it’s cultural. It’s like with your big Armenian family, I just don’t get yet how they work because my family is more like that guy’s.”

Note that he did not say I’m like Tula – because I’m not. I have no problem striking out on my own, nobody tried to stop me from going to college, my family is devoid of the sexism seen in the Portokalos clan, and I am happy to stand up for myself (even if an argument ensues).

And that’s just it – the difference isn’t simply between two families – the fact that my family (at least the biggest component of it) immigrated to the USA in living memory and we have relatives who still speak the old language – an Armenian-based polyglot with elements of Turkish and Greek – does have something to do with how my family works, how I was raised, and as a result, to an extent, what my personality is like.

I do have Polish relatives as well, but other than my beloved Grandma G and aunt, I unfortunately see them far less often.

So we visit my family home and drive up to Grandma L’s. People begin arriving, often there are young cousins underfoot. Hummus, olives (real olives, not canned or jarred), cured string cheese and babaghanoush are set out. It’s mid-afternoon and uncles are already double-topping-up their drinks – often, Ararat Armenian raisin brandy. Grandma asks me when I’m going to lose weight and have babies. Like in a Taiwanese family, in my family this is considered fine (I personally consider it a major breach of boundaries, though). Jokes are made about sleeping arrangements - “She made us sleep in twin beds before we got married, and M was visibly pregnant at the time!” – all fine.

Brendan says nothing – “not my culture!” – or whispers something dryly amusing to me along the lines of “So apparently losing weight and having babies go hand in hand?”

Despite my own Daoist/agnostic inclinations, my family is fairly religious, and grace is said, often in Armenian. I am as lost as Brendan is for this part – I don’t have two words of Armenian to rub together (well, I have two: ‘vart’ means “rose” and ‘yavrom’ means “dear”). We eat at a big table – lamb kebab, pilaf and lahmajoun are served. The dishes match, but are kind of tacky. It’s too crowded. I’m asked again about the babies. We argue about politics. My grandparents still hate Turks (and Muslims generally) for the genocide Turks unleashed upon the Armenian people in 1915.

I don’t dare say that Turks alive today can’t be blamed for the actions of their ancestors, just as you wouldn’t shun a German woman born in 1975 because of Nazi atrocities. It’s a shame that they are educated to believe that the genocide never happened, but nobody has control over what their teachers tell them, and many lack the intellectual curiosity to question. I don’t speak; I think these things, though, and Brendan knows it.

(Yes, I realize my family might well read this, but I mention below that I’m OK with how they work and anyway, if they’re going to ask me at the dinner table about popping out babies, then they lose any right to wring their hands when I write about it).

Brendan smiles like it’s a particularly lively television show (and in a way, it is). We don’t quite get to the part where we start dancing in a circle and breaking plates, but I’d say we stop just short of it – that’s Greek, not Armenian and probably an urban legend, but my family lived in Greece for years after running from the genocide and before immigrating to America.

You know who doesn’t ask me about babies and weight loss? My in-laws. You know who doesn’t argue about politics and ask personal questions around the dinner table? My in-laws. You know who isn’t all up in everybody else’s, ahem, bidness?

And yet, I wouldn’t trade my family for the world. I love them and their intrusive questions to bits. It’s taken me years, but I agree with my husband. These differences are cultural, even though Brendan and I look similar enough that we could probably pass for distant cousins (it’s mostly the coloring – fair skin, blue or green eyes, light brown hair). I resemble Brendan more than some of my actual cousins, who tend to be olive-skinned with dark features and coal-colored hair.

Another point I’d like to make – I have been in more obviously intercultural relationships: the last two men I dated before Brendan were Jewish and Indian, respectively. This is where it gets quite hard to draw a line between the cultural and the individual – did those relationships fail because there were cultural differences, or was it entirely that we, as two individuals, were incompatible?

My experience? I do generally default to “we’re just two people who weren’t compatible” but I also think cultural differences had some role to play in why we were incompatible. I was simply not that attracted to the first, although part of that had to do with the fact that he sincerely wanted to have children and raise them in a Jewish home (I don’t even want kids, and am not religious – if I had kids I’d encourage them to follow an ‘ask questions and find your own path’ sort of philosophy, hippie that I am). While, in the end, it was really a lack of a physical spark that did us in, I admit that part of that lacking was caused by my being a bit turned off by such disparate life goals.

The second? Well, we had plenty of chemistry. Culturally I think the only real issue was that he did believe that couples who have children ought to have one parent stay at home, and that that parent ought to be the mother (I have no problem with mothers who choose this path, but deciding it’s the only correct path for everyone really rubs me the wrong way – and I hadn’t gotten to the “don’t really want kids” decision yet, so it was relevant)…and when he said it, I could really hear, behind his voice, a lot of the defenses of the traditional order of things that I heard in India. I’d like to say that this is why we broke up, but it wasn’t – it was (im)maturity on both our parts. Had we been more mature, though, this would have become a dealbreaker. (We agreed on religion and other issues such as telling his parents – mine were totally cool with it and even met him – never came up because it was fairly clear that we weren’t going to last despite all of our chemistry).

That said, such a dealbreaker could arise between any couple regardless of cultural background – I do feel that this sort of dealbreaker is more likely to arise between intercultural couples.

This is not to say that such relationships always face these issues, or that they can’t overcome them. As I’ve said before – and I’ll say it again (I’m secure enough in my relationship with my wonderful husband that I feel I can do so) – if the world had moved a little differently on its axis and I’d spent my time in Taiwan single, well, I’ve met Taiwanese men that I would have dated. Just because things didn’t work out with two other men for reasons that can be partially attributed to cultural differences doesn’t mean they never can.

And, as I said, I have no deep insights. I have no final proclamations. I have only my own experiences to add to public discourse.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Best Pizza in Taipei

If there's one prole food I love with my whole heart, it's pizza. As you know if you read this blog with any regularity, I can be a bit exacting and maybe a little picky when it comes to quality food (though I don't consider myself to be a 'foodie' as such, or at least I don't have the other personality traits that being a foodie implies). I am just as picky about pizza, but like with coffee, it's not as though I'll turn down a bad slice - I'll just eat it without savoring it. I know when I'm eating something transcendent and when I'm eating whatever-whatever because it's a party and someone ordered it.

And, as you know, pizza in Taiwan can be a hit-or-miss deal. It's not that the pizza is uniformly bad (really, can it get worse than Sbarro anyway?), but it's not uniformly good. There are some gems buried in the morass...or "quagmare" (if you will permit me a John Stewart mocking Sarah Palinism) of cheese, corn and sugary sauce, but you have to look.

Here are some of my favorites - guaranteed to make the Taipei Times restaurant reviewers think I'm stalking them.

Zoca Pizza
Linjiang St. #149 (Linjiang St. right near where it hits Anhe Road)
臨江街149號 (臨江安和路口)

I decided to try this place after a mention and glowing praise from Michael Turton, to see if it really stacked up. It does!  The crust truly is a thing of beauty, good amount of cheese, tangy sauce that tastes homemade, really nice toppings.  Whole olives, large, softened sundried tomatoes, fat slices of spicy sausage that is actually spicy. My top choice for the best Taipei pizza has been Faust (below) for a long time. There is nothing more delicious on earth to me than Faust's thin crust, low oil bleu cheese pizza with giant spatterings of soft, pungent cheese. I wouldn't go so far as to say that Zoca beats Faust. I would say, however, that Zoca rivals it. Easily. I don't see why there can't be two #1s.

We're regulars at this tiny outdoor pizza joint near Gongguan that serves up interesting combinations of vegetarian pizza, barley tea and nonalcoholic beverages. I recommend their smoked cheese pizza with a touch of black pepper and cumin, or the Ginger Superman (slivered ginger cooked into the cheese, with egg). So yum! And so crowded - show up at an off time or be prepared to wait. Closes early.

On Renai Road just across from Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall (easily walkable to both City Hall and Guangfu Road), this tiny joint serves two things: awesome thin-crust, low-oil pizza with high quality toppings, and beer. There are also soft drinks for kids. Nothing else - and I wouldn't have it any other way. They know what they do well, and they rock it.

Better known for stromboli, this place on Xinhai Road across from NTU (it's near that Starbucks that is always full of sleepy NTU students clacking away on laptops) serves up a real New Jersey slice. They even have the round glass shakers full of dried red chili and oregano (no second-rate parmesan, unfortunately) - made in China but culturally straight off the Turnpike. Go here for softer crust pizza, dripping cheese and real tomato-packed sauce. Don't go looking for a gourmet experience - this is the best kind of plebe food.

With several locations around Taipei, this place serves up the gourmet real deal on thin crusts with plenty of flavorful toppings, as well as other food, beer and excellent tiramisu. So good that they can cheat you and you may not check the bill in time to stop them (once in person and once to a friend, the location at Huashan overcharged us by a massive amount and we barely caught it in time - check your bill if you go). Save room for the tiramisu, but don't bother with the matcha dessert pizza. They sliver the toppings to give an even coating to the entire pizza, which really makes the flavors pop.

A solid Gongguan option if So Free is packed, but it didn't wow me enough to write a separate entry for it (I've written separately about many of the other places). The pizza is good, plenty of cheese, not too sweet, interesting toppings, no corn or mayonnaise. The crust is on the soft side, which is fine. Not too oily. It was good, but it wasn't "drop your pants good" (Faust, on the other hand, is drop your pants good). I felt a bit sick the next day but Brendan did not, so I am not sure it was the pizza's fault. Either way, it tasted fine going down and wasn't slathered in Thousand Island dressing, so it makes the list.

We had two pizzas - soft crust, with flavorful and fresh toppings - a plate of tasty sausage, some very good mussels, a salad and dessert here. Everything, especially the salmon carpaccio pizza and the mussels - was delicious. It's also owned by a friend's coworker's little brother. I strongly recommend it, but the seating space is tiny (really only four small tables that can turn into two large tables, some outdoor seating and some counter space) so call ahead for reservations. They also have Belgian beer. It's a fancier alternative in this neighborhood to Amore (above), and a pretty good choice to bring a date who isn't the candlelight-and-white-tablecloth type.

Got a hidden gem or favorite joint you'd like to add? Leave it in the comments!


I have a Big Scary Work Thing coming up tomorrow so I don't have the energy to write a thoughtful post - which is too bad, as I'm working on a post about sexism at work, another on intercultural relationships (a friend of mine's marriage has recently gone bust, which has me musing on the subject) and yet another on relationships and the expat challenge. I just haven't got it in me to finish off any of those posts tonight. I'll try to do one on the weekend.

Also, something I find interesting about blogging - how as a blogger I have no idea which of my posts are going to be popular and which aren't (or will garner less notice). For instance, I was really happy with A Million Landscapes, One Beautiful Country and felt that The Expat Myth, while good, was not my best work...and yet The Expat Myth is winging its way across the Internet and my beloved *heart Taiwan* post is getting nominal notice. Huh.


Next post coming, as I have no mental capacity to write something hard-hitting: finding the best pizza in Taipei. When feeling stressed, talk about pizza, beer, coffee, chocolate or all of the above!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Moving to Taiwan and Female? Here's what to bring.

So you're female, about to move to Taiwan, and wondering what to bring. From my own experience, plus some awesome suggestions on my last post, here are my suggestions on what to pack as you plan your exciting move abroad.

Men - lots of talk of women's hygiene, medicine and underthings below - feel free to skip this one (or, if you're not shy, you are welcome to read ahead).

1.) Tampons or basically any non-pad option –

We all know that Taiwan is not exactly a great place to find feminine hygiene items that are not pads. There are tampons available but they’re the tiny ones that…well, you know. Other items such as Diva cups and their ilk are available, I’ve heard, but never seen one for sale – if you do want to try this out, get used to it before you arrive. I would, however, be sure to bring a few boxes of tampons to last until you can get another supply.

I have heard unconfirmed rumors that Costco sells western style products for this issue, but haven’t been able to confirm in person.

2.) Birth control –

Birth control options are limited in Taiwan, and the most popular choices given out by OB-GYNs are Yaz and Yasmin, which many women don’t care for, and which can have some irritating side effects. Bring a supply if you don’t want to go through the rigmarole of changing your medication (although there are English-speaking OB-GYN options). IUDs and rings (NuvaRing etc) are available but implanted contraceptives and injections are not – apparently due to side effects, but I don’t really believe that considering the side effects of Yasmin and its continued presence in the Taiwanese market.

I have heard that a doctor will inject you with Depo-Provera if you bring your own supply – they all know what it is, they just can’t get it for you in Taiwan.

3.) Clothes you’d like to have copied or altered –

Bring any items you love enough that you’d like another version in a different color or slightly altered style: you can get clothes easily copied on Dihua Street in Taipei. Got an old article of clothing that you love to pieces and can’t bear to throw away even though it’s in tatters? I do – a faux leather jacket with a dragon on it – bring it along and take the time to get an exact copy made!

4.) Plenty of shoes in your size –

There is only one reliable source for large women’s shoes in Taiwan if you don’t want sneakers or sandals, and the selection is not that big. Bring lots of shoes – they tend to wear out quickly with all the rain and humidity and they’ll get dingy faster than back home.

Do bring your favorite shoes – you’ll have chances to wear them. It took me 3 years to get my super hot black leather boots to Taiwan but I’m so happy I did!

5.) Bras, underwear and a bathing suit –

Bras here are made for the Asian female form, which means probably not for your figure. Bring plenty from home, and more than you think you need – they wear out more quickly in the humidity. Underwear tends to be made of synthetic materials, doesn’t fit quite right and isn’t great for the weather (I don’t know how Taiwanese girls manage, honestly). Bring some soft cotton pairs for hot and humid days and a few nice pairs, ‘cause you won’t find anything really attractive that fits you here unless you are shaped like a Taiwanese woman – I don’t know about you, but I’m not!

6.) A few pairs of your favorite jeans / pants –

You can find tops if you look hard enough and get skirts made, but pants are an eternal problem. I have sworn loyalty to Old Navy sweetheart mid-rise boot cut jeans in dark denim, and you bet your boot cut that I can’t find anything like them in Taiwan. Nothing made for women fits me, and nothing made for men looks good. Like bras, they wear out faster in the humidity, especially between the legs, so bring a spare pair or two. The same for your any other pants you love.

7.) A large supply of your favorite skin and hair care products –

Many products are sold here – Clean&Clear has most of its product line (but not its strongest salicylic acid formula – it’s all much gentler) but St. Ives does not (and I swear by their green tea scrub). If you have a strong preference, bring along an extra bottle. Brands such as L’Occitane, Crabtree&Evelyn, Aveda and Lush are widely available – Lush closed for awhile but they’re back! Muji also makes a good facial soap and scrub, and the local herbal soaps are great. Only worry about this if you are loyal to a particular item, as I am. I have to get my parents to send a care package of St. Ives Green Tea Scrub and tampons every six months or so!

8.) Concealer and foundation in a color that suits you, makeup primer –

This stuff is all available in Asia, but generally the most stocked colors suit Asian skin tones…so if you’re super white like me, it’ll be harder to find stuff that suits your own skin. While major brands such as Shu Uemura, MAC, Smashbox etc. are available here, it still may be hard to find the foundation and concealer colors you need. Primer doesn’t seem to be a big thing here either.

Notably, Urban Decay and Bare Escentuals are not sold in Taiwan, and I do recommend bringing an oil-free primer and mineral powder foundation, not a cream, liquid or compact foundation simply because the weather is so humid: anything with even a touch of oil will make you feel like you smashed your face into a well-iced cake on any of the particularly devastating summer days.

Fortunately for me, I don’t wear a lot of makeup – most days I wear none, and on the days when I wear some it’s mostly to cover up undereye circles – so a little goes a long way.

Do bring “going out” makeup, as there is a good nightlife scene and you will use it.

9.) Your favorite deodorant –

Deodorant is available in Taiwan, so don’t fret if you run out. If you are loyal to a brand, though, bring along some extra as your choices will be limited and generally what is sold here isn’t as effective on us stinky Westerners. It all seems to be made for Japanese girls who don’t smell. Or something.

10.) Pamprin, Motrin, Zyrtec, Dramamine, Aleve –

Most medications are available here (Imigran, Allegra, benzoyl peroxide, ibuprofen, Panadol – which is a Tylenol/Excedrin equivalent – and more) but the ones above definitely are not. If you use any of these, bring your own supply. A Dramamine alternative is available but it puts me to sleep.

11.) Pajamas you love and a comfy, light bathrobe –

Pajamas are another thing that can be really hard to find – I find that the drawstring old lady Chinese pants and a t-shirt are fine, but if you like specific pajamas, bring them from home. Same for bathrobes – they are available but in too-small sizes and generally harder to find if you want light, soft cotton. I have one short cotton robe and one yukata (Japanese blue and white cotton robe) and they work well, but I procured neither in Taiwan.

One place to buy pajamas if you are feeling spendy in Taiwan is at SkinJoy/Danee 10)% Silk.

12.) Multivitamins or other supplements –

These are widely available but hellaciously expensive.

13.) A fluffy, absorbent towel you love –

You can buy decent towels in IKEA, Muji and Nitori, but they’re not cheap. Towels sold elsewhere tend to be too cheap, and made of a plasticky material that doesn’t really dry you off. You know I can be quite picky about certain things and have high standards for unusual items, and to me, a really good towel is key. Nothing beats the feel of a soft, absorbent towel and nothing is worse than feeling water slide around because you bought some cheap synthetic thing from the night market.

14.) A guidebook –

This goes for both genders, and seems obvious, but my own sister showed up for a year in Taiwan without a guidebook so I figured I should put it here.

15.) At least one semiformal outfit and one business formal suit/outfit –

You never know when an opportunity will come up and you’ll need to interview, and good business clothes are really hard to come by in Taiwan for the Western woman (although they can be found and can be made). If you will be working in an office, bring more than you think you need because they will be hard to replace. Sometimes this isn’t even a size issue – it’s a style issue. I’m not such a fan of the random lace and frills on women’s office wear here, nor do I care for those looks-like-two-tops-but-really-is-one shirts.

Semiformal outfits will work for nice dinners and who knows, you might be invited to a wedding! You’ll need something – like a not-too-fussy cocktail dress, to wear out.

16.) Pantyhose/stockings –

Also sold in Taiwan but in very limited sizes. I haven’t found any that are remotely comfortable (although I have found some that fit).

17.) Clothes you love -

Clothes that fit Western women are available here, but you may not find a lot that you really like or that flatters you. If you have favorites - as I do - bring clothing you feel great in.

Other suggestions I’ve received, and some things you do not need to bring:

1.) Iron supplements –

Yes, they’re expensive in Taiwan so bring them if you take them, but I find that the little white ‘women’s drinks’ in 7-11 as well as good ol’ beef noodles are fine for a woman’s iron needs.

2.) Cake and other mixes –

A great idea if you know you’ll have an oven, but don’t start your stay in Asia with these things, as most places you could rent will not come with an oven. It took us years to buy a convection oven and anyway, we prefer (well, I prefer) to cook from scratch. That said, if you cook with Betty Crocker or Jiffy mixes and do have an oven, bring them over as they’re really overpriced here.

3.) Photos of loved ones and a few personal mementos –

Photos are so much easier to just pile on a USB drive and print out here if you want to hang them up. I never felt the need for mementos (home for me is wherever Brendan is, awww), but if you feel more at home with a favorite item then go for it!

4.) Home décor items –

There are plenty of choices in Taiwan, often for cheaper than you can buy the same stuff back home. I recommend Nitori, personally, over bringing over items to decorate.

5.) Books –

Buy online with free delivery worldwide from The Book Depository or check out the myriad used bookstores in Taipei (not to mention the premium book retailers such as Page One and Eslite). Don’t waste luggage space.

6.) A formal dress/gown/outfit

You will basically never wear it unless you will be working for a company that holds a formal annual party (and even for those, a cocktail dress will do). I’ve never met an expat woman who needed to wear a black tie outfit in Taiwan. That said, if you will be working in a capacity where this might be necessary, then you are the best judge.

Generally, however, Taiwan is a much less formal place in terms of clothing. Most men have never worn a tuxedo, and most women don formal wear for their own wedding, and that’s basically it.

7.) Shapewear –

Most of the shapewear sold for old ladies will fit foreign women. I haven’t had a problem yet – you can probably get a lot of that stuff here.

8.) Spices –

Between Wellcome, the department store supermarkets and Trinity Superstores you can get whatever you need here. I make full-on Indian and Ethiopian curries in Taiwan and never brought spices from home. I can make bere-bere and chaat masala from scratch, and so can you!

9.) Hair care products -

For crazy hair colors, if you use Manic Panic do bring some, but otherwise if you are more every day in your hair care needs, Taipei has plenty of options, including hair care for colored and permed hair. I find L'Occitane and Just Herb products are good in Taiwan's weather, or you can go to Mix&Match and buy products there after your awesome haircut.

10.) Glasses -

Glasses are cheap and plentiful, available in a million styles here, and eye tests are quick and painless. Get glasses here, not back home.


That's about it for my suggestions - I got a lot of great ones in my last call for ideas, but if you are just happening upon this post now and want to help a new female expat out (as I am sure some will find this page), do post suggestions in the comments below!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Calling all wimminz!

Just so y'all know, I'm working on a post now with advice on what to bring to Asia if you're female and moving here. I know there are similar lists online (although they don't come up at the top of any searches I've tried) but I've generally found those to be lacking.

If you're female (or have a suggestion from someone who is) and have any suggestions of things that you find essential to bring to Asia from home on a long stay, please do leave them in the comments. If I agree, I'll include them in my list. I'll probably put up the list tonight, or I may cop out and write about pizza tonight and put it up tomorrow. Whatevs.


Sunday, May 1, 2011

"But today's KMT is different!"

...yeah, like the guy who says he'll call on Tuesday and doesn't pick up the phone until two weeks later is "different". Sure.

I hear this line a lot - I generally don't bring up politics around locals I don't know well, but among friends (most of my friends either are green or lean green, but I have a few light blue buddies) we do talk about these issues. I try not to dig into them too hard, because they do have a right to their opinion and as someone who can't vote, my opinion really doesn't matter that much.

Recently, I heard it at a party, from a new acquaintance - a young Taiwanese American who leaned blue because (probably, in part) her parents did so. "But the KMT of today isn't the KMT of Chiang Kai-shek!"

Err...except it is.

How many KMT members were either alive to witness the atrocities that party brought upon Taiwan, or were involved in the party at that time, or are the sons (mostly sons, rarely daughters) of people involved in it? Granted, the party has gotten new blood - pun only semi-intended - but that doesn't mean the old crimes have been washed away. Who is Hau Lung-bin's father? Did Ma Ying-jiu not work under Chiang Ching-kuo before Taiwan democratized (granted, Chiang Ching-kuo was a much better man than his father - it's not nearly as bad as having worked for the Generalissimo himself)? Is this not the same KMT that holds onto assets taken from the Taiwanese people during Chiang Kai-shek's reign of white terror? For every previously state-owned company that has privatized, are there not properties and funds that the KMT is still using? Has this "new" KMT apologized for the 228 incident and White Terror, and has a true, in-depth and good faith effort been made to account for as many of the victims as possible? Let's take a look at museums: which party changed the 228 museum to brush a patina on history that makes its own actions look more palatable? Which party attempted to renovate the human rights museum in the old Jingmei prison to basically not be a human rights museum (I don't remember if that succeeded or not)? Is this not the same KMT who still believes that Taiwan and China are one and the same?

This "new" KMT investigates and arrests opposition party members on flimsy evidence - take the commissioner who was just released, for example - and Taiwan's freedom ratings, including freedom of the press, seems to decline whenever they're in power.

So I have to ask - how on earth is the "new" KMT any different from the old? What is this "today's KMT" business? It's the same damn KMT! Sure, the system has changed and today's KMT runs in elections (elections where it bribes and buys votes, but both sides do that), but you know quite well that just like America's Republicans, if they could rule Taiwan in a one-party system...they would (OK, that's pure conjecture but I stand by it).

Of course, bringing all of this up, and vehemently, is not always an option - sometimes I hear that line - "oh but the KMT of today is different!" - and I just inwardly roll my eyes.

The system has changed...that doesn't mean the party has.

Except for one thing - the KMT is different now from the party it used to be in one crucial way.

They used to be anti-Communist.

DING! Fries are done.

I used to have this idea that if I studied Chinese long and hard enough, someday I’d be “fluent”, like Fluency was a prize I could win and maybe pin to my shoulder. Look at my shiny Fluency Medal! I worked for the prescribed X years to learn Chinese and now I qualify as Fluent! It’s Official!

OK, maybe not quite like that, but there was this idea that learning a language (for me, Chinese – but really it goes for any language) had a specific end date or final goal, and once I reached it - DING! Fries are done.

Of course it’s a myth – sure there’s a point when, if you work hard enough, you will reach a level of ability generally recognized as “fluency”, but that doesn’t mean the fries are done. There are also a lot of different ways in which one can define fluency, and a lot of different components of it that people are going to be naturally better at than others (I’m great at sounding local and speaking without turning on an internal translator. I’m fairly good at joking in Chinese and pretty adept at switching between Chinese and English. I have friends who are better at elaborate grammar constructions, others who are strong writers and fast readers, and others who understand Chinese characters more in-depth, and have met others with razor-sharp tones and pronunciation. I have met nobody who excels at all of the above who is not a native speaker, although I am sure such people exist). That would be a good post for the future, methinks.

I do feel that many language classes perpetuate this idea, as well as the idea that Fluency is one well-defined thing and anyone who possesses it will naturally possess all of the same skills and strengths of someone else who also possesses it.

Ever since I quit classes – I’ll go back once this whole Turkey trip is done – and found that my Chinese was improving regardless (not as quickly and certainly not as academically, but I am still picking up phrases, structures, vocabulary, slang and idioms and the ability to communicate ever more quickly and precisely).

Not saying you should quit Chinese class if you’re taking it, though – that doesn’t work for everyone. It just happened to work for me.

I’ve also realized that there is no moment when the fries are done. The microwave of learning will never DING!

This has made it a lot easier to put to rest my earlier plan of going to graduate school for Chinese, and instead deciding to go for Applied Linguistics. Part of my reasoning is that the Chinese I’d likely learn would be of the academic sort that, while worthy and interesting, isn’t right for me and my goals regarding Chinese. I’ve found time and time again that Chinese classes in the USA and Taiwan – and China – are focused on a sort of formal, newscasterly Chinese that doesn’t interest me as much as actual local parlance, and that there is a bias in those institutions toward that type of Chinese – as in, you must speak Chinese like an anchor on TVBS or you are Beneath Us. Why would you want to roll with common street rabble?

Which is bullshit if you ask me – not entirely so, as this type of Chinese (or any language) and the way it is learned clearly suits some people, and it is a worthy pursuit if that’s what you’re into…and that’s fine. I just feel differently. It’s bullshit, basically, if someone decides that this is the only “proper” form of learning, or that it is the “best” way, as opposed to what it is: one form out of many.

The most linguistically interesting thing about language to me is how it varies in everyday use, not how it sounds in a language lab. I’m more interested in exploring that as a speaker, neighbor and friend than as a researcher.

My goal is to be a scholar when it comes to pedagogy, educational methods, public speaking and Linguistics. My goal is to teach language as a tool and a living, changing entity, not some esoteric Idea that must be related through academia. To promote it as a facilitator and friend-maker, and to promote learning it in such a way that you might conceivably…well, if not sound local, at least better relate to local culture and people.

My goal for Chinese is to basically age gracefully into an obasan who might not be fine academic writer, but who can argue and gossip and tell stories with the best of ‘em.
As such, I’ve come to be much more accepting of a life goal for Chinese that involves making local friends, talking to people as much as possible, taking classes on an ad hoc basis, self-studying, and attending talks and courses in Chinese purely to both keep up and improve my abilities…and I’ll never be done. Continuing to learn and speak it purely for the enjoyment of doing so, and not for an academic qualification. I’m now OK with focusing more on fitting in locally than reading the classics of Chinese literature in Chinese - which is a wonderful and noble pursuit, but not my thing. Not that I don’t read such things, but that learning the highfalutin Chinese to do so takes precious time away from practice street-level fluency and everyday eloquence, and I want those things more.

It’s quite freeing really, to decide that learning a language will be a lifelong, purely-for-love pursuit, that it will never end, and that I don’t need a professor to tell me when I am Fluent.

So put those fries back in and crank that baby up!