Saturday, July 25, 2009

Snapshots of Taipei, Part 1

I went on that bike trip today! It was great, but I'm definitely out of shape like it's nobody's business: in a little over 3 hours of riding I probably covered about 25 miles, which I figure is alright considering the fact that I had a backpack with a lot of water and haven't really biked (or done any other exercise, for that matter) in nine months. I wish I could have spent more time on the road, but I got a late start (kept forgetting things at the house; bike rental issues) and had to return earlier than I had thought to be in time for Harry Potter.

(Speaking of which, my Harry Potter verdict: excellent. Possibly my favorite so far, though I'm still a fan of #3 and I can't remember how well I liked #4. The 3D part at the beginning is also epic, if you're considering going that route.)

Back on topic. The bike rental was great, and cheap ($7 for "5 hours"? I can do that.), and I got my first real taste of how glorious it is to ride a modern machine; in the past, I had been riding Dad's old 1984 Huffy road bike, which came complete with gear problems and ten speeds, operated by metal levers in the center space between the two handlebars. Although I brought my camera, I only really took pictures before I got started; I decided that worrying about good photos and stopping to take them would take away from my ride. So instead, today I'm bringing you a lot of explanation of All Things Taiwanese (TM), generally by way of the other photos I've been taking over the past week or so. Enjoy.

1. Obama hits the night market:

Ridiculous, right? But everyone, of course, knows his name. I get the sense that Taiwan collectively looks up to America, in a way. The U.S. is seen as Taiwan's protector; the Taiwan Relations Act allows the U.S. to immediately intervene in the case of an attack on Taiwan, and is seen by most as a defense guarantee (though it only really mandates that the President report such an attack to Congress, says the Brookings Institute). The U.S. is also one of Taiwan's biggest trading partners, for example supplying it with a third of its beef and selling it arms (over China's strong protests). Then there is, of course, the democratic connection, especially in the face of Communist China. Little things also count: Taiwan has a man on the Yankees (surnamed Wang), and most Taiwanese seem to know about him. And finally, while the U.S. does not officially recognize Taiwan as a nation (China has a policy of essentially not dealing with countries that do, which is why some of the mere 23 countries that recognize Taiwan are obscure Pacific islands I've never heard of), it does give Taiwan quasi-nation status in official jargon and diplomatic treatment, running the American Institute in Taiwan ("AIT"; essentially an embassy) and hosting in return the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Office ("TECO"; the same) in New York. Visas are granted by both sides.

2. (A photo in words): One day a few weeks ago, I was walking down a side street to the MRT (metro) station after lunch; when I reached the main road, a divided 4- or 6-lane affair, I noticed that there was literally no traffic. "Wow," I thought to myself (being me), "That's odd. The Taiwanese must really take their lunch hour seriously." Glancing at the blinking red pedestrian light, I crossed, not noticing the policeman on the other side of the street until he blew his whistle at me. "Damn," I thought, "I guess I wasn't supposed to cross at that light." I said I was sorry, and he told me something that involved "don't walk." Assuming he was talking about the crosswalk, when he turned away I headed back up the road in the opposite direction. About 30 seconds later, another whistle, from another cop farther up the road. This time I got the message: "You can't walk." ("Here? Or here?") "No, you can't walk. Rest here for a while." ("How long?") ("Half an hour.") Not sure if I was being penalized, I did as I was told, loitering near a shop doorway and finally taking a better look around. I now noticed that there were also no people on the street, and that others were doing the same as I. Half an hour later, at 2:00 PM, horns sounded from the tops of stoplights, and the flurry of activity that is Taipei traffic began once again.

It turned out that this was an air raid drill. People were supposed to get off the streets, probably both for safety reasons and to make the area look less populated. It's a holdover from times when the threat of Chinese attack was more real, when U.S. backing was nonexistent. In 1949, Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalists were routed from the mainland by Mao Zedong's Communists, and since then Mao's China has claimed Taiwan as its own, first bombarding Taiwan with cannons and then continually threatening it with attack. That threat of attack is not voiced by China today, but Taiwanese still feel it very faintly in the back of their minds. The Communist government's policy has always been and continues to be that Taiwan is an inseparable part of China, and a Taiwanese spokeswoman pointed out in a recent visit to the United States that Taiwan cannot help but feel threatened when the mainland has 13,000 missiles aimed at the island. Taiwan and China share a military border, at which Taiwan's military practices regularly; Taiwan has long held tightly to its outlying islands (besides the main island, it has a handful of decent-sized outliers) as buffers against potential Chinese attack. Most Taiwanese believe that the status quo will most likely continue, though, despite posturing on all sides. And they like that idea - enough that the current president, whose party's platform supports "eventual" reunification with China, had to promise not to pursue that reunification, in order to be a viable candidate for election.

3. Guess the connection: a university, a sign with a laptop on it, and people dressed in fantasy/anime&manga costumes.

Well, it turns out that the costumed people (and the horse) have been hired to make a still ad proclaiming that all freshmen who enroll will have a chance [I don't know what %] to win a laptop computer.

After recent high school graduates take the national university entrance exams and receive their scores back, they can list up to their top 100 department choices (from as many different public universities as they want) on a form, which they then send to the government education ministry. Most people choose public schools, because they're insanely cheap - 台大/TaiDa, Taiwan's one-uni Ivy League, costs around $1700 USD per semester for Taiwanese - and generally better than the private universities. Clearly, the college being advertised is not one of the better ones...

The visual method of advertisement is really interesting too, though, isn't it? I don't know that a horse and some folks in fantasy costumes would ever be well-received in the U.S. when put on a billboard in connection with a university. While still definitely in the minority, the percentage of people who are into fantasy and role-playing here in Taiwan is definitely much greater than that in America, where after a certain age it tends to be seen as absolutely ridiculous. You can see this simply in the sheer amount of media around - on the metro TVs, on billboards, etc - advertising MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online roleplaying games). And, even (to us) stranger: When I first showed a small version of the above photo to Jun Xiang, he said, in a very matter-of-fact tone of voice, "Oh, it's probably cosplay." Cosplay, for those of ye who don't know (probably the majority, is a "performance activity" in which people (usually young) dress up as a character from their favorite fantasy or sci-fi series (usually fantasy here, particularly manga/anime) and either act out scenes, roleplay their character, or just kind of walk around and look crazy/attractive/frightening/awesome/hilarious/a combination of all of the above.

In fact (drum roll please) there is a weekend cosplay convention going on right now at TaiDa, right between my apartment and the ICLP classrooms. And on second thought, I think that's where I'm going to go instead of doing homework; the library's sweltering, I can't find the air conditioning, and I'm meeting my language exchange partner soon anyway. And after all, how many opportunities will I get back home to take pictures with awesomely dressed Asians? That's just... not my crowd, so much.

Look for Snapshots, Part 2, next week. Hopefully I can also include some of David's or my own cosplay convention photos for your enjoyment.


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