Monday, June 29, 2009

Classes and the Weekend

An update on classes and the language:

Still extremely difficult. I feel like we're starting a new lesson just as I'm beginning to grasp the last one. And I'm putting in a solid 6 hours of studying per day. I guess I could spend more time on the weekend (I only put in about ten hours in total throughout Fri/Sat/Sun), but I also want to live a little. Which brings me to my next point:

I feel that I'm speaking much less Chinese now that classes have started. Because I spend the vast majority of my day in class, studying, or eating, and because I've for the most part settled into Taipei (e.g., I don't have to go buy a SIM card, etc), on weekdays my real-life Chinese interactions are limited to the buying of food every night - and even that's easy, because I've found the places I like best at the nearby night market. I should probably put myself out there a bit and go on some sort of adventure, but I just don't have the time to justify it.

Also, the language pledge here is very weak (only applicable in the building, and even then often ignored). Say what you will about personal perseverance; when a group of people are speaking English and you're quite bad at Chinese, no one really has the patience to include you in a conversation unless you're willing to speak English too. So in those situations, I alternate between English and... not talking. I've also been keeping up on "news &cet" via my favorite podcasts, and while I'm not willing to give up my newfound joy at being informed, that infusion of English isn't helping either.

At any rate, I hope that once I start meeting with my language exchange partner again - he begged off last week and this, because the hugely important national college exams are this Thursday and Friday - as well as with that elusive third language exchange partner (this Wednesday! It's happening!), I'll be able to actually use some of the things I'm cramming into my head right now.

On Saturday we went on an ICLP-arranged trip to the Lin Yu Tang family mansion (not the most exciting few hours of my life), and then to GuGong, the National Palace Museum. It holds that name because many of its holdings were taken from the Imperial Palace in the Forbidden City in Beijing. From my incomplete understanding, most of them were removed 1) during the first Sino-Japanese War [around 1900, I think] or 2) when Chiang Kai-Shek and his Nationalist troops were forced to flee the Maoist forces [late 1940s, I think]. I'm sure someone will mention if I've made any glaring factual errors. Anyway, we were very fortunate in that we had as a guide a former ICLP student and current art history student, who has spent many many class and independent hours in the museum and seemed to know everything there was to know about everything inside. We only saw a small part of the museum: its jade, its bronze, its ceramics, its porcelain, and some of its paintings. Museums only tend to hold mild interest for me, especially if I spend a lot of time in them - I'm quite uncultured, I suppose - and this was no exception. That being said, there were certainly some beautiful pieces with lots of history behind them, and here were some of the things that I thought were especially cool:
- The jade, particularly the weapons. Did you know that "jade" is actually a term that describes two different minerals, both of which are some of the hardest in the world? It is believed that the only way the Chinese could have cut and shaped jade would have been to use quartz, and each piece probably took years.
- The question of how two of the 95-ish pieces of the most precious set of porcelain in the world, of which the vast majority is in Taiwan/China/Korea/Japan, ended up in Saint Louis. (Michael Rauschenbach, weigh in please. I'm sure you were behind this.)
- Despite all of our modern science and years of refinement, some ancient techniques used in making ceramics are either a) still used today, or b) visible on museum artifacts but lost to the modern age.

Lin Yu Tang House scenery; ICLP students on the balcony; trimming the lawn; Dr. Lin's tomb.

From there I went to... the Zhangs' house! Which was tons of fun as always, and here I shall bore you with some details and observations. First we ate a delicious dinner, almost identical to the last one I had there, and then off to the night market where Dai Ling and Xiao Qi work selling shirts. The Zhang family seems incredibly welcoming: some friends - and cousins - stopped by (or didn't), not all with appointments; some ate; some slept over. It was all very fluid and easygoing; I'm also struck by how the sisters' friends seem to also be friends with the entire family; while Raphael does refer to them as "Dai Ling's friend" or "Li Wei's friend," I tend to forget which is which, I don't really see the "age gap" that often exists between American youth of even one or two years' difference. Their 15-year-old cousin was also very much a part of all of the conversation at dinner from what I could tell. I may be getting a slanted view, though, because I've never met any of Raphael's or his brother's friends (the two of them seem much more solitary), and Raphael hasn't been with us for the majority of the time I've spent with a larger group of them. Xuan Xuan, a friend who speaks English reasonably well, also told me that she thinks the sisters really are out-of-the-ordinary in how laid-back and friendly they are. Which is surprising, because their mom always seems a little bit nervous.

On the communication front, they all said I've improved a lot in two weeks. It's possible - I feel a small but noticeable improvement in my listening comprehension - but I think it might also be because I was lazy and relied on Raphael to translate pretty much everything last time. Sadly, Li Wei seems to have lost patience in trying to communicate with me in Chinese; now, she usually either just gestures or asks a friend to translate. Dai Ling, on the other hand, is starting to talk to me more - but she has a tendency to mistake my lack of vocabulary for a speed problem and lapse into really. slow. sentences., which I always find hilarious.

Dai Ling insisted on giving me a t-shirt, and it was kind of a problematic moment because 1) I didn't really like any of them - too girly or too "I'm a hip Taiwanese guy" ish, or both - and 2) she doesn't make much money selling shirts in the first place, so she certainly shouldn't be giving them away. But after I had refused almost the point of rudeness (or maybe slightly beyond), I gave in; I am now the proud owner of a thick black t-shirt shirt with a set of large buttons near the shoulder (I haven't yet checked to see whether they're superfluous or not), and perhaps I'll wear it next time I see them to make her happy. (The shirt could look cool as part of a certain kind of outfit, which I'm not sure I own and definitely don't have with me.)

What really interests me is her job, though. I'm hoping it's a microcosm of the clothing/accessories portion of the night market itself, because I'm always wondering how that whole system works. According to Xuan Xuan, Dai Ling and Xiao Qi took the initiative to rent a spot in the night market (and also another spot to leave their clothes overnight, it looks like). They found a place near the domestic airport, about 30 minutes away by scooter, where they could buy shirts on the cheap. Originally they had to buy in bulk, but now that they're regular customers they can buy smaller amounts, and they pick and choose what they think will sell. As I mentioned, they don't seem to make much a night - 600-some NTD on a Saturday night (about $20 US, though remember that money goes farther here), isn't exactly a huge profit, especially when you're splitting it - but then, the way they do it, the job itself basically involves hanging out with friends by a clothes rack for three hours a night. I'm not sure if Dai Ling has another job or not, and I want to ask her or Xuan Xuan a lot more about the night market, so hopefully I'll get back to you with some better information in a few weeks.

To get back to my exciting life: Two other friends and I slept over. I woke up early, because Raphael woke up early (bah), and learned how to order another common street-vendor breakfast. Xiao Qi and Li Wei went to church, but I wasn't invited this time (which kind of worries me, but hopefully it's nothing), so we just hung out for a little while, and then I headed back. Had an unlikely and creepster day on the subway - twice ran into a girl I knew from the hostel, and twice found myself conspicuously right behind the same group of French people - and did some studying. Some hostel friends also got together for Peking duck and then hung out at the bar for a bit, which was a great time all around.

In other news:

1. The Taipei International Film Festival started this past Friday, apparently. The theme is Germany, since this is the 20th anniversary of the Wall coming down; 30 or so films are German, but I'm not sure if there are any criteria for the other hundred or so. I hear that tickets for the most popular movies are sold out, and I can't really figure out how to get tickets right now, but maybe I can find some time to go see one of them this coming weekend.

2. I'm spending much less money than I did during the first two weeks, and I'm no longer all that worried.

3. I'm definitely going to Penghu with the fam in early August. It's a questionable move: I'll be missing Thursday and Friday of the second-to-last week of class, and I don't know how I'm going to break it to/slip it past my teachers. But I'm told that Penghu is very much worth it, and I can't possibly pass up this golden opportunity to spend time with the Zhangs and about 15 relatives/friends.

4. I've settled into a daily routine:
- 8:00 AM: get up. Wash face/brush teeth/etc; breakfast of corn flakes, milk, and fruit (trying to add some nuts, but all of the almonds I've bought turn out to be sugared and gross); walk to school and listen to a podcast or my lesson; class at 9:10.
- 12:00 PM: finish classes. Relax a bit; facebook/e-mails/etc; walk and take subway to SoGo, a large department store, buying lunch along the way. Buy an amazingly delicious but ridiculously overpriced scoop of dark chocolate ice cream, so that I can feel justified in taking a seat in the food court for the next 4+ hours.
- 6:30 PM: Leave SoGo; come back to ICLP (more podcasts in transit); look things up or do any homework that requires internet in the ICLP student lounge.
- 8:30 PM: go to ShiDa night market and eat a version of hot pot with mushrooms, carrots, noodles, and some surprisingly great tofu. If I feel like my stomach still has room, I then go to get guabao. Guabao is my favorite Taiwanese snack - a delicious treat/partial meal that looks like a hamburger made of fluffy white dough, stuffed with meat and greens and finished off with a sweet peanut-based powder. Dinner is a little sad because I eat it alone, but the food is perfect, so it's all good. (Gotta get those food groups in! Good-tasting protein is especially hard to come by in a night market, at least as far as I can tell.)
- 9:30/10:00 PM: return to the apartment, do some work, shower.
- 12:30 PM: ideally, bedtime.

And that's it for this week, I think. I'll add some pictures of my apartment to this post in the next few days, but you probably won't hear from me til after the weekend. Tomorrow I'll be meeting that last language exchange partner, and one of the Yale folks is planning a 4th of July/"America Day" party; I'm hoping to bring Raphael along for part of the latter, which should be fun.

Signing out,

Update: Photos!

1. My buddy and me.

I got this fella from a random girl in a coffee/tea shop when I was passing by one evening. Carried him with me through the night market and got plenty of strange looks.

1b. Mr. Giraffe finds a home and a job: greeting visitors to my room. (Job's easy; there are few.)

2. The rest of the room: a fairly spartan sleeping space.

3. My response to the fact that there was a hole in my wall: mosquito netting and tape. Lots of it.

4. On ICLP campus. "Falling leaves? That's silly!"

4b. "On second thought, I'll keep an eye out."

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Ethan goes to church. And lunch. And some class.

I'll start with some bad news, because I didn't know where else to put it:
1. Raphael won't be meeting with me for language exchange for another week and a half; instead, he's spending his days at the library studying for the upcoming national college entrance exams.
2. I'm still sick-ish. I'm functional, and I can't say this is too unusual for me - illnesses tend to hang around for a while when they find me. But what I'm afraid of is that it'll turn out that I'm allergic to mold in my apartment or something (I only got sick 3 days in, after all), and that I'll be constantly slightly under the weather for the next few months.

Now to the real stuff:

On Sunday morning, I met up with the two Zhang sisters and three of their friends - Xiao Qi, Yu San, and Wen Hui - for a Christian service at the New Life Church, the second biggest Christian church in Taipei. First things first, though: at the gates, staff members put a device up to everyone's forehead, to check their temperature and find out whether they might have H1n1/swine flu. I didn't have very many expectations for the church itself, but I guess I must have expected it to look or feel vaguely similar to the few services I've been to back home.

Not at all.

I hadn't been paying a lot of attention to where we were going (speaking Chinese takes a certain amount of focus), so I was caught off-guard when I found myself in a massive, packed high school auditorium of over 2,000 people. We had to split up despite being 20 minutes early, and I managed to end up separated from the rest of them because the church staff thought it important that they assign one of their several English-speaking members to sit next to me. Thus I ended up sitting in the back balcony next to "Jackie," a big guy in his thirties(?) who - naturally - really wants me to speak English with me, be my friend, and convince me to become a Christian. I couldn't find it within myself to refuse to give him my e-mail address, so we're now facebook friends and he's sent me an e-mail urging me to come to next week's events.

The church membership looked to be was at least 60% youths, all in their (very hip) street clothes; I stood out a bit because of that, though I was only in cargo slacks and a semi-nice collared t-shirt. (Being the only westerner there might also have made me a bit conspicuous.) Several of them wanted to introduce themselves - and practice their English - and for a minute I felt like a minor celebrity.

Then the service started. Those of you who have been to a U.S. "megachurch" might not be surprised by my description, but for me, the service was like nothing I had seen before.

The first hour was devoted to standing and to singing, led by the "worship team" - basically a modern rock band plus backup singers, specializing in poppy songs about Jesus. With their guitars, dyed mohawks, they could easily have driven straight to a club to play their next gig. I tried my best to "do as the Romans do," relieved that I had been separated from the group because I could now feel (slightly) less self-conscious about it all. So what were the Romans doing? Clapping our hands on 2 and 4 for a while (loudly; Jackie clearly had no sense of beat), and leaving off during certain sections in the tune to raise one hand, arm slightly crooked, in a vaguely praising gesture. A well-equipped camera crew provided live feed to the three large screens in the front of the stage, alternating between shots of the audience and close-ups of the "worship team."

When we were all rocked out, we sat down to hear a few speeches - but not before the first-time attendees had been asked to stand up (Jackie insisted that I join them). I didn't see how the others were treated; all I know is that after a thunderous applause, everyone around me wanted to shake my hand, and I was actually given a gift (which turned out to be - surprise - a Taiwanese pop CD) by a member of the church staff. One of the speakers apparently said something about the importance of giving to the church, at which point at least half of the folks around me put bills into the envelopes that had been placed on our chairs before we sat down. I saw a lot of $1000s - about $32 US, though that goes much farther in Taiwan.

Then a man who looked to be in his late 40s stood up and walked to the podium, and the band left the stage. I recognized him from earlier: when he had passed by my seat before the singing started, I had remarked to myself that he was probably the hippest middle-aged guy around, somewhat reminiscent of a more conservatively dressed Elton John. Elton turned out to be today's main preacher, delivering a passionate, 90-minute sermon, complete with jokes and exhortation, that according to Jackie focused on purification and baptism. But I could only catch a word or phrase here and there ("I tell you!" was popular), plus the obligatory English terms: "amen" and "hallelujah," so it all went over my head. The guy was definitely engaging anyway, though, so despite the lack of help - Jackie didn't really do any other translating and was instead doing something, hopefully church-related, on his cell phone most of the time - I wasn't as bored as I might have been.

After the sermon, we all got up for some more singing; I was then ushered out by Jackie, and some other members of the congregation who were very determined to be helpful, and brought to where the Zhangs and friends were hanging out. We circled up for a brief prayer in Chinese, and on our way to the car Li Wei explained to me that she just comes because it's a fun time - but that this service wasn't - so of course now I'm wondering what constitutes "fun."

To make a long story short, lunch/hanging out with the gang lasted forever and consisted of expensive but delicious Italian food, random Taiwanese kids' games (e.g., rock-paper-scissors redux), a lot of jokingly inappropriate questions and body language - I can't think of another situation in which I will have a cute Taiwanese girl offer to feed me - and plenty of laughing. Raphael joined us after a little while and translated, which was good because I wouldn't have understood a lot of things otherwise, but bad because I was actually having a great time struggling to communicate in Chinese on our way there. I left with some photos on my camera and a new task: coming up with English names for the five girls. I've only done one so far - for the oldest sister, Dai Ling - but it's perfect.


The contrast between the friends is significant, at least at an initial level. The two sisters, Li Wei [second from right] and Dai Ling [left], are both tiny but loud and fierce, and a little masculine; Xiao Qi [right] is slightly masculine too, but also extremely quiet, self-effacing, and tends to look pretty Goth; Yu San [center] is noticeably taller than the rest of them but doesn't walk tall and stayed almost completely silent (she wasn't feeling so well, they said); and Wen Hui [second from left] is the epitome of the cute, beauty-obsessed Taiwanese girl: if you look closely you'll notice the short skirt, the lipstick, the designer purse, the perfectly straight hair, the blouse, the made-up face, and the umbrella. (It is not an uncommon practice for girls here to carry one everywhere, especially on sunny days, to keep their skin paler and therefore "prettier.")

A word on typhoons: I know I mentioned them earlier as something I should maybe look into/prepare for, but I never really followed up on that. Apparently they're not quite as rare as I thought - two serious ones hit Taiwan last year - and the guy online who was talking about keeping extra food, water, and lamps with batteries on hand wasn't just being an alarmist. I also found out from Li Wei and Raphael that a typhoon had been forecasted for Sunday night, but the latest news was that it would miss us. (It did, mostly, though the southern half of the island got hit a bit.) I shouldn't really be missing a day of Taiwanese news podcasts, but just in case I do I've asked Raphael to call me if he hears anything about another one.

These past three days have seen my first real ICLP classes. I have three classes a day (about 2.5 hours): an individual and then 4-person class both built around a textbook of dialogues; and one 3-person class in which we read from a book of "Chinese Moral Tales." Ideally I think I should be spending about five hours per night studying, though more is always better.

The textbook seems to be at about my level, I have my individual and at first it seemed by far the easier of the two, but it turns out I was very wrong. The speed at which we're ripping through it is ridiculous: for me, there were 50 new words in the first lesson, plus sentence patterns/grammar that I'm struggling with, and tomorrow we're already starting on the second. Needless to say, I've spent a lot of time preparing, but I'm already behind and I'm only just realizing it.

The book of moral tales seemed extremely difficult at first - I barely understood the topic of the story after listening to it thrice, let alone what was actually going on - but once I slogged through the vocabulary it wasn't bad. Its sentences are pretty simple in their structure, and the teacher isn't at all concerned with us learning to write the characters, so it's very much a verbal/audio class. Also, we go slower than I feared (maybe too slow, even), because I happen to be better at it than my two classmates: one is better at writing but a little bit worse at speaking, and another is significantly worse at speaking/comprehension, with the most abominable Chinese accent (very French!) I've ever heard in my life.

The strange thing about this whole thing is that I'm not really sure what I'm supposed to be doing. Besides the schedule for material to be covered in the classes themselves, the most I've gotten from any teacher so far has been a directive to prepare answers to a few questions and a suggestion on how to study the new vocabulary; for example, I only knew that I didn't need to learn how to write the Moral Tales characters because I asked. ICLP doesn't give grades per se, and there will be a large "mid-term quiz" but I have no idea what it will be on. It's also hard to really ask because everyone has different classes and we're not allowed to speak English here, but the idea seems to be that beyond certain requirements (e.g., the questions; being prepared to discuss in class), we'll go through a ton of material and get out of it... whatever we want.

Upon reflection, I think I like that a lot and I've already formulated a vague idea of what I do want to get out of it: from Moral Tales, I want purely aural/oral vocabulary, both the set that the teacher highlights as important and the ones that seem most useful to me; from the textbook, I want a lot of new sentence patterns and vocabulary (including character recognition, and writing ability when feasible), as well as the ability to read (and, again, write when feasible) traditional characters. What I want from the textbook is a very tall order, though, considering the speed at which we're moving through it; I may have to set some more feasible goals in a week or so.

This is wildly different from the Yale method of teaching, in which we were given very specific classwork and homework each day and night, with a quiz every day and a larger exam about every week. I was really happy with the Yale formula, though, which I think is kind of a strange paradox considering my enthusiasm for the diametrically opposed method that (I think) I'm currently working with at ICLP. I suppose that both can have merits; maybe they're even best used to complement each other. Either way, although it's early in the game, it seems to me that the classes that I'm taking could use two pretty key changes:
1. Slow down on the textbook! Independent or no, there's no way I can fully absorb what I want out of it in the time we're being given.
2. More rote learning! When you're talking about full sentences, rote memorization of common patterns is key to speaking Chinese and not sounding like an idiot. I think this is an aspect where the Yale system shines. Then again, I guess I could and should be doing rote memorization on my own without being quizzed on it - so maybe it's really just a subset of #1, and I'm just finding that I can't cram the many new sentence patterns of this first lesson into my head in a mere three days.

ICLP students playing Ma Jiang in the student lounge:

I again apologize for the length of these posts. My next update will probably be on Monday. I'll hopefully have some good stuff to tell you about: a visit to the National Palace Museum on Saturday (I'm not a big museum fan, but this is purportedly one of the best art museums in Asia and indeed the world), dinner at the Zhangs' (and then maybe church and lunch again on Sunday?!). I was reading the bit of Madison's blog about rude Beijing people, and I thought again about how ridiculously lucky I am to 1) have come to Taiwan, 2) gone to the right hostel, and 3) been semi-adopted by the Zhangs; I can't describe how great it feels to have something like Saturday night dinner to look forward to all week.

May you find good company wherever you are,

Monday, June 22, 2009

Skyscrapers, Hiking, and Other Things

Daily highlights since my last update:

- Tuesday afternoon/evening: I moved into my cheap but not-so-shipshape apartment. In my first few days there I discovered that 1) my internet is dial-up (so that's what those characters before "internet" meant!), 2) I can't connect to it anyway, and 3) that hole in the wall next to my air conditioning is actually not screened in. The internet isn't a huge deal, but the hole in the wall probably accounted for the spiders, the large moth, and possibly the two dead cockroaches under the closet, so I bought some mosquito netting and tape and effected some very makeshift/removable repairs. It's fine now, though I use Raid around the premises every few days (the cockroaches live elsewhere in the basement too, it seems), and I think that in the end it was the right choice. After all, I'm building character and saving money at the same time! Also, I like living with lower-middle-class Taiwanese flatmates; the girl next door, Ya Ya, is my fave because 1) she only speaks Chinese, and 2) she bought (or made?) me delicious mushroom soup after I killed a cockroach for her.
[Apartment pictures forthcoming.]

- Wednesday: ICLP orientation. More importantly, I finally visited Taipei 101, the tallest functional building in the world. [Addendum 1/17/10: As of this month, 101 is no longer the tallest in the world, having recently been supplanted by the opening of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, UAE. Height measured by "architectural feature"; only occupied buildings included.]

The outside view, from a few blocks and then from 2 miles away:

I went at nearly the perfect time: a clear day (and, more rarely, a clear afternoon!), at around 6:00. Thus I saw Taipei during the day, and Taipei at twilight. I even had my camera with me, together with my newly bought SIM card! Needless to say, I went a little crazy with the photos.
Some selections:

Basically, it was gorgeous. Although I'd say that at least a quarter of the visitors were Taiwanese, the lower floors are made up of fancy restaurants and shops like Gucci and De Beers, exclusively targeting rich foreign tourists. There is a food court in the basement, though, where I found a somewhat overpriced but delicious dinner of shrimp, egg, pork, cabbage, some things I didn't quite recognize, and of course rice:

- Thursday: ICLP took us on a trip to Maokong, a Taipei mountain suburb well known for its beautiful scenery and especially its tea. There, I learned the right way to pour tea in a classy establishment and basically ate a meal's worth of "tea snacks" - green bean cake, almond cookies, dessert wafers, and tiny, tea-candied plums. Scenery and the traditional tea setting:

- Friday: Morgan, a friend from the hostel (you may remember her from my post about Fulong beach) and I hiked the mountainous Caoling Historic Trail - the long version, which amounted to about 18 km. The first half was beautiful (sweeping views, anybody?) and I hope to add photos as soon as she uploads them; the second half was mostly just full of mist and slippery stone steps until near the end. Both halves, though, were epic - not as intense as the Whites, but longer and with a more than respectable amount of mountain-summiting. The trail as we hiked it runs from Fulong on the northern coast to Dasi on the northeast coast, cutting through the mountains to get there. In retrospect it would have been smarter to end at the beach: the humidity can get oppressive, and parts of the trail look positively tropical. Besides the times when we saw - or reached - pavilions on mountain peaks, we also had this really cool experience at one point where we lost the barely visible trail on a hilltop and wandered through our own little world in the mist for a while, knowing that if we got lost we could just follow the cliff's edge back. We also saw plenty of water buffalo - four herds, I think - and passed some fellow travellers and picnickers.

- Saturday: I slept in, bought some necessaries, wandered around, and re-discovered the weekend version of the aforementioned Da'An Park and its accompanying weekend craft tent. It's like a flea market back home, but with a much higher percentage of worthwhile things for sale. A lot of the artwork has been handmade by the sellers, a surprising (though still low) proportion of whom happen to be deaf. I was particularly enthralled by a set of gorgeous scrolls, pictured below:

I was a little bit in love with the tiger; it's quite expensive, but if 1) it's still there, 2) I happen to end up with a bunch of extra money at the end of this, and 3) I don't find a scroll that's just as beautiful for cheaper in the interim (the glass here was definitely overpriced compared to what I bought at Shilin), I just might buy it.

- Sunday and Monday: a service at the Taiwanese version of the megachurch; hanging out with the Zhang family and friends; first day of real classes at ICLP. More description - and some photos - forthcoming; right now it's time to do some studying.

Oh, one final note... Where I'll be less than a month from now:

Until next time,

Friday, June 19, 2009


I've managed to get myself sick - probably the late nights and early mornings catching up with me - and I still can't access the internet at my apartment, so you may not hear from me for a bit. When I post again, though, I'll be telling you about:
 - my trip to the top of Taipei 101, currently the tallest functional building in the world
 - my 20-km hike through the mountains today, from one part of the coast to another (trying to sweat out the cold I felt coming on, I guess... I don't think it worked)
 - fighting the good fight to get the new apartment ship-shape
 - ICLP orientation: classes, trip to Maokong, placement
 - PHOTOS! I have a camera, and have been using it.

Until later,

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Evening with the "Host Family," and Some Observations [Detailed]

Yesterday, Raphael, my first language exchange partner and the one with whom I meet most often, introduced me to his family.

First let me back up and give you a quick recap of the first portion of my day, since this blog has basically become a detailed diary. In my search for a cheap(er) camera, I got off at the wrong (or, not the closest) metro stop and walked the wrong way for a bit. I don't tend mind that at all here, as long as I'm not in a rush, and yesterday was no exception: I found what seems like the "pets" section of HePing Road. Along one side of the road, about two blocks of shops, tables, and stalls were devoted to the sale of pets - nearly all birds, some of them boring (I saw a pigeon...) and some of them gorgeous. In case the humidity wasn't doing the job, the size and color of many of the birds were stunning reminders that this is a subtropical island. I also saw two ferrets, and a dog in a cage just big enough to turn around in.

Then I went and picked up the fourth and last key to my apartment (door #2), picked up a highly unhealthy lunch of three donuts at the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit - metro/train) station because I was worried about being late to meet Raphael, and fell asleep waiting for him by a station in the west of the city.

Intermission for observations, though I'll spare you the surmised explanations:
1. Neither eating nor drinking is allowed on Taiwan's MRT. there are no workers or security watching to enforce the rule; people simply don't do it. A friend from the hostel and fellow newcomer to Taiwan was drinking something on the MRT a few days ago, and a middle-aged woman very politely and kindly informed him of the rule.
2. Trains heading to the main station can get crowded in the morning, as I discovered today, but nobody really crams inside; when the train's pretty full and everyone is down to a certain amount of personal space, the folks on the platform simply wait for the next train. I've never had to wait more than about five minutes, and I find myself thinking of it as an on-demand form of transportation that will always be there waiting for me when I need to get somewhere.
3. In the alleys (i.e., the place to be for lunch), good luck trying to find good stuff from the omnipresent food stalls between 2:00 and 5:00 PM. I'm not quite sure what vendors do - siesta? prepare for dinner? take care of other business? - but most of them just aren't around between lunch and dinner.
4. Taiwanese tend to have four meals a day - breakfast, lunch, dinner, and supper. I'm not sure how heartily or well they eat overall, but I do know that the street vendors are omnipresent and quite popular - in fact, I hear that many people in the city only rarely cook for themselves. And yet, most people here are so thin... Though as a counterpoint to that, I just heard on the news that 1 in 10 people in Taiwan has diabetes, which is higher than the rate in the "land of the fat," i.e., America.
5. Taipei weather is ridiculous. When I got back to the hostel a few hours ago, the sun was beating down on me and the sky was mostly clear. Just now, I heard thunder. Within a few minutes it could easily be raining cats and dogs.
6. Everyone takes their shoes off at the door of a living space - either at the front of a house or at the entrance to an individual room of an apartment. That and the wet weather are themselves becoming a good enough reasons for me to go buy a cheap pair of sandals; everyone here has them, or at least some kind of slip-off shoe as a substitute.
7. Doors (and many walls) here are all made of metal, and the interiors of homes/businesses (recall that they're often one and the same) will often be separated from the street by a large, vertically opening door that I'd associate with a garage. I keep meaning to ask someone why (typhoons? fire hazards?), but I also keep forgetting; I think I'll save that question for Raphael's family next time I see them.

Which brings me to the end of my intermission...

The Zhang (張) Family:
Raphael picked me up at the MRT station in western Taiwan and we took a bus to his part of town, nearby Banciao City. He lives with his parents, younger brother Jordan (16?), two older sisters (Li Wei, 24?, and [can't remember], 25?), and his grandmother. His mother explained to me that in Taiwan, three generations tend to live together, which confirms what I've also read in ol' Lonely Planet. While we waited for dinner he started teaching me some radicals - pieces of Chinese characters that can help identify their meanings or sounds.

We then had dinner, and it was definitely the best meal I've had here yet. Everyone gets a smallish bowl of rice and throughout the meal adds to it pieces of any of the several dishes on the table - the Zhangs' included fish, tofu, eggs and shrimp, a vegetable I don't know the name of, pork, cabbage, some sausage-like meat, and one or two others I can't remember. Note that I'm pretty sure his mother made something fancier than normal; I am the Zhangs' first-ever foreign guest. Note #2: I'm also getting better at chopsticks, and in fact I think they're a fantastic way to eat; I still use them in the easier-to-learn but limited-control foreigners' way, though.

Before and during dinner, respectively, I met Jordan and Li Wei. Jordan is a high school student who's also learning English and in fact has a better accent than Raphael, but a smaller vocabulary - though he's a bit shy about talking to me, so maybe not. He's supposedly "the smart one" of the family, or at least the one who studies very hard. He and Raphael are both extremely thin, medium-tall height (for Taiwanese), and serious-looking; both smile easily, but Raphael's in particular is a huge, slightly goofy grin and I love it. Li Wei works as some sort of para-actuary (I think) in an insurance company, and speaks almost no English. She's absolutely tiny but seems full of energy, with very short hair that tends to stick to her head. She also likes showing people magic tricks, though they're not the best - I figured out most of the four, though one only in part and one by accident. She quite seriously claims that Taiwanese are just much worse at figuring out what's going on when she does her tricks, but I think that maybe I just know what to watch for.

After that, Zhang Taitai (張太太) - Mrs. Zhang - brought out a dish of pineapple; I suspect that Raphael might have told her that I really like it, because it turns out that the majority of the kids don't. I.e., I basically ended up eating the entire plate... whoops. Throughout, we just talked and talked: they all had a lot of questions for me, Li Wei in particular (I think she also thinks I'm cute), and I really just wanted to relax and talk to everyone, so I spoke in English and Raphael and Jordan got some major translation practice in. Earlier last week, Raphael actually mentioned that his brother wanted to set up a similar language exchange with me as well, and I told him I wasn't sure if I had time or not; now I think I might go for it. The two of them kept forgetting that Li Wei didn't speak English, so we had to remind them to translate, which was always funny. At a certain point they told me I should just stay over, because they wanted to keep talking and the MRT stops running at midnight - which for the record I think is a little bit ridiculous. 

The older sister (whose name I can't remember) and her friend came back from work/hanging out; she (the sister) , and we went out and bought a light supper - they insisted on treating me - and a toothbrush. After more talking and eating, at around 1:00 they decided it was time to go to bed, because most of us had to head out early (8:00-ish); they said they usually went to bed at 11:00. I slept in Jordan's bed, next to Raphael's, which reminds me to describe the apartment a bit: It's "thin" (only at most 3 rooms wide each way) but tall - four floors - and, from what I see and hear, bigger than most apartments. It's also spotless, which isn't very important to me at all but probably speaks to the idea I'm getting that the family is upper middle class. Despite the size, though, there are only two (large) bedrooms for the kids, which I think is interesting: in my experience, most American families of that level of wealth/house size would have made sure the kids have separate rooms, and the kids would be very much in favor of that. Although some of the family's questions have made me question for the first time just how "typically American" my experience has been (I really can't say, in some cases). But it seems that in most of America, one's own room - and one's own house - is an important piece of the American dream. But (take note, Phil!) I don't know that that's a universal or objectively "good" goal.

At 8:00 the next morning, I had - drum roll please - my first scooter ride! Motor, of course; on an island trumped only by Bangladesh in population density, there just isn't room for that many cars, so the vast majority of Taiwanese use bikes. Li Wei was going to work at 8:30, so she dropped me off at one of the MRT stops on her way so that I could get to a 9:00 orientation week class on Chinese characters at TaiDa. The ride itself was absolutely exhilarating - I would just laugh at random points for no particular reason - so I can't imagine a motorcycle ride or a ride on a freeway. It was only slightly scary; I've come to accept the fact that Taiwanese motorists will do things that seem insane, but with perfect confidence and... safely?! ("We're not really going to try to fit through there, are we?! ...Oh, yes, I guess we are.") Also, speeds aren't generally very high, at least in the city/urban area, which gave me a possibly artificial sense of security. And in a week here, I haven't seen or heard of an accident nearby, which may not be representative but is certainly encouraging. To further reassure the worried relatives: the good news is that Li Wei has been riding for five years; the better news is that everyone here wears a helmet. Supposedly the opposite was true a few years ago, but the police chose that - as opposed to running red lights, going the wrong way down one-way roads, weaving through traffic, or using crosswalks - as the offense they wanted to crack down on. And I guess if you're only going to pick one, that's the right choice!

Anyway, I have three new invitations to add to my list:
1. This week I'll go to a Christian church here for Sunday morning service in Chinese with "the other older sister's" friend.
2. In two weeks, the Zhang family will spend an afternoon at Danshui, a town on the river northwest of the city proper, and if I have morning classes I'll be there.
3. At the beginning of August, the Zhangs are going on their annual 3-day vacation to Penghu, one of the handful of small Taiwanese islands surrounding the main island. It's said to be "the Hawaii of Taiwan" - gorgeous, not very settled, and with many native Taiwanese. Depending on how much class I'd have to skip and when I have to let the Zhangs know, I just might go; everyone at the hostel who's gone says it's not to be missed.

Anyway, I can't believe I've spent this much time updating a blog. New resolution: every couple of days, I'll just give you the highlights. I've got to get out and do things while I can!

I hope you're all doing well, whoever and wherever you might be. I'm off to brave the storm and move into my new apartment.


P.S. Hopefully I'll be getting that camera today (couldn't yesterday - ATM restrictions and all that), and I hope to spruce up the blog with plenty of photos in the coming week.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

the subway, apartment, and jiufen

The subway is always enjoyable in Taipei. Most often I just try to keep my balance and decipher what people are saying, but sometimes more exciting things happen. Last night on our way to karaoke, a group of high school girls just couldn't stop themselves from giggling explosively and talking about us. Upon being asked, they told Alex (a guy from the hostel who speaks fluent Chinese) that they thought he was super handsome, and took pictures of him and me together. It's interesting because Taiwan is a place where foreigners are relatively common - compared to, say, mainland China, where I hear this sort of thing happens a lot - but at the same time still rare enough (or in-group-y, non-Chinese-speaking, and imposing enough) that this still happens. And this morning a Taiwanese woman couldn't find any other place in the restaurant to sit but across from me: she spent several minutes fiddling with things in her purse, the real reason for doing so painfully obvious. Once I introduced myself, though, she opened up very quickly and was a lot of fun to talk to. Although we're so similar, the fear of the unknown often maintains a thin veil between the Taiwanese and the foreigner, which one must be brave enough to break using the other's own language.

In more concrete news, I now have an apartment, and a cheap one: 5000NT per month, plus 350NT for electricity and probably more for air conditioning. I'm hoping for it to work out to about 6000NT total, or about $200 US. It's a bit bare, not 100% clean- or new-looking, not very pretty, and not in as nice a neighborhood as the other one I was looking at - but the parents of the landlord of the latter apparently told him they didn't want him renting the last room out to a guy, because guys shouldn't share a bathroom with girls. And that was that; while my hand was pretty much forced, the savings will be significant; I'll also be closer to the university, and it seems like a decent place.

Today Raphael's and my mystery trip turned out to be to Jiufen, a "traditional"-looking town on a mountain on the north coast of the island. The stalls and shops were very touristy - aimed at foreign tourists as well as Taiwanese, of which there were hordes. Although I did try a guava smoothie and buy something nice (and cheap!) that I think I'm going to give to mom, I had a lot more fun walking up and down the narrow, winding, deserted staircases of the town, away from the market. We also saw another temple (Buddhist this time, though upon reflection, the one I saw Morgan may have been as well), and I was once again amazed at the person-hours that must have been required to produce the intricate carvings and ceramics that cover the temple.

Nothing else exciting to report. ICLP orientation events start tomorrow, though - better get to bed. Zaijian!


Saturday, June 13, 2009

A great day, but my wallet is a lot slimmer.

Today was about apartments, shopping, karaoke, and great people.

I started the day off with what's becoming my regular breakfast - a bacon-cheese breakfast wrap - which I only get so often because it's the one breakfast item that I know how to order. I should really branch out and be more adventurous - and healthy. I ate with Morgan, the girl with whom I went to Fulong Beach, as she was heading out to visit a friend in the south. When she comes back (briefly) in a few days, we plan on going on a beautiful-looking, 14-ish-mile mountain hike from Fulong to another town in the north.

Then I went and saw the second apartment on my short list from the Mandarin 
web site, and loved it. The landlord's very nice; knows little enough English that it can be helpful in an emergency but he prefers to use Chinese; and reserved the room for me while I check out my last option this coming morning. The apartment itself is as cheap and closer to TaiDa than any others I've yet seen, and is surrounded by this fantastic market; it's also on a lower floor and significantly cleaner than the one I saw yesterday. Basically, I really love it and I'm only checking out this last one because it's cheaper and  a bit closer to school.

I bought a delicious pineapple in celebration, and then... we went to Shilin night market! Shilin is the most famous night market here, and it certainly lived up to its reputation. I found an old, semi-crappy camera that was too expensive and in retrospect I definitely should have tried to bargain for  - so, still no camera. I'll take and backdate tons of pictures soon, and use some friends' as well to flesh out my picture of the island, I promise. I'm not much of a shopper, but I was absolutely captivated by a table of glass sculptures.For those who don't know, I adore glass craftsmanship, and glasswork also happens to be the only art form I've ever 1) liked, and 2) not been particularly bad at,
though I've only taken a short set of beginner classes. Anyway, I was in love, and I bought two figurines and two larger sculptures, all beautiful and all for a total of 1800NT (about $55 US) - which in the US would be less than the cost of just one of the larger ones. The glassblower, an old man, made a fish in front of us, and in theory lowered the total price for me despite the fact that I had expressed way too much fascination to be in any sort of bargaining position. All were wondrous and beautiful, and that tightly packed box will now be my carry-on when I fly back home.

Then we hung out at the hostel a bit and met some new arrivals - one of whom, Nick, is a well-traveled, worldly, interesting, and personable MMA (mixed martial arts) fighter who lives in Korea. He's fighting at a local club tomorrow - his first professional fight - and I would love to go see it/cheer him on, but I don't want to spend another NT500. Also, I might not be back by then: Raphael has a mystery trip planned for me starting at a train station at 2:30 tomorrow. I'm also invited to Raphael's house for dinner on Monday! Quite excited, as you can imagine.

And, of course, there was karaoke, a very popular pastime among the youth here. One goes with a group of friends and rents out a small room with a couch, a table, an electronic kiosk, a few mics, and a large entertainment system. Food and alcohol is ordered, playlists are created (the place we went to had good selection of both Mandarin and English songs), and then the fun begins. Nine of us rented a room and got food for a total of about 500 NT ($16 US) each, and we had an absolute blast. Our crew has come to include a higher proportion of Chinese speakers and/or students, too, so I'm using the language more now - working up to near-constant usage, perhaps?

Though I apologize for ending the blog on a sour note - I really did have a fantastic day - my one worry about all this is that I've been spending too much money too quickly, especially considering my (hopefully!) upcoming camera purchase. I'm saving some significant cash because 1) I got good China Airlines plane tickets out of JFK, and 2) I spent a lot of time apartment-searching and have found some cheap options... but I'm also staying/traveling an extra week and will probably be doing some more "infrastructure spending" (camera, bike, more phone minutes, pillow and maybe mattress, etc.) in the near future. So while karaoke could be doable, say, every week or two (depending; I haven't reworked my budget yet), the glass certainly helped. So while I don't regret my glass purchase and don't think I regret going to karaoke, I'm just a bit worried; I really should re-budget tomorrow  and see where I stand after making a final decision on an apartment.

Right now I'm off to shower and get another very brief night's sleep. This time it's because I've been spending hours listening to my fellow world travelers (I like that phrase) discuss Korean culture and values, especially in relation to the west, which I really knew much of anything about until now.

Until next time,

Friday, June 12, 2009


After a VERY late start today (like... 1:00?), I looked for apartments for a few hours on that Mandarin web site that Raphael showed me. Then I met with him, walked around a little, bought and ate some things from a bakery even though I shouldn't have, and checked my apartment choices/followed up with Raphael's help. I can now recognize (but not write all of) the characters for "washing machine," "air conditioning," "internet," "not possible," and "natural gas." I found three apartments and made appointments to look at them. One guy spoke English, another didn't but I had Raphael's help, and I worked out the third almost entirely by myself. I went to see that last one earlier tonight; it's a bit dirty (not too bad compared to this past year's dorm, I guess), doesn't have a washing machine, and might require more air conditioning use than usual because it's on the sixth floor. So I'm holding out for visits to the two others, tomorrow and the next day. Besides that, I had a failed meeting with my third and final language exchange partner; bought a planner; and am now (2 AM) watching the original Terminator on TV. Le fin!


To start at the end: I didn't update last night because I was engaged in a harrying game of Kill Doctor Lucky until about 3:00 AM. Kill Doctor Lucky is a board game that is in some ways the anti-Clue: the players must all maneuver themselves and Doctor Lucky into rooms in which they won't be seen while they slaughter the latter with implements such as the Broomstick and - in this case, the winning weapon - the Tight Hat. Other players try to stop the murder by keeping Doctor Lucky in their line of sight or by using Failure Cards - but only in an attempt to save the kill for themselves.

Yesterday was really about two things: ICLP testing and language partners.

ICLP placement testing was like a karate chop to the kidneys. I thought the oral part went well, though they were definitely tailoring their questions to my level to some extent, but the written test was absolutely humiliating. I realize that it's meant to place people into multiple levels, which range from mine (beginner/intermediate) to several levels higher. That being said, I've never left 3/4 of the answers blank on a test before. I think I could have done slightly better on the reading comprehension had I studied (there were a handful of characters that I know we learned but whose meaning I forgot), but I don't know that it would have made a significant difference.

My language partners were great, though! Raphael set me up for an apartment search for apartments on a Mandarin web site (gotta use some crazy new vocab. excellent.), and took me to eat Guabao, these hot pockets of dough stuffed with meat, some sort of vegetable, and sugar/cinnamon/all things delicious. Then I met Jerry for the first time; he's 24(?) and a grad student in industrial engineering in Taipei, and he speaks significantly faster and with a stronger accent than Raphael. Which I suppose could be good for me in the long run, but right now it's a bit frustrating.

Oh! And... drum roll please... my phone FINALLY WORKS! (I know because I got a spam text message today.) The woman at the near cell phone store has been really good-natured and patient with me, but also fairly inept: I had to come back the first time because she copied my visa instead of my passport, and the second because she finally found the company policy that says I have to be 20. So by the time I returned for the third time, I had my new friend Ma Ye with me, who is over 20 and was able to buy back the very same SIM card for me with his ID.

A bunch of us then went to the bar - Beavis (a guy who works at the hostel), Ma Ye (Beavis's friend; also, see above), Maxim (a 30-year-old freelance journalist from Montreal), Melanie (a German who's lived in Taiwan about a year, also 30). It was rather smoky but I had a great time; I think bars are much more my scene than clubs. I talked with Maxim a lot. He told me that he doesn't see any shortage of work for freelancers in the future, and that his earnings every month are actually pretty steady, and he has more freedom to cover what he wants than a salaried reporter might get. There are also drawbacks to freelancing, though: he can't cover anything higher up in the food chain than local politics (you tend to need credentials from a good paper, the right connections, and a home base in the capital, he says), and sadly he also can't do much serious investigative journalism, because it takes a long time and if it doesn't pan out then you're not earning anything at all for those weeks you've spent on it. Some more of Beavis's friends came by and we had a great time, just talking in Chinglish and all.

And that, 朋友們, was my day.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Uneventful, but Relaxing

Today was just... beach. Glorious, glorious Fulong Beach. Very chill; the wind made it the perfect temperature; not much designated swimming space, but I just wanted to chill and float a while anyway. I went with Morgan, a girl at the hostel who goes to JMU (in Virginia) and is just staying a few days on her way back from geography "classes/research" in the Philippines. Didn't use a lot of Chinese today, but when I did I was largely successful - and of course I felt great because I was translating for someone! Besides relaxing, we also got to see some pretty big sand sculptures (some with hilarious English translations), and a Daoist (?) temple with the most intricate/numerous ceramics and carvings I've ever seen. I can't even fathom the number of person-hours it must have taken to make/decorate the place. Oh, and for lunch we tried the (apparently famous) Fulong "lunchboxes" (biandan?), which basically consist of a small box-like container of rice topped with a piece each of some different types of meat, tofu, and/or an egg. Quite good, but not worthy of being called "famous," I don't think.

Right now I'm heading out to that club I mentioned, just to see how it is (and because a bunch of hostel folk walked over a few minutes ago). I doubt I'll stay long - that relaxing was apparently very taxing on my body, because I can barely keep my eyes open and it's only 9:30!


P.S. David Demres, a fellow ICLP-er (but, I believe, a sophomore and in L5?) took my recommendation and decided to come stay at the hostel. Still haven't seen him yet - maybe he went to Roxy's with the gang? - but he's around.

P.P.S. Still no camera.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

I'm getting an awesome tan and we're watching bad Japanese shows on TV. Maybe I should stay in Taipei for a few months.

Today, too, was full of wandering; I don't expect that to change until a few days before classes start. (Exceptions: placement test day, orientation day... and maybe beach tomorrow with some hostel folks?!) At some point I'm no longer going to have six hours a day free for walking, but until then, I'm loving the meandering. Today I went to the Youth Hub and got ye olde "Travel Buddy" (really just a cell phone), then went to this camera street on a search that was clearly fruitless.

After that, I met my new language exchange partner(!); his name is Raphael, and he's awesome. (Everyone here who's learning English or interacting regularly with English speakers likes to have an English name. His real name: Zhang Jun Suang - I had to look that up, though.) He's an 18-year-old recent high school grad who's studying for the national university entrance exams. We'll be meeting about three times a week for two hours each time - one English, one Chinese. At his suggestion, we're also taking a trip on Sunday, though I have no idea where we're going. He's quite nice, reasonably patient, and very enthusiastic, and I discovered the joys of both beef noodles (牛肉麵/niurou mian; the "mein" of lo mein/etc is a corruption of mian) and some useful menu vocab during the Chinese portion of our meeting today. Tomorrow I'll be meeting with the nurse who wants to talk about the international news... I guess that means I need to get back on top of all those podcasts I stopped listening to two days ago.

After that I headed back to the hostel, took a long walk around to check out an apartment, walked up through part of a huge, beautiful park with a great view of that part of city (撫[?]州山公元) and a few sets of wooden stairs that made my quads remember the White Mountains. The fact that it's just a minute's walk away is a huge plus for the apartment I visited, and I'm definitely going back to the park for a full exploration before classes start. I also got my first good view of Taipei 101, which I really need to visit before I leave if I can fit it into the budget: a trip to the outer deck of the top of the tallest building in the world is something I probably shouldn't pass up while I'm in the neighborhood.

Foods today: another "traditional" (still not sure about this) egg sandwich- type of thing for breakfast, followed by fried bread sticks from a street vendor; beef noodles (mentioned above. absolutely delicious.); and a fiesta of one of my favorite fruits: a pineapple smoothie and a large bag of sliced pineapple, each for the equivalent of about $1.50.

A word about apartments. I could take the one I looked at today: it's nice-looking, a 25-minute walk from TaiDa, and has everything I need - i.e., a bed, a table/desk, high-speed wireless, and air conditioning - but I'm holding out for something cheaper and a little closer to Taipei. If that turns out to be an unrealistic hope, I may be in trouble. But I'm lured on by the excellent 4000NT/mo that someone else at the hostel just found (short-term, too!), which is just slightly over half the price I'd be paying at the place I looked at. With Raphael's help, hopefully I'll find something good...

A longer word about the language. I'm getting better at understanding people, but some aspects of the accent still surprise me and the speed/lack of vocabulary is still a huge problem. About an hour ago I had my most satisfying conversation in Mandarin: a phone inquiry (always harder; no body language to rely on!) about a sign for rental space, which turned out to be intended for a business. Besides that, though, I've been relying on a lot of English, just because it's available. A lot of larger stores have signs in English as well, and the eye (or my eye, at least) is naturally drawn there and away from characters; some folks speak English, like the people at the government youth travelers office, and (somewhat) that prospective landlord; and I've been leaning heavily on the folks at the hostel when I reach an impasse myself - like when I came across those characters that I had this vague intuition might have something to do with apartments for rent (they did!), or when I couldn't understand a landlord on the phone. While I'm a big fan with the speed at which we've learned Chinese at Yale, my inability to read characters in particular is confirming this growing feeling I've had during second semester: we really should learn the radicals and a set of common phonetics in a systematic way. (Also, fun fact: by the end of the first year, they're learning 35 characters a day at Middlebury.) I don't want it to be much more back-breaking than it already is, but is it possible that Yale's program - of which, again, I'm a big fan - could be more efficient? Anyway, that aside, I'm trying to speak as much Chinese as I can, but I just can't bring myself to avoid English help when I feel like it's in my interest - e.g., finding an apartment, or even a translation for a word that I might otherwise not pick up. But is it ultimately against my interest because I'm not truly immersing myself in the language? Feel very free to comment with your thoughts; I'm pretty torn about this, and while I can't always control the situation, I could definitely try harder at the whole solely-Chinese thing.

Now it's time for some Haagen-Dazs (if they're still open), and then shower & bed!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Day Two: wandering

First of all, I really wish I had a camera! Besides the fact that a picture of an alley market really would be worth a thousand words here, I've also come across some situations today that would have made fantastic photos. Tomorrow, though, I hope I'll find one: between Laslo (I'm changing the spelling each time because I really don't know) and one of the hostel workers, a Taibei native, I now have the approximate location of an entire "camera street" marked down on my map.

The day in brief: Woke up at 9; not jet lagged!; hearty and East-meets-West breakfast (turns out "cheese" and "bacon" sound very similar in Chinese); went back to TaiDa to fill out some forms for the program I'll be in (ICLP); set up a time for placement testing (Wednesday morning, 9:40-12:00. oi.); wandered; hit ShiDa night market again and found an excellent, cheap, sophisticated/trendy-looking restaurant and two great "everything stores"; got invited to a weekly hostel outing to Roxy's a club frequented by expats.

Wandering, in full:
When I finished at TaiDa, I decided I wanted to go to the Youth Hub, where they issue free "travel buddies" - which (at least, as best I can understand it...) a
re phones with 30 free minutes and some... information about Taiwan? I remembered when I was about halfway there that some government offices are closed on Mondays, but I figured I'd give it a try anyway - mostly because I often like to have a destination and feel that my walking is purposeful, even though the walking itself is the real purpose.

On the way, I passed through DaAn Senlin Gongyuan (大安森林公园) - Great Peace Forest Park. (DaAn is the name of the district of Taipei in which TaiDa is located.) It was beautiful: rubber trees, clusters of bamboo, hills, an "ecological lake" with turtles sunning themselves in rows along the pipes, a large statue (Buddhist, I think), and a handful of short, peculiar paths embedded with hundreds of rounded stones, each about 3x1.5" and 1-6" apart (depending on the path). One walks along them 
with bare feet, and the result supposedly helps the body in some way: the paths are accompanied by detailed charts showing how each part of the foot corresponds to a gland, muscle, etc. I'm not sure whether the experience is more or less painful when the path is walked by someone who knows what they're doing, but let's just say that I gave up after about a dozen steps.

I then wound my way through several alleys, lanes, and main roads; discovered that the Youth Hub was indeed closed; saw the Shandao Buddhist temple (size was impressive, but nothing fascinating), walked down some more alleys, found a sweet fruit stand (out-of-the-way and cheap; a bunch of lizhi, a pineapple, or some large kiwis for $1.50 or less), tried lizhi (lychee) for the first time, and bumped into Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, a pretty prominent cultural/aesthetic landmark. Funny story: the hall is screened by trees, and I SWEAR the "You
 are Here" sign was in the wrong place on the (English) map, so I couldn't find it at first. So after some fruitless searching, I accidentally came upon the gate on my way down the road - and burst out laughing, because  I had basically been right next to it and the thing's HUGE. It's basically like an Eastern version of the Lincoln Memorial, except perhaps slightly bigger and with a kind of cool changing of the guard (sweet rifle moves). The grounds are gorgeous, with sculpted trees and hand-trimmed flowers (I saw a group of older women wearing traditional hats snipping away), a long shaded walkway around the perimeter, and a lake with turtles and some gorgeous fish. Intrigued by a large vending machine shaped like a fish but not really knowing what I was doing, I paid 10NT and bought - you probably guessed it, but I didn't - fish food, which afforded much more than 10NT's worth of fun. There's this ongoing controversy about the place, though: a lot of the statue taken down and the hall renamed after someone who wasn't a brutal dictator. Chiang is still sitting there on his throne with his kind of creepy, self-satisfied smile, though, getting saluted by five guards every hour.

On the way back, I discovered some well-priced brunch and a street vendor who sold simple but amazingly priced lunch: 30NT - less than a dollar - for two round, dense hunks of bread with a handful of raisins and grains baked in. Then back home to the hostel, where on the advice of a Taiwanese worker I tried another phone store about two blocks away to see if they would give me a SIM card despite the fact that I'm not 20 yet. They did - and I completed the entire transaction myself! (In the interest of full disclosure, I was given a sheet of paper with rates listed in English, but that was the easy part anyway.) I still need an unlock code from T-mobile to use the foreign SIM card in my phone; obtaining it and sending it to me could take "up to 3 days," they say (can you say "ridiculous"?). I'm going to visit the Youth Hub again to try to get one of those "travel buddies" first thing tomorrow, because I really need to call to get in touch with people about visiting apartments, hostels, etc.

Good news: I'm meeting Language Exchange Partner #1 tomorrow at a nearby train station at 12:30! I hypothetically have three: another is a guy in his 20s who wants to meet a couple times a week, and the third is a nurse, also in her 20s, who wants to meet once a week and discuss international affairs when we speak in English. #1, "Raphael," is a senior in high school who wants to meet 3-4 times a week for the next month, and more afterwards; his English is also at a lower level than that of the other two, and in his web site listing he said he'd like to take his LEP (language exchange partner) hiking, city sight-seeing, etc, which sounds fantastic.

I fear I'll be blogging every day. It can't be helped; I'm too excited! Photos will make it shorter, though, I promise.


Sunday, June 7, 2009


The first day:

It isn't over yet, but I figure I'll want to crash as soon as I come back from the night market later tonight, so here are the Cliff's Notes:

  •  Bus ride to Taipei; brief cab ride to TaiDa (National Taiwan University). I discover that the accent of common folk is even more different - and hard to understand - than I expected. Far too many consonants just sound like "S"s, and when people are speaking quickly, especially the less educated, forget it. This is definitely going to take some adjustment.
  •  ICLP is closed. Because it's Sunday, Ethan. Way to go. I speak in Chinese with an assistant professor anyway, and am not too thrilled with my performance.
  •  Wandering: I walk around with all my stuff for about four hours, looking to check out four hostels but only finding one open. Not impressed, but it'll do, until...
  •  I find the perfect hostel: After finding a restaurant in my price range (about $2.5) and asking the person at the next table to choose something good for me, a fellow waiguoren (foreigner), Loslo, stops by and comments on the hostel map on the table next to me. Turns out he's a really nice guy, and one of the workers at a hostel I had been unable to check out. After talking to him some more and seeing the hostel (8 Elephants) for myself, I'd recommend it to anyone: great price ($16/night for a bunkbed in a dorm room, $7 for a spot on the couch), all the facilities I could possibly need (though the washing machine is coin-operated), close enough to TaiDa by metro or long walk, fantastic atmosphere, fantastic people. I've tentatively booked an alternating room/couch combo for a week here while I look for an apartment, and I'm sure I won't regret it. I'm glad I'm limiting myself to a week, though: however great the people are here, it's still a community of foreigners, and as such we all speak English to each other. Still, when we're both around I'm going to try to speak Chinese (and some French!) with one of the girls who works here - Yizhi, a super-nice university student with a definite gift for languages.
  •  More wandering: I accidently find a full-fledged, two-alleyway market. And one family was speaking Spanish! Definitely going back when I have a better idea of how much things should cost here.
  •  Throughout: Near death. Roads range in width from several lanes to aptly-named "alleys," and if a vehicle fits, someone will drive it through. Traffic direction is either not indicated or ignored; a "walk" signal on a crosswalk doesn't mean that traffic won't make turns across it (both directions); and if you stop or move to one side suddenly you're liable to be mown down by a bike or scooter.
  •  Masks: worn by about 1 in 10 Asians on the plane, and by all airport officials at Taoyuan. Also popular (1 in 15 or 1 in 20, I'd say) in Taipei - but Laslo, who's lived here for about 2.5 years now, says that a good portion of these people wore masks before for air quality reasons. That fits with my observation that masks are much more prevalent among scooter riders.
  •  In other news: The legendary kindness of the Taiwanese manifests itself. A taxi cab driver tells me just to pay him NT100 for an NT105 ride (one doesn't tip here, either). A man sees that I'm looking at a map and tries to give me directions using a mix of English and Chinese. A girl on a scooter sees me doing more map-reading and actually takes my map, looks for the place, asks some locals, and leads me right to the door.
  •  Still needed: 1. A hat! I'll know tomorrow whether/how much I'm sunburned 2. A camera! Parts of Taiwan can look like, say, New York, but nothing less than photos will do the back alleys justice. 3. A SIM card for my phone! The latter is proving ridiculously elusive: at one store I needed my passport AND a Taiwan ID, and at another I showed two American IDs and was then denied because I'm not yet 20. Loslo said he'd get me one; hopefully that happens soon, because a phone is proving to be the key to meeting up with language exchange partners and looking at apartments.

I also need to blog less. I'll try to get on that. Big day, though.


At Taoyuan International Airport. Let's call it Taipei.

7:45 local time on Sunday morning:

All of the airport officials speak English! I think I need to go pound the pavement a bit and struggle to make myself understood in order to feel like this is the real thing. Though, that being said, I had a little practice at that when my new friend - a middle-aged woman from Taipei, who gave me her phone number and told me to call and visit when I got a SIM card - humored me and spoke with me in Chinese for a while. Despite my limited Chinese so far, I'm already getting used to the constant use of four key phrases: "I didn't catch that," "I don't understand," "Can you please repeat that?" and "a little slower, please."

Bad news: I barely slept on the plane. Maybe those seats are supposed to work for Taiwanese (i.e., short) people, but leaning back or sideways in any form - pillow or no pillow - was incredibly uncomfortable for me. So I'm pretty tired. But not really jet lagged per se, I don't think.

Good news: All other aspects of the flight were great. Used a little Chinese, made a friend (see above), got three meals. Note: Airline food is MUCH improved since last I flew - either that, or China Airlines rocks U.S. carriers. Probably some of both. But really... red wine (international waters, Kelly McLaughlin! International waters!) and a passable imitation of cheesecake?! Make some tall-person seats and I'll fly with you some more, my friends!

Also, I've gotten responses to about half of the 20 or so inquiries I sent out on Friday regarding Tealit ads for language exchange partners and rooms for rent. Now I'm off to wade through them all, update my podcasts, take the bus to ICLP (note to fellow ICLPers: NOT the taxi; from what I read the latter is literally 10x more expensive), get interrogated in Chinese, and stomp the streets to check in on four prospective hostels. (ICLP note #2: I'm not doing the whole YMCA thing unless the hostels disappoint me immensely; some hostels here have excellent reviews, and YMCA is 3x as expensive.)

Also, I need to buy a camera or the Light Fellowship will disown me. And that could be troublesome.

Zai hui,

Saturday, June 6, 2009

And I'm Off!

True to my character, as I write this I've almost-but-not-quite finished packing; I should get ready, eat dinner, and leave within the hour if I want to arrive at the airport at a reasonable time.

I spent last night and today trolling Tealit, a web site for English teachers and other foreigners in Taiwan. I sent off over a dozen e-mail inquiries about apartment room listings, and asked a half-dozen people if they were still looking for language exchange partners. I printed out maps and picked four hostels that are near each other, near TaiDa (National Taiwan University, at which I'll be studying), and highly rated on I also dealt with some paperwork, made copies of important documents, and downloaded some more podcasts for the plane ride. (One of them is a Chinese as a Second Language podcast that involves renting a room - could be useful!)

Right now it's time for me to send out a mass e-mail about this blog for those who are interested. Then it's onto more packing, dinner, buying a pocket Chinese-English/vice-versa dictionary (should've done that long ago), and a flight to Anchorage... and then Taibei on Sunday morning! (Where did Saturday go? It'll be eaten up by a combination of air time and that strange phenomenon known as the International Date Line.)

I'm thrilled. tells me it'll even be a mostly sunny day, with no chance of thunderstorms - a rarity in northern Taiwan at this time of year, it seems. Next time I post, I'll be there... wish me luck.