Friday, July 31, 2009

Snapshots of Taipei, Part 2

The fun continues.

1. I'll start with some of my favorite shots from that cosplay convention I mentioned last time:

Things to know, most of which actually aren't reflected by the images (photographer fail):
a. The female:male ratio of the participants who dressed up was very, very high. Why? Girls, say Jun Xiang and his friend Yu Zhong, like to dress up, and have their pictures taken (more on that later). This is true, but I'd also add that in my opinion at least some of them definitely took the opportunity to break out of the Taiwanese dress code for the day. For while it's okay for a girl to bare as much leg as she wants (short shorts are currently quite popular; I give that fashion trend five thumbs up), tops are a different story. Arms are okay, but anything else is very much not. For example, in the picture of me and the two girls, their belly shirts are very much not kosher and would almost never be seen on the street. I'd say that as few as, say, 1 in every 500 or 1000 girls bucks this trend, and even then not flauntingly. I'm sure it has something to do with the general Taiwanese body type (petite :-p), but there are enough exceptions to make me pretty sure that it's a sign of a slightly more conservative, slightly more moderate youth culture than exists in America. Along the same vein, if you go to bars or clubs in the university area you'll notice a much higher expat:national ratio than normal - and this despite the fact that one can legally drink at age 18 here.

b. Another thing the photos don't reflect: the swarms of photographers. Nearly all of them were male, and judging by the ridiculous equipment, most of them were also either professional photographers or wealthy amateur enthusiasts. Some were probably also taking photos for papers, but by and large I think that they were for collections, blogs, etc. Subjects would by and large be willing to be photographed for several minutes at a time in the sun, oftentimes striking whatever poses the photographers asked for. They were there, after all, to look good.

Despite some things I had read on Wikipedia about problems with creepy male cosplay photographers in some places, the photography had a very Taiwanese air to it. Most photographers would thank the subject when they were done, sometimes adding a little bow for good measure, and move out of the way to let other photographers in; even more telling, when a character was done posing and being photographed, he or she would simply say so and relax or walk away, and everyone would immediately stop taking pictures.

It was fun to watch trends form and dissipate, as particular people/characters became "popular," and at the height of their two minutes of fame were barraged by 20 photographers. I actually started two of those trends, which was kind of cool. I suspect it was because people who weren't available for photos beforehand were willing to start posing again when I asked them; being "the foreigner" has its perks ;-)

2. And now for something completely different: the MRT.

a. Come try the new Neihu Line! Why? Because a popular Taiwanese singer thinks it's awesome, and that guy in the background is so excited that he's even started break-dancing.

b. Hopefully you won't be among the unlucky few...

In early July, Taipei City opened a new set of Metro stations, the "Neihu line," which expands metro coverage to about an additional 40% of the city to the northeast and provides a key connection to the main domestic airport in the north. (With 2,000,000 people, Taipei's a sizeable town, folks. I've only seen part of it.) Still, the line is opening some 13 years (!) behind schedule, and it has had issues: on the first day of operations, a car's main brakes failed (emergency brakes worked fine, so nobody was hurt), and a few weeks ago the entire line - the Neihu portion and the pre-existing stops to the south - was shut down, and 9,000 people were stranded for a few hours due to a technical problem. Fares are currently discounted about 25% to encourage people to continue traveling on the line, and the one time I did (Neihu also opens up the IMAX theater, which is key!), folks seemed to be taking advantage of it.

Fun fact: The Taipei government recently threatened to sue a prominent tabloid (they're very, very popular here) for $100,000,000 NTD (about $3,000,000 USD) over an article about reasons for the problems with the Neihu line. According to ICRT, the English station here, "The magazine fired back, calling the city government 'absurd' and 'evil.'" I'll be interested to see what comes of that...

3. The 228 Memorial Peace Park

(Featuring: A pagoda...

...and a statue of Confucius. And me.)

On February 27, 1947, resentment was building against the KMT, the political party which was then ruling both mainland China and Taiwan. The KMT had just "moved in" very recently, when Japan - which had controlled the island since winning it from China [thanks, Dad] in the late 1800s - re-ceded Taiwan upon losing World War II in 1945. Although many of the locals were descendants of mainlanders themselves, they had basically been been taken over by a fairly repressive regime with an absentee ruler. (Chang Kai-Shek was at that point in China, fighting Mao Zedong's forces; he would lose and flee to Taiwan two years later.) The trouble came to a head, when in the course of enforcing new cigarette laws, two KMT policemen in Taipei deprived an older street vendor of her cigarettes and some of her earnings. The altercation was apparently prolonged, and ended up drawing an angry crowd, which turned violent when one of the officers hit the old woman in the head with the butt of his pistol. The policemen fled, the crowd chasing them, but one of them fired behind him as he ran, killing a young man.

The next day, February 28 (hence "228"), a much larger crowd of protestors gathered, calling for a trial for the officers. To make a long story short, the day ended with soldiers firing into the unarmed crowd and the declaration of a curfew and martial law.

It wasn't until the 1990s, when Taipei became fully democratic and free discussion was allowed, that this park - which has existed for about 100 years - was renamed to honor the dead.

For me, this kind of highlights how young Taiwan's democracy really is. The government has done terrible things on the very streets of Taipei - and plenty of people no doubt remember it all happening. Correspondingly, civil liberties still aren't as strong as what you'd see in America; for example, one thing I've been hearing about is that the most recent president, Chen Shui Bian, has been in jail for something like a year now on corruption charges without seeing any offer of bail or his day in court. But what's even more interesting is that the KMT - whose policy, as I mentioned, involves eventual reunification with China - is currently the ruling party. I feel like any party with such a terrible (and recent) history - and with a policy that most Taiwanese abhor - can only retake power from the opposition party (the DPP) if the latter is incredibly weak. I'm not here long enough, nor do I speak Chinese well enough, to even bother trying to really understand the politics of the island, but at this point I've come to know just enough for it to really interest me.

P.S. There's much more to the park and it's quite beautiful, but I wasn't really in the mood for pictures. Another time.

4. Father's Day at the Zhangs':

Budding actors:

And a special treat...:

[Apologies for the poor sound quality and the clear lack of any sort of skill or common sense on the part of the cameraman.]

The Zhangs have reminded me to be wary about overgeneralizing my experiences in Taipei. For one thing, as I think I mentioned earlier, Xuan Xuan (the low-paid buxiban English teaching assistant) told me that she though the Zhangs were special and uncommonly friendly. And when I went to their house on Tuesday for their early father's day celebration (we'll be at Penghu for the actual date - 8/8, which can be read as "ba ba" ["dad/dy"] ), I was impressed with the idea that this was probably more the case than I had thought. Each of the four siblings invited several friends and encouraged them all to mingle; the snack food/dinner/cake was plentiful and seemed very half-American/half-Chinese; and the socializing was followed by several ridiculous skits prepared over the course of about a week, a public reading of reasons why the four of them loved their father, and then a series organized games. Afterwards, when I was complimenting him on the skits and how friendly the whole atmosphere was, I asked Jun Xiang if their family was different than most in that way, and he uncharacteristically said, "Yes, I think so." Don't get me wrong - I still think Taiwanese people are fantastically nice - but I'm appreciating the Zhangs more and getting the idea that maybe not everyone here would be that amazingly welcoming.

Also, while I've tried to be careful to restrict my commentary to "Taipei" (as opposed to "Taiwan"), and to "Taipei's youth" when appropriate, I'm guessing there have been a few times when I've failed to make that second distinction; I'm also guessing that even some of my "Taipei" generalizations are inaccurate. While I hear that the "poorer" areas nearby are restricted to some of the suburbs (still on the metro line, though), and not the city itself, I do have to remember that I have only lived and traveled through the university districts and the municipal district. There's a lot more of Taipei to see, and maybe I shouldn't be so glib about my generalizations. It's such a temptation, but recognizing it just makes me want to learn more Chinese, so that I can come back and really get an idea of what life is like here.

To end with, a quick recap on my daily life of late:

1. Chinese:

Right now, could be better.
- For one thing, we recently had a friendly but heart-to-heart talk with the teacher who directs the way the main course ("Modern Conversation," both "large" and individual classes) is taught for his students. Boin, a classmate and a Columbia grad, and I both thought that the new characters were fine, but that we should be focusing on a few sentence patterns/phrases/pieces of grammar a day, because we're trying to remember a dozen or so and really not assimilating any of them. The Yale system was great in that one was called upon to memorize, verbatim, a short dialogue every night, and a medium-sized one every week; by the end of it, you really owned those patterns and phrases if you did them right. Here, not so much. I mean, I still can't get across some pretty basic ideas in a gramatically correct way - which I find very, very frustrating, all the more so because a lot of the time I know it's something we've gone over. Briefly. But the professor is only partly changing focus; the bigger change seems to be that we're going slower, which is not what we wanted. Either way, I guess there's less than two weeks of classes left, so it won't have a massive impact either way :-/
- For another, Katie (who's nominally at the same level as me) was telling me a few days ago when we went to get our passports renewed that she finds repeating her one-on-one teacher's sentences to be the easiest thing in the world. By contrast, I have tons of trouble doing that; unless I hear, process, and understand every word in the sentence, I'll always make a mistake or sometimes even forget what I'm supposed to be saying midway through. It's very frustrating.
- Finally, fear is slowly creeping into my heart about placing into third-year Chinese next year. I have a strong feeling that second semester second year would be no good, as I'd be a year behind my classmates and I'm told that second year is slow. I'd also feel like I've wasted a summer of study, which I don't think I would take well at all. Those traditional characters and the comparative lack of intensity (especially as regards the ol' language pledge) might prove disastrous.

2. Health:

Could also be better. I've basically been tired and/or aching every day so far, and even when I get in bed in time for an eight-hour sleep (which is a luxury compared to my Yale days, and especially to my high school years), I don't sleep well and wake up aching. I actually went to the TaiDa hospital on Monday (don't worry; it's just kinda the thing to do here when the health center is closed), and they decided I had a virus and gave me three nights' worth of pills to take for the aching. Maybe it worked, because I took them at dinner and the worst spells have been during the afternoon, but on Monday I may also take them up on their offer to come back if it's not better soon. I kind of want to stick it out until this Thursday (Penghu island!!!), and see if a change of sleeping venue will do the trick, but that will also only work if I'm actually not sick; if I am and I don't get better, I might just be miserable throughout Penghu, which would be... miserable.

Oh, and this whole story brings me to another fun fact: I'm not on Taiwanese health insurance, national or otherwise, so I was charged in full for the hospital bill. Am I going to bother trying to convince the Yale Health Plan that there was really a pressing need for me going to the hospital?


Why not? My total bill, including the pills: $468 NTD, or slightly under $15 USD.

And yet, Taiwan is said to have some of the best healthcare in the world. (They're particularly well-known for eye, liver, and cosmetic operations.) Those who say the U.S. system doesn't need reform, take note.

Next time, expect Part 3, which will mostly focus on a photographic expedition into the middle-class Taiwanese home.

Until then, stay summery.


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.


Friday, July 24, 2009


I've been feeling unnaturally tired for the past few days; for most of the day my entire body will feel like I've been wrestling all night in my sleep, and my lower back goes beyond tired to hurting some. Even got a solid 8 hours of sleep last night because it's really quite uncomfortable, but if it's just because I'm tossing and turning or something, I guess there's not much I can do about it.

I've decided to go on an adventure to see if that solves the problem. (And also because... I really want to go on an adventure.) Tomorrow, barring illness, bike shop issues, or bad morning weather, I'll be renting a bike and traveling around from about 8:00AM to 2:00 PM. What I really want to do is bike along the river and then just hit some side roads to the south of the city, where according to Google Maps I can find hills and less civilization. I'd go earlier if I could, but the rental place doesn't open at 8:00; the 2:00 return time is to 1) beat the classic Taiwan afternoon thundershowers (knock on wood), and 2) get back in time to see HARRY POTTER. Today I've got some language exchange/dinner plans with Jun Xiang & co today, so I'll be blogging tomorrow; don't expect much new information, but hopefully some great pictures will be coming your way.


Wednesday, July 22, 2009


Today's news: The mold is back. I missed the eclipse. I'm up late again. I found myself unable to express myself given 50 minutes to respond to the "[your] life in Taiwan" prompt and 10 sentence patterns to use. Did I mention that the mold is back?

Remember that excellent Livejournal feature? Current mood: discontent.

Better post on Friday, I promise.

Friday, July 17, 2009

short one, because it's gorgeous outside

And by gorgeous I mean sunny and not too humid, because 95-degree heat + Ethan = <3.

Past week's highlights:
1. Earthquakes and Typhoons
If I understood my teacher correctly, the Taiwan area lies at the intersection of three plates. (Or fault lines... or are those the same? I wish I remembered more from 8th grade Earth Science; I'll Wikipedia it soon to compensate.) Hence why earthquakes are so common here. Apparently Tuesday morning's (about 2:30 AM) was a particularly big one - it registered 6.3 where it struck off the coast, and 3.0 in Taipei city...

...And I slept through it. My first earthquake, and I slept through it.

Ohhhh well. Next time.

In other sad news for someone who wants to (safely) experience some of nature's fury, both recent typhoons - a big one on Tuesday and a small one today - have veered off after early forecasts that they would hit Taipei. According to an old saying, if an earthquake strikes, the typhoon won't come, which turned out to be very true this time around.

2. Chinese, again

I still have mixed feelings about my Chinese skills, but I'm starting to feel a lot better about it, and I think that if I can refrain from comparing myself to mainland returnees when I get back to Yale, I just may end up being very, very happy with my progress and my summer as a whole.

One really cool moment came yesterday when the air conditioning just wasn't changing the temperature in the room. (While I sleep at 28 C - or 82.4 F - it's just not a comfortable temperature to do homework in.) So I tried to fix that. As I was wielding the remote the way I always do - my M.O. involves pushing buttons until the unit does what I want it to - I realized, all of a sudden, that I could actually understand most of it. Whereas when I arrived, the landlord had to explain everything to me because I just couldn't even begin to process the jumble of characters, last night I went through the options: "start, stop, fan, dehumidifier, self-regulating [I think], timer (morning, evening)." Such a simple thing, but it felt great.

Also, today the slightly crazy teacher who leads my largest (4-person) class wanted to focus on pronunciation, and the word "bread" came up, as random simple words are wont to do. While he was writing it on the board for us, he told me that my pronunciation was good enough that people I meet will be surprised when I can't say common words like "bread." He was kind of laughing at me, but at the same time, coming from the Pronunciation Nazi and leader of the twice-a-week "pronunciation clinic," that meant a lot. And maybe it does explain why people on the street slow down less and less often when they talk to me now?

The bad news: More often than not, I still DO need them to slow down :-p While I often can, given time, get my point across in grammatically deplorable Chinese, there are of course many different ways of saying the same thing - and I don't know most of them. For that reason - i.e., because average people are drawing on an incomparably larger array of vocabulary and sentence patterns than I am - keeping up, and sometimes even pointing out the portions that I don't understand ("all of it!"), is still very difficult. I'm really coming to appreciate Jun Xiang's (my language exchange partner's) considerable knack for simplifying his speech when he talks to me. I'm also finding that, in general, adults are better at that - or at least more willing to slow down and simplify things - than young people.

3. Everything's winding down so quickly! Midterms are this coming week, which I find unbelievable. Things I really want to do before I go:
  • Go to the hot springs. I can't believe I forgot about this! It'll probably end up being Beitou, though I think I'd rather go somewhere less accessible and touristy.
  • Eat more of Taiwan's famous food, including xiaolongbao, dim sum, and 臭豆腐 (chou doufu), or "stinky tofu."
  • Go for a day-long bike ride, along the river though southern Taipei and out into the mountains. I recently failed spectacularly at getting up early enough to buy an incredibly cheap used bike ($400 NT, i.e., $13 USD!): I went to bed at 9:30PM so that I could rest well and wake up at 5 AM, but I guess it was just too early because I tossed and turned until after midnight. But there is yet hope, because a (Taiwanese) friend of a friend recently offered to let me borrow hers.
  • Explore more. I'm busy, but if I try I can definitely find time to go seek out new things. Just yesterday I went walking with a Taiwanese friend and discovered some restaurants and cafes near my house that I never knew existed, including this amazing coffee shop that looks more like the hostel than anything else: you take your shoes off at the door, and for 150 NT ($5 US), they'll seat you at a couch; give you a drink; allow you to bring food, study, and stay as long as you want; and order pizza for you (you have to pay for that last one, of course).
  • (totally unrelated): See Harry Potter. I don't know why I thought that ordering tickets two days in advance of when I planned to watch it on IMAX would be fine. Taiwan has exactly one commercial IMAX - in northern Taipei - and the Taipei metro area is home to over 10,000,000 people. The pretty steep price (400NT, or $13 USD) keeps a lot of people away, but it's still tough to get seats for a group. I'm going to order tickets for 5 of us next Saturday as soon as they come out, though, and hopefully they'll accept my debit card and we'll be all set. Pretty psyched.
Well, with that, I want to seize the day a bit, so I'm off. To satisfy some Light Fellowship reporting requirements, the following photographs are brought to you by yours truly:

1. The gang at Danshui.

People in the photo, and their relation to Raphael/Jun Xiang:
Front, from left: Li Wei (older sister), Dai Ling (oldest sister), grandma Zhang, mama Zhang, papa Zhang.
Middle-ish, from left: Lin Lin Lin (sisters' friend), Zhi Qing (younger brother).
Back, from left: Xiao Qi (Dai Ling's friend), Yu Zhong (friend), Wan Wei (friend), me (looking fearsome).

2. Making dumplings in the Sogo department store food court.

Friday, July 10, 2009

You know you're in a foreign country when...

...the banner ads that in America would advertise a chance to win large amounts of money instead look like this:

...and the "[wo]men at work" signs look like this:

In this post I'll be briefly recapping the past week+, using those and some photos to toss out a bunch of observations along the way. It'll undoubtedly get a bit long, so strap yourselves in. Either that, or skim.

1. News from the Mandarin-Learning Front

In the most recent comment on my blog, my cousin Nick (hey, Nick & Nat!) asked, "are you learning anything," so I'll start with that. On one hand, I've definitely been assimilating a lot of vocab. The pace isn't as crazy as it was in the beginning when I had a lot of new traditional characters to learn, but every weekday I'm adding about 20 characters (listen, speak, recognize, write), and another 5 (just aural/oral) oft-used terms and vocab from my Chinese Moral Tales class. (To be honest, I put very little effort into that class; my main class takes up all of my time.) I'm also becoming much more comfortable with speaking Chinese, even when people answer me in English. On the other hand, I'm still very weak in grammar and sentence patterns; while I can usually understand them when my teachers use them, I don't really have a solid command of what we've covered. Starting today I'm going to be working with Jun Xiang (Raphael, my language exchange partner) on common sentence patterns. Also, I try not to compare but I can't help it: I know from talking to folks that at Princeton in Beijing they're learning about 50 characters a day. I don't know that I could or would want to handle that, but I fear for my relative proficiency when I return to Yale in the fall. Finally, long sentences still blow me out of the water, sometimes even when I can understand every individual word: I feel like my mind's processing everything just a little bit too slowly to string phrase-ideas together at this point and it's very frustrating. In the end, retention is also going to be a big issue, of course; hopefully next year's Chinese class will keep me on my toes in that regard.

All of this being said, it's very difficult to get a fix on how much I'm improving. On my first day here, I could understand only a tiny fraction of what the ticket agent and bus driver were saying; now, I'm speaking briefly every day with the woman who sells me sandwiches for lunch and the owner of the hotpot shop in the night market. But would I really be able to go back and talk to the bus driver? To find out, I'd be willing to spend two hours going back and forth to the airport if I could find the guy, but right now I just don't know; maybe he had a particularly heavy Taiwanese accent that I would still find insurmountable - like Mrs. Zhang, who I still have a lot of difficulty understanding even when she's using words that I should recognize.

By the same token, Zhangs say I've improved a lot, but to be fair I was pretty complacent the first time I came to their house, and Jun Xiang and his brother (Zhi Qing) translated everything. Still, I'm proud that I'm using more Chinese with them each time. On Tuesday during our trip to Danshui, even though Jun Xiang and Zhi Qing were both there, I spent a lot of time trying my best to communicate in Mandarin. But then, of course, I realized just how ridiculous I must look and sound, with my small pinyin dictionary out, trying to talk about swimming to Li Wei and Zhi Qing: Two English-speaking Taiwanese girls, mistaking me for a tourist desperately trying to use his basic Chinese to ask a question of the locals, stopped and asked me (in English) if I was lost. I thought it was funny, and after I explained what had just happened the Zhangs found it especially hilarious, but clearly I still have a long way to go.

One reason why I fear returning to Yale is because I'm learning all traditional characters. Many are similar to the simplified ones that I will need to use to interact with all of mainland China - and Yale. Some change in a standardized way. Some are the same. But there's also a reason why the Taiwanese government body in charge of commerce just began to offer a simplified character version of its entire web site: a lot of very, very different characters that I will essentially have to relearn as I go. In fact, I imagine that somebody, somewhere is going to be very unhappy with me when I take my placement exam (the one that will tell me if I've really done a year's worth of Yale material) and write everything in 繁體子 (complicated characters, written in the same). (Doesn't that character just look ridiculous?! Compare it to 简体字 (simplified characters; written in the same), and you have an idea of what I'll be up against.

So why am I doing it? I'm not all that sure. Being in Taiwan, it seemed like a much more legitimate road to take, and a challenge; simplified characters felt like a cop-out. Also, my one-on-one teacher strongly suggested that I at least learn to read the traditional characters for our lessons, and I really didn't want to be learning to read the same set of words differently than I was learning to write them. And, one day I hope to be able to both read and write using either system. If that doesn't sound like a strong set of reasons, well, I agree. But I'm doing it nonetheless, and we'll have to wait and see how it turns out.

2. Various Good Times

a. This past weekend, David hosted a Fourth of July party for the Yalies (and one Dartmouth alum, named Paul). We bought the most "American" food we could find at 家樂福 (Jialefu, aka Carrefour, a large French chain), which is basically the Costco of Taipei, samples and all. (Taipei does have a Costco, though! It's far from central, but I plan to visit before I leave.) With six floors of everything you can think of: clothing; food; household cleaners; and everything in between. I've bought a pillow, a pair of sandals, a set of chopsticks, and a camera there, to name a few. (The chopsticks are two-part, screw-in metal ones, and make me feel so Taiwanese. Will I be brave enough to use them back home in real life? I'd love to, but that remains to be seen.) The store has a distinctly 台灣味道 (Taiwanese flavor) to it, and it's secretly one of my favorite places, but on July 3 they were really marketing heavily to the American expats in the area. Besides the few shelves of American imports, the management appeared to have developed its marketing strategy with one key fact in mind: "Americans like meat." Observe.

It was a fun little get-together; Jun Xiang came for a bit, and some of us ended up taking some chairs up to the roof, ending our day drinking wine, chatting, and generally spying on the neighborhood. There was too much Yale talk - though Paul at least feigned interest - and it was all in English, but it was great to kick back and relax with people from home.

b. Sunday night: dinner with "friends of the hostel"; Eight Elephants will always have a special place in my heart, I think, and I wish I could work there for a while. It was also Maxime's last day. I'll miss him a lot - he's a really thoughtful guy with an epic French accent and a fantastic sense of humor, and he makes one forget that he's 30. But he's told me that his house in Montreal has a guest room and I'm always welcome, so if I ever get the opportunity and he's not abroad, I'll definitely take him up on that.

c. On Tuesday I went to Danshui with the fam. It's quite a long metro ride (50 minutes?), but I got to talk to this great, friendly guy from Quebec. He seemed to be around 50 years old, and is working here (I've already forgotten at what). He's trying to learn the language - he was listening to recordings on his iPod before we struck up our very brief conversation - and he seemed happier than I was at the fact that I was speaking Chinglish with Jun Xiang et al. I don't know why, but some people just look like folks I want to get to know, and this man did not disappoint.

I wish I had been brave enough to speak to him first, but instead we did that thing that most foreigners do when they meet each other in Taipei: each clearly looked at the other but failed to really acknowledge the other's presence. The thought process goes something like this: "We have very little in common except that we're white." (I've seen very few black people here, and I can't tell which of the Asians are foreigners.) "We would never even talk to each other back in the West. Of course, we do have something in common - we're both foreigners - but what if the other guy actually lives here and speaks fluent Chinese? And should I suddenly be friends with every white foreigner I meet?" By acknowledging the tie between foreigners, I automatically feel like that much more of a stranger here, set apart by choice. Every time Li Wei sees a white person, the running joke is for her to point and says, "Your friend!" - and something inside of me strongly rebels against that characterization. So the other man and I spent most of the train ride in this way, but he was the outgoing one and broke the silence on the way out, a trick that I should really pick up in the next few weeks.

The trip itself was a big event: five of Raphael's friends (one guy and four girls) came along. Judging from the timing and the fact that they didn't seem familiar with his sisters, I'm guessing that one of the main reasons he invited them was because I asked him why I always saw his sister's friends but hadn't met any of his or his brother's. They were pretty fun, but also pretty shy, and right now I think I enjoy hanging out with the sisters' friends more overall. We ate dinner at a nice restaurant (the older Zhangs also came along on this one, and it was their treat), and then went to Bali (across the river) to go bike-riding for a while in the dark. This was also apparently very much centered around me: Li Wei told me with some embarrassment that they remembered me saying I really like to bike. After that we ate and drank a bit more and played some of the games you find in the bigger night markets here. We all collectively failed at ring-tossing, but, in an extension of this ongoing, multi-event "competition" I have with Dai Ling, the handful of target shooting lessons I've had at Yale paid off and I dominated the (actually very easy) BB-gun game. Dai Ling and I are now at 2-1, advantage me; a pull-up contest is next, so I think I might pull into a pretty solid 3-1 lead, but since she's the family's "games guru" and will undoubtedly devise something crazy after that, I won't get my hopes up.

3. English in Taipei

Here are two photos to get us started, both from the same street on the same day:

People in Taipei want to learn English.

However sweeping and general that may sound, it's true. Out of the many buxibans here - "cram schools," or what we might call "private tutoring services" - offer a variety of subjects as a supplement to public education, either after school or during the summer - English is by far the most popular option. Most people unexpectedly know at least a tiny bit of English, even if they're often too embarrassed use it - people like Jun Xiang's mother, or a worker at the hotpot place in the night market. Even Dai Ling and Wen Hui, who will probably never actually have to use English, have a small and haphazard vocabulary that they can use when pressed, even if they can't make sentences; like many people here, they've always vaguely wanted to learn, and will actually be starting lessons this weekend.

Part of it is because English makes up a significant section of the national university entrance exams, which Jun Xiang just took. (From what I gather, they're kind of like the SATs, but much more knowledge-based, and you only get two shots.) Another reason is surely that English is so useful, even for people who don't work for international companies. If a foreigner is trying to find a place to eat in the night market, you'll be much more likely get his business if your menu is in English or you can understand his questions about foods, prices, seats, and the like. But finally, I also think that English is in. The youths here, if they know enough, all want to practice their English with you, or show of for their friends by talking to you; shirts with English writing abound, even if they don't make sense.

It shocked me when Xuan Xuan told me how much she makes an hour as a teaching assistant, correcting papers and teaching a few classes at a buxiban with a 45+ hour work week: 150 NT. That's less than $5 U.S. - though when you account for purchasing power I'd put it closer to $10. Why? Because she doesn't really speak English all that well either; she's certainly not fit to be teaching the language to any but the lowest-level classes. And yet, for the most part, she's all that Taipei's got. With the huge demand and the (relatively) low numbers of native English speakers coming hear to teach, it's no wonder that the average salary for the latter is more than four times Xuan Xuan's - about 650 NT, in fact. Because without foreigners (and oftentimes even with them), an English buxiban is simply part of an endless cycle that's pretty common here: teachers who speak bad English teaching students to speak bad English, perpetuating a Taipei full of youths who speak a little English and adults who have forgotten almost all of it. In many cases that doesn't seem like a big deal, but in those cases it's also clearly a waste of money.

The upshot of all this for me? A few years down the road, it's very possible that I might come back here to live for a while - and teach some English. It's a fantastic city... and after all, I'm a white, pending Yale graduate with previous ESL experience. I just might be able to command 900 NT per hour, or over $25 USD when exchanged - which ain't bad for the recipient of a BA and a liberal arts education.


Monday, July 6, 2009

A Note to Worrying Relatives

(and my many other fans)

I'll probably be posting nearer to the end of the week, because tomorrow after class I'm going to Danshui with the fam: I've got a ton that I want to write about but I'm currently having to put some more intensity into my studying to make up for all of the relaxing I'll be doing tomorrow. (Sorry about all of the gerunds there.)

One quick health note: Last night I did mercilessly slaughter all of the mold I could get my hands on, though. There was way more than I expected, I cut some corners/did some stuff wrong, and it was not the best experience overall, but what's done is done, and the point is that I now feel like I'm living in a much healthier environment. Though that may just be psychological.