Two weeks ago we made the schlep to Taipei again, taking one of the first morning trains down at 7:30am to meet up with the rest of the group. We met in Tamsui, the last stop on the red line, known for its boardwalk and excellent seafood. If you remember, I went to Tamsui previously and took a boat to Bali and visited Hobe Fort. This time the program took us to see some other attractions!
First, we had a brief tour of Fort Santo Domingo. The first thing one notices upon arrival is the many flags waving rapidly in the blustery winter seaside breeze. The Fort almost seems more like the United Nations than an old military building. The tour guide quickly began explaining the significance and order of each of the flags lined up outside.
She pointed to the first one, and began. The Spanish built the Fort in 1628, shortly after in 1636, a group of local people, rebelling against the heavy Spanish taxes, attacked the fort and demolished it. In 1637, the Spanish rebuilt the fort and occupied it until1642 when the Dutch invaded the island and expelled the Spaniards. The Dutch built a new fort on the site – the structure that is still standing today.
Because in the 17th century, the local people had never seen Caucasian people before, they found the Caucasian complexion and hair color very strange. They thought the Dutch hair color appeared light and reddish compared to their more familiar dark locks, so they called the Dutch “the red haired people”. This lead to the fort becoming known as “Hongmao” Fort literally meaning “fort of the red-haired”. From 1683 to 1867 the Qing Dynasty gained control over the Fort adding extra security and gates around the structure. After the Second Opium War the British took over the fort, made it their consulate. The British decided to paint it to match its namesake, and since then it has maintained its red color. The fort also housed some interesting historic personas in addition to being representative of various periods of colonization. The linguist Herbert Allen Giles (of the Wade-Giles system) resided in the fort from 1885 to 1888.
The Republic of China (ROC) finally retrieved the land from the British in 1980. It is currently classified as an important historical site and hosts a museum. The interior has been recreated from photographs, while the basement, which was used as a prison, has various statues and some photographs.
After our educational visit, we then enjoyed fancy bian dang (便當) – or lunch boxes at one of Damsui’s famous universities; Tamkang University, 淡江大學. It is one of the best private universities in Taiwan. My co-teacher, Charlene, and many of the Fulbright staff are also graduates of this university. We listened to a brief introduction of the university – from which I learned the following.
Tamkang University enjoys widespread recognition as Taiwan’s oldest private institution of higher learning and one of its most distinguished.
It is ranked 9th by Taiwan’s Ministry of Education and in the top 50 universities in Asia.
It has over 28,000 students of fifty nationalities form the diverse student body of the school.
The school promotes itself as an international university, encouraging international exchange programs and Junior year abroad programs
We also heard a brief talk about Taiwan Cross Strait relations from Alexander Chun-chieh Huang, a foreign relations professor and Taiwan cross strait expert, followed by a very quick walking tour of campus.
The whole purpose of this month’s trip to Taipei was AIT’s (American Institute of Taiwan) Thanksgiving dinner. For a while, during the government shut down, we were uncertain whether or not the event would be canceled. Luckily, it was not! And the government is back up and running! AIT invited us to Taipei as special guests along with other diplomatic representatives. And it was wonderful! There was not only pumpkin pie but also multiple turkeys! We ate our fill of American style food and wine, and then headed home full to the brim. I almost took one of the imported pumpkins with me, but decided against it because the weight was way too much to carry on the metro. But I made a few good attempts.
The next day we took the train to Maokong in the Southeastern side of the city. Maokong is similarly one of the last stops on the metro, but this time the brown line – I am trying my best to familiarize myself with the Taipei metro lines.
Maokong (貓空), literally meaning “cat space”, is a beautiful mountainous rural area of Taipei. Our Taipei metro cards can also be used on the “gondola” or sky-taxi up the mountain. There were two types of cars we could choose from – the regular and the “crystal” cabin. We chose the crystal cabin with the clear floors so we could see everything down below. It was a little scarier with the see-through floor, but the ride was definitely worth the 50 TWD, even on a cold cloudy day. The area used to be the biggest tea growing area, and as we floated up the mountain we could see many tea farms in between winding roads and forest areas. At the top of the mountain, the end of the gondola ride, you can explore what can only be described as a “tea-village”- countless teashops and street vendors line the small roads nestled in the mountainside. There are small teashops, big teashops, expensive and cheap - any kind and atmosphere you could want. The area feels as if it’s from a dream. It was a little foggy, but you could still make out Taipei 101, and beautiful sights of the city down below. It has to be one of my favorite parts of Taipei so far.
We searched for a teashop for a while – determined to find the perfect one. After walking for a bit we found one farther down the road and off the beaten path. This teashop made tea ice cream, mochi and cheesecake as well – so we stopped for a mid-afternoon snack. The hostess there explained to us that the name “Maokong” comes from “jiâu-khang” (皺空, also similar 皺孔) in Taiwanese which means “crease aperture” and refers to potholes (there are many in the mountain roads). During the Japanese colonization, it was changed to the similar sounding Maokong.
The rest of the weekend past quickly – we went to a jazz bar that night and visited the Ximending area to see the outside beer garden, meeting up with some friends on the way. The next day Seth and I visited Eslite – a famous 24-hour bookstore in Taiwan. We both fell in love. We wandered around for hours and both ended up purchasing some bilingual books. I bought “小屁孩日记”(The Diary of a Wimpy Kid) with the hope that I will be able to understand most of it and maybe share it with some of my students.
Then we hopped back on the HSR to Kaohsiung – a trip that we are quite familiar with by now.
Every time I visit Taipei I feel like I uncover a new side of the city.
I made my students write down 3 things that they are thankful for and got some of the following results:
" I am thankful for myself."
"I am thank full my mothah"
"I thankfur my FAMILIES!"
"I am thankful for Nobel" (as in Alfred Bernhard Nobel the Swedish chemist, engineer, innovator, and armaments manufacture, and founder of the Nobel Prize) This fourth grader is an overachiever.
"I am thankful for my PSP, my i-phone, my i-pad." geez. kids these days.
And the best one! “I am thankful for my teachersssssssssss!”
Last Friday, I finished classes at 12:00pm and then took the 35-minute drive up to Nanzi for dinner, followed by the 30-minute drive to Dashu to visit Fo Guang Shan. Myself and three other ETAs had signed up to participate in a three-day Buddhist retreat. The retreat was designed by the monastery to educate foreigners on Buddhist philosophies, and daily life in the monastery. It was held entirely in English. There were about 25 other participants there from all over the world, each with very different reasons for coming. About 15 or so of the other participants were actually a part of a larger program, called Hala and held in the Philippines, and had been following a similar “retreat” style educational monastic schedule for over 2 months.
After dropping off our bags, we donned a pale blue formless cotton uniform, which made the wearer seem entirely more legitimate. Despite being kind of heavy in the humid November air, it became very comfortable and familiar. We were promptly taught how to eat in the monastic style and the general rules and intentions of the retreat.
When we walked we were expected to walk in two lines arranged in order from shortest to tallest. Even the common action of walking is a meditative process, and must be approached with intentionality. According to Buddha there are four “deportments”; to stand like a pine, sit like a bell, walk like the wind, and recline like a bow. Thus, there are four meditation postures: sitting, walking, standing and lying down. Through out the retreat we were supposed to attempt to incorporate mindfulness into our various actions, in every state of being.
At night when we walked in our ordered lines, the uniforms absorbed the light in such a way that we appeared to glow. Our flowing outfits and unintentionally synchronized walking movements gave us an aura of mystique and somber gracefulness such that I’m sure anyone who happened upon us would have had to stop and watch for a while.
We had several official meditation sessions; the first at night in an open air temple on top of a small hill within the monastery which, despite the mosquitos, allowed for a peaceful and comfortable meditation space, the second at the crack of dawn in the center square with hundreds of birds flying overhead. Indeed, every scene from this weekend was in well thought out, peaceful and picturesque.
On Saturday, we enjoyed our first silent meal. The silent meal is extremely ceremonial and spiritual. The choreography of the meal is such that every action and intention must be precise and well timed. Everyone files two-by-two into an expansive dining hall with endless rows of seats all facing toward a central Buddhist shrine. A chair must be skipped between each diner, and once aligned with the appropriate chair it must be pulled out with out scratching or shuffling. One must then bow to the Buddha and take one’s seat without sound. Then, the appropriate meal chant is spoken – the monks and nuns recite by heart – and another bow is made. Everyone is served an identical vegetarian meal. The soup bowl must be pulled in to the diner and placed on the left, the vegetables in the center, and the rice set down on the right. The diner is supposed to hold the rice bowl “like a dragon cupping a pearl”, and the chopsticks must be soundless against the porcelain bowl. Of course, chopsticks are most difficult to silence, so despite the lack of other human noise, the tinkling sounds of chopsticks fill the hall and echo across the room. One of the other girls compared it to the sound of rain, gentle, beautiful and musical. There are specific processes for refilling one’s bowl, or the returning of unwanted food, which must be done carefully, and silently. One is expected to eat all that one touches with one’s chopsticks – wasting food is simply unacceptable. The silence of the meal allows one to focus entirely on eating, and despite enjoying the process of tasting the food, one is also supposed to detach oneself from the hedonism of consumption in the process.
The weekend was filled, with tours of various museums in the expansive complex, as well as educational lessons, meditation sessions and amazing vegetarian meals. We were allowed to go “behind the scenes” in the kitchen of one of the monastery’s best chefs – a nun who showed us how to wrap dumplings. Suffice to say, our dumplings lacked the technical brilliance that hers possessed, but tasted delicious nonetheless.
It was extremely helpful to slow down, and think more about the process and purpose of my actions. One of the messages I learned from the weekend was that of the “Three Good Deeds” or 三好; think good thoughts, speak good words, do good deeds — basically that the intention of living for and helping others should be a part of all you do and think.
Going into the retreat, I was worried that I would feel coerced into doing and reciting things that I didn’t believe, or that the Dharma would be inflexibly or aggressively imposed upon us. I guess these fears are remnants of attending religious institutions my entire life. Although all of the institutions I attended have taken an open stance to religious and spiritual development, they’ve instilled in me a strong awareness of my spiritual self, especially in relation to institutional practices. I was pleased that my fears were assuaged very early on in the retreat.
I am really happy that I went on the retreat, and may return again in the future.
After the troublesome and exploitative associations and experiences of dealing with Georgetown landlords, I can confidently say my current landlord, Michael, is the best one I have ever had.
Earlier this month, our landlord Michael drove us to Sun Moon Lake. Once there we had the opportunity to take a gondola ride over the mountains and walk around the lakes picturesque boardwalk. Michael enjoys taking us to different places close to Kaohsiung and has already shown us Tainan, his hometown and Kending.
Some things I learned:
The east side of the lake resembles a sun while the west side resembles a moon, hence the name.
In addition to being a big tourist attraction for Taiwanese and foreigners alike, Sun Moon lake is the largest body of water in Taiwan. Situated in Nantou, the lake is almost directly in the middle of the island. The area around the Sun Moon Lake is home to an aboriginal tribe called the Thao. According to Thao legend, hunters discovered Sun Moon Lake while chasing a white deer through the surrounding mountains. The deer eventually led them to the lake, which they found to be not only beautiful, but abundant with fish. In Chinese, the characters for “chasing the deer”, “逐鹿” also means a fight for state supremecy and is sometimes used in reference to the Cross-strait conflict interestingly enough。
Sun Moon Lake surrounds a tiny island called Lalu – which today is used only for aboriginal ritual purposes. The white deer of legends is immortalized as a marble statue on Lalu Island.
Although the picturesque beauty of the lake has been preserved and remains relatively unblemished, if you look hard enough you can see the signs of commercialization sneaking into the panoramic. There are many new hotel buildings popping up, and the gondola building and structure, although elegant, seemed out of place. We agreed it felt almost like a ski-lodge and was one of the most westernized structures we’ve seen here in Taiwn. Then there was the Aboriginal Village, which has been turned into an amusement park. We did not end up going to that area, for it required an additional gondola ride, and thus fee. However, we could see the giant ferris wheel in the distance. It seemed large, obtrusive and skeletal compared to the natural mountainous background.
This past weekend a few of us and Fonda went to the Kaohsiung Food Show – which was another delicious adventure of the taste buds. My parents have told me that from my blog entrees they think all I do here in Kaohsiung is eat. This may be true.
We pretty much made a meal of it. There were noodles, curry, nuts, teas, oatmeal, chocolate, waffles, fish, tofu, pretty much anything you could think of and everyone had samples, which they gladly offered you to try. They even had trashcans in the corners – a rare occurrence in Taiwan. I still have yet to sample stinky tofu, but that will shortly be taken care of. My Chinese teacher is treating me this coming Friday.
In other news, most recently I think that a few of us have been arriving at the peak of homesickness, what Dr. Vocke described as the peak “rejection” phase of the culture shock curve. The fact that we have been three months in Taiwan and for me almost four months away from home has started to really settle in. Fortunately, there are many people and things, which has made the transition into the “adjustment” phase relatively easy. Looking back on my first report, I can say that much of my initial amorous “honeymoon” type feelings still very much apply. It’s been a very fast and fortuitous three months here in Kaohsiung.
This past Saturday was an adventure of the palate as I ate my way through not one, but two 12-course meals.
My host family invited me to accompany them to the wedding celebration of my host mother’s cousin’s daughter. Having never been to a Taiwanese wedding ceremony before, I gladly accepted.
It was a luncheon reception, which is apparently a fairly common hour for the receptions. We arrived on time, a little after 12:30pm, however it is also fairly common for Taiwanese guests to come late, sometimes arriving an hour to two hours after the designated starting time. My host mother and I wore dresses, however many people wore casual clothing, even jeans. Upon entering each guest must immediately present their red envelope, a gift for the new bride and groom. The amount within is not recorded on the spot, but the envelope is numbered so that the couple can later track which guest gave what amount. A number with all even digits is considered auspicious by Chinese tradition, thus only even multiples are given, furthermore, each guest’s generosity will be duly noted in case the giver’s offspring ever wed, the couple must return the favor.
There were between 30 to 40 tables of 10-12 guests each – and this was one of the two receptions the couple will have. The bride and groom each host a reception for their respective friends and family. I sat nestled between my host mother and father at a table with my host mother’s parents and siblings who throughout the entire meal encouraged me in Taiwanese to eat more. My host grandfather also kept trying to top off my wine glass when my host dad wasn’t looking. We toasted continuously throughout the afternoon.
On a large TV screen in the event hall, a slideshow of professional glamour shots of the couple ran on a loop. A three man band with a fiddler and a pianist, played hits in both English and Mandarin sometimes even walking around between the tables for dramatic effect.
Around 1:40pm when most of the guests had finally arrived, the couple appeared at the end of a red carpet and the lights dimmed as they walked down the aisle toward the stage. The hostess talked loudly into the microphone, sometimes seriously, sometimes teasingly, once they got to the stage, encouraging them to kiss and then, to scream “I do!” again, for everyone to hear.
Then the food came out. There was lobster, oysters, sashimi, different kinds of soups, vegetables, salads – it was endless.
The continuous eating was only broken by the occasional words from the couple or the hostess. When I asked if there would be dancing at the wedding, my host mother smiled at me and motioned to the small dance floor near the 3-man band. “You’re welcome to go and dance,” she grinned. Then my host mother and her sister started daring each other in Taiwanese to go dance in front of the crowd – clearly there would be no “first dance” at this wedding reception.
It was over before I even realized it. The dessert soup was served promptly and then people began shuffling toward the door; it was only 3:00pm. The groom stood at the door with the bride who was now in her third gown of the afternoon – a scarlet red number that I liked far better than the strapless blue one before it. They handed us candy as we left and thanked us for coming.
Later on, I had the opportunity to attend a community temple dinner with the other ETAs. Fonda’s friend’s brother organized the dinner and we were lucky enough to be invited. The dinner was in honor of one of the Taoist’s god’s birthday and fed over 400 people. There were fireworks and Taiwanese karaoke and a brief performance by local youths. Surprisingly, I even saw one of my students there!
Several of the organizers came around to each table to toast and thank us for coming. It was not until a little later that we found out that one of the men we just toasted with was the son of former president Chen Shui Bian who is now in prison. Sadly, I think as much as we appreciate these experiences, it is truly impossible for us to understand the cultural significance of the people and places we encounter until much later if at all (in some case) – thus I’m afraid some of the immediacy and genuineness of the experience is lost on us. The temple dinner, for example, was fascinating because we got to be a part of a community and sample some local dishes and performance, however the worship ritual was a portion we skipped completely. I suppose however, it is always this way when you interact with another culture – experiencing and observing simultaneously becomes nearly impossible.
It was a wonderfully full weekend, in both sights and experiences, and also flavors. I ate more than I realized was ever possible but I don’t regret a single bite.
I was lucky enough to be able to also take the Friday off following 10-10 and therefore take a long weekend to travel and recharge. After traveling north on the HSR, we dressed to a T, and shuffled over to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ 10-10 reception. It was by far the most extravagant and impressive event in which I have ever taken part. From the moment we stepped out of the metro and became an unavoidably obnoxious and noticeable group of “waiguoren” until the last goodbye of the night - the event felt beyond glamorous and far above the level of pomp-and-circumstance that I am used to.
Upon arriving at the Taipei Guest House, we walked up a charmingly lit red carpet through the garden area outside what appeared to be a palace. Bags were checked, the obligatory photos were taken in every pairing imaginable. We then walked through the grand entrance and shook hands with the Minister of Finance and his wife, after walking through a gauntlet of pretty women dressed in aboriginal attire who greeted us in unison - at the end of the line waited several waiters and waitresses with trays of wine, cocktails and juice for us to sip. We then stepped out to a large veranda overlooking a stage and a large tented outside area. There were ice-sculptures and fruit platters far greater than anything I could have imagined -and over the speakers floated the resounding beat of drums to which several dancers were swaying their hips on the platformed stage. Off the veranda were tables and tables of buffeted food of every kind imaginable; Indian, Sushi, dumplings, Hagen Dazs, cotton candy, of course various rice and noodle dishes were in good supply. The scheduled performances of the night were also culturally diverse, having representative artistic pieces from almost all of the 22 countries with whom Taiwan has diplomatic relations.
We got the pleasure of mixing with several other foreign representatives here in Taiwan- including other international students on government grants. Even President Ma made a brief appearance. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the opportunity to shake his hand due to the swarm of people that crowded to get photos and handshakes. The only negative of the night was the absolute lack of chairs, which made wearing heels for four hours a little challenging - but probably prevented me from going back to the buffet lines too many times.
The night ended relatively early, around 8:00pm. We left with sore feet, but had a splendid evening. We stayed overnight at the Teachers’ Hostel near the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial. The next morning we woke up wonderfully late and hopped on the metro north to the last stop on the red line: Tamsui (or 淡水 - Taipei is such a mix of romanized systems; it’s a mess). Tamsui is known as the seaside district of Taipei, and has gorgeous mountains, bays and charming seaside villages. We walked along the boardwalk and then took a ferry over to Bali which is known for it’s particular seafood, but we were drawn to it because of its name. A casual trip to Bali sounded perhaps much more exotic than it actually was -we went back to Tamsui after a quick walk around and found a Halloween store on our way to the Hobe Fort. The fort was built after the Sino-French War (1884-1885) when the Chinese government decided to strengthen Taiwan’s coastal defenses. Following the principle of “using foreigners to fight foreigners”, the government commissioned the German military engineer Max E. Hecht to design the fort. Because the fort never actually saw combat it remains almost entirely intact. We walked around, climbed a little bit and took some creative photos and then hiked back down the hill.
On our way back into the city we stopped at Shilin Night Market. Night markets as I’ve mentioned before are a must see in Taiwan. They capture so much of the essence of the cities in which they thrive. They are a watering hole for the young, the old, the locals and the foreigners alike. Shilin is the largest market in Taipei and is known for its sheer size and variety. It is supposed to take hours to walk through. We arrived just before 5 with bubble tea full in our stomachs. The spread and scope of the market are truly impressive. The market not only goes for meters and meters, but also goes down, underneath the streets as well. The basement area of the market has hundreds of food stalls with every greasy fried food imaginable. I would try to describe it more, however I think only photos can really do it justice. Above the food stalls are T-shirt, knick-knack shops and “carnival-esque” game stands. The one thing I will note is missing are fake brands or rip off goods. Taiwanese in general have a much deeper respect for intellectual property and “good will” (as my accounting courses have taught me). As we wandered deeper in to the rows and rows of cross streets, we stopped here and there to grab a bite to eat - a little of this and a little of that.
Finally around 8pm we made it out of the maze of streets, back to the metro only three hours later.
The next day we caught the bus to the National Palace Museum near Shilin. Sadly, I forget much of my Early Chinese History coursework, but I still enjoyed walking through the calligraphy and pottery rooms. Our favorite was the temporary exhibit which attempts to take a modern perspective on the ancient emperor Qianlong. The exhibit was described as follows:
“Let’s try to see “Qianlong” as an icon instead of the great emperor in Chinese history, and boldly arrange some connection between this “Emperor Culture” and “Pop Culture” (Subculture). Via topics about Street Culture, Cosplay, Disc Jockeys, Anime & Manga, Action Figures, Electronic Music, Avant-Garde Fashion and Video Games, we dialectically understand the relationship between art taste and cultural phenomenon. The “Qianlong’s Icon” we interpret in this exhibition uses Culture Remix to build a connection among history, the “parallel time and space” we fabled for this exhibition and the “contemporary time” the visitors are currently in.”
Indeed, it was an interesting perspective on the symbol of Qianlong. I think mostly it was an unexpected introduction to the contemporary art movement in Taiwan. Although the explicit purpose was to “arrange a connection”, the connection didn’t seemed overt, but rather a natural product of the a cultural and artistic heritage. The pieces were daring, avante garde, some incredibly meaningful, while others playfully whimsical. You might be hard pressed to find this type of artwork on display, never mind in a national museum, in the P.R.C. The physical and legal barriers that China has guarding against Google, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter - and globalization “are the same as the censorship of contemporary art or the media.” (Cao Fei, 2011)
The exhibit featured computer games in which you could actually walk through the traditional ancient market places, vases that rearranged themselves to reflect your clothing, and a beautiful photo exhibit of different people and some of their most treasured belongings. It was also such a nice break from the traditional Chinese style historical art pieces which are prevalent in museums in the region.
We ended a perfect day with Bento boxes and a relaxing HSR ride home. Until next time Taipei!