Monday, December 31, 2007

Xīn Nián Kuài Lè (2008)

Well... 2007 is over, and 2008 has begun. New Years here was a little different from my typical Milwaukee welcoming of the changing times. There are about 2 million more people in Taipei and the Taipei 101 holds an incredible firework show. The fireworks were wonderful, and the rumor is that this is the last year the fireworks will be held at the 101. Aside from the fireworks the most incredible thing about Taipei during New Years is the number of people that gather. Normally during the 6 p.m. rush the MRT stations are jam packed with people to the point of slight discomfort but last night was insane. The lines for the MRT were taking up almost all of the main station (the central hub of MRT's) and trains were coming at a rate of about every minute. The guards at the MRT station who normally have the task of keeping people in line, had a new job last night. They because pushers and pullers. There job consisted of cramming as many people as they could into the MRT's to the point of not being able to move at all. If you had to get out before the main stop, Taipei City Hall, then the guards would have to help you pull through the crowds. It is not something that I would want to deal with on a normal basis, so I am glad I don't like in Tokyo. Other than the new years craziness at 101 there were just tons of people out everywhere. Personal fireworks were going off all night and food stands were staying open far later than usual. I was even able to get a snack around 3 a.m. from a place other than a 7-11.

Now that 2008 has started it is time again to reflect back on the year past and look forward onto things to come. While I could speak volumes on what I am thankful for and happy about in my life, I will refrain and instead focus on the things that I would like to change about myself. I am trying to become less reliant of "stuff." I want to work ever more on seeing the good in people rather than the bad. I want to keep a positive attitude whenever possible, and take the struggles and hardships of life with the knowledge that somewhere out there someone has got it worse. I want to help others, and try and do everything in my life to the best of my abilities. I know that failure can and does happen, but as long as we give it our all then at least we know that we tried.

I wish everyone in my life a Happy New Year from the bottom of my heart. I wish you all a brighter tomorrow. I remind us all to remember the things we have, and not dwell on the things we want. I hope we all use our ability to forgive, even if we do not forget. Let us share our love and joy with everyone around. Xīn Nián Kuài Lè (Happy New Year) to all.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Sorry Kids, Santa isn't Real.

Last year as many of you know I started to give up on the idea of christmas altogether. I had grown sick and tired of the Christmas spirit and just didn't want to celebrate anymore. Now the word spirit in this instance represents qualities regarded as forming the definitive or typical elements in the character of a person, nation or group. I know that in the hearts and minds of most people, this spirit is the closeness to family, the need to do good, and the joy of sharing that we seem to feel around the holiday season. When Christmas is put this way it sounds pretty wonderful, but let us not forget the commercial juggernaut that chugs along behind this clouded vale. It is this monster the rides so many families into credit card debit, and reinforces the idea that love for someone else can be expressed in an item wrapped tight with a bow, or a Holiday card(let us not forget to be P.C. either) flush with cash. I couldn't stand reading anymore about Black Friday, and hearing Christmas music on the radio before Thanksgiving. But most importantly I hate, nay, loath Santa and the cultural phenomena he has created... I am done with Christmas, it stops here and now. Please let me explain.

Santa to me represents the worst of the worst of the holiday spirit. His helpers are in shopping mall centers and his likeness sits on Walmart shelves. Our praise for him each year grows larger and larger on suburban lawns, wasting more and more of our precious energy so that someone can ultimately clam once again "mine is bigger than yours." His visits our houses and seems to always leave the best of the best of our cookie stock gone with the wind, and has the nerve to call people ho ho ho's. The fat man runs his regime with and iron fist, he has elf slave labor that even third world countries don't agree with, and holds the gavel of judgment on who is naughty and nice, leaving the losers with a big old sock of coal. And the worst thing is... he isn't real.

When I was younger, Santa was the main man, the guy who gave me the coolest stuff (by the way thank you Mom and Dad) and the guy who somehow made me go to sleep early on Christmas eve, even though I was hoped up on sugar and hot coco. However once we grow up and realize that Santa isn't really, shouldn't we scratch our heads and ask why the ruse? What is the game here, and why are we playing. In my mind Santa is the apathy of many, and the daemon of even more. Not being a parent myself I cannot fully understand the logic behind telling kids that Santa is real, but I wonder if it helps justify the over spending and frenzy that many feel during Christmas time, its not me giving my kid everything he wants, its Santa.

Okay I know this is all a little bizarre and I have no idea how this blog is going to read but bear with me for one more thought and it should be made clear. I said that Santa represents the apathy of many and here is my justification. We have a man, a myth, a legend of a dude who lives at the North Pole and has flying reindeer. He is able to make all the toys, that we can buy, and in one night deliver them to all the children of the world without being seen. He doesn't have to spend money, cause he has his elves, so it is all out of the goodness of his heart; and of course he is only giving the gifts to the good boys and girls who deserve the presents. Isn't this wish of being able to effect everyone, well only kids in this instance, what makes Santa so appealing.

I would suggest that we all could, and can have a similar effect on all people, not just kids this time, but we choose not to for one reason or another. What if every present you ever got was not given to you, but instead spent on a child or family that was truly in need. The smallest amount of money these days can provide food and medicine for hundreds of people a larger amount of money can help someone start a company and create there own income. Your own time and energy can help educate and inform people of dangers of all types and also help to inspire people to change. What if people didn't go into debt on gifts for people they already love and instead they spent within their means to help people for the first time. would the gratification be less in some way? This does not only apply to gifts but also the other things, like the global energy crisis, why do we need to see others change before we ourselves do the right step. I am talking not only about individuals here but governments. Why not be the first to say we are going to do everything in our power to make the world a better place, let us put of differences aside and embrace the fact that we are all human, and there is only one place for us to live. We turn a blind eye to the ailments of the world because it is easier that way. Many think they don't need to change because it wont effect them. But we must look past ourselves to the future of our race. Let us not create and endorse an idea founded on denial and ignorance. There is no reaction with action, let us all make the first push.

With all my love to everyone, not just those close to me.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Trip to Yilan falls short

Saturday morning 6:30 am I was awaken from my peaceful slumber by the buzz of my phone alarm. After showering and collecting a few things in my shubao (backpack) I popped down to a local breakfast shop for some Congdanbing (scallion and egg flat cake), a truly tasty treat. After enjoying my meal I headed to the MRT station to meet up with the others who were taking the trip to Yilan. Our trip to Yilan, which is located on Taiwan's North East coast about 2.5 hours from Taipei, was just a day trip with a 9:00 A.M. departure time and a 6:00 P.M. return.

The trip was put on by NTU (National Taiwan University) for the Japanese exchange group who was in Taipei for 7 days to take some Chinese language and culture classes. Most of them could not really speak chinese all that well so English was the mode of communication between the Riben ren (Japanese people) and the Zhongguo ren (chinese people); and of course me. It is really strange to think that two countries with so much culture and history both together and separate speak English when they want to communicate, that will always boggle my mind.

When we arrived in Yilan I was excited to experience a new part of Taiwan. I couldn't wait to see a more traditional side of this beautiful country. I was hoping that no-one could speak English, and that the town would be small and not crowded with mopeds and taxies. My thoughts could not have been more wrong. We arrived at the National Center for Traditional Arts, the area was filled with cars and tour buses. This was not a traditional arts center, this was a tourist trap. This area reminded of my two trips to mexico when on the way to our final destinations (one was the Mayan ruins, the other was snorkeling in the reefs) we made stops at a Jewelry Store/ Gift shop to, take a break and look around.

As we walked around in Yilan, I didn't really see anything that caught my fancy, the shops were over priced and the "traditional items" were frankly not practical in the smallest sense. When I think of my anthropology classes that I took, we spent the most time studying how the simplest tools could be used effectively, how fires were built, how animals were skinned, how houses were built, and how art was expressed. I didn't really feel like any of these things were covered at this center. Granted there were some arts, but without an explanation of how and why these were more "traditional" than the shop's same art down the road I had a hard time really falling in line mental on this trip.

We walked around for about 3 hours and saw just about every shop there was and then made our way back to the buses. Our next destination was Luodong Sport-Park, about a half hour away from Yilan. It was a pretty cool place and would have been great if we could have spent more than a half hour there in the rain. I think that next time I will take the trip planning into my own hands. I know that a lot of people really enjoyed themselves on this trip, but it just wasn't for me. Next time I want to get away from the west and a bigger city I should do so with much less people, and certainly not a 3 giant buses filled with travelers.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Flowering Man Way

The days seem to be going faster and faster as I find my groove with the city. I can't believe its already Wednesday. This week has been class, class, and more class. Our teacher combined lessons 18 and 19 tests and moved the test to Friday, so we are taking on a huge grammar and vocabulary load. Other than working on my studies I have started HwaRangDo a Korean martial art. HwaRangDo is Korean for "The way of the Flowering Manhood." The name sounds a bit silly in english but when you delve into the meaning it becomes much more clear.

From Wikipedia: The common English translations are 'The Way of the Flowering Manhood' or 'The Way of the Flowering Knights.' The 'Man' idea in this title refers to an ideal man: one of honor, strength, responsibility, and virtue. The reason for the word 'Flower' is to state that just as a flower grows and then blooms, so should a man grow and then bloom into something beautiful. Also, just as a flower is beautiful just by being, so too should a man be honorable, loyal, strong, and virtuous by simply existing, without having to try to be any of these things. Obviously, since it is in the name of the Art, this idea is central to all aspects of Hwarangdo: one should be without needing to try to be. By this concept a practitioner is taught to be humble, strong, and honorable.

My teacher is very nice and is holding the lessons at CKS Memorial Hall twice a week for two hours; free of charge. Today the other two students were not able to make the lesson, so we had a one on one and I got the feel of the art form. We started with the white sash techniques, learning the 4 basic forms, and also the 6 defensive blocks. After that we went on the the long hand technique, all very cool stuff. After I do a bit more practicing I will post up a video so you can all take a look see.

Other that HwaRangDo and School I have just been doing my homework and hanging out. This weekend I will be going to Taibei de nanbu (Southern Taiwan). I am taking a 3 hour bus ride to some town where we are going to visit a museum and some of the more traditional markets and craft-makers. It should be a lot of fun and I will be sure to post more on that event after I return home. Sorry no pictures today, I will leave you all with a great bit of English that I found in the bathroom, sorry its the only picture I took in the past few days.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Keeping busy in Taipei

This week has to have been, by far, the most busy since I arrived in Taipei. Monday I was busying hitting the books because I had my first test on Tuesday and I wanted to do well. I normally actually spend most of my time in the mornings studying before I go to class but I couldn't on Tuesday because I had a "business lunch" with Greg Wong, a friend of a family friend, who works at the American Institute in Taiwan as Commercial Section Chief. The AIT is located in the International Trade Building, which is located kiddy corner to the Taipei 101. The lunch was fabulous, fresh squeezed apple juice, mushroom soup, and the best salad bar I have ever seen or tasted. Greg was wonderful to meet, it was nice to hear a business mans perspective of Taiwan. I felt like we really had a lot of common interests and goals in life and we bonded quite well. While eating lunch I also got to meet and share some gossip (a Chinese past time) with Du Yen Hao, the Executive Advisor for the General Chamber of Commerce in Taiwan. After lunch I only had a brief moment to admire the Taipei 101, and snap a few pics before it was time to rush to school for my first big test.

I arrived to school with plenty of time to quick review my Chinese characters and grammar points, and I walked into class confident in my abilities. When I walked into class however, my classmates and I were told that our class was being disbanded because we didn't have enough students to keep our current class going. We were promptly moved to another class, only to find out that our new classmates had just taken the chapter 16 test the day before! Guess we lucked out, cause we didn't even have to take the test at all. My current class now has 8 students, and a much better teacher. I didn't mind the teacher I had before but my new teacher is fun, exciting and much more in depth about the finer points of the Chinese language; I must say, she reminds me a lot of my teachers back home.

After Chinese class I was off with some friends to grab a quick bite to eat before trying out a kickboxing class that everyone has been raving about it Taipei. We ate our meal and then hitched a bus over to Freedom Square (formerly know as Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall). Kickboxing is put on every Tuesday and Thursday by a group in Taipei called Cheap Hippie Kickboxing, and runs from 8pm-10pm on both those nights. Being a Gill my feet of course took a beating, but that wasn't the only thing hurting by the end of the second hour. I believe Hippie Kickboxing is a euphemism for @$$kicking two hour workout that has nothing to do with kickboxing. We did a lot of running, stretching, pushups, sit-ups and other enduring testing exercises that really just try and bust you into shape rather than learning any self defense. I can't say that it is not an effective way to work out (I am still feeling the burn after 3 days) but it certainly isn't my cup of tea. The only redeeming factor, other than burning off the past 4 days meals was the amazing view of CKS Memorial Hall.

Wednesday after waking up sore in places I didn't think possible I was off to my Wednesday routine of school followed by dinner with one of my friends/language partners from Taiwan. We had agreed on Monday, since I didn't know how much kickboxing would take out of me, to grab a bite to eat and then go for a nice 30 minute hike on the outskirts of Taipei City. We ended up eating at a nice veggie buffet and then catching a bus that took us near Taipei 101 again where we walked toward the hills to begin our hike. Let me take a moment to clarify a "taiwan" style hike (if you are in the city). Basically you walk up a ton of stairs that just go up a giant hill until you get to the top. There were no paths that you could walk on, just more and more stairs that got steeper and steeper the higher you went. I am not going to lie, it was not the most pleasant experience after kickboxing, I really felt the burn in my calf muscles. However, once we made it to the top of the peak I totally forgot about the stairs or the burn and just took in the view. We were able to see all of Taipei city, and it was, despite being a little hazy, absolutely beautiful. We enjoying the view and the tranquility of our destination for about an two hours before descending back into the busy city life, where I had to worry again about homework, and my actual first Chinese exam.

Thursday came and went like a flash, I spent my morning buried in my books and had my first exam. After class I arrived home to find my friends from Thanksgiving had come back to Taipei for a few more days and were going out for some dinner and drinks at Jurassic Bar, a restaurant filled with dinosaurs, tacky music, and expensive food. The place turned out to be a totally blast, we got a 7000cc keg of beer, and chatted the night away; making new friends and having a great old time like us Americans/ Australians always seem to do.

I woke up this morning feeling just fine and dandy, did some homework and headed off to school. I have found my groove and like the fast pace life here in Taiwan. Everyday holds a new adventure for me, and when I start my days I always know that something new and exciting will happen before the end. Tonight as I write this I am planning on going out for some hot-pot with my friends, who leave tomorrow, for a final dinner sendoff. After that who knows... oh also, I did quite well on my first exam, so know one needs to to worry that I am having too much fun. Here are some final pics of my weeks adventures. The first pic is the view from my hike, and the second is Dana, my friend from America with our 7000cc's of beer!

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Jake Gill goes Flickr, and goes to Danshui.

It is almost like when Bob Dylan went electric... almost. While typing almost, I wear a grin on my face implying that I fully understand my gross overstatement. BUT, anyway I am on flickr now, an online photo website which allows me to post a slideshow (please see the upper left of my blog) of my pictures from Taipei. If you see a picture you like in the slideshow, or would like to view all the pictures on my flickr page you can just click the picture and check everything out. I will still be adding pictures into my blogs to highlight certain aspects of my adventures. Anyways just thought everyone would enjoy more than just the few pictures I have been putting up. Now on to my recent events.

As I said yesterday, I was planning on going out with some friends from Shida for Mike's going away party. Plans promptly changed when I received a phone call alerting me to the fact that everyone was starting the festivities around midnight. I just didn't have that kind of energy in me last night so I decided to pass on the events. Being a Saturday night however, I was not going to sit in my room so me and two friends decided to head to Danshui for the evening to walk around and grab a bite to eat.

Danshui is a smaller city to the north of taipei as was the center for shipping an commerce in Northern Taiwan in the 19th century. Today it is a popular place to go for seafood, shopping, and just walk around with tons of people. It is the farthest stop on the MRT red line, and is about 30 minutes travel, to the tune of 40 NT (about a $1.15 US). Danshui Old Street and waterfront is where all the action happens. Just walking around you can find tons of things to eat and buy. The most popular was squid, and sausages, along with various other types of seafood, making it a bit difficult to for me to find something to eat. After walking around for a while a terrible smell over-ran my senses and I knew just what it was... stinky tofu. The item has been aptly named, the aroma ommited by this dish can best be described as raw sewage. I knew the second that the smell hit my nose that I had to try it, you only live once, and it is not often that an American finds themselves in Taiwan with the ability to eat such a dish. Once I was able to get past the smell, which was much easier once I walked away from the stinky tofu stand, it actually tasted pretty good, it was a hint of chili, and fried been curd with a kind of moldy past (hence the stink). I am not sure if I would eat this stuff everyday, but I will certainly have it again before I leave.

After eating my stinky tofu me and my friends did some more walking around talking in all that Danshui had to offer. We stuffed our faces for a little over an hour and finished the night off with an ice cream cone that was about as tall as our heads. The ice cream didn't taste as good as the stuff at home, but it still hit the spot. It turned out to be a really nice night. The weather was perfect and the wharfs actually weren't all that busy. It would be nice to go back sometime soon to catch a sunset before grabbing food and walking around. I would add this place to the list of things to see if you are in Taipei for more than a day or two, just remember to come hungry.

And finally a few more pics from the night. The first is Chris and Denise (hostel pals) really enjoying their Agei (basically tofu stuffed with fish and broiled). And the second pic is just a nice shot of the busy wharfs.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Interesting happenings at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall

Thought I would share a bit of Taipeis politics for anyone who is interested in the goings on.

Other than that news not much else is new and exciting. I have fell into the groove of study and really enjoy my three hour classes. This weekend I am taking it pretty easy, and will be going to a going away party for Michael Toy, the student from Wisconsin who was stabbed, he has decided to leave Taiwan so we are going to see him off. I guess I will also take the time to answer a few of the comments questions that I have gotten in the past few weeks.

Still haven't heard about any stinky tofu. That Andrew guy on cable says it is the national food of Taiwan. Have you had any?
I have not tried the stinky tofu yet. It is on my list of things to do, but I need to find a good market where I can buy the item.

"Do you feel that this kind of experience is opening you up to further acceptance or do you find that it emphasizes your own shortcomings or a little of both?"

I feel that I am pretty accepting of many things in this world. I am more and more coming to terms with the idea of cultural differences that make this world what it is. I of course have my own shortcomings but I feel that spending this trip on my own is helping over come at least some of them.

Why don't people drink? Are they just smarter than we are??
I think there is just a certain stigma with drinking here. Most young people just have either never tried drinking at all, or don't really enjoy doing so. That being said, it is not like all the younger generation does not like to drink. I just think that much more people choose not to drink.

"How many numbers are in your cell phone, is the text in Chinese characters? "
My phone number here is 091.754.1430. It is possible to text in Chinese characters, in fact I get some all the time in Chinese but you have to learn a different writing system to be able to use it. 

and of course, I can't write a blog without at least one picture.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Time to hit the books. Part 2

So Sunday was my last day before I started class and I decided to do a bit more walking around in Taibei Shi (Taipei City). My friend and I ended up just walking around near the Taibei Che Zhan (Taiwan Main Station). We walked around just taking in more the city and saw a few cool buildings, some dutch colonial, and some with much more an asian flare. After walking around for a little over an hour we came across the old North Gate that was entrance to the city. Built it 1884, the North Gate alone retains the original appearances. It is a two-story closed blockhouse of solid construction with traditional Chinese wooden roof truss. It even has the old gates build into the blockhouse even though they do not close anymore.

After walking around and exploring the city for a little while it was time to head in a get a good nights rest for the start of term. My classes started Monday at 2:10pm-5:00pm and run five days a week at that time. When I arrived in my class, my first impression was just like the Christmas Story... OHHHHH F-U-D-G-E. For about the first hour of class I just felt lost. Our teacher does not speak any English to us at all, okay maybe 5 words were said in English over the entire 3 hours. My class had 8 people in it on the first day, and our first assignment together was to translate our class objective and guildlines into Chinese. If this seems like an easy task let me assure you otherwise. Item number 4 on Intensive Course Guidelines: Generally, one chapter will be covered every three days, but the teachers will do the necessary adjustments based on the absorption of students and the contents of that chapter. A test will be given upon completion of each chapter... now try speaking about that in another language, not fun. Once these items were done we were off to the races, asking questions of all of our classmates in a general review of lessons 1-15 in the textbook. That took us to the end of the first day.

Right at the end of our first day our teacher announced that we would have a quiz on Tuesday covering review vocabulary from lessons 11-15. When I got home i started to get a little freaked out. Over 80 characters worth of material, and a lot of it new to me because I used a different text book back home. So I spent about 5 hours working on homework Monday night and another 3 hours during the day. The result... I only knew about half the words that she spoke and I still felt lost. I started to get a little bit worried but I talked with my Professor and she told me to stick it out. At the end of our second 3 hour lesson we were giving the same task of reviewing lesson 11-15 for our quiz on Wednesday. I again hit the books for about 5 hours at night and 4 hours during the day. I didn't think things would stick since I was cramming so much in my brain, but it seemed to work. I got very very few errors on my second quiz and felt a lot more confident in todays class. Oh also today our class was reduced to only 4 people rather than the 8 we had in the beginning. A few thought it was to hard and a few thought it was to easy. So in theory I get 1 hour of one on one time with my professor every single day... not to bad, not to bad at all.

That is all for now, I am going to be hitting the books a lot while the semester is in full swing but I will be sure to keep you all informed of any new developments in Taipei.