Sunday, February 24, 2008

Non-Lazy Sunday

Last night was another wonderful adventure in Taipei that couldn’t go without at least a short blog post. My evening started out by meeting with Yu-Lin, the father of the two children I visit twice a week, at a bus stop near my house. The reason I met him by my place was because he insisted on seeing that I was able to easily find their residence from where I live rather than from school, the route that I usually take. I am once again stunned by the hospitality of the people in this country, because not only did he meet me at the bus station when he could have just given me directions, but he and his wife were also treating me to a nice Sunday dinner near their house for no other reason than to have a nice meal with me. The weather yesterday was a little chilly which seemed very appropriate for the evening because they took me to a wonderful Hot Pot venue. Hot Pot is quite simply a pot of soup broth on a broiler where you cook a mixture of vegetables meat tofu etc. at your own pace and temperature. When you order hotpot everyone gets a set of veggies and then chooses a side dish of their fancy. Last night I opted for the mushroom vegetarian dish, which turned out in fact to be an entire platter of various mushrooms of all shapes and sizes. The meal was delicious and we left the restaurant stuffed to brim but their hospitality was not yet through.

Much to my surprise, after dinner my hosts for the evening demanded that we take a 15 minute walk over to the Tong Hua night market so that I could have my first taste of bubble milk tea; a drink that Yu-Lin was very surprised to hear I had not yet tried in Taipei. On our way over to the night market we had an interesting discussion about the lack of Night Markets in the United States, and also reflected that in Taipei a midnight snack, eating being a national past time here, more often than not turns into a 4th meal of various street food goodies. Once we arrived at the night market I was able to have my first taste of bubble milk tea, which is aptly named due to the small bubbles of gooey goodness that float in the tea for your consumption. I don’t know if I will make this my regular drink here in Taipei, but I will certainly order one again.

Once I had my milk tea in hand we began to make our way back to their house, but my evening didn’t stop there. Since I was already in the heart of downtown Taipei and the weather was good I decided to call my classmate, Matt, and see if he cared to join me for the Taipei Lantern Display at Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall. He agreed and Ya-Wen(Yu-Lin’s wife) , Yu-Lin and myself continued to make our way back to their home when it dawned upon me that I didn’t have the faintest clue how to get to Sun Yat-sen from this still rather foreign area of town. Once again Ya-Wen and Yu-Lin showed their kindness toward me as they agreed to point me in the right direction. Pointing me in the right direction ended up actually being them walking me all the way to Sun Yat-sen Memorial, an extra 15 minutes from their house, where they finally left me to find the Sun Yat-sen Memorial MRT station for myself by jokingly saying “I think you are old enough to find it alone.” Quick note for the record: the entire walk that we made was one continuous road, but rather than telling me that so I could walk alone they made the whole journey insisting that they show me the way.

After successfully locating the MRT station, on my own, I met up with Matt and we made our way to the Lantern Display at Sun Yat-sen. The Lantern Display at Sun Yat-sen was a conglomerate of hand crafted and hand painted lanterns varying for the more traditional round lantern to the far more bizarre, a crab playing a stand up bass. The lanterns were made by a plethora of designers from junior high students all the way up to art designers that work in Taipei. Each had their own twist and flair, while there were a lot of truly unique designs, one would have to be blind to not notice that this is the year of the rat. I was ultimately drawn to the more traditional hand painted lanterns that hung around Sun Yat-sen memorial hall, but everything on display was fairly incredible. Amazing that such a simplistic design as a lantern could be expressed in so many different ways; although none of the more avant-garde lanterns stood a chance of lifting even an inch off the ground.

The event was nothing short of a great surprise and a truly wonderful treat. While it may not have drawn out the same raw emotions that I experienced last week in Pingxi, it it was something that I am glad I was able to catch in Taipei. Turns out that we were pretty lucky about making it their to see the lantern display yesterday, because it was the last night of the festival. All in all it turned out to be a great close to the Chinese Lunar New Year Festivities. How very apropos that the moon was hanging low in the sky hovering like a lantern, emitting a creamy, rich, rice paper yellow glow.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival.

On Saturday February 16th, 2008 thousands of people gathered in 平溪鄉 (Pingxi Xiāng) for their annual sky lantern festival. Our school was kind enough to take approximately 500 students to Pingxi in order for us to witness the magic of the Lantern Festival; the symbolic end of the Chinese Lunar Festivals where people write their wishes upon Sky lanterns and release them to the heavens. Our group left Shida around 3 O'clock and took a one and a half hour bus ride to make it up to Pingxi before dark. The ride was a sight in itself due to the fact that police men blocked roads along the way to control the flow of traffic to Pingxi. 

Once we arrived at Pingxi we were able to get a taste of Pingxi's dozens upon dozens of food stands. While walking the food stands it was obvious that this festival was a big deal to the people of Taiwan, the situation could only be described as 人山人海 ren shan ren hai (meaning literally people mountain, people ocean or more figuratively a vast multitude of people). The whole time we were walking around people were lighting Sky lanterns and releasing fireworks, creating a very amazing atmosphere despite the fact that you could only move with the flow of the crowds.

When dark arrived the main events began taking place. People gathered in the center of the Pingxi Junior High school activity center where the majority of the Sky Lanterns were released into the sky 300 at a time (rewatch the video now). The Sky Lanterns are made of rice paper and a bamboo frame with a small fuel cell in the bottom, which when lit fills the lantern with hot air causing it to rise up into the air for around 15 minutes until it runs our of fuel and falls back gracefully to the ground. Legend has it that the Sky Lanterns were originally used by immigrants from mainland China who lived in Pingxi. They would often have to flee into the mountains to avoid bandits and robbers who pillage their village. After the danger had passed people who remained behind would release lanterns into the sky to tell the people in the mountains it was safe to return home. Now the most common thing to wish for is prosperity, wealth and happiness.

Witnessing the release of 300 simultaneous lanterns was a truly remarkable experience that cannot be had anywhere else in the world. I didn't think that things could be much better until I found out that our school was going to be taking part in our own large release of lanterns in front of a few thousand people. We gathered up our group and headed to the activity center where we were giving our lanterns and a marker so we could write our own well wishes and send them up the the heavens above. My own personal lantern carried a few messages up to the sky: 祝全部人萬事如意 zhu quan bu ren wan shi ru yi (Hoping everyones 10,000 wishes come true) 祝每個人都找愛 zhu meige ren dou zhao ai (wishing everyone finds love), and of course because I am in Taiwan and a part of Taiwan's culture my final wish was 請給我錢 qing gei wo qian (Please give me money). The lantern behind me in the picture is the one large lantern that was sent up by our school. It was huge (around two stories tall) but still went up into the air without a hitch. As the lanterns were released into the air I could only think that this was by far the best cultural experiences that I have experience in Taiwan since my arrival. I hope that I am able to experience more of these moments before my stay here in Taipei comes to and end. The final picture seen below is my lantern lifting off into the air along with the others from our school during the tumult of cheers, oooowws and aaaahhhs.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

My trip South.

So Friday morning I packed my bags and headed South for my first official getaway from Taipei. My destination was a place called Douliu. My language partner invited me down to spend the weekend at her house with her family, and I was happy to be able to get away from the city and was really, really looking forward to a nice home cooked meal. To get down south I took the train. I had a window seat, which made the three hour trip a little more interesting. I got to see a bit more of Taiwan, it all honesty I saw a lot of run down buildings, and more rural environments.  It was nothing like the poverty that I had witnessed in Indonesia, the stacks and stacks of 3 walled shacks, but it didn't seem to be nearly up to the standard of living that people are used to in Taipei. The train ride itself was rather interesting, so many people traveling south to visit families that they stood for the whole trip, because there was no more seats available on any of the trains.

When I arrived in Douliu I was actually a bit surprised to see just how big the city was. Sure it didn't come close to Taipei, but it does have a population of 100,000 people, which means that I had escaped the city life of Taipei, but not by much. This actually turned out to be a good thing as I learned a little later on in my trip, because had I been in a rural town almost nothing would have been open due to the Chinese New Year. I was picked up at the train station by Irene (my Language partner) and her mother, who I quickly learned spoke Mandarin Chinese with a very Taiwanese accent making her much harder to understand when she spoke. We got to their house and the two of them started working right away on a giant Vegetarian meal. Their house is 3 stories tall, and the top story of the house is home to a small temple, where people come to visit and worship. I was told that people usually come on Saturday but because of the Chinese New Year people were coming all the time time.

Shortly after we had arrived to their house 4 older men came to spend some time in the temple. After they had done their worship they sat with me in the living room where we all shared a giant feast accompanied by a fair amount of Chinese. For parts of the the conversation i was totally left out however because I don't understand any Taiwanese what-so-ever, but it down sound like a beautiful language. After our meal Irene and I went into town to walk the downtown area and have a look around. Most of the shops down South sell clothing an other items and since the prices seemed rather cheap I thought I would have a look around. It was in Douliu that I got my first glimpse of shirts that had actual Chinese on them. Of course this story didn't just sell shirts with Chinese on them, but also T-shirts filled with bad english. Shopping has never made me laugh so much.

After shopping it was back to the house, were we watched a movie and spent the rest of the night just hanging out. The next day we were planning on going to a amusement park in the area (weather permitting). Of course much to my luck, I awoke the next day to crappy cold rainy weather. It appears that even going South could not allow me to escape the wonderful weather. So we decided instead to head into town and hang out at one of the many coffee and tea houses that stay open 24/7. After the coffee shop we walked to a kind of indoor market place and found a restaurant that served hot pasta and Taiwanese style pizza. The food hit the spot, and while Taiwanese style pizza is not close to what I am used to from back home, it still was pretty darn tasty with a coke.

After dinner was over it was time to go and check out Douliu's night market. The night market was the most different experience from what I was used to in Taipei. The main reason that it was different was just the feel of the market, it was in a open field set more in the center of the town that just amidst the streets. You could walk the rows of foods, games, music, crafts etc, without feeling overly crowded by the people around you. The other thing was that being down South, and being a foreigner I was a bit of an oddity there. In Taipei, I think people are rather used to foreigners, but being down south, waiguoren (foreigners) are not something that people see everyday. I had kids and adults alike walking by me and pointing out the fact that I was either a foreigner of that I was very tall. I made a point of telling them in Chinese that I was not sure why I was so tall, which seemed to get a nice laugh from people. After the night market it was back home to hang out and watch some TV and relax before bed. Sunday morning we boarded another train and headed back to Taipei, again with tons of people standing the whole train ride home. The night market was a good way to end the trip South for me, and it has made me want to explore more of Taiwan. Taipei is a wonderful place but there is so much more culture on this small island that I just don't want to miss out on while I am here.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Chūn Tiān Dào Le

The image above and the title of this blog suggest the sometimes playful nature of the Chinese language. Like true punsters they flip the character for spring spring(Chūn) upside down (see picture above) and announce: Chūn Tiān Dào Le! Dào is where the joke gets played out, dào can mean to turn over, but it also can mean to arrive. They have taken the obvious homonym and had some fun with it announcing that Spring(Chūn) has been turned over, thus Spring has arrived. This character is one of many that you will find posted around the businesses and houses of Taipei to bring in the new year.

The lunar New Year is actually pretty quiet around here, except the random fireworks that go off every now and again. The ones last night were actually really load and pretty great. The day before the actually New Year is very important. A huge clean-up gets underway days before the New Year, when Chinese houses are cleaned from top to bottom, to sweep away any traces of bad luck or misfortune. The Eve of New Years is perhaps the most important part of the whole event. It is when all the families that have gathered from all over return home for a huge dinner. After the dinner the children stay up past midnight to honor their elders, helping to give them a long and prosperous life. The other main new year celebration is the giving of Hongbao (red envelopes) that are filled with money. Many people get and receive red envelopes, I even got one from my teacher this year, but it had a good luck charm in it rather than money.

So that sums up what most of my Taiwanese friends have been up to, but if you are a foreigner in Taipei that you are reduced to eating a hug meal at one of the many American chains McDonalds, KFC etc. or checking out the good old 7-11's and scraping a meal together from the things they have to offer. It has been pretty dead here in Taipei, which has given me a change to get some homework done, and reading... because of the whole sick thing, i didn't do much of that early on in the week. Tomorrow I am heading down south for the weekend. I will be hanging out in Douliu where on of my Taiwanese friends lives. I am taking the train down and should get to see some great scenery on the way. Not really sure what to expect when I get there, but anything will be better than sitting in a quiet, rainy city.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Break Time

The last 4 days of my life have been pretty tough. I was pretty sick and wasn't really mobile at all, minus the fact that I went to class and took a test and a not so easy quiz. I should have listened to my better judgement and not gone to class, but we just started a weeklong break for Chinese New Year and I didn't want to miss anything major. This week in Taipei has also been some of the nastiest weather that I have experienced here. It is cold and damp and always raining, sick or not I can feel it at my core. A friend of mine was kind enough to lend me a space heater and it has been working over time to keep my body shufu (comfortable). I found it fitting that this week in class we learned a new grammatical structure that is used to over exaggerated things, mostly negative, so I was able to say in class wo leng de lian chuan zhe yi bai jian yifu dou bu gou. In english it means I am so cold that even wearing 100 articles of clothing I am STILL cold. Let me tell you, I may have been sick during the test, but I didn't forget how to put that structure to use.

Last week I also started a new "project” of working with two small children, ages 4 and 2. I basically get to hang out with them for 2 hours each week and read them stories, play with them, or do anything else that I can come up with. They are so cute, and their English is actually surprisingly good for being so young. Guess it goes to show just how much faster young minds are able to pick things up. Other than that, Thursday February 7th 2008 is the Chinese Lunar New Year. I am not really sure what to expect around Taipei. One thing that I do expect is for Taipei to be almost dead. Most people spend the Lunar New Year with their Relatives, which usually means going home to parents or grandparents houses to have a nice meal and spend time with the family to honor the living and the dead. I will be doing a little more research on the topic and will be sure to keep you all up-to-date of the goings on. That's all for now, but expect more in the near future.