Monday, March 30, 2009

Jiufen and Jinguashi

We woke up Sunday morning and decided to go to Jinguashi Gold Ecological Park, located up in the mountains north of Taipei (but still part of Taipei county).

The park is two bus rides, a jaunt on the subway and one train trip away from our front door. And we literally never waited more than five minutes for any of those things. I could sing the praises of Taiwanese mass transit for eternity. It's amazing.

When Taiwan was a colony, the Japanese operated a gold mine at Jinguashi. The picture above is me standing outside a renovated mining tunnel, complete with wax-figure miners.

Japanese-style chalet built for visiting crown prince
One of the park staff made me raise my right hand and take a Chinese oath not to remove my safety helmet on the underground excursion. Or at least that's what James told me the oath said.

I asked James to give me a push in one of these antique mining carts, but he said the sign said not to touch. Then I said if it's not in English it doesn't apply to me. Then James ignored me, so no free ride.
Inside the actual museum, I got to touch the world's largest gold brick - valued at $5 million U.S.
During World War Two the Japanese ran a POW camp at Jinguashi. There were 15 POW camps in Taiwan, which was news to me yesterday.
Japanese propaganda photo of prisoners

Prisoners were made to mine copper in abysmal conditions. James and I left the gold park and tromped down to Jinguashi to see the POW memorial. Unfortunately, I dropped my camera before we got there and the memory card popped out. Since it was raining and the card got wet, I couldn't take any more pictures (thankfully, there was no damage to my camera or the card).

Jinguashi village

After the Gold Park, we took another bus (which we only had to wait five minutes for) down the mountain a ways to Jiufen, which is a touristy olde town type of place - crowded little streets without cars, lots of teahouses and gift shops.

James and I were starving by this time, but we couldn't seem to find a dining option that wasn't either fried snack food or pricey teahouse fare. So finally we stumbled into a little restaurant selling translucent, gelatinous meat pockets. That's right - I ate a clear, jello-like pocket filled with red mystery meat. I wish I could've taken a picture, because these things looked just like something a mad scientist and/or alien mother would incubate in some dank, secret laboratory. And they sold them in four-packs to take home!

You'll just have to trust me, it was disgusting.

But Jiufen and Jinguashi on the whole was a great day trip!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Wedding in Taipei

From Wedding
Saturday morning James and I rolled out of bed, threw together presentable clothes and made for Taipei to see his co-worker get hitched.

Yes it was raining. Yes I knew there very possibly would be much standing and walking involved. And yes, I chose to wear my very favorite four-inch yellow vinyl high heels.

"But what if we want to go somewhere afterward?" James asked. That's James-speak for, "Bitch, are you crazy?!"

I tossed flats in my purse.

No superstitions about wearing the dress ahead of time, so people take photos in advance. Seems like a good way to save time on the big day to me.

The wedding was held at Chin-Chin Garden Restaurant, which wasn't a restaurant at all but a compound on the outskirts of Taipei devoted to weddings. There were five weddings going on there Saturday. Or at least that's how many I counted on my walk from our reception hall to the bathroom.

Different wedding, not the one we attended

The ceremony was short and sweet and had none of the solemnity I'm used to seeing at weddings in the States: Guests whispered through the ceremony, and a substantial fraction of the audience crowded the podium to play cameraman during the "I do"s. Of course, white weddings are not a Chinese tradition. The ceremony itself seemed more like of a photo opportunity.

Driving down the aisle to the tune of "Life is a Highway" by Rascal Flatts. So cute!!
Flower Kids
Their doggy got to walk down the aisle too
He's a big boy.
Beautiful Bride
Dress No. 1

The emotional part - at least for the bride and groom - came right after the ceremony when they thanked their parents. The bride was so overwrought she could hardly read what she'd written, and the groom looked emotional too. Reverence for one's elders is paramount to Confucianist tradition.

There was a bouquet toss. Much as the idea of bodychecking wispy Asian ladies for a bunch of flowers appealed to me, I didn't think unleashing 68 inches of all-American cornfed fury on a Taiwanese wedding party sounded very sporting. So I hung back.
place settings
Beatrix Potter-themed chocolate pretzels

The lunch took a couple hours, which allowed the bride three costume changes. That's four dresses, folks - two whites, a gold and a pink. And you all thought Star Jones was being extravagant with two. But then, this is also part of how they do it Taiwan-style: Another of James' co-workers was recently married, she too had four dresses.
No. 2
No. 3
No. 4

The food was passable Asian-fusion fare. Lots of mollusks. One of the courses was orange soup with some sort of translucent, fishy meat substance. Awhile after I'd finished it, another one of James' co-workers informed me I had just eaten shark fin soup, and that Taiwanese fishermen harvest shark fin by catching sharks, cutting off their fins, and then tossing the live shark back in so that the blood attracts more sharks that can be cruelly de-finned.

The catering staff packed up the food our table didn't eat and sent it home with us, and the wedding favor was a traditional two-layered box of cookies. Not too shabby!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Wedding Gift

This weekend James and I are going to his coworker's wedding. This will be a first for James. It should be interesting to see a Chinese wedding, and to see how James fares in polite company.

We found out - through James' other coworkers - that wedding gift-giving is quite different here. Serving bowls and blenders are not the thing. There's no registry, people just give money.

But how much to give? I don't want to be cheap, but I had to pay school tuition this month, and the plumber is resealing my bathroom floor as I type...

James' friends said we should give something above $2000NT ($60 U.S.). However, the number must be divisible by three and it can't have any fours in it, because four means death in Chinese culture. A lot of people give $3600 because that's a lucky number.

We'll probably give $2100 or $2700, but certainly not $2400.

EDIT: Since I originally posted this blog, I was told by my Chinese teacher not to give 2700 because it has a 7 in it (odds are unlucky) even though 2700 is an even number. She said to save myself 100 and give 2600 because it's all even and "6" has a nice soothing sound ("liu"). James' mother and Chinese teacher said since we don't know them that well, 2200 is appropriate. Ageh.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

L.A.M.P.: Invitation Only Promotion

I stumbled upon this elaborate stand up outside a movie theater in Ximending, Taipei's cool shopping district.

When I was living in L.A., the Arclight on Sunset Blvd. would usually have cool costumes or set pieces from new movies. But this is the first time I've seen an actual person take part in the promotion.

The actor/model did a good job. It could've been goofy - having a guy in a mask and a suit stand around, but I found him subtle and creepy.

Invitation Only is being billed online as Taiwan's first slasher horror. I don't know if I'll see it because, as you can see in the background there's some sort of dentist's chair, and that usually spells torture. But I did enjoy the advertising!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Souvenir of the Week

I picked this up at a candy store yesterday - a chocolate tin that doubles as a piece of anti-communist propaganda.

The comrades are brandishing tainted products that have come out of China the last few years: soy sauce, toothpaste, frozen dumplings. And Chairman Mao is saluting them with a glass of milk (presumably the tainted milk that killed six babies and sickened thousands last year). Notice Mao also has a SARS armband, may as well throw that in too, just so no one is confused on the point China is full of communists and other things harmful to one's health.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Comfort Food

Where do you want to go for dinner?

I want to go to America for dinner.

I know, I know, me too. But it's a little late in the day for that, so what's your second choice?

McDonalds or KFC.

Sheesh, didn't we eat McDonalds yesterday?

I don't think so ... No, we couldn't have: We had Pizza Hut.

Was it Friday then?

No, we didn't get home until late...

Thursday. It must've been Thursday.

(A moment of silent contemplation)

Let's go to McDonalds. It's farther away. And we could use the exercise.

Weekend in Pictures

Saturday I went back to the zoo so James could have a look. Sunday we strolled around the Ximending area of Taipei and Huashi street. This is what I saw:
I can't get enough of the gibbons!
nap time
weird Santa
Firecracker Remnants
Flowers in the Temple
We saw "Armed Forces Hero House" on the MRT map and thought maybe it was a museum, nope - it's an all-you-can eat vetrans' buffet.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Leslie's Medicine

Adults coddle children here in a manner that is best described as ... foreign.

I first noticed it on a field trip with the pre-school I used to work at. The boys got to ride scooters. And whenever one of them took the tiniest of tumbles - no tears or scrapes - the parents rushed in from all sides, swarming the kid, to make sure he was okay. Ironically, none of the kids wore helmets.

At home it's the opposite: My brothers run the risk of my father's wrath should they pick up their scooters without helmets on. But my parents have never swooped in with a box of tissues before the tears even started flowing.

So it goes in Taiwan: Today (in 76-degree heat) I saw a baby swaddled up wearing a cap and mittens; in the "winter" my students come to class wearing - literally - four or five shirts; and a week ago my boss rubbed icy-hot on my student's stomach when another kid hit him. Icy hot is for muscle aches! Not fleeting discomfort!

George, one of my 7-year-old students, has missed a lot of class recently for alleged health reasons. He's missed some full days because he was at Chinese doctor appointments and he's missed some class because 20 minutes into the period he will say, "Teacher my eyes!" Then he will rub them vigorously. "I can't see!" Then he closes them so, of course, he cannot see. He also sticks his arms out when he closes his eyes, I think for emphasis, that way we really really know he can't see.

"Alright, let's go."

George is an early English learner. Because of the language barrier, behavioral and disciplinary issues are handled by my bosses. I just haul the kids out and let them deal with it.

I do believe George is in some sort of mild pain. But there is something uncanny about how he is beset by temporary blindness during English lessons.

Unfortunately, George's problem has been validated by the Chinese doctor. This is another cultural difference I struggle with here: People I would otherwise consider serious individuals put stock in what to me looks like snake-oil hooey:

Every culture has its own folksy remedies. In America it's chicken soup, so I can't hold it against James' grandma when she admonishes him for eating pineapple when he has a bug. And while doctors might say otherwise, I'm convinced vegetating on the couch through Star Wars Episodes 4, 5 and 6 is the best way to beat a cold.

However, when a kindly and well-intentioned man jams his bony elbow into James' shoulder blade because James had a fever. Well, I have a hard time taking that seriously.

Anyway, George went to the Chinese doctor. And my boss told me the Chinese doctor said it could take years of Chinese medicine for George to be cured of his eye-related fits. That sounds like a nice racket for the Chinese doctor. But it doesn't do jack for my English class. Boss and I discussed this conundrum briefly

"I think maybe George is a little sick, but maybe when he don't want to go to class he..."

"Exaggerate? I think so too."

On Wednesday class started and I rousted the kiddies from their seats for some physical activity in the back of class. George is on the pot-bellied side of things, so possibly this isn't his favorite way to begin the afternoon.

George says something to me in Chinese and then lets his jaw drop open like a broken cupboard.

"Sorry George, I don't speak Chinese."

George turned to Jill, who speaks English more fluently.

"He say he feel like he going to throw up!"

I was at a crossroads. If I was wrong I would be pretty much the meanest teacher ever, and I ran the risk of having George's stomach turned out on my classroom floor. But dammit, the kid didn't look sick.

"Look George, are you really sick? If you are sick you can leave. But I want you to be a big boy and try your best. Because if you are always leaving you are not going to learn anything. You need to try your best. I think you're going to be fine, okay?"

He probably understood a word here or there, but my tone dispelled any prayer of sympathy. George snapped his mouth shut and let out a little grunt that seemed to say, "caught."

Minutes later he was on the floor laughing and playing with the rest of the kids. Nausea? Puh-leez.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Mistakes Were Made

I'm going to try and limit my posts about the sinister life forms storming my apartment to once a week. But then I'm living in Taiwan, it's the rainy season, and every week it gets a little bit warmer - so no guarantees.

This heinous disaster was the result of a leaky pipe. Unfortunately, there was a shelf tucked in this nook so we didn't see that our wall was oozing away until building maintenance came knocking.

I'm waiting for the handyman to come replace the wall as I type. At his suggestion, we bought a dehumidifier to help dry out the wall. Two or three times a day I have to empty the quart-sized tank in the bathroom - who knew so much water could be sucked out of thin air! Well, we're 13 stories high but the air is still more thick than thin.

On the bright side, the wall and leaky pipe is only costing about $250 U.S. to fix,and the dehumidifier cost another $100. Back home I think you lose that much the minute a plumber shakes your hand.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Leslie's Asian Movie Picks: Coming Soon

L.A.M.P. is a new, occasional feature here. I'm not announcing this because I plan on writing about Asian movies with increased frequency. Mostly, I just thought L.A.M.P. was a cool acronym.

And, if by some chance someday, one of the world's 1.5 billion internet users says to another internet user, "Hey, what should we watch tonight?" And the second one says, "I don't know! Let's check LAMP."

Well, then my life would have meaning.

Last weekend I saw Coming Soon - a very solid Thai horror with a cool anti-piracy theme. I walked out of the theater having learned that if you pirate a movie, you run the risk of having your eyes dug out by a ghost who could scare Norman Bates' mother.

The premise is someone makes a horror movie about a crazy lady who kidnapped children before she was hanged by angry villagers. Whoever watches the movie is subsequently haunted by the woman's ghost. Sound familiar? I promise it was much scarier than The Ring, and all that phone-call-equals-death baloney.

There were plenty of good jumps (but then, I'm a cheap scare), just enough gore, and noooo prolonged sadism. That's my biggest problem with American horror of late - too much torture (Hostel, Hills Have Eyes remake, etc.).

I love The Shining and Halloween. Bring on the chainsaws, just no rape and no pliers-on-fingernails action. It's no fun and it's too easy: A successful horror is one where I'm about to pee my pants when the protagonist is doing something mundane - like brushing his teeth - but the scene has been built up in a way so it's super spooky. If I have to cover my eyes while the villain slices through some mope's Achilles tendon? That's nothing special.

Not sure if there's an American release date, but here's the trailer for Coming Soon. See it before someone sticks Sarah Michelle Gellar in a forgettable American remake.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Fellowship Taiwan

My bosses finally dragged me to church with them. I was apprehensive about going. We're all protestants, but protestants can have disparate ideas about how church should be done:

Actually, it was pretty fun. Songs were lead by half a dozen lively guys and girls who looked like high schoolers or college kids. The congregation clapped along exuberantly. People clapped on beat, clapped double time, clapped on off beats, and clapped to their own beats. The important thing was the enthusiasm. My parents' congregation is equally devoid of rhythm, but much more self-conscious. You can practically hear the telepathic pleas when the worship leader strikes up the band: "Please, please, please don't make us clap. Maybe next week. Just today, no clapping."

I understood three words throughout the sermon, "Jesus," "thank you," and "Amen." But then, Amen transfers directly. At one point I heard "O-ba-ma" and "change." "Change" was said in English. I leaned over to Boss Lady for translation.

"She talking about change. And how Obama is change. He is black man, right? So that is change. The people think they can maybe get more from black man. So change."


A couple minutes later: "I don't understand why she say that about Obama. No relevance."


I'm sure the untranslated message was more nuanced.

There was also one English word, in parentheses, in the church bulletin - Ahmadinejad. For this, I also turned to Boss Lady for explanation:

"You know who is that?"

"Yeah, president of Iran."

"Yes. He say he want to kill all the Jews. So we have to pray for the people and the country."

Israel, you have a friend in Taoyuan.

I'm glad I went and saw how they get their church on in Taiwan. The biggest difference was when the pastor called for a moment of prayer everyone prayed aloud. Back home we do it silently.

Afterward, my bosses, their two kids and I headed to the car. Their oldest stepped in fresh dog poo before we got there, much to the delight of his sister.

"Taiwan has so much shiiiiiiiiit." Boss Lady remarked as we pulled away from church.

We drove to the coast for a seafood lunch - the kind of seafood lunch where you pick your fish at the market and take it to the restaurant to have it cooked. I still get a kick out of the way Chinese kids' eyes get big when they see a table stacked with raw squid, "Oooh! So yummy!"

After lunch we strolled on the jetty and looked at fishing boats. Then we drove back to Nankan.

Going to church. Eating out. Having a walk on the jetty. All likely activities for a Sunday back home in Oregon. I'm just on the wrong side of the ocean with someone else's family. Funny how things can be so foreign and familiar simultaneously.

Monday, March 16, 2009

James Has a Burfday

James is 23 now. The good thing about this is 23 is a year that comes with a song.

I like birthdays that come with songs. Every year should have its own song. There's a whole flood for sixteen (Sixteen Candles, Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen, Sixteen going on Seventeen (Sound of Music). Then there's only one I can think of for seventeen, "The Heat is on in Saigon" from Miss Saigon ("I'm seventeen and I'm new here today, the village I come from seems so far away..."). And that's pretty much it. Guess nobody feels like it's worth singing about once you've reached the age of majority.

Thankfully, my fabulous little brother solved this problem for me by writing a song for my 22nd.

And lucky for James, 23 comes with a song too! It's no Billy Jones, but it is Coolio! Gangsta's Paradise!

In case you forgot (how could you forget?!), or you are more than a decade older than me and never knew in the first place, it goes: "I'm 23 now, but will I live to see 24? The way things are going I don't know..."

James gets to sing it now. And I guarantee in six months I too will be found belting, "You better watch how you talkin, and where you walkin Or you and your homies might be lined in chalk..."

23: So much to look forward to.

N*E Wayz ... To celebrate we went to eat hot pot with James' uncle and grandma on Saturday.

From James is 23 now

Then we had cake at Nai Nai's.

After that we went bowling. I'm a supremely bad bowler. So is James, but by some birthday luck he managed to rack up 100 points by the fifth frame.

This anomalous fortune endowed James with the foolish notion he could coach me out of an unbroken streak of gutter balls.

"You just have to bring your arm straight back!"

"I'm not going to change for you or anyone!"

By the eighth frame I was reduced to whimpering: Please, don't make me go back out there ...

I finished with a 36. And yes, I bowled every frame.

After bowling we returned home for James' second cake of the day.

I was pretty proud of myself for ordering the cake ahead of time over the phone. The conversation (translated in its entirety from Chinese) went something like this:

Do you speak English?

No sorry...

Okay. I want a chocolate cake ... Tomorrow.


Tomorrow. I want a chocolate cake tomorrow. Chocolate cake tomorrow.


I'm so sorry. I don't understand.

No, no! I'm so sorry! ... ummm- oh! What is your last name?

My last name is Jones.


Tomorrow. Give me a chocolate cake tomorrow.


How much will it cost?


Ok. Thank you. Umm..Bye. Chocolate Cake Tomorrow. See you tomorrow. Chocolate cake. Ok?


Okay. Tomorrow. Thank you. Bye.

Saturday night James tried to convince me it was his birthday Sunday too because in Taiwan we're 16 hours ahead of the U.S., and he was born in the States. So I snappily replied that the international dateline was irrelevant: a guy only gets 24 hours of birthday.

James took the news like a champ. And overall, I think we had a successful celebration.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Ah, the Life of a Taiwanese Schoolgirl

On Friday nights I teach three two-hour blocks. I find it is crucial I spend the first 20 to 30 minutes of each period working the class - taking attendance, teasing the kids and bantering at their level of comprehension.

My professional justification for this would be it's time spent engaging them in English outside the textbooks. But really I just don't want them to completely hate me for my complicity in such a blatant act of pre-weekend torture. Plus, if we crack open the book right when the period starts, they start flirting with mutiny 90 minutes in: "Teeeeeeach-uuuuhr I hungry ... PLAY GAME! PLAY GAME!"

My 7 o'clock class was looking droopy-eyed the minute they walked in.

"Cheer up! Only two hours - then your weekend begins!"

"Noooooo no no no homework."

"But don't you get to go home after class?"

"No - have to stay here. Do homework."

I asked the girls in the front row what their weekday schedule was. I wrote it on the whiteboard as they dictated. Keep in mind, these are 10-year-olds. This is what they told me they do during the week:

7 a.m. Arrive at School
40-minute class
40-minute class
40-minute class
40-minute class
Lunch (30 minutes)
Nap Time (40 minutes)
40-minute class
40-minute class
Clean (they have to clean their 6th period classroom everyday)
3:50 Go Home
4:30 Go to Cram School
Do homework
Eat dinner at cram school
More homework
7-9 English Class
9:00 More homework
10:00 Go home

Ageh, it boggles the mind.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Fancy Booze

Last weekend we went to lunch with James' uncle. Jo Jo told us he had some alcohol in his car that someone gave him - premium Chinese-style vodka.

You guys want it?


James and I hemmed and hawed. We don't like vodka much, but we're not far enough out of college to refuse free liquor.

How about this: If you like it, keep it. But if you don't like it, give it back to me.

Okay, okay, fine. Are you sure you don't want it?

I have to make too many decisions. No time for drinking.

We all laughed. Once back in Nankan, James and I took off with Jo Jo's liquor.

At first I figured Jo Jo's request to have it back if we didn't like it was one of the myriad examples of Chinese thrift. Waste not want not? But then we took it out of the its box and realized it was too expensive to pass off lightly: It would be unconscionable to let this stuff go unenjoyed - just look at the packaging (clay pots!).

That evening we each took a shot. I tipped my glass, swallowed, and immediately doubled over at the waist. My nose burned. I was rendered speechless by hacking coughs for almost half a minute. My chest felt warm. For a hot minute I thought I had the spins. We tried again the next night. Results were identical.

This is one of those rare, perhaps singular, moments where I wish I had some taste for, or at least knowledge of, spirits. I've drank enough vodka to know that this stuff was good. Plastic-bottled, corner-store, paint-peeling poison this was not. Yeah, it hurt to drink. But it was a different kind of pain.

We're giving it back.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


Today I gave my class a creative writing exercise. The topic in the book was kind of lame: Pretend you are one of the following (car, toy, watch, Walkman) and describe what you are like. But the kids were really imaginative with their answers.

They all picked car. And with waving hands, bursts of verbal expanation, and drawing of pictures, they asked me how to say "G.P.S.," "heat-seeking missile," "rocket launcher," "space station" and "guillotine."

Cool cars, huh?

Monday, March 9, 2009

Something Evil

Satan's Spawn

How could an everyday, mundane rice cooker harbor something so atrocious, something so vile - I'm not even going to post it here for fear of offending readers with weak constitutions. You will have to go here and here and here to witness it. Don't say I didn't warn you.

I made rice about two weeks ago. James usually makes it. Sometimes we leave it overnight and eat it for breakfast. But that didn't happen this time. We discovered the result a week later. What we found was so horrific we shut the lid and delayed facing our fears for another week.

Actually even though it was my fault, James did all the fear-facing. See, James usually does less than his share of cleaning around here. Why? Well, my standard of living is sort of "messy college student," whereas James' is more "feral child." I think cleaning should be done on Sundays. James thinks cleaning should be done when Leslie gets her crazy face.

I made it clear I'd buy a new rice cooker before I'd clean ours. So James got to pay off his cleaning debt by scraping away the alien life form incubating in our kitchen appliance. What a guy.