7-Eleven

The past week I was mostly busy with two things: working and hanging out with my parents. I could tell some stories on both fronts, but just going to keep this as a quickie update. Today’s topic shall be 7-Eleven.

I would like to speak generally for every American who has ever come to Taiwan and say that we all have a crush on the Taiwanese manifestation of the concept of “convenience store”. Most often, I think Americans fixate on 7-Eleven. Somehow, the kind of sketchy corner convenience store that evokes the stale odor coffee and security camera footage of muggings came to Taiwan and transformed to a bright, clean, family friendly establishment. And most amazingly, it is convenient. When you’re in Taiwan, 7-Eleven has got your back. Thirsty? Hungry? Forgot to buy toothpaste? Toilet paper? Shirts? Scarves? Want to buy tickets to concerts? Trains? Buses? Pay your bills? All of these needs can be taken care of at the closest 7. And the closest 7 is probably (at most) a few blocks away. Of course, 7-Eleven isn’t even the only convenience store, there are in fact several chains (Family Mart and Hi-Mart are the other big names) that together create convenience store density that is undeniably convenient.

I can’t even begin to describe the variety of interesting gimmicks and promotions that they are always running. Buying a certain amount earns you stickers, which can be exchanged for prizes. Sometimes buying two bottles of a certain tea will get you an immediate prize. Buy a cereal drink and get a tea egg for just one NT. What exciting new deal could you discover while stopping by for a fresh coffee?

Still, my knowledge and usage of 7-Eleven has just begun to scratch the surface. I used the IBON machine for the first time today, which seems is the portal to 7-Eleven’s magical world of ticket-purchasing.

I decided that it’s finally time for me to get it out of my system*, so I registered for a marathon.

First, I would like to point out just a few of the flow charts involved with the registration process. When in doubt, make a flowchart. Don’t forget to use system so complicated that a flow chart is required to explain it.

This is just describing how to fill out the online registration form.
And this one is describing how to go to 7-Eleven and pay the registration fee.

And then here I am, at the nearby 7 to pay my entrance fee.

Want some ice cream to go with your marathon registration?

If you need something to do on December 16th, you can come do 42km with me. Or just stop by to watch.

 

*I’ve been muttering about this for the past 2 years or so. I’m actually not even in the best shape that I’ve ever been these days – keep skipping runs to eat. I figure this will be good motivation to get back on track a little. I doubt that I will make a great time, but I’ll make sure to finish.

Questions of identity

Of the challenges presented by traveling abroad, I’ve found that classic question of identity is still every bit a relevant and interesting. For example, the little cultural things I didn’t realize that I took for granted but are part of the way that I act: are these habits and viewpoints what make me who I “am”? Does it matter that they change while I live somewhere else? Where is the line between the “little” things, (like how I greet people or whether I flush toilet paper), that don’t matter and the “big” things? What counts as “big” anyway?

Of course, a question that seems most unavoidable now that I live in a different country: do I consider myself “American” as a big part of my identity? And what about race?

In Taiwan and China, these two questions actually strongly connected: something that I have come to appreciate only after spending time here. In the Chinese language there is a term that has come to refer to culturally “Chinese”: 中華 zhonghua and a  華人 huaren is “a Chinese person/people”. Embedded in this concept are two important points: the feeling that once a 華人, always a 華人; and that you can’t become a 華人 if you weren’t to start out with. Thus, this interpretation of “Chinese” refers to a concept that transcends political boundaries. It also depends on ethnicity: it is impossible to be “Chinese” if you aren’t ethnically Asian. Therefore, based on culturally “Chinese” and officially Taiwanese (as according to the government), are four clear categories for a person in Taiwan :

  1. 華人 and Taiwanese
  2. 華人 and a citizen of a different country (someone who immigrated or their family immigrated to a different country)
  3. Non-華人 and a citizen of a different country (much of the rest of the world)
  4. Non-華人 and Taiwanese (very, very rare)

When it comes to basic interactions, the initial way that you are treated will depend on how you fall into these categories – or what category someone thinks that you fall into. Pretty much every non-Asian who has studied Chinese and gone to China/Taiwan (therefore #3 in the above list) has stories about how surprised some people were that they spoke Chinese. And for those who are of Chinese descent but from other countries (#2), they usually have stories of being mistaken for a local (#1). Of course, there’s the classic example of a pair of foreigners traveling together, and all locals assuming that the Asian-looking one (#2) will be able to speak better Chinese when this may not actually be the case. A rarer, but still seemingly a shared situation is that of people of non-Asian descent who move to Taiwan/China and consider themselves (legally or otherwise) to be Taiwanese/Chinese (#4), yet face the inability to be accepted as culturally “Chinese” as determined by the 華人 standards.

Friday night, I was invited over to my friends’ house for a small gathering. As we hung out and traded stories, I noticed that we represented all of these different categories. I think that the stories were basically variations on things that we’d all heard before: the white guy confusing waiters when he was the one reading the menu and ordering food for his Asian-American friends who couldn’t speak or read anything; the assumptions that my California-raised Asian-American friends are locals; the white girl born and raised in Gaoxiong who sometimes cannot convince people that she is “Taiwanese”… Even if they weren’t “new”, it was still fun to share the stories because these were our stories. Such stories put the faces of people that we knew in these situations and then truly knew that they happen.

In the midst of this, however, I noticed that I still fall into a fifth category that is less-well defined. My father was born in Taiwan, and though he now is an American citizen and considers himself quite American he is probably unanimously considered a 華人. But my mother is a white American. Racial-mixing throws a wrench in this division of categories. Can a mixed-race person be a 華人? Probably depends on whom you talk to. Probably depends on where the mixed-race person was born and raised. Can people accept them as Taiwanese? Again, it probably all depends.

I think the way people treat me is hard to predict because of the uncertainty of the mixed-race category, especially because I think my appearance and my Chinese level are befittingly somewhere in an ambiguous middle ground. I think I receive all treatments: sometimes as a total foreigner; sometimes I think people are more friendly towards me because they consider my interest in Taiwan as a cultural homecoming ; and sometimes (although this is pretty rare, and doesn’t hold for long interactions) I think people don’t stop to consider me as anything other than just another Taiwanese person.

I found myself in this situation in the States as well – that there is a broad range of interpretation how to treat me because I sometimes defy simple categorization. But I also found it generally not all that important. As far as I was concerned, my parents’ history and my race were never that important to me when it comes to how I want other people to see me. I would prefer for people to see me as the things that I do and my personality and my personal history, not my family background. As a kid, I didn’t even realize that people would do other than this. Though I’ve since realized that this isn’t really the way things work in America, I’ve still continued to believe that race and country of origin shouldn’t matter…

The more that I have thought about this, the more it sounds downright like the “American dream” to me.  And because I believe in this, then I guess do consider myself American as an important factor of my identity. This is not something that I would have identified as an “American” concept until I left the States and realized how the rules for being “Chinese” is so different from being “American” – which doesn’t require specific ethnic or cultural backgrounds.

And now for some unrelated pictures:

National Days: Taiwan and China

This post is more than a week late for its topic, but it is too interesting to not write some about.

Last week was October 10. In Taiwan, this is the National Day holiday 國慶日, commemorating the establishment of the Republic of China (ROC) which now governs Taiwan. For short, it’s often referred to as 雙十節 (“festival of the two tens” as a literal translation, but it seems like most people tend to say “Ten Ten Day” in English) because it occurs on October 10th. Interestingly, mainland China (PRC) celebrates the founding of its government on October 1st. I found that the coincidental closeness of these dates actually highlights the peculiar historical chasm between these two places. For example, I was talking with my father, who works in the PRC and he noted that the PRC National Day holiday was nearly concurrent with the mid-autumn festival this year, giving him an extended holiday of four days. During that time, he was considering flying back to Taiwan, where it would be mid-autumn festival, but not National Day. I also mentioned the October 1st holiday to a Taiwanese friend and she had no idea what I was talking about at first. However, the October 10th holiday is actually still celebrated in PRC, just not as the National Day. Confusing, eh?

I figured that I would use this as an opportunity to share some of my newly gained knowledge regarding this history for those of you who aren’t familiar with it. (But I’m also no historian, so this is pretty basic and you could go explore the Wikipedia articles for yourself if you are so inclined. And if you’re not interested in reading my account of this, you can skip down to the pictures below for my story and not my renditions of modern Chinese history.)

The October 10th holiday technically commemorates the start of the 1911 Wuchang revolution 武昌起義 that overthrew the Qing dynasty, ending thousands of years of dynasty rule in China. It’s actually not a coincidence that this occurs close to the mid-autumn festival, as the original date chosen for the rebellion to occur was the mid-autumn festival, it just didn’t work out. The ROC was officially established at the start of the following year, January 1, 1912, thus celebrates the 1911 revolution as its beginning. However, because the communist government of the PRC sees this rebellion as one of the necessary precursors for the later communist revolution, they also celebrate the 1911 rebellion, just more specifically as the Wuchang Uprising Day 武昌起義紀念日. The PRC further celebrates October 1st as their National Day after October 1st, 1949 – which is when Mao Zedong declared the official establishment of the PRC. This was after the Chinese Civil War and the Chinese Revolution during which the Communist Party of China (CPC) defeated the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). Upon their defeat, the KMT fled to Taiwan, officially relocating the ROC government to Taipei.

So of course the ROC government in Taiwan isn’t interested in celebrating October 1st (essentially its defeat in 1949), but both governments celebrate October 10th, and everyone celebrates mid-autumn festival. And there you have it: Taiwan and the Mainland historically and culturally from the same heritage, yet separated politically since 1949. (Political separations between Taiwan and mainland China have been around since before the the KMT relocated.)

As a Fulbrighter, I was extended a special invitation to a large party held by the Ministry of Foreign affairs. It was really fun and a pretty fancy affair with most of the Who’s Who of foreign dignitaries present, and included an appearance by the Taiwanese president, Ma Ying-jeou. To be honest, I didn’t do a particular thorough job of socializing with the other foreign dignitaries as I was distracted by some of the other things going on. Check it out:

This is not a food blog! …yet

This is a gratuitous post about things that I have been eating.

Seal the deal

As of yesterday, I think I can say that I am officially moved into my new apartment – my home for the next 10 months until the end of my Fulbright grant here. The semi-permanence is thrilling and also moderately troubling. I am already noticing downsides to the place, but I’m trying to quiet the little voices and remind them that I’ve already signed the lease so, why spend time cataloging the problems of a done deal?

Let’s back up to that “signing the lease” bit, because that’s something that I wanted to share. In the States, we notarize official documents with a signature. Somehow, statements of intention for everything from a credit card payment at the supermarket to opening a bank account to declaring an independent nation are trusted to the scribble that is supposedly unique to a person. Even though I have, of course, seen those crime investigation TV shows where the forensic scientists can prove forgery of a signature, I’ve always been skeptical of how good handwriting analysis actually is. A signature isn’t a very extensive sample of handwriting to sometimes play such important roles in legal transactions.  And what about the fact that I’ve changed my “signature” at least 2 times that I can remember?

If you’re a skeptic of the signature, that’s okay because you can move to Taiwan! Here, official documents don’t rely on a signature as affirmation of intent from a person, but instead from the stamp of their personal seal. The seal, aka a “chop” (印章) is a stamp bearing the person’s name. It is generally square or round and always stamped in red. You’ve seen them before, even if you didn’t realize that you have –  probably on the corner of paintings (in this case, the stamps indicate the artist or people who have bought the work).

I have really been enjoying this tiny, yet important facet of living in Taiwan. The practice of using name stamps or thumbprints is, by all common standards, “ancient”. It’s been a part of Chinese culture dating back thousands of years. Yet it’s still used as a part of every day official interactions. Sign the lease on my apartment? Stamp stamp stamp. Open a bank account? Stamping things everywhere!

When we first arrived, one of the many packets of goodies from the Fulbright commission included a chop with our Chinese name. I was pretty excited because I’ve always thought they were interesting. However, because I haven’t actually spent an extended amount of time in China or Taiwan and conducted complicated business transactions, I didn’t realize their usage beyond a novelty item until recently.

Luckily, I got wind of the fact that there was actually a functional purpose to getting a chop. Being keyed in, I brought it to our meeting to sign the lease on our apartment. My roommate hadn’t heard this tidbit, and being “chop-less”, instead had to use her thumbprint.

Of course, to get back to the topic that I first brought up – is a chop actually a secure way of notifying a document? I’m sure that it’s pretty straightforward to be able to connect any stamp from a particular chop to its origin. But then again, people also can change chops, just the way that they might change the way that they sign their name. Getting a new chop carved is perfectly normal  – and there’s nothing to stop someone from getting someone else’s name carved… Maybe a forensic scientist in forgery would have a more certain answer. For now, I’m just going to say that I am greatly entertained by using a stamp instead of having to sign my name.

I’ve had a few conversations with Taiwanese people about it, and they seem to be equally as intrigued and confused that the rest of the world doesn’t use this technique to officiate documents.

 

Ps. I’m still trying to figure out what is the most appropriate posting frequency. I hope to walk the line between having an interesting amount of writing for personal reflection, and for those [strange] people who are interested in reading this to have some regularity, but also I hate the feeling of living life with the constant thought of how you will share it on the internet later.

And there’s that thing about the moon again…

Chinese culture has many traditions that are based on the lunar (and sometimes the solar) calendar and although they have now adopted the international standard of the Gregorian calendar*, these old traditions still surface in everyday life.

Example 1: the fall moon festival (中秋節) was this Sunday. To be honest, even after celebrating it, I am not sure of the hundred(s?) of years of background stories, culture, traditions related to this event.  But basically, it is celebrated when the moon is full in the autumn equinox and seems like a time for Taiwanese families and friends to get together. While together, everyone grills 烤 and eats moon cakes 月餅.( You can see how discussion of legends isn’t exactly required in order to participate in these activities.) For the last week, people have literally been out on sidewalks everywhere in Taipei, grilling everything from meat to mushrooms, to veggies, to fish on little portable grills. Even last night, I was still passing groups crouched or sitting on low stools in front of store fronts and houses. Sometimes everyone is in uniform – clearly the employees from a business in the building they are set up in front of – but sometimes the relationships between the participants (friends, family, neighbors) is up for the passerby to speculate about.

Mooncakes – 月餅: these were some particularly delicious ones that my great aunt gave me. I’ve had mooncakes in the States, but I don’t remember any of them ever being this good…

Funny enough, the barbequing tradition in Taiwan actually isn’t an ancient tradition, which anyone older than 40 might bring up. Conversely, this custom got started by some very effective advertisements in the 1980s (I admit to not having researched this really thoroughly, but it’s on this government website, so even if it’s just hearsay, then it’s still Official Hearsay).

 

Example 2: a few weeks ago – in fact maybe one of my first weeks here, I was sitting in my cubicle, minding my own business, nothing too much to make of that. It was about 11:30 am when suddenly I am contacted by two people from the research group that I’ve joined. One of them came to my desk to talk to me, and the other sent me the following instant messages:

 

– Are you in the office?

-Yes

– Good, don’t go for lunch, we have a lunch box for you. From Jil, one of our assistants, for celebrating her baby being born for a month – 滿月I’ll send over.

 

Of course, I was utterly surprised and vaguely confused by the what was occurring when it was first broached. A little bit later, I remembered some stories that my dad has told related to 滿月 festivities. And a little bit later after that, I had lunch delivered to my desk. Yum!

This is the lunch box that I received, stuffed full of classic 滿月 foods such as red chicken eggs 紅蛋, and 油飯

The basic idea of 滿月 is captured as mentioned in the above conversation – when a baby has reached one month of age (29 or 30 days, depending on sex), ceremonies and celebrations take place. Maybe you noticed that this doesn’t strictly have to do with the lunar calendar, which is the topic that I used to bring up this event. But you maybe also noticed that 月餅 and滿月share a character – which is the character for both “moon” and “month”, just reminding me of their roots and how these customs grew out of using the moon to mark the passage of time.

And don’t misunderstand the tone in title of my post: I’m just kidding around and not belittling these traditions as “outdated” or “silly”. When it comes right down to it, I actually find that I do use the waxing and waning of the moon when I note time passing in my life.

 

* Actually only partially true. According to the Taiwanese method of calculating years, the year “zero” occured in 1912 when the Republic of China was first founded. This has already gotten me in trouble with multiple official forms.