Foreigner on Display

I’m going to stew on the second part of my musings about names (focusing more on a broader picture and less on my own personal issues) for a little longer. In the meantime here are some anecdotes.

I was out running, listening to a podcast in which two guys from Taichung just ramble about restaurants and food that they think is delicious. (I include this detail only to make sure that my gentle readers know exactly what kind of person I am: the kind who listens to podcasts about food while I’m exercising.) I had gotten a late start to the day, so the sun was getting high and the shadows were tucking away even though it was only around 8:30. I hopped on and off of the sidewalk as I ran laps of the park, absent-mindedly dodging the vegetable sellers, the mopeds, the exercise groups and the kids getting dropped off at preschool. I realized that the guy in front of me was waving at me with his phone probably a beat or two late, and pulled out my earbuds, feeling a little embarrassed, asking him what was up. He continued waving his phone saying, “I want to take a picture, I want to take a picture.” I had not even finished slowing down from my running pace, and he was already circling me with his phone raised, trying to find the angle where I wasn’t back lit. “What?” A part of my brain was still thinking about food in Taichung, a part of it was wondering whether my face was red or just dripping with sweat, and a part of me was wondering where this picture would end up. “It’s rare to find someone so good at running,” he said, snapping a few shots. At this point, it I decided that he didn’t really want to talk to me, so I started to accelerate, even though I had not even fully stopped. “It’s nothing,” I said, and sped away, putting my earbuds back in.

My morning class ended and I happily bolted out of the classroom, ready for lunch. I had class in an hour and packed lunch, so there was no reason to stray too far. Still, it’d be nice to get some fresh air and walk at least a bit, so I went outside to look for a picnic table or a bench in the shade. I found a table and sat down by the little 成功 pond and dug in. I had only gotten about half way through the bag of sugar snap peas that I washed and packed that morning when I noticed an older man looking at me strangely. I would have looked back down at my phone and continued reading my emails, except that he altered his course from walking by to walking towards me. “You eat lunch?” he said, somewhat cautiously in English. I was still running through possible responses, that is, I was trying to guess what his question actually was, (“why are you eating here?” “why are you eating that for lunch?”), when he spoke again, pointing at my sandwich and the bag of peas, “That your lunch?” Ok. I finished crunching through the pea in my mouth and responded in Chinese, “Yeah. I like to eat simple things for lunch.” “Oh. Aren’t you American? Why are you eating that for lunch?” he said in Chinese. Not really knowing what else to explain, I started to repeat myself, “Lunchtime, I usually eat simple things.” “Oh your Chinese – very good!” he said, using English again. I looked back at my sandwich, really wanting to eat it, but not quite sure where this conversation was going. “But you are American? Yes?” in English. “Yes”, I responded in English. I ate another pea. “But Americans don’t eat lunch!” he said in Chinese. “We heard that Americans don’t each lunch. They just eat a lot for breakfast, and then at lunch drink Coke and eat a biscuit.” I started laughing, but let him continue. “Also, they don’t take a nap at lunch. Why are you eating lunch?” I thought he was protesting that my lunch was too small before (it was too small, the sandwich was actually only one piece of bread folded over and it hardly contained anything – classic Taiwanese sandwich style), but really he was amazed that I was eating at all. “Americans don’t eat lunch” is a fallacy that I’m not willing to let stand, so I started trying to explain the reality of American lunchtime practices. We continued talking for the next 20 minutes, sporadically switching between English and Chinese, and then quickly ate my sandwich before I headed off to class, still sort of hungry.

I went to the bank today, but after showing up, I realized that I forgot to bring my bankbook, which I needed for the transaction that I was trying to complete. Feeling foolish, I turned around and biked home, figuring that I could just make the 10 minute trip again. On the way I passed a group of men sitting on squat stools under a tattered umbrella in a parking lot. They were right near the roadside, possibly playing cards but I think they also might have just been sitting and not doing much of anything. One man right next to the road, yet angled so he could see the oncoming traffic noticed me, and his eyes widened. He stared at me for as long as his head and shoulders could turn, not saying anything, just wide-eyed staring. I didn’t think much of it, except for thinking “I’m not even wearing a skirt today”. At home, I picked up my bankbook, drank some water, and biked back to the bank. On my second time biking home, I decided to put on my face mask (I finally gave in and bought a pretty thick mask, clearly intended originally for workshops or construction or the like. It seems moderately effective against street pollution because when I’m wearing it I basically can’t smell the exhaust over my own hot and damp breath. But this also means that I start to get light-headed if I pedal at my usual pace – so I only break it out during rush hour when it’s best to go slowly anyway.) I wasn’t thinking much of my double trip until I passed the men in the parking lot, and the same man noticed me. This time, instead of his eyes simply widening to stare at me, they popped open with recognition. It looked like his eyes were about to bug out of his head as he turned to watch me pass. Clearly he had not seen me on the other side of the street, and was probably wondering if he had gone insane. I continued laughing to myself for the next several minutes, which was not pleasant in the heat of the face mask, but I couldn’t hold it in.

My bike is prettier than your bike. (At least I think so, anyway.)
My bike is prettier than your bike. (At least I think so, anyway.)

Names – Part one

I don’t think I have ever been good at saying my name. Somehow it always ends up getting just a little bit tangled on the tip of my tongue. The “r” and the “m” get smooshed together and the “h” is just dangling there and suddenly the rest of the syllables are pushing to get out but the beginning’s already all a mess and whoever I am introducing myself to inevitably makes a confused face.  When I say it the second time, it’s usually smoother, but I also often add “like the word” afterwards to clarify. That and a quick smile seem to get the point across, and my momentary stumbling point is past.

 

My problem lies not in my ability to articulate words – not anymore at least. I did have some problems pronouncing r’s when I was younger, and also I grew up near Boston so I have occasionally forgotten to pronounce them at times – but these are not part of the issue at hand. It’s in that flash as I think of my name and I’m about to say it that I suddenly doubt it. The doubt isn’t fully formed – it’s not like I’m thinking something like “wait, my name is actually Mary!”  It’s just a little suspicion that somehow I’ve chosen the wrong set of syllables, and those aren’t the right sequence of sounds to represent me.

 

I’ve had trouble introducing my name for as long as I can remember. At times I’ve gone through phases where it hardly seems to be a big deal, but at other times it seems like I have to go through three tries with each new person before they actually hear what I’m trying to say. Sometimes I can’t get it across correctly and I just stop trying, leaving the person addressing me by whatever strange sounds they heard.

 

Perhaps there’s some deep psychoanalysis to follow this tick to its deepest root, but it probably just boils down to the fact that I’ve always had a little bit of a complicated relationship with my name.

 

First, let me say that I think it is a great name. It has a great meaning, it is not too common, yet it’s also not too strange, not difficult to spell (okay there is sometimes an e that people try to sneak in there).  It’s just different and creative without pushing a boundary of unnecessarily innovative. When I was in elementary school, I wasn’t a particularly big fan of it being so different (and long!) but I got over than probably by the age of 8. I wouldn’t trade it for any other name nowadays.

 

Recently, I realized that people I’m close with hardly ever call me by my full name. There are a few exceptions; however, generally speaking, sooner or later all of my friends seem to end up calling me by a nickname. (This is also excluding the common stage after learning my name in which people refer to me as “Melody”. I would say that about 30% of people go through this stage.) The nicknames my friends have given me are impressively varied, considering how many of them are plays on my name itself and yet are distinct permutations. I have never introduced myself with a nickname – although I do readily sign letters with them and claim them as my own. Still, is the prevalence of nicknames in my life why I sometimes doubt that I’ve remembered the right set of syllables to refer to myself with? Maybe, or maybe it means nothing after all. At this point, I am happy simply to have friends, and I am happy to have them address me as they please.

 

Something happened when I was 18 that further changed my dynamic with my name. The previous discussion has been about my name as I knew it before I was 18… for the most part. There was another hidden piece that I hadn’t given up on disliking, and continued to hang around as an appendix to my name that I tried not to find horribly awkward: my middle name. My middle name is Shou-Ann. I distinctly remember one instance when I couldn’t remember how to spell it in second grade and wrote it as “Sow-Ann”, which later filled me with burning shame to know that I called myself a pig (I think I looked the word up in the dictionary after the incident). I learned how to spell it, and tried not to make a big deal about how alien and meaningless it was, despite that it was a snippet integral to retrieving my identity on official paperwork. I went through a phase where I casually touted it more as “Ann” – which still felt uncomfortable – but mostly I would just say, “My middle name is Shou-Ann. It’s Chinese,” and hope whoever asked was satisfied with that because I didn’t have more that I wanted to say about it.

 

When I was 18, I took my first Chinese class. With some language classes, students get names in the target language. Chinese classes are particularly adamant about this because names need to be transliterated in Chinese characters. Suddenly the dangling appendix of my name had a purpose. I metamorphically removed it from where I put it in the shadows, dusted it off and examined it in the light. I really learned the characters for it; I really learned how to pronounce it. And suddenly, I was using it. All the time. Soon it wasn’t anything uncomfortable but like just another one of my nicknames – a familiar series of syllables that catches my attention.

 

My Chinese name is more than a nickname to me now – it’s just part of my name. Not a stunted tailbone portion, but a fully-fledged-in-its-own-right piece of my name. The transition first happen when I studied abroad in Beijing under a language pledge where we could only speak Chinese. People referred to me solely with this name, and I regularly told people that it was my name all the time with no big pomp and circumstance. Well, that’s not entirely true either – while both the characters of my name are simple characters, it’s not a particularly common name, and especially not for girls. And quite possibly there’s still some hint of an accent when I say it. So I often end up clarifying the characters. But then again, it’s nothing more worse than when I stumble as I introduce myself in English.

 

to be continued…

[Blog-a-thon is turning out to be a pretty big challenge. Trying to keep things interesting!]

Common denominator

Day four of this week-long-blogathon and I’m feeling the fatigue/writer’s block. There are a couple of topics that I really want to write about but somehow it’s after midnight and I just don’t think I have the energy to do them justice. Instead, here are a collection of things I’ve written while hanging out at some of my favorite 7-11’s that have been strung together…

 

Wait – I know some of you my dear readers might be thinking – this convenience store thing is truly getting to be too much! Not only have I ranted about how they are actually everywhere, and how they are actually useful for everything (from printing to fresh coffee to paying bills to hot food) but I actually just loiter around there? Yes. Often.

 

People ebb and flow through convenience stores, sometimes stopping for a while to sit at the café tables. I’ve taken to doing the same, originally just to mimic those around me, but now simply because it is just a good place to sit and do some working, thinking and observing. It’s not the traditional feeling of Taiwan, but it’s every bit an important part of living in Taiwan today. Even pop culture features convenience stores as simply an aspect of life (see 我可能不會愛你, where the protagonists have plenty of heart-touching moments while working overtime together in a 7-11). When I’ve spent time with my Taiwanese friends or family, it seems like we always end up with a stop at 7-11. Convenience stores come up as an example in class to talk about daily living situations. They are a phenomenon that absolutely cannot be overlooked in modern Taiwanese culture.

 

I can’t help but think about how today’s generation of Taiwanese children are going to grow up entirely immersed in this phenomenon. I know I would have loved these 7-11’s as a child – somehow each of them is exactly the same – same brands, same cheerful ding-dong singing when someone activates the door sensor. Yet each has a slightly different set up – as most of them have taken over previously existing spaces and the layout is simply what made the most sense. Some of them have large seating areas – outside, inside or both. Maybe there is only a single table outside on the slanted sidewalk that is often crowded by mopeds and there is only a thin counter of space by the window with a few stools to sit. Some have no loitering space at all – buy your coffee, your tea egg, your gift box, your toilet paper, your sanitary pads, your magazines, your 關東煮 and move on.

 

Still, the best stores are the ones that have space to loiter. I love to see how hanging out at a 7-11 or a 全家 serves as a common denominator. Every kind of Taiwanese person seems to end up sitting in a convenience store at some point, from business men negotiating contracts to high school students still wearing their uniforms pouring over manga to the middle-aged couple that I watched playing a game together on a tablet.  Oblivious to the rest of the flow of food traffic in and out of the store, they huddled close, laughing and murmuring in hushed tones. Somehow the two of them cultivated all the intimacy of a cozy room in the midst of the bright fluorescent lights; she alternated between hunching close to the screen, and gently resting her head on his shoulder. Yet achieving intimacy within a convenience store is actually simple enough. I had the pleasure of befriending a bakery owner in Taipei (a story to be elaborated on), and often would drink a beer or two with him at the closest 全家. Of course he was friends with the manager and many of the staff: it seemed to be his nightly ritual to drink a Heineken or two and shoot the shit with whoever was around. It was homey enough.

 

And since moving to Tainan, I’ve started to become a regular at a couple of stores of my own. Sometimes there’s just a lot of studying to be done, and the best way to mix it up is to do it in a 7-11. I might pause to eavesdrop on the family drama happening at the next table over or to watch a particularly basketball-shaped child wander through the store. The roundness of his moped helmet only emphasized the pudginess of his cheeks, just as the insulated vest he wore puffed up his girth. His backpack straps had slipped off his shoulders to hang on his elbows, dropping the bag to his butt, further transforming his shape from a precariously balanced upright human to a little trundling creature. He shuffled between different displays that were taller than he – first the coin-automated toy dispenser, then the special offer of toys nestled by the hard liquors. Was he waiting for the moped driver to go to the bathroom? Was he collecting a prize from a hard day of studying and obedience? But my reverie trailed away after he finally he selected the greatest object of his desires and disappeared between the aisles, leaving me to vaguely observe the flux of other people and continue studying…

 

 

 

ps. While procrastinating writing today, I spent a few minutes digging around in my archives. Turns out that I wrote some interesting things last year (or at least I think so). Just in case you haven’t read enough of my thoughts recently and you missed those older entries…

Distance

The cultural understanding of distance is different in Taiwan. While this sounds like a trivial matter to devote time discussing, not only is it something that I encounter frequently in my daily life, but it is also something that I hadn’t considered malleable (nor considered all that much ever) before I moved to Taiwan. What follow are generalizations based on my observations of Americans and Taiwanese opinions on this matter, so of course there are exceptions and feel free to comment about any that you find particularly interesting.

 

I chalk the difference primarily up to this fact: Taiwan is about the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined; the United States, on the other hand, is that size plus another 48 states. Secondly, the primary transportation methods are not the same. I think that these two factors are largely responsible for creating a different cultural understanding of distance, but there are also some other things thrown into the mix that I’ll talk about as well.

 

As you might have guessed, Americans (myself and other Americans that I’ve mentioned this to) often find that Taiwanese people refer to distances that I find laughably close as “far”. Just because the United States is large, I don’t mean to imply that all Americans are necessarily running around all of it. I think there are still plenty of Americans out there who don’t travel particularly far (I can think of some folks off the top of my head that have hardly left the eastern seaboard in the entirety of their lives). Yet the American concept of distances still generally finds things much closer than the Taiwanese concept. Why?

 

To start, the daily usage of distance for most Americans is driving distance. More than a mile implies that it is appropriate to drive (get on a bike, sure, but still I think the vast majority of Americans would still land in the driving category). And generally speaking, I think most Americans view as any distance driving under half an hour to be “nearby”. This, with the potential of driving on a freeway at 60-80 miles an hour, leads to a range of about 30 miles. Yet many Americans also regularly commute for upwards of an hour, sometimes even stretching to 2-3 hour commutes on a daily basis. The American distance of “not that far” really probably extends up to a hundred miles by this definition. And depending on where you live in the US, this distance of “willing to drive because it’s not that far” probably ranges even further. When I lived in New Mexico in the middle of the desert, driving for an hour to Albuquerque seemed like a perfectly reasonable thing to do multiple times a week because there was simply nowhere else to get or do the things we wanted.

 

Americans also treasure the concept of the “road trip”, in which the act of traveling is a great part of the overall experience. Days are spent on the road are about covering distance, because one sure can cover a lot of distance while staying in the continental US if desired. And sometimes that’s just what one wants. So while I don’t think any American would consider New York city to San Francisco a trivial distance, I am pretty sure that we all know someone who has driven it. And the distance between New York and Boston? Really, that’s pretty small potatoes. Whether or not you want make the trip all the time is a different question, but I doubt that any American would choose “far” to describe the distance between those two cities. In fact, there have been plenty of times that I’ve described Boston as “close” to New York while abroad.

 

It just so happens that the distance between Kaohsiung and Taipei is approximately the distance between New York and Boston. And I guarantee that a Taiwanese person would never, ever, say that Kaohsiung and Taipei are “close”. Oh no. Even imagining someone saying it is making me crack up. This is because Taiwanese people would often describe a distance of a few kilometers as “sort of far”.

 

Let me put this back into the perspective of methods of transit. For the average Taiwanese person, a daily commute is likely via moped, public transit, or car. But for many distances, cars are not necessarily faster than mopeds, as they constantly need driving at a slower speed to be cautious of mopeds and other road hazards (if you missed it, see this discussion of traffic). So instead of half an hour that might be averaging 50 mph in the US (some stoplights, some fast stretches), I would guess a half hour averaging 50kmph (31mph) would be a reasonable situation in Taiwan. This would therefore reduce that distance of “nearby” from somewhere up to 30 miles away to probably a mere 15 miles.

 

Yet I would hardly ever hear a distance of 25km described as “nearby” in Taiwan. Maybe it’s partially because I know a lot of Americans who like driving, and would gladly consider a 20-30 minute trip as a nice time to listen to music, thing, or talk to a passenger in the car. On the contrary, I think most Taiwanese people view any transit on the road with wariness which is merited; driving is best done as an all senses alert task. Also, it is difficult to have a conversation with a passenger on a moped, or listen to music and sing along. And if it is raining, then being on a moped simply sucks (and there are plenty of places where it rains all the time in Taiwan).  Similarly, for those who rely mostly on public transit in Taiwan: it has the benefit of not requiring being active and alert, but it’s still not the private space for hanging out that most Americans consider their cars. Traveling for a long time under these conditions is not as pleasant as time alone in the car and I think people are subsequently less willing to spend time in transit.

 

But the majority of the time, Taiwanese people simply don’t have to go that far, anyway. Because people live at such high densities in Taiwan compared to the US, there is no reason to travel for half an hour to get what one wants. Usually there is a convenience store within walking distance (which, given the lack of sidewalks in many places, is probably less than half a mile); but if that is not going to cut it, there are likely any number of other establishments that will fulfill your needs within a few kilometers.

 

Similarly, geographic variation is high in Taiwan. While I haven’t lived in New York, my understanding is that the climate is no great leap away from that of Boston. But living in Tainan for just the past month and a half, I’d say that the weather here is distinct from Taipei. Eastern Taiwan is also another type of climate altogether. Additionally, there are the shifts in all geographic features that occur with the dramatic elevation shifts all over the island. If you want the feeling of tropical getaway, all one has to do is travel to Kenting, not the entire length of the east coast down to the tip of Florida. But if you want some cold, head into Taiwan’s mountains; which might take some effort, but geographically speaking is not going to be more than a couple hundred miles.

 

Even though this is something that I started getting used to last year, I still find the difference amusing. Sometimes I don’t make any particular comment when someone is amazed to find out that I live several kilometers away from school and that I bike for 15-20 minutes; but and every now and then I can’t help but mention that such a situation would be considered a blissfully short commute in the US.

Hiking Trails in Taiwan

[I wrote most of this back in June. Cleaning out old ideas and scraps of blog posts – here we come! Also, lots of pictures for this post.]

 

When I have the chance, I like wandering around in the woods. Here are a few reflections on hiking trails in Taiwan.

 

Signs warning about the various dangers of the forest. I would like to point out that these signs all came from the same place, and that they included two variations on how slippery paths can get.
Signs warning about the various dangers of the forest. I would like to point out that these signs all came from the same place, and that they included two variations on how slippery paths can get.

Taking day trips to the White Mountains in New Hampshire while as a child left me with this picture of a hiking trail: an unpaved path that is relatively clear of underbrush, usually marked with paint trail markers. I’ve gotten out a bit since then, but that still serves as my baseline. I was profoundly amazed by a few of my experiences of “hiking” China, when I realized that the entire mountain or path would be perfectly paved with stairs. (Often there were also vendors squatting at strategic places to peddle cold drinks and popsicles. Had this been a part of my childhood hiking experiences, I think I would have been an even greater fan of those trips to the White Mountains). This model seems unthinkable to employ in many places in the US: the man-power to construct such a committed trail would be too expensive, and to have stairs ascending a mountain would also go against the search for nature that I think many Americans want in when they are going to climb a mountain.

 

Most Taiwan hiking trails do not commit to fully paved and stair-ed trails either, but for other reasons. The reasons for this seem pretty obvious. I can’t speak for the desires of Taiwanese hikers relating to trail preferences, but it is clear that any trail constructed on a Taiwanese mountain is in a constant battle against the elements. Taiwan’s natural environment is apt to quickly erase all outward signs of human encroachment, thus a hiking trail simply serving as a blazed trail has no shortage of difficulties. This struggle, and the ongoing maintenance it necessitates tends to push Taiwan hiking trails to more minimalist practices. Maintenance of a fully paved trail against mildew buildup – which makes the trail slick and hard to walk on – and erosion seems to be too great of a commitment for all but a few of the most popular trails.

 

Minimalist trails are prone to erosion and slickness in their own ways. I have seen a great variety of methods employed to combat these issues, some of which are really quite ingenious in their use of materials. Another advantage of unpaved trails is that they can be more easily rerouted should a portion eventually “lose” the battle to erosion and become too slick for easy walking.

 

On the topic of trail maintenance, there is often a feeling of DIY. The materials used and construction of trails is hardly uniform nor does it have any air of professionalism.  My favorite example of this, is of course, the Four Beast Mountains 四獸山 in Taipei, which is riddled with home-brewed trails, exercise areas, dance areas, etc. I highly recommend it as one of my favorite places to spend a little while adventuring if you’re in the Taipei area.

Less popular trails are also marked differently here. When I started going on short hiking ventures around Taipei, I noticed trail tags, but my full understanding of their existence took significantly longer. First, I had to figure out what they were. I am familiar with the use of flagging tape to mark trails, having done fieldwork in some moderately remote locations. The scattering of these tags along hiking trails was similar, yet they were clearly not uniform or regulated. One trail would usually have a variety of markers along it (as opposed to one clear color of trail blaze paint). Often red, yellow, or white, the tags are sometimes cloth and sometimes plastic. Sometimes they have words on them, sometimes logos, sometimes they are blank. Especially when I first arrived and my character-recognition skills were much worse, I had trouble reading them. They usually only say very simple things: “[place] mountain climbing club” or “[name] hiking association”. When I realized that almost all of the text that appears on these tags amounts to the name of a hiking club, it was obvious that they were being left by the group as they came through the trail.

 

The collection of brightly-colored tags in the corner marks the start of this hiking trail.
The collection of brightly-colored tags in the corner marks the start of this hiking trail.

At this point, I found the practice to be rather arrogant. Like a dog peeing on a hydrant, hiking groups in Taiwan feel the need to make their presence in a location known? These trails that I was walking took no great skill to conquer, and it seemed to me to be silly and arrogant to boast about having been through them. Yet as I ventured to more remote places and less-traversed regions, I began to see these trail tags differently, and understand the logic behind them. Taiwan’s verdant and productive forests quickly obscure human traces. For less popular trails – cleared underbrush for a walking path is an unseen luxury. Without high foot traffic, grasses and ferns quickly grow up to hide the trail, necessitating the trail blazes to indicate the general path. Yet even trail blazes have short viability – they will quickly decompose or become covered in mildew in the moist forest. Instead, trail markings are continuously refreshed by the community of hiking groups that use them and leave tags along their length. As older tags fade or fall off, new ones are tied up to take their places. Thus the trail markers that these hiking groups leave behind are actually a part of public service to keep the trail visible.

 

My explorations of hiking in Taiwan are far from complete: I still have yet to truly venture out into some of Taiwan’s more epic wilderness. I have yet to go on any hikes where a permit is required – which is common for the longer hikes in the national parks. The purpose for permits, I have gathered, is not only to reduce the numbers of people who enter, but also for safety to encourage only those who “know what they’re doing” to enter and also to help the rangers keep track of all those who are out wandering the higher peaks. Going to some of these regions is on my list of things to do this year, so hopefully I’ll have some more experiences to report on this front.

Morning (this time with feeling)

In the morning, breezes by the coast seem their freshest, and also just the right amount of playful to highlight some of my favorite parts of biking in Taiwan.

 

A bridge where there are often fishermen gathered in the morning.
A bridge where there are often fishermen gathered in the morning.

Of course, if one is looking for adventure, the best time to fight the coastal winds is at night; oftentimes they are so strong that I struggle to hold my bike underneath me, and my speed going one direction is quite literally twice that going the other direction. No question about it, the time to make one’s heart race is night-time, when the darker stretches of empty coastal highway edge toward creepy. Perhaps the road is only illuminated by the gaudy flash of the nearest beetlenut stand, or establishments with names like “夜貓子” (night owl) or “something flower” where the “flower” is clearly not referring to anything botanical. I thank the winds at my back when I blast through the dark past these places, only to then find myself hunched down and cursing how slowly I crawl back the opposite direction.

 

But first thing in the morning, the winds at the coast tend to be calmer, and it’s the perfect time to take in the little fragments that make up life in nowhere-particular, Taiwan. The empty road promises simplicity and serenity in the cool morning light: instead of only the glare of distant flashing lights, the scenery is a tapestry of vegetable patches, aquaculture, strips of sea-coast, and single-building factories. Instead of just drying out my mouth with the force of the air, the winds whip around in scent-laden eddies that make it obvious what the nearby human activities are simply by smell: the pungent and unmistakable smell of drying fish, the thick smell of manure, and others that are more mysterious or subtle. A field has recently be replowed and the smell of raw earth? A paintjob on that corrugated steel building? A butchershop and the smell of surfaces that have touched a thousand pieces of raw meat? A new kind of pesticide applied to this field?

 

And instead of only hearing the roaring of wind rushing past, mornings are filled with a variety of noises. I’ve stumbled across celebrations for local gods more often than I thought possible while out biking in the morning. The clanging and wailing instruments, the firecrackers promise a lively crowd, but usually everyone milling about looks half awake and only partially committed to the event. Often the voices are just the strings of schoolkids on bikes trundling down the road in matching uniforms. I tend to pass them in laughing and chattering clumps at first, but if I loop back just a few minutes later, only a few stragglers peddling voraciously to get to class in time remain.

 

Gradually, the road traffic also picks up as time passes in the morning. Usually, the breezes begin to quell, but the quiet and calm rapidly slips away with them. People start to commute to work, each with a roar and a puff of moped exhaust. And just like that, the fresh dawn gives way to the hot, crowded air of just another workday. Whereas the dark and challenge of the winds seem to stretch on for an endless night, the window of daybreak calm is preciously short.

 

My bike out by a patch of beach along the coast in the morning.
My bike out by a patch of beach along the coast in the morning.

Two notes: look forward to a burst of frequent updates. I’m going to try for a post every day for the next week. Maybe quality/length will be comparably decreased.  Also, I changed a few things about the site, so for anyone actually reads this in a browser and not just in email updates, feel free to let me know if you have any opinions.

Foreigner

Sometimes, being “a foreigner” in Taiwan is tiring. I have avoided this topic because I feel that there is nothing particularly fresh that I can bring to the descriptions of my experiences in this regard. Yet recently I’ve wondered why exactly it was that I decided to come back to Taiwan, and face all the little side effects of living abroad. Especially in moving to Tainan this year, a much less modern and bustling international hub than Taipei, my experience as “a foreigner” is dialed up to an even stronger level.

Of course, there are plenty of reasons why it is interesting to be “a foreigner” in Taiwan. It can be fun that people strike up conversations with me because of their curiosity. It can be fun to try to check the preconceptions that people have, and possibly try to broaden their perspectives. It can be convenient that people recognize me immediately and remember my name (and often most things about the interaction that we had before). Sometimes, people just want to be extra nice to me – maybe because they want to ensure that I have a good impression of Taiwan and Taiwanese people, maybe because there’s a inferiority complex, maybe it’s simply because they want to see how I’ll react, maybe because they’re uncomfortable, or all the above and some other reasons that I can’t even guess. It can be fun to be the tallest person in the room of adults – something that never happens when I’m in the US.

But also I’ve felt worn out when I am trying to go about my business, yet I am also constantly on display as “a foreigner”. It can be irritating to have people stare at me all the time (as I type this, I am watching people stare at me in the window reflection as they walk by behind me; but it’s easy enough to see people staring me just by looking at people’s faces directly, such as everyone walking in front of the window, many of whom also give me very long glances). Automatically receiving obviously differential treatment is unnerving; there is no reason people need to address me in English and assume I’m incompetent. It can be frustrating to hear people talk about me as I pass by – muttering things about “老外” – as if there are general statements that can be made about me simply because I’m “a foreigner”. Knowing that people will take my actions and use them to represent an entire category of people, “Americans” or “foreigners” or something of the like, can make me consider every action with great strategic importance. And sometimes I just want to be able to take off this mantle, and put it aside to have people see me first as an individual and not as a collection of labels.

Yet no matter where I live, I am going to bear the weight of a collection of labels and biases. Living abroad also gives me even more opportunities to learn: I am amused by and can reflect a great deal on things that are very simple aspects of every day life. And instead of the Taiwanese people that I meet who are trying to build an understanding about America from me and the handful of other Americans in they’ve encountered, every day I can build my understanding of Taiwan from not only every person I meet, but also through every one of my senses at all hours of the day.

A Post on the Post

Only recently I realized that my joy in mailing things is probably at a level that it would be appropriate to call it a “hobby”.

 

Some years ago, I started on a personal project to try to send at least one postcard to a friend every week. My motivation was simply that I have been lucky to cross paths with many people that I find interesting and am glad to have had the pleasure of spending time with. Yet my life has been relatively mobile in the past few years, and just as I have gotten to meet lots of people, I have also parted ways with them. Wonders of modern technology can lessen physical boundaries, but my ability to talk with people is easily saturated; it’s not reasonable to keep in touch with everyone.  Handwritten postcards are my compromise of “quality over quantity” for maintaining some interaction with friends far away.

 

This habit served to further my fandom of mail systems.  For the amount of times that the post office has mangled, misplaced, or taken forever with a package – there are so many other bills, advertisements, and all of those things that you don’t want but show up anyway, along with the things that you do want to get that arrive safely without any fuss. Each time I mail a postcard, I am amazed. I can pay someone a trivial amount of money to physically move an object from where I drop it off to be delivered to an address elsewhere, taking it on a journey that I can’t take myself due to money or time or simply being lazy. It’s pretty magical, and I’ve found it sort of addictive at times.

The Chungwha post office on the Cheng Da campus, and the usual line of folks using the postal ATM outside the door.
The Chungwha post office on the Cheng Da campus, and the usual line of folks using the postal ATM outside the door.

Little did I realize that I was coming to a country that truly utilizes its post office by living in Taiwan. And I’ll say this directly: I have a crush on the Taiwanese post office. The Taiwanese post office is a multi-functional organization, it is a reliable brand, and also a force to be reckoned with. Okay, maybe I am getting a little hyperbolic in my excitement, but the bottom line is that I rank the Chunghwa Post (中華郵政) as one of the most important institutions of daily life in Taiwan.

According to their website, the first incarnation of a Taiwanese postal service was back in 1888 – but big changes occurred when the Japanese took control in 1895. During the Japanese period, the post office expanded to include services that are usually associated with banks, such as saving money and handling pensions, but apparently they also even sold insurance policies. The logic behind this, as explained by my dad, is that as the government expanded its reaches to distant corners of the island, there would always be need for a post office. Thus it made sense to use the post office as an all-in-one provider of government services.

Here you can see the post office side of the office on the Cheng Da campus. Note the counter in the foreground which supplies forms as well  as red ink pads for stamping your seal as it may be required.
Here you can see the post services side of the office on the Cheng Da campus. Note the counter in the foreground which supplies forms as well as red ink pads for stamping your seal as it may be required.

I think the Taiwanese post office has cut back on some of the variety of services that it offers nowadays, but it’s still extremely important for both providing banking services as well as handling mail. I highly doubt that any fewer than 99% of Taiwanese citizens have postal accounts. Instructions for receiving my payment in Taiwan usually include something like “after getting your residency card, open a post office account so we can transfer money to you” – there is no mention that you might go to a bank when you could go to the post office (well there are plenty of banks, too, but everyone just starts with an account at the post office first).

This half of the Cheng Da postal office is devoted to banking services. Like any bank in Taiwan, the first step is to take a number, as distributed by the machine in the foreground.
This half of the Cheng Da postal office is devoted to banking services. Like any bank in Taiwan, the first step is to take a number, as distributed by the machine in the foreground.

Most post offices have a section devoted solely to banking services, which may be entirely separate from the area to deal with postal services. Part of the inspiration for this entry was when I recently walked into a post office, looked around, and realized that not a single counter would have helped me mail the box that I wanted to send or let me buy stamps. I was not alarmed or confused. I walked back out and looked around for the mail section of the post office – which turned out to be around the corner of the building only accessible by a different door altogether. And that’s just how the Taiwanese post office works sometimes.

This woman helped process my application for a post office account. Perhaps my infatuation with the Chungwha Post is that, like any institution in Taiwan, there is a lot of stamping of paperwork involved in any transaction (and I freely admit that I think stamps are awesome). I swear she had to stamp at each paper at least 3 times with all variety of things.
This woman helped process my application for a post office account. Perhaps my infatuation with the Chungwha Post is that, like any institution in Taiwan, there is a lot of stamping of paperwork involved in any transaction (and I freely admit that I think stamps are awesome). I swear she had to stamp at each paper at least 3 times with all variety of things.

As I mentioned before, Chungwha Post is also a comfortably ubiquitous brand. The colors of red, green and white are easily recognizable, and consistent country-wide. And while I can’t say that Taiwanese post office workers are necessarily friendlier than US post office workers, the variety of services that they provide, the cheaper rates to send mail, and of course their adorable friendly graphics make me feel like they care about me more. I’m infatuated, and I’ll be sad to leave this aspect of Taiwan behind.

Maybe I'm actually just a fan of the Chunghwa Post's graphic design, which I find adorable. For example, the boxes that they sell.
Maybe I’m actually just a fan of the Chunghwa Post’s graphic design, which I find adorable. For example, the boxes that they sell.
The post office is also always running various marketing campaigns, special deals for items that may but most likely are not at all related to the post office, and fundraising campaigns for various non-profit organizations. Here's a display case full of such items. Also, I have no idea how the English translation ended up that way - as far as I can tell none of the characters have anything to do with force - it really just says display case.
The post office is always running various marketing campaigns: special deals for items that may but most likely are not at all related to the post office, and fundraising campaigns for various non-profit organizations. Here’s a display case full of such items. Also, I have no idea how the English translation on the top ended up that way – as far as I can tell none of the characters have anything to do with force – it really just says display case.
This lovely billboard outside the post office is advertising how they can provide currency exchange services. In the corner is a mailbox. Green for local mail, red for air mail. As I was taking this picture, an old man walking by asked me if I understood what the sign said. Of course, when I replied that I did, it turned into one  of the exchanges of "wow, you foreigners are so incredible that you can Chinese characters..." and me saying something along the lines of "只要學就會了 (all you have to do is study)..."
This lovely billboard outside the post office is advertising how they can provide currency exchange services. In front, in the left corner, is a characteristic Taiwanese mailbox. (Green for local mail, red for air mail.) As I was taking this picture, an old man walking by asked me if I understood what the billboard said. Of course, when I replied that I did, it turned into one of the exchanges of “wow, you foreigners are so incredible that you can Chinese characters…” and me saying something along the lines of “只要學就會了 (all you have to do is study)…”

Morning

Some folks back in the States with whom I’ve been keeping in touch have noticed that I start corresponding with them when it’s still very early in the morning in Taiwan. Some amount of abnormal sleeping habits could be attributed to jetlag after first arriving, but that’s long past, and I’m still often awake at 6 or earlier. I’ve gone through phases where I wake up as early as possible, so it’s not necessarily a new thing for me to greet the sun, but I think this early rising will be a lasting habit while I live in Tainan. Don’t get me wrong – I love to sleep, so let me explain a bit more why I would ever leave the beloved embrace of slumber to be awake at dawn.

 

1. Weather

This first reason is likely the most obvious. Allow me to simply include this chart of the last 24 hours of temperatures in Tainan (as reported by weather.com).

Temperature reported in Tainan for the past 24 hours.
Temperature reported in Tainan for the past 24 hours.

Of course, these temperatures are all blessedly low (by comparison to the blazing 95-100°F temperatures that were common when I first arrived a few weeks ago). And when things were really that unbearably warm, it made even more difference to have the respite of a few degrees cooler when I was out and about. Still, you might point out that the tail end of the day after the sun has set is also cooler – and by most people’s standards, that’s a more reasonable time to be awake. Which leads me to my second major point…:

 

2. Traffic

Of course, because most people view being awake and out about at 6am as unreasonable, it’s a great time to enjoy empty roads. My entire last post was a discussion of the stimulating scene that Tainan traffic presents. But negotiations with the bustle of cars, mopeds, bikes, diesel three-wheelers, pedestrians, stray dogs, little blue trucks, etc… are not amenable to my interests in distance running and speedy biking. There is simply no better time to race through red lights on a bike than when the roads are empty first thing in the morning.

A stretch of morning road.
A stretch of morning road near the coast.

Yet, empty roads also bring another respite that is as important to me as the morning coolness.  A local remarked to me that one of the benefits of living in Tainan as opposed to Taipei is that there aren’t all of the public buses roaring down the streets and thus the air is much cleaner. Alas, I was not quick enough to correct them to the reality: public transit is undeniably a better option environmentally. In the place of one public bus there are probably instead 10-20 mopeds voraciously emitting exhaust. Furthermore, I suspect the likelihood that not every moped here is up to specifications on their emissions is higher than a public bus in Taipei failing to pass emissions standards. The result is a noticeable decrease in the air quality in Tainan compared to Taipei. To back up the observations from my lungs, I have looked up the data collected by the Taiwanese Environmental Protection Agency. The Taiwanese EPA publishes 24 hr averages twice weekly and hourly data on PM2.5.

 

A quick summary of PM2.5 for any of my dear readers who are not familiar with it: PM2.5 refers to particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns, which are small enough to enter the lungs and have negative impacts on the human respiratory and cardiovascular systems. Impacts vary by type of particle and length of exposure but the best case is simply to avoid them. Small aerosols also have interesting effects on radiation (eg. smog). Fossil fuel combustion is one of the main sources of small aerosols in urban areas. Of course, the internet is chock full of more information if you’re interested in learning more.

 

As of 2006, the US EPA standard for 24 hour levels of PM2.5 is below 35µg/m3.

 

The two types of data collected and published by the Taiwanese EPA present slightly different pictures of the overall status of air quality. First, following are the latest measurements that are 24 hour averages measured for Taipei* and for Tainan.

24 hr manual sampling of PM2.5 - the top row is in the Taipei area and the bottom row is Tainan.
24 hr manual sampling of PM2.5 – the top row is in the Taipei area and the bottom row is Tainan.

I do not want to go so far as to call the numbers questionable, but I notice they are happily within US EPA 24 hr standards and paint a healthy picture of the air quality in both locations. By contrast, I find the measurements from the hourly automated instruments much more believable as a relevant measurement. Taipei* is oscillating around 15-20µg/m3

Most recent hourly PM2.5 measurements in Taipei.
Most recent hourly PM2.5 measurements in Taipei.

and Tainan is never far the 35µg/m3 standard, and definitely above it during peak hours.

Most recent hourly PM2.5 measurements in Tainan.
Most recent hourly PM2.5 measurements in Tainan.

I don’t know what is contributing to the apparent disparity in measurement techniques; I suspect it may be related to where the samples are collected. And in that view, likely neither of these measurements are actually approximating what it’s like to be road level, sitting behind a pack of mopeds. Thus early morning is also the best time to take advantage of that dip in street-level air pollution during the 24 hour cycle.

 

*approximately nearest measuring station to where I lived in Taipei

 

3. Early morning company

Finally, I like the morning company that I have in Taiwan. When I lived in Providence and rose early, I would simply get to enjoy the emptiness of the streets. In Taiwan, a little subculture of people who wake up with the sun exists occupies the public parks. And while I don’t think of myself as exactly falling into their ranks, maybe I’ll become just another part of the morning scene in my neighborhood as I am out jogging loops around the parks.

 

Park
Each park has at least one exercise group that listens to a tape, or follows along with an instructor doing exercises that seem to be some parts taichi, some parts aerobics, some parts stretching. Plenty of people are also out using the public-playground style exercise equipment. Often times there are also just some watchers who are sitting around, chatting with the neighbors. Not well captured in this image are the vendors, who bring everything from produce to breakfast foods to clothing out to the street corners to sell but also just to talk with their usual visitors. There was also that one time that I was out running on the street between parks and a lady on a moped chased me down, asking if I was interested in buying onions. I’m not sure why she thought I would be a likely customer.