Facemasks

Somewhere back in my subconscious I stored images of Asian eyes peeking out over surgical face masks long before I even first came to China or Taiwan. I, like many Americans, did not really understand anything about this practice. Somehow, I had gotten the impression that it had to do with containing the spread of contamination, probably from SARS. Or avian bird flu. Or maybe it’s just because there are a lot of Asian doctors and they are so meticulous about their hygiene that they actually always wear surgical masks.

Because in the US, surgeons, dentists and dental hygienists are the only people who bother wearing face masks. I am having difficulty remembering a time when I ever wore a face mask as a child. I think we had a few in with the family tool chest on the rare occasion that someone might work with fumes or sanding, but I can’t even recall if I had ever worn them for either of those activities (which I definitely did).

Then I arrived in Asia and confronted East Asian face masks for myself. I saw a post on a forum for expats in Taiwan that I think can sum up a lot of my initial impressions of face mask culture. It said something along the lines of: “lulz Taiwanese people don’t make any sense, they all wear face masks but then are willing to eat food from 7-11 that sits in the open air for hours”. I was actually struck by nearly the same thought when I first saw the popularity of 7-11’s 關東煮. Cloth face masks are also extremely common here, which also seemed to make little logical sense to me from a hygienic perspective. But I accepted it as simply a social peculiarity in perceived hygiene (I think human perception of hygiene is often wildly incorrect anyway).

These days, I don’t find a conundrum in the act of wearing a face mask and eating food of questionable sanitary standards. Like many small aspects of daily life, I never investigated this practice specifically, but gradually my understanding of face masks has grown such that I realized recently that sharing some collected thoughts might be worthwhile. Hell, as I mentioned before, I’ve even worn some face masks myself.

People in Taiwan wear facemasks for many reasons, but I am confident to say that the most prominent reason is because of mopeds. They are not a population of hypochondriac- germ-freaks who live in extremely tight quarters and are therefore forced to wear surgical masks all time. Well actually, that high population density leads to face masks for a different reason: intensity of the traffic in cities, and some areas with high industry creating high air pollution. Specifically, facemask wearers are commonly moped riders and not pedestrians: many mopeds manage to kick up a surprising amount of exhaust that reaches their own rider, not to mention the close proximity to other mopeds on the road. Thus a facemask is just another piece of a moped commuter’s get up – along with the helmet and windbreaker. Making a mask out of cloth to increase durability is the next logical step in the face of this daily usage.

To be realistic, these masks don’t provide air filtration that is effective against traffic pollution. The average surgical mask does not create an airtight seal around the nasal-oral region of the face, nor is the filtration of fabric that doesn’t include a layer of carbon filter going to be fine enough to stop PM2.5. Yet over the alternative of spending more money for a respirator that is much hotter and more uncomfortable (this is what I described wearing) or admitting defeat and doing nothing at all, I think most folks have settled on this as a comfortable illusion. So it’s still a skewed perception of effectiveness, just not against germs but actually against pollution.

But mask wearing is only partially for this illusion: I can’t imagine that it was never brought up that these masks are actually providing poor protection, and as I’ve said, people wear masks for many reasons. Masks also trap heat, which is again why moped riders favor masks. I’ve even seen riders with multiple layers of masks during the winter to help stay warm. Despite my mockery of the exaggerated fear of cold that Taiwanese may have, I admit that 20+ mph is a formidable wind chill that may commonly confront a moped rider. The heat trapping is also helps explain why, by comparison, so few pedestrians are wear masks, unless they want to show up at their destination even sweatier (if there is even such a thing during a Taiwanese summer).

Bonus: face masks concurrently block UV rays! Thus, I think there is a population of women in particular who keep up this habit in the name of beauty: blocking the sun to preserving a nice pale face. And then you can turn it into a cute fashion accessory that can be personalized in infinite ways while you’re at it. Masks can save the day for other appearance-related issues as well: a day when you are looking particularly bedraggled, you don’t feel like putting on makeup or you’re breaking out or you just don’t want to be recognized – all times when you can just put on a mask to effectively cover up most of your face.

 

 

What about hygiene, though? Well, okay, that impression is not entirely misguided. People wear masks for hygienic reasons as well. It’s pretty common to see someone don a surgical mask on a day that they are feeling particularly sick, yet still out and about in society. This is what the masks were originally designed for: keeping the mask wearer from spraying out potentially infection-spreading fluid droplets into the area around them.  And all I can say about this is that it makes sense and one day I hope that we adopt this habit in the Western world.

Highly Scientific Cultural Studies via YouTube

Does looking at a region’s top-watched internet videos count as cultural research?

 

Here are my brief summaries and commentary on Taiwan’s top 2013 Youtube videos, followed by some concluding thoughts.

 

Some things to keep in mind:

  • I have not done anything to look up the back story for these videos, so this exercise of watching them and pondering them is all based on my current general understanding of happenings and culture in Taiwan.
  • To give the viewcount some perspective: my totally rough estimate of the Taiwanese population under the age of 40 that might be watching Youtube videos ~12 million people.
  • And related to that comment above, as far as I know, Youtube is one of the most widely-used video sharing websites in Taiwan (although if someone has thoughts on how/where to look up and compare Taiwanese Youtube traffic to other websites, let me know – I’m quite curious. More on this in my conclusion)
  • Of course, all the videos are in Chinese/Taiwanese, so awkward translations to English and interpretation errors are my fault
  • But actually a some of them are relatively light on language so feel free to watch them even if you don’t understand Chinese…

 

1. “Sorry, students – that promotion…”
Recording of some students singing and dancing in trying to get a discount at McDonald’s only to be told that the promotional activity is over [~2.3 million views]
My guess is that this is one of those clips that’s popular because it manages to capture the absolute normality of sometimes doing something really embarrassing. Also, it’s super short and a little difficult to figure out what’s going on, so most people probably watched it at least 2-3 times.

 

2. “In the south, use dentures”
News broadcast about someone who posted on the internet attempting to find out the name of a Korean song [~2 million views]
The transliteration into Chinese characters that this person provides is memorably silly: “in the south, use dentures”, but actually sounds similar to the Korean lyrics to the song that they want to know the name of. The news story features clips asking people on the street if they know the song, an interview with a Korean language teacher to ask about the meaning of the words, and the reveal of the song name and artist. Impressively enough, the original poster also received a helpful reply on the forum within the span of 8 minutes. Taiwanese news is a spectacle of ridiculous stories; a fact known and acknowledged by locals and foreigners alike. I really don’t know what makes this story stand out, but it does reflect that Korean music is popular in Taiwan…?

 

3. “If only I had known earlier: Men can also be victims of sexual assault”
Short educational film from the Bureau of Education [~1.8 million views]
The storyline follows a student who is probably supposed to be 14-18 who fights with his grandmother and therefore storms out of the house. He and a friend end up going home with a creepy older man that they meet at an internet cafe who promises that they can stay with him and buys them food and alcohol to further lure them. The main character’s friend passes out from the alcohol and the protagonist is violently assaulted by the older man. Yet he feels isolated and like no one will believe his story, so he doesn’t tell anyone until a kindly teacher gets him to confess why he’s so upset. At a stunningly long 17 and half minutes, extremely stiff acting, and obviously awkward premise, I am impressed that it has gotten so many views. I kept waiting for something about the video to be too over the top into the land of hilarity, but it managed to stay in the zone of just an awkward PSA. Perhaps it was actually being shown in classrooms via Youtube? I note that it also expounds some other good Confucian values at the same time such as: not fighting with your grandmother, and studying hard instead of playing computer games.

 

4. “The Emperor Eats”
Dramatic clip from the end of a wildly popular mainland China drama juxtaposed with subtitles in Taiwanese [~1.6 million views]
The clip mocks the main character’s exceptionally dramatic pronouncement of the death of the emperor in the last episode of the Legend of Zhen Huan. An emperor’s death is referred to with the special terminology 駕崩 jia4beng1. This clip points out that i sounds like Taiwanese for “to eat” (especially with the extremely emotional, clippy way that the actress is proclaiming it). It’s pretty obvious to me how this clip got is so popular: not only is the TV series really popular in Taiwan, but also every episode is available on Youtube, leading to the ease of clicking over to this clip after binging on the series itself. It also has the extra bonuses of being short, and of course the joke revolves around knowing Taiwanese. It’s one of the two clips that I had seen before watching this top 10 list.

 

5. “Classic Quotes from Student Life”
Comedy skit reflecting the stereotypical scenarios of junior high / high school classrooms [~1.5 million views] 
Produced by an online sketch comedy group, this 3 minute video is a fast-paced series of scenes depicting life as a student stitched together in a non-stop montage. Of course this includes everything from rumors about who likes whom, trying to cheat on tests, the student who claimed they didn’t study getting the highest exam grade, asking to borrow classmate’s writing utensils, failed attempts at flirting, girls asking the boys to do everything, boys running to go play ball and being pushed aside by girls going to the bathroom (???), worrying about being late, ghost stories about the bathroom, etc etc… and finally ending with everyone giving the proper polite “thank you” to the teacher. Well, there it is – the Taiwanese cultural obsession with secondary school education summed up in 3 minutes. By which I mean to say, I get a feeling that the experience is mildly traumatizing, creating of a sense of unified camaraderie that all Taiwanese have passed through the same ordeal; as such, there are too many romanticized references to life as a Taiwanese school kid for me to even begin expanding upon. Anyway, the editing of this video sketch is suave which probably also helps with its popularity.

 

6. “101 Flash Mob Chorus in Taipei 101, Taiwan”
(the title says it all) [~1.8 million views]
Probably popular because of it’s heart-warmingly “I love Taiwan” feel, being that it takes place in Taipei 101 and the songs are traditional, or about Taiwan. It’s impressive that they whip out a collection of instruments, and one also wonders about the performers in the service gear (are they actually servers from the 101 food court who can also sing, or did they just borrow the get up and do a bit of service work to blend in for a few minutes before singing?) It’s just a fact of modern life that the way that most people watch a flashmob performance also includes simultaneously recording the event with their cell phones.

 

7. “What you can do under a coat: MRT Dragon Cavalry Edition”
Comedy skit about doing weird things under a jacket on the Taipei MRT [~1.7 million views]
This sketch taps the double prong of ridiculous juvenile antics and “wow I guess they actually did these things in public to film this” as it is undeniably on the real Taipei MRT. Ostensibly, one person is up to sketchy business under a coat in the lap of another person on the subway, but then the coat is pulled off several times to reveal some comedically non-sexual behavior. Of course it also includes cross-dressing, good-old Taiwanese “playful” girl on boy violence, references to milk tea, and people who take selfies while on public transportation. At least it’s not even a full minute and a half.

 

8. “First on scene of Keelung Badouzi landslide”
Dashboard camera footage of a pretty terrifying landslide [~8.9 million views]
This is one of those disasters-caught-on-camera videos that’s entrancing because it easily could have happened to anyone given how often landslides occur in Taiwan. The clip is a “winner” for a few reasons: it captures a falling boulder that comes hair-raisingly close to crushing a car, but in the end, the car seems ok – so it’s not actually tragic; furthermore, the slow reveal of the huge boulder as the other debris settles, and the teetering of the boulder on the edge of totally crunching the car are dramatically perfect; and finally, if you rewatch the video a few times, the dislodgement of the boulder from above is actually captured clearly in the first few seconds of the video (but you don’t notice it upon the first viewing). I had also seen this video previously, and given the number of comments in non-Chinese, it seems like it got posted around on a few other places outside of Taiwan, leading to its particularly high viewcount.

 

9. “Support nuclear! Oppose nuclear!” (that’s a super awkward translation, sorry)
A speed rant about the ongoing debate on the construction of a nuclear power plant in northern Taiwan [~1.3 million views]
(Also, given the fast pace and generous inclusion of Taiwanese phrases, please pardon me if my understanding/translations are kind of poor; even though the video is black with vaguely subtitle-ish text and graphics…) Who doesn’t love a home-brew, rapid-fire rant that third-sources a wide collection of information to make a point? Throw in all the local references the video makes, the fervor of this debate in Taiwan now, an explanation of both sides, yet clear stand that the video-maker takes on the issue, and you have a video that gets watched a lot. Also, the ranter emphasizes that regardless of whether you agree or disagree with his arguments and his presentation, the key is thinking about the issue and not just going along with the flow of other people. I agree with this point and hope that this at least has had some influence.

 

10. “Dedicated to the Taiwan Team: PROUD OF TAIWAN”
A tribute video to the Taiwanese baseball team for the 2013 Classic [~1.2 million views]
The video is a lot of clips of baseball stitched together. Looks like they played against Japan. I think I remember this happening and it was deal at the time. I watched the whole ~6 minutes of this video, but I don’t know enough about sports to make any commentary beyond this: I guess some 1.2 million people like and care about Taiwanese baseball.

 

 

Concluding thoughts:
After writing this up, I feel strongly that this collection of videos is a sliver-thin, yet interesting reflection of a slice of Taiwanese society. I’m actually surprisingly glad that I took the time to do this. I definitely would not have understood why these videos were popular, or many of the references that these videos make if I had not been living in Taiwan for much of the past year: ubiquitous pieces of life in Taiwan such as the milk tea shaker, landslides, or romantic references to life in high school would have all been totally lost on me.

 

I was impressed by how long it took me to write this. Largely, it took a while because I revised my descriptions for most videos several times, trying to ensure that my explanations are accessible to people who aren’t so in tune with Taiwan. Along the way, I kept noticing assumptions about prior knowledge that I was making. So let this be a piece of anecdotal support for how culture seeps into one’s conscience through time.

 

On another note, it’s kind of impressive how few of these videos have more than 2 million views. Compared to my estimate of 12 million watchers, that’s not particularly viral. Thus, my suspicion that there may be some other popular video hosting site that I should also check out. Still, I feel like I would have stumbled across said Youtube competitor by now via postings on Facebook.

 

Ok, enough ponderings for now. Also, too many Youtube videos is probably bad for one’s brain, so I’m definitely ready to call it quits.

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.

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.

Traffic

One of the joys of moving to a new place is always getting accustomed to finding one’s way around new roads – well, “joy” is the optimistic spin that I put on it as I try to find adventures when I get lost instead of frustration. I simply try to allot a little extra time for wandering astray of my destination and hope to accidentally stumble upon interesting things.

 

Some blossoms on the road near a park that I found while on a morning jog.
Some blossoms on the road near a park that I found while on a morning jog.

My first few weeks in Tainan have indeed led to some interesting navigational adventures. While Taipei streets have a lot of chaos at the fine scale, there is a grid of perpendicular streets that are pretty reliable. (A friend pointed out to me they even have systematic names based on essential virtues). After I started biking in Taipei, I only got really turned-about-lost a couple times, and usually it was more because I thought my destination was in a different location than it actually was, and not because I couldn’t figure out how to get there. When you’re navigating in Taipei, stick to the major virtues and you’re all set.

 

This is a particularly interesting pair of sculptures in a nearby park. They appear to be large, iron, anthropomorphized bulls.
This is a particularly interesting pair of sculptures in a nearby park. They appear to be large, iron, anthropomorphized bulls.

Alas, the rounds of differing growth, governance and city planning that Tainan has undergone outnumber Taipei’s – not to mention continuously changing landforms due to the alterations in the harbor. The resulting layout is understandably organic feeling by comparison to Taipei’s grid. (Compare Boston to New York.) Tainan features several roundabouts, some regions of radial streets, some regions of orthogonal, and of course a harbor and train tracks to keep things interesting. I realized that my period of “allow time for getting lost” may in fact be longer than I was expecting, considering that I keep mixing up things such as which traffic circle has which roads converging, which roads end up at a canal, which roads lead to the harbor, and which roads cross the train tracks instead of ending abruptly and turning into an impassable alleyway.

 

Yet the true adventure has been getting accustomed to the attitude of the road traffic. Years ago, when I was in Beijing, I learned a phrase in Chinese class that I’m going to whip out once more here: 亂中有序 (translation: in randomness there is order). Let me apologize in advance for anyone who is going to interact with me on a road when I first get back to the US as I am pretty sure that I am going to need an adjustment period. In southern Taiwan, there is only one true traffic rule:

 

Do not hit anything.

Everything else is treated as a “good faith” guideline.

 

This was also the case in Taipei, but to a much lesser extent. In Tainan, mopeds and bikes rule the road, instead of the omnipresent Taipei buses (which go literally everywhere). There is something personal about the way traffic moves here – and it probably has to do with the fact that the majority of people on the road can either easily reach over to shake hands or whack each other a good one, as required. The One Big Rule stipulates that as long as you’re cautious not to hit anything, and you have good reasons (ie. getting where you want to go) then everyone else on the road is fairly understanding if you need to break traffic rules. Generally one obeys red lights. Unless there isn’t anyone coming from the direction that has the green – in which case it’s okay to go. Just as it’s generally okay to go through a green light – but again as The Only Traffic Rule dictates, you should be careful because someone might be running the red and you don’t want to hit them. Left turns on a moped or a bike can be executed in whichever way doesn’t cause you to get in the way of too many other people. Lanes are suggestions of where you should be. Etc, etc, etc.

 

One of the many roundabouts of Tainan - I only have a guess at which one right now.
One of the many roundabouts of Tainan – I only have a guess at which one right now.

Of course, the result is that people are usually driving pretty slowly, and they’re always paying attention to all the people around them. Because there are only general expectations of how others will behave, the only way to know what they’re up to is by watching.  And despite the randomness – I have yet to see an accident here, while I did see at least one every couple weeks while in Taipei. (As for the number of road accidents I witness in the US, it’s hard to compare. Also I’m pretty sure that looking up “reported” accidents will not reflect anything truly meaningful as far as how many accidents and what types occur.)

 

Why doesn’t everyone just follow the rules – the way it works in other places? Personally, I think it’s partially due to the fact that there are always going to be people on the roads here that don’t know the rules because they used these roads long before these rules were invented. And there is no way to win an argument with “well, I hit your great grandfather as he was slowly and obliviously pedaling down the street on a bicycle older than I am because he wasn’t obeying the traffic rules.”

 

The moral of the story of traffic in Tainan as I have witnessed it: every street might have a shambling grandmother trying to cross – so go slow enough to keep an eye out for her. And while you’re at it, don’t hit the moped going the wrong way down the street.

This is in the building where I take classes. It cracks me up, so I figured I'd share.
This is in the building where I take classes. It cracks me up, so I figured I’d share.

Taiwan Round II

I’m back in Taiwan. A lot has happened in the interim since I last wrote, and I apologize for the long absence. Maybe sometime I’ll get around to filling in some of that missing time and writing out what has gone on, but for now I’m just going to pick up from the present.

I finally opened up the suitcases that I left in Taipei. Wow - turns out that saving these things was a good idea - I was generally excited to see everything that I had forgotten I'd owned. Like a big present to myself.
I finally opened up the suitcases that I left in Taipei. Wow – turns out that saving these things was a good idea – I was generally excited to see everything that I had forgotten I’d owned. Like a big present to myself.

When I first came to Taiwan a year ago, everything was new and therefore exciting. I’m still excited this time. Things are a little familiar now, in a way that they weren’t before. I know a little more about the passing of time and the rolling of seasons in this country now. I don’t feel exactly like an “old hand” but I also don’t feel like a totally clueless outsider.

 

It’s fall; it’s Autumn Festival (中秋節). Moon cakes pile up in peoples’ houses as they gift them to their friends, their families, their bosses, and of course, foreigners that they think need to know about Taiwanese traditions. It’s also time to eat pomelos (文旦, or 柚子). Unlike last year, I know how to eat them and am confidently ripping the thick rind and the tough membranes off, familiar with the way that the skins cause a little tingling numbness as they touch lips and tongue.

 

A pile of pomelos that have been given to the family I'm staying with
A pile of pomelos that have been given to the family I’m staying with

I cannot consciously catalog all little things that are the same and seem to be adding up to give me a little sense of comfort. The bright green and red mailboxes. The lonely roar of a moped motor in the middle of the night. Cooing of doves in the morning. Dingdong – entering and exiting a 7-11 .The smell, the glorious smell of the humid tropics when I stepped off the airplane! (you can’t really smell it any other time than those first couple minutes off the plane, after which your nose becomes accustomed).  It’s the sense of comfort that I’m not completely lost, which is not the same as the feeling of being “at home”…but a step closer.

 

Mildly poetic musing aside – I’m now living in Tainan and my resident visa is for studying at National Cheng Kung University, although I plan to learn a lot more than what is taught in classrooms. I have projects that I started last year that I still want to finish (including drinking all the good tea that I can find, obviously) and new objectives as well. Why Tainan? A big reason was to spend more time experiencing Taiwan outside of Taipei – and while I did a lot of that last year, it still seems like I spent a little too much time in the expat bubble that that modern metropolis hosts.

 

A peek out on the NCKU campus.
A peek out on the NCKU campus.

Tainan is the old capital of Taiwan (whereas Taipei is the modern one – just in case you somehow missed that memo). It’s still a moderately large city as far as the island is concerned, but it’s not on any international maps, except possibly those for tourism. There is no international airport (go to Kaohsiung for that), hardly any public transportation (oh Taipei MRT, why did I take you for granted?), no world class modern architecture (trade-off of Taipei 101 for a handful of historic temples).

 

A street near the canal in Tainan. Full size and check out that sign.
A street near the canal in Tainan. Enlarge to full size and check out that sign.

Yet I’m really enjoying the change of pace. The lack of tall buildings and the sheer density of people that they represent are both gone. Instead of buildings with stories made of floors, there are buildings with stories made from history. I bike past historical monuments as I’m simply trying to get from point A to point B. The busy streets with are messes of sign boards, yet because the buildings only go so high, they crowd together near street level. On certain main drags, the array of signboards accosts your attention so violently that each individual sign – despite how glaring the colors, pictures or lettering – still fades into a collage of general insanity.

 

And the weather? Surprisingly – thankfully – it’s not any hotter than Taipei.

 

An average street view in Tainan.
An average street view in Tainan.

I’ll share more on specific aspects of the city later. I’ll just end this with a photodump: uncaptioned pictures from my time in the US.

Still amazing

Sometimes I think that I have completely and comfortably settled into life here. Sure, there are sometimes communication issues,  people asking me where I’m from, and systems that I don’t quite understand. These things I have come to take in stride as just part of my life these days. I even find them to be familiar rhythms.

 

But then again, I realize that I still have plenty of moments where I am taken by surprise, even if it is just little things. Consider these anecdotes:

Cheese has been totally reinvented in Taiwan. Many of these incarnations are sweet desserts. Still, this cheese-flavored popsicle caught me by surprise so I had to try it. It did, in fact, taste like Taiwanese cheese. I'll be honest and say that I thought it was fairly gross.
Cheese has been totally reinvented in Taiwan. Many of these incarnations are sweet desserts. Still, this cheese-flavored popsicle caught me by surprise so I had to try it. It did, in fact, taste like Taiwanese cheese. I’ll be honest and say that I thought it was fairly gross.
Just when I thought I knew everything that 7-11 is capable of here, I stumble into new uses.
Just when I thought I knew everything that 7-11 is capable of here, I stumble into new uses.

In other news, the weather is cranking up the heat and humidity and I may be shifting to a diet primarily composed of homemade salads and shave ice. I’ll try to be better about posting again. I have stories to tell and reflections to share.

Urban Farming

Yesterday I found myself trying to explain a “food desert” to a Taiwanese friend. It turned out difficult to convey, but not due to the language barrier. Instead, it emphasized some very strong differences related to the supply of food in between these two countries.

My friends and I got to the point of introducing the vocabulary “food desert” to a conversation via a long discussion that started from reading this New York Times article about American junk food. At times I have been into eating as healthily as possible but I am not strictly against junk food consumption; when I lived in the States it just didn’t fit into my budget to buy snacks that don’t serve as part of what I consider real nutrition. If you offer me a free Oreo I am definitely going to eat it, I just won’t go buy the box myself. My roommate, another American, expressed a similar sentiment and then her boyfriend, who is Taiwanese, also agreed heartily but then seemed moderately confused. After all, it’s obvious that you can’t buy junk food if you’re on a budget because it’s expensive. And that’s where things got a little strange.

The current food system in the United States is so backwards that explaining the situation is difficult and actually embarrassing. To someone who hasn’t grown up in the US, it is absurd. My roommate and I did our best. No, we explained, junk food – highly processed, low nutritional value per calorie food – is actually much cheaper than simple fresh fruits and vegetables. Americans actually consider good, fresh produce a bit of a luxury. Especially for those who are under a tight budget, the fact of the matter is that they may not have the resources to buy healthy foods. Eating junk food may not be a choice. There are also some places in the US, where it is simply hard to get fresh produce. There are no grocery stores, no convenient stores selling produce, there are no small fruit stands, no street peddlers. The convenience stores only stock junk food because it is cheap and has a long shelf life.

Anyone with a surplus of produce can go sell it on the street. I have seen people selling on street corners occasionally hustled along by the police, but overall it seems to be acceptable sell produce in most places. I think, especially in Taipei, this may be more of a self-sustaining hobby for some of the older generation instead of a real successful entrepreneurial enterprise, but I think that it is mostly a good thing.
Anyone with a surplus of produce can go sell it on the street. I have seen people selling on street corners occasionally hustled along by the police, but overall it seems to be acceptable sell produce in most places. I think, especially in Taipei, this may be more of a self-sustaining hobby for some of the older generation instead of a real successful entrepreneurial enterprise, but I think that it is mostly a good thing: keeping them active and creating low-cost food.

The concept that there simply isn’t access to fresh food seemed impossible to my Taiwanese friend. We are talking about the most powerful country in the world – yet it is also where plenty of people can’t buy vegetables. How is that possible? Finally, he asked, “why don’t people grow their own food?” Again, the answer we gave didn’t quite seem satisfactory: these people don’t have land, they don’t have time. Most importantly, I think many people in this situation don’t know how nor has it even occurred to them. My friend seemed to be confused, “How could people not know how to do some simple farming?”

This, of course, is all completely turned on its head in Taiwan. I have mentioned that Taiwan increasingly has its share of health problems related to poor eating habits, but these are reserved for the rich who can choose to eat too much expensive fast food. The poor are still eating non-processed plain foods, often that they have grown themselves. People are unabashed about farming on every spot that they can in this country. Granted, Taiwan is a fairly fertile tropical island and most places that you think to drop some seeds and fertilizer will do just fine. But also, the idea of urban gardening, mountain gardening, and plain-anywhere-you-feel-like-gardening is simply part of the culture.

I have seen so many small farm plots up on hill slopes / mountains that I have stopped taking pictures of them. This one is from when I first arrived and still found it interesting.
I have seen so many small farm plots up on hill slopes / mountains that I have stopped taking pictures of them. This one is from when I first arrived and still found it interesting.
A prime spot for lots of urban gardens is right next to the rivers that run through Taipei.  They are basically interspersed between public parks. Although it's a little hard to tell from this photograph, on the other side of this river is a plot of farmland.
A prime spot for lots of urban gardens is right next to the rivers that run through Taipei. They are basically interspersed between public parks. Although it’s a little hard to tell from this photograph, on the other side of this river is a plot of farmland.
No land? No problem! You can still grow your vegetables in planter boxes. On a nice day, I found that someone had brought their kitchen garden out to the street to get more sunshine.
No land? No problem! You can still grow your vegetables in planter boxes. On a nice day, I found that someone had brought their kitchen garden out to the street to get more sunshine.
Some time shortly after first getting here, i was walking through Taipei checking out the beautiful, modern city infrastructure and I stumbled across Taiwan's most expensive vegetable garden.  (台灣最貴菜園 : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZ-7KyXDOLA) According to this newsclip from last year, each 坪 of this vegetable garden land is worth at least 600 萬 (~ 4sq yards equals 6 million NT). It's been around for some 20+ years, but with the recent development of the Xinyi district, including Taipei 101 right on its doorstep, this patch of land has skyrocketed in value. The farmer that they interview in the clip says something like, "there probably isn't any other way but to sell...but it would make us happy if we could just use this land to grow vegetables." I would describe this juxtaposition as very Taiwanese.
Some time shortly after first getting here, i was walking through Taipei checking out the beautiful, modern city infrastructure and I stumbled across Taiwan’s most expensive vegetable garden.
(台灣最貴菜園 )
According to this newsclip from last year, each 坪 of this vegetable garden land is worth at least 600 萬 (~ 4sq yards equals 6 million NT). It’s been around for some 20+ years, but with the recent development of the Xinyi district, including Taipei 101 right on its doorstep, this patch of land has skyrocketed in value. The farmer that they interview in the clip says something like, “there probably isn’t any other way but to sell…but it would make us happy if we could just use this land to grow vegetables.” I would describe this juxtaposition as very Taiwanese.

In the end, the conversation turned out to be a bigger point of cultural misunderstanding than all of us bargained for. I, for one, walked away feeling like I hadn’t fully communicated the situation that I had always taken for granted: the norm in the US is that the cheapest food is often highly processed, and people don’t go grow their own food because that’s just not how it’s done. Yet I also felt like I had been slapped in the face yet again with how strange that situation truly is.