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.

Lingua franca

This past week’s lapse in updates was partly because I wanted to take a break to think about more things to write, and in part due to the fact that today was the birthday of NCKU. In honor of that, there were no classes held today, and instead I joined the Chinese Language Center for the shortest parade ever (we walked halfway around a small track) and when we passed by the stands we said “Happy birthday NCKU in Chinese”. Even though it was hot, it was kind of disappointing to for a parade to be so completely half-hearted. Having made the effort to gather people and bother with the activity, the parading should probably be at least the same amount of time that it took for everyone to line up and organize. In this case, that would probably be 20-30 minutes…)

 

After the “parade”, I hung around the campus and saw some of the other activities that were being held. Mostly a group of my classmates and I stayed near where student groups set up stands and were hawking food as well as offering carnival-type games. So yes, like a Taiwanese night market, just held during the day. And like proper night market style, we walked around the area multiple times, buying one or two items at a time and sharing them with everyone in the group. It’s not a particularly hygienic way to eat, but it’s a better way to satisfy the fact that everything looks/smells/tastes delicious. We played some of the ridiculous games, and then sat and chatted about nothing for a while.

 

Or, like what happens often with students at the Chinese Language Center, we taught each other fragments of different languages. This is something that I’m really enjoying about studying Chinese this time around that I did not experience with any of the other times that I have studied Chinese in a classroom. Most of my classmates aren’t native English speakers, and for that matter, most of them aren’t even from anywhere near North America. Mostly, they are Japanese, Korean, or Vietnamese but there is also a variety of other nationalities mixed in. I doubt I would have thought of this as an advantage before coming here, so I want to elaborate a bit on why I’ve come to view it as such.

 

The first time I really made rapid progress with studying Chinese was when I studied abroad in Beijing. The main reason for the leaps and bounds that I made during those short 8 weeks was most likely the language pledge that we signed and adhered to (for the first half anyway). Although the immersion situation was also helpful, the language pledge guaranteed that I had to use the language in a practical way, every day, all the time. Up until that point, I hadn’t really ever learned Chinese separate from English, but suddenly class was taught entirely in Chinese, and there began to be some separation between the two languages: Instead of being able to choose the most clear and easy way of conveying a concept which would always mean using English, this crutch was entirely removed and there was no option to bail from attempting to make myself understood using Chinese. Unfortunately, that condition lifted when I returned to the US and remained that way until I moved to Taiwan. Still, I imagined that when I returned to taking classes, English would still be the basis of learning Chinese, and it’d become the usual stepping stone into the other language.

 

After arriving at the CLC at NCKU, I realized that this would not be he case: having classmates who aren’t fluent in English eliminates this as an option. Especially at the level that I’m at now, it is better that everything is taught in Chinese, anyway. And at NCKU, I only turn to my classmates and speak Chinese, no matter what we’re doing because we don’t share any other language by which we can really communicate – no language pledge involved! The temptation to just skip to fast and easy communication using English is eliminated. Of course, I often do hear English as a lingua franca between students when they’re out of class – especially for the lower level students, but in my classes there are no other native English speakers, so it just generally doesn’t happen.

 

Another bonus to taking classes with students who aren’t native English speakers is that I find myself less likely to adopt their mistakes. This is, again, something that I never would have thought a bonus until it happened. The pronunciation mistakes that I hear Japanese students are simply not errors that I find myself making with any systematic regularity (just for example: Japanese students seem to have problems with the initial sounds in Mandarin, and also mispronounce “i’ and “e” in ways that I am pretty sure I have never done). Conversely, despite the amount of hours that I have spent trying eliminate my American accent, if I hang around other American speakers of Chinese, I hear my accent slide towards theirs disappointingly quickly. Mistakes with things like grammar and word usage are harder to detect, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were a similar kind of buffer.

 

And of course, the side benefit is that perhaps I’ll pick up a few random phrases in Vietnamese, Japanese, Cantonese, Thai, Korean, etc… before I leave.

 

This is not at all where I was really intending to go when I sat down to write this, but I’ll post it anyway, and hopefully get around to telling the other pieces that I want to talk about later – such as why I was busy last week.

Final note on my life: it’s been really humid and warm again in Tainan recently which has led to an epic boom in the mosquito population. Not cool. I may have even stayed up writing this in between I hunting a mosquito in my room.

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.)

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…

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.

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.

Every Day an Adventure: the vegetable market

I have started to love going to the nearby vegetable market. I don’t need to go every day because I’m only cooking for one person so I don’t need to get fresh ingredients every day. As a recreational activity, I would definitely go every morning, but then I fear I would spend too much money, so I don’t allow myself to do that either. You might be wondering why a vegetable market would be so appealing – okay, well maybe you aren’t if you know how much I love a good farmer’s market in the States – even though I’m not buying anything. But the catch is that there is actually much, much more in the vegetable market than vegetables.

Here are some pictures to tell the story. I got a little shy about taking pictures, so these hardly represent the hustling, bustling variety of things that are sold:

Not only that, it changes every day. I honestly never know quite what I am going to find when I go to the market. After comparing notes with some other people who frequent such markets, it seems as though most of the shop keepers must be on a rotation between different markets in the city. Of course, the period of rotation is the mystery, and most likely varies. Consider this conversation that I had with a man selling tea (based on how I remember it):

Me: Hey, I’ve never seen you before.

Tea-seller: I am regularly here. I don’t recognize YOU as a regular.

Me: Well, I have come to this market regularly and you have never been here.

Tea-seller: Ah. I have been coming to this market for 20 years.

Me: Oh. I have been coming for the past few months and you’re definitely not always here.

Tea-seller: Of course not, I’ll be at a different market tomorrow. I go to different ones throughout the city.

I suppose we just hadn’t crossed paths before because his rotation through each market might be a while – months, maybe? Also, as I said, I don’t go every day, so it’s possible that I missed him before.

 

Yesterday, it felt as though the vegetable market was really understanding and catering to my needs. I have been craving the natural peanut butter that I used to survive for the past 4 years. The only thing that I’ve found that has been close has also been outrageously expensive (more than $10 for a jar about half the size of a jar that would cost $3 in the US). I had just been contemplating the idea of making my own – after all, it is the non-complexity of natural peanut butter which is what makes it amazing and delicious: just peanuts (and a pinch of salt and possibly sugar)! It seems as though a good food processor can do the trick if you add a little bit of oil, and fancier folks use mills, but it doesn’t seem to be necessary. I had just started thinking “maybe buying a food processor would be worth it if I could have my own, delicious natural peanut butter.”

 

I was ambling through the market in order to obtain some fruits and it just so happened that there was a man selling miniature hand-food processors for 100NT (~$3.50 USD). After the shopkeeper’s confident assurances that the little razor blades could handle peanuts, I figured it was worth the plunge. I also bought a bag of peanuts (because of course the market has those around) and was on my way to a DIY peanut butter adventure. The steps were simple: toast peanuts, process them, profit. Here’s what happened, as told through pictures:

Summary: I think this is full of win! Both a moderate forearm exercise (all that twisting) and also the road to natural peanut butter! The mix with the sesame for smoothness is an acceptable compromise, but with some experimentation, straight PB is still a goal. I may also experiment with fresher peanuts, as someone on the interwebs recommended as a way to avoid the dry chunks.

 

Also, I think it is a notable step in my connection to Taiwan that the vegetable market understands my needs and sends someone selling food processors just when I am thinking about buying one. More win.