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.

Biking & Some other aspects of daily life

This is to contrast the previous post of all-business text. The following gallery is a not-particularly-well-organized photodump from the past few weeks of times when I have been goofing off.

 

 

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.

Health

I have spent no small amount of time contemplating the habits of what might be considered an “average” Taiwanese person and trying to compare them to that of an “average” American. (Of course, this immediately comes with the problem of generalizing many people to one average, which is unfair. Please allow me the following reflections in the realm of generalization).

 

Along with eating and working, I find that how people maintain their health especially interesting. Taiwan, like the US, is a first-world, highly-developed society where many people have to make choices about lifestyle which will impact whether they have good health or bad. Good nutrition and bad nutrition is not out of the average person’s control (relatively few people suffer malnutrition due to inability to afford food) so much as choices that they make: Do they eat fried chicken for dinner or at a vegetarian buffet? Do they cook for themselves? Also like the US, many people work jobs where they are not doing manual labor, so instead it is a question of choice to avoid the problems that may arise due to a sedentary lifestyle (as opposed to suffering due to an overload of physical labor). Do many people regularly seek exercise to maintain their health? What kind?

 

This was a park near Wulai full of interesting little obstacles. Look at that young person getting exercise!
This was a park near Wulai full of interesting little obstacles. Look at that young person getting exercise!

In my mental catalog of observations, I have vaguely phrased all of these questions as the overall comparison of “healthiness”, (which is a grand leap of generalization, so again, please forgive my best attempt at an accurate representation). What follows are some things that I have filed away in this category.

 

Many things are actually quite similar between the two countries. Taiwanese, like Americans, are all aware of their health as a topic of concern. They know that they generally need to guard against eating too much, and being too lazy. Again, this doesn’t seem to have much of a different feel than in the States, where awareness of the so-called obesity epidemic does not mean action against it – the habits of Taiwanese people are highly variable in how healthy they seem overall.

 

Multiple times, Taiwanese people have complained to me that Taiwanese food is unhealthy but I will quickly and outright disagree with them. When it comes to home-cooked food, I am confident that the average Taiwanese meal is actually fairly healthy, including a reasonable spread of vegetables along with the rice and meats. What I think these people may have been getting at is the shift away from home-cooked meals in the younger generation, which has been a recent enough trend that I think there is still much concern about it: many younger Taiwanese don’t know how to cook, and if they live away from home than this means that they are going to be treading unhealthier options that are widely available and well-presented. The average restaurant-served meal in both countries is probably contains too much of things that humans find delicious (fats and carbs), so lack of conscious consumption is likely leading to a rise of unhealthy eating.

IMG_1146
Taiwanese bakeries are really popular, and a personal favorite of mine. Of course, if I ate only amazing baked goods all the time, I would be unhealthy. As much as I want to, I don’t do this, nor does any Taiwanese person that I know.

When it comes down to it, I find that the differences between the two countries are more telling than the similarities. One of the differences I have already touched upon when I talked about how I am quite overtly athletic compared to the average Taiwanese girl. Both cultures embrace healthiness as an aspect of beauty and a balanced lifestyle. But mainstream American culture emphasizes apparent athletic ability. Got muscles? Show ‘em, please. Thinness without muscle tone is hardly desirable. And what is the point of exercise if you can’t compete with it – hence the prevalence of social media to track and share fitness activities. By contrast, Taiwanese ideal of healthy and beautiful doesn’t emphasize overt athletic ability. Skinny without bulging muscles is ok. Many of the most popular exercise activities, such as hiking and biking, are relatively devoid of competitive atmospheres. My theory behind this difference is the long-held reverence for the scholar in Chinese culture. Thus, even now, when it comes to ideal beauty, bulging muscles and overt athletic prowess aren’t necessary.

 

Another major difference is the activities of the elderly. To begin with, the elderly seem like a much larger presence when I am in Taiwan. I don’t have a concrete evidence for this feeling, but it just seems like there are more old people around. They are hanging out in parks; they are in the alleyway hairstyling salons; they are in the marketplace; they are in the subway. I think this is because there is no place “that old people go”: there is no Florida, there is no Arizona, there are no nursing homes. So instead of disappearing to some haven with other elderly, old folks simply live out their golden years mixed in with the rest of Taiwanese society. And part of those golden years include regular exercise.

 

Indeed, old folks seem quite active in Taiwan. They are out jogging in parks, playing tennis, climbing mountains, doing taichi, attending exercise classes at community centers, riding bikes, etc. In fact, for most of these activities (that I have just thought of randomly), the bell curve of age seems to be centered around a comfortable 55-ish with far fewer young and old people. Why? The younger generation is “too busy” for exercise. Until one is secure in a position, likely sometime in the late 30’s or 40’s, working culture in generally seems to include 70-80 hours at work per week*, usually as unpaid overtime. This extensive time at work which also contributes to a decreased likelihood that this younger generation is going to go home and cook a meal, further enforcing the challenges that they face for healthy living. This group of younger adults is also possibly caught up in raising kids, which are always a large drain on time and money resources to spend on things like health-related activities. And kids? Forget it. They’re all stuck in cram schools for much of their lives. Based on what I’ve seen college students seem to find time to play sports like basketball and tennis and go for the occasional bike ride. But aside from a few families that I’ve observed out hiking during the New Year’s holiday, I can think of very few times that I’ve seen kids between the age of 10 and 18 out and about for some fun and exercise. Although there was the time when my sister and I stumbled across all the highschool dance troupes that apparently practice at the SYS memorial after dark…

 

Taiwan is also covered with public parks and places for exercise of all kinds. This is a public park that includes a fairly awesome bouldering set up. (What you don't see in this picture though, are the hordes of small children that were also running around on the mats at the time that we went. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon during the last day of a vacation week, so I suppose that's not surprising.)
Taiwan is also covered with public parks and places for exercise of all kinds. This is a public park that includes a fairly awesome bouldering set up. (What you don’t see in this picture though, are the hordes of small children that were also running around on the mats at the time that we went. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon during the last day of a vacation week, so I suppose that’s not surprising.)

 

Overall, it is a pretty different picture from the US, in which young kids up through high schoolers run around on fields aplenty, and then young working adults often zealously go through workout plans, get gym memberships and try strange diets. Whether Americans continue to be active through their 40s and 50s seems to be variable by person, and my general impression is that Americans over 60 don’t engage in anything other than walks across parking lots to the mall or the movie theater (okay, actually I don’t really know because of the aforementioned disappearance of elderly from the rest of American society so I feel ill-equipped to really assess how active older generations of Americans are). Oh the contrast, where exercise is a luxury of the elderly in Taiwan (Taiwanese people have also commented on this to me).

 

During a hike last week, I stopped at a very nice little personal garden that someone had clearly put a lot of time into maintaining. I am pretty sure that someone must have been a retiree with a fondness for being outside. I hoped that they didn't mind that I sat there for a little while.
During a hike last week, I stopped at a very nice little personal garden that someone had clearly put a lot of time into maintaining. I am pretty sure that someone must have been a retiree with a fondness for being outside. I hoped that they didn’t mind that I sat there for a little while.

Which society is “healthier” is not really a conclusion I can make. Sure, statistics of obesity and other diseases related to lifestyle choices could be dragged out, but these kinds of numbers include several decades of history, and fail to incorporate factors like differences in gene pools. Thus, I find it unfair to claim them as truly speaking to answer this question. But for now, let’s say that I find myself as often out with people 2-3 times my age when I am running in the park in Taipei.

 

*although, to be honest, watching my Taiwanese friends’ Facebook updates, I’m not convinced that this time spent at work has any particularly strong relationship with how much work gets done.

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.

Cookies and Guavas

Here are a few things that have occurred recently:

1. Baking cookies!

I got a toaster oven. In general, most household kitchens in east Asia lack full-sized ovens. As an avid baker, I’ve really been missing my access to an oven. Holiday present from my father – a toaster oven! I used it made ginger-honey cookies for Christmas. I was actually surprised by how well they turned out, considering that I haven’t baked anything in months and I simply winged everything. (I think it is also a testament to the robustness of cookies. Sugar, flour, and fat are almost always delicious.)

This is me dissolving brown sugar & ginger cubes in vegetable/olive oil.
This is me dissolving brown sugar & ginger cubes in vegetable/olive oil.

The very precise recipe was to combine the following ingredients:

  • blocks of brown sugar with ginger embedded in them (sold as ginger tea 薑母茶)
  • cake flour
  • vegetable and olive oil
  • some baking soda
  • two eggs
  • cream
  • whole milk
  • some salt
  • honey
  • cinnamon. Lots. And then even more.

Then I rolled them in more brown sugar and put them in the toaster until they looked done. To be honest, they were actually quite good – soft and chewy with some crunch at the very edge due to the brown sugar. The chunks of ginger kept things exciting.

The toaster oven did not have a recommended time for "cookies". I went by pure, honed instinct and took them out before they burned.
The toaster oven did not have a recommended time for “cookies”. I went by pure, honed instinct and took them out before they burned.

 

I’m looking forward to expanding my repertoire to chocolate chip / chocolate. Oh, maybe Mexican chocolate chip cookies as well…

Thanks, Dad!

They were actually really good! I am glad that my roommate and I invited over for young men with active metabolisms who helped us demolish them.
They were actually really good! I am glad that my roommate and I had the help of young men with active metabolisms to demolish this plate.

 

2. Yellow Guava

I discovered a new fruit. Or more precisely, a variation on an old theme. I’ve been enjoying regular white guava, and then the more expensive, more flavorful and expensive red-hearted guava. But today my roommate and I happened upon a man selling a yellow guava as well. The sign said something like 黃樹上 or “on the tree yellow”. The guavas were quite yellow by comparison, so much so that we just had to give them a try. Our summary is that it looked, had the texture of, and smelled sort of like a papaya, but tasted like a guava. Which means it was pretty excellent.

Comparison of colors to a persimmon and a regular green guava. Also, it is almost the end of persimmon season and I'm greedily eating as many as possible.
Comparison of colors to a persimmon and a regular green guava. Also, it is almost the end of persimmon season and I’m greedily eating as many as possible.

Also, if you Google image search “yellow guava” but instead use the Chinese characters “黃芭樂” you don’t get any pictures of guavas, but instead mostly exercise mats.

It looks like a papaya but tastes like a guava!
It looks like a papaya but tastes like a guava!

Some of my “abnormal” habits

Drinking hot water

For years I have carried around a hot water thermos, usually filled with tea but sometimes water. Sometimes the water is hot, sometimes it is cold. It ranks just below my phone and my wallet for my essentials when leaving the house.

In reality, these habits are fairly strange for an American. Instead, they are characteristic of my experience of daily life in mainland China, when I lived in Beijing. Even though it was summer, almost everyone carried around a thermos for hot water, and more often than not, this thermos had some tea leaves thrown in the bottom of it. I don’t think anyone would claim that these were high-quality drinks, but carrying around some hot water / tea was just how one stayed hydrated whilst going through daily life. In general, the assumption in China is that water should be drunk hot (first, all water must be boiled to decontaminate it, and second because it’s generally thought to be better for the body to drink hot or warm liquids instead of cold), so when water was served in a restaurant or other places it would also be hot. I thought this was a little strange at first, considering how hot the weather was. But after I tried letting boiled water cool and unknown substances precipitated out of it, I decided that I might as well also drink my water hot so I didn’t have to think about what was dissolved in it. I guess I’m also pretty laid-back about the temperature of my water; by comparison some of my American friends refuse to drink hot/warm water. After living in China, I would say that I drink hot water more than I used to, but I’m not exclusive about it and like a cold glass pretty often as well.

It turns out that this culture of hot-water drinking is far less prevalent on the island of Taiwan. I don’t think I’ve been served hot water in a restaurant. I very rarely see other people carrying around hot water thermos (and of course no one really does this in the States). One of my Taiwanese friends even commented on my habit of carrying around a thermos as “more Chinese than most Taiwanese people”. Strangely, though, I still see that hot water dispensing machines are prevalent like drinking fountains (obviously in every convenience store), but I think I’ve only seen another person use one once.

 

Drinking tea

I also drink tea. I like to drink loose-leaf, tasty tea. Especially when I am sitting in one place, but I also like to carry it around in my thermos. It seems that while everyone drinks tea here, it’s not beverage that people take time to think about and seek out, especially in the younger generation. Milk tea is probably the way that most young folks drink tea on a regular basis, and then maybe some generic barley tea offered along with a meal in a restaurant. Young folks are more likely into seeking out good coffee, if they have a beverage of choice.

 

Drinking delicious tea is awesome.
Drinking tea is awesome.

Being athletic

Young Taiwanese women are not athletic. This is a broad generalization, of course, but one that I think most people will agree with. Idealized images of women are thin with perfect skin, gentle curves and slender limbs. They are never muscular. Sportiness, athleticism, physical strength – these things are not “in”. In reality, I think that many young Taiwanese women do like physical activities – but I think they are kept to moderate level, and would never be broadcasted as part of their general identity. Engaging in physical activities leads to all sorts of states that are generally unseemly (sweatiness, dirtiness) so there isn’t much desire to associate with them. This generally contrasts to the American concept of a “sporty” woman as a desirable role-model/identity. Toned women dripping sweat (in cute work-out gear, of course) are common icons. When I was in college, I think most of my female friends wanted in on that image (at least sometimes). And of course, oftentimes my friends were simply into sport for the love of the activity and not afraid to show it.

Use a slimy rope to scramble up this path? Fun times - I'm in!
Use a slimy rope to scramble up this path? Fun times – I’m in!

I really enjoy pushing the physical limits of my body and have fun doing such things even though they often involve sweat, dirt and unseemliness. Compared with the average Taiwanese girl, I am very athletic – overtly willing to climb on things and bruise my knees and try to run up mountains.

I am partially inspired to write this whole post because I just completed a marathon – ok, so past the 30 km mark, I walked as much as I ran, but I still finished it – and was struck by the lack of other young women in the event. Now that I have access to the stats, I can see in numbers what I had a feeling for yesterday. There were only 48 people registered in my division (women, age 20-29). By contrast, there were nearly twice as many women registered for the bracket of 30-39, same for 40-49, and the bracket of 50-59 year olds had almost as many as 20-29. There were also 500 men in the registered for the age bracket of 20-29 years old – more than an order of magnitude in difference over the number of women. But we might as well hop to the overwhelming difference in numbers: for the whole marathon , there were 4279 men and 295 women registered. Interestingly, this discrepancy doesn’t hold for all of the events. In the half marathon– there was still an extreme difference, and it holds for all categories (totals ~3000 F registered, ~13,000M). But for the 9km, particularly in the age bracket of 20-29 the numbers are almost the same: 2105 F, 2684 M!

And while looking at the registrants for one athletic event is far from scientific, I think that it provides at least some anecdotal support to my feeling that young women generally aren’t athletic. However, for many, it may not be that they are actually entirely uninterested in sports, but instead keep to such activities “in moderation”.

(Also, if you were curious – in last year’s New York City marathon, ~30,000 men finished and ~17,000 women finished. While that is still a big gap, it’s not a gap of an order of magnitude… )

 

Mid-marathon! One of the ways that I occupied myself during those long four hours, especially about halfway through, was by counting the women I passed.
Mid-marathon! One of the ways that I occupied myself during those long four hours, especially about halfway through, was by counting the women I passed.

Eating on the street

I already mentioned this, but it’s still true. I haven’t changed my ways – haven’t gotten more patient or civilized and I continue to munch of food as I walk, even though adults eating on the street is only common at nightmarkets. One of my Taiwanese friends brought this up as an indication of a state of unhealthy rush that a person might be in that they need to eat while walking. I agree somewhat, but what’s wrong with a little multitasking sometimes? I like eating, and I like walking and sometimes I’m really hungry. Also, they’re relatively compatible activities…at least for some foods.

 

Eating fruit whole, all the time

While we’re on the topic of eating (one of my favorite topics), I have a habit of munching through whole fruits that I have yet to observe another person do while I’ve lived here. It seems that fruit here is meant to be sliced or blended. And that’s fine by me, but sometimes I am hungry, or I am walking down the street (or both!) and thus stopping to slice up my fruit is too much effort. Also, I eat fruit all the time. Sliced fruit is usually served as a post-meal dish, or as a part of entertaining guests. But in addition to after meals, I like to eat fruit before meals, between meals, and as meals. Nomnomnom.

Behind the food

I have been particularly keen on food in Taiwan. Well that’s not a particularly new mental state for me, nor is it a surprising focus to have as either a visitor or a resident of this island. But along with the usual considerations of what food to eat, what food tastes good, and how to get food, I have also spent time thinking about the food industry. How does the food get from being production to plate? Although it’s a question that I considered while living in the States, I think I have gotten much more in-depth in my contemplation of it while in Taiwan.

 

Where did this delicious spread of food come from, anyway?

At first, the “foreignness” of food here allowed me to see it in a different light. The food items themselves are different from what I take for granted while living in the States. Of course, I ate apples when I lived in Rhode Island and Massachusetts – especially the ones that I went and picked off of trees in the fall. There was no reason to question that. And when it wasn’t apple season, or for most other that food that can’t be grown in New England, I assumed that it came from other places in the US like the Midwest, California, Oregon, Florida… But it turns out that there are apples on this side of the world as well – some that look exactly the same as the ones that I’m used to. Where did these come from? I know for sure they’re not coming a small New England orchard. Are they being shipped from the larger scale US farms or grown locally somewhere near here? And what about all the things that I haven’t even seen before – like dragon fruit, Buddha’s head and all the banana varietals? Where are those coming from? And those just are plain, raw foods – what about foods that have gone through more complex processing – like a bowl of noodles. Where did the rice/wheat/whatever else come from? Where was it ground into flour and then pulled into noodles?

 

Passionfruit (百香果) – one of the many fruits that I had never seen before coming to Taiwan that seems to be unbelievably alien and also super delicious.

As I move around with my daily life, I can’t help but notice some of these fragments of the food supply chain. Vendors on the street selling produce. Tiny plots of vegetables snuck in between buildings, in parks, and by hiking trails. A noodle-making shop (factory?) that has the size and appearance of a single car garage. The table-sized noodle machine continuously fills gallon bags of noodles that are driven off on mopeds. The large, cultivated fields on the western plain between large cities. How are these things connected – and how are they connected to reality and necessity of food required to power the people of this island?

 

There, too, is another piece of the question of food that I find continually intriguing. As an island, geographic boundaries are more tangible. What food that is not grown here must quite literally cross oceans to get here. How much food is doing that? Is this enormous travel reflected in the prices? What if it isn’t? The environmentalist in me twitches as bit as consider some of the implications of the modern-day globalized food industry. What if the things that the people of this island adore eating (like rice, tofu, fruit, meat) are all coughing out tons of CO2 as they are shipped across the world to get here? But is that better or worse that local production? As an island with some unique geology, habitats and endemic species – is it in better environmental consciousness to “export” farming to other countries and then ship it here?

 

As I crawl through publicly available government reports for information about tea, I often end up side-tracked to reports about various other economic sectors in Taiwan. In a recent binge of reading, I found myself eagerly reading many of the agriculture reports published by the US government. I don’t know if my deeper questions have been resolved (like the ones in the last paragraph) but I feel at least a little closer to understanding.

 

Here are some tidbits that I found interesting:

 

Milk/Dairy

How is Taiwan filling the endless cups of its world-famous milk tea? How is it putting cheese in breads and on all those unhealthy things that you can get at food stands?

“Due to relatively high production costs, resulting in an insufficient domestic fluid milk supply, Taiwan does not produce cheese, butter, milk powder or whey in commercial quantities, relying on imports to meet the demand for these products. The biggest dairy import product is dry whole milk powder, imports of which are forecast to remain stable at about 23,000 metric tons in CY 2013….

Taiwan’s domestic production accounts for 95 percent of total fluid milk market supply.”

I also remember a portion that indicated the domestically-produced fluid milk is particularly in demand after the scare of fluid milk contamination in mainland China in 2008 and that before that event, more fluid milk was imported from the mainland.

 

Fruit

What feeds all the juice stands? Where does all the fruit for religious offerings come from? And the post-meal fruit or the fruit that people push upon guests? It turns out that the Taiwan not only consumes relatively epic amounts of fruit, but also produces it.

“…Among the world’s highest per capita consumption of fresh fruit — about 132 kg/ person …Imports as a percentage of total domestic fruit consumption — 13% by value/15% by volume.”

Also, regarding apples, they are largely imported (there was an entire report on them):

“The apple continued to be the most popular imported fruit in Taiwan with total imports of 118,662 metric tons (US$131 million) in MY 2011/12, and the Fuji remained the favorite variety, accounting for 90% of total retail sales.  The United States regained its position as the leading supplier of apples to Taiwan, posting a 42% market share.  Local production continued a long-term decline and currently meets only about one percent of domestic demand. “

 

Wheat & Corn

“Taiwan is almost wholly dependent on imports of wheat and corn. Marketing Year (MY) 2011/12 wheat imports are estimated at 1.25 million metric tons (MMT), with the U.S. expected to hold 75 percent of the total.”

“While U.S. corn had already lost its once dominant position in the Taiwan market, the price spread between U.S. and other origin corn in recent months has pushed Taiwan buyers to switch to other sources, particularly Brazil and Argentina, at an even faster rate.”

I guess that means the price of corn on waffles is likely some hectares of deforestation in the Amazon.

 

Soybeans

“Taiwan’s demand for soybeans is met almost entirely by imported supplies, with demand for soybean meal and oil also highly dependent on local supplies crushed from imported soybeans…

According to Taiwan import statistics for the first nine months of MY2011/12, Brazilian and U.S.-origin soybeans held an equal market share of about 48 percent each. This stands in stark contrast to the 75 percent market share for U.S. soybeans during the same period in MY2010/11. Taiwan crushers have shown a preference for the 2012 South American soybean crop as local industry contacts report overall higher oil and protein content compared with U.S. beans.”

Soymilk and tofu – also probably driving deforestation in South America.

 

Rice

“Taiwan is over 90% self-sufficient in rice production with a rather stable domestic rice market.”

 

Also, finally, in case you doubted my entry about convenience stores:

“In 2009, Taiwan’s four major convenience store chains operated a total of 9,184 stores around the country, a density of one store per 2,500 people, making Taiwan the densest market in the world in terms of convenience stores.”

National Days: Taiwan and China

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is not a food blog! …yet

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