Current events

This is a short entry on some current events.

 

First, some thoughts on the current news story that is gripping everyone on this island right now.

Thousands of demonstrators gathered in Taipei starting on March 18th, protesting the way that the latest trade agreement with China has been handled by the legislature. I want to talk about this in part because I don’t think it has gotten a lot of prime time press in news coverage outside of the island. In the case that you are unfamiliar with any of the events occurring, I invite you read this pretty thorough summary, or check out some of the updates here for some background. Given that politics aren’t my field of expertise, I won’t get into a discussion of whether the actions of the protestors are justified, or what might happen next. I do have a few comments on the way that I have seen protest portrayed by the media and as discussed by the people around me – something that can’t necessarily be understood from reading the news while overseas.

 

First, everyone on this island knows about it. Especially as the issue has continued to remain unresolved for over a week and blood has been shed, I am pretty sure that any last vestiges of ignorance are disappearing. That said, it’s not like there is an overtly different atmosphere to daily life; it’s just the first thing you see if you happen to turn on a TV or open Facebook.

The protestors are not portrayed as separable from their status as students. The word “student” is simply used to mean protestors. Not having been to the scene of the events firsthand, I have no idea whether it is accurate that all the protestors are students. Regardless of whether this is true, the overall portrayal of the events so far often seems colored by this association.

  • I’ve seen several news stories focusing on the youth of some of the protestors. At one point, a TV journalist interviewed several high school students who had emphasized that, “if college students are out protesting, there is no reason high school students can’t be as well”.
  • Related to the first point, I have also noticed inevitable associations and accusations that these protestors are “just a bunch of kids who don’t really know what is going on”, including some interviews with some extremely inarticulate kids who, quite frankly, didn’t seem to have any idea why they were protesting.
  • Many stories have also focused on the reactions of the families of the protestors, usually to the extent that they wish to protect their precious children and keep them safe. Concerned parents ensuring that there are sleeping bags and blankets available for protestors camped out overnight outside, providing lunch boxes to keep them fed, pleading for the government to keep things peaceful, etc. Grandparents whose worries can’t be set to rest going to Taipei to look for their grandchildren. In light of the injuries during the conflict at the Executive Yuan last night, the tone of protest supporters are along the lines of “don’t hurt children!”, “these are just faultless children!”
  • Multiple people have asked me, half-jokingly, but I think also with a grain of sincerity, why I haven’t gone to join the protests. I am, after all, a student.

I think the most interesting thing about this identity of the protestors as students is that it isn’t even an issue. My American sense is to laugh at a news story about a grandmother looking for her darling grandson amidst the protest. Yet I think the actual intent of such stories is not to belittle the protest as the foolish acts of kids, but instead to show that the acts of the protestors are condoned and supported by much of society. I think the overall mentality may be that college students, who seem to be regarded as a pretty carefree group in Taiwanese society, are acting as a megaphone voicing general discontent because they are more free to do so. Perhaps the issue hasn’t yet gotten to the level that people with “real jobs” will refuse to go to work in order to join the protest, but they can still show their support through taking care of these “students” from the sidelines.

I hope that the issue can come to a peaceful resolution without any more injuries.

 

 

Second, in entirely unrelated and more comedic news: my bike was stolen. I am actually impressed, and consider this a testament to Tainan.

 

Why? It was stolen after I left it unlocked next to campus for an entire weekend. This was not the first time I’ve done this. In fact, I didn’t even own a lock, and I’ve regularly left it around campus when I’ve been gone for days at a time. I left it next to the train station one weekend (that was the weekend that I was sure that I’d come back to find it gone…) And what’s more, most people that I told about its disappearance over the past day have been somewhat shocked. The first reaction of several people was, “are you sure?” and one lady helped me call to check with the police to see if they had moved it for some reason. While it could hardly be considered a pimp ride, I don’t know of anywhere in the States that I would leave a bike, even this one, unlocked for a few hours.

Broken basket! Lock hanging on the seat post that I didn't have a key to! Chain potentially going to snap any time I rode up a hill!
Junky Ride I: Broken basket! Lock hanging on the seat post that I didn’t have a key to! Chain potentially going to snap any time I rode up a hill!

Farewell, dear old bike. Hopefully you are rolling on smoother streets, wherever your new owner may be riding you.

 

The resolution to this episode is also pretty rosy-tinted, as far as I’m concerned. While I did have to walk the 2+ miles home from the train station last night, today I already have another set of junky wheels, for the great price of free. Turns out that the NCKU campus has a short term bike loan system for foreign exchange students. As I was talking to the guy in charge (someone from the on-campus military training office), he first seemed a little hesitant about lending me a bike. But I quickly realized it was probably because there are no specific qualifications for either “short term” or “foreign exchange student” and perhaps he suspected that I didn’t fit the bill for one (or both?). Accordingly, I played up my story as a confused foreigner who was only going to be on campus for a few (more) months. Perhaps I should have spoken with a bad American accent, but in the end he let me ride away with a bike after basically just leaving my phone number.

Old school Taiwan-style ( as described by the guy in charge)! Seat pretty cushy! Awesome orange paint to mark it as a courtesy bike! Squeaky brakes! Equally questionable chain! Free!
Junky Ride II: Old school Taiwan-style ( as described by the guy in charge)! Seat pretty cushy! Awesome orange paint to mark it as a courtesy bike! Squeaky brakes! Equally questionable chain! Free!

Thanks again, Taiwan-friendliness-towards-foreigners.

 

 

(What happened to the rest of my thoughts about Sumatra? Oh, I’ll finish writing them down sometime…)

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.

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.