Highly Scientific Cultural Studies via YouTube

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

 

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

 

Some things to keep in mind:

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Visiting Organic Tea Farms – SWS

山外山有機生態茶園農場, (or SWS for this post). I got a little lost trying to find it and seeing this sign was very exciting!
山外山有機生態茶園農場, (or SWS for this post). I got a little lost trying to find it and seeing this sign was very exciting!

Last week, I paid a visit to 山外山有機生態茶園農場, (roughly translates as Mountain Outside Mountain Organic Ecosystem Tea Farm. I will refer to it as SWS for the remainder of this post). As my experience with tea farms and organic tea farms continues to grow, I am starting to appreciate the individual stories that each has to tell,  yet how they also come together in a more generalized narrative of the industry’s trends. SWS is one of the largest and well-established organic tea farms in Taiwan.

This sign reads, "You've arrived at the organic tea farm".  I saw this sign when I got lost, before finding SWS. While there are many tea farms around Pinglin in general, there is also a relatively high concentration of organic tea farms as well, due to the proximity to the Feisui reservoir.
This sign reads, “You’ve arrived at the organic tea farm”. I saw this sign when I got lost, before finding SWS. While there are many tea farms around Pinglin in general, there is also a relatively high concentration of organic tea farms as well, due to the proximity to the Feisui reservoir.

SWS is a particularly beautiful place and the evolution of the farm to its current state is a good anecdote for discussing organic farming in Taiwan. Located in a remote part of the low mountains outside Taipei, members of SWS generally claim that they are on the highest point of elevation between Pingxi and Pinglin. While I couldn’t actually confirm this, I think it is a close enough approximation. SWS is on top of a ridge, high enough to be well-shrouded in the mists that hugged tight to the mountain tops the day that I visited.

Another one of the organic tea farms near SWS. One of the common indicators of an organic tea farm is the presence of a variety of other plants growing between and next to the tea trees.
Another one of the organic tea farms near SWS. One of the common indicators of an organic tea farm is the presence of a variety of other plants growing between and next to the tea trees. Natural non-weedkiller methods to reduce these grasses are generally limited to weeding by hand and tilling the weeds into the soil periodically. A usual tell-tale sign of organic tea farms is the low density of the soils and higher organic content due to both the presence of these weeds and use of natural fertilizers.

Many farmers struggle with finding an appropriate location, or cannot convert to organic farming due to the location that they already have. In order to use organic practices, the land must be protected from influences of regular farms – pollution of non-organic fertilizer and pesticides will disrupt the aim of a more balanced “ecosystem” cultivation method. Pests that are ousted from the neighboring farms may all cluster in the non-pesticide organic region, stretching the ability of “natural” methods to curb their numbers (traps, encouraging predators). Direct pollution may also contaminate the organic crops, and if high enough levels are detected, they may not be able to pass “organic” certification standards. When it comes to Taiwan, and tea farming in Taiwan, the most common way that organic farms find a way to do this is often by positioning on a mountain top – thus avoiding run-off from farms upslope. In areas that are less steep, farmers may use distance and plant buffer zone trees.

On the day that I visited, workers were picking spring tea. According to most farmers that I have spoken with, spring and winter harvests are favored for oolongs. If a field can be harvested in fall or summer, these crops are usually used for black teas.
On the day that I visited, workers were picking spring tea. According to most farmers that I have spoken with, spring and winter harvests are favored for oolongs. If a field can be harvested in fall or summer, these crops are usually used for black teas.
Big leaf spring tea ready to be harvested! The fresh leaves on the tips of the plants are picked to be made into tea.
Big leaf spring tea ready to be harvested! The fresh leaves on the tips of the plants are picked to be made into tea.

SWS got its start more than six years ago (although I did not get an exact year from anyone, nor do they provide one on their website), and registered with the government in 2009 as having completed the transition period to become fully “organic”.  Today’s successful organic farms often got their start at least 10 years ago. Successful organic agriculture takes time in order to get established, including the required “transition” period before they can obtain certification. Crossing through that initial transition threshold requires no small amount of determination. At the time that these first farms were getting started, the concept of “organic” was often laughable or unheard of. At 16 hectares, SWS is the second largest plot of land certified as organic and dedicated primarily to tea farming. The true heart of the organization in not a business venture, but love and devotion to a cause. Like many other aspects of the organic and environmental movements in Taiwan, SWS is actually deeply connected with Buddhism and the core members are Buddhist monks.

Even more unique to SWS were their collection of old tea trees. While most teas in grown from trees that are trimmed into short, shrub-like appearances and are usually not much older than 15 years, these trees have been allowed to grow tall and may be much older. This form of more natural/wild tea tree  is most common in some places in Yunnan where pu'erh is grown and harvested.
Unique to SWS were their collection of old tea trees. While most Taiwanese tea trees that are trimmed into short shrubs and are usually not much older than 15 years, these trees have been allowed to grow tall and may be much older. This form of more natural/wild tea tree is most common in some places in Yunnan where pu’erh is grown and harvested.
While not quite as "wild" as the old tree plants, this plot of tea trees is cultivated more as part of an integrated forest. In the midst of the tea trees is a pine tree. I was told that one year the pine tree dropped a lot of needles shortly before the tea was harvested and the flavor of pine was much stronger in the tea that year.
While not quite as “wild” as the old tree plants, this plot of tea trees is cultivated more as part of an integrated forest. In the midst of the tea trees is a pine tree. I was told that one year the pine tree dropped a lot of needles shortly before the tea was harvested and the flavor of pine was much stronger in the tea that year. (From a scientific perspective, I have my doubts about this – the increased litter from the pine tree would likely change the soil qualities and influence the flavor of the teas, but not necessarily to make it more pine-y).

However, not everyone involved in the success of SWS is Buddhist monk, nor even a practicing Buddhist. The evolution of the farm to the relatively successful and productive organization it is now required years of trial and error. During those years, a community of volunteers interested in the cause provided manpower to set up and maintain the farm. Those who wished to escape the bustle, noise and pollution of Taipei and donate some time to SWS would carpool for the hour-long ride out to help pull weeds and till soil. As the first crops came in from harvest, SWS members sold door-to-door. After hearing the story of SWS, buyers generally pitched in to help support its cause, as opposed to being enticed by the quality or price of the produce.

I was told specifically to take this picture of the spider web in the foreground and the tea field in the background (a more traditional shrub-like plot) to emphasize the presence of insects and the lack of pesticide usage.
I was told to make sure to get this picture of the spider web in the foreground and the tea field in the background to emphasize the presence of insects and the lack of pesticide usage.

Currently, a staff of about 10-12 people live on the farm. Their days are comprised mainly of the manual labor tending the farm (which is usually more intense for organic than non-organic techniques), and studying Buddhist teachings. Along with tea, SWS also had plots of a variety of other vegetables mainly for subsistence, but some crops produce enough for external sales as well.

SWS also grows other foods, including these mushrooms. Being a Buddhist group, they eat vegetation, and substitute mushrooms for meats in many dishes.
SWS also grows other foods, including these mushrooms. Being a Buddhist group, they eat vegetarian, and substitute mushrooms for meats in many dishes.

Overall, organic production rates continue to be much lower than regular farms. Someone quoted some estimates for me a while ago and I remember it being a reduction by about half, if not more. While the increased market price of organic products is set to compensate for low yields, crossing the line into profit and long-term success is still tricky. Organic teas, from my experience and the opinions of others, are not as good in flavor qualities as other Taiwanese teas. A more expensive, lower quality product is simply bound to face difficulties in the competitive market of the tea industry. Furthermore, the unpredictability of harvest seems to be even higher for those employing more natural methods, as the ecosystem-based cultivation may be readily influenced by other environmental cycles. I spoke with one company that said they did not make any tea this past winter because the weather had not been suitable for the plants (I believe their farm is near Alishan).

Compost that is ready to apply to fields as fertilizer.
Compost that is ready to apply to fields as fertilizer.
SWS makes their own fertilizer through composting husks of nuts that they buy.
SWS makes their own fertilizer through composting husks of nuts that they buy.

Yet people that I spoke with connected to SWS seemed to accept the precariousness of their situation without great concern. Firstly, the primary purpose of the farm is not to make a large profit. Of course, while I have not seen the bank accounts of SWS to verify the sources and destinations of their money, having largely moral, (as opposed to for-profit) motivations would relieve certainly relieve pressure for financial success. Secondly, as I mentioned previously, support for SWS is spread out over a wide network. These supporters provide the promise of faithful future customers, and should things really take a down turn, likely donations of money and time. Thus, maintaining and expanding this support network is an integral part of the work that SWS.

The monks making tea. It is withering/oxidizing here. The day that I visited was far too rainy for outdoor withering. Their facilities were very new and clean. It looked like they had only one machine for most of the tea making steps, indicating that they only make tea in small batches.
The monks making tea. This batch is withering/oxidizing. The day that I visited was far too rainy for outdoor withering. Their facilities were very new and clean. It looked like they had only one machine for most of the tea making steps, indicating that they only make tea in small batches.

Within the past few years, SWS has opened their farm up to the broader community, hosting visitors of all kinds. This is not a strategy unique to SWS; from what I can tell, many of the larger organic farms are open to visitors. This helps provide an alternate source of income (charging for services related to visitation) but probably more importantly expand their customer and support base. Again, the success of organic agriculture currently seems to lie mostly on support from consumers who believe in the cause. For SWS, summer is the busy season, which may have groups coming every weekend. Usually, SWS hosts classes for tea culture and Buddhism and pairs them with meals and tours of the farm.

The large gathering hall at SWS. Here they host tour groups and classes (such as tea culture, Buddhism). On the wall is a prize which reads "Organic Tea Paragon", which came from an organic tea competition.
The large gathering hall at SWS. Here they host tour groups and classes (such as tea culture, Buddhism). On the wall is a prize which reads “Organic Tea Paragon”, which came from an organic tea competition.

The big question, of course, is the future of organic tea farming. I don’t have a good answer, nor even a good guess yet, but here are some of things that I am continuing to think, ask and write about: advancements in technology, spread of skill and technique, the growth of support for the organic movement, the potential for market beyond those “converted to the cause”. This post brushed on lots of topics that I hope to explore in more detail soon.

This bag of tea was made the day before I arrived. For perspective, what looked to be about a 2 hectare plot of tea trees produced this bag of tea in one day. It is likely that there will be 3-4 days of harvesting and making tea from the same plot, thus one season's harvest for that plot will yield 3-4 of these bags. My wild estimate of how much tea was in the bag is maybe around 10-15kg. Most organic teas sell for at least 2000NT per kg (or about $70 USD).
This bag of tea was made the day before I arrived. For perspective, what looked to be about a 2 hectare plot of tea trees produced this bag of tea in one day. It is likely that there will be 3-4 days of harvesting and making tea from the same plot, thus one season’s harvest for that plot will yield 3-4 of these bags. My wild estimate of how much tea was in the bag is maybe around 10-15kg. Most organic teas sell for at least 2000NT per kg (or about $70 USD). Again, these numbers are just for some context. Although you can expand this estimate to the 2 seasons of harvest and 16 hectares of tea plantation, it’s too inaccurate to be really meaningful (different types of tea plants in the different fields, different types of tea made each season which have varying retail prices, etc.) I also know nothing about the operation costs of SWS. For now, just know that tea farming can certainly be a profitable business if done well – and SWS seems to be doing quite well.

Midyear Research Conference: Reflections on Taiwan vs. China

A few weeks ago, Fulbright Taiwan hosted a conference for all of the researchers in the greater China area: the Fulbright Research Workshop (傅爾布萊特年度研討會) with attendees from Taiwan, China, Macau and Hong Kong. The conference was packed with activities, which only makes sense given the effort of bringing together such 70+ people in the same spot. Somewhat to my surprise, the focus of most discussions was Taiwan.  Taiwan history, politics, society. Taiwan music. Taiwan energy. Taiwan human rights movements. The only mentions of mainland China and the US were how they were related to Taiwan.

At first, I was a little confused: why was everyone getting a crash course on Taiwan? I began to see the logic in it probably about halfway through. During my time in Taiwan, I have forgotten what China is actually like. Whereas the rule of “anything goes” and “case by case basis” maintains sovereignty in China, Taiwan generally functions via systems and rules (eg. take a number and wait, sort your trash, line up). And where China is ruled by the somewhat mysterious and ruthless Communist Party, Taiwan’s government system is a highly vocal, transparent, divided democracy (“demo-crazy” as one speaker called it). But to understand the US relations with China, you must understand some things about Taiwan. Furthermore, as one considers whether or not there is hope for China as a freer society, it would be amiss to ignore how Taiwan transitioned from single party martial law to the functioning democracy that it is now.

This was pretty much what the conference looked like. Unfortunately, it was very beautiful weather in Taipei and we sat inside the whole day. But the venues were well-chosen: day one was in 中山堂, which as been an important meeting place since it was constructed by the Japanese in 1928 http://english.zsh.taipei.gov.tw/ct.asp?xItem=143661&ctNode=11029&mp=119062. Day two was held at Cheng Chi University, which was one of the many institutions relocated with the ROC. On the third day, we spent time at a satellite branch of NTU and the Mayor's Salon, which was the residence constructed for the mayor of Taipei before the Japanese left. http://www.mayorsalon.tw/en-guide.aspx President Ma remarked that he was mayor of Taipei, but did not get to live there when he was speaking.
This was pretty much what the conference looked like. Unfortunately, it was very beautiful weather in Taipei and we sat inside for three whole days. But the venues were well-chosen: day one was in 中山堂, which as been an important meeting place since it was constructed by the Japanese in 1928 . Day two was held at Cheng Chi University, which was one of the many institutions relocated with the ROC. On the third day, we spent time at a satellite branch of NTU and the Mayor’s Salon, which was the residence constructed for the mayor of Taipei before the Japanese left.  President Ma remarked that he was mayor of Taipei, but did not get to live there when he was speaking.

Perhaps the overall point of the conference was to give everyone greater perspective before they returned home from their Fulbright experience. It was a sobering to talk to people who are attempting to research in the stricter hierarchical systems of Chinese universities, where they are not welcomed and told that their topics are too politically sensitive. Where they are researching the best numbers to describe the environmental poisons that they themselves are ingesting. Where they are more often greeted with suspicion or disinterest instead of enthusiasm. For those of us in Taiwan, it was a reminder that other places are still struggling for access to rights that seem relatively guaranteed in the US and Taiwan. For those in mainland China, I am glad that they got to see a little bit more of flawed, yet functional society on this side of the strait.

It is impossible to understand the both Taiwan and China if you know only one. They are simply too different. Furthermore it is important to hold them next to each other for comparison and understanding. This conference allowed for just that.

I also enjoyed realizing how much I knew about Taiwan… but also realizing how much more there is to know. It was a great opportunity to hear from and talk to experts in a variety of fields: healthcare, education, politics to name just a few. I learned that the Taiwanese economy is best described as being composed of Small to Medium Enterprises (SME). I learned that Taiwan is relatively advanced when it comes to women’s equality metrics due to mandated quotas of women in government and serving on boards. I learned about Teresa Teng, the wildly famous pop singer from Taiwan who is apparently known throughout all of East Asia (I particularly liked the phrase ”老鄧不如小鄧”, or “Old Deng isn’t as good as Little Deng”, referring to Deng XiaoPing not as influential as Teresa Teng). My understanding of this complex place called “Taiwan” grew a little more.

Clearly the highlight of excitement focused on the final day and our meeting with President Ma. There was understandable fretting about timeliness and behavior and logistics from the Fulbright staff, and plenty of media and security around as well adding to the excitement. Although I haven’t met an American president, I assume that the security would be more intense. Some of the other Fulbrighters and I were speculating that it didn’t even look like some of the guards were carrying guns – despite the fuss that some of the Taiwanese were making, the President’s entourage actually did not seem all that large.

My overall impression of President Ma was that he was fairly articulate (even in a second language,) and managed to dexterously walk political lines while talking about a variety of topics. He described the US-Taiwan Relations act as a “masterpiece of ambiguity”, and his own words managed to follow suit.

For example, my friend (and Fulbright Taiwan Fellow), Katherine Alexander, posed the question of “What does being Taiwanese mean to you?”  I commend it as an interesting, yet not confrontational, question on the how Taiwan is a unique place. President Ma’s answer was very careful, and did not address the question the way that I was expecting. I was thinking that he would share some anecdotes about the culture, history, shared personality of Taiwan. At first I found his answer to be an awkward sidestep of the question. Yet, having had more time to think about it, I now think it was at least a good aversion. He essentially said that “Taiwan” and “Republic of China” need not be distinguished. They are two words for the same thing. While there still remain some people who uphold the ROC’s claim to sovereignty of the entire territory in the mainland China, in general, most people don’t think that the ROC is anything other than the island of Taiwan and its scattered claimed islands. In that way, the ROC and Taiwan are the same thing, and there’s nothing out of the ordinary about a difference between political and common names: Ma provided the example of “the Netherlands” and “Holland”, but there’s also even the “USA” and “America” (no one ever says “America” to refer to Mexico).

No, he didn’t say what he thought it meant to be Taiwanese, but he did subtly indicate his position on maintaining status quo and not rocking boats unnecessarily. The country name as Republic of China instead of perhaps Republic of Taiwan need not get anyone’s goat. Obviously to change the name would be a big snaffoo – resulting in a lot of yelling – but is not actually going to change anything the way the government is actually running.

Sketches of some of the speakers. Which one is President Ma?
Sketches of some of the speakers. Which one is President Ma?

Finally, meeting and interacting with all the China 2012-2013 Fulbrighters was refreshing. They are a diverse, yet clearly remarkable collection of people. There were comedians, writers, sociologists, and so many more mixed in. I look forward to seeing the results of the work that they are doing out in the world.

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.

Making Tea – Skill can also be a limited resource

A little while ago, I had the opportunity to participate in a unique experience, the kind that is so unexpected and amazingly interesting it might be best labeled as a “Special Fulbright Experience”. With that hook, let me tell you about making tea.

Wait what – don’t I make tea every day? Well, yes that’s true. But I am going to talk about the time that I helped make tea (the fermented, dried leaves that can be brewed) from fresh tea leaves (straight from the tree).

More complicated than my daily cup of tea! How does one make tea from a tea plant anyway?
More complicated than my daily cup of tea! How does one make tea from a tea plant anyway?

These past couple months, I have spent time working with researchers from the Taiwanese government research branch that is specifically dedicated to researching tea, the Tea Research Extension Station (TRES).  TRES has been around in various forms for the past 100 years, and are the obvious people to be in contact with when it comes to researching anything related Taiwanese tea, so getting connected with them is probably what is going to allow me to answer the questions that I originally wrote about in my proposal for this Fulbright. I have mostly been communicating with the TRES station in Taoyuan, which is in the north eastern part of Taiwan. The researchers there have been friendly, knowledgeable and excited about collaborating with me, which has been incredible by itself.

One day, after a long discussion of science, research directions and potential project logistics, I was getting a ride back to the train station to return to Taipei. The researcher who was driving me said something along the lines of, “Oh, by the way: on Monday we’ll be having a competition/exercise to make tea.  If you’re interested, you can come.” Making tea? Really? Of course I was wanted to see how tea was made! Although I knew some things about the process, it was hard to understand what something like “the leaves are half fermented” truly means. Plenty of tourists pay money to go to try their hand at tea making.  Here was a free invitation, from people who talk about tea as their job, to join them to make tea. I was definitely going!

I showed up on Monday not quite sure what to expect but excited nonetheless. We gathered around 10 am in a large building equipped for tea making on the grounds of the research station. Some older men, (whom I later realized are tea masters of a sort and were invited to judge the results) gave short speeches about the day’s activities, including advice on what they sought for the winning tea and how it could be made (more on this later). The various departments around the research station had split up into teams and each team was going to make a batch of the same kind of tea. Then they would be judged and the winners would receive a cash prize, but more importantly, bragging rights for the year. There were 20 teams, which seemed to have from 2 to around 6 members. And while there was an air of friendly competition throughout, it was primarily a training exercise so there was plenty of cooperation as well.

The opening remarks of the exercise. You can get an idea of the tea-making space. It was basically a large, open warehouse. So far it's the largest tea-making facility I have seen.
We gathered for the opening remarks of the exercise. You can get an idea of the tea making space. It was basically a large, open warehouse. So far it’s the largest tea-making facility I have seen, although I doubt that TRES uses the space as much as a tea making company would. Overall, the TRES facilities appear to be well supported and well kept. While it is not the largest agricultural sector in Taiwan, the government does not seem to neglect the tea industry.

Everyone started with the same material: freshly harvested tea leaves. The tea leaves had been collected that morning by machine clippers from the tea fields that the researchers at the station maintain. Each team grabbed a large bag of leaves and got to work. Our assignment was to make Baochong (包種), which is a Taiwanese specialty: a lightly fermented, very fragrant oolong made in the lower elevation regions in northern Taiwan.

We began by spreading out the freshly harvest leaves onto reed trays to dry. I was amazed by how picturesque this was - it looked exactly like what I had seen before when reading about tea-making.
We first spread out the freshly harvest leaves onto bamboo trays. I was amazed by how picturesque this was – it looked exactly like what I had seen before when reading about tea making.

We started by spreading the leaves out to wilt in the sun and start picking leaves. Actually, at every step of the process we picked through the tea, separating out lesser-quality components: stems, bug-bitten leaves, dead leaves, leaves that were too bruised, old leaves… At some point I remember saying that I was sure that I would be dreaming of picking through tea leaves in my sleep and everyone around me agreed heartily.

Machine harvested and hand harvest teas are easily distinguished. Teas harvested by had have fewer undesirable plant parts sneaking in as each leaf is literally pinched off the plant by hand, most of the selection occurs before any other step is taken. However the manual labor required is obviously much higher and therefore more expensive (in Taiwan, at least. In other countries where lots of tea is produced such as China and Vietnam, cost of human labor is much cheaper allowing for these tea production techniques to continue.)
Machine harvested and hand harvest teas are easily distinguished. Teas harvested by hand have fewer undesirable parts sneaking in: each leaf is literally pinched off the plant by hand, so most of the selection occurs before any other step is taken. However the manual labor required is obviously much higher and therefore more expensive (in Taiwan, at least. In other countries where lots of tea is produced, such as China and Vietnam, cost of human labor is much cheaper allowing for manual harvesting to continue without issue.)

During this stage some of the folks on my team decided to have some “fun”, so we started separating out some of the youngest, freshest leaves (嫩芽) to make a different type of tea. I learned later that this special batch would become Oriental Beauty (東方美人), which is another specialty tea from Taiwan. We adopted even stricter standards for selecting these leaves – they had to be the tiniest sprouts that were still covered with silvery hair (which gives rise to another one of the names for this tea: silver hair oolong 白毫烏龍).

The beginnings of the batch of Oriental Beauty tea. This tea is usually quite expensive because it is made with only the tiny, fresh shoots. Thus, production rates are much lower. Additionally, the best Oriental Beauty tea has added fragrance due to a defense compound produced in the plant leaves. In order for this to occur, the plants must be partially eaten by a particular insect before harvest.
The beginnings of the batch of Oriental Beauty tea. This tea is usually quite expensive because it is made with only the tiny, fresh shoots. Thus, production rates are much lower. Additionally, the best Oriental Beauty tea has added fragrance due to a defense compound produced in the plant leaves. In order for this to occur, the plants must be partially eaten by a particular insect before harvest.

After letting the leaves wilt for a while (probably around an hour) we brought them inside to begin fermenting. For these steps, timing was key. Because each stage represents a chemical process occurring in the leaves, the rate that it occurs is dependent on variables that are going differ every time one might try to make tea: temperature, moisture content in the leaves, air humidity, sunlight intensity, etc. These differences in temperature and humidity during tea making conditions can give rise to differences between winter and summer tea (as well as different growth conditions for the leaves, which also influences chemical composition and therefore flavor).  Thus, each time one makes tea it is important to be in tune with how fast the processes are occurring to know when to move from one step to the next.

More of the tiny buds for the Oriental Beauty tea were sifted out of this bundle of reject leaves. Later we also tried some of the tea made from these rejects. It was weak on flavor, but still not all that bad. Probably better than most oolong teas sold in teabags in the US.
More of the tiny buds for the Oriental Beauty tea were sifted out of this bundle of reject leaves. Later we also tried some of the tea made from these reject leaves. It was weak on flavor, but still not all that bad. Probably better than most oolong teas sold in teabags in the US.

Once inside, the leaves were left to ferment, or oxidize. (Personally, I prefer referring to this stage as oxidizing because unlike other “fermenting” processes, there really aren’t any bacteria involved. Look forward to a blog post all about the chemistry of tea – because I’ve been reading about it and will probably want to write a synthesis of major ideas…) As I have mentioned, the differentiation of many tea types depends on the extent to which they are oxidized. For Baochong, a partially oxidized tea, this process is therefore quite complicated.

The trays of tea were brought inside the factory to oxidize slowly. Sometimes if the weather is rainy and cold, this process may be sped up by turning on fans or heated fans.
The trays of tea were brought inside the factory to oxidize slowly. If the weather is rainy and cold, this process may be sped up by turning on fans or heated fans.

During the oxidation process, the leaves are periodically fluffed. Leaf fluffing turned out to require a particularly artful technique. If the leaves are bruised and the cells cracked open, oxidation happens very quickly and leads to development of chemicals that are characteristic of black teas. Yet it’s also important to fully turn over all the leaves and mix them up to expose all of them to the air equally. (Okay, actually I haven’t ever seen or heard an explanation for this now that I think of it, but that’s what I’m pretty sure the point of this step is.)

The proper technique involved lightly scooping from out to in. I tried it a few times, of course.
The proper technique involved lightly scooping from out to in. I tried it a few times – it didn’t seem too complicated, but I don’t know if my team mates were too polite to criticize me when I was giving it a go.

As I said before, timing is key. During our intro pep talk, the head judge/tea master stressed to us that there were several aromas that the tea would go through in cycles: grassy, flowery, grassy. We were supposed to turn the tea leaves at specific times during the cycles in order to imbue the tea with these flavors. [Well that’s my understanding of what he said, but maybe you don’t want to follow this the next time you make tea without first consulting an expert. Please do not try any techniques based on this blogpost at home.] Most teams adhered to 3 rounds of this, waiting for around an hour and a half between each repetition, although we made adjustments based on how far along the cycles the tea leaves were. Judging where in the cycle the leaves were involved walking over and given the tray a good sniff to try to gauge grassy vs. flowery smells.

For the final tossing of the leaves, we switched to a mechanical roller. I don’t remember the exact reasoning for this but I think it was because for the last cycle, more tossing was better. It was much easier to set the machine for 10-20 minutes than have someone do that by hand. (Although there also seemed to be confusion about whether the timer on this machine was working, so I think some groups got treated to some extra time before anyone noticed…)

The mechanical rolling machine was probably the lease interesting of the tools we used. It basically turned the leaves around slowly. Boring.
The mechanical rolling machine was probably the lease interesting of the tools we used. It basically turned the leaves around slowly.

Finally time for a different process: the leaves were then baked for a short time. Properly judging time and temperature while in the ovens was also emphasized. When each group was ready, they turned on the cylindrical oven. When the oven reached a specific temperature, the the tea master dumped the tea in, and then removed before it reached another specific temperature (I think it was 200C and then 600C). Again, the type of oven, the length and the heat of the firing can all give different characteristics and therefore lead to different types of tea. One of the members of my team later reflected that our tea may have lost some of its fragrance during this stage. He recounted remorsefully how strong the smell was until and through the roasting process, but then how it diminished afterwards.

The ovens were probably the most exciting of the machines - loud, hot, fast. A little scary, in fact.
The ovens were probably the most exciting of the machines – loud, hot, fast. A little scary, in fact.

Then the leaves were shaped. Again we used a machine (although this process can be done by hand). Baochong is partly rolled, each leaf is twisted into a strip but not fully twisted into a ball. The rolling was quite quick, requiring what seemed like relatively few passes by the large pestle-like appendage of this machine.

I wish I had gotten a better picture of this machine, but it operated like an automated mortar and pestle, except with the intention of rolling as opposed to total crushing.
I wish I had gotten a better picture of this machine, but it operated like an automated mortar and pestle, except with the intention of rolling as opposed to total crushing.

The rolled leaves were then dried. These machines were much lower temperature than the roasting oven, and employed various methods to equally expose the tea leaves to hot air. This one pictured has a series of racks that can be successively dumped lower (towards more hot air). Another one also included a conveyor belt that cycled the tea leaves through the region of hot air.

This is what the partially rolled tea spread out to dry looked like up close.
This is what the partially rolled tea spread out to dry looked like up close.
Hot air fed by this gas fire is blown through the leaves to dry them faster. For this machine, the tea was spread on trays that could be dumped lower, closer to the flame.
Hot air fed by this gas fire blows through the leaves to dry them faster. For this machine, the tea was spread on trays that could be dumped lower, closer to the flame.

The last step was a final cleaning process, during which more undesirables, which now included leaves that hadn’t fermented, rolled, or dried, as well as all of the previous undesirable leaves, were removed. Everyone helped with the final picking for all the teams. I left early – that is 10:30pm – but I heard that people stayed until 2 am picking.

When in doubt, we just spent more time cleaning the tea leaves.
When in doubt, we just spent more time cleaning the tea leaves.
Finished product!
Finished product!

What I failed to document in pictures were some of the other activities that occurred during this long process. While waiting between each step, we returned to the office to drink tea and chat or milled around and smelled other teams’ work-in-progress and compared it to our own. Food was also served while people rested between steps – bento boxes for lunch and dinner and a late night giant vat of soup. The atmosphere was a little manic, yet also playful in between stretches of somewhat frantic work.

Consultations with the tea master / judge were allowed and encouraged throughout the process. This group was probably asking for advice about whether it was time for the next step.
Consultations with the tea master / judge were allowed and encouraged at all times. This group was probably asking for advice about whether it was time for the next step.

Throughout this process, several side-project teas were also being made, including the Oriental Beauty and a black tea. Each of these, although they started with the same materials, went through variations on the process which changed the outcome. The Oriental Beauty tea was oxidized very slowly and for a very long time. By contrast the black tea leaves were bruised early in the process (fairly intense mashing seemed to be occurring from what I saw) before being left to oxidize.

The Oriental Beauty tea, many hours later. It had only been fluffed once and was still oxidizing when I left for the night.
The Oriental Beauty tea, many hours later. It had only been fluffed once and was still oxidizing when I left for the night. It had just been finished up by the time of the judging, around 24 hours after we had started separating out the leaves for it.

I returned the next day for the judging of the teas. As in any tea competition, the teas were all brewed in a uniform fashion: using a regulated tea cup, amount of tea, and brew time. The judging was blind – team that made each tea was unknown during judging – but this does not mean that the tea was not looked at; it was displayed next to the brewed tea as to be judged. The color of the tea liquid and quantity of “dust” in the brew (fragments of tea leaves in the bottom of the cup) is also considered during judging. In all, there were 6 third place prices, 3 second place, and 1 first prize. Considering the 20 total contestants, it was a generous awarding of prizes. Unfortunately, my team failed to place. But at the end of the day, I got to take home samples of several of the different entries – including tea that I helped make! – and the whole experience to remember, which was plenty exciting in itself.

Everyone gathered the morning after for closing remarks and judges' comments.
Everyone gathered the morning after for closing remarks and judges’ comments.
The teas lined up to be judged in regulated, competition style. The three closest to the camera were the side projects (Oriental Beauty and two black teas), which is why they are so different in color.
The teas lined up to be judged in regulated, competition style. The three closest to the camera were the side projects (Oriental Beauty and two black teas), which is why they are so different in color. The Baochong brews up as a nice, medium yellow-green color.

Furthermore, everyone got to try the teas and then contribute to a popular vote, which was recognized along with the judge favorites. Tasting the teas was incredible. While many were not so easily distinguished (not too bad, not too good), others were entirely flavorless, while few popped with fragrance, bitterness, grassiness or all of the above. It was impressive variation, given that we had all started with the same material and gone through essentially similar steps. Somewhere in the process, however, good tea, better tea and some truly awful teas were created.

Everyone tasting the teas. Along with tasting the brewed liquid, we were encouraged to pick up the capped mugs and sniff the leaves inside.
Everyone tasting the teas. Along with tasting the brewed liquid, we were encouraged to pick up the capped mugs and sniff the leaves inside.

Anyone who has ever bought loose leaf tea has realized that it can get expensive. Plenty of teas are more valuable than gold by weight. Now I really have an appreciation for some of the components that lead to that price. For starters, good tea requires good ingredients, which requires specific farming conditions and practices. Furthermore, making tea requires skill. What separates the margin of “good” from “great” tea lies largely in the finesse of the tea making process – this is where the true skill of a tea master is required.

Teas are also judged by their appearance. Evenness throughout is important, as well as minimal presence of undesirables (bruised leaves, stems).
Teas are also judged by their appearance. Evenness throughout is important, as well as minimal presence of undesirables (bruised leaves, stems).

I asked my friends at the TRES as well as other folks in the tea industry what they worry about most for the future of Taiwanese teas. Several people have expressed concern about the loss of skill in making tea. A tea maker does not have easy work – when it is the season to make tea, they must work long hours, possibly not sleeping at night for several days. While they can make a decent salary by Taiwanese standards, it is not an appealing profession for many Taiwanese. Not only does the profession promise arduous labor, it lacks respect in society. As the younger generation strives to move upwards with their hearts set on white-collar jobs, recent years have had few young people entering the tea making industry because it is considered manual labor. I’m not sure the extent to which lack of interest in career tea makers will impact the industry. But I can see how lack of skill is a valid concern, given that the Taiwanese tea industry drives profit from quality over quantity. My research project, (should it ever get results) will be starting to address whether the natural environment can sustain the tea industry in Taiwan. Yet, I realize now this is not the only condition required for the longevity of this industry. Availability of skilled human resources presents another important factor to consider in the outlook of Taiwanese tea.

Chinese New Year begins!

It started with a bang and ended with silence. Or something like that.

Chinese New Year (Lunar New Year) is upon us! Chinese New Year really is the biggest holiday of the year here – and now I can agree that equating it to feeling of Christmas / New Year in the States is appropriate. For the past month, the excitement has crept up on everyone and gradually escalated to this point. Kids are out of school (but that doesn’t mean that they are out of cram school, tutoring, extra sessions, or working temp jobs);  everyone has the following week as vacation; bosses have been treating their workers to a meal, a tradition called 尾牙 — just to name a few of the year-end signals.

About a week ago my friend said to me in response to overhearing someone else saying “Happy New Year”, “Really, already? Every day now you get wished a Happy New Year…”

The feeling of New Year’s is seeking hustle, bustle and excitement – just like many folks enjoy the madness rushing to shop for Christmas presents. For example, new markets spring up devoted to New Year’s crowds as everyone shops for food (snacks of all kinds!) to bring to gatherings and gifts (年貨大街). Somehow, these incarnations of street markets have even more bustle than any regular market – everything escalates to a higher level. There are more stalls, more types of snacks, more samples to eat, more noise, and definitely more people.

Crowds of eager New Year's revelers pushing their way through crowds to sample snacks, buy things, or maybe just enjoy the business.
Crowds of eager New Year’s revelers pushing their way through crowds to sample snacks, buy things, or maybe just enjoy the business.

Even regular markets have extra buzz. Excitement seemed tangible at my favorite nearby vegetable market yesterday. Well, maybe more tangible than excitement were the extra people, escalating the usually busy to place to one that required pushing to move through. Everyone was stocking up on regular supplies, but also some seasonal specialties, such as New Year’s cake (年糕).

Yum! 3 different flavors: the large block is traditional brown sugar. The other kinds are matcha and redbean, which seem to be the main variants available.
Yum! 3 different flavors: the large block is traditional brown sugar. The other colors are pieces of matcha and redbean flavored cakes, which seem to be the main variants available.

 

And then… silence.

The hustling, the bustling – it all seems to have vanished within the past day. Now that the day is finally here – finally it’s New Year’s eve – Taipei has emptied out as many residents return to their parents’ or their grandparents’ homes outside the city*. Although the grow of the Taipei city area probably still pales by comparison to much of recent growth in mainland China, many of its residents only moved from other parts of Taiwan within the past century. And so, suddenly it seems like Taipei is ¾ of the way to a ghost town now that everyone has gone home to be with their families. The public transportation is eerily empty. When the light turns green on the main road that I live next to, there is no pile up of mopeds and cars that roar forward.

The quiet in this hectic city is nice. To me it feels like a late December snowfall, bringing a magical and much-needed rest that can only be granted during a certain season.

 

Sorry about the lack of entries recently, but you can look forward to a series of updates soon – both on how the holiday week progresses and what’s been going on recently. One of my goals in the next week is to catch up on my backlog of started blog posts / ideas.

 

* I did some googling to see if I could find a good chart of population growth in Taipei City, but search results of about 10-15 minutes seemed to fall into two main categories: graphs of total Taiwanese population growth (English searches) – possibly coming from the “China-Taipei” moniker; and pictures of food (Chinese searches) – because I guess that just what people are writing in Chinese about Taipei anyway…

Taiwan’s Tea is Alive and Well

When I wrote my application to come to Taiwan, I said that I was coming to study tea. My proposal was primarily to conduct scientific study of environmental impacts of tea farming. However, the logistics of conducting a meaningful study of anything related to environmental science appear to be quickly withering away my time in Taiwan – a mere 10 month period. A project to do fieldwork in a place that you’ve never been before simply requires lots of logistics. Questions of what is where and where to go, followed by unfamiliar regulations, such as where you are allowed to do things and when… Some of these can be navigated by simply having a local walk you through the basics, or arrange things for you. But that, too, presents more complications: building the social network to do the work there. Who are the right people to talk to and are there people whom you should avoid? Who works on similar things and might have insight? I’ve been gradually stepping through all of these things as I’ve been here and learning from the process.

Freshly picked oolong tea leaves (I don't know the specific cultivar). Here is where the magic starts!
Freshly picked oolong tea leaves (I don’t know the specific cultivar). Here is where the magic starts!

I’m now going to look at sites to sample for doing a comparative study of nutrient cycling in organic and non-organic tea farms. Finding farms that are comparable is an important and difficult step. Many things will affect the soil qualities in a region (here’s where I could insert the introduction of my undergraduate thesis) so it is important to try to minimize these other factors so that I can focus on how the alternate farming practices may be responsible for differences. Once good sites have been found, I will take samples and analyze them, (there is still ongoing discussion about which samples exactly we will take because this will depend somewhat on the final locations that we choose).

 

But that wasn’t the only part of tea research that I intended to conduct while in Taiwan. I first became interested in tea because of how much I enjoyed drinking it. Yet, enjoying tea is not all about how delicious, complex, elegant and clarifying it can be to drink it (I ranted about this in more detail in an earlier entry…) It is also a large part about being able to share the appreciation with others – an appreciation that has hundreds of years of history. Tea is steeped in culture and tradition, literally and figuratively. The plants that are grown today are cultivars that have been meticulously cultivated for generations for specific tastes. The methods of making and brewing tea have also been carefully honed, practiced and passed on.

Afternoon tea and a set of traditional Chinese desserts that I enjoyed with a friend one afternoon.
Afternoon tea and a set of traditional Chinese desserts that I enjoyed with a friend one afternoon.

Understanding the modern presentation of tea in Taiwan was also one of my goals in coming here. So far, I haven’t adopted any particular methods for this. Instead, I’ve simply been keeping my eyes and ears open, asking questions, talking to as many people as possible, taking pictures and learning what I can.

 

To begin with, the forms of tea are varied. This is, itself a phenomenon worth mentioning. I’ve experienced tea in all sorts of forms:

  • street bubble tea
  • tea oil used to flavor cooking
  • careful “microbrews” of high-quality teas
  • fried tea leaves
  • tea bottled drinks of all kinds
  • tea donuts & cakes
  • … etc…

 

Tea is clearly a part of a common person’s culinary existence in this part of the world. While it is possible that some people avoid it altogether, such people would likely have to be actively working to maintain this state.

The mentality of "what can't we deep fry" has led to many things, including this dish of deep fried tea leaves. It was delicious.
The mentality “what can’t we deep fry” has led to many things, including this dish of deep-fried tea leaves. It was delicious.

Why bring this up? Obviously there is a lot of tea drinking – tea is supposedly the most-widely consumed liquid in the world excluding water (though I am somewhat skeptical as to how such a statistic is obtained). Yet, I have found myself wondering about a disappearance of tea from Taiwanese and Chinese culture. I should look for more resources to help me understand this, but I am confident that this is occurring.

This was the dessert of a set meal (套餐) that I got at Sun Moon Lake. Of course it included a cup of the black tea that is grown in the region!
This was the dessert of a set meal (套餐) that I got at Sun Moon Lake. Of course it included a cup of the black tea that is grown in the region!

Considering that Taiwan is generally even more Westernized than China, I was not sure how large of a hold tea would still have in the daily lives of people here. And sometimes when I observe my Taiwanese friends, it is apparent that tea really isn’t any more important to them than it is to many of my American friends who don’t drink any tea.

 

However, the multitudinous forms of tea keep it omnipresent. There hasn’t been a disappearance of tea here at all; instead there has been an expansion of the realms that it can occupy.  It’s not exactly the same as it used to be, but despite whatever changing identities and economic pressures it may be facing, tea has not been edged out of Taiwanese society. The traditional forms also continue along quietly alongside the new interpretations that strive keep up with the interests of modern consumers. Tea is alive and well in Taiwan.

Sometimes people might just offer you a cup to enjoy while you're out hiking on a mountain in the early morning. Actually, this happened to my dad - not me. I have some doubts that anyone who looks younger than 40 would get offered a cup of tea on a hiking trail. But maybe next time, I'll take my thermos up and be the one with the tea cups...
Sometimes strangers might just offer you a cup to enjoy while you’re out hiking on a mountain in the early morning. Actually, this happened to my dad – not me. I have some doubts that anyone who looks younger than 40 would get offered a cup of tea on a hiking trail. But maybe next time, I’ll take my thermos up and be the one offering cups of tea…

Typhoon Research – what I am working on

I apologize for the dearth of posts in the past few weeks. It has not been a lack of things to write about. I’ve been busy, but mostly I had no desire to sit at my computer any longer than I already am when I am working. This post is all about what I mean when I say “work”.  I am going to talk about the background for research project that I’ve been working on for the past several weeks.

[This is a long post, with no pictures, about the geology of Taiwan. If that doesn’t interest you, please don’t feel the need to read this! I hope to have some other posts coming soon about other topics.]

I wrote this both for you who might be interested, and for me. As you’ll see, this project is advantageous because it builds directly from a solid basis of existing knowledge and large databases. Although this is generally a good thing, I’ve been facing the difficulties keeping everything straight when it comes to what we know already know about these data, why, when, how,  and then how what I am working on is new and important. The last few days I’ve been reviewing everything that I can to try to construct a good, solid background and I hope that writing it up may help me remember things. The language may be technical, but I’ll do my best to keep things low on the jargon.

In summary, this is the story of sediment carried by the rivers of the island of Taiwan and how typhoons influence this process. Understanding sediment carried by rivers has several purposes. This material represents not only movement of land mass (ie. erosion rate vs. uplift rate) but also transfers of individual elements through the global system. Thus quantifying this sediment movement is an important part of tracking fluxes of important elements between reservoirs on Earth. Specifically, the significant movement of carbon as part of this process is occurring and what we hope to better understand to better characterize the global carbon cycle. Understanding the carbon cycle is critical for the future; we have significantly perturbed the natural processes through combustion of fossil fuels and need to understand how the system will react.

Taiwan is an interesting place geologically as it is an orogenic region (area of mountain-building) that is still undergoing rapid uplift. Specifically, the island of Taiwan can be described as Luzon Volcanic Arc collision with a package of sediments that have been pushed up out of the sea by the Philippine oceanic plate with the Eurasian continental plate convergence (Teng, 1990). To the north of Taiwan, the Philippine plate is being pushed under the Eurasian plate (subducting), whereas to the south the opposite is happening and the Eurasian plate is subducting underneath the Philippine plate. As the Philippine plate approached from the east, it plowed sediments that were deposited off the coast of the Asian continent up out of the ocean. These uplifted sediments are most Taiwan’s land mass. The Luzon Arc is/was situated on the Philippine plate, but as the two plates have moved together, islands from the Luzon arc have crashed into the built-up sediments and are now the east side of Taiwan. As a result, Taiwan is a high-relief island composed largely of sedimentary and metamorphic rocks that is still undergoing uplift.

These characteristics have placed Taiwan into an interesting geological classification known as a “high-standing island”, with the good company of Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines and New Zealand.  The high-standing islands of the Pacific have been the subject of much research because of their disproportionately high contribution to sediment movement to the ocean (Milliman & Syvitski, 1992). Simply put, geologic processes are constantly recycling material: just as mountains are pushed up, they also erode back into the ocean. And just as the rates of uplift across the globe vary from place to place, so do the rates of erosional processes. A common method to quantify erosion (although exactly how to quantify erosion rates is not a straightforward matter – I won’t get into that) is through measurements of material carried in streams and rivers. The sediments and other materials carried by these water bodies represent movement of material from their watersheds into the ocean.

When it comes to this sediment movement from land to sea, Taiwan and the other high-standing islands in the Pacific are the world’s superstars – combined they contribute approximately ~33% of total land-to-sea sediment movement (Lyons et al., 2002; Milliman & Syvitski, 1992) . Taiwan by itself is probably putting in a formidable 1-3% (which doesn’t sound like a lot at first, but glance at a map and consider how little of the Earth’s land surface is “Taiwan” before you scoff). Taiwan’s mountains are eroding at a rate of 3-6mm/year (Dadson et al., 2003)*. Furthermore, this sediment is likely carrying significant amounts of C: the rocks of the earth’s crust contain significant stores, as well as the more recently fixed organic carbon in soils and plant matter that may also be swept along as sediments in rivers (Sundquist &  Visser, 2004). When it comes to particulate organic carbon (a subset, but significant subset of the total pool of carbon), the high standing islands are possibly contributing ~35% of the global transfer from land to sea (Lyons et al., 2002).

However, these estimates still require more refinement, primarily for two reasons: 1) sediment export from Taiwan is highly episodic; 2) not all riverine POC is created equal when it comes to the goal of better understanding the influence of this sediment movement on the global carbon cycle.

Firstly, several factors contribute to Taiwan’s large yields of sediment export (that is, sediment carried per area). The island is in a subtropical climate with high rainfall. This rain provides enough water energy in the rivers to transport sediments, and therefore the erosional processes are likely to be supply-limited. Thus, the common but stochastic events of earthquakes, typhoons and their associated landslides are essential for providing material to rivers to be transported. Sediment transport rates change drastically during one of these events (Dadson et al., 2003; Kao et al., 2005). Due to the episodic nature of these events, total sediment movement for a period of time (eg, annually) is may be largely dependent on the number of these large events. Therefore, estimating sediment discharge for period of time requires data that are representative and can be generalized for other periods of time than when the sampling occurred.

Secondly, the POC carried in river sediments comes from a variety of sources, and only after properly allocating this POC to the correct source can we understand this process’s influence on the carbon cycle. An obvious source of organic carbon are the living organisms on the land of these river watersheds: pieces of plants and other organisms. Furthermore, there are organic compounds in the soils that erode into the rivers. And finally, there are rocks that can also be carried as “sediments”. While organic carbon content is not often high in rocks, it can be stored in sedimentary rocks if bits and pieces of formerly living creatures are solidified into rock. Of course, as a geological process, organic carbon storage in rock is generally considered a long-term affair, and this organic carbon is aptly called “fossil carbon”, as it is essentially very old, dead things that have become rock. Taiwan’s high mountains are sedimentary and metamorphic rocks that are relatively high in fossil carbon (Hilton et al., 2008). The plants and soil contributions to POC are “non-fossil” carbon. Non-fossil carbon will not necessarily become fossil carbon with age – only if it is buried and lithified can it enter the longer-term storage pool of fossil carbon.

Why is it important to distinguish between these two? On a geologic time scale, the plant and soil C has recently been fixed from the atmospheric pool through primary productivity whereas the fossil carbon has been stored in the rocks for millions of years. The sedimentation pattern of Taiwan likely leads to a quick route between initial physical weathering to burial in the deep sea and lithification. In the past, mountain-building events were consider a way that fossil organic C trapped in rocks is exhumed, oxidized and finally released to the atmosphere. However, it is possible that in the case of Taiwan, this fossil C doesn’t have the chance for oxidization before reburial. Thus, as Taiwan is pumping this POC to long-term storage on the bottom of the ocean, we want to know how much of it is C that has been out of the atmosphere for millennia (fossil) and how much of it may have just recently been in the atmosphere (nonfossil). Is rock storage even longer than we thought before? Is Taiwan acting as a giant carbon sink, pulling C from the atmosphere through primary productivity and then sloughing it off into the ocean?

Back to the data – how do we hope to answer these questions? The most extensive datasets about Taiwanese rivers has been collected by the Water Resources Agency and includes data for many rivers across the island going back for decades (the earliest records are in the first half of the 20th century). The length of this record will help to create an understanding of “average” which can help avoid the issues presented by the dependence on typhoons and earthquakes, which vary from year to year.  Having similar data for rivers all across the island will also allow to understand Taiwan more accurately rather than having to extrapolate from a single location on the island. For these reasons, this is an excellent data set.

But unfortunately, the majority of these data is not necessarily about sediment at all, but is actually daily measurements of water discharged by the river. By using selected samples that have both suspended sediment values and river discharge measurements, we can summarize the relationship between the two and allow for extrapolation of about of sediment carried by certain water discharge rates (Kao et al., 2005). Through other experiments with limited, but more detailed sampling, we also understand the relationships between POC and discharge, and understand whether this POC is fossil or non-fossil (Hilton et al., 2008; Hilton et al., 2012; Hilton et al., 2011; Hovius et al., 2011).

However, the extreme events of the earthquakes and typhoons most likely break these relationships. Consider a typhoon in comparison with a normal storm. The typhoon will drop lots of water in a relatively short amount of time, as well as bring huge winds which may mobilize different material than a gentle rain. For example, a deep landslide may put a lot more rock (fossil C) into the river than water flowing over the land surface, which will likely be carrying soil and plant particles (Hilton et al., 2008). Thus, separate sampling to characterize typhoon water discharge and sediment content (POC, fossil and nonfossil) have been carried out (Hilton et al., 2008). However this sampling during typhoons is extremely dangerous – hello, it’s a typhoon! – and therefore we have only limited data available to understand these events. Still, these events have given us some insight into how POC content and contributions change during large storms.

And now we finally arrive at where I am considering the data. Climate projections have estimated that there will be changes in typhoon behavior in the future. How will this change how much of the sediment, POC fossil and nonfossil movement is occurring in Taiwan? Within the span of the data that we have already collected, is it possible to see any changes occurring? What will happen for the different possible changes, such as shifts in typhoon frequency, intensity or location?

Someone whom I am working with phrased it kind of like this: the carbon cycling is speeding up before we even understand it. And that may be true, but I find it more dramatic that, understand it or not, at this point, Taiwan is along for the ride no matter what. So we might as well try to figure some things out as we go.

 

*for context, consider these uplift rates: Andes 0.6-3mm/yr; Colorado plateau 0.8mm/yr; Sierra Nevada 1-2 mm/yr; Himalayas 10mm/yr and Taiwan 5-7mm/yr. So when it comes to a geological timescale, things are happening pretty quickly in Taiwan compared to the rest of the world.

 

 

Dadson, S. J., Hovius, N., Chen, H., Dade, W. B., Hsieh, M.-L., Willett, S. D., Hu, J.-C., et al. (2003). Links between erosion, runoff variability and seismicity in the Taiwan orogen. Nature, 426(6967), 648–51. doi:10.1038/nature02150

Hilton, R. G., Galy, A., & Hovius, N. (2008). Riverine particulate organic carbon from an active mountain belt: Importance of landslides. Global Biogeochemical Cycles, 22(1), 1–12. doi:10.1029/2006GB002905

Hilton, R. G., Galy, A., Hovius, N., Chen, M.-C., Horng, M.-J., & Chen, H. (2008). Tropical-cyclone-driven erosion of the terrestrial biosphere from mountains. Nature Geoscience, 1(11), 759–762. doi:10.1038/ngeo333

Hilton, R. G., Galy, A., Hovius, N., Horng, M.-J., & Chen, H. (2011). Efficient transport of fossil organic carbon to the ocean by steep mountain rivers: An orogenic carbon sequestration mechanism. Geology, 39(1), 71–74. doi:10.1130/G31352.1

Hilton, R. G., Galy, A., Hovius, N., Kao, S.-J., Horng, M.-J., & Chen, H. (2012). Climatic and geomorphic controls on the erosion of terrestrial biomass from subtropical mountain forest. Global Biogeochemical Cycles, 26(3), 1–12. doi:10.1029/2012GB004314

Hovius, N., Galy, A., Hilton, R. G., Sparkes, R., Smith, J., Shuh-Ji, K., Hongey, C., et al. (2011). Erosion-driven drawdown of atmospheric carbon dioxide: The organic pathway. Applied Geochemistry, 26, S285–S287. doi:10.1016/j.apgeochem.2011.03.082

Kao, S., Lee, T.-Y., & Milliman, J. D. (2005). Calculating Highly Fluctuated Suspended Sediment Fluxes from Mountainous Rivers in Taiwan. Terrestrial, Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, 16(3), 653–675.

Lyons, W. B., Nezat, C. A., Carey, A. E., & Hicks, D. M. (2002). Organic carbon fluxes to the ocean from high-standing islands. Geology, 30, 443–446. doi:10.1130/0091-7613(2002)030<0443

Milliman, J. D., & Syvitski, J. P. M. (1992). Geomorphic/Tectonic Control of Sediment Discharge to the Ocean: The Importance of Small Mountainous Rivers. Journal of Geology, 100, 525–544.

Teng, L. S. (1990). Geotectonic evolution of late Cenozoic arc-continent in Taiwan. Tectonophysics, 183, 57–76.

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.