Sunday, July 25, 2004

Qu’ils mangent du gâteau !

  For the non-French speaking crowd, that would be the famous quote “Let them eat cake.”  A lame excuse for a threat if you ask me, but one used (supposedly, although my high school French teacher seems to think it’s all a nasty rumor) by Marie Antoinette during the first French Revolution (out of six) upon finding out that the peasants had run out of bread.
What does this have to do with anything, you might ask?  In addition to being inspired by an article I saw in today’s paper that claims that Napoleon died of an enema (and I thought it was stomach cancer all this time…okay fine, that’s what specialists thought, I don’t think I ever considered how Napoleon died before this evening), it actually has more to do with tonight’s dinner—eating cake seemed like a much less daunting of a task when I found myself at one of Taibei’s all-you-can-eat dessert bars.
My friend Nick woke up this morning to a corneal abrasion caused by removing his contact the previous night.  After a trip to the hospital, and a day walking around downtown Taibei with a huge patch covering half of his face (the eye doctor got a little happy with the tape), we both agreed that a relaxing evening was in order.  So cards and cake for dinner it was.  Nick seems to think that all-you-can-eat places are all the rage these days in Taiwan—he thinks it has something to do with recent (more or less) prosperity.  He likened it to America’s obsession with the concept back in the 90s, but I only seem to remember being haunted by memories of Country Buffet in Illinois.  I suppose it is better than that with which I’m haunted nowadays, the voice of the lady who reads out the Taibei MRT stops in Hakka (a local Taiwanese language) repeatedly saying “koki allo zhan” (Technology Building Station) is penetrating all of my dreams.  Creepy!  But I digress.  I guess my point is that I don’t have particularly fond memories of all-you-can-eat buffets.  Were they really popular?  And if so, why do you think that was (okay that’s the food sociologist in me speaking)?
Anyway, back at this cake joint, I worked my way through a piece of black forest cake (which has the exact same name in Chinese BTW), a croissant, chocolate mousse, garlic bread (don’t ask me why this was included in the cake menu), and tea cake.  And by tea cake, I mean quite literally tea cake.  Specifically, it was a green tea cake, with red beans (adzuki if you will) in the frosting and everything.  It’s a combination that I think originated in Japan, but is also quite prevalent in Taiwan.  McDonalds even has a green tea and red bean McFlurry if you can believe it (it’s really good BTW).
But my new favorite dessert is actually cua bing (pronounced something like tswa bing).  Imagine a big ice cone with toppings and you’re heading in the right direction.  For example, my last one was shaved ice drizzled in syrup covering red beans, tapioca balls, mango chunks, and taro root (as opposed to either green tea or yam) flavored rice flour dumplings (think gnocchi).  So good!  There are plenty of other options as well (most of them jellied…or agar-ed rather), though I understand that condensed milk is also a common addition.
I was originally planning on using this example of a Taiwanese dessert to help explain today’s fun facts (regarding obesity figures), but I can’t help feeling that the all-you-can-eat dessert place didn’t help my argument.  Essentially, my theory was that Taiwanese are generally less caloric and healthier—I mean the dessert is essentially ice, beans and rice.  Fruit is another common dessert.  But maybe that’s why sociology is such a frustrating discipline, because there are so many causes, and social trends are so hard to nail down.
And now on to the sizzling sino-thoughts for Saturday:
1/3-  The amount of the Taiwanese population that is considered overweight or obese.
2/3-  The amount of the US population that is considered overweight or obese.
1-  The average number of hours I spend walking per day here in Taiwan (despite the heat).
15-  The average number of minutes I spent walking per day in the US.
Cause and effect?

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Lions, and tigers, and... snakes? Oh my!

Well, it’s time yet again for an update from little old me. Last time people (okay my dad) complained that drinking stories were hardly interesting, and that it was the cultural experiences that were really more appropriate for posting. I pretty much disagree on the basis that life here has pretty much become exactly that, life, and emphasizing how normal things are here helps to break down misperceptions about how foreign foreign countries really are. But, in order to somewhat appease him, though without really cow towing to the parental authority, I thought I’d pick another aspect of life here to discuss this time (that and I haven’t really had anything to drink since the last time I wrote…).

Today’s topic: Taiwan’s biodiversity. It simply astounds me on a daily basis. At first I thought that maybe it was just that I wasn’t used to a semi-tropical clime and the ecosystem such a clime supports. However, upon further consideration, I’ve decided that it’s not really the case. It’s not like it’s the first time I’ve seen a lot of these animals/insects/etc, it’s just the first time I’ve seen them all in the same place and on such a consistent basis. Take for example the animals sighted (or heard, damn cicadas) on an average walk home: several varieties of lizards (one of them has this crazy purple florescent tail. I’ll try and get a picture for people, cause it’s just really cool!), frogs, slugs, cicadas, birds, bats, a snake (the one I saw was probably like a meter and a half long!!), florescent beetles, ants, praying mantises, millipedes, spiders (some bigger than others), and probably more that I’m blanking out on at the moment.

What have I learned from this astounding biodiversity you ask? Simple:

Lesson 1: Ants are the enemy.
Lesson 2: Ants are most definitely the enemy.
Lesson 3: Bats are schizos. I had never realized how different their flight style really was from birds. They change directions so fast, and they seem to always be doing so. They have none of the grace of birds, but are just as interesting to watch.
Lesson 4: Yes that log in the middle of the street is actually a snake (thank goodness I was actually paying attention that time…)
Lesson 5: Sitting on anthills is a bad idea.
Lesson 6: Sitting on benches on top of anthills is an equally bad idea (*grumble*).
Lesson 7: The real name for cicadas should be “obnoxiously-loud-to-the-point-that-it’s-almost-oppressive-forever-screeching insects.”
Lesson 8: Praying mantises are not to be disturbed.
Lesson 9: Spiders are amazing creatures. The Xinhua News Agency (mainland China’s official news agency) reported that several farmers in southern China witnessed a spider ensnare and poison a snake in its web the other day. Talk about getting a dose of your own medicine.
Lesson 10: Watch where you step!

And even though that’s kind of like fun facts, I thought I’d leave you with yet another few:
2- The rank of mainland China’s economy in the world—second only to the US.
1.3 billion- Mainland China’s current population
280 million- The US’s current population
2035- The year India’s population is expected to surpass that of mainland China.
10%- The percent of energy consumed per capita in mainland China as compared to per capita consumption in the US!!! In other words, the average Chinese household consumes 1/10 the energy that an average American household consumes. Of course, they are already experiencing rolling blackouts in Shanghai because energy consumption is maxed out. Perhaps the American ideal, for which the Chinese are so desperately striving, needs to be reevaluated…

Monday, July 05, 2004

Quatre juillet à la taiwanaise

When in doubt, revert to French, that's what I always say! Besides, I was inspired: people are busy setting off fireworks as we speak (late is better than never, right?).

Anyway, I'm back for another round of my parallel universe blast-o-grams. Hopefully it will be as good for you as it is for me ;o). These past couple of weeks have been minorly eventful in their own right. Actually, and I swear this is not typical of my life in Taiwan no matter how much you might believe, the most fun stories have involved alcohol.

Story 1- Why bringing beer on hikes is the worst idea ever (future MCAT question, I assure you): A couple of weekends ago Nick, me, and a few other acquaintances here in Taiwan (including a professor of British origin) went on a hike in the hills behind campus. The British professor, being British, suggested that we bring beer to have for lunch on this journey. Me, being a lush, thought it wasn’t a horribly bad idea. A bad idea maybe, but not horribly bad. I sat through enough biology to know that alcohol is a diuretic, or as my biology teacher (also of the British persuasion as a matter of fact) called it back in high school, a “wee.” But it was only going to be one beer, right? Well, that was fine for me, but when it came to Nick, who appeared to already be dehydrated, it wasn’t the best of all ideas, especially since we were busy climbing up what were effectively cliffs using ropes. But with minor injuries—okay fine, no injuries but it sounds more exciting that way—we made our way all the way up and around. It was actually an absolutely beautiful hike, and you could see for miles (or kilometers, your preference) despite the omnipresent Taiwan mist.

Story 2- A friend from Whitman and I have two personal traditions that we hold near and dear to our hearts. Hers: throwing up the day after drinking too much. Mine? Throwing up in capital cities after drinking too much. That’s right, such fortunate cities as London, Paris, Walla Walla (capital of my heart?), and now Taibei have been blessed with my, umm, upheavals. But, in what is quite the twist of fate, I’ve now apparently also joined her club, not throwing up until the morning after. It was a great way to start the 4th. I really don’t think that I had had that much to drink the night before, at least not comparatively, but I blame it on some crazy Korean alcohol and the fact that it was the first time I had really drunk in almost a month. At least I can say I’m in a new club, right?

As for the fourth, Nick and I fêted it up for us Americans by bowing to the whims of the Hollywood hegemony and seeing Shrek 2. We wanted to see Spiderman 2 since his suit is red, white, and blue, but it was all sold out. Then it was off to a Japanese department store to watch the diffusion/cooption/integration of American culture in other ones. Okay, so really we went to eat Korean kim chee. We figured that since it was red and white, it could pass as patriotic? Hey, when you’re abroad for the 4th, as I often am, you’ve gotta make do with whatcha got!

Besides my weird morning this morning I feel as though there is not much else to report, with the distinct exception of my Titillating Taiwanese Tidbits for Tuesday! So here goes nothing:

3- The number of times my glasses have fogged up after exiting an air conditioned building/bus into the sultry Taiwan weather.
NT$250- The cost of a student ticket to the movies here in Taibei (approximately US$7.50). And for comparison:
NT$50- The cost of a cheap lunch here (approximately US$1.50, or 1/5th the cost of a movie...)
5- The number of days it took for the “typhoon” Mindulle to finally hit Taibei.
20-30- The wind speed in MPH of said typhoon by the time it hit Taibei…I’ve seen stronger storms in Colorado. But to be fair…
18- The number of people killed by the same typhoon in Southern Taiwan

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Taibei 102

Well, in yesterday's e-mail I promised more, and you know I'm a man
of my word so I couldn't help myself but write again!

Okay, so I was bored. But still, one must be somewhat impressed with
e-mails two days in a row. Plus, this one comes with a special
surprise! What you ask? Well, it's multimedia! That's right,
assuming everything works right, just follow the link below for a
short slideshow of pics from Taiwan to accompany all my crazy tales.

And on to the heart of the matter. A lot has happened in the two-odd
weeks since I wrote that first e-mail to talk about. Around Taibei I
have seen a few more sights, including the Chiang Kaishek (CKS)
Memorial with accompanying National Theatre and National Concert
Hall, the Shilin Night Market, the jade and flower markets, the
Palace Museum, spent some time in book stores, gone to a tea house,
and have generally wandered the hills behind our campus looking for
poisonous snakes. Outside of Taibei I managed a daytrip down to
Taizhong to visit my Chinese professor from Whitman who was on
sabbatical last year, and up to Qilong (aka Keelung) for a trip to a
petrified beach, and even ventured up Yanming Mountain to see
Taiwan's volcanoes.

A group of six Americans studying here went and saw a dance
performance at the Experimental Theatre in the National Theatre a few
weeks ago. It was based off Eileen Chang's literature, and though it
was well done for the most part, the first half was a little
strange...and that's coming from the guy that was a pregnant lesbian
in his last dance performance. I think that it might have helped to
understand some more of the Chinese. That or perhaps having a better
familiarity with Eileen Chang, for the part in English didn't make
that much more sense: 142 Hollywood Ave, Pasedena. 425 Orange Grove,
Pamona. 164 Ceder Hill, Hollywood...

The night market was also an adventure. I managed to only buy a new
bag and these crazy Puma flip flops. The flip flops are crazy
because they are each a semi-circle, so when you're standing on them
you look like you're on a landing pad or something. I also tried the
previously mentioned octopus ink sausage as well as something called
chou doufu, or stinky tofu. I'm not yet a fan of the latter--it
really smells bad--but I've heard it's an acquired taste.

Qilong was also quite enjoyable. We went and visited a rock
formation that was just incredible. It's pretty much all sedimentary
rock, sandstone, so it looks like you're sitting on a beach, but it's
really just rocks! We ate some more crazy things there including
a "nutritious sandwich," which was essentially a fried stick of dough
stuffed with sweetened mayonnaise, sausage, and a pickled egg. It is
here that I tried the blood rice as well. And for desert, first it
was cherry tomatoes dipped in caramel, followed by ice with red
beans, and small green tea flavored rice dumplings (they look kind of
like gnocchi). It definitely helped cool me off.

And that is a necessity this time of year. I don't even think it's
the hot season yet, but damn, it's hot. Yesterday was
saying that it was 98 out, but felt like 108 with the humidity and
whatnot. We don't yet have AC in the dorms, which is unfortunate.
They are installing it, but rumors are it won't be done until mid- August (just in time for me to leave...).

Classes, though early in the morning, are generally good. I have
four Japanese students in my class (whose accent is tougher to
understand than I expected, even in English), a Korean, a Brit, and
me. Since I only have class for two hours everyday, I actually
mainly just spend my time reading. I've got five books down so far,
and am on to number six. Something about making up for four years of
forced reading methinks.

Well, that pretty much brings us up-to-date methinks, so it's time to
say goodbye. I hope all of you are properly enjoying your summers!


Fun Facts (and this time it is even Friday!)
6- The number of varieties of poisonous snakes in Taiwan including a
rattler, several vipers, and a cobra.
20NT$- The cost of my new favorite beverage, bubble tea, here on
77.5- The average number of pages of pleasure reading I've done per
day since my arrival...and I haven't been reading every day.

Taibei 101

Well, again I find myself in a foreign country with limited access to the internet, and you know what that means: time for my patented blast-o-grams of course. I was hoping to avoid them this time around, but it just seems like the most obvious thing to do. If, however, you'd prefer not to get these fun mailings, just let me know. Also, if you'd prefer that I use a different e-mail address, that would be good to know as well. Now onto the good stuff...

I've been in Taiwan for almost two days now. The flight went generally well, though the movie selection and the four hour layover in Tokyo left something to be desired. But then my friend Nick picked me up at the airport here in Taibei, and we went for an hour long taxi ride back to the dorms, where I promptly had to go buy a "mattress" for my dorm bed. It might could use a little bit more padding, but oh well. I have three roommates, all of which seem quite nice. Two of them appear to be Taiwanese and just graduated the other day with journalism degrees. The other is a Japanese student in the same language program that I am in here at the university.

As for Taibei itself, it a quite extraordinary city. Chengda (pronounced more like zhengda-the Taiwanese have had some trouble with their transliterations...), the university that I'm at, is actually a bit outside the city center and up on a hill. In fact, it's a 20/30 minute MRT ride in (don't ask me what MRT stands for, but picture an elevated version of the trains they have at DIA or SEA-TAC and you're on the right track). It means that we've got a great view of the city-center, and the feeling of being right next to a forest, but the 15-minute hike up the hill to the dorm is going to be a bitch in the midsummer heat.

Yesterday I did venture into the downtown area a bit. It reminds me a lot of Tokyo-at least the part that I toured around yesterday. Taiwan is now home to the tallest building in the world (which I just found out the other day) called 101 (pronounced yi-ling-yi in Chinese). At the base they have a crazy big mall with all the name brands you could ever want. Prada, Gucci, Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, Sisley, Mango, and even The North Face! I guess I'm not quite sure how the Taiwanese can afford these stores, but maybe I just have a grand misperception of the Taiwanese. Needless to say, the pink, striped, pre-wrinkled Tommy Hilfiger shirt I bought at the Bon in Pasco for around 20 bucks (or less, I don't exactly remember) was priced on sale here at around NT$1500, or roughly $45!

My favorite part of yesterday was, while walking back to the MRT station from 101, I stumbled across a Swenson's Ice Cream Shop. For all of you not "in the know," Swenson's is originally a San Francisco ice cream shop, that we used to have in Fort Collins as well. Anyway, when I was young, my parents would take me out for ice cream there, and I would get a Mr. Clown. A Mr. Clown is an ice cream cone turned upside down on a plate with a cheery put on top, a ring of whipped cream around where the cone meets the ice cream, and two gumballs jammed into the ice cream for eyes. Although they didn't have a Mr. Clown at the store in Taibei, it still brought me back.

Anyway, since this letter already seems awfully long, I'll sign off here with my contact information and by bringing back the Fun Facts-I don't care if it isn't Friday.

Kim-chee topped raw squid: the most "interesting" thing I've eaten since my arrival that I haven't liked Blood rice/octopus ink dyed sausage: the most "interesting" thing I've eaten since my arrival that I have liked (it's a tie) 101-the number of stories (I think) as well as the address and name of the tallest building in the world. 2.65 million- the population of Taibei
7-11- the most popular, or at least most abundant, store I've seen in Taibei