Sunday, 29 January 2012

Two Days in Tainan

In all the time I've spent so far in Taiwan, I haven't managed to travel further south than the edge of Taipei, so I was delighted to accept the invitation of a friend to join her for a couple of days in Tainan, which is about 170 miles south of Taipei. Conrad and I had the pleasure of travelling down by High Speed Rail. Here he is relaxing in the extremely generous legroom provided:

CC Lemon and Harry Potter at the ready
We experienced a hitherto unknown level of pampering on our journey. The seats were reclining, there were notices to put your mobile on vibrate and speak quietly when answering it (a request not, I have to say, always complied with), a snacks trolley and only the most necessary announcements over the intercom.

The trip took less than two hours, travelling at speeds up to 294 km/h, and I was enjoying myself so much reading and relaxing that it passed too quickly for me. I was surprised when I realised we were only 15 minutes from our destination - how could we possibly have come so far so effortlessly?

As we travelled much of the length of Taiwan, the countryside underwent a transformation from forested mountains to completely flat, farmed plains. The weather also changed markedly from damp clouds to clear, dry and blue skies. The smell of the air on leaving the train was noticeably different - light and dry with a faint perfume.

The first place we visited was the Confucius Temple in Tainan City. 

This building is also known as the Scholarly Temple, and education was to become the theme of the day. Students concerned about exam results come to the temple to pray and put in their requests for a happy outcome from their tests:

It can't hurt to ask, can it?
One of the things I really appreciated about Tainan was the pleasure of visiting older buildings. Either due to the drier climate, greater availability of space or stricter planning regulations, or most probably a little of all three, it seemed that Tainan had a greater number of preserved old buildings, and indeed it is regarded as the cultural capital of Taiwan. It is also the oldest city in Taiwan.

The advantage of accompanying Taiwanese friends was that I heard many interesting anecdotes and reflections on how things had changed in Taiwan in the last thirty years. In the temple, for example, there is a small wooden fence to step over to enter. I learned that this was a feature of all old-style Taiwanese buildings, and the reason for it was to keep roaming animals out. At the entrance to the temple grounds, there is a much higher fence that now has steps to help tourists climb it. In the past, however, it was used to keep the women out! Their dress wouldn't allow the movement to surmount it. 

The next stop was another site of educational worship:

This is Chikan Lou, also known as Chikan Tower and Fort Provintia. Formerly the site of a Dutch colonial fort, and now a top tourist attraction, the building also doubles as another place that students can come and hedge their bets for good exam results.

 Downstairs the gods of education are on display.

Upstairs you can divine your educational outcome by casting two crescent-shaped blocks to the floor. Here I am, trying to see what the fates have decided. The happy result is when the crescents land in opposite positions.




                                                                                            Unfortunately I forgot to think of what I wanted to know before throwing the crescents, so only time will tell me what they really meant.                                                           

The next stop was Anping Fort, another historic building originally erected by the Dutch to protect their interests in Taiwan. The children had a brilliant time here, irreverently clambering over the structure. Does anyone else's child completely fail to appreciate the significance of the places they visit and see them only as glorified climbing frames?

The following day we headed out of Tainan to explore some more of the region's history. This place was first on our itinerary:

How is it possible for the children to be playing in snow? No, we weren't at high altitude, the 'snow' is in fact salt!

This salt mountain is next door to the Salt Museum.

There used to be a thriving salt industry in the salty soils that surround the estuarine waters of Tainan. We spent a couple of hours at the salt mountain and in the museum itself, learning all about both the history of the area and the many uses of salt today.

Conrad found out what it felt like to lift the heavy baskets of salt onto your shoulders.

In the same area as the Salt Museum is a Black-Faced Spoonbill sanctuary and educational centre, where we learned about the successful fight to save one of the birds' few remaining over-wintering habitats from development.

Back in Tainan city, there were more sites of architectural interest. Taiwan developers are not slow to pull down old buildings and erect new, more profitable ones in their place, so seeing an example of an example of a typical Taiwanese house of yesteryear was an unusual pleasure:

Here, you can see the construction aimed at minimising the effects of earthquakes:

Only the lowest layer of the wall is made of brick. The main supports are flexible bamboo, and the infill is a mixture of clay, grass and, from memory, some animal hair too.

Some old-style shops remain as well:

An old-fashioned rice shop. My friend explained how a rice merchant was a rich man in older times. Rice used to be an expensive luxury. Poor people ate sweet potatoes as their staple, and nowadays the older generation spurn this vegetable, seeing it as a poor person's food.

Speaking of food, no excursion with Taiwanese friends is complete without several stops to enjoy the specialities of the district, or simply to have a good meal. On our first day, amongst several other meals, we had shaved ice treats. Here is my friend and her husband with a creme caramel version:


These are my friend's friend's children, finding Conrad just as interesting as their shaved ice dessert.

The food highlight of the trip was a delicious meal of freshly cooked seafood. We toured the stalls and found what looked like the best prawns and clams, then took them over to a restuarant to be cooked and, well, eaten seems too tame a word. Here we all are tucking in:

The centrepiece. Absolutely delicious:

A little depleted at the time of the photo!
All in all, a highly enjoyable and very fattening trip. Many thanks to everyone who made it possible.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Chinese New Year

Today is Chinese New Year and as I'm sitting here listening to firecrackers going off in the distance of course I must write about it.

The parent volunteers at Conrad's school got together to put on a Chinese New Year display for the multicultural parents and the schoolchildren. The display covered many of the traditions and explained their symbolism in the celebration. Naturally, I went along and learned a great deal.

Food figures highly in the concerns of the day, and each dish has its own symbolic meaning, usually to do with prosperity or family. For example:

Radish cake  = good fortune

Bream   =  surplus every year, prosperity in business

Rice cake  =  steady promotions

Peanuts  =  many descendents

Here are some more:                                                                                                                                                                                                   
I made sure to stay away from these.


     These were especially delicious.          

And a few more:   


Non- edible displays included these willow shoots. When the flower buds open the interior shines like silver, a good omen for prosperity in the new year. The food displays were definitely the most popular, at least until everyone had had a little taste of something.
In the later part of Chinese New Year celebrations, there used to be a custom of writing riddles on lanterns for the public to guess, so one of the activities for the day was guessing the meaning of a riddle.

This little girl ponders a riddle.
Some had dressed up especially for the occasion:

Another activity for the day was to guess the hidden message on the merged character cards. I don't know how well the children did at this. For me, it was intriguing but, alas, completely impossible!

Children could also make a paper cut-out of the character for spring. You can see one in the bottom left hand corner of the picture above. This is hung upside down in some homes, because the word for upside down is similar to the word for arrive. So this shows that spring has arrived! Chinese calligraphy was another activity for the day.

Unfortunately my photos don't do justice to the efforts that the parents and staff went to. The entrance area was also decorated with dragons, characters, red lanterns and general festive glitter.

As I understand it, Chinese New Year isn't celebrated identically by all Chinese people, much the same as in the West different areas and families have different Christmas traditions. But what I did learn is that this time is a time for putting aside old arguments and grudges, sweeping out the old and welcoming the new, and wishing for a prosperous and happy new year, which is my wish to you.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

The Sun in Danshui

Andy (my husband) took a rare day off work the other day and we went on an excursion to Taipei's far northern suburb, Danshui. After two months of cloud and rain, we found where the sun had been hiding all this time. 

We went for a walk along the estuary to Fisherman's Wharf, and on the way we encountered three animals tied up outside a shop.

One of these things is not like the others.....
The cynical side of me says that one or more of these beasts was destined for the pot (it was unlikely to be the dog, honestly; it was quite old, for one thing) but their owner treated all three like pets. As we walked off we realised the owner was walking behind us, with the animals dutifully following him, leads off.

You can see the owner here disappearing behind the van, and the pig trotting after him.

It turned out he was taking them all on a toilet trip. He even had a pooper-scooper to clean up after them. You can just make him out here behind the tree, leaning forward to scoop the poop.

I don't know. I hope he wasn't planning on eating them. They were lovely piggies!

The shoreline was rich with interesting sights, in fact. Here is a bride having her photo taken. Although she isn't wearing a white dress, we knew she was a bride because the groom was also present, just not in this photo. These are probably pre-wedding photos, which are often taken months before the actual wedding. Wedding couples having pre-wedding photos taken in scenic spots is a common sight (or at least, I seem to see them everywhere. The place is littered with them.)

The weather held for the whole day and we walked for several miles.

The next time I want to find the sun, I know where to try first.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

How Conrad Copes with All the Attention II

Conrad's adaptation to living in Taiwan is a popular subject with readers, so I thought I'd give an update on how he's getting on.

The first time I discussed this was in the early days of our time here, and Conrad was quite enjoying being told how cute he was, as well as receiving lots of general attention as we went about our lives here in Taipei. Now, his feelings are more complex. After a while, even an eight year old's egocentrism can be overwhelmed by excessive attention and at times this has been the case for him. Perhaps paradoxically, the people he takes most exception to staring at him are other children. If he's approached and spoken to, he's fine, but out and out staring provokes a negative response. The result is that he has honed his own staring skills to such an extent that he's now able to out-stare any other child. (It's a little unnerving to watch, to be honest.)

With other strangers, his reaction depends a lot on how he's feeling. Most of the time he still gets a little ego-boost whenever some adults (or, more usually, a group of adolescent girls) bears down on him, coo-ing. When he's tired or grumpy however, he'll either scowl or turn his head into me so he can't be seen. I think that in terms of how his self-image has been affected by living here, he feels as though he is worthy of all this attention, but that it's a little wearing at times.

Luckily, because he's quite an old child, no one attempts to grab him or carry him off somewhere, which I've heard is often the case with younger white children. Similarly, no one pinches his cheek or plants a kiss on it.  The only place he is touched, and that's rarely, is his hair. I think this is supposed to be for luck because he's blond (i.e. golden).

At school, everyone's now used to him, and those who believe in that kind of thing have already had their share of luck from his hair, so as far as is possible he's treated like the other children. It must be borne in mind that now that I'm not on site for most of the day I have less knowledge of his school life than formerly, so all of my impressions are gleaned as hearsay from other parents, teachers and Conrad himself, but he seems very happy now. His disgruntlement about going to school is at normal, occasional levels. He has a good understanding of what's happening and what's expected of him (though that isn't to say he always delivers!). As far as he can, he completes exactly the same work and does the same things as the other children. His new teacher has been instrumental in this.

Now that he's settled at school, Conrad's Chinese acquisition seems to be moving on apace. My first indication of this was when he wanted to play Rock, Paper, Scissors with me, and proceeded to chant the Chinese version. He's also occasionally inadvertently responds 'dui' instead of 'yes', particularly if we're looking at his homework, when I suppose he has his 'Chinese head' on. It's interesting to hear the difference in pronunciation between the language that he's picking up at school and that which he's learning through being taught characters in extra classes. With the former, his pronunciation is perfect in the sense that he effortlessly produces the correct tones, with the latter it's more like mine, i.e. very hit and miss!

It's clear that he's learning mostly through playing with other children. As well as Rock, Paper, Scissors, he also knows the words to 'Mu Tou Ren' which is a version of 'What's the Time Mr. Wolf?'. And, as we were sitting in our apartment one time he remarked that our neighbour's little girl was being told to hurry up because we could hear her mother saying 'kuai dian' to her.

In short, he's going through the normal stages of any child going to live in any new country. He's gradually finding himself feeling more and more at home here, learning the language and adapting to the different culture and customs. He's also learning a lot about diligence and respect at school, I think, as well as Chinese. I must give him due credit by saying that he's working extremely hard.

This isn't to say we don't have fun too. This weekend just gone we road our bikes beside the river again and on Sunday we went to the Discovery Centre near Taipei 101. With Chinese New Year imminent we also have a couple of longer trips planned, but I'll tell you all about those in another post.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way Back from Taekwando

There's something about living in another culture and not really speaking the language that lends certain experiences a surreal air. One such incident occurred recently.

I was coming back from taking Conrad to Taekwando in the early evening when I noticed a smartphone on the pavement. Naturally, I picked it up and looked around for its owner, but the road was empty. Then the phone started ringing. I was in a dilemma. If this had happened to me in England I would have answered the phone, of course, established who it belonged to, and arranged to get it back to them somehow. But here, there isn't much point in my answering a call from a stranger as I'm unlikely to be able to understand a word they say.

What to do? Taking it to the security guard at our block of flats would be the quickest way of getting the phone back to its owner, I thought. But no, the security guard told me I should take it to the police station. No problem, the police station was just around the corner. Off I went. Somehow, I managed to convey to the police that this wasn't my phone, that I had found it and I just wanted to hand it in. End of story? Not quite.

Despite clearly demonstrating that I'm a complete idiot by staring blankly at the officer whenever he spoke to me, the police felt they needed my further involvement. Another officer beckoned me to follow him out to his car. Soon I found myself in the back of an unmarked police vehicle (where, I have to say, the seatbelts didn't work, even though the law has been changed recently to require buckling up in the back ), travelling to an unknown destination.

I was starting to feel slightly nervous. After all, I was alone with a strange man, in a strange car, travelling I knew not where, or why.
"Ummmm.........where are we going?" - I know that much Chinese at least.
"Garble garble garble garble......garble garble." Gesture back to where we came from and forward to where we're going. I understood the word for 'the same'. I took this to mean we were going to another police station. And, yes, we arrived there a few minutes later.

The problem having been explained by my accompanying officer, I became an object of interest and not inconsiderable amusement to the staff at the new station. 'May I help you?' one joked before rambling off again in Chinese. This general air of festivity was brought to an end when the smartphone rang again. The new possessor of the phone answered and after a brief conversation, finally, it became clear that the owner was on their way to pick it up.

A car pulled up just a few minutes later. A woman walked in and as the officer was talking to her I found out what my blank stare looks like because this person was doing the same thing. She looked at me questioningly.
"I think he said 'meiguoren' (American)," I said.
"Oh," she said.
Yes, she didn't speak Chinese either.

Then her husband walked in. At last, someone who could communicate with the police. As everyone was establishing exactly what had happened where, when, why and by whom, I noticed the police officer who had brought me there making his way to the door.

He can't be leaving, can he? I thought. I had just been taking my son to Taikwando when all this happened. I had no phone, no purse, and had no idea where I was. It would be silly to drive someone a few miles away from home at no notice and then just abandon them, wouldn't it? my thoughts continued. I mean, the police would be the last people you would expect to do such a thing. Something between disbelief that this was happening and the inability to think of the right words in Chinese cast me into muteness as the officer left.

My fellow non-Chinese speaker must have seen the look of panic on my face.
"Can we give you a lift home?" she asked.
What a relief.

They were a very nice couple, Linda and Royce, and very grateful that I'd handed their phone in, even though anyone would do the same. The wife was either Indonesian or Thai, I think and her husband Chinese. They invited me to their church on Sunday.

After they'd taken me home, as I got out of their car, Linda shook my hand and as she did so, deposited a red envelope (a traditional Chinese New Year money gift) into my hand. I was alarmed.
"No, no, really, there's no need," I said.
Linda kept insisting and I kept saying no, and I got into one of those awful quandaries where I didn't know if it was rude to accept or rude to refuse. In the end I accepted, and on opening the envelope later was dismayed to find $NT2000 in there (about £40).

When I was telling this story and explaining my inadequate knowledge of the social etiquette in this situation to a Taiwanese friend later, he said the correct thing to do if I don't want to accept the money is to keep the envelope but give the money back. So now I know.

Never mind. I know of a good charity to donate it to. And the next time I see a phone in the street, I'm going to point it out to the first Taiwanese person I see.