Saturday, 23 June 2012

Wulai Dragonfly

I'm very pleased to be having Number 2 son staying with us at the moment on his long university summer break, particularly because this means I can have some company on long walks in the mountains.

Last week we took the advice of Richard Saunders in his wonderful book Taipei Escapes and went on a moderately easy walk starting in Wulai. There are many more risky hiking routes and I'm sure Number 2 son would have enjoyed some adventure, but with the heavy rains we've been having recently I didn't want to risk anything more challenging. This walk takes you past the tourist sites of the village and the waterfall and into the Neidong National Forest.

We caught the 849 bus from Xindian station on a weekday when there is less of a crowd. Apart from the occasional shower the rain held off for the whole day.

The waterfall was in full flow however. Here it is with my son in shot to put its height in perspective:

I'll let the breath-taking scenery speak for itself.

The mountains were teeming with life. We passed several twitchers with large, expensive cameras on tripods trying to get that perfect shot of the local birdlife. We made sure to creep past quietly!

My own photos were limited to smaller creatures.

This is a baby version of the grown ups featured in my post on Giant Spiders, measuring only two or three inches toe-to-toe. The intricate patterning is fascinating, but, my, these are scary in the flesh. 

The national forest is full of waterfalls. There was hardly anyone else around, the weather was dry but not too hot, and the entire walk was delightful.

Then came a special moment. For a long time I've been trying to get a photo of a dragonfly. They're so flighty it's nearly impossible to get one in shot, in focus, and close-up before it's flitted away again. But that day, in keeping with the perfection of our walk, this little creature decided he would be obliging.

I think maybe he was drinking or tasting the sweat on my hand? I don't know, but I was so glad I hadn't put insect repellent on that day.

On our way back one of the twitchers was excited to show us shots of the Formosan Magpie he'd managed to take, rewarded for his hours of waiting. They were rather more spectacular than my dragonfly photos, but I didn't begrudge him. He'd invested an entire day, whereas I'd just happened to have a sweaty hand. They looked something like this:

Everyone was having a good day that day.

With poetic timing, just as we returned to Wulai to catch the bus back to Taipei, the river mist started to rise.

The perfect end to a perfect day.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Muzha - A River Runs Through It

We live in Muzha. I like this placename because it's easy to remember the intonation. I just have to think 'Damn! Damn!' to myself whenever I say it.

Muzha is a very nice place to live. It's right on the edge of Taipei so you have the best of both worlds - easy access to all the conveniences of city living, but also lots of fresh air and beautiful mountains to hike.

It also has Taipei Zoo, the Maokong Gondola and the Maokong tea houses, all of which are important tourist attractions. The tea houses serve tea grown on nearby plantations.

A rather less attractive aspect of Muzha is its incinerator, which has a stack decorated with a huge giraffe in keeping with the zoo theme of the area. It looks as though the stack is quite close to the zoo but in fact it's deceptively far away, as we found out when we decided to walk to it the other day.

We set off in what seemed to be the right direction, walking down the main road which borders the river separating us from the zoo. As always, there were many interesting sights on the way. One of these was an orchard of strange fruit. The road is raised about the flood plain of the river so that the tops of the trees are level with it.

I noticed large, drop-shaped, green citrus fruit ripening on branches. At our level you could reach out and touch them, so I did, cradling the fruit in my hand to feel the weight, wondering what it was.

"Pick it," urged my son. I hesitated.

"Go on, pick it," he said again.

"No, better not," I said and took my hand away.

At that moment a woman on a scooter drew up alongside us, smiling broadly.

"Hello! That's a blah-de-blah," she said in Chinese.

"Oh, it's a blah-de-blah?" I replied.

"Yes, they're ten dollars," she said.

We chatted a little. The usual things. She said she was off to the village up the road. We parted amicably. For once, I'd avoided embarrassing myself. But the retribution came anyway. In the course of the conversation I'd picked up two big mosquito bites.

We didn't make it to the incinerator stack in the end. It was too far away and on an entirely different road.

This is the view from our apartment. The buildings across the river indicate the position of Taipei Zoo.

It's a wonderful view to have from your living room as you're eating breakfast in the mornings.

It  isn't so pleasant to wake up to this view, however.

This is the sight that greeted me on Tuesday morning last week. One thing you can say about northern Taiwan is that it really knows how to rain. `We found out later that it rained 27 inches in 24 hours. At the time this photo was taken it was still going, and I could see the river rising before my eyes.

I will confess to some mild hysteria here. You can see on the near side of the river there are flood barriers.  I was seriously concerned that the river was going to breach these imminently. It was seven o' clock in the morning. I went and woke my husband up so that we could go to the supermarket on the first floor and get emergency supplies in case we were flooded out (he's a tolerant man).

After buying said supplies I then faced the question of whether to take my son to school. I texted my friend and, amazingly, the school was going to be open. If I wasn't going to take my son in, I'd have to phone the teacher and let her know.

Well, I know a little Chinese, but did I know how to say, "I'm sorry I'm not bringing my son to school today because we live opposite a river and I think it's going to flood, and I'm worried I won't be able to get out to  pick him up again later."? I did not.

Meanwhile, the river looked like this:

And it was still raining.

It took an hour and a half to get to school. The rain poured down. The roads were flooded. People were standing up to their knees in floodwater waiting for buses which were the only things that could get through in some places.

I deposited my son at school an hour late and waded home. (An exaggeration but that's how it felt. In fact, I took the MRT on a roundabout route to avoid the flooded roads and packed buses). As I walked in the door, I got a phone call. The Government had decided to close schools and workplaces for the day. think?

A friend kindly offered to give my son a lift home. Thank goodness for friends.

Yes, Muzha is a very nice place to live. Most of the time.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Taiwan is Another Country, They Do Things Differently There

Much has already been written on the differences between the East and the West, about communal and individualistic cultures, and about how attitudes and values differ according to nationality. All of that is true and apparent to me living here. I spent the greater part of my career teaching English to immigrants, and I also lived in another Asian country for a while a long time ago, so I know to an extent what to expect from our experience of living in Taiwan.

Such things don't really interest me anymore. In fact, what always strikes me and seems to be the more pervasive 'truth' is how similar humans are, deep down. Language barrier aside, it's still possible to share a joke or an experience with another person of any nationality and understand things from their perspective. We tend to focus on the differences between people, but in my experience there's far more that unites us than sets us apart.

It's the less predictable things, the small, surprising differences, that tickle my fancy. These are things that take my notice, make me pause and sometimes make me wonder exactly what's going on.

Take toilets, for example. Toilets are great here, they really are. Of course, as in most countries, the further you get off the beaten track the more challenging the toilets become. Civilisation has less of an impact the closer to nature you get. But generally speaking, in the cities the toilets are clean and well-maintained, often by cleaners who are always on-site.

On my beloved MRT, there is usually an electronic display at the toilet entrance showing you which ones are free or occupied. There are signs to tell you which kind of toilet (Western or Asian) you'll find waiting for you behind the door. But best of all, in each toilet, there's an emergency button to press and summon aid should you need it.

I'm not exactly sure what kind of help you might need. In fact, I'd rather not think about it. But it's reassuring that should you have a toilet emergency, assistance is the press of a button away.

Another source of perplexity to me continued for some time before I finally solved the puzzle. On the route to my son's school we pass a much larger school with a large, high wall and decorative railings across the top. One day as we passed I noticed an old man attaching some pillows to them with string.

I mulled this over all the rest of the way to school. Was he planning on climbing the railings and he needed some kind of cushion? Was it an ancient Taiwanese signalling system of some kind? One pillow on the railings meant a conspiracy revealed, two pillows meant meet me here at midnight, that kind of thing?

I couldn't figure it out. Why would someone tie their pillows to school railings? This went on for weeks. Sometimes it was pillows, sometimes sheets, occasionally a duvet. Each time I thought to myself, there has to be a rational explanation for this. The old man didn't look insane in any other way.

Then, on one of the first fine, dry days of the year, Taipei bloomed with bed linen. Everywhere you went, people were drying their washing in public places. Railings, fences, children's playgrounds, anywhere that would hold a large item securely, there would be someone's damp bedclothes. The old man had just been ahead of the game.

I found it quite heartwarming, to be honest. People obviously felt that the risk of someone stealing, or tearing, or besmirching their property was extremely low.

I'm not sure about how the children who would normally use the playgrounds felt about it, mind you.

A final sight that caused me to do a double-take when I first saw it is the phenomenon of human sign supports.

These are people who are paid (or, at least, I sincerely hope they are paid) to stand at intersections holding signs. All day.

Such signs seem to appear mostly at weekends, so I assume this is a way to earn a little money for doing a very easy but very boring job. Not to mention what it must be like when it rains.

But then again, is this so very different from the sandwich board bearers you still occasionally see walking up and down in shopping centres in the UK?

As I said, our similarities are greater than our differences.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Learning a Little More Chinese

If you're intent on learning to speak another language, you have to accept that sometimes you're going to make some silly mistakes.

We were getting a lift back from school with a friend the other day when my son asked me how to say 'bag' in Chinese.

 "Daizi," I replied.

"What did you say?" asked my friend.

"Daizi. That's right isn't it?"

"No, that's the word for stupid."

Oh dear. I say 'daizi' a fair bit because you have to buy special bags at the 7-11s to put your non-recyclable rubbish in. So I've been asking for the 'garbage stupid' all this time. Luckily the sales assistants have guessed I'm referring to bags and not them (or me).

I actually had the right word in a sense, although I think it's actually just 'dai' in this context, but the wrong tone, which of course in Mandarin makes it the wrong word.

Still, I plough on. I'm nearing the end of Practical Audio Visual Chinese Book 2 and am still resolved to abandon the series once I've finished this book. I'm now finding the mainland pronunciation to be irritating and confusing. I listen to the CDs that accompany the books a lot and I'm aware that I'm training my ear to expect to hear things differently from the language around me. It's a bit like learning BBC English and expecting to hear it in London.

What to continue with, though? In my previous post on this subject I mentioned the DeFrancis Beginner Chinese series, which I'll definitely use, but probably more for reading practice as once again the speakers on the audio tracks have mainland Chinese accents. Another series that has been recommended to me is Far East Chinese, which apparently uses a more communicative approach and teaches more useful language. PAVC leaves teaching the word for toilet to the end of Book 2. I'm so glad I didn't wait around to learn that one.

Other materials have come on the market in recent years that are modelled more on the Western style of education, otherwise known as trying to make things a little more fun. I've got these three texts to practise my reading too:

I'm looking forward to trying out some jokes on my friends, ha ha.

Learning Chinese is a good excuse to watch trashy TV. I've been following the currently airing Taiwanese drama Love Forward (with subs). It has all the ingredients of a popular TV series: comedy, action, romance and tragedy. While blubbing into my green tea, I've found that I'm hearing the language I know in new structures and contexts and picking up the odd new vocabulary item along the way. I also watched Smiling Pasta while in the UK and learned one of my first Chinese words - 'wugui' the word for turtle.

What I really need is live day to day interaction in Chinese, though. Currently I'm limited to things like shouting to the bus driver that I want to get off the bus when he starts to pull away (some people need to learn not to block the exits with their bags, they really do). All of my friends here speak very good English, naturally, as it isn't really possible yet for me to make friends with people who don't speak English. And I'm not working outside the home either, so there are no encounters with work colleagues.

Even my language exchange partner has deserted me. She's now married her foreign diplomat fiance and he's got a post in Palau for three years. Exchange partners are easy to find here, once you've weeded through the young women who have other ambitions in mind than improving their English. I just need to ignore the ones who show coquettish photos of themselves on their advertisements.

So my progress is quite slow. I'm getting better, though. I can understand what people say to me in reply if it's fairly simple. Now I'm at the stage where having a conversation in Chinese is like losing an argument - I can think of something really good to say a few minutes after the opportunity has passed. But I do try. Taxi drivers, security guards, friendly old ladies in the street, I subject all of them to my bad Chinese. I find I do much better if I pretend to myself I'm very fluent and highly knowledgeable.

Confidence is everything.