Sunday, 30 September 2012

The Other Side of Yangmingshan

Last night something happened for the first time in months. No, probably not what you're thinking. I had to actually use bedcovers! Yes, the weather has turned. There's a chill in the air that makes me reminisce about British summers.

This weekend was Mid-Autumn Festival, which in Taiwan generally involves lots of mooncake eating and stepping over impromptu barbecues out on the street. Oh, and fireworks. There are always fireworks.

As well as becoming autumnal, the weather also obligingly turned clear, and the festive full moon was visible.

This is wonderful walking weather, just right for more mountain exploring.

We decided to go to Yangmingshan, the national park that sits on the north-eastern edge of Taipei.

If you like walking in natural landscapes, Yangmingshan is like having Christmas available every day of the year. It's 11,500 hectares of mountains, just-about-dormant volcanoes, waterfalls, lakes, fumaroles, high plains, hot springs, beautiful views, forests and wooded trails. It can be accessed by bus and car, and also by simply walking up into it from the city. Normally, we would catch the S15 bus from Jiantan MRT station, then at the visitor centre, transfer to the 108 leisure bus that departs every five minutes or so, circling the park.

But on a festival weekend the usual routes would have been very crowded, so we decided to explore the other side.

As always, we turned to Richard Saunders to be our guide. Following Yangmingshan - the Guidewe approached the national park from the Beitou side and got into the mountains by following a stream coming down, finding a street, turning left at number 95, and climbing up the concealed steps that started behind it.

Mountain walking around Taipei is often very homogenous. Lots of steps up, a stunning view, then lots of steps down, but it's something I don't think I'll ever tire of.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Raising an Almost Bilingual Child

Learning to speak cat.

My son's teacher kindly emailed me a soft copy of one of this week's homework tasks - a poem to be memorized. This is standard work for schoolchildren in Taiwan. It helps them to learn to read new characters, and to find out about their cultural heritage through poetry. The teacher was trying to help by giving me something I could put into Google Translate.

There was only one problem: the copy was in characters only. It had no accompanying bopomo (a phonetic Mandarin script). Without this, my son has no idea how to say any unfamiliar characters. And, lacking a parent at home who can read Chinese, no one to help him.


Raising your child to be bilingual is a worthwhile aspiration, I think. There are many studies that show the cognitive benefits of bilingualism, and let's not forget the advantages in the job market.

One of our main reasons for coming to live in Taiwan was so that our son could be fluent and literate in English and Mandarin, as well as experience living in another culture. And we've come a long way since I wrote this post back in August last year. At that time neither of us could say much more than hello and thank you in Chinese. But it's easier, I think, when one or both parents is fluent in the languages the child is learning.

As it is, we muddle along. My son can read bopomo, I can read pinyin (an alphabet-based script), and between us we know a range of characters. So each evening we sit down with that day's homework and figure it out together.

There's always a story of the week, through which new characters are introduced to the children. We have to translate the story into English first, of course. When my son encounters an unfamiliar character, he asks if I know it. If I don't, he reads the bopomo out, which I then turn into pinyin and put into my phone's dictionary. Then we scroll down the list of matching characters to find the one we want. Sometimes, this doesn't work, so we have to sketch the character into this programme: Our method isn't an exact science, as most words have two or more characters, and there are many stock phrases with more characters, but we do our best.

It's a laborious process. If I were a Taiwanese parent, I would be able to just read it and tell him. More pertinently, if he were a Taiwanese child, he'd probably recognise the word from its bopomo sound, and not have to ask.

This is something that possibly isn't obvious unless you've been through the process. When children go to school to learn to read and write, they are already fluent in the language and have an innate grasp of most of the grammar rules. Children learning an additional language at school have to learn to speak and understand, and read and write it at the same time.

Other points have become apparent to us as we go through this process:

 - being able to understand what something means doesn't necessarily mean you're going to know how to say it


 - being able to say something doesn't mean you understand what you're saying.

So, while my son might read something out flawlessly from its accompanying bopomo, he might not have the faintest clue what he just said.

All in all, though, he's making good progress, and I'm immensely proud of him and all the hard work he's put in.


One concern I hadn't really thought through until recently was how to maintain and hopefully continue to improve my son's English literacy while we're here.

This thread on Forumosa indicates that I'm not alone in considering this problem:

There are many good ideas in there. Last week my son attended the first session of the first ever Parent's Place course on writing English for bilingual elementary school students. It was great fun, and at the end, the teacher gave out cookies!

Another idea I had was for my son to write his own blog, which you'll see he's taken up with some enthusiasm:


My son's teacher told me the other day that the one time she spoke English to him, his face changed. He knows she can speak English, but that she's chosen not to use it with him, so it wasn't surprise he was registering. She couldn't explain more, but I think I know what she meant.

Language is the doorway and the mirror to culture. People think and act in subtly different ways according to the language they're using, influenced by the premises in which the language is grounded. As well as learning another language, I think my son is absorbing another set of values and ways of looking at the world.

I hope so. I think the knowledge that there are other, equally valid, ways of thinking about things will stand him in good stead throughout his life.

In the meantime, we just need to work on memorizing poems.




冰涼涼 、冷颼颼的

This is the translation according to Google Translate.

I'm pretty sure 'Trinidad' is wrong

Four Seasons hair

Summer hair like a Northwest rain
Vexation long, still singing
The sun is out, it is cut off

The autumn hair like flying kite
"Phew! Phew! Shoop!" Sprint in the sky
See who is a long long long!

Winter hair hilltop snow
Ice cool, chilly
Brushing your hair to help it favorite skis
Spring hair is just coming out of a small grass
They tiptoe, straighten the waist, a casual Trinidad
Exclaimed: "Yeah!, Or short hair is the best looking!"

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Our Feral Friends

If I had to name one of the very few blights on this beautiful island, it would have to be the stray animal population.

Strays start out as pets, of course, and pets are popular here. Dogs more so than cats. The accessory dog is very fashionable at the moment. Sights like this are common:

Little doggy faces peep out at you from bicycle baskets, handbags, slings. And if they aren't getting a free ride in their owners' bags, they're trotting alongside, as fast as their little legs can go. It's very sweet and cute.

Feral Dogs

Unfortunately, though, sometimes dogs and cats end up lost or abandoned, and that's when the problems start.

I've been told that many Taiwanese people think it's cruel to neuter your pets. So when stray animals on the street meet others, they breed. Also, the mild climate and people's kindness in feeding the animals means that they can survive for several years in a semi-wild state. The consequence is that it isn't at all unusual to see stray animals and, in more open spaces such as parks and alongside rivers, packs of dogs.

I have to confess to prejudice. In our first few weeks here my son was bitten by a feral dog in a park near our home. He'd been warned not to approach any animals, and he didn't, but collecting a basketball from close by didn't count as approaching in his opinion. The pack of dogs begged to differ. They chased him around then one nipped the back of his leg as a warning.

It was all very dramatic. A bystander called an ambulance completely unnecessarily and we all sped off to hospital, where my son complained more about the tetanus injection than he had for the bite. He took a few days  to heal and that was that.

However, consequently, I wouldn't say stray animals are my favourite part of life in Taiwan.

But I think that with the right to complain comes the responsibility to act, so I started looking into what's being done about this problem.

Animal Charities

There are several animal charities in Taiwan. Here are just a few of them
Animals Taiwan
Bark Taiwan (covers southern Taiwan)
Stray Dog Rescue
Taiwan SPCA

The volunteers at these places do brilliant work. The favoured method of dealing with stray and feral animals is called TNR, or Trap, Neuter, Return. This is the best long term strategy for managing the problem. Neutering the animals prevents them from breeding and also makes them less aggressive. If the stray animals are put down, other, non-neutered ones move in to the area to take their place.

Sometimes animals are retained by the charities, though, and put up for adoption, either because they're less likely to survive, because they're very young or disabled, or because they're obviously only recently abandoned and haven't yet become semi-wild.

Fostering Cats

As a family, we're cat lovers. We sacrifice the dog's slavish devotion in return for not having to walk it every day, and put up with the cat's cool reserve instead.

We're in good company. Mark Twain said: "When a man loves cats, I am his friend and comrade, without further introduction."

We thought we could contribute our own small effort to help with the stray animal problem by fostering cats while they wait to find a permanent home. At the The UK in Taiwan day we attended earlier in the year I'd picked up an Animals Taiwan leaflet, so we approached them.

To cut a long story short, meet Qian Qian:

His name means 'money' (so when you call him, you're calling money to come to you, haha!).

People usually adopt kittens because they're cute, so adult cats can spend a long time in shelters before finding a home. Qian Qian will be living with us until someone adopts him, if that ever happens. He's got a bald tummy and throat, which make him less attractive than a sweet little kitten, but he's beautiful on the inside!

And here's Xian Xian, or Fairy:

Under a bed is a pretty safe place

She was quite hissy when found, but she's so pretty that Animals Taiwan couldn't believe she was feral. Since we've had her, she's shown she can be very friendly and affectionate, so their judgement was correct. Once she's got more used to living with people, we have high hopes she'll find permanent owners and we'll be able to foster another cat from the shelter.

It's nice to know we're helping out just a little, but I'm not kidding myself as to who's benefiting the most here. It's lovely to have animals in the home again.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

De-stressing in Taipei

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about our Back to School preparations. Despite the fact that my son's backpack was well and truly stuffed on his first day back, it turned out there were still several items missing from his must-have list. These were:

Slippers  - there is a room the children can lie down to take a nap, but it has a nice floor so they have to take off their shoes

Dental floss - part of the 'learning how to care for your teeth' sessions

Toilet paper - children must provide their own!

Small bag - to carry lunch things down to the dining hall

And I think that's it.

My son's teacher has been absolutely brilliant. She emails me the school notices so I can put them into Google Translate; she's taught me how to look up characters in a dictionary so that I can help my son at home; and she's had two long discussions with me on how we can help him be happy and work well at school. I couldn't have wished for a better ally in the classroom.

But there's no denying that children at Taiwanese schools work very hard, and now that we've been here a year there are really no more excuses for my son to not do the same homework as the other children. Which includes learning poems by heart, memorising characters, writing a diary, dictionary work, and more! Luckily he finds the maths easy, so he does that in his own time at school.

So, along with Taekwondo and piano practice, this means very full days, and the need to get out of the house and do something different at the weekends is even greater.

This weekend was taken up somewhat by an open day at school, but yesterday we managed a - very quick - trip to the Postal Museum, and a prolonged visit to the fishpond at Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall Gardens.

Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall is always buzzing at weekends. The National Concert Hall and National Theatre are there, as well as the Memorial Hall itself, which constantly hosts exhibitions. Currently there is one on dinosaurs and one on Salvador Dali, which seems an oddly appropriate association.

They're both interesting exhibitions, but my son was equally interested in stroking the fish.

In the UK, when you take your children to the park, one of the traditional pastimes is to feed the ducks. In Taiwan, you feed the fish.

The carp in the ponds at the Memorial Gardens are huge and have appetites to match.

They're so big and approachable, you would almost think you could reach out and stroke them. This isn't such a crazy concept. Occasionally, we've come across fish in aquariums that did seem to appreciate a little tickle and a stroke. So it was definitely worth a try.

No luck though! We had to make do with plain old fish feeding, and observing the other wildlife.

Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall Gardens is a great place to while away a few hours at the weekend and it will be high up on our list of places to go to once the homework's all done.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Nearly Yehliu

I'm getting the feeling that our visits to the seaside in Taiwan may be jinxed.

When it's hot and humid the lure of the ocean is strong, but so far we've only managed two trips to the beach in our year here. Our first entailed a couple of calamities. We tried again for the second time last Tuesday, on the penultimate day of freedom before the new school year.

Or destination was Yehliu, a tourist site known for its unusual rock formations. As the weather wasn't really conducive to the typical seaside activities of paddling and building sandcastles, it being cloudy and windy, I thought that at least we'd have some interesting sight-seeing to do.

This would probably have been the case if we'd actually made it there. Unfortunately we encountered a number of obstacles on our journey.

The first was my son's stomach. The closest beaches to Taipei are all more than an hour away from us by public transport. We caught the 1815 bus at the City Hall Bus Station (it departs from Taipei Main Station every 15 - 20 minutes). Our trip went smoothly until we encountered the mountain roads that are an inevitable part of any bus journey out of the capital.

My son found that reading on a bus as it's executing sharp turns on mountain roads is likely to bring on motion sickness. We had to exit our transportation with haste, in the middle of I knew not where. I'd forgotten to bring my mobile phone, which is my usual reference when I don't know where I am or what I should be doing.

Eventually we found a town sign - Wanli. I consulted my guidebook. Aha! We were only a couple of miles or so from our destination. We decided to walk.

We followed the route the bus seemed to be taking and eventually it was apparent where the sea was located. After that it was easy even for me to navigate our way. Our next obstacle loomed, however.

But this was quite a pleasant one. It was the sea.

As I said earlier, it was a windy day. The sea was rough and the beach was deserted. The seascape was so appealing that we lingered a long time taking photos.

On the rocks were people investigating the many rockpools that lined the beach. It looked like a fascinating activity but as we arrived the people were being told to leave by beach officials. There was a typhoon threat that day and the tide was coming in.

We will return one day to investigate those rockpools ourselves, though.

Time was getting on. If we were going to see the rock formations on the headland we would have to hurry.

Another obstacle stood in our way, however.

I knew the Ocean World aquarium was at Yehliu and I knew it was considered an essential part of any visit, but, being quite curmudgeonly, I'd hoped to avoid it. I was more interested in the natural landscape.

But, after walking a little further, there it was on our direct route to the rock formations. And I had a nine-year-old boy with me. I don't think I need to say more.

So, we entered Ocean World in time to catch the last show of the day, and what an unusual show it was.

I can't say I'm very experienced with aquarium shows, but all the ones I've seen have displayed the tricks and talents of various sea creatures. Normally dolphins, sea lions, that kind of thing.

The show at Ocean World certainly had both of those species on show. The thing that surprised me was that humans, specifically, foreign humans, it appeared, (no doubt the Taiwanese are far too sensible to dive from 15 metre platforms) were also part of the entertainment. The majority of the show, in fact, was performed by some very talented people, doing diving, synchronised swimming and, to top it all, a slapstick comedy routine.

Here's a version of the show (a predecessor of the one we saw, I think):

So, that took up another hour or so. Plus, we had to then, of course,  look around the aquarium itself, which was quite interesting. The part I enjoyed most was having my hand cleaned by the little fish that exfoliate your feet these days in beauty salons. Very tickly. My son most liked the final exhibit where you have the opportunity to - very gently - pick up puffer fish and starfish in an open tank.

By now it was apparent even from inside the aquarium that the light was beginning to fail. Maybe just enough time to get some atmospheric shots of the famous rock formations?

The aquarium was closing. We were respectfully ejected. Into the rain.

The rain that had threatened all afternoon had finally arrived and was making up for lost time. Torrents were pouring from the heavens. Darkness was falling. We managed to get to the bus stop only partially drenched, and to shiver in the bus' air conditioning all the way back to Taipei.

Yehliu's rocks will have to wait for another day.