Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Seoul Sojourn

Seoul got especially cold for us last week, for which I was thankful as I'd forgotten what it was like to be really cold since leaving British shores 18 months ago.

It's an interesting city, like Taipei on speed, and the people are interesting too. The thing that struck me most was how, if the ill-nourished North Koreans were ever to dig one of their infamous invasion tunnels all the way to Seoul, and emerge suddenly onto the streets and into the homes and workplaces of the South Koreans, the latter would take them down with one hand tied behind their backs.

You see, it was really cold. Have I said that already? Yet there seemed to be some kind of competition going on about who could be the least dressed to withstand it. I was wearing thermal underwear, top and bottom, and as many layers as would fit under my coat, plus hat, scarf, gloves and hood over my hat, and I could stand about an hour at -12 degrees before retreating indoors. But all around people were sporting little more than maybe a leather jacket and a hat, and looking mildly chilled.

The other thing that gave me the impression South Koreans are tough was the shoving. If you're in the way, people make no effort to avoid body contact as they pass, so in crowded situations you're constantly bumped into, pushed and shoved. I was starting to think dark thoughts about thumping the next person who shoved me when I realised it was nothing personal. It's just a lack of preciousness about body space and contact. For example, on the subway the seating is so close that people of average size are forced to sit squeezed shoulder to shoulder and thigh to thigh with complete strangers, but no one minds.

So, South Koreans - a little bit scary.

We did a few 'must do' things, such as visit Gyeongbokgung, one of the royal palaces.

The weather had thinned out the crowds nicely.

It's a huge site, all the more impressive for the fact that it's a fraction of its former size, and it was fascinating to see how the royals and their entourage and officials had lived all those centuries ago. The only thing that was a little frustrating was the lack of information. Unless we missed something there were no pamphlets explaining anything, either in English or Korean, and only a few signs to explain the use of a building.

One of the few informative signs told that this was the royal banqueting hall and is the largest elevated pavilion in Korea. Three bays at the centre of symbolise heaven, earth and man, and the twelve outside bays symbolise the 12 months of the year.

The empty space in the foreground is a drained pond. In summer the aristocracy and visiting dignitaries would go boating.

We also went to Namsongol Hanok Village, which was more satisfying, as there were rooms full of contemporaneous objects and furniture, giving a real insight into daily life for well to do Koreans more than a century ago.

The pond was frozen solid.

The onsite time capsule  was very interesting too. Built in 1994 on the 600th anniversary of the founding of Korea, it's due to be opened again on the 1,000th anniversary.

My husband went to the Demilitarized Zone one day, while I opted for the safer option of taking our son to an amusement park. DMZ tours are well worth doing, but not at all suitable for children, not only because of the stories told of people dying in border skirmishes, but also because in some areas there's a tiny but real risk of being shot at.

Ice-skating was more fun.

On the day I lost to food poisoning, and my husband and son went to the War Museum, so lots more death and destruction there. They loved it.

Food was, on the whole, good. Streetfood in particular was delicious. We sampled yakatori, a kind of cake thing with an egg in it, and what I thought was bulgogi. On looking up bulgogi I realise what we had doesn't fit the description, even though that's what the stall sign said. Whatever it was, it tasted great. Plus, the stallholder was making new ones and serving at the same time, so we got a free cooking demonstration, too.

Eggy cake things being made.

And eaten.
Thing that called itself bulgogi.

Roast chestnuts were an unexpected treat to remind us of home.

If they could leave out the toxic bacteria, that would be great.

We had what I thought was a great restaurant meal, only to find out the next day my stomach disagreed with my opinion.

It was the nearest dish that did it.

On our final day we had a disappointing trip to Gyeongju. Looking at the tourist information for this town I could hardly believe we were in the same place. We took a map from the station tourist centre, so we knew where things should be, but the town's sights are so well hidden behind shopfronts that we literally could not find them. There were no street signs, either.

We did stumble across some ancient royal tombs, which were pretty much unavoidable, but unfortunately our last day was a bit of a let down.

The brown colour is representative of the South Korean winter landscape. It looks as though the entire countryside is a sepia photograph.

On the whole we enjoyed most of our South Korean holiday, but personally I was also very happy to come back to calmer, and warmer, Taiwan.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Clothes Shopping in Taipei

For some reason I have yet to understand, we're going to be spending part of Chinese New Year break in South Korea, which is currently enjoying a balmy 3 degrees Celsius by day, and night-time temperatures that are forecast to drop to -15. The problem is, a sensible former me decided that we wouldn't be encountering cold weather during our stay in Taiwan, so she failed to ship our warm clothing.

Anyone who knows me will confirm I'm not the most astute or taste-appreciating clothes shopper in the world. Back home, I'd honed it down to a fine internet-based art, using up minimum time and brain capacity. I don't read enough Chinese to enjoy the same luxury here, so face-to-face, time-consuming shopping is my only option.

Don't let me give you the impression that shopping for clothes in Taipei is an unpleasant experience. It is not, as evidenced by the hordes of people I encountered today. Department stores, independent retailers, night markets, malls; the choices are legion. I'm told in Yonghe in west Taipei, there are streets of clothing shops.

Here in eastern Taipei, my choices revolve around large malls such as Sogo, global chains such as Uniqlo, Esprit, Zara and Benetton, or any of the thousands of independent shops on streets or in night markets. Personally, I prefer to shop in large stores, but would like to buy clothes at independent retailers. Their clothes are more interesting and individual. However, shop owners usually attach themselves to you as soon as you enter the shop, and then, if you actually buy something, keep offering additional items all through the transaction process. In a large store, I have freedom to indulge my various clothes shopping neuroses in peace (though not quiet).

Zhongxiao East Road between Zhongxiao Fuxing and Zhongxiao Dunhua MRT stations seemed as good a place as any to stock up on warm winter clothes. I walked from one station to the other, visiting the shops along the way, in search of such things as boots, trousers, long johns, a scarf and anything else that looked useful. Here's a flavour of the day:

I was reasonably successful. There are two Clarkes shoe shops and while I blanched at the price, my new boots are likely to last me a good while. Trouser shopping was an interesting example of West meets East. I'm a medium verging on large in Taiwanese sizing, which I found out also means a 28, or a 67, depending on where you go. But I'm the wrong shape. I mean, like most women, I always knew that, but today I had evidence to prove it.

I go out from my waist downwards - I'm including my calves in that description - but the trousers I wanted to buy went the other way, starting out large at the waist and getting narrower all the way down. Part of the problem is that 'skinny leg' and 'stretch fit' are back in fashion. (How depressing it is to write the words 'back in fashion'.) I've never had, nor will ever have, skinny legs. But I think the main fault lies with my just being a different shape to Asian women. I also discovered, by the way, that Boyfriend Fit means Doesn't Fit.

I bought long johns for my son and I at Uniqlo, as I thought Japanese technology wouldn't fail us. I also bought a big scarf that vaguely matches the one winter clothing item that came with us from the UK, a woolly hat. It seems I really like that hat.

So, I survived clothes shopping in Taipei. (Seriously, it's a great place to shop if you enjoy that kind of thing, and millions here very evidently do.)

Next week's post will be a little late, and probably a little cold, too.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Rainy Day in Bopiliao Old Street

Bopiliao Old Street is a real treat on a rainy day, especially for those who would like to see Taipei as it was pre-skyscrapers.  We were enticed there by a friend's blog. This small street of well-preserved shops tells the tale of Monga, now known as Wanhua, one of the first areas of Taipei to undergo development and portrayed in this eponymous film.

Originally settled by Polynesian aboriginal tribes, Taiwan later became home to colonies of farming and trading families from southern mainland China. These people remained loosely under the jurisdiction of the Qing dynasty, but from as early as the sixteenth century, Japan had its eye on Taiwan as a place to fulfil its expansionist ambitions. In 1895 they finally achieved their goal, settling many Japanese citizens and taking over governmental control, only relinquishing Taiwan after suffering defeat in World War II.

As a guilty-by-association descendant of British imperialists I've been surprised by many Taiwanese attitudes to Japan and the years of occupation. Where I would have expected resentment and dislike I've met instead with a pragmatic acceptance and even nostalgia for the 'good old days'. Some Taiwanese friends love the Japanese sense of order and work ethic. They appreciate the level of development that Japan brought to Taiwan, building roads and railways, and improving education. This is despite the fact that Japan implemented the usual imperialist policies, such as restricting governmental jobs to Japanese citizens and banning the use of Taiwanese in schools.

The story of Bopiliao Old Street and Japan's impact on Taiwan is told on the walls of the Heritage and Culture Education Centre at 101 Guangzhou St, Wanhua, near Longshan Temple MRT station. Photos of Taiwanese children sitting at ranks of tiny desks testify to the efforts of the Japanese to improve punctuality and discipline. Other areas are devoted to the history of medicine, including information on the Victorian missionary clinics and a simulated traditional Chinese Medicine shop, complete with ingredients.

The toys of now ancient former children  are there for present-day youngsters to enjoy, and I was interested to see some of the same games still played in schools today, such as trying to stand a bottle up using a string.  A Chinese version of the three-legged-race is also popular.

My son had great fun playing a very early pinball with marbles instead of metal balls, a piece of wood for flipping instead of a spring and no electricity.

I was interested in the exhibits. They might not appeal to everyone, but I like unusual bottles and bits of old rope!

From the days before hemp became a dirty word.
The centre had the obligatory children's sheet of paper to collect stamps on as we toured around the various exhibits, with an origami spinning top as a prize at the end.

By a strange synchronicity Taiwan's political heritage burst in on us while we were there. The sound of protest chants brought us to the window to witness a political march. 
The few hundred marchers passed by, leaving us unsure as to exactly what the protest was about, except that it was clearly political, as some of the signs were calling for the release of the former president from prison, while other protested the monopolisation of the media by politically interested parties. 

Then on the way home, we encountered the protest again. By then, the numbers of protestors had swollen to the tens of thousands.
Today's newspapers made it all clear.

Politics is always a sensitive subject but particularly so in Taiwan with its long-standing delicate position as an object of mainland Chinese ownership, and while experiences with Japan have the soft-focus of past history, Chiang Kai-Shek's military rule is still fresh in the hearts of many Taiwanese people.

The two current political parties can be roughly divided into mainland China appeasers, and a more nationalistic 'Taiwan for the Taiwanese' attitude. The protesters we saw fall into the latter camp. Friends who don't support the ruling party tell me they don't tend to advertise the fact, so it was heartening to see so many  - 150,000 the newspapers say - enjoying their right to lawful protest.

Maybe one day people will be visiting Old Bopiliao Street and reminiscing about the 'good old days' of Ma's presidency. Only time will tell.

Sunday, 6 January 2013


There. I've just struck terror into the heart of any Taiwanese person reading this. Yes, it's nearly the end of the first semester and test time is upon us again. Next week, in fact. So homework has been increased (further!) and the pressure is on.

Testing plays a large role in education in Taiwan. The intensity varies from school to school and teacher to teacher, but it's a rare teacher that doesn't test her students weekly, and daily testing of  6-year-olds is common. We're in the very lucky position of not having to get too stressed about it all. My son does care, and he does try, but he knows that he still isn't on a par with his peers in Chinese. It's only in the last few months that his overall language acquisition has really picked up, so that he's operating more in direct Chinese for reading and writing, and less in translations to and from English.

Being a foreigner doesn't excuse him from having to do the same work as the other children, though, and nor would I want it to. So we've been seeing a lot of this lately:

He's actually doing English homework here. He attends a weekly Elementary writing class for native English-speaking children, here, so he's a busy boy.

The standard method for introducing new characters is through a weekly story. These are short tales for children, using already-known characters plus 14 - 20 new characters or phrases. The themes are generally along the lines of family relationships, home/school life or nature. They're usually prose, but occasionally there's a poem. There are a few schemes for the school to choose from and if you want to buy additional practice tests the shopkeeper needs to know which school your child attends, so that you don't give him tests on characters he hasn't covered yet.

Here's one half of one story.

As you can see, my son also adds his own illustrations! But the teacher doesn't seem to mind too much.

And here's a practice test he did.

He can do them with some help from the book and my phone (which translates from the phonetic script bopomofo into characters.) At the moment he can do about half off the top of his head.

I'd like to also record for posterity the size of his dictionary.

As Lola would say, it's also very, extremely heavy! The paper inside is very thin too.

So studying has taken up a large part of my son's free time recently. We did manage a short exploration of a mountain very near to us that we'd only just got around to visiting. This place is only 15 minutes from us on the MRT.

A growing boy needs a little fresh air and exercise after all!