Sunday, 31 March 2013

Taipei Weather

As Mark Twain said, "Everyone talks about the weather, no one does anything about it."

Taipei has a lot of weather and there's nothing anyone can do about it. Winters are wet and humid. Summers are wet, hot and humid. Essential items for living in Taipei include: umbrella, wellington boots, umbrella, rain coat, umbrella, flip flops, umbrella. You need so many umbrellas because, if you're like me, you leave them outside 7-11s. Old, abandoned, rusty umbrellas linger in apartment block stairwells and outside shops and restaurants. Dealing with wet umbrellas is a routine part of life. On rainy days, plastic bags are available at MRT and swish department store entrances to enclose your soggy brolly. Umbrella stands appear at the doors of libraries and shops. In lifts, buckets to catch umbrella drips miraculously materialise.

Now that spring is here I can safely say that this winter bucked the trend and was unusually dry. Mould didn't start growing on our possessions, our emergency flimsy raincoats were never used, and I only lost one umbrella. It's been warm and sunny, with temperatures moving between the mid-teens and mid-twenties Celsius. And now that winter's over it's time for Taipei's best weather. In my short experience, March, April and May are Taipei's most pleasant months. It's warm but not hot, there's some respite from the rain, and there are beautiful spring flowers.

Taking advantage of the lovely weather, we went on an easy hike that neatly connects two MRT stations and provides some wonderful views over Taipei. Starting not far from Jiantan Station, and using Richard Saunders' Taipei Escapes as a guide, we soon left the traffic noise and fumes behind.

Spring flowers are now ubiquitous and the hills didn't disappoint.

The trail passes several popular spots, so we were treated to audio enrichment in the form of Taiwanese songs for the first mile or so. Some hikers had even brought their own portable stereos and had generously turned them up to full volume so all around could benefit from their musical taste. The small exercise areas and viewing spots were full of picnickers and the trail was busy with serious walkers, romantic couples and large families.

Animal life had begun to stir in earnest. This small creature was chancing his luck amongst the many feet treading the paths.

The views were, as always, amazing.

After one or two miles, the crowds thinned out. We walked the rest of the way virtually alone until we started to come down out of the mountains. I think the directions we were following were a little out of date because we lost our way. On these walks near Taipei this isn't a serious problem because, as long as you find away to go downhill, you'll hit civilisation sooner or later. (Having said the guidebook was out of date, it's equally likely that I just got us lost.)

As we left the busier areas, the trail turned unpaved and narrow, but the dry winter meant it was still easy to walk.

We finally arrived at Jiannan MRT station, having cut our walk short a little, tired but happy.

I'm hoping to fit in lots more walking in the next few months before the weather turns very hot, as it does in June, July and August. I have enjoyed lots of walks when temperatures have been in the mid- to high-thirties Celsius, but they're definitely more tiring, especially because you have to take at least two litres of water with you.

Summer is typhoon season. I haven't yet experienced a serious typhoon, or what I imagined a typhoon would be: howling winds and driving rain. There are days of heavy, tropical downpours, where every steep slope turns into a stream, and you understand why the MRT station all have steps leading up to their entrances. But not the extreme weather I'd imagined. I confess to being a little disappointed. Nor is the attitude to typhoons as anxious as I thought it would be. Generally, moods are lifted by a typhoon forecast because it means a day off work or school.

Autumn brings wonderful respite from the heat. First a day or two here and there, and then increasingly frequently, the weather turns cool and cloudy. Typhoons continue, and steady, lukewarm drizzle creates calm, soft, subdued days. I like autumn almost as much as spring. The worst of the heat is over but the memory of it's still fresh, prompting appreciation of the lower temperatures.

Then winter arrives. Time to break out the umbrellas again. Oh, wait, we didn't ever put them away.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Where is Taiwan?

When I started telling colleagues, friends and relations of our intention to live in Taiwan, their first reactions were often surprise and confusion. While no one was tactless enough to say it, I think the thoughts that went through their minds were: what? why? and finally where? Taiwan isn't a country the British are familiar with. I'm sure some people thought we were moving to Thailand. For most, the phrase that springs most often to mind in relation to Taiwan starts with the words Made in.

Synonymous with computer electronics, clothes, toys and other cheap consumer items, Taiwan's image in the UK, for those who are even aware of it, is of a nation of sweatshops and pollution. There is, or at least used to be, some truth to this image. It wasn't without rapid industrialisation and little regard for the environment that Taiwan managed to pull itself up by its bootstraps in the late 20th century, reaching a GDP today on a par with the UK's. North-western Taiwan is still in need of beauty treatment and doubtless many people still spend monotonous 12 hour days working in dim factories. But these facts are only a small part of the story of Taiwan.

Lying to the south-east of China, Taiwan has a marine tropical climate. A small island, only 245 miles long and 89 miles wide, it's at constant high risk of earthquake. (In our 18 months here we've felt about 10, one of which was on my birthday!) It's also prone to typhoons, heavy rains and hot, humid weather. Unlikely though it may seem, all of this makes Taiwan a beautiful island. Geological action caused by tectonic plate movement has forced up a mountain ridge running right down its eastern side, and the warm, moist climate keeps these mountains covered in green forests, waterfalls and mountain rivers all year round.

There's also a lot more to Taiwanese people and their history than being cheap labour for exploitative factory owners. Today, for example, we caught the 795 bus from outside Muzha Station and went on a trip to Pingxi. This is an area with a long mining history, which I'd visited once before on a school trip.  The bus ride is like a journey into the heart of Taiwan, through winding roads surrounded by forested peaks. (We're lucky to have such an easy connection - most people go by train from Taipei Main Station.) Today, all the mines have closed down and the area has turned to tourism to help alleviate its poverty.

Pingxi has built on the tradition of releasing sky lanterns. After covering the lantern with your various wishes, a small fire is lit underneath. Once the lantern has filled with hot air, it's released. On fine weekends, the village is filled with tourists and the sky bears a constant procession of lanterns.

As always in Taiwan, the presence of tourists means the availability of delicious street food. Some of it even bears the illusion of being healthy. If you've ever had toffee apples, you'll be able to imagine the taste of these toffee strawberries and tomatoes. Tomatoes are, correctly, considered a fruit.

No trip is complete without some spiritual education, too. Temples are everywhere, and walks and mountains usually have some kind of spiritual reference. Today, we came across a sign that indicated a route to the Cave of the Eight Immortals. Figures of ancient Chinese history, the Eight Immortals are associated with good luck and include interesting characters such as Iron Crutch Li and Immortal Woman He. These are Taoist deities. Taiwan hosts many religions, all existing side by side peaceably.

Unfortunately the sign was the only one and we wandered through the forest pleasantly but fruitlessly. We  did stumble across one place, which was abandoned and closed off with secure iron gates. I took a photo of the spooky interior through a grid. If this was the Eight Immortals' current residence, they must be living cold, damp and boring lives at the moment.

At any tourist gathering there are usually some games to play. My son had fun trying to roll a marble down a track on this home-made machine.

Few opportunities are lost to make things look decorative and cute. My husband has developed an interest in Taiwanese manhole covers. More utilitarian objects can't exist, I don't think, but in Taiwan, looking down is often a small moment of interest and education.
A Pingxi manhole cover. The holes are sky lanterns.
A train, another attraction of the area, runs across the centre,
 fish swim in the river that flows through the town,
and mountains form the background.
From a foreigner's perspective, there's also usually something inexplicable going on. In Pingxi, it was the desire to risk life and limb by walking along the railway track on its bridge over the river. This track is in use,  trains arriving roughly every hour or so. No hand rail exists. As far as I could tell, there's also nothing between the sleepers to stop people plunging to their deaths, and no reason to undertake the walk except as a dare. I found the practice mentioned in this blog, where the writer recounts how the train arrived while people were on the bridge.
Pingxi is a good example of nature meeting Taiwanese history and culture. As always with our trips, there's more to tell than I have time, space or ability to post about. I can't convey the rich, clear air of the mountains, scented at times with the perfume of tropical flowers. And I can't capture the sounds of birds, tree frogs and cicadas. I have yet to write about the tribal societies of Taiwan, the waves of immigration from mainland China, or the farming and fishing traditions. I love the mountains, but there are also beautiful coastal areas. I have barely scratched the surface of this country. When I first thought about coming here, I had to find it on a map. How little I knew then what I would learn from asking the question: where is Taiwan?

Sunday, 17 March 2013

English Skills in Bilingual Children Overseas

English only, please.

"Ni keyi shuo Zhongguo hua gen wo? Hao bu hao?" I asked my son as we were walking home from school the other day.
"No, Mum. I don't want to speak Chinese with you!"

Lacking a language exchange partner, I thought I'd take advantage of my son's far superior Chinese skills to improve my own, and so asked him this favour as we walked home from school the other day. But he was reluctant to oblige. No doubt there are many reasons, including a need to be able to communicate clearly with the people closest to him. While it's disappointing for me not to have a handy Chinese-speaker to help me practise, it's probably for the best. Home is now one of the few places my son has the opportunity speak English.

Children continue to acquire language throughout childhood, expanding their vocabulary range and developing the ability to use more complex and sophisticated structures and forms of expression. Speaking their first language with parents means children are unlikely to lose functional skills, but home environments are limited. To maintain and develop their children's English as if they were still living in an English-speaking country, parents need to be proactive in providing them with opportunities.

Some strategies we've employed in attempting to continue our son's English development include:

Reading aloud

Bedtime stories are a must. As well as being part of a calming bedtime ritual, they're an ideal time at the end of the day for parents and children to share distraction-free enjoyment of reading. Younger children often have a favourite story or set of stories they want to hear over and over again. This phenomenon is so common I believe there's probably a reason for it to do with cognitive development. Indulging the child's preference for as long as parents can stand it is probably the best course of action, though I confess to having 'lost' a certain Disney version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs many years ago.

Children love the one-to-one attention at bedtime and associate that feeling of pleasure with reading. I tend to choose books at a level of English slightly higher than the child's apparent ability. The most recent stories in our home have been Lord of the Flies and To Kill a Mockingbird. I found through many years of teaching English that understanding is usually at a higher level than production. Children learn new words through context and areas of confusion are good opportunities for parents and children to talk.

Many children love to read to their parents instead of listening to a story and of course this is fine. While it might be tempting to correct children's pronunciation or other mistakes in their reading, it's important not to be too overt about this. Children who feel that bedtime has turned into a lesson are soon put off reading aloud. Who wants to open themselves up to criticism? I've found the least obtrusive way of addressing errors is to repeat the word correctly couched in a comment. Perhaps the child will pick up on their error straightaway and perhaps not. Correction of small errors isn't the point of bedtime stories.

Reading aloud needn't be confined to bedtimes, of course. Nor does the material have to be stories. Poems, song lyrics, letters from home, non-fiction books or other texts might be more to the individual child's taste.


Making good use of the local library is a no-brainer when it comes to maintaining your child's English while living abroad. We're very lucky that in Taipei the central library in Da'an has a whole floor devoted to literature in English. One advantage the library has over those back home is that English literature from around the world is represented. American, Canadian and Australian children's books stock the shelves, as well as all the British favourites we're used to.

As well as weekly visits, we often spend time there just sitting and reading stories.


Before the invention of e-readers, buying English books while living abroad used to be either difficult or expensive, or both. Nowadays, access to most of the newest publications is the same wherever you live.

Kindles are probably the most popular e-readers and there are few comparable contenders for ease of access to new books. But many other e-readers are available and Amazon isn't the only place that stocks books to download. For out-of-copyright literature, Project Gutenberg is the most well-known alternative site, where all books are free. E-readers cost much more than a new book, but once you have one, you need never pay for a book again.

Playing games

Day-to-day language spoken at home tends to be confined to a limited set of vocabulary and structures. Exposure to variety in language is key to building good, rather than just functional, skills.

One way to expand exposure is to play games as a family. The games don't have to be particularly language-oriented ones, such as Scrabble, to require lots of English use in playing them. In our home we play Monopoly, Cluedo, Settlers of Catan, Life, chess, cards and other games. As well as the language use related to the games, wider-ranging discussions (and some arguments) naturally occur.


In its transforming march around the globe, the internet is making it much easier to learn English without living in an English-speaking country. BBC Bitesize has been a personal favourite in maintaining and improving English skills in our family. As well as providing entertaining and interactive English lessons, the site also covers maths and science in English.

It's also possible, though not strictly honest, to pretend to be a teacher and sign up for the Times Educational Supplement's teaching resources site. Primary and secondary school teachers share their resources here, and many of them can be adapted for one-to-one teaching. It costs nothing to join and I'm fairly confident none of the contributors would object to parents using the site.

Skyping and emailing friends and relatives is another way for children to practise their English in a familiar and friendly context.

Enterprising children might like to set up their own blog. Extremely easy to do, and free, this is a great way for children to express themselves and practise their English writing. My son set up this blog a while ago and still posts from time to time. A wonderful advantage of this is that children's efforts are preserved for future years. Unless for some reason the blog gets taken down, your child will be able to look back on their childhood experiences and perspectives during their years abroad. It's important to set the blog's comments to be moderated before publishing to prevent spamming or other unwanted responses appearing.

English-Speaking Communities

Children immersed in the local culture and attending a local school have reduced opportunities to meet and socialise with other English-speaking children. Playing using English is quite different from having a conversation with an adult, and speaking with other children is a normal part of language development. English-speaking playmates for your child are probably beneficial if you can find them.

We're lucky that here in Taipei there's a large, supportive and welcoming community of families with at least one English-speaking parent, holding regular get-togethers and social events. Children get to meet and play with others who have the same first language.

Two of our local community's enterprises that we've drawn enormous benefit from are The Awesome Playgroup Newsletter and Parents' Place. Now in its third year, the newsletter is very motivating for all the children. Seeing their words in print and being intimately involved in a print publication spurs them to contribute fully to each issue, and as they grow older, the children are taking over more aspects of the newsletter production.

My son also attends a class for English-speaking elementary school children at Parent's Place, where he maintains his English skills in a more formal setting. As in all good English classes, the children study cultural aspects of the language too. With St. Patrick's Day impending, their most recent lesson investigated leprechauns, for example.

Cultural English is something difficult to provide for your child while living abroad. Parents aren't well-suited to playing the schoolyard games of their youth, and historical or mythological knowledge isn't evident or easy to reproduce. We tend to take such things for granted. While it's wonderful for children to experience living in another culture, it's also important for them to learn about their own cultural roots.

Maintaining and building on my son's English skills while living here in Taiwan wasn't a problem I anticipated. While it's turned out to be more of an issue than I thought it would be, luckily we've been able to provide lots of opportunities and support for him.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Taipei Botanical Gardens

Xiaonanmen is a small, unimportant station on a tiny, three-stop MRT line near central Taipei. No shopping malls, restaurants or large businesses exist nearby. Yet many expats find themselves there because it's the closest station to the National Immigration Offices, where Alien Residence Certificates are renewed.

Which makes the relative anonymity of Taipei Botanical Gardens, which are a two-minute walk from Xiaonanmen Station, all the more of a puzzle. Taipei doesn't seem to consider its gardens of major interest, for I'd never heard of them or seen mention on expat, tourist or government websites, and it was only through active searching that I learned of their existence. Such obscurity is unjustified. Though small, the gardens are a delightful, interesting and refreshing oasis in the heart of the city.

Charmingly old-fashioned, cast-iron turnstile entrances lead in from several sides, and broad walkways take  visitors on to smaller, winding paths serving all the nooks and crannies of this diverse site. In keeping with a botanical garden's purpose, there's a huge range of plant species. Crop plants such as coffee, wheat and corn make up one area, while others consist of plant families such as bamboos and succulents.

As always, I was on the look out for flowers, and I wasn't disappointed. Gorgeous, unusual, richly-coloured blooms, that can only be seen in greenhouses back home, were bursting forth in response to the mild spring weather. The water gardens were still bare, but held the promise of masses of summer lotus and water lilies.

It's hard to describe, but there's a 'green' smell to such places, and this was at its strongest along the shaded, meandering walkway through the fern and woodland area. Prehistoric in imagery, it's easy to lose sense of time here. Seating areas allow people to pause and absorb the atmosphere. Though the gardens were fairly busy the day we went (Sunday), there was still plenty of room to just stop, sit down and take it all in.

Here's a flavour:

A few of the beautiful blooms.

A variety of hibiscus, I think. The droopy petals are a feature, making the flowers look like delicate ladies' handkerchiefs.

Tree-lined walkways lead in from the entrances.
Breadfruit tree.

Fruit of this tree below.

I have a special place in my heart for bamboo. It's tough, useful, graceful and soothing to the eye.

Worth at least two hours of time, the gardens also merit return visits as new seasons bring new flowers, fruits and scenes to behold. Maybe it's no mistake that Taipei Botanical Gardens aren't heavily promoted. Maybe it's just that those in the know want to keep this pleasant secret to themselves.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Cat Antics

Qian Qian and Tian Tian are nowhere to be found. They aren't in their baskets. They aren't cuddling on the sofa. They aren't even in the depths of the wardrobe. But what's that suspicious lump under the duvet? Yes, Qian Qian and Tian Tian are feeling cold again. We've learned never to throw ourselves down carelessly onto our beds, just in case our two foster cats might be lurking beneath the covers.

These last few months with Qian Qian and Tian Tian have been hugely pleasurable, especially as we thought we'd probably have to be catless during our time in Taiwan. It's been heart-warming to see these two cats become re-used to living with humans and watch their personalities show through.

When we brought them home from Animals Taiwan in September last year, all we knew was that they'd been taken off the street because the charity workers thought they had once been pets, and weren't truly feral. Tian Tian was by far the wilder of the two, and it was only the centre manager's hunch that she was actually domesticated that lead to her capture. When we met her she was caged and hissed at any approach.

Qian Qian, on the other hand, had the run of the cat shed and didn't mind being handled. His colour (black is an unpopular colour for Taiwanese pets) and the fact that he's an adult had reduced his chances for adoption. He also has a bare tummy, which is slightly off-putting until you learn, as we did, that's it's purely due to his particular liking for it. He melts if your rub his tummy, and grooms it so much he removes all the hair.

Five months later, and both cats are completely used to living with humans again. The biggest change has been in Tian Tian, who is the most affectionate cat I've ever known, and will happily snuggle as long as you're willing to indulge her. So the Animals Taiwan manager was right. The two have become very good friends with each other - notwithstanding Qian Qian's propensity for pouncing - grooming each other and cuddling up on a regular basis. They've have grown a little too fat, if I'm honest.

Now the sad time has come to look for new homes for our two little friends. Much as we love them, if we're to be true foster carers, we should steel ourselves to pass Qian Qian and Tian Tian onto permanent homes. That way we can help out more of their friends at Animals Taiwan. We're delaying a little with Tian Tian as we found she has a disease called stomatitis, which we want to resolve before putting her up for adoption, but Tian Tian's advert went out last Saturday evening.

No replies yet, though it's still early days. We'll continue to ask around and advertise wherever we can. If you're in Taiwan and know someone who can give a loving home to a lovely cat or two, please let me know. I'll be happy (and sad) to hear from you.