Monday, September 11, 2006

Coming Home

Our journey home proved to be long and testing.

We left early Sunday morning, before the sun came up. After saying goodbye to grandma and grandpa, my dad, his two older brothers and me packed our luggage in the van and headed for Chiang Kai Shek International.Our first flight was from Taipei to Osaka, where we had an excruciating 9 hour layover. We took turns napping, getting food, reading, putting coins in the massage chairs, and doing sudoku puzzles. Only after 7 hours did I realize that they had free wireless in the airport. The time would have gone a lot faster if I had discovered this earlier . . .

From Osaka, we crossed the International Date Line to Honolulu, Hawai'i (you pronounce EVERY vowel). After 7 hours on a plane full of Japanese tourists, the smell of fresh air upon arrival was welcome. We passed through customs, hopped on a city bus, and headed for Waikiki Beach.

What a way to end the trip: sitting on a sunny beach, warm sand under my feet, and a cool breeze blowing across my face. I jumped in the water and tasted the salty water on my lips. After a couple of hours on the beach, we walked to the bar and grabbed some food. Having eaten mostly vegetarian meals for the past nine days, we both ordered steak. We took in the beach scenery as we sipped on Hawaiian cocktails and inhaled the salty air.

Our next flight threatend to end the good mood that we were in. After reaching the mainland, our captain came on the PA and informed us that we would be making an emergency stop in Phoenix. Apparently, a woman was experiencing some medical problem during the flight, so we had to drop her off. This only made me more anxious to get home.

After another two and a half hours in the air, we touched down in Minneapolis. Our luggage arrived and we drove home. A hot shower and some breakfast was my way of kissing the ground.

Sunday, September 10, 2006


When I arrived back in Taipei at my uncle’s home, I had a feeling that I hadn’t felt until this point in the trip. It was the feeling that I was home.

Today was a special day for me. I woke up and spent some time with my cousin’s children. We watched Saturday morning Japanese cartoons and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (made popular by Wu-Tang), which is probably the best kung-fu movie ever. Ever.

We ate lunch with grandma and grandpa and relaxed into the afternoon. Then people began to show up.

First, my dad’s oldest brother arrived. Then, my dad’s sister arrived with her husband, daughter, and her daughter’s children. Then, my cousin arrived with her husband and daughters. Then, my dad’s sister arrived with her two children. Cousin after cousin after cousin walked through the door. Pretty soon, the house was filled with my family members, at least 25 people from 4 different generations. I was overwhelmed at the number of family members that showed up. And this is only a fraction of the entire family!

As dinner approached, the men headed upstairs. We feasted on various dishes prepared by my aunt, sipping on whiskey Dad brought from the duty free store. At dinner, men raise glasses to one another, similar to a “cheers”, except it happens constantly throughout dinner. My cousin Kunlam told me to raise my glass to Grandpa, and I obliged. We drank and Kunlam told me in English that it made Grandpa very happy.

We continued to eat, drink, and talk into the night. Like most of my “talking” in Taiwan, it involved a lot of tracking the speaker, trying to figure out certain words that I know, and nodding. Dad will turn to me often and say, “We’re talking about . . .”

My dad’s youngest sister, Sharon, has three children that are about the same age as my siblings. Her younger son, Su Yi, is going to be a senior in college this coming year. He can speak some English, so we connected and had a good conversation that lasted into the night. We talked about girls, drinking, music, baseball and family. I made him a promise that I would come back to Taiwan very soon and bring my siblings with me.

This large family gathering made one thing clear to me: family transcends language. While I didn’t have the words to say the things I was thinking, the feeling of family made me feel at home.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Sun Moon Lake

My American grandparents visited Taiwan in the late 70’s, when my mom was a mission nurse in Chiayi. My grandmother fell in love with a lake high in the mountains called Sun Moon Lake. This morning we visited the clear blue waters of this mountain lake.

Sun Moon Lake is a man-made reservoir, a fact that is made apparent by its almost fluorescent blue color and pressure spout that sporadically shoots water several stories into the air. There are several Buddhist temples overlooking the lake, as well as more commercial establishments such as hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops. One of the most expensive hotels on Sun Moon Lake is the former retreat of Chiang Kai Shek. Almost all of the buildings around Sun Moon Lake have been or are being rebuilt since the earthquake in 1999.

One of our stops as we drove around the lake was a peacock pen. It started raining and all of the peacocks were shoed inside and we moved on. The rain quickly cleared up and we stopped at another spot for a snack of boiled eggs and a gelatin/tea/lemon drink.

I can see why my grandma liked this place so much. The mountains surrounding the lake make it feel like it is isolated from the rest of the world and the color of the water gives it a tropical vibe. Time seems to stand still at Sun Moon Lake.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Pinang (Betel Nuts)

I've encountered a strange social phenomenon in this part of the country. Pinang, or betel nuts, are very popular in Nantou and are available just about everywhere around here. These small nuts grow on a tree that looks similar to a palm tree.

The culture behind pinang is rather strange. Older men usually buy and chew the nuts, and they are sold in little stands on the side of the road. The stands have large glass windows for walls, are decorated with bright neon lights, and are attended by young, scantily clad women.

The effect of chewing on these nuts is a mild stimulant, similar to the effect of nicotine. It causes your mouth to go numb and produces a "dry" effect in the back of your throat. For me, it just made me gag and want to spit. It tastes a lot like peppermint, and you spit out the husk after you chew it thouroughly.

Chewing on pinang is known to cause mouth, throat, and stomach cancer. There is a warning on the box from the department of health describing such damaging effects. I guess this pretty much equates to cigarette smoking in the States, including the social stigma.

Mountains of Nantou/Puli

About 2/3 of Taiwan is covered in mountains, and we are now in a mountainous county called Nantou. Nantou is the only county in Taiwan that does not border the coastline. We had spent most of our time in urban areas up to this point, so it was time to explore some nature.

Our first stop was a landmark near Yi-Wun's home. This spot is famous because it is the geographical center of Taiwan. I am a bit skeptical as to how they measured the "center" of Taiwan, considering that the island isn't anywhere near a perfect geographical shape. AnywHavingays, it gave us a good view of Puli, and warmed us up for our next hike.

We drove up a winding road into the mountains, traversing up the steep slope. We stopped along the way to get some coffee, at the highest Starbucks in Taiwan. Yes, Starbucks really is EVERYWHERE. After taking a short break, we headed up further into the mountains.

After parking, we began our ascent by foot. The first obstacle was a large set of stairs, 487 stairs, to be exact. My calves burned towards the end, convincing me that I need to hit the gym when I get back home. Another set of stairs led us to a large statue of Chiang Kai-Shek, the former Kuomingtang (KMT) leader that fled China during the Communist Revolution. At the end of our hike, we arrived at Green Green Pastures, an open area near one of the mountain peaks. Here, we saw sheep and enjoyed an ice cream bar.

Heading back out of the mountains, we stopped at a vegetarian restaurant for some lunch. Many of my family members are strict vegetarians, due to their religious beliefs. We enjoyed a hot pot meal, with tons of mushrooms and veggies. For desert, we had almond soy milk with red beans, which was deeeeelicious.

Yi-Wun brought us to a paper factory after dinner, where we did a short tour and watched some of the workers make paper. Check out my Flickr account for more pictures from the day.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

New Contest!

Ok, so apparently Blogger is having some issues right now with posting pictures, so in the meantime, here's a little contest for all my dedicated readers . . .

Question: In what year did martial law begin and end in Taiwan, and who was responsible for imposing it?

Post your answer as a comment here and I will bring you back a small gift from Taiwan. Previous winners (Ian) cannot win again. The first correct answer wins!

Train to Taichung

This morning we left Taipei and headed south along the west coast of the island to Taichung, Taiwan's third largest city. We traveled by train, which, if I'm counting right, is my 5th form of transportation (taxi, airplane, subway, scooter, train). After buying our tickets, we walked down to the platform to wait for our train. Following Dad's lead turned out to be a mistake . . .

We got onto what we thought was our train and got comfortable in our seats. Dad mentioned that he was surprised that the train had arrived early. I asked him, "Are you sure that this is the right train?" "Oh yeah." The train pulled out of the station about 10 minutes ahead of time. "Dad, trains don't leave early."

When we got to the next station, he was convinced. We got off and tried to figure out where to go. While talking to the conductor on the platform, the train we were supposed to be on zoomed by us. After transferring and waiting another half hour, we got on the train to bring us to Taichung, about an hour behind schedule. I had a bento box lunch on the train, as recommended by my cousin Joanna from Texas (check out her MRT story here).

Upon arrival at Taichung station, we were greeted by Peter and Sue, old friends of my parents' from the University of Minnesota. Peter, a retired economics professor, was in graduate school at the same time my father was working on his Ph.D. When I was a baby, Peter and Sue took care of me when my parents were busy.

They took Dad and me to the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts where we had food and drinks at the museum cafe while catching up. Peter and Sue are avid art museum-goers (they have been to famous museums all over the world) and I invited them to come to New York to see the best museums in the world (Met, MoMA, Guggenheim). I hope they take me up on the offer.

After saying goodbye to Peter and Sue, we met with another one of my cousins, Tsai Ming-Der, and his family. Tsai Ming-Der is a photojournalist for the China Times and he has two teenage children, a boy (Jones) and a girl (Cherry). Cherry skipped her English class to have dinner with us, so I made sure that she practiced her English during our meal. I could tell that Jones liked hip hop from the buttons and stickers on his backpack, so I burned him a CD of some old school hip hop (ATCQ, Illmatic, Biggie, 36 Chambers) after dinner. Gotta spread some hip hop history!

My cousin and his wife drove us to Puli (about an hour and a half drive) after dinner. Puli is a small town in the mountains where another of my cousins, Yi-Wen and her husband Yao-Sheng, lives. We reached their home, settled in, talked, and got ready for bed.

Guanghua Tech Market

This post is dedicated to all the tech nerds out there . . .

After a nice little afternoon nap, I got up, took a shower and called my cousin Wendy, Kunlam's daughter. Wendy has visited my family in Minnesota and she has studied a lot of English in the U.S. We made plans the previous night to meet up and check out the technology and electronics district in Taipei. I planned to meet her at a specific exit at the Taipei Main Station on the MRT.

To get the to subway station from where we are staying, my uncle took me by scooter. In Taiwan, scooters are a major form of transportation. Every street is crowded with people on scooters zig-zagging in between cars and trucks. After strapping on my helmet, I jumped on the back of my uncle's scooter and took a firm grip. We zoomed off, winding through narrow streets, cruising over a long bridge, and arriving at the MRT station. I used my subway skills to get a ticket and catch my train to Taipei Main Station.

I found Wendy's fiance in the location we had specified, but Wendy was nowhere to be found. After some searching and a phone call, we connected and went off to the market. Before shopping, we stopped to get some bubble tea and dinner at a dumpling shop. We sat down and ordered 3 different types of fried dumplings; they were all delicious, but I liked the spicy ones (the red ones) the best.

Walking around the Guanghua district, I was amazed at the number of computer and electronics shops. But this was only the beginning . . .

We walked down an alley to an area with a parking lot and what looked like 3 large storage garages. Inside the garages were tiny boutiques filled with any type of electronics imaginable: hard drives, CPUs, MP3 players, headphones, computer games, blank CD/DVDs, cables, monitors, printer cartidges, digital cameras, video games, etc.

I picked up a 1 GB mini SD card for my cell phone for $800 NT (about $25 US, half of the average price in the US) and 512MB DDR400 RAM for my laptop. I later found out that I got the wrong kind, so if you or someone you know are looking for some RAM, let me know and I'll give you a good price.

We continued looking around and I picked up some kung-fu movies for a pretty good price (The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Game of Death). After walking me to the MRT, Wendy and her fiance said goodbye and I headed home.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Breakfast and Lunch at Home

We decided that it was time to take a break from all the running around town and spend a slow day at home. We enjoyed some breakfast and spent the morning reading the newspaper and relaxing. For breakfast, we had soy milk, tea, and fried sesame buns (which is Mom's favorite).

It's good to finally be able to catch up with my blogging. As you can probably tell, my posts are getting rather long-winded. I guess I am just eager to capture every moment of this trip. Don't worry, I'm trying to make sure that I don't "live life behind the lens."

For lunch, we had a home-cooked vegetarian meal. My uncle and his family are vegetarian for religious reasons, so this is what a Taiwanese vegetarian meal looks like. They have a lot of soy-meats, including these ham/pea/bamboo and fake liver dishes. You can also see a stewed winter vegetable dish, a green vegetable dish, and tater tots. Yep, they look like tater tots and they taste like tater tots, so I'm gonna call them tater tots.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Visit to Cousin Kunlam's Jade Store

When you have a very large extended family, the meaning of the word "cousin" begins to obscure. You find that this word is too general to truly capture the relationships between relatives. My "cousin" Kunlam is really more like my uncle, as he is just a few years younger than my dad and has kids that are my age (much like my other "cousin" from the previous post). Kunlam picked us up from the subway and brought us to his jade shop near the center of the city.

We went inside and down to his meeting room to talk, drink, and eat. We ordered Japanese food from a take-out place and feasted on sashimi and various pickled foods. Kunlam's wife brought a tofu cabbage salad and fried octopus salad down for us. The octopus had lots of cilantro, garlic, and chili pepper and was delicious.

We split a big bottle of Taiwan Beer, which is a lot like Heineken. In my experience, most of the beers in Asia are lagers: Tsing Tao, Tiger Beer, Singha, Sapporo.

After dinner, Kunlam drove us back home and we stayed up late talking (well, everyone else was talking, I was just kind of nodding). Dad played with Albert's baby; he loves playing with babies. All right . . . off to bed!

Ximen District

After our hot spring visit, my cousin and her eighteen-year-old daughter brought us to the Ximen District, the old center of commerce in Taipei. In the 70's, the major commerce center was moved to the area around where the Taipei 101 building is now located. The Ximen District is very popular among teens in middle and high school, and even elementary students go there to try to be cool. The district offers shopping, arcades, and entertainment catered to this young crowd.

We walked around and shopped for a while, and I found myself people watching more than anything. The youth culture is heavily influenced by Japanese style, as well as American and European trends.

One artifact of the Japanese influence are these photo booths. You can find them in an arcade-style store that is filled with booths. They are kinda like the photo booths that you know and love, but on steroids. The camera adds a sort of "glamour shots" effect that makes you look kinda like a cartoon. After you pose for several pictures, you go to another booth where you use a touchscreen pen to add clipart, frames, and writing to your photos. Once I figured out what each of the buttons was, I went nuts. I even made one picture with tons of cash and bling (upper right). I'm sure whoever brings this to the States is going to make a boatload of money. Anyone interested in going into business?

The girl in the pictures is my cousin's daughter, Annie. She told Dad that she didn't like her English name and wanted a new one. She asked me if I would give her a new English name. I spent some time thinking and decided on Heidi. She is currently debating the change, so if you have another idea for a name, be sure to post it in a comment. You could name a Taiwanese girl!

We did a little more shopping (I found a tight pair of seersucker Air Force Ones) and ended our trip to the Ximen District. Heidi had mentioned that she liked my sunglasses when we were on the subway, so I gave them to her before we parted ways. Sunglasses AND an English name . . . It feels good to give back a little to the city that is giving me so much!

Hot Springs and Lunch in Xin Beitou

Taiwan is a volcanic island located on what is known as the "Ring of Fire", a series of volcanoes and earthquake occurences that encircle the Pacific Ocean. Volcanoes generally occur near the boundaries of tectonic plates, especially at convergent boundaries, where plates move toward one another. The tectonic nature of Taiwan is the source of danger, in the form of earthquakes and eruptions, as well as pleasure, in the form of hot springs. (Thanks for bearing with "Science Teacher Jeremy" for a minute there . . .)

The Xin Beitou area of Taipei is famous for its hot spring spas, so this is where my cousin and her daughter brought us to experience them. The water from the springs is pumped into buildings where you can rent a room for with a bath tub and a view. We settled on this particular spa and took a couple hours to soak and relax.

From our room, we could see the public hot spring baths, which are much cheaper and outdoors. The hot springs are more popular in the winter weather, but believe me, it feels good to sweat it out sometimes. Even better is showering off with cold water after a hot bath.

After a couple hours of hot spring bathing, drinking tea, and watching Taiwanese TV, we packed up and headed to lunch. This particular meal was Japanese, a sort of semi-fast food (literally) restaurant; all of the food is served on small plates that pass by your table on a conveyor belt. As you see something you like, you grab it and eat it. We had tuna, salmon, and yellowtail sushi, fresh bamboo, seaweed salad, fried tofu, eel, miso soup, and a gelatin milk desert. My cousin's daughter said that she came here with 3 of her girlfriends and they ate almost 80 plates of food in one sitting! At the end of the meal, the waiter counts up the plates and charges you based on what you ate.

On our way out the door, we stopped and picked up some trinkets, the equivalent of Happy Meal toys. I will award one of these as a prize to the first person that can answer the following question: "What is the brand name of the 'formerly' racist toothpaste from Taiwan?" (hint: you won't find the answer on my blog page)

Post your answer as a comment on this post and I will get you your prize when I get back home!

The Taipei Subway: The MRT (vs. The MTA)

As a New Yorker, if there is one thing I feel comfortable with, it is the subway. Sure, I make the occasional misfire, but for the most part, you have to be on top of your subway navigation in order to survive. Today, Dad and I took a taxi to the closest MRT subway station (they are still building the station that will be closer) to head into Taipei.

Our home station, Xinpu, is located in the southwest suburbs of Taipei. Our destination is the northwestern part of the city, Xin Beitou, where we will meet my cousin and her daughter. The first thing that I noticed about the subway is how clean it is, especially compared to the NYC subway. This is in part due to the fact that the MRT (Taipei Subway) is a little over 10 years old, compared to the MTA (NYC Subway) which just celebrated its 100th anniversary. It is also due to the fact that no food, drink, or gum is allowed on the subway and it is heavily enforced (there were plenty of security guards everywhere).

We took a look at the map to figure out exactly how to get where we wanted and then headed to the automatic teller to get our tickets. As a subway veteran, I was quickly able to figure out ticketing (that, and the directions were in English). In the MRT, prices are based on where you begin and end your trip, with trips costing between $20 and $45 NT (about $0.75 to $1.50) depending on how far you go. I helped Dad get his ticket and we walked through the turnstyle.

The platforms, again, are so clean. They even have flat-panel TVs to tell you when the next train is coming. The trains themselves are again clean and more spacious than MTA trains. There are similarities too, though; adverstisements line the walls and a recorded voice chimes in to tell you what the next station is going to be (similar to the robo-L train).

We transferred at Taipei Main Station, which is like the Grand Central Station of Taipei. Here, all the subway and long-distance trains meet, serving as a hub for transportation around the city and the country. It didn't look all that big to me, because the large space is made up of the long corridors between subway lines, rather than the vast, open space of Grand Central.

Like the NYC subway, the trains move above ground as you get further from the city center (think F train out to Coney). We ended up in Xin Beitou, where we met with my cousin and her 18 year-old daughter (my second cousin). From here, we head to the hot springs.

Breakfast with Grandpa and Grandma

I woke up around 8:00AM this morning and took a shower. Again, breakfast was laid out for me as I came out. We enjoyed some Taiwanese pastries, tea, breakfast sandwiches with bacon and egg, Taiwanese grapefruit, and soy milk. I really think I could get used to this.

After breakfast, Grandma and Grandpa came downstairs. At 90+ years old, the fact that they can still walk down the stairs by themselves amazes me. Maybe they shouldn't be doing this, but I think they prefer to show their independence. I sat with them and listened to them reminisce, Dad translating for me every once in a while. We took out a photo book of pictures of my family in Minnesota, including pictures from Christmas, my cousin's wedding, and Megan's prom. As we looked through the pictures, I pointed and said "Yi-Jian" (my brother), "Yi-Ling (my sister), and "Baba" (Dad).

Grandma and Grandpa's vision is not so good, so they spent a lot of time looking over the photos. At the end of the photo book was a picture of me as a baby sitting in Grandma's lap; it was taken during their visit to Minnesota. Grandma looked at the picture and smiled. I had never seen the photo either, and I smiled too. I noticed that in the photo she was wearing a jade bracelet, the same jade bracelet that she was wearing today.

We are heading back into Taipei and have more exciting things to do and explore. I'll keep you posted.