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.