Thursday, July 26, 2012

Mining Towns (Jiufen, Jinguashi)

Things have been busy, especially with school. Living here has settled into a kind of rhythm, but it's a pretty fast-paced rhythm. I feel like the end of my time here is coming so quickly. That is partly a consequence of having met so many interesting people I think. It's an odd feeling to meet someone really fascinating and think, I just don't have time to really get to know them before the world scatters us to the winds.

I don't have much time this morning, so I am just posting a few things that I actually have pictures of. First, the outdoor performance of the Cloud Gate Theater. Mixed reviews on that--I guess I'm just getting too old to sit on a stone ground for a long stretch of time, and also, what interested me about the group was the cultural depth of their performances. The outdoor performance, though, was a bunch of Chinese pop songs that I didn't know. It still was amazing, the things that a body can do, I admit. Photography of the performance itself was not allowed, but here are a couple shots of the scene.

That same weekend, I also went to Jiufen with one of my grad school classmates. Jiufen is an old mining town outside of Taipei. It was also the inspiration for the little town in the movie Spirited Away. Someone with more time than me made an awesome set of comparison shots.

I didn't really take enough pictures to do the place justice, but here are a few. First, a couple of shots from the bus-stop in Ruifang.

So Many Fish! --In Ruifang

Ruifang Scenery
Next, Jiufen itself. The touristy part of it is a maze of tunnels full of delicious things to eat and quirky things to buy. It is one of those places where having only one stomach is a sad sad thing. All the Jiufen specialties are profoundly filling and don't come in small portions. I think that is their way of making sure you come back. The tunnels are dug into the mountainside (or maybe just build on the mountainside, it's a little unclear) so sometimes you will come out into gorgeous views. It's a really fun place to visit.

Jiufen Landscape

And Me

Narrow Passageway in Jiufen

Jiufen Teahouse

Giant Sheet of Peanut Candy

Having only spent a fraction of the time I would have liked to have spent in Jiufen, we headed on to Jinguashi. I had been to Jiufen twelve years ago, and back then I'm not sure Jinguashi Gold Ecological Museum yet existed. It has a new-ish feel. It is a disused mine trying to make the conversion to tourist attraction. They do have a lot of cool mining stuff, and it's kind of hands on. You can climb into the traincars and do a self-guided tour of some old mining tunnels. They were peopled with wax miners and rang with a kind of eerie recorded sound-track.

Spastic Kid in a Mining Car

Weird Me by a Mining Car

Us in the Mining Car

Mysterious Hat

Turned out to be Hardhat Liner

In the Tunnel

He is Made to Look so Endearing
I am out of time for now. But just a couple of (non-mining related) parting shots from Jinguashi:

A Guy Playing a Saw--Very Beautifully Too

A Metal Tree Against the Mountain

Friday, July 13, 2012

Lizards and Spiders and Turtles (oh my)

Sunday: R and I had sworn to work on our manuscripts. We met at noon at a cafe called the Wooden Drawer. R and been there before, but I hadn't. It was blazingly hot outside, but inside it was of course air conditioned. The cafe was not very different from some of the other cafes we have gone to, but it is apparently very hip at the moment. We got there slightly before it opened, and half an hour later all the tables were full. I didn't take very thorough photographs, but here are a few:

There are many more pictures here, almost insanely many. I'm not sure how I feel about the loving attention the photographer has lavished on every inch of this little coffeeshop. But anyway, it is at least very well documented! We were sitting one table away from the bookshelf. Note: the wireless password is written on the little popsicle stick.

I was in a boring part of my manuscript, but I trudged through.

Later we headed to my neighborhood for green tea froyo, and then R did a bit of clothes shopping. She is exactly the average size for a person here and didn't bother to try anything on. Indeed, the things she bought actually did fit. Me, I am too scarred by Beijing. I *think* I brought enough clothes with me to last the summer, barring further laundry disasters.

We met another of our classmates at a Korean restaurant nearby. Here is R getting ready to enjoy the panchen tiny appetizers (Chinese characters: 飯餐, according to our classmate who is an actual Korean person). R is very enamored of Korean food, having never really had it before.

After that we walked around a lot, including passing through the old neighborhood where I lived 12 years ago. Some things I could still recognize, especially along the route along which I walked to school every day. But I couldn't remember exactly which street I lived on.

Down the street from where I live they are starting some construction. I was impressed by this truck, which was carrying scaffolding supplies. The poles were all made of bamboo!

For no good reason, I stayed up really late. Then I was very tired on Monday. All the same, I went with R to a cafe and did some homework. Then after a short rest--and having required a lot of persuasion--I went with R to a birthday party she had been invited to. Lots of Columbia grad students and ICLP veterans. I felt more out of place than I expected, maybe just because I was tired and over-sensitive. Still, making the decision to do a social thing makes the next such decision easier. I know this from experience, even if it's hard to remember that. The party was at a Japanese restaurant. The dinner in the foreground was mine, and it was pretty good.

I stayed late again, this time because I hadn't finished my homework. Oh yeah, student life.

Tuesday I was so tired that after a quick bubble tea at Gongguan, I just went home and passed out for a while. Did my homework. Went back to bed.

Wednesday was slightly more lively. At lunch I went to hear a talk on Taiwan politics. It was really cool! I learned a lot. Usually the school has box lunches for when there is a talk scheduled, but they ran out of them. So I had lunch at the cafeteria afterwards. No complaints. I do like cafeteria food!

After school, it was homework at Xiao Gongguan, which is a really adorable upstairs cafe. I wrote about half of my essay on the connection between democracy and economic development. Then R convinced me that I should take time off and have fun. So we went to dinner at a Vietnamese sandwich place, and then we went to see the new Spiderman movie. That was pretty fun! Not terribly deep, but entertaining.

I stayed up late again.

But hey, even though on Thursday morning I was dead tired not to mention really hot after my twenty minute walk to school in the blazing sun, I did see this great lizard! Something good happens every day.

We had sworn to work on our real work again. So it was an afternoon spent in a little cafe by the park on Yongkang jie--very near where I used to live. I remember the park. I still couldn't remember which street I was on though.

We were there all afternoon. I ordered this chocolate ice-cream puff turtle, to try to cheer myself up. Still in a very boring patch of the manuscript. Later we went to have xiaolongbao 小籠包 at a nearby dumpling restaurant. R is very good at ordering food.

Today (Friday) is basically the apogee of tiredness. Yet all the same I managed to have a really good day. This morning I went to the Starbucks across from school and ran into the professor who had given the lecture on Taiwan politics. So instead of doing an extra half hour of homework as planned, I chatted with her, and it really made me feel nice. We were almost complete strangers, but she remembered me from the talk, and anyway, we are of the same tribe. It also shows that all the pressure to work so hard at school is totally self-generated--because not doing that extra half hour of homework made no difference really.

It was my turn to "lead" the discussion in my radio plays class. (This is a class where we study short radio broadcasts, which are all little stories.) The story was an interesting one, about gender roles and household chores. It's interesting how some teaching skills translate pretty decently into Chinese--I had no trouble leading a very interesting discussion. In the course of it I found out that of my two classmates who are college age, one (female) would prefer as her first choice to be a housewife and would be willing to do all the housework... but is training to do a job just in case, as a plan B; the other (male) is okay with his (future) wife working full time, and would be somewhat willing to help out with housework... until they have kids but afterwards... well, it's most important to do what's best for the kids. I asked, What if she has a good job that she likes, and which could support both of you--would you be the stay-at-home dad (jiating zhufu 家庭煮夫)? Answer: no. My other classmate, who I think is younger than me but married with kids, does plan to have a career in the next few years, and they hire people to do all the housework. I characterized my situation as, my husband and I split the housework equally (or he does slightly more) and when we get busy we just drop our standards a lot. I also explained our "fifteen minute rule" (we try to do fifteen minutes of housework every day--together--with specific music for the task). It's amazing how much you can get done in fifteen minutes. I also led the discussion toward the question of whether some chores are gendered, whether in their parents' households there is any division of labor, and so on. The answers were all really interesting. Also, it really made me appreciate Pocket of Bolts, because clearly there aren't all that many fellows out there who are as enlightened as he is.

At lunch I went to a talk on the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, more because of the free lunch than because I was interested. However, I got totally sucked in! It actually looked fascinating! I guess these things are much more interesting when you know the history behind them. Also the young woman who gave the talk did a really great job. She had such a gentle, clear, lively way of speaking Chinese, she was instantly lovable. It actually really made me want to see one of their performances, even though modern dance is by no means a Zapaper sort of thing. These people are clearly exceptional though, and reminded me strongly of the Ballets Russes, with which I was fascinated in college. It is like an Asian 21st century Ballets Russes.

As usual on a Friday, I was too tired to do much more than just go home and collapse. I read and messed around with my computer and slept and soaked up the AC. Pretty much the only noteworthy things was that I had an absolutely delicious avocado milkshake. Wow, Taipei really knows how to do food.

More soon!

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Week of (Mostly) Work

I realize I have let a whole week pass without writing. But the days are so full.

Outdoor Hotspring at Xin Beitou
Last Saturday, because my back was sore, I decided to be brave and go to the hotsprings at Xin Beitou. Hotsprings in summer seem a bit of a hard sell, but having my body submerged in water seemed like a nice idea. I waited until evening when the sun was down so it would be less hot out. I just went to the cheap outdoor pool, though there are many places with "genuine natural hotspring water" piped into the room. That seems weird to me though.

The outdoor place was fun but crowded. There were various pools of different temperatures and a cold shower. It didn't seem especially clean, but hey, everyone else was in there. They wouldn't keep going in there if there were some serious hygiene problem right? As usual, my lackadaisical approach to hygiene had no bad consequences.

I guess it is a bit low-cut...
The town was interesting and I should go back during the day sometime. But maybe sometime not in summer. The Japanese made it into a real Onsen style town back in the day, and it retains a lot of that feeling but a bit exaggerated in a touristy way. Cartoonish Japanese motifs. Anyway, I had a nice time.

I will say though that my swimming suit was wildly inappropriate. Most women were wearing one-piece suits which showed now cleavage and had little skirts, kind of more like tennis dresses. My bikini is not atypical for home, but was a bit odd here. It being the polite and civilized city that it is, though, no one gave me any trouble at all. There was just a bit of involuntary staring, but nothing serious.

On Monday we had our first calligraphy class. I was a little disappointed that we didn't actually get to try anything. Why is that? I happened to have been contemplating an essay I had to write for class on theory versus practice in education. Our system is really slanted toward practice. Do stuff! try stuff! or at least form opinions about stuff! The first calligraphy class involved a lot of advertisement for why calligraphy is cool (and by the by, why our teacher is so good at it). But I have heard that speech many times over. That part does not make my calligraphy any better. My calligraphy never really gets too much better because so much of the time allotted for class is involved with proselytizing calligraphy or talking about the theory behind it. Still, it was interesting in the second half of the class because he wrote each of our Chinese names for us.

Right after the class, I went out to a hotpot restaurant with one of our teachers and all her students, as well as one of the other teachers and her students. It was a big group, about 20. The restaurant was interesting, buffet style, with all kinds of appetizers and desserts as well as hot-pot ingredients. Then everyone had their own little bowl of soup. I ate way too much, but had a fun time chattering, mostly with the teachers (who are roughly my age).

On Tuesday it was busy busy busy as usual. I was supposed to write two essays, but I could only manage one, plus my other homework. The other essay is always optional anyway. They just said, "However much you can write, write that much." That is a kind of devilish proposition, because usually I end up writing a lot. Tuesday night, though, "however much I could write" turned out to be nothing. That was okay too.

A Yellow Shrine
One thing that did happen was that a little shrine appeared down the street from me. It's strange how spaces just open up sometimes in these little lanes. Is it a room in someone's house? Is it usually a business? Entirely unclear to me. I think there is less zoning here than at home! Things are more interspersed. I'm not sure what this shrine is dedicated to, but it has been around every day.

Wednesday was the Fourth of July. I started out the day in kind of a bad mood but I had a meeting for the school e-bulletin at lunch and the teacher who runs it said really nice things about my writing in Chinese. I had written a brief report about a talk I had gone to see (on visual representations of the garden from Hong Lou Meng) and she really liked it. Usually I do not much go in for compliments, but it is easy to feel discouraged about my Chinese sometimes. I am working hard at it, but the bar is always getting raised. So it was a very cheery thing.

After school I had been intending to go with some of the students to a big ferris wheel, but when I went there no one was there. Kids today. I later found out they had changed the meeting time via Facebook only about half an hour before, but I hadn't thought to check. Anyway, I had been sitting in a cafe with R doing homework, so we just wandered back to my neighborhood and went to a Korean restaurant instead. I introduced her to naengmyeon. She liked it! It was pretty good naengmyeon. I was reminded that there have been many Fourths of July in my life when I have eaten Korean food. Anyway, I companionably walked R to her bus stop after dinner and it was all really nice.

On Thursday I had a cafeteria lunch. I have them whenever I don't have specific lunch plans. They are just so tasty. This one was particularly jaunty looking I thought. The two pink balls turned out to be a sort of fried mochi? Strawberry flavor. I like it on weekdays because they have free tea which you can put into your bowl instead of soup. On weekends, there is only soup. But at least it is always a different kind of soup.

R and I had made a pact that we were going to work on our own research after school. We headed to a non-school part of town, near the Zhongxiao Dunhua subway stop. It was a much more ritzy part of town than I am used to.

View from the Window of Rainbow Cafe
We went to a lovely upstairs cafe called Rainbow Cafe. The coffee was very good there. At nice cafes, the coffee is always expensive, $4-5 usually, because you are paying for the air-conditioning, the nice tables, the atmosphere, and the wireless internet. But they do treat you nicely even if you just have coffee and nothing more.

This was the view out the window of the cafe. I should have been more conscientious about taking a picture of the inside. I have been to very many cool cafes lately, and never even the same one twice, though each one was easily cool enough to go back to. There is just such a thriving cafe culture here. There are chains (Starbucks, Dante), but there are also just a lot of great independent ones which have so much character. People know what they want: a nice place to sit and do their work. Taipei is happy to provide it.

I got a good couple hours of work in on the manuscript, which made me feel satisfied. We got a nice dinner and some frozen yogurt, and then I bought the next installment of my comic book at the nearby Eslite Bookstore. I am up to volume 4! It really makes me happy to feel like I can read something in Chinese for fun, even though it is translated from Japanese. I also feel justified in buying them because they are not available for sale outside of Taiwan (supposedly).

By the way, I have also seen some exceptionally fine looking lizards. They are hard to catch on camera, but here are a couple:

In the Grass

On the Tree

There is not too much else to tell I guess. Yesterday (Friday) there was a big and violent rain. I dropped by the library after class. After I came out I walked down the Avenue of Palms and it was very soggy.

Rainwater on the Avenue of Palms
I paid my rent and was a little shocked to learn that my electric bill was 1400NT, or around $50. The room is badly insulated, and I am a wimp when it comes to heat, but still, I feel bad. I had just read an article about how much the spread of AC is contributing to global warming--seems like a vicious cycle. So I am trying to make myself leave the AC off sometimes. I can tell I am already getting slightly better acclimatized to the hot weather because today it was 29 degrees C and I walked out a felt like it was a pretty fresh and pleasant temperature. Really it's like, up in the mid 80s or something. One step at a time. I remember the point in Chicago winter where you go out and feel like 20 degrees F is balmy. But it is so much easier getting used to the cold...

Marvelous Moth
Today I spent almost all day in the library. I saw an incredible moth when I was on my way to lunch. Isn't it such a beauty? I'm not actually touching it in this picture. I just put my hand in there for scale.

There is so much life here. It springs up everywhere. The people seem lively too. I'm sure they have their flaws, but I feel inclined to see them best in them, almost all the time. Really my only complaint about being here is the weather which is no one's fault, and of course I did know what to expect.

Unexpectedly, the library closed at 5. Since it didn't seem like time to stop working (I was doing an abstract for a conference I might go to) it was off to another cafe. It was a great one, near the Gongguang MRT, again up on the second floor above a fantastic "guabao" (steamed bread sandwich). Of course I had a sandwich too. Here is the adorable hand-drawn menu from the cafe:

I am definitely going back here again. For real!

First Taipei Haircut
After I finished my abstract at the cafe, I finally gathered up my courage and went to get my haircut. Getting my haircut was always a fairly traumatic experience in Beijing. I'm not sure why I keep expecting things to be similarly difficult here. They're not. There was no fuss about the haircut at all and I think it came out nicely. To be safe, I said I just wanted a bang trim and a little bit off the ends. But the guy, who was dressed incredibly casual and looked like a teenaged convenience store clerk, was an artist. He boldly and thoughtfully recut all the layers a little more sharply. He didn't painstakingly clip up each layer. He just did it all by feel and look, checking and correcting, obviously totally comfortable. The Cook Ding of haircutters.

It's always hard to tell with a new haircut, but so far I feel really happy with it. The guy also seemed to enjoy talking with me, and I was having an okay Chinese language day, so I managed to understand most of what he said.

Tomorrow it is more new cafe and social adventures, and I am going to update more regularly so I don't have to do everything at once like this. I am resolved!

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Essays in Chinese

I realized that in my last post I neglected to mention why I have been so extremely busy. It turns out that if you tell the teachers here that your class is too easy and you don't have enough homework, they devise fiendish types of homework for you to do. In this case, I got assigned an extra textbook and told to write an essay every day. There is no length requirement--"just write as much as you can"--but of course at first I wrote tremendously much. I have been coming close to a thousand characters per day. My goal for this week is to scale that back a bit. Less is more, right?

Cafe Zabu
On Monday, to my great annoyance, my internet was down. Actually it started Sunday night. When by Monday night it still wasn't back, I texted the landlord. He is such a nice guy! And so... Asian. He immediately started to fuss and worry, started doing all sorts of experiments on my computer, went and reset the router, called his computer expert, all as if it were his own problem rather than mine. This was all at like eight or nine at night. It turned out maybe something had to be replaced in the massive tangle of router stuff. He was profusely apologetic but said he'd have it fixed by later that night. I needed the internet to do my homework (online dictionaries--clearly my Achilles heel), so I went to Cafe Zabu. I had never been there before, but it is pretty near where I live. It's a place with so much character it's almost too much character. But it did have wireless. The password was written in magic marker on the wall, if that gives you any indication of the character of the place!

Ochazuke at Cafe Zabu
There were many framed pictures of cows on the wall, but the overall cultural orientation of the place was Japanese. So, since I hadn't had dinner, I had ochazuke. That's the Japanese take on bebimbap. Instead of broth, you pour a pot of green tea over your rice and other ingredients, then mix up. It was good, although not very filling. I had read about it in a book and attempted to make it on my own many times. However, it was interesting to finally get to order it in a restaurant so I could see how it was supposed to taste like. (Two of my three textbooks are in the background of this photo.)

Tuesday I had lunch with one of my fellow students, K. He has been here for a whole semester already, and is very outgoing and energetic. We had chewy scallion breads and he told me harrowing stories about his adventures. It's fun hanging out with advanced students because they keep to the language pledge even over lunch off campus. So here we were, two Americans walking down the street chattering in Chinese. I guess people around our language school are used to such things.

Cafeteria lunch, includes some blood tofu (upper right)
On Wednesday I ended up having lunch in the cafeteria again. It is really a great cafeteria, maybe with less variety than the Beida cafeteria, but all the variety there is you can have all at once because it is buffet style--rather than having to try to figure out the names of the dishes and order them. Here was my Wednesday lunch.

In the afternoon, I went to the National Library to hear my grad school classmate JC give a talk. I was very worn out from all my essay-writing, so it was a little hard to follow at first. But I got into it. I hadn't realized that the soul-summoning ritual had such a long history after the famous instance of it in the Songs of the South. They used it often when a person's body was unavailable for burial, which seems quite practical if you believe that there are souls that perhaps wander around and can respond to your rituals. The interesting question is what exactly was it they thought they were summoning. Ancient Chinese beliefs about souls are various and difficult to pin down.

The National Library
On Wednesday night, I got the best compliment ever for a Chinese language learner. There was this girl in the square by my house. She was awkwardly attempting to communicate with me via pantomime and I answered in Chinese. She did a startled little jump and said, 哦! 我以為你是外國人! (Oh! I thought you were a foreigner!) It was really marvelous.

On Thursday I ended up writing an essay on gender (in)equality, which I got way too involved in. It's a very standard topic for Chinese language study, but I happened to also have been sent this article ("Why Women Still Can't Have It All"), which has apparently occasioned some debate back home. So I thought I would talk about the problem of family and career considerations using some of the terms she introduces, but also from the perspective of me and my grad school classmates. Of course I ended up getting way too involved in my little writing project, but it was fun to stretch my Chinese that hard.

Balancing Family (on a Motorcycle)
Speaking of balancing family, I saw this well-laden motorcycle on the way home from school. You might have to click on the picture to see it clearly, but I believe there are like, three kids on that motorcycle. It reminds me of a story dad used to tell about his grad school days... The other day I saw I think a different family, five people to a motorcycle, including dad, one kid in front and one kid in back, mom behind the kid in back with an even smaller kid in a front pack. And the motorcycle was moving. I was in awe.

By Friday I was so exhausted I basically just came home from school and passed out. What a week! This week it is my goal to manage my time better and post a little more regularly. For now, though, I have to sign off and go get ready for class. I leave you with a picture of an awesome little guy I saw on the campus. Just like me--very hungry caterpillar--but I am eating up all the Chinese language skills.
Golden Caterpillar

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Dragon Boat Festival and Library Day

These days I am so busy, it's hard to find time for sleep. Not busy in a bad way, of course, quite the reverse. The days are full of interesting learning and experiences.

Saturday was Duanwu jie 端午節, the Dragon Boat Festival. Despite being really pretty tired from the whole week of classes, I joined our school's fieldtrip to a nearby river park to watch the boat races. There were all kinds of different teams, and each had its own special preparation. My eye was particularly caught by the team of our sister school, Shifan daxue's Mandarin Training Center. Our school doesn't field a team, for whatever reason, but theirs does. I think they look quite fierce!

I also noticed what I think was a Philippines team, wheeling around doing exercises and stretches.

There was also a large and lively team that sported bright red t-shirts. Here I think they were cheering for some of their teammates (there were several different categories of races).
Meanwhile, our school provided an audience team. Well, every contest needs an audience, right? Ha ha. These are some of my classmates, photo taken by me so obviously I'm not in it.

The races were reasonably exciting. Here is a picture of the staging area where everyone got into their boats. The starting line is in the distance.

Here is the Mandarin Training Center team starting off. They went on to win their heat:

They were really fast.

Here's another team on its way back from the race. You can see the drummer who keeps time. The person even further forward in the boat is the flag grabber. Their job is to grab the flag at the finish line. If they miss the flag, the victory doesn't count! Sadly, I failed to get a picture of the flags. I'm not sure what I was thinking.

There was also a big food court area with many snacks. Amongst them, this very interesting spiral snack. I have no idea what it was. Maybe a potato? Maybe a type of cookie?

You might wonder why I didn't buy one, and I have no idea. It just didn't really occur to me? They look more interesting in the picture than they seemed on a meltingly hot afternoon? I don't know.

One thing I did try was stinky tofu. It tasted fine. When it's in your mouth you can't even really smell it. (Of course when you walk by it on the street, it smells like dogshit soup.) As I was eating it, though, my stomach did keep telling me I was eating something sketchy. It tasted fine, but I lost my appetite. I ate it all anyway, just to be macho, and felt no particular ill-effects beyond feeling mildly unsettled. On the other hand, there was also nothing particularly exciting about the stinky tofu either.

Here is the overall view of the big bridge under which they start the races:

I couldn't really make it through all the races. It was just too darned hot. I went home in early afternoon.

Sunday I spent most of the day in the library. I read some stuff in Chinese and some stuff in French, and worked on my manuscript. I know that's not a very interesting story. However, I did see this GIGANTIC spider along the way:

It's well camouflaged, but it is (scarily) close to my left foot.

At lunchtime, I discovered a great thing: a cafeteria/buffet (pay by weight) right across from the library. So many choices! so many vegetables! The food pictured here cost less than $2!

Later, just as I was on my way home, there was a sudden downpour. And me stupidly without my umbrella. I took refuge under the front of one of the buildings and waited it out.

(Sorry, it's hard taking a picture of oneself with an iphone camera.)

Not much else to tell. Here are a few more sights from along my walk home. First, a kind of pond in a little schoolyard park. Lushness of greenery...

Finally, I saw a lot of these branches on different buildings. I am betting it had something to do with the Dragon Boat Festival, but I'm not sure.

Have to run now--more soon I hope.