Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Ancient Golden Dragon Takes Taiwan By Storm

“This is Formosa”

Warm, tropical, aquamarine seas. Breathtaking, mile-high seaside cliffs. The tallest mountains to be found anywhere in Asia outside the Himalayas. A surfing location so ideal that typhoons face week-long waiting lists before they’re even allowed to visit the island with gifts of swell and long, barreling waves for their kind hosts: the beach, point, and reef breaks of the North Shore. This is Taiwan.

The finest and, very possibly, the most affordable assortment of Asian cuisine to be found anywhere on the planet. A deep-rooted commitment to welcoming visitors with displays of kindness and generosity so unrivaled as to be considered institutions in themselves. A fascinating, hybrid culture in which East meets West and the result is simply spectacular. This is Taiwan.

Ornate, dream-like temples perched on cloud-kissing mountain precipices; state-of-the-art, record-breaking skyscrapers towering over the second most densely populated sprawl in the world. Traditional teahouses tucked away in tranquil back-alleys; glitzy Starbuck’s springing up at every major intersection. A pace of life matched only by high-speed public transportation, super-savvy computer users and the latest in technology, and a convenience store on every corner; indigenous tribes still subsisting off the land and sea and relying on centuries-old tools and techniques. Pollution so horrific that surgical masks are a standard fashion accessory; pristine wilderness so widespread that 58% of the country is covered by forest, 20% is protected by the national park system, and over 1,000 plant species can be found here and nowhere else. This is Taiwan.

A people without a nation yet nevertheless full of energy, full of pride, full of life. A land suspended between tradition and modernity, between the ways of the old world and those of the new, yet nevertheless forging ahead to the tachycardic beat of twenty-two and a half million hearts. A place so unique, so special, so unlike any other I’ve ever visited, that using complete sentences to describe it would be simply too conventional. This is Taiwan. This is Ihla Formosa. This is “The Beautiful Island.”

“200 cm ≠ 200 inches”

To follow up on my earlier recommendation that surfers try, whenever possible, to fly Air France (no extra fees for surfboards!), I’d like to recommend that they avoid Northwest at all costs. The one exception would be if the said surfers are also comedians or screenwriters and happen to be looking for new material:

[Alex approaches the ticket counter with all his documents in hand and his rolling boardboag in tow]
Agent: [eying the boardbag with a malicious grin on his face] Ooh, you’re gonna haf ta pay fer that one, boy…
Alex: [slightly taken aback] Yes, I believe the extra charge, according to your website, is $75.
Agent: [after weighing the boardbag] Haha, ‘fraid not sir, that’s gonna cost ya at least $400.
Alex: [shocked] Excuse me!? I think you need to consult your company’s website.
Agent: [after typing on his keyboard for at least 5 minutes] I’m ‘fraid that’s just how it is, sir. Says right here that baggage as heavy as yours can’t be taken on domestic flights. See, I’m bein’ nice just allowin’ ya to take it.
Alex: What!? First of all, I already told you I’m flying to Taiwan. That’s not domestic. Secondly, you’re looking in the wrong place. Try clicking where it says “Surfboards.”
Agent: [after clicking on “Surfboards” and taking another 5 minutes to read his computer screen] Yep, yep, I see here where it says $75… “regardless of weight” … but yours is just too heavy, see, and I’m gonna haf ta charge ya fer it.
Alex: I’m afraid that’s not your decision, sir. Why don’t you give your superiors a call.
Agent: [feeling challenged] Alrite, Alrite, I can do that…
[proceeds to talk in hushed tones on the phone for approximately 20 minutes]
I know that’s what it says, but this dang surfboard is heavy I tell ya!
[long pause and then more hushed wispers]
Alrite, alrite…[hangs up the phone]
Alex: [looking at watch] Excuse me sir, but I’m really going to miss my flight….
Agent: [with a blank stare] I know you are…
Alex: Can you please just charge me the extra $75 and let me go on my way?
Agent: ‘Fraid not, we’re gonna have to figure this out.
Alex: What is there to figure out!? Your company has a policy on this!
Agent: [excitedly, having just thought of a new idea] I know what we’re gonna do. I’m gonna go get me my tape measure. Accordin’ ta my computer, if this here surfboard is more than 109 inches, it’s an extra fee fer ya ta pay, mister.
Alex [quickly doing the math in his head] It’s not over 109 inches.
Agent: Well, that’s what ya tell me, but I’m gonna see for myself, alrite?
[saunters casually down the aisle to find his tape measure and returns about 5 minutes later]
Agent: [having measured the boardbag] Ahah! This here surfboard is more than 200 inches! Oh, I’m gonna get ya fer this one!
Alex [momentarily baffled] What!?...
Alex [amused, having inspected the tape measure] Um, sir, you just measured in centimenters.
Agent: [haughtily] That’s right. You’re over 109. You’re gonna pay!
Alex: No, the limit was 109 inches. 200 centimeters is less than 109 inches!
Agent: Nope, ‘fraid 200 is more than 109.
Alex: [becoming perturbed] Centimeters, do you understand? It’s not too long!
Agent: [beginning to doubt his reasoning] I’m gonna haf ta discuss dis matta with my col-leagues…
[saunters down the aisle exactly as before, converses with another agent for several minutes, and then slowly makes his way back]
Agent: It a-ppears… that yer surfboard ain’t too long.
Alex: [rather annoyed at this point and looking back at the long line of people waiting anxiously behind him] Sir, I really think you better let me go.
Agent: [appearing to be thinking deeply] How ‘bout this… We’ll just say ya got two surfboards in there, and I’ll charge ya for that…let’s see, $75 times 2…that would be…
Alex: [wondering what the agent would do if he looked inside the boardbag and found that there were actually four boards inside] That’d be $150. Here’s my credit card. Now please let me go.
Agent: [speaking slowly, wondering if he has somehow been duped] Alrite, alrite, I’ll let ya go. But I got yer information right here, and I’m gonna do me some more research on this. I’m not gonna let it go just yet.
Alex: [pocketing his boarding pass and turning to go] Yea, you do that…

“Around the World in 8 Months…Twice”

After a brief stopover in Japan, my plane at last touched down at Chiang Kai Shek International Airport in Taiwan, bringing my air mileage since April to approximately 33,480 miles (the circumference of the earth is 24,900 miles) and my continent count to 5 (if you take the liberty of lumping French Polynesia in with Australia…I mean it’s gotta go somewhere, right?). Long-time readers may remember from my “Adventures in China and Taiwan ’05” blog the absolutely wonderful Chang family, whom I consider to be some of the nicest – if not the nicest – people in the world. Well, they struck again this year, and my first few days in Taiwan were an unending lesson in generosity. My good friend Jackson picked me up at the airport in the middle of the night, hauled me and my crazy boardbag (with four, not two boards inside!) an hour and half into town, and helped me settle into a hotel with all my luggage. The next day, he and his mom helped me begin the search for an apartment so I would be able to settle in as soon as possible. I had done quite a bit of research before I came and had pretty much settled on a general area where I wanted to live, but I never could have achieved alone the kind of slam-dunk success we were able to have working together. In one day, we had driven all the way to the north coast, toured apartments and eventually chosen one, settled on the terms of the lease, written up a contract, paid the rent in-full, arranged to have high-speed internet installed, and completely furnished the place. On day two, I awoke with a vicious case of jet-lag, gathered all my luggage together, and once again loaded up Jackson’s car for the trip north, this time to move into my new place for good. Before we could leave the hotel, though, several employees, having finally gotten up enough courage to ask, timidly inquired as to what might be inside the 8-foot-long monstrosity I had left sitting in the middle of the hotel lobby (as I was told to do) for everyone to gawk at. The most common guess seemed to be some type of boat, which I suppose is closer to the truth than the guesses I heard during my Senegal trip – most of which involved some sort of weapon or missile. If it’s possible for a boardboag to be personified, then I think it must rank as one of the most important characters in my story.

“First Impressions”

It’s always interesting to reexamine first impressions, particularly when they pertain to your new home:

hey mom and dad,
just wanted to let you cool cats know i've made it to taipei okay. jackson met me at the airport and everything, which was great. then, yesterday (my first full day here), he and his mom spent the whole day with me, and we actually found an apartment. they said i got really lucky; they expected it to take a week or so. it's in a brand new building (which is good not only bc/ of its appearance but also bc/ of fire and earthquake standards) in danshui (the place i told you about) which wasn't even available until yesterday. it's in the area of danshui's university (which has over 17,000 students), so mainly students live in the building, which is nice because it should allow me to have a group of friends at that school as well as at Shi Da (NTNU) in downtown Taipei. plus, i'm one of the only foreigners anywhere in the entire area, so it's no english for me! it's a small studio apt. with a TV, refrigerator, etc and is furnished. high speed internet, air conditioning, indoor parking garage (i'm probably getting a motorcycle), security guard, locked entrance (w/ swipe card) to the grounds, laundry facilities, rooftop sitting area. my place is on the top floor (7th) with a view of the mountains. 5-10 minute scooter ride to the MRT subway, then 35 minutes (no need to change trains, and, bc/ danshui is the end of the line, i'll always get a seat) to downtown where NTNU is. 5 minutes from the water; 20-25 minutes to good surfing breaks; 10 minutes to acres and acres of hiking/running trails, hot springs, and mountains in Yangmingshan National Park. danshui itself is a nice place, much more relaxed than downtown taipei but still full of energy, bustling food markets, etc. the large student population gives it a nice feel too, and there's plenty of restaurants and stuff around my apt. there's also a river/ocean-front boardwalk/Old Town area lined with food stalls.

the computer people come on Monday to set up my internet. i'll probably send you another email sometime after that's finished. until then, i'm just trying to get settled in, beat jet lag, resurrect what knowledge of chinese i used to possess, and prepare for a busy sur...ehem, i mean studying schedule. okay talk to you soon, love


Things were going well. They really were. I was starting to get my bearings. Enjoying the food. Meeting people. Then…then, there was the test. Having waited until the last day of the registration period to finally visit the school where I would be studying (I had been having conflicts with my surfing schedule), I showed up just in time to fill out the required forms, take a brief oral exam, and select a class. The school is National Taiwan Normal University, also known as NTNU or Shi-Da, and is the second most prestigious school in all of Taiwan, the first for students studying to be teachers (which is what the “Normal” means, of course); so I was bit surprised when I found that not a single person in the entire registration area could speak anything close to fluent English. In fact, I don’t think I saw a single non-Asian person anywhere in the room. Nevertheless, I squeaked out some Chinese and made my way station-to-station, filling out forms. The oral exam lady seemed to have heard all she needed to hear when I told her I’d studied Chinese at a university for two years at fives hours a week. I guess it didn’t occur to her that Americans, particularly those in the Southeast, don’t typically have a lot of opportunities to practice Chinese; studying for five hours a week in America is quite different than doing it in an Asian country. She signed me up tentatively for an advanced class and told me when to return for my written placement exam. I was a bit annoyed that I was going to have to take a 2 hour placement exam but was feeling pretty decent about my Chinese, so I spent the next few hours reviewing my old materials and psyching myself up to ace this test. Well, the time came, and I sat down to begin working. Um, yea… Let’s just say that by the tenth question, I couldn’t even spell self-esteem. After cursing my way through the vocabulary (“Why can’t it just be matching?”), oral (“Another!?”), and grammar (“Just choose the one that looks the most complicated”) sections, I arrived at the reading section, which constituted a whopping 40% of the exam. Even if I had known more than 20% of the words, it would have taken me days just to translate the five pages of hieroglyphics that were so small my dad wouldn’t have been able to see them with his glasses on…not to mention answer each paragraph-long question (in Chinese, of course). So, without a second thought, I folded up my exam, gave a confident “Oh, yea, baby, I aced it” nod to the other students taking the test, handed it to the proctor, and headed for freedom. And the dénouement, you’re wondering? My self-esteem wavered between the pits and the garbage for the next few weeks, until one day when, mid-conversation, I was asked by an astonished professor, “You took that test!? That’s the most difficult one we offer!”

“A Red-Headed Chinese Person?”

So, admittedly, I have been known to tell a certain, slightly controversial joke to my good friends, who understand that it’s a completely good-natured, innocuous attempt at humor. It goes something along the lines of, “Yea, I’m a hardboiled egg…[feign seriousness]…yep, white on the outside, yellow on the inside…” Unfortunately, this joke doesn’t translate well into Chinese, so my typical response to the near-daily question of “Oh, how long are you staying in Taiwan?” is “What? I live here! I’m Taiwanese.” No, that one doesn’t usually work either, but it does exemplify a certain mindset I’ve come to take during this segment of my globetrotting. Relative to your typical tourist – who backpacks through Europe, spending a few days in each country, or hibernates in a Jamaican or Hawaiian resort for a week – I almost always travel on a more long-term basis. Whether I’m living with local families or backpacking solo, I try to learn as much as I can about the local culture, integrating myself into it in the process. But in Taiwan I want to go a step farther. I really do want to become a red-headed Chinese person.

Perhaps this is a good time to explain the title of this blog entry: “The Ancient Golden Dragon Takes Taiwan by Storm.” I am the Golden Dragon. I am the Ancient Golden Dragon. Hear my name and bow before me. Why? Ok, so you think there’s nothing much to a name, right? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, right? Not in Taiwan. Names are very important in Chinese culture because every Chinese character (every symbol) has a meaning. Therefore, unlike an English name such as Alex, for example, which has no obvious meaning in and of itself, all Chinese names (which are typically comprised of 3 characters, the surname being the first one) have a meaning; this meaning is, in fact, equally or perhaps more important than the sound of the name itself. Thus, obtaining an authentic, appropriate, and hopefully memorable Chinese name is the first step to becoming a Chinese person. I began with the sad, sad, oh-so-sad name of 古艾利, pronounced Gu Aili, which was bestowed upon me without my consent at the beginning of my studies of Chinese. According to my translation, this name means “Ancient Profitable Mugwort.” Yes, “Mugwort”… the weed. Not surprisingly, locals I met in China last year typically appeared puzzled, amused, or both after they heard my name. Fortunately, the family I lived with there helped me to acquire a new name and, thereby, a new identity. With their help, I selected… 古金龙,Gu Jinlong… a classical, an authentic, and – to the people who know – a very powerful name. Best of all, this name holds great meaning: “Ancient Golden Dragon.” Since Chinese-speaking people call “red” hair “golden” hair, the deal was sealed – a simple “…because I have golden hair…see? [playful grin]” follow-up explanation after introducing myself, and the ice is always broken immediately. More importantly, the girls find the golden-hair/golden-dragon “coincidence” charming and delightful. What can I say? Could you resist the Ancient Golden Dragon?

Back to becoming a red-headed Chinese person. The mindset I’ve adopted here in Taiwan centers around doing everything the “local” way. In the past, I’ve made strong efforts to do things this way, but I’ve never been forced to. If I committed a social gaffe and strained my relationship with a local shop owner or never bothered to figure out the local bus system or ended up having to rely on a third-party friend to communicate through a difficult-to-explain problem, it didn’t really matter; I would be leaving in a few more weeks and wouldn’t see the shop owner again, wouldn’t need to use that bus system any longer, and wouldn’t have to bother my friend a second time. But I’m not just visiting Taiwan, I’m really living here for awhile. And, for that reason, I’m going about my daily life as if I planned to live here permanently. I’m developing strong relationships with the locals, supporting the local businesses and getting to know their owners, learning not just how to get from Point A to Point B but also the “shortcut way” from Point A to Point B. I own my own means of transportation, I have a landlord, I have a local cell phone plan, I have bills to take care of, I speak the local language regularly, and I take care of my passport and visa issues with the police on my own. A lot of my American friends are surprised when I tell them these things. They ask, “What program are you doing?” and I always respond, not really sure of what to say, “I’m not doing a ‘program.’ I’m just studying abroad, at another university.” That’s how it should be, I think. I’m not trying to take anything away from study abroad “programs,” but how “abroad” are you really if you’re with a group of students exactly like you – if not from your own university than from one just like it – in a safe, supervised, and structured environment? Undoubtedly, you’re experiencing new things but always with someone holding your hand. That was never what I wanted, and I’m very happy with the amount of freedom I have here. Not only was there no one at NTNU to help me find housing or a motorcycle, to show me how to get around, or to help me renew my visa, but I’d go so far as to venture that, on most days, there’s not even anyone in NTNU’s main office who speaks fluent English. I’m really on my own out here. And I love it.

One final point. Not only have I been trying to do everything the “local” way but also I’ve been trying to do everything the “hard” way. What does this mean? I’m in a part of the city I don’t know, and I need to travel several miles. Empty taxis are waiting in a long line next to me; a bus stop sign displaying at least twenty different numbers, in various colors, stands in front of me. My Chinese is obviously good enough that I would have no problem hopping into a taxi and simply telling the driver my destination. But I choose the hard way. I study the bus route map, hail down the one I think I need to take, dash through traffic to board it, make myself look stupid by trying to pay when I get on instead of waiting until I get off, cringe as the eyes of everyone on the bus bore into my back with curiosity as I sit staring out the window, and finally realize that I’ve gotten on the wrong bus altogether and am heading in the opposite direction I want be going in. Then, I balance in the aisle trying to explain my mistake to the bus driver as he swerves through traffic, attempt to make sense of the directions he gives me in supersonic Chinese, get off the bus – this time forgetting to pay – reboard the bus embarrassed and flustered only to find that my swipe card isn’t working and I don’t have correct change, and finally head off in search of a new bus station. The hard way brings with it anxiety, embarrassment, frequent sweaty palms and headaches… but it also yields extraordinary rewards. The next time I need to travel that route, not only will I be to identify one bus as not the one to take but I’ll remember to wait until I’m getting off to pay, I’ll have correct change, and I won’t feel quite as nervous talking to a bus driver in the middle of rush hour traffic. It’s a slow process, integrating oneself into the local culture. But, for me, it’s the only way. It’s the only way to prove that you truly respect the local people and their customs. It’s the only way to earn their respect. It’s the only way to really learn. The other day, I received in the mail a water bill for my apartment. It totaled a whopping 3.50 USD (I don’t really like to shower, haha), and – get this – like almost all bills in Taiwan, it can be paid in cash at the nearest convenience store (they’re so far ahead of us technologically)! I was so tempted to just walk across the street, pay the bill, and be done with it; but I couldn’t make myself do it. According to our contract, the water bill is supposed to be paid by my landlord. So I took a few deep breaths, wiped the sweat off my palms, and called up my landlord – who speaks no English whatsoever – for the first time. He didn’t remember who I was at first, not even when I explained that I was “the American living in Danshui.” At last, he remembered. Then, I had to figure out how to explain the situation – which required some fairly advanced vocabulary – without offending him or making him think I was upset that I had received the bill. Before I knew it, he was apologizing for the mixup and explaining that he’d be right over to pick up the bill and take care of the whole matter. I had done it. Just as any Chinese-speaking person would have done it. Only…I had done it with red hair.

“Road Rage”

“What’s the most dangerous thing you’ve ever done?” I’m often asked. “Skydiving?” “Bungee jumping?” “Surfing Teahupoo?” Well, I used to think these things were bold and death-defying. I’d mention off-handedly, “Yea…I’ve surfed Teahupoo…” and wait for the girls to flock to me. But, now, I scoff at these sissy sports. I’ve driven a motorcycle through rush hour traffic in the second most densely populated city in the world. Beat that.

Northern Taiwan – and Taipei, in particular – is a claustrophobic person’s worst nightmare. Traffic, pedestrians, and commotion everywhere. The Taiwanese are always in a hurry; they’re always on the move. Taipei has barely been around for a century, and its residents are anxious to make up for lost time. Their answer to the traffic problem? Scooters. Scooters, scooters, and more scooters. Taiwan has more scooters per capita than any other country in the world. Anxious to be more Chinese, of course, I had to buy a scooter. And this is how my “Road Rage” began…

I should clarify: scooters and motorcycles fall under the more general category of motorbikes – bikes with engines. Scooters have smaller engines; motorcycles have larger ones. The bike I ended up purchasing I call a motorcycle for several reasons. First, because if I say “scooter,” most of you will imagine a dinky little 25 cc Vespa for cruising Italy or a little moped for puttering around Bermuda. My bike has a very nice 125 cc engine. In the US, you’re required to pass a motorcycle test and have a motorcycle license to own a bike over 50cc. (Technically, that means my International Driver’s License isn’t really valid here, but I’ll get to the subject of legality later). Secondly, the engine on my bike has been tweaked and modified by some very knowledgeable mechanics. What this means is that it’s capable of exceeding 85-90 mph. Interestingly, I didn’t realize this at first because the speedometer is in kilometers per hour and I was underestimating the conversion. When I finally converted the speeds I’d been traveling at, I was just kind of like “Whoa…cool.”

I found my motorcycle online and ended up buying it from the Canadian who had posted the advertisement, thereby perpetuating the life of yet another “foreigner’s bike.” Here’s how the process works. A foreigner living in Taiwan who already possesses his national identity card buys a bike. He uses it throughout his time in Taiwan but eventually decides to return home and, obviously, wants to sell the bike. He comes across another foreigner, this one not yet possessing a national identity card (and therefore unable to buy any kind of motorbike). Feeling a bit sorry for his compatriot, he sells the bike to him and passes on the registration materials that were made out in his name. The bike has now become an illegal “foreigner’s bike.” When this new owner of the bike decides to leave Taiwan, he has only one option as far as selling it: another foreigner without a national identity card (who else would buy an illegal bike?). And thus the cycle continues until the bike has been passed down generation to generation, still retaining its original, outdated registration information. This is how I came to own an illegal motorcycle (with illegal registration papers), which I drive with an illegal license. But I’m still not quite ready to go into the laws of the road…

I had my super-modified, totally pimped-out ride. But was I content? Of course not. The main reason I wanted a motorcycle in the first place was to give me a way to hit up the coast and go surfing. But can I really weave through traffic at 85 mph with a surfboard under my arm? I think not. This is where the surfboard rack attachment comes in. After much research and investigation, I made contact with a mechanic/welder in Xizhi who could build a surfboard rack on the side of my bike for me. Unfortunately, Xizhi is over an hour and a half away – totally on the other side of the city – and requires driving through the downtown area to get there. At the time I was preparing to drive to Xizhi, I had only driven a motorcycle for two days – and strictly on uncrowded roads. I was repeatedly pressing the horn when I intended to press the indicator button, was having trouble making a u-turn without veering off the road, and was still occasionally hitting the gas when my mind was saying “Brake!” To complicate things further, the mechanic in Xizhi spoke not a word of English and couldn’t give me very detailed directions. Nevertheless, I set out one day on my bike, head bent over the handlebars, trying desperately to hold a straight line in the far-right lane as traffic sped by me. After only six or seven u-turns, a few phone calls, several map consultations, and more close-calls than I’d like to remember, I found myself at the mechanic’s shop in Xizhi. My mind was immediately put at ease when I saw three surfboards mounted on the wall inside the shop; the mechanic’s sketch of what he was planning to build showed me that he knew exactly what I wanted. A few hours later, my ride was more pimped than ever. I mean, I was stylin’! Only problem: it was now 5:30 PM – rush hour. I was still considering the mechanic’s parting words “Be careful! (as he examined how far the surfboard rack jutted out)” when – not five minutes since I’d left the shop – a scooter pulled off the sidewalk and veered into the traffic, the driver not once checking behind her (yes, it was a female driver…need I elaborate?). I immediately swerved to my left – a pretty good reaction, actually – and this allowed most of my bike to get around her. However, the surfboard rack didn’t quite make it, and it just barely clipped the front of her bike. Some plastic came flying off, and we both screeched to a stop. I went into conniving-mode right away. The accident was absolutely, in no way my fault whatsoever, and there was no way I was going to get duped into paying for damages or anything. Most importantly, though, I could not allow the police to be called in, as this would mean my registration papers being examined and possibly my getting into big trouble. So, what did I do? First, I took off my helmet as quickly as possible to show off that brilliant golden hair that only a foreigner could have. Then, “Ohhh, I’m sooo sorry. No, no, I don’t understaaaand. I’m so sorry. [lots of stupid-looking hand gestures] No, you hit me. I’m sooorry. [big grin and continued hand gestures] Nooo, no Chinese! No understandy! I’m so sorry!” You want to know the rules of the road in Taiwan? This is the rule of the road. When in doubt, don’t speak Chinese. The lady finally gave up trying to make me understand that she wanted money and drove off. “Well, getting into my first accident sure didn’t take long. Wish I could have this kind of luck with everything…” is all I could think as I drove off as well.

So, “Road Rage.” Yep, driving in Taiwan is absolutely nuts. I’ve come a long way from those first days and am now a pretty confident (though no less nervous) driver. I’m much better at anticipating the stupid things that Taiwanese drivers do on a regular basis, so I usually have more time to react. Example one: anytime a driver is on the sidewalk and pulling into traffic (into your lane), get out of their way. They will not look. Ever. Example two: Your light is green. Expect someone to run the red light on the intersecting street. Red and green both mean “go” in Taiwan. Example three: You’re driving down the road when, suddenly, you see someone driving directly towards you. No, you’re not crazy. Driving against the traffic is perfectly acceptable in Taiwan. You’re expected to turn either left or right and get out of that person’s way. Seriously, driving in Taiwan is the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done. I’ve had so many close calls. Close calls on motorcycles means inches. Centimeters. Really close. One of Taiwan’s top surfers, an American my age, died just last year in a motorcycle accident. Driving here is something I take very, very seriously.

At the same time, though, driving a motorcycle is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. Almost everyday, before or after class (or sometimes during!), I strap on my backpack, load my surfboard into the rack, and race out of town towards the coast. I have two options – the coastal road and the mountain road – both of which are much, much less crowded than the insane streets of Taipei. This means, especially at off-hours, that I can really test that modified engine – if you know what I mean – leaning into turns and flying through the countryside. There’s one stretch of coastal road that’s way up on a cliff next to several gigantic windmills. I will forever have etched into my memory images of cruising that stretch of road at 85 mph – wind howling in my face; windmills whirling on one side; a gorgeous, tropical blue ocean far beneath me on the other – breathing the fresh air, studying a breaking wave out of the corner of my eye, and cruising, cruising, just cruising into a brilliant golden sunset. The accelerator turned as far as it will go, maxed out, full throttle…living on the edge, living fully, living within a blur of passion and energy. Living at terminal velocity. And enjoying every minute of it.

“Introducing… ‘The Baishawan Crew’”

Even if you know me only through this blog, you have undoubtedly come to realize by this time that I’m a lone-wolf kind of guy. I consider myself a soloist when it comes to adventure, travel, and exploration and carry out most of my extreme antics alone. In Taiwan, however, I have reneged ever so slightly on my commitment to solo adventure. Perhaps my impetus was knowing that I’d get the inside scoop on all the secret-spot surf breaks. Perhaps it was the small bit of rationality still left in me, keeping me alive against all odds. Or perhaps it was my secret desire to be like Bodhi, the quintessential surf figure from Point Break (one of the greatest movies ever). Most likely, though, I reneged on my commitment for the simple reason that I met a group of likeable, interesting, and – most of all – highly eccentric surfers who never allow life to become dull. That’s right, I’m now part of a Taiwanese surf crew. Introducing… THE BAISHAWAN CREW:

* ****** "*-***" *********; a.k.a. THE CROW: A 250+ lb monster by Taiwanese standards, clearly looking the part of the U.S. Marine he used to be. Lays claim to no single place as “home,” having traveled all over the world for most of his life. Speaks a number of languages, including Chinese, Taiwanese, Thai, and Japanese. Served as a Marine officer in East Africa, where he survived direct-hit bullet wounds. Previously a university professor, singer, and actor. Found his niche in the movie world as a gun-toting villain and worked with Steven Seagal multiple times. Currently runs an English language school and owns the beachside coffee shop “My Café,” home-base for the Baishawan Crew. Listen to him talk for five minutes, and you’ll understand why he’s called The Crow.

* Kenn “Q-mo” Loewen; a.k.a. THE CRANE: Like The Crow, a monstrosity of unconventionality compared to the native Taiwanese. At 6’6” with long, curly red hair and a nipple ring, he has little trouble bargaining with local vendors. A free-spirited individual who traded in his previous life in Canada as a marketing analyst for an outdoor gear company for the life of an English teacher and surf instructor in Taiwan. Helped to develop – and now implements – an IQ test hailed as a more practical alternative to many traditional ones. Also uses his background in art to manufacture his own line of skimboards. Watching him noseride his longboard with that clearly identifiable, crane-like posture only he can demonstrate, it’s not hard to see how he got his nickname.

* Dino “Da-li” Zavolta; a.k.a. THE RHINO: Long time drummer for the world-renowned band “Wu Bai and China Blue,” considered the most famous rock group in Asia. When not recording a new album, filming a music video, or playing in Taipei, he lives the life of the rock star-on-tour, playing for stadium-size crowds in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Malaysia, USA, Australia, and Canada. A native Southern California bodyboarder, he powers through the water with rhino-like legs to catch waves with ease and has even been known to pull into a barrel or two.

* And then there’s me, the Golden Dragon. Based on my earlier self-acclaim, one would think that “Golden Dragon” should certainly do as a nickname. It was decided, however, that, being half the age of the oldest member of the crew, I needed something slightly different; and thus I became known as JUNIOR.

Surf crews are all the same. The “Strapped Crew” in Maui (Laird Hamilton’s group), the “Mavericks Crew” in California, the “Ex-Presidents” in Point Break (you have seen this movie, right? Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze as adrenaline junkies… surfing, skydiving, and bank robbing…do plots get any better?)…they all share certain characteristics. First, crew members typically have a nickname which says something about them. The Mavericks crew has “Flea,” for example; as his fellow crew member explains, “He’s a little guy who drops in on really big waves…he’s a flea.” Clearly, the Baishawan Crew has not hesitated to concoct very telling nicknames. Secondly, surf crews are typically at the top of the hierarchy at their local break. For instance, Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) and cohorts don’t hesitate to keep things in line at their break, and they’re both respected and somewhat feared for this. Likewise, the Baishawan Crew pretty much runs Baishawan Beach. We dictate where people are allowed to surf and whether they’re welcomed into the local scene and invited up to the café or given the cold shoulder. We also save more lives than the lifeguards themselves (who do little more than take an occasional stroll down to the water’s edge to retrieve their dogs’ frisbees), which is really saying something considering how dangerous a beach Baishawan is (an average of 8 people die there every summer). Lastly, surf crews illustrate a unique attribute of the sport of surfing – something that is often referred to as its “tribal” nature. Surfers around the world form a closely-knit group, like a tribe, regardless of whether we know each other or whether we have anything in common besides surfing. The simple love of waveriding is so powerful that it’s enough to unite us. Because of this, surfing with friends seems – to me – uncommonly natural compared to engaging other sports with friends. Surfing solo brings with it certain amazing experiences and feelings that you just can’t have if you’re with others – and, for this reason, I still do it often – but, at the same time, surfing with friends creates a certain variation of stoke that you just can’t feel alone. Like two completely different forms of music – each beautiful in its own way – surfing alone and surfing with friends are truly distinct experiences from one another, yet both are infinitely satisfying. The “surf crew” as a recurring archetype in surfing culture clearly illustrates this. Each surfer is his own individual, catching waves for his own pleasure and no one else’s; at the same time, though, his stoke combines with that of his friends’ to form a bizarre, seemingly amplified stoke which permeates the water and becomes as powerful as the liquid energy from which it was born. Oh, sorry, I forgot; members of surf crews also tend to use the word stoke frequently.

So, back to my highly unlikely decision to join a surf crew. Here’s how it played out. Being my typical self, I was spending an inordinate amount of time online researching extreme sports possibilities in Taiwan before I came here. I traced one lead to some Canadian living in Danshui and claiming to be a surf instructor of all things (“I thought all they did was play hockey!”)…the Crane. A few days after I arrived, the Crane took me out for my first session in northern Taiwan, and, afterwards, we stopped by “My Café” and he introduced me to the Crow. The Crow then introduced me to the Rhino. Following that, we took an end-of-summer (metaphorically, at least…it’s always 85 degrees here) road trip to the east coast. Though the waves weren’t stellar, we had fun, and the guys decided that the crew could probably benefit from the additional females surely to be drawn in by adding to it a “hot young shortboard-ripper” (I’m not going to argue with that one). Additionally, they came to the conclusion that I am absolutely, without-a-doubt destined to be the next consulate or head of the embassy (called the AIT for political reasons) here in Taiwan…and that certainly could work to their advantage. So, before I knew it, I’d received my honorary nickname and was heading out to “My Café” for daily surf sessions. The café is the perfect homebase – it’s located not fifty meters from the water with a perfect view of the whole Baishawan (which translates to “White Sand Bay”) coastline, features a surround-sound stereo system for pre-surf pump-up music, has a shower and water hose, is home to a rag-tag crew of awesome dogs (including Barney, Dooby, Halley, and all the rest), and lays claim to the best mango smoothie this side of Keelung. Additionally, its only employee happens to be a charming twenty-one-year-old Taiwanese girl named Quan. Sorry, that’s all the details you get about that… Next-door is the seafood restaurant where we traditionally have lunch after surfing, and two doors down is Baishawan’s surfshop, owned by one of the coolest and most stylin’ surfers in Taiwan, A-Shi. Watch him surf, and you’ll know why we call him AC – cooler than an air conditioner. Last but not least, there’s Coolie, who is perpetuating the “slacker” image surfers have to fight by taking three attempts to finish his Master’s thesis at Tai-Da. I should note, however, that Tai-Da is the most prestigious school in Taiwan and that Coolie is not only of the country’s top students but also one of the nicest surfers on the North Shore.

The last thing I should mention (actually, I probably shouldn’t mention it, depending on who is reading this) in my introduction to the Baishawan Crew is “Surf Day.” That’s right, every Tuesday is officially Surf Day. The Crow doesn’t work until the evening, and the Crane and The Rhino have the day off. I, of course, don’t have the day off, but that doesn’t stop me. See, the first thing I figured out when I arrived in Taiwan was how much class I’m allowed to skip. After reading all the fine print and consulting several sources I concluded that I’m allowed to miss 10 hours of class a month. That means that I can miss one day of class a week, plus two days in one week once every month. Thus, taking Tuesday’s off to surf is no problem! What? Homework? Tests? What does my teacher think? Not a problem! My teacher happens to agree with my philosophy that, provided I do the work and earn the grades, I’m entitled, as a mature, responsible adult (sometimes), to make my own choices. I fully believe that, should I skip class on a test day, I deserve a zero; should I fail to turn in homework for the day I skipped, I deserve a zero; should my grades suffer as a result of skipping, I don’t deserve a curve. That’s always been what I’ve believed, and that’s why, since middle school, I’ve skipped class whenever I’ve felt like it. I do have to be careful here in Taiwan, though. If I miss more than ten hours of class in one month (and they do keep a very detailed record), I am immediately kicked out of the country by the government. So, let’s assume (just hypothetically…), that right now, since it’s the end of October, I’ve already missed my ten hours. That means I absolutely cannot get sick until November 1st. Scary thought considering my track record! The government also gives me the boot if my grades drop below 60%, but – knock on wood – that hasn’t been a problem yet. So, for now, Surf Day remains a weekly tradition. The Crow, The Crane, The Rhino…and Junior…ripping it up – Baishawan style.

“Blowin’ Chunks” [Caution: slightly graphic material ahead]

Getting sick is a fundamental part of world travel. New foods, new smells, new daily routines, new strains of viruses. No matter how hard you try, it really just can’t be avoided. And when it happens, you feel more alone than ever – with no one to take care of you and nowhere to go where you’ll feel truly safe – and all you really want to do is cry for your mommy. Getting sick in foreign countries is definitely not fun. Blowin’ chunks in foreign countries is even less fun. But, in the end, you usually survive, and you roll out of bed to find that the world hasn’t stopped, the sun is still shining, and you will indeed live to see another day. You feel strong, victorious – almost reborn. And then there are the stories. The ones that are as funny as they were once frightening. And they’re always best told in the vernacular:

hey wassup bro. yea I’ve been kinda sick. check this out, here’s how it went down… so i was riding home on my motorcycle from the beach and knew i was gonna blow chunks but thought i could make it home first right? well there's this one section of the highway where you can't pull over and there's lots of traffic. i was like whatever you do, don't get sick there! well, of course, minute i get there i know it's gonna go down. plus, keep in mind that i wear a full face helmet with visor. so it's REALLY not gonna be pretty! [you're laughing now, right?] so, i'm like trying to tug my helmet off as i drive through all this traffic but can't get it off right, and i'm getting all freaked out and thinking if i blow chunks inside this helmet and on my face i'm just gonna go ahead and crash my bike intentionally bc/ i'll be better off that way. but i can't get it off, so i rev and i'm goin like 90 mph trying to get past this section where you can't pull over. finally make it, swerve off the road, tear off my helmet, and just blow everywhere with like 20 cars lined up at a red light and watching me. hahahahahahahahah. i really hope that made you laugh. it's a good story i guess…

“You’re a Student?! I Thought You Were Just a Surfer!”

Let’s see, what did I bring to Taiwan to use during my study abroad experience here? Well, for starters, 4 surfboards (6’0” shortboard, 6’4” Simon Anderson pintail mini-gun, 6’8” epoxy, 7’3” funboard), extra leashes, an extra sets of fins, a wetsuit, wetsuit accessories (definitely not necessary), reef booties, super glue (for reef cuts), boardshorts and rashguards, a ding repair kit, a boardbag, and lots of wax (both the “tropical” and “warm water” varieties). That’s enough to set most people off: “You brought what?!” But I also brought rock climbing gear; SCUBA gear; backpacking and camping gear (including freezedried food and a backcountry stove); water purification systems; 2 Camelbac’s; running apparel and shoes; hiking boots; navigational equipment; and a variety of state-of-the-art, synthetic outdoor wear. If this were all you knew about me, would you assume I came to Taiwan to study?

Unfortunately, I did, and I do. Class two hours a day, Monday to Friday. Well, okay, not including Tuesdays. Two hours a day might not seem like much, but it’s important to remember that I’m speaking Chinese virtually around-the-clock here and I’m surrounded by Chinese culture the minute I step out the door each morning (on second thought, before that even; curse those construction crews building a new high-rise next door!). Further, if I were at W&L, I’d be taking only 3 hours of Chinese class per week, and, more importantly, it would be English-based. Class here is faced-paced, intense, and entirely in Chinese.

I started out in an advanced class called “Xinwen”; its focus: enabling students to read a Chinese newspaper and to understand Chinese news broadcasts. It was the perfect class – extremely practical and highly interesting – and I was (am) in love with the teacher (that’s another story); but it proved to be simply too frustrating. Much of the class was devoted to repetition, so the teacher would spout out complicated, sometimes paragraph-long sentences, and then we would take turns repeating individually what she had said word-for-word. What frequently happened is that I would not understand several or many of the words she used and thus would not really grasp the meaning of the sentence. Therefore, when I began repeating the sentence, I had absolutely no memory aid (not even meaning – the most fundamental of all) on which to rely. Imagine yourself in this position, albeit a condensed version of the one in which I often found myself – someone recites the following sounds to you with rapid-fire speed: “cha women gen mai benlai ta pang ban chang ching qin tu bobo relie canting wan mei baba gubo sanshi xuangzhang ni kan yixiar.” These sounds obviously have no meaning to you. Next, you’re told to repeat them back sound-by-sound; everyone in the class is staring at you attentively. Your mind races back to the beginning of the sentence and you remember “cha women gen mai…,” and then it goes blank. Yea, sounds scary, right? The only thing I haven’t told you is that each of those sounds has one of 5 different tones (variations in pitch); you also have to register and remember the tone of every single one of those sounds or what you say will take on a meaning completely different from its original one. My test grades in the Xinwen class were decent, but I just became too frustrated with the difficulty I was having with day-to-day in-class conversation and drills. Additionally, though I obviously enjoy being around people of other nationalities and backgrounds (and often actually prefer this over being around people like me), the fact that the overwhelming majority of students studying Chinese at NTNU are Asian proved to be rather problematic. Native Japanese speakers are already capable of reading and grasping the general meaning of written Chinese. A Filipino whose parents were born in Taiwan and regularly speak Chinese is going to have much less trouble understanding tones than an American who has never listened to a tonal language in his life. Even the occasional American I do come across at NTNU… almost always huaqiao, “overseas Chinese people,” simply trying to reconnect with their roots and better understand the language they hear their grandparents speak everyday. My point: the playing fields are unequal. An Asian student who says he speaks “intermediate” Chinese is not going to speak the same level of Chinese as an “intermediate” level Caucasian. The way of thinking is completely different, the culture is completely different, even the brain structure – I would so venture (as an ex-neuroscience major) – is completely different. Needless to say, I became extremely frustrated and discouraged. The teacher noticed this (was my daily scowl a give-a-way?) and told me that, though I was doing fine and was welcome to continue with the Xinwen class, I might be happier and more comfortable in a less advanced one. Thus, I began my search for a new class.

The one I ended up in (after a very long and tedious search) and am still in today is perfect. It’s an intermediate level class with no specific focus – covering vocabulary dealing with everything from international business to environmental protection to dating. The teacher – Chen Laoshi – is apparently one of the top professors at the school and has authored one of its textbooks. Her teaching style is very laid-back and casual, and much of the class revolves around conversation not directly related to the textbook. I’m constantly picking up new useful words and expressions and multitask among scribbling a barely legible mix of Chinese, English, and pinyin in my notebook; looking up words; and trying to follow the fast-paced and often joke-laden conversations we have. I also bought a Palm Pilot and installed on it special Chinese language software called PlecoDict that I found online. I can’t even begin to explain how much this has helped me. The software allows me to write any character I want on the Palm with my stylus and then receive instant feedback with the definition, pronunciation, and uses. I will discuss the difficulties of Chinese later (in a section filled with far more hatred, disgust, and self-pity), but for now, I’ll just mention that to look up a single Chinese word in the dictionary takes me an average of 7 minutes; furthermore, about 20% of the words I attempt to look up, I never find. Yea, now you see why PlecoDict has changed my life. This tool literally has the ability to revolutionize the way students learn Chinese – if I had owned it when I began studying, my Chinese would be several levels higher. And, no, I’m not getting paid to plug this company; it’s seriously just that good. Interestingly, I'm not the only one who has figured this out. Matt Worley, a fellow victim of the inadequacies of Chinese pedagogy, came to the conclusion that he could do better and has decided to put his MBA to use. He recently started a school, the Chinese Language Institute in Beijing (, that provides every student with a Palm and the Plecodict software and whose curriculum is actually based around these tools. I wouldn’t be surprised if my frustrated self ends up there one day! Back to my new class, though… Perhaps the most interesting part of it is that I am – for better or worse – most definitely the center of attention. As in my first class, I’m the only non-Asian student. While several nationalities are represented by the six other students (Korea, Japan, and the Philippines), the fact that I’m an American definitely makes me stick out (big surprise, right?). Just as I know more about Mexico and Canada than I do about most Asian countries, the Asian students in my class are already very familiar with their neighboring countries’ cultures; they want to know about mine! So, with almost every topic that arises in our daily conversations, the end result always seems to be “And America…? What about in America? [all eyes turn to me]” Not surprisingly, then, I have ample opportunity to practice my Chinese in class. Explaining subtle cultural differences, controversial political views, and complicated social norms has proven to be one of the most challenging things I’ve encountered in my language studies, and my speaking ability has increased tremendously as a result. Perhaps even more interesting, though, is the fact that I’ve come to represent to the other 6 students and the teacher the “typical American.” Yes, they now believe that the “typical American” prefers sleeping outside to sleeping indoors, likes to hurl himself out of airplanes and off bridges and cliffs, speaks 4 languages, reads Nietzsche in his spare time, doesn’t drink alcohol, and is actually interested in the rest of the world. Um, yea, can you say “deluded”? …The students’ – and especially the teacher’s – most obsessive interest in me, however, actually concerns my “extreme lifestyle.” Ever since they learned what I brought to Taiwan, they have asked me daily, “Will you be going surfing today? Skydiving? Mountain climbing?” Then there are the follow-up questions: “But isn’t the water too cold? Will you go fast? What if you fall?” We often discuss my adventures for a good portion of the class period. I spent almost an entire hour of classtime one day trying to explain why off-shore winds are the most favorable for surfing. Knowing that I skip class regularly to surf, the teacher has come to conclude that American students, though they may be successful, prefer to put “play” on-par-with – if not ahead of – “work.” Once, when we were discussing the high suicide rate among Asian students applying to college – a rather somber subject actually – the teacher suddenly turned to me, paused for a moment with a mischievous grin, and announced to the class, “And then there are the Americans…”

“After-School Activities”

While much of my non-academic life revolves around surfing, of course, a good portion of it is dedicated also to seeing the sights, experiencing the local culture, and – well – just goofing off with friends. Fortunately, I’ve gotten to know several absolutely wonderful people at NTNU, with whom I’ve now shared many memorable experiences. There’s Johnny, a Filipino who speaks at least 5 languages fluently, is destined to become CEO of a major hotel chain, and is as committed to his weightlifting as I am to surfing; Jocelyn, a feisty Singaporean with whom I at first got off to a rough start (she annoyed me by telling the “Xinwen” teacher she was already capable of reading a Chinese newspaper and just needed to fulfill a few more university credits; I annoyed her by asking why the Singaporean police cut off your hands if you litter) but have since become her “well-sculpted, polite young man with great dance moves” (or maybe she was describing someone else…); Kaori, whom I could accurately represent by taking one of those colorful little bouncy-balls that you win in arcades, writing “Cute” and “Made in Japan” all over it, and tossing it into the air while waving both hands at the same time and saying “bye-bye!”; and the ever-popular Thai, Li Jun, who has been ignoring me since I disregarded her daily pleas and went ahead and had my hair cut (function before fashion, sorry ladies). Like the Baishawan Crew, we constitute a motley bunch, overcoming cultural and language differences (bridging even the occasionally difficult Sinaporean-English/American-English divide) to learn about one another’s homes, backgrounds, and life plans. Along the way, we also manage to have way too much fun…

Daily Lunches – I accuse everyone of discrimination against America because they make me eat Asian food every single day and refuse to go to Subway; then, I realize that the choice between Asian food and Subway isn’t really a choice at all, and I lead the debate over whether to visit our favorite Chinese, Taiwanese, Thai, Korean, Cantonese, or Japanese restaurants. Jocelyn makes a comment in English that I find completely incomprehensible, and I ask her if she’s speaking English or Chinese; she proceeds to whack me. Li Jun sees some of her other friends and apologetically ditches us. Johnny and I crack inappropriate jokes in Chinese; fortunately, Kaori doesn’t get the double-entendre. After lunch I buy my first of two fresh-fruit smoothies for the day; the girls ask me for at least the third time of the week how I can possibly not get diarrhea from drinking so many smoothies. Johnny starts laughing for no apparent reason.

Danshui – The girls and some of their other friends join me for a night in Danshui and a ferry-ride across the river to the town of Bali. I laugh at the “Dumb and Dumber” style mini-motorbikes Taiwanese adults are riding around the boardwalk area, but no one else seems to find them amusing. Jocelyn introduces me to the word bimbotic (apparently the adjectival form of bimbo). I drink my third smoothie of the day.

KTV (trip #1) – Kaori almost has a heart-attack when she learns that I’ve never been karaoke-singing at a KTV club; then she actually does have one when I tell her that KTV doesn’t exist in America. I arrive at Partyworld in Ximen (one of the ritziest districts of Taipei) to be escorted to our private room on the twelfth floor by two “attendants” in tuxedos. They bow to me approximately every 8 seconds, refuse to walk ahead of me or look me directly in the eyes, and continuously ask if there’s anything they can do for me. Once in our suite, I’m pretty impressed by the elegant sofa, surround-sound setup, fancy decorations, and private bathroom; but I opt to inspect first the gourmet menu and place a quick food order using our in-room phone. Kaori and Jocelyn are already singing a duet, and it doesn’t take me long to realize that karaoke in the West is definitely not the same as karaoke in Asia. These girls are not drunk, are not acting stupid, and are singing so beautifully that I’m not positive if it’s really them or a recording. I am eventually persuaded to sing a couple songs, including the classic Chinese love-song “Yueliang Daibiao Wo De Xin” (“The Moon Represents My Heart”). Jocelyn tells me “Good attempt,” and I go back to eating my banana split and dim sum.

Tai-Da and Political Rally – The motley bunch makes it way to Tai-Da, Taiwan’s most prestigious university, for a leisurely stroll through its campus. While in the university library, I am attracted by a large sign saying “No telephones” and displaying a picture of a phone with a red slash through it. I immediately whip out my cellphone and pretend to talk on it in front of the sign as Johnny takes pictures; university security kicks us out within 30 seconds. Our next stop is the presidential palace, a hotspot of activity as political tension has reached its highest level in years and tens of thousands of protestors have been taking to the streets daily (more on this later). I manage to navigate through truckloads of newly arrived barbed wire to shoot several good photos but in doing so attract the attention of an undercover cop; we quickly exit the area. Now at the center of the political rally, I work the scene with my Canon 20D DSLR camera pretending to be a professional photojournalist. The rest of the gang dons symbolically red headbands calling for the resignation of the president, but I opt to stick with the white clothes I’m wearing, citing possible political ramifications for the future.

Baishawan – I convince my cohorts, along with the bubbly Korean Jiangmei, to join me for an afternoon of surfing at Baishawan. Jiangmei is particularly excited, telling me how she’s always wanted to try surfing, and then adding as an after-though, “It doesn’t matter that I can’t swim, does it?” After teaching the newbies Surfing 101 on the sand, I help each of them get their first rides (even Jiangmei, albeit in the shorebreak); there’s definite stokage in the air afterwards.

Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall and Taipei 101 – We begin at the memorial dedicated to the “Father of Modern China” and the founder of Taiwan, witnessing an elaborate and fascinating changing-of-the-guards ceremony in the main hall. A tourist from Beijing (you could hear his “narrrrr’s” and “yidiarrrrrr’s” from a mile away) proceeds to engage me with a standard 35 second-long “Look at the chimpanzee in its little cage” stare, but Johnny, already aware of my biggest dislike of mainland-Chinese behavior, comes to my rescue and stares the man down until I’m left alone. Now in the vicinity of Taipei 101, the tallest building in the world, we enjoy what has become known as Taiwan’s “Manhattan,” a sparkling new district that just screams “upscale.” After having lunch in what has been called the best Asian food court in the world and catching a movie at the fabulous Warner Center Village, we take a trip to the top of the world. From the 1,676 ft. high observation deck of Taipei 101, we’re treated to a stunningly beautiful nighttime view of Taipei. I’m even more impressed than the others, as I discover that a mere two guards patrol the observation deck; BASE jumping this landmark is highly feasible (wait, did I really just write that on the internet?!).

Liang Jing Ru Concert – Already amused to learn that one of the most famous singers in Asia chose as her English name “Fish Girl,” I prepare myself for a night of cultural barriers, not the least of which is Asians’ love of everything “Pop.” Girly songs, bubbles, excessive animation, the list goes on and on. At one point, Liang Jing Ru invites a little boy and a little girl up onto the stage; they sit on either side of her, each holding a giant artificial flower (one light orange, one pink), and sway back and forth to the beat of the music. That little boy might one day wish guns weren’t illegal in Taiwan… There is one nice perk to listening to pop music, however; you always know in advance what the songs are about. After one song, Jocelyn asks me if I have understood the lyrics; I respond confidently, “Of course I understood… the girl is upset and heartbroken because the boy she has always loved left her for someone else…she’s singing about how she must find a way to move on and perhaps find love again.” Jocelyn is very impressed and exclaims “Wow! You really did understand!” She doesn’t realize, though, that I would have given this same answer for every single song I’ve heard, and I would have been correct probably 95% of the time!

“Face…and Losing Face”

I mentioned earlier that there is a seemingly endless list of social gaffes contained within Chinese culture. Many of these faux pas exist only in Chinese (or perhaps Asian) culture and are not widely known in the West. Because of this, I’ve found adapting to the Chinese/Taiwanese way of life to be quite challenging, even considering the experiences I had last summer. That’s not to say that I often feel uncomfortable or resented in Taiwan – not in the least! – because the Taiwanese are exceptionally welcoming and forgiving. But, as I’ve already indicated, my goal is to be treated the way any normal Taiwanese person would be treated. I don’t want preferential treatment because I’m an ignorant or unaware “foreigner.” Thus, I must think constantly about the dos and don’ts of Chinese culture. Maybe the following pointers (some of which are adapted from Lonely Planet) will help you too one day; at the very least, I bet you’ll glean something from them that you didn’t already know:

- When beckoning to someone, wave them over to you with your palm down, motioning to yourself (yea, it looks really bizarre).
- If a Taiwanese gives you a gift, put it aside to open later to avoid appearing greedy (and don’t be offended if you give someone a gift and they barely take the time to glance at it).
- When someone presents you with a business card, never put it in your wallet and then put the wallet in your back pocket. To do so implies that you want to sit on that person!
- Be very careful of the symbolic implications of color. Writing in red ink, for example, (other than when correcting an exam) implies protest. Gifts that are white can imply death or mourning.
- Don’t give someone a clock. This implies they will die soon.
- Giving someone a handkerchief implies that they will soon have reason to cry.
- Never, ever, hand anyone anything with just one extended hand. Always grasp the object with both hands and present it with a slight bow of the head. This shows that what you are offering is the fullest extent of yourself.
- Never, ever brag about anything. If someone compliments you, do not say “thank you.” Instead, critique yourself and attempt to change the subject (example: “Wow, this dinner you cooked is wonderful!” “Oh, no, no, I’m really a terrible cook…” Seriously.)
- On the same note, flattery=the Chinese way of life. Regardless of what you really think, always compliment people. Even if their English is terrible, tell them it’s wonderful (hey, they tell me my Chinese is great, so I don’t mind reciprocating).
- Smile. Always smile. Even if you’re upset or angry with someone, do not display your true feelings; this is considered a sign of extreme weakness. Instead, smile, and attempt to resolve your differences diplomatically.
- Use back channels. Because face-to-face confrontation is a major no-no, problems are often resolved with third-party intervention, including aunts, uncles, and close friends.
- When eating, hold your bowl of rice close to your mouth and shovel food in with your chopsticks. Place bones on the tablecloth.
- Never refill your own teacup without first refilling everyone else’s.
- Never, ever suggest “going Dutch.” Never, ever allow someone else to pay the bill without first arguing and protesting. Ultimately, the eldest person will typically pay, but everyone else must first pretend to want to pay (it’s a psychological game of sorts).
- Don’t even think about sticking your chopsticks into your rice so that they stick out vertically or near-vertically. It doesn’t get much worse than this. Doing so resembles the incense sticks stuck into ashes by Buddhists and is an omen of death. Always rest your chopsticks horizontally across the rice bowl.
- At a banquet (considered the “apex of the Chinese dining experience” and the primary venue for clinching important business deals), never ask for rice (this is the one time rice is not offered); this would imply that the food provided is insufficient. Do not drink alone; drinking is conducted by frequent toasts. Raise your glass with both hands in the direction of someone, cry “Gan Bei!” (“Dry the Glass!”), and drain your glass in one hit. Do not clink glasses. If the banquet is being held in your honor, you will be applauded as you enter; you should applaud back.

The four fundamental parts of Chinese culture are harmony, flattery, guangxi, and face. China’s history is one of the most ancient in the world and its culture has come about as the result of centuries and centuries of upheaval and change. As a result, harmony – getting along with others for the sake of society as a whole – is a central concept…and hence, the importance of smiling and avoiding confrontation. Likewise, flattery contributes to this notion of unity. Accepting someone’s compliments and thereby allowing yourself to rise above others is out-of-line (though with Western influences, this is perhaps less rigidly defined than in the past); vehement denials are the best response. Guangxi is the art of giving and receiving favors. Chinese culture is grounded in traditional Confucian concepts of tight family and friend networks. Thus, making “contacts” and helping others (so that they will later be obliged to help you) is paramount. Lastly, the most important aspect of Chinese culture: face. Face is the most crucial, and potentially the most frightening, concept a foreigner must understand in order to fit into Chinese or Taiwanese society. Chinese culture is built upon the notions of appearance and façade (smile even if you’re angry, compliment even if you’re unimpressed, criticize yourself even if you don’t mean it); thus, face – as in “face value” – is how things are judged. Acting in a way that makes others feel embarrassed or uncomfortable (or in any way that detracts from the overall sense of harmony) causes you to “lose face,” the ultimate social gaffe. I’ll never forget how I first learned this principle. In my first year of Chinese studies at W&L, I forgot to turn in a weekly homework assignment on the day it was due. I had completed it on time but had simply forgotten to hand it in. When I handed it in the following day, I explained what had happened to the TA, and she immediately responded “Oh, no problem, don’t worry about it.” I took this to mean that no points would be deducted for turning it in late. However, when she returned it to me, I had nevertheless lost a letter grade. Thinking she must have forgotten my situation, I approached her and asked her why she had taken points off. The situation immediately became awkward and I got the sensation that I was doing something wrong. At the time I was like most Americans and didn’t understand how incredibly powerful this idea of face is in Chinese culture. Looking back now, I understand that my TA’s “No problem” response is what she was supposed to say, not really what she meant – in Chinese culture, appearance is everything; truth is often hidden beneath it. Further, I committed a major faux pax by actually confronting the TA – both an elder and a superior (as a teacher) – about her decision; certainly not expecting this, she simply didn’t know how to respond. This anecdote constitutes one of the clearest and most rewarding cultural revelations I’ve ever had and has served as a constant reminder of how I should act when around Chinese, Taiwanese, or perhaps Asian people in general. Learning about other cultures is difficult, time-consuming, and often embarrassing; at the same time, I find it infinitely rewarding. Changing your behavior or mindset to mimic that of another people’s doesn’t mean sacrificing your values or becoming someone you’re not. I will always be American, and I will always have certain innate tendencies and eccentricities which I simply can’t hide. But by stepping into someone else’s shoes for awhile – even for just a moment! – you open the door to so much discovery. The minute I go into “Chinese mode” or “West African/Muslim” mode… “French/islander mode” or “Latin American” mode…I suddenly begin seeing the world from a completely new perspective. I’m not really African, French, or Latin American – not even really Chinese, as much as I hate to admit it – but face value isn’t everything. As Chinese culture teaches, the truth often lies somewhere beneath it all – cloaked in disguise – and discovering it can be as simple as changing your shoes.

“Formosan Wave-Riding”

I’ve already discussed the Baishawan Crew, but I believe a bit more on Formosan wave-riding in general is in order. So, surfing in Taiwan? You’ve never heard of it, right? “They have waves over there?!” The funny thing is that most people ask that question if you tell them you surf anywhere other than California, Hawaii, or Australia. Here’s a little secret: the vast majority of places that touch large bodies of water…have waves. The East Coast has waves. The Great Lakes have waves. Even non-coastal areas that have major rivers have waves (tidal bores). If a place has waves, it can most likely be surfed. The only question is how often the waves come and how long they stick around.

Here’s another secret. Taiwan is an island. A tropical island. Like, not that far from Indonesia. Moreover, it’s smack dab in the middle of the Pacific typhoon alley (NB: typhoons are exactly the same as hurricanes; they’re just called by a different name in the Eastern Hemisphere). During the late summer and fall months, typhoons brush by (or collide with) Taiwan week after week after week. As of press time, Taiwan had already been affected by 19 (yes, nineteen!) typhoons this year (this summer/fall). If you know anything about surfing, you know that typhoons and hurricanes = waves. Big waves. So it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that the surfing in Taiwan is phenomenal. Nevertheless, as human beings, we are lazy, apathetic, and afraid of new things; and thus very few people have bothered to venture to this beautiful island for the purpose of surfing. In February of 2006 Surfing Magazine became the first major publication of which I’m aware to document surfing in Taiwan…I beat them by a full 7 months with my article on And the really funny thing? They conclude – completely amazed – that Taiwan has some of the best surfing in the world. Nah, ya think?!

One of the best things about surfing in Taiwan, of course, is that there aren’t very many surfers, so if you’re some foreign surfer reading my blog and thinking of using it to plan your next trip here, you can forget about it. I’m not even going to begin to give away the locations of secret spots or anything. If you want to find them, learn Chinese, get to know the locals, and venture out. I will tell you this much: the coastline is still completely unexplored, and there are literally limitless possibilities for surfing world-class waves with not another soul in sight. If that’s not enough impetus for you, then stick to Huntington.

With the constant barrage of typhoons, the surf is consistently large. Sometimes too large for most, in fact (I said most, not all, haha). The one variable, however, is that with the typhoons comes lots and lots of wind. Here on the North Coast, it’s typically onshore, which can turn overhead perfection into a stormy, choppy deathtrap. Baishawan, my home break, has some of the nastiest rips I’ve ever encountered. During one of my first weeks here, I paddled out in huge double-overhead, choppy surf at Baishawan only to get dragged back and forth across the bay in several different rip currents. Just as it was getting dark and I was planning to come in, I got sucked directly out several hundred meters and just pinned in a sort of “hole.” It was a complicated scenario with several rips converging in this one spot, and no matter how hard I paddled I just couldn’t get out of it. With darkness descending quickly and not a single person on the beach (not that they could have seen me or even done anything if they had), I started to panic. I’ve become pretty good at keeping my cool in extremely hairy situations, so when I say I was starting to panic, I mean I was really scared. Fortunately, an outside wave eventually came along and I was just barely able to fight the current long enough to catch it. It was probably the biggest closeout I’ve ever ridden, and I just raced it straight towards the beach, a deafening freight train of whitewater bearing down on my heels. It eventually overtook me and held me down for quite some time, but by then I had moved out of the rip current “hole” and gotten closer to the beach. A new rip grabbed me, though, and before I knew it was headed horizontally across the bay at what seemed like about 20 mph and directly towards the rocks. I angled across the rip and paddled like crazy, not working my way out of this rip until I was a mere 10 meters or so from the rocks, which were being bombarded with huge waves. By this time it was completely dark and I paddled in shaken and stunned, fortunate to have escaped one of the heavier experiences of my surfing career.

We do get glassy, clean conditions, as well – most often in the early morning when 99.9% of the surfers here are asleep. Thus, I’ve made it a sort of tradition to camp out at least once a week at the beach and wake up around 5:00 for the dawn patrol session. Since I don’t live that far from the beach, I also wake up in the early morning darkness sometimes and drive out for my solo session. Yes, it’s always solo, because no else ever cares enough to wake up for the waves. That’s probably my conclusion about the local surfers – yes, there actually are local surfers. In the past couple years, surfing has started to take hold in Taiwan, and now quite a few locals call themselves surfers. The important thing to note, though, is that many of them are far more interested in wearing surf-company clothes, being part of a “surf club,” and hanging out at the beach than actually surfing. That’s not to say that there aren’t good local surfers. A-Shi is one of the most stylin’ longboarders I’ve ever seen, Coolie is always up for a session, and there’s this old guy…get this – this older guy who rides a wooden longboard – and he’s probably one of the most stoked surfers I’ve ever seen. He reminds me so much of the Tahitians. He doesn’t care about the clothes or the hype or the rest of the bs that’s somehow become a part of surfing as most people know it – he’s out there surfing just because he loves it. We always exchange huge smiles when we see each other in the water, because we share this mutual understanding. For lack of a better word, it’s all about the stoke – and words just aren’t necessary.

So, with most of the local surfers being…well, let’s just say that your typical Californian surfer would undoubtedly call them “kooks” (until I’m on the pro tour, I’m not calling anyone a kook)…an interesting contradiction comes into play. When I first arrived in Taiwan this year, it was the end of summer (Taiwan’s flattest months as far as waves), and the more popular North Shore beaches were absolutely packed. Packed with…yes, the “k” word. I’m talking about a hundred people on longboards and funboards paddling for the same 2 inch ripple not ten feet from the beach and all of the ones who actually know how to paddle standing up at the same time and then collapsing in a single heap in the shorebreak. Oh, and, not that it matters, but the style, oh the style! The lack of style, I should say. In Taiwanese culture, being tan is a bad thing. The paler a woman is, the more beautiful she supposedly is (yea – really proves that beauty is in the eye of the beholder). So, even when the temperature is topping 100 degrees and the water temperature is in the upper 80s (I’m not kidding, one day it was so hot I had to repeatedly dive to the bottom to cool off), your typical Taiwanese surfer is wearing a wetsuit. I swear I saw one lady – on a 100+ degree day – wearing a full wetsuit (black); wetsuit booties (black); green boardshorts (over the wetsuit); a pink rashguard (over the wetsuit), pink gloves; sunglasses; and an orange, wide-brimmed hat. The truth is I really don’t care what you wear to surf and I would never call this lady a kook just because of what she was wearing, but this is very likely the most hilarious thing I’ve ever seen on a beach in my entire life. Anyway, despite the absurd conditions when I arrived, everything changed once typhoon season arrived and the waves got bigger. Once the waves reach chest-high or so, everyone literally disappears. The local surfers who “sort-of” know what they are doing tell everyone “Dangerous! Dangerous!” and the Taiwanese – ever afraid of the water (the vast majority can’t swim) – flee back to the city. And, thus, I get the waves all to myself. I’ve also become known as “The Crazy Man” to a number of local surfers because I paddle out pretty much regardless of the conditions. Sometimes the conditions really are dangerous (see above story), but often we’re talking about semi-choppy head-high surf and I’m just like “C’mon guys, do you want to improve or not?” Surfing has the slowest learning curve of any sport in existence (think about it…depending on the conditions, I may only be able to get 3 waves in a single 2 hour session – for a combined surfing time of maybe 12 seconds at best. If you were trying to learn how to play golf and your instructor handed you a bag of balls and said, “Here, you have 12 seconds to learn as much as you can,” do you think you’d improve very quickly?”), and if you want to get better, you have to commit yourself fully. I just don’t understand how so many of these locals are content to stick with longboarding/funboarding and just paddle out into the shorebreak (if they paddle out at all) any time the waves top chest-high. It makes me kind of angry, actually, but who I am to judge others? Ultimately, I always end up just focusing on myself, paddling out, and giving it my all regardless of what the rest of the koo…I mean, surfers are doing.

Baishawan Left, Secret, Baishwan Middle Peak, Arches, Fisherman’s Point, Birth Control Beach, Mary’s Beach, Straight-a-Ways, Jinshan the Point, Qianshuiwan, Baishwan the Point, Jinshan Middle Peak, Jinshan 2, Canting, Chaofan, Activity Center, Atomic, Xiao Yeliu, Green Bay, Spacewalk…there are so many options on the North Shore. Several of these places have been surfed by no one in history besides me (and, if you couldn’t have guessed, a lot of these names are my own creations, as well). No one else knows where they are, either. One of the greatest parts of surfing, in my opinion, is the quest – the quest for waves. Whether it’s wandering through downtown Dakar in the African desert searching for a taxi or riding my motorcycle through rice paddies and tiny coastal villages in Taiwan, the quest for waves is what it’s all about. I’ve also started using the latest in technology to aid me, utilizing satellite photography to study the details of the northern coastline of Taiwan, offshore buoys to monitor changes in swell and wind, and a variety of wave and surf forecasting tools for fisherman and boatmen. The end result – approximately 5 days of surfing a week with enough stoke to get me through my two rest/study days.

“Why Chinese is the Hardest Frickin’ Language in the World” [Caution: Extensive Whining Ahead]

As I mentioned earlier, there was a time not long after I arrived here in Taiwan that I was extremely depressed about my Chinese. What I didn’t say is that I was so depressed I was literally contemplating the thought of throwing in the towel. Of giving up. Of conceding that I’m just not intellectually capable of learning Chinese. If you know me at all, then you know I’m not one to give up easily. In fact, I can’t actually think of any time in my life when I’ve ever given up on something. Chinese is seriously that difficult and that frustrating.

It was during that time that I discovered a certain online article which I suppose helped me cope with my frustration just a little bit better. In a late-night fit of anger, I began performing Google searches for several variations of the phrase “I hate Chinese.” Eventually, I came across an article titled “Why Chinese is So Damn Hard,” published by someone at the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan. I was immediately interested.

Don’t get me wrong – the article wasn’t some heavenly bit of salvation that has since gotten me back on the “Chinese Gung-Ho’!” train – but it did, along with my class change, help convince me not to quit studying Chinese (at this point at least). I would describe my current state as post-depression and stable; I’ve scratched through all the goals I had for my language learning in Taiwan and set aside any dreams of being able to speak fluently in the near future, but I’m still trudging along, slowly but surely. I’m certainly no longer naïve. All the magazine and newspaper articles that you see these days urging people to study Chinese (“It’s the next big thing!”), which report that “…although there are approximately 50,000 Chinese symbols, one needs to know only 2,000-3,000 of these to read a Chinese newspaper”…Hogwash! The faculty at your school showing you videos of foreigners winning Chinese-language contests and filling your head with visions of Chinese fluency…Hogwash! If you are a student considering studying Chinese for the first time, listen to me carefully. Listen to me very carefully. March yourself over to the Romance Languages Department this instant and enroll yourself in Spanish or French. If you’re a hotshot and want to be cool, enroll in German or Russian. Whatever you do…whatever you do…and I don’t care how smart you are or how many languages you already know…do not try to learn Chinese. It is a deathtrap. By the time you realize how impossibly hard it is, you will have already devoted too much effort to it to quit. It’s a sick, sick phenomenon. It draws you in like a Siren with its beautiful script, its promise of job opportunities, its exotic history…as it lures you deeper and deeper into its cavernous bowels you begin to feel disoriented, but you are foolish and in love and you march on and on, deeper and deeper…and then one day you wake up and realize you’re so deep that you could never in a million years find your way out, and what you thought was love was really a sick masochistic desire to torture yourself, to torture yourself forever and ever, and that’s where you suddenly find yourself, a torture chamber with no exit, with no stop button, with no way to escape, a dream, a nightmare, a ghoulish fantasy not even Poe could imagine. And there’s pain. Oh, there’s so much pain…

If you are thinking about studying Chinese, I beg you to consider something else. Anything else. I would not wish my fate to befall even my most despised enemy.

I decided that detailing exactly why Chinese is so hard might make me feel a bit better. So, with a little help from David Moser, the author of “Why Chinese is So Damn Hard,” I’m going to explain to you why Chinese is the hardest language in the world (for a native English-speaker to learn):

1. The Script

Right… Chinese script. Those funky little symbols you see on your placemat at the local Chinese restaurant. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to actually be able to read that stuff? I mean, really study those symbols the next time you eat Chinese food – they’re tiny, extremely complicated, and so involved that your head will probably start to hurt after looking at them for more than a few seconds. That’s Chinese. This is the first thing you must understand. When you meet someone Chinese and he writes his name as Chang Tsien-Tzu or something…that’s not Chinese. Show that to a typical Chinese person, and he’ll have no idea how to pronounce it. The words Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou…these aren’t Chinese either. Go to China and show your cab driver one of these words written down and they’ll have no idea where to take you. Chinese is characters – those crazy little characters (北京,上海,etc.). That’s the only thing most Chinese people can read, and if you want to be able to say you know Chinese, you have to learn them.

Yes, as today’s “Learn Chinese” magazine articles report, there are over 50,000 distinct characters. In fact, there are so many that no one is quite sure how many exist. Chinese is the most ancient script still in use today – characters were originally genuine pictographs, and they evolved over time to become what we now know as Chinese. Despite what some people will tell you, knowing 2,000-3,000 of these characters is not enough to be able to read a Chinese newspaper. In fact, it’s often not even enough to be able to read the headlines of a Chinese newspaper. I supposedly knew 2,000 characters as of the end of last year, and I still need a dictionary and at least an hour of time to read a simple, 3 paragraph-long newspaper column. There are several reasons for this, the most important being that to say you know a character doesn’t really mean you “know” it: “The Chinese script is ridiculous…beautiful, complex, mysterious – but ridiculous. The more you learn about Chinese characters the more intriguing and addicting they become. The study of Chinese characters can become a lifelong obsession, and you soon find yourself engaged in the daily task of accumulating them, drop by drop from the vast sea of characters, in a vain attempt to hoard them in the leaky bucket of long-term memory” (Mosser). I can literally study a new character and write it over a hundred times…and then wake up the next morning and have no clue whatsoever as to how it is written. Characters drain out of my brain the way sand drains out of a clenched fist. The harder I try to hold onto them, the faster they slip away. It’s absolutely sickening. After committing two years of my life to studying Chinese and working harder at it than at anything I’ve ever attempted, I took five months off to work on my French and live in French-speaking countries. Immediately afterwards, I arrived here in Taiwan to find myself struggling to read even basic Chinese. It’s a strange feeling – I can tell that there’s something up there – some remnant of past knowledge – but it just doesn’t want to resurrect itself in the same way that my Spanish or calculus or American history do when I’m forced to draw on those memory banks.

Aside from the obvious “because they’re ridiculously hard to memorize,” there are a number of other reasons why Chinese script is so hard to learn. First, consider that every character fits into a square – what this means is that, while they vary in complexity, they all have exactly the same proportions. Further, no spacing is used when writing Chinese. Thus, all these characters line up next to each other, and it is impossible to tell where one word ends and another begins. Additionally, Chinese can be written left-to-right, right-to-left, top-to-bottom – it doesn’t matter. Half the time, it takes me awhile just to figure out where to start reading. Because Chinese words are typically comprised of more than one character (usually two to four) and there is no spacing, even if I can pronounce every single character in a sentence, I may have no idea what the sentence means. It’s like some bizarre puzzle, trying to figure out which characters combine with which characters and how each of their meanings changes depending on how they are combined.

Next, consider what those little characters really are. They are frickin’ works of art (example: 蘔髊). The next time you go to a Chinese restaurant, see if you can copy just one of those characters. I mean, you won’t even know where to start! And that’s a major problem in and of itself to Chinese learners. English, Spanish, French…even languages like Greek, Hindi, and Russian…these require no more than a couple dozen characters total to be able to write! Further, even the most complicated characters (hmm, is it “E”?) require no more than 4 pen-strokes to write. Now, consider that not only do you have to know thousands of Chinese characters to be able to write Chinese but also that many of these characters have in excess of TWENTY (20) penstrokes! Disregarding the fact that the only way I can fit twenty-plus strokes into a microscopic little box is by writing with the precision of handicapped five-year-old, how am I supposed to remember all those stokes? We’re talking about something in the ballpark of 3,000 times 20…over 60,000 strokes! I must be joking, right!?

No, unfortunately, I’m not. Now add to our steadily-growing list of obstacles the fact that Chinese has not one, but two scripts. That’s right, the “simplified” (“Simplified, my butt…”) and “traditional” versions. Mainland China (PRC) uses simplified; Taiwan (ROC) and Hong Kong still use “traditional.” These two scripts are overlapping, but they are nevertheless distinct from one another, and anyone who really wants to know Chinese has to have at least a general understanding of both. I’ve already been spun around in the confusion-machine a few times. I studied traditional characters during my first year of Chinese. Then, the faculty at W&L decided they should teach simplified, so, during my second year, I learned simplified characters (I had to relearn many of the characters I had learned during the previous year). Now, in my third year, I’m here in Taiwan, where everything is back in traditional characters. This time, I’ve opted to learn every new word in both simplified and traditional characters. Yea, piece of cake, right?

Concluding this diatribe against Chinese characters, I’d like to present a simple scenario and pose a simple question. Moser, the author of “Why Chinese is So Damn Hard,” relates an experience he once had at Peking University (“the Harvard of China”): unable to remember how to write the word for sneeze, he asked his three friends – all native-Chinese, Ph.D. students in the Chinese department – for help. Amazingly, not one of them could remember how to write sneeze in Chinese! What would you think if you asked 3 native-English-speaking Ph.D. candidates in the department of English at Harvard University how to write the word sneeze, and not one of them had even the slightest clue as to how to begin? This instance is not an isolated one. Native Chinese people forget how to write simple, simple words all the time! So my question is this: is it just me, or is there something seriously wrong with the crazy language we call Chinese?

2. The Tones

When you learn a new word in English, all you have to do is remember how it is pronounced (occasionally, a tricky word might necessitate remembering an unusual spelling as well). This is not the case in Chinese. Not only do you have to remember how a word is written (using characters) and how it is pronounced (because the characters themselves are not phonetic; unlike our alphabet, they have no built-in clues as to how they should be pronounced), but you must also remember its tones. Every single sound in the Chinese language has one of five (5!) tones, or variations in pitch. 1st tone is flat and high like you’re singing a high note; 2nd tone is steadily rising; 3rd tone begins slightly higher than average, falls to a low tone, and then climbs back up to a slightly higher than average tone; 4th tone is a sharp falling tone like you’re yelling at someone; 5th tone is a neutral, softer tone. Thus, if I want to memorize a word that has 3 characters, I will have to remember 3 different tones, 3 different sounds, and 3 different characters (for a total of perhaps more than 60 pen-strokes). How is it that shu1xue3 means “blood transfusion” while shu4xue2 means “math”? That guo4jiang3 means “you flatter me,” while guo3jiang4 means “fruit paste”? Oh, the horror!

To complicate matters, native Chinese-speakers don’t really understand the tonal system. Since they’ve grown up speaking Chinese, they simply learned the tones naturally and instinctively change their intonation when speaking. Thus, if I try to tell someone I study shu4xue2 and he hears shu1xue3 (and therefore thinks I’m saying blood transfusion), he won’t think, “Oh, he must have mixed up his tones...he probably means “math”). Instead, the Chinese person will be completely confused and have no idea what I’m talking about. I just can’t tell you how frustrating that is – when you’re actually able to remember the sound… maybe you’re even able to remember the characters as well! – but you simply can’t remember the tones, and because of this simple slip-up, your communication is brought to a screeching halt. Or, perhaps even worse, you can remember the tones, but as a native speaker of a non-tonal language, you’re having trouble saying the right tone and no matter how hard you try, you just can’t hit the right note. You can picture the word as it would be written in Romanization with its pretty little numbers representing the tones, but like a tone-deaf musician, you just can’t make anything happen.

To further complicate matters, even if you do begin to master the tones, an even more involved problem inevitably presents itself. Let’s say you want to tell someone “Hey…that’s my fried rice…get away!” In English you would instinctively stress the word my for emphasis. But in Chinese, doing so would indicate a 4th tone (instead of the proper 3rd tone) and render your sentence meaningless and incomprehensible. Thus, it is extremely difficult to express yourself in Chinese because the tools you’re used to relying on – stress, pitch, meter – are suddenly taken away from you. Your hands are tied behind your back, and its seems impossible to put any real feeling or passion into what you say.

3. The Romanization

It has been said of the different Romanization styles for Chinese that “there are too many of them, and most of them were designed either by committee or by linguists, or – even worse – by a committee of linguists” (Moser)…and this could not be any more accurate. Romanization refers to the rendering of Chinese sounds into “words” using the English alphabet. Thus, you see Chinese people’s names and Chinese cities occasionally written with “words” like Zhong, Chang, Tsien, Tzu, etc. These aren’t really words because they don’t belong to any official language – they’re simply the products of Romanization.

Romanization was developed to aid non-Chinese speakers. If the only way Beijing was ever written was in its true form (北京), most non-Chinese speakers would have no idea how to pronounce the city’s name. Amazingly, though, the creators of most of the Romanization systems in existence today opted to make things as hard as possible for non-Chinese speakers. Consider the capital of Taiwan, for example: Taipei. Ask any Chinese-speaking person how to pronounce the name of Taiwan’s capital, and they will say “Taibei” (tai, as in to tie your shoes; and bei as in to swim in the bay). There is no [p] sound whatsoever. The creators of Taiwan’s most frequently used Romanization system, however, decided to write the [b] sound with a p. Now why would they do this, I wonder? The [b] sound in Taibei already exists in English and is represented perfectly by our own b. Why confuse English speakers by using a p? Consider Beijing, previously known as “Peking.” Mainland China previously used the same Romanization system that Taiwan now uses (the Wade-Giles System); thus the [b] sound was approximated with a p, and the [j] sound was approximated with a k. Thus, English speakers began referring to Beijing as “Peking.” Fortunately, China eventually adopted a slightly more sensible Romanization system (called Pinyin), which calls for Beijing to be written as one would expect it to be written, and Westerners now call the city by its real name. The Romanization chaos is absolutely outrageous and only further contributes to the stress of learning Chinese. In Taiwan many street signs are written in both Chinese and Romanization to aid foreigners. However, several different Romanization systems are used (meaning that even if you do happen to understand all the major ones, you can’t necessarily be sure about which one you should be using), and systems such as the Wade-Giles are so counter-logical that completely mispronouncing a word because of the very tool which is supposed to make its pronunciation easy is extremely common. The city where I’m currently living, for example – Danshui – can be written as “Danshui,” “Tamshui,” “Damshui,” or “Tamshuie.” What a mess.

4. The Dictionary

Mosser hits the nail on the head: “Chinese is not exactly what you would call a user-friendly language, but a Chinese dictionary is positively user-hostile.” I already explained that it takes me about 7 minutes, on average, to look up a single Chinese word. This is ignoring the fact that 1 out of every 5 words I attempt to look up, I never find. So, you want to know why Chinese dictionaries are so complicated? Just think about it.

English-, Spanish-, and French-language dictionaries are all organized by something we call alphabetical order. We have approximately 26 characters and thus an easy method of categorizing every word in our languages. But the Chinese have no alphabet; instead, they have over 50,000 distinct characters, remember? How to organize them, how to organize them…now that’s what you call a dilemma.

The solution most dictionaries rely upon is extremely complicated, and I will not delve into it in detail here. Basically, just know that it requires a fair amount of prior knowledge (a first-year Chinese language student is not really capable of using a dictionary), a ton of patience, and an eye for detail (analyzing the minute differences which distinguish characters from one another). Add to this the fact that the contextual nature of Chinese requires multiple dictionaries (most professors and scholars profess to have 15 to 20 or more; I currently use 4), and you’ve got yourself a real problem. Having to resort to a dictionary in any language is annoying enough (I mean, what it signifies is that you don’t know something you wish you knew), so you want the process to be as painless and fast as possible. But with Chinese, the process is the most painful thing of all, and many times it doesn’t even yield a single result! Lastly, as I’ve mentioned, word boundaries are not defined in Chinese; this wreaks absolute havoc on dictionary users. Consider how difficult it would be for a non-native English speaker to look up words in a dictionary if English were written without word boundaries: “FEAR LESS LY OUT SPOKE N BUT SOME WHAT HUMOR LESS NEW ENG LAND BORN LEAD ACT OR GEORGE MICHAEL SON EX PRESS ED OUT RAGE TO DAY AT THE STALE MATE BE TWEEN MAN AGE MENT AND THE ACT OR 'S UNION BE CAUSE THE STAND OFF HAD SET BACK THE TIME TABLE FOR PRO DUC TION OF HIS PLAY.” Fortunately, I now have PlecoDict, but I still need to use paper dictionaries at times, too, and the process is nearly unbearable.

5. The Culture

“Language and culture cannot be separated, of course, and one of the main reasons Chinese is so difficult for Americans is that our two cultures have been isolated for so long. The reason reading French sentences like ‘Le président Bush assure le peuple koweitien que le gouvernement américain va continuer à défendre le Koweit contre la menace irakienne,’ is about as hard as deciphering pig Latin is not just because of the deep Indo-European family resemblance, but also because the core concepts and cultural assumptions in such utterances stem from the same source. We share the same art history, the same music history, the same history history -- which means that in the head of a French person there is basically the same set of archetypes and the same cultural cast of characters that's in an American's head. We are as familiar with Rimbaud as they are with Rambo. In fact, compared to the difference between China and the U.S., American culture and French culture seem about as different as Peter Pan and Skippy peanut butter.

“Speaking with a Chinese person is usually a different matter. You just can't drop Dickens, Tarzan, Jack the Ripper, Goethe, or the Beatles into a conversation and always expect to be understood. I once had a Chinese friend who had read the first translations of Kafka into Chinese, yet didn't know who Santa Claus was. China has had extensive contact with the West in the last few decades, but there is still a vast sea of knowledge and ideas that is not shared by both cultures.

“Similarly, how many Americans other than sinophiles have even a rough idea of the chronology of China's dynasties? Has the average history major here ever heard of Qin Shi Huangdi and his contribution to Chinese culture? How many American music majors have ever heard a note of Peking Opera, or would recognize a pipa if they tripped over one? How many otherwise literate Americans have heard of Lu Xun, Ba Jin, or even Mozi?

“What this means is that when Americans and Chinese get together, there is often not just a language barrier, but an immense cultural barrier as well. Of course, this is one of the reasons the study of Chinese is so interesting. It is also one of the reasons it is so damn hard.” (Moser)

- Conclusion

Moser says he was once told that learning Chinese is “a five-year lesson in humility.” He reports that “I used to think this meant that at the end of five years you will have mastered Chinese and learned humility along the way. However, now having studied Chinese for over six years, I have concluded that actually the phrase means that after five years your Chinese will still be abysmal, but at least you will have thoroughly learned humility.” As the arrogant scholar I am, I might have assumed previously that our Mr. Moser of the University of Michigan just doesn’t have the right knack for languages. I would have thought, “I can pull it off…Give me four years, and I’ll be speaking fluent Chinese, no problem, dude.” After two and half years of studying Chinese – of “banging my head against the Great Wall of Chinese” (as he puts it) – I’m wiser, less naïve, and more mature. Chinese is really, really hard. The hardest thing I’ve undertaken in my entire life, and I’ve undertaken a lot. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished so far – I mean it’s not like I can’t speak Chinese at all; based on what I’ve already reported in this blog, it should be fairly obvious that my Chinese is not completely abysmal. Even if it were completely abysmal, though, I’d still be proud of myself – I’ve honestly given it a 100% day in and day out. That’s all I can do. And, for now, I’m going to keep going. I’m going to see where it takes me. I still have another year and half in university – maybe I’ll make some great breakthrough; if not, there’s always graduate school or another trip back to Taiwan – both of which sound far more intriguing than entering the workforce. If I’ve learned anything from my studies of Chinese, it’s this – there are some things you just can’t rush. There are some things for which there really are no shortcuts. Hard work, dedication, and perseverance are the only way. It’s not easy, and it’s not fun. And it really isn’t so different from a terrifying Edgar Allen Poe nightmare at times. But I’m pretty sure I can see light at the other end of the tunnel; in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever completely lost sight of it. And if – when – I reach that light, I’m pretty sure I will look back into the darkness and remember my voyage as one of the most rewarding I ever took. The most difficult things in life are always the most rewarding. They’re always the ones we look back on and think “Wow, it’s great to be alive.” Because if life were always easy, what point would there be in growing, in learning, in living fully? Struggling to overcome obstacles is the quintessential antithesis to stagnation; it’s the most fundamental meaning of being alive. Maybe that’s the meaning of it all. Maybe that’s why we have a language which can’t even be remembered by its own native speakers. Chinese…the ultimate in trials and tribulations. The ultimate in hardship. The ultimate test. Take it, if you dare…

“Corruption – Not Just an American Value”

Politics…you just can’t escape it. No matter where you go, there’s always something happening in the world of politics. Living here in Taiwan and being able to follow closely both global and Asian politics has been quite interesting because I’m really forced to view things from a new perspective. A Taiwanese declaration of independence from Mainland China has far more severe ramifications for me personally now than it would if I were living in America (“Bombs-away!”) Whether I like it or not, I am intrinsically bound to the political welfare of Taiwan until the end of December. Thus, the North Korean nuclear crisis…The coup d’etat in Thailand…the Japanese change of leadership …these happenings have all taken on far more significance to me here in Taiwan. And then there’s Taiwan’s own political crisis – and the political tension which has remained an integral part of my Taiwan experience from the beginning.

You probably know the basics of the situation since it has been covered pretty thoroughly by world media, but, in case you don’t, here’s the situation. Chen Shui-Bian, the Taiwanese president (from the Democratic Progressive Party [DPP], Taiwan’s anti-reunification [with China] party) has been accused of massive corruption. First, between the months of May and July his son-and-law was convicted of insider trading. At the same time, allegations surfaced that his wife had been accepting department store vouchers in return for her influence. Lastly, Chen’s use of a secret presidential fund for overseas work came under scrutiny, and officials have recently accused him of misuse of state funds (totaling more than 500,000 USD). Though Chen has ceded some power, the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party is not satisfied, nor are the majority of Taiwanese, many of whom have been taking to the streets for months and calling for his resignation. The “Depose Movement” is being led by Chen’s old friend Shih Ming-Teh, who insists he wants nothing more than a peaceful change of leadership to rid Taiwan of these latest bouts of corruption. In traditional Chinese fashion, the movement has taken the color red as its symbol; so for months images of tens of thousands of protestors clad in matching red shirts and headbands, repeatedly giving the thumbs-down sign, and shouting in unison, “A-Bian…Xia tai!” (“A-Bian [Chen’s nickname]…Step Down!”) have dominated local news. But it’s more than just a breaking news story…I’m living in the middle of it, so it’s actually quite real. During the height of the protests, I had to avoid certain areas of the city, I had to allow extra time to commute to school, and I had to be cognizant of what color clothes I was wearing (the pro-Chen movement has taken green to be its symbolic color). Though the situation has remained mostly peaceful, there have been incidents of violence, and there is most definitely an aura of tension. Barbed wire surrounds the presidential palace, police are everywhere, and leaders of both the anti-Chen and pro-Chen movements have repeatedly pleaded with their followers to remain non-violent.

Political discussion is extremely open in Taiwan (even more so than in America; for instance, it’s perfectly legitimate to ask someone outright, “So who did you vote for?”), and I’m often asked what I think of Chen. My answer is always the same: “Wo shi waiguoren – wo shenme dou bu zhidao” (“I’m a foreigner – what do I know?”). I’ve worn white clothes anytime I’ve visited the protest areas, as well. The fact of the matter is that I don’t have strong feelings about the situation. I think it’s interesting that Chen has received so much condemnation based on several matters which do not even concern him personally (but rather his family). This, to me, illustrates the important Chinese concept of guangxi – as I explained earlier, in Chinese culture, you are intrinsically tied to your family and friend networks. They can help you with favors, but they can also bring you down with misdeeds. Perhaps the most important thing I’ve gleaned from this whole mess is this: Democracy is alive and well in Taiwan. Ironically, some of the anti-Chen protestors have claimed as their slogan “Democracy is dead!” to convey their denunciation of corruption. Here’s what I say to them: “You think democracy is dead in Taiwan? Then go to Mainland China and walk around holding a sign and whining about corruption. See where that gets you.” The very fact that the Taiwanese are able to voice their opinions so openly, whether supporting or condemning the president, is evidence that Taiwan is doing something right. It really is a beautiful thing, freedom – without it, who are we?

“White Dove”

This blog is not the proper forum to discuss China-Taiwan relations, if for no other reason than because there is a fairly decent chance I will one day work in a governmental position dealing with China and Taiwan. With this said, there is one thing I would like to note. I have now lived in both China and Taiwan; I’ve seen both major cities and the most rural of areas; and I’ve met and befriended doctors, teachers, farmers, factory workers, and fishermen alike. I’ve had a lot of time to ponder the similarities and differences between China and Taiwan. And my conclusion? While Taiwanese society undeniably is rooted in China’s history and cultural framework, it has positively developed its own unique identity as well. There’s just a completely different atmosphere in Taiwan. The vibe – the aura – of the place is different. I don’t really know how to describe it, but there’s just a sensation of freedom – of pride – here that China lacks. Taiwan has been back-stabbed by almost every single member of the world community in the last half century (several of its only remaining allies are in the process of switching allegiance to China as I write, in fact). At the same time that the United States was going to incredible lengths to preserve democracy in Vietnam and Korea, Taiwan was left out to dry. It stood up for its democracy, and what was its reward? Losing its seat in the United Nations, increased health problems for its people as a result of being barred from the World Health Organization, and not being able to send its athletes to the Olympics as representatives of their country (they must attend using a different name). I recently came across a Wu Bai piece called Bai Ge (白鸽) – White Dove – that has become one of my all-time favorite songs. The Chinese lyrics are even more powerful, but the English translation, too, truly captures the essence, I believe, of what it means to be Taiwanese in today’s world.

“White Dove”

Straight ahead, without direction, body unclothed,
Blood oozing from my wing, my tears thoroughly soaking my chest,
Soaring in the air, bearing the wound, escaping from the hunter's gun.

Dearest mother, true friend, I can be strong, I will live well;
Silent earth, silent heaven, red blood continuously flows.

My feet have no consciousness, ice-cold snow falls in my heart;
Even though I carry everlasting scars, at least I still have freedom.

Soaring in the air, flying in the sky, against the merciless wind,
I will not be afraid, I don't have to be a coward, roaming everywhere by myself;
That is something to take pride in, carefree sunshine, white clouds sweeping by beneath my feet.

Withered figure, thin and pallid face, flapping my wings, never turning to look back;
Even though I carry everlasting scars, at least I still have freedom.

At least I still have freedom.
At least I still have freedom.

“Formosan Juxtapositions”

I alluded to the paradoxical nature of Taiwanese society in my introductory “This is Formosa” passage, and I’d like to delve a bit deeper now. Taiwan truly is a land of contradiction – of fascinating juxtapositions. Four juxtapositions that have leapt out at me during my stay here involve dichotomous relationships between slow and fast, tradition and modernity, East and West, and truth and façade.

Hop on the ultra-clean and efficient MRT subway on the coast here in Danshui, and you’ll find yourself in downtown Taipei in 35 minutes. There, businessmen will brush by you in a hurry to make their next meeting on time, taxis will screech to a halt as you wander across the street without looking both ways, and vendors will offer you food and merchandise from their carts while simultaneously making change for a previous customer and accepting money from another. As Lonely Planet says, the animated little green men on the “Don’t Walk” signs don’t just begin walking when it’s ok to cross the street – they run. Taiwanese society is always on the move, and it’s always on the run. Life here is most definitely fast-paced. At the same time, though, almost 60% of Taiwan is wilderness. Undeveloped beaches and mountains constitute the vast majority of the country’s land. Escape to these areas, and you’ll find yourself amidst incredible serenity and peace and quiet. But leaving the city to find a slower-paced lifestyle isn’t even necessary, as a matter of fact. Just wander down a back-alley, make a few turns, continue walking away from all the noise…and soon you’ll find yourself in a quaint little residential area with a tiny pond spanned by an ornate, classically Chinese bridge. A traditional teahouse might sit tucked away in a small park, and elderly men and women will be resting in the shade of a sprawling tree and playing mahjong or go. Alternatively, drive to the top of any hill near the coast – prime real estate territory which you would expect to be teeming with resorts or upscale housing developments – and you’ll most likely find nothing more than a mausoleum or a simple grave site. The Taiwanese believe in feng shui – harmony with wind and water – and this remains forever paramount in the development of the island. The spirits of the deceased will only be content if they are left somewhere with a view – somewhere with wind and water. Likewise, no matter how clustered downtown Taipei becomes, harmony must always prevail. Taipei 101, the tallest building in the world, rather than towering above the city like some obscene monstrosity instead rises gently like a stalk of bamboo, loops of ribbon tied around it and rising gracefully towards its pinnacle. Taiwan has its ugliness, its pollution, its crowds…but it simultaneously retains dignity, cleanliness, and beauty. It’s a living, pulsing paradox in the truest sense of the word.

Taiwan is a lesson in reconciling tradition and modernity. Unlike China, which is demolishing its centuries-old traditional hutong neighborhoods in Beijing in favor of new high-rises and destroying Tibet’s culture for the purpose of assimilation, Taiwan is managing to balance a quest to modernize with a desire to preserve the traditional. Everything in Taiwan at first seems modern, fast, efficient, state-of-the-art: the MRT, Taipei 101, Warner Village (“The Manhattan of Taiwan”). Everything is computerized, digital, convenient. You can pay your bills in cash at the nearest convenience store. Busses, the subway, and even parking garages all use the same swipe card, to which money can be added in a mere 10 seconds. Closed-circuit cameras are everywhere you look – in elevators, at intersections, in every corner of every store. Teenagers and grandparents alike talk on the latest and most advanced cellphones, and if you don’t have a computer-camera for real-time video conferencing with your friends you’re definitely out of the loop. At the same time, though, traditional funerals still process down major roads and highways at 10 mph, backing up traffic and congesting cities while musicians ride along in the elaborately decorated trucks banging Chinese gongs and playing brash, ear-splitting traditional melodies. Within one block of even the ritziest Starbucks chances are you’ll find a Buddhist, Daoist, or Confucian temple with locals praying or arranging incense sticks inside. Directly in front of an all-glass, super-modern skyscraper housing a multinational franchise, you might see a group of Taiwanese crouched around a small fire and tossing paper “ghost money” into it for the well-being of their ancestors. Every time you begin to think you’re living in a society ten years ahead of the rest of the world, you see something which takes you back ten centuries, across the Straight of Taiwan, back to ancient China…and you realize that you’re in neither a land of the future nor a land from the past but a land suspended in a fantastic dream-world somewhere between the two.

Nowhere have I seen East meet West with such intensity – the two worlds intermingle, intertwine, and produce a hybrid offspring like no other. The realization begins, of course, with language. Billboards advertising the latest in cosmetic products feature catchy English slogans intermixed with mind-bogglingly complicated Chinese script. “Bye-bye” has overtaken “Zaijian” as the conventional method of saying farewell, and English-teachers are in higher demand and paid better here than in any other country in the world. Nevertheless, hop into a cab in downtown Taipei and tell your driver your destination in English, and he won’t even leave the curb. Don’t even think about trying to leave Taipei if you don’t speak Chinese. Old men still wear their traditional Chinese outfits and slippers and stroll through traditional parks with the help of their canes while the younger generations sport the latest fashion-wear from Abercrombie, Gucci, and American Eagle. Classical Confucian emphasis on family, friends, and respect for ancestors pervades the culture, but so too do American tendencies towards independence, self-interest, and personal freedom. The collectivist practices of China still retain a slight grip on the island, but western capitalism is without a doubt at the helm and in control of its future. Christianity is a noticeable part of modern-day Taiwan, but the real fabric of society is made up of a syncretic, multi-faceted devotion to Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism. Many women still fulfill the roles defined for them by Confucius and stay at home to cook, clean, and nurture, while others attend the most prestigious universities and lead the most powerful corporations; Taiwan’s vice president is currently a woman. Eating traditionally around circular tables in large groups is still common, but ordering dinner “dai zou” (“to go”) is equally normal; even McDonald’s has worked its way into the local dining scene. Cappuccinos and lattés are as common as green and oolong tea, and Jay-Z and the Black Eyed Peas are as well known as Zhou Jie Lun and Tao Zhe. All in all, a Westerner living in Taiwan can’t possibly feel that he’s at home here, but, at the same time, he can’t feel completely estranged from the things with which he’s familiar either. It’s a truly unique thing, this hybrid culture, one which, in many ways, joins the best of both worlds.

Lastly, there is an obvious dichotomy between truth and façade. As I explained in my section on cultural norms, appearance is everything in Taiwan, and truth is often hidden or disguised. Things can’t always be taken for their face value, although that is how they are judged. When someone tells me my Chinese is fantastic, I know there is no real meaning in the compliment; it’s more of a conditioned – or perhaps instinctive – response… not a lie, not an act of deception, simply an extension of who that person is and who he will always be. But when someone tells me that he’s sincerely happy to have met me and to have been able to welcome me to his country, I very well might believe that these words really do carry weight. How can I tell the difference? Truthfully, I suppose I can’t, but herein lies the paradox. Taiwanese culture is the product of both self-serving, artificial hogwash and the most sincere and genuine exhibition of kindness I’ve ever seen. Hospitality in Taiwan is literally unparalleled in today’s world, and foreigners are treated day after day after day as VIP guests who are more important than the Taiwanese themselves. So I ask myself: how can a country which places so much emphasis on meaningless, artificial social norms remain simultaneously so committed to genuineness? To this I must confess that I still have no answer. I go on watching, listening, interacting… and nearly everyday I ponder my paradox as I find myself immersed in the fascinating and idiosyncratic culture of the wonderful people we call the Taiwanese.

“Food, Oh Glorious Food”

Oh. My. Goodness. If you like to eat…If you like to eat Asian food: Come… to… Taiwan. This place has the most ridiculous assortment of Asian food to be found anywhere on the planet. Chinese, Taiwanese, Thai, Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese, Philippine… Hotpot, dim sum, shabu-shabu, teppanyaki, teriyaki, noodes, rice, soup… The list goes on and on. And the best part? You can eat 3 incredibly filling, practically-gourmet meals a day for well under $10. Oh, you’re still hungry? Want another huge plate of rice with a half-chicken and a heaping of vegetables? That’s going to cost you a whopping $1.50. The food here is outrageously cheap and outrageously delicious.

Aside from the standard Asian cuisine I mentioned above, there are several local specialties. Biandang is a lunchbox of sorts that is the perfect to-go meal. It usually cost about $1.25-$2.00 and is enough to fill even me. Inside is a healthy and delicious rice- or noodle-based dish with meat, vegetables, and probably some tofu. People laugh at me about it, but I’m not ashamed to admit that I eat biandang almost everyday. Then, there’s shuijiao. Oh, shuijiao… I fell in love with these little pork dumpling creations last year and eat them all the time here in Taiwan. I will never forget the day I found the shuijiao place near my apartment. I walked through the streets afterwards like I was drunk or in love, simply unable to stop smiling. I truly am in love with these things. I eat 20-30 at a time (completely gorging myself) on a pretty regular basis (yes, I have been known to eat them for 4 or 5 straight nights). Lastly, there are the fruit smoothies which I mentioned earlier. Tell me where else in the world you can buy a fresh-fruit juice or smoothie (I’m talking mango, papaya, guava, banana, watermelon, cantaloupe, anything!) for under a dollar on almost any street corner? I’m completely obsessed with these drinks; life just wouldn’t be the same without my daily post-lunch trip to visit my favorite “smoothie-girl” downtown and then my dinnertime trip to the nearest smoothie stand here in Danshui (which I’m pretty sure I single-handedly keep in business). There’s also the renowned dragon-fruit smoothie – which I tried for the first time here in Taiwan – made from a bizarre fruit that has spines sticking out it in every direction; the resulting drink is an iridescent purple and simply divine.

Taiwan has it all – from tasty breakfast shops serving pork and egg hamburgers and xiaolongbao (basically shuijiao with soup inside…yea, I eat these on regular basis, too) to night markets with everything imaginable…from upscale, fine dining establishments to quaint little family-run chaofandian’s. Chicken, pork, duck, seafood, beef, lamb. Every vegetable you can think of. Fresh fruit galore. Real Asian rice (which I will miss more than anything when I leave this place). Soup with every meal (a relic of the Japanese Occupation period). Ah, life is good, isn’t it?


- First earthquake. Having been studying Chinese intensely for several hours, I was already feeling a bit nauseous. Suddenly, the world started spinning before my eyes, and I felt a strange sense of disorientation. Being on the seventh floor, I even felt as if my building were blowing in the wind or something. Then it hit me: an earthquake. Taiwan has earthquakes almost every week. Sure enough, I checked online, and that’s what it was. A really fascinating experience actually – I could feel the energy pulsing around me in a very similar way that I can feel the increased energy in the ocean when a long-period swell is just off-shore and about to arrive.
- First time eating duck and pig blood. Yea, an interesting delicacy. The blood clots together so it looks a lot like tofu, but when you eat it, you can tell it’s something else. I give it a 5 out of 10.
- First time making a left hand turn on a motorcycle. So, one thing I didn’t mention in my “Road Rage” section is that Taiwan has special rules for making left-hand turns on motorcycles. You can’t just turn through the intersection like all the cars do. Instead, you have to go straight and then circle around and get in line with the motorcycles at the light on the intersecting street. There’s a box painted on the street where you wait for the light to change, and then you proceed straight across the intersection. Anyway, no one told me this at first, and I simply couldn’t figure out how to make a left hand turn. I was terrified of getting into an accident, so, each day before I headed out, I would plot my entire route (particularly if I were planning to run errands and make several stops). This route always moved in a clockwise direction around the city so that I would make nothing but right hand turns. Fortunately, I eventually figured out how to turn left and now save myself a good bit of time.
- First VIP tickets to a major concert. That’s right, Wu Bai and China Blue had an exclusive, private show to debut their latest album, and my surf buddy Dino hooked me and the rest of the Baishawan Crew up with free VIP tickets. We hung out on a special balcony reserved for the media, and, afterwards, Dino came up to chill with us. The crowd was going crazy taking pictures and shouting “Dino, Dino!” so I just stood there on the balcony wearing my Wu Bai t-shirt and acting cool, pretending I was a part of the band or something. I’m in every single one of those pictures that were taken. The crew and I concluded a very late night after the concert by having dinner with the whole band, including Wu Bai (yea, you know you’re jealous).
- First time seeing my Chinese TA’s in a really long time. Yep, I’ve gotten to spend a little time with the TA’s from both my first and second years of studying Chinese in America, and it was great to catch up on life. It was especially rewarding because I was able to converse with them entirely in Chinese, which is how it should be, I think, considering the fact that I’m now in their home country.
- First kiss – Haha, yea right.


- This was an extremely (and I put the extreme in extremely, don’t I) long post…I hope you enjoyed it.
- This really is the last thing I’m going to write.
- There will be at least one more post about Taiwan plus some sort of conclusion to my epic.
- Stay tuned for a special surprise. It’s not a post but something else –something completely different that I think you’ll really enjoy. I’m not sure when I’ll be finished with it, but check in every once and while, and I’ll update the blog with an announcement and a link when my surprise is ready. Until then, I leave you with my best wishes from the Far East – Golden Dragon, signing out.


At 9:36 PM, Blogger :: jocelyn :: said...

hey surf dude! nargh..i wasnt offended by what u described of us..hahahha! nice observations of things here in taiwan :)

At 1:05 PM, Blogger Keelung Jane said...

Great descriptions. And I'm interested in that DanShui studio you got. Care to post the rent ... and address?? You do know that YongHo (counts as a city to itself) is THE most densely populated city in the world ... or so I've heard (over and over)?


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