水曜日, 12月 29, 2004

Travel Journal, Taiwan

    Over 60,000 people died in the earthquake and tsunami this holiday season. I'm very sorry about this tragedy. My family seemed to think it was kind of a close call for me since I was in Thailand at this time last year. However, I went to Northern Thailand, which wasn't affected. And bad things can happen anywhere, even if you never leave home. Natural disasters are not a good argument against traveling.
    With that out of the way, the rest of this post will be upbeat.
    I don't have my pictures from Taiwan uploaded yet, but they're on the way. We had an exciting and wonderful time.

A Day-By-Day Account of Our Adventures

Dec 21 - We arrived in Taipei. The Lin family met us at the airport and we spent the night at their house. We had a lot of trouble communicating with them. They don't speak Mandarin at home but Taiwanese, and their Mandarin was difficult to understand. The grandmother couldn't write Chinese characters. When we ran into a communication hurdle, she asked her son or husband to write the characters for us.

Dec 22 - A young woman who is a friend of a friend of pretty-sunshine, and speaks Japanese, agreed to take us sightseeing in Taipei. We went to the National Palace Museum and the night market.

Dec 23 - Pretty-sunshine gave me a birthday present: a manga called ダーリンは外国人. It gently pokes fun at a certain kind of male foreigner in Japan. It's funny.
   We took the train to Hualien, a city on the east coast that is near to Tarokko Gorge, and spent the night there. In the evening, we had dinner at a vegetarian buffet--I was selfish in wanting to go there instead of the wonton place, which I regret now, since wonton soup is a local specialty of Hualien--and went shopping for clothes.

Dec 24 - The owner of the guesthouse, an older Japanese man, took us and a Taiwanese couple on a sightseeing trip to the gorge. It was very beautiful, especially the waterfalls and pools with aquamarine or slate-colored water. We had lunch at an open-air restaurant at a Buddhist temple on the mountain. We were served by vegan Buddhist nuns. I was very impressed with them, partly because in Thailand and Japan I've only met Buddhist priests, and they act a little weird about talking to women. The nuns had short hair (but not completely shaved) and they were always smiling. They spoke some English, better than my Chinese. There were no animal products consumed on the temple grounds, and the temple gift shop sold bags of vegetarian beef jerky along with nutritional yeast supplement, which you can't get in Japan. I bought a bag of it from the smiling nun.

    It was at least a 3-hour train ride back to Taipei. We had a couple of stressful episodes. First of all, we couldn't get seats together on the train. Our seats were on adjoining cars. At first, pretty-sunshine sat near me, but then someone came and kicked her out of the seat. I went to sit by her for awhile, but the same thing happened. Eventually she just sat by me on a step thing that isn't really a seat--because I'm in the first row of a car, there is some extra room. Across from us were four young soldiers in the Taiwanese army, three men and a woman. We talked to them, and learned about the draft in Taiwan: all young men have compulsory military service. Women don't have to join, but can volunteer if they want. One of the men had been studying English, so our conversation went mostly through him. There was something sad and weary about him, probably because he didn't want to be in the army. Neither Japan nor the U.S. has compulsory military service, so the whole thing seemed very foreign to us.
    At the end of the voyage, I was preoccupied with thoughts of the people we just met, and I stupidly left one of my bags on the train. I realized it when we went to the bathroom at the station. I told pretty-sunshine, and with her quick thinking, we took immediate action. We asked one of the station attendants what to do, and he said to go to the information desk (fu wu tai). At the information desk, we had to explain in Chinese what happened, and the woman there, to my great relief, put in a call to the train. Unlikely enough, I was able to remember the number of the seat I was sitting in, and she was able to tell what train we were on by the fact that we'd just arrived from Hualien. My bag was located and saved for us at a station a few stops away. Then I made another mistake: I wanted to buy two tickets to the station where my bag was, but I accidentally bought round-trip tickets instead. Pretty-sunshine went through the ticket gate, but it beeped and stopped me. We were pressed for time because we were supposed to meet her friend I.L. later, so pretty-sunshine said to just give her both tickets and I could wait until she went back. She understood how to get to that station, and I didn't. She gave me I.L.'s phone number so that I could explain the situation to her.
    I waited for her for about an hour. It was nerve-wracking. On the edges of my stress was the awareness that it was Christmas Eve; what an unlikely way to spend it. I couldn't get through to I.L. right away, and I was afraid of missing pretty-sunshine while I was using the public phone. Finally I reached her on the phone. I was worried that she would have a bad first impression of me, since she didn't know me and I'd inconvenienced everyone with my stupid mistake. However, I soon learned that it's not in her character to be mad about things like that. She speaks fluent Japanese, and she's an incredibly sweet person, so talking with her reassured me that things would be all right after all. She told me to meet her mother in front of the Mitsukoshi outside Taipei station. Mitsukoshi is a Japanese bank; I wondered how to ask for directions to it in Chinese. San-yue? It was a bit confusing. I would later learn that there are many Japanese department stores thriving in Taipei, such as Sogo and Takashimaya, and that the everyone recognizes their Japanese names.
    I managed to catch pretty-sunshine again just as she was paging me from the Information desk. I was thrilled to see her. She had retrieved my bag with no problems, but she told me that they offered her tea and snacks there, wanting to chat with her about where she was from and so on, so that's why it took so long. I told her about waiting in front of Mitsukoshi, and we found it and met I.L.'s mother there.
    Later that night, we went to a shabu-shabu restaurant with I.L. It was much better than Japanese shabu-shabu, which is kind of tasteless. Also, it had an extensive vegetarian menu. We were invited to stay at I.L.'s family's beautiful house. The family we'd been staying with before was middle-class, but I.L.'s family is very rich. Japan is a prosperous country, but it doesn't have many filthy-rich families. Taiwan does. I was impressed with the opulence of the house and the surroundings.
    After our late dinner, I.L. took us out to a fashionable dance club called Mos, which she said comes from England. Japan has nothing on the scale of this place. One floor had laser lights and a DJ wearing a santa suit; the other floor had an MTV screen and live dancers. It was so packed it was difficult to dance.

Dec 25 For Christmas night, I.L. and her friends had rented a private room at another dance club called Plush. We spent most of the day shopping and beautifying ourselves. A new department store had opened in the neighborhood, and it was wall-to-wall packed with fashionably dressed shoppers.
    I wound up buying a lot of clothes in Taiwan: three cute skirts, a Chinese Betty Boop sweatsuit, and three sweaters. I wouldn't necessarily say that Taiwan is the best place to shop for clothes. As in the rest of Asia, the sizes run small, and good things aren't ridiculously cheap like they might be in poorer countries. However, you can buy things that would be fashionable even in Japan for a slightly lower price, and they will usually lower the price further if you ask them nicely. Pretty-sunshine was impressed that even the most exclusive brand names have sales in Taiwan. That never happens in Japan. Japanese fashion tends to be a bit too modest, plain and subdued for me, too 地味、and it's often not flattering to my shape or coloring. The best thing for me to do would be to go shopping in my own country, but I don't have plans to go back until next summer. So I was happy that the Taiwanese fashion mentality isn't quite so afraid of showing off the body as in Japan. You can buy more brightly-colored, loosely flowing and sexy garments there.
    Although popular culture is similar on the surface to Japan, with the same kind of pop idols, purikura and karaoke dominating the youth culture scene, people's behavior is different in at least two major ways. One is that Taiwanese people are more comfortable touching each other. Our friends often took us by the arm or the hand to guide us somewhere; it's not unusual to see same-sex friends holding hands. They pat the back of someone who is drunk to make them throw up; they hug more tightly in the purikura booth. I found all this friendly touching very nice and soothing after Japan, where people rarely touch each other. It makes a person feel good.
    The second major difference is the sleep cycle. Japan is a 9-to-5 kind of a country. Everyone goes to work in the morning on packed subways and comes home in the evening on trains that are just as crowded. Banks and post offices have inconvenient hours, and stores close early. Taiwan, on the other hand, is a night-owl paradise. It's 2 a.m., want to go shopping or get something to eat? It's no problem in Taipei. Most places seem to be open till 3 a.m.- not just the night market, but regular stores, restaurants, and even onsens. Although there is only a 1-hour time difference between Taiwan and Japan, the night-owl life made me feel jet-lagged upon my return.
    Our hosts were so enthusiastic about entertaining us they often took us out to eat several times in a row--we would go to one restaurant, then go directly to another restaurant, then go to a food stall for dessert or a snack. I don't recommend going there if you're on a diet.
    To get back to my story, we went to Plush for the night. In Japan, a night out usually ends at midnight with the last train. In Taiwan, the night out got a late start and lasted almost all night. They rented a red velvet (plush!) room with couches and cushions where we could drink champagne and wine, have snacks and talk when we were tired from dancing. I've never seen rooms like this in Japan or the U.S., but they are popular in mainland China too. We met a lot more of I.L.'s friends there, as well as her brother and sister. They are cool people. A few of them just sat on the couch and went to sleep. I thought their behavior was odd and unsociable, but no one else seemed to mind. A while later, I started to get tired and one of the guys suggested I take a nap. I felt safe and comfortable there with all of I.L.'s friends around, talking in a language I mostly couldn't understand, so I dozed off for awhile. It was the first time I've ever taken a nap at a disco.
    When I danced, the music was good and it was fun in its way, but it was so crowded I didn't have much freedom of movement. Looking around, I saw nothing but Taiwanese people, and I felt almost like I had the only non-Asian face in the world. It was an extension of the disjointedness I sometimes feel in Japan when I realize I'm not Asian and no matter how much time I spend in Asia I never will be.

Dec 26 In the daytime, we were invited to karaoke by two of I.L.'s male friends. The four of us went together, and were led at first to a huge room that could seat 20 people, with its own bathroom and an all-you-can-eat-and-drink buffet right outside the door. The entire karaoke place was as big as a large hotel. We decided something a bit smaller would be more appropriate, since there were only four of us! So we moved to a smaller room. It also had its own private restroom. To select the songs, you use a computer with a menu organized in several different ways. You can look up songs using the alphabet, Chinese characters, or bupumufu (the Taiwanese phonetic alphabet). Their selection of English-language songs was disappointing. I can't sing, and do not wish to sing, cheesy love songs in any language. Pretty sunshine had been practicing a Chinese song, which she sang to much applause. I made half-hearted attempts to sing a couple songs, including Sekai ni Hitotsu Dake no Hana, but singing is not one of my strengths so I mostly just listen when I go to karaoke, and watch the videos. The karaoke videos in Taiwan are real MTV videos the artists made themselves, with flashy effects, not the sentimental and completely irrelevant videos you see in Japan. It was explained that this is because Japan doesn't have their own version of MTV, but China (or Taiwan?) does. Some of the videos were labeled "Taiwan Only!" in large letters.
    The music I liked best was by a Taiwanese rapper named Stanley Huang (黃立行) and his brother Jeff Huang, who is a member of the rap group Machi (麻吉). Later, I bought their CDs and some others fairly cheaply. Also, I didn't know this before, but most music DVDs don't have region codes; the music DVD I bought in Taiwan worked on my DVD player in Japan.
    We stayed out late again. One of the guys took us for a scenic drive in his car. We could see a view of the night lights of Taipei, including the 101 building (the Yi-ling-yi building), which everyone was talking about because it recently opened. We even went to an onsen in the middle of the night. Good times.

Dec 27 Our last day; we did last-minute shopping. For days I had been trying to get to an Internet cafe to update my blog and spend a little down time away from the whirl of shopping and being entertained. I was (justly) accused of being an Internet addict. I did eventually get to go, but everyone went with me and I wound up feeling selfish for taking up everyone's time. I really just wanted to be dropped off there for awhile during the day while they did something else--I didn't mean to impose my will on everyone. But we found during our stay that if we mentioned we wanted to do something, our hosts would be bound and determined to take us there and not leave us alone for a minute. It was completely contrary to their idea of hospitality to leave us to do our own thing. I can see the practicality of this in a way, because Taipei is big and confusing and if we got lost, they have no way to call us. We could call them, but we don't know the area or the language well. As a cultural contrast, I think homestay families in Western countries often expect more independence from visitors, and instead of taking them sightseeing it's more common to expect them to find their way by themselves. This seems cold to Japanese exchange students. I think homestay families should be aware of this difference.
   We ate a lot of amazing foods I'll talk about later. Then we took about a gazillion purikura. Pretty-sunshine remarked that it was the first time she'd seen someone bargain for a better price at purikura. There wasn't time to sleep, so we stayed up all night. We parted warmly as good friends with promises to write and visit. They treated us like we were family not (in my case) some stranger arriving on their doorstep, and I really admire that. They urged us to stay for New Year's. I'm sure New Years with them would have been a blast, but we had things to do back home. We went to the airport early to buy a few last-minute omiyage.

Dec 28 - The flight home. We were back in Japan before noon. Our airport chatter, which had been entirely in Japanese on the way there, was now Japanese sprinkled with some easy Chinese expressions we'd become used to using on our trip. I knew pretty-sunshine was tired and coming down with a cold, and I felt remorse for acting selfishly at times on our trip. I probably should have tried to be perfectly selfless and happy with whatever happened, without trying to go to an internet cafe when other people didn't want to, for instance. Still pretty-sunshine said she had a great time, and so did I. It was a good learning experience for me. I learned that I could enjoy a trip without having time on my own, being totally dependent on people to show me around. It's contrary to my usual way of being--I'm very independent and individualistic most of the time--but it's more in keeping with Asian ideas of hospitality, and therefore more of a natural way to experience an Asian culture first-hand. I'm happy and grateful for the time I spent with I.L., her family and friends.



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