Stray Observations From An Amused Foreigner #1
Coming to a foreign place ensures a certain level of culture shock. While I embrace the hundreds of new sights and sounds I come across on a daily basis here in Taipei, I feel it my duty to share some of the more out-there cultural differences.
— Never mind the fact that the thousands of scooters flooding the streets of Taipei only add to the city’s growing smog presence. The real hazards of these motorized zoom-zooms come at the pedestrian level. Walking in Taipei requires the same amount of focus and attention to the surroundings as someone traversing through a minefield. Scooters ignore most logical street signs, and will hit you if you happen to be in their path. Not too long ago while sauntering my way through a local night market I was struck by an anxious scooter’s side view mirror as the rider weaved his way through a mob of shoppers. Instead of apologizing for smacking my elbow the elderly rider scolded me in Taiwanese and may or may not have responded with a fist of dissidence in the air.
— Riding a scooter (or in my case, hanging off the back of scooters wearing helmets made for children) is on par with the thrills of walking. Taxi cabs and buses would just assume cut you off if it meant catching a fare, red lights are merely suggestions for some Taiwanese commuters who see the lights as an excuse to speed up, and helmets protect the skull but do nothing for the flesh (check any MRT train car and you’re guaranteed to find one wicked flesh wound from a recently scarred ex-scooterist).
–Riding during a torrential rainstorm, aka the month of June, is about as smart as taking your Mazda Miata out for a spin on the Dan Ryan during an icy Chicago winter. Finally, a note to all the Taiwanese, just because you wear a body-sized “scooter poncho” during aforementioned road conditions, you are hardly the wiser commuter; you’re, however, a hell of a lot more colorful. This all said and done, I still desperately want a scooter of my own. Is this wrong?
— I don’t care that you’ve flash-fried the specimen to a “delicious” black char, you WILL NOT trick me into munching on a whole duck/goose head–neck, skull, beak et al–even if you somehow manage to impale it on a convenient stick like some ruthless Hun.
— Chicken as an animal and food group is a lot more complex than you may think. Summed up: If you think you’ve had chicken, you really haven’t.
— If you put custard pudding in ice tea, they will come.
— Duck blood by any other name is still duck blood.
— If you pretend that the surprise pieces of pig intestine at the bottom of the delicious steaming bowl of Mian Xian (oyster noodles) are really morsels of calamari, you can in fact fool the mouth.
— Unforgiving Taiwanese rice liquor could and should be used to remove paint. East Asian whiskey, however, should not be overlooked on the world stage.
— Dumplings are understood.
— Becoming a regular at a street vendor cart is easy. Show up once, spew out some complimenting Mandarin phrases, and reap the benefits the follow. A neighborhood dumpling shop owner (one of the few places around my apartment open late) is happy to slip in an extra dumpling or two to my order since we are on a first name basis and she is still amazed at my height. A steady use of the word “haochi” or delicious also helps.
— A long line may not ensure quality but will most definitely beckon the flock. The Taiwanese seem to attribute long lines at food vendors and shops as being a sign of quality. Case in point, the popular JiPai, or over-sized fried chicken breast stands. In the Shi-Lin night market there are two prominent stands that sit right next to each other on a busy drag. The vendor on the right side will at times have a queue thirty people deep, while his neighbor on the left will be empty. When I ask one university-age girl why she chose the vendor on the right, she replied, “Because the line was longer.” It should be noted that the final products at both stands are identical and the two supposed rival vendors might in fact be brothers.
— The Taiwanese truly believe that American food consists of hot dogs and hamburgers. One afternoon at my school the staff ordered delivery McDonalds from down the road. When I declined the chance to order a value meal and said, “I actually don’t really like McDonalds” my boss, Vicky, was downright shocked. “Don’t you miss your hamburgers?” she inquired. From peeking at a carryout menu Taiwanese McDonalds appear to be the same as say a Nebraska McDonalds.
— No matter how much area you conquer, you will never win, Starbucks.
— Mister Donut, a Japanese donut chain sprouting up all over Taipei, serves your typical donut. That they offer chopsticks for their sugary treats does however up the establishment’s weirdness.
— The consumption of properly prepared Chinese cabbage is an ethereal experience.
— I have long argued that adding a fried egg to just about everything ups the ante. Eating in Taipei only confirms this position. Lunch boxes are not complete without the essential fried egg topper for the rice. The sandwiches at my housemate’s restaurant, Kiwi Gourmet Burger, served with a fried egg (not to mention pineapple and pickled beets) are to die for.
— Keep the chili peppers coming. It turns out the Taiwanese are not as brave as their Sichuan brothers on the mainland when it comes to spicy food. “Hen la” or very spicy has become a favorite phrase when surveying the culinary canvas here in Taipei, however, I have yet to come across something that numbs my mouth and rips my insides apart. I need to find a true hotpot!
— Noodles shaved by hand from a mothership of homemade dough into a giant vat of boiling water are worth the extra time and money.
— Sprouts, yes please!
— In a country where half of the food you see is still a mystery I’ve realized it’s best to just jump right in and hope for the best. Over the years my stomach has definitely become a lot more adventurous through travel and interest in foreign cuisine. East Asia is like one giant test for the inside. So far I have yet to take ill from anything thing eaten on the streets or inside more established restaurants. I haven’t turned down anything that has been offered to me (save of course for the aforementioned duck/goose noggin, because, and let’s be honest here, one must have limits) and have already found a number of must-go hotspots.
— I’m tall and yes, I just hit my head on the hanging support handles. Get over it.
— The Taiwanese are a polite and organized people. Sometimes. The MRT trains are a perfect example of a society that respects their elders and knows how to make a system work. The commuter trains here can fill up fast but no matter how busy or full a car might be, people will always offer up their seats to small children, the elderly and women. The Taiwanese also know how to line-up, whether it be to board the train (lining up on in a marked and designated area) or to wait for an escalator. For as busy a place as Taipei is the people never seem to be in a hurry (though it could be said that due to long work weeks many commuters are anything but anxious to get to work). I wish I could say the same for the street traffic scene here, which is a cluster-fuck, free for all of fleeting scooters, ambitious taxis and fearless buses.
— You are forbidden to eat or drink on all MRT trains inside each station creating a sterile but delightful area. Ever felt disgusted by the homeless guy eating a bucket of hot wings on the Howard Red Line ‘L’ train in Chicago? Well, behavior like that is non-existent here in Taipei.
— For the most part the Taiwanese are a dog friendly people. It is very popular to own dogs, particularly four specific breeds–a long haired brown lap dog of sorts, run of the mill golden retrievers, some curious lab/terrier mutt, and some no-name cross breed that I can’t recall seeing in the States. The dogs are sold at night markets, which is even worse than it sounds. The ones that don’t sell are unleashed to the streets. The city is full of strays. The lucky ones find a nice old lady who feeds them regularly and they mark their territory. Others create instinctual gangs and roam around parks and by the river. Outside of my apartment there are at a given time at least four, sometimes six dogs. They are covered in fleas, attract flies, and in the case of one doomed pooch are riddled with stomach worms. Depressing. I make it a habit to buy dog biscuits at the grocery store as often as I can but the problem is clearly too big for the occasional treat. I hear that it is 50 times worse in Mainland China where strays are even more abundant and certain breeds, i.e. the unfortunate raccoon dog, are bred for their pelts, faciliating a hush-hush illegal tender of fake furs that might just end up on the racks of JC Penny.
— Then there’s the amusing side to the Taiwanese’s love of dogs. Not only are dogs accessorized much like the downtown Manhattan purse pooches that you might run into at a Dean and Deluca but they are also given fashion cues. It is not uncommon to see a beautiful golden retriever shaved completely bald, save for the hair around the neck, head and tail. I kid you not. A friend’s Taiwanese girlfriend has at least two-dozen photos on her cell phone of her dog dressed up in various inappropriate costumes. From a watermelon to what looked like an airplane pilot’s garments, the dog’s masculinity is non-existent and would probably last a good six hours out in the wild. Dogs ride scooters with their owners and sometimes even manage to fit on normal bicycles. Finally, certain Taiwanese, specifically at said dog haven night markets, carry their miniature canines on their chests in makeshift doggie backpacks.
— Stray cats are present in the city but I have yet to figure out if felines are welcomed pets here or merely a type of training-pet for future dog owners.
— Bringing your pet rabbit to a busy park with dogs and hundreds of people may not be the wisest move, even if you walk the bunny on a leash.
— If you give a mouse a cookie, he just might kill Teacher Warner. It’s hard to say how it happened but ever since I started teaching my three day-a-week “Treehouse Class” seem to have this fascination with creating English sentence patterns that place yours truly in harms way. Teacher Warner has been eaten by a shark, a lion, and spider, not to mention a monkey who is a mascot in the book series. I was once hanged using the keyword ROPE. Last Thursday Lucas, the classroom’s resident terrorist, decided to use the new word SAW (part of a construction/cleaning unit) to cut my head off–verbatim sentence spoken out loud: “I will use a saw to cut Teacher Warner on head.” And I can’t even begin to tell you how violent things got during the Natural Disaster debacle of Unit 8 when I met my demise in lethal hurricanes, typhoons, volcanic eruptions, tornados, drought and somehow by a mudslide. Still, if it teaches the children English then I guess I don’t mind being their personal voodoo doll.
— Apple will never be a real name. For that matter, neither will Rock.
— The Taiwanese love ‘em some office supplies. I have never seen such adoration for pens, pencils, notebooks, pen cases and erasers than inside the Taiwanese school system. Pencil lead flows like water. Erasers are traded like currency. Hi-lighters come in more colors than you might think. And don’t even think about using the pencil’s built in eraser to correct your mistake. For the task of homework editing you must utilize the heavy-duty pencil/pen eraser that’s shaped like a Hello Kitty.
— White board markers are bitch to clean off clothing.
— If your teacher ever seems dazed and confused he/she has probably been inhaling too much white board marker ink. Weekly ink re-fillings of these tools of the trade could very easily be killing my precious brain cells.
— The game of Hangman, it turns out, never ends. No matter how many letters the students go through before reaching the correct word there are certainly more body parts and accessorizes to add to the hanged stick figure. Top hat? Why not! Backpack? I can’t draw that, but sure.
— Trying to practice my rudimentary Chinese with the students only leads to trouble and requires at least one class period of reclaiming my authority.
— Finally, in response to my Step Ahead Class Level 5 workbook’s written suggestion that I reward the winning student of a word puzzle activity with “a big sloppy kiss,” the answer is, No. No, I will not.
ON THE TAIWANESE
— Never before have I felt so welcomed in a foreign place than here in Taipei. Not unusual but worth mentioning.