August 3, 2003


As I was walking through the Gongguan night market on my way to the bus stop, it occurred to me that at this time next week I’d be on a plane. This led to a series of deep musings about leaving, the transitory nature of life, and the size of the world. Of course, then it occurred to me that today is Sunday and my flight home is next week Monday, so actually at that time next week I’d not only still be in Taiwan, but very likely walking my dad through the Gongguan night market. This shattered the reflective mood for me, of course, and goes to show how in-depth ponderings can be completely ruined by bad math.

I’m busy packing up these days, and I’ve noticed that I seem to be bringing home more things from Korea than from Taiwan. So far, the list includes: a Korean World Cup Soccer t-shirt (a gift), an elaborate wall hanging (also a gift), a series of souvenirs from Seoul, a six pack of Kimchi-flavored instant noodles (gift, of course, but one causing some packing concerns: where can I put them that they won’t become kimchi-flavored dust by the time I get home?), “My Sassy Girl” – both the movie (in Korean with Chinese subtitles) and the soundtrack (mostly Korean), “Red Bean Girl in Love” – a thirteen hour Korean soap opera dubbed in Chinese on VCD (I admit I went out and bought this – looked a long time for it too. But it stars my absolute favorite male Korean soap star, Jin Zai Yuan), a small collection of Jin Zai Yuan photos, posters, and a calendar (all gifts from Korean and Taiwanese friends who claim I’m the first American ever to have a crush on a Korean soap star, which I just don’t believe. The problem, as I see it, is that most Americans have never watched Korean soaps, and we don’t really get Korean TV in the US anywhere outside of the C.I.A. headquarters), a small bag of extra spicy Korean hot pepper paste (gift), and two large bags of extra spicy Korean hot pepper powder.

Actually, that last item has me a bit worried. Does a pound and a half of hot pepper paste belong in my checked luggage or my carry on? Either way, it looks a little weird… I don’t want the American customs officials suspecting me of smuggling exotic drugs (or the common kind, just dyed red to throw them off). Everyone here has been joking that one look at all the hot pepper and the US Customs people will be convinced I’m coming from Korea… I just don’t have the heart to tell them that no one in the US knows to associate Korea with hot peppers, and will more likely think it’s all up from Mexico (thereby doubling the drug smuggling suspicions… ). If anyone has any sage advice on this issue, I could use it.

Actually, I’ve spent so much time hanging out with Koreans lately I sometimes forget that I’m still in Taiwan, myself. It seems, on occasion, that I simply dreamed that flight home from Seoul in May. My new experience has led me to add to my past understanding of Korean culture, particularly Korean drinking culture, which is (as mentioned in past messages), impressively elaborate. For instance, I had though that the drunken singing and dancing was somewhat restricted to Karaoke situations, but I learned on an all-day cook-out excursion that this is not the case. Anywhere there is alcohol and drinking Korean men, there will be singing, whether this is crowed springs at Wulai or a Hsintian road-side restaurant, where the unfortunate non-Korean patrons find themselves shoveling in their food in order to save themselves from sitting through the full performance. Music and a microphone in an established Karaoke establishment are, it turns out, simply added pluses, but completely extraneous when the spirit to sing moves in their tipsy hearts.

Actually, the Korean definition of “cook out” also proved to be closer to Taiwan than the US, as it included frying meat in frying pans on portable butane gas burners, accompanied by rice and, of course, lots of hot pepper paste. “Korean-style” also means wrapping up grilled meat in leaves of lettuce (with pepper paste), and eating the “sandwiches” that result. Not, of course, liking meat, my friend Kailang gave me a hand by rescuing random mushrooms and carrots from the frying pans and depositing them in my rice bowl. Flat ground for cooking out is also apparently too easy, because our chosen site was literally in the wilderness in the side of the mountain. I had to answer Kailang’s phone at one point because he was ten feet away…. straight up, and there was just no way to get there. There is nothing like balancing on a rock in 100 degree heat and licking the hot sauce off your disposable chopsticks to give you that “summer barbeque feeling.”

Mid afternoon it started to rain, and for about an hour and a half I was grateful for the male chauvinism that is inherent in Korean culture. Not only were all hats and umbrellas immediately handed over to the girls present (about six of us altogether with about 20 guys. We included one Korean wife, one Japanese wife – a very special relationship, for those of you up on East Asian history, three Taiwanese girlfriends, and me, the “guest” of one of the Korean guys), but when it was decided the rain wasn’t going to let up, we were led back over a stream and to a shelter so that the men could do all the cleaning up and carting of cooking implements back to the car. There were not enough umbrellas, so I wore a rather large sombrero that sheltered not only me but one person on either side of me – laugh all you want, but I’ve started to think of these hats as a reasonably useful purchase. Of course, as soon as the rain stopped, all that male ego immediately started to drive me nuts again 🙂

All of these Korean adventures and Korean souvenirs aside, however, I really am still in Taiwan. Most of my time is taken up by finishing research tasks and getting ready to go, but I’m delighted to note that even after a year here I continue to make new discoveries about this island. For instance, for 12 months I had not been aware that there is a well posted warning at most subway entrances in Taipei informing the MRT-riding public that they are not permitted to wear ice skates in the station or on the train.

In-line skates are also forbidden, but I can’t help but wonder about the ice skates. Has it really been such a problem in the past that they feel the need to post a sign? Given the fact that a great many of Taiwanese have never seen ice outside of their beer glasses (unfortunate but common habit in Taipei bars), where are they getting the idea to roam around town in ice skates? Where do you even buy ice skates in Taiwan? This is not a standard night market purchase, and usually anything worth having can be found in a night market. I’m starting to wonder if maybe Taipei didn’t lift it’s regulations from another city and not bother adjusting for the local climate.

If the government workers in the transportation department are a bit too busy to write their own subway ridership regulations, however, I can’t help but think they could delegate the task to another government bureau with maybe a little less to do. An excellent candidate, in my opinion, would be the R.O.C. Commission for Tibetan and Mongolian Affairs. If you think your federal or state government is overladen with extraneous committees, they’ve got nothing on these guys. A remnant from the days when the government of Taiwan was still claiming to be the government of all of China, the office is a mirror for a similar bureau in the government of the People’s Republic of China. But while the PRC government is actually exercising day-to-day control over both Tibet and Inner Mongolia, Taiwan has very little to say or do re Tibetan policy. Mostly, the bureau is in charge of the entrance visas for Tibetan and Mongolian nationals (who, of course, are rarely issued exit permits by the PRC, meaning for light consular paperwork in this bureau) and runs a small museum dedicated to these two unique cultures.

The saddest part of this, I think, is that if the ROC did finally admit that this commission is, in fact, a dinosaur and about as useless as anything in the world of government bureaucracy can be and close it down, China would protest or fire a few missiles. As much as China detests Taiwan’s claims to Mainland China, it is better than releasing all claims and claiming independence. But the next time any one of you is exercising some self-pity and complaining about your job being worthless or meaningless or making no major contribution to the Grand Scheme of Things, just think about this poor commissioner and the dozen or so people on his staff. If they get outta bed every morning and go to work, so can we all.

Just in the nick of time, I finally got down the east coast of Taiwan to visit the lovely coast side city of Hualian. Hualian is a well-known gateway to Taroko Gorge, i.e. the Most Famous Tourist Attraction in Taiwan. If you’ve never been to the gorge, you’ve never been to Taiwan…. or so the Hualian bureau of tourism likes to claim. So last Sunday and Monday Yuwen and I took off for a quick two day adventure.

We checked into our Guomindang (the dominant political party) established “hotel”, and immediately decided that they were not accustomed to having foreign guests. My reason for suggesting this is that the three women behind the counter stared at me, stared and stared and stared. Finally, one of them spoke: she asked Yuwen to tell me that I have a “very beautiful nose.” In my entire life, I have never give much thought to my nose, so I admit I was startled but quickly thanked her myself. This, of course, earned me all sorts of praise for my Chinese, but the topic quickly reverted back to my nose, which was “so high,” and “so narrow.” Uncomfortable, we got out of there and headed over to the bus station to wait for a bus to take us into the gorge. Sitting at the bus stop – about an hour and a half later, having stopped for lunch – an elderly man came right up to me, looked me over, and then said (in Chinese – he just assumed I understood), “You have a very pretty nose.”

The first comment was random, but after the second I couldn’t help but start to think that maybe I’ve got something here. I’ve never thought of my nose as my best feature, but perhaps I should start. Of course, all week since then Yuwen has been teasing me relentlessly about my nose. She even convinced a merchant at the Jade Market Saturday to give me a slightly cheaper price on a piece of Jade on account of my “lovely nose.”

Monday morning we took the public bus up to Tianhsian, a common starting place for exploring Taroko Gorge. We looked in vain for the variety of hiking paths that apparently start up there, and, giving up, decided to walk the highway. Being a tiny road, often wide enough for only one car, that is cut into the side of a mountain high above the gorge, the walk along the highway was filled with spectacular scenery, and we ended up feeling smarter than we had any right to. We were so entranced by our surroundings that we walked to whole way fromTianhsian to Taroko park entrance – about 23 kilometers (14 miles) not counting the side paths we were constantly exploring. Given the heat in Taiwan in late July, not to mention the distance, it should not, perhaps, be surprising that we were the only ones out walking the highway, but we enjoyed ourselves anyway. Neither of us had ever walked through a highway tunnel before – driven, of course, but never walked – so we kept count each time we reached a new one. We walked a total of 29. Because walking into a tunnel was like walking into natural air conditioning, the fact that they lacked fabulous scenery did not prevent the tunnels from becoming a favorite part of the trip.

Back in Taipei last week, Yuwen and I had one other adventure. We heard about a bar advertising that on Friday it would have “live music,” and curious about what kind of sound it’d be, we went. It turned out to be a band of five middle-aged guys and one gal, singing a bizarre assortment of classic rock, country-western and easy-listening hits from the late 1970s (think Lionel Richie and Stevie Wonder) in English. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard “The Girl from Ipanema” sung live with an affected twang and a thick Chinese accent. They sang one Chinese song all night, at my request, and mostly because they wanted to reward me for being able not only to speak Chinese, but write out my request in Characters that were, “prettier that theirs.”

Okay, don’t even tell me about all the spelling errors and split infinitives in this message. I’ll improve my English once I get back home.

Copyright 2004 by Meredith Oyen