Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The last one...

I know, I know...it's been over six months since my last post (I just published one which has been lingering in the pre-publication stage). After two years of studying Chinese, I have been accepted to a graduate program in the United States and will be leaving Taiwan soon, thus ending the blog as well.

Of course I am leaving with mixed feelings. There were so many people I met who helped me, so many friends I made, and so many experiences which I have learned from that I will never forget my time here. At the same time I look forward to going back to the States, where I haven't lived in over eight years, and haven't visited for four years. I look forward to meeting long-lost friends and family, eating American comfort food, and being able to understand everything! I also look forward to starting my Master's degree, and continuing my inquiries into languages and cultures.

Farewell, Formosa!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Chinese Literature And Other Colorful Topics

Today we were talking about Chinese literature in class, and we started a chapter about a book called 'The Dream of the Red Chamber". Our teacher, Lin laoshi (laoshi means teacher), told us it was one of four classic Chinese books, and asked us to name the other three. I quickly checked my notes from the last class

"Three kingdoms," I blurted out.
"Journey to the West," a Korean girl said.
"Water Margin," said someone else.
"What about Jin Ping Mei?" asked Norie, the Japanese girl.

Our teacher replied: "Jin Ping Mei is not considered one of the original classics, because people considered it to be..." and then she said something I didn't understand. It sounded something like 'color,' which piqued my curiosity, because the word color in Chinese sometimes has connotations of sex. I asked Lin laoshi to repeat just to make sure, as since there are so many homonyms in Chinese sometimes it is easy to get the completely wrong word.

"It is a what color book?" I asked
"It is a yellow-color book," she replied.

I quickly checked in my dictionary, and, indeed, when something is 'yellow color,' it means it's pornographic or has some mention of sex.

"I think 'Dream of the Red Chamber' sounds pornographic," I said.

Lin laoshi looked back at me. "Why, because of the red-light districts of your country?" She replied.

"Yes, well. Originally, the word comes from Holland," I said, suddenly feeling defensive.

"I know, but now the word can be used for areas in all of Europe. In China, we actually say 'green-light districts' for that part of town." (all this talk about colors reminded me of when I was in Japan, my friends and I discovered that what we called 'blue movies' were called 'pink films' over there. It's funny, colors really do have a connection to sex in one or another language.)

About brothels, there are quite a few here in Taipei. It seems to be tacitly accepted, as there is scarcely a street without a 'massage parlour' or a 'karaoke bar' (distinguishable from actual karaoke bars by the use of the words Ka-la-OK instead of KTV)*. I read in my Lonely Planet that if a shop has a barber's pole outside and tinted windows, chances are it's a brothel. But I haven't actually found this to be the case as many times I see dodgy-looking shops with tinted windows and barber poles, only to find an old woman getting her hair permed on the inside. Not that I was actually looking for a brothel, or anything. I did see a garish looking barber shop outside the train station in Zhongli which had the words 'barber shop' in neon lights, and was probably not a barber shop).

I read an article about it in the newspaper Taipei Times and it seems prostitution is illegal here, but (as I had guessed) tacitly accepted. Many sex workers come from other countries (mainland China or South-east Asia) or from disadvantaged families. There are the typical brothels I mentioned above, and special places which cater to niche markets like Linsen bei-lu, a street which has many 'hostess bars' catering to Japanese business men on trips here.**

Back to class, our teacher went on to explain that Jin Ping Mei talks about some of the same things as in Dream of the Red Chamber, but more explicitly, and so was banned during the Ming dynasty. Then she talked more at length about it, though I'm not sure what she said. She tells us a lot, Lin laoshi, and I don't always know what she is talking about, though it's usually interesting, and does make for good listening practice.

* update August 17, 2010: I've actually found that ka-la-OK bars are not necessarily brothels. I discovered this after my friend invited me to one of the aforementioned places and found that it was just a bunch of old people sitting around singing songs in Taiwanese. There were some hostesses in the bar but nothing strange going on. After interviewing some ex-pats here who are more in the know than I, it seems there is a huge grey area between hostessing and straight prostitution.
**Just found an article about it here. It seems it's legal after all.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Storms, viruses, and Taiwanese language

I've been back a few weeks now, and the weather is finally starting to get cooler. That means a bunch of low-pressure cold fronts (read: wind and rain) which, while giving a brief respite to the sweltering heat of the sun, also means that, well, it's getting cooler.

I moved out of Mr. Zhang's apartment and am now occupying a friend's house while he is out of the country. My friend, JR, also lent me his bicycle, and I've started to bike to school and back, which gives me some exercise. This has caused me to get sunburns (and then tans) on my arms and neck (a real farmer's tan), so on Monday I started applying suncream in those areas, as well as my face, before going to school.

As luck would have it, when I got outside there was no sun, only clouds, and to add insult to injury raindrops started coming down. After running back inside to get my rainjacket (for the bike) and umbrella (for walking around), I got on my bike and started pedaling on the side of the street.

I tried to hurry, but still be cautious of the cars and rain. When I got to the bridge I was especially careful, and biked on the sidewalk instead of the road. Still when I got on the other side of the bridge, I went back among the cars and endless scooters which zipped passed me.

When I got to school class had already started. My new class (the new semester started in September) consists of three Koreans, three Japanese, one other American, and one Indonesian. Anyway the teacher was warning us about H1N1, and if we had a fever we should immediately go to a doctor and have it checked out.

I don't know if it was because I was in such a rush to get to school, or if the teacher's words had some effect on me, but it was precisely at this moment that I started to feel queasy. I had difficulty concentrating for the rest of the class and wondered whether I should leave for fear of spreading whatever it was I had (God forbid H1N1).

Later, I went to the school medical center where my temperature and symptoms were checked. Apparently I had a flu, but it wasn't THE flu. Phew.

After I rushed to go to a Taiwanese language class. The auditorium, which held about 400 people, was almost full when I got there, but I spotted a seat next to two Japanese friends, Yusuke and Yoshi. Yoshi is half-Taiwanese, which was great cuz he would correct me on my pronunciation.

A little side note, if you think Chinese sounds hard, you should wrap your head around Taiwanese, a dialect which originates from the Fujianese province which faces Taiwan in mainland China. The Taiwanese dialect has eight tones (compared to Mandarin's four). Unlike Mandarin, those tones can change depending on where the word is in the sentence. Crazy!

In most of these courses, which are mandatory (more on that later), they don't bother too much about the details of the language, and instead just focus on learning everyday phrases (for example to say hello, instead of Ni Hao, you say Li Ho). To my ear it sounds a little like Vietnamese, though I haven't actually asked a Vietnamese person what they think it sounds like.

About the mandatory classes, it's part of the governments scheme to make students go to school more. For a person on a student visa, ten hours of class a week used to be sufficient, but then they said that wasn't enough, so they made it fifteen hours.

Since our school's regular course only has ten hours of class a week, they gave us cards which we have to stamp, and we could choose to go to the library, or watch a video, or go to one of these large language classes (like the Taiwanese language class described earlier).

But when I went to the library in early September, they told me part of my extra hours had to be done by taking the large language classes. I went to Jenny, the English-speaking girl who works at the MTC to ask her the reason behind the new rule.

"Because everyone was filling out their hours by going to the library, and a lot of people don't really study there, so..."

Which led me to another question: "But why do they have the fifteen-hour rule in the first place?"

"They thought student's weren't studying enough, and working illegally and stuff," she said, smiling.

Jenny continued: "Our school is the only school which has kept the two-hour a day class system, which is cheaper for students. So to compensate we have to create other ways to study."

I'm happy that my school is thinking of us, the little guys, who can't afford or don't necessarily want to go to three-hour intensive classes every day. It seems like the government is taking band-aid measures to try to force students to stop working illegally (which they won't, because there will always be a demand). And now they are trying to force us to go to the large language classes. Not that I mind learning a bit of Taiwanese, or anything ;)

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Back to square one

I arrived last Monday, tired and trying hard to beat the jet-lag, to a still hot Taipei. In a way, the change was welcome, as Paris was already getting cold and windy when I left.

Now I'm staying (temporarily) in a friend's place, trying to find a job and apartment. It's just like I'm starting over again, except I already know the basics.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The end of summer... and the end of my first year in Taiwan

The walls are bare, and only a few cardboard boxes remain in the room I have rented for almost exactly one year. August 20, 2009 marked my one year anniversary in Taiwan. I'll be going back to Paris for a few weeks to recoup and meet up with family and friends before coming back for another year. I'm really looking forward to that.

The next year promises to be very different as I will be working (probably as an English teacher) as well as continuing my studies. But for now, I'm on vacation!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Morakot: The Aftermath

I know this is a bit of a cop out, but I've been pretty busy lately and haven't written about the biggest story about Taiwan so far this year, namely Typhoon Morakot, which hit the island on August 8, or ten days ago.

For me it was just another typhoon, with perhaps the most dangerous thing that happened to me was heavy wind and rain which was hitting me as I went to the video rental store to get some DVDs.

Now it seems everyone is blaming each other for the slow response to mudslides, broken roads, and evacuating people from isolated areas. The media blamed the Taiwanese government. President Ma Ying-jeou blamed the weathermen for not making accurate predictions of the rainfall, which depending on who you ask was between 2.5 and 3 meters in three days (a year's worth of rain). Some people are even calling this the Katrina of Taiwan.

If you want to read a general, bland, and not very interesting but at least informative article which sums up what happened, look here.

On Saturday I got an issue of the local English newspaper, the Taipei Times, and it was full of articles about Morakot. As usual in Taiwanese politics, the articles colorfully describe the antagonism between leaders and the people, like this one and this editorial piece. My favorite line is "In China, officials often overestimate the impact of a disaster to attract greater donations. In Taiwan, officials often underestimate the impact of a disaster to conceal their incompetence."

Hey, maybe this democracy isn't perfect, but at least it's a democracy (with a free press, I might add).


I just found this link of amazing pics from my friend Bob's Facebook links (thanks Bob). Looking at these pictures, I'm amazed that I'm living so close to the havoc with so little apparent damage around me. I really hope the government will get its ass in gear and help the people down there.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The super-futuristic library near my house

Near my house is a really beautiful, fully functional, modern library. The sleek gray building looks like it was designed by some hot-shot international architecture firm. When you walk through the gigantic glass gate surrounding the entrance, a moving LED screen alerts you of news about the library and events around town. Then you enter the lobby, which, though fully staffed, rarely has any lines because you can check out books yourself on special machines. Most people are at computers here, surfing the internet or viewing the library's book collection.

The library would be very good, except for a certain group of people who use the library. They start lining up outside the gate sometime around 7am (the library opens at 9am, I'm not sure exactly what time they start lining up because I don't get up that early on weekends). By the time the doors open, there is a huge line which snakes around the plaza in front of the library.
Students lining up outside the library. This photo was taken at eight in the morning on a Sunday.

I'm talking about students, of course. Which is all well and good-- I have no problem with kids who want to do well on their exams and study. The problem is that by the time I get there (which is usually in the early afternoon) there are literally no seats left. Again, this wouldn't be a problem if the kids were actually studying. But at any given time fully half of the occupied seats are unattended. What most of them do is leave their books at the place, and then go off with their friends to eat/play/chat somewhere outside the library.

Of course, in the West this would never work as people would be afraid of having something stolen and would always be at the desk, save for a bathroom break. But here no one seems to bat an eye.

There is one secret place, though, which I discovered when I first had the problem of searching for a seat. While floors one to four are chock-full of students (and/or their school accessories), the fifth floor is empty like Siberia, with only one or two seats taken (out of about a hundred).

I went to this floor (which to me seemed like the promised land of studying) quite often, until one day one of the staff informed me that I was not allowed to take books from outside to study there. Though I'm not sure exactly what she said, I imagine it was something like this:

"Excuse me sir, do you know you are not supposed to bring outside books into this area of the library?"

[confused expression]"What?"

She replied: "Please take your bag and put it in one of the lockers over there," at which point I took my bag, ambled over to the lockers, fiddled with one of them, then came back to where I was sitting and resumed studying.

I don't really feel bad about doing this because I find it's ridiculous that they have hundreds of perfectly good seats downstairs which could be put to better use. I wish they could have some kind of rule where if they see a place with someone's things unattended for over half an hour, they just confiscate it and let someone else sit there. Till that happens though, I'm going to be sneaking into the hidden library paradise of the fifth floor.
A video tour of the lobby (I was stopped by a guard before I could go further)