Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Inconvenient Truth

The Taiwanese people are all about convenience. In all of my ESL classes, the most common adjective I hear is convenient.

I believe that for the Taiwanese, the convenience of their country is a source of pride. I have read in a couple of places that Taiwan has the most convenience stores per-capita than any other place on earth, and while I don’t have a verifiable source for this one, I definitely believe it.

On a routine day at work teaching conversational English with students ranging from the very lowest to the very highest levels of English proficiency I will have a conversation similar to this one:

Q: Why do you like living in Taichung?
A: It's very convenient

Q: What’s your favorite thing about Taiwan?
A: It’s convenient.

Q: Why is the sky blue?
A: Because it’s convenient.

Q: Why would you not want to live in the United States?
A: Because it is not convenient.

Woah woah woah… Hold on here. Now anyone reading this who is an American would immediately react the same way I did when I first heard that answer: What the Hell are you talking about!?

The US is inconvenient? The US - the king of 24-hour service and Wal-Mart - is inconvenient!? These people obviously don’t know what they’re talking about!

My natural follow-up question to this statement is:
Why do you think the United States inconvenient?

One very common answer to this is:

The US is inconvenient because it takes ½ hour to drive to the grocery store (or an hour and a half, depending on who you ask)
--> The reasoning behind this is that the US is a very big country and therefore everything is spread apart. This reasoning also led one person to tell me that in the US people never have trouble finding a parking spot because there is room for everyone… so if you’re in NYC and you’re having trouble parking your car, don’t worry, there’s room in North Dakota!

The number one answer to this question, however, is a variation of this:
All the stores close at 5 or 6pm.

This common Taiwanese belief that America is inconvenient is something that I have been grappling with for a couple of months now. In my quest to understand this, my mental process has gone through three distinct phases:

Phase 1: What the Hell are you talking about!?

Initially, Nick and I were both completely blown away by this misconception, especially because even our clients that have been to – and have lived in- the US felt this way. What on earth would you ever want to buy that you couldn’t buy because the store was closed? Malls typically stay open till 9, boutiques until 6-8pm, and we have grocery stores, convenient stores and Wal-mart all open 24-hours. That pretty much covers anything I could ever need at any time of the day. These people – I concluded – were crazy and delusional.

Phase 2: Maybe they have a point…

After a couple trips to a Taiwanese night market I began to see what the Taiwanese were talking about. Taiwanese shopping culture is really quite unique. Shopping is a cultural and social event here in Taiwan, and night markets are bustling with activity almost every night of the week until around midnight. At night-markets, you can buy pretty much anything you would want from street vendors and stores: food, clothes, bags, shoes, trinkets, kitchen items…

In addition, because of the bustling late-night shopping activity, it is not uncommon for other stores, non-night-market stores, to follow suit and stay open until or past 10:00pm. These include cell phone stores and furniture stores to name two. (This was one thing Nick and I were quite perplexed about when we first arrived in Taiwan… who wants to buy a couch at 10pm?! Apparently, the Taiwanese do.)

So, I guess they have a point. In the US, you really can’t buy furniture or go clothes shopping late at night; so, I reasoned, maybe Taiwan is more convenient that the US.

Phase 3: no, no, NO… definitely not!

Not too long after my night market revelation, I had another eye-opening experience. Every morning I go to my Chinese class from 8am – 10am. The university I go to is right in the middle of the biggest night market in Taichung: Feng Chia Night market.

One morning after class I wanted to go shopping and pick up some new clothes and some other random wares. I figured Feng Chia would be a great place to shop, and because it was so early in the morning (10:30am) I could miss the crowds that amass in the evening.

However, I was sorely disappointed when I realized that none of the stores were open! I knew that the street vendors wouldn’t be around until the evening, but come on… I just wanted to go to some regular clothes stores before lunch time… and NONE of them were open! Now THIS, I thought to myself, is REALLY inconvenient!

And then it hit me – convenience is based on a cultural expectation. How could I have missed it!?

For me it is hugely inconvenient that I can’t run any of my errands in the morning; I like to get all of these things done and out of the way early in the day.

Sure, I enjoy shopping at night, but usually as purely a social experience. Maybe I buy something, maybe I don’t . But when I really have something I need to do, I like to wake up early and get it out of the way.

But here in Taiwan, people get their business done in the evening. Their expectation is that almost all shopping activities occur in the evening. If a Taiwanese woman realizes at 10pm that she has nothing to wear tomorrow, there is no need to fret, her favorite store is still open for a couple more hours!

So, for my American self, Taiwanese shopping can be really inconvenient sometimes. In general, I'd say that the amount of hours a retail business stays open in the US are the same as those here in Taiwan, they just operate on different schedules - 9am - 9pm vs. 12pm - 12am for example.

So, it really all boils down to one simple mantra: expectations are cultural!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

I Have Officially Launched My Acting Career!!

One of the things Nick and I had read about before we moved to Taiwan was that, as white foreigners, we would probably get the opportunity to be in some type of advertisement while we were here.

Well, I guess the Taiwan Expat websites weren't lying because we've only been here for 3 months and we've already been in a commercial!

Apparently our boss is friends with a TV producer here in Taichung (this is the guy who shoots commercials for our company) and he was asked to find two white foreigners for an infomercial last week. The filming was on a day that Nick and I weren't working at our regular teaching job and we got paid $6,000 NT each so those factors, plus the fact that we got to be in a commercial made it an offer we couldn't refuse.

The commercial was shot at motel here in Taichung, and I have to admit, when I first heard we were shooting at a motel I thought.... hmmm, this sounds a bid sketchy... but Taiwanese motels are MUCH different than American Motels.

As the producer told us: Taiwanese motels are for lovers. Motels are very popular and common here in Taiwan. They are similar to American motels in that they can be rented out hourly or nightly, but unlike American motels, they aren't seedy or dirty.

On the contrary, they are actually quite nice places complete with romantic music and lighting, and large bath tubs and showers meant to be shared. Usually, when you rent out a motel for sex in the US, it is sex with a prostitute or a mistress, but I think this is typically not the case here in Taiwan. Nick and I believe that this is because many young married couples in Taiwan live with their parents (usually the husband's parents) so they need a place to go to for some private time...

Here is the room in which we shot the commercial:

And, I suppose, no motel "for lovers" would be complete without condoms! (we did remove these from the night stand for the commercial)

The product we were advertising were water-proof, dust mite proof sheets.We didn't have any speaking parts, but it didn't take too long for me to figure out that I have absolutely nooooo acting skills. My toughest scene was a close-up of me sleeping and sneezing because of the dust mites in my pillow. We had to do the take about 4 times because, according to my director, I kept smiling while I was supposed to be unhappily sneezing!

In the commercial, Nick and I were a married couple with a little girl. In the first scene our family is watching TV in bed and I have a tray on my lap with some food and a cup of water. Our daughter was supposed to jump on the bed and I had to act surprised and spill the tray on the bed.
Unfortunately, I did this so clumsily and awkwardly that I actually made the little girl cry after the first take! We were worried that we wouldn't be able to get her to act in the rest of the commercial, but luckily she warmed up to me and became the star of the show!

After the accident in the bed, my character buys these amazing new sheets and our bed is safe from accidents and dust-mites, Hooray!

The whole thing was quite a fun experience. There was only one slightly weird scene; In the scene I had to run my hands over the sheets and just enjoy the feeling of the nice sheets. We shot the scene like 6 times and the director kept asking me to do different things to show how much I was enjoying the feeling of the sheets.

After about 4 takes, it turned into me rubbing the sheets with my hands and then rolling onto the bed and running my hands over the sheets with a pleased look on my face. It ended up looking a bit... well a bit like the sheets weren't all I was enjoying. I have a brief little video of the director telling me what to do for that scene, so you can check it out yourself:

A lot of the day was spent waiting around or standing in one spot for a long time while they fixed the camera angles and lighting... it certainly wasn't very glamorous, but I had a good time.

I'm pretty excited for the commercial to become available for everyone to see... although I'm sure that it will just end up being embarrassing for Nick and I, haha! It should be up on the Internet by the end of May, so I'll post it up here as soon as it is available!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Karaoke... on a BUS?

During our trip to Xitou this weekend, we learned something interesting about Taiwanese culture: It is customary for people on chartered bus trips (not public transportation) to sing karaoke... for the entire trip!

Over the last couple of months, Nick and I have noticed how much more tolerant the Taiwanese people are of noise pollution than Americans are. This was just another shining example of the culture not only tolerating noise, but embracing it whole-heartily.

The karaoke system was actually pretty advanced - exactly what you'd find in any karaoke bar in the US - a big book of songs and 5 microphones - two of which were cordless - which were shared by all of the passengers. When someone picked a song, the sound system played the music and the words were shown on small TV's throughout the bus.

There was even one little microphone up in the very front of the bus so the bus driver could get into the action!

For anyone who knows me personally, you don't even have to ask... yes I did sing one song: Country Roads by John Denver (it was a duet with my classmate Christine).

The Taiwanese version of Karaoke (or KTV) is really quite interesting to me. For most Americans, karaoke is something that we do only after a couple of beers in a poorly lit room full of strangers who aren't really listening to you, to offer maximum anonymity. Additionally, American karaoke is an only occasional indulgence and usually occurs at a dive bar that has karaoke one night a week, typically on a week-night.

The Taiwanese experience, on the other hand, is quite the opposite of this. On this little island, just about every neighborhood has it's own karaoke establishment. These places are called KTVs (short for Karaoke TV) and they're basically open all day and all night every day.

An import from Japan, Taiwanese KTV buildings are divided into a bunch of living-room style rooms, each with a projector screen (for the words to the songs and 1980's music videos), some couches, a coffee table, maybe some random art on the walls.... basically just like any living room. So, Taiwanese karaoke is done in a much more intimate setting than in the US - usually just friends and family in these small rooms (or on a BUS!), where people have little choice but to listen to you.

One of the most shocking things to me about Taiwanese KTV is that alcohol is absolutely not a necessity! I can hardly imagine an American listening to or singing karaoke without a cold beer in their hand, can you?

From my experience, Americans typically partake in Karaoke as an excuse to drink some beers and revel in the embarrassment of ourselves and others. The Taiwanese, on the other hand, seem to simply do it for the pure enjoyment of singing. No matter what your singing ability, you are expected to sing proudly and everyone else is expected to listen and enjoy you shamelessly butchering the song.

At this point, you may be thinking to yourselves, maybe the Taiwanese people are simply great singers.... but let me tell you, this is definitely not the case!

The first couple of times I was invited to partake in Taiwanese karaoke, I found myself declining the invitation for fear of feeling very uncomfortable at being so exposed - singing to such a small group of intent listeners without any liquid courage. However, my insecurity is waning and with each invitation I am feeling more free to join in on the fun.

Monday, April 20, 2009


Since I came to Taiwan, I have been dealing with an almost continuous and very severe mosquito problem. For some reason, these little blood-suckers never touch Nick, but I am covered head-to-toe with bites, most of which - I believe - are acquired while I'm sleeping in my own apartment.

At this moment I have over 30 visible bug bites on my right leg from my knee down. That is 30 bites on one HALF of ONE LEG!!!! This is particularly unbearable for me coming from Colorado; a place where, in general, you never have to even think about mosquitoes.
Last week, I finally bought something to help me cope with the problem: an electrified tennis racket!

While this little contraption hasn't solved all of my problems, it certainly is a fun way to kill mosquitoes, and it has helped me to control the population to some degree. When you get one there's a little flash of light and a satisfying CRACK sound.... it's great! At night before we go to bed, I go on the hunt to try to purge the apartment of blood-suckers. Here is a picture of me "on the hunt"

I even take the thing to bed, so that it's within reach if I hear any buzzing around my head during the night (although it is almost impossible to get one of those suckers in the dark).

I have found that the easiest way to kill a mosquito with this thing is to wait until the mosquito lands on the ceiling and just hold the racket up next to him. But, sometimes, the thing gets away and I end up running around the room looking like a crazy person. Here's a video of a successful "hunt" last night:

Overall I give this thing a 10 for fun and an 8 for effectiveness. I also bought a little Raid mosquito plug-in thing last night, so hopefully that will kill them while I'm sleeping w/out needing active interaction from me.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Fengle Sculpture Park, Taichung, Taiwan

On Saturday, Nick and I decided to take a trip to the Taichung Fengle Sculpture Park. We have been trying to explore this city that we live in over the last couple of months, so this was just one stop on our Taichung Tour.

The park is a pretty nice place to walk around and enjoy a sunny day and there are plenty of places to sit in the shade and relax.

To give an objective review of the park, though, I have to admit that most of the sculptures were.... well let's just say Nick thinks the park should be renamed "Ugly Sculpture Park."

One of the interesting things about the sculptures is that a great deal of them are nude. In Fengle Park's defense... I really only took pictures of the ugly statues, but those are more fun to show you. So here are some pictures of the art in the park:

Here you may notice that the figure on the left has boobs, and the figure on the right.... well he's also anatomically correct. All I could think was... does this really increase the aesthetics or in any way add to the art of the piece??? But hey, I'm certainly no art critic, so what do I know?

Nick made some friends by the pool - that is not currently filled with water - with these nude, chubby, pink people.

A Day Trip to Xitou (Hsitou)

On Friday, Nick and I participated in a field trip organized by the folks at the Chinese Language Center I attend: A day trip to Xitou (also spelled Hsitou).

The first stop on our field trip was at the National Craft Research Institute in Nantou. There were a couple small museums and it was okay - some neat things to look at - but nothing too special. BUT after about an hour of perusing their wares, it was craft time! And I was super excited. The project was bamboo carving. We each got our own bamboo piggy bank and were able to use a bamboo-carving stylus to design it in any way we chose.

Here is a picture of Nick carving his first Chinese words EVER into bamboo, I was so impressed by him.
Both of us are very proud of our art projects:
After that, we made one small pit-stop at a place for lunch with a nice view of a waterfall and then it was off to Xitou Forest Recreation Park. Xitou is a beautiful place, lots of hikes and walk-ways through a sub-tropical forest. I wish we had some more time to spend there. Perhaps, one day we will go back on our own to explore more. Some of the walking paths are quite scenic and peaceful.

In our quest to get away from the crowds Nick decided that we should hike to the highest point in the park, which is supposed to have a great view. Unfortunately, the entire way was paved with stone and granite slabs which are partially covered in moss and, due to the humid environment, very slippery.

The whole hike I just kept wondering WTF is up with the Taiwanese and their "hikes"? I really don't understand why every trail we've been on so far has been completely developed into a staircase. We're assuming that it was done to preserve the trail, maybe to prevent it from becoming a mud slide.... I don't know, but I really don't like climbing stairs in the woods, especially slippery stairs.... it's just not my thing!

The day was very hot and humid and as time wore on, the weather became hazier and muggier. After about 40 minutes of the up-ward climb, we were told by a descending hiker that we still had 2 miles left until the end - This man did not speak English, so we really weren't sure how credible the information we were receiving was; however since we had no idea how long the trail was, and were becoming exhausted and sweating profusely, we were inclined to believe him. We definitely didn't have time to finish 2 more miles one way, so we decided to throw in the towel and turn around (but to be honest... neither of us were too disappointed!)
All in all, we both really enjoyed our trip to Xitou and I would definitely recommend it to anyone living in central Taiwan. I think we'd both like to go back and spend some more time there exploring.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Marriage Proposal

Don't get worked up, no one proposed!

I know this has nothing to do with Taiwan, but while I was uploading my last two videos on YouTube, I stumbled upon this video. I 100% agree with this girl and think you all should too:

Taichung Park

This afternoon, I had some free time and decided to explore Taichung Park. Maybe I should have been studying my Chinese, but instead I took some time to meander through the park by myself and relax... it was the perfect afternoon.

I don't really have much to say about Taichung Park except for the fact that I really enjoyed my time there and I plan to go back often (especially since it is near the public library and I got my own library card today!). It's a great place to walk around and relax and there are plenty of places to just sit and take in the atmosphere and scenery. While I was there, I played amateur photographer, so I'll just let the pictures speak for themselves.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Taichung Folk Park

On Friday of last week, it was a gorgeous day and Nick and I had the afternoon free in between the gym and our dinner w/ Eric and Angel, so we decided to check out the Taichung Folk Park. It was a gorgeous day and especially since it was a weekday for most people, I figured it was a perfect day to be at the park.

Unfortunately, it wasn't exactly what I had in mind; however, it still turned out to be a nice afternoon. What you might want to know about Taichung Folk park is that it's not really a park... Nick called it an "open air museum." There are some nice little parts outside, but the main purpose of the Taichung Folk Park is that it is a place to house some old Taiwanese / Chinese artifacts, like teapots, farming equipment, ox carts, boats, porcelain pillows, and some rooms set up to replicate living conditions in the days of yore.

It was nice, but it wasn't exactly what I had been hoping for. The only picture I have of the museum part is this picture of some old bedroom furniture.

After we were done touring the museum, we walked around the grounds which include a little fish pond (Nick called it a scum pond) with some HUGE gold fish in it.
The park was pretty small, so it didn't take us long to walk around it, this is a small amphitheater that they have for - I think - cultural performances. It's actually a pretty cool little venue, so hopefully one day I'll check it out when they have something going on. And here are a couple more random shots of the park:

At one point, I heard some bizarre chanting coming from just outside of the park, so I looked through the decorative brick fence and saw this little make-shift place of worship.

I'm have no idea what religion this is or what they were doing, but I thought it was an interesting scene, so I took a little video so you could all hear:

One of the coolest things about living in Taiwan, at least for me personally, is that there are eastern religious ceremonies all the time at the seemingly most random places. You never know what to expect!

Anyway, all in all the day was enjoyable but rather uneventful. For any of my Taiwan readers wondering what the Taichung Folk Park is all about, overall, I'd say if you live in Taiwan it's worth visiting on a day when you're bored, tourists need not apply. (not a very high rating... huh?)

As as aside, Nick had an unfortunate incident while at the Folk Park and lost one of his socks.... for my small group of friend's who went to Moab with us last year, all I have to say is: He pulled a "Kevin"