Friday, July 31, 2009

Snapshots of Taipei, Part 2

The fun continues.

1. I'll start with some of my favorite shots from that cosplay convention I mentioned last time:

Things to know, most of which actually aren't reflected by the images (photographer fail):
a. The female:male ratio of the participants who dressed up was very, very high. Why? Girls, say Jun Xiang and his friend Yu Zhong, like to dress up, and have their pictures taken (more on that later). This is true, but I'd also add that in my opinion at least some of them definitely took the opportunity to break out of the Taiwanese dress code for the day. For while it's okay for a girl to bare as much leg as she wants (short shorts are currently quite popular; I give that fashion trend five thumbs up), tops are a different story. Arms are okay, but anything else is very much not. For example, in the picture of me and the two girls, their belly shirts are very much not kosher and would almost never be seen on the street. I'd say that as few as, say, 1 in every 500 or 1000 girls bucks this trend, and even then not flauntingly. I'm sure it has something to do with the general Taiwanese body type (petite :-p), but there are enough exceptions to make me pretty sure that it's a sign of a slightly more conservative, slightly more moderate youth culture than exists in America. Along the same vein, if you go to bars or clubs in the university area you'll notice a much higher expat:national ratio than normal - and this despite the fact that one can legally drink at age 18 here.

b. Another thing the photos don't reflect: the swarms of photographers. Nearly all of them were male, and judging by the ridiculous equipment, most of them were also either professional photographers or wealthy amateur enthusiasts. Some were probably also taking photos for papers, but by and large I think that they were for collections, blogs, etc. Subjects would by and large be willing to be photographed for several minutes at a time in the sun, oftentimes striking whatever poses the photographers asked for. They were there, after all, to look good.

Despite some things I had read on Wikipedia about problems with creepy male cosplay photographers in some places, the photography had a very Taiwanese air to it. Most photographers would thank the subject when they were done, sometimes adding a little bow for good measure, and move out of the way to let other photographers in; even more telling, when a character was done posing and being photographed, he or she would simply say so and relax or walk away, and everyone would immediately stop taking pictures.

It was fun to watch trends form and dissipate, as particular people/characters became "popular," and at the height of their two minutes of fame were barraged by 20 photographers. I actually started two of those trends, which was kind of cool. I suspect it was because people who weren't available for photos beforehand were willing to start posing again when I asked them; being "the foreigner" has its perks ;-)

2. And now for something completely different: the MRT.

a. Come try the new Neihu Line! Why? Because a popular Taiwanese singer thinks it's awesome, and that guy in the background is so excited that he's even started break-dancing.

b. Hopefully you won't be among the unlucky few...

In early July, Taipei City opened a new set of Metro stations, the "Neihu line," which expands metro coverage to about an additional 40% of the city to the northeast and provides a key connection to the main domestic airport in the north. (With 2,000,000 people, Taipei's a sizeable town, folks. I've only seen part of it.) Still, the line is opening some 13 years (!) behind schedule, and it has had issues: on the first day of operations, a car's main brakes failed (emergency brakes worked fine, so nobody was hurt), and a few weeks ago the entire line - the Neihu portion and the pre-existing stops to the south - was shut down, and 9,000 people were stranded for a few hours due to a technical problem. Fares are currently discounted about 25% to encourage people to continue traveling on the line, and the one time I did (Neihu also opens up the IMAX theater, which is key!), folks seemed to be taking advantage of it.

Fun fact: The Taipei government recently threatened to sue a prominent tabloid (they're very, very popular here) for $100,000,000 NTD (about $3,000,000 USD) over an article about reasons for the problems with the Neihu line. According to ICRT, the English station here, "The magazine fired back, calling the city government 'absurd' and 'evil.'" I'll be interested to see what comes of that...

3. The 228 Memorial Peace Park

(Featuring: A pagoda...

...and a statue of Confucius. And me.)

On February 27, 1947, resentment was building against the KMT, the political party which was then ruling both mainland China and Taiwan. The KMT had just "moved in" very recently, when Japan - which had controlled the island since winning it from China [thanks, Dad] in the late 1800s - re-ceded Taiwan upon losing World War II in 1945. Although many of the locals were descendants of mainlanders themselves, they had basically been been taken over by a fairly repressive regime with an absentee ruler. (Chang Kai-Shek was at that point in China, fighting Mao Zedong's forces; he would lose and flee to Taiwan two years later.) The trouble came to a head, when in the course of enforcing new cigarette laws, two KMT policemen in Taipei deprived an older street vendor of her cigarettes and some of her earnings. The altercation was apparently prolonged, and ended up drawing an angry crowd, which turned violent when one of the officers hit the old woman in the head with the butt of his pistol. The policemen fled, the crowd chasing them, but one of them fired behind him as he ran, killing a young man.

The next day, February 28 (hence "228"), a much larger crowd of protestors gathered, calling for a trial for the officers. To make a long story short, the day ended with soldiers firing into the unarmed crowd and the declaration of a curfew and martial law.

It wasn't until the 1990s, when Taipei became fully democratic and free discussion was allowed, that this park - which has existed for about 100 years - was renamed to honor the dead.

For me, this kind of highlights how young Taiwan's democracy really is. The government has done terrible things on the very streets of Taipei - and plenty of people no doubt remember it all happening. Correspondingly, civil liberties still aren't as strong as what you'd see in America; for example, one thing I've been hearing about is that the most recent president, Chen Shui Bian, has been in jail for something like a year now on corruption charges without seeing any offer of bail or his day in court. But what's even more interesting is that the KMT - whose policy, as I mentioned, involves eventual reunification with China - is currently the ruling party. I feel like any party with such a terrible (and recent) history - and with a policy that most Taiwanese abhor - can only retake power from the opposition party (the DPP) if the latter is incredibly weak. I'm not here long enough, nor do I speak Chinese well enough, to even bother trying to really understand the politics of the island, but at this point I've come to know just enough for it to really interest me.

P.S. There's much more to the park and it's quite beautiful, but I wasn't really in the mood for pictures. Another time.

4. Father's Day at the Zhangs':

Budding actors:

And a special treat...:

[Apologies for the poor sound quality and the clear lack of any sort of skill or common sense on the part of the cameraman.]

The Zhangs have reminded me to be wary about overgeneralizing my experiences in Taipei. For one thing, as I think I mentioned earlier, Xuan Xuan (the low-paid buxiban English teaching assistant) told me that she though the Zhangs were special and uncommonly friendly. And when I went to their house on Tuesday for their early father's day celebration (we'll be at Penghu for the actual date - 8/8, which can be read as "ba ba" ["dad/dy"] ), I was impressed with the idea that this was probably more the case than I had thought. Each of the four siblings invited several friends and encouraged them all to mingle; the snack food/dinner/cake was plentiful and seemed very half-American/half-Chinese; and the socializing was followed by several ridiculous skits prepared over the course of about a week, a public reading of reasons why the four of them loved their father, and then a series organized games. Afterwards, when I was complimenting him on the skits and how friendly the whole atmosphere was, I asked Jun Xiang if their family was different than most in that way, and he uncharacteristically said, "Yes, I think so." Don't get me wrong - I still think Taiwanese people are fantastically nice - but I'm appreciating the Zhangs more and getting the idea that maybe not everyone here would be that amazingly welcoming.

Also, while I've tried to be careful to restrict my commentary to "Taipei" (as opposed to "Taiwan"), and to "Taipei's youth" when appropriate, I'm guessing there have been a few times when I've failed to make that second distinction; I'm also guessing that even some of my "Taipei" generalizations are inaccurate. While I hear that the "poorer" areas nearby are restricted to some of the suburbs (still on the metro line, though), and not the city itself, I do have to remember that I have only lived and traveled through the university districts and the municipal district. There's a lot more of Taipei to see, and maybe I shouldn't be so glib about my generalizations. It's such a temptation, but recognizing it just makes me want to learn more Chinese, so that I can come back and really get an idea of what life is like here.

To end with, a quick recap on my daily life of late:

1. Chinese:

Right now, could be better.
- For one thing, we recently had a friendly but heart-to-heart talk with the teacher who directs the way the main course ("Modern Conversation," both "large" and individual classes) is taught for his students. Boin, a classmate and a Columbia grad, and I both thought that the new characters were fine, but that we should be focusing on a few sentence patterns/phrases/pieces of grammar a day, because we're trying to remember a dozen or so and really not assimilating any of them. The Yale system was great in that one was called upon to memorize, verbatim, a short dialogue every night, and a medium-sized one every week; by the end of it, you really owned those patterns and phrases if you did them right. Here, not so much. I mean, I still can't get across some pretty basic ideas in a gramatically correct way - which I find very, very frustrating, all the more so because a lot of the time I know it's something we've gone over. Briefly. But the professor is only partly changing focus; the bigger change seems to be that we're going slower, which is not what we wanted. Either way, I guess there's less than two weeks of classes left, so it won't have a massive impact either way :-/
- For another, Katie (who's nominally at the same level as me) was telling me a few days ago when we went to get our passports renewed that she finds repeating her one-on-one teacher's sentences to be the easiest thing in the world. By contrast, I have tons of trouble doing that; unless I hear, process, and understand every word in the sentence, I'll always make a mistake or sometimes even forget what I'm supposed to be saying midway through. It's very frustrating.
- Finally, fear is slowly creeping into my heart about placing into third-year Chinese next year. I have a strong feeling that second semester second year would be no good, as I'd be a year behind my classmates and I'm told that second year is slow. I'd also feel like I've wasted a summer of study, which I don't think I would take well at all. Those traditional characters and the comparative lack of intensity (especially as regards the ol' language pledge) might prove disastrous.

2. Health:

Could also be better. I've basically been tired and/or aching every day so far, and even when I get in bed in time for an eight-hour sleep (which is a luxury compared to my Yale days, and especially to my high school years), I don't sleep well and wake up aching. I actually went to the TaiDa hospital on Monday (don't worry; it's just kinda the thing to do here when the health center is closed), and they decided I had a virus and gave me three nights' worth of pills to take for the aching. Maybe it worked, because I took them at dinner and the worst spells have been during the afternoon, but on Monday I may also take them up on their offer to come back if it's not better soon. I kind of want to stick it out until this Thursday (Penghu island!!!), and see if a change of sleeping venue will do the trick, but that will also only work if I'm actually not sick; if I am and I don't get better, I might just be miserable throughout Penghu, which would be... miserable.

Oh, and this whole story brings me to another fun fact: I'm not on Taiwanese health insurance, national or otherwise, so I was charged in full for the hospital bill. Am I going to bother trying to convince the Yale Health Plan that there was really a pressing need for me going to the hospital?


Why not? My total bill, including the pills: $468 NTD, or slightly under $15 USD.

And yet, Taiwan is said to have some of the best healthcare in the world. (They're particularly well-known for eye, liver, and cosmetic operations.) Those who say the U.S. system doesn't need reform, take note.

Next time, expect Part 3, which will mostly focus on a photographic expedition into the middle-class Taiwanese home.

Until then, stay summery.



  1. Great posts! You've really outdone yourself.

    I'll bet you'll do fine with the placement exam. Just keep working hard. Also, glad to hear the that health problems aren't making you go broke!

  2. that video made my day. yessss.