Sunday, April 28, 2002
Wednesday, April 24, 2002
The betel (not beetle!) nut girls of Taiwan… are definitely a unique phenomenon and have become a part of Taiwanese culture. It’s quite a curiosity and somewhat of a controversial issue in Taiwan. I think that it’s a topic deserving of explanation.
Betel nuts have been called “Taiwan’s chewing gum” but the use and sale of betel nuts would not be similarly described as wholesome. Olive-sized betel nuts are a mildly narcotic stimulant and are especially popular among Taiwan’s manual laborers and truck and taxi drivers who use it to get a much needed jolt of energy to get through their long work days. The department of health has reported that close to 11% of Taiwan’s population regularly chew betel nuts. The nut is usually sprinkled with spices and flavorings and served wrapped in a leaf; it is chewed and the betel nut juice is spit out leaving behind bright crimson stains that assault Taiwan’s roads and landscape. Betel nuts have been around for decades and are Taiwan’s second largest cash crop.
I remember my first visit to Taiwan in the late 1980’s and noticing the crimson stains that appeared with a strange regularity on the streets. Then I experienced my first taxi ride in Taiwan, complete with a typical taxi driver who drove without caution in a stop and go fashion- not because we were in stop and go traffic- but because chewing betel nuts often required frequent stops to spit out betel juice. One driver kept opening and closing his door to spit out the side of the taxi- it wasn’t enough to just spit out the window! The crimson stains mounted like debts being paid on the health of betel nut chewers. A betel nut chewer has 28 more times a chance of contracting oral cancer and greater chances of developing other oral diseases. In comparison, a person who drinks increases their chances of developing oral cancer by 10 times and a smoker’s chances increases by 18 times.
Betel nuts were and still are sold at stalls lined along the streets. The idea of hiring scantily-clad betel nut girls aka “betel nut beauties” to sell the nuts in order to attract the predominantly male customer base, originated in the Neihu district of Taipei in 1996. Soon after, the phenomena spread throughout the island. The betel nut beauties are especially prominent near freeway access roads, giving them more visibility to truck drivers and manual laborers, their prime customers. Betel nut vendors have erected glass boxes and installed these betel nut beauties who are clad in provocative attire to peak the interest of truck drivers. Driving along remote roads on the outskirts of a city, en route to a freeway, these betel nut stalls appear more frequently than any convenience stores or gas stations. When I first noticed this occurrence, I just assumed that the young women in the glass boxes were probably selling drinks or snacks for weary travelers. But when you take a closer look, you will see that there isn’t much else in that glass box except for one “hot mamma.” In some areas where competition is fierce, betel nut beauties have been seen wearing nothing but a see through dress or a G- string. Yes, apparently one friend has indeed seen them go au natural on the top half. I for one haven’t gotten an eyeful of this yet.
As long as this ploy continues to work in attracting customers, betel nut vendors will continue employing these young women. Banning public chewing of betel nuts and betel nut beauties has proven difficult. If even just one betel nut seller uses a betel nut girl, other betel nut sellers feel pressure to follow suit to attract customers. There are several legislators who want to crackdown on the betel nut business. There has been a noticeable decrease in the use of betel nuts in the last ten years. Taipei especially, has been cleaned up, but in other parts of Taiwan the betel nut beauties are still prevalent.
This practice will probably not end unless it is linked to prostitution or something tragic happens to jeopardize the safety of the betel nut girls. Their safety has been of concern since they work at all hours, leading some betel nut vendors to install surveillance cameras in the glass kiosks.
The betel nut beauties have been accused of damaging the nation’s morality, and yes, of causing car accidents in Taiwan.
Recently, there has been a campaign against betel nuts 1) in order to ban the spitting and use of betel nuts- to clean up Taiwan, 2) to educate the public about the health risks of these nuts and 3) in response to the moral uproar over betel nut girls. Some believe that these women are a part of Taiwan’s grassroots culture that they can’t and shouldn’t be outlawed. Others believe that the betel nut girls are eroding the nation’s morals, creating an environment that is inhospitable to young women and their self image. The betel nut girls are reflective of how the society views and objectifies women’s bodies.
Tuesday, April 23, 2002
I returned from Taipei Tuesday morning having spent just a little over 24 hours there. Despite the fact that I feel even more tired and behind on a week long streak of lack of sleep (it's midterms week!), it was definitely well worth the short trip to witness JB’s test run as a standup comic. And it didn’t hurt that in the process I had a chance to see friends and investigate a possible job lead.
From the moment they met- Christine has always thought that JB was a riot. And on Monday, she had a chance to put his humor quotient to the test. Having been there when these two met and when Christine decided that JB’s talents could somehow be leveraged into a second career, I just knew that I had to be there to offer my support. I didn’t want to miss out on the moment. Living in Kaohsiung I sometimes feel as though I miss out on a lot of moments in Taipei.
I really give JB a lot of credit for giving the stand-up thing a go. It takes guts! Last night was a very nonthreatening, intimate gathering of less than 15 friends and 7 or so strangers (who happened to be hanging out in the pub at the time). Christine’s strategy was for JB to “interview” a few unsuspecting members of the audience in order to stimulate some material for him. Topics covered included M’s love of martial arts and the “Buddha’s fist pushing through a head of cabbage” school of martial arts (translation courtesy of JB). JB was then asked to demonstrate the difficult horse stance, and he soon discovered that it really works the quadriceps… this gave him a new appreciation for the comfort of using squat toilets… B spoke about her dating disasters in Taipei, and another “interviewee” told us a little bit about herself and updated us on what she’s been up to in Taipei… Then somehow JB segued onto the topic of the “forbidden beetle nut girls district” in Kaohsiung where the girls wear half (literally- we’re talking topless & G-strings!) as much as in other parts of Taiwan, the challenges of driving in Taiwan and being frisked by airport security.
At the end of the night JB and a few friends took the time to send me off on an overnight bus back to Kaohsiung. It’s nice to know that I can always count on steadfast, old friends. I felt a warm, secure feeling as I got on the bus and drifted back down to Kaohsiung.
There’s still no official word on whether there will be a sequel. I think that JB should take a few more tries at it to find his style and a format that works for him.
Monday, April 22, 2002
Ask and you shall receive. I recently decided that I need to be more proactive in searching for additional work so I’m taking my job search more seriously and started putting the word out there that I’m looking… and in this week alone- I’ve already spoken to four people about various job opportunities in both Kaohsiung and Taipei! But these are just potential prospects. I’m certainly not going to count my chickens before they hatch. We’ll see which ones are viable…all things considered.
I’ve decided to head up to Taipei again, just for a day on Monday since I have various commitments this weekend. The reason for the quick jaunt up there is that one of my friend’s JB* is doing a test run as a stand-up comedian. JB is always the life of the conversation and we (close mutual friends) all think that he can definitely hold his own- that he has enough to say to entertain en mass. We think that he has so much energy and entertainment value that he could channel it into a possible second career.
I for one have always thought that good comedians were very intelligent, articulate, multi-talented individuals who have a wide range of interests and knowledge, keen observation skills, and are able to synthesize many disparate subjects together in an entertaining way… and JB definitely has all of these qualities.
Just a few weeks ago when I was in Taipei hanging out on a Friday night we got into some lively conversation thanks to JB at a local bar with a bunch of friends just shooting the sh-- and downing shots. This is certainly not a typical Friday ritual- ok maybe the first part is, but not the second part- lest you get the wrong idea… and there was JB without his girlfriend who often accompanies him. So a bunch of us started to give JB the third degree because we knew that we could get our screws into him.
“Hey, JB where’s your girlfriend tonight?”
“She’s away visiting her family this weekend.”
“How long have you guys been together now? And where is this going? Where are things headed for the two of you? We love her, she’s so sweet, warm and gracious. Why isn’t she here?”
Well clearly we weren’t _really_ interested in the answers. We were just stirring the waters. When we finally relented JB responded:
“Well, yes it often seems that way, but that’s not always the case when you get home or in private. I mean, you know, I’ve gone out with my share of
B-I-T-C-H-Y women. They are demanding! They give you a hard time in public when you’re out together, and afterwards too, in private."
Then in a very loud, animated voice as he always does for emphasis,
“Okay, okay, okay, I have this theory about women. There are basically three types of women, no make that five. There are those who are seemingly
docile in public, they’re very accommodating, almost low maintenance and put up with all sorts of things in public, but when you get home they are
B-I-T-C-H-Y! You’ll pay for what happened earlier that evening. Then there are those who are just all around B-I-T-C-H-Y, you just can’t win they make your
life difficult all around. Now the ideal girlfriend is one who is docile in public and private, like Fred’s* girlfriend Jane*- not that she’s a pushover, she’s
independent, easygoing and accommodating. And then, then there are those women who are just clueless!”
Me: “Hmm so let me get this straight we have women who are seemingly docile to others, but are in fact really bitchy, those who are all around bitchy…
oh I get it so there DB, double B and double D women.”
JB: “And those who are just plain clueless and then of course there’s the elusive BD- bitchy in public but docile in private.”
After that everyone who was in on the joke just couldn’t stop making reference to our newly created classification system. It’s become quite a running joke. From there it took on a life of its own. Here are some comments from that weekend, and since then:
My ex-girlfriend was definitely a double B. Boy was that was a bad relationship.
Hey, I’d like to find woman that fits the BD profile. The elusive BD.
Know any BDs? Does that exist?
What category do you think that ------ would fall into?
Men always say that they want a D but I really think that they like B’s because they like the challenge.
Double D, double B, BD? Just what are you guys talking about?! I thought you were talking about measurements
(Whoah! That would be one lopsided…. I mean we’ve all heard that most women are not exactly symmetrical… but that would be ridiculous)
What about your mom, what category do you think she’d fall into?
And while watching Star Trek: She’s definitely a BD, well, she’s a Klingon
…. the Vice President- definitely BB!
*all names have been changed to protect the “innocent”
Thursday, April 18, 2002
Apparently, the Taipei Lantern Festival was really quite a disappointment. My friends living in Taipei remarked that it was quite lack luster compared to ones in past years and I found myself defending the choice to host the Lantern Festival in Kaohsiung. This conversation got me thinking about how Taipei has always enjoyed such preferential treatment and that a lot of people (especially residents of Taipei) don’t realize why it’s been necessary to move more and more major events out of Taipei, in recent years, like this year’s Lantern Festival.
It’s interesting that I write this, because my understanding of what goes on in Taiwan is often limited due to my lack of proficiency with the local languages and an unsophisticated understanding of Taiwan’s complicated history and politics. I probably wouldn’t have realized these things were it not for the fact that I am currently living in Kaohsiung. I’m sure I would probably have shared my friends’ impressions if I were still living in Taipei.
In the past few years, there have been more efforts to promote Kaohsiung and shift attention to Taiwan’s second largest city. The people of Kaohsiung want more assistance from the government in developing its infrastructure and economy. By giving Kaohsiung the opportunity to host a major event such as the Lantern Festival, it shows that the government is committed to further developing cities and counties other than Taipei. Shining the spotlight on Kaohsiung showcases its untapped potential (there are sites in Kaohsiung being proposed for a business/science park) and it brings more commerce to the county in the form of increased tourism locally and from abroad. Naturally that leads other gains such as a small boost to the local economy (for small businesses, hotels, travel related industries, etc.).
Taipei is the capital of Taiwan. It is where the seat of the government is, where all major corporations have set up their headquarters and where most of Taiwan’s culture and festivals have historically been showcased and celebrated. Taipei has always enjoyed a privileged status in this respect. There is a tremendous disparity between Taipei and other cities in Taiwan (not just Kaohsiung), in terms of quality of life and health of local economy.
Kaohsiung is Taiwan’s second largest city, after Taipei and is home of the world’s third largest container harbor, but it suffers from a depressed local economy and the highest unemployment rate in all of Taiwan. Among the reasons Kaohsiung lacks the resources to better develop itself is that investment and monetary resources have been concentrated in Taipei. The majority of corporations have set up their headquarters in Taipei and Taiwan’s tax laws require that companies pay taxes to the city in which their headquarters are located. Consequently, Taipei has benefited disproportionately. Meanwhile, Kaohsiung has suffered the impact of industrial waste produced by its plastics, petroleum and chemical plants. But it has not shared in any revenues produced by these companies because they are headquartered in Taipei.
In Kaohsiung, there aren’t many diverse job opportunities due to lack of investment and reliance on traditional industries. Many of my peers (20-30 years of age) in Kaohsiung are employed in education because it’s one of the few guaranteed, steady professions here. My local friends have pointed out to me that there really aren’t many other types of work to be found in Kaohsiung.
There needs to be reform. Corporate taxes must be distributed equitably among the various counties of Taiwan, but the question is on what basis? Per capita? Production levels? Other problems that plague Kaohsiung include undrinkable tap water and a poor transportation infrastructure. The current public transportation available is not very convenient or efficient and the quality of tap water is poor because it has been tainted by pollution upstream, old, rusty sewage pipes and industrial waste.
Thankfully ground is being broken for the building of the MRT in Kaohsiung, but that won’t be a reality until 5-6 years from now. Kaohsiung’s lack of job opportunities and poor infrastructure has led to the draining of intellectual capital as students move north to Taipei to pursue higher education and permanent jobs. The effects of these shortcomings have been compounded over time leading to a self-defeating cycle that will be difficult for Kaohsiung to reverse.
The value of real estate has plummeted in Kaohsiung, a stark contrast to what has happened in Taipei. There are many cases in which an apartment bought in Taipei 15 years ago has increased in value ten times over, but a comparable apartment in Kaohsiung bought 15 years ago will have dropped substantially in value.
Kaohsiung is not the only city in Taiwan suffering from lack of resources and monetary support from the government. It’s time we all realize why there are such great disparities in the quality of life between Taiwan’s cities and that the government does something equitable to rectify the situation.
Just something to think about, nothing more, nothing less… especially for those of you living in Taipei.
Wednesday, April 17, 2002
The other day, I was on my way to buy some groceries at the Mega Department store/Warner Village in Kaohsiung but I stopped short of entering the building because from a distance I saw clouds and clouds of dense smoke. It looked as though the building could have been on fire. Upon closer inspection, I saw that there was some kind of outdoor demonstration with fire being conducted. Another young woman stood nearby observing this scene, so I struck up a conversation with her. I struggled to ask her in Taiwanese what was going on. I guess I’m kind of an anomaly in Taiwan since I can only really converse in Taiwanese, not Mandarin. Most young people my age speak Mandarin first. After years of rule and education by the Kuo Ming Tang Nationalist government, there has been an almost complete reversal in Taiwan- the majority population now speaks Mandarin Chinese over Taiwanese, whereas the reverse was true prior to the arrival of the KMT party in Taiwan.
We struck up a friendly conversation and I asked her to speak in Taiwanese with me of course. I think it’s something about this standard exchange I do when speaking to people “Excuse me, I only speak/understand Taiwanese, please speak Taiwanese with me” that makes me the target for unwanted advice. People immediately become very curious as to why I can only speak Taiwanese. Where are you from? Why can’t you speak Mandarin? Do you live here? What are you doing here? they ask, and then the advice follows. In this particular case the woman proceeded to say, “I hope you don’t mind me asking, but did you drink a lot of water the night before?” I couldn’t quite understand completely all of the advice she was dispensing (which in hindsight, probably wasn’t a bad thing), but I do know that she was implying I was retaining water and that she knew of some remedy for this. Then she proceeded to ask me about my darkly tanned skin and some scarring that I had, offering more helpful advice. Again, I tried not to feel offended or insulted because I’m sure or at least I hope that she didn’t intend to elicit such a reaction. She probably thought she was being helpful, but I just don’t feel comfortable with unsolicited advice. It’s not that I don’t take criticism well, but it simply didn’t sit well because it was coming from a stranger and it was unwanted. I couldn’t escape it, I had to just stand there and listen.
How is it and why is it that strangers so easily dispense unsolicited advice? I’m not sure if people are being curious, helpful or superficial... Or if it’s something about the self deprecating personality or psyche of the Taiwanese that’s developed after so many years of occupation and authoritarian rule by various invading regimes. I don’t think I’ll ever become accustomed to this directness. Taiwanese routinely ask people how old they are, if they’ve gained weight, how much money one makes, and sometimes, in my opinion they get too personal too soon.
** See my follow up comments on this on May 7**
What else plagues me lately?! It’s that constant refrain that’s in the back of my mind, that I go through every now and then… should I stay or should I go? That is to say, should I stay in Kaohsiung or go to Taipei.
That is the essential question. I love big cities, with their conveniences and energy. But I moved to Taiwan to get away from New York and that whole lifestyle. Taipei is a vibrant, convenient, increasingly international city. There are so many people in Taipei with backgrounds similar to myself- born in North America or raised there, whose first language is English and whose parents are Taiwanese and/or Chinese. The social network was there before I even arrived. It’s easy for me to fit in there. I miss the ease and familiarity that I feel when I’m in Taipei.
Taipei and Kaohsiung have been two completely opposite experiences for me.
In Kaohsiung my life runs at a different pace. I’m focused on my teaching and language study, but at times it’s trying when I loose my motivation. My life in Kaohsiung is much more routine and relaxing. My social network is smaller, but it is growing slowly but surely.
The things that have been keeping me here seem to be becoming unleashed lately… I think that’s contributed to my uncertainty about whether I should stay or go.
At the beginning of this week, I was in a funk, stuck in a self-defeating cycle and then, to make matters worse I realized that something that I’ve been working on writing and planning for has already been done… quite well I might add. The book I was preparing to write would help me secure a full-time job at the college where I’m currently teaching part-time. I was ready to concede defeat… Why recreate the wheel if you don’t have to?
So, yesterday I began investigating possible job opportunities in both Kaohsiung and Taipei; I felt that I had lost my direction and reasons to be in Kaohsiung and I wanted to know what my options are. I haven’t turned up anything particularly promising yet. It’s a struggle to find job opportunities in this economy, especially in Kaohsiung… I’ll give some thoughts on that another day…
One day later, and several conversations later, I realize the book that’s already been written will help me to better organize what I need to do, save me time, stimulate more ideas and enable me find my own angle for what I’m working on. I’m going to continue with the plans for my book.
I can’t get too complacent… I need to investigate and to exhaust all possible job opportunities… I must look into possibilities in both Kaohsiung and Taipei while doing the best that I can to further my current situation, in other words, continue writing my book. The answers won’t come easily, I’ll just have to do some serious job searching to get myself in a good position whether I decide stay in Kaohsiung or go to Taipei.
Monday, April 15, 2002
Currently, I’m living in Taiwan and I originally set out to write about my impressions of Taiwan, but in the process I’ve managed to get rather nostalgic about New York. New York’s on my mind lately- since I just returned to Kaohsiung from a week long visit in Taipei- where there are more and more ex-New Yorkers moving into town.
Back to walking… The weather in Kaohsiung is just lovely this time of year. It’s been sunny and comfortable with temperatures averaging in the mid- 20’s degrees Celsius. I’ve been enjoying my walks around Kaohsiung lately- I think it’s a sign that I’m growing more accustomed to this city. As I walk along the street as I do everyday, I am constantly reminded of what a chore it is to do so. Walking down the street in Taiwan in it of itself is an adventure. As I begin walking, I am first assaulted by the smells of incense, burning paper and exhaust fumes that infiltrate the air for blocks on end. Streetside altars have been set up by devout neighbors who are using the incense to “bai bai”, in other words, worship their ancestors and/or various gods. Some are simply burning incense in a large urn, others have set up elaborate, gaudy alters covered in bright red fabrics with bright red lights, and an assortment of fruit and food as their worship offerings. On the sidewalks, fake paper money is burned in large metal canisters almost daily to send money up to the heavens for the use of dearly departed relatives. But I’m not sure why someone would need money if they were in heaven or what one would do with it if they were in heaven. Isn’t heaven supposed to be a beautiful peaceful place of no worries and eternal happiness? It seems to me that someone in hell would probably be more in need of money to make a deal with the devil or to seek ways to make life in hell more comfortable. Maybe that’s just it- we’re not sure where our relatives have ended up and figure that some of them need all the help that they can get in the afterlife, especially if they are caught somewhere in limbo.That’s my take on it. I’m probably grossly uninformed of these customs anyhow.
Scooters and motorcycles or “autobai” as they are known collectively in Taiwan- rule the streets. They are the transportation of choice among the Taiwanese. There are separately designated driving lanes and waiting boxes at intersection corners just for the autobai. It’s not uncommon to see entire families riding together on a scooter. Standing on the corner waiting for the light to turn- a mother with baby in lap, and toddler standing at the helm of the scoter drives by… a father, mother and child are seen all sharing a single scooter to get from place to place.
The autobai have even overrun the sidewalks leaving the pedestrians no where to run, literally. Sidewalks are littered with scooters lined up like dominoes, frequently trapping unsuspecting pedestrians at the corners of busy intersections or smack dab in front of walking victims in the middle of a sidewalk.
The sidewalks are uneven- they seem to have been constructed haphazardly. It’s not that they have not been paved smoothly, but it seems as though the local government hasn’t been responsible for enforcing any standardization or upkeep of the sidewalks. There are different sections of sidewalks constructed of varying types of stone/concrete; each section of sidewalk seems to change without rhyme or reason as one walks by various storefronts. Perhaps it’s because (I can only assume that) the local government hasn’t properly maintained the sidewalks, or perhaps, as businesses opened, each privately replaced, or patched the respective piece of sidewalk in front of their building. It’s not uncommon for sections of the sidewalk to dip and rise drastically by half a foot to a foot in height. It’s surprising that more people are not seen tripping and injuring themselves as they walk along. Actually, a sure fire way to know that someone is from out of town, is to observe how many times they trip over the sidewalks as they walk about in Taiwan.
Pedestrians are relegated to walking on the street, maneuvering around the parked masses of autobai, parked cars, burning money canisters, and burning incense. Pedestrians can’t take anything for granted. They must continually look for obstacles in all directions around them- what lies ahead in their path, what vehicles are racing about on the streets, where they should be stepping as the sidewalk rises and falls. Pedestrians have no right of way. This is why no one ever walks from place to place in Taiwan. It is highly unusual for someone to walk farther than 2 blocks or 5 minutes. People are usually walking to get to their autobai, to a corner to hail a taxi or take a bus, or a nearby store. I think nothing of walking 5 or more blocks or walking 15-20 minute distances. I refuse to give up my preference to walk despite all of these obstacles and air pollution. As I walk against odds, I am accosted by the honking of taxis that drive by every few minutes, because I couldn’t possibly be planning on walking very far, so I probably need a taxi to take me where I’m going. Such are the joys of walking in Taiwan...