Writer's Block

The USA is the place I was born. Canada is the place I was raised. Taiwan is the place in my heart.

Wednesday, July 31, 2002

I’ve noticed that more and more restaurants are moving towards a self-serve style. Restaurants commonly have disposable menus printed on regular paper, folded brochure style. These menus are neatly stacked in a special holder on the table complete with pencils to mark the check mark boxes beside all of the possible menu items. Once you have marked your selections, you must take the menu order form to a server and pay for your meal in advance. Some restaurants even leave the refilling your water glass to yourself- with pitchers of water at self-serve water stations.

Now all of this is very efficient, but it call it my personal bias or what you will, but I think this entire procedure greatly detracts from the pleasure of one’s dining experience. After all, when I’m dining out I would like to be served… to have the server present the specials of the day and to give advice when I can’t decide between the salmon or tuna, to read my options off a menu that is descriptive, visual or beautifully presented. I wonder why this has become the norm in sit down restaurants in Taiwan. Is there a high incidence of dining and dashing?

When I’m eating out I want someone to work for their tip, bring me my bill, and bring me my change after I’ve paid for my meal. I don’t want to have to get up out of my seat. Well, there’s one major difference- in Taiwan there is no customary tipping- so perhaps it doesn’t matter if you pay before or after the meal. But it also means that the level of service you get varies a great deal since the service staff doesn’t have any incentive to go the extra mile.

On the other hand when one eats at food stalls in the night market, you are often invited to first have a seat and eat your meal on the makeshift outdoors seating i.e. plastic stools and foldable tables. And you customarily pay after you’ve eaten. I sometimes wonder how these food stall owners, who literally cook out of a cart on wheels can keep track of who’s paid or not. You’d think that these people would want to be paid first because their customers could very well disappear into the crowd or take off without a trace. My bias again: in North America we pay fast food vendors or the corner hot dog guy first but in sit down restaurants we pay after the meal.

One of my Taiwanese friends offered an explanation for this phenomenon. When people pay first, they can then feel thoroughly relaxed and unrushed as they eat and chat. And as a practical measure- she asked me how many times I’ve almost left a restaurant without paying. As for food stall owners, they don’t ask you for payment upfront since they are running a casual, informal business.

I do have to say that of the restaurants that use menu order forms and ask for prepayment, I have experienced service at both extremes of the spectrum. One particular restaurant’s staff was extremely inattentive and slow; the water pitchers at their self-serve stations went empty and unrefilled for the entire time I was there. But I have also eaten in one establishment who’s servers did provide pleasant, helpful dining service by answering questions about various dishes on the menu, periodically refilling our water glasses and checking up on us during the course of our meal. So in the best case scenario, perhaps the wait staff would be more focused on giving good service, otherwise having wait staff would just be useless if they aren’t adding anything to the dining experience, and the restaurant would probably just be better off doing everything self-serve style.

Monday, July 29, 2002

Here are some follow up comments about the whole Tongyong Pinyin vs. Hanyu Pinyin debate:

In this debate about Pinyin systems, has it occurred to anyone to ask how many of the people involved in the decision making are linguists? At the very least, people espousing opinions about Tongyong Pinyin¡¦s ability to romanize languages other than Mandarin Chinese, should be familiar with existent Pinyin systems that have been specifically developed for Holo (commonly referred to as Taiwanese), Hakka or Aboriginal languages. Otherwise, what point of comparison do they have? Should we accept their opinions on good faith alone? Where is the proof that Tongyong Pinyin can represent Holo, Hakka or Aboriginal languages?

I have learned Mandarin using both Hanyu Pinyin and Bo Po Mo Fo, and Lo Ma Pinyin or Lo Ma Ji for Holo. Incidentally, the romanization system that I¡¦ve referred to for use with Holo is not just a phonetic system; it is an orthographic system, therefore, it is more accurately referred to it as Lo Ma Ji (romanized words) not Lo Ma Pinyin. In addition to my familiarity with these three romanization systems, I have examined a comprehensive comparison chart of Hanyu Pinyin and Tongyong Pinyin. So, I feel qualified to offer an opinion on Tongyong Pinyin and its ability to represent Holo.

Having learned Lo Ma Ji for Holo, I can say with certainty that Tongyong Pinyin does not accommodate the range of sounds for the Holo language. Holo has nasalized vowels and two pairs of ¡§voiced¡¨ and ¡§voiceless¡¨ consonants represented by b/p and g/k. For example, Holo has two distinctive ¡§b¡¨ and ¡§g¡¨ sounds. The "b" and ¡§g¡¨ sounds which are not voiced throughout are represented by "p" and "k" respectively; the ¡§b¡¨ and ¡§g¡¨ sounds which are voiced through out are represented by ¡§b¡¨ and ¡§g¡¨ respectively. Similar contrasting pairs also exist in Taiwan¡¦s aboriginal languages and European Germanic languages, but they do not exist in Mandarin Chinese, as transcribed by Hanyu Pinyin or Tongiong Pinyin.

Hanyu Pinyin was created for Mandarin Chinese in 1959. Its romanization system is derived from the Slavic language family, which includes languages such as Russian, Polish and Hungarian. Tongyong Pinyin is basically derived from Hanyu Pinyin, so differences between Tongyong Pinyin and Hanyu Pinyin are largely superficial. Tongyong Pinyin differs from Hanyu Pinyin basically because it uses different letters to represent the sounds of Mandarin Chinese, but the range of sounds that it represents remains the same. These sounds are essentially related to the Slavic language family and are not compatible with Holo. As previously mentioned, Holo is more similar to Germanic languages such as English, German and Dutch, and thus should use a system that accommodates these characteristics.

Tongyong Pinyin needs to be revised to accommodate the aforementioned sounds of Holo. If the present version of Tongyong Pinyin is adopted to teach Holo, many of the language¡¦s unique sounds and consequently, words will be lost. If Tongyong Pinyin needs to be revised for Holo, is it worth the extra time and effort to do so, when Lo Ma Ji is already a perfectly adequate system? Does the answer really lie in using or developing a new Pinyin system? We should examine the existing romanized systems and from these, select the most viable ones for each applicable language or languages. Tongyong Pinyin does not offer much benefit over Hanyu Pinyin, except that it lays claim on being able to represent Hakka.

Taiwan¡¦s long history of struggle under various authoritarian regimes has led to the erosion of its native languages; as a result, the urgency of selecting a Pinyin system has reached epic proportions. The native languages of Taiwan have come to symbolize the unique culture and identity of Taiwan. Politics and history aside, first and foremost, a Pinyin system should be able to accurately represent the range of sounds in a particular language. It¡¦s also essential that the Pinyin system preserves the integrity of a language, including the distinct culture and identity of Taiwan that is reflected in the language.

Many people favor Tongyong Pinyin because it was developed by a group of pro-Taiwan academics; there are no linguists among them. Lo Ma Ji is supported by many PhD linguists and students in Taiwan, and was originally created by an English priest by the name of Medhurst in 1832. Since then it has been revised several times. It doesn¡¦t really matter who created the particular Pinyin system, but that the system teaches correct pronunciation. In doing so, the Pinyin system will serve to preserve a part of Taiwan¡¦s culture.

Tongyong Pinyin offers the hope that only one, universal romanized system can be used to teach Taiwan¡¦s languages. Undoubtedly, this would be an ideal situation but a Pinyin system should not be adopted in the name of convenience, especially if it, namely, Tongyong Pinyin, does not capture the essence of a language, in this case, Holo (as the public has been led to believe). Using Tongyong Pinyin for Holo would compromise the character of this language. I don¡¦t see any problem in teaching more than one romanized system. We can liken this to using the alphabet to learn English and French; each language has its own pronunciation for letters. The differences between Hanyu Pinyin for Mandarin and Lo Ma Ji for Holo are probably greater than the differences in pronunciation of the alphabet for English and French, but I don¡¦t think it should pose much of a problem for learners. Most native English speakers have not encountered major difficulties using the aforementioned Pinyin systems or confusing them with the English pronunciation of such letters, provided that they have studied and learned the rational behind each Pinyin system.

The most unfortunate thing about this debate is the lack of participation by the local Taiwanese people. They are not simply being apathetic on the topic; they are unable to have an opinion on the topic since the majority of them have learned Mandarin using the Bo Po Mo Fo system, and it seems to have worked well for them. In fact, after conversing with many of them, it is quickly apparent that they don¡¦t realize that Taiwan is basically the only place in the world that teaches Mandarin using Bo Po Mo Fo, or that there¡¦s been talk of completely doing away with this system, or that Hanyu Pinyin is used to teach pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese in China. The vast majority of Taiwanese have never used romanized Pinyin systems to learn Mandarin, Holo or Hakka, so they have no basis on which to formulate an opinion. It¡¦s very unfortunate because although this decision will most immediately affect foreigners, hence all the recent brouhaha from the foreign community, ultimately, it will affect the Taiwanese in the future when schools abandon the use of Bo Po Mo Fo in favor of a romanized Pinyin system.

Friday, July 26, 2002

I just read this interesting article in the Taipei Times about the Taiwanese "emigrant complex":

Taiwanese have an emigration complex

By Wang Sumei

Tuesday, Jul 23, 2002,Page 8

Last week one of my colleagues decided to quit and move to the US. Everybody in the office felt envious yet they threw a farewell party for her. Earlier this month one of my junior-school classmates got married and invited me to the wedding. He left Taiwan when he was 15 and the wedding was also a ceremony to celebrate his becoming a permanent US resident.

I am always wondering why the Taiwanese admire the US so much? Is it because we are economically poor, or afraid of a possible war between Taiwan and China? Is the lack of a sense of security embedded in our culture?

"Come to NTU, then go to the US," was a popular saying about National Taiwan University during the 1960s. At that time, young people studied with the purpose of earning a chance to get into the US. Most students wouldn't return home even after they got their US doctorates.

In those early years, Taiwan was not a very good place to live. It was not only that the standard of living that was bad, but also the limitations put on self-expression. Most students who went abroad and accepted the idea of democracy couldn't stand the ruling KMT, so they voted with their feet -- by staying in the US. And for those who were left in Taiwan, the US remained a holy country with giant power and wealth.

Today, people in Taiwan are richer than before and have freedom of speech, but the US is still a dream land in most people's minds. Some worry that the worsening cross-strait relationship may lead to war. These people want to move for the sake of security. Some want to leave because of disappointment with the government, especially after Chen Shui-bian was elected president.

Those who emigrate to other countries do so freely. However, I wonder how much of this idea that the US is like heaven is fact and how much of it is just a part of Taiwanese mythology. Some scholars believe it is part of a complex that is rooted in our cultural background.

Many of our ancestors came from China 300 years ago. But they were ruled by a succession of invaders. This Dutch ruled Formosa until the famous Ming Dynasty general Cheng Cheng-kung defeated them in order to create a base on the island from which to attack the Qing Dynasty. In the 50 years that they ruled here, the Japanese used Taiwan as a base from which to attack Southeast Asia. Following the end of World War II, Chiang Kai-shek came here after he lost the Chinese civil war to the Communists.

This means that, over the past 300 years, the rulers of this island never saw Taiwan as their destination, but only as a temporary home. These people had planned to leave the moment their boat came in. That might be the reason for the lack of identity and confidence that Taiwanese suffer from -- everybody tends to dream of a wonderful heaven which may be somewhere out there, but that heaven could certainly not be their own country.

Now the question arises -- will US citizenship bring immigrants the absolute confidence they need? The answer is surely negative. They will be part of a minority group for the rest of their lives. None of the US' "greatness" will have anything to do with their contribution.

I am not a follower of narrow-minded nationalism, but I would never emigrate. Yes, Taiwan's government officials are awful and the whole system is a mess. However, this can only be changed through my participation. History can't determine our future.

I hope all Taiwanese can get rid of the "emigration curse" and realize that Taiwan is truly home. In the end, I went to neither the farewell party nor the wedding. I certainly bless the wedding, but I cannot congratulate an emigrant. There is no reason to celebrate when our friends leave.

Wang Sumei is a journalist based in Taipei.

Wednesday, July 24, 2002

"The female is female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities"

-a woman is "an imperfect man."


I'm in my feminist mode... doing some investigating and reading up on women's studies and women's issues, when I stumbled on to these two quotes, which surprisingly, originated from respected philosophers. Who you may ask? The first is a quote from Artisotle and the second was a belief held by St. Thomas Aquinas.

It just goes to show that even the great minds of their day (and still by today's standards) were parochial in some of their thinking or influenced by the prevailing social structure.

Monday, July 22, 2002

Teaching had come to be a chore (especially at the end of the semester with finals & deadlines, etc.)… as many routines in life can seem, if we do not take time to recharge, look forward, or challenge ourselves to think creatively. It’s so easy to get frustrated with teaching large classes of 50 students, since they are hard to manage and much less personal. Now that I’m teaching smaller conversation classes (ten or less students!) this summer I’ve found enjoyment in teaching again.

Teaching is such a great creative outlet. I’m very excited about teaching my students this summer and have been busily planning fun and creative activities to stimulate conversation in class. Teaching and learning can be so much fun. I’m constantly learning new things as I plan my lessons. This energy lends itself well into other parts of my life. It reminds me to take a whole new perspective on things; it fuels me. I can see a purpose in what I’m doing- beyond just teaching my students practical conversation skills (i.e. telephone etiquette, “travel English”, daily usage words). I’m thinking of ways for them to learn so that English is relevant to their work and lives beyond a purely superficial sense. I feel energized!

I’ve also been inspired in part from my first session with my new private English tutoring student, who, let’s just say, is someone who’s got some major clout in developing Southern Taiwan. From today’s conversation alone, I’ve learned that her ideas and vision for developing Southern Taiwan include: improving the tourism infrastructure, reforming the social welfare and health services departments, and promoting business development and commerce. Any one of these projects would be enough for one person to handle, never mind all three… She’s going to start by visiting various sites and organizations in the U.S. to learn from them as examples. It’s clear why she wants to and needs to brush up on her English speaking skills. She’s a super ambitious lady with a lot on her plate. I can’t even begin to articulate the multitude of things she’s going to have to touch on within these three categories. It’s very exciting. I think that this is going to be as much of a learning experience for me as for her.
Tongyong Pinyin vs. Hanyu Pinyin ...is one of the hottest topics of debate here, regarding the selection of a Pinyin system for Taiwan. For more background on this debate check out: Don't know what the difference between Hanyu Pinyin and Tonyong Pinyin is? (a site that's VERY biased in favor of Hanyu Pinyin)... or What types of Chinese romanization are out there? , and just to balance things out alittle more, here's an argument in favor of Tongyong Pinyin, Here are my thoughts:

Taiwan Needs A Pinyin System To Save Its Native Languages Now

It’s no surprise that the issue of choosing Tongyong Pinyin over Hanyu Pinyin has quickly become a highly politicized debate. Language is an integral part of culture and identity, but where Taiwan is concerned, these have never been easy things to define. All too often the definitions have carried political connotations and hinged on how Taiwan differentiates itself from China. That’s what this debate has been reduced to since Tongyong Pinyin was developed by linguists who have been labeled “pro-independent?and Hanyu Pinyin is the system devised by and used in China.

Language is an expression that reflects the uniqueness of a country’s culture and customs. A person’s expression of thought is most certainly influenced by the peculiar words that have developed in a particular language, and by the tone and rhythm of a language. Knowing a language also lends special insight into the lives of people and an understanding of their culture and customs. In Taiwan there are many native languages, including Holo Taiwanese, Hakka, and Aborginal languages (Atayal, Ami, Paiwan, Rukai, Puyuma, Tsou, Bunun, Saisyat, Kavalan and Sedeka). Each has unique characteristics that need to be considered in adopting a Pinyin system. Taiwan is at a crucial point in which it needs to preserve its cultural identity and native languages. There are many Taiwanese people who desperately wish to devise a system to preserve the uniqueness of Taiwan’s multilingual society.

Taiwan has had a long history of authoritarian rulers who have outlawed anything other than the official languages (of Japanese or Mandarin Chinese). The previous government’s language policy singularly enforced education in Mandarin Chinese and the usage of native languages was institutionally suppressed. Only a generation ago, speaking impeccable Mandarin Chinese was academically revered and publicly speaking in a native language (Holo, Hakka, Aboriginal languages) in lieu of Mandarin Chinese was met with harsh punishment, especially in the classroom. These systematic tactics have taken its toll on Taiwan’s native languages. For these reasons, the usage of native languages in Taiwan has been fading. A romanization system or symbolic sound system (e.g. “Kanagata?used by the Japanese) has never been developed for them.

Enter Tongyong Pinyin, which was developed by a group of pro-Taiwan academics who declare it is superior to Hanyu Pinyin, which was developed by the People’s Republic of China to teach Mandarin Chinese. Tongyong Pinyin is claimed to be suitable for teaching Taiwan’s native languages, in addition to Mandarin Chinese, a claim that Hanyu Pinyin cannot fulfill. The idea of Tongyong Pinyin has popular appeal for those who have longed for an elixir to heal Taiwan’s romanization ills.

Many who oppose choosing Tongyong Pinyin over Hanyu Pinyin assert that Tongyong Pinyin’s shortcomings include a lack of acceptance as a standard Pinyin system since it was developed only a few years ago and therefore has not passed the test of time. Others accuse supporters of Tongyong Pinyin as pushing this issue in the name of pro-independence sentiment.

How did China go about selecting Hanyu Pinyin as its romanization system? Did it apply these arguments of selecting a system based on precedence, or general acceptance?

There were Pinyin systems for Mandarin Chinese developed before Hanyu Pinyin, the one which is now currently in use. The two most widely known of these being: Wade-Giles system and Yale system. The Wade-Giles system was developed for use in the Western world in the 19th century by Sir Thomas Francis Wade, a British officer and diplomat. It was later modified by Cambridge University professor, Herbert Allen Giles. The Yale system was developed at Yale University in the 1940’s to teach Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese to military and diplomatic personnel. Hanyu Pinyin was developed in the 1950’s by the People’s Republic of China in its fight against illiteracy.

It’s not clear as to why China didn’t simply adopt one of the two previous systems. China chose a newly developed system that didn’t have any precedence. Perhaps the PRC government simply favored a homegrown system over one created by foreigners.

Countries should be allowed to choose a romanization system that best serves the distinct languages of its people. If Tongyong Pinyin can in fact represent the native languages of Taiwan, then I say, what’s stopping everyone? Taiwan should not be afraid of change. Learning Taiwan’s native languages through the use of one uniform system most certainly would be of invaluable benefit to its peoples. If Tongyong Pinyin can accomplish all this, Taiwan should not be concerned about diverging from the international standard for romanizing Mandarin or accusations of being pro-independent.

Taiwan has been using its own unique Bo Po Mo Fo system to teach pronunciation of Chinese characters and also uses traditional Chinese characters. In comparison, China uses Hanyu Pinyin and simplified characters. To date these differences have not been major factors in isolating Taiwan from the international community. Taiwan needs to overcome far more challenging obstacles, other than the romanization issue, in order to break out of its isolation from the international community. Furthermore, the standard usage of Tongyong Pinyin would not preclude Mandarin Chinese from being taught using Hanyu Pinyin. Nor does it preclude the usage of Hanyu Pinyin in official communications with other Chinese speaking nations. Tongyong Pinyin is being proposed as the standard for usage within Taiwan.

There have been disagreements over which system (Hanyu or Tongyong) is easier to use or more intuitive. It’s difficult to compare the merits of different Pinyin systems. No system is perfect. What is most crucial is that the Pinyin system preserves the original integrity of a language. Every system of romanization and language has inconsistencies or quirks, which pose different problems for learners depending on the learner’s biases (i.e. What is the learner’s native language, or familiarity with the romanized alphabet?). Does the learner’s native speaking language have sounds or tones that are similar to the foreign language being learned? How has the learner been taught to pronounce the various letters of the alphabet? These problems are overcome once the learner understands the rules and principles of a Pinyin system and that letters simply serve as symbols to represent sound.

For example, Lo Ma Ji, a romanized writing system which represents Holo Taiwanese, uses many letters in a manner that is counter intuitive to English speakers:

“b?and “p?represent slight variations on “b?sounds
“g?and “k?represent slight variations on “g?sounds
(“b?and “g?are voiced throughout and pre-nazalized, “p?and “k?are not voiced or aspirated)
“ph?represents the “p?sound
“kh?representing the “k?sound

Once the rules and principles behind these letter combinations are learned, the Lo Ma Ji system proves to be an accurate means to pronounce Holo Taiwanese words. Pinyin simply uses letters of the romanized alphabet as symbols to represent sounds. The letters serve as symbols to assist in pronunciation.

No Pinyin system is infallible. The rules of each system must be learned so that they can be used properly. Pinyin cannot be used by someone who does not already speak Mandarin Chinese or know how to use the system. If a non-Mandarin Chinese speaker tries to pronounce the names of streets as they appear on signs, he or she will most certainly pronounce the Chinese characters that they are meant to represent incorrectly. But consistently labeled signs can still greatly assist those who cannot read Chinese characters in getting around.

Foreigners argue that they are the ones most in need of a consistent, standard Pinyin system to facilitate the study of Mandarin Chinese and as a practicality, to have proper labeling of street signs. They argue that Hanyu Pinyin should be chosen since it is the standard for students of Chinese throughout the world. At present it is true that the foreign community has the most vested interest in Taiwan’s choice of Pinyin system because, as of yet Taiwan has not yet selected a Pinyin system to use uniformly in its education. Native Taiwanese students are still being taught the Bo Po Mo Fo system to sound out characters, thus using Pinyin to read street signs is a moot point for most native Taiwanese people.

Currently Taiwan’s signage is in a disastrous state because three different Pinyin systems are concurrently being used. On typical city map, it’s not unusual to find a single street labeled with three seemingly different names because different Pinyin systems have been used throughout the map. I’ve often stood on the corner of busy intersections reading the street signs; in one instance, a street one sign was written as “Xin Yi Road?and on the opposite side of the very same street, another street sign read “Hsin Yee Road.?Obviously, the inconsistent Pinyin on street signs can cause quite a bit of confusion for those who don’t read Chinese characters.

I truly believe that the people of Taiwan want to implement a standard romanized Pinyin system in place of the old Bo Po Mo Fo system. It’s crucial that Taiwan choose a Pinyin system that can meet the needs of its multilingual society. The Tongyong Pinyin vs. Hanyu Pinyin issue is one that concerns both local Taiwanese and foreign community. Interestingly, the foreigner community has been the camp voicing the strongest disapproval of Tongyong Pinyin, while the majority of Taiwanese people are unable to voice an opinion.

Taiwan’s problem rests in its multilingualism. People want a Pinyin system that can encompass Mandarin Chinese, Holo Taiwanese, Hakka, and Aborginal languages. But one has to pause and ask: Is it really possible to have one Pinyin system that represents the unique sounds of the various languages spoken in Taiwan- as Tongyong Pinyin professes? Can the unique sounds of each language really be preserved and represented by only one Pinyin system? Thus far I have not been able to uncover any solid evidence of this. Holo Taiwanese has many nasal sounds in addition to the subtle sounds I described earlier. I’m not entirely convinced that these nuances in pronunciation can truly be captured by Tongyong Pinyin. I’m skeptical, but if Holo, Hakka, and Aborigine linguists endorse Tongyong Pinyin, and agree that the system is precise representation of the range of sounds for each of these languages, then I fully support using Tongyong Pinyin as the standard Pinyin system in Taiwan.

In the end it doesn’t really matter what Pinyin system is learned as long as you can accurately pronounce the words in the spoken language or read and comprehend the meaning of written characters. Pinyin is meant merely to assist in learning the correct pronunciation of Chinese characters. If Tongyong Pinyin isn’t the answer, Taiwan needs to concentrate on developing or selecting alternative romanization systems that truly capture the essence of Taiwan’s native languages immediately, before it’s too late.

Saturday, July 20, 2002

One thing that you never really get over-or that I still haven’t gotten over- when living in Taiwan, is dealing with the pests. There’s certainly an abundance and variety of them… just take your pick- there are the industrious, omnipresent ants, the looming, gigantic-sized cockroaches, annoying blood thirsty mosquitoes, the mysterious appearance of fruit flies, specks of slow moving insects, incessantly buzzing flies, and rats…. have I forgotten any?! The already hot, humid weather of Taiwan escalates in the summer encourages the breeding to these pesky critters.

It’s pretty disgusting to see what happens if you leave “wet” garbage out (i.e. garbage that contains food remains) in this heat… like I said it’s a breeding ground. If fruit rinds or pits left sitting out or discarded in an open trash can, sure enough the fruit flies seem to mystically appear from no where. Where the #*@$% do they come from? Guess I’m no scientist because I can’t figure that one out. Do they swarm over because they’re attracted to the scent of the food or do they breed from the fruit remains. What a disgusting thought. If I think about this anymore, I could come up with some pretty disgusting thoughts. Come to think of it- humans are pretty disgusting animals. Just think about the various types of waste that we produce; if we didn’t “manage” the waste and put it out of our living space just imagine what would fester in our midst.

I thought that I’d reached a state in which I could handle these little buggers, but recently they’ve been aggravating me at every turn. At this time of year they seem to be at their worst or should I say their best? They seem especially robust. I just came back from Taipei a few weekends ago… feeling unsettled because of the ants I discovered in my very hospitable friend’s apartment. I don’t fault her because she does keep a clean apartment- it’s just that once you’ve got an ant problem in Taiwan, it requires some major intervention and persistence to get rid of them. I don’t know what it is, but the ants in Taiwan also seem to be much more intrusive than the ones I’ve encountered in the United States! Once you have them, they just get around and into everything. The ones in the United States seem to stay more localized in one place.

Back to my friend’s apartment in Taipei…

Initially saw them crawling around on the floor, but later they crawled into my suitcase and clothes- not a good feeling! I came home paranoid that I’d brought some of my newly found “roommates” home. So I set to work emptying the contents of my suitcase, wiping the suitcase down inside and out and washing my clothes, etc… I didn’t want to give the little buggers a chance to torment me in Kaohsiung too. I felt so inconvenienced by the whole ordeal and thought boy am I happy to be living in a beautiful clean new apartment that doesn’t have ants...

Boy was that a false sense contentment, as one nuisance was replaced by another- equally irritating insects. In Taiwan, you can always be sure that there’s bound to be some sort of insect or creepy crawly critter hidden somewhere in the apartment. The other day I noticed some speck sized bugs that had mysteriously appeared in some of our drinkware and bowls- eeew! What can you do- but rinse the buggers off and re-clean things? They seemed to have dissipated, but I noticed their reappearance today and I knew this meant war! Time to nip the problem in the bud. I emptied the contents of the cupboard and proceeded to wipe it down and spray it with some heavy duty antibacterial household cleaning agent. Hope that does the trick.

Anyone who has lived in Taiwan has a good story or two to tell about at least one or more of these vermin. No matter how long you live in Taiwan it seems that there are some pests that you never get accustomed to. On occasion you’ll see a huge cockroach crawling on the sidewalks of Taipei (honestly, I’ve never seen cockroaches of this size in Kaohsiung!). Okay, so huge means the size of a small mouse- but I think that’s huge for a cockroach! When I see these cockroaches it always makes me jump a little. You’ll even often see local Taiwanese people startled and stopped dead in their tracks by the sight of them. The presence of these buggers make people scatter and disperse, tip toeing away. It’s a funny sight to see actually. I’ve probably entertained a passerby or two who’s heard my shrieks and seen me hightail it out of there upon such a sighting. Then there are the types who walk by these monstrosities without any qualms and nonchalantly stomp on these >*crunchy*< vermin.

This takes me back one particular evening of conversation at about this time last year, when I had just moved to Taipei for less than a month. Three recent transplants from the U.S., now living in Taipei and three “seasoned” residents of Taipei (originally from the U.S. and Canada)- who had been living in Taipei for the past 3-5 years- out for dinner and drinks in Taipei- the combination made for lively conversation. Topics of conversation included earthquakes, Taiwan’s military security, politics in Taiwan, relationships, marriage and, you guessed it- tales of discovering, uncovering, driving out, disposing of, fighting, preventing, smacking, discarding, exterminating, all those pesky pests. One guy recounted his many stories of cleaning newly moved into apartments where upon he discovered termites, ants, cockroaches underneath the flooring and wall paneling, and hiding within and under a ghastly excuse for an old sofa. These critters are relentless! You’ve gotta drive them out with everything you’ve got- use those industrial insecticides, seal off any possible points of entry with all you’ve got (duct tape, caulking sealant, etc)… seal it up, board it up! It's no wonder that many apartments in Taiwan look like they are fire hazards... Someone else described the distressing experience of feeling a cockroach crawl across her face while sleeping. It’s a very unsettling feeling. Okay, so it’s kind of hard to recapture the grossness of the conversation if you weren’t there, but you get the jist of it.

What an introduction to living in Taiwan- that conversation ever was! One of my freshly “transplanted” friends, who I’ll call “T” was in Taipei to study Chinese that summer. “T” is an absolute sweetheart, very considerate- he’s the sort of guy who called my roommate and I during the typhoon season last year- telling us of the latest typhoon warning and making sure that we were prepared for it. One thing about “T” is that he’s very “sensitive” and just gets creeped out by any of these creepy crawly insects, and he was just not having an easy time of getting adjusted to some of the inconveniences of living in Taiwan. So it was really hilarious to see “T” squirming during above mentioned conversation.

A few days later, I found out that after “T” got home that night, he slept with all the lights on so that he could see those #@$% ants or cockroaches coming for him! LOL!

Friday, July 19, 2002

Lately, the most mundane things have been evoking sweet memories of my dear friends in New York. As I walked home the other day, I reminisced about the ease with which I used to get together with my friends in New York on only a moment’s notice. And I thought especially fondly of my friends who lived in the same neighborhood as me, only a few blocks away and I relished the memories of our impromptu meetings for a drink at the bar around the corner, our walks in the neighborhood and our conversations which were always warm, comforting, and thought provoking whether they took place at the corner dive or at a hidden gem of an eatery.

Even as I washed the dishes later that day, I was transported back to memories of my gracious friends with whom I have dined with impromptu in their home over a simple home-cooked meal. The beauty of domesticity, and the love, support and respect that I felt with my friends washed over me. I’m thankful for having all of the wonderful friends that I have (not only in New York of course) and hope that we all stay in touch because I feel like I’m loosing grip. I really miss my dear friends. I have been feeling rather out of touch lately…

Sunday, July 14, 2002

The Differences Between Taipei and Kaohsiung

In Taiwan there are many international students who have come to learn Chinese. In my Chinese class alone, the students were from Japan, Korea, England, Argentina, Canada and the United States. So on the first day of a Mandarin Chinese class, the teacher naturally asks her students where they are from and then introduces herself.

In Kaohsiung the teacher tells the class:

“Wo se Taiwan ren.”
(I’m a Taiwanese person)

“Zai Zhong guo tamen chang chang shou ‘er’.”
(In China they often say “er” or in other words in China it’s customary to add “er” as a suffix to many words, as in the rolling of the tongue "er" sound- spoken in Beijing or Shanghai)

“Zai Taiwan wo-men bu yong ‘er’.”
(In Taiwan we rarely add “er” to the endings of words in Chinese)

A Mandarin Chinese teacher in Taipei will tell the class:

“Zai Taiwan mei yo Taiwan ren.”
(In Taiwan there aren’t any Taiwanese people. Or there’s no such thing as a Taiwanese person)

“Wo-men se Zhong guo ren ciong Fujian lai.”
(We are all Chinese from the province of Fujian).

Taking a taxi in Taiwan:

When I get in a taxi and speak in my accented Taiwanese to a taxi driver in Kaohsiung he says: “Huh?! What did you say? I don’t understand what you’re saying! Where are you from?!”

When I get in a taxi and speak in my accented Taiwanese to a taxi driver in Taipei he says: “Wow that’s great that you speak Taiwanese. Most young people these days don’t speak much Taiwanese. It’s incredible that you are able to speak well enough to get around Taiwan. Where are you from?”

When people hear I’m learning Taiwanese and Chinese:

In Kaohsiung they say if you can learn how to speak Taiwanese sufficiently you’ll have no problem getting around Kaohsiung and getting things done.

In Taipei, they say no one really speaks much Taiwanese here. It’s necessary to learn Chinese.

Going to the gym:

In Kaohsiung if I workout at the gym during off peak hours, there always seems to be some middle aged women dropping in for the first time. They always manage to hone in on me, since I’m one of the few people working out at a comparatively furious pace. I suppose that I must look like I know what I’m doing. It’s clear that they don’t know how to operate basic gym equipment like treadmills or stationary bikes because they can’t read English. This never happens in Taipei. People who workout at the gym seem more savvy and trendy.

I’ve seen people running around barefoot in a five star hotel in Kaohsiung. Mind you this man was probably not a guest at the hotel. But I doubt that I’d ever see that in Taipei.

I’ve seen taxi drivers and bus drivers driving barefoot in Kaohsiung. But I’ve never seen this in Taipei.

Saturday, July 13, 2002

This entry’s for you Tim…

When I go to the gym I’m there for a serious workout. The last thing I want to do is socialize when I’m all hot sweaty and feeling rather unattractive… even the way that I dress indicates this. I wear very comfortable practical workout clothes. You will rarely see me in trendy tight, midriff-bearing workout clothes. I love fashion, but I just can’t be bothered with it when I work out. My friends who know me to be a clothes horse would be surprised to see how I present myself at the gym.

In general, the people in Taiwan just don’t work out with the same fervor as people in North America. Going to the gym is a relatively new trend. The women barely break a sweat and dress in the latest figure hugging two-piece workout ensembles. Going to the gym is more for a show than anything else it seems, but admittedly most of them do look pretty cute in their color coordinated outfits. Many of the women in Taiwan are really quite slim.

I think that one of the reasons people don’t workout vigorously enough to break a sweat, is that they already sweat so much over the course of a day from the sweltering temperatures outside. The unbearably hot weather takes its toll on you. Walking about or just going in and out of the humidity over the course of a day when going from place to place tires you out. The last thing you’d want to do at the end of the day, beginning of the day, or middle of the day is- workout or sweat even more! For me, working out is a necessity to maintain your health, like proper nutrition, sleep, and brushing your teeth. Since I can’t easily go for a run outside-it’s too #$@*! hot and polluted- I rely on working out in the gym.

When I’m there I’m focused. It’s no time to socialize or parade myself around. There’s plenty of time for that outside of the gym… don’t mess with me when I’m working out! But seriously, I’m just griping because it all too often happens that I’m busy concentrating on my workout when some clueless person new to the gym comes up to me asking me for instructions on how to use the treadmill, stationary bike or elliptical machine… effectively interrupting the flow of my workout- causing me to slowdown, in order to give instructions in my piece meal Taiwanese and/or Chinese while taking very deep breaths….

Ok I know that's sounds a little harsh- I don't go biting anyone's head off or anything because I realize this often happens not only because the person is clueless, but unable to read the English instructions or button labels. So I always remember to exercise patience with them. After all, I've seen much more clueless people in New York-who don't have language as an excuse- not knowing how to use gym equipment properly...

Friday, July 12, 2002

I just found this very witty "little" website that's amused me for past (oh I'm embarassed to say how long) almost hour: http://www.word-detective.com. It's an amazing resource for those of you interested in the origin of words and catch phrases. Ever wondered about the origins of phrases such as "mind your p's and q's", "kick the bucket" or "in cahoots"... Or about where the words "brouhaha" or "hoodwink" came from?

Yes, I'm serious... I'm going to be visiting this website again since I can't possibly read through it all and perhaps I'll even submit some of my own burning questions.
I just read an interesting article The ups and downs of manhood, which discusses the changing testosterone levels of men throughout their lives.

Here’s a summary of some of the key findings from the article:

Experiments done with sparrows, which are remarkable nurturing parents, showed that the testosterone of male birds dropped upon the birth of baby chicks, but once injected with higher levels of testosterone, they abandoned the baby chicks in sexual pursuit of female birds.

Fathers of newborns have 33% lower testosterone than fathers-to-be.

Trial lawyers’ testosterone levels were 30% higher than other lawyers, actors & unemployed homeless men had higher levels than blue-collar workers, who had 8% higher testosterone than white-collar workers, who had higher testosterone than farmers.

Divorced men had higher testosterone than married men.

Men in the top 2 percentile of testosterone distribution were twice as likely to have extramarital affairs and to be physically abusive.

Women in competitive male environments (and those jailed for violent crimes) seemed to have higher testosterone and seemed to have been born with that quality.

Testosterone-rich men have difficulty in relationships.

These findings were met with criticism by sociologists who caution against reliance on theories of biological disposition. It’s dangerous because these findings convey simple messages that confirm stereotypes about gender and could be misused as the basis for public policy.

I’d like to think that human behavior and psychology doesn’t just boil down to a matter of biology or science. It’s an oversimplification of the human condition to attribute behavior solely to biological, scientific explanation e.g. genes, hormones. There are so many possible factors that influence and shape human behavior.

“Other research has indicated that inherited testosterone did not predispose men to good or bad relationships, but that testosterone fell temporarily during the years immediately before and after people got married and rose temporarily during the years surrounding divorce.”

In other words, it’s difficult to know what’s the cause and effect of fluctuation in testosterone levels. Is there an evolutionary reason for a decrease in testosterone levels? Is male nurturing physiological, or are there sociological factors that cause decreases or increases in testosterone levels?

The article also sites other research findings:

Growing up fatherless decreased testosterone, living in a violent neighborhood seems to increase testosterone.

Is there an adaptive reason for men the suppress aggression? So that children are not put at risk?

My thought/reactions?

Fascinating findings, however, what do we want to do with these findings? What purpose will they serve? Imagine all the women in the world who’d like to know how to manipulate the testosterone level of their partners in their favor…. or how this offers more excuses for the behavior of men. Can good parenting really be chalked up to hormones?

So I guess now I know what I’ve been doing wrong- going for those manly, masculine men who have too much testosterone to settle down or get in touch with their nurturing nature. I must admit, I like the independent, aggression of men- that’s what makes them MEN; perhaps I haven’t “imposed” enough on the men I’ve been in relationships with. It seems that the very thing that makes them so attractive and irresistible is what is bound to doom the relationship. Talk about a catch-22! Since when did relationships become a power struggle and get so complicated?
Taiwan is a land of extremes.

Water rationing has been underway for months in northern Taiwan due to record lows in rainfall. Now that the typhoon season is upon us; the drought is over since there have been heavy rains throughout the island over the past 5 days … but now parts of Taiwan (e.g. Tai Chung) are experiencing FLOODING!

Such is Taiwan, the land of extremes.

What do I mean by that? …that there are extremes in political opinions, personal opinions, in the way that new regulations are implemented, in the range of what’s legal and/or illegal… The society is going through major changes and reforms at such a rapid pace that it seems like new legislation is being enacted daily and there's always some heated debate going on over a new issue or proposed reform.

Friday, July 05, 2002

In Taiwan I’m often asked where I’m from.

The longer I’m here and the more I’m asked this question, the more I wonder how I should answer this question. Am I Taiwanese, Canadian, American, Taiwanese Canadian or Taiwanese American? What proportions of each make up my equation? I realize that I can’t just give a pat answer.

They ask: “Ni se na li ren?” (What place or country are you from?)
I usually just say: “Wo se Mei Guo ren.” (I’m American.)
I realize that this response is not really a sufficient, but it answers the question directly and who really wants to hear my life story?!

The responses I get are pretty hilarious.

Some people simply look back in disbelief and say but you don’t look like one (i.e. WHITE).
They say: “Ni se zhong guo ren.” (You’re Chinese.)
To this sort of comment I’ve often protested: “Bu se.” (No I’m not.)

Meanwhile I’m thinking that I can’t believe that I have to correct people on this point in Taiwan. Back in North America, I thought it was bad enough that people were misinformed of the difference between China and Taiwan.

It’s distressing to me that the people here don’t think that they are Taiwanese, or don’t recognize that they are from Taiwan. Why are some people holding on defiantly to their ties to China? That’s a loaded question that I could probably write a book on. Perhaps it’s because there are many people with relatives from both Taiwan and China, or others who were lured from China to Taiwan under subversive pretenses.

I clarify my response by saying: “Zhe li se bu se Zhong guo?” (Is this China? Or Are we in China now?) “Wo mama baba se Taiwan ren” (My mother and father are from Taiwan).

Other people seem confused, they have no response, but are probably thinking… hmmm she sounds like one (an American when she speaks Taiwanese or Chinese), acts like one, but doesn’t quite look like one (i.e. WHITE).

For others it all seems to make sense; they buy into the story completely. To them I don’t look like a typical Taiwanese person- I can’t be Taiwanese or they rationalize that I must be half American (i.e. WHITE). But when they inquire further about my family, they are surprised or confused again when I tell them that my parents are Taiwanese- born, raised and educated, fluently (Chinese and Taiwanese) speaking Taiwanese people.

Guess the Taiwanese people just don’t have an expansive concept what is American- that Americans come in all different sizes, colors and shapes. Hell, America is still grappling with this. Asian Americas are still viewed as the perpetual outsiders as evidenced by the recent Abercrombie and Fitch and fiasco and politically incorrect headlines not once, but twice, involving figure skater Michelle Kwan at the 2002 Olympics (“Hughes good as gold / American outshines Kwan, Slutskaya in skating surprise”) and 1998 Olympics (“American beats Kwan”).

ABCs and ABTs are a curiosity in Taiwan. I think that I’m causing confusion by not specifying that I’m a Taiwanese born abroad in the U.S. But even after offering this explanation, people are confused and wonder why I can’t speak a lick of Chinese, or why I speak better Taiwanese than Chinese.

Monday, July 01, 2002

Ok yesterday's entry warrants some further explanation...

My dilemma about living in Taipei or Kaohsiung is nothing new. In the past few months I’ve been looking at different job opportunities in Taipei. I’ve had an offer and some impending interviews, but in the end there were complications with work permits and just plain bad timing. There have been new regulations allowing individuals who have lineal blood relatives (who are Taiwan citizens) to obtain work permits. It’s such a new immigration law that it took almost an entire month of asking around to understand the conditions of obtaining such a work permit. No one seemed to be familiar with the new law or with how to apply it! Sometimes it’s amazing how the most routine things often become such a complicated process in Taiwan.

Other positions were promising, but my interview dates didn’t materialize due to timing. In one case I was asked on a Monday to go to Taipei for an interview that Tuesday or Wednesday (!), but I was teaching and couldn’t arrange an interview until the Friday of that same week. The next day (Tuesday) they called, as I expected, to confirm my Friday interview, but instead told me that they just filled the position that day!

So it seemed to me that things were conspiring against me to go to Taipei. Or just call it fate. Perhaps if I had my mind firmly set on relocating to Taipei, I would have launched a more aggressive job search. So I thought about my quality of life in Kaohsiung and what I could accomplish here during the remainder of the year, because I knew that I’d have to give the college a firm answer about teaching there next semester before the end of June. Other steady teaching jobs have come up too.

My conclusions were:

I like the flexibility that teaching offers. I don’t have to be somewhere 9 to 5 and I can do my work (preparing lessons, writing and grading assignments, quizzes and exams) on my own time in my own way and at my own pace. During the fall semester I’ll be able to take Mandarin Chinese classes in morning or during the day. If I had a 9 to 5 job, I’d have to take evening classes, making for a long day. If I teach I’ll have some slots of free time during the day to pursue other interests, like the possibility of doing some volunteer work with women’s organizations. I’m interested in doing some work related to women’s health or women’s rights eventually.

Having the summer off is a nice luxury. By not taking on a full-time job, which would require me starting immediately, I’d be able to relax this summer and be more leisurely. But, I’m not getting paid this summer since I’m not full-time at the college, but I have some part-time teaching jobs and I’m still studying Chinese. I’m thinking about using my spare time to do some traveling, learn how to make various handcrafts or to pursue visual art in some form or another.

This summer I’m also thinking about possibly taking a short trip to somewhere in Southeast Asia with my Mandarin Chinese language exchange partner. She’s an English literature Master student at Sun Yat Sen University and we’ve become fast friends! Our conversations are often hilarious with me stumbling over Taiwanese, Chinese and English, sometimes all in the same sentence! I’ll also be able to take some 3-4 day weekend trips to explore different parts of Taiwan- something I really haven’t done since I came last year. It’s always different when you are living in a place vs. visiting. I haven’t really felt the urge to snap up lots of photos or to go sight seeing all over Taiwan, but there are still plenty of places to be seen here.

I had almost scrapped my idea for writing a practical English textbook for the Airline Management Department at the college where I teach. I was loosing motivation quickly because there really wasn’t much long term benefit for me in writing the book. Selfishly, we must often ask ourselves, what am I getting out of this whole thing?!

Writing the book would be a good experience in it of itself, but is that enough reason for me to forgo a huge chunk of my personal time that could be well spent on other pursuits? I had thought that writing the book would be a good experience if I were working full-time at the college. If I were full-time I’d certainly have more incentive to publish, but I don’t know how much longer I’ll be at the college (i.e. Would I still be working at the college by the time it got published, or would I even ever teach from it, etc.). As it turns out, their requirements for teaching staff have recently been changed, leaving me out of the running for a full-time job (another long story which I may attempt to explain at a later time).

Writing a book is no small feat that requires dedication and time (and perhaps my time could be better spend working towards other personal goals; Did I want to dedicate my free time to a potentially long process that might prevent me from doing other things?) and so on… I really did want to pursue this book idea, but just didn’t have the energy or incentive to do it on my own. In fact I have already put a considerable amount of time and energy into brainstorming ideas, collecting relevant materials (I even initiated contact with the head of ground staff services at EVA airlines at the Kaohsiung International Airport!) and writing an outline for the book. So with great lament I shelved the book project.

Recently, I was talking to another full-time English teacher at the college who had heard about my plans to write the book. He’s had some experience with writing English textbooks. It turns out that he’s thought about doing a similar book and seemed really keen about the project, so I suggested that we could collaborate on it together. Why not? I had basically tossed the idea, but was still mourning the idea of it, since I had already invested a good amount of time on it. But now I’m very excited about this alliance. Now I know that the book will be definitely used as a teaching tool at the college if and when I leave. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. For me I’m eager to write and learn about the process of organizing and publishing a book and for him he welcomes another opportunity to publish. We’re meeting next week to discuss the outline and will start working on it this summer. I’m finding myself rooted in Kaohsiung with many things to look forward to here too.

So I decided to continue teaching at the college next semester for all the reasons above.

And then most recent call for an interview came last Friday, causing me go into the frenzy I described yesterday. It made me realize that the urge to go to Taipei is still strong and that when I’m ready I’ll have to be more steadfast about my choice to move there. It's been a difficult decision to stay in Kaohsiung because I have so many friends in Taipei; I realize that I'm often inspired by the positive energy of people around me. But my networks and resources in Kaohsiung are changing and growing. There will always be many potential opportunities in Taipei for the taking but I also realize that I’m enjoying the lifestyle I have now and that I want to follow through the opportunities that have materialized for me here in Kaohsiung.

I'm resolving to stop complaining about this dilemma. Kaohsiung ain't that bad and I'll know when I'm good and ready to move to Taipei.