Monday, October 31, 2005

A Train Narrative

On the advice of her principal, Ariel and I planned to spend last weekend enjoying an outdoor music festival that was being held in Taroko Gorge. This area is rally amazing and apparently a geologist's paradise; though I might be making part of this up, I'm pretty sure that it is one of the only naturally formed marble canyons in the world. Staring at the majesty in the various vistas throughout the national park, I couldn't help but think about the sheer number of countertops this canyon could produce. But I digress... In order to catch the morning train from Luodong to Xincheng, I went down to Ariel's place on the Friday evening. Like clockwork, my attempts to buy a train ticket early were stymied. The previous Wednesday evening, I had gone to the central train station to buy tickets for the weekend. On this occasion, like every other where I have tried to plan ahead was thwarted by a ticket salesman that continuously shook his head and repeated that all the seats were filled and standing tickets were already sold out. It's startling, but every time I have planned ahead I have been thwarted by a squat bespectacled man or woman behind a thin pane of glass. Perhaps I don't have enough urgency in my voice or they are in the middle of a very tense game of Minesweeper but I am without fail unable to leave the station without a ticket. Not looking forward to the prospect of riding the bus, with the extra hour and a half plus the screaming grade-schoolers that entails, I stopped back at the train station with the bleak hope of getting a last-minute ticket. Approaching the counter, I asked the salesman if there were any tickets left on the next train. Lazily he handed over a ticket but reassured me in the most unconvincing manner possible that it was the last available one. I'm not sure how the logic works, but as long as I show up at the last possible moment, casting off all foresight and reason, I can, without fail, be issued "the last available ticket." Whatever the truth behind the matter really is, I had a spot on the train. No, it wasn't a seat but it was a guarantee that there was at least a square meter for me unless there were a few very large people. Packing myself onto the train I discovered that the only available space was the tiny gangway between the two cars. Being 6'2, many things in Taiwan aren't terribly comfortable. One of these things is the very gangway which is 5'11 on a good day. Hunching over and grimacing, I tried to elicit sympathy from my fellow standing compatriots. Though everyone maxed out a 5'6, they gave me the look of "No, you got the last ticket. Sleep in the bed you made." Sadly, even upon pleading my case with a few of the fellow passengers, I was exiled to the gangway. Unwilling to suffer such indignation silently, I struck back in the only way I could, by reading. At the time, I was starting the quick but hilarious "Road to McCarthy" by Pete McCarthy about his world-wide search for the lesser know outposts of Irish culture. While this is a particularly hostile or dangerous act in most circumstances, reading in cramped corners can get to others. Though most of the people around me were content on standing in total silence, painstakingly avoiding to make eye-contact and being content on counting the rivets in the trim, I picked up my book and began. After a few moments, there was a chuckled, then silence. Ten minutes later, a brief but hearty laugh passed through mouth, a few eyebrows went up before returning to their anti-social resting place. Then I reached the point in the book where he discusses the Barbary Apes and I lost it. The inability to move made it impossible to stifle the laughter and within seconds I was laughing and crying simultaneously. It was one of those laughs that you just can't stop in which every following stimulus only exacerbates the laughter. As I chortled trying to gasp for air, I knew that there was no way those around me could be willing me out of existence. Trying to break away from this potentially lethal laughing bout, I looked up into the astonished and mildly fearful eyes of those pressed up against me. They new I was trapped but that they were also trapped in this situation. The partly looks on their faces seemed to question weather I was going to lash out at them at any moment. As the train pulled to its first stop and I gained at least a semblance of my posture, those around me took advantage of the movement to put some space between them and me. Having reaffirmed my existence, I scuttled out of the gangway to the nearest open space. Breathing a sigh of relief, I regained the use of my arms and once again picked up the book, ensuring that I would have a better spot in a matter of minutes.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

An Open Question

After being thwarted in our attempts to run in the Taroko Gorge half-marathon [ a side note, when people tell you about something exciting that you might enjoy, it probably means you only have a few moments to sign up for it. Damn recency effect...], I resolved to run the Taibei ING half-marathon that I have been wavering about for quite some time. Although the ING marathon/half-marathon/10 K is Taiwan's largest race [between 25,000 and 35,000 people come out], the organization is delightfully sketchy. Due to the impending deadline, I was forced to turn in my application in person to the Chinese Road Running Association's main office. Arriving at Zhongshan Soccer Stadium, I was instructed to cross the field and head towards a office that is underneath the stands. Sadly, soccer is a third or fourth rung sport in Taiwan; baseball, basketball and pool easily outstrip soccer as the most watched/played sports. Hence, Zhongshan stadium has all of the charms of prison recreation yard with a paint job to follow. Finally arriving at the office, I was shocked by the boiler room feel it gave off. For a brief moment I wondered if there even was a marathon or whether they were just a group of media savvy con men. I guess I'll find out on December 18.

And now the question..... sadly, blogs aren't very interactive.

If my insurance excludes coverage for the following

"Injury sustained while taking part in the following activities: Amateur or professional sports or athletics, except this does not include Amateur sports or athletics which are non-contact and undertaken solely for leisure, recreational, entertainment or fitness purposes unless such sports or athletics are otherwise excluded by this provision."

Am I in the clear if I take another trip through the o' so delightful world of socialized medicine?

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Meanderings and Tourist Traps

This past weekend, Ariel and I had a delightful time wandering around Taibei and nearby environs. On Saturday, we went to the new show at the Museum of Contemporary Art which has further bolstered my position that it is one of the most accessible modern art museums I have been to. So as to not tire you with the details, I'll point out the highlights of the multi-faceted show. The overall theme of the exhibition was the interaction between art and design, admittedly broad, it gave the artists a great deal of leeway. After buying our tickets, Ariel and I couldn't resist borrowing a rap audio guide for the exhibits. Following the blank stare after our request, the woman handed over two small mp3 players and had us fill out the appropriate paper work. Within minutes we were on our way..... Actually, within seconds of getting the players, Ariel and I had both managed to seemingly lose the entire audio guide. As we fumbled with the surprisingly tricky four buttons offered to us, we both managed to find the radio and random other sound that were included on the nether regions of the machine's small hard drive. After a little cursing and a lot of laughing, we both managed to get the audio guides back on track and in sync with the room we had been standing in for about ten minutes. Interestingly, the audio files for each exhibit were introductory raps by a Taiwanese singer about the artist and the exhibit. Needless to say, this was a bit more successful in some cases than others. At the start, we were greeted with two surprisingly generic feeling rooms, one filled with assorted Japanese action figures that seemed design with the Groovie Ghoulies in mind; the other filled with elaborate paper cut-outs [think second grade snowflakes but done really well] as wall hangings and lampshades. Exiting that room , we entered a bodega that would not have been out of place in Wilt Chamberlain's house. The entirety of the room was decorated and covered with foam tubing cut to various lengths. There were a few quasi-futuristic chairs as well as piles of the foam tubing to rest in. As a few extremely energetic children jumped around knocking various pieces of the tubing over, Ariel and I climbed into the corner and reclined in a pile of the foam tubing. Interestingly, the foam tubing had an amazing consistency that allowed you to sink down into it while is slowly conformed to your body shape. Slowly sinking into this bright pink corner, we looked at each other and decided we had to get out before we had resolved to spend the rest of the afternoon there. After a few more exhibits, we got into a line to climb up a staircase to the ceiling where one ceiling tile had been removed in order to install an exhibit. Since the stairs only supported on person at a time, we waited a few minutes before our chance to check out what was inside. Ariel went first sticking her head into the tiny opening before giving out a noticeable giggle. Uncertain as to what to expect, I headed up the stairs and thrust my head into the opening only to knock my head on the low overhang. This exhibit, like most everything else in Taiwan, was not build with anyone over 5'11 in mind. When I finally looked around, I was presented with 8 inch by 8 inch square of fake dirt covered with two or three tiny miniatures of men riding ants. Suppressing a giggle, I headed down the stairs noticing that the line had grown considerably since we started standing in it. That exhibit was amazing in its ability to construct and maintain the viewer's anticipation. As I looked back to some of the other visitors, a few had faces of displeasure at having waited for something so unremarkable.
The next day Ariel and I ventured out of Taibei proper towards Danshui. Originally a port of historical significance for a number of different groups, it is now a delightfully energetic tourist trap. While I had been expecting a scene that would call to mind nineteenth-century representations of ports, I was greeted with a few boulevards filled with food stands and people hawking everything under the sun. My personal favorite was the store called "Turd Baby." No, I'm not kidding, there is a store by this name on the waterfront where you can spend your loose change on little toys contained in small plastic bubbles. Anyway, after buying a Mister Tofu Head and eating a somewhat absurd amount of xiaochi , we headed to the opposite side of the harbor to the other half of the tourist trap. Despite my reservations, Ariel convinced me that we should rent a tandem bike and tool around the 7 or 8 km of bike trails near the shore. Though neither of us had ever ridden a tandem, an absurdly busy weekend afternoon with paths filled with young and old alike seemed like the ideal time to start. After a few aborted attempts, we finally got going and headed off through the various trails nearly ramming or crashing into others at every turn. About two hours later, we called it a day and started the long trek by to Taibei with a strange level of satisfaction about having been to a multi-ethnic tourist trap.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Take that Genetics!

Well, it was bound to happen, so here's the brief photo-documentary that chronicles my journey from foreign exchange student, to gulag resident, to my final reinstitution to society as a European soccer player.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Another Alternate Universe in a Coffee Shop

Although my visit to Yilan this past weekend was proof beyond a doubt that I emit some sort of pheromone that attracts all forms of attention [positive, negative, confusing, just plain strange, etc.] in countless contexts, one of the encounters is too good not to mention. After purchasing my train ticket to Luodong, I stopped by a nearby Ikari coffee to review for an upcoming test. Though I was tempted by the plethora of gourmet hot dogs and other assorted foodstuffs, I settled for a cup of coffee and headed back into the cavernous coffee shop. An important side not at this point is that a large number of Taiwanese coffee shops, especially the ones that are part of chains, are deceivingly small and often span tw0 to three floors. That being said, as I wandered past the first condiment island and dish return I entered the first major section and was perplexed by what I came across. Across the room, was a group of ten or more females all wearing matching clothing staring silently at magazines in front of them. Since there weren't that many people in the shop, all that could be heard was the frantic rustling of the pages. Unwilling to let this bizarre encounter go undocumented, I saddled up at a nearby table and pulled out my books. Over time, I realized that each female was looking through a different beauty magazine. Still perplexed, I slowly sipped my coffee and played the waiting game. Gradually, the stopped shuffling through the pages and one by one pulled out absurdly complex make-up kits. Thereupon, in total silence, they all attempted to match the chosen picture form the beauty magazine. Needless to say, a number of the examples would have made Rupaul blush, but I digress. After a half an hour of shellacking on make-up, the alpha female arrived and informed them all that they could order food and drinks. Once their Bacchanalian feast of strangely colored blended drinks and waffles had been consumed, the alpha female asked for the table to be cleared. Once it was cleared, she filled it with countless unopened beauty products and quickly began explaining the relative merits of each item. I felt like I had walked in on some creepy Mary Kay meeting attended by the pod people. Though I couldn't make out everything the alpha female was saying [sorry, my fashion vocabulary is woefully poor... plus, it's worse in Chinese], the gist was that the products were the ones the girls were going to push during the week. After countless, nods of acknowledgement, the group departed and headed off to the mall to their jobs of convincing shoppers they need the latest advancements in make-up technology. The whole situation was a little to surreal to take in at 8:30 in the morning and I left the coffee shop with the nagging feeling that this was just a small segment of the Clinique militia that is bound to shape what I find beautiful in others. It's sad to say, if they get they're way we'll all end up looking like bad prom dates.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Doing the Social Worker Shuffle to Super Stardom

Honestly, I can't remember who referred to the average white American male's dancing as the social worker shuffle but it is far to apt not to utilize in this situation. This brief story begins after numerous missed connections with one of my language exchange partners. After an unintentional two week-hiatus, we met up for a cup of coffee and a chat. Somewhere over the course of this discussion, I agreed to go to a Taiwanese club with a group of her friends. I'm not sure exactly sure what compelled me top make this decision but come that friday evening I was standing at the entrance of a Taiwanese club. Admittedly, I wasn't exactly sure what to expect having successfully, and consciously, avoided clubs for the past few years. Meeting my language partner, we handed over the cover fee and headed down a flight of stairs into the club. Not used to being cover charges, I did feel like I was being taken to the cleaners. Upon arriving at the bar, I stopped dumbfounded.

In any chronicle of bad ideas there are a number of wonderful examples, e.g. the children's crusade, the XFL, the Flow-bee, etc. As I stared at the drink list, I added this bar's policy to that very list. With total disregard to the idea of tolerance or moderation, this bar's policy is "All you can drink." I'm not kidding, as long as you can saddle up to the bar, it is there policy to serve you. After imagining the potential body of count of a policy like this would be in the states, I noticed the scam associated with this policy’s implementation. While the cover of the club is 500 NT (about 16 dollars), an individual can be fined 300 NT for each time he or she spills a drink, intentionally pours out a drink, or vomits. Needless to say, the club absolutely fleeces those who have little self-restraint. I'm almost positive one patron of the club had to hand over at least 1500 NT in a two hour segment. But, enough about policy and onto my meteoric rise to the apex of the club scene.

For better or worse, I had a working knowledge of the dj's entire set. Over the course of the evening/morning, I was assaulted by a eerily familiar smattering of popular hip-hop hits of the past few years. Though I suspect the dj merely popped in "Now, That's What I Call Rap Hits" volumes 45 through 47, he still seemed to look busy. Though I cringed at a number of the songs that were being lapped up by the audience [the Baja Men's "Who Let the Dogs Out?" gives me chills to this day], I was a little relieved to not be hearing any more China-pop. Anyway, despite the encouragement of my compatriots, I was steering clear or the dance floor as best I could, content with the chit-chat and people watching. After a little while I was struck by an intriguing aspect of this club scene; despite an incredible emphasis on fashion and making oneself scene in this environment [my personal favorite was the girl wearing nothing but a bikini top and velour hot pants who wore the pained look of "what the hell was I thinking?"], the majority of Taiwanese were strikingly reserved in their movements. The dancing, in large part, was reminiscent of junior high dances where people packed together and kind of swayed so as to not stand out in any way. Now I must pause and preface the rest of the story with the reminder that I am not much of a dancer by any stretch of the imagination; I don't particularly enjoy dancing nor do I have the coordination that is typically associated with it. Despite this, as well as the genetic predisposition to avoid dancing environments [I take after my father], within a few minutes of being on the dance floor, I was surrounded by numerous individuals attempting reduplicated my random flailings. After two or three songs, I found myself directly in the limelight, front and center on the club's elevated dancing platform. Though I tried to attribute this to being some sort of sick joke, I found that numerous individuals who seemed as though they genuinely wanted me to be in that position were urging me on. Not wanting to wear out my welcome, I left the stage after a song to numerous pats on the back and other assorted acknowledgements from random patrons. After an extended break I was, once again ushered onto the dance floor by some random people that were mumbling about how I needed to lead some more dances and so, once again, I was pushed front and center. Thankfully, the sun began to rise and fatigue set in, so the crowd could no longer hold me captive on the go-go-esque platform.

All in all, in spite of all my preconceived ideas about the encounter, that evening saw my meteoric rise to top of the Taiwanese club scene. Thus, I can finally take my place next to Bono and Michael Flatley as an Irishman for whom it is acceptable to be sweating profusely onstage to the crowd's jubilation...... alas, I'm not too sure I want to be in that Pantheon quite yet.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Experiment in Terror or a Quick Sampling of Taiwanese Oenology

Apologies to Henry Mancini, it's just that the title and feel of his score from "Night of the Hunter" is far too suitable in capturing the overall character of the following story.

After a particularly frustrating day of class in which I was continuously affronted by the more baffling aspects of Chinese pedagogy [e.g. semi-ritualistic shaming, hour-long pop tests on entirely unrelated materials given two minutes before the class is scheduled to end, etc.], I headed to the grocery store to pick up some supplies. Due to my frustration and hunger, I tossed a bottle of Jade Spring Cabernet Sauvignon in my basket against my better judgment. Up til that point, I had been consciously avoiding buying wine in Taiwan. Without an established wine culture, the few selections that are available are typically stomach-churning at best. Ignoring this reality, I vowed to try something entirely produced for Taiwanese consumption. I should have taken the warning signs from the bottles that were next to this brand which were merely labeled pu(2)tao(2)jiu(3) i.e. Red Wine. Alas, I had sealed my own fate. Upon returning home and starting to cook my dinner, I carefully screwed off the cap of the bottle. With the utmost precision I poured out half a glass and began to gently swirl it around giving it the chance to breathe. Determined to put my experience from Oregon wine country to use, I lifted the glass to my nose, closed my eyes and inhaled deeply. I mentally noted the complex and somewhat pungent aroma that hit my nostrils. "Mmm... cinnamon, gym sock, Wyler's not quite grape flavor..." The first two I chocked up to the ambient atmosphere of my water-stained apartment. Pulling the glass away from my face I twirled it once again trying to get an idea of its legs. I have always been a little baffled by what exactly I am supposed to be looking for in this step. In my case, I believe it was to ensure that there was no debris floating in the glass, but I digress. With this step completed, I was finally ready to taste it and savor the complexities of a Taiwanese table wine. At first, I was mildly overcome by the nagging taste of dry rot. The best image I could summon was wood decaying in a cellar somewhere. The second wave was something between Manischewitz and Welch's grape juice. As expected, the mildly pleasant familiarity of these flavors were quickly washed away and replaced by the final, and most pungent aspect, wet St. Bernard. Needless to say, I'm not quite sure what to do with the rest of the bottle. I fear that any of the potential benefits from a glass a day will be instantly counteracted by the other damage I imagine it is doing to my body. It would be cruel to subject others to it and I'm not about to cook with it. Perhaps, I'll follow my previous tenant's example and merely squirrel it away in some unexpected corner of the apartment for the next poor sap to find.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

A Fumbling Religious Encounter

This past weekend as I sent Ariel and her fellow fulbrighter's on their way, I stopped in a nearby coffee shop to do some homework and people watch. After ordering my cup of coffee and holding back the impulse to purchase a gourmet hot dog, I saddled up to the booth facing the sidewalk. After an hour or so of working, I looked up to find an old man staring back at me and grinning. Although he didn't appear homeless, his clothing had seen better days and could have used a bit of a wash. After pointing to my dictionary and smiling, I realized that I was in for another exciting cultural. Within a few brief moments, he had saddled up next to me in the cramped coffee shop. As I turned and began to introduce myself, I noticed that his chin was covered in betel nut shells and his lips and teeth were stained red with their juices. As he began to introduce himself, I pulled back slightly to avoid the flying chunks that were precariously dangling from his chin. Noticing that I was pulling back slightly, he edged closer and I was overpowered by the stench of some unnamable Taiwanese liquor. From what I could make out of his delightful mixture of Taiyu and Mandarin, he had previously lived in the US and had tried to be an actor in some capacity. Apparently, he had been in numerous films as an extra and was hoping to be a big star but it hadn't work out. As I sympathized with him over out cups of coffee, during which there were no less than seven toasts, he said it was nice to talk to a guy from the US. After forty-five minutes of this conversation and the tacit awareness that I would have to be the one to end the conversation, I began making motions that I needed to return to my studies. Thankfully, he acknowledged this and began making motions to get up when he suddenly stopped. Turning back to me he asked for a great deal of personal information including, but not limited to: full name, birth date, my phone number, email address, address in Taiwan, address in the United States, high school, college... Feigning ignorance and homelessness, I tore off a slip of paper and, somewhat illegibly [not to say that I ever write legibly], scribbled down my English and Chinese names. Although he looked a little disappointed, he motioned for a piece of paper and my pen. Tearing off a small section, he began painstakingly writing down something in English that I couldn't quite make out. After a few minutes, he handed the slip back to me and asked me if I could understand his writing. Looking at the slip of paper and looking back at the man sitting next to me, I had a hard time reconciling what was on the piece of paper. While I had expected his name, number, address from our brief exchange, instead I found myself in sole possession of the address of the Taibei's Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saint's. Turning back to my guest who, upon finishing his coffee, was grinning with his betel nut stained teeth and reeking of alcohol, I was a little baffled. After he relinquished the note, he offered to take me to their church in the afternoon to which I replied that I was far too busy. Although he looked a little sad, he perked up and said that he hoped to see me there in the near future before heading out the door and waving goodbye. Before coming to Taiwan, I knew that I was going to have to interact with Mormons in some capacity, I just wasn't expecting it to be like that.

Just Give Me Twenty-Four Hours and a Club

Well, I'm still alive after the, as CNN put it, "Super Typhoon." Actually, the most dangerous thing about the weekend storm was the fact that Ariel and I were actually compelled to watch a portion of the completely unnecesary remake of Rollerball. After forty-five minutes of that piece of cinematic refuse, the thought of being impaled by a flying chunk of concrete actually sounded like a gift from above. Thankfully, we didn't have to resort to that type of self-mutilation at any point during the tedium of the storm. On the bright side, I got to spend the whole day with Ariel, even if it us lounging around praying for a better Dolph Lundgren movie to come on. Interesting side note, buried somewhere amidst some eighties Taiwanese legislation is a law that makes the appearance of Dolph Lundgren on television paramount to Taiwanese society. Maybe it's his tough-guy, chisled, arian physique combine with his ability to decimate small, sometimes non-existent, autocratic countries with nothing but his will to conquer and a few hundred rounds of ammunition. Whatever the case may be, it has resulted in Taiwanese television playing his movies seemingly non-stop. To ensure that there is always one of his movies playing, nearly every English language station is forced to play two to three of his movies a day.

I'm sure there is an academic paper in this somewhere but I have no idea where to start with it. Plus, I would probably be forced to watch so of the cinematic gems like "Hidden Assassin", "Bridge of Dragons", or "Fat Slags."

On an interesting and somewhat sad note, despite playing the role of the meathead in the vast majority of his films, Dolph Lundgren is actually a fairly intelligent individual who holds a masters in chemical engineering and was awarded a Fulbright to attend MIT before becoming a movie star. I'm sad to say that I actually knew this information before double-checking the IMDB but am proud to see that Ariel is finally in Dolph's league.