Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Things I will miss, Pt. II

The bling. On everything.
(Yes, that rabbit's ear is pierced.)

The exercise machines in the parks.

Sunsets at Danshui. The seabirds circling and landing on lolling fishing rods atop narrow boats. The boats cutting across the river like dragon heads on the surface. The black mountain against the plum and navy skyline, city lights sprinkled at its base.

Their scatological restaurants.
Modern Toilet Restaurant has several locations in Taiwan and features toilet seats as chairs and sh*t-shaped lamps. The food, which is served in toilet bowls, (the dreaded)squatties or urinals, is so-so.

(I eat a lot of crap so I suppose this isn't a stretch.)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

My school mates

I will miss my classmates.

We have come from all over the world: France, Japan, the U.S., Saint Vincent. Many are scholarship recipients from Spanish-speaking countries, Panama, Nicaragua, because they are among the 22 nations that are Taiwan's official diplomatic allies.

They have received scholarships to study at a Taiwanese university for five years - the Mandarin Language Center is just their first stop.

We have been preparing for our final exam, whispering to each other in the library, going out for lunches, grilled cheese sandwiches at the Toasteria location in Shida, before hitting the listening lab. Fa Bin, a percussionist from Colombia speaks to Gong Zi, a lingerie designer from Japan, in Japanese. Gong Zi speaks to me using the meager Chinese that we have learned.

The other day, we walked to school after a hearty lunch, singing "Liang Zhe Lao Hu" to the tune of Frere Jacques. A Frenchman, two people from Saint Vincent and a Canadian meandering in a sunny alleyway, singing about two deformed tigers. One has no eyes and one has no ears.

(The only other children's song that I know in Chinese is about an elephant who went to war, armed with a rifle and then ate hot sauce.)

Friday, November 27, 2009

Freakishly large mountain friends

I like to make friends in the mountains. All of the bugs here are three times larger, like in Super Mario Bros.'s Giant World.

Me high-fiving the biggest daddy longlegs that I've ever seen.

I watch a black butterfly fall and sweep up only to break back a second before flying into a spider web. The web stretches five feet, anchored in four corners to bushes and its creater rests at the centre, plucking the strings with its knobby, twig-like legs, as if playing a harp. I'm as stunned as the butterfly. "That's a big effing spider."

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A trip to Hualien and Taroko Gorge (rated PG-13, contains some adult content)

As we walk under a stone canopy with white hard hats jiggling on our noggins and gravel crunching under our soles, Tina points below to the water that eddies in the gorge.
"The water is so blue. I'll bet they came here last night and poured Jell-O mix into the stream."
A man in his seventies stands at the edge of a jetty and films the scenery at Taroko Gorge. Green hills and marble-walled cliffs. Black caverns like empty eye-sockets. At the mountain base, the almost ivory stone looks like stretched ligaments, disappearing into the Liwu river.
We meet eyes and smile. We will never run out of things that will amaze us, huh?

We're human so we look and see faces. We see humans. We see living things.
Our tour guide shows us the elephant, the alligator - "Don't worry, it's sleeping," she quips, - the Aboriginal head. She even shows us Obama.
"I've known this bear for a long time," she says as the bus slows near a protrusion of stone.
"I don't even need to go to the Taipei zoo," I tell Tina. "Where's the bear?"
"Right there."
"I see a rock."
Our guide is eager to show us "Mother Nature" - a set of green mountains arranged so that you might imagine that you are looking at a woman, from a gynecologist's point. The woman's bent legs. And the mountain is even peeing a small stream. I wouldn't have seen that. And seriously, who thought of that?
"And this," the guide says proudly and shows us a photo of a rock formation, "is Father Nature."

"Okay," I concede. "I see a penis."

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Drink this and you will be marriage-worthy...

As we approach the Taipei Xia-Hai City God Temple, famed for getting worshippers hooked up, Tina says: "The Gods are like, 'You again?' You who cannot find love that lasts. You need to take some lessons.
"Usually people pray for love and then they come back here to thank the Gods with biscuits from the wedding. I'm like, 'Hey, remember me from a year ago?'

"What's up with that?!?"

I write the names of my best friends on money to burn for the Gods and I pray for decent men.

Tina and I stand by a chart with statistics on how many worshippers have struck the matrimonial jackpot (in 2008, apparently 9,316 couples got married after praying to the 43-centimetre tall statue of the Matchmaker). We wordlessly sip blessed tea brewed with red dates and Chinese wolfberries. The sign on the dispenser reads: "The tea will make you more attractive and help you get married soon."

I drink two cups.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Eating things to death in Seoul

I must admit that my best friend and I are sometimes too eager to prove that we are not girls. Well, we are. But not the eek-a-mouse kind.

So we set out this weekend in search of something that we could chew to death.

Seoul's Noryangjin fish market has plenty of choices. The tanks and buckets on either side of the wet pavement are filled with little eels, medium-sized eels, big eels. Tiny shrimp, the size of pumpkin seeds. Huge prawn, their eyes like black peppercorns. Bloated fish lying on beds of ice, their abdomens unfolded and pointed toward the ceiling lights like a body after an autopsy. Gutted fish like fat, grey, leather purses, open, items falling out. A man carefully put live squid into his mouth. He held the creature with his thumb and his index finger and directed it into his mouth like he was eating canapé. A white tentacle hung down his chin like a tendril of mucuous.
We eventually hid from the cold inside a small restaurant down the street with three tables inside. Two men and a woman were seated at the table furthest from the door. They served us makkoli and banchan and told us to wait.

Ten minutes later, the woman who runs the eatery came inside. She looked annoyed. When Brandon told her that he wanted to eat octopus alive, miming wrapping the octopus around a chopstick, she made a face.

My best friend and I knew the moment we saw the two soft creatures sliding around the plastic bowl that we could not do it. Not because we are girls. But they were so big. Not the baby octopus that my Korean friend Yuni told us to eat. ("Oh my God, we're going to eat babies," my friend had said on the subway.)
The woman stuck the chopsticks through its bulbous head, its tentacles clinging to the bowl, to the half empty plastic bottle of makkoli, and thrust it toward Brandon's face. There was a momentary look of panic in his eyes. Maybe the restauranteur was afraid that he would lose his nerve, or maybe that she would lose hers, so she rammed the fist-sized clump of squirming, wet, grey matter into his mouth.
"Chew, chew, chew," my friend told Brandon. "Chew, chew, chew."

He chewed for awhile. "It's been like 10 minutes," my best friend joked.

"I think I just ate its eyes," he said, once he could. "I just got two crunchy things."

The woman chopped up the other octopus and tossed the pieces in garlic and oil. The wormy bits wriggled and wriggled on the plate. We ate them with hot sauce and salt but I felt a little like a girl.

Our hero, Brandon.

What the girls ate. Brandon is still chewing his octopus.

National Geographic video about eating nakji, click here.

Yuni's instructions:

Go to a big fish market which is Noryangjin Soosan(fish) Sijang(Market) or Garak Sijang, and look for a stall that sells only octopus. They will have small ones.

1. Pick your octopus. 세발낙지 작은거 (Try to bargain.)

2. Go to a bistro or a small restaurant in the market. They cook what you purchased in the market for a fee (alcohol is separate). Ask them to cut the head and steam or boil. Rest of the part, u will have as it is: 머리는 삶아주시고 나머지는 통째로 주세요. 자르지 마세요.

3. Try with vinegarated hot sauce(초고추장) or seasame oil with salt(참기름장).

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

I will name it Dumpling

"You should keep a record of your growing stomach on your blog," Tina says one day while I rub my abdomen. "Every two weeks we'll update it with pictures."
"Like a pregnant woman?"
"Except that there's no baby. Just Yong Yin's junk."
"Hey, hey. Listen. Junk is back here."

Monday, November 9, 2009

What the hell am I saying, Pt.II

I have been thinking lately that I need some tenderness.
No one likes to hug. No one likes to shake hands. When I hug someone, it is like hugging a mannequin. When I shake someone's hand, it feels like squeezing a limp chicken's foot.
Instead, the people in this city have shown me genuine kindness. When I could not figure out the non-linear bus route, a girl by the bus stop offered me a ride. When I could not figure out how to order fried chicken, a young couple ordered it and paid for it. I chased them down the street with money and they ran from me, twisting their bodies to swat the air, as if I was a fly. When I did not know if I would like the taste of a bun, the bakery owner gave me one to taste, for free.
But I am craving palpable kindness. I want to feel pressure.
This, however, was not what I was talking about:

At the Taipei Fireworks Festival at the Dadaocheng Wharf this weekend, I felt the pressure of hundreds of thousands of people. (Last year's event attracted more than half a million.)
I tried to leave against the crush of sweaty bodies. We all squashed against each other and swayed together, collectively correcting our balance. There were children at my hip that I could not see. There were dogs in between my legs that I could only feel.
I have not been this squeezed since I was born.
I lost my new friend in the all of the pushing and the pressing.
My new friend, Eddy, had approached me at the wharf, hours prior to the light show when there was room to walk. He did not speak much English. I did not speak much Chinese. But we tried our best.

Later at Villa with some friends:
"What did you talk about?"
"I told him that I liked fireworks."
"Wo xihuan 'Pow! Pow! Pow!" I said and opened and closed my hands above my head, pumping them like a cheerleader.
Tina laughed. "You didn't say, 'Da pao' did you?"
"I don't remember. Why?"
"Da pao literally means big cannon. It's a slang for sex."
"I like sex, sex sex!" Tina said, imitating my cheerleading moves.
"He was probably there, looking for you all night, waiting for the big bang."
Tina explained the term to our Taiwanese friends. "The big bang...you know, finish with a bang."
"In science, the big bang was the start," David said. "English," he said, "is full of paradoxes."
I have the guy's e-mail address. I could write him to apologize for ditching him but I would not want to give him the wrong idea.
That is also not the kind of pressure that I am talking about.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The gun show

Tina tells me that I am fortunate to have seen the honour guards marching and lowering the flag at Chiang-kai Shek Memorial Hall or National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall (the name changes depending on the party in power).

The former Democratic Progressive Party government withdrew the guards for a time.

It's only nice to share one's good fortune (rifle drill 5 p.m.).

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Because edible underwear is not enough

This place has candy in the shape of maxi pads but I can't find a drugstore that carries tampons?
"Mmm, Sophie did good," I say to Tina. "These are excellent. So soft!"
"The marshmallows here are really soft, softer than in Canada."
(I spend the following days eating all of the marshmallows I come across in Taipei.)

Photo: Imitation sanitary napkins, made out of marshmallows, 322 calories per 100 grams. One package, 95 NTD.

Translation: Sophie, soft, cotton experience. For all day use, dual colour. Super thick cotton layers.
Loving passionately hygienic marshmallows. You've never had it this clean!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Animal Kingdom

Tina and I go back to the Japanese/Taiwanese restaurant on Guiyang Street with the massive sushi.
A plate of six is 240 NTD or about $7.

The slice of salmon could wrap around the mound of rice twice, being the size of my hand. Tina lifts a piece to her face and I tell her she looks like the Phantom of the Opera.

After two pieces, it's kind of disgusting, I tell Tina. "It's just so much flesh," I say. "I feel like that pride of lions that we saw on TV."

(On the way back from the Confucius temple last month, Tina and I stopped at an electronics store to watch National Geographic.)

A moment later at the resto, Tina and I find something more disgusting. A couple sitting a few tables away floss their teeth. "I tell you, there's no social deviancy in this country. People just break the rules and everyone tolerates it," Tina says.
The man leans across the table and flosses his lady's teeth.
"We're in a zoo. We're lions. They're monkeys," I say. "Look at them picking at each other."
"Don't do that in public," Tina says. "You don't do that. You don't floss. You don't clip your nails on the MRT."
The couple leaves and Tina stands. "Where are you going?"
She goes to the empty table and returns. "They just left the floss on the table on a napkin," she says. "When I make wontons, I have the decency to take them with me!"
(She uses my expression "making wontons" which means filling kleenex with snot.)
"Who made you the social police?"
"I know that I'm not the social police but sometimes I have the urge to tell people, like that girl sitting with her underwear showing."
"I tell people. Once there was a guy on the MRT who had his fly open. I followed him to Taipei Main Station and then tapped him on the shoulder. I pointed at my crotch and mimed pulling up my zipper. He looked at me like I was nuts. Then I gestured at his crotch, which probably made it worse.
"When he finally got it, I ran away so he wouldn't be embarrassed."
See? We're not all animals. People have feelings.

A few items that we like to order. The resto (at 116 Guiyang Street, near Kunming Street, a 10-minute walk from Ximen MRT, exit 6) always has a line-up and is sometimes closed on Sundays or Mondays. No English menu is available.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

How to lose weight in Taiwan

I will try anything once. Within reason. Here are a few culinary delights that require some courage to taste - in most cases, courages that I have yet to call up.

A thousand-year-old egg: I have avoided trying preserved egg in Canada but Tina looked so positively excited about eating the dark, green goo oozing out, I figured, why not?

"Do you taste the urine?" Tina says.
"What? No, don't tell me."
"Do you taste it?"
"No, I have a cold."
"My dad said that they used to soak the eggs in horse urine to preserve it. Now they just use chemicals that have similar properties."

(The fried silk buns at the left of the egg are heavenly. Location: Golden Chicken Garden on Yongkang street, near Ice Monster and Shida University.)
Fried lizards and crickets: The dinosaur-themed Jurassic Restaurant on Bade Road was mostly empty when we ate there but it was a weeknight; and according to this recent Reuters story, the place is bumping. I just found it all strange.
Snake, turtles, etc: I found Taipei's infamous Snake Alley or Huaxi Street Night Market (by the Longshan Temple MRT) to be sad and seedy.
The shaded street is lined with sex shops, massage parlours and restaurants displaying caged snakes and rats. A bowl of snake soup costs 150 NTD or about $5. There was something tragic about seeing a pile of pale, headless, shell-less sea turtles on a counter outside one eatery. On the way out, a man invited us to try a massage with dull meat cleavers.

Gay Pride in Taipei

Taipei's pride parade reminded me of Toronto's festival, except that the guys here wear buttless chaps and medical face masks.
Hey, sexiness doesn't negate the need to guard against H1N1.

After the parade, the crowd of about 25,000 was treated to a performance by Rock In Hose, a new burlesque dance troupe in Taipei. I met one of the dancers last week at Roxy 99 because Little D was mesmerized by her cleavage.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Stuff I will miss in Taipei...

Their chips: Lonely God comes in a delightful rotini form!

Their salesmenship. This man somehow knew that I am disaster prone (at a banquet, I once lit a bread basket on fire during my boss's speech) and was nice enough to assure me that these $3 purses are fire-retardant.

Their need to use every space.

Their scatological toys and candies.

Their creative ways of helping the environment: this bag is from 7-Eleven.

Their love of all things that are cute.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

English class at Roxy

I was sitting on my couch feeling sorry for myself in a worn t-shirt that Sean lovingly calls "that one with all the f-ing bears on it" when Sandy called at 11:30 p.m. We're going out, she said.

When I climbed into her car an hour later, an aspiring actor who she used to manage was sitting in the front seat. He was about 10 years younger than us, wore his hair like the Beatles and was extremely shy to speak. His nick name in English means Little Dollar.

Sandy told him that I'm from Winnipeg, you know, where Winnie The Pooh is from.

Roxy 99 occupies a square, underground room and looks like a smoky, grimy university pub. Being near Shida university, it was packed with foreigners, dancing around small, round, pub tables. The deejay played songs that were popular when I was in university (made me feel as if I was at Scandals in Winnipeg again): Lou Bega's Mambo No. 5, Nelly's Ride Wit Me, Prodigy's Smack My Bitch Up.

"My name is Winnie!" A girl yelled to me over the music. "Like Winnie the Pooh. And I'm chubby like him!"
"Hey, I'm from Winnipeg where Winnie the Pooh is from!"

I struck up a friendly conversation with another Canadian. He said: "My dad sent me here because he's an asshole. He sent me to the best schools in Canada, like Harvard. You're looking at the cure for cancer right here. You know, the human genome..."

He told me that his grandfather, was David Suzuki. (On second reference, David Suzuki was also his great-grandfather.) I kept turning my face away so that he could talk into my ear but he kept craning his neck so that he could talk into my mouth like it was a microphone. Finally, he snapped: "You don't want to listen!"

I stared at him, my mouth agape. (It was like that time when I was waiting for a bus in Toronto and a guy came up to me and asked for the time. When I told him, he growled: "Why do you think I care what f-ing time it is?")

Little Dollar eventually warmed to me. He taught me how to say some dirty phrases in Japanese and I corrected his grammar when he spoke these phrases in English. I taught him some others, which at first, was hilarious for both of us.

But then, for the rest of the night, he practiced them. He would suddenly turn to me and say the phrase, slowly and seriously.
"No, preposition then object."
If it was right, I would respond: "Duei!"

At 4 a.m., we left the bar and the sloppy drunkards inside. Little D said he knew a restaurant that was open at this hour. When we rounded a corner, near Guting MRT, he announced proudly: "McDonald's!"

We ordered McMuffins and Sandy ordered a corn soup. Upstairs, more than a dozen people were sleeping at the tables, a casually dressed middle-aged woman, vagrants, university students, drunk clubbers, their heads buried into their arms like it was nap time in kindergarten.

As we finished our breakfast, Little D asked me an English question.
"It's 'go down on,'" I corrected.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Winter home

I used to walk in slivers of shade made by lamp posts or trees.

Now I wait under awnings, looking up at the droplets that fall in drunken patterns, making it appear as snow. Meanwhile cockroaches scramble up from flooded sewers as worms do from sodden grass in Canada. Except cockroaches snap like firecrackers under your shoe.

Winter has come to Taipei.

The city is cool and grey and walking is more bearable as long as you have an umbrella which you can buy for a few dollars on any street corner, in all colours and patterns, with ruches or lace on the edges.
The journey through my neighbourhood is a comforting routine.

Before nightfall, everyone is busy. A man marinates steaks in plastic bins. In the stall beside him, the girl behind the fresh lime juice stand with the spiky faux eyelashes and the adorable round face greets me with a nasally, high-pitched, elongated: "Ni hao!" Across the way, four people sit at a table, wrapping light pink minced meat into skins and then rolling the finished balls across the powdered stainless steel.

If it is early evening, I might see a queue of people at a food stall which usually prompts me to line up as well even though I have no idea what we are lining up to eat. But a line-up usually means good food or fresh food. So, when I get to the front, I just point at something.

At the corner of my street, I wave at Sally, the owner of a refreshingly casual clothing shop; he grins at me with his comic book good looks - his exaggerated, thin features remind me a little of Prince. I always ask him how his day is so much so that sometimes he just says: "Hi! I'm having a good day."

When I reach my apartment, a white cat with orange and black patches is splayed on my door step but never deigns to acknowledge me. In the afternoons, a woman who lives above me practices opera and her powerful voice echoes through the concrete stairwell.

I eat the surprise that I ordered over the sink. If I eat at my breakfast bar, I wipe away every last particle. I am not leaving even an edible ion for those critters.

There will be no Winter feast at the Liang house.

Villa with Sandy and a super-sized martini

I relaxed with Sandy at The Villa Herbs until 1 a.m. the other night, drinking red wine from Italy and eating cheese with raisins and sugared cashews while talking about how finicky men and women can be.

I tucked my feet under me in a cushy arm chair in the candlelit lounge which makes you feel like you're a guest in someone's well-appointed home.

Sandy sat on a leather chaise-lounge in a cream-coloured chiffon blouse and skinny jeans, smoking cigarettes that were slim and elegant like she is and blowing smoke out the patio door over a fish pond.

She said she is looking for a meaningful relationship and will not "have the sexy" with just anyone. But her male friends have told her that she scares Taiwanese men.

For a moment, I thought of an ideal Asian beauty based on what a Chinese friend recently told me - a soft and subtle woman, a feminine and delicate woman, the kind that you have to lean into to hear her sweet voice - and then I considered Sandy and I and how we explode with laughter, throwing our bodies against our chairs and slapping each other's knees.

I wondered to myself if we appeared to men in the restaurant as being obnoxious where as, maybe in Canada, we would look like we were fun.

"I think in another life," Sandy said suddenly, "I was a foreigner." She would date the foreigners in Taipei, the English-language teachers, the Mandarin students, but all they want is "the sexy."

Later, a reporter and photographer for a travel magazine asked us to pose with a gargantuan martini.
Be more happy, the photographer said.
And I was happy to have a giant glass of free booze but it was hard to smile and sip at the same time; those are completely opposite actions. I'm pretty sure that I was making a chimpanzee face in every shot.

Before I left, I promised the bartender that I would e-mail her the recipe for a Caesar.
"Do people order them often in Canada?" the bartender asked through Sandy.
"What?!? Restaurants have Caesar specials. And they come with a stalk of celery or olives and sometimes pickled green beans. They are so good."
Sandy couldn't figure out the translation for clam juice and worchestershire sauce.
That's Taipei's only flaw. God, I miss Caesars.