Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"I like your Sailor Moon outfit..."

"Leo. Where are you? I look ridiculous," I yell into the phone. "I'll be at the bar."
When Leo finally arrives at China White, a small, chic lounge on Dunhua Street, he finds me standing alone in the corner, chugging a drink. I glare at him. He looks at me and laughs.
Tina and Leo invited me to a "Back to School" theme party and lucky for me, Tina had an extra costume to lend me.
Dammit Tina. What self-respecting grown woman goes out dressed like a Japanese school girl? I'll look like an Asian hooker.
But that's the thing about new friends and wanting to fit in. I didn't want to be the only one at the party not dressed like an Asian hooker.
Nevertheless, I had a fun time - Tina and Leo are great company - and we went for Taiwanese congee afterwards. Everyone in the street and in the resto showed their appreciation for our costumes by staring and staring.
And when Leo made fun of us, I should have reminded him that he had to dress up last week for his birthday.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Go forth and get that freshman 15, say antiquities

I visited the famed National Palace Museum (from Shilin MRT, Bus 304) and it was International Tourism Day so admittance was free.
With more than 650,000 pieces, the museum is touted as having the world's greatest collection of Chinese art (the Nationalists moved many of the artifacts out of Beijing's Forbidden City during the Second World War and the Chinese civil war).

The pride of the collection includes jade carved into the shape of bokchoy (from the Qing Dynasty) and a stone carved and dyed in the likeness of pork braised in soy sauce.

I spent a lot of time looking at that chunk, with its textured, porous top layer, the slim strip of fat and lean meat underneath.

Man, even the country's art is pushing me to get fat.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Got milk?

I stood in the dairy section for 15 minutes trying to buy milk.
Volcano coffee milk, apple milk, imei oat soya milk, black grain rice milk, plumule rice milk.
I just want regular milk. From a cow. Preferably non-fat.
I ask two girls if they speak English, "Ni hui shuo ying wen ma?" "I'm looking for milk. Just plain milk."
After consulting with the grocers at Welcome, they hand me a jug with green writing.
At home, I pour myself a glass of milk and take a gulp while reading my novel. Oh my God. It tastes like cheese. It is so hot in Taiwan that the milk went bad during my walk home.
I quickly call my mother on Skype and thrust the jug toward the camera.
"Mom! What does this say?!?"
"The first three words are the name," she says. "The next three words mean cheese."
She continues to read the label: "It says it tastes very concentrated. In other words, you're drinking cheese in liquid form. What's wrong with you?"
Crap. I knew I should have bought the plumule rice milk.
Imagined ad: On hot days, quench your thirst with a tall, cool glass of liquid cheese.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Mystery buffet

I have watched the crowds around this food stall for weeks and decided tonight that I was ready.
The Taiwanese love street food, especially lu-wei, ingredients stewed in a distinctive brown soya-sauce like broth.
After careful study, I jostle for a plastic basket and position myself in front of the cart with my metal tongs. I don't recognize much.
Most things are flesh-coloured: flesh-coloured tubes, flesh-coloured half-moon morsels, flesh-coloured balls on a stick.
I feel the mob pressing against my back so I panic and grab at things that I can identify, a mushroom, brocolli, green beans, noodles, lest I end up with duck tongue and other innards among the assortment. I take chances on a grey-coloured glutinous sachet and a yellow, crispy square with white filling. And a row of flesh-coloured balls.
I hand my treats to a woman who chops and sorts. Then a slim older man with salt and pepper hair who I have never seen not cooking at this stall, dumps it all into a boiling vat. After a few minutes, he pours the ingredients into a metal pan, squirts it with various sauces and globs a dollop of wet green herbs on top.
He speaks to me. I hope he is asking whether I want it to go, so I gesture with my thumb over my shoulder. He wraps a plastic bag around the end of the pan which is shaped like a funnel and my food slips heavily inside.
He yells at me in Taiwanese in front of the crowd. This is the part where I smile and shake my head and say: "Wo bu dong zhongwen."
The stew is delicious. But I can't figure out what the gooey pocket or the grainy stuff inside is. Also, I still don't know what animal they pressed into a square or four flesh-coloured balls. In any case, maybe it's better this way.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

What the hell am I saying...

When speaking Chinese, tones are of utmost importance.
For example, when we say, "teacher" or "lao shi." With the incorrect tones, we actually address our instructor as "rat."
I've caught a cold, which in Canada would be fine, except that I'm in Taiwan where everyone looks at you as if you are vomiting molten lava whenever you sneeze or cough. The school advised me to consult a doctor who told me that I did not, thankfully, have H1N1.
Some of my Taiwanese friends tried to teach me to say: "I have a cold."(Cold is gan mao.)
I tried: "Wo you gan mao."
Everyone thought that was just hilarious. Apparently because I said that I have ass hair.
That could have been confusing at the doctor's office.

(As an aside, I still refuse to use the squat toilets but I found a very helpful online tutorial that may help in this matter.)

Monday, September 21, 2009

Cats, dancers and a loaf of bread

Three black cats crossed my path in one evening.
One gave me a stare down as soon as I left my apartment. Another passed by my table at a Cantonese restaurant. She works for a living catching mice and cockroaches, the restaurant owner said. I saw the third as I was going to buy bread. "What the..."
I don't think I've seen three black cats in three years. What kind of omen is this?
My phone rings and it is Tina. She has tickets to Cloud Gate and a friend has just canceled. Said he suddenly had vision problems. When is the show? It starts in 15 minutes. I hail a taxi.
Before coming to Taiwan, I had been told to see their renown Cloud Gate Dance Theatre company.
The cab pulls up to an imposing palace, National Chiang Kai-shek Cultural Center's theatre, and on the red carpet, Tina finds me holding a loaf of bread.
The company's current show, Cursive, is inspired by Chinese calligraphy. The audience is so quiet that we can hear the dancers breathe. And the squish of my bag of bread when I shift in my seat.
The performance is short, 70 minutes without an intermission, and the set is simple and stark. The dancers are wearing black or white. (Members of my Latin dance company would ask where the sequins and feathers are). Their movements are powerful, seemingly improvised.
Click here for link to video.
Later Tina and I are riding the subway (the MRT) in silence. She turns to me and says: "I don't get it."
"Me neither."
Doesn't matter though since I will think about its beauty for days after.

Fuel for fatty boomba: those famous dumplings

"Hey mom. Guess where I went today? Din Tai Fung."
"I'm jealous," she says seriously. "You know, you're going to get a double chin while you're there."
The xiao long bao, or steamed pork dumplings, are a famous Shanghai dish; but the Taiwanese say that they make them better.
Me and some new Chinese friends visiting from France decided this weekend to dine at Din Tai Fung, the legendary international restaurant chain that started in Taiwan.
At 1 p.m., the wait is 80 minutes at the one inside the Fuxing SOGO Department store. But we are determined so we take a cab to the Zhongxiao branch where we are seated in about 15 minutes.
Soon, our table is stacked with hot bamboo baskets with shrimp and pork wonton and steamed taro dumplings. The shao mai are cute little volcanos filled with glutinous rice and shrimp and pork.
I am careful not to break the steamed pork dumpling's delicate, almost translucent skin with my chopsticks - you can see the soup pooling at the bottom, weighing the little purse down - and I put the whole morsel into my mouth. All of the hype, the fact that the restaurant's brochure brags that the New York Times listed it as one of the top 10 restaurants in the world in 1993 - does not diminish the experience of the warm broth bursting into my mouth.
They have 40+ eateries around the world, including Japan, China, Australia and the U.S. Hey, how about Toronto? Then visiting Canadians can stop carrying DTF's frozen dumplings onto 20-hour flights.
The meal for the four of us costs about $1250 NTD and we have left overs.
Tina's friend, Leo, who we dressed up like a lion today for his birthday (more on that later), assures me that tons of Taiwanese restaurants serve comparable dumplings. So I now have a new goal, besides perfect grades: Eating as many dumplings in three months as possible.

Friday, September 18, 2009

A gentleman caller wandered into my bedroom...

I get it. I live in the Shida night market. This is their playground and I am an interloper.
But disturbing me while I sleep is just wrong.
I was just starting to drift when I heard scratching at the foot of my bed. I knew immediately what was large enough to make that sound, like a wad of wrapping paper hitting the wall.
I turned on the light and there he was - slim, shiny and guilty-looking. He and his kind amaze me. His physical presence, the space that he occupies, the noise that he makes scuttering around, like a mouse, only smaller and crunchier.
He's like that loud, pushy girl that lumbered about the stadium and body-checked me twice at a men's basketball game. There's nothing graceful or likeable or subtle about him.
My landlord had bought me a can of Raid so I would not have to chase them with pot lids.
I fogged my bedroom and did a jig while he bolted in every direction. Under my desk, behind the door, into any corner.
I finally retrieved a pot lid from the kitchen and capped him as he was dashing for my closet.
He slid his antennae under the lid and then tried to squeeze the rest of his brown body through, his abdomen flat on the floor, his shell pressed against the glass lid.
As I was trying to figure out what to do next, the Raid apparently started to work. First, he lost use of his left back leg. He became disoriented, leaning to one side. Then he was on his back, his legs furiously running in the air. It was excruciating.
"Oh my God, the people at Raid are cruel!" I scooped him up under a piece of paper and flushed him down the toilet.
I can't squish. I can't spray. I definitely can't cohabit. So Irish jig with a pot lid then the toilet it is.
Me to my mom: "Aren't there any home remedies to deal with the roaches?"
"Buy a hammer," my mom says.

My midnight visitor reaches out to touch me with his filaments.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

School days

My Mandarin teacher is like a warrior. One who fights for comprehension. She thrusts her marker in the air and slices downward. When your intonation is wrong, she becomes more forceful with every marker stroke, eventually jumping and squatting.
The best thing about matriculating is your abilities, your efforts are measurable. I had forgotten the joy - and the ache - of grades and percentages and the pursuit of perfection.
It is like I never grew up and the first person that I want to tell my scores is, disturbingly, still my father. And when I get back that test that says I drew a single stroke wrong, from right to left, instead of left to right (how my teacher knew that remains a mystery), I am that girl with the headgear and the poodle perm and the leopard-print spandex pants who is squirming at her desk because she missed that 100% by a mark.
Mental note to latent childhood self: Hey. Remember that science or math exam that you stressed about? Yeah, neither do I. Oh and by the way, we got big. And we got boobs (thanks to a Taiwanese saleslady). So don't sweat the small stuff.
Good. I must remember that when my teacher looks at my 99% and tells the class that the mistake that I made was a stupid one.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A rose by any other name...

The Taiwanese pick their own English names. Tina met a girl named Chocolate. Tina’s boyfriend originally thought my name was Malaysia. At lunch the other day, I met their friend: “Your name is Fish?” I said. “You want me to call you Fish?!?” He bowed at me. I like Fish. He has a pleasant, soft face and fine hair that stands straight up so you can see his scalp - like a baby. His name doesn't suit him; so in my head, I call him Baby.

Here, those without Chinese names are named at the bank. Or by teachers. They usually translate the sound of each syllable into Chinese characters. David becomes Da Wei. Kwesi becomes Kui Xi. For the first time in 29 years, I am called by my Chinese name, Liang Yong Yin, which my parents gave me at birth. I love the way it sounds.

Friday, September 11, 2009

No dancing fever

Clubbing in Taipei is not that different from clubbing in Toronto. Except that instead of checking ID at the door, they check you for fever and then spray you with sanitizer.
I shrank away when the bouncer came at me with what looked like a portable price scanner. He pressed it to my temple and then motioned for me to go inside. Once in the doors, a girl squirted my hands with anti-bacterial gel.
Inside Spark101, I'm glad to see that girls grinding one another is universal club language. So is wearing your short, short nightgown so that everyone can see your underwear.
My classmate and his friends are a few years younger than me. Mercifully, alcohol is a great equalizer.

Tina and I wave at a thermal camera inside a shopping centre.

Dunks and franks

I had a Western afternoon today: hot dogs and American basketball. The U.S. Deaflympics basketball team annihilated Turkey, 116 to 42. And every time a player dunked the ball, the Taiwanese crowd went into a frenzy, as if they had never seen anything like it.

Afterword: I miss Toronto street dogs. I got my hot dogs from Ikea across from the Taipei arena and they tasted a little like lap cheong (Chinese sausage).

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Try this on for size

I'm on a fixed budget but apparently I'm blowing it all on boobs.
According to Tina, shopping for a bra in the East is an Asian experience that I should not miss. The lingerie here is designed to squeeze cleavage out of the least endowed girl in Taipei.
The underwear in the department store is uber-girlie. Everything is frilly or lacy or bow-ridden or pastel-coloured. They're liquid-filled and thick-strapped. Even the daintiest-looking brassiere is built like a sports bra.
The garment redistributes your fat to the right places, Tina says. "Get them in order. Call a meeting," she says, gesturing at my chest.
A little lady in a pink and grey store uniform that makes her look like housekeeping staff, helped me in the change room.
I turned to face her and without warning, she reached into the bra and scooped my fat, like she was folding dough.
So $1580 NTD got me new undies - and to second base with a stranger.

Picture: Tina and extremely helpful department store worker.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Deaflympics: Taekwando

Taipei is hosting the 21st Summer Deaflympics so I skipped Listening Lab today to check out the final Taekwondo match.
It's Puerto Rico versus Korea for the gold and Tina is admiring the Korean athlete.
"How about the handsome dude?" She says after she blinks and misses a clean chest hit to her hero.
"Handsome dude is getting his ass kicked."
We show our support for the competitors by shaking our jazz hands in the air.

A group of elementary school students are waving Puerto Rican flags and cheering in Chinese.
They assign schools to cheer for each country, our friend, Giselle, says.
"They shouldn't be forced to cheer for a country," Tina says. "The school that cheers for China, I'm sure there might be parents who'd object to that."
Taiwan is competing as Chinese Taipei (the People's Republic of China frowns upon the use of Republic of China/Taiwan).

Are they giving the winners a medal and a Keroppi doll? No, it's a little stuffed treefrog - the Deaflympics mascot.

Angel Rafael Roman-Martinez and the gold.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Hungry ghosts...

Be careful walking at night, Tina warned me. Not because someone might mug me but because the dead are roaming the streets. And they are jealous and looking to take someone away.
It's Ghost Month in Taiwan.
Shopkeepers put out elaborate feasts for the spirits and incense sticks jut out of everything, Pringles, white buns, oranges. It snows ash in the alleys from burning buckets of paper which represent money for the afterlife. Parents implore their children to be home before dark.
People generally avoid weddings and moving because it is inauspicious.
(Maybe that's why I have to play with cockroaches.)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Crime reporting in Ximen

A cockroach chased me on the sidewalk yesterday. After a man squished the white cream out of the poor creature, I wrote this in Starbucks to try to empathize:

TAIPEI - Dozens of people last night walked over the murdered body of an adult cockroach, the latest victim of vicious attacks against members of the bug community.
Witnesses say the victim was crossing the road after an intense bout of rain in the trendy area, Ximending, at 10:35 p.m. when a man attacked him. The victim, who is two-inches long and heavy set, darted around the sidewalk. His assailant tried at least 12 times to crush him with his left sandal.
The victim succumbed to his injuries and was pronounced dead at the scene. One woman reportedly gave the killer the thumbs-up sign and said, "Good job."
The victim's thousands of children declined to comment. A cousin said the victim "loved life."
Roach advocacy groups such as Save The Cockroach, expressed outrage at the killing and called on the public to stop "the persecution.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Hampster in my new apartment

I just played hide and seek with a cockroach. I kept pushing this rolling vacuum away and it would scurry back underneath it. I finally trapped it under a glass pot lid. It exhausted itself racing on an invisible track, then put its antennae in its mouth. I named it Hampster because it was like watching a pet running on a wheel except that I was still terrified of him so I flushed him down the toilet.
"Why don't you just step on it?" Tina asked me on the phone after I had shrieked into the receiver.
"I can't stand the crunch and the juice," I said.
"Apples are crunchy and juicy."
I'll name the next one Apple.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Alien registration form

It's 11:54 and they are serving number 696.
The ticket in my skirt pocket says 817. When I got to the immigration agency a half hour ago, they were serving 687. So, this might be awhile. We're all in one room, waiting in front of 15 different counters, sweating, marinating. I didn't know which forms to fill out and I didn't want to get to the counter in five hours and have the wrong one. So I filled them all. We all watch a Caucasian guy wander through the crowd. Tina says that Western men are mauled by women. If Sean comes to visit, he would be my Trophy White.
12:03. Serving number 699.
At the post office, the clerk made me write my Chinese name over and over until I got it right while filling out an application for a bank card. "Oh my God, this is like school!"
I know. I'm drawing the stick figures of Chinese characters here.
Tina and I were walking back to her apartment yesterday and I walked into a cloud of stink. I thought it was garbage or sewage. Tina tells me that it is Taiwan's infamous stinky tofu so I turned around for a better whiff. I gagged and told her that it smelled like dirty privates. Wow. I did not know that stink could have so many layers.

Tell Sean that I'm coming back a Fatty Boomba

Now that I'm back in university, I'm working on my freshman 15.
All I do is eat. And it is glorious.
Sweet potato leaves tossed in garlic. Fried octopus burgers. Beef noodles. Biscuits filled with broth and minced meat. Mountains of mango chunks and sorbet atop shaved ice (a Taiwanese favourite). Panfried dumplings and soybean milk (the bill was about $1.25).
I had sushi the size of my hand the other day. Each piece looked like a burrito. I ate two and was full. I tried to eat Japanese yams which were crunchy and tasteless but I couldn’t get over the fact that they were covered in a film of snot. Strings of saliva clung to each piece when pulled from the plate.” Think of it like pizza cheese,” Tina’s boyfriend said.