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.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Orgy of food

It is so hard to walk anywhere in Taipei without thinking about food and wanting to put something to your lips.

The days when I would forget to eat seem so long ago. Now I wander the streets, from school to home, to dance class, to the movies, etc., and I am always caught behind a slow-moving crush of pedestrians on the narrow sidewalks, so soon I am sauntering and have time to admire the glistening pineapple buns and green tea cakes in shop windows. Bakeries are on every block and as I pass the door, I am bathed simultaneously in the aroma and the breeze from the air-conditioning.

When I leave my apartment, I step into the Shida night market where bells chime from stalls selling doughnuts and you can hear the sizzle of steak and eggs on a hot plate and pretty girls invite you to have a cup of cold tea with little kumquat halves floating in it. Everyone around you is skewering battered chicken or fish balls out of a paper bag or holding a crepe like it is a fan.

To the subway, along Shida Road, I pass a man ladling soup from behind a restaurant with a steel counter facing the sidewalk and I hold my breath to avoid smelling the pungent, cloying herb that reminds me of cinnamon. A few minutes further, there's a dessert place (similar to Ice Monster) displaying photos of my favourite cold treat, crushed ice saturated in condensed milk and covered with fresh fruit and sherbet.
Treats (pictured) at Ice Monster on Yong Kang Street. (Mangos are out of season in the winter so the Jumbo Mango Dessert is no longer available.)

I usually linger around Yong Fung Shung, below, tempted by their fresh mantou or steaming buns because when you bite into the smooth, white bread, nothing has ever been softer or warmer or more fulfilling and because eating one feels like you're injesting pureness and perfection.

The restaurants here make food so accessible. Sushi Express brings the food to you on a conveyor belt with the convenient price of a $1 per plate. Most restaurants have set meals and pictures or plastic models of the dish in the window.

Every day, I am surfeited. I am now also afraid to go for a walk.

Spicy beef on noodles at a mall food court.
Fried chicken at Shilin Night Market

The fabulous jerky at the Singapore-based Bee Cheng Hiang chain

The menu at the World Soybean Milk Magnate with my English annotations.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Yangming for a day...or two

Tina and I got stuck in the mountains last night.
By "stuck," I mean missed the last bus back to the city and decided to stay in a random hotel resort on Mount Yangming with the help of our good friend Visa.
We took a bus from Jiantan MRT Station to the Yangming National Park and wandered around, prattling about the beautiful scenery: the betel nut trees that I mistook for palm trees, the mist around the green peaks, the brown hills in the distance that looked like the backs of bison.

Off the main road, we descended a steep set of stone stairs, each moss-covered, jagged and cracked. We played under the green canopy and took pictures around a waterfall that fed into a milky, light blue stream.
"Somewhere around here, Goldilocks is discovering the bears' home."
I was posing by the water when a black cat walked across the stream's stepping stones.
"You weren't kidding about seeing lots of black cats in Taiwan," Tina says to me.
In Taipei, for me, they have foreshadowed good things.

It was twilight when we trekked out of the park, admiring the trees as dark forms against the grey backdrop, like they are in Chinese paintings; but by the time we reached the main road, it was dark and cold and we were tired and hungry and had to pee.
A sign at the bus stop invited us to Calla Young Garden Resort for dinner and a dip in their hot spring baths so we accepted the offer.

We waited at the road side for 45 minutes before catching a red bus going back up the mountain. Tina had an argument with the driver, none of which I understood except when she declared him to be "an asshole." The bus hurtled along the tortuous roads for another 30 minutes.
We got off, nauseous and stressed, in front of the hotel. The perpetual smell of sulphur made me dizzy but it made Tina hungry. "Delicious," she said in the bus.
(When she was a girl, the children used to boil eggs in a sulphurous stream in Beitou; the city blocked access to it after a child fell in and was burned.)

We did a hot-cold circuit in the resort's hot spring baths which left me exhausted and weak in the knees. One tub had a row of shower heads, which curled like faucets over your head, and were meant to massage you with the water pressure.

I tried hose with the lowest pressure. I imagined a big Swedish masseuse hacking at my shoulder blades with her massive man paws.

"Tina! You have to come try this. The water beats you and removes your clothing!"
She was busy making human soup in a 43 C bath.
I was glad that a hotel employee warned us about the shower or else I would've stared into the nose and gotten a black eye.

I didn't want my loved ones to worry if they couldn't reach me last night so I asked the front desk to send Sean an e-mail. He later called: "I got a strange e-mail today from a Frank Lin. It said, 'I'm staying at a hotel on Yangmingshan. Signed, your dear daughter."

Yeesh, maybe I should not be skipping Mandarin lessons this morning to play in the mountains.

New mountain friends, at breakfast, in the park, by the pool:

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Full of loofahs

There was no gradual onset of fullness. The food just exploded in my stomach. It was like, 'POW! I'm full.'

It reminds me of that scene in that old Gong Li movie, Lifetimes, where the lead characters feed a starving doctor seven buns and then give him some water to drink. The husband says, "If you drink water, one bun becomes seven in your stomach. Seven times seven equals 49. No wonder the doctor passed out!"
Tina and I ate too many deep fried goodies, fried almond abalone mushrooms, golden shrimp rolls, at the famous Slack Season Tan Tsi Noodles restaurant where one fried loofah equals seven fried loofahs in your stomach.
I've never eaten loofahs or sponge cucumbers before. Only used them to scrub dirt off of my body in the shower (see picture).
"Don't loofahs taste like plant?"
"Loofahs taste like loofah," Tina says. She dips the deep fried bit into honey.
"No, taste it again," I say and I stare at her, willing her to taste what I taste. "Okay. Imagine that you're in a botanical garden and you're diving into a bush with your mouth open. Do you taste the plant and the soil? It tastes the way plants smell!"
"It tastes like loofah. It's like asking what apples taste like."

The sign outside the beautiful restaurant says, "since 1895." A photo hangs on the wall showing the stall, the brick oven and the stone bowl where it all began down an alley. At the entrance, a man sits in front of a pot, dishing out soup noodles and rice with a scoop of marinated pork.

The pot has a shiny brown crust, which looks like half of a muffin top, so we ask the cook about it. It's grease and bits that have formed from stewing the meat.
The pot, he says, has not been washed in 11 years.
That wouldn't pass your father's health inspection in Canada, Tina says.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

GPA: 99.36%. Bank account, 0.

My bank account hit zero yesterday.

But it is possible to live well in Taipei on very little. There are no problems here, as Hemingway once said, though about Paris, "except where to be happiest."

It's my own damn fault that my bank account hit zero because this weekend, I splurged on an $8 pashmina and a $14 black skirt in the Wufenpu commercial area, a maze of clothing and shoe shops near Houshanpi Station.

For lunch today, I had a bowl of noodles, fresh pork dumplings and a cold soybean milk. My noodles had little broth so I flavoured them with pickled vegetables and hot sauce. The bill was about $2 CND.

Tina and I spent yesterday wandering in the Shin Kong Mitsukoshi department store, getting make-overs and then we sat in a cafe near my home until early, drinking hot, milk tea. I studied for an exam, making up little stories to help me remember my Chinese characters.
"Hey, the Chinese character for 'newspaper' reminds me of Hangman. Here are the gallows. Here's me," said the newspaper reporter.
Exam tomorrow. Encouragement from Sean: "I want you to get 100% or I won't love you anymore. In fact, no one will."

Monday, October 12, 2009

Sex and the Taiwanese City

Tina teaches a Sex and the City class on Mondays.

Almost all two dozen seats in the classroom are taken. Only two students are male. We're watching Ex and the City, the season 2 finale, where Carrie tries to be friends with Big only to learn that he is engaged.

The girl beside me writes "strong, big horse" on her transcript, beside the word "stallion."

Tina pauses the DVD to explain the meaning of: "Goldicocks."

“Once, this shy girl raised her hand, ‘Teacher, what is ultra-textured Trojan with a reservoir tip?’” Tina tells me.

“I ended up drawing it on the board.”

Friday, October 9, 2009

Dating 101: Excuse me, is this seat taken?

Today, I am cherishing what I have.

I am in a happy and fulfilling relationship with a Canadian and this spares me from having to navigate the dating scene in Taipei.

The men here are less aggressive and less apt to approach you than in the West, Tina says. A friend of hers met his girlfriend in a more traditional way: his parents paid a matchmaker to find a candidate and then the two families met up for dinner.

(Oh my God. Can you imagine a first date with your parents and siblings? My mother would be unforgiving: "I think his hair is receding. Look at the father. Totally bald. And their nostrils are too big.")

Myself, Tina and two single girlfriends dressed up for a party at the Shangri-La Far Eastern Hotel. We were all wearing fake eyelashes (which cost less than a dollar on the streets of Taipei) and a different coloured dress which made us look like a moving pack of Lifesavers.

Tina's friend, Sandy, is a former modeling scout who now manages aspiring stars and looking at her makes me smile. She is talkative and expressive. She has deep laugh lines at the corner of her eyes, a testament to how much and how forcefully she laughs. Her face at rest though, with its soft features, is angelic and framed by a sleek, sheet of jet black that cuts across her jawline.

The mixer was for Ivy league alumni living in Taipei.

But apparently, despite our fine education and worldly pursuits, we are shy to mingle.

So a dim, stylish lounge with a view of Taipei's twinkling skyline from the 38th floor, the partygoers - graduates from Harvard, Stanford, etc., architect prodigies and business moguls in the making - were chosen at random to play a round of musical chairs.

Zhen de ma? Really?

Epilogue: We left to eat Taiwanese breakfast with two new friends. Sandy pointed out that one our new playmates resembles, Winnie The Pooh, which I found uproariously funny. He and his, tall, slim friend (Tigger) were such good sports about it.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Hi Gods, it's me, Liang Yong Yin.

Maybe the Gods didn't understand my English, or my convoluted, lengthy questions...
I went to Yongshan Temple, seeking peace and answers.
Tina says on New Years Eve, scores of people line up here to be the first person of the year to pray and plunge his or her incense stick in the burner. That person is considered to be extremely lucky and is immediately interviewed by media. I imagine the worshippers charging into this temple like frantic shoppers on Boxing Day.
Tonight, approaching typhoons have brought rain and only a few dozen people are inside the darkened temple. Chinese folk music with its lilting flute, plays throughout the site. Visitors have placed pomelos and potted plants before the Gods.

Tina and I each light seven incense sticks (provided free of charge) and pay our respects to the deities at different bays in the temple: the Goddess of matrimony, the God of education. Tina says that I have to introduce myself to each God, tell them my birthdate and address. I must also thank them, bow three times and then put a stick of incense in the burner, which looks like a cauldron.
As sincerely as possible for an atheist, I follow her instructions and pray for my good friend, Dar, to have a healthy, beautiful baby. I ask them to bless the marriage of my best friends, Uch and Kish. I ask them to look out for my boyfriend, Sean, who tears his tendons and breaks his teeth playing hockey.
And then I ask the Gods for guidance. I kneel on a cushion and clasp a pair of divination blocks in my hands - they're crescents-shaped, red wooden pieces, flat on one side, rounded on the other. I ask the Gods about my future and toss the blocks. If they both land on the same side, the Gods are saying, "No," or "Ask again," or "We have no clue what you are saying."
After at least eight drops, I say to Tina: "My perogies keep telling me, 'No.'"
Maybe the Gods don't have translators, she says. She asks in Mandarin if I can draw a fortune stick. Her perogies land in the "Yes" position - one on the flat side, one on the rounded.
I pick up a bunch of sticks, like it is a bouquet, and drop them back into a bin; the one that rises above the rest is supposed to be mine. I pull out the protruding stick and ask the Gods if this is indeed, my fortune. The divination blocks, twice, say, "Yes."
The stick reads 93. We go to a cabinet, pull out the small drawer labelled 93 and take the strip of paper inside with my fortune. We bring it to a man behind a counter who can decipher its meaning.
Tina translates: "Don't forget to cherish what you have."

I call my parents to tell them about my spiritual experiment.
"Daddy," he says - my father always refers to himself in the third person, "considers those to be like fortune cookies. Those comments are generalizations. They don't mean anything."
"Hey mom," I say. "I prayed for your good health."
"Pray to the Gods that your stomach will shrink."
Very funny, mom.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Mid-autumn festival with the Xie clan

I was fortunate enough to spend the holidays with the Xie family.

Xie Mama used to babysit Tina when she was a child. Their home is in Yong He - a district made famous by the World Soybean Milk Magnate, a 24-hour breakfast joint that is busy around the clock and imitated around the world.

Xie Mama's grandchildren sat on stools on the balcony around a small grill, cooking sausages, tofu, pork steaks, enoki mushrooms, bamboo shoots, shrimp and fish fillets. The apartment filled with smoke, creating a dream-like feel to the evening as we moved through the white haze.

Xie Mama is a jovial, youthful-looking 72-year-old woman. She wore a loose pink top and khaki capris. Her eyebrows were elegantly arched and her lips rouged with fuchsia. She spoke to me in Taiwanese the entire night despite everyone's gentle chiding and reminders that I did not understand. She has a loud, hearty laugh and when she experiments with English, her intonation rises: "I lubah you?" "Bye bye?"

Tina and I ate sliced guava, honey pear and pomelo which is like green grapefruit. When you cut pomelo, the Chinese use the word "sa" or kill. "With no other fruit do you use this term," Tina said. "You kill the pomelo." We savoured its sweet, floral taste; its flesh breaks apart in your mouth, like how cooked fish meat might flake.

Jack, Xie Mama's eldest son, handed us a bag of black seeds, which I stared at in amazement. It helps with digestion, he said. The black, shiny bits were shaped like the bottom halves of pandas or like bull heads. We broke the hard hulls with our molars and then ate the white, potato-like insides. (A search on The Google later revealed that they are water caltrops.)

Xie Mama's eldest daughter came to visit with her precocious daughter. An aunt gave the girl an orange sucker. "It's shit candy," Jack said.

I looked at it and sure enough, it was shaped like a pile of poo, except orange. "Why?"
Jack shrugged. "For fun!"

We gourmandized and took turns sitting in a massage chair. We watched Taiwanese soap operas and force fed our glutted selves sweet caramel jiffy pop and green tea mochi balls. Xie Mama told us stories about how they used to lock Tina in the bathroom because she wouldn't eat and when she did, she would store the food in her cheeks like a chipmunk.

It was nice to do something that felt like home.

At 11 p.m., we passed a crowded World Soybean Milk Magnate on the way to Dingxi station. Tina says I stood transfixed by the food like I had just spent a decade starving in jail:

An hour and a half later, an earthquake rattled the country. Safe in my quivering apartment, I thought of all of the food bouncing around that restaurant. Hope none of it was wasted.