Vancouver: Chinese Tour -Part 1

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As I write this, I’m in Vancouver, Canada on a much needed 12 day vacation.  We just ended a Chinese group tour of some of the national parks.  It was incredibly beautiful, with spectacular views of the Rocky Mountains, culturally interesting, and stuffed full of amusing experiences with Chinese people.  If you have never experienced something like this, these are some of my experiences and what you might expect.

But before I get deep into my account, let me be clear about a couple of things.  Although my naturally sarcastic brain found many things to keep myself amused (some outright ridiculous, some simply culturally funny), that does not mean that I didn’t have anything less than a wonderful time.

The tour guide was an amazing man who did a great job, and said everything in both Chinese and English only for my benefit, since I was the only non-Chinese speaker there.  The people were mostly very friendly and respectful, and this type of group is a hidden travel secret to visit many places without having to drive yourself, and paying less money than you would almost any other way.

Having said that disclaimer, here’s what happened:

We met at the bus at 8 AM.  On vacation, one would expect to get to sleep in a little bit, but the 8 o’clock time was actually our latest of the whole trip.  We got on board a standard tour bus, the kind with areas to stow your carry-ons above your seat and the little fold down foot rest.  There were two more stops for others to be picked up as well.

By the time we were ready to go, the bus was full of excited and chatty Chinese people…well, except for the seats directly around the two of us.  Those sat empty as a sort of buffer zone from the white guy, apparently.  I wasn’t really offended.  This meant more space for me.

Our collective DMZ was short lived though, because the tour guide quickly announced that we had been given assigned seats.  These would change each day according to who had made him the happiest the day before (or something like that), and we would need to move to those seats after the first rest stop.

Yes, on vacation…assigned seats.  I had returned to Mrs. Zimmerman’s second grade classroom.  I was sure there would be homework later, but I looked forward to some dodgeball during recess.

Actually, it is sort of like your first day of school, or summer camp.  You are anxious about how your teacher/tour guide will act, and you know there will be certain roles each person will play.  Some people you will like, some you won’t.  There will be the popular kids, the nerds, and a group of bohemian iconoclasts who do their own thing.  I was in that group, naturally.  I was after all, the only white guy.

To Be Continued…

Thoughts from Taiwan -part 6

grandma's housePeichi’s Amma must have decided to put all of the events I mentioned in my last blog entry behind her, though, as she was very welcoming to me as we showed up for Chinese New Year.  She didn’t even keep much of a watchful eye over me, as I might have expected.  I cannot be sure that she hadn’t carefully noted the home’s entire inventory and each item’s place prior to my arrival.

Amma and I hit it off quite smoothly this time, with few rough patches.  The most difficult breach of protocol for me to handle is regarding the “house shoes” that each family uses in Taiwan.  Most people know that Asian households require one to take off his shoes on entry.  In Asia there is an added step.  Each family keeps an armada of house slippers on hand just inside the doorway that each guest is expected to use while inside.  You may not opt out of this deal.  Yes, the shoes might not even come close to fitting your American-sized feet.  Yes, one probably will accidentally slip off halfway up the stairs and leave you to hop back down to find it again.  But make no mistake, they must be used.

This part was not the problem for me.  The problem is that each household has a place where you are supposed to take off your outside shoes Me in Tainanand put your house shoes on.  In Japan this is clearly marked by the presence of bamboo mats. In Taiwan, this place is marked by some sort of sixth-sensed hoo-bah, that I apparently do not posses.

I would enter the house from the screened in porch via the stairs, leaving my street shoes outside.  At some point after the doorway I would cross the invisible battle line of germ warfare where my “safe” shoes were supposed to come on.  I would usually miss this line somehow.  When the process was reversed and the house shoes made it past the line, sirens would go off in Amma’s head, and she would come after me, gently rebuking me in short vocal bugle blasts.  She was very gracious.  I don’t mean to imply anything less.

My most exciting story with the house shoes was when visiting a household outside of the family.  As I came in, I started to take off my outside shoes and was informed that this would not be necessary at this place.  I looked around for some sign of where the hoo-bah was.  It was invisible as usual.  I asked to use the bathroom and was told it was down the hall.  I gingerly advanced, pausing with each step in case this time would be different and I might actually sense the hoo-bah.  They laughed and told me that I would not need to remove my shoes there either.  I felt safe.

NY Eve DinnerA few minutes later, I went to view the kitchen and again was told that it was safe.  I was very confused.  I had never made it this far without using house shoes before. I did not know how to act.  I shrugged and enjoyed my good fortune.

After viewing the kitchen, I was ushered to the seating area where there was a plate of fruit.  Every Asian household I am invited to has prepared fruit.  It is expected.  It is wonderful.  Americans need to start doing that.  I eagerly went to take a seat and eat some fruit.  Everyone lunged at me noisily. I had crossed the hoo-bah.  I didn’t know.  There was not even a pile of shoes.   Nothing.  I retreated and apologized profusely.  They still let me eat the fruit.

Thoughts from Taiwan -part 5

Peichi's AmmaIn Tainan, I met Peichi’s grandmother for the second time.  “Amma” is “grandma” in Taiwanese, which is exclusively spoken in most of southern Taiwan.  It is far different than Mandarin Chinese, sounding a lot like Thai would if it weren’t nasal.  Short staccato sounds punctuate each word.  Peichi and her immediate family of origin speak both languages fluently.  I don’t.  I barely speak some Mandarin, but know only a couple of Taiwanese words.  I have very few occasions to speak it at all.  Amma speaks no English and very little Mandarin.  This means that we cannot communicate at all without someone interpreting.  I often say, “Two people can always communicate if they want to badly enough.”  Amma is a slightly different story.  In some ways it doesn’t seem that she recognizes that I am not developmentally disabled, but just speak a different language.  I’m not saying she isn’t bright.  She is Peichi’s stock.  She must be.  She is just from a world that is much smaller than mine in some ways, and the idea of what happens so far away must be unimaginable to her.

The occasion of our first meeting was at Peichi’s and my engagement party in Taipei.  She came in and sat down at our head table as part of the bride’s family.  She is an adorable old lady.  She is only slightly above four feet tall, if even that much, and she looks exactly like you would picture an Asian “amma” should look like.  Just looking at her makes me want to simultaneously bear-hug her and show her great, gentle reverence.

She plopped down right next to me, with her purse set behind her on the chair, the way some Asian ladies do, both to prevent someone from stealing it and so as to not forget it is there.  It seemed to me at the time, that was probably not quite the most appropriate for the situation, and thought I would endear myself to her by being helpful.  Big mistake.

I patted her on the shoulder, smiled, and reached for her purse to hang it from the trestle on the chair back.  Her eyes grew wide and she reached for it as well, holding it in a death grip.  We played a brief game of tug-of-war as I tried to calm her.  I lost.  The purse was returned to its location.

It was a busy evening, and I was never able to revisit the situation with her.  But somehow I am sure that she was convinced I was trying to steal her, Peichi’s Amma’s purse at my own engagement party.  She must have been thinking that all of the rumors about these Americans must be true.  We are all uncouth charlatans and thieves.

Thoughts from Taiwan -part 4

Chinese New YearWhen we arrived in Tainan somehow the news of my knee had spread south at a pace that left our stuck-in-traffic 50 km/hr clip.  I have always found that dealing with ailments abroad (or the prevention thereof) is a fascinating experience all on its own.  In Iceland, the family answer to bee stings was for me to eat ice cream.  In El Salvador, they suggested that after being in the rain I absolutely must wipe my whole body down with alcohol.  Every country has some sort of strange sounding advice.  The old wives are alive and well, and telling their tales.

You go through stages in dealing with their medical advice.  In stage one you wonder if they really believe the advice they are giving you, knowing no one in the modern world could possibly believe such hoodoo.  In stage two you try your best to ignore their helpful advances, slightly annoyed that they keep trying to help you despite you clearly not wanting to cover your head in chicken blood to end your malady.  Next stage has you accepting their help and doing what they want, mostly so that you’ll have peace and quiet.  Finally, wondering why their advice worked, you begin to realize that at home we have some hoodoo-like ideas of our own.

In most of Taiwan, their thoughts regarding medicine are quite modern and sensible, unless one is having a baby, and then I doubt there are enough stages for me to stop calling it hoodoo.  This time, I wasn’t assaulted with weird ideas, but I was covered constantly in patches and sprays, and pills shoved down my throat.  Saying “no” was not an option to any of this.  Not only would it not have been heard, but it would have been rude.  So, I became their test dummy.  I felt like a rabbit in a medical lab of some pharmaceutical company, a white one.Peichi and family

Their concoctions did help, and my knee started feeling a bit better after a few days.  I wasn’t sure whether it was the medicine, or time.  Either way, I really appreciated their care.  Taiwanese people don’t have the warmth of Italians or Greeks, who smoother you with affection rather quickly, but they do have a quiet consideration.  When they take you into their circle, they do little things, things that become huge in your mind.  My brother-in-law filling his car stereo with American music so I wouldn’t feel homesick or bored on the long trip, my mother-in-law always filling my cup or offering me something to nibble on, or the entire extended family trying to figure out anything they can do to ease my knee pain.  It makes me thankful for a wonderful family.  It makes me have such a deeper understanding of how little my corner of the world really is, and that my mind and heart are often much smaller than that corner.

Thoughts from Taiwan -part 3

Shinto TempleIn Tokyo, I got lost at a major Shinto temple at closing time.  Peichi ended up at the exit we were supposed to be at, and I ended up on the opposite side.  It is easier to do than one might think, with surrounding tall trees, and darkness encroaching.  The guards would not let me go back in to find Peichi, and made me wait while they chattered into the walkie-talkie. They finally did give me directions to the other side of the park from outside streets.

By the time that I got the security guard to let me go, it was 20 minutes after closing.  He said that it was a 20 minute walk.  I was worried.  Both Peichi and I knew how to get back to the hostel where we were staying, so I wasn’t worried that one of us would be scared and lost.  But we did have many plans for the rest of the night that did not include 30 minute trips back to our room.  So, I ran.

My legs were already tired from walking all over Tokyo.  My knee had been recovering from some strange pain that I acquired weeks ago, and I was generally exhausted from the trip.  I ran anyway, not wanting to worry Peichi, or miss her.  I arrived out of breath, to a generally unhappy wife, but relieved that tragedy had been averted, or so I thought.

As I regained my composure and we began to walk down the stairs into the subway at Harajuku station, I felt a strange clicking in my knee, and Harajuku stationa wonderful explosion of pain with every step.  Walking hurt, climbing stairs was excruciating, but I grinned and bared it.

The next day (the day of our afternoon flight to Taipei) my knee felt the same.  I was beginning to get worried, but I was determined not to let this cause too much disruption to our trip.  I did my best to keep it to myself, although of course Peichi knew.  All of this is important back-story to events in Tainan.

P.S. To alleviate anyone’s fears, while the clicking remains, and there is still some pain, I am confident that I will get over it in time.

Thoughts from Taiwan -part 2

We came to Tainan after a very long trip through the island’s mid-section, waiting in long lines of traffic.  Tainan is in the southern section of Taiwan and Taipei, where a huge proportion of the people actually reside, is in the very northern tip.  While Tainan is one of the largest of the handful of cities in Taiwan, it is decidedly rural.  It was raining.

Peichi’s grandmother, spinster aunt, and unmarried uncle live among a clan community in one of the more…um…I guess “suburban” istogether9 the right word, parts of Tainan.  Life in all of Taiwan, and particularly the more traditional and rural areas is communal and clan oriented.  Traditionally, when a woman gets married she comes to live with the husband at his family home.  This almost always includes his parents and often some aunts and uncles.

To Western eyes this seems ridiculous.  On the whole it has both positives and negatives.  First, Taiwan (like almost all cultures I’ve witnessed) is a patriarchal/matriarchal society.  The Father typically does no work inside the house, but works a job to bring in money.  His after-work time is spent playing gambling games, chatting with the other men, drinking, and smoking.  The wife often does not hold an official outside job, but is responsible for the care and keeping of the home.  This means that she also by default makes most of the real decisions.  Men think they’re in charge, but the women really have more say.

Clan life brings with it a sense of community.  It also brings shared resources.  This cannot be overlooked.  Grandmothers and grandfathers can help take care of young children while their parents work.  Conversely, children can take care of their parents when they reach old age.  There is also a sense of history and life cycle that is shared in clan life that is missing and often leads to larger societal problems in much of Western culture.

On the other side, clan life lessens social mobility.  Children often forgo opportunities out of a sense of obligation to the elder relatives.  Money is also never kept for oneself or immediate family, but shared with the larger family, which mitigates much of the possible benefits of new wealth, particularly when it gets spread to those in the family who have little financial responsibility. Further, because of all of this, ambition is not generally seen as a positive trait, as it is in the West.

Amma's streetWhether positive or negative, clan life is central to every aspect of Tainanese culture.  Even houses are constructed around clan life.  Traditional Taiwanese houses were built as more of a complex, intended to house 4 or more family units within a single building.  Each compound was built in a C formation, with a big courtyard in the middle.  The courtyard existed as a family meeting place, the location for bathing, and an entryway into the main sections of the structure.  In the center of the building was the family idol, where the family worshipped both Taoist idols and their own ancestors.

These homes started falling out of fashion only about 20 years ago, when because of space restrictions, different buildings were built.  The new buildings still incorporate much of the same concepts as the old ones, but with each family unit dwelling on a different level of a multi-story structure.  Each floor has two or three bedrooms and a bathroom, and the ground level contains the kitchen and common areas.  Families still gather outside for fellowship.  The family altar is usually on the ground floor at the entrance, or on an enclosed roof patio.

Some Videos from Asia

Here are just some of the videos that Peichi and I made in Asia.  We made them mostly for our youth group in Texas.  I hope you enjoy watching even close to as much as we did making them.  Several places, crowds gathered as we made the videos and asked me afterward if I was someone famous.  Of course, I am.

Thoughts from Taiwan

We arrived in Taiwan after a whirlwind tour through Tokyo, and my knee was sending distress signals with every step.  The story of how this happened is a matter for another day, but suffice it to say that every step hurt, a lot, and stairs were impossible.  After a four hour sleep, it was off to the city of Tainan.  It is normally about a four hour trip, but at Chinese New Year it takes twice as long due to traffic.  I ended up in a world very different than the one I usually inhabit.

a parkTaipei is a world-class city, in many ways identical to every other big world city.  There is Costco, TGI Friday’s, Saks 5th Avenue, and million other exports of Americanism that has homogenized the world.  That is good.  It is also grievous.  Anyone who has traveled much can attest to both.  I’m not complaining.  Taipei is awesome.  It is a pleasure to visit.

All of Taiwan, and Taipei in particular, has an energy that is frantic.  It never stops.  Tokyo is always busy, but there it is business.  In Taiwan it is life in general.  The mopeds speed endlessly along, constantly jockeying for position.  When the work day stops, the night markets open.  If New York is “the city that never sleeps,” then Taipei is the city that never stops to catch its breath.

Night markets are ubiquitous here.  They are constant crowds and energy.  Exotic birds flutter in their cages, while men hoarsely squawk into loudspeakers hawking their wares.  Men stir and fry in endless arrays of food booths, as throngs of people shuffle by.  They are shoulder-to-shoulder, talking about which booth has the best Stinky Tofu, or which jeans are fake Levis. The night market is more than a crowd.  It is a living, breathing organism.

crowd at a marketTaiwan is energy in ever form and every way, and its people feed that energy with a constant supply of food.  When they aren’t out at a nice restaurant, they are snacking from street vendors, or chewing on fruit and seeds at home.  When they aren’t eating, they are looking at food or talking about it.  This place is a food-lover’s dream.  There are millions of choices, and each city has its famous specialties.

Most Americans could not appreciate the food here.  It is more opposite of the American palate than any food I’ve ever tasted.  Some dishes require a lot of commitment and character, but in the end it is usually rewarding.  Sometimes it is a real challenge though, and Taiwan does not have a robust Health Department or FDA enforcing any codes or standards of cleanliness.  Bathrooms are always dirty, furnishings are a distant afterthought, and I can’t figure out how street vendors could clean their hands and cookware.  I’m sure they don’t.  Many Americans would use all of this as reason to stay away from the food—their loss.

For as much as they eat, the people are quite thin.  Many are more rugged and old-world as compared to the West.  Dentistry is probably a few decades behind the US in much of the country, but maybe it is more noticeable because they smile a lot more than people do in many other Asian countries.  Sometimes the people who smile most have the worst teeth to show, but that is often because the people in the rural areas seem to be a lot happier even though they have a lot less access to the modern things we think should make us happier.

As a “foreigner,” I stand out everywhere I go.  I can’t help it.  My eyes, hair, and skin are all a different color than theirs, and I stand a lot taller than many people.  It isn’t like one might imagine.  I don’t feel like Gulliver among Lilliputians, but I am taller.  I stand out, literally.  Some people choose to ignore me and hope that I go away.  Many times this is due more to them feeling uncomfortable by me.  There is a sense of inferiority in Taiwan in general, and especially toward white Americans.  This is true in many parts of the world.

Other people look right at me and smile.  Some of them walk right up and start saying all of the English words they know.  This means that Chinese New Years Dinnerseveral times each day I am greeted by some stranger shouting “America!  Hot dog!” at me as if my white skin also makes me slightly deaf.  As they grin from ear-to-ear, I smile back and say “Hi!”  It is humorous, but also really heart-warming.  I’ve never shied away from being a spectacle anyway.  Most Taiwanese are very warm, and if they invite me into their home or business, they take care of me with great warmth and fastidiousness as if I were a greatly honored guest.

For all their focus on food or commerce as Taiwan’s greatest asset, I think they really miss the brightest part of their whole culture.  Their people are their greatest resource.  They are not outwardly warm in the way many Southerners are in America, but once you are their friend they will not only give you the shirt off of their backs, but will convince you that it is for your own good that you take it.  They will give endlessly with the same passion that they devour a bowl of noodles.  This is Taiwan.