One. Oh. One!

This is my one hundred and first post on this blog. And we just went to the top of Taipei 101. The giant building is one of those things you “have” to see while you are here. But just like I’ve lived in San Francisco for nearly nine years and have never set foot in the Transamerica Pyramid or walked across the Golden Gate Bridge, my in-laws watched 101 be built from the ground up only a few blocks from their house, and didn’t go up in it until now.
It was worth checking out, even though we had to wait in a long line to get in and to come back down. I don’t know if it’s because our baby is extra specially cute (which he is, if I do say so myself), or if he seems exotic because he’s mixed, or if they are just crazy about all babies here, but our son draws a lot of attention in Taiwan. Usually just playful smiles and sweet compliments, but I guess because he had a captive audience with that line, he became the star attraction. Good thing he’s in a phase right now where he likes strangers because he was being aggressively admired by one and all as we slowly wound around through the amusement park style line. Groping, poking, pinching fingers all trying to get a piece of him as if he were a lucky Buddha. He basked in it, hamming it up, showing off his dimples, even beaming through the forced portrait session in front of the green screen version of 101 spewing fireworks.
We zoomed up the fastest elevator in the world in 37 seconds, up so high your ears have to pop to adjust. We leaned against the windows over dizzying views of the entire city. We stood on the outdoor observation deck and spotted my in-law’s building, which we could have spit on with a good wind. We looked at the huge ballast that keeps the building from swaying too much in high winds or earthquakes. We came, we saw, we got back in line, our baby had a brief meltdown, I felt claustrophobic, and it made me glad we haven’t been hitting up too many of these “must-see” sightseeing venues.
We have had a great time wandering around neighborhoods, eating delicious food (I promise I will get to that food post, but it will have to wait until I get home and can add pictures to it), and hanging out with my husband’s relatives. Last night, we left our son with his grandparents and our cousins took us to a night market, the best dumpling house in the city, and then to a favorite local bar, and we sat and talked for hours. It was such a perfect way to see a slice of life in a different place. You wouldn’t get to know my San Francisco by seeing the Pyramid or the Bridge, and though I may have seen most of Taipei from the 101 building, I will remember it most by the people I met here.
Slow Travel 101: Stick with the locals. They’ll show you where it’s really at.


Anniversary, Interrupted

We celebrated seven years of marriage by getting away on our own for a night. Our first time leaving Little Man overnight. I was a bit nervous about it, especially since he’s been extra clingy toward me when he doesn’t feel safe here, but fortunately he has become quite comfortable with his grandparents and they were eager to send us off. As soon as we left and were walking down the street alone, hand in hand, I felt free and light.
I’m going to have to cut this short because we are about to get on a high speed train to the southern coast of Taiwan for four days of beach time, and I’m guessing there won’t be wi-fi, so it may be awhile before the next post. Briefly, our night away had all the potential for romance and relaxation. My husband found a swanky boutique hotel near the Museum of Contemporary Art, and made reservations at a fancy sushi restaurant. Unfortunately, brave eater that he is, he opted for chef’s choice and one of the many strange things that came his way did not agree with him, and after a previous night of bad clams, he was taken down, and spent the evening groaning the night away in our swish room.
And just to make sure we didn’t get any rest, I woke up around 3 a.m. desperately needing to pump (when breastfeeding is a bummer), and the batteries conked out. We managed to crack ourselves up as we rolled downstairs, exhausted and disheveled, imagining what the front desk must think about why we might possibly need four AA batteries at this time of night. We hoped they wouldn’t ask since “breast pump” isn’t exactly part of my husband’s Chinese vocabulary, and miming or making sounds to describe it could be very confusing.
Turns out they didn’t have any, so we had to stumble out to a 7-11. What a night. But our in-laws and our baby had a great time, so we may attempt it again later in our trip. For now, off to the beach!


And Slow It Goes

Exploring Taipei with a nine-month old can definitely be categorized as Slow Travel, a concept I blogged about before we left. We are living like locals, camping out at the in-laws, and venturing out around our baby’s two-nap schedule. Which means we can’t really be out for longer than four hour stints, so we are getting to know the neighborhood well and getting lots of down time. When we go further than our feet can carry us, we take a bus or MRT, Taipei’s subway system. Cities like Jakarta and Bangkok prepared me well for this city. By comparison, Taipei is much tamer and easier to navigate, more like New York or Singapore, where there is constant action but the rule of law still counts for something.
We made it to the National Palace Museum which houses a giant collection of Chinese art and artifacts. The highlights for me included a beautiful display of painted scrolls by Chiang Chao-shen, a master calligrapher. Also, the famous hand scroll Up the River During the QingMing Festival, painted by court artisans depicting the daily activities of the Sung Dynasty was captivating in its detail. A collection of curios, intricate boxes meant to hold some of the emperor’s most valued treasures, which were also on display, was impressive. Many pieces were so tiny and elaborate it was difficult to imagine how they were made. My favorite piece was in the Rare Books collection, a gorgeous Tibetan version of the Tripitaka, or Buddhist scripture, hand copied in gold ink. Almost as special was the room designated for nursing mothers that I put to good use. They really look out for mamas and their babies over here.
So far, the only other “must see” from the guidebooks we’ve been to is the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, built to honor the “Father of the Nation”, and happened to be there during the changing of the guard, which was cool. Even more entertaining were the many groups of high school kids practicing hip hop dances around the perimeter of the memorial. One of them stopped me to help them finish their English homework, asking me timid questions about my plans while in Taiwan. Teenagers here seem very polite and respectful of elders. They actually got up on the subway to give my mother-in-law and whichever one of us was holding the baby their seat, and I literally saw one helping an old lady across the street. Can you imagine?
Mainly, we have just been behaving as if we live here. We spent a day visiting my husband’s relatives. I mostly sat and smiled as they doted on our son. More than anything else, we have been eating. The food deserves its own post which I will get to soon. In the meantime, we’re enjoying sampling outstanding fare at every meal and getting fatter each day that passes. Ah, sweet vacation. Tomorrow is our seventh anniversary and we are celebrating by going off on our own for a night, a date planned by my man, so I don’t know any details yet except that it will be our first night away from our little guy. Will let you know how it goes.


At Home with the In-Laws

We are staying with my in-laws in East Taipei in the Xinyi district, just a few blocks from Taipei 101, one of the tallest buildings in the world. My husband grew up in Taiwan, and his folks still live in the last place he called home before they sent him to the States in the mid ’80s. He hasn’t been back until now, and it has changed dramatically.
According to The Rough Guide to Taiwan, this area used to be a “wasteland”, butting up to a field of sugar cane. When he left, his twelve-story building was the highest around. Now Xinyi is the most modern business center in the country, known for its high-end shopping centers and plethora of restaurants. It would be comparable to living in SOMA in San Francisco when it was a no man’s land and suddenly being able to walk out your door to the upscale Embarcadero. A few blocks from their place a huge stadium called the Taipei Dome is under construction. There is a Starbucks around the corner. Across the street, you can buy an Hermes tie or diamonds at Cartier or whatever you desire from a giant upscale mall.
The neighborhood may have changed, but his parent’s place has not. First of all, their building is now a dwarf among giants. The concrete block style fashionable when it was built now seems out of place next to all the shiny new buildings with electronic signs a la Times Square. The lobby is big enough to house the mailboxes, a gregarious guard, and the claustrophobic elevators. Their apartment is on the ninth floor along with a mix of residences and a few businesses, like the one at the end of their dark hall bearing a sign saying Fancy Joint Enterprise.
The apartment itself has the typical older Chinese family interior decorating aesthetic I have grown accustomed to after visiting many a household with my husband. There are stacks of things everywhere – jars, boxes, and all manner of reused containers, cute plastic trinkets, and odds and ends collected along the way, like a free paper fan with an ad on it from 1999. Chinese people, especially the older generations, value frugality and disdain wastefulness (it is always dangerous to make generalizations, so know this is based on my limited experience of my husband’s family), so nothing is thrown away until it can no longer serve a purpose. Also, function trumps fashion every time, so it’s not important that things match or follow trends or are put in place with concern for overall balance. Not much has been updated since it was built in the ’70s. Little star stickers remain on the wall since my husband affixed them as a kid. The light fixtures are faux crystal flowery masses with new energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs protruding out of them. Rivers of cords pour out of every light socket. A toaster oven sits on the ground next to the refrigerator. Every space is used with no superficial attempt to make it look like a magazine spread, or to baby proof it for that matter.
Except they did lay down a new layer of thin, pink carpet in the living room because they heard their grandson was crawling. And the photos crowding every shelf in a haphazard collection of frames (or simply taped up) have some obvious new additions. Alongside the treasure trove of yellowing family pictures and snapshots of my husband as an adorable child in way too short shorts and Mary Janes, there are tons of pictures of us. Every room bears our image at our wedding or on vacation somewhere. But taking up the most picture real estate is our son.
My husband is an only child, so our baby is the one and only grandson. My father-in-law is nearing seventy and my mother-in-law is not far behind, proudly bearing her retirement certificate (like American’s senior citizen card) to get in free all over Taiwan. Seeing their place, it is evident that their grandson has become priority number one.
On the flight from Tokyo to Taipei, with our exhausted baby clinging to me, I was convinced we were crazy to drag him to the other side of the world, disrupting his routine for a trip he won’t even remember. But seeing the joy on his grandparent’s faces as they carry him proudly around their home turf, I realize this trip is not for us, it’s for them. As trying as the trip may be and as awkward as it is to be in your in-law’s space for three weeks, I am glad for the chance to give back in what is a small way compared to all they have given me.


Three years with Dude!

Today is the three-year anniversary of adopting my dog, The Dude. It’s a miraculous story how he ended up here in San Francisco with me, all thanks to the kindness of strangers.
The first year of his life is a mystery, but somehow this Beagle/Bassett mix found himself wandering the streets of Taipei. Students at a university actually found him on a bus, and took him back to their dorm, but couldn’t take care of him for long. They saw a flier about dog rescue and called Chia-wen, the guardian angel of dogs unlucky enough to be strays in that city. According to the World Society for the Protection of Animals, Taiwan is the worst place in the world for stray animals, and there are over a million stray dogs. When they are captured and taken to a public pound, the majority are euthanized, often in inhumane ways like drowning and electrocution.
Chia-wen is on a one-woman mission to save the strays of Taipei from this fate. She knows she can only make a small difference, and that the only way to solve the larger problem is for Taiwan to implement a more aggressive spaying and neutering program (which she is helping to do on a grassroots level), but she does what she can. To date, she has found homes for over 300 dogs, all while keeping her day job. Plus, she has kept four of them herself.
She zoomed over on her scooter and picked Dude up from the students, got him neutered, placed him in a kennel and kept him there with her own money for almost a year, taking him out every weekend to try to get him adopted. When she finally accepted that at fifty pounds he was just too big for families in Taipei to consider taking home, she decided to send him to the United States. She contacted Wonder Dog Rescue in San Francisco and found out they had room for him. Then she found someone who was flying to the US who agreed to check Dude in as baggage. Chia-wen has done this many times, sending dogs to the States and to Germany. She pays for the crates and any shipping charges, and arranges for them to be picked up at the airport.
Once he got to Wonder Dog, they quarantined him and made sure he was healthy, then he stayed at a foster home in Burlingame for about a month, until I saw a posting about him on craigslist and brought him home with me. Now he lives a dog’s dream life, going out with me on long walks, and acting as poster boy for the collars I make. $1 of each sale of The Good Life collars goes to organizations like Wonder Dog and to support Chia-wen’s solo efforts.
You can check Wonder Dog Rescue and Chia-wen’s blogs to see dogs available for adoption, to donate to their wonderful causes, volunteer to be a foster parent, or to check in a dog as baggage if you’re flying out of Taiwan. (Just a warning, the pictures of strays on Chia-wen’s blog are sometimes very graphic in documenting the level of medical attention they need when she finds them. It could break your heart.)