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Things in Taiwan You Just Don’t See in the U.S. (and I Can Live Without)

1. Certain Street Food – Ok, I know street food topped my list of things I’d love to see stateside, but there are some that I hope to never see, or smell, again. I can dispel the rumors of dog and monkey meat, but bad enough were stinky tofu, pig knuckles, pork blood congealed in a tofu consistency, squid cut open and splayed on a stick, poor little turtles sans shells…no thank you! Of course, these would probably be on the top of my husband’s wish list, so to each his own. That is the beautiful thing about street food; there’s something for everyone and you can still eat together without getting your food from the same place.

2. Dog’s Bollocks – There’s a stray dog problem in Taiwan. That’s actually where we got our dog, through an organization that brings rescues over to the U.S. There are plenty more where he came from, and the problem persists because they are all intact, meaning you see a lot more balls swinging free over there.

3. Explicit Content on School Field Trips – When we went to the Taipei Museum of Contemporary Art, the main exhibit was of American artist David LaChappelle’s photographs, filled with nudity, violence and graphic sexual content. There are reasons behind it – much of his work deals with celebrity and sensationalism and a culture full of drama and destruction – but is it appropriate viewing for groups of junior high kids? The day we were there, a field trip was under way, and it would never happen in the U.S. of A. without consent forms and warnings and probably an age limit imposed. I debated which of my lists that should go on. On one hand, they are clearly not as uptight about sexuality over there, and maybe it’s a good thing not to make it so taboo. On the other, at the risk of sounding puritanical and prudish, I wouldn’t want my son to go to school and see something like that without me being there to discuss what could be very confusing and bizarre imagery (though I’m sure I’ll be the last person he wants to talk with about stuff like that). The kids didn’t seem disturbed, mostly giggly and titillated. I bet kids see a lot worse on the Internet these days. Man, when did I become such an old fuddy duddy?

4.The Filling of Empty Space – Americans like their space. In Taiwan, there is none, so there’s a tendency to fill it if some is made available. If you are crossing a street in the States, it is illegal for a car to enter the intersection until you have safely left the crosswalk. In Taiwan, you are lucky if cars don’t run over your toes or heels as you are coming and going. Elevators and subway cars are often packed beyond the maximum capacity. People took cuts in front of me in every line I stood in because I was trying to leave a respectable bubble of personal space around me. Apparently, it was an invitation to go ahead. Everybody tailgates when driving for the same reason. It must be a cultural result of living on top of each other in such dense, cluttered little spaces that they don’t need the bubble, but I couldn’t wait to get back in mine. (Though since being back in my car for work in San Francisco, I sometimes wish traffic flowed like it did in Taipei. Nobody gets offended or honks aggressively or flips anyone off. Somehow the close calls and craziness work without inspiring road rage. We are all so self-important and easy to anger over here.)

5. Inadequate Safety Measures – Besides the everyday scenes demonstrating a general lack of concern for safety standards (like whole families riding on scooters and no place for anyone to wash their hands at food stalls, for example), I think this hotel “Emergence” plan best sums up the country’s attitude toward risk management and disaster preparedness. This photo is of a glass box containing a white rope and a flashlight near a ring screwed into the wall by our tenth floor window. Basically, good luck, you’re on your own.

6. Lucky Hairs – I  couldn’t snap any photos on the sly to illustrate this point, but oh man, this one gets me. In Chinese culture, if you have a mole with a hair growing out of it or long hairs growing in an unusual place, it is considered very lucky and is left to grow wild and free. In America, you get those suckers removed and I’m down with that.

7. Whitening lotion – You always want what you can’t have, right? In the States, bronzed tan skin is sought after, but in Taiwan, the fairer the better. Women carry umbrellas on sunny days to avoid catching any rays, and even little girls are taught to do so at a young age. A healthy habit to not end up with skin cancer, but it can be taken to an obsessive level, as all beauty stores carry lines of skin lightening cream and you can have cosmetic surgery to bleach your skin. I definitely don’t need any help in that department.

8. Living at Home Until You Marry – This is actually pretty common in many cultures I have visited, but in the States, most kids move out after graduating and are on their own after college. As an independent person, I preferred it that way, but I hear more kids in the U.S. are moving back into their parent’s homes after college. It will depend on a lot of things, I’m sure, but we will most likely be encouraging our little guy to be on his merry way to self-sufficiency upon graduation and finding a job, not waiting around until he ties the knot (we’ll see…I already get a little sad thinking about it, but my husband is counting the days until we have our freedom back).

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Things in Taiwan You Just Don’t See in the U.S. (and I Wish You Did)

1. Street Food – Americans like their corn dogs and funnel cakes at county fairs, fast food is omnipresent in our culture, and gourmet food carts are becoming more popular in big cities, but we have nothing like the giant night markets full of food stalls prevalent in Asian countries. Maybe it’s too hard to regulate or doesn’t seem clean or we just don’t have the space to designate for it in our cities, but whatever the reason is, it’s a shame, because it’s really fun to stroll down the street and taste a little bit of this and that. If my husband and I lived in Taiwan, we’d probably never cook at home again because inexpensive fresh food is always at hand.

2. Nursing rooms – Every mall, airport, train station, museum, or other such public space in this considerate country called Taiwan has special rooms designated for nursing mothers. They are large and clean and have changing tables and comfortable chairs to nurse your baby in. Some have bathrooms with a seat you can safely put your kid in while you take care of your own business. One even had a mini toilet next to the parent’s toilet. Some have hot water at the ready so you can make a bottle. Why don’t you see these more often in the States? I just went to a museum near San Francisco designed for small children and they didn’t have any of these amenities! How hard is it?

3. High Speed Rail – Come on, America! I want to be able to hop on a train in San Francisco and be in L.A. in a couple hours. Let’s do this already!

4. Kids in Fountains – We went to an aquarium that had this amazing whale fountain to play in with changing rooms next to it. Why is it you aren’t allowed to play in fountains in the U.S.? I’m guessing it’s because we live in such a litigious society, but in Taiwan if a kid slipped and fell, instead of suing, his mom would say “I told you to be careful.” As it should be.

5. Smart cards – In Taipei, you can go to a 7-11, load up an Easy Card (“You-You Ka”) and use it to ride the subway, buses, taxis, rent the bikes you see at various stations around the city, pay for street parking, even use like cash at certain coffee shops and supermarkets, and all without even swiping it. They’re contactless, so you don’t even have to take it out of your wallet, just pass it by the machine and it’s done. Amazing. The Taiwanese even use another smart card to keep track of their health care. Yep, health care. That’s another thing you don’t see around these parts.

6. Universal Health Care – Taiwan’s system isn’t perfect, but from an outsider’s perspective it appears to be working a helluva lot better than ours. While I’m getting all liberal and socialist, here’s another doozy Americans wouldn’t stand for:

7. Gun control – In Taiwan, that means no guns owned by civilians at all. Period. I know that would piss off a lot of folks who value that as a basic right (i.e., most of my family), but this is my list and call me naive or an idealist, but I wouldn’t mind living in a world without guns.

8. My New Family – Ok, I’ll get off my soap box for a minute and talk about the best thing about Taiwan, my family. I had a great time meeting all my husband’s relatives in Taipei, and would love to see them in the U.S. someday. Come on out for a visit anytime!

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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.

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Our Trip Within a Trip: An Excursion to South Taiwan

We are back in Taipei after the trip my in-laws planned to show us more of the country. Beforehand, it was billed to me by my husband as a one-hour ride south on a high speed train, renting a car so we could cruise the rest of the way down the coast, then relaxing at the beach for four days. It didn’t quite turn out like that, as we are both learning that traveling with a baby and your parents does not equal relaxing, but it was definitely an adventure.
Our destination was Kenting, a national park at the southern tip of Taiwan known for beautiful beaches. We left the house at nine a.m., so I was imagining we’d be frolicking in the surf by the afternoon. The journey proved to be much trickier than described (this is when my husband claims “lost in translation”). After a short subway ride to the train station, a scenic trip on the clean and comfortable high-speed rail to Kaohsiung, we hopped into the rental car and managed to get lost for hours due to the agency being out of GPS units and the lack of a good map or clearly marked roads. It was a blessing that I had a baby to tend to in the back who has discovered his voice and knows how to use it, because otherwise I would have been terrified that my husband and father-in-law were both looking at the map most of the trip instead of the road.
As we were driving along the coast, it felt just like the trip from Tijuana to Ensenada in Baja California – beautiful views, but shabbier construction, more treacherous roads and stray dogs as you go. So I was surprised when, seven hours after leaving the house, we finally rolled up to a sprawling, brightly colored hotel complex called the Chateau Beach Resort. His parents had booked us rooms at the Club Med of Taiwan. It’s the kind of touristy place my husband and I have avoided in the past, opting for smaller, unique boutique hotels, but I can see now why people flock to these all-inclusive resorts. They are incredibly family-friendly. I guess this is our new world of traveling with a child to consider.
Road-weary and as cranky as my poor nap-deprived baby, I perked up a little when they showed us to our room and they had provided a Pack-n-Play and baby bathtub. And even more when I saw our window overlooked an incredible network of pools, some designated for small children, and a giant, gorgeous beach. Hallelujah. We settled in, then toured the grounds which included an arcade, craft room, archery area, volleyball courts, bike rentals, a cafe, shops, and a couple restaurants. Something for everyone. We ate at the buffet dinner, where a highchair and a baby bowl and spoon materialized before we had time to even ask for it.
After bathing and putting an oh-so-sleepy Little Man in his cozy crib, we set up the camera and gave the video monitor to my husband’s parents who had a room next door so they could come get him if he started crying, and we were off to explore – a nice perk to traveling with in-laws. Otherwise, we would be stuck in our room trying to be quiet after 8 p.m. This way, we got to check out Kenting town at night, which is a lot like Cabo or any other tourist-driven beach town, with souvenir shops, discos and bars pumping loud club music. Only, this is Taiwan, so there are also food stalls lining the streets. Even though we’d just eaten, we managed to sample goodies like fried milk, fresh coconut, and of course, my husband had a variety of meats on a stick.
It felt like we were on a date. Only, when we came back, there was my father-in-law about to go into our room because somebody was up. Our little buddy woke up every couple of hours, and was wide awake by six a.m. That’s when you start wondering, “Why did we think it was a good idea to travel with a kid? Wait, why did we have a kid in the first place? Can we send him back?”
And then you see his little face the first time he goes in a swimming pool and he clings to you because he’s unsure and then a few minutes later is wriggling like a fish and splashing with his hands and beaming at you. And a little later he is giggling because his Grandpa is burying him in the sand. And then he’s taking giant steps toward the waves while the love of your life holds his pudgy hands, and you think, “This. This is what I came here for.” And I wanted to stay forever.
But it turns out we were leaving the next morning. The folks had planned a night in Kaohsiung, so we left that lovely place after only one great afternoon at the beach, and got back in the dreaded car. This time, we didn’t get so lost, and made a worthwhile stop at an amazing aquarium, the Taiwan National Museum of Marine Biology. A whale shark! A beluga whale! Glass tunnels under a huge amount of water and a stunning array of fish, stingrays and sharks! This was definitely on par with the Monterey Bay Aquarium I’m used to going to, and a highlight of our trip.
The highlight of Kaohsiung was definitely the food. I’ve been on the search for the best shaved ice (“tsua bing”, a dessert specialty) in Taiwan and found it here at PoPo’s (“Grandma’s”) in the Yancheng district next to our hotel, the Kingship. I will describe this perfect dessert in loving detail in the food post, but let’s just call it creamy dreamy mango goodness for now. The Liouhe Night Market was also a delight, where my little carnivorous baby got his first taste of pig knuckles and I got “di gua”, deep-fried cubes of sweet potato rolled in melted syrupy sugar that hardens like a crunchy candy coating, still soft and sweet inside. Delish.
The Kingship was decidedly un-family friendly. No special baby stuff. Not even enough room on the floor to set up the pop-up tent we brought for him, which meant he was sleeping with us. Or not sleeping, since the hotel had absolutely no sound-proofing and you could hear everything from the wedding banquet five floors below us, to the painfully loud tour group of obnoxious old people staying on our floor (they came in around nine p.m. and left around seven a.m. like a troop of hollering baboons, both times a couple crones even knocked on our door in search of their friend and ran away when my husband answered) to the woefully wailing baby a few doors down whose parents must have left him alone to cry it out while they partied at the banquet downstairs.
The next morning, everyone was tired and cranky again. We traveled home during prime nap-time, so Little Man did not get good sleep again. By the time we got back to Taipei, the beach was already a distant memory and I was ready to go home. Like home home. To my own space and my baby’s routine. But we still have a bit to go, and after some sleep I feel up to making the most of it again. Though I wonder when the words “relaxing” and “vacation” will ever go together again.

(Those of you anxious to see pictures will have to wait until I get back home since I can’t download them directly from my camera to the iPad. Bummer.)

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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!

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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.

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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.