Massage Madness

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Sometimes a weekend trip to the waterfall just isn’t in the cards despite the well laid plans of mice and men. My bestest girlfriend and I have a habit of making long-sighted plans, like “We should have a whiskey tea party” or “We should go see a baseball game one day.” These plans are open ended and often are pushed to the side for more immediate time sensitive plans.

Today, we actually can check one off of the list. I have been trying to do a spa day for a good year now, and finally we went for a pedicure and then a massage.

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Day glow pink toes, make the day a whole lot brighter.

Sounds idyllic right? This was my first massage in Taiwan and I have to say I was surprised. I have had a total of two professional massages in my life and those were given in the United States where I had to fill out a health history and promise I had never had any neck injuries.

As might be expected there is no red tape when it comes to finding a massage parlour in Taiwan. We walked in and requested hour long body massages and were led to a chair to bathe our feet in a hot water and then given a brief neck rub down with a hot towel. My friend had a younger male masseuse and I had an older guy with some crazy strong hands.

This massage gentleman knew his stuff. He found every painful deposit of scar tissue in my body and tore it away from the bone. I felt like that carcass of a Thanksgiving turkey slowly being stripped down of all my muscle mass.

When that wasn’t good enough he smacked me until the muscle released. It was a shock to the system for sure. It felt a bit like torture at the time. I think it helped promote circulation and flexibility, but I swear I was almost crying when that man was leaning his elbow into my calf muscle.

This made me think about how different the approach is between home and Taiwan for a few things. For example medical problems are dealt with head on, there isn’t a way of tip-toeing around a medical issues it is all about dealing with it head on. For example a friend of a friend in a restaurant: “Oh your ankle hurts? Let me feel it. Yeah you’re fine just need to stretch it like this…” Me: “Owwwww! Yes, right there is where it hurts.” I swear he wasn’t far from telling me suck it up.

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The business card from the massage parlour. Just ask for masseuse number two.

I have a pretty high tolerance for pain, but apparently not as high as the average Taiwanese person.  When people pinch my tender bits relentlessly all I am able to do is wince and vaguely regret I don’t know enough Chinese to articulate “softer”. Plus I am used to requesting a masseuse to go harder, and if I admit it hurts I lose the game with myself where I pretend I have no weakness.

So aside from a few sharp intakes of breath I survived the massage and was rewarded at the end with a compliment from my masseuse in English! “Very strong.” And of course a recommendation to come back more often because I was a wreck. As I hobbled toward my scooter with my friend we juxtaposed the North American responses and Taiwanese responses on…
money N.A. (indirect) T (direct)
massage N.A. (indirect, feel good) T (direct, no foreplay)
emotions N.A. (relatively direct confrontation) T (indirect, what problem?)

Despite the spasms of my screaming nerves I do think I will go back for another massage. Maybe I’m turning Taiwanese afterall.

Sweet Nothings: around the island

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I recently read NPR’s show This American Life is the most listened to radio show on the air in the United States. Consequently, I believe at least a few people have heard the show about having someone’s back and what it means to have a support network.

Last weekend celebrated Mid-Autumn Festival in Taiwan, known as 中秋節 or Moon Festival. If you are Taiwanese this three-day weekend  means traveling back to celebrate eating with your family, and if you are an English teacher it means going on a longer trip that wouldn’t be possible on a normal two-day weekend.

I loved Moon Festival last year. I was invited to a Taiwanese BBQ by a new friend and spent the afternoon and evening eating myself silly on all sorts of grilled delicacies with her family. The night was spent staring at the full moon from the road, and playing with fireworks that were purchased in the general store down the road.

My Chinese teacher told me the Taiwanese tradition of barbecuing over this festival is based upon the success of a soy sauce advertising campaign in the 1980s. I found it fascinating that over the past thirty years a brand of soy sauce could change the way a population celebrates a traditional Chinese holiday.

This year, since I had experienced the family celebrations of Taiwanese Moon Festival I thought I would head out of town and go camping as an homage to the classic American Labor Day camping trip. I wanted my two closest friends to accompany me in this venture, the idea was to take a train to an ecological park near mountains and scooter around to find the best camping spot.

As you may have guessed this didn’t happen, my friends didn’t have my back in this case. One told me reticently she had already agreed to go with her yoga group and invited me along. The other made plans weeks in advance with me looking at train time tables and hostels, and then on the Friday night we were supposed to leave town unexpectedly backed out. 

I was surprised how much that hurt. As Barry Schwartz from TED talks will tell you, “The key to happiness is low expectations.” But these are my best friends I am talking about, my inner circle so maybe I am doing this friendship thing wrong. I understand it was mostly logistical misunderstandings, but it stung because I got this impression I had been overlooked in favor of a better offer.

It is one thing to be stood up by a prospective love interest, it is another thing to be stood up by close friends. My point being, if I can’t have expectations of close friends then I can’t have expectations of anyone. I can only expect them to act selfishly, which is a saddening thought. I don’t expect everyone to be there all the time; I do expect someone to be there sometimes.

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Beidawu Shan (北大武山) and lots of rain on all our scooters, my sleeping bag was soaked!

So, what did I do after my dear friends left me for dead? I joined another group of friends of course, a group that planned to climb a mountain with only a few acquaintances and many strangers. It was an interesting mix of crazy Eastern European men and Taiwanese women cram school teachers. We set off late to the mountain on Sunday morning and as soon as we arrived it started pouring rain, this continued for another two hours as we huddled in an aboriginal village near the trailhead.

The good news was my biking friend who had invited me to bike to Beidawu Shan 北大武山 was also discovered huddling in the same village so I got to spend a few hours catching up with him about his impending trip to Brazil. As the rain thundered down monsoon-style, the aboriginal lady at the open air restaurant offered to let us sit in her living room until the rain stopped and we spent some time talking and looking at wedding photos in her home. A touching example of Taiwanese hospitality, not only towards foreigners but to each other. (See photo at the top.)

It was getting dark and it was looking unpromising as a damp destination to spend the night, so the travel group improvised by heading to a nearby Sihjhongsi Hot Springs. We ate a banquet of food in town and then camped out in a park near the public pools. The next morning after very little sleep, the group was looking a bit ragged and we had to pick between visiting a waterfall or the beaches of Kenting that were not far from the hot springs.

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Celebrating at the hot springs with a few sparklers, who knew they would still light after being soaked.

 

So we once more got on our scooters and rode to the beach to relax for the afternoon. On the way home Monday evening we stopped by a Buddhist restaurant and were served seven courses of delicious vegetarian food while overlooking the water during the sunset. It was an ideal ending to a weekend of improvisation.

Getting Trashy in Taiwan

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Momentarily I was unsure what to write about, then I found inspiration in the trash. Taking out the trash in Taiwan is complicated

The first complication is the obvious: there is communal living in the apartment buildings, but not a communal dumpster at most buildings. Instead, a garbage truck plays an ice-cream truck song to alert neighborhoods to its presence several times a week. It falls on the citizens to chase after the truck with their bags of trash.

Correction, bags of trash and recycling. The auntie in my building tried to explain all the intricacies of this recycling business when I moved in, but either I wasn’t listening or some of it was lost in translation.

1. Regular trash/unrecyclables: bathroom stuff, plastic bags, maybe food scraps. I have a hunch they might even have a special place for the food scraps. People come out their doors with what looks like slop buckets.

2. Glass bottles, cans, plastic – not really sure if they are supposed to be separated.

3. Paper: I don’t have  a lot of paper but I do know the trash truck wouldn’t accept my pizza box despite my confusion.

At first I thought it was great recycling was so prominent in Taiwan. Until my life became that much more … trashed. On the point of trash and recycling the old biddies in my building are unyielding and unhelpful. One guanlix (a “security guard” but really just someone who sits and watches soap operas in the lobby and judges me coming and going at strange hours) tried to tell me what hours the trash and recycling trucks came. Yes, that’s right they come at different times and frequencies each day and no recycling trucks on the weekends when they would be most useful. Most of the times she rattled off seemed to be during business hours that I was already in class learning Chinese or teaching English. 

A few weeks after moving in when I caught my first trash truck after rushing home from work I was handed a pink time schedule, all in Mandarin so good thing I can’t read any of the helpful information. I have it though, as a sort of consolation prize perhaps I will take it out one day and reminisce about the days I couldn’t read Mandarin and with tears in my eyes translate the times my trash truck would come.

I was getting along comfortably with my recycling and trash routine until my housewarming party when my recycling over runneth. A few friends were kind enough to help me bag up all the recyclables before disappearing into the night, but that still left me with three large bags of recycling and my trash. Then I got busy, and the beer cans and wine bottles started to draw fruit flies onto my balcony. One night the week following I returned home from work in time to tow the trash and two out of three recyclables to the trucks on the corner.

This still left my remaining bag of putrefying recyclables for this week. The other night I brought down my current bag of trash, the recyclables bag and a third bag with a pizza box, two plastic teacups and an old shampoo bottle. As I dashed for the truck I recalled overhearing a conversation with friends at a rooftop party a month before on the art of disguising recyclables to look like trash.

As I stepped up to the trash truck, sweating, I heaved my trash into the back of the truck and realizing there was no recyclables truck that night I guiltily threw that in as well. Meanwhile the shrewd old lady trash worker stared me down and when I attempted to discard the pizza box and plastics she shrieked at me. No doubt, I was trying to get rid of recyclables in the trash truck, but I am just a stupid foreigner so I was looking for a little pity.

She pawed through the bag of plastics and pizza box and said a lot of loud sounds that I didn’t understand while I looked confused, sweaty and a little guilty. Then she dismissed me with a pointed index finger that clearly meant, “You can leave young lady and don’t come back until you learn how to dispose of a pizza box properly.” Then I trudged back into my building towing the offending pizza box and plastic bottles with a little vindictive pleasure that I had gotten rid of the last bag of recycling from the party without her noticing. So there, I’m a trash reprobate and probably a repeat offender.

I love recycling. I love doing things right the first time. And I love following the rules, within reason. But this system is designed with the understanding someone will always be at home during the day to catch the trash truck. Now, I live alone in a foreign country and I just want to take out my own waste on my own terms. I don’t want to inconvenience anyone by asking them to take my trash and recyclables for me, but you can’t blame my friends and I for disguising some of our trash on the nights we rush down to find only a trash truck option. You can’t make everyone happy all the time, especially if those everyones are grim old Taiwanese ladies.

Romance and a food analogy

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When I came to Taiwan my decision was shaped by a desire to learn Chinese and teach English, perhaps save money and live a less  work-driven lifestyle. The location within Taiwan was chosen primarily because I knew friends living and working in Kaohsiung. After all there are fewer romantic opportunities for a western woman relative to a western man in Taiwan. 

In the past few weeks, as summer simmers down to autumn, several couples have broken up. Whereas in mid June everyone was dating or having some kind of summer fling, now the cooler weather has also cooled the heads and hearts of my young adult friends.

One breakup in particular interests me because it addresses many of the issues of biracial couples in Taiwan. She is Taiwanese, he is American; this is her first boyfriend, and it is not his first girlfriend. Originally I met them a year ago as a long-established couple. 

The woman, J, became my friend because she was a friend of a friend and also has a very generous disposition when it comes to sharing food and travel with people she knows. The man, E, did not strike me as very pleasant; although we shared common interests his pomposity was only endured in social gatherings for the sake of J.

The understanding from the perspective of of Taiwanese people is that all white American men are sleazebags that have come to Taiwan to sleep with Taiwanese women. Some will say this is because Taiwanese women will happily sleep with Caucasian men because of their “western looks” and, ahem, other physical attributes despite their lousy work ethic or commitment phobias.

Talking with my male friends they admit it is also easier to date Taiwanese women because the women don’t ask to be impressed the same way a more belligerent western woman would demand, “What can you do for me?” or “Why do you think you’re special?” My understanding from talking with friends is that many relationships between western men and Taiwanese women are pursued because they are easy to start and maintain, although I have witnessed much harder to dissolve.

Taiwanese girlfriends have a reputation for trying very hard to “get him back” and “make things right.” There is an implication that as an expatriate from a first world country if a man visits a country lower on the economic food chain he can have his pick of the young beauties that want to make a financially advantageous match. The bigger the economic gap between the two people the more disparity in physical beauty as well. For example a friend mentioned seeing many creepy fat old white men with beautiful young Cambodian wives, and the same in the Philippines. 

In the case of J and E, it seemed as though it was very advantageous for E to have a Taiwanese girlfriend to show him around and help him order food not to mention improve his quality of life as a social hermit. Of course I am sure there are also pressures put on him from dating J as well, but being her friend I am blind to them. I believe E is that lecherous American male stereotype and within their shared apartment building the neighbors and friends often talked about how loud he would yell at her when he got angry, which was often.

Unsurprisingly, the western women who lived in the building with J and E were not supportive of the way he treated her and more than once told her she should leave him. So for a long time she didn’t see our group, much of winter and spring she was a stranger because she realized none of her friends liked E.

Even talking with her two weeks ago at the hair stylist when she talked about the relationship no longer working, all she said was she remembered how sad she was last time he broke up with her. As an excuse she would say, “You know he is my first boyfriend.” 

There is an exaggerated romanticism about ‘first love‘ here in Asia, an understanding you will never really fall out of love and maybe years later you will reconnect…many Korean soap operas are right along these lines. Despite J being an intelligent, multilingual young Taiwanese woman she is still subject to these cultural guidelines: 1. find a first love between 20-25 years old 2. marry or date that person for a long time *3. (optional) have one child and be a stay at home mom that sends her child to English preschool and cram school. **4. If at all possible marry someone from North America or Europe so you can move there and live the life of a rich and famous suburban housewife.

From my own trials and errors I know that finding people to sustain relationships or friendships is difficult. Now, for the food analogy: people are all different flavors and they can combine well in many unexpected new flavor profiles to become something even better. Even if you don’t like the taste of licorice that doesn’t mean it doesn’t match well with another flavor. It just means licorice and lemongrass don’t work well together, each have their merits and can compliment other flavors very well. Lemongrass and coconut milk are natural friends and bring out the best qualities in both. In the end we are all looking for people that bring out our own natural good qualities, for however long that might be. Even the best chocolate has a shelf-life, so enjoy it while you can.

Spring Scream aka Three-Day-Zombie

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This past weekend was the Tomb Sweeping holiday long weekend. On Thursday talking with my boss she admitted most Taiwanese get together on an earlier weekend with the family to clear away debris from the ancestral tomb. So instead many of the young adults from Taiwan head to the sleepy swimming destination Kenting for a music festival known as Spring Scream.

Friday started with some mood-dampening rain and the commute by van down to the town. With no check-in at the hostel until 3 p.m. we bummed around the town and people watched one of the thousand 7 Elevens of Pingtung county.

Around eight p.m. the Kenting Night Market starts to break out its trinkets and fried goods, also little bars pop up next to “The Strip” so you can get a shot of absinthe on the walk to your party. The little line of shops that usually sells the same swimsuits and 100 NT flipflops are obstructed this weekend by commercial stands selling alcohol.

In the evening the various nearby resorts throw parties that involve dancing on the beach, and for some vomiting in the sand.

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But the other side of it, quite separate from the crazy Asian public drunkenness and binge eating, is the music festival happening south of town. After getting a shuttle or taxi music enthusiasts can walk up the hill into a national park and watch bands from all over Taiwan play from afternoon to evening.  The music ranged from hard hair-band Taiwanese rock, to softer electronic and vocal heavy rock. The stages were all pretty close together and one of the stages had hammocks set up near the stage for sleepy people.

The music was alright, but mostly it highlighted my inability to understand most the language and so after rocking for a few hours I was ready to return and take a nap. Perhaps it is better to give up on music festivals and just go to shorter concerts, then the escape is easier and the music sound systems better coordinated. Although the natural layout of the park was beautiful I don’t think the music was weighed enough into the equation. It didn’t help the mood that a friend of mine was smoking at a non-designated patio area in the park and received a 2000 NT fine from a grumpy crew of National Park Smoker Haters.

 

 

Party Train Kaohsiung to Taipei

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Last Friday my roommate Chen, having an affinity for trains booked a whole car on one of the trains from Main Kaohsiung station up to Taipei. A whole caboose car: with three compartments, a small section of normal seats, a dining car with a bar and a lounge with open space and cushy chairs and a small balcony overlooking the tracks in the back.

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The dining car quickly established itself as an amateurs gambling room with card games. The lounge became a dance floor, favored by the smokers because of the easy access to the balcony.

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Pulling into the station in Taipei at 6 a.m. most of the party headed to a nearby hot springs to soak and recalibrate our internal clocks. However, I didn’t anticipate the nakedness of the hot springs we attended.

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I have soaked in many hot springs over here in Taiwan, up north in Tainan and down south in Pingtung. This was my first nude hot springs experience, and the only thing questionable about it was the way it had separated sexes so you couldn’t talk to all of your friends.

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Jin-Zuan Night Market

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On Monday night it is hard to convince anyone to get off the couch, but with the assistance of my stalwart roommates I ventured to Jin-Zuan Night Market.  Kai-Xuan, as someone was kind to point out is the largest night market, then Jin-Zuan is the second largest Kaohsiung night market right next door selling pretty much the same experience.

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Here you can play darts and by hitting the balloons. If you hit enough you are eligible for an additional prize of a stuffed animal displayed nearby.

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Meanwhile at the fishing pond several young mothers “catch” fish with well bundled children. The temperature here in the winter is around 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius.)

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Above is a hot pot station. Many Taiwanese apartments have minimalist kitchens and I think this is one reason there are many popular restaurant options to cook your own meal. At hot pot the server will bring you your broth and you can request the meat, seafood, vegetables or mushrooms you would like to put in.

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A small gambling table, it looks like mahjong tiles but I am still unfamiliar with many of the gambling options.

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On the left is a woman working at a fruit milk stand. In Taiwan there are many options to flavor your milk with watermelon, papaya, strawberries or apple juice. My personal favorite is the avocado milk where they add custard to make it even more creamy and decadent. On the right a couple is throwing rings, in the event one goes over a bottle they can pick a prize in that line of bottles.

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The stalls stretch on for about a city block, but not all of them are open to all hours. By ten o’clock in the evening many of the clothing and food stalls will have shut down for the night.

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Music Scene March Madness

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After being here six months I am finally attending live music on a more frequent basis, with an influx of concerts in the next few weeks.

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Last week, I attended a concert at The Mercury (高雄市左營區立 路46號, Kaohsiung, Taiwan) with a three-band lineup including the Taipei band FLUX, an Australian band and the local Kaohsiung band, Forests.

This is only one of the three major venues in Kaohsiung City, Taiwan. The other two are ROCKS and Pier Two: The Wall, according to expat and music patron, Roberto.

This March there is a series of movie music classical concerts happening up at the Kaohsiung Museum, sitting by the lake. Following the Ides of March on the 19th, two members of the Wu Tang Clan are visiting Taipei, RAEKWON & GHOSTFACE KILLAH!

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Cijian Island

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Last weekend I was a grade-A flake. I said I would be one place and then I went somewhere entirely different three days in a row. Sunday, I planned to go to a picnic near the cultural center in Kaohsiung and instead I ventured over to Cijian on a bike with one of my best friends, K.

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We sunned on the beach and watched Chinese tourists frolic in the spray in full regalia of jeans and long sleeve shirts. Then K’s roommate showed up and we made plans to move down to a different beach with a larger group that was fishing.

We biked over, stopping briefly for some fresh coconut water to hydrate from the weekend of dancing. At the beach with Taiwanese friends we found a group cooking eggs in the shell as well as fish and crabs caught in the shallows.

The water was a bit chilly with the wind, but worthwhile using goggles and watch schools of fish along the shore and crabs skittering around on the rocks. There was a group effort to spear crabs with a tiny harpoon and catch small fish with a miniature collapsible fishing pole.  I tried my luck with the pole and found, I am very impatient. I love sitting around and feeding fish and when I try to jerk the line and secure the fish I only ever scare them off with my movement.

After snacking on eggs, fish and crab the crew headed towards the night market for even more feasting. With the cloaking of night over the island the wind picked up and my bare legs and sun-burnt face demanded indoor seating. Shortly after we ran into another photographer friend, T and headed back on the ferry to scrounge up some Korean food. Nothing like a hot bowl of sizzling rice to take the chill off on a Sunday night.