We make holes in teeth!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Taiwan - One Month Later

Here I am, one month later.

Today (when I sat down to write this), it is actually 3/14, a month and 2 days later, though the weekend we got back was a sort of jetlag-hell hole blur in a way. So a day or 2 isn’t going to make much of a difference, though I may not actually hit publish on this post for a few days. Whatever. Where am I now, how does the trip look, do I know Chinese, are we going back, am I a practicing Daoist? I hope to have all of these answers and more in the post, though nothing in life is ever simple, so there may be more uncertainty than not. But this is life, and the only thing that is certain in life is, well, nothing, since nobody knows what happens when you die and it seems like half the world doesn’t actually pay taxes.

House Changes

Coming back from any trip usually involves a rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic in some way, and it was no different for us this time. What was different this time, however, is that we’ve really kept the momentum and changed the house for the better. The living room is almost back to being a normal room, and a huge amount of Julia’s stuff has been ported upstairs, which was also considerably cleaned. We gave several hundred pounds of stuff away to one of the veteran charities that come pick up stuff, and we tossed an old futon mattress that was just wasting space and of no actual use. We’ve ordered some furniture for Julia and we’re going to paint the big bedroom upstairs in her favorite color, which of course is pink. We’re having central air installed imminently, I think.

The bedroom was cleaned a bit, as well as the walk-in closet. The basement is only partially done but is coming along quite nicely. In all, with the exception of the old play room in the basement, the house is looking good. Why do I even mention this in a follow-up post about our Taiwan trip? Because this was driven by our returning from the trip and saying: hey, this place is a freaking disaster. Let’s make it more livable, like a house should be. The kitchen remains a bit of a losing battle though.

Cooking & Chinatown

Speaking of the kitchen, my cooking exploits have more or less ended with rice milk, soymilk, and scallion pancakes. I still have some pre-made scallion pancakes in the freezer and there’s fresh, cold rice milk in the fridge currently. So I haven’t folded up camp entirely. But the fire to try to cook different things has died out a bit, as can be expected. I did find a guava in Chinatown last week and Nat brought one home from the Asian market yesterday, which was a nice, albeit expensive, treat. Funny how much I didn’t like them 10 years ago and how much I love them now.

Speaking of Chinatown, I’ve gone twice since we got back, on each of the last 2 Mondays. I’m pretty much going into the office once a week now, only on Monday. At lunch, I run up to Chinatown to scout it out and grab some buns from the bakery and to look for other assorted foods that might be better than the decent-not-great food we can find in Jersey. Last week I did find some sticky rice treats that were good, though they did have coconut on them which screwed with the flavor a bit.


Speaking of Chinatown I found a temple there the first time I went in, which was a pretty cool find. I had to go in, and I think the lady there was a little surprised when I grabbed some incense and walked to the back. I went again last week, and will likely go again today if I manage to make it out of the office in time. I have a meeting this afternoon which may put a hamper on that. At the same time, being stuck in the office all day is a drag so I’ll likely force myself to go head out early.

I don’t have much to add on the subject though, as I think it’s a bit early to say. I’ve been listening to some Alan Watts stuff, and I do find it interesting. I’m not sure he’s strictly a Daoist so much as what’s called a Zen Buddhist, which is apparently a Taoist interpretation of Buddhism, whatever that means exactly. He does talk about Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, so he is well-versed on all 3, at least to my uneducated ears. At the core though, he is still a Westerner talking about Eastern Mysticism & Philosophy. So as it pertains to what I observe in Taiwan, I really haven’t gotten to any rubber-meets-the-road material just yet. I think that will take some time.

I’ve also bought some books on the topic but have yet to read any one of them completely and have not formulated much of an opinion either way. What I can say is that many of the philosophies I already live with are very resonant with things I’ve been absorbing, so it’s an easy win in a lot of cases. As 1 example, I’ve always been a firm believer in, “The journey of 1000 miles begins with the first step,” which is credited to Lao Tzu, though who the hell knows who actually said what 2500 years ago. I also firmly believe in the "wu wei" tenet which basically translates as "inaction" which can more accurately be translated as "not meddling with the nature of things."

I went to Chinatown again today, and I found a new Daoist temple, which was located on the 3rd floor of some building a bit off Canal Street. I was iffy about going in at all, since it was just a door with some writing on it. But there was a yin-yang symbol on the upper corner of the door so I went in, climbed up the somewhat creepy stairs, and found myself in the quiet of a fairly good-sized temple. The guy there talked to me for a bit, which isn’t usually the case when you go to these. He was a friendly sort, and we actually spoke a mix of English and Mandarin, which I only get to use for about 20 seconds once a week on Mondays when I go into the city.

Chinese Learning

On my learning of Chinese, I think I’ve made it clear how discouraged I was through the whole trip there. On that note, I have not picked up the audio lessons again since coming back, though I do plan on revisiting them and trying to figure out exactly where I went wrong. I think I may have been doing too much listening without actually trying to understand or memorize anything. Part of me seems to have just assumed that if I listened enough, it would just come to me. Well it didn’t, and hasn’t. So I’ll need a better plan if I want to move forward on that. I also need to figure out how to be more "street" fluent, which was a big disconnect while I was there.

One thing I have done is to slowly pick up the characters again. Most of the opinions on the matter categorically say that you should not do this, but I’m going against the grain and think that it will fit my personality well. Once I get to the point where I can read, even at a first grade level, that probably opens up so many avenues for me in terms of learning sentence structure and patterns. Right now, all I seem to have is Internet radio, which goes too fast, and the podcasts which are obviously too academic most of the time.

Plus, it will allow me to read the signs, which are everywhere in the country. Many times a sign will help bridge the understanding gap when going somewhere.

Passport and 2012

I went and got my passport renewal application and a haircut last week. The haircut is so I can go get a passport picture taken, which allows me to send in the renewal form. I’m not on the edge of my seat to get this done, though I would like to, so if we do decide to go next year it will be all taken care of. On that note, we have only vaguely discussed plans for going again next year. The same sort of hurdles remain, specifically the cost, my work situation, Julia’s school, a place to stay, and of course if we even want to go or not.

Don’t get me wrong, we both liked our stay there. But in thinking about going back we’re not sure if we want to do it quite so soon. Things get difficult to manage, and in looking back there were logistics problems which we may or may not want to deal with again. In a year from now we may both be itching to head back. But right now I think we’re both content to put off the thought process for another year and figure it out when it gets closer. It would obviously put a huge damper on my bike season, to the point that it would more than likely be a half season which ended when we left here. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s a small trade-off for an opportunity like this.

And really you never know what work will dish out so we might not even have the option. So for now, we’ll figure it out later. Having said that if I had to lay odds I’d say it’s slightly more likely than not. Summer is hot as hell but the fruit is awesome.

Calvin & Grace

The idea of going back next summer probably begs the question of what Calvin and Grace plan on doing. If they’re not there, the trip becomes less appealing. Their plans now are to come after Lydia is done with second grade, which would mean she finishes out this year, then has 2 more full years of school. That would put them in the states in the summer of 2013, which would make a trip then much more difficult since they’d be coming here. Nobody knows what state they’re moving to, or if they’re moving at all. So that’s a pretty wide open variable at this point.

If we take them at their word, 2012 becomes the last real good shot to go for the summer. If we do go, we’d likely spent the full 60 days there this time. Might was well get the most of the visa if we’re going to go.

Stuff & Memories

A month later, what physical things have made it into what I call, the "rotation of life"? The monkey mug has. I use this almost daily to drink tea from. Nat also likes it, even though it’s a bit on the small side, being just under 12 ounces I believe. That may have something to do with the goofy metric system or something, I don’t know. I brought 2 more back with us to give as gifts, and I’m strongly considering taking 1 of them and putting it into our rotation since we both like it.

Aside from that, the tea set I got sits on top of the fridge looking pretty, but not performing a big role since it’s from the "form over function" school and looks nicer than it performs. The wok is great, as is the blue rice scoop we brought back. Not sure I can think of anything besides that which made it into the life rotation. Some of the food remains, but that’s slowly disappearing. And of course the tea is in the freezer, waiting patiently to be inundated with hot water.

The glass dragons sit on a table, and Julia's things have made it back. But overall, we brought back 240 pounds of stuff and I can name about 15 pounds worth of that, most of which are the lions and the tea set. What was so heavy?

As far as memories, the bike holds most of the things I remember. In particular I remember climbing up Monkey mountain and being yelled at by the monkeys, as well as the open view of that river bed on the suddenly sunny day. I also fondly remember the snow-capped peaks the day after it snowed up on the mountain. The farms on the climb to Hero Hill, the grit of the roads, the MeiHua temple area at the base of it, the river trails up in Taipei – all things I remember fondly, and miss tremendously.

Off the bike, I always think of the food places. Night market, the breakfast place around the corner from Calvin’s place, 7-11 down near the apartment, the place we went to eat 3 times in a week while the in-laws were still there, and the glorious scallion pancake, the likes of which I hope to duplicate some day in my very own Eureka moment.

The One Thing...

If I could bring a single thing back with me, what would it be? My first instinct is to say the breakfast place by Calvin. Then I think the Hakka place we went to 3 times in a row down in Luodong might be it. But then I think maybe the rice ball stand in Ludong would be best. They only have 1 thing, but it’s the best rice ball you can get. If I could have that just once a week I’d be thrilled. I’m also strongly pulled by the bakery down in Luodong. I’ve scoured the bakeries in Chinatown with little luck in trying to find one even half as good as that one. The selection there was great, and I’d love to have it here.

Without question, it would be something to eat. If I'm forced to pick 1 place, it would have to be the breakfast stand near Calvin's. The rice ball is solid, and the fresh soy/rice milk is good. They also have a dozen other things you can eat. I've never ventured into Chinatown for breakfast. Maybe I should next Monday. Get up early and go, see if I can find my very own holy grail of rice balls there.

I made Nat answer the question and she wanted to bring the entire Taipei 101 here, which is a good answer but I had to strike it from the record. There are like 150 stores in the basement and it would be roughly the same as saying a 1 square mile area of Luodong. She finally answered that she'd take the dessert stand down in Luodong, which has tapioca balls and different starchy desserts.

Grooves & Ruts & Conclusions

So now it’s a month later and I’m back in my normal groove. I’ve always said that what 1 person calls a groove another calls a rut. It’s really the same thing with a different hat on. I think a groove is a good thing, though it can also be a way to delude yourself into thinking that what you are and where you are is better than it is. I’ve sort of gotten over the disappointment I experienced when we came back to the mediocrity that is New Jersey. Wait, I should be fair. New Jersey is actually quite good in many ways. But it’s not great in any way. To that end, I think we’ve both sort of fizzled out in our enthusiasm in trying to find any Chinese food worth a shit here. Just give it up, it’s not really that good.

After a dead 10 day period following the trip, I’m biking again, and I have a plan and goals and such. My race season has started, having done 4 races already. The past 2 Saturdays have seen me lining up at 7:15 in a small park in Newark to race a bunch of equally insane people who come out when the temps are still in the 30s. You’d think that the weather being so bad this year, and my having had carte blanche to ride, I would be killing it. I’m not, a point which has been exacerbated by the extra weight I still carry from the trip. I’m getting there, but I have some work to do still.

I do like riding with the guys again, and as much as I loved riding there I was on an island in regards to my biking, both literally and figuratively. The blog helped me connect my distant reality to anything at all. Left to my own devices with nobody to "talk" to, and I’d likely fall off and ride less. I think I would do slower but longer trips if I lived there, as so many awesome destinations await you if you’re willing to put the hours in to get there.

I make it sound like Taiwan is the greatest thing since sliced bread, and it’s not a fair thing to do, because it’s not. It’s just something different, an opportunity to do something most people rarely, if ever, get to do. I enjoyed myself and wish we could have stayed 8 weeks, or even 12. I don’t think the scale likes the sound of that, and if we do go back next year I’m going to need to keep better tabs on what I eat, when I eat, and how damn much I eat. And of course the air pollution is pretty bad, so you have to keep that in mind.

But I do miss it, and look forward to going back. I have no idea what will happen with the in-laws, my job, Calvin & Grace, or even our desire to go. But at this point, I remember the trip fondly and hope that we can do a repeat performance before too long, even if it doesn’t turn out to be next summer. One of these days I have to imagine we’ll be back, for some decent length of time. As Julia gets older, her desire might change from "I don’t care" to "I want to stay here for the summer," so this is something we’ll need to factor into the equation. But like anything, that’s just speculation.

So anyway, that’s a month later. I’ll probably be back for yet another follow-up of some sort, unless the thread of this trip entirely snaps in the next month. Again, I hope you enjoyed it.

Here's a video Terren passed along which is pertinent to the topic:



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