Tuesday, February 22, 2011

week 23 the Lantern Festival

The Chinese New Year celebrations in Taiwan have just recently come to a close.
For 15 days, all have been celebrating the New Year. 
For 15 days, the firecrackers have been going off!

Offering table placed in front of the office building adjacent to my office building
During the Chinese New Year, after the holidays have been savored and people are ready to go back to work... Each business inquires as to the best time to reopen their business, in Chinese tradition. For example (although my firm is less strict, because it has a more international and not strictly Chinese background), on my first day back to work after the New Year we began business between the hours of 9am and 11am. This was the supposed window of perfect timing for my firm, and our office manager asked that we please not turn on the lights, A/C, or unlock the front doors until that time - even if we arrived earlier. In addition to opening at the most opportune time, many companies set off firecrackers and provide offerings to the gods. I call them firecrackers because for this specific use, they simply use the loud firecrackers for the noise - not much to see but a cloud of smoke. I don't know how the prophets giving this advice calculate their perfect timings, but I would love to know whose business near my apartment was really so fortuitous by opening Saturday morning at 5am?! Yes, yes they did. 

I'm still becoming familiar with these Chinese New Year traditions... you can read more about it here:

Decorative lanterns hanging round the Sun-Yat-Sen Memorial Hall
Each uniquely hand-painted.
At the close of the 15 day celebration, the Chinese celebrate the Lantern Festival. In a big city like Taipei, there are many lanterns in many places, but specifically, the Sun-Yat-Sen Memorial Hall has a huge display that is lit each evening and open to the public. It is frequently on my way home (depending on where I am headed to and fro), so one night this weekend on my way home, I decided to check it out... before I missed my chance!

Rows and rows of lantern displays - Imagine a football field full of them...
It had never occurred to me that lanterns might take a creative shape - but that is exactly what you see at the Lantern Festival. Unique lighting displays of all shapes and sizes, submitted by various groups/individuals for the show. Sort of like something you might see at the Texas State Fair... except quieter. So much more peaceful, and lovely to stroll through on a drizzly evening under the moonlight. As you can imagine, there were plenty of couples there going for a romantic evening walk...

There were a LOT of rabbit themed lanterns for the Year of the Rabbit.
Line of displays along one side of the Memorial Hall.
I was unexpectedly pleased by the silent evening stroll on my own - I hadn't even originally intended to walk through. I had just finished a cheerful dinner with friends nearby, and the was passing the lantern displays on my way home. Bold, festive, and quiet. Some artful, some playful... by the time I got home I was ready to sleep and relax :)

Thursday, February 17, 2011

week 22_Kaohsiung day trip

Taiwan is a pretty small island, and the largest towns are well known: Taipei, Taichung, Tainan, and Kaohsiung. This week I had the chance to get out of the office for a day and visit one of our project job sites in Kaohsiung. There are many ways to get from here to there, but since this was a business trip we took the high speed rail (traveling at about 288km -aka- 179mi/hr).

Kaohsiung is located on the opposite end of the island, at the southern tip. The weather is generally warmer, and people tell me that the pace is typically slower. It is highly appreciated for offering simpler living, sunshine, and the chance to escape the hustle & bustle of a Taipei lifestyle. Being that I was there for work, I didn't spend much time basking in the sunshine or moving slowly... but it would be nice to visit again sometime off the clock :)

I could still feel the slower pace though... :)

I see these frequently even in Taipei...
With the twigs tied together...
Are people actually making these as needed?
Or does a store actually sell this???
Interesting either way.
A woman laying tiles for the roof garden.
Bamboo ladder.
(There were also metal ladder on site, but isn't this one more fun?)
After a busy morning, we joined some of the construction managers for lunch at a nearby restaurant. Whenever there is a large group, we are more likely to eat at a nice restaurant with large shared dishes on a round table... I particularly like this because not only do people order for me (which makes things easy) but I also get to try lots of new local food that I might not always know to order for myself...

Part of our work lunch feast!
More of the feast.
We spent some more time at the job site, but after that lunch it was harder to go back to work - I was ready for a nap! Good thing the train ride home was an hour and a half... :)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Week 22 - Happy Valentine's Day

Here in Taipei, the Chinese have their own Valentine's holiday - 7th day of the 7th lunar month in the Chinese calendar, this year it is on August 6, 2011 (and in 2014, it will be on my wedding anniversary!). However, Taipei tends to embrace all American holidays from what I can tell - so of course, there were Valentine's sales and displays, etc, this week. Whether it is due to the influence of the international community here, or just the desire to celebrate two sets of holidays? It means the women get twice the occasion (think about that ladies...)

Blossoming tree branches.
Even the trees were celebrating the holiday!
...And they were gorgeous.
Much like in the US, Valentine's Day is a very commercialized holidays - mostly promoted by the chocolate and florist retailers. Taipei is a tropical island with an abundance of affordable flowers sold in the local markets for $3-4 per bundle... So, I saw most Valentine's paraphernalia from the chocolatiers [Godiva, Ferrero Rocher, and so on]. 

A small Godiva shop, dipping strawberries for Lovers.
[And totally skimping on the chocolate if you ask me! - Maybe they'll be double-dipped?]

I had fun taking some photos for my sweetheart with the LOVE sculpture (above). I have always loved this graphic, and now that I actually live nearby one of the sculptures, I have taken some time to learn about it! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Love_(sculpture)

Other than that, the day was pretty much business as usual. I didn't try to dine at any fancy restaurants alone that evening... so I couldn't really say if it was a typical Monday night or not...

Sunday, February 13, 2011

week 21_chicken

So, the world keeps on spinning, and I keep on enjoying the adventure... :)

Last night I stopped at my favorite drink shop, GongCha, for some tea.
I have gotten into the habit of swinging by there on my way home quite frequently. The shop is on the corner of my block and they sell tea, coffee, and juice drinks. I am pretty much always in the mood for something tasty to drink, so I've quickly become a well-known patron. There is one female employee especially who is always kind to me, and we chat in English each time I stop by. Let's just call her "B" for the purposes of this story.

When I arrived at the shop this time she was busy snacking on a piece of fried chicken. It looked tasty, and I always try to keep up the conversation so we started talking and the conversation went something like this:
Me: "What's that you're snacking on?"
B: "It is chicken. It is a very popular Taiwanese snack." -munching, munching-
[I waited as another employee fixed my drink, but I was thinking that chicken looked pretty good, and the locals obviously approve. Maybe I should try some myself... After all, it was still steaming hot, perhaps the place is nearby?]
Me: "It looks good! Fried chicken?"
B: "Yes, it is delicious. You should try"
Me: "Did you buy that nearby?"
B: "Yes. It is from a restaurant just that direction (points). Two streets away."
Me: "Where is it from?"
[At this point in the conversation, she began blushing heavily, and speaking to her coworkers very quickly in Chinese, discussing the appropriate English words to tell me, and they were obviously egging her on to tell me, tell me...]
B: -very sheepishly and quickly... she made a motion to draw a circle pointing to the front of her torso- "It is breast"
Me: Ahhh! I couldn't help but bust out laughing - no wonder she was acting funny about the answer! I then immediately explained that I meant "Where?" as in "What is the name of the restaurant?"

She may have thought my question was directed differently because the Taiwanese eat many parts of a chicken here that foreigners don't prefer to eat (feet, intestines, blood, etc...) They all began to laugh; they are very good natured kids, but of course she was embarrassed! It was pretty funny. :) Some things are lost in translation...

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

*** Fashion Example ***

Okay, okay.
So I have mentioned more than once now that sometimes the fashion here is a little different then the US... BUT I haven't had the heart - or the opportunities - to photograph wild fashion very often, without fear of embarrassing someone else or myself!

Well, I had a moment - so here it is! 
Just for reference, this is certainly not what every woman here would wear, but it is also not that unusual! Asia has it's own fashion sense... and it sometimes seems pretty nonsensical to these American eyes! The good news though, is that I feel like I can pretty much leave my house wearing whatever! That comes in handy every now and then! :) Ha.

Never mind where the hand is in this picture...
This photograph was taken in a department store, headed up the escalator.
So... the ensemble appears to be:

Striped sweater dress, check.
Cream lace hoodie, check.
Black knee-high socks with bright red hearts pattern, check.
Furry reddish-brown ankle boots, check.
Gray leather purse, check. 

You tell me - did I miss anything?

week 21_Around town

The Chinese New Year is based on the Lunar calendar, and the people remark to me often about how surprisingly accurate that calendar is... The actual days vary per year. While I was gone to Olympia, Taipei was transitioning from winter into spring. Upon my return it was immediately obvious that the cold had left and the warmer temperatures and sunshine had already moved in!

It's hard to capture the beauty of a sunny day in a photograph...
Here are some of my pictures from wandering my last few days of the break...

A Chinese New Year store, selling decorations!
As you can see, the colors are Red & Gold

More hand-painted lanterns surrounding the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall

Rabbits around the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall - Year of the Rabbit
Walking path around Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall
Sunshine & a beautiful 72 degrees!

More sunshine dancing in the trees

Chinese New Year decorations hanging at a door

week 21_back to Taipei

Upon returning to Taiwan, I still had 3 days left of the Chinese New Year holiday. 

Day 1: SLEEP... I was pretty much in and out of nap mode for the entire day & night (Impressive, I know).

Day 2: EAT... After all of that sleeping, I was in serious need of some activity and some grub. Many of the smaller restaurants, the Mom 'n' Pop shops, and the food stands
were still closed for the holiday. But having eaten Western food in the States 
for the past few days, I was in a rather adventurous mood and I managed 
to find a street vendor in business. Basically, for this particular type of food stand, 
you choose the items you'd like to eat - meats and veggies - and then the vendor 
deep fries them all for a quick moment... Just long enough to create a crispy outside,
with the fresh inside. Not to fret - Meats, are typically pre-cooked.

I chose some fried chicken and mushrooms.
Bag with Chicken, mushrooms, spices, & skewers
[The Taiwanese prefer not to eat "finger foods" with their hands
- these skewers are pretty common]

 I realize how appealing this might sound and/or look (sarcasm)... 
but it was ok, minus the chicken bones...

Day 3: SHOP!... What better way to celebrate the New Year than to support the local economy and spend some of that Chinese New Year bonus that had been burning a hole in my pocket?! Ha. I was not the only one...!

It felt like the majority of Taipei had the same grand idea as me. The stores were packed and so was the MRT. Regardless, it was really nice to get out. The weather was faaabulous and I walked a lot that day too, sightseeing the many Chinese New Year decorations. I also ended up taking home some new shoes :)

Hand-painted lanterns suspended above the balconies of the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Week 20_Veteran Traveller

Let's face it, I have only been overseas for a number of months at this point, and I can't necessarily claim that I am an "old pro" just yet - but it sure feels like I am headed that direction. Between flying to Taiwan in September, flying home in December, and yet again this Jan/Feb - I have spent some time in the Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport and quite a number of layovers in the Narita International Airport (Japan), in a matter of just a few months.

This trip I arrived at Taoyuan Airport early, and had even more time than usual to wander around. I particularly like the art displays in this airport. You may recall the sea of colorful umbrellas suspended from the ceiling (in previous blog post), and this visit I stumbled upon a children & adult art and education lounge about Taiwan/Taiwanese culture.
Chinese Zodiac stamps - stamp your sign

Colorful zodiac display, Signs by Year

Time to read a little of my book, and enjoy a Caramel Macchiato before the flight
I am now familiar with the Duty Free shops in the Taoyuan Airport, the small lounge pictured above, and the cafe where I bought the coffee and sat down to read my book. Additionally, each time I fly through I spend a little time strolling the terminal - checking out the various shops and amenities. Brownie point for the Taoyuan Airport: They offer computers for public use with free Internet services = Nice!

Next, I am becoming more familiar with the Narita Airport (Tokyo). On the one hand, it seems larger (ie more shops, etc) but at the same time, I don't find Narita all too impressive (at least not the one wing that I always seem to wind up in). The food selection is limited; the shops are primarily designer couture... Nothing I am likely to be in the market for when I'm already spending big bucks on a trip! Nonetheless, I have been learning the ins and outs of this airport as well. Believe it or not, I actually found a very quiet and unpopulated space - a long walkway underground leading from one wing to another. I was just amazed to see any space with virtually no one else - since crowds and people are basically unavoidable at international airports!

Narita Airport : Underground walkway connecting two wings of Terminal 1
It was sort of nice just to stroll along for a moment by my lonesome in this grand tunnel. It felt like a secret passage or something......... After my wanderings, I wound up once again with some spare time, so I decided to get a drink and read my book some more. I sat next to a nice young girl - probably my age - traveling home from visiting a friend in Japan. She was very friendly and eager to see new things, obviously sad that it was time for her trip to end. 

Reading a bit before the next flight, Narita Airport
On my flight back through Tokyo, headed to Taiwan I made friends with two young girls - one a senior in high school, and one about my age - they followed me through security, asked me questions about flying policies and visas etc. They were both headed to Bangkok (where the hubby & I honeymooned). I told the girls where the good eateries were in the airport and showed them one of the really cute shops that is not high-end designer products. It was nice to have some company close to my age/nationality/etc to pass the time with.

Taoyuan International Airport signage - I'd like to meet those Beagles! :)
And, of course, at the end of it all - back to Taoyuan International, where I now know how to go through the Alien Resident customs line, I know which forms to hand them, and which carousel my luggage will always arrive at. I decided to take the bus ($150 NT) home this time instead of a taxi ($1500 NT)... Not sure I will do that again. The ride is about an hour give or take, either way. It was certainly cheaper, but also musty and slower!

Whatever the case, I think I'm getting the hang of it. 

Week 20_Olympia, WA Vacation

This year, my first Chinese New Year, I decided to spend the majority of the holiday in Olympia, WA. Primary objective being to meet my new niece... but I had also been forewarned that Taipei turns into somewhat of a ghost town during the holidays. Traditionally, families travel to wherever they are from to spend time with family for New Years dinners and celebrations - so for the city of Taipei, that means there is a giant pilgrimage to the south end of the island. Most people were not actually born and raised in Taipei, so they still have elders to visit in southern Taiwan. There are specific traditions - such as which night is spent with the wife's family versus the husband's family, and so on - but I am savvy on all of those details yet.

Whatever the case, some R&R in the States sounded like the best getaway for this particular year and I am so glad I went! Olympia, Washington is a small-ish, somewhat quaint town about an hour outside of Seattle. It was the perfect getaway from my big city life: picturesque Mount Rainier in the distance, the Puget Sound bay at the bottom of the hillside, family to share my time with. Plus - bonus - it hardly rained a drop while I was there. It was cold, but the sun was shining, and the whole trip was very refreshing. I truly enjoy living in a big city with lots going on around me at all times... but, in contrast, it makes me appreciate a small, cozy town like Olympia even more.
Me with the little Zoe monkey
I spent my getaway feasting on home-cooked American food, reading a good book, spending time with my new niece, painting... I think that was about it! Being there always makes me long for more good food, and simplicity in my own life.

Wildly enough, much of the US was in the midst of a giant winter storm for the majority of my visit. I can't remember a time when Oklahoma AND Texas have gotten so much snow & ice all at once! My husband had initially planned to meet me in Olympia, but was unable to due to the weather - so that was a huge bummer. We certainly hope he is able to come to Taiwan soon. Thankfully, I had little Ms. Zoe to keep me company and distract me from his absence. :)

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Week 20_I'm an aunt!


Since I had been heavily forewarned that the city might turn into a ghost town over the holidays, I planned in advance to make a getaway out of my Chinese New Year vacation. Typically, the Taiwanese travel to wherever they are from for the New Year holiday, and for the majority of people, this means that they do not stay in the city of Taipei. With most people headed home to the southern half of the island, and the remaining few residents off work for the week - businesses are closed, and the ever crowded capital becomes surprisingly empty.

I've taken advantage of the time off to catch up with my brother, his wife, and their new baby [plus - bonus - my husband is headed up for the visit as well]! I've never really spent any amount of time around a baby, but between my jet lag and her waking up in the middle of the night, we seem to get along ;) Marcello, the cat, has also been particularly pleased to see me... I seemed to be the pillow of choice for both baby & kitty last night.

Week 20_Holiday treats

In anticipation of the coming New Year, my apartment and office have been overflowing with cookies, candies, and various treats for the past week! I tried to diligently photograph each one, and note what they were, but in the end... there are many more treats that I'm able to post on the blog, and most of them, things unfamiliar to me! There were also some treats devoured so quickly by the office that I failed to get a pic before they were gone (or forgot - as I was enjoying my own share - to take a photo...)

Many gifts came from clients, sent direct to our office:

Box of fancy pineapple cakes from a client's own bakery
Individual pineapple cake
Pineapple cakes are a traditional holiday gift in Taiwan - loved by all. Unbeknownst to me until this week, these little desserts are actually not made with pineapple at all, but are instead filled with a chewy winter melon filling, flavored with pineapple flavoring. Apparently, the actual pineapple fruit is a poor and rough consistency for these little "cakes". The filling is wrapped with a thin crust, in this case it was light & pastry-like. Pineapple cakes are always similar, but each bakery has a flavor or crust composition of their own - making some more popular than others.

Sesame seed cake
The cake above was brought to the office by one of my colleagues who had received it as a gift. This cake, traditionally given as an engagement gift, was really tasty, with a sweet & savory flavor combination... Now let's see if I can describe it... :/   The outside was a very thin, flaky crust, sprinkled with sesame seeds, wrapped around a soft & sweet interior. If I were guessing, I would say the filling was some sort of sweet potato or pumpkin mash. My slice was very crumbly, but I liked the taste.

Name unknown!
The cake or cookie above [side note: the terms "cake" and "cookie" cover a much wider range of foods in Taiwan than in America... probably largely because there are a variety of sweets that may not have an English name at all...] did not look enticing to me at first, but once I decided to try one, it was actually quite good. The outside was a sticky, clear, gelatin-like dough, tossed in raw flour - the lightly floured exterior offered a very nice contrast to the gooey interior. The filling was a taro paste, quite sweet, that was good in small doses.

Taiwanese fruit, lian wu
This large basket of fruit appeared one day in the office. I am not sure exactly what the English name for this fruit would be - I think they may be called a wax apple. The fruit is lightly sweet, and very watery/juicy. This particular batch was still ripening at the time I took the photo - the redder, the better.

Almond cookies
These thin crispy cookies taste a lot like they look - crunchy strips, laced with almonds, and dipped in a thin, sweet glaze covering the entire cookie.

Taiwanese sweet crisps
One day, much to my surprise, I received a package at work from my very own realtor (who helped me to find my apartment in Taiwan). One of my coworkers laughed and said "That's how you know you paid them too much!"

Nonetheless, it was really fun to get a package of my own :) The box contained 5 smaller packages of different flavored crisp treats. The one pictured above was much like a long thin cracker, which a very subtly sweet flavor. It was the consistency of a hand cut potato chip, with a flavor similar to animal crackers in the US. I set these up on the communal ledge in the center of the office, and they were gone in a flash! (hence, the picture of an almost empty box!)

Wei-Chuan gift box, from my landlady
Just when I was thinking that the gift from my realtor was generous, I received another package the following day from my landlord... and this time it made me laugh too - I must be paying too much! Ha ;) [but I'm not complaining, I looove my place]

Traditional & contemporary Taiwanese cookies
Inside were three packages - the two bags in the back contain traditional milk "cookies" (we would probably more likely call these "candies"), one bag flavored with almonds, the other flavored with sesame seeds. These are made from milk (condensed maybe?) and are the consistency of a very stiff taffy, slightly chewy. The other container held three different types of more modern cookies - almond, red bean, and green tea. The almond were my favorite. Much like a Pecan Sandie, but with almonds instead of pecans...

You may have noticed, the typical dessert flavors in Taiwan are a little different than the vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry so commonly used in the US. Instead, I think the most common dessert flavors would be: red bean, green tea, peanut, & taro.

All of the excitement leading up to Chinese New Year has been very fun - and even though I don't exactly know how to explain all of the snacks I've been munching on, I've definitely enjoyed eating them! :)