Monday, March 28, 2011

week 27_musical cars

I was talking to my Mom on Skype earlier this morning and we were discussing how different it is here. When you get out of bed to weigh yourself it is in kg instead of pounds. Take the MRT to work, and the distance is in kilometers. You buy lunch with Taiwanese money and get off work at 18:00 instead of 6:00... Not to mention that everything is written and spoken in Chinese! (for the most part... or frequently, incorrect English...) I don't find any of this to be a bad thing, and I actually mentioned in our discussion that I enjoy the challenge... but, ha! It sure is a challenge!

Anyways, I think that the differences are entertaining, amusing, and just interesting to observe every single day. So this weekend's unusual difference was my friend's parking arrangement. If you can remember playing the game "musical chairs" when you were a kid, I like to think of this as "musical cars":

The goal: Drive off in the silver Honda.
The setup: 6 car spaces created in the space of what might usually hold 2...
First, the bottom left space (23) needs to move up out of the way...
Next, the black car needed to move out of the way...

(You get a peek in this picture of the parking space below on the right)

Next, lower the silver Honda to ground level...
Raise the gate, and go!
And voila! There you have it folks. Musical. Cars.

This is all done at the touch of a button. Simply push the button with your car's parking space # on the nearby wall, and watch the shuffle. It is actually pretty quick and convenient. When the driver returns, they just park on whichever space is at ground level and know that their car will be shuffled as needed until the next time they return to drive it out.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

week 26_A regular old expat

Cafe Bastille - Happy Hour
I'm still learning what it means to be an expat - but I think I've earned a few stripes so far... and this week I decided to attend a get-together with some other expats like myself. Good idea! It is always challenging to meet new people in a new city (whether you live in Dallas, or Taipei!), but I figure meeting other people going through the same challenges as I am is a good place to start...

Last weekend, while browsing online for meet up groups in Taipei (I'd really like to find an English book club...), I stumbled upon a group called InterNations. It sort or reminds me of a custom LinkedIn or Facebook for expats. You become a member and set up a profile online where you can see other expat profiles, post questions in the online forums, etcetera. Nowadays, it seems like online communities are endless - I am also a member of a larger community called Forumosa; a site all about Taiwan with lots of members (local and foreign), forums, questions and answers - but I decided to join this group as well...

InterNations meets up once per month and this week was the monthly get together.
Let's be honest: I was sort of dreading going to a big gathering with a bunch of people I didn't know who may or may not have anything in common with me... but I was pleasantly surprised by the event. :) It turned out to be a nice opportunity to meet other foreigners living in Taiwan (not necessarily Americans) who were very friendly, approachable, and also happen to have business cards. At the same time, there was no heavy emphasis on the business networking/business card exchange - the atmosphere was relaxed, comfortable. Not to mention, there seemed to be people from all walks of life there, and everyone I met seemed to be friendly and interested in meeting new people. Not surprisingly, I met some other Americans who have lived in Texas just recently, and we seemed to hit it off right away, y'all! Might even get together for a rowdy game of dominoes sometime in the near future...

It was definitely nice to meet some new people that seemed like they could become friends... I think I will be attending next month's event too :) Ever lived in another country? Like meeting others with the same background? You can check them out at: Cheesy, I know - but I was grateful to join up with this group.
Someone needs a red-eye function on their camera...
But I was there, you get the point :)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

week 26_My first HASH in Taipei

Now before you jump to any conclusions
- I know how that sounds, I had the same reaction -
What is a "HASH"???.......

A 'HASH' is an athletic/social gathering, most commonly in Asian countries, but apparently they happen worldwide if you know who to ask. The tradition was originally started by some expats living in Kuala Lumpur, but has now spread to include both expats and locals alike. The typical hash starts with a group run followed by beer drinking, and (in most circles) dinner. There's actually quite a few rules to the game. There is a designated leader for each hash; this person is called the "Hare". The hare runs ahead of the group and blazes the trail, leaving a trail of chalk, flour, or paper behind for the rest of the hashers to follow. In this way, the only person who knows the route is the "hare" and the rest of the group is on an adventure to follow the path. At different points on the trail a marking may indicate that you must make a turn, double back, etc. When the hashers come upon a bucket of beer, they will know they have finally reached the end of the trail! The routes and participants vary, but those are the things they pretty much always have in common.

In Taipei, there are many different hash groups... I was invited to join a group of women who go hashing in the mountains around Taipei once a month, and yes - I said mountains. Let's be honest, at first I thought:
A. I have lost my mind.
B. Is there a plan in place for if I can't make it?!
C. My lofty dreams of participating in the 101 stair climb are C-R-A-Z-Y!
(but that's another story...)

But once I had finished my 2 hour run/jog/walk up and down the beautiful mountainsides... Honestly? I just wished I was in better shape, so that I could do it again...! I know. I really have lost my mind. 

During the run I did not take my camera (obviously, because just dragging myself up and down that mountain was enough!), but we ran through clearings and woods, winding trails, stone steps. At one point the trail followed a stone staircase cut right through the mountainside into a cave. As we were jogging through the cave, you could hear only the echo of Chinese monks singing and your feet as they hit the ground. When we came out the other side of the cave, we were just next to a large Chinese temple looking out over the city below. It was totally awesome! So maybe you can see what I mean about wishing I were in better shape so that I can do this again... Some of the things you see on the hash trail, you may not have ever seen otherwise. 

At the end when it was finally time to rest. We headed back to one of the participants homes where ice cold drinks and a huge meal had been prepared for us. Usually the hashers go to a restaurant to end the day, but I guess on this occasion she had volunteer to cook - and I'm so glad she did! Even though I've been here for a few months (and most of the food in the little noodle shops or from vendors is basically homemade...) this was my first chance to eat in some one's home, and to have a family style meal cooked up from scratch. It was delicious. 

So now... all week, I have been feeling like maybe I should go running... maybe I should train a little bit more in between so that I can join the hashers again sometime! :)

Some more information about hashing:

And how to find a hash near you:
[disclaimer: If you go to the websites, be forewarned that hashers tend to adopt nicknames, and they often seem to be... PG13 and above. Not sure what that is about?]

Sunday, March 20, 2011

dear Japan

As many of my readers know, on March 1st I returned from vacationing in Japan with my coworkers and many of their friends & family members. Japan was beautiful, and left me hoping for a return visit in the not so distant future. Our group thoroughly enjoyed the trip and then headed back to life as usual in Taipei. 

Not long after, on Friday March 11th, 2011, Japan suffered from an enormous 8.9 magnitude earthquake which in turn triggered multiple aftershocks, tsunamis, fires, power outages and even threatening system failures at a Japanese nuclear power plant.

I have refrained until now from writing on the topic because I feel very strongly about the subject... but after the kind emails, Facebook messages, and so on that I have received from friends and family... I decided that I would like to say a few words. 

First, I would like to record this in my blog - for me. To remember...
Secondly, for those who have inquired about my health, safety and welfare - thank you. 
Please know that I am completely fine.  

More importantly than both of those points, I am sincerely heartbroken for the people of JapanI do not pretend to know what it is like to experience such hardships. I can only imagine, and that will never match the true reality. 

I am located much closer to Japan now than I would be if I were still in the US. I read the news and keep up with the latest updates as much as possible - and enough to know that life goes on unaffected here in Taiwan. We had little to no tsunami damage and we are well beyond the area that may possibly be affected by the nuclear radiation. We have had no increase in radiation levels in our country, and even passengers traveling to and from Japan are now routinely scanned at each airport for radiation levels - the results show that none have been exposed to any levels dangerous to human health. Watching the news is frightening. It reminds me that I am grateful to be alive, to be healthy, and to be able to say the same about everyone near and dear to me. 

However, I am personally offended by the American media who have turned the story into a frenzy of fear and anxiety in the United States. I am here, so nearby... and yet I read stories about the Americans who have started taking Iodine pills? Who fear radiation in parts of the United States? 

Pay attention. 
This is not happening to You. 

It is instead about a country that is now 1/4 uninhabitable due to natural disasters. It is about 8,000 graves and counting that will be dug in a very short period of time. 8,000+ families mourning. 13,000+ families still crying themselves to sleep at night because their loved ones are missing and may never be found. Survivors who saw their loved ones swept away into the ocean. It is about hundreds of Japanese workers who are risking their own health, happiness, their lives, to ensure that the radiation levels never reach other peoples beyond their borders..... The Japanese have stayed strong, brave and dignified in these scary and horrifying times.

In my heart I wish that I could go there. That I could do more. [I have already looked into this as much as I could] But the reality is, I cannot. I can respect them. I can mourn with them. I will continue to pray for the Japanese people and their ability to move forward and overcome the devastation that has befallen them.And I can donate money - because I want to help, and that is the one way I am able. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

week 25 Puppet Show

Before the show, the MC sets the stage with a little background.
In this instance, the MC was also the puppeteer. 
Back from Japan and fully covered from the trip ~ I ventured out this past weekend to see a puppet show with some friends. It was a traditional Chinese hand puppet show that lasted about an hour and a half and was in Mandarin - obviously! This particular presentation was in a very small room that seemed to be filled with mostly elderly people or couples with children.

Some of the puppets - I wish I had close up pictures!
The show was really interesting to watch (of course, I was making up the plot line in my head as we went along). It would be neat to see another show sometime when I could have an English description or a little background given to me before watching :) Mostly, I just enjoyed the costumes and the dramatic voices. Mandarin or not, you could still tell what tone the conversation was taking at any moment.

Fight Scene
The fight scenes were fun - no blood & gore, since we are talking about puppets - they were almost like dances. I can see where the fight scenes in some Asian films may have found their inspiration. I only regret that I was not close enough to get a really great photo of the costumes for you all! They were AMAZING. These puppets were so detailed and ornate, I would happily place one on display in my home... maybe I will buy one at some future date!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

week 24_More Sapporo, Japan

Teppanyaki Dinner... Mmmm!
Our last night of the trip was a big celebration. I find that in Taiwanese culture (so far), it seems that people who work together also celebrate heavily together. They are not restrained by the same social boundaries as a working American. They do not feel that simply being members of the same professional environment means that you should not - for example - challenge each other to a sake drinking contest in front of the entire staff, and make sure the winner takes photos with the cutest waitresses after. Then maybe do the same thing all over again... Twice.

I don't think that the Taiwanese are big drinkers in general, but when it comes to special occasions, they tend to get swept away... This was not the first dinner party that I felt might be crossing a line... and it won't be the last! My American background tells me I should have one drink because I like it, some toasting because it is appropriate, and maybe an additional drink or two because it is encouraged by the extended toasting, or is another round purchased by the boss.... but when your boss continues to order more bottles of sake, and asks if you could "please finish that one off... because it's too weak. Water really. But don't worry, the next bottle will be stronger".....................

Then the rules of the game have completely changed. And for this American girl, it still feels awkward!
Anyways... that was the last dinner of the trip. :)

For our final day in Japan, we visited a temple and and outlet mall.
[Yes, those sound strange sharing the same sentence.]

The temple was lovely, like everything in Japan, it was covered in snow.

Photograph by our company photographer, Phoeny
Hokkaido Temple, Sapporo, Japan.
The clean lines and simplicity of the Japanese architecture were beautiful. Serene.
Very different from the elaborate ornamentation on traditional Chinese temples.

Divination by lots.
"For foreigners" - this one's for me!
Pay 100 yen, then reach in to find out your fate.
These boxes have little pieces of paper inside that tell you your "divination." Depending on whether or not you like what you draw, people then tie the paper to a stringed display and offer a prayer to the gods. I find it slightly amusing that this box is labeled "for foreigners" but there is a box adjacent to this one "for Chinese" or "for Taiwanese"... Aren't they foreigners in Japan too? Whatever the case, I drew my luck and it turns out I had "excellent luck" the best you can draw! Once you draw your divination, it has many different categories: love, wealth, health, marriage, etc... I did pretty well...
Ha! Except that under the category of travel it said "You need to stop it."
That is funny.
Hokkaido Temple, Sapporo, Japan

Sorry fans... No photos from the Outlet Mall visit after the temple...
Then it was time to head 'home'!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

week 24_Otaru, Japan

From our hotel in Sapporo we took a day trip to Otaru, Japan - a small seaside town. I'm pretty much a sucker for little seaside towns. Who doesn't love the quaint feeling, cozy little shops & restaurants, smell of the ocean on the breeze...?

Yep, I was there.
The primary activity in Otaru was a tour of a historic Japanese "mansion". I'm not sure if mansion is the best word, but it was a very large Japanese home built by a fishing millionaire years ago. The home has now been converted to a museum. It was impressive, especially considering the age of the home - and uniquely Japanese compared to a traditional Chinese home. You'll notice the rope and bamboo plant rigging in the photo below... I'm not exactly sure of the background, but this was a common sight among Japanese landscapes... in multiple different towns, and actually added some flair to the green & snowy backdrop.
Herring Mansion (Nishin Goten), Otaru, Japan
My favorite room - the entryway / reception hall.
Hand-painted ceiling tiles
Dining Room
the daughter's room
There was plenty of history explained on the tour, mostly in Chinese, but I did have a pretty informative English brochure and friendly coworkers to point out the highlights to me along the way. Mostly it was just interested to again see the distinct differences between Japanese and Taiwanese cultures. It is evident to me in design, dress, art... pretty much everything... that they are uniquely different from one another. After the tour we enjoyed a tasty sushi lunch...
This sushi is about as fresh as it gets.
Followed by tea/coffee at a small cafe where we were able to keep whichever cup we chose to drink out of as a little souvenir (as a matter of fact, other than a couple of pencils that I bought - and think are really fun - this was the only souvenir I ended up bringing back from the trip) I chose a simple cup with a Japanese woman painted on the side. On the back of the cup it says the name of the town...

Roadside vending machine, Road winding up a mountain...
Free-standing vending machines seemed to be pretty common on the island of Hokkaido. I'm not entirely sure where the plug is for this thing, but it was amusing to me that you could be driving up this mountain and just pull over real quick to grab a Coke :) After the mansion tour, we spent some free time exploring the town - mostly in the area closest to the water - there were all kinds of cute shops & restaurants begging for our attention, but my favorite part had little to do with any food or gifts...

I just really enjoyed the town itself. 

Canal, Otaru, Japan

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

week 24_Sapporo, Japan

After our couple of days in the snowy mountains, we took a bus to the city of Sapporo for a change of pace. The island of Hokkaido is not all countryside. Even still, compared to Taipei - Sapporo seemed like a pretty sleepy town. It was great. :)

Street cars in Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan
Sapporo is one of the few cities I've ever been to that seemed completely walkable and completely drivable at the same time. In addition to the excellent public transportation systems and well-developed urban areas, they also had single-family residences in the city. Sort of like independent town homes lined up neatly next to each other with small sidewalks and alleys in between. These homes didn't have big suburban yards, but nonetheless they weren't actually touching each other either and they were centrally located for great convenience to all of the city amenities.

Our hotel was once again, quite nice. But the best part of Sapporo was the food! The resort food had been pretty nice, but once we reached the city, we began feasting...
Traditional Japanese breakfast, at our hotel, Hotel Okura
[From bottom left: White rice, grilled fish, miso soup
From left, behind rice: stuffed tofu meatballs, pickled ginger, bamboo shoots, omelet egg, side salad, orange slices]
I had never really eaten crab from the shell before. The kind where you get out the scissors and start cracking! It was so tasty! Mmm... wish I were back in this restaurant tonight for dinner again!
All you can eat, 3 crabs feast + tempura + sushi! So amazing!
And when we weren't chowing down, we mostly did touristy things. We toured a chocolate factory, and visited the local shopping district... then again, there was a lot of snacking during those activities too!

Ishiya Chocolate Factory
Chocolate cookie assembly line
One of the nice things about the trip - depending on who you ask - was the constant snow flurries. It snowed for the entire time whether we were in the mountains, the city, etc. Considering that most residents of Taiwan rarely see snow, and some of my co-workers had in fact never seen snow before - we had a special appreciation for the cold. Instead of being disappointed, I would say it really made the trip better!

Yay! Snow!

Friday, March 4, 2011

week 23 Church on the Water by Tadao Ando

We wrapped up our second evening at Tomamu resort with a special treat - at least to me - a tour of the Church on the Water by Tadao Ando. The Church is located within the grounds of the resort and is primarily reserved for private weddings and events, but is open to the public for a few select hours each day.

Tadao Ando, sometimes referred to as "the Architect of Silence, is a master of creating peaceful places in the midst of bustle and rush." (So true.) His architectural designs are simple, minimal, playing with the basic principles & elements of design... and savory to the people, like me, who appreciate them the most! I first became familiar with Tadao Ando's work in college. He designed the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth, which was completed the year I started attending college in Fort Worth - and is still my favorite museum in the DFW metroplex :)

The Church on the Water is positioned on the side of a hill. As you approach, the Church is crowned with 4 large crosses on the roof of the building, laid out so that you actually descend staircases wrapping around these four crosses and pass each cross as you walk down into the Church. We went at night, so we were able to enjoy the dramatic lighting design as well.

Church on the Water by Tadao Ando, rooftop crosses
Once inside, you find yourself in an open one-roomed chapel, with concrete walls, floor, and ceiling, with the exception of one wall that is entirely glass, looking out upon a pond with a large cross statue. Tadao Ando's trademark is the finely crafted concrete construction that he painstakingly oversees from start to finish. Unlike the rough surface of a sloppily poured concrete sidewalk or stairway that most people mentally relate to when thinking of "concrete" - the concrete used in his buildings is treated, polished, and finished so that the end result is a concrete surface that feels more like silk.

The chapel was simple, elegant, minimalist. And the view was lovely, quiet, peaceful. It was harder to enjoy the atmosphere with a room full of tourists beside me, but even still - it was wonderful. Taking advantage of the natural beauty outside, and creating an interior space to enjoy that, to harmonize with it. For the privileged few who are invited to weddings and events in this place - that would be the real opportunity to see it!

The cross statue just outside the wall of glass, is said to have a double reflection in the reflecting pond below at one point each day - so that as you look at the cross, you can see it's reflection on both the left and right. I believe there is also a walking path around the reflection pond, but we did not walk this at night in the snow and cold. I am certain that this Church would be enjoyable for new and different beauty during each season of the year. I imagine that Ando designed the pews and limited furnishings for the interior as well. 

Japanese Bible
View sitting in the front pew on the right-hand side of the chapel,
looking out at the frozen pond with cross statue and wooded mountain beyond.
All in all, I would happily return to this Church regularly to admire the lighting, the architecture and it's play with each season. 

week 23 the Ice Village

After dinner we strolled through the "ice village" at the resort...
aka, the 2-3 frozen igloos surrounded by a wall made of ice bricks.
They keep a few little places frozen during the coldest part of the year...
It was neat to see even the glasses were made out of ice - and you could order a drink if you wanted. 
But we mostly just browsed, another photo opportunity :)

Ice table & chairs (left) and Ice bar with very cold employee (right)
Ice Dining Room... One of my coworkers accidentally shattered one of the ice mugs! Woops!
Ice bar, covered with ice glasses.
Thermometer below... I know it's too small to read in the picture, but it was COLD! :)

Thursday, March 3, 2011

week 23 Snowy Hokkaido

Day 2
Mostly romping around in the snow!
Snow, or no snow, it seemed like this place would certainly be just as lovely in the spring and summertime.
Unfortunately since I was without my own camera... I don't have many pictures to show for it. In short - 1 day of snowboard lessons = 1 day of falling on your butt (no photos, I'll just let you picture that part on your own). Maybe if I'd had 3 or 4 days to build up some skill there might have been a better result! Even still, it was fun, and surprisingly not so cold as I had feared - or been led to believe by my Taiwanese warm-weather friends... 
The snow and the cold and the mountains were all so beautiful!!! The snowboarding lesson was pretty fun too.  I seemed to do fine balancing on my board, but I couldn't ever really stop on my own! Ha. I enjoyed the time taking the snowboarding lessons on a modest hill - but I didn't dare brave coming down the gigantic mountainside on my own with no brakes... maybe next time :) 
My snowboard and gear awaiting my arrival
I was very thankful for the new jacket I purchased for the trip, but otherwise, my strategy of endlessly layered clothing seemed to do just fine. The snowboarding practice was exhausting! Not the sliding down the hillside part, but mostly because during lesson, we never took the board off of our left foot - so we would have to walk back up the hill each time, board-in-tow and right foot pulling us up/maneuvering around it all...
Our cable car's shadow in the snow
Even though I opted not to snowboard on my own down the huge mountain, I did ride the ski lift up to the top and back. Mostly admiring the views, and watching the people who actually knew what they were doing. Some of the skiers and snowboarders were amazing! Lucky for us, the weather was also wonderful. Chilly but not overly windy and loads of sunshine pouring down on everything in sight. :)

After we'd had enough of the drag your board up, fall back down routine - we stripped down and kissed our ski gear goodbye... off to find some warmer past time. [The slopes were actually only open until 4pm - I guess it gets dark there sort of early - and we stayed out until around 3pm, I think].
Hand painted mural in the Ski Lodge.
There were many hand-painted bird species, each identified with their name.
For our second night at the resort, a group of us chose a new restaurant for dinner -expecting to try some different food- but sadly, it was also a buffet with identical food as the dishes at the restaurant from the night before - with fewer selections - go figure! So we didn't choose the best dining, but we did get the best view.
View from our dinner table
The dining hall was wrapped in floor to ceiling glass windows, gazing out upon the snow-covered trees, spotlighted with brilliant green and blue lights for dramatic effect. I know you can't really tell in my photos, but the snow was coming down in huge flakes, and I just gazed, entranced, as I enjoyed my meal. :)