Thursday, 1 November 2012

The Waterman

What I like best about my “China “experience is living in dorm with all the 外国人 (Foreigners).

Before coming here, I had lived on my own during University but in off-campus housing. In my mind dorms where were loud and obnoxious people went to find like-minded individuals. For myself, I enjoyed the privacy of living in a basement suite and the separation of school and daily life. Living in Beijing though has altered that opinion somewhat.

To start off, I by no means live in a fancy dorm. Those who live anywhere, and have an in-bedroom bathroom, are envied by us in dorm A. If you don’t hang your clothes to dry on a makeshift laundry line, or have to wait in a queue to take a shower, then you my friend are not one of us. If your washroom reminds you more of an outhouse, and you marvel at the fact that you’re not ill from the widespread lack of hygiene, then most likely you are my neighbour and we just haven’t met yet.  
But for those who aren’t, and before you begin the self-congratulations, understand that there are things you do miss out on and put together, I feel, are much better than living a solitary and disinfected life.  

For one thing, you will never get to meet the waterman.

The waterman is a thin, ambling sort of person. His face is weather-beaten and older than his years. His grin is infectious, and whenever he comes knocking on the door you can hear the music he carries with him before you see him.

After welcoming him in, he will set to work while humming a tune. After a short while he will try to ask you something in Chinese, and then in surprise ask 听不懂 (you don’t understand)?
After you affirm this statement, he will then launch into a monologue on the woes of society, the increased price of rice, and how children don’t respect their elders anymore. It could really be on anything, since the fact still stands that you don’t understand a word he’s saying. Then right before he leaves, he will ask you a simple question and wait intently for the answer. If you stumble on your reply, he will then painstakingly write out the question for you on a scrap piece of paper, and then with a jolly grin take his leave. You now have to wait an entire week to answer the question that you figured out five minutes after he left.

Last Friday, in walking back to our dorm for a movie night, my friends and I ran into the afore-mentioned waterman.

He drives a contraption that is basically a cart attached to an old motorized bicycle that has two gears. Generous as always, he offered to give me and my friends a ride. At first we refused, but since he insisted, and I dislike walking unless I’m forced to, I was the first to give in and jump on. With two girls on each side of the cart to even out the weight, we left the guys behind and zipped across campus. It was a cool evening and there was a wind to push us along. Laughing, we held on to each other and balanced precariously on the side. Every time we hit a bump, there was a moment of breathlessness, and then we would come down with a thud to find the cart still beneath us. Much too soon the ride ended and he dropped us off with a grin and went merrily on his way. Whenever I think of it, it makes me smile and I realize that living in dorm definitely has its perks.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

It'll Take You by Surprise!

I was asked yesterday if I had any culture shock in coming to Beijing. At first nothing came to mind, since I feel like I have adjusted fairly fast, but on pondering there are a few things I still have trouble wrapping my head around.

The biggest difference I have to get used to is that children here are allowed to go to the bathroom absolutely anywhere. These little toddlers walk around with holes in the back of their pants specifically for this purpose. At first you think its cute seeming them waddle around half exposed (a similar feeling I imagine young mothers have towards their toddlers that urges them to takes photos that will perpetually be a source of embarrassment to that child).   

But it doesn't matter how adorable the child is, once they stop walking and start squatting you better watch out. It isn't that far of a stretch, in my mind, to recommend signs that read “please pick up after your small children”.  

Of course one of the first things you must get used to living in China is the spitting, most common in the older generation. I don’t exactly want to go into detail, but it is very alarming at first. There is always a fear that you will be spit upon so you must take the utmost precaution. As soon as you hear the tell-tale signs of someone getting ready to spit you must be on guard. Swerving sharply is a good idea, but not onto on coming traffic, since that would be much worse. You may think that would be uncommon, but when cars and mopeds use pedestrian sidewalks as their own private roads, no one is safe.

Lastly, you have not been in Beijing unless you have taken the subway at rush hour or during the National Holiday. When I say the subways are packed I mean there is barely breathing space. You are pressed right up against complete strangers and have to pretend that it’s nothing out of the ordinary. When the subway jolts side to side, everyone sways as if they were one body, and there is nothing to brace yourself against but more bodies. The good news, as always is, if you’re on the subway and you start getting sleepy have no fear, you can’t fall over! It is virtually an impossible thing to do, so the best thing you can do is rest your head on your backpack (which should be carried on your front in such extreme circumstances as this) or the next closest one. You will know when it’s your stop by the mass rush towards the doors. This is when you fight, with all your might to not get stuck between the doors, and tumble onto the platform. If you can survive that, then you are well on your way to becoming a bona-fide Beijinger.       

Thursday, 4 October 2012

The Dragon

Being the protagonist of my own story, I’ve had the misfortune of meeting my antithesis. At first I had no idea and greeted them much like I do others. After being in their presence for a time, I realized how morose and cynical they intended to be, and I didn’t feel like staying very long. Now though, after a series of forced acquaintance, I’ve realized I will never be completely rid of them.

This has made me look to the bright side of our association which is the irony within our conversations.

By constantly being negative, they in turn throw me into a positive light.  I feel like a subtle jealousy of gender is being played out on which I never agreed to be part of. The majority of people I spend my time with are guys and this might have something to do with it, but I do have friends that are girls. Even still, this doesn’t seem enough of a shield to protect me from the glare.

Their temperament is to be callously direct in conversation, which first caught me off guard, but now I see as being one of their many defenses. In fact by looking at their perspective I could see, though not quite condone, why they act the way they do; sometimes goals not yet attained leave a bitter taste in the mouth. As well being older can change your perspective and make you feel like time is running out. For the sake of my story though they must be thrown into the harshest light possible. If there is no opponent then how can I be a champion? 

I have not yet conquered, but I have kept my holding. I reply in kindness or avoidance, the latter is my preferred option. I have gotten a couple of shots back, which I am a little proud of, but try mostly to avoid unnecessary conversation. I was even able to make a new friend while they were vainly trying to separate us. If they could have it their way, most likely, I would be locked away in solitary confinement.

I know not all people you meet you’ll get along with, but in my case I feel that they lean towards the extreme. I hope that if nothing else this will help me take precautions to purposefully avoid their situation and never mould into an unbreakable shell.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Lines and Cutting Corners

A lesson quickly learned here, is nothing is ever simple. A quick walk to the bank, to exchange money, turns into a merry-go round of which no money actually passes into my hands. Instead, I am tossed from person to person, like a ping-pong ball, all the while repeating the same four words 我要换钱(Wǒ yào huànqián) as if they will deliver me from the circus I find myself being a part of. 

The issue seems to be that you need a passport to do anything of importance here, and yet they were quick to take away my passport within the first few weeks in order to apply for a resident visa. The bank won’t accept the numerous photocopies I have, though the resemblance is striking, since nothing will do unless it is run through by their own hands. This leaves me in the loop of having lots of money yet none at all.

Thankfully it is very cheap to eat here and seeing as that’s where the bulk of my money goes I am doing just fine. We have a cafeteria here 食堂(Shítáng) were you can buy heaping bowls of rice, noodles, and a variety of other dishes. It is very foreigner friendly, they will only yell at you in Chinese the first 3 times and then give up, and if you can muscle your way through the crowds you’ll do alright.

That reminds me of something else important I must mention which is there is no such thing as “lining up”. If you line up for food, for the subway, or for your visa application, you’re a sucker.
This rule also applies to the little store by my classroom that sells snacks and drinks to fatigued students during our breaks. The first few days I lined up to get my delicious bread; which is a combination of cornmeal, chocolate swirls, and heaven. I waited in line for about 10 minutes and by the time it was my turn there was hardly any selection and class was about to start.

Once I finally caught on, and headed straight to the front for my food, I realized it is supposed to be served warm! The added warmth which I imagine is fresh from the oven, but most likely is just micro-waved, makes it taste ten times better. The other day as I was zoning in towards my personal snack a man actually stepped out of the way for me and let me go ahead. This made me feel a bit guilty, and I ate my food much slower that day. I now prefer a combination of waiting in line, but moving ahead when the opportunity arises.  If others really don’t know what they want to eat, who am I to rush them?  I will politely go in front and make my selection while they wallow away their precious time.

My quick synopsis of a day in Beijing wouldn’t be complete without mentioning a few of my classmates. I’m in a class with 24 other foreign students, and we are split evenly when it comes to the amount of guys and girls. My seatmate is from Australia and we get along really well. We always are performing dialogues for the class which he hates but I find quite fun. I make it up to him by always having the biggest part and asking the questions, so he really has nothing to complain about.

In front of me sits Igor, from Russia, and he is hilarious. He has this heavy accent that becomes more pronounced when he speaks Chinese so whenever he can’t say a word he just says it louder, and LOUDER.

Last but not least, to my right is a girl from the Philippines who draws during class when she’s bored but instead of making happy faces, or squiggles, creates detailed fantasy characters. I’m half in awe, half in fright of what she draws.  

There’s a lot more I could tell, but I’ve yet to meet everyone on a one-on-one basis. We do group excursions to 798 Art Distinct, and WangFujing, so I’m slowly meeting everyone and trying to remember all their names. I definitely think though that we have one of the best classes and it makes learning Chinese that much better. 

Monday, 10 September 2012

Hello Again

Hello All!
This is mostly a note just to say “Hi” and put your mind at ease about my abrupt disappearance. This is my second week living in China and so much has happened. The days are these odd conglomerates of study and vacation. The weekend does not seem so different from the weekdays, and it’s playing topsy-turvy with my head.
I have finally set aside some time to write, read, and take a break from life in general.
I’m over my head cold and feel in good health! I signed up for a gym membership, and plan to go at least twice a week; this way I’ll keep my body active and be stronger in case any other type of illness tries to attack me. I’m even lucky enough to have a personal trainer, named Shaun, who is basically forced to be my language partner when I exercise. He speaks to me a bit, but laughs at me mostly, than tries to crush my spirit by making me lift heavy weights and do repetitious drills. One day, I will be strong enough to throw him across the room but until then I must grin and bear it.
My classes have started and I’m really pleased with them, they’re fast-paced but not overwhelming, and I have really good teachers. My main teacher, who is a male, speaks completely in Chinese which might have scared me before, but now I see it more as a challenge to overcome. He gives us plenty of chances to speak, and to write characters on the blackboard, which reminds me a lot of elementary school.
In fact I feel very much like a little kid again, I have to remind myself to be patient and to be easily entreated. I know repetition is what solidifies what I’ve already learned, and makes it easier for me to grasp new concepts, but it can be hard to remember when I’m still writing out characters I learned 6 months ago. Yet like always, the Chinese characters amaze me in the many uses of one character and how one slight change in the pronunciation can give it a whole new meaning. For example, in my Chinese name Měilè (美乐) the second character lè () means to be happy, but pronounced without emphasis le () it’s a word particle used to indicate a completed action. So depending on how you say it, you are either paying me a compliment on my temperament or insulting my reputation.
As you can see there are a whole bunch of mispronunciations just waiting to happen and it’s pretty funny when they do. When eating out with others I’ve met in my dorm, or on campus, we swap stories. Since most of us don’t have a fridge we tend to eat out a lot and gather together in big groups. I’ve made friends with two Italian guys, who are hilarious, and will most likely be the stabilizers of my life in Beijing. My closest classmates are from Sweden and Australia. I make fun of the latter because when he pronounces “A” I swear it sounds just like a perfect “I”. He says it was impossible for him to order water when he traveled in the U.S. and I’d believe it.
 My roommate as I’ve mentioned before is from Mongolia and we are getting along great. She has started classes, and I even help her out with her homework now and then. When I washed my sheets, and had nowhere to let them dry, we devised a plan that basically turns our dorm room into a tent fort. We hung strings from the door to the window and then hung the sheets horizontally to make a type of roof. All we needed were marshmallows and hot chocolate and we would have been camping.
 I’ve also met some of her friends who are very sweet but hardly speak English as well. One of the first words one of them said to me was我爱你 which startled me so much that I’ve decided to now stick to English whenever I’m around him.
Life is good though, and I’m very happy to be here. There is still a lot of changes happening but at a slower pace. I have a new phone with a Chinese number and I’ve survived the subway station! I must say that after that experience I’ve felt much more confident, but I still don’t know if I'm brave enough to ride a bike, that might still have to wait a couple of weeks.  

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Somethings in the Air

The last couples of days I have been attacked by a nasty cold. At first I thought it was just the result of an impulse decision to go to all-night karaoke right before leaving Taiwan, but it’s been very persistent.

Asking around, that is until I couldn’t anymore because of the hoarseness of my throat, I found out is a relatively common thing for foreigners here. As you’ve probably guessed it’s a result of the pollution in the air.

Some friends told me that they were warned beforehand by respective governments or embassy’s but not me, I get the joy of experiencing it firsthand. I’ve been advised to try a ton of remedies from drinking raw eggs and milk, to tea and special concoctions. I have done my very best to refuse while all the while acting very interested.

I think I am on the last leg of the sickness since I can now breathe through my nose, and I only sniffle every once in a while. The worst part was the beginning when my throat hurt too much to swallow, and I imagined my vocal chords slowly swelling up until I wouldn’t be able to get any air in. That was a bit of a rash judgement but you’re prone to exaggeration when you feel ill.

  On top of all that I had to redo my physical examine because I only had photocopies and not the originals. I desperately tried to act like a normal human being and not give anything away. I’m glad I had already done it so at least I knew what to expect. The Swedish girl I was with was quiet shocked when it came for the ECC since she wasn’t warned that they would take your shirt off.
Being poked and prodded, surprisingly, didn’t make me feel any better and I promptly went back to my dorm to take a rest. I’ve been sleeping and napping a lot lately due to the mixture of the hot temperature, and demands of registration; registration here is an extensive 2 week process. I was able to find Tylenol and faithfully rationed out the 10 pills to last me the longest time possible. I was also fortunate to get a very kind roommate.

My roommate is from Mongolia, and doesn’t speak English or Chinese. I was stuck on what to do since even Google translate failed me. Eventually we just used the language dictionaries she brought alone and word by word asked each other questions. We are now comfortable enough to speak to each other in our own language and jus assume the other will understand. Once she starts studying Chinese it will be a lot easier to communicate, but for now we are enjoy each other’s presence and broken sentences. I explained best I could that I had a cold and she promptly brought over her supply of medicine. Most of it I recognized from sleeping pills to nose drops. The latter I was coerced into using and after vainly struggling I gave in. Right away I felt like sneezing but I stopped myself and in no time it cleared up my sinuses. I had a very restful sleep that night and I owe it all to her.

I have to say though that there is one bright light amidst all the gloom and that is I have lost my acute sense of smell. This is extremely helpful since the public washroom facilities are not exactly on par with western standards. For the most part I am not bugged, and by the time all my faculties are restored I will be too grateful to complain. Any day now I should be back to normal, I really hope that day is soon!

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

A Promise Kept

Have you ever gone to bed overjoyed, and awakened the next day, able to recapture that same feeling? 

That’s how I felt when I woke up to find myself in Beijing.

The events that lead me here are varied, and when isolated seem to make no impression. In my first year of University I was determined to travel even though it wasn’t encouraged or really an option for undergraduates. I wanted to go to countries where there was a lot of need, and see what was being done, and what could be done about it. Through my searching I heard of a geography study abroad to Southeast Asia. Not being a geography major (or even liking it that much) I still applied and was happy to be accepted since it was open to all students, key word being you must apply for it.

Though we were tracking the Mekong River, we spent two weeks in China since it assumed the source of the great river comes from the run-off of the Tibetan Plateau. It was my first visit to Asia and China was the opening ceremony. Before then, I had no hankering to see Asia. I knew it existed, I knew its history, but other than that not much else. The study abroad opened my eyes to the complexity of issues existing their and the resilience of the people. In Cambodia they are still dealing with the after math of the Khmer Rouge. The killing fields are still fresh in the minds of the older generation and the young are affected by it still. 50% of the population is under the age of 18, which is unbelievable, and in a few years the country may find itself in a similar situation as the Arab Spring.

Laos which never was part of the Cold War has the marks to prove that it was. It can be seen in the many amputees’ and maimed adults and children. More bombs were dropped on the “neutral” country then on all of Europe during WWII. Unexploded landmines are rampant, and the danger they pose is illustrated in children’s books much the same way we would read The Tale of Peter Rabbit.  
Vietnam was a very short stay. Though pressed for time, we were able to go to the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. I don’t think I ever understood until then how truly terrible war can be.  The Vietnam War, like most proxy wars, pitted countrymen against each other. The havoc it wreaked was immense and resulted in the scattering of the population in the form of the Vietnamese boat people. Because of the use of chemical warfare like Agent Orange, even succeeding generations are constantly reminded of the cost of war by seeing it in the deformity of the young.

All the small countries had huge historical stories to tell but none like China. By the end of the trip I was only beginning to grasp what makes up the Chinese identity as we know it today. I knew that I would like to go back someday, but more often than not it is a phrase highly used but seldom acted upon. The only difference for me was I had put it down in writing and did feel somewhat bound. I gave myself breathing room though by saying sometime in the 4 years. I then returned to Calgary, and was promptly caught up in a summer job that had no end in sight, and all the business that life brings.
By the end of the summer I started thinking about University again and what classes I should take. Being my second year I had to start a language class so I could graduate on time in 2 years (deadlines are important you know). I had made up my mind to take French as my second language. Not only do you need it for working in the Government, on any Federal level, but I’m Canadian and technically should be bilingual. My Dad and oldest brother also speak French, and I would love to communicate with them while keeping my other siblings out of the conversation, this is the secret wish of every youngest child.

The problem was I kept getting rejected.  First year I applied and was recommended for the intermediate class because I had learned a little in High School, but I knew that I didn’t know near enough to be considered intermediate. Sad to say I didn’t learn that much in French class because my teacher was basically a cheerleader with a ruler, and I was drawn into the conversations surrounding me. We had lots of opportunities to speak in class, but we would mainly speak English. The main reason we did this was mostly likely because the vocabulary we studied didn’t include the most important words in a teenage girl’s heart like “romance” and “Bad hair days".

The University though was unfeeling towards my sad story (although I didn’t exactly put it in those words), and even after taking a proficiency test which lowered my self-esteem by a large margin, I was unable to get into French 205. Remembering the sting of rejection I tried once again to get into French class and when that turned out to be more of a problem then I bargained for, I turned my eyes elsewhere.

Musing over my options I landed on Chinese because I knew no words or characters other than “hello”, “how much”, and “thank you”. I like the idea of having a fresh start. It was also interesting to me that China is increasingly investing in Africa, and when I was in last in Ethiopia much of the major infrastructure being done was by the Chinese. This new development happened to coincide nicely with the thematic of my major which is Sub-Saharan Africa. I know that China chose to look towards Africa for economic growth, solely so I could complete my major, and I thank them for it. Learning Mandarin seemed to be the perfect choice and all the while in the back of my mind, nudging softly, was the remembrance of a promise given.

The last push towards where I am now happened last year during examination time. It was almost Christmas so of course the Professors loaded us with papers and assignment due dates. I was a bit overwhelmed and took out my stress in a very strange way; I started looking at study abroad options that would enable me to do courses while traveling. I find that my grades are higher when I’m in the actual environment that I’m studying about. On one of these searches I found the Chinese Government Scholarship, it almost seemed too good to be true. I would be able to go to China for a minimum of 2 years and learn Mandarin. It fit with my major (international relations is very flexible, just do something outside of the country you call your own and voila! It’s international) and I could return to China!
I covertly applied and secretly wished it as a present for myself. It is then fitting that before I even got a response, my parents Christmas present to me for that year was luggage, I’m pretty sure they were trying to get  tell me something, little did they know that I had already got the message.

While waiting for the response, which took about four months, I considered the chances of being accepted and since it was very small, I didn’t pin my hopes on it too much. One day in March during class our Chinese teacher told us about the opportunity to go to Taiwan and learn Mandarin for two months. I thought it was good idea and best of all I would know within the week. I was then told I could go for three months and said yes impulsively.  Remember that this was said in a classroom setting so my competitive streak went into high gear. When I was notified that I would be going September-November I was happy and rationalized that worst case scenario I would not go to Taiwan.       
Then I received the news about Beijing.

 I wouldn’t say good news since I was meant to start my studies there in September. Having just found out about going to Taiwan a week beforehand I was quite shocked. I felt certain that there was no way I could have my cake and eat it too. After three torturous days my fate was decided. Thanks to the help of an amazing teacher I was able to convince the Taiwan Consulate to let me go to Taiwan during the summer months of July-August. This enabled me to go to China directly afterwards and be more prepared for my studies. 

With this astounding turn of events I prepared for the summer and two years of a lifetime.   These are the reasons why I went to sleep so elated my first night in Beijing. All the pieces of my past decisions fit together to bring me here, and I’ve definitely felt directed in my life and I’m grateful for that. Now is my chance to show what I’m really made of and how dedicated I can be. Knowing that the time is now, not in two months or two weeks anymore, is exciting and a bit intimidating. Even still, I am enjoying myself and very happy that I was able to keep my word and return to China.    

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Surfing & New Eats

The last couple of days have been a whirlwind. Being my last week in Taiwan, I wanted to fit in all the places I haven’t seen yet as well as finish class with a good mark. Every day has been pretty busy and I tried some interesting new things!  

I had the chance to go surfing for the first time ever and it was fantastic. Nothing compares to having your feet in the water, stretched out on your board, waiting for the next big wave to hit. I was a slow learner and it wasn't until the 5th or 6th I was able to stand up. The real problem was I stood too close to the front of the board which would then flip over on top of me. Also the salt water was a shock to my system when I accidentally swallowed some in. I learned fast though and it was a really amazing time.

After surfing I had the chance to explore some night markets outside of Taipei.  We met up with some friends to go see a night market that is famous for its souvenirs and old city feel. There were lanterns everywhere to light the path, and the streets were narrow and crowded. The night market closed early that night so we only were able to see a tenth of all it really had to offer. We did try this treat that it’s famous, a type of cold soup with chewy chunks inside it and red beans. The name escapes me but it was my first time having it and with the some help, I was able to finish it all.

I also got up the guts this week and tried stinky tofu! Taiwan is famous for its stinky tofu which is fermented and has the most horrible smell. I have been avoiding it since I came. A part of me wanted to try it but I didn’t see the point in purposefully making my stomach upset, it can do that all on its own with no additional help from me. Eventually thought I was coerced into trying some late at night at Shida night market.

Turns out I actually liked the food, and it’s not half as bad as I imagined. The type I had was spicy and cut into pale colour squares. It didn't taste like a whole lot but the texture was a bit slippery. The hardest part of the meal was eating the pig’s blood cake, which is a mixture of sticky rice and pork blood. It didn’t look that appetizing, and when chewing, it tasted a bit mushy. Mostly I just tasted the rice and if I didn't think of the other ingredient I was fine. 

Later, I also had this special type of bread that has a chunk of cold better inside it surrounded by hot dough bun. They call it “fire and ice” because of the extreme temperatures mixed together. It was very, very sweet and I enjoyed all of it except the very middle. So much butter was concentrated in one spot, that it made it difficult to stomach down. At the same time I had gooey butter running down my fingers so I didn’t have a lot of time to contemplate my decision. I ended up giving it to a friend who swallowed it in one mouthful.

Saturday, 18 August 2012


I had an incessant urge to roam outside today. I packed my bag and set out for the afternoon deciding to skip the MRT and go as far as I felt like by walking. I had a vague recollection of where I was going and headed with the intention of reaching Gongguan market, which is my favorite place to shop for clothing.

I eventually found it, after a few twists and turns, and was surprised at how close it was to me! I walked farther than expected and stopped for lunch at a little place called Taco2Go. I was able to get A&W root beer, which amazed me and some nacho chips on the side. I chatted with the guy running the place, and he gave me tips on where to go surfing around Taipei. Surfing has now moved up on my list of things to do, turns out I’m only an hour away to some really great spots along the coast!

After lunch I wandered around and saw some really neat stores. There’s a pizza fire burning hut which I hear is delicious, and a little cookie place ran by an America man named TJ who runs his business with the same guidelines he uses for his romantic relationships. I wish I could have talked to him more but my mouth was stuffed with sampling the freshly baked cookies.

After a couple hours of walking I started to get tired. I almost gave in and took the Metro home, but I was saved by noticing the landmarks that have come to be associated with where I live. I was quite proud that I was able to find it by myself. Now that I’ve lived here for 2 months the directions are starting to stick!   


Thursday, 16 August 2012


Well my friends it is Thursday, and nothing ever exciting happens on this day. It is a day solely created to make the weekend look good.

Before I can kick back and relax I have to study for a Chapter eight test that has way too many characters involved. They smudge together taking on new forms and wrong meanings. I finally learned the sentence format for “because” and “therefore” and now feel that I can really get away with anything. 

I also have the temptation of a kobo nearby so I could disappear into a book and never come back. I tried my hand at reading children’s books in Chinese and it’s pretty hard. I also think I might have made the small children jealous by hogging all their books.

I have to say I’m very surprised at all the second hand bookstores I've been seeing in Taipei. I think it’s a great idea to have so much knowledge accessible and the prices are really good. I remember I once bought Schindler’s List at a garage sale for $1 and I didn't know whether to be thrilled or horrified that such a great piece of literature, based on a true story, could be gained for so little.

As always my expectations were blown away by the discovery of a 24-HR bookstore. Before you think I am the ultimate geek know that it was described by the Taipei Times as being an “emporium of literature, fashion and intellectual style” often more pumping then the average Taipei discoTaiwanese people love to read, and why not at 3AM if you are having troubles sleeping? I am going to have to go see for myself but I do have some reservations. I don’t particularly like to envision stepping over sleeping bodies to find a nook too call my own.

Being a traveler it’s annoying having to haul your favorite novels around. I know that’s why they invented the e-readers, but I am still a bit of a traditionalist. I prefer paperbacks where the spine is soft and the book practically flips open by itself. I once had a book where some of the pages where printed with the ends stuck together so I literally had to take a knife and separate them individually. It was a bit strange, and felt a little like desecration, but made it into a page-turner! (do I get points for puns?).

Basically there is nothing better than a good book. In all its many forms, and languages, reading is a universal trait. I sometimes wish there were more hours in a day, or years in a lifetime, to make-up for the reading yet to be done.     

Wednesday, 15 August 2012


Today I had the new experience of being a test subject for investigating linguistic sequencing in the brain; simply put I was a glorified lab rat.  I got to wear this intensely cool cap that had a whole bunch of wires coming out from it.  The fancy name for what they were doing is called an electroencephalography (EEG), a neurological test that measures and records electrical activity in the brain. This wasn't just any brain though it was my brain.

The strangest part for me was when they gave me a mirror so I could see what they were doing. They used what look like a hypodermic needle, the ones nurses use on frightened children and adults, to release a gel like substance that would act as a conductor. For lack of a better word these needles had no sharp bit that punctured the skin, but my initial reaction was to close my eyes and count to ten regardless. At any given time I had two or three of these sticking out of my head and I wanted to laugh out loud but was worried I would ruin all of their hard work.

The prep phase was the most exciting part, once that was over with I sat in front of a computer and did word arrangement tasks. I had to hold as perfectly still as possible and repeat the phrases out loud. Once I had done this for what seemed like an hour, in actuality it was 20 minutes, they gave me a break. I was a little bit miffed at the words I had messed up for example I had to organize the following words from general to specific,  undergraduate, sophomore, and individual. My brain froze at the word sophomore because it is an american term and I couldn't remember what it meant. It would be interesting to know what my brain waves were doing when I came across that, probably spun into hyper gear. 

After another round of word rearrangements I was free to go but before I left they showed me an MRT scans of the brain ( not my brain) and explained what they were trying to learn from it. All I saw was a bunch of vivid colours but to them it was this complex language. I appreciated the care they took to explain everything to me and it piqued my interest in studying more about the brain. I have to say though that the part I enjoyed the most was wearing the cap, that was pretty darn cool. 


Tuesday, 14 August 2012

To Say A Few Words

It seems to be that the lock on my tongue has been loosened, and I am less afraid to speak to others in mandarin now.

Maybe it's just the warm night air, and it's drowsy effect, but I was surprised by my inhibition in speaking with those around me this evening.  I actively used up all the vocabulary I knew of and half hazardously strung them together with the grammar rules I could remember. I’m pretty positive whatever actually came out of my mouth was a mess, but in my head it sounded perfect.

I also have fun speaking to those with absolutely no English skills; this is where countless evenings of charades comes in handy. 

I was able to communicate enough with those at the coin laundry machines that they didn't want to leave me alone. Every few minutes I would be interrupted from my reading by a question sprung out of nowhere. They then would patiently wait while I struggled to find the right words and actions to explain. Once my terminology was exhausted I stopped answering questions and pondered on the virtues of remaining silent to begin with.

Truly though, I’m very happy to get the chance to be able to practice the language so often. Classroom learning is useful, but I learn so much more from those around me. I’m able to pick out whole sentences now instead of just a few words which I see as a marked improvement on my listening ability. 

Also it’s hard to believe, but my last day of school is next Wednesday! I've been studying at NTNU for just under seven weeks now and I've learned how to read and write over 200 traditional characters. It's only a few, in the grand scheme of things, but compared to the 26 letters that comprise the English language it's feels like a lot. 

Luckily I still have lots of time to learn and one day (far, far into the future) I will be proficient. 

Monday, 13 August 2012

Picture This

Tonight I went ice skating for the first time in a long while. Of course, I was the only one who saw this as a deathly competition and not the social get-together it supposedly was.

I had to put on some false bravo to make up for my inexperience. It's a heavy burden representing Canada, a country that sweeps the winter Olympics like a Zamboni does to ice*. The other countries represented at this great event were Japan, and America (who had two participants, because they always seem to be the favoured ones). Unbeknownst to me one of them had a lengthy skating past that definitely would of put him in a higher ranked competition.  

We started out like I usually do, getting lost on the way to the Arena. Once we turned ourselves around, we made it in good time to rent our skates which thankfully had no line-up. I was a little surprised to find that along with the skates came headgear, knee pads, and what looked like to be elbow pads. I understood the option of a helmet, but the rest seemed a bit excessive. The only one who chose to wear some sort of head protection was Japan. She chose this I think, because she is the only one in the group with brains to protect and she also looks good wearing it.

Nevertheless it was a good 20 minutes before we were laced up and ready to go. This always seems to take the biggest chunk of time and the impatient feeling that accompanies it is only intensified by watching those already on the ice enjoying themselves.

Finally we were ready to go and off we went! I’m unsure how many laps we did but it was a lot. As usual there were a whole range of individuals who joined us, from the semi-pro ballerina doing spins in the center, to the new beginners cautiously putting one foot in front of the other. I was somewhere in the middle when it comes to ability but I enjoyed myself nonetheless. I practiced doing The Karate Kid stance on ice and I think the likeness was startling.

After chatting, racing, and posing, we were eventually kicked off so that the employees could go home. We walked to the closest MRT Station and then took the transit to get some food.

If I was to give out medals it would be Gold for Japan, since she successfully attempted tricks her first time on skates, Silver for America, because put together their talent was half of Sidney Crosby, and Bronze for Canada with a special certificate in sportsmanship. Do the results really come as a surprise to anyone? I thought as much.

*  *Zambonis don’t actually sweep the ice. What they do is lay down a layer of clean water so that it will form to freeze a smoother surface for skating and falling upon. 

Sunday, 12 August 2012

The Way We Are

I have yet to conquer the art of wearing make-up in 30°C and 70% humidity weather. I see girls around me able to, but I think it is an impossible feat without having it melt and making you look more like The Scream then a supermodel.

This being said I offer a few pointers on what to use when traveling in tropical climates.

1) Sunscreen is the new body lotion; apply liberally and as often as 3 times a day.

2) Bug spray is the new perfume, it’s best to use at night much in the same spots where you would dab perfume. Instead of a sweet smelling fragrance you will get the slightly acrylic smell of insect repellent. If this bothers you, go a couple nights without it and we will see how fast your mind will change.

3) Go with the natural look. This will not only save you the embarrassment of spotted make-up but it’s healthier for your skin. Also the local population has enough reason to stare at you as you are being a foreigner.

I personally like the change of routine but it’s not for everyone. From what I can see the woman here really like to stand out, which isn’t so surprising in a country where 98% of its population is "Taiwanese”. What is surprisingly popular is the use of colored contact for fashion purposes. The colours range from natural browns, and greens, to eye-popping blues and violets.

My first thought on this trend was it was creepy and too Hunger Games-esk for my liking. The over emphasis on an unnatural appearance and doe-eyes was a bit much to handle. Coloured eye contacts is a phenomena for girls and guys alike here, and the only good I can see coming out from it is perhaps more ophthalmologists.
My view now is less harsh but I still find it strange, how far will society go for vanity’s sake?  It reminds me of high school where I knew two friend, one who had brown eyes and one who had green, and they wore each other’s natural eye color as contacts because they thought it was better looking than their own. The pressure is mainly on woman but it is felt by guys as well.

 Also you can only blame society so much since it is a collection of its people. As individuals we have the choice to decide what to wear and decorate out our bodies with (except small children, they answer to the whims of their parent). I don’t think it could be over emphasized enough how much young girls look up to their mothers or other females as role models. The desire to be beautiful comes from what we define beauty as. If we are solely taught that it depends on outward appearance then no wonder as a culture we are obsessed with make-up and fashion. Every culture and sub-cultures have their own bar to measure what is “good” or “bad”.

Take my curly hair for instance, how many people of African descent actually wear their hair naturally? Not enough in my opinion. Some would say that I am an anomaly because I have “good” hair but that is entirely subjective. The reason I wear my hair naturally, among many, is because I had the good fortune to be raised in a family that told me my hair was wonderful from a young age. I grew up in a small community where no-one else had the same hair as me. Realistically the pendulum could have swung both ways, and I could have hated my hair since it made me stand-out and be different from others. But I never did dislike my hair with a vengeance, that I feel some have towards their own, because I can see the beauty within the tangles knots and frizziness.

Why did I shave my hair off then if I loved it so much? Other than trying to channel my inner Joe from Little Women, and also seeing how much of my identity was caught up in having my hair distinguish me as a person, I did it for a change, the ultimate reason for doing anything of drastic measures. 

In the end the most common reason women and men alter their appearance is because they want a change and to try something new. It is a relatively harmless decision, and now that I think of it, I may be the only one who gives serious thought to the societal implications of artificially changing the natural state of my tresses.I hope this is not completely true though, and that others every once in a while will take a few minutes to look at the underlying reason for not wanting to be the way they are.  

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Inuksuit and Other Similarities

Part of my studies here includes reading and writing traditional characters. As I accustom myself to a new way of writing I find it interesting how many of the characters remind me of something completely different then their original meaning.

The number six pronounced liù () reminds me of an Inuit Inuksuk.

The pronunciation for buy is mǎi () which sounds like “my”. So whenever anyone asks me what I want to buy I feel like I am taking something that is personally theirs.

The word for look is kàn () which you repeat to add emphasis; I always want to break out into a French song whenever I hear this said more than once.

To say come you use the word lái () which is spoken as “lie”. This was hard for my brain to wrap around at first because I thought it made me sound very accusatory.

Lastly the word for we, whose spelling is equivalent to female humans, is wǒmen (我們). I secretly find it hilarious that when I’m in the company of guys and girls, and we are telling a friend that we are on our way, we might say wǒmen láile (我們来了). It’s a silly thing to find amusing, but I do, and perhaps this will brighten any particular down on her luck feminist’s day.

Something else I’ve had to get used to is counting large numbers in Chinese. I never liked math but I love economics, and it turns out I enjoy counting ridiculously high amount of sums in Chinese. I am just preparing for my first pay-check you see.

It turns out when you count hundred-millions, ten thousands, and thousands they use a different way of organizing their numbers. Simply put instead of clumping numbers into groups of three’s they use groups of fours.

one thousand 1,000
ten thousand 10,000
one hundred thousand 100,000
one million 1,000,000
ten million 10,000,000
one hundred million 100,000,000
One thousand 1000=一千
one ten thousand 1,0000 = 
ten, ten thousands 10,0000 = 
one hundred ten thousands 100,0000 = 
one thousand ten thousands 1000,0000 = 
One ten million 1,0000,0000=一億

I’m skipping the nitty-gritty details, but you can tell how by organize their numbers differently it changes how you count them. Other than knowing the basics of counting 1-10 you will need the measure word for one hundred Bǎi (), one thousand Qiān () ten thousand Wàn (), and hundred million Yì (). If you seriously want to give it a try I recommend this English Chinese conversion calculator it’s super helpful.

Enjoy learning how to count high volumes of numbers you will never need in daily life unless you are very rich, very bored, or have a government job counting the population of China- you may need more measured words, and declassified documents for that, but it’s still a possibility.



Sunday, 5 August 2012

A Cellular Tragedy

Everything so far has been going pretty well in Taiwan. I don’t think I mentioned it before, but it is ridiculously safe here. I haven’t had any problems of theft or harassment, and even on the metro with people crushed together, I've never had anything go missing.

 Just my luck that the first thing I lose in Taiwan is my cell phone.

Adding insult to injury, that same day I was bike riding with a friend and she was explaining how she tends to lose her belongings a lot and I was secretly gloating at my success of organization that enabled me to keep track of all my things. I really should have knocked on wood, but there was none close by and I was riding a bicycle which requires two hands.

You see back at home I was constantly losing my cell phone and then finding it again, I swear the thing had legs and would try to run away from me. But in Taiwan I'm a golden girl, I never lose anything! It could be due to the fact that I have limited possessions and thus more reliant on them, when you only have one pen it is easier to keep track of it than a dozen[i]. I have a backpack and a school pack with the only difference being that my school pack is prettier. I shift items from one to another on a daily basis and in the end it works out fine.

Last night I had my school pack and went to 漢堡王 (Hànbǎowáng) to eat with a friend. After dinner, as I was headed down the stairs, I checked my cell for texts and then put it in my front pocket. I then leaped onto the back of my friend’s scooter, because that is the only way to get on a scooter, and it took us 3 minutes to get to my place. I then had my friend drop me off at the alleyway near my place and I walked the short distance to my house (I have privacy issues obviously). Once entering the house I went down to my basement suite and relaxed on the couch. I then remembered I had to text someone back and reached for my phone and grabbed… nothing. My heart leaped up into my throat and I hurriedly went to through my bag looking for my phone in vain. After rearranging my whole place, it looks rather charming now, I came to the conclusion that I had indeed lost my phone.

Now it isn’t the actual losing of the cell that bugs me since I only had 10 contacts, but the not knowing how I lost it. I walked back to漢堡王 and asked if they had seen it. They said they hadn’t and I walked dejectedly back home. Along the way I scanned the road for signs of a smashed cell phone and I saw none. Even now I am not really certain if it is missing. I hear it vibrating, or think I see it when it is actually something else. Its ghost is following me around which is pretty unfair since I took good care of the phone, it was an old razor phone with a missing back cover, yet I treated it like it was an iPhone 4.   

The last thing I have to do is pay retribution to the actual owners of the phone since I borrowed it from my roommates. My plan is to tell them that I lost the phone, but ask if I can buy it outright from them. That way they will have to take my money, because I know they will refuse it at first, and this way if I do find the phone I can keep it and money won’t have to be exchanged back. Needless to say I feel pretty terrible about the whole thing, I lost property that wasn't mine to lose. Also I was so close to having a winning streak in the department of not losing a single item on my trip. Now I have to dust off the chalkboard and start again... from zero.          

[i] A pet peeve of mine is owning handfuls of pens where half don’t work and the rest are almost out of ink. I think a pen should be used until it's done then thrown away. It's a much better idea then collecting broken pens ones like a hoarder – no offence to hoarders.  

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

The Honeymoon is Over

I have been discontented with life the last few days. I could blame the rain, it has been pouring down in droves, or the heat, which wraps itself around you and refuses to let go, but I know this wouldn't be true. 

The real reason is much easier to pinpoint but more complicated to explain. It seems to be the honey moon phase of my trip has come to an end. As someone pointed out to me, the excitement of each new day has molded into a continuous string of tedious ones. I seem to have lost my rose coloured glasses and cannot find them. Unfortunately I don’t think張老師 (my teacher) would take that as an excuse for not having my undivided attention in class. Perhaps I should stand up on my chair and start singing “my eyes are dim, I cannot see, I did not bring my specs with me! I did not bring my SPEC-TA-CLES WITH ME!

The dissatisfaction I‘ve felt isn’t solely because the newness has worn off. I knew before coming that at some point, during the two months I’d be living in Taiwan,  life would slow down to a quiet hum. It is inevitable (and is actually something I looked forward to the first few bewildering days of being in this country). The real question is what have I been doing with my limitless time? The answer is evasive.

  I tend to eat, a lot. Not only dinner with friends, but dinner with would be friends, or sort-of friends, or I don’t really know you at all but let’s get some grub friends. I don’t even eat for the comfort factor, but more as a social obligation. It may seem trite to be complaining of having to eat, but overindulgence is as much a vice as its counterpart.

The other thing I feel like I've been doing is wasting precious time. Some think that if you move away, or live somewhere foreign, then automatically life will be exciting, adventurous, and you will come back a changed person. This type of attitude reminds me of one of my favorite movies, Sabrina, starring Julia Ormond and Harrison Ford. The basic outline of the plot is that the young frizzy haired chauffeur’s daughter is in love with the millionaire’s youngest son. Due to the heartbreak of him ignoring her, she decides to go live in Paris. Sabrina then returns home a beautiful, confident woman, and subsequently has not only the millionaire’s son, but his eldest son too, falling in love with her.

 It would be nice if life was so easy, and changing your character was as simple as jetting off to France.

 The truth is it’s not; life is what you make of it. It is just as easy to waste your life on the other side of the world as it is in your hometown. I know of people here who spend more time on their computers then they do outside. There are also those who never go to class, skip tests, and most likely will fail even though they are attending one of the best known schools in Taiwan. What it really boils down to is personal character. You see we have these annoying things called bad habits. It’s not my place to classify what exactly is a “bad” habit versus a “good” habit, but anything damaging  to one physically or mentally I think is pretty safe to assume is a bad habit. Moreover, these bad habits will follow you around until you put in the effort to change them. Getting on a plane will not make you suddenly want to stop smoking. This same way, I am not going to return home a better person unless I put in the effort. I want to improve my mandarin but more then that I want to be improved all-around. This will require me to be more active in my daily routine instead of letting it just pass me by. Who knows, I may even schedule something for once, instead of counting on the tried and true “we will see what happens”. 

Being in Taiwan for such a short time makes it hard to plan long term but there is so much I can still do. I can focus on fixing my faults and pay more attention on how I spend my time. I can study harder in class and learn more from those around me. Finally I can live in this moment, the phase of my trip where the giddiness ends and stability enters. I can be content with a place to call my own, friends who are always welcoming, and school work that is challenging. I can begin every day with the surety of a good ending, because it is up to me to decide and that is what I choose; I choose to be happy.

Typhoon Warning

Typhoon Saola is predicted to hit Taiwan around 6pm tonight. We were told to stock up on some non-perishable food items and that there was a good chance of the electricity going out. Realizing that having no electricity meant that my beloved hot water boiler wouldn't work, I added to my meager food supply of two ramen noodle cups. 

              (bread, coconut spread, vanilla wafers, sweet bread, and two bottles of water!)

Before you get too worried (Mom) it’s still a small chance that the power will go out. The locals are very used to this sort of thing and the store owner even more; the price of food tends to rise right before a typhoon anywhere between 2-20%.

It is an unfortunate thing though that I live in a basement suite, when there is chance of flooding. I am thinking worst case scenario I will put all m y important documents in a water proof bag and sleep upstairs on the couch.  Luckily there are no windows that can be smashed in due to strong winds. Our teacher was explaining how the 7-11 Stores tape their windows with packing tape in a criss-cross fashion and it wouldn’t be a bad idea if we did the same.

Advised to stay at home, I will spend this evening getting to know my textbooks better. I still have a test tomorrow afternoon but it depends on the weather, if it’s really bad I won’t have to go to school. This puts me in quite the dilemma, what should I hope for?  


Saturday, 28 July 2012

Elephant Mountain

Among the many hills, and mountains, surrounding Taiwan there are the four beasts. They take the form of a tiger, leopard, lion and elephant. Each animal is fierce in their own way yet they all have one thing in common, you can hike them.

Right before sunset, five friends and I set out to do just that. The heat of the day was still burning strong even though it was 5:30pm; I started to seriously regret my decision to wear a black tee. My adverse thoughts were soon erased though with my first look on the breathtaking view. Every ridge makes you want to just stare in awe. Taipei 101 looks like It’s rising from the very ground, a silent giant that if you reached out your hand you can almost touch it. At first, the sun was so bright I could only take periodic glances, thankfully by 6pm the sun had started to set, and I was able to drink in the view.

It's a funny thing that I have become so enraptured with the urban environment. For the most part of the day I don’t give it a second thought, but when hiking, or cycling, suddenly the beauty of it all hits home. Just imagine how many hundreds of hands, and million hours of labour, it took to create the cities we live and work in! To see it all form afar, the skyscrapers, houses, and hotels, is pretty amazing.  

Another part I love about being outdoors is how it gives me time for contemplation. Now really, you can ponder anywhere, including the comfort of your house, but when you go outside it makes it better somehow. Maybe it’s the fresh air, or battle with mosquitoes, but you feel more invigorated. I doubt I have made life changing plans sitting on a bench outdoors, but the ones I have made are better for it.

Lastly, the greatest part of being outside is the return home. Your feet are tired, belly is aching and your clothes are covered in grim. Once in the house, all your comforts are at your disposal and there is plenty of food in the fridge.  If you’re like me though, you have already gotten food from the fresh fruit truck on the corner of the street. Half the container of mango slices is eaten, and the rest is what you put in the fridge for Sunday breakfast. Then you have a quick shower and snuggle into bed with a good book. Once your feet are off the ground you suddenly realize how tired, and sore, you really are and drift off into a dead man’s sleep. All the while you are silently giving thanks that you do not have to walk, run, or lift anything for the next eight hours.

Sweet dreams.  

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

1 Month, 1000 Views

I missed my Anniversary.     

This may be confusing to some since I am currently unattached, a statement I seem to be reiterating a lot lately, but it’s true. July 19, 2012 was the official one month mark of me living in Taipei, as a student, on my own. I CAN’T BELIEVE IT.

I first came to Taiwan with no cell phone, housing, or contacts. I only brought my laptop after a mighty struggle with my parents, and that was so I could write them sporadic e-mails to ensure them of my existence. I wasn't insane per say but driven, and they are similar in appearance.

Looking back now, I am infused with gratitude for all of those who lead me here. First I would thank, in person if I could, my wonderful Chinese teacher at the University of Calgary, Dr. Shu-ning Sciban. If it wasn't for her patience, and ability to make language learning enjoyable I wouldn't of made it this far. It was also through her that I heard about the Huayu Enrichment Scholarship and first applied in March 2012. This then leads me to think of my wonderful roommate Patricia, who encouraged me to apply and believed just as strongly as I did that I would be accepted. I remember the late nights we had eating homemade sweet potato fries and mulling over the future and where we would be. Could I of imagined this? Never.

Once I was accepted March, 11, 2012 my preparations began. The visa and documentations were stressful, but I never was worried about the actual living in Taiwan part. The reason I was so calm, which many interpreted as scared brainless or mock bravo, was because I didn't even know what to be scared of! It was such a new turn of events that I couldn't get worked up about irrational fears or have continual sleepless nights of dread.

That being said, I was not a green-horned traveler. I have been to my share of foreign countries and could rely on those who had much more experience than me, mainly my parents. Thanks to my Mom’s experience working internationally, I gleaned many stories of how to handle custom officials and travel safely being a woman and on your own. My Dad, as always, had great advice and his own adventures to tell. Most importantly though was their confidence and wholehearted support. It can’t be an easy task to send your youngest daughter out into the world, and yet they were willing to do that for me.

More than just my parents and immediate family, I am grateful to all my relatives and friends who take the time to reach out to me; I appreciate your messages and comments. As of today I have 1,000 views of my blog! I know I come from a big family, but even they can’t be re-reading it that many times. It’s a nice surprise to know others are enjoying what I write.

It may seem impossible, but in exactly a month from today July 26, 2012 I will be leaving Taiwan on a one way ticket to Beijing. The days seem so long here but I know my time is getting shorter. Let’s see how much I can pack into the four weeks I have left!