Saturday, April 2, 2011

Taiwan: Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines, Taipei

I have to admit, when we went to Taiwan, I didn't know much about Taiwanese history. I had this vague notion that, sometime in the 20th century, the Chinese Communists kicked the Chinese Nationalists out, at which point they fled the mainland, established a government in Taiwan, hung on to a seat at the UN for a while, then languished in an uneasy truce with the mainland for a good sixty or seventy years.

As it turns out, Taiwan has a much longer history of political turmoil and foreign invasion. First there were the aborigines, then several waves of Chinese (Post-1945 mainlanders, Hakka, and Hoklo, three very different mainland cultures), before the Japanese and the Chinese Nationalists swept in. These days, partly as the result of a new movement to differentiate Taiwan from the mainland (link), a lot more has been done to highlight those parts of Taiwanese history and culture that are neither (modern) Chinese nor Japanese.

The Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines (note: "Formosa" is the old name for Taiwan), established in 1994, was a very early step in this direction. The museum, coupled with the park across the road, tells the story of the people who lived in Taiwan for about 8,000 years before the Chinese arrived. These Taiwanese aborigines aren't culturally, linguistically, or genetically related to other East Asians--instead, they're related to the Austronesian peoples of Madagascar, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Oceania. In fact, there's some evidence that all those cultures actually originated in Taiwan. Some old Maori myths from New Zealand, for instance, that suggest Taiwan as the ultimate origin of the Maori people.

There are still some active tribes of Taiwanese aborigines today. In total, they number about 500,000, or around 2% of Taiwan's population. They're a much bigger presence in the Taiwanese imagination, though. For one, people of aboriginal descent who are no longer part of an active tribal culture tend to under-report their aboriginal ancestry. In addition, Taiwan has built a small but thriving industry on tourism and cultural production related to aboriginal culture.

This is a pretty major development: as recently as 10 or 20 years ago, legal, social, and economic discrimination against Taiwanese aborigines was pretty severe. There are still problems, to be sure, but things are also much better than they once were.

Anyway--the museum. We went first thing in the morning (yes, we were actually waiting outside when they unlocked the place . . . how dorky are we!), but even so, it was strange that we were the only people there. It was a great little museum, with plenty of English signage and a variety of exhibits on the daily lives of aborigines past and present. The museum was also surprisingly even-handed: it didn't whitewash the shocking violence inherent in some of the old tribal ways, and didn't romanticize the often brutal lives under the old tribal system, but at the same time made it clear why some of the old traditions were worth preserving. I thought the music was especially varied and beautiful.

Overall, this place is well worth a morning if you're in Taiwan, and especially if you plan on hitting the nearby National Palace Museum in the afternoon.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Justin and Nana Drink Weird Stuff For Your Entertainment: Taiwan Edition

This is a truly epic Weird Stuff post, clocking in at 7 Weird Beverages. Despite our travels through Malaysia, Korea (McCol, Aloe Juice, Nostalgia Drink, and Pine Bud Drink), Japan, Malta, Scotland, and Singapore, no other country has provided us with such a diversity of Weird Stuff in so short a time. Congratulations, Taiwan! You are first among truly august company!

1) Mystery fruit juice.

We bought fruit juice from this vendor in a Taipei shopping street. What kind? I have no idea. My Chinese is nowhere near good enough for me to know the characters for things like "starfruit" and "papaya," so I just asked him to make us whatever he liked the best.

Verdict: Delicious! The weirdest part was how you actually tasted the different fruits at different points of time. I don't remember all of them or their order, but I do remember tasting papaya midway through and finishing with a blast of grape. It was like those Willy Wonka candies that change candy as you eat them, except healthy.

2. Taiwan Beer
Not really weird, per se, but great because of the name. It really is just "Taiwan Beer." The beer version of Canada Dry, I guess? A perfectly acceptable lager that went well with Chinese and spicy foods on a hot day.

3. Watermelon Juice
This one's so easy you could make it yourself: take watermelon, throw it in the blender, and you're done. I liked the early sips (although they could have used more sugar) but the stuff at the bottom was too grainy for me. Also, they didn't remove the seeds, which was kind of awkward partway through a sip. Personally, I have a preference for drinks which don't require me to spit stuff on the street in foreign countries. Justin is less picky than I am, so I foisted this off on him.

4. Gelatinous lime juice
I looooove lime juice. When we lived in Alexandria, Virginia, there was this Mexican restaurant on King's Street with thoroughly mediocre and overpriced food, and I'd go there anyway just to pound the giant glasses of limeade. A brilliantly delicious beverage which needs to get more popular so I can buy it more places.

This was not lime juice. Can you make out the texture here?

It's a weird semi-gelatinized half-beverage hybrid, the offspring of lime-flavored corn syrup and Jell-O. It was not quite as firm as Jell-O, but not liquid, either. Honestly, it wasn't bad, but when it's hot and sunny and you've set your heart and tastebuds on a thirst-quenching bottle of tart limeade, lukewarm sugar blobs ain't going to cut it. Another one to foist off on Justin.

4. Sugar cane juice

We thought it was bamboo juice when we bought it. The guy had a cool press going at the front of the stall - you could watch him feed a long stalk of sugar cane into the squeezer to have the juice crushed out of it. Hence our misunderstanding of the type of juice: as mentioned, my Chinese characters are weak, and to a couple of Midwesterners, bamboo looks an awful lot like sugar cane:

Top: ? Bottom: ? Only pandas know for sure...

Anyway, the verdict? Well, it tastes like sugar cane, which is to say, really sweet. In my opinion, it shouldn't be the dominant flavor, but it would make a nice sweetener to something else. We had Sugarcane/Lime Juice in Singapore, but the balance was too much to the sugar cane side. \

Anyway, I didn't like it. Can you guess what I did with it?


How did this picture get in here? Moving right along.

5. Starbucks Oolong Tea

The Taiwanese take their tea WAY too seriously to put up with bagged nonsense in Starbucks, hence the little loose-leaf caddy hooked onto Justin's cup. Tea cultivation in Taiwan dates to the 19th century, at which point it was still called Formosa. If you see something advertised as "Formosan oolong," it means it was grown in Taiwan - due to the strength of the brand image, they've kept the old name. (They did the same in Sri Lanka, where despite erasing all other uses of the old colonial name of Ceylon, they've kept "Ceylon Tea.") Justin's verdict on the tea? Really good. I believe it was a little more expensive than the bag variety, although with exchange rates and different cities it's hard to be sure.

6. Milk Tea Bubble Tea

Milk Tea is basically the same thing as our beloved Teh Tarik: black tea with a disturbingly unhealthy proportion of condensed milk added. Seriously, if your teeth don't feel fuzzy afterward, it wasn't real milk tea.

Bubble tea has become more popular in the US - I remember it breaking through during my high school years - and basically consists of little balls of tapioca which you suck up the tea straw and chew with your drink. If you think it sounds weird now, imagine what it's like when you're not expecting it. My first encounter with bubble tea was during my sophomore year of college, when my friend Lee gave me a can he'd bought from the Asian grocery, which is to say, a can with no English on it. I thanked him and started to drink this nice tea, when suddenly, WHOA, there's a giant LUMP of CHEWY SOMETHING in my mouth. Since this predated my experience with the gelatinous lime juice by nearly ten years (side note: good GOD), I had no idea that beverages could be chewed, and could only come to the conclusion that my can of tea had gone horribly, horribly wrong. I ended up desperately horking the mystery lump into a nearby tissue and trying to rinse out my mouth in the sink of a Saybrook bathroom. Put me off bubble tea for years - actually, until this trip, when I got back on the horse.

When expected, bubble tea is delicious. The tapioca comes in two sizes, and the small one is better. It is also unfortunately high in calories, and it's definitely possible to inadvertently consume a sandwich worth over the course of an afternoon.

7. Beverage sealant

I don't remember exactly what these beverages are. I think it's a milk tea for Justin on the left, and a lemon juice for me on the right. I chose this shot because it shows a weird and fun Taiwanese beverage quirk: the melted-on lid. As a person who frequently spills things on herself, I love this. Instead of the plastic pop-on lids, which anybody with any skill at all can make pop off merely by lifting the cup, these lids are melt-sealed around the edges like a container of yogurt. You get the beverage by taking the straw, which has a pointy tip, and spearing it through the plastic. Spill-proof AND stabby? I love you, Taiwan!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Taiwan Trip: Beitou Hot Springs, Taipei

It's kind of odd that Nana and I, after having lived in Japan for eight months now, had to go to Taiwan for our first hot springs experience. Hot springs, or onsen, are right up there with sushi, sumo, and kimono in the "most Japanese thing ever" sweepstakes. But there aren't many bathing-suit-friendly onsen near Fukuoka, and neither of us has worked up the nerve to hit the baths in our birthday suits, instead.

Luckily, thanks to a combination of favorable geology and 50 years of Japanese occupation (1895-1945), onsen are also pretty popular in Taiwan. Plus, Beitou, the oldest spa town in the country, sports several bathing-suit-friendly outdoor baths, right on the outskirts of Taipei.

Naturally, Nana and I had to go see what it was all about.

Our visit to Beitou began with a subway transfer onto the one-stop spur line between Beitou Station and Xinbeitou ("New Beitou") Station. The spur line had a very Disney-esque feel to it.

The outside of the car was decorated with cartoonish scenes of Beitou tourism . . .

. . . while half of the interior was done up to look like a hot spring . . .

. . . with the other half done up in honor of Beitou's mountain hiking trails.

After getting off the train, we walked up into the narrow valley where most of Beitou's hot springs can be found. Partway up, we stopped at the Beitou Hot Springs Museum, a converted bathhouse from the Japanese Colonial period.

This free museum gave a brief introduction to Taiwanese hot springs, as well as a short history of the Beitou area.

The real star was the building itself, though. Painstakingly renovated, it's a rare and fascinating example of Japanese Colonial architecture. Also a great illustration of how hard the Japanese Empire worked to be as much like the Brits in nearly every way: aside from the tatami room, you could pick that building up and drop it in India or the Caribbean without anyone batting an eye.

Roman-style architecture . . . check.
Stained glass window perfectly situated for longing gazes out onto a garden . . . check.
Private room for hiding all kinds of naughty things from others . . . check.
Congratulations, Imperial Japan! You have successfully copied Victorian Britain! 

After the museum, we went for a soak in one of Beitou's outdoor hot springs. I have to say, even despite the bathing suit, it was still one of the most awkward experiences of my life (at least at first).

First, we were pretty much the only white people in Beitou, let alone the only white people in this particular bathing area. Second, you may not have noticed, but I'm incredibly hairy. Third, Nana and I are both incredibly pale. As a result, every single eye in the place must have been on us as we ducked into the changing stalls, then must have been blinded by our shimmering pallor as we emerged. Even thus blinded, though, they could easily keep track of us, as despite our best efforts to keep quiet, we were by far the loudest people in the place.

Luckily, people did stop staring after a few minutes, and we were able to enjoy the baths. (No cameras allowed, though--hence, no pictures.) All in all, it was a really relaxing experience: we could move among three different hot baths and two different cold baths, which meant we could keep cool in the hot sun and still loosen up our poor, travel-worn legs.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Charity winner

If you've peeked at the poll in the upper right, you probably saw that Architecture for Humanity was in the lead with seven votes. Search and Rescue Dogs made a strong showing through email and comments, but not enough to overtake the architects, so Justin and my donation will go to Architecture for Humanity. We encourage anybody reading this to donate along with us, either to Architecture for Humanity, to one of our three other candidates (Search Dog Foundation, Brother's Brother, or Samaritan's Purse), or to any worthy charity working in Japan. Here's the Charity Navigator advice page again in case you're trying to choose.

There's been some debate over whether or not Japan, as a generally developed country, "needs the help." Americans have donated around 1/3 of the money to Japan that they donated for Haiti. Well, we live here, and Japan's been good to us. We donated to Katrina even though it happened in the USA. So our money is going to Japan.

I can understand the logic behind not giving to Japan specifically - but I think a lot of people are really just using it as an excuse not to give at all. You walk past the person on the street with the Japan cup but then don't get online and give to an alternative cause. If Japan's relative wealth does concern you, why not take the money you might have given to Japan and donate it elsewhere? You could pick a charity like Search and Rescue Dogs, Doctors Without Borders, or Save the Children which does not commit to using all donated resources in Japan - that way, you're paying it forward to the next disaster. You could also donate to something unrelated to Japan - Architecture for Humanity is still raising money for Haiti, for example, and you can give specifically to that by choosing "Haiti Earthquake Reconstruction Fund" from the menu on the donation page. Just remember that it's hard times all around right now, and any money you could give would be much appreciated somewhere.