English

I love English. I want to fill a bathtub with English and soak in it. When I walk into a restaurant tentatively prepared to speak Chinese and am asked in English “two people?” I can’t help but sigh in relief. Chinese is really hard, and my retention is pretty unfortunate, but it would be nice to retain a good chunk of what I’ve learned before we leave.  That’s nearly impossible because EVERYONE speaks English. I have said some really dumb things in Chinese: To the Chinese server at the beer bar in Beijing: “Can we live over there?” instead of “Can we sit over there?” To the guy at the fast food counter: “…and one bottle of handsome.” instead of “…and one bottle of water.” To the mean lady at the grocery store who was trying to give me something for free: “No! I don’t want that thing!” It’s just so easy to take the easy way out, not use Chinese, relish in the fact that most people speak English. I feel as though I’m not challenging myself if I’m not using the language that I’ve worked so hard to grasp.  However, when the Californian kid who just happens to have some Chinese heritage brings me my food says, “would you like more water?” instead of “blah, blah, blah shui ma?” I feel much more confident responding “yes, please” instead of violently shaking my head up and down like an idiot while saying something indiscernible. Perhaps I will have more luck with German.  Everyone says it’s easier than Mandarin.  I think brain surgery is easier than Mandarin, so the bar is set pretty low. Here’s to faster language learning – Prost!      ...

Hot Pot

Yes, another post about food.  Food is by far the easiest way to experience a new culture.  So, yes, another post about food. Hot Pot is my new favorite meal.  Our friends introduced us to a great all you can eat hot pot restaurant when we first arrived but we were still in a jet lag induced lethargy. It’s called huǒguō here.  (pronunciation)       火鍋 The first character above is the character for fire.   So, you order a soup or two, make a sauce of your choosing, pick up a bunch of fish and vegetables from the food bar, grab a beer and sit down.  Then, you wait for your hot pot to boil and start putting a bunch of food in.  As it cooks you pull it out with your chopsticks, dip it in your sauce, and eat it.  (Don’t dig too deep in the pot – last time we found coagulated pig blood – worst prize ever.) Tex takes advantage of some all you can drink San Miguel beer. We chose a pot with half miso and half spicy. The spicy was VERY spicy. They gave us this “nice cooker” to stir the pot and fish out the delicious morsels. Tex adds some miscellany to the pot. The best thing about this place, besides the free beer of course, is the delicious cotton candy! It looks like a peep!   Tex and I are pretty convinced that very few Americans know about the hot pot deal in Taipei.  For 2 hours you gorge yourself on meat, fish, vegetables, ALL YOU CAN DRINK BEER, and ALL YOU CAN EAT ICE CREAM!  Not to mention the cotton candy machine and the chocolate fountain they had at this place.  It costs about $20 per person.  What red-blooded American could pass that up? The only downside to going out for hot pot is that frequently it’s difficult to determine what exactly it is that you’re putting in your mouth. If things are labeled they are labeled with Chinese characters (which neither of us can read yet). Certain things are obvious.  “Ah, yes, cabbage!” Never did I think cabbage could be so comforting then when on a plate next to various gray colored balls.  Some of the dumplings are very good, some are suspicious, and some are downright disgusting.  Regardless, it’s a great adventure. SO!  After we had hot pot at our friend’s dinner party I learned that it’s possible to make this at home!  This way I can control the ingredients and experiment with flavors.  It still costs about the same since vegetables can be rather expensive but it’s worth it for a relaxing meal....

Water what?

My Chinese teacher and I were having an in-depth discussion about Taiwan fruit. By “in-depth” I mean I can say things like, “Taiwan fruit is sweet. I like Taiwan fruit.  Sometimes it is cheap but sometimes it is expensive.”  They are very proud of their fruit here and I haven’t really gotten anything that blows my mind (except this dragon fruit).  So, she gave me a fruit that blew my mind.         It’s called:                        Characters:                                                                                   Pīn​yīn:                                                               Língjiǎo  (pronunciation)     It’s a water caltrop.  Whatever that is.  It’s affectionately called a Jesuit nut, Ram Horn Nut, or a horned water chestnut. Some people buy them raw and cook them at home.  This one is pre-cooked and opened by the shopkeeper. It tastes like a water chestnut but nuttier and less crunchy so there isn’t a ton of flavor.   I’ve heard that some people use them to make soup, which I imagine that tastes a lot like hot water. It’s clear that, like lobster, a very brave person or a very hungry person first decided to eat one of these things. Regardless of taste the water caltrop certainly makes a great mustache.     You can learn more about this fruit on this helpful...

Olfactory Explanations

In huge cities like Taipei there are a plethora of … odors… shall we say?  In general there is a sweet smell to Taipei.  Almost all of the local  food is cooked with sweet spices and flavors.  However, once in a while there is a not so sweet smell that stops you dead in your tracks and makes you think, or in my case say aloud, “Oh dear lord!  What the hell is that smell?” The grocery store in particular has a very distinct smell.  For a while I thought there was produce rotting too close to the entrance of the store.  As it turns out, this is the culprit:   Durian.  I heard some people like it.  I find it smells like rotting onions if those rotting onions happen to be buried in a hot garbage pile. I was going to post an image of the inside but frankly it was just too gross looking. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING is quite as offensive as stinky tofu. At first smell I thought something died, but growing up in the woods I’ve smelled a rotting animal before.  This was so much worse.  This is worse than the smell of Philadelphia streets in 95 degree heat, and the pungent rotting oysters (or were they clams?) that my sister and I cleaned out of a cooler.   Please consider the following a warning. Characters: Pīn​yīn: Chòudòufu Pronounce it: Chòu dòu fu​ This is pretty easy to pronounce.  It’s easiest if you listen here. Meaning: “stinky tofu” So, if you see one of these stands around Taiwan, it is probably in your best interests to stay as far away as possible.   So frequently the foods that help to characterize a culture are just so gross.  French snails?  Chinese century eggs?  English breakfast? Taiwan’s stinky tofu? I’ll stick with my Philly cheese steak, American apple pie, and New England clam chowder....

Lost in Translation

What I was trying to order: “Watermelon juice” What I really ordered: “Western few juice.”   What they were trying to tell me: “You owe 5NT”  (NT is the currency in Taiwan) What I responded:  “No thank you, I don’t want a bag.”   What my teacher asked me: “Where do you often go to buy things?” What I answered: “I eat often.” After this last doozy my teacher taught me this useful phrase.   Characters: Pīn​yīn:                          jī​tóng​yā​jiǎng Meaning:                    This means “the chicken talks to the duck.”  In other words – I have no idea what you said because I’m not a duck and you certainly sound like a chicken.  It’s a phrase used when people can’t communicate with each other. So, I’m obviously still learning the local...

Foreign Phrases

For those of you who haven’t put yourself through the torture of learning Mandarin, here is a brief explanation of the nightmare I’m currently going through. The Chinese language is made up of 4 tones (5 if you count the neutral tone). Google Translate isn’t always the greatest tool for translation but it works in this instance.  As you can see from this page, googletranslate.com, pronunciation is extremely important. (The pronunciation for ‘ma’ is below the box on the right.) One wrong move and you’ve called your mother a horse.  Also, the characters on that page are “traditional” characters. They are almost solely used in Taiwan and are generally more complicated to read and write than the “simplified” characters found in mainland China. Adding to this delightful mix is pīn​yīn.  Pīn​yīn is a phonetic pronunciation system used to assist those folks reliant on a Latin alphabet system (such as myself) how to pronounce characters.  Pīn​yīn is very helpful up to a point. The problem is that people become dependent on it and then it becomes more difficult to learn characters.  That’s the boat I’m in right now. It’s not as though menus are written this way.  Every sign, menu, and bus schedule is mostly written in characters. I just want you all to know that this is the hardest thing ever!  That being said, it’s a great challenge and I really enjoy learning it.  I’m planning on posting more Chinese words under the “foreign phrases” series so I wanted to give you a bit of background. ***** Character: Pīn​yīn:                           Rè Pronounce it:                   This is a tough one to pronounce. Loosely put the tip of your tongue behind your top teeth and say “ruh” in a sharp descending tone. It helps if you keep your teeth closed. This is 4th tone – my teacher calls it the ‘angry’ tone. Meaning:                         HOT! It’s so hot here!  It’s unbelievably hot all the time.  I know some of you are suffering in the desert heat and some of you don’t have air conditioning but it’s SOOO hot here. The locals carry around umbrellas to protect them from the sun but I refuse to carry one because the idea of carrying anything but the clothing on my back makes me fear fainting.  I’m afraid to walk 6 blocks home with milk because I’m certain it will spoil by the time I get there. I would have hope for an upcoming fall season, but I fear I’ll never experience it as evidenced by this t-shirt I found at the weird grocery store.   We’re...