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Archive for July, 2006

Taiwan has been westernized over long enough a period of time that there’s an increasingly large number of words for which the Taiwanese rely on English to some degree or another. What I’m talking about isn’t when people sprinkle English words into their sentences for whatever reason; what I’m talking is vocabulary items for which they never use Chinese, and for which they don’t know the Chinese.

One of those things is A菜, i.e., the “A” vegetable. Every Taiwanese grocery store I’ve ever seen sells A菜. Everybody knows what it is, and nobody knows what’s it’s called in Chinese. I myself eat it almost every day and yet, I had no clue there was a real Chinese name for it until I visited the mainland.

The A VegetableThe A Vegetable (and seafood tofu balls) Hosted on Zooomr

While I was in Shanghai, eating hotpot with John, and his wife (a Shanghai native), I mentioned “A菜”. Neither had ever heard of such a thing and found the name funny. Over the next couple of days, I asked several more Chinese people. Their reactions were all the same; they all thought it was hilarious. So, the question is, just how did “A菜” come to be known as “A菜”?

Update: Mark S. contributed a photo of A菜 in a labelled bag.

I’ll never forget the first time I met a conversation partner in Taiwan. She said, “你看起來像電影裡面…的壞人!” Not sure whether I should take it as a compliment or not, I asked her why. She said that guys with shaved heads and goatees and darker skin are always the bad guys. At the time, I was a bit concerned my appearance could be hurting my job hunt, so I grew out my hair a bit, and shaved the goatee.

Well, now my goatee’s back, my hair’s short and I am going to be a bad guy in a movie! On Saturday night, I headed into town, met up with Poagao and friends, and they filmed me in a bit part as one of the evil madman’s private guards. They dressed me up in black pants, a shirt three sizes too small, a flack jacket and a beret. The flack jacket hid my pudge and the tight shirt showed off my fairly large upper body. I got to forcibly restrain the super-spy (before he cut his bonds with a knife he palmed without my noticing, killed one of the villains and escaped), lug around an automatic and look imposing. Yeah. I’m a 電影裡面的壞人.


The only problem is that filming went from 10PM to 5AM, and I pretty much lost coherence at 3AM. I sure hope I didn’t look like a tired evil guard. Also there’s the issue of the fact that my character failed absolutely and completely. Allowing the hero to palm a knife, cut his bonds and kill fellow bad guys sure isn’t likely to fly well with most ruthless overlords. I’m sure my character will be executed for his incompetence.

See the trailer for the movie on Poagao’s site. No, I’m not in it.

Summer is here, and business is booming at First Step. More students have signed up for my first and second grade classes than I can teach, and fifty more are on a waiting list for our normal classes. Nearly every day, more students and parents are visiting or asking about our school. There is an unfortunate downside, however.

For some reason, regardless of how terrible their children’s English is, parents won’t just sign them up for a new class that starts from lesson one. Instead, they pretty much all take an entrance test to try to get into a more advanced class. So far, less than five percent of the students who have taken it have passed and been able to start from a second semester class. Sadly, few of the parents can accept this fact without spending 10-20 minutes pressuring me to put their kids in a higher level after having just seen their kids fail horribly. It absolutely blows my mind. continue reading…

Last night, I met my friend Nathan at the Taoyuan train station. We decided to go the night market, so we hailed a cab and jumped in. Before I mention what happened, I should point out that I generally like cab drivers in Taiwan. They’re usually personable, chatty, and sometimes even interesting. This particular guy, on the other hand, was almost a caricature of a Chinese cab driver. The conversation below all happened in Chinese, of course.

Me: Hi. We want to go to the night market.
Driver: Oh! Can you speak Chinese!!?
Nathan: Uh…. yeah.
Driver: You guys are Americans, right? Right?
Me: Yep. We live here, though.
Driver: What do you do? Are you teachers?
Nathan: He is, and I’m a volunteer worker.
Driver: What do you mean? What do you do?
Nathan: I do work at hospitals and juvenile reform centers…
Driver: Do they pay you?
Nathan: No, it’s all volun…
Driver: They don’t PAY you? Why do you do it?
Nathan: To help people. It’s…
Driver: No salary? I wouldn’t do it!

I’m sure a lot of westerners secretly think the same way. I’ve never heard any say it so bluntly, though. Even if it’s only lip-service and they can’t really relate to volunteerism or charity, they’re at least familiar with what would motivate other people to engage in those activities.

Though there is a huge gulf between the haves and the have-nots in Shanghai, it wasn’t that apparent in most of the city. In general, the city divisions are very large, and one doesn’t walk straight from high-rises into a ghetto. I did manage to get one picture of a clear divide from John’s apartment, though. The people on the left side of the bridge have money. The people on the right don’t.

Rich Side, Poor Side- resized

While I was walking along the street in Shanghai, I noticed something unfamilar about some of the posters. They had pinyin for each character! Oh, what I wouldn’t give to have that in Taiwan!

Something you won't see in TawianSomething you won’t see in Tawian Hosted on Zooomr

You move me —
You move me —
Open sea and city lights
Busy streets and dizzy heights
You call me —
You call me —

The Analogue Kid

It’s 2AM, and my last night in Shanghai is drawing to an end. It’s hard to imagine that in half a day’s time my vacation will be over and I’ll be flying back to Taiwan. People say that when time flies when you’re having fun, but in this case it didn’t. This has been the best vacation I’ve ever had, and yet my two weeks here have felt more like two months.

After an enjoyable day of reading The Diamond Age, I met up with John and his wife and had some 火鍋 for dinner. Unlike most of the 火鍋 I’ve had before, it wasn’t buffet. Still, it was extremely good. Heck, I always love that kind of food. I also saw an interesting before dinner.

I arrived at our meeting place pretty early, so went walking around a bit. Nestled between skyscrapers, I found a relatively large Catholic church. The architecture looked like it wasn’t that far off of what one would find at home, or in Latin America. There were also some fountains in front of it. At the time, it really seemed like an amazing sight. In the middle of so many commercial buildings, in an area where I’d least expect it, was a a church. It was a nice looking one, too. I really wish I’d been able to get a snapshot of it. It wouldn’t have made quite the picture that the Starbucks in the Forbidden City did, but it would have been good.

After dinner, we went back to his place, and watched Ice Age 2- a pretty entertaining movie. Just as I was about to take off, I finally saw Lennet. I’d heard he wanted to ask me some stuff about living in Taiwan when I’d been staying at the apartment before, but he got back late every night and amazingly it was the first time I’d talked to him. I guess he’d lived in Taiwan before, but that was before he could speak much Chinese. Now that he speaks Chinese really well, he’s gonna move back to Taiwan. He was saying something about not letting the Taiwanese “corrupt his Chinese” or get rid of his ability to pronounce “zh”, “sh”, “ch”, “r”, etc… I’m really curious to see how it will go for him. I hope people don’t laugh at his “standard” accent.

Part of me doesn’t want to go to sleep. Right now, I know what’s on my mind. I know what I feel and I know what my plans are. By allowing myself to fall asleep, I’ll be yeilding control to my future self. Who knows how I’ll feel or what I’ll want to do tomorrow? Can I trust my future self to make the most out of my last few hours on the mainland? Sigh… now there’s a healthy line of thought. Bed, it is.

Unlike my last train ride in China, this one was boring once I got on. The soft sleeper was air-conditioned, clean and smoke-free. My roommates on the train were all tech professionals whose companies had paid for their tickets. We had a pretty good conversation. They were pretty curious about my life in Taiwan, and they loved the kids book I showed them. They’d never seen zhuyin before, and one of them hadn’t even heard of it. “What’s this weird stuff next to the characters?” she asked. “It looks sort of like Japanese.”

Though the train was a bit more cramped in terms of sleeping space (you can’t hang your feet over the end of the beds), I slept well and was ready to go when I rolled into Shanghai at 8:00AM. Not knowing quite where to go, and having lost my cellphone earlier, I decided to look for the hostel Micah had recommended to me earlier.

He was right. Mingtown backpackers was a good hostel… a really good hostel. So good, in fact, that it was booked full and about 20 people were milling around in the lobby, waiting to see if a room would open up. I dropped off my bags, put my name on the list, and then headed out with a couple of Mexican guys and a Frenchman that I’d met on the way.

The two Mexican brothers were hard-core. Despite the fact that they currently live in my home-state in the US, and that this was a cheap vacation for them, they’d taking the hard seat train all the way from Xi’an to Shanghai. It was a trip of over 20 hours, the train was far my crowded than my 普快 hard sleeper had been, and they didn’t have a bed. It cost less than 100RMB.

We wandered around the city for a few hours, checking out various hostels, and bargaining aggressively. Eventually, we found one that seemed to be an ok deal, after a 40% price drop, and it didn’t look like it would fill up. We made a note of the location, had some lamian for lunch and then checked back on Mingtown.

It was really, really tight, but we managed to get rooms. I ended up paying 55RMB a night, and I had three roommates. When I walked in the room, I was shocked. There was a Chinese girl from Shenzhen was staying there. I couldn’t believe it! They put foreigners in the same rooms as the locals! After chatting with her for a while, I found out that they even charged us the same price. Right, on!

I shouldn’t publish it on my blog and drive even more travelers there, and in turn drive up the prices, but Mingtown is a nice hostel. The rooms are air conditioned, there’s a free washer and dryer for everyone to use, and the staff is super helpful. If I ever go back to Shanghai, I’ll definitely consider the place. The crowd was pretty different at Mingtown than it had been at Leo’s, in Beijing. Other than those two Mexican guys, I didn’t see any hard-core backpackers. There weren’t any groups of hard-drinking joie de vivre types, either. Instead, there were more English teachers, who lived in other parts of China. They could pretty much all speak at least some Chinese. One girl had done the CET Hangzhou program, and could speak and write far more Chinese than I could. There were also a fair number of Taiwanese tourists, too. It was a nice hostel, but the experience wasn’t all that bloggable.

After touring the Forbidden Palace, Chris and I decided to go for some pizza at this great place I knew of near Beida. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find the place, so we ended up going to McDonald’s instead. They had an absolute monstrosity of a hamburger there, called the “World Cup” burger. It had four beef patties. Being the guy that he is, Chris ordered one.

World Cup BurgerWorld Cup BurgerHosted on Zooomr

After dinner, I realized my cellphone was missing. I went back to look for it, but with no success. I have no idea whether I lost it at the club, at the Forbidden City, in the taxi, or in the restaurant. Bummer. Chris caught his train to Xi’an, and I went back to the hostel. By then, it was too late for me to get a ticket back that day. Once again, bummer. I booked one for the next day, i.e. yesterday, and went out with my new buddies at the hostel.


Yesterday afternoon, I found out what the address of that pizza place was and decided to round everybody up, and treat them to a “Mark’s leaving Beijing” pizza meal. Unfortunately, all of the Brits and Aussies I’d been hanging out with were busy. Winnie and Queenie did offer to meet with me later and go to the train station as a group, though.

In the end, it was just Zhanqiang, one of my Korean buddies who goes to BLCU, and two of his friends who went. The place was just north of the west gate of Beida, and it was great! I swear it was the best pizza I’ve had in years! The name of the restaurant is Kro’s Nest (雞巢). Since my train ticket was for 7:14, I decided to take off by 5:15 to make sure I made it in time.


I hopped in a cab and headed for the subway. In a nightmarish scenario I’d never imagined possible, traffic stopped. Completely. It took over half an hour to move a single kilometer. By the time we got to the subway, it was already 6:35.

I didn’t make it to 前門 station until after 6:50. Knowing I had little chance of making it to the hostel, picking up my things, getting back to 前門, and getting to the train station within under 25 minutes, I ran. Make it or not, I would not waste my train ticket willingly, I said. Lugging my new knock-off Northface backpack, dodging hundreds of people walking through the market on 大柵欄, and ruthlessly plowing through my arch-nemeses, the rickshaw drivers, I ran and ran until I made it to the hostel.

Between heaving breaths, I shouted to the people at the desk that I needed to get my stuff out of storage. Since they seemed busy, I ran back to the room myself, found the door unlocked, grabbed my stuff and ran back out on to the street. Hefting my suitcase up into my arms, and cursing the 50 pounds I’ve gained since I was a competitive distance runner, I ran back to the entrance to the 前門 station. My blisters from the previous week of walking around the city were killing me, but I only had fourteen minutes left. A guy tried to push me out of the way and cut in front of me in the ticket line and for the first time since I’ve been in China I pushed back. Having at least 50 pounds, plus a heavy suitcase on him, he went sprawling. I grabbed my ticket ran down stairs and jumped through the doors just in time to make on the subway.

I got off the subway at the train station and took a quick glance at my watch. It was 7:08. I had a chance! I pulled out the extension on my suitcase so I could roll it on its wheels and started running towards the line. Once again, more bozos tried to cut in front of me. Didn’t they realize I was in a serious hurry and that once, just this once, I wasn’t going to tolerate their lack of civility? One man kept pushing against my right arm, and finally getting frustrated that I didn’t let him cut in line, he grabbed it, gave me an Indian burn and tried to twist my arm at the joint. I dropped my shoulder and slammed him hard, sending him back and into the railing to the right. Then, as he lunged forward at me, I sidestepped to the left, keeping my suitcase between us. He went reeling into a couple of people in front of me and they started to get into a shouting match with each other. I ran.

I finally made it to the train platform at 7:15, one minute after it should have departed. Thankfully for me, it hadn’t. I ran along, next to the train, finding the appropriate carriage and stumbled in, drenched in sweat. My ticket wasn’t wasted.

After a rough night of clubbing and drinking, I dragged myself out of bed early to go to the Forbidden city with my roommate, Chris. Chris is a tall, thin Canadian guy, who works in real estate. He’s a really cool guy with crucial exception- he’s a morning person. At 10AM, after I’d had less than four hours of sleep, while I was still hung-over, he came tromping cheerily into the room.

In his most energetic morning voice, he belted out, “Hey, man! Nice day, huh! We can go at 11:00 if you want. This is gonna be sweet! The weather’s great today! Blah blah blah! blah blah!”

“Umgh globblebrogear,” I responded as my head started spinning. “Let’s just go, now,” I continued. “I’m not gonna get much more sleep.” We headed out.

It was absolutely roasting outside. I was borderline delirious by the time we made it to the Forbidden Palace. Fortunately for us, a guy was selling “ice water” right outside the gates. In this case, “ice water” meant bottled water that was frozen solid. It was brilliant! They melted slowly over a couple hours, giving me a steady stream of icy water.

With my “ice water” in hand, I immediately started picking up, and soon there was a bounce in my step again. With a gi-friggin-normous picture of Chairman Mao looking down on us solemnly from above, we entered the gates. After circumventing some free-lance tour guides, we bought our tickets at 60RMB each, and went into the central part of the Forbidden City.

The architecture was stunning. It was absolutely the biggest and most ambitious traditional Chinese building I’ve ever seen in my life. It really would have been worth the trip to Beijing just to see the Forbidden Palace. Our timing wasn’t perfect, though, since much of it was being renovated. Still, it was a very, very interesting walk.

Forbidden City under constructionForbidden City under constructionHosted on Zooomr

After walking for over an hour, Chris and I decided to sit down for a break. Within moments, a woman came up to us with her 6 year-old daughter, and asked if she could take a picture with us. She said her daughter had never seen any foreigners before. How could we say no to that? Immediately after she finished taking the picture, a couple of high school girls came up to us and wanted to do the same. We obliged and they ran off, after giving me their QQ numbers, whatever the heck those are. As the girls left, a middle aged couple was suddenly sitting next to us and their friends took a picture for them. Suddenly, a crowd of somewhere between 50 and a 100 people materialized, cameras pointed at us, happily capturing us on film.

While I’d like to attribute it to my dashing looks, all we were was a couple of random foreigners. Just by virtue of that, we were photo worthy. Unbelievable! Even now, I wonder how many houses in China will have a picture with me in it set out somewhere. It’s an odd feeling. With all of those people taking pictures of us, and more coming to see what was going on, Chris decided it was time to go. Just as we decided to go, I realized it was the perfect time to take a picture of my own, and get one of the crowd. As luck would have it, the crowd dissipated with lightning speed as soon as I picked up my camera. Oh, well. At least one of the people from the second group was nice enough to take a picture of us.

Chris and Mark's moment of fameChris and Mark’s moment of fameHosted on Zooomr

There was one other highlight to our trip. The Starbucks! They put a Starbucks inside the Forbidden City. If I could chose just one picture to sum up modern China, this would be it:

Forbidden StarbucksForbidden StarbucksHosted on Zooomr

The drinks were good, and cheaper than they are at home, too.