Sunday, January 29, 2006

Fire in the year of the dog; emergency 119; balding rain

The new year, the year of the dog, has officially begun. The year of the chicken is over. If you bear a child in this new lunar year, you can expect him/her to act like a dog. . . well, ok, I exaggerate, perhaps. The book I looked at mentioned honest and loyal, and keeps secrets well. Loyal - that's what I think of as a dog characteristic. And most dogs I know keep secrets very well, at least none have told me any. . . If you were born after Chinese new year in the years 1934, 1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, or 1994, you're a dog. . . This is because, as many of you know, the Chinese zodiac system is a 12 year system.

(For the curious, after dog comes pig, rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, and then chicken.)

Sometime around 10:30pm or so, someone rang my door, and, upon seeing me switched from Chinese to English and warned me that there was smoke coming out of the apartment across from me, and that they'd already called "911." Sure enough, I don't know if a minute had even passed by the time a (small) emergency vehicle, with siren howling showed up in front of the door, and some guys came in. I don't really know what they did. They seemed to have a conference in the hallway, and later, another. I'm not sure if they tried various ways of getting into the apartment or what, but I decided to get dressed into running clothes, in case I had to make a quick exit - might as well go for a run. . . Before I headed out, the door across the hall was open, and things seemed to be settled. I didn't see any big plumes of smoke or flames of fire, so I supposed that the quick exit would not be necessary. The "911" phrase kept running in my head, though. I thought that it was quite interesting. 911 is NOT the emergency number, here. 119 is. All that I can think is that the woman who told me this wanted to convey that emergency number had been called, so she translated it to 911 for me. .

I finally ventured out at 11:30pm for a run. The 3 temples that I passed before midnight were all open for business, although only one of them had people in it. One of them was very well stocked with the paper money ready to be bought to be burned in hopes of good fortune. I ran along the river during the midnight hour and was treated to a rather continuous display of fireworks. One place in particular seemed quite well stocked. Not only are they rather nice to look at, but they're also supposed to have the practical purpose of scaring away the evil spirits. One store I ran by had someone firing off an amazing sparkling, noisy firework candle thingie - right on the sidewalk, so about 2 feet max from the front of the building, and a foot away from the scooters parked in front. I started imagining scooters exploding, and backed farther away. Since the houses all are made of cement with metal doors, I guess that fires aren't such a fear, but it still freaks me out. Another store had someone throwing in the paper bought from the temple into the little burning container in front of his house or store, which resulted in a roaring fire, again, just about a foot or two in front of the door. The container looks like:

This particular one was just inside the front door of my apartment building. There is another one near the door on the roof of the apartment building. These containers are used very often - at least twice a month.

I did pass a couple of apartments where it was clear that there was a big gathering, but not so many - possibly due to the great exodus from Taipei, although I couldn't tell much other evidence of that. I'll see what the traffic looks like on Monday.

I returned soaking wet, due to the rain. Which reminds me, did you know that rain on your head can make you bald? Well, that is the theory, here. I don't know if it is a new idea, due to acid rain, or a long held belief, but I was reminded of it when I saw a man with a tiny square handkerchief covering his head on my run. I was thinking that that makes a poor umbrella, but then I remembered the warning I'd been given by others when I've gone hatless in the rain. . .

Keep dry, be safe (wear round jade things to be protected), and may you have a healthy and prosperous year of the dog!!!


Saturday, January 28, 2006

Happy Chinese New Year

Happy Chinese New Year! On the Gregorian calendar (no, it's not named after me in any way), the calendar which is used in the universal time codes for things like earthquake recordings, Chinese New Year's eve is January 28th, and Chinese New Year's Day is January 29th. This is definitely the holiday season, here. I can feel it. In fact, I've been feeling it all year round, since people have been talking about it since before I got here: "will you be there for Chinese New Year this time?" And then, for the last couple of months, the questions and planning and discussions have been going on pretty constantly, with the frequency getting higher as we neared this day. In the last couple of days, discussions of hongbao (red envelope that contains money) have really increased. The guys in the group that I call my "sons" started demanding hongbao (meaning money), and then I found another employee getting the hongbao ready for her and her husband's parents. I had them explain, and got a few more explanations from others, and came up with, in general, when you are a kid, you get hongbao from your parents and aunts and uncles, and then when you become an adult, it's payback time, with interest. . . You start giving it to your parents, especially if they are retired. Armed with this new information, I went back to my "sons" and started demanding hongbao from them! Of course, none of us were serious, but it sure helped to get some explanations about the finer points of who gives hongbao to whom. . .

Also, it seems that children get very demanding about this hongbao, which, to me, as a westerner, borders on downright rudeness, but doesn't appear to be taken in a rude way at all, here. I got a taste of this when I started saying "gong xi fa cai" to people, a phrase I'd learned more than 20 years ago from Jeannie, which means "congratulations, become rich" but is a common greeting that I had always thought simply meant "happy new year," since that's what everyone said to each other at this time. Anyway, now that I understand the translation, having the response be "hongbao na lai" something like saying "where is the red envelope?" makes a heck of a lot of sense. It's sort of like saying "I'm happy to have you contribute to my becoming rich", which no longer seems rude.

In Taiwan, you're supposed to go visit the parent's of the man's side of the family on New Year's eve and Day, and then on January 2nd (of the lunar calendar, so, January 30th on the Gregorian, this year), you're supposed to visit the parent's of the woman's side. This has a whole bunch of interesting ramifications. For example, this means that if you are Mom and Dad, you can expect to see all of your sons and their families on New Year's Day, and all of your daughters and their families on the 2nd, but you won't have ALL of your kids, together, during that time of year.

Since a big percentage of all of the people who live in Taipei are actually from somewhere else in Taiwan, and have only moved up here for their jobs, many families head down to their hometowns. No-where is *really* far in Taiwan, of course, but even a 5 hour ride is considered a fair distance for people like me, especially for just a couple of days. So, if you're a man and your family heads down to southern Taiwan to be with your side of the family, and your wife is from the north of Taiwan, this could present a problem, and, indeed, does, for many families, since this January 2nd at the wife's family is a very, very strong tradition (no matter if you spend most of the rest of the year near your wife's family! People can be very irrational when traditions are concerned. . .). For all of those folks who married someone from their hometown, they get to avoid this mess.

I've heard a few firecrackers, but not what I'd been expecting. I hope to stay up to midnight to see if anything special happens, then, but I'm suspecting not, since the new year celebrations seem much more about spending time being with the family. I seem to remember that this is supposed to be a 10 day festival, but that, in the new era, lots of people just take the week off, and certainly all of the companies give the week off. I met a couple of Americans flying to Taiwan for the holiday, so that they could do all of the maintenance to various equipment while everyone was on holiday. It was funny, since their perspective is always of a Taiwan in festival. . .

Speaking of Chinese New Year, and family. . . here is a picture of parents, my brother, and me, taken on my parent's 49th wedding anniverary, taken in Michigan, at my Brother's house (I didn't notice, but it's kind of cute that there is an anniversary clock in the background, above my head - how fitting). leora

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Weather, hikes

First, the weather - The lowest I've seen, here, has been about 9C (48F) on the SongShan Airport thermometer that shines out across the road from my place (I have to walk to the corner to actually see it, so I only see it when going to and from work). Invariably, it goes down to 9C and starts to rain for a week when I have visitors, and then the sun comes out and the temperature shoots up to about 27C (81F), when they leave. . .

On one of the Richard Saunders hikes, I lucked out because our fearless leader's roommate had a car, and joined us, and there were only 4 of us, so we went around to the far side of Yangmingshan Park, where the buses don't go, and we went up the 2nd highest mountain in the park (Juzhi Shan). This was particularly nice because, besides being a dirt path, we got to fight our way through a short bamboo jungle up the side of the mountain. The views out to the sea were spectacular. And I can gloat, because I was on a mountain that few of my native Taiwan friends and none of my employees have scaled. (I've since taken a few up!).

Two weeks before that, I went up the highest mountain (cising) in YangMingShan Park, which is about 1120 Meters (around 3675ft) high, which, while it was a concrete stair climb was still quite enjoyable because of the group I went up with. It is an incredibly popular hike because it's pretty easy to get to the trailhead, goes to the highest peak in the park, and is very short (only about 5km (3 miles) ROUND TRIP!). There was a slightly shorter peak that we went to on the way to our goal, and as we glanced over to our destination, we saw that there seemed to be a lot of people, there. Part-way there, we decided to break while we waited for a bunch of people to leave, and saw a big group of maybe 30 or so depart, so we thought we'd have it to ourselves. HA!!!! There were probably another 100 or so people up there!!!!!! It seems that there was a company outing, so a lot of folks and their families were up there having a big picnic lunch. We took a couple of pictures to prove we'd made it, took in the views (unfortunately hampered by the pollution, that day), and went back to the other peak and were greeted by one of our group members making tea for us!!! (He was willing to make coffee, but most of us wanted tea. . .) No roughing it, here!

Oh, and on the way to meet up with the crew to go to Cising mountain, I took the bus. On some buses, you have to pay when you get on, and on others, you have to pay when you get off. You have to pay attention to the Chinese characters that are lit above the bus driver's head when you get on to know when to pay. This particular one was pay as you leave. I'd had very little sleep the night before (had a meeting that I presented at until 2:30am in the morning), and I was busy staring at the Chinese characters on the screen of the bus, where it said what each stop was in advance in both Chinese and English. I guess that I was sort of daydreaming, because all of a sudden, I realized that it was my stop, so I leaped off of the bus. I heard the bus beep, and in my fog, I turned around, very slowly, I guess, as the bus was continuing on, but I realized that the driver was beeping at me, because I'd forgotten to pay! I'm a criminal in Taiwan. . .

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Do you know what the biggest news is here (specifically, in Detroit), right now?

(I wrote this for my Taiwan team, and then decided to send it out to others who may not be so familiar with Detroit, Michigan's biggest city, as well as other tid-bits).

The biggest news is. . . The SUPER BOWL!!!!! I'm not sure if you know that that is some football (American football, not soccer) game. It seems that it moves around, and it seems that this year, the Super Bowl (the football game over which some marriages end. . .) will be in Detroit. My parents told me that it's on the news every single night, and has been on the news for the last month. They can't wait until it's over, and it disappears from the news. . .

Today, it went all the way up to 3C (37F). My Dad was musing, yesterday, when the high temperature was around -4C (24F), that it was soooo warm. "Hard to believe that it's January because it's so warm. . ."

Famous things in Detroit: The MOTOR CITY!!!! Yes, folks, this is where it all began. This is where the first moving assembly line for cars, well, for anything, actually, was created. The Model T rolled off the line many years ago (in 1913), here, in Detroit! Henry Ford's contribution to history! Actually, he had another huge contribution to history: he realized that his workers could become potential customers of their own work, IF they earned enough money, so Ford paid them what was considered a lot of money in that era. From "" it says "Ford was called 'a traitor to his class' by other industrialists and professionals, but he held firm in believing that well-paid workers would put up with dull work, be loyal, and buy his cars." This set the stage for high wages for this type of work, in the US. We will see if it lasts through the globalization process.

This is also where all the "Motown" (for "Motor City") songs came from. "Standing in the Shadow of Love" "Whenever you are near, I hear a Symphony" "Heard it through the Grapevine" and soooo many more. . . (REAL, singable, music. . .)
Detroit is also famous, well, infamous, for some other things, like:
  • the 1967 race riots - I remember the tanks rolling down the streets - and we weren't allowed onto the streets after some hour in the evening
  • Murder Capital of the world (i.e., we had the greatest number of murders here for a number of years while I was growing up - had to be proud of something - Yeah! We're number one in murders!) I remember having 800 or 801 one year. Just think, this was the city that had the most killings, not the only killings. We're pretty darned good at killing our own. We don't even need a war! I noticed that Detroit is down to about #5, now, with fewer than 400 murders per year (a small number unless you happen to be one of the lucky fewer than 400 people. . .) But, then, the population has shrunk to less than 1,000,000, when the all-time high was around 1,850,000 in 1950. Let's see, 400 a year. . . Nope even over a period of 50 years, that's "only" 20,000. . .never mind. . .
Detroit also totally surrounds 2 other cities: Hamtramck and Highland Park, which I think is a neat thing. . .(I lived in Highland Park in my early formative years.)

And then, there is Romeo, where my parents really live - 32 miles north of Detroit. We know that, because the big roads are set 1 mile apart, and named in "mile" roads north of Detroit. Some "mile" roads also have other names (like Big Beaver is 16 Mile Road). My parents live just south of 32 Mile Road.

Romeo is famous for peaches!!! It has a Peach Festival every year, and there is a Peach Queen selected. There are parades, art shows, home tours, garden tours, rides, and more. However, most of the peach orchards (and, later, apple orchards) are now gone, most becoming subdivisions. This is very sad as there used to be such a fantastic variety in peaches, here, and ohhhh so yummy! (I know, Cedric would disagree, since he likes those hard, lightly flavored, crunchy things called "peaches" that we have in Taiwan. . .)

Anyway, I'm looking forward to celebrating my parent's 49th wedding anniversary this Friday. I went to one of my Mom's medical meetings, tonight, and the other couple at the table had been married for 53 years, and told us that their four children had bought them a luxury cruise down the Panama Canal. Geez. Did I HAVE to sit at THAT table? Did they HAVE to tell my parents about that? The pressure mounts - what will my brother and I do for our parent's 50th?

Monday, January 16, 2006

Bags and Mosquitoes

Soon after I arrived in Taipei, last year, I met up with another expat whom I'd contacted to find out about his experiences. When he greeted me in Taipei, he gave me a cloth bag filled with something that looked like a shortish-handled`badmitten racket. The bag, he said, was a reusable shopping bag, so that I wouldn't have to keep buying plastic bags at the stores. The "badmitten" racket, was for mosquitoes. . .

First, the bag. I don't know if Taiwan ever had the brown paper bags for placing grocery items, as is very prevalent in the US. When I went to Taiwan some 25 years ago, everywhere there were plastic bags. The concept hadn't moved to the US. I thought they were neat. They were neat, but soon, the government of Taiwan recognized that there was a real garbage problem, and mandated charges to customers for the plastic bags. All the stores had to comply, but the street vendors are exempt. I read, somewhere, that this helped the garbage problem a little, but I don't have hard facts. . . I reuse my bags, and try to avoid having any vendors give me plastic bags, but, in spite of that, my plastic bag collection is still growing.

Now, the mosquitoes. The expat assured me that there would be mosquitoes, and that the solution was this racket thing. It has a little button on the handle, and when pressed, makes the paddle part of the racket become an electrocution machine. . . Fortunately, I went through the whole summer and never saw a mosquito in my apartment. Then came winter. Something happened. First, it was just one in a week, but gradually, it progressed to multiple mosquitoes in a night, which is annoying because 1) I get itchy mosquito bites if they manage to get to me, 2) I'm not really keen on all of the neat little diseases that they like to spread, and 3), they're noisy and wake me up when I'm sleeping (assuming that the upstairs neighbors haven't already done that. . .). So, enter the mosquito racket - push the button and swat at the air, and be happy when the sparks start flying. It's like having one of those bug zappers that people hang out in their yards in the US, except that there's no cage around it, so don't test it out with your fingers, as seems the natural inclination of all of us who are curious about it. . . ZAP!

FYI, I just made it to Michigan for the week of home leave that I get for this assignment that I'm on. I'll be back in Taiwan well before the January 29th Chinese New Year, and am looking forward to an empty Taipei as everyone promises me that folks head out to the home towns in the south of Taiwan for the week's holiday.