Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Happy Chinese New Year (another e-mail)

E-mail from Feb. 7th:

Back to my cold desk in Korea after the most lovely short trip to Taiwan. I apologize in advance for any typing errors; currently my office is so cold I can barely type. Even though it has warmed up marginally in Korea, somehow my classroom seems to be colder than it is outside, if that is actually possible. But for those of you who think this is reason to return to the Midwest I can still say with some confidence that even though Korea is having the coldest winter in at least 30 years the average temperature has been warmer than MI or IN. Sorry!

The best way to sum up Taiwan is to describe my morning runs while I was there. Currently, there are six weeks to go until the Seoul marathon so I have been ignoring my strong desire to curl up with a blanket in my apartment and have instead been dragging myself outside to run ridiculous distances in sub-zero Celsius temperatures. Not so in Taiwan! For three glorious days I woke at bright and early hours (especially for vacation) to run along the beach in truly perfect weather! J If I didn’t have some vague sense of concern about what people think of me I would have sang out loud during every run just out of pure joy! The Taiwanese people are incredibly friendly so their cheery “good mornings” as they tried to practice their English made my runs even more enjoyable.

My expectations of Taiwan were simply a warmer version of Korea. I heard stories that the culture (Chinese in origin) was very similar to Korean culture so I was intrigued to: 1. Learn more about Chinese New Year (or Lunar New Year as they call it in Korea) and 2. Compare Taiwanese/Chinese culture to Korean. Tuesday night I flew into Taipei and spent the night with the most lovely, friendly Taiwanese couch surfing host (if you don’t know what couch surfing is please check out the website—it is the most amazing invention that connects open-minded friendly travelers. I think couch surfing could perhaps prevent many cultural misunderstandings and potential world wars if more people would do it). My host “Sarah” and I had the best chat until 2 am (even though I had to be up early to catch a train south). We discussed differences and similarities between Korean and Chinese culture. Unfortunately, the Taiwanese have many slightly negative ideas of Korea (that are in fact mostly true). My host asked me if it is true that many Koreans “change their face”. I was on the one hand relieved to hear that I am not the only person in the world who finds Korean plastic surgery strange and disheartening, but I was also saddened that Koreans seem to have made a somewhat bad name for themselves in other places in the world. While I would have loved to stay longer with Sarah, especially after her family (through translation) INSISTED that I must stay with them for Chinese New Year dinner I had to meet some friends from Korea the next morning to catch a train to southern Taiwan. I was touched by their hospitality and disappointed I didn’t have more time.

Wednesday and Thursday I spent in Kenting, Taiwan, a beautiful and somewhat rural area of in the southern most part of Taiwan. I wasn’t able to find couch surfing hosts for Kenting and also my friends weren’t too keen on the idea of staying with complete strangers, so I stayed in a simple but friendly hostel instead. While we didn’t do much since transportation was difficult around Kenting, I was content to just be near the beach, and run in beautiful weather. Our hostel owner was so sweet and made us a traditional dinner for Chinese New Year eve and a delightful breakfast in the morning. Thursday afternoon after a sweet hug goodbye from the hostel owner we hopped back on a bus to Kaohsiung—the second largest city in Taiwan also in the south and by the sea.

Like the rest of Taiwan, Kaohsiung once again blew away my expectations. It is a large city but with a relaxed more slow paced vibe. There was tons to do so I spent my full day there walking ALL over, enjoying the weather. Again my hostel owner was so friendly, helpful and kind. The hostel I stayed at was small and simple but the hospitality of the owner made up for any lacking amenities. The stories I heard of Taiwanese hospitality and friendliness are 100% true! For the two mornings I had in Kaohsiung I woke up early to sunny blue skies and ran up the mountain near my hostel and along the ocean near a university. Training for a marathon in that kind of scenery and weather is pure joy! I actually looked forward to my runs instead of dreading them.

My last full day in Taiwan I spent in Taipei with a different couch surfing host! I met her at her apartment and was greeted with a full spread of Taiwanese cuisine prepared by her mother. I am not one to turn down any food and I’m always up for trying new things so I did sample some soup with pig brain, fish skin, and pig stomach. Not my favorite food but the rest was delicious! Lynn, my host, spent the rest of the day showing me around Taipei, we visited the 101 building which used to be the tallest building in the world, explored temples, sampled street food, climbed a mountain to see views of the city, and finished up the day with a stroll through one of Taipei’s many night markets. By the end of the day I had tried a wide variety of new and interesting foods: dumplings, fish balls, sticky rice dipped in pig’s blood, stinky tofu (it is in fact named stinky tofu for a reason), a rice tortilla with shaved peanuts and ice cream, the most amazing bubble tea I’ve had in my life, oyster omelets, strawberries dipped in some kind of syrup, and almond milk. Street food is the best invention ever! Fast, convenient, and best of all CHEAP!!!!! I think in total I spent $4 on all these foods!

It was sad to say goodbye to Lynn and her sweet family and the country of Taiwan in general. I could write so much more about all I learned about the history of Taiwan and their connection with China, Taiwanese versus Korean culture. I am still determined to further understand the reason for some of the things I find so frustrating in Korean culture. I’ve been searching out books on the subject and I will continue to report my findings. In the meantime in just three short weeks I’m off to spend a long weekend in Kyoto, Japan, visiting a good friend, and exploring more of Asia.

Miss you all and hope those of you in the Midwest are not too deeply buried in all that snow!

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