Monday, August 18, 2008

sweet potato times, issue 2

Not Soap. Sopp.

The Sweet Potato Times: Welcome back friends and family for the second installment of The Sweet Potato Times. To answer the most pressing question of the past month: expect The Sweet Potato Times to grace your mailboxes around the fifteenth of every month. Without a camera at this time, I’ve consulted the internet for various shots. And as I’ve actually been teaching this month, I’m sad to say that there hasn’t been too much adventure. Instead, look on the people-centric nature of this issue to see that the true adventure is the adventure of the heart... which is in us all. Or just wait until next month.

There are also some new features this month: “Spotlight on Taiwan” and “NI Hao!”. As the Sweet Potato Times is meant to encapsulate the Taiwan experience, the island is always best seen through fresh eyes. To this end, the “Spotlight on Taiwan” section will feature a new author each month, writing on a myriad of subjects ranging from geo-political relations, to dog fashion, to the pros and cons of stinky tofu. This week, I’m proud to welcome Megan Klein and her insights on the Taiwanese cultural fascination with English and the inherent failure which lies there-in.

Our next new section is entitled “NI Hao!,” or “hello!” in Chinese. Mandarin is the language spoken most frequently here, Taiwanese and Japanese having slowly been left to the older generation. While there is a complex series of stresses which indicate intonation, and therefore meaning, of Chinese words, it is more likely that I will abandon any attempt to express those stresses with advanced characters and simply CAPitalIZE the stressed parts of the words, not unlike the 1950’s edition of So you’re going to China? phrase-book which I picked up in a used book-store bathroom in D.C.. This was the same book, same edition, that Nixon used to travel here. Phrases such as “Get my wife,” and “I would like an American cigar,” have proven invaluable. Let’s learn together.
And, before we go any further, I must own up to the catalyst for this new language-centric section: that I’ve been ousted by some of my more fluent friends here. Taiwan does not, in fact, mean “Sweet Potato.”

My exhaustive research (read: Google) has failed to come up with the true translation of Taiwan, or even an intended meaning. The Portuguese called the island “Formosa,” or “beautiful island,” in 1517. Apparently Taiwanese people are sometimes called “Sweet Potato children,” according to an inside source at the dorm, the original tree of the rotted fruit of the title of our beloved publication. Let us none-the-less embrace the “Sweet Potato” moniker. I mean, come on:
They are the same.

The Palace: Farewell Erin, Welcome Dorm Storm Before we go any further, it is close approaching the time to bid farewell to friend, roommate, and colleague Erin Kilburn. She must return to spread the word of Asia and finish one more year at Kalamazoo College. Despite the violent implications of her last name, “kill-burn,” Erin has been neither killing nor burning, instead, a constant source of childhood hi-jinx, a sardonic jive-turkey, and, simultaneously, a wise and weathered sage. I must thank her for her guidance on my trip into Taipei, for without her I would still be wandering around eighteen different forms of Jungshan road. Her cooking of family dinners has filled my heart and soul with nutritious chicken and pineapple. She fashions a fine oatmeal cookie and cleans a mean maggot-covered organic trash bin. For these and all the intangibles, I will miss her dearly, but I find comfort in knowing she’ll be partying heavily in the glory of America, Washington, D.C., and the glory of the Mid-West, Michigan. The other big news in the house this month was the presence of a fierce and tremendous foe, Saber Tooth the Kitten. On loan from Big-Man Brian during his sojourn in Japan, we branded him Saber Tooth for his penchant for biting feet as they come down the stairs, sending his naive concerned-about-crushing-a-kitten human foes tumbling down the stairs. While his whiney roar was a bit of a stretch from the deep-throated chortle of a full-sided ancient saber tooth tiger, our beloved Saber Tooth never-the-less made up for this short-coming by picking apart wood chips from every corner of our apartment and dumping the maggot-covered organic trash into his litter box. Obviously, he will be sorely missed as well.

I’d also like to announce that I’ve solved The Mystery of Unnecessary Wildlife. Perhaps you will remember that my all-glassed-in room, affectionately called “The Aquarium,” has a plethora of windows. These windows have roughly three panes and a complex system of sliding screens and latches. Now you can imagine my incredulity when eight cock-roaches, a thousand mosquitoes, and a hand-sized wasp were present in my room each morning. Finally, in anger at battling my last wasp, I decided that it was time to tape. After covering every crevice, nook, and cranny in my room with a bit of packing tape, I looked at the windows a bit closer. There is an inch of opening on each side of my windows. This was obvious when I moved in, but, in my naivety, I assumed that shutting the left side of this window, then shutting the right side, would keep out nature at bay. Foolish men who slide their windows in vain! The windows were connected! Suffice to say that I had been shutting the left side and opening the ride side, and vice-versa, back and forth, every night for two months. Plungers, roach-traps, and shoe-slamming are nothing without a bit of common-sense.

And as two doors close and two windows are taped up, so must three doors open and new people walk in through those doors. I’m pleased to announce the arrival of new roommates: Beth M., Allen, and Natalie. Dormitory expatriates, these champions now hope to experience the joys of afternoon swimming, trips to the water repository and private bathrooms. Their promised delivery of an IKEA wok and Allen’s penchant for Nintendo Wii have endeared them to the house immediately. I believe a long and prosperous journey is ahead for this motley crew of five.

WHAT’S BEEN HAPPENING... THE SITES AND SOUNDS If ever there was a unifying force between nations, it would have to be Bowling Alley culture. Our late-night trip to the bowling alley was marked most by its patrons’ surprising similarity to American bowlers: slightly over-weight, chain smoking groups of league bowlers, hipster teens, and awkward couples. I felt a bit of déjà vu from my championship days of bumper bowling. I was jarred from this quite quickly at the presence of gourmet ramen noodles at every table. The scent of noodles has been burnt into my conscience.

So as I teach different levels of students here, my most advanced classes tend to be late middle-school and high school students. According to these students, if you ask anyone in Taiwan what their favorite place to visit is, you will inevitably be told some Night Market. Night Markets are big in most sizable cities here, and consist of streets and streets of food vendors, black markets, white markets, shrimp fishing, Japanese pinball, stinky tofu, and scooters swerving in and out of a thousand people. My first trip was marked with a rather slimy Dan Bing, a somewhat delicious egg dish, if made correctly. The deep-fried octopus balls of unknown consistency did not add to my enjoyment. All of these were saved by the delicious, and somewhat mysterious, turkey sandwich vendor. Night market: Success.

This weekend also opened my eyes to the wonders of Jhong Li, a little pub town about twenty minutes away next to a rather large university. Coming from the illustrious University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, some may know of my love for pub scene activities: darts, obnoxious singing, poor dance moves, and the occasional cocktail. Taoyuan is a fine place to live, but a poor place to enjoy these things. Anyone who has stepped foot in a college party in the last five years has known the blissful joy of off-key singing to Journey’s classic “Don’t Stop Believin’.” And you must now, too, know the pain of no longer believing. From failing to hear the song. Well, if one can’t have the music, one must live in its inspired mindset: clubs are open until four A.M. here in Taiwan and my experience at Jhong Li’s Search night-club has made me believe again. After a handful of Heineken, an argument about elevators which escalated into a diplomatic crisis, an in-depth analysis of the origins of the moniker “kiwi,” with a kiwi, and numerous compliments on growing so tall, I slipped into my apartment at 6am to catch the morning and share the depths of humanity with those unfortunate few who happened to be on Facebook. I believe.

But life is pretty simple here to be honest. I’d be remiss if I did not mentioning one of my first big adventures here in Taiwan, the simpler pleasures of scenery: my trip up Tiger Head Mountain. A five-minute scooter ride down Dayou road and up winding trails brings one to an breath-taking vista over-looking all of Taoyuan.
(view from tiger head mountain)
Many of my students claimed this spot was great hiking, though they also claimed that there was a dinosaur on the mountain. They tend to make these sorts of claims. I travelled at night with friend and Canadian Ashley -- now departed -- bought mouth-watering food from local vendors who set-up shop there each night, and sat taking in the city. We watched the remaining light trace off the city while I fed two hungry dogs the remnants of my squid and sausage, which wouldn’t agreeing with man or mutt. While there was no dinosaur, but it was a trip I’ll never forget.

NI HAO!: LET’S COUNT TO TEN! To start off what I consider the most painful section to write, I think it’s best if we learn our numbers to ten. It’s interesting that students, when they count on their fingers here up to ten, have different gestures after five than those in use in America. Some of these symbols are somewhat intuitive: the seven is formed by a downward pointing of the index finger and sticking out ones thumb, which looks just like the English symbol for seven. Ten is formed by crossing the index fingers like a cross: evidently a symbol from the Chinese sign for ten. While there are a number of different systems for the phonetic and alphabetic spelling of Chinese words, Pinyin is the most accessible and most widely disseminated. The meaning of Chinese words depends on the stress or emphasis which you place on certain parts of the word. Pinyin has complicated symbols on top to describe these tones. I will be placing a (number) in parenthesis to explain the tone. Tones are hard for us but they are important: the word for the numbers four and ten is basically the same, but one falls and one rises in intonation to give separate meanings.
Wikipedia will help us: Relative pitch changes of the four tones
1. First tone, or high-level tone (陰平/阴平 yīnpíng, literal meaning: yin-level): a steady high sound, as if it were being sung instead of spoken.
2. Second tone, or rising tone (陽平/阳平 yángpíng, literal meaning: yang-level), or linguistically, high-rising: is a sound that rises from mid-level tone to high (e.g., What?!)
3. Third tone (low or dipping tone, 上聲/上声 shǎngshēng or shàngshēng, literal meaning: "up tone"): has a mid-low to low descent; if at the end of a sentence or before a pause, it is then followed by a rising pitch.

Between other tones it may simply be low.
4. Fourth tone, falling tone (去聲/去声 qùshēng, literal meaning: "away tone"), or high-falling: features a sharp fall from high to low, and is a shorter tone, similar to curt commands. (e.g., Stop!)
Let’s Count!
Number Pinyin Sounds Like 0 ling(2) Ling 1 Yi(1) E 2 Er(4) R 3 San(1) San 4 Si(4) Suh 5 wu(3) Wooo-uh 6 liu(4) Lee-O 7 qi (1) Tschi 8 ba(1) Bah 9 jio(3) G-O 10 Shi(2) Suh Chinese Symbols
Taken from:

By: Megan Klein
As a native English speaker, Engrish/Chinglish is the most hilarious aspect of living in Taiwan. Constantly seeing people walk down the street with things like 'I used to be fed but now I car see' and 'if you want to keep succeeding, you should not reaax your vilace' printed on their shirts is an endless source of enjoyment. I've chased people for blocks just to get a better look. There are two kinds of Engrish: Words that more or less make sense together but are misspelled or somehow taken out of context, and things that aren't words but really just a combination of random letters. The majority of the humor comes from the obvious lack of understanding of whoever made the shirt/named the store/wrote the billboard/translated the signs. One of my favorite examples is a shirt with a skull and cross bones on it and the word 'banana' written underneath.

Store names are funny as well but it's sad that the owner is permanently stuck with the error. My favorites in downtown Taoyuan: for gorgeous hunks, comebuy, familymart, cash city (restaurant), muggle restaurant, elegent chairs, beauty lady. You would think that major venues like airports and international stores would be immune, but they aren't. 'Caramel' is misspelled on the Starbucks menu, and even McDonalds had mistakes on their English menu. I offered to translate the spa menu for the spa I’ve been going to, and the owner seemed offended because she speaks some English herself, which must mean that the people writing the Engrish think the job they do is perfectly fine. And maybe they're right. When the majority of people in the country don't speak English, why should they care if the translated name of their company makes no sense? But I still want to walk around with a giant red marker and correct it.

Megan Klein is a proudly native Texan with an adoring family and a winning smile. She has been in Taiwan roughly two months and studying English absurdities her entire adult life. This is her first appearance as a contributor for the Sweet Potato Times. Send her some well-constructed, well-spelled words of encouragement at

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS Q: The Olympics are on. I didn’t see you at the Olympics. Does Taiwan compete? I mean... compete? A: While the Gordinier family has never been one for keeping up on sports, I’ve caught a bit of the action on public televisions. From what I can gather, Taiwan is well-placed in the badminton, ping-pong, archery, and pool divisions. Of course I gather this knowledge just from turning on the television and observing children in the street and may perhaps be figmentary and/or racist. I’m hoping that pool is actually an event of the Olympics. Q: Can you drink the water? A: While the locals drink the water, it’s best to buy big gallon jugs. We have a convenient water-refill station across the street which you can buy about a jug and a half for ten NT, or 33cents US. The best part of this is, in true Asia style, the over-blown and unnecessary but truly charming melodies which play while the water refills. Everything from childhood memories to simple pop songs to 8-bit Nintendo game songs pipe out of the man-height machine below the dance studio on Dayou. Alex is convinced that he heard the old theme-song to the not-oft-played L’Emperor.

Q: Can I write a “Spotlight on Taiwan”? A: Of course! The only requirement is that you be in Taiwan. I know this eliminates a number of you, but perhaps this is more motivation to take a quick trip over to Asian shores. There are a number of topics to be written on that I’ve come up with over the past couple of weeks, but I’d love to entertain everyone’s own vision for this newsletter. Suggestions are always welcome as it should be with everything one does in life.

Q: Aren’t you working? A: Yes, teaching has been coming along at a steady pace. I’ve been reluctant to jump in on any serious discussions on work as I have to continue doing it everyday. It’s often as an after-thought that I have to teach, sometimes to my own detriment but rarely to the students. It’s more often that it’s an after-thought that I would get paid, which means I might be doing something right in this decision to be here in Taiwan. I plan on giving you a full run-down when I can acquire a camera and get some pictures of my wonderful, adoring fans/students. Until then, just imagine me as a young Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society.

A FINAL THOUGHT I hope you will continue to swift through that e-mail drudgery for the sweetness of The Sweet Potato. for The Sweet Potato Times in your e-mail drudgery. Look forward to spotlight on Dogs next issue. I’ll leave you with this, a hint of things to come.

Best, Gerald A. Gordinier

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