Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Taiwanese Funeral

Well, to be honest, I myself thought that this blog had come to its end with my previous post, but I've decided to include one final chapter.  This is because last week, I witnessed a part of Taiwanese culture I hadn't seen before, and one that really blew my mind...  that is, the Taiwanese funeral.

A few weeks ago, my host father's mother died.  She was 94 years old, and although I had never met her (she lived in another city from the one I live in in Taiwan), it was still tough to see my host family go through the hard time.

Last Friday, my host family took me to the city of Tainan for her funeral, which took place in the house she lived in... in fact it wasn't really in the city of Tainan, but more on the outskirts of town, in a more rural setting.  My family explained to me how this funeral was a very traditional ceremony, unique to the area, and that in Taipei it would be something different, and even in the nearby city of Kaohsiung, it would probably differ as well.

The ceremony began in the backyard of the one story house, underneath some trees and an awning that had been set up.  Under the awning, there was a table, with a lot of flowers on it, as well as three white statues of buddhas, sitting in lotus position.  As I looked on, five or six women got down on their forearms and knees, while wearing cloths over their heads, and began crawling towards the table very, very slowly.  The woman in front held a microphone, and as the women slowly made their progress across the concrete, she half sang, half wailed into the mike.  I should add that the entire ceremony was conducted in Taiwanese, not Chinese.  In Taiwan, when older people speak with each other, they almost exclusively use Taiwanese, especially in the southern parts of the island.  Anyway, the women continued moving slowly to the table, and finally, after around half an hour, reached their destination, about 20 feet from the place they began.  I believe that the casket containing the body of the deceased was behind the table, but I'm not actually sure.

This was the first part of the funeral.  For the second part, we moved out onto the street (interestingly, wedding  celebrations also take place in the street in rural Taiwan), and under a tent that had been set up, where we sat down.  At one end of the tent, there was another table with flowers, a picture of my host father's mom, and another, larger white buddha statue.  Everyone sat down, with the family of the deceased closest to the table, wearing some kind of traditional clothes over their normal everyday clothes.  Then a man began to speak Taiwanese (sadly, I still don't understand Taiwanese, still just trying to focus on Chinese...) and he began to introduce groups of people that would come up to the table to pay their respects.  It pretty much went down like this:  the man would announce a group, they would come up, and one person from the group would take a stick of incense from the man, hold it between their two hands, bow toward the table three times, and give it back to the man.  Each group was a sort of representation, perhaps from families, or companies... there was a group from my rotary club present.  After each group paid their respects, the funeral was over.  I was very glad to have this experience before I left Taiwan.

Now that I've written this post, I may as well inform you on some things that have been going on. in the past months that I haven't blogged about.  In May, I had two big trips.  The first one was a school organized trip to Korea.  Going to another country in Asia was a great experience.  New food, new language, new everything, it was really special.  Sadly, I was not able to meet up with my fellow exchange student Calina, but alas, it simply wasn't meant to be.

I also had a rotary organized trip around the island of Taiwan.  It was extremely fun, because all of the other exchange students were there, and it was pretty much a great bonding experience.  Some highlights were going to the top of Taipei 101 building, visiting the famous national palace museum, seeing Taroko Gorge, and having lots of fun on long bus rides.

Well, this will most likely be the last installment of "A Year in Taiwan", thanks all for reading along with me through the year!  It has been a really great exchange, full of marvelous food, places, music, experiences, and most importantly of all, people.  I have no idea how to describe it...  I can already hear people back home asking me "how was your year?", and I think I'm going to have a hard time succinctly summing it up...  but then again, that's the way it ought to be!

Thanks again for reading,

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Trip to Taidong

A couple of weekends ago all the exchange students in my district (around 44 of us) took a trip to Taidong, along with another district from Taipei.  The main purpose of the trip was to see something called Za Han Dan, a very unique festival where one man is hoisted onto a small platform and paraded around in a circle while he has firecrackers thrown at him for a few minutes.  It was one of the craziest things I have ever seen in my life.  I took some video, you can check it out.

It was really quite a strange experience to throw firecrackers at someone, intentionally trying to hit them.  Of course the person you're throwing them at has volunteered to do this, but it still feels very odd!  In our trip I stayed with a Mexican exchange student in a host family in Taidong for three nights.  It was a very different feeling from any other host family I've been in, as it was really rural.  The house was very open, which is more traditional in Taiwan, and had a large garden, and chickens which woke me up very very very early... I didn't love this aspect of the stay.  However the host family was incredibly kind, and it was in general a very good stay.

Another fun part of the trip was a quick stop at a hot spring.  Hot springs in Taiwan are really famous and nice.  This one featured a sauna as well, which was great.  There was also a place where you could cook eggs and corn in the hot spring water.  We didn't actually do this, because we couldnt find the place to cook the eggs, but oh well maybe next time.  Another place we visited was the famous "water flowing up" landmark, where it appears that a small stream is going up a hill.  However, the mystery was ruined when they told us that it was just an optical illusion and that the water was just flowing down the whole way.  So disappointing.  Otherwise it was a wonderful trip and I got to meet a bunch of awesome exchangers from Taipei.  I met my first exchange students from Australia and South Africa.  Both seemed nice, but I didnt talk with the Australian so much actually.  They both had dark green rotary blazers, which I had not seen before actually.  I also met a bunch of new Germans, and I have come to the conclusion that in general Germans have the best english of exchange students from non-english speaking countries.  Many of them could also speak French which was pretty cool.  One of the highlights of the trip was a soccer game we played with almost two full teams.  It was pretty interesting to play soccer with people from USA, Mexico, Brasil, Ecuador, Hungary, Russia, France, Germany, Denmark and more... quite an enjoyable experience, especially after not playing for such a long time.

Something else new:  I have begun going to a sort of ping pong club near my house with my host mom, about once a week.  It is really a load of fun, but everyone there is REALLY good.  Most are middle aged to elderly, and are all better than me.  It's amazing to watch some of them.  The other day I took some video of them playing, so maybe I can include it in another post sometime.  Until then, bye!

Monday, March 4, 2013

On Cities and My Second Host Family

I feel I have fallen very behind on my blogging, and I apologize!  I shall try to keep up with it better.

Over a month ago, I changed to my second host family, after living with my first for nearly five months.  By now I am feeling good with my new family, but it was a bit more difficult than I expected.  I really got used to the level of comfort I had with my first host family, and it's hard to build up that kind of relationship all over again with a new group of people... but that's not to say I don't like them!  I am quite fond of my new family.  I have one host brother, Harry, he is 16 years old and goes to the same school as me.  The whole family really enjoys sports, especially tennis, both playing and watching, so their TV is often tuned to sports channels.  They eat mostly at home, which is a change from my last family who liked to dine out.  The food is really great, and I hope to learn to cook some simple dishes by the end of my stay. 

Now I'd like to talk a little about cities...  about a month ago, I was on the way to one of my Rotary club meetings with my Brazilian friend Joao.  The meetings are on the ninth floor of a department store, in a traditional Taiwanese restaurant.  We were in my third host dad's car, descending through several levels of parking levels for the store, when Joao said something about how incredibly difficult it would be to design and construct a multilevel parking lot like the one we were in...  where would you start?  Just thinking about it is intimidating, and to take on such a project must be overwhelming.  And this is just for one shopping mall, in a single city, in the small nation of Taiwan...  It made me think of all the metropolises (metropoli?) around the world, each one like a living organism, kept alive, and not only alive but perpetually growing and developing, by the cooperation of hundreds of thousands of people.

Something I have found amazing about the  city of Kaohsiung is its transportation.  In particular its bus system.  There are dozens of lines all around the city, many of them intersecting with each other.  However, each bus has to have its own distinct schedule from the other buses that intersect with its line, to avoid congestion.  And at every stop there is a schedule posted for the various buses that will stop there.  The bus drivers must adhere to this schedule no matter how  many people happen to be riding on a given day (although I'll admit the buses are often late, and sometimes arrive to early at the stop, which is infuriating).  Furthermore, the buses that accomodate areas with more use must have more frequent arrivals.  It's amazing and wonderful that people took the time to sort all of this out, just so that we can have a decent bus system to get around!  (Am I sounding crazy?  I don't know why, this stuff just fascinates me...)

The garbage truck in Taiwan is another interesting thing.  It sounds like an ice cream truck (when I first heard it I thought it was one), and when you hear it on your street, you take your full garbage bags, if you have them, and walk out to the street and toss them in the back of the truck where they are compacted.  Everyday it will arrive at your street at the same times, twice a day, except on Sundays.

Another amazing thing about Kaohsiung are the thousands of street vendors that all are seemingly thriving, despite the fact that there are so many of them.  It seems impossible to walk down the street for 2 minutes without seeing some kind of stall or stand, selling fried chicken, tea, noodles, dumplings, or tofu.  You'd think that so much competition would make it impossible for so many vendors to survive, but somehow they seem to thrive...  I think I'll pin it on the Taiwanese's love of all things delicious and cheap.  I'm not sure where this blog post is going, so I think I'll just wrap it up here... basically, I'm just trying to say, cities are really awesome!

In my next post I think I'll talk about my recent trip to Taidong, which included the craziest festival I have ever seen or heard of.  While in Taidong I also got the chance to meet my Taipei counterpart, Connor Rohwer...  it was nice to talk to a fellow Northfielder who had also experienced the crazy wonderfulness of Taiwan.

Until next time, byebye

Sunday, January 13, 2013


I made a video of some things I've seen in Taiwan!  The video quality is pretty poor in some parts, sorry!  I hope you enjoy it.

Christmas and Some Happenings at School

Recently my school held their annual school birthday celebration.  We don't usually celebrate this in the US, so I didn't know what to expect.  I knew that it would probably involve me dancing, and what do you know, it did.  On maybe the second day of the festivities, there was a parade in which each class had to make some performance.  Because I am an exchange student, my class decided to highlight me in the dance, which we performed in front of the whole school...  It was actually really fun and a bit exhilarating, and I was glad to be able to do something I would most likely never do in the US.  While on this exchange year, I feel I have accepted the idea that I can be a little crazier than at home and not fear judgment so much.  Being an exchange student, I feel as if I have some sort of license to act differently or not follow the crowd so much, which has been liberating.  Anyway, the parade was fun, and certainly something different from school in the US.  Everyone (and I mean everyone) in the high school participates in the dancing. Trying to imagine this happening in Northfield High is really strange.  While NHS students love their school, I'm 99% sure I would not see the enthusiasm and gusto of my Taiwanese schoolmates duplicated in their actions if they were asked to perform for the school.  Here in Taiwan, it seems as though very few students have the "I'm too cool/mature/embarrassed to do this" kind of attitude.  It's refreshing.

Besides the parade, various races and competitions were held, including a tug-of-war competition, which my class won.  I also got to participate in 100 meter dash, as well as a couple of relay races, which were quite exciting.  Apart from the physical competition, we also had a day when each class set up a tent on the basketball courts and sold various foodstuffs.  My class sold chicken wings, cream puffs, sausage, and "croissants".  Quite delicious.  I spent much of the time walking around and hawking cream puffs, and promising photographs if people agreed to buy them (people love to be photographed with foreigners here).  There was also an english singing competition for the whole school, and my class sang the wonderful song "Good Time" by Owl City and Carly Rae Jepsen.  I was sure to let them know that Owl City was a fellow Minnesotan.  My school emphasizes learning English a lot, which is why we have this competition.

Anyway, soon after these celebrations came Christmas, which is really not a huge deal here.  We had school on Christmas day.  It was kind of strange to ride the bus and walk into school on Christmas day, but to be honest, not as much as I had expected.  It was as though my brain had just forgotten that it was Christmas at all, and it was just another day of the year.  I think this was partly due to the warm weather.  Some of my classmates did exchange small cards, and everyone wished me a merry Christmas.  Oh, and in history we watched a computer animated short film detailing the nativity story, including heavily over-animated movements from the characters (Joseph was very mad about those taxes...).    That night the exchange students had arranged a gift exchange to be held in our most frequented hang-out, Kaohsiung's Central Park.  To be honest, I didn't get much of the forewarned Christmas-time homesickness, but I know some of the others were feeling it, so it was good to have some recognition of the holiday.  I received a pair of sunglasses from my Ecuadorian friend Paulo, a really nice guy.  However, they sadly broke that same night as I was trying them out, and I had to furiously stuff them in my bag to make sure Paulo didn't see that I had broken his gift...  it could have gotten very awkward, but I'm pretty sure he didn't see that I had broken them.  Crisis avoided.

After arriving home, I exchanged some gifts with my host family.  It was a very nice celebration. I have built a very good relationship with my first host family, and feel we have a comfortable rapport.  I am so thankful to them for all they have done for me in the past five months.  However, I will change families next Saturday, the 19th!  I am excited to see something new, and also a bit nervous.  You will probably hear about it in my next post.  Until then, bye-bye.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Trip to Various Parts of the Island

I have decided to finally begin the intimidating task of giving a summary of my 9 day trip to various parts of Taiwan with my host parents.  There is quite a lot to tell, and some nice pictures, so this is going to be a pretty long post I think.

We first visited the city of Taichung, where my much of my host father's family lives.  After visiting his mother and sister, my host mother and I went to Taichung's museum of Natural History.  We were going specifically to see an exhibit about the making of the movie "Life of Pi", which is by the great Taiwanese directer Ang Lee, and was partly shot in Taiwan.  That particular exhibit turned out to be a bit disappointing, but other parts of the museum were absolutely fantastic.  The most informative part was the museums permanent exhibit on the Taiwanese aboriginal people, and it was also one of the only parts of the museum with an english translation, so I learned quite a bit.  The other very cool part was an exhibit on ancient Chinese technology.  Its highlight was a so-called equatorial torquetum.  I have no idea what that is but it looked amazing, here is a picture.

After one night in Taichung, we began to drive east into the middle of the island, towards Taiwans mountain ranges.  We drove for quite a while, into the night, so by the time we arrived at our hotel it was too dark to see any scenery at all.  We ate a very good meal at a nearby restaurant , then returned to our hotel for the night...  I had no idea where we had been staying the night, so when I awoke and walked out of the room to head to breakfast, I was very surprised at the view I got...

We had arrived in Cingjing farm area, in a place known as Taiwan's "Little Switzerland".  I hadn't noticed my surroundings the night before, but when I awoke and walked out of the room onto a nearby deck outside, I was truly shocked by the view.  Not only was it incredibly beautiful, but also completely unexpected.  That day, we explored more mountains inside one of Taiwan's eight national parks, Shei-Pa.  It had many beautiful peaks, most of them quite high, as you can see from the following photos.

After driving out of Shei-Pa National Park, we arrived for the night in the small town of Lishan, famous for its fruit, and especially its large pears.  We tried some of the fruit that night, quite delicious.  The next morning we awoke and visited a famous hotel in Lishan.  It is one of three hotels in Kaohsiung which has the architecture of a traditional Chinese Palace.  The other two are in Kaohsiung and Taipei.

I think it was this day that we also visitied the Sacred Pilu Tree, although it is hard to keep track of when we saw what.  My host father is an extraordinarily thorough tourist, so we usually got out of the car to see anything that looked to be of historical/cultural/geographical/culinary/natural interest.  It was a bit tiring, but we didn't miss much!  Anyway, the Sacred Pilu Tree was essentially just a tall tree, but it is also estimated to be 3000 years old...  one way to put that into perspective, when Jesus was alive, it was already 1000 years old.  Pretty mind-blowing.

Anyway, we took leave of the Sacred Tree and headed for Taroko National Park, Taiwan's top tourist destination outside of Taipei.  It gets its fame for good reason.  It's an extremely beautiful park, with an incredible gorge as its main attraction.  The gorge is truly a wonderful sight, with sheer cliffs on both sides, composed predominantly of marble.  The best stretch of the gorge is the Tunnel of Nine Turns, where it is very deep, and the oversized cliffs block out the majority of the sky.  However, this portion of the gorge was also packed with tourists, mostly from China.  Although it is a top tourist destination, I saw very few western tourists.  The majority were Chinese.  I also met some Singaporeans, Indonesians, and Malaysians on the trip, all were very interesting to talk to (most of them spoke english quite well).

After staying a couple of nights in Taroko, we moved on to the east coast.  It was much more striking than the west coast I am used to (which is very flat), because the east coast is basically just sheer cliff.  It made for some amazing scenery.  The water was also very interesting to look at, due to its multi-colored nature.  This part of the coast is often used for car commercials, and for good reason I think.

We continued to drive down the coast, and the landscape began to flatten out as we moved south.  After a few hours, we unexpectedly saw a sign for the Tropic of Cancer Landmark.  After some miles, we arrived at the landmarker.  Being a nerd, this excited me greatly, so many pictures were taken.

Soon after, we were in Kenting, the southernmost part of the island, and then back on the west coast, driving North, and then back in Kaohsiung.  It was an amazing trip and I'm so grateful to my family, Rotary, and of course my incredible host parents for taking me with them.  I have seen so much of this amazing island now, and I look forward to seeing more in the coming months.

Until next time, 再見

Monday, November 12, 2012

Birthday Party and Trip to Tainan

In this post you will hear about two major events that have happened in the last week of my life in Taiwan.  The first is a birthday party held in my school, and the second my trip to the relatively nearby city of Tainan.

The birthday party was perhaps the greatest thing that has happened at my school the entire time I have been here.  It was five in the afternoon on a Friday and the the final class of the day had just ended, so my classmates were naturally pretty relaxed and happy.  But I could tell that something was up...  there was a buzz in the air, and my super-spidey-culture-senses were signaling me that something big was about to happen.  Well, it was either those or the fact that one of the students had a canister of shaving cream and was distributing it among the other students until everyone had two handfuls.  I quickly realized that the final destination of this shaving cream was the face of the lucky birthday boy, who today happened to be a guy by the name of Bai Yi Rong (but my classmates assured me that this would happen on everyone's birthday, mine included).  After waiting for Yi Rong for a while, we realized he was hiding from us on the floor below our own, so we rushed down the stairwell, chased him down and proceeded to smother him in the wonderfully fragrant shaving cream.  He was absolutely COVERED from the top of his head to shoulders, and a fair amount below that as well.  However, there was quite a bit left over after we were done with him, so for the next ten minutes everyone attacked each other with shaving cream.  Needless to say, it was fantastic.  And to be honest, while I know they are a fun-loving bunch, I was a bit surprised at my Taiwanese peers.  It was a sudden burst of craziness that I wasn't quite expecting from them, but as I've thought about it more I think it makes some sense.  The students here arrive at school at 7:30 AM, and stay until 5:00 PM.  Some go to more school after this until 9:00 PM, and they are expected to preform well in all of this.  It's rather a lot of pressure on them, and of course they need to let off steam once in a while.

On to Tainan.  A bit of background on the city:  It is one of the older cities in Taiwan, and was actually the capitol before it moved to Taipei.  It is seen as the most historically important city on the island, and was the main port of the Dutch when they occupied the island in the 17th Century.  While in the city, the Dutch constructed Anping Fort, the first place we (my host mother and I) visited.  It was a traditional fort of the time period, and it was so interesting, and quite strange actually, to see such a European piece of history in Taiwan.  While western culture is very present here, it is mostly modern (Taylor Swift, James Bond, McDonalds...), and its easy to forget that Europeans have played an important part in Taiwan's history.  Next to Anping fort is Anping Road, where vendors peddle their wares and various foods.  Anping Road has the distinction of being called "the oldest road in Taiwan".  After Anping fort, we headed over to Chikhan Lou (Fort Provintia), which was another Dutch fort, built in 1653.  While it wasn't as large as the first fort, it was more beautiful, and had a distinctly Asian architecture.  I thoroughly enjoyed both stops.

After this we headed to Confucius Temple, a rather old place, built in 1665.  By that time it was night, and the temple had a great feel around it, almost magical.  This was enhanced by a young Chinese Violin student practicing his instrument in the temple.  While he wasn't the best preformer, it still lent a film-like sentiment to the occasion.  The Confucius temple is probably the most famous in Tainan, but it has MANY more.  It is in fact known for its abundance of temples , and they did indeed seem to pop up out of nowhere as we walked around the city.

To top off our visit to Tainan, we stopped at Flower Garden Nightmarket, supposedly the largest Nightmarket in Taiwan.  It was indeed gargantuan.  I saw only a part of it, but what I saw reminded me of the Nightmarkets in Kaohsiung, just with more stands, probably a much greater variety of foods, and a LOT more people.  It was nigh impossible to walk around the place, but it was still an enjoyable experience.  I sampled a fried rice ball with Korean Kimmchi, the omnipresent fish balls, some kind of a beef  wrap, and some clams.  By the end of the night I was feeling overly stuffed, so I was happy to arrive at home and collapse into bed.  Overall, a very successful day trip.

Until next time, zaijian.