I had traveled to Asia several times and had lived in Korea, so I got the urge to try to understand East Asia more. What better way than by learning Chinese, since Chinese culture had so influenced the area and the Japanese and Koreans even used approx. 2,000 Chinese characters mixed with their alphabets (this stopped in Korea a few years after I left, which the Koreans later regretted when China had its economic awakening and trade with China increased tremendously).
My first language courses were in Taiwan, since I needed an internet connection to continue working parallel to my classes, and it was still very difficult to connect to the internet in mainland China at the time. This was eventually possible, but I was becoming annoyed with the arrests of so many dissidents and their lawyers in China, so I decided to give Taiwan another try.
One of the reasons for choosing to take my annual Chinese language course in Kaohsiung was because I assumed I could go swimming at its beaches. Temperatures rose to at least 30° C every day, so it was hard to imagine the reality that I encountered. They close the beach after September regardless of the temperature! Beaches open in March and then close after the ninth month every year without concern for the weather. When I asked at one information counter why the beach was closed, the answer was that the water is too deep. My inquiry as to whether it is not precisely just as deep in the summer months was only met with an embarrassed smile. True, few Chinese or Taiwanese can swim, and the lack of a lifeguard in other months probably is a reason. Still, I promised (and lied) that I would not swim. Quite a few Taiwanese went in the water too, but mostly just for jumping around.
This reminded me of the time I was in Beijing at the beginning of November. They had the earliest snowfall on record and it was bitter cold outside. Still, they only turn on heating on Nov. 15 each year, again regardless of the weather. Numerous protests succeeded in getting heat one week early, but only after I had spent a few nights sleeping with my coat on.
I encountered the same ritual in Korea where children were forced to wear very warm clothes until a certain day in spring, and then were not clothed sufficiently warm in the fall until another specific date. Chinese custom dictates that you wear light clothes in the fall, so that you get used to the coming cold, and warm clothes at the end of winter so that that you get accustomed to the upcoming warmer seasons.
I also choose Kaohsiung based on reports in the internet about its two biggest night food markets, which claimed that they rivaled Singapore’s as the best in Asia. This turned out to be far from true, and the meat at the one stand where I ate was tough and almost tasteless. However, I of course found good food and especially loved one place specializing in dumplings, Chinese pancakes and small pieces of dough fried with meat and vegetables. An Australian staying at the same hotel and studying at the same language school also took me to a couple of his favorite restaurants.
Fried rice: a good bargain
View from tallest skyscraper in the city.
A modern subway station.
Kaohsiung is quite modern and even has spots where you can rent a bike simply using your credit card (my credit card was subsequently blocked, because the credit card company suspected fraud, although the bill was only for a couple of euros). I took a ride around the city and stopped at Lotus Lake with a few pagodas and Taoist (?) kitsch, then up to Monkey Mountain to hike and observe the monkeys delousing.
I had signed up for five hours of group classes, but there were only two hours with others at my level. There were nice guys in their early twenties, teaching English in the afternoons and evenings and taking Chinese classes in the mornings. They were in Taiwan for a long time, so not very interested in those passing through for a couple of weeks such as I even if there had not been such an age difference. Fortunately, there was the Australian to hang out with, and then a good friend, whom I had met in China, came to visit for a week. So what to do in a strange city? In part, nothing different than anywhere else: go to bars and talk with friends and strangers. Tim the Australian related his life with various relationships and children, jobs and travels. I envied him in part, since he was younger than me but retired and living on his pension, traveling here and there with interludes in Taiwan. He originally signed up for language classes there for a visa, but discovered one day how much fun it was when he could communicate with locals. My American friend, Shawn, whom I had met in China, filled me in on goings-on at the place where we had spent several weeks together. After a couple of years teaching English there, he was ready to move on, but not sure what. And I envied him in part too, because he was still young (just over 30) and had so many opportunities, so many roads he could take. His American girlfriend had just broken up with him, and he was a bit depressed dealing with that situation. However, he also just spent 10 days at a mediation center in Hong Kong, was feeling very healthy and considering becoming serious about yoga, i.e., becoming a yoga teacher. Or maybe he would get a teaching certificate for English as a second language and go to another country for new experiences. He was on his way back to the States, although he did have a return ticket to China (which he eventually did not use) and wound up in a yoga/organic farm community.
Tim and Shawn
The young guys in my class in Kaohsiung certainly have it easier than I did when I started Chinese studies, since electronic dictionaries simplify looking up words substantially. One of them even asked the others once if they knew or ever used the Chinese radicals, a must if you are using hardcopy dictionaries, but they didn’t. I despaired thinking of all the hours I spent looking up characters years ago. Now I can simply copy a word into a dictionary (online or offline) on my computer, or—even easier—just tap the word using the excellent software program and dictionary Pleco on my smartphone.
I would up with three hours of one-on-one lessons for the rest, almost each hour with a different teacher, and I never knew whom to expect. They coordinated things well except for one hour when no teacher was available, but I was happy enough to return to my hotel for a nap that day anyway.
The streets were deserted mornings, and consequently I was forced to go to McCafe for my morning shot. Still, it was a nice place to review vocabulary and my lessons for an hour or so and I certainly was not tempted to eat anything there.
There was a film festival, and although most of the good films were sold out, there were free ones in the late afternoon. I went to see a couple of documentaries about Tibet and a couple of Taiwanese documentaries. Most of the others in the audience were older Taiwanese, assumedly just passing the time and happy to have something like this free of charge. There were a couple of strange people, such as one old man who spoke to me for a while in Taiwanese dialect, which I tried to tell him I did not understand. Then there was a crazy woman around 40 years of age who sat next to me and said loudly that the man was crazy. Some other women came in and took seats next to me, but the first one then said that I was groping women, so they quickly moved. At the next movie, I made sure to sit far away from the crazy woman. She stared at me, but fortunately did not try to sit next to me again, and she left in the middle of the documentary after saying loudly that it was nonsense a few times.
One day with the express train to Taipei to visit friends I had made approx. 15 years before. Apple picked me up in her car, and we drove up a mountain to a restaurant where she insisted on paying. We wanted to hike, but she could not find the path, and then another old friend called, so we drove back down to Taipei to meet her and another friend. We wound up talking at Apple’s place, but they wanted to watch the World Baseball Championships that were taking place at the time in Taiwan. I can’t remember the last time I had watched baseball and was surprised to see that there were even teams from Holland and Italy participating. We watched Taiwan, but they lost in the ninth or tenth inning, which was quite disappointing for my friends. I was surprised to learn that they used to go to a lot of games and cheer loudly.
Then it was off to another restaurant and more old friends showed up. Dish after dish was ordered, and beer after beer. Apple complained that Taipei was no longer as much fun as years before; most of the bars she used to frequent had closed, and the new ones only catered to a young crowd. In China, I have never seen women over 40 in bars, and Kaohsiung was not much different, although Apple and her friends were heavy drinkers who could hold their liquor. Most drinking was done in restaurants, and a bar culture is foreign to Chinese culture, most bars catering to young people or foreigners.
With old friends in Taipei
I had planned to fly back on a Sunday, since I thought I could enjoy the beaches on the weekend. However, since that was not so and I didn’t really have anything else that I wanted to see in Kaohsiung, I changed my flight to Friday evening. It was nice to visit Taiwan again, but I would return to China the next years for my Chinese courses. The people at the language school there are a lot friendlier, i.e., arrange to go out together in the evenings, and beer is cheaper in the bars.
We had spent a couple of nights in Taipei on our way to Korea in 1985 and then later that year on the way to vacation in the Philippines, but the first time I stayed there for longer was in 1997 when I took a language course at Taiwan Normal University for two months. I stayed the first week in a hostel full of foreigners teaching English to make a few bucks, but with little interest in the culture. One English girl even asked me surprised, “What would you want to learn Chinese?” There was one very interesting journalist, Wendall, who had recently been kicked out of Korea for not registering as a journalist. He said that had written a book about the CIA and that there were a lot of ex-CIA Americans in Taipei and even took me to a bar where they hung out. He was trying to get information out of one of them, who apparently had helped the Tibetan resistance against the Chinese in the 1950s, but the man said he had promised to keep silent about what he did and was not going to break that silence. He once tried to leave Taiwan to return to the States, but was told he was not allowed to leave. A couple of days before I left Taiwan, I decided that I wanted some Western food after two months of Chinese fare and went to a Western chain restaurant. Wendall showed up with some friends, which was quite a coincidence given the thousands of restaurants in Taipei, and I could immediately see from his expression that he suspected that I was working for the CIA and keeping tabs on him. Given that, I never contacted him again on subsequent trips to Taiwan.
I was active for a while in Amnesty International, and our group had help secure the release from prison of Chen Chu, “one of the ‘Kaohsiung Eight,’ prominent dissidents arrested after the Kaohsiung Incident in 1979. She spent six years in jail during the martial law period in Taiwan.” (from Wikipedia). When the group learned that I was going to Taipei, they gave me a present for her. I believe that she was the Deputy Mayor of Culture in Taipei at the time. She invited me to dinner at an expensive Japanese restaurant and signed my copy of her book黑牢嫁妆 (Sinister Prison Dowry). When I studied in Kaoshiung years later, she was (and is) the mayor there).
Chen Chu and her assistant, who translated for us (my Chinese was rudimentary at the time)
One of my best friends at school was a Vietnamese monk. He had a scooter, and we often went for rides to temples or in the nearby mountains. Whenever we stopped to eat at one of the sundry vegetarian restaurants, they refused to let us pay since he was a monk.
Duong Van Guang, the Vietnamese monk, on one of our hikes
Before leaving the island, I hitched around the island, stopping on the west coast to visit a language partner from Taipei. He took me on his scooter up the side of a mountain (the west of Taiwan is marked by high cliffs descending to the sea) to where a group of Buddhists had an illegal encampment, but intended to stay separated from the world. I was told that the head monk was a very renowned Buddhist teacher, and he was in the midst of giving a lesson when we arrived. After the lesson, he said I could ask him one question. I asked what I should do if I wanted to learn more about Buddhism. He pointed to the sea, which we could see quite well from our high vantage point on the mountain, and said I should look at it and then try to see it from within. He gave me some books and tapes about Buddhism, but said it was not important to read or listen to them, the important thing in Buddhism was to know yourself. Seemed familiar.
The Buddhist Master