Learning Patience


民國101年12月03日,星期一                                                                       Monday, 12/03/2012

One common thread I’ve noticed with many students studying abroad in hopes of eventually mastering a foreign language is that one quickly learns one’s expectations for improvement are too high. One simply cannot master a language or experience a culture in one semester or a year’s time. It takes much time—years or even decades—and effort to develop fluency in a language. Culture stock and conflicts that cultural differences bring about are often anything but enjoyable. The realization that learning a language takes patience and accounting for some cultural differences are both hard to accept.

Yuanshan District of Taipei
Winter came near the end of November with rain nearly everyday. However, among the cold rainy days, there was one perhaps perfect summery day. On that day, I visited the Yuanshan distict (圓山區 yuánshānqū) of Taipei, visiting the Taipei Confucius temple (臺北孔子廟 táiběi kǒngzǐmiào) and the Grand Hotel (圓山大飯店 yuánshān dà fàndiàn).

One of my good Chinese friends studying in America, understanding the difficulties that I would experience abroad, shared with me a wise Chinese saying.

非澹泊無以明志,非寧靜無以致遠。 (fēi dànpò wúyǐ míngzhì, fēi níngjìng wúyǐ zhìyuǎn, this expression is a line from the 誡子書 (jièzǐshū) which was written by 諸葛亮 (zhūgě liàng), a statesman and strategist during the Three Kingdoms period in China.)

translation: “Only once we no longer seek fame and wealth can we accomplish our aspirations; and only when we are at ease and peace of mind can we continue towards the path of our greatest ambitions.”

What that saying means to me is instead of worrying about what progress I may make, or whether it is even possible to learn a language, I need to first learn to have the patience and serenity to understand that with hard work eventually everything will fall into place. Not understanding everything everyone says and not being able to speak everything I want to say can be somewhat humiliating at times, but these times are also important learning opportunities. Of all the things I will take with me when I do return to the United States, I know now one of them will be a greater sense of patience.

I can acknowledge that learning a second language and studying abroad may perhaps not be necessary for most students, but the process of learning a language has at least for me engendered a broader and deeper understanding of the world through multiple, different perspectives. Studying abroad without any classmates was also an easy way of gaining a very personal experience and building a network abroad. In a way, only living in one place one’s whole life, only experiencing one horizon and only speaking one language is a handicap. Life is so much more interesting when one is constantly experiencing new things.

Two weeks ago on a Sunday, I decided I wanted to see some of the places in Taipei I had jotted down previously. Because none of my friends were available, I went on the little adventure alone. Within an hour of my trip, however, I was completely lost. Luckily, a Taiwanese quickly helped me find my way. The stranger not only led me to the place I was headed, but he also treated me to lunch there. Despite having excellent English, he almost only spoke Chinese with me, knowing that I prefer it. With talking with the Taiwanese, I soon discovered that he used to attend National Taiwan University—the school at which I am currently an exchange student—and he said he felt obligated, as my upper schoolmate (學長 xuézhǎng), to help me, his younger schoolmate (學弟 xuédì).

Although the fresh soy milk (豆漿 dòujiāng) we drank at the World Soymilk King (世界豆漿大王 shìjiè dòujiāng dàwáng) was not as good as I expected, having a slightly burnt taste, I want reiterate that Taipei, in my mind, still boasts many great and unique drink-selling stalls and shops that sell drinks that are both appetizing and refreshing. One of the most famous street drink-vendors in Taipei, and one of my favorites, is a pearl milk tea (珍珠奶茶 zhēnzhū nǎichá) vendor called 陳三鼎 (chénsāndǐng) located near National Taiwan University. This pearl tea vendor was said to be the first to combine pearl tea with the addictive flavor of brown sugar. Their most popular drink is called 青蛙撞奶 (qīngwā zhuàngnǎi), which roughly translates to the “the suckling frogs” or “the frog hits the milk.”

Bubble Tea
Personally, I think their pearl tea is the best I’ve ever had. The cool fresh milk is dense and mixes flawlessly with black tea. And the pearls are soft, warm, and perfectly “Q” (the Taiwanese way of saying sticky and glutinous). To those who are critics of pearl tea, try 陳三鼎, and you’ll know why pearl tea, also known as bubble tea, is popular world wide.

On that same Sunday, my new Taiwanese pal and I also went to many other places together including Dai’s House of Stink (戴記獨臭之家 dài jì dú chòu zhī jiā), the restaurant I previously mentioned—especially famous for selling some of the stinkiest of stinky tofu (臭豆腐 chòudòufǔ) around. Although Dai’s House of Stink is relatively well known in the United States all thanks in many parts to the television series Bizarre foods, the restaurant is relatively unheard of to most Taipei residents except to local foodies. Although, perhaps, a tofu placed in fermenting vegetable matter for several weeks may sound unappetizing and bizarre to an average American, the snack is, however, a commonly found and emblematic snack food (小吃 xiǎochī) of Taiwan. It shouldn’t be surprising then that, while living in Taiwan, I quickly grew to love stinky tofu, and although the tofu at Dai’s House of Stink was, well, truly unique and “stinky,” I found that it was delicious, too.

Traveling to Dai’s House of Stink on that Sunday was definitely an adventure, but perhaps something that was much more memorable was becoming good pals with a complete stranger. The longer I live in Taipei, the more I realize how wonderful and safe it is. I never would have thought people could be so warm and caring to complete strangers. I’ve never felt this safe or this welcomed in America, or even in Madison.

Stinky Tofu
We ate stinky tofu three ways: hot and spicy stinky tofu soup (麻辣臭豆腐 málà chòudòufǔ), fried, breaded stinky tofu with fermented Napa cabbage (炸臭豆腐跟台式泡菜 zhà chòudòufǔ gēn táishìpāocài), and steamed stinky tofu (清蒸臭豆腐 qīngzhēng chòudòufǔ). The tofu, true to the restaurant’s name, was rather stinky and was even a greenish, blue hue in the middle…but despite what you may think, the stinky tofu tasted wonderful!

Taiwan is definitely a special place.

Taipei truly is a foodie’s paradise, no matter whether you would like to try a traditional Chinese medicinal food (中藥 zhōngyào), aboriginal cuisine, or the Taiwanese take on Korean, Japanese, or the many cuisines of China… to name but few options, you’ll definitely be satisfied with the options in Taipei. Taiwan has truly been a culinary adventure thus far. The selection of food here is unbeatable.

Shilin night market
Above are two food vendors at Shilin night market (士林夜市 shìlín yèshì).

In many aspects, the American and the Taiwanese way of living are diametric opposites.

In Taiwan for example, the sauce and condiments that steak is served with is almost more important than the steak itself; whereas in America, the quality of the steak is of utmost importance, and too many condiments would mask the flavor. My Chinese teacher in Taiwan said because of this difference, when she was teaching Chinese in America, she would often ask for extra ketchup everywhere she went because she felt there wasn’t enough sauce and flavoring. She said she became known as the “ketchup girl.” The food is Taiwan often has a delicious layer of flavorful sauce. the Taiwanese prefer food with a little sweetness and tastes of garlic (蒜頭 suàntóu), chili peppers (辣椒 làjiāo), and basil (九層塔 jiǔcéngtǎ).

chicken with rice omelet
To the left is a chicken with a rice omelet served in Japanese curry (雞肉咖喱蛋包飯 jīròu gālǐ dànbāofàn) with edamame (Mandarin: 毛豆 máodòu, Japanese: 枝豆 edamame) and soup on the side at a steakhouse (牛排餐廳 niúpái cāntīng), and to the right is a selection of dishes that my classmates, teacher, and I are enjoying at a Taiwanese-style stir-fry eatery (熱炒店 rèchǎodiàn), what my Chinese teacher describes as the kind of place where you can find the most local, most authentic of Taiwanese food.

Another area in which we Americans and the Taiwanese greatly differ is the way in which we shop. Americans prefer to shop occasionally but purchase items in large quantities. There are many reasons behind this, for one, purchasing in large quantities can save time and money, and for another reason, the distance between those so-called “super” stores and where one lives is often rather great in America. In Taiwan, however, the market is based more on convenience. Although “super”-marts like Cosco exist in Taiwan, they are much less popular than in the United States. Taiwanese prefer to shop in much shorter time spans and purchase much smaller, more conveniently sized quantities. Some of my Taiwanese friends say this is because Taiwanese houses are small as is the country, and others say this is because the average stature of Taiwanese is much smaller than that of Americans, but I believe at the core of the difference lies a different cultural concept of shopping. Unlike America, socks are often sold by pair, rather than a pack with a bunch of pairs, for example. Notebooks and backpacks are also much smaller than their American equivalents.

One other major difference between Taiwan and America is that in Taiwan, people of all ages but especially young people are not longer cooking in their homes but are buying basically all of their meals out. Many of the Taiwanese argue that eating out in Taiwan is actually more cost effective than cooking at home, and over all the trend also reflect the social trend of preferring convenience over all else in Taiwan. When asking my friends from Korea, Japanese, and mainland China, they said that this phenomenon is not necessarily shared by all their countries and this is a rather Taiwanese phenomenon.

I recently traveled to the costal city of Tamsui (淡水 Mandarin: dànshuǐ, Taiwanese Hokkien: tâm-súi) and the rural mountain town of Wulai (烏來 wūlái). Tamsui is a suburb of Taipei. Tamsui being both a port city at the mouth of a important river in northern Taiwan has an over three-hundred year history of multiple foreign fortresses and trade complexes. Tamsui in more recent history, in addition to a fun, laid-back atmosphere, has become well known for many delicious snacks like a-gei (阿給 āgěi), which is tofu stuffed with flavored cellophane noodles (粉絲 fěnsī) sealed with surimi fish paste (Mandarin: 魚漿 yújiāng, Japanese: 擂り身 surimi) and served with a spicy pepper sauce.

The above pictures were taken in Tamsui; to the far left is a seafood restaurant, and to the far right is a place selling Peiking duck (北平烤鴨 běipíng kǎoyā). In the middle is a picture of A-gei (阿給 āgěi) and pork stir-fried noodles (肉燥乾麵 ròuzào gānmiàn). Below are pictures from Wulai. to the far left is an old street full of small souvenir and snack stalls, in the middle is a old country road, and to the right is one of the many local waterfalls.

Wulai is a rural mountain town south of Taipei known for its hot springs and aboriginal culture. Wulai offers all sorts of interesting snacks and unique trinkets for the tourist from Taipei. After living and busying in Taipei city for quite a while, it was refreshing to visit a rural mountainous reign of Taiwan. From the scenery I saw in Wulai, it was easy for me to understand why the Portuguese called Taiwan “the beautiful island” ilha formosa.