Good times in Taiwan

January 16, 2009 at 5:24 AM | Posted in Taiwan | Leave a comment

Our days have been so jam-packed that this is one of the first times that I’ve had to sit down and write about what I’ve been doing. We have been having a great time–the Taiwanese students are wonderful hosts and are making such a huge effort to ensure that we are having fun. Some of the highlights of the past week or so…

– Asian-style karaoke, or “KTV”: Rather than American- or European-style karaoke where you sing to the whole bar, in Taiwan and much of Asia, it’s completely different. You go with a group of 10-15 friends and rent out a whole room. Included in the price–about $8-9 US per person–is an all-you-can-eat buffet and six hours of customized karaoke. Each room has its own karaoke machine, a big screen to display the lyrics, about five microphones, and a whole bunch of couches and chairs. Amazingly, we used the whole six hours, and had a great time singing songs in both English and Chinese. Here Erin, one of our Taiwanese hosts, is singing with one of her three dogs that she brought along.

– We visited China Power Company, which is located in Tainan, a city near Kaohsiung. Tainan was really cute–much older and more charming than Kaohsiung–and I got two free sausages by winning a game at the vendor’s stand (although this was immediately following a huge lunch, so after taking this picture I passed them off to my classmates)

– Today we visited Pingtung Long Chuan Brewery, for which I’m writing a case study about occupational health and safety along with one other Harvard student and five Chinese students. This is a wall of beer at one of the loading docks.

– Just finding our way around the city has been fun–the Metro system here is only a year old, and it’s beautiful. This is the Dome of Light, which is a giant stained glass half-sphere built into the roof of one of the stations.

As for the hard parts of this trip…they certainly exist. By far the hardest part is the language barrier. Never before have I fully understood how apt a term “language barrier” is…I am basically rendered mute, deaf, and illiterate in many, many conversations and interactions. The Taiwanese students speak English with varying proficiency (ranging from near-fluent to very minimal), and we’ve made great headway in communicating but it’s still difficult to have good conversations without someone translating. Chinese is completely impenetrable to me–even though I’m trying to learn, it’s so difficult to speak that my attempts at words beyond “hello” and “thank you” are pretty much unintelligible, although people do appreciate us trying. Just getting around the city can be really difficult–for instance, when trying to buy food at a night market, all that’s displayed is the raw ingredients, and without knowing how to read Chinese, we have no idea what the stand’s dishes contain unless we stand there and watch what other people order–the pointing-and-motioning approach works in small restaurants, less so in crowded markets where the vendors are busy. Some–like this octopus on a stick–is pretty self-explanatory, but others are pretty much impossible without knowing the language. A few of our group members are native Chinese speakers so they can translate for us, but it’s really difficult for me to have to depend on others for something as basic as how to order a bowl of noodles.

The other difficult part is a product of one of the best parts–group travel. I’m doing things that I would never get a chance to do if I came here as a tourist, and my experiences are infinitely richer for being part of this group. But I haven’t traveled in a group for about three years (since Madagascar), and since then I’ve become a pretty independent traveler. Even though we are only eight Harvard students and about 12 Taiwanese students, maneuvering is still difficult. The Taiwanese students are almost all younger than us–their age range is 18-25, and our age range is 23-29–and although we have a wide range of travel experiences in our group, we all appreciate some unstructured, unsupervised time. However, the KMU students are afraid that if we go off on our own we’ll get completely lost–on the first day they gave us a card to wear around our neck, and told us to just show it to a taxi driver if we get lost. A few days ago I learned that the translation from Chinese is “Please take me back to Kaohsiung Medical University.” We’ve bargained for some free time, which has been much appreciated–I just need time to wander around by myself, get lost, and not be on a schedule. Yesterday we had the afternoon off, so I went bike riding with two friends from my group. We rented bikes and rode the whole length of the city, ending up at a huge lotus pond that is full of temples, dragons, and some nice fresh air (Kaohsiung is fairly polluted, since there’s so much industry here). We rode about about 15 miles total (none of the KMU students could believe it…their primary mode of transportation is on a motor-scooter), and it was so nice to get some exercise and see the city in a different way.

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