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I've just been sent a few pics of my Taiwan talks. I'm particularly happy with this one of me and my young friends...

Group Picture-3

Also... )
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This is a fly-by post, but I couldn't let Will Stanton's birthday pass in silence, even if solstices don't mean quite so much at this latitude.

Also, I wish to bear witness to the Taipei airport hotel staff's dedication to anticipating their guests' every whim.

I mean, EVERY whim )
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I went to Taipei today. I can't claim to have done anything very exciting there: it was wet and quite cold; I was there too early for the night market and it was the wrong day for the jade and flower markets. Even the Taipei Tower didn't want to play -


- but I had a look round, and bought tickets at stations and things in shops, and managed to make myself understood even when the other person had no English, and overall my confidence was buoyed as a result. I spent most of my time in shops, where I would have felt awkward taking pictures, so I have little to show - but imagine me if you will going round the malls in search of the perfect souvenir to bring back to England (at a reasonable price), one that would carry all the exoticism and mystery conjured by the words "Made in Taiwan".

It was surprisingly difficult to do. A lot of the mall shops were American or Japanese (or even British) chains, and even those that weren't were very heavy on English. I was torn between grateful relief at being able to understand what I was looking at and the urge to demand loudly that I be taken to the "real" Taipei. The former won quite easily, I'm glad to say, but it didn't solve my gift problem. I could have bought some nice tea - and in fact I did - but since no one else in my family cares for anything but Tetley I'll have to give that to myself. I suspect the same fate awaits my Bunny King mug - which turns out to be from the People's Republic rather than Taiwan:


What's not to love, I say - but tastes may differ. Eventually I found one or two promising items - but must not post them here in case a potential recipient should happen by. Instead, since I'm aware that I haven't included any traditional buildings yet, have a local temple from a couple of days ago. (I saw far more impressive ones from the train today, but they flashed by too fast - and besides, I like this one's neighbourhood vibe.)


My companion (Chinese but not religious) thought that this particular temple was Daoist. The oven on the right is for burning money as a gift for the ancestors. Ancestors have their own currency though, so you have to buy special notes manufactured for the purpose. It occurs to me that whoever prices those notes for sale in mortal shops is, effectively, fixing the exchange rate with the afterlife. What responsibility!

Tomorrow is the main event of my visit - the keynote at this symposium, after which I go to the airport hotel, before an early flight back on Monday. So, I'll be signing off here for the next couple of days, until I reemerge (d.v.) back in Bristol.
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Usage note. Several people here in Taiwan have asked me whether I've been to Asia before, and when I tell them I once went to Ankara they don't feel this counts (or only on a technicality). It seems that the word here carries connotations closer to American than British usage.

Meanwhile my little Mandarin phrase book is remaining sadly unused. Here in the hotel people somehow guess that I'm a Westerner (what is their secret?) before I've opened my mouth and greet me in English. Outside I've generally been accompanied by my hostess, who is Belgian but has lived here for thirty years. I occasionally chip in with a "xièxiè" to show willing, but it feels a little pathetic. Tomorrow will be the acid test, when I take a solo day trip to Taipei, weather permitting. What will await me?

Today, though, has been another talk, and another university campus. This one is a Christian college, and perhaps for that reason is even more focused on Christmas than the rest of Taiwan (which is saying something). Here the festival has been given a superhero theme, as you can see from this picture of my guides, Ivy and Betty, in front of the chapel:

Pictures ahoy )
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Actually I'm in Taichung, but that doesn't lend itself so well to puns. It was a long journey from Bristol, but I whiled it away by finishing Wuthering Heights, a book I'd not read since I was about 16. It made quite an impression on me at the time, to the extent that I found I remembered almost every scene - but my emotional response was quite different this time round. On the first occasion I think I was secretly rooting for Heathcliff throughout - not as a romantic figure but as a youngest "sibling" exercising his revenge on the whole pack of his oppressors. This time I just wished he'd get over himself: his narrow obsession was tiresome rather than sublime.

Anyway, a couple of hours before landing in Taipei I was given a landing card to fill in, which had a section asking me for my visa type and number. Reader, it had never occurred to me to apply for a visa, and I spent the last two hours of the flight fretting about whether I was going to be unceremoniously booted off the island before I'd properly set foot on it.

I needn't have worried. Taiwanese customs were a dream, visas unnecessary, queues non-existent, my hostess exemplary, my hotel sumptuous, my bed soft, and I knew no more until I awoke at 9 this morning.

Random first impressions of Taiwan - more will follow, at random intervals, randomly ordered.

Anyone fleeing to Taiwan in order to escape Christmas muzak and plastic Santas will be making a big mistake. Both are here in abundance, along with Mcdonald's and Starbucks, who are my hotel's next-door neighbours. You know how people in the West always think that a Chinese restaurant must be good if they see lots of Chinese people eating there? I wondered whether I could create the same effect in reverse by buying a Big Mac. ("She must know what she's doing - she's a Westerner!") I find this an unrealistic scenario, but I'm not sure why. At any rate, I didn't put it to the test.

The Taiwanese like to deal in big wads of cash. So far I've been given one wad to reimburse me for my plane ticket, and another (unexpected) as a gift for the talk I gave today. I remember my Japanese teacher telling me that the Japanese don't use credit cards as much as one might expect for such a gadget-happy nation, and I wonder whether it's the same here. There is certainly the same love of gadgetry, as this parable in today's news illustrates.

About one in five people wears a surgical mask - including our waitress this evening and several of the students in my talk. I thought at first this was about pollution, but apparently it has more to do with a wish not to spread (or catch) germs. This information makes retrospective sense of a multiingual announcement I heard on the escalator yesterday at Taipei station, which in addition to reminding us that we should should keep hold of the handrail added the dubious assurance that it was "periodically sterilized". I hadn't been thinking about handrails as havens of dirt until that moment, but you may rest assured that I promptly let go.

So far, so good, anyway. Everyone is amazingly friendly, the students all wanted their picture taken with me, and I feel valued above my worth (but not so far above as to be awkward). I also heard my first Westminster chimes to signal the start of a lesson: little did I ever dream that the lesson would be my own. Pictures will follow at some point: the one above is for [personal profile] kalimac.


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