Once again, Neatorama welcomes guest blogger Joel Haas, North Carolina sculptor and author, as he posts his adventures in Taiwan.
Culture shock happens when you pick up the live wire of daily life in another country, particularly another continent. It can be the big thing such as finding yourself a racial minority and oddity in the street, or small things such as wondering what all those fires in front of every business and home mean--it's not the least bit cold. Why do people stuff their sales receipts in special clear plastic boxes on the sidewalks--and, speaking of sidewalks, why is the sidewalk a different height and design in front of each business or home? and speaking of home and business, what is it like to have the family living room open out into the street and double as a place of business where every body who wants to, say, have your dad fix their scooter, can bring it right up to the family couch and television? Does everybody have their family shrine right over the TV and DVD player?
Before we get into the genuinely amusing, strange stuff (from an American perspective) about Taiwan, let me get several things off my chest:
Don't they all look alike? I mean, really how can you tell those people apart?
This is the one comment that pushes my button. Really. Stand around on any street here for five minutes and you'll see Taiwanese don't look any more alike than Caucasians. Even without the admixture of the American Armed Forces stirring the genetic pot for decades, the advent of modern hair coloring means the average school girl with blond hair here is no more likely to be a real blond than an American one. There has been a disquieting fad for wearing enormous blue contacts in their eyes.
a shot of this promotional poster is as well as I can do since I couldn't take photos of the elevator operators in Shin Kong Department Store
Don't they eat dogs and other odd stuff like snakes?
No. They don't eat dogs. Most dogs I've seen here are as pampered as ones in America. On the way to a concert today, I saw no less than three dogs in, so help me God, knitted sweaters. In this heat, that may cook them, but not by design.
What people eat is always an interesting question. Food often is a major definition of culture. My culture in North Carolina is only a generation or two removed from widespread consumption of chitlin's, possum, squirrel, and fat back. Frog legs are considered a delicacy in French restaurants, so let's not get carried away with what other people think is down home cookin'. There is a place in Taipei called Snake Alley that sells snake meat. It's mostly a tourist attraction now. The average Taiwanese eats no more snake than the average American eats rattlesnake or alligator meat.
Don't you get tired of eating rice?
No. Mainly because they don't serve a lot of rice here. Look back through all my food photos, in my travel letters and my extra photos on Flickr; don't see any rice do you? Rice is served like a roll might be served to you in the States. I have been served rice three times in the more than two weeks I have been here. Each time it was simply in a small bowl to the side, a bowl no bigger than a coffee cup at home. The average Taiwanese's reaction to a serving of Kung Pow chicken from an AMERICAN Chinese restaurant would be about the same as an American's if served field peas, collards, carrots and fried pork chops glopped together on a bed of twelve slices of bread.
WITH THOSE ITEMS OFF MY CHEST, LET'S TAKE A LOOK AT SOME STUFF THAT AIN'T LIKE IT IS AT HOME.
7-11s run this country. It's not a democracy nor a dictatorship. It is "quick-stop-ocracy."
There are competing chains, Circle K, Family Store, Happy Store, etc. but they're all the same as a 7-11 which remains the dominant brand. You can do anything at a 7-11; pay your bills, taxes, traffic tickets; buy French wine, pickled duck eggs, Love Milk, and videos.
Every receipt comes with a lottery ticket. Now wouldn't that just get all the Baptists' panties in a twist back home in the South!
It seems tax evasion was a problem for the government in a country where credit cards are not widely accepted and small business transacts most business. The government hit upon the idea of a sales lottery rather than a sales tax. Every sales receipt has a lottery number printed on its back. Once a month, the government publishes several newspaper pages of winning numbers. You can win anywhere between $5 and about $200 if you have a lucky sales receipt.
The government's theory was everybody would demand a sales receipt if they had a chance of winning a lottery. You play anytime you make a purchase; no matter how small a purchase. The result is, as the island has become more prosperous, most people don't want to bother with combing through thousands of lucky numbers in a newspaper once a month to maybe win $5. Charities stepped in. Along many streets you see clear plastic canisters promoting various charitable causes soliciting your sales receipts. Retired volunteers go over the numbers on receipts collected. It gives non profits a source of funding and gives old people a steady way to contribute without hard physical labor. The Yngge Ceramics Museum I visited last Saturday collected sales receipts instead of charging admission. If you were without a sales receipt (unlikely in this country) you could run across the street to 7-11 and buy a piece of candy for pennies and come back with a sales receipt.
Amazingly, you can never have too many convenience stores. I have a photo of a place a few blocks from the Taipei Artists' Village where I am staying of two 7-11 stores separated by only one block. I have often seen several competing brand stores in one block together.
Sales receipts donation box on Zhong Shan North Rd. Just outside a bridal photography shop.
Even Gucci and Louis Vuitton have money to burn on Zhong Shan North Road
Walking up Zhong Shan Road, I saw Gucci and Louis Vuitton placate beings with money. Nothing unusual about that you say, Vuitton and Gucci market to people with money. I do not mean that to sound like it is written. They were givng away money. Everybody offers money to the gods and ancestors. Once a month, at least.
At the beginning of the lunar month, offerings are made to ghosts, gods, ancestors, and assorted spirits. Taiwanese give more money to gods than the Baptists. And they do it direct-- with a system of delivery FedEx and Western Union would envy. They burn it.
In the West, when we say "give money to God" we don't think God actually needs money; we believe God wants us to behave in a moral manner so we give money to what we believe is a good cause God would endorse. In the East, religion and ethics are less intertwined. (Confucius, a mortal who devised a system of ethics for which he is honored and revered, but is no more a "God" than we would worship at the Jefferson memorial because Jefferson devised our system of government.)
Here, ethical guidance aside, gods need money to build their mansion of many rooms--demons evidently don't work for free. To gain favor, mortals burn "spirit money" which goes directly to a god or an ancestor. In temples, offering are made as well--the price tags often left prominently attached.
(You would think a god would know how much you'd paid or even that you'd gotten it on sale but left the original price tag on.)
A table covered with flowers, burning sticks of incense, candy, or even elaborate meals are set out in front of a house or building while the spirit money is burned. I have seen a few people pray at these tables, but the majority of people are just casually throwing stacks of spirit money into the fire while discussing the latest soap opera or who has got the better baseball team, no solemnity or reverence to the practice at all.
Actually, you can send quite a bit postage free and guaranteed delivery to gods and spirits. There is a good business in making elaborate Mercedes, sailboats, houses, etc. that are burned at temples to be sent to ancestors or gods one is trying to bribe for favor. (No word on whether you have to burn gas for the Mercedes as well.)
My initial cultural ignorance was so vast that the first time I arrived in Taiwan in 2004 in the city of Kaohsiung, it was 87 degrees F but my wife and I supposed we should expect cold nights as everybody had these large oildrum looking cans outside their homes for burning stuff. We assumed they would gather around them for warmth like street people in the States. It was the lunar month change.
By the way, you don't have to wait for a new month to send money to heaven. If your ancestors run a little short before the next new moon, you can go to a temple and use one of the large, elaborate furnaces there.
At most stores, you can buy stacks of spirit money to burn. Buy gold leaf covered money to send to gods and silver leaf covered bills to send to ancestors. Evidently, the gods and ancestors are easily fooled, since only the top most bills in any stack of spirit money you buy actually have the designs and leaves of metal on them.
Below, some spirit money burners for sale. Others are simply red painted cans with holes cut in them.
A shop for all your spiritual needs near Long Shan Temple. The bales of yellow colored spirit money are stacked to the left behind the scooter. You can buy small offerings, candies, etc. to use at home or next door in the temple. Small money burning cans are visible at the bottom of the counter in the middle. I love the "no smoking" sign in a shop selling and burning incense.
Lovely Rita, the Meter Maid...
As I mentioned earlier, you can pay your parking tickets at the 7-11. Actually, you can pay them at all sorts of places; government offices, banks, etc. A parking ticket is not only no big deal here, it's expected.
True story. Back in April of 2005, a Taiwanese friend took me and another visiting American artist out to the National Palace Museum (the old one) and found a nice parking place just a block or two away. We spent three hours in the museum before returning to his car with six or seven parking tickets stacked under the windshield wiper. We were horrified and apologetic that we'd cost our friend so much money, 'why, we'd have paid for a stay in a parking garage!' we told him, he'd owe a fortune, we'd help pay, blah, blah, blah.... Relax, he said, it's just parking tickets. Exactly, we said and started our rounds of apologetic hysteria again... Puzzled, he finally tried to quiet us by saying, well, okay, if you insist and it'll make you happy, I'll pay the parking tickets right now.
He pulled over and went into a 7-11. "It came to NT$ 60," he said when he came back out. (About US$ 2).
Parking tickets are really just parking bills, he explained. Rather than put up meters and run a punitive system as we do in the States, they just post signs saying how much parking costs per half hour or so along a particular stretch of road. A meter maid comes by every half hour recording your license tag and leaves another computer bar coded ticket (or bill) on your window. You have thirty days to pay or you do pay a penalty. But you can take a stack of them into a 7-11 or a government office anytime, have the bills scanned and pay what you owe. It takes pressure off meter maids, no maintenance for meters, and signs are cheaper to post and can vary the amounts charged by time and day. The same system works for motor scooters.
Meter maid working her route along Tian Jian Street. Below, a meter guy for scooters on his bicycle in front of the Taipei Artists Village. Note how well equipped he is with umbrella, satchel, water and so forth.
No Tanning lines, please!
Tanning beds never made it here. Darker skin is considered unattractive. Freckles are thought ugly. Umbrellas are sold with UV ratings!
It is hot most of the year, most people carry an umbrella against the sun, not rain. You'll even see some people wearing gloves while riding bicycles or scooters to keep their hands from tanning. And since people are constantly losing umbrellas, they are a favorite items for street vendors to sell. You can buy a large one for about $US 3.
The Sidewalks of Taiwan
If you're a city planner or inspector for a modern American city, please just skip the next section. it will only give you heartburn.
In Taiwan, each person is responsible for the sidewalk outside their business or home. You can do it to please yourself. Anything goes.
(Remember the two giant colorful feet painted outside the foot massage business I placed at the top of a previous newsletter?) A sidewalk can be an area of artistic and/or personal expression for the owner; it can serve a useful purpose such as being designed to integrate with the business. Since Taiwan receives twice the world wide average yearly rainfall, flooding is a problem; sidewalks are often built steeply sloping away from the front of the building. It is not at all uncommon to step up or down one, two, or even three steps as one walks along since one owner may have built his section much higher than his neighbor.
That's not your only hazard.
Motor scooters and bicycles are allowed on the sidewalks, too. If you're hit, it's probably your fault for not paying attention. As a practical matter, it probably helps if you're running an outdoor/sidewalk eatery and there are too many steps for a scooter or bike to go up; it keeps scooters from zipping through and among your customers and tables. Parking spaces are often clearly marked for scooters on the sidewalks (as you can barely make out in one of the photos above.)
To an American sculptor, the use of green marble is amazing--such veneers are VERY expensive at home. Taiwan is the second largest exporter of marble in the world after Italy. Marble, especially around the east coast city of Hualian is cheap, so is widely used. No store at home could afford such a marble sidewalk in front of their shop even it it were allowed. Note the sloping sides. Taken on my trip to the small town of Yngge.
From a marble sidewalk to marbles in the sidewalk. A photo taken a block down the street from the one above.
BELOW, closing up a sidewalk eatery after lunch in Taipei. Note the steps to the upper right.
There is a program in Taipei now to paint all the electrical system switch boxes for beautification. Artists use oil paints to paint standard landscapes. Nearly all have bright blue backgrounds.
BELOW, a Taipei motorcycle dealer has embedded spark plugs in the sidewalk outside his store
Typical view of sidewalk variation
HAAS, WHAT WILL YOU WRITE ABOUT NEXT!!??
The truth is I am faaar behind in catching up everything I have notes and photos for. I spent a day in the ceramics city of Yngge. You can, at least, see some of the photos from that trip on my Flickr album HERE.
I want to write about the bridal industry--it's not just the different customs which are to be expected--wedding photos here would shock Americans; I have not yet written up anything about the wonderful SoHu Paper Museum and the remarkable people behind it; I have not even gotten any good photos yet to go with the story about the dancers/drummers/monks/meditators/physical fitness buffs/acting company living in the mountains--U Theatre, whose performance I attended yesterday at Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Plaza (the plaza is an article in itself); I have not yet written up the visit to Long Shan Temple, even though I used some of the photos in the article about the National Palace Museum. Not to mention the scantily clad girls in glass booths on the edge of town (they're not what you think--they're selling betel nuts to taxi drivers and working men); the lucky money cats and crystals in all the stores--no matter how sophisticated; the Taiwanese obsession with brassieres; and my own misadventures learning and speaking Chinese; my return trip to the 228 Memorial Peace Park; and the unique Grass Mountain Vistas program being developed at one of Chiang Kai Shek's former mountain villas.
At the risk of overwhelming myself even further, I always invite your comments and any suggestions as to what else I could write about.
In closing, I leave you with the two unique restroom signs I encountered at the SoHu Paper Museum Friday. They are made in cut paper.
Joel Haas is a sculptor from Raleigh, North Carolina. You can see his works at his website or at Neighborhood Sculpture Walk, and read stories at his blog. More updates from Taiwan will be coming soon!
Also see Joel's previous posts:
A Trip to Taipei’s Shilin Night Market
Red Bean Filled Hockey Pucks and Mind Control
Yam Wielding Grannies, Plastic Bugs, and Cilantro Ice Cream