Friday, December 28, 2012

A Christmas Experiment

Christmas is an emotional time of year.  Bringing family together to celebrate and perform countless traditional family rituals is bound to become associated with a host of emotions, both positive and negative.  During an “orphans’ Christmas party” held at a friend’s house for those with no family in Taipei, we played a game that involved sharing best and worst Christmas stories.  It was so interesting to see that people from all over the world have such strong emotional memories surrounding Christmas.

(Over) Analyzing Christmas

The Christmas season is full of stimuli (decorations, foods, music, smells) that have been consistently paired with a lifetime of experiences which can therefore trigger intense emotions (had to slip some ABA terms into the post). Spending a Christmas away from family and friends is an interesting psychological experiment because it provides an environment in which I am exposed to the same stimuli (there are Christmas decorations and music, although not as many), but without the events and activities that I usually experience with Christmas.  Imagine I am one of Pavlov’s dogs  hearing the bell chime, but not receiving the usual treat.  It is easy to take emotions associated with symbols (in this case Christmas music, decorations, and food) for granted because usually our emotions are also party in preparation for an upcoming event.  It is only when we are presented with the antecedent stimuli (Christmas stuff) without the consequential events (family gatherings, meals, gift giving) that we can separate the emotional associations one has with the holidays from the anticipation of specific future events.( I promise, if you have made it this far, no more behavioral terminology.)

I’m happy to report that the emotions that were brought forth by Christmas were all positive.  This tells me that Christmas for me has been a genuinely enjoyable season in the past, which is no surprise to me because my family has always worked incredibly hard to ensure that everyone is happy. Despite the sometimes stressful nature of family gatherings, we enjoyed each other’s company and the joy always outweighed any strife.  I know that having a positive relationship with Christmas is not true for everyone – Christmas can be an incredibly stressful time of year that is associated with anger and disappointment.  Crime rates and domestic violence skyrocket during Christmas, probably the result of the added stress of purchasing gifts and dealing with extended family.

A Mindful Christmas

For several years I have been reflecting on what Christmas really means to me and this year’s “experiment” of a Christmas in a foreign land was the perfect opportunity to separate the valuable aspects of the holiday from the junk.   Abel’s arrival also gives Jessica and me the opportunity to establish our own family traditions that reflect our unique values rather than mindlessly replicating mainstream rituals associated with Christmas.  

What I like about Christmas: delicious food, family gatherings, time off work and out of regular routines, communicating with distant friends and family via phone calls and cards, giving and receiving thoughtful gifts that have meaning to the recipient and gift-giver.  
What I want to avoid during Christmas: rushing around to make “appearances” at Christmas gatherings, spending more than I can afford for gifts, giving or receiving gifts that are based on how much they cost rather than their meaning, eating junk food for a week before and after Christmas.

Jessica and I missed our families a great deal this year, but we managed to have a very nice Christmas with Abel and our new friends. We exchanged simple gifts, ate loads of delicious and nourishing food, and had lots of time to relax and enjoy conversation. While this year was not an ideal Christmas due to our distance from family, it was beneficial in many ways. I have learned a lot about my emotional attachment to Christmas due to past experience and how I want Christmas to be celebrated by our family in the future.  I am looking forward to many years of joyful Christmas celebrations with the future.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Go With The Flow

I’m confounded by religion in Taiwan.

 It is easy in the United States to classify people on a continuum of religiosity, with non-religious on one end and highly pious on the other extreme. Also, most people self-identify with a discrete religious label such as “Catholic”, “non-practicing Jew”, “Methodist”, etc.  People in the US don’t just identify with a particular religion; the sect that they choose often informs much of their world-view and political outlook.  This is the sociology of religion with which I am familiar – choose your team, wear their colors, and do as the coach tells you.  Of course many people are independent thinkers in the area of spirituality, but a large part of religion in the United States is based on group identity.

This form of religiousness seems to be absent in Taiwan, with the exception of the Christian minority.  The traditional religions of Taiwan, and Chinese culture in general, are more like a constellation of beliefs, traditions, and philosophies that one can choose from based on personal opinions and preferences.  Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and traditional folk beliefs all intermingle to produce a rich trove of ancient beliefs and teachings from which people can choose.  There are people who ascribe to particular sects and traditions, but the different religious practices have been in contact for so many centuries that they have borrowed and mixed from one another so much that even scholars have a difficult time tracing their roots.

Long Shan Temple, one of the oldest in Taipei, worships a mixture of Buddhist, Taoist, and Folk Deities.
Dissecting the religions of Taiwan is no easy task, partially because it strains the definition of “religion”.  A perfect example involves the most outward display of religion that I have witnessed in Taiwan – setting up shrines and burning “ghost money”.  In this widely practiced ritual, business set up shrines and offering of food on the street and burn “ghost money” as a show of respect to the deceased. This practice is not part of any organized religion, but is the derived from ancient folk tradition based on ancestor worship. Buddhism does not condone the offerings to the deceased and Taoism tolerates it but does not promote its practice.  So why is this practice so widespread if it is not a part of any organized religion?  It is culture, not religion.  An analogy could be made with tombstones and flowers.  We wouldn’t consider placing flowers on tombstones to be a religious practice, even though it is spiritual in a way.  The same could be said of the Taiwanese custom of burning ghost money and offering food to the deceased.  I suppose it is easy to label foreign cultural practices as “religion” because it involves ritual and belief, but in reality it exists outside any formal religious tradition.

Statue of Matsu in Da'an Park
Another example of the complexity of worship in Taiwan can be found in the most commonly portrayed diety on the island - the Goddess Matsu.  Matsu is believed to be a woman who lived in Fujian province at around 900 CE and is credited with saving her father during a typhoon.  Her legend quickly grew around China and she was soon worshiped as the Goddess of the Southern Sea.  Since Taiwan is an island, many of the early settlers identified with her and thanked her for their safe arrival.  Matsu is not formally incorporated into any religion, but she is the most commonly worshiped figure in Taiwan. 

Of the major “religions” in Taiwan, only Taoism and Confucianism are indigenous; (Buddhism is often associated with China and the Far East, but it is an imported religion from India) however, there is a problem with this classification.  Confucianism is not a religion, but a philosophy.  Confucius did not teach about metaphysics or supernatural forces, which are necessary components for any religion.  Confucius’ teachings are about how to organize society and to best live one’s life.  There are shrines to Confucius all over, and everyone is familiar with his teachings, but it is not a religion in the strict sense of the word.

Young clerks at a trendy clothing store burning ghost money.

Taoism is more easily classified as a religion, but it is fundamentally different than the Abrahamic religions that dominate the Western world.  Taoism, which is often depicted by the yin/yang symbol, is a collection of teachings from Laozi, who is believed to have lived in the 4th century B.C.  Taoism is may be familiar to many Americans since it was embraced by “Beats” and “Hippies” as a source of inspiration and guidance.  Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey, and Alan Ginsberg regularly referred to the most important Taoist text, the I-Ching and a central tenet of Taoism, “Go with the flow” was a mantra of the ‘60s counterculture.  The reason it was so inspirational to the cultural revolutionaries of the mid-century was due to its non-dogmatic and decentralized approach to religion.  Taoist teachings contrast with the paternalistic nature of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.  There are no commandments, no sins, no stories of punishment or virtue in Taoism and there is no centralized structure to the religion as it is practiced.  Taoism is just a way to look at the world and some tools, like Tai-Chi and Fung-Shui, that can help one to thrive in it.

The amorphous nature of Taoism brings me back to my initial statement – religion in Taiwan challenges my assumptions of what it means to be religious. In Taiwan it is common to mix some Confucian philosophy with Taoist metaphysics and Buddhist ethics while practicing ancient folk rituals. Religious labels are too simple for the complex mix of beliefs found in Taiwan, so I just need to take some Taoist advice and go with the flow . . .

Friday, December 14, 2012

Considerate, but still a little creepy

When traveling to a new place, it is natural to focus on the differences - people’s habits, dress, and language all seem so inexplicable and foreign in different countries.  I had traveled in Asia before coming to Taiwan, so some aspects of Taiwan felt vaguely familiar, but there were others that I found puzzling.  One such puzzle was the ubiquitous surgical face masks.  Old people, young people, people on scooters, people working in shops, kids going to school – about 1 in 5 people wear a face mask on any given day.  At first this made me imagine some terrible apocalyptic scenario caused by an unstoppable pandemic that I didn’t know about because I couldn’t read the newspapers.  Of course I quickly realized this was not the case, and that wearing face masks is common behavior.  It still struck me as impersonal and possibly paranoid behavior that did make me feel like the entire city was as contaminated as a hospital.  It was as though seeing how worried others were about germs made me hyper-aware of germs.  Luckily, this impression also wore off and I figured out why Taiwanese people feel it necessary to wear masks so often.

Not my photo, but a common scene on the streets of Taipei
My initial impressions centered on the assumption that the masks are meant to protect the user.  In most instances, this is not the case - people wear masks to protect others.  If you feel like you are coming down with something, if you have a cold, or any sort of cough, it is common courtesy to wear a mask so that you don’t spread your germs to those around you. I emphasized “common courtesy” because that is what is so remarkable about this practice.  This is a quintessential example of Taiwanese courtesy and thoughtfulness.  Wearing a mask is uncomfortable, not particularly attractive, and it offers the wearer no benefit, yet thousands of people do it every day as a courtesy to others.  I think if you look up the definition of “considerate” in the dictionary, there should be the picture of a Taiwanese person on the subway wearing a facemask.

I’ve asked myself several times if I will wear a mask when I get sick.  Luckily, I haven’t had even a cold yet, but most likely I will before we leave.  I want to say that I will because it is the culturally appropriate thing to do and the courteous thing to do, but honestly I don’t know if I can walk around with a surgical mask on my face.  Why?  I think I would look ridiculous.  Even with thousands of other Taiwanese wearing masks every day all around me, my own cultural norms are so strong that I will have to make a concerted effort to leave the house wearing something that I associate with surgery and hospitals.  How often do you see people walking around the US with surgical masks on their faces?  If you did, how would you react?  I know that I would not stand anywhere near them because I would assume that a) they are very, very sick or b) they are crazy.  Despite my hesitation, I will force myself to wear a mask if I have a contagious illness.  If I had any courage I would do the same in the US and demonstrate what real courtesy looks like – even if it does look creepy at first sight.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Ode to Breast Milk

I spend a lot of time reflecting on how lucky I am to have a healthy and happy son, but I also realize that it is more than just luck.  Besides genetic and gestational variables that have led to Abel’s healthy development, I believe that the most important single reason why he is healthy is breastmilk.  This is some AMAZING stuff.  I always assumed that formula and breastmilk were functionally the same – they fill up a baby and give it the nutrients he/she need to grow.  While formula does provide the necessities, breastmilk provides so much more.

My List of Amazing Breastmilk Facts:
  • A child that is breastfed for the first year scores an average of 8 points higher on IQ tests, even when controlling for parents education, socioeconomic factors, etc.
  • Breastmilk provides a major immunity booster that leads to babies having half as many ear infections as formula fed infants.
  • Babies’ stomachs are sensitive and breastmilk is the most easily digested protein. Breastfed babies almost never experience constipation.
  • Breastmilk, even when not ingested, is a powerful antibacterial agent.  It can be applied directly to skin, and even into babies’ eyes, to cure rashes and irritation.  (We’ve actually tried this – it works!).
  • The composition of a mother’s breastmilk changes throughout the day to reflect the mother’s hormonal level, and actually contains sedatives at night which helps the baby sleep.
  • The composition of a mother’s breastmilk changes as the child grows to reflect their changing nutritional needs. 
  • Best of all – a breastfed babies poo doesn’t smell bad!!!!  (I will miss this as we transition to solids . . .)

I know, this list sounds too good to be true, but these facts are widely known. I want to make clear that my intention is not to make anyone feel bad for not breastfeeding – it is a very personal decision that every mother should make based on what is best for her and her child.  Also, a great many mothers are not able to breastfeed for a variety of reasons. Babies who are formula fed are happy and healthy too.

My hope is that no mother chooses not to breastfeed due to societal pressures or a lack of support.  Breastfeeding is hard, very hard at times.  The first few weeks are problematic for most new mothers, as our experience can attest.  Luckily, we had the support of a lactation consultant who was willing to drive across town on Saturday night to help Abel latch properly and calm our anxiety.  We were fortunate, many mothers don’t have that level of support and give up breastfeeding because of the initial difficultly.  That is a shame because mothers need support. Lots of it.  Gone are the days when the village midwife would stick around for a few days until a new mother got the hang of it.  Choosing not to breastfeed is fine, but it is a decision that should not be made out of duress.

The other reason breastfeeding may not be chosen by mothers is that it is not embraced by mainstream society. Breasts are taboo - sexual and scandalous.  Of course there is nothing sexual our scandalous about feeding an infant the way nature intended, but that logic does not trump the stigma that breastfeeding has in our culture.  A woman who breastfeeds in public in the United States is likely to get stares from some and possibly even disdain from others. This is so unfortunate because that mother who is the object of curiosity or derision, is doing the absolute most caring thing possible – nourishing and caring for a vulnerable baby.  We should do so much more to encourage breastfeeding in the US, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it will greatly benefit the country.  The education system will benefit by having brighter kids, the healthcare system will have fewer sick children, and a great deal of money will be saved on producing formula.

Taipei is striving to make breastfeeding easier and more publicly acceptable.  There are breastfeeding rooms in all subway stations, museums, libraries, and hospitals.  These are nice rooms – leather recliners, sinks, water dispensers, and changing tables.  By law, women cannot be stopped from breastfeeding in public.  There is also a public ad campaign to make the public aware of how important breastfeeding is to a baby’s health.  The ads have a photo of a breastfeeding mother with information and statistics on how it helps – the photo alone is very important in that it desensitizes it in their minds.

I am proud to have a wife who has worked so incredibly hard to give our son the best possible start.  It would have been easier to do it differently, but she persevered through many difficult weeks after the birth when feeding was not so smooth.  She continued as we traveled across the country in our car and over the ocean by plane.  Now that she is the primary breadwinner, it is very inconvenient to have to pump enough breastmilk to feed him while she is working. Every day she has to take time to pump while at work, first thing in the morning, and after Abel goes to sleep.  She does it all so that he is well-fed and healthy.  Having a healthy son is not due to just luck, it is a result of the hard work of a very caring and loving mother. 

Friday, November 30, 2012

Behavior Analysis for the Behavior Analyst in Training

Maybe you have noticed that there has been a decrease in frequency of posts during the past month. This is due in part to a shift in attention to studying for my upcoming Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) examination.  I love posting rambling essays on whatever topic on my interest of the day, but I had this reality check regarding the upcoming exam; only 46% of those who sit for the exam get a passing score.  Yowzers.  Less than half.  I am a reasonably confident person, and I have a good track record in regards to test-taking, but less than half?!? 

After a sufficient period of worry and anxiety (about two days) I decided that this information was good news.  Fewer people receiving the BCBA credential means that my future credential will be more valuable.  A high pass rate would mean that my certification would be meaningless, the money I’ve spent would be wasted, job opportunities would be scarce, and the title would have no prestige or recognition.  Of course this view is anchored in the belief that I will pass this exam.  Maybe not on the first try, or the second, but I will pass this exam. 

How am I going to make sure that this happens? I am going to use the principles of behavior analysis to help me become a behavior analyst.  Although it is a minor area in the overall discipline of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), Self-Management is a fascinating topic.  Most of ABA is concerned with how behavior is modified through the manipulation of socially mediated or automatic (aka sensory) antecedents and consequences.  Typically, the behavior of students or individuals with disabilities is modified by teachers or therapists, but that is just a reflection of how ABA is currently being utilized.  The principles of Behaviorism apply not only to all people, but to all organisms.  The current boom underway in the field is due to the increased prevalence of autism and the well-documented effectiveness of ABA in educating these students, but ABA was developed to apply to anyone.  Even myself. 

Self-Management is defined as “the personal application of behavior change tactics that produces a desired change in behavior.” A typically dry and broad textbook definition, but for me it was a real wake-up call.  I don’t have to wait to apply all of the techniques and principles I have learned – I can use them on myself!  What better way to improve my study habits than to use what I am studying to get myself to study more often and more efficiently!

Easier said than done, but the last month has been very successful. (I’m going to throw some ABA terms around just to make myself feel like I know what I’m talking about – I have to get some use out of these hours of studying!)  After conducting an informal “stimulus preference assessment” on myself, I found that checking things off a list is very reinforcing.  To utilize this as reinforcement, I made a daily star chart similar to what you would see in a classroom, in which I give myself a star for 12 daily tasks that I need to accomplish, several of which involve studying different ABA material.  I have arranged “antecedent stimuli” in places around the apartment to make it easier to engage in the behavior and have eliminated “discriminative stimuli” for interfering behaviors, such as Facebook or listening to my iPod.

Those terms are fun to use, but most of what I did was common sense.  I wrote down my goals, kept track of completion, put my stuff out in the open so I would remember to study, and made sure there weren't any distractions.  Most people successfully implement behavioral self-management techniques every day.  Most people could also benefit from improved self-management (myself included).  Think about someone who overeats.  The person knows that overeating causes them to be obese, and they really don’t want to be obese.  Barring some medical issue, all they would have to do is eat less and exercise more and they would lose weight.  This is the case for millions of people, so what stops people from doing what they know they need to do to reach their goals?  The problem lies in the contingencies of behavior.  The desired behavior – eating a light meal – produces no immediate reinforcement, but the problem behavior – overeating on rich foods – produces immediate and powerful reinforcement.  Each individual act of overeating does not cause one to be overweight, and one single instance of healthy eating does not cause one to reach a desired weight.  Behavior Analysis has proven in countless studies that it is the more immediate of contingencies that influences behavior patterns.  The same principle applies to smoking.  Everyone knows that smoking causes cancer and emphysema, but that consequence is in the distant future and smoking a cigarette produces very powerful and immediate reinforcement.   

How can Self-Management help people to achieve desired behavior change?  By “designing and implementing contrived consequences to compete with the ineffective natural consequences”.  Not smoking a cigarette is extremely important in achieving the goal of improved health, but it does not provide any natural immediate consequences, especially not compared with smoking a cigarette.  In a self-management program, you would develop a contrived consequence for not smoking a cigarette.  For example, for every hour you go without a cigarette, you give yourself ten minutes of your favorite activity.  Conversely, you can arrange for a punitive consequence for smoking, such as paying a dollar into a jar for each cigarette smoked.  The success of self-management relies on the individual honestly implementing the consequences, but the individual can also put someone else in charge of distributing reinforcement and punishment, such as a spouse or roommate. 

In my case, studying for the BCBA exam provides no immediate reinforcement, despite the fact that it has an important long-term benefit.  I had to create a short-term contingency that would make reinforce daily studying.  Luckily, I am very compulsive and can’t go to bed without getting every checkmark, so a simple list works for me.    To ensure that I exercise daily, I reward myself with an extra-large lunch.  I don’t exercise; I don’t get as much to eat.  I exercise to improve my overall health and to keep my weight down, but those consequences are too long-term and vague to be effective in reinforcing a daily routine. 

Since Applied Behavior Analysis is filling my mind these days, it may be what fills the next few blog posts.  I did not intend for this post to be so lengthy, but I have enjoyed rambling on this topic.  Hopefully I have struck the right balance between being technically accurate and using common-place language to describe the topic.  If you have any behavioral question for me – please ask!  I am anxious to use this knowledge on something other than flashcards! 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Very Good "The Good Earth"

The classics of the literary canon (ie. Those books that everyone is “supposed” to read, typically given out as required reading assignments in intro English classes) do not typically hold my interest.  In my experience, if a book was written over fifty years ago, despite all of its laudable literary merit, I find myself bored and can finish it only with a grim sense of responsibility.  There have been a few exceptions, and The Good Earth is definitely one of them.

During one of my outings with Abel, we visited a used bookstore/cafĂ© with a good selection of English titles.  I managed to inhale my fish tacos (not surprisingly, they were disappointing, but I just had to try fish tacos in Taiwan!) before Abel started to get a bit fussy.  That gave me about two minutes to choose a book from the stacks, so when I grabbed The Good Earth, it ticked all the right boxes – about China, written in English, and very cheap.

Once I had some time to inspect it, I was disillusioned that it was written in the 1930’s. I also gathered that it was about pre-revolutionary China written by the daughter of a missionary. Yawn.  I immediately assumed the language would be out of date, the content would be irrelevant and the characters would be stodgy. 

Wow, was I wrong. 

I was glued to the book for a solid week.  The first three days I whizzed through chapters, picking it up every spare minute I could find.  The next three days went by without reading a word because I wanted to save the last chapter and savor the unfinished story.  When I finally indulged in the last chapter, I was glad that I had waited;  it was the perfect ending to a brilliantly crafted narrative.

It is a classic story of survival, love, and struggle.  The writing style is extremely straightforward, just as the characters are very direct in their intentions and aspirations.  This does not mean it is boring, but rather that the beauty of the novel is not found it literary flourishes or fancy devices of the language. The book’s beauty is found in the simple story and believable characters.  While the book does contain a lot of interesting insights into the life of a peasant in rural China, the story and characters are timeless and universally understandable.   Everyone can learn something about themselves and the meaning of life from this humble book.

I actually think I’m pretty good at judging a book by its cover, or at least judging whether or not I will like a book based on its cover, but reading The Good Earth was an important reminder that some old worn paperbacks in their twentieth printing may have a lot of relevance to modern life. I’m back into more contemporary literature for now (reading “Speed of Dark” by Elizabeth Moon), but I’m going to fit in more classics to my reading list from now on.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Delinquent Dad or Astute Risk Manager?

I have only been in Taiwan for about three months and I am already taking the city for granted.  

Abel and I were both very wound up last night, not at all ready for bed despite the late hour, so I decided we should go for a walk.  I strapped him into the carrier and headed out the door to Da’an Park, Taiwan’s version of Central Park.  Da’an is large, wooded, and right in middle of the city.  The park is only about a block away from our apartment, but luckily there is a 7-11 on the way, so I stopped and bought a refreshing adult beverage (Busch – which I don’t like in the US, but find myself liking while in Taipei).  Abel and I strolled around the darkened park as he drifted off to sleep and I relaxed in the cool autumn air.  As I walked, I realized what I was doing.  I was in middle of a major city, at night, in a dark park, drinking alcohol, with a baby strapped to my chest.  Am I completely irresponsible or is Taipei just that safe?

I may not be a perfect Dad, but I’m pretty sure the answer to the previous question is that Taipei is just that safe.  There is virtually no random street crime.  Muggings, shootings, kidnapping – these are all incredibly rare for a city as large as Taipei. I have been searching for some statistics to back me up on this claim, which is taken as common knowledge among expats, but have found very little.  This could be due to my rusty research skills, but it is also partly due to the fact that the only clearinghouse of international crime data is the United Nations. Since Taiwan is not recognized by the UN, it is not included in its reports.   Since I have no quantitative data to share, here are some more anecdotal reports of crime rates in Taiwan:

As for the open container I enjoyed while walking in the park – individual beers are sold in every corner store 24 hours a day in Taipei and open containers are not banned in public.  I did not believe this initially because I have still NEVER witnessed a Taiwanese person drinking while in a public space.  I assumed that since no one does it, it must be illegal, but social conformity is so strong here that no law is needed to regulate when and where you can drink.  If there were no regulations in the US on drinking in public parks or on the street, you would see drunks stumbling all over the place.  In fact, you do often see drunks stumbling around with beers in the few places where you can have open containers.  Public drunkenness is very uncommon in Taipei – so far I’ve seen a handful of red-faced old guys who are really smiley after hitting the sauce in restaurants.  More restrictive alcohol laws are simply not needed here because binge drinking and the associated vices are just not common.  A very foreign concept for this reformed frat boy from the Midwest.

My confidence that I was not an anti-social risk-taking delinquent dad was strengthened during my walk when I came across two young women in their twenties pushing strollers with sleeping babies.  If it is safe for them to wander around the park at night, who is going to mess with a bearded guy drinking a big American beer?

Monday, November 5, 2012

Feeling Shaky

Disaster preparedness is one of those items that usually resides somewhere at the bottom of my to-do list.  Feeling our apartment building sway back and forth last night bumped the “figure out what to do in an earthquake” task to the top of my list. 

Not to worry, the earthquake we experienced was minor and as far as I know did not disrupt life in any way here in Taipei.  The physical sensation was much different than I expected, probably due to watching too many Hollywood style earthquakes in movies.  I felt instantly dizzy and almost drunk because of the building subtly swaying back and forth.  It wasn't a shake or even a quake as I had expected.  This may be because we are on the 5th floor – I’m not sure how it felt on the ground. 

 The quake registered a 4.7 on the Richter scale, which would make headlines back home in Missouri, but hardly made the news here in Taiwan. In 1999, there was a massive quake in central Taiwan that killed thousands and injured tens of thousands.  Over 50,000 buildings were completely destroyed, causing USD$10 billion in damage.  It was the worst earthquake in 100 years and exposed the country’s lack of preparedness.  Since that terrible quake, known as the “921 Earthquake”, construction and emergency preparedness have greatly improved.

Damage after the 921 earthquake

  Since we are now living on the “Pacific Ring of Fire”, we should probably figure out what the heck to do with ourselves if we experience a major quake while we are here.  Luckily, there is an emergency shelter underneath the large park that is very near to our apartment.  Other than that, we’ll make sure to have extra food and water in case of water lines being broken and electricity outage that will make food purchases difficult.  Should keep a helmet on Abel’s head 24/7 just in case? Probably not, but hopefully I won’t be caught as off guard next time the building sways.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Betel Nut Buzz

I love new cultural experiences.  The excitement of trying anything for the first time gives me a thrill, so I was very excited to try Betel Nut since it packs a very tangible high aside from the novelty of the experience.   \

First and foremost – Betel Nut is not only completely legal in Taiwan, but chewing it is an extremely common practice here that dates back hundreds if not thousands of years.  All over Taiwan there are little booths lit up with neon lights that sell bags of betel nut to taxi drivers, truckers, and anyone else looking for a little pick-me-up. Apparently these booths are often staffed by scantily clad women in other parts of Taiwan, but this practice has been banned inside Taipei. Every betel nut vendor I have seen is staffed by a grumpy older man who is, thankfully, not wearing reveling clothes.

The betel nut buzz is nothing like that of alcohol or marijuana – it is much more akin to a strong cup of coffee.  Chewing a little right now, I can attest that the effects come on much quicker than caffeine, but are more short-lived.  How does it taste?  Somewhere between god-awful and just plain terrible.  It is extremely bitter - an acquired taste to say the least.  Since I have a fondness for most bitter flavors, I don’t find it as offensive as most first-time users probably do.  Even though I don’t mind the bitterness, I have gum ready to chew after I spit out the remainder of the pulp. 

The downside to chewing betel nut is that it has been identified as a carcinogenic.  This applies mostly to processed betel nut, not the natural preparation that you can find here in Taiwan.  However, the World Health Organization does officially classify it as a cancer risk factor for habitual users.  I figure that chewing a few times a month this year can’t be too deadly since I see plenty of cab drivers in their 60’s chewing it almost constantly. 

Although I don’t think occasional use will do me in, this is one part of Taiwan’s culture that I won’t be bringing back with me to the US.  I’ll stick to my coffee and tea.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Couldn't Have Said it Better Myself

I love it when I come across writing that makes me scream, “that is exactly what I’m trying to say!”  It is satisfying to read my thoughts in concise and articulate language, but it also makes me strive to improve my writing to such a level.  This is an introduction to a paper titled, “Diverse Contexts of Human Infancy” by Barry Hewlett which summarizes the ideas I was struggling to convey in the previous two “Going with your Gut” posts.

American parents are unique cross-culturally in that they usually do not know very much about infancy until they have their own baby. In many parts of the world, individuals grow up with infants around them because of high fertility or living with an extended family. Children in many parts of the world are expected to assist their mothers or female relatives with infant care, so by the time they become parents they are aware of basic needs of infants and know how to respond appropriately to them. American mothers and fathers, on the other hand, seldom, if ever, have had the opportunity to care for a baby until they have their own. First-time parents are often overwhelmed because babies take an enormous amount of knowledge and time. How many hours should an infant sleep, when is a good time to introduce solid foods, and should parents sleep with their infants are common questions. Since first-time American parents do not have this knowledge and do not live with someone who has the information, they often turn to “experts” for guidance. A handful of infant books and regular visits to the pediatrician are common.

One limitation to expert advice is that it is provided in the context of American culture. The expert usually does not have the time to read about infancy in other parts of the world, but gives the impression that the advice is based upon studies of infants around the world. This is seldom the case and can lead to inaccurate views of the abilities or development of human infants.

This chapter examines American and Western European biases in descriptions and characterizations of infants by examining infancy cross-culturally and placing infant care-giving practices in their cultural contexts. This approach to human infancy provides a broader understanding of human infancy. Understanding the diversity of cultural contexts of infancy can possibly develop a greater tolerance and respect for variability in baby care beliefs and practices, as well as identify options that might be available for enhancing infant development.

I have also come across another source of parenting information, “Parenting Science”, which is in sync with my own concepts of how to approach raising children in our culture.  The author, Gwen Dewar, is an anthropologist, but not one who recommends that we return to the lifestyle of hunters and gatherers.  She takes a more empirical approach to controversial parenting issues that is based on scientific studies, but where those studies are vague or absent she looks to case-studies from traditional cultures that shed light on humans natural development grounded in our evolutionary past. It is interested reading – give it a look!  

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Greatest Wealth is Health

I never thought that I would spend so much time worrying about health insurance, doctor visit copays, and dental coverage – a sure sign of getting older.  Now that Jess and I have a little guy to watch out for, quality healthcare is extremely important to us.  In fact, affordable access to healthcare is one of the reasons why I am writing this blog post from Taiwan.  If we were to “downshift” in the US by having one of us stay home with Abel and the other teach full time, the working spouse would have to pay $650 per month to cover the health insurance premiums for the family.  As a public school teacher, that is a huge expense which makes it nearly impossible to spend a year at home with a baby.  Luckily, Taiwan has a much more efficient and affordable healthcare system that even welcomes foreigners!

We had an up close and personal experience with healthcare in Taiwan just the other day when we took Abel in for his four month immunizations.  We have spent countless hours researching online, emailing with family doctors, and we even met with a travel health doctor while in Austin.  We were very nervous about the whole process, but we were happy to learn that our worries were unfounded.  I won’t say it was a pleasant experience, I doubt giving shots to a baby can ever be anything but miserable, but I did marvel at the efficiency of the clinic and its staff. 

The contrast between pleasantness and efficiency pretty well sums up one of the most interesting aspects of healthcare in Taiwan – not terribly pleasant, but extremely efficient.  The unpleasantness does not come from substandard care or unfriendly staff, but from is a byproduct of the system which does not sacrifice one iota of efficiency for the sake of privacy.  My other experience with the Taiwanese healthcare system was when I had to get a “health check” at the city hospital so that I could apply for the resident certificate.  During this check, I had blood drawn at a counter with 20 people lined up behind me, changed into a hospital robe and waited in line for my number to be called, and had a chest extra in front of 20 other strangers after they announced my name over the intercom.  No HIPA (Health Information Privacy Act) here in Taiwan.  My chart containing test results and other sensitive information was passed around to volunteers and left on counters.  Of course I had nothing to hide, but it is very different than the extreme privacy afforded at US hospitals.

Privacy may not be paramount in Taiwan, but equitable access to quality healthcare certainly is a top priority.  Every citizen, and even alien residents like us, is provided with free health coverage. The system is similar to Medicare, but expanded to the entire population.  Working folks pay a tax similar to Medicare tax that is a percentage of income, and there are small copays for visits, usually just a few dollars.  The poor, elderly, and veterans are all covered for free.

What makes this equitable access to care possible?  Efficiency.  Taiwan does more with less by cutting administrative costs and streamlining care delivery with the single payer system.  Also, record keeping and billing are extremely streamlined due to the health care card that is embedded with a smart chip that contains a summary of health information and records.  These streamlined measures help to make the Taiwanese system one of the most affordable and efficient in the world. While the US spends 15% of its GDP on health care, Taiwan spends only 6%.  That means that the average amount spent per person per year in the US on healthcare is $7000, but only $2000 in Taiwan.  That is an enormous difference considering that there is very little difference in quality.  

The amazing part is that people access healthcare services more often in Taiwan than in the US.  “Health seeking behaviors” are very high in Taiwan and people go to clinics, Chinese medical offices, acupuncturists, and massage therapists for even minor ailments.  And it is all covered! It seems to me that if you make healthcare affordable, then people will seek medical help for minor ailments before they become more severe, which will save everyone a lot of money in the long run.  Financial barriers to healthcare cause people in the US to put off going to the doctor, which leads to more chronic illnesses and acute conditions that require expensive and invasive procedures after they become more serious, which is part of the reason why the US has the highest per capital healthcare costs in the world. 

If the whole purpose of healthcare is to help us live longer healthier lives, then Taiwan is getting a lot of bang for their buck – the average Taiwanese lives over a year longer than the average American. We spend over three times as much and don’t live as long.  The Taiwanese studied our Medicare system to find inspiration for their healthcare system, now maybe it is time that we study Taiwan’s National Health Insurance system to find ways to improve the health of our country.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Not Just America’s Pastime

All of the Cardinals’ hysteria that is going on back at home piqued my interest in Taiwanese baseball.  Many people know that baseball is popular in Japan, but I imagine that few people realize that it is also a top sport in Taiwan. The Japanese introduced the sport in the early 1900’s and it has steadily grown in popularity to become the most popular national sport.

Without an expensive satellite package, sometimes it can be hard to watch your favorite teams’ games in the US, but no problem in Taiwan – there always seems to be a MLB game on, regardless of the time of day.  I just spoke with an older Taiwanese guy at the gym yesterday who told me that he keeps up on all the MLB teams and watches games almost every day.  He was a Giants fan, so when he found out I was from Cardinals’ country, he got pretty excited.

Taiwan’s home league is quite popular, but has had a rocky history.  The Chinese Professional Baseball League was formed in 1989 and was so popular that it spawned a rival league, the Taiwan Major League.  Things were going great for baseball in Taiwan until a series of game-fixing scandals involving the mafia became public.  In 2003, after only seven years, the TML was absorbed into the CPBL leaving only one league and several teams affected by the various scandals were dissolved. Attendance suffered because fans had lost trust in the players, but not in the game itself.

Interesting facts about baseball in Taiwan:

  • Taiwan has won more Little League World Championships than any other country!  I guess combining a love for baseball with very focused and dedicated youngsters is a winning combination.
  • The champion of the CPBL goes on to play in the Asia Series against Korea, Japan, and China.
  • If a pitcher hits a batter with a pitch, he tips his cap as a sign of respect and to indicate that it was not intentional.  There are few, if any, intended hit batsmen or retaliatory hits.
  • A baseball scene is depicted on the $500 NTD note.
  • At the end of every game, both teams and the umpires bow to the fans to show their appreciation for their patronage. 

Hopefully I’ll get to see a baseball game during our time here – probably my only chance to get fried tofu and green tea at a baseball stadium!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Global Constituents

Endless arguing, daily unsolicited phone calls, angry divisions between family and friends, endless spiteful commercials – all this fun and more during autumn of an election year.

I have been very fortunate to have been overseas for this election and the last. This geographic distance has given me respite from the ads, calls, and awkward/tense discussions, but there is nowhere on earth that is unaware of the US election.  Observing the election process from an international perspective has been fascinating – the entire world is watching the US and the average person in Taiwan is aware of the latest poll numbers, the debate performances, and each candidate’s policy proposals.  All the international channels, and even the local news stations, carry updates on the campaigning.  Do we get updates on local news about elections in Taiwan?  Of course not - maybe it would get 10 seconds of an international news segment on CNN during off-peak viewing. That would be about it.

Why does the US election gets daily coverage in Taiwan, yet we in the US are not even aware when there is an election in Taiwan? Simple -the US election is an event that has huge import to the entire world.  Most interesting to me is that although everyone in the world is a stakeholder in the US election, most of the world’s people have absolutely no input or voice in the process.  The US is the undisputed world military and economic leader and the decisions made by the next President of the United States will have an impact that is felt in a very tangible way by citizens of every country in the world.    The President is elected exclusively by the US citizens, but has power over people in every country. 

This gross geopolitical imbalance could be defused if the issues of global concern featured more prominently in the presidential election. There is no legal or electoral imperative to shift the debate towards international welfare, but I feel that there is a moral one.  Both candidates make strong claims to be caring Christian men, but the suffering of millions of humans around the world is virtually ignored because they are not voting constituents. This issue is ignored despite the fact that caring for one’s less-fortunate neighbors is a Christian, perhaps even universal, religious tenet.  I doubt that valuing American comfort to the detriment of those in the rest of the world could be defended by any verse in the Bible.  Unfortunately, a political candidate who vows to fight poverty on a global scale doesn't stand a chance to win an election.  Americans are so worried about unemployment and taxes that anyone who would admit to sacrificing a single job or raise taxes by a fraction of a percent to help alleviate suffering in another country would be blown out of the water in a national election. Ironically, with all the haranguing about the “1%” not paying its fair share, there has been no mention that the entire US population is the top 1% globally, and we surely don’t pay our fair share to help the billion people struggling to survive on less than $1 a day. Perhaps I’m being cynical – elections tend to have that effect on me.

I just hope that when voters go to the polls, or when questions are asked of the candidates, a little thought is given to the billions who will be affected by the election but have not impact on its outcome. Yes - it is our country, our election, and our choice.  Is it too much to hope that America will use its wealth and power to be a world leader in eradicating global injustice rather than a global bully in promoting its self-interest? Is this really such a radical thought? No matter who wins in November, my hope is that he uses his power and influence to benefit not just the people of the United States, but help to improve conditions for humanity irrespective of national borders.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Original Super-Market

There are two very different ways to shop in Taipei.  The easy way is to go to the supermarket and stock up on everything you need in one place, exactly as most people do in the US.  Then there is the old-school way to shop – taking a stroll through the street market.

Although going to the farmers’ markets is currently very fashionable in the US, most people have lost touch with buying food in a traditional market.  That is too bad because buying food at a street market is one of the most sensory-rich experiences you can find - entertainment as much as shopping. Brightly colored vegetables piled high in every direction, shrill calls of vendors advertising their specials, wafting fragrance of roasted peanuts and fried tofu, and the whirl of bikes, scooters, strollers, and carts hustling by in every direction. Always the stimulation junkie – Abel LOVES the market.  The market loves Abel back, and we get the rewards in the form of extra handfuls of greens and discounts on our fruit.

I definitely experienced sensory overload on our first trip down the market street, not to mention overwhelmed by the cognitive burden of trying to figure out if lady #1’s broccoli at 35 TWD a basket is a better deal than lady #2’s broccoli for 20 TWD a pound, but then there is also lady #3 who has two crowns of broccoli for 30 TWD, and she said hers is local . . .  you get the idea.  It is much easier to comparison shop when you can take your time standing in front of goods which are lined up, packaged, and labeled on a shelf.  It takes some trial and error, but after a month we are starting to get to know where to go for what vegetable and which vegetables are the best value.  Despite the complexity of the comparison shopping, the market is generally significantly cheaper than going to the fluorescent, sterile, and impersonal supermarket - and way more fun.

We are just beginning to delve into a whole new realm of the market – seafood.  Clams, crabs, oysters, snapper, squid, salmon, mussels, tuna – you name it, they’ve got it lined up on their ice filled tables. We were a little hesitant about buying fish sitting out in the open air, so for our first seafood foray we went with Tilapia – a conservative choice considering the options. When the fish we chose began to flop and flap violently in the plastic bag we were handed, we realized freshness was not a concern.  I was concerned, however, that it might actually manage to flop its way out our little refrigerator. Luckily, the walk home and the cold temperature in the fridge relaxed the fish enough to keep him safely contained until dinner time.    

Without any language skills, I rely completely on Jess to navigate our market trips.  This can be a little frustrating for me, and probably for Jess since she has to do all the negotiating, but we both really enjoy our Sunday morning market trips. I'm certain about one thing - it sure beats a trip to Wal-Mart!

Tofu Vendor - Everything on the table is tofu!
Crabs that are neatly tied up for your convenience! 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Confucius Says: Teachers Rock!

It is nice to be in a country that values education and teachers.  Taiwan, and much of Asia, puts great emphasis on education at the family and societal level – children are strongly encouraged to do well in school and schools are funded appropriately by the government.  We’ve all seen the statistics of how US students compare to their Asian equivalents in standardized tests – they are well behind in science and math.  This is in addition to the fact that students in Taiwan, China, Korea, and Japan all start learning English, in addition to their native language, beginning in Kindergarten!  They have an entire additional subject to learn, but still manage to outperform American students.

A lot of experts have weighed in on this issue, but it seems clear to me that the high value of education stems from Confucian values that place great responsibility on the younger generation to serve and learn from the older generation.  Also, Confucius himself was a teacher and taught of the importance of learning from the society’s elder members. Confucius thought and philosophy are alive and well in Chinese culture – there is even a National Teacher’s Day which was celebrated last month.

Teachers in Taiwan not only enjoy a more respected social status than their US counterparts, but they also enjoy a better salary.  Although my hurried googling didn’t result in any definitive numbers that adjust for cost of living, I can speak to our experience as English teachers here in Taiwan.  We are able to live a much more comfortable life here in Taiwan by working just a fraction of the hours that we worked while in Texas.   Combined, Jess and I now work under 30 hours a week, but are able to afford an apartment downtown, eat out at restaurants most days, and travel around the city as much as we like.  I’m not saying any of this to brag, but to highlight the contrast with our financial situation while in the US – we worked 100 hours a week combined, cooked at home for nearly every meal, and dared not waste gasoline.  Of course this comparison involves more variables than just teacher salary, but it is a huge difference in lifestyle for us made possible by being professional educators.

It hasn't all been easy. My search for a part time teaching position has had many ups and downs over the last month, mostly because I have very limited hours of availability due to Jess’ schedule.  I interviewed and was offered a job as an online tutor working in the evening (8-10) and weekends.  I even signed an employment contract, but there was a misunderstanding about which kind of foreign visa I have, so I couldn’t apply for a work permit.  Luckily, the very next day I was approached by one of Jess’ coworkers about a tutoring opportunity for twin 1st graders who attended Jess’ school last year.  Two days after being disappointed about the online tutoring job, I was sitting in a fancy apartment tutoring two cute kids in reading for twice the pay of the online position!  Again, it is because society places such a high value on education that tutors are so well compensated and teachers are able to enjoy comfortable lifestyles. 

We're looking forward to getting back to the States, but we will miss the perks of teaching here.  We'll just have to plan on working to raise the status of the education profession in the US so that teachers are given the respect and economic incentives they deserve.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

When the Moon is Full . . .

Everybody loves holidays and one of the great things about living in a different culture is that there is double the number of holidays to celebrate! We’ll still partake in our traditional holidays, but now we get a whole new set of special days to enjoy.

One such day, the Mid-Autumn Festival, is tomorrow. This holiday (also known as the “Moon Festival” or “Lunar Festival”) is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, which is basically the full moon that falls sometime in September.  I absolutely love how this day is celebrated here – families gather outside in the pleasant autumn weather to eat BBQ and moon cakes while gazing at the full moon.  It is a time for families to gather and to reflect on those who are far away or passed away.  Since everyone is admiring the same full moon at the same time, there is a very tangible sense of togetherness, hence the expression “when the moon is full, mankind is one”.  I wish we had a holiday that was as simple and well-meaning as the Moon Festival.  Perhaps our closest parallel is Thanksgiving – not in terms of origins or meaning, but because it is celebrated in a less commercial manner with family and reflection.

I took this during the last full moon looking
towards the Taipei 101 Buidling.
A highlight of the festival is eating moon cakes.  These little guys are intense.  They are the size of a mini-cupcake, but are more dense and rich than anything I’ve ever eaten.  Moon cakes come in several shapes and sizes, but the traditional kind has a somewhat crispy outer crust with a super-rich and sweet filling that contains a salted egg yolk.  One of these will stick with you for hours – don’t try snacking on one before dinner, believe me.  Jess came home with an entire box which she received as a gift from a student’s parents. Hopefully we can give them away because I can’t not eat them, even though I know that just one of them probably contain as many calories as a four course meal.

Moon cakes have an interesting origin that goes back to the Yuan dynasty.  The Han people of the time resented the Mongol rule of the Yuan dynasty and wanted to plan a rebellion.  Zhu Yuanzhang and his advisors came up with a plan that involved spreading a rumor that a deadly plague was sweeping through the country, and the only prevention was to eat special moon cakes.  They quickly distributed the cakes which contained a secret message to revolt on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month.  It worked and the Ming revolution was successful, thanks in part to these yummy little belly bombs.

We are celebrating the Moon Festival on our roof tomorrow night with our neighbors at a potluck party.  Hopefully the weather will be as nice tomorrow as it was all day today – 70 degrees and a clear blue sky.  This is a much deserved change after a stretch of rainy weather.  We’re looking forward to the opportunity to get to know our neighbors, eat some BBQ, and enjoy the full moon on a nice rooftop garden, and to think about all the people who we miss on the other side of the world. 

Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Better Luck Next Time

 I’ve always said that playing the lottery is the only voluntary tax in the world. When I’m being especially cynical, I’ve been known to call it “the idiot tax” because of the terrible odds that are stacked in the house’s favor.  I’ve bought a handful of scratchers in my life (as a rule, never from a state in which I reside) and I’ve never once bought a traditional pick-your-family-members’-birthday-numbers lotto ticket.  This is probably why I’ve been obsessed with the Taiwan lotto ever since we’ve moved here.

The Taiwanese lotto is unlike anything I’ve ever heard of – the biggest difference being that you don’t buy tickets.  Every single receipt that you get from any store, no matter how small the purchase, acts as a lotto ticket.  So naturally, Taiwanese people cherish their receipts and never dare toss one in the trash as they leave a store.  The winnings can be as much as $10 million NTD (about $300,000 USD).  Not bad. 

Why on earth would the Taiwanese government give away millions to people just for having their receipts?  The genius behind the lottery system is that it makes receipts valuable to customers, so they demand, or at least expect, that they get a receipt for every purchase.  If stores print receipts for every purchase, thereby entering it into their registers, every purchase can be taxed.  The lottery system is a clever way to keep all transactions “on the books” so that businesses can’t hide revenue from the government.  Millions may be given away to the winners, but the real winner is the government since very few transactions are not officially recorded and taxed. The lottery system basically turns each customer into an auditor or enforcer of the tax code.  I may not care if a business reports all of its income, but I damn well want my receipt that may be worth 10 million!

The actual lottery is pretty simple.  They draw a series of eight digit numbers.  Each receipt has a unique eight digit number (this takes some coordination – which is why it is called the “Uniform Invoice Lottery”) that is printed on the top of the receipt.  Match the grand prize or special prize exactly, and you win the jackpot of $10 million.  If you match the last seven digits, you get $40,000, match the last six and you get $10,000 and so on.  Just matching the last three digits will get you $200 (about $6.50), which is at least a decent dinner.    Since there are five numbers that only require matching the last three numbers, each receipt has a 1/200 chance of winning.  That doesn’t sound great, but the lottery is held every two months, so you are bound to have 200 receipts and have at least one winner.  That is, if you are lucky.

Apparently, I’m not very lucky.  At least not yet.  I probably spoiled my luck by half-jokingly obsessing over the $10 million grand prize for the last two weeks.  For some reason I had an irrational belief that we would win big.  I even did the math on the odds of the grand prize.  23,000,000 people x 1 reciept per day x 60 days = 1.38 Billion receipts.  Since there is probably an average of more than one receipt per day per person, I have less than a 1 in 1,000,000,000 chance of winning the grand prize.  I guess since everything else has been working out so well here, I just assumed the luck would continue.  I’ll just have to cherish my good fortune in other areas and keep collecting receipts for the November 25th numbers.  

Wish us luck!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Original Taiwanese

Taiwan is similar to China in many ways, but it has some features not found on the mainland.  The indigenous people of Taiwan give the island a distinctive cultural heritage unique to the island.

After two unsuccessful attempts, Abel and I finally got to tour the Formosa Museum of Aborigines last week, and it was worth the wait.  The museum was small, but very new and contained lots of cool artifacts with English explanations.   I was totally ignorant about these cultures and was surprised by many things I learned.  For one, the indigenous people are virtually unrelated to any people on the Asian continent - they are share lineage and cultural roots with Polynesian people in Malaysia, Philippines, and the Pacific Islands, including Hawaii.  Today, only 2% of the island’s population is of indigenous descent, the vast majority of people having immigrated from Mainland China in successive waves starting in the 17th century.

Here are some of the other interesting things (at least to an anthropology nut) that I learned about Taiwan’s original inhabitants:

·         Living on an island, the people on the coast have learned to make some incredible boats.  They are fast and light and take three years to build.  Just look at these!

·         Several of the tribes on the island practiced face tattooing, which was a coming of age ritual for both males and females.  Here is a good article explains its relation to their creation story.   Can you imagine entering a village where all the inhabitants have tattooed faces!

·         Indigenous music is awesome and I was shocked to learn that I was actually familiar with a particular song.  You have probably heard the song linked below also.  How is it that a Taiwanese aboriginal song is played around the world? The story is that a French cultural organization went around the world collecting traditional songs from indigenous people and then compiled the recordings on a collection of albums which they sold.  Michael Cretu of the group Enigma bought the rights from the French organization and used it as the foundation for “Return to Innocence”.  Cretu earned gobs of money and the elderly Difang, who originally sang the song on the bus for free, got nothing. Luckily the situation was somewhat rectified as Difang received a settlement out of court and subsequently recorded albums of his cultures’ traditional songs.   Something about it is beautiful and haunting – makes me want to listen to more of his songs.

·         Rukai villages built homes out of beautiful slate rock – creating streets, walls, floors, roofs, and all out of huge slabs of black slate.  No thatched huts for these people!  They had a nice mock-up of a home in the museum – it looked like it would stay cool in the summer, be easy to clean, and stand up to any typhoon.

Jess and I are planning a visit to Wulai in the next few weeks to experience some of the food and cultural events of the Atayal people.  Two things I look forward to are walking on ancient hunting trails to waterfalls in the jungle and eating traditional foods such as fried bees - I assume they remove the stinger.  I'll eat anything once!