Sunday, February 24, 2013

Fruits of our Travels

One of the best parts of living in a semi-tropical environment is the incredible variety of year-round delicious fresh fruits.  While some fruits are imported from distant places, such as Fuji apples from Washington, most of the fruit comes from Taiwan, China, or the Philippines.  I’ve had to cut myself down to one piece of fruit a day because I developed the habit of eating kiwis, bananas, mangoes, and apples to satisfy my frequent cravings for sweets.  That is the downside of the plethora of tree-ripened fresh tropical fruit – too much accessible sugar.  That being said, there are way worse ways to load up on sweets.  Below are my three Taiwanese favorites.

Custard Apple
aka “Buddha’s Head Fruit”

I don’t know why I have never heard of, let alone tasted, this amazing fruit.  The name gives a clue to the fruit’s most interesting attribute – a rich and velvety texture that is reminiscent of cream or custard.  The flavor is somewhere between an apple and a mango, quite sweet and mildly tropical.  While mango has a more distinct flavor that is unrivaled as an ingredient in smoothies, ice creams, and candies, the texture of the custard apple is much more satisfying than the sometimes stringy flesh of a mango.  People call mango the “king of fruits” but I prefer a custard apple any day over a mango. Maybe it is a good thing that I can't get these at home because I'm not good with moderation. As you can tell from Abel's smile, I'm not alone in my love for this ugly fruit.


I think I have had guava in the US, but I don’t believe it is very widely available or recognized.  This is the down-home fruit of Taiwan – cheap and ubiquitous.  Initially, I really did not like Guava.  The texture is much firmer than most fruit and the flavor is subtle.  When I realized that there was no escaping the guava, I made an effort to learn to like the fruit.  I made myself eat one daily for a week, and sure enough by day five or so, I was looking forward to my daily guava.  Part of the conversion to a guava-fan was learning that there is a huge difference between an almost ripe and a ripe guava in terms of both flavor and texture.  A guava at the peak of ripeness is still firm, but juicy and sweet.  An almost ripe guava is just plain hard and completely devoid of flavor.

Wax Apple
(according to Wikipedia, it is also known as . . .  love apple, water apple, java apple, royal apple, bell fruit, and rose apple)

It looks like it is covered in wax, is shaped like a bell or heart, and has a rosy color, so the long list of names for this fruit are all quite descriptive.  What makes the wax apple a stand-out at the fruit stand is its texture – very crisp and extremely juicy (hence the name ‘water apple’).  The flavor is very subtle, which is a euphemistic way to say that it doesn’t really have much flavor.  I have no idea what wax apple flavored candy or ice cream would taste like.  However, the wax apple’s lack of a strong flavor actually makes it more refreshing.  Think about it as a miniature watermelon with firmer flesh and no seeds – perfect for a hot Taipei afternoon.

We’ll miss these fruits when we leave Taiwan. I guess we’ll just have to compensate by drinking the gallons of delicious coffee and pounds of amazing cheeses that we have at home.  Fair trade.

Friday, February 15, 2013


When I think about turning thirty, I’m surprised.  My surprise doesn’t come from the realization that I’m no longer in my twenties because for the last few years I have forgotten that I was twenty-something.  During the last three years I have been consumed by building a career in education, studying for my behavior analysis certification, caring for Jess while we were expecting, planning for our big move to Taiwan, and then welcoming Abel into the world.  Perhaps turning thirty would cause anxiety if I thought my life would change in the coming decade, but I can’t imagine how my lifestyle could become any more middle-aged.  Going to the gym and cooking dinner are my top hobbies, social events revolve around babies and potlucks, and if I have two beers in the evening I can feel it the next day.  In reality, my twenties have been over for a while now, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

When I think back on my roaring twenties, I have a lot of fond memories.  I also have a lot of regret.  I don’t regret that I partied hard, behaved recklessly, dated frivolously, or imbibed excessively, but I do regret what I missed during those years.  I missed out on countless opportunities to be myself.  Youth is all about figuring out “who you are” and for me that involved trying out many different roles and characters.  Since I wasn't yet comfortable with myself, I was always working hard to create a personality that others would find interesting and fun. 

It wasn’t until I met Jess that I was able to really put down all the pretenses of youth and learn to embrace my core values.  I never believed that the real me was interesting enough to hold someone else’s attention, so I used a lot of facades to shield people from knowing too much about me.  Jess’s honesty, kindness, and innocence slowly brought me out into the open and I learned to trust that she loved me for who I am, not who I thought I should be.  She has taught me that real maturity is being secure in my me-ness.  She has never lectured on the topic, but she models it every day. 

Ten years ago, I would have had nothing but negative associations with a thirtieth birthday.  Now I realize that thirty isn’t the end of your life, as it is portrayed by so many people in our youth-obsessed culture.  Rather, reaching thirty signifies the beginning of a much more meaningful life that is free of the insecurity and extended adolescent angst of my twenties.  Although I feel like the wisdom of my wife and the birth of my son helped me to cross this threshold before I reached thirty, I am ready to embrace this birthday as a welcome milestone. 

I am looking forward to my thirties as a decade full of embracing my growing family, learning how to be a better educator, and challenging myself to live a healthier lifestyle.  This doesn’t mean I am ready for my forties – that just sounds old. I’ll deal with that milestone in about nine and a half years.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Happy Chinese New Year!

Xin nian kuai le!

It has been really interesting to watch the New Year celebrations in Taipei as an outsider.  Although the two holidays have very different origins and cultural roots, Christmas and Chinese New Year have a lot in common.  They are both the most important holiday on their respective calendars, celebrated in the winter, and involve family gatherings full of eating and exchanging gifts. The two holidays have also become quite commercial and often cause adults a great deal of stress due to all of the money and planning they require.  I would say that the Christmas and Chinese New Year holidays serve many of the same cultural functions – occasion for family reunions, strengthening of relationships through gift exchange, and an opportunity to feast on traditional delicacies.  

That being said, Chinese New Year is very distinct from Christmas and has some very interesting aspects that are quite different than the traditional Christmas celebration. First of all, Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival, has no connection to a major religion or dogma.  The holiday is as old as the Chinese calendar, which has been around for thousands of years.  While the holiday is not strictly religious, it is a time that many people offer thanks and praise to and ancestors and a variety of deities. Many of the traditions surrounding the holiday have supernatural or superstitious origins, such as lighting fireworks to scare off evil spirits and sweeping out the house prior to the holiday in order to make room for good luck. 

Some of the traditions that I have observed include:
  • Giving red envelopes of money to children in order to give them good luck in the new year.
  • Putting couplets (short phrases written in calligraphy on red paper) over the door to welcome good luck into the home.
  • Lighting fireworks the night before New Years to scare away bad spirits.
  • Lots and lots of food – special fruits and cakes that are traditionally eaten

I’m really glad I was able to witness such an ancient and beautiful holiday.  Hopefully we’ll be able to celebrate this holiday in some way even after we have left Taiwan.  Since there are people of Chinese descent all over the world, there is a good chance that we’ll be able to find someone to celebrate with no matter where we live.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

What Year Is It?

You can feel it in the air - children are anxious, adults are hurried, and the shops and streets are bustling.   Chinese New Year, the most important holiday in the Chinese world, is less than a week away. But didn’t we have a New Year celebration with fireworks and partying?  It is already 2013, so why is New Year being celebrated again in February?  Thanks to Wikipedia’s seemingly infinite knowledge, I have found the answers to these questions.

China has used a lunar calendar for thousands of years.  According to this traditional calendar, the solar equinox typically occurs during the 11th month, while “new year” starts two months later.  It is all actually much more complicated than that since a truly lunar calendar would not contain the 365 ¼ days that it takes for a complete orbit around the sun, so adjustments have to be made.  The Gregorian calendar that we use also had lunar origins. Why else would months (the word month is actually derived from moon) have nearly the same number of days as a lunar cycle?  We have to adjust our calendar with leap years to average at 365 ¼ days a year. 

The Chinese eventually adopted the Gregorian calendar in modern times to conform to the rest of the world and to facilitate communication, trade, technology, and so forth.  While the Gregorian calendar may be used for official purposes, the traditional calendar was not discarded.  The Chinese lunar calendar is still used to schedule weddings, inform farmers about when to plant and harvest crops, and the celebration of holidays such as New Year, which is actually more accurately translated as “Spring Festival”.  

The topic of dueling calendars gets even more confusing when it comes to numbering years.  Traditionally, Chinese did not number their years as we do with the BC/AD system.  At some points in history years did become numbered using the beginning of the current ruling family as the starting point.  In China today, there is debate about what number to use, with various scholars referring to it as either 4709, 4649, or 4710 using the beginning of the Yellow Emperor’s reign as the starting point. 

Taiwan, often seeking a separate identity from its neighbor to the West, uses a different numbering system.  This was very confusing for me because I would often see the year listed as 101 and could not understand the significance of this number.  China is obviously thousands of years old and Taiwan was occupied by the Japanese until 1945, so couldn’t figure out the significance of 101. I assumed that this was part of the lunar calendar, but my confusion increased when the year changed from 101 to 102 on January 1st, so it wasn’t lunar after all. Thanks again to Wikipedia for clearing up my cloudy historical thinking – settling on the island of Taiwan was not the significant event, it was the founding of the Republic of China by Sun Yat-Sen in 1911.  This event was the birth of what we now refer to as Taiwan, which, until recently, claimed control over the entire Chinese mainland.    

So to answer the title’s question, depending on how you reckon it and where you are located, the year is either about 4700, 2013, or 102 and the calendar will change on either January 1st or February 9th.  Clear as mud.