Thursday, December 29, 2005

Proudly Prodigious

Watching a Movie with Susan in Amsterdam

Susan and I went to see Pride and Prejudice, starring Keira Knightley. As the title faded off the screen, Susan asked, “What does prodigious mean?” “Er… well prejudice means judging someone by looking at them.”

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Fight Club

I joined an underground boxing club. I've never even thrown a punch before, but my dastardly cousin Steve decided to skip basic training so that he could punch me in the face. The comic is 100% true and factual. Only the mustaches have been changed.

Click on the left to see a bigger version, then zoom in to read the words easier (zoom by clicking on it again). My thanks to Rick for drawing it.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

The Early Bird Catches the Towel

The Early Bird Catches the Towel

The cockroaches slept; I could not. I tried Chinese medicine, and bought a hot water bottle, but I didn’t have a decent night’s sleep until I bought a space heater. By then it was nearly spring. I wish I’d bought it three months earlier – Susan might have slept with me then. That’s how cold it was.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Art and Artifice

“Susan, you can stay here as long as you want. Really, it’s no problem.” At this point most hot women I’ve met would frown and call me ‘creepy’. But Susan smiled and said, “Oh, that’s so sweet!” She spoke with a Dutch accent. She was sexy and beautiful. She had long hair, was tall, and wore a blue scuba diving outfit. “You must be Andrew," she said. I’d only been obsessed with her for two minutes and she already knew I existed. I was making tremendous progress.

She got into the bed next to me, and Dani got in next to her. They didn’t like the movie I was watching, so they talked. Dani said she had slept with a Chinese girl in Beijing, and the Chinese girl had worn paper underwear. Susan squirmed with delight. To understand the word ‘squirmed’ in this context, imagine seductive dancing as a reflex action. “Paper underwear! Paper underwear!” I said, trying to make her do it again.

As Susan talked, I stared at her. Her hair was burnt umber, she had an earring in the top of her ear as well as the bottom, and one tress of hair liked to fall in front of her right eye, which was the equal of the left for perfection. Her lips were suggestive; cameras dreamed about her cheek bones. Her tight scuba outfit left little, and yet so much, to the imagination. Imagine the most perfect woman you have ever seen, and then know that Susan makes her look like a bored child’s drawing on a balloon.

I asked if she had a job. She said she ‘made art.’ “Oh good,” I said, switching to a low, sincere voice, “Art is really important to me. I think art speaks to me about my life. Art helps to show me how to live. It tells me about who I am and where I am going. I really try to make time to think about art and what art means to me.” Susan was moved. “That’s how I feel about art!”

Dani changed the subject so she could complain about Martin. She was annoyed that he was pretending to be a gentleman instead of ravishing her. Susan said, “So he never even tried to kiss you, you just watched DVDs together, he never said, ‘Oh we’ve been doing this for some time now, I think we can be more than friends,’ or something like that?” “No.”

I realised my 20-minute relationship with Susan had developed along similar lines to Dani and Martin’s, i.e. we watched DVDs together but didn’t talk about our feelings. I drew myself up and turned to look into Susan’s eyes. “Susan, there’s something I’d like to tell you,” I said. “We’ve been doing this for some time, and I’d like to express my true feelings for you.” “Do you mean ‘express’, or ‘tell’?” She was leading me on! I had lost the element of surprise. “Er… tell. Please allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and respect you, as a woman and as an artist.” She giggled. Dani shook her head at me. “Andrew, you’re not interested in art. I’ve never heard you mention art, ever. Why are you being so weird?”

Dani hadn’t seen me flirting before so she didn’t know that’s what it was.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

When Andrew Met Susan

Winter in Shanghai chills you to the atom. You lose 70% of your neutrons – they freeze and fall to the floor – and the electrons in your extremities hibernate, impairing your motor functions. You can’t write, eat, or dance naked, and sex is only possible after a very hot bath. And you can’t run a bath because it leaks into the apartment below and they shout at you in Chinese.

Dani had rearranged the living room so she could sleep there. She claimed it was warmer than her bedroom. For someone so creative her methods were rather crude: She shoved the dinner table to one side, pushed our wooden sofa-benches (so cold now, like marble) against the walls and dumped her mattress in the space she had cleared. There she slept for 3 months. She moved the TV and DVD player to within inches of the bed, bought a hot water bottle, and sprinkled the bed with woollen gloves and my hats – I think she was trying to achieve a critical mass of warm objects that would generate limitless amounts of heat.
Thus when she brought Susan home I was in her bed, wearing a hat, watching Jackie Chan.

“Andrew,” said Dani, and I felt the thrill I feel when a girl, any girl, says my name. “This is Susan.” Jackie Chan was fighting a large man in a room containing a ladder – there’s always a ladder scene in his movies, but it’s always worth watching. I turned my head, bravely exposing my neck to the cold. I saw Susan.

Dani had met her in some weird place – perhaps Greek Yoga class, or the three-minute holistic sauna at the gym – I didn’t pay much attention at the time because I didn’t realise Susan was beautiful. Susan was having some problems and needed a place to stay until she got herself sorted. I had said she could stay with us ‘for a bit.’
When I saw her, my first words were, “Susan, you can stay here for as long as you want.” People like me can understand chemistry, but only people like Susan can create it.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

The Sin Bin

“Marriage is too expensive; divorce is too final. When marriage turns sour, people have nowhere to turn. I sought a creative solution, one fit for the modern Taiwan. The results, as you know, have been spectacular.”

I had accepted an invitation to meet Yan Xiang Ling, Taiwan’s Ministeress of Confucian Sustainitude. She wanted to discuss her controversial Spouse Bin policy. “Please tell me how you thought up the idea,” I said.

“After my divorce I was very unhappy,” she said, “while my ex-husband found contentment in brothels, gambling dens and all-night sex parties. I set out to correct this injustice and find some way to reduce divorces. However, although Taiwan is the world’s best country and our tourist slogan is ‘Our Country is Better Than Yours’, it is well known that Taiwanese people are not creative. I used the Internet to research foreign culture and came across the term ‘sin bin’. In some of your barbarian sports, the judge can make unsporting players leave the field and think about what they have done. Marriage is very much a team sport, so I adapted the idea.”

“But,” I said, “In sports the sin bin is a bench next to the pitch, whereas you have erected a concrete prison cell on every street corner in Miao Li.”

“Yes,” she said enthusiastically, “it’s a very elegant system. If a man fails to notice his wife’s new haircut, or stares too long at a pretty waitress, or commits any of the 999 Spousal Hate Crimes listed in the legislation, his wife can call the hotline. A squad attends the scene, interviews the witnesses, and can place the husband in the local sin bin.”

“Doesn’t it lead to more divorces?”

“No, because the squads take the view that the woman is usually right. Within a very short space of time, men learn they have to keep their wife happy or face cold, foodless nights in the sin bin. Miao Li is like a paradise now.”

“Have there been any unexpected side effects?”

“Yes,” she said, “there have been no marriages for two months. But no marriage means no divorce, so I have achieved my goal. The Mayor of Miao Li will be delighted – when his wife lets him out.”

Friday, September 23, 2005

Chinese Taipei vs. Iraq

Classic unpublished blog from September 2004

My girlfriend met me at the airport when I got back from Thailand. She wore a pink qipao (traditional Chinese dress), pink shoes and carried a dainty little cream/pink handbag. She looked ridiculously hot. Every other guy in the airport stared at me in disbelief. "Satine," I said, "you look so beautiful." "I know," she said cutely. I decided I would pay her back by taking her somewhere special – the crumbling football stadium near my house!

A game was scheduled for a couple of days later, and Satine was keen to go. Taiwan (known as Chinese Taipei for political reasons, yawn) welcomed Olympic semi-finalists Iraq. Iraq! I invited my American friend Robin to join us and he thought it would be a good laugh. Satine arrived wearing another stunning outfit – the Manchester United shirt I bought in Thailand. Robin arrived with apparently no concern for his physical appearance, wearing ‘foreigner-shorts’ and an unbuttoned shirt.

We walked into the stadium without paying so I assumed it was a friendly, but Robin saw a banner: “Germany 2006 World Cup qualifying match.” In other words it was an important game. It didn’t seem right that Taiwan and Iraq should be in the same regional qualifying group. How does that work? It also didn’t seem right that when we entered the stadium we walked within two metres of the entire Iraq team and all the referees and assistants. Security, anyone?

We sat on the concrete terrace of the main stand, the only place with a roof to shelter us from the rain. We listened to the anthems, and Satine asked me why they were playing the ‘national song’. “Does it make you love your country?” I asked. “No,” she replied, puzzled. The game kicked off, a Taiwan player tried to pass the ball and kicked it out of touch ten yards from his nearest teammate. I had a look round. About three hundred people sat in the covered stand with us, and the rest of the stadium was empty except two people sat in the uncovered stand opposite us, huddled under umbrellas. Iraq scored.

I’d brought some Perrier water with me, and Robin and Satine had sushi. The nearest meat pie was 6,000 miles away. Satine tasted my expensive water and pulled a face like I had given her sour lemon mixed with poison. She didn’t see the point of drinking fizzy water. “It’s expensive,” I reminded her. “It tastes like ass,” she said. I’d been teaching her English.

The game bored me, but it was a new experience for both Robin and Satine. Iraq passed the ball well and put pressure on Taiwan. Taiwan lacked quality, but played with spirit and could maybe have got a draw if they didn’t have number 41 playing. Number 41 was the worst player I have ever seen, at any level of football. Without exaggerating he lost the ball one hundred per cent of the time it came near him. It bounced off his legs, he failed to make contact with headers, his passing was desperate and he was slow; slow and fat. I was quite amused except I wanted Taiwan to do well for Satine’s sake. “Why do they keep giving the ball to the other team?” she asked. She got so frustrated she punched me in the arm. I leapt to my feet. “Come on Taiwan!” I shouted. “Jiayou!”

At half time we went to get some food. Robin left to go on a date. Americans are like that. I bought some little rice cake things and kiwi juice from the sushi place and we went back to the stadium. Someone had taken our seats so we had to move. We ended up in front of an English guy with two little kids. Satine loved their cute British voices. “Will your children have cute voices like that?” she asked scarily. Did she say ‘your children’ or ‘our children’? Alarm! Alarm! “Let’s watch the game.”

The two people in the opposite stand had been joined by a friend. He didn’t have an umbrella so he sat in the middle. Three people covered by two umbrellas – It was real teamwork. There was more good teamwork on the pitch. Iraq strung some slick passes together and began to carve Taiwan open at will. They scored a goal. But wait! I saw the linesman raise his flag for offside, think for a second, and then put it straight back down again. The goal stood. The Taiwanese players were rightly furious, and the captain complained himself into the referee’s notebook. They restarted the game in a frenzy of attacking football. “They can use their anger to get more power,” Satine told me. Even number 41 managed to control the ball and pass it successfully. With every incident, Satine made an excited ‘eh?’ noise. Then a Taiwan player struck a long shot right against the crossbar. The stand erupted in a wave of belief. Jiayou! You can do it! And then – goal! Satine was delirious. Taiwan’s cheerleaders (four men in plastic Macintoshes) became yet more energetic, prancing and flailing like witch doctors, praying to the football gods for more goals.

More goals came. For Iraq. After they made it 4-1, Satine punched me again. “What makes the goalkeeper think he can catch the ball with that crowd of players there?” she asked, correctly laying the blame for the goal. “But… Taiwan scored a goal…?” I reminded her, trying to make her happy again. “He’s a dick,” she said. “He made me lose face.”

After giving both teams a warm round of applause, everyone left. We walked out of the stadium into the drizzle, and we saw a very nice coach parked outside the main entrance. “Eh? Some fans hired a coach to see the game!” said Satine. “Um… maybe that’s the Iraq team coach?” “Oh… yeah…” she said, and looked abashed. “Let’s go,” I said.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Speaking Chinese in England

Ordering Chinese Food

I overheard my mother and brother talking about getting some Chinese food. I went in to the living room; they were perusing the menu. 'Please can I have some hot and sour soup?' I asked. 'Do you have any money?' asked my mother. 'I have two pounds thirty pence.' 'It's not enough,' she said. 'If you want food you shall have to perform like an abused Thai Elephant,' said my brother, his face twisted, his smile malicious. 'Whatever do you mean?' 'I will buy you some food if you embarrass yourself by speaking Chinese on the phone.' 'I lack the Chinese for such a task.' 'You shall talk, or you shall starve,' he said, and he ran his finger along his neck.

He dialled and handed me the phone. My mother said, 'When you call she will say 'number 7?' – You won't even need to give the address. It's so funny.'

'Hello, Peking House.'
'Can I order a delivery?'
A long pause.
'Do you want the address?' I asked.
'7 Roman Road,’ I said, ‘Do you know it?'
'So I want sweet and sour chicken. But no pineapple!'
'No pineapple?'
It was time to speak Chinese. 'Meiyou Pineapple,' I said.
'Okay. No pineapple.'
'And lemon chicken, and beef with peppers. And rice.'
'Okay fifteen minutes.'
I took a breath and pretended I was in Shanghai. 'Duoshao qian?'
'I'm sorry?'
'How much is it? Duoshao qian?' I was saying it perfectly.
'What language are you speaking?'
'It's called.... Chinese...'
A pause.
'Say it again.'
Duoshao qian?''Oh! Duoshao qian? Fourteen pounds.'
'Your Chinese is bad,
' I told her, in Chinese.

'No, your Chinese is bad.'
'You're a bad egg,'
I said. I'm allowed to insult Chinese people because I'm cute.

'I'm not a bad egg, you're a bad egg.'
'I'm not a bad egg, I'm a good egg.'
This is the funniest thing you can say to a Chinese person and so hysterical that the phone call ended.

'I am pleased that you lost face', said my brother. 'You will eat tonight. But next time, ask her if she has a boyfriend.'

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Termites 101

Taiwan is home to many fascinating creatures, including varmits, cockspites and betel nut girls. In the summer months residents are treated to a 'touch and learn' lesson in the life cycle of the termite. These fascinating creatures spontaneously infest entire cities, flying in attack formation with their unique 'X-wing' silent propulsion system. They are adept at flying into mouths, ears and nostrils, and can build nests in human hair.


Two foreigners arrive home to find their living room is a tornado of flying termites. The smart one retreats to his computer room while his friend runs to buy an electric bug zapper in the shape of a tennis racket. He forgets to buy batteries and hides in his room. After ten minutes, the nervous men peer into the living room to find the flying bugs have vanished. "Perhaps they are migrating south," suggests one. The other stares in horror at the floor. "My god," he says, "it's full of wings!" The termites have shed their wings and are crawling around the floor like maggots. One of the men begins stamping on the villains; the other turns pale and sweats cold sweat. "They're... they're evolving," he mutters.

The more proactive of the two heads to the kitchen. He makes a noise that sounds like a distended hippo on heat. "UUueehhheehHHhnnnn," he gags. "Look!" The other man reluctantly approaches the kitchen. The floor, doors and surfaces are crawling with termite maggots. Five or six cockroaches are running round eating them. The foreigners have never seen cockroaches eat before, and it is not something they will forget. "We got to kill the termites," says one. "What about the cockroaches?" whines the other. "The enemy of our enemy is our friend," comes the reply. "They're on our side this time." He begins sweeping the termites into a central mound. The mound, completed, is a heaving mass of pale disgust.

"Here's my plan," he says. "You take the brush and keep them here in the Pile," he says as he brushes some escapees back, "while I go put my boot on and squash them all." "Uh! No! Just put them in a bucket and drown them," replies the logical coward.

When the coward isn’t looking, his so-called friend empties the bucket down the coward's en-suite toilet.

Later, after some of the corpses have floated back up, the coward discovers wings all over his bed sheets, and can't sleep because termites are somehow teleporting into his room and voyaging across his bed, including two that appear to be having sex as they go. Finally, he catches one termite in the act of sneaking in under his bedroom window. He creates a small moat of sports drink and the invasion ends.

The foreigner mentions the infestation to his landlord, who tells him  that the termites were caused by leaving empty beer cans in the living room.

One week later all signs of the termites are gone. Next year they will return, and the landlord will tell the new tenant it is his fault for not paying the gas bill on time.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

The World's Highest Wedding

"Why do you look so smart?" asked my flatmate. "I always look smart," I said. "Yerright... Why did you iron a shirt? Not seen you use the iron since the day you bought it back aways in nineteen-ought-six." That sounds good in an American accent. "Because I am going, and this sentence will get progressively weirder, to a wedding, of two people I've never met, or seen, in Taipei 101, the world's tallest and least romantic building. My student and her parents are taking me as their guest." "You look rich," he said, noting my rich man's jacket and tie. "I am rich!" I said. "You'd better come home with a chick tonight," he said.

It took me a trifling 30 minutes to get from my house to Taipei 101 – during rush hour – which included 15 minutes of walking to and from the Rapid Transit System (MRT) stations. I thought of a slogan the tourist board could use: 'Taipei - the MRT is good.' Taipei 101 is good too, I suppose, but I wouldn’t want to get married there.
The banqueting room on the 5th floor had been arranged into 40 richly decorated tables. I noticed that there was at least one pretty young woman at each table, and each wore a badge bearing the words 'single and looking.' I sat next to one of them and smiled at her for 5 happy seconds. Then I was moved to another table. The women on my new table were so old that they knew the words to 'Land of Hope and Glory' and remembered canasta. The official photographer seemed fascinated by my existence, and he took many photos of me.

There are 3 main features of a Chinese wedding. First, the food is plentiful and delicious. Second, old men give long speeches. Third, the bride changes dresses three or four times. My student, her parents and I ate food and listened to speeches. I asked my student to translate if anyone told a joke or an amusing story. 40 minutes later I reminded her. "I know," she said, "I will if they do." Later still, I reminded her again. "But there haven't been any!" 2 hours - no jokes. Taiwan.

The first course was lobster. My student's father dumped half the lobster on my dish. I don't like seafood and it makes me die so I ate it slowly hoping some of it would evaporate. It didn't. Then my student's mother noticed how much lobster I had. She seemed angry. "Andrew! Why do you have so much lobster? Ayy!" "But..." I said. My student whispered to me, "Lobster is very expensive." "Well, I don't like lobster very much so maybe you can help me eat it," I said to the mother. She looked offended. "It's very good lobster! Very fresh! Delicious! Eat it!" She picked up another bigspoonful of lobster and dumped it on my dish, and stared at me viciously until I started eating.

The food was good but the most sumptuous, well-presented dish was the bride. She came in three flavours - white, burgundy and blue. While she was wearing the burgundy dress, complete with frilly netty silky gloves and subtle body glitter, we went over to present our respects. I didn't even try to understand what my role was supposed to be, nor did I try to understand any of the conversations. I simply stared at her, enchanted.
As I was admiring her eyelashes she looked at me - oh! - and asked if I could speak Chinese. I replied fluently, "I know how to say 'You look beautiful'." She smiled again. I knew that if she were my wife I'd be happy every day. I spent a few moments fantasizing that she'd remember me when she looked through the wedding photos, and perhaps she'd wish she'd married me instead. I trudged back to the table, stared in envy at the old married couples who sat there mocking me with their lifetimes of contentment, and as soon as I could, made my way down six flights of stairs – and then back up one flight because in my misery I had gone too far – and out into the night.

Then I went home, alone.  It took less than half an hour. Taipei - the MRT is good.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Hot Springs Eternal

Blant, a South African playboy who had more girls on his arm than I had dark orangutanial hairs on mine, nagged me for three weeks until I agreed to go with him to the hot springs in Beitou, north of Taipei.

A hot spring is a series of little pools filled with tap water (in Taiwan tap water is sometimes called 'volcanic spring water').  Some pools are heated, some are chilled. Hot spring resorts are carved into mountains, and fenced in with wood, and a minute spinster charges you sixty dollars to get in. Sixty Taiwanese dollars takes eight minutes to earn. It cost as much to travel to the springs as to get into the springs. I pointed this out to Blant.  "Ah," he said, sagely, "But the spring doesn't have to travel."

Blant told me about a hot springs game he had invented called 'White Lobster'. The game sounded simple. "You go into the hot pool for 3 minutes, then go into the freezing pool for 3 minutes, then repeat 2 more times. If you're lucky your body will go into shock and one of the elderly women in the hot spring will give you mouth-to-mouth. The game is simple but addictive." "Why is it called White Lobster?" I asked him. "Because," he said, "when you get out of the hot pool you are red and when you get out of the cold pool you are white again." "The game would be more accurately called 'Alternately White and Red Lobster'," I said.

Blant warned me as we went to Beitou that a trip to the hot spring is a zen-like experience and that I should behave accordingly. "Don't move too quickly in the water for the waves will disturb the concentration of the other bathers. Don't speak too loudly; control your breathing; try to place yourself at one with nature; be silent and watchful." Blant had also invited Paul Mastiff, a fellow Brit. When we arrived Paul was already in the hot pool. I got changed and ready and dipped a toe into the hot pool, then another, and another, until I felt confident enough to put in my whole foot. By the time I got to my neck, six minutes had passed and it was time for Paul to get out. He charged like a water buffalo attacking a hippo, and bellowed, "HEY I'M GEDDIN OUT NOW ANYONE WANNA COME TO THE COLD POOL MAN ITS HOT HERE HEY YOU SPEAK ENGLISH HOW ARE YOU?"

With Paul attacking other pools, and Taiwanese people taking flight like startled pigeons, I tried to find my Zen. I looked around and saw that the hot spring was carved into the side of a leafy mountain. Hot water trickled along bamboo half-pipes into the hot pool, creating marvellous swish and splash sounds that made me think of the ocean. "Pretty nice," I thought to myself. The place was small and popular but not crowded. The day was a sizzling one, but although the hot spring was outdoors, the air was pleasantly cool. "Very nice," I thought, and closed my eyes.

When I opened them, an American had appeared to my left, and his Taiwanese wife, and her mother and sister were getting in to my right. "Don't talk to me," I said with my eyes. "Hey!" shouted the wife, "We hear you're single!" "What? Who-" I began. "So we thought maybe you'd like to date my sister. Let's all go to lunch!" I glanced at the smiling girl to my right, and, assuming her to be the sister in question, played my get-out-of-jail-free card. "Right, that's.... yeah, but I'm leaving Taiwan in 2 months, so.... you know." They didn't know. "So there's no point," I clarified. "Oh, okay! We just thought you might like to date my sister because she lived in England before and you look kind of cute," said the wife. "Yes, I do," I said, then changed the subject. "So don't you realise it's rude to try to set me up with your sister, who is not a model and doesn't even have long hair, when I'm trying to become one with the universe?" She didn't hear me and I didn't repeat myself. “And how the blazes did you know I’m from England?”

"How did you guys meet?" I asked. She spoke rapidly for thirty seconds. I could only pick out the phrases 'South Carolina', 'MBA' and 'met on the internet'. Then she said, "I'm a financial analyst. I love money. Anything to do with money gets me excited." She quivered as she said the word 'money'. I said, "Well, in that case, I find you reprehensible." I turned to the man. "You said you're from Ohio? What's that, loads of farms?" He didn't understand the word 'farms'. "What? Lots of bombs? No, we don't have many bombs in Ohio."
The wife said, "Have you been to the States?" "No," I said. She said, "By the look on your face I can tell you don't want to go. But you know, they have McDonalds and KFC everywhere". "That's not a good thing," I said. "I know," she said, "I was being sarcastical." The man said, "Yeah, I agree with you, but you can get a burger anytime!" With incredible chivalry I spoke to the sister, who was sitting next to me like we were already married. "So where did you stay in England?" "Bath... and Scotland," she said, "and Boston. Because in England there is a city called Boston, too."

I left the hot springs zenless. Blant walked with me to the metro. He asked me to go with him again the next week. “Paul’s going to bring that girl you hate, Christina.” As much as I hated Christina, she had a great body, perfectly apposite to emerge from a cold pool and the perfect playmate for White Lobster. "Yeah, I'll go," I said. “Hot springs are a great place to meet your next girlfriend.”


Wednesday, April 27, 2005

A Musical Language

During my time in Taiwan, I was entertained on all my days off – and for free! – by the singers who lived two floors above me - they had installed a massive home karaoke system to ensure the whole city could hear them. Taiwanese people are so kind! They sang the same song every time, to give me a chance to learn the words.
They never seemed to sing any better, and I found that fascinating. I invited researchers from Taiwan Taipei National Normal Music University to test my theory. For three months my bedroom was taken over by cables, sensors, beeping display screens and mysterious black boxes. Finally, Ran Toh-Yah, senior lecturer in the Vocal Training department, presented his findings.

"It's quite interesting," he began. "Over the last three months your neighbours have made no improvement at all. It's counter-intuitive, I accept that. Most people, when they repeat an action many times, be it speaking a foreign language or hammering a nail, improve. That is to say, they get better. Practice makes perfect. In Chinese we have the idiom, 'The Mating Frog Lacks Not Patience,' which I think says it all. Improvement generally follows the Fisher-Wight curve. In the case of your neighbours, the complete lack of improvement is, frankly, contrary to all scientific notions. Fisher and Wight, not to mention Einstein and Newton, would be turning in their graves. If they are dead. I don't know if Wight is dead yet."

So what was the song about? The researchers told me that what sounded to my barbaric Western ear as one Chinese song endlessly re-butchered was in fact three hundred different songs. They downloaded and printed the lyrics of half a dozen. Seeing the Chinese gobbledegook on the page, I visited top translator Tiffany Yen in her sumptuous coffee shop office. She charged me $4000 to translate the words into English and then told me that I should have bought a $280 book which contained the English translation of many Chinese songs.

These are the choruses from the three most popular Chinese songs, as warbled indefatigably by my neighbours.

3 - I Love You

I love you
You don't love me
We are not together
I hope you'll be happy

2 - You Love Her

I love you
You love her
We are not together
I hope she makes you happy

1 - You Love Me

You love me
I don't love you
We are together
But not for long


Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Trends in Taiwan

New crazes are sweeping Taiwan like plagues in Egypt, disrupting the economy and threatening to obliterate traditional Confucian values. The most talked-about crazes involve donuts, fare-dodging and gate-crashing.

Deified Donuts

The donut craze, like everything cool in Taiwan, is from Japan. Leading the donut invasion is the Japanese chain Mister Donut. A Mister Donut spokesman said, "We entered the Taiwanese market because our boss came here on a business trip and found every bread product in Taiwan, including sugar-free bread, was filled with sugar. So we knew Taiwanese people had a sweet tooth. When we opened our first store we had week-long lines outside. It's like selling candy to a nation of semi-affluent babies. But we never expected our product to be deified."

At the moment there are only three Mister Donut branches in Taiwan, all in the capital Taipei. People in the south have no access to quality donuts. I spoke to donut activist Hu-Chu Sing. "We built this temple to the god of donuts so we could pray for a branch of Mister Donut or Krispy Kreme to open in the south. We chant, pray and burn incense, and on auspicious days, especially dates with zero - the number of the donut - we hire mystics to perform donut dances. On the 20th of March a mystic in Tainan fell into a trance, and when he awoke he said Tainan would have good donuts within four years. Obviously we are doing all we can to get them here faster. We won't go back to the semi-conductor foundry until we got donuts." So many people are taking days off work to get in line for quality confectionary that the cost to the economy has been estimated at 14% of GDP.


Police say Taiwan’s most anti-social trend is ‘Tiffaning’, and it’s not just the notoriously cheap locals causing the trouble. "It's the coolest thing," said blond Jank Smurff, a South African living in Muzha. "You get on the bus and the fare is 35 dollars, but you've got a palmful of one-dollar coins and you throw in about 27 dollars and there's no way the driver can know how much you put in. Tiffaning is such a buzz." The spiritual leader of the movement is Tiffany Yen, a short woman with a big idea. "I was in a restaurant one day when I decided I didn't want to pay for my food. So I walked out and nothing happened. I did it again the next day. Nobody seemed to notice. I told some friends and they all tried it. We went to a bar and walked out without paying for our diet cokes and popcorn. It's the most fun you can have in Taiwan. The movement began to get bigger and soon people I didn't know were talking about it. They were even calling it Tiffaning. I wanted to see how far I could take it. I was taking English lessons with this cute guy, so what I did was turn up for class and say something like 'Let's just have lunch' or 'do you want to see a movie?' and then I'd spend the afternoon with him learning English but wouldn't have to give him any cash. And he's an English gentleman so he pays for movies and everything, automatically, without even realising he's doing it."


Parties, English lessons, family reunions – nothing is safe from the new breed of professional gate-crashers in Taipei city. "Legally speaking there's nothing we can do," said Mayor Ma Ying-Jiu's office, "these gate-crashers can go almost anywhere they like." How does it affect everyday life? "We arranged a private party for our friend," said caring Andrew Philip, an English teacher, "He was leaving Taiwan for ever, we’d planned it to the last detail. Suddenly all these people turned up telling us about their emotional problems and practicing their English on us. They left without paying for the chicken wings they ate. Today I had three people sneak into my English class thinking I wouldn't notice. It's out of control." The most bizarre offshoot of the gate-crashing phemomenon is date-crashing. "I took my girlfriend out for our first anniversary," said Tao Chen Long, a chipset engineer from Gaoxiong. "We were starting dinner when this girl came and sat herself at our table. She stayed with us throughout dinner, a movie and a romantic walk around Da-an park. She didn't even offer to pay and she only left when I invited her to join us for a threesome. It's like she stole my romance. But I'm Taiwanese so I don't feel this problem reflects badly on Taiwan at all. In fact I blame the foreign devils for talking about it."
Politicians I spoke to echoed those sentiments, claiming the problems were a figment of uncultured foreign whimsy.

Monday, April 04, 2005

The Taiwan Center for Mentally Unsafe Foreigners

I accepted an invite to tour Taiwan's most respected centre for the study and treatment of culture shock, The Taiwan Center for Mentally Unsafe Foreigners. Dr. Han greeted me and began explaining why he created the facility. "We do seem to have this problem in Taiwan of foreigners being quite unable to adjust to our cultural norms even after many years. I have come to think that Taiwan represents a uniquely difficult place to live, to eat, and, especially, to work." We began our tour.

Dr. Han led me into a small room. A white-coated scientist controlled two computers and four CCTV monitors, and looked through a large one-way mirror into an adjoining room. Dr. Han jabbed his finger at the other room. "We call this Restaurant Therapy. A lot of foreigners are deeply unsettled by their experiences in Taiwanese restaurants, coffee shops, cinemas, and other places of relaxation. The simplest purchases can quickly degenerate into complicated, surreal, or even life-altering ordeals."
We looked through the mirror into a comfortable, well-lit room in which two foreigners were interacting with doctors dressed as civilians. "We call this the Choice Deprivation Survival Skill Room. This is a safe environment where we can allow foreigners to come to terms with situations that have affected them in the real world. Subject A is from the States, so, obviously, he is used to getting any kind of coffee he likes. Last month he went to a coffee shop in Tainan and asked for a very simple coffee with a splash of vanilla. The vanilla was there on display, right in his line of view, but the staff refused to give him any. The vanilla was reserved for certain types of coffee. They wouldnt give him a splash of vanilla even when he offered to pay extra. Subject A didn't handle the situation well, I'm afraid... so he comes here once a week to practice." I watched as the doctor led Subject A through a role play the doctor refused to add vanilla to a coffee and Subject A smiled politely and took the coffee back to his seat.

I turned to look at Subject B. His doctor offered him a choice of apples, red or green. Subject B nodded like a homeless woodpecker.

"Subject B's case was more complicated. He went to a local theme park on a hot day and was attracted to an ice-cream stall. The ice-cream came with real fruit toppings. It was possible to have two toppings for a small extra charge. He asked for a kiwi/strawberry mix and the staff of the ice-cream stall told him it wouldn't taste good. At first he was very polite and assured them that, strange as it seemed to them, he did indeed enjoy that mix of flavours. However, and this is I'm afraid somewhat typical, the workers insisted that kiwi and strawberry should not be mixed and absolutely refused to make it." Subject B stopped nodding. His eyes wandered vaguely around the room." So what happened to him? Why is he here?" I asked. "As I said, it's complicated. We think his brain went into some kind of meltdown. His psyche equates civilised life with boundless choice, almost complete freedom of movement and action. He thought Taiwan was a normal country, so his experience with the ice cream was dangerously unexpected. If he had been expecting something of the sort, things would have been better. Now, if you ask him a question he just nods his head. His therapy is currently ineffective."

We walked to the top floor. "I'm afraid you can't go inside any of the rooms, but you can take a quick look through the windows. Just don't make any grammar mistakes while you're up here." "What do you mean? This is the place we put our demented English teachers. We've got some very sorry cases here. Chaps whose students just never improve, guys who really want to do some good and are frustrated at every turn. Some people can't handle it. It affects men more than women, and Canadians more than other nationalities." I peeked inside one of the rooms. I saw something appalling. "Is he... is he Canadian?" I asked. "Yes, I'm afraid so." "What's he doing? He's flashbacking. In his head, he's teaching his advanced class. The one that made him freak out." I leaned in a little closer to the glass. His eyes were red and puffed; his tie had been tugged askew. He wagged his fingers at his imaginary students and, his body tense and hard, raised his shaking hands to his shaking head, and screamed, "The past tense of 'go' is 'went'! The past tense of 'go' is 'went'!" I gagged on some stomach acid that had risen into my mouth. "I'd like to go home now", I said.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

April Fool's Pranks Go Wrong

As if to prove that Taiwanese people have a failed sense of humour, April Fool's Day 'gags' have been spectacularly backfiring all across the heavily-polluted island.

In Tainan, 45 year-old Rang Toh-Yah donned a JFK mask, entered a police station brandishing a plastic AK-47 and roared, "Give me the money! Free the imprisoned gang bosses!" Panicked officers shot him 20 times.

On flight EVA1276 from Hong Kong to Taipei, startled passengers overwhelmed an elderly woman who announced she had a grenade and wanted to be taken to Mexico City. After a brief brawl in which the woman, who cannot be freed for legal reasons, was beaten unconscious by her contemporaries, flight attendants found a mouldy papaya in her hand.

Meanwhile, in Taipei, the American company Hewlett Packard reinstated three suspended employees who were among the victims of a particularly malicious prank. Mean-spirited Tiffany Yen couldnt understand the English editions of Harry Potter and, stretching her language skills to the limit, directed her rage upon the letters HP. She asked her boyfriend, a software engineer, to hack into the HP website, and he changed HPs slogan from HP Invent to Harry Potter isn't even good. More than 700 angry Harry Potter fans complained to Hewlett Packard, who suspended three webmasters before they discovered Ms. Yen's involvement. Their legal team continues to investigate, and have found that Ms. Yen remains unmarried.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

March for Freedom

Outraged by the bullying tactics of their giant neighbour China, more than one million Taiwanese people and a handful of foreigners took to the streets of Taipei in a vast protest march. They jammed the subway system so comprehensively I was forced to interview some of them as I walked home.

"I'm here because my mother taught me to stand up to bullies. And bullies don't come bigger than China. Except maybe America. And the New York Yankees," said Bei Jianbe, a computer engineer from Danshui. I asked him if the bullies in his school had 700 missiles pointing at his house. "No," he said, "they didn't."

I talked to some girls. "I love Taiwan more than I love my boyfriend," said Cherry Lin, a pretty high-school student wearing a blue and white school uniform and blue knee-length socks. "Actually a future-teller told me my boyfriend - he's a computer engineer - would die aged 19, so I don't love him very much. When China made this new law which says they will attack Taiwan, I cried. It took me twenty minutes to re-cake my face with whitening powder. Now I'm here to wave these inflatable green balloon-sticks and sing songs about peace. That will show the governments of the world that Taiwan is a country and a democracy."

Tiffany Yen, a curvy middle-aged woman with pleasant short hair said, "This issue is so important to me that I cancelled my study group today. We were going to do the chapter about nonrestrictive modifiers, so you can tell how excited we were. Of course, it's my study group so I should have realised there would be a scheduling conflict. Today's march has been publicised for a long time."

But why are you protesting? "At first I was angry about China's new law. How can they prance around the world trying to position themselves as a major world power while they point their vile missiles at us and threaten our peaceful way of life? Then I thought about the implications of a Chinese invasion. The end result would be millions of stunning Chinese women flooding into Taiwan, taking our boyfriends and husbands. My anger grew into thundrous rage. My boyfriend may be fat and old, but he's mine. Like my study group. And the sooner that bitch Maggie Zhang, who wants me to move it to Sundays, which are more convenient for her, understands that, the better. It's my study group, and my country. That's why I'm here wearing a missile costume asking strangers to spank me." By the way, is your boyfriend a computer engineer? "No, he's a software engineer. Why do you ask?"

There were some white people there too. I spoke to a Canadian who asked not to be named. "Oh, man, Taiwan, yeah, those missiles, that's scary, right? Fuck that shit." And why are you joining the protest? "Oh, dude! Look around. 1 million people, half a million chicks. Emotionally charged. Hot, sweaty, vulnerable. I've got 20 spaces left on my cellphone and I'm gonna get 20 numbers today. I love democracy." I stared at him. And took out my phone.

I had 80 spaces open.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Faster Pasta - a review

Restaurants come in all shapes and surprises, especially in Taipei where owners retain a healthy hatred of all customers. Faster Pasta adds a delectable twist - uncooked meat in the bolognese.

I spoke to 49-year old Michael Chen, the forward-thinking entrepreneur who believes his idea will transform the way we eat. "When I opened the restaurant we made a lot of money, but I wanted to make more money so I could go to Vegas and pay to urinate on blonde women. I watched customers come in to my restaurant and was dismayed by the inefficiency. They sat down, they took time to choose their food, it took time to cook the food, and after their meal they sat around for ages without giving me any more money. It was intolerable. I suddenly realised that I could solve all three problems by reducing the menu to two items; spaghetti or spaghetti with raw meat. I stood up in the dining area where I'd been masquerading as a customer and shouted 'Stop cooking the meat!' Since then we give them the cold meat. When people finish that they clear out real quick because I blocked off the toilets. They gotta go someplace else to do their shit. Business is booming, I gotta tell you."

Did he go to Vegas?
"Sure I did."
And did he urinate on the women?
"Dude, finding a girl who'll let you do that is as easy as writing a check for 400 bucks."
"No, I didn't. Couldn't do it in the end. I can't go if someone's watching. She was pretty disappointed."

Faster Pasta
Taipei City, 565 Zhongshan North Road, 212-715-2400
Lunch, Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.; dinner, 5 to 10 p.m. daily.
Spaghetti, $20–$25; with meat, $35–$40. A.E., M.C., V.