Taiwan: Small Talk

This is the second installment in a series of essays by jet-setter Jordan Barber, who is currently studying Mandarin at Donghai University in Taichung, Taiwan. Traveling to rural XiTou, he finds that having a limited knowledge of Mandarin often makes it difficult to converse about anything other than the weather.

Because I take four hours worth of Mandarin classes a day with only an intermediate vocabulary, conversations tend to repeat themselves. We usually bring up the weather, specifically how hot it is outside, because we’re Americans and like to complain.

That’s alright, though. I’ve learned just as many phrases to describe the heat. First, there’s the everyday hen re (very hot). But there are also several layers of description that allow for more interesting usages: bu jiao re (relatively hot), feichang (extraordinarily hot), te bie (especially hot) or even re sile (so hot I’m dying). My Taiwanese roommates have taught me more effective and typical sayings, such as gan re (fuck it’s hot). They also taught me that in the Beijing area, the word for bus also means prostitute. Get it?

The weather is pervasive here and influences daily life. When a Chinese teacher asks me what I did the day before, I often say “because it was hot, I took a nap,” or “I did homework, but after that I slept because it was especially hot.”

Donghai University

Donghai University in Taichung

Because the heat outside is typically uncomfortable, most Taiwanese stay inside when possible, and, when forced, quickly travel to their next location. Unlike an American college, it would be strange here to see anyone lying on the lawn with a book. It’s just not comfortable. In the city, walking is also rare. During a typical weekday afternoon at the library, you’ll see most people sleeping with their heads down because the library has air conditioning and their dorms do not. Once in downtown Taipei I saw a golden retriever completely shaved, save for his head . He seemed happy.

In reality, Taichung is actually pretty mild, and the near-daily short downpours give a nice reprieve from the otherwise sweaty day. The heat is typically much worse in the northern and southern cities such as Taipei and Tainan.

By the way, there’s a reason many things in Taiwan begin with “Tai.” In Mandarin, the character tái is [1] and is a pictogram of a mouth ([2]) exhaling; it’s an old symbol for happiness, though it’s modern usage has changed. The character wan [3] (horribly confusing) is a pictograph of water curved and describes a bend in the stream. You can kind of see it…maybe.

Referenced pictograms

A lot of characters are actually easy to remember and make a lot of sense. For example, if you take the woman character nu [4] and add a hand [5], you have [6]: It is a pictogram of a woman under a hand and means slave (oh, c’mon, it’s funny). If you add the heart character xin [7] below it, you have a new word depicting the heart of a slave. This new word [8], translates to fury or anger.

So in Taiwan, many of the cities begin with Tái and end in a direction or location. Taipei means north Tái, and Tainan is south Tái. The city where I am living, Taichung, means middle Tái.

Although Taichung’s weather is temperate, it’s nice to occasionally escape it. A week ago, some classmates and I took a trip to XiTou, a region in the central part of Taiwan. The central and eastern half of Taiwan is largely rural and mountainous, but provides an incredible landscape and nice contrast from the metropolitan west. XiTou is a rural region famed for its Oolong cha (tea), dotted with the occasional tourist resort.

Scenic XiTou

We took a bus (I think) from Taichung, which was about an hour drive to XiTou. It’s likely a longer drive, but our bus driver insisted on passing every car, despite driving up a winding two-lane road.

I spent my hour reading The Mists of Avalon, a longwinded but popular novel about King Arthur and the women around him. When my Taiwanese roommates asked what the title meant, I tried describing it to the best of my ability: “Old English place where small rain falls. Lots of women.” They also asked me who Flannery O’Conner was, to which I responded: “South U.S. dead woman. Stories have lots of ugly people. They also die.” I think I’m getting better, but maybe I’ll just stick with the weather.

Miss Chen

This is our guide Miss Chen. Her accent was very thick, and I had some trouble understanding her, since she spoke no English.

A local named Chen Xiaojie (Miss Chen) led us around XiTou. In case you’re wondering, people of Chinese descent only have around 30 or so different surnames. It’s also difficult to tell the gender from their names. Fortunately, most young Taiwanese also have English names. But, like their t-shirts and billboards, names are often garbled or lost in translation. I have already met many interesting people, including Jack, Lopp, Sea Lion and Wennifer. Miss Chen didn’t have an English name.

The area she took us around was breathtaking. Maybe even predictably breathtaking. (I mean predictable in the sense that I already knew it was going to be beautiful, and so I wasn’t too surprised. Either that I’m just an asshole.) But really, the area up there is definitely worth the travel. As the day passes, huge layers of mist slowly descend on the land. By sundown, it completely envelops the region.

XiTou Fog

The mists slowly descend as the day goes by, eventually enveloping the whole area.

The whole area is surrounded by vast, steep hills. The forests here appear much more impenetrable than anything I’ve seen, even in the Pacific Northwest. Our first stop, Miss Chen explained, was a place where they make charcoal bamboo. Inside, they have giant kilns where bamboo is burned at incredibly high temperatures for long periods of time. The end product is this weird black wood that resembles charcoal. According to Miss Chen and the other locals, this black bamboo has purifying and healing properties with numerous uses; to me, it seemed like a huge tourist trap. In the gift shop, they had combined their miracle bamboo with all manner of things, including charcoal-purified water, charcoaled underwear, a charcoal wood pillow, and peanuts encased in charcoal. What did it taste like?


After that stop, we went by a lake where Miss Chen tried to explain some legend about a horse and the nearby hills. I’m not sure. I was too distracted by a wedding at the edge of the lake. Apparently Chinese people go a bit overboard on wedding photos, often taking thousands of different pictures before selecting the perfect one. I felt bad for the bride, because she was fully decked out in her wedding gown and makeup. The groom had on wrinkly slacks and a half buttoned purple silk shirt.

Black bamboo

This is the result of firing bamboo in kilns at incredibly high temperature. Apparently it has a lot of uses…

The best stop on our trip was Miss Chen’s own house. She and her husband were tea farmers themselves and proud to show us around their farm. They seemed to have a comfortable lifestyle; the area was mild and quiet, and they had a van and big screen TV, so they couldn’t be too poor. We drank a lot of their tea. Apparently some of it was quite expensive, but Chinese/Taiwanese hospitality would permit nothing less.

In fact, sometimes their hospitality can be excessive. On another stop during the trip, we were walking by a small store when a man inside came out and beckoned us inside. He not only broke into his stash of Taiwanese snacks for us to sample but also brought out his snakes for us to play with. Once, while eating at a restaurant in Taichung, I was looking around for a trashcan. A man sitting at a nearby table called me over and demanded the trash in my hand. I explained to him what it was and asked where I could put it, but he simply held out his hand. So, I gave it to him. He kept it on his table until he got up to leave, and then took it with him. I thanked him for helping me out, which kind of turned into a semi-conversation. His accent was difficult to understand, but I was able to make my way through most of it. He asked me where I was from, and what I was doing here.

“I am a student at Donghai University, studying Chinese. I came to this restaurant because I am hungry, but also because it is especially hot.”

For more photos, see Jordan’s XiTou flickr set.

Read more from Taiwan.

Jordan Barber is proud that the internet allows him to criticize, admonish, and irritate people from his own living room. And though this immense power only comes to the few, he promises to wield his hammer of judgment with a standoffish, thoughtful outlook.