Friday, April 29, 2011

Cultural Unawareness: The Wheels of Bureaucracy Turn Slowly

Taoyuan City MVO
I still haven’t taken the driver's license test, not because I don’t think I can pass it, I’m sure I can. I have learned to think like a Taiwanese bureaucrat. They can no longer fool me by making up words like toer. I know what that word means now. Well, actually, it still isn’t an English word that I can find in any dictionary, but I know what they mean when they use this word. Or I guess to be completely accurate I should call it a four-letter symbolic representation of an English word…or something like that, anyway.
I haven’t taken the test because, being a bureaucracy, they had a few hoops for me to jump through before actually allowing me to take the written test. When dealing with government, I have found that it is the nature of government to impede progress. It’s not that bureaucracy is bad or that bureaucrats have a desire to delay us from achieving our goals, they just have a tendency to be excessively careful. They want to protect the rest of the driving public or they want to protect themselves from potential exposure to their backsides. Either way, they see a need for slow, cautious deliberate progress, covering all bases and their (potentially exposed) butts. In this case, where my wants and desires are concerned I see no need for them to protect the driving public by keeping me from getting behind the wheel. I, of course am a superb driver with thirty-five years experience. However, as a part of the motoring public, having seen how some others perform behind the wheel I appreciate the care and concern with which the bureaucracy moves to insure the protection of my family and, of course their backsides.

Scooter Driving Test Track
Anyway, enough pondering of the goals and ideals of the government system, here’s the problem: I am a disabled person. It is required that everyone take a kind of physical before they can get their license. First, they check depth perception, vision and peripheral vision. Then they ask you to do a deep knee bend, just one, they want to see if your legs have enough strength to press down on the brake. Finally, they want you to squeeze a hand strength measurement device. I can see well enough, I passed that part with flying colors. But I can’t do a deep knee bend, not even one. Well actually, I can do the deep knee bend, but then I get stuck there. I can go down but I can’t come back up. I am also unable to register any movement on the dial of the hand squeeze instrument.

Car Driving Test Track
This creates a problem for the Motor Vehicle Office (MVO). I don’t pass the minimum qualification for a driver’s license. So after careful consideration the supervisor would let me take the tests if, I attached a steering ball to the steering wheel of my car, and got the car certified as having the ball.

The steering ball is an interesting mechanism. In California they are referred to as the “Suicide ball” and they are illegal as an accessory for your car. The reason they’re called that is it’s really easy to flip your car if you turn to fast or suddenly at high sped. So that’s the current hang-up. I’m waiting to get my car certified with its “suicide ball.” After that it’s on to the written test.

Screenshot of Opening Page of Practice Tests
In Taiwan, the written test is on the computer. It consists of forty questions on all facets of driving. There are true-false questions, and multiple-choice questions. There are pictures of signs that you need to know, there are questions related to how your car works, there are driving questions and questions about the law. In order to pass you must get an 85%. I will share the test in detail, in the next episode in this continuing saga. There is one fly in this particular ointment, and that is that you can take the written test in a number of languages including Psuedo-English but all of the books to study are in Chinese. But don't despair because they have prepared a number of mock tests that if you practice them you can learn the right answers to the questions and eventually take and pass your driver's license test. The practice tests you can take on-line can be found at

The driving test is taken on a test track at the MVO office. You drive in an area inside the fence. They don’t really want you on the streets until you actually have the license in your possession. Motorcycles and scooters are tested the same way. I’ll go into detail on the test tracks later.

Other posts you may be interested in:

Cultural Unawareness:  Ticked Off in Taiwan
Cultural Unawareness:  You Scratch My Back, I'll Scratch Yours
Taiwan Travelogue:  The Cross-Island Highway
Random Asianess:  The Rest Stop

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Taiwan Travelogue: The Grand Hotel, Taipei

The Grand Hotel, Taipei
The Taipei Grand Hotel was built on the site of the destroyed Taiwan Grand Shrine. This shrine was a Shinto shrine built and used during the days of Japanese rule in Taiwan. Construction of the Hotel began in 1952 but was expanded a number of times until its final completion and dedication on Double Tenth day 1973. (10/10/1973) The Hotel because of its Chinese palace style architecture and the fact that from 1973 until 1981 it was the tallest building in Taipei, became an instant Taipei landmark.

The Hotel can be seen from the Number 1 National Freeway (The Sun Yat Sen freeway) as it crosses over the Keelung River. It is built on the slopes of Yuanshan Mountain, it places the hotel high above the city in a parklike atmosphere. The Hotel has commanding views of Taipei and a number of its landmarks.

Miramar Entertainment Center, backdrop for the drama, Why Why Love
This is a prime spot for a tourist as the Shilin Night Market, and the National Revolutionary Martyrs’ Shrine are nearby. In addition to these popular sites, the Miramar Mall, which was a backdrop for the Huan Huan Ai (Why Why Love) Video Drama starring Rainie Yang, Mike He, Kingone Wang and Michelle Chen, is located nearby with its ferris wheel that that rises high over Taipei.

Chiang Kai Shek, after evacuating the government of the Republic of China to Taipei, was concerned about the lack of suitable accommodations for visiting dignitaries. He decided to build a five-star Hotel to meet those needs. His wife, Sung Meiling suggested this site and according to some sources oversaw the construction and adornment of the building. The intention of the design was to represent Chinese Culture to visitors.

The Dragon, Lion Plum Motif is found throughout the Hotel
Dragon designs are represented throughout the Hotel, resulting in the common name, “The Dragon Palace.” There are many pieces of art, sculpture and painting, throughout the hotel, which reflect this aspect of Chinese Culture. Each of the eight guest floors of the Hotel depicts a different Chinese Dynasty, and uses murals and décor to show the art and life of the particular dynasty.

The décor in the Presidential Suite, which rents for a mere $5,500 USD per night contains President Chiang Kai Sheck’s Desk and Mrs. Chiang’s personal dressing table.

Marble Stairway in the main lobby
One special feature is the two “secret passages” hidden in the hotel. It was rumored that these passages were secret pathways to the official residence of Chiang Kai Sheck. In 1995, a fire that destroyed the top floors of the hotel, caused the hotel to be inspected for safety from top to bottom, it was revealed that these ”secret passages” were actually air raid shelters that led to nearby parks, not the residence of the president. As of 2005 these passages are closed to the public.

Many notable foreign dignitaries have stayed at the Grand Hotel, including Presidents Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Nelson Mandela and Benigno Aquino Jr., husband of former Philippines president Corazon Aquino on the night before his assassination.

Photo Credits:
Exterior Grand Hotel Taipei:

Miramar Mall

All other Photos: Brenda Banducci

Other posts you may be interested in:

Taiwan Travelogue:  The Revolutionary Martyrs' Shrine
Taiwan Travelogue:  The National Palace Museum
Taiwanese History:  The Chiang Kai Shek Mausoleum

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Cultural Unawareness: You Scratch My Back, I'll Scratch Yours

Reciprocity: You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours: tit for tat; this for that; the turnabout that’s fair play, reciprocity. Reciprocity can be a wonderful thing. If you treat your spouse lovingly and tenderly, then most likely your spouse will respond the same way: Beautiful, beautiful reciprocity.

But there can be an edge to reciprocity, as well. The nuclear arms race in the cold war was a case of reciprocity.

USA: “Don’t think about blowing up our country because if you do, we can blow up your country a hundred times.”

Russia: “If you do that then we can blow up YOUR country a hundred and one times.”
USA: “Oh yeah, well we can blow up your country a hundred and two times”

On and on, etcetera, etcetera, ad nauseum: This is reciprocity gone wild, isn’t it? Because after you destroy a country once or twice then all you’re really doing is just making a lot of noise and a mess that someone is going to have to clean up.

By now you’re looking at the top of the page to be sure you’re on the right blog. If you were looking for the Taiwan Adventure Blog then you’re in the right place. What does all this have to do with Taiwan? Well, this week I got served a heaping helping of reciprocity, courtesy of the Taiwanese Government.

The way a citizen of another country that is living in Taiwan is treated is reciprocal to the way Taiwanese citizens are treated in the home country of said person. It’s the old quid pro quo situation, an equal exchange of goods and services. In other words what you do for our citizens, we will do for your citizens.

Before I go any further, let me say this: This is between governments, not citizens. The people of Taiwan are generous, polite and friendly beyond all reasonable expectations. Being here is like being in America twenty-five years ago, before everyone got to be so edgy and irritable.

I have a muscular disability that makes walking long distances difficult. In the US I had a handicapped placard, so I could park in the good parking spaces. Yes sir, right up there by the door. By the way, I saw you watching me get out of the car to see if I was really handicapped or just lazy. My friends told me that Taiwan also has a handicapped placard so you can park in those places, too. They told me I should apply for one, and here’s another bonus, if you have a handicapped placard, then you get a break on registration taxes for your car.

Car registration is different here. You pay a road tax of a set amount and a fuel tax based on the size of your car’s engine. If you have a little four-cylinder car this fee is quite reasonable. But if you have a six-cylinder car like a do, (my engine is 2500cc) then you pay about $500.00 USD per year for road and fuel tax combined. My car is nine years old and I still pay the same amount. My next car is going to have an engine the size of a hamster, to get those costs down.

So I went to the DMV to see if I could qualify for a handicapped placard. Before they could answer that question they wanted to see my driver’s license. I showed them my international driver’s license and the lady asked my country of origin. When I told her the US, she smiled and asked, “What state?” I said, “California.” So she pulled out her book and studied it for a moment and said, “You can’t drive with an international driver’s license in Taiwan. You have to get a Taiwanese license.” California doesn’t honor an international driver’s license from Taiwan. In other wards, California wasn’t scratching any backs and I know why, California has had a budget crisis every year since 1849, when it became a state, so they want revenue. They need the twelve bucks foreigners are going to have to fork over if they want to drive in California.

But she also said, if you want to look into getting a handicapped placard you need to go to the Social Welfare office and ask them if you qualify. I did and I didn’t. What I mean is that I did go and I didn’t qualify. Why, you ask? Because America doesn’t give handicapped benefits in the form of reduced costs to Taiwanese citizens living in America, unless they are in the process of becoming American citizens. They did say they would double check and get back to me, but I think this was just being polite.

There is one last thing I’d like to point out. Going to the Motor Vehicle Office (MVO), which is what they call the DMV in Taiwan, is a very different experience than going to the DMV. In Taiwan, the people behind the desks look for ways to make the rules work for you. How can we find a way to bypass that regulation in the book so we can do this for you? That has never been my experience when dealing with any bureaucracy in the US from the DMV to the IRS. If you’re a DMV employee reading this, I didn’t mean you. I was talking about the person in that cubicle next to yours. If you work for the IRS, the name in the byline is a pseudonym; my real name is Al Gore. That's Gore, G-O-R-E.

Anyway, the upshot of all this is this: I now get to go through the experience of getting a Taiwanese driver’s license. I’ve started this process before, but now I have to finish it. I’ll keep you informed. After taking the practice tests and watching the driving practical I think I’ve figured out why Taiwanese people drive the way they do.

Other posts you may be interested in:

Random Asianess:  Driving in Taiwan
Random Asianess:  Taiwanese Health Care
Random Asianess:  Random Thoughts

Monday, April 11, 2011

Taiwanese Traditions: The Beliefs of Confucianism

The Confucius Temple as seen from the street
Confucianism is a very complex system of beliefs. It isn’t just a religious philosophy but also contains elements of moral, social and political thought. The goal of Confucianism is the perfect man; a virtuous man of great learning and good manners; A scholar, a gentleman and a saint. The notion of duty extends beyond moral thought and is expected to be a part of everyday life. Confucius (551 B.C. – 479 B.C.) was a contemporary of Siddhartha Guatama, who is also known as the Buddha. Buddha died two years before Confucius at the age of 80. Confucius was not popular in his lifetime. He attempted to infuse government with his philosophies of duty and honor only to be rebuffed continuously. After his lifetime, though, he became venerated as the “perfect man:” The greatest of men and a flawlessly wise man. Confucius for his part had no illusions as to his perfection. He was a man who was aware of his shortcomings and made no great effort to keep them hidden.

Confucian Belief

An Example of Confucian Thought:  See no Evil, Speak no Evil, Hear no Evil
Confucian beliefs not only exemplify the teachings of Confucius but also strongly rest on ancient Chinese tradition. The religion of ancient China to which Confucius adhered closely was a form of nature-worship. While numerous spirits associated with natural phenomena were recognized—spirits of mountains and rivers, of land and grain, of the four quarters of the heavens, the sun, moon, and stars—they were all inferior to the supreme Heaven-god, Tian (Heaven) also called Ti (Lord), or Shang-ti (Supreme Lord). All other gods were his ministers.

Many of the Confucian teachings are written in the Five King Books. In the first of these is the "Shao-king" (Book of History). It’s a religious and moral book, teaches the lessons that the Heaven-god gives prosperity only to the virtuous ruler who has the welfare of the people at heart. This is primary to the work of Confucius in government. During his lifetime he worked to change government according to the principles that have been written in this book.
Women making an offering to their ancestors at Pao An Temple

One aspect of Confucian thought is that, “man is basically good.” It is believed that any man is able to follow the path of duty, and live within the rules of good conduct, provided that his nature is not spoiled by environment or bad influences. Confucianism does not hold to the belief of original sin.
Central to the idea of Confucianism is the worship of ancestors. Many of the modern traditions of ancestor worship may be traced back to Confucian thought. Ghost month, offerings to ancestors, tomb sweeping and the burning of “temple” money are centered in Confucianism.

Ancient Confucian Ceremonies

Marriage – Marrying and having a MALE child is the duty of a good son. The parents through a go-between arranged the marriage. The man should be 30 and the woman 20. On the wedding day the groom in his best clothing and carriage comes to the bride's house and leads her to his carriage. She is taken to his father’s home where guests have gathered. The bride and groom are given cups made of hollowed out fruit and filled wih sweet liquors when they drink from it they signify they are onded in marriage.

Ghost Month Offering
Mourning Ceremonies - The mourning rites were also of great importance. The mourning rites for the father were the most impressive of all. For the first three days, the son, clad in sackcloth of coarse white hemp, fasted, and leaped, and wailed. After the burial, the son had to wear the mourning sackcloth for twenty-seven months, starving himself and living in a crude hut made for the funeral near the grave. Confucius condemned the suggestion that the period of the mourning rites be shortened to one year.,

Sacrifices – The sacrifices are mainly food offerings set out to the gods or ancestors. The sacrifice was to be nothing more than a food offering expressing the respect of the worshippers, a solemn feast to do honor to the spirit guests, who are invited and are thought to enjoy the entertainment. Fruit, meat and drinks, including alcoholic beverages are included in the offerings   There is singing and instrumental music, and dancing. The ministers in these ceremonies are not priests, but heads of families, the feudal lords, and above all, the king.

Things have changed a bit in modern times. Weddings are done in a restaurant. Ratified by the government and are no longer arranged by the parents (in most cases) Funerals are still usually a month longs and include wailing and chanting, traditional music and offerings for the dead. Usually a tent is set up in front of a person's home and some religious rites ae done in the tent. Often there are professional mourners who lead the family in wailing for their dead relative.

Food offerings are done mainly on specific holidays. For example there are three days during Ghost month (July 1, 15 and 30on the Lunar Calendar). In addition, there is a day of Sweeping of the ancestor’s tombs. (April 5 solar) On other occasions people burn money and offer sacrifices such as food, fruit, drinks and incense for their ancestors.

The Temple in Taipei

Gateway into the Confucius Temple
The temple was first built in 1879 to serve the people in the rites of Confucianism. In 1907 the Japanese destroyed it. At that time Japan was the “owner nation” of Taiwan. The rights to govern Taiwan were given to the Japanese in 1895 following the first Sino-Japanese conflict. The temple was torn down in order to make way for the Taipei First Girls High School. It was rebuilt in its present location in 1925.

On September 28, the birthday of Confucius, officials hold the Shidian ceremony. These ceremonies began in the Zhou dynasty and include ritual offerings of food and drink as well as traditional dances and music. In addition to Confucius, the ceremony also honors the four companions and the twelve “wise ones,” disciples of Confucius. Their “spirit Tablets” (this is a wooden tablet where the spirit of the decased reside, in the Confucian belief system) are placed east and west of Confucius’ spirit tablet. Modern Cofucian sages and ancient ones are honored together.

Other posts you may be interested in:

Taiwanese Traditions:  Ghost Month
Random Asianess:  Walking the god
Taiwanese Traditions:  The Legend of Nian

Monday, April 4, 2011

Taiwanese Traditions: The Planting and Growing of Rice

A Rice Field in Taoyuan City.
When you live in Taiwan one thing you see a lot are rice fields. It seems that Rice is planted just about anywhere that somebody has some space. They are mixed in with city buildings, they’re spread throughout more rural areas, in fact, they’re just about everywhere. The rice-planting season begins in late March. Recently, Brenda and I took our motorcycle to the city of Yingge and along the way we came across some men planting Rice.

The process of Rice planting is pretty interesting. Brenda grew up on a farm in Ohio. They planted popcorn in their fields, but the planting of rice is very different than planting popcorn. For one thing popcorn is planted on dry land and rice is planted under a layer of water.

When planting rice the field is prepared the soil is broken up and flooded then the rice seedlings are placed into the flooded ground in rows. In the old days this was done by hand. Men lined up across the flooded field. Each carried a pouch with a number of seedlings hanging from their shoulder and planted three seedlings across. And then stepped back and repeated the process. The line of men would walk backwards this way across the entire length of the field. They would then repeat the process in the next paddy, and the next,  until all of the paddies were planted.

These days rice is planted in a more automated way. Small Kubota tractors are equipped with special seedling planting equipment. The tractor is driven in a straight line across te field and the seedlings are automatically placed into the flooded ground. What before would take many men an entire day can now be done by two or three men in a couple of hours. We watched a two-man planting team plant a small field in about 15 minutes. The rice is then cared for throughout the growth season and is harvested around October.

Rice is one of the main staples in the Taiwanese diet. It is well suited to growing in Taiwan because a large yield of rice can be grown in a small area. This is why you see rice fields in cities. Rice requires a great deal of water throughout its growing process. Taiwan’s wet climate and high rainfall combine to create the perfect conditions for cultivating rice.

A Taiwanese rice farmer fertilizes his field.
Rice growing has been the traditional agricultural staple in China since it was domesticated Yangtze River valley in approximately 5000 B.C. Prior to being domesticated it was eaten in it’s wild form.

Rice is served with just about every Taiwanese meal. White rice is the most common form served. People scoop the plain rice out of the bowl and into their mouths with chopsticks. Rice is also formed into delicate thin noodles, or shaped into pyramids, with meat and chestnuts, called Zongzi, These are the traditional food of the Dragon Boat Festival. Sometimes, the sticky part of the rice is molded into balls called "tang yuan” (soup circles) and served in soup or a kid of sweet dessert soup. Fried rice can be made with pork chicken, seafood or eggs. Finally a type of cookie is made from rice that is sweet on one side and salty on the other. Rice can be prepared by steaming, boiling or frying. Because of its versatility rice is probably eaten more than anything else.

Rice ready to be harvested.
You might also be interested in:
Taiwanese Traditions:  The Dragon Boat Festival
Eating My Way Through Taiwan:  Niu Rou Mian
Taiwan Travelogue:  The Traditional Market
Taiwan Travelogue:  Old Ceramics Street