Friday, October 07, 2005

Shopping (I)

Here’s my belated account of last week’s adventures. Sorry to keep you waiting.

On Tuesday, Ken (my Taiwanese exchange buddy) took me shopping. I have been at a loss as to what I should buy for my friends and family back home as presents. I had this problem in Japan as well, but I had a feeling that Taiwan might be different. Unfortunately, it seems that no matter where in the world you go these days, it is hard to find that unique “special something” since globalization has led to a world where the same cheesy, cheaply-made consumer goods are sold everywhere. Unique locally made or traditional products still exist, but they are hard to find. Many of the items that are sold for this purpose are really manufactured in large production lines for tourists, making the task at hand even more difficult.

Ken, like many other Taiwanese I have asked, didn’t seem to know of any good little “mom and pop” type shops to go to. There is a “bamboo street” here in town with many old cooking tools and hats made out of bamboo, but I could never honestly picture anyone I know in the U.S. wearing a traditional Chinese bamboo farmer’s hat. They would be light enough to ship, but it sounds pretty fragile, so I decided against going there.

So where did we go to look for traditional handmade Taiwanese goods? The department stores of course! We visited about five large department stores here in Kaohsiung. Most of them (Hanshin, Isetan, and Mitsukoshi) are Japanese companies that have been very successful in Taiwan.

Surprisingly, some of them did have a pretty good selection of handmade traditional crafts. Unfortunately, most of this stuff was stone or glass carvings. Some of it was beautiful, but expensive, heavy, and fragile. These would be nice gifts if you had the money and really trusted your shipping company, but since I don’t fulfill either of these requirements, I decided against it. Isetan, in particular, had a really nice display of glass work by a Japanese artist. Some of his pieces were priced at around $10,000 U.S., so it was way out of my league. Still, it was nice to look…

The security guards and other store employees were watching us like a hawk, but I don’t blame them. Not only was this stuff really expensive and fragile, but a crazy guy had gone into another department store a few nights ago and smashed over $200,000 U.S. worth of art with a hammer. I doubt we looked quite that crazy, but I'm sure they were just as nervous with a couple of young guys laughing and talking who might accidentally bump into an expensive vase. But I digress…

I didn’t buy anything that night, but I found what I wanted to get. I can’t divulge what it was or who it was for right now, but I think it was a pretty good gift. By the time we finished looking at all the stores, it was almost 11:00 p.m. We stopped by the night market for some dessert and headed home. I didn’t get to start on my Chinese homework until about midnight, so I was up writing characters until about 2:00 a.m. This is probably because I took so many short breaks, but come on! Your hand can get a little cramped after all that writing!

On Wednesday, Ken took me to his roommate’s parents’ house. The first floor of their house is the family business – a tea shop. I had a great time once I finally got there, but it took us an hour and a half to find it. Ken got lost because he misunderstood one syllable in the name of the street we had to turn on. This has reinforced my impression of Chinese as an impossible language, but I will keep studying anyway.

Now riding around on a scooter hasn’t scared me as much as I thought it would, but after more than an hour on the back of a scooter, your butt gets really sore. Every time we stopped to ask directions, I had to get off and stretch or jump up and down to shake some blood into my rear. I didn’t really get too upset, but it was a little annoying because I had to miss meeting with my group for my Taiwan Government and Politics class to work on a presentation.

When we finally got there, Ken’s roommate’s family were really nice. Ken and his roommate translated for me as the roommate’s father poured some nice oolong tea for us. We had a mini-Taiwanese tea ceremony, which is nice because it is much less formal than the Japanese tea ceremony. Basically, we sat in chairs and chatted about tea as his dad kept our cups full of hot oolong. We tried the bestseller there (what I wound up buying), which was really good, but he also poured us a few cups of the $100 U.S. for a half-pound type tea, which was a real treat. It was definitely some of the best tea I’ve ever had, but I don’t think there is any way I would ever spend that much money on dried tea. Both teas are grown high in the central Taiwanese mountains and are burned before packaging. Since they are burned, you pour out the first batch – that hot water is just to clean the tea leaves. You can make up to seven batches of tea with one large pinch and it’s the best on the third or fourth batch. They add no sugar to this tea, but after you drink a few glasses, you can taste a sweet trail going down your throat. They told me this is how you know if you have good tea or not.

After chatting and sipping tea for an hour or so, I paid and took my leave. They invited me to come back some time to have dinner with them, an invitation I doubt I will pass up.

This post is already longer than I thought it would be. I have a lot of work to do today, so I think I will stop here and pick up tomorrow. In my next post I will wrap up last week and in the one after that I can get to my weekend trip to Taichung. It wasn’t too eventful, but it was a nice, relaxing trip away from school. I have already posted pictures to flickr from Taichung, though, so if you want to check them out, be my guest.
Until then…

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