Archive for the ‘Asia Trip 2010’ Category

Leaving Taiwan

September 4, 2010 - 8:50 pm 1 Comment

July 27, 2010

I am now on the plane, in transit from Tokyo to Dulles – to home at last! After nearly 2.5 weeks of adventure in Taipei and Seoul, I now have to return to the United States, repack, and embark on my post-school working life in New York City.

This transition feels really bittersweet – I greatly anticipate my new life as a young professional, but will miss the ivory tower of academia. I console myself, however, that my learning and intellectual pursuits will be never-ending – that breaking from the classrooms provides a newfound freedom for intellectual study, very much in the tradition of my father who studies the Greeks on his own accord. Now, I learn on my own time frame and desire, not mandated by a structured course.

Unlike my visit to Taipei with Lauren in 2004, this trip concentrated much more on family. My parents had to address some serious family issues that had fermented in their absence. As such, Grace and I observed and discovered much more meaningful aspects of the character of our extended family, rather than just being touted along as tourists.

The Meng second generation now has reached fully maturity, with Grace the youngest at 22 this year. Even though I did not spend much time with my cousins, I found it intriguing to observe and understand the rationale behind their current circumstances.

Big city life can easily corrupt taste to focus on immediate luxuries – food, shopping, popular culture, clubbing, drinking, and other indulgences. In many ways, the simplicity of Grace and my childhood and the loving participation of my parents in our lives – often in the form of “tough love” and continued encouragement of inspired action – gave us a freedom to better define and pursue our own interests, to escape the fray of just mere satiation of immediate desires.

My grandparents remind me of the importance of treasuring family today. Since her stroke, my father’s mother has lost all sentient thoughts and does not recognize me, while my father’s father is now nearly a decade gone. My mother’s parents are very healthy and still extremely mentally sharp despite their octogenarian age, but objectively, their bodies are so much frailer than what I remember from just a few years past. As I pushed grandfather’s wheelchair in between his rests and supported my grandmother as we walked, I felt both an immense love and an overwhelming anxiety. My grandparents treat Grace and me so kindly, and I have so many wonderful memories of them from my childhood.

Grandmother is truly sharp – knowledgeable of human affairs with an uncanny emotional intelligence such that so many respect her. Grandfather is her constant, consummate partner – patient, loving, kind, and detail-oriented. I admire and love them both – imagine their difficulty in leaving China as refugees barely past their teens to set up a new life in a foreign country!

My grandmother is the sweetest old woman imaginable – so smart, kind, loving, and talented. Despite their age, my grandparents don’t recognize their own age. Both possess an indomitably spirit and “can do” attitude, disbelieving of their own limitations and health ailments. With work starting, I worry that I won’t be able to visit often, but I will try and call as much as I can to treasure each moment.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been treated with such kindness and love from all my relatives. From dinners to gifts, we’ve really encroached on their hospitality. My hope is that eventually, my relatives will come and visit us in the United States – our turn to be the gracious hosts and give them a peek into our lives.

The long flight provides ample time for reading, reflection, and writing. I had a chance to debate issues with my dad and document my travels in this journal. Grace and mo arrive two days after us, so I look forward to welcoming them home – the four of us reunited in our natural habitat!

Alas, as we fly to the opposite side of the world, a torrent of memories from this wonderful summer completely envelops me. A bittersweet parting indeed, but new adventures and discoveries now await me as I relocate to NYC and start work! No obstacle is insurmountably, especially with my parents and my sister by my side.

Sister Time

September 4, 2010 - 8:33 pm 1 Comment

July 26, 2010

Parents had much business to address on their own, as today is dad’s and my last day in Taiwan, so Grace and I struck out on our own to explore to our heart’s desire. Truly a bittersweet day as I’m having so much fun and don’t want to leave, but at the same time, recognize that only because my trips to Taiwan are so rare that I enjoy the experience so much. Every treats me so kindly here – for once, I feel connected to a greater family beyond just the four of us in the United States. Now I understand the joy of extended family – of Thanksgiving dinners with the entire crowd that we never had.

Grace and I departed early to Zhongshan station to shop the underground mall, but everything was still closed as stores only open at 10:30 AM. Regardless, we enjoyed walking the underground tunnels to arrive at Taipei Main Station to share a famous Railway Bento. Even though the time was barely past 10 AM, the bentos were nearly gone at this early hour! Later, we went upstairs to the posh food court to share an order of beef and squid on a sizzling hot plate. We found a stand selling children’s books and bought a few featuring idioms and Three Kingdoms – alas, my Chinese level parallels that of a mediocre to poor elementary school student!

I love the area around Taipei Main Station, with so many music stores, stationary shops, food options galore, and a mass collision of people – from students going to cram school to businessmen picking up their midday meal. Grace and I bought thank you cards for everyone from our favorite stationary store before heading underground to the Taipei City Mall, famous for traditional gifts and handicrafts. While wandering the massive underground streets, Grace and I stumbled into an anime section, where we even saw a tiny maid café! (Grace was too scared to walk in even though I suggested that we had time to stop for tea.)

Grace and I then took the metro to Ximending to shop around, particularly the idol stores that Grace adores. I wanted to get a haircut, so we found this massive salon popular with the young people. The salon teemed with highly fashionable young people, each with more gravity-defying hairstyles than the next, reflecting the popular trends common on Asian MTV. I felt rather intimidated and out of place, to be honest, but with my limited time and desire to get a cheap haircut (USD $15 for a quality cut), I decided to go ahead.

Notably, the haircut took more than two hours…each. The barber took particular care given my initial hesitance. I found him an interesting, entertaining guy with circle lenses and a flair for drama. (He said some of the funniest things – evidently, he’s one of the true Taiwanese natives, the equivalent of a Native American in the United States.) He cut my hair with meticulous focus, but my bangs are now fuller than they have ever been, against my original intention. Oh well, Grace thinks the style looks nice, so I trust her opinion. Grace also got a haircut – a very cute one that frames her face well. We left the salon feeling really polished, but given the extreme humid and hot weather in Taiwan, it was hard to maintain that refreshed feeling!

The sky had darkened by now, so we went home to pack and say good-bye to everyone. I know that I will miss everyone a lot, particularly my grandparents. What a truly wonderful trip!

Longshan Temple and Shida

September 4, 2010 - 8:06 pm 1 Comment

July 25, 2010

After a late start to the day (there’s honestly no point to starting the day early in Taipei – everything opens and closes really late!), we went to see grandparents at their church. Living at the church is my grandmother’s aunt – now 99 years old, the age of the People’s Republic of China, established in 1911. When we crossed the threshold into the church, she immediately recognized my mom, despite not having seen her for decades. What wonder to retain such good sense and memory even at such an elderly age!

We spent some time there, taking shelter from the rain and discussing issues of great family import. For the last year, my mom has struggled to communicate with her family over a series of lifestyle and financial issues. The afternoon soon became an opportunity to air grievances openly, which otherwise would fester beneath a superficial veneer of the guest-host dynamic.

After the rain stopped, we walked to Longshan temple, built in 1783. Our visit just happened to coincide with the International Young Buddhist Meeting. As such, we saw prayer in session, everyone chanting sutras in harmony, kneeling on the muddy floor in worship, and throwing colored wooden blocks meant to predict the future. As an odd combination of Buddhist, Taoist, and folk worship, the temple had so many mini-shrines to gods of different provenance, with so many devout believers lighting incense and providing offerings.

I was truly impressed by the architecture of the temple – the decorations are so ornate. Particularly striking is the dragon carved into the main pillars of the front gate.

According to my mom, a sordid crowd arrives at night, as the temple is in close proximity to the Huaxi Street Night Market, where snake killing compromises a common activity. Chinese medicine affixes healing powers to snake blood, and as such, the most fanatic indulge in this cruel practice.

Afterward, we shopped around in the underground MRT mall before heading to Shida University to meet grandparents for dinner. Both my parents attended Shida to study mathematics, but from completely different perspectives. As a graduate of Beinu First Women’s High School, my mom felt disappointed about her college placement – she had expected higher, but an eye infection on the day of the exam marred her performance. Even though Shida was a really renowned school, particularly for those interested in teaching, my mom had expected to enter into Taida University. Conversely, my father entered in Shida and discovered himself, even choosing to drop out for a year to pursue philosophy after finding inspiration away from the classroom (my grandfather later forced him back to finish his degree).

We ate famous Shida beef noodles and browsed the night market – the most popular among the locals of Taipei and featuring some truly splendid “small eats” that are not available elsewhere. As grandparents tire easily, we went to the university campus and sat beneath an ancient tree outside of the classrooms my parents used to attend. My dad entered into an odd meditative state as he reminisced about his past – his college years the start of his journey of self-discovery.

Yes, indeed, epiphanies begin in college. For myself, Penn opened so many doors and opportunities, and gave me the audacity to dream and pursue ventures beyond my wildest imagination. For the first time, I traveled internationally and felt as if the world opened up. I developed a strong sense of my own identity and found my passions – international development, social entrepreneurship, and finance.

Perhaps one day, I will return to Penn, sit on a bench on Locust Walk, and contemplate just as my dad did.

Reliving my Mother’s Past

August 21, 2010 - 9:08 pm 1 Comment

July 23, 2010 (Friday)

We woke up comfortably late, before heading off to “Yi Tiao Long” for a tasty lunch of steamed dumpling with just the four of us – mom, dad, Grace, and me. With so many relatives surrounding us all the time, I enjoyed taking a break from the constant influx of people to enjoy an afternoon to ourselves. Dad relished the steamed dumplings greatly, polishing off two full bamboo steamers of the succulent beef pockets.

Mom grew up around this area, so we took a stroll in the neighborhood. Despite the passage of more than thirty years, she still remembers everything, from the bookstores and the pharmacies that she used to frequent to her favorite ice cream shop near the park (50 years strong and still unchanged). In fact, when we went into the pharmacy adjacent to her old residence, the owner of the pharmacy immediately recognized her!

We began by walking down a street renowned for bookstores, in search of DVDs to bring back to the United States of my mom’s favorite series. As a nostalgic throwback to my first trip to Taiwan at age 5, we bought a few volumes of “Bao Qing Tian” – the famous judge who solved difficult crimes in ancient China. As my mom has taken a keen interest in acupuncture and Chinese medicine, she purchased a few books and instructional posters on the subject. (Even though I insist I am fine and my primary care doctor agrees, my mother remains convinced that my liver will fail…) I really enjoyed the bookstores greatly; I just wish I paid more attention in Chinese class so I could be fully literate.

Afterward, we went to the 2-28 Memorial Park, formerly known as “New Park”. Given the political agenda of the Green Party, the name change reflected a resurgence of “Taiwanese identity” – in this particular case, commemorating the native Taiwanese who suffered subjugation under the Nationalist Party. In my opinion, however, given the atrocities suffered on both sides, these symbolic gestures only ignite greater conflict rather than palliating the injustices of the past.

In the park, we saw the pond that my mother accidentally fell into when she climbed up a tree while playing with the neighborhood boys. We then walked through the park towards Beinu High School (First Girl’s High School). Throughout my childhood, I’ve heard so many of my mom’s cherished memories at this school. As matriculation required the highest level of achievement, attending Beinu gave my mom and my grandparents a lot of pride and honor. Watching my mom share her memories made me so happy; she returned very much into a giddy girl while showing us her favorite places. Along the way, we also saw the western-style presidential palace.

Our parents left us early, but Grace and I went on to Wufenpu for bargain shopping of “Asian fashion”. What a mind-boggling large collection of vendors! We ended up purchasing so many pretty dresses and shirts for cheap, before straggling home late, fully satisfied. Even for a reluctant shopper like myself, I really enjoy perusing the shopping districts in Asia – unlike the US, the styles are much delicate and cute. Alas, where else can I buy a pretty lace skirt for just $3.00?

Meeting Old Friends

August 10, 2010 - 9:41 pm 2 Comments

July 22, 2010 (Thursday)

We started the morning quite late, with a screening of “Food Inc.”. Even though I already knew the main message of the documentary prior to watching, the guttural images of the inhumane conditions of the chicken farm, the grim indifference of the meatpacking industry, and the genetic tampering of crops and seeds astounded me nevertheless. Alas, the pressure of cheap food and mass production has created a huge agribusiness industry that manipulates consumer tastes in favor of unhealthy, processed foods so far removed from nature. In light of the severe health problems and escalating costs of care stemming from the epidemic of obesity in America (30% of adults!), we seriously need to reconsider our existing patterns of consumption. The fatty, salty processed foods that Americans eat not only shorten their own lives, but destroy the livelihoods of small farmers around the globe who are unable to compete with multinationals subsidized by our government.

After a tasty lunch of my dad’s seafood pasta and fresh fruit, we departed to Taipei Main Station to meet Jason Wu, the son of my mother’s college classmate. Jason took us to the Taipei Fine Art Museum, where we enjoyed the special exhibition featuring the highlights of the Philadelphia Art Museum, with works by Degas, Monet, Picasso, Chagall, Leger, among others. (Ironic that I went to Taipei to see again the collection I often frequented while a student at Penn!) The works seemed so familiar to me, yet seemingly so out-of-place, as I still remember their original location in Philadelphia.

After the special exhibition, we went through the museum’s collection of modern art created by local Taiwanese artists. In particular, I enjoyed an odd exhibition featuring interactive visual displays from France, each stretching the boundaries of the sight, sound, and touch. For example, we entered into a room filled with sand and light, a completely dark room playing a 3D movie of space-age shapes, and yet another room with glass instruments generating sounds from movement. As an aficionado of modern art, I really enjoyed the collection, particularly the opportunity to interact with the display to create my own personal experience and interpretation of the piece.

Around dinner time, Grace and I left to meet up with Sharon, my colleague from Credit Suisse.  Hard to imagine that we met nearly five years ago, and since then, she’s gotten married and settled into a new life and career! With her sister joining us, the four of us went to an upscale Thai restaurant and chatted about the changes occurring in our lives. After a pleasant, relaxed dinner, Grace and I walked home, relishing a taro bun at a famous bakery along the way, perhaps the tastiest baked treat I’ve ever eaten with its generous helping of sweet mashed taro encased in semi-sweet, soft bread.

Alas, a wonderful day in the company of old friends!

The National Palace Museum

August 10, 2010 - 9:32 pm 1 Comment

July 21, 2010 (Wednesday)

I finally got to visit the National Palace Museum today, perhaps my most favorite museum. The permanent collection houses over 677,687 pieces of ancient Chinese artifacts and artwork, making it one of the most spectacular cultural Meccas in the world, particularly since the vast majority of these pieces come from the private collection of China’s ancient emperors. As expected, the exhibits showcase extraordinary workmanship – the finest, most ornate, and highly adulated paintings, curios, calligraphy, bronzes, and porcelain of the zeitgeist.  As my grandfather informed me, the curator rotates the displays once every three months. Yet, even with such frequent turnover, it would take nearly 12 years to display the entire collection owned by the museum! Chiang Kai Shek’s seizure and transfer of these Forbidden City treasures from China engender a fierce debate, but I believe that by doing so, he preserved the integrity of so many important cultural relics which would otherwise be sold or destroyed under the communist regime. As you can see from the photos and the video, the weather was near unreal – the bluest skies framing the imposing main exhibition hall.

We escaped the crowds during the lunch, but soon got plagued by tour groups from Europe and Asia. Between the audioguide we rented and Dad’s supplementary explanations, I felt truly fulfilled and happy. My father brings history to life with his antics, from emulating the calligraphy strokes of the grand masters to marveling the paintings of the ancient dynasties. Growing up in the States, I regrettably have only a cursory knowledge of ancient Chinese history (if only mom were here…she’s a true expert!). In going to the National Palace Museum, I have a unique chance to absorb some of the main cultural and historical highlights, as exhibited in the work admired by the imperial courts of the time. I found the layering of commentary particularly fascinating – different owners of a notable work would affix their own seal and commentary, providing a historical record of the passage and transfer of the artifact.

We stayed at the museum for a good four hours, entranced by the breadth and depth of the exhibitions. Of course, we saw the famous jade cabbage, the stone resembling a juicy chunk of fatty pork, and the intricate ivory carvings designed to astound viewers with its extraordinary mastery of microscopic detail. Grace looked forward to Giuseppe Castiglione’s painting of 100 horses, but unfortunately, we couldn’t find it. In particular, I enjoyed the exhibition dedicated to the emperor’s curio boxes, in which each intricate treasure chest hid a trove of secrets.

Dad, Grace, and I then left the museum for an evening snack of dumplings before taking the metro to the Eslite bookstore to read books and relax. That evening, I dreamt of living within the paintings of the rich landscapes – the quiet serenity of the misty mountain in early morning broken only by the sweet tones of a zither accompanying the recitation of poetry. Alas, a life so far removed from the conundrum and materialism of modern life!

Sister Time in Ximending

August 10, 2010 - 8:53 pm 1 Comment

July 20, 2010

We woke up relatively early, but didn’t leave until lunch time, when we went to Ximending to feast on steamed dumplings at “Yi Tiao Long” with our grandparents, Aunt Grace, and Cousin Billy. I love Northern Chinese cuisine – instead of rice, the dishes are mainly wheat and flour based. Imagine succulent pockets of beef and scallion stuffed within a thin dumpling skin, cooked to perfection in traditional bamboo steamers!

After lunch, we walked around town with grandparents, who reminisced about the past and the changes occurring over the last five decades. Despite her age, grandmother still possesses an extraordinarily sharp mind – she remembers details with great clarity and manages her personal finances and affairs without hesitation.

Grace had given me a list of her top 5 “must-do’s” while in Taiwan, so I was more than happy to oblige. As an avid follower of K-pop and J-pop, she really looked forward to doing KTV (the Taiwan version of karaoke). As such, we went to the popular Partyworld venue in Ximending – an establishment so large that it completely resembled a hotel! Although the limited selection of Korean songs dismayed Grace, we still had a really great time singing some Chinese classics (Theresa Teng) and enjoying sister time together. Grace has such a powerful voice – rich in tone, near perfect pitch, and with a unique resonance…alas, I wish I could sing like her!

After KTV, we headed off to the movie district in Ximending to watch Eclipse.  Although Gracie is far from an avid Twilight series fan, she really looked forward to watching the movie, especially since the third installment featured her favorite battle between vampires and werewolves. (Admittedly, I am probably more familiar with the books than Grace. Even though the writing and content do not particularly ensnare my attention, trashy novels tend to read quickly and enjoyably during a boring weekend…and who possibly can dislike a story featuring vampires?) Despite the overdone tones of teenage self-inflicted angst, we still enjoyed the movie greatly, particularly the action scenes involving the wolves. Photos of Edward (the main vampire protagonist) pepper Ximending – I can’t imagine why he would be so popular!

After the movie, we went shopping in Ximinding – #3 on Grace’s list. We browsed clothing shops, trinkets stores, and jewelry stands, just absorbing the environment and the energy of the district. Mom and Aunt Grace strongly recommended Ah-Jong’s “Mian Xien” to us for dinner, touting the generous helping of pork intestines that propelled this particular establishment to venue. Grace and I enjoyed the taste, but frankly, still much prefer our dumplings!

Hitting 3 out of 5 on Grace’s list certainly is not a bad start. Although we did not have bubble tea today (#4), we’re visiting the National Palace Museum (#5) tomorrow, which should hence complete the list. What a wonderful day spent with my sister – just the two us exploring Taipei’s youth culture and delights!

A Quiet Day in the Neighborhood

July 29, 2010 - 8:10 am 1 Comment

July 19, 2010 (Monday)

Grandparents came to visit us at Uncle’s place for lunch, as dad had invited them over to showcase his new-found cooking skills. We spent some time chatting afterward – I showed my grandparents my website and Givology. My grandparents then slept while Grace and I played different games. We walked to Raohe Street together to shop and browse the vendors setting up for tonight’s market. Later on, grandparents joined us, and we took them to a venue specializing in foot massages. We ate dinner at Raohe Street, including my favorite black pepper buns and the stinky tofu adored by Grace and mom.

We returned home for a second dinner (I swear, I spend so much of my day just eating). Aunt Jennifer then took us to buy shoes for my dad, while Cousin Jessica brought bubble tea for us to enjoy!

Lunch with the Meng Family and Taipei 101

July 29, 2010 - 8:00 am 2 Comments

July 18, 2010 (Sunday)

After a leisurely morning, we had lunch with my father’s siblings (other than Uncle George). To send off Uncle David, an avid vegetarian as a result of his Buddhist religion, we went to a tasty vegetarian buffet. The food was absolutely extraordinary, with delicate dishes prepared from fresh ingredients! As a glutton for diversity, I stuffed myself to near a near uncomfortable level trying to sample all the dishes. The kitchen kept on rotating in new dishes, so I kept on eating! The vegetables were cooked in a variety of ways, with subtle spices and cooking techniques enhancing the natural flavor. My dad had a chance to catch up with his sisters – a wonderful reunion after years apart!

Stuffed, I fell asleep for the entire afternoon, probably not the healthiest thing to do. To help settle our stomachs, we walked to Taipei 101 to browse the shops and the bookstore. As one of the tallest buildings in the world, Taipei 101 sticks out in the skyline like a sore thumb, especially since the majority of the city is very flat. Given the frequency of earthquakes and typhoons, the task of constructing the building constituted a colossal effort in engineering.

While we did not do very much sightseeing today, spending time with family in it of itself is a joy.

Ding Tai Fung, Sun Yet Sen Memorial, and the Three Kingdoms

July 29, 2010 - 7:46 am 2 Comments

July 17, 2010 (Saturday)

On Friday, our flight back to Taipei was somewhat scary due to turbulence associated with heavy rain. In general, we spent a quiet day at home, sharing stories about our trip to Korea with our parents, and resting in preparation for tomorrow’s busy activities.

On Saturday, we woke up relatively late. Cousin David invited Grace and me to lunch at Ding Tai Fung with his girlfriend and her sister. Since the New York Times chose Ding Tai Fung as one of the “Top 100 Restaurants in the World”, you can imagine the quantity of eager tourists who frequent! I found the soup dumplings really delicate and tasty – the thinnest outside skin containing a fragrant pocket of meat swathed in a rich soup.

After lunch, we all went to the nearby Sun Yet Sen memorial, commemorating the Father of the Nation of Republic of China. Sun Yet Sen played an instrumental role in inspiring the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and the founding of the Republic of China & the Kuomintang (KMT).  As a uniting figure in post-Imperial China, he remains unique among 20th-century Chinese politicians for being widely revered amongst both the Chinese and Taiwanese!

We came just in time for the changing of the guards – an elaborate spectacle of twirling guns and militant decorum. Afterward, we browsed the accompanying museum to the memorial. I learned about the three principles established by Sun Yet Sen: 1) Democracy, 2) Nationalism, 3) Livelihood.

Afterward, Cousin David dropped Grace and me off at the National History Museum to view the special Three Kingdoms Exhibition with my parents and grandparents. My dad’s stories brought the exhibit to life – he reenacted the famous scenes from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, quoting exact text and explaining the significance. My dad’s knowledge of the book is truly amazing; he read the book numerous times in his childhood, and from his passion for the stories, understands so much.  Compared to the museum’s cursory explanations, my dad’s dramatic interpretation was so much more meaningful.

As an avid fan of the Three Kingdoms drama, Grace was near giddy with excitement as she saw statues and artwork depicting the heroes she adores, particularly the courageous Guan Yu – a general serving under Liu Bei. After the exhibit, we went to the botanical gardens, where the Chiao family took several pictures together.

Hungry from the afternoon, we then walked to a nearby tasty restaurant serving banquet dishes. Dining on sea cucumber, a special pork stew, and other exotic dishes I’ve never encountered before, we all felt fully satisfied. My mother then took my grandparents home, while Grace and I headed off to Shilin market to meet up with Jen Jia, my friend from college who happened to visit Taipei for her MBA program. Grace and I played a few claw machine games, and ended up getting a cute alligator stuffed toy! We browsed the stores until late, and then returned home.  What a wonderful day, filled with good food, family, friends, and museums!