Sunday, November 23, 2008

Asian Hospitality

NTNU Mandarin Training Center Windows on 10th & 11th Floors

We had arrived in Taiwan about 10 days before our classes started, giving ourselves time to register for school and take our placement tests. With our bellies properly full of the vegetable dumpling stew, we set off with a few of the NTNU students to find the Mandarin Training Center on campus. It was on the 10th and 11th floors of the high-rise annex across the street from the main campus. We just had to walk to the end of our alley, turn right and walk a quarter of a block to the main door. The building was air conditioned and had elevators. It stood in stark contrast to the alley running beside it. We successfully registered, and all testing was waived when the school learned that we only knew two words of Chinese: xie xie (sheyay sheyay) or thank you and zai jian (dzeye geeyan) goodbye. That freed up a lot of time for us during the rest of the week before classes.

That day our guides helped us get name chops (wooden seals) with our Chinese names engraved in them so we could open bank accounts at the Post Office. Then half the guides took Lynne to the NTNU English Department to report for her teaching job while the other half took me to wander around the campus. It was really very pretty. The walls surrounding the main campus were of decorative red brick as were the paths leading from building to building. There was a lot of lush, green shrubbery along the paths, and the buildings were either of decorative red brick or the fronts were tiled and shiny. There was an alley running alongside the Campus called Shida Road, literally NTNU Road. It was jam-packed with push-cart vendors. Some sold fruit juices, some sold sausages, others stir-fried noodles right there in the street. You could buy just about any conceivable dish (even porridge or soup) and take it away in a little plastic bag to eat with skinny bamboo chopsticks. The bags were tied with a red plastic string loop that you held to keep from burning your fingers on the hot soup inside. My guides sternly warned me NOT to eat from the push-carts because the food was not always clean and some of them spread hepatitis B. About 6 months into our stay, the student center had to close its meal service because some of the boys got hepatitis from eating at Shida Road. Since the facility did not have a sterilizing dishwasher, the only way to prevent a hepatitis outbreak among the students was to stop us from eating together.

That first week someone notified the elderly people in the church that Lynne and I had free time now, because beginning that evening we were invited out for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day, and in between different people took us on a whirlwind tour of Taipei’s sights. We were still slightly jet-lagged, we understood less than 5% of what was said to us, and every time we went anywhere, an entourage from the student center had to accompany us. We never went any place with less than a jam-packed vanload of students. Sometimes the girls who spoke English were unavailable, and the person inviting us would grab students at random to “make us feel at home.” We went to several parks, but I don’t know their names; many museums, but I’m not sure what ones; and different restaurants for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Usually we were served 12 course feasts. It was nice to feel full, but it was truly overwhelming.

On the last Sunday before classes started the church gave a potluck in our honor at another hall in a remote district of Taipei. The church vans were in use picking up the elderly and the children on their usual Sunday routes, so our roommates took us by bus to the outskirts of Taipei. We went to church, and afterwards attended the potluck. All the ladies had made their prize dishes, and they kept bringing spoonfuls of their cooking and plopping it into our bowls. We were already at the end of a weeklong feasting spree, so we were not at all hungry, but to be polite we did our best to eat what was put on our plates. This only encouraged the ladies to give us more. We would say no, no, no, but they gave us still more. Anytime our bowls were finally empty, they would dish up more. One lady was particularly assiduous, and her dish contained tofu and pi dan. Pi dan are pickled eggs. They are black with green yolks. I learned later that the ancient recipe called for pickling them in horse urine. My husband loves them, but after my experience that day in Taiwan I cannot even look at a pi dan without feeling queasy. Because you see, I ate until I honestly could not take another bite. And then we had to ride on crowded buses without air conditioning, which jolted along, weaving erratically through the crazy Taipei traffic. I got horrifically sick. We would ride a few blocks, and I would get off to hurl. Then we would ride a few more blocks, and I would get off again. We did this for almost an hour before we ran into a friend of one of our guides who had enough money to lend us cabfare home. We cancelled that evening’s dinner invitation because we needed to do laundry, and we wanted to get a good night’s sleep before getting up early the next morning for an 8 am class in Mandarin Phonetics.

We later learned that Chinese table manners run just about opposite to American manners, and that the whole thing could have been avoided if we had not been so polite in the American way. But that will be the topic for a whole ‘nother post.


Joannalynne said...

haha! pi dan! but you write about WHY you ate so many pi dan the first time..

Teresa said...

Hi Jo,

I know you like pi dan. You never ate too many of them.

I was eating so many the first time because I was trying to be polite by American standards and finish everything my hosts served me. I didn't know that in Chinese etiquette the host will ignore it when you say no and keep serving you unless you leave a few bites of unfinished food in your bowl.

gzim said...

Teresa, I can see how lucky Tom and I were when we first came to Taiwan and you made sure that you always accompanied us to translate and to identify what we were seeing.

One of my surprises was the way people just left the chicken bones on the table top next to the plate when they had gnawed the meat off of them.


Teresa said...

Hi Dad,

Thanks for leaving a comment. The bones on the table trick was a little hard to get used to, but now it's so normal to me, I forgot about it. Fancy restaurants do have bone plates, but in family style eating, you just plunk your bones onto the table and scrape them into your bowl when you're done (or not if you're at a restaurant).

It was fun for me to take you guys around Taiwan in 1986. By that time, I had been there long enough to know my way around. When I made my plans to learn Chinese by immersion in Taiwan, I really did not know what I was getting myself into.


murat11 said...

I'm glad you purged for both of us: I was getting awfully full, just reading. All the feasting sounds like any given week, during my eleven years in New Orleans, especially when friends came to call.

Teresa said...

Murat, dahling, I did not purge on purpose. I don't know what you folks do in the South, but purging was NOT something I was planning on doing. As you may be able to tell from the comments between my daughter, Joanna, and me, to this day I cannot eat pi dan (the 1000 year old eggs).

11 years in Nawlins. I bet you ate a lot of po' boys. And gumbo and all kinds of good stuff. Those would not be dishes I would WANT to purge if I overate...

murat11 said...

Believe me, I knew it was not "professional" (or intentional) purging: that's just the usual pbooker blather.

As for eleven years in New Orleans, I once made the mistake of estimating how much I spent on food and drink during those years in culinary paradise. I'm probably still wearing some of that food, and it was fifteen years ago when I left.

I'm sure I sent Emeril Lagasse's kids to college on my donations to his livelihood.

Here's to eating younger foods...