First Stop: Country Music Capital Of The World

22 Apr

663 miles. 10 hours and 50 minutes to Nashville, TN.

After 8 hours of driving, we were still in Virginia. For those of you who have done the trip out West, you can attest to just how frustrating it is to drive what seems like endless hours and still be in the same state. To add insult to injury, we were under such a time crunch that we could not stop and enjoy any of the VA vineyards or the Shenandoah views.

Finally overcoming the Virginia state border into Tennessee, we felt accomplished enough to stop. We spent our first night in Knoxville. An early start and another two hours finally brought us to the Country Music Capital of the World. I made sure to whet our appetites with some good old country tunes by Rascal Flatts and Tim McGraw. John didn’t enjoy my attempts to practice country twang as much as I did.

We pulled into downtown Nashville welcomed by cowboy hats and neon signs pointing to BBQ’s and boot sales. A quick stroll on Broadway led us to Elivs…who recorded some 250 song between 1956 and 1971 in Nashville…

some serious cowboy boot sales…

and the famous Jack’s BBQ.

We could smell the hickory-flavored smoke from the street and we followed our noses right on through the door.

Visited by the likes of Jessica Simpson, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Billy Bob, and Russell Crowe, any uneasiness surrounding the unmarked meats was put at ease.

And what did we find? Jack did not do us wrong.

So, when in Nashville, look for the Pigs over Broadway sign and enjoy the comforts of southern living at Jack’s BBQ. Just be sure to leave out your “please” and “thank you’s” as I was called out for being “too darn polite to be from Nashville.”


Getting Ready to Head West

22 Apr

So it was decided. After a grueling 2 weeks in California doing interview after interview, I accepted an offer and returned to pack up and head west. 3,800 miles in 5 days. Hefty goal but averaging 13 hours a day, definitely doable.

Our plan: Washington D.C. –> Nashville, TN –> New Orleans, LA –> Austin, TX –> Santa Fe, NM –> Los Angeles, CA –> SAN FRANCISCO, CA

The day before launch, my family, knowing how much I enjoy seafood, took me down to Maine Avenue to bring back some fresh oysters, steamers, Maryland crabs, and lobster shrimp. After schmoozing with Juan behind the wall of sea creatures for a couple minutes, we managed to bring home quite the bargain for our goods. We left happy and hungry.

My aunt and I laughed our way through the pain of shucking oysters. 70+ oysters in under 2 hours and only 3 wounds to show for it. The key? Have the right tools, be persistant, never give up, and when in doubt, take a hammer to it. Good life advice too.

70 oysters, 3 dozen Maryland Crabs, 3 lobster shrimp, and many glasses of wine later, I enjoyed a nice afternoon stroll with my mom and two aunts. Stories of their childhood flowed freely and I realized just how much I’d miss our weekly weekend gatherings and the comfort of family. No where else will I hear our unique language of Chin-glish used so frequently and understood without hesitation.

But, alas, the morning arrived and we had to hit the road. The only obstacle?  I hadn’t managed to pack one suitcase in the entire week I’d been home. Procrastination at it’s finest.

John rolled his eyes at me but threw on a grin that told me he was not surprised in the least. He waited patiently as I lugged suitcase after suitcase from our basement to fill with all the things I had accumulated in the past 25 years of my life.

My brother sat with me as I packed, just as we’ve done so many times in the past, and watched the never-ending stream of clothes, pictures, and things in general tossed into the pile to go. 2 hours past our scheduled departure, the car was packed and I had to fight back tears as I looked back at the house I grew up in.

Trunk closed, surfboard and bike securely and creatively bungee’d to the roof, hugs and goodbyes, and another chapter of my life had begun.

Chinese New Year and the Year Monster

13 Feb

We celebrate many holidays without knowing their proper origin. We give out little candy hearts for Saint Valentine’s Day, wear green and pretend we are all Irish for Saint Patrick’s Day, dress up in costumes for Halloween, and receive presents under a big decorated tree for Christmas. But do we really know where all these traditions came from and how they have become the versions that exist today?

So this year, being my first time in Taiwan for Chinese New Year,  I sat down with my Uncle and his family to hear the true story behind all the things that have come to define Chinese New Year.  Yes, there is a reason behind the sea of red  and the never-ending firecrackers that explode throughout the night during the Chinese New Year. Decide for yourself if you believe the legend of the Year Monster.

Long ago, (cue for more wine), whenever autumn turned to winter, people would collect their fall harvest and prepare for the thick winter frost.

One year after the winter frost ended they (anonymous Chinese village) noticed a couple of neighbors had mysteriously disappeared. Year after year, the disappearences continued. Eventually, imaginations started to run wild and a rumor began about a “New Years Monster.”

This monster, after hibernating for a year, would always come out to collect a new victim in preparation for it’s next hibernation.

Out of fear, at the start of every winter the Chinese people would prepare to hide from the Year Monster. All family members would return to their original birth place to be together. They would salt their meats and make rice pudding. They would fix their windows and doors in order to protect themselves from intrusion. And they would stay up throughout the night to take shifts on the village watch for the Year Monster.

Once the dreaded night passed and the sun rose once more,  all neighbors would make the rounds knocking on each others doors. Upon answering they would be greeted with “Gung Tsi, Gung Tsi” which means “Congratulations, Congratulations,” you are still alive!

One year, a monk appeared and sought charity and shelter from the people. They turned him away with a quick flick of the wrist, saying they were too busy preparing for the Year Monster and that he better find shelter somewhere soon or else he would be eaten. And so he turned away as they continued on salting meats, fixing houses, and taking turns for the night watch.

The next morning,the knocking commenced. However, this year, all doors were answered and all the neighbors were still alive.

“Aha!” They realized. “The monk must have sacrificed himself for the village.” In repentance, they set off for the temple to find his bones and bury them. Upon arriving, they found him alive and merry.

“Did you see the year monster?” they asked.

“Yes.” he replied.

“How did you survive?” And so he told his tale:

In the night, the year monster approached the temple and saw the fragile old man. The old man wore all clothes of red, as in Chinese custom, those above 80 wear red for this means they were extremely good luck to have survived so long. The Year Monster, seeing the red color and being reminded of blood, stopped in it’s tracks, hesitating in its plan to slaughter. However, upon no clear signs of danger, he started on his haunches to prepare for attack yet again.

The monk quickly grabbed  his Chinese butcher knives and began chopping on his old wooden block. The sound and bright shine from the butcher knives frightened the Year Monster. But  still, upon seeing no harm, it continued onwards.

Finally, the monk took his old bamboo sticks and threw them in the fire. The bamboo sticks created a loud cascade of crackling and explosions. Sparks flying, the Year Monster ran for its life.

Therefore, the old monk passed along this wisdom to the villagers:

Upon every New Year you must:

1) wear red and paste red around your doors

2) chop all night with your butchers knives on the wooden chopping board  and

3) burn bamboo sticks to create explosions.

And so, generation upon generation, the Chinese have carried on these traditions.

Finally, my uncle ended the story, all of our plates were licked clean, bottles of wine long gone. Not one piece of salted meat or grain of rice pudding remained.

I looked around and observed the house, still sparkling from the morning vacuum cleaner attack. I noticed everyone’s new clothing (as wearing red has morphed into wear new), and listened to the exploding firecrackers echo throughout the dark night to mimic the old noises of crackling bamboo sticks.

The Year Monster did not come that night and we all awoke the next morning to wish each other “Gong shi, gong shi.”

How to Communicate with the Gods

22 Jan

Chinese New Year transforms Taiwan’s usually peaceful temples into beehives of activity. People come in droves to pay respect and pray.

2012 is the year of the Dragon. The Dragon represents might and mystery. Contrary to popular belief, if you are a Dragon, this year is actually bad luck for you.  Best to make a quick trip to the temple and offer a few prayers to improve your odds.

Waterfall? Check. Fish pond? Check. If you haven’t noticed, most Chinese restaurants and households will have both water and fish present.

The Longshan Temple is Taiwan’s oldest temple at 300 years. Its delicate stone pillars are beautifully carved.

The pious offer plates full of fruit, flowers, and small treats. You often see pyramids of delicious cake piled in front of the popular Gods. Lucky them.

Certain sacrificial items carry meaning and purpose. Onion, or “chung”, is also used in the word “chung ming” which means smart. Therefore, those wishing their children well on their exams will bring onion.

Celery is “ching chai” in Chinese. The word “ching” is also used in the word “ching kuai” for diligent.

Cabbage in Taiwanese is called “chai tao” which sounds like “chai toh” which means lucky or good omen. Therefore, the cabbage has become a sign for good fortune.

This person is wishing for intelligence, diligence, and good fortune.

Not only are there specially selected items for certain prayers but also specific Gods to pray to. The God of Good Marriage was particularly popular among the ladies this week.

Women pray to the God of Marriage and ask “Will I get married this year?” or “Is this the right man for me?” most eyes glittering of hope and hearts beating with new puppy love.

There is a strict method to contact and communicate with the Gods, however. It starts with a stick and two wooden blocks.

First, you must burn incense to open the channels of communication. The rising smoke will make your presence to the Gods known. Only then can you make your prayer.

The next step is to select a stick. Each stick has a number inscribed.

With stick in hand, you must now pick two wooden blocks. With the blocks cupped in both hands, as if praying, you throw the two blocks three times. The purpose is to ask the Gods if the number on your stick is truly your fortune. Each roll will reveal a “yes” or a “no.” If the blocks fall on the same side, then the answer is “no.”

If the blocks fall on opposing sides, the answer is “yes.”

You must throw a “yes” three times in a row in order to keep the number you have picked. If not, select another stick.

The clitter-clatter of blocks echoed throughout the temple all day.

Once you have confirmed your number with three rolls in the affirmative, you proceed to the drawer of fortunes.

Inside each drawer is a specific fortune that takes form as a nearly incomprehensible poem of complex Chinese similes and metaphors. This poem must be taken to a group of senior monks who will decipher its meaning. After hearing your question, they will provide you an interpretation. Voila, life’s problems solved.

I didn’t give it a try, but I did have a few items blessed for my parents.

It is thought that the smoke of the incense is capable of blessing your items for a year.

I whirled my charm through the fumes until my eyes burned, making sure the red strings had taken in enough good luck and fortune.

That should do it. Safe keeping for a year and a good reason to keep returning to Taiwan!

Taiwanese Massage, Completely Exposed

11 Jan

After my experience with Thai massage and a head/neck/shoulder massage turning into a full rear-end massage, I didn’t think it possible to come across anything else more hilarious and/or awkward.

Well, as with all things in life, I was “pleasantly” surprised.

My aunt had her monthly massage scheduled and asked if I would like to have one as well. As I have finally been able to pick up running in my Vibrams again, my sore calves screamed “yes!”

Off we went to what I thought would be a surprise-less massage. Normal check-in procedure, warm tea, slippers, comfortable robe, the whole enchilada. Until…the first hiccup.

“Please take off all of your clothes…” Mind you, all of this takes place in Mandarin. I took Chinese classes every Sunday instead of going to Girl Scouts or playing softball for 10 years while growing up, but with lack of use in America, it has obviously deteriorated to an embarrassing level.

I looked at my aunt and repeated the instructions to her again, just in case I had misheard the Chinese.

“Yes, of course, you take off everything.”

Everything, I thought? Perhaps they secretly mean “everything except underwear” as is normal procedure in the States.

I tried to slip by without them noticing that I had kept a certain additional piece of clothing on but was soon found out.

Okay, no problem. I could handle a little bit of nudity. There are towels anyways.

I entered the room and the masseuse motioned to table and asked me to lie down.

Robe still on, I proceeded to position myself. “Oh no, you must take off the robe!” So I waited for her to exit the room as custom in the U.S. and she didn’t move. I waited for just a couple more awkward seconds to pass until realizing she wasn’t going anywhere. Second hiccup.

Okay, no problem. We are female and all adults. I’ll be lying down within moments anyways.

Towels draped and having regrouped myself, I settled in to enjoy the hour. Things proceeded as normal with perfectly applied pressure. She moved back and forth between the neck and shoulders, knowing exactly where to press harder and where to ease up.

I personally prefer a masseuse who will feel a knot and work at it lovingly to lessen the tension. Up and down my spine, I felt all of my usual pressure points giving in to the kneading. Then, hiccup number three. The towel covering my lower half was removed and she continued downwards.

Interesting. The portion of my body where I spend most of my time on was thoroughly massaged with just as much thought and dedication as my neck and shoulders. The hours of sitting at a desk, sitting on the train, sitting on a bus, sitting and eating, probably not a bad idea to pay it some attention. No problem.

Arms, hands, thighs, calfs, feet, and toes massaged. Her weight exerted through her own thumbs, elbows, and forearms to remove every last ounce of tightened stress until my entire body felt light as a feather. Time to turn over. Fourth hiccup.

“We are now going to do the breast massage.” Big hiccup. This is actually more hilarious than awkward hearing it in Chinese.

The thing about these moments in a massage is that there is no way to buffer them. You can’t excuse yourself, there is no one else there to change the subject, there is no pause button to take a break and evaluate. The clock is ticking and the show must go on.

And so it did. Top towel removed and I lay exposed to the world. All I can say is that it was quite the experience.

One observation I’ve made in Taiwan is that people are quite open. They are open in a polite and reserved fashion as opposed to vulgar and disgusting. Topics usually avoided are discussed publicly with grace and even humorously. The immediate intimacy and comfort is disarming.

Knowing this, I wasn’t too shocked when the masseuse began to openly comment on my breasts. She even delved into certain pieces of her childhood and her own…figure. This was all embedded I’ll leave those details out as my face is reddening just thinking about it. If you know me well enough, you know I’ll be more than happy to retell the story, details included, whenever we meet again.

So there it is, the biggest hurdle survived.

And yet still remained one last hiccup. The bizarre stomach, intestinal, and abdominal massage.

I have never had any of those massaged before but they made noises I have never heard in my lifetime.  Topics usually left to true intimate friends and partners, such as digestion and toilet habits, were discussed (by herself) without hesitation.

One last head rubbing with a bizarre object I could not identify and we were done.

My aunt was waiting for me, already dressed, when I stepped out. 1.5 hours had already passed. The massage was only supposed to be an hour. Apparently I had received the royal treatment.

Even with all this taken into consideration, I’d still rank Taiwan as #1 massage received.

Ringing in 2012, 101 Floors Above

9 Jan

Once the the tallest building in the world, Taipei 101’s miraculous architecture combines ancient Chinese and modern designs. It now stands as proof to Asian tradition and technology fusion. It also has one of the world’s most spectacular fireworks displays to ring in the New Year so what better place to be for the start of 2012?

We started by meeting my 6 sisters for a traditional celebratory dinner.

Just kidding. I don’t have any sisters, but hey, could you even tell?

An absurd number of dishes were ordered including pig knuckles, pig blood cake, and frog.

Obviously accompanied with some tasty beverages.

Which gave everyone their last 2011 obstacle to overcome.

First attempt...

Second and third attempts...

Fourth attempt...

Finally, John arrived and applied some good ol’ American muscle and hooray, a group cheers!

Gan Bei! (Translates to literally mean "empty your cup!")

The night continued just as how every other night in Taiwan does, more food…

First time trying frog

more champagne,

and desert!

A mix between American and Asian…Cheesecake egg tart with a hint of the burnt crispness of Creme Brulee. Amazing.

And to top it all off, it was my first NYE with my cousin, Cathy! Hope this foreshadows this being a year for family.

After four hours, we rolled ourselves out of our chairs and made our way to the Microsoft Building, said to be the best spot in the city to watch Taipei 101 fireworks.

John was than delightfully surrounded by a plethora of Asian women and a gifted bottle of rice vodka.

Some culture swapping lead us to play a common Taiwanese consumption game where each person takes turns attempting to guess the total number of fingers (by multiples of 5) played by the entire group on each count of three.

Bickering about something or another…the game makes for great pictures.

I think he won…

As the clock ticked closer to midnight and after causing enough ruckus in Microsoft, we continued onto the roof. The view of the 101 building was truly miraculous.

Of course some building miming had to take place…

Finally, the countdown began and as we got to the last 3 seconds, sparks began to fly.


The fireworks lasted for a mere 3 minutes, seemingly small compared to our normal 30 minute long July 4th shows. However,  you will see in the pictures to come, this 3 minute show was better than all the 30 minute shows I have seen, combined. And hopefully, this also foreshadows 2012 will be better than all last years combined.

Enjoy the show.

Pictures just don’t do it justice. Sparks flew from every corner of the building, cascading up and down like rapid fire. Red’s coming out like fireballs, small gold kernels popping like popcorn, then slowly filling the sky with what seemed like millions of fireflys. My personal favorite is always the elegant golden streams of the willow tree.

Watch the Video!

Finally, the last loud cracks of fireworks exploding were washed over by the overwhelming cheering coming from all around us. Everyone was clapping and hugging. The genuine feel of warmth, happiness, and love was palpable. I couldn’t stop grinning.

What a way to conclude John’s portion of the trip before he heads off to join Code Academy in Chicago.

2012 will be an amazing year. I just know it.

Happy 2012, everyone.

Pictures credited to 林佩玲. Thank you!

Gossipmonger? Taiwanese people have the cure.

8 Jan

Do you find yourself constantly speaking ill against others? Can’t help the urge but to spread some gossip you heard about the new office hire? Do you churn out rumor after rumor without end? Well here is your opportunity to clean this previous year’s slate and start afresh. Better start eating.

Taiwan tradition allows for people to indulge their gossiping mouths with a tasty treat, a treat that will wash away the sins associated with a blabber mouth.

And here is the ultimate secret for all your inner high school girls: The Gwah Bao.

This traditional food is merely Chinese  bread (what essentially looks like a large white fluffy marshmellow) cut in half. The word “Gwah” actually means to cut. When this white fluffy bread is cut in half, it takes the shape of a large, yapping mouth.

So how does eating this wash away your sins?

The old story of the Gwah Bao and reasoning goes as such:

1) The Gwah Bao represents a large tigers mouth. It is then stuffed with pigs meat.

2) A pig, swaddling itself in piles of dirt and an inherently dirty animal, represents filth.

3) Therefore, the Gwah Bao represents a tiger eating a pig. A large, ferocious animal eating away filth.

4) Eat the Gwah Bao and all your previous filth aka sin is taken away. Voila.

In the last 15 days before the end of the lunar year, which will be between the days of Jan. 5 – Jan. 20 this year, gossipmongers must monger-away as many Gwah Bao’s as possible in order to clear their history.

Therefore, you’ll find the neighborhood gossip queens, usually little old men in Taiwan’s case, lined up around the block.

Now that people can afford more than just white bread, it is stuffed with delicious fatty meat, pickled vegetables, and sprinkled with peanut shavings. YUM. This is worth the moments of stopped gossiping to eat.

The white fluffy bread is just as soft as a marshmellow and even carries a bit of it’s sweetness. Pit up against the sourness of pickled vegetables, the crunch of peanut shavings, and the warm comfort of fatty pork, the bread makes a perfect combination.

Those who have not spoken any ill will or given into even a whisper of gossip will choose to skip the Gwah Bao in that period of time. Hence, my thoroughly honest Uncle Edward, or so he says, only taking meat that meal.

An unfortunate development with this generation is that instead of using this old story as a moral compass to guide their way north to cleanse and stay cleansed, people take it as a sign that they are now clear to rack up their record all over again, perhaps break their own personal best.

So I guess I can go ahead and start my record by passing on this decades old story, perhaps just a made up rumor. Perfect excuse for another Gwah Bao.

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