All posts by Darren Haughn

Taiwanese Delicacies #4: Oyster Vermicelli

The next Taiwanese delicacy was a revelation for me when I first encountered it. I didn’t expect to like it—there were clearly intestines in it. Of course I tried it. My guiding culinary principle is to try everything. To my amazement, I enjoyed every mouthful and have since overcome any squeamishness about eating poop tubes. (See: Gross Out Porn for the Armchair Traveler).

We’re talking about one of the quintessential Taiwanese dishes, Oyster Vermicelli.

If you’re going to try it, you’ll need to learn to say it in Taiwanese. You won’t get far ordering it in Mandarin. The characters are 蚵仔麵線 pronounced ô-á mī-sòa in Taiwanese. Using the Roman alphabet to transliterate produces some pretty incomprehensible spellings; Oamisoir, Oh Ahh Mee Sua, Orh Aaa Mee Suan, etc. It’s a bit of a mouthful. Here’s my two-bit Taiwanese lesson: The first syllable (ô) is pronounced ehh, like someone just farted in your face or punched you in the stomach; the next two syllables are easy (á) is pronounced ahh, like you just had an epiphany; () is the same as the English pronoun me; and, (sòa) is hard to describe, it is a bit like saying the first part of suave, but then having the rest of the word get stuck in your throat, and become a guttural nng sound, while your tone simultaneously drops, and your mouth widens at the corners, like you’re grimacing. Make of that what you will. I suck at languages, so grain of salt.

Taiwanese Oyster Vermicelli is a soup. It has a delightful woodiness that comes from the Japanese smoked bonito flakes (katsuobushi) in the soup stock. The stock is geng (焿 or 羹), meaning thickened, usually with starch, giving it a smooth and slimy texture. Many Taiwanese soups are prepared this way. The vermicelli is made primarily of wheat flour, formed into noodles and steamed until tan-brown. The process allows it to be cooked for a long time without breaking down. The main ingredients are rounded out by oyster and intestines. If you order 蚵仔麵線 Oyster Vermicelli in Taipei you can assume it’ll include intestines, unless you specify otherwise. However, if you want to be very precise you can order 蚵仔大腸麵線 Oyster and Braised Intestine Vermicelli.

The soup is garnished with cilantro. Garlic paste and spice may be added. To suit my own taste, I generally add vinegar to any geng soup stock. The soup itself is a full-flavored hearty blend, dominated—but not overwhelmed—by the fish flakes, with oyster providing a touch of the sea, and just a soupçon of shit on the palate from the intestines. It is a well-balanced blend of flavors. The vermicelli, because it’s been cooked for a long time, is very tender. It hits the spot perfectly on cold winter days. It really is delicious.

Election Day

I’m not very politically engaged. My answer to being disenfranchised is to politically disengage. I do nominally lean pan-Green. However, if I had the power to vote, I would probably vote for whomever I felt was the best candidate for the time and place, regardless of party affiliation.

Despite being politically detached, I know an election is happening. The rise in the decibel level of my community forces my awareness. The tendency in Asian elections, as with many things here, is to try to be as noisy as possible. There is a pretty constant stream of trucks, with loud speakers, driving up and down the street blaring their political messages. Along with occasional marches of one or two hundred people screaming the slogans of their chosen one.

My first experience of Asian election noise came in South Korea. [That’s  not quite true, my first experience came in Thailand, but involved tanks and automatic weapon fire, and so falls outside the purview of this discussion]. Where I lived, in Korea, they had massive apartment complexes each containing a dozen, or more, large residential towers. At about five in the morning, a truck would pull up and stop outside each individual building and blare its political message at the insensate beings within. I was stunned that any political candidate would consider this to be a good move. My natural [Canadian] reaction was nobody would vote for such an a-hole. My Korean friends found my reaction stupefying. How would you know who to vote for if they didn’t come yell at you at the crack of dawn?

Compared to that, Taiwan election noise is positively civil.

The other reason I know an election is happening is because I can’t drive anywhere without being diverted by road construction, as whichever party controls the public construction purse strings tries to make it look like they’re really working for the community. It is pretty transparent when you don’t see any construction for 3.986 years, and then all of a sudden you can’t walk to the 7-11 without tripping over a hardhat. But, hey, politicians will be politicians wherever you are.

I know I sound, well, salty, but I’m a big fan of Taiwanese democracy. I lived here during the first democratic transfer of power. I love the enthusiasm and excitement that the Taiwanese bring to their young democracy. Most people seem unjaded about their civic responsibilities. It’s nice.

It’s Totally Ontological, Dude

The problem with being punctual in Taiwan is there’s no one there to appreciate it.

I’ve adjusted to life in a high-context culture, and what I haven’t adapted to, I’m pretty good at ignoring. Nothing really riles me, except high-context time. The Taiwanese concept of time is, for me, the cultural equivalent of being forced to wear wet underwear. It just drives me nuts. I can’t help it. I come from a Germanic background. The Germans are lots of things—but round-headed they ain’t. My family immigrated to Canada in the early seventeenth century, so actually there was very little Germanness in my upbringing. Despite that, a Teutonic sense of time and punctuality was whipped into me from an early age, and boy, it stuck.

The German culture has a very monochronic sense of time. Monochronic cultures emphasize the importance of time. For them, time is constant, continuous, and tangible. It has value—it can be saved, spent, wasted, etc. Typically adhering to strict deadlines is emphasized. Punctuality is a cardinal virtue. Low-context cultures tend to be monochronic, while high-context cultures are more polychronic. Punctuality and time-structure are less important in polychronic cultures. Time is more fluid. Deadlines are a nice ideal, but nothing to get bogged down with.

On the scale from extremely monochronic to especially polychronic, modern Taiwan is somewhere in the middle, but leaning polychronic. I lived in Thailand years ago—Thai time is a polychronic hell. Taiwan is pretty reasonable, however the insouciant attitude to punctuality here still sets my Germanic blood boiling. On an interpersonal level you can adjust, even find humor in it. When I first moved to Taiwan, I became friends with a China Airlines flight attendant. I liked meeting her. She was always on time—to the second. That’s fair, and also impressive. That was her airline training. Then she quit the airline. I swear to God she hasn’t been on time since then. At the snap of a finger, she went from the most precisely punctual person I ever met to just another Taiwanese women, constantly half an hour late. It amazes and tickles me.

It is not always so easy to see the humor when dealing with my wife. She’s engaged in an epic struggle to be slightly late for everything. It drives me crazy. I get antsy if we’re not on target to arrive at inconsequential events at least 10-15 minutes early. It’s calming to be out the door in good time, and to not have to rush about trying to make it. Venus feels ripped off if she arrives early, like somehow she lost that time. She would rather use that time at home, running in ellipses trying to get ready, dashing in and out of the door to collect the various forgotten items, and then racing through Taipei gridlock, constantly checking our watches, trying to find ways to defeat traffic, and sliding into an event just as the doors are shutting. It leaves me a jittering mass of frayed nerves. She loves it—she thinks if she arrives at the last second she won. Someday it is going to be the death of me. Flying with my wife is a thrill ride that usually sees me arrive at the gate with my iliohypogastric nerve in full spasm. (That’s classy medical terminology for “it’s a sphincter-flapping experience”).

For contrast, a while back one of my oldest Canadian friends visited me. His background is German Mennonite, so, you know, his head has a few right angles also. We bicycled around Taiwan. At the end of the trip he had a midnight flight to Canada. He left for the airport before 6:00 pm. It’s less than an hour from my house to the airport, but as he said: “I’ll leave a bit early, you know, just in case of problems, and to have a stress-free transit to the airport. And, hey if I’m a few hours early, that’s okay it will allow me to mellow out before the flight, and not have to rush to get on the plane”. I hear ya, Bud.

In your personal life it may annoy, but differences between mono- and polychronic time can be disastrous in business. The monochronic workplace values orderliness—doing things at the appropriate time and place. There is a strong preference towards concentrating on a single task, doing the job well and on time, then moving on to the next task. Plans are important, and not to be carelessly violated. The polychronic workspace favors multitasking. A polychronic manager likely has an open door policy. While chairing a meeting he might answer phone calls, talk with staff, and possibly pop out to deal with an office issue. People and relationships are the primary concern, tasks and objectives are worthy goals, not absolute musts.

When these two business cultures interact, there’s a lot of room for misunderstanding. I once met a Canadian salesperson in Taiwan on business. He’d flown in to meet the CEO of a medium-size Taiwanese corporation. His company had already laid the groundwork for a multi-million dollar sale, and he came to smooth out some issues. During the meeting with the corporation’s senior officers, the CEO and senior purchasing agent were late, the meeting was interrupted by phone calls, and a few times staff wandered in disrupting the meeting. He was livid, and saw management’s behavior as an intentional slap in the face. He’d flown from Canada for the meeting and they’d disrespected him and his time by not arriving  punctually and concentrating on him during the meeting. He believed they were being deliberately insulting and that the deal was clearly in peril.

I tried to tell him there might be another interpretation. But, he wasn’t interested in hearing any of my Asian culture explanations bullshit—he’d seen what he’d seen, and knew what he knew. Nothing was going to change his mind about the abuse he’d suffered. I just let it go, and left him sulking in his beer. No corporation is paying me to teach their staff about intercultural business practices. That was awhile ago, most upper management in large Taiwanese companies are sensitive to these issues now. Misunderstandings are more likely further down the management chain or in smaller, more local, companies.

Still, I understand how he felt, I continue having a visceral reaction to the discourtesy of tardiness. It’s hard not to feel disrespected. The final anecdote belongs to my wife; no one disrespects a man quite like his wife. Sometimes I pick her up from work on my scooter. Her old office was on Fuxing North Rd., a pretty busy thoroughfare. I’d ride all the way there, allowing plenty of time to negotiate rush hour traffic and arrive in good time. I was constantly miffed that she was never downstairs, on the road, waiting for me when I got there. After all, she knows precisely when I’ll arrive—I’m never late. But, that’s okay, I know I’m in Taiwan, we can’t expect perfection. So I’d phone from the street, let her know I was there, and commence waiting. Usually she’d be precisely twenty minutes late, which really pissed me off. If you can manage to be precisely twenty minutes late each time, then you can just as easily be on time—it’s the same process. When I would ask her why she was late, it was always a variation on the same theme, “Oh, I was about to leave, when blah-blah walked by my desk, so obviously we had to chat, have a cup of tea, maybe enjoy a communal pee [girl-style]. What could I do?” You could tell them your husband is downstairs, in the heat and humidity,  on the baking asphalt, choking on gas fumes, waiting for you, and that you need to go! I stopped picking her up after I was left standing on the street waiting for three hours for her to come down. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me a hundred times, shame on me.

However from her perspective, relationships [with colleagues] are important—time not so much. She had absolutely no compunction about wasting my time. It never occurred to her that there was anything remotely ill-mannered about  it. Of course to me, Monochronic Man,  there’s no greater affront—she’s disrespecting my time and me as a person. It’s enough to make my Germanic head explode. Yep, I could totally understand where that Canadian salesman was coming from. Let’s just say, punctuality’s siren call leans towards a whisper here.

Vignette #13: Halloween in Taipei

I was sittin’ in a bar, just a knockin’ ’em back, when in rolls a crew of pint-sized ghouls, princesses, and the cutest little strawberry you’ve ever seen. Yep, Halloween traditions have made it to Taiwan, and the trick-or-treaters were out in force. I’m not sure why they were making the rounds five days before Halloween, but that’s a piddling detail.

TV and movies have spread many Western traditions to Taiwan. There’s a childish appeal to many of these customs that is largely lacking in Taiwanese traditions. Tomb Sweeping Day and Ghost Month, with their emphasis on filial duty, don’t have quite the juvenile appeal of Halloween. Santa Claus and Christmas cater to children’s sensibilities more than Chinese New Year. (See: Ho, Ho, Ho, It’s a Very Taiwanese Christmas). Naturally kids here want to enjoy the hijinks they see in Western media, though the local interpretation differs from what you’d find in the West. In the case of Halloween, there’s no chance that the tykes would be successful going house to house trick-or-treating. So, it has become a bit of a tradition for English buxibans to gather their youngest classes together and take them, as a group, around to participating merchants. It is an exercise in almost unbearable cuteness.

Each group of thirty or so students is accompanied by a couple of local teachers, along with one or two foreign teachers, all dressed up in Halloween garb. The foreign teachers’ hangdog expressions as they herd their miniature brigades of highly excited phantasmagorical charges through the streets is nearly as delightful to behold as the unbridled excitement of the children.

The schools often go to merchants and supply them with candies to give the students. I think, on Anho Rd., where I was, the merchants were supplying the treats and letting neighborhood schools know that they wished to participate in the festivities, because there were numerous groups of children, obviously from various schools, walking up and down the street, going from store to restaurant collecting goodies.

It was heartwarming to watch these groups of children traipse through the dark bar, with its regular coterie of afternoon drunks, collecting their candy from the obviously tickled barmaids. It was a very fine Taiwanese Halloween, and added a nice touch of cherubic color to this old souse’s afternoon quaff.

Vignette #12: Underground Dance Clubs

I have previously written about Taiwan’s nightlife just after martial law was repealed (here). Another charming diversion, besides burlesque, was underground dance clubs. When I use the phrase “underground club” I mean it literally, not in its current usage as a marketing ploy. During martial law these dance clubs operated outside the law. Of course, at least by the end of martial law, the Taiwanese were showing great ability to skirt laws they found onerous. Generally it was a matter of wink, wink, nudge, nudge, pay your bribe, and we’ll say no more, say no more.

I stumbled on these clubs during my first trip here, but they were on their way out already at that time. The repeal of martial law removed their reason for existence. Legitimate night clubs replaced them. The club that sticks out most in my mind consisted of 5 to 7 floors, each floor featuring its own style of music and type of dance, so one floor might be general ballroom, another tango, while the next floor was disco. I’m a little fuzzy on its location, but I’m thinking Ximenting (西門町).

We always went to the disco floor. Don’t worry, it wasn’t really disco, that was just the generic term for any dance where you stand about a meter from your partner, roughly face each other, and wiggle your ass. I didn’t foresee the demise of these clubs, they were often large and elaborate, usually full, and the clientele was knowledgeable and enthusiastic about dance. Many of the dance halls were mirrored so dancer could check their technique. The women I met there did spend a lot of time working on moves and checking technique in the mirror. The end result was impressive. It made me feel like a socially awkward duck, waddling around the dance floor on my too wide, and too webbed, feet. But, this was long before there was a foreigner on every Taipei street corner, so despite my sub-Carey Grant suaveness, there was no end to the hotties trying to get on my dance card.

Ahh, the good old days.

These clubs were such a vibrant part of Taipei’s nightlife, it was hard to imagine they’d be gone shortly after I returned to Canada.