The Perils of Consumerism

After my grandfather passed away, my family packed up their belongings and relocated to a new house across town. The idea was not to abandon our old home, a seven story building on a quiet street in a bustling part of town, but to renovate and move back in a year's time. Most people know though, there's nothing like a move to make you aware of how much stuff you have. Consumerism is a global epidemic and Americans are no less guilty of it than the Taiwanese, but because space is far more limited than the suburban sprawl of southern California - from the size of apartments to the width of the streets - the "problem," (isn't it a problem?) is paradoxically magnified. Pair this with the tendency to walk and take public transport and everyone's shopping habits, however long the ride, are on display.

What to do, what to do? Nothing, if like what seems like ninety-nine percent of Taiwanese women and young men, you believe that retail therapy is the best therapy - a panacea for ailments such as a stressful job, broken heart, and worst of all, the green-eyed monster. In their small houses one can only hope they are organized or have the good sense to throw out or donate what they no longer need. If not, they might, during an earthquake, become victim to what my grandmother once joked as "the world's most convenient morgue."

And now: the Culture.

We start with things close to home: one of many drawers in my cousin's closet. A penchant for t-shirts of any color. I folded them for her so that more could fit in one drawer and after having done so, said, "You cannot buy anymore t-shirts."

 The as of yet unorganized storage room in my aunt's house. When I first arrived, she opened the door to show me and shook her head, defeated, "Most of it is junk," she admitted.

Somber Chinese paintings still waiting to be hung, some of which, because the new house lacks wall space (new cabinets to accommodate the stuff), will never be hung again.

The culprits. The instigators. The aiders and abetters.

The original Pacific Sogo - a Japanese department store that despite its age, remains one of Taipei's most popular if not THE most popular shopping destination. I ought to go right ahead and blame the Japanese, since most of the department stores here are of Japanese origin. In addition to Sogo (of which there are four in Taipei alone) there is Takeshimaya, Mitsukoshi, and the latest baby, Hankyu.

Even the ubiquitous 7-Eleven, founded in Dallas Texas, is now owned and operated by a Japanese parent company and stocked with Japanese goods. There is literally one of every corner. Sometimes, these convenient stores are the most dangerous places of all, especially when one is terrible at math and ill-informed about conversion rates. 

Fancy a drink? Good luck deciding.

 The Japanese really do take everything and make it better. I am addicted to the hot pot ones on the right. Addicted.

 FF for French Fries. Amazing.

 I am addicted to these as well. Damn the Japanese. Damn them! No, I take it back. I love these.

One of Taipei's more popular bookstores (though the mother of all bookstores is Taiwan's own Eslite Bookstore) is Japanese as well. In Kinokuniya, a woman skims a book she doesn't need and if she buys it, won't read (sometime I am often guilty of). 

But it would be wrong to blame the Japanese entirely.

Taiwan itself has its own national retail personality, comprised of a peculiar breed of shop: the tiny but exceedingly satisfying "We Sell Everything" hole-in-the-wall.

Socks, umbrellas, hosiery, and, towards the back, scarves, gloves, hats, bags...

 One of thousands, a random snack shop carrying everything from Japanese goods to cans of abalone, an expensive delicacy.

The victims:
 This man stood proudly next to his car and told anyone who would listen how much it was. I forgot the number, it was so ridiculous.

This morning she thought, "What should I wear today? Oh I know, EVERYTHING!"

Young boys poring over their lottery ticket - big business in Taiwan - hoping to make it big the fast and easy way so that they might be like the man with the red sports car.

Older gentlemen wishing the same thing.

It doesn't matter. It all ends up in the same place anyway:

Happy Birthday, Formosa

I never pay attention to things like this, but Taiwan turns 100 this year. Last evening I randomly accompanied my cousin to a company basketball practice and walking out, looked up and saw Taipei 101, formerly the world's tallest building (that honor, I believe, now belongs to the Burj Khalifa in Dubai). I often forget that Taiwan is as young as it is, much younger than the United States. The humidity and smog - when it was bad - blackened the grout and discolored the porous tiles and bricks of certain buildings, giving them a gloomy, aged look comparable to people forlorn because they had aged prematurely. But contractors are getting wiser and more tasteful - now steel and glass are the materials of choice - or have long been, since construction on Taipei 101 began in 1999. I used to think the building was ugly, saying that it resembled a stack of take-out boxes, but now I cannot imagine Taipei's skyline without it. Such things grow on you.

But that's enough of an architectural digression - see for yourself.

To Market, to Market

When I was young, I hated going to the Taiwanese open air markets with my mother, preferring the air-conditioned grocery stores in the basements of department stores where produce prices would sometimes match that of the designer merchandise upstairs. During the summers it was hot and sticky and the market almost always guaranteed that your nostrils would be assaulted by a million smells from fish to pork to durian (the smelliest fruit in all the world and my mother's favorite) and your face and vision by random billows of steam. Pushing and shoving in an endless train of other sweaty, shouting people also didn't help, but somewhere between then and now, I grew up and while it's not my favorite destination in Taipei, the open air market is one place where one can observe some of Taipei's most interesting interactions: images of Taipei's citizens from wealthy society ladies with their Philippino maids to aging grandmothers to young children dragged along by their young mothers, as I once was. People from all walks of life squeeze through, mingling and looking, all speaking the same language: food.

Now that Chinese New Year is fast approaching the markets are particularly packed with women (and some men, looking lost or hungry) on the hunt for the best meat, fish, poultry and produce to bring home so that they might prepare a meal whose quality rivals Taipei's finest restaurants. Many families, such as mine, eat out, but it doesn't hurt to stock up for those quiet days after Chinese New Year's Eve, when groceries and markets close.

This is where I passed my first two mornings in Taipei: yesterday in East Gate Market and today in South Gate Market, one of Taiwan's oldest open air markets, as old perhaps as the Republic itself. My aunt likes the company, though she complains that it's rare for my cousin to go to the market with her. "You young women nowadays don't know anything about picking produce and meats, and even less about cooking. I wonder what sort of wives you all will be." I wonder too. My camera in hand, I touched nothing, occasionally bending down to take a macro shot or smell something. Most of the food was familiar to me, but only in that I knew how it tastes and not how it is prepared. My uncle laughed when I came home, looking slightly flushed from the crush of people. "To market, to market," he said, "What's tomorrow, West Gate Market?"

We'll see. Here are a few photos from Taipei's finest markets:

The Garlic and Ginger lady. 

 Pink ladies - serving up some ready made, homestyle dishes for those ladies who, after shopping for groceries all day, will be too tired to actually cook them. 

Faithful patrons waiting for their favorite brand of cured, dried pork. 

 One of many meat vendors, whose swiftness with their cleavers and calm amidst the chaos and corpses fascinates and unnerves me.

Her sister, the sausage vendor.

 At another sausage vendor, business is very good.

 Bright green chili peppers. After all that meat, some produce was refreshing.
A head above the rest. A colorful vegetable stand.

And then I turned around and saw this: a pan of roasted piglets... Just as quickly it was whisked away.

I hoped this guy was fixing something and not looking through inventory...

Roasted pumpkin seeds. 

Black chicken feet, waiting to be steamed...actually, I'm not sure Taiwanese people eat it that way.

As it is the year of the Rabbit, these lascivious images were everywhere.

As were these decorated honeydew melons and other fruit. The character means "prosperity" but it's upside down, which in Chinese is a homonym for "has arrived." Thus: "Prosperity has arrived in the shape of a honeydew."

A woman working in the rare, quiet corner of the market.

This man saw me eying his large, dried fish and said, "Here, take of picture of me and my fish." I obliged, and it is a pleasant picture. Man and his work.

Hella mushrooms. 

And in the middle of it all, a monk begging for alms.

Return to Taipei

The last time I was here was August 2009, for my grandfather's funeral. Much has changed: the house (remodeled), my cousin's job status (employed), and the location of my extended family (spread out in three points across Taipei). But some things never change - or at least they won't for a long long while.

My uncle wakes up every morning at the crack of dawn to exercise. On weekends, he's responsible for buying breakfast.

My uncle: the middle child (my father is the eldest).
Interests: long walks to the temple, the stock market, the newspaper, fried pork sung, and living to 100 at least.

My breakfast: Tuna sandwich with a cup of sweet hot black tea (or 'red' tea, as they call it here).

Chinese New Year is just around the corner...I can't wait!

Vanity Express Begins

For years now, I've been ogling photo blogs and mulling over whether to start my own, but the thought of messing with all that technology (digital cameras, uploading, formatting, HTML) made my eyebrows furrow and my brain go: !?!?!?!?! But basically, I want in. I want to share my real-life ogling with other fellow on-line oglers. So ogle away! That's what Vanity Express - like Chinese takeout - is all about.

Lunch in Downtown LA, with a childhood friend.

We planned to lunch somewhere else, but walked by this bustling diner and thought, "Plans be damned! We're eating at the Nickel Diner!"

I love this. In the future, I'm going to paint this on my front door.

Typical sugar addict behavior: Yelping a place to eat dessert when a.) The hostess presents you with complimentary doughnut holes and b.) Lunch hasn't even arrived yet.

Pulled pork BBQ hash with two poached eggs on top. 'Nuff said.

Really bomb seared tuna salad. That tuna tasted like beef.
The cozy interior with a bit of false advertising. But things don't sure cost ten or twenty cents anymore.
Onto Syrup for dessert. I liked what this girl was wearing, even though she gave me a dirty look when she turned around. 
Cream? Sugar? I love this set...
It's two stories. We went upstairs and were met with the cold glares of students studying and bloggers blogging. We took our food back downstairs.
A florentine and red velvet ding dong with a scoop of vanilla bean ice a small french pressed coffee. Divine combination. 

That's it for now. I'm heading to Taiwan in a few days so it'll be a change of pace. But Fiona here is Taiwanese, so she's my transition point. :)

You Lucky Dog

Leaving my grandfathers' house after lunch, my mother was nearly out of the neighborhood when she braked suddenly in front of Sunshine Park, in which I had spent many hours as a child. She leaned forward, gazing into the rear view mirror and then out the passenger window.

"What is it mom?"

"That woman, she's waving at us."

I turned to look out the window and indeed a woman was jogging up the sidewalk, waving at us, though I didn't recognize her. She was dressed in a faded peach, over-sized sweatshirt and in her puffy sleeves, cradled a small, anxious looking dog. A short man with graying hair stood next to her, wearing a fleece jacket and jeans that seemed several sizes too big. He pushed what seemed like a baby carriage until my mother had backed the car up considerably and I saw that it was, in fact, a dog carriage. Another small dog sat in the basket, peering out nervously from within the basket's netted frame and as my mother parked, I rolled down the window to say hello to the strangers.

The woman was breathless, but held her dog firmly as she went around to my mother's side. "I thought it was you!" She said, then, ducking down to peer into the window, saw me and her eyes grew wide.

"Is this Betty?"

"Yes," my mother said.

"Goodness! The last time I saw you you were three or four!"

"Hello," I said, then paused, knowing what was coming next.

"You look just like your mother!"

My mother smiled, then gave her usual spiel, "When she was younger, people said she took after her father, but now people are more likely to say she takes after me. I suppose it changes by age."

"Speaking of age," the woman said, still stooping into the window, "I've gotten so old you probably don't even recognize me."

"I'm sorry," I said, "I don't."

Apparently her younger daughter and I used to play in the park as toddlers, but I had no recollection nor would, I'm sure, her daughter.

The woman sighed, "We're all aging so fast." She nodded in her husband's direction and then down at the furry bundle in her arms, "Even our dogs."

My mother raised her eyebrows as she looked down at the dog, but stood patiently to the side of the street as the woman commenced the long and complicated medical history of her aging fox terriers. Both dogs were seventeen years old, which in dog years is 119, and both were suffering from such a myriad of health problems that they could no longer walk but must be carried or carted. The dog the woman held in her arms was faring better than the one in the dog carriage, but both alternated between howling and whimpering at night so that the woman could only sleep for a few hours at a time.

Woman on Striped Sofa with her Dog, Mary Cassatt 1876
 "I have to get up every three hours to comfort them, stroke them, give them pain meds, walk them to their bathroom," she said, stroking the dog softly on the head, "It pains me to hear their pain, and my husband, well, he gets up early so I have to let him sleep."

She looked at my mother with a pained expression, "It's no way to live, but when you love them, it's what you do. They've been with us for seventeen years and gave us so much happiness. How can I not?"

My mother and I nodded sympathetically. They continued talking so I left the car and went to talk to the man, who until then had stood quietly to the side, one hand on the dog carriage.

"She doesn't look so old," I said, touching the dog softly on the head. It's eyelids drooped as I did so and I noticed how feeble her front legs were, shaking under the perceived weight of my hand.

"She is," the man pointed at the dog's white head, "The fur on her head used to be brown, and now it's white, just like the hair on my head."

I smiled and turned to look at my mother, whose hand had come up above her eyes to shield the sun's rays.

"...You haven't changed at all," I heard the woman say, "Still look as young as ever..."

"...No, you're right about age..." returned my mother, " one escapes it...I've just come from lunch with my father. He's home alone now because my mother's in the hospital with lung problems..."

"Oh I'm sorry," the woman said, "I did notice I haven't seen them walking in the park for a while."

I turned back to the dog, sitting serenely in her basket.

"She's deaf and blind now too," the man said. There was a scar above her left eyelid and the man said it was an old wart, the least of her problems now. The dog had long suffered from spinal problems which necessitated the daily administering of pain meds, which he said, his wife lovingly crushed into the dog's food.

"It's hard work like my wife said, but I'm nearing retirement and I can work from home more often now," he said, "So today, I thought I'd stay home and take the dogs out. I don't know how much longer they'll be around."

He was an engineer at Raytheon, formerly known as Hughes ("We make missiles," the man said.) and described his position as "The highest ranking Asian man" in his department.

"Sounds like you like it a lot," I said and he nodded, not without a hint of smugness.

"I have a lot of freedom now. They used to send me on a lot of business trips, but now I can pick and choose my trips. I was supposed to go to Florida today, but I choose not to, and next week I'm due in the Stanford area. I'll visit my eldest daughter there as well. She's doing a PhD in physics."

I smiled, wondering what it was like to jet around the country and advise engineers on missiles and radar and other things I had no idea about, but before I could ask anymore questions my mother called and said it was time to go. I could tell by her expression that she was tired and that she had not intended to stop for so long to talk to these people and inquire after their dogs. The woman waved enthusiastically and the man wished me good luck on my own job hunt, "The times are different," he advised me, "You won't necessarily find a career like mine that you stick to for over thirty years."

"They seem nice," I said as my mother turned onto the main road.

"They are. They're nice people. Smart. Engineering PhD's, the both of them with two highly intelligent, successful daughters."

"I know," I said, "The eldest one is at Stanford doing a PhD in Physics."

My mother nodded, but her lips were pursed and I could sense that for whatever reason, she was less happy than she'd been before we ran into them.

"What did that woman say to you?"


"What did you guys talk about?"

"Oh, her dogs, her younger daughter. Then she asked after grandma and grandpa."

"That's nice."

"Yes, and I asked after her parents."

"Okay. And?"

"Not doing so well either."

"They're sick too?"

"Yes. Her father passed away a while back. Her mother has Parkinson's."

My mother merged onto the freeway and I thought about the perpetually occupied rooms at the Alhambra Medical Center, where my grandmother currently stays, waiting to be discharged with an oxygen tank. Just two evenings ago, she was diagnosed with COPD, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, a progressive disease resulting from years of smoking in enclosed parlors while playing mahjong. She had snorted at my hopes that she wouldn't need the oxygen tank. "I'll carry the damn thing if I have to," she said, "If I need it to breath then I need it to breath. I didn't live so long to just drop dead now, not with half my grandkids still unwed!"

On the freeway, my mother told me that the woman's mother was in a bad way. The woman felt powerless to help her mother."

"That's how everyone feels when someone is dying of any awful disease like that," I said, "Did you tell her all she can do is just comfort and care for them? Like her dogs?"

Now it was my mother's turn to snort. Her voice rose sharply, "Exactly! Like her dogs!" Then softening, she sighed, "I don't know what some people are thinking when they lavish such care on their pets but neglect the human beings closest to them."

The woman's mother ails in Canada.

"Does she have siblings there to care for her?" I asked.

"I don't know," my mother said, "I didn't ask. But does it matter? Siblings or not, it's her mother too. It's not that she doesn't have the money to go and see her."

"Maybe she has to work."

"She hasn't worked since she got married twenty-some years ago. She has time. Her daughters are grown. Her husband is nearing retirement..." my mother's voice trailed off, "But to each their own..."

My mother has a tendency, when she drives, to slow down when she speaks or is deep in thought. As cars filled with busy people on their ways whizzed past us, my thoughts returned to Grandma, who was no doubt taking another turn around the floor, peering with a combination of sadness and smugness into the rooms of other patients, few of whom had visitors as often as she did.

I admired her spirit, but I understood that our presence fueled that spirit. The continual flow of visitors confirmed to not only herself but to the nurses and the other patients that she had a family, that she had people who cared. She indulged in the attention showered upon her both by the nurses and by us, her children and grandchildren and despite her hacking cough, walked with her walker around her wing so often that the nurses have started to call her "Barbie."

"She's one of the most active elderly patients I've seen," one nurse told me, "She doesn't speak English, but she smiles. We all love her."

As Tolstoy wrote, "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." On the whole, we consider ourselves a happy family - large in number and strong in its ideology: love your family - every single member, and try to see the good in each person. I will venture to say that other happy families do the same, regardless of what intermittent, minor unhappinesses fly their way. To each their own, yes - people have jobs, children, diseases of their own, and a week goes by when other people and events and occasion crowd their calendars so that they say, "I'll visit mom next week," or "I'll call dad tomorrow," or "I'll plan that trip with them next month," etc., etc., but the week turns into two then three then four and suddenly seventeen years have gone by and they haven't seen their parents, only spoken to them over the phone, their elderly voices faint with yearning. Seventeen years seems like an exaggeration, especially in this day and age with technology and cheap(er) flights, but as she drove, my mother listed friends and acquaintances who had poor relationships with their parents or were simply too busy to visit or to be there or to care. One woman did indeed let seventeen years go by between visits so that when she finally saw her mother again, the expression on the old woman's face rivaled that of someone who had just seen a ghost.

I wanted to say to my mother that I would never allow seventeen years to go by without seeing her, but I knew she wasn't telling me as a warning of how not to be. What would my reassurance mean to her, at my age, anyhow? I am, it seems, always about to leave - for school, travel, whatever. I can say plenty of things right now, promise worlds and worlds of care and tenderness, closeness, but it will mean nothing until the day comes and I am there. Assurance, security, my barb-tongued father teaches me, does not come with words but with actions. My mother, my aunts and uncles drive hours to and from the hospital; they discuss diagnoses, medications, visits to the doctors and make sure my grandpa, home alone, is cared for. They don't do it because they have to. They don't do it because they feel obligated and because it's better to feel obligated than to neglect those obligations and feel shame or guilt - no, they do it because they want to. It's their mother. It's their mother now, was and could be their father later, and perhaps in the future it'll be a brother, sister, son or daughter. Regardless, it's family. Life only gives you one.
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