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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Bob and Bing on the Road to Taichung

I have Tuesday afternoons free, and usually take advantage of the time by going for walks in the mountains. This morning, however, turned out to be an unexpected holiday as well, thanks to a government inspection of the kindergarten where I teach. It's one of those "Taiwan things" - foreigners are not allowed to teach young children, yet everyone knows it goes on. Hundreds (if not thousands) of Westerners are employed at kindergartens promoting English as the medium of instruction, and these schools can, in fact, sponsor working visas for foreign instructors. What the government is afraid of isn't clear (I'm not sure what dangerous ideas I could be imparting on the young minds I mold on weekday mornings), but when it comes time for announced-in advance inspections, the non-Taiwanese teachers are either told to hide (in empty rooms, basements, nearby parks...anywhere is possible) or, as was the case today, to take part of the day off. Of course, the logical thing to do would be to allow qualified foreign language instructors to teach young children in regulated, supervised environments, but this is Taiwan, so ridiculous restrictions are imposed, and then flouted by virtually everyone. It's things like this that make me glad my residency visa comes through marriage.

I had planned to spend this afternoon doing a bit of sightseeing in T'aichung 台中, and that's what I did (only with a bit more time on my hands). This morning I paid a visit to the city's foremost tourist attraction (for the locals, anyway), the National Museum of Natural Science 國立自然科學博物館. Like most things about Taichung (or Taiwan, for that matter), my feelings are mixed on the museum. From the outside, the building does nothing to inspire the approaching visitor. Most of the displays inside are directed towards children, and it was no surprise to see a constant stream of school children being led around the museum by guides today. Having visited before both with students and my daughter, I skipped the exhibits covering things like paleontology, zoology and biology, and instead made for the quieter displays located further inside the large building. In these rooms, one can learn about traditional Chinese medicine, early advances in Chinese technology, paleolithic Chinese cultures and Chinese spiritual beliefs, among other things:

Do you detect a pattern? It appears that the museum was established for the purpose of reminding Taiwanese people that they are "Chinese", and therefore should be proud of all that Chinese culture and tradition entails. In all fairness, however, the science museum also has Taiwan-specific displays, including one on the contributions of Japanese botanists to the study of flora on this island (alas, it was still in the process of being set up, and thus wasn't open yet). Yes, you can learn a lot about many aspects of what it means to be Chinese...if you can read characters, that is. With a couple of exceptions, there wasn't much labeled in English (though there may be English-language audio guides available). The room covering Taiwan's aboriginal peoples was one of those exceptions, but was surprisingly small considering the importance of the native peoples on the settlement and development of Taiwan. The other was a temporary exhibit containing photographs taken of Lukang 鹿港 in the 1960's by a doctor who was working there at the time. The pictures themselves provided a fascinating look at daily life in what was then a poor Taiwanese town, before it was discovered by tourists, and the explanations in English were very well done.

Following lunch (where the hordes of school kids were noisy, but surprisingly not obnoxious), I took a walk through the botanical gardens behind the museum. The grounds are dominated by the tropical rainforest conservatory (with its giant dragonfly outside). Having been there before, I gave it a miss this time, but the grounds both here, and outside the main museum buildings, make for a nice stroll, and a respite from the hubbub of the streets outside.

I then walked from the science museum towards Taichung art museum, along a series of parkways that have seen better days, unfortunately. As I had some personal business to attend to while in Taichung, I decided to save the art museum for the next time I play tourist, but I made a circuit of the grounds before returning to my scooter parked in front of the national science museum. 

By the time I'd finished doing what had to be done in Taichung, the weather had turned cloudy, cool and windy. Back in Fengyuan 豐原, the winds were so strong that a woman and her two small children were blown off their scooter and onto the middle of the street. Fortunately, everyone was fine, and I helped pick up the bike. Neither of the children were wearing helmets, of course, and the incident occurred while the woman was attempting to make a left turn on a red light, in front of oncoming traffic.

This is Taiwan, after all.

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