BAM! The very beginning of February kicked off with a Rotary trip to Hualien, east of Taiwan. What an exciting way to start the month! Three days of travel had three highlights them being visiting an aboriginal village, rafting and going to a waterpark near the ocean. My personal favorite was the Taiwanese aboriginals because the culture fascinates me between their clothing, dancing, beliefs, etc. Our trip there was mainly watching a performance of traditional dancing and singing. There was even a bonus with all the exchange students getting up and learning a group circle dance. It was splendid as we kicked and pranced with smiles spread across our faces!

As you might have heard or seen in a Chinatown or Chinese restaurant, this month holds the beloved Chinese New Year celebration! We are leaving the year of the dragon and emerging into the year of the snake! Many traditions are included in this auspicious holiday one being hanging lucky red paper throughout the house. Three banners are posted at the front door (two vertically on each side and one horizontal above) that have Chinese calligraphy painted on them. Various sayings can be written there but they all follow the concept of starting anew, wishing prosperity, etc. this coming year. Other smaller squares with only one Chinese character are put throughout the house such as above a door or on the important rice bucket of the dwelling.

Just like in America during New Year’s Eve, Taiwan has the Chinese equivalent of a family feast to behold! Before chowing down the family gets together by a small table covered with food and drink for the god of the house. They pray to this god with incense sticks for the family’s safety and luck in the coming year. A similar but smaller stand was set up in the kitchen for the corresponding god. FYI, there’s a Chinese god for nearly everything from what I’ve been told.

By far the biggest meal I’ve had at my host family’s house, food in plenty graced the table in a delicious banquet. One dish was a fish, which holds a tradition of not being eaten all in one sitting. The reason for this is by having leftovers of the fish, it symbolizes having abundance in the coming new year. So be sure not to eat all your fish next Chinese New Year!

Following our feast, my family taught me the traditional Chinese game of mahjong. It was mind-wracking at first with small yet numerous blocks each having different pictures on them and rules I’ve never encountered the likes of before. Some time and explanation was needed but very soon I caught on and became a worthy opponent. Requiring exactly four players, my host father, host mother, visiting host brother and I played on until early morning. The same as in America, we waited for midnight to welcome in the New Year as well as celebrate my host father’s birthday! And not just his but also my biological Mom whose b-day was a day earlier (but intertwined with the time zones). So that was a time full of celebration for three important reasons!

The next day my family visited a temple for praying to the Chinese gods shrined there. Many other people came as well and the place was filled with food offerings and the smoke of burning incense. Something you could traditionally do (but I noticed many Taiwanese didn’t) was to wear the color red for luck. My host mother was decked out in red pants, red top, red shoes and just all out red. Unfortunately my wardrobe only contained this color in T-shirt and sock format. Nonetheless I wore them both in the cheerful spirit of Chinese New Year!

This holiday is also comes with a winter break (as mentioned in my January report) from school and work so family may visit relatives. My host family went to Taizhong (台中) to see my host mother’s side of the family. The four days spent there, we did a mother-load of activities! Some of which were cycling down a popular biking road, exploring a bustling temple with a JAM-PACKED night market, seeing a museum of old Taiwan and seeing the iconic Sun-Moon Lake. Out of all of them two instances were definitely highlights and both involved Taiwanese aboriginals! At Sun-Moon Lake and the old Taiwan museum (Taiwan Times Village), aboriginals came and performed songs and dances from their tribes, each time I was able to participate in! I caught on to the moves quickly and danced enthusiastically away channeling my inner Taiwanese aboriginal! Between my host family the joke that I descended from a line of Taiwanese aboriginals was then born due to how well I picked up and loved the dances. So let it be know throughout the land that I, Andrea Clark (Chinese name: 文靜/Wen Jing), am related to these unique people residing in Taiwan!

Another special occasion that occurred was the bright lantern festival! The primary lantern viewing spot in Taipei was at Yuanshan park. Here the area was coated in dazzling lanterns with many different themes varying from iconic Chinese dragons to aboriginal designs to displays depicting Chinese legends. At first my host parents and I walked around the area in the daytime when the presentations were not yet finished. The lanterns were very impressive then but can’t compare to the trip when finished and glowing brilliantly at night. Thousands of people filled the location to see the brilliance, making it quite crowded. All the lanterns were so stunning and so well designed that it was truly a sight to behold!

For those of you who may or may not know, I am very much a baker. I love baking any and everything! In America kitchens are usually equipped with conventional ovens, you know the big one that’s most likely in your house? That’s what I know/use to bake. In Taiwan, a conventional oven is super rare. Here we have convection ovens that look like small microwaves. These are strange to me and make converting recipes to suit its style difficult, especially because of its size. For a Rotary meeting I volunteered to bake the Ghirardelli Triple Chocolate Brownie Mix (Mmm, yummy!) I found at Costco (yes Taiwan has and loves Costcos). Many challenges came with this project because my host family are not bakers nor do they have the tools I’m used to. Compromising on gizmos and guesstimating the amount of each ingredient, I was able to concoct the brownies. The biggest compromise was on the baking pan since there wasn’t a big enough pan nor would it fit in the convention oven if my family owned such a pan. We ended up using two metal Chinese lunchboxes called ‘bian dan’ commonly used both by students and adults to bring lunch from home. In Taiwan at least, my deed was viewed quite humorously because I made two brownie bian dans. The equivalent in America is basically bringing a box full of brownies for lunch and nothing else. They were taken in well among the Rotarians. Baking challenge, success!

Going back to school was inevitable as winter break came to a close. Even so, trips exploring Taiwan still merrily squeezed its way into my life. One Rotary trip included a traditional puppet museum and lantern festival viewing (that’s when I saw them shining brightly at night). For a four-day weekend my host family traveled to south Taiwan for relatives and holiday. There we saw a ton of museums and the famous Kaohsiung coast, known for being an industrial port but containing beauty nonetheless in its own way. I am so happy and grateful to have seen south Taiwan because I really hoped I could. The distance may seem short to a Texan like myself, only being a 4-5 hour drive away but for Taiwanese that’s quite an extensive drive and therefore not a trip easily made.

That about sums February up in a nutshell! I hope you enjoyed and I wish you a Happy Chinese New Year with fortune in the year of the snake! Take care now!