Wednesday, June 13, 2012

養生館: The Center for Well Being

A huge storm is slamming into Taiwan this week; there is heavy rain and flooding in most parts of the island. Luckily, the central part of the country is relatively dry. In fact, this is the case most of the year; Taichung is famous for its weather—the mountains forming the Taichung valley protect much of the city from the constant typhoons that blow in from the east during the summer months. Taichung is also the least warm city during hottest time of year. Anyway, I spent most of the day in Taichung taking in more of the comfortable side of daily life in Taiwan. First, I started with a trip to Lai Lai Doujiang 來來豆漿, a famous breakfast restaurant in Xitun, Taichung. I ordered my favorite Taiwanese breakfast meal: A steamed bun sandwich with scallion scrambled eggs, 饅頭夾蛋. Lai Lai is famous for its savory soymilk. They serve it in a bowl and it is basically salty soymilk with a roasted, almost burnt, flavor, filled with crusts of a flaky bread that they make fresh from scratch in front of you. It’s delicious, but if you’re not the biggest fan of savory soymilk, like me, then their sweetened version is also excellent.   

Next, I got a haircut, which is a much more elaborate experience than what you get in America, that is, unless you are willing to pay a hefty price for it. The experience starts with a head and neck massage, lasting for about 20 minutes. A typical Taiwanese salon will offer you the choice of magazines or turning on your personal TV monitor while they massage you. They also serve you drinks—usually tea or coffee. The masseuse then takes you to a different room to wash your hair with a variety of products. My favorite is the mint shampoo because it causes the scalp to tingle. The hair washing lasts another 15-20 minutes and includes more massaging. Then a hair stylist takes over and gives you whatever cut you want. I’m not picky about my hair, so I make this person’s job pretty easy. After the cut they take you to rinse and wash your hair again. Next, you go back into the salon chair for blow drying and final styling. The whole process is truly an event.

Keeping with the theme of beautification and pampering, I then went to a Nourishing Life Center, which is a traditional Chinese medical institution, which got its start a long time ago. These places specialize in “pulling and pushing” 推拿, “acupressure foot-massage” 腳底按摩, and “scraping the skin” 刮痧 (I’m sure there are technical translations for all of these treatments, but you get the idea of the kinds of things you can do here). I went with my parents-in-law to see an expert doctor of traditional Chinese medicine. Dr. Qiu lectures at colleges throughout Taiwan and workshops in China. He has a clinic in Taichung, but he also practices medicine out of his house and that’s where we went—it’s a more intimate setting and better for learning about the process. I’m not really into full-body massage, so I left that part to my father-in-law. I did want to try to acupressure podiatrist’s exam, though. There is a long and apparently complex science behind podiatry in Chinese medicine and the point of the massage is to isolate pressure points on the legs and feet that correspond to areas throughout the body, like internal organs, etc. If the pressure points are massaged in a certain way, then it releases qi and can facilitate healing in other parts of the body. I’m not sure of the science behind the practice, but I am fairly certain that most of the prescribed treatments are painful. If you are interested in trying this, then be prepared to writhe in discomfort for a protracted period. After the massage my feet felt much better, but enduring the process is not easy. Dr. Qiu is a master of his craft and a very informative teacher. Anyone in Taiwan looking to get a check-up in the traditional Chinese medicine style should contact me and I’ll give you his information.

One of Taichung’s claims to fame is that it is the home of Boba Milk Tea. If you are not yet familiar with this drink, then it is time to try it. It has become a kind of cultural phenomenon throughout much of East and Southeast Asia, and has started to make inroads into the US, mostly on the west coast, but the drink is beginning to pervade other parts of the west. The drink is basic black tea blended with milk. Then they add large-ish balls of black tapioca to it. You drink it through a wide-mouth straw because it needs to be big enough to accommodate the tapioca balls. Be prepared to “chew” this drink. The drink is rumored to have started in a restaurant in Taichung called Chunshui Tang 春水堂, but this is disputed by several other places in the neighborhood of Jingming 1st Street 精明一街.

Later that day I experienced another Taiwanese pastime: KTV (karaoke). Sloane’s (my oldest daughter) birthday was in May, but we didn’t have a party for her because we decided to do it in Taiwan with family at Cashbox KTV. It was pretty fun—everything was Hello Kitty themed, including the cake and most of the presents. KTV in Taiwan is always fun, but it’s lots more fun if you can participate in the singing. This is potentially a problem because KTV houses in Taiwan do not stock their karaoke machines with very many western songs and so you’ll have to learn some Chinese pop to really get into KTV. This is not that hard. Before going singing with friends, I recommend doing some homework: get comfortable singing along with a few Taiwanese jams. Start with something simple, like Tao Zhe or Fang Datong. Get at least 2-3 songs ready (memorize them if possible), that way when it’s your turn you can last at least 3 rounds. This is a guaranteed way to impress all of your Taiwanese and western friends, and also have more fun at KTV.

I ended the night staying at one of Taichung’s drive-in motels, which from the sound of it doesn’t seem like much, but it is a 5-star experience. Most of these motels are chain brands that run across Taiwan, but the ones in Taichung are especially nice because Taichung has ample space and the construction of the motels is usually wider and more comfortable than their counterparts in Taipei. You start by driving up to a window and paying for the room-level of your choice. Prices range from 5000 NT to 12000 NT per night (roughly $150 USD to $300 USD). You also have the option of paying by the hour. I went to the most popular motel, Mulan 木蘭, and stayed in a mid-range room. After paying, the clerk gives you a room key and garage number. When you find your garage, you drive in and close the door. There is a staircase that leads up from the garage into the room. On the inside of the room there is a slot for your room key and when you insert the key the lights and air conditioning automatically turn on. The pictures of this room tell the story better.





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