Sep 08 2007
My father, who is one of the more talkative people I know when he gets going (quiet mostly, but watch out if he starts telling a story) does not type very well. I showed him how to use gmail over last Christmas and so every once in awhile I will see him online. “Hey dad”, I’ll say. “How’s it going?”
It’s an intimidating medium for him, this talking through typing, especially since I can write whole paragraphs in the time it takes him to say “hey there,” but he is getting used to it slowly. For me chatting is a second skin; at work I will probably talk to anywhere from 5 to 30 people in a day in person, but I will have ongoing online conversations with maybe 2 to 10 more. It feels right. So I’ve been thinking about what it means to slip in and out of different mediums when you are having conversation, conveying meaning, forming relationships. Most all of my friends, and many of you reading this, are like me, perhaps even more comfortable in a console window than face to face; but a few are not.
A friend of mine was complaining about the ‘cognitive dissonance’ that going to Wikimedia’s conferences posed versus communicating online. In person, people tend to be much nicer to each other. This is common, I expect; it’s hard to be insulting or snarky to someone’s face, but it’s easy to hit that send key, even when you possibly know better. As someone who spends the majority of my social life either online or doing things related to online things, I wonder about this cognitive dissonance, and how it can affect our lives.
More later, perhaps.
I promised reports on Taipei.
Five of us from two flights (and three countries) met at the airport. After regrouping over coffee and odd pastries, in our jetlag we found the bus to the railway station and got money and bought tickets, as one does. The bus ride through the city was intimidating and a promise of things to come; all of us said, separately, that it looked like Blade Runner. Gulches of neon Chinese signs visible through the blackness; high-rises far away, streets and warehouses shining wetly in the rain; a turn onto a city street and suddenly off the black freeway into bustle and light, a temple on the corner, people everywhere. We are not in Kansas, if we ever were before.
It was very hot, like I said. We stayed the first night in a hostel that was on the 13th floor of a concrete high-rise building; a far cry from the country chalet HI where I stayed in Romania, or the lighthouse HI that is run off the coast of California. At any rate, it was utilitarian but functional, and fun since there were a lot of us (four more people from three more countries met us there). There was a courtyard in the middle, on the 5th floor or so, that was open to the sky; nets hung over the roof opening high above so birds wouldn’t fly down. We went outside in the morning and emerged on the street across from the railway station; intensely busy, a subway passage under the road full of people and shops and a street full of crazy traffic. The smog, and clouds, and humidity was oppressive, gray, choking. We found a starbucks and shivered in culture shock.
We stayed for the conference and most of the days following in another hostel that was much larger and set off on its own estate. There were four big brick buildings, maybe six or seven stories each, and some held classrooms and the lecture halls where we had our program, and the other held dorms, with a driveway circling in the middle. The dorms were like cheap to midrange hotels; they each had a reception desk, and a lobby, and people who cleaned the bathrooms for you and brought new towels. They were better than we expected. I slept in a couple different rooms; some were dorms with four or five beds all next to each other; some were four person rooms with two double beds, which seems somewhat expected in Asia, that friends will sleep together in the same bed; and some, like the room I spent most of my time in, was a double room with two twin beds. I shared with one of the Board members. We had a tv and power outlets for our laptops and an in-room shower; it was lovely, even though neither of us was ever there.
The buildings were all intensely airconditioned but you had to go outside to get to from one to another; you’d find yourself sweating in the 20 meter walk. There was a convenience store on site, where we all bought water and questionable snacks and I indulged my potato-chips-of-the-world taste testing (new in Taiwan: some sort of lemon-limey one that was delicious, and the usual chicken/shrimp/seaweed flavors). There are convenience stores everywhere in Taiwan, though. It’s a national obsession. Our host said there are some 8000 7-11′s on the island alone, and they are all open 24 hours; and then there are other chains as well. We saw one corner with no fewer than three 7-11s within a block of each other. You could live out of them, easily.
We’d set up an “open space” in a kind of wide hallway area in the main classroom building, and this is where I spent most of my time; on the couches next to registration, the organization office, and the giant schedule hanging on the wall. This is where we set up the OLPC laptops for folks to play with, and where the Wikimedia Weekly podcasters recorded their podcast. This is where people met in groups for dinner, and where you were liable to find an organizer if you needed one. We had free coffee and snacks and people could give informal talks in the back. To the back of the room was a huge picture window that looked out onto a pond with a fountain in the middle; a small slice of scenery in the middle of urban Taipei. It rained, hard, every afternoon for about an hour; there was one magical ten minutes or so when I stood with a few other people and watched the rain battering the window, intensely hard. We had our laptops and sipped coffee, and it was cosy and peaceful for a moment, in the midst of a frenetic conference.
Otherwise, I tended to stay in the open space and wait for people to pass through so I could talk to them. I also had questions to answer and a bit of work to do, things to coordinate and projects to make sure happened; I had a purple “organizer” badge to guarantee that! We had programs as well, of course, and I went to talks every day, which was nice. The talks were in various lecture halls and classrooms throughout the site, mostly on three floors in the main building. We had breakfast every day included in a small breakfast room (“they win points for being eclectic”, my friend said, as he scooped up scrambled eggs, stir fried noodles, french fries and croissants), and lunch in a larger lunch room with big round tables where I barely ate, but talked to everyone and gave announcements up on stage.
We took cabs, which were very cheap, everywhere; they’d circle around on the hostel driveway, or we’d walk to the corner of the street and catch them, five at a time for a dinner party of 20. Few of us spoke Mandarin so we’d get the address written down then show it to each cabbie who came until we were all set, trusting safety in numbers. Otherwise we might walk to the night market down the street, with crazy food and pachinko and fruit stands, and strange arcade games to win small, odd, plastic prizes (the Taiwanese love their arcade games). There were motorscooters everywhere and certain death if you jaywalked across the wide streets. The MRT, the metro system, was close as well, and cheap; and we bought rfid metro cards and took it places. There were expeditions out every day to the sights of taiwan: Taipei 101, the National Palace Museum, but I didn’t do those things til well after the conference was over. We drank cheap Taiwanese beer out of the vending machines, and nasty canned milk tea, and stayed up all night with the various kinds of national liquor that people had brought in their suitcases.
It’s a night-time culture. The night markets are just the beginning of the story. We went to snake alley, where you can get foot massages and snakes’ blood, in the heart of old Taipei; we went to a 24-hour bookstore, with English and Chinese books intermixed, which I learned later is a pick-up spot for young singles out on the town. We had long dinners and went to clubs; we had a party at the Red Theatre, which is one of the oldest and most amazing spots in Taipei, an old hexagonal wooden building, now a theatre, sandwiched in between high-rises in an area that looks almost exactly like Times Square or Piccadilly Circus. We gradually grew used to the heat. I spent an evening drinking beer sitting on the steps outside a metro stop near snake alley with a handful of other westerners, to celebrate someone’s birthday after a long evening of shopping for bizarre things; we shared the space with the bums and no-one paid us any mind. We took a cab back at 2 in the morning, clutching the little cards that had the address of our hostel printed in Chinese like magic talismans (otherwise it was no good; our accents were terrible. Without the written address one could, and did, drive around in circles endlessly as the drivers would be too polite to say they didn’t know where something was).
We took the metro all the way to end of the line one day, and went to the beach, which was not really much of a beach at all but more of a dirty inlet, but with a long stretch of arcades and shops that would be at home on an American boardwalk (except instead of funnel cakes, there was fried squid). Otherwise I did not do much exploring outside the city (though others did). There were threats of typhoons to scare us off, and I was tired; content to sit in the lobby chatting with people I don’t get to see often. We ate amazing meals, huge vegetarian buffets on three different nights, and one night of amazing dumplings; 20 of us packed in a private room eating delicious soup dumplings filled with greens and pork and shrimp and drinking beer until we could barely move. We had one incongruous VIP dinner at a lovely French restaurant, where everything was imported and I ate a steak, for the first time in years, because it was there and it looked delicious. Finally, and most fun for me, I went to a party for the organizers at someone’s house, the last night I was there; everyone brought takeout to share and I sat back and listened to them talk about the whole conference in Mandarin.
The last few nights we were there everyone in my party of three was sick; we stayed the last two nights in an outrageously expensive and nice hotel, one of those Asian hotels that is cheaper than it would be anywhere else in the world but is still not cheap. With the bill split between three of us, it was acceptable; we stayed in the immensely comfortable beds and watched TV and looked out our 27th-story windows at the city below, and Taipei 101 towering above to our right. It was beautiful, and I didn’t want to leave; but removed from the dirt and smog and heat wasn’t really the real Taiwan — it was like looking at a postcard, the sunset mellowing everything, washing away everything and just leaving memories of dumplings and wet streets.
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