Friday, June 27, 2008

An REM visitor

I just woke up a little while ago and had to jot down the dream I was having. I was having a conversation with my dad, my dad who passed away in 1987. He was sitting on the couch, and I was sitting on the floor with my back against the sofa. I was telling him about a TV show I watched about yacht building (I really did watch a fascinating program about that last night).

In the time it's taken me to make my coffee, I've forgotten most of the dialogue in the dream; however, I do remember that he spoke with his characteristically unhurried pace. At one point I remarked, "It takes almost three years to build some of those ridiculously expensive yachts; they couldn't be an impulse buy." My dad disagreed, "Of course they're an impulse buy," and proceeded to explain why. Although in my dream I must have been my age now, as he explained his view I felt like I was a teenager again, feeling a bit hurt that he disagreed with me, but at the same time having that childlike awe of a parent who has the wisdom of years.

My mom and dad had planned to buy a boat—not a yacht—and retire on it, which makes this dream even more poignant. He retired early at age 57, and for the next few months my parents spent much of their free time going to boat shows and wandering the docks, dreaming of their future. Tragically, nine months after retiring, my dad suffered a massive heart attack and died.

My father has been gone for 21 years now, but during our brief conversation in my dream world, it felt as if no time at all had passed. I miss you dad.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

HSBC follow up

I called HSBC again on Tuesday and, after explaining everything that had happened, was again offered the $15 phone payment option. God give me strength.

I was eventually connected to tech support, and this time the guy fixed the problem in 5 seconds. He was apologetic, and his tone indicated to me that he was the one who typically smoothed over the blunders of his coworkers.

At least I can access my account now. $15 phone payment indeed!

Monday, June 23, 2008

My Chinese name

I've decided on a Chinese name: Kong Shu-wen. This wasn't a decision that I took lightly; it came about after doing research and discussing it with Taiwanese friends. I'm pleased with all aspects of the name: The sounds correspond to the English counterparts in my name (as best they can in the Chinese sound system); the shapes of the characters are aesthetically pleasing; and I feel their meanings accurately reflect, well, me.

First, it was important to me to have a familiar, one-syllable Chinese surname, not a foreign sounding multi-character surname. The first character you see to the right, 孔, is pronounced kong (3rd tone). It is a common family name, and is a reasonably close approximation to the first syllable of Coleman. Additionally, one of the meanings associated with Kong is "hole," which is quite apropos since a coal man (Coleman) extracts rocks from holes in the earth. To top it off, I learned that 孔 is the real Chinese surname for the great philosopher we call Confucius.

The next two characters, 書文, are pronounced shu (1st tone) wen (2nd tone), and represent my name Stephen. Shu has the basic meaning of "book" or "letter", while Wen embodies "language", "literature", and "gentle." I think people who really know me will agree that these characters are a good choice.

The image on the left shows the same characters written in "seal script." This style of writing is largely decorative and is widely used in official seals, hence the name. I got my own name seal today, but chose a readable font like the one in the first image.

I also got my haircut today, and then took a spin on my new bicycle (new to me). After 8 weeks in Taiwan without wheels, this bike is opening up new worlds for me. I can't wait to take a long ride on Sunday!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

HSBC = "He'll Soon Be Crying"?


So here's the story. Two weeks ago I changed the address, online, for my HSBC credit card account. I received a verification email, stating that it would be processed in 24-48 hours. Fine so far.

A few days ago I got my monthly email from HSBC informing me that my statement was now ready to view online. When I tried to access my account, however, I got the following message [click image to enlarge]:

When I saw this, two weeks after I had done the address change, my "uh-oh-this-is-gonna-be-a-bitch-to-fix" sensors went off.

I found the email address for HSBC's Customer Care, and wrote to them about the problem. At that point, knowing that HSBC has a large presence in Taiwan, I was halfway confident that the problem would be resolved quickly. I received an email response later that day (impressive) stating that I would need to call their Customer Service number to resolve the problem (not so impressive; why can't we just handle this by email?). I wrote back, explaining that I was in Taiwan, and asked if they would accept an overseas collect call. They wrote back and said 'yes.' Still, with all this writing back and forth, I didn't understand why they couldn't fix this by email.

I admit that a small part of this hassle is my fault. I don't have a land line phone, just a cell phone (with which it seems I can't make collect calls, or at least I can't figure out how). So today I walked half a block to the pay phone to call HSBC collect. I get to the pay phone and, thankfully, there's a list of calling options in English. I dial the number for the one that says "International Calls." A recording in Chinese comes on, and then in English, "For English, press 9." I press 9, and then some more Chinese. And more. I can tell that it's a recording that keeps looping, but never any English.

Don't get me wrong. I'm know I'm living in Taiwan, and I don't expect the country to cater to my language. However, when I hear "Press 9 for English", well, I assume that I'm going to hear English.

Anyway, I hang up, and this time I dial the option that says simply "Operator." A nice woman who speaks English gives me the number to make a collect call to the US (00801134567...I think it's Sprint or something). OK, things are rolling now...

The HSBC automated phone menu tells me to enter the last 4 digits of my social security number. I do, and it doesn't recognize it. So I'm then told to enter the last 4 digits of my card number. I do, and that isn't recognized either. So I'm instructed to enter my full card number. I'm a little wary at this point, but I go ahead and do it. It seems to recognize the number, but to verify me it asks for my 5-digit zip code.

Hmmm. Do I enter the zip code for my old US address (which has been changed??) or my new 3-digit Taiwan code? I tried the US zip, which wasn't recognized. Thinking I'd outsmart the computer, I entered the Taiwan zip with 2 leading zeros. Nope, that wasn't recognized either. Finally I get an option to talk with a human, which I choose, and am now put on hold. The computer indicates that my holding is a punishment, because it advises me, "You can prevent this hold time by calling back with your correct account information." Nice.

I hold for about 5 minutes, then get connected with a very sweet woman who sounds like she's from Texas. She asks me all kinds of questions about Taiwan. We finally get around to my problem, and she says she'll need to transfer me to Tech Support. So I hold again for them. TS tells me that according to their end, my address change has already been processed, and the gentleman advises me to type the HSBC address directly when accessing the log-in page, not to use any bookmarks. I'm suspicious of this advice, but I believe him and tell him I'll try it.

I walked home, tried to access my account, and got the same "you currently have a pending address change" message. My account is still blocked. This really didn't surprise me.

I immediately walked back to the pay phone and again went through the process of calling HSBC collect. I tell the guy that answers all the steps I've already gone through, and that I'm frustrated because my bill is due soon, but I can't access my account online to pay it. His suggestion? Make a payment over the phone. Of course, there will be a $15 charge for this "convenience". I take a couple of deep, cleansing breaths so that I don't scream at the man, and calmly as possible explain that there is NO REASON for me to pay $15 to make a phone payment when I SHOULD BE ABLE TO DO IT ONLINE LIKE I'VE DONE FOR THE PAST YEAR! He gets the hint and quickly transfers me to Tech Support.

At least he tries to connect me. It seems that TS closed just 1 minute earlier. Gee, imagine that, I missed them by 1 minute. What are the odds? There's no use in getting upset with the guy, so I admit defeat and tell him that I'll call back.


This may seem perverse, but I do get some satisfaction knowing that HSBC had to foot the bill for overseas collect calls totaling nearly 30 minutes, with even more to come.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

And how was your weekend?

Here's an update of some stuff that's been happening lately.

The other day I was walking back from Carrefour ("The French Wal-Mart") and picked up this odd concoction for lunch. It's a spaghetti sandwich, believe it or not. That's right, a hoagie bun filled with spaghetti, your choice of meat sauce, lettuce, and topped with thousand island dressing. I was surprised to find it quite delicious. Maybe I'm just missing spaghetti. A side bonus was that, while trying to figure out the menu, I learned the words for beef (牛肉), chicken (雞肉), and pork (豬肉). There was some hiragana on the food stand sign, so I'm guessing this snack has Japanese origins.

Speaking of Carrefour, I got this little 2.5 gallon fishtank there. On sale. And, typical of sale items at Wal-Mart-type stores, the damn thing leaked when I set it up. So Saturday I took it back and got a replacement. I tried to dazzle them at the customer service counter by telling them in my just-memorized Chinese that the tank leaked, but they weren't exactly impressed, nor did they seem surprised that yet another Wal-Mart Carrefour item was being returned.

Saturday night I was going to try out my new hotplate and make tom kha gai, but I decided to save that for Sunday. Instead, I went to a food stand down the block and picked up what you see here: Taiwan's famous braised beef noodle soup (紅燒牛肉麵), fried dumplings (鍋貼), and my favorite refreshing drink, iced grapefruit green tea (pu2 tao2 you4 綠茶...don't know all the characters).

So, Sunday was a holiday for Dragon Boat Festival. I had heard that there was going to be a Chinese Opera performance of the Madam White Snake tale (one of the legends associated with the Dragon Boat Festival) on Sunday evening at the park down the road. I had spent the day cleaning my apartment and then walking to the pet store to get some fish for my new non-leaking fish tank, so I was kind of tired and almost begged off going. But I forced my lazy butt out the door, and am I glad I did. On my way to the park I passed a pile of furniture that someone was throwing out (this is common) and found this cool wooden hotei (laughing Buddha). It's got a crack in the base, but it's still solid (and heavy) and now looks great in my apartment. Score!

I got to the park a half hour before the opera started, thinking that I would get close to the stage. Wrong! I must have been a half block from stage, standing in a mob of people. I later found out that the TV news reported an attendance of 100,000. Fortunately there were some of those Jumbotron TVs set up, so I could still see what was going on, although I didn't understand a word of it. I stayed until 9:30pm, but by that time my back was killing me so I walked home. I don't know how long the performance continued after I left. It was an interesting experience, but now I know why most of the students and coworkers I spoke to later said that they stayed only a few minutes, or else didn't bother going and just watched it on TV. The video clip here is dark, but it'll give you some idea.

Sunday night I got home and was really tired, but then I realized that I had to cook up that tom kha gai before the chicken went bad. The photo here looks like I'm ready to go, and I was, but things don't always go so smoothly for me. The just-purchased hotplate would not work with the just-purchased non-stick pan. Unknown to me, the hotplate works by electromagnetism something-or-other, and it will only turn on when something magnetic is touching it. I do have another pan that works--you can see it in the photo--but it's a thin, cheap piece of crap that burns everything. Time to use my MacGyver resourcefulness. I quickly looked up the Chinese word for "aluminum foil" and went to the Family Mart on the corner and picked some up. Didn't work. The hot plate would heat up the foil, but as soon as I put the pan on top of the foil, the thing would shut off. I tried using the metal rack that came with my steamer. Same story: The rack would heat up no problem, but the hotplate would shut off as soon as I put the pan on top of the rack. So I ended up having to struggle with the thin, cheap pan; it was all I had that would work. Then, my cheap crappy Carrefour can opener broke the first time I tried to use it, forcing me to use my hammer and screwdriver on the cans of coconut milk. I'm still finding coconut milk in the oddest places. My mind has blocked out the remainder of the experience, but I do remember finally eating soup at 1:00am.

I got to talking with a student at Richmond and found out that he plays mahjong (Reminder to self to learn the characters for that). I told him of my desire to learn the Taiwanese rules and to join a game sometime. He told me his family plays all the time, just for "friendly stakes" of NT$50 (US$1.50), so we exchanged email addresses. He was surprised to meet an American who likes the game. Obviously he hasn't seen my mahjong-inspired decor.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Chinese learning update

Chinese update:

I've got bopomofo down, and have memorized about 30 characters and combination of characters. I'm using a book, Chinese Characters For Beginners, to learn the first 100 most common ones. I try to add a new word each day. I chose this book because it gives the traditional characters prominence, plus gives the pronunciation in both bopomofo and pinyin. I'm trying to rely on bopomofo because the children's books written for Taiwanese youngsters use bopomofo to aid in pronunciation.

The book also shows the historical development of the characters, stroke order, and 5 sample words for each character. For example, when I learn 大 "big" [ㄉㄚˋ], I also learn 大家 "everyone" [ㄉㄚˋㄐㄧㄚ], 大學 "university" [ㄉㄚˋㄒㄩㄝˊ], etc.

So I started to read a very simple children's book that I had bought a couple of weeks ago: 桃太郎 Momotaro (Peach Boy) [ㄊㄠˊㄊㄞˋㄌㄤˊ]. I like this book because there is only one sentence per page (plus I can color the pictures if I want, lol). I also felt a fondness for this story because I remember it from when I studied Japanese, plus Momotaro's name contains the character for "peach", just like Taoyuan, my city.

I hope to learn more vocabulary this way, and how the words are used, not just random words on flashcards.

The story opens:

老夫婦生活很艱苦。The old couple lived a hard life.

[ㄌㄠˇ ㄈㄨㄈㄨˋ ㄕㄥㄏㄨㄛˊ ㄏㄣˇ ㄐㄧㄢㄎㄨˇ。]

The only word that I already knew was 老"old" so I have a nice bit of extra vocabulary to learn. Additionally, I noted that I need to be careful to differentiate between 天"sky/day" and 夫"man/husband."

My goal is to learn or memorize a sentence or two per week. At that rate, it'll take more than 4 months just to learn this short story. It seems slow; however, I don't want to bite off more than I can chew.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Guitar man

My son Austin has been learning the guitar for the past several months, all self-taught. He just sent me this video of a Switchfoot song he's been practicing.

Yeah, I'm a proud dad.