Rice Bags Aren’t for City Slickers

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“Holy crap, this is heavy!”

I’m heaving a bag of rice onto a forklift and I think I almost pulled a muscle. At 50kg, the rice bags were the heaviest set of weights I’ve ever attempted to lift. I looked at Guang-Hui and he cocked an eyebrow at me with a knowing smile.

He had managed to lift and line up sixty two of these bags and I’m the one making a blatant, exasperated statement on the first go.

Day 3 and we are back at the silo and preparing for the transportation of the rice that were dehydrated yesterday. One by one, we filled large Hessian sacks with the brown grains until the silo was empty. Once tied up and manoeuvred to a vehicle, they were to be transported to A Deng’s mate’s house. All sixty two of them.

I looked skeptically at the tiny, obviously makeshift trailer they were going to be transported in. It could hold about fifteen bags which meant we had to do several trips, but the thing looked like it would collapse under the weight of even just five.

With careful roping though, we squeezed and secured eighteen to the trailer on the first go and prepared for the ride. The house was only two minutes away but with the heavy weight, we took our time.

Why we were transporting to be stored at someone’s home, I’m never going to know. We lifted, heaved and stacked the bags into what literally was a bedroom. What I do know though, was that the rice didn’t belong to A Deng, and he was simply giving his friend a helping hand by drying their grains for them, and packing it up.

As I helped Guang-Hui lift another sack on the count of three, I thought back to the work we did yesterday, and whatever I thought was hard work is nothing compared to now. We worked from 2pm and kept at this repetitive rhythm of lifting and moving well into nighttime. Guang-Hui though strong, had never done heavy-lifting to this degree either, and I could see sweat drench his shirt on all sides of his body.

I didn’t have much time to admire my hardworking partner though because I was doing it too, and trying to be more efficient at it. We watched A Deng lift the rice bags like they were sacks of cotton and I couldn’t help but feel pathetic at my poor display of physical power. It is certainly admirable that A Deng and his farmer friends have done this all their lives and think nothing of it. A Deng sees this particular work relaxing rather.

Both surprised and impressed at the lack of safety measures, we wanted to prove that we city-dwelling Aussies were just as useful. We may be weaker but we sure don’t lack in spirit! Afterall this is the life we signed up for, and though I wished I had a back brace or a third helper, remembering to bend my knees would equally suffice!

Despite straining ourselves, we powered through, in the end assisting A Deng’s friend with three out of the four trips. It was at the end of the third trip did we learn of how precious, yet, just how undervalued rice farming in Taiwan was…and perhaps around the world too. We learnt that each kilo of rice pays around 45 New Taiwan Dollars. Each 50kg bag then is valued at a mere 2250 NTD. That’s not even equivalent to 100 Australian dollars.

50kg of blood, sweat and tears and for so little. We were only part of the last stage of packing and storing, and it took about four hours to cover 3100kg of rice. Imagine all the time and effort these farmers put into the planting, cultivating, harvesting and processing beforehand…and for countless more weight.

It is in these very eye-opening and grounding moments that make me appreciate the opportunities I have even more. It is humbling to be here to learn from these farmers and see their hard work.

When I was young, to make sure I finished my food, my mother often said that every rice grain is like a fragment of jade. Now I truly appreciate my mother’s words.

We sat together at the end if the day for dinner. I made sure there was not a grain left in my bowl.

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Day 2 in the Life of a Taiwanese Farmer

I stirred awake, not knowing what time it was but realising I had woken up to the crowing sound of a rooster and the crack of dawn peeping through our bedroom window.

It’s day two on the farm, technically our official day of farm life, though we were initiated yesterday. Groggily, we got up a little past six in the morning to get ready. We had no real idea what we’d be doing today, but expected to be busy the moment we meet the owners downstairs.

To our surprise, Yi Hsing was still asleep and A Deng was no where to be found. ‘Ah, could’ve slept in’, I thought but taking advantage of the unexpected free time, I went about farm-venturing to see just how much land this family farm covers. Fields of yellow and strips of green took over the neighbouring hills. Ah what a sight in the wee hours of a beautiful day!

Work finally began with the sounds of honking geese, clucking chooks and squabbling ducks. We took to the pen, wincing from the extreme noise they were making while they were waiting for their feed.

Once every animal was fed, it was our turn to fill our stomachs, and breakfast came literally scootering into the warehouse. A Deng rode his scooter to the city and brought back fresh, hot 湯包 (tang bao: soup dumplings) for breakfast. At 50 NTD a box (which holds eight of these squishy, mouth-watering delectables), they were far better than any dumpling I’ve eaten in Taipei. A Deng, who has been here all his life proudly proclaims with a gruff voice that he starts every morning with them. Sleep-ins and extra good Taiwanese breakfast…If this is farm life so far, it suits me just fine.

After breakfast it was straight back to the sweet potato fields to pick up where we left off yesterday. Whatever ease I thought of the work the first time was completely absent today. It was doubly hard to weed the vines under the sweltering heat. I was damp all over from sweat and there were moments I struggled to pull the weeds, even with two hands and my heels digging into the earth. It wasn’t at all bad, however! Quails would shoot up into the sky out of no where (which would scare the begeezes out of me), and we even caught sight of a little deer, no bigger than a large bunny hopping for its deer life (pun intended). Yi Hsing said that the poor fella stumbled onto someone’s farm and was attacked by a dog. Now rehabilitating in the sweet potato patch it was understandably frightened of anything that moved.

By midday we were still out there hacking at the weeds. Panting for a break, I went to the silo where A Deng was shovelling grains of rice into a giant hole covered by an equally large grate.

The hole is in fact a chute that sucks grains into a dryer. Here, a constant flame dehydrates the rice for further processing or storage. I stepped onto the grate, careful to not let my feet slip through and followed A Deng’s movement, dragging the mounds of rice into the hole below me. It was a nice change from weeding, and I enjoyed the smell of the roasting rice grains. We used an air hose to shoot what little leftovers there were into the chute. Every grain counts.

Before we knew it, it was lunchtime and we sat down in the warehouse again to eat together. Lunch was 水餃 (shui jiao: boiled dumplings). I’m starting to see a trend.

Belly full with dumplings once again, I was allowed a little kip before heading back out to the field. I’m starting to not enjoy weeding, even if the resident hen who I took the liberty of naming Clucky, would drop in next to me to keep me company. By 3.30pm, we were only halfway through the field, and even Yi Hsing called us in to rest. 

Thankful, I left dear Clucky but as it was still day out, we made the most of it by heading to a nearby waterfall. Fengxiang waterfall is only a 30 minute drive away and I was especially excited to swim after toiling under the hot sun. We found this place with one of our favourite blogs, Follow Xiao Fei. However we were sorely disappointed to find out it has since been closed. A sign read that three people had lost their lives here, and locals didn’t want a fourth victim. Damn. If that doesn’t scream caution, what does?

So we found ourselves at a nearby creek instead and had a splash around before heading back to our farmland home in time for a modest dinner. Both A Deng and Yi Hsing eat little for dinner, and though I usually don’t hoard on rice, I ate two bowls due to an unfamiliar hunger that has taken over. Working the fields has boosted my appetite and I need all the energy I could get.

Tasked with washing up afterwards, I was surprised to find they use tea tree leaves grinded into powder as dishwashing detergent. As water used here are all redirected back to their farms, natural products are used whenever possible. It required more elbow grease than usual but I like the fact they do things differently here.

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Arden Rice's farmlands

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I eat this everyday for breakfast
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Noisy birds
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Handling sweet potatoes fresh out of the ground!
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Careful not to lose my footing!

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The creek where we took a dip

Day 1 in the Life of a Taiwanese Farmer

I poked my head into the dark warehouse squinting my eyes for any movement.

“你好,有人在這嗎?”

“Ni hao, you ren zai zhe ma?”

(“Hello, is anyone here?”)

A small but stoutly lady in a pink puffer vest comes out from the depths with a big smile. She’s been expecting us since 3pm, but due to the large feast we had for lunch on our way here, we were half an hour late.

Her name is Yi Hsing and she and her robust husband, A Deng are our supervisors for the next week.

Fast forward my life in Taiwan, and I’m now in the middle of Hsinchu (新竹縣) somewhere with my mate Guang-Hui, offering labouring services in exchange for board and the chance to practice our Chinese. We’ll be here for a week, learning everything they do and helping where we can.

It’s not the first time I’ve volunteered whilst travelling, but it is my first time WWOOFING …and I’m hoping the city life of Taipei hasn’t made me too unfit for farm work.

Yi Hsing didn’t seem to mind that we weren’t on time. We settled our sleeping spots quickly and she gave us a thorough rundown of what it is they do here. Arden Rice (農糧小舖) isn’t unfamiliar to having cultural exchanges, and we aren’t the first foreign helpers either. Based in Zhudong Township (竹東鎮), they do everything from growing to harvesting rice and vegetables to raising pigs, ducks and even quails. Yi Hsing and A Deng are more than happy to share their daily agricultural lives with anyone who cared to learn.

After getting acquainted with the friendly resident cats, we went to work. Yes, there’s no dilly-dallying here even if the sun was preparing to set. A Deng gave us each a sickle and a pair of gloves, and we went weed-hacking amongst the sweet potato vines. I say hack because the size of these things could be root vegetables themselves. We realised using brute force worked better than anything though…so we threw away the sickles and pulled the weed trees by hand as the sky tinged gold and pink.

There’s something about labouring in the fields that is extremely satisfying. Of course I know I’m seeing everything through rose-coloured glasses as someone who is first day on the job and has never laboured on a farm before. But yanking plants, shaking the earth and smelling that soil made me feel…well, healthy. I’m with nature and I’m exerting actual physical effort. I much prefer this than sitting in an office all the live long day.

We cleaned up about a third of the field just before the sun fully set. Nothing quite like standing back and seeing how even just 40 minutes of toiling could do. And with a gorgeous backdrop to boot. I was seeing progress shaped by my own hands, and I’m excited to finish the job.

We walked back to the warehouse and helped A Deng pile some rice bags into the cool room. Giving them a helping hand doesn’t mean that they get to sit back and relax. He’s been busy with the mill and it was time to store them before they get packaged.

Yi Hsing told us to rest, and though I didn’t feel tired, I fell asleep quickly after plonking myself on the mattress on the floor. It’s a modest farmhouse and our room is a shed-like room held upstairs from the machinery and work tools they use. It gets cold, and you hear the wind, but it was nonetheless quite a comfortable abode to call home for the next week. With piping hot showers and a warm, soft bed, I consider this rather luxurious compared to the cement and cardboard boxes we’ve slept on in previous adventures together.

Guang-Hui woke me from my brief slumber to let me know we’ve been invited to eat dinner at a hotpot restaurant with their friends.

Surrounding a steaming pot of duck, meatballs, and all the mushrooms you could imagine, we sat down amongst the newly-acquainted friends and joined them for dinner. They are a hearty, open and laidback crew, who, after a few drinks got rowdier and more entertaining to watch. Along with the steamboat, we scoffed down three fish dishes, vegetables and the spiciest fried rice I’ve encountered by a long mile… and downed a couple of glasses of Taiwan Beer with it too. Using our broken Chinese, we talked mainly about Taiwanese cabbage (they’re rather expensive nowadays due to a bad season), giant Aussie spiders (that viral video of one carrying a mouse), and what roadkill in Australia was like (red kangaroos can be lethal!).

All-in-all, it wasn’t a shabby end to day one on the farm. If life as a Taiwanese farmer is really this enjoyable, perhaps staying a week is not enough.
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All You Need is Your Buddy, Taipei’s Riverside and Good Weather

Woke up to sunlight streaming through the window. Bleary-eyed and barely functioning as I was, I already knew today’s going to be a great day.

Fast forward to the afternoon and I have the sun on my face and the wind in my hair as I whiz down a bike path along the Xindian River. Today I’m making the most of the bright weather with someone I think is pretty darn special.

Sujin, an engineering student from Korea, moved to Taiwan to study Chinese. Like many expats, she made a conscious decision to move here because learning Chinese would be a big boost for her future career. Her decision to move though was based purely on practicality – her dad’s friend is already here, so there was support if she needed it; and in her opinion, China already has way too many Korean nationals. So since mingling with people from home wouldn’t do much for her language learning, she’d decided upon the less-popular destination of Taiwan.

We were lumped together in the same class at NTU’s Chinese Language Division. Both shy to speak because our Chinese sucked, but since we were both embarking on the same fresh expat/student experience together, it wasn’t before long that I was able to befriend Sujin. It probably helped that I’m not Korean too. But all kidding aside, ask any person who’s lived the expatriate life and they will tell you that making friends overseas can be as fickle as Taipei’s weather. Sometimes due to new environments, loneliness, or whatever unconscious stress that comes with the expat life, you may seek the company of people you wouldn’t necessarily hang out with back home. You meet, have amazing chats and chill like best buddies, but just as quickly as that seemingly great friendship began, so too will it end. Sorry, as damn negative as it sounds, this happens.

Fortunately the alternative to this is you will meet some of the best people while on your journey. Afterall, it’s highly likely they will experience the same hopes, excitement, anxieties and disappointments as you which come with living outside the usual comforts of home.  I consider myself rather fortunate that there are few friends I’ve shared these raw commonalities with from the very beginning. And she’s one of them.

By the middle of our first semester, we already embarked on a short getaway to celebrate her birthday. We spent a night with soju and from what I can remember, it was the first time I conversed in perfect Chinese (I am now a strong advocate for inebriated language-learning). She rode a YouBike with me with no complaints, dog-tired as she was at 4 in the morning just because I felt like it. So when I decided randomly to check out Guting Riverside Park , she was in her usual good spirits to join in.

Guting Riverside Park (古亭河濱公園) takes up a section along the Xindian River (新店), between Zhongzheng (中正橋) and Yongfu Bridge (永福橋). As with practically all of Taipei’s riverside parks, you could do whatever your heart desires here. Play tennis, go rock climbing, walk your dog, shoot some hoops,  have a picnic, take a nap, and of course ride a bike (with music blaring if you so choose). I  knew all this already because riding along the river in Taiwan is a favourite activity of mine. You could probably see where this is going, but indulge me nonetheless when I say…

…Ah yes, but on this bright sunny day, there is more to the lush green of the riverside.

Ride from Yongfu Bridge due north, past all that tasteful urban art that pinpoints notions of love for absolutely smashing wedding photography, and you’ll come across a teeny grass hill sitting solo in concrete-laid ground, opening to more green lawn. Here, when the wind is perfect, you can fly kites.

To two grown (but young) women this is a huge deal. Sujin recalled how this a pastime she shared with her father when she was younger. For myself, I am pretty sure the last time I laid hands on a kite was well before I hit the double digits. Abandoning our bikes we rushed to a street vendor, and for 150 NTD, joined families with young children on a new venture of kite-flying.

We passed some impressive-looking kites (there was a particularly mesmerising dragon) until we reached our sweet spot. Sujin held onto the spool as I pelted the ground holding the rest of it to catch the wind. Looking like pros, our wee modest kite took flight and the squawks and squeals that came with it became intangible with those of the kids nearby.

There is such a free feeling that comes with running along with the wind and then letting go of something that moments before you were holding tightly to. Perhaps too corny of an analogy for life, but I couldn’t help but reflect on my decision to drop everything in Australia and move here. Hell, I’m doing something I haven’t done for the longest time, creating memories with someone akin to a sister, and in pleasant natural surrounds. There is not a care in the world right now.

We flew our kite until dusk. We made no mention of it to each other, but I’m very sure Sujin felt the same way.

If you were to ask me what has been some of the best things I’ve experienced in Taiwan, I can tell you that unplanned, yet surprisingly eventful days like this one is what makes up the most of my memory bank. Most of them have something to do with the outdoors and physical activity. All of which are shared with a bosom buddy.

And they start simply with a little sunshine.

#AskAnAussie – Interview on Life in Taiwan

Coming up to a year of my Taiwanderful life, I sat down with Rose Vassel from the Australian Office in Taipei as part of their #AskAnAussie series to showcase experiences in Taiwan through my eyes.

Looking back on the interview, I wished I expanded a little further on my answers. Since the post, I’ve had a couple of  readers quiz me on a few points I didn’t get to cover. As a token of my appreciation to you who have been following my story, here is #AskQ in finer detail.

Why Did You Decide on Taiwan?

This question comes up more frequently than any other. Especially amongst locals. They all seem surprised that their little home is that enticing for someone to pack up and leave ‘The Lucky Country’ to this almost unheard-of island (well at least amongst some Australians. You’ll be surprised how many times people have confused it for Thailand).

It’s probably exactly this that enticed me in the first place. Yes, I came here primarily to study Chinese. But as I have mentioned here, even before moving here for the longterm, I’ve already had my heart set on Taiwan. I like that there’s still much of it to be explored. That it requires me to do some digging to find its gems. It’s not completely isolated from the rest of the world…but it definitely has plenty of room for someone like myself to discover my own adventure and experiences without having to look into a travel guide.

The secondary reason to choosing Taiwan to learn Chinese is because it still uses the Traditional characters which is becoming rare. Being overshadowed by the more commonly known Simplified Chinese adopted by mainland China and therefore better marketed to the rest of the world, means that the style here calls to my appreciation for the less-commonplace. Why I care for the extra few strokes in a character may seem arbitrary, but what I find is that with understanding how they are formed allows me to better understand the Chinese culture.

And if you don’t know already, Chinese culture is better depicted here in Taiwan rather than China itself. So for someone who wants to be thrown into the cultural deep end, Taiwan was the natural answer.

Do You Plan to Stay Here for Long?

A resounding, emphatic Yes.

I remember clearly the first day I arrived at Taoyuan airport. Alone but not lonely as my eyes drink in the surroundings I would be calling home. From that first rush of being in a new place and doing new things, the excitement I felt that I could reinvent my future into anything I wanted it to be, to finding my place in Taiwan six months in and feeling as though I already truly belong, the question now really is, what is it about this place that keeps me here?

It’s because these feelings have not faded in the slightest over the course of my time here. In fact, everyday I grow more and more enchanted by this place. The further I seek, the more I feel there is much to explore.

Taiwan is an eclectic and diverse island that allows me to mix and match my interests and more. Apart from its ever-changing landscape, its warm-hearted locals, and the array of food (some squirm-worthy yet unexpectedly delectable), it is the energy and vibe I get from this city that makes me want to stay. Afterall Taiwan isn’t crowned World Design Capital 2016 and viewed as a growing incubator of cluster and startups for nothing.

I am energetic and pro-active here. I constantly push myself to do new things – some things I didn’t dare to when I was in Australia. Like hitch-hiking. Scouring through abandoned buildings. Riding a scooter through Taipei’s peak hour traffic (and with drivers who don’t check their blind spot. Some day I will tell you how I was side-swiped by that taxi driver).

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Heading to work Taiwan-style.

These are just some of my little adventures that I have safely tucked in my memories forever. What I’ve learnt and what it has inspired me to do is stemmed from being in this place.

And if you’ve found that happy place, why would you leave it?

Seriously, No Challenges You’ve Met Along the Way?

As mentioned in the interview, sure there are some cultural differences I’ve been met with, but considering it’s all part of learning and gaining a better understanding of Taiwan and its people, I really don’t see it as a big challenge. Because I came here to have my mind opened and there’s nothing quite like a disagreement of perspectives to make me realise that goal faster and better. For the most part, the actual difference doesn’t bother me in the slightest…it is how people approach sorting out these issues that can be extremely frustrating. Like peoples’ views on public displays of affection and romantic gestures, for example (sounds familiar? check out the post here). But I almost think it’s necessary to have a disgruntled cultural experience to really understand your new friends at a deeper level. I seriously can’t imagine what my Taiwan life would be without these little disagreements to spur me forward. And I think that’s what the expat life is all about. Encountering differences, problem solving and onward adventures.

What Do You Miss and Don’t Miss About Australia?

I miss my family of course. Beaches within 10 minutes drive and hot balmy nights of an Australian summer. Oh…and a decent salad.

What I don’t miss is how comfortable it was in Australia. I had a great job, a decent wage and plenty of people who supported me. I was checking all the boxes in terms of what would give me security. But being comfortable makes me uncomfortable. I was restless and needed to do something drastic. Learning a new language amongst learning a new culture, heck, learning a new life, was the driving force that I yearned for. Despite being more settled here, I am still motivated by change. And it comes from my aspirations for a career I actually enjoy, and a lifestyle that involves discovery.

Eventually I will head back home, I know. But I’m definitely not ready to leave Taiwan just yet.

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All Photos Courtesy of Guang-Hui Chuan

So all in all this is a real insight into my life here in Taiwan. I hope you enjoyed this because I’m really laying it all out here which is quite unconventional of my blogging style. Thanks again to my readers, I hope to inspire you to experience living in Taiwan for yourself if you haven’t already. For fellow expats, I would love to hear of your own…what is your story?