Friday, December 19, 2008

Great Clips, Eat Your Heart Out

There were a couple of reasons why I had been putting off getting a haircut while Chris and I have been here. First of all, choosing a salon and figuring out how to make an appointment was a little intimidating. Secondly, I wasn’t quite sure what I would do once I made it into the beautician's chair and attempted to communicate just what I needed done. Yesterday, the first half of the battle was conquered when my friend Rachel made the offer of taking me to her “regular” place and making our appointments. So, I decided to buck up and take on the second half of the battle.

We arrived at the salon at the pre-designated 3:00. While Rachel’s Mandarin is infinitely better than mine, we weren’t sure if we had two appointments at 3:00 or if we had two appointments with the same girl starting at 3:00, one after the other. So, I came armed with a book and my ipod just in case. When we climbed the two flights of stairs, we were received by a receptionist who wasn’t quite sure who to expect either. However, without skipping a beat, we both were whisked away by two assistant stylists into our separate chairs and our things were taken with a respectful bow and placed into a locker to which we were given the key. I knew that I was in for a special experience when the assistant then brought out two piping hot cups of oolong tea. It was at this point that the assistants and the receptionist got together and were trying to figure out why, exactly, we both were there. One of them finally got up enough courage and came to us both and asked nervously, “Cut?” We smiled and said that yes, we were indeed both there to get a hair cut.

As I settled into my chair, sipped my tea and flipped through a magazine that I had been given to select a hairstyle, the assistant came up behind me equipped with a warm towel and a slightly fragrant lotion. She then proceeded to rub, knead, push, press and squeeze my shoulders, back and scalp through a 20 minute massage. After this, I was led to the sinks where a different hair-washing assistant awaited. Placing my head on a small head rest in the sink (why don’t hair washing sinks have head rests in the States?), she delicately pressed a paper covering on my forehead as to avoid any unpleasant splashing on my face. After about 15 minutes of hair washing / scalp massaging, I hazily made it back to the styling chair.

It was at this point that I finally met our stylist. She slipped on my smock and I noticed that it actually had arm holes! I’m not sure if everyone has these now, but it was new to me and I was excited. Unsurely, I used my arm holes to charade my way through telling her what I wanted, half-way knowing that it wasn’t going to go exactly the way I planned but too relaxed to care. She snipped and combed and chatted with the other women in the shop as she toiled away with my hair. Just when I thought she was finished, I was taken back to the sinks for one more washing to ensure no snipped stragglers were waiting in my hair to cause back-itchiness later.

A few last minute trims and I was ready to be styled and sent on my way. I was given my bill, and I have to say, it was a little pricey at $520. Sorry, I meant NT$520 which actually works out to be about $18 U.S. Two hours after we arrived, we left the salon in a euphoric daze as I pondered the poor Taiwanese immigrant who is rudely welcomed into American culture by a sorely unsatisfactory trip to Great Clips. So, when it comes to the treatment of hair, I must say, “Well done, Taiwan. Well done.”

Saturday, December 13, 2008

A Trip to the Grocery Store

I have to admit, I don't actually make it to the grocery store very often here in Taipei. This is for a couple of reasons. First of all, it is actually cheaper to go out than to go to the store and buy your own ingredients to make dinner. Living in an apartment neither equipped with an oven nor a dishwasher, I tend to lean toward this more economical option. Secondly, I often find myself wondering not only how to prepare the food I've purchased, but also what, exactly, the food is. However, I needed a few things today so I thought I would document my journey so that you can see what the aisles of an Asian grocery store are like through the eyes of an American.

A great big stack of rice

The soy sauce selection
Seaweed wrapped crackers, there are lots of variants of this one.

Good cereal can be hard to find, but I always think that Loopy Crunch goes best with kiwi.

Almonds and guppies, just like peas and carrots.

Yes, that is asparagus juice.

Bamboo shoots... these are found in lots of dishes and are actually quite tasty.

Dragon Fruit

Sorry, I have no idea on this one.

This is what I see when I try to read directions on how to make a pre-prepared food...

Squid anyone?

Fish head

Dried fish of some kind, I think. Really, your guess is as good as mine.

Which laundry detergent would you choose?

Have the seaweed sushi flavored Lay's caught on in the States yet?

Bet you didn't expect to see sarsaparilla over here.

One thing you can always count on...

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Rules of the Road

Over the last five months, we have learned a thing or two about survival on the streets of Taipei. Here are a few tips to help you be a bit more street-savvy should you find yourself visiting loved ones in Asia (hint, hint…)

1) Our first tip is a common one in crowded cities. When you bump into someone, as you inevitably will, have no reaction. People will actually look at you funny if you say, “Excuse me”… or maybe that is just my bad Chinese accent. In return, don’t expect any semblance of an apology if you are bumped into, side-swiped, toe-crunched or slide tackled.

2) Traffic lights are merely suggestions. Green means, “Go straight through, you can even close your eyes if you want!” Yellow means, “Go straight through… just faster.” Red means, “You can still make it! Ten points for the man on the bike and fifteen for the old lady with the umbrella!”

3) Scooters are kings of the road… and the sidewalk. Do not get in their way, no matter what. Apparently, no traffic law applies to anyone riding on a scooter. They are allowed to run lights, ride on sidewalks, ride between cars on the roads, and even go the wrong way down one-ways. Don’t forget that there is at least a three-person minimum for riding the scooter as well. It is preferable to have your three-month-old snuggled safely between dad driving and the family beagle balancing on the seat behind him.

4) Use crosswalks at your own risk (see points 1 - 3). A green man walking on the sign by no means gives pedestrians any promise of a secure passage across an intersection. My recommendation? Take tips from Frogger. Also, don’t be above hollering, whistling, or even banging a hood or two to suggest to motorists that they should stay away from you (ask Chris for more details on this one).

5) Watch your step. Though most dog owners pick up after their t-shirt-wearing canines when nature calls, there are still plenty of strays who do not share this pooper-scooping luxury. It is advisable to have a friend trail blaze ahead of you and call back with the fecal report for the morning as to avoid any “tricky” messes.

6) Take advantage of your ignorant foreigner status. If you see someone trying to get people to take a survey or tell you about the specials at their restaurant, make eye contact and smile. There is no way they are going to approach you about your opinion on their costumer service when all they have are Chinese evaluations. Plus, you may be the only person to smile at them all day.

7) Finally, a tip about what to do when you see a white person on the street. If you are Taiwanese, stare in shock and amazement at the size of the foreign person’s nose. How can they even fit anything else on their face? If you are white yourself and you see another white person, wave. Chances are you probably know them.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Hong Kong

How to describe the city of Hong Kong? All weekend I tried to think of a way to illustrate this remarkable place to those who have never been there. Here is the best that I could come up with. If you have ever been to New York City, think of Times Square. Got it? Now put it on steroids, lots and lots of steroids.

Chris and I flew in on Wednesday evening and, after navigating ourselves successfully to our hotel, decided to explore Hong Kong’s renowned nightlife. Stepping foot out of the lobby, the first thing that we both noticed were the lights. Rainbows of giant neon lights scream at pedestrians and motorists on the streets below. And, unlike most big cities I know, the lights are not limited to one part of town. New York has Times Square, Paris has the Champs-Elysées, and even Las Vegas has The Strip. But, in Hong Kong, every street and every business competes for attention like a high school cheerleading squad. To attract tourists even further, major businesses get together and every night at 8:00, they put on a light and laser show to the great delight of photo-happy westerners.

The second thing that struck us as we attempted to steer through the swarms on the streets was the people. No, it actually wasn’t the number of people we encountered, but instead it was the type of people. We saw more westerners over the last five days than the last five months combined. Chris and I started a new game called “Guess the Nationality” in which we debated on whether the person in question was European or American. By the end of the trip, we were able to play with a fairly high success rate, though there were some Bermuda-short clad limeys that took us by surprise.

Having been initiated into this new city on Wednesday, we got up on Thursday ready to see what we could see and, of course, taste what we could taste. Being Thanksgiving, we knew that we needed to have a really great lunch. So, we asked our hotel to recommend the best Chinese food around. Hong Kong is known for a specialty called “Dim Sum”. In a dim sum restaurant, you are handed a paper menu and a pencil and you simply mark off the items you would like. Each thing that you order comes with two to four appetizer-sized snacks so you get to order several different types of food. If you really like one, just ask for another order! The whole time we ate, Chris and I were trying to figure out why on earth Chinese restaurants in America don’t provide similar offerings. The food was so delicious, we ordered extra for a doggy bad for a snack for later. We figured it could be like our Thanksgiving leftovers.

Invigorated by our tasty lunch, we headed across the harbor in search of one of Hong Kong’s “must-see” attractions, the Ngong Ping Gondola. Suspended high in the air, the gondola provides spectacular views of the city and outlying islands as it conveys its riders to the top of the mountain where a giant statue of the great Buddha awaits. Aided by beautiful weather, the views were indeed breathtaking, but they actually weren’t the highlight of the afternoon. The highlight came as we were standing in line when a bright-eyed dread-locked hippie came rushing toward Chris spouting off some sort of crazy moon language. After a few awkward seconds, it dawned on Chris that he was wearing a shirt proudly displaying the word “Polska” across the front. Ah, this guy thinks we’re Polish. Hating to disappoint the excited traveler, we informed him that we were not, in fact, Polish nor did we speak any of the language. This did not deter our new friend, however, and he sidled right up to us and began to exchange traveling stories. As it turned out, this guy was actually hitch-hiking across the world. He recounted times of being caught by Russian police when his visa was expired and taking a job teaching kindergarten in Beijing after his passport was stolen. Very entertaining indeed.

Our big adventure on Friday came after an unintentional tour of the city while we searched for a bus to take us to Victoria Peak, a bit of a misnomer as it turns out that this “peak” is actually located in the saddle between two other peaks. Riding on the second floor of a double-decker bus was quite an adventure as it screamed around twists and turns where one false move could have sent us either plummeting to our deaths off a cliff on one side, or careening head-on into another bus full of tourists on the other. However, we did make it alive to the top where we snapped some pictures and enjoyed the scenery.

On our last day, we decided to explore different parts of the city. We wandered through different markets and along random streets to see where they took us. We found parks, fresh fruit markets, knock-off purse and watch markets, expensive designer boutiques, and restaurants from places we didn’t know existed. Making it back to our side of town just in time for the 8:00 light show and some ice cream, we headed back to the hotel and put this trip in the books.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Giving Thanks

As the Holidays approach and homesickness starts to creep in, we are constantly being reminded that we are not in Kansas anymore, Toto. Being in a subtropical climate, there have been no red and gold falling leaves, no frost on the ground when you wake up, heck, it has barely gotten below 60º! There have been, however, dogs and babies dressed as animals to shield them from the below 70º frigid temperatures (see panda-dog below).

We have seen no heart-warming commercials about the son in the army who surprises his folks by ringing the doorbell during the Thanksgiving meal with a pumpkin pie in hand. Twinkling lights don’t wink at you from front porch windows nor are your ears assailed with Elvis’ classic Christmas carol I’ll Have a Blue Christmas over and over and over and over again from every radio station on the FM dial. Santa and his eight tiny reindeer don’t wave at you from store windows boasting 20% off the new paraffin wax pedicure set, at the top of every woman’s wish list. We don’t even get the signs that say, “Remember, Jesus is the Reason for the Season”. In fact, the only holiday reminder that we have, other than the calendar, is that Starbucks has recently changed their cups to the red ones with snowflakes and has added the toffee nut latte to their menu.

On the one hand, the lack of a Christmas wonderland leaves us wistfully dreaming of a far away place across the Pacific where friends and family gather over cranberry sauce and can actually read the directions on the can on how to serve it. On the other hand, it is nice to be in a place where we get to tell students why we take one day every year to thank God for all that he has given us and it is actually new information for them. It is fun to explain our “crazy” tradition of eating turkey (which is remarkably hard to find here) and dressing until we collapse into a tryptophan-induced nap while watching the Detroit Lions lose once again.

As we get ready to jet off to Hong Kong tomorrow to celebrate Turkey Day with some dim sum just like Grandma used to make, we are thankful for our sweet friends and family back in the good ol’ USA.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Island is alive... With the Sound of Music

When I say the word “karaoke” what comes to mind? For me, images of sketchy bars that boast a dimly-lit stage and television screens with psychedelic pictures behind song lyrics dance through my head like the infamous bouncing ball. The aroma of cigarette smoke and stale beer is almost overwhelming as tone-deaf singers mumble awkwardly through the verses so they can belt out the chorus of classic tunes such as Sweet Home Alabama, Any Man of Mine, or even It’s the End of the World as We Know it. However, as you may know, karaoke is extremely popular throughout Asia, for some reason. We knew that we would have to partake in this cultural experience at some point during our time here and last night was the lucky night.

Before we even arrived, I knew that I was in for a different experience than what I had in my mind’s eye. We were invited to go by some friends about a week and a half ago because, apparently, you need to make reservations that far in advance. When we strode up to the site described to us by our friends, I had to double check to make sure that we were in the right place. Walking up, it looked like the entrance to an elegant hotel. No sketchy bar here, folks. There was a grand foyer complete with chandeliers and leather sofas for those who had not made reservations and were now waiting for an indefinite amount of time for space to become available. Lucky us with our reservations, we were shown directly to the elevators and to the twelfth floor of the establishment where our private room awaited us. No stage up in front of complete strangers, no listening to Mr. Three-sheets-to-the-wind sing I Will Always Love You for the fifth time (unless he actually came with you). Evidently, this is how it is always done here. Everyone gets a private room with a table, two microphones, and a television. Now, I am getting why this is more popular here.

Shortly after we were seated, our waiter came in to take our order. Orders successfully placed with the aid of our Taiwanese friends, we dove into the singing. We were very pleasantly surprised at the number of English songs they had in their selection. Though the lyrics sometimes were a little off (I am dig in you = I am digging you), we were happy to not have to try to read Chinese characters. Probably our favorite part, however, was the videos that they showed behind the lyrics while we sang. For a select few of the songs, they had the actual music videos. However, for the vast majority of the songs, they had random girls walking through parks or what I could only guess were tourism videos from Ottawa, Canada. Beat It! actually had a girl dancing around a no parking sign the entire time. Succumbing to temptation, Chris and I broke down and actually sang Sweet Home Alabama. But, the best part about it was that throughout the song, images proudly displaying the Australian flag were plastered on the screen. Hey, they both start with an A and speak a strange variant of English, right?

All in all, the evening was dubbed a roaring success and much good, clean fun was had by all. I encourage you all to set up a karaoke machine in your living rooms and turn on the BBC to duplicate the experience. Happy singing!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Just a Game

Written by: Coach
Many of you may or may not know this about me: I am a bit of a sports nut. I have always had a passion for sports. I love watching, playing and coaching sports. Over the years I have grown to love a variety of different sports including soccer, volleyball, ping-pong, water polo and many others. My two loves, however, have always been and probably always will be basketball and football. Among the two, basketball reigns supreme. I have played basketball all my life and have been coaching the sport to junior varsity and varsity teams since 2002.

Growing up in the South meant that one such as me absolutely HAD to follow a SEC football team. I grew up in a family that bled orange and blue and early on decided that I would too. I can still remember my first Auburn football experience. I was 8 years old my first time inside Jordan-Hare Stadium. At the time I thought that it was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen (other than the first time I held my baby sister Samantha in my arms). Since that September day in 1989, I have been a die hard Auburn football fan and have never even lived outside of the state of Alabama during football season. All that has changed, to say the least. At first I was extremely frustrated that the Taiwanese did not see the importance of college football and never offered any games on ESPN. Then I discovered that I was not able to watch any live feeds of the games or even a radio broadcast on the internet. Furthermore, even if I wanted to watch a ticker play-by-play of Auburn games I would have to stay up at the wee hours of Sunday morning. You can imagine then how much more frustrated I became when Auburn began to plummet while Saban quickly rebuilt the Tide to be a powerhouse!

Now, if I was in the U.S. right now, I would be stressed out about the Georgia game clinging to some hope that we can pull off a huge upset against our long time SEC rival. If I was in Alabama I would have watched every game to the bitter end as if that really made a difference. As if Coach Tubs keeps a tally of all the fans who watch every single minute of every single game. I would be screaming at the television every time they turn the ball over (and that has been a lot this year). I would celebrate every touchdown like someone who actually scored it himself.

In Taiwan I feel as if something has finally clicked and I suddenly realize that Auburn will win and lose games whether I am at the game, in my Alabama townhome or my apartment in Taiwan. The point is to enjoy the sport because it is a great game with a lot of drama, color and passion. I can enjoy college football even in a year which I can’t even watch one live game. I can enjoy it when Auburn is 5-5, Bama is 10-0 and is probably going to play for the national championship! My attitude or mood before and after games will never have an impact on how good or bad a season ends up for my beloved Tigers. It is crazy that I am 28 and just now arriving at these conclusions but then again, I know many SEC football fans that will probably never understand what I am writing in this blog and that is totally OK. I am just glad (for my wife’s sake) that I can be a fanatic fan and still just appreciate the game for what it is…..a game.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Ilha Formosa

So, I have definitely caught the bug. I have to be honest and say that I always thought that there was something a little off about people who ran long distances when something wasn’t chasing them. And, maybe something is off. But, I have now officially joined their ranks. This weekend, Chris and I went down to the east coast of the island to a city called Hualien.

We knew that when we arrived in Hualien that someone from the hotel would be at the train station to meet us. We didn’t know that she would bring with her an entourage including a friend, her friend’s daughter and another friend who spoke English. After all of the introductions, they escorted us to dinner where, at the table, the food kept coming and coming as they tried to show the Americans the best of Taiwan. It was this night that I learned a very important phrase for someone living in an incredibly friendly environment. “Wo bow luh!” “I am full!” When we tried to pay for the dinner, our hosts insisted that it was on them.

Bellies full, we went to bed for a very short night. Up with us at 4:30 in the morning was once again our host ready to take us to our race site shuttle and get breakfast on the way. Once again with full bellies, we boarded the bus with our instructions to call the hotel at the end of the race and give them the code word: “hello.” This was the password for them to know to come and pick us up.

When we arrived at the race site, we understood why this race is supposed to be one of the most beautiful in the world. It was in Taroko Gorge, a national park here in Taiwan. This time when I ran, I carried a cell phone with me as to avoid the fiasco of being lost and not able to find Chris at the end (see blog about the Human Race). The phone also served a double duty as I attempted to photograph the scenery along the race route, rather unsuccessfully, I must admit. But, you can maybe get the idea. Lush mountains dripping with waterfalls, rocky riverbeds and cave-like tunnels made for a spectacular backdrop for the race. After running, we snapped a few more pictures and headed back to the train station to meet our maître d’hôtel.

That evening, our hosts took us to a show of traditional Taiwanese dancing. We were pleasantly surprised to find the audience full of Taiwanese and not Americans. I’m sure that the show would have been much more informative if our Mandarin were better but we enjoyed the visual part, at least. Sleepily, we headed back to the hotel for a well-deserved night’s sleep.

The next morning, the hotel offered us bikes to ride to a beach not too far away. The path followed the coast and was spectacularly beautiful. When we arrived at our destination, we were reminded that beaches here are very different than those in the United States in that they are the opposite of touristy. We stopped around lunchtime and were hungry from our journey so we wanted to find a place to eat. In the States, the only problem would be which restaurant you would choose from in between tacky airbrush T-shirt shops. Here, however, it was a different story. We had to go into two different stores attempting to get directions to the one restaurant in town. When we finally did find it, however, the view was stunning and the food overpriced. We felt right at home.

Reluctantly, we got back on our bikes to head back to the hotel and go back to Taipei. On the return journey, I snapped a few more pictures as I thought of the Portuguese who first landed on Taiwan and gave it the nickname “Ilha Formosa” or “Beautiful Island”.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Who are these kids? Coach's Perspective

Teaching in Taiwan has certainly been very interesting so far and after 2 and a half months here, I have come to one overall conclusion: it really is not that different than teaching in America! Obviously there are some fundamental differences with the cultures and as a result the kids act and react differently to the way I teach. In the States I tended to be very sarcastic with my students, some even call it my love language. Here in Taiwan the culture is very literal and even rigid at times. Breaking rules or not saying what you mean is not the norm. Most of my “witty jabs” that would have my students in the States laughing (maybe AT me but still) completely miss the mark here in Taiwan! Also I am realizing just how many southern idioms I have in my repertoire. First of all there is y’all. I am pretty sure most of the high schoolers have heard this phrase before but you can tell they are definitely not used to it! But just imagine if that great uncle or grandparent of yours that has never left Alabama were to travel to Asia and say something like “Man y’all sure are eatin’ high on the hog!” The Taiwanese would be more than puzzled. Maybe their conclusion would be that for lunch we would have pig ear (which I have tasted and actually enjoyed). Or maybe on a cold rainy Taiwanese day a southerner might say something like, “Good Lord its cold as blue blazes!” Now I am from the South and I do not even know what that means! My point is sometimes my inner “Bama Boy” lets loose with a “dadgum” or a “good gracious!” and I notice it more when everyone else has a blank expression and wanders what the heck I am talking about.

Another major difference with Taiwanese kids is their intense fear of rain. Some kids in the US might fear rain because they do not want to get too much water on their nice jacket or get their hair wet. The reasoning is a little different here. Asians apparently believe that direct exposure to raindrops is one of the major causes of hair loss! Folks, I could not make this stuff up if I tried so you know I am not lying. So, yes, this means that they basically believe that I grew up without an umbrella! Also, kids here are totally enamored with the fact that white people look so different than they do. If you have forgotten what I look like I will remind you; I have blue eyes and I am quite hairy. Both of these attributes make little Asians stare at you for several minutes at a time. I have little kids during PE come up to me and just look at my eyes and say, “Wow blue eyes, so cool!” At first I felt like a rock star but now I just say something like, “yeah but you have brown eyes, that is WAY cooler!” But my next story takes the cake. I will never forget when Alan, grade 4, saw my arm hair and immediately began to pet me and say, “so soft, so soft.” Normally that would weird me out but for some reason it was kinda cool so I just let him feel my hairy arm until he had had his fill.

Other than a few major cultural differences these are still kids with some of the same issues, fears, interests, hobbies and attitudes as any other student you would come across in the States. Here are a few examples The number one game of choice among middle schoolers is dodge ball. Girls in 5th grade think that boys are gross….and vice versa. High school students see how much they can get away with and manipulate what you say to benefit them. They glow when you complement them. Forth graders cry when they get out in kickball. They whine when it is hot. They rejoice when they win. Elementary girls get out on purpose so they can sit in the shade and play their own version of patty-cake. They like to talk about their pets, especially their dog that has a haircut to make it resemble a lion (seriously, more on this phenomenon in a blog to come)! They are addicted to first player shooter video games and looking up funny stuff on YouTube. High school boys like basketball and rap music. The girls pretend that they do too. Now I ask you this question: is that much different than the youth that you have grown accustomed to in America? Not to me. We are different in so many ways but at the end of the day the truth is….we are the same.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Confucius say...

So we finally became somewhat productive members of Taiwanese society and got around to starting a Chinese class. After two months of whining about not understanding what people say to us, we actually did something about it. We didn’t get on the ball quickly enough to join a class on campus so we decided to have a tutor come to our apartment. How posh are we? Anyway, this past Tuesday was our first session. We headed into the evening with mixed emotions. On the one hand, we were excited to finally be doing something to contribute to the alleviation of the communication gap that has loomed so ominously before us during our time here thus far. On the other hand, we were terrified that our tutor, having heard our butchered pronunciation and mangled tones, would either burst into a side-splitting laughter that would bring us all to tears or that she would be so offended at the massacre of her mother tongue that she would storm out of the apartment giving us a tonal tongue lashing. In either case, we would be left with our hearts heavier and our wallet lighter than when we started.

However, our fears were relieved when our tutor came to our door. As is the custom, she promptly handed both of us her business card with her contact information… and also a picture of her late feline companion. Plastered where a company logo might be was a photo of her dear kitty who, after being with her for the past 15 years, passed on to kitty heaven recently. I noticed that the name on the card was different from the name that I had been given on the phone. I figured that they had given us someone different until our tutor explained that she had taken on her cat’s name when she passed away. Trust me, I am not creative enough to make this material up. I knew that we had a winner. There was no way that cat-lady was going to make fun of my tortured Chinese skills.

We sat down, filled out some paper work and promptly started the lesson. For an hour and a half, we twisted our tongues, contorted our jaws, dilated and constricted our throats attempting to mimic the sounds that our tutor produced so effortlessly. “No, no,” she would say. “Curl your tongue back farther as you say it!” Or, “No, no. You should say it with more air. You speak lazy Chinese.” I’m not sure what lazy Chinese is, but I am speaking it, apparently. Then, as we neared the end of the lesson, she said it. I really had to look at her to see if she was joking and then hold back my laughter when I saw that she wasn’t. I thought that they only said things like this in bad kung fu movies but, it really happened, folks. “You know, Confucius say that…” I don’t remember what he said (mainly because I wasn’t able to follow her in the first place) but those three words made every second of the lesson worthwhile.

We said our thank you’s and goodbye’s and Chris and I sat back down at our table trying to digest everything that we had just taken in and repeated the one sentence that we were able to produce with any success. “Wo shi lao shi.” I am a teacher. Hey, baby steps, right?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Keys to an Athletic Tournament

First of all, let me take a moment to apologize to my faithful readers for the long intermission that I have taken between posts. It has been a busy couple of weeks but I will do my best to keep it from happening again. Thank you for your fidelity despite my neglect.
This past weekend, Chris and I chaperoned a trip down to the southern part of the island to a city called Kaohsiung (that is the Romanized spelling, though I found that it is really pronounced something more like “Gow-shung”. Why spell it that way? I’m not sure but I have been trying to get to the bottom of it all week.) Anyhow, after a hectic volleyball and soccer season consisting of two volleyball and one soccer games, it was time for the season-ending tournament where international schools from all over the island competed. Chris was selected as one of the teacher chaperones because he is athletic director and I was selected mainly because my husband is the athletic director but I was also given the proud duty of yearbook photographer. Never having been an athlete myself, I was first introduced to tournament life three years ago through Chris’ coaching escapades. Now, we have noticed many things that are different between the Taiwanese lifestyle and our own, but few have been more pronounced than this little sporty sojourn.
The first difference I have already mentioned and that is the number of games played in a “season.” There are only a handful of international schools within driving distance of our school and local Taiwanese schools don’t have sport teams so, logistically, we really can’t schedule too many games. But, the real reason is this. The Taiwanese people don’t care about sports. I know, to some of you avid Auburn or Bronco fans, those words might seem like sacrilege, but it is true. Here, after kids finish a day at school, many of them head off to piano lessons. After piano lessons, they go to their Japanese tutor and then to their math tutor. Then, they have to hurry home in time to swallow some dinner before their cello teacher comes by for a lesson at home. This hardly leaves time for athletics.
When the first game of the tournament started, I noticed the second difference. Where were all of the fans? Now, I recognize that the tournament was far away, but it was pretty much the equivalent of State back home. Not one of our parents made the trip with us and, in fact, out of the eight teams who competed, there were two sets of parents there. Two! It kind of makes the idea of having a cheerleading squad a little bit ridiculous. The lack of a fan base didn’t seem to bother the kids and they were content just to have their coaches and teammates there cheering them to… well that brings me to my next point.
Let me just say this. Don’t judge us because our school is small and this is the first year to have a high school so, let’s just say we came up a little bit short. Okay, a lot short. Our volleyball team not only didn’t win any matches, they didn’t win a single game. But, talking to them during and after the tournament, they really were okay wit that. So many times you hear a parent or coach persuading their little leaguer to buck up because, even though they lost, they sure played well. But that was what these girls really thought! They didn’t care that they came in dead last, they had a great time doing it. Our boys’ soccer team won one game and you would have thought they won the entire tournament. The fiercest competition that I found was not found on a court or on a field, it was in the room where the girls slept.
Since the tournament was so far away, we stayed the night Friday night at the school. The boys were given the gym to sleep in and the girls were given the music room. I was sitting in the gym watching some kids play around after our first game on Friday when I heard one of our students say that another student was needed down in our room. Not wanting to miss what was going on (for more reasons than one), I followed them. I was shocked to find that in our room, the students had pulled out the piano and were having a piano playing competition! And, I am not talking about Chopsticks or Heart and Soul. I’m talking about Flight of the Bumblebee type stuff that totally blew my mind. Their fingers were flying across the keys while others stood around cheering them on or critiquing their use of the pedals. I have to say, it was quite unexpected but very entertaining. Kids who I can’t get to turn in one paragraph of homework were showing off their musical prowess with Bach.
All in all, the tournament was quite enjoyable despite the lack of trophies and it was a wonderful cultural training for us. We’ll make sure to brush up on our Tchaikovsky before basketball season.

Monday, October 6, 2008

When in doubt...say yes

For anyone thinking about spending time in a place where you don't speak the language, I have a few tips on the do's and don't's to help you get along in daily life.
Let's start with the Don't's:
1) Never think you are above pointing and gesturing like a neanderthal. You'd be surprised how many people actually enjoy a game or two of charades. Besides, you really haven't lived until you've ended a conversation with a complete stranger with your leg hoisted up on their desk while you make doggy paddle motions with your hands.
2) Don't think that speaking louder will suddenly make someone speak your language. We've been on both sides of this experiment and it hasn't turned out well yet. No matter how slowly or at what volume the lady at the grocery store explains how I am supposed to prepare the mystery food I have just purchased, the Mandarin switch is not going to turn on, no matter how much we both want it to.
3) Don't underestimate the power of "please" and "thank you." You may not be able to be fluent overnight but you can at least be polite.
4) Most importantly, don't take yourself too seriously and don't get frustrated. When you tell the clerk at the 7-Eleven that you are a stupid monkey instead of asking for a bag because your tones are off, the best thing to do is just to laugh it off. After all, they are already laughing so you might as well make them laugh with you and not at you.

1) The first thing that I have learned to do when someone speaks to me is to smile. I may have no idea what they are talking about but at least I can be pleasant to look at, right? I have found that a nice silly grin beats "deer in the headlights" any day.
2) If after a big grin, the person doesn't realize you have no idea what is going on and they continue speaking to you, I enjoy giving them a nice "knowing" chuckle. You'd be surprised how many times a friendly chortle is appropriate in a stranger's conversation. If it isn't appropriate, this will hopefully really drive the point home that you are quite in the dark about what the other person is saying. And, it usually makes the other person laugh and gives them a nice story to tell their friends.
3) Use what you do know. I have gotten a few "deer in the headlights" on the other end since my pronunciation is so ridiculously bad but I have also gotten what I wanted more times than not. I heard once that the reason that Harry Caray led the crowd of Cubs fans in singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" every seventh inning stretch was because he was so bad, everyone thought they could do better so everyone joined in singing. So, I will call my attempt at Chinese the "Harry Caray Effect". I butcher their language so badly, they have to know that their English is going to be better than my Mandarin and so they try it.
4) My final tip is a dangerous one but has served me well thus far. When in doubt, say yes. You can tell when someone is asking you a question in Chinese because their sentence ends with "ma?" So, if someone is waiting for me to answer them, I have just learned to say, "yes." It is kind of like a quick game of chance. Ooh, what have I ordered this time? It makes opening the carry-out bag for dinner much more exciting. We've had a few negative surprises like the watered down peanut butter juice for breakfast the other day, but mostly they have been positive, like last night when the lady just kept adding more food to our bag with no extra charge. Hopefully we didn't offer her our first-born in exchange for fried sweet potatoes.

I hope these tips were helpful. Happy communicating!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

From Fajitas to Titanic

Seeing as how we’ve been here for two months now, I think that it is about time for us to tell you what we are actually doing here. I am going to describe my day in this blog and Chris will describe his later.
I knew that I would be teaching English but as an unexpected surprise, I am also teaching one section each of French and Spanish. Who knew that I would actually be able use romance languages in the Orient? Teaching Spanish pronunciation during the first week of classes brought some unexpected challenges.
“Remember, the ‘j’ in Spanish is pronounced like an ‘h’, just like in the word… (to self: wait a minute, they have probably never heard the word ‘fajita’ before in their lives, I’ll give it a shot anyway) fajita.” After silencing the rising hum of “huh?” and “what?” that overtook the classroom, I attempted to depict this Mexican cookery. Imagine trying to explain a fajita when your audience doesn’t know what a tortilla is either. The quote of the week came from a student offering his input about the foreign delicacy, “Oh yeah, I think they have those at TGI Fridays.” Ah yes, the great Mexican tradition of TGI Fridays.
The English classes that I teach have been a stretch since I have never taught English before, but they have also been a blast. Both classes are specifically English writing classes. The first writing class is what we have deemed the “IEP” section. This stands for “Intensive English Program” and is designed for students with extremely limited English or learning disabilities. I wasn’t sure exactly how limited their English was going to be before classes started. After all, they were admitted to an all-English school, right? They must be at least mildly proficient. Wrong. It was from this class that I had the famed tear-shedding incident. After the first day of school, apparently two of my six students from this class went home and cried to their English tutor who promptly called the school to see what monster would do this to his precious students. Oops. Apparently, they got over it, because they came back and very rarely give me dirty looks.
Now, I know that this is against the rules, but I have to admit that this class might be my favorite. Their English ability is so low that it is like teaching kindergartners who don’t pick their noses or pee in their pants. They get so excited when they actually understand when someone is trying to be funny, they crack up at the simplest things. When we talked about asking questions, I asked them, “Do you sing in Bible class?” and they said they did. Then, I asked them, “Do you sing in science class?” And the class erupted in laughter. Now, if you know me, you know that I love for people to think that I am funny and this class makes it really easy. Maybe that is why I like them so much. In this class, there is a sweet girl named Cindy who thinks that it is a travesty that Chris and I don’t have any kids yet. “Why no baby?” she asked me one day. “Baby so cute!” I wanted to pinch her cheek and say, “No, you so cute!” But, I refrained.
My other writing class is also full of characters. Their level is much higher than my IEP’s but they still need help to get them to a high school level. In this class is a friendly young gentleman named Leo. Leo is a portly freshman who likes to randomly burst into song. I’m not talking about songs you would normally expect from a high school boy. I’m talking about “My Heart Will Go On”, “Shepherd of my Soul” and other songs of that nature. He often compares himself to a panda in his writing which is a relatively accurate description: big, clumsy, but also sweet and charming. He is so eager and full of energy, you want to laugh at him and yell at him at the same time.
There are many more but as this is getting long and I have lesson plans to write, I will leave you. Sing a bar of “My Heart Will Go On” for old time’s sake, you know you want to.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Little Comedy to Round Out the Week

Well, we figured it was about time to update you on some of the comedy going on in the streets of Taipei. We hope you enjoy!

This shirt is a little extreme, don't you think?

What a kicky days, indeed!

OK, is the cute little bear creeping anyone else out?

Someone got way too excited naming this coffee shop...

A bathroom sign that is a little bit too informative...

Yes folks, that is a dinosaur riding a scooter.

Ah yes, the classic tale of two nice girls who liked stuff.

We hope this brightened your week! Spread a little confused hilarity with your friends.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Let's All Go to the Movies!

To those of you who read our last blog, we made it through the typhoon safe and sound. We never lost power and we didn’t even get a day off from school! The next time a typhoon visits, I am going to see what I can do about having it arrive during the week instead of the weekend.
We made up for last weekend’s quarantine by spending as much time as we could handle wandering around the city. Our morning was slightly interrupted by our third trip to the emergency room (the second was to take my stitch out). Chris apparently contracted pink eye from one of our darling students. However, about $10 and thirty minutes later, he was drugged up and we were on our way.
After getting the medical OK from my dad the eye doctor, we decided to join some friends to go to the movies. Now, I wouldn’t have thought that a movie theater would be blog-worthy, but Taiwan really knows how to do the whole movie experience. I thought that I would let you know about it so that America could get on the ball.
Your first question is an obvious one. Can you actually understand the movies? Thanks to Hollywood having an overwhelming monopoly on the entertainment of the entire planet, most of the movies that they play here are American. And, I guess that dubbing is more expensive than adding subtitles so they simply add a few characters at the bottom of the screen and Voila! The movie is ready to amuse Chinese speakers all over Asia. The score? America 1, Taiwan 1
So now that American and Taiwan are on an even playing field, let’s start comparing other aspects of the movie-viewing experience. When you buy your movie tickets in the States, you typically buy the ticket and go into the theater. If you decide to go to a movie on opening weekend, make sure to show up at least thirty minutes to an hour before show time to make sure to get good seats. Not so in Taiwan. Tickets are issued with assigned seats in the theater. I wasn’t sure if I would like this or not, but it turns out that I love it. There is no hunting for good seats, no searching for the rest of your group in a dark theater and best of all, no sitting watching ridiculous trivia for forty-five minutes to avoid watching the movie from the front row. Simply buy your tickets, choose your seats, go have dinner and show up to the theater at the time the movie starts. What a concept. Our score? American 1, Taiwan 2.
Taiwan clearly has the upper hand at the snack counter as well. No, I am not going to regale you with tales of strange and exotic Asian cuisine fed to movie-goers. Instead, I am going to tell you that your wildest dreams have come true. Here, you are actually allowed to bring your own food and drink into the theater. Yes, my friends, there is no need for over-sized purses or coats here. No shoving candy bars and sodas in awkward places or sneezing as you crack open your Coke. Just buy your desired nibblies and walk right in with them in plain sight. Buying your own snacks also has an effect at the theater itself. Since the movie-goer can purchase their snacks anywhere they please, the prices at the movie theater for refreshments are actually quite reasonable. Hurray capitalism! The final thing that I really would like to see in the States is the choice between regular popcorn and caramel corn. I didn’t see any of the pour on “butter” to add to your salted popcorn but I still think that Taiwan wins this match as well. America 1, Taiwan 3.
The thing that really convinced me that Taiwan was doing things right was when we walked in the theater to find our seats. As we shimmied down the row, I noticed that something was missing. What is this? I wondered. My feet are not sticking to the floor! I will admit that there is something strangely comforting about the sticky smacking noise that your feet make as you peel them from the mystery substance coating the floor. I will also admit that I really, really didn’t miss it. The Taiwanese don’t use a lot of carpet but the idea they had to carpet their movie theater floors, I definitely support.
Final Score: America 1, Taiwan 4. Will someone please call AmStar?

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Waiting Game

So, I am going to take a wild guess and presume that none of you know that Taipei is about to get smacked straight on with a category 4/5 typhoon. For those of you who don't "speak Asian", a typhoon is what these folks call a hurricane. For the life of me, I can't figure out the difference. Massive amounts of rain? Check. Crazy strong winds? Check. Inability to find life's essentials of bread, water and Oreos at the local store? Check. Maybe one of you is a closet weather guru and can inform me on why we make a distinction. At any rate, this tempest is about to whack us dead-on.
"How did I not know about this?" you might ask yourself. The answer is quite simple. As it turns out, the English-speaking world really doesn't care that much about Asia. Before you feel too guilty about the ol' stars and stripes, let me tell you that we don't get the cold shoulder from Americans alone but from all anglophones in general. Even here in Taiwan the only thing that CNN "International" is talking about is Ike. Don't get me wrong, I am very concerned for my countrymen even if they are Texans, but I would like to know a little about what is happening off of my balcony. We have been able to watch the Taiwanese news channel and watch the storm tracker from there but there is only so much information I can glean from a few numbers dispersed between Chinese characters.
Despite not knowing when or how hard this typhoon is going to hit, we are trying to gear up the best we know how. I believe we've taken all the necessary precautions. We have made plans for games and movies with our friends and bought the 7-11 out of Pringles and Oreos. What else is there to do? Oh yeah, maybe take a few pictures! Now all there is to do for us is wait and see how we do. Wish us luck through our first major natural disaster!
Here's a few preliminary pics from our balcony for you:
Now you see the 101... Now you don't!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Our First Trip to the ER

I have to preface this story with a Taiwanese cultural note. The Taiwanese are extremely protective and are very afraid of injury or sickness of any kind. At times, it can go a little overboard…
Yesterday, Chris and I were chosen to be two of the teacher chaperones on a field trip for the high school students to go “river tracing.” If you haven’t heard of this event before, you are not alone. We had to ask around to figure out what it was and still didn’t know exactly what we were in for when we drove to the banks of the river with 40 students in tow. After donning the still-damp rental wetsuit vests and booties, we divided into four groups with one teacher per group and followed our guide into the water. It was a little odd being the “leader” of this group for two reasons: 1) I had never done anything like this before and had no idea what was going on and 2) our guide spoke only Chinese so the kids were having to translate all of the instructions for me which was a little discouraging when the guide went on for several minutes and my translation was, “He says we are going to walk up the river.” Despite this confusion, I eventually figured some things out and was able to contribute somewhat to the group. Basically, river tracing is exactly what they tell you not to do if you have ever been whitewater rafting. We hiked up a river and had object lessons on teamwork as we helped one another through rapids or to jump off things or anything else dangerous to do in a river. We were having a really fun time learning to work together until it happened.
Our mission was to get all of the members of our team from one rock to another in a rapid without grabbing their hands or arms. Simple enough, right? Well, I happened to be the last one onto the second rock. The guide had gone to the bank of the river to help get lunch ready. We were all celebrating our victory when someone looked down and noticed that my shin was bleeding. The water had been cold enough that I didn’t feel the injury when it happened and I really didn’t think that it was that big of a deal. However, the kids clearly thought that I had severed my jugular and quickly moved into action. They had me sit down on the rock as one hollered to the guide about our dire situation. In a flash, he came rushing over to put pressure on the gaping ½ cm deep wound. Had he had a tourniquet, I am sure it would have been applied. Since the guide didn’t speak English and I still don’t speak Chinese, I had to depend on the students to communicate with the guide. I asked them to tell him that I was fine and that we could keep going up the river. This was clearly the wrong thing to say because they refused to translate that for me and insisted that it was a very serious injury! After applying pressure to my mutilated leg for a couple of minutes, our guide decided that I must be rushed to the emergency room for stitches. Keep in mind, though I was bleeding, this cut could not have been more than 1 cm long, but off I went, to the ER.
So, when we get to the hospital, I am feeling totally lame. First of all, I really don’t think I need to be there. Secondly, because of this wimpy little “flesh wound”, the kids in my group had to quit river tracing early and play in rafts by the drop-off point in the river instead. The guide’s wife who spoke English came with me and helped me fill out paperwork. The doctor rushed me back to the operating table and, after analyzing my situation, proceeded to put one stitch (one!) in my leg. What kind of crappy story is that to tell? I went to the hospital and got a stitch? I thought about asking the doctor if he could squeeze a couple more in there just to make the story better, but I refrained. They then released me to the waiting room where our guide awaited me with ice cream in hand. He insisted on holding ice to my shin while I gobbled down the treat as quickly as I could to get him up off the ground. After handing me amoxicillin and a bunch of pain killers and paying my shockingly cheap bill, I was released and was able to meet up with the rest of the group.

Tetanus shot $7
Getting stitched $15
Amoxicillin $4
Pain Killers $4

Getting one stitch in my leg in a Taiwanese ER and living to tell the tale? Priceless.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Joining the Human Race

It all started, as most good stories do, with men dressed in banana suits. We were wandering around downtown Taipei on Saturday when we saw a big crowd with some tents set up and, of course, the infamous banana men. We went to go see what all of the commotion was about and we learned that Nike was sponsoring a 10K run in different cities around the world on Sunday called The Human Race. My friend Rachel and I decided that it would be a cool thing to be a part of and so, with only a little over $10 standing between us and a ridiculously early Sunday morning (and a free t-shirt), we signed up.

Only slightly regretting our decision at 5:00 this morning, we hailed a cab to take us to the starting line. After snapping a quick photo, Chris and Ben (Rachel’s husband) left us for a quick breakfast and to find a place to meet us after the race.

While we stretched, we were pumped up to the sound of the loud-speakers blasting “Bleeding Love” as a woman led the masses in an aerobic warm-up followed by cheering “Taiwan is number 1!” in English. I guess English is a more peppy language to get the crowd geared up? Who knows. Anyhow, as the crowd began to move across the start line, Rachel and I melted into the red mass. True to form, right as we were passing under the starting gate, I tripped on a post and almost twisted my ankle. Go me! I managed to escape injury, however, and I did not have to take a taxi to the finish line.
They asked us all to wear our free t-shirts during the race, which happened to be red, so we were a pretty impressive sight as we swarmed the streets of Taipei.
Now, I have to be honest. I really expected this to be one of those “I’m glad I did it, after the event is over” kind of a thing. But, I had a really good time! I know, I am a crazy masochist but I actually enjoy running. And, considering that we didn’t know that we were participating in the race until the day before, we did pretty well, finishing in just over an hour. Not spectacular, but respectable. The constant shouts of the spectators of, "Add oil!" in Chinese were also nice. Wouldn't you be encouraged?

The adventure wasn’t quite over when we crossed the finish line, however. When we finished, we looked around and realized that we were in a completely different place than we thought we were going to be at the end of the race. Consequently, we had absolutely no idea where the guys were among the thousands of sweaty people. Wanting to keep our loads light, neither of us had a cell phone to call or money to get home. We happened upon a Good Samaritan from Chicago who kindly lent us his cell phone. However, Ben forgot their phone at home and I, being the genius I am, don’t actually know our phone number. Back to square one. Luckily, only after about twenty minutes, we saw the red sea split and Ben stride proudly over to us. As it turned out, they had been wandering the city looking for the end of the race when they happened upon a race coordinator who invited Chris and Ben to ride with them to the finish line. So, it all turned out just ducky. We even made it home in time to shower and get to church after a quick pit stop at Mr. Donut.
The moral of this story is if you do all your marketing with men in banana suits, your business will succeed.
Being interviewed after the race
Check out the website if you are interested: