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:

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Racist Taiwanese?

I had heard about this phenomenon. I have to say, though, it was one of those things that I had to hear for myself to believe.

On Saturday, Chris and I were strolling through the streets of Taipei when we decided to stop in a restaurant and try out some of our newly learned Chinese vocabulary. We were getting our order across with more help from gestures and pointing to the menu than our language when it happened. The lady at the counter seemed very nice but she looked right at us and said, “Niggah…所有網頁 … niggah…所有網頁 ” (for those of you trying to figure out the Chinese characters, they are totally random, not actually what she said.) At first, we were taken aback and a little offended. Being caucasian ourselves, we thought that maybe she was confused about a new English insult she learned from HBO. As the ordering continued, so did the racial slurs. “Niggah… what would you like to drink?” “Is that for here… niggah… or to go?” We ate our meal in a fog of bewilderment determined to get to the bottom of this blatant (though misused) racism.

We asked our friends who have spent some time here as well as some native Chinese speakers what the root issue was causing such bigotry. However, as it turns out, this word is actually a voice stall in Chinese. They use it the same way that we would use “um” or “like” or “well” in English. That’s their story, anyway. Next time if they tell me that “cracker” is the word for “hello”… I am going to be a little suspicious.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Got Phelps?

Written By: Coach

We all love watching the Olympics. And when I say "we" I mean the human race. Obviously Americans are really into the Olympics because we typically do pretty well overall in a variety of sports. We are also suckers for a heartwarming story like when Carrie Shrug clinched the gold medal for her team on a broken ankle. This year the big story other than the fact that China is hosting the games is...Michael Phelps. Michael, and I think we would not mind if I called him that, is being considered one of the best olympians of all time. It just so happens that Michael is an American but even still I am sure that he is THE headliner for just about any television network worldwide right? Another headline group that is getting a lot of press in the "Redeem Team" AKA the US basketball team who are heavily favored to win gold and put America back into the top spot of the sport we invented. Speaking of sports we invented, baseball usually does not actually get the attention that many Americans may want, probably because we have not figured out a way to load our teams chalk full of MLB All-Stars!

Well folks I really hope that all of you have enjoyed sitting down each evening with your family and friends and watching NBC broadcast previously recorded Olympic events. I hope that all of you have watched so much Michael Phelps that YOUR fingertips are pruny. I hope that all of you basketball fans such as myself have been able to watch every high flying slam dunk that Kobe and company have orchestrated. However, I would never wish on anyone the gold medal of sheer frustration that I wear due to the TV stations of the great country of Taiwan (or Chinese Taipei for you Olympic folk).

Let me explain. Apparently there are only a handful of sports that the Taiwanese truly care about and they are (in no particular order) women’s archery and weightlifting, badminton, baseball and of course ping pong. Now I am not claiming that those are the only sports that have aired here in Asia. We have seen our share of swimming meets, volleyball matches and handball games which actually is a fascinating sport. But we are well into the games and I feel like it is slipping me by. I feel like a kid that has to go to bed while his older brother gets to stay up with his friends and play video games. I am missing out and it is killing me. So the sports that most Americans love like gymnastics, track and field and yes the best sport in the world, basketball has gone totally unwatched by these competitive and patriotic eyes. Oh and Phelps? I have not had the pleasure of seeing any medals won or records broken. I know that eventually it will not matter to me at all and years down the road when people ask me to tell them about my experiences in Taiwan the Olympics will not even come up. However, I also will never be able to tell my grandkids what I was doing when Phelps won all of his gold medals. I will not be able to say that I saw the Redeem Team in action as they annihilated the competition. I could always guess, but the best I could come up with would be, “I think I was watching ping pong.”

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Ah, Silly Taiwan

Here are a few pictures of some of the funny things we've seen since we arrived...

A guy walking his pig

A weiner dog restaurant sign... we haven't eaten here yet

A street cleaner wearing a reflective rice patty hat

Why, plastic grazing cows, of course!

Random Chinese cow totem pole

OK, apparently t-shirts that were printed with mistakes in English are sold to Taiwanese stores for super cheap so you can find very entertaining shirts all over the place...

Disonsaurs are scarely!
Can you challenge to the yreainess of nature? Can you?

Chris couldn't resist this one... Spin the bottle world champion

Good navigation peace keep... Global Wroks... keep reading, it gets even better
I'm sure that there will be more to come...

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Taiwanese Cuisine

So, I am sure that you are all wondering how our tummies are fairing here with us on our little Asian adventure. The answer is... pretty well, actually (sorry to disappoint anyone). We haven't, to our knowledge, ingested any felines, canines, rodents or anything else that might disquiet our delicate American digestive systems. And, as a quick update to our faithful and thoughtful readers, Chris has made drastic improvements in his bamboo-handling skills. He now dines with the ease and agility of a samurai warrior (for comedy's sake, let's pretend that samurais were Taiwanese). We have sampled quite a bit of traditional Taiwanese fare. Some made the winner list and some... well let's just say that some culinary experiences will remain on the "once in a lifetime" list.
Let's start with the winners. One tasty treat that has quickly moved in as one of our favorites is the drink "milk tea". This is an iced drink that is kind of like a cross between southern sweet tea and a chai tea latte. It is cavity-generatingly sweet but with a gingery, nutmegy, some other spice I don't know-y flavor. It is delicious and can serve both as a whistle-wetter and a sweet-tooth satisfier. As one who appreciates multi-taskers, milk tea has officially earned a place on the winners list. As a twist, you can order your milk tea with "pearls". These are tapioca-style beads that they will throw in your beverage free-of-charge for an added texture experience. I myself am not a fan of said pearls but I won't judge anyone who is. Another treat that we happened upon is something that we have affectionately named "egg crepes". We really have no idea what they are actually called because the vendor who sells them speaks as much English as I do Chinese so there is a lot of pointing and gesturing when we order. These egg crepes are dough that has been rolled very thin and then fried in a wok. While it is frying, the chef cracks open an egg or two (depending on your taste) and fries it up with the dough. Then, he pulls it out and brushes on some sweet and sour-type sauce, rolls it up and puts it in a bag to collect all the delicious grease that drips off. Though it doesn't serve as many purposes as the milk tea, it is just as satisfying. There are many other tasty things but let's move on to the once-in-a-lifetimers since we all know that's what you all have been waiting for.
One of the things that strikes me most as funny are the desserts that are served here. Whenever you go into a pastry shop, peruse a dessert menu or are offered candy, there is one ingredient that you will undoubtedly find: red bean paste. In the States, we are used to our red beans being salty, spicy, bland, etc. but I had not ever heard of beans being served as a dessert item. In fact, when I first heard someone talking about it, I had to have them clarify that, yes, they were indeed referring to red beans as being sweet. Not being one to judge, I decided to give them a whirl. And, I'll just tell you. They taste pretty much exactly what you think they would taste like. My brother's description fits them most perfectly: "It's as if you went to Casa Bonita (or any other low-quality Mexican restaurant) and you accidentally spill some honey on your refried beans." And, red beans are not actually the only legume that inspires the Taiwanese to make desserts. We have had cold, sweet split pea soup at lunch on more than one occasion. Anyone up for a taste?
The last thing that I will describe for you is a treat that a parent bought as a gift for all of the teachers. Let me say now that I think that this is a relatively expensive food and a very thoughtful gift for this parent to give us. But, since I don't think that she is reading our blog, I'll describe this Taiwanese delight for you all. It is called a moon cake. It is a flaky pastry about the size of your fist. When you first bite into it, the dough is sweet and you can tell that it has been filled with something. At first, I thought that it was the bean paste inside. However, after venturing farther into the ball of dough, I began to notice that the filling was saltier than the bean paste... and stringier. Our final conclusion is that the filling was indeed... pork. Yes, dear readers, moon cakes are sweet pork-filled pastries. And at that thought, I shall leave you.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Beethoven would be so proud

There have been a number of new sounds that we have gotten used to as we adjust to life here in Taipei. The low hum of hard-working air conditioning units spells not only a much needed respite from the sweltering summer heat but also sweet relief from the big city pollution. The high-pitched whir of small engines warns of scooters carrying entire families that are about to careen across the crosswalk in front of you. The far-too-excited way I greet passers-by on our way to school with, "Zao an"(good morning) which is the first Chinese I've learned since we arrived that I have actually been able to retain.

But, I have to say... there is a new sound here that is my favorite. It is the tinny, mechanical sound of Fur Elise that drifts into our apartment every evening. Though it sounds like the pied piper beckoning children to ruin their dinners with ice cream delights, this sound is actually calling for... our trash. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the garbage truck plays Fur Elise to let us know of his arrival twice every evening. He comes once at six and once at eight, both times greeting us with Beethoven's masterpiece. When the sweet music wafts in, adults and children alike scurry down, garbage bags in hand, to greet the music maker.

Now, I have to tell you, garbage collection here is quite a complicated process. We actually had, and I'm not making this up, an entire orientation on how to dispose of our rubbish. You must divide everything into three categories: actual trash, food waste and recyclables. Then, there are actually subcategories for your recyclables that can only be recycled on certain days. Somewhat in a tizzy about writing down all of said subcategories, our friends leaned over and informed us, "Don't worry. People will be fighting over sorting your trash." Evidently, people make quite a pretty penny by recycling so each apartment building has at least one trash lady who quite politely relieves you of your trash the moment you step out of the building. Sure enough, as soon as we heard good ol' Ludwig calling our name, we gathered up all of our rubbish and headed downstairs to find a lovely gloved woman there to take it off of our hands. What a fine way to end the day...

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Fear of Bamboo

Written by Coach

Have you ever struggled doing something that seemed so simple, so elementary that it drives you crazy each time you try....and fail? It could be anything from shuffling cards to executing a left-handed layup to rolling your "R's". I realize we all have them and most people do not look down on someone else if they cannot pull off such an easy, nay mundane task. I also realize that whenever it happens to me no one really cares...but me!

Before I explain where I am going with this I must tell you of the many fears that crept into my mind before we flew to Taiwan. Will it be safe for Ashley to walk by herself to get groceries? Will we ever taste the distictive "domesticated cuisine" that so many of our friends warned us about? Will we EVER learn any of the language? These are all valid fears that we could only find out the answers to once we arrived. I have to say that I am very pleased so far with the people, culture and cuisine. Everything seems so safe and pleasant so my biggest fears were not realized and adjusting to living here seems like it will be easier than we thought!

However there was one issue that I never really gave much thought while still living in Alabama. That issue definitely showed it's freaking ugly head on the very first night. It all started so well actually, Ashley and I met up with another teacher couple that knew there way around the city. We have a lot in common with them so the bus ride and the walk around downtown Taipei was great. After walking around the city awhile we agreed on a popular sushi place that they like to frequent. We decided to order about 4 plates of sushi and we would all share, good...sampling is the way I like it. This is where the story takes a harsh turn. When the first plate was brought out Ashley and our new friends start digging in. I, on the other hand, realized with horror that whenever chopsticks are put in my hand for some reason I transform into "Buster" the special needs chimp!

I did not panic at first. In fact as I recall I kind of played it off like it was the chopsticks fault. I think I did not panic because no one was really focused on me at first because the sushi was so dang good. But after several minutes of picking up and dropping sushi rolls I suddenly felt that the whole city put a halt on their busy little lives and agreed to all walk by and see the clumsy American on display. My emotions started to change very quickly. I went from frustration to horror to anger to rage. I think the last straw was when Ashley very calmly and quietly leaned over and said, (with some raw fish in her mouth that I am sure was delicious) "It's kind of a baptism by fire isnt it?" Now at this point it was all I could do to resist the urge to throw the chopsticks through the doorway to the restaurant and scoop the rest of the Japanese delicacy with my bare, southern hands and scarf them down in one gulp muttering under my breath, "I got your baptism right here" or something stupid like that. But as you recall we are dining with a nice couple that we have just met and I think that would possibly give out the wrong vibe.

Finally after what seemed like hours the couple took pity on me and asked the waitress for a fork so that I too could have some delicious sushi. Since that unforgetable night we have had several meals and I am SLOWLY making progress. It still frustrates me whenever I look around and people are actually having conversations with others while they eat. I am still totally consumed with this two little pieces of bamboo! So please keep me in your prayers. I feel very safe, the people here are great but I have a long way to go in mastering the art of dining in an Asian country.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Hitting the Ground Running

Well, we got here on Sunday morning and teacher orientation started on Monday so we jumped right into our new lives here in Taipei. We got to meet a lot of the teachers and get a feel for what daily living is going to be like. Turns out, they are still in need of a fourth grade teacher... anyone interested?
Today we took a cultural excursion up to the mountains to a city called Wu-Lai. There we went to a fish and eel farm which also, for some reason, had two boars and some sort of raccoon / lemur thing in cages. Seeing as how I have never been to an eel farm before, I am assuming that boars and lemurs are standard procedure. Apparently, eel is quite a popular dish among the Taiwanese. However, when we asked another American what his thoughts were, he likened the "delicacy" to mud. Mmmmm.
The main attraction for the morning was when our pastor hand-picked a sturgeon from the water to have butchered for us for tomorrow's lunch. We got to watch them prepare the fish for us which was really interesting. They first pull the fish out and put it in a bucket where it is thrashing around like crazy and they weigh it to see how much it costs (ours was about 9lbs. we think). Then, they take it back to the kitchen and give it several good whacks with the back of a meat cleaver until it stops moving... mostly. Then, they cut off the fins and part of the back bone which is supposed to be good for frying. All that is left is cutting off the head and tail (which are used in soup) and then cutting the rest into nice steaks. It is supposedly the "fish of kings" so we are all looking forward to trying it tomorrow.
After the farm experience, our pastor took us out to lunch for traditional Chinese fare which was quite tasty. We had bamboo, tiger lilly soup and guava juice just to name some of the highlights. Then, we wandered around town and down to the river. Afterwards, we took a very "zoo-light safari" style train ride to see a waterfall which was very beautiful. That brings us to this afternoon where I am attempting to use the Chinese dryer and Chris is at the local park playing pick up basketball with some locals. I'm sure he'll fit right in...

Monday, August 4, 2008

Here at last!

Arrived at last! Getting our boarding passes in San Francisco turned out to be no problem at all, thank the Lord. And, relative to the rest of our traveling, the flight out to Taipei was blissfully uneventful. We made up our minds to stay up the first half of the flight and sleep the second half even though it left at 1:30 A.M. to help get us on track to Taiwan time. Unfortunately, that resolution lasted all of about an hour and a half, then we were both out like lights. But, we have done well so far today with jet lag despite our falling victim to the plane’s soothing hum. It was a cool flight because the pinkish orange sky of the sunrise chased us all thirteen hours until it finally caught us with the dawn in Taipei. Breezing through customs, we dreaded to see what may or may not be awaiting us at baggage claim. However, much to our amazement, all four of our suitcases quickly cascaded down the belt and into our welcoming arms.
As we left the secured area, our principal, Mrs. Chow, found us and led us to her van where we loaded up and headed to our new home. She first gave us a guided tour of our neighborhood in the van so that we could get our bearings. As it turns out, there are about as many 7-11’s here as there are Starbucks in Seattle so no matter what, we will never find ourselves slurpee-less. We went inside the school which is a nine-story building. Chris and I will be sharing one classroom and one office with another couple and that space is up on the ninth floor and has a spectacular view.
From the school we went to our new home. Our apartment complex is huge, made up of about 25 buildings and each building is about ten stories high with at least four units per floor. You do the math. We laughed when Mrs. Chow told us that these apartments are actually government housing but each unit goes for about $250,000 (USD). So, we are living in the projects! We were pleasantly surprised to find that our new place has not two but three bedrooms! We also have a little balcony with a papaya tree and a back porch with a washer and dryer! Chris was probably most excited about the nice T.V. with Chinese ESPN.

Having dropped off our bags, Mrs. Chow helped us with the next order of business, buying groceries. She had to leave for church so she dropped us off at the local grocery store and gave us an advance on our fist paycheck to help us out. Among the dried squid, asparagus juice and seaweed flavored chips, we were pleased to find Pringles, Oreos and other familiar delicacies. We stocked up on as much as we wanted to carry back and headed home. We spent the morning settling in and unpacking.
After lunch we decided to venture out again and make sure we could find our way back to school for tomorrow morning. Our walk is a very pleasant one that takes us through a big park full of trees and people practicing Tai Chi. We have discovered that people do enjoy staring at us and that even the nicest of smiles doesn’t tend to soften their gaze. We don’t take it personally, though. Who wouldn’t want to stare at such an attractive couple? Just kidding. When we got back to the apartment, we got a call from one of the other teachers to see if we wanted to do dinner. We are meeting them at 6:30 for sushi. Hopefully we can stay up until then!

Traveling Woes

Well, as we write our first blog, we find ourselves still in the lovely Atlanta Hartsfield Airport. Yes, though it is Friday afternoon and we should be about an hour and a half away from Taipei, we just enjoyed Atlanta too much to spend only a couple of hours here.
Due to severe weather last night, we boarded our flight to Atlanta two hours late. Then, there was another cell that came over the Atlanta airport while we were on the runway waiting to leave so we sat for an hour more on the plane. Finally landing in Atlanta three hours late, we were about to pull up to the gate when ground crews were called inside due to lightning and we waited another 40 minutes or so on the ground in Atlanta. Our connecting flight was also late so we had been calling to see if it had left yet. But, as soon as we stepped off the plane and looked to see where our next gate was, we saw the dreaded word “Departed” next to our flight.
Frantically trying to find another flight to the west coast, the nice people at Delta informed us that our next hope of getting to San Francisco wasn’t until today at 5:00 in the afternoon. So, we booked ourselves on that flight and, like cattle, we followed the herd to the nearest EconoLodge at 2:00 this morning. We had a leisurely morning and finally made it back to the airport at about 1:30 thinking that we were going to have way too much time on our hands. But, as air travel would have it, we were glad to have all of that extra time. After waiting about an hour in line to check in, we found that we were not actually confirmed on the flight from San Francisco to Taipei and, for reasons beyond our understanding, it took our agent nearly an hour to book us on that flight. Currently we have a ticket but no boarding pass so we are hoping that the good people in San Francisco will give us one. Here’s hopin’!