Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

This picture of Taipei's drivers was the Wall Street Journal's photo of the day back in October. I think you get the idea.
Motorists crowd at a junction during rush hour in Taipei October 29, 2009. There are around 8.8 million motorcycles and 4.8 million cars on Taiwan’s roads and nearly all motor vehicles and inhabitants are squeezed into a third of the island’s area.

Monday, December 7, 2009

A Cup of Tea

This past weekend, Chris and I have had the pleasure of playing host. Not being able to go home for Christmas this year, my parents decided to bring Christmas to Taipei and pay us a visit. It was a whirlwind weekend jam packed with all kinds of cultural experiences. Some were new to us (like Snake Alley – in a blog to come) and some were activities we have deemed essential to the Taiwanese experience (like ascending to the top of the world’s tallest building). But, if I’ve learned one thing during our time abroad, it is that the best cultural experiences are the ones that you don’t plan.

One such encounter began on Sunday afternoon. Chris and I had heard a lot about an area just outside of Taipei known for its hillside tea plantations. This district boasts scores of teahouses dotting the mountainside offering a wide range of locally grown tea and an array of accompanying victuals. With a spectacular view of the city, the best time to visit these plantations was supposed to be at night in order to take in the lights of Taipei. Figuring that there was no better time to drop in on these teahouses than when we had guests, we searched out a “good” house and set out on our way.
Having to wait for quite a while for the bus to come to take us up the mountain, I started to question my decision to lead my parents off into unknown territory. The bus finally did arrive, however, and we started up the mountain. I use the term “bus” loosely as our vehicle was actually closer to a twelve passenger van since the narrow, zig-zagging hillside roads often could only accommodate one vehicle at a time. Our driver steered and swerved his way up the hill, deftly asserting his bus authority in an incessant game of chicken. Meanwhile, a friendly English-speaking passenger informed us that the Maokong area was very large so if we gave the address of the teahouse to the driver, he could take us directly there. So, at an opportune time when I didn’t see any cars heading for a head-on collision, I handed the address in Chinese to the driver. I was then told by the same English speaker that the driver was not familiar with the address so we would have to find another teahouse.

As we discussed our options, some locals jumped on the bus and the driver started talking to them. Having been informed of our plight, a gentleman seated behind me started handing me business cards and telling me all about different teahouses in the area. I’m sure that his descriptions were informative and very helpful. Not speaking Chinese, however, all I heard was, “Blah blah drink tea blah blah. Blah blah you can see Taipei blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah.” Seeing as how drinking tea was really the only essential component, we figured we would trust our new friend to show us this teahouse. My dad remarked that he was probably taking us to his brother-in-law’s place, but we didn’t really care.

Stopping at the selected house, the friendly gentleman escorted us inside the establishment where he promptly announced that he was, in fact, the owner. Amused but not surprised, we sat down and viewed our surroundings. The walls were festooned with silhouettes of various types of monsters and cats – something we still haven’t quite figured out – and Bach played softly in the background. The waiter came presented us menus offering everything from Doritos to lasagna. We made our choices and, of course, selected the tea we would drink. The waiter brought it out and demonstrated the proper way to sniff and sip the infusion. We were a bit surprised at the Barbie-sized thimbles we were supposed to use to drink our tea, but we decided just to roll with it. While the dining room did provide a beautiful view of the lights of Taipei, we all agreed that the best view was one floor up from the roof-top squatty potties. After tea time, we hailed another “bus” to go back down the mountain. We held on for dear life as our driver zipped down the road, this time with the aide of gravity behind us.

As we settled in to our seats on the subway back home, we all decided that though the teahouse wasn’t exactly as we had planned, we preferred it that way.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Hong Kong: A Tummy's Perspective

Last year, Chris and I spent Thanksgiving seeing the sights of Hong Kong. When an opportunity for a cheap weekend jaunt presented itself, we decided to repeat the experience with some friends. This new tradition seems fitting to us as Hong Kong arguably has the best food in all of Asia. So, it makes sense to spend this gluttonous American holiday there. We arrived Thursday night with empty bellies and high expectations. And, I will say, Hong Kong did not disappoint.

For our first meal, we stumbled into a restaurant that our friend had heard about and came highly recommended. The small dining room was packed with locals and the wait staff spoke neither English nor Mandarin, since the language spoken in Hong Kong is Cantonese. While a bit daunting at first, these are actually really good signs that point to good, local food. Luckily, there was some English on the menu and it was very simple: a choice of various meats served over rice. When our steaming plates arrived, all conversation came to a reverant halt as we dug into roast duck, pork, and chicken. We silently tore into crispy, glazed skin and meat, carefully dodging bits of bone that remind you that your meal was alive a few short hours ago. Finishing off with the perfectly cooked rice, conversation slowly returned to the tables. Satisfied, we explored the neighborhood around our hotel before calling it a night.

I have found that, especially when it comes to traditional local food, simplicity is the key. Our next food experience proved this to be true. With our tummies rumbling once again, we went in search of good, Cantonese food. The main street flashed neon signs advertising everything from fettuccine alfredo to lamb gyros. Since we were neither in Italy nor Greece, we decided to head onto one of the side streets to see what we could find. We followed our noses to an open door with delectable aromas wafting out. A line of hungry locals waited their turn outside the small restaurant. Stepping into place, we waited our turn as the smells tickled our noses and enticed our tummies. Patrons were led in as seating became available, one or two at a time. When two chairs opened up at someone's table, we sat down next to a couple of slurping strangers and were handed a menu of four different soups. We pointed to which ones we wanted and a few minutes later, two steaming bowls appeared. The tantalizing scents that had been tempting us for the past several minutes materialized into soft shrimp wantons and chewy yellow noodles swimming in a broth that can only be described as heavenly. The only sounds that could be heard in the dining room were soft slurps and sips interrupted only by loud calls from the waitresses calling in orders to the kitchen staff and directing customers to the newly opened seats. There was also the occasional yummy noise that was unable to be suppressed by an enchanted diner. Reluctantly swallowing the last sip, we asked for the check in a post-soup euphoric daze. The only thing that was able to snap us back to reality was the shock we experienced when we realized that this celestial repast set us back all of $4.


The best meal, however, we saved for last. This climactic approach, while poetic, was entirely unintentional. Chris and I discovered this Hong Kong speciality last year and have longed for it ever since. So, as soon as we landed in Hong Kong, we were on the prowl for dim sum. Dim sum is a Cantonese specialty and consists of a variety of buns and dumplings filled with all sorts of savory and sweet treasures. As it turned out, dim sum was much harder to find than we would have liked. After much wandering and asking around, we finally found a restaurant specializing in this delicacy. The smiling waitress poured our tea into thimble-sized porcelain cups and offered us the encyclopedic menu. Selecting a few favorites as well as some new, adventurous options, we sat back and waited for the food to arrive. Each dish is brought to your table in a bamboo steaming basket and contains three to four buns or dumplings. As with the more traditional Thanksgiving meal, everyone has their specific dish that is their favorite. Following his Southern roots, Chris' preferred treat is the steamed bar-be-cue pork buns. These are steamed bread stuffed with pockets of pork cooked in a slightly spicy, slightly sweet sauce. I agree that they are, indeed, scrumptious. However, in my book, nothing beats the egg custard buns. Again, these are steamed bread but they are filled with a creamy, buttery, sugared custard that drips down your chin as you bite into them. While nothing will ever be able to hold a candle to Mom's turkey and dressing, Hong Kong's dim sum can sure come awfully close.
So, we hope that you enjoyed Thanksgiving and have all recovered from your tryptophan-induced comas. From our Thanksgiving, we would like to offer our humble advice. If ever you are driving down the road and see a sign offering Cantonese style Chinese food, stop. It will be worth your while.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

We Need a Little Christmas

Yes, my dear friends, it is that time of year again. I expect that you are all aware of this because you have been barraged by sleighs, reindeer, and children's toy commercials reminding you of December 25 for the past several weeks. Now, as you may recall from our blogs last year, (or if you rely on your common sense reminding you that this is a Buddhist nation and, despite what Toys ' R' Us tells you, Christmas is a Christian holiday), Christmas cheer is not quite as prevelent around here as it is in the States. In recent weeks, the closest thing that I had to a Christmas reference was when a student wrote on a memory verse test, "And Jesus said to him, 'Get behind me Santa...'" While this fruedian slip might be able to be analyzed in a sermon, that is not the direction I intended for this blog.

Anyhow, there does exist one haven that endeavors to share Christmas spirit all around the island. No, it is not a local church or missions organization. Instead, it is, in fact, the retail giant Starbucks. Like the Yankees, Starbucks endures a rather mixed reputation. There are those who condemn them as the evil empire who has destroyed everything that was once good and pure about the coffee drinking experience. Then there are others who are deeply loyal to the five-dollar-per-cup liquid gold coffee. Whatever you think about them in the States, we tend to cling to any pocket of American culture that we can find here in Taipei. So, Starbucks, being conveniently located right on the way to church, has nestled its way into our Sunday morning routine.
And that brings us back to the point of this blog. Something very important happened this week. It is now officially the holiday season at Starbucks. Spray-on frost now christens the windows and a scarf-laden penguin greets you at the cash register. Coffee patrons warm their hands with the scarlet cups adorned with the white snowflakes that remind us of the far off places that actually have real snow. Much to Chris' chagrin, the light jazz background music that usually welcomes us in from off the street has been replaced by real Christmas songs. Since the Taiwanese are generally indifferent to the messages that these songs convey, Elvis' "I'll have a Blue Christmas" is mixed right in with "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing". I have to say, Christian-themed Christmas music is a nice change after all the politically correct tunes aired by radio stations in the States.
Another added to bonus to this Christmas season (brought to you by Starbucks) is the holiday themed menu. Two of our favorite beverages are now available to us, complete with the snowflake embellished scarlet cup: toffee nut lattes and dark cherry mochas. This may not seem like a big deal to you, but it is a highly anticipated event for Americans all over the island. The day that the menu was unveiled, ex-pats from all over the city called one another spreading the good news. Chris and I were able to enjoy this special treat this morning and, I must say, it did indeed put us in a holiday mood. Since Thanksgiving is Chris' favorite holiday and he takes it a bit personally when people skip past it and rush right into Christmas, I will leave you with a happy holiday message from across the Pacific. Happy Holidays, and Starbucks cheer to all!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Language Barrier: Both a Blessing and a Curse

Though feeble, Chris and I actually have made an attempt at learning some of the Chinese language. However, our grammar leaves quite a bit to be desired and our vocabulary consists of varying coffee orders and saying “one of this” or “two of that”. While we accept all of the blame for this “ugly American attitude”, I will say that the helpful and English-friendly Taiwanese have added fuel to our lazy fire. Being a language teacher, I am obviously an advocate for learning the language of the culture in which you find yourself. On the other hand, I am going to admit that there have been times when I was glad that I didn’t speak Chinese.

One such occasion was the last time that I went to go get my hair cut. Getting a haircut in Taiwan is a glorious two to three hour ordeal that involves washing, massaging, pruning, and overall pampering (see Great Clips, eat your heart out blog). This is an event that I look forward to with great anticipation. The salon that I frequent is located in our apartment complex and is owned by a young woman who speaks about as much English as I speak Chinese. Typically, when I come in, she hands me a magazine and I point to which picture most closely resembles my desired coif and I hold my breath and hope for the best. Generally, she does a good job and is very friendly whenever I see her around the complex. The inability to communicate frankly doesn’t bother me that much as I am not a big small-talker. However, being a hairdresser, the owner chatters on continuously at me seemingly indifferent to whether or not I understand what she is saying. As I said, not into small talk myself, I am okay with the arrangement that we have. She talks, I nod, smile, or shrug as I think appropriate, she massages my shoulders and cuts my hair, I pay her, and we all end up happy.

This is not always how it turns out. Sometimes, the owner feels obliged to ask one of the other costumers in the shop to translate for her. This is awkward for me for two reasons. First, I hate interrupting another costumer’s relaxation time to come and interpret for the dumb American. Secondly, it is through these translated conversations that I experience a side of Taiwanese culture that I don’t see very often: their bluntness and their uncontrollable desire to offer unsolicited advice. In America, we tend to beat around the bush and sugar coat anything we say as to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. And, to be honest, I like it that way. But, at the salon, I get to find out what people are really saying about me.

The first translated conversation went something like this:
“She would like to tell you that the blemish on your forehead is very large. You must go to see a doctor about it and eat more vitamin C. You must go to the doctor before you come back.”

The next visit went something like this:
“Ah, I see that the blemish on your forehead is gone. Did you go to the doctor? No? Hm. You really should go. The blemishes that you have are unnaturally large. (directed to other costumers) Don’t you agree that her blemishes are unusually large? (nods of agreement all over the salon)”

My most recent visit:
“Wow, I see that your face is very pale but your arms are too tan. Why do you do it that way? Your face does not have as many blemishes but I don’t think that you should not go to America because America is very bad for your skin. You also must learn Chinese, it is very important.”

So, I am going to be honest. After hearing on several occasions how I need to seek medical attention for my apparently horrendous skin affliction, my motivation to learn Chinese and communicate first-hand with the Taiwanese dissipates a little bit. Though, it would be nice to not have to involve a third party in my berating. We’ll keep you updated on our communication as well as the condition of my leprosy.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

It's the Little Things...

In Taipei, we have two seasons. We have a very wet winter and two months of “I’ll bring my umbrella just in case.” The last several weeks have been quite soggy indeed. Anyone who has visited or lived in a city like Seattle or London can appreciate the quiet gloom that settles in after three weeks without a glimpse of the sun. This weekend, our despair was relieved as the sun burned through the clouds and dried up some of the long-standing puddles. In order to replenish our vitamin D stores, we decided to go with some friends to one of our favorite ice cream places after church.

Big Tom’s is famous for a few reasons. First of all, they make delicious ice cream. And they don’t just have boring vanilla, either. The menu boasts flavors like rum cherry, green tea, mango passion fruit, and (the newest addition after November of last year) Obama Chocolate Brownie. Believe me, I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried. And, yes, we’ve had it; and yes, it is delicious. The second thing that sets Big Tom apart, other than the racially and/or politically geared dairy products, are their spoons. Evidently, they have gone to some trouble to discover that if your taste buds are physically stimulated while you eat, you will enjoy your ice cream even more. Therefore, they have developed a patented massaging spoon designed to stimulate your tongue in order to achieve the optimal tasting experience. In addition to all this, Big Tom’s is ideally located with a patio overlooking a pretty little lake with a spectacular view of the 101. It is a great place to go to sit back, relax, and take in some sun.

(Unfortunately, I didn’t have our camera with me, so this is an “archives” photo)

On extra special days, Big Tom’s provides live entertainment. Usually, it is some local band or musician playing traditional or modern Chinese music. Sometimes, if we are lucky, the band will notice that there are foreigners in the audience so they will break out “I Will Always Love You” or some other cheesy American classic. We usually appreciate the effort and give them the approving smile and applause that they look for after their set.

This Sunday, however, we were in for a very special treat. As we staked out a table on the picturesque patio, we noticed that the band setting up was comprised of all foreigners. Encouraged that we might recognize some of their music, we decided to camp out a bit longer. When they did their sound check, we all perked up and looked at each other. Was that what I think it was? Was it really a Christian worship song? Sure enough, the band played their first song all about God’s love. We couldn’t believe it! With the help of a translator, they introduced themselves to the unsuspecting crowd as a group from all over the United States who was there simply to share God’s love with the people of Taiwan. We were thrilled. What better way to present the message of the Gospel than through music on a sunny afternoon at an ice cream shop? We stayed through a few songs but ultimately decided to give up our prime seats for some of the Taiwanese crowd that had begun to gather.

As we walked back to the car, we all commented on how pleasantly the day had turned out. We got some sun, we got some ice cream, we got our tongues massaged, and we got some worship music. What more can you ask for?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Double Ten

This weekend, we were able to take advantage of the Taiwanese national holiday and, since “Double Ten Day” (so called for being the tenth day of the tenth month) fell on a Saturday, we got a three day weekend. In an attempt to get to know our island home a little better, Chris planned a trip with some of our friends down to the southern tip of Taiwan to a beach town called Kenting. Having two typhoons swirling around in the Pacific last week made us a little nervous, but the worst seemed to be over by the time we hopped on the high speed train down south. Arriving late Thursday night, we found our hotel and crashed into bed. Friday morning, we got up and explored the area around our hotel and staked out the nearest beach. At this point, I would like to emphasize the difference between American beach culture and Taiwanese beach culture. In the U.S., we love our beaches. White sand, brown sand, black sand, warm water, cold water, murky water, it pretty much doesn’t matter. As long as there is salt water and sand, we are lining up around the block ready to overpay for airbrushed tee-shirts and tacky postcards. Taiwan, on the other hand, is a totally different story. First of all, most Asian women highly value their white skin. In fact, they often walk around with umbrellas on sunny days to avoid any stimulation of skin pigmentation. So, laying out is pretty much out of the question. Add to that the superstition that ghosts come from the water and you are left with an empty beach. And, that is what we had. Beautiful, empty beaches.

Sadly, the tail end of the second typhoon was still lingering on Friday afternoon so we were left to wander around the town ducking into tourist traps and restaurants when the skies opened up. Friday evening, our friends who were staying in cabins on the other side of the city invited us over for a barbecue. Not being ones to miss out on food cooked over open flame, we gladly accepted. Getting to their cabin was easier said than done, however. In Taipei, we are spoiled with the ease of public transportation. So, we were unpleasantly surprised when finding a taxi in Kenting turned out to be quite an odyssey. After finally flagging one down and explaining where we wanted to go, the driver quoted us what we thought was an astronomical price. Thinking that it was an attempt to bargain, we came back with a low-ball price. But, the disheveled driver refused to change his price. Just out of principle, we all decided that we would rather walk the 10 kilometers to their house rather than let this toothless scoundrel take advantage of us. So, we did. We grabbed our things and started walking. About two kilometers later, our principles started to weaken and we caved, though not completely. We had an overpriced van come and pick us up (which turned out to be more than the astronomically priced taxi). But, we got there. And we were very glad that we did. Our friends ventured to the fresh fish market that afternoon and picked up a veritable cornucopia of fresh fish, clams, and squid. For the rest of the evening, we cooked, ate, talked with our friends and the hotel owner, and generally participated in good ol’ fashioned merrymaking.

Saturday proved to be a much better day for the beach and so we laid out and swam all day. Saturday night we went into town and had dinner, wandered through the night market and caught a glimpse of a few fireworks. Sunday, we wished the sun goodbye and headed back to Taipei. In all, it was deemed a successful Double Ten Day.

Monday, September 28, 2009

River Tracing

By: Coach

Every student loves taking field trips. Who wouldn’t right? You go to the same place 5 days a week for 8 hours a day, so a break from the mundane is a big deal. I can still remember my first field trip in K-5. Not only do I remember the trip to the Birmingham Zoo, but I also remember the kid that I was literally TIED to! The buddy system was a little forced back in those days! Most school trips are, at some level, educationally based so administration can justify allowing teachers to go along and leave someone else to cover their classes as they take a break from teaching for a day.

Here in Taiwan not much is different. Most students jump at the chance of skipping out of school to take a trip (although some would rather stay). Much like the schools in America, our teachers are usually the first in line to sign up to go! I was fortunate enough to be one of the 4 teachers that accompanied our Taiwanese kids on the latest “field trip”.

I have to say, there are many things back home I miss and after teaching, coaching and living in Taiwan for over a year now I often wish things would operate more “American”. However, I am certain that our school trips here in Taiwan will be very hard to top wherever you are. Let me explain: If I depicted an outing that required wetsuits, life-jackets and helmets would a school related trip be in your top ten possible activities? I think not. If I went on to describe a rushing river carving through the lush, green mountains with various boulders along the way (to jump off into the river), would that be in the “educational” category of your trip planning books? Probs not. One last question: if you were told that the activity in said location would be to, in teams, walk up-river through slippery rocks and white water using various techniques (rock climbing) and tools (ropes) would you say something like…”Do what now?” Because that is exactly what I said when I first heard about River Tracing.

Last week I went with a group of high school students and we experienced the beauty of nature while “tracing” and sometimes floating back down just for fun! At the end of our journey we rewarded ourselves by jumping off a 25 foot boulder. Fun times. Here are some photos to prove it:











Sunday, September 20, 2009

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

I am going to come out and confess to you all a sad fact about Chris and me. We are not good neighbors. I would like to blame this reality on the limits of our language, seeing as how we don’t have much need to constantly inform our neighbors that we are American or to order coffee from them. But the truth of the matter is that we weren’t that great of neighbors in Alabama either. However, we have some friends here who are great neighbors. So great, in fact, they had some of them stop by while we were over the other night. The daughter spoke great English as she had just returned from a year being an exchange student in Minnesota. We got into a very interesting discussion about the differences between Taiwanese and American cultures. Over the past year, I have used this blog to describe to you the funny things about Taiwanese culture. I thought it only appropriate after all of this time to inform you what is funny about American culture according to our friends’ neighbors.

1) Americans drink a lot of milk. I mean, a lot. They drink it every night with dinner, every night! Don’t they get sick of it? It really doesn’t taste that good and it can give you… digestive problems.

2) Americans don’t go to the doctor nearly often enough. Our friends’ neighbor had a scratchy throat and begged and begged her host mom to take her to the doctor. The host mom said that she wouldn’t take her to the doctor unless she had a fever. Can you believe it? She had to have a fever to go to the doctor? All the host mom did was give her some pills she got at the store. The poor girl was very afraid for her well-being.

3) Americans eat cheese. There are few things less appetizing than spoiled milk dyed unnatural shades of orange. And, they put it on everything. Sometimes they even just eat it by itself. Eeew.

4) Our good-neighbor friends are also the ones who just had a baby and we found out that there are many things that Americans do that are strange when it comes to child-bearing. First of all, Americans let pregnant women eat cold things like… ice cream. Don’t they know that it will harm the baby? What is it with Americans and dairy?

5) American women go home right after they have a baby. In Taiwan, women take about a month and go to hotel-like places that are meant to take care of mom and baby in order to ensure that the first formative days of the baby’s life are stress-free.

6) Americans don’t even know what wine chicken is. In Taiwan, new moms eat wine chicken for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for a full month after giving birth. (Wine chicken is basically chicken served in a white wine sauce. It’s pretty good but I don’t think I could handle anything for three meals a day for an entire month.)

These are just a few of the things that others find so strange about us. I am sure that there are more but these are the only ones that good manners allowed them to share with us.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

A Note on Fire Safety

I’ll be the first to admit that I know absolutely nothing when it comes to plumbing, carpentry, electricity, or anything else related to home improvement. However, last week when I put a load of laundry into the drier, I noticed that something was amiss. I’m not sure what clued me in first – was it the stench of hot, burning metal, the ominous black puffs of smoke being expelled from the outlet, or the simple fact that my clothes just weren’t dry? Seen from the photos below, our drier plug and outlet aren’t exactly in prime condition.


This is actually the state in which we found both the plug and outlet a year ago so we were pleasantly surprised that this setup lasted us through the entire year last year.

Apparently, this is a common problem and has something to do with attempting to plug a drier (which has more voltage than your everyday household appliance) into a normal outlet. On top of using a normal voltage outlet, all Taiwanese outlets noticeably lack the third “ground” prong hole (this is all very technical jargon) making the use of driers even more precarious.

So, after the smoking outlet incident, we asked our repair guy (via the school secretary) to please take a look at the offending outlet. Very kindly, they replaced the outlet so that it was free of all scary black marks. However, this week when I put our freshly washed sheets into the menacing little machine, the same black smoke poured out of our fresh, white outlet. Sadly resigning to the idea that we do, indeed, need a new drier, I pulled the wet garments out once again. Lacking any outdoor area in which to hang our laundry, we were forced to hang everything inside our apartment. Dripping sheets, shirts, towels, and undies turned our home into a soggy little maze of wet clothes. I am happy to report, however, that now on Sunday afternoon, all of our clothes have effectively dried and been put away. I don’t know, maybe if we don’t get a new drier by next week, we can put up strobe lights and charge kids to come through the haunted swamp house. What do you think?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Uncle Pete and his Doritos

Well, over here in Taipei we are wiping our brows for two reasons. The first is because of the ridiculous heat and humidity, about which I have already griped sufficiently. The second reason is relief. We have all successfully survived another Ghost Month. Ghost Month is a lunar holiday kept once a year and as its name suggests, it is a 30 day observance that culminates with one massive celebration on the last day.

Taiwanese culture is extremely superstitious and involves a lot of ancestor worship. It is the duty of the oldest child (or the favorite child) in a family to worship his or her parents after they die. Ghosts frequent the living world and can either bring prosperity or curses on whomever they choose. It is believed that ghosts live inside umbrellas and so if you open one indoors, all the ghosts are released into the room. Instead of an “it” in games of tag, there is a “ghost”. Children refuse to go swimming during Ghost Month because the ghosts live in the water (actually, there is a pond close to our apartment that is so foul, I’m pretty sure that it is a passage to the Netherworld).

All throughout the year, you will see small metal buckets outside of businesses in which shopkeepers burn fake money to appease the ghosts. In fact, there was one occasion last year when we had to vacate our apartment building due to a ghost money incident gone awry. People burn money and incense to make sure that the ghosts are happy and bring them prosperity. If they do not burn money, it is believed that the ghosts will curse the business because of the owners’ stinginess. These beliefs are so widely held that even major American businesses like IBM who have set up shop here in Taiwan burn giant stacks of fake money. I was especially tickled when I learned that some people, instead of fake money, burn paper credit cards for their ghosts. Here’s a Visa so you can accumulate a giant ghost debt? I don’t know.

Anyway, during Ghost Month, these phantoms are supposedly out in full force and therefore people are especially vigilant about their cash combustion and altar making. On the last day of the month, groups set up giant rainbow tents all over town so that people can set up altars to their deceased relatives. In addition, they form giant cylinders out of chicken wire to hold all of the ghost money that will be burned. For the altars, they take all of the relatives’ favorite foods and set them out on the table for the ghosts to come and feed off of the essence (I guess ol' Uncle Pete really liked Doritos here). Don’t worry, though. After the essence has been consumed, the families take this food home for a living person feast. If you are familiar with Mexico’s Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), this celebration is similar – except with a slightly darker twist. In Mexico, it is more of a celebration of that person’s life. In Taiwan, it is more so that you must appease the ancestors or else they will curse you. So, happy Ghost Day and let's hope people do all of their honoring of their ancestors outside this year.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Anustya anyone?

There are some experiences that we have had in Taiwan that are night and day different from what we are used to in America. Others are so similar to our native culture that we barely notice that we’ve left home. While the majority of our dentist appointment fits into the latter category, there is enough in the former that I thought we could go ahead and blog about it.

The dentist that we go to gets our business simply because he speaks English. His staff, however, does not. So, making our appointments was a relatively humiliating process of pointing, charading, and butchering the Chinese language. Miraculously, the appointments were made and we arrived for our cleaning. We filled out our forms as much as we could. Though, embarrassingly, I had to ask if I was 男 or 女… male or female. Minus the small talk between the hygienist and me, the next few minutes went just the same as in the U.S. They took me back to the x-ray machine, presented me with a lead vest and took pictures. I was then taken to the exam chair where I awaited the doctor.

With all of the medical jargon being thrown around, chatter between the hygienist and the dentist usually goes in one ear and out the other for me. So, the Mandarin chatter didn’t make much of a difference for me. What I did understand was when the good doctor sat down and told me what we all dread to hear. Cavity. Actually, two cavities. Apparently our dentist in the States wasn’t lying when he said I had better floss more often or the spot he pointed out would turn into a cavity. It is funny how I know what the end result will be but I still find flossing a little too inconvenient. Maybe one of these days I will learn my lesson. Anyway, this is where the appointment becomes Taiwanese.

Having diagnosed the cavities, the dentist informed me that we must reschedule a cleaning because the appointment only allowed enough time to fill the cavities. No waiting around three weeks dreading the return visit, they just take care of business right then and there. It took me a little while to understand the next thing that the dentist asked. “Do you want anustya?” I asked him to please repeat the question. “Anustya, do you want anustya?” I gave him a confused smile and said that I didn’t know. “Numbness! Do you want numbness?” Oooh! Anesthesia! Do I want Anesthesia! My excitement of finally understanding the question quickly wore off when I tried to analyze what he was asking. Was he really asking if I wanted him to drill into my teeth without any drugs? Or was he asking if I wanted to be put under for this procedure? A bit panicked, I reported back that I wanted whatever is “normal”.

I have to say, this was the first time that I was relieved to get a shot in my gums. Despite the random calling in a dinner order in the middle of filling cavity number two, the rest of the appointment went off without a hitch. I am pleased to say that I feel that I made the right decision about the anustya and I can rest easy knowing that my return visit next week will involve neither drills nor needles.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Pride Comes Before the Fall

Yesterday, two of my friends and I were throwing a baby shower for one of our other friends. I say that the three of us threw it, but the truth of the matter is that one of my friends planned the whole thing and I just contributed enough in the final preparation process to garner part of the credit. The party turned out to be quite a success and a heap of fun was had by all. But that isn’t what this blog is about.

We were holding the party at our pastor’s apartment, a place I had visited once before. I asked a friend who was a more frequent visitor to the place for directions and passed out maps and explanations of how to get there to all of the new teachers who had rsvp’d affirmatively. A few were still a little apprehensive about finding the apartment so I offered to be a guide, if they didn’t mind arriving a little early and helping set up. Allowing ourselves enough time to arrive an hour early, we loaded ourselves and all the party gear up on the correct bus. In very broken Mandarin, I attempted to ask the bus driver to let me know when we crossed the cross street that I had been told was close to their apartment. This process, by the way, took much longer than it should have and I didn’t have a lot of confidence in that I communicated effectively. So, I tried to position myself in such a way that I could still read the street signs.

Everything was going along swimmingly until the bus driver called me up to the front and indicated that we had reached our destination. According to the map I had created in my head, we hadn’t traveled quite far enough but I also didn’t want to lean too much on my own shoddy navigational skills. So, I decided to ask him to go one more stop where we nervously disembarked. I looked around and thought that I recognized the area but couldn’t see their apartment building. I approached one building but quickly realized that it was not the correct one.

Reaching for the trusty cell phone, I called my friend who frequented our pastor’s house to see if he could offer some insight as to where we were. After I did my best to describe our location, he confirmed my belief that we hadn’t traveled quite far enough but he assured me that it was under a kilometer away. So, we hoisted our bags full of a variety of baked goods, tea, pitchers, baby toys, etc. onto our shoulders and peeled our eyes for the apartment building.

At this point, I would like to add in this little tidbit. This is Taipei. In August. In the middle of the afternoon. It is hot. I mean, really hot. And humid. I mean, really, really humid. Simply stand outside for more than five minutes and you will find yourself quite literally soaked with sweat. Here we are, trying to be dressed up and cute to host this party, and we are trucking down the street lugging around heavy party provisions scouring the skyline for the elusive building. At first we were all making small talk about the weather, baby showers, and whatever else one talks about when trying to distract one another from the heat.

Finally, someone pointed out the obvious, “I think it has been more than a kilometer.” I agreed, surely that meant we were getting close, right? We wouldn’t have passed it, right? So, we kept walking. And walking. And walking. After nearly forty-five minutes of this drudgery, I decided to say uncle. I called the party planning hostess who was already at the apartment and who had a car.

“We are oh so very lost,” I whimpered. “I don’t know where we are going or where we are.”

“That’s okay,” she reassured me. “Just jump into a taxi and they’ll bring you right here.”

This was a major culture shock moment for me. The heat of the day and the frustration with being not only lost, but inexcusably late caught up with me. I had to bite my tongue to keep from screaming, “If I knew how to say my destination, don’t you think I would have asked someone how to get there by now?” Instead, I asked if she wouldn’t mind coming to pick us up. Astutely sensing my frustration, she dropped everything she was doing to come and get us and bring us to the party.

Here’s the kicker. We parked behind the apartment building but I had to go out front to see where it was and how we missed it. The building was literally right next door to the one I thought might have been it when we first got off the bus. We just walked in the wrong direction… for a long time. Luckily, the party planning hostess had everything set up and we arrived about ten minutes before the guest of honor so no one was the wiser.

After I brought my core temperature back down to normal, I was struck by the irony of the situation. Just last week, I blogged all about how confident I was in Taiwanese culture and how all the new teachers could look to us as a beacon of stability who had it all figured out. This week, I am leading three poor, trusting souls to the middle of urban nowhere until we melted into defeated puddles on the Taipei sidewalk. Pride does indeed come before the fall.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Other Side

Our first week back “home” has been quite interesting. Not the same interesting as a year ago, however. Many times over the last several days Chris and I have reminisced about our feelings when we first set foot in this strange land only 12 months ago. At that time, we stepped off the plane with mouths agape and eyes stretched open. We staggered around our neighborhood trying to make sense of all of the new sights, sounds, and smells. Everything about our new lives was strange and exciting, and more than a little bit overwhelming. This year, we find ourselves on the other side, the “veteran’s” side. I’m not suggesting that just one year here has made us authorities on the intricacies of Taiwanese language or culture, but we do feel at least slightly accustomed to life in Taipei.

This year, we stepped off the plane, came to our apartment, and got ready for church. After church, we had lunch and met some friends for dinner at a restaurant we had been craving all summer. You know what? We did the exact same thing in Birmingham when we arrived seven weeks ago, and the exact same thing in Denver when we arrived four weeks ago. It is a really strange, but comforting feeling to consider three different cities around the world “home.”

We have spent our time this past week at orientation at school. It has been great to catch up with friends and get to know the new teachers. It really is incredible what a difference a year makes. Chris and I smile as the new teachers remind us of our own curiosity and nervousness about Taiwan and making a life here.

As most of you probably did not know, we had a typhoon come through this weekend. You may remember from my blog last year that people really don’t make a big deal out of these storms here in Taipei. City planning is such that we don’t really worry about flooding or major wind damage. The 7-11 by our apartment never closes so Oreos and ramen noodles are always close at hand. I really enjoyed being able to play the reassuring role to the new teachers whose stomachs dropped at the word “typhoon.” A category 4? No big deal, that just means a day off of school to hunker down and play cards with your friends.

Don’t you worry, though. I’m sure that we will still have plenty of entertaining and frustrating stories to blog about as we burrow further into the culture that will make itself our home again for the next 12 months. But, for now, I’m going to enjoy feeling right at home here on the other side.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Top Ten

The zoom of cars and scooters in the streets, the whir of our window air conditioning unit, unintelligible voices in the hall, cool sweat perpetually dripping down my back; all a gentle reminder that we are back “home”. Through the beauty of both being teachers, Chris and I got to spend the last seven weeks in the States with our family and friends. We had a wonderful time with everyone as we caught up from last year and tried to store away few extra memories to last us through this next year.

In honor of the transition from our native home to our adopted one, we decided to put together a couple of top ten lists. The first list is the top ten things we will miss about the good ol’ US of A. The second is the top ten things we are looking forward to in the good ol’ Tai of wan.

Top Ten Things We Will Miss About the Old Country

10. Eating bar-b-cue and grilling out. BBQ and all of the trimmings that come along with it are pretty much American delicacies. The only pulled pork you can find around here is stuffed inside a sweet pastry… go figure. We also love throwing burgers, brats, chicken, steak, or any other protein other than tofu on a grill. Grilling is forbidden in our apartment complex and the adjacent park, although it is perfectly okay to burn fake money in large quantities to honor your dead ancestors. Again… go figure.

9. Recognizing grocery store ingredients. While it is true that I don’t do a whole lot of grocery shopping, I actually do like to cook every now and again. I would just like to be guaranteed that it is, in fact, soy sauce that I am putting in my stir fry and not fermented goat bile.

8. Driving. It is really nice on an especially hot or rainy day to just be able to hop in your air conditioned vehicle and get where you are going.

7. Road Trips. Along with the driving, it is really fun to be able to plan road trips to see a part of the country we had never visited before. In Alabama, I got to go on a trip with the Simpson/James ladies and in Colorado, we got to take a trip with my sister and her boyfriend. Filling a cooler with snacks, popping in a homemade CD or iPod and singing along, and driving to your MapQuested destination is truly Americana at its finest.

6. The weather. All of our friends and family suffering through a sweltering Alabama August can commiserate with us on this one. The second half of our summer was spent in the perfection that is summer in Colorado. It is warm enough during the day to go hiking or enjoy lunch on the patio, but cool enough in the evenings that a dip in the hot tub is refreshing. Stepping off the plane this morning, the humidity smacked us in the face like a 2 X 4 soaked in steaming hot water. It will take me a while to recover.

5. Food Network / ESPN. We actually do get a variety of channels on our T.V. here and a handful of those are in English. However, Food Network hasn’t made its debut – though I have a feeling it would just be frustrating because I would be inspired to cook and I would be faced with the problem found in the aforementioned grocery store difficulties. We also get three sports channels. But, as it turns out, no one else in the world cares about American football. For those of you who know Chris, missing out on a season of Auburn football is a BIG deal. Wish us both luck as we try to do it again this year.

4. Queso dip. Cheese in general is hard to find around here. Especially elusive is the chemically altered cheese food served in Mexican restaurants. Though it has nothing in it resembling a natural food product, I find it delicious and miss it terribly while we are here. I haven’t decided if it is fortunate or unfortunate that queso doesn’t tend to ship well.

3. Paper towels in the bathrooms. In Taiwan, one in about every fifty bathrooms comes equipped with paper towels to dry your hands. This may sound petty, but after I wash my hands, I prefer to not have to shake them off like a shaggy dog after a bath. Often, we are forced to resort to thin tissues that, instead of drying, simply leave giblets of wet paper all over your hands. I’m sorry, but this just doesn’t cut it for me.

2. Being able to read signs and ask for help (and understand the answer). I will admit that our lack of language skills rests solely on our shoulders. And, most of the time, we can get our point across to whomever we are speaking. But, sometimes, I just want to know what a menu says or why I’m being yelled at on the bus. Is that too much to ask?

1. Friends and family. Of course, the number one thing we will miss about America is you. Well, and maybe Tica.


Top Ten Things We Are Looking Forward to in the New Country

10. Cheap entertainment. Walking through the park by our apartment every morning is quite an adventure (see blog Just a Walk in the Park). We are definitely looking forward to what new antics and “exercises” Mary Poppins has learned over the summer.

9. Getting a haircut. It really isn’t about what they trim or how much, it is about the haircut experience – the fact that they take two hours to wash and massage your scalp before they cut has had me pining for a pruning all summer. Cross your fingers that, in a state of massage euphoria and language confusion, I don’t accidentally agree to fuchsia highlights.

8. Being able to walk everywhere. While a car can be nice, we definitely appreciate having no idea how much gas costs or the price of a parking space at our apartment. On most days, we really enjoy getting out in the city and hiking through the concrete jungle.

7. Planning vacations. Road trips are pretty much out of the question but weekend trips to Hong Kong or South Korea are not. We have had a blast exploring this part of the world and are getting geared up for some new trips this year.

6. Bringing food into the movie theater… legally. Admittedly, the rush of sneaking an entire package of Oreos past the ticket taker is somewhat exhilarating. But, I have to say, I much prefer not having to pull my snacks out of my pants and socks before enjoying them during a movie.

5. Milk Tea. Quite possibly Taiwan’s greatest contribution to the world, black tea is seeped in milk and then spiced with cinnamon and cardamom and finally sweetened with lots of sugar. Delightful.

4. Cheap food. I don’t have to explain how wonderful it is to get a great, traditional Taiwanese dinner for two for $3 USD or to stuff ourselves with fresh sushi for $10 USD. I’m telling you, you’ll save so much money eating here that the plane tickets will practically pay for themselves.

3. No tipping. Speaking of cheap food, there is also no tipping in Taiwan. In fact, the States is pretty much the only place in the world that requires such a high tip at restaurants. Come on, America, get with the times! Let’s move to the metric system and cut out this tipping bologna!

2. Playing the dumb American. Whether it is walking past annoying street surveys or offering vendors ridiculously low prices while bargaining, playing ignorant American (though not always effective) is always fun.

1. Friends. The number one thing we are looking forward to in coming back to Taiwan is seeing friends we made last year and making new ones this year.

Here’s to another year in Asia!

Monday, June 1, 2009

Shanghai Breezes

It seems to me that after going on a trip, I have a hard time putting our experiences into words. Well, that’s not quite true. I think that my real issue is organizing my thoughts about our experiences into a coherent, reader-friendly blog format. I shall once again endeavor to express our emotions when I describe what our trip to China was like.

The adventure started the minute we landed in Shanghai when a team of nuclear blast-ready airport officials boarded our plane and proceeded to take the temperature of every passenger on board, apparently guarding the country of China from the H1N1 virus. This was not odd for us alone as we witnessed the Chinese pulling out their cell phones and digital cameras to document the event. Chris and I wondered why they didn’t check us before we spent two and half hours aboard a flying petri dish, but seeing as we all came out swine flu-free, we didn’t stress about it too much. Once off the plane, we waded through the crowds to pass through customs and pick up our bags at baggage claim. We met up with our friend and pastor, Tim, and he took us into the city of Shanghai.

We arrived late at night and went to an all-night restaurant. If I’ve learned anything from our travels, it’s that if you want good food, go to where the locals are. This was a local’s restaurant. No one spoke English and, though it was close to midnight, tables were filled with Shanghaiese smoking, laughing, talking loudly, and (most importantly) eating. While Tim is completely fluent in Mandarin, he learned to read and write in Taiwan where they use a different character system than they do in the Mainland. So, in Shanghai, he finds himself in the situation that Chris and I have learned to be familiar with of being illiterate. So, we decided to randomly point to things on the menu and have the waitress bring them to us. Let me tell you, it was some of the best food I have ever put in my mouth. Steaming piles of chicken and peanuts in a savory sauce, roasted eggplant, sautéed shrimp, trust me General Tsao has nothing on this food. The next day, we got some famous Shanghai massages, toured the city, and enjoyed the interesting Chinese-English translations. Thursday night, we jumped in a car and headed a couple hours west to a city called Suzhou.

Known as the “Venice of the East”, Suzhou is a beautiful city built on canals and a moat. A few years ago, the Singapore government came in and built the new part of the city known as the Suzhou Industrial Park, or SIP. We went around the city comparing the new with the old and getting a taste for Mainland Chinese culture. Now, there is something important that I need to let you in on. Not all religion and church activities are illegal in China. In fact, there are five religions approved by the Chinese government that include both Catholicism and Protestantism. Moreover, since China is interested in attracting important foreign companies, they have actually poured quite a bit of money into developing the church community in Suzhou. That’s right, the Chinese government is paying to build a spectacular church and they are sponsoring a resident visa for our friend Tim to come and preach. Here’s the catch. Church activities can only take place in government sanctioned locations, by government sanctioned people, discussing government sanctioned topics. So, this means that every time our pastor preaches, the communist government has to listen to it in order to make sure he isn’t misbehaving. Think about that for a minute. We learned quite a bit about religious freedom and how it applies to both foreigners and local Chinese. I’m just going to tell you, God is active in China and He is working in some pretty powerful ways. We were thrilled to be able to be a part of it for a few days.

At the airport on the way back home, Chris and I confirmed two things together. Number one, we have GOT to learn Chinese. Number two, China has not seen the last of us.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Coming Up for Air

We would like to apologize profusely to our loyal readers for our long absence from the blogging world. The average end of the school year insanity was intensified by myriad tasks. We’ve been drowning in everything from sports tournaments to yearbook creating to awards ceremony emceeing. Sneak in teaching class, writing final exams, and the drama of a small school and you get quite a busy few weeks. However, we’ve had the fun task of trip planning as we have one more long weekend before the semester is out. We will be celebrating Dragon Boat Festival by visiting some friends in Shanghai, China. We are thrilled to have a chance to see the Mainland and even more excited to have a breather before heading into the final two weeks of school. We’ll update you on our final excursion and how we do on the homestretch of school. See you all soon!

Friday, May 8, 2009

Gently Down the Stream

By: Coach

I recently had the privilege of doing something that I have not done in several years. I was asked to accompany a group of students on an adventure that most kids in the States would arm wrestle for (especially if they could miss three days of school)! This activity is exciting, refreshing and sometimes dangerous. If you are still guessing I will end the suspense now; we went white water rafting.

Now before any of you click the red “X” icon on the top right of your screen because you’d rather watch Kobe and Yao battle it out on the hardwood, let me remind you that we are in Taiwan. So, this means that the trip (and the students) proved to be a little different than an American rafting excursion. When I was younger our youth group would load up a couple of 15-passenger vans, gas up and hit the interstate for a few hour drive to the river, making maybe one stop if we were lucky. For this trip our school rented a 40 passenger double-decker charter bus equipped with our personal AC vents and TV screens for all of the movies we were to watch on this six hour ride (yeah you heard right). Not only did we stop about every half-hour but the drive itself was slow going because we basically hugged a cliff over-looking the Pacific for the majority of the drive. Let’s put it this way, I am very glad that I do not get motion sickness on curvy roads because this one took the cake.

Lunch was an interesting experience unlike any other I had seen. We showed up to the restaurant to find it to be the biggest dining area you could imagine already about halfway full of Chinese tourists. It was very loud but thankfully the language barrier was not an issue on this trip. So, I just waited patiently until we found some tables together which actually only took about three minutes! They wheeled out this huge keg-like barrel of rice where all you had to do was walk up and stick your bowl in the sea of hands and POOF out comes your bowl full of white, sticky rice. Incredibly, as chaotic as this dining experience appeared to be from the outside, the staff was like a well-oiled machine. Plate after plate was methodically brought to our circular table (equipped with a food wheel). Here is where things get very sketchy. This dining style does not cater to those who have issues with sharing germs. As our table ate, we started to help ourselves to more food. But, there were no serving utensils or even extra chopsticks so, yes, everyone was digging into the delicious vegetable, meat and seafood dishes with freshly used chopsticks! Yummy.

When we arrived at our hotel I was shocked and amazed at the location of the place. Nestled in the mountains far away from any scooters or subway stations, I could breathe a lot easier for some reason! The kids unloaded quickly and made their way up to their rooms to hook up the various electronic gaming devices without even looking around at all! The scenery was breathtaking and even more exciting was our proximity to the natural hot springs (more on that later). After assigning everyone to a room and going over some simple rules, we gave them some free time options before dinner. I was thrilled to learn that there was a hiking trail nearby that overlooked the coast, the thought of which gave me an adrenaline rush! However, when faced with the choice of hanging out and playing cards, soaking in the hot springs, or hiking I had the number of volunteers that all of you would predict: zero. So hot springs it was.


Now let me paint you a picture so you totally understand what we had at our fingertips. Imagine being the only group in a small bed and breakfast that also had outside hot springs for your enjoyment whenever you fancy. Yeah, pretty cool huh? There was one hang-up though. They did not provide towels! I thought our Taiwanese teacher who acted as our translator was joking when she told me this. To my horror, it was true and apparently everyone else got the memo because every student who piled in the glorified “hot tub” brought their own personal towel with them. After persisting (more so playing dumb American) I got my way, sort of. The owner of the place gave me her personal towel to use for the week. She did this very graciously but had one adamant stipulation: that I remember to return it to her. I told Rebecca (our translator) to inform her that as much as I like pink and yellow butterflies that I would return her towel before we left for Taipei.

Now many of you have been rafting before and are fully aware of the dangers involved. You may also know that depending on the length, it can be very tiring because of the intense rowing required. Our rafting experience was drastically different. First of all the river was low to begin with. I would estimate the highest rated rapids we scooted over would be a 2 (out of 5). But if the kids could not experience a near-death rapid, at least they could have the joy of their arms turning into noodles after hours of paddling, right? Nope. Our trip was fully equipped with speed boat rafts that not only acted as a rescuer, but a tow boat whenever the kids got a little tired. Basically, all you had to do was stop rowing and hang back and soon you would have the red raft come and save the day. The other American-born male teacher and I were furious! Here we are in a difficult situation, one that most of these rich kids had NEVER faced and what do they learn? When the going gets tough just wait for the speed boat. Ridiculous.

All in all, the trip was a blast and some of the students took pride in working hard on the river and rowing most of the way. On the way home while the kids were singing Chinese Karaoke, I was reflecting on how to sum up this trip, particularly these kids who really frustrate me at times but I have grown to love and appreciate at the same time. All I could come up with is this: they might be lazy but they remember their towels.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Ready to Run

The blood, sweat, and tears of the last eight weeks of my life culminated (okay, so there was no blood, but there were sweat and tears) when international schools from all over the island met at the American School of Taichung for the cross country meet yesterday. Notice the use of the article “the” in the previous sentence. Since sports here are culturally very low on the priority list, we were only able to have this one meet during our “season”. In anticipating this day, I felt a blend of excitement for teaching kids to do something that I love and anxiety that I would be discovered as a fraud of a coach who hasn’t the slightest clue what I was doing. Waking up far too early on a rainy Saturday morning, we got ready to face the day.

We met our kids at 5:15 a.m. and headed to meet up with another international school in Taipei to make the two and a half hour journey south to the city of Taichung. We arrived at AST just in time to take the students to walk their course. It must be noted that AST, being situated in the mountains, has a beautiful campus. However, being situated in the mountains, the hilly trail was more than a little intimidating for those of us who had been training in the flat city of Taipei. But, without enough time to get nervous, it was time for the girls’ race to start. Our girls held their own with our top runner finishing seventh overall and fourth in her age group.

Shortly after all the girls had crossed the finish line, the boys lined up to start their race. We were counting on one of our boys to do really well and were crossing our fingers that he might place. We watched as the first place boy came screaming across the finish line (quite literally), then the second, and the third. Soon thereafter, our top runner crossed the line placing fifth. We were a little disappointed that he wasn’t in the top three but proud that he did as well as he did. However, at the awards ceremony, Chris and I began to notice that they weren’t giving awards just to the top three boys and top three girls. Instead, they were dividing them by grade level. As soon as we realized this, we knew that our guy had a chance. Sure enough, when first place for ninth grade boys was announced, they called his name. He was so shocked that when he went up to the awards table, he told them that it must be a mistake. We assured him that it wasn’t and he proudly accepted his medal.

Now, I have to mention some of the behind the scenes drama that was going on while the students were running. After the student races, there was going to be a “Masters” race in which all of the coaches could compete. I was excited about this race, but the intimidation factor began to rise quickly as I heard all of the other coaches discussing which triathlons they had participated in in recent weeks. To add to my angst about my abilities as a runner and as a coach, one of the other coaches began to give me a hard time about my students. Apparently, it was shocking that I would allow my students to run with iPods. I’m still not quite sure why. Also, for some reason, one of our runners failed to eat breakfast and I got chastised for that as well. Anyway, with her chiseled legs and racing tank top tan lines, this coach quickly became an ominous competitor in my eyes.

Finally, it was time for our race to start. The runners took off speedily and I started to maneuver my way in front of my nemesis. Just being a 5K, the race went by rather quickly and I finished sixth overall and first for the women (though there were only four of us). But, if I can toot my own horn for a second, I totally smoked Ms. Chiseled Legs. I was blissfully chatting away with other runners sipping on water when she came huffing across the finish line. I gloated on the inside – and now on the outside, to you. Thanks for indulging me.

With two first place medals and no one coming in last, I was pleased with how we represented ourselves. However, I will admit that I am not sad that it will be another year before I have to train kids athletically again. I don’t think it is time to quit my day job just yet.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Olives on a Corpse

To say the least, we have had some very interesting culinary experiences thus far here in Taiwan. The vast majority of these traditional Taiwanese treats have been quite tasty. We have learned to genuinely enjoy rice cookies, steamed dumplings, octopus and duck heart. There have been a handful of experiences, however, that left a little to be desired. The most intense of these experiences was most definitely our encounter with stinky tofu.

Stinky tofu is the actual name for this food and it is an incredibly accurate name for this Taiwanese fare. Stinky tofu is one of the vilest smells my nostrils have ever encountered. For the first month or so that Chris and I were here, we didn’t realize that “that smell” was not something that we stepped in walking through the park, nor was it wafting from a passing garbage truck. No, what we were smelling was actually something intended for human consumption. The odor produced by the frying of stinky tofu is a pungent mélange of canine fecal matter and vomit. From many yards away, it reaches up and grabs your nostrils, forcing the unexpecting victim to heed its presence. There is actually a street near our apartment that has several carts selling this “comestible”. Though “Stinky Tofu Street”, as we have deemed it, is usually the shortest way home, we avoid it at all cost for fear of passing out from the stench.

To help you picture this experience, let me give you a quick Stinky Tofu for Dummies explanation of how this is made. First, one takes a bucket of unsweetened soy milk and drops in a few vegetables, dried shrimp, and spices. This concoction is left outside (in the tropical heat of Taiwan) for anywhere from a few weeks to six months or more. You can tell it is ready by its moldy, gray appearance. After this brine has been prepared, a firm tofu is marinated in it for several hours. The tofu cannot be left in the brine for more than six hours as this would make the tofu “too stinky.” After it has been adequately marinated, the tofu is fried and cut into squares. It is typically served with a mound of pickled cabbage and a dollop of hot sauce.

The thing about this food is that it is tremendously popular among the Taiwanese. Stinky tofu stands are as common in Taipei as hot dog vendors are in New York City. Of the scores of Taiwanese people I have polled on the matter, only one has admitted that he doesn’t actually like this delicacy. Wanting to get the full Taiwanese experience, I vowed that I would, one day, try this putrid smelling item. One of our American friends from school tried it and reported back that it wasn’t as bad as it smelled and that he actually enjoyed the flavor, thus bolstering my courage to give it a go. When my brother and sister-in-law visited over our spring break, we knew that it was time to try it.

The night came when we were at a night market in Hualien. Night markets (like flea markets that are open at night) are known for their food vendors and are popular places to find stinky tofu. We had someone direct us to the most popular hawker of the stuff and we sat down to prepare ourselves. As he started frying the brine-soaked squares, the well-known odor penetrated our noses. We were actually going to do it. We were going to eat stinky tofu. After a few minutes of cooking, he pulled it out of the oil, cut it into bite size pieces, heaped on the pickled cabbage, and poured some hot sauce on the side of the plate. As the hot, stinky pile was placed in front of us, we pulled out our chopsticks ready to conquer our fear. Counting down, Harrison, Ali, Chris and I chose a square to taste and into our mouths they went. Let me be the one to tell you. Stinky tofu tastes exactly how it smells. I have a pretty high tolerance for strange or bad tasting food, but this thing I had trouble swallowing. It was a putrid, nasty mess of foul, rancid, spongy goo. I have tried to think of something worse that I have put in my mouth, but I couldn’t think of anything.

The worst thing about our experience is that now every time I smell the acrid odor of this abominable excuse for food, I can actually taste it again. The day after our experience at the Hualien night market, we smelled stinky tofu and someone commented, “You know, it smells a little like olives.” To which my brother Harrison added, “Yeah, like olives on a corpse.” I thought it was an accurate description.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Visitors!

Chris and I renewed our love for our profession last week when we celebrated spring break. This vacation was made all the more sweet because we had our first visitors to our new residence. My brother and sister-in-law, Harrison and Ali, made the trek from Santa Barbara to spend a week with us in Taiwan.

They arrived late Sunday night and we took an unintentional tour of Taipei as our taxi driver decided to take the long way home. As my grandmother used to say, it didn’t take long to spend the night and we were off and running Monday morning showing off our adopted city. We wandered all around seeing the tourist sites and the not-so-tourist sites and, of course, experiencing Asian culinary delights. I think that for the first day, Harrison and Ali were impressed with the Mandarin that Chris and I had picked up. Seeing as how they learned everything that we knew during their one week, the awe-factor wore off quickly.

Tuesday, we had a relaxed morning as Chris watched the NCAA basketball championship game. Needless to say, he was delighted that not only did Taiwan air the game, we had a day off so that he could spend all morning watching it. After the game, we decided to head downtown and journey to the top of Taipei 101, so named for its 101 stories. Until August of this year, it will be the tallest building in the world. We were excited to make it to the top while it still has this distinction. The building brought surprises around every corner; the impressive views were interspersed with random golden ant art exhibits, a coral museum, and ample opportunities to purchase memories from your experience on top of the world. We enjoyed a late lunch at one of our favorite where the chef and owner, Bernie, made the meal quite memorable. Afterward, Ali was feeling adventurous so she and I went to the local salon where they gave us both new styles of their choosing. The hour and a half scalp and back message was a hit, however the Asian coif didn’t go over as well.

The next morning, we were barely in our seats before the train departed to take us to Hualien. Chris and I had been to this city before and we loved it so much that we had to show it off. We spent the afternoon doing traditional Hualien activities such as painting rocks and eating pineapple. If you haven’t painted rocks at your bed and breakfast, you haven’t lived. That evening we went to a night market for dinner to get a little adventurous with our digestive systems. We tried stuffed French toast (known as coffin bread), barbecued chicken feet, duck tongue and heart, and even stinky tofu (more on this experience in a blog to come). Thursday we hired a taxi to take us through the famed Taroko Gorge. We hiked throughout the gorge and even through a “water curtain” where the water was bursting through the cave walls and we wandered through wearing ponchos. We were a little surprised when we came home and our proprietor was shooting off fireworks. Not wanting to miss a party, we joined in and happily complied when she handed us sparklers and directed us to make a heart sign with them. When in Hualien…

After a bike ride through some gardens on Friday morning, we boarded the train back to Taipei. We made reservations at a famous dim sum restaurant and enjoyed being back “home.” Saturday was busy as we tried to fit in everything that we still wanted to do. We went to the National Palace Museum and the Jade and flower market. We attempted to make it to Taipei’s hot springs but were a little late. We settled for the riverside night market of Danshui instead.

Easter Sunday we went to church and before having to bid our guests farewell, we had one last Taiwanese experience as we got some famous “bubble tea.” We had a great time playing tour guide and were sad to see them go. Hopefully, this blog was enticing and we’ll have some more visitors soon! We’ll make sure to have plenty of rocks for you to paint and appointments to get your hair cut.

Monday, March 30, 2009

A Whole New Ballgame

Some of you may or may not be aware that I have taken on a new role here at GCA. Being a small school, we are obliged to take on tasks for which we may or may not be qualified. My new responsibility falls into the latter category.

Chris and I often joke about our many differences: morning person vs. night person, introvert vs. extrovert, rap music vs. country music, caring about Auburn football vs. not caring about Auburn football, etc. However, none of these differences is as pronounced as the disparity in our athletic abilities. Though I am tall and look like I should be good at sports such as basketball or volleyball, I am not. Actually, to say that I am “not good” at athletic activities is a gross understatement. The truth is, as soon as I see any sort of ball, all brain activity ceases and my sole concern becomes how I can avoid coming into contact with said ball. This actually made me a successful dodge ball player in elementary school, until I was the only one left on my team and everyone was depending on me to get other players out or catch a ball to get another team member back in the game. Then I wasn't so hot. My equipment aversion did not prove helpful in any other sporting event.

I give you all of this background information to help you fully appreciate the news that I am about to divulge to you. I have been asked to coach a sport. Yes, my friends, I am not simply on a sports team, I am in charge of teaching and training for it. For so many reasons, I never thought that this day would come, but here I am. Before you worry too much about the health and safety of the kids on the team, rest assured that I will not be handling any bats, balls, clubs or rackets. I am the new cross country coach of GCA. I am teaching kids how to run until their legs fall off. Fun, eh? I am actually pretty excited to try my hand at this because, though I know how to run myself, teaching high schoolers how to run is a whole different ballgame. This is true especially because this is the first time our school has had a cross country team. My first order of business was to train the kids to look forward to our “meet” instead of our “game”. I also had to convince the girls interested in the team (and their mothers) that their legs would not become fat from running. Go figure.

So far, coaching has gone well. The paramedics have not yet been called nor have I made anyone cry… yet. In my book, an ambulance-free practice is a successful one. Here’s hopin’ for four more weeks of successful practices!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Just a Walk in the Park

I’ve had a bit of writer’s block lately and I think that the reason for this is twofold. First of all, many of the things that have struck us as blog-worthy over the past several months we have already recorded in our online journal. Secondly, so many things that we might have written about in August don’t even strike us as out of the ordinary anymore. Things that so captivated us when we first arrived don’t even cause us to do a double-take now. I was reflecting on this jadedness this morning during our daily walk to school. “What is something that we haven’t written about Taiwanese culture that is amusing?” Like a bolt of lightning, it hit me. Perhaps it was the uniformed exercise group to my right or the backwards-walking gentleman to my left. All at once I remembered that walking through Nan Gang Park in the morning is better than a three-ring circus.

As a general rule, most Taiwanese are interested in general fitness and therefore like getting out and exercising. However, their methods can differ quite substantially from our own. First of all, and this may or may not have factual basis, the Taiwanese are convinced that beating a certain part of their body will result in that part becoming stronger and more toned. I can kind of understand their reasoning when it comes to “toughening up”. However, all rationale was thrown out the window the first time I saw a man who I am pretty sure sits as a model for the Buddha statues ambling through the park with his grimy t-shirt tucked above his gut slapping his big belly with a bamboo pole. Does he really think that is going to accomplish something other than giving himself a hernia? My confusion about this practice only intensified when I noticed numerous people slapping places that no one has ever tried to strengthen nor should they ever try to strengthen, such as faces or the tops of their heads. Many stroll through the park loudly clapping their hands together Paula Abdul-style to some rhythm that only they can hear.

The idiosyncrasies of Taiwanese fitness don’t stop at body beating. On various occasions, I have speculated whether I have wondered into a Monty Python sketch full of people perfecting their skills to get their gait approved for government backing by the Ministry of Silly Walks. Someone walking backwards all through the park is as about as normal as it comes. Many people walk with their arms stretched high above their heads or spread out like they are preparing to swan dive. The one who we look forward to the most is a gentleman that Chris and I lovingly refer to as “Mary Poppins” because he looks as if he is trying out to be an extra in the chimney sweeper dance on the rooftops. Outfitted in tiny running shorts, he lifts his left knee as high as he can, crosses his leg across his body and drops it quickly in front of his right foot. His right leg acts as if it were in competition with the left as it attempts to lift itself higher and cross more quickly than the left one did. All the while, Mary Poppins has his arms stretched out wide as if to say, “I am here, and I am marvelous!”

The park is also filled with people choosing a more stationary approach to exercise. There are myriad groups of people practicing tai chi, which is actually pretty cool. However, it seems that most tai chi groups have one or two rogue members who prefer to do their own thing. One man leaves his class every morning to hone his tree climbing skills as he nimbly ascends one of the park’s many trees to get a bird’s eye view of his exercising classmates. Another man steps off to the side and bounces his body attempting to touch his toes. Now, it wouldn’t be funny (or Taiwanese) if the stretching stopped there, but it doesn’t. With every bounce, he propels a mighty amount of air through tightly closed lips resulting in a sound that none would deny precisely recreates the sound of flatulence. That’s right. A man, bouncing trying to touch his toes, making his own farting noises. I wish I was creative enough to make this stuff up.

As I haven’t gotten up the courage to lose all couth and photograph these strange sights, you’ll just have to picture them in your heads. And trust me, they are just as funny as you are imagining them. So, as you go through your morning routines, do a couple of Mary Poppins steps in honor of us.