Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Xīn Nián Kuài Lè! (Happy New Year!)

While in America, the post-Christmas doldrums have set in and people have begun to deprive themselves for their short-lived New Year’s resolution diets, the holiday season is just now getting into full swing here in Taiwan. As you may or may not be aware, we are currently in the year of the rat, an animal representing charm and thrift. (I’ve always found rats charming and thrifty, haven’t you?) Not to fear, however, as the Lunar New Year is upon us, on Monday we will be safely in the year of the ox, a year of patience and dependability.

Apparently, this time of year, the city of Taipei shuts down like Birmingham in a blizzard. We have been warned that restaurants, grocery stores, and even the post office and hospital will be closed for most of next week. Hair salons, however, raise their prices due to the volumes of women wanting to be properly coiffed when their in-laws drop in. Our students are bouncing off the walls with anticipation as this is the big gift-giving season as well. However, instead of Santa sliding down the chimney with a sack full of presents, Chinese children look forward to the blessed red envelope. Red envelopes are received from all different relatives and family friends and are stuffed full of money. No toy trains, Barbies, or Lego’s here, just cold, hard cash. In fact, the term “red envelope” is synonymous with a gift of money at any time of the year. In addition to money, it is also traditional to give gifts of candy to friends and colleagues. To this end, Chris and I went to the famed “candy street” this week to see what we could find.

Not exactly straight out of the game Candy Land, Candy Street is a stretch of road about a mile long that is transformed every Chinese New Year into a street vendor’s paradise. Booths hawking special holiday comestibles bark products and their prices at passers-by who shuffle along at the speed of the hoard. After the first hundred yards, one begins to feel like a broken record spinning on an endless loop of the same goods for sale: vats of nuts, tubs of different candies, trays of dehydrated fruits and vegetables, a tea station, and finally the token mystery booth selling some unidentifiable product. Since there are scores of vendors offering the same product, they are very motivated to entice potential buyers to their booth to make a purchase. How does one selling strange foods lure buyers? The two most delightful words in the English language: free samples. Vendors practically beg shoppers to come and try their product in hopes of either tantalizing their taste buds or giving them so much for free that they feel too guilty to walk away not having made a purchase.

During our march down the street, Chris and I tried everything from fried octopus to wasabi pumpkin seeds. One of my favorite treats from the evening was the dehydrated and candied kiwi. The food that wins the award for the most quickly expectorated was definitely the dried fish cube that came wrapped in a shiny pink and gold paper, fooling silly foreigners into thinking that it might be candy. We walked away from the evening full of exotic holiday treats and a couple of goody bags in hand.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Fiddler on a Burning Roof

There are many times when tradition is not only appropriate but welcomed with open arms. Other times, it is dreaded like the plague. Having two kinds of pie at Thanksgiving dinner? Good tradition. Watching an oversized rodent every February 2nd give us a weather forecast? Stupid tradition. Game night with friends once a week? Excellent tradition. Taking all students, kindergarten through 12th grade to the fire station every year for a field trip? Very, very bad tradition.

Last week, I had the distinct honor of chaperoning our high school students to the thrilling destination of one of Taipei’s fire houses. I’m not sure how he weaseled out of it, but Chris was exempt from this adventure. I can see how one might find this location exciting and even educational for elementary school students. However, dragging a slough of teenagers to the fire house for the umpteenth time fell slightly short of pleasurable. After confiscating a set of drumsticks and a lighter (the irony was staggering), we herded into the building where we were escorted into the video center. I wish that I could provide you with some clever quips about the cheesy dialogue and ridiculous instructions that they gave us during the 30 minute video, but it was all in Mandarin so the only thing that I understood was the numbers of the steps (and I do have to admit that I was a little bit excited about understanding that much). However, the Jesse Spano Bangs and A.C. Slater pants attested to the fact that the video was filmed during the height of ridiculous early 90’s fashion. My favorite part was when they instructed you to pull out the chute that should be placed next to the window of every building, have a friend attach it to the ground and calmly slide down ten stories away from the fiery inferno. I’m sure that it would go just that smoothly.

We promptly moved on to the earthquake room. This is a room on a platform that simulates earthquakes as severe as the operator wants to make them. For a girl from Colorado, this was quite a novelty and I was actually quite amazed at the quaking floor. However, the kids who not only have been in the earthquake room a dozen times but have lived through scores of real earthquakes were less than impressed. And what do bored teenagers do? They act like lunatics. It didn’t help that they were told that you must put a silver pillow helmet on your head to survive the fake earthquake. After the fake earthquake, we continued to a room that simulated a fire. Like mice in a maze, students were asked to navigate through a series of rooms and hallways filled with the smoke you might have seen at a Cher concert. Like mice that had run the same race more than a few times, they sped through it only stopping to hide and scare or trip their friends behind them.

Just when I thought that we had reached the pinnacle of the madness, we moved into a room where they were going to teach us how to use a fire extinguisher. And, of course, it was a hands-on demonstration. How long do you think it was before the students stopped spraying the “fire” and started spraying each other? Not long. I mean, come on. You’ve “learned” how to use a fire extinguisher at least half a dozen times. You’re a teenage boy in control of a piece of equipment designed to propel water at another object. What would you do?

At last the hour and a half tour came to an end and we loaded the students back on the bus. Lessons learned about disaster survival? Find a slide to jump out of a burning building and make sure to stock plenty of pillow helmets in the house in case of an earthquake. Lessons learned about field trips? I think the fiddler would be more stable on his roof without this tradition.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Happy Birthday to Me!

I want to start off by saying thank you so much to all of you for all of the birthday wishes. It was so fun to have so many people remember and send me a note and make me feel special. My birthday was on a Sunday and I have decided that from now on, all my birthdays will happen on the weekend because this way, the celebration happens for three days instead of just one.

The festivities were kicked off with a bang on Friday afternoon when my students strolled into class bearing two scrumptious birthday cakes complete with candles and the Happy Birthday song. I am delighted to report that both cakes were delicious and red bean paste and pork-free. You really can’t ask for much more.

On Saturday morning, I got to sleep in (something I definitely don’t take for granted after marathon training) and my friend Rachel took me out for a leisurely breakfast of bagels and coffee. When we got back home, it was time to get ready for the next event on the agenda – high tea with some of our friends at the Grand Hotel here in Taipei. The Grand Hotel is kind of a cultural icon here in Taiwan and is a must-see while you are here. Since we hadn’t been, we decided that this would be a great opportunity.

We didn’t really know what to expect for high tea in Asia, so we dressed business casual and put our game faces on. When we arrived, we checked in (since Chris also planned for us to stay the night at the hotel). They politely wished me “sheng ri kuai le” and handed me a small birthday gift – a refrigerator magnet of the hotel. Since this was the best birthday gift any hotel had ever given me, I was very surprised and grateful. We then were shown our table for tea time. I have to admit, high tea was not what I expected. Instead of tiered trays of crustless cucumber sandwiches and dainty petits fours, a vast bounty of food was spread out before us. Everything from lamb to tempura to sushi to ice cream called to us to join in the feast. Part of me was hoping to be snubbed just a little bit to make it feel like a true tea-time experience. No snubbing occurred, however, and after an afternoon filled with good food and good conversation we waddled out of the dining room much fuller than we ever expected to be.

Chris and I said goodbye to our friends and located the elevator to find our room. This next detail that I will share with you may not sound like a big deal, but I assure you that it is. Our hotel room was equipped not only with a thermostat, but also with heating! Now, you may think that we live in a tropical climate and that we don’t need heaters. But, with the humidity and nighttime temperatures dipping into the 30’s, it gets downright chilly. Despite these facts, very few structures are outfitted with heating mechanisms and shoddy window seals are accepted practice. So, it is quite a treat not to be forced to sleep curled tightly in the fetal position with two pairs of socks, gloves, and a hat. To keep the birthday fun going, I opened Chris’ gift which was a beautiful new coat. After basking in this warmth for some time, I donned my new coat and we ventured out of our sauna and wandered around the hotel. We happened upon a dim sum restaurant and decided to return later, no matter how full we still were, since we have been hooked on this Cantonese specialty since we visited Hong Kong and have had a remarkably difficult time locating good dim sum in Taipei. So, after a few dumplings, we went to bed sans ski gear.

Sunday morning we woke up to an unseasonably warm and sunny day. We enjoyed a huge buffet breakfast and left for church. After church, we came home and celebrated my birthday one more time. My parents gave me a gift when we saw them in Mexico and I pulled that out to open. So, Chris sang to me for the umpteenth time and I tore off the paper to reveal a Wii game system. As I inserted the batteries to the controllers, Chris made sure that our friends were on their way over to break it in. So, as I type this, I am simultaneously doing a Google search for “wii elbow” remedies.

In conclusion, please accept my advice to always have birthdays on the weekend, or at the very least, in two vastly different time zones.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Feliz Navidad

Well, after what seems much longer than 10 days, we are back “home” in Taipei. We ended the semester well with a faculty Christmas party (about which I am seriously considering contacting the producers of The Office), a student Christmas party, and my first full marathon. I gave my legs about a 24-hour respite, we filled our bellies with a well-deserved American-style breakfast, and then we ventured out to the airport to for our long journey back to the States.

After passing through customs at LAX, we miraculously found my brother and sister-in-law, Harrison and Ali, within minutes. They took us to a diner for some equally miraculous American food. It felt so good to be able to read the menu, make an educated dining decision, and effectively communicate that decision to the waitress. We paid the bill with a not-so-missed American price tag and headed to their apartment. The next day was filled with fabulous food and delicious wine as Ali gave us a tour of everything Santa Barbara has to offer.

On Christmas Eve, the four of us climbed out of bed at O’dark:30 and groggily made our way back to LAX. We really appreciated that Harrison didn’t mention that he was hallucinating due to lack of sleep until we were safely inside the terminal. We hopped on a plane and four hours later, we were in sunny Mexico! We wished the customs agent a feliz Navidad and were off to our resort. As another Christmas miracle, we easily reunited with my parents and sister, Tori, who arrived just after we did on a different flight from Denver. We caught up over toddies and dinner and went to bed to await Santa Claus.

As I’m sure most people did on Christmas morning, we woke up, had a mimosa and staked out our beach chairs. Santa did indeed come in the form of lunch sack stockings that my beautiful mother toted all the way from Denver. The rest of the day was filled with such important decisions as, “Should I lay on my stomach or my back?”, “Should I take a dip in the ocean, or the pool?”, and most importantly “What should I order to sip on this time?”

The 26th was welcomed mostly by my sister whose boyfriend, Matt, was scheduled to arrive that evening. We decided to set up camp at the pool and joined in such exciting activities as water polo and water aerobics. The next several days mimicked the first as we discovered the best places to eat, our favorite waitresses, and how to reserve the hotel’s mini sailboats. Our evenings were spent with difficult dinner decisions and riotously entertaining games of Balderdash and Apples to Apples.

To mix things up a little, we all took an excursion on the 28th that led us swinging on zip-lines through the Mexican jungle. We then hopped on bikes and rode to a cenote, a fresh water-filled sink hole for a refreshing dip. The expedition concluded with dinner and the opportunity to buy pictures and videos of our Mexican jaunt. The next morning, Harrison and Ali roused themselves extra early to go scuba diving as the rest of us slept in to catch our 10:00 snorkeling tour. Wildlife highlights included a barracuda, a small stingray, and tons of coral. After these two exhausting days, we were ready for a break. So, we spent the next couple of days recuperating on the beach.

Much too soon, our vacation came to an end. We had a quick, tearful goodbye as we went our separate ways on New Year’s Eve. Chris and my flight to Taiwan didn’t leave until the 1st so Harrison and Ali joined us for one last party to ring in the new year in our hotel room in L.A. It finally came time for us to head back “home” so we boarded our plane. Four movies, two meals, and 14 hours of flying later, we find ourselves trying to adjust back to Taipei’s time zone and our life in Asia.