Sunday, February 22, 2009

A Day Without Salmonella

To help us all survive the short yet somewhat dreary month of February, we celebrated Hot Pot day at school on Friday. I am guessing that you, like me, have no idea what a "hot pot day" might look like or how one might celebrate it. After I heard that it required an extended lunch hour, I decided that was all the information that I needed and looked forward to the day with much anticipation.
For those of you who are not satisfied with the extra lunch time description, let me describe a meal with a hot pot. A large pot set on top of a hot plate is filled with some sort of broth. Diners patiently wait for the broth to heat to a proper temperature and then drop whatever desired fixin's into the soup and wait for them to cook. Our fixin's (that is the technical Mandarin word, by the way) were all quite tasty and included everything from crab and sliced pork to corn and tofu. Once the food has been cooked, it is fished out of the soup to make room for more things to be cooked.
The extra lunch hour was a lovely way to spend our Friday afternoon. Chris and I had our fill of noodles and dumplings and watched the high school boys eat more pork than I had previously thought was humanly possible. We later found out that we, on the ninth floor of the school, were quite lucky because we only had one group of students eating in our room. On some of the lower floors, there were several groups eating which required more electric hot pots which, in turn, freaked out the electric system and caused rolling blackouts throughout the afternoon. When the edibility of your lunch depends on the constancy of temperature, rolling blackouts are not your friend. Eventually, however, we heard that everyone got enough to eat and I have not yet heard of any cases of food poisoning. Any day without salmonella is a good day in my book.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Lesson Learned

We have grown slightly accustomed to our new culture not being aligned with that of the United States. Miniature candy and cheap costumes didn’t line shelves in October, nor was cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie seasoning abundantly displayed at every grocery store in November. So, when February rolled around and Brach’s candy hearts and Sponge Bob Valentine cards didn’t make a debut, we thought that Valentine’s Day would be about as popular here as Arbor Day in the States. We were wrong.

We went to bed on the night of the 13th with a couple of ideas for dinner, planning on deciding for sure in the morning. When we got up, Chris went and got the number for our top choice to call and make reservations. We decided to stick to the “touristy” places so that we could call and find someone who spoke English. I was sweeping the floor when I heard a response that I wasn’t expecting.

“What? You are totally full tonight? No space at all? Oh, okay. Thanks anyway.” Choice number two. “You’ve been full for a week, oh, okay. Thanks anyway." Choice number three. “No tables? How about the bar? Full too, eh. Okay, thanks anyway.” I saw that Chris was really starting to sweat until he finally made some headway with choice number four. “You’ve kept a few tables open for suckers like us who didn’t make reservations? Great! What time do you start serving dinner? We’ll be there.” So, Macaroni Grill it was.

For the early afternoon, we had planned on packing a lunch and taking a hike on a hill behind our apartment. However, during our mad dinner dash, we failed to notice the nimbus clouds rolling in and taking residence just over said apartments and hill. So, just as we stepped out to purchase our lunch provisions, soft pellets of rain forced an immediate 180 and we made our way back indoors.

Plan B. We each grabbed a book and headed to a café where we could sip on a cup of coffee and read for a while. The game plan was to skip lunch, have an early dinner and be sure to get a table at the first come, first serve option. But, Cupid’s arrow wasn’t finished with us just yet. Turns out, cafés are just as popular as restaurants on Valentine’s Day. So there was actually a wait there, too. Plan C. We thought we remembered stumbling across a small coffee shop near Macaroni Grill so we thought we’d give it a go. Spotting a free table, we leapt into action as I threw myself across the table to reserve it and Chris secured a place in line. After people stopped staring because of our bizarre acrobatic display, we enjoyed a leisurely afternoon full of espresso and Orson Wells.

When the gnawing in our stomachs reminded us of our neglected lunch, we decided to try for a table at Macaroni Grill. Seeing several open tables, we strode up confidently to the hostess and requested to be seated. “Absolutely,” she said. “What name is the reservation under?” We sheepishly admitted that we did not, in the most technical since, have a reservation. Apprehensively, she asked, “Can you finish your meal in one hour and a half?” We guaranteed that we could make that happen and breathed a sigh of relief as she directed us to a booth. Dinner turned out to be delicious and we made it out well under our time limit. We hopped over to an international grocery store and grabbed a few “comfort foods” and caught the bus back home. The rest of the evening was spent snacking in front of whatever chick flicks came on HBO.

In all, it turned out to be a pretty fun Valentine’s Day. But, I have learned my lesson. When Arbor Day comes around this year, you had better believe I am making dinner reservations well in advance.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

It's Official!

After much consideration, Chris and I have decided to stay another year here in Taipei. We have definitely taken a shine to this crazy Asian culture and, I dare say, they have taken a shine to us. Over the last few days, we have evaluated our expectations about moving here and how they have or have not been met.

First of all, we were very intimidated about moving to Taiwan -- simply because it was Asia. Why is that? For whatever reason, as westerners, we have some sort of deep-rooted fear of the Orient and its "bizarre" ways. I can't tell you how many warnings we got advising us to stay away from all meat because, chances are, it is either rat or dog. I can assure you that, while we may have eaten some odd things, the proud Taiwanese would never ingest either a gutter animal or their best friend. In fact, a lot of Taiwanese are a little grossed out by cheese. It is fermented milk, after all. Now who are the weird ones?

One of the scariest "fear factors" we had about coming here was the language barrier. Just the words tone and character sent shivers down my spine and, frankly, they still do. How would we possibly get around a place where you can't even decipher street signs and store names? The truth is, our Mandarin isn't nearly as good as I had hoped that it would be by this point simply because people are so ready to help. On more than one occasion, a Taiwanese person has taken it upon themselves to "adopt the westerner" and very amiably help us order at a restaurant or navigate our way to the airport. Even when we happen upon some of the local stores that don't speak English, the salespeople are invariably patient as we stumble through broken Mandarin and charades to get our message across. In fact, many people are actually apologetic that they don't speak English! How backwards is that? I am in their country and they are apologizing to me for not speaking English? It definitely gives us a different perspective for the Spanish-speaking communities around the United States because we have become what so many Americans complain about.

Having grown up in suburbia and Chris in the country, we were apprehensive but also excited about moving to a big city. It didn't take us long to come to the conclusion that we both love it. Between the subway, buses and trains, getting around couldn't be easier. As in most big cities, there is always something going on and somewhere to go. Being an incredibly international city, we get to try the Chinese version of all kinds of worldly cuisines. We don't drive so the only time we have to worry about traffic is when we are playing Frogger to cross the street. However, one of the down sides to the big city is the pollution. We were more than a little freaked out when we arrived and saw about 1/3 of the people going about wearing medical masks to protect them from breathing the polluted air. Hopefully no carcinogens will take root over these two years.

We were shocked to learn how incredibly safe Taipei is as well. We live across from a park and on the first day, we asked our principal if it was safe for me to go running alone. She had to stifle her laughter when she told me that it was absolutely safe. And, it's true! I would feel comfortable walking alone at 2:00 AM in just about any part of the Taipei. Maybe it is because of all of those over-crowded, under-fed prisons where the prison guards carry around cattle prods for anyone who disobeys. Just kidding.

All this to be said, we often wonder why we were so afraid of coming here. For the most part, the Taiwanese are actually excited to host Americans in their country whereas if we had gone to Europe, they pretty much would have resented every move we made. On the surface, many things about the culture in Taiwan may seem very different from American culture. But, when you get down to it, it really isn't that foreign. After all, have you ever seen a person from Montgomery try to order a sandwich in New York City? The culture and language gap may be just as wide across the Mason Dixon line as it is across the Pacific.