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


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.