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!