Thursday, May 27, 2010

Have You the Rental?

Very often when we come face to face with a new experience while we are abroad, we ask one of two questions. The first is, “What were they thinking?” Stinky tofu is a prime example of something eliciting such a response. The second question is, “Why didn’t we think of that?” When one of our Taiwanese coworkers got married this weekend, her wedding left us wondering this question for various reasons.

We had the opportunity to attend another Taiwanese wedding earlier this year so we were excited to attend this one so that we could compare notes about which parts of the event were individual touches and which were more ubiquitous in Taiwanese nuptials. The first “why didn’t we think of that?” moment came when we were notified about the engagement and the wedding date. We didn’t have to look at a calendar to realize that Taiwanese engagements are significantly shorter than American ones. Our friend made her engagement official about two months ago leaving her only about eight weeks to plan. This is actually very normal. Most Taiwanese weddings follow a formula. You have the ceremony followed by a reception dinner at one of many locations that specialize in wedding banquets. Essentially, you pick option A, B, or C for the dinner and decorations and you are done. The dinners consist of a twelve-course extravaganza almost always including shark fin soup (which, in my humble opinion, is quite overrated). How the beginning of dinner is announced varies with the extravagance of the reception site. At our first wedding, we happily wondered if we had mistakenly boarded a cruise ship as the servers pranced about the room in a laser light show carrying various trays in precarious positions before they eventually landed on our table.

(Sorry for the poor quality video; hopefully you get the idea)

The next moment of appreciation came when I found out this little gem. The bride rents her dress. That’s right. No spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on a dress that is worn once and then packed away for your granddaughter to play dress-up some day. This cost-effective method frees brides up to not only don their white gown but also an array of other dresses in various colors. Throughout the evening, the bride will leave, make a costume change, and be welcomed back into the banquet hall with cheers and applause as she parades around in her new ensemble.

Speaking of cheers and applause, that brings me to perhaps my favorite part about Taiwanese weddings. Now, I must mention that we have only been to Christian Taiwanese weddings so I’m not sure if Buddhist weddings have something similar, but the bride making her way down the aisle is quite exciting. In the States, we all stand and appreciate the beauty of the blushing bride as she approaches the altar. The Taiwanese add a little extra flair. As the bride marches down the aisle, the audience spontaneously erupts into applause. At this time, she pauses to appreciate the cheering, and friends and family take the opportunity to take pictures. As the clapping dies down, she moves forward until she is stopped by another outburst of applause. In all, it takes the bride a good ten minutes to get all the way from the doors to her awaiting fiancĂ©. The same phenomenon takes place during the vows. As the couple makes promises about better or worse, richer or poorer, etc., we celebrate each commitment with a round of applause. It is quite an ordeal.

(This is actually during the reception. Chris is sticking a "blessing" on the groom)

The jury is still out on the last difference I will mention here. In some ways, I think that this is a great idea. In other ways, it seems a bit calloused. I’m referring to the gifts that are given at the wedding. In Taiwan, people don’t often give gifts but instead offer others “red envelopes”. The term “red envelope” is synonymous with money. Rather than go out and purchase a gift, the Taiwanese instead stuff a bunch of cash into a red envelope and offer it to the recipient. The upside of this is that it removes the need to register, to figure out how many towels the bride and groom have already received, and trying to figure out how many place mats you can buy and still be within your predesignated budget. It also alleviates the need to write a thank you note to your great aunt for the lovely purple ceramic “piece” that will collect dust in your attic until you actually figure out what it is. The downside is that it takes away any personal touch that you might want to offer the bride and groom. And, let’s be honest, how many of us would have actually bought the entire set of twelve matching place settings when we were first married? There are certain things that other people just have to buy for you. A major downside is something that we have heard about but, thankfully, not experienced (as far as I know…). Evidently, at some point during the reception at many weddings, the emcee picks up a microphone and grudgingly announces each guest who has attended the wedding and the amount that was placed in their red envelope. I don’t think I’m culturally ready for that amount of disclosure just yet.

So, if any of you is feeling entrepreneurial, my recommendation is to open a wedding dress rental shop. I think it’ll be a gold mine. I promise I’ll only take a small cut of the profits.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The One That Got Away

I promise that I do actually do something interesting other than run and I promise that this blog is still about our crazy adventures overseas, not just my crazy adventures with my Nikes. That being said, I ask that you indulge me for one more run-themed post before we come home for the summer. I contemplated not writing about this because the blog has a bit run-centered this year, but Thursday night was just too ridiculous to not share.

In recent weeks, one of my friends found out about a running club that meets in Taipei. Twice a week, a few dozen crazies gather to make fools of ourselves in a very public place. Congregating about three blocks away from the Taipei 101 building, we find ourselves stretching in our running t-shirts and shorts smack in the middle of the sidewalk of one of the swankiest neighborhoods in the country. Now, when I say “stretching”, I don’t mean nonchalantly leaning over to touch our toes and chatting about your new shoelaces. No, no. “Stretching” in Taipei is an event that is practiced en masse in such a way that it requires the expertise of an aerobics instructor hopping around to the beat of music blaring so loudly it would make a teenager cringe. Once the music starts, the Taiwanese fall into line as if the pied piper had called to them. If any foreigners are brave enough to make an appearance, we helplessly look around to see if the others are actually going to participate in this peculiar tradition. Admittedly, I involve myself in this ritual from time to time. Now, for most people, the only funny part is that you are doing lunges in the form of the grapevine dance in downtown Taipei while Manolo Blahnik-clad women glower down at you as they shield the eyes of their tiny dog whose last trip to the groomer probably cost more than your car. I, however, reach new heights in humiliation during this process. Having the coordination of a manatee in high heels, I possess the inexplicable ability to fail at even the most simple of aerobic maneuvers. Attempting synchronized anything is a challenge and this is no exception. Last time, I scarcely missed toppling over and initiating a domino effect with the other lunging participants. I can say with confidence, however, that my ungainly stretching attempts will soon grace the pages of some Japanese tourist’s photo album as they made sure to fully document the experience.

Last Thursday I was feeling particularly confident and I decided that something needed to be done to alleviate that situation. I arrived in said posh neighborhood to commence the humbling process. To suggest that I submit myself to this disgrace solely to keep my feet on the ground would be untrue, however. There exists another enticement that keeps me coming back for more. If I attend this running club eight times, I get a free t-shirt. Now that I have accepted the free t-shirt challenge, I cannot quit until my goal has been reached and the t-shirt is collecting dust in my drawer. This had better be a nice t-shirt. I attended for my third time on Thursday with my left leg pumped for the grapevine but my right leg wishing it had stayed home to watch American Idol. When I arrived, I noticed something exciting. All of the women were sporting pink Taipei Running Club shirts. Had my day arrived? Was a free t-shirt within my grasp? When I signed in, I was asked if I would like to join the women’s class that was meeting tonight. Putting two and two together, I said yes and was handed my free pink t-shirt. Feeling very good about my decision to humiliate myself that night, I donned the shirt and took part in the “class”.

As my Chinese still only consists of how to order various drinks at Starbucks, the vast majority of the instruction was lost on my uncomprehending ears. At one point, our guide noticed the one foreigner in the crowd with surprise and alarm. It never ceases to amaze me that the Taiwanese make it their responsibility to help me understand when I am in their country and should be learning their language. Anyway, he slipped in the few English words that he knew and recommenced the Chinese tutelage. Finally, we were let loose. A mass of pink-shrouded women looped around the neighborhood until we at long last reached our destination of 2.78 kilometers. I was quite disappointed that there were no water stations to replenish the reserves that we had sweated out. Back at the starting point, our great leader educated us on proper cool down techniques that were a shade less humiliating that the initial stretching practices. But, it was all worth it. I had my t-shirt.

Until I went to check out. You see, in order to document our attendance, they give us a card that they stamp when we come to run. When I went to retrieve my card, I was informed that I must turn my pink t-shirt back into them. I had to repeat the request back to make sure that I heard them correctly. You want the brand new shirt that I just drenched in my sweat? Yes, I was confidently assured. I looked around me to see all of the other women placing their used shirts in a designated bag. I thought about making a run for it, but it was too late. I was at the check-out counter surrounded by a crowd of women with nowhere to go. I asked what I should do if I wanted the shirt. She politely responded that I just needed to attend four more times and I would get a brand new shirt. Are they serious? What are they going to do with a whole bunch of sweaty shirts? Defeated, I gave them the shirt, took my card, and walked dejectedly back to the bus stop to head back home. You win this time, Taipei, this time…

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Closing a Chapter

Today marked a bit of a bittersweet day for me here in Taiwan. This morning, I ran what will most likely be my very last race in the country that has been our home for the last two years. Taiwan will always be the place that morphed my casual jogging into what some might call an obsession. I ran my first race about a month after we arrived and I was forever hooked. Today’s race was particularly special because I got to run it with about ten other teachers from our school. But, most importantly, Chris and I got to run the whole thing together for the first time!

This race also put me in a slightly different role. Several weeks ago, a few teachers at our school expressed interest in running so I looked and found a 9K race here in Taipei. Why they didn’t just go ahead and round it to 10K, I’m not sure, but it seemed like a good distance nonetheless. So, I spread the word about the run and interested individuals of varying levels of athleticism made the plunge to sign up. I offered my far-from-expert assistance to help people train to prepare for the distance. We had a great time training together and it was so awesome to see people challenge themselves beyond what they thought was possible.

This morning, we all set off with the 9K goal in mind. It was so fun to see so many familiar faces throughout the sea of people that usually remain unknown to me. Shouts of encouragement in English from one “teammate” to another were a welcomed addition to the morning. And, as I mentioned before, the major bonus of this race was that Chris and I got to run the entire thing together. We even crossed the finish line at the same time. Isn’t that just precious? Now we just need to find a witness to tell us which place we each got…

As each teacher finished, they joined the crowd waiting for the rest of our crew to cross the line. Not only did everyone make it, but everyone met their personal time goals! Promises of continued running in each of our new places of residence next year were sprinkled throughout the conversation as we made a beeline for the nearest Starbucks to reward ourselves. It was a perfect way to finish Taipei’s chapter in my running catalogue.