Wednesday, December 30, 2009

new years eve

The best Christmas present ever. My sister Julia has come to Taiwan. She arrived on the 26 of December and will stay until January 6. She brought a camera for me so pictures will come soon.
I only got to see her for a day and a half so far. I had to go back to work on the 28th. She's been touring the island.I think she went the Hualien on the eastern coast.
Tonight after work I will go see her. Tonight is December 31, Western New Year's Eve. My plan is to meet her at the hotel where she is staying, the Shangri La. I'm giving myself 2 hours to get there.
I hope I make it. Some weathered expats and locals alike have been telling me horror stories. A few years back when the Taipei 101 building was constructed, city officials thought having a New York style count down would be a good idea. At the stroke of midnight, fireworks come shooting off the top of the tallest building in the world.
Sounds kind of cool. I'm sure it will be a great show considering these people are experts with pyrotechnics. Firecrackers go off 24-7 here. Yesterday I thought there was an explosion at the construction site next to my school but really it was just the employees of the new Family Mart across the street celebrating their grand opening.
Instead of tying tin cans to the back of the newly weds' car, a string of fire crackers is tied to the bumper and they drive off in a noisy cloud of smoke and fire.
So people love fireworks here. They also love Taipei 101. They also love having a day off of work (which is rare). It is going to be crowded.
Last week one of my older students asked what my plans were for New Year's and I said I might go to 101. She said: "but if you fall down people stand on you".
One of my coworkers told me that there were so many people in Taipei last year that cell phones stopped working. Another coworker told me that a friend of hers was on the train for 2 hours because first she couldn't find a train that wasn't packed and then she couldn't get off the train because it was too crowded.
I'll be heading into the city at the worst time, between 7 and 8pm. This is gonna be fun.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Santa in a box

Oh Christmas. Yesterday riding my bicycle home from work I almost crashed into a noodle stand. In the bus station parking lot I saw 6 bus drivers standing around smoking cigarettes. They were bare headed (it was about 73 degrees) and wearing Santa suits. Just the suit. No stuffing. None of them had the traditional "jolly" body type like our bus drivers in the states. Business are getting all decked out for Christmas. I am the official Western Christmas consultant at both branches of my school. They ask me questions about color and arts and crafts projects. I told them the traditional colors are red, green, silver, gold and white. I told them we should have the children make Christmas cards for their parents.
They have decided to decorate for Christmas in pink and purple and blue.
Now, having known my fair share of Italians in the states, I am familiar with the occasional blue Christmas tree but I think that is ok from a culture that has been doing the red and green thing for centuries. But to just skip the red and green and go strait to pink isn't kosher. By the way, no Menora's in sight. Any of my Jewish friends thinking of coming here during Hannuka, bring your own.
I offered to help with the company Christmas party that is on this Saturday.
Last night Teacher Michelle came to me with the details.
"Teacher Helen! Christmas party!
You Santa.
Our party is 17:30 end 19:30.
You and Teacher Tina. Sing."
Then she produced a slip of paper full of chinese writing. It looked a little like the outline of the basement where the classrooms are.
"Here are students. 17:30 you go to classroom B02. Put Santa santa ..."
"Outfit? Costume?
"OK, then I go and sing?"
"No. Big box and you sit 10 minutes. until 17:39. No talking. then..."
She drew a picture of a box on top of a hand cart.
"Teacher Tina pull you"
She draws a path on the map from the classroom to the center of the room where the students are gathered.
"Pop! come out and sing! Santa to Town! Teach everyone the song"
"Ok, so I go to the basement, dress up as santa, get in a box, sit for ten minutes, pop and sing 'Santa Clause is Coming to Town....and then?"
"Then stand in the back. We will all sing. for 75 minutes. Then you take photos with students."

(And there is no egg nog at these parties!)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

A great date!

Today I saw a dog eat puke off the side walk.
Have I ever mentioned the dogs in Taiwan? They are everywhere. Stray dogs, dogs with collars, mangy dogs, healthy dogs, big dogs, little toy dogs. Bitches with their nipples hanging like gobs of gum, dogs with their ribs poking out. Every breed of dog. Savvy dogs that can cross 4 lanes of rush hour Taipei traffic and dodge bikes, cars, scooters and buses as they scamper down the middle of the road.
Today I was walking in the mountains near San Xia with Ashley and a beagle passed us. We were climbing up the mountain. It had a collar on. I looked down the path it came from to see if its owner was in sight but no one came.
A few minutes later the dog came back again and passed us on his way back down the mountain. We saw him again and again for about an hour. At the highest point of the mountain was a park full of exercise equipment and bathrooms (I have no idea how all that stuff got up there but I was happy about it). Ashley gave the dog some water. After that he stayed on her heels the rest of the way. When we got to the bottom he went back up the mountain and we ended up behind a gas station in Yingge (the next town over from San Xia). Yingge is the pottery capital of Taiwan. I didn't have time to peruse the shops. We got on a bus and headed back to the Old Street in SanXia to the little restaurant we'd eaten at last week.
The owner, Michael Lin, sat down with us.
He picked the name Michael because he really likes Michael Jackson. Everyone here really likes Michael Jackson. He commands a little English. He said he learned it in the Philippines. He grabbed my pocket Chinese phrase book and began quizzing Ashley and me. It was a good Chinese lesson and a good meal. He sent one of the women into the back room and she brought out two little fruits. They were green like un-ripe tomatoes, the size of a small woman's fist. They were hard like an apple. He indicated that we should just bite into it. It was crunchy and refreshing and delicious. I'd never eaten anything like it. He told us the name. I had never heard it before.
He continued quizzing us and finally came to the fruit section of the phrase book. He would say the English name and we were to say the Chinese. Finally he came to the word "date". I didn't know the word for date. Neither did Ashley. Then he told us that that is what we just ate. That little green fruit. WOW! I never even imagined what it looked like before it became the sweet giant raisin thing that is so delicious wrapped in bacon. It was a great date.

Thursday, December 3, 2009


I have a bicycle. It is a Giant (or a Giant knock-off). It is a cruiser. It is mint green and has some flowers painted on it. It has a nice basket on the front. Like anything we love, it is both the source of great pleasure and great anxiety for me.

People say that when the culture shock subsides I will realize that there are actually rules of the road and they make sense. I think I have figured out the rules. Close your eyes and go, go, GO! Don't stop for babies or buses or motorized bicycles with trailers of cabbage or pigs, don't slow down at corners because you will cause a scooter pile up, if you can pass someone then do it, if you heed traffic signals you put everyone else on the street in danger and it is best to ride with a baby on the back wheel. I follow most of the rules but I'm waiting til payday to get a baby. They aren't as cheap here as they are in China.
Really. Riding a bike here is like driving the go carts at Coney Island.

My bike gets me to work quickly. I work at two different branches of the school and they are two miles apart. When I have to go from one branch to the other I take my bicycle and it is faster than taking the bus. If I walked I would be late.

My bike lets me explore in comfort. Walking is wonderful. I love it. But I like to blend in as I walk, I like to walk on unfamiliar streets and get lost and remain anonymous. My giant western nose is like Rudolph's beacon. People spot the foreigner right away and change their behavior. I remember when I was a kid playing in our neighborhood in Philly. We would stop our play if someone (like a Yuppie) not from the neighborhood would walk down the street. We would get quiet lest the intruder discovered our secrets. (It must have made passersby uncomfortable, but their presence made us uncomfortable too). So, Sanxia is a new neighborhood for me. I'm not yet familiar to the residence. Walking down the street on aimless rambles isn't as fun as it could be. I don't get to see anything but their reactions to me. On my bicycle I get a glimpse of their life and sometimes people don't notice me so their behavior doesn't change. And i'm moving too quickly for my movement to be discouraged by disapproving glances. It is far better to cruise down a tight little alley that has women picking beetle nuts off of branches, washing clothes, burning incense and the make shift temple and drying pears, then ride my bike. Yes it does detach me a bit. If I'm walking I can't talk to people. But I'm learning the rules. It might be rude to strike up a conversation off the cuff or interrupt someone's work. And then I have know how people feel towards me. I would prefer ambivalence. I fear hostility. I am confused at the prospect of being received well right off the bat.
So my bike provides baby steps and giant leaps. Baby steps into my towns consciousness. Giant leaps because I can go far, even into the neighboring towns and explore more!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Thanksgiving in Taiwan

Since last I wrote, Megan has gone, Ashley has settled into her apartment and I been coming to terms with Taiwan.

First: Megan's departure. We spent her last evening with our first Taiwan friends Adam and Wei Wei on Adam's rooftop. I was happy. Megan seemed to love Taiwan and I think this surprised her. She discovered scallian pancakes. She managed to circumnavigate the island, be adopted by a family of tea farmers, hitch hike along Taroko Gorge and stand atop the tallest building in the world in the world in just two short months. She has gone back to the US with inspiration and ideas for her future which build on this experience.
I wish her luck. I will always be thankful that she was here in the first months. She helped me through a lot at trying times. I am grateful for the fun we had and fun is sacred to me.

Second: Ashley is living in an apartment in Taipei near ShiDa (the Univerisity). She lives with two Korean women. One speaks no english so ashley can only communicate with her in Chinese. This will either excellerate Ashley's learning chinese or it will lead to her hiding from her roommate. I don't know how this has played out. Her apartment is quite nice. She shares a kitchen, livingroom and dining room. She has quite a big bedroom and a private bathroom. Ashley actually lives only a couple of blocks from Adam. There are many foreigners living in her section of Taipei. One in every 4 people walking down Roosevelt Blvd (that guy got around) is a foreigner. One night when Ashley was looking for dinner she stumbled on an English Pub "JB"s. She took me there for dinner. I ordered a hamburger. There was real Stilton cheese on it. I was blown away by the taste. Twas as if it were the first time I'd tasted it. The owner, JB, explained to me that it was indeed real stilton. "But the burger is so reasonably priced!" said I. "I smuggle it in myself once a year. It is far too expensive to pay importers."
Ashley is still working for Ingrid. The children are mean. The books she has to work with are poorly written and she has a difficult time communicating with her coworkers but one student gave her an orange so maybe they are coming around. Ashley has Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday free. She has gone into Yangmingshan national park to hike. Yangmingshan is the name of the dormant volcaons that surround Taipei. The landscape changes from silver grass to jungles and waterfalls all in the same hike and all of this is only a short busride from her door.

Me: Megan left on the 11th of November. I escorted her to the bus in Taipei where we met Ashley and we all had coffee. We put her on the bus then I went back to SanXia to work. I worked the 12,13,14 and then I had to pack a bag and go into Taipei. The company I work for has a mandatory training seminar. It is 9 days long. It is conducted at the main headquarters in Taipei. They offer the trainees a hotel room and supply breakfast and lunch.
I got to the hotel. I was unpleasantly surprised that I'd be sharing a room with one of the new recruits.
People talk about culture shock. Let me tell you. What is most shocking is when you encounter people from your own culture who you have nothing at all in common with. There were 36 people at the training. Two South Africans (white), Two New Zealanders, Two Englishmen, and everyone else was either from the US or Canada.
The training was frustrating. I was surrounded by people who spoke my language but it was impossible to communicate with them. Not only that but I was also out 9 days of pay.
Derek was there though. He is one of the Canadians I met while staying at the hostel. He and I had both already started working so we spent all our coffee breaks together lamenting our plight.
Money is tight and will be tight until January 7. I have bills to pay and Taiwan tax is 20percent.
I did learn a thing or two from my fellow trainees though: 1)Americans really are very bad at geography, 2)actually the Education system in the west is lacking across the board.
I don't know how they tied their shoes in the morning. Sure not everyone was so bad. There were some nice people but i'm still in shock from the Stupid bomb that went off at the hotel.
I'll talk about my company's very interesting human resource model in another blog, especially as it relates to handicap people.
So. I am Thankful that is over!

Ashley came to SanXia yesterday and we were going to hike in the mountains. We walked 3 or 4 miles along the road and highways up to the mountain and finally found the trail head. We were so tired by this time that we never did the hike. We flagged down a bus and went back down the mountain. We walked over to old street. We were given a menu (not a picture menu, all chinese) and we started checking boxes like crazy. Yes we were hungry but also I was so excited that i could read most of the menu. The clarity and understanding of the menu was exhilarating. "Oh! i know what this says! WoW I can READ!!!!" it felt great to order food and know i was getting what i wanted. a big plate of sauteed greens, lightly fermented tofu, fried pork, noodles in soup, noodles without soup, iced tea, fried wontons! and they threw in some pickled cucumbers (breadandbutter flavor) free. It was a feast for 6dollars US. I was full like Thanksgiving.

Well, I'm thankful for my friends and family. love.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

up up and away

i waited in line gathering courage, harnessing my chi (they would say) before the elevator doors glided shut and my knees buckled slightly. i closed my eyes briefly, the light dimmed and the ceiling became a mini multi-colored planetarium with soft music in the background. this is all to distract you from the sardine packed can shooting 89 floors up up and up at bullet speed, ears popping every so often from the altitude. 40 seconds later i am on top of taipei 101, the world's largest building, staring wide-eyed at the dwarfed city below. it is sprawling every which way like an atari spider and all i can do is baffle as to where i am. i'm enraptured in the mountains that stretch back in a yawn; my eyes follow the late noon luster on the rivers, and i can see the chiang ke shiak memorial- a 10 minute walk from our long-stay hostel with my favorite steamed pork buns along the way. the view is dusky with a pearlescent glow and as i climb the last leg, i am 91 floors up where the breeze kisses gently. my prospective is as wide as the view, i'm grateful.

i am preparing my departure. thank you taiwan. thank you ladies. good luck and zai jian.

Thursday, November 5, 2009


a reflection: and though much of the detail has now become muddled with time and lost in a translation lattice, language in itself is never comprising... and so i settle on this reflective compromise. as i left Lugu, stumbling through my poorly prepared taiwenese goodbye, the chang family, eyes rounded red, stuffing gift bags of tea and dried salty plums in my arms, pulled me into strong hugs and last minute snapshots. i felt honored and spoiled by their kindness. i felt humbled to realize how much more i have to learn. my mind now is swarming with a hazy swell of the taiwese everyday- where family is still family, yet this one is extended with Ama (grandma) living next door and Ping Ping as the polite cook n' clean (in traditional taiwan the son's wife will move in with her inlaws)- where groceries are still pricey yet most locals rely on the early morning hucksters circling round town blaring the contents of their truck bed over a loud speaker (cheap veggies, seafood, whole chickens that they chop-up right in front of you)- where birthdays are still celebrated with cake and candles but (at least in the case of Ama who was turning 81) also involves about 30 relatives visiting, playing mahjong till 2am, and drinking rice wine shots and tea chasers. i'm still processing. home cooked meals (usually prepared by Ping): very simple, always with meats and veggies, lots of garlic and ginger, exotic mushrooms, tofu, and my particular favorite bamboo, about 6 plates in front of you and left overs will be kept under a little table-umbrella (to keep away flies) for dinner, and always end with fruit and tea.

Ping took me to her parents house who live about two hours away. her dad is a retired fireman, i'd describe him as a gentle giant, and her mom flits about totting a strong and youthful spirit. they are Haka (an indigenous taiwanese tribe) who own a persimmon/ asian pear farm that they themselves work everyday. the farm resembles the board game candyland where you can look out onto miles of dwarfed trees with bright white blobs poking off branches. these are actually the persimmons covered in white paper bags to keep away the worms: untie the bag and cut the fruit close to the stem. Ping and i picked about four heaping baskets full in about an hour. their dog Abi (means 'ugly' in haka language) would lounge about and fetch stones as we worked. i like Ping for her honest work ethic, eagerness to speak english (always prepared with her computer dictionary- hey it got us through words like alkaline!!), and love for taiwanese traidition. when we entered her house there was a small shrine dedicated to her great grandfather who had passed the year before at the age of 103, with large red candles glowing against his gold embossed headshot. she lit some incense for him and said a prayer. ancestors in taiwanese culture are very much respected, and though the average taiwanese youth may not know much farther back than an average american (Lin confessed she really only knew about her great grandfather) they are still honored. last friday was a day of ancestral worship where Ping, Lin, Mrs. Chang, Ama, and I cooked a meal which they placed in front of their family shrine. each took turns praying and after brought the food back to the kitchen for our lunch. Lin said "our ancestors ate from this food...they didn't eat very much."

Ping also took me on a fieldtrip with Lugu's "I Love Tea Association." the bus trip started with an obnoxious chair woman commencing the fun with a little kareoke at 7 inthe morning. she shoved the microphone in my face... i said too early... the others agreed. we visited the black tea museum. i took advantage of learning how our own green tea differed, which has mostly to do with the withering process and extended baking time. the museum emphasized organic agriculture and the lunch they served was amazing: all natural, all handmade. the bamboo i was munching on could be seen swaying outside the window. the bus load of ladies and i, as well as lon lon who was one of two men, rode the bus around sun moon lake, one of the most scenic spots in taiwan, stopping periodically to look at some aboriginal art while sucking on champagne popsicles. the family and i had made plans to camp around sun moon lake, but Ama's birthday was that weekend and so we settled on camping in front of the tea plantation where mr. chang was preoccupied with the kareoke machine in the guesthouse, Ping left to watch 'lies of love' (a very popular korean soap opera that seems to run 24/7), and the mahjong players/ wild dogs made sleep impossible. i did teach them about smores though!

my memory is a whirlwind: wedding cookies, mountain biking, natural paper discovered while hiking, carving a pumpkin, restaurants with lazy susans and 10 course meals, forced to drink with Ping's uncle Peter Pan (yep, actually saw his business card), philipenoes taking care of the elderly, walking through the neighbors coffee plantation and getting free samples, rice bran for breakfast, siestas, Jew's ear mushroom, chinese medicine (don't eat ice on your period), hair washing as a popular past time (mine turned out looking like a poofy helmet)... and feeding the fish. and so the foggy of my memory...

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Chronology Swine flu Pride

So, as I said in an earlier post, NST (Native Speaking Teacher) is my official title. I spent the first three weeks expressing as one author puts it, "the agitation of a captive animal in the first hours of its domestication". New jobs always make me feel that way. But I'm getting the hang of it. The job is easier each time I do it.
Teaching English is the primary topic of conversation between Ashley and I. In fact it is the main topic among most of the expats. There is a martial air to community here. The weathered old veterans, the rosy cheeked new recruits. The battle stories one exchanges when you meet with each other by chance.
I've learned that the more I am able to break the golden rule "no speaking Chinese," the better the classes will be. Teaching kids that can barely read their mother tongue the meaning of a word is much easier if I can give them a close approximation of what I am saying in their own language.
Especially since the flashcards are ambiguous.
Adjectives are the worst. On the flashcard for "cool" is a picture of a skateboarding monkey wearing a Hawaiian shirt and purple sunglasses.
"Curious" though that may be, even "interesting", it is not cool.
Between the two branches of Hess at which I work, I have encountered 4 NSTs. One is South African so english isn't even his native tongue. The other 3 are Canadian. All of them look sick. Black circles around the eyes. Most of them emaciated. Translucent skin. They look like they are dying. They complain about how much work they have to do. Their biggest complaint is how their time is managed because for us a day is often from 9 in the morning until 9 at night with a break of a couple hours in the middle of the day.
I recognize how different this is from traditional North American time management. Typically, we rise early, go to work, and are home before Jeopardy. Admittedly this is not how it works for everyone in the Americas and certainly not for most of the people that I know but this is our cultural temporal template. This template, or chronology, (I can give it a fancy name because it is so ingrained in us that it is like and ideology, or theology in that we all have it but hardly recognize it), This chronology is challenged in Taiwan. It is not that the demands put on us are so heavy that they are impossible to manage, it is that no one at all uses Time the way we expect it to be used. People wake up early "-5AM. They go to bed late-12 or 1AM. The Chinese teachers work 6 and 7 days a week and they work 14-15 hours straight through the day (teaching and office work). It is the way of life here. They don't itch like these foreigners to be doing "something else". It is not that we (the foreigners) necessarily have anything else very special to do, it is just the way we were acculturated.
I am going to try to adopt a Taiwanese chronology.

Friday one of the women at the office said to me "Nicole (one of my students) is sick." OK. That's nice of her to tell me. I marked that Nicole would be absent from class in my book. I would have discovered that at roll call but I guess it is good to have a heads up. Gee, I thought, Nicole is a good kid. I think she likes me. She was especially effectionate the other day. She hugged me a couple times. I think I remeber her sneezing on me. Saturday, Halloween, I went to teach at another branch. While I was grading papers at the break Teacher Rebecca NST came up to me and with a knowing look said "So, Nicole is sick, hunh?" "Yeah," says I, "she's a whippersnapper". And Teacher Rebecca said "But she's sick". And then the realization came to me and I said "Wait a minute. How does everyone know Nicole is sick? You mean she's Sick? Like, with the Sick sick? Like the..." "Yeah," she said, "They didn't tell you?". "Well, yeah, they told me she was sick but they didn't tell me it was....Oh my God. She sneezed on me. I think I have Swine Flu".

After work Saturday, I hopped on a bus and met up with some friends of mine in Taipei and we wandered around and found the Gay Pride parade. It was the most well behaved parade I have ever seen. It could have been a May Procession (when all the Catholic school girls in their white dresses march from the church around their parish singing songs to the Virgin Mary).
It is the biggest and longest running Pride Parade in Asia and consisted of about 25000 revelers. There were a couple of girls who asked me to take their picture. I did. They told me they were from Beijing. They asked where I was from. I told them the US and one girl said "Welcome to China."
Everytime I meet someone from the mainland they say "welcome to China." Everytime I meet a Taiwanese person they say "Welcome to Taiwan." And both welcomes are expressed with significant political undertones.

Today Megan and Ashley are going to walk up 500 steps on a mountainside somewhere.
I am going to work.

Monday, November 2, 2009

tea is pronounced 'cha'

a loss for words, and in my wanting to transcribe the lovely of the mountains, the way the fog yawned misty and cold as i filled my basket with the winter tea harvest, how from a distance the tea rows resemble cartoon layers of aged wrinkles, i feel like this and more, china-girl smiles chuckling over my hesitancy, all will be dulled by my stick figure renderings. lin and i spent over two hours picking tea in Deep Mountain last saturday,cleanly plucking the stem right below the new leaves (lighter green and soft to the touch). i was intimated by the heavily clad tea girls in the distance (long boots, heavy sweaters, round saucer hats) with their robot reflexes and scissor-hands (they actually wear razors on their fingers). both lin and i disappointedly refused to believe that our weighed intake equaled to only 100NT... about 10usd. i joked that we would be eating measly that night. she retorted that i better pick up the pace. the tea girls send their overflowing baskets, which look like laundry hampers, down the mountain by a hanging cable cart. the winter harvest doesn't usually bring too much production and profit as the climate is becomes too cold and the leaves don't grow very large. a tea girl can usually make 1000NT a day, but most leave disappointed. Ping and Lon Lon weighed the leaves and told us there would not be much work more work for us to do that day. we ate another huge lunch (which always involves a type of soup- usually a meat stew- rice, sauteed veggies- such as bitter melon, bamboo shoots, greens tossed with baby shrimps- different cuts of assorted meats- some fried, some boiled). they brewed a large kettle of hot ginger tea and lowered the garage door to the warehouse to keep out the chill. i discovered that it was actually mrs. chang who started the tea business for the family. mr. chang was a simple gas station attendant who asked his wife to help bring home some more money. she was the first women ever to buy land on deep mountain. her strenght and confidence built up a business that now sells some of the finest high mountain oolong green tea in the county. the process:
1. Fresh Leaf
2. Withering (shaking of the leaves on the tarps: first outside usually 2x around every 20 min depends on the sun; move inside spread 2x every 30 min; after one hour move to smaller trays)
3. Static (means that the leaves sit for about 3-5 hours)
4. Rolling (machine tightening in cloth bags-not too hard- for 15-20 min to destroy leaf edge)
5. Fermentation (3-5 hours)
6. Baking (machine for 8 min @ 280C)
7. Rolling again (10 min)
9. Drying (wait until the second day: 3-4 hours - 4-5 times).

And whala! Tea! some people like it more baked, which we would do back at the house in a tiered metal oven. this makes the tea darker and more flavorful. i prefer the unbaked though... it is very delicate and tastes like vegetables. we also package the tea back at the house, different boxes for different businessmen, tea bags, usually loose and vacuum packaged though in this metal box that sounds like a bottle rocket when it sucks out the air, labels, cellophane clung with a hair dryer. friends, family, and random guests pop in and out to pick up packages and drink tea (small porcelain cups, tea table shaped like drift wood, unbaked, lightbaked, heavy baked tastes). Right now i am drinking high mountain unbaked tea from my water bottle back in Taipei and sharing the close quarters of Helen's new bachelor pad. i said goodbye to the chang family yesterday. hugging, and presents, and tears reflected emotions and ventures i am still absorbing- preliminiary sketches.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


I picked my brand of toothpaste because it was moderately priced and has a handsome logo, a man in a top hat with a bright toothy smile. The logo is in black and white. I'm learning how to read chinese.
Every street sign, menu, label is a flashcard just for me. I see words everyday and it is just noise and light but as my abilities progress some of the symbols begin to make sense and take on distinct meanings. I know when I'm getting noodles, or rice. I know coffee and pineapple and Stop.
I think my toothpaste is called hei ren. I think that means "black person".

Friday, October 30, 2009

Mischief Eve

Never ever in my life have I walked the streets on Mischief Eve without cautious steps. For 28 years, this has always been the night of my keenest awareness to the shadows that dart between parked cars and into alleys. I always walk on the well lit streets and with the crowds on this night. I have been hit by many an egg in my days. They leave a bruise on your skin and a nasty mess on your clothes. I adopted this attitude of vigilence as I left work tonight. Then i reallized, Halloween only exists in the English Bushibans in Taiwan and even there it is not really understood. I never took much care in dressing up. I never had much delight in the little ones begging for candy. Apprehension and anxiety are more lasting impressions than the sweets I got in own youthful trick or treating experiences. But all that said, being here makes me realize that it is my favorite holliday.
Teacher April asked me what adults do on Halloween. I told her that people host parties at their homes. People dress up and go party to party saving the best one for last. That children stop going door to door around the age of 12 or 13. Children have parties of their own. I told her about bobbing for apples. "But that's so dangerous!"
I said "you are Taiwanese! you put your children, babies sometimes on the back of a scooter with no saftey harness, sometimes with no seat, then you swerve in and out of traffic, in the same lane as on coming traffic, between trucks and busses, heedless of traffic lights, lanes or speedlimits, and you think bobbing for apples is dangerous?!?"

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Sunday again.


I asked the woman who runs the hostel, “How do you say “refrigerator”?” bingxiang. Then I checked out.

I moved into my place. Ashley came to sanxia with me to help me lug my bags. I have two bags. We dropped the bags off and went to do some sightseeing. While we were in the belltower of the temple (which deserves a page devoted to it entirely) Teacher Fantasy called to see how I was getting on. I told her “wo yao ge bing xiang, mei you ge bingxiang” She didn’t understand me. I told her there was no fridge and no internet cable. She hung up. She called me back 5 minutes later and told me to rush to the apt. I left Ashley on “Old Minsheng st” to look at the shops. As I got to the apartment there were two small women, one of them my landlord, moving a refrigerator into my room. I “told” (lots of pointing, at the computer, at the socket in the wall, at heaven that gave us the internet…) that I needed a wire. They pilfered one from and empty neighboring apartment. I thanked them.

The room is small but has potential. I get lots of sun light in the morning through my window. If I stand on tiptoes I can see out of my window. I climbed the stairwell till it stopped ascending and found myself at the door of the roof. I went out. 8 stories high is sufficient for a fantastic view of the mountains and the town surrounding me.

Yonghe (in Taipei) , Ashley works in this neighborhood and had noticed a night market there. We have learned that no two nightmarkets are alike. Yonghe is very working class. Not many tourists around. The streets were wide. The people were friendly rather than frenzied. Like patient fishermen the street merchants wait till their bait is nibbled before they start reeling. I prefer this strategy to the herding and shouting of Shillin nightmarket. I don’t like feeling like a cow.

The food was good here too. Got some roti, a dosa and it sort of actually tasted Indian. (I had a masala in the train station food court. they gave chopsticks and noodles) There were many Vietnamese, Thai, Korean and Indonesian vendors here. This must be a neighborhood where all the foreign workers live. I was further convinced of this by the store I found attatched to the market. A glorified dollarstore. They sold everything. Electronics (speakers for $6US, food, stationary, clothes, bedding, dvd, music, cleaning supplies, hairdye, sextoys, liquor, deodorant, cookies, a hair care product that said ‘for hornie care’ (maybe it should have been in another aisle).

At this shop I bought two buckets, a broom, some hangers, chopsticks, Lysol, Mr. Muscle bathroom cleanser, handsoap with the Virgin Mary on it, rags and hand towels-total-$15US. I couldn’t get all I wanted, like a mug, a bowl, a spoon etc… because I’m budgeting until payday.

Ashley’s work is closer to where I live and easier to get to from here than it is from the hostel. She has Ingrid looking for a place for her right now. She has left the hostel and will stay with me until she finds a place of her own. My room is small but it will do.

We take turns using the desk.

We have one set of keys and one cellphone. I have not put any money on the cell phone card. I’ve been meaning to call Megan since Sunday. I don’t call in the day time because I am not sure if she is working in the field and away from Ms.Lin or not. I work until 9 at night and then I convince myself it is too late to call. Tomorrow I will call after work. I hope that is not too late. Do tea farmers go to bed early?

I want to know when she is coming back from the farm. I will miss her when she goes and her departure from the island is fast approaching.

Ashley told Ingrid that she enjoys hiking. Ingrid's daughter is Ashley's age and an avid hiker. They are hiking this Saturday at dawn. Ashley will spend the night at Ingrid's on Friday since neither the metro nor the


Saturday, October 24, 2009

cleaned the hallway

This is weird. I am checking out of the hostel now. Today someone cleaned the hallway and the roach carcase is gone.

Friday, October 23, 2009


Megan's post made me green tea with envy. hahaha. I am so funny.
Before tonight's posting I must issue this disclaimer:
None of the events, people or places in this blog are real. This is entirely a work of fiction. If you are law enforcement reading this, please note, the author is a fat man in Iowa.
Understand? Good.
English teaching so shady! We evacuated the children today, took all of their pictures off the wall, rolled the files (the filing cabinet is on heavy rubber wheels, like a Jeep) through the bathroom, out a window and into the alley. We aren't supposed to have children in this building until December. I told my friend this. He said that one time at his school, the took the kids onto the neighboring building's roof and conducted class. The police inspectors came up to the roof but since they didn't have a permit to search the other building they couldn't do anything about it, even though they could see the class. At least my school pays the police for the courtesy of a warning call.
Oh, and working before you have a work permit it a strict "no, no".
Good thing I'm here as a student and not as an illegal worker. At least that is what Fantasy told my new landlady when she asked.
Yesterday, I saddled up on the back of Fantasy's scooter. We drove to the realestate office. I sat at a table with two middle aged women (real estate agent and landlord). An office girl served us yellow tea. No one else drank theirs so I didn't either. Fantasy sat with me. She talked a lot. I don't really know what was said. I answered them in Chinese when they asked my name, age and country of origin (that's all I know; well i can also order coffee and bubble tea and beef noodles). Soon everyone pulled out little wooden stamps. Rectangular pieces of wood, 1cm x 1cm x 4 cm. They put their stamps on a green colored document. Since I didn't have a stamp I had to dip my thumb in the red ink and press it on the paper next to my signature.
Now I have an apartment. It is 1cm x 1cm x 4cm. Well, actually it is 10 ping. A ping is just smaller in size than a twin bed. This includes the bathroom. So really my apt. is 8 ping.There is a bed, a desk, a tv and a refridgerator.
I am in the heart of Sanxia which is good. My apt number is 9, which is a very lucky chinese number.
My new address is
Taipei County
Sanshia Township
#264 Wenhua Road (actually, I don't know how to spell it because there is no English on the roadsign.)
6floor, Room 9
I asked what the postal code was but no one understood me. I will find out soon.
I move in on Sunday.
After signing the papers all 4 of us went outside, me, Fantasy, Ms.Lin the realtor, and Ms. Jayne the landlady. Fantasy handed me her spare pink helmet. Ms. Lin got on her scooter. Ms. J got on the back of Ms. Lin's scooter. Fantasy got on her scooter. I got on the back. Off we went to the new apartment so I could learn how to use the keys etc...
Then I went to work.
I told my kids they shouldn't start a sentence with the word "Because".
They said "Why not?"
I said, "Because I said so."

Ashley was late coming home tonight. It was after midnight. Ingrid wanted to have a talk with her about the business. "stay in control of this kids. teach them. bla bla bla."
The kids in my class say "bra bra bra" in lieu of "bla bla bla". I have even heard the foreign teachers use "bra bra bra". It sounds strange to me.
I have work in the early morn.
It is time for bed.

a little place called deep mountain

in lue of a wooden cart pulled by two sturdy white oxen, i was picked up at Ershuei station in a sexy black toyota jeep by two of the friendliest faces, both beaming adorably with their dimples and shining black eyes. Uting was at the wheel. a sassy little minx with layered hair and a small build, english impecable (as she says she likes the whities), and quick with the punch. Lin, sitting in the back with two little girls (ueew who we call dinosaur because she eats everything and maeko who's smile can make you melt), warmed my heart with her light humor and side grin, her friendly energy has a sarcasm that matches my own, where teasing is endless and friends and family are mutual. they took me first for my first taiwanese hot pot for dinner... made me eat pigs blood (snickering to each other)... my tongue is still healing. we drove to their house, shared by their grandma, mother chang, father chang, brother Lon Lon, brother's wife Ping Ping, and Lin (Uting lives and works about an hour away and only comes home on the weekends). the family was hesitant and i was tired, so our visit was brief as we would leave for deep mountain early the next morning.

Uting prepared me for a very long mountain trek. she said we would be walking for hours and that i would not return until late night. i would be very very tired, and would work very very hard. ... i was picked up in the jeep and the ride only took around 20 min. it was beautiful, breath taking really, wheeling our way up and around the mountain, with green haze in the distance and tea fields teiring up all around. their factory is called deep mountain and it is nestled in a small valley with the most dreamlike scene surrounding... clean rows of tea funneling up, whispy trees shooting out here and there, moutain fog slowly drifting. in front of the factory warehouse, four tarps were laid out with tea leaves scattered evenly about. our work, for most of the day, was to take a corner of the tarp, one person on each end, and roll the tea leaves to the center. then we would proceed to scatter the leaves evenly on the tarp again. Lin told me that this was the first step, after picking, as it softens the leaves and breaks down enzymes. we would do this about two times per tarp... there were two additional loads of tea leaves that came that day from two different farmers. then we would take the tarps inside and scatter them out on massive machine trays. repeat the same process on these trays about every 30 minutes or so. there was a sturdy woman, whom i am told to call auntie, who was quite the pro and hardcore taiwanese who scattered the leaves like a robot. there were also three factory workers... one whom Lin calls fatty who is head hancho... who chew beattle nut all day and are in charge of rolling, frying, and baking the tea. i will learn more about this process tomorrow. most of the day was spent scattering leaves intermittantly with snacking on boiled peanuts, chocolate, baked goods, and lunch involved goose, porks, bamboo soup, fish... you name it... it was delicious. Lin also took me to visit the neighbors bee farm. by this point the fog had settled dense and all i could make out were two headlights under a netted tarp, and the sound of bzzzz all around. auntie (i'm supposed to call all the women auntie) and her husband (whose name means handsome in english) taught me about something called royal jelly as they picked baby bee embryos from honey comb with a small ivory toothpick. Lin walked me through a lane lined with white boxes and the humm of bees could be heard everywhich way. it was the dreamiest scene i have ever been in. we left around 8pm. it was dark... the mountain deep.

i am staying at their 'aunties' house. it is huge with several empty bedrooms, a couple of flat screen tv's, house slippers, and a two headed shower... yep... two!! this week has been amazing and i am beyond thankful to the kindness that they have shown me. the food is amazing and always resembling a small feast. the work is mostly weeding in Lon Lon's two year old tea farm right behind the house i am staying, with my new boyfriend Yan Yan (black and white and smells... well of goat) neighing in the distance. Lin taught me caligraphy, as well as to ride on her scooter. i learned that taiwanese start counting their age from conception and that fortune tellers set the date of engagements and weddings. Lin is getting married soon, and i got to meet her to-be husband (whose name in english is sausage... and that's what we call him) as well as their 'match-maker.' Lon Lon is an amazing artist but has chosen to be a farmer. today Ping Ping taught me to make soap! tea tea tea, snacks, and bicycling. it is all a hazy crazy wonderful whirlwind right now... and it all started with a little place called deep mountain.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

35 days

Megan in the Deep Mountain:
Today is Wednesday for two more minutes. On Sunday I will call the phone number of the farmer's sister that Megan wrote on a scrap of paper.
She left on Sunday morning for Nantou. Nantou is a rural mountainous agricultural area in the center of Taiwan. All she knew was that she had to meet Farmer Chang at the train station at 5pm. I'm picturing a wooden cart drawn by two white oxen. She didn't know how long she'd be staying. Or exactly where. Or what she'd be doing when she got there. I told her if I didn't get word from her in a week I would call. If I don't touch base with her in a week and a day, then I'm calling in the Airforce. I'm sure she is doing fine.

Ashley and Ingrid, A Love Story:
Ashley went into Ingrid's school, Harmony School, on Monday and broke the news. "I was offered full time work, 27 hours, in Hsinfong". Ingrid turned white. "please stay. I will give you 27 hours". "How?" "I will fire the other white guy teacher." "OK" "Here is a contract...and my heart". That is not actually what happened but it was something like that. Ingrid fired the other teacher. Ashley is staying with her.
Besides the young kids that Ashley teaches at Harmony, she has also picked up an adult class on Monday nights. Ashley brings in a copy of the China Post (an English language publication) and they pick an article to read and discuss. Oh, look! There's a China Post on the coffee table. Let's see what the issues are of concern to the English speaking expat population in Taiwan.
Oh, here's a good one: "PepsiCo has apologized for a free iPhone application crafted to help men seduce women and keep records of conquests but the program remained available on Tuesday".
This class is small. There are only three adult students. One of them is Ingrid.

Teaching as Improv:
I don't have much time to prepare classes. Sometimes only ten minutes. Today I had to go from one school to another in 40 minutes. I got on the wrong bus. I had to get off the bus. I got on another bus. Turns out the first bus I was on was the right bus. I got back on that bus. I had to run along the river dodging in and out of food stalls, jumping over stools, knocking into tables, and I made it to class with 6 minutes to spare. Class was a disaster but the kids never knew it. I made them play a game on the board while I figured out the lesson plan. Neither my previous teaching experience nor my education prepared me for this job as much as my training as an actor. I keep having flashbacks to Improv exercises I did with the acting troupe I was in as a kid. Most of my job is just cold script reading. The books and materials that the school supplies are mostly patterns the children have to memorize. "I am smart. I am not smart. The fat rabbits are on the desk. I like the fat rabbits". I'm a pretty inefficient teacher. Kids look at me cockeyed a lot. They freak out when I speak Chinese (which I only do under my breath, outside of class time), but I like to speak to them because they seem to understand me more than adults do.

Sanshia is Bensonhurst:
The pedestrian bridge which crosses the river is wide. It is not only for traffic but also for lingering. Loitering is encouraged. there are gazebo/pagoda structures fastened to either side ofthe bridge. It is well lit and lovely.
The other night as I walked across the pedestrian bridge, I saw lovers cooing in a corner, I saw teens smoking in a group off to oneside and I saw old men playing a game in the middle of the bridge. At first I thought it was Baci ball because of the underhand tossing motion and the men facing eachother at a distance of about 20 feet. As I got closer I realized that it was not a ball in their hands but a spinning top. In between them was a little wooden stand with small saucer shaped trays on top. Each man took a turn tossing his top onto the saucer. with in the sacucer was a smaller mark that they aimed for. It looked as if two men at a time play while others look on, chit chat and spit betelnut juice. Spinning tops are not for children in opposite land.
My first archaeological field work was in Bensonhurst Brooklyn. 20 of us college kids would make the trek to 86th Street and dig in the old Dutch church yard as the summer sun nuked us. At noon, our shackles were loosened for an hour. We were free to wander and find food. The people of Bensonhurst were friendly, but warry. I remember one time I went to use a payphone and a smiling man came up to me from out of nowhere to let me know that maybe I should not try to make a call. He was very nice about it though. As we were digging I had a feeling were being watched all the time. Like people were sweating lest we disinter something that should not have been disturbed. Like a body. And of course everyone in Bensonhurst is in the Mafia. I think Sanshia is full of gangsters. I don't have any proof yet bu it feels just like that remote part of Brooklyn. When Ashley and I were kidnapped by the Taiwanese brother and sister last week, we found that they did not want to talk about their jobs. I will have plenty of time to find out more about the character of the town. I picked out an apartment tonight. It is a bathroom, and a room with a bed and a desk. Tomorrow I sign stuff. Sunday I move in if all goes well.

Monday, October 19, 2009

"Green Johnny", "Escape Plan" and Other Tales

Green Johnny
Once there was a man who was born in Nigeria. He fell in love with a woman from Ghana and moved with her to that country. There they had sons. Their sons grew strong, swimming in the river, eating fresh delicious fruits, and wonderful meals of boiled fish and vegetables. One day, the youngest son, Johnny, took leave of his family. "I'm going to Taiwan," he said, "to teach English."
Johnny got on a plane. He came to Taiwan. He started looking for work at the English schools. The people in the schools would always tell him that he was not what they wanted. People who met Johnny on the street or in a cafe would always ask him "why are you here?...are you working? you drive a cab? you sell knockoff shoes?... Are you a laborer?" but no one ever guessed that he was there to teach.
One day, a school that Johnny sent his resume to called him up. The man on the phone said "are you black or white?" "I am green" said Johnny. "You are green!?!" "Yes, I am green. A group of us green people came over here together. There are three of us in Taipei now and two went to the south. We have green skin." "OK, you come in tomorrow for the interview." "I will be there at 1 o'clock." At 1 o'clock, Johnny showed up to the school. As he walked up to the glass doors he could see all of the secretaries looking over the tops of their cubicles to see the green man. He could hear them whispering "is that him?" Johnny opened the door and said, "I am Green". The manager ushered him into his office, looked at him and said "you are not green". Johnny said "that is because you can not see me. With my eyes, I look at my skin and it is green, my hands are green. my arms are green. my legs are green. You are wearing glasses so you can not see me with your natural eyes. Take of your glasses off and you will see that I am green". "If I take off my glasses then I cannot see you at all", said the manager. "That then is your problem. If you fix your eyes then you will see".
Johnny got the job teaching. He has been in Taiwan for over 10 years. He works sporadically for that first school that hired him and where they still call him "Green Johnny". Johnny now also has a fairly lucrative scooter parts export business. Johnny procures scooter parts from all over the island and ships them to his brother in Africa where they are then put into custom scooters and sold.

Escape Plan
Derek is a Canadian who showed up at the hostel with his boyfriend a few days ago. He is working for Hess the same company that I work for. His branch is in Taipei City and is exclusively kindergarten. Derek didn't know that it is illegal for foreigners to teach kindergarten in Taiwan. Yesterday he was given a tour of the school. There are three class rooms. In each one he was told where the emergency exit was and given an elaborate escape route up to the roof, then over to the roof of the neighboring building, then down that building's elevator and onto to street. If at any point when he is in the building "the song about the purple monkeys swinging free" is played on the loudspeaker, then he is immediately to grab his belongings and escape.
Today I went into work. My locker was gone. All of the lockers were gone. "Curious", I thought. I needed to find my locker because in it were my lesson plans.
I asked one of the girls who answers the phone where they were and she said they were moved into the classrooms. "OK". I turned to go through the door to the classrooms but there was no longer a door there. Where the door used to be was now a wall. We got inspected today. I guess my school has fake walls. No one every told me about any escape plans or purple monkey songs. Maybe they have a trap door in front of the chalkboard that will shoot me out to safety.

A week ago I went to RenAi hospital to have my health check done. A health check is required for all foreign workers. I went in and took a number and filled out a form. They called it and sent me to window 11. That is the cashier for foreigners. I confused the woman at the window who was entering my data into the computer by putting down my name as Helen C.M. Jackson. I didn't know what the trouble was. Middle names. As it is, my name was too long anyway. In Taiwan I am now Helen Jackso. I then was sent into a room and where there was a long counter with swivel chairs at regular intervals like an old Woolworth's dining counter. In front of each chair was a number1 2 3 ...There was a different woman stationed opposite each station. First I was weighed and my height taken. I'm 177 cm. 54kg. At station two my blood pressure was taken. switching seats my eyes examined. Then i was sent upstairs and sat in front of a similar set up with the phlebotomists. first chair-handed the woman my file. she gave me three empty vials to take to the next chair where a woman filled them up with my blood. Then into the x-ray. "take off your necklace" the man indicated. I could not. I am wearing a Joan of Arc medal tied around my neck with thread. He put it in my mouth. had me wrap my arms around a big metal box. snapped a picture of my chest and in thirty seconds I was on my way home.
The entire process took under an hour.
Friday I had to go back and pick up my papers. I was sure I'd have a clean bill of health. I was wrong. I needed a measles/rubella vaccination.
Now, if any of the Plagges are reading this, Angela, I swear there was a Taiwanese candystriper who was an Asian version of your mother. I almost said xiexie Mrs. George to her at one point. She guided me from counter to counter paying, picking up the vaccine and and showing me to the door where they would stick me with it. She was very good.
After picking up the paperwork I took it to the Hess office. There I signed "the government" contract. It struck me as odd that the Hess name appeared no where on the paper.
Tomorrow or Wednesday I will sign "the Hess contract" in Sanshia.
I'm contracted till August 15. It is a little shorter than a year but that is because I'm filling the space which was vacated by some English guy who took off in the night.

Teaching is going to be strange. I have 11 classes now and by December I will have 13. I will be in or around the offices from 9 til 9. I was grading papers last week. I was doing it wrong. I am not permitted to give a grade lower than 85.
I'm teaching many different ages and abilities. One class I was teaching verb tenses to kids that don't know what a verb is.
How do you explain a noun to someone who hasn't had "person, place, or thing" as a vocabulary word yet?
Teacher Rebecca was sick last night so I covered her honors class. The subject was places of worship.
That's a funny story. Maybe I'll tell it later.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

to the deep mountain

back. it is nice to relax with a cold 'taiwan beer' with friends and swap stories of our gaining footing, for some claiming ground. i am staying with a friend in the city and despite constant night battles with mosquitoes it beats the hostel's bedbugs and inconsiderate produce snacking rats that the girls are apparently dealing with. after only three days though of battling taipei zebra crossings, choking down mrt subway fees and scooter smog, feeling like a gutterpup next to shishi fake eyelashes and louis vuitton face-masks and i am ready to head back out.

this past week was a breath of fresh air gifted from each of taiwan's four corners-having literally circled the whole of taiwan by train. first stop koahsiung, tainan... and while plans for the second half of my trip were conciously redirected, mostly due to the torrential rain i encounted as i headedup the east coast, it was inspiring nonetheless. i had considered my stop after kaohsiung to be in taitung, where i would camp on some mystery beach with crazy geological rock formations. i arrived at the train station in kaohsiung and stopped at the english information center. the tellers stared at me with wideeyed perplexion and proceded to push a young thirteenish boy in my direction to stumble through proper explanations and directions. he was sweating as he stuttered out that part of the railway had been damaged by the typhoon, and that i would either have to take a two day bus ride, or take a bus to bumfuck taiwan and catch a train that may or may not have left yet. i decided bumfuck in lue of sore posterior. so the boy led me to the bus station and helped me buy a ticket. i was a bit unsure of the bus i was supposed to take, where it was going, and when i was supposed to get off. yet, after about a half hour wait i was shoved onto a bus without warning, and as the english signs became nonexistent i surmised that once traintacks came into view it would be a good bet that my stop was next. ... ah... powers of deduction. the train station was across from the stop and i was given a full five minutes to make it to my seat. all was well.

the ride was quite breathtaking. the southeast is a expanse of farms- bananas, tea, rice. green spectrum from lime to forest is colorcoating the landscape. the towns became quite rural and distant, while feral dogs wandered the wet fields. as the train began traveling north to taitung mountains began to loom over the train like a friend looking over your shoulder. the train, and i inside, seemed lego size in comparison to the surrounding jungle cliffs. as i arrived in taitung the rain had become uncomprimising. i decided instead to forge on to the small beach town of hualien, where i could wait out the rain and make new plans. i was disppointed with the infrequent stewardesses and their lack of lunchboxes, but was thankful for the delightful cabbage filled wontons i had saved from breakfast. when i arrived in haulien, after about four- five hours, i was quite exhausted, yet still i stubbornly refused the taxi cab drivers who would not only save me from getting lost (again...) but also soaked. i arrived at the hostle after dark and looking like a drowned rat... was given free beer and whiskey by a visiting group of english teachers, homemade bread, as well as convinced to go whitewater rafting with them the next day. unfortunately the water would be too high to raft due to the rain, but nice people nonetheless.

hualien is known to be the gateway to taroko gorge- taiwan's main scenic tourist attraction. yet, hualien the town is lovely in itself. it has a laidback beach town feel, with a chill vibe that is neither clean nor dirty, shishi nor rural, all business nor all pleasure. it also has amazing seafood, especially the oyster omlettes. the girl running the hostel and i became good friends. her name is yuchen. she is a traveling surfer (mostly to south america) on her off time, as well as boycrazy and music savvy. we went out for thai food, girl talked over coffee (the real stuff), and she introduced me to her bestfriend ling. we went to ling's house my last night in hualien. she is a dedicated buddhist as well as a studying doctor. her house was calming, despite the cieling leaking into buckets and pots on theground, with its makeshift buddhist shrine (coveting statues and incense), japenese tatami matts, and green tea. her small dog cookie was giddily running around us as we talked about budhism, travel, and spirits. apparently there was a doctor who performed illegal abortions in this same house back in the day. ling maintained that the spirits of those children still existed when she moved in. she couldn't sleep, dreams were heavy, and thus she constructed her shrine. she has slept soundly ever since.

i did trek into taroko gorge on my travels. the rain was slight, the gorge itself misty and dreamy. it was a scene right out of lord of the rings with rock faces towering into the sky and blistering small waterfall, after grand waterfall, slight waterfall after twin waterfall! it was awing. i walked along the mainroad with a fellow hostel dweller, as the trails were closed due to 'typhoon raids....' the gorge itself is massive, with water colored grey like that of an old elephant- wise and experienced. we walked about 16km hitched a ride from a german couple through the pitch black tunnels, got dropped off, walked another 15 min. before they came back to tell us the road up ahead was ...collapsed. it was such a great hike, beautifully cathartic. it inspired me to stop at a hotspring on my way back to taipei to soak my sore muscles. unfortunately i did not feel like getting totally naked (as was policy) and opted instead to soak my legs in the public footbath. shaped in an 8ft-8ft squre, cut into fours- square one lukewarm water, square two hot, squre three really freaking hot, and squre four boiling straight from the source. i almost went straight into square four... wherein my feet would now be blistered, but the little old ladies shouted "no!! too hot!! you sit here with us." aparently, cultural edicate requires cold to hot. my feet felt heavenly after.

so, i am heading to the tea farm this weekend. i talked with mr. chang. mr. chang does not speak much english so he handed me to his sister ling. ling said that if i show up on sunday i can come with them on monday to the 'deep mountain.' i do not know what this means but it sounds awesome.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Tawan is Japan's Thailand

I had my demo today. It was me and Neo in an empty classroom for three and a half hours. Me pretending to teach two different classes.
It was alright. Tomorrow I start for real. 6 hours of teaching. Tomorrow is Ashley's birthday but I won't be back in Taipei until late. Megan has come back into Taipei today. She is going to hangout with Ashley tomorrow. Megan is staying at Zach the Aussie's apartment. It is cheaper, no rats or bugs of any note. A rat ate a hunk out of the apple I was saving for breakfast.
That roach corpse is still in the stairwell but only about a quarter of its original size. Maybe when it is completely gone I will have found a place to live.

Ashley got the job in Hsinfong in Hsinchu County! She is very happy. The place sounds like a pit but it pays well. Tomorrow she is going to break it to Ingrid.
I hope Ingrid doesn't throw a shoe at her.
The job is good news, a nice cosmic birthday present. She's been battling an ear infection and deserves a respite from some worries. Today we went to the local pharmacy, not a chain store, to get her something for her ear. The old pharmacist spoke english. She told him her problem and asked for some ibuprofen and his advice in making a garlic oil to put in her ear. He looked at her like she was crazy. She whipped up a batch anyway and used a drinking straw as a dropper. She sleeps in the bunk above me. I wonder if I will dream of pizza tonight.

Megan just came back from travelling around the entire island. She had stories of surfers and Buddhists and gorges and train rides, and buses and delicious food and beautiful rivers. I hope I can tease more details out of her before she goes off to Mr. Chan's tea farm.

Megan and Zach came by the hostel tonight and we went out in search of supper. We walked north on Linsen because we know there are many options up there. It is a busy area sometimes none as "the Combat Zone" or "the Zone". There are many Japanese noodle shops, steakhouses, and fast food places and street sausage vendors. It was called "the Combat Zone" because there is an American military installation of some sort in the area and in 50s, 60s and 70s that is where the red light district sprung up. Message parlors and KTV rooms that not only include music and food, but also 'girls' line the street. Now-a-days, most of the patrons are Japanese businessmen rather than American servicemen. We walked down an alley that ran perpendicular to Linsen road that was lined with bars with vaguely Japanese names. We were walking with an American named Kevin who came to find food with us. He lived in Japan for many years and told us that the Japanese come to Taiwan for two main reasons; cheap electronics and this neighborhood. Those words had not left his lips when we were caught up in a group of red faced, black-suited Japanese men leaving a place. In fact all of the environmental noise on the street changed. Instead of the musical sound of mandarin we were hearing the rhythmic beats of Japanese coming from every doorway.

At the end of the alley we came to a smaller street and this had lots of little vendors. It looked like the street where the locals went instead of the main thoroughfare and the prices reflected this. Girls that probablly worked down the street were in their civies munching on dinner of beef noodles before a shift. I spotted one of those stands where you put things in a basket and have the cook grill it up. Zach grabed some bacon wrapped scallions and I pointed at a fish. A whole fish, kind of looked like a herring, maybe a foot long from nose to tail and a couple of inches wide. They grilled this up for us. We found some benches in an ajoining alley. It was well lit and good for people watching. We ate the bacon. We ate the fish drizzled with a little lime, salt and pepper. We finished the meal with some passion fruit Zach got on the street (one dozen for 80NTD=$2.50us). Total cost of the meal was under $4.oo US. Delicious.

I have work to do now.
But I will probably sleep instead.

Monday, October 12, 2009

teaching and all

Why bother constructing the world's tallest building where the clouds always come down so low? I wonder what the view is like from the top half of 101? They probably don't know whether it is day or night in those offices. The secret to their productivity.

Tomorrow I demo two classes in front of the CTs (Chinese Teachers). Today I observed for the last time and it was the first time I got to observe one of the CTs running the class. This was Fantasy's class. I learned something very important about the English language; if you shout, it doesn't really matter what you say. Some excerpts from today's lesson "W-W-W wa wa wa Wolf! Do you know what a Wolf is?" (A boy howls) "Yes, a kind of cat."
and then
"Jackie, take out your Panics book" (replace with Phonics book).

But really, these CTs know English pretty well. I'm starting to despair of ever learning Chinese with any degree of proficiency but I will take it from these guys and try, and maybe if I try really hard I can get half as good at Chinese as they are at English.

I have 9 different classes assigned to me for now. Come early November that number will be 10 and in January, 11 or 12. By then I'll be working a little more than 40 paid hours a week plus unpaid prep and grading time. This is a pretty sweet deal. The only difficulty is that there are so many different groups of students I'll have to get to know and so much material I'll have to become familiar with. Well, that and some of the sentences I'll have to teach will either be through gritted teeth or neglected entirely. Watching Francois the South African, teach his class yesterday I learned these sentence patterns that were repeated over and over "'Who's that cool beautiful girl?' She's my sister.' 'Wow, she's so thin!' 'Yeah!'" and "'Who's that big strong man?' 'He's my dad.' 'Wow, He's so tired!' 'Yeah.'" and " Who's that excited crazy woman?' 'She's my mom.' 'Wow, she's so happy!' 'Yeah!'"
I think I took too many Gender Studies courses.

My situation compared to Ashley's: Her students throw shoes at her. They cheer when she threatens to increase homework (they have no intention of doing it anyway) and they only sit down and be quiet when the owner of the school walks into the room. This woman, Ingrid, Ashley's boss won't show Ashley any books or her give her any ideas for structuring the class but when Ashley makes a lesson plan and tries to implement it, Ingrid steps in and tells her that is not how it is done. Today I laughed aloud when Ashley told me Ingrid's request to teach the children phonics. She said she wants the children to sound out the word starting with the middle vowel. Flower. ow ow er . low-er. F-lower. Flower! Ashley said "What do we do when we get to a word like Aerobics!?"

I'm going to work on my lesson plans for tomorrow. I have a lot of reading to do. My natural inclination towards procrastination is tempered by thoughts of the bed bugs that are waiting to get me back in my bunk. If I keep my fan on (I finally got one that works) and stay away from the wall, and move around a lot, and get out of bed three or four times in the night, then they don't bother me too much.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

"Welcome to Sanshia" or "Never Stop for Banh Mi in a Strange Land"

Woke up early this morning, in Taipei. Walked to the HuaShan (Blossom-Mountain) supermarket down the street to buy some fruit for breakfast. I tried to procure some oranges. Last time I thought I was getting some plump oranges I had actually picked up some orange-skinned grapefruits. I was informed that here in Taiwan most oranges have green skin. So this morning I grabbed a bag of green-skinned citrus, but they were tangerines.

Yesterday was Saturday. Normally I will have to work on Saturday mornings at my new job but yesterday was a holiday, Double Ten Day. It is the anniversary of the Chinese Nationalists setting up the exiled government in Taiwan; Taiwanese 4th of July. I heard they were planning on shooting fireworks of the top of Taipei 101 (the world's tallest building) but it was such grey day, and the clouds came down low enough to obscure the top half of the building, that I don't know whether they bothered or not. I was not in town to find out.

I had made plans with Ashley to go hiking, but I slept in till about noon and the weather was threatening anyway, so we scrapped that idea and I suggested we go to Sanshia so she could see where I will be living and working. I was excited to be able to leisurely enjoy the charms of the city that I had only briefly seen. I remembered walking across the pedestrian bridge to the bus the night before and seeing tents set up with signs on them that said Taipei Farmers' Market. I hoped the market would be going on.

Ashley and I got off the bus in Sanshia. It was about 2pm and we were famished. I suggest we try the Bahn mi sandwiches at the Vietnamese place along the river since it was on the way. We stood outside the restaurant and looked at the faded picture menu on the window. Inside, a couple flimsy tables had been pushed together and a group of people were sitting there enjoying themselves, having a good time, bottles of Taiwan beer, a liquor bottle with some clear spirit, plates of half eaten food, spicy beef/chili pepper stir fry, green papaya salad with squid and a plate of plantain and taro chips. One of the women in the group, there were only two spotted us looking in and she beckoned us enter. The others all smiled and waved.

We stepped inside and the Thai proprietor asked us what we wanted (in Chinese) and we pointed to the picture of the Bahn mi. He didn't look too happy. He called over a woman who also worked there, his wife, and she pointed at other things that she thought we should have. This should have been a clue but we were obtuse and softly charmingly insistent.
I went to the drink cooler and grabbed a Taiwan beer (it being a holiday and all) and sat down. We were attracting attention from the group at the big table. Maybe it was my stylish straw hat or Ashley's mint green "Amy's Organic" t-shirt and blue eyes. Maybe it was our fool smiles that are always planted on our faces that say "I don't know what you are saying but I'm sure it is nice and I like you." Somehow we ended up at their table.
The two women were sisters and they were sitting next to a very tall man who was their oldest brother. The sisters didn't look like each other at all. One was short and stout with long curly hair and wide sun browned face with a slight blush over her wide cheeks. The other sister who was younger (between 35 and 40) was, tall slender and had fairer skin. She had a fashionable bob worn casually and was neatly dressed in a silvery rayon shirt and black capri pants embroidered with flowers. This woman, I call her Meimei (littlesister) cause I can't pronounce her name,it sort of sounded like Fen, introduced her older brother (age 48). We exchanged pleasantries. At that lunch which we began around 3 o'clock we discussed the Yankees, Taiwanese-Chinese politics, my nose, the many husbands of the stout sister, the lack of husbands of the pretty sister, the eldest brother's height of 185cm, my very big nose, the temples around Sanshia, food, the weather, Taiwan pride and the beauty of the island, the da bezi (big nose) on my face ....and then a man from mainland China shoved a spoonful of chicken fetus into my mouth. ok. It was very salty and tasted like boiled egg yolk, intensified by ten. Ashley had a bite too, her eyes shut tight and her mouth wide open.
One of the stout sister's ex-husband joined us at the table and he had a little girl of about 6 years old hanging around his neck. I played 'paper-rocks-scissors' with her till my hand cramped. Stout sister stormed out in a huff.

Oh, by the way, no one spoke English. There were ten words of English among the group of seven at table. My Chinese is like the grunting of a Neanderthal but combined with Ashley's knowledge we have about 60-75 words of Chinese. All this does is fool people into thinking that you understand them when they are speaking to you.

This morning I asked Ashley how she liked Sanshia. "I didn't see any of it but a Thai restaurant, and a karaoke bar!" Around 5pm we were ushered into a gypsy cab. I wasn't sure where we were going but we didn't drive too far and I was pretty sure I knew my way back to the bus. In the karaoke bar when Meimei said "Dance!" we danced and every time an English song came on we were required to sing it. They kept picking songs I'd never heard of but I could read the words that were displayed on the screen which was backed by images of eels feeding, little alligators swimming around and green fish. We were offered snacks. Pumpkin seeds that tasted of coconut milk; pistachios that also tasted like coconut; some deep fried crunchy fava beans (peel first) they were salty and delicious like oily crackers; and slices of dried candied apricot. We met more people and talked about my enormously big nose.

It was getting late, around 8 I attempted making my excuses to my hosts and plotting with Ashley our escape. The last bus for Taipei was leaving soon. Then Meimei told us all to get up, settled the tab, got us into another gypsy cab, Ashley, Me, Gege (olderbrother) and MeiMei. We weren't sure where we were going now; maybe back to the Thai restaurant? bus stop? no passed them, kept driving, driving. Neither of us new how to ask where we were going. At every red light I said to Ashley "open the door and run" but we didn't do that because it started to seem like we were heading in the direction of Taipei. "Disco!" said Meimei as we pulled up on a very Taipei looking street. (Ashley was in her hiking boots). We walked into another karaoke bar. At table in the back all of our new friends from Sanshia were sitting. Tea was poured for us, grilled fish drizzled with lemon, papaya, mellon, hard-spicey tofu and squid, sauteed greens and a big bowl of soup with meatballs in it. it seemed like the soup was just their to catch the "Taiwan whiskey" that people spilled as they reached across the table, over the soup, to toast one another. This drink was the clear spirit that I saw them drinking at lunch. It is very strong, kind of like grappa. They mix it in pitchers filled with ice and water to take the kick out of it.
The woman who ran this place wore a pink chanel suit knockoff and had a buffont hairdo. There were other girls who filled the drinks and the tea and the food. The songs at this place were projected in front of images of Versailles and carriages rolling around other palatial gardins. The room was filled with smoke from people smoking cigarettes. This was not like KTV where everyone was in a private room. There was only one room, everyone sits at rounded booths. On the wall above each booth is a no smoking sign.

We finally made it out. I think our hosts tired of trying to communicate with us. Around 11:30 we got into a cab, a yellow one, and went to Shandao were we stay. It was expensive, almost 300 NTD which means we were pretty far away, the outskirds of town, but we made it. I didn't mind paying for the cab since I didn't spend a dime that day. Our friend Meimei paid for everything and we tried many times to pay but she refused to accept any money. It was a fun night, like hanging out with a crazy aunt and uncles.