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".