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!