Saturday, April 3, 2010

how to walk down a mountain

Easter morning. The day before Tomb Sweeping day.
Tomorrow is Tomb Sweeping day. It is a national holiday. It is a Monday. I don't have to work tomorrow. That feels so good. Two days of sleep.
It is raining now. It wasn't this morning. This morning was stone grey, and I took a walk.
There is a path up a small mountain, the entrance to the path is only a few blocks from my door. The "mountain" is maybe only 1500 feet. I don't really know. It doesn't seem too high. I've done it before, and on a clear day you can see Taipei, 15 miles away. Today I couldn't see past the green of the trees on either side of the road. The fog was rolling in quickly, even mingling with my own breath, though it wasn't cold , when I exhaled, I could see my breath. The climb was steep but entirely paved, like a street, what my grandpa used to call "Mac Adams", what we call "street".
I was at the top in less than 40 minutes. There if found a small park that housed a giant bell. You cannot ring the bell. It is not suspended. It is resting on a platform.
I imagined if a giant came along and picked up the bell, he could fit fifteen people in it and shake us up like dice, then roll us down the mountain.
There were other people on the mountain, some families, some individuals, taking their Sunday constitutionals. I noted with some curiosity on my way up that quite a few people were coming down the mountain backwards.

Going up a mountain is always the easy part for me. Coming down is the hard part. If I'm not petrified with fear (this mountain was nothing to fear) then I'm pained by my left knee (it's shot, 29 years old and I'm falling apart). Going down hurts the knee. At some points of descent the road grade was about 65 degrees! Pretty steep. I decided to try my hand at the backwards thing.

If you ever wanted to make an annoying walk down a mountain an epiphany, just turn around.
First, something to do with body mechanics, the pain in my knee, gone.
Then is the perspective. My mind was confused, as my eyes took in the flowers and palm trees and spider webs laying themselves in front of me, in reverse, my brain took a while to adjust. There was a slight lag time between experience and understanding, reception. My body, my feet my legs my swinging arms, were jubilant and giddy with gravity's gentle tug against unfamiliar muscles. It was beautiful.
The mountain got higher as I went lower.
Somewhere in the middle of the mountain I heard a rooster crow, then his cocky friend answer. I listened to their conversation until I got a bit lower.
Then on the fingers of the fog were bleats of a trumpet. I thought it was an auditory acid jazz hallucination.
It got stronger. It was either an expert avant garde artist playing or a beginner learning, but unmistakably, someone somewhere on the mountain had lips against a trumpet and was playing something that was beautiful, and raw.
There was a primordial screech of a bird. I looked up. It was a navy blue bird. It had a long tail, that was cut with white stripes. It was bigger than the red winged black birds that used to taunt me along the marshes of Stone Harbor Boulevard but I began to notice that these birds lined the road on either side of the road down the mountain. Had they been multicolored and born of fire, I would have sworn they were Phoenixes.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


There was a 6.4 earthquake this morning near Taitung in the southern part of the island at 8:20 this morning.

My friend emailed me to tell me about it.

Didn't feel a thing.

Usually my bed vibrates or something. It feels kinda nice. But at that time I was walking to work. As far as I know, there was no trouble in SanShia.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


They're eating me alive. My kindergartners have changed. Since they returned from their winter vacation they have become ornery, lackadaisical, maniacal schmucks. Even the good ones, the sweet little round five year old girls, got the memo which I can only assume read "Teacher Helen is a loud pinata". They stomp on me. They ignore me. During story time I read an over-sized story book. It is so big that I have to stand up and hold it with both hands. Stanley thought it would be funny to pull down my fly. Austin thought it would be funny to eat the art supplies, and three girls decided to leave and take a walk around the school.

In better news:
I HAVE A CHINESE TUTOR!!!!!! She is Taiwanese. I meet her on Wednesdays in Taipei where she lives. Today was our first lesson. We first grabbed a bite at a dumpling shop. Then we went to little cafe that she'd been wanting to try. We walked in and there was some Taiwanese music playing. We sat down and they put on the Abba CD. Ok. They were trying to make me comfortable, I understand, but on it's second go around I looked at Vita (my tutor), she understood and asked them to change the music.
I can't wait till I can ask people to change the music.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Ping xi Lantern festival

Chinese New Year is a moon based holiday, so at the first new moon of the year people party. They're given time off and spend it surrounded by friends and extended family. This is the time of year with the highest rates of domestic violence.
Fifteen days later, at the full moon is the Lantern Festival. There is only one place in Taiwan to really know what the lantern festival is all about. It is Ping xi. Sure there is a town near Tainan that celebrates lantern festival by bus-ing in thousands of people and giving them fire crackers to throw at each other (fire retardant clothing is recommended), but while I have not experienced that, I don't think it could ever compare to the beauty and light of Ping xi.
The week before the lantern festival, Ashley and I began making plans. The area surrounding Ping xi has the highest concentration of waterfalls in Taiwan and the widest waterfall on the island. It is mountainous and from the summit of some mountains you can see the ocean. I told my students I wanted to go. They warned me. It will be very crowded. So we planned to leave early and buy an all day train pass so we could get on and off the train and do a little hiking around each stop. In the morning at the main train station in Taipei,we bought our tickets. We asked the man for an all day pass on the Ping xi line, "duo tien" (all day). He thought we said "jiuo dien"-(9:00). We boarded the 9:00 AM train.
According to the guide book, lanterns would be launched after sundown every 20 minutes. The train was packed tighter than a can of mackerel. We feared we wouldn't be able able to get back on the train if we got off and explored , so we decided just to ride it out all the way to Ping xi. We arrived a little after 10Am.
We walked around the town. Every where there were people selling lanterns. We ate some food. I ordered two cold dishes. One was shredded bamboo in a flavorless orange oil. The other was a cold meat dish. Thin slices of smoked meat with a raw texture, marinated in a light oil, some vinagre, garlic, chives and ginger. And a hot bowl of noodles with chunks of yam and bean sprouts with a brown sauce. The sauce had no salt, maybe it was some kind of nut based sauce but it was not sesame or peanut. I can't identify it yet. But tasty.
Refreshed, we looked around us. The town is a small mountain town. It was swarming with day- tripping youths, groups of bicycle enthusiasts, families. A man-made river cut through it. An old woman was fishing. From above her where I stood on the street, I watched the shallow dingy water as she whipped it with her rod. The river was filled with fish because I could see the silver flashes of their bodies as they leaned skyward then disappeared. Ping xi is a town of tiers and on this day it was capped by a grey sky. It is surrounded by green mountains. The streets are laid on steep hills. Some buildings are on higher hills then others. The train runs along the ridge of some of the hills in the middle of the town. There are shops and homes that flank the train tracks and a railroad bridge to span the gaps between the hills. There are shops and homes that flank all the narrow streets. Some wind under the train, some are above the river, some open onto it. Some homes cut into the hills, some sit at their feet. This used to be a coal mining town. It was in its prime 50, 70 years ago. Now there is nothing but cabbage and lanterns. There is no 7-11. There is no Family Mart, High Life or OK mart. There is nothing of the sort. There is no McDonalds. No Starbucks. For an entire day I forgot I was in Taiwan and thought I was in Taiwan. That is not a type-o.
We climbed up a mountain. We read in the guide book there was a trail that led to an abandoned mining site. We found a trail that was marked with some English labels which looked promising. One trail said it lead to "Disused Office" "Disused House" and "Disused Tunnel". We figured that had to be the mine. We got lost. We climbed ropes bolted into the sides of mountains and trekked up narrow stairs that were chiseled into the soft sandstone. Yes, when we reach the summit of one of the peaks I thought I was going to die. I don't have a head for heights and that's an understatement. But I was well rewarded when I dared myself to look out at the valley and the little town of Ping xi below. Even though it was still daylight people were launching lanterns.
The lanterns are made of waxy tissue paper. When filled with hot air they are about 5 feet tall and three feet in diameter. First you pick your color. Each color has a specific meaning. Orange is money. Yellow is to find a good mate. There were red lanterns, white, blue, purple and some were two colors and even three. Then with a big marker or a caligraphy brush you write on the lantern. You write your wishes for the new year and then say something nice to the gods. Of course some people deviate from tradition. I saw one that had a drawing of Snoopy and another that said, in English, "I'm going to killing you!". A wad of oil soaked ghost money is fastened to a ring at the bottom of the lantern. It takes at least two people to light a lantern because one has to hold up the paper while the other person lights the ghost money. Then wait. One minute, maybe two. The lantern puffs up and begins to rise and then you can let go. It floats like a bubble with a soul of fire. If done correctly, your lantern should fly up to the heavens where the gods can read your requests. If the gods reject you, your lantern will catch fire and fall to the ground.
I saw hundreds of hopes and dreams go up in flames. I saw hundreds more "disused lanterns" littering the streets, the river banks, the parks, the rooftops, looking like so many "disused condoms".
This is REALLY REALLY dangerous. INSANELY so. People shot their lanterns off from anywhere they pleased with out regard to power lines, population, buildings, trees, traffic.....
Some people stood on the railroad bridge (40 feet off the ground, not cement and steel bridge, just naked railroad ties and air) and launched their lanterns in the face of approaching trains. Many were caught in telephone wires. Some were pushed too aggressively by rogue gusts of wind and suddenly caught fire, falling into a crowd of thousands. And this is Taiwan, so everyone was packing fireworks. All kinds were popping incessantly.
Despite the trash and the danger and the crowds (which I tactfully managed to avoid by watching everything from a slightly precarious perch on the railroad tracks) this is a beautiful festival, breathtaking. After dark when the group launches began it was like watching one hundred giant fireflies float over the mountains. And because it was overcast, the lanterns replaced the stars.

Monday, February 22, 2010

shooting things

I bought a gun. A little pistol. An Infinity G.o58A AIRSOFT gun. It came with little plastic pellets. On the box it says, "Our company will not be responsible for trouble caused by misusing or remodelling (two 'l's) with the gun." I tried "remodelling" my apartment with it last night. Now my wall is riddled with little holes. I finally deciphered the meaning of the warning label. What it is meant to say is, "Please buy ball bearings and turn this into a bee-bee gun". Yes!

Back at school. The kindergarten class has a set daily schedule. Exercise Time. Sharing Time. Snack Time. English Time. Fun Time. Lunch Time.
Every day at Fun Time I have to think of another arts and crafts project for them. I've been wracking my brain for ideas. What can I do with these kids to encourage growth of their fine motor skills and drive their future teachers into early retirement? Paper airplanes. check. Paper bangers. check. Tracing leaves. check, but there are no autumn leaves here, I had to use strange tropical leaves. Paper footballs. on the list. Paper fans. check.
This morning I had a memory which inspired today's project. When I was 8 or 9 years old my mother went on a trip to Florida with my sister Julia. This left my sister Kate to mind myself and my younger brother. She took us to the video store and let us pick out a couple of movies. She gave us a bag of chips and 2 liters of cola. She took my brother up to the family room, made sure we were nice and cozy and safe. Then she told us not to come downstairs on pain of death. Maybe she was 16 years old.
After watching the Disney Robin Hood cartoon 3 times my brother and I were getting antsy. We fashioned some crude bows and arrows with cardboard, pencils and rubber bands. We made little paper hats and quivers and loaded them with ammunition. Pencils, twigs, anything. Prepared for battle we sneaked down stairs and we could hear music and people talking. We greeted my sister and her friends with a shower of pencils. It was epic. The battle lasted all of 30 seconds until we discovered the dragon had gotten loose (our rottweiler, Scarlett) and bit one of my sister's friends on the buttocks.
Anyway. I remember how much I loved my bow. Today I brought rubber bands, cardboard and popsicle sticks to class. The kids went wild. They loved their lethal machines. Everyone still has their eyeballs and everyone's bow is different. My Chinese homeroom teacher, Joan, started taking video. If she shows the video to anyone I'll probably be fired.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

It is Sunday. It is a beautiful day. The sun is shining on the mountains, on the buildings, on everyone's smiles, on the mounds of wet spent firecracker tubes. The rain has been unrelenting since Friday a week ago, since the first day of vacation. Tomorrow I have to go to work. This is a mean trick to usher in the year of the tiger. There is an expression "Dragon moves, Tiger changes". I don't know what it means but I can sense profundity there.

The rain did nothing to stop the revelry. Firecracker Pops and Pows and drums and horns and sounds of singing were as constant as the rain. Last night the rain stopped.The noise, it reached a fever pitch. Around 11 o'clock I left my apartment. It was too loud to think in my cell, I thought I could better cope with the noise if I were in the crowds. I wandered the streets of Sanshia. At such a late hour the streets are usually empty. Shops closed up. Wilted vegetable debris from the market gathered in the gutter. Maybe an old woman carrying a bag of tin cans some where and a pack of stray dogs but that is all the life prowling at night. Last night it was a different town. As I got closer to the temple I was swept up in the throng. Riding the crowd like riding the monorail at Disney World. Look left : a man with a microphone in front of a wall of toy cars and airplanes hawking his wares. Look right: Girls in cow suits playing with their mobile phones and selling icecream. Left: two South Indian men rolling dumplings. Right: a man selling leather belts, first he dips them in butane then he lights them on fire. Left: Biam! Pow! Watch out for those fire crackers! Right: A man sucking on a sausage on a stick. Right: A group of women poking their skewers into a warm greasy bag of mushroom nuggets. Left: candy coated cherry tomatoes on a stick. Right: a silhouetted group of little girls running through the crowd with sparklers. Walk up to the pedestrian bridge. From there I could see scores of little boys on the river banks shooting off fireworks. I stood and watched. I watched lovers stroll by with their hands on each others confections, cotton candy, candied strawberries, candied squid. I walked across the bridge. In the center of a bridge stood some police. they roped off a bit of the bridge. I looked into the roped off area. No bodies, no people, just a couple spent boxes of fire works and and..some thing wet. A pool of wet. Red wet. No juice containers nearby, no bottles of beer, just a massive pond of blood. I walked faster.

I came home and passed out.
Earlier that day I'd walked to the neighboring town, to Yingge and I went to the ceramics museum. They had more toilets on display then the the HomeDepot. But it was a beautiful museum. Some eclectic labeling system and strange organizing but a great space.

Ashley had already been to the museum with her Judge earlier in the week.
Ashley has a Judge now. One early morning when she was at the gym for her swim she met Judge T. He struck up on conversation with her. He is in his 60s. He studied at Harvard when Ford was president of the US. He invited her to lunch. Since then they have had lunch and dinner and hikes and hotsprings around the northern part of the island. He always picks up the tab and hasn't made any romantic advances. It is still hard for me to believe but there is a little part of me that says, here, a lonely man of means just wants to have a friend. He has children but they are grown and live away, he has a wife but we still haven't found out where she is. He's picked a good friend to have in Ashley and she learns a lot about the island and its people from her adventures with him. So for now it is win win.

Friday, February 12, 2010


Nothing like an early morning kill to get your day going. Like a strong cup of coffee. 8:30AM walking into work. "Teacher Helen! Teacher Peggy has show you!" "OK" I hand over the giant box of cookies I grabbed from the Family Mart as a New Years offering for the staff. I go upstairs to the kindy area. There are kids sleepily playing. They take me into the kitchen area.

This is the domain of Auntie (all older women are called Auntie here). Auntie is a large woman. She usually speaks Taiwanese so I can't understand anything she says. In between meals of overcooked greens, overcooked rice and boiled fishballs that she prepares for the children, she runs a noodle stand in Yinko with her husband. I would never cross this woman. She has short pythons for arms, hair like Medusa and a bosom that could swallow several children in my class if they ever dared to get close enough. I went into the kitchen and Auntie was cowering in the corner along with several of the other teachers. A brave teacher took me to the back of the kitchen. She showed me a glue trap on which lay a twitching rat. "Are you scared?" they asked. In Chinese I told them "wo mayo pa" I have no fear. (of course I was lying but I knew the torture these women were capable of. last time they caught one it was night time and I was teaching an evening class. I could hear screams and then a teacher ran into my class and told me to stay inside. Later I asked what was going on and they told me they caught a rat and the were pouring boiling water on it. Considering the screams from the teachers lasted for a good 10 minutes I can only assume they hot waterboarded Mickey for that long.) I told them, "I got it. I need some newspaper." "We get hot water!" said Teacher Dolly. "No!" I said. "Hot water is eee eeee eee. aaahhh aaha aaah. Longtime. not good. I take. 'thwap'. easy OK?" OK. (The kindy teachers speak about as much English as I speak Chinese. I wrapped the glue trap in newspaper and a little cardboard. I put it in a bag. I took it outside and give it a good stomp.
I went back inside a hero.

Today is Chinese New Years Eve. It is the turning of the year 4707, or 4706 or 4646 or whatever. The Chinese lunar calendar year is different depending on who you ask. It doesn't matter any way since here in Taiwan everyone knows the year is 99. They started counting from the founding of the Republic in 1911.
My students sometimes date their work 99. I tell them "English is the future, it is 2010". I don't really say that. I don't wish I did either but it is still funny.

So, what do you do for Chinese New Year?
I had to teach a song to my kids and it goes like this:
"I am so happy so happy so happy
I get to eat some dumplings
I am so lucky so lucky so lucky
I get to eat some candy
We need to clean the house
I get to help decorate
And we need to make a big dinner
For Chinese New Year!"
1-dumplings: people eat dumplings 24-7 here. No big deal.
2-Lucky Candy. It is wrapped in gold. It is made to look like the gold ingots used in ancient china, like our gold candy doubloons only these look like dumplings or boats. I ate some lucky candy. It tasted like pulverized driftwood and molasses.
3-Clean the house. This is the time to clean the house. Sweep out all the bad luck, clean out all the ghosts. This is the best time for street scavengers because all the old furniture and doodads come out onto the street. I've heard the trash truck music constantly for the past three days. All businesses do a major cleaning now. My school is cleaning. It needs it.
4-Decorations. This is serious. Everything that isn't nailed down has red banner with writing hung on it. Lanterns are strung up on all the streets. Because I live in Sanshia and the Tzushi temple is here things are especially festive. This is one of the most important temples in the Chinese world. A giant arch has been erected near the street entrance to the temple. it is two stories high and made of red and gold cray paper. Sometime this week they will take the 4 fattest pigs from the mountains and slaughter them in front of the temple. They they will blow them up. Or something. I don't know exactly what will happen but I'm gonna be there to watch it. It is the last animal sacrifice ritual in Taiwan. Officially.
5-Make a big dinner. People get the week off here. Banks, government buildings, schools, even my sweatshop of an English bushiban are closed. Everyone goes back to their towns of origin to hang out with their families. If they are from the south they go south, same goes for north, east and west. When they get there they begin to eat. They eat all week. First they eat lunch, then they eat dinner. I've been invited to a couple people's houses. I hope it works out. I really want to share a Chinese New Years dinner with someone.

So since everyone is off to their family's home, many restaurants, etc...are closed. What will us foreigners do?! This is the only time I have off! I'm sure I'll find something. Tonight I accepted an invitation from the NSTs I work with, Farah and Mike, to meet them at the Eslite bookstore. Apparently there is a microbrewery there that makes the best local brew in Taiwan. I hope it is open but even if it is not, I'm determined to have a good time tonight. FREEDOM!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Girl Scout cookies

I have an hour in between jobs today. I wanted to stop home and recharge my phone before heading off to a special Saturday kindy session. As I crossed the river along the pedestrian bridge I noticed a group of girls, 5 of them, walking purposefully in my direction. They were holding out little plastic bags with cookies in them. "How much?" I asked. "35" they said. "30?" I said not sure of my Chinese numbers. "No 35." "OK. I want one."
The girls had on scout shirts, pale green. On their breast pocket was sewn the flag of Taiwan. They gave me a bag of 5 cookies. I looked at my bag. There were some shamrocks on it. Maybe they are a Taiwanese bootleg of Girlscouts and 4H. There was some English writing on the bag, "a present from nature". That sounded suspiciously euphemistic to me. I opened the back and it looked like the present the proverbial bear left for nature in the woods. I tasted a cookie. I was brown and sort of chewy. Not very good but obviously homemade so I will eat them.
But just in case anyone was concerned, these ain't got nothing on our girls' cookies. Then again, I don't know a single girl scout back home that can bake me a samoa either.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

how what

I bought a bag of peanuts. They tasted like garlic.
I bought a bag of pumpkin seeds. They tasted of coconut.
I bought some wasabi peas. They tasted sweet.
I bought a piece of cake. It tasted salty.
I bought a breakfast bun. There was a hot dog in the center of it.
I bought a small carton of cherry tomatoes at the supermarket. With them came a little plastic packet. It looked like a melange of salt and pepper.
I liberally poured it on my tomatoes. It was like sweet MSG.

I'm a little sick. I have a cough that sounds like a knife against a whetstone or a muffled cymbal. It rattles in my chest and occasionally it yields a satisfying green ooze. A full third of my kindy class have the same. At "sharing time" when we talk about the weather and our feelings, my coughs are echoed by theirs.
I've had this cough for a couple of days. Yesterday I figured a little chicken soup was just what I needed. Soup is offered with every meal here. Corn soup, fish soup, seaweed soup, wonton soup (pork broth), beef soup...but I haven't noticed any chicken soup. I went into work and before my evening class I asked where I could get some chicken soup. No one knew.
Class ended and I was marking papers. Teacher Tina came down stairs with a metal pot that had a lid on it. "Teacher Helen, do you like ginger?"
"Yes, I was going to buy some just after class"
"I asked my mom where to buy soup. She went to the market and bought a chicken. She made soup for you"


I took it home. Simple. Chicken, and ginger. Not much ginger at all. The broth was a tonic. I feel much better today. I saved the bones and I'm now making more soup for myself. This time with veggies.

How do you repay that kind of gesture? Her mama made soup because some foreigner at work wanted it.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Be Modest and Grateful

The big end of the year banquet was held at the Taipei Convention Center. On a Sunday I had to be at work at 1:30pm. The previous Saturday I had had quite a late night. Ashley, Derek, Benji and I went to the night market and then wandered around the streets of Taipei. By "quite late" I mean, we had several small adventures until about 3am. So I crashed at their place in Taipei. Woke up at 8 and stumbled towards the train that would take me to the bus that would take me home so I could dress and go to work. On the way to the train I passed by then entrance of Taiwan Normal University. There were scores of students streaming in. Did I mention it was Sunday morning?

I got to my work. They put us on a short bus. The interior of the bus was decorated with strings of plastic flowers and grapes all of which had accumulated an oily dusty film so the grapes looked kinda mouldy.

We pulled up at the convention center. Straight away I'm pulled aside by my boss along with Mike, a tall Irish Catholic Canadian I work with. I knew this would happen. The day before (Saturday) as I was leaving work, one of the Chinese Teachers said "Teacher Helen. I can show you something?"
"Ok." Then she pulled out an Iphone and I watched a 50year old woman in a Hess uniform doing a cross between TaiChi and cheerleading. "Are you ready? Go! Banciao-Tucheng Hu hu shen feng! Bacnciao-Tucheng, Wo hu cong long! We are the heroes we are the best!" -rhythmic clapping interlude- "Banciao. Tucheng. Jiayo! Jiayo!"
I'm not really sure what it means. Banciao-Tucheng is the name of the district that my branch is in. Hu means tiger and it is going to be the year of the tiger in a couple of weeks. Jiayo means "let's go". Then she said to me "you will do this at the banquet. you will teach everyone dance."
"Who is everyone?" "Banciao-Tucheng". At least 600 people.
So, I was ushered into the corner of a corridor on the ground floor of the immense convention center. My boss started taking my jacket off me. I was given pair of yellow silk pants and a yellow silk jacket. I was introduced to the woman I saw on the Ipod, a big bald guy from another branch who looked like a skinhead genie in his blue silk pajamas, and a girl in yellow who towered over me in her three inch open toe heels. The woman used to study Bejing Opera. It is where her inspiration is derived from. We practiced our dance and our cheer. 15 minutes. Still none of us knew if we were to be on stage or not. We were taken up to our seats in the Mezzanine. We sat down. We were told that when the MC says "Banciao-Tucheng" we do our cheer. From the aisle. Maybe the theater seats 5 or 6 thousand.
It is huge. On stage was a banner that stretched from floor to ceiling. It read "Be Modest and Grateful". A Taiwanese man, a little hip hop, a little OC came out on stage and he bounced around and told some jokes that must have been funny but I don't know what he said. Then Huey the Hippo stumbled on stage. The Hess Hippo Huey. It is possibly the worst designed mascot ever made. It is awkward looking. He has no lower jaw, and I heard there are no eye holes for the person in the suit. Huey is blind. The MC hopped over to him and took his hand and led him to center stage. I'm not sure if Huey was dancing or having a seizure.
Then the spirit competion began. It got weirder and weirder. I tried not to look at the 30 foot screens that flanked the stage because sometimes the camera would settle on me in the throws of my discombobulated cheer.

The cheering was followed by two hours of awards, speeches, sing alongs and tribute videos to district managers. And Chinese zither music. That was cool. And a middle school recorder band. That was not cool.

Then dinner. lobster and abalone and sticky rice and pork and eel and scallops and shrimp and jellyfish and chicken and and and...
but of each dish I was lucky if I could grab a small bite off the lazy Susan that serviced the 13 people at my table. It was all tasty.

During dinner there was entertainment. On a stage at the top of the room people sang karaoke. The MCs also anounced raffle prizes and led some games. One game required a Native English Speaker and a Chinese Speaker to play a guessing game as a team. The MC would show one person an English word or phrase and they then had to explain the meaning of the word or phrase in English to the other person. Piece of cake. I volunteered along with Eddie a guy from my work. I'm pretty good at these things and watching the people go before me I thought it would be easy. <"Taiwanese people like to eat it. It smells bad."-"Stinky tofu".> "you put money in it and give it to people at new years"-"red envelope"> <"It is the subway in Taipei"-"MRT"> Then it was my turn. Eddie thought our chances would be better if he were the one to see the paper. "It's a phrase. It means you really have confidence. You say it when you have confidence. you can do it"-"ahhh.....a phrase?...'You gotta believe'?"- "no, You believe in yourself. it is 9 words"- "is it english?"-"YES" we fought for a little longer. We gave up. the answer "Where there's a will there's a way." That's 7 words Eddie! Not that knowing that would have helped me any.

The next day it was raining. I walked to work. It's funny how you take things for granted, your body, your bike, your car, your home, until something is wrong. Then the awareness of that piece of you becomes acute and worry sets in and reminds you of it every minute. My bike had been giving me some trouble lately and I was going to take it to the bike truck when the weather cleared. There is a man in a blue truck who parks on the side of the road. The back of the truck is full of bike parts and lights and tubes and stuff. He sits in the truck smoking cigarettes and reading the newspaper until someone rides by and needs something from him. He's fixed my tires and sold me accessories for ridiculously cheap prices. He fixes it right there on the side of the road and he is very thorough. Thursday was a beautiful sunny day. Great day to take my bike in. If only I had a bike. It was gone. Alas. Alack.


February already.
Got an email from Megan about Maymont and illicit sledding and I miss home. I don't even really know where that is but it ain't here. Don't get me wrong. This place is great. I'm gonna stick it out till my contract is over.
Some kids are on the roof of the building just under my window shooting off bottle rockets. I can smell them. I want to get some of my own and go down to the river. I've never shot a bottle rocket. It is February 2nd. In the states it is my second favorite holiday. Groundhog's day. But that's just my Pennsylvanian chauvinism I guess. They eat groundhogs in China. That's how birdflu spread. glad I'm not in China.
Dog is illegal here. Eating it I mean. However it was only outlawed in the last 15 years or so. It was Chang Kai Shek's favorite food as well as his son and successor's favorite. They say if you are walking along a rural road and on the breeze you catch a scent that is for your nose like a siren's call, if you smell something that makes your stomach ache with desire and makes your mouth wet with expectation, then you are near an illegal dog stand. The way they cook it supposedly smells amazing.

Teaching is getting easier. I've got the hang of the material. I've got the method down along with the necessary cynicism. It helps that I genuinely like other humans. The kids like me even though sometimes I scare them. A lot of my kids are between the ages of 8 and 12. Last Saturday Judy brought a stuffed animal to class, a little golden retriever. She propped it on her desk. I was drilling the students and asking them questions. At one point Judy refused to answer the question. I asked it again. "Was Dad in the department store at 6:00?" Still she was silent. I grabbed the puppy and hoovered it it over my foot. "Answer the question or I'm gonna KICK THE PUPPY!" The class went into hysterics, both those of fear and excited happiness.
I know everyone by their English names. Howard, Winnie, Kyle, Joe, Ryan, Willy, Sandy, Vicky, Apple, Toyota, Bingo. Some kids like to change their names every other week. I knew a Howard that became a Ryan and last I heard he was Cherry or something. I know the Chinese name of only one of my students. A girl named Nicole in my kindy class. Gao Feng Long.

Teaching is alright but then at the end of each level (a level lasts maybe 3 months, sometimes 6 depending on the curriculum) there is a "Performance Day". These are, like everything else in Taiwan, taken sort of very seriously. Swine flu? No problem. Put handwash at the entrance to every building. Take people's temperatures constantly. Wear face masks. Take soap out of bathrooms when kids play with it. Don't wash hands when preparing meals. Cough and spit where ever you damn well please. Ignore personal space. China? forgeddaboudit. Bitch and moan. Buy a lot of guns and bombs from the US that you cant use. Continue to be seen as independent by Burkina Faso, Dominican Republic, St. Kitts, Nicauragua, Swaziland and Vatican City. Publish Chinese artists forbidden in China. then go to China's tourist convention and advertise as "the Taiwan Region". and then everything the new government is doing to open the floodgates. Laws? Easy. Laws are vigilantly enforced here, when they feel like it. So these "Performance Days"are very Taiwanese. So much hard work goes into them. It is a day towards the end of a level when the parents come. The children show off their new English skills and then the parents are convinced the lessons are working so they shell out more money for the next level.
People work like crazy for these. We teachers, the foreigners and the Chinese teachers alike practice with the kids singing songs, writing speeches "My name is Peter. I am a boy. I like dogs. I do not like girls. bra bra bra...
One time I was on performance day when I first started. The Chinese teacher had taken control and she planned everything. First a group of boys would sing a song. Then some students would do a conversation and then one boy would dance. It was so weird. The boy, he must have been 13, began writhing around like Britney Spears to some Korean pop music. All the parents sat stone faced. The Taiwanese are always stone faced unless confronted with a silly foreigner. We're like can openers to their Campbell Soup personae. We really make 'em laugh.
This week I had four performance days. Different levels. One was an SA16 Level. that is the highest before the honors levels. So they were "graduating" from Hess. Cap n Gowns and everything. Of course it was conducted in the same basement where we hold all the events, class rooms, giant cockroaches (twice I've had to stop kids from playing with the giant cockroaches).
I didn't do much to prepare for this performance. I took over these girls at the beginning of level 16 but from level 11 to 15 they had a teacher from another school, a New Zealander. He really liked these girls and choreographed and entire show complete with a soundtrack from "highschool musical 2" and original dances. Kiwis are really sweet but really strange. Much like the fruit. Anyway as their current teacher, it was my honor to give them their "diplomas".
At the end they each were given a chance to speak. Three of them did. They thanked me. With tears in their eyes. I didn't even think they liked me.
Well they have all signed up for the Honor's level. I'll see them in May when the Honors level starts up.
At the performance day Teacher Fantasy asked me: "so Teacher Helen, will you help us plan the Christmas performance?"
"Christmas?" says I, "That's in December. My contract is over in August."
"Whaaaah? You don't stay????"
"Uhhh. It's January. I don't even know how to teach yet."
"You don't happy? You like it here? What is problem?"
"Errr. I don't know. Maybe. I don't know. It is January."
Ten minutes later.
"Teacher Helen. You know. I tell you no Honors class until May. Actually it starts next week."
Ok. So I will see these girls next week.

Chinese New Year begins on February 13. I have a whole week off at which time I have to adapt Shakespeare's "A Midsummer's Night Dream" for my new batch of SA 16s for their performance. I've always wanted to direct. I would've preferred "As You Like It" but beggars can't be choosers.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Year of the Foreigner.

Megan who? I've been in Taiwan 4 months. For the past three months, I've been living in SanSia, eating in Sansia and sleeping in Sansia. I've been soaked in this new life so thoroughly and so consumed by the tasks at hand that I've had no time for reflection or fear. Then last night before falling asleep I was in a memory walking down a sticky, soot covered lane with Megan. We were hungry , lost probably, scared and uncertain and anxious. In my memory my head was spinning with plans and hopes and trepidation. It seems like so long ago.
I tried to think of a way to calm down. My kindergarten students like to pet my arm hair. It soothes them. I tried petting my arms but I really don't have that much hair on them. They also like to pull at the hairs and I knew this wouldn't be calming to me so I put my thoughts to my schedule.Thursday, kindy, -must make up a color by numbers project for them-then go teach at the Sansia branch-then go back to Bei Da for a parent teacher event.
The trash is piling up in the apartement. The trash truck only comes at 5:30pm and I won't be home for it until next week. Maybe I can sneak some into the dumpsters of the college campus tonight.
When Julia was here she wanted to try to take the trash out. We made sure to be home. At 5 pm we were in the apartment drinking tea. The air was thick with anticipation (or old banana peel). at 5:30 the music from the truck came into my windows. I said "Go! go! go!"and she went down 6 floors, out the door and around the corner chasing the slow moving truck so she could toss the bags into its great metal belly. I was so proud of her. The first time I tried to do it, my trash was taken from me by a bunch of my neighbors in an alley. I felt cheated. When Megan tried it, she missed the truck at first but an old woman materialized and snatched the bottles from her.
Friday I will teach all day, 8AM til 9PM. Saturday I have work from 7:30am until 12. Then I have to find my way to Taoyuan to celibrate the birthday of someone I hardly know but whose expatriot status binds us.
Sunday is usually my day off but I have to attend the annual company end of year dinner. The dinner is being held for all of the employees in the Taipei area. Thousands of people. It is in Taipei and my branch is renting a bus. I am not allowed to decline the bus ride. I am not allowed to decline the invitation. We leave Sanshia at 1:30. We will arrive at the convention center around 2:30. Check in starts at three. Then there are a series of spirit building events. Branch cheer competition, motivational speeches. Karaoke which you have to sign up for in advance. More speeches about morale and team building. A group song. Apparently we will all be singing "Learning to Fly". No one thought to give me the lyrics or tell me our branch cheer, so I will just pretend. Then dinner is served at 7pm. The banquet ends at 9pm. So by this schedule it seems I have been robbed of my day off. I asked the people at my branch "Do i have to go back on the bus with you?" I really upset people by asking them that.
Teacher Fantasy said "and we have to wear a dress".
Oh, "ok," I said, "I'll dress up". Now I need to find a nice red and gold tie.

Last Sunday Ashley came into Sansia. We went on an amazing hike through the nearby mountains. We saw dozens of waterfalls,amazing and big. We saw orange orchards tucked away in the hills. We climbed slippery paths with the aid of ropes fastened to trees. We walked along rope bridges that I'm sure Indiana Jones would approve of. We skirted along narrow paths that hugged the mountain. One wrong step and you are looking at a very steep and uncomfortable fall through the redwood and bamboo forest. The trek was especially dangerous when other hikers wanted to pass. and then their friend wanted to pass. then the man with the baby on his head. then the octogenarian grandmother. Jeeze! Grandma was skipping along the trail like nobody's business. Taiwanese are really fit.And they travel in packs. At the most spectacular of the waterfalls we met a man who was there with his family. He lives in Yinko, a town near by but has a villa in the mountains here. He told us to recruit 6 friends so we would be 8 people and come for a Saturday night as his honored guests. He would give us SanBeiJi (three cup chicken) and drug free vegetables (organic?).
He wanted to kidnap us then and there and take us to "lunch". Ashley was willing but I put my foot down because I still had lesson planning and was a bit tuckered out and I know that in Taiwan a Sunday "lunch" lasts well into dinner. Instead we returned to Sansia and in the street market we found a woman selling second hand clothes for 2US$ (80NT) a pop. Ashley and I went nuts buying.
Then we found a stall full of new clothes that were very nice but obviously seconds. I bought a black jacket for the banquet. it will go nicely with my gold oxfords.

So yes, time moves very quickly here. I awaken on Monday and I go to bed on Friday not knowing what happened to Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. In reality it hasn't been so very long and with that in mind I'm adjusting quite well. There are occassional moments where I feel displaced. When I was with my kindy kids at the zoo last week, people we passed were taking pictures of me, pointing at me. I saw one kid tug his mothers sleeve and say "big nose foreigner". True, we were near the elephants and elephants are not native to Taiwan but i don't think elephants are called foreigner.
I might have miss interepreted but....One time I was at City Hall waiting for my dad to finish talking to his Judge and I sat in the chairs that face the judge's bench. There were other people there waiting for their case to be heard before lunch recess. There was a boy near me and he turned to his mother and said "big nosed honkey".

Today I was leaving work for lunch. The secretary asked how I was. I thought I'd be clever and use one of my new phrases "wo mi lu le" (I am lost). She looked surprised and i felt that my chinese was impressive. She said "You are reindeer?" putting her fingers on her head like antlers.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

the twelve days of christmas

Are Christmas trees still up in shops and restaurants in the US?
They are here. People here have a penchant for Christmas lights and tinsel. I wonder how long they will stay up. The bus drivers have taken off the Santa suits and I'm glad. It was a little unnerving being shouted at by an angry Mandarin Santa Clause. (I don't know when to swipe my card because each bus is different. I get shouted at a lot.)

Today is January 7. My mother always drilled into us how the 12 days of Christmas don't begin until the 25th of December. Yesterday was the Epiphany. In the states there aren't many remnants of Christmas at this time except half priced Christmas candies in the drugstore. Here the music that gets piped into stores has returned to the general "elevator" genre, but the garland and lights are all still there. It kind of reminds me of home. Not America home, because in most of America trees and decorations come promptly down by New Years, but my mom's house home because we often didn't dispose of the tree until Easter. This morning a girl in my kindy class gave me a candy cane.
The candy canes here piss me off. Red and White. ok cool. Tell me why it tastes like strawberry!
Red white and green. ooh delicious peppermint in my mouth. NO. fruity sweet.
Pink with red stripes. Cinnamon. well, if i have to eat the Cinnamon....Cherry! Why is it cherry.
I was in an elevator and I swore I smelled a yankee candy cane. It was just me and an old man in the car. I inched closer to him and inhaled deeply. He got off at the next floor with a frightened look on his face.

My sister has returned to the US. Everywhere we went, cabs, restaurants, bars, on the top of a mountain cliff at the northern tip of Taiwan, in the seedy bushiban basement of my school, on the subways and busses, walking down the street: All Julia heard was "beautiful" "You are beautiful" Ni shi fey chang piaoliang. "You are very beautiful".
Its like one of those 1930s movies when some western starlit ends up on a tropical island inhabited by italians in grass skirts smothered in grease paint. They are so taken with her beauty that they carry her around for a month and then feed her to a volcano.
She was flattered at first. Then she started to get annoyed. Then she thought it was a cosmic joke. Of course, it is true. She is very beautiful, but the reactions of the Taiwanese to her exotic beauty bordered on ridiculous. It was also funny that not once but twice when people asked where she was from and I told them "Ta shi Meiguo ren" (USA is called Meiguo-Beautiful country) they then pointed at me and "Ni shi Eetali ren" (you are italian person). Twice!
On Sunday, Julia and I went to Keelun to a geopark along the coast of northern Taiwan. There is an area of sandstone that has been erroded by wind and water and the Dali-esque landscape is a popular tourist destination. It is like Monument Valley in miniature and some of the stones (if looked at from the proper angle) resemble things in life. There is "Mushroom rock" "queen's head" "Faerie's shoe" "Tofu"...
And next to the park is a small hike on a well maintained path that winds up a cliff to overlook the Pacific. As we walked and wound our way up the path we stopped to take pictures at and overlook. I family was up there and the were staring and smiling at Julia. Later when we were leaving the park we met the same family.
They spoke no english but he asked if he could take his wife's picture next to Julia. Then out of politeness they took another picture with me in it.
Then he began talking to us so I translated for Julia.
He says you are very beautiful.
He says he is an open parkinglot. No, he wants to know how we got here?
He wants to know where we are going.
I told him "We are going to Taipei"
More translation for Julia:
He says he is a bus driver no he says we shouldn't take the bus. no, he says he has a car and he will drive us.
I said to Julia (Let's take the bus we came on. ) she agreed that would be best. I had to work in the morning and didn't want to get kidnapped. again.