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.