Thursday, May 13, 2010

New Year, New Love

For the last four years I have celebrated the new year at Christmas Conference in Indy, surrounded by my friends having a crazy dance party and praying in the new year. The thought of not participating made me wonder if the year could actually expire without this tradition. Well, it did. Though the western new year doesn’t actually mark the changing of the years in Taiwan, it is still celebrated throughout the country for us westerners. After work, Susanne, Shyra and I got all dolled up for the Hotel One Wild party. I had spend a series of nights at the night market assembling a wild-themed outfit. We all hustled down to the posh hotel, unsure of what the night would hold. As the elevator doors opened, I saw the first glipse of the wild theme- a parrot sitting amoung the tropical trees. This was followed by a series of flashes from the evening’s photographer, who felt the need to exclaim “So Sexy!!”. I attempted to take a photo with my bird friend, but the little sucker bit me. He just went for it- and my shreek was something that I could most likely never recreate , except for a situation of pure panic and trauma. We quickly hustled into the party to find the epitome of a hotel party, including live birds, attractive bar tender, and fancy lights that made me feel as if I was on an episode of the Hills. We counted down the new year with a band and some bad western dancing, only to go to my favorite Taiching spot… Elementary School bar. A bar with the classic Asian charm of beads, sheets for curtains, school desks for tables, and a series of private tables with a ceiling of umbrellas. Let’s not forget the welcoming karokee stage where I preformed my clutch song of “I would walk 500 miles” We finished the night pretty late, only to wake up with the excitement of an impromptu trip to the southern most part of the island, Kenting. After the very speedy trip on the high speed rail and a close taxi trip we arrived in sunny Kenting. It felt like an entirely different country, with the sapphire blue skies and sandy beaches. Andy, Shyra, and I made friends with another guy in our shared hostel room, Will. We bonded after I was talking about school house rock and although Andy and Shyra were doing the “Yonker, really..” look, Will pulled up the Conjunction Junction as if he got ready to it every morning. We then preceeded to have one of the best meals I’ve ever had in my life on a cafĂ© right next to the beach. Complete with my first whole fish. “You eat the head?!?” Turns out that is the best meat. But the eating didn’t stop there, the night market that lined the downtown streets of Kenting had more flavor than a Mexican quesadilla. It was packed full of games, food, and shops with a relaxed beachy feel. After Andy’s hopes and dreams were crushed multiple times by the basketball game, we decided to enjoy the beach. I had forgotten how truly unique and awe-inspiring beaches are. It’s easy because of the many postcards, beachy posters, and photographs scattered around family’s living rooms. There is nothing like being there- holey and completely there. I felt like I was looking upon a never ending abis, as the gray clouds and black sky and water all eventually melted together. There is a room in the IMA’s (Indianapolis Art Museum” 3rd floor that is my favorite in the entire museum. Partly because I’ve never seen anything like it before, so it __ embodies the description of “unique” and also because it is an experience, not just a painting. When you walk into the room, the “painting” appears to be a modern mix of gray hues, but walking closer, you can see that its infact not even a painting at all. It’s in fact a hole. A hole in the wall that looks onto a big white recatangular hole. The lights are arranged so that you want to just dive in to see how deep it goes. This moment on the beach was the same feeling.
The next morning we tackled the National Park, complete with a trek through the park, exploring the lighthouse, and a nap on the dock. I’ve noticed a continuous theme in the National Parks here. They aren’t the standard “park” that comes complete with a couple loosly marked trails and a run down bathroom. These parks are organized adventures with very clear pathways, maps, and little hidden treasures. In Kenting, we found small caves, tree “graveyards”, and a series of other small wonders that made me feel as if I was actually walking through the Canyland game.
Kenting felt like another country, and for a small island like Taiwan- that’s pretty impressive. Everyone was much more laid back, and we finished off the weekend by enjoying our upgraded room, relaxing on the beaches, and riding a packed taxi back to our normal lives in Taichung.

Teacher Snowflake

Pictures are really the key the understanding of this whole escapade. Yes, I covered myself and the break room in paper snowflakes. No, the kids have never seen snow before and were totally confused at the sight of me. I had imagined that when they introduced me as “Teacher Snowflake” the little children would go wild- as if Miley Cirus was in the room. Instead, I looked out to a bunch of cute little Asian faces with a variety of “Jigga What?” expressions on their faces.
Hess’ Christmas Party was the Saturday before Christmas, and both Nazeer and I volunteered to help. Nazeer was Santa… complete with a paper-like version of a fairly small Santa suit and a jacked-up beard. Together, we taught the kids to dance the chicken dance and the hokey-pokey, because hey- that’s what we all do at home each year. We also volunteered our services to teach carols, hand out gifts, and judge the many competitions.
The children came deccced out in full on costumes. Not many were really Christmas-themed, but they did what Christmas costumea are supposed to do. They made us all laugh, made the kids feel awesome, and helped the celebrate as the walked down our handmade runway to Beyonce. I have to admit, that my smile was pretty much fixed the whole day, which sometimes doesn’t even happen in traditional celebrations.
Enjoy the pictures folks, as they are much more descriptive than the video… which you will never, ever see. : )
After the celebration Nazeer and I felt a little like rockstars. And what do rockstars do? They party. So we trecked down to the night market for some tasty treats and a bakery run/conversation. Imagine us sitting outside in the warm air after enjoying pastries just talking among the masses of people at the night market. Now add a little shake-n-bake. Because, that’s exactly what happened. My very first earthquake.
In tornadoes, you get away from windows and stay low to the ground. In hurricanes you leave town and if you can’t, you stay away from windows and don’t try to drive. In a blizzard you build a fire, hunker down, and enjoy some shut-in time with friends or family. In a earthquake… what in Sam-hell’s name do you do? I’ve been told to put a mattress over you, get under a door frame, or under a desk. But I was outside. On a patio covered by a very large building. Both Nazeer and I froze and then Nazeer had the presence of mind to run. That’s right… run. He had seen the light fixtures swaying and we both heard the bakery girls scream an run out, so he just followed suit. After I composed the hott mess of myself, I soon joined him. It was so weird. The ground was shaking. It was like a bad full earth massage. And it freaked me out, because for the first time in a while I had no clue what to do. I wasn’t prepared.
Where was everyone else? Shyra was in our 14-story apartment and felt it pretty hard with the intense swaying of the building. Suzanne was out with friends. The boys were also out in Changua. Most people barely were affected by it, but it was a little sobering. The local response was, “ah, that was easy.” They weren’t shaken or visibly scared. This whole experience started a short obsession with the earthquake website that monitors every earthquake, the time, and how strong it was. Turns out Hualien has them at about a 4.3 range almost every day. So kids, it looks like we are all going to make it. Whew.

It’s a Wonderful Christmas

So what is the real recipe for the Christmas experience? Us Midwesterns have been conditioned to expect cold, windy days, snow on Christmas eve, a plethora of Christmas treats within reach at all time, at least one family gathering, and most importantly, the recognition that it is celebrating Jesus’ birth. In Taiwan, I’m now convinced the recipe is simply one party glitter/glam and one part western curiosity. Only one “Baby Jesus” was found in a random rooftop, which upon closer inspection was the size of a 3 or 4 year old.
The day was here before we all knew it, and there certainly wasn’t any snow or cold or even Christmas treats. Where were my buckeyes? My peppermint bark? Even…. Dare I say… my eggnog? And oh the lack of Christmas flavored coffee creamers…. It still hurts to remember a sold four months later(which I'm sorry 1,000 times for... I blame the lack of planner). I missed Church too. I haven’t found one yet, and I didn’t have the joyous celebration with “Angles we have Heard On High”, a song that gives annually me chills. Honestly, I told myself to just roll with it, so I did. I didn’t expect anything, so I wouldn’t be disappointed.
With that said, Chirstmas turned out to be wonderful. The Taiching 10 came together as a family, minus the crazy Uncle that asks you to routinely try Aloe juice or something of that sort. In fact, it was full of laughter, gifts, and a lot of great food.
Christmas isn’t a national holiday, so we all had the choice of working. Due to my newness of the branch, I decided to. Heck, I even subbed a class. Shyra and I were throwing the Christmas Eve party and brunch, and everyone was planning on leaving with enough time for me to catch a cab to work. I hunted down Elf with a passion, which we watched on Christmas Eve complete with Champaign off our 14-story balcony, real cheese supplied by Anna, a rather large sleepover, and a few angry calls from the security guards.
On Christmas morning I have to admit that I still woke up with that childish rush. Gifts! They were all supplied by “secret santas” and covering our stairwell just begging to be opened. Anticipation is actually a huge part of Christmas, which makes the “holiday” truly what it is. After all, isn’t the anticipation of events actually better than the events themselves? Now, this is very different from the Religious celebration aspect of the day, which is infact what the entire purpose is.
We started cooking- and by me, I mean Shyra- and everyone trickled in with their dishes. People brought sweet potatoes, fruit, veggies, meat, beer, and dessert. Yum! After we all ate ourselves silly, it was time for secret santa. It was our only gift of the day, but that was more than fine for each of us. We all took turns in the “hot seat” opening the gift then guessing who it was from. I annoyingly asked each person what their favorite Christmas song was to further the mood. For only knowing each other for roughly a month, the gifts were extremely well throughout and unique. Many people found teaching supplies, but also small gifts that they would have never purchased for themselves… the best kind of gift. Nazeer, a close friend of mine, was my secret santa. And he actually out-smarted me. Which, considering I had figured out/helped shop for over half our group’s gifts, was a very large accomplishment. I was surprised with things that reminded us of inside jokes, a tea cup, and a beautiful scarf among other things. Susanne wins for the “most excited” award though, as I’m sure everyone agrees, and her joy was pretty contagious.
After the gifts were swapped, the chicken's head was chopped off, and part favors were enjoyed, we all headed off to our respective locations. I barely got to work on time, struggled through two classes, and then struggled home in just enough time to call various family and friends. So Ladies and gentlemen... there you have it- a Taiwan Christmas!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Lights, Camera, Action

Asia provides many different forms of fun times. Taichung is particularly alive in the nighttime, and it is not unusual to find people on the streets at ever hour. Many teachers have jokingly mentioned that the two main forms of entertainment are eating and shopping, which in fact has turned out to be very true. Nightmarkets are a perfect example of a marriage of eating and shopping. They are essentially the description of their name- open outdoor markets that come alive around 5pm at night. They are generally in full swing around 8pm. Funjia boasts the largest night market in Taichung, and is conveniently a short five minute walk from my main teaching branch. Hundreds of people fill the streets each night to browse bargain priced clothes, shoes, jewelry, and glasses. It seems that you can find anything you have ever desired, but when you are looking for something in particular, it is quite an exhausting feat. The shopping is one half of the event, but what really makes the experience is the food. Wowza. Everything fried, grilled, boiled, and sauced is available. Many nights I walk the streets trying fried bananas, tuna/eggs/corn wraps in fried dough, potatoes on a stick, and buns of all varieties. A typical order for me is a point to the picture on the sign, or more often I just order exactly the same thing as the person in front of me. I feel as if these markets provide the same vibe as Christmas shopping. Everyone is out laughing, eating, and shopping. The clothes do actually fit my western proportions, but the shoes are a few sizes too small for comfort. A fellow teacher, Anna, pointed me in the direction of a shop that has 8s and 9s, which has provided two pairs of fairly stable shoes. The quality of many of the items is disposable at best, meaning that after a few wears the item can be found in the recycling bin. There are many night markets scattered around this lovely city, each with a few unique food stands or shops.
Movies are also quite popular for entertainment. Back in the states I rarely took time to watch movies and only was able to sit still after I completed my “To Do” list and checked it twice. Shyra has shown me some of her favorites online, and I saw the second Twilight, Sherlock Homles, The Imaginarium of Dr. P, and Avitar (twice) all in theaters. My favorite part is the combination of the fried cinnamon churro and the sweet flavored popcorn. The movie theaters are super cozy and often jammed packed. And how could I forget! The movies let you take in outside food and drinks. Its so much cheaper to order my extra large Coke Zero at McDonalds, and I can walk right on in without any concerns.
Oh and I cannot forget the clubs/dancing. Taiching actually has a lot of live music at a series of pubs mixed in with posh clubs and lounges for the full experience. Some clubs don’t let westerners in, so we avoid those as well as the ones packed full of cocky westerners. The music is all English, so its easy to let yourself slip into feeling that you are at home. However, after watching the dancing for a mere 30 seconds, its easy to see that I’m not in Broad Ripple anymore. I’m not a talented dancer and I really don’t have a booty…. But I look like JLo compared to some of these girls. A very popular move is something I like to call the “wet fish”, where the dancer appears to be a fish out of water flopping on the ground. Many of the male dancing is equally as awkward and disturbing. Another uniquely Asian experience is KTV (Karaoke Television). Many KTVs look like palacs and have a variety of rooms inside. And yes, some can be described as “Dirty KTVs”, which I have thankfully stayed away from. English songs are available, but they tend to be limited and the same in each place. My signature? I Would Walk 500 Miles. The music videos are often laughable, with 90s haircuts and puppies in fields. Its truly an experience.
Unique to Taichuing is the high density of tea shops. Each street has some form of tea chain or local shop. The standard is green tea with some form of sugar or fruit mixture. My favorite find has been black tea with pineapple. Some use real fruit, while others use flavorings. There is always an option for “bubbles” or tapioca balls. 50 tea is a popular chain and expands the tapioca into various flavors and textures. A shop in Taichung actually created the original bubble tea by accident. The shop has extra tapioca and decided to throw it in tea not to waste it. The crazy caught on and spread all around the world. I first tried it in New Zealand, but also enjoyed it in Indianapolis. I still have to visit the “first ever” shop, but many of the others have provided many refreshing, tasty drinks for under one US dollar.
Last, but not least, is 7-11. Yes, a convenience store. They are on each corner (around 9,500 shops in Taipei alone), and provide everything from a full meal (including wine) to household goods, to beauty products. 24 hours a day they are open, just incase you need anything at all. I have purchased bug bite ointment, coffee, frozen dinners, cell phone minutes, drinks, beers, shampoo, hard liquor, and paid my water, electricity, parking, and gas bills all at 7-11. FamilyMart and OK are also equally awesome, but they often do not have 250ml of Coke Zero, only 100ml… which is far from sufficient.

Hey, Let’s Have Tea with the Old Man

“Hey, let’s have tea with the old man.” That was the best thing my roommate has convinced me to (well, trying the steamed buns is a close second, but still). My travel senses have generally steered me to away from eating with strangers. Some of you may remember the airport debacle of 2009… where ordering a quesadillas turned into a vent session for a 300 black man about is online dating woes. But, Shyra understood this tea man’s intentions and convinced me to sit down with a pair of men that would eventually become good friends, or machi as they say on this side of the world.
Shyra and I had been hiking up the extremely steep trail on the mountain close to our house for close to close to ab hour. At the top we were both pretty excited to survive the climb as well as be able to fully enhale the clean mountain air. Most locals were strickly committed to their hike, glancing at us long enough to respond to our smiles and soft hellos”, but two elderly men sitting under a gazebo eagerly called out to us. My first reaction- “In your dreams, buddo.” Shyra’s first reaction- “Heck yes.” Upon sitting down at their table, we soon found ourselves with a cup full of green tea while making fast friends with this 60 year old man and his 70something friend. The retirement age in Taiwan is 55, so people who have retired gather everyday at the hot springs or mountain to try and stay fit and young. Mr. Tea Man had enough English for us to share a broken conversation. Some key points of the conversation were that a) I was fit b) our salary c) teaching at Hess. We decided to meet together the following week at the same time. Promises of saki were thrown around, but my doubts were high that this man would provide any sort of alcohol at this elevation. Oh, how I was wrong. Shyra and I were painfully late, as well as completely unprepaired for the 8 dish spread layed out for us. The little old tea man was delight to see us, and I soon found myself playing “paper, sissors, stone”(rock, paper, sissors to us) as a drinking game. At 10am I was gigglily meeting almost every person on the mountain. The only thing that was possibly missing from this situation was a soundtrack complete with “We are family” and _____. The feeling was a cross between meeting your boyfriend’s family for the first time and a family reunion. Quite a juxtaposision, but it was truly a warm welcome. The next day I started to sub kindergarden, so we have unfortunately not been back. After Chinese New Year we hope to re-start this friendship, as it has been one of my favorite memories of my experience in Taiwan.

Monday, January 25, 2010

A is for Apple

At no point in my childhood did I ever consider being a teacher. Not even on my map/radar/compass… whatever you want to call it. I was supposed to be working for a fortune 500 company in their marketing department in a beautiful city in the US. Well, it’s pretty easy to see that dream train didn’t stay or course. I have never had any form of skill with children, and often seemed to have the “hold-a-baby-and-it-starts-crying” curse. I can’t describe how things clicked, but just like legos, everything has connected to make my daily job pretty freaking cool.
Yes, I have yelled. Days have worn me out, but they have also made my some kind of teaching crunk from the really fun classes. Some of the kids have so much fun with you and always joke around in a way that they are your little brother or sister.
I am in a completely different form of education environment compared to my Midwestern high school or even my mother’s inner city hot mess. Essentially, Hess is a “private” education where the students are paying to learn, so they are fairly motivated. They work hard, and they respect the teacher…. Most of the time.
Classroom punishment is harsh by western standards, but it does work dreams. For example, if a student can’t sit still even after a series of warnings, I ask them to stand up until they apologize to me and the class. There is no concern for “political correctness” or children’s feelings. Calling students out is not only encouraged, it is pretty effective. I would never be able to tell a child in American, “Ricky, you are so slow,” in front of the class. But honestly, Rick is slow. Everyone already knows it, so hey… why not tell them and use it to get him moving a little bit.
Hearing “teacher Bethany” sometimes still stops me in my tracks. They are intrusting me with people’s educations, which is something that I value more than worldly things. It is a lot of pressure knowing that your words and actions will help or hinder someone’s growth, development, and English ability. It’s one of those things that can totally overwhelm you if you think too hard or focus too much on it. Averaging and giving grades makes me thing if how I felt when the teachers would pass back horrible scores. What really gets me is why I teach the ABCs. Something so basic, but the fundamental building block of English.

Stop, Move, and Wiggle With It

So overall, what rocks my socks? What makes me say “that’s…um… different”? Here is the short list of the biggest adjustment, that I’m sure will grow over time:
1. Food- I should preface this with the fact that I eat Chinese food circa two times a year, if that. Those two times the food is great. I love it! However, after the third lunch box I had reached my limit. There is this one unnamed spice that is the bane of my existence. It has the power to enact my gag reflect and seemed to wiggle itself into every dish in Taipei. Luckily, Taichung hasn’t provided any bad experiences with it yet, but my cat like reflects are still waiting for the day it strikes.
2. Chopsticks. I’m trying, and I love them. But sometime a girl needs a fork, especially with a salad. But this is minor.
3. Lack of freshness. The food here is actually incredibly fresh. For example, if you order meat at the market the vendor will most likely kill it for you and then give it to you. Rather, due to the pesticides used in the dirt salads are a rare commodity here, and usually pretty expensive. If you know me, you know I love my veggies. I need my veggies
4. Toilets. Western toilets are common, but squatters are the norm. If you don’t know what I’m talking about…. Google it. It is supposed to be healthier for you, but I feel unusually venerable.
5. Toilet paper. I’m not a “Charmin only snob”, but the toilet paper here is like a thin table napkin. So you only get one at a time and they are thin. Not fun, but the icing on the cake is the fact that they don’t flush it. Yep, the used TP goes in a trash bin next to the porcelain throne. It’s hard to remember and kind gross if you go to a place that doesn’t take it out every day.
6. Communication styles. The culture here is very much “through the grape vine” which means you often can’t tell if you have messed up or ticked someone off until a day or two later. For example, if you wear something a little too revealing, a coworker might say to you, “Aren’t you cold?” a day later. It is completely opposite from how I like to communicate with people, and has thrown my social interaction balance off. Its getting better, but the fact that I don’t get immediate results slows down the pace of relationships.
7. 6 dias in a week. The typical Taiwanese work week is 6 days. Kids go to school 6 days a week and some people even work 7 days a week. It’s actually not as horrible as it sounds, but it does make you cherish your one day off a week. My days feel like I am still in college since I go to bed at all hours and am still spending a lot of time in the classroom.
8. Language. Last but not least! I literally have no clue what these people are saying to me. Many people just talk to me and I stand there and smile. Really, no clue. I try- but nothing is even remotely close to English or Spanish. Often I slip into Spanish and answer them with “No queiro ahora.” Really? That’s not going to get me anywhere.