Wednesday, 27 August 2008

My Family-Mart Man...

A couple weeks back, I discovered and became acclimated to the Family Mart on the corner near my hotel. As the sliding glass door glided to the right and the 11-note entry bell song announced my arrival, I walked in and was immediately greeted by a very enthusiastic man who seemed to be almost excited to see me. I was slightly taken aback by his English greeting, but I went and grabbed what would become "my usual," Pear Iced Tea. Obviously noticing that I was American, this smiling cashier grabbed my drink from the counter on which I set it on, and started questioning me about the show "Friends." I had to laugh. When I told him it was my favorite show, he lit up. He clasped his hands together and bounced as he fired questions about my opinion on episodes or characteristic traits. My personal favorite moment was when he declared his love for Jennifer Aniston and told me that Brad Pitt is "so stupid" for ever breaking up with her.
Since this little Family Mart is only one block away from our hotel and makes an easy and quick stop for something to drink, a bite to eat, or batteries for my battery-eating camera, I have made it part of my lifestyle here. And every time I go in and "my Friends guy" is there, we always talk about it. He has even deemed me with a nickname..."Rachel."

They made me cry...

If you are ever feeling emotionally constipated, and you just can't find a way to get the tears a-flowin'...come teach in Taiwan for a month and try to say goodbye in front of 200 people. Those tears will find you faster than you would ever believe.
Today was the closing ceremony for session B, and once again, my students went above, beyond, and then beyond beyond. While most other classes did adorable song and dance presentations, my hilarious students decided to put on a full-blown play about my traveling gnome, Finnigan and how he was lost. My dear Stuart was Finnigan and yes, he had a beard and a pointy red hat! He was looking for me when he ran into two girls who were traveling the world so they took him around the world looking for me. Then they "stopped" at a few countries where they each took turns playing characters in each country and they played a song from each country. Of course my 'shake it' girl, Sabrina was the charmed snake in India...adorable. I was sitting in the front row, laughing like crazy at their creativity, when 'Finnigan' came out into the audience and took me on stage. The music changed to "You raise me up" and I knew things were about to change. Sure enough, they presented me with a couple presents they made for me and then they handed the microphone to my darling Karen. I looked at her and she barely said, "Annaka..." when she started crying. Seeing this girl cry was like someone reached behind my eyes and turned on the tears. She couldn't speak. She was trying to tell me thank you, but she just couldn't squeak it out. Finally, Irene took the mic from her, Karen came over and I put my arm around her, and started their thank you's and goodbye's. Almost all of my students took turns holding the mic and saying their last words to me, most of which were tearing up themselves. Tears, man. Just when I thought I was an emotional zyborg, unable to squeeze out any tears over anything, these amazing students touch my heart and make me tear up in front of over 2oo people and on camera. That's right, I'm not thrilled with the thought of it, but me fighting tears made it onto film. Every time I think about their faces, little drops of salty emotion rolling down their reddened faces, I get that little choked up feeling in the back of my throat. It's like this is finally hitting me...I'm probably not going to be able to see these AMAZING people face-to-face again unless they come to the US or I for some reason have a chance to come back here. I want to see and talk to them every day. It's these students that make me feel like I not only belong here in Taiwan, but I also maybe belong in the education field. Who knew that this little one-month experience would turn into such an emotional, life-altering thing? I know I didn't.

Monday, 25 August 2008

Little old Taiwanese men are my favorite...

The city of Taipei has millions of people, so I was bound to run into some pretty funny characters along the way. Since the population is so dense in the "people per square inch" kind of thinking, and since I don't speak the language (so small talk, my favorite, is out of the question) I have become accustom to 'people watching.' Granted, I tend to play this little 'game' back home equally as much, but still, this new variation has got me fairly intrigued. But of all the characters I've come across, I find that my person favorites are the little old men that I see at random parts of the city. Here are some of my absolute favorites.
On the MRT, during the most hectic time of day, we are all crammed into this metal tube like poorly packaged sardines. The smell of fish finds its way under my nose as I think about being stuck in a dark container surrounded by tiny silver, waterless water creatures. Blech. I stand, my hand clutching the ring that dangles from the ceiling...occasionally catching my balance from the jerking thrust back into motion. Looking around, I see people sleeping, checking their cell phones, reading, anything to keep their minds and eyes busy. I haven't caught onto this fad, so my eyes have nothing to keep them busy. So they wander from face to face. This afternoon, my eyes stopped on one of the cutest old men I have ever seen. His small eyes seemed even smaller in comparison to his abnormally large nose...which he was vigorously picking. Nothing beats seeing an old man dig for gold on the MRT during rush hour and him having no discretion. NOTHING.
On one of our first sight-seeing days, we were taken to Longshan Temple, STILL one of my favorite places we've gone. The general population of people within these holy walls is over the age to what I would guess to be 55. This is probably because of the time of day we are visiting; mid afternoon while the younger population is at work. After a few touching and awe inspiring hours at the temple, we were walking through the entry way and I saw an old man walking by in his long brown pants and a white shirt...rolled up to his chest, exposing his stomach to the world. Now, in America, we have a bit of an ugly stereotype attached to this "look"...the flamboyantly gay. Not here. He was just hot...or was he just showing off his abs! (which is very possible because that old man still had an amazingly flat gut!)
Now, this last guy...seriously one of my absolute favorites! On our visit to Ximen Station, we had parked ourselves in front of a department store as a way to shield ourselves from the oncoming crap-storm of insane rain! We circled up, discussing what we wanted to do, especially with the latest obstacle development--the storm. As we were talking, I turned to point to a nearby place as an option, only to see an old man slowly walking by, pausing to look at Anna and I. As I made eye contact, I finished my sentence to my group, but the end of my thought was interrupted by a sudden outburst of laughter by this man. Taken aback, I turned back to my group. "What was THAT all about??" I turned back to see him disappearing into he huddled crowd, perched under the store awning. He was still laughing. My student Stuart informed me, "He is not mental healthy...ah, crazy." Ohh. I get it. Is it weird that I thought it was funnier when I thought he was just this average old guy? Apparently you can get away with a lot of crazy stuff when you are an old man here in Taiwan!

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Riding the pooch and eatin' outta 'the can.'

Walking down the streets off of Ximen Station with my students, I quickly realized that this area seemed to cater particularly to the teenage/college-age people. I asked my student, Irene, and sure enough, Ximen is considered to be one of the hippest and trendiest parts of Taipei. We walked through an alley of five different 'off-the-street' tattoo parlors. So I stopped and check it out...then I got one. Ok, I am soooo kidding. Do you think I would get a tattoo in a place where I don't speak the language and couldn't tell them what I wanted?? You're crazy. :) Anyway, as we walked down one of the many crowded streets, I saw a man coming from the opposite direction, leading a humongous dog that looked like it was part Great Dane and part Rottweiler. It was huge! But it had, what looked like a big silver can strapped to its face like a muzzle. As he got closer, Anna pointed to the dog and the man saw her surprise of its size. Unexpectedly, the man stopped. "You want ride it?" he asked Anna in broken English. What?? RIDE the dog?? No thanks. We believe in treating animals a little better than that!
So what happens when your students take you to the hippest, and most trendy part of Taipei? They take you to "The Modern Toilet" restaurant of course! Talk about hilarious! Picture opportunities left and right at this place! First of all, the tables are bathtubs with big sheets of glass over them, the chairs are toilets, each designed a different way, and the decor around the place is just...unbelievable. The wallpaper boarder that is at chair level is of animated piles of poop that are dancing, playing instruments, holding a star, etc and then on the ends of the border is a stick figure of a man taking a dump! Classy. In the room next to us, there was a mural of a men's room and an ANGRY pile of poop in front of a urinal! Then...comes our meal. You get an entree, a drink, and dessert with your meal. My meal (delicious by the way) was a hot-plate of Thai coconut chicken...that was served in a huge yellow toilet! My drink...was sweetened green tea in a urinal. My dessert...was a swirled portion of chocolate and vanilla ice-cream in a squatter toilet. Can I say, "memory in a 'can'?" haha! Man, I love puns. Wow, that was lame. OH! And to cover my serving of rice with my meal, was a ceramic swirling mountain of poop lid!! Why, oh WHY do we not have this restaurant in the States???

Friday, 22 August 2008

Traffic--an inevitability with a population of millions...

Taipei, being one of the most densely populated cities in the world, has to squeeze people in every nook and cranny of the city bounds. So when all these inhabitants need to get somewhere, it makes the city streets something less than safe. In fact, I feel safer standing in the MIDDLE of traffic back home than standing on the edge of a cross-walk here! By the way, I found out last night that cross-walks are called zebra stripes here! :) Traffic rules are somewhat different here. For instance, if you come to a cross-walk as a pedestrian, you SOL if there is a long line of cars/scooters/buses coming, because you better believe that nobody is stopping for you! And to add to the issue, these freakin' scooters....ugh, these scooters. They come around corners so fast that you would be in the middle of the "zebra stripes" and you are moments from impact unless you scoot yer boot to the curb. The fact that these scooters can do some pretty fancy "tire work" (It's like foot work, but rounder. haha) brings a little sense of unpredictability and challenge to navigating around and through traffic. One of my personal favorite moves to see scooters, cars and buses, yes, even buses, the 'oh so safe' U-Turn. Oh, you would not believe the U-eys these people pull. And of course, I had to be introduced to this common strategic move the first night we arrived--The big tour bus that picked us all up from the airport, on its shimmy through the busy streets, decided to pull a 180 degree U-Turn in the middle of traffic. As on-coming traffic was still coming, my thoughts immediately ran wild, silently screaming "I'm going to die my first night in Taiwan!!" Little did I know that this move seems to be standard issue here! All it takes is a little toot of your horn and all is forgiven.
But once you are off the streets, you would think that you are safe. Wrong wrong wrong. I think some of the alley-ways are more dangerous than the streets! Again, you could be walking down this little alley--which you could practically touch both buildings on either side of you by reaching both arms out--and all of a sudden a meek but loud horn quickly beeps behind you. Yet AGAIN, I narrowly miss getting my hind-end caught under a 6-inch tire being driven by a skinny little woman in a powder blue helmet and a face mask. There would be a great obituary line. "Cause of death: she got her ass run over by a 98lb Taiwanese woman on a scooter on her walk home from work."
These concepts of traffic manners starts YOUNG here. Every morning, when I walk to the subway, I walk through a tile courtyard that is inhabited by a large variety of people doing a variety of things. There is often a few old ladies on the benches, facing each other and jabbering in Mandarin, (one can only speculate what they're saying...probably, look at that string of crazy Americans!) there is often a clan of young women with their children, and of course...there is the children. Little boys on bicycles are zooming around the courtyard, yelling things at each other. As they round the corner, ready to turn around and take another spin around, we both realize that each other are in the others' path. We stare each other down in a moving, crazy game of chicken: who will move first? Yeah, apparently I suck at bike vs. pedestrian chicken...I always move first. I guess that there is a rule here in Taiwan that I was unaware of: If you are on wheels of any kind, you have the right of all times!

Thursday, 21 August 2008

The newest accessory, and its purpose...

The first few days in Taiwan, I noticed that everyone carries an umbrella with them at all times. But there were also quite a few that had them opened, displaying a speckled view of different designs, colors, and sizes of umbrellas above their heads. Furrowing my brow in confusion, I looked up to the sky to realize that the sky was as clear as ever. A tad cautious of weather or something?? No, once again my assumptions of the circumstances are beyond wrong. All the women, showing off their colorful umbrellas, were shading themselves from the intense sun! This culture appreciates extreme lightness of skin color, so they shield themselves from any additional sunlight. Again, thinking back to the ways of home, I think to all the money that we spend on ridiculous tanning bed sessions and how much time we spend out in the sun, baking like a Thanksgiving turkey. What's funny is that some of the younger girls that carry them, quite often display a design or color pallet that matches their outfit!
This desire for light skin really shines through when talking to my female students. When I had them introduce their partner to the class, many of them made references to their partner having such light skin and they were very jealous. It was actually kind of sad to hear them say that. It reminded me of a book I once read a while back about a young black girl in the 1930's who YEARNED to be white because she felt ugly.
Going shopping in little drug stores, I've also realized how lightness of skin color matters to them. They have skin lightening lotions, face moisturizers, and my personal favorite...the "nipple pigment lightening gel." I didn't realize that there was an epidemic of dark nipples in Taiwan. I can just see them marching in the streets, women in the masses marching in demand of skin-care companies to create a solution for their dark nipples. What's funny about this ridiculous that in my mind...they're all wearing white. HAHAHAHA!!! (Oh come on, that was funny. 'Lighten' up a bit! Hahaha...puns are fun)

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Eat your heart out Celine Dion!...

Stereotypes are ugly things from which a lot of ignorance and hate usually stem. But the stereotype that the Asian culture is border-line obsessed with karaoke, is 100% correct! As a chance to experience all that is popular in Taipei, we teachers and some of our students got together and went to a little place on the corner right off of Jingmai Station called "Holiday KTV." Karaoke joints are different from what we think of in America. You don't sing in public, you rent a room with your friends and you only sing with them. We walked into this small, corner lot store, only to be redirected to room 123 in the basement level. I passed the workers, dressed in pressed white shirts, vests, checkered tie, and prim black pants and wearing head-sets. These official looking, old-fashioned-movie-type workers directed us to the largest room they had. They pointed out where the buffet was, at the end of the second hallway, and then gave us the song directory book. We all walked in to this (I'm guessing) 20x30 room, catching notice of the two flat-screen TVs, three sparkling black and silver tables, a podium and chair, a couch that ran the entire length of the room and around one corner, and three microphones, the walls padded with sound-proof panels. After checking out the VIP room, we put our things down and went to grab some grub! :) (Man, that's fun to say) All sorts of Taiwanese appetizers and mini-main dishes were laid out along with tons of different drinks and a couple desserts. Once we got back into the room, we fired up the machine and started picking our songs. Now, even though we are in Taiwan, they still had quite a few English songs. Of course, the English songs they DO have, are at least ten years old. So we deemed it "return to high school" night, as we belted out versions of our old favorite boy band and pop princess songs. We also sang a bunch of movie theme songs, including Disney songs, but mostly...(Lord help me) "My Heart Will Go On" from Titanic. Eat your heart out, Celine! We rocked the house. Not once did we sing individually. We all took turns holding the microphone as we put our arms around each other and swayed back and forth. It's amazing how memories of old songs bring out the crazy sides of our personalities. We were up and dancing half the time, sitting and laughing at others' performances the other half. Lots of great pictures! A few of my students were there and man, did they prove the fact that they love karaoke! Stuart let his hair down for sure. He picked so many songs! The boy loves to sing songs from this one musician. Can't remember the name...granted, I can't remember how to say hello half the time. I had such a great time. Anyone feel like investing in a KTV place in the States??