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??

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

A different take...

Day two of session B: Family/Relationships and Personalities day. I had the whole class draw out their family trees so they could get up and present what their family is like. One by one, each student went up to the front and described how many uncles, aunts, cousins, brothers and sisters they have, but things switched up and took a little turn when Sabrina stood up and started to tell us about her family. When telling us about her Grandfather that passed away a few years back, she nonchalantly mentioned that this Grandfather still lives with her and her family. I usually pass up little moments like this, assuming that something is getting lost in the translation and that she just used the wrong word and it had different connotations. But the other students were also confused by this statement. "What do you mean? He lives with you?" they asked. Without skipping a beat, Sabrina cheerfully smiled and told us, "yeah, he lives with us. He's a ghost. And when I see him, he's usually moving around like this," she says, rocking her hips in a circular motion and waving her arms around gently. My eyes, without a moment of hesitation, widened as far as they go. But I looked around and found no response from everyone else. They just gently nodded as if it was the social norm to have the ghost of their grandfather dancing around their house. In fact, one of my most hilarious students, Vivian, chimed in, in her adorable, loud but sweet voice, "Oh yeah, me too! My Grandmother's ghost visits us too! She's crazy!" Sabrina and Vivian just went back and forth, back and forth discussing their ghost-family-members, talking about how they both were vegetarians because of their religion but how God himself told Vivian's grandmother that it really was OK if she ate meat. But the others could not because God had not spoken to them. This little conversation between these girls just made me realize, that the cultural divide is so great, and it escapes no bounds...ghosts and all.
By the way, the picture is of my hilarious of my personal favorite pictures of her!

Monday, 18 August 2008

Taiwan TV...entertaining even if I don't understand it...

A month is a long time to be away from not only home, but also the American culture as well. At the risk of sounding like an "outside culture hating" individual, I have to admit that one of the things that I do miss is my couple TV shows. So, a few days into the trip I turned on the TV in my hotel room in desperate hopes of finding something in know, for that little "touch" of home. Sure enough, I found HBO and a couple other movie channels, but in my scan-through, I found some pretty interesting shows/channels. One of the first things I came across, was the Karaoke TV..which is exactly what it sounds like. It's just individuals standing in front of a green screen, singing a song karaoke style as the words span across the screen. I guess they take their karaoke seriously...they have to practice at home. There are many channels with 'childrens' programs, which include crazy cartoons whose voices don't match (not even close) the mouths and possessed looking traditional chinese puppets. Of course, one of my personal favorites, is the home-shopping!! Their choices of jewelry and techniques of selling, has me rolling!! American home-shopping is all about the cheesy fake enthusiasm while here, it is insane, over the top excitement. No matter how funny some of these shows are...I still miss Project Runway, So you think you can dance, and Sex and the City!

WHAT is the theme?...

Out to dinner at our favorite dumpling house last night, conversation took a turn to other restaurants. We got on the topic of unusual products or themes that we've come across in our time here. Someone mentioned that at Danshui, the Coney Island-like place in the city, one of the prizes a person could win at one of the game stands was a two-foot tall, inflatable, brown swirly pile of poop. The 13 year old boy part of my crazy sense of humor immediately found this hysterical. Then Theresa told us about a restaurant somewhere in the city that one of her students had told her about. Apparently, this restaurant's theme... is the bathroom. The chairs are toilets, the table is a giant sink that has a glass top that looks like it's filled with water, and the food is all served in miniature toilets. Is it bad that I want to go to this restaurant??

It's Kind of Hard to Mime That...

Today was day one of session B. Waking up at 6:30am to get ready for the opening ceremony, first of all, is not my favorite thing in the world. But the response I received from my group made up for my lack of sleep and immediately gave me that burst of energy that I needed. Standing in front of these 150 students, giving my small introduction to myself, I asked, "So where are my group H people?" Expecting nothing more than a few reluctant hands to be raised to eye-level, much like every other person's group, I stumbled backwards from the sudden loud screams from about a dozen girls from the back row. I knew from that moment that this group was going to be amazing.
When I got to our new rooms, I immediately's freakin' hot in here. The air conditioning was O-U-T, out. I felt like a skin was glazed with sweat from the most extreme heat that we have experienced yet. The humidity today was ridiculous. That would have been an interesting introduction..."Hey everyone! Don't worry, your teacher isn't melting. Just ignore the puddles!" Thank goodness someone got it fixed before everyone showed up.
As the class progressed, I realized that my assumption that this class would be crazy and rowdy was totally and 100% correct! Some of these students had such lively and robust personalities. I was in shock--my previous students would barely speak, even when I called on them. These kids are actually volunteering and are just spilling their guts. I'm so excited for the rest of the class. I discovered, through the last couple weeks, that when they don't understand something, I generally have to mime a word or phrase for them. A student had given me a Taiwanese magazine to look through during lunch and on an ad for Valentine's Day, there was a phrase with the word "dung" in it. I just had to giggle to myself. I asked them how to pronounce it here to see if it was the same, mainly because as you've probably read, I have really discovered the importance of pronunciation here! Sure enough, it was pronounced the same. I told them, "It's just kind of funny, because in America, 'dung' is another word for poop." They gave me the look; the look I was dreading after uttering that sentence. The look that said, "I don't have a freakin' clue what you just said." Oh great. How in the world a I going to get them to know the word poop. Thank goodness I could describe my way out of that one, because miming 'poop' might ruin my integrity as their teacher. I can just hear them now, going home to their family or roommates; "You will never believe what our teacher did today..." Oh good lord, the mortification.
Later in the day, showing my pictures from home, one of my students asked me about my friend Jeff's shirt: a Hooter's t-shirt. She asked me what it was. Again, what in the heck am I going to say or do to describe that "classy" part of American culture?? But once again, after a few key phrases, I got her to understand. Once she understood, she mentioned that there was a similar kind of restaurant in Taipei. Ten bucks says that it's not considered a "family restaurant" like Hooter's pretends to be. Ahh, the education that I'm giving... poop and boobie restaurants. Classy.

Saturday, 16 August 2008

This City Loves to Sleep...

I walk around the city, stopping at all sorts of famous buildings, temples, museums, and stores--some days, we are out almost the whole day. I feel slightly worn near the evening rush hour, but I catch my second wind right around supper. But it seems like everywhere I go, I see random people catching a short little snooze in the most public of places! The MRT seems to be the most common that I see. Little old men, business men in their pressed suits, school children, mothers, everyone seems to be able to fall asleep sitting completely upright; a skill that I have never been able achieve. But what baffles me about these dozing people, is that the seem to wake up completely alert moments before their stop. If I was to, on the rarest of chances, fall asleep on a mode of transportation, I would be the crazy fool that falls off the chair and curls up in the fetal position, snoring like a ban saw.
What kills me, to the point of hysterics, is the fact that I was at the Sun Yut San Memorial today, and I saw three men sleeping in an informational movie viewing room...and the movie wasn't even playing. There were people snoozing on benches against the wall, their shoes off and up resting on the other end of the bench; there was a man sleeping on a park bench, sprawled out as if he was on his bed at home; people randomly taking naps on the floor and on small chairs in the book store. Why are they so tired?
I wonder sometimes, what does the world know that we Americans don't. It seems like the people from around the world take a portion of their DAY to dedicate to sleep, and yet we quit this wonderful concept after the age of 6. I remember times when sleep was a form of punishment. But now, I would give my right foot (or maybe the left) for a good solid nap every afternoon. So maybe, next time I'm coming home on the MRT, I'll try to catch 3 or 4 ZZZ's...even at the risk of falling off of that plastic blue chair, snoring loudly on the panelled floor.

It Pays to Know the Language...

Pushing myself to go to a country where I don't speak the language is probably one of the biggest challenges I have faced. Sure, I've been to France, but at least their language is written in the same alphabet where you can try to decipher what it possibly means. But here, exploring the authenticity of Asia, the Chinese characters, after a while, all end up looking like a picture of a house. Setting out and yet another day of sight-seeing, I found it almost comical the situations we get ourselves into when 'trying' something since we have no idea what the description or directions are. My personal favorite moment from today was when Anna and I were at the Taipei Main Station underground mall and we saw a line of 3D viewfinders. Looking them over, they each had a title written in Chinese characters on them, but obviously, we were SOL on that one. We looked at each other--"Want to?" "Sure, why not?" We stuck in the coin and bent forward to see the what this viewfinder had to offer. My slides began going by-- "huh, it's the zoo." They were all pictures of all sorts of animals. But from my right, I hear Anna, "Oh my gosh! It's a girl in a bikini!" Anna had accidentally chosen the "Men's entertainment" slide-show. We laughed as the slides continued to roll. Soft-core porn pictures flipped by one by one, but we could barely see them, our eyes were glossed with tears from laughter.

Friday, 15 August 2008

The Trouble with Gongguan

When being told about the city sights and places of interests in the first days of this trip, I was told about a place called Gongguan Station. In fact, we made a quick stop there on our second day, just to see what it had to offer from a quick glance. Throughout the last week of class, my students had been asking me what I was interested in seeing in the city, wanting to take me around and show me the city themselves. When one of my students, Ray, asked me that question, to which I responded, "I would really like to go to Gongguan Station and Night market." Ray almost choked on his drink as he looked at me through the smudged lenses of his black-rimmed glasses, his eyes radiating shock. I couldn't understand this response. I was told it was a good place to go. After getting his swig of green tea down, he repeated my request, followed by miming the actions of flashing his chest as if questioning if he heard me correctly. Now extremely confused, I said it again. "Gongguan Station...the shopping district? Right after Wanlong Station?" It clicked. His chest rose with a sigh of relief. "Do you mean Go-ng-guan?" he asked me. I had said it incorrectly. I pronounced it gone-guan. He proceeded to tell me the difference in pronunciation. 'Go-ng-guan' was the shopping district off of the MRT. 'Gone-guan' is the word for stripper pole. That's right, I had inadvertently asked my student to take me to a strip club instead of a respectful shopping part of Taipei. "Oops, my bad," has become a part of my daily conversation here.
Now knowing of its abundance of shopping options and proper pronunciation, I set out to take it in all that the district had to offer. Keeping me company and helping me navigate, is Anna. We pass store after store, each selling clothing, jewelry, purses, and eye-wear. After a while, the clothing stores begin to blur together. But the occasional hilarious store name keeps us entertained. "Oh My God" "I Swear" "The Dancing Cow." Anything in English here, whether it be on a store-front sign or spelled out on a t-shirt, is more than likely grammatically incorrect. My favorite from Gongguan tonight, was "Is Coffee Always Fresh." As a person who dedicates so much time to the language and words in general, these signs hurt my soul. :) All the more reason why I am here, spreading the knowledge of proper English--someone has to put an end to this insanity. Then again, everyone needs a few funny things to take a picture of and send back home!

Thursday, 14 August 2008

ghost month and lunar holidays...

While I've been here in Taiwan, I've discovered that we have come in time to experience a few Taiwanese holidays. First of all, going by their lunar calendar, we have come during "Ghost Month." I'm not all that sure what ghost month all entails, but I found out a few key points. One, the air constantly smells of insence and burning paper no matter where you go. I've been told that it is because it is custom to pray to the ghosts and that by burning paper, it is a way of protecting yourself from the evil ones. Also, I've been warned that you are not, under any circumstance, WHISTLE at any point this month because it 'summons' them! There are many rules and regulations to ghost month, many of which I am learning through mistakes. My students are usually the first to stop me in my tracks, "NO! Don't do that! It's ghost month! Do you want to be haunted until September?" "Oops, my bad. Sorry guys."
Since Taiwan goes by a lunar calendar instead of our standard 12-month block of 365 days, I've celebrated two other big holidays here. On August 7th, we celebrated the lunar Valentine's Day. My students told me the short version of their Valentine's Day history. Apparently, there is a fairy on the moon that came to Earth and fell in love with a human man. But she only could stay one day. So every year, the stars align to build a bridge so the fairy can get back to Earth to be with the man she loves. I hate to admit it fellow Americans, but I think I like their Valentine's Day history better than ours!
On August 8th, we celebrated not only the opening of the Olympics (which I got to watch LIVE) but also Father's Day! Again, I asked my students why Father's day is different here. 8 is the Taiwanese lucky number (like 7 in the US) and the pronunciation of the number 8 is something that sounds like 'pop'. So August 8th, "pop-pop" sounds like their word for Father.
A little side-note: Along with having a lucky number (8), Taiwan also has a bad-luck number...4. I heard that important buildings, especially hospitals, do not even have a fourth floor! It goes, 1,2,3,5, 6, etc.

The sights and smells of a night market...

Last night, I went to one of the many night markets that are in Taipei. These narrow streets are crowded with people, and yet men on scooters shimmy their way through as if their mound of metal was water trickling through grains of sand called pedestrians. They beep their little horns mili-seconds before impact, trying to make sure they get through without having to stop to file a police report about why or how the hit a person walking down an alley. That would simply take too much time.
Abeautiful exterior of stores with high quality items are the base of this market's success, but the lining on the inside, just outside their doors, is a multitude of individual vendors with cheapened knock-offs and souveniers that I couldn't help but think fell off of a delivery truck. Their products look worn, used, and cheap, just like the lining of a pair of old leather shoes that you've had for ten years. If you stop for more than a moment, this (usually smoking) vendor will jump at you, screaming something in Chinese. Thoughts of crazy info-mercial hosts come to mind. "Beautiful items at must-go prices. $100 usually, but today only $10...and for you, and only you, only $9.99!!!" I can only speculate what they are saying. The language barrier has made my imagination run wild.
The range of food in this market spans the scale to the extremes. The only thing that they seem to have in common, is that most are on a stick; sausages filled with fish eggs, fried shrimp rolls, fish and cheese balls, types of tofu. Call me an uncultured fool, but I personally have issues with a squid speared with a wooden stick. Granted, I have issues with squid in general, so I may be a little biased. But outside the little carts that offer a multitude of hand-held seafood or whole birds (with their heads in tact) hanging from their banner, there is an occasional good find. There is a tiny shop called Arnold's French Cookie. Four people stand in front of giant circular burners, pouring a sweet smelling, pancake like batter onto it and spreading it incredibley thin and round. After they flip them, they immediately begin to fill this crepe-like concoction with a variety of things. You can order anything to be put in it. Many order it filled with ham, cheese, pork, or any other meal-like items. But Anna and I prefer to pick something from the other side of the menu. This sweet, thin bread can be filled with anything from bananas, chocolate, peanut butter, honey, or jam. The fast-handed chef fills this saccharine, thin bread and folds it into what looks like a giant ice-cream cone. While I was still full from dinner, I watched Anna savor the peanut butter and chocoate cookie/cone as I made a conscious plan to return to get one of my own.

A Thursday on our own...

It's day one of our 4-day weekend between sessions, and while many from our group have left the city in hopes of finding memorable si'ghts, I, along with my sidekick Anna, have decided to stay within the city but explore its bounds. What started out as a 'little adventure' turned into a pretty memorable afternoon. The two of us set out to test our knowledge of the MRT (the subway) and the city bus system. We ended up going to one of the biggest malls in the country. We wandered around, finding all sorts of gifts for family and friends, but there was one feature about this mall that attracted us more than anything...the ferris wheel! That's right, the 2nd largest ferris wheel in all of Asia to be exact! Anna and I hopped aboard and we snapped a bunch of pictures of the city. I couldn't believe that I actually went onto this thing willingly. But isn't that what this trip is partially about?...pushing my comfort level to the brink?
After a few hours in this massive mall, we got back onto the bus system and found a huge memorial that none of our guide-books had in them. This huge, beautiful memorial was dedicated to the martyrs of Taiwan's history. There was even a changing of the guards, which we were just in time for when we arrived! The precision of those guards is hand-in-hand with the guards at Buckingham palace. (Which I have also seen first-hand) This memorial was almost haunting. They requested absolute silence beyond a certain point and no photography. This memorial was placed in higher esteem than the Chang Kai-Shek memorial! There were pictures and biographies of many martyrs along with life-size bronze busts of others. It was eerie, but incredibely moving at the same time. I guess legend says that if a person was to take a picture in the sanctuary area, that the images of the martyrs would appear on film. Craziness. We were glad we found it.
We just got back to our hotel about an hour ago. I freezing cold shower was definitely in order today. Well over 100 degrees today. Tonight, we're heading back out, the two of us, to go to one of the many night markets! So another post will be coming up soon!

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Sounds of the City of Taipei

When I make my life movie, and I'm in the works of a soundtrack, my time spent in Taipei will be nothing but scooter, jack-hammer, door chime, and classical-music playing garbage truck sounds! The amount of noise that this city creates is amazing. And yet, when I'm on the subway or the bus, they have strict assumptions that you will be extremely quiet and speak to no one unless need be. Of course us Americans have a hard time with that assumption.
Every morning I wake up to the construction site on the corner being demolished. Heavy machinery, jack-hammers, trucks being loaded each play their part in that little harmonic orchestra of chaos that storms my eardrum every morning at 7am. The part of my brain that appreciates music does not seem to respond well to this "orchestra." It usually triggers the 'sailor-mouth' portion of my brain and a fourth part in this Taipei Symphony is officially added.
Every night, between 6pm and 7pm, I have heard a tinny version of "Fur Elise" being played from the city streets. This repetition of the chorus makes my fingers itch because they are dying to be on those piano keys, playing along with this childish sounding version. Curiosity finally killed the cat a few nights ago. I heard this traveling song and was determined to find its source. Slipping on my sandles and grabbing my purse, I ran out the door. I walked down through the back alley, chasing the classical tune. And sure enough, there it was, a truck with bull-horn like speakers on the roof, blasting the song like an old fashioned ice cream truck. There are people running towards this truck. "Awww, people are that desperate for an ice-cream cone?" But wait, they are carrying something to the truck. What is that? They are throwing things at this truck!! This ice-cream truck has lost its whimsy--it is a GARBAGE truck; a garbage truck that travels up and down the streets every night, singing its classy tune, adding yet another harmonic part to this Taipei Symphony.

The end of round one...

Today was the last day with my "session A" students. These last two weeks have, (at the risk of sounding rediculous and cliche) flown by. This experience with these kids is so unmeasurable. It's like trying to explain what the city of Taipei is like; you just have to experience it for yourself. Since I have pushed these kids so hard the last two weeks, I gave them today. We did nothing but play review games, watch the Chinese Taipei (the Olympic team name for Taiwan) baseball team play the Netherlands, and let them prepare for the closing ceremony. This closing ceremony has been on my mind the last couple days, mainly because my students would not fill me in on what they were doing. In fact, the last hour of class, where they asked if they could spend it preparing, I was kicked out of the room! (Most kindly and gently as possible of course!)
When we got to the huge auditorium, each of the directors spoke, each of us teachers spoke, and finally, they began the group presentations. Six of the ten groups all got together and sang "Lean on Me" with their teachers. Theresa's group had a student play the guitar and they sang a variation of "You are my sunshine," Anna and her group did a routine from Moulin Rouge, Cheryl's group did a medley of songs, Andrea's group did a routine from Mama Mia, and my group: my wonderful, sentimental, deliciously creative and sweet kids; they went on stage and sang me a song from Taiwan called "I'm proud of you" and they had a power-point made of all their favorite pictures from class playing as they sang. OH!...they also had made balloon-flowers, and they each were holding one. The power point was beautiful...even though a few of the pictures were not the most flattering of myself! That is my own fault though...I tend to make funny faces at a camera. Then a couple of my kids said some sweet and wonderful things about me and then they ran off stage and gave all us teachers and directors the flowers! I was soooo glad that I was smart enough to bring my camcorder today. I got all the presentations on video. AND, they gave me so many cards, presents, and a cd of the power point they made. I adore these students. It was one of the sweetest moments I have experienced. After the ceremony was over, they had me pose for a million and a half pictures. My face hurt from making so many crazy faces for each student. Of course they wanted individual pictures with me, small groups, big groups, the whole shibang. I'm going to miss these students so much. So, I dedicate this tiny little blog to the 14 of you...
Kevin, Wings, Jasper, Kelly, Doris, Puppy, Frenda, Vicky, Aaron, Lilly, Theresa, Milly, Lizzie, and Ray. I love you all!