Monday, September 24, 2007

20 Questions from Uncle Dave

In a recent email, my Uncle Dave gave me some interesting topics of discussion for the blog. Many of them I had planned on writing about anyway, if I ever got around to it. I'll try to answer a few of them right now, and hopefully satisfy the rest later.

1. Is the internet my only source for current news? Yes, pretty much. Occasionally I will pick up a copy of The China Post, which is the only English language newspaper here. But I usually only read that to search for funny typos (i.e. 'sore like an eagle') or to inform myself about the latest health scare in Taiwan (a recent study reported that the majority of wooden chopsticks here contained a dangerously high amount of nitrates).

2. How do I stay updated on the latest celebrity news gossip? One of the many joys of living here is that I don't have to read about Britney Spears' child abuse case or how many men Angelina Jolie has slept with. However, while checking I was very happy to hear that OJ is finally getting his comeuppins. I am desperately searching for his book about how he 'would' have killed his wife and Ron Goldman. Originally titled "If I Did It," the book was not picked up by a publisher. About a week ago, a bankruptcy court awarded the rights of the book to the Goldman family; in which they retitled it "If I Did It: The Confessions of a Killer." It was picked up for publishing immediately and was an instant bestseller.

3. Are McDonalds and Pizza Hut in Taiwan? Yes, and I have successfully avoided them so far. One of my favorite comedians, Dave Chappelle, has a bit about how he is self-conscious about eating fried chicken and watermelon in public because it perpetuates the stereotype that black people love fried chicken and watermelon. He's paranoid that while eating chicken in a restaurant he can hear white people whispering, "Look at him. He loves it. Just like the encyclopedia said!" In a way, I feel the same way about eating at Mcdonalds. I can just imagine what the locals are saying about me as I dip my fries into ketchup instead of the gooey, sesame seed filled sauce that they serve here.

4. Are Hollywood movies popular? Yes. However, by the time they are released in Taiwan, they have been out in the states for 8 or 9 months sometimes. I often wonder how much money they actually make at the box office and how much of a problem illegal downloading of films is; since that appears to be a very easy and common option here. Not surprisingly, there is also a wide selection of Chinese films. I get the feeling these are much more popular. One of the most famous Asian directors, Ang Lee, is Taiwanese. He directed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

5. How do most Taiwanese feel about America and Americans? Generally, Asia has one of the highest opinions of Americans. Due to strong trade relations with the US, we remain incredibly popular with Taiwan despite our refusal to support their bid to the UN. In fact, we do so much trade with them, that even though the New Taiwanese Dollar is not fixed; it hardly ever fluctuates against the US dollar. I also have learned that wearing a New York Yankees T-shirt will make me instantly popular among Taiwanese people. Thanks, Chien-Ming Wang.

Since I'm at a smoky, loud internet cafe, that's all I'll write for now. But I encourage anybody with questions to email me or comment on the blog. Sometimes I will witness something that is definitely blogworthy, but dismiss it because it has just become a part of daily life for me.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Quick, short update

This update is more for myself so as I don't get out of the habit of keeping a regular blog. Something that I feel will happen very easily.

The teaching is still going well. I have a few classes that are quite troublesome though. My youngest class, called Kids Club, have absolutely no English skills whatsoever. I spent FOREVER with one kid just trying to get him to properly pronounce the word 'is.' After about 30 minutes, he still couldn't grasp it.

A few days ago I made a trip to Sogo, a very large department store, to pick up some much needed clothes. While there I went to a bookstore which had an English section. It contained roughly 20 books. However, I was very pleased to see a copy of Rory Stewart's book, The Places In Between. It is about the authors trek as he walked across Afghanistan six weeks after the American invasion and fall of the Taliban. The walk across Afghanistan is just a portion of his journey, in which he was retracing the steps of the first emporer of Mughal India; Babur. During the forward to the book, Rory writes:

"This book is dedicated to the people of Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Nepal, who showed me the way. They were not all saints, though some of them were. A number were greedy, idle, stupid hypocritical, insensitive, mendacious, ignorant, and cruel. Some had robbed or killed others; many of them threatened me or begged from me. But never in my 21 months of travel did they attempt to kidnap me or kill me. I was alone and a stranger, walking in very remote areas; I represented a culture that many of them hated, and I was carrying enough money to save or at least transform their lives. In more than 500 village houses, I was indulged, fed, nursed, and protected by people poorer, hungrier, sicker, and more vulnerable than me. Almost every group I met gave me hospitality without any thought of reward."

I like to think I've experienced a small bit of this hospitality in Taiwan. Although a little less extreme, on more than one occasion I've relied on the kindness of strangers. Whether it was an older Chinese woman who motioned at me to share her umbrella as we crossed the street in a torrential rain; or stopping a young guy on a scooter and asking for directions, only to realize he drives 15 minutes out of his way to actually take us there. These are the instances that cause people to step out of their comfort zone and travel across the world.

Being new to the country, working constantly, and scootering everywhere has recently caused me to become in very bad shape. Couple this with the fact that my dinners mostly consist of something deep fried in a night market, and I realized my health is not at all where I'd like it to be. To combat this, I've decided to take a brazilian jujitsu class. I took this for a year in college, and a little bit when I was in Thailand; and have always enjoyed it. It's great exercise and I really miss the competitiveness of sports. Now if only I could find a lacrosse league over here...

Another recent development is that I have officially enrolled in Chinese school. I paid my (expensive) tuition to National Chung Hsing University and will begin my elementary chinese classes on September 26th. It's pretty intensive too. I attend class Monday- Friday from 10:00- 12:00. I can't wait to be in a university setting again. I walked around campus today and it reminded me a lot of UT. Minus the sporting events, the bars, and the very pretty, very blonde sorority girls, of course. It will be nice to be considered a student again. It will also be nice to be able to order food.

And that's about all that's been going on in my life since the last post. Just to recap for everybody: I'm teaching Taiwanese kids, learning Chinese, taking a Brazilian martial art, and reading a book about Afghanistan.

Quite the international education, I'd say.


Monday, September 17, 2007

Taking Taipei by storm

Since we didn't have anything special planned this weekend, and we thought it was best to avoid the Pig Pen for a little while; Stephen and myself decided to take a train up to Taipei to visit some friends from our training group.

Rachel and Shane, not wanting to break their record of not having spent a single weekend in Jubei, also met us up there.

The train is cheap and only takes about 2 hours. It was relatively painless despite having to sit on the floor because we missed the train we had originally purchased tickets for. Thanks Stephen.

After we arrived in Taipei, we met up with our friends Nick and Tim. We all got a bite to eat and exchanged some hilarious stories. Then we stopped by the 7-11 to get some drinks and hang out at their apartment for a while.

Later we went to another all you can drink place called TU (Taiwan Underground). It was only Taiwanese people there and I got the impression the staff wanted to keep it that way. The bouncers and bartenders were all very rude, as were the male patrons of the bar whenever we tried to dance with any of the girls. I guess they didn't like the competition.

But the night went off without incident, and all made it home with their heads intact.

The next day we woke up and walked to a breakfast shop and got some Dan Bings. These are essentially breakfast burritos: a rice tortilla wrapped in eggs, bacon, and cheese, and smothered in syrup. They are fantastic. We polished those off with a bit of tea. Passionfruit green tea has become my favorite. I sometimes drink two or three glasses a day. There is also a pearl milk tea here which is high on the list. If you can find either of these at home, I strongly encourage you to try them.

With a full stomach, we left a few hours later to go to the National Palace Museum. In 1949, when Chaing Kai-Shek lost the war to communist China and fled to the island of Taiwan; he took many pieces of art from the Forbidden City with him. These are now all housed at the National Museum. All in all, I found it a little boring. It was mostly pottery and a few pieces of bronze here and there. There was, however, a very cool ivory decoration (pictured above). It was carved from a single piece of ivory and is 17 concentric, spherical balls; one inside the other. The craftsmanship was superb.

Soon after seeing that, we lost interest and went to the cafe to rest our feet.

On the way back to Nick and Tim's apartment, we stopped at the Longshuan Temple. It's one of the biggest in Taipei city. It was very crowded with people praying, throwing fortune sticks, and burning incense and paper money to honor their ancestors. It was a beautiful place and I wish I knew exactly what was going on. I also wish I wasn't such a goon and taken touristy pictures of people in their place of worship.

We made the trip back to Taichung later that night. I also met a new friend who is a fellow teacher for Hess. She's a very cute girl named Sue. Although she was born in Taiwan, she was raised in California and lived in New York city the past 5 years. She speaks with an American accent and likes fried chicken and potato chips. In fact, the only way you can tell she is Taiwanese is because she speaks Mandarin and plays badminton.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

September 9th, 2007- A Day Which Will Live in Infamy

Turning 24 became a little less depressing thanks to the help of some good friends and one of the craziest days of my life.

It all started on Friday night. Shane and Rachel made the trip down from Jubei to help me celebrate. Since most of us had to teach a class Saturday morning; Friday night consisted of just staying in and drinking a beer or two.

After class on Saturday, the fun began. We started by taking our scooters about 20 minutes outside of Taichung to a natural hotspring. The hot springs were only about 6 dollars to get in, and included a towel and shower cap which was required to wear. Why everyone who entered had to wear the shower cap, I'm not completely positive; but I assume the water isn't filtered and having a bunch of long, black hairs floating in the pools would be quite disgusting.

There were several pools to choose from of varying temperatures. Since it is still summer here, about half the pools were cold water. I didn't spend a whole lot of time in those because I just didn't feel like I was getting my money's worth when I paid to go to a HOT spring. And the hottest temperature pool, about 75 degrees Celsius, was too hot for anyone to sit in for more than a few minutes. There was one pool, however, that was about bathwater temperature and was very enjoyable. I could immediately feel my circulation increasing and my arthritis disappearing.

After a few hours of soaking, we showered up and headed for a nearby hiking trail. We decided to stick to the easiest path since half of us were wearing flip flops. It was very nice to get out of the heavy traffic, smog, and neon signs that make up the majority of Asian cities. Just a few minutes outside of Taichung, the forest gets so thick it appears impossible to even walk through. I can't wait to go back and head up one of the more difficult trails.

A full day of hot springing and hiking made us all famished. Still dirty and sweaty, we drove back into town and stopped at an Indian restuarant. Since most Western food in Taiwan is absolutely terrible; I didn't hold out much hope for the Indian food here. But surprisingly it was very cheap and tasty. We ordered a variety of Nan, dips, smosas, chicken, lamb, and vegetables; and devoured them all.

Then we all went to our respective apartments, took a quick nap, showered, and ran to the 7-11 for some beverages. We pregamed a little there as we talked and watched bad Taiwanese game shows on the only television channel we get. Rachel and Shane also gave me a birthday gift: a full sized glass and a fork. It was probably the best gift ever as I no longer have to use chopsticks and tiny, paper Dixie cups that dissolve after retaining liquid for more than 30 seconds. I swear I am going to start a full sized, plastic, disposable cup company in Taiwan that will sweep all of Asia and make me an overnight billionaire. The market is definitely there.

When it got a little later, we all headed out to a bar called Party Animal. It was a very relaxed place with a band playing. It was also very Taiwanese as we were the only foreigners there. The band leader sang me happy birthday and I received a number of toasts from the bar patrons. He asked if I had any song requests, but I don't think they knew 'Rocky Top.'

A few over-priced beers later, we headed out again to our favorite jaunt, The Pig Pen. For about 15 US dollars we gained entrance into a hip-hop style club with an all-you-can-drink promotion. There are several places in Taiwan that offer all-you-can-drink nights, which is quite hilarious to me when I think of how much money a bar would lose and how many people would get injured if this type of deal were offered back home. I suppose, however, since most Taiwanese take taxis and are able to drink very little anyway; this is still a viable option.

We did a little dancing and a little more drinking at the Pig Pen. All of us were having a great time until the real rowdiness began. Wade was talking to some girls when he turned around and noticed a young Taiwanese guy throw his girlfriend onto the ground and started to stomp on her face. Hard.

In true heroic fashion, Wade jumped in and put the guy in a choke hold. Unfortunatly for him, he didn't see the beer bottle wielded by the guys friend as it came smashing down over his head. Stephen and I joined in the melee after this and tossed a few punks around like it was our job. A little bit of pushing and some yelling at each other in different languages later, the face stomping boys realized they weren't going to make any friends in the bar that night, and were escorted downstairs to where the police were waiting. We all celebrated the rest of the night with more dancing and people continually coming up to us and thanking us for helping the girl. We felt like celebrities.

The night wore on and we started to drift home one by one. When there was just a few of us left, we ventured outside and realized that the sun was up. We hailed a taxi and made the journey home. Upon my arrival, I was sure to wake up everyone who had gone home before me was already soundly asleep. By 8 am I was in my bed and dozing quietly.

And thus ends one of the best birthdays I've ever had.

Ps. Fighting is wrong.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Fun times with Free Talk

The children I get to see most often are my Treehouse kids. While all my higher level classes only meet with me once a week; I get to see my treehouse kids 3 times. They are all around 7 or 8 years old, and although they haven't had many years of English; their speaking ability is quite good.

To start off each class, our lesson plan includes a 5 minute activity called Free Talk. Grammar is not so important during this as the main idea is to get the kids thinking and speaking in English. Each lesson comes with a topic of discussion. While some of these are quite intersting, more often than not, they are completely random and useless.

For example, one topic for free talk a few days ago was genetics. The lesson plan suggested asking the kids to describe their physical characteristics, i.e. straight hair vs. curly, long vs. short, brown eyes vs. blue eyes. Then to name the characteristics of their moms and dads. The idea was to get the kids thinking about which parent they resembled more and how they inherit different traits from both their mom and dad. However, this activity doesn't work so well with Asian children.

Me: Barry, what color is your hair?
Barry: Black
Me: What color is your mom's hair?
Barry: Black
Me: What color is your dad's hair?
Barry: Black
Me: Um, so who do look the most like?
Barry: -confused look on face-

The same conversation was repeated with eye color, height, and any other physical feature. The only variation I got was with hair length, in which case I had to explain that that was not genetic.

Another fun free talk topic was childbirth. The lesson plan gave me some interesting tidbits about a woman who had given birth to the most children (69- of which she had spent 27 years pregnant). And another woman who had given birth to the most children simultaneously (9- nonuplets). After explaining the concept of pregnancy, gestation periods, and the difference between identical and fraternal twins; I'd decided the kids had learned enough.

The plan also included some more morbid details. For example, the woman who had given birth to nonuplets. Within 6 days all of her children were dead. I intentionally left this detail out, as I just didn't have the energy to explain infant mortality and the dangers of fertility drugs to a group of elementary schoolers.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

A Horrible Day Is Salvaged

Today started off horribly. I didn't get a good nights sleep, which already put me in a bad mood. Then, Stephen and I went to Nova; a giant electronics mart that sells all sorts of computers, cameras, and other high tech doo-dads. My intention for going there was to get my digital camera fixed so I can actually have some photos to send back home. But after asking three or four different shops if they could repair it; they all said the same thing: no one in the building can fix it and I'd have to take it to this one place that is God only knows where. Quite dissapointed I walked back outside to my scooter to head over to my branch and prepare my lessons for the day. As soon as I sat down on my scooter, the clouds unzipped and it began pissing on me heavily. I waited for it to clear up a little bit, and then continued on to my school. Being in an unfamiliar part of town, I got a little lost and arrived with only 15 minutes before my first class started; giving me no time to prepare a lesson. On top of all that, when I did start teaching; the kids were being especially rowdy and obnoxious. After class was over, I went up to the teacher's lounge to begin grading some of the many homework assignments that I had put off. About an hour later, I needed to take a break and get some (relatively) fresh air. I headed out to the nearest 7-11 with my head hung low in despair. Once there, I picked up a bottle of red tea and a bag of Lay's "American style steak sauce" flavored potato chips (I was curious more than hungry). And then, while paying for the items at the cash register, something happened that instantly turned my day around.

Still in my own ticked off, little world; I suddenly hear an enthusiastic, young voice behind me shout, "Teacher Ethan!!" I turn around and there is one of my adorable little students named Ariel. She gives me a big hug and introduces me to her mom. As soon as I left the 7-11, I swear the clouds instantly parted and the day became sunny again.

I'll spare everyone the cheesy moral of the story about how you should always wear a smile because you never know whose day it's going to brighten. But just know that it's not complete BS because one little girl certainly turned my day around.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

I can't believe I'm responsible for children

My biggest fear about moving to Taiwan and teaching English for a year was the fact that I would actually HAVE to teach English. Although it is my first language, the extent of my knowledge of English grammar ends at nouns, adjectives, and verbs. Anything else is a crapshoot. Surprisingly, however; I have managed to fake my way through each class quite successfully.

The first class I taught was the absolute worst. The kids stared at me blankly the entire time and refused to answer any questions when I called on them. Even though it took me a couple hours to prepare my lesson plan, I had to constantly check the teacher's guide to see what I was supposed to do next. Not to mention my Chinese Co-Teacher (CT) would constantly have to correct me. At the end of class when I asked her what I could improve upon, she just kind of shook her head and sighed.

I can say with some excitement that it has all been uphill since then. It only takes me about 30 minutes to prepare a lesson plan now, and I am even starting to remember some of my students names.

The way the Hess system works is as follows. I teach in the evenings at what are called buxibans, or cram schools. The kids attend regular school during the day, and will then go to a cram school straight after to be tutored in English, math, science, piano, or any other number of things. They attend English school at Hess twice a week; of which I teach them once and my CT teaches the other day. I am not there when the CT teaches because I am teaching another class of kids. I teach about 24 hours a week, or 12 different classes. As you can probably imagine, it's very difficult to keep all the kids, classrooms, homework, and CT's straight.

What is most surprising to me is how much I actually enjoy my job. To be fair, it can be quite stressful and the kids can get on your nerves a bit; but I believe this might be the job I can see myself doing for more than just a few months!

My younger kids are especially a joy to be around. Even though their English is not great, they are all very expressive and absorb everything I teach them like a sponge. During break time they love to show me their toys and hang all over me. The boys love to fight me and the girls like to pet the hair on my arms and stare at my blue eyes. A couple girls in particular will always approach me and say "Lian Bi (blue eyes)." I respond by pulling my eyes apart really tight and saying "Taiwanese eyes." They squeal with laughter and run away.

I'm not sure how I feel being something of an anomaly to them.

Scooter mania

The main form of transport around Taichung is overwhelmingly by scooter; and, when in Taichung....

Driving a scooter gives you the ability to: make it anywhere in town in under thirty minutes, weave in and out of cars, roll your way to the front of the line at a red traffic light, and even carry a friend on the back while doing all this.

HOWEVER, it also gives you the ability to be slammed into by buses and taxis, sideswiped by other inattentive scooterists, get drenched in a sudden downpour, and be completely humiliated when you forget that other people can hear you singing along to your ipod.

Despite the inevitable dangers, scootering has been quite an enjoyable experience. We have resorted to renting our scooters right now, as we must wait a few more weeks until we receive our Alien Residency Cards (ARC) before we can legally purchase one and register it in our names. It will be especially nice not to have to deal with the shady, Canadian guy that owns the rental place.

Until then, our late night games of Scooter Tag will continue.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

The trip to Taichung

The morning after our big night out in Taipei, we had to wake up at 8 oclock to be on a bus for our destination city, Taichung. Under the circumstances, our bus ride was surprisingly comfortable. It was called an Aloha bus, and had large, leather seats, a personal tv screen, snacks and drinks, and a built in massuese. The trip took a little over two hours. Upon arrival we were greeted by some Hess people that would work at the branches with us. Everyone was very friendly and accommodating. They have all been a tremendous help so far in every aspect of our lives. I constantly call my head co-teacher and ask her for directions or to translate something for me to a bewildered shopkeeper.

After we ate lunch, we went on an apartment hunt. I agreed to room with two other guys from my training group. Wade, from South Dakota, studied anthropology in school and knows kung fu. His especially gentle demeanor is very misleading when you know that he can probably snap your neck with two fingers. My other roommate, Stephen, is from England. He is a very affable fellow. Even when he is cursing or trying to insult you, he still comes off as very polite. He slightly resembles Harry Potter; something his students (and occasionaly girls we meet at bars) constantly remind him of.

We found a really nice, 4 bedroom apartment with wooden floors and a small balcony. It is very close to a large KTV building (karaoke tv). However, we found out that this was a "special" ktv place, where not only singing goes on. We walked up to it one day to look inside, and the ladies at the door told us it would be NT 1000 per girl. She also kept repeatedly handing us warm towels. We ran away.

The very beginning

Although I've been in Taiwan for nearly a month now, I believe I will give everyone a brief recap of all the events that have transpired so far.

I arrived in Taipei on August 4th after a 28 hour trip. The plane ride was relatively painless thanks to some "sleeping aids" given to me that made most of it a blur. After arriving at the hotel at midnight Taipei time, I took a few more pills, slept calmly throughout the night, and jet lag was never a problem.

Training began the next morning. There were about 30 people in our group from just about every English speaking country. Each day consisted of learning a different aspect of the Hess curriculum, singing songs, and eating terrible lunchbox lunches. One thing I found odd about being here was the large number of South Africans. As I was told by one of them, apparently Saffirs (not sure if this is offensive, but I have heard them refer to each other as this so I welcome myself to use the term) tend to flock to Canada, England, and Taiwan. A bit odd, but it explains why I have never met anyone from this country before. All in all though, everyone in the group was really friendly and we hung out together much, which always caused a bit of a problem when 30 people are trying to decide what to do for the night.

There are only a few nights of fun that are particularly worth mentioning. One occured at an all-you-can-drink club called Wax. For NT 500 (about 15 us dollars), we gained entrance into a small, shady, basement that blasted bad hip hop music. The shots were weak, but me and Nick (from Arkansas) quickly started playing a game called "order a drink, immediately get in the back of the line, and see if you can finish your drink before you have to order another one." The rules are pretty self explanatory. Unfortunately, it gets much harder to decide who the winner is. In my opinion, we both won. In everyone else's opinion, we were both huge losers.

The following day involved sleeping until 2 pm, and then on to a pool party that a taiwanese friend invited me to. It was at a posh country club about 5 minutes from Taipei 101 (currently the worlds largest building). There was a DJ on a bridge that spanned the width of the pool. He was very talented in the fact that he was able to permanently ruin several favorite songs of mine. I've never heard Journey mixed with a house-techno beat... and I hope I never do again.

After about a week and a half, our training was complete. To celebrate, we had a wine and cheese gathering in the penthouse apartment of the company's president. We all got a little tipsy (some more than others), and then went back to the hotel to prepare for the real fun. About half of our group. along with two Japanese girls we met in the hotel, decided to go to a club called Luxy. It is supposed to be one of the best clubs in Asia, and it did not dissapoint. Full of expensive drinks, fashionable young Taiwanese people, and scantily clad girls paid to dance on stage... it was a great night to end Taipei on. And I mean a GREAT night to end Taipei on.