Monday, December 27, 2010

The Fire Chicken and Asian Driving Stereotypes Confirmed: Merry Christmas!

You probably have been clicking your Reload button on the Caitlin Takes Taiwan webpage for weeks now, wondering when the darn title would change to something new. Well, international fans, the time has come: December in Taiwan.

The past month has been marked by two significant events: the holidays and my scooter accident.

What? You got in a scooter accident? That's horrible!

It's like C3PO being dismembered by a Wookie.
Yes...I would have to rank being thrown into the air after being blindsided by a car as being one of the scarier moments of my life, up there with waiting for college reply letters, watching the series finale of Gilmore Girls, and of course, my previous car accident in front of the Naval Base when I was 18.

The good news: helmets save lives, and heads (in that order.) Though I effectively did a mid-air ninja roll and landed smack dab on my back, my head was snug as Santa Claus' sash in my $25 Asia brand noggin defender.

The better news: the people who hit us knew it was their fault, stopped, took all of our details, paid all of our scooter damages, paid my hospital bill (I've temporarily joined legions of people with constant back pain, though I suspect that time will cure this quite well,), and we even "scored" an extra $300NT out of the deal (about $10 USD) which we used to drown our shock at the bar down the street. Wow, I'm old enough to drown things, hallelujah! I've heard over and over again: you are so lucky! We were lucky to drive our bike away from the scene (said the mechanics), lucky neither of us were seriously injured (said all of the ER staff), and lucky to not have to pay any bills (said everyone else) - because if the police get involved, there will be bills. 

So we were lucky. Though sometimes while trying to teach kindergarten with a bum back does not make me feel particularly lucky...but you know what makes me feel lucky?


It is now the 27th and while most of the Western world is still napping off food comas, I'm back at work. The Christmas vomit that has filled the school for the past month is gone and it hardly seems like it happened at all. My preschoolers brought down their house with a rousing dance to Mariah Carey's All I Want For Christmas Is You, my Home Room Teacher bought me an ultra-sexy cat purse, I had to play Santa Claus in a "party" for my older students, and virtually had every child in the school sit on my lap and tell me what they wanted for their happy day. That's Christmas in a nutshell. And what did I do most of the blessed day? Sat on Skype, that's what I did. Sat on Skype and ate the turkey that was my Christmas present! Sat on Skype and ate turkey and drank oodles of red wine and ate my very first fruit cake. Don't knock it until you try it; I'm heavy handed on the rum.
Skyping by the Christmas tree - note the festive handmade decorations.
***Note: My 9-10 year old students call turkey "Fire Chicken!" I thought this was terribly clever until I was informed that Chinese for turkey is "huo ji" which is literally "fire chicken." It's still pretty catchy.

Christmas is...uncomfortable in Taiwan. The 7-11 employees wear Christmas hats. All the apartment buildings put up trees. People rent out pontsettias. But there's no caroling or human excitement. Come on. Christmas is exciting. GET EXCITED, TAIWANESE!

Family, friends, high schoolers: this holiday season in the far reaches of Asia (and a part that isn't even autonomously recognised by the UN) I decided that next year, I 'd like to be a bit closer to home for Christmas. You might even see me. Until then, I'm holding my breath until the end of the semester (4 weeks!) and anticipating my trip to Thailand.

Love to you in the New Year? (And PS. Wednesday is my birthday :D)

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Sometimes, Not Even Food Solves The Problem

The fact is, I am a Scrooge when it comes to money. I don't like buying things. I don't like buying things I don't need, and I don't like paying more than I absolutely need to for the things I do need.

I keep mental lists of all the places in town it's cheapest to buy things. It's cheapest to buy oatmeal at a mom & pop dry goods store. It's cheapest to buy fruit and vegetables at the big wherehouse market on ZhongZheng. It's cheapest to buy dish soap at the 10 NT shop two blocks from school, and it's cheapest to buy meat at the Welcome market any time after 5:00PM, when they mark it down.

I'm a sucker for a bargain, which is why, when something is not a bargain, my reaction is completely adverse. Enter, last night:

James and I went stomping around for the bus for the mountains, which we discovered is located...DUN DUN DUN...on the other side of the train tracks. We had never been to the other side of the tracks before. It was crazy. It was intimidating. It was Vietnamese and Thai?

Apparently, the other side of the tracks is where all of the Southeast Asian immigrants do their thang. (Or their Trang, or Tran, or Nguyen.) We were so excited because as in the Bay Area, immigrants = good food. After a day of romping in the mountains, we picked out a funky looking Thai place and sat down.

Big uh-oh when the menu was opened and the prices were double the prices at our favorite Thai place on the other side of the tracks. And at the place, the waitress is angelically nice, whereas at this one, the man was mildly stand-offish. I asked if we could leave, and we did. Hungry and stranded in Southeast Asia OZ, we doddled up and down the street, not particularly happy. We walked into a Vietnamese restaurant only because we were tired and ready to eat.

The menu was not only in Chinese but in Vietnamese...which is no help because I don't speak Chinese or Vietnamese. 

This is where the night gets funny, I promise. James found something with beef and rice he wanted to eat, so he ordered it. I was stumped and tried to ask the woman "What do you like to eat?" but somehow she had no idea and just pointed at random things on the menu. I nodded when she found something she said was noodles and vegetables and really good. We crossed our fingers.

Still pretty grumpy from the overpriced Thai menu and wandering around in the dark, that's when the Vietnamese karaoke started. Ear shattering, whiney, and incoherent, the six metrosexual Vietnamese guys sitting at the table across from us were loving it. We sat there in shock, unable to talk about how awful this all was.

The food came to the table. One dish was seafood and rice, and the other was celery and something like greyish ramen noodles. The best part: both dishes had been generously sprinkled with giant pieces of organ meat - hearts, livers, etc. Also greyish. Sweet Gods of Dining, WHY?!?

Have you constructed the visual yet? Grubby restaurant with a group of possibly flamboyant, possibly simply attracted to very outlandish hairstyles, males, screaming Vietnamese karaoke, while the miserable white people choke down their livers and celery.

You just have to laugh sometimes.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Stayin' Alive

But busy as a bee.

I would not like to complain about work, or my health, or my inability to be understood/understand a lot of things.

I am thankful for my two-foot $1.50 Christmas tree, Zippy, and fish to eat.

Looking forward to a lifetime of getting used to a full-time job and the delightful way it makes me too tired to think ;D

Until next time, stay classy.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What We Eat, Part II

It's been a few weeks since I've given any real consideration to writing. After all, the last thing I want to do after a nice long day of breaking English into tiny words, sentences, and grammar labels is write something original of my own. It would be much simpler [is] blogger came with a [est] of questions and answers, much like the classes I teach.
*as you can tell by my excellent grammar and spelling, I'm really digging writing at the moment. We can play a game and you can correct me.

Therefore, back to food we go! In a country of cheap deliciousness, there's nothing I like to gloat about more than what I eat, what I make, and how obscenely cheap it was. And it was cheap.

Let's discuss something I love to eat: the lunch box. A lot of people find the lunch box bland or boring. I say, if you eat a boring or bland lunch box, get over it and move on, because you're bound to find an amazing one within a block of the last joint. The lunch box is generally a flat-ish to-go box divided into one large section and 3 smaller containers, generally reserved for your veggies. (Or if you're really awesome, you'll use them to divide up your different meats, because often you can choose tofu, tiny fish, and eggs as your "vegetables."

You can find lunch boxes practically everywhere. They are the "fast food" of Taiwan, although truthfully, you can find McDonalds and KFC pretty frequently as well. And nearly every restaurant will sell one to you. Damn smart, I think, because it practically ensures you eat a balanced meal. (Unless, again, you think tofu and eggs are vegetables. Which they aren't. But they are delicious. Have I mentioned I haven't met a Taiwanese egg I haven't liked? It's true. It doesn't matter how it's cooked. Eggs here are magical.)
*However, James reminded me that yes, I did find an egg I didn't like. It was 1,000 years old. Sort of. It was a hard boiled egg buried in hay for like a month and then peeled and cooked inside some ridiculously disgusting black jelly. Almost gag reflexed that one right onto the market table.
**Whoops, just informed that the black jelly was actually the egg white, way too far gone. Check this out: whytheheckwouldyouruinaperfectlygoodeggbydoingthistoit?

One night in Danshui, we found ourselves starving. Needless to say, Caitlin was not the happiest bird on the street. Thank goodness two doors down from where we parked our scooter was a family restaurant. What you see is a fish...a whole fish...a possibly once happy fish...of which I ate...the whole thing (save the very middle spine) and other deliciousness - the strips of yellowish stuff you might not recognize is bamboo (I love bamboo here just like I love eggs). Price: 75 NT. Less than $2.50.

Hot pot coals about to be covered by duck filled pot of goodness.
Just as common as the lunch box is the hot pot. Huo guo, if you pardon my excellent Chinese. Wo xi huan wode huo guo hen la. Heck, I could sit here all day pretending to know Mandarin (What I just tried to say using my 50 word vocabulary was "I like my hot pot very spicy.), but then you'd never find out what food I'm talking about.

Duck heart: chewy. Duck liver: bomb.
Eating hot pot in Taiwan is like eating burgers at home. Or burritos, if you're from California. Or sandwiches. You go a restaurant, pay either a set price or all you can eat price, and cook your food in a pot of boiling, flavored water in the middle of your table. There are a billion variations, and most of them end with hot, spicy, oily water flying onto your shirt. Nevertheless, this is duck hot pot.

We went out to dinner with an obscenely large group and found "famous" duck hot pot. Long line. Like, 45 minutes, which is oodles here. Finally you sit down at tiny stools and a low to the ground table. Your pot has a whole duck in it. You buy the things you want to add: mushrooms, meatballs, cabbage, hearts, livers, pigs blood and rice (oh yes, we did) - and cook it. Slowly. And drink some beer. And eat some more. The broth was gingery oily goodness. If only I knew how they did it, I would make my own.

Look who's making yeast rise in Asia...

Speaking of which, even though it's still equally cheap to eat out then eat in, I'm still finding time to challenge myself with the oddness of ingredients available over here. One of my greatest acheivements has been Sunday pizza. I found a terrific pizza base recipe on one of my favorite food blogs, and have since taken to whipping up a simple batch in our fabulous toaster oven every week. Toppings? Tomato sauce, of course, but the first few weeks we had sardines and lime, instead of anchovies, because there weren't any. Since then, it's anchovies, olives, capers and cheese...and a good ol' margherita. Chomping on pizza in TaoYuan. Come visit and I'll make you some! (PS. Bring some pepperoni.)

But it doesn't stop there. Bi-weekly burritos have also hit the menu. Our head teacher found us some amazing, taqueria-style tortillas (not a corn one in sight yet, but my hopes are high), and I've managed to find pinto beans, guac fixings, etc., to make a meal of amazingness. You'll have to take my word for it. I'm pretty sure I'm crafting some of the most authentic things this side of the Pacific.

Bienvenidos de Taiwan!

Oh yeah, about that teaching thing. Pretty sure I'm going into the out-of-home restaurant biz as soon as my contract is up. Winky winky face.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Happy Hallo-whattheheckkindofholidayisthis?

Out of respect for my children, their parents, and ultimate human privacy, you will not be able to see pictures of my P1 children dressed as dinosaurs, Super Mario, a lion, Belle, a fairy, a creepy shiny costumed man, a penguin and a pumpkin.

Instead, I will describe to you how to throw your very own Taiwanese Halloween.

1: Ignore it. Most Taiwanese families do, anyway, and it's only propagated for two reasons: Taiwanese parents send their kids to English schools, and Taiwanese people love to buy shit. Any excuse to have a thing of some holiday related novelty is enough reason to have a family outing to Carrefour to pick out a costume.

2. If you can't ignore it, go over the top for no particular reason. As did the Taiwanese staff at our school, you too can spend hours making Halloween decorations out of paper, plastic, yarn and paint! My class made ghosts out of Kleenex, spiders out of handprints, and pumpkins out of paper shapes. Then, stick them everywhere. Hang black plastic over doorways, please, because everyone loves bags in the face.

3. Play as much Halloween music as you can, as long as it isn't scary. This leaves you with about three suitable songs, one of them being "Trick or Treat" - a song version of the chant set to the tune of "It's Raining, It's Pouring." If I never, ever have to hear that song again, I will be at peace. They played it on repeat for three hours this morning over the loudspeaker.

4. Go trick-or-treating, but only at school, and while at school, only go to one classroom, thus making the actual treating time more efficient. Less candy, less fun, but also less time wasted.

5. Waste lots of time having every single student in the multipurpose room - let's say - 100! - tell the other students what they are for Halloween. In Chinese. While the Trick-or-Treat song is playing so loudly you can't actually hear the 4 year olds tell everyone ta shi shei.

Okay, okay. I wrote that blast pre-afternoon nap. This portion of the blog is post-homemade bean and rice burrito dinner. I'm a bit more retrospective and little less critical now. A few more quick points:

Halloween is simply not a holiday. It is a photo opportunity. Parents hung around for hours today just to see their kid take 10 seconds to walk across the stage in their costume, most of which were store bought (and many of which were the same, bought at the same store.) Some of them were homemade brilliance. One little girl showed up in a vest and skirt entirely made of bubble wrap and paper flowers (guessing mama doesn't have a day job) and there were some very decadent pumpkins, or nan gua, as I heard announced so many times. The kids stick their fingers up in a peace sign (the Asian pose we all make fun of at home, oh yeah, so real!) - snapshot! - done. The kids don't do anything. 

But field trips are like this, too. Let's go to a museum. Let's take a billion photos at the museum. Back on the bus. Let's go to the supermarket. Take a billion photos with the fruit. Back on the bus. There's this odd "The photo is more important than the experience." thing going on. Why do you want a picture of something you didn't actually do?

Tomorrow is my "anniversary" of three months in Taiwan. Time flies when you're buying consumer goods, writing obscene amounts of report cards, and taking your umpteenth photo.

But I still love my scooter.

Friday, October 22, 2010

"Teacher, Are You Sick?" and other random tidbits

Why yes, Taiwanese people, the doctor's mask over my face and the tissues falling out of my pockets indicate that in fact, I am sick.

I tend to get pity stares like, Oh dear, the foreign teacher went and took a bath in viral germs, so I have to justify the origin of my illness. "It's P1." I say. "The babies don't know how to cover their mouths and cough in my face."

It's true. They are disgusting little germ monkeys. The poor things shouldn't be in school, they should be in isolation. A week ago, I developed this lovely flem-y hacking cough a-la-students and went to see a doctor: Bronchitis, he said.

Now, I don't know what they learn in Taiwanese medical school, and I don't mean to discredit anyone with a P.H.D., but they tend to think they everything is very bad and curable with several types of medication. I'm pretty sure I don't/didn't have bronchitis. I'm pretty sure, because I am a doctor, that I have the flu. Nevertheless, Dr. Best gave me several types of medication, and I am still sick.

Speaking of medication, I ran out of oral contraceptives this past week and thought it would be easy as pie to buy some more. Remember what your teachers tell you about ass-uming?

It just so happens that oral contraceptives are one of the few types of medications that are not covered by the national health plan. This means that I can get a walk-in appointment and medication for tonsilitis for 50NT ($1.50) but a box of birth control costs me a whopping $500NT (about $15) - non-negotiable. For a country that manufactures much of the world's pills, I find this utterly ridiculous. And expensive. I speculate that the Taiwanese government wants women to have more Taiwanese babies (birthrate is below replacement), and therefore they don't want to encourage women to be smart. I am smart, but I'm paying out the rear for it.

Speaking of rears, I had one of my P1 students (the 2-3 year olds) pee on my hand last week. Speaking of P1, not only do they cough in my face but I have to also wipe their streaming snot. My solution: the doctor's mask. Teaching with a doctor's mask makes me feel safe and smart simultaneously. Except that if the students can't see my mouth moving, sometimes they don't understand what I'm saying. At that point, I pull the mask to my chin. There's nothing sexier than a chin mask.

Have I mentioned the rain? There's a little something called Typhoon Megi swirling around over here, causing incredible amounts of damage in the Philippines and soon to be China. Taiwan is out of the main path of destruction but we are incurring a tremendous amount of annoying, wind-driven rain. This is the rain that flies sideways and gets your legs nice and wet.

Rain + scooter = abnormally wet.

The rain comes up and down and sideways. We had a fabulous 15 minute scooter ride home on Thursday involving a downpour and at least three 90 second red lights. What can you do at a red light on a scooter? Sit there and take it like a man, that's what you do. Even with a rain jacket, the water still manages to trickle down your sleeves and under the face shield of your helmet. My shoes ended up so full of water I nearly had to tip them out to drain them.

I love the rain. It's still warm enough to wear shorts.

PS. Made pizza from scratch on Sunday. It was amazing. Except that there was not an anchovy in the entire city of TaoYuan. Trust me, I looked. I went to two different stores at opposite ends of the city...with my hacking "bronchitis." In the end, we ate cheese, olive, sardine and lime pizza. It was amazing.

Monday, October 11, 2010

My Scooter, or; Things I Shouldn't Tell My Parents

It is illegal to park your scooter on the sidewalk in Taiwan.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. (Honk your car horn.)
When in Ireland, do as the Irish do. (Drink a pint.)
When in New York, do as the New Yorkers do. (Have a slice.)

When in Taiwan, do as the Taiwanese do, and buy a scooter.

And so we did.

Our little black bundle of 50cc Yamaha joy, I call her Zippy and she spouts black smoke out her butt hole. She cost $300 and is the best piece of transportation I have ever owned. Don't tell the Subaru, but scooter driving is way too much fun.

It's a lawless road. Technically, you can only drive on the far right hand side of the road, sometimes in specially marked lanes, sometimes where there aren't parked cars. You aren't supposed to turn left, and instead you must cross the intersection and put yourself in "The Box," where you wait to go the right direction.

Did I mention that the average Taiwan traffic light counts down about 90 seconds? 90 seconds of agonizing, Why didn't I just turn back there? time.

Therefore, and I blame this on the length of the traffic lights, people drive as it is necessary. It is necessary to pass on the left, because sometimes old ladies with parasols walk in the street at -2 mph. It is necessary to thread your scooter through 3 foot gaps between cars and buses, because otherwise, you wouldn't move anywhere. And sometimes you make a left turn, just because you can't stand "The Box" and then extra several minutes it will set you back, sucking in scooter fumes at the intersection.

It's fantastic. It's stimulating. It's dangerous, and we are aware. It's like getting to be in the scene in Star Wars where Leia and Luke are racing through the Endor forest on the floating speeders. Lean right, lean left, DUCK, squeeze your knees in so you don't bang them on the car next to you. It is a bit rough going over the bumps, but hey, if a lower back massage will only set you back about $20, no harm, no foul, right?

But Caitlin, where do you put your stuff  on a scooter? It's not like you have a trunk or anything!

Good question, my friend. The beauty of Zippy is she is equipped with a plastic hook that perfectly allows grocery bags to sit at your feet while you're driving. And thank goodness Taiwan is the safest place in the world besides a petting zoo pen of bunny rabbits and marshmallows. Need to leave your shopping on the scooter while you hop off to run errands? No problem! Need to leave your helmet because you don't feel like carrying it into the restaurant? Heck, why not display it on top of your rear view mirrors! The other day, James and I scootered our new bromiliad plant home and left it on the foot pad while we made a doctor's visit.

I swear you could leave your wallet on your scooter seat and find a fresh rose and a $100NT note folded inside of it on your return.

Anyway, the scooter is amazing. James and I "splurged" on the cheapest ride, lowest power, smallest seat, but in good condition. At $3 per tank of gas, it's the cheapest way to get around. So far, we've stretched her legs to the ocean (twice) and to the mountains (hot ass hot springs) and are never disappointed. As much as I love transportation, it seems like the best places are only accessible by Taiwan's favorite transport mode.

How's she handle?

Zippy doesn't purr, she buzzes.

Learning to drive in the empty parking lot. Unrealistic good practice, but I have since progressed to the big leagues.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

What We Eat, Part I

Question: What do you eat in Taiwan?
Answer: Anything I frickin' want. 

It is ridiculously easy to eat three-ten square meals a day in Taiwan, not only because all townships like TaoYuan have a person/restaurant ratio rivaled only by New York City, but because it costs peanuts to eat deliciously, to eat well, and to eat diversely. 

 Those who know me are familiar with my obsession with cooking. The best part about being here is I can not only indulge my kitchen love, but also give myself a bit of a rest and let someone else do the cooking (and the dishes) for a change. This is especially handy on most work days, when jumping around for 8-10 hours doesn't leave me with the desire to run home and whip up something creative.

Let's turn to the photos for evidence:

Breakfast of Champion (Teachers)
*at least it prevents a hunger meltdown*
OK, so we're spoiled breakfast eaters.
Breakfast is a long, drawn out affair involving several types of cereal, bananas, a supplementary fruit - in this case, a mango - whole wheat toast (or half wheat, I speculate, because it looks less than grainy), almonds, and a glass of iced oolong tea. Iced tea for breakfast? Are you nuts? No, I'm just sweating like a pig at 8:00 in the morning, thank you very much.

Rou Fan - Something I Can Order In Chinese
 The ubiquitous "肉飯" - meat rice (this particular one is lu rou fan, with stewed pork meat) and a bowl of "it" over white rice costs a whopping 75 cents. Note the red coloring - this is hot sauce - a necessary component of the dish. I could eat this all day, except that I'm probably missing some other key nutrients. This particular one comes from what we like to call "The Ladies," an eatery around the corner run by two ladies who cook, well, homestyle Taiwanese food. You can also get various pig parts fried up, if it so tickles your fancy.

Are you sure you're in Asia, Caitlin?

Sunday Brunch: who knew? We found pancake mix at Carrefour, (with directions completely in Chinese, so I added bananas and winged it. Wung it? Wang it?) bacon, eggs, and an odd Asian fruit called a wax apple. It looks like a red pear covered in crayon wax and tastes like lightly flavored Chapstick. Great thing about the eggs: You can buy eggs in the supermarket, which is lame-o, or your can buy eggs from any of your neighborhood egg vendors, who sell eggs individually out of big crates and give them to you to carry home in plastic bags. The eggs are enormous and still have chicken fuzz attached to them. How cool is that?

 Moon cakes: It's a Moon Festival thing, really, but you can eat them pretty much whenever you want. And for me, since I only understand like two words when I ask "What's in it?", it's always a surprise! This particular moon cake was purchased because I heard the word "meat," and I assumed it was pork's Asia. But to my dining confusion, it was peppered beef, inside a flaky crust, inside a smooshed sweet red been paste. I had another moon cake the other night I could have sworn had a fish inside of it. One of my kids set me straight. It was an egg. Surprise.

 Sometimes I cook dinner, too. In this case, I made a dish I decided to call "Bruschetta Pasta," due to the fact that it a basil, tomato, almond, and garlic mash up. I'm still making pasta sauce in the wok most of the time. I don't know if I'll ever go back. 

A word on tomatoes: they are expensive. The Taiwanese only really use them in a dish we simply call "Tomato eggs," which are tomatoes with scrambled eggs. I'd like to think I could make a killing selling pasta sauces, being as I'm the only one making them.
Skewers of glory. Flavored with cumin and chili, of course, because I just can't help it.
Our Taiwanese barbecue buddies letting me take a turn at the corn.
 On Moon Festival (or as my sometimes lazy students like to spell it, Moom Festival,) you barbecue. On Moon Festival, we barbecued, with some random people who invited us to share their grill. It turns out, everyone loves these tiny grills. Americans would shit themselves to see entire neighborhoods sitting in the street, on the ground, next to a barbecue the size of a microwave dinner tray. The trick is, the food takes so long to cook that you end up eating for hours. We sat down at 6:00 and had to rudely excuse ourselves at 9:00, for the sake of getting some rest for work. And all anyone eats is meat. Thin meat, fat meat, tofu that looks like meat, prawns, more meat, meat on a stick, etc. And corn. I like that.

Lastly, ye olde teppanyaki, a dining trend that I know East Bay residents would go nuts for. If only they knew how awesome it was to sit down at a grill and be instantly cooked for by men in bell hop uniforms. Our typical order (from left to right): spicy bean sprouts (they're on the house), scrambled eggs, spicy lamb and onions, and spicy veggies (last night, cabbage). Spicier than Hell, more delicious than your average meal, always hot (because it sits on the hot grill the whole time you're eating), and dinner for two, with a beer, costs under $8 USD. They're also open until 4AM, making them perfect "I just had a freaking long day and don't want to go anywhere how about teppanyaki because I'm starving and it's delicious" food. 

The cooks know us. 

This is only one installment of many.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Caitlin Returns To The Stage, Paid in Fruit

And you ask, "How are you going to eat all of those?"
Last week was a teaching bonanza. And yes, just like the wild west Bonanza. It was nuts.

I decided to take on not one, not two, not three, but four extra classes this week. I mean, practice makes perfect, and I love spending more face time with the kids. By Friday, I was being held together by iced green teas and cookies, trying to bring down a raging fever while giving unit quizzes.

Some wisdom: iced green tea is great, money is great, but sleep is superior. Don't take too many classes.

Anyway, back in the saddle on Saturday night, since James and I volunteered to do a song-and-dance teaching demo for a community event celebrating the Moon Festival (which actually happens Wednesday...which has something to do with rabbits and palaces and everyone eats these cookies called "moon cakes" and eats pomelos). We strapped on our wet weather gear - anticipating the typhoon to snag us on the way - and stomped down to school. It turns out the event was a disco light performance of sorts, where hundreds of Taiwanese neighbors sit in chairs and listen to middle-aged disco-dressed women sing catchy Taiwanese tunes and everyone enters raffles for microwaves and refrigerators. The emcee was wearing a pirate costume and Kim Jong-Il glasses.

Aside from almost catching on fire from the unsafe, very large fireworks that were shot off five feet from my face, the night was successful. We taught them English flashcards and I sang the Hokey-Pokey on the microphone. Man, it felt good to be back on stage again, even if it were a collapsible truck bed decked out in carnival lights. It also felt sweaty.

After our ten minute hurrah, we we gifted with giant boxes of pomelos. Though I have received many flowers, cards, chocolates, and hugs after a good night of singing, I have never walked away with such an obscure and heavy reward.

Tonight, Moon Festival barbecue. Who knew, it's like the Forth of July, for moons. 

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Raid, or: How Taiwanese Law Is Surprisingly Unsurprising

It is illegal for foreigners to teach Kindergarten in Taiwan.

It is illegal for me to do my job in Taiwan. Technically.

One of the first things we learned in Taoyuan is that in Taiwan, there are laws, and then there is what everyone does, including the law makers and the law enforcers. Take the process of owning a scooter for example:

1. The law: You must have a license to drive a scooter.
2. The law: You must have a scooter to take the test to get your license.

Conflict: How do you do both?
The answer: It's Taiwan.

So you must imagine how surprised/oddly unsurprised we were to learn that foreigners actually can't teach "Kindy." The Taiwanese teachers' union said NO, and so it was written, but parents wanted their babies to have native English education. And so it is commonly practiced that crazy youth like me end up working under...or perhaps above...government rules and regulations. We were told that it's very rarely an issue, and if anyone ever asks, just play dumb, pretend you don't understand what's going on, and don't sign anything. 

 So you must imagine how surprised/oddly unsurprised we were to get phone calls during our classes on Friday (just as I was about to teach ABC's...), saying "Open Sesame!!!" And my HRT (Homeroom Teacher) Lily starts shouting, "Open Sesame, Open Sesame" at me in her beautiful thick accent and I'm screwing up my face like, "Say what, Teacher Lily?" and all of a sudden I get it: Open Sesame is the code word for "We're being raided for illegal teachers...among other things." So I drop my flashcards, say "Bye bye" to the kiddies and bolt out the door.

Outside in the stairwell are my co-teachers, also panting up to the third floor, where we barricade ourselves in the teachers' room. Supposedly this doesn't happen very often, but everyone seems to know the drill very well. Aside from the third floor hiding the teachers, it seems like another "illegal" practice is being hidden: we aren't supposed to have Kindy on the third floor, either, and so an enormous bomb door (or something to that effect) has been closed and locked to completely eliminate the 3rd floor, as if to say, Sorry, but this floor doesn't exist anymore.

We sit sit sit, and wait wait wait, a bit Anne Frank-ish (not to compare a Kindy raid with World War II - though it made a moderately funny joke at the time) and 45 minutes later start to have rumbling tummies. It turns out the inspectors had been satisfied a while before and left. The office ladies had simply forgotten we were Open Sesame-ing and forgot to call. This was not malicious, I might add, just a little funny. After all, it doesn't happen very often, right?

So you must imagine just how surprised/oddly unsurprised we were last night, Monday, while teaching TreeHouse class in the basement classrooms (6-10 years old after school English), that we hear "Open Sesame!" shouted in the doorway. As the English teachers begin to bolt for the elevator to take us to our safe haven on the third floor, we notice a giant stream of students following us into the garage (where the elevator is.) It turns out the Taiwanese law says that classes cannot be held in the basement, and therefore, the students and the classrooms themselves were also illegal.

My poor class, yanked out of a mind-numbing lecture on the grammar pattern "How does noun sensory verb?" climbing onto me asking "Teacher, what is?" and me getting all Sound of Music on them saying "We're playing Hide and Seek and if you stay very quiet, we'll win!" What an absolute treat! Apparently, the basement also had an enormous space shuttle-esque door that effectively renders it "There's nothing important behind that wall!", and we were just taking precautions. It's not that anyone will get shot, or taken to jail, or even seriously fined.

People just don't like complications in Taiwan.

Go figure ;D.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

I Am A Teacher/I Am A Birthday Party Entertainer

My best known Chinese word is “niao niao.” I say it constantly. “Niao niao?” “Do you have to go niao niao?” My students are two and three year old little pants-pee-ers, and we go niao niao a lot.

There’s hardly a better way to wake up in the morning (that is, of course, after a humid and sunny 30 minute saunter to work) than to put on your best un-scary face and entertain 11 babies. And they are babies, and I am a less-experienced teacher piloting the first ever Yo-Yo (tiny baby) class at Taoyuan Kindy. The best part: no one knows if I stink at my job. I’m literally making it up as I go, and there’s no rubric, guidelines, prescedent, nothing. Just me and my babies, learning about English, Chinese, and toilet usage.

Have you ever noticed how slowly toddlers eat? I get to watch them eat every morning. They love sweet buns and sweet soy milk, but they hate oatmeal and anything green. Sometimes I get my hands dirty and grab the spoon, doing the airplane and the choo-choo train, trying to force it down, but I usually let Teacher Lily and Teacher Pace do it. These are their babies too, (they are the Chinese Teachers), and they are amazing. And they have this fantastically frightening way of making the kids do just about anything…except eat quickly. So we spend a good part of the morning sitting around, watching snack digest into bathroom time.

The cast of characters: Alto, Oscar, Sannie, Angela, Wesley, Thomas, Chester, Yuka, Champ, Hans and Andy. Can you imagine how confusing it must be to a three year old to have two completely different names? Lucky me, I get to call them by the names they absolutely don’t recognize, so we also spend a lot of time running around the room waving apple-shaped name tags shouting “This is my name!” My favorite answer to the question “Sannie, what is your name?” is “Sanniewhatisyourname!” repeated nearly verbatim by the little pigtailed kid in question. She’s fabulous, but also very naughty. And so it goes.

The babies love to sing, or at least watch me sing and wave my arms around, so we sing a lot. Sort of. They also love to watch me blow up balloons and make the balloons make farting noises, so we do that a lot. But I swear they are learning. Alphabets and colors and how to stand in a line. Sort of. It turns out that this job is a lot like being a birthday party entertainer, so long as the jist of the activity is English centered. And everyone likes a good birthday, so as far as I can see, it’s mostly just fun. How lucky is that?

We go to the bathroom at least three times during English class. This is where I get to use my hard earning Chinese word – niao niao. I figured, there’s no need to punish the poor kids, who hardly even know Chinese, if they can’t recognize the word “pee pee” or “bathroom.” And since we have at least one wet set of pants a day, it’s necessary to stick to the driest approach. Oscar pooped on the floor last week, then stared at it for a good five minutes before we realized what was going on. The Chinese teachers and me, we’re bonding, one misguided bowel movement at a time.

My afternoons aren’t quite as hairy: I teach a curriculum to ages 7-11 very similar to a regular class at home. They love to use “pee” and “poo” in sentence substitutions, we just fly with it. They’ve come a long way from the tiny Yo-Yo urinals, so I figure they’ve earned it.

My week is full, but it is happy. Niao niao then, aren’t you impressed?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Caitlin Versus the Love Motel

Some people say, “Home is where the heart is.” But I like to think, “Home is right across the street from the OhYa Love Motel.” (Which, according to is completely booked tonight...for love.) See photo: my very own love motel. Kidding, Mommy!

Now before someone starts wondering what bed of sin I have made my nest in, “Hourly Rate” motels are apparently very common in Taiwan, a country where many married couples share a bedroom wall with their in-laws. It’s all very sensible when you consider that this is also a country where women protect their skin from the sun with umbrellas and recycling is not simply sorted as “Recycling” and “Garbage,” but into paper, plastic, metal, and garbage. Absolutely sensible.

What’s sensible about my new home in Taoyuan? (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

(Location, location.)
Within a thirty minute walk to school, I can wave hello and give a goofy sounding “Tsao” to about 50 shop owners (dumpling shops, crap stuff shops, mobile phone shops, 7-11s, noodle shops, rice shops, pharmacies.) This country loves to buy stuff, and so there are so many people to say good morning to. Within 30 minutes of bus travel, we can be smack dab in the center of Taipei.
We are >1 minute to the nearest Family Mart/7-11 (though that’s hardly a bragging right. They are literally on every corner.) Two minutes from school is Taoyuan’s most awesome outdoor market, complete with dozens of fish, meat, and veggie vendors (and everything in between) – I will give a full account of the market scene later, but its simply too awesome to fit into this vignette.
We are five minutes walk to the nearest dan bing vendor – Chinese style crepe filled with egg and whatever else you want/they have – I order veggie, which always has canned corn, and the other day had sprouts, iceberg lettuce and cucumber…and hot sauce.

Our rent is less than $350 per month – split between two.
The apartment is on the 6th floor of a nearly new building, with several fabulous security guards, a small pool, a gym, a movie viewing room and a well decorated reading room. At night, the kitchen window is filled with the purplepinkblue lights of the OhYa sign. I love it. It makes me feel like I’m in New York City.
Except way cheaper.
Ohya, and I really like the Japanese sliding door to the bedroom and weird extra room that may become a dining room. And I really like the built in giant desk thing next to the kitchen that I also use to store food and dishes. Ohya, and the enormous closet, and the shoe closet by the door (no shoes in the house, suckah, this is Asia), and the laundry dry rack that lowers down like a chandelier.

Didn’t I come here to work?
Ohya, I guess I did come here to work. After surviving nearly two weeks of 9-6 days sitting in an igloo of a training room, apparently I have enough knowledge to be trusted with dozens of children. What kind of children? Tiny ones, no older than 3 years old. But if their poopy diapers are as cute as their tiny faces and hands and feet, there should be no problem. Plus, how cool will it be to be the one person who will ultimately begin to mold them into bilingual beings? So cool.
I also get to teach older kids, I think in the 6-10 range. The curriculum/teaching methods are chant/song/game crazy, so it will be great to get some sillies out. Plenty of room for creative expansion, plenty of hours in the day to learn and teach. And, no weekend work. Singing songs and playing games with the world’s smartest and prettiest children, paying peanuts for rent and eating dan bing and taro steamed buns (they are purple!) all day long.
It just goes to show that everything happens for a reason. I already feel at home here, for better or for worse.


PS. I am buying a scooter, end of discussion.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Arrival in Taiwan: Caitlin Looks Like Lady GaGa

It's been four days in Taiwan and I have already eaten something I wanted to spit out into my lap (oyster omelette), used a rain umbrella as a sunshield (when in Rome...), spoken unintelligible Mandarin ("bathroom" is a hard word to pronounce!) and been called "Lady GaGa" by a woman in the Taipei hospital. This is going to be an eventful year.

I hate to be a busy adult woman, but these first two weeks are quite jammed pack, and I will only really be able to dip my toes in the blogging pond during teacher training. Therefore, I would like to simply create an outline of my first impressions today, using my interpretation of the CIA World Factbook as a design guide:


Taipei is a giant modern city with a gagillion motor scooters, half a gagillion traditional Chinese/Taiwanese food carts, 14 million grinning inhabitants, a metro system that runs like a bazillion bucks, and the safest vibe in just about, well, a tragillion years. It's pretty damn fascinating, bustling, and Taiwan strikes me immediately as the friend I never had, and the friend I will not tired of getting close to.


Taipei is big, but my world exists within my current living neighborhood, Zhongshang, and the tourist destinations reachable via the MRT (rapid transit system.) The buildings are tall, the buildings are sleek, they are covered in bright and rainbow colored billboards, and the streets are very flat. What I love so much? The city is surrounded by mountains on all sides, and you can even see the mountains through the hazy smoggy heat during some points in the day.

Taipei is a sauna right now. We might as well all just be walking around in towels, because terry cloth might make a bit of absorption difference. It is always hot. The Taiwanese jog after 9:00 PM because a) they are smart and b) only idiots run in 35 degree weather.


They may wear doctors' masks in public, but do not fear: underneath that mask is a giant grin that you just can't quite figure out. It's as if everyone's saying "I know it's freaking hot, Caitlin, I know you might be in for a bit of a shock here, but we are going to help you every step of the way." And they do: they love to help, they love to speak English if they can, and they love to play charades if they can't. Sure, there's a bit of a sidewalk-bumping culture (You'd better push and not apologize!), but have you ever been to a country where people actually line up for the subway? Simply breathtaking.


So far as I can tell, my favorite part of the Taiwanese government is the way they handle healthcare. On Saturday we had to go the national hospital for physicals, as is required for all foreign workers, and it was the most amazing process I have ever been through. Sure it took 3 hours (but there were 30 of us, and they kept alternating Taiwanese-foreigner-Taiwanese-foreigner in their number calling): but once you got the ball rolling, they were medical machines. "Number 127: how are you? I will now take your pulse. Very good, now go to the desk. Step on the scale. Sit down. I will now take your blood pressure. While I do that, I will take your temperature. Scoot over one seat, we check your eyes. Excellent, now pay the front desk and get your blood taken. *Slurp* goes the blood needle, great! Now get your chest x-rayed - put on this soft cloth gown in our changing closet! Done." The best doctors' visit ever.


I love everything about Taiwanese money. I like talking about how much I have.

"I guess I don't need to go to the ATM for a while, I've got, like, 2,000 dollars in my wallet."

"How much for those shoes? $190NT? That is so cheap!"

The Taiwan dollar trades at about 31 to 1 USD right now, which makes this one of the best economic deal I have ever made. Price of a street cart steamed pork bun (around the corner): 9NT = 25 cents. Price of cute black flats Caitlin might have bought: $190NT = less than $6.

It's like living in the 20's, but with internet...


I don't speak Mandarin. Many, many/most things are written in Mandarin...or Japanese...or any other language I don't understand. But "xie xie" has turned out to be my most useful phrase, because everyone says it so often (of course - it's smiling helpful island!)

I am hopeful for my linguistic future. Stay turned.


I have never been more afraid to cross the street in any country, except Taiwan. The lights take about 90 seconds to change, and even if you have the animated WALK sign, cars may still just see it fit to run right on through the intersection.

Then there are the scooters, the elegant, numerous scooters. They scare me too, as a pedestrian, but they are so cool in transit. Everyone seems to know what to do, even though there are so many. I saw a crash the other day, and the rear-enders immediately jump off their bike, pull up the guy they hit, dust him off, and everyone was happy and moved on their way. Just like a bike accident in Davis, I should say, only with a bit more plastic and petrol involved.

I realize I haven't touched on, well, practically anything. But I have oh so much to say, so please, stay tuned. As soon as I become insta-teacher, I will plenty of time to continue my diatribe...and it might as well be exclusively about food. Coming soon!