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.