Tag Archives: fulbright taiwan

Year to Year

I was very disappointed my Chinese food was delicious.  The dumplings were tasty, the chicken with broccoli authentic, the rice only a bit different.  After months of cynic anticipation, I was excited to lambast, eviscerate and expose the cheap imitation Chinese food served mostly by Koreans in New York City.  My Fulbright friends talked it over countless times over bowls of straight-from-old-Taiwanese-woman noodles.  Demonstrated worldliness in one easy critical step.

Unfortunately, my first Chinese meal at home was very good and pretty authentic.  What happened?  Who warned them?  Who’s the rat?  How else am I to make friends if not by being the guy who scoffs, “Oh, Chinese food!” when someone proposes ordering Chinese?  I felt satisfied.  And betrayed.

Not all was lost, thankfully.  Somewhere in the middle of my fourth American-Chinese food dumpling, I remembered I haven’t blogged in a few days.  I saw that Nikka, an Yilan ETA, started to update her Taiwan blog about her goings-on in Detroit.  That was enough for me.  Welcome back, readers.

::Deafening silence::

Did I mention how much writing helps me clarify my thoughts!  Who needs readers, anyway?

I wrote one piece about my trip to China.  I haven’t posted it yet because my mother convinced me to take a shot and send it to the New York Times Magazine “Lives” section.  It’s a long shot.  But hey—I took a long shot in November and it worked out.  I appreciate the long shot.  Anyway, if my long shot is dumped in e-mail purgatory by unimpressed editors (i.e. if I don’t hear back in a week) I’ll post it here where it is loved and cared for (by my mother).

In the meantime, I hope to wring out of my creative muse a few posts about China.  I’ll probably pick the highlights and write little in-the-moment pieces.  Things fit for the “Lives” section.  You get the idea.  If any of you know of another place I could pimp my writerly wares, please include a comment to this post or e-mail me at floatyourboat23@gmail.com

My mother’s a persuasive lady, but my motivations for pursuing “Lives” fame extend beyond her inviolable logic.  I have a lot of time on my hands and no job, for starters.  Why not use time productively?

Raw productivity isn’t the best term for describing the preceding fortnight.  At the moment my life consists of a lot of reading, eating, sleeping, and hanging around with friends.  Productivity aside, I’ve really enjoyed the reading time.  I’m reading an average of one book every two days alongside countless newspapers, magazines and blogs.  My favorite book I’ve read since I returned is The Big Short by Michael Lewis, an account of three men who bet against the subprime mortgage industry before it turned sour.  Highly recommended: it’s an easy, informative read.

Another book that’s kept with me is The Life and Death of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch.  I bring this up with future Fulbrighters in mind, many of whom (ETAs especially) probably have more than a passing interest in education.  In the book Ravitch pushes against the prevailing consensus that math and reading tests should determine government treatment of schools and teachers (a policy goal not only of the US federal government, but the Taiwanese federal government).  It’s hard for me to say whether this book will make the same impression on someone not preparing for graduate study in education policy (or someone who works/has worked in education more generally), but I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone with an interest in how the government regulates education in the U.S.  My opinions changed in response to Ravitch’s clear, compelling arguments.  Accountability systems should be test data-informed, not test data-driven.

One of the most interesting findings Ravitch highlights in her book concerns test data sorting of high performing teachers from low performing teachers. From year [x] to year [x+1] to [x+2] (say, for example, 2007 to 2008 to 2009), only a minority of teachers designated high performing in 2007 maintain their standing the following year.  Likewise, the majority of teachers who earn high marks didn’t earn those marks the preceding year.  Overall, there’s a lot of fluctuation for most teachers from year to year.

At least in the one city from which Ravitch pulled the data (I’m sorry I can’t find the precise numbers; my Kindle charger somehow disintegrated in my bag—caveat emptor), the clear upshot is that there are, if judged by test data, very few consistently good teachers.  Rather, teachers are like the majority of professional athletes: they have good years and bad years.  If Ravitch’s data apply broadly, it’s hard to argue that hiring, firing and promotion decisions in schools should be based solely on test scores, especially when there are performance tiers based on specific scores. 

Should we trust the data?  Assuming most teachers teach the same grade and curriculum each year, how to explain wide variations in individual teacher performance from year to year?  The most obvious explanation would be the effects of different students.  Teachers get along well with some groups, not so well with others.  Could a longstanding teacher be so influenced by the young faces in front of him?  I wonder.  I don’t have the experience to know.

My money is on there being something wrong with Ravitch’s data.  Maybe the trend she highlights is confined to the one city she discusses.  Maybe that city reformed the curriculum midway through the sample period, maybe there was an unusual amount of hiring and firing, maybe the city likes to give teachers different teaching assignments year to year.  To me at least, the notion that one teacher’s performance, as measured by testing, can vary so much year to year is so counterintuitive I want to see very solid data before I change my mind.  Nevertheless, the chance she’s right (along with other arguments to the same point) is enough to convince me that testing data isn’t reliable enough to by itself determine major personnel decisions at schools.

Taiwanese education officials, like their American counterparts, worry about the lack of accountability in their schools.  However, Taiwan has the luxury of a very successful school system already in place.  Reform is more urgent in America.  Diane Ravitch’s central recommendation, i.e. producing a tough, clear set of nationwide curriculum standards for core subjects like reading, math, history and science, gain credence from acknowledging that such policies already exist in Taiwan and contribute to Taiwan’s superb track record of K-12 success.  It is also no coincidence that states with high standards for core curricula (e.g. Massachusetts, Virginia) outperform states with lower standards. 

The vague intention behind the specific analysis above is to emphasize the value of international experience.  Getting a hold of another country’s culture, government or set of institutions is a good way to make sense of your own.  I learned this lesson very well while in Taiwan.  I’m reminded of it every time I sit down and think carefully about education.

Like teacher performance, ETA classes change year to year.  A few days ago the 2010-2011 crop of Fulbrighters arrived in Taiwan, sleepy-eyed and leg cramped.  Right now they’re probably sitting in an air conditioned conference room, watching the video my coworkers and I created about co-teaching.  Thinking about their arrival, and remembering my arrival (vividly, to this day), made me feel nostalgic.  I wish them all the best.  I warn them not to eat hamburgers in Cambodia.  I insist they drink Presotea strawberry milk tea.

Shockingly Shockless

Seven planes, thousands of dollars, countless bowls of beef noodles, two anti-diarrhea tablets and one Great Wall later, I made it back to the US Sunday night after my three week journey through China (and three days of saying my goodbyes in Taiwan).  My mom picked me up from the airport and returned me home.  Waiting for me, courtesy of my sister, was a grilled chicken sandwich with fries. 

The last week has been a nonstop binge of all the foods I missed so much while abroad: pizza, bagels, waffles, Arizona iced green tea (not kidding), cold cut sandwiches, unsweetened bread.  Some meals, like a Greek omelet with home fries and an orange juice, I hadn’t realized I missed.  Only when I looked around at my companion’s plates did I recognize how greedily I had finished my diner brunch.

Between delirious bouts of ingestion, I’ve spent time catching up with friends and family members.  Most notably, my sister convinced me to go to two very strange events: the U.S. Air Guitar championships and “Walking with Dinosaurs.”  Not a bad way to readjust to the absurdity, grandiosity and enormousness of American-style entertainment.

There’s no way to adjust to the spectacle of an air guitar tournament, but adjusting to life stateside hasn’t proved difficult.  The biggest shock to me upon returning has been how infrequently I’ve felt shocked.  For example, unlike most of my peers, I haven’t been struck by how big everyone is (although how much food we eat in one sitting did catch my eye).  Perhaps this is because I returned home for two weeks in November.  Perhaps it’s because I’m pretty big myself (it was shocking a little over an hour ago when I walked into a restaurant and a little American boy assessed my height and gasped much like little Taiwanese kids would).

What has stood out? First, how much we Americans waste.  Taiwan, as my loyal readership knows, enforces strict recycling laws.  Not only do most American cities and states not penalize households for poor waste management, most American fast food restaurants don’t even provide a recycling bin. 

A correlate to this is how much food restaurants and consumers waste.  As consumers, we certainly eat more than Taiwanese.  But restaurants now provide us with impossibly large portions.  I see a lot more food going to waste than I did in Taiwan.

Second, the size of the coins.  American money is in general smaller than Taiwanese money.  Coins are no exception.  On top of the confusion of dealing with smaller coins, a year in Taiwan eliminated my ability to feel in my pockets for the right coin.  New Yorkers aren’t known for their patience, and they haven’t enjoyed waiting behind me on line as I take all the coins out of my pocket to select correct change.

Third, how safe the roads are.  Without consulting statistics, it’s surely fair to say that scooters make roads more dangerous for pedestrians.  For the first time in my life, I returned to New York City and felt relatively safe crossing the street. 

Fourth, the wealth.  Taiwan is a developed place.  If you count it as separate from China, it’s one of the thirty most affluent ‘countries’ on Earth.  Yet the yearly income is less than half of America’s.  This is reflected in the clothing and food quality the citizenry experiences every day.  There’s not a massive, stupendous difference, but the disparity is noticeable.  This is not to say that life in Taiwan is a struggle or there’s no good reason to prefer life in Taiwan over life in the US.

Some of the differences listed above caught me offguard, or at least I hadn’t fully wrapped my head around them even if I expected them.  Others, like walking around Barnes & Noble, were pleasant without being at all surprising.  Now that I can get along stress free, the temptation to forgo studying Chinese will be strong.  I must resist!

In the coming days I will chronicle my three week China trip.  There are many fun stories to share.  If nothing else, writing them down will let me relive the experience years hence.  Any enjoyment you, my dear reader, take from them is gravy. 

This blog (in its Taiwan-focused form) will come to an end after I finish writing about China.  I gave myself a week’s rest after arriving home, promising to write again today.  During my self-granted vacation, I realized that I don’t feel compelled to add much to what I’ve already written about my year in Taiwan.  Chalk it up to a combination of feeling as though I’ve said much of what I have to say and simple tiredness.  If any young, intrepid future Fulbrighters or Kaohsiung expats read this, please feel free to send me any questions at floatyourboat23@gmail.com.

Before we get all teary-eyed, don’t forget more blog posts are forthcoming soon.  Please stop by again to read about my time in China.  There were some interesting parallels between China and Taiwan, as well as some even more interesting disconnects.  T.S. Eliot was right when he wrote that schpiel about returning to a place and knowing it for the first time. 

China is a fascinating subject all by itself, comparisons be damned.  I’ll do my best to relay to you what it’s like to walk the streets throughout different parts of the world’s fastest growing country.

Qu Yuan Drowned

3:20.21. Last night at the Love River, Team Velocity paddled five hundred meters in just over three minutes and twenty seconds.  Snappy snapp, indeed.

A prerace team photo

Our 3:20.21 may have been good enough to demolish last year’s ETA time of five minutes, but it wasn’t enough to avoid another last place finish for the Fulbright program.  A team of foreigners from Jhongshan University won first place, finishing about forty seconds ahead of us.  We trailed the third place team by about ten seconds.  I can’t imagine how embarrassing last year must’ve been.  We barely got out with dignity, and we really trounced last year’s time!

Chris, center, giving us a little prerace direction

Everyone had a fun nonetheless.  As I’ve written before, our expectations were low.  All our competition spent months recruiting and practicing.  We were the least experienced and the most mixed gender team by a long shot.  All we wanted was to have fun.  Mission accomplished.

Boarding the boat

Alex, our Fulbright coordinator, bought us a huge watermelon to celebrate after the race.  It was way too much for all of us and we wound up giving a lot of it away.  However, I was touched by Alex’s thoughtfulness.  He’s been very helpful throughout the year.  Sometimes a small gesture like a gigantic watermelon can speak volumes.

Row! Row! Row!

Since it started pouring buckets right after our race, Fonda drove Carl and I to the subway.  As I was exiting the car, I said to Fonda, more out of reflex than anything else, “Okay, I’ll see you….” I trailed off.  I didn’t know when I’d see Fonda again for sure. 

At that moment I realized that the Dragon Boat race, coming as it did on the heels of our two farewell parties with the Education Bureau and the Fulbright Foundation, respectively, was the last organized group activity the 2009-10 Kaohsiung ETAs have.  There’s nothing else we plan to do as a group.  More people leave next week, a few more after that—and then we’re gone.  Some of us return in August, but the group itself will never be together again.

The eventual parting has definitely snuck up on me a bit, as I discussed in my previous entry.  Even when I’ve had time to think about leaving, it’s been focused on the day I’ll fly to the USA from Taiwan.  I hadn’t given any thought to how the Dragon Boat race would be a milestone itself. 

Maybe last year’s ETAs were on to something when they took five minutes to grab the flag.  Maybe then wanted  a little extra time together.

Qu Yuan is Drowning

“Work harder, Carl!” Chris screamed.  He maneuvered tiller at the back of the boat.  Up front, Shuting banged rhythmically on a big base drum.  Kaitlyn sat on the dragon’s head, taking pictures.  I plunged my oar into the turgid water. 

Needless to say, the Dragon Boat Festival is not a well known holiday in the USA.  Celebrated every year during the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, the Dragon Boat Festival is one of the four most famous holidays in Chinese culture (alongside Moon Festival, Tomb Sweeping Day and Chinese New Year, all covered in earlier entries).

Dragon Boat Festival is famous for the Dragon Boat races.  Teams of twenty-one people race long, ornately decorated boats down a river.  The boats are beautiful: each boat is carved to resemble a dragon, with dragon heads carved and painted on the front.  No two boats look exactly alike.

Four to eight boats compete at a time.  Each race is around five hundred meters.  Spectators cheer from the banks of rivers and bet on their favorite team.  Hundreds of people come to watch the Dragon Boats race.  The winning team is the first team to row the full course and grab a flag poking from the top of a buoy in the water.  There are cash prizes.

Perhaps I’m moving too fast.  Rowing a huge, expensive, intricately carved Dragon Boat seems pretty strange.  Where did this idea come from?  The answer brings one back over 2,300 years.  And you thought Christmas had ancient origins.

Qu Yuan lived in ancient China at the turn of the third century B.C.  Qu was a wise man and a famous adviser to the king.  One day, Qu expressed disagreement with one of the king’s ideas.  The king, very displeased, banished Qu. 

Qu was distraught.  Public service was his calling in life.  Working alongside the king allowed him to enact laws that benefited the poor.  His interventions on their behalf made the poor love Qu.  Unfortunately, there was nothing they could do for him.  The king’s word was final.

Rather than live disgraced, Qu tied large stones to his ankles and jumped in a river (are you reading this, Governor Blagojevic?).  A few neighbors nearby raced into the water to rescue Qu.  They swam furiously to the spot where Qu jumped in. They were too late.  He drowned.

The Dragon Boat Races are competitive reenactments of Qu’s neighbors’ sprint to save him.  There’s obviously a lot of myth surrounding the holiday, but some say the flags at the end of the course represent strands of Qu’s hair.  The winning team has the honor of ‘rescuing’ Qu before he drowns.

When offered an opportunity to organize a Fulbright Dragon Boat team, none of us stopped to ask about the origins of the holiday.  I’m not sure how many natives know the above myth, but everyone knows about the races.  They’re loud, raucous, night time events.  Kids and adults scream and yell and jump and shout as their team brutalizes the water, trying to move a few feet ahead of the competition.  We were very excited to receive an offer to compete.

The Kaohsiung races will take place on the Love River, which is the river that cuts through Kaohsiung City.  Every team must have twenty-one members: eighteen rowers, a drummer (to keep rowing rhythm), a flag puller (who sits on the dragon’s head on the front of the boat and grabs the flag at the end of the race), and a steerer (who maneuvers the tiller at the back of the boat).  Nine of the twelve ETAs joined, as well as a few Education Bureau employs, some host family relatives and a few other random additions.  A motley crew.

Our expectations are low.  Many teams competing in the races practice for months beforehand.  They perfect their team rhythm and polish their individual strokes.  The best teams—sorry, ladies—tend to be all male except for the flag puller and drummer (who tend to be female—they weigh less).  Our team would practice twice and be comprised mostly of women (about 65/35 female). 

What we lack in ability, we make up in T-shirts.  Our jerseys are modeled after the really funny “Velocity” T-shirt I posted a few months ago.  Here’s the T-shirt reposted:

 Now here is our T-shirt:


Kaitlyn, the resident ETA artistic director, thought of mocking the Velocity T-shirt.  Genius, right?  We are so enamored with our shirts, we named our team “Velocity.”  Fonda, being Taiwanese, tried to rename the team “Velocity Speeding Cat.”  Being American, we ignored this suggestion.

Velocity practiced for the first time on Saturday morning.  First, we worked on our team rhythm.  A team could include excellent rowers, but the team will struggle unless all the rowers move in sync (or include any members of N Sync).  Second, we worked on individual paddling techniques.  Chris and Justin, native Taiwanese and experienced Dragon Boat racers, taught us the textbook method.

I'm third from front. The guy leaning halfway over the side of the boat. Textbook.

I was surprised at how easy paddling was.  Paddling a Dragon Boat is less taxing than rowing a crew boat.  You’re only using one paddle, for starters.  Also, you’re not expected to use your leg muscles.  Justin and Chris told me they were impressed with how quickly I picked up on the technique.  I think my brief stint rowing crew at Oxford may have helped me. 

Taking a break on the river

Some teammates struggled.  I know we’re not destined for victory, but I was disappointed when a few stragglers didn’t give their best effort.  There’s an important difference between finishing in last place and getting laughed off the river.  Not trying hard will get us laughed off the river.  If we try our best and finish last, we’ll at least earn some respect.  Everyone should also keep in mind that rowing in the festival is a privilege not granted to all comers.  If you linger, you’ll disrespect everyone who wanted to be where you are.

Ready to row

Aside from the minor annoyance posed by stragglers, everyone had a good time at the first practice.  We all felt preposterously proud when we won a scrimmage race against a bunch of elderly people.  I worked on a few war cries I intend to unveil during a real race.  Everyone enjoyed making a few jokes about the dirty river.  We waved at kids watching us from the banks. 

I had one moment when I was especially tickled.  Last year’s ETAs warned me that the Love River is filled with jellyfish around the same time of year as the race.  After we started rowing in earnest, I was struck by all the jellyfish I saw in the water.  One of them popped into view every time we paddled.

Then I realized: there are no jellyfish, or at least visible ones.  Rather, the paddling motion creates a current in the water that looks like the white outline of a jellyfish.  I had to pull up my oar and chuckle to myself for a minute as I realized my predecessors’ mistake.

Team Velocity practices again tomorrow night.  I hope the few stragglers will try harder.  Most of all, I hope we all continue to improve and have fun.  Race day is Sunday.  Qu Yuan is getting ready to jump into the river.  We have to be ready.

The Project d’Or

I never imagined my directorial career would begin in a fourth grade classroom.  In fact, I never imagined I’d ever have a directorial career at all.  Chalk up another unexpected opportunity to J. William Fulbright.

Last year, the Kaohsiung ETAs began a tradition called the ‘Kaohsiung Project.’  The Project can be anything related to English teaching: a video, a website, a one-time vaudeville extravaganza.  The Kaohsiung Project is the ETAs opportunity to leave behind a legacy.   It is part thank you note and partially an attempt to improve English education in Taiwan.  The Fulbright Foundation and the Kaohsiung Bureau of Education pay the bill and the ETAs do the work.

Our predecessor ETAs filmed a video designed to teach kids the English words and phrases they’d need to know at English Village.  The Education Bureau showed us their film at the beginning of our term.  It’s a good instroduction.  Sadly, we’re probably the only people who have ever watched it.  The Bureau hasn’t distributed it widely and teachers have their own ideas about how to teach new material.

Alex Tang, one of our bosses at the Fulbright Foundation, asked me at the midyear conference to spearhead the Kaohsiung Project this year.  My cohorts and I thought long and hard about what we wanted to do.  Reflecting on the example of last year’s group, we wanted to create something we knew would be used. 

Many of us felt that our orientation program could’ve done a better job exploring the various acceptable and unacceptable co-teaching dynamics.  Should every LET and ETA split responsibilities evenly?  If so, how should this be done?  Is it okay if the LET dominates and the ETA assists, or vice versa?  If so, how should those be done?  We didn’t receive satisfactory answers to these questions.

Why not fill the need?  We could be sure the need exists because we experienced it, and we already knew the folks responsible for scheduling next year’s orientation.  A video elucidating the best practices of co-teaching seemed like the best contribution.

Along the way, we came up with another idea.  All of us were frustrated throughout the year by the lack of easily searchable, high quality, high information websites dedicated to Western/American culture/holiday ESL instruction.  Visually pleasant websites tended to have too little content, whereas content-rich websites were a jumbled mess.  Even if the site had a bunch of good activities, you had to wade through ten times as many bad ones to reach the good ones.

Why not fill this need too?  Our website will be visually stimulating, strictly for very good lesson ideas, and well organized to ensure enjoyable searching.  Better yet, it’ll be geared toward the demographic we know and love: Chinese-speaking ESL teachers/students.

My peers are all driven, intelligent people, so organizing everything has been much easier than it sounds.  We met at my apartment to hash out ideas for the website.  Each ETA handled a particular holiday or cultural aspect, producing games, activities and PowerPoints that a teacher could use.  American Katherine and Kevin Slaten edited my original draft of the script.  Fonda has, as always, been a huge help.  She hired a web designer to create the structure for our website.  She hired the film crew.  She’s a one woman Kaohsiung Project.

The one woman Kaohsiung Project, right, talking with the camera crew.

It was thus that I sat on my little director high chair watching Kristin and her LET, Sherry, act out Model A, one of the three acceptable, effective models of co-teaching.  Both actresses played compelling and believable roles.  Kelley worked through illness alongside her hilarious coteacher Winnie.  American Katherine, her co-teacher Julianna, Kevin Slaten and his co-teacher Fancina also star in important roles.  I play the “host” of the video.

One of my roles as host is to interview the actors after their scenes. The actors talk about their demonstration and why their teaching dynamic is either effective or ineffective.

The film crew was very kind and seemed genuinely interested in creating an appealing final product.  Their input was especially valuable because none of us had any prior experience producing a film.  All that I needed to add from time to time was a request to reshoot a scene in which the English enunciation wasn’t stellar.  One can’t blame the film crew for not noticing—none of them spoke English. 

Half of the cast fell ill the day of the shoot. Kristin gamely stepped up, even though she had been adamant weeks ago that she wanted no acting role.

I won’t be able to see the final product for at least another week or so.  There’s still one more scene to shoot, and then some time for the film company to produce a draft.  As for the website, Fonda’s friend won’t be able to finish it until July or August.  I’m happy to spend some of my summer vacation filling the website with content.  I’m excited to leave a valuable legacy.

Director John in his high chair, far right. The future Academy Award winning actresses left.

I’ve enjoyed working on the Kaohsiung Project because it gives me a sense of purpose and a sense that I’m making a sizable contribution.  Teaching is an everyday contribution, but I’ve done it for so long now that the pleasurable edge has worn off a bit.  Also, it’s small scale.  I only teach about 350 students and I only teach them once a week.  By putting together a website and a DVD, I feel more efficacious.  I’m getting something done, and it’ll be able to help many, many students for years to come.

A Fresh Set of Eyes

I have less than one month left in Taiwan.  Although Taiwanese culture is always good for a few surprises every week (surprises which are cataloged here), much of what initially surprised me about my adopted home is now regular and expected.  My jaw doesn’t drop at night markets, crossing the street doesn’t raise my blood pressure, I can figure out when a Taiwanese person is upset with me, starving stray dogs don’t ruin my happiness, it’s easy to order at lunch box restaurants.  Seeing Kaohsiung and Taiwan through a fresh set of eyes might be fun.

In addition to that small deal about her being my beloved sister, I was excited to host my sister Holly for ten days because she’d bring a fresh set of eyes.  Not just any set of eyes—genetically, she’s as close to me as I’m going to get.  Watching her experience Taiwan for the first time would permit me to observe a rough approximation of how I experienced Taiwan in early August.  Her curiosity would lead me to Taiwanese oddities than I now take for granted.

Another benefit Holly brings to the table—again, besides the small deal of humor, intelligence and insight—is her fantastic photography.  She took all but one of the pictures accompanying this post.  My sister raises the standard for photography on this blog.  In fact, the most perceptive readers may have already noticed that I’ve changed the header image above.  It’s a cropped version of a photo Holly took of me walking through Liuhe Night Market, which is the same night market depicted in my previous header.  This time around you can see my head in the center, observing the night market scene.  Not only is it a nice metaphor, it’s a pretty picture.

Holly, Kristin, Madalena and I went for some shaved ice. Holly doesn't love it as much as the rest of us. Taiwanese fruit is amazing.

Holly arrived at 11 PM on a Tuesday night.  Her first experience in Kaohsiung was the pristine MRT and then a twenty minute walk to my apartment.  What was her first distinctive insight into Kaohsiung?

“The subway car smells like a rain forest.”  Now, I know what you’re thinking—your sister is crazy.  Hear me out.  It does sort of smell like a rain forest.  I had never noticed this before.  The mixture of humidity in the dark, hot subway tunnels and the full blast air conditioning in the subway cars creates a damp, humid scent whenever the doors open and close.  A tinge of rain forest scent.  Right now my sister is crying bloody murder because I mercilessly teased her for this observation, but my coming’s clean is better late than never, right hermano?

Count the number of people who were staring at her as she took this picture. Gives you a sense of why I consider myself a local celebrity.

The next surprise for Holly was Taiwanese mattresses.  Mattress.  Oh, what a loose term.  Taiwanese ‘mattresses’ have more in common with wooden boards than American mattresses.  Taiwanese think Americans are hopelessly effete in our mattress selection: why don’t I just buy an industrial sized bag of marshmellows and sleep on that, they ask.  One’s back eventually adjusts to the firm mattresses here, but it takes at least two or three weeks.  Holly spent almost her entire stay sleeping on a slightly padded wooden board.  I was amazed by how well she tolerated this.

The private boating cove of Kaohsiung Harbor, ringed by Jhong Mountain.

This is the only photo here that I took. I enjoy watching elderly Taiwanese people play games and chat outside their shops on plastic chairs. It looks so different than anything in the U.S.

The long stairs up to the British Consulate overlooking Kaohsiung Harbor. Plenty of mainland Chinese tourists.

Food is the cliché surprise for Westerners visiting East Asia. Mainland China’s food is more exotic than Taiwan’s, but Taiwanese markets can catch one off-guard too.  The surprising part about Taiwanese/Chinese food that I think is underrepresented in Western media is how good so much of it is.  I was especially excited to introduce Holly to legitimate Chinese food.

A view from the western side of the British consulate. The Taiwan Strait is the visible body of the water.

A view from the east side of the British Consulate. Kaohsiung Harbor and the 85 Tower.

Judging by her e-mail to my mom, I’m not sure Holly was as taken with Chinese food as I am.  After the obligatory apology for taking so long to write, Holly begins her discussion with the following two sentences: “It’s been really fun so far. I’m looking forward to western food.” 

Holly did appreciate the Taiwanese take on the egg breakfast sandwich, which includes lettuce and hot sauce. I've gotta' admit they're on to something.

Well, now.  She writes that her two favorite dishes are Indian food from Hola Burrito! and the onion pancake from a street vendor near my apartment.  As for the barbecued squid on Cijin Island and the whole body-fried prawns, she lauds herself for being “a good sport.”  No mention of the Noddle Lady’s Noodle Shop noodles, although she mentioned at one point that she’s not a fan of noodles in general.  Rave review it is not.

You don't have to like the food to enjoy the Chinglish.

A piece of the aforementioned barbecued squid. You pick your squid, they barbecue it, sauce it and cut it up for you. Lovely.

Yet her reaction fulfills my wish for a weirdness gauge.  We both sat down at the same table with the whole body-fried prawns.  I dug right in, relishing the crunchiness and explosion of flavor that comes only when you keep the shell on the prawn and eat it all at once.  I lost my reservations about eating prawn shells long, long ago.  So long ago, in fact, I had forgotten I ever once felt such reservations.  Mission accomplished.

One of the stops of the beautiful, two year-old Kaohsiung subway.

One of Kaohsiung's many busy streets.

Ever since the famous HOLLA! PowerPoint, it was inevitable that my sister would meet my fourth graders during her visit.  She co-taught four fourth grade classes with Angela and me on Monday.  The kids were in high spirits and produced some funny moments for her, e.g. when they tried for the first time to pronounce “Egypt,” when they couldn’t seem to understand that people who look Asian might actually be Americans.  My favorite moment was definitely during Q&A time when one of the classes asked my sister—totally out of the blue, mind you—whether she has received love letters.  They followed up with a question about the precise number of love letters received.  I love my little students.  A full week after she left town, they’re still telling me: “Teacher John, your sister… so beautiful!”

The hallway outside the fourth grade classroom. The hallways are usually like this--open air, lined with occasional stone sinks.

The basketball courts behind the fourth grade classroom. Kids are amazed when I dunk on the seven foot rim.

I feel like this would make a fine cover for a teaching failure expose. Pay heed, Secretary Duncan.

In a serendipitous bit of outsourcing, my co-teacher Margaret’s daughter, Emily, offered to take my sister shopping.  Without revealing that I would’ve paid her to do so, I accepted Emily’s offer on my sister’s behalf and arranged a time.  I’m no shopper here (or anywhere, really), but I thought checking out Kaohsiung’s shopping hot spots would be good for Holly.

From the beach at Cijin Island.

Holly was initially a letter anxious about spending a bunch of time alone with Emily, unsure whether they’d be able to talk about much.  Fortunately, the girls hit it off wonderfully.  Holly knows six words in Chinese (“hello,” “thank you,” “sorry,” “I like,” and “firefly”), but Emily’s a capable English speaker.  They checked out the main spots and took a ride on the Hello Kitty ferris wheel I’ve discussed in an earlier post.  Emily spent hours making Holly a farewell present—a cardboard cutout teddy bear with photos of the two of them pasted on.  It’s amazing—pictures soon once Holly takes a photo of it and sends it to me.

Chivalry is quite obviously alive and well in Kaohsiung.

An amazing picture of a line of tuk-tuk drivers stealing an afternoon nap.

Holly came along on a Fulbright trip to visit a private American school near Kaohsiung City. She took a photo of this hilarious note hanging on a second grade classroom wall.

In my next entry I’ll discuss our weekend trip to Ali Mountain with a few other Kaohsiung ETAs and Fonda.  A highlight: we woke up at 3:30AM to walk five kilometers up a mountain to see the gorgeous sunrise.  Plenty more to come.

You Sit Too Soon!

“This sounded a lot cooler in theory,” Madelena said.

Madelena, Kristin’s friend and fellow Seton Hall alumna, looked out the window as we continued our twenty minute cab ride up the side of the mountain.  The driver wrapped around the umpteenth narrow turn and accelerated up a steep rise.  I leaned over to see past the driver to the nearest town sitting in a valley far below us.  We had passed through that town half an hour ago. 

“We’ve been driving up this mountain forever.  How high up do you think we are?” Kristin asked.

“Too high.”

Not too high to reach our final destination.  A few minutes later we stood on a grassy clearing near the peak of the mountain.  Now the town we passed through was little more than a blurry, white blob.  One of the adventure company’s employees sat us down on chairs made of small steel cable spools and placed on a table made of a larger steel cable spool a personal information sheet which ominously asked about my blood type.  This was followed by an invitation to walk to the edge of the clearing and look at how high we’d climbed.  Needless to say, some nerves began jingling.

It didn’t take long for the two girls to demand I be the first one to jump.  Madelena and Kristin watched as the diving company’s only English-speaking instructor showed me how to put on my harness.  He was short, a little pudgy and very friendly.  He spoke English with a high pitched, enthusiastic tone, which was made all the funnier by his aviator goggles and white-green jumpsuit (a real jumpsuit, not the valeur Jenny from the Block variety).  Surely good material for a character in a Pixar movie.

After a quick briefing about how to jump off the mountain (which included my funny little instructor grabbing the back of my shorts and having me run at full force, slowly dragging him across the dry ground), I was ready to go. 

“Three…. Two…. One….. RUN RUNRUNRUNRUN!!” my instructor shrieked.  I pounded the dusty, grassy ground like one of those Texas high school guys in the “wow, the high school football team is really working hard now!” segments of inspirational American sports movies. 

Unfortunately, the wind was slow in filling up my parachute.  The instructor continued to shriek random English words.  A few seconds later, I was five meters down the side of the mountain and the parachute still had not picked me up.  I was facing an eight foot drop and decided to just sit in my harness and hope for the best.   The wind came just in time, but not before Kristin’s favorite moment of the trip, when my instructor was overheard by all screaming:


No harm, no foul.  We found a thermal wind stream and ascended even further into the bright, blue sky.  I sat in my harness and enjoyed the view.  I could see for miles upon miles in every direction.   The instructor let me appreciate the ride in silence for a few minutes before he started peppering me with questions about the U.S. and telling me about his exploits at a SCUBA diving instructor’s convention in San Diego.  Our conversation was only punctuated by a collision with the top of a tree, which ended in a broken tree top and my bruised left outer thigh.  Well worth the beautiful view.

After a landing that ended in a crumbled heap, I dusted myself off and watched Madelena’s descent from under a shady tree.  Her landing was smoother and she had not collided with any trees.  Watching other people coast around thousands of meters in the sky is a lot scarier than doing it.  It may be a false sense, but paragliding is very comfortable ride and it feels quite safe.

Madelena and I waited a few minutes while the instructors rolled up the parachutes and put them in the back of the van.  We all piled into the van and drove up the mountain.  With only two parachutes on site, Kristin had to wait for us to finish and return with the parachutes before she could jump. 

The van ride up the mountain was much more harrowing than the parachuted jump off of it.  The adventure company’s van driver apparently considers mountain road driving another form of adventure seeking.  He careened around corners, sending Madelena and I flying around the back of the van. 

His only stop was to collect mangos that had fallen from trees on the side of the road.  In yet another instance of stunning Taiwanese generosity to foreigners, a local farmer saw Madelena and me in the back of the van and offered us an entire huge bag of mangos, fifty mangos in all.  We couldn’t dissuade her and gratefully accepted the gift.  Everyone, including our cab driver, indulged in a few mangos before Kristin’s jump.

  Although Kristin’s jump was less successful thanks to a queasy stomach (aerial, projectile vomiting!), all in all even she concluded paragliding was a successful adventure.  Unlike base jumping,  I felt secure enough when paragliding that I could appreciate the very unique and wonderful vantage point paragliding afforded me.   I can check paragliding off my bucket list.

Paragliding also gave me a kick ass story to tell friends.  Count yourselves, dear readers, as the first of many, many people who will hear about the time I blasted off the top of a tree with nothing but my bare thigh. 

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Kristin has pictures and the “you sit too soon!” video, but there’s no saying when she gets around to uploading them.  I’ll make sure to post the video when it’s available.)