Date Archives February 2006

Taiwan Part Four: The Four Ds

Once you’ve been accepted as an exchange student, they pound what they call the ‘Four D’s’ into your head. Repeatedly. With mallets. These Four Ds were:

No Drinking No Driving No Dating No Drugs

By the end of the year, each exchange student had broken at least one rule, and some came up with even more creative “D’s” to subsequently break. My favorite was “No Ditching School” and I broke it on a regular basis come January. But of course, the very best and most important D was “Don’t Get Caught!” which we also perfected.

Shortly after I arrived, CP Su Mei decided she wanted to take Diane and I to her tv studio to watch her tape a show. She’s very authoritarian, so it was funny to watch the contrast; so sweet on tv, SO overbearing in life. Her show is mostly how to wrap presents in creative ways, how to arrange your scarf, how to arrange flowers, that sort of thing. Hence the nickname “Chinese Martha Stewart”. I don’t think she had any shady stock dealings, though. At least as far as I can tell.

After the taping, we pranced around the set like idiots. In pretty much every picture I have of myself with CP Su Mei, she’s gripping my arm very tightly, almost as if she senses I wish to escape.

I am, of course, thrilled about another opportunity to make a stupid face and have someone take a picture of it. 0000fqyk CP Su Mei, and actually, most of our host families and Rotarians, and anyone we met, wanted to take our pictures. Su Mei was definitely the biggest offender, at least for me. “Here’s this fountain, take a picture by it.” “We are at a hotel, let’s take a picture in the lobby.” “We’re having a meal, let’s take a picture.” “I just bought this knick-knack. Have your photo taken by it.” So here is my photo in yet another hotel lobby. This was taken a couple weeks before she had my hair straightened, because ‘curly hair so ugly’. s640x480 After the mandatory hotel lobby photograph, she gave Diane and I free rein with the camera to do as we pleased. She ended up with a camera full of pictures like this. 0000dxkb We apologize for nothing!

While we were in cram school, we took a trip to the zoo to learn animal names. This field trip of sorts took place on the hottest day known to man. I’m pretty sure that if I’d laid on the ground, the Rotary could’ve served Pure Plum Blossom Bacon for dinner. Which probably would have been delicious. It sounds delicious to me…but then again, I haven’t eaten since yesterday so my tastes could be a little…off right now. 0000wdst From left to right, Priscilla (aka Pri, Priu, Piriquita Voadora from Brazil), Maria (Russia), me, and Jessica (Peru) and Eva (profile, Germany) desperately try to cool off in the sweltering heat.

Marie (France) tried to save Diane (France) from this totem pole while at the zoo, but eventually said ‘Fuck it, I’m hot’ and left Diane to her terrible, wooden, splintery fate. This picture came straight out of the yearbook Beth & I assembled, but I’ll talk about that in great detail in some future post. 0000tgba The next week, we all learned to make dumplings. Hen hao chr! 0000kza0 Emilie (France) poses as if she were going to be in a 7/11 ad for dumplings. Note: 7/11s are EVERYWHERE in Taipei. EVERYWHERE. Sometimes two will open right next to each other, and yet this doesn’t seem to have posed a problem. Much in the same way that there are 3 coffee shops in any given 4-corner intersection in Seattle. Instead of go-go taquitos, they have 100 year eggs. Instead of slushies, they have flavored milks and yogurt drinks. Nachos, no. Chicken feet, yes. We loved 7/11 because they always had clean, free chopsticks. Oftentimes we would buy food from a street vendor (Street dumplings are damned delicious. If I had a guy selling dumplings on the sidewalk in front of my apartment, I’d never have a reason to go to the grocery store ever again. EVER.) and duck into the 7/11 on a 007 mission to escape with chopsticks.

If you’d like to learn how to make dumplings yourself, my friend Felix has documented the process.

The next week, we went on another field trip to the National Disaster Museum/Science Center. Here we learned how to perform CPR, fight videogame fires, use electric escape ladders, and the proper technique for dealing with an earthquake.

Apparently the proper way is to duck and cover yourself with some sort of fashionable oven mitt. 0000q21b We didn’t necessarily believe in doing things the proper way. There was screaming and flailing, and I believe some murder/rioting/looting going on during the course of the two-minute drill. Bad exchange students! Bad! 0000p434 0000htfx bethy824 escaping on a motorized ladder.

A couple of months after I arrived, one of Aunt Tracy’s relatives came from the states to visit. I’m still not quite sure what their relation is–I believe she said he was the son of her ‘cousin-brother’ which confuses and frightens me. Regardless, Dave was awesome. AWESOME. He hails from Memphis, TN, and many a day we would go to the roof of the apartment building and he’d teach me Tai Chi Sword AND swordfighting. That’s right, swordfighting. I think even MY coolness level went up a point or two now that I’ve made you all aware that I know how to gut a man like a fish. After I moved in with my second host family, I rarely saw Dave anymore–I was busy doing stuff, and he was teaching English and motorcycling off into danger. I haven’t talked to him in years, and I don’t have a way to contact him, but I’m hoping that even with the size of Memphis, that perhaps someone in the largish Memphis crowd on my friends list recognizes him. He’s into cyberpunk, and Heinlein, and all sorts of nerdy circles, so I wouldn’t be too surprised if paths have crossed at some point.

0000ch8x Does anyone recognize him?

Also not long after we arrived came the discovery of Hsimen Dean. This was the quote unquote ‘young people’s shopping area’ and it was filled with trendy clothing shops, places with ke ai (cute) merchandise, and a million billion sticker picture booths. 0000rwed This picture was taken way back when Max actually still hung out with us, even if we were a ‘little bit stupid’. The other guy in the picture is Lucas Brasil, who was on a different exchange schedule than the rest of us–he was January to January. So he was long done with cram school by the time we arrived, and was already in a Taiwanese high school. He was upset with our group for a while because we weren’t as ‘adventurous’ or ‘bad’ as the group that had just left…but we were new. We didn’t know the limits yet. This one guy did more to push us to the dark side of exchange than any other factor. We, in turn, corrupted the new batch who arrived in January, and I’m sure they did their part to carry on the tradition after we all left.

Much in the same way that people here get tattoos of Chinese characters that they mistakenly believe mean ‘Darling Angel’ when it actually means ‘Goat Testicle’ because Chinese looks ‘cool’, the Chinese print English words all over their clothes and stationary and business signs and 9 times of of 10 it won’t make any sense.

shirt…Yes.

Taiwan Part Three: Learning and Speaking Chinese

Shortly after all of the exchange students arrived, we were all placed in a cram school for two months to hopefully cram some Mandarin into our heads. There are a lot of different languages spoken in Taiwan: Mandarin Chinese, Taiwanese, Hakka, plus a variety of aboriginal languages, but it was felt that Mandarin would be the most useful for us. It’s funny, though, after we all picked up enough Chinese to know when the Rotarians or our host families were talking about us in right in front of us, they’d switch over to Taiwanese. I imagine that if we started learning Taiwanese, they’d start in on ANOTHER language, just to keep a step ahead of us.

Furthermore, it didn’t matter how much Chinese we learned, it seemed as if the Taiwanese had special flaps over their ears so they could only hear English coming from foreigners. We’d approach a vendor, ask for what we wanted in Chinese, and they’d turn around and say “We….uh…no English.” Yes…but…ok, but I was speaking to you in CHINESE.

I digress. They placed all ~30 of us in this cram school (all exchange students went to Taipei that year…in future years, possibly because of US, students would be sent all over the country) to learn the language and also to bond with each other. After a couple of weeks, they tested us and placed us in three different classes based on one’s aptitude with the language. The best students went into Class A. bethy824 was assigned to Class B. *I* went into Class C. Apparently my retardation showed up sort of early. It was interesting, though: The way they divided us up became very indicative as to whom we would spend the majority of our time with over the rest of the year. A lot of the Class A students disappeared on us after the first two months were up, whereas Class B and C bonded and formed our own group of super awesomeosity. Actually, I take that back. It was mostly the Germans who disappeared on us. Lisa locked herself in her room and studied Chinese all day long, Max thought everything we did was ‘a little bit stupid’, I saw Jerry maybe twice after cram school ended, and Hannah was perhaps the only one of us to fit right in with her Taiwanese classmates. Eva and Lukas apparently enjoyed slumming as they still hung around with us.

My class consisted of Natacha, Claire, Audrey, Marie (all French), Eva and Lisa (Germany), Maria (Russia) and Jerome (Belgium). As another side note, I furthermore find it interesting that in a culture that reveres males so highly, so many female exchange students were chosen by the Taiwanese Rotary.

After our two months were up, each class had to put on a play for the Rotary clubs. Class A did a play about what life was like for an exchange student in Taiwan. Class B did a series of skits. Class C did a re-interpretation of Snow White. Re-interpretation meaning “what we could do with our limited Chinese, plus Snow White and the Handsome Prince meet in a disco instead of in the forest, and some creative changes so Natacha did not have to kiss Jerome, because that was an aspect she was totally not thrilled about.” Marie played a dwarf and the assassin. I like the idea of a dwarf assassin very much.

I think the rice paddy hats were a nice touch. 000065py My narcissistic ass got to play the wicked witch. After the dwarves knocked me down, Snow White STABBED ME.

After the plays were all over, they handed out awards for ‘best chinese speakers’ and whatnot. Somehow, even as a Class C student, I managed to walk away with first place. I think there were some politics going on there, because I certainly was NOT the most fluent at that point. My host mother and CP Su Mei both mentioned that the Taiwanese especially like the way that Americans speak Chinese, as they consider us to have less of an ‘accent’ when we speak. 00007qy0

bethy824 also received an award for being superawesomeOMGWOW.

All of our accomplishments as exchange students were important to our host families, because it gave them ‘face’. Face is an essential component of the Chinese national psyche. Having face means having a high status in the eyes of one’s peers, and is a mark of personal dignity. The Chinese are acutely sensitive to gaining and maintaining face in all aspects of social and business life. Face is a prized commodity which can be given, lost, taken away or earned.

My being #1 most awesome speaker did have an amazing prize to go with it, though: All of the exchange students were to go to meet the President of Taiwan, Chen Shui-Bian, who also happened to be a Rotarian. I got to meet with him personally and give a speech. My host mother was my speechwriter, because, yeah, even as #1mostawesomeChinesespeaker, my Chinese…not that hot.

The speech went something like this:

Honorable President, how are you? Honorable men, how are you? I am a Rotary exchange student; my name is Pure Plum Blossom. We all are very thankful to the Rotary for giving us this chance to live here in Taiwan, and also to meet your Honorable President. We hope to learn a lot, and make a lot of new friends here in Taiwan. We are thankful to our host families for opening their homes and hearts to us. Thank you all. I love you all.

Very evidently I was not the speechwriter for that. I’d make a voice post with it in Chinese, but over these last 5 years my Chinese has deteriorated to the point that I would be embarrased to do so; I’ve got all of the vocab in the speech written down so I haven’t lost THAT at least, but my pronunciation is shit now.

It was an interesting time to meet with Taiwan’s president, because it was the first time that the Democratic Progressive Party had won the election over the Kuomintang. The DPP is strongly for Taiwanese Independence. However, the symbol on the Taiwanese flag is actually that of the Kuomintang. Chang Kai-Shek is revered there, and is the founder of the Kuomintang in Taiwan, and there are many monuments built for him throughout the country. Additionally, his face appears on all of their money. In order to win office, the DPP actually had to promise that they would not change any of their national symbols to reflect their party; so even as the head of government, they are surrounded by symbols of the other political party. 00009ykr All of us in the Presidential building. No, we aren’t all leaning to one side, the picture was too damn big to scan properly. 0000axbq 00008zde The business card of Chen Shui-Bian on the gift he gave me. The gift itself is a crystal with an image of Taiwan carved out inside with lasers, and the base says ‘From the Office of the President’. I’ve got it sitting out on my coffee table; it’s right up there as one of the coolest things I own. 0000b8za Apparently it was a slow news day.

Taiwan Part Two: Application Process, Acceptance, and Arrival.

The Rotary application process was fairly arduous. I had to write essays about myself, my family, what I was planning on doing with my life, and send it in with photographs of these things as well. After the initial screening, they conducted psychological testing, and I had to go through a series of interviews with Rotarians, psychologists, and former/current exchange students, who graded me based on my responses and my appearance(?!). So long as one is good at telling people what they want to hear, it’s not an issue getting through these things. I am quite good at telling people what they want to hear.

Before they conducted these interviews, I was given a list of 50 countries to choose from, which I had to rate from 1-50 in my order of preference. As I would be 18/19 at the time of my exchange, a few countries made it clear that they did not want a student my age to be there on exchange (Australia, Germany, and a couple of others that I cannot recall at the moment) and I can only presume it is because I would be considered an adult there. Those countries I ranked last on the list, as there was no point in ranking them higher. My first five choices, in order, were: Finland, Japan, Costa Rica, Italy, and Taiwan. Finland and Italy because I wanted to see and learn more about my family’s history, Costa Rica because of the exchange student in my advanced math analysis class who showed me all of these gorgeous pictures and had some incredible stories, and Japan and Taiwan because I had a fascination with asian culture. I would’ve included Singapore and Indonesia higher on my list because of my grandparents, but I learned in advance that they were not sending students there as they were considered ‘unsafe’ at that point in time. I learned later that they were not sending students to Costa Rica for the same reason. Scratch one from my top three.

During the interviews they grilled me about my choices of countries, why I ranked them the way I did, and then asked me about the countries I ranked last, and how I would feel if I were sent there instead of to one of my top three (which generally is the case). I explained my reasoning behind my last choices, and that seemed to satisfy everyone on the panel except the current exchange student on the board, who happened to be from Australia. She seemed displeased that I had ranked her country last, and I received the lowest scores from her out of everyone.

After I was deemed mentally stable and a good candidate for exchange, it was time for the waiting game. They sent your application off to your top choices and tried to match you with a Rotary club in that country who was willing to sponsor you. In January of 2000, I was called by the Kenosha Rotarians and told that I would be going to Taiwan, that the Chung Ho Full May Rotary Club (a Rotary club of all women, which was and is quite remarkable!) had sponsored me, and I would be living in Taipei.

Time to start getting excited/nervous. I didn’t know any Chinese, and there weren’t a lot of resources in Smalltown, Wisconsin to draw from in making ANY sort of attempt to learn. My first host mother emailed me, and told me about her, her husband, and his son Edward. She also told me which school I’d be going to (Chung Cheng Gao Chung, which roughly means Chang Kai-Shek High), and that it was a mixed-gender school, which is fairly rare in Taiwan. I felt much more at ease after writing back and forth with her, as I knew that learning Chinese could be transitionary and she’d help me, as opposed to having to play charades.

Over the summer, all exchange students (in the midwest) who were going out, all students who were in the midwest on exchange (poor, poor kids. Who wants to go to the US and watch corn grow?), and a majority of the students who’d just come back from exchange met for a long weekend in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for some bonding exercises, but mostly for more meetings, meetings, meetings. Rotarians know how to talk. They love to talk. There were points where I wondered if it caused Rotarians physical pain to NOT talk, if perhaps their jaws would lock up and they’d die.

We all were required to buy/bring navy blue jackets with us which would identify us as Rotary exchange students. At Grand Rapids, all of the exchange students exchanged tchotchkes from our respective countries which were then attached to the jacket. These items were like good luck charms to us, our grigri. By the time I got home from Taiwan, my jacket weighed over 10 pounds, and felt like 50 when worn for extended periods of time.

In July, my family moved to California from Wisconsin, so I had to say goodbye to my friends and my boyfriend a month before I was to get on the plane, which was the hardest thing, because I knew that unlike my friends that had gone on exchange before, I wouldn’t be coming ‘home’ again.

Pre-flight jitters were really starting to set in. It didn’t become ‘real’ to me until I was on the first plane. I flew from San Diego to Seattle to meet and ride with other exchange students going to the far East. After a 10 hour flight, the plane landed in Tokyo, and it was time again to say goodbye to everyone and go on alone. Some 3 hours of layover plus four more hours of flying put me in Taipei, for a grand total of over 24 hours of travel time. The bags under my eyes are particularly spectacular in this picture.

From left to right, my host brother (弟弟/didi) Edward, Tracy (伯母/Ah-e), myself, CP Su Mei (the Taiwanese Martha Stewart) and Huang (伯父/Su-su) (Tracy’s husband). Some host families are very pushy about you calling them Mom and Dad, but Tracy was not among them. It made us both more comfortable, and I called them Aunt Tracy and Uncle Huang for the duration of my stay, Aunt and Uncle being more of an honorific than an actual designation of blood relation

After about a week, Uncle Huang consulted his books to determine an appropriate Chinese name for me. My last name is very close to ‘Lee’, so from now until forever, I get to pretend that I’m in Bruce Lee’s family. Based off of a number of factors I cannot understand–number of strokes, balance, luck, etc construed from the I-Ching, it was determined that my name would be (in honky pinyin) Lee E Jieh. The characters for my name make up the icon I use for all of these posts relating to Taiwan. Again, roughly translated, it means ‘pure plum blossom’. You may feel free to laugh; those of you who know me personally, or have read my journal for more than a day or two, are likely to laugh hardest. I’ve always laughed about it.

Taiwan Part One: The Beginnings of Wanderlust

I think it was my grandparents that raised my interest in travel. My grandfather’s business often sent him to Singapore and Indonesia, and so for much of the time period before I was 10, my grandparents lived overseas. They sent me postcard after postcard, telling silly stories, and things about the cultures in those respective countries. I found it fascinating and at the same time, it normalized overseas travel–I thought it was something that everyone did.

The stories were wild and fantastical, usually involving Grandmere turning into a tiny pony, and when Grandpere turned her back into a princess, he put on his prince clothes and then they went out and everyone asked for their autographs because they were my grandparents.

‘Gila’ is a word my grandpa picked up somewhere that means ‘crazy’, or so he has claimed for years. If it’s a fib, he’s really sticking to it. One postcard he sent me had a picture of a man driving a horse-drawn cart. They became ‘Mr. Pony and Mr. Ponyman’ and they’ve been part of our insider language ever since.

Another of our inside stoies were about how The Three Billy Goats Gruff weren’t just going over the bridge to chew on any old grass. No, they were going to the other side to chew on the sweet-smelling grass that tastes like gum. (Bubblegum, specifically. None of that mint stuff.)

Grandpa also used to send me cassette tapes where he’d read me stories. I remember quite clearly the one about the Billy Goats Gruff, but the others I cannot. I’d give a kidney to have those tapes now. It’s likely that in some bit of foolishness, I decided I was a grownup and didn’t need to hear kids’ stories anymore. Of course, at that age, I also thought my grandparents would live forever, and he could ALWAYS tell me the stories if I wanted to hear them again.

So very early on I associated overseas travel not only with adventure, but also with the idea that it would help you grow closer to people; not just new friends, but with the people you loved. In 1999, I put an application in at the Rotary to be a foreign exchange student.