Yesterday I was driving home and I saw a midget waving a sign, presumably for some sort of sale. At first I thought, “WOW! That’s a great idea, using a midget! That will definitely attract attention!” and then I realized I was too busy going “WOW! A MIDGET!” to have any idea as to what exactly they were selling.
In December, Beth and I went to some sort of Science Fun Fair Mystery Spot Park Thing. I *think* we went with her host family, or someone in her Rotary, because I really don’t recognize any of the people besides us in the picture. Regardless, it was a day of adventure, danger, and fun.
The shirt I’m wearing is the t-shirt of my class. It also may be indicative of my mental age; at any given moment, I’m likely to act like a two-year old.
Beth, posing with the Science Fun Fair Mystery Spot Park Thing’s mascot.
This thing almost killed me. Don’t laugh. Seriously. So it’s a wheel that you run on, to what purpose I could not say. What I did not realize is that the faster I ran on it, the more it tried to suck me underneath and into the swampy bogwater. Such shrieks as I uttered have likely ne’er been equaled at that park before or since.
Here’s Beth’s head on a plate–but where’s her body? It’s a Science Fun Fair Mystery Spot Park Thing SECRET.
In the middle of this park, they had what appeared to be a playground, with large plastic dinosaurs posing in happy cartoon stances. It was like an educational museum for kids who would be too frightened by menacing dinosaur skeletons, with little informational plaques in front of each one.
As there really wasn’t anyone else there, we decided it would be a shame if we did NOT take advantage of the moment and ride the dinosaurs. Could you NOT have done it? I didn’t think so. Don’t judge. I hear you judging!
It took me about six tries to get up on this thing. It was far too tall and too slippery for me to pull myself up on the side, so I had to literally run up the tail to scramble aboard. I felt like a much fatter, much clumsier Fred Flintstone, but I did it, dammit.
Emboldened by our mastery over the Reptile Gods, we continued to explore the park, when lo, out of the brush came that thing which man fears most: a dino wearing a bow tie! The horror! The horror!
There was no way I could escape this beast by the power of my own two legs–I would need a powerful steed, swifter than the wind, and more furious than a hungry wildebeest. Luckily, there was an electric dog nearby!
My life will never be the same, after witnessing the majesty of the Taiwan Science Fun Fair Mystery Spot Park Thing. Don’t your lives also feel enriched as well, now that you’ve shared in the experience?
Around December, it was time to change host families. I was a little apprehensive about this as I’d met the family before, and although warm, they spoke no English. I knew immediately that either my Chinese would improve rapidly over the next few months, or my ability to play charades would be unparalleled worldwide.
Quite honestly, I would have been happy to have stayed with Tracy Ah-e and Huang SuSu for the entire year. But other people in the Rotary wanted me, and they would have lost face if I didn’t go stay with them, so there was nothing to be done about it. I was quite lucky in that respect compared to other students. I only had three different families throughout the course of my stay, as opposed to some who were changing homes on a basis of every three or four weeks. Can you imagine packing and moving and getting used to a new area of a completely unfamiliar city every three or four weeks?
The Lin family’s daughter, Vivian, had gone to Brazil the year before. She loved it there and often expressed an intense desire to return as soon as possible. With as much as she had to study every day in Taiwan, I don’t particularly blame her. Brazil must have been very freeing. Studies have shown that students from the US who go abroad tend to be MORE studious when they return. I would imagine the reverse is true when students from Taiwan and Japan go overseas and experience not having to spend 16 hours of every day in a classroom setting.
Vivian and Li-Wen. Li-Wen was a PISTOL. She was anxious to show off at any opportunity, and would routinely do just about anything for attention.
Li-Wen, getting ready to throw down in some sort of ruler-based war.
You know how schoolkids here (at least in my experience) pull on their eyelids to chants of “Chinese, Japanese, American Knees”? Yeah, they do the same thing in Taiwan. But in reverse. THIS IS WHAT YOU LOOK LIKE, ROUND EYES!
My second host father. He was an art teacher at a local art school, which is the same one that Vivian attended. He taught mostly chinese calligraphy, and it was something he was apparently quite well known for. He tried to teach me some, but the language barrier was impossible to overcome, especially when I was taking classes with a different calligraphy teacher who taught me things a completely different way. We ended up getting frustrated with one another after about an hour, and never made another attempt. He’d just watch and ‘tut’ at me when I was doing my calligraphy homework. My second host mother, eating dinner. This was the first host family I had that attempted to feed me until I exploded.
They were both very insistent that I call them ‘mom’ and ‘dad’, which was hard for me, especially due to the time of year. The Rotary has charted the way student’s years typically go, and it follows a pattern–a very good first 3-4 months, and then around December and especially the holidays, the honeymoon vacation period ends and students become incredibly homesick and depressed. If a student is going to go home early, it’s usually during that period of time; the depression cycle lasts around two months.
Of course I went into things thinking “I’ll be different”, but I couldn’t fight it. I missed home, and I even missed the things that had become familiar to me over the previous four months. It was very hard to call them ‘mom’ and ‘dad’ at a time when I was acutely aware that my mom and dad were across the Pacific.
This was the bathroom in my second host family’s apartment. This was the thing that MAJORLY skeezed me out about this particular living situation. Notice the green bucket? That’s covering their shower drain. I believe this is the first time I’d ever seen a shower where there was no tub or any enclosure whatsoever. Consequently, water was EVERYWHERE. The floor & toilet seat were constantly soaking wet. I’d do a mental facepalm every time I stepped into the bathroom in stocking feet, directly into a puddle. SQUISH. My socks and the hem of my pants were always wet over the entire course of time that I lived there.
Christmas is an interesting holiday in Taiwan, if only because the majority do not hold christian beliefs and therefore they have all the trees in public and the santa mythos without any of the semantics arguments.
A giant tree in front of Shin Kong Mitsukoshi, constructed out of glass bottles. If Fight Club took place in Taiwan, this is one piece of corporate art that I guarantee would be shards in so many people’s eyes in a matter of seconds.
A bunch of exchange students got all gussied up and went to a christmas dance party; it didn’t matter that we went out in public looking like that, because EVERYONE went out in public looking like that.
It was an uncertain time of year for a lot of us, if not all of us, but we made our way through it the best we could, and ultimately, I believe we all became stronger people because of it.
The week drew to a close with a very special event: a rare ‘Link’ sighting. Also known as ‘Elf Boy’ and (to the less videogame inclined, or shall we say ignorant) ‘Peter Pan,’ Link is a heavyset young man who is often seen between Capitol Hill and lower Queen Anne, always wearing a dark green tunic, a brown WWF-sized leather belt, huge custom-made tan leather boots, and little green cap. Link was last seen on the #7 Metro bus with his older gentleman friend, who spent the entire ride ranting and raving about poor people needing to get jobs. Armed with his shield, and handful of Nerds, as a finale, Link pulled from his backpack what appeared to be a firearm at first but was actually a collapsible metal shovel, unfolded it, and began to wave it around, scaring the living Christ out of fellow passengers. Despite occasional spookiness, Link is still regarded as a sign of good luck, like a rainbow or a UFO: He can often be spotted waiting for a bus on Denny Way, and he’s also frequently found at a local coffee shop, playing chess in full regalia. Keep your eyes peeled.
It didn’t take long for any of us to realize we weren’t going to learn a whole hell of a lot in our respective high schools. We spoke the equivalent of chinese baby-talk, and with all of the cooing and attention we were receiving from our classmates, they weren’t learning much either. One by one, we removed ourselves from the classroom whenever possible, always aware of where the ‘jiowguan’ or ‘guards’ were, so as not to be reported to the Rotary.
I found myself especially frustrated around the 2000 elections, because I expected to be able to open the Taipei Times and find out who the conclusive winner was. Everyone remembers what a giant clusterfuck THAT election was, and it was extremely difficult to find any current information. While the US president may just be a figurehead and a puppet for stronger, hidden political forces, I wanted to know who our figurehead was going to be.
It was then that I discovered the tushuguan (library). The library had the regular library things–books, magazines, and current newspapers, but more importantly than that, it had a computer lab with internet access. Ploddingly slow internet access, but internet access nonetheless. From here I was able to find out current news, and contact my boyfriend, whom I’d sorely missed over the past few months. Letters were not an effective form of communication, ESPECIALLY letters with packages. I had more packages seized by customs that year than I actually received. It always infuriated me to think that some postal employee somewhere was rocking out to MY cds.
The tushuguan became the place to be–as Jessica stated in our yearbook, “What do I like about Taiwanese high school?? I love the tushuguan!! I love the tushuguan so much. She is my best friend in the world.”
It’s hard to read in this picture, but underneath the Chinese, they have written in English, ‘Your good taste has been torn into pieces, too!’
Those administrators, always suspecting the exchange students when it came to tomfoolery.
And perhaps they were right to do so.
Those of us at 中正高中 were a little more…constructive. Yes.
I’m not even sure how it came about, but one day we decided the time had come to start building forts. It’s possible that with all of the babytalk, we had regressed to our 5-year-old selves. It was not a fantastic fort, and we really weren’t sure how we could construct a better one with our limited materials. That was when Raul told us about the abandoned second floor of the tushuguan. Let those words sink in a little bit.
Abandoned second floor of the tushuguan.
Lo, we were like unto the gods from that day forth.
Lucas got wind of our fort activities and came up to check things out. He was always very high-energy to the point of ADD, and VERY VERY forthcoming, which made him endlessly entertaining and also a tad creepy. I think this photo is an excellent representation of both.
We completely took over the second floor of the tushuguan after that day. We’d have ‘girl parties’ upstairs which basically amounted to dancing to Madonna on top of the tables and bitching about things that were going on. We ALL bitched A LOT. But we were also each other’s built-in support system. We listened to each other bitch, and sympathized, because we understood what they were going through. We listened to everyone bitch because we wanted to make sure that someone would listen when WE had to bitch.
But our time in the tushuguan was definitely more ‘dance party’ than ‘dear abby’.
The three of us came up with a series of songs and dances with which to establish dominance over our new territory. There was a lot of semi-melodic shouting of “TAI-WAN FO-OORT” and some walking like egyptians and some mashing of potatoes.
BEST. FORT. EVER.
After we built our ‘secret’ lair, we further determined we needed superhero identities. Taiwanese superhero identities. The Taiwanese are very…out there with their bodily functions. No hiding or muffling or holding it in, whatsoever. You’ve got to fart? Let ‘er rip. There was what appeared to be bloody spit all over the sidewalks from the betelnuts (more on this in a future post). The thing that skeeved me out the most (besides the practice of putting used toilet paper in a garbage can next to the toilet instead of flushing it) was the way my host families, my second one ESPECIALLY, would ‘clear their sinuses’ in the shower. The apartments had fairly thin walls. Imagine the sound of someone hawking a loogie. Now imagine it continuously for upwards of ten minutes. NOW imagine being next in line for a shower and what you’re probably stepping on.
So, henceforth, we were Super Burper (Beth), Super Farter (Emilie), and Super Loogie (me), fighting against the forces of good taste everywhere! Beth and I got into a dramatic argument about the best tactics with which to take out Miss Manners, our arch-nemesis, with our superpowers. Super Farter and I test out our newfound superpowers out the window at the jiowguan. Being a superhero is hard work, so I took a power nap, while Super Farter practiced her patented Death Stare in order to protect our valuable resources of Wheat Thins.
Eventually we tired of our tushuguan activities, and were ready to take our superpowers out into the real world. This, my friends, is when Raul taught us to jump the wall and escape. Raul was basically the Jedi Master of school avoidance, but he would only teach us lessons when we were ready to learn them. It was very important to make sure a guard wasn’t watching, as the guard’s station was very near the lower, jumpable, section of wall, but eventually we turned it into an art form. Later, we discovered a hole in the wall surrounding the school back by the track, possibly for drainage, but large enough to fit through, and found ourselves in a rice paddy, which made for a soggier but somewhat easier escape.
I had a very Office-Space revelation. “I don’t like school. I don’t think I’m going to go anymore.” I felt I could see and do more things, and absorb more culture, if I wasn’t stuck inside for 8 hours every day.
Around January, I stopped attending school altogether.
Food was something we all had to come to terms with fairly quickly. You eat, or you starve. You eat, or in the case of Priscila, you get sent home. Absolutely nothing could have prepared us for what REAL chinese food looks and tastes like.
Directly from our yearbook: Name the most memorable food moment in Taiwan, and explain why. (Before you make fun of language or spelling, please remember that English is not their first language! (for the majority, anyway))
“Ok, I remember when I had to eat stinky tofu, century rotten eggs, fish eyes, japonese fish dryed into sugar (yokeee, but you know Natacha like it…), snake (that’s was good!), shark skin (I realy didn’t like it), chicken feet (it was not so bad!)(no really!), shark fin (that’s was good too!), and I am sure I am forgetting so many other strange stuff…” – Mathilde, France
“THE GREEN EGG WHO WAS 3 MONTH OLD!!! For those who have already eaten this famous taiwanese egg, I don’t have to explain why it’s a memorable moment. For the other, just try it! It’s delicious, everybody can tell you! Try, try, try and never forget how good this egg was!” – Jerome, Belgium
“When I had to eat at school for the first time, because every taiwanese f*cker was looking at me!” – Eduardo, Paraguay (Note: They really do stare at us like zoo animals. I think they expected us to secretly attempt to feed a second head hidden under our shirts.)
“When I eat Muli oups…I should not tell you but she is hen hao tche.” – Audrey, France (Note: Referring to Muriel, another student there on exchange. Hen hao tche = very delicious)
“The first time I ate tofu ’cause I felt like I have to go throw up.” – Eva, Germany
“Probably on my first day here, when I ate one small octopus completely and discovered that one of its eyes stuck between my teeth, damn, that was disgusting!” – Lukas, Germany
“Watermelons. I looooove watermelons….hey, I’d love a photograph of someone with a watermelon on their head…hey, I wonder if we can get someone to put this watermelon shell on their head…hey, I wonder who’s drunk and impressionable…hey, *Beth*” – Nina, Australia (Note: Yes, this happened. Yes, it was awesome. No, I don’t have a copy of the picture.)
“The fight with chicken feet on michael’s house!” – Priscila, Brazil
“There have actually been quite a few considering my eating habits: *Eating a plateful of fried bees because I was told they would make me beautiful. *Cho-Dofu –need I say more? *Eating every imaginable animal and body part. *Having a doctor yell at me because I don’t know the Chinese for ‘I have food poisoning as nobody seems to know the principles of basic hygiene.'” – Natalie, Australia
In the US, our food is disguised. Chopped up, de-skinned, de-boned, beheaded…it’s almost as if meat falls onto your plate like magical meaty manna. In Taiwan, food is very in your face. “Look at me, I am a duck. Here are my feet, and here is my beak.” “Look at me, I am a fish, here are my scales and here are my cheeks.” Oftentimes, it’s looking back at you while you are looking at it.
Shabu-Shabu restaurants were absolutely everywhere. (Although, come to think of it, I believe it’s Japanese in origin.) Each person has a pot of boiling water in front of them, and a plate of thinly-sliced meat and tofu and vegetables and fishballs and noodles. These things you dump into your pot, cook as desired, and then consume with various spicy sauces. Delicious. I wish that there were a few Shabu-Shabu restaurants interspersed among the approximately one bazillion teriyaki and pho restaurants in the Redmond area alone. This is one of the only times I think I ever saw Priscila attempt to eat something even remotely Taiwanese. Note that her prawn is still looking at her with sad little eyes. I could never eat my prawn–I couldn’t get past the eyes. Always looking at me. Always looking! “Pwease don’t eat me, look at this sad little tear that I am crying!”
Zhen zhou nai chai, or bubble milk tea, was another favorite among exchange students. This comes in many different varieties–pudding milk tea, tea with chopped up bits of fruit in it instead of tapioca balls, tea and mangoes whipped up into some sort of delicious smoothie…it was always awesome. My favorite food memory would be when a large group of us gathered in a park, bought some bubble milk tea (with far far more bubbles than tea, in a very improper ratio) and sat in a circle and started shooting tapioca balls at one another through the giant straws. Raul dared me to try and shoot one in his mouth, from a good ten feet away. I loaded up three bubbles, took aim, and fired them with such deadly accuracy they hit him in the back of the throat, and he choked and fell over. Given one hundred chances, I could probably never pull that off again. Amazing.
Dumplings, boiled, fried, juggled on the street…always good.
Also good were the candied strawberries and tomatoes sold at night markets. They’d glaze them, impale them on a stick (more on usage of sticks further down), and sell ’em for the equivalent of $1 US. Not much to say about this noodle advert but I rather like the flower that peeks up to cover his bumhole. Classy! Dragon-Eye fruit is sold mostly around the time of the Lunar Festival, and you can get huge bunches on the cheap. They sell it here in specialty stores like Uwajimaya, but it’s not as fresh or as good. Dragon Fruit, on the other hand, is just ok. It looks pretty fancy, but there’s not a whole lot of flavor to it. It’s quite mild. I suspect it’s named more for its appearance than for its taste. Red bean cakes were surprisingly delicious. The beans are slightly sweetened, and made into a paste of sorts. Red beans are in EVERYTHING. Congee, cakes, popsicles, EVERYTHING. Taiwanese favor a hint of sweetness as opposed to the US’ “I DO NOT THINK WE CAN ADD ANY MORE SUGAR TO THIS WITHOUT YOUR TEETH INSTANTLY DYING, OH WHAT THE HELL, LET’S DO IT ANYWAY” method. Dragon beard candy has a fluffy sugar outside, and a mixture of ground peanuts on the inside. This has to be eaten immediately, as the fluffy sugar will not be fluffy in a few hours. This is commonly found at night-markets as well. Green onion pancakes aren’t really…pancakes, per se, more like onion tortillas. Especially delicious with cock sauce.
Nio Lo Mien was a favorite of mine in Taiwan. It’s a spicy beef noodle soup, with super thick noodles and loaded with green onion and other veggies. Everything I’ve had in the US by the same name pales in comparison. Hongcouver has some stuff that comes close, but it’s still not exactly right. On days when my host family left me on my own, I’d go order it and bring it back to the apartment, tied up in a plastic baggie much in the same way that one would bring home a goldfish they won at the fair.
On our way to a party, Beth and I were transferring aboveground at Taipei Main Station in front of Shin Kong Mitsukoshi where we were stopped by two men in Japanese kimono in front of a camera crew. They asked us to try some noodles that were in a cup, and then tell them what we thought, in Chinese. The woman in the background was my cram school teacher Jennifer, the leader of Class C, whom we happened to bump into randomly there as well.
Noodles were taste-tested, we exclaimed ‘hen hao tche, wo-men hun xiwan zrben ren!’ and voila! we were in a noodle commercial. Every single person in Taiwan saw this noodle commercial but us. I think I used up my 15 minutes of fame just in Taiwanese television appearances alone.
Raul eating his ‘delicious’ lunch. This is his ‘delicious’ face, wherein he attempts to portray that the food he is consuming borders on orgasmic. Beth and I always felt he looked constipated. This picture ALWAYS makes me laugh.
The Bad Cho Tofu (literally, ‘smell-bad tofu’) is a soft tofu that has been fermented in a unique vegetable and fish brine. The blocks of tofu smell rotten and fecal, especially when fried. Tracy 伯母 took me to a cho tofu stand once, as she called the taste ‘special’. We call retarded children ‘special’. I feel this terminology is strongly interconnected; possibly because only the retarded could get past the smell in the first place. I tried, OH HOW I TRIED TO PLEASE MY HOST MOTHER AND BE A GOOD EXCHANGE STUDENT AND NOT DISHONOR THE UNITED STATES, but I could not get more than one bite down. My pain, not even Bill Clinton felt it.
Instead of an ice cream man, they have a cho tofu man. He walks up and down the streets in the evening with his fryer and his stinky vat of nastiness calling out “CHO! DOFU! CHO! DOFU!” The smell alone is enough to announce his presence. Really, the yelling is like punctuation to the scent. You can smell someone cooking cho tofu from blocks away. The century egg is a Chinese food made by preserving duck or chicken eggs in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, lime, and rice straw for several weeks to several months, depending on the method of processing. The yolk of the egg is concentrically variegated in pale and dark green colors while the egg white is dark brown and transparent like cola. It can also be made by soaking the egg in a brine of salt and lye for a few weeks (LYE!?!), or with lead oxide (would you like some poison with your food? mmmmm). It has been discovered that, once removed from the ‘white’, the yolk bounces like a rubber ball. Albeit, grosser. Durian is just plain nasty. Some people think it smells like feces. I believe it smells more like vomit. Or death. Or death while vomiting. It’s the Janis Joplin of fruits. My third host family had durian in the house quite often…the whole place would REEK. Again, to please them, I tried some. It’s slimy. Somewhat vomitous. Bad, bad, bad. I can’t believe people risk their lives picking these things.
This was the spread they laid out to us on the first day of the Taiwan Tour we took in March. That stuff along the bottom? Pig fat wrapped around bones. Just the fat. Mmmmmm. Eva, Brittany, Beth, and Clelia chow down on some pig fat.
The Taiwanese love food on sticks. Snacks on sticks, meals on sticks, everything is more delicious when impaled on some wood. Yes, those are starfish on sticks. So much food on sticks! They’ve got… Grasshoppers on sticks… Fried silkworm pupae on sticks… and squid on sticks! Try your favorite food on a stick tonight, I guarantee it will be much more novel and even taste better! Words cannot describe the lovely lunch that Sylvie had packed for her. It’s a corn…something. Something plus vomit.
Horrified by her lunch, Sylvie instead decided to go have a ‘snack’. The Ugly Priscila wasn’t ugly, not by far. Her attitude was, though. She wouldn’t try anything. ANYTHING. She lived at McDonalds, and even there she placed special orders because she would have nothing green on her burger. Her host family needed to make special food for her all the time, and eventually she got sent home because of it. That’s sad AND ugly. Chicken feet. I could never bring myself to try them. They were not nearly disguised enough for me. Far too…footy. Like, “Hi, just nibble around my claw, please!” But Mathilde liked them, so I’m putting them in this category instead of just plain BAD.
When going to get dinner with Tracy 伯母 one evening, she explained to me that many stray dogs disappear during the winter as dog-meat is supposed to prevent colds. Strangely enough, only dogs with dark fur are supposed to have this mystical property. That’s UGLY. Not merely a sign advertising goat testicles for consumption, this is also an easy reference guide to check and see if the trendy asian tattoo you were planning on getting really means “Noble Spirit Dragon Warrior” or the far more common “Goat Testicle”. This was in the alley outside my second host family’s apartment. UGLY. Look at that shocked expression on his face. “I can’t believe they chopped my head off!”
With as often as heads are left on in the majority of Taiwanese dishes, neither can I, Brother Rooster. Neither can I.
It wasn’t long before language cram school ended and we were all off to high school. Jessica, Emilie, Hannah and I were off to 中正高中, a mixed gender school. Beth, Clelia, Claire, Sylvie and Muriel (correct me if I’m wrong, Beth!) went to 高女山中, an all-girl school.
Lucas also went to my school, and there I met Raul and Jorge, two brothers from Paraguay whose parents were diplomats. Their other brother, Eduardo, went to a different school. Along with Lucas, these three brothers pushed us to new levels of exchange student monkeyshines because they had the most important thing of all: diplomatic immunity. They did whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted because it didn’t matter. It wasn’t long before all of us started acting as if we had diplomatic immunity as well.
School uniforms were the traditional japanese-hyper-fetished pleated skirt with a button-up shirt on top for regular days, and windpants and polo shirt on gym class days. Additionally, each school had their own bag with the school name printed on it.
Wearing skirts to school became particularly awesome on monsoon days, when sheets of rain would hit your legs and tremendous gusts of wind would attempt to blow your skirt up. Add this to the gusts of wind coming from the MRT (subway system) and many of us oftentimes felt like Marilyn Monroe, battling against showing our dingy underwear to the world.
Taiwan is tropical, but during the winter with all of the humidity in the air, it doesn’t matter what the thermometer says–it’s FREEZING. Those days the wind just bites into you, and skirts are woeful protection against it. Some schools compensated for this by having school sweaters. My school did not. An umbrella was an IMPORTANT THING to remember every day. In Seattle, we pick out tourists by who’s carrying an umbrella. In Taiwan, they pick out idiots by who’s NOT carrying one. I had at least 10 different umbrellas over the course of the year–you’d lose them, or someone would take yours when you leave it outside of a shop, or it’d simply be destroyed by the wind. They sell umbrellas in such massive quantities there that they run about $3 US. Or, if you happened to be out of money and caught in a freak storm, you’d share umbrella karma by taking someone ELSE’S umbrella from outside a store after yours has been taken. That’s just the way things went. Umbrellas were like community property.
I lived fairly far away from my school; over an hour each way, counting walking and buses and transfers. I was more fortunate than students like Maria, however, who had to travel by train out of the mountains to get to a subway station and then go to school–she traveled nearly two hours each way. They don’t do school districts in Taiwan; each student is tested extensively and placed in a school according to their learning ability/aptitude. So where you lived had nothing to do with where you would be going to school. The students who went to the best high schools were the ones most likely to be admitted to university. All exchange students were placed in the highest-ranked schools in order to discourage us from associating with riffraff. My first host family lived nearest to Dingxi, my second was at Yongan Market, my third at Xinpu, and my school was at Mingde.
Students in Taiwan work very very hard at their studies; many of them spend six to eight more hours in a cram school after their regular school day is over. This made it very difficult to get to know any of the students; they simply didn’t have time to waste with us. The after-school job is virtually unheard of in Taiwan; extra time is to be spent studying. I don’t know how else to explain this without being deeply offensive, but it keeps them immature longer because they don’t have any life experience outside of school–being with 17 year olds at 中正高中 was like being with 12 or 13 year olds in the states. That also made it really hard to relate to them.
Much in the same way that people from the US make generalizations about other countries–“Taiwan is all sweatshops and child labor,” “France is full of stinky, rude, and cowardly people,” the Taiwanese make assumptions about us based on what they see in movies. Therefore, people wanted to know where I kept my gun. Joyce and ‘Sweetie’ brought Beth and I chocolate because they ‘heard we were American’. People assumed that in America, we see gang fights on a regular basis, and when shit blows up, that’s just normal. Hell, I might see three different cars blow up on my way to school and not think twice about it.
My first day at school, my classmates surrounded me and started PETTING MY HAIR. All I heard were coos of ‘blond! blond!’ coming from all around me. I felt like a scared baby llama at a petting zoo being poked and prodded by preschoolers. Emilie got the same treatment in her classroom, except they tried to poke her eyes as well. We were both majorly freaked out by this development. Jessica got off fairly easily, being dark-skinned, with dark hair and eyes, and I’m not sure how Hannah fared because she stopped hanging out with us immediately after school started.
We were already used to being novelties, but this was a step above and beyond what we’d experienced in the past (people talking about us on the MRT, people pointing us out when we walked by (my Chinese got better as the year went on, but for all I know at the beginning they could’ve been saying “LOOK OUT SHE’S GOT A GUN!”)). After lunch, the notes started landing on my desk. Of course you let them take their picture with you, or you fill out their hello kitty contacts book with your vital info (height, weight, blood type, phone number, favorite color, etc) to be nice, but it really has the tendency to make one feel less like a celebrity and more like a monkey who can read and write that’s escaped from the zoo and making the rounds in a uniform.
More about schools later, I think covering the first day was enough for today.
A starter for tomorrow’s topic, which I believe will be about food (I’m not always sure what I’m going to write about until I’ve started writing it): Muriel, Beth, and Sylvie pose outside their school with suckers….butter flavored ones. Mmmmmmmmm butter.
Engagements and wedding ceremonies are celebrated with time-honored traditions in Taiwan.
Red is central to the wedding theme. It signifies love, joy and prosperity and is used in a variety of ways in Chinese wedding traditions. The bride’s wedding gown is often red, as are the wedding invitations, and wedding gift boxes or envelopes for cash gifts. Even the bride and groom’s homes are decorated in red on the wedding day. More recently, brides have been gravitating toward more western wedding dresses, and white instead of red, though this leaves traditionalists aghast as white is considered to be the color of death.
Before her wedding celebration, the bride goes into seclusion with her closest friends. This custom gives the bride-to-be some time to mourn the loss of her friends and family.
A month or so before the couple is married, the groom’s family carries wedding gifts in red baskets and boxes to the bride’s house. One of the baskets will contain ‘milk money’. Others will contain personal things for the bride, so that on her wedding day all of her personal belongings will be in the groom’s house. The bride takes the gifts to another room where they are sorted through. Three days before the wedding day, women from the bride’s family reciprocate, bearing gifts — including some ‘returns’– in red wrappings to the groom’s family.
Wedding dates are carefully chosen according to astrological signs. It is also customary for couples to be married on the half-hour on their wedding day rather than at the top of the hour. In this way, the couple begins their new lives together on an ‘upswing’, while the hands of the clock are moving up, rather than down.
On the morning of his wedding day, the groom is symbolically dressed by his parents. The groom has to arrive at the home of the bride’s parents at a very specific time (most often women will remain in their family’s home until they marry) to claim the bride. If he is late, it is considered to be a most unlucky omen for the marriage. When the groom and his friends arrive at the corner of the street that the bride’s parents’ home is located, they light firecrackers to let everyone know that they are coming. Then they have a procession down the street, preceded by a statue of the Buddha. He brings gifts of cash, wrapped in red tissue, to give to his bride’s friends, in exchange for ‘letting her go’.
When the groom arrives, the whole family must pray before the altar together. After this, the bride must say goodbye to her parents, as she is leaving their home and will never live in it again. In some families, the wedding couple serves tea to both sets of parents while kneeling in front of them, which is a symbolic gesture of asking for permission. This was the case at the wedding I attended. Pictures are then taken with the wedding party and guests, hundreds of pictures. The bride is not supposed to smile at all during this time. Not during pictures, not at all. She’s not to smile again until after she is married. After they finish taking pictures, the bride is led back to the waiting car by the groom, again preceded by the Buddha. The Chinese use an umbrella in their weddings as a covering for the bridal couple. This ancient ritual was to honor and protect the bridal couple as they begin their new life together, similar to the way Jewish couples get married beneath a canopy. If this wedding had taken place one hundred years ago, or even if it were a more traditional wedding, instead of using a car, the bride would be carried to the wedding in a red sedan chair. After the couple is in the car, the mother of the bride leaves the house with a bowl of water, which she tosses on the car, symbolizing (according to Tracy 伯母) “I have lost my daughter and now I have lost everything.” As the car departs, the bride tosses a fan out of the window, further symbolizing that she is leaving all of her troubles behind with her family, and then she is off to start a happy new life. The wedding ceremony is usually attended only by the couples’ immediate families. Just after the ceremony and before the wedding reception, the bride who honors tradition will serve tea to her in-laws in a formal ceremony. The couple will usually go to a professional studio for wedding pictures before they proceed to their reception. The wedding reception is an elaborate, standing-room-only affair.
A welcoming speech is usually performed by an MC who is hired for the occasion. The speech is followed by a cake cutting ceremony. The traditional wedding cake is immense, with many layers. The layers symbolize a ladder that they couple will ‘climb to success’, so couples will cut the cake from the bottom and work their way up. The cutting of the cake is the only event of the reception. The bride and groom feed each other a piece of cake with arms entwined, trying not to destroy the bride’s elaborate makeup. A piece is then cut for each of the parents and for the grandparents, who are fed by the bride and groom holding the cake together. Sometimes a wedding toast is given and guests are invited to greet the newlyweds and their parents. Musical entertainment, which ranges from a simple keyboard player to a symphony or orchestra, accompanies the receiving line. It is customary for guests to shake hands again before leaving the reception. At more elaborate Chinese weddings, a sit-down reception may feature a 9 or 10 course meal as well as musical entertainment. The courses just kept coming at the wedding I attended. I far surpassed the point of fullness EARLY in the meal, and had to keep eating to be polite. I felt very nearly ready to die by the time the meal was over. I have never in my life seen people pack it away the Taiwanese do at special occasion mealtimes–weddings, rotary luncheons/dinners, funerals…I am convinced they have an extra stomach or perhaps an extra dimension they ferret this food away to so they can pick at it later.
Chinese brides often change outfits at least three times during the reception. That is a hell of a lot of outfit changes. I have a hard enough time picking out ONE outfit in the morning, I can’t imagine doing more than three elaborate costume changes in a day.
Teasing the bride is one of the major events of the wedding night. Everyone can take part in the activity except her parents-in-law and her married brothers. All kinds of tricks are played on the bride and groom, so much laughter can be heard in the bridal chamber. The custom is said to have begun because evil fox spirits like to play tricks on newly wedded couples. In order to prevent this from happening, it is necessary to gather a great number of people in the bridal chamber.
A more likely and practical reason would be that in the past, the bride and bridegroom didn’t know each other because of the system of arranged marriage, and teasing the bride helped to dispel the shyness between the newly acquainted couple. Now for the couple, who arranges their own wedding, teasing the bride not only adds to the happy atmosphere of the wedding, but promotes friendship among the relatives as well.
Teasing the bride usually goes as such: After the wedding feast, guests inform the groom that they would like to take a look at the bride. The groom opens the door and let the guests in. Before entering the room, everyone has to say something nice at the door, generally with four sentences. If the bridal chamber is too small, the program moves to the living room. After everyone is seated, the ‘bride holder’ (the old lady who helps the bride to deal with people, usually the go-between, not to be confused with a potholder) would help the bride carry sweet tea to everyone and introduce her to the guests at the same time. When the bride holds the tea to the main guest of the night, said guest would not receive it on purpose, and he/she tells the bride to pass it to the person next to him/her. Of course, the next person would play the same trick and the poor bride walks in circles around the room again and again with nobody listening to her. And this ‘tea -serving’ ceremony is the beginning of teasing the bride. Some people tell jokes (tending toward the risque to get the bride to blush); some make him/herself up as a clown; some start to dance, and some make fun of the couple. All of these are just to make the bride laugh. However, the bride must not show any facial expression. Meanwhile, she must work with the ‘bride holder’ in order to deflect the attention from everyone.
At the end of the evening, they perform the ritual of the ‘Blessing Cup’. The guests would put money of an even denomination in red envelopes and place it in the cup to give the bride. Teasing the bride is to bless the bride. So no matter who you are, you can always show your ‘blessing’ to the couple.
After the wedding was over, Tracy 伯母 said that if I wanted to dress in traditional chinese wedding clothes for my wedding, she would purchase them for myself and my husband. It was and is a nice gesture, but I no longer have the rosy outlook that I did when I was 18 and was going to marry my boyfriend and live happily ever after. Things never work as you plan them, do they?
Although Taiwan was officially founded on January 1, 1912, the events on October 10, 1911 are considered to be the spark that brought down the Manchu dynasty and led to the establishment of the ROC.
October 10 commemorates the Wuchang Uprising; the Chinese people were fed up with the Manchu court. When people in the Szechuan Province found out that their railway company–built by the Chinese, for the Chinese, with hard-earned Chinese money–had been sold to a foreign interests, they rioted.
The government tried to suppress the rioters and restore order. However, an accidental bomb explosion on October 10 precipitated the revolt. Troops mutinied, and within a few days, 15 provinces had declared their independence from the ruling Manchus, causing their downfall.
Traditionally, displays of nationalism are everywhere. Flags are hung. Parades put honor guards, dignitaries, celebrities and traditional dance and music on display. Spectacular fireworks light up the sky over the Tamsui River in Taipei.
On 10-10-2000, I went with my host mother to Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall to watch the performances. They also had a huge market set up with all manner of traditional Taiwanese crafts and foods. Aunt Tracy bought me a gorgeous silk fan, and I’m STILL trying to figure out how to hang it on the wall without damaging it.
The ‘Waist-Drum Formation’ is also known as ‘Waist-Drum Planting Songs’, which originated from a dance of the inhabitants of the northern Shensi Province. It was intended to celebrate the yearly harvest and Chinese New Year. Afterwards, it became a rain dance due to the frequent droughts in the Huang-Tu plateau. ‘Jump-Drum Formation’ is a dance originating from soldiers and people celebrating victory after a war along the coastal provinces of China. Both dances are accompanied by percussion instruments (gongs and drums) in order to create an atmosphere of excitement.
In the past, processions have been in integral part of temple festivals and celebrations of Taiwan’s mainly agricultural society. With the advance of industry in Taiwan, the processions have become an important way to remember their cultural heritage. The Banchia Chao-Ho Association performed “Heavenly Generals and Northern-Style Music” which included six large effigy puppets: the four generals Hsiao, Chang, Liu, and Lian, along with ‘good eyesight’ and ‘good hearing’. The puppets led processions in an act called “Asking for General-Gods”. In addition to the procession, acrobatics and music are performed to help welcome the gods. These acrobatics include Chung-Chow stilts; said stilts originated in the Yellow Basin, where soldiers tied wooden sticks to their legs in order to walk through the marshes.
According to legend, the Generals are in the service of the Gods, and their official duty is to expel ghosts and devils during the Gods’ inspection trip.
Hakka Songs and Dances The Taoyuan, Hsinchu and Miaoli counties are the main areas inhabited by Taiwan’s Hakka communities. A majority of Hakka communities spend their time growing tea trees in the mountains. During the (arguably boring) process of picking tea leaves, they created folk songs sung by two singers who respond to each other. In the song, they express their feelings regarding all matters in life (with the exception of perhaps their feelings about red staplers and gay marriage.)
Harvest Ceremony Celebration The harvest ceremony is the most important celebration of the Ami tribe. During the slack season from July to August, Ami people hold a grand celebration to express their gratitude to the earth and their ancestors for the plentiful harvest of grain, rice, and bamboo shoots.
Note the traditional costume, including the traditional electronic watch that has been passed down for generations by the ancestors.
Lanterns and Colored Hangings In traditional Chinese society, decorations of lanterns and colored hangings have been an inherent part of weddings and other celebrations. Red lanterns and red silk hangings symbolically create a joyful atmosphere. This dance was performed by the Lukang Art Troupe to symbolize the importance of said lanterns.
The lion dance tradition of the north and south of China are divided by the Yang-tze River. Magnificent mountains and hills spread out south of the river, and the southern lions are therefore magnificently decorated. The cold weather to the north of the river causes the northern lions to grow long manes, mostly vibrant reds and yellows. In “A Meeting of Lions from the North and South”, two groups of lion dancers demonstrate their virtuosity individually and then play and frolic with one another. The acrobatics performed while in these giant costumes, by what looked like mostly little kids were AMAZING.
Harmony The “Eight Immortals” Taiwanese opera and the “Handsome Monkey King Sun Wu-kong” Peking opera were combined into one performance for this celebration. The story premise is that the Immortals and the Monkey King are engaged in an argument on their way to Formosa to attend the Jade Emperor’s birthday celebration. The Jade Emperor sends his most revered grandmother and the Old Immortal of the South Pole to settle the dispute, turning the two sides from foe to friend. Awwww. I’d like an Old Immortal from the South Pole to accompany me and settle my road rage disputes.
After the performances at Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall were over, Aunt Tracy and I went back to her apartment, where we met up with Dave and watched the incredible fireworks show from their roof. I can only imagine what the celebration will be like when Taiwan is truly free.
In September some relative’s friend’s daughter Joyce showed up on my doorstep and announced that the next day, she would be taking Beth and I to Lukang for the weekend. While there, we were to visit Long-Shan (Dragon Mountain) Temple (龍山寺) for the Mid-Autumn Festival. Surprisingly enough, not a lot happened during said festival, some people ran down the streets and lit fireworks, and we ate mooncakes (delicious!). Legend has it that Chang’er swallowed an immortality elixir stolen from her husband, and she flew to the moon and became the goddess of the moon, who has lived in the palace on the moon ever since. During the festival, one looks to the moon in hopes of seeing her dancing.
In the 17th century, Dutch occupiers used Lukang as a major harbor for exports; in 1784 it was designated as the Taiwan seaport for shipping links with the Hanchiang harbor at Chuanchou on the coast of mainland China, thereby becoming the gateway to central Taiwan. At that time the town was crowded with stores that covered their facing streets with awnings, creating the famous ‘no sky’ market areas. Early in the 1900’s the conservative residents refused to allow the passage of major railways and highways, and the harbor silted up as well, reducing Lukang from the second largest city in Taiwan to a small backwater town. It is the same conservatism that has allowed the preservation of the traditional face of Lukang.
So the next day, Beth, Joyce, Joyce’s friend ‘Sweetie’, and I hopped aboard a train for the long ride to Lukang. Our first stop was Long-Shan Temple.
Built in the Ming Dynasty (around 1653), the Long-Shan Temple is the first Buddhist temple ever built in Taiwan. As Lukang was reaching the peak of its economical prosperity, along with plentiful donations from the local well-to-do citizens, the temple was relocated and rebuilt twice. Fanciful building blocks were purchased from afar, including colossal stones from France, and wood and bricks from Fu-Jou. In addition, distinguished artists and architects were hired from the Chinese mainland to help create what amounted to “Taiwan’s Forbidden City.”
The style of construction is identical to that of the imperial palaces built in the Northern Sung Dynasty. There used to be altogether 99 doors and gates in and out of the temple, and each contained significant meaning (according to tradition) while they link all parts of the temple into one entity. As one of the three oldest temples in Taiwan, the Long-Shan Temple was once a subsidiary branch of the Kai-Yuan Temple of Chuan-Jou during the Ching Dynasty.
The deities worshipped in the central sanctuary are Guan-Yin, the Lord of Land, the Goddess of Childbirth, and the Eighteen Saints. In the rear sanctuary are the Dragon God and God of Winds.
During the time of Japanese occupation, the Gods in the central sanctuary were removed to the two wings, replaced by the Japanese-verion Buddha.
In 1921, a fire blasted the rear sanctuary, destroying all the antique Buddhist statues except a bronze statue of Guan-Yin and one of the tiger-taming saints. In 1928, some master sculptors were employed from the mainland to restore the destroyed statues. The rear sanctuary was not fully restored until 1936.
After the restoration of Taiwan in 1955, the Gods originally located in the central sanctuary were moved back to their proper location, the Japanese Buddha removed and placed in the rear sanctuary. The statue of Guan-Yin in place today (in addition to the Eighteen Saints) were made in 1962.
At 300 years old, the Long-Shan Temple reflects the rise and fall of Lukang’s history. Now it is known worldwide for its architectural achievement, chronicling past glory in addition to the town’s cultural spirit.
While we were at the temple, we were able to make prints from their ancient temple plates. I made a print of a Chi’lin or Chinese Unicorn, which was originally used as a ladies’ underwear pattern. Talk about your fancy panties! I’d scan the print itself but I have no idea where the hell it is. I think it was one of the things that was missing of of the numerous boxes I shipped home (Every single box I shipped home was absolutely torn apart, things were taken, and I’m still mad about a few of them. Damn customs! Leave my painting books alone!)
After we were done checking out the temple and finished shopping in the no-sky market, it was getting late, and it was time for dinner. Joyce took us to some sort of Taiwanese chicken chain. At that point, I was still quite unused to seeing the heads still on cooked animals, and had to take this picture. (Look at the very center of the menu if you’re confused.) Actually, scratch that. I’m still not used to it.
They were giving away DINOSAUR toys with their kids meal. And they had a giant rooster outside. If I were to say that didn’t scream ‘photo op’, you’d obviously be talking to an imposter Melissa. After dinner, we went back to the home of our hosts, who promptly offered us some milk that had been sitting in the van all day.
Beth had the all-too-pleasant experience of accidentally opening the bathroom door on the host father, who was standing there looking bewildered in his underwear. I was pretty sure I was going to die laughing when she came back upstairs with this horrified look on her face.
The next day we went to the Lukang Folk Arts Museum. The European-style structure that houses this museum appears somewhat out of place amid the traditional buildings of Lukang. Originally the residence of a wealthy local landholder named Ku Hsienjung, it was later donated as a place to exhibit a large collection of artifacts, many of them articles of daily use in ancient times. I was fascinated to see the tiny shoes women wore when foot-binding was in fashion. The process of foot-binding itself is rather disgusting; if you’re interesting in reading about it and seeing how it actually shapes the foot, I suggest you look here. (Not for the weak of stomach!) We pretty much had the run of the place as no one else was visiting, and Joyce got bored so we went off to take more stupid pictures of ourselves. “Here’s a building. We must take pictures by it!” …ok! I was glad to have visited Lukang when I did. Before we came through there again on the Taiwan tour in April, a huge earthquake had devastated the temple and it had to be held up by metal structures built around it. Though I’m sure Beth was appreciative of the lack of cheesecloth underwear the second time around.