Taipei Streets

25 Jul
Some time ago I described driving and biking in Taipei. If you missed that post or tend to liberate unnecessary information from your mind, just picture a video game, say Grand Theft Auto, multiply the obstacle amount by four and add an anxiety level appropriate for endangering your actual life. Today, for example, a blue truck (not a simple pick-up truck) pulled out onto Tong Hua street without looking, causing me to swerve into opposing traffic in order to sustain my current bone configuration. This was .4 seconds after I had carefully calculated a deviation to narrowly miss a lady toting a bag of vegetables yet not interfere with the scooter on my left nor the pedestrian attempting to cross the road by dodging oncoming traffic two steps at a time. To the man in the blue truck, I shouted, “Watch out!” which probably was a lot like what, “少心!” sounds like to me. But my scowl was an unmistakable sign of road rage and malice.
I showed you photos of people sitting on scooters, opening scooters, driving scooters in precarious locations such as sidewalks. That was nothing. It’s time you see the way children, dogs, and old people roll. Parents don’t pull children in little red wagons, dogs don’t ride in pet carriers in the backseat of a Ford, and old people don’t sit in nursing homes, waiting for… well, you know what they’re waiting for. Instead, they all cram onto a scooter OR walk in the middle of the street. Keep in mind that the following  photos show fairly empty streets because this is when it’s most reasonable for me to pull out my camera: at a stoplight, in the market, near my house where traffic is light. What I really need is a photo of me harassing photographing the public on their way home from work. Then my collection will be complete.

This kid gets a 10 for posture.

Here is a step by step procedure for getting a little kid to take a ride with you. First, you find one in the market and offer an alluring toy, preferably something dinosaur or Transformers related. For female riders, anything pink will do, and if it’s reflective enough to see your own grimace, then it’s perfect. Think cubic zirconia.

Act nonchalant as he climbs aboard, and definitely don’t help him.

Before you drive off, look forward because the market is pedestrian land. (Note: This photo is a non-example)

Seeing a child on a bike with mom, dad, or grandpa is very common. So common, that I’m not even sure if it’s interesting at all. But I remember thinking so when I first arrived here. Especially with the bustle of a big city around them. I remember as a little girl having to practice sitting still in the dining room on Sundays when I wiggled around too much at church that morning. The pews were stationary.

The above photo shows how the scooters (and bicyclists) often wait at stop lights, in between the cars. The car on the right is probably surrounded by scooters. So when the light turns green, it will wait for the path to clear. At rush hour, the traffic guard will often signal for scooters and bikers to begin crossing about 8 seconds before the light turns green to help everyone stay sane and safe.

No helmet. She gets on and they drive off. I have a photo of that part too, but you can’t see the little girl as clearly in that one. I’m sure they’re just going around the corner… although that involves passing twenty grandmas, 30 scooters, ten cars, two buses, and eighty nine 711s.

Yea helmets!

They can fit much more than this.

This scooter has a little trailer bed hooked up behind it. I guess I should explain how the trash service works here for this to make more sense… coming soon… ish (but in the mean time, this is not the official city trash service, the official truck has a more powerful engine and plays classical piano music like Beethoven’s Für Elise)

This game is called “Where’s the White Poodle?” You win!

This game is called… You win!

Traffic has built up at the Liuzhangli Circle intersection, but it’s mostly scooters. I took this at around 5:30 pm from my seat on the bus (clean windows).

This is a little misplaced, but I really wanted you to know that in December some of the bus drivers dressed up as Santa Clause and had a little bag of candy.

After you’re done noticing her unpleasant expression, look at the patterned cloth pieces attached to her handle bars. These are used even in 90 degree weather. The purpose is to keep the sun off her hands. The reason I like this photo is because it shows the fabric type used by many. Where are these purchased? Reminds me of visiting my grandma’s house. Maybe my grandma has an internet business.

This guy makes foldy bikes look cool. Folding bikes are really popular here. I suppose the cheaper price and the fact that you can take them on buses and the MRT are the appeals. Can’t be how cool you look riding it or how fast you get to your destination.

Take note of the lady riding her bike with an umbrella (due to sunlight, not rain). I just noticed the cut-out man in the window of the second floor shop.

This is a common site- older person on a bicycle like this one. The seat is usually set really low as well.

This is at the top of Maokong mountain. I think I remember him having a flat tire.

Pick-up trucks are a rare sight.

And we’ll close up here with a more average looking photo.



17 Jun
                                         Part I: Passion (less)
Did cliché sayings like follow your dreams and discover your passion assist you in getting where you are today? While checking your work email, do you think, “Yipee! Another update about IBH policy changes from Linda!” and then pinch yourself?
Perhaps growing up I was a bit cynical or just clueless, but those tidbits about dreams and following them felt like that part in a funny movie when the funny disappears because the main character is undergoing some ridiculous epiphany while we awkwardly fumble to sustain interest without falling prey to caring.
Maybe film writers cringe during their own resolutions too, but they understand that at least one character must progress in some form so people feel as though time did in fact pass while they sat there for two hours eating chocolate covered raisins. Life dreams seemed like façades people keep handy in case someone inquires. This seemed much too risky for me. I didn’t want the movie of my life to go through an awkward phase of me realizing my dream sucked, or worse, that I sucked in not pulling it off.
I don’t think I’ve ever been good at knowing something is definitely right, either… especially regarding the right path to take. People like to advise me, “Enjoy the moment, stop thinking so much.” Which moment? The one you think I’m having? I get distracted by everyone’s different perspectives. I appreciate all of them but feel like joining none. This is something that my roommate Carrie doesn’t understand. She feels very strongly about her perspective on life and which friends are going to support it. She’s expert at completely ignoring hindrances. I envy this, but I have trouble adopting it. One time many years back she wanted me to ditch a guy we had picked up and taken to an event. “He has too much negative energy,” she explained. I agreed with her, but I couldn’t write him off so simply. He was learning Japanese.
There were times when I tried to conjure up a life dream, but there was nothing. I wasn’t one of those kids who dreamt about becoming a veterinarian. I imagine them having had a fairly easy time transitioning to a more suitable goal when the time was right. Confidence is confidence, transferable and easily liquidated. I didn’t dream about what university I would attend, my wedding, a city large enough to worship, nor one small enough to worship me. I considered myself a little interested and a lot fearful of everything.
Once I started something, I didn’t like to quit, so I’d plod along, not stopping to consider if I had any passion. Growing up listening to my sister’s pure soprano win awards and make car trips seem shorter, I joined choir. Julie’s athletic talent may explain why I joined every sport short of soccer. I remember enjoying the team-less ones, gymnastics and tennis, the most. Sam’s passion for drugs was enticing when nothing else in high school was, so I became familiar with the types, feelings, and locations. You learn who has clueless or careless parents, and this helps you pity those kids when you need a break from feeling sorry for yourself.
My passion resided in Journalism and English. Journalism may have inspired me if I wasn’t so distracted by Sam, who I could find in the dark room’s tiny closet even though we didn’t technically have sixth period together. He slept in there, hiding from his classes and life. I wanted to join him but there was no room. And though English class inspired me, I regarded it as a means through school, not an end. It’s similar with writing, art, and dancing. I lose track of time doing those things which is a good sign, but what use are they in the end?
For every proponent of dream chasing, there were even more Debbie downers to remind me of the starving artist, the not quite good enough basketball player, the bored housewife, the friendless computer nerd, the liberal arts major living with mom and dad. Those stereotypes have truth in them, but I’m finally realizing that they ignore life’s myriad avenues. Fearing abandoned passions and wrong decisions and people named Debbie, I became accustomed to ignoring choices until someone gave me a push onto whatever conveyor belt was closest.
In a Steve Jobs quote that a friend sent me, I found these sentences appealing, so I painted them onto a huge piece of cardboard and hung it on my wall:
Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.
I don’t regret what I’ve spent several years of my life pursuing. I have passion for teaching, but I want to uncover the rest of me. The me who was trying to hide in the dark room’s closet.
My friend Sara introduced me to a band called “The Head and the Heart”. Their self-titled album comforted me on many a rainy bus ride this year, and I like to think of it as my beacon towards the habit of following my heart instead of my head.
Notice how the lyrics say, “Put your dreams away for now, I’ll be gone for some time” Meaning he’s going to get lost in his mind and figure out his dreams, screw yours. 
Inspirational music is great, but what else helps or hinders a person in pursuit of a dream?
                             PART II: How Thinking Stifles Passion
In a post many months ago I modified the saying “I think therefore I am” to include warnings about the dangers of thought:
I think therefore I am disconnected from life.
Stuff like that. Is the connection between body, mind, and spirit central to the follow your dreams adage? Personally, I viewed intellect as superior, health as something you’ll miss if you don’t have it anymore, and spiritual experiences as happening exclusively on camping trips and drugs. Though I grew up attending church, it had a certain waxy, swiss cheese feel that turned me off around the age of 14.
Then, as body and spiritual awareness became important to me a few years ago, I’ve begun to uncover some interesting ideas. Healthy breathing, posture, and organs may seem to require hard work and focus, you know what I mean if you’ve ever gotten into yoga, but this year I’ve learned that maybe it isn’t work at all and shouldn’t be forced. It comes naturally when you decide to care about it, and when you let go of fears and obsessions.
In January, I developed an intense back pain. It started on my way home from Thailand… too many souvenirs in my backpack I suppose. You’re welcome in advance. I figured it’d go away eventually like the time I pulled a muscle swinging off the rope swing at the springs in Austin. But it didn’t go away this time. I saw an Australian-schooled chiropractor several times. I visited the regular doctor here once a week or more for acupuncture, electrode machine therapy, and massage therapy. The pain became more bearable, but still very much present. After four months I had kind of given up hope though I was still going to the doctor. Then my friend told me about his chi massage doctor. “You can go talk to him about it at 3pm on Saturday,” he informed me. So I showed up to a bakery, thinking… actually, I refrained from thinking because the whole situation was too confusing. I was at a bakery for relief of back pain?

The first part of the massage. What you see here lasts for a solid minute at least.

Turns out that crammed in the middle of the bakery’s office on the third floor is a massage table where Dr. Wu spends 30 minutes putting pressure on different areas of your body in order to get your blood and energy flowing. Some of what he does hurts, especially when you’re not expecting it, which of course you’re not. He’s ramming his knee into your bum for a solid 45 seconds, grinding his elbow into the sensitive areas slightly behind your armpit, and when he needs you to open your mouth while he forces a ceramic block down your spine, he has to call down to the bakery and get this command translated into English.
“This chi massage,” he explains through my friend’s mom as translator, “will assist your body in healing itself. The reason your back is not healing is because your body’s natural energy flow is disrupted.”

Jade’s qi massage

I didn’t expect it to work any better than any of my other doctor visits had, but my back pain was significantly better after the first three massages. Chi (actually spelled qi) is translated as life energy or energy flow. In Hawaiian culture it’s called mana. When Carrie and I first moved to Taipei, we attended a very long qigong session that was somewhat similar to yoga. Asian cultures have many ways to promote healthy qi. The way I view my back problem is that my mind had set up a dictatorship against the rest of me, disrupting the natural flow of things. But, with the help of Dr. Wu and a qi coup, my back pain disappeared completely after about 10 appointments.

Laura, Dr. Wu, and me at the bakery.

When I pointed out to Dr. Wu that I hunch my shoulders and constantly keep certain back muscles stretched and strained, he said, “Yes, but you should not think about this. Your posture will improve naturally as you begin to feel healthier and happier.”
And I did become healthier and happier, even my complexion improved. I’m going to miss Dr. Wu and Laura, the owner of the bakery. She makes me fresh cucumber and apple juice, gives me special teas, and sends me home with free pastries every time I visit. Sometimes I wonder if it was simply their care that healed my back.
I came across similar beliefs about thinking in this article about awareness. The author, Garret Kramer, helps athletes and performers reach their potential. His work has been featured on ESPN and in Sports Illustrated. I especially like what he says about thought in number 6 when he explains that trying to think optimistically is futile:
Those who understand the arbitrary and meaningless nature of thought would never try to change or fix their thinking.
Then in number 10 he addresses issues related to finding your passion: Passion is 100 percent an inside job. We are passionate when our consciousness is elevated; we are passionless when it’s deflated. So, when you lack drive or enthusiasm, don’t look for the explanation in your career or your life. Consider it this way: Young children are passionate and wondrous about everything. Why? Peace of mind and consciousness are their norm.
So, I have now commenced to cease thinking and start enjoying. Who’s with me? And who will let me live with them for free when I come back to Austin in September? By “enjoying” I meant “mooching”.

Scooter Culture

29 Apr
Looking closely at a person sitting on a scooter, I chuckle. But when I observe scooter traffic as a whole, I’m in awe.

Arriving in Asia, I thought they were called Mopeds. Turns out mopeds have the word “ped” in them because they often have a mechanism for pedaling in addition to a weak motor. My co-worker Chris set me straight, “Is that what they’re calling them these days? Well, stop. It’s ‘scooter’ here.” Chris is one of those people you listen to even when you haven’t verified with google yet. It’s something about his height and long hair that reminds you of a Viking and the bad guy in a fairy tale mixed together.
Seeing this city even by foot used to be overwhelming when Carrie and I first arrived, so being on a scooter was like a special tour. It still is. I found scooter rides so fun that I don’t know why Tiffany or David even bothered to take me anywhere. They could’ve just offered, “Wanna go down Heping Street and back?”
“Okay, pick you up at 7”
I really trust the way Tiff and David drive. I can’t say the same for Denise, a previous friend and co-worker of mine. My first ride with her was also my first night ride in Taipei, though. I hopped on with Denise, and Carrie rode with Tiffany as they took us to an ice cream shop. The traffic was thick, and Denise was swerving around people, cars, scooters, bikers, stray dogs, all the while yelling at them about their bad driving decisions. You may think she has road rage or is a bad driver. Are those the same thing? But after riding my bike here for a while, I can relate. That’s all I’m going to say about that because if I tell you about how I ring my bell and yell, “Really?” at drivers who pull out in front of me after assuming my bike and legs max out at 3 miles per hour like the other bikers, you might think less of me.
Another scary time was a trip up a mountain to drink tea. David is an excellent driver, and we weren’t in the city, but curvy, narrow mountain roads always make me nervous when I’m a passenger. And, this time my head was about 2 feet from the pavement when we leaned into each curve. It was worth it.
I still enjoy scooter rides even as I’ve begun seeing them in a different light, a foggy, polluted one. On any given bike ride to work, I encounter at least one scooter with major exhaust problems. I always have the urge to punch the person in the face. Imagine yourself huffing and puffing from pedaling, trying to make a green light, and just as you feel victorious, a piece of junk scooter gets in front of you filling your lungs with thick smoke. Please understand that this black stream of monoxide, sulphur, hydrocarbons is continuously pouring out of the exhaust because there is something drastically wrong with the vehicle. There’s no escaping, no alternative air to breath. I can’t switch lanes; my bike and I are lucky to have this meager space allotment as it is. At any moment a bus might be in my way, or a parked car, or a turning car, or a slower bike, or a scooter looking to park, or a pedestrian. If I suddenly deviate my path even three inches, I might cause a wreck.
Saying the streets are congested gives the wrong image. It isn’t bumper to bumper stop and go traffic. Scooters only stop for red lights. They are like ants. Ants can always circumvent obstacles  without even slowing their pace. In the photo at the beginning of this post you can  get an idea of how many scooters there are compared to cars and buses and how they favor ants.
I hope the rest of these photos help you understand Taipei traffic and the scooter culture. Unfortunately, I usually only have my phone handy when I witness an interesting scooter situation, so the photos are mostly of low quality especially when the scooter is moving, which they tend to do.

Parked scooters. This is a very common sight. All of these photos are pretty mundane actually.

This is near my house where the traffic is comparatively very sparse.

This is still close to my home, but traffic builds up at almost any red light.

Motorcycles are nowhere near as common as scooters, but you see them frequently.

This is one of my all time favorite photos. I took this within the first month of living here. I found it interesting that many people don't adjust the scooter helmets to properly cover their heads. The combination of her helmet and how cute this couple is gets me giggling.

Raincoat, mask for pollution, gloves so his hands don't get tanned.

Jade and I driving a scooter on Green Island

Now Jade's driving

Now I'm driving again

Scooters ready for tourists to rent on Green Island

The lady who rented us a room on Green Island made sure to give us her crappiest scooter she owns since she didn't trust my skills. Smart lady. After the first ride I became much more comfortable and the next day even took us up a mountain trail a little ways. Jade, on the other hand, was comfortable the moment she sat in the drivers seat.

Updates: Friends, Nuisances, and My Chinese (or lack of)

3 Apr

It’s time for some updates on our lives. I’ve left you so in the dark about recent developments that you probably don’t even know what questions you should have. I’ll help you out: Is there still mold growing on our things? Did Carrie’s boyfriend have a nice visit? What has Tabitha been up to all this time? Did she really exist in the first place?

Yes and No. As you may remember her name is not really Tabitha, but she really did sit across from me and eat a quesadilla today for lunch. Now, you’re wondering about Mexican food and where we scored some in Taiwan. Chili’s. So not really Mexican food per se, now don’t you feel silly. There is a Mexican restaurant three minutes from my apartment, owned by a guy who grew up in California and told me about how he smuggled in the chilies for his sauce. I’m glad he’s willing to be a criminal in his efforts to add more flavor to the Taiwanese cuisine, but the enchiladas I ordered were not spicy, not even a tiny, tiny bit. To make matters worse, I kept picking out weird ligaments from my chicken. And if I’d gotten this meal at a cheap price I wouldn’t be such a snob, but it was about 12 USD, and for that price, I could’ve gotten the same dearth of Mexican spice at Chili’s. I’m trying to observe how popular this “Mexican” restaurant is with the Taiwanese, though, because marketing to the tastes of a girl from Texas isn’t really smart business anyhow.

I am reminded of when my friend described nachos he ordered at a bar in Taipei: cheesy Doritos covered in artificial melted cheese.

Oh, right. You were wondering about Tabitha. Well, her parents recently came to Taipei to see her after two and a half years of being apart.

Her parents

In her effort to show them every interesting thing about Taiwan, I think she was really wearing them out, but I bet they’ve returned to New Hampshire better informed about this city than I am. Her parents are really nice, warm people, and I’m glad they were able to see Tabitha in her element. Okay, I can’t stand it anymore. Her name is Tiffany. Anyway, Tiffany really knows her way around this town. For example, when we visited a temple, she asked David (Taiwanese) to explain the customs, but she was the one who reminded him of all those customs. “Can you tell them about the prayer sticks?”

“Yeah, people use those sticks over there to pray.”

“But you forgot to say how it works. You ask a question, and then you pull a stick out of the bucket and take it to the people at that table. Using the number on your stick, they look up the answer in a book.”

I wish the temple hadn’t been so busy because I would’ve really liked to try this out. I think I would’ve asked, “Why does my bike make an aggravating clicking noise?” If I received an answer like, “Do try to do good but not to be great, otherwise you will be in danger”, then I’d know to stop hating on my bike for being less than great.

Incidentally, when I showed David a tiny little magic 8 ball that I brought from the States, he said he’d never seen one before.

Incidentally again, my friend Jason told me that there are different types of temples, so if you go to a relationship temple, the answers you will receive from the fortune sticks will be geared toward helping you dissect or predict your love life. I’m not sure how these temples differ from the regular fortune tellers. But, some people take the fortunes pretty seriously. I’ve heard about people saying stuff like, “Well, I knew we would break up in November already anyway”. Also there are temples near retail shops to help business owners have faith in their financial decisions.

Tiffany and David also told us about another way a temple goer can receive an answer to a question. You throw two little crescent shaped stones on the ground. If the flat sides of both stones face down, then the answer to your question is “No”. If both flat sides are facing up, they are laughing at you, so you have to try again. I don’t know who “they” are exactly. I guess that’s probably the first question I should have asked. And, if the stones face different ways, your answer is “Yes”.

You can see a man bending down to pick up his stones that he just threw on the ground in an effort to get an answer.

Much of the temple is in this courtyard type area. It was very crowded because this was around Chinese New Year.

I'm not too sure what these ladies do. They may be the ones who you bring your fortune stick to when retrieving your answer.

People bring food and put it on this table. At first I thought it was an offering, but they get to take it back when they go home I think. The point is for the food to get blessed.

David is explaining how the stones work. Tiffany doesn't look impressed.

She's confiscating the stones so she can correctly explain this tradition.

Oh... actually she just wanted to pretend the sacred stone is a smiley face.

Outside of the Temple

About Carrie’s boyfriend, she doesn’t have one anymore. Shaun is now her fiancé! He proposed to her on the beach in Thailand. If you’re thinking Awwww!, you’re not alone. I didn’t spend much time with them when he was visiting, but I can tell you a few insider details: he’s an excellent cook, he’s extremely amiable, they got along really well, and they plan to live abroad at least another year either here or in Thailand.

New and approved photos of them. Enjoy!


I, on the other hand, will not be revealing my future plans, yet. I know what they are, roughly, but I’m not really in the mood to discuss future prospects, and would like to continue to rehash the past.

Remember that one post about Jade in which I included a photo quiz. No one, except Jade, attempted to guess which item was bought in Taiwan. But, in the event that one person out there has been wondering, I’ll go ahead and tell you that it was the orange container of lotion, picture number 1, that was bought in Taiwan. Jade bought the other items in America and sent them to me.
As you can see in the picture of that lotion, some products here have English labels. Actually a lot of products need a Chinese label stuck on, often covering the English words and thoroughly aggravating me. I mean I understand why and all, but I really want to know what the other vitamins in my Gummi bears are. If I’m not getting Riboflavin, I’d like to know.

As for the mold in our apartment, I had joked about that in a previous blog, but perhaps I subconsciously knew I was breathing it in at that very moment because a few days later I realized it was definitely growing in the corner of my closet. I scrubbed that particular colony of mold off, but there’s something suspect about the air in here and my perpetual bad health is proof.
Anyway, turns out the wood coffee table I keep right beside my bed had mold growing on the underside of both shelves. My mattress sits right on the floor, so as I slept I was breathing in mold spores. Super. I’ve cleaned and removed that piece of furniture, but have since found mold growing on many different bags inside drawers and even on my jewelry that hangs on the wall. After cleaning all the known moldy areas, the air in here feels much better, and my symptoms have been improving dramatically.

While I’m at it, I’ll also tell you about the mosquitos here. In Texas I was allergic to mosquito bites, so the bite area would swell up to a very large size and itch, but then after a few hours there was little or no trace of it ever having been there. In Taiwan, the mosquitos are awake and biting at all hours of the day, and on me at least the bites are visible and extremely itchy for several days afterwards.

I have so many more pictures and stories to share, but I haven’t been good about squeezing the last bits of energy out of me at the end of a day or on the weekends. I’ve made a few new friends, too, which is taking me away from the computer and to the beach, to new food (like the Mandarin Chinese speakers’ version of Dim Sum), and to meetings with my new language exchange partner. Starting tomorrow, I’m finally going to learn Chinese at a decent pace! Wǒ shì hěn kuàilè! (I already knew those words, including the tones, though I’ll admit I had to look up how to spell “kuài lè” in pinyin. It sounds like this to me: “kwhy luh”.) This whole sentence means I am very happy! But the “very” only has to be there so that it doesn’t state a comparison, like: I am happier than person x. So, don’t get to thinking I’m extremely happy or anything. I’ll need some enchiladas verdes before I can add some “very”s up in here.

Here’s a list of things I can say in Chinese:
I am from America. (Literally, I am America country person)
I don’t want (Literally, No want)
Please, I want a cup of pearl milk tea
I want a coffee (I’ve never actually ordered this, but the word “coffee” is borrowed from the French word for this drink, café, so it’s ka fei in Chinese.
Thank you
What is your name?
My name is Emily
How are you? (Literally You good question? To ask a question you add the word ma to the end of the sentence. This is also the word for “mother”, but you say it quickly and with no tone… whatever that means)
I am doing well
I am not doing well
I want to cross this street (Literally, I want cross ___ street)
If it’s not too much bother/trouble for you…
You cannot (Literally, No way)
Is/am/are (verbs do not change their tense in Chinese!!!)
Good bye
Go straight
Go! Keep going! (a phrase to encourage. It literally means add gas)
Good night
What is this? (Literally, This is what?)
Almost all the numbers, though I can only say the following quickly with little thought:
1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10, 100, 200, 1000

As you can see, this is a fairly limited list for having lived here for 8 months. Let’s hope my language exchange partner can help it grow. On the other hand, I’m fairly proud because at least half of this list is from self-study using an app I downloaded onto my phone. It’s called iStart Chinese! The company makes user friendly language tutorials. The best part is that the tutor (some guy with a British accent) tells you precisely how to place your tongue and how and when to push air out in order to pronounce the unfamiliar Chinese sounds. And, I can listen to a female and male Chinese speaker pronounce miàn tiáo (noodles) over and over until I have memorized the correct tones. I average about 83 listens per word.

Characteristics of a Great Travel Partner

10 Mar

Duncan is the perfect travel partner. The sights, the people, the food, the entire culture are his within days. After three weeks in Thailand he was wearing a sarong and communicating with Thai people in their language.

Crossing a bridge in Sukhothai, Thailand on New Years Eve

His success with this kind of submersion is partly guts. One time when we sat down to eat a meal in Sukhothai, Thailand, I mentioned to him that one of the ladies at the other end of our table has nice style. “Tell her,” he suggested. When I laughed the idea off, he turned and interrupted their conversation with, “My friend likes how you look.” He added in some Thai too, saying what I bet was “You’re a pretty lady.” Then all the girls stared at me, waiting for me to confirm what he said. As you can see in the photos, Duncan took many interactions to the next level. If we ate somewhere along the side of the road, he ended up taking photos with the family and getting an address so he can mail them copies.

Even when Duncan lacks the vocabulary to communicate with someone, his conversations rarely stall or sputter out.  However, when I’m determined not to let a language barrier keep me from conveying something, I often resort to a sad game of charades or Pictionary, such as “moo”ing to say I want beef, drawing pictures of chickens popping out eggs, and sketching a heating pad complete with wall socket and heat rays (it took a lot of humiliation and time before I got my heating pad by the way).

Duncan is also full of charm. I repeatedly saw him smiling, complimenting people, and taking a genuine interest in them. Moms in the Philippines were literally trying to marry off their daughters to him after one conversation. Maybe this speaks more to their desperation than to his charm,

This mom and daughter made us pad thai and something else scrumptious. Every meal in Thailand was beyond my previous idea of delicious, other than when we ate at a restaurant of my choosing one night. Seriously, that was the only mediocre meal I had in four cities.

but even my own mom is proof. She’s not trying to marry me off, and she’s not desperate, but she called me one evening when he was over here. Pretty soon they were on the phone together laughing. “Your mom is really cool,” he told me afterwards, about three times. And the other day when we were riding bikes, he wanted to swing by this Vietnamese sandwich stand that he had not been to in some months. He treated the lady like his long lost sister.

Since I don’t have as much guts or charm, I just copied Duncan’s. This is why the only Thai phrase I remember is “handsome man” which sounds like “low mock mock.” Just so you know, there is very little chance you will get the tones correct, so think twice before trying it out at your local Thai food restaurant. Anyway, Duncan said, “handsome man” to about every male we came in contact with regardless of whether or not it was true, so I started to do the same when I saw how many smiles we were getting.

Okay so he has guts and charm, but it’s more than that. Trust me. I came here with some of that, but it wore off when that cashier started to give me the evil eye for never knowing what she was talking about when she said, “Would you like a bag?” after each transaction. In Taiwan, they always ask because they usually make you pay extra for the bag, and they’re trying to save the Earth, unlike some countries I know that hand out bags like they’re cheap plastic bags. Anyway, after about the 15th time I shopped there, she was probably hoping I’d have learned those words, but no. And honestly, I still don’t know them, but I can recognize them if they are uttered after I purchased something and the cashier’s hand is beginning to reach under the counter. But Duncan is a completely different type of person. When he came here from America, he didn’t know Mandarin, only Cantonese. He dove right in, taking a class and practicing constantly. Now he’s so gung ho about Mandarin he’s always talking to me as if I know it too. I’ve become accustomed to tuning people out, though, so it’s not a problem.

He didn’t know a single word of Thai, but I bet before he left the Bangkok airport upon arrival, he knew at least five phrases. By the time I met up with him, he was able to have a conversation with every Thai person we happened to make eye contact with.

Duncan in the back of a truck (a taxi service)

It helps that Thai people are really nice and relaxed, but I only learned three phrases due to this, and I forgot them all two days later. Thai is a tonal language, with more tones than Chinese, and judging from all the smiles he got, Duncan was right on with his tones.

By the end of the trip, I almost felt like I should pay him for being my tour guide. He said I was a good travel partner too, though and that I didn’t complain much. Then he changed it to, “Well, you didn’t complain at all.” Well, whatever, but setting the bar at not complaining is pretty weak; what I’m more concerned with is gusto. I know for certain that compared to him, I was a wallflower, yet thanks to him, this wall flower saw the real Thailand, not just the glorious beaches and Europeans on vacation. The type of vacation we had is my favorite kind. As many of you know, for this kind of vacation, your travel partner must be someone who is not content sitting right on the surface of a place, following the beaten path. There’s a reason the path is beaten though; leaving it requires guts, charm, and sometimes an affinity for languages. However, if you find yourself Duncanless, you can always drink. Let me know how that goes.

Taken after spending the day with elephants.

Duncan at a temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Check out his awesome pants (about five USD)

A Chinese temple in Mae Sot, Thailand

As I said, store owners become more than that when you’re with Duncan. This is a clothing store in a market area.

You can just barely see the yellow paint on one girl’s face. It’s a natural paint that the Burmese people wear as a sunscreen and for beauty. The grease covering my face is my expensive “natural” sunscreen from the U.S.

This is a search and find for Duncan’s face. It’s the inside of that CD Christmas tree that we took some photos in front of with Freddie and Wai.

Duncan was on a hunt for the perfect sarong. First, we sorta needed to find out how one ties such a garment.

Like a good friend, I began pointing out sleeping men in the market so that we could take our time in staring at their method of tying the sarong. Turns out they all do it a little differently.

As Duncan attempted to haggle the price down, this store owner was giggling and giggling about… his Thai? His audacity? The fact that he’s buying a sarong without knowing how to tie one? I’m really not sure; maybe she just thought he was cute.

After he agreed to buy it, we sat there as she sewed it into a sarong. It was just a sheet of fabric at first, and when she finished, it was a circle of fabric. Basically, you grab extra fabric in each hand near your hips and you somehow (this is the part we were unclear on) tie the two excess handfuls together. As you can see in the first photo on this post, he got it all figured out.

After I returned to Taiwan, Duncan went on to Lopburi, Thailand which is known for it’s Macaque monkeys that roam freely around the center of the city.

Fun times!



Oh dear.

That looks much healthier. And look, the father is even checking for flees. That looks like a real healthy family right there.

Wow, check out Dad’s concentration.

I am going to guess that Duncan got himself invited to this big family feast somehow. Oh wait, I think this is probably a temple. People put food on this table to be blessed. 


4 Mar

I still love my job because my students continue to be adorable and well behaved. I have five additional students now, though, so what was once tiring is now exhausting. Many of them have just turned four or will soon, and two are closer to age three. Besides the fact that there are usually at least five students trying to tell me about what their mom said or that they found the smallest piece of lint ever on the floor and would like me to inspect it to see if they should earn some kind of reward for having saved us all, this many students proves a challenge because of the lack of space.

A 12 x 10 room with 15 three and four year olds is one crowded place. I am teaching them a kindergarten curriculum, so we have circle time spots, centers areas, a reading corner, math books, phonics books, handwriting books, and we eat lunch in there. Fortunately, the Taiwanese are great at making the most of small spaces. When I feel like all is lost and there’s no extra space for me to put something like the huge box of new curriculum that just arrived, my boss will come in and say, “Okay, what if we put this shelf on top of that shelf, scoot your desk over like this, and then I’ll get you another shelf to go here?” We do it, and viola! It does fit. Never mind that the recycling box is virtually inaccessible or that little Leo’s floor spot is now under Samantha’s chair. It works. Leo is short.

The level I and my co-worker teach has become so popular that they offered us the opportunity to switch to larger rooms. We turned it down. If you’re a teacher, I’m sure you can agree that taking everything off your walls and out of your cabinets mid-year to set it all up again somewhere new is an almost impossible and definitely scary feat to perform in one evening after school. As you might remember, we have to put up butcher paper to cover the walls because of the unfinished plaster and years of tape stuck to them. Therefore when anything is removed from the walls here, the butcher paper has to be replaced or covered up in those exact spots to hide the tears and discoloration. Remember the years of having to wallpaper? I do, I remember watching my mom do it in several rooms, and though the bathrooms looked like little perfect explosions of flowers, we were all relieved when she hired that one lady to do the kitchen.

No matter which room I have, I know I would continue to feel cramped at work. I’ve never given much thought to claustrophobia, probably because I lived in Texas. As a warning, if you consider yourself claustrophobic now, do not come to Asia unless you plan to be rich and choosy with your work environment. It’s not just when the kids are around that I feel squished; it’s during my breaks because it’s these times when some people need quiet and space the most. Let me give you the privilege of understanding lunch time in a Taiwanese kindergarten.

When the year first started, the youngest class came to my room to eat with us. A few months in, the lunch set up was changed. I began taking my students and about eight chairs to a different class to eat with those students while the big kids brought in ten chairs and a table to my room. When nap time was over, they retrieved their furniture from my room. They often left at least a few chairs behind, though. And just one small chair can block an entire passageway in this type of environment. Recently the lunch situation has changed again. A class I’ve yet to mention comes to eat with us in our room, bringing an extra table and several chairs.

After the kids eat, it’s the teachers’ turn. Luckily our company lets us eat the school lunch for free, saving us a lot of money and time. At noon at least five of us are standing up in the kitchen eating from small metal bowls. Standing and eating may not sound that strange especially to my dad, but except for Chris, who somehow manages to get in there first every time and stand in the safe spot in front of the closet, everyone else is in someone’s way approximately seven times throughout their meal. Either you’re standing in front of the sink where Auntie is trying to wash the bowls between her trips to clean rooms, or you’re standing in front of the cabinet of bowls and need to move when someone needs a dish, or you’re in front of the fridge and someone needs garlic, or you’re standing in front of the door to the kitchen, and I don’t think I need to explain why that one is inconvenient, or you’re standing in front of the food itself. When I say you have to move, I mean you have to find a new spot entirely. And the only spot you can move to is often the very middle of the kitchen where someone else is eventually going to need to be.

So just imagine the smallest kitchen ever and that’s where the Auntie prepares the meals. She doesn’t cook them; they are delivered by a man wheeling a cart. As he glides down the hallway to deliver the food in the morning, he taps on the metal containers so students and teachers get out of his way since the hallway is, as you might’ve guessed, not that wide.

After eating, most teachers leave the school because other than the basement, there is nowhere for them to go. I’m lucky in that there are no kids napping in my room, so I can get some work done in there. The hard part is that I’m in Auntie’s way yet again. She’s trying to mop and such and I’m traipsing around trying to get things done. She’s very nice about it, even when the gunk stuck to my shoes is making footprints on the floor she just moped. I haven’t accidentally worn my inside shoes outside in like five months, so I’m not sure where all that dirt comes from, but anyway, she taught me how to wipe them on the mop. When she leaves, she doesn’t close the door, which is about two feet from the office, which quite frequently houses conversations or a screaming kid. I don’t know what the screaming is about since they always yell in Chinese (plus the upset ones are always newbies who don’t know much English yet), but I know that I need peace and quiet, so I go and close it. Five minutes later Auntie comes in again and wipes the tables down. She leaves the door open again, so I go and close it. I start working again on creating some lesson or cutting, and Auntie comes back in to mop again. She mops twice because, well, school floors are dirty. And when she exits, she leaves the door open. The kid isn’t crying anymore, so I don’t notice until he comes in and starts rummaging through our toys. I ignore him, but then he approaches my desk talking to me in a forlorn voice. Once again, I don’t know what he’s saying. So I just nod and say, “It’s okay” while using my herding skills to get him out of the room. I close the door right as he starts crying again. Oftentimes comforting someone has the opposite effect. Or maybe it was because I closed the door in his face? I’m not sure, but I’ve learned not to get all compassionate because the bandage has to be ripped off at some point. I can only pretend we speak the same language for so long.

Now it’s not that I’m complaining. These breaks keep me sane, and I feel extremely lucky. Who gets two hours off in the middle of the day? Who gets to be sane these days? The breaks and holidays in this company are gold. But, sometimes I go down to the basement where it’s dark, musty, and relatively quiet and dream of the wide open spaces in my previous life. Sometimes that Dixie Chick song starts playing. “Wide open spaces, room to make her big mistakes…” Ironically, it’s a lot easier for me to let go of mistakes here in cramped spaces than it was in the wide open spaces of Texas. I think people here are so much nicer and forgiving because if you don’t learn this skill early on, you’re going to start hurting people for being in your way all the time. And I bet the prisons here are even smaller than Auntie’s kitchen.

The Done List

28 Feb
Are you ok? NO posts in almost a month!     


Dear Cindy,

Thank you for your concern. Work is busier lately, but the real reason I haven’t posted is because I feel uninspired. I might play around with an idea for five minutes, even write it down, but I can’t seem to focus for the full hour it takes to type it all out. I’m in a rut. Not only do I rarely write, I don’t go out much either. As boring as I fear it might be, I will just have to write about the rut. People  say to write about what you know…

A rut isn’t exactly a hole, so contrary to what would be interesting, my life isn’t dark or mysterious. It rains a lot in my rut, though. This creates a muddy environment preventing escape, similar to the fate of a spider in a bathtub.  Unlike a spider though, I’ve become comfortable and rarely attempt to crawl out. Before you start thinking this is just a creative way to describe a state of depression, let me inform you of some benefits ruts provide:

Rest for your brain. Though it’s possible my brain is just wasting away from disuse, I like to think that it’s taking a nice repose from the stresses of life. Except for at work, I prefer not to think except for matters of prime importance like eating.

Increased savings. Ever since I let my feet sink deep into the rut’s muddy grasp, I’ve saved 40% of my monthly salary each month. At this rate, I’ll have enough for one semester tuition of graduate school when August rolls around. So I’ll only have to take out a $15,000 loan to get the degree. No biggie.

Okay, that’s all the benefits I can think of, but I’ve come to the conclusion that my rut could graduate to being called an exciting turn of events if I could just find my focus. And I think I’ve found a way.

Life can be complicated when you’re making a lot of changes or want to make them. I don’t know about you, but I sometimes drive myself crazy with all the items on my to-do list: learn Spanish, learn Chinese, mail all that crap bought in Thailand, go to the doctor about that pulled muscle, file your Taiwan and U.S. tax return, write the end of year reports, call that one friend back, find someone to translate your apartment problems to the landlord, figure out what you’re going to do with the rest of your life, reply to those emails. See when “call a friend” ends up on the list, you know you have problems.

For some, life is best without lists. Well you people can stop reading now or skip to the bottom where I say what I really think about you. Ideas and tasks wandering around inside the corners of my brain make me anxious, so I choose to write them down. But, as the list begins to get longer and longer, I find it hard to get motivated and focused. I’ve begun ignoring what I need to do and watching really bad TV shows on my computer instead. Now it is clear to me why my grandpa didn’t want to see the doctor about his nose that kept growing in ways that frightened his daughters. Sometimes we don’t have the courage to face things that seem to have a mind of their own. To-do lists are alive, and they are prepared to ruin your Saturdays. But I’ve recently figured out how to take power away from them without kicking them out of the moldy apartment. I recently read about this new thing called a done list. To read the article, click on the link at the end of this post.

At first I was skeptical (and laughing) because it seemed like some sort of pathetic way to trick yourself into believing you had a productive day. Then I tried it and realized it’s just like optimism versus pessimism. Who cares if the optimistic people are wrong, they’re happy. And they’re usually not the ones sitting around watching that one show I keep watching while mold creeps in around them.

So now my to-do list is a menu, like at a restaurant. Some days I eat more than others, but I never expect to order everything or even most things. And each time I indulge in an item from the list, I write it on that day’s done list. Transforming a blank paper into a list of five completed tasks is much more satisfying than looking at 47 items and only eliminating five. And when I complete things that aren’t on the to-do list, the done list is more rewarding to my psyche. For bigger projects involving many steps, my self-esteem and I can keep record of the completed step or two on the done list despite the fact that I can’t check the entire item off yet.

Now I am more prepared and motivated to move forward in “planning my next career” for example. As is obvious, the goal is not quite fleshed out, but thanks to the done list, I have been making small accomplishment like “researched graduate assistantships”.

If to-do lists are your mean algebra II teacher who seems to want you to fail to get back at you for writing notes to Jade instead of listening, then done lists are your encouraging geometry teacher who you could have taken advantage of when she snuck out to have a smoke every class, but you didn’t because she was just so helpful and encouraging, once she returned, when you needed to find the area of that triangle.

If you’re the type who doesn’t need any kind of list, you probably aren’t reading anymore, but just in case you are, I would like to say that I envy your blissful underachiever ignorance.

Leo Widrich’s article about done lists:

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