Stray Observations

Stray Observations From An Amused Foreigner #3

Coming to a foreign place ensures a certain level of culture shock. While I embrace the hundreds of new sights and sounds I come across on a daily basis here in Taipei, I feel it my duty to share some of the more out-there cultural differences.

ON THE LOCAL ZOO

–A while back I took a trip to the Taipei Zoo with the intention of seeing Taipei’s pair of Pandas. It’s hard to deny the cuteness factor of a Panda Bear and I’m pretty sure I had never seen one in person before this trip. The two bears, Yuan Yuan and Tuan Tuan (which according to Wikipedia means ‘Reunion’) have their own indoor and outdoor habitat and even on a rainy day draw lines of onlookers. The queue that can form to see the two bears is on par with the lines waiting to see Pope John Paul’s body at the Vatican a couple years back, which is to say you are shuffled in an out and are lucky if you catch the Pandas doing something interesting like scratching themselves or taking a dump.

–The Giant Panda also warrants its own gift shop, which proves that you can in fact churn out a panda into every kind of chotchkie imaginable. Panda plush toys. Check. Panda notebook. Check. Vile of concentrated Panda breath for good luck charm necklace. Could happen.

–Rocky the Raccoon, Chinese. It makes sense that an East Asian zoo would have a Raccoon habitat. These arguably cute but rather annoying creatures are common in the nocturnal suburban scavenger subspecies of North American vermin but over here they are only alluded to in children’s storybooks and the 1995 Disney film, “Pocahantas,” which featured Meeko the playful pet raccoon. It was quite a surprise to see that their display at the Taipei Zoo was not only bigger than, say, a lesser animal’s exhibit (some monkeys seemed to be living in squalor though it’s hard to say if a monkey would comprehend squalor, what with the penchant for dung-tossing and all). It turns out that when Raccoons are allowed to just lounge around and don’t actually have to clumsily scrounge through your trash can at all hours of the night, they can be quite playful and charming to watch, as seen in this Taipei Zoo Raccoon enthusiast’s amateur Youtube video.

–Anything advertised as, “The Luxury and Trendy Finger Food” has to be anything but. Even this hungry zoo patron seemed puzzled by the prospects of pizza served in a cone. NOTE: the bonus sprigs of fresh basil featured in the display photos (a nice touch). Brova!!

–I still argue that the Ocelot is truly underrated cat–beautiful and mysterious, while still sporting baadassss claws that could mangle a jugular.

ON MY NEIGHBORHOOD

— I share a flat on a fairly unassuming street. Our place is close to a grocery store, seven convenience stores, a riverside park, and numerous warring clans of stray dogs mark their territory outside my window.

— There are many noises in my neighborhood. For a while we would all wake up to the sounds of ripsaws and a pneumatic nail guns at the construction site one building over. At night we can hear the dogs howling and barking at said construction site, usually trying to put the scare into a stationary piece of heavy machinery.

— Every once and a while I can hear the sound of what must be a howling man of sorts across the way from my window. While at first I figured it to be a dog, the howls have become more nuanced in their tones and range. After recording a sample on my camera’s video feature I spent some time pondering what the sounds might be. The following is a shortlist of perfectly feasible explanations:

a) said noise is from a dog, albeit a rather unhappy, dare I say depressed pooch.

b) said noise is from an old man, possibly someone bed-ridden.

c) said noise is from a waking gimp, possibly being exuded from its cage or cabinet dwelling.

d) said noise is the result of some bizarre Tai-Chi ritual that I am not yet privy to.

e) said noise is from a zombie going through a self-identity crisis.

— Open letter to the neighborhood lady on her bike who feeds the local stray dogs and cats scraps of meat: Thank you for being such a kind soul. You go above and beyond my feeble attempts at feeding the animals store-bought treats.

— Open letter to the hungry/scared/impatient/impish kitten who cried all night long last Monday. If you had just waited till morning the bike lady would’ve have taken care of you. Also, if you want something and feel the need to whine at least make your presence known visibly. My housemate Antoni and I spent a good thirty minutes out searching for you, tracking your sounds to various possible hiding spots. NOTE TO READERS: The following night said cat was neither seen nor heard. While it could’ve gone elsewhere are been cared for by its owner I suspect the aforementioned gimp had something to do with the cat’s sudden disappearance.

ON CHRISTMAS

(NOTE: The following are merely observations regarding a recent Christmas fair hosted at my English school. For those curious, I was in charge of a Christmas dart game with a Robin Hood theme. Also included at the festivities: face painting (which morphed into hand painting when the quality of the paint brought to light suspicions that pain might leave certain kids with nasty face rashes), Christmas stocking-making, a fishing pond (don’t worry, more on that to come), indoor soccer, pinball, and for those not interested in games there were two back-to-back screenings of the 2009 classic Christmas film, “Terminator: Salvation.” The opinions displayed are of the curious and sarcastic nature and by no means show my dissent for my employer’s choices and practices in the arena of teaching English to Taiwanese children. Another column would suffice for that.)

–Look, I understand Christmas is not widely celebrated everywhere in the world. Even the Westernized commercial aspects of Christmas are only hinted at here. Taipei has a couple trees up in public spaces, some of the department stores are slinging holiday-themed items, generally presented with tinsel and ornaments. At a recent concert I attended the Midori Liquor girls were pushing the green libation from a tree of under lit green bottles. Still, if you’re going to claim to hold a Christmas party for a school full of curious minds, you must refrain from doing the following:

1) Grilled sausages and deep-fried onion/chicken circles are no doubt tasty but are about as Christmas as Bob Dylan singing “Here Comes Santa Claus.”

2) If you give a wild child a bag of live fish, there will be blood. Teacher Elle, one of my Chinese co-workers hosted a fishing pond game where students paid actual money for paper fishing nets and were given the chance to scoop up as many terrified little fish as they could. While cute in a carnival kind of way, a number of children were clearly not ready for the responsibility of caring for living things, even if said creatures were of the minnow variety. I had to rescue three different sets of fish that were spread across the floor of classroom 304 when my students carelessly dropped the bags. Student Jerry, who is truly a menace to society, was caught poking and squeezing a number of his fish. When I confronted him about his cruelty he belted out a sugar drink induced screech, the likes of which might give an Apache war party a run for their money. Give a student a life and their true colors come out.

3) Fact: A 6 oz plastic Hello Kitty juice tumbler can temporarily hold approximately 12-15 fish comfortably depending on size and girth.

4) Fact: Cold water from the school water cooler may stop fish hearts.

5) Nothing says Christmas like a giant inflatable giraffe head and neck, which I suppose could be used as a riding toy like the classic wooden pony head and stick. Still clearly the better choice is to hit tall Teacher Warner with said apparatus of mischief.

6) When Christmas trees, ornaments, Santa Claus’ and other red and green colored drawings are simply not enough to please naughty students for simple face/hand painting, one can always resort to safer themes like snakes, rats, spiders, and sharks.

7) Though probably an overlooked mistake, the paper vampire bat decoration (a leftover from Halloween, another misunderstood holiday here in Taiwan) on the windows of the teacher’s lounge/staff bathroom/kitchen was a fitting extra touch.

8) Nothing says ho-ho-ho like giant cyborgs battling it out in the future for survival of man after Judgment Day. Teacher Steffi was in charge of renting a movie for the screening classroom to keep the older kids occupied during the festivities. While I could think of at least a hundred charming Christmas films (hell, if you’re going the guns, explosion and cursing route why not settle on Die Hard, which actually was set during the holidays) Terminator: Salvation was ultimately chosen.

Jerry, our school’s resident problem child, watches cyborgs shoot humans
during the Xmas “Terminator: Salvation” film screening, the sugary contents of that
red bottle circulating through his system.

9) The total number of pleads to universal problem child Eason to put down the darts and to stop: 11

10) Eason: 11, Teacher Warner: 0

ON TAIWANESE MTV

— On a date of sorts a couple weeks ago I was introduced to Taiwan’s version of MTV, which has nothing to do with the American Music Television cable network. MTV is essentially akin to East Asian KTV, which, if you recall, are venues where you and your friends can rent a room equipped for Karaoke. MTVs take the same concept of renting a room (a seedy sounding diversion if you ask me) and incorporate film to the equation. You and your friends can show up, pick from a selection of DVDs, and get a room with a surround sound system and a digital projector. Pretty cool concept and one that I always envisioned in the States but I knew would never be profitable. Why watch a movie on your dinky home TV when you can rent a large high-definition screen with surround sound for less than the cost of going to an actual film house?

— In Taiwan MTVs were largely successful for many years, catering to young teenagers wanting to watch movies and make out. It takes the concept of the drive-in movie and brings it indoors. I learned that due to internet movie downloading these establishments are a dying breed.

— I was invited to an MTV by a girl I met who told me that if I liked movies (which I do) then I would love MTV. Of course when it came time to make the film selection I knew instantly that my usual insistence on snooty art films wouldn’t fly. For starters the film library was limited to big Hollywood action and romantic comedies, many of which starred ponytail wearing white ninja Steven Segal (who apparently is quite respected over here). Setting aside my film pretensions, I allowed my friend to choose the film. She, without hesitation I might add, went for the teen vampire soap opera, Twilight, which is all the rage here.

Having not read any of the books of which the Twilight Saga is based on, I can’t accurately comment on its importance in the lexicon of American literature and film but it does seem to follow a fairly basic formula: Take one pasty white skinned, semi EMO teenage girl (Kristen Stewart, who was quite good in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild), send her to the Pacific Northwest, introduce the Romeo to her Juliet (who is part of a mysterious family of pasty-faced vampires), insert some hipster indie rock music, have a scene where said vampire love interest rescues her from a car accident and possible attack/rape from Oregon gang members, and finally, add a pinch of voice-over narration about the complexities of loving a vampire, all of which is said to be a metaphor for keeping one’s virginity sacred–give in to your lust for sex (with a vampire) and you might end up with two holes in your neck. Watch out girls!

— The whole experience was odd, to say the least.

— MTV summed up: A place to relive middle school.

ON MUSIC IN THE CLASSROOM

The songs written by Hess, my school’s parent company, are offered to teachers as a tool for helping to teach key grammar points and increase vocabulary comprehension. The majority of them lack any sort of catchiness and often drive the students (and the teacher) insane. My American Curriculum Program class (ACP) meets four days a week and is one of the few that actually enjoy singing the songs offered. While I’m gradually trying to supplement the material with classic English songs of my childhood–The Beatles “Octopus’s Garden” and Bowie’s Labyrinth film era “Magic Dance” are two that I’ve attempted (other song suggestions are welcomed!)–my class still seems to enjoy the text book offerings. Take for example, “Rock and Roll Days,” a wall of sound Hess production referencing the days of the week and featuring female backup singers, which the girls in the class love.

–The students also can’t get enough of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” even after Christmas has come and gone.

— I’m toying with the idea of introducing the students to Prince’s “Starfish & Coffee.” Thoughts? Concerns of introducing his Purpleness to these innocent minds?

Those who doubt me just take a look at the lyrics:

It was 7:45, we were all in line 2 greet the teacher Miss Kathleen (Practice telling time)

First was Kevin, then came Lucy, third in line was me (Time adverbs)

All of us were ordinary compared 2 Cynthia Rose (Cynthia’s a fun name to say)

She always stood at the back of the line, a smile beneath her nose (Incorporates smiling)

Favorite number was 20, every single day (Favorite + (nouns) are big in our class)

If U asked her what she had 4 breakfast, this is what she’d say

Come on….

Starfish and coffee, maple syrup and jam (Food vocabulary)

Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine, and a side order of ham (Food Vocabulary)

If U set your mind free, baby, maybe U’d understand

Starfish and coffee, maple syrup and jam. (Starfish are funny.)

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