Adventures From Week Two

Week Two:

Settle In – Start Teaching – A Trip to the Hospital – Bike the Riverfront – A Hike in the Mountains – World’s Tallest Mall

It’s okay for a 25-year-old to have a blue Snoopy pillow, right? Buying bedding for my new room was a bit more difficult with the language barrier. The bed in my room came as is: desk, wardrobe, mattress, chair, and the occasional fly. I had been told that any night market would have a store with sheets etc. I settled on a small neighborhood joint near my apartment, where I figured prices would be cheaper. I was able to tell the nice (and patient) lady that my bed was a double size but somehow I still managed to walk away with two fitted sheets and a baby blue pillow with Peanut’s beloved beagle plastered all over it. Walking down the street carrying my purchases definitely made me stand out more than usual. Still I had my sleeping arrangements down. 

My apartment was a perfect choice all around. For starters my roommates are all very friendly and have been showing me some of the ropes around the area. The rent is low, my room is quite spacious, and the location is ideal–an eight minute walk to the MRT station, close to a nice riverside park and tucked away down a quiet alleyway, away from loud scooters and serious foot traffic.

As you can see from the photos the living room is guarded by two Japanese Samurai suits of armor, which Ant (the Kiwi) picked up in Japan a while back. There is also a Zeus statue that may or may not have once been an elaborate lamp of sorts. My bed is basically a box spring thrown on the floor, though it surprisingly did not take long for me to become accustomed to such rigid sleeping habits. I found out that the Taiwanese sleep on bamboo bedrolls that are supposedly good for the back and actually cools you down when you are sleeping.

A good night’s rest was needed for my first week of actual classes. Actually I have a fairly easy schedule with only afternoon classes (4:30-8:30), save for the unfortunate 9am-3pm schedule on Saturday mornings, which includes an early class for incoherent zombie 8th graders, followed by a two-hour unpaid break, and then my only Kindy class for a six energetic five-year-old girls. 

My first week goes well. Much of the curriculum is by the books so that as long as I cover all the material at hand, I’ve done my job. There is room for adding your own two cents and coming up with clever ways to convey certain sentence patterns and grammar points is entirely up to the teacher. 

I’m thinking I’ll eventually get around to writing an entire entry devoted to what goes on in the classroom, but until then I’ll give you a basic rundown: All classes start with a vocabulary quiz of words from past lessons and homework. This is followed with the reading exercise of the day. Depending on the class this could be a short passage taken from a workbook or a short children’s book. For my more elite Treehouse class (I have them three days a-week as opposed to the others which I get once-a-week) they have a series of short books including the current Candy Disaster, which follows closely the adventures of a brother and sister team as they navigate their way through Toffee Typhoons, Chocolate Fondue Volcanos, Cotton Candy Tornados etc. 

In another class we read about Jesse Owens’ triumphant gold medal sweep at the historic 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. Trying to explain to a class of puzzled kids how Owens’ victory was a humbling moment for the Nazis was as difficult as explaining to them (in simple English mind you) who this man Hitler was. Can you say H-O-L-O-C-A-U-S-T? Heavy reading choice if you ask me.

The students seem to like me and while most of them know my name by now, there are a couple of troublemakers who still insist on calling me Teacher Water. All of the students pick their “Western” names at an early age, which still manages to surprise me. I have a chatty gal in my Treehouse class named Apple. There’s Rock, a lethargic gentleman who sleeps through my Saturday morning class. A bright lad named Gilbert has a promising grasp of the language. Gigi, Cherry1 and Cherry 2 (or Little Cherry as we call her) like to gossip in my Thursday afternoon class while Angel and Mitch are both brownnosers. Anyway, you understand why taking attendance the first week was a treat. 

I am still in the process of obtaining my ARC card or Taiwanese work permit, an essential document that allows me to stay in the country past my 60-day tourist visa. Part of this procedure meant getting a health exam, you know, to make sure I don’t teach these kids English and what contracting Swine Flu feels like. 

Taiwan has universal healthcare and from what I hear, it is quite good. On a Wednesday I am asked to come to school early to leave enough time to make a trip to the hospital. My co-worker Calvin has been helping me with all my transitions so he is in charge of making sure the check-up goes accordingly.

Calvin, like most Taiwanese, is the proud owner of a scooter. The hospital is at the other end of town. Upon arriving to the school I am handed a child-sized Pokemon bike helmet and told not to move while in transit. With an enthralled Pikachu covering my skull and my legs crammed on the side of a bike clearly made for one, we ride. 

Scooters are everywhere in Taipei and no doubt play a large part in the city’s smogosphere. The trip to the hospital can only be described as exhilarating. Every turn is a close call with fellow riders. Buses ride our tail at red lights. At one point we pass a savvy individual carrying two propane tanks on his bike, most likely for his food stall stove. While normally the sight of a scooter bomb would make me a bit nervous I can’t help but think, wow this is a lot of fun! At times red lights don’t imply stopping. Left hand turns are a free for all. One treacherous pothole and I’d bounce off the back of the scooter like a bucking steed throwing his rider.

The hospital is more of an efficient medical procedure factory. I go through some basic paperwork and pay a standard NT$700 (a little over $20 USD) visitation fee. The first exam tests my height and weight, which gets a “wow! You are tall.” from Calvin. Then my vision and hearing are given the okay. After this I am asked a series of questions pertaining to my health history. I am led to the X-Ray room where they do a full scan of my chest, I suppose to make sure I am, in fact, human or to ensure that I am not playing host to some alien chestburster. When I explain to Calvin that in the states X-Ray tests are generally not common practice in routine physical exams, he asks, “well, why not?” Then we get into a discussion about the monetary highs and lows of the American Healthcare System while waiting in line for the lady with the long needle to work her magic. 

After a blood test and with a sore shoulder, we hit the scooter and return to school. With a valid work permit I am granted full healthcare coverage, including dental. If I were to get hit by a reckless scooter driver a trip to the hospital will be fully covered by the government. I pay $200 a month from my paycheck (roughly $7USD). 

I celebrated my 25th birthday here in Taipei, an age that doesn’t really hold a lot of meaning to me. My theory is once you reach the goal age of 21 each subsequent birthday is just a reminder of how much older you are. While I was hoping for some rustic facial hair for my birthday, possibly a goatee, I settle for the thoughtful cake and Happy Birthday serenade I receive at the school. I learn that it is custom to eat cake with a toothpick and that it is also a Taiwanese custom to applaud someone on their birthday, as was the case with all of the students in the building. For example, if I walked to the bathroom during break I was followed by the sound of hands clapping. Great job, you’re about to have a piss!

Calvin gave me his old and untouched bicycle for my birthday, a Taiwanese version of a Huffy. A generous offering I must say. One day I casually expressed the desire to find a bike in Taipei. It could be Calvin had been waiting for someone to unload his bike on. Perhaps who is just that nice. Anyway, the bike is made for someone half my size, but I of course accept the gift and later have a fairly difficult ride home.

The school is a good 30-minutes from my apartment by train and there is a riverside bike path route that I assume would take about an hour to complete. The bike, I discover, has brakes but everything else is a mess. The seat cannot be raised and the gears don’t exactly do what they’re supposed to. As a result the ride home takes roughly two-hours, includes having to backtrack a bit to find the bike path entrance and reeks havoc on my knees. Remember the clowns at the circus that ride the mini bikes with their legs hanging off the side, well that’s me. I don’t even get a bell to truly make my presence known as I breeze along the path with normal bikes passing me at every chance.

Taipei has a fairly extensive system of bike paths that run along the rivers that bisect the city. The trails aren’t exactly the picturesque as you pass under giant bridges and industrial waste pipes, but the fact that the Taiwanese have a chance to have peaceful rides is nice.

Note that on this particular afternoon it was particularly overcast with a chance of pollution. 

The bike will do for around the neighborhood, but I would still like to eventually get an actual Warner size set of wheels to really take advantage of the bike friendly part of the Taipei.

On Sunday, my only full day off in the week, I check out one of the Taipei’s many hiking trails, which, like the bike paths, offers residents an escape from the hectic and polluted city life. Taipei is built around mountains and hills and the city has done an amazing job keeping the trails up and running. One minute you’re staring down a scooter’s exhaust pipe, the next moment you’re in the tranquil surroundings of the mountains overlooking the city below. The air is cleaner, or at the very least, a lot more lush and the only faint sounds heard are those of birds and large insects chirping. Along the way I come across a giant ass spider (seen in the photo below), some equally large caterpillars and two Taiwanese women who start up a conversation in English with me, which eventually morphs into a free English lesson. I am hoping to hit up all the trails in the city, which, according to my map, includes at least 20.

My final tourist moment of the week was a trip to Taipei 101, the massive edifice that can be seen pretty much anywhere in the city. The 101 is currently the world’s tallest building although once Dubai’s Burj mega-building is completed Taipei will forfeit this fairly meaningless title.

Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

From an engineering standpoint the skyscraper is a modern marvel (after all the Taiwanese were able to successfully build the tallest building in a region known for its Typhoons and Earthquakes). The building has a large spherical tuned mass damper suspended from the 92nd to the 88th floor that acts as a pendulum and balances the building during high-winds or earthquake tremors. They say it is the world’s most stable building.

Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

The building’s inside is fairly underwhelming mainly housing various offices. On the ground floors there is a run-of-the-mill shopping mall, a number of high-end restaurants (one which curiously uses Picasso’s Guernica painting as its welcome emblem) and a massive global food court.

The Taipei 101 Marketplace may be the building’s one impressive feature. The sprawling eatery has just about everything you could imagine and more. Want some spicy Malaysian laksa? Care for some sushi served on a conveyor belt? Even the grocery store had an array of international goodies ranging from New Zealand packaged meat to a Korean kimchi bar.

The area surrounding the 101 is definitely Taipei’s wealthiest borough and was worth a walk-through but is forgettable compared to the city’s smaller neighborhoods. Taipei 101 is one of those tourist trips that all must take at some point. Do I see myself going back to the area any time soon? Probably not, in case, of course, I’m in desperate need of a Versace suit.

Up next, do the Taiwanese like dogs? Also, more adventures in Taipei’s culinary underbelly, more Canadians, and an examination of bubble tea.

Until next time, your teaching extraordinaire and scooter enthusiast. Keep On Keeping On

Can anyone guess what this curious subway ad is selling?