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.


–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.


— 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.


(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 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.


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.)

A Day in the Life

A Day in the Life of a Foreigner in Taipei

The High Fiber Cockroach Diet – Horoscopic Hounds – The Boss – Speaking Chinese – “Can You Fly A Kite? / Yes, I can. Yes, I can. Yes, I Can” – Pho – Life’s Big Question

Ever since truly settling in, my life has suddenly become a lot more of a routine than I had originally anticipated. My days aren’t monotonous but they do tend to blur together with weeks and months flying by. Part of this sudden change was due to my decision to sign up for an intensive Beginner’s Mandarin course Monday-Friday, from 9:30 in the morning to noon.

Working the standard six-day teaching week doesn’t help and I’ve found it more difficult to get away on weekend adventures. Still I’ve been able to soak in all that Taipei has to offer and more these last couple months, and there is more than enough to see in the island’s Northern corners.

I attended various screenings at the 11th annual Taipei International Film Festival, have attended two separate music festivals, and I recently discovered I enjoy traversing up climbing walls like a 6’5” spider-man thanks to a trip to a local indoor sports center.

The Carsick Cars, a punk group from Beijing that is a happy blend of the
Velvet Underground, The Strokes, and the guitar range of Sonic Youth.

When I’m not exploring the city or making a fool of myself in front of a room of Taiwanese Karaoke enthusiasts, my life is very much a daily grind, with the occasional surprise adventure. The following is a day in the life of Teacher Warner, written in the key of Sgt. Pepper.

7:15am-Woke up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head. Found my way into the kitchen to get a glass of juice. Surprise the morning cockroaches as they enjoy their high-fiber feast of my housemate’s bottom-of-the-sink oatmeal remains, then head for the shower.

7:25A.M. – Showering is a bit of a challenge when the showerhead sits (or rather, hangs) just above the nipple. It’s hot in Taipei so cold showers generally do the trick. If I’m feeling up to it I’ll sing a little jingle while I crouch around the low-pressure showerhead. The Lovin’s Spoonful’s “Summer in the City” is fun, and timely. (SIDE NOTE: Since I started writing this piece we remedied the Hobbit shower nozzle, now enabling the cold water to flow down from the heavens, rather than at crouching height.)

9:00A.M. -After goofing around on the computer, checking, looking over my Chinese workbook, and going through some listening pronunciation exercises, I head towards class, which is about an ten minute walk from my apartment.

9:02A.M. -You can often tell how your day is going to be depending on the mood of the dogs that hang around outside my apartment door. If they move out of fear (or respect, I suppose) when my building’s metal door opens, confidence will be high for the rest of the day. If the dogs growl and stare me down like a tall and lanky Milk Bone, then who knows where the day will take me.

From left to right: Vincent, his brother Jules, and Horace

9:10 A.M. If I’m feeling hungry I may stop along the way at one of the 30 or so different breakfast sandwich shops that I encounter on my route to school. These tasty little egg/meat/cucumber sandwiches are extremely cheap and are more than ample to hold you over till lunch. They seem to be the breakfast staple in Taiwan and are on every corner. Many of the proprietors seem to only tap into the breakfast market, which makes you wonder if there’s good money in fried-egg sandwiches or if these people have other jobs on the side.

Along the way I generally listen to my iPod since I have long discovered that the most mundane parts of life, i.e. walking to class, can become amusing when set to the right soundtrack. For my ‘songs in the key of Taipei’ I often mix it up. Frantic or tired mornings often call for something more drastic. Lately, in mourning of a canceled Nine Inch Nails concert that was supposed to make my day last month, I will start my fast-paced mornings off with something like, NIN’s “Mr. Self Destruct” or Pantera’s “Domination” (yes, Paul, I still dig “Domination”).

More relaxed mornings will call for something lighter. Amadou & Mariam’s new album has been a favorite, as has St. Vincent’s “Actor” and Animal Collective’s “Merriweather Post Pavilion,” which is still hands down the best album of 2009 thus far.

Sometimes shuffle mode is needed, which often brings on pleasant sonic surprises. One recent sunny morning I got to sashay down the street to the 0ne-two punch of Bruce Springsteen doing the wild and innocent “E-Street Shuffle,” and The Traveling Wilburys “Margarita.” Both are curious diegetic samples that shed an interesting light on watching the Taiwanese begin their daily routines. Case in point, the Boss line, “Well the kids down there are either dancing or hooked up in a scuffle / Dressed in snakeskin suits packed with Detroit muscle,” paired with the image of an old laoban (shop owner) crouched in gutter washing a soup pot with a makeshift hose while her husband slaves over a scorching hot wok that issues a heavenly aroma.

9:30A.M. The first hour of my Chinese class at the Taipei Language Institute is generally spent going through new material, primarily vocabulary building. Lai Laoshi (laoshi meaning teacher) is very nice and helpful but she will not let you slide on your pronunciation, especially when it comes to mastering the tones.

My class started with seven and has now dropped down to three. There was my pregnant Japanese classmate Yuki, who must have delivered by now though nobody really knows. Riette is from South Africa, Michael is from San Francisco and for the first two months we had an extremely young albeit ambitious high school kid, Drew, from Oklahoma who was in Taipei for a couple months learning Chinese and exploring. He is pictured below with a hat that he so generously gifted me when I told him of my admiration for its message and my desire to pay him for it. I own one baseball cap that I’ve had since Junior year in High School. It has a kangaroo on it. It’s blue. I can now wear this hat with pride.

Calf to Carcass. Brilliant.

10:30A.M. We’re on our second teacher for hour-two. The first one disappeared randomly without telling anyone. The school gave us the excuse that she moved on to a different job, but I believe witchcraft was at play.

Our new teacher tries to only speak to us in Chinese, which is challenging but ultimately very effective in terms of soaking up all the sentence patterns. I like having fun with the teachers and am always trying to conjure up new ridiculous sentence that make use of whatever vocab words or new grammatical structures we’re learning.

Case in point, my recent smartass Chinese sentence offering: “During the morning I ride to school by horse.” It should be noted that my third teacher Li-Li Laoshi’s (listed below) response to this silly sentence was, “Impossible! It is too expensive,” ignoring the obvious fact that riding a horse in the middle of Taipei is fairly ridiculous. The Chinese language is like this. “Impossible” isn’t as simple a word as you might think.

11:30A.M. Li-Li Laoshi is my favorite of the three. She’s older but wise in her age. She’s been teaching forever and seems to have the respect of all the students and teachers at T.L.I. She’s tough but fun, thorough in her lessons, but easy going at the same time. Eventually I hope to take some one-on-one classes at the school to either supplement or replace my current group class. If I do, Li-Li Laoshi will be high on my list.

12:20P.M. Lunch has also become a fairly routine part of the day since I’ve found a number of different haunts in my neighborhood that can feed me quickly and on the cheap.

My noodle lady knows by now that I’m the “hen la,” or very spicy, foreigner. I have a lunch box place that serves an incredible Japanese eggplant dish, paired nicely with grilled tofu and a fried egg. Paigufan, or pork cutlet over rice, seems to be the national lunch dish and is everywhere. Tasty but like most things you can only eat so much of it. If I’m not too hungry there is the steamed bun lady that makes a mean steamed pork bun (zhurou bao). She knows me as the tall one who smiles and always practices new Chinese phrases with her while dishing out the hot sauce.

1:00-3:00P.M. There was a time when I had a solid two-hours of break time between Mandarin classes and work. Those days are over ever since my boss added a new four-day a week class to my roster. Before I could use the time to add to this blog, study some of what I just learned, explore some of the city or venture out on a hunt for future lunch destinations. Now I generally race home with a quick bite, check my email, change into my teaching garments (basically blue jeans and a tee shirt/polo) and head to my school for a 2P.M. class.

This is my schedule Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. Those days tend to fuse together into a giant amalgamation of Chinese vocab words and sentence patterns and various English language songs, like “Yes, I Can,” the elusive “What Kind of Meat Do You Want?” and little memory joggers like, “He/She/It—SSSS.”

Tuesday is my “easy” day. Mandarin classes are the same as always but I only have one English class to teach (my young girls who you might remember from the aforementioned Goodbye Song video). This gives me two and half hours of down time between class and work, the perfect amount of time for a nice lunch and possibly a haircut, which is an experience worth blogging another time.

On Tuesday’s I finish at around 6:15, which allows for me the luxury of a night free to explore more of Taipei’s various eating neighborhoods and night markets. The hunt for fresh sashimi is my current priority for Tuesdays and sure enough there are a number of places that deliver, often for a fraction of what you would pay in the states.

2:00-8:30P.M. For the other four days of the workweek (not counting Saturday, which is also part of MY work week) I am at work. With the addition of my new class I am now up to 30 teaching hours a week, which is a lot, if you take into account that each of the two hour classes require at least 30 minutes of prep time and transportation time to boot. Still, I am really enjoying the job. My students are all, for the most part, very respectful and willing to learn, even if they need the occasional incentive or dose of humor to get them to wake from their zombie state.

This is pretty self-explanatory

8:30P.M. -1A.M. If I don’t eat at work (delivery dinner boxes are often the cheapest and most convenient way to go) I grab some late night eats on my way home. The Shilin night market, which was the setting for my first escapades into Taiwanese cuisine, is now just another night market, albeit one that is always far too crowded for its own good.

My most treasured discovery is a decent Vietnamese Pho restaurant that dishes out a cheap and plentiful steaming bowl of goodness, often the perfect cap for a long day.

Ahh pho. Comfort in a bowl. I lived off this and chicken curry during my Le Colonial days

My time spent in the evening is entirely based on my demeanor. If I’m feeling motivated I’ll get some Chinese work done. If I’m lazy I’ll put on an episode of Mad Men or get some reading time in. Weeknight bars are always a possibility and there are some decent joints to get a beer or whiskey. Roxy Rocker is the love child of many of my inner music dork fantasies, a music junkie’s cantina with a proper beer selection, lounge setting, great rock music and a separate, soundproof record room with a private DJ and a wall filled with LPs ranging from Abba to Zappa. On one night the DJs played a string of 90s alternative classics followed by The Pixies “Mr. Grieves,” Zeppelin’s “In the Light” and The Clash’s “Career Opportunities.”

The Blue Note is the best jazz bar I’ve discovered here in Taipei, an unassuming and fairly low-key lounge with live music almost every night and a library of music DVDs and jazz staple LPs to fill in the gaps. On my first night there I knew I was somewhere special when the bar’s owner put on a live concert DVD of Paul Simon performing Graceland in Lesotho after the all-female piano trio wrapped. Sipping my drink and watching the mouths of all around me singing along to “Boy in the Bubble,” “Crazy Love, Vol. II” and “I Know What I Know” gave the inner music junkie in me a fix of pure.

At least once a day, be it while I’m riding the MRT, walking to work/class, eating in a hole in the wall food stand–wok up front, condiments tableside, and friendly owners–or merely laying in my bed with the headphones waiting to sleep, I’ll have the ubiquitous, “damn, I can’t believe I’m here” moment. My decision to come here still seems random to most people I know (even to me at times) but it’s this spontaneity that makes this experience thus far so rewarding. Even in the daily grind of life as a teacher there are still those memorable moments of adventure and surprise.

These aforementioned “What am I doing here?” moments are quickly erased when I think of all I’ve seen and done so far. When I look back at all that has happened and then imagine the possibilities ahead of me, these nourishing reality checks are followed by a large grin.

Stray Observations #2

Stray Observations From An Amused Foreigner #2

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 Weather

–As I’m writing this entry my housemates and I are anxiously awaiting the arrival of Morakot, as in Typhoon Morakot. I’ve always been curious how countries go about naming hurricanes or typhoons. Hurricane Andrew? Katrina? Why not Bob or Steve?

–For the record the summer months constitute as “Typhoon Season” here in Taiwan. Rainy days are plentiful and rather spontaneous. There will be days where I will walk to Chinese class under clear skies and scorching sun. By my third hour of classes menacing clouds and torrential downpour change what was once a pleasant morning into an unpleasant navigation home by way of awning hopping.

–Typhoon days are like snow days, only with the advance notice of a day-off from work, which allows for the planning and execution of various Typhoon Parties–gatherings where foreigners and Taiwanese alike summon the Tropical Storm gods through pints, tequila shots, karaoke renditions of the Beastie Boys and, as I experienced last night, hodge-podge libations with names like Baby Sleeps for Three Days, an unforgiving concoction calling upon nine different hard liquors and Ecto-Cooler-Green beverage dye. It resulted in the inevitable: me and a British bloak singing David Bowie’s “Heroes” to a bar full of unimpressed Taiwanese.

–If you let go of an umbrella during rain and strong winds it will in fact fly far away leaving you satisfied with the success of your little experiment, but ultimately unpleasantly moist and bitter.

–Rain can hit at any moment, sometimes lasting for the remainder of the day, sometimes for ten minutes or so. This will be my first proper Typhoon experience and I’m hoping that unlike the fairly significant earthquake (a six on the Richter scale supposedly) that hit a month ago I will not sleep straight through its fury.

-When it rains, it really does pour.

–Text message received from my boss last night while at a “Typhoon Party” at a local bar: “Hi it’s me Vicky, don’t go outside, there is a typhoon coming, be careful!” ROUGH TRANSLATION: “By all means let your curiosity take you for a stroll down by the river.”

–Mudslides: The messy and truly tragic killer.

–Umbrellas are a lot more complex than you might think.

–Umbrellas may prevent cancer. The Taiwanese do not like the sun. I’ve been told that at the beaches the Taiwanese rarely take off their shirts (or long pants!) when swimming or sun bathing (or sun dodging, really) and umbrellas are utilized for blocking the poisonous rays throughout the day.

–U-U uh uh uh, an U-M-B-R-E-L-L-A, when repeated ten times, will teach Taiwanese students one of many sounds that comes from the twenty-first letter in the English alphabet.

On Racism

–While sometimes easy to pardon due to good old fashion ignorance, there is a level of harmless racism in parts of everyday life here in Taiwan. Be it a casual comment from a co-worker or a bigoted reference made in an English teaching textbook.

–Probably the most fascinating examples of this widely overlooked phenomenon here in this otherwise fairly accepting culture are two everyday consumer products: racist toothpaste and a line of stereotypical iced-coffee beverages.

–Darlie Toothpaste (which in some places is actually printed as Darkie Toothpaste) is Taiwan and Mainland China’s most trusted name in plaque fighting. The toothpaste tastes like your run of the mill paste or gel, with just a smidgen of racism hidden beneath its explosion of peppermint and fluoride. The company’s mascot could be mistaken for Al Jolson, circa The Jazz Singer. The minstrel caricature totes a top hat, bowtie and shit-eating grin.

–Mr. Coffee has a nice little hold on the sweetened-iced-coffee market with its line of mini-cans and bottles. Mr. Coffee himself (or Kafei xiansheng as I call him in Chinese) is a blatant stereotype of an Italian Mafioso gentleman. His perfectly tailored white suit, matching white fedora and oddly shaped upper facial structure are dead giveaways. There are actually only a few degrees of separation between this jovial Signor and the ill-fated Don Fannuci in The Godfather Part II. It should be noted that Mr. Coffee beverages are surprisingly tasty and their tiny snack size cans make them an inexpensive shot of caffeine while on the road. If you can look past the blatant cultural generalizations, sampling the various flavors offered is always a fun part of grocery shopping. SIDE NOTE: Mr. Coffee was involved in a bit of legal debacle back in 2008 after some of its products were tainted with melamine (the wonders of Wikipedia) during the Chinese milk scandal. Two Mr. Coffee executives were subsequently whacked, chopped and buried out in the sticks of Taipei County, which doesn’t help to shed the company’s troublesome stereotypical image.

Man, Youtube comes in handy.

On Sexism

–According to a rather sexist example sited in lesson three of The Step-Ahead Level Five workbook, “dumb blondes” are an actual demographic. (PHOTO OF THIS JAWDROPPING CASE OF UNFORTUNATE BRAINWASHING COMING SOON…)

On Karaoke: A Dissection of KTV

–KTV’s are literally giant hotel like buildings that house private rooms for groups of friends to get together and sing in front of a giant plasma TV. It’s Karaoke, but with style! I’ve been to the Party World KTV twice since coming to Taiwan and both experiences were memorable for the following reasons:

1) KTV’s music selection needs a reboot. Sure for Japanese or Taiwanese Pop, you have all your bases covered. When it comes to Western pop, the masterminds behind KTV’s song selection must be stuck in 1996. On both occasions I took part in the 1984 spooky anthem, “Ghostbusters,” I’ve contributed to a gripping rendition of Prince’s “Kiss” and “When Dove’s Cry” (sadly there wasn’t enough room for my tall ass to do the floor hump dance routine that made Prince squeal, “Baby, I’m a Star”), and lent my pipes TLC’s “Waterfalls,” with an added shout out to the departed, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes that fell flat with the heartless bastards in my company. We miss you girl!

2) Most Karaoke music videos in this part of the world are makeshift films that generally have nothing to do with the songs that they accompany. Generally the videos are shot in parts of Western and Eastern Europe, cheap locales like Ukraine or Romania’s Carpathian Mountains. While a modern hip-hop video will sport the predictable amount of bling, babes and shiny cars, and many feature state of art special effects, a Karaoke video for say, something like Michael Jackson’s “Black Or White” (which I sang days before he departed to his Neverland space ranch on to the moon, I mean, after all, like Elvis, the King of Pop is still alive, right?) will feature a beautiful blonde Moldovan frolicking in the hills or enjoying a the sunshine in a European plaza. A pity since the original “Black or White” video made history back in the day.

3) The makers of KTV songs seem to enjoy the editing (or shall we just say, destruction) of perfectly good songs. Whole verses will be cut out or in some cases altered all together.

4) I discovered that when it comes to KTV it’s best for me to accept my limited Eeyore pipes and aim for more comical song choices such as the aforementioned Ray Parker Jr. ballad, “Ghostbusters Theme,” or say Toto’s mighty anthem, “Rosanna,” which I just happened to video for your enjoyment!

5) Local pop song music videos seem to share a bizarre fascination for food and the forlorn. On one evening three videos were either set in restaurants (one, featured below, set the stage in a fast food restaurant) or involved female singers eating their worries away while singing.

6) While supposedly hush, hush, you can bring your own booze to KTV, thus avoiding the inflated price of their otherwise dirt cheap Taiwan Beer. The caveat when partying with the Taiwanese is you must drink your local brew over ice and with a dried plum dropped into the cup to give the stale beer some sweetness. The Taiwanese truly are the sugar-eating people.

7) When shared, a bottle of cheap Taiwanese whiskey will go fast.

8) The Taiwanese fail to understand the David Lynch reference to the now eerie song “In Dreams” by Roy Orbison.

9) The KTV experience is best described as Lynchian.

On Taiwanese Television

–I don’t get very many opportunities to watch the boob tube here in Taipei, mainly because I’m too busy. On the rare occasion that I do sit down with the housemates there are only a few English language channels to choose from. National Geographic, Discovery, Travel, CNN are all favorite channel surfing stops. As are the four movie channels offered, including an East Asian version of HBO and Cinemax and two random movie channels, Hollywood and one simple called C Movie.

–Open letter to whoever chooses the films screened on the aforementioned Hollywood and Movie channels; I want your job. These two channels broadcast the most random selection of C-Grade films, mainly residing in the horror, action, sci-fi and the “man merged with beast” genres. Case in point is the low-budget 2005 film, Hammerhead (AKA Sharkman), which my housemates and I enjoyed one evening with jaws wide open to the film’s shear stupidity. The plot is a bit complex, you know with the character development and all, but it goes something like this: overly acted mad scientist creates a half-man/half-shark mutant, which then escapes and goes around eating low-paid actors, including females willing to strip and get eaten by a CGI sharkman, possibly as a means to pay off art school loans. Sharkman eventually confronts his maker, has an emotional “Do I eat my master?” moment. Then Sharkman eats his master before biting it in a lame lab explosion. Most of the gory kills that you look for with anticipation when watching films of this caliber are edited out or the channel’s programming bastards deliberately air the commercial break right before said scientist eats it by way of fatal sharkman bite.

–Taiwan: Where bad movies go to die.

–One could spend an entire hour just soaking up Taiwanese commercials.

–You could also spend an hour just soaking up what the Hakka Channel, made for a large group of aboriginal Taiwanese.

–There is a game show here in Taiwan, which, as far as I can tell, consists of young female celebrities eating weird food in front of live giggling studio audience members and a flamboyant host. I’ve found that it’s more fun when you don’t know what the hell they are saying.

–The Japanese have apparently made a lot of Samurai films. Few come even remotely close to anything Kurosawa contributed to the world.

–The Malaysia tourism board’s commercial for traveling in Malaysia, which features the tagline, “Malaysia, Truly Asia” makes me want to travel to Malaysia.

–According to the Internet Movie Database ( Hammerhead’s tagline is: When he began fusing human and shark DNA, his colleagues laughed at him. Now his creation is taking his revenge, and they aren’t laughing anymore.

Now this is how it’s done! The 80s was a magical decade.

Day Trip to Jiofen & Jinguashi

Day Trip to Jiufen & Jinguashi, Taiwan’s Northeast Coast

The daily grind of life here in Taipei has definitely caught up to me. I picked up some extra hours at work, which has helped to fill my empty account at the Hua-Nan Bank of Taipei but has ultimately taken away from my precious free time. I am currently finishing up my second month of Chinese classes at the Taipei Language Institute. These lessons fill my mornings Monday through Friday from 9:30 to 12:30 and have greatly improved my abilities to blend in here. Fewer hand and body gestures are now needed for me to order a glass of juice or a bowl of soup and I feel more confident talking to random locals I meet on the street.

My busy schedule has also made it difficult to get some traveling in, which is one of the main draws for living here in Taiwan for the year. I work every Saturday from 9 in the morning to about 3 PM, which destroys the day and makes weekend getaways fairly difficult. These past couple weekends I was also primarily staying in Taipei to attend the recent Taipei International Film Festival. With most of the screenings on Saturday and Sunday, this too made getting away from life in the big city difficult.

This past Sunday I escaped to the North East part of the Island to the small village, Jioufen, and its sister city Jinguashi. Jiufen is one of those quaint little towns that draw lots of tourists for shopping, scenery, and local eats. The town itself was an old mining base back in the day and Jinguashi, a gold mining village further up in the mountains, also has a great deal of Japanese influence seen in its architecture.

Click the map for a bigger jpg (I hope). Jiufen & Jinguashi are at the top of the Island, Northeast of Taipei.

I left Taipei Main Station by local train to the town of Rueifang, which serves as a hub to both Jiufen and Jinguashi by bus. All three of these towns are technically part of Taipei County, which means public transportation is on the same card system as Taipei City’s MRT, a pleasant surprise that enable me to squander my coin kuai on various street snacks and tea.

It’s easy to forget that a mere twenty minutes outside of Taipei’s busy downtown there are lush green hills, mountain views and picturesque streams and rivers bisecting various suburbs. Further North and East you head towards the Pacific, and then things start to get truly breathtaking.

Sundays are understandably busy tourism days and Jiufen, which lies roughly an hour outside of Taipei, is a popular hotspot for locals and foreigners to escape to for the day. The train was crowded, though not as uncomfortable as my Dragon Boat Fest weekend, which, if you’ll recall, had yours truly crammed into a hot train car like livestock on the way to the slaughter.

Chicago had its cows, Jinguashi has its own version. Bulls on Parade!

My friend and I early on decided to save Jiufen for later in the afternoon to hopefully steer clear of the other hordes of tourists hitting the town for lunch and shopping excursions. We decided to ride the local bus from Rueifang past Jiufen to the far less popular but ultimately more rewarding Jinguashi, which, like Jiufen, was also an old gold mining town in the early 20th century.

Jinguashi is probably best known for its access to the Gold Ecological Park, one of Taiwan’s many national parks. The Gold Ecological Park is noteworthy for its abandoned mine (fully accessible for tourists but a bit too juvenile for this intrepid traveler), and its sought after Golden Waterfall, which I learned was only accessible to by car, scooter, or three hour hike into the mountains.

35 ft tall war God perched high above a temple in Jinguashi

The town itself is nice but it’s the stunning coastal view of the Pacific that is worth the trip and the 45-minute hike down a mountainous path.

In 2002 the town of Jinguashi and its neighboring park was a possible candidate for inclusion to the oh so sacred UNESCO World Heritage Site master list, a trekker’s Holy Grail catalog that has been teasing travelers with the vast exploration opportunities around the globe since its inception.

The main tourists attractions–the old mine, the various colonial Japanese estates that are now museums and the Temple of Gold–are nice for a peek but the true wonders lay off the beaten path towards the sea. A long trail winds around the mountain side, goes through a beautiful old temple and 35ft-high War God shrine, and eventually ends at a scenic overlook at the Pacific and a small fishing port below.

After surveying all there was to see by foot in Jinguashi we headed back to Jiufen to eat and soak in the town. Between Jiufen and Jinguashi there are thousands of small traditional Chinese burial plots in the hills. These ornately decorated ceramic and stone shrines are the resting places for only the richest and most fortunate of deceased because of their quality and the feng shui of facing both the mountains and the sea. If you are somebody of great worth or fame you may very well be fortunate enough to spend the afterlife in these peaceful green hills.

Jiufen is a pleasant enough village built on a steep hill overlooking a misty bay of hills and one pyramid island. The town is famous for its tight, semi-indoor market that is a maze of vendors slinging salted dried meats and seafood, fish ball soup, dense and sugary pineapple cakes, gooey dumplings, various treats on a stick, all the chotchkies one could want. The town’s other major draws are the many teahouses that have sprung up over the years as the crowds started flocking in.

For those who know me well you will remember that I am a bit of a tea enthusiast back in the states. My dear friend with a knack for dry humor and sarcasm, Jake, once said I have nothing more than a love of “dirty water.” In Taipei I have discovered a number of low-key coffee/tea cafes around the local university that serve up delectable pots of various East Asian aromatic teas. Other than that, I have really only scratched the surface on what is available in this part of the world. My trip to Jiufen proved that artisan tea is way beyond my enthusiasm for green and oolong chá.

But before diving into my memorable experience at The City of the Sky Tea House let’s get through the obligatory offering of food porn.

Fish ball soup is exactly what it sounds like, unappetizing white balls of dough and protein that floats in a rich broth with vegetables and the occasional surprise mystery meatball thrown in for kicks. Since Jiufen is fairly famous this dish I felt obligated to try it out. For all the hype fish balls are about as boring as they sound. Perhaps I chose the wrong vendor but a general rule of thumb is go to where the locals are, and this particular hole in the wall was hopping.

Rice with savory minced meat is a common side dish in all of Taiwan. Best not to ask what’s in the grind.

After eating sparingly at the fish ball soup stand, we made are way to another Taiwanese delicacy, Ba-Wan, translated to ‘Meat Circle,’ which are large, gelatinous meat filled dumplings served either in a thick sauce or accompanied with soup.
There were at least seven shops selling these curious culinary wonders, which look very much like the treacherous jellyfish that wash up on beaches around the world. Are particular stand looked decent enough from the outside so we gave it a shot. Later on as we were navigating through the gooey mess of bamboo shoots, mushroom and odd pieces of meat, we noticed that two Buddhist nuns sat down next to us and were also enjoying what we thought were pork filled dumplings but were in reality all vegetarian. Turns out of all the shops in Jiufen serving up Ba-Wan we ended up at the vegan stop. The pieces of red protein were either tofu or some oddly formed piece of gluten.

The red balls of protein do not come from any animal I am familiar with.

Our first hint that we were dining vegetarian.

The dish was actually very tasty and is something that I would like to try in different incarnations some time down the road.

My Lonely Planet guide lists a number of “famous” teahouses in Jiufen, all of which served pretty much similar forms of brew but differed in their interior atmospheres and their views of the sea. Walking down a narrow side street we stumbled upon The City of the Sky Tea House, a charming little three-story café fully furnished with folk art pieces, antique furnishings and a stunning view of the port. Like most of Jiufen the café was perched high on a cliff overlooking the Pacific and in the distance Jinguashi. After settling in on the balcony of the third floor we ordered a rather expensive bag of locally grown and aged Oolong tea.

One thing about Asia that I’ve learned is that even the simplest of things, like tea or as I’ve mentioned chicken, are ultimately a lot more complex than you might think.

This was hardly my first experience with artisan tea however, I was clearly unprepared for the proper (and traditional) preparation and serving of tea of this quality. Whereas most of the world casually throw some tea bags or loose leaves into a pot of boiling water or even the unromantic mug of H2O, the Chinese are very particular about the order and purity of the tea tasting experience.

The shop’s proprietor did not speak English so I had to rely on my limited vocabulary and my friend to interpret the woman’s directions.

First off, the tea set that our tea was served in was a piece of art in itself. We learned that the sets were custom made for the teahouse and were modern interpretations of traditional sets. Basically with tea of this caliber your water is boiled over coals on the floor in a large ceramic teapot. The tea itself will never go near this pot, which is nothing more than a utility vehicle for water at a constant boil.

Instead, the boiling water is slowly poured into one of the two larger white ceramic bowls seen below where it is left to cool to a perfect 85 degrees Celsius, the optimal temperature for steeping tea leaves.

After the water has rested a bit it is poured over the loose tea leaves that are resting on the top of the small teapot, the only piece on the table set that has a top. It is given a couple minutes to steep then is poured off into the second large white boil. From there it is poured into the two smaller drinking cups, which offer only two or three small sips per serving. It seems like a lot of work for nothing more than the aforementioned soiled water, however, there is something quite romantic and beautiful about this system. It’s nice to know that people have been drinking their tea in this manner for thousands of years and that the procedure is still practiced today.

Homemade Oolong tea cheesecake.

Every piece in the set had a purpose. The pot for the tea leaves was specially made to strain the loose tea leaves, the small cylinder on the left side of the tray was made to rest the teapot’s top, the small curved piece in the back (shown in photo above) was for scooping the dried tea leaves from the bag into the pot, and the small aromatic twig hiding in the back was for tidying up any wet tea leaf that stuck to the top of the pot. The large dark ceramic bowl was for the wasted water or cold tea. Only the purest form of the brew is supposed to be taken to the lips. If you let it get too cool or leave it steeping too long, it’s best to just dump it and start over.

Our tea choice was very good. The local specialty was naturally sweet, with a hint of bitterness. It tasted different served in a small sipping cup, rather than a larger Western mug and overall the experience was very refreshing even on a hot day summer afternoon.

The tea that was served ended up lasting at least three hours and we ended up waiting for the sun to set before heading off into the maze of Jiufen again. Please break for a series of scenic photographs that really don’t do justice to just how stunning our view was during the precious twilight hours.

It started to rain right as we boarded the train back to Taipei City. Damn I’m good. Our train ride back was standing room only, which was a bit of a drag but we opted for the faster rail line so the time passed with ease.

I’m hoping to head down South to a famous waterfall in the town of Wulai during my next weekend excursion. I won’t be able to do any serious travel in the far Southern regions of the Island till I have an entire weekend to devote but there is plenty to do up in Northern and Central Taiwan till then.

Till next time, your devoted lover of filthy water and gooey meat circle enthusiast.

What would a day of photography be without the obligatory moment when I ruin a perfectly nice photo.

Jesus. Michael Jackson.

I stumbled upon a Church of Nazarene on my way to work the other day. The dancing, the pink shirts, the electric drum set, it was almost too much to take in. The voice you hear is a recruiter trying to woo to an evening concert. Further down the street was an Episcopal Church.

Michael Jackson’s passing disproved any theories that his popularity had diminished since his goblin transformation and various courtroom battles. I stumbled upon this tiny music vendor in the middle of a nigh market who has been playing this Jackson concert DVD in a loop since his death. I had some time to kill so I watched a version of “Black Or White” (clip from the nostalgic music video starring a young Macaulay Culkin precedes the actual performance), stayed on for the following performance of “Will You Be There” and eventually left during an over the top version of “Beat It” filmed in Bucharest, Romania of all places circa 1991-92.

I was not the only onlooker. Jackson’s passing has been a much needed reminder to how big he was on a global scale.

Scenes from a Taiwanese Classroom Cont.

More Scenes From A Taiwanese English Class
During break time we witness young Alex’s high-pitched shriek, something we as a class experience on a daily basis. Also, the birth of the classroom cockroach scare (to be fair, cockroaches are all over Taipei). Keywords learned during this particular class: COCKROACH, TO HUG and verbs in the Present and Past Continuous Tense using “to be” and “have/has + been.” Normally I wouldn’t condone hitting Teacher Warner but I suppose I deserved this onslaught of fists, feet and a head-butt to the hip from Jimmy (yes, he’s that short, or I’m just that tall). Notice again how the girls are busy doing homework. Amazing work ethic.
My Jumpstart class sits at the other end of my teaching spectrum. The class is made up of six girls ranging from age four to five. In all honesty they’re too young to misbehave. The class requires a lot of memorization on their part, mainly consisting of key vocab words and sentence patterns, delivered via kid-friendly songs that tend to grind into your psyche long after class. At the end of each class period the students are required to line-up at the door and sing the terribly adorable “Goodbye Song.” The players from left to right: Hana, Nina, Mina, Liane, Momo, and the energetic Jessica. Also featured is Teacher Angela, the Chinese Teacher for the class who is around to make sure all is well and to occasionally explain things in Chinese. If this little jingle doesn’t bring a smile to you face, you might need to seek some help. 

Scenes from a Taiwanese Classroom

Anatomy of An Elementary Age English Class

Three days a week I teach my “Treehouse” level class, an intense and higher-priced class offered at my school. I will have these eight students for as long as I am teaching at the school or for however long the student’s parents keep forking out the dough. It’s amazing how much better the Treehouse program is compared to some of my other classes. All eight of these kids are learning English at an extremely fast rate and a handful of them will truly benefit from these lessons should they continue their English studies down the road. 

I have a lot of fun with this class. I get to spend the most amount of time with them, which in the long run makes a difference in terms of my teaching plans. The class is smaller in size, which allows me to focus on individual student’s strengths and weaknesses. To top it off we’re allowed to have a good time via games and amusing activities since the students have a decent grasp at conversational English. The class can be difficult at times and certain students do enjoy making a ruckus during my lessons. Still, when it’s all said and done, they’re all a good group of kids, some more amusing than others. 
But enough rambling, let’s meet the players!
Bottom Row, Left to Right:
Jimmy: Let’s see, what can I say about Jimmy. The kid is the only student who actually needs the most extra help in class, particularly with pronunciation and simple sentence patterns. Much of these issues can be blamed on his attention span, which is on par with that of a new puppy getting his first bath. Some days Jimmy is a delight in class. He’ll participate in class exercises and reading, and if we’re lucky he’ll sit quietly and listen. On other days he’s a tornado of loud Chinese rants, unnecessary games of hide and seek and the occasional high kick to the Teacher Warner’s “tree” legs. Last week during the reading of the storybook, “A Bully on Baker Street” Jimmy, possibly in an act of inspiration from the story’s antagonist, decided to tear his book to shreds and lunge at Alex who was sitting next to him. What’s most striking about Jimmy is that when you are one on one with him he’s a very calm, and rather delightful kid. The other day he came to the school earlier and offered me a piece of candy, while a Chinese teacher helped him with his homework.  He would later throw a small rubber basketball at my head during a game of spelling Basketball after I corrected him on the spelling of “V A C U U M.” 

The Jimmy, The Alex, The Iris & The Joyce

Vicki: Don’t let the pink shorts and occasional pigtail hairdo fool you. Vicki, a promising student with the hindrance of selfishness, can be trouble. For the most part she is a decent, middle of the road student. She loves participating in class and often volunteers to read aloud, but much of this is fueled by a level of greed. Hess Schools print their own hard currency, the Hess Cent, tiny little colorful squares with phrases like “Way to Go!” “You’re #1” and “Superstar,” which when stockpiled can be used to buy goodies like Hello Kitty paraphernalia or pencil erasers (and let me tell you, the Taiwanese love their pencil erasers). You see, Vicki has a brick of cents that she appears to have been hoarding away in her pencil case since she started at Hess three years ago. During one lesson when we were learning about the word “S T E A L” I made the mistake of using the sentence example, “Teacher Warner steals Vicki’s cents,” a risk taken for the sake of teaching. She was not amused and spent the remaining class time sulking in her corner. SIDE NOTE: By “her corner” I literally mean her corner. These kids are territorial little buggers. Any change in seating causes more political strife than is needed and for the most parts it’s best to separate the boys from the girls since it turns out coodies is a global epidemic. 
Freshly minted Hess Cents!

Melody: Melody is a delight to have in class. Not the strongest student in terms of reading and spelling but she always wears a big smile on her face during class and never ceases to participate during class exercises. When I recently mispronounced my Chinese name she was, however, the first student to point out that I had mistakenly introduced myself as Xi (Dead) Hua Na, a minor hiccup in the pronunciation of one tone, but one that cost me the respect of my class for the rest of the period. 

Top Row: Left to Right

Alex: Arguably the most ambitious in the class, Alex, with his high-pitched voice and constant thirst for attention, if the official go-to guy for all sentence or word examples. Case in point: last week during a break Alex let loose an ear-piercing shriek after I jokingly said he was sitting near the (keyword of last unit) COCKROACHES. From then on certain students in class used this incident to spark all kinds of creative sentence examples. During our movie unit Melody created the movie title “Cockroaches Eat Alex” for a (keyword) HORROR movie. Later when we learned the word SCARED Joyce decided to say, “Alex is scared and he scream like girl.” After correcting her grammar I told her that wasn’t very nice. Later on this web of name calling eventually culminated with Lucas (more on him in a second) conjuring up the sentence, “Alex is a girl.” These students are amused by the most primitive of sentences. I only recently was able to weed them off the giggle inducing word, “poop,” as in Teacher Poop (previous unofficial nickname for yours truly). Despite some juvenile name-calling, Alex has a very good sense of humor and laughs along with everyone else. He is a very promising student whose only major flaw is a desire to be the first to finish all his work, resulting in sloppy mistakes on tests and reading exercises. I’m working on this with him. Less dancing and screaming in class, more attention paid to the fine details of English grammar. 

Joyce: Joyce is another of the top students in the class, however, she has a bit of an issue with authority. She loathes the storybook reading exercises in class and very rarely volunteers to read aloud (I of course make her anyway). The tragedy of this is she’s extremely bright and her conversational skills are some of the best in the class.  On the last major test she had a 100% on every section, even the admittedly difficult question and answer part, but bombed the storybook questions. I learned during the movie unit that her favorite movie is “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” a curious departure from her peer’s collective agreement that “Wall-E” was the best film. Side note: Joyce will try to sneak drinks and food into class, a big no-no at Hess. Best to catch her in the act early before she, eh hum, spills a bottle of chocolate milk on Alex and his belongings sitting in front of her. I’ve also come to realize that she will not be wooed into participating in class with the usual incentive of Hess Cents. She does, however, have a vice for Mister Donut donuts.

Apple: Let’s forget the obvious fact that her name is Apple even though she could pass as a Rebecca. Apple is a well-behaved student who struggles in certain areas, mainly spelling and pronunciation, but has a high level of motivation to succeed in the class. During breaks she and Melody will often work on homework or future exercises together while the majority of the class act a fool in the hallway or think of clever ways to sabotage Teacher Warner. Apple does, however, have a bizarre and rather disgusting little tendency to cough on me anytime I am helping her. It’s Almost like she has an allergic tick for Teacher Warner. For example, ME: “Apple, THE STUDENTS “A R E” STUDYING FOR THE TEST, not THE STUDENTS “I S” STUDYING” Apple’s response as she stares up at me with her innocent eyes: “(enter the sound of a kitten working hard a coughing up a hairball)” One day my Chinese teaching aid, Eva, made Apple wear a surgical face mask during class after a fit of chirpy coughs disgusted poor Eva.

While some of the other students run amuck in the halls during break time, 
Apple and Vicki work on their homework. I am always around to answer 
questions but only the girls in the class ask. 

Iris: Iris is not only the best student in class but also the most unassuming. She is terribly bright but never let’s on to her advantages over the rest of the lot. She is always willing to ask for help when its needed and likes to participate, often raising her hand before others even get a chance to compute the question just presented to them. I recently helped to edit her application essay for an English Language Immersion program in Canada for next summer. For her sake, I hope she finds the means to go and pursue the language.

Lucas: (red and orange shirt) Lucas is the classroom’s resident terrorist. Even in the photo above he seems to be disconnected from his peers, and is clearly plotting some elaborate scheme to thwart my lesson plan for the day. He’s intelligent and knows it. He enjoys undermining authority and has a troublesome influence over the classroom’s wild animal, Jimmy, The Joker to Lucas’ Gotham City crime syndicate. Lucas is as bright as Iris and is a wiz when it comes to spelling. I once jokingly pitted the entire class against Lucas in a speed spelling writing game and he surprisingly exceeded my expectations. For the most part we have an understanding in the classroom setting: he behaves himself and doesn’t distract the others during my lessons, and I ignore the fact that for much of the time (especially during reading) he is secretly drawing ninjas and gangsters in his book or adding to a maniacal list of phrases ranging from “TEACHER MARK SO UNFAIR” “TERRIBLE TEACHER TOM” and now, “TEACHER WATER IS MEAN,” scribbled with the same vigor and craziness that made The Shining’s “all work and no play” rant so terrifying. Lucas got a 99% on the last test and I congratulated him and told him that he was doing very well in the class but that he should behave himself. He seemed to agree but as he walked away I noticed a smirk on his face that only someone clearly biding his time would make. SIDE NOTE: In one of the videos below the students were required to come up with fake movie titles, one for each of the eight movie genres we were learning. Lucas’ creativity can be amusing but often interrupts his reasoning when it comes to proper grammar, case in point, the poorly titled ROMANCE film, “WARNER KISS PIG!”

During Unit 9 we learned about the different kinds of movies. 
For one classroom exercise I had the students write about their favorite movies and 
also make up some creative titles for fake movies. Lucas (red and orange shirt) uses this exercise  as yet another chance to give the students another reason to laugh at their faithful teacher. Notice also his puckish grin as he walks over to let me check over his work. 

Random Experiences: Welcome to the Jungle: A Tale of Battle

Random Experiences: War Games in the Jungle

Note: Exaggerations might be sprinkled throughout the following prose to add a bit more tension, excitement, humor and baadassness! Unnecessary adjectives and an overall heightened reality should be embraced. 

Last weekend my buddy Stuart came to visit for a couple days. What do you do when a guest comes to town? Why take them to get shot at of course! 

Some of you might remember my friend Stuart from such Warner Life Chapters as Spain 2005 and NYC Part 1. Stuart is from the Dallas region of Texas and was my housemate in Salamanca at Casa del Oscar y Leticia. Oscar and Leticia were our young host parents who we quickly figured out were only in it solely for the money. Summed up: If you weren’t sure what “poor man’s paella” is, I’ll tell ya, it’s pretty much just hot dogs, rice and ketchup. They had nothing but contempt for Stuart by the end of our time there (long story) and as a result questioned my friendship with him. Spain aside, Stuart is a great friend and a fellow traveler soaking up all there is to experience here in Asia. 

Stuart has been in the Far East since he graduated from college. He lived on a small island in southern Japan then moved to Mainland China for six months and is now living in Hong Kong, teaching English at a Japanese school.

Oink-Oink Flu recently broke out in HK and as a result the majority of the city schools were closed indefinitely. Stuart and I had been planning on meeting up at some point (I figured I would visit him in HK once a free weekend came around) so when he found himself with nothing to do for an extended weekend he jumped a cheap flight and stopped by Taipei. 

I know if I were visiting a friend in a foreign city the opportunity to shoot perfect strangers with skin-bruising paint pellets would be right up my alley. I was able to get Stuart on the list and Sunday morning we headed out of Taipei with my housemate Ant and our friend Jenn. 

Paintball is a messy affair and it doesn’t help that our battle was to be set in a steamy mountain forest arena, after two days of continuous rain. We were told to bring old, ratty clothes and shoes, both of which I don’t have seeing as I’m still fairly new to Taiwan. I found an old pair of sneakers left by the guy who used to rent my room (a small size 11), cut holes in the front to let my finger-toes breathe, and grabbed a white tee-shirt, which I hoped would accentuate some of the fluorescent colored flesh wounds that I, the bulls-eye-tall novice, was sure to endure. 

There were around thirty of us to start but by the end only a handful of brave souls remained. 

Mobilizing a large group such as ours is hard work. We rendezvoused at the closest MRT station at 11:40, shared a series of cabs to the actual park. Arrived at 12:30, went through a brief orientation (primarily in Chinese mind you, however, it was easy to understand certain no-no’s like never take your face mask off and yes, shooting someone at point blank range could do some serious damage) and by 13:30hrs we were dressed in our army fatigues and ready for battle. 

We split into two teams. Ant, Jenn and Stuart were on one, and I found myself on the opposing side. “I’ll see you in hell” I would later tell them. Choosing teams was a bit like the playground politics of softball in elementary school with the “sure thing” players getting picked first and the questionables hugging the bench till the end. I wasn’t the last person picked but I definitely wasn’t in the first round pick either. I suppose being tall doesn’t bode well for war. 

I’m to the far right. My housemate Ant, far left, chose the “Beyond Thunderdome” attire.

14:00 hrs: We make the trek up a steep hill to the first terrain, a timed warm-up course that pits the two teams against each other in a free-for-all, last man standing scenario. 

The course has a number of obstacles, hiding bunkers, and plenty of trees to use for cover. I decide to go all out for the first game and take a front position behind a giant tractor tire. 

I run down the slick hill and take a crouching position behind the yellow and red stained mass facing enemy fire. Little yellow pellets start whizzing by my head. To the right of me one of my teammates takes a fatal shot to the chest, his blue shirt sodden yellow.  

Pellets explode upon impact as they rain down upon my surprisingly feeble cover. My thick and rolling hair (I’m in need of a haircut by this point as the photo above can attest) catches a fair amount of side spray and eventually I catch a direct hit to my facemask, blinding my peripheral vision yellow. 

During orientation we are told that if you receive a “kill shot,” the proper etiquette is to slowly rise with your weapon pointed towards the sky in a surrendering, “I’m dead” position. Once you’re in the shit, however, rules don’t seem to apply. 

I consider trying to wipe the war scars from my facemask to elude those around me but decide to play by the rules. I rise and am immediately struck in the back by one of many faceless soldiers–friend or foe, I may never know who was responsible for my sole body wound of the day. 

Our team ends up taking the first game, despite my unfortunate demise (a loss for the team you see) three-minutes into play. We switch sides and the Taiwanese coaches inform us of a some game changes, the most intriguing of which involves lighting a decently-sized bottle rocket at a mutual, no man’s land halfway point. 

The goal is still kill as many of the opposition as possible with the additional five points rewarded to the brave soul crazy enough to light a flimsy but powerful proper rocket during the mayhem of yellow. The coaches warn both teams that the rocket must remain standing upright so as not to pull a sporadic flight into someone’s exposed neck flesh. 

I take point behind two trees lined with green mesh material indicating a safety zone. I have a direct view of the rocket and set my aim to kill. The first to make it to the rocket, Brian, who was one of the hosts of the day’s festivities and was also enjoying a birthday, is from the opposing team and as he starts to reach for the lighter I unleash a fury of yellow his way. Birthday or not, I don’t give him the satisfaction of mercy. 

It’s hard to say what happened next. I definitely hit him in the arm (merely a flesh wound!) and me thinks I take out his shoulder as well, however, he manages to light the rocket, which of course falls to its side and zips to the right, directly into a tree, a tree which very well could’ve have been an unfortunate Taiwanese girl dragged into the mess of war by her boyfriend. Or worse, yours truly, a tall-ass bloke who’s only experience on the battlefield consists of “Full Metal Jacket,” “The Thin Red Line,” and countless Schwarzenegger vehicles, including the appropriately set jungle guerilla warfare of “Predator.”

15:45 hr: We re-hydrate, wipe the combat juice, a putrid mélange of sweat and yellow chemical paint, from our masks, and make our way to the second course of the day.

If the first two games were merely warm-ups for the real deal, a la paintball basic training, the “trench” obstacle course that followed was the no-holds-barred game that the hardcore players amongst us were dreaming of. 

The course was built on a long and steep hill that was made even more treacherous thanks to the week’s subtropical rainfall. Each end of the course had a flag–one red, one that was at one time or another some sort of blue. The game changes yet again.

Kill shots go from torso and above to strictly the head shot, duration time goes from six minutes to fourteen, and the goal of the game is simple enough: capture the opposition’s flag without catching a yellow stray to the face. 

Our team strategize for a good ten minutes setting up a fierce defense line and sending our smallest and fastest out for the slaughter with hopes of at least one reaching the flag. I take a defensive position behind a fallen tree and some shrubs, which I later discover also, house a colony of Taiwanese ants. Ingenious little fuckers who manage to infiltrate my body suit via the sleeves. We are confident and seemingly prepared for anything that comes are way. The firecracker game starter is lit and we rush into position. It’s not two minutes into the game when my housemate Ant and three other fearless bastards rush our defensive line without a hitch and storm the flag. Damn. One instant I’m keeping my eye out for a curious enemy trying to test my sniper skills and the next, my housemate is literally leaping over my position to the prize. 

We lose the first round mainly due to the fact that head shots are harder than they sound, especially when you’re running at top speed.

The next game we lose five players, one from our team, four from the other, each saying they need to get back to Taipei for work (on a Sunday). For those of us drenched in sweat, mud and yellow, we know these cowards simply don’t have the cajones for war.

The teams are uneven and our team needs volunteers to change sides. I feel no particular attachment to my clan, considering by the second game we were hardly a band of brothers. I end up volunteering with the plan to play alongside Stuart and Ant, maybe even getting a chance to shoot Stuart on friendly turf. What happened next can only be described as one of those, “for real?” moments in the life of Warner. 

While my first team was pretty intense in its preparation (the team captain hinted at a military past during one of his game plan powwows) the other side was more relaxed and it basically seemed like “an every man for themselves” plan. 

I initially stayed in the back on defense but quickly grew tired of the lack of action and decided to make a go for it. 

In an act of pure pyrotechnical wickedness one of the Taiwanese coaches set off a couple smoke bombs filling the dugout trenches with a protective purple haze (“Apocalypse Now” anyone?). I moved quickly into the colored fog, staying low and keeping my air-powered weapon at kill height. 

My vision had become blurred from perspiration and countless wipes from the communal paint towel. Yellow pellets continued to rain down around me but there were also stretches of eerie silence. At one point I look down at my hand shaking to the sound of paintball fire. I’m in the shit.

At one point I didn’t really know where I was in relation to the opposition’s flag but I found myself locked in a heated firefight (or should I say yellow ball fight) with an enemy combatant perched behind some shrubbery on top of a small hill.

I carefully crawl closer to my foe’s position and begin to unleash all hell. Up until this point I had been using my paintball ammo sparingly but with this duel I go ballistic. 

After a while the unfortunate soul in my sight gets up and retreats back up the hill, which of course prompts me to shoot him in the back. Who knew I could be so ruthless? 

I then realize that I am fairly close to the flag, a mere 300 yards down a trench and over a small hill. My vision is obscured and I can’t really tell who’s around me but I decide to make a run for it.

I sprint down the carved mud trench tripping, or should I say, strategically falling, all along the way. Surprisingly nobody is standing guard so I rush over the hill and touch the flag in a fit of glory. Remember that scene at the end of “The Rock” where Nicolas Cage falls to his knees with a white flag in hand behind a wave of fire. That’s me. The Taiwanese female coach, a beast of a woman who clearly considers paintball more of a lifestyle rather merely an amusing Sunday afternoon gala, blows her whistle and the game the remaining live souls on both teams rendezvous at the neutral zone. 

It’s always refreshing to know that the most unassuming of us all can sometimes doing incredible things. My first team seemed stunned and I must say a bit disappointed that I didn’t bring the thunder while I was on their side. My team members were just happy to have won. One Taiwanese girl didn’t even know I was on her team. War, I learn, is all about keeping a low profile then shocking the hell out of those around you. To be fair I probably just got lucky.

17:30 hr: Stuart, Ant and I catch a cab and head back to Taipei. We are soaked with sweat and my hair is a possum’s nest of waves and yellow.

Stuart and I are beat (especially since the paintball excursion followed a night of drinking) but I decide that there might not be a better way to finish off the day than with a dinner at the acclaimed Taipei eatery, Din Tai Fung.

When it’s all said and done, Din Tai Fung is really just an over-hyped dumpling house. Don’t get me wrong it’s a damn fine one but it was hardly the most memorable meal I’ve had in Taipei thus far.

Din Tai Fung specializes in Xiaolongbao or soup dumplings. These tender morsels of steamed dough and meat (usually pork or crab and shrimp) are literally flavor explosions for the mouth as each dumpling is a vessel for a spoonful of hot Au Jous. There is a proper way to eat a Xiaolongbao so as not to burn the roof of your mouth with piping hot broth.

First you lightly dip your dumpling in a soy sauce and rive vinegar sauce. Then carefully place the dumpling on your soupspoon. Once the dumpling is settled it’s a race against the dumplings temperature clock. Carefully puncture a hole in its side with your chopstick spilling its liquid guts into your spoon’s basin. Then slurp up some of the soup and gobble down the dumpling.

Stuart and I go through an order of pork and crab soup dumplings, a bowl of “niurou mian,” a sinfully decadent beef and noodle soup with a dark brown broth and tender chunks of brisket that could easily pass as Vietnamese Pho’s gluttonous wealthy uncle, a side of buttery sautéed pea shoots, and a spicy wonton dish that we learn was just added to the menu. The wontons, with their slightly spicy, slightly sweet flavor ended up being the hit of the meal. We shared a couple bottles of Taiwan beer and reminisced about our time in Spain, Stuart’s many adventures here in Asia and plans for the future.

All in all, it was another memorable day in Taipei, one that will no doubt go down as one of the best. For Stuarts remaining time in Taipei we found a hookah bar near the university, ate a wonderful seafood meal at a local restaurant that one of his Taiwanese friend’s took us to, and explored the Shilin night market. I have an open invitation to Hong Kong, one that I hope to use as soon as I can.

Stray Observations #1

The Mister Donut–Photo c/o the internet

Stray Observations From An Amused Foreigner #1

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.


— Never mind the fact that the thousands of scooters flooding the streets of Taipei only add to the city’s growing smog presence. The real hazards of these motorized zoom-zooms come at the pedestrian level. Walking in Taipei requires the same amount of focus and attention to the surroundings as someone traversing through a minefield. Scooters ignore most logical street signs, and will hit you if you happen to be in their path. Not too long ago while sauntering my way through a local night market I was struck by an anxious scooter’s side view mirror as the rider weaved his way through a mob of shoppers. Instead of apologizing for smacking my elbow the elderly rider scolded me in Taiwanese and may or may not have responded with a fist of dissidence in the air.

— Riding a scooter (or in my case, hanging off the back of scooters wearing helmets made for children) is on par with the thrills of walking. Taxi cabs and buses would just assume cut you off if it meant catching a fare, red lights are merely suggestions for some Taiwanese commuters who see the lights as an excuse to speed up, and helmets protect the skull but do nothing for the flesh (check any MRT train car and you’re guaranteed to find one wicked flesh wound from a recently scarred ex-scooterist).

–Riding during a torrential rainstorm, aka the month of June, is about as smart as taking your Mazda Miata out for a spin on the Dan Ryan during an icy Chicago winter. Finally, a note to all the Taiwanese, just because you wear a body-sized “scooter poncho” during aforementioned road conditions, you are hardly the wiser commuter; you’re, however, a hell of a lot more colorful. This all said and done, I still desperately want a scooter of my own. Is this wrong?


— I don’t care that you’ve flash-fried the specimen to a “delicious” black char, you WILL NOT trick me into munching on a whole duck/goose head–neck, skull, beak et al–even if you somehow manage to impale it on a convenient stick like some ruthless Hun.

— Chicken as an animal and food group is a lot more complex than you may think. Summed up: If you think you’ve had chicken, you really haven’t.

— If you put custard pudding in ice tea, they will come.

— Duck blood by any other name is still duck blood.

— If you pretend that the surprise pieces of pig intestine at the bottom of the delicious steaming bowl of Mian Xian (oyster noodles) are really morsels of calamari, you can in fact fool the mouth.

— Unforgiving Taiwanese rice liquor could and should be used to remove paint. East Asian whiskey, however, should not be overlooked on the world stage.

— Dumplings are understood.

— Becoming a regular at a street vendor cart is easy. Show up once, spew out some complimenting Mandarin phrases, and reap the benefits the follow. A neighborhood dumpling shop owner (one of the few places around my apartment open late) is happy to slip in an extra dumpling or two to my order since we are on a first name basis and she is still amazed at my height. A steady use of the word “haochi” or delicious also helps.

— A long line may not ensure quality but will most definitely beckon the flock. The Taiwanese seem to attribute long lines at food vendors and shops as being a sign of quality. Case in point, the popular JiPai, or over-sized fried chicken breast stands. In the Shi-Lin night market there are two prominent stands that sit right next to each other on a busy drag. The vendor on the right side will at times have a queue thirty people deep, while his neighbor on the left will be empty. When I ask one university-age girl why she chose the vendor on the right, she replied, “Because the line was longer.” It should be noted that the final products at both stands are identical and the two supposed rival vendors might in fact be brothers.

— The Taiwanese truly believe that American food consists of hot dogs and hamburgers. One afternoon at my school the staff ordered delivery McDonalds from down the road. When I declined the chance to order a value meal and said, “I actually don’t really like McDonalds” my boss, Vicky, was downright shocked. “Don’t you miss your hamburgers?” she inquired. From peeking at a carryout menu Taiwanese McDonalds appear to be the same as say a Nebraska McDonalds.

— No matter how much area you conquer, you will never win, Starbucks. 

— Mister Donut, a Japanese donut chain sprouting up all over Taipei, serves your typical donut. That they offer chopsticks for their sugary treats does however up the establishment’s weirdness.

— The consumption of properly prepared Chinese cabbage is an ethereal experience.

— I have long argued that adding a fried egg to just about everything ups the ante. Eating in Taipei only confirms this position. Lunch boxes are not complete without the essential fried egg topper for the rice. The sandwiches at my housemate’s restaurant, Kiwi Gourmet Burger, served with a fried egg (not to mention pineapple and pickled beets) are to die for.

— Keep the chili peppers coming. It turns out the Taiwanese are not as brave as their Sichuan brothers on the mainland when it comes to spicy food. “Hen la” or very spicy has become a favorite phrase when surveying the culinary canvas here in Taipei, however, I have yet to come across something that numbs my mouth and rips my insides apart. I need to find a true hotpot!

— Noodles shaved by hand from a mothership of homemade dough into a giant vat of boiling water are worth the extra time and money.

— Sprouts, yes please!

— In a country where half of the food you see is still a mystery I’ve realized it’s best to just jump right in and hope for the best. Over the years my stomach has definitely become a lot more adventurous through travel and interest in foreign cuisine. East Asia is like one giant test for the inside. So far I have yet to take ill from anything thing eaten on the streets or inside more established restaurants. I haven’t turned down anything that has been offered to me (save of course for the aforementioned duck/goose noggin, because, and let’s be honest here, one must have limits) and have already found a number of must-go hotspots.


— I’m tall and yes, I just hit my head on the hanging support handles. Get over it. 

— The Taiwanese are a polite and organized people. Sometimes. The MRT trains are a perfect example of a society that respects their elders and knows how to make a system work. The commuter trains here can fill up fast but no matter how busy or full a car might be, people will always offer up their seats to small children, the elderly and women. The Taiwanese also know how to line-up, whether it be to board the train (lining up on in a marked and designated area) or to wait for an escalator. For as busy a place as Taipei is the people never seem to be in a hurry (though it could be said that due to long work weeks many commuters are anything but anxious to get to work). I wish I could say the same for the street traffic scene here, which is a cluster-fuck, free for all of fleeting scooters, ambitious taxis and fearless buses.

— You are forbidden to eat or drink on all MRT trains inside each station creating a sterile but delightful area. Ever felt disgusted by the homeless guy eating a bucket of hot wings on the Howard Red Line ‘L’ train in Chicago? Well, behavior like that is non-existent here in Taipei. 


— For the most part the Taiwanese are a dog friendly people. It is very popular to own dogs, particularly four specific breeds–a long haired brown lap dog of sorts, run of the mill golden retrievers, some curious lab/terrier mutt, and some no-name cross breed that I can’t recall seeing in the States. The dogs are sold at night markets, which is even worse than it sounds. The ones that don’t sell are unleashed to the streets. The city is full of strays. The lucky ones find a nice old lady who feeds them regularly and they mark their territory. Others create instinctual gangs and roam around parks and by the river. Outside of my apartment there are at a given time at least four, sometimes six dogs. They are covered in fleas, attract flies, and in the case of one doomed pooch are riddled with stomach worms. Depressing. I make it a habit to buy dog biscuits at the grocery store as often as I can but the problem is clearly too big for the occasional treat. I hear that it is 50 times worse in Mainland China where strays are even more abundant and certain breeds, i.e. the unfortunate raccoon dog, are bred for their pelts, faciliating a hush-hush illegal tender of fake furs that might just end up on the racks of JC Penny.

— Then there’s the amusing side to the Taiwanese’s love of dogs. Not only are dogs accessorized much like the downtown Manhattan purse pooches that you might run into at a Dean and Deluca but they are also given fashion cues. It is not uncommon to see a beautiful golden retriever shaved completely bald, save for the hair around the neck, head and tail. I kid you not. A friend’s Taiwanese girlfriend has at least two-dozen photos on her cell phone of her dog dressed up in various inappropriate costumes. From a watermelon to what looked like an airplane pilot’s garments, the dog’s masculinity is non-existent and would probably last a good six hours out in the wild. Dogs ride scooters with their owners and sometimes even manage to fit on normal bicycles. Finally, certain Taiwanese, specifically at said dog haven night markets, carry their miniature canines on their chests in makeshift doggie backpacks.

— Stray cats are present in the city but I have yet to figure out if felines are welcomed pets here or merely a type of training-pet for future dog owners.

— Bringing your pet rabbit to a busy park with dogs and hundreds of people may not be the wisest move, even if you walk the bunny on a leash.


— If you give a mouse a cookie, he just might kill Teacher Warner. It’s hard to say how it happened but ever since I started teaching my three day-a-week “Treehouse Class” seem to have this fascination with creating English sentence patterns that place yours truly in harms way. Teacher Warner has been eaten by a shark, a lion, and spider, not to mention a monkey who is a mascot in the book series. I was once hanged using the keyword ROPE. Last Thursday Lucas, the classroom’s resident terrorist, decided to use the new word SAW (part of a construction/cleaning unit) to cut my head off–verbatim sentence spoken out loud: “I will use a saw to cut Teacher Warner on head.” And I can’t even begin to tell you how violent things got during the Natural Disaster debacle of Unit 8 when I met my demise in lethal hurricanes, typhoons, volcanic eruptions, tornados, drought and somehow by a mudslide. Still, if it teaches the children English then I guess I don’t mind being their personal voodoo doll.

— Apple will never be a real name. For that matter, neither will Rock.

— The Taiwanese love ‘em some office supplies. I have never seen such adoration for pens, pencils, notebooks, pen cases and erasers than inside the Taiwanese school system. Pencil lead flows like water. Erasers are traded like currency. Hi-lighters come in more colors than you might think. And don’t even think about using the pencil’s built in eraser to correct your mistake. For the task of homework editing you must utilize the heavy-duty pencil/pen eraser that’s shaped like a Hello Kitty.

— White board markers are bitch to clean off clothing.

— If your teacher ever seems dazed and confused he/she has probably been inhaling too much white board marker ink. Weekly ink re-fillings of these tools of the trade could very easily be killing my precious brain cells.

— The game of Hangman, it turns out, never ends. No matter how many letters the students go through before reaching the correct word there are certainly more body parts and accessorizes to add to the hanged stick figure. Top hat? Why not! Backpack? I can’t draw that, but sure.

— Trying to practice my rudimentary Chinese with the students only leads to trouble and requires at least one class period of reclaiming my authority.

— Finally, in response to my Step Ahead Class Level 5 workbook’s written suggestion that I reward the winning student of a word puzzle activity with “a big sloppy kiss,” the answer is, No. No, I will not.


— Never before have I felt so welcomed in a foreign place than here in Taipei. Not unusual but worth mentioning. 

Dragon Boat Festival Day 2

Dragon Boat Festival Day 2: Day Trip to the Caoling Historic Trail


Packed Like Sardines in a Tin Can – It’s Hot – Climb to the Top ­– A Flora and Fauna Report – A Fellow Traveler – An All Girl Taiwanese Punk Band and The Shit Disco

After a successful adventure in Danshui the day before, I decided to take another day-trip outside of Taipei proper, this time heading to Taiwan’s stunning Northeast Coast. I left the house on the early side with the intent of catching a morning train to the town of Daxi (spelled on signs as Dasi, but more on the various forms of Chinese Romanization another time). Sure enough I arrive at Taipei Main Station ten minutes after the 8:40 train departed, with the next one arriving two-hours later. Way to go. 

My original plan to skip a weekend trip to the Toroko Gorge National Park was fueled by the notion that the park would be flooded with tourists and that all accommodations–hostels, trains, buses etc.–would also be hindered from the holiday travel rush. Of course this logic should have worked for every remote destination in Taiwan and my two-hour train ride to the East coast was proof of how unbearable crowded travel in Taiwan can be. 

Let’s begin: This trip was my first experiment with the Taiwanese Rail system. Taipei has its MRT metro, a foolproof system that connects the entire city and more remote destinations like Danshui. The rest of the island relies on brand new Japanese engineered high-speed trains, middle-grade passenger trains and bottom of the barrel antique city commuter trains that somehow have been converted to accommodate long-distance travel, think an “L” train car running from Chicago to Springfield. 

My guidebook tells me that the Taipei-Daxi train takes 90 minutes and costs NT$104. I use this information to find what I assume is the only train to the small coastal town. The train turns out to be an aforementioned old city train, a la the pre-MRT era in Taipei. There are seats but the majority of the train is standing room only. Since the cars don’t have reserved seats of any kind this also means that there is no limit to how many suntan lotion soaked passengers can be squeezed in. 

I get on along with a hundred other eager passengers running to the sliding doors to ensure a spot. The air-conditioner is working but cannot keep up with the volume. I am sandwiched between a group of university age students, two couples, a family and a young child who immediately starts gorging on a pastry of sorts filled with warm chocolate goo. Not ten minutes into the trip and the train already smells like sweaty ass and Nutella. Later an older gentleman in one of the seats cracks open a tea egg, which only adds to the array of unpleasant odors circulating in the stale train car air. 

The 90-minute trip is extended to a little over two-hours since we stop at every station on the line and are idle for five to ten minutes at a time while station platform hopefuls attempt to squeeze in the already overstuffed cars. At one stop there must have been at least 200 people waiting and maybe only 20 got on. Damn. 

I am the only foreigner in my particular throng and most definitely stand out. I attempt to grab my camera to shoot the inside of the car, which is a wall-to-wall mess of people, but I am unable to get into my bag without sending a bony elbow or knee into my neighbor. Taipei MRT cars can get crowded but I’ve never experienced anything like this before. Five stops before Daxi (an hour and half later) two-thirds of the passengers get off at a popular beach destination allowing for a bit of stretching. As we approach smaller village stops, old ladies wait on the station platforms with pre-made lunch boxes. 

On the few chances to look out at the passing scenery I see aqua blue rivers and streams with locals fishing and basking in the sun. We pass through mountain tunnels, happen upon lush green forests and eventually catch a glimpse of the Pacific. Taiwan’s West coast is fairly industrial and is home to the island’s three most populous cities. The East coast however is where the Taiwanese escape to for the serene, natural beauty, the half of the island that epitomizes the Portuguese’s coined phrase, Ilha Formosa, or “beautiful island.”

The trip was worth the temporary unpleasantness. Looking back on the trip I figure it was only a matter of time before this sort of transportation fiasco would happen (I suppose it’ll be even worse in parts of Southeast Asia and on the mainland, where buses ignore occupancy warnings).

The Caoling trail is a 16KM hike connecting the sleepy surfing village of Daxi with the town of Fulong, home to a popular public beach. The trail is the last remaining stretch of a longer early 19th century trade route that spanned from Taiwan’s Northeast coast to Danshui. The actual Caoling Historic Trail runs 9KM along a mountaintop valley overlooking the Pacific to the East and the Central Mountain Range to the West. Trail extensions have been added over the years bringing the full trail to around 16KM. 

It’s hot and right away I realize that the one coat of suntan lotion that I applied earlier in the morning will probably leave my skin its usual summer coat–lobster red splotches with a 75% chance of peeling. 

I’m not five minutes into my ascent up the steep stairs leading to the top of the mountain when my refillable Taiwanese brand Nalgene water bottle falls from my camera bag and cracks. Strike-two Warner. 

I keep climbing. I learn quickly from the amount of people I see coming down the mountain that most people start their journey from Fulong and end up in Daxi. Others only do small stretches leaving the 16K hike for soon-to-be-dehydrated Americans.

The first hour of the hike is all dense forest. While I’m shaded from the sun, the forest ceiling creates a saunaesque effect. It’s hot. I greet some of the locals coming down. Halfway to the top I bump into an American who is just finishing the full 16km hike and tells me that I’m doing the hardest part now. He also tells me that once I hit the mountaintop valley I will be blown away. Promises like these keep you going.

A taste of what’s to come…

Just shy of the first “rest stop,” a picnic table and a chart documenting local plant species, I surprise a large snake bathing on a rock off the trail. We don’t have snakes in Chicago, save for zoos or in the terrariums of pre-pubescent Middle School boys. When I startle this particular serpent, the kind that could guzzle down rabbits or small lap dogs with the ease of someone slurping up broad noodles, I keep my distance and wait till it’s slithered its way back in the deep brush before continuing. 

The American from earlier wasn’t lying about the mountain valley stretch on the trail. The climb to the top was arduous but the pay-off was oh so worth it.

Vast grassy hills, a strong and cool breeze, and the Pacific are in full sight. The sky is clear, and the ocean, especially the areas hugging the coast, is a light, aqua blue. In the distance I can see c two small islands, both of which I learn later, can be visited by ferry from Fulong. 

A third of the way into the valley stretch (about 7KM of ascents and descents) I begin to see more people, a lot more, and as I approach I stumble upon about a hundred grazing water buffalo, famous to this region but a bit surprising considering we’re in the mountains. The buffalo are apparently a nuisance for hikers as they block trails and litter overlook rest areas with their dung. Save for some stray cats outside Fulong, this wraps up the Caoling Flora Fauna Report.

At one particular overlook I meet another solo walker, Ricky, from Taipei. I ask him to take a picture with my camera (as seen below) and offer the same service. We begin chatting in English and end up walking the remaining three and a half hours together.

Mind you, I could have easily done the universally recognized reverse peace sign/Nixon victory finger salute

Ricky, a 29-year-old computer programmer from the Yongan neighborhood in Taipei, tells me he is always looking for ways to escape the busy city and get into the mountains. He studied English and Computer Sciences at University and took a job that he tolerates but does not love, a norm with people his age he tells me. His English is surprisingly good and when I tell him this he always responds with a, “no way! I only know little bit.” When I tell him towards the end of the trail, “Listen Ricky, we just spent nearly four hours talking about a wide range of advanced topics in English, and I understood everything you had to say,” his humbleness quickly changes to pride.

Along the way I ask him about life in Taipei, his travels around the island and Northeast Asia. We discuss the cuisine of Taiwan. He tells me where his favorite hole-in-the-wall haunts and night markets are. We discuss America, President Obama, Chicago style deep-dish pizza, which he can’t seem to comprehend (“Chicago pizza is how big??” making hand motions) and baseball (I of course realize that not only does he know more about modern American baseball than I do but he is also more familiar with the Cubs and White Sox’s current lineup). Strike three.

Ricky tells me that he would love to do exactly what I am doing, that is take off for a year to travel and explore different cultures, but he said that it is very hard to leave family for long periods of time. If I haven’t mentioned already, family is very important to the Taiwanese. Most of the young people in this country live with their parents till they’re into their late twenties, often later. Sundays are often reserved for meals or an outing with relatives, and it is frowned upon to leave home for extended period of times (students studying abroad in the U.S. or Europe are exemptions, especially for those seeking two-year master degrees abroad). He tells me that when he is older he would very much like to see more of the world and I tell him that he is welcome in Chicago any time. The deep dish will be on me.

The Earth God shrine was surprisingly a bust. Basically just another picnic table rest stop.

By the time we reach Fulong (it should be noted that while the last hour was all downhill, the steep descent, mainly on jagged stone steps, reeks havoc on the knees) we are both pretty exhausted but proud of our accomplishment. Ricky tells me that he’s only done this trail twice before but never all the way through.

We grab some drinks and a snack at Fulong, which by 7PM is a bustling mess of sunburned beachgoers and locals all waiting for the train home. It turns out Ricky was on the same train earlier in the day and tells me that the government should run more trains on holidays but sadly do not leaving travel a constant hassle. He ends up setting us up on a better, faster train home (with fewer stops and reserved seats!) for the same price as the earlier train. When I ask him why he didn’t take the nicer train earlier from Taipei to Daxi, he rather oddly replies, “Oh, it doesn’t work like that.” I will get to the bottom of the train system on this island soon enough. 

On the relaxing ride back we continue talking about Taiwanese culture and its history. He gives me a brief but thorough cram course in the island’s geopolitics over the years, starting with the Portuguese and Dutch explorers/settlers, carrying on through China and Japan’s occupation up until Taiwan’s current status as a breakaway republic of the mainland. We discuss the various islands off the coast of Taiwan, some off-the beaten path havens for indigenous Taiwanese tribes, others military bases. He also makes it a point to go through my guide book and correct a number of key vocab words that Lonely Planet managed to fudge up, mainly pertaining to traditional Taiwanese cuisine. 

At Taipei Main Station we exchange cell numbers and plan on meeting at some point for dinner. He tells me that there are all kinds of local dishes that most foreigners never find but are very popular with locals. Perfect.

Ricky is yet another example of the kindness found with the Taiwanese. I am constantly approached by locals of all ages wondering where I’m from or what I’m doing here in Taiwan. All are legitimately interested and everyone is welcoming to their country’s guests.

I get back to my apartment completely spent. On the way I grab some dumplings and have every intention to relax and eventually pass out. My housemate Ant has other plans for me. 

Ever since arriving in Taiwan I have been keen on finding good live music venues and up until this evening I had my doubts that such a place existed. Enter The Wall, Taipei’s gritty underground punk and drum & bass hall. 

I meet up with Ant, a fellow Kiwi named Steven (who shares similar tastes in music and runs his own Taipei live music blog, Gig Guide), and two Chinese-American girls from Northern California. Jenn has been here for at least four years, Lisa for three and both are thrilled to show me, “the newbie,” the ropes.

Ant, Jenn, & Lisa, plus  my usual stupid, non-photogenic pseudo-gang hand sign – Photo c/o Jenn C. 

The Wall is officially my new favorite nightlife destination. The subterranean bar has the feel of Chicago’s Metro theater–small, intimate setting with a decent crowd of music enthusiasts. We arrive for the final set of a local DJ, who in ten minutes manages to trump all the previous DJ’s I’ve seen at local nightclubs, the majority of whom play nothing but recycled 90s hip-hop and the occasional Kylie Minogue record. Next up, an all female electro punk ensemble, Go Chic.


The next group, an ensemble from Glasgow, Scotland called Shit Disco play a four-hour DJ set. The Carlsberg was flowing, the bass was loud enough to make your nostrils itch, and everyone was dancing. All in all, a perfect end to one of the better days here in Taiwan.

Photo c/o Jenn C.

Up next, The Dragon Boat Race, A Day in the Life, Tales From Beginner’s Chinese Vol. 1, Culinary Adventures #2: The Lunch Box, and Singing the Ghostbuster’s Theme Song at a Giant Karaoke Bar with two Indonesian girls, a Handful of Taiwanese, a Guatemalan, and a Cheap Bottle of Taiwanese “Whisky.” Who ya gonna call.