A Warner of Suburbia EXCLUSIVE
Coming to a foreign place ensures a certain level of culture shock. While I embrace the hundreds of new sights and sounds I come across on a daily basis here in Taipei, I feel it my duty to share some of the more out-there cultural differences.
ON THE LOCAL ZOO
–A while back I took a trip to the Taipei Zoo with the intention of seeing Taipei’s pair of Pandas. It’s hard to deny the cuteness factor of a Panda Bear and I’m pretty sure I had never seen one in person before this trip. The two bears, Yuan Yuan and Tuan Tuan (which according to Wikipedia means ‘Reunion’) have their own indoor and outdoor habitat and even on a rainy day draw lines of onlookers. The queue that can form to see the two bears is on par with the lines waiting to see Pope John Paul’s body at the Vatican a couple years back, which is to say you are shuffled in an out and are lucky if you catch the Pandas doing something interesting like scratching themselves or taking a dump.
–The Giant Panda also warrants its own gift shop, which proves that you can in fact churn out a panda into every kind of chotchkie imaginable. Panda plush toys. Check. Panda notebook. Check. Vile of concentrated Panda breath for good luck charm necklace. Could happen.
–Rocky the Raccoon, Chinese. It makes sense that an East Asian zoo would have a Raccoon habitat. These arguably cute but rather annoying creatures are common in the nocturnal suburban scavenger subspecies of North American vermin but over here they are only alluded to in children’s storybooks and the 1995 Disney film, “Pocahantas,” which featured Meeko the playful pet raccoon. It was quite a surprise to see that their display at the Taipei Zoo was not only bigger than, say, a lesser animal’s exhibit (some monkeys seemed to be living in squalor though it’s hard to say if a monkey would comprehend squalor, what with the penchant for dung-tossing and all). It turns out that when Raccoons are allowed to just lounge around and don’t actually have to clumsily scrounge through your trash can at all hours of the night, they can be quite playful and charming to watch, as seen in this Taipei Zoo Raccoon enthusiast’s amateur Youtube video.
–Anything advertised as, “The Luxury and Trendy Finger Food” has to be anything but. Even this hungry zoo patron seemed puzzled by the prospects of pizza served in a cone. NOTE: the bonus sprigs of fresh basil featured in the display photos (a nice touch). Brova!!
–I still argue that the Ocelot is truly underrated cat–beautiful and mysterious, while still sporting baadassss claws that could mangle a jugular.
ON MY NEIGHBORHOOD
— I share a flat on a fairly unassuming street. Our place is close to a grocery store, seven convenience stores, a riverside park, and numerous warring clans of stray dogs mark their territory outside my window.
— There are many noises in my neighborhood. For a while we would all wake up to the sounds of ripsaws and a pneumatic nail guns at the construction site one building over. At night we can hear the dogs howling and barking at said construction site, usually trying to put the scare into a stationary piece of heavy machinery.
— Every once and a while I can hear the sound of what must be a howling man of sorts across the way from my window. While at first I figured it to be a dog, the howls have become more nuanced in their tones and range. After recording a sample on my camera’s video feature I spent some time pondering what the sounds might be. The following is a shortlist of perfectly feasible explanations:
a) said noise is from a dog, albeit a rather unhappy, dare I say depressed pooch.
b) said noise is from an old man, possibly someone bed-ridden.
c) said noise is from a waking gimp, possibly being exuded from its cage or cabinet dwelling.
d) said noise is the result of some bizarre Tai-Chi ritual that I am not yet privy to.
e) said noise is from a zombie going through a self-identity crisis.
— Open letter to the neighborhood lady on her bike who feeds the local stray dogs and cats scraps of meat: Thank you for being such a kind soul. You go above and beyond my feeble attempts at feeding the animals store-bought treats.
— Open letter to the hungry/scared/impatient/impish kitten who cried all night long last Monday. If you had just waited till morning the bike lady would’ve have taken care of you. Also, if you want something and feel the need to whine at least make your presence known visibly. My housemate Antoni and I spent a good thirty minutes out searching for you, tracking your sounds to various possible hiding spots. NOTE TO READERS: The following night said cat was neither seen nor heard. While it could’ve gone elsewhere are been cared for by its owner I suspect the aforementioned gimp had something to do with the cat’s sudden disappearance.
(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.
9) The total number of pleads to universal problem child Eason to put down the darts and to stop: 11
10) Eason: 11, Teacher Warner: 0
ON TAIWANESE MTV
— On a date of sorts a couple weeks ago I was introduced to Taiwan’s version of MTV, which has nothing to do with the American Music Television cable network. MTV is essentially akin to East Asian KTV, which, if you recall, are venues where you and your friends can rent a room equipped for Karaoke. MTVs take the same concept of renting a room (a seedy sounding diversion if you ask me) and incorporate film to the equation. You and your friends can show up, pick from a selection of DVDs, and get a room with a surround sound system and a digital projector. Pretty cool concept and one that I always envisioned in the States but I knew would never be profitable. Why watch a movie on your dinky home TV when you can rent a large high-definition screen with surround sound for less than the cost of going to an actual film house?
— In Taiwan MTVs were largely successful for many years, catering to young teenagers wanting to watch movies and make out. It takes the concept of the drive-in movie and brings it indoors. I learned that due to internet movie downloading these establishments are a dying breed.
— I was invited to an MTV by a girl I met who told me that if I liked movies (which I do) then I would love MTV. Of course when it came time to make the film selection I knew instantly that my usual insistence on snooty art films wouldn’t fly. For starters the film library was limited to big Hollywood action and romantic comedies, many of which starred ponytail wearing white ninja Steven Segal (who apparently is quite respected over here). Setting aside my film pretensions, I allowed my friend to choose the film. She, without hesitation I might add, went for the teen vampire soap opera, Twilight, which is all the rage here.
Having not read any of the books of which the Twilight Saga is based on, I can’t accurately comment on its importance in the lexicon of American literature and film but it does seem to follow a fairly basic formula: Take one pasty white skinned, semi EMO teenage girl (Kristen Stewart, who was quite good in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild), send her to the Pacific Northwest, introduce the Romeo to her Juliet (who is part of a mysterious family of pasty-faced vampires), insert some hipster indie rock music, have a scene where said vampire love interest rescues her from a car accident and possible attack/rape from Oregon gang members, and finally, add a pinch of voice-over narration about the complexities of loving a vampire, all of which is said to be a metaphor for keeping one’s virginity sacred–give in to your lust for sex (with a vampire) and you might end up with two holes in your neck. Watch out girls!
— The whole experience was odd, to say the least.
— MTV summed up: A place to relive middle school.
ON MUSIC IN THE CLASSROOM
— The songs written by Hess, my school’s parent company, are offered to teachers as a tool for helping to teach key grammar points and increase vocabulary comprehension. The majority of them lack any sort of catchiness and often drive the students (and the teacher) insane. My American Curriculum Program class (ACP) meets four days a week and is one of the few that actually enjoy singing the songs offered. While I’m gradually trying to supplement the material with classic English songs of my childhood–The Beatles “Octopus’s Garden” and Bowie’s Labyrinth film era “Magic Dance” are two that I’ve attempted (other song suggestions are welcomed!)–my class still seems to enjoy the text book offerings. Take for example, “Rock and Roll Days,” a wall of sound Hess production referencing the days of the week and featuring female backup singers, which the girls in the class love.
–The students also can’t get enough of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” even after Christmas has come and gone.
— I’m toying with the idea of introducing the students to Prince’s “Starfish & Coffee.” Thoughts? Concerns of introducing his Purpleness to these innocent minds?
Those who doubt me just take a look at the lyrics:
It was 7:45, we were all in line 2 greet the teacher Miss Kathleen (Practice telling time)
First was Kevin, then came Lucy, third in line was me (Time adverbs)
All of us were ordinary compared 2 Cynthia Rose (Cynthia’s a fun name to say)
She always stood at the back of the line, a smile beneath her nose (Incorporates smiling)
Favorite number was 20, every single day (Favorite + (nouns) are big in our class)
If U asked her what she had 4 breakfast, this is what she’d say
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 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.
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 nytimes.com, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
Settle In – Start Teaching – A Trip to the Hospital – Bike the Riverfront – A Hike in the Mountains – World’s Tallest Mall
It’s okay for a 25-year-old to have a blue Snoopy pillow, right? Buying bedding for my new room was a bit more difficult with the language barrier. The bed in my room came as is: desk, wardrobe, mattress, chair, and the occasional fly. I had been told that any night market would have a store with sheets etc. I settled on a small neighborhood joint near my apartment, where I figured prices would be cheaper. I was able to tell the nice (and patient) lady that my bed was a double size but somehow I still managed to walk away with two fitted sheets and a baby blue pillow with Peanut’s beloved beagle plastered all over it. Walking down the street carrying my purchases definitely made me stand out more than usual. Still I had my sleeping arrangements down.
My apartment was a perfect choice all around. For starters my roommates are all very friendly and have been showing me some of the ropes around the area. The rent is low, my room is quite spacious, and the location is ideal–an eight minute walk to the MRT station, close to a nice riverside park and tucked away down a quiet alleyway, away from loud scooters and serious foot traffic.
As you can see from the photos the living room is guarded by two Japanese Samurai suits of armor, which Ant (the Kiwi) picked up in Japan a while back. There is also a Zeus statue that may or may not have once been an elaborate lamp of sorts. My bed is basically a box spring thrown on the floor, though it surprisingly did not take long for me to become accustomed to such rigid sleeping habits. I found out that the Taiwanese sleep on bamboo bedrolls that are supposedly good for the back and actually cools you down when you are sleeping.
A good night’s rest was needed for my first week of actual classes. Actually I have a fairly easy schedule with only afternoon classes (4:30-8:30), save for the unfortunate 9am-3pm schedule on Saturday mornings, which includes an early class for incoherent zombie 8th graders, followed by a two-hour unpaid break, and then my only Kindy class for a six energetic five-year-old girls.
My first week goes well. Much of the curriculum is by the books so that as long as I cover all the material at hand, I’ve done my job. There is room for adding your own two cents and coming up with clever ways to convey certain sentence patterns and grammar points is entirely up to the teacher.
I’m thinking I’ll eventually get around to writing an entire entry devoted to what goes on in the classroom, but until then I’ll give you a basic rundown: All classes start with a vocabulary quiz of words from past lessons and homework. This is followed with the reading exercise of the day. Depending on the class this could be a short passage taken from a workbook or a short children’s book. For my more elite Treehouse class (I have them three days a-week as opposed to the others which I get once-a-week) they have a series of short books including the current Candy Disaster, which follows closely the adventures of a brother and sister team as they navigate their way through Toffee Typhoons, Chocolate Fondue Volcanos, Cotton Candy Tornados etc.
In another class we read about Jesse Owens’ triumphant gold medal sweep at the historic 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. Trying to explain to a class of puzzled kids how Owens’ victory was a humbling moment for the Nazis was as difficult as explaining to them (in simple English mind you) who this man Hitler was. Can you say H-O-L-O-C-A-U-S-T? Heavy reading choice if you ask me.
The students seem to like me and while most of them know my name by now, there are a couple of troublemakers who still insist on calling me Teacher Water. All of the students pick their “Western” names at an early age, which still manages to surprise me. I have a chatty gal in my Treehouse class named Apple. There’s Rock, a lethargic gentleman who sleeps through my Saturday morning class. A bright lad named Gilbert has a promising grasp of the language. Gigi, Cherry1 and Cherry 2 (or Little Cherry as we call her) like to gossip in my Thursday afternoon class while Angel and Mitch are both brownnosers. Anyway, you understand why taking attendance the first week was a treat.
I am still in the process of obtaining my ARC card or Taiwanese work permit, an essential document that allows me to stay in the country past my 60-day tourist visa. Part of this procedure meant getting a health exam, you know, to make sure I don’t teach these kids English and what contracting Swine Flu feels like.
Taiwan has universal healthcare and from what I hear, it is quite good. On a Wednesday I am asked to come to school early to leave enough time to make a trip to the hospital. My co-worker Calvin has been helping me with all my transitions so he is in charge of making sure the check-up goes accordingly.
Calvin, like most Taiwanese, is the proud owner of a scooter. The hospital is at the other end of town. Upon arriving to the school I am handed a child-sized Pokemon bike helmet and told not to move while in transit. With an enthralled Pikachu covering my skull and my legs crammed on the side of a bike clearly made for one, we ride.
Scooters are everywhere in Taipei and no doubt play a large part in the city’s smogosphere. The trip to the hospital can only be described as exhilarating. Every turn is a close call with fellow riders. Buses ride our tail at red lights. At one point we pass a savvy individual carrying two propane tanks on his bike, most likely for his food stall stove. While normally the sight of a scooter bomb would make me a bit nervous I can’t help but think, wow this is a lot of fun! At times red lights don’t imply stopping. Left hand turns are a free for all. One treacherous pothole and I’d bounce off the back of the scooter like a bucking steed throwing his rider.
The hospital is more of an efficient medical procedure factory. I go through some basic paperwork and pay a standard NT$700 (a little over $20 USD) visitation fee. The first exam tests my height and weight, which gets a “wow! You are tall.” from Calvin. Then my vision and hearing are given the okay. After this I am asked a series of questions pertaining to my health history. I am led to the X-Ray room where they do a full scan of my chest, I suppose to make sure I am, in fact, human or to ensure that I am not playing host to some alien chestburster. When I explain to Calvin that in the states X-Ray tests are generally not common practice in routine physical exams, he asks, “well, why not?” Then we get into a discussion about the monetary highs and lows of the American Healthcare System while waiting in line for the lady with the long needle to work her magic.
After a blood test and with a sore shoulder, we hit the scooter and return to school. With a valid work permit I am granted full healthcare coverage, including dental. If I were to get hit by a reckless scooter driver a trip to the hospital will be fully covered by the government. I pay $200 a month from my paycheck (roughly $7USD).
I celebrated my 25th birthday here in Taipei, an age that doesn’t really hold a lot of meaning to me. My theory is once you reach the goal age of 21 each subsequent birthday is just a reminder of how much older you are. While I was hoping for some rustic facial hair for my birthday, possibly a goatee, I settle for the thoughtful cake and Happy Birthday serenade I receive at the school. I learn that it is custom to eat cake with a toothpick and that it is also a Taiwanese custom to applaud someone on their birthday, as was the case with all of the students in the building. For example, if I walked to the bathroom during break I was followed by the sound of hands clapping. Great job, you’re about to have a piss!
Calvin gave me his old and untouched bicycle for my birthday, a Taiwanese version of a Huffy. A generous offering I must say. One day I casually expressed the desire to find a bike in Taipei. It could be Calvin had been waiting for someone to unload his bike on. Perhaps who is just that nice. Anyway, the bike is made for someone half my size, but I of course accept the gift and later have a fairly difficult ride home.
The school is a good 30-minutes from my apartment by train and there is a riverside bike path route that I assume would take about an hour to complete. The bike, I discover, has brakes but everything else is a mess. The seat cannot be raised and the gears don’t exactly do what they’re supposed to. As a result the ride home takes roughly two-hours, includes having to backtrack a bit to find the bike path entrance and reeks havoc on my knees. Remember the clowns at the circus that ride the mini bikes with their legs hanging off the side, well that’s me. I don’t even get a bell to truly make my presence known as I breeze along the path with normal bikes passing me at every chance.
Taipei has a fairly extensive system of bike paths that run along the rivers that bisect the city. The trails aren’t exactly the picturesque as you pass under giant bridges and industrial waste pipes, but the fact that the Taiwanese have a chance to have peaceful rides is nice.
The bike will do for around the neighborhood, but I would still like to eventually get an actual Warner size set of wheels to really take advantage of the bike friendly part of the Taipei.
On Sunday, my only full day off in the week, I check out one of the Taipei’s many hiking trails, which, like the bike paths, offers residents an escape from the hectic and polluted city life. Taipei is built around mountains and hills and the city has done an amazing job keeping the trails up and running. One minute you’re staring down a scooter’s exhaust pipe, the next moment you’re in the tranquil surroundings of the mountains overlooking the city below. The air is cleaner, or at the very least, a lot more lush and the only faint sounds heard are those of birds and large insects chirping. Along the way I come across a giant ass spider (seen in the photo below), some equally large caterpillars and two Taiwanese women who start up a conversation in English with me, which eventually morphs into a free English lesson. I am hoping to hit up all the trails in the city, which, according to my map, includes at least 20.
My final tourist moment of the week was a trip to Taipei 101, the massive edifice that can be seen pretty much anywhere in the city. The 101 is currently the world’s tallest building although once Dubai’s Burj mega-building is completed Taipei will forfeit this fairly meaningless title.
From an engineering standpoint the skyscraper is a modern marvel (after all the Taiwanese were able to successfully build the tallest building in a region known for its Typhoons and Earthquakes). The building has a large spherical tuned mass damper suspended from the 92nd to the 88th floor that acts as a pendulum and balances the building during high-winds or earthquake tremors. They say it is the world’s most stable building.
The building’s inside is fairly underwhelming mainly housing various offices. On the ground floors there is a run-of-the-mill shopping mall, a number of high-end restaurants (one which curiously uses Picasso’s Guernica painting as its welcome emblem) and a massive global food court.
The Taipei 101 Marketplace may be the building’s one impressive feature. The sprawling eatery has just about everything you could imagine and more. Want some spicy Malaysian laksa? Care for some sushi served on a conveyor belt? Even the grocery store had an array of international goodies ranging from New Zealand packaged meat to a Korean kimchi bar.
The area surrounding the 101 is definitely Taipei’s wealthiest borough and was worth a walk-through but is forgettable compared to the city’s smaller neighborhoods. Taipei 101 is one of those tourist trips that all must take at some point. Do I see myself going back to the area any time soon? Probably not, in case, of course, I’m in desperate need of a Versace suit.
Up next, do the Taiwanese like dogs? Also, more adventures in Taipei’s culinary underbelly, more Canadians, and an examination of bubble tea.
Until next time, your teaching extraordinaire and scooter enthusiast. Keep On Keeping On