Saturday, August 30, 2008

Oh, Nostalgia!

Sweet Providence, how I miss thee!

Sweet, Sweet Victory

A few days ago, I mentioned that my roommates and I placed a little bet where the person who could correctly guess the most co-teacher matches would receive a McDonald's McFlurry from each of the three losing roommates. Well, Dan, Katie and I came through with our promise--and here's proof:

Happy Sunday (happy sundae?)!

Friday, August 29, 2008

VPILF? For serious.

image from

Being a 12 timezones away from the US means that I find out about everything way after you all do (unless it's Chen Shuibian's money-laundering--then I'm first in line!) Like McCain's Vice Presidential Pick--I found out after getting home at 1am (1pm your time)...then promptly passed out on my tatami mat while the rest of you were Googling your fingers off. Then again, at least I didn't find out like this.

You've all read the Sarah Palin commentary on the NYTimes, Slate, WSJ, or whatever it is you read regularly. But have you read If you're drinking anything, be sure to swallow before clicking that link.

Sometimes the internet is just too good to be true.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

QiGong--Keeping us 22 years-old Forever

Ok, I know that Power Rangers in Space doesn't have anything to do with QiGong, a traditional Chinese spiritual practice, but I simply can't find anything that sufficiently captures my experience at QiGong class today.

We (my flatmates, another ETA Gered, and I) were invited to the class by a local friend's mother who promised that the practice would preserve us at whatever age we were when we started the practice. We were also told that it would hurt a lot but not actually be strenuous. The woman warned us against eating anything before going to QiGong class. She also claimed that when we left class, we would be so full of qi (roughly translated as spiritual energy) that we wouldn't need to eat. These promises seemed somewhat far-fetched, but we were curious about a practice that wasn't strenuous but extremely painful. Also, the promise of staying 22 for eternity was too good to pass up...

Due to the language barrier between us and Jane (the woman who invited us), it was never completely clear what exactly QiGong was before we showed up at the class. Nor did we know what would be appropriate attire or where the class was. All we knew was that someone (presumably Jane) would pick us up outside the Family Mart at 6:50 pm.

So we showed up outside Family Mart and Dani called Jane to ask what we should do next. All of the sudden, a man none of us have seen before ran up to Dan and excited yelled "Daniel! Daniel!" while stretching his arms towards the sky and lowering them several times (Dan later said, "I don't know why I nodded and said "Yes! Yes!" when this strange man ran up to me yelling my name, but I'm glad it happened). The man opened the door of a black SUV and we piled in--6 of us for 4 seats. Somehow I ended up stretched across Dan and Gered's laps--and I definitely didn't ask if it was ok first--while Katie perched on Dani's lap. We bumped along for several blocks until we pulled up in front of a community center hidden behind a fruit stand.

As it turns out, QiGong class is sort of like yoga class, except with a few key differences. Most notably, most yoga studios have a gentle, quiet atmosphere with soft lighting and warm-colored wood floors. The QiGong class definitely took place in a room that made me feel like I was being dissected for science class. There was bright fluorescent lighting, made more intense by the shiny white-tiled floors and stark white walls. We also did our exercises on shiny silver mats that looked like spacesuit material (hence the Power Ranger video).

Our instructor was also not like any of the yoga instructors I've had in the past. My previous yoga teachers have all been female, spoken in soft voices and emphasized that we should challenge ourselves but know our limits. "Do what you can," "feel your arms stretching towards the sky. Breathe deeply, let go of your troubles," or "feel your inner beauty" they always say. This instructor was a 45 year-old guy who liked to show off how young he was by doing crazy headstands and the splits and getting the older members of the group to do crazy QiGong stunts like headstands and the splits. He barked his instructions ("Lift your leg into the air! Now the left one!) and kept coming by to tell me that if I did this or that pose, I would be prettier. He told one of my flatmates that her body was unhealthy but QiGong would fix it. He also didn't seem to believe in limits--Dan was having trouble laying flat on the ground with his legs bent, knees together and heels pressed against his thighs. The instructor kept telling him to "RELAX!" and Dan kept saying, "I am relaxed, but I'm also in excruciating pain. I don't think I can do this" and the instructor kept pushing. It was a strange 2 hours indeed.

In spite of the fact that the class was strange and at times ridiculous, I would highly recommend it. I felt great when I walked out, and it's true that there were some young, fit-looking 58 year olds in the room who could do cool things like balance on their heads while holding their legs in the air in a perfect straddle. I'm really looking forward to being 22 for the rest of my life!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Results are In!

Well, I didn't win the McFlurry contest, but I did get paired with an awesome teacher! Her name is Shu-ting Yu ("My name is pronounced Shu-ting, like shooting star," she explained the first time we met, "but when you put it with my last name, it sounds like 'Shooting you!' But don't worry--I will not shoot you!")

After the co-teaching pairs were unveiled this morning, we all got lunch and sang karaoke for 3.5 hours as an ice-breaker. And Shu-ting knew all the words to this song:

Even for a native Chinese speaker, this is no small feat. It's starting to look like an excellent school year!

Monday, August 25, 2008

Speed Dating

My fellow Fulbright ETAs and I have been Speed Dating with the Local English Teachers (LETs) for the past week or so, trying to find our perfect co-teaching match. Today was our last day of madness with a harrowing, 2 hour, 12-round speed dating session with all of the LETs before ranking our final choices.

I must admit, the whole ordeal has made us super-competitive. There are a few teachers who probably topped everyone's list and a few who ended up at the bottom of everyone's list. It feels like a big popularity contest--those of us ETAs who are more well-liked will probably get our top picks, while those of us who made a less-favorable impression (which is different from a bad impression) will have to make the most of their matches.

In short, there are 12 neurotic, competitive, over-achieving recent college grads anxiously awaiting the results of the matching process. To make matters worse, we just received the following email from Dr. Phillip Elliot (aka Dr. Phil), our program adviser:

Dear all,

Amanda, Chris and I finished matching you with your LET(s) at about 8:40pm this evening. Joy joined us as well, for dinner and discussion.
We hope the matching will be acceptable to you. We will inform you of the results tomorrow morning at 11am at San Min.

Dr. Phil

Now you may be asking yourself, Why don't they just tell you your matches over email? Yeah, I've been wondering that myself. I hope this means we'll find out about our matches by having our co-teachers pop out of individual cakes or something like that. But I try not to hope for too many things.

To add to the suspense, my flatmates and I are playing a game: we each made a list of who we think will be matched with whom. 1 point for each correct match, and 5 points for correctly guessing who will be matched with a teacher we'll call Mildred, the perceived least-favorite of the bunch. The four of us have agreed not to open our guessing lists until after the coordinators reveal the matches and we eat lunch and sing karaoke to celebrate the upcoming year of teaching. (If you think this sounds like a really "Asian" thing to do, you're correct--in approximately 12 hours, I will be in Asia, singing an off-key duet with my new co-worker.) The three losers each will buy the winner a McDonald's Caramel McFlurry, all in one glorious, gluttonous trip to everyone's favorite slice of Americana. Hopefully hilarity (or tons of vomit) will ensue.

Stay tuned for contest results and possibly some terrible KTV MP3's, if you're lucky.

--The Chao

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Abortion Laws and Lies in South Dakota

If you don't already read Slate Magazine, a daily web-mag that covers news, politics, and culture, on a regular basis, I'd suggest you check it out. That is, in lieu of writing a real entry about someting in Taiwan, I'm redirecting you to this article on Slate about a South Dakota law that requires doctors who perform abortions to lie about "increased risk of suicide" (it's not scientifically proven that this is true) to their patients.

Happy reading!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Panda Eats, Shoots and Leaves

It was the best of days, it was the worst of days. I won't get too far into the bad stuff because apparently people can get in trouble for what they post on the internet, but it has all the elements of great literature: youthful strangers in a strange land, local politicking behind closed doors, racism, culture clash and tears--throw in an extramarital affair and we'd be all set.

And onto the good stuff: the 12 Kaohsiung Fulbright ETAs (that's English Teaching Assistants) will visit each of the 13 elementary schools where we could be placed by the end of Thursday. *aside: The process of placing us with an LET (Local English Teacher) also involves "speed dating" where the ETAs form an inner circle and the LETs form an outer circle and we rotate every minute until we meet all of our potential co-teachers. Why the foundation has decided to adopt such an awkward environment for social interaction is beyond my comprehension, but it's kind of funny so whatever.* We visited the first three schools today, and they made great efforts to woo us into making them our first choice school. A teacher at the first school argued that their school had the nicest facilities since it was only built 6 years ago AND tried to set me up with the national badminton champion gym teacher (you may think I'm joking... I wish you were right). At the second school, the principal boasted that his school was the oldest AND bought us bottled water and a laundry basket full of dragon eye fruit. The third school bought us iced coffee--a welcome treat on a searingly hot day.

And when we arrived at a fourth school (also a potential work site though not part of the day's official school tour) for a conference, the principal gave us buttons that he picked up in Beijing the previous week. Here's the one I chose:

Here's to a new tomorrow, hopefully one with more gunslinging pandas and fewer unpleasant encounters with messy, hidden politics. Cheers!

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Gates of Hell are Wide Open!!

Ghost month offerings outside my apartment complex. Offerings are made at temples, schools, stores, banks, residences and just about everywhere else around here.

Happy Ghost Month, everyone! According to Daoist tradition, the gates of hell open this (lunar) month to let the ghosts of dead relatives visit their families. On the first day, middle, and end of the month, people make offerings for the ghosts' safe passage into this world. The time is ripe for the mid-month offerings, and I've been privileged enough to witness and/or participate in the following Ghost Month ceremonies:

1. The first time I encountered this holiday was at the school where the Fulbright office is located, Sanmin Elementary School. The school principal, Principal Lin, brought us down to give offerings to the school ghost (who knew we had one?) while she prayed for us to become healthier, smarter, and more beautiful with each passing day (her wishes for us, not mine though I'm not opposed to either of these things). We learned to properly pray to the ghost, or bai, which involved holding a stick in incense between two hands and bowing three times. Then the principal instructed us to leave the incense in the food offerings. Each food represents a different wish for the school, though I can only remember that apples represent peace since they're called pingguo in Chinese which sounds like ping'an, the Chinese word for peace. Like a good liberal, I left my incense in the apples...

2. The next day, three of my friends and I encountered another offering ceremony outside a temple while rooting around the city for food. Technically, we encountered many offerings, since most stores will have a small bonfire to burn symbolic money for the ghosts. The ceremony of note, however, was huge. Unfortunately none of us had cameras with us, and it would probably be rude to photograph an actual religious ceremony. They set up a tent that took up half of the 2-lane street with tables full of food and made a huge bonfire in the middle of an intersection to burn a gigantic pile of symbolic money. Seriously, the pile of money was as big as a couch.

This is not a photo of the giant pile of money. It's a small pile from the ceremony outside my apartment. I just wanted to assure the more financially conscious that Taiwanese people aren't actually burning real money in a time of economic crisis (or ever).

We stood on the other side of the street and watched as they chanted, lifting and lowering their arms in unison. When they finally noticed us standing there, they gave us little red slips of paper saying it would bring us good luck. We folded them and slipped them into our pockets. They fed us a sweet, cold soup that tasted like licorice and was unbearable after the first 3 bites, but we finished it anyway because we were guests and leaving scraps seemed rude.

3. More of the same went down in the lobby of my apartment, except apparently the apartment ghost has a taste for American food....

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Greetings from Taiwan!

Photo courtesy of Shiela Lee,
Dajia hao (translation: "Hello everyone!")! I've been telling myself that I would start blogging after I've settled in, and then in true Chao fashion, I put it off. Today I ran out of socks which means I'm probably pretty settled in. And now I'll try a little harder to live up to my blog name.

I'm spending the year in Kaohsiung Taiwan on a Fulbright Fellowship to serve as an English Teaching Assistant with the Kaohsiung City Education Bureau. This means I'm not a lead teacher, but a co-teacher with a local English teacher (you know, someone with real teaching experience and training). In addition to teaching kids proper grammar and pronunciation, I am to serve as a "cultural ambassador" (note: I assure you that the term came from the Fulbright Foundation, not from me)--for some of these kids, I'll be their first encounter with a real American person.

Kaohsiung has made a huge push for earlier English as a Foreign Language instruction in recent years. It's partly in rivalry with Taipei--wikipedia describes Kaohsiung as the "political mirror image" of the capital in the north--and all the taxi drivers keep thanking me for coming to teach English so they can be as good as Taipei. Part of the increased interest in English language is also wrapped up in Kaohsiung's attempts to become a part of the international community. This July, the city will host the 2009 World Games and everyone who is not worried about high school or college entrance exams is really excited. I think they see this as their big coming out party, similar to the way Beijing felt about this year's Olympics, and they want to make a good impression by speaking English really well.

I also get the sense that a change in educational philosophy is emerging--at least among the administration. The school officials who spoke to us said they wanted us to inspire their students to be more creative. They seem disillusioned with the Taiwanese educational system's heavy emphasis on rote memorization and testing and warn us that we may have trouble engaging kids because they're more worried about getting the right answer on exams than thinking about English as a means of communication. They also, however, take great pride in joking that "in Taiwan, we want our kids to focus less on testing so they will become more creative like american students. In America, they want their kids to do better on tests so they can compete with Taiwan." Somehow, it only makes me laugh a little.