Saturday, December 27, 2008

This Taiwanese Childhood

For those of you who have noticed the absence of a real post over the past month or so (I know at least three people who actually read this regularly), I apologize.  There are, of course, the usual excuses--the holidays, field trips, and family visits--but in addition to all that fun, I have been hard at work.  I am in the midst of a frantic attempt to complete a graduate school application.  The biggest commitment siphoning away my time as of late, however, has been my stint coaching a team of students to compete in the Kaohsiung Rotary Storytelling Competition (from hereon referred to as The SC).

Like so many things in Taiwan (lunch dates that become daytrips, sports days that include discomfort-inducing bellydancing performances), The SC involves more than the name implies.   Groups of 1-5 students must recite a 7-minute story in English from memory on a given theme before a panel of judges.  This year's theme was "Making Your Dreams Come True!"  Oh! But there's more!  Costumes, props, songs, dances and background music are not prohibited, which means they're implicitly expected!  The absence of these elements will probably result in a score of 0 for "Creativity."  Other criteria include "Performance" and "Content," the latter of which accounts for a whopping 50% of the total score.  The enormous weight put on this final element means that teachers are also being graded in this competition, since few schools would risk "losing face" by allowing their students to write the story.  

Clearly, the whole affair thrills me to tears.  Taiwanese kids, after all, have so much free time on their hands.  Surely we wouldn't want the children here to twiddle their thumbs during those wide-open hours between the 7am-4pm schoolday and their afterschool+weekend cram school classes.  It disgusts me to see those lazy 8 year-olds leaving the Hess English School near my apartment at 10 pm.  How should we teach these kids better discipline?  I know!  By making them memorize 7 minute speeches in a foreign language!  That'll whip 'em into shape.  

Now, I'm not against academic competition.  I recognize that this is a good opportunity for these kids to practice speaking English.  Heck, some of the kids who performed their stories even looked like they were having fun!  At the same time, the kids here are already under so much pressure.  The star of my SC also happens to be the smartest kid in school and the point guard of our championship-winning basketball team.  The basketball coach tried to make her skip our morning practices so she could attend his.  "She's our point guard, and she only comes to 2/5 weekly practices since she has so much else going on," he argued.  

"We only have one more week," Shu-ting pleaded.  "You can have her back after Saturday."  He finally relented.

The most infuriating part of all this, however, is that Shu-ting and I were forced to particpate with only 2.5 weeks left before the competition.  We successfully managed to avoid the Reader's Theater (RT) competition held by the Bureau of Education only one month before.  Only a few weeks ago, I laughed at my stressed-out roommates as they wrote stories about hip-hop dancing  hippos and trash-picking pandas for their wealthy, uber-competitive downtwon schools.  Two weeks later, my Academic Dean called Shu-ting and I to inform us that the Bureau had specially requested us to participate.  Since most other schools already participated in RT only one month ago, few schools registered for The ST.  They were burned out from RT.  The contest was being organized by an outside group.  Worst of all, the prizes for winning were insignificat--a few book coupons and a stack of certificates of participation.  

I suspect were were chosen as the affirmative action candidate.  Xiaogang District, where my school is located, is the poorest district of Kaohsiung City.  Technically, it's not even in the city; it's an industrial suburb whose industries have mostly moved to Mainland China.  No other schools from our district signed up for the competition, making me believe that the Bureau just wanted some representation to balance out the rich schools from the downtown area and northern suburbs.  

So, with two weeks to go before showtime, I wrote a story (and made it rhyme since apparently I, too, would be graded), recorded practice CDs and constructed turtle signs out of scrap paper.  My kids gave up lunch breaks, study halls, basketball practices and precious free time to memorize the script, practice their pronunciation and learn to perform before an audience (the other schools already knew how to do this from participating in RT).  In the days leading up to the competition, I became increasingly nervous.  Winning didn't concern me, but I feared that my kids would see the other schools who had so many advantages--competition experience, more money for private English tutors, extra prep time, and even teammates who previously had lived in the US--and feel badly.

But our seven minutes came and went, and I couldn't be more proud.  True, there were forgotten lines here and there and I'm not sure how we looked compared to the team before us, who prepared full animal costumes, 2 songs, a dance, and confetti.  Needless to say, we didn't place.  Then again, I don't really care.  My kids worked hard and seemed satisfied with their overall performance.  And if that's not enough, at least we weren't the group that told "The Story of Helen Keller."  (They were being coached by a nun.  Are you surprised?)

The best part of my day was going to McDonalds to celebrate after our performance.  We ate too much ice cream and stuffed french fries in our upper lips to imitate vampires.  I pretended to get mad at the who boy who trespassed into the McPlayplace, despite the fact that his height clearly surpassed the maximum limit.  They saw through my act and we laughed. A lot.  And for a brief moment, I almost believed that a Taiwanese childhood wasn't so different from my American childhood after all.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Distractions Part 2

This reminds me of many people--a former roommate, a current colleague, and so many more.  I'd write my own review, but Sasha Frere Jones, pop music critic for The New Yorker,  just does such a good job...


Watching this video, you will wonder, briefly, if Chris Dane Owens “means it.” This is an ungenerous thought—dismiss it. You may also wonder why “Shine On Me” is modelled on early ABC and Spandau Ballet and padded out with an unnecessary layer of loud guitars. Irrelevant. What you need to know is that Mr. Owens will live forever—until the dragons rule the earth again (or the first time, whatever)—and that you are going to watch this video more times than you can imagine. You may dream of this video, but the dream won’t be as good because it won’t be this video.


I've cleared my entire afternoon and evening in order to work on my personal statement.  It's currently 11 pm, and I have made negative progress--I've added nothing, but deleted plenty. 

I have, however, caught up on some reading, and then some.  I have also decided that this is my favorite piece of writing from this year:

From "Animal Tales" by Simon Rich. Published in the June 30 issue of The New Yorker:


“Hey, look, the truck’s stopping.”

“Did they take us to the park this time?”

“No—it’s a fire. Another horrible fire.”

“What the hell is wrong with these people?”

Here's to productivity!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas

I hope it's not wrong for me to feel homesick on Christmas, because I do. I'm currently at work because Christmas isn't a real holiday in Taiwan. No one has commented on my ugly holiday sweater, which means they just think I have terrible taste. I mean, it's kind of true, but nobody's fashion sense is THIS TERRIBLE!

I just reread an email from a professor describing the huge pile of snow most of you can probably see from your window. Now I feel a little sad. Talking to Taiwanese people about snow seems pointless-most of them haven't experienced it and waste their puffy down jackets on 60 degree weather. It seems fitting that the version of "White Christmas" we play over the loudspeakers every morning replaces all the words with animal noises.

That being said, the upside to missing friends and family is that at least there are friends and family to miss. Merry Christmas to all of you! Have a happy new year!

Monday, December 22, 2008


Survived my first tremor today around 8:10 am. Have you ever seen the entire room shake before? It reminded me of that N*SYNC video where they're in a rotating box, except with more screaming children and the threat of lights dropping on my head. None of them got under desks or held up books or anything like that--they just held each other and screeched. Well, some of the little boys yelled, "Do it again! Do it again!"

Shouldn't they have drills for these things?

Cute or Cruel?

The best thing I've purchased all year...

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The News in Taiwan!

Two newsworthy events from this week:

1. Direct daily flights between Mainland China and Taiwan began on Monday! (Take that, Chen Shui-bian, you old bastard!)

2. "Man Who Snatched Wig Will Have Toupee" (!!) Thanks to my roommate Katie for finding this one.

**BONUS ARTICLE: Did you know that adultery is illegal in South Korea?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Recommended Reading

I'm supposed to be writing a personal statement for graduate school, which means I won't allow myself to write the promised post about the Cape No. 7 Tour or read a real novel. Which means I've been reading a lot of magazines in order to pretend like I'm not procrastinating that much. This is my favorite thing I've read in a long time. Enjoy!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

All I Want For Christmas Is....

subscriptions to monthly magazines. Lots and lots of subscriptions. Not that I actually expect anything since everyone who reads this blog is probably as poor as I am....

But for everyone else who requires a holiday gift of some sort, Roy Blount Jr., president of the Author's Guild, has a suggestion:

I've been talking to booksellers lately who report that times are hard. And local booksellers aren't known for vast reserves of capital, so a serious dip in sales can be devastating. Booksellers don't lose enough money, however, to receive congressional attention. A government bailout isn't in the cards.

We don't want bookstores to die. Authors need them, and so do neighborhoods. So let's mount a book-buying splurge. Get your friends together, go to your local bookstore and have a book-buying party. Buy the rest of your Christmas presents, but that's just for starters. Clear out the mysteries, wrap up the histories, beam up the science fiction! Round up the westerns, go crazy for self-help, say yes to the university press books! Get a load of those coffee-table books, fatten up on slim volumes of verse, and take a chance on romance!

There will be birthdays in the next twelve months; books keep well; they're easy to wrap: buy those books now. Buy replacements for any books looking raggedy on your shelves. Stockpile children's books as gifts for friends who look like they may eventually give birth. Hold off on the flat-screen TV and the GPS (they'll be cheaper after Christmas) and buy many, many books. Then tell the grateful booksellers, who by this time will be hanging onto your legs begging you to stay and live with their cat in the stockroom: "Got to move on, folks. Got some books to write now. You see...we're the Authors Guild."

Enjoy the holidays.

Roy Blount Jr.
Authors Guild

The Guild's staff informs me that many of you are writing to ask whether you can forward and post my holiday message encouraging orgiastic book-buying. Yes! Forward! Yes! Post! Sound the clarion call to every corner of the Internet: Hang in there, bookstores! We're coming! And we're coming to buy! To buy what? To buy books! Gimme a B! B! Gimme an O! O! Gimme another O! Another O! Gimme a K! K! Gimme an S! F! No, not an F, an S. We're spelling BOOKS!

Stolen from James Fallows's blog. Now pick up your wallets and go!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Vanity Vanity Tooth Insanity

I was born with beautiful teeth. They're white and they're straight without the help of braces. My dental hygiene regimen borders on neurotic--I floss daily, brush twice a day, use listerine every night, and even wear a nightguard to protect them against nighttime grinding.

The only flaw: they're deeply grooved and therefore prone to cavities. According to my dentist, it's not my fault--the bristles of my toothbrush simply can't fit in these narrow valleys.

Today I went to the dentist for the first time in Taiwan. Apparently I have not one, not two, not three, but SIX CAVITIES! SIX! They're small, and apparently "not [my] fault" but still, six!

At least dental care is covered by our nationalized healthcare. My co-payment today was 100 NTD, or roughly $3 USD. Which is good because they only filled half of the cavities today.

3 down, 3 to go....

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Under Construction

The official Cape No. 7 Post commemorating the official Cape No. 7 Tour is currently in progress. The event was so monumentally Taiwanese that I'll need a few more days to really capture it in words.

Until then, it's worth mentioning that the children who came along made the trip undeniably awesome. Check out this video. Check out those elephant pants!

On a related note, I'd like to point out that if I were a 10 year-old girl, I would totally have a crush on Roy, the oldest son of my school's Dean of Student Affairs (pictured below on the left). He has Gap model good looks and is well dressed to boot (thanks to his mother). He thinks metal is sweet and easy listening is boring. When he throws rocks into the ocean, they go really far. He's nice to his little brother. His handwriting is especially tidy. A veritable dreamboat for Taiwanese elementary school girls.

Monday, December 8, 2008

This would totally happen in Taiwan

Oh, Asia!

(also from the BBC)

Man killed for 'hogging karaoke'

A Malaysian man has been stabbed to death for refusing to stop singing and hand over the microphone at a karaoke bar, police say.

From the BBC: Getting High on HIV Drugs

Alka Marwaha
BBC News

A child with HIV takes her medicine
The drugs are being crushed and then smoked

Anti-retroviral drugs used to treat HIV/Aids are being bought and smoked by teenagers in South Africa to get high.

Reports suggest that the drugs are being sold by patients and even healthcare staff for money.

Schoolchildren have been spotted smoking the drugs, which are ground into powder and sometimes mixed with painkillers or marijuana.

Aids patients themselves have been found smoking the drugs instead of taking them as prescribed.
Didn't see that one coming...

Apple Bottom Jeanzzzzzz

At the night market near my apartment, something hideously fur-lined (including but not limited to BOOTS!) lurks around every corner.

When I return to the US, my suitcase will be full of poached stuffed animalz.

Photos to come. That's a guarantee!

Sunday, December 7, 2008


Also found at Kansai International Airport (thank you, Ben Isaac!):

Look carefully at the corner of that shelf


Jesse Ventura + Adolf Hitler

**ok, he was actually seen in Switzerland. But imagine if these things came together in the Osaka airport...

"Pump Up The Volume" from Jock Jams would make like an appropriate soundtrack choice.


image from

My first trip to a hot spring (in Pingdong County, that's the southernmost part of Taiwan, folks) involved dipping my feet into a pool of goldfish and letting them nibble the dead skin off my feet. Being eaten alive by worms would probably produce the same tickling sensation. The man sitting next to me attracted no goldfish, while a great cloud of orange fins grew at my feet. Is there something wrong with me?

Hot springs are one of those things that you're supposed to love about Taiwan, but I think I'll pass in the future. I'm not sure how I imagined it would be, but it closely resembled a swimming pool minus the chlorine smell which would have assured me of its sanitariness.

On a related note, I also was not crazy about the:
-slimy tiles lining the inside of the pool (related to the sanitation issue)
-required swim cap rule (though I should probably appreciate this)

Friday, December 5, 2008

Lost in Trasit

In the airport terminal, you're neither here nor there, held in some in-between land designed to disorient. Osaka, Japan's Kansai International Airport feels like a space station. All things within its curved ceilings come perfectly illuminated and uniformly cast in colored plastic.

The facility also contains many mini things like tiny hand dryers (for this small-handed nation) and astronaut-appropriate food sources.

On the Sunday afternoon after Thanksgiving, I stopped in the Detroit International Airport, where I have spent every Sunday after Thanksgiving for the past four years. The experience never changes from year to year--the same trilingual announcements (English, Japanese, Chinese), the same lazy people taking the tram to their departure gates, the same IN-HOUSE TIME WARP!

Except this year, my layover lasted for 3.5 hours, giving me enough time to walk past all 128 gates twice and buy $30 worth of American magazines, which seems extremely decadent when you realize that's about 1000 NTD. Esquire Magazine, I hope you're worth it.