I’m cold. It has gone down to a wintry 12C here in Taiwan, and the locals have broken out their down jackets. I’ve become a hothouse flower. I haven’t lost the Canadian habit of consulting the weather at every opportunity, but it is mostly a fruitless exercise: 18-25C with no rain. The main question of the day is whether to wear a tank top or a t-shirt. The Taiwanese grandmas–arbiters of all things–are starting to frown at me for allowing my kids out in t-shirts when the locals are in parkas and mittens.
There can be wind: right on the western shore, Hsinchu is known for its noodles (regions here are distinguished by their food specialties). You need wind to dry noodles. Unlike other parts of the country, where the greeting to friends is ‘Have you eaten?’ here the salutation is, ‘How many umbrellas did you ruin today?’
Umbrella destruction is an issue here: the only break in the unrelentingly cheerful weather are the typhoons, two of which we have lived through. The first was a bust: we battened down the hatches, charged up the computers, laid in stores of the endless varieties of noodles available here. And nothing happened. The storm slipped by us to terrorize Japan.
The next time we were not so lucky: the storm went right over the island. We huddled, wide-eyed, in our 8th-floor apartment as the wind screamed around us. It rattled the windows so hard one blew open. Within seconds the curtains had flown away and the living room was drenched.
Though our weeks are full of school, we faithfully explore the country on the weekends. Taiwan’s flat coastal areas are densely populated with cities and rice paddies. But the central spine of steep mountains hosts deep, forested valleys occupied by succeeding generations of aboriginal groups pushed inward by the next invaders. We have sweated up many a set of steps to the temples at the top.
In Switzerland when you thought you had reached splendid isolation, you turned a corner to find a restaurant on the top of the mountain. Here you find a shrine.
Shortly after our typhoon we travelled inland to Wulai, a town known for its hot springs. The springs enter the main river at the bottom of the valley. Dozens of small hotels piped the spring water into their baths.
But the typhoon had stormed up the valley, raising the level of the river by 20 feet, carrying off everything in its path, and ripping the pipes into spaghetti. The hotels were gutted. We found ourselves engaging in disaster tourism.
The communal hot springs was located at the water’s edge in the path of the boulders and trees that swept down the valley. Even though it had been scoured out, the townsfolk had built it out of concrete to withstand this sort of thing, and they already had it up and running. No sooner had we appeared on their doorstep than they had taken us in hand, instructing us on the strict rules governing cleanliness in a public bathing situation.
We had chosen the locations of several of our treks into the mountains based on the possibility of seeing monkeys. In my experience with wildlife, the harder you look for them, the less likely you are to find them. So I had long given up any hope of seeing the island’s macaques. We were enjoying the south’s wild, uplifted reef caverns and formations when we looked up to see an entire troop of macaques settling in for the evening: giant humpback males, tiny babies flying through the air like squirrels. They are so human in their gestures and expressions, you can Jane Goodall them for hours.
Great Moments in Cultural Inappropriateness:
Finding our way around a very different culture and language has not been easy. For example, my Canadian notions of equality means I routinely mess up the fine gradations of hierarchy here. As a teacher I am respected by traditional Taiwanese lower on the totem pole. Therefore they bow low when we meet. But I automatically mimic whoever is bowing to me. As a result, I bow lowest to the cleaning staff at the school, and rudely nod to the school headmistress or the head of Scott’s chemistry department, to whom I am to incline. Sigh. But I am now great friends with the caretakers at the school!
The politics are another minefield. There is a teachers’ room for part-time teachers such as myself at Pacific American School. My go-to person for all things Chinese is Cynthia, the 7th-grade algebra teacher who studied in Texas and takes Spanish classes for recreation. She gently guides me away from my most egregious errors, such as the mistake of referring to anything but the language as ‘Chinese.’ They are Taiwanese.
To my crass inquiry as to why Taiwan insists on annoying China by calling itself the Republic of China when the rest of the world refers to it as Taiwan, she replied, “But we have been the Republic of China for a long time.” She is not referring to the years since they were kicked off the mainland. The Chinese of Taiwan see themselves as the guardians of classical Chinese culture and traditions, as opposed to their revolutionary brethren across the water.
Not that the Taiwanese are unafraid of adopting new traditions: their Moon Festival, in late September, has become a BBQ fest, where entire apartment buildings empty out to roast meats in aluminum foil hibachis on the sidewalk. The resulting haze took days to dissipate.
When Scott suggested they BBQ communists on 10-10, Taiwan’s National Day on Oct 10, he was met with blank looks. Apparently they don’t even bother to get the missiles out anymore, settling for dancing fruit in front of the parliament buildings.
But our finest moment in cultural obtuseness occurred, appropriately enough, at Taiwan’s Forbidden Palace Museum. Here repose all the treasures the Kuomintang could carry out of China while fleeing Mao’s revolution. The Museum is an exercise in humiliation for a westerner: in a room devoted to timelines, the Chinese abilities in astronomy, pottery, writing, and enameling are depicted for the last 5000-odd years. Long after the Chinese were telling time from the stars, shooting off fireworks and eating off gorgeous china, there is a notation about the first, thumb-printed primitive pot from Europe’s early Beaker people.
The West’s cultural backwardness continues to this day: after viewing endless gorgeous treasures at the museum, we waited in a Disneyland-scale line to be ushered into the room of supreme cultural artifacts. There we were hurried past a tiny case containing…. the Sacred Jade Pork and Cabbage.
Scott and I managed to contain our mirth until we were out of earshot, but the kids were more honest: “why is a tiny piece of jade that looks like a piece of pork, and the one that looks like Chinese cabbage, so important, mommy?”
It is not that the sacred jade wasn’t cool, or that the sculptor who could see that it could resemble a cabbage wasn’t talented. But we had seen 5000-pound beds and model sailing-ships the size of a room carved out of jade. Why were these small pieces so special?
Such moments of Chinese inscrutability continue: when I came to Taiwan, I intended to learn the Chinese language, Chinese cooking and flower painting, and Tai Chi. Instead teaching English has taken much of my time. But I did manage to locate a Tai Chi class at the university.
In the west Tai Chi is taught like yoga, as a means of health and relaxation. Here it is a martial art. As someone who did a TV episode devoted to revealing the tricks of filming martial arts fighting, I have never put much stock in such abilities. So it was a bit of a shock to be asked to try and dislodge a tiny Chinese man (as the large western female, I am the source of considerable amusement). Of course he proved immovable as a rock, until the Tai Chi Master threw him into a wall with one finger.
This Fearless Leader is straight out of central casting, including the 5-inch long hairs growing from the mole in his chin. My colleague Cynthia explained that these are encouraged as a sign of good fortune. At moments like these you feel a long way away from home.
Tai Chi has been useful in helping me relax from the stress of teaching English at Pacific American School. I had begun to settle in teaching grade 1 and 2. These kids were rowdy and unable to sit still, but they were cheerful and engaged.
I discovered I had committed yet another faux pas when I wound up surrounded by these kid’s uber-achieving fathers at the parent teacher meetings. They could not understand why their children had not gotten As. Apparently expectations here are very different from the west, where everyone starts out with Bs, and then spreads out over the next few years of school.
These parental expectations of excellence also lead to desperation on the part of students in the higher grades, as I discovered when I was abruptly ripped from my little guys and put in charge of the English of Grade 8 and 10. (This school has ruined me for private schools, I think. These parents are paying Ca$25,000/year/student for this education!)
The move was partly to bring in a single teacher for the primary grades, which made sense, and partly to rescue the older classes from an absent teacher. So instead of coasting through the rest of the fall with the babies, I wound up having to take over two high-school courses, with no curriculum, on a week’s notice.
The only advantage I had was that they wanted me to teach narrative writing. This proved more challenging than expected, as these students are adept at memorizing, but find creative writing more difficult. I discovered that my assumption that these kids were here because they were spoiled rich kids wanting to go to university in the west was not completely accurate: some are extremely bright kids who feel that their Taiwanese education system makes them masterful at learning facts, but does not teach them how to think about and use those facts. That is why they want a western-style education.
The other thing that made teaching them difficult was that, in the words of another teacher: “If they can, they will cheat 100 percent of the time.”
So an annoying percentage of my time has been spent in an arms race preventing the students from copying answers, downloading story summaries, etc, instead of thinking and writing for themselves. A zero tolerance policy, and a few really bad grades finally got the point across. These students’ families expect their kids to get A’s, hence the pressure to do well at whatever the cost.
Though I miss my cheerful little guys (who have occasionally disrupted my high school classes by congregating in the door and shouting “Hello Miss Marian!”) the teenagers can be entertaining. As one teacher put it, “You can’t tell a Grade 10 student anything.” They are mostly sullen or shy or exhausted, and expect me to do a song and dance to entertain them.
I have spent a ridiculous amount of time correcting their improper tenses and run-on sentences. In my experience, the only way to really learn to write is to be corrected, so I feel it my duty, onerous as it is. Most English in the Chinese system only requires short-answer memorization of the position of the indirect object, etc. Yuck.
These kids have an amazing ability to memorize. I believe it is rooted in the need to learn Chinese writing. I have come to view Chinese writing in the same way as I perceive the need to preserve French in Quebec. It would be much easier to just use the 26 letters of the Roman alphabet instead of the 30,000 distinct Chinese characters. Most numbers are now written in our script. And many street signs appear in both scripts: it is difficult to imagine how you could read the complicated strokes of Chinese characters as they flash past on a highway. But like French in Quebec, the Chinese script is part of who they are, and worth the extra effort.
My kids think differently, however: like the other students, they are subjected to the daily torture of stuffing yet more Chinese characters into their brains. It is an act of pure memorization, as there is no relationship between the figures and how they sound or what they mean. Herein, I suspect, lies the secret of Chinese memory ability: the teachers are very advanced in their methods of making mental associations as memory aids, for example.
Great Moments in (Mis)Translation
One of the great delights of teaching has been the collection of oddities in the teachers’ room. Among my favourites is the Texan Norman Porter. A white-haired giant always in an all-black suit with an entertaining collection of Disney ties, he uses the “right mixture of fear and humour” to install the vagaries of English grammar into his high school students. He is an utter, old-school hard-ass with his students, who have no clue how lucky they are to get as talented and knowledgeable a teacher. The other teachers shake their heads at being subjected to lively discussions on the proper use of the past perfect tense instead of the American sporting events usually the topic of conversation in the teacher’s lounge.
Porter’s family tree includes the American authors Catherine Anne Porter, and O’Henry (of the chocolate bar). He claims that, like O’Henry, (who became a writer while in jail for embezzlement), many of his antecedents were hung from the family tree. When I introduced him to Scott and mentioned he was a Texan, Porter shot back: “But I have a lawyer!”
It is he who has supplied some of the best examples of the Taiwanese delight of English mis-translation. He observed a large red banner above a department store locker wall, proclaiming ‘Check Your Privates Here!’ I’m convinced they do it deliberately on clothing to obtain cheap sell-offs: my daughter now owns a sweatshirt that proclaims in large, hot pink letters with a teddy bear: “RESTHOO POOIT MA HAPPY (TAKE IT EASY).”
But my favourite mistranslation was supplied by Alice Wei, with whom we had the delight of experiencing the Beitou hot springs when she visited her family in a suburb of Taipei. She described a restaurant menu which translated ‘Jerk Chicken’ as ‘Rude and Unreasonable Chicken!’
Ode to the Squat Toilet (or Too Much Information)
My kids are deeply shocked at encountering the squat toilet. I was forcibly acclimatized on my last trip to this region. Now in Taiwan one has the option to squat or sit. Surprisingly, I find myself choosing the squat toilet again. Not only does nothing touch anything else but your feet, but our bodies evolved to evacuate in this fashion. So things seem to happen easier, and there is often little need for toilet paper. Further, all that squatting and standing is great for your muscles. Just saying.
The sit toilet is often also the handicapped toilet in many bathrooms. Which seems to translate to the older, dignified lady toilet. My kids get some sharp comments if they use it.
The Scooter Redux: Vietnam
Continuing our search for endless summer, we have taken our Christmas vacation in Vietnam, the latest cheap paradise for backpackers. Our little guest house is filled with gardens and towering blond North Europeans (travel anywhere in the world, to its most remote corner, and there will be a German.) Unlike all the mid-20s eye candy strutting down the beach, our guest house seems to attract families from all corners of the world. So my kids have played frisbee with white-haired Danes and bouncy Chinese and svelte Spaniards. Travel has gotten very International, so to speak.
Get off the beach, and this place is straight out of Apocalypse Now: nothing but bamboo and flip flops. At a northern fishing village, we passed two large fishing boats under construction on the shore. The only metal was the propeller, the only tools a metal saw and a tree for a crane. The modern world is very much in evidence though: each house boasts a TV and a scooter. And a cel tower looms over even the most primitive of shanty towns.
There is also a fine disregard for copyright: Scott’s Versace shirt ($2 at the local market) goes very well with his Burberry shorts. The Apple symbol is found everywhere, including carved into the vanity in our hotel room (along with the more traditional lotus flower.)
Both here and in Taiwan, the only means of transport that makes any sense is the scooter. These are omnipresent, and make pedestrian travel exciting: not only are you in constant danger of being hit by one, but the sidewalks are seen as scooter parking zones. And as one amusing Vietnamese postcard put it, when faced with a red traffic light, the Vietnamese scooterist may either: A: Go Through; B: Slow Down and Go Through; or C: Use the Sidewalk. Scooters follow about the same rules as bicycles do in Quebec: they go if they can. The only problem with that is they are by far the vast majority of the vehicles on the road. Crosswalks require a deathwish and chutzpah.
Driving a scooter under these conditions is even more exciting, especially when we wound up making our way through a construction zone with scooters zipping around giant dump trucks, up and over two-feet differences in road level, and past enterprising women setting up market stalls on the new, as yet unfinished, sections of the road. The preponderance of crushed and broken helmets abandoned on the roadside is no comfort either.
Nevertheless, better scooters than cars: one thing I won’t miss is the air pollution in Taiwan: China routinely sends over its best weapon against Taiwanese well-being: days of grey haze.
Initially I laughed at the Taiwanese propensity for wearing face masks. Then I mocked the high-fashion ones. But after scootering around the dust of Vietnam, I now own a fine flowered one from their fish market. This is an overwhelming sensory experience with sharks, frogs, dogs, and every conceivable crustacean on sale, all marinated in scooter exhaust.
Christmas also heralded the arrival of the Morgan Arboretum Phenology calendar, my project last year. I am rather proud!
Now we have a straight shot to NZ: with finals week at school, report cards due, and then packing to leave.
I will write more from down under!
Regards, Marian MacNair