March 10, 2011

April 25, 2010

Taiwandering Episode 1: Taichung (no, that's not how you pronounce it...)

As I believe I've said before (and if I haven't it should be known), organizing a trip on the weekends is like trying to find a Taiwanese man without a ridiculous-looking haircut - it's possible, but takes extreme patience and effort. Between the weather and the general lack of decisiveness among the Travel Buddies, it's amazing that we ever actually go anywhere. Once a decision IS actually made, there is also the problem of figuring out the logistics of getting there, though this is becoming easier now that we are all more familiar with the rails, the cabs, and bus systems. However, we still do a lot of standing around, staring blankly in random directions, sometimes whimpering. Carrie often openly weeps.


So after much stalling, mind-changing, deliberation and debate, we found ourselves on a slow train (as opposed to the High Speed Rail) to Taichung (pronounced Tai-Zong...kind of. At least, that's what is SOUNDS like everyone is saying...I just parrot people now in hopes of not sounding like a total idiot), which is somewhere to the South of Hsinchu and not really famous for anything in particular. It does, however, have over a million people, and thus we all agreed that it should be seen at some point or another. So, on the train we went, the weather slowly improving from dreary to not-as-dreary-but-still-not-sunny as we headed South, the noise from the tracks clinking away and adding rhythm to the ride.


Authors Note: Dear President Obama. Trains are cool. We need more of them in the U.S.A. That is all.


After arriving and figuring out which bus would not get us lost, we hopped on the correct bus and immediately got lost. Apparently we should've gone the OTHER way. Soooo, a ten-minute ride turned into an hour-long tour through the streets of Taichung, which wasn't all bad in the long-run. (Fun Fact: paying on buses is OPTIONAL. At least, this is how we all treated the bus system. No one seemed to notice). Finally, we arrived at our first destination: The National Museum for Weird Art That No One Understands. Haha, not really, but we did see some pretty crazy-looking exhibits that were obviously too deep for my tiny Modernist brain to grasp the meaning of. Carrie, Denise and I played some fun games, including "Name That Art!" ("This is is called 'Blue Square over Red Square'"...."You're full of shit, it's called 'Red Square UNDER Blue Square'") and "How Does It Make You Feel?" ("This one makes me feel anxious and frustrated" or "This one makes me hungry for peanut butter sandwiches cut diagonally with no crust"). Overall, a great experience, and it felt good to do something cultural for a change from our usual routine of...well...killing brain cells.


But I'll get to that shortly...



(getting ready to get lost)



(ostrich with his head in a submarine - makes complete sense)



(me still trying to understand the art I just saw)



(the view from the museum deck)


Next, to the hostel to stash our stuff and then out into the chilly April evening and the Taichung Night Market (it probably has another name...I don't know it). For those who don't know, a Night Market is usually a narrow street lined with shops, street vendors, and about 6 billion Asian people. It is loud and bright and a great place to feel totally OUT of place, but we're all used to that by now so we just go with it. On this particular Night Market outing, the goal was to try every possible food we could, no matter how strange is looked or foul it smelled. Though I can't remember all the delicacies, some of the highlights were:

- stinky tofu

- a corndog (whoa...hold on, don't go too far out of your comfort zone now)

- japanese mini-burgers

- mashed potatoes that tasted like cake batter

- mushroom tempura (tempura is japanese for "dipped in fried batter-y heart-arresting goodness)

- cold squid with mayonnaise (I'd eat anything with mayonnaise on it)

- something that was probably meat covered in some sauces

- corn on a stick!

- watermelon juice


(The Taiwanderers)

(Taichung Night Market - lets play Where's Waldo with the white people!)

(stink tofu...its potency would make it illegal in the States)

(I don't know what Carrie is about to eat...we rarely do, but she'll never learn unless we let her make her own mistakes...)

(is it potato? Is it cake? YES!)

(me and Matt going super-cultural; corn dog. enough said.)

After we all felt full and about to vomit, we went back to the hostel to change and pre-drink (Carrie found an alcoholic beverage called "The Cup" which happened to resemble the plastic urine-sample cups at the doctor's office - only in Taiwan...), then out into what Cynthia described as "the great Taichung Night Life". We found ourselves at a nice little bar/club called "Freedom", which offered an "all you can drink" special for $500 NT ($15 bucks). Mistake. Long story short, after much dancing, sweating, and tequila shots from an unknown girl literally pouring alcohol DIRECTLY into our mouths (I thought once you graduated from college you didn't have to do stuff like this anymore), we made it back to the hostel, but for all I know we teleported through space and time 'cause I couldn't tell you when or how this came to be. All I know is I woke up Sunday morning and the sun was shouting at me.


(our hostel which was more like a hotel)

(trying to get Mike to drink The Cup)


(Mike and Matt, 9 drinks down. It looks like Mike might be hallucinating, and Matt's face was frozen this way for the rest of the night)



(rehydrating, Mike catching the leavins')



(I'm trying to figure out where I am, both immediately and also in Life. I get deep when I drink.)

Another beautiful day to be alive and experience the beauty of Taiw...but first, hold on...I think I'm gonna have to hurl....


(On the next Taiwandering: Taichung Part II: Lonely Planet is full of it...)

April 23, 2010

Team Taiwander: Where Adventures Meet Alcoholism

Ahhh. Allright, well before starting off on our Taiwandering Adventures, I feel like everyone back home should know that yes, I actually DO have friends here. I know. You are shocked. Many probably got the impression, from my first 6 months of blogging, that I spent much of my time meandering the streets aimlessly and playing on the internet in my one-room palace. And while this was true of my first month or so here (which is about how far I got in my previous blogs - don't even get me STARTED on how behind I was/am and will forever be) - I have since made some awesome friends, many of whom will probably even reach "lifelong" status. (Those of you who have already attained this rank, you are aware of the perks that come with such a title; you know, like letting me sleep on your couches and getting to throw multiple goodbye/welcome back parties).


And no, for those who are wondering, none of my good friends/traveling buddies are, in fact, Asians. This is not because I don't like the Taiwanese; in actuality, I have yet to meet a Chinese person who I do not instantly like (with the exception of this dude at the bar who knocked over my guitar and then REFUSED to pick it up...who DOES that?!). It's just that, I guess when you're far away from home, you tend to gravitate toward things that are as familiar as possible. That is why almost all my friends are exactly like me (with a few outliers here and there to prove I'm not completely close-minded): They are all laid-back, enthusiastic, and like to explore. They are tell good stories and like to drink, which in turn makes their stories even better (if not less coherent and lengthier/louder/less based in fact). Most are Midwestern or Canadian, and while being Canadian is never to be viewed as a positive affliction, the Canuckleheads are generally chilled out, which lumps them in with the rest of the Midwest mentality. They are all good people.


SO, without further adieu, meet the players:


Team Taiwander

Starring:


(don't worry Reefer Madness fans, it's a tobacco hooka)

Michael John

Aliases: Mike, George Michael, Serg (or is it "Surge" like the drink? Whatever happened to that drink, anyway? Didn't they discover it actually contained pure crack-cocaine or something? Is that why those people did all that crazy shit in the commercials?)

Hometown: Lansing, Michigan (Midwest represent)

Biography: Mike is known for his ability to dance better than any person I have EVER seen (and by "better" I mean that everyone who sees him says "oh my God! WHAT is that guy DOING?!?! AWESOME!"), his propensity for wearing neon, and his enthusiasm that rivals most five-year olds when their Ritalin prescription runs out. Oh, and he sweats. A LOT.

Authors Note: Dude is my best bud in Taiwan...until he gets hammered. Then I want to kill him. But in a good way.


Denise Ritchie

Alias: Menace

Hometown: Canada (that's right, all Canadians just live in 'Canada'. Are there even real cities in Canada? I thought everyone just lived on frozen lakes and occasionally spoke French in between confused-sounding blurts of "eh? EH?")

Biography: Denise is probably the girl most like MYSELF that I have ever met, and therefore she (and Carrie) is just like sisters to me. She tells great stories that all involve alcohol in some way or another. She is rarely pissed about anything. She says she is going to the bathroom at parties, but instead just goes home and leaves everyone wondering/searching for her.

Authors Note: Part of the Dynamic Duo of "Menace and Cheddar Bob", which constitutes my other best buds in Taiwan.


(Plug: Carrie and Denise's VIDEO blog...check it out for some embarrassing footage of the Taiwanderers, myself included):

http://menaceandcheddarbob.blogspot.com/


Carrie DIXon!

Alias: Cheddar Bob

Hometown: Canada (Me to the girls: "quick, name the Prime Minister of Canada". Response: "....uh....?". I love Canadians.)

Biography: Carrie is the nice, maternal member of our motley crew, but still laughs when we injure ourselves doing something idiotic. She is a terrible scooter driver, but sometimes cooks for us. She smiles ALL the time and snores like the wood-chipper from the movie Fargo. From the way she bruises, she may actually be a fruit of some kind. My guess is a tangerine.

Author's Note: The other half of "Menace and Cheddar Bob", the most ineffective superhero team ever.


The Internationals:



(no, it's not Halloween. This is how he always dresses)

Marc Woods

Hometown: Leeds, U.K.

Biography: Marc is the talent in our two man acoustic band affectionately dubbed by our "fans" (read: drink friends) as "Sex Church", after someone said "What is the most controversial name one could name a band? (I'm sure you can think of worse...don't bother telling me, the polls in the official "Vote For Marc and Tommy's Band Name Contest" ended last Tuesday). Hilarious individual, claims he is actually more British now that he no longer lives there. Also, one of the best guitarists I have ever met.



(yes...it's monkey)

Chris Bradley

Hometown: U.K.

Biography: Chris is another who COULD be a standup comedian but who actually has a REAL job (assuming that we foreign teachers are not actually real people because...let's be honest...we're not). He is one of the most chill guys I have ever met, but would go to war if someone messes with his friends. You can't buy loyalty like that.

Authors Note: The first time I met Chris, he was drunk and, within 2 minutes of meeting me, pyscho-analyzed me as "a guy who tries to appear confident and cool because in reality he has no idea what the hell he is doing", which of course made me hate him because...you know...he was dead on. I'm over it now, though. "No worries".


Jamil Leva

Hometown: San Pedro Sula, Honduras

Biography: Besides Mike and the girls, Jamil is one of the first guys I met in Taiwan. An all-around good guy, is always down for pretty much anything. He is fluent in, um, like 17 languages, and knows more about being a foreigner here than any other person I've met. An invaluable resource. A better friend.


Also starring:


Jason Lacoste

Hometown: New Orleans, LA

Authors Note: Smart guy, my favorite debate partner in matters of religion, philosophy, and determining the best way to terrify some random dude that owes him money into paying him his money.


Cythia Lapierre

Hometown: Canada (Is it a coincidence that "The Star Spangled Banner" and "Oh, Canada" both start with the word "oh"? I'm calling plagiarism)

Authors Note: A relatively new addition to my personal traveling entourage, but way fun to have around and always looking out. Holler.


Trey Gregory

Hometown: Somewhere in Indian, I think.

Authors Note: Yeah, Trey went to Mizzou. How crazy is it that I came ALL THE WAY AROUND THE WORLD and met a guy that went to the same University as me. M-I-Z baby.


(For those of you unmentioned, it's not because I don't love you, it's mostly because I'm tried of writing and my readers have a short attention span...doubtful any of them have made it this far anyway...you'll be in version 2.0)


So, now you know my friends and can reference them when i say something like "Mike set a Filipino bartender on fire" (actually happened) or "Marc broke up with a Taiwanese girl after three weeks only to have her threaten to fling her tiny Asian body off the roof of his apartment building" (actually happened). I guess it's true what they say..."No man is an island who has friends, unless his friends are made of water and then yes, I suppose he could be considered an island in a metaphoric sort of way, but who are these 'water people' you refer to....?" Don't ask me what it means...its a Taiwanese Proverb.


April 22, 2010

Preface: Taiwandering Blogisode

I woke up the other day and realized that I have been in this country for almost eight months. This marks the longest I have lived in any one place since graduating college, a feat which I'm not sure if I should take pride in or be slightly ashamed about. Am I adventurous or fickle? Probably a little of both. My transient nature has begun to inform me that yes, it will soon be time to move on to the next chapter in this crazy novel that is my life, and therefore my time in Taiwan is limited and quickly waning. Where will I go, you ask? At this point it seems like Saint Louis is the logical choice (with a pit-stop of undetermined length in Texas to see the family, of course); almost all my friends and half my family live there, I love St. Louis sports, and let's face it, the low cost-of-living in the Midwest makes it ideal for a struggling....um....whatever I will be when I return. But rest assured, I WILL be struggling.

But the point here is that, in eight months, I have seem almost NONE of this beautiful country. Part of the reason for this is because, for the last 5 months, it has rained literally every other day, making planning a sight-seeing trip nearly impossible. Part of the reason is that my school, along with every other school and institution in Taiwan, doesn't believe in Holidays. In the Sates, I remember we used to get off school for EVERYTHING. ("Happy '3rd Tuesday in September Day!' Stay home!") However, the parents in this country would never stand being around their children this much (because they actually HATE their children), and so here we are required to go to school ALWAYS, even during typhoons, earthquakes, and sometimes even on Saturdays. And lastly, part of the reason I have been nowhere is because, as with any routine, complacency tends to arise after time and repetition. I get stuck in a rut, and happy (or content) with being just...there. Sometimes it takes a push to get me out.

So here's the push...

I've got four months left here. That's 16 weekends and possibly a week off in July if the scheduling cooperates. My goal is to see as much of beautiful Formosa as time and money will allow, and hopefully blogument much of it for your reading pleasure. (I will do my best to be as un-educational as possible, and in all likelihood will probably make up a lot of what I don't immediately know off the top of my head. You can get your facts from Wikipedia...I'm here to entertain.)

Let the Taiwandering begin.

(On the next episode of Taiwandering:
Taichung ("no, I don't know what it is. eat it anyway.")

Complacency in action.


April 20, 2010

Welcome Homeless

All right, so I know I JUST got finished saying how I'm actually NOT the kind of idiot that routinely misplaces his keys; I actually thought I was getting more responsible. Exhibit A: I haven't lost anything of value since I've been in Taiwan (except my dignity on various occasions), this including keys, passport, I.D., phone, wallet, scooter, or my Barry Sanders rookie card that constitutes my 401K retirement plan. Exhibit B: I haven't ONCE slept through a class, which is phenomenal considering in college I retook the SAME course THREE times because they only time I could ever get into it was 9:00 a.m. and, for the love of God, do they REALLY think a 19 year-old kid is going to be awake any earlier than 11:00? Exhibit C: I actually (brace yourself) sort of follow through on stuff now. I mean, not everything, but I used to have more flakes than Tony the Tiger. (rimshot) OH!


So yeah, things have been going well, and I seemed to be slowly progressing toward that foreign land of responsibility that some might call "adulthood" but I just refer to as "I'm tired of people giving me a hard time because I keep screwing up so I'm trying to get my shit together-hood". Smooth sailing. That is, until this last weekend.


These are too stupid NOT to tell.


Event #1:

So, as per Thursday routine, Marc and I go down to Mr. Sevens pub and play some 80's hits on acoustic guitars for the regulars (I realize no one back home knows of this, but I will soon blog about it so you can say, with confidence, that Mr. Sevens is a terrible name for a bar). It had been raining all day, and though the precipitation had lazily tapered off to a light drizzle, the temperature had dropped to around 50 - unusually cold for Taiwan, and worthy of hoodies and jackets. We played until about 2, then (although I had to teach at 9 the next day) continued to "hang out" (which is code for "drink White Russians and learn Chinese profanity from the locals") until 4. God only knows what inspired me to think this was a good idea.


At 4-ish I decide to call it quits, and with my buzz nearly gone I scootered the short distance back home to my apartment, squinting my eyes against the cold and the mist. Safe at home, I went up to the 7th floor and realized immediately that my "security door" was closed. [the security door is just a giant metal door on the OUTSIDE of the normal door]. Strange, I never close my security door, and I don't even have the key so I most CERTAINLY would never loc....oh hell. I yanked and I pulled and I twisted. Nothing. Who would be playing such a mean trick on me? WHY?!?! Is it because I sometimes watch old "Scrubs" episodes too loud on my computer at 1 a.m.??? I'm sorry, I'll never do it again, I swear.


So, after a brief attempt at problem solving - which my faculty for had also, apparently, been drinking - I decided my best option was to....call a friend? No. Too easy and logical. Oh, I know! I'll camp out against my stupid self-locking security door like a homeless person. Yeah...that's what I'll do.


Cut to me, 2 hours later, after shivering and passing in and out of florescent consciousness. One of my neighbors had probably left for work - I can't imagine WHAT they thought of this creepy white homeless guy - and the sound had woken me up. I tried to collect myself, tested the door again. Still nothing. Damnit. I turned around to go (I don't know where I was going to go exactly), and was suddenly overtaken by a fit of rage. I whirled, Street Fighter II style, and flying knee-kicked the metal security door.


With a click, It opened....


And just in time for me to start getting ready for school.


Event # 2:

"Tim-Tom, wake up. We're leaving in 10". What? Where I am? Why is the sun shouting? I roll out of bed and realize that we had made it back to the hostel. Hm. The last thing I remember was eating 7-11 rice that, judging by the feeling of my tongue, was actually ON fire. In the state I was in, I probably would've eaten the flaming molten-rice off the pavement.


Out the door in a hurry, more sight-seeing in Taichung (more on this as well). About halfway through the day I realize that I no longer, in fact, possess my keys. Awesome. Oh wait, I know where they are...sitting right where I left them the night BEFORE so I wouldn't lose them at the club. I'm an idiot. Call Trey. "Sure man, I'll bring em back up to Hsinchu when I come home around 9". Cool, thanks Trey. We make it home, but not before my phone dies rendering me unable to communicate with anyone, and in a country where I am unable to communicate with anyone this can be a problem as far as problems go.


We get back early, around 7, and I drag my hungover feet around town for a little while to kill time until Trey arrives at 9. At 8:30, I go and sit outside the exit to the station, undoubtedly looking haggard and ready to sleep. Nine o'clock comes and goes, as do thousands of Asians, through the exit carousel and out into the night. No Trey though. And no keys. No scooter key. No house key. And no phone to call and politely ask "Where the hell are you, dude?"


I sit on the sidewalk until 11:30. The Asian train station workers are obviously concerned. My ipod has since died and, though my headphones are in as a disguise, I can hear them mumbling in Chinese and sending sideways glances at me. "Is he going to sleep here?" "Doesn't he teach my son?? What is he doing, trying to score drugs???" Finally, the digital marquee is blank, which I assume means no more trains. I surrender, and begin walking to the nearest 24-hour McDonalds, where I will try to sleep until I have to get up and work in the same scummy traveling clothes that I have been wearing all weekend. This will NOT be a fun day.


Luckily, though, the story has a happy ending. On my way to my McHostel I happened to pass an all-night internet cafe, and after figuring out how to pay (50 cents an hour...nice) get on The Facebook and start frantically messaging anyone and everyone. Denise, my dear savior, agrees to come get me and I traded a McBooth mattress for my familiar place on the girls' couch. Thank Goodness for good friends. I totally owe her. And Trey eventually got me my keys, so I eventually go to return to my home. Eventually.


---


So, in summary, I'm dumb. That said, my experience also affirms my theory that everything works out in the end, even if the getting there kinda sucks. It ALSO affirms my theory that actually being homeless would not be NEARLY as fun as everyone has led me to believe. I thought it was like a party with fingerless gloves....not so. I guess it's time to rethink my future occupational choices. I'll get back to you when I find something with more perks but which still doesn't require me to, you know, do anything.


It's like looking into the future. Eerie.

April 19, 2010

Comebacks Are For Losers, Winners Never Leave

I realize I haven't blogged in, oh...forever. Part of the reason for this was because, in what I can only assume to be a restructuring of Universal management, Someone pulling the strings decided that I had just too damn much positive energy in my corner and needed to be humbled. Word trickled down from Upstairs that someone was getting the axe, and shortly after New Years a death blow was dealt to one of my dearest friends - my computer, Brian. (That's right, I tried to name my CPU icon "brain" and misspelled it. Thank you $40,000 education.) So, as it was I have been unable to write anything because, honestly, who would even THINK of using a pencil or pen these days?! I don't even think I remember how to hold one, and even if I did, my gnarled fingers are forever frozen in the "poised over the keyboard" position. My opposable thumb can no longer even make the connection with my other digits; it can only move in a repeated and swift downward space-barring motion, and also occasionally stick itself straight up whilst I am trying to communicate that yes, I do very much want the coffee you are pointin....no, not that one. Go up one. No, not the soy latte section, i just wanted the....fine. Whatever. I always end up leaving the coffee shop with something decidedly NOT coffee. And a scone. When the hell did I order a scone?


The Reaper's sickle not only did a number on Brian's video card, but also grazed my motivation as well. My first and only nine-to-five job was starting to wear me down, and all I wanted to do when I got home was do something unproductive. Luckily, I have been practicing this technique for years, and I am quite deft at it (I will soon be publishing my first "How To" book entitled "Time Consumer: Waste Your Way to Happiness" featuring chapters on: staring blankly, walking around a house aimlessly for long durations, and concluding with a tear-jerking and well-written editorial by my good friend Sam Miles called "Facebook - Internet Friends Are Better Than Real People Anyway".




Not only this, but weekends, when I usually got most of my writing done, were now booked solid doing actual THINGS, not just writing about doing actual things. Every Friday my pesky friends would drag me, fingernails peeling up the hardwood, out of my apartment and into the world. Didn't they realize that I have an eager fan base of maybe TWELVE whole people that SOMETIMES get around to reading the first seven sentences of my blogs before my incessant descriptions and run on sentences force their brains into boredom comas?!?! Who do these people think they ARE, tearing me from my work this way? Everyone back home now thinks I've died!


So these are the reasons why I hiatus, and now I have returned bigger and better than ever. No, I still won't have any pictures because I still don't have a camera. And no, I still am not funny. But there are some crazy things that have happened in my life that I would love to share - some of them directly relate to being in Asia, most of them directly relate to me being kind of an idiot. But, you know, one of those loveable "aw, the dog got his big dumb head stuck in the banister railing" idiots, not the "if losing my keys was an olympic sport, then I would have missed the medal ceremony because I can't find my keys to drive there" kind of idiots. I hope that my readership will return once they realize that I have not actually been lost to an earthquake, scooter accident, or H1N1, but if your patience has worn too thin and your girlfriend has thrown it out even though it was your favorite patience and you always wore it on Sundays while watching your favorite team lose, then I guess I'll still enjoy writing this, as it was meant to be an exercise in reflection anyway.


Oh, who am I kidding? This has always been all for you.

January 19, 2010

Christmas in Taiwan - Part III

As expected, everything moves in a blur, which is what usually happen in life when we have too much to do and are desperately clinging to the moments that are dying faster than we can hold on to them. In the morning I shuttle my Kindies downstairs for one last dress rehearsal before their big debut, their costumes falling apart before the rehearsal even begins. They do not look good, but they also do not look awful. They look like they were outfitted by a 25 year-old boy who haphazardly pieced together 13 costumes using scraps and a skeleton budget. However, I think my effort is sufficient enough that none of my peers or parents will think me a slacker. Watching my kids take the stage, I can say without hesitation that my costume ideas were a little too ambitious, but at least they are SORT OF recognizable. Sort of…

The children deliver their best performance during rehearsal, and I am both proud of how far they’ve come and terrified that they’ve peaked too soon. However, I am mentally prepped for disaster: “Don’t expect too much” some of the veteran teachers caution, “once they look out in the audience and see their parents, they will either turn to statues or begin the waterworks.” But everyone seems moderately impressed with my class during rehearsal, and I have to keep reminding myself that the kids are only three and four years old; if they do ANYTHING at all, including vomit while singing (“Away in a manger no crib for a BLAAAAHHHH!”), it will be marked as a victory.

After morning rehearsal and lunch, I hustle over to Elementary to prepare for THEIR mini-recital which is to take place during school hours. This performance is much more sedate, and doesn’t involve costumes or elaborate choreography, just each elementary class singing one Christmas tune. We run through our song, “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas” a few times to warm-up, then head downstairs to Miro’s small basement auditorium for the performance. My class surprises me with more showmanship than I have seen during our practices, and they are well received by the other elementary school classes. As soon as we exit the stage, I make an excuse that I have to use the restroom and slip upstairs stealthily.

Upstairs, I slide red felt pants over my slacks and stuff a balled-up sheet under my shirt. I put on the red felt coat and fasten my black belt over my massive belly, then put on the foot-smelling scraggly white beard/mustache combo and red felt hat. The transformation is complete: I am now Santa Tommy.

I grab my red sack (pillowcase) full of candy and creep quietly back down the stairs, the sound of children singing wafting up the tile steps and gradually increasing in volume as I descend. At the landing I peer around the corner, keeping out of sight. At the far end of the room the elementary students (somewhere around 60 or 70 students) are all gathered together on the stage, mumbling the words to “Oh Christmas Tree” as the foreign teachers half-heartedly flail around and point to lyrics written on a giant sheet of paper. The small collection of parents that have gathered to witness the performances and subsequent cacophony begin to notice my presence, and they swing their camera lenses toward my shrunken, partially hidden figure. Suddenly, I dash from my hiding place and take cover behind a support pillar, once again out of sight. I smile as I hear a few of the children start to squeal, some of them exclaiming in loud whisper “Santa! Santa!” I linger just long enough to inspire doubt of my presence, then quickly tip-toe Grinch-like to the opposite wall, where I crouch and vanish behind a Nikon-wielding mom.

At this point, all of the children are now in an uproar. “Oh Christmas Tree” has been completely abandoned, and the students are all pushing their way to the edge of the stage to get a glimpse of the mysterious man dressed in red. I burst forth from my hiding place with a startlingly loud “HO! HO! HO! MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!!!” and jollily waddle up to the stage. Chaos ensues as if I am the most recent winner of American Idol. Everyone is shrieking, tearing, pushing. “HO! HO! HO!” I repeat, and I suddenly realize that I have not rehearsed any lines other than this. Thinking on my feet, I shout “WHOOOO HAS BEEN A GOOD LITTLE BOY OR GIRL THIS YEAR?????!!” The stage erupts with deafening chorus of “ME!!!! ME!!!” I reach in my bag and pull out a handful of candy, then gently toss the handful into the rabid mass that is balanced precariously on the ledge that constitutes the end of the stage.

Terrible idea. The hoard of ravenous students becomes a monster of arms and clawing hands, emitting screams of glee and horror and it rips itself to pieces with its own greed. Another handful of candy goes into the air, prompting the children near the back of the mass to start maliciously shoving in order to obtain a single piece of individually wrapped chewy goodness. Friendships are carelessly cast aside and all humanity is lost in the quest for these priceless prizes. The stage begins to look like the deck of “The Titantic”, and the students on the edge can no longer hold back the force of the crowd clamoring for lifeboats. In agony the first wave of children plunge over the side of the stage, meeting their untimely demise at the hands of the auditorium floor two feet below. It is too late to stop the madness now. I continue throwing handful after handful into the crowd, fueling the frenzy to dangerous levels.

I see a small group of boys standing on the side of the stage, not partaking in the wonderful disaster. “Ho! Ho! Ho!” I shout at them and underhand several pieces of candy in their direction. Out of the corner of my eye I see Teacher Mia lunging to intercede, but she is too late. “They are being PUNISHED! They can’t have any CANDY!” she pleads. “Oh NO! NO! NO!” I yell at them, trying to correct my error. But it is too late. The only way to get the candy away from them now would be to tear it from their cold, lifeless hands. Oh well, it’s Christmas Time…Santa must have left his “list” at home.

Finally, my bag runs out of candy and Santa must make a quick getaway. I give one last “MERRRRY CHRISTMASSS!!!!” and dart up the stairs, out of sight. I change quickly into my “civies” and casually head back downstairs, where I am immediately greeted by a wave of pointing fingers and accusations of “Teacher Tommy is SANTA!!!” I am shocked! “WHAT!?!?!” I exclaim, my eyes wide in disbelief. “You mean Santa was HERE?!?! I missed him!?” Most of the older kids don’t buy it, but I can see some hope creeping into the corners of the younger ones’ eyes. Could it be? Did Santa really come to Miro?

My secret will stay safe unless somebody happens to get a whiff of my face. It still smells like feet…

January 13, 2010

Christmas in Taiwan - Part II

So here I am, the week of the Christmas Show, feigning composure while I try and figure out how I am supposed to accomplish all that is before me in such a short period of time. Luckily, I have been in this situation before. (By this I am referring to my last semester before I graduated from the University of Missouri, wherein I put off ALL of my final projects, including a massive 20-page Capstone paper, until two weeks before I their due date [I ended up writing just shy of 100 pages worth of research papers in this time]. I literally did not sleep or eat for two weeks; by the end my face was tanned and my eyes were scarred from the unholy glow of a computer screen. And, although the circles beneath my eyes took months to fade and the sugar-laden caffeine drinks eroded away my stomach lining, I somehow pulled it off. I consider it my greatest accomplishment, though completely unnecessary in light of the time I actually had to do all these things). Thus, I have learned that: a) for some reason, procrastination seems to work for me, and until something truly awful comes as a result of it, I will continue to embrace it, and b) everything always manages to get done, even if the task at hand seems overwhelming.

So I suppose I have not yet allowed stress to seep into and infect my carefree demeanor, but have silently begun making a mental “to-do” list nonetheless. Here are some of the high-points on the list:

1. The song I have chosen for my Kindergartners, “Away in a Manger” is far too short. Apparently the parents require at LEAST three minutes of adorable “standing on stage looking confused” video footage. Therefore, I have to figure out a way to lengthen it via audio-editing software. Thank God I own a Mac, hopefully GarageBand will afford me some solution.

2. When choosing this song I had envisioned a tiny Asian nativity scene, complete with tiny Asian donkeys and a tiny Asian “Angel of the Lord”. Yes, it would be disgustingly cute. However, in my planning I did not consider that I was going to have to MAKE all of these costumes. So now, while all the other teachers are mass-producing identical, matching reindeer costumes, I am trying to figure out how to make 13 individual historically accurate AND identifiable costumes while staying within our budget of $0 (that’s $0 NT for those of you who need it converted).

3. Last week, due to what must have been a brief stint of temporary insanity, I volunteered to play “host” for the Christmas Pageant, which responsibilities include but are not limited to: standing in front of a roomful of parents and informing them of what “act” will be next; trying to maintain some semblance of order as parents with three year-olds will most certainly be clawing their way to the stage in order to get a perfect shot of their child’s vacant-eyed mumbling performance; filling down-time by telling jokes/entertaining to an audience who, for the most part, does not speak fluent English; AND, last but not least, dressing up like Santa (Santa suit provided) at the conclusion of the show and asking the parents what they want for Christmas. I know, right? I though it was a joke as well.

4. “Well,” the Chinese Teachers reasoned, “since he is already dressing up like Santa ONCE for the Kindergarten Pageant, surely he won’t mind doing it for the Elementary School during THEIR recital either, right?” Of course not. Truthfully, I’d wear the Santa suit all day if the beard didn’t smell like feet. Anyone who has spent ten minutes with me knows I like to be in the spotlight, so even though I will act annoyed and put-out by this request, I secretly revel in it.

So, as the days get crossed off and the calendar counts up to Friday, I diligently whittle away at the jobs on my list. Our class’s song is digitally cut, copied and spliced in GarageBand, breaching the four-minute mark while avoiding adding any new words or choreography (thank God). Costumes are made with some combination of construction paper, tape, yarn, and ripped up bed sheets. A script is written for the Pageant, complete with terrible jokes that won’t be laughed at. I practice my Santa voice and “Ho! Ho! Ho!”

Finally, Friday arrives, and though I am exhausted I greet it with a feeling of anticipation. The day feels surprisingly festive as I enter the school on the brisk 60 degree morning. I smile and try to cling to the small Holiday concessions that faintly glow with the Christmas Spirit – The small, fake Christmas Tree in the corner, the colorful decorations on the front window, the Chinese Teachers with red bows in their dark hair. Christmas may be on life-support, but it is still alive enough to whisper its song. I breathe deep and mentally sturdy myself for the day ahead, excited for the madness that is infused into the Season…

January 6, 2010

Christmas in Taiwan - Part I

Many of the English Language Schools in Hsinchu have decided to celebrate Christmas on the 24th of December, which falls on a Thursday this year. Other less accommodating institutions will even have their Foreign Teachers come in on Christmas Day, effectively ripping from this holiday whatever joy was left remaining after homesickness had dwindled the Christmas Spirit down to mere embers. Fortunately for me, Miro International Institute has decided to be gracious to its poor, lonely English Teachers and give us Christmas Day off, leaving us with a three-day weekend to sit alone in our small apartments in front of the Christmas Trees we don’t have, listening to “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” on repeat, weeping openly and drinking cheap wine straight from the bottle. I guess Miro doesn’t consider any of us suicide risks.

However, in order to make possible this extensive and well-deserved vacation of ONE DAY, we teachers will be required to pretend that Christmas actually falls on December 18th. This, as many of you may know, is a lie. This ignorance of our beloved Gregorian calendar also means that we are required to prepare everything needed for Christmas an entire week early. “You teach English to Kindergartners and Elementary students,” you say. “How much do you really need to prepare?” Ah, good-hearted reader; let me enlighten you on the proceedings:
* * *
‘Twas the week before Christmas and all through the school,
Children were screaming as chaos ensued.
* * *
“PLACES!” I yell once more, and my three and four year-old students look at me like I’ve just asked them to amputate their own toes using only our bright green safety scissors. “Teacher, we KNOWWWW” they groan almost in unison, and I curse myself for ever teaching them this useful yet incredibly annoying phrase. “I know you know!” I cry in artificially cheerful exasperation, “Just ONE more time, I promise”. They all stagger to their assigned X’s on the classroom floor, arms swinging deadly in front of them in an exaggerated manner as if sheer exhaustion had caused their appendages to go limp. Kids are awesome actors. I push play on the small CD player and the opening bars to “Away in a Manger” begin to play. The children sway haphazardly, failing to achieve the simple choreography that Teacher Yvonne and I have created. In seconds a chorus of child performers on the CD sweetly sings the opening words of the song, but is quickly drown out by the incoherent shrieking of my children who are not actually singing words, but only sounds that resemble words. Their faces contort in painful expressions as they force their voices into deafening registers. They forget all the choreography. Thirty seconds into the song Howie falls over for no reason at all, his oversized head bouncing off the floor with a “thud”. I look at Teacher Yvonne in desperation because today is Monday; we are nowhere NEAR ready for the Christmas Pageant on Friday, which will showcase our students’ talent (or lack thereof) for the other students, teachers, my principle, and most importantly, the tuition paying result-oriented parents.

The entire process of preparing for the Christmas Pageant does not sound nearly as difficult or time-consuming on paper as it actually is. About a month ago the Foreign Teachers were told that we needed to select a song for both our Kindergarten class and our Elementary class (or classes) to learn and perform. For me, that is ONE song each – two songs total. “Piece of cake” I thought, and began searching both the internet and my memory for songs that I thought my kids in each respective class would enjoy. Picking the song for elementary song came easily enough: First, there was much less pressure to impress with my elementary class, as the performance would be low-key and during school hours, thus only being witnessed by the other students, faculty, and a handful of stay-at-home moms with video cameras. Secondly, being 9-11 years old, my elementary students had a fairly good grasp on English and I therefore didn’t need to worry about choosing a “level-appropriate” song. I settled on “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas” which was upbeat enough to be difficult but not wordy enough to cause mumbling or frustration. I think this pick was met with as much approval as a ten year-old can muster when told that he has to memorize a song in a different language. (Remember learning “Silent Night” in German? I do. What’s the German word for “suckass”?).

Selecting a song for my Kindies was a little trickier: First, I had to make sure the song was easy enough that the children could, maybe, actually learn to say some of the words, as parents and administrators would certainly be listening with sharpened ears, judging my performance as a teacher based on my students' ability to articulate and pronunciate. Any repetition of phrasing was vital to this point. Furthermore, the song had to have words that lent themselves well to some movements or choreography. Lastly, and most importantly, the children had to look as cute as possible while performing the song, as the Pageant would be held in the evening thus allowing every known relative of every single child to be in attendance. It was, we were warned, a "Big Deal". Taking all these factors into account, and after much deliberation, I decided on “Away in a Manger” for its slowish tempo, its repetition of the phrase “Little Lord Jesus” and the eased at which I could come up with simple hand-gestures to illustrate lyrics like “asleep in the hay” and “no crying he makes”. At the time I was proud of my selection, and confident that I could make it into a hit. But in the coming weeks my self-assuredness began to wane, and it became apparent that I had made an awful mistake...