August 30, 2009

Where Worlds Collide

(Retraction: In my previous post I said the landlady was to meet us on Sunday, but this is incorrect. She had agreed to meet us on MONDAY. Sorry, my memory messes up the chronology of events sometimes...)

We arrive at the mall in typical scooter fashion of going the wrong way down a one-way street, the mall security guard directing traffic just staring at us as if to say, "Okay, you got me. I have no real authority here." Luckily we just miss the oncoming cars and scooters which had been newly loosed from their red-lighted prison by ramping our scooters up on to the cobblestone sidewalk. Now we can do some real damage! I look for a small child or an old woman to hit, wondering which one will earn me more points, but to my dismay, the sidewalk actually doubles as a scooter parking zone and we have arrived. This is not quite what I expected. Before me stands a large white building about ten stories tall, but other than its height not terribly imposing in width or length. A large sign near the stop of the building proclaims its name, F.E. 21, and I fail to ask what the initials stand for. This is definitely not the sprawling ode to commercialism that I am used to, and David explains that most malls in Taiwan are nothing like what one would find in the States. "Malls here are more like one massive department store which carries everything," he tells me. "It may be a little more convenient, but they usually only carry the pricier stuff so we usually don't shop at them." As we turn from the cobblestone walk and step through the sliding doors, an icy blast from the overworked air conditioner crystalizes the sweat on the backs of my arms. A chill runs from my shoulders to the small of my back, and I think the thermostat must be set at about 60 degrees. It feels incredible and I allow the synthesized cool to cover me like liquid.

The first floor looks very similar to the make-up section in every department store I have ever been in: white floors, bright lights, pretty girls beckoning customers to allow them to "make them up", the smell of one thousand perfumes blending into an aroma that is sexy, stifling, and comforting all at once. This is not where we want to be. We walk past some Taiwanese makeup associates who are taller than me (which is surprising), and down the escalator to the basement floor. In the basement we find the grocery stores, delis and bakeries, but more specifically, Jason's Grocery Store. Jason's, it is explained as we enter into the small but busy store, is the ONLY place in Hsinchu to find most American grocery products. Thus, my hosts reason, "it will probably be your favorite store." Need ranch dressing? Only at Jason's. Tortilla chips and salsa? Jason's. Cheese? Most other stores only have the processed American cheese slices, but JASON'S has at least FIVE kinds of cheeses! Be still my heart! We walk the isles for a while and David tells me that if you find something you like here, buy ALL of it. "Once we found Cinnamon Life cereal here, so we bought every box they had" he laughs. "You just can't FIND that in Taiwan!" The only downside to Jason's is the price. While most food in Taiwan is inexpensive, Jason's is considered a specialty store and most of the products are imported. Therefore, many of the products actually cost MORE than they would back home. A jar of pickles costs $6 US. Mayonnaise is $7. Cheese is ridiculously expensive, even by American standards. I make a silent vow to only come to Jason's once every few weeks when I have a desperate craving, but secretly know that I will probably be here every few days, scouring the shelves for "foreign" treasures.

After Jason's we take the escalator back up. And up. And up. We pass eight floors of clothing, women's children's, men's. On the ninth floor we find the food court, which is busy and loud with the sound of laughing or screaming children. They have about a dozen eateries, but none that I recognize. No Sabarro's Pizza here. At the back of the food court we take an elevator up to the eleventh floor where, to my surprise, the movie theatre is located. The movie theater is much like any from back home, only this one is extremely busy. Children run around me and teens lean against the walls in groups, ultra-cool. The line for the ticket counter is long and snakes back and forth across the room like the wait for an amusement park ride. Movie posters hang close together, and show a combination of domestic and American films, many of which I recognize, some I do not. As we walk to examine the prices at the ticket counter, Connie explains to me some of the differences between the American and Taiwanese film experience. "In Taiwan, one purchases a specific seat, like at a baseball game. Thats why it's important to get here early, because if you don't all the good seats are already sold." Interesting. She continues, "A lot of times we get movies before their U.S. release dates, but movies also come later sometimes. It just depends. Also, because all American films are subtitled, its hard to watch comedies because people will read faster than the actual dialogue and laugh before the punch-line hits. It's a little distracting." I smile at this, imaging sitting in a room full of Asian psychics. Now beside the ticket counter, I start looking over prices. Everything is in Mandarin, but I notice that there is big green box on the sign that has a picture of a ticket, a soda, popcorn, and a hotdog and the numbers "350" at the bottom. "I guess that's the special" says Connie, "all of that stuff for $350 NT." I am awed by this, because $350 NT is about $10 US and, at some theaters in the States, one can't even buy just a ticket for $10, much less a soda, popcorn, and a hotdog. As we exit the theater lobby and re-board the elevator, I make plans to visit this theater often in the future. Hell, for $10 US I'll even go by myself.

Having exhausted all that the mall has to offer, we take the elevator down to the first floor and back outside. The air feels heavier than when we entered, and I debate if it's relative to the frigid air inside or because a storm is looming in the distance. The sky above us is getting slightly darker, but we don't seem to be in any immediate danger of getting soaked and the clouds have actually cooled the temperature to being almost bearable. Connie notices this and suggests we go to a place called 18 Peaks, which I am told is a park in town. This sounds nice, so we set out for the park, this time going the CORRECT way down the one way street, and melding into the busy Sunday traffic.

18 Peaks, I soon discover, is much more than just a park; it is an entire nature AREA, complete with miles of hiking trails and beautiful scenic views. As we arrive, we park our scooters just outsides of the entry gate and I am amazed. The ride from the mall to the park took maybe five minutes, and we are technically still IN the city. However, it looks as if we have journeyed hours into the thick uninhabited forests of Taiwan, and we are surrounded my massive trees and everything is green and alive. I breathe in and the air feels clean, and I can no longer hear the hum of the cars and scooters as they race around the city. We have been transported into another world. We begin slowly hiking up the slight grade on the paved trail, passing families and being passed by women power-walking. The trail is well maintained and is cut into the side of the mountain, and on my right the forest stretches high above and the trees hang over the trail while on my left the mountain drops off suddenly and the ground is lost beneath a thick covering of foliage. We walk along, noticing the sculptures made out of vines and leaves and watching the insect hanging in the air by invisible threads. The sound of unseen birds echos off the bluffs, and rock speakers play soft violin and sitar music that floats and dances around us. Ahead, a break in the trees to our left reveals a stunning view of the city and shows us just how close we are to the buildings. It seems strange and out of place, like looking at a picture hanging on a wall. Hsinchu stretches for miles beneath our feet yet seems so far away. Suddenly, a clap of thunder breaks in the distance, but closer than we expect it to be. "I think we better get going" says David, and we hike the quarter-mile back to the scooters and head out, fleeing the impending storm. Within minutes we are back on the crowded city streets, and I am unable to understand how the beauty of nature and the concrete world of man can be juxtaposed so forcefully yet so seamlessly. It is a collision that astounds me, but it is effortless and extraordinary.

18 Peaks

The rain never comes, but the atmosphere is cool and wet when we get back to Connie and David's place. We decide to take it easy for a while and spend the rest of the afternoon dozing and watching funny videos on YouTube and reruns of Friends. Dinnertime eventually comes and I am grateful, as hunger has been nagging at me for a couple of hours now. David decides that he is in the mood for a hamburger and asks me if that's all right. He is far too considerate, and although a part of me wants to eat ONLY local cuisine, I remind myself that I am going to be here a year and will have plenty of time to try everything the locals have to offer. Besides, a burger sounds amazing right now. We head downtown, and arrive at a restaurant directly across from the small park where David and I had walked days earlier. The restaurant is called Squares, and has a narrow dining room with a random assortment of decorations on the walls, from models of classic cars to an old-time sewing machine. We are taken to a wooden booth in the back where a small teenage waitress brings us small glasses of water. The menu is not extensive but is familiar; they have hamburgers, cheeseburgers, bar-b-que burgers, chicken sandwiches, and various other American food (all in English). I am a little excited, simply because I really LOVE hamburgers and now know where to find one should I ever find myself in desperate want of one. I order the bar-b-que burger and fries, and after the waitress leaves laugh because the ketchup bottle is in Chinese with the words "premium tomato paste" written in English at the bottom of the label. Sounds delicious, the Taiwanese sure know how to market a product. The burgers arrive, and they are good, not great, but I appreciate the effort and know that I will return in the future. We leave feeling satisfied, and as we make our way back to my hosts' apartment the night air is soothing against my skin.

Back at Connie and David's, I am suddenly very sleepy and excuse myself early. Tomorrow is a big day. First day of school. Meeting with the landlady and moving in to my new apartment. First night on my own. My head is swimming. I have no idea what to expect regarding my class or my kids, but I release the anxiety in deep breaths and know that everything will go well. I feel my toes relax, my fingers easing their tension, my face becoming placid. I drift off thinking about nothing at all, just listening to the sound of my own breathing. Tomorrow is a big day.

August 28, 2009

...The Haze Clears From Your Eyes On A Sunday...

The following morning, A Sunday, I wake at 5:45 a.m. The small trapezoid-shaped window glows with an intense white light and looks like the door to Heaven. I squint, my eyebrows lowering in the middle, my forehead creasing, and go to touch the lighted pane. Go to talk to God. But the Creator does not wish me a good morning in any audible tones, and in the white sky I begin to see shades of grey and blue lightly brushed into the canvas. The sun, already awake for almost an hour, is tugging at my shirt sleeve like a puppy wanting to play. "Not now, sun. Seven more minutes." But the small cluttered guest room is heating like an oven, and the sticky feeling of morning, of dead skin, keeps me from returning to sleep. Instead I write for hours until I hear Connie stirring at around 9:00. I wait in "my" room to give her a few minutes alone to go through her necessary wake-up routine, then slowly slide open the opaque glass door leading to the living room. "Up so early?" she says. I just smile.

Today is (hopefully) the last day of my search for an apartment, and the time between now and the 11:00 appointment is killed by online conversations while the Taiwanese version of "Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader" serves as background noise and eases the space between the sparse conversation. I like Connie and David (who has since come out of hibernation), and it seems we have already settled into the level of comfort that allows for these gaps in conversation and does not feel awkward or strained. 11:00 finally rolls around, and the air-conditioner and light switches are "closed" (which is the literal translation in Chinese) as we exit. Out into the whiteness, out into the traffic, out into the World.

Princess Peach is quickly becoming my loyal companion, and although she can't go more than 40 m.p.h., pulls ridiculously bad to the left and is pink, I am considering making Connie an offer for her when I start making money. So far we have escaped every perilous situation we seem to find ourselves in, and I am beginning to think we make a good team. If she were a horse, I would give her a carrot. But then again, if she were a horse, I would be dead by now.

Equestrian nonsense aside, we eventually arrive at the 4th (and final) appointment to look at apartments. The sun in running its hands down my neck and into my collar as I hop off Peach, old-West style, and survey my surroundings. "Have I been here before?" I ask, fairly certain that I am wrong. "Yeah, last night," David laughs. "The Flower Market is right over there...where we ate Sizzling Platter" he says with a nod of his head. I see that he is correct; we took this road to get to dinner last night, but the darkness of the night makes it seem like a shadow in my memory, a ghost that I am not sure was ever there. We walk up to the correct number where a young man with hair standing straight up is waiting, also dressed in the exact same manner as the former real-estate agents. Apparently there is either only one real-estate company in town, or this particular firm has cornered the "Hell-hole that only a foreigner would live in" market. He is leaning against his black motorcycle which I am very impressed with, but which David doesn't think is all that great, and he and Connie make small talk in Mandarin until the landlord pulls up in a dark blue compact car.

The landlord unlocks the front door, talking Chinese as he does, and we enter into a very clean and tiled foyer-esque area which looks like it could serve as a waiting room. The stairs do not have a railing as we ascend to the second floor, walk down the hallway which is enclosed but still feels like a motel, and finally reach the door at the end of the curved and narrow path. The landlord opens the off-white door and we step inside, hesitantly, as if entering a tomb. I am actually fairly impressed by this apartment. The walls are white, the ceiling is white, the flooring tiles are white and clean. The living room is a 6 ft x 6 ft box, complete with couch, T.V., mini-fridge and sink (which would constitute my kitchen). Not a lot of space, but nice. The bedroom is actually a SEPARATE room (Whoa! Two rooms?! I could get lost with all this space!) with a full sized bed, desk, and tiny bathroom. It is also very tidy and everything smells fresh, like someone just mopped with bleach. The landlord follows me around, pointing to the amenities and saying their name is Chinese, as if helping me to learn the language. I appreciate this and smile every time he does, knowing I would probably do the exact same thing. Just outside the front door, he shows me the small room which houses the apartment's own personal washing machine, which is a convenience I may not be able to live without, considering how much I've been sweating these past three days. After a few minutes we exit, and the landlord says he has ANOTHER place for us to see, also listed at $7000 NT. However, although this second place is on the first floor which is nice, it is almost identical to the first apartment but lacks a certain...(for lack of a better word)...feng-shui. I rule the second apartment out within seconds of entering. As we make our way to the front door to leave, we thank the landlord and the quiet, fluffy-haired real-estate agent for their time. Connie and David can see that I've already made up my mind, and as soon as we are out of ear-shot, they say "You liked the third one, didn't you?" I smile a big smile in agreement and say something about how it just felt better. I don't know why, but the big red door just made the last apartment feel like...a home. Maybe not my home necessarily, but less like a hospital, hotel room or prison cell. I still don't know what a place would have to look like, smell like, or be like for it to feel like MY home. Maybe no place ever will. Or maybe, like Zack Braff says in "Garden State," after we leave the houses of our childhood we won't feel home again until we eventually make a new home, one for ourselves and our own families. Until then, we are all homeless, just a bunch of 20-somethings trying desperately to fit in and make the best of what we have until what we have is what we've always wanted. This idea of homelessness is both disconcerting and comforting, and it is something I have come to peace with in the last few years. It is the ultimate rite of passage. We ALL must go through it.

As soon as we reach the scooters, Connie is on the phone with Maggie the plain but attractive real-estate lady, telling her that I have decided to go with the apartment she showed us yesterday. Connie's voice rises enthusiastically several times during the conversation, and I listen intently as if my attentiveness will make Chinese easier to understand. When she is finished, she enthusiastically tells me the good news: Maggie has explained to the landlady that a poor American boy wants to rent her apartment, and she has agreed to drop the rent to $6000 NT a month plus utilities, which is an unbelievable $182 US. As if that weren't exciting enough, she has also agreed to forgo the usual practice of requiring the first THREE months rent + deposit (equal to one month's rent) upfront, instead breaking it up between the first two months. Therefore, instead of paying $28,000 NT right away (which I don't really have), I will now be able to pay $14000 each month for the first two months (which I still may not have, but I will worry about this when I get there). The landlady has agreed to meet with us tomorrow to go over the lease, and Connie has instructed her to meet at the school after classes tomorrow . As long as everything goes well, I should be sleeping in my very own apartment before the end of my 5th day in Taiwan.

As we straddle our respective scoots, Connie and David offer that they are, once again, hungry. This is becoming a recurring theme with them, and I can see their affinity for food rippling out through the entire Taiwanese culture. The Taiwanese people LOVE to eat. For some reason I am having a hard time embracing this ideology; perhaps it is because I'm being especially frugal, or maybe it's because, despite my adventurer's spirit, some of the food is still a little...questionable. But no, it is something more than this. In America, eating is always a means to an end: A means to socialize, a means to do business, a means to celebrate, a means to sustain. It is background music. In Taiwanese culture, food IS the end. Sure, other activities may occur during the eating process, but it is eating itself which is always most important. The Taiwanese view a meal as an event in itself, and thus can enjoy it to its fullest. I feel like the popularity of themed restaurants with all the shit on the walls and the fast food culture has divorced Americans from the joy of food for its own sake. So many distractions. Are they to distract us from discovering the truth, that the food isn't all that good and thus not worth our complete focus? Or are we too consumed in the complexities of our intricate social obligations to allow this simplification, to allow the stripping away of everything besides the basic appeal to our senses and our souls?

The venue for lunch has been selected, and we drive the scooters to a small restaurant where the grill and kitchen are outside almost on the sidewalk and the dining area sits behind the kitchen and through a large glass door. It is small, maybe only six tables, but cool inside. The humidity has increased considerably since the morning, and the air is beginning to taste like rain. I am thankful for the escape from the swampy, graying afternoon. We sit down, and as I try to pick out recognizable characters from the large permanent menu on the wall (I can almost tell what "beef" and "chicken" are now). David is already ordering on the small white ordering card. "Im just going to get a bunch of guotie (pronounced "gwo-teah" like "yeah") and shuijiao (pronounced "shway-gee-ow") for all of us." David then informs me that the english versions for these are "boiled dumplings" which are sticky pastries usually stuffed with pork or beef, and "pot stickers", which are the fried version of the aforementioned dumplings. Sounds good, and they are. They almost remind me of Italian food, but like everything else here, they have a distinct Asian flavor that is in all the local food but which I have not yet been able to identify. Once again, lunch comes out to about $100 NT a person, or about $3 US, and we all leave very full, our stomachs telling our brains that it is time for a nap in order to digest all the fried food. But the afternoon is far from over, and we must fill every minute of the last free day before both Connie and I begin the new school year. Under the cloudy sky we ride, and I imagine our scooters cutting visible wakes in the dense air behind us as we head for the F.E. 21 Mall in downtown Hsinchu to do some serious (window) shopping.

August 24, 2009

Mr. Miagi and Stinky Tofu

...back to the Story...

It is late Saturday afternoon, and Connie, David and I have just finished looking at apartments. I stare towards the sun, which is dragging its way through sky, falling in slow motion as if caught in the wet viscosity of the air, Gravity pulling it down to the bottom of everything. The sun is lower than I am used to, but my body has begun to make the appropriate adjustments, my brain already beginning to compensate for the time difference and the lack of daylight savings. I estimate it is around 4:00 p.m., which is a dismal time in Taiwan; too early to eat and too hot to do anything else. But seeing as how I'm still "fresh off the boat," Connie and David are more than happy to indulge my child-like thirst to see EVERYTHING as soon as possible. I still don't think the reality of how long I will be here as set in yet. This still feels like a vacation.

So we blast, scooter-style, back across town to an area known as the Flower Market. I have never been a huge fan of angiosperms, so I wasn't exactly thrilled at the prospect of walking around a giant nursery, but I figured "what the hell. There's got to be a REASON why it's famous. Maybe there will be some Venus Flytraps or something cool there". As we fly down the wide three-lane road (which one would think would feel safer but, because of the traffic, is actually MUCH more nerve-wrecking than the smaller one-laners), I pull my wrist down and Princess Peach responds to the turn of the throttle. It is a good feeling, and I'm starting to feel confident and collected. I allow myself to look around cautiously, taking in the billboards, storefronts, streets signs. I still have no clue where I am in relation to where I've been or where I am heading next, but I suppress the anxiety that comes with losing one's bearings and accept being lost for the time being. "I've got all of the time in the world to figure out where I am," I think, and the double entendre echoes in my head in a profound and far-off way. Just then a bus comes flying out from a side-street, narrowly missing my rear tire and shattering the confidence I had worked so hard to build. I white-knuckle it the rest of the way to our destination.

The Flower Market, I soon find out, is poorly named. Sure, there is a small section that does indeed have flowers. However, this is just a tiny fraction of what one can purchase at said market, and the streets are packed with scooters as we amble down an adjacent alley, park our murder-mobiles, and enter into the sea of people. Immediately, I am accosted by a blitzkrieg of smells, bombing my senses and pulling me in several different directions at once. I can smell donuts, fried chicken, seafood, fresh fruit, and permeating all of these is the thick, sticky smell of grease and oil. I try to push this olfactory assault from my attention in order to create a visual map of my surroundings. I observe that the Flower Market is arranged similar to a carnival midway, with stands selling various goods running along both sides of a large path. The entire market seems to circle an enormous blue building which Connie says is a public track/swimming facility, though she says she's never been inside. "Which way first?" Connie asks me. An arbitrary question, so I choose "right". Right it is.

The first thing we encounter is, of course, the flowers. We walk quickly past the extensive display of plants hanging and grounded, and I note with some disappointment that almost NONE of the plants are actually blooming. Some flower market! There is, however, a very attractive tent selling Bonsai trees and, as I think back fondly to my childhood and watching Karate Kid II, I remember Mr. Miagi's obsession with Bonsai trees. I make up my mind to own one of these small twisty trees before I leave the country. After we pass the nursery the market begins to look more and more like a carnival. Here is a short list of some of the attractions therein:

Food stands - These sold everything from chicken to pig to squid to fruit to french fries. Yes, Dad, even traditional "fish head soup" could be found here. Also, almost everything in the Flower Market is deep fried or cooked in a ridiculous amount of oil. At one point David leans in and says that Taiwanese people do two things right: bake and deep-fry. Doesn't sound all that dissimilar from back home. I try a few new things, although much of what is offered looks a little daunting (like whole squid tentacles, pig ears, or chicken's head...yes, a fried chicken's head). I had read in my guidebook that the "stinky tofu" is a delicacy not to be missed in Taiwan, so for $60 NT I purchase a stinky tofu kabob, which is actually very good (although apparently it can get MUCH more stinky than what I tried). I also try, for the first time, a "dragons eye" which is a small fruit about the size of a grape. The dragon's eye looks like a kiwi on the outside, and the inside is sweet and jelly-like. However, I am not expecting the large seed in the middle and bite down hard, sending shock waves of pain into my molars. "Watch out for the pits" Connie warns. Too late. Later, Connie buys what they call "fish balls", which are just deep fried fish on a stick. They are very good, and I am beginning to see what David said about the Taiwanese and their ability to deep-fry.

Stinky Tofu

Smootie Stands - Although I don't get to try any, these stands can be found all over Hsinchu and, I assume, Taiwan. The stand is full of fresh fruit, which you select by hand, and is then blended and mixed with cream or condensed milk to make the freshest smoothie ever. The price is determined by which fruit(s) one chooses. The smoothies look refreshing and incredible, but for now I'll conserve my funds. I still have many days until pay-day.

Gelato Stand - I only see one of these, although apparently gelato is popular here and most is made by locals and with fresh picked fruit from their gardens at home. This particular stand is attracting a lot of attention because they were using DRY ICE to cool the dessert! "I thought dry ice was expensive!" I say to Connie and David, "that CAN'T be cost effective!" The gelato stand is booming as the Dry Ice changes from solid to gas and "smoke" pours out onto the sidewalk. Little children run around in it and we feel the coolness on our sandaled feet as we watch the gelato maker work. He reminds me of a magician, and his magic is the happiness on everyones' faces as they eat his dessert in the hot sun.

Games - Similar to the midway, games can be found all along the Flower Market. However, most of them are for children and include things like catching minnows with a net, throwing balls at small targets, or trying to ring bottles for prizes. The only difference between these and traditional American midway games are the size of the attractions (these being miniaturized) and the person manning the booth is not screaming at every passerby to "COME, WIN A PRIZE! WIN A PRIZZZZZZE FOR THE LADY!!!!". It almost takes some of the fun out of it all.

Puppy Stands - These stands are where puppies are sold and, although very cute, is also very sad. Puppies are crammed five or six to a small metal crate big enough for one, and they are given no water or food despite being in the sweltering heat. I even see a "basket o' puppies" which is a small woven basket which contains four sleeping puppies, all piled on top of each other. At first I think they are dead, and I am mortified that they would keep the dead puppies out in the open like this. But then, much to my relief, the basket starts to move and the puppies are resurrected, whining and trying to escape their wicker prison. I want to buy them all, but I have no place to keep them, so I keep walking and try and imagine that they will all go to good homes.

T-Shirt Stands - Here, one can buy t-shirts for less than $100 NT ($3.00 US a shirt). Usually, these shirts have a bunch of random english words like "champion, crazy, respect, skateboard" just thrown across them in no particular order. Either that, or they will have weird pictures, like a Transformers "Decepticon" logo next to a cartoon monkey. None of these shirts make any sense, but for $3 a shirt, I suppose you could just wear them once and throw them away.

There are other stands that are some variation of these, but in general, this is what I encounter at the Flower Market. I like it, the whole place feels festive and drips with humanity. Families are everywhere. It reminds me that I am just like everyone here, and they are just like me. As we complete the circle (which takes about an hour), I am feeling more and more at ease in my new environment and around my Asian city-mates. We all head back to Connie and David's apartment to regroup, get hydrated, and wait until the fried food that has settled in our stomachs makes room for dinner. As we wait and watch bad cable television, I call AT&T from Connie's Skype and get the friendly man from El Paso to unlock my cell phone so I can use the extra IF card that David has to make local calls on my cell phone. The friendly man from Texas finally gives me the code, and I slide the IF Sim card in and replace my battery. I now have a cell phone in Asia, cell phone number (09) 5407-0445. I am slowly assimilating, piece by piece, like a puzzle. It seems like anytime we move, the puzzle of our lives gets dashed to the floor and we have to get down on our knees, once more, and slowly put all the pieces back together. Sometimes it is difficult and we can't seem to get everything to fit, the edges are too different. But eventually, the pieces come together and the picture is of the new life we made. Mine is coming into focus now. It is a beautiful picture.

Dinnertime arrives and I am still not hungry, but I can see that David and Connie are and I don't want to miss out on anything so I act like I am. We take the scooters back to the Flower Market; however, THIS section of the Flower Market is not anything like the Flower Market from earlier. THIS section is constructed under a freeway overpass, and thus feels seedy and "underground," like a massive homeless circus from some vivid fever-induced dream. The market is packed and we make our way through the masses passing similar stands to what I witnessed earlier. The cars and trucks rumble overhead and the lights from the stands throw shadows on the nearby buildings as we take a seat at a picnic table in front of a "Sizzling Platter" stand. At the Sizzling Platter, similar (it seems) to almost everywhere, I am to choose my meat and the hotness level of my food. I choose Salisbury Steak, just out of curiosity, and medium hot. Just as at the Teppannaki place, we have the option of unlimited corn soup and tea, which I have sparingly, trying to pique my appetite. When our Sizzling Platter finally arrives, I am instructed to hold my napkin in front of my chest and face, like a shield. I am confused by this until I see that our food is brought out on a huge metal skillet, just like a fajita plate, and is throwing scalding grease everywhere. After the Platter has calmed itself and ceases to sputter and spit, I dig in using actual UTENSILS! (The first time I have used a fork since I have been in Taiwan). It is good, and is like an Asian spaghetti topped with a tough steak and covered in a red pepper sauce. I finish everything but the gristle and we leave feeling overfed and sleepy.

Back at Connie and David's, I write in the dark spare room as the fan blows air on my face and dries my eyes. Today was another extraordinary day, and by tomorrow I will (hopefully) have my own apartment. One more puzzle piece. I drift to sleep thinking of my childhood and spaghetti, of carnivals and Mr. Miagi. Outside, the city breathes deep and is glad that I am here. So am I, city. So am I.

August 22, 2009

The WHY and the HOW

"Downtime - BAD. Leads to introspection - BAD" - Henry Rollins

As disruptive as it might be to the narrative, I want to skip ahead to present day, which is Saturday (a full week after when my last post takes place). I promise I will get back to the story soon enough, but I feel like deviating a little bit. I hope thats all right.

Saturdays have historically been days for reflection for me; reflecting on the dreams that only come in the late morning after sleeping in, reflecting on the hazy events from the night before, reflecting on where I am in relation to where I want to be. On this Saturday, as I am walking down busy Zihyou Rd and across the bridge that leads to RT Mart, my head is swimming with responses to questions that have been put to me since I left, the most obvious one being: "Why do this? Why travel literally halfway around the world to teach tiny Asian children engrish? Why?"

This is an important question, and I'm glad that people ask it of me. I believe that today we do not ask enough questions of our families, friends and fellow man. We worry that by asking questions we come across as nosy, but in truth, one of the primary roles we have as friends and family is to help one another grow, to help each other along on this long journey we call life. And the primary way we help people grow is by challenging them, by forcing them to evaluate themselves and their actions. This is not to say that we should impose our own tools and measures for evaluation upon those around us; the questions should be more "why do you believe or think this way?" and less "why don't you believe and think the same as me?" By asking these questions of those we love, we are holding them up to the light, shining truth in the cracks, letting the sun nurture their souls. Often this can be painful at first, especially to someone who's eyes are not used to the brightness that your questioning will bring about. But to live in the dark is to miss out on everything beautiful and colorful and good, and eventually these questions will be welcomed. Acceptance is Love, but asking the tough questions is a form of Love that leads to growth. We spend a lifetime trying to find the balance between accepting and challenging those we care about most.

So, the question has been posed: "why?" I could say something about seeing the world, or how I wanted to get out of my comfortable life, or how I love teaching; these are all true. But to say that these things are the reason I am here would only be a partial truth. In reality, and as I said at the beginning of this narrative, I am still not sure what I hope to find out here in this big world. Or what I hope finds me. This is a journey, a story, a song. But, even now, I am realizing that I am not any different from everyone else. All of us are on our journey, and we are all adventurers in some way or another. Every time you take a new way home from work, smile at a stranger, order something strange on a menu - every time you step outside of what's comfortable and allow life to carry you away - you are an adventurer. So the difference between myself and anyone else is just degrees, just little increments that we use to separate, when really we are all connected. The question, thus, is no longer "why?" because that same question could be asked of all of us every single day. The question now becomes: "How?"

(I believe that time is directly contingent on our exposure to new experiences. When met with a similar routine, similar faces and similar actions, our day-to-days can become month-to-months quickly, and time moves faster than we expect it to. However, when placed in a new environment or confronted with something alien, one's brain needs time to process all of the new stimuli, needs time to adjust and familiarize so it can speed time back up again. Perhaps this is as close as we can get to the Holy Grail; by constantly immersing ourselves in a life that's shockingly new our brain is forced to slow everything down, thus pulling out days into weeks and allowing us to taste each minute, savor each hour. Maybe that is why I have moved around so much this last year. I want to live forever.)

But this is all beside the point. Because my days are so much longer here I have a lot of time process my thoughts and sort out my beliefs. This leads me back to the "how?", by which I mean this: It is not so much the "why" that is important, because knowing the reason for an experience doesn't say anything at all. We choose many experiences in this life. I chose to come to Taiwan, while you might choose to talk to the lonely old widow outside of the supermarket, and your words will bring him peace. True, our choices can make a difference. However, outside of the realm of choice lies the unknown, and every day we are exposed to thousands of experiences that we have no control over at all. These experiences can be positive or negative. They can make you five minutes late for an appointment or change the way you see the world for the rest of your life. The "how?" is concerned with the way we handle all of life's experiences, chosen or not. Ultimately, HOW we deal with an experience says more about us as people than WHY we are experiencing something in the first place. You cannot ask "why" someone you love dies, or sometimes even "why" you chose coke instead of pepsi - sometimes there are no answers. However, by asking "how?", we can begin to define ourselves as individuals and as people.

Pertaining to the "how?", I believe we are all split into two categories. Or rather, we choose one of two options each time we are faced with an experience. Of course, there is room for gray here as there is with everything in this life, but in general, one of two reactions occur:

The first reaction is to close, or too retreat within oneself for something to hold on to. People who close to experiences believe that they are in control, and that nothing is beyond some sense of understanding or manipulation. New or unplanned experiences are therefore terrifying, and leaves this person scrambling to get a hold on things, to try and quantify and explain and manage. They are excited when expected or predetermined experiences occur, but become extremely upset when something goes awry. However, what the closed person does not realize is that control is an illusion, and although we can make little plans and lead our little lives, we are nothing more than tiny wooden ships in a magnificent ocean. The sun may smile or the wind may roar. None of us has any control over these things.

The second reaction is to open. To open means to accept this life for what it is, and to keep paddling but and allow the waves to take you because, no matter what you do, they are going to anyway. An open person allows themselves to be changed, allows life to come inside and shape them. This reaction understands that we have little control, and therefore because we cannot control the ocean, the only thing we can control is our reaction to it. And this is the entire point of the "how?". How we react to everything around us. How we take life determines how our lives will be. How we deal with the beautiful sunsets and the unnamed hurricanes determines what kind of people we will become, how we are remembered by everyone that meets us along this bumpy road. Ultimately, our legacy is not determined by anything other than the times we choose to smile and the times we choose to scowl in reaction to everything life throws our way.

As you can see, even by my naming of the reactions, I am biased. Life seems too short to allow things to tear you from happiness, and relinquishing control is the first step to understanding that we are nothing more than who we choose to be. So, to return to the original question of "why?" Why am I smiling even though I am in a strange country away from my friends and family? Why am I happy despite sweating profusely in my tiny one room apartment? Why am I optimistic about a future that is so unclear and thus terrifying? Because I choose to be, and this is the only thing I truly have control over.

August 21, 2009

Hell Holes and Studios: The American Searches For A Home OR You'd Be A Grouch Too If You Lived in a Trash Can (and other lessons from Sesame Street)

Once again, we return to Miro International School, which has now become ground zero for operation "Get Tommy Taiwanized". The campaign is spearheaded by both Connie and David, who have been nothing but incredible throughout this entire experience. One day I may find a way to repay them for the kindness, hospitality, and love they have shown me in the last three days. Or maybe it doesn't quite work that way. Maybe instead, someone will stumble into the small circle of my self-centered life, confused, hungry, and alone, and I will then get to show this new person what has been given to me: the love that I have saved, tucked away in the small, hidden places of my heart. It's funny, this simple idea is so basic, it transcends religious lines and connects us to everything we know to be good; love everyone, and love will find you in return.

A new recruit has been added to the mission of finding an apartment, a tiny Taiwanese girl named Yayako who is very pretty and weighs around 80 lbs. I can't tell how old she is; she may be 18 or possibly 30, but just as in America is it impolite to ask a woman her age, so I keep mum. We head back to the office, which is actually about three feet from the lobby and separated from the public eye by a half wall. The office area is hot despite the two oscillating fans working tirelessly to kill the humidity that creeps in every time the large glass front door slides open, and I feel for them as the slowly shake their heads back and forth in discouragement. David I take a seat at one of the computers and he quickly begins typing in a web address. He seems a little impatient, I wonder if there is something else he'd rather be doing than helping this unprepared newbie get his shit together? I immediately switch to apologetic mode as he begins asking me about the specifics I would prefer. Roommate? Preferably not. I have never lived by myself before and welcome the new experience. Also, although some of my past roommates have been amazing, the last few places I lived came fully equipped with jerks-offs (ask me about the Jamaican who slashed my tires), so I think I'll play it safe this time around. Cable? Not necessary. I usually only watch T.V. for sports, but they don't really have sports over here, so I can opt out. Air Conditioning? Please, unless you prefer me to show up everywhere completely soaked, dehydrated, and fetid. The Kindergartners would simply adore me, I'd be like one of the Garbage Pail Kids (ten points if you REMEMBER the Garbage Pail Kids). Price Range? Well, since I am going to be rather destitute until I get paid (this is not an uncommon theme in my life), I tell David as cheap as possible while still maintaining a degree of living slightly above homelessness. We settle on something in the range of 5000 NT to 8000 NT, which comes out to between $150 US and $240 US. He enters my criteria into the website which is entirely in Mandarin - once again, where would I be without David? - and we wait for the results as the girls talk in Chinese and giggle in the background. I assume by their mannerism that they are talking about boys. Then I remember we are no longer thirteen years old.

The search yields a surprisingly high number of apartments, almost all of them studios and all similar in size and description to prison cells (window bars included). David and I begin the arduous task of weeding out those that are simply out of the question, either because they are too far away from the school, too small (room size in Taiwan is measured in "ping", where one ping is a little bigger than a king-sized mattress), or because they don't come with an air-conditioner. By David's reaction to those apartments that don't list an air-conditioner in the amenities, this is a death sentence in Taiwan. One MUST have an air-conditioner. When we come across one that fits our narrow criteria, we call over Yayako to call and set up an appointment, and she smiles and giggles as David reads the number for her to call in Mandarin. She speaks quickly to the landlords/real estate agents, writing down things on the back of a third grade workbook page. We go through this process several times, and within the hour have three appointments to go determine if any of the selections live up to my high standards of Western living. The first appointment comes sooner than expected, so we hurry outside, sending Yayako a quick "thank you" on our way out the door, and board our scooters. By now the terror of riding on the scooter has worn in, and my shrieking inner voice of self-preservation has grown hoarse and can only whisper a faint plea for survival's sake, which is quickly drowned out by the whine of the tiny scooter engine. I am still wide-eyed and white-knuckeled all the way to the first apartment, but I'm allowing myself to smile a little this time, painfully twisting my contorted facial expression of fear into a sort of horrified grin. Any Taiwanese person who happened to see me me en route now believes that all Westerners are hideous creatures and should be avoided. My role as a diplomat is already off to a great start.

The first apartment is located in the shadow of the Ambassador Hotel, which at five stars is the nicest hotel in Hsinchu and also the tallest building in the city. We park our scooters in the small alley that seems cool despite the mid-day heat, and patiently wait for our contact to arrive. A minute later two Taiwanese men ride up on one scooter, both dressed in white short sleeve button-down shirts, black slacks, and shined black shoes. They seem to be in a hurry, and Connie makes unknown inquiries in Chinese as we are rushed down the alley to a small concrete stairway leading up to a large gated door. Presently, a man in a blue polo shirt comes to the door, smiling and nodding enthusiastically. He wipes the sweat from his balding forehead and beckons us to follow. We walk down a short hallway and up a small set of stairs, exposed wiring slithering through holes in the drywall. The building smells like paint and hot air. Down another short hallway and we arrive at a small door which opens into a small room. The walls glow white under the single florescent bulb, and the hardwood floors creak quietly under my Chucks. The room was advertised as five ping, and looks to be about an 12 ft x 12 ft square. A full sized bed occupies much of the area, and also a desk and a flat-panel television, which I must admit, is a selling point. In the corner sits a bright red armchair that seems completely out of place, and begs for my eyes' attention. The bathroom is little more than a coffin with the shower, toilet and sink all within 3 feet of each other. This is the first time I have been exposed to this kind of bathroom arrangement, wherein there exists no partition to separate the shower from the rest of the bathroom. Water, therefore, completely floods the bathroom floor after every bathing and exits through a drain located in the center of the room. Connie tells me this is very popular in Taiwan, and even some nicer homes will have their bathrooms arranged this way. Bath mats are out of the question. So much for making my bathroom cute and color-coordinating all my accessories. (I will later find out that they don't even HAVE a Bed, Bath and Beyond here! This truly IS the third world!).

Because there is not much to see the apartment viewing is over in a matter of minutes. We are taken up five more flights of stairs to the top floor where the single washer (for the entire building) is kept. Apparently this floor is where the steam and sweltering heat are kept as well. In a matter of seconds we are literally dripping, and I allow my face to convey my obvious discomfort. The landlord in the blue polo takes note and herds us back downstairs and out the door into the alley. Even though it is still in the 90's the slight breeze coming from the nearby ocean flirts with my skin and makes everything feel cool. We thank the landlord, glancing at our cell phones and realize that we are late for our next appointment which is, of course, across town. Back on the scooters, throwing caution to the wind as we dart amongst cars, running red lights, speeding along while the angels try and keep up.

The next apartment starts out promising; It has an amazing location, about a five minute walk from my school and on the same street as the Teppanaki place David, Connie and I ate at the day before. As we try and find a place to park our scooters, David tells me that the street, Jiangong, is where one of the Hsinchu night markets is located. Night markets are popular in Taiwan, and usually have a variety of street vendors, open-air fruits stands, busy restaurants, and surprisingly loud Taiwanese men selling knock-off purses and watches. Also, there is a temple close by, which means that during celebrations the streets will be filled with parades and fireworks. I am very excited by this until Connie says "good luck getting to sleep", which makes me think of something someone once told me: "Don't live where you party, because eventually you'll want to STOP partying and if you can't escape it by going home, then you're screwed", or something along those lines but far more eloquent. I begin reconsidering my former enthusiasm. It WILL be loud all the time. Also, if I DO choose to fill out my organ donor card and purchase a scooter, then it will be a bitch finding parking all the time. By the time we find the front door, I've almost made up my mind to turn it down. However, the sign on the glass says "Hotel" in english. Huh!? "Most hotels are okay", I think to myself, "maybe this won't be so bad". Wrong again.

We are greeted in the hotel lobby by another young Taiwanese man wearing an identical outfit to the two real estate agents from the last apartment and an older gentleman who is gruff, and wearing a button down shirt which is allowing his chest hair to blossom out from his collar. He reminds me of a Russian mob boss or something, if that makes any sense. As we board the mirrored elevator the old Taiwanese Russian is talking A LOT, and Connie is shaking her head at me with an expression that says "Oh my GOD" on her face. I suppress a grin and try to look interested in what he has to say. Finally on our floor, we stop to admire the water cooler. The old man seems to be very impressed by the water cooler. Then it's down the hall to the last door on the right. I can't help but notice that past my door at the end of the hall, there should be a wall. But there is not. Instead, I can see clearly through to the street and pieces of mellowing sky, my view only obstructed by a massive pile of old furniture and other junk which, I assume, is supposed to take the place of the wall. I wonder if bats are a problem here? The deadbolt clicks and we enter the room; my heart drops. It looks like scene from a movie where someone is doing far too much heroine to notice the general state of hellishness around him. The walls are a dingy yellow, the color of the walls in a two-pack-a-day smoker's house after 30 years of constant tar-ish assault. The smell is a mixture of urine, mold, and the indescribable but easily recognizable scent of general decay. On the floor, the tiling is broken and covered in dirt. The bed has rocket ship sheets on it. Fix-er Up-er. The one positive thing about the room is that the window has an excellent view of the street, where I can see the activity already picking up as people begin to get off work. Hardly enough to save this place. I give Connie and David the "no way" look and they return with a "thank God, because if you liked this place we would seriously reconsider hanging out with you" look, and Connie begins to make excuses to the Taiwanese Russian about how we must get to our other appointments. He is an avid storyteller, and keeps talking even as we enter the elevator and the mirrored door closes on his raspy voice. "What was he saying?" I ask Connie. "Something about fire or murder or something" she replies a little too calmly. Two down, one to go.

The third and final stop for the day is situated in between the first two prospects and is, conveniently, about two blocks from David and Connie's place. The traffic is picking up as we leave the Night Market area, but my confidence on the scooter is growing with each second that I am not pulverized by a bus. We make it to our appointment without incident, and meet a plain but attractive girl named Maggie who is to show us around. I'm not sure why, but I always feel more comfortable around women than I do around men in the same position, so I warmly embrace the change in gender of our real estate person. Also, Maggie speaks a little English, and she smiles more than I expect her to.

This apartment is located right next to a maternity store, and the entryway is narrow but made out of something substantial-looking, like granite or marble. We walk through the metal entry door which could keep out large bears or dinosaurs and nod at the glass-eyed Chinese woman manning the front desk. Security is good, but as I've come to find out, there is very little crime in Taiwan, and often people leave their houses unlocked for weeks during holiday and their keys in their scooters when they go shopping. The Taiwanese are a very trusting people. Up to the seventh floor the elevator hauls its passengers, squeaking out complaints along the way. I learn that seven in Chinese is "qi" pronounced "chee" in English. The seventh floor is small, only a landing really, with four doors placed around the walls. At #2 Maggie opens the large metal security door and then the blood-red door leading into the apartment.

As I enter, I already start to feel a warm sense of comfort that comes with familiarity, although to be sure I've never lived in a place like this. It is by far the largest of the three apartments, and feels roomy and open compared to the others. The "living room" has white tiles which extend out from the door and back to the "sleeping area" which is raised and covered in hard-wood flooring. There is a small kitchen-ish area with a mini-fridge, a sink and lots of cabinets to keep all of the kitchen-ware that I do not possess. On one wall, a red entertainment area is built with a desk closer to the bed, and across the room a black love seat hunches against the opposite wall. On the far wall a glass sliding door leads to a small enclosed patio, not big enough to entertain, but large enough to have a wash machine. The bathroom is similar to the other apartments, with no definite shower area, but is quite a bit larger than the other places, and with a large mirror. I glance at my face. It looks excited. I go and try out the couch, but discover that It is not actually a couch, but rather a giant block of wood dressed up to look like a couch. I go and try the naked bed, but realize quickly that it is just a box spring, and the mattress is M.I.A. The people who lived here previously must have had very cushiony clothing. In spite of the less-than-comfortable surfaces for sitting and sleeping, this place is my favorite. We talk to Maggie for a while about the cost ($7000 NT a month plus utilities - that's about $215 US) and other specifics. I tell her that I really like it and ask if she can talk the land-lady down because I'm so poor. She says, in broken English, that she will see what she can do. I offer a very appreciative "xiexie" and we make our way back out into the late-afternoon sun. I am all smiles as we bid Maggie farewell, saying we will call her after we look at one more place tomorrow. I ask David and Connie what they think, and they both say it is nice for the price, and not too far from school. I am glad they approve, and a little relieved that I have found somewhere I like so quickly. Hopefully, unless the place we have scheduled to look at tomorrow is amazing, we can finalize everything first thing in the morning and I will be on my own, out of David and Connie's way. With an overwhelming sense of accomplishment, I am in the mood to celebrate. "What now, gang?" I nearly shout. "How bout the Flower Market?" Connie says, and with that we are off to explore the famous Hsinchu Flower Market. This day cannot get any better.

August 18, 2009

Pig's Blood For Everyone!

Now at the school, David and I rendezvous with Connie who is "starving" and, although apartment hunting is my #1 priority for the day, I decide eating is not the worst idea in the world. If only I knew what concoction lay in wait. "Where should we go?" they ask me, as if I could be like "Oh, you know that mexican joint down on 9th?...". I just stare blankly at them, which apparently is Chinese for "take the new kid to the weirdest food restaurant ever". Back on Princess Peach (which is what I've named Connie's scooter), I once again follow eight inches behind David as we weave through the moving labyrinth of autos and scooters and somehow, once again, cheat death. I think I'm actually getting the hang of scootering a little as I pull into a small space between two motorcycles that appear to have been used in Nazi Germany. This is not to say that I could've told you where we went or found my way back to the school if my life depended on it. David could have taken us in a giant circle and the restaurant could've been directly across the street from the school, I would not have known. The combination of repetitious Mandarin signs and my failure to look up or around myself for longer than two seconds has left me completely disoriented. That's okay, I'd rather be disoriented than dead any day.

The restaurant we have parked in front of is a chain called Hot Pot. Chain restaurants in Taiwan are not the same as in the U.S.; they often have similar decor on the walls and the furniture may be similar from location to location, but each individual restaurant still has a "mom and pop" feel to them, often because they are, in fact, family businesses. As we walk into the air-conditioning a small boy, probably no older than seven, is bussing tables. "No child labor laws in Taiwan?" I joke, but Connie doesn't think its funny that I'm degrading the country of her parents' birth. "Obviously there ARE child labor laws here" her sharpened glance says in biting tones, "this is his FAMILY'S restaurant". If only things worked like this in the States. Can you imagine Little Johnny Junior running around the deep fryers as his father prepares my Kentucky Fried Chicken? Burn wards would be all the rage.

All of the tables in Hot Pot look like they were imported from the nearest Kindergarten center, each standing about two feet tall and surrounded by even smaller benches that one is expected to perch upon. David finds a table in the back next to the soda machines and ice cream freezer, which I am told are both free, all you can eat/drink. (In Taiwanese dining, the drinks are almost always free with the purchase of a meal and are usually unlimited refills). Good job, David. We scan the order card, which shows about 15 options in Mandarin, so I wait to be informed of what each option is. As before, the choices are "what meat" and "how spicy", and after hearing my options I choose "seafood" and "medium spicy". I still have no idea what I am ordering, but I guess it has something to do with a pot, and I'm betting that this pot is also hot. David turns in our order card and almost immediately a dark-skinned Asian man sets three unlit burners on our table. Within a couple of minutes, the man returns carrying a large metal bowl, which he sets upon one of the burner after he lights it with a cigarette lighter. As he brings the other two bowls out one at a time, I peer hesitantly into the cookware which has been placed before me. It, in no way, resembles seafood, save for the partially submersed whole shrimp that is eyeing me with a beady black eye from his soupy grave. It looks like the dark-skinned Asian man just closed his eyes, grabbed whatever shit he had near him, and combined it into some sort of stew (adding the whole shrimp, of course, to make it "seafood-y"). I begin digging around in my Hot Pot, exploring the contents of which NONE look very familiar (except shrimpy), holding up various objects with my chopsticks for David and Connie to explain. Although I'm sure to leave something out, here is a list of everything included in my Hot Pot:

Broth - Traditional Chinese vegetable and/or meat broth mixed with spices to achieve the appropriate degree of hotness. Mine is actually very good.

Clear slimy noodles - I'm not sure what these are actually called, but they look like jellyfish tentacles and taste about how I would think jellyfish tentacles would taste.

Cabbage - Boiled, a staple in almost every Taiwanese dish.

Crunchy greens - I don't know what kind of vegetables these were, but they were crunchy.


Carrot Shavings

Egg - Poached

Tofu - Also a staple in most Taiwanese cuisine. In this particular dish the tofu is cut into cubes too large to fit into my mouth, and are saturated with broth so that when I bite into the pieces, the near-boiling liquid gushes onto my tongue and the roof of my mouth, thus killing every taste bud for the next two weeks. I have to admit (through tears of pain), it's still pretty good, although has a rather bland taste.

Pig's Blood - At first I thought this was some sort of disgusting nickname for something far more edible (like deviled eggs...we all KNOW that they are not actually EVIL), but soon find out that this ingredient in my Hot Pot is EXACTLY what its claims to be. As I grasp the gelatinous cube of dark red between my chopsticks, Connie tells me that many traditional Chinese dishes use pig's blood because it does not spoil and is an excellent source of protein. David looks disgusted and says it tastes "iron-y". I don't know why the prospect of eating straight blood is so appalling; Westerners eat steak all the time in which the bloody meat is visible. I guess it's because in the States we call these "juices", and if we were to instead call it "cow's blood", I suppose fewer people would be clamoring for rare T-bones at Texas Roadhouse. I try and act tough, casually shrugging my shoulder and tossing the jello-esque hunk of congealed blood into my mouth, my teeth gnashing out its juices. It is awful. The metallic taste David is referring to lingers on my tongue as I quickly drink my pear-flavored tea to try and drown it out. I force a smile and suppress my gag reflex. "Not bad", I say, obviously lying. In truth, pig's blood is not the worst thing I have ever eaten, but the combination of texture, taste, and the knowledge that I am literally eating blood makes downing it nearly impossible. At least I can say I tried something that we don't have back home...

Rice Blood - This is pig's blood mixed with sticky white rice which, after close examination, looks like a chocolate Rice Crispy treat. The deviation from the gelatin-y texture alone makes this variation of the previously mentioned hemoglobinous atrocity almost bearable. However, as I go to swallow the tinny taste returns to my gun-shy taste buds and they recoil once more, screaming "WHY?! WHY!?!?!". I guess I'm not cut out for Vampirism after all. Time to find a new hobby...

Mussels - I don't discover these until the very end of the meal, somehow they have eluded my probing chopsticks until just before I push the remainder of my Hot Pot aside. I am so excited for something with a familiar taste that I drop one of the two onto the floor. Damnit. The second one reminded me as to why I don't really like mussels all that much.

One Shrimp - This is a whole shrimp which, due to our proximity to the ocean (about 5 miles, give or take) was probably caught sometime in the last 48 hours. Also, he seems to have been growing out his antennae for "Locks of Love" because I cannot pick up anything in my bowl without inadvertently snaring one of his red feelers in my chopsticks and discovering, as I'm bringing my food to my mouth, my small crustacean friend dangling on for dear life. Finally, tired of thwarting his escape attempts, I shell the poor fella and see that, by the looks of his very full digestive "vein", he was well fed in his previous environment. Gross. After cleaning up his mess, the effort is not quite worth the reward, though I admit, he is very fresh.

Squid Tentacles - This was the winner of the "guess what the hell THIS is" contest which is held at our table when I produce the thin, flat, brownish piece of meat from my Hot Pot. I immediately guessed some sort of cat intestines. David offered that he believed it to be part of a chicken's foot. Connie (the logical one of the group), asserted that neither cats nor chickens live in the sea and, because I had ordered the seafood Hot Pot, it was probably some multi-armed chewy creature. Whatever it was, it had a distinctly fishy flavor and felt a little like gnawing on a pencil eraser.

My Hot Pot looked similar to this, but with about 10 times as much stuff in it

Through the course of the meal, Connie informs me on various other facts about Hot Pot. According to her, it is traditionally a Chinese meal eaten during the winter months and is especially popular during celebrations such as the Chinese New Year. During these celebrations, a massive Pot would be placed in the center of the table and all family members would throw in whatever random meat/vegetable/other they could find, boil the ingredients, and choke down whatever creation that arose as a result of their haphazard cooking practices. I can see how this would be popular for large gatherings, as even though I have only eaten about two-thirds of my Hot Pot, I am almost too full to sample the ice creams (which are actually more comparable to gelato). I do anyway, but am a little taken aback by the flavor options: Green Tea, Taro (made from a root that looks like a potato with a distinctive lavender coloring) and Mango (the obvious frontrunner). I try all three, and all three taste a little like flavored children's vitamins; not awful, but not something you would want to eat in large quantities. One more shot of pear Tea and we're off to find a place for me to live, the bitter taste of blood still dancing across my tortured taste buds.

August 16, 2009

Life, Death, and Scooter Punx

Day number two begins late, as the Saturday calls for sleeping in all around. Connie has still left relatively early to help prepare the school for the new year, but David and I don't roll out of bed until almost 11:00. Last night I figured out how to work the air-conditioning unit in my guest room, and this new skill has exponentially increased the comfort of my sleep as my well my ability to hibernate through the early sunrise (which occurs at about 5:00 a.m. - no daylight savings time) and the subsequent heating of the air in my tiny guest room to sauna-like temperatures. I lay around for a few minutes to shake off my overdose of sleep, then slowly get dressed and ready myself for the day. Why the deliberate stalling? Well, today Connie has graciously agreed to ride her bicycle to work, thus leaving her girlie 50cc scooter all to me. Jesus. I feel like Sean Penn in "Dead Man Walking" as I move in slow-motion to delay the inevitable loss of life that is sure to follow once I climb on the back of Connie's one passenger pink death machine. Helmet? YEAH! Like that's going to help when my shattered body is wedged between a double-decker bus and I light post! Downstairs we go, out into the intolerable heat (its even hotter today than yesterday), and to the row of scooters where my fate calmly resides. "Well, this is it", I say to the scooter, "just please kill me quickly. I don't want to burden my family with quadriplegia or something equally as awful". David is already on his scooter with the engine running. Funny, I always thought I'd die in a tornado or a tragic skiing accident. I guess it just goes to show you, you never really know....

Out of the gate and into the flow of traffic, the scooter accelerates faster than I expect as I push the throttle and mentally pry my eyelids open. The last time I rode a scooter was during spring break 2006, which was not nearly as scary because A) I was slightly inebriated and thus fearless and B) I was not contending with 7000 other scooters all with a complete disregard for traffic laws, not to mention cars being driven almost exclusively by Asian women (forgive my stereotyping) and pedestrians that all seem to be on some suicide mission to fling their bodies directly in the path of every aforementioned motorized vehicle that comes their way. On top of all this, many of the roads have no logical order to them and appear to weave in and out of each other randomly switching directional signs, speed limits (all in kilometers), and often turning into freeways, sidewalks, school playgrounds, etc. The scene, therefore, feels like an M.C. Escher drawing meets Excite Bike; I don't even think the TAIWANESE know what they're doing or where they are going half the time, but they are going there at about 45 m.p.h. with no airbags and while making a distinctively whiny "RRRRRREHHHHH!!!" sound.

Suffice to say, I am alive to tell the tale, so one can assume that on this day I did not actually die. However, I will try and describe some of the things that are commonplace while driving a scooter around Hsinchu, thus giving the reader a taste of the experience, as well as giving my family time to arrange burial services and tell me they love me one more time:

1. Lanes, in general, seem to viewed as completely arbitrary by scooterists. (I can't believe this is actually a word, but my computer did not correct it - amazing). This is not true for cars, which generally try and stay within one lane unless they are turning, stopping, driving, or parking. Thus, because the scooters are not hindered by this lane annoyance, they actually weave in and out of cars to get into better positions. At stoplights, scooters will fly up BETWEEN the stopped cars, sometimes even sliding between bumpers, to get to the front of the line. Going across the double yellow line into oncoming traffic is encouraged while doing this. I'm not kidding. The reason for this is because at every stoplight, after the solid white line that cars are required to stop behind, is the "Scooter Box" - an area designed specifically for scooters to stop in and wait for the light to change. Scooters LOVE to be in the front, and Taiwanese traffic laws seem happy to appease them.

2. Red lights are optional. There is no such thing as a "No Right On Red" or even a "No LEFT On Red". If the coast is clear, you can bet some scooterized (not a word, unfortunately) maniac is going to be busting ass across the intersection, obviously with no respect for the fragility of life. Also, the stoplights in Hsinchu have a giant digital countdown, conveniently letting those waiting at the traffic light know how much longer they will have to wait until they can launch their respective vehicles back into harm's way. Loving to get a jump start, scooter drivers usually take off when the giant digital countdown is at about "6", meaning that the traffic lights for the cross street is still green for another SIX SECONDS! So, for these six seconds, each intersection looks like a scene from a Star Wars aerial space battle, with scooters and cars swerving in every direction to avoid colliding. Apparently all Asians are born with Jedi reflexes.

3. The faster the better. Scooter drivers love to go as fast as possible, all the time, no matter what the circumstances. Red light? Speed up to beat the cross traffic. Crosswalk full of pedestrian? Viewed by scooterists as "power boost zones". Most scooters can go at least 50 m.p.h., while some go up to 80 or 90 m.p.h. In Taiwan, you are not a man unless you can make your over-sized Rascal blast down the crowded street doing 60 m.p.h. while missing various stationary objects by fractions of an inch. How the streets do not run red with rivers of blood is beyond my comprehension.

So yes, as I follow David I participate in ALL of these activities, using tunnel vision to keep my eyes affixed, horrified, to David's scooter, keeping unwaveringly on his six. My jaw aches from having my teeth clenched, my knuckles glowing white against the black rubber handles, my fingers blistering from maintaining a Cliffhanger grip on the throttle and the brakes. I learn quickly, as I suppose one must when thrust into a life-and-death situation (this is only truly humorous in retrospect). I learn that hesitation is dangerous, that accelerating through small gaps is essential to keep from getting run over. I learn that driving in a straight line is as important as not breathing underwater, because often, without warning, another scooter will fly up beside you, literally INCHES from your scooter. I learn that EVERYONE has the right of way, so the skilled scooter driver must exude confidence that THEIR right of way is actually the right right of way. I learn that screaming like a girl is not an effective way of dealing with stress.

We finally reach our destination, which seems as if it is 20 miles from the apartment. In actuality, it is about two miles, and the trip only takes about five minutes. I now know that time slows down the closer one is to their own death. As we park our scooters outside of the Miro School, I am beyond relieved and actually do the "pat myself down to make sure all my parts are intact" thing like in the cartoons. But what's this other emotion that is creeping up into my consciousness? Could it be...disappointment? Am I actually UPSET that the ride is over? I have never figured myself for an adrenaline junkie, but something about the harrowing experience was extremely enjoyable. I just may want to do this again someday. As we stow our helmets, David tells me about the "Scooter Punx", which are a bunch of guys who trick out their scooters and ride around looking for fights, like an Asian, metrosexual version of Hell's Angels. I start to wonder if someday, when I become less terrified and get a little more proficient on my motorized manslaughter machine, I could join the gang. I'll break out my skinny jeans, start carrying a blade....

I want to save the day, get the girl and ride of into the Hsinchu sunset to the sound of 50cc of pure pink scooterized power: "RRRRREEHHHHHH!!!" I am a hopeless romantic.