September 29, 2009

Exploring Part I: Not All Who Wander Are Lost

As I ride the elevator down to street level, it occurs to me that I really have no idea where I am going. I have brought $1000 NT with me in the hope that I find the downtown area and can buy some athletic shorts, but I will not be overly disappointed if I don't. I suppose my primary objective is just to walk around the neighborhood and try to get some sense of direction, or at least mentally pinpoint my residence in the city in relation to everything else. As of now I only know the location of my school, which is somewhere East of my apartment, but other than that, I am completely lost. It might have been wise to draw a map - or at least LOOK at one - before embarking on my journey. However, I do not yet have the internet, and because I did not have the presence of mind to print out a map of the city before I left the school, I have no choice but to go without, wandering aimless and directionlessly around the unfamiliar streets. Reaching the ground floor, I decide that I prefer it this way; ignorance makes my discoveries seem more authentic, and makes my campaign seem less cautious and thus more deserving of admiration. "Besides", I reason, "if somehow I get lost and something terrible happens to me, it will make a GREAT story later...I mean, assuming I live to tell it".

My walk to school has me take a right out of my building, walking down Zi You and across the bridge, over the train tracks, and in the direction of the RT Mart. Not wanting to retread familiar steps, I now turn LEFT, turning my back on the sights that are starting to become unnoticed as my memory now expects their existence and is thus fading their importance into the background of my sensory perception. I walk about a hundred yards, past a hair salon, several shops, and a large corporate bank. Here, Zi You Road ends at a "T" with Jinguo Rd (pronounced "Jing" as in "Jingle Bells" and "gwa" as in guava, the fruit), and I stand at the corner trying to see far down in either direction, wondering which path will lead me somewhere interesting. The sun is weakening slightly from its afternoon supremacy, but its light is still fierce as it reflects off of the metal buildings and catches my eyes, causing me to squint hard as I examine my options. Judging by the traffic and the number of businesses lining the street, I deduce that Jinguo is a major thoroughfare, which seems promising. Maybe this will take me somewhere that has shorts. At last, I decide to go left, which is done arbitrarily but with conviction. Hey, when you don't know where you're going, there are no wrong directions.

I walk down Jinguo, which is difficult because there is absolutely no sidewalk for the first fifteen minutes of my hike, relegating me to either the street or the gutter. I pass many large stores and nice looking restaurants, all with glass picture windows and colorful signs, some in English, most in Chinese. Eventually I come to a familiar sight: The Golden Arches. And only about a ten minute walk from my house, as well. Although it is across the four lanes of busy traffic, I can clearly see the writing on the window says "Open 24 Hours", which means that I must always have food stocked in my apartment so that I resist the urge of making a 4 a.m. McDonalds run when my self-control is at its lowest due to alcohol consumption. I continue walking, trying to forget that I ever saw its generic, soulless corporate facade. No one should ever eat at McDonalds. Ever.

I continue walking. And walking. And walking. Eventually, the road gives way to a narrow roadside park, which (thankfully) has a sidewalk running through it. The park has trees and playgrounds and exercise equipment, and although it is only about as wide as the four-lane road it parallels, it extends for several blocks and gives refuge from the concrete, glass, and asphalt. Walking through the park, I see a small collection of restaurants to my left, the sparse grass of the park coming between their quaint storefronts and the roar of the busy Jinguo traffic. I go to investigate, and discover that there are three separate restaurants which all seem to be Italian themed. Out front they have signs or boards announcing the specials, and I see familiar dishes like "pasta con broccoli" and "meatballs marinara". Wow. Looks like I sound Hsinchu's version of Little Italy. I make a mental note to try these restaurants sometime in the future (because I will undoubtedly get tired of Asian food at some point in the next twelve months here) and keep moving through the park, toward an unknown goal.

After a few more blocks, I take a short break. Although I know I have been walking for less than an hour, the heat and the sun have left me sticky and thirsty, but I will refrain from buying something to drink until I feel I can no longer live without it. I stand in the shade of an old, gnarled tree with wispy branches and watch four old men sit around a small card table and drink tea. They do not appear to have anywhere to be, and they smile and laugh and I imagine that they do this every single day. They do not wonder what else they could be doing or what other places they could be. They are living fully in this single moment in time, their wrinkled hands slowly bringing their brown mugs to their thin lips, their trousers rolled to show leather sandals that have seen years of sun and rain, miles and miles. I stand silently and watch them, and secretly want to know everything they know; I want their wisdom, their contentment, their happiness. But I know they have earned this place in the sun drinking tea at a flimsy card table. They have already lived and seen and loved and told. I could not join them even if I wanted to, because this is not the place for me. I move on, their laughter following me like a song.

I reach a major intersection and decide that I should change direction. The stores are becoming less impressive on Jinguo now, and I assume this is either because the road is heading somewhere more residential or out of town completely. Both cases sound less than desirable, so I turn left at the intersection, failing to see the name of the busy road that is leading me toward my new destination. In my head, I say "Jinguo Jinguo Jinguo" over and over, knowing that if I get lost, at LEAST I know how to get home from Jinguo. This new road takes me past several more shops, restaurants, and a large park. Seeing nothing of interest on this road, I turn left once again, heading down a crowded street that seems to be lined with miniature casinos. As I walk past these brightly advertised establishments, I vaguely remember something David said about these places - something about gambling being illegal, so these venues allow you to buy tokens and play various slot machines and card games. This, to me, seems even LESS productive than gambling for money, where at least you have a CHANCE of winning some money back. I keep walking, the shadows of the buildings becoming longer and providing some relief from the heat.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I am not certain how many times I turn left or right, or for how many miles I walk. The sun is low now, and the stores and restaurants have begun to turn on their lights. The bright colors from their neon signs mixed with the cooling air sends a shock to my tired body and rejuvenates me, pushing me forward. Suddenly, I think I see a sign I recognize in my memory, an advertisement from the other day when David and I walked down to the center of the city. No, maybe not. Wait! Another sign! And a building! I KNOW I have seen that building before! The stores are becoming more dense, the people seem to be hurried. It feel like I am getting close to something now. This could be....

September 25, 2009

A River Runs Through It

The next day, Wednesday, my third day of teaching, I wake up feeling surprisingly well-rested and alert. I don't feel like I slept all that well the previous night, possibly due to some combination of sweating from every pore like my skin was a sieve and sleeping on a sheet-less collection of hard, coiled pieces of metal. But although conditions were identical to last night - sweltering heat, rock hard sleeping surface, noisy street sounds - my reflection in the morning's mirror looks bright-eyed, my muscles feeling relaxed and not at all sore or lethargic. "Probably just so exhausted that I had no CHOICE but to coma-sleep" I think, knowing it is much too soon for my body to be adjusting to the unfamiliar and rather uncomfortable arrangements. This, if possible, will take at least two or three weeks, and I am inclined to believe that last night was a fluke and I am in for more rough nights to come.

I walk to school once again, the scenery unchanged from the day before save for subtle difference that would elude most people, but because this world is still new, my senses are like sponges soaking up every color, sound, and smell, making secret observations about the shopkeepers' attire, the length of a streetlight, the depth of the shadows. It takes me 20 minutes to reach the the fruit stand, and by the time I do the moisture is soaking through the chest and back of my t-shirt and the fronts of my pant legs. Again I select my breakfast of one yellow apple (today I looked a little more thoroughly; no red or green, just yellow) and one ripe banana. The price is different today, and although my fruit was not weighed yesterday nor today, the check-out lady with deep lines traveling across her forehead and cheeks tells me my total is "er-ba" (sounds exactly how it looks: err-bah, except "er" is pronounced by inflecting down and "ba" is spoken with a high, strong tone...almost like a yell), which means nothing to me until I look at the digital price indicator, which tells me that "er-ba" is $28 NT. I hand the lady three $10 coins and take my fruit without a bag, wondering why my total was $5 NT cheaper than yesterday. I have no way to ask the fruit-stand workers, so I leave the question to hang in the balmy air, then let it fall and break into equal parts trivial and futile. I walk down the road while a million other questions, about everything and nothing, swim through the periphery of my thoughts, my consciousness sitting lazily and barefooted on the dock, catching the biggest or prettiest for my brain to measure, photograph, and throw back. I wonder if these questions will always exist, if they will continue to persist and come to sit with me in the quiet afternoons or long walks through the endless summer days? Or will they someday disappear, my wisdom answering those that are within my grasp and shooing the others away, replacing their nagging with the rhythmic creak of a rocking chair? The deepest parts of me hope that they don't.

This day continues to playfully mimic its predecessors though I arrive at school later than I did on Tuesday, right around 9:00 a.m. I can see a faint outline of a routine starting to form as I exchange casual greetings with the Chinese staff, Connie, and Kara; normally, the threat of sameness would unnerve me and, eventually, my whispering thirst for adventure would begin to call loudly for a radical change to be made. However, it seems that enough radical steps have already been taken, and my fickle nature is content to cling to the comforts that come with least for now. Walking past Kara, I see that she is busily working on some elaborate poster-sized teaching aid with creative fonts and full-color, eye-catching pictures. Once again, I hope that I am not expected to be creating such intricate visual accompaniment for my lessons. I suppose someone will let me know if I'm slacking; I have a little bit of leeway, I AM the new guy, after all. I sit on a desk and listen to the friendly bantering between Kara and Connie, watching the clock as the seconds tick by, thinking about the chronology of my lesson. I have decided that my teaching style will be similar to an effective workout, wherein the routine is changed often to prevent boredom and create "muscle confusion". In my classroom the students will be bombarded with knowledge from all sides, never knowing where the next hit is coming from, keeping them on their toes and mentally sharp. It sounds good on paper; I wonder how it will work in practice? Probably just result in total chaos. I have no contingency plan for this.

At 9:30 I go up to the room, taking the stairs two at a time to the third floor. I have become a familiar face to the kids now, and I whistle the theme from "The Andy Griffith Show" as I enter. Ian laughs like an idiot, and Howie (who normally looks meek and terrified) gets up and runs in a circle, tripping over Yuka and wiping out on his face. Luckily, he is unfazed, and the lesson commences. Once again, same as before, I begin with calisthenics, then good mornings, then speaking exercises. I teach basically the exact same lesson as yesterday, only with more energy and in a different order. The children seem to respond to my enthusiasm, which inspires me to act even MORE goofy and over-the top. At one point, as I am pretending to throw up a handful of colored yarn balls on Cynthia (which the kids think is HYSTERICAL), I look up to see Yvonne laughing at me. I smile, grateful that she is entertained and not disgusted by my teaching techniques or by the fact that I am fake-vomiting on a four-year old. I may just win her over yet. More "A! A! A!", more small plastic animals. The two hours goes by quickly with little downtime, and most of the kids are laughing and squealing by the time I am supposed to leave for lunch. Yuka and Jeffrey even come up and grab my legs as I am walking out, and I have to tickle them so they let me go. I am thrilled they feel comfortable enough to touch me now. Once their walls have crumbled, the armies of knowledge will have free reign over their tiny, moldable minds. Yes, I will use war metaphors often to describe teaching. The fight for the mind is nothing short of what it claims to be.

I go downstairs, talk with Connie a bit about how everything is going. Today I feel more energetic and am excited about the progress I am making with the kids, and this must be evident in my zealousness, for as I talk loudly her eyes get big and she leans back in her chair, as if she is being physical pushed away by my intensity. She offers warm words of encouragement, which I appreciate and take to heart. I also ask her about getting internet in my apartment, because even though I know my days are going to start becoming more fun-fllled and my free time is going to rapidly shrivel up to only evenings and weekends, I still like the feeling of being connected and the superabundance of information and entertainment that the internet provides. She assures me that she will ask Mia, who I have probably met in the past couple days but can't yet place a face to the name, to call the cable company and set up an appointment for me. "Just write down your address and bring it to the elementary tomorrow. We can take care of it then." Happy that I am becoming more permanent and proud of myself for my initiative (which I have been known to lack in the past), I reward myself by heading upstairs and stealing lunch from the hard-working lunch lady. I find a bowl and fill it with white rice, then cover the rice with some kind of broth and add several pieces of what appears to be chicken on top of this. This chicken pieces, however, include a large circular bone in the center, the bone showing the marrow from where it was cut on either end. As i head back downstairs, I wonder momentarily what part of the chicken this is from, then decide it is best if I don't know. I eat quickly and in silence, holding the small bowl close to my chin, my lack of profieciency with the chopsticks forcing me to spoon the rice into my mouth from point blank. I try the chicken, and it is slimy and fatty, but I eat it anyway for the protein. When I am finished, my lap is covered in fallen rice in spite of my best efforts, and I take my bowl back to the kitchen, wash it, and tell the lunch lady "thank you" in english as I leave. She either doesn't hear me or doesn't understand, for she makes no acknowledgment of my courtesy.

I walk back home, arms swingly lazily by my sides, the afternoon sun sucking up my energy and replacing it with a salty heat that squints my eyes and bakes the skin on my face and neck. I stop by the 7-11 and buy a giant bottle of water, drinking it as I walk the rest of the way to my apartment, not caring as the jolting movements from my walking causes some water to drip down onto my sweat-soaked shirt. Home at last, I strip down and jump in the shower, then sit in my underwear on the black vinyl couch, feeling the air close in around me and begin to draw the perspiration to the surface. Suddenly, I am extremely tired, and almost let sleep take me into its embrace of compacency before shaking myself back to life. "NO!" I mentally shout at the apathy and fatigue that is threatening to rip the consciousness from my body and rob me of my afternoon. "I have only been here a WEEK. I still have too much to see to be sleeping away all of my days!". With this I rise, put on shorts, a dry t-shirt, and flip-flops, and hastily leave the feeling of listlessness behind, disappointed, cursing itself for failing to recruit another convert. I have saved the day from the bloody jaws of incuriosity. It is time to go exploring.

September 20, 2009

RT Mart: The King of Pop and Chocolate Flavored Beef

I enter the RT Mart - which the foreign people I have met pronounce "ArdyMart" - and slow my walk to a near stop, shuffling along and taking in all the sights that I didn't have time for last time I was here with Connie and David. I am in no hurry, so I figure I will spend some time tracing through the isles, making mental lists of desired future purchases, noting the differences in products and packaging from what I am accustomed to seeing back home. The first discrepancy between the RT Mart and a traditional grocery or one-stop-shop in the States is the layout; I have just walked into the entrance of the store, but I am not actually in the RT yet. This area is large and open with white floors and high ceilings, and functions as a welcoming zone before one actually begins shopping. On my right is a Nike Factory Outlet store, inside its employees wearing bright orange baseball-style jerseys and looking bored and ready to leave. Further down on my right are more small shops, each on specializing in everything from women's clothing to women's underwear to massage equipment to bedroom furniture. Directly to my left is a very tiny shop where three middle-aged Taiwanese women huddle around three closely crammed barber chairs and work furiously to cut the hair of three impatient looking men. The sign above the glass barbershop windows says "100" in big white letters, leading me to believe that a haircut here is only $100 NT. Not bad; $3 US for a haircut. However, the prospect of going to this place is a little risky for a number of reasons, the first being that I can't speak Chinese and thus can't tell them HOW I would like my hair to look after they get finished hacking away at it, the second being that almost every Taiwanese man I have seen has had a goofy-looking haircut (I'm not sure if this is a testament to their culture, their type of hair, or the terrible quality of barbershops on the island), and the third being that, I mean come on, how good can the quality of service really be for $3 US? Luckily, I don't need a haircut just yet, so I can put off deciding just where to go and how to avoid getting butchered without knowing proper phrases like "not too short" and "don't make me look like Jackie Chan". I'll cross that bridge when the shagginess becomes unbearable

Looking past the barbershop I see that a path branches off from the entryway and slopes downward and to the left, leading past a Kentucky Fried Chicken and two more clothing stores before disappearing around the corner. A sign informs me first in Chinese, then under it in English, that this is the food court area. Although I am curious to see what other kinds of restaurants are hiding down in the food court, I decide that it will probably be cheaper to buy something in the RT Mart, so I decline exploring (for now) and instead walk straight ahead, toward where I believe the real entrance to the store will be. Thankfully, my guess is correct and I avoid looking like I have no idea how a grocery store works. I walk through the store merchandise detectors and past a security guard and what appears to be some kind of manager, judging by his shined shoes and tie. He smiles at me and I smile back, but have no kind words to offer so just keep walking into the plethora of cheap Asian goods, their brightly colored packaging and strange characters begging for my attention.

The first thing I notice upon entering the RT Mart is a large CD rack on my left covered with an enormous poster of Michael Jackson. A crowd has gathered around a television suspended from the ceiling, and as I get closer I can see the low-qulaity screen is playing a video of Michael Jackson singing "Billy Jean" live in concert. Apparently, even before Michael Jackson had died he was big over here - now he is EVERYWHERE. I walk past the mob and toward the rest of the electronics, noticing the large tables covered in piles with everything from Ramen to baby clothes that line the walkway on my right. Signs hanging above the piles or stacks denote their prices with big yellow letters, and I assume that these items are on some kind of clearance or special. Arriving in the electronics department, I skim quickly over the cameras, not really looking at prices, and then head for the fans. Because my apartment does not have air conditioning and, with my budget being fairly tight I am tempted to forgo the luxury to keep my electric bills low, a fan seems to be a commodity that I cannot live without. The least expensive fans are about $200 NT, but none of these look like they will hold together for more than a few weeks, especially not with me running them all hours of the day and night. Unfortunately, the nicer and more study-looking fans start at around $500 NT, which (even at $15 US) feels a little out of my price range. I resolve to hold out for a few more days, and continue to examine the other small appliances.

One thing that I also desperately need is some way to prepare food, seeing as how my apartment failed to come equipped with either a stove, microwave, or oven. (Most apartments, and even houses in Taiwan do not have ovens - this is why bakeries are so popular here). I peruse through various crock-pots and steamers, eventually coming to the portable electric ranges. These single-burner stovetops would be perfect for everything I wanted to make which, giving my limited cooking ability, is basically just chicken, eggs, hamburgers, and anything that involves boiling water. I look at the prices and find a decent looking one that lists for $2,200 NT, or about $70 US. DONE. This, along with some cooking utensils, a pot and a pan, and something to eat on and with are added to my mental list of things to buy with my October paycheck. I'm not exactly sure what I am going to do about food until then, or if I'll even have enough money to eat at all in September, but I'm not worried. Somehow, these things always manage to work themselves out, even if you end up losing fifteen pounds and eating only the free Nature Valley granola bars at the ski resort to keep from starving to death. (This, unfortunately, is not in any way an exaggeration. By the end of my stay in Colorado last winter I was living off of 75 cents a day and had dropped from 182 pounds to 160-something. When I finally left to come home, I deemed my return "The End of an Error". In retrospect, however, I consider the experience one of best times of my life - funny how I don't remember things like poverty and hunger pains in my memories. I only remember the beauty of the mountains and the rush of the snow beneath my board...the feeling of total freedom. Ultimate escapism).

I move on past the small appliances and stumble upon the "home" section of the store. Here I find everything I would need if I owned a home, and nothing I will need because I do not. This is one of the things I have always found liberating about living a relatively non-materialistic existence; it seems to me that, the more stuff you have, the more stuff you need. Logic would deduce that, by having more things, one would move closer to the goal of having everything they required to live and therefore their list of needed items would be smaller. The reality of this materialistic lifestyle, however, is counterintuitive to reason - by owning more possessions, one must begin to buy more and more things to maintain these possessions until eventually they are no longer satisfying their own needs, but instead satisfying the needs of their possessions, of these THINGS that have cluttered their life and robbed them of their independence. Life is no longer self-serving. They exist to maintain the materials around them but in the process forget to maintain themselves, forget to LIVE. This is why I have always chosen to invest in people and experiences rather than things. To invest in things is to lose oneself in a maelstrom, to get caught in the cyclical spiral of materialism that drags one down until they are no longer ABLE to invest in anything else. I have almost nothing to my name, yet I am no less happy despite all I can call my own fitting in a duffle bag, a backpack, and a few cardboard boxes in my Grandma's basement. I have navigated through the waters without the fancy possessions that the world demands I own to prove my life is meaningful, and have avoided the swirling dangers that threaten to trap me, to enslave ALL of us into a life filled with soulless objects that cannot love and cannot give us true happiness or memories. I am now sailing on the open sea, the sun on my face and the waters calm and beautiful...

Damnit. I have stumbled into the bedding items, which is something I actually DO need. They do not have mattresses here, but do have a wide selection of padded mattress toppers and fold-up cushions. This might be worth considering, but at this point I am still leaning towards an actual mattress over a thin mattress substitute. I also find the pillows, which are pillowy (and fairly inexpensive), and the sheets, which are hideous. RT Mart has neglected to carry any sheets that do not have gaudy floral print or some kind of cartoon characters on them. "Hmmm, so much for my apartment looking cool" I think to myself. Although I have never cared too much what my living quarters have looked like - my friends and past girlfriends can all attest to this - having my own apartment for the first time inspires me to personalize it and try and make it as homey as possible. This is not to say that I want a lot of stuff, I just want the stuff I HAVE to be cool, and preferably match. Apparently, though, this is too much to ask. "Surely they have something resembling a Bed Bath and Beyond in Taiwan" I hope, and choose to delay any sheet buying until a more favorable selection presents itself.

I wander up and down more isles, finding the sports and recreation sections. They have an extensive collection of badminton rackets and lots of basketball and baseball stuff. No soccer balls and no footballs, though, which are the only two sports I can play with any amount of grace or proficiency. Looks like I will not be impressing anyone with my athletic prowess any time soon. The lack of soccer apparel shocks me a little, as I was previously under the impression that soccer (or football everywhere but America) was the most popular sport in every country EXCEPT America. This is not the case on this Asian island nation, as my Lonely Planet (courtesy of my dear sister) informs me that baseball is actually the most popular sport here, followed closely by basketball, then tennis. I am awful at all three, and thus move past the sports section with little hesitation.

My next stop is in the cleaning isle, where absolutely nothing is in English and I therefore have no idea which of the brightly colored bottles contains which cleaning solutions. Although my apartment is not yet dirty, Connie and David have warned me that dust and dirt builds up very fast, so I need to clean at least once a week to avoid this unthinkable and awful outcome. Personally, I have never been big on cleaning, and at the moment I choose to risk the possibility that I may have a massive allergy attack from dust build-up. The next isle down from the cleaning supplies holds the detergents. I have only brought about eight pairs of underwear with me and am getting dangerously close to having to recycle, so the decision is made to make detergent my first purchase at the RT Mart. I scan over the bottles, the only one in English being TIDE brand which, at $400 NT a bottle, is ridiculously expensive. I eventually settle on one of the cheapest selections, a large green bottle that costs $130 NT and resembles the color and font of an ERA brand bottle from back home, though completely in Chinese. I assume this is what it is, and head for a new isle, happy with my choice.

As I walk out of the cleaning section, I come to the "personal care" section, which has things like soap, make-up, shampoo, razors, deodorant, and feminine products. This section seems to divide the non-food part of the store from the food part of the store, as I can see further down the shelves are lined with edible products. I look around a bit, comparing prices and seeing if they have anything that looks even vaguely familiar. To my surprise, the RT Mart carries almost every product that I am used to using, and this comforts me a little knowing that I will not have to experiment with finding a new shampoo or deodorant. (It took me YEARS to find a deodorant that actually works. That's right, I am a sweaty guy - easy ladies, not everyone at once). Also, they have a MASSIVE selection of male soap, face wash, and moisturizer, more so than I have seen at even the Super Centers stateside. I guess Taiwanese men are more vain than I had previously thought. I should fit in wonderfully here!

Finally, onto the food. At this point I am far past hungry, and EVERYTHING looks phenomenal. I cruise up and down the walkways, desperately searching for something that I will not have to prepare and can eat almost immediately. Also, although I really want to try something new and foreign, I find myself seeking out only those products that have english writing on the boxes. I justify this to myself by thinking that, due to my hunger AND lack of funds, if I select something risky and I do not like it I will have suffered a failure nearly too heartbreaking to overcome. In the cookie isle I am tempted by the Oreos and the crackers, but decide against eating cookies for dinner. I skip the ramen and tea isles - yes, they have an entire isle devoted to tea - and eventually end up in the pre-packaged food section, which has everything from candy to beef jerky. For some reason, beef jerky sounds like exactly what I want, so I look over all the packages, trying to find one that I KNOW will be beef, or jerky, or both. Ah HA! I see a bright package full of shredded meat, completely in Chinese except for the words "BEEF" on the front and a picture of a cartoon cow. Perfect. It is also one of the least expensive beef jerky items at $110, and even though I know it is not the most nutritious of purchases, I try to justify it by looking at the protein content in the nutrition facts on the back. Of course, I have forgotten that they are all in Chinese, so I assume that this beef jerky has a LOT of protein. Looks like, unless I learn to read Chinese, I won't be counting any calories in Taiwan. Shucks.

Now clutching detergent in one hand and beef jerky in the other, I emerge from the rows of isles into a large open area that contains the produce on one side and the frozen or refrigerated goods on the other. I walk around aimlessly, looking at the fruits and vegetables, none of which look appealing, and at the dairy products, all of which look confusing. I find the meat sections and marvel at the strange items under the clear plastic wrapping. Thankfully, I discover the chicken breasts which, although I cannot cook until I get a electric range, has been one of my favorite foods for years and I am grateful that RT Mart carries them. I come to a large spread of what appears to be fried foods, all of them glistening under the heat lamps, the man behind the counter staring at me attentively. I look over each item, and see something that resembles a large crab cake. In my current state of abdominal vacancy I know that fried foods are disgusting yet filling, so I shift my items into one hand and point at the crab cake thing with the other, holding up one finger and saying "one" in english, as if this will do any good. The man is perceptive and understands, picking up my item with tongs and placing it in a bag, then printing out a price sticker and placing it on the bad before giving it to me. I say "xiexie" politely, and look at the price as I walk away; $85 NT. Eh, it's a little steep, but I am proud of myself for both trying something new as well as the successful communication with the fried food clerk. I believe it will be worth it.

At this point, my hands are growing tired from holding all of my items, so I elect to bypass the bakery which is located against the far wall. I make my way to the checkout counters that are off to my right, but see a nice yellow box with a picture of a cake filled with custard on the front. The sign above the box says "79", obviously denoting that these items are on clearance. "Well, if they are on sale...." my starving sweet tooth begs persuasively, so I impulsively grab the desserts and head to the checkout. The line is long but the checkout girl is efficient, and I watch each customer's actions before me to see if there is any protocol I must be aware of before my turn is up. I notice that everyone seems to have some sort of "shoppers card", and I vaguely remember Connie having one when I was here with them a few days ago. Suddenly, I am gripped with panic! What if I NEED a card to buy my things?! What if this is like Sam's Club, but crueler, because instead of denying you entrance they allow you to THINK you are going to get to buy your items, then shut you down at the last minute?! It is finally my turn, and I turn and face the lady with a look of apology and terror. She says something in Chinese, and holds her hands in the shape of a rectangle. I hold my breath and shake my head "no", but to my relief she hits a button on the register and begins to scan my few items. I watch the digital numbers add up, the total coming to just under $400. Because sales tax is already figured into the prices of all items, one can figure out EXACTLY how much they will have to pay before coming to check out, so I am not surprised by this number. I hand the checkout girl 4 pink $100's, and she gives me back my change and receipt, but no bag. Hm? Perhaps she thinks I do not need a bag, perhaps she thinks I am just going to my scooter outside instead of walking a mile down the street to my apartment. I don't want to bother her, and I have no idea how to ask for a bag, so I gather my things in my arms and walk back towards the entrance, NOT looking forward to the long walk home.

Before I leave I decide to explore the food court and eat my crab cake thing before the grease congeals and it becomes inedible. I stroll down the walkway and into the food court, which is extensive but otherwise not out of the ordinary. The right-hand wall is lined with small food kiosks, and the middle of the floor is filled with tables and chairs, most of which are empty. I sit down by myself and take my crab cake out of the bag, smelling it first, then taking a bite. It is not exactly like I expected; instead of being bread-like and crumbly, it is chewy and spongy, but still tastes okay so I eat it quickly. I move on to the custard treats, eating three before I realize that they are not very good. I am so hungry I don't even care at this point. After my mini gorge session I gather my things and walk back up towards the door and out into the night air, adjusting my grip on my items as I go.

Walking home I realize that I am still very hungry, so I open the beef jerky and try it. To my surprise, the jerky seems to be covered in something that tastes and resembles baking chocolate. I can't decide if I like this at first, but after eating a few pieces my stomach begins to tell me that beef and chocolate are not a desirable combination. I eat one more custard cake to clear the taste of the choco-jerky from my mouth, and walk the rest of the way home nursing an upset stomach, feeling guilty and a little disappointed that I have splurged on items that have taken away my hunger at the cost of my comfort. "Next time will be different" I think optimistically, and make it home safely, leaving the sound and smell of the city far below.

September 18, 2009

McAwesome And The Adventures Of The Taiwandering Hunger Artist

I gather my thoughts, which have become fractured with echoes of piano lullabies in A Minor, and leave shortly after Connie. My responsibilities as a teacher do not yet extend past 12:00 noon, which is both a blessing and a curse. The positive of this situation is that I do not feel completely overwhelmed, not only due to the unfamiliarity with teaching but also in regard to the amount of hours I am working. I imagine that being thrust abruptly into one's first 40 hour-a-week job can be shocking; although one learns to swim faster by jumping in over their head, in this circumstance I am perfectly happy to ease myself in, catching my shorts breaths as the ice chills run up the back of my legs, letting myself adjust to the dark and unknown waters. The negative side of this, of course, is that I am only getting paid for three hours each day, and with money problems looming on my financial horizon, my brain is already crunching the numbers to see if how close I'm going to cut it. "Lets see" I talk out loud to myself, which is something I have discovered I always do when I'm stressed about money or time and am trying to find a way to make my ends meet (this happens fairly often in my life), "I make $400 NT an hour (which is roughly $12.00 US), and I have worked six hours thus far. My total earnings are....(this takes much longer to process than it should)...$2,400 NT." Congratulations - Call MENSA, we got a real prodigy here. I have also gotten into the habit of converting everything into US Dollars, mostly because it's fun to see how inexpensive everything is compared to the prices back home. The conversion is fairly simple once you get the hang of it: $100 NT = $3 US, $1000 NT = $30 US, etc. So once again, taking far too long for my brain full of words, poetry, metaphors, and songs to compute, I struggle to figure I have made close to $75 US. Not great, but not horrible for two days work.

[My salary, should anyone want to know, is approximately $60,000 NT a month, or a little under $2000 US. Although my annual salary of $22,000 US is much lower than what a new teacher in the United States would make, which according to a 2006 survey was between $35 and $40,000, the cost of living allows foreign teachers to exist very comfortably (unless you are trying to pay everyone back who got you to Taiwan in the first place!) here, which is why these jobs are perfect for the directionless, debt-ridden, or unemployable (due to lack of experience) - I happen to fit into all three of these categories. In comparison with other professionals in Taiwan, foreign teachers are one of the higher paid occupations, with first-year engineers making about $15,000 US a year, and beginning domestic teachers making about $12,000 US annually. Doctors still have the upper hand, though. While residents make about as much as I do (about $60,000 NT monthly) which is consistent with the poor compensation for residents Stateside, a full-time family practice doctors will make, on average, $140,000 US a year. Once again, these figures must be viewed through the lens of the extremely low cost of living in Taiwan.]

My mind whirring with numbers, I walk down the sidewalk toward the main road, the heat from the sun pushing its way into the threads of my t-shirt and warming my shoulders through the fabric. The trek back home is uneventful and plays out like my morning commute in reverse, the only difference being the temperature, which seems to have risen at least ten degrees, as well as the relative inactivity on the streets and sidewalks. The noon-day lull is at its peak. Shop owners peer out through windows and garages as I pass, amazed at the foreigner who would brave the midday fire that stalks the blacktop, its pervasiveness challenging anyone who dares to venture out from the shadows or air-conditioned havens to face its febrile breath. By the time I arrive home sweat is pouring from my forehead and running into my eyes, the burning sensation accompanied by the taste of salt on my upper lip. I immediately take off my clothes and turn on the shower, letting the chilled water wash away the sticky summer that clings to the back of my neck and in the crooks of my arms and knees. I feel baptized, reborn. Out of the bathroom now, I lay naked on box spring bed, the humid air stealing the moisture from my skin, leaving refreshing chills in its place. I am comfortable. I am happy. I close my eyes and let my body fully relax under the weight of the heavy air that fills my apartment.

I wake up, completely unaware that I had fallen asleep. I feel a faint breeze from the open porch door, but other than that the air is stagnant, carrying sounds of passing vehicles from the street as offerings to celebrate my return to consciousness. I have not moved from the position I had laid down in earlier, on my back with arms and legs spread, palms facing the ceiling, vulnerable and unclothed. I am DaVinci's Vitruvian Man. Perhaps I died for a minute, but was pulled back from the gnarled clutches of Ender by some force beyond my comprehension and for a reason I will never understand. I don't remember any bright lights - should this upset me? Despite my complete lack of motion, however, my body has recommenced its efforts to keep my temperature cool at the cost of becoming disgustingly clammy. I sit up, beads of sweat running down my bare chest and collecting in the creases of my stomach, and check the time on my phone. 3:30 p.m. I have been asleep for three hours and was not even aware that I was tired. This kind of exhaustion is the worst, the kind that you cannot see coming and thus cannot combat. The battle was lost before the first punch was even out the door.

I stand up and go to my closet to find something to wear, but dread the feeling clothing gives when it clings to wet skin. I decide to rinse off, once again with cold water, which helps to clear the fuzz still lingering in my head from my unplanned nap. Quickly then, I towel off and dress before my skin powers up the perspiration factory, putting on khaki shorts and one of the only loose-fitting t-shirts that I packed. I desperately need a pair of athletic shorts, not only because they are comfortable and perfect for these times of inactivity and laziness, but also because I want to start running soon and need something to wear besides sweat pants, which would probably kill me after being outside for five minutes. I don't know why I chose to pack three pairs of sweatpants but neglected to bring even ONE pair of running shorts for my year-long excursion to a country in a sub-tropical climate. The inner-workings of my brain are a mystery. I resolve to buy some running shorts as soon as possible, and wonder where the best place to go to buy said clothing would be. I decide to go exploring tomorrow after class, hoping I can find something that won't kill my budget. At this point, though, shorts have transcended thrift and have reach "necessity" status. The Taiwanese humidity mocks my feeble attempts at frugality.

For the next few hours I sit at my computer and write, the sun dropping slowly and lowering the brightness of the sky as if adjusting a giant fader, setting the mood for lovers across the city and darkening my small studio until the shadows have replaced the last remaining colors clinging to their once-brilliant objects. I write until the computer screen is the only light I can see, my fingers painted with the unnatural and sickly-looking glow of its luminescence, the poised tips hovering above the keyboard trying to translate the jumble of expressions and details in my head into something coherent on the artificial piece of digital paper in front of me. Part of me yearns for the days of the typewriter, though I have never actually used one and can only guess at how terribly frustrating and time-consuming fixing errors must be. It just carries with it some romantic notion, some connection between the tangible product of one's work with the quality and substance reflected on the physical pages. It seems to my imagination that all great writers have scribbled by candlelight or punched typewriter keys loudly in lonely apartments or sequestered cabins, losing themselves in the pages of their work, smearing the ink with their fingers that shake from insomnia and caffein. The dehumanizing luminosity of a computer screen certainly robs the artist and the art of its sentimentality. I long for the good ol' days which were gone before I even arrived.

Around eight o'clock my eyes begin to burn and my back aches from my hunched position. Suddenly, I realize that I am starving, and my stomach is making it clear that forgoing dinner will not be an option tonight. But I am at a loss: Where am I going to eat? From what I have noticed in my preliminary surveys of the neighborhood, none of the close-by restaurants or food vendors have any menus or signs in English - most of them don't even have pictures, which, if I were desperate enough, could just point to the item I wanted and go "ehh, ehh!" like an infant. Because I do not know the Chinese name for ANYTHING, this puts these restaurants temporarily out of my access. My second option would be some form of American fast food, such as one of the many McDonalds or KFCs that can be found around Hsinchu. I am against this idea for three reasons, namely; a) going to McDonalds of KFC is decidedly NOT in any way a unique OR cultural experience, which was one of the biggest motivating factors for my coming here in the first place - to experience a culture completely different from anything I could find in the U.S. Thus I refuse to eat there; b) I don't like any of McDonald's food, save for their breakfast sandwiches and pretty much everything when I'm very inebriated. After I eat McDonalds, I feel like shit for about three days and can swear I hear my body whispering "why???? What have we done to deserve this???" And you know what? I can't give my body a straight answer, so I then have to pile guilt on top of my feelings of nausea; c) I have no clue where the closest McChain restaurant is, and in my current state of famished-ness, I don't feel that wandering aimless around the city looking for one is a great idea. The authorities might find me naked in a park somewhere, meandering around glassy-eyed mumbling "Quarter Pounder with cheese, no pickles...."

The only other place I can think to go is the 7-11 two blocks from my apartment, but convenience store food sounds even worse than McDonalds at the moment (or always). Therefore, I opt for secret option Number D, which is to try and find something at the RT Mart that doesn't require any kind of preparation, utensils, or fresh drinking water to consume. I am not exactly sure what foods would fall into this category. I'm know they'll probably have cookies and pre-packaged crackers and candy, but my body, having eaten only fruit, white rice, and ground beef in the last twenty-four hours, is craving something with nutritional value. I grab my wallet, making sure there is at least $500 in it, and head down to the street. The air is cool and the humidity has subsided substantially, leaving in its absence a clear, starless evening that smells of exhaust fumes and contracting pavement. The light breeze gives new life to my legs, which feel shaky as they pump the ground under my flip-flops, striding briskly down the sidewalks and alleyways, crossing over the bridge to the end of Zi You Road. Earlier this morning at this same intersection, I took a left, heading East in the direction of my school. Now, I turn right, walking in front of a large two-story pet store with big windows, none of which house dogs or cats, jumping over black and yellow striped parking curbs as I go. I continue walking down this road, which is wide and busy, until I reach the pedestrian and scooter entrance to the RT Mart parking lot (I love how these are often one in the same). Inside, a world of mediocre goods and low, low prices await me. I am so hungry at this point, I'd settle for a fish head. I stroll past the rows and rows of scooters, noting how busy the store seems for it being close to 9:00 p.m. Yellow lights swarm with insects and hum in different frequencies as I pass beneath them. I slip under the shelter of the corrugated metal walkway, and momentarily join a mass of people as we walk through the automatic sliding glass doors with a "WHOOSH" of cold, clean-smelling air. My stomach, having sensed that food is nearby, begins to whine and my mouth starts to water. I have violated the #1 rule of budget shopping: Never EVER go when you're hungry. I take my first steps into the RT Mart, looking forward to exploring on my first solo shopping trip in my new country. The pink $100 bills have already begun to burn tiny holes in my pockets....

September 15, 2009

"I Shall Seize Fate By The Throat; It Shall Certainly Not Bend And Crush Me Completely." - Ludwig Von Beethoven

The second day of school starts off very much like this first, only it seems things have calmed down a little since the initial fears and worries of the staff were put to bed after no one was hospitalized, lost, or succumbed to dehydration from continuous crying for eight hours (this is not a child did not stop crying from the second she left her mother's arms in the morning until she was reunited with her in the late afternoon). However, I still feel a general sense of franticness in the air as I remove my flip-flops and walk past the front desk to the small office area where Connie and Cecile are already printing off hand-outs and organizing their lessons plans. I have no hand-outs and no lesson plan. Once again, I figure I'll just wing it and see where I end up. This has been the bedrock of my decision-making and life-living process for the last four or five years, and it seems to have served me well thus far. Sure, I am in debt and have almost no material possessions to my name, but I somehow managed to acquire a worthless college degree and have ended up halfway around the world by adhering to my haphazard ideology; I figure it can't be ALL bad.

Also in this office area are two more foreign teachers whom I have not met, a man and a woman. The man is large, at least 6' 3", with very fair skin and light blonde hair. He is dressed in a button-down oxford-style shirt tucked into slacks, and looks far more professional that any of the other teachers in the room, most of whom are wearing shorts and t-shirts. Connie, realizing we have not met, introduces the man to me. "This is Lars," she says, and I instantly picture the massive human being before me in a Scandinavian Viking costume, swinging a broadsword, severing limbs and heads. However, one look into his round, rosy face and gentle eyes tells me he probably does not own a broadsword, and has probably not severed anyone's head - at least not recently. "How goes it?" Lars asks, and his voice is soft and high, a thick South African (basically British) accent flowing over a generous smile. I smile back. "Goes it good," I say, and he chuckles, his smile widening underneath his blonde stubble of a beard.

"Hi, I'm Kara" the female teacher offers next, sensing it is her turn to be introduced. Kara is thin and athletic-looking, with high cheekbones and thin brown hair pulled back in a small ponytail. She looks to be about my age, and is dressed casually, wearing a pink t-shirt, army-green capris, sandals, and several colorful anklets and bracelets. As I return her greeting, I notice that she is not beautiful but pretty in a hippie, Northface catalogue sort of way, and from my initial impressions I bet she would be a great hiking/camping/rock climbing partner. She'd probably bitch less than ME. Her accent is distinctly American, and by her natural easiness of speech I can guess she is a Midwestern girl. After I introduce myself I ask where she is from, to which she replies "Minnesota". I knew it. We make small talk for a minute, but she seems preoccupied, so I let her get back to copying writing exercises for her K-3 Kindergartners (the 5-6 year olds). Everyone seems to be working diligently on something of great importance, but I have no idea what I should be doing so I just end up standing around, staring off into space. Even if I had some pressing lesson plans that desperately needed teaching aids, I have not the slightest clue where to begin to look for worksheets or flash cards in the rows of 3-ring binders that have taken up residence on the newly assembled shelfs, and no way to access the internet because the only two computers in the office area are already in use. I don't know if I could even WORK the copy machine, to be quite honest; all the buttons are in Chinese.

Thus, I am relegated to just wandering around for 45 minutes, getting in the way, apologizing, moving into someone ELSE'S way, apologizing some more. Boredom has caused me to relinquish my "Just Wing It" (new Nike slogan for slackers) mentality and begin to sketch some rough lesson plans in my head. By the time 9:30 rolls around, I am feeling slightly more prepared than I felt yesterday. I now have a plan of attack. I ride the elevator to the third floor, and cross the play area quickly, not wanting to get on Yvonne's bad side because of tardiness. I enter the classroom and quickly make my way to the front, feeling the six sets of tiny eyes burning into me. I imagine their tiny thoughts thinking, "Not THIS guy again!", and even though I know I will eventually win each of them over, I have a strong desire to do so immediately. The faster I make an impression and command their attention and affection, the faster I can influence them and teach them. I want to be loved today. No one is crying yet. Off to a good start.

My plan of attack goes something like this: For the first 10 minutes we do warm-ups, which consist of physical exercises to wake the kids up and get them excited to participate in the day's activities. We pretend to be airplanes and fly around the classroom, get on our hands and feet and crab-walk, jumped up and down in circles, and make funny faces at each other. At one point I just start shouting like a maniac, which frightens everyone until Ian starts screaming along with me. Soon, I have a deafening chorus of shrill shrieking four-year olds mimicking me, all of us screaming our heads off as Yvonne looks on with a face that says "Dear God. Worst teacher ever." After settling everyone down (which was much harder to do than I had anticipated it would be), I proceed to go through the morning's greeting, wishing the children a good morning in slow, drawn-out tones. I then bring each one up, one at a time, to say their greetings in front of the class. "Cynthia, say 'My name is Cynthia,'" I whisper to Cynthia as she stands next to me in front of her classmates. "My-nay-iss Cynthia!" she squeals, blurring all the words together. "Okay, now say 'Good morning everybody,'" I instruct, speaking painfully slow so she can process each word and sound. "Goomor-nee Ery-bodee!" she shouts with enthusiasm, obviously proud of herself. "GOOD JOB, CYNTHIA!" I exclaim as if Cynthia had just won an Olympic gold medal. I go through this process five more times, each time whispering the words in their ears, the children like actors who have forgotten their lines on stage. Everyone does well at this and is very proud of themselves, with the exception of Bernie, who just stares at me blankly when I whisper his line into his ear and mumbles a barely audible "Bernie?" "Well, at least he knows his name," I think. Progress is being made. Knowledge is being inflicted.

Stage two involves more of the letter "A", but with visual aids. First, I draw both versions of the letter and have the kids repeat its name. This time, I also have them say the sound of the letter, which I voice as "aa, aa, aa" as in the word "cat". (Yes, I am aware that the letter "A" also makes the "ah" steps, people. Baby steps). For the next couple of minutes, all we do is chant "A, A,, aaa, aaa" over and over. Finally, as the children's voices drop off one by one due to lack of interests or fascination by their own snot, I revive my long-lost artistic skills and begin feverishly sketching on the three foot tall dry-erase board, dropping to my knees as I do to avoid bending over to draw. The result of my work is exquisite: an apple, drawn basically as a red circle with a black stem and leaf coming out of the top. Suddenly, someone shouts "apple!!" from behind me. I whirl on my knees, beaming as I face the children. "THAT'S RIGHT!" I gush. "Very GOOOOD!" The next few minutes are spent repeating "A! APPLE! A! APPLE!" until everyone literally thinks the word for apple is "A apple". After "apple" is somewhat ingrained in their hit-or-miss memories, I draw a picture of an ant, which looks a lot like a snowman laying on its side with legs and antennae. The process is repeated: "A! ANT! A! ANT! aaa, aaa, aaa" until everyone seems to grasp that the letter "A" is loosely related to the drawing of an ant, which is also somehow related to the sound "aaaa". Two pictures seems like plenty for the day, and in truth, the only words that our curriculum requires my kids to know for the letter "A" are "apple" and "ant". I decide it's time to take a bathroom break, feeling much more encouraged by our headway than I felt yesterday.

The bathroom break, however, is an adventure all in its own. The children have been trained to respond to the word "washroom" by sprinting as fast as their stubby legs will carry them to the nearest lavatory, leaving a path of destruction and trampled bodies (should any one fall down...which they ALWAYS do) in their wake. However, in Asian culture, much more so than in American public schooling, manners are heavily stressed, and large sections of their Chinese teaching is set aside to learning only etiquette. Before my first class yesterday, Connie had told me that it is extremely important, especially to the parents who are paying large amounts of money for their children to attend our school, that everyone learn to be well-behaved in my class, and one of my responsibilities is to impart the skills needed to act at least somewhat civilized in the adult world. With this in mind, I precede the bathroom break by quieting everyone down, forcing them to sit still, then saying in a soothing, calm whisper, "Time to go to the washroom". Pandemonium ensues. Because they are sitting behind the boys, the girls are the first on their feet and out of the gate. However, their desire to pee and wash their hands is dwarfed by the raw power and speed of the four boys, who check Cynthia into the cabinets and shove poor Yuka underfoot, tripping over her mangled body in a life-and-death race to be the first to the door. Bernie is the clear-cut winner, but is immediately tackled by Ian and slammed into the wall, their tiny frames collapsing in a pile just as Howie brings up the rear, tripping over them and launching his face into the wooden door. Jesus! I quickly run to the scene of the multiple-child pile-up, screaming "EVERYBODY L-I-I-I-I-I-NE UP!" This, I come to realize, is the most important command in all of teaching. The boys drag themselves to their feet and the girls, dazed but unhurt, limp into what could only be considered a line by abstract artists doing far too many mind-expanding drugs. I shout once again, "Line UP!" and hold my hand out straight in front of me, hoping the ankle-biters will take to aligning their bodies with my out-stretched arm. However, instead of falling into position, they mimic my actions, holding their arms in front of them. I now have what appears to be the Asian Chapter of the Hitler Youth, with six Taiwanese kindergartners saluting me Third-Riecht style. I put my arm down and take the straightforward approach, physically moving their bodies into position and sternly instructing "line up! line up!" after each pawn has been set. Now we are ready to go the restroom.

Washroom time is uneventful, save for the hilarious spectacle of watching four-year old boys pee. I certainly don't remember doing this as a toddler, but as I watch the boys pull their shorts completely down to go to the bathroom, even in front of the girls, it makes me smile at their innocence and lack of insecurity or care concerning their bodies or their actions. They are not here to impress anyone. They do not worry what anyone will think of them. They are not aware of the Fall of Man, they have never tasted any forbidden fruit. They do not want to be God; they just want to play on the jungle gym. After the short break I corral my class back into the room, making sure they wash their hands before they return (there has been some rumblings of an N1H1 Swine Flu epidemic that has been going around) to appease the overly cautious Chinese teachers.

The rest of the day goes a little less smoothly, mostly because my mental lesson plan only went as far as the letter "A". We play with the soft colorful yarn balls some more, which the kids love, and I try and teach them to say "orange" correctly. For some reason they all want to say "orang-EEE". I don't know why. As I am putting away the balls I find a small plastic tub filled with miniature plastic animals. This is PERFECT! I make the children sit in a circle and dump the animals in the middle of them. Mistake. Immediately the hoarding begins, and soon the children are clawing at each other's piles, everyone trying to acquire the ONE elephant in the whole damn tub like its a Mickey Mantle rookie card. I take the elephant for myself, redistribute the piles evenly (and suppress the urge to give a lecture about communist socioeconomic theory - probably only HALF the students would understand it anyway) and try to teach the children the names of the various species. "Yes, giraffe!" I say as Howie holds up a giraffe. "Ooooh, a monkey!" I exclaim as Yuka shows me a monkey. Of course, Bernie finds the giant anteater, and I have to just say "squirrel!" to his look of sincere curiosity. Why the hell is a giant anteater in here?!?! When is THAT going to come up in their future English conversations?

Finally, the animals are put away and it is recess time. During recess time I sit on the ground against the wall and fill out their "communication books" as I watch the children play, resolving any disputes/quelling any tears that are a result of their insanity and lack of balance. I am required to complete my section of the communication books every day; this entails marking their progress by checking boxes in the categories of "speaking ability", "participation", "comprehension", and "manners", as well as writing a short note if desired and signing my name. Parents may also write notes to me voicing their praises or concerns about their little ones or my effectiveness as a teacher. This part makes me particularly nervous, but I'm sure that the parents have been informed of my status as a "new" teacher (in every sense of the word), and thus will give me a little time to get settled before writing malicious notes asking why their child is adorning swastikas and reading Mien Kampf. Recess finishes with only a few scattered tears, and the kids obediently file back into the classroom for the last 30 minutes of instruction.

This time is spent mostly reviewing which, because we have only learned "Good Morning", "My name is ____", and "A! Apple!", is rather redundant. I also attempt to start their first reading book, which is a small paper book that each child has a copy of. The front cover is red and has a picture of a Hippopotamus with the words "Hello" written in yellow over the top of it, but the children could care less. All they want to do is flip through the 12 or so pages as fast as they can, then throw their books on the ground. I manage to get a couple of them to pay attention to the first page or two, which reads "I see cat! Hello!" and "I see dog! Hello!", but their attention span is severed quickly and they eventually commence to poking one another in the eyes. Luckily, class time ends before any of them are permanently blinded, and I leave feeling exhausted and with only a shredded sense of accomplishment. "Better than yesterday," I think. As long as I feel improvement, I guess I can postpone excellence and delay writing my "Teacher of the Year Award" acceptance speech.

Back downstairs, I learn that I am allowed to eat the leftovers from the lunch prepared for the students, which is the best news I have ever heard. I take the elevator to the 4th floor where the small kitchen is located, and squeeze my way past the not-so-friendly lunch lady to where, I assume, the teachers' food has been laid out. Mmmmm, rice with seasoned ground beef and tofu. Its like a poor-man's hamburger helper, but I do not complain because I am starving and it is free. I find a bowl and some chopsticks and fill the five-year old sized container to the top, trying to hide my portion size from the glaring eyes of the lunch lady, lest she scold my gluttony and think me a greedy American. Then its back downstairs to the office area, where I enjoy my white rice and talk to Connie about the frustrations and comedy of the morning's events. "Oh, by the way," I ask as she is packing up her things to go meet David for a REAL lunch somewhere, "why do the ice-cream trucks run so late here. I heard one last night as I was going to sleep. It had to have been almost eleven." She thinks for a minute then laughs. "That wasn't an ice-cream truck, silly," she speaks to me like I'm one of her students, "that was a TRASH truck. In Taiwan, you cannot leave your trash on the street. You have to listen for the trash truck coming so you can run downstairs and put it out before they get to your block. That's why they play the music." Wow, I would have never guessed. As Connie is walking out the door, I ask her what song the trash trucks are playing. "I know it's familiar, I just can't quite place it," I say. "Oh, its Fur Elise by Beethoven," she says, and exits into the waiting heat of the Hsinchu afternoon.

September 11, 2009

Holden Caufield

I wake up. The shower pulls me up from the bottom of the ocean, into the crisp cool air. I breathe deep and feel better, my capillaries taking the oxygen to my tissue, my body reacting slowly at first, then more noticeably. I finish my shower and shave without toweling off, letting the hot air work in tandem with my body heat to evaporate the moisture on my skin. Immediately I start sweating again, and I am beginning to learn that sweating is a fact of life in Taiwan. I try and kill some time by listening to music, then by reading, but I am too distracted by my upcoming day to really enjoy either. Finally, after what seems like hours of sitting around, I fix my hair with little effort (what do Kindergartners care?) and put on shorts, a t-shirt and flip-flops, making sure to grab my wallet, phone, and keys. "Okay, I am ready." It is 7:00. Damn, I am going to be early. I turn off all the lights and close the door behind me, turning the deadbolt as I do. Today I will be walking to school for the first time.

As I ride the elevator down to the "lobby" (which is really just a reception desk and stairs leading towards heaven), I regret that I did not give Princess Peach a proper goodbye. She was such a good little scooter, and somehow managed to keep me alive for five whole days. Now I will no longer have the pleasure of her company, or feel her tiny, blender-sized engine struggling beneath my 175 lbs of bones and skin. Hopefully someday we will be reacquainted, and I will once again be able to tear around town, a blur of pink, black and white; a true statement of masculinity. I am also regretful because now, with no scooter, all I have to get around are my legs, which have become quite lazy due to the relative amount of inactivity they have enjoyed these last few days. "No more Mr. Nice Guy" I think to my legs as I exit the elevator and walk out into the daylight. "Time to earn your keep, you worthless excuse for appendages!" (If I said even HALF of what my brain thinks out loud, I would be committed by the end of the day).

The sun is bright today, but it is not the warm, friendly sun that sleeps in the blue summer sky and wakes the spirit and soul. No, this sun is harsh and blinding, transfusing its abrasive light throughout the entirety of the white sky. The world looks like a room covered completely in florescent bulbs, humming and dragging shadows out from their hiding places to be executed. I squint against the pale light and feel the heat hit me like a wall of water. (This is my body's cue to start sweating even more). Damn, I should've brought a change of clothes. I turn right on the sidewalk, and walk past the maternity store where mannequins are adorned with strange underwear and strollers are displayed in the windows. Next on my right is the pet store, where animals sleep behind think glass, wishing their homes were anywhere but here. In one of the windows I see a small, white, rodent-ish looking thing curled up in his food bowl. What IS that thing? I have never seen anything like it. Maybe I'll go in a check it out later. The very last window has a black dachshund who appears to be suffering from severe depression. He is not asleep, but unblinkingly stares into nowhere, his head on the ground, wishing to die.

I continue walking past a bank, the cracked, uneven sidewalk turning to neatly well-kept bricks beneath my feet. A 7-11 follows it, and inside I see people sitting at the counter by the window, reading the morning paper, drinking coffee or tea, eating breakfast. I decide to go in to kill time, and end up standing in front of the beverages, reluctantly skimming over the bottles, trying to decide which decision I will not immediately regret. I end up choosing a bottle that says "Milk Tea" in english, and paying $17 NT for the risk. I open it as I exit and take a drink, tasting first the sweet condensed milk, then the bitter finish of black tea. It reminds me of coffee with cream, but is very cold and makes the morning heat seem more bearable. Here, the sidewalks ends and I take the street, the morning commuters blasting past me on Zihyou Road, their exhaust hot against my exposed feet and ankles. I walk past a gas station, where attendants busily fill up scooters and cars for motorists - I am told that most gas stations in Hsinchu are full service, and tipping is not required or expected.

I pass a nice looking building with a decadent looking lobby, a giant sign above the door has a enormous picture of a foot on it. This must be a massage parlor or acupuncturist; it certainly isn't a pediatrist. I cross a busy street even though the angry looking red man on the crosswalk indicator is telling me not to, and come to a park. On the corner a man is selling some sort of fried dough from his blue street stand, and across the overgrown grass of the park I see a large gazebo where old women sit with large hats and gloves on, silent and stone-faced, repelling the heat like they have done for years and years and years. The street here is lined with trees, huge gnarled limbs and trunks give the impressive of ancientness. I like these trees, and stop for a minute to wonder if Hsinchu has any city ordinances against climbing trees in public parks. "Another day my friend" I think, and keep walking. I cross another street, past a hotel and some unmarked shops where ladies and children sit and eat breakfast with chopsticks. I glance to the other side of the street and see the tiny shop where David and I ate breakfast my first morning here. That seems like ages ago. Time has managed to stretch itself into weeks in the last five days. I am on my way to immortality.

Eventually I come to Connie and David's street, Minzu, which T's into Zihyou Road and, if taken down far enough, will end around the City Circle. Ahead of me looms the bridge which crosses the train tracks and, from where I stand, seems like an impassable obstacle. The bridge is close to a half mile long, and has four lanes of two-way traffic plus two scooter lanes on each side. From what I remember, a portion of the bridge has a sidewalk, but I can not see it or figure out how to get to it without first walking halfway across the bridge in the scooter lane, which is probably a popular way to commit suicide in Hsinchu. (Hypothetical: "Dave had a really bad day in the Market today...think he might walk the bridge later...poor guy"). I stand at the entrance to the crossing, carefully weighing my love of fully functional limbs with my urge to take unnecessary risks, and eventually opt for the small side street that runs parallel to the bridge but connects instead with the street running under the bridge. This street is narrow, and walled on one side by the rising bridge and on the other side by, well, a concrete wall. The only space left for pedestrians is a tiny sidewalk similar in width to the ledges one might find on the outside of hotels in spy movies. Therefore, whenever a car or truck comes - and they do often, usually not bothering to slow down despite the danger of sheering off their rearview mirrors on annoying objects such as PEOPLE - a lowly walker, such as myself, has no choice but to cling to the graffitied concrete wall, toes hanging over the side of the busted sidewalk, and watch as parts of the vehicle come inches from my chest or face. After a few of these encounters, I think I would've been better off taking the bridge.

Finally, I make it to the road that runs under the bridge (and with all body parts intact). On the other side of the road are buildings, and past these, the train tracks. Under the overpass I see a food stand which has attracted considerable attention, and to my right are stairs, which come as a relief. My gamble has paid off; these stairs lead to the bridge and to the sidewalk, which is my only hope for crossing the train tracks. The stairs are wide and look like they belong in a big city, the metal handrails chipped, the steps littered with small pieces of paper and trash. I climb both sets, counting 21 stairs in each set, and arrive on top of the bridge, safely on the sidewalk - thank God.

On the bridge, the temperature feels 20 degrees hotter. I am now fully exposed to the sun, there is no shade and no relief from the heat that attacks from the sky above and the street below. I walk quickly, but keep my eyes wide and take in everything I can. The view from the bridge, while not spectacular, is still quite a sight. From here I can see much of the city, and I smile as it unfolds before me like a pop-up story book. To my right, perhaps a mile away, is the Ambassador Hotel, dressed in browns and blacks, large and expensive looking. Ahead of me, three miles away, is the green mountain of 16 Peaks, stretching out in either direction. To my immediate left is a golf driving range, and beyond that the Southeast side of the city, with tall apartment buildings sprouting up among the urban residences. I look over the railing and see the train tracks, which is actually more of a train YARD. Ten or more tracks lay side by side, with hundreds of box-cars waiting to be filled and taken around the island. Construction crews are busily working, apparently construction some kind of depot. I walk the quarter mile of sidewalk quickly, and my eyes are like black holes, sucking in visible light and all the images that are possible because of it. Time slows down in my two black holes - I see the city in slow motion.

I am sweating heavily by the time I make it to the set of stairs at the opposite end of the sidewalk; now I have another dilemma. Should I risk taking the stairs down without fully knowing the conditions at their landing, or should sprint the last 300 yards to the base of the bridge, hoping that I am fast enough to make it to safety before the next wave of scooters and cars overtakes me and I am crushed to death 'neath a stampede of unrelenting rubber. My brain tells me to sprint, but my choice of footwear today (flip-flops) disagrees. The decision is made. Down the stairs I go, this time down four flights, down past the construction crews, down down down. On the wall next to the stairs someone has spray-painted the word "Love", and right next to it someone has answered "Fuck you". Ah, yes. The dichotomy of good and evil is alive and well in Hsinchu. Zoroastrianism. I think of the passage in The Catcher in the Rye when Holden Caufield says that he wants to scrub all the "fuck you's" off the city walls so the children won't have to see them. He wants everyone to be able to remain innocent forever. But he can't; we will all lose our innocence, we will all have to grow up and see the worst of the world. I want this so badly. I want to see the most horrible things in this world, as well as the most beautiful. Only then do I feel like I can decide if I believe this world is inherently Good with Evil in it, or if it inherently Evil smattered with Good. I think this is an important question and we must honestly ask ourselves, outside of doctrine and religion, what we truly believe. I don't know exactly why this is important to know, for it surely won't change my actions. I feel like God's face is in questions like this. I want to see Him and know truth. I want my piece of the fruit.

At the bottom of the stairs I see what I had hoped I would not see. Apparently, this is where a major trash-collecting center of Hisnchu is, and everywhere are men in light blue shirts talking, getting in big yellow trash trucks, or sitting on one of the many pieces of beat-up furniture that litter the area. I do not want to attract any unwanted attention so I walk quickly, head down, over the dirt ground and through the smell of day-old rotting food and garbage. No one seems to care about the white kid who looks nervous and out-of-place, and I am relieved when I reach the road and the smell begins to leave my nostrils. At this point, at the far end of the bridge, Zihyou road comes to 4-way intersection. I have to take the road to the left, and to do this I must cross the street. I wait for an opening, then jog briskly across the road, resuming my walk along the left side of the street, looking into oncoming traffic. I prefer this. At least if I am going to be smashed, I will see it coming.

I walk uphill and on the road because there are no sidewalks. I pass a small house where a man with no teeth sits surrounded by coconuts. I pass several mechanic shops, all filled with scooters and tools, all smell like gasoline and hard work. After a few hundred yards I come to an open-air fruit stand, where I decide to check out the local produce. Most of what I see I can not name. There are a large variety of large melons, and many smaller fruits that have strange textures and unfamiliar shapes. I finally find the apples and bananas, pick one of each, then go to the counter and wait for the young fruit-market lady to check me out. She rings me up, says something in Chinese that I do not understand, and I give her a $50 coin. She gives me back $17, bags my fruits, and nods as I walk out from under the tent and back down the street. I have just purchased breakfast. It costs me $33, or exactly $1.00 US. I am very pleased with myself, and think that I will probably stop by the fruit stand every day from now on.

The rest of the walk is mostly uneventful, though long, and scattered with oddities along the way. I walk past a "cafe", which is actually a giant tent with men sitting under it in folding chairs drinking tea or coffee or possibly something stronger. Above the tent are affixed oscillating sprinklers which spray water down on the tent and over the sides, giving the impression of raining. It is odd to me that the owner would waste so much money on water, but I suppose it keep his customers cool. I walk past a large hardware store on my left, the B&Q, which I am told is exactly like Home Depot, right down to the orange and white trademark colors. Finally, almost to the school, the sidewalk reappears and the neighborhood improves. The businesses become nicer and the stores look cleaner, more professional. I cross a street and turn left, only a few hundred yards away from the Kindergarten center. Several small eateries line the street, and one in particular, "Fresh", serves Western-style breakfast and the menu is in English. Another small coffee shop has five or six women sitting around talking while a lap-dog naps on the floor at their feet. Now at the entrance to the school, I look across the street and see a tall building with two walls made completely of glass, allowing one to see the elevators and offices inside. In the lobby of the office building a massive piece of corporate art flows up and through the center of the building, standing fifteen or twenty stories tall. It is beautiful in a cold, corporate sort of way. I take of my shoes and slide in through the sliding door. My second day.

The trip, I estimate, is about 2 miles and took me, with stops, about 40 minutes. I will walk this route home today, and twice every day until I either procure some form of transportation or get killed on the bridge...whichever comes first.

September 8, 2009

"Be Prepared...And Miserable" - The Boy Scout Motto

I wake up. No, that statement implies that waking was MY idea. Rather, I am violently blasted awake by the bolts of liquid heat that stream in through the sliding glass door that is right beside me, blistering my skin and infiltrating my eyelids' best defenses. My lips are cracked and my throat is raw, I breathe in a ragged breath and, with all my effort, roll my heavy body over, away from the blinding-white streaks of light that seem to impale. The sweat has already started to roll down my forehead and I can feel pools of it collecting in the valleys on my body, trickling down from the summits of collarbones and hips. The spot on the mattress I have just vacated is soaked. I feel like hell. With my eyes still squeezed tight I fumble around for my phone, somehow find it laying beside me, and check to see what time it is. In the half-second before I open the phone I panic, thinking maybe I've slept in...

No such luck. It's 5:15 a.m.

I have no idea how this has happened. Am I still jet-lagged, still on Central Standard Time? (By the way, my new time zone is also "CST", but is instead Chinese Standard Time. Catchy, no?). I have NEVER been an early riser, and yet I keeping finding myself awake at this unGodly hour. (It seems to me that God would roll out of bed around 8:30, 9 o'clock. I think the Creator likes to hit the snooze button a few times before starting the day). Well, whatever the reason, I am awake now, past the point of slipping back to the dreamy joys of Never Land. I push myself out of bed, the bricks of exhaustion falling off my aching back one by one. To the bathroom, look in the mirror: I could be an extra in a zombie movie. Sleep lines give the impression of deep scars, swollen eyes and tongue, the beginning of a scraggly beard beginning to grow like moss on my neck and chin. I am a train wreck. Thank God I have no wife or girlfriend living with me, they would surely have left me after waking up next to this abomination. I turn on the shower. Cold. It feels amazing, and I stare at my feet as I shed the skin from half-sleep and hazy dreams and watch it circle down the drain. What exactly contributed to the sorry state of affairs that sneered back at me through the mirrored glass this morning? I will recount the events of the previous evening, maybe that will cast some light on the matter:

After I entered my new home, I took a shower and enjoyed the freedom that not actually having a designated shower area permits. My shower head is on a long hose, so during my shower I walked freely around my bathroom, admiring my scrawny physique in the mirror, putting one foot up on the toilet seat, brushing my teeth (I apologize for any of you assaulted by the visual images I have just described). I even showered with the door open because, honestly, why NOT? The mirror doesn't get all fogged up and, more importantly, who is going to object? After this I was feeling fresh and clean, and so to avoid profusely sweating and negating my freshness and clean-ness, I turned on the air-conditioner. Next I began finding homes for my limited possessions, putting my important documents in the desk drawer, putting some of my clothes in the large closet opposite the full-sized floor bed. After these tasks I realized that, damnit, I was sweating again. I went to the air conditioner and felt for the chill. Huh. Not really COLD air, more like just plain air in motion. After finding the remote for the A.C. unit, I finally figured out how to adjust the temperature, which I cranked down to 19 degrees Celsius. "That ought to do the trick," I thought. How wrong I was.

After realizing that my efforts with the remote yielded no significant difference in the temperature of the air, I came to a horrifying conclusion: I had no air conditioning. I was without the one thing, as David had said, that I simply MUST have in order to survive living in Taiwan. It was too late to call anyone. I was stuck in this apartment, or should I say giant convection oven, with no way to escape the heat and humidity that was licking at the windows and creeping under the cracks in the door. I sat down on my rock-hard sofa, and rationalized. "Don't be a baby" I said to myself. "You're not going to die. This is what all those miserable Boy Scout summer camps prepared you for." Yes, this would be just like camping, only without the perks of campfire cooking and mosquito bites. One of the number one rules of camping, however, is to stay hydrated, and I had no water. Back down the elevator I went, outside and down the street to 7-11 where I bought a half-gallon bottle of drinking water for $35 NT (about $1.00 US). Now I was set, and I returned to my abode and drank almost the entire bottle in one sitting, not realizing how thirsty I was until the first drops had touched my tongue.

Back upstairs, I now had another problem: boredom. I had no T.V., no internet, and nothing left of my possessions to put away. I had no food to prepare or to eat, and no beer to drink. For a while I sat in the half-light of dim florescent bulbs, sipping my water and staring into space, rolling over the events of the day. I sat down to write, but the motivation wasn't there, so I closed my laptop and accepted defeat. It was only 9:30, and I didn't feel all that tired. However, there was nothing else to do but sleep, so I stripped down to my boxers and flopped down on my bed on the floor.

It was at this time that I realized that I did not have a mattress. When inspecting the room during the showing days earlier, I had gingerly rested my foot upon the "mattress", which felt firm and sturdy. "Good," I thought, "I like a firm sleeping surface." This is true, I feel like I sleep better on hard rather than soft. This fact still did not detract from the shock of landing on my new bed and realizing that it was actually just a box spring. I bounced back up into the air as I hit the springs, the coils barely covered by a thin layer of padding and fabric. This, on top of the air-conditioning malfunction, was a major blow to my optimism and confidence in my choice of apartments. I lay there on my stomach, the metal digging into my ribs, and took stock of what I DIDN'T have; I did not have A.C., sheets, pillow, pillowcase, blanket, or mattress. Okay, so this is getting to be more and more like camping every second! As I felt the pity party about to begin, I gave myself a shake and reminded myself why I am here. I am not here to be comfortable, I am not some voluptuary. I am here to push myself, to go outside of my comfort zone and experience something new and (although maybe only felt in retrospect) amazing. I am here to bring home stories, songs, and scars, and to discover that the best memories are are often forged in the red fires and the deep blue hardships, not in the grays that cover the well-traveled path like winter shadows. I am here to watch myself grow into the man I have always wanted to be, and to know that this growth can only come through the experience of intense joy or pain; the road to wisdom and happiness does not run through mediocrity. I am here. And here - this naked box spring holding up my half-naked body under naked light-bulbs - is either everything I've ever wanted OR a terrible nightmare that has soaked into my reality like blood through a bandage. The choice was mine to make.

I crawled to my bag and grabbed my black zip-up hooded sweatshirt, the only cold-weather article of clothing I packed beside a light jacket. I folded it twice to make a thick cotton padding, then reached up and flipped the light switch by my desk. I lay my head down on my hoodie, and waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. Lights from the shops began to waft in through the glass porch door, and I could hear the faint sound of an ice-cream truck as it ambled down the darkened alleys. Wait? An ice-cream truck? At this hour? All at once I felt extremely sleepy, and my brain ceased to pursue the query any further. I allowed my heavy eyes to close, and like a factory closing for the night, I began to feel my body shutting down. I could no longer feel the heat summoning perspiration on my face, or the scratchy box spring under my back, or the lumpy sweatshirt beneath my head. I was a cadaver on a table, a specimen, a paralyzed experiment. The last thing I remember hearing was the sirens carrying someone to the Hsinchu General Hospital two blocks away. I imagined myself in the back of the ambulance and faded into the rising crescendo as the doppler effect shifted the pitches and distance swallowed the sound like the night...