About Me

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Tainan, Taiwan
I'm an ESL teacher from Colorado. I worked in Taipei in 2000 for over a year, paid off my undergrad loans, traveled, saved $ to travel some more. So when I got pregnant in grad school I thought I could return to Taiwan, be economically self sufficient while my daughter masters Mandarin.We came to Tainan when she was 2. Taiwan is an excellent base to explore Asia, while living in relative (gun free) safety and benefiting from a cheap and efficient national health care system. The people are amazing too. I have friendships that are 14 years old and I'm always making new ones.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Cut a Rug Canadian Style

Happy Canada Day to my Canadian friends! I still have this fantasy of settling somewhere in B.C and sea kayaking along the coast everyday.

Last Saturday we went to Taipei to celebrate an early Canada Day.  It was a riot, although I didn't catch up with Canadian co-workers, we made new friends. I partied with my kid which was a treat. Z made a new friend at the bouncy castle straight away and they were inseparable. Like the other girl's Dad observed, "It was bounce at first sight", her parents both work at the Canadian embassy. Z and her new friend were dancing right in front of the stage, They were getting into it, I had to join in. The girl's Dad exclaimed, "Your daughter is a party animal!" 

 Z  rode a mechanical bull and lasted 82 seconds (the top was 94), she got the first round of applause, the organizer said, "that kid is special." She makes it look easy. Soon after she finally got thrown off, many adults followed but they didn't last as long. The adults also held on with both hands and still they didn't last as long: 7 seconds, 12, 22 and when they got off they were so dizzy they couldn't walk! Before they got on, she told the men, "See if you can beat me," which made their friends laugh. I didn't appreciate at the time how well she did, until I watched them. The one guy who came the closest was wearing jeans, was tall enough to hook his legs under the bull, and he was heavier. The winner was 94 seconds, a small guy, we met him, unfortunately we didn't see him ride.

 After the last band finished (an amazing Latin, Rumba, reggae band with trombone, trumpet and various percussion) Z somehow made it on the stage to help announce the raffle winner (as she could read the Chinese name.) My kid was quite the little Canadian girl for the day, waving her little maple leaf flag beside her new friend.

Z in the limelight

Delicious food, and beers, ales and stouts, were plentiful. I saw so many beers I'd never seen before, I didn't know where to start, so started with a stout then later had a local micro-brew from Hsinchu. Our late lunch was also our dinner. We were full from the Texas Roadhouse ribs and sliders. The night ended with a bang of a fireworks show. Z and I crashed hard on the bus ride back to Yilan, it was a late night for both of us, but she is still raving how it was the best weekend ever.

Hakka Cultural Park
Its a serene park in the middle of the big city.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Embrace the Sun: First Dragon Boat Fest in Yilan

Dragon Boat Festival to me is synonymous with celebrating the power of the sun. The locals have their sun related traditions. The solstice was the 22nd, and the first International Yoga Day was the 21st. In superficial solidarity I attempted the 108 sun salutations to test my endurance and will (in my case lack of will), I only made it to 50. I had places to be and my wrists were getting sore. I am sure I would of injured my wrists doing 108, and although my ego would be proud,  my body would rather I listened. Next year I think it would be possible to complete 108 sun salutations if I was flowing with a group and raising money for a charity.

We live for three day weekends. Unfortunately I was and am still flat broke (read previous posts on car and driving trouble) so lack of funds made staying home bound the only choice. That's ok we watched boat races on the Dongshan river park (冬山河親水公園) under the shade of some trees. It was a completely different experience than Tainan. We lived about a minute drive away from the boat races in Anping which were held at night and were extremely crowded, night market like affairs.

 In Dongshan, the boat races were held in the morning and the park itself was spacious. hardly any crowd at all, we watched a few races under the shade of a tree. One thing both cities' boat races have in common, watching them once is enough. My daughter older so maybe next year we can actually be in the boat.

On Saturday Z still had her violin class, I still had my Muay Thai Kickboxing on Friday and I still had to tutor (they all canceled last minute anyway), so we couldn't really go up to the mountains and pitch a tent anywhere. It was boring but relaxing. I hope I will be in a better place financially to go somewhere for next Dragon Boat weekend, but we had no complaints. In the past we have gone to Green Island, Orchid Island, or Nantou. Z just played outside with her neighbor friends and I listened to music in my hammock.

Best seats on the river watching Dragon Boat racing with my daughter, eating passion fruit slushies- priceless!

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Better to be one small candle: New Job!

Well better find Z an anchingban because I accepted the job offer from  Huey Deng High-school! 

Ms. Chang said I was their # 1 candidate (always nice to hear), but for the full time position I would have to teach, Peace and Social justice classes to 3 diff grades (7,8,9) and have to design 3 different curricula. It was just too much prep work, I turned that down.

 So she was willing for me to go part time and teach just higher level 9th graders and give the other classes to candidate #2 (an American from NY), which was ok, I could still teach my kindy in the mornings. Then I thought that getting off at 12 and rushing to my next class at 1:15 in Yuanshan too stressful, less prep time if I was p/t. So she was flexible enough to come up with a different full time position. I still teach 12 9th grade peace and justice classes, plus 12 7th grade Reading classes. I told her reading classes to lower level 7th graders, been there done that, but the cool thing about this reading program is, its for parents who want their kids out of a traditional classroom, yoga, gardening, etc, up to me, the limit is my imagination.

 Did I mention, all classes have a Taiwanese co-teacher present, the salary is better than I thought, and she would give me 1500USD up front reimbursement for my trip home this August! I wasn't planning on giving her an answer today, but I did! 

So now I get to design a course based on themes like Poverty, Racism, Gender Discrimination, Environmental Injustice....I am so psyched to start finding materials and books!!!

 Its as if this job was created for me!

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Grass is Greener in Yilan: Tainan and Yilan Comparison

A year in Yilan next month; time flies!
We lived in Tainan for six years before we moved to Yilan, which is the at the very opposite direction geographically. Next month we will be in Yilan a year now.

My first impressions are still fresh and some have or have not changed within the past year. Here are some of them:

1. What are those scooter windshields? The scooters in Yilan all have big, weird windshields. I did not see these in Tainan, and I carelessly figured they were for insects (don't laugh). I now am pretty sure its for the rain.

2. Where are all the drinking water stations? In Tainan it was very easy to fill up your massive water containers for drinking water at the water stations conveniently located every other block. They look like mini gas pumps and are very cheap.  When we moved to Yilan I didn't see any and when I asked people about it they all said the same answer: "What are those? The water in Yilan is fresh." My apartment building is new so I just boil mine from the tap, which is what most people here do. I have seen 2 new water station around the Yilan area, about two months ago for the first time, but none conveniently located near me.

Speaking of water, water is everywhere; lakes, rivers, the coast, waterfalls, my dehumidifier. Aquarian shenanigans, I'm in my element. There's no chance of a drought here, for now.

Dahu Lake at dusk, nearby taro fields
3. Tainan is by far more cosmopolitan. Tainan people like to think of themselves as more country folk compared to Taipei or Kaohsiung, but actually nothing feels more backwater than a ten minute drive outside Yilan. Whip out the Chinese banjos, it gets quickly a Mandarin episode of  Deliverance. Speaking of Chinese banjos, I can't count how many people actually play Erhus here. I saw my first one from my landlady's daughter. Its a Chinese fiddle whose body is covered by (legal) python skin. At least one person in every family I've come across plays one, not to mention piano and a local reed recorder. I don't judge this as redneck at all, but an example of how traditional and rich the culture here still is.

There's lots of fishing options for Z's inner Huck Finn
 I remember one of our first out of town explorations, we were lost and my daughter asked an old lady how to get to this lake and the old lady answered, "Shut up! Go away!" My kid's feelings were hurt, we were all shocked. I told Z not to take it personally, "The old gran probably never saw a green eyed foreign kid speak impeccable Chinese before and thought you were a ghost." That made her feel slightly better.

I figured because Yilan was closer geographically to Taipei it would be like Tainan or better but the mountains are still a natural barrier and the Snow mountain tunnels to Taipei were recently built, so its still very Chinese hick, farmer mentality. When I picked up my kid at school last Friday some of the kids still wear the traditional rice paddy farmer hats to protect themselves from the sun.
Taking a break on our bike ride

4. They drive worse in Yilan. Driving and parking is a nightmare, maybe I was spoiled living and working in Anping, I hardly needed to commute. In Yilan I have to commute to Luodong for jobs here and there, for my kid's violin class. The immigration office is in Luodong. People just park in the middle of a lane and put on their hazards, while the rest of us have to squeeze through. Sure Yilan drivers heed red lights better than Tainan drivers, but other than that I'd drive in Tainan any other day.

5. I've had more job offers here. I came here for a nice job at a private boarding school Chung Dao. It wasn't my cup of tea, but I since found a great boss and set-up 5 minutes away from my house and he's promised me more afternoon hours next semester. Since then, I was offered a job at a private boarding Waldorf school in Taitung, (which I turned down). This past month I've been doing some short term contract work, doing video and voice recording for the Education department of Yilan on a new project and if all goes well, the producer will launch a project in the business market and I'll have more work. Easy money and unexpected. I thought jobs like that only existed in Taipei. I also give private yoga classes, tutor private English classes and have had to turn away people because my time is already booked.

Just last week the better private boarding school outside Yilan, Huey Deng offered me a nice contract with a higher salary than anything I've seen. We are meeting for coffee this Thursday but I'm leaning on staying with where I'm at, just because I don't want to commute (even 20 minutes) and I don't want to be a slave to a school. The biggest temptation besides the salary, is I would be teaching Social Studies with an emphasis on Peace and Social Justice, which is basically what drives me. Imagine teaching what I actually have degrees on!? Further down the line when I move on to jobs that are perhaps in this line of work (returning Stateside), it would look great on my resume. I also believe that getting kids passionate about social justice issues is a safeguard for democracy in Taiwan, which is literally threatened by China. To be continued...

6. Tainan has better food, international food options and a night life scene. I took it for granted until after I left and even returning for a visit, the average hole in the wall is still noticeably better in Tainan than Yilan. Even the best restaurants in Yilan are a hit or miss, with the exception to Balagov's Ukrainian Cafe which is reliably satisfying. The wonderful Italian place down the road from us Tavola is the only place in Yilan where you can eat foods with Ricotta, the food quality is excellent, but I recommend ordering to go. We ate there the other week and it was so loud, my daughter and I couldn't even hear one another over our table. People were literally shouting at each other. I told the people next to us to keep it down, but since everyone else was shouting at each other, they were soon yelling across their table again. Little things like that, being served dessert before our main plate and having to explain why that isn't what we want, (8Nanana) little things like that, I miss Tainan. When a new MexTex place, Slobber recently opened up, everyone cheered. I mistakenly ordered the worst things on the menu both times (skip the Nacho plate or 4 cheese sandwich). I will have the smoked salmon salad next time, it looked amazing. That's about as good as it gets (other than Balagov's).

7. Yilan expats are more private. In Tainan, foreigners pretty much know each other, there's a handful of bars, venues, people can congregate and like a small town everyone knew each other's business. Which can be a good thing too, because there's a kind of solidarity, network. Sure I knew some more solitary souls in Tainan who kept to themselves, but I still knew them. There are long term expats who have been in Yilan for decades who surprise each other when they meet for the first time. The number of foreign women in Yilan are even more minuscule, we are like rare Youtan Poloa flowers. I liked my occasional once every 2 years ladies night in Tainan. The single Canadian gal I work with, she goes to Taipei every weekend, the rest are older moms, my age and are busy with their kids and businesses.

1 Minute from Yilan Sports Park

8. Yilan is still the outdoor lovers paradise. Enjoying the outdoors either mountain or sea is more accessible and more convenient in Yilan than Tainan.  You don't have to drive far, but you certainly could, Yilan County is massive. That first impression hasn't changed, there are always river hideaways, aboriginal villages, almost private beaches to explore that long term expats who know seem to keep greedily to themselves.

9. Aboriginals have more fun. Having relationships with Taiwanese aboriginals is a recent benefit of living in Yilan. Our neighbors, Z's classmates and friends are Atayal tribe and it brings a richness to our lives here that we didn't have in Tainan.

10. The grass is literally greener here. It's flourishing all year, especially now when green rice paddies stretch as far as they eye can see between the coast and mountains. It smells marvelous every morning. In Tainan, the parks were more dusty than verdant, the air is full of pollutants and irritants. That alone is enough to breathe deep and be grateful about.

My classroom nemesis

11. The critters here are scarier. Included in the greener grass and generally wetter climate means I come in contact with nastier critters. Poison vipers, centipedes, gargantuan spiders, macaques. I am not a fan. Our school seems to have  these enormous wiggling centipedes and our S. African coworker is the registered critter disposable call to. Fortunately there are none in my home, but my kid found a gorgeous full snakeskin for her bizarre collection.

Its absurd to judge which place is better. I felt stuck in Tainan with my job, and lack of job options. Life there was comfortable and I needed to take a chance and get out of that comfort zone.

I tend to reckon where I am right now is the paramount place to be.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Damage Control

I had been advised by my boss to settle amicably, send the injured party a fruit basket before it goes to mediation or court because she can sue me within the next 6 months. Some expat friends told me not to contact her at all, wait and see. I thought basic courtesy was to at least call her and see if she felt better, but I never got the chance.

The English speaking officer assigned to this case called me Monday afternoon and said she wanted 10,000 NT for her scooter damages and we made an appointment to meet for Wednesday. My friend Ellen whose an English teacher at my kid's school, had her insurance lady meet me Monday after school and suffice to say getting basic insurance was painless and fast, but too late.

At our Wednesday show-down I got the meeting place wrong, I was at the Loudong McDonald's and everyone was waiting for me at the Yilan McDonald's. Having to drive back like that stressed me out and then I was hit with the reality that she wanted me to now pay 20,000 NT which came out to 70% of me to blame and 30% her. I agreed. If this went to court I would have to pay the 2 fines of driving without a license and uninsured. I had a customary gift bag, a big prickly pineapple, Taiwanese cake and gourmet local coffee. Everyone was cordial.

 My new insurance lady hand wrote 3 identical documents and we all signed a settlement, she can't sue me. She didn't know I wasn't insured and it would make no difference now if she knew. I paid her 10,000 in cash and will bank transfer the second half next payday. I felt severely shocked, numb that I was paying so much. I saw her scooter damages receipt, so many little things added up. Her scooter is three years old and now is totally new. I paid twice as more in damages as my own scooter is worth. Of course if I were insured the insurance company would of paid it all. That also included her hospital bills which were minuscule, like 480 NT (thank God for the Taiwanese health care system).

I didn't get a decent look at her scooter after the accident but it seemed fine to me. It was her body I was mostly concerned about.

The disappearance in my finances didn't end there. I went to the DMV and was slapped with fees for being late on paying taxes, tolls, inspection tests. They didn't get my new address change either from immigration or the post office, I never received a bill. I had to have let the DMV know I changed my address. They also wouldn't let me change my address until I paid all my bills (which I did, but still need to go back and change my address).

Friday I took my car in to be inspected and was hit with a higher inspection fee for being late and more toll bills that they failed to include in when I was there 4 days before.  In Taiwan there is an electronic tolling system (eTag) where a blue laser scans a sticker on your windshield and accrues to a prepaid account. I still need to find my card (I never got it with my car and forgot to deal with it). Maybe a local car shop where I can put more money on it or 7-11 can give me a new card.

My car didn't pass the inspection. My coworker kindly was there and took me to his mechanic and they fixed my rear right break for 800 NT. We waited for over 2 hours and watched a Danny De Vito/ Rhea Pearlman family movie, "Matilda" based on the kid's book. My kid and I in our predicament laughed out loud in the air conditioned Michelin shop in Loudong. Little things like that, the help of friends and strangers and a cup of great coffee got me thru that Friday afternoon at the end of a crap week. I had planned a weekend massage, but now I can't afford one.

The mechanic and my friend were prepping me for how to pass using the hand-break with the button in and getting through with a prayer. The mechanic in the end took my car back to the DMV testing garage himself (he didn't have to do that) and it passed! I wouldn't know what to do if it didn't; drive a ghost car which means I didn't learn anything or replace the breaking system for 7,000 NT. I have to go and have it inspected every 6 months because the car is over 10 years old.

I paid for 2 return tickets to Borneo and a 2 week holiday but we didn't go anywhere. I'm looking at the big picture, counting my blessings and counting the days 'til we are on a plane to Denver. Until then its living off tutoring money which can be unstable and keeping life even more simple.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Black Friday

This past week has been an unprecedented and ridiculous drain in finances and energy all related to my car. Its thankfully more comical than lamentable. Last Friday I had my first car accident and then it pretty much snowballed from there. The good news is no one is seriously hurt, I learned a lot, technical bits about driving legally, about paying attention to what Chinese year it is and  personal things like I didn't lose my peace because this surprise, inner, minute kernel of joy sustained me like an umbilical cord.  An illusion of self growth, I'm more likely just still shell shocked. That and thinking about my upcoming trip home for a month is the hope at the end of this tunnel.

We were on our way to Loudong for my Friday afternoon work; I teach art and PE to two K2 all day English classes. We had time and I know my kid would be happy if I treated her to McDonalds because we literally ate there 9 months ago. As I was turning into the drive-thru this scooter came out of nowhere. I wasn't going fast as I had to make a sharp right turn, but she was cruising and when I hit her she flew.

It was terrifying. Z and I got out of the car, time slowed down. My daughter was crying, screaming. I told the shocked onlookers in Chinese, "Call 119!" When they didn't my kid yelled at them to call the ambulance. My 9 year old was panicking, I was dead calm in my helplessness. My daughter screamed distraught, "What do I do?" I told her "Pray." I bent down to the young woman, who at first was mistaken for a boy, an onlooker asked if "he" was breathing. She was pale, I think she might of been dead for a moment, all time was suspended, death spun all around us looking for someone to latch on. She went into a seizure, I prayed and gently touched all around the top of her body. Her arm looked broken, wickedly hanging limp on the ground I softly stroked it confirming its wrong distortion. A Black Friday. Waiting for help.

She moaned and wanted to sit up, I told her in Mandarin, "Rest, you shouldn't move." Two Taiwanese ladies came over, with umbrellas and shaded us and told her the same thing. She wanted up and after waiting for the ambulance, we finally helped her sit up. It was a right out miracle she could stand on her feet, her arm had been utterly restored before our eyes. The one side of her body scraped in patches. The ambulance arrived after that, they took her to the hospital. My distraught and crying daughter and I waited for 40 minutes for the police officer who was young and spoke English. People were understanding. The McDonald's had us sit inside for the AC, drinking ice water. I had to endure my own guilt and my daughter repeating how angry she was with me. I took it.

The young lady returned to the scene with her girlfriend. I was awed she was functioning as well as she did. I believe heaven opened up, a ripple, tear in the seams between this world and an other that's all around us. Higher beings had mercy, a perceivable presence gently leading us. Then after telling the first cop my and some witness' testimonies, we had to wait for the other officer to hear it all again, take pictures and follow him to the station. On the drive up, I finally told my daughter to lay off me, I need her on my side. She eased off me after that. All parties waited at the Loudong police station for another 40 minutes, for a special English speaking Foreigner assistance type officer.  There was a third woman whose scooter windshield glass fell out when the ladies scooter slid into this closest scooter.  In the end she didn't ask me to pay her damages (500NT).

I was surprised when I found out inside the police station, my car insurance had expired. It was year 104, really? I still thought it was 103. I don't really think in Chinese years, stupid me. I already knew my US license wasn't valid and there's a fine to drive without a Taiwanese license. I failed the written test and never got around to retaking it. I studied and past the online test six times before taking it, and still I got some lame question about blue trucks. But the Loudong police man, he favored me and let my 14,000 NT fee for lacking basic insurance and the 8,500NT for driving a car sans license, he didn't fine me at all. I was moved. It was hard no to be. No strings attached. The Lion's roar of kindness all around me but I didn't feel much like celebrating.

That night before sleep, Z and I rehashed our experience, a catharsis to release it all out before bed. We both were dumbfounded over her arm, over how good it all really turned out.

The next day driving on our scooter to Loudong for my kid's violin class was a torture for our frayed nerves. It was almost unbearable. It was slightly easier on the drive home. We prayed and thought about this lady all last weekend. I was amazed we didn't get the call she had dropped dead from internal bleeding and yet there's part of me who believes her health after this will be supernaturally better just from this accident. When I say higher powers touched her, I am not meaning figuratively.

Last weekend I sat with guilt from my poor choices, questioned everything. It came to a point on my hammock I stood back detached and watched all these thoughts like on a screen, the stress literally was mind altering in a transcendent way. I'm sure my body didn't agree, as my neck and shoulder froze painfully. My kid snapped, "I will have a license and insurance first before I drive!" I believe her. I would never do that in the States, I let it all sort of slide here and went with the flow out of laziness, lack of kin, men. I obviously needed outside help. I had to admit I wasn't this fully functioning independent woman.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Open Schools are Open Prey

You might of read the alarming headlines in the Saturday paper, about a crazed 29 year old entering an elementary school in Beitou, going into the girl's bathroom and slashing a 8 year old's throat twice. (Is she still alive?) He was snickering as police protected him from crowds that wanted to tear him apart.

My daughter just came home from school  and relayed her Life class lesson on just the mentioned recent slaying. Her Life class teacher recommended that students, "Go to the bathroom in groups" (good advice for females most of the time). Far be it for the school and adults to protect kids first, they have to do it for themselves. Z's classmate, my neighbor asked my daughter to accompany her to the bathroom today so she, "Wouldn't get murdered." Is that the best we can do? I told Z to tell her teacher on Thursday that instead of worrying children how to defend themselves against an armed intruder, the school take responsibility and have better security.

I remember coming to Taiwan in 2008 and being so shocked at the schools being so open. Keep in mind I am coming from a background of Columbine (I lived 5 minutes from Columbine and played lacrosse for them a combined girls team of my school and theirs.) My brother's middle school Deer Creek had an armed man enter, he shot 2 teens and then my other brothers' high school (Arapaho) had a former student with a gun enter, he shot a classmate and then himself.  Last time I went home for a visit, there was the infamous Batman movie shooting in Aurora. So with this background in mind, I was just like, wow, these Taiwanese kids are sitting ducks. There was a policy fad in Taiwan a few years ago when schools started removing fencing. I think I understand their reasoning, to give a more feel, illusion of freedom (see Perception of School Fences), more openness with the community. Why not less homework and more community service and volunteerism?

Just because tragedies like this don't happen in Taiwan, doesn't mean that schools can't try and adopt 21st century safety policies. My niece who is my daughter's age, her elementary school has "lock-down drills." Its a sad necessity. I'm not even a safety freak by any means, I encourage my daughter to talk with strangers and I don't mind if she doesn't wear a helmet or pads when she roller blades.

When we lived in Tainan about the same time last year, my daughter who was in 2nd grade, was missing for the longest 10 minutes of my life. I suggested to the school they improve their child safety policy to plan for the event of a missing child or in the case of a stranger with a weapon. They smiled and gave me a T-shirt (see post The Predictable and Pleasant Adjournment).

I knew then that nothing would change until a tragedy such as the one in Beitou happened. I know not every knife wielding psycho can be apprehended before damage is done, but school security guards can be trained to stop any Joe off the street from walking on in and check their purpose, at the very minimum.

I'm sure the counter argument goes 'we don't want our schools turning into prisons', but let me tell you, they already are prisons in spirit. Think of Junior High with all their onslaughts of testing. I had no  idea how stressful and boring their lives were until I taught at a junior high school- its borderline child abuse. Right now there are  bars and fences but they are invisible, barring free time to play and create. Perhaps the focus on academic testing, robbing young people from time to socialize, exercise their EQ creates people who would act out violently. Also there is the cultural work ethic of sacrificing family time for the boss, depriving boys of male parental investment.

 Put back sensible fencing, improve security, have drills, until society decides to ask bigger questions and ultimately progress. These open schools are just making it too easy for violent men (yes, they are always typically male) to waltz on in. I doubt that society (and male oriented societies) would want to look at this "trend" from a gender oriented lens, but they should. Perhaps young violent men are an inevitable evolutionary  phenomena. Either way it still supports the argument to improve school security. I don't mean barbwire, East Berlin, DMZ typed barricades, just let's be pragmatic.

Thank God Taiwan doesn't have the gun obsessions America does! I am so grateful for that.