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Friday, January 23, 2015

Self-Induced Drama (or, who's the idiot here, again?)

It has been a stressful week.  And I would like to blame someone.

Part 1:

Nick, still in Taiwan, forwarded a campus conference invitation about faith and learning, and encouraged me to consider attending.  After some back-and-forth with the organizer about the availability of a translator for me (she had no other non-Korean RSVPs), I committed to attending a session specific to psychology.

The day arrived for the conference.  After rushing home from a friend's place, I grabbed a quick lunch (it's not classy to have the rumblies in a professional meeting), put on my best business clothes, and even put on makeup and 3" heels.  I then fussed over accessories, seeking Elisabeth's critical eye.  I haven't needed to look or act like a professional in, oh, a month of Mondays and I didn't want to embarrass myself (or Professor Nick).  As ready as I could be, I briskly click-clicked across campus to the designated building, all the while trying to exuding positive confidence, shrewd intelligence, and cultural sensitivity. Once at the designated building, I searched for the elusive room 218.  And searched.  Nope: despite the sign in the lobby, nothing on the 2nd floor went higher than 217.

What?  Could I have remembered the wrong number?  Surely not: I have an excellent mind for details, and there was nothing happening anywhere on the second floor. So after just standing in the long, silent hall, pondering my next move, I pounced on an approaching young woman. I shot questions at her about the conference and room 218 and the Handong Education Center (who was hosting the conference), and some tiny part of what I said seemed to finally register.  She did not speak but led me to the other end of the hallway.  She started up the stairs and gestured for me to follow but I paused; this could not be right.  I spied a man coming out of his office, and I went to ask him about this mystery conference/room, but he was all foam-faced and clearly not willing to speak before finishing his teeth hygiene ritual in the bathroom. I sighed.  The woman again gestured up the stairs, so I followed, not having any other plan.  Up we went, then through a door, then back down some stairs.  And...there it was.  Of COURSE it's only accessible from the 3rd floor.  Of COURSE there were no signs indicating this.

Anyway, Helpful-But-Silent woman left me with a slight bow.  I took a deep breath to pull myself together, fretted for a moment about my now-sweaty pits, entered the conference center, was empty. I gazed about.  A woman came out of an office and asked how she could help me.

"Conference?  Here?" I asked slowly, trying not to huff from all those stairs.

"Yes," she smiled gently. "You are Sherri?"

"Um, yes. Do you work for the conference?  Am I too early?"

"I am Jihae - I wrote to you about the translator.  The conference is on Thursday.  But today is only Tuesday."

Oh no.  Of course it is.

Part 2:

So Thursday came and again I dressed and consulted Elisabeth about my hair, etc.  I arrived at the conference center a couple of minutes before 1:00 to meet the translator (which here means "devise a joint escape plan in case (a) she couldn't translate all the psychological and theological terms and/or (b) I decided the session was not my cup of soju").  When I entered, about 25 people were just milling about getting refreshments.  Well, I rationalized, maybe the conference was running a bit behind.  I asked a woman who's supplying the tables whether I could meet the translator: "Yes, but she is eating lunch."  "Oh, ok, I can wait for her." The woman gave me an odd look, as though it was strange and perhaps a bit creepy to wait for a translator.

An older woman stopped to introduced herself as Eeuienssign-something.  She knew who I was (oh, arg) and was so glad to meet me: she had heard about me from an elderly man Nick has known (of course) for many years. (And I cannot resist this side story: I once heard this man introduced by an over-enthusiastic professor as "A eunuch for the Lord!" which was more than a little distracting to the audience as the poor man walked to the podium). Anyway, the woman asked whether I'd like to meet the speaker (um, NO) and whether I'd like to join the lunch before the session started at 2.

Um, wait a minute. 2:00?  I snuck a peek at the program, trying to play this cool, pretty sure that she had misspoken, because remember, I'm the queen of details.  But, no. Indeed, the session was scheduled to start at 14:00, NOT at 1:00.

Fish nuggets in a moth jar.

Ok, deep breaths.  I decided to run some should-have-been-quick but of-course-were-completely-unsuccessful campus errands that made me even MORE frustrated. I thus stalked home in the wind and rain (umbrella-less, of course), vowing to skip the conference and drown my sorrows in chocolate and/or cheese.  As God would have it, friend Kristina called just as I stomped into the apartment, She directed me to get myself back to the conference.  "You do NOT want to be the woman who showed up 2 days early, then showed up an hour early, and then did a no-show at the actual conference." Harrumph.

Part 3:

So, I went.  The speaker, in classic Korean academic fashion, read 85% of his speech (which was already translated into English and printed into a booklet sitting on my lap).  It was great practice for the translators to work on sounding out words like "epistemology" and "parsimony."  And it was a good (if uncredited) summary of a book we taught at Dordt.

And, to be sure, it was a bit of a let-down after all the self-induced drama this week.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Hot Springs: Local Taipei Style

Millennium Hot Springs, Beitou, Taiwan
(photo credit:
Whoever created the glossy brochure that enticed us to visit Beitou, a lovely village-now-engulfed-by-Taipei, home to numerous hot springs resorts and interesting folklore about witches steaming away in the deep valley, they failed to mention that most tourist sites are closed on Mondays. Thus eager but unknowing, we left for Beitou via the Taipei city train system, ready for a Monday of walking and soaking and folklore education and...oh.  Maybe not.  Arg.  Well, we still  managed to have an adventure.

The MRT line to Beitou has only one stop: thus, the train and the station are specially decorated to promote the local attractions, which was a little creepy.
Certainly eye-catching....

This interesting display was on the train platform.  The naked bald guys in a tub were, well, kind of creepy.
Elisabeth was NOT impressed with the naked guys climbing the wall in the station.
As we started walking through town, following signs to all the sites I'd researched, and as we slowly realized none of the tourist attractions were open, we came across a little hole in the wall between the sidewalk and the  river.  Although it's a public establishment, Millennium Hot Springs was not on any of the city maps or the glossy brochure. Hmm. Nick, being far too adventurous for our good, went into the tiny place to ask about prices. Next thing we knew, he had whisked us inside for only $6 (USD, total, for the 4 of us).  But, strangely, we were still outside, standing atop a winding staircase leading down to several rock-surrounded pools filled with.... Oh my. What had we done? The kids nearly vomited with panic: they did NOT want to join this serene, co-ed group of elderly Taiwanese wearing very little clothing indeed.

To make matters more challenging, David and Nick were not allowed to wear their knee-length swim trunks.  Nope: spandex was the only allowed material, and the tiny on-site store sold a range of sizes that "fit" them if we here intend "fit" to mean "quite snugly accommodated their persons."  Though the men's Suits of Shame were not bikini-style speedos, they certainly left less to the imagination than, say, biking shorts.  David entered a horrified stupor and I vowed not to look below anyone's face.

The six smallish pools were cooler on the left/lower side and hotter on the higher/right side.  I read online that the ph of the water here is about 2, which is comparable to lemon juice.  And stomach acid.
(Photo credit:
Another perspective, with the stairs descending from the entrance, swimwear shop, and bathrooms.
(photo credit:
I was not joking about the towels on heads. Or the minimal swimwear for men.
Note: all the women wore one-piece suits.
(detail from above photo)
After finally getting the children unstuck from their paralysis at the top of the stairway, Elisabeth and I went elected to change in the bathroom near us rather than stand in line down by the private changing booths. This was a mistake.  We entered the bathroom, which had 3 sinks and 3 stalls with traditional squat toilets (basically, porcelain holes in the floor).  A perfectly naked 70+ year-old woman stood at the end sink, bending over to wash her hair.  At this sight, Elisabeth raced into a stall and tried valiantly to change into her suit without stepping into the toilet or dropping her clothing into it.  I decided to brave the sink area for my own changing area while the woman applied lotion and carried out other bodily ministrations while I focused on donning my own rarely-worn swimsuit without falling over or dropping my clothing into the puddles. The nice naked lady greeted me with "nǐ haǒ" (pronounced "knee-hah-oo") and I nǐ haǒ'd her right back.  Either I impressed her with my pronunciation and she was smiling with me, or I had called her a donkey cake or something and she was smiling at me.  She was in no hurry to cover herself and I was, frankly, amazed at her body.To be sure, some particular items no longer lived in the same zip codes they once did, but she was beautiful nonetheless.  American culture has surely done us a disservice by limiting its images of bodies to a tiny part of the age span.

But I digress.  So Elisabeth and I were suited up and wore cute cotton wrap-around skirts to keep our thighs from blinding the hapless natives as we descended the half billion stairs. And stares (at least in our own minds).  Perhaps no one else was thinking of Duchamp's "Nude Descending A Staircase" but that's surely how I felt.  We found Nick and David, already in a pool, and learned the procedures from them.

First, one needed to rinse off with a cold shower alongside the pools, which provide the pool residents with a nice preview of what's coming into the springs with them.  (Some men seemed to have forgotten that these were quite public, co-ed showers and they chose to cleanse parts that should have been covered by spandex.  I am still working to erase those images from my gentle mind.)

Next, we had to pick a pool from the available six, which had varying temperatures from lukewarm to blistering. Then we used a plastic dipper to scoop water from the chosen pool, dump over our feet to clean the grit off, and then clamber over the thick rock walls to plop into the pool itself.  I quickly realized that our skirts would need to come off: these were apparently cotton-free pools.  Happily, many locals wore wet washcloths on their heads, so Elisabeth and I folded our skirts into squares and followed suit.  I am certain that we looked completely ridiculous.

Anyway, we tried out a few of the pools (one was 95 degrees Celsius, which is hot enough to boil the white off rice), and after an hour of soaking and breathing in the mild green sulfur fumes, I felt fantastic.  I could get addicted to this: my joints, having started doing the Arthritis Ache this year, felt really good, and I was utterly relaxed and energized at the same time.  Folks certainly looked at us during our soaks, but at no point did we feel judged for our size or appearance or feel like sexual objects.  It was completely different than, say, the public pool at home.  (One man admiringly said to Elisabeth, "So white!" and I was so, so grateful to be in a place that doesn't value tanned skin. Ahhh....)

David afterwards.  If looks could kill....

After the hot springs we walked through town admiring the river views, plant and animal life, and doing some people watching.  It was a joyous day, even without the opportunities apparently available every other day of the week.

I don't know what these are, but it's January and for my entire life, January = cold.
I love Taiwan.

Lovely tree roots along the river wall.

A heron trying to nap along the river.

A happy Buddha, perhaps just out of the hot springs himself.

Most of the Taiwanese were dressed for a late fall in Iowa, but this shop owner was enjoying the 70-degree weather
as much as we were.

P.S. A few days after posting this, I had a sudden, horrible question come to mind.  What if the washcloths-on-head practice at this hot springs was just bald men's attempts to avoid sunburn?  I was so self-conscious and focused on keeping Elisabeth calm that I didn't look carefully at who did and didn't wear the washcloth. Which possibly means that when Elisabeth and I wore our folded wrap-arounds on our heads, trying to fit in to the local culture , we looked even MORE foolish than I thought. oh oh oh...

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Gondola (Taipei, Taiwan)

When I'd posted a question on the local FB group for international teachers about where to go in Taipei (English teachers in Korea are nothing if not travel-hungry), one woman generously gave me her own Taiwan itinerary, brochures, maps, and currency conversion chart.  Then, on our first afternoon in Taipei, we piled up all the info from "LinZee" and all the brochures and maps we'd gathered from the airport and hotel lobby; divided the stack amongst us to review; and stated our Top Three Things to do on vacation.  (Sane, organized people might wonder why in the world we'd waited quite so long to plan our trip, but that's not a story I'd like accessible to google's far-reaching arm and forever-lasting memory, so let's just move along).  I fell in love with the Maokong Gondola, which was on LinZee's itinerary; its brochure had dancing panda cartoons on it (ah, Asians and cartoon characters) going up The Emerald Mountains in cable cars.

For some reason, I never even opened the darn brochure, realizing only later that the gondola system was intended as a means to access the real tourist spots: tea fields, tea houses, and temples. I just saw "gondola" and "mountain" (and those effectively cute pandas) and thought "Hooray! Mountain hiking for lazy people!"  

Anyway, when I passionately jumped up and down (figuratively - don't forget that I think the life of a sloth would be perfect if one could still read a Kindle) about riding the gondola over the mountains, my dear children were rather confused.  "What," they asked, "might be a gondola?"  "Oh, well, it's a cable car! like a ski lift!" (Nice try, but not helpful: growing up in Iowa did these kids no mountain-y favors).  "Ok, well, it's a tiny box you ride in that dangles by a thread from a tiny wire and carries you high over a mountain!"  That sold it. (Just a day later, we saw a movie on the hotel TV where the bad guys jumped into a boat in a Venetian waterway.  "A gondola!" I shouted, and the kids were again thrown into confusion.)

So, on Sunday, after visiting the Taipei zoo (I shall have to write about that fabulous place filled with free-range monsters I'd only known in baby form as "houseplants"), we walked to the nearby Maokong gondola station.  Here we faced a swarm of folks waiting to board a dangling mountain cars. Nick (our bold emissary in all things unfamiliar), strode to the ticket booth, purchased tickets, and came back chortling over the low cost (about $1.50 each).  Meantime, I had noted signs for a crystal-floor gondola; we worked out that we needed ANOTHER ticket (from a separate booth) to take such a trolley of magic and wonder.  These additional tickets were free (!) and allowed us to wait apart from the swarm because now we had a reservation.  So, with 45 minutes to kill, the kids and I were happy to explore a park behind the station and and take goofy pictures in the tropical January air.

It's January in a tropical country where white skin is valued.  Elisabeth & I rocked.

David is certainly taller than me (and still growing), but he's still a goofy kid at heart.
David's pretty much got just one look; Elisabeth could pose all day.

To recap: with no planning whatever, we got to ride a mountain gondola lift for only $6, ride the extra-special glass-bottomed car for no additional charge, get a reservation that allowed us to explore instead of standing around, AND (wait for it) we were guaranteed to have just our family in the car (limit of 5 people) instead of being crammed into a normal car (limit of 8 people) along with folks who might not appreciate our family's particular style of oohing and aahing.

David indicates the gondola's map; Elisabeth was enamored with the well-oiled tropical man on her ticket.

So, ooh and aah we did, all the way up the mountain, with views of rainforest-y goodness, small home gardens and tea farms flying beneath our feet, and the Taipei Tower off in the smoggy distance.

The Taipei 101 tower looms over the city while a large temple nestled on the mountain by the gondola line.
We don't know why all the gondolas were festooned with giant Hello Kitties (not pandas).

Sitting on the glass floor was a little scary but what a unique view of the land and villages.
We disembarked at the top of the mountain and explored the tiny village lined with street foods booths. We chose to buy cotton candy (what's vacation without cotton candy, I ask you?) and an unusual dish of ice-cream-filled spring rolls (of course this was Nick's idea). They were surprisingly fantastic.

We decided against ordering the stinky tofu and the grilled octopus; no idea what the cow was selling.
Shave a giant brick of peanut brittle and put on spring rolls; add two scoops of ice cream, a sprinkle of coriander (cilantro), roll up, and enjoy.  SO YUMMY!  

After our trip back down the mountain, we took the MRT back to Taipei 101, the world's tallest tower from 2004-2010 (Sam built a 5-foot model of it in the 5th grade and it made a fantastic bonfire weeks later).  We went inside the tower to check out the ticket/elevator wait time situation, had some dinner, then decided not to bother with the tower. After all, we'd already seen the whole city from the comfort of a glass-bottomed, flying boat.

Us at the Taipei 101 Tower. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Tales from Taiwan: Transportation

Offering a "Here's our Family Vacation to Taiwan" blog gives me the willies: it feels too much like my grandparents' dark-basement vacation slide shows. (For us kids, the moments of interest mostly came from the animated cussing at the slide projector.)  So I'd like to avoid the "itinerary + photos" approach to vacation memoirs and use a Whole New Exciting Approach.

Which I will dream up at any moment.

But while I'm dreaming and you're still reading, let's start with a couple of Taiwan subway stories.

Taipei MRT map
The Taipei MRT map.  Our hotel was on the Yellow #4b line (St. Ignatius Station)
and we also used the Red #2 line quite a bit.

I quickly fell in love with the MRT in Taipei (bonus points if you already knew that was Taiwan's capital city): it's very clean, fast, safe, and the map is particularly well-labeled in Chinese and English. The station names are VERY practical, based mostly on the biggest attraction nearby, such as a high school, the zoo, or a museum.  Chicago could definitely learn a few things from these folks.

David was The Great White Subway Master. 
The MRT rules were also clearly stated in Chinese and English and they certainly explained why the stations and trains were so clean: no food, no drinking, and no gum allowed.  As Elisabeth discovered, the rules were also enforced (she got caught chewing gum and had to spit it out).

Three of these four rules make good sense.  But one was a mystery given that Taipei is about the size of Chicago and not some rural village overrun with, say, chickens.

I also admired the MRT's electronic card system (yeah, I know, it's probably old technology, but it was new to me--Chicago's system still used dime-sized tokens when we lived there and Sioux Center, Iowa certainly doesn't have a public transportation system). Anyway, our 5-day, credit-card-sized MRT passes fit nicely in one's pocket, allowing us to easily wave them over the turnstile scanners instead of fumbling for money or tokens on each trip. Smooth and simple; even little kids could do it.  Except one time it didn't work for me.  I waved and waved again while a loud buzzer sounded, the turnstile didn't open, and a guard came rushing over, waving me toward the Information Booth. I shamefully reported, my family watching from the other side of the turnstiles, wondering what I had done to warrant such attention.  Booth Guy informed me that one's hotel keycard, which was still in my hand, was not a subway pass. Oh. Oops. I suppose I should not resent that the guard and booth guy had a loud laugh together as I slunk away.

The very best part of riding the subway, of course, is watching people. Happily, Taiwanese folks appear to be somewhat less addicted to smartphones than Koreans and Americans; I even saw some people just sitting (sitting!). Most of the people are ethnic Chinese; we saw some other flavors of Asian and a very few white people.  Most folks were dressed for winter, including puffy coats and gloves, while we were thrilled with the warm weather (high 60s F; low 20s C) and could barely keep the kids from wearing shorts. (And we native-mid-west Americans would whisper "It's JANUARY!!" and do a happy dance.)

Look!  People were reading, sleeping, and...other things.
I liked that there were no doors between cars on one subway line  so we could see nearly to the ends of the train.

And while we're on a subway story roll now, I shall relate another.  Nick is relatively tall in the US, but in Taiwan he's a virtual freak of nature.  After a few days, he argued that he was the tallest man in Taiwan as he had to consistently ducking through doorways and under the subway’s silver grab rails.  

Feeling especially perky one day, I challenged a potential rival, a tall white male sitting obliviously across the aisle from Nick.

I asked him, "How tall are you?  My husband thinks he’s the biggest in the land, but you might beat him."  I gestured across the aisle to Nick.
"Naw," laughed the man.  "I’m tall, but he wins."

And...cue another happy dance.

Ok, just one more subway story, I promise.  On one ride, Nick discreetly pointed out a Chinese man standing near me.  Puzzled about what had attracted Nick's attention, I looked a few times before I saw it. I mean, IT.  This man had a prominent mole on his chin, about an inch off center.  Which would certainly be tolerable, except that said mole had hair growing from it, and not just one or two little sprouts that missed this morning's grooming routine. No, indeed: it boasted at least 15 hairs, 3 or 4 inches long, that had been apparently coached and waxed into an off-center goatee.  His little kid didn't even seem to notice this monstrosity while I couldn't stop staring in fascinated horror (praise me though for not whipping out my camera).  Oooh boy.  It'll be hard to forget Mr. Mole Beard.

And oh! Will you look at the time: no slide show needed today after all.  :)

Sunday, January 11, 2015

December Snippets

We had quite a few events and activities in December, but it was a different feel than in the US. Christmas in Korea is comparable to the American Valentine's Day (and, for you trivia lovers, Christmas is the best day of the year for condom sales in Korea), so there are far fewer reminders of this religious/materialistic holiday than we've been used to at home. But, rather than drone on about our activities, I have instead written some pithy summaries inspired by Hint Fiction (stories in 25 words or less) to give you glimpses into our month.

"Our goodbye hugs to beloved international students revealed their joy-filled connection to this strange place.  And the revelation that they saw us as parental figures.  Ouch."

"The world-renowned engineer-turned-college president offered Christian wisdom to audiences, while his secretary sent a different message with her eye-catching shopping bag."

"The Korean cafe charged extra to drink among the wandering dogs.  Workers doled out discipline with squeaky hammers and wiped up wastes while we happily petted and sipped."

"Grocery shopping resembles hunter/gathering methods to score familiar foods amid aisles of mysterious products.  We assume vegan stances in the petting zoo portion of the deli."

{Note: I hate the strong fish smell near the grocery store's meat counter, but I always enjoy what I think of as the petting zoo portion of our visit. Lots of shallow  buckets hold crabs, eels, and baby octopuses, which are fascinating to watch - and they watch me, as well, sometimes turning color and darting away or gracefully reaching out a tentacle. I'm wondering if I can buy them as pets....}

"We cherish the reminders of home from our artwork and skype calls, but the discount candy store gives immediate gratification."

And some summaries without photos that give you more hints into how we spent December:

"Being hospitable is as easy as keeping the house tidy and seasonally decorated; extroverts are happy to bring food, wine, and cheer.  And when they don't stay too long, even the introverts are happy."

"Learning Korean as an adult is like chasing a train: you make plenty of progress, but you never catch up and look fairly foolish in the attempt."

"Students everywhere abandon their less-loved items at year's end to the joy of divers; Americans dump their school supplies, but Koreans dump umbrellas and shower shoes."

"Episodes of "Double Divas" inspires a mother-daughter outing for proper-fitting lingerie in a country where push-up training bras are standard fare."

"Nick's love of international students lands him a headmaster ring of responsibilities for their recruitment, housing, and education.  The family expresses its pride with worried faces."

And to end with an embarrassing moment:

"Obediently singing the carols from the typo’d slides still didn't prepare worshipers for my Christmas reading of the little Bethlehem babe, raped in his blankets."