Sunday, January 19, 2014

Reaction: "Downsides of Living in Taiwan"

Taiwan Explorer (formerly My Kafkaesque Life) has an interesting and more-thoughtful-than-most post on the downsides of living in Taiwan.

My reaction to it is long enough that I think it deserves its own post here, but definitely go read his thoughts first!

1.) You will always be a 'waiguoren'

Yes and no. Yes, in that the vast, vast, vast majority of people you meet will always think of you as "NOT US", or someone different, and there's nothing you can do about that. Taiwan Explorer covered that part well.

But there are inroads you can make. While most local friends you make here will think of you as their "foreign friend" or otherwise think of you as "other" (to the point where they might exclude you from gatherings that there is no reason to exclude you from, or just forget), it is possible to make friends and connections who just treat you like a person and local vs. foreign doesn't come into it. It is definitely possible.

And you will meet people who - if you speak the language(s) and are well-integrated (or are trying to be), will say "eh, you're Taiwanese!" or "you really should have the right to be a citizen and vote here, it's not right, you're as Taiwanese as me". While some are joking or giving empty compliments, I do think some of them mean it.

Frankly, most countries have cultures were outsiders will always be outsiders - I joked once while visiting Brendan in Maine that if we were in a horrible accident the headline would read "Long-time Maine Resident and His Non-Maine Wife in Accident: Real Mainers on the Scene Recount the Tale"! So it's nothing new or surprising.

2.) You will have to live with stereotypes.

Yep. But you can also make friends who see past them. And stereotypes aren't anything new either - certainly I've heard my fair share of them growing up, even in the People's Republic of New York.

Also, I find that inward "island mentality" is only true of some people (and honestly, in the US I often encounter the opposite - being cocooned within a large country makes some people inward and ethnocentric - they're so far away from any other country or group that they start to turn in on themselves. I blame the whole hackneyed bullshit notion of "American exceptionalism" on just this phenomenon). For others I feel that the fact that Taiwan is a small island surrounded by other countries and deeply affected by them has made some people aggressively outward-looking. I've met many extraordinarily worldly people in Taipei, including many of my students. Most people are normal - somewhere in the middle. Like we all are.

Not much to say about #3 - although most people I know do know something about Taiwan - they just know the wrong things - "well I read that Chiang Kai-shek was a good man who saved Chinese culture by bringing it to Taiwan and then did great things for Taiwan like developing it" said one relative. Yeaaaaaahhhhhhhhhh noooooooooo. Same for #4 (yep) and #5 (yep - although it is possible to become highly fluent). I do have something to say about #6 but will post it below.

7.) Food

I agree about Taiwanese food. But as for good Western food, I actually think the selection is okay. Not amazing, but okay. I can get good bread (there's a place near us with great baguettes), cheese, I get goat milk delivered, and Taipei is dotted with great coffeeshops. I'm actually quite alright with the Western food situation. Whatever I can't buy I can cook myself, too.

Nothing to say about #8 and #9 - yep.

10.) Population density 

Yeah, but I see it as a positive. I like living this way, near other people, near lots of things. I like that everything is so close together, which is only possible with high population densities. I'd probably feel right at home living long-term in New York City.

I also don't think it's hard to find an affordable, spacious apartment in a quiet neighborhood. We have 30 pings - 3 bedrooms, a generous living room and a Japanese tatami tea room (albeit a very narrow back room and galley kitchen). We have a dryer, a bathtub and "wood" (high quality restaurant-grade plasti-wood) floors! Outside most of our windows is a courtyard/playground/public space. We're on a busy lane but we can't hear much, if any, traffic. Sometimes we hear our neighbors but nothing too annoying. We're right in the middle of downtown Taipei, in Da'an district, and we find our rent to be quite reasonable (maybe NT25,000/month isn't reasonable to some, but for a couple, in Da'an, near the MRT, three bedrooms, we think it's great. Everyone always asks me my rent anyway, it's not a personal question in Taiwan so I may as well spill).

And it's quiet, affordable (for us - I know not everyone considers our rent 'affordable') and central. So, hey, it is possible to do just fine with apartments. I will stay here as long as possible. You will pull me out of real estate heaven only after rigor mortis sets in, and not before.

Adding some of my own: 

11.) Taiwan seems to have multiple personalities vis-a-vis sexism and gender relations

I just don't know what to think. On one hand, a woman was nearly elected president here without much problem at all, or even commentary, regarding her gender. Truly, nobody seemed to care. The most beloved mayor in Taiwan is a woman, and while some people make fun of her hair, nobody disparages her gender the way Americans do Hillary Clinton (or Elizabeth Warren for that matter). In all of Asia, this is probably the best place for women.

It's easier for women in Taiwan to hold good jobs, have great careers and have positions of power. The whole "men don't want a female managing them" doesn't seem to be much of a problem here judging from the number of female directors, CFOs, COOs, partners, senior physicians and department heads I've met. Taiwanese women basically run finance and accounting. An average Taiwanese woman is almost certainly better off in terms of opportunities than an average woman of any other nationality in Asia.

Men in Taiwan seem to be catching up to this whole womens-equality thing faster than their counterparts in China, Japan, Korea or the rest of Asia, and this is one country where I can go wherever I want, whenever I want without fearing sexual assault. I can't say that for America.

On the other hand, there are so many ridiculous notions that I come across regarding women: that we're "more interested in fashion than politics", that we are "less adventurous" (I was really offended when someone I knew gave that as a reason why there were fewer female expats in Asia), that we always, across the board, like pink, that we do most of the housework and child-rearing because we're "good at it", or other sexist practices allowed to continue because it's "culture" (NO, IT'S JUST SEXISM).

Jump-you-in-the-street rape may be unheard of but marital rape is frighteningly common and unreported.

I've definitely come across a lot of lookist-sexism (the idea that a woman's most important feature is her looks, not anything else she might have to offer, and that pretty women are automatically worth more than any other women) and momma-sexism (the idea that of course every woman wants to have a baby, that of course they will be better at raising it because women just are, that it's unnatural to not want to have children) and marriage-sexism (the idea that all women want to get married, that all women act a certain way especially in relationships, and that they are fundamentally different from men in how they act). Also acting-sexism (men can drink and swear, women are ladies who don't drink a lot, or at all, and never swear because that's not ladylike).

There is still an entrenched 'mistress' and 'hostess bar' (and prostitute) culture, which does have tendrils in the business world, making it hard for women to rise to positions of power in some fields. I've met otherwise progressive guys refer to attractive female employees at their company by their employee numbers, like they're livestock (NOT COOL), and there are a lot of sexist beliefs among the older generation.

Add to that the current government's total lack of interest in progressing the cause of gender egalitarianism, the lack of readily available and affordable oral contraceptives to poor women, and the lack of no-fault divorce or solid legal precedent for handling child custody or domestic abuse cases fairly (or divorce petitions for that matter), and things are not entirely rosy.

So I just don't know what to think. America's pretty fucked up too in this way - most places are. And Taiwan's better than most, but still not good enough.

You could spend a day talking to young progressives who have wonderful, egalitarian, mutually respectful relationships and family units and who aren't threatened by women and think things are great. Then you could have to listen to your sexist-as-fuck boss (scratch that - former boss!) blab on about "a man's mind is an ocean and a woman's is a river" or some bullshit and think things are terrible - it's enough to give you whiplash!

Either way, if you're a woman living long-term in Taiwan, you definitely have to face this. It's not so much that it's different from the West (which is far from perfect), it's just that it's expressed along such different parameters. In the USA there were legal protections against a sexist boss, but you had to watch your back on the street. Here, you can walk freely, but your boss is just as free to be a misogynist dick.

12.) You have to get used to people being overly direct in unfamilar ways.

I actually don't agree that Taiwanese culture is generally an "indirect" one (Taiwan Explorer's #6). Communication can be indirect in ways that may be unfamiliar to Westerners - such as showing anger, disagreeing or confronting mistakes (in some ways the cultural difference here might come off as passive-aggressive to some Westerners, and yes, I still struggle with this. I actually have the same problem with West Coast Americans). But in other ways it's actually too direct! "What's wrong with your face?" if you're breaking out, "Why don't you want to have kids? You should have kids!" after you've answered a question honestly (OK, my family does that too and I hate it), "You've gained weight!", "Well even though you don't have a beautiful face you are pretty smart, maybe someone will like you" and so on.

Yeah. You just get used to it.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Restaurant Review: Ikki Robatayaki (一氣爐端燒)

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Ikki Robatayaki/一氣爐端燒
Civic Blvd. Section 4 #101 (near Dunhua S. Road)

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Time to intersperse all the doom and gloom of my previous two posts - after a long hiatus so I could wrap up Delta Module One and then get over the PTSD it inflicted (OK, not really, I hope nobody with actual PTSD gets super offended by that) - with a restaurant review.

I have to start by admitting that I am ashamed of myself. I believed myself to be someone who knew were all, or at least most of, the good restaurants in Taipei were. I really thought I had this city's culinary landscape in full view.

I was wrong.

Turns out that Civic Boulevard, especially between the northern terminus of Da'an Road (and possibly all the way over to Fuxing S. Road) and the Civic-Yanji Street intersection, is a veritable gold mine of good food...and I had no idea. What is wrong with me?! I'd always written off that part of town, and Civic Blvd with its bad feng-shui (and I don't believe in feng-shui) and ugly surrounds, as not worth spending a lot of time in. Crossing the city in taxis for work, I'd often end up passing that strip during the day, when it was all closed down and boring. It never occurred to me to venture up there at night and see whether there was good eatin'.

But there is.

Not only do you have San Jing Mitsui in the basement of the Fubon Life building, but a lot of the old standbys in Shi-da that moved when those racist, classist reactionary jerks had it all taken down have moved here (I'm not so sure I'd go so far as to call Shi-da "the heart of Taiwan", but it was pretty good). Across from Da'an Road you'll find 1885 Burger, which either has or had a branch on Pucheng Street back when Shi-da was good. Down the road a bit past the Dunhua Intersection you'll find Chicken in Bok and Beer, a Korean fried chicken place that has exploded in popularity since its move (we couldn't get a seat there on Friday night - by the way, get the chicken cooked in Korean red sauce, not the regular fried chicken). It, too, is of Shi-da vintage, now uprooted.

Beyond that, you'll find a popular tofu pudding (豆花) place, a branch of Tanuki Koji (my favorite creative Japanese izakaya), Urban 45 tapas parlor (which has terrible music on their website; I've never eaten there but will), Hutong (never eaten there either) and a string of Japanese restaurants that all look pretty good.

How did I not know this? Why did I avoid Civic Boulevard, viewing it as a food and entertainment desert, for all these years? Well, it's never too late to start exploring. We live near the southern terminus of Da'an Road, so we walked the entire length of it, past Xinyi, Ren'ai and Zhongxiao to get there. Da'an Road is an interesting strip - near us it's pretty local, with a school, some bakeries, a few small places to eat. It goes past some luxury apartments and a mini-night-market clutch of stalls. A bunch of small, non-pretentious shops (think cheap "everything" general stores) give way to medical shops as it passes Ren'ai Hospital (I recommend Florida Bakery on Ren'ai to the right). Then it turns into all-out Rich People Road, with an Aveda, Michal Negrin, several upscale boutiques and cafes and a fancy but generic hotel. North of Zhongxiao it turns into a Gongguan-like night market (think glittery hair accessories, weird hairy, drapey sweaters for young fashionistas and Korean socks rather than food), but probably more expensive. Then it ends in that great strip of restaurants. A fantastic walk through the many layers of commercial Taipei for a Friday night dinner (something we rarely get to do - our Fridays are usually booked out with work).

Unable to eat at Chicken in Bok and Beer - our original plan - we ended up at Ikki Robatayaki. It was really, really good - a mix of Japanese beer-on-tap dive bar, local izakaya and gourmet food. I like this kind of food more than Brendan (I'm pretty passionate about Japanese food and have been ever since I realized it was way more than noodles and sushi - hey, I grew up in a small town, forgive me. But I like noodles and sushi, too) but he was game.

I started with warm sake for a chilly night, but realized later that the food goes better with a nice tall glass of draft beer. I recommend starting and finishing (and going the middle) with Asahi.

Some of our food:

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Anyplace that not only has a dish that is just a grilled onion - really, grilled onion, nothing more, some salt on the side - but puts a picture of it on their menu, too, must make one mean grilled onion. So we got it. Great with beer. It takes awhile to grill through but once done, is delicious. And oniony. Would have been overkill without the beer. Definitely split this one with another person.

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We also ordered the gingko nuts, as I've never had them before. Loved the meaty, chewy texture and unique flavor, but was not so pleased with the bitter undercurrent and aftertaste. That's just how gingko nuts usually are, though - although I am generally averse and very sensitive to bitter flavors, this was okay. It added a complexity to the flavor, and worked well with the salt they were served in as well as the beer.

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Spicy bamboo shoots were a free appetizer, and entirely delicious.

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Tender bamboo shoots with a wasabi dip were also delicious.

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The wasabi taste in this raw "wasabi octopus" mini-dish was mild and subtle, but overall I enjoyed it. Not for those who can't take raw seafood or don't like the cold, slightly slimy sauce of many Japanese salad preparations.

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The Japanese fried chicken, served with an aioli or mayonnaise, was delicious (but needed salt - I recommend the spicy red salt preparation - it has a Japanese name that I don't know - provided on the counter).

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We got two sets of sticks - green onion chicken (above) and steak sticks (not pictured). Both were delicious and cooked on the grill to perfection. Both are served with a spicy mustard.

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We also got two salmon flake rice triangles (not pictured) and I got this scallop roll with sea urchin - delicious! Again, not for those who can't take raw seafood as neither the scallop nor the sea urchin is cooked. Add a tiny bit of soy sauce or tamari, roll up and eat. The final taste is a whizbang of hot wasabi that finishes off this delicious, fresh roll.

All in all I really liked this place and would definitely go back.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Delta Module One: The Grand Finale

Well, our Delta Module One course finished last month, and I figured I really should say a bit more about it for those out there who might take it someday, or who are just curious.

Before I get into how the test itself was, I want to note a few things.

  1. It's important to separate Cambridge ESOL (which runs the Delta Modules) with The Distance Delta (who offers the online course through International House and British Council). The Distance Delta did a great job preparing us, especially considering the fact that it was entirely online. The course was well-structured, well-planned and well-run with solid tutors giving great feedback. I occasionally disagreed with the feedback (for example, I didn't get a point because I called some text 'engaging' - I was supposed to say 'creative, for the purposes of engaging the reader' - wouldn't that text then also be engaging? Dunno, I don't understand at all why not), but my overall impression was very positive. Occasionally I disagreed with feedback, but not because I disagreed with the tutor, but because I disagreed with the guideline answers for the exam - that's Cambridge's issue, not The Distance Delta's. I would recommend Distance Delta Module One in a heartbeat to anyone interested in doing the modular Delta.
  2. The test is too damn short, at least the first paper is. More on that below. Paper 1, in order to be a true, fair exam (if done in an outdated way), really needs to be more like 2 hours. As a result I feel the test - especially Paper 1 - lacks some construct validity. It's constructed so that getting too focused or "in the zone" or being the sort of person who needs to write out their bad ideas before they come to good ones (and can then go back and edit the bad ideas out), or the sort of person who knows a lot and wants to show all of it are all things that can be punished by not having enough time, and therefore not getting all the points they're capable of. It tests your ability to speed-write and have a specific kind of test-taking personality, not your knowledge of the concepts ostensibly tested. If that's not lacking construct validity, I don't know what is. And because I was a taker of that test and I have my doubts, it also lacks face validity! I don't think the score I will get is an accurate reflection of my ability...not at all. 
  3. I, however, understand why there are time limits: otherwise people would write whole theses in an attempt to get perfect scores, and the markers would have to go through all that, and discard probably quite a bit of faff. I just feel the time limits on Paper 1 are too short, to the point that they ruin the validity of the test.
  4. In the end I learned a lot, as well as having prepared for the exam, so I'd recommend this module to anyone who wants to deepen their understanding of past ideas, concepts and research as well as current theories, trends and debates in ELT. That's part of why I'm disappointed that we probably won't be able to do Module Two this year.
  5. The test is not as scary as you may think when you begin to prepare - in the beginning it seems like those evil folks at Cambridge could test you on anything, and there's just no way to know what will pop up or how difficult it will be. In reality, they don't expect you to know everything, and there are limits on how difficult they will make each task. There are limits on how deep they expect you to go, or how deeply the tasks given will let you go. If they give you a task, there must be relevant things there to find and write about. Think of it this way: if you're playing Legend of Zelda, and Link is running all over the level board, looking behind trees or rocks or in rivers, the game creators are going to put things in that landscape for him to find. There will be coins and swords and clues and doorways and whatnot. They won't stick you in a little game-forest with nothing to find, and let you wander around looking behind bushes when there's nothing there. Like that, the exam creators left things for you to "find" as you do these specific tasks. Your job is not to fret that there's nothing to say, nor is it to re-invent the wheel (to use an old cliche), but it's to be Link and to find the things they want you to talk about, and why. If you look at it that way, it's really not that hard at all.
As for the test itself, it goes something like this:

Paper 1:

Part 1 - name five ELT terms from definitions provided

Part 2 - define four out of six given ELT terms
Part 3 - look at a class activity and list five things the students will need to know before they do it (taking their level into account)
Part 4 - some discourse analysis (relevant features of the text) followed by "grammar salad" - lots and lots of language analysis (too much, in my opinion)
Part 5 - authentic student-produced text (written or spoken) - write 3 key strengths and weaknesses of the student from the text and choose one to focus on, giving three reasons why (considering the student's level etc)

The test was not that hard, but the first part was rough. Not because it was difficult, though! I raced through the first and second part (where you have to list or define terminology), skipped part 3 because I wanted to take a good hard look at part 4 (BIG MISTAKE), and got so into part 4 - with so much to say about it even as I cut down my word count to bullet points and sentence fragments - that I lost track of time.

I looked up at the clock one moment and thought "crap, I have ten minutes, then I have to move on". I was in the zone. I had flow. I was killing it. Thoughts were coming to me like beautifully cut diamonds, and I raced to get them on the page. I was zoomed in like I'd chugged Provigil (I hadn't).

I put my head back down and kept chugging through Part 4, looked up again after "ten minutes" only to find that 30 minutes had passed! SHIT. I didn't have enough time to finish, so I did what I could (which was terrible work, because now I was nervous and freaked out, too) and didn't finish. Parts 1, 2 and 4 were grand, beautiful things. Part 5 was a mess; I may get a few points. Part 3 didn't even get looked at (it's worth fairly little, but still).

I blame myself for this - I'm the one who didn't manage time well. It doesn't matter that I didn't manage time well because I was too focused, all that matters is that it happened.

But I also have to add that this test is meant to examine your knowledge of relevant ELT practices and concepts and your depth of understanding, it's not meant to test how quickly you can speed-write or how quickly perfectly-formed thoughts can appear in your head and be jotted down on paper in neatly-packaged summaries. Or at least, it shouldn't test that, because what does that accomplish?

I've been saying this since before we took the test - an hour and a half is not enough time for everything they ask you to do in Part 1. It's just not. It's ridiculous. And I felt that way before I screwed up.

So what ends up happening is that people who really know the concepts tested who have either tendencies to get verbiose (*ahem*), or who benefit from time to edit and re-consider, or who just get really focused and think 10 minutes have passed when it's actually been 30 get punished not because they don't know the material (in fact, they often really, really do!) but because they were in the zone.

Why would you punish someone for getting a little too focused or having too good flow, and reward someone who muddled along and kept looking at the clock because the material was hard to grapple with? If I'd found the material harder I would have looked at the clock too!

The part of the test I finished? I killed. I put a gun to its head and made me give it all its money. I twisted its arm, gave it a wet willy and made it cry for mama. I sucker-punched it like a guy in a cheap dragon costume on the original Star Trek. I was the Incredible Hulk and the test was Loki (I don't know how to embed gifs here). HULK SMASH.

And yet, while I will probably still pass, I probably won't get a distinction or a merit. I do feel, based on the work I was able to finish, that I would have deserved one. Oh well. Life is more than the grade you get - I was just disappointed is all, because I know this stuff and I don't like that I'm being punished for knowing it so well that I stopped thinking about time.

That's why I think the exam lacks construct validity - I don't feel my score will reflect my knowledge of the concepts tested, but rather the fact that I was a little too focused for 20 minutes of my life.

Then there's Paper 2:

Part 1 - you're given a test with background information on what students it is given to and why, and you talk about strengths and weaknesses of the text, using relevant testing terminology as needed
Part 2 - you're given an excerpt from a textbook and you first write about the different indicated activities and their purpose/the intentions of their creators, considering your knowledge of ELT concepts. Then you list at least 6 key assumptions about language learning the textbook authors made in creating those activities.
Part 3 - you take more excerpts from the same text and talk about how they fit together with the previous ones
Part 4 - you're given an extract of some research, article, syllabus, comments, or theory from an educator and you are asked to unpack it using your knowledge of ELT history and other relevant concepts (usually things like giving feedback, the purpose for focusing on certain skills, giving instructions, historical and current theories and practices for language learning, dealing with errors, learning styles/multiple intelligences, that sort of thing).

This is the paper everyone thinks is so hard, and frankly, I disagree. Paper 1 is easier theoretically, but there's simply too much there to do a good job on any of it. Paper 2 has less to do, so if you're rock hard on your theory, then it's really not bad at all. You have time to actually think about what's being asked. I thought Paper 2 was great, and I'm pretty sure I killed it. It's rare, or may even be impossible, to get a perfect score on these papers, but I can't think of anything I wrote that I'd change now. I will get the highest score I am capable of on that paper. It is at least possible I'll get full marks, though unlikely.

I don't have much more to say about that one, because I wrote it out, did a golden job, had 5 minutes to look it over and everything before turning it in. 15 more minutes would have been great to perfect my answers, but I'm happy with the work I did.

In the end, I will probably pass. Brendan and I felt quite differently about the test - he got through every part and gave competent-but-not-brilliant answers (his words, not mine), and will certainly pass. I gave what I think are brilliant answers to what I finished, but didn't finish. Our scores will likely be quite similar. From one perspective, that's fair, as we're of similar intelligence despite our very different personalities. From another, that sucks, because dammit, I gave brilliant answers (or at least I think I did). Why should I get a score similar to others (not just Brendan - I actually have no idea what he wrote so whatever I say about it are his words) who muddled through and did each part well enough?

Oh well. One more month and we get our scores. We'll see then.

Such Great Heights, or Laments of a Serious English Teacher

Remember that old gem from The Postal Service?

They will see us waving from such great heights
"Come down now," they'll say
But everything looks perfect from far away...

Imagine that song played on a million tiny violins, because I don't expect sympathy. I just want to be straight about how things that seem so feasible can be so not feasible, and how hard it is to claw your way to good professional development in this field.

I have another post in the wings on my final thoughts on Distance Delta Module One, but that's not what I feel like writing about after my long hiatus (sorry - there was the exam, then the holidays, now getting ready to travel for Chinese New Year. Although our planned trip to Myanmar is not expensive, it is time-consuming to plan as it's not as 'easy' a destination).

Until about five minutes ago, we'd been planning to return to Istanbul - the Other City of My Heart - in June for the six-week Delta Module Two, plus a seventh week to visit the city (you don't get any time off for sightseeing on the course) and see our dear friend Emily, who was planning to make it so she'd be in town.

Then I did the budget for our trip and realized - this is probably not going to work. We made our nine-week trip to Turkey and the USA work two years ago and I'm not sure by what magic or sorcery that happened (and it almost didn't seeing as Paypal decided to hold our savings hostage for two weeks right in the middle of it - I was sending it from my account to Brendan's as my ATM card stopped working and they kept freezing the transaction because activity in Turkey is automatically "suspicious" - and I'll never forgive them for that. We only got to eat food and take the subway for those weeks because we have a great, supportive family).

So, seeing as we made it work two years ago, I figured we could make it work this time around too. Everything looks perfect from far away...

Between rent here (yes, we've considered subletting or getting a temporary roommate in the guest room, but we can't bank on that working out for us), rent in Istanbul, bills here (at least they'd be lower if we weren't around), student loans, course tuition, a 'cushion' fund for when we get back that does not impact my emergency fund (with a major family illness, I need to always have the cash on hand to fly home literally at a moment's notice), etc. etc. it comes to - and I kid you not - about $15,000 US total, about $7500 each. It's just too much to come up with between February (when we'll be able to start a fund for this trip) and June (when the course starts). I don't even feel bad admitting that it ain't gonna happen - I don't know anyone our age, anywhere, who can come up with $7500 that they didn't have before - because I won't dip into other funds, that's not safe - in four months.

Who knew CPD (continuing professional development) could cost so damn much?

There are ways to cut down the cost a little - we could rent out that guest room for awhile. We could couchsurf or cut our accommodation budget (but what if that doesn't work out?). We could ask someone to watch our cat for free as a favor (we usually pay). We could hack our spending budget for Istanbul to the bone and eat a lot of cheap bread, olives and ayvalik tost. If I cut the budget to "just enough to scrape by and there better not be any problems" I can get it down to about $6500 per person...still more than we or anyone we know who is our age can sock away in four months. We could spend very little over the next few months - no cafes, no nice beer, no fancy cooking, (I was really getting into the fancy cooking, but I can give that up for awhile) no dye jobs - everyone can just see the gray hairs, it's cool - and still not be able to put that away.

Anyway. I am sure a lot of tiny violins are playing for me now. Poor baby can't afford six weeks in Istanbul and to have her really nice three-bedroom apartment and she's going to Myanmar in three weeks, boo hoo. Of course we're quite lucky and privileged to have what we have. Of course I take none of it for granted. Of course I need to put on my big girl pants and be realistic about what we can and can't afford. And in the grand scheme of things, not being able to do this course in Istanbul this year is hardly something that will send Oxfam running to help.

I realize all of these things, but it is disappointing to know that a simple teaching diploma - not really all that much to ask - is something that may have to wait yet another year because we're on our own as far as CPD is concerned. We can always do Module Three in the meantime, if we're accepted on the course without having done Module Two, but it's disappointing to not be able to see Emily and return to a city I love so much, as we'd been planning for months (but not saving for months, because I took a part-time schedule to get Module One done. Sensible academically, nonsense financially). So far we've been the ones to make it work. To have enough cash, to get the nice apartment, to take the cool trips, to just make it work (They will see us waving from such great heights...). It's disappointing to know that this time, it's probably not going to work, and over something that's actually important like CPD. ("Come down now", they'll say...)

My only hope is that I can jiggle the numbers around to make it work, or maybe Brendan could sell his sperm (his genes have got to be more desirable than mine, and it's easier to beat off in a cup than harvest eggs...imagine cute little dorky kids with big green eyes reading books and wearing glasses all over Taipei), or I could take up pole dancing or something (people would pay me not to do it! WIN-WIN), or we could get accepted onto Module Three in Istanbul (if they run a face-to-face course there) and go for just two weeks. Or we could just put it off for a year, do Module Three online in Taiwan, go see Emily in Istanbul for a week (what is it about that city?) and then visit the USA. We have it's not like I expect people to be Kickstarting me or anything like that.

I'll end with this - all the after-school-special morality plays on not insisting on what you can't afford, on living within your means (which means budgeting within your means), on not chasing shiny baubles that will plunge you into financial disarray - hey, maybe those previous trips worked because we were willing to risk a little financial disarray, but now we're not! - they always seemed to have at their core something materialistic or even shallow. A new car, the latest video game system, an iPad for everyone including the cat, some expensive jewelry, a house that the protagonist couldn't quite afford. The sort of things my values have already taught me to not want (OK, we have an iPad. But just one). Nobody in one of those "how to be a grown-ass adult" specials ever had to face the idea that what they couldn't afford was education! Education - another thing my values have taught me to cherish!

Oh well. I'm going to go mope in bed now - it's 1:30am after all - and come up with a solution tomorrow. There's always a solution.

They will see us waving from such great heights
"Come down now," they'll say
But everything looks perfect from far away
"Come down now," but we'll stay.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Weekend at Lalashan


A few weeks ago I was invited, on the spur of the moment, to Lalashan - a gorgeous mountain "recreation area" known for its snow peaches (large peaches with a honey-like taste) and persimmons. My student, Michael, was telling me about his planned trip and I mentioned I'd never been - I wasn't fishing for an invite - seriously! - and so he invited me along with his wife and their friends, many of whom I know from a few group outings I've gone on with them.

I had never had the chance to go to Lalashan because to get there, you really need to drive. There's a bus as far as Shangbaling, a tiny town perched on a ridge over Baling, several hundred meters below on the North Cross Island Highway, but you can't get very far out of Shangbaling unless you have a car. I don't, nor do I wish to drive (I would be willing to drive the North Cross Island Highway in a rental car, but I would not be willing to drive in Taipei city, and I'm not sure how I'd feel driving outside Taoyuan, so my options are quite limited). Lalashan for me until Michael invited me along.

I was supposed to study for Delta that weekend, but it was a rare chance to go somewhere it's hard to reach without your own transport, so I went. Brendan unfortunately could not join us as he had to work on Saturday (I didn't).


We stopped in Daxi for lunch - Daxi is famous for its well-preserved Japanese-era shophouses and dried tofu. One fun thing to do on the usually crowded old street is to try all the free samples.


Then we headed up into the mountains. Sitting in the back, I didn't have the guts to tell Michael that his fast, take-those-curves-by-the-horns driving was making me supremely nauseated.

We finally stopped in Baling for a cup of coffee and to meet Michael's friend, Wuya (Crow), and I stumbled out of the car. I am pretty sure I was puce-colored. At least I was chartreuse. This dog owns the road that passes through Baling.


It's HIS road!

Crow had cycled as far as Baling, and had pre-arranged with Michael to get a ride the rest of the way, to Shangbaling and then down the ridge to the homestay near the river at the base of the mountain. The homestay was owned by Michael and Fuzhen (his wife)'s friend's parents (the friend is named Teresa - I only know her parents as Chiu Ma and Chiu Ba).

The homestay has two lovely, friendly German shepherds and two cats who are so shy that I never did get to meet them. Our mutual friend Gary, who is shy around most people, had a special connection with the dogs.


We went because it was persimmon season, and the Chiu family was going to take us to their persimmon orchard across the river to pick as many as we'd like the next day. That's why I've had so many persimmons to experiment with in what I've now dubbed Jenna's Test Kitchen (other discoveries: cherry tomato salad with figs, capers, pomegranate seeds and roasted garlic with greens, dressed with fresh herbs, a touch of salt, olive oil and fig balsamic vinegar...and couscous cooked in chicken stock with butter and savory apple pie spice - apple pie spices with sweet paprika, black pepper and salt added).


Three great things about the trip:

1.) It was all Taiwanese and me, so I had a nice long weekend to speak nothing but Chinese in a fully authentic atmosphere. It was great practice!

2.) It was nice and cold, which meant fresh cool air more appropriate to the seasons where I'm from, and that I had a good excuse to make everyone my signature hot wine.

3.) Taiwanese-style socializing meant lots of free time to goof off - I could chat, or play with the dogs, or read for a bit, or futz on Facebook...there was no need to be "on" all the time.


Michael bought some chicken feet in Daxi. I said NO THANKS but the dogs were quite interested.


Teresa and her parents, the owners of the homestay, and Teresa's husband:


Gary and Michael play some online game - which meant lots of free time for me to just relax:


In the evening we played mahjongg (I'm a terrible player and they're serious, so I watched):


The most important ingredients in hot wine, and Fuzhen is quite enjoying herself after a glass:


Hot wine:

- 4:1 ratio of dark, spicy red and Fire Water cinnamon schnapps
- Shots of Goldschlager or an alternative to taste (I usually go with 3-4 shots per bottle of wine)
- For one bottle of wine: 4 cinnamon sticks, 6-8 cloves, 1-2 nutmegs well cracked, 1 star anise, 5-6 cardamoms cracked open. You can use powdered spices but I do not advise it

Heat together until wine is hot with tiny bubbles forming at the sides and steam but NOT boiling, strain out spices with a spoon strainer, serve with cinnamon sticks (your best bet for light drinkers is to put it, with the spices, into an insulated coffee/tea/hot water carafe, and let them drink it slowly out of small cups, don't bother serving with the cinnamon sticks).


The group included a pair of newlyweds, who got the best room at the homestay. For everyone who thinks Taiwanese people are prudish, I submit that that is simply not true. The next morning the newlyweds did not emerge - the husband came out to tell us that his wife "doesn't feel well" so they would skip the persimmon picking. Someone who was not there asked about them and the answer was "oh...they're busy...ha!". Crow was in the room below them and was asked, with a wink-wink-nudge-nudge, how he slept. When the husband finally emerged but his wife was still resting, Chiu Ba asked about her. "She's not feeling well." "Ah!" he replied. "You're too strong!"

Yeah, no, I don't think Taiwanese people are prudes at all, or at least you cannot generalize this. Despite what a lot of expats believe.

Persimmon picking was fun - not challenging, but fun.


We also stopped at a grove of trees whose leaves taste and smell of cinnamon (they may be cinnamon trees, but I'm not sure). You can use them as cinnamon substitutes in cooking, so we all picked a few to try. You can also chew them as a natural breath freshener.

Just below Shangbaling and visible from lower on the ridge is an aboriginal community with a very unique church:


Seen against the entire mountainside it looks like an ark on a cresting wave. Quite creative there.

Our persimmons:


Thursday, November 7, 2013

Why are you trying to cut me? I'LL CUT YOU and I DON'T mean in line!

Most of you know that I have few long-running complaints about Taipei, but that pedestrians and some cyclists and scooter riders and their awful street etiquette is one of them. In fact, this is the only complaint I've heard across all expat groups, the only universal, the only thing that every single foreigner (and many, if not most Taiwanese) in Taiwan can agree on. It's the common ground where there would otherwise be none.

I do not accept that it is a cultural trait to walk and cycle around in a little cloud of selfishness like HERP-A-DERP-A-DIDDLY-DOO-WHAT-DO-YOU-MEAN-THERE-ARE-OTHER-PEOPLE-HERE-LA-LA-LA (imagine me making sing-songy "derp-a-doo" songs like the Swedish Chef here as I imitate these people).

My other long-running complaints are:

1.) The weather (not much we can do about that yeah)
2.) Sexism (because NO, it's not a necessary evil in a traditional culture. You can keep a culture intact and not be sexist, YES YOU CAN DON'T MAKE EXCUSES)

I do not accept it as a cultural trait because plenty of people don't act like that - most people, really, you just don't notice them unless you think to, and because plenty of locals complain about the same problem. Also because I feel like if it were a cultural trait, everyone in Taiwan would have wandered off a cliff or into an ocean or oncoming traffic or something, tapping on their smartphone like doo-dee-la-la-da-doo.

So today, I come across four distinct acts of this which affected people other than myself, arranged artfully in order of response. It was so beautiful, like the universe putting on an interpretive urban dance just for me, that I was inspired to write about it.

First, as I'm waiting to get on the MRT at a crowded time, people ahead of me push on before those on the train can get off. An annoying, but common occurrence. People even get irritated at me because I refuse to also do this. So a woman ahead pushes on, and someone trying to get off is thwarted in her attempt to get off the train in a dignified manner at the stop at which she wishes to disembark. Does she say anything? No. Does she even make eye contact with the push-on lady? Nope. Just patiently, resignedly, waits until she can slink off the train, slithering past people who've just gotten on, including the push-on lady, who doesn't move for her. Does she give push-on lady a gentle shove to get off (I would!)? Nope, she just nearly snaps her spine as she tries to disentangle herself from this hurtling tin can of humanity.

My rating?


Second, I'm walking toward the escalators at SOGO (but not near them), and two young women are also approaching at a ridiculously slow speed, nattering about whatever it is that's worth nattering about. Probably the same things I nattered about when I was 19. As they get to the top of the escalator, they stop there and natter for easily another ten seconds, blocking everyone in their path before stepping on, and then stand next to each other as they continue to talk, making it impossible for anyone else to walk down on the left as many wish to do. I'm too far away to be affected by this or to just say what I'm thinking - what the hell is wrong with you?! I get on behind them. Another guy is approaching from about the same distance I am, but he's in a hurry. He tries to walk down and is stopped by the two girls, who don't notice that someone clearly wants to walk down the escalator. He catches my eye and rolls his. I was impressed by the depth and breadth of his eyeroll - and that's saying a lot: I'm a New Yorker.

But still. My rating?

Bzzzzzzzzzzt. Better. But not close enough.

Third, I'm about to get back on the MRT, and as I approach the platform and head toward the line I want, one guy comes in from the side and gets behind the other guy who's already there. Okay, that's fine. But then as the train approaches, he tries to slip around the guy who is clearly in front of him and clearly was there first. Guy in front knows what's going on and simply won't move. Other guy tries again to slink around, but first guy shoulder-blocks him. It's really obvious from his body language that he's sending a big "SCREW YOU LINE CUTTER!" to the guy behind him, who has to wait his turn like a humiliated gerbil before getting on the train. He never, however, once turns around to confront the guy or openly acknowledge his presence.

My rating?

Pass. Pretty good, but even better would be turning around and saying "why are you trying to cut me?" (the "nice New Yorker" in me might say that) or better yet, "seriously why the fuck are you trying to cut me? I'LL CUT YOU and I DON'T mean in line!" (the "not-nice New Yorker" might think that, but she probably wouldn't say it).

As my sister has pointed out, there are MRT employees right there whose entire job is to hold their hands up and blow a whistle to enforce a rule we all already know - why don't they stop this? Why not make a rule that you have to wait for people to get off before you get on, and enforce it? I bet folks'd follow that rule.

Finally, I'm heading home, and there's a woman some distance in front of me. She stops outside some store - I think the 7-11, even if it wasn't a 7-11 that's probably a pretty good guess - right in the path of moving pedestrian traffic. She doesn't step to the side or otherwise indicate that she will be immediately getting out of the way, oh no, she whips out her smartphone and begins doing some whatever-the-hell right in the middle of the sidewalk where people are walking. She's blocking pedestrians from both directions, not just the one she and I were going in.

So a guy was coming in the other direction at just that moment, and with only a second to spare, walked basically right into her. I am pretty sure he saw her there, but didn't have time to adjust his course...or maybe, deep down, he wanted to make a point to someone who thinks it's OK to stop in the middle of a busy sidewalk to tip-tap on their phone. I don't think so, though: sure looked to me like it was 100% Phone Tapper's fault.

So rather than say nothing or mumble out an apology (sometimes they apologize for walking into these people. For what? It's not your fault, it's theirs!), he spits out the Taiwanese equivalent of "WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU FUCKING DOING?? DON'T JUST STAND ON THE SIDEWALK! PEOPLE WALK HERE!"

My rating:


OK, maybe a little harsh, it would not be necessary to be this brazenly angry in other cities, where people just randomly standing in the middle of sidewalks is rare and likely the result of genuine human error (we all do dumb things sometimes) and therefore deserving of a little tolerance for human frailty.

But this happens all the time in Taipei. It's constant. I'd say "it's not rude to do that here" but that's not true, because it's rude to do that everywhere, because it's just rude. It's the universal human constant of rude. It happens too much for it to just be one idiot or one preoccupied, tired or not-thinking person. And what you need when you've got an entire flotilla of sidewalk-morons, not just one preoccupied person, is a little anger.

So I say good work, Angry Guy. Good work. I approve. Maybe if stopping in the middle of a crowded sidewalk would not get people slinking around you or apologizing for their walking in the path of your standing, but rather people telling you to stop being such a doink,

You are welcome to move to New York.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Sauteed Persimmon and Smoked Duck Baguette: A seasonal treat

1240032_10152018931531202_1613492407_n I went to Lalashan recently - that'll be another post once I have more free time - with some friends right smack in the middle of persimmon season. I don't think I'd ever seen a persimmon in the USA (or I did, but I didn't stop to figure out what it was), but between mid-autumn and mid-winter in Taiwan they're everywhere. It's a great chance not only to eat them straight - yum! - but to mix them with yoghurt, bake them into breads (think banana bread but with persimmons), cookies and muffins, put them in fruit salads, but also to cook with them!

What I really wanted to try was a roast duck with persimmon glaze, but having never roasted a duck before, and not giving myself lead time to find a duck to roast - plus I'm not a fan of buying meat still on the bone and cooking it myself - the deboning part is never something I do gracefully - I ended up with a packet of smoked duck slices from City Super instead. 

What I made, however, was absolutely delicious, and a unique way to enjoy persimmon season in Taiwan if you're not into eating them raw, or just don't like them that way. It also just feels seasonally autumnal, in a way that's actually more authentic than pumpkin-based foods (which I also love).

It tastes best if made with just-ripe persimmons. Red and soft enough to have that intense spicy-sweet flavor, but still hard enough to slice up more like a peach than a tomato. A very deep nearly-red orange'll do ya.

You don't have to have this with duck, the two just happen to go very well together.

Makes 2-4 sandwiches

1 good baguette (try Lalos on Anhe Road between Xinyi and Ren'ai)
1 ripe persimmon (see above)
1 pack of boneless smoked duck slices - City Super at SOGO Fuxing Rd. has this, 150-200NT
Soft goat cheese - NT200 worth will do
A good lettuce - no iceberg, nothing too bitter, the sweetish one with green leaves and ruffled red edges does nicely
1/2 lemon (you only need the juice from 1/4 of it though)
Half a thumb sized piece of young ginger, pressed - MUST be young ginger and should be nearly pureed, you can do this in a garlic press
1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika (NOT spicy)
a pinch of cinnamon powder
a pinch of clove powder, or 2 whole cloves
a pinch of nutmeg powder, or 1/2 a crushed whole nutmeg
(optional) a teaspoon of fresh rosemary leaves, chopped and crushed slightly
Oil - any good saute oil, butter may be OK (haven't tried this)
optional: a teaspoon of crisp white wine
A heavy-bottomed pan

Oil your pan with just enough oil to coat evenly and to coat the spices, heat on low
Add crushed ginger and while roasting, prepare other spices
Add other spices, saute on low (DO NOT allow to burn) as you slice your persimmon into "sandwich tomato" style slices
Use spatula to move spices evenly around pan, juice your half lemon
Add 1/2 of the juice to the pan (using more is optional), add rosemary, make sure it's all really evenly distributed around the pan. If you have wine, add it now.
Lay the persimmon slices in this oil-spice-rosemary mix and turn heat to medium-low
Gently saute, occasionally turning, until persimmon slices get a bit transparent around the edges and turn darker in the center, and are well-coated with the mixture
Layer duck slices on top - your goal is not to cook these, but to warm them and mingle the duck and persimmon flavors - continue to saute for about a minute
Turn the duck slices once and saute for another minute, liquid should be more or less cooked off by now
Turn off

Slice your baguette and prepare pieces for your sandwich. Smear top and bottom with soft goat cheese. On the bottom, layer the duck and persimmon (I do duck on the bottom - it doesn't really matter) and then add lettuce on top.


YUM! Amirite?

I made a really nice cherry tomato salad with this - a carton of halved cherry tomatoes, several cloves of well-roasted garlic (some shallot would have been good too), basic Italian seasoning (parsley, basil, oregano) with fresh thyme and rosemary, the rest of the lemon juice, some thyme-infused aged rice vinegar, some rosemary infused good olive oil, a pinch of salt and a handful of capers. You could also add cubed hard cheese, roasted shallot, walnuts, whatever to this.