Ghosts

September 17, 2012 § 2 Comments

I don’t know a whole lot about the traditional concept of ghosts in Taiwan, but I’ve gathered a few things firsthand.
My introduction to “ghost culture” was on my first day here when I was transported to a temple in Jhunan on the back of a friend’s scooter. Two things caught my attention as we approached the grandiloquent Mazu temple. The first was a toothless man, stumbling with a blood-red stain on the chest of his shirt (a few of us call this man Betel Juice, as he makes his way around town chewing the arecoline-containing betel nut). The second was a tall, thin, hut-like yet ornate structure housing a roaring fire and a billowing smoke. Beside it was a man feeding the fire with a stack of notes. Zach and Heydon informed me that it was “ghost money,” which is to be given to deceased family members in order for them to purchase afterlife essentials. I imagine this would include a respectable automobile and a spare tuxedo.

Every year, there is an island-wide “ghost month.” It’s the seventh month of the lunar calendar and usually in the middle of the summer when the gates of the underworld open and the ghosts go out on the town. Before ghost month came around this year, I gathered a list of do nots from my students. There’s a few general rules like “don’t hold your wedding during ghost month” and “don’t say the word ‘ghost’.” Then there are a few quirkier ones like “don’t open your umbrella in the house” and “don’t whistle during the day or night.” There’s also “don’t walk near the water” and “don’t pat other’s shoulders or heads.”
During ghost month, there are those who are extremely devoted to appeasing the hungry ghosts and those who are only moderately interested. It seems that most participate in the ritual on the first and last days of the month although some do on a daily basis. One day, I was walking in to work just as everyone was getting setup. The air was filled with smoke from incense and ghost money burning in barrel fires. Many of the storefronts that I passed on the way had set up tables of food and drinks.

All of this is to send the ghosts away nourished and a tad richer. If you don’t participate in the activities, you or your company may suffer various forms of bad luck.

For further reading, I’d like to cite a thorough article from The Seattle Times: http://seattletimes.com/html/nationworld/2003146006_ghosts23.html

Convenience Store Livin’

September 7, 2012 § 5 Comments

I live above a convenience store, which merits a lifestyle. In Taiwan, it’s odd and unlikely to visit a town, no matter how small, lacking a pair of competing convenience stores.

I used to think of convenience stores and gas stations as being interchangeable. However, thinking of it now, I’m pretty sure that most of the Seven Elevens in the States weren’t accompanied by gas pumps (maybe there were a few pumps accompanied by Seven Elevens to throw me off). It was a micro-assumption, an over-application. On the contrary, no one goes to the gas station except for gas in Taiwan.

Typical Gas Station

In General, the products offered in Taiwanese convenience stores are extremely different from those offered in American ones. “Gas station food” brings to mind a greasy, factory-pressed taquito squirming beneath a cheese-colored heat lamp. The phrase brings acid reflux and stomach ache to my mind as well as a regretful afternoon moaning on the shitter.

Although there is a fair amount of junk food in Taiwanese shops, there are also substantial options and more of them. These options typically have their own section. You’re likely to find local eats such as tea eggs, bao zi, and fresh fruit in this section.

The typical drink section contains more bottled teas than sodas, and though it may be hard to believe, more options for water than you’d find in the States. There a ton of different juices and milks as well.

Don’t expect to find pretzels anywhere unless you’re looking for heavily saturated honey mustard pretzel pieces (which you can only find in 7-11).

It’s normal to find seaweed, shrimp, bbq ribs, chicken, or lobster chips in the chip section.

There are usually two sections of alcohol: refrigerated and non-refrigerated. Each convenience store has slightly different options in both sections. The refrigerated section usually contains these three basic beers: the green and silver Taiwan Beer, cans and bottles of Heineken, and the yellow Bar Beer. The non-refrigerated section contains wine, whisky, scotch, and an expansive selection of liquors. I prefer the petite red wine bottles in the picture below.

If you want coffee, you can usually get a hot or cold cup by ordering it at the check out counter. Lattes are mainstream. There are also many options for coffee-containing libations in plastic or glass bottles as well as aluminum cans. I don’t recommend any of them unless you’re in a hurry.

Remaining are the vitamin, personal need, sweets, frozen goods, dried goods, and magazine/book sections.

Most convenience stores have ATMs, although some do not.

Many of them have seating areas; some have large round tables, some have cafeteria-style setups, but most have window seat stools pulled up to a counter of meager width.

Most shops have taxi services that they endorse and will call you a taxi if you need it.

You can also buy minutes for your cellphone from convenience stores.

In Taiwan, there are three major names in the convenience store business: Seven Eleven, Family Mart, and Hi Life.

Seven Eleven started in Dallas, Texas as a milk, eggs, and bread stand in front of an ice house in 1927. It is now an international chain, and in 2007, it had around a thousand more franchises worldwide than McDonalds. The first store opened in Taiwan in 1980, and as of March 25th, 2012, some 4,820 stores have popped up across the Tennessee-sized island. It’s the most popular convenience store in Taiwan according to Wikipedia, and I’m convinced due to the fact that even if the locals can’t speak English, most can say Seven Eleven.

In general, I think 7-11 offers the greatest amount of options. They are also typically larger and nicer than others.

FamilyMart was founded in 1988 in Japan, and in the same year, the first Taiwanese location opened up in Taipei Main Station. In July this year, FamilyMart in Taiwan reached an accumulated revenue of NT$4.9 billion, which is an equivalent to roughly USD$169,000,000. I would call FamilyMart a proper rival of Seven Eleven.

The official motto is “FamilyMart, where you are one of the family.” Most locations have tables posted outside, with the phrase “Let’s café” written on the chairs. (I’ve adopted this phrase, using café as a verb).

The convenience store that I happen to live above is FamilyMart, and maybe that’s why it has my preference, aside from the fact that it’s the only convenience store I’ve seen selling pineapple cakes (below, center).


Finally, there is Hi Life, which was founded in 1988. Hi Life is strictly Taiwanese and the third biggest convenience store chain in Taiwan. The location in the picture above is at the end of the gondola ride through Taipei’s zoo “area,” and because it was the only convenience store on the mountain, it was super-mega-sized.

I don’t have anything special to write about Hi Life. I’ll go to one if it happens to be more convenient than the other two.

Convenience stores are a haven for foreigners. You don’t have to speak Chinese; all you have to do is pick something out and come up with the cash. They’re also good for getting together and drinking beers. The fact that they’re everywhere allows one the ability to roam without worry. If you get thirsty, hungry, tired, hot, or just have to use the bathroom, look for a convenience store. If you get lost, you can call a taxi.

Living above FamilyMart has the convenience thing going for it, but I’ve also been around to see some wild shit. I’ve seen a shirtless gang member screaming red in the face with his presumed tough as hell mother keeping him from disfiguring a punk at 12AM. I’ve seen a man projectile vomit on two of his friends while sitting at the café table. I’ve seen a spider the size of my hand walk through the automatic door like a regular. I’ve seen a man chewing beetle nut, toothless and drooling red like blood, stumbling around, asking for money and cigarettes. One time when I was sitting outside, I saw two older ladies pull into the intersection on their scooter to be sideswiped and knocked over by a speeding car which disappeared into the distance, leaving the poor women howling and picking their things from a pile of glass and plastic in the middle of the road.

In conclusion, convenience stores are quite the shallow water reefs, teeming with life and fulfilling the colorful needs of many.

Maybe

July 5, 2012 § 2 Comments

I pushed the restart button (to the extent that that’s possible in real life). New job, new apartment, new town, new mindset. I’ve now made my way to Jhunan Township in Miaoli County. The ocean does a fine job of hiding itself from my part of town, but it’s there, and the more often I visit it, the more aware I am of its presence.

The retraction from my previous position was a gum-on-shoe experience. This bushiban (cram school) made it difficult to break clean, and God knows I didn’t have the callouses to ride out the duration of my contract there. Although my contract said that NT $25,000 could be seized from my outstanding paycheck if I terminated my employment prematurely, I told the folks at the old school that I was returning to the States, and they took about half of that from me, which was fortunate.

Most cram schools are franchises that follow a prototypical mold from headquarters, but each branch has its own personality, so you very well may end up at a bad branch in a good company or vice versa.

It’s my fourth month here, and I’ve finally learned what to look for in a position. There aren’t very many options for a foreigner in Taiwan as far as employment goes. I’ve met people who shouldn’t be teaching at all and people who want to make a career out of it, but either way, most of us are teaching.

In summary, your job can make or break your experience living abroad in Taiwan. Although life is still a struggle, my new job is a 1000% improvement from my last, and not feeling like I’m going to throw-up every time it’s time to go to work has improved my quality of life directly. I love my teaching assistants, my boss, and my students. Apple (cute as a button, married, hardworking, trustworthy) does an incredible amount of work managing the place including calling parents, tutoring students, helping me in class, making schedules, etc. Noel (strong, witty, chill) is a lovely godsend and good company. She speaks English quite well and tag teams with me in class. Juice and Mina are also wonderful company; they are in charge of the Taiwanese after-school programs. Mina has started lending me her scooter, which is better than Christmas, especially after the 300 or more miles I’ve walked since I arrived here.

I’ve heard from many foreigners that a scooter “changes the game.” I believe them wholeheartedly.

My classes are hilarious. Most of the kids are between the ages of 6 and 12. I’ve got a few older students as well, including a lady in her forties trying to improve her English for her job as a human resources personnel in an accounting firm. There is a lot of superman-flying and fake warfare that happens between classes and at break time.

Sometimes kids bring insects into the classroom. Actually, it was my first or second class at the new school, and the old foreign teacher, my dear friend Zach, was sitting in on the class. I turned toward the board for one second, and when I looked back, my friend had sprung out of his chair, knocking it over and had sprung his flip-flop across the room. His face was red with anger and subsiding fear. One of the rather mischievous students, Jeffery, had captured a spider in a clear pencil-lead container and had placed it on Zach’s chest, knowing that he was plainly opposed to the creatures.

One time at my old school and one at my new, I asked the kids where they thought I was from. Some listed English-speaking countries, some shrugged their shoulders, and on two occasions, someone said, “From the Sun.”

I’ve also been called “ghost.”

How foreigners are perceived by locals is still a mystery to me. It seems that a foreigner outside your shop or inside your restaurant is good for business. I’ve been treated well for no apparent reason on a few occasions (free food, cheaper prices, out-of-the-way assistance, etc.). I also constantly get stares that say, “What the hell are you doing here?”

I’ve never taught formally before coming to Taiwan, but I can say with confidence that I enjoy it. I enjoy breaking things down. In this situation: imagine you are in an Asian country, you are unable to speak the language, and you have no one to speak your own language with. What do you do? Two options: learn their language or teach your language. This is the bridge.
The bridge doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I can almost hear the word audibly: bridge. I still believe that people like to be good at communication, and when they aren’t or someone else isn’t, there’s discomfort. Sometimes, if my mind isn’t turned on, I’ll say “Excuse me” instead of “Thank you” to a street vendor and get a funny look. Sometimes I’ll order pork instead of chicken because the words are similar in Chinese. Sometimes I’ll answer a question in English when I know the answer in Chinese (not that I understand the question but certainly the context). Each of these little slip ups has its own impact. They pile up. They pile up, and irritation sets in. Inversely, each bridge is large success, a confidence booster, and possibly an illusion that I’ve got it together.

While I’m here, I’m examining the bridge and the great miscommunication. Both are incredibly important. There a lots of foreigners running around with distinct and interesting stories. The bridge is when you enter into someone’s story and take the time to understand the context of that person, where they’ve come from, where they are now. The great miscommunication seems to be causing a great depression worldwide. The bridge is the cure.
Jhunan beach is a short scooter ride, a long walk, through town down to the fields of rice patties. The sand is soft and dark like brown sugar. At the right of the beach is a pier where they have fish markets and food stands, soft served ice cream, Heineken beer, etc. Further on, there is a large bridge that is followed by an army of giant windmills. There is quite a bit of trash where the nighttime tide stops carrying it. In front of the trash line, toward the water, the sand is clean, flat, and sturdy (good for running on). There are lots of crabs that burrow tirelessly, rolling out little spheres of sand through the tops and to the surrounding areas of their holes, which create dozens of snowflake-like patterns. From a distance, the thousands of sand balls create shaded patches on the shore. On a busy day, all you have to do is walk for two minutes away from the pier, and you’re all alone. On a weekday, no one is there except the wind surfers, and they’re few and far between.

Recently, H and I made it down to Tainan on the train. Train travel can be magical, mysterious, thought-provoking. Here’s some shots of what we saw. It’s known as the oldest city in Taiwan. There are many forts that changed hands a couple times throughout the years. We saw a “treehouse,” which was literally a building that had been largely infested by the roots and shoots of a couple of boisterous trees. In some place, the entire infrastructure had been replaced by live, adventurous tree bones. The beach boardwalk was also a eye-easer.

fishing boat dockfor momby the sea, boardwalkat the tree house (literally a house mostly made out of crazy tree growth, so much that walls and roof were replaced by solid roots and shoots)

i’ve grown quite fond of pineapple cakes

The title of this post is “Maybe” because it’s been a very real theme in my life this past couple of months. Even in the classroom, teaching this word has been interesting. Right hand is yes, left hand is no, in the middle is a wobbly maybe. I’m in to do this until next June. Right now, I’m completely grateful for the job that I have. I’m living across the hall from the woman I came here for, and things are going. They’re going. But all of it’s just sooo maybe.

Teacher, me!

May 31, 2012 § 1 Comment

I am approaching the third month mark of being here in Taiwan, and I’ve gathered a few thoughts. My last post had me in a hotel in Taichung, I had just gotten a job, and I was about to move to Shetou. Well, I ended up moving into an apartment in Yuanlin, Changhua County. My workplace is in Shetou, but it’s only a seven minute train ride from my town.

Shortly after the move in, I decided to cut my hair, and the decision to actually do it didn’t come until after work one night as I was walking home. I dipped into a hair salon occupied by a large woman watching TV with her ankle-biter dog. She sat me down and made me choose a hairstyle from a magazine of Taiwanese haircuts. At the time my hair could be pulled back into a ponytail. So I found one that was close to what I was imagining, but it looked awful when she was finished, so I motioned for her to take a little more off. When she finished with that, it looked even worse, so I had her buzz a little more off. By this time, it was around 10:30pm, so I decided that I would pay the woman, and then go home to work with what she had given me. When I got home, it looked like a mix between Ninja Assassin and Ellen Degeneres, and I ended up pulling a frantic Edward Scissorhands.

Actually, this picture was taken after I went to another hair salon the next morning and had them buzz the rest of it off. That salon was expensive, and they gave me a head, neck, and shoulder massage for thirty minutes even though I just wanted a buzzed head.

The first couple of days at work, some of the more talkative boys asked me constantly if I was a boy or girl. I didn’t get any more of that after the head buzz. But my main reason for the change was to mark a new season and to symbolically let go of an accumulated past.

Yuanlin has more foreigners than a lot of towns around here. When I say foreigners, I mean any person that isn’t from here. You can spot them from a mile away. But when you’re looking for a foreigner, you can’t always rely on the color of their skin or the way that they dress. There have been many times that I said “how’s it going?” to a Taiwanese person who appeared to be a foreigner. You are looking for the size of their nose and the shape of their eyes.

Before arriving here, I thought that I’d be looked down upon by the locals, but I quickly found out that foreigners are held in high regards here, especially Americans. They like our lifestyles, they assume we have lots of money, and I think we are kind of like bizarre aliens that appear to be human. I have often gone to a coffee shop or a restaurant or a fruit stand for the first time and have received extra food or the same amount for less money. I have also gone into a bar that required an entrance fee but didn’t have to pay. Foreigners are good for business. From what I’ve gathered, if people see a foreigner eating, drinking, or buying a specific product, they are typically more interested in that product.

My friend Zach said it like this: When you go to a Chinese restaurant or a Mexican restaurant or any other foreign restaurant in the States, you are looking for the authentic experience. A sign of the authenticity is whether or not foreigners belonging to that particular culture are eating at the restaurant.

At work, I am one out of sixteen “teachers.” I am the only foreigner, so that makes me the English language expert. Shetou is like some tiny town you would find in the middle of Kansas except dirtier and smellier. I have been walking 15 minutes to the train station from my place, taking the train for 7-10 minutes to Shetou, and then walking 15 minutes to work everyday. On the way home, I have to repeat the cycle in reverse, except oftentimes, I get off just after a train has left, and I end up sitting outside the station for 30-45 minutes trying to ward off mosquitoes.

I have gone through the gauntlet with this job. They had me observing classes first, which was overwhelming. Then, they had me watching videos and taking notes for training, which was overwhelming. Then, they had me teaching for part of each class, which was overwhelming. Then, they had me go down to Taichung for training with the school headquarters, which was overwhelming. Finally, they placed me into a full schedule that has me working Monday through Saturday, three hours a day are unpaid lesson planning and preparation, and three to five hours are paid teaching hours.

The Taiwanese teachers are quite rude to me, and I am very aware of their micro-aggressions toward me. Other foreigners have said that it has to do with my pay; I do get paid more than they do even though they are responsible for more tasks. I have had teachers yell at me in anger while in class, in front of the students. I have taught five classes in one day and then sat and listened to each teacher tell me what I did wrong in passive aggressive ways. I have decided that I really hate passive aggression. It goes like this: “Do you think the kids understood what you taught?” “Um, yea, they seemed to answer my questions pretty well at the end.” “Really? (intelligence insulting stare) I think you need to get better. This, this right here, why would you do that?”

So I am trying to leave this job. It won’t be easy, but I have gone to an interview, have done a teaching demo, and have sent my information to a much better school in Jhunan, where my favorite girl lives, where the ocean is, and where there is a nicer apartment for the same amount of money.

Tune in next time.

AFLOAT

April 1, 2012 § 15 Comments

Backup.

So the GET-TO-TAIWAN objective was initially established based upon the fact that I needed to see a dear friend of mine. In the beginning stages of my quest, I was trying to get a job in Boulder, Colorado in order to pay for a plane ticket, however, after hours of applications and hours of waiting, I decided that I would shift my focus and try to get a job in Taiwan teaching English. I enrolled in an online TEFL (Teach English as a Foreign Language) certification course, and then things (quite miraculously) fell into place.

On Monday, March 5th, I woke up and took my car to a self-car wash, posted it on Craig’s list, and within ten minutes had around 20 missed calls on my cell phone because I was busy selling it to a sponsored climber named Jarred Cleerdin. I walked to the bank and deposited the cash, and later that day I packed up the things I would leave behind.

The next day, Tuesday, I bought a ticket and expedited my visa order and passport to Ambassador Passport and Visa Services in Santa Monica, California.

Wednesday I finished packing up my things. A family friend, Eric King, agreed to hang on to my junk for a year then took me to a gem of a cigar lounge in Lafayette, Colorado called Barlow’s. Afterword, I had a small, last-minute going-away gathering.

On Thursday I received my passport with a 60-day visitor’s visa through FedEx at 10:30AM. Around 4pm, my dear brother Andrew drove me to the airport. I arrived in Taiwan at 5:50AM on March 10th, Heydon’s birthday.

Then, it was a tornado and too much to write on a blog post (but I’ll say it was really hard and a test of everything I’ve got). I made my way to the Good Ground Hotel in Taichung where a one-person bedroom is about $37 USD/night. I constantly applied for jobs for a week and a half, finished my online TEFL certification, and worked on the writing of Glen Reiff’s biography until I got an interview with the Joy English School in Shetou Town, Changhua County.

I got the job. I got the job. I got the job. I got the job. (I’ve been applying for jobs since January whisper).

The pay is good. The people are nice. The town is small and beautiful. The exports from Shetou are socks and guava. I’ll be staying in an apartment above the school for a couple of months until I find a second-hand scooter. After I do, then I can move to a larger neighboring town and commute to work.

Tina, the school manager, drove me around town in her car and then took me back to the train station and sat with me. While we were talking, she asked if I wanted a Chinese name. She gave me this name: 爱杰西 or, in Pinyin, Ài jié xi. The first part is the first syllable of my last name, meaning “love.” The other two parts sound like my name, “Jay-She”. So, for my friends back in Boulder: Jesse Love. (and for those not in Boulder, that’s what some of my friends call me).

The next day, I went to a phone shop; I had already tried a few previously but was turned down because I didn’t have a working visa (or ARC- Alien Resident Certificate). But for those seeking to get a phone in Taiwan, go with Far EasTone Telecommunications. Find a location, bring a passport and another photo id (I used my Colorado driver’s license), and be prepared to give an address and the phone number of a friend. Luckily, my school manager allowed me to use the address of the school and her phone number as a back-up. I bought a cheap phone and a number. It’s a pay-as-you-go setup, and you can buy more talking time in any 7-11 (they are on every corner, especially in larger cities).

On my way back to the hotel, I stumbled upon a shop that sold zithers and lutes. For Ben:



Later that day, I went in for my first day of work at the All People’s Publishing Company; I haven’t mentioned that I got an ultra-part-time position here about two weeks ago. My job is to be the English speaker in an audio program that teaches people of various levels how to speak English. I was paired up with a Chinese Translator, Gillian, who is one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met. Here are some pictures of the studio:


On the way to the studio in the taxi, I saw a homemade hydraulic system for toting items on the back of a scooter. Every bump the driver hit was hilarious to me:

I got the interview at Joy English School with the help of a recruiter named Linda who picked me up at my hotel and took me to the hospital for a mandatory health physical which included an X-ray and a MMR vaccination (measles, mumps, and rubella- a recent mandate of the Taiwanese gov’t). Linda was as cute as a button, dressed in pink with stuffed hello kitties on her dashboard.

Then, today, I went with Heydon to Sun and Moon Lake in Yuchih Town, Nantou County. It was the best day I’ve had in a long time. It was difficult to understand the bus timetables (the whole Chinese characters thing), but take my word for it, if you are leaving from Taichung, take the train from the main station to Xinwuri Station, and look for the Nantou Bus Company (maybe buy tickets inside the High Speed Rail Station on site?). The taxi ride one way from Taichung to Sun and Moon Lake was NT$1800 (we split it), however, the roundtrip ticket on a Nantou Bus is NT$350.

I highly recommend the ferry and gondola rides; they’re both cheap.

Here’s some pictures:

**Yes, the following picture is of phallic wooden carvings (even if no one ever buys one, at least they made it into a picture and onto a blog post!)

Heydo and I laughed a lot today; for an instant, I forgot how important that was.

Delayed Beginnings

March 26, 2012 § 2 Comments

As objectively informational as possible: I came to Taiwan for a girl, a purpose that was slightly more significant to me than post-grad employment teaching English. I am retarded now, in full peanut-butter suspension, because both elude me like a flashlight on the surface of a star-sun.

Now, as I am unable to understand really what has happened/is happening/will happen to me, I can only offer my friends back at home a chronological list of experience words:

excitement, bewilderment, uncertainty, vulnerability, panic, leaking, despair, reload, storm, flicker, death, alone, quiet, rest, struggle, stand, strong, wait…

and that’s where the list ends; so I’ve caught you up. But! I have pictures below of the ocean; this was my first time to re-enter after almost 2 and a half years. I ran so fast I cut the skin between my biggest and second biggest toe. And then there is a picture of me in the shitty hotel that is my home for now.

Soon, I’ll write about what it’s like here. I mean, I really just want to tell stories because there are a lot of them, but I’ll try to get pictures in every post because I have to have something to distinguish between this blog and my general stories blog (which I’ve neglected so hard).

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