Friday, June 25, 2010

Welcome to America.

Welcome to America, where you are treated like a moron.
Welcome to America, the land of litigation, where if you don’t treat everyone like they have an IQ of less than 50 (i.e., “Your coffee cup may contain hot liquid.  Use with caution”), you are liable to be sued.
Welcome to America, where it takes an hour and a half to get through airport security.
Welcome to America, where people come in sizes ten times larger in all dimensions, but especially as far as waistlines are concerned.
Welcome to America, where all of a sudden I feel quite short and VERY skinny.
Welcome to America, where people alternately dress like crap and look totally fabulous.
Welcome to America, where you have to watch a twenty-minute video about proper customs procedures, because clearly you’re too much of an idiot to follow the signs and figure it out on your own (assuming literacy is obviously out of the question).
Welcome to America, where people destroy their skin trying to make it as dark as possible, whereas people everywhere else in the world destroy their skin trying to make it as white as possible.
Welcome to America, where the land stretches on forever and ever.
Welcome to America, where the bureaucratic red tape stretches farther than the land.
Welcome to America, where everyone speaks English (good lord, how weird is that?).
Welcome to America, land of cream cheese, ovens, avocados, and milk that actually tastes good.
Welcome to America, where you can find attractive women’s shoes larger than a size 8.
Welcome to America, land of such ineffable beauty that words fail me.

Welcome home!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

This. Is. It.

This is it.  My last day in Taiwan.  I think I’m in denial that tomorrow I’ll be leaving and I won’t be coming back.  It just feels so strange.  There should be a feeling of closure, of finality, and there isn’t.  The only thing I can detect is that I have three more classes to teach and packing to finish.

It’s been a big year.  I’ve had more to deal with all at the same time than I can ever remember having to deal with before.  It’s been a year of gain and loss, of friendships forged, and of figuring out what was important to me and how I wanted to live my life.  It’s been an introspective year.  I’ve crossed off scores of potential careers on my list and perhaps found a direction to pursue.

I am thrilled beyond words at the prospect of going home, returning to the life I once deemed familiar.  I have a feeling, though, that everything will be different.  My old friends are scattered throughout the country, and they have new lives of their own.  I’ll have to start over yet again, for the umpteenth time.

To Fonda and my fellow ETAs: I raise my glass to you.  I could not have asked for a better group of people to spend a year in a foreign country with.  I hope we stay in touch and continue the friendships we spent so much time building and nurturing this year.

To the friends I’ve made in Taiwan: You are the heart and soul of what ties me to this country.  You will be missed.

To those of you at home: See you soon!

Monday, June 7, 2010

The End is Near

It's that unique point in the year where time at once passes very slowly and very quickly.

On the one hand, though I know I’ll be home in two short weeks, it seems that time passes in its own irksome, leisurely fashion.  The afternoons and evenings are practically interminable.  Though the list of things I must accomplish in my remaining time here is miles long, I cannot seem to muster the motivation to deal with much of it.  I have plenty of time, I tell myself, since time insists on meandering and lollygagging and finding every possible way of extending itself beyond reasonable measures.  (For the record, though, I did buy myself a suitcase today.  Good job, Rebekah.  You’ve only been putting it off since August.)

On the other hand, though, I have just as much trouble believing I’ve been here so long already.  I remember my arrival in this city in surprising detail.  I remember walking outside of the airport that first morning and being hit with a wall of overwhelming heat and humidity, as unmoving and unwavering as though it were made of bricks.  I remember the sun beating down relentlessly from a cloudless sky like it was yesterday.  (It should be said, though, that almost every day is like that, so I suppose it’s not too hard to believe that I recall it so clearly.)

It’s also that obnoxiously reflective time of year, when you think about your successes, your failures, what you would do differently, and what you will miss.  I have made friends here that I am exceptionally fond of.  I think I am in denial of the fact that there will come a day, very soon now, when I will no longer get to see them whenever I want.  I am fortunate in the fact that one of those lovely people will be moving to Columbus in the beginning of August, and so I will get to see her whenever I like.

At the same time, though, I am going back to so many wonderful things that I feel my cup runneth over.  I have gained a newfound appreciation and respect (coupled with awe and admiration) for the country I grew up in.  I realize I may have idealized America in my thoughts this year, but I simply cannot get over just how much space there is in that country.  Good lord, it’s huge.  And relative to its population, there is so much empty space.  I can stretch my arms out wide and not run into anyone (in fact, it’s entirely possible that I won’t even be able to see anyone else outside with me).  I can take a short drive and find myself in a place where I am totally, utterly alone.  Peace and quiet are everyday occurrences.  I can hear the birds singing when I open my window.  I don’t smell exhaust every time I step outside my door.  I see stars in the sky at night.  There are beautiful, quiet parks minutes from my house.

The Chinese word for America is “美國 (meiguo),” which, literally translated, means “beautiful country.”  The name was chosen because it resembles the second syllable of the word “America,” not because of what it means.  I couldn’t think of a more appropriate name, though.  There is such beauty in that country.  It is in the deciduous trees and the wide, open spaces.  It’s in the national parks and the local parks around the corner from your house.  It is in the crickets and the cicadas and the fireflies outside your door in the summertime.  It’s in the changing of the seasons, the fiery reds and oranges of autumn, the bright green of early spring, the blazing white that is the world covered in snow in wintertime.  It’s even in the highways, lined with trees and hills and forests and farmhouses.

It was Dorothy who said, “there’s no place like home,” and there’s a lot to be said for that.  I am incredibly lucky that I can call America my home.  There, unlike in many other places, I can say whatever I want and get away with it.  It is not just great natural beauty and personal freedoms that await me, either.  There are some very special people there that I would not exchange for the world, and I know they are waiting for me to come back.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I like Taiwan a lot.  I know I’ve got a big change coming up, and those changes always announce themselves with their own kind of turbulence, as well as a great deal of hassle.  I am grateful for this incredible experience that I have been given, but I cannot help thinking that every moment back in America will feel like a tremendous gift, ripe with opportunities for observing the great natural beauty that is the US.

It’s time.  I’m coming home.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Green Island: A Chinglish Tale

Taiwan has the most marvelous signs.  Truly.  Now, let this be my disclaimer: this is not actually a post.  I simply wanted to express my awe and appreciation for these miraculous signs that are posted all over Taiwan.  They were very heavily concentrated at Green Island (off the Southeast coast of Taiwan), which is where I was this past weekend.  I furnish them as evidence here for your entertainment.

So not actually a sign, but noteworthy all the same.

The fourth line of the warning is the one you want to read.  In case you can't read it, here is what it says: "No Electrocuting, Poisoning or Bombing of Fish.  No Vendors."

I did, at one point, almost run over a crab.  My first thought was, "AAH!  CRAB!" closely followed by, "Crab sign with the halo!  Aah!"

The exclamation point is the best part.  Also, you probably can't see it, but my scooter helmet is awesome.  It says, "Iron Man."  Upside-down.

I just couldn't get enough of these "Cliff!" signs.

Anyway, that's all for now.  Over and out.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Silence is Golden

Two weekends past, I traveled to Alishan with a rather large entourage.  Fonda, four visitors from the States, and five ETAs definitely qualifies as a large group, if you ask me.  Alishan, by the way, is a mountain in central Taiwan (elevation 2700 meters, or something like that).  I recount highlights of the voyage here in adages that you may or may not be familiar with (especially since most of them are not adages in the strictest sense, as I made them up).

Silence is golden.
One of the myriad wonderful things about Americans is that they understand when a moment should be appreciated in silence.  On Saturday morning, we awoke bright and early (or dark and in the middle of the night) to go on a hike and watch the sun rise.  In other words, we all woke up at three in the morning.

What followed was an hour-and-a-half-long hike that lasted 40 minutes.  When you’ve got a deadline to meet (like the rising of the sun, which compromises for no one), I suppose, you tend to hustle.  We reached an outlook with a perfect view eastward.  We were poised, ready, with a perfect spot to observe the blessed event.  And then the Taiwanese tour group arrived.

In what was so ironically typical of Taiwan, I spent the next half-hour (the one centered around five in the morning, when rational people would be asleep) with a tour guide screaming into a megaphone right into my ear.  And once he was done with the megaphone, he just shouted at everyone for another fifteen minutes.  Suffice to say, I was ready to knock him off his podium and watch him roll down the mountain.  Compound this with the minuscule Asian woman behind me who kept pushing up against me, and I was very cranky at five in the morning.  In America, I am certain, the moment would have been accompanied by a respectable, awed hush.

In spite of the disturbances, the sunrise, at the very least, was still lovely.  Alas, my camera fails at adequately capturing the moment.  What a surprise.
 Sunrise: Pre-, During, Post-, and me.

Let ‘em glow and let ‘em go.
We were promised thousands of lightning bugs putting on a show for us the evening following the cacophonous sunrise.  Unfortunately, there were about four.  (Regardless, there were umpteen Taiwanese tourists waiting with bated breath, cameras at the ready should one of the four fireflies grace us with a flash.)  This platitude reflects my personal philosophy regarding lighting bugs, which was markedly at odds with that of some of the other people’s (which was more along the lines of “Come, see, squash”).

Happiness is crickets and an unpaved path.
Unpaved paths are highly undervalued, or at the very least, taken for granted in America.  There is something so much more real and natural about a hike in which you are walking on uneven, unpaved earth.  Asia either hasn’t caught on to this, or chooses to disagree.  It is my opinion that Taiwanese people love nature, but only in theory and when kept at arm’s length.  They want their paths paved in sturdy, solid asphalt, and they want pictures of nature, but they only want to spend five minutes surrounded by nature.  Then they want to get back on their tour bus and go to the next scenic spot.  Not hiker-friendly, that’s for sure.

In any case, the point of this is that there were a couple unpaved paths at Alishan, for which I was exceptionally grateful.  There were also innumerable crickets serenading us on our hike, which was magnificent.  Thus, happiness is crickets and an unpaved path.

To close, I leave you with a puzzling query to ponder, one which we were unable to resolve on our trip: Which situation involves less oxygen getting to your lungs – intense pollution, or high altitude?

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Aftermath

Long, long ago, in a land quite far from you, there was a typhoon. It hit this faraway land, hereafter referred to as “Taiwan,” on August 8, 2009. You may recall that I mentioned it. Typhoon Morakot brought with it great devastation to this cozy little island just southeast of China. Kaohsiung, on the other hand, saw very little of that damage. In my estimation, the typhoon was no more than several days of non-stop torrential rain.

As comfortable a notion as it is to believe that typhoons don’t do much more than rain a whole lot, the reality is far more severe. Last weekend, Grace and I took a trip to Maolin, a forest area/nature reserve not terribly far from Kaohsiung. We had wanted to go much earlier in the year, but transportation was challenging and Fonda (our coordinator) had told us that most of Maolin was “gone – washed away with the typhoon.” Suffice to say, I thought this was spoken with a touch of hyperbole. And oh, how I was wrong. As a means of comparison, I will give before-and-after descriptions, with the “before” coming from my Lonely Planet guidebook.

Maolin Gorge Waterfall
Before: A 2-km trail that criss-crosses over the river via five bridges.

After: A 2-km trail with no bridges. We walked in the riverbed. We did, however, find evidence of bridges.
Meiyagu Waterfall
Before: A 15-minute walk to a scenic waterfall on a smooth stone path.

After: Check below for the smooth stone path we were promised. We never made it to the waterfall, so I can’t speak to whether it was scenic or not.
Maolin Valley
Before: I’m not entirely sure, to tell you the truth, but I think it was largely green and covered in various types of vegetation.

After: Make sure you look behind Grace so you can see where all the landslides occurred.
Dona Hot Springs
Before: Two long concrete pools in the rocks.

After: Nothing. It was just gone. Blown away with the typhoon.

Hongcheng Gorge Hot Springs
Before: A very scenic setting, where you can observe the lovely valley while sitting in the tubs.

After: Just gone. Like the Dona Hot Springs – there was nothing left.

Dragon Head Mountain
Before: An oddly-shaped hill in the midst of the river.

After: An oddly-shaped hill in the midst of thousands of tons of silt and buildings filled with trees and dirt.
On the bright side, I found myself a new man while I was in Maolin. He’s quite the looker, don’t you think?
We also found a traditional slate house that the local aboriginals used to live in. I imagine this is what life must be like in Asia for tall people.
Also, just so you think it's not unrecoverable, I am including two pictures that hint at the beauty of what this place must have looked like pre-Morakot.
Another bright spot: a shining example of Chinglish.
In the end, despite not seeing what I thought I was going to see, I was very glad to have gone. I was amazed at how far the Maolin community was from recovering from this typhoon that happened nine months ago. The pictures don’t do it justice.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Random Acts of Kindness Day

In America, we have this day called “Random Acts of Kindness Day” (which you all know, since I’m pretty sure all my readers are American).  On this day, you are supposed to do random, unasked-for nice things for strangers.  I can’t imagine this holiday, if you can call it that, exists in Taiwan.  “Why,” you may ask, “is there no ‘Random Acts of Kindness Day’ in Taiwan?”  Let me explain.  I doubt there is one specific “Random Acts of Kindness” day because every day is Random Acts of Kindness day.

Never in my life, in all the countries I’ve been to, all the places I’ve seen, have I ever met people that are as consistently kind and well-intentioned as I have in Taiwan.  In America, there is a tendency to distrust the average Joe on the street.  If someone offers to help you, you are disinclined to take them up on their offer because you think they might have ulterior motives.  We are a nation that thrives on the distrust of other members of our society.  In Taiwan, on the other hand, you can trust the Average Joe.  Take the time, for example, when I had a flat tire on my scooter and some Taiwanese woman I’d never met helped me push it all the way down the street to the repair shop.  Or the time when my mother and I were on a short hike outside of Taipei and another hiker gave us an orange and an ear of corn to eat, just because we happened to walk by them.  (Think about it—in the States, you probably would have thought it was drugged, or something was wrong with it, or someone was playing a mean-spirited joke on you.  Never take candy from strangers, right?)

Or consider the other day.  At a total loss for something more interesting to do, I was wandering around looking at teapots.  I found this one store with really lovely teapots, so I walked in and started checking them out (way outside my budget range, sadly).  The owner of the store invited me to sit down with him and drink some tea, which happens a lot in tea shops.  I told him I didn’t want to trouble him, but he’d already made tea, so I sat down with him anyway.  He eventually called his daughter down, and what ensued was an hour-and-a-half long discussion, just because I happened to be there.  Neither of them spoke any English, mind you, so we were doing this all in Chinese.  They didn’t ask for any kind of payment.  We just sat together and drank tea.  They even gave me some tea bags before I left (also free of charge) so I could try some more kinds of tea.

Believe when I say there are some things I will miss terribly about this country.