Monday, September 26, 2011

A Note on Names

The other day one of my second graders decided to change his English name to Monkey. His name was Ian (which sounded a lot like his Chinese name, Ay-An) but he could not for the life of him seem to remember it. So we decided to change his name to something he could remember. We tried a whole list of common English names and then we tried a few theme names: Bob (as in "SpongeBob") and Harry (as in "Harry Potter"). He was not impressed. Then he decided that he wanted to christen himself "Monkey" and no amount of arguing or logic or flat out telling him "that's not a name!" could dissuade him. What can I say? He possessed that type of inexorable stuborness that can only be found in a second grade boy.

The point is, English names in Taiwan can sometimes be a little bit... off color. At least by the standards of those of us who actually come from English speaking countries. I'm not sure where the kids come up with some of these names (some aren't even real words, never mind names) but, as far as I've been able to deduct, I think are 3 main contributing factors. First, pretty much all Chinese names actually mean something. As in, unlike our names, Chinese names are made up of one or more actual words that can be used in a conversation (this is in part because there are a limited number of Chinese characters available). Second, the kids pick their names as, well, kids. Third, spelling is kind of an issue, so sometimes a kid will forget how to spell his/her name and, over the year, mutations inevitably occur. For example, at the beginning of the year, I had a Joos and a Jell in one of my classes. When I pointed out that those were not real names, the kids shyly told me that their English names were really Joss and Jeff but both had forgotten how to spell them over the summer.

So, amidst all the Johnnys, Andys, Mikes, and Allens, here are some of the more interesting names that I've come across so far at my schools:

  • Blue
  • Copy
  • Sweety
  • Chunny (this one might win the weirdest name competition)
  • Yoyo
  • Anelia (I think her name probably started out as Amelia)
  • Osborn
  • Key
  • Cliff
  • Popo (whenever his name is called in class, all the kids inevitably break into chants of "poo poo") 
  • O'neil
  • Mincher (Apparently she had been given several English names over the years so she decided to smush all of them together. When I explained to her that "you can't do that," she decided to just go with "Cher")
  • Amma
  • Rite
  • Ming
  • Coco
  • Eder
  • Hans
  • Rabby
  • Queena
  • Cherry
  • Shaller
  • Herry
  • Yuni (I'm pretty sure this is a character in Final Fantasy)
  • Tino
  • Rex (which, for the record, I think is an awesome name)
  • Kent
And, while this doesn't exactly qualify as a strange name, there are a lot of kids named Leo. Like an excessive number of Leos. In one of my classes there are 20 kids and 3 Leos (we've had to nickname them Leo 1-3). There are also a fair number of girls named Angel, Candy, or Kitty at my schools.

And stuff like this is why I find names to be a never ending source of amusement.

Friday, September 23, 2011

My Life as a "Cultural Ambassador"

Taiwan is awesome and, in general, I think its home to some of the nicest people in the world. That being said, I have stumbled across some interesting misconceptions or just plain odd questions about myself and my country over the last month and a half.

Some of the best questions/comments I've heard:
  • If you're from America, why aren't your eyes blue?
  • Does everyone in America have a huge house and an SUV?
  • Your family only has two kids?!?! But all Americans have huge families!
  • Everyone in America wants to be a lawyer (but lawyers are professional liars)
  • Do you have a baby? 
  • First grader to Christine: Why are your boobs so big?
There is also a lot of interest in my nose ring. In fact, the reason I learned the Chinese word for nose is because children kept coming up to me, pointing at their noses, and asking me what the thing in my nose is. Unfortunately, I still don't know the actual Chinese word for nose ring and therefore often resort to pointing at my earrings and then pulling my nose ring part way out so that they can see that it is IN my nose. But curiosity abounds. This week, three of my third graders at wore sparkly pink gemstones on their noses to class just so we could all match. They were so proud of themselves when they showed up to class and pointed at their noses. It was pretty adorable.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Why my refrigerator is full of moon cakes and pomelos

Here in Taiwan, the 15th day of August in the Chinese Lunar calendar is the Moon Festival. This year, that day lined up with September 12 on the Gregorian calendar.

So what is the Moon Festival? For me, the Moon Festival means a day off school, lots of friendly people giving Christine and I moon cakes and pomelos, and getting the opportunity to attend a real Taiwanese style backyard family barbeque with my awesome host family.
My refrigerator contents: cereal, soda, 4 pomelos, and
more boxes of moon cakes than I care to count
In case you were wondering what a moon cake looks like,
here's a picture from one of our many moon cake eating parties.
They're all filled with different things.
From a slightly more cultured perspective, the Moon Festival celebrates the Mid-Autumn harvest. It falls on the day that the moon is fullest and closest to Earth. There is, of course, a fun myth that goes along with the Moon Festival. There are a lot of variations of the story of Chang'e, the woman on the Moon, but it generally goes something like this:

Chang'e and her husband Houyi were immortals living in heaven. One day, the ten sons of the Jade Emperor (the Emperor of heaven) transformed into ten suns and began to scorch the Earth and cause a severe drought. Having failed to order his sons to stop ruining the earth, the Jade Emperor summoned Houyi for help. Houyi, using his legendary archery skills, shot down nine of the sons, but spared one son to be the sun. The Jade Emperor was obviously not pleased with Houyi's solution to save the earth: nine of his sons were dead. As punishment, the Jade Emperor banished Houyi and Chang'e to live as mere mortals on earth.

The whole nine yards: Chang'e, the Jade Rabbit,
and some moon cakes.
In an attempt to regain their immortality, Houyi went on a quest for the elixir of life and eventually found the pill of immortality. You only needed to take half the pill to gain immortality. However, Chang'e ended up taking the whole pill because, depending on the version of the story, either Houyi became king and turned into a despot or Houyi's evil archery apprentice tried to steal the pill for himself. Or perhaps she was just curious. Either way, taking the whole pill caused her to fly out the window and up to the moon, where she's been hanging out ever since. While Chang'e became lonely on the moon without her husband, she did have company. A jade rabbit who manufactured elixirs with his mortar and pestle, also lived on the moon. But even if the rabbit succeeds in making another pill of immortality, Chang'e has no way of getting it to her husband, who is said to have built a palace on the sun since his wife floated away. 

One more fun random fact about Chang'e for all my relatives from Titusville. She was mentioned in the conversation between Houston Capcom and Apollo 11 crew just before the first Moon landing (compliments of Wikipedia):
"Houston: Among the large headlines concerning Apollo this morning there's one asking that you watch for a lovely girl with a big rabbit. An ancient legend says a beautiful Chinese girl called Chang-o has been living there for 4000 years. It seems she was banished to the Moon because she stole the pill for immortality from her husband. You might also look for her companion, a large Chinese rabbit, who is easy to spot since he is only standing on his hind feet in the shade of a cinnamon tree. The name of the rabbit is not recorded.
Collins: Okay, we'll keep a close eye for the bunny girl." 
Okay, long tangent. Back to my experience with the Moon Festival.To celebrate, most Taiwanese families like to get together and barbeque outside where they can see the moon. So, since my family is all back home in America (and also has no idea what the Moon Festival even is), my host family here was kind enough to invite me to a barbeque with their next door neighbors at their house.

A quick introduction to my host family:
Jane, who teaches fifth grade at Dong Sing, and Jason, who works at the
Yilan Teacher's Center. They're pretty much the nicest people ever!
Candy, she's adorable. She can't understand most of what I say in my broken
Chinese but we've bonded over cat's cradle, the awkward sea turtle, and my
other random tricks.
Candy even helped to make dinner
I have my own apartment here in Taiwan, so I don't actually live with my host family. They're just really awesome, friendly people who are willing to hang out with me, show me around Luodong, and help me work on my bad Chinese.

The moon Festival barbeque was delicious but unlike any American barbecue I've ever attended. Here's some of what we grilled:
Tofu stuffed with pork and cilantro. Jason dared me to eat one. Of course I did.
Only when he was sure I had swallowed it did he inform me that it was in fact
a smoked pig snout. 
Pork, you wrap it in lettuce or wonderbread when you eat it.
Squid balls!
More squid. These guys were slightly more lifelike but equally delicious.
Fresh shrimp! It was like being back in Florida.
And here are the chefs hard at work:
Despite their young age, the boys from next door were grilling pros
Happy feasting!
Long story short, it was a good night, my host family is awesome, and Christine and I will never finish eating all of our moon cakes!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

A Visit to Taoyuan

As you all probably know, my good friends and sometime traveling companions Stephanie and Colleen have both move to Taiwan this year to teach English with another program. Their schools are located in Taoyuan (just to the west of Taipei). I've gotten to hang out with Stephanie a few times since I've arrived but I hadn't seen Colleen yet. So, since Taoyuan is just a hop, skip, and a jump away (or a subway ride, failed bus ride, and a taxi cab away) from Taipei, I decided to crash at their apartment for the remainder of the long weekend.

After a quick, Taiwanese style breakfast:
we hopped on a train to Yingge, a little town right next door to Taoyuan known for it's ceramics. Unfortunately, we hopped the wrong train so we ended up taking a detour to the suburbs of Taipei before we could turn around and head back to our actual destination. But hey, we all decided that that's just part of the fun of traveling.

When we finally got there, we hiked down to the Yingge Ceramics Museum. It was a pretty exciting place because, not only did it have some beautiful art (and, okay, a whole display about toilets and other "functional" ceramics) but it was also free! Here are a few of the highlights:
Colleen celebrating the year of the rabbit
An elephant and some bats. That's just how he rolls.
Stephanie with a piece from the "Franz collection" (I kid you not,
that's what it was called)
Part of their exhibit about functional ceramics. Notice both are shaped
life frogs' heads.

Ceramic baozi! Awesome :)
After the museum, we headed across the river to visit the old street area in Sanxia for lunch. Stephanie and I split a papaya milk smoothie, an avocado milk smoothie, and two cow horn croissants (they're the big thing in Sanxia).

Making the avocado milk. As you can see, there is literally
a whole avocado in it. Sounds weird, tastes amazing.
Avocado and papaya! So good!
Dancing Viking Santa outside of a cow horn croissant place.
Yummy lunch!
After that, we wandered around the old part of the city and took in the sights.
A phoenix pillar at Zushi Temple
The shops on old street
My personal favorite sight of the day: a guy riding his bike
with his cat standing on the back. Also, the cat was in a top hat.
Honestly, I can't even make this stuff up. 
Then we headed back to Taoyuan for the night and Stephanie and I made our famous mushroom-lentil burgers! Despite the fact that our bread was a little bit sweet (as all Taiwanese bread tends to be), it was like a little cheesy, guacamole covered piece of home.
A perfect ending to the day!

Fulbright Orientation Part II: Taiwan

Last weekend I headed up to Taipei to attend the Fulbright Taiwan orientation/welcome activities. I technically already attended an orientation in DC back in July but that one was for ETAs only so I was pretty excited to meet all the other Taiwan grantees (not to mention rubbing elbows with all the political big wigs from the American Institute in Taiwan or AIT, which is basically the unofficial Taiwanese version of an embassy). Also, getting a free trip to Taipei was a definite plus. 
Arriving in style with my Yilan homegirls
We had an opening reception/dinner on Friday night at the old (as in occupation era) Japanese Mayor's house in downtown Taipei. Getting to see all of the ETAs from Kaohsiung again and comparing teaching/life in Taiwan stories was really great. And there are some researchers here on Fulbright doing some amazing work. There was no lack of interesting conversation. And then there was the fact that the food was awesome. I had an actual salad (which sounds silly but is a feat of work here in Taiwan), sashimi, and pasta with actual cheese! In other words, it was a good night.
William A. Stanton, the director of AIT (basically the American
Ambassador to Taiwan except that Taiwan is not officially
allowed to have ambassadors)
On Saturday, we were officially received at both the Aboriginal Museum in Taipei and the National palace Museum (okay, I'm bragging a little bit here but sometimes it's nice to be a big, fancy, special "cultural ambassador").
The whole Fulbright group outside the Aboriginal Museum
Fancy lunch
The National Palace Museum
Both museums were fantastic. I learned a lot about the history of the aboriginal tribes of Taiwan and where you can still go today to visit some of the tribes at the Aboriginal Museum. But I was especially excited about going to the National Palace Museum. It houses the world's largest collection of ancient Chinese artifacts and artworks.

Quick history lesson: Most of the pieces currently in the museum were collected by China's ancient emperors over the last 8,000 years or so but, after the last emperor was dethroned in 1925, the collection fell into the hands of the new Nationalist Government under Chiang Kai-sheck. When the Japanese invaded in the 1930s, the government ordered the most valuable pieces to be taken out of Beijing and hidden to keep them from the Imperial Japanese Army. Then, after WWII was over and the Japanese had left, the Chinese civil war broke out between Chiang Kai-sheck's Nationalists and Mao Zedong's Communists. As the fighting grew worse, the directors of the Palace Museum in Beijing decided to send some of the most important pieces in the collection to Taiwan for safekeeping. In the end, the National Palace Museum wound up with about a quarter of the original collection. In the end, this turned out to be a very good thing because much of what was left in China was destroyed in the during Mao's Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976. Today, there is still some debate surrounding the museum and it's collection. While the Chinese government argues that the collection was stolen and that it legitimately belongs in China, Taiwan defends the collection as a necessary act to protect the pieces from destruction, especially during the Cultural Revolution.

Okay, that's enough history for now. The point is, the museum is super interesting (especially if you're a history nerd like me) and it's collection is phenomenal. Unfortunately, there is no photography allowed in the museum but, if you're interested, you should check out the museum website by clicking here. You can take a look at the exhibits or a virtual tour of the museum. Fun stuff!

After we left the museum, I decided to help a fellow Fulbrighter out with her project. Brenda Zlamany is an artist and a Fulbright senior scholar. For more on her art, you can visit her website at Her current project is about "the Face of Taiwan." She's painting 888 (8 is a lucky number in Asia) watercolor portraits of people in Taiwan with a special emphasis on aboriginal areas and people. 
Brenda's notebooks of paintings. She's completed about 650 so far.
Brenda's portrait of Vivian, one of Fulbright Taiwan's
many awesome staff members. She's pretty great.
So we headed back to the Taipei Artist Village with Brenda and she painted me and 8 or 9 other volunteers on Saturday night. 
Hard at work
What do you think? Does it look like me?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Wufongci waterfall (五峰旗瀑布)

On Sunday Stephanie and I decided to take the commuter train up a few stops to Jioaxi, a town known for Wofongci waterfall and its hot springs. We didn't make it to the hot springs (I figure I'll save that for when its not so hot outside already), but the falls were beautiful!!!

There are thee main falls at Wofongci but it was a pretty easy hike to the top despite all the stairs. And, when we got to the top, Stephanie and I instantly agreed it was worth every step.
The lower falls. All the adorable children were
hanging out down here
The middle fall
At the middle fall, there was a kid who had brought his trumpet to provide all the onlookers with some theme music. When I arrived, he was playing 月亮代表我的心 (the Moon Represents My Heart), a really famous Chinese love song. Since our Chinese teacher during orientation decided to teach all of us that song our first week here, it has become the unofficial theme song of Fulbright Yilan. It's a definite karaoke favorite.
He also played the Pink Panther theme song, part of the score from Harry Potter, the old school Nintendo Mario theme, and My Heart Will Go On by Celine Dion. Basically, this kid was my hero for the day.

Then, after narrowly avoiding a rock slide...
... and jumping a fence (everyone else was doing it, too, we swear)...
... we made it to the top!
The upper fall was absolutely breathtaking! Taiwan is truly a beautiful country and as we were sitting next to the fall getting soaked, I couldn't help but think how truly blessed I am to get to spend a year of my life here. God has definitely been good to me.
I love my life!

Arts & Crafts, Taiwan Style

Last Friday was (weirdly enough) both my old roommate's birthday and my new roommate's birthday. Crazy coincidence, right? So, to celebrate, Stephanie decided to hop on a few buses and a subway and come visit me in Luodong for the weekend! Since this was her first time in Yilan County, I took it as an excuse to explore a few close by places I've been meaning to check out, namely the National Center for Traditional Arts (NCTA) just outside of Luodong and the waterfalls in Jioaxi.

Stephanie arrived early Saturday afternoon and, after a quick lunch of shui-jiao (dumpling soup), we decided to experiment with the Luodong bus system, which has a stop right in front of my apartment building. Well, we managed to catch the bus (surprisingly, it was even the right bus) but we ran into some problems when none of us could explain to the bus driver which stop we wanted to get off at. We tried to say "The Center for Traditional Arts" in English (which, being that particular line's last stop, was written in both Chinese and English on the front of the bus) and explaining in broken Chinese that we wanted to go to the last stop but it was all to no avail.
My friend Mr. Butterfly, I think he was the only one on the
bus more confused than we were
Eventually, the bus driver just gave up and decided that, since we were foreigners, we must be going to the Luodong train station stop. We had another interesting conversation with the bus driver in our broken Chinese when we got to the train station and he tried to force us off the bus. This time we were slightly more successful: he still had no idea where we wanted to go but at least we managed to get across that we did not want to go here. Sometimes, you've got to appreciate the little victories. After that, he decided to just leave us alone until we got to wherever it was we were headed.
Success! The entryway to the Center
According to the website for the NCTA (
"Due to the rapid changes of our current society, traditional arts are dying out 
because there are no people learning these skills. Therefore... the aim of this center
is to make sure that traditional arts can be passed on to future generations."

The decline in traditional arts isn't just a problem in Taiwan. It's been noted before that traditional crafts and culture seem to be some of the greatest casualties of globalization. All over the world, traditional handicrafts have shown a tendency to decline or disappear altogether as a result of industrialization and modernization. It seems that this problem is endemic to the times, so it's always interesting to see how different areas are addressing the issue. Many countries have done the same as Taiwan: they've worked to turn tradition and culture into a marketable (and therefore valuable) commodity. In other words, they've created tourist traps in order to preserve culture. Okay, I'm getting a little too philosophical here. Sorry for the tangent. The point is, I don't know if this is a good thing or not but at least they're trying. And, in this case anyhow, it was a very cool tourist trap.

Here are some of the neat things to see and do at NCTA:
Guanghsiao Shrine: A wealthy Yilan family built it as a private temple
in 1921, it was relocated to NCTA a few years ago
Folk Art Boulevard, where you can buy lots of neat handmade stuff!

For serious calligraphers only
Scholar Huang's Residence: It was once a famous guy's home,
now it's a museum that's half dedicated to accounting and half about food
Giant weapons: they're sort of like traditional art (the art of war)
To round out the evening, we went to a vegetarian buffet in Yilan city and then I went to my first Taiwanese movie. It was You Are the Apple of My Eye (那些年,我們一起追的女孩), a totally ridiculous but endearing romantic comedy about 5 guys who all like the same girl. It was also about high school, college, and growing up in that nostalgic way that everybody loves but pretends to hate.
All in all, it was a very good day.