making connections

In my last post, I scratched the surface of how I ended up in Taiwan. In this post, I’ll scratch the surface of what made me stay. It’s all part of the introduction to a paper I wrote last semester at UTK and a good reminder of this quote by Marcel Proust:

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

My first few months in Taiwan were rough, to say the least. Culture shock, homesickness, loneliness—these are common challenges every new teacher in a foreign country faces. There were many moments when I wanted to tuck my tail between my legs and, head down, head home. But something wouldn’t let me do it. I’d like to say that something was my pride—my “stick-to-it-ness”—but, really, it was twofold. Sure, pride played a part, but it was really my students and a group of Taiwanese “language exchange” friends who changed my perspective and opened my eyes to the beauty and depth of Taiwan.

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Playing the alphabet game

Anyone who’s ever taught children or young adults can relate to this image: A classroom full of squirming bodies. Chatter. Laughter. Enthusiasm. Smiles. Mischievous smiles. Cunning smiles. These were my students in Taiwan, with the added challenge that their chatter was in Mandarin. Generally the kids were well-behaved, though sometimes it was difficult to tell when they were not. Sometimes it took the crying of another child to learn that Pirate had called Rex a bad name, or that Lady Bug wasn’t sharing her crayons. (Taiwanese children often choose their own English names or are given one by their teachers.) Of course we encouraged the kids to speak English as much as possible, but about half of our students struggled with questions as simple as: “What is your name?” We were here to have fun, not torture our students.

The more engaged I became in my role as a teacher, however, the more I wondered about their chatter. Often at mealtimes our translators would talk with the students and laugh. When I’d ask what they were laughing about, though, the meaning was usually lost when the translator tried to explain. Some things just don’t translate—cultural traditions, idioms and metaphors, linguistic idiosyncrasies, etc.

This became further evident when I befriended a group of Taiwanese professionals who worked at a landscape architect company near my apartment complex in Sanzhi. Laura had introduced them to me shortly after I’d arrived. She’d been meeting with Wei-Ming, Yenhsuan, Sueching, and Rox regularly for what they called “Language Exchange” for the past year. Basically, they’d get together and help each other with their English and Mandarin, respectively, and would talk American and Taiwanese culture along the way. Laura had moved to a new school when I arrived, however, and thus I had the benefit of sneaking in and taking over where she left off. This proved to be one of the most satisfying experiences I had in Taiwan and established friendships that have lasted to this day.
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Out with my language-exchange friends

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“I’m so glad we’re meeting today,” I remember telling Wei-Ming one rainy evening as I shook out my umbrella on the doorstep of his office. Wei-Ming was a spunky gentleman in his late thirties with a round face and dark hair that was just starting to silver at his temple. His English speaking and comprehension were fairly good, though grammar and pronunciation were a struggle. He smiled. “Oh yeah? Why is that?”

Just then Yenhsuan and Sueching entered the room. They were both recent graduates from an architecture school in Taiwan and were a fantastic source of information about youth culture in Taiwan.

“What on earth was going on yesterday?” I asked as soon as everyone was settled.

The previous day I’d taken the bus into town and, along the winding way, noticed large slaughtered pigs on display in front of every home between Sanzhi and Danshui. What the…? I’d become used to seeing brown women in aprons plucking chickens on their doorsteps, and men napping in blue trucks with their feet stuck out the windows, and scantily-clad women selling betel nut from florescent-lit glass booths along the road. I was used to the brightly-colored temples, and the night markets, and the meat trucks speeding down the mountainside (with hanging carcasses swaying) early in the mornings. I was not used to seeing slaughtered animals on display outside of people’s homes.
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The harbor in Danshui

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Betel nut girls — a common sight in Taiwan

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Shilin Night Market — the biggest night market in Taiwan

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“I went to Danshui . . . there were all of these pigs . . . it was” — I wanted to say ‘horrifying’ but didn’t want to offend my friends — “crazy!” I said at last.

After blurting out these words, I think I expected an immediate, strong response from my friends, but to my surprise, they just sat there. “Umm,” said Wei-Ming after a moment, “I’m not sure,” and he looked at the girls for help.

“Oh, I knowww,” Yenhsuan ventured after a moment. “Wasn’t this weekend the Yimin Festival? It’s the Hakka tradition in honor of Shénzhū—the God Pig.”

“Oh yes, yes,” Wei-Ming’s brow began to brighten. “People raise pigs to be very fat, then kill them as an offering. It is a very special day for the God Pig. The farmer with the biggest pig will receive many blessings from the god in the following year.”
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View of the Pacific from the top of my apartment complex… (I’m not posting pics of the pigs — too gross!)

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.Yenhsuan nodded, her shoulder-length locks bouncing as she leaned in. She loved sharing things about her culture. “There’s a big gathering in Sanxia, in New Taipei City, every year.” She paused. “Many people do not like it, though. They say it is cruel to make the pigs so fat.”

“Ohhh,” I said. “But these pigs were not that big. And I wasn’t in Sanxia. Are you sure it’s the same thing?”

Yenhsuan nodded. “Many people participate even if they do not go to Sanxia. They sacrifice the pigs to their city god or local deity for good luck.” She smiled, looking amused. “Weird, huh?”

I nodded and realized I must have a mixture of horror and shock written all over my face. I attempted to wipe it off.

Sueching, who’d been listening quietly to the conversation, piped up then in Mandarin. Her English was not as good as the others, and she was timid because of it. Yenhsuan laughed when Sueching had finished. She translated, “Sueching says she thinks they are crazy, too. Our families have never participated. It is an old tradition.”

“I see…”

“But maybe your families will regret it!” Wei-Ming laughed. He spoke first in Mandarin to the girls and then translated in English for me. “They will embrace Buddha’s feet in their hour of need—it is their destiny!”

Uhh? I laughed heartily along with the others, but truthfully I was still perplexed. There were inside jokes I was missing, cultural connections I just couldn’t see. (Wei-Ming’s joke hadn’t been that funny!)

I wondered, too, how these linguistic and cultural variations impacted my students’ ability to understand English, to understand me.

(Stay tuned…)
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*Images mine or borrowed from the World Wide Web

broken home

empty-swings..
I was talking to Mrs. V,  the other day. Mrs. V is the 1st grade teacher I work with. We’d had an assembly that morning to recognize students for good behavior and school work, and *Sarah had won Mrs. V’s class award. Sarah’s mother was at the ceremony, and with her was someone I guessed was her dad.

I was wrong. Continue reading

just say no!

valentines-day-2014-roses-hero-HValentine’s Day. For what it’s worth, I’ve never been a fan. As I’ve described in previous posts, it’s an over-commercialized holiday that demeans romance, not exalts it. There’s nothing more romantic than a grocery store teddy bear and a dozen roses with baby’s breath, right? No? How about eating in a crowded over-priced restaurant alongside everyone else in town?

It’s even better when you’re single, of course. Happy Single’s Awareness Day, anyone? Gahhh.

For those who have kids, Valentine’s Day takes on a different meaning. Suddenly Valentine’s Day cards are being made and bought and glitter and glue are everywhere. Valentine’s candy is being passed out. Pictures are being taken. Nothing wrong with that, but . . . Continue reading

the goodie-goodie

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My elementary and high school

“Are you a goodie-goodie?”

My heart leapt in my chest. He was talking to me. Was he talking to me? Yes! He was talking to me!

“I, uh . . .” Wait a . . . Was I a what? A goodie-goodie? What was a goodie-goodie?

“Uh . . .” I thought I knew what it meant. I had a pretty good idea, but . . .

I was stuttering. He was staring at me. My cheeks were burning. The cement sidewalk where we stood was crashing into the school parking lot — six inches below. Continue reading

outshine the stars

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Riding the Berkeley Hills (Dad, me, and my brother)

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Today is Father’s Day. Well, was. It’s almost over now — 10:30 p.m. here on the West Side.

My dad and brother came to visit us today. We rode our bikes, chatted, got Thai food. Overall, it was a great day — except for my dad and brother who spent more than two hours driving in traffic . . .

But . . .

Hopefully, it was worth it. I made pound cake, which we ate after dinner. Jon had everyone laughing with his stories about growing up in Alabama. And I . . .

Remembered my poem from last Father’s Day, which I’ve decided to post again, here. I hope you don’t mind . . . I hope you enjoy . . .

Happy Father’s Day, everyone!

 

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Let’s dive! (My dad on the right as a little boy.)

Path to Immortality

We start out mere mortals,
’til “Father” turns son.
It’s then our potential
“forever” is won.

We live through our children,
and they on through theirs.
So what will we show them?
How say, “Daddy cares”?

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Lub-dub. Lub-dub. Two kids in a tub.

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It’s here I’m no expert,
but look to the best.
My father’s my hero—
he far passed the rest!

With love and compassion,
through fire and through ice,
he gave with devotion,
and never thought twice:

My dad as a baby with his dad

My dad as a baby with his dad

He did what he had to,
and then he did more.
No matter the duty,
’twas never a chore.

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“Da-ddy. Da-ddy. A spider!” my plea.

From start until finish,
from dawn until dusk,
pushed past human limits,
he still wasn’t brusque . . .

But rather was patient,
and kind without end.
All people who knew him,
his worth did commend.

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“Lo-vely. Lucky!” they always told me.

Swimming in Lake Tahoe when I was a kid

Swimming in Lake Tahoe when I was a kid

But of my dad’s story,
they only knew half.
I wasn’t just lucky:
My dad’s off the graph!

For me and my brother,
he’s always been there.
‘Twas never a question:
“Does our daddy care?”

Love you. Love you. I know that it’s true.

From cycling, to skiing,
to talking in depth,
my father has shaped me,
and that is a breadth!

So Daddy, I thank you,
for all that you are.
You’re no longer mortal:
You outshine the stars.

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Jon, me, and Derek

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Sour cream pound cake — my dad and brother’s favorite. :)

thrive

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It’s funny how it hit me: Tonight, I had to write.

I’ve been putting it off for ages, trying to find my voice. Writing is my passion, but there is never time, never the place. There are always things in the way — things of higher priority — and there are bills to pay. Blogging doesn’t help much with bills.

And then there’s topic. What on earth do I want to say? My little brother got married a few weeks ago. I cut my finger so deeply I could see the tendon. I started a new job working with young kids. Traffic is insane in the Bay Area. The weather is different here. Homelessness is everywhere here. And, and . . .

People are people. It’s what I keep coming back to. Here in Berkeley the population is incredibly diverse. There are black people and white people and red people and yellow people. There are people wearing saris and turbans and skullcaps and blue jeans and pant suits and rags. We are all so different, and yet . . . forever the same.

And that’s why I love you . . . and you and you and you (especially you, hatted boy). I love you because I am like you. I breathe and cry and laugh and try and fail and try again just like the rest of you. I am sick when the world is evil but thrilled when love calls my name. (Thank you, sweetie…)

I am human, and I will thrive. Until my dying day, I will thrive.

And you will, too.

I know it.

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