East Asia

Day-Tripping Daegu with Dora and Carolyn

I entered the KTX (Korea’s bullet train) station with my Korail Pass in hand. The pass offered a 20,000 Won (19 USD) discount for my roundtrip to Daegu, a benefit only offered to tourists. By 11:30 I was on the train speeding toward Daegu at 150 miles per hour.

I already spent most of my vacation week in central Seoul, and thought it was worth paying Daegu, South Korea’s third biggest city and a historical sight, a visit just to change up the pace of the week. Also, I have a college friend, Carolyn, residing in Daegu and teaching English to public school kids. I thought if I’m going to do a random day-trip, to a new place where I actually know someone and who speaks Korean would make the trip more interesting. Carolyn and I would meet for dinner after she was done with work. Until then, I would wander the city on my own.

It took about an hour and a half to reach Dong Daegu Station and as I lily-padded from WiFi hotspot to WiFi hotspot, I tried to research what the heck I was actually going to do in Daegu before dinner. Though I do some research before my trips, I really like the go-with-flow method of travelling, too, though it is a bit anxiety-inducing. I soon found that the easiest way to reach the city center AND get an introduction to the town would be with a Daegu city bus tour, a 4,000 Won (approx 4 USD) ticket to the main sights of the city.

Stepping out of the station, I was instantly hit with the impression that Daegu was small– much smaller than Seoul. The sheer lack of people and commuters outside the exit intensified the vastness of the station relative to the city, and accentuated the ugliness that is massive on-going construction. A new, yet very familiar, feeling hit me instantly as I stepped into the sun: heat. I had only five days off from the tropical humidity of Kaohsiung in July, but my break from it in Seoul was enough to decrease my patience and tolerance for summer heat. The heat fell on my body in layers, like a heavy, velvet curtain dropped from a high ceiling onto my shoulders and back. And though I wanted to flail my arms and free myself from its clutches, I would never get this metaphorical curtain off of me. It was unsettling at first. Getting to grips with my new, shadeless environment, I moseyed my way toward the City Bus Tour stop as indicated by the colorful brochure I picked up outside the station. I followed big, equally colorful English signs first straight then right, along a fenced off sidewalk, then left and straight again until the fence ended and I was on a new sidewalk facing a major road steaming in the noon-day sun. The bus was parked near a lamppost that sported a sign with rainbow text “Daegu City Tour.” It was set to leave in three minutes, but when I boarded I was the only passenger in a 50-seater bus. Even the driver seemed surprised to see me.

I opened my official City Bus Tour brochure and looked at the stops ahead. Not knowing much about the city other than it was big on textile and clothing manufacturing, I thought Seoswang Market, a traditional market that sells everything from dried fish to textiles to jewelry, would be a good place to explore. An elderly Korean woman, the day’s “tour guide” boarded and looked at my foreign face with mild fear. She didn’t speak any English and I speak no Korean whatsoever, beyond “anyeongha-seo” and “kamsamnida” which mean “hello” and “thank you.” Through her mobile phone’s translation app we communicated haltingly and with frequent giggles about where I wanted to go and how the City Tour  worked. Until 5:00 P.M., I could go to any tour bus stop in town and wait to board the bus that would take me to the next major tourist spot. In the meantime, I was settled on seeing the market.

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After a year in Asia, I started to sense that sightseeing in most cities should be left for the evening, especially during the summers. Maybe arriving in Daegu in the heat of the afternoon wasn’t such a smart idea. I started to get that feeling when the bus let me out at the Seoswang Market entrance and saw only a smattering of senior citizens going about their daily work, zipping along sidewalks on their scooters to do deliveries, and fanning themselves in shady doorways and the awnings of storefronts. Seoswang has a multi-floored indoor market that resembled Beijing’s Silk Market to a large extent, glimmering cheap to expensive goods available for purchase from shrewd store owners if you were willing to put up the fight to haggle. Seeing as how I wasn’t really in the market for cheap souvenirs and only to explore, I spent maybe ten minutes inside the air-conditioned marketplace before stepping outside again in the common market. The common market was filled with a seemingly random assortment of goods for sale. Within a 100 meter stretch, you could buy anything from a freshly killed chicken to 3,000 Won ($3 USD) pants to “antique” vases to a freshly fried lunch. Daegu being more southern and less cosmopolitan than Seoul felt more like Kaohsiung than ever when I approached the food stalls that filled the center walkway of several wings of the common market. Fried and sweet meats, vegetables, oily crepe like pancakes with sauce, and of course deokbokki (rice cakes in spicy-sweet sauce) appeared to be the everyday fare.

I took in the aura of the market for several more minutes, wandering stand to stand until I felt a pit in my stomach open up. It was 2:00 P.M. and I still hadn’t eaten for the day. Without any Korean language ability, I settled on scanning the plates of customers already eating at various stands to decide where I would make an attempt to order lunch. I finally settled on a place that seemed to be serving Korean pancakes and chicken. Though I didn’t know it yet, the most interesting part of my day was about to start.

Randomness: it's what's for lunch

Randomness, it’s what’s for lunch. Top: sweetly fried chicken with a chunk of uncooked instant noodles. Bottom: savoury, crepe topped with hot pepper seasoning and onions.

“Anyeong,” I said in my innocent tourist voice, “do you have a menu?” I outlined a box shape with my hands to further get the message across, hoping to break the language barrier with the universality of charades.

“Oh we don’t have a menu here,” a young woman serving plates responded in confident, though heavy-accented, English. Taken off guard, but also relieved that I was going to be able to communicate I just said, “well, how about you can just serve me whatever is the most popular food.” The girl thought for a moment as she turned back toward the grill, “How hungry are you? Do you eat chicken?”

“Pretty hungry and yes, I do.” I said.

“Okay, well take a seat, I’ll make you something.” Success! I sat down and immediately began to chat with girl, self-named Dora, about where I was from and what I was doing in Daegu. “Why did you come to Daegu?” She asked.

“Oh you know, just to see it. Why not? I had a free day.”

“But why?” Dora responded haughtily, “there’s nothing to see here, only downtown at night. And it’s hot now. You know what we call Daegu in Korea? D’Africa. Because it gets so hot and terrible here.” I didn’t really catch where the linguistic connection between Daegu and “D’Africa” came from, but I laughed at the joke because as a first-time tourist here, I was expected to.

“Oh I didn’t know that, but Daegu looks nice so far and I heard it’s pretty historic. It’s a small town, but the people are nice.” I nodded to her. She smiled and then turned back to her cooking as she thought of new questions to ask this naive tourist.

The food was done quickly. Dora placed the hot plates of chicken and instant noodles and what looked like a Korean-style crepe, and I started eating right away. Meanwhile, Dora and her mother, the stand owner, unleashed a flurry of questions. Where did I come from? Where was I staying? How did I get to Daegu? Why was I in Korea? How was Taiwan like? How is New York like? Do I like Korea? And so on. I finished my food, but we three continued to talk about pretty much everything under the sun. Sitting beside me now on the customer-side of the stand, Dora said, “you’re so lucky! You can travel everywhere. I’m always stuck here,” she gestured toward the resturant with a roll of her eyes and wave of her hand. “I have to work every day and my parents won’t let me go anywhere! And you know what?” She leaned in, “my they don’t even pay me!” She began to cry mockingly fake tears into the table, and again I laughed because I was supposed to, but this time more genuinely.

Dora is probably between 23 and 26 years-old. She has a short hair cut reminiscent of her TV show namesake, and a face that smiles easily with cute chubby cheeks that reflect an overall positive personality. Though she makes frequent grammar mistakes in English, she is so outgoing, talkative, and enjoys American slang so much the errors don’t hold her back, it just adds to her charm. Over lunch, she told about her year in Fiji studying English and where she learned her extensive, colorful vocabulary. “It was paradise! I had so many friends!” She excalimed, “But it was a one time thing. My parents can’t afford to send me somewhere again.” She pouted intensely for all of two seconds, and then switched back into her signature ear-to-ear smile, “but now you’re here! Where are you going?” I showed her my Daegu City Tour brochure, “I guess to the places here. I don’t know Daegu, so I was just going to see the really touristy stuff.”

With just a glance, Dora smacked my brochure that I was still holding in my hands, “Ugh, this shit! These f***ing….don’t go to this f***ing shit.They’re ugh! Just no!.” She said with finality as my eyebrows rose to the highest reaches of my forehead at the sound of sudden f-bombs.

“But, wait a minute, there’s NOTHING in here worth seeing?” I said as I laughed, “There’s got to be something.” Dora groaned a bit, but reluctantly opened the brochure, snagged a pencil from the counter and started scribbling her Daegu-ian annotations. “Don’t go here or here,” she said looking at a feature on some parks, “sooooo many grandmas and grandfas. Boring.” (Sometimes, Korean speakers will mix the “p” and “f” sounds). She proceeded to draw two huge X’s over the page and wrote at the top “Grandma. Grandfa,” so I wouldn’t forget.

“Oh and don’t go here. So boring. It’s just a store, like outlet. Unless you wanna buy Gucci or something.” Another big X into the brochure.

“Hm, here,” she looked at a page with a picture of a lake, “This place is nice, but you must go at night. It’s a couples area, but everyone in Daegu takes a walk here at night. With dogs, boyfriends, kids, and they play music too. It’s nice.” Double circle for this one. Dora flipped through the brochure a couple more times before writing anything else down. “Actually,” she said finally, “all these places here are walking distance, and you DEFINITELY need to go to downtown. There is actually LIFE there. And shopping and food and sweets and DRINKING.” A flash of light shone in her eyes with the last word. “Ah! Why didn’t you come on a Friday!? Lots of foreigners will be there on Fridays. It’s so much fun. Okay, you know what, I’m going to show you how to get to downtown now. Hold on, let me tell my mom. I’m going to ditch this place.”

And like that, without even getting a word of opinion in, I suddenly had my own semi-tour guide and friend for the afternoon. We visited the century-old Catholic church in Daegu, passed through some smaller city streets with cool street art, and then made it to central downtown where all the shops and Korean retail brands were. If there was ever a sign that Daegu is a small town, it was in the downtown area. Taking a stroll through the most popular streets, it wasn’t hard to notice the same faces over and over again. There was one tall foreigner that I saw twice in two different  places in the city during my day there. When I mentioned this to Dora she said, “Oh yeah, and dating sucks here. Everyone knows each other and everyone can see when you’re on a date with someone new. Nothing is secret.”

A Korean saint in stained glass at the Daegu Gyesan Catholic Church

A Korean saint in stained glass at the Daegu Gyesan Catholic Church

After a couple of hours together, trying on clothes and people watching, it was time for Dora to go back to work at her parents’ food stand. She dropped me off at a bus stop and told me how to get to my meet up spot where I would meet Carolyn. We exchanged Facebook info and as quickly as I had met her, she was gone again. Once I was on the bus, she yelled from the sidewalk “Next time, come back on a Friday and we’ll drink together!”

Dora from Daegu says good-bye from the bus stop.

I met Carolyn in the major underground mall where the two main subway lines in Daegu connect. The mall was immense and cold because it was air conditioned and sheltered from the sun. It was also packed with all manner of people, especially youth, and it was then that I suddenly realized (after two trips to South Korea) that Korean people are hooked on shopping. Before my phone died, I was able to find a cafe and get on WiFi to tell Carolyn where I was. We met up and headed back to the main downtown area I had just been for dinner. We found a low-key Korean barbecue restaurant in a winding alley way and started to catch up on the last few years since we had seen each other.  Korean barbecue usually entails the guests to cook raw meat on their own at a grill installed into the table. Yet, despite the fact that Carolyn had been living in Daegu for a year and that the establishment was a locals’ haunt, we had an overly attentive waiter cooking our food for us. Usually in Asia, a foreign face means, “I don’t know how to do anything.”

After dinner, Carolyn asked me what else I wanted to see in Daegu, and I heard Dora’s voice in my head. “Got to the lake ONLY AT NIGHT.” So Carolyn and I took a bus and then walked a bit to Suseong Lake, known as a popular meeting place for young couples because of its frequent appearance in romantic scenes on Korean dramas. Carolyn told me about the several on-screen couples whose relationships started or ended at this very lake, and the fandom that surrounds it. “Some people will even come here to re-enact some scenes.” There was a fare share starry-eyed young lovers, but higher in number were the families out for evening walks with their pocket-sized pooches. The walk around the lake was so full of people, musical performers, and chatter that it felt like an amusement park at closing when the hoards make their way to the main exit. Instead, at Suseong Lake, families and couples kept arriving and stayed to enjoy a moment of relief from the heat, the sun, and the daily work grind. There is a sense of calm in the endless circular walk around a large body of dark water.

Me & Carolyn

Even Carolyn and I lost track of time as we talked for hours, telling and retelling stories about Syracuse and life thereafter. At about 9:45 P.M. I realized I was pushing dangerously close to missing my train back to Seoul, and we had to walk/trot back to the monorail that would take me through the subway system back to Dong Daegu Station. I made it back with about 10 minutes to spare. The KTX rolled out of the station and I prompty passed out, snoozing through Daejong and other cities we passed on the way hurtling toward Seoul.

Overall, it was a nice day trip and I got to see something new in South Korea, especially that small-town scene. My one regret is that I didn’t have an extra day to devote to visiting Busan. I guess it will have to wait for the next time I visit South Korea, whenever that may be.

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Reaching New Heights Hiking Bukhansan

Last Tuesday, I wanted to give hiking another go because Achasan was such an easy hike. This time, with my Airbnb host, I hiked Bukhansan, Seoul’s tallest peak. Standing at just above 800 meters, it makes an impression on the surrounding landscape. I’m not an avid hiker, but I do like new challenges. This was probably the tallest mountain I’ve hiked before, and it was a brutal two and a half hours to get to the top. My first hint that this would be a rough hike should’ve been that I couldn’t get a single friend to join me in the hike. On my first day in Seoul, my friends asked me, “so how do you want ot spend your time in Korea?” I answered with, “I don’t know, I’m up for anything, but what about hiking?” The response was met with a wary, “okay, where were you thinking?”

“Well, I heard Bukhansan is the tallest mountain in Seoul. It’s supposed to offer amazing views.”
“Uh…okay, wow. Bukhansan? Hm. Let’s think about it.”

Anyone that’s spent time in East Asia or South Korea, knows that such a vague answer usually means, “No.” Undeterred, I mentioned my plan to hike Bukhansan with or without company to as many people as I could. Finally, I mentioned the idea to my Airbnb host, Noah, and to my surprise he said he wanted to join. The morning of the hike, I dressed in yoga pants, a tank top, and my old running shoes. My purse carried two water bottles, my wallet, sunglasses, some peanut snacks, a roll of kimbap, and my phone. In my world, that means I’m ready to hike. In his world, and every Ajima (elderly woman in Korean) I met on the subway ride to the Bukhansan bus stop, I was setting myself up to sincerecly regret my day and possibly slide down a mountain face to my death. No matter. Even though I stood out like a sore thumb among the fully equipped, backpack-ed hikers, I was determined Bukhansan was going down.

I saw this Ajima, barely five feet tall, hop on her Harley just before our bus arrived. She rode up to the intersection and I snapped a picture without thinking. Why stay home and knit when you could ride your motorcycle into the sunset like a total badass?

I saw this Ajima, barely five feet tall, hop on her Harley just before our bus arrived. She rode up to the intersection and I snapped a picture without thinking. Why stay home and knit when you could ride your motorcycle into the sunset like a total badass?

Hiking Bukhansan easily takes a full day. First, it takes at least an hour and a half to arrive at the base of the mountain, by subway then by bus. Then it’s an increasingly steep and rocky climb to the top for two hours. If your legs aren’t ready for an endless stairmaster workout, then it’s better to save Bukhansan for another day. Also, be ready to sweat. No matter how much or how little clothing you’re wearing, hiking in July entails that you will be streaming with sweat. But it’s all worth it when you reach the peak. Maybe it was the altitude, maybe it was the endorphinsf from pushing my body to climb as fast as I could, but standing on top of Bukhansan’s windy peak and staring down at the green and hazy world below lifts your spirits like nothing else. You will also have a newfound appreciation for all the seniors climbing up along side of you. I only wish I could be a fraction as healthy and fit at their age as they are now. In another bad ass Ajima/Ajashi moment at the peak, many of them were drinking Makgeolli at the top of the mountain. Makgeolli is a milky alcohol and an acquired taste that resembles an alcoholic, watery yogurt in texture and taste. It reminded me of something that maybe our grandparents’ generations would drink during wartimes when options for something better were scarce.

I won’t post too much about the actual hike, so I can talk about Daegu in my next post. But leave me questions in the comments if you have any, and I will be happy to answer them!

Thumbs up, half way point!

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Old fortress wall near the peak. Noah takes another break (right) as he admits defeat to mighty Bukhansan.

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Munching on some kimbap near the peak. The altitude is supposed to make food taste better, but I think sheer exhaustion was a good enough flavor enhancer.

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The Stone Phoenix of Bukhansan. Probably not it's real name, but it works.

The Stone Phoenix of Bukhansan. Probably not it’s real name, but it works.

Of course they sell ice cream on the mountain and of course we got some.

From the Heart of Asia to Its Seoul

I arrived in Seoul from Taiwan (the “Heart of Asia“) a few days ago and have been spending my time mostly with one of my best friends from college and her sister as well as being lost in the endless Seoul subway system.

Just from the first few days I have to say it’s been great getting away from Taiwan’s heat and humidity. The first night I was here was windy and I actually felt a chill that made me put on my jacket. I checked later and saw it was a frigid 75 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s also nice to be in a place that has the same living standards as the U.S. and that has elaborate and mostly convenient subway system. I say mostly because I’m writing this while waiting for my train and it’s already been 30 minutes. I guess Hoegi (pronounced “higgy”) Station must be like Greenpoint and this train is like the G train running weekend schedule every day.

The past couple of days I’ve mostly spent in the Gangnam area with my Ye-lin and Ye-Jin. Gangnam is about 35 minutes away from Hoegi and its also the place named in Psy’s “Gangnam Style.” They have this massive mall that’s like the Macy’s NYC mall but if the entire building were made of marble and glass, half of it were entirely underground, and the foodcourt was an endless array bakeries and restaurants. The mall is Shinsaegae, and anyone who has been to Seoul has been there or at least bumped into one of them. They are owned by Samsung, so they have the wealth and power to erect huge buildings all over the place.

Ye-Lin (left) and me. Friends since 2010, Orange pride for life.

Ye-Lin (left) and me. Friends since 2010, Orange pride for life.

Me, Ye-Lin, and Ye-Jin (left to right) after our spa day on Sunday.

Me, Ye-Lin, and Ye-Jin (left to right) after our spa day on Sunday.

I also went to the French Quarter where, get this, there is actually a significant population of French people living and working in Seoul. So there are some amazing patisseries and boulangeries as well as almost every single luxury French brand store you can imagine. It was so bizarre to see so many French people in the middle of Seoul, but I guess the feeling is akin to a Midwesterner visiting Chinatown in NYC for the first time. You might be thinking I had French food for lunch there, but you’d be wrong. Ye-Jin suggested this incredible burger place called Brooklyn. Seriously, it was probably the best burger I’ve eaten since going out to Harlem Public last year. If for some reason you ever find yourself in Brooklyn, in the French Quarter of South Korea’s capital, eat there! Don’t even bother to look at the menu. Order the Burgherita and a Nutella and marshmallow milkshake and enjoy the rave your taste buds throw for you in your honor. Seriously, it’s that good.

Brooklyn in the French Quarter of Seoul.

Brooklyn in the French Quarter of Seoul.

Burgers, shakes, and fries.

Burgers, shakes, and fries.

On Saturday, I had the whole morning and afternoon to myself so I decided to go for a hike. It’s been a long time since Kaohsiung wasn’t a fiery hellscape, so I’ve been itching to climb a mountain without suffering from heat stroke. Looks like I picked the wrong day.

I went to Achasan or Mt. Acha (San means mountain), a begginer’s level hiking peak. I took the train to Wangshimni, which brought me to another subterranean world (half of Seoul’s population could probably live in the tunnels that crisscross all over the city, there are just so many!). I grabbed some mini pies and an egg sandwich from a bakery and continued onto line 5 which would take me to the Achasan stop.

Though I’d heard Achasan was the smallest of the local peaks in Seoul and one of the easiest to climb, I was dripping with sweat just from the walk from the metro station to the perimeter of the park. Clad in athletic shorts, a T-shirt, running shoes, and a baseball cap, I easily zipped by the swaths of seniors who sported full hiking gear (long pants and jacket), backpacks, large hats, gloves, and ski poles/hiking sticks. At the gate of the park was a water refill station that provided free, ice cold water from the tap. Dozens of seniors were crowded around the watering hole, and I could barely find a free spot to squeeze through before I felt an elbow or a hand push me out of the way. I looked around and noticed everyone was equally soaked in sweat and had a look of utter fatigue on their faces. Maybe today was hotter than I thought?

When I finally refilled my 2 water bottles, I headed up the mountain. After a year in a subtropical climate where shady large-leafed trees, bamboo, monkeys, and flying cockroaches are the norm, hiking on Achasan felt plsin. Besides the pine trees, which were a sight for sore eyes, that took root in the shallow soil above the granite there was little natural life beyond the occasional mosquito. I nostalgically yearned to hear the sound of monkeys fighting and bamboo creaking in the wind. Speaking of wind, there was barely even a breeze the entire walk up until I reached the very peak of Achasan. There, I could feel the air subtly moving like a whisper, just enough to actually offer a cool sensation.

View of the Han River from Achasan.

View of the Han River from Achasan.

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Stone Pavilion reconstructed on the site where the original once stood some 600 years ago.

The first reason I chose to hike Achasan was because of it’s reputation of being an easy peak (meaning I’d just spend a couple hours and go home), the second was because of its historic value. There are still some ruins of fortresses and look-out stations from Ancient Korea’s “Three Kingdoms” period (not to be confused with China’s Three Kingdoms), when the control and use of the Han River (Seoul’s lifeline) was still contested. When you reach the top of the mountain and stare out at the cityscape, you can see exactly why Achasan was so important. Achasan has a perfectly clear view of the eastern portion of the Han River and its banks. A lookout could easily spot any dangerous movement of people or ships in and around the river from miles away. They would also have ample time to warn people living at the base of the mountain and surrounding areas. Nowadays the peak of the mountain serves as a beautiful scenic spot; a moment of gratification once you reach the top.

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What’s left of the ancient fortress built nearly 700 years ago. You can still see the shape of the wall just behind the trees.

One of the very many elderly hikers also visiting Achasan on Seoul's hottest day.

One of the very many elderly hikers also visiting Achasan on Seoul’s hottest day.

As I made my way back down the mountain I became increasingly self-conscious as to how much I had actually sweated. It was probably the most in my life. My entire shirt was a shade darker and I could feel the grit of salt and sand sliding on my forearms and shins. I would find out from Ye-Lin later that apparently it was Seoul’s hottest day of the year, so hot that city hall announced a warning against people exercising during the day.

“Dear God,” I thought as I approached the subway entrance. I was thinking of all the beautifully dressed, meticulously make-upped women on the subway, “I’m a mess and I really hope I don’t smell.” Luckily I’m 85% sure I didn’t have super bad B.O. on the commute home.  No one covered their noses or stepped back when they stood next to me, so I took that as positive feedback and tried to avoid contact the entire ride home. Random sidenote, for a developed country capital, Seoul adheres to some really intense gender norms for appearance. I’ve noticed make-up, especially lipstick, is pretty much a requirement for going outside if you’re an adult female. Heels aren’t a must, but encouraged. Everyone looks like a freaking model, and if they don’t have the size 0 body, they definitely have the wardrobe. It’s enough to make a girl think twice about stepping onto the shiny, AC’d subway in sweaty workout clothes. In my, what most people would assume is, disgusting condition on Satuday I’m sure I stood against everything that is expected of a lady commuter that afternoon. Oh well.

I made it to dinner on the other side of town an hour late. I was supposed to be there for 5:00 but arrived at 6:00. Ye-Lin and Ye-Jin planned a fried chicken and beer picnic near the Han River. Thanks to not having any cell phone or data plan in Seoul, I was unable to tell them that apparently on Saturday evenings commuters are just as packed into the trains as they are during weekday rush hour. I waited 35 minutes for one train and then another 15 minutes to transfer. We were packed into the cars to the point where I couldn’t move my arms and legs until the next stop, and then it would only be to readjust before the onslaught of bodies unforgivably mashed themselves into the train car again. Awesome that some folks DID sport the enchanting parfum of outdoor hard labor on the hottest day of the year.

Just a bit of the crowd on the subway on Saturday.

Just a bit of the crowd on the subway on Saturday.

When I finally did make it to meet up spot, I had all but irrevocably damaged dinner plans. The chicken was cold, the girls were weary from worry, and my legs were tired, limp meat bags on my body. Luckily, there was some daylight left and we headed straight away to the park and commenced picnicking. Night fell two hours later and by that time the good conversation and food made my commute of nightmares seem like a distant past. I was sufficiently content with the way the day went. The mosquitoes started biting, cuing our exit, and as we carried the trash away, fat and scattered raindrops began to fall. The typhoon expected to pass on Sunday was signalling that it would be on time.

Farewell Pt. 2: Sort-Of “Passing” AKA Blending in Taiwan

**NOTE**Before I tumble down the rabbit hole of racism and sexism in Taiwan v. Greater Asia or the United States, I want to pause and remind anyone reading this, that I’m focusing on specifically my OWN experience. I am just recording and reflecting on what I’ve noticed happen to me and around me during my year here.***

Elephant in the Blog

One thing I’ve consciously tried not to do on this blog is to make my race a point of discussion as I experience life in Taiwan. I wanted to see my grant through the eyes of a teacher first, rather than as a “raced-person” first. Also, I think that the story of Western-Foreigner-in-Asia is overtold. Likewise, the tale of the Asian American in East Asia, though less known to the average non-travelling American, is definitely often talked about among travelers and in expat communities.

Why write about this topic? Because my racial background did impact my quality of life in Taiwan. I’ve heard too many of my expat and Fulbright friends say, “I wish people didn’t just point me out on the street all the time.” Or, “I wish people didn’t just assume I don’t know Chinese.” Or, “I wish people would stop taking pictures of me.” And I have not shared that same experience on my own.

When I compare my experiences to that of Asian American friends, White American, or Black American friends here, I would argue that being half-Asian only made my daily life easier. In fact, I would say being a half-Chinese-half-European-American woman in Taiwan is probably the most privileged, respected life I have ever lived. It’s really weird to type, think, and acknowledge, but I would be lying if I said that life in Taiwan has really shocked me culturally (though there are several cultural discrepncies). I am half-Chinese afterall, so some cultural things were already familiar. Granted, there are institutional things in the education system, immigration system, the driving culture, or the police culture that surprised me, but I never experienced a level of culture shock in Taiwan where I envied my previous life in the States. Well, except maybe when it comes to food…

Come here, you beautiful bastard.

Essentially, I noticed something happening to me in Taiwan that has only occaisionally happened in the U.S. I was simulatenously passing as a member of the majority population and living a Western expat life.

Racial passing occurs when a person classified as a member of one racial group is also accepted as a member of a different racial group. The term was used especially in the U.S. to describe a person of mixed-race heritage assimilating into the white majority during times when legal and social conventions of hypodescent classified the person as a minority, subject to racial segregation and discrimination.

–Wikipedia

In more detail that means…

1) I can “pass” for Taiwanese better than other foreigners.

Put me in a Taiwanese-style outfit and you wouldn’t take a second look at me as we passed on the street (this has happened often with White people in Taiwan). Dark hair, angled eyes and a similar complexion help, but upon closer inspection my prominent Greek nose still sets me apart from time to time. Luckily, Taiwan offers a bit of racial wiggle room. For instance, I’ve been told by some of the Taiwanese Aboriginal (yuán zhùmín) shop owners in Cishan that my nose is fēicháng hǎo (great) as they also touched or gestured to their equally well-bridged noses. I even had a parent at my school speak to me in Hakka and when I couldn’t respond she asked, Nǐ shì bùshì kèjiā rén? (“Aren’t you Hakka?”). Blending in means I can go pretty much anywhere unnoticed in Taiwan where there’s a moderately sized crowd and no one will be the wiser. Until I open my mouth, that is, and nothing but “American” comes out.

No one screams Wàiguó rén! (foreigner) or Hēirén (black person) at me on the street and there’s less of a chance for people stopping me at random to play 20 Questions with them, though it does occasionally happen. Blending in also means that occasionally my students will ask (as one did in June), “Justin laoshi, Fay laoshi is American, right? I can’t remember.”

Peace signs for days. Yeah I look different, but I don't look

My co-teachers and I had an awesome surf lesson in Kenting in May. Here, we pose with our coaches (the three guys in the book). I look different, but not “American.” As some locals might say.

2) I always have a Get Out of Jail card AKA the Wàiguó Rén Card. Blending in often means that Taiwanese will treat me like another Taiwanese. I’ll get solicited by Greenpeace on the street just like I used to in NYC, store clerks will try to get me to join rewards programs, Taiwanese will ask me to give directions, and I’m overall be expected to know Chinese fluently. Yet, the moment I get into a Taiwanese situation that I don’t want to be in or can’t handle because the language is way over my head, I just throw out the Tīngbùdǒng Card. Tīng bù dǒng (聽不懂) literally means “hear but don’t understand,” and it’s a phrase that is kryptonite to any Chinese language conversation.

Commit a cultural faux pas? Tīng bù dǒng. Don’t want to eat some strange food being offered to me? Tīng bù dǒng. Trying to get into a friend’s building without a key or any identification without being stopped? Tīng bù dǒng. Don’t want to accept an invitation for an event from an acquaintance or stranger? Tīng bù dǒng. Being asked my number? Tīng bù dǒng. Running a red light? Tīng bù dǒng.

Being a foreigner who doesn’t understand Chinese is an amazing escape hatch. Locals are never angry or disappointed when they hear tīng bù dǒng because suddenly standing before them is this new opportunity or experience they haven’t had before. A foreigner! And this is where the privilege comes in. I get to benefit from blending in at first, but I don’t have to keep up with any social responsibility that a Taiwanese person is expected to follow. Instead, I somtimes have the choice to self-isolate.

3) No Catcalling. Living in New York. No, living in the whole wide world has made me very self-conscious about how, where, when, and what I wear when I walk outside alone. I have been street harassed in at least 90% of the places I’ve ever lived in or visited. Despite what the “mens-rights activists” may say, catcalling is seriously wrong, and it’s a psychological burden for the person who is being targeted over and over again. It’s a constant reminder that you are seen and treated as a subordinate in a social hierarchy. It wasn’t until I moved to Kaohsiung did I notice that the defensive behavior I picked up from back home to combat street harassers was unnecessary in Taiwan. Within the first couple of months, I noticed that I typically walked with my eyes staring only at the sidewalk directly in front of me, I consciously wore a frown, that I subconsciously avoided making eye contact with people, and that my ears were always piqued to listen for a muttered comment or rude shout from whomever I’d just passed. However, eye contact, smiles, and nods are just acknowledgements of another person’s existence in Taiwan. There is often no ulterior motive (though I won’t deny that creeps exist in every country). Without catcalling, I feel so much more liberated to just wander anywhere in the city on foot in any style of clothing I feel comfortable in. It’s like I have permission to be myself in public.

**Sidenote** I have been catcalled once in Kaohsiung while walking with a friend to a club late at night. The two men were from North America, not Taiwan.

4) I feel comfortable. Sure, I get pointed out for being American or foreign sometimes, but it’s not as intense for me. I’m foreign, but I’m only so much foreign. People kind of expect me to speak Chinese and won’t patronizingly applaud my “great Chinese” after simply saying the words 謝謝 xièxiè (thank you). No one wants to play with my hair or touch my skin because thei texture and color is too similar to the Taiwanese. Often my students even forget I’m American. At one point near the end of the first semester, one of my students, Mars, asked my coteacher, Sam, “Teacher Fay bùshì Táiwān rén ma?” (Teacher Fay, isn’t Taiwanese?) No, Mars. Do you really think I choose to speak Chinese this badly?

It Can’t All Be Rainbows and Sunshine

Taiwan is not perfect. It’s certainly grappling with its own race and gender issues today and equal respect is not bestowed upon White, Black, or East and Southeast Asian foreigners . Don’t believe me? Look at this toothpaste.

Darlie Toothpaste AKA 黑人牙膏 literal translation: Black Person Toothpaste. The original concept came from the early 20th century when the toothpaste was originally called “Darkie.” The brand concept came from the British and its implicit message was that your teeth would shine white like a black person’s. This toothpaste is widely sold all over Southeast Asia, and is the go-to brand in Taiwan.

Or you can check out Taiwanese rap group 911’s new video “Foreigner” or mockingly “歪國人.” It can pretty much sum up all the most common negative stereotypes Taiwan has for it’s foreigners. The ending is the worst because it shows how little interaction or empathy many Taiwanese have with the rest of the world.

For solace, I’ve provided some reaction videos made by international students in Taiwan (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xx2e2Xc49Pc & https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=50LnRgUuQco). Their channels are pretty great, by the way.

What I want to explain here is that despite all these awful stereotypes bestowed upon those who carry the “foreigner” label, in my first year, many foreigner stereotypes were not applied to me directly. As you notice in the video, the majority of the negative stereotypes are applied to male foreigners because of the incorrect belief that Western and African men want to “take” Taiwanese women. This creates a familiar dichotomy that we see playing out all over the world right now where male foreigners are “invaders” and female foreigners are “prizes” to be “taken” from the “invaders.” Acknowledging this dichotomy and implicit sexism SUCKS because it is so disheartening for me to imagine that this is the reality I live in. But when it comes to exoticizing foreign women, in Taiwan I rarely get any heat, and I think it’s because I look too similar to the regular population. This is a huge departure from my experience in the U.S. As a Woman of Color in the United States, exoticization of my ethnic background happens too frequently

From my own experience, I think Taiwan as a whole has not consciously acknowledged that many of these racist and sexist beliefs are wrong. I think in many cases, this way of thinking is very similar to the White middle class thinking of the U.S. in the 1950s, where the stereotypes are taken as facts of nature and little is done to change them by people with power because they don’t see how these views could ever impact their daily lives.

Reflection

The sad thing I realized while living in Taiwan, is that in the U.S. I have never really been able to “just live” with my existence in a space going unquestioned. In Taiwan, I’m allowed to live my life without oppressive social and cultural interference because I am can be part of the power class. In America, microaggressions consistently remind me I am powerless (I.e. not White or a man). Sometimes I’ll go for days without a microaggression, and then it suddenly comes out in little quips in the office or in the form of street harassment. “Oh, guys, we got our resident Asian in the office today!” or “Yes, Chinese princess, I knew I woke up for a reason!” (yes, these are real things I’ve heard before). As if my part in society is to act as some kind of raced and sexualized ornament for the mainstream population. From elementary school until after college graduation, I was often a, “first Asian friend,” “the only Asian around,” “the only Asian girl in soccer,” “the only girl on the team,” “the only loud Asian” someone had met, the “first Asian” someone had met, the “first cool Asian” someone had met, the “first half-Asian friend,” the “first dumb Asian” someone had met, the “first Asian girl with an ass” that someone met, the only “cool, chill girl” someone met (as if all other women are frantic and emotionally unstable). These are all real encounters I’ve had with acquaintances, strangers, and friends. And they really are oppressive because of how relentlessly they other the person being discussed.

In Taiwan, I don’t experience tolerance like I do in America. Instead, I feel like my differences in identity are accepted and validated better–at least on the surface. People see that I’m foreign or sort of Asian/Taiwanese and move on. Maybe I’m naive, but it really feels like my personal racial identity is unimportant in finding happiness in my daily life and that’s a wonderful privilege.

Thoughts on Returning to the States

“I’ve been here three weeks and I haven’t even said it. I haven’t even thought it. And it made me say, ‘Oh my God, I been wrong.'”

The first thing I thought when I had the idea for this blog was, “Oh my god, is this how a White man in the U.S. feels?”

The second thing that came to mind, though, was an old Richard Pryor stand-up special where he talks about his experience touring Africa. Though it doesn’t seem directly related at first, the same sentiment is there. To offer context to Pryor’s comments, it was the first time he had ever visited Africa, meaning it was the first time he’d been a part of the racial majority. This is my second time in a Chinese-dominant country (first time was China in 2011), and both times I shared Pryor’s realization and amazement of how it felt to be a part of a majority for once in my life. A majority that has people that look similar to me that aren’t cast as stereotyped clichés. In the U.S. I’m regarded as “an Asian” or “an Asian girl” and all the cultural baggage that comes with it. In China and Taiwan I’ve caught myself thinking, “There are no ‘Asian people’ here, there are just Chinese or Taiwanese. They are just people and they are all so different from each other in their own way and we are ALLOWED to be different beyond the boundaries I knew in the U.S.” The caveat here with “allowed” is if you look Chinese or Taiwanese.

I know this probably doesn’t read well for my White or Black friends here because in Taiwan they are relegated to minority status. In Taiwan, all White people and all Black people are difficult to tell apart and it’s hard for the average Taiwanese person to think of an individual White or Black person as being different from the entire group they represent. Just like how in the U.S. and European countries “all Asians look the same.”

Before coming to Taiwan, I used to think that I will never find a society I could even truly call “home” because no society exists that would accept me into the majority. I’m too much of a demographic drifter and a permanent outsider, and I had made peace with that belief. I did have this kind of fantasy, though, about moving to Hawaii (60% Asian descent), but there’s nothing to bring me there. This is not to say that I think of Taiwanese society as “home,” but living here has been personally pretty easy (minus the severe lack of good Western food and a proper kitchen in the average apartment). But I can’t call Taiwan “home” because it simply doesn’t feel that way.

Still, I feel strangely empowered living in Taiwan. As if I’ve had a chance to sample what it would be like to be American first and an other second, rather than the other way around. I miss the U.S. for a lot of different things: my family, my friends, its seasons, New York City, the food, the music, driving, the overall energy of the country. Still, nothing makes me think that when I get back to the U.S. that I will enjoy my transition back into minority status. I’m not living in Taiwan forever, but there are parts of it I wish I could take back with me.

Farewell Pt. 1 – Year One Teaching Thoughts

Well, it’s June.

This means my 2014-2015 ETA grant period in Taiwan is officially in its death throes. Yes, I’m being dramatic. But with our final all-island Fulbright gathering in Taipei three weeks ago, the announcement of the 2015-2016 Lead English Teachers (LETs) and schools (my schools didn’t make it unfortunately), the Kaohsiung Education Bureau’s Farewell Ceremony last week, and all the “last month” Facebook photo albums by my fellow English Teaching Assistants (ETAs), it does kind of feel that with June comes a dramatic end to something that meant a lot to meAnd just as beginnings are a time to imagine and project the possibilities for your future self, endings are moments to reflect on what happened, planned or unplanned, and its impact.

KHEB Farewell

After the Kaohsiung Education farewell ceremony posing with my Fulbright family! From left to right: Justin (Ximen Coteacher), Jevon, Me, Jenny (my host mom), Hanna (host sister and diva), and Sam (Shanlin Coteacher).

In a multi-part reflection (I promise not more than four), I would like to share what I “got” out of my Fulbright English Teaching Award Scholarship.


Takeaways

Everyone has an opinion on what education is supposed to mean and what teachers, administrators, and parents should be doing so they don’t fail their students. This is the case both in the U.S. and Taiwan. The number one criticism of education systems and teachers, especially, is that they are not doing enough for the students. I think of myself as pretty well-informed and educated, and have often been one of the guilty parties pitching my two-cents about education without ever having tried to be a full-time teacher. Teaching in a public school has both altered and added depth to my preconceptions about what teaching is really like.

First, teaching is contextual. I’m not going to say it’s simply “difficult,” though it is, but the level of difficulty is highly dependent on context, (i.e. the teachers’ personality, kids’ personalities, school culture, community culture, etc.). The three things a teacher needs to be in any context are flexible, patient, and confident. These are not mutually exclusive. You need all three to survive and actually get work done. Also, teaching in Taiwan is, in some ways, a lot harder than in the United States. Public school in the U.S. is a mere 180 days a year whereas Taiwan has their kids enrolled for 220 days. Teachers get one month off in the winter and 14 days off in the summer and are under a lot of pressure, especially subject teachers (i.e. English, PE, art, etc.) who are relegated a lot of administrative tasks in addition to their classes. Also, discipline is handled solely by the teachers in the room. Rarely are there guidance counselors and you never send a disruptive kid to the principal’s office. Taking a kid out of class is technically illegal in Taiwan. I will say that in both the American and Taiwanese education systems, you have to really love and want to be a teacher in order to succeed. Most importantly, if you ever feel exasperated or frustrated by your teaching context, never blame it on your students.

Second, co-teaching is even harder, but a blessing in disguise that doesn’t show it’s worth until you have worked a few months. When I was first confronted with the idea of co-teaching with a local teacher, I was very intimidated. My only experience as an elementary school teacher before Fulbright was as a volunteer teaching assistant for a Kindergarten class in upstate New York. I had a sense of how I could teach a class on my own, but no real experience. Also, I had no idea how to share equal responsibility with another, more experienced teacher in a class where I only felt like a visitor. The language barrier was another major issue and presented several communication issues.

By the time I had reached month four, I was convinced that if I had independent control over my own class, I could do a better job teaching English to my students.The main reason for this is that co-teaching across cultural and linguistic lines means that there are no rules, structure, or format for how you’re supposed to teach or interact together. While I was getting used to my students and getting used to the idea of being in the front of a classroom, my co-teachers and I were simultaneously trying to learn about each others’ strengths, weaknesses, and communications styles. Lesson planning often took two hours to prepare per 40-minute class (we had 12 classes total), and we would often notice failings in our hard work. The first time you co-teach with someone, it seems like you will only learn about each other’s shortcomings first.

There is some real co-teaching magic happening right here. Sam is on the left. Photo credit to Fonda.

There is some real co-teaching magic happening right here. Sam is on the left. Photo credit to Fonda.

But my early assessment of co-teaching was totally wrong. After a full academic year of co-teaching, I am so happy to have worked alongside two great, patient LETs. Several student meltdowns and failed lesson plans later, I realized I really did need the support and experience (not to mention language skills) of my co-teachers because two minds are always better than one. As the year wears on ETAs and LETs start to depend on each other more as responsibilities accumulate and setbacks are likely to happen and delay class progress. For example, my students lost a critical week of classes before their final exams when their singing competition was rained out and pushed back by two weeks. As we say in Taiwan, Zěnme bàn?! That’s where your co-teacher comes in. You are each others’ sources of inspiration for creative ideas, an honest feedback wall for new ideas and concerns, and moral support.

Me (skeleton) and my Co-Teacher Justin (Scream) pose with our sixth grade class in our Haunted House/English Class

Me (skeleton) and my Co-Teacher Justin (Scream mask) pose with our sixth grade class in our Haunted House/English Class.

Finally, the most important thing that co-teaching helps with is with unifying the class. No matter how small or large a class is, you will have students seriously behind and far ahead and it really helps to have two teachers in the room to make sure all the students remain engaged and up to speed with the lessons.

Third, teaching your native language can be a lot of fun. Sharing your language with a group of students is rewarding because you learn so much about your own language that you never thought about before. For instance, how do you explain the sentence, “What did you do?” Or the sentence, “Do you (like/want/have/insert verb here)….?” Why is the English language so fixated on asking questions with “do” in it? It’s a totally mind-boggling concept in to explain to students who have no native language equivalent. But getting language learners to finally understand how to use that phrase and its negation, or other equally difficult phrases in English, is a rewarding achievement. You’re able to take something that appears so confusing and get kids to understand it. I can’t explain the feeling in words, you just have to try it yourself.

Also, unlike my LETs, teaching English was my comfort zone (i.e. not a second language), so I could devote a lot of time to being creative or trying to simplify the often agonizingly complicated Hello, Darbie! textbooks. In terms of teaching, I already knew English so well that the majority of my brain power went to devising simple and/or fun ways to teach my students.

Plans versus Reality

I remember in my initial Fulbright application, I had this dream of teaching my students how to navigate simple websites in English. As I look back on that naïve young woman from a year and a half ago, I think, “jeez, I really had no idea what I was getting myself into.” Elementary school students are so different from high school or adult students in that they aren’t just learning English for the first time, they’re learning everything for the first time. Many of my students weren’t very familiar with computers because they didn’t have them at home. This meant that didn’t know where the keys for English letters are on the keyboard because obviously Taiwan has its own typing system set-up on their keyboards. So before they even learn how to search for things online, they have to be able to type in the commands. Once that’s settled, they have to understand how to use search on a webpage for key words (ctrl + F anyone?), and they need to have the patience to sit still and overcome the overwhelming feeling of seeing so much English all at once. Can you imagine how overwhelmed you would be if you were a 5th grader and a teacher was trying to teach you how to do Google searches in Chinese? Just seeing all those Chinese characters would make you feel like you’re doing an impossible task.

Shanlin Elementary School's 3rd grade class rests after a drumming show.

Shanlin Elementary School’s 3rd grade class rests after a drumming show.

This experience taught me two valuable lessons. The most important thing I learned about children while trying to teach them English was that I had to be careful not to make assumptions about what else they knew. In other words, just because I find something to be common sense or logical, doesn’t mean that the kids sitting before me have learned this particular information yet. For example, before I explained something geographically contextual like, “cold, cool, warm, hot,” I had to make sure they actually knew the difference. For Kaohsiungers, cold often means below 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15 Celsius), so how do you explain the true meaning of “cold” when what they consider a day to put on a heavy coat is a day many New Yorkers would gladly be outside in T-shirts? For this lesson with my third and fifth grade classes, we talked about the freezing point of water and how ice cubes feel when you hold them in your hands. For most of my younger students, it totally blew their minds that there are places that get as cold and colder than 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 Celsius). One of my students didn’t even believe me when I told him the U.S. was having a cold snap and there were places 0 degrees Fahrenheit (-17 Celsius).

The second most important thing to keep in mind while teaching children is to use examples from their everyday life to help them learn. Pull as many local comparisons as you can and your class will be that much easier. Whether it’s parallels between the students’ own vocabulary or grammar, or it’s a cultural comparison between holidays or food. Try to get on their level when you can, and when possible make it fun. Kids have such short attention spans and crave fun and approval, and making them feel smart or giving them some kind of language lifesaver before they learn something difficult can boost motivation.

Typical interaction with 1st graders. I don't usually look so mopey.

Typical interaction with my Ximen 1st graders. I don’t usually look so mopey. Photo credit to Justin.

Before coming to Taiwan to teach English I had another fear: children. I had no idea how I was supposed to talk to them, play with them, or make them find English as interesting. Sure, I had three younger sisters growing up, but being a kid while playing with other kids is totally different than being an adult around kids. How do you praise them or discipline them? How do you fake enthusiasm, interest, and energy on days when you have none? How do you make them listen? What I found out is that the younger they are, the easier they are to talk to. Sure they’re usually shy, but, again, they crave fun and approval. You just have to make yourself available for them to approach you, and be ready to act really silly. My first through third graders were the easiest in this sense. A lot of games with rewards and a lot of out-of-class tag quickly remedied any shyness, on both parts. I went from a person who usually went out of her way to avoid coming into contact with kids so I wouldn’t have to deal with them to letting my first and second graders use my arms and legs as a jungle gym/tree they can climb.

As for the older students, fourth through sixth grade, things were trickier. From fourth grade, kids are entering that age where being chill with the teacher is “lame” and making fun of the teacher is “cool.” From the get-go I told myself not to take students’ attitude issues personally, but to intervene with my co-teacher when they got distracting or threw the class off track…I mean I was no angel in elementary or middle school either, and I knew from my younger self that I never really wanted to make my teachers angry. I just wanted to be liked for being “funny” or “cool.”  Like I said, these kids are going through life for the first time. They don’t know the real consequences of their actions. Eventually, all my students came around. I could say that I had taught and spoken positively with even the mopiest, angriest, ‘tudiest, and deliberately self-inhibiting students by the end of the year.

As I wrote this last section, I suddenly noticed how close I am to many of my students. It’s going to be really hard to say good-bye to them at the end of the month.

The Long Good-Byes

Wrapping up a Fulbright grant in Taiwan (wrapping up anything in Taiwan) means a lot of celebratory dinners, parties, and ceremonies with all the important people who made our Fulbright Grant possible. We have already met in Taipei with Fulbright Foundation for Scholarly Exchange for our Farewell Dinner with all the Taiwan ETAs and Scholars, had a “tea time” celebration with the Kaohsiung Education Bureau and Kaohsiung host families and LETs, enjoyed a wonderful dinner with the Meinong-based ETAs and LETs (six of us), had a hotpot dinner with Fonda (our fantastic Kaohsiung director), and we are still due for at least two more dinners and a big farewell party for the first Kaohsiung ETA departing Taiwan.

It’s been a bit overwhelming. Not to mention all the graduation ceremonies and good-bye parties and activities we have to attend at our elementary schools this week. Then next week is finals week, so I’m saying my real goodbyes to all my students this week.

It’s really nice to have so much fanfare and appreciation. The Fulbright ETA Grant was not easy by any means even though it came with a lot of benefits. Still, I feel like simply having one, maybe two, major events to end the year would be enough. It has been a bit tiring to keep up with the grand-finale-ing. But at least it’s made for some great photos.

The Kaohsiung crew's photo with FSE. Photo credit to Fonda.

The Kaohsiung crew’s photo with FSE. Photo credit to Fonda.

The women of Kaohsiung. ETAs and Fonda at far right. Photo credit to Fonda.

The women of Kaohsiung. ETAs and Fonda at far right. Photo credit to Fonda.

Kaohsiung Education Bureau Farewell Ceremony earlier this month

Kaohsiung Education Bureau Farewell Ceremony earlier this month. Photo credit to LET Frank.

Jevon, me, and Justin (co-teacher) at the Kaohsiung Farewell Ceremony. Photo credit to Frank.

Jevon, me, and Justin (co-teacher) at the Kaohsiung Farewell Ceremony. Photo credit to Frank.

Teacher, What Does @#$% Mean?

Some teachers dread the first moment they have to confront a kid using a “bad word” in English class. The main issue is how a teacher should go about confronting the student. First of all, it’s a “bad word” meaning it’s not appropriate for children to say, but to the kid it’s just meaningless mouth noises. Also, how do you answer the questions, “What does that mean?” or “Why can’t I say it?” Answering “just because,” never stems kids’ curiosities. You have to simultaneously explain the gravity of the explicative and its meaning without giving too much away.

Personally, I don’t think bringing up these words in class is all that bad. Words like “fuck” or “bitch” really don’t have the same gravity in Taiwan as they would in an English-speaking country. Besides, it’s not like my students don’t watch American movies or TV shows. Just today a 3rd grader interrupted class by shouting, “TEACHER! S-H-I-T!” When I asked where he had heard this word and informed him it was a “bad,” he said, “They say it in Furious 7 when they jump out of the plane!” American media has really normalized cursing in daily speech, so how can I blame my students for asking about it in class?

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t go out of my way to explain the f-word (I will only discuss that it’s a bad word if students bring it up), and I know some students really want to push teachers’ limits by saying “bad” things in class. But it’s a really innocent question when it’s coming from little kids, they just don’t know what they’re saying or why adults don’t want kids to say it. So I won’t shy away or squander any teachable moment. When my student further asked, “Teacher, zěnme jiǎng S-H-I-T!?” I answered calmly with, “Jack, kids don’t say that in English. Only adults…when they’re really really angry or scared. It’s better if you say ‘poop.” P-O-O-P. which means dàbiàn.” Everyone loved the sound of the word “poop” more than “shit” and they also thought “poop” was easier to spell. So today, my third graders added another word to their everyday vocabulary: “poop.” And I didn’t have to discipline anyone or hurt anyone’s feelings to explain that “shit” is a bad word.

However, there are moments when kids may get moody and their inquisitive questions aren’t innocent more. It’s genuinely disrespectful. My sixth graders fit this profile (oh, puberty), particularly one student: Jimmy. Jimmy is an underachiever in all classes, and I think it’s something that has compounded over the years by a sense of pride. When he was younger, his parents weren’t there for him so his grandfather takes care of him 99% of the time. His grandfather is very old, though, and is busy so there isn’t anyone to check his homework or to ask him how he’s doing in school. As things got more difficult, he had less motivation to try at school. Because classes are more challenging and he doesn’t do his homework, teachers think he’s not smart, so he tries less in class. And when he tries less and does worse, it reinforces the stereotype for teachers that he’s dumb.

So to show that he’s not “dumb” and doesn’t need school, Jimmy has taken to becoming a class clown among his friends. Teasing and insulting teachers is his specialty. He’ll insult you just enough so that you can’t really punish him, but you still look like a fool in class. With Jimmy though, I don’t like punishing him because all it does is take him out of class and he misses even more material. Sometimes, though, you have no choice. For example, a couple weeks ago my students filed into the classroom, my co-teacher, Justin, had not yet arrived, and Jimmy showed up just as the bell rang. With a big smile on his face, looking right at me, and for reasons I still don’t understand Jimmy said “fuck fuck fuck fuck” and laughed. He thought he said it just out of earshot, but being the native speaker I am, I could hear and see exactly what he was saying.

Me: Jimmy, why did you say that? You know what it means.
Jimmy: *stare*
Me: Jimmy, why did you say that in class?
Jimmy: *stare* Because class is boring.
Me: You just got here, why is it boring?
Jimmy: *staring and smiling then muttering something*
Me: Jimmy? If you don’t want to be here, go.
Jimmy: *stare* shénme? *shakes head and smiles* No.
Me: Jimmy, you have to leave. Go see Alan or Justin, but you can’t stay here.
Jimmy: No.
–15 long seconds of silence–
Me: Nǐ kàn, wǒ bù xiào! Zǒu kāi. (Look, I’m not smiling. Go away aka “leave the class”).
Jimmy: *slowly leaves the room, slamming his books on the floor*

game

I felt really guilty afterwards about my tone and how I kicked him out of class, but sometimes when a student is being brazenly rude you have to nip it in the bud. Jimmy later came back after visiting Alan and apologized to me in the front of the class, and afterwards I helped him catch up with the work he missed. I tried to make the best out of a bad situation. If this kid ever needs my help, I’m here for him, but if he wants to actually insult me then I will get mad, but I’m still here for him–ever so grudgingly. Still, Jimmy is only 11. He’s not that young, but he’s by no means old enough to understand real consequences yet. I hope other teachers could understand that, too. Teaching wrenches every last ounce of your patience out of you because you’re meant to serve small, clueless versions of adult people who still have no idea how the world works yet and you are not allowed to give up. As adults, we have all these social rules and norms that we’ve built and accepted, and here come these tiny lightning bolts of emotion and energy to throw our entire system out of whack.

So next time a student asks you “teacher what does #%@! mean?” Stay calm and tell them a truth, or as much as you can. “It’s a mean word for ‘butt’,” or “It’s not something nice people say.” If possible, even give them an alternative. In Taiwan, talking about “poop” is not taboo, so teaching kids the word “poop” gives them away to talk about a normal subject in a different language. Sure it sounds weird to us English speakers, but whatever! Learning!

The Interim

I wanted to write a real post this week, but four days of food poisoning or some kind of infection kept me home and feeling miserable. I’ll just let you know a bit about my current situation before I post fully at a later time. While I was at home, I was mostly keeping up with the news (i.e. Chile volcano, Nepal earthquake, Baltimore) and, whilst trying to stay somewhat positive in a really sad time for humanity, doing some serious research on graduate school programs.

After missing my first half of the week at Shanlin Elementary, I started the second half of the week today at Ximen Elementary. I’m still not feeling physically at 100%, but I’ll get there soon enough. Classes went well, I’ve got some new ideas for activities that I want to try out this Thursday and Friday. The school year is winding down, so I really want to end English class on a high note rather than maintain the doldrums of a reading and writing-focused class.

Today at school, though, I got some news. I can’t talk about it, but it was heavy. It just made me feel so small and pointless. I felt culturally and professionally unprepared to handle this information and I really don’t know what I can do to make things better. The only thing real I know or understand right now is how I felt after hearing this information. It was the first time in Taiwan where I really felt like hitting someone out of anger. What I would give for a gym with a heavy bag right now. Since my body isn’t up for a run or a hike of any kind, in order to blow off steam I decided to just mindlessly scooter for an hour.

Once I got back to town, I just drove straight toward the mountain range at the edge of Meinong until the road began to wind and narrow into the foothills and eventually became a dirt path. Out in the woods near a dried up riverbed (Kaohsiung is still experiencing drought), I sat on my scooter drinking iced tea and watching the coconut trees shaking in the wind. Unlike in the valley of Meinong, the mountains are shrouded by heavy, grey rain-shadow clouds. When you drive from the hot, sunny valley into the cool, dark-green mountains in the afternoon, it really feels like you crossed between seasons. I sat there and let the butterflies drunkenly flutter in my face and the mosquitoes greedily bite my calves as I sipped, stared, and pondered “what’s next?”

I thought about how Taiwan and the U.S. share a a culture of “projecting success.” We all try so damn hard to look as impressive as possible to our friends, family, colleagues, and potential connections. But as we’re building ourselves up, it’s not so often that we can watch directly in front of us someone else who is being torn down or prevented from participating in this culture we’ve created. In fact, those that obviously fail to impress or conform to social standards become the rest of our motivations to try harder to appear successful. We use society’s rejects as motivational posters for our subconscious minds and we allow these “rejects” to become dehumanized in our quest to “be better.” But because of where I work and live, I can watch society’s future rejects and idols being made before my eyes. I’m watching children being forced into the roles adults expect them to play for the rest of their lives, and I find myself hoping that the kids won’t obey. After thinking these many thoughts through, I was eventually tired enough to want to go home.

It’s been eight months of co-teaching and I thought by now I would be settled into my schools and there wouldn’t be any setbacks I couldn’t handle. With just two months left in the school year I hoped for a smooth ride into June. Nope. That’s the thing about being out in a forgotten part of Kaohsiung County where farm animals out-number humans: nothing goes as expected because if it did, would it make a difference?

I hope I can stop being so vague with ya’ll soon, but it all depends on how school goes tomorrow. As soon as I get an update on what has happened since this afternoon, I’ll be able to update back here.

Tans and Scars

Personally, I love summer weather and summer outfits. I like the feeling of sun on my skin and I like getting a tan. Which is great because Taiwan is very sunny and hot most of the year. When I first started teaching in September, we were still getting 100 degree days (and it’s already started up again), and despite the fact that I knew I should wear no less than a t-shirt and jeans. I caved. I couldn’t not wear shorts and a tanktop to school, especially when there was no air conditioning. Though I knew it was out of the ordinary, I didn’t think that I would get so much attention for my attire and skin tone.

First things first, my calves are muscular, and I like them that way. They’re healthy and strong and one of the few reminders that I lived and breathed soccer for ten years of my life. But my legs are also scarred and uneven, partly due to some kind of genetic or birth-related deformity. The appearance of my legs doesn’t bother me. I have been given one body to live my life on earth, and I have learned to live life to the fullest with it.

Yet, I don’t think a single teacher or student failed to notice how unseemly my legs were. In spite of the essentially negative attention I was getting I knew that it wouldn’t be possible for me to teach if I were dying from heat exhaustion all day, so I wore shorts for a few more days. Finally, I realized that my body was too much of a distraction. Kids were way too fascinated by the abnormality of my legs, gossiping in Chinese to each other when they should be listening to me introduce sentence patterns. Staff would raise their eyebrows in surprise as they looked downwards at me without speaking. Locals in my teaching districts would actually turn their heads in astonishment when they saw me scootering passed while wearing shorts. I stood out so much that I eventually felt like I was doing something wrong by just being myself.

Peace signs were not my idea.

Peace signs were not my idea.

Also, after a Taiwanese summer sun beating on my skin for a month I had a tan. Though my students didn’t pay much attention to the difference, adults did. “你晒黑了!” which in context means “You tanned!” but literally means “You sun-blackened!” Mind you, negatively calling me black is a really loaded comment in the first place since I’m light-skinned. Foreigners in Taiwan of African and South Asian descent have a really different experience when they live in Taiwan or Asia in general. Comments that usually follow the “oh you’re tan!” remark are usually well-intentioned advice on how to protect myself from the sun. “You should wear a hat,” and “You need to carry a sweater with you.” To which all I could think to say was, “but why? It’s hot, yo.”

It’s interesting to be in new cultural contexts where taboos and customs don’t align with my home country. Even the smallest differences in details stand out to me as exciting and unique because they make me think about how abstract and malleable society can be. Behaviors and a sense of belonging that one has in their own country suddenly dramatically stand apart from the norm in another. But sometimes a heightened sense of self-awareness may not make for a fully pleasant experience. As a woman, I choose to travel in a world where not a single country can claim full gender equality. I know that where ever I travel, I must be aware of the new ways I will be scrutinized as a woman lest I bring negative attention to myself or, in extreme cases, put myself in danger. Still, even though I know this, I get surprised at times when faced with new social standards.

The rest of this post is about appearance and beauty in Taiwan, and how it stands to effect the female traveler. Women, this is what you should know about beauty in Taiwan and Asia in general, just so you’re not caught completely off-guard.


When Beauty is Skin Deep

Two major characteristic differences between American beauty and Taiwanese beauty are skin tone and body modification/scarring. In the U.S., a nice tan on a normally light-skinned person indicates beauty and wealth (i.e.  free time and travel). We often say the phrase “healthy tan” (as if cooking ourselves with UV light is healthy), and often see fit, toned bodies with tans as attractive. In Taiwan, women and men alike prize lighter skin. Lightening creams can be found in any store (even 7-11), and even on the hottest of days you will see women sporting long pants or dresses, cardigans, hats, and face masks to prevent tanning. As for body modification, its nowadays more generally accepted for women in the West to have piercings and tattoos. Scars are still considered ugly for the most part, but sometimes shit happens (you fall off your bike as a kid, trip while hiking, fall up the stairs…) and we can get over that as a society. Many Taiwanese girls and women don’t pierce their ears or get tattoos. If they do get piercings, it’s usually when they are in their late teens or 20s. Whereas in my second grade class, I was one of four girls who didn’t have my ears pierced already. As for scars, the more unmarked your skin, the more beautiful you are.

Typical Taiwanese sunny, summer weather gear.

Or maybe they’re all in witness protection programs…

aaaaaaaand 70 degrees in NYC

aaaaaaaand 70 degrees in NYC. It’s a well-known fact that Americans hate pants.

For Taiwanese women, unscarred, dainty white skin combined with a thin, unmuscular and delicate figure is a prized possession. On sunny days, women will be wrapped up like burritos, but at night the short-shorts and pale, “calfless” legs are out.  I originally thought that covering up in the summer had more to do with modesty, but head to any Taiwanese night market during the summer and almost all the young women and girls are wearing booty shorts and skirts, flaunting the success of their diurnal ninja lifestyles. I always knew beauty standards differed between Asia and America, but I never realized how far they stood apart.

Elegance and Poise

 

Megan Fox, right, has a tan, piercings and is known for several tattoos. Notice how her shoulders are also exposed. The Taiwanese model, left, is much paler, has no visible piercings, and covers her shoulders.

Megan Fox, right, has a tan, piercings and is known for several tattoos. Notice how her shoulders are also exposed. The Taiwanese model, left, is much paler, has no visible body alterations.

It seems that in almost every respect, Taiwanese women and American women see beauty differently albeit equally impossible to attain. American women are told that they to have not-fat, curvy, toned bodies, big-ish breasts, lightly bronzed skin, voluminous hair, full lips, and carry ourselves with confidence (but don’t look “too black or hispanic” or insert-minority-here. Anyway, that’s another conversation.). Thanks to this ridiculous set of criteria, many American women have found their own ways to cope with society’s “never enough” attitude by promoting acceptance online via hashtag campaigns.  In Taiwan, it seems like women are expected to make their bodies seem as if they are as delicate and fragile as glass, and that idea is generally accepted.

You earned it, kid.

I woke up like dis.

What’s a woman to do? I am comfortable with who I am and how I live. I’ve spent years getting over the social values imposed upon me as a teen that say I should care about what others think. On the other hand, this isn’t my country or customs and maybe I should do my best to respect the local culture. But on the OTHER hand, there’s no such thing as blending in when I look physically different and can’t speak the language as a native speaker.


So now what? Remember BUD. I just made this up now, it’s a bit weird but stick with me.

Be Yourself
Understand
Dialogue

Be Yourself

There is no right answer as to how to deal with this type of cultural clash. There’s only a better answer, and in my opinion it’s doing what is most comfortable for you. Wear shorts in the sunshine or wear a large sun hat on a summer’s day. If it makes you comfortable and happy, then it’s something you can’t change and it doesn’t matter what others think.

Understand

What does matter is how you behave. You don’t want to demean another culture through your behavior by saying your behavior or attitude is better than another’s. I tried to respect this criteria in this post today. Steel yourself against comments that feel negative because of your own cultural foundation. Remember the earlier comment, “you sun-blackened?!” In the U.S. we would find this comment extremely weird and insulting, as if being “black” is a bad thing in the first place. But in the Chinese language, “tan” does not exist as a word. Darkening, tanning, blackening, and similar words all have the word “黑” hēi or “black” involved. Also, the cultural context for tanning, just like during the Victorian era, is wealth-related. By being tan you show you have to labor outdoors and are therefore poorer, even uneducated.

Even if the context’s explanation still feels wrong, at least you know where it’s coming from first.

Dialogue

Depending on your situation at the moment, you can start a dialogue about your cultural differences, and build understanding with the other person or people. It’s rare to be in a context where you can do this, especially when there’s a language barrier, but there is more than one way to affect change. In a foreign country, your behavior is a way to dialogue. For instance, in Taiwan little kids will see me in the store or on the street and gawk at me because of how different I look. I could ignore them and walk away, or I could smile and try to talk or joke around with them. It’s a way to have someone look at the person inside of you rather than what’s on the surface.

If the interaction is negative, say a man won’t leave you alone or you feel like you’re being exoticized during a conversation, make it very clear you are not happy with the way you’re being treated. For example, you have a Taiwanese colleague that has already pointed out a physical difference more than once, and it’s now starting to bother you. Just tell them to please stop. Being straightforward in an Asian context carries more weight than in the U.S. Asian culture favors more indirect expressions of negative feelings, so any passive action you take can be ignored in this context.


Follow the BUD method, I’ve made peace between my host country’s values and my own lifestyle choices. Like I said before, it’s my body and I want to live life to the fullest. Dressing the way I choose to doesn’t affect my teaching ability and it doesn’t change who I am, and I reflect that in my behavior. Sure, if the school were to institute a dress code tomorrow I would follow it no matter what. But since the regulations and expectations about appearance a unofficial (one staff member wears basketball shorts and T-shirt to school every day), I’m going to wear what I think is comfortable.

People can comment on my tanned skin, stare at my legs, and wonder why that foreigner girl is wearing a tanktop in the sun all they want.

The Decision to Stay

A few months ago, I decided that I wouldn’t return to the United States after my Fulbright grant ended. Instead, after a summer of visiting friends in South Korea and visiting family and travelling in Greece, I will return to Taiwan. Exit date: TBD. My reluctance to return home are as follows:

  1. Language acquisition
  2. Writing
  3. Uncertainty about graduate school, law school, or any other advanced schooling right now
  4. Unappealing American lifestyle
  5. Taiwan is beautiful

Language Acquisition

This is a pretty straight-forward reason to stay in Taiwan. It’s a lot easier to learn a language when you’re living in a country that speaks that language rather than learning it remotely. My Chinese has already improved a great deal since moving here eight months ago, but it could still go so much further. Currently, I’m looking at Kaohsiung Normal University’s Chinese language program which is more intensive, and hopefully will help me build up my oral vocabulary and reading abilities.

Writing

I have enjoyed writing ever since I was a kid, but never took it beyond a simple hobby. Unlike what you see in this blog, I write a lot in my free time. I have dozens of filled journals scattered throughout my home in NJ and Jevon’s home in NYC. I even filled three journals since I have been here with weekly reflections and the slow development of three different fiction pieces I am writing on the side. The problem is devoting enough time to a single topic in order to create a rich, final, long-form piece. I have already lived the early-20s, American, Bachelor’s degree-holder lifestyle and while it is satisfying for some people, there is no way that I could simultaneously devote myself 100% to work and to writing. It’s simply not doable. Remaining in Kaohsiung, in a low-stress, low-cost environment emerges as the logical choice.

An MA, an MPA, or a JD?

Yeah, I’m still not sure. I really thought the longer I waited to go to graduate school, the easier it would be to decide what I would study and where. Yet here I am, five years short of 30, and I still don’t think that this is the right time to take on another degree. I’ve heard that you should only go to graduate school when you know what exactly you want to do, or if you have a job waiting for you on the other side of your thesis. Graduate school in the United States is unforgivably expensive, and there is no way I’m taking on that level of risk if I’m not 105% sure of what degree I want. There is always the option of a school abroad, but few are free or low-cost for American students. While I do have my mind on some programs in the UK, China and Australia there is still a bit to think about and the application timelines to consider. I might still apply to one or two schools this year so I can have more options later, but as of right now I feel like focusing on Chinese is my priority.

An Unappealing American Life

My life in Kaohsiung is much more enjoyable than the U.S. east coast life. Unlike working in the tri-state area, you don’t feel like you’re in a rat race. People here don’t avoid eye contact on the streets, and they definitely don’t take pride in the level of jerkitude they can impress upon total strangers. Also, the polar vortex doesn’t steal locals’ souls for two months out of the year. Instead, life in Kaohsiung is more like a lazy river. Everyone’s kind of doing their own thing at their own pace, enjoying the sun and the breeze, but there’s no rush. When I’m in Kaohsiung I feel like, everything that needs to get done will get done in spite of any obstacles that seem to stand in my way.

My mind is at ease

My mind is at ease

A major reason that makes the mood and environment so much more appealing in Kaohsiung is that the lifestyle is cost efficient. As a part-time teacher here, I could fund my own language classes and still have money to afford rent, food, and pay back my student loans. The cost of Chinese language classes (or private tutors) in the U.S. is five times greater than what I can find in Taiwan while the cost of living in the U.S. is three to four times as much as what I paid living in the tri-state area. To give you an idea in the difference of cost, my rent alone in NYC was $850 a month with utilities to live in the smallest room of a three bedroom apartment. My rent in Kaohsiung for an entire house shared with one other person is $150 with utilities.

I know some people may be thinking, “Well, you don’t have to go home to the east coast. You can look for work in other parts of the U.S.” This is true. I could go to California or Tennessee or Florida and try to start over there, but then the question becomes where the heck would I start? If I went home now, the only place to go is New Jersey or NYC where I have family, friends and a sense of how the job hunt operates there. But as I said before, I’m not into that 9-5 lifestyle right now, and the U.S. isn’t known for its work-life balance. In fact, it’s famous for just the opposite, a work-life balance that commits people to high levels of stress and little free time. Now is not the time to go home. Not when I have the opportunity to do the things that I love for the a majority of my time, rather than have them as sort-of fulfilled hobbies on the side.

Taiwan is Beautiful

September sunset in Meinong

September sunset in Meinong

Holy crap this country is gorgeous. It’s a tiny, subtropical gem of life, nature, and culture floating in the aquatic space between East and Southeast Asia. It’s a place unique onto itself in its personality and its heterogeneous cultural make-up. No lie, it is probably the most culturally diverse place (considering its small size) in all of East Asia. Also, the weather here is wonderful and there is still so much more for me to see around the island that I haven’t had a chance to explore yet. I’m so happy to have had the opportunity as a Fulbright ETA in Taiwan. I have seen so many amazing places, traveled more than I expected, and got to know a lot of great people through my schools and the expat community here.

Summer weather year-round

Summer weather year-round

Mazu Temple at night in Cijin Island

Mazu Temple at night in Cijin Island

Things in America I Still Miss

  • Toasted poppy seed bagel with scallion cream cheese and a slice of tomato washed down with a cup of house brew coffee–no matter how cheap the coffee is
  • Just regular bread in general. Taiwanese bread is super sweet
  • American driving laws and logic
  • Amazon Prime
  • Thirsty Thursdays and Happy Hours
  • Pants that fit (above a size 6 is apparently obese)
  • Wearing high heels (There’s just no occasion for it here)
  • Wearing lipstick (Again, no reason to dress up here unless you want everyone to stare)
  • Going to the movies and having a choice about what to see (“Hm, we got Kings Men, Hunger Games, and Interstellar. Such options.”)
  • The unwritten sidewalk social contract that all New Yorkers abide by (Tourists and old people on the right, fast people passing left, and people eating food standing to the side and out of your way. Organized chaos, how I miss thee.)
  • Diet Coke

…and of course seeing my close friends and family. Don’t worry, America, I won’t stay away for too long. =]

Beautiful Xiaoliuqiu

Having a March 23rd birthday is a curse in the American northeast. By the end of March, everyone is feeling grumpy and fed-up with cold weather, and everyone is so busy no one feels like celebrating. Growing up, March 23rd usually meant midterms, major spring semester events, and occasionally coinciding with Jesus’ annual return from the dead. But not this year! Unlike the northeast, Kaohsiung in March means the beginning of summer and daily above-75-degree weather. There was absolutely no way that I wouldn’t spend my birthday on a beautiful beach, basked in sun and surrounded by seawater.

小琉球 (Xiǎo liúqiú, literally “small, drifting ball”) is Taiwan’s only coral reef island and located about 20 minutes by ferry to the southwest from Kaohsiung and Pingtung counties. The island is so small that you can drive along the coast and circle the island in about 15 minutes. And yet people actually live on Xiaoliuqiu permanently. There are schools, a police station, a post office and two 7-11s. The basics of civilization are always available.

As you would expect, the island’s natural beauty and the richness of its coral reefs attract tourists year round, so bed & breakfast prices were at least 100 USD a night. The prices are especially high since the original industry of fishing is not as profitable in Taiwan as it once was. Naturally, Jevon and I opted to camp. There are two campsites and they run about 20 USD a night, but there’s really no issue with free camping on one of the many beaches. Later we would find out that there are so few police that once the sun sets, tourists are mostly left alone.

The weekend before my birthday we drove to the ferry on a sad, hazy day in Kaohsiung, but arrived at the ferry port in Pingtung with the sun shining and bit of blue sky. Foreign tourists to local destinations like Xiaoliuqiu are surprisingly not as common as one would expect. Taiwan has a thriving domestic tourism industry, but when it comes to foreigners they are rare. So when foreigners arrive to economy-starved places like Xiaoliuqiu they are instantly preyed upon. That’s what happened to us at the ferry port. The moment we idled our scooter near the ticket booth, a pushy and garrulous old woman dressed in pink from head to toe approached us, grabbing my wrist, “Tickets! Tickets to Xiaoliuqiu! How many do you want? Roundtrip? Just two?” and she began peeling thumb-sized ticket stubs from a homemade ticket book. “Wait, wait, hang on, how much is round trip?” I responded, pulling my hand away from her just as rudely as she had grabbed it.

“400 each round trip, much better than the ticket booth.”

“Okay, but how much for the scooter?” I said looking sideways at her as I craned my neck to see the ticket prices above the ticket window.

“You just take the scooter on the line. They will tell you.” She said as she stapled two tickets together.

“Wait, wait, wait. How much is it?” I could see beneath the wide brim of her straw hat that she was getting frustrated by my hesitation. “Look it’s much cheaper,” she said pulling my arm and my gaze to the ticket booth again, “so two tickets?” I could spot the ticket price, and what she was offering was only 10 NTD cheaper (about .33 USD), and I had no idea who she was or if she was running a scam. When I wouldn’t respond she began explaining the ticket deal in unnecessary detail and in long strings of Chinese that I couldn’t understand. Finally, tired of her trying to pressure us into buying her tickets, I said. “Look, we’re going to eat first anyway, so méiyǒu bànfǎ.” Meaning there was nothing she could do to persuade me. With an exasperated groan, she rolled her eyes exaggeratedly at me. I watched her storm away back to the road we had arrived on, and the moment her pink figure was out of sight, I bought two round trip tickets at 410 NTD from the ticket booth. The scooter price for the ferry is 100 NTD in case you were wondering.

The first thing I noticed about Xiaoliuqiu was that it was one of the few places I had been to in Taiwan with absolutely no English translations on the public street signs. Thank god the island was a tiny circle because we could have easily gotten lost since, aside from the main caves (Black Devil Cave, Black Dwarf Cave, and Beauty Hole/Cave–depends on who you ask) there were few major landmarks. By the end of the weekend, I had still not seen any of the caves because they seemed like tourist gimmicks, and I heard from another foreigner that they weren’t even caves, more like stone holes or short passageways. One thing you have to remember when you go to such a small tourist destination is that the beauty and value of everything is greatly exaggerated to encourage tourists to come and spend money to see them. But I wasn’t there to shell out big bucks for gimmicks. I went to Xiaoliuqiu for the beach and the coral reefs.

If you have never seen live coral before, the first time you see it is absolutely mesmerizing. Gazing through the clear, cool water down at a rainbow of life filled with aquatic plants, starfish, hermit crabs and tiny fish I couldn’t help but think how gorgeous the world could be sometimes. There were so many colors: yellow, bright pink, soft and dark greens, grey-blues, magenta, blood red, apple red, and royal purples all cast against a background of aquamarine and beige from seawater over the skeletons of ancient coral. It literally felt like I was in my childhood Little Mermaid poster. I must have spent over two hours just staring into the shallows of the reef, hopping from stone to stone along the shore to avoid crushing any of the fragile life beneath me.

Corals from above

Corals nestled in sand bask in the sun of the shallows,

Coral from above

The photo does not do the coral justice.

Starfish

One of the thousands of starfish.

More than anything, I wanted to dive into one of the deep underwater ravines. The clear and blue, cool water was so tempting as I trekked beneath the tropical sun. I just wanted to be surrounded by the color and coolness of the water. But swimming among the reefs shouldn’t be taken lightly. Snorkeling or swimming in only a bathing suit makes you prone to injury. Centuries before Xiaoliuqiu was brought up to the surface by shifting tectonic plates and gushing lava, the entire island was submerged and part of a vast coral reef. As you walk around the coastline, you see hallow, towering stones much harder and sharper than they look. These are the skeletons of massive, dead coral. The dead coral lines the shores all the way into the shallows, so live coral grows and thrives on the sturdy structures. Swimming among them and the waves, you can easily bump into a sharp spine of dead coral and leave your vacation with a deep, oozing wound. While you can snorkel anywhere to your heart’s content, you need to wear a body suit and water shoes just to be safe.

me looking like a doof

Me near the surf. The “rocks” sticking out above water are coral skeletons.

Something that surprised me when I hopped down the shoreline of reefs was how differently local Taiwanese and foreign tourists view and value the reef. As you learn in your middle school biology class (or the Discovery Channel), coral is incredibly fragile and takes decades to grow. A disturbance in average water temperature, breaking coral, or polluting the water could kill a coral reef in a fraction of the time that it takes to grow. And yet, this beautiful natural resource was treated carelessly in so many ways. If you look deep enough you can see trash and fragments of ropes and fishing nets tangled around the coral. Local fishermen and the like show no restraint in stomping over the shallows of the reef in heavy water shoes to cast a line or pick snails. The locals’ behavior went against everything I had learned in school about protecting coral reefs–the rainforest equivalent of the ocean. It just goes to show you that when you see something every day and it becomes normal, your value for its existence decreases. It’s the same thing with New Yorkers and the Empire State Building, or Athenians and the Acropolis. It’s there, it’s always been there and it’s not going away anytime soon. Or so you think.

*~*~*~*

Our only night on Xiaoliuqiu, Jevon and I bought a pack of beers and two bubble teas and headed for the beach to have a bonfire and watch the waves crash. It was completely empty of people when we arrived, except for the one, unmanned scooter we saw at the end of the road before a small temple on the beach. We gathered an endless supply of driftwood and dead leaves for the fire as well as huge chunks of loose, dead coral from the shore to line the fire pit against the wind.

After about 35 minutes of setting up the fire and getting a good flame going, we were joined by two fellow American backpackers from Tainan, Indigo and Dane, and clearly the owners of the solitary scooter we saw earlier. It was nice to meet up randomly with a couple of Americans. We talked about life BT (Before Taiwan) and our experiences as teachers since arriving. After eight months in Taiwan, the halo of being a newly arrived expat has worn off. You start to notice things about your adjustment to a new country that you aren’t really proud of, but can’t help. You know you should be open and accepting of the difference in culture because you chose to live in a new country, but there’s something about the food, the language, or the behaviors of everyday people in a non-native country that you cannot get over. It’s totally natural, and being able to banter and bond over those kind of issues with strangers was validating as well as relieving.

Fisherman XLQ

Early morning on a cool and cloudy Sunday. A fisherman stands over the cliffs of Xiaoliuqiu.

By midnight, we decided to split ways, but keep in touch. Indigo and Dane would camp on the beach, which was a much better idea than heading to the campsite because they got to see sea turtles breakfasting near their tent the next morning. And Jevon and I scootered back to our camp in the north of the island for the night. The next day, Sunday, we would roam the island into the afternoon and head back to the mainland around 1 P.M. Though the trip was short and sweet, I knew it wouldn’t be my last time there. Despite the rather plain above-ground scenery, the majesty of the reef, the tide pools and the water drew me in and I was already planning my next trip back.

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To anyone staying in southern Taiwan with a little extra time on their hands, I highly recommend a visit to Xiaoliuqiu. It’s an island almost untouched by development, drifting in the sun and carrying centuries of natural beauty. It’s the perfect place to relax and have some “you” time. For me, it was inspirational. Hence, the resurrection of this blog. ;]