Sunday, August 28, 2011

Typhoon Nanmadol

Back in Alberta, school children (and many adults alike) are delighted by the prospect of a “snow day”. During winter in Alberta there are occasionally - but not often - days where so much snow falls in such a short period that neither students, nor their parents, are expected to take unnecessary personal risk by attempting to travel to school or to work. Schools and workplaces for the most part remain closed and many people get to enjoy what is essentially a de facto holiday.

In Taiwan, the equivalent is “typhoon day”. Amanda and I were contacted by our respective supervisors today and told that classes tomorrow are canceled and our branches will not be open... courtesy of Typhoon Nanmadol. In the few months that Amanda and I have been living in Taiwan there have been a number of typhoons that have “grazed” the island, but none that have hit head-on. Nanmadol is the first typhoon that is actually heading straight for the island. The nearby mountains provide good shelter for Taichung and so it is unlikely that we will see scenes anything like what is being experienced on the US east coast at the moment.

The video is for the month of August 2011
Typhoon Nanmadol can be seen right at the end of the video...

Nevertheless, expect the best and plan for the worse and so, tonight I paid a trip to 7-Eleven and stocked up with some essentials - it was recommended to us that we not leave the apartment tomorrow. I think Amanda would award me a C- based on what I considered to be “essential supplies”.

Brett’s typhoon survival kit:

- Water, enough to last a few days.
- Beer
- Milk tea
- Orange juice
- Cookies
- Mystery milk pudding desert x2
- Microwave popcorn
- Half loaf of bread
- Peanut butter
- Marmalade
- Soy sauce (just in case)

Ready and set!

A quick recap on the last couple days. Amanda and I have spent part of our weekend trying to make our apartment feel a bit more like our home. I bought a portable closet for us to stack and hang our clothes in. We also ate meals at three restaurants that we had not tried before.

On Friday we had dinner at Ken’s Ravioli. 
They had the most amazing Bacon and Pumpkin Soup and we also ordered Spaghetti with Rosemary Chicken in a Cream Sauce. I really did enjoy and this Taiwanese spin on Italian food, and that is not true of all the Italian Food restaurants I’ve eaten at in Taiwan. The prices were also reasonable. Amanda and I definitely plan on returning. 

Ken’s Ravioli.

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On Saturday we had lunch at Unique Man.
The restaurant is less than 20 meters from the front door of our apartment building and I walk past it everyday on my way to work. The menu has a variety of different types of beef noodle soups as well as wonton soups, xiao long bao, meat wraps and steamed buns. The Sichuan Beef Noodles that I ordered was possibly the best I have had in Taiwan to-date. I am really excited that we live so close to this restaurant and I’m sure that in just a couple months time, Amanda will already be tired of me asking if we can eat there.

Today, for our last meal of the weekend, we ate at FiFi Italian Restaurant.
FiFi’s is yet another Italian Food restaurant that is just a two minute walk from our apartment building. The food was good and the staff were incredibly friendly. I am beginning to worry that with so many places to eat so close to where we live, we might just gain back a little of that weight that we have lost the past few months.

FiFi Italian Restaurant

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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A jaunt to Kaohsiung!

Our trip to Kaohsiung on Sunday was way too quick, but we had an excellent time. Taichung’s HSR station is a little ways out of town, so we did our usual bit of printing off the Mandarin characters for it at 7/11, then hailing a cab with our directions clutched in our sweaty palms. We rolled through the station, bought some delicious chicken croissant sandwiches, and headed south for the day!

First, we met up with Stanley and Vicky at the family restaurant where Stanley’s parents, sister, and nephew were closing up shop for the afternoon. We were presented with a beautiful box of lava cakes and our very own first ever scooter helmets (decorated like a strawberry and a watermelon)! No one could possibly mistake us for a pair of foreigners in these babies! We took our new helmets on their maiden voyage to a nearby pasta restaurant on a cute little European-style street near the Grand Hi Lai Hotel. We sat down to lunch with Stanley, Vicky, Stanley’s sister Anna, and her son Montana for a delicious lunch of cheesy pasta and our very first “milk hot pot”. Milk and cream are mixed together and set in front of you with a plate of raw beef, clams, and different types of mushrooms. The milky sauce is heated up to boiling and you stir in your raw ingredients to cook your own very tasty lunch! That along with our glasses of cold tea made for a lovely experience!

After lunch we went to a cute little gelato shop called Mumbo Jumbo Gelato where they served a dozen amazing flavours like Earl Grey, melon, pure chocolate, and bordeaux wine. The gelato was perfectly smooth and delicately flavoured. My scoop of Earl Grey tasted exactly like a nice, milky cup of tea. It was great to sit and chat with Stanley, Vicky, and Anna about our new jobs. Anna used to teach English with a cram school and gave us good ideas (and warnings!) about impressing our students’ parents.

Next we met up with Jenny and Milton for the continuation of our Kaohsiung food-a-thon, and we had a delicious meal at a great Thai restaurant called Thai Town Cuisine on the 12th floor of FE’21, a huge department store we used to frequent for movies and lunch. We ordered a group set meal and were served Thai rice, hot fried shrimp cakes, a cold vegetable salad marinated in garlic and chili, spicy stir-fried pork, coconut chicken curry, as well as some cong qing tsai which none of our Taiwanese friends can identify in English, but is a spinach-like vegetable that grows in water. The highlight of the meal was a beautiful steamed whole fish (eyeballs and all!) in a bubbling lemon, garlic, and chili sauce. Milton took on the responsibility of serving it up which was very kind, as I have no idea how to portion out a whole fish. We had a very interesting chat as always with Jenny and Milton about differences between Canadian and Taiwanese culture.

Once we’d eaten our fill, we got into an elevator to head downstairs for a walk to a nearby pier. When the elevator stopped a few floors later, the doors opened and a surprised Taiwanese teenager exclaimed “waiguoren!” (“foreigners!”) to his friends. Jenny laughed, and taught me to ask in Mandarin, “How did you know?”

Our walk to the pier was lovely, and it was so nice to enjoy a warm Kaohsiung night with friends before we headed back to Vicky’s house to pick up the luggage we’d left there in July. She and her mom helped us get into a cab and back on the road for the HSR to Taichung. It was a whirlwind of a day but it was very restful at the same time. I’m so happy we were able to make a trip back so soon after leaving.

PS - In other news, Louise from my local tea shop has finished translating and printing a beautiful English menu for myself and her other English-speaking customers! A whole new world of tea and fruit drinks has been introduced to my daily routine!

The HSR Station in Taichung
The HSR Station in Taichung
Stanley & Vicky!
Milk hot pot
Anna & Montana!
So photogenic!
Brett, Amanda, Vicky & Stanley
Brett & Amanda
Milton & Jenny

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Some beers, a tea, and a trip to Kaohsiung!

Week 1 of teaching in Taichung = complete. Have I eaten too many chips this week while staying up until midnight planning lessons? Yes. Have Boje and I found multiple nasty surprises where we opened our teachers guide to find that for the lesson we were planning we were supposed to "review everything the students have learned so far"? Yes. Have I come home from work with dry erase marker smudged all over my hands and face? Yes. Have I spent more money each day chugging caffeine-rich green teas than I have on my actual dinner? Yes. Am I ready for more? Absolutely! 

Last night Boje and I were invited out by one of my colleagues for some dinner and drinks with other Taichung-area teachers at a restaurant called Reichburg Beer Restaurant. We shared an elevator down to the lobby of our apartment building with a nice young Taiwanese man. When you live on the 18th floor, the ride down can really take a while! By the time we made it into the reception area, we’d already made tentative dinner plans and exchanged names and numbers with “Eddie”, our new neighbour! Taiwanese people are so sweet!

We then had quite a nice time at Reichburg! They had a large covered patio decorated with Christmas lights and small German flags and they served German-style beer in 2500cc towers. The menu was best described as international... There were some of the typical fried pub snacks available as well as Thai, Chinese, and Taiwanese main dishes. It ended up being quite a large group of us there, and B and I really enjoyed having some “grown up time” after our first week spent mainly in the company of 7-year-olds with runny noses.

Once we finish getting our act together this morning, we’ll be popping down to Kaohsiung for the day on the HSR. We’d had big aspirations about getting up at the crack of dawn and spending the morning at a scenic spot, but I’m now reluctant to leave the comfortable bubble of our first day off at too unreasonable an hour!

PS - One more nice local person story! The lady who runs the tea shop two doors down from my school has been so sweet to me. She’s actually from Hong Kong and speaks tons of languages (including English!) and has only recently opened the shop with her family. After multiple days of me ordering the same thing, she has decided to write an English menu for myself and one of the other girls at work to enjoy! We’re going to edit it for her too! This is the kind of stuff I hoped I’d have a chance to do in Taiwan! Also, on Friday night after I handed over $20NT for a tea in my usual sweaty rush to start on my 30-minute walk home at 9 pm, I left her shop without my frigging tea. So embarrassing. The next morning, however, one of the other ladies who works in the tea shop insisted I take a free tea and didn’t even smirk at me like I’m an idiot! That shop has earned my eternal custom and loyalty.

Friday, August 19, 2011

We love 高雄

Amanda and I are always a little homesick. We miss our families, we miss our friends, we miss our creature comforts. 

Tonight we felt a little homesick for a different home of ours, Kaohsiung. A friend of ours posted the following video on facebook. Kaohsiung was our home for just 3 months, but in that short time we made such good friends. On Sunday we will be catching the HSR back to KH for a short day trip. We are really excited to see our friends and this will be the first of a few trips back.

To see a full screen version click here...

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Teaching in Taichung

We have almost finished our first week of teaching. We knew it would be tiring and a difficult initial adjustment and it has met those expectations... but I think we can both say that we are really happy with how things have gone so far! 

I remind myself that in all of our observations - when we get to watch another teacher/trainer show us how it should be done - we have been watching “5 star veterans” and for us to hold ourselves to the same yardstick in the first week of teaching is a very unfair expectation. Nevertheless, after each class you can’t help but forget what went well and ponder on why was that one kid so disinterested or was my activity boring or did I teach the grammar pattern well enough, etc. I know we will get better at teaching and we mustn’t be hard on ourselves for the first little while. 

With all the lesson prep we haven’t had too much time to do any exploring just yet. Pretty much the only parts of Taichung we have seen have been while walking between home and our branches. 

Fortunately we live right by a Carrefour and an A-mart so we have been able to pick up a few essentials to help us get set up in our apartment. Our most extravagant purchase so far has been a fancy Philips blender that we will use to make all kinds of fruit smoothies. 

In a few weeks we will receive our ARCs (Alien Resident Cards) and at that point we will be in the market for a scooter! We plan to buy just one for the two of us and so we will be looking for a 150cc engine. I can’t wait to have the scooter. It will be a few days at least until I’m comfortable taking a passenger on the back (Amanda!) but once at that point, it will really broaden our horizons. We can see the mountains so clearly from our apartment window... I can’t wait to go exploring. 

There aren’t any touristy pictures yet for me to share, so this one is just a picture of the view out of our living room window.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Straight up Laoshi

Days like today, I am 100% in love with Taiwan. I love walking home from my second day of the job and being cheerfully waved at by the girl from the neighbourhood tea shop. I love taking the elevator up to my 18th floor apartment, confident that no cockroaches will be lurking in the hallway. I love meeting my squeeze, a.k.a. Teacher Brett outside the 24-hourCarrefour after we get off work to buy some late-night groceries. I love hearing adorable little Taiwanese children call me “Teacher Amanda” and giggle nervously when I ask their names.

Laoshi” is Mandarin for “teacher”, and when an old man called me that as I was purchasing a boat load of school supplies the other night, I felt so happy. So far, the job is pretty stressful, but the rewards are huge. I don’t even mind the 6-year-old kid who told me I’m a poo because I gave him his first-ever homework assignment. Lesson planning has been extremely time-consuming, but I get the feeling it’s going to be a lot easier each week, especially as we get to know the kids we’re teaching.

In addition to getting used to our new work routines (since this is Boje’s first time back to work since August, 2010!) we’ve also been growing more comfortable with our area in Taichung. We live in a nice, relatively new neighbourhood with broad streets and sidewalks as well as plenty of lovely tea shops and restaurants. There’s a jade market just a few blocks away, and I’ve been told by one of my colleagues that “Little Europe” is pretty close to our building as well! We’re hoping to make a quick trip to Kaohsiung this weekend to pick up the stuff we left behind and see our friends if possible, but the next few weekends after this will hopefully be spent exploring Taichung and learning as much as we can about our new city!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Din Tai Fung (鼎泰豐), Taichung City (台中市) and the end to our transience

On one of our nights off from training, Amanda and I met up with our friend Wai Shun and his family who were visiting Taiwan. Their trip just happened to coincide with our being in Taipei and it was great to meet up with them again so soon after our visit to Singapore. We went for dinner at Din Tai Fung (鼎泰豐), a famous xiǎo lóng bāo & dumplings restaurant that started in Taipei but can now be found in Taiwan, Japan, China, Singapore, Indonesia, Korea, the US, Malaysia, Australia and Thailand... my they have done well!!! The food and particularly the company were great and as xiǎo lóng bāo and dumplings are amongst my favorite foods, I was happy as a clam. 

Skipping ahead to the end of our training, on Thursday morning we left our hotel in Taipei and climbed aboard a bus that had been chartered by our school to drop off new teachers in Hsinchu, Fongyuan & Taichung City. So far we have mostly traveled around Taiwan via the HSR (High Speed Rail) and so it was nice to take in some different scenery as our bus took us on a bit of a tour through the northern cities. 

Upon our arrival in Taichung (台中), we dropped off our belongings at a hotel and a group of us were taken straight to lunch with senior staff from our respective branches. Lunch was several shared Taiwanese dishes that were delicious - no surprise there! 

After lunch, Amanda and I were taken by some Taiwanese colleagues to look at apartments.

  • The first apartment was tiny, but with very high quality finishings. The building also had a spa, steam room, sauna, outdoor swimming pool, gym, yoga studio, business center and restaurant. The extras were extremely tempting but the rent was about 40% more than we had hoped to be paying and the apartment itself was just a bit too small.
  • The second apartment was on the second floor of an older terraced building. The apartment was enormous and had three bedrooms, but was very old and poorly laid out.
  • A little discouraged after the first two apartments, the last one that we saw was... just right! It was on the 18th floor of a relatively new building. Two bedrooms (one for guests), living room, kitchen, breakfast area, small balcony with laundry machine and one and a half bathrooms, one of which has a very fancy Japanese style toilet.
The owner was at home when we viewed the apartment and there was some negotiation regarding the rent. The colleagues that were helping us look at apartments had a lot of experience in such situations and they did a terrific job reducing the rent by 20% from the starting point. We really appreciate their help and there was no possibility that we could have managed the experience without their guidance and translations! Thank you A&S!!! 

Later that day we were taken to our respective branches where we will be teaching. We were introduced to our colleagues, given a bit of an orientation, and I also had the chance to observe my new boss teach a class that is similar to what I will be teaching come Monday. 

On Friday, we were at our branches from about 1pm to 9:30pm busy with branch specific orientation and more class observations. It was great to see the students and teachers in action and while we are both quite nervous about starting teaching on Monday we are also very excited. 

Saturday has been move in day. Our Taiwanese colleagues again spent the morning helping Amanda and I by bringing us along with all our gear to the apartment and going over the tenancy agreement with us and the landlord (who had not yet moved out). A&S spent a good two hours discussing and negotiating the finer points of our tenancy agreement, making sure that we are adequately protected. Once everything was signed and money had changed hands, we went to a local Carrefour to do a little shopping (linen and the likes) while our landlord (along with her two children) finished cleaning and packing and left. 

Tonight is our first night in our new place. In the past three and a half months Amanda and I have lived between crashing at a friend’s condo to hotel rooms to hostel rooms back to hotels to a short term apartment lease to B&Bs to hotels and more hotels and now have finally reached a place that we will be able to call home for the next year. 

To commemorate all the moving coming to an end, the pictures attached to this blog post are an abridged montage of some of the various places we have spent the last three and a half months living...

Beijing: Hotel Prime
Beijing: Hotel Prime
Kaohsiung: Cozy Planet Hostel
Kaohsiung: Cozy Planet Hostel
Kaohsiung: Cozy Planet Hostel
Kaohsiung: Sanduo Hotel
Kaohsiung: Sanduo Hotel
Kaohsiung: Our Gushan District Apartment (we were spoilt!!)
Kaohsiung: Our Gushan District Apartment
Kaohsiung: Our Gushan District Apartment
Kaohsiung: Our Gushan District Apartment
Xiao Liuqiu: Mediterranean Sea View Villa
Xiao Liuqiu: Mediterranean Sea View Villa
Taichung: Zhong Ke Hotel
Taichung: OUR NEW HOME!!!!
Taichung: Our new home
Taichung: We have a very fancy Japanese toilet - ask me what the buttons are for!!
Taichung: Our new home - the main bedroom
Taichung: Our new home - the guest bedroom (it won't always be this messy... we just moved in!!!)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Puppet Master

On Saturday night we had an amazing Taiwanese meal at “See-Join Puppet Theater & Restaurant - a puppet show dinner theater just a few blocks away from our hotel. We were brought there by our new friends from last weekend, Natascha and Ryan. Apparently they Googled places in Taipei to bring “foreign friends”, and this theater was one of the first results! It was definitely a good choice. For dinner we shared a big jug of tangerine peel tea (a delicious drink known to soothe sore throats) as well as rice and hot plates of beef, vegetable, chicken, shrimp, and tofu dishes. I regret that we didn’t take pictures of the food as it was all very tasty, but we were eager to finish eating so the puppet show could begin!

A very adorable older man came out to introduce the puppet show. He spoke a fair amount of English and was very welcoming to us and two other foreign women at another table. He used many different styles of Chinese and Taiwanese puppets throughout the show, including some that were specially designed for the black light segments of the performance! He featured a “dancing boy” puppet that thrashed around in the black lights to crazy techno music, and while I obviously couldn’t understand a word of what was said, I’m reasonably sure the puppet was meant to be the Techno Prince, San Tai Zi, who we learned about with Jenny and Milton in Kaohsiung. B suspects I’m wrong about the puppet, but the performance was great all the same.

After the show was finished, everyone in the audience was handed a small puppet made of cloth and wood to learn how to express various emotions and actions used in Chinese puppetry. We practiced running, jumping, bowing, etc, and I even got called up to the front to demonstrate my *cough* superior puppet manipulation skills. Once everyone in the crowd was familiarized with our puppets, Natascha and I were called to the stage along with an ADORABLE little Taiwanese boy and a foreign woman to perform with some larger puppets. Needless to say, I was a clear natural. I looked completely at-ease on the stage, just so long as my entire face and body stayed hidden behind the Great glow-in-the-dark Wall of China.

We had a really fun night with Natascha and Ryan and I appreciate them spending the evening with us on such a special occasion - Taiwanese Valentine’s Day! (Yes, Taiwan observes the Western one as well!) We observed another new (to us) holiday today - Taiwanese Father’s Day! In Mandarin, the number 8 is “ba”, therefore August 8 is “ba ba”. Guess what the Taiwanese word for “Daddy” is? You guessed it! It’s “Ba-ba”! Now you all know something new!

Tonight was our “graduation” from training and we’ve still got all our packing to do! Despite the stress of somehow re-packing all my huge quantities of clothing, cosmetics, and Apple products into an 80L backpack, I’m still extremely excited to see our new city tomorrow! We’ll be hunting for apartments in the afternoon with some Taiwanese colleagues after we have lunch with our new bosses! In addition to all the exciting changes to our routine, we’re also going to have lots of new Taichung experiences to post about! Woo!

I (Brett) personally think I look super creepy in this photo. I assure you it was unintentional.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Training Week!

Training for our new jobs this week has been insane. Sorry for the lack of updates, but we haven’t been doing much to write home about! We head out the door at 8 am every morning and usually get home about twelve hours later, so by the time we take off our shoes we’re too exhausted to do anything else. We've been learning a lot about teaching English and I'm looking forward to putting it into practice, but our grueling schedule at the moment is a little overwhelming!

Today is our one day off so I’ve been Skyping (and festering) all morning while waiting for Brett to get home from some additional stuff he needs to do for his work permit. This afternoon we’ll be doing lots of laundry and then this evening we’re going out for dinner with our new Taiwanese friends from last weekend.

I guess there is one newsworthy item: We were told this week that we’ll be spending the year teaching in Taichung City (臺中市). Brett and I will be teaching at branches that are about twenty minutes apart, so on Thursday when we arrive in Taichung (臺中) we’ll be looking at apartments somewhere between the two schools. Taichung is the third largest city in Taiwan, and is located about halfway down the west coast between Taipei and Kaohsiung. It’s home to a lot of museums, performing arts venues, and cultural centers as well as a winery!

On the minus side, I’ve been told that there is very little Romanization of street signs in Taichung, so B and I will most likely be carrying around maps at all times. There’s also no MRT which means we’ll be relying a lot more on our feet and the bus system, at least until we figure out how to get a scooter. I’m not terribly worried about all this. It’s nothing we won’t get used to!

Before I go get ready for the rest of my day, I’ll leave you with a fun fact! Taichung’s Canadian sister city is Winnipeg, Manitoba! This relationship was established in 1982! How exciting!