Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Goodbye 2008

4.5 months in Los Angeles
2.5 months in Seattle
3.5 months in Taiwan
1 week in Cambodia
Brief interludes in: Bellingham, Orcas Island, Portland, Houston, Anchorage, San Francisco, and Santa Barbara,
The remainder: Florence, Oregon.

Highlights: Graduating; Cousin's wedding; Touring a mobile sex dungeon; Getting flown to Houston for an interview; Driving up Highway 101 with Mom; Angkor Wat; Moving to Taiwan; watching both Jones boys pummel North Bend in their first tackle football game; And watching my brother take first in the regional Pitch Hit Run Contest at Safeco Field in Seattle.

The dungeon tour was for a Seattle Times story. I got calls from radio shows all over the country. A producer from a national TV morning show called me about it (though I can't remember which one). Fox News did a short story on it. It was exciting. But, the newspaper business is dying. And after some halfway-serious introspection, I'm less inclined to think the fish-wrap industry is the right road for me anyway. My plus-sized swing club article may be my lifetime contribution to the fourth estate. Cheers to that.

I didn't get the job in Houston. It would've been a two-year rotation through Hearst newspapers, which are mostly on the East Coast and in the Midwest. In retrospect, I'm relieved I'm not in Beaumont or Huron right now, inevitably working some holiday night/cops shift. A good friend also interviewed for the Hearst job. He realized he didn't want the gig while still in Houston, so he ordered room service steak and eggs on Hearst's tab. I wish I had that kind of foresight.

I'm excited to see how 2009 shapes up. My only definite post-Taiwan plans are to haul my worldly possessions back down Highway 101 to Los Angeles. Once there, I will test the limits of my aunt and uncle's hospitality. They live in Sherman Oaks, or, as my friends who live in WeHo say, voices dripping with disdain, The Valley. Hopefully I will quickly find gainful employment and permanent accommodations. Fingers crossed.

In short, I'm not sure just where I'll be or what I'll be doing 12 months from now. That's nerve-wracking. But it's exciting too. The majority of my life will probably be much more predictable. For now, I'm savoring the unknown.

Now for resolutions! James taught me it's best to include at least one really easy resolution. That way you don't feel so bad when the others don't pan out. I will leave you to divine which of the following was my easy resolution for 2009:

1. Remember names. I hate it when people say, "Oh, I'm terrible with names." Because all it means is "Oh, I can't be bothered with names." And yet, I forgot more names of people I met this year than I care to remember. Next year, I'm going to do better.

2. Become conversational in Chinese. I'm going to buy some Chinese self-help on iTunes. I'm going to be more aggressive about speaking up when I'm out and about. I'm going to pester my bosses and co-workers. I'm going to maximize all those Saturday lunches with James' grandma. By the time I leave this country I will be able to say something beyond, "No I do not need a bag with that!"

3. Carry a notebook with me. Write three things down every day that would be interesting to somebody besides myself.

4. Never again watch Zombie Strippers or any other film wherein Jenna Jameson shoots billiard balls out of her hoohah.

That's it. Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Today's Weather: Showers. High 64, F. Low 57, F.

What Alan Wore: One sweatshirt, two sweaters and a turtleneck.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Tough Love

My kiddies have become very lax in the hand washing department. They're old enough and they've been told enough.

But they've made a game out of stepping out of the bathroom, twiddling their thumbs, waiting for me to bark, "Did you wash your hands? With soap?" Then they grin mischievously and dart back in to lather up.

This game was old a month ago. Monday I put my foot down.

"If I have to tell you to wash your hands after you go pee pee, I will take FIVE of your tokens."

Students get tokens for being good. Once they collect a couple hundred they can turn them in for one of the cheapo toys we keep displayed like the Holy Grail on a high shelf.

On break time, sure enough, Owen came out of the bathroom hands unwashed.

"Owen go wash your hands. I'm taking 5 of your tokens."

"NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!" Owen leaped off the ground and latched onto my thigh with the strength and rage of a rabid woodland creature - totally unaware that he weighs 100 pounds less than me and has not a prayer of physically commanding me to return his tokens.

I pried all four appendages from my leg, held him by the arms and brought my face to eye-level with his.

"Do not grab me. That is not okay. You still need to go wash your hands."

With that, Owen prostrated himself on the floor and thrust all his energy into wailing into the floorboards. I wondered if they could hear him in the coffee shop downstairs.

This is the same kid who used to stomp and scream if he wasn't first in line to walk to the adjacent classroom. This isn't a bad day. This is a behavior problem.

I scooped him below the armpits and hauled him into the bathroom.

"You still have to wash your hands ... with soap!"

Owen stood facing the mirror, continuing to bawl. Every now and then he'd look over to see if his grief was working its magical powers on me.

These theatrics must be effective for Owen at home. But not in my house.

"Wash. Your. Hands."

I wasn't a tantrum thrower. Neither of my brothers were tantrum throwers. We aren't blood related, so it can't be attributed to some tantrum-resistant gene. It must've been good parenting.

My mom told me I threw one truly fabulous fit when I was two. She said it was like something out of a cartoon strip: kicking feet, pounding fists, belly to the ground, ear-splitting shrieks.

A simple blurb from Good Parenting jedi mind trick cured me then and for forever:

"Leslie, I know you're upset. It's okay to be upset," she said.

Then Mom walked away and continued to sew shoulder pads into her blazers or watch jazzercise videos - or whatever it was moms usually did when their kids weren't hysterical in the late 1980s.

What?! I must've been thinking: All I'm getting out of this is patient acknowledgement of my feelings? Forget it. This is too much effort.

That was it. No more fits.

My students are not all inclined to bawling outbursts, but they all show greater proclivity to whining than I'd like, or that I'm liable to stand for very long.

"TEEEEEEEEEEEEE-Chuh, he hit me!"

Occasionally, they really thunk each other. But most often "Teacher, he hit me" should be interpreted as "Teacher, he accidentally bumped me, I'm in a foul mood, and I want someone get in trouble. Help me out?"

"I don't care." I tell them. I don't say it in an even, pleasant tone, like the experts would probably recommend. I jerk my head side to side and glare.

I say it like a challenge, like I'm the Dirty Harry of pre-school teachers, like one false step, another hint of a whine - even a peep - and the whole classroom could come crashing down.

What are you going to do now that you know I couldn't give two turds that your feelings are hurt? Do you feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?

I'm not the epitome of child care professionalism. But this tactic, without fail, stanches the whining and momentarily confuses the whiner. Mission accomplished!

Mystery Solved

I knew much of my steely Alaskan indifference to cold weather wore off after four years in Los Angeles, but these last few weeks my wee Taiwanese students - most of whom have never left the subtropics - had me feeling like a complete foul-weather pansy.

"Teacher, I so hot!" They said frantically fanning their faces.

"Alright, you can turn the air conditioner on."

I waved the complaining student of the day toward the AC, and he or she proceeded to crank it on full blast.

It's about 16 degrees Celsius (60 F) outside. So, no, it's not Fairbanks in February - but it's not balmy either. Plus, the humidity makes it feel colder.

Once the AC is whirring, my classroom quickly reminds me of a Costco-style walk-in refrigerator. The only problem is I can't grab my crate of apples and run, I have to endure the rest of the hour.

I try to stay strong for the students, but often I finish my lesson plan with both hands tucked up my sleeves.

Do I have poor circulation? Am I being the world's biggest baby? What sort of strange, ultra-hot-blooded creatures are seated before me? I wondered.

But today I found my answer. It turned out to be a case of the layers.

I walked over to one of my 7-year-old students, Alan, who was wearing a bulky brown sweater with a polo shirt underneath. Once standing beside him, I noticed something poking out beneath the polo shirt.

"Wait a minute...." I asked. "How many layers do you have on?"

Without waiting for his consent, I hooked a finger around his collar and began counting. The kid was wearing four shirts. Gregory, seated beside him, was wearing three.

James surveyed his class on Friday. Two students had on three layers, and one had on six. Only one of his students was wearing just one shirt.

In short, the Chinese love to bundle. James underwent serious bundling, thanks to his grandma, in Cambodia. On the train in the morning, I see women wearing ankle-length coats that look like what my mom used to wear to work in the dead of Alaskan winter.

I'm just glad it's not me who's going all soft on cold weather. Now I know to blame the parents. :)

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Watch My Kids

Goofy Nativity

I promise I'm almost done posting about Christmas, but I stumbled across this outside a church last night and realized I must share.

It's a picture of baby Jesus cradled by the Island Formosa. He is balanced on top of the Central Mountain Range, to be precise.

According to the accompanying reader board, the 150 is for the fact Jesus first came to Formosa 150 years ago (first missionaries?).


In j-school classes I learned that American media outlets are more conservative about airing or printing images of blood and guts than many, perhaps most, countries. Some criticize American media culture for its image censorship, especially when it comes to war and international conflict.

In contrast, the violent story I saw in a local paper today seemed like the basest appeal to morbid curiosity I've ever seen on a front page.

James I were waiting for our breakfast at the little restaurant across from our building. There was a Chinese newspaper on our table and the biggest frontpage story was about the California man who massacred his ex-wife's family. Next to the article there was a big illustration of the murder scene - including a sketch of the guy shooting a little girl in the face.

Civilians aren't allowed guns in Taiwan, and since it took place in the U.S., I guess maybe that makes the whole thing less real for a local audience. But I was appalled.

About a month ago I was watching a TV story about a fatal car accident in Taipei. The reporter got into the passenger side of a car (same make as the crashed car) in order to demonstrate how an unbelted 8-year-old met his death through the windshield.

Both the newspaper article today and the TV story struck me as gratuitous and grotesque. It almost makes me embarrassed to write about them now. But it's so different from what's considered acceptable back home, I thought I'd share.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Buxiban Christmas

More Pictures: Taiwan Christmas
The Christmas Eve show at my afternoon school was wholly successful, replete with songs, skits and darling little English speeches. After the show we took the kids Christmas caroling at the 7-11 across the street and at a nearby restaurant.

On Christmas morning the kids at the kindergarten were doing a dress rehearsal for their Christmas play.

Here are some pictures from both days. James took a little video at the Christmas show, and if it proves hilarious enough I may post it this weekend.

Santa Comes to Nankan

After a long day at the buxiban (which I will post about tomorrow), James and I had a quiet Christmas Eve at home. We sat beside our apartment's only greenery, our baby cacti garden, and exchanged presents.
in lieu of a tree
I gave James a leather wallet, but he had dig through a goody bag filled with Western foods to find it.
From Taiwan Christmas
Brats and processed cheese: A pretty good Christmas gift, if I do say so myself
He gave me a bling pair of earrings, but my left hole has closed up again. I jammed wildly at my earlobe for a few minutes until James called me off, "Quit it! It's okay! Maybe you can just wear one - like a sailor!" Guess I'll have to go under the piercing gun a third time.

We started watching A Christmas Story, but I fell asleep, and at midnight we split a pomegranate before hitting the hay.

"This will be the first year I don't get any presents from Santa Claus," I remarked before passing out, maybe an insy teensy winsy bit sad for it.

But when I awoke...
Presents from Santa!
I found some milk and cookie crumbs by our baby cacti.

Santa brought me a giant "Glamorous Banana!" Lucky girl!

Santa gave me a big cushy stuffed banana with a red sticker that says "Glamorous Banana." Santa must be very attune to my affinity for adorable things that are yellow. He also gave me Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, which I plan on starting as soon as I'm finished with Burmese Days by George Orwell.

I think I must've been much better than James this year. Santa wrote "You've been a very good girl," on one of my two presents. James only got one present from Santa, The Stand by Stephen King, and his note said, "Dear James, Read a f---ing book."

Merry Christmas family, friends, and internet. I hope that are you spending it with people you love, wherever you may be.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas Itinerary

Wednesday, December 24th:

8 a.m. Get on bus, schlep together next week's lesson plan for after-class teacher meeting.

10 - 11:30 a.m. Teach preschool. Push Vancouver down very steep staircase, tell her to enjoy her Christmas Day off at Far Eastern Hospital, one short metro stop away from school

11:30 a.m. - 2 p.m. Teacher Meeting, Run errands in Taipei

4 p.m. - 5:30p.m. Christmas show final rehearsal

5:30 p.m - 6 p.m. Eat lunchbox dinner with bosses and brats

6p.m. - 6:30 p.m. Don tarty Christmas costume, apply black noses to reindeer children

6:30p.m. - 8 p.m. Host Christmas show

8 p.m. Go home. Drink hot chocolate with lots of Baileys. Watch A Christmas Story.

Thursday, December 25th

8 a.m. Get on bus

10 a.m. - 11:30 a.m. Work. Try not to be a grinch.

5 p.m. - 6 p.m. Work

6 p.m. Go to all-you-can-eat barbecue near apartment

Friday, December 26th

8 a.m. Sleep in!

1 p.m. Get on bus

2 p.m. - 4 p.m. Teach Satan's spawn, ages 8 and 9

4:30 p.m. - 6:30 p.m. Teach sullen tweenage girls + one teenage boy who thinks he's reeeeeally funny.

7 p.m. - 9 p.m. Teach well-behaved teenagers.

Saturday, December 27th

8 a.m. - 6 p.m. Who cares?

6 p.m. Go to Ruth's Chris Steakhouse in Taipei, James' treat. YES!

I get steak on Saturday, so that makes it all worth it. And unless I become a cop, a medical professional, a waitress, or a fireman - I will probably never have to work on Christmas again! I don't have a lot of concrete life plans at the moment, but I bet with a little forethought I can avoid all of those professions.

On the offhand I do wind up working another Christmas, it's highly unlikely wearing a furry red tube dress will ever again be part of the package.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Christmas, Buxiban Style

Me with my oldest students. From Taiwan Christmas
The buxiban (cram school) James and I work at had its Christmas show Saturday night. It was essentially a variety show - tangentially involved with Christmas - with an ample dose of techno dance numbers, one of which we participated in.

My favorite skit was a Harry Potter play one of the Chinese teachers wrote. In the play Voldemort offers Harry a Christmas gift but first Potter must gather three magic balls for he-who-shall-not-be-named. To do so, Harry time travels to meet Beethoven, George Washington and a Snake (don't think about it too hard).

Washington learns he will be the first president of the USA. Celebratory chest thump. So thug.

In the end, Voldemort is foiled. And I think my students achieved a new milestone for incoherent fan fiction writing.

James and I gave a joint speech. He wrote it two weeks ago and I didn't look at it until the day of the performance.

"Hey, you gave me all the long lines!" I complained.

"No, I gave you all the good lines."

What James wrote for me: "Every year my family goes to the forest and cuts down a nice big Christmas tree. Then we take it home and decorate it with ornaments and pelts."

Once on the stage, I couldn't bring myself to tell dozens of Chinese families I come from a family of lumberjacks that tosses around ermine skins when it feels festive - though I appreciate James' humor - so I recited something closer to the truth.

On Sunday evening we went to the Christmas service outside Grace Baptist.

From Taiwan Christmas

The service was more of a sales pitch than a celebration of Christmas, but I guess that was the point since they seated us outside on the porch so that passersby could stop and watch.

During the service the pastor talked about Karla Faye Tucker who became a Christian in prison after murdering someone with a pickax. The reason he chose Mrs. Tucker instead of Jeffrey Dahmer, David Berkowitz, or Manson family member Susan Atkins escaped me. I mean, when you get busted for a despicable violent crime - isn't finding God just part of the bag? I hate to complain, but I really didn't need any pickax in conjunction with my baby Jesus during Christmas.

I have yet another Buxiban Christmas Show on Christmas Eve.

"Leslie, can you dress up on Wednesday?" my boss asked today.

"Sure!" I said. I was already planning on wearing a red skirt and a white cardigan with rhinestone buttons. Festive, no?

"Can you wear a dress?"

"Yeah. no problem."

"How about a - umm - Mrs. Claus dress?"

My boss then produced a furry red tube dress with a heart shaped neckline. The thing comes with a mini cape and white faux fur wristlets.

"I'll wear it, but the parents are going to think your English teacher is crazy," I said. Boss laughed good naturedly. What I really meant was, "I'll wear it, but the parents are going to think your English teacher is a strumpet."

I hereby retract all jokes I ever made about being overpaid here. Pictures to follow.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Lost in Translation: PTA Meeting

I had my first PTA meeting for the kindergarten Friday. There was no delegating of tasks for the next school carnival, nor any robust debate on hosting a carwash versus a popcorn fundraiser. But I did have to demonstrate a lesson plan for the mommys and daddys, after which Supervisor invited parents to micromanage my classroom.

I didn't stress beforehand, but it was unnerving to deliver my usual shtick to four boisterous four-year-olds with a pack of scowling parents seated behind them. They weren't mean scowls, just studious grimaces - like they were trying to quantify how much knowledge I could impart to their children in 20 minutes, and whether that sum was sufficient.

After my teaching demonstration, the boys had to complete a series of simple logic games in ten minutes. Some of the parents videotaped. Most of the kids hustled along, but Ivan opted to spend the time chewing his fingers and growling. Occasionally he would drop a game piece on the floor and make an elaborate show of searching for it. He was the only student who didn't finish on time. His mommy and the Chinese teachers busted his chops afterward.

Then each boy "read" a picture book. In the past couple months, we've wasted hours having the boys practice reciting the story from a book. I think the school's idea is that if they make the kids recite well enough the parents will be tricked into believing their kids can read already.

Supervisor asked each parent what ideas they had for the school. Chris' father said Chris comes home singing English nursery rhymes that he doesn't know. He asked the school to send home a copy of the lyrics so he could correct Chris on the words.

Wow, I thought, what a contrast to my own kindergarten experience. And granted I was 6 when I was in kindergarten. Chris is 4 (he will have one more year of kindergarten before beginning primary school).

My kindergarten teacher was useless. Her background was in special ed, so she was used to one-on-one. She picked one favorite and worked with him all the time. The rest of us would've been left to our own devices were it not for a highly competent and overworked teacher's assistant.

My parents weren't pleased I had a worthless teacher, but they had every faith the Anchorage public school system would provide me a better teacher the following year.

Education was important in my home, for sure: I used to have nightmares for a week before the spelling bee; I had a boo-hoo meltdown in ninth grade when I thought I was going to get a B in jazz band.

But on this side of the ocean it's a whole different plate of tamales. It's a zero-sum game, survival of the smartest. My parent's attitude to a bad teacher was, "Oh well. It'll be better next year and if we need to we'll supplement at home for the time being." Over here it's, "I need 'The Ants Go Marching One by One' in writing so I can spot check my 4-year-old's grammar.'"

Lost in Translation: TiT

These billboards are everywhere. It's actually a luxury real estate campaign and has nothing to do with hu (my text approximation of husky male laughter).

Some of them don't even have the English "Town in Town," but merely the diamond-topped TiT.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Home Just Got a Little Bit Closer

Last weekend was the grand opening of this two-story KFC located across the street from my apartment. A mere three blocks farther there's a two-story McDonalds - and across from that there's a three-story Blockbuster, a Pizza Hut and a Domino's.

When James and I walked in on Sunday half a dozen people shouted "MAYGUANLIN" (welcome) from behind the counter. They hurled this celebratory greeting at everyone who passed under the balloon archway and through the double doors for the duration of our meal. It was like a surprise party every three minutes.

I'm not usually a self righteous harpy when it comes to fast food. I will eat an extra cheeseburger just to spite those annoying people who carp about what it's made of. However, I have to say, I am deeply suspicious that KFC chicken is actually breaded with evil synthetic poison.

The first two bites were great, the rest were perfunctory, and by the end I felt incapacitated and nauseous. Medical experts might claim it's impossible to feel greasy toxic slime coating one's digestive tract. But they would have to be unfamiliar with the Colonel's secret recipe. I felt it, man.

On the upside, we were handed commemorative KFC salt and pepper shakers and a KFC finger basketball game on our way out.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Sunshine Shoes

I first saw these shoes on and I remember the day clearly: It was a May afternoon on the Oregon Coast, I was sitting in the guest bedroom at my parent's house. In that moment I knew there had never been, and never would be again, a more perfect pair of yellow peep toes.

Two weeks later I was in a Nordstroms with Mom. We found them in the shoe department. Mom agreed: Shoemakers of the world could throw in the towel, nothing will ever surpass these in beauty or impracticality. So she bought them for me. And I schlepped them to Taiwan.

My mom didn't buy me high heels until I was 16. This was a good policy in a women's lib. kind of way. It was a bad policy in that I never really learned how to walk in anything but flats.

Whenever I slip anything on with more than a one-inch heel, James becomes visibly distressed, to which I snap, "Out of my way, short man!" And he responds, "I'm just really worried you're going to hurt yourself." If I'm in heels, the night isn't complete until I almost break an ankle.

I based my Saturday night ensemble on these shoes. Finding a dress in my closet that both went with these shoes and was appropriate for a family-friendly Christmas party took half an hour.

James was already in Taipei, so I had to brave the unlit, uneven sidewalks of Nankan by my lonesome. I caught the bus and as I clacked down the aisle to my seat, passengers on both sides stared at my feet - two dozen pairs of eyes that seemed to say, "Bitch, are you crazy?"

At 5'8'', I'm already taller than most women and eye-level with most men here. But Saturday night I was downright Amazonian. I felt like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, except not so old and never as funny.

Miraculously, I made it to the hotel without incident. Once there, I only had to walk as far as the buffet line.

The road home was another matter. And James declined to piggyback me. My feet felt fine on every trip to and from the ice cream station. But trekking home was killer.

These aren't shoes, I realized, they're sunshine-colored torture traps - specially designed to concentrate my entire body weight on to two teeny pinpoints on either foot. The conversation between the bus stop and home went:

"ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch-
"You going to make it?"
"Want to switch shoes?"
"Carry me?"
"Fine. Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch...."

When will I wear them again? As soon as I have occasion, probably to Christmas dinner next week.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Crackpot Scheme #3,456,345 to get James a Job

James has another job interview tomorrow. We're hoping it will go well, but we've also decided hope is no longer enough. Elaborate ruses and deception are now in order.

The idea came to me a week ago.

"You should just tell your next interviewer you're Mexican." I suggested.

Most of James' interviewers have made it clear they don't want an Asian person as their foreign English teacher. It's easier to get a foreign teacher job here as a white-looking person who isn't a native English speaker than it is for an Asian-looking person who is a native English speaker. Thus, I figure the best thing James can do is convince everyone he isn't Asian.

James doesn't look Mexican at all. But there aren't very many Mexicans here, so maybe they'll buy it, I thought.

"Naw, I should say I'm Native Alaskan."


James doesn't look Native either, but it's marginally less of a stretch than Latino. Plus, Alaska is listed as his birthplace on his passport. So plausible enough, no?

Unfortunately Tienshing, his very Chinese middle name, is also printed on his passport.

"Just say it's your Native Alaskan name. Make up an alternate pronunciation. AND DON'T admit you speak Chinese."

James plans on applying all of the above tomorrow. Wish him luck, and I'll let you know if it works or not.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Getting My Christmas On

The present was just a prop, I didn't get to keep it.

Last night James and I went to the Foreign Correspondents Club Christmas party at the Cesear Park Hotel in downtown Taipei, swanky!

I thought admission would be $900NT ($30 U.S.) for us as a couple, but that was actually the cost per ticket. I wondered if the woman stamping hands could see my soul dying as I thought about all the Christmas cards I still have to air mail, and the presents I still need to buy, not to mention groceries for the rest of the month...

But I soon forget my fiscal woes when we stepped inside and saw the buffet table: cesear salad, smoked salmon, a cheese platter filled with brie and Muenster, glazed ham, roast beef, turkey. Being able to eat meat that comes in big juicy slabs was definitely worth the entrance fee. Plus, for dessert there were cakes and pies as well as four six-gallon tubs of Haagen-Dazs ice cream. Haagen-Dazs is really expensive here. The amount of ice cream I ate made my ticket price a steal.

We were seated with a family of four Australians, a guy from Oklahoma, a "Russian of Georgian decent," and one regular Russian. When I told the Russian gentleman seated beside me I was from Alaska he said, "Ah, so that means you are Russian, since Alaska was once part of Russia."

"Umm, well no - my family is actually fourth-generation Finnish immigrants on my mother's side."

"Ah, Finland." He said - kind of like he meant 'well, that's close enough.'

I'm not usually one of those white Americans who rattles off six different European ethnicities in divisions of 16ths and 32nds. I'm just American. That's it. Although I do pay homage to the delicious braided sweet bread my family makes during the holidays - supposedly that comes from the old country.

My Russian friend told me he had a layover once in Anchorage on his way to New York.

"Yes, Anchorage is a big transit hub." I said. I thought about adding "more so before the Cold War ended" but I didn't know if that was socially appropriate. I guess it probably would've been fine as long as I didn't say it like "more so before we won the Cold War and you lost ... Losers!"

Later he told me he'd been a member of the Young Communist League, as was required, when it was still the Soviet Union. Then he moved to Taiwan and wrote for the "Anti-Communist League for National Salvation." Quite the ideological swing.

There were raffle drawings. Since it's a club for journalists - the prizes were mostly memory storage devices, air tickets, and booze. There were four winners at our table, but James and I weren't among them.

Kids help the band with the jingle bells.
Between drawings, there was a jazz trio. I was having such a good time, I even enjoyed their rendition of Jingle Bell Rock - my very least favorite of my least favorite Christmas songs (followed closely by Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree, and plain old Jingle Bells).

In short, it was a fabulous evening. mmm, chocolate ice cream. mmm, roast beef.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Working on Christmas Pt. 2

If you missed Part 1, it's conveniently posted below Part 2.

On Tuesday I approached my supervisor in a last-ditch effort to get Christmas Day off.

Me: Hey, do you have a minute.

Supervisor: Yes, what is it?

Me: I want to talk to you about Christmas. Vancouver says I have to work because she got the day off.

Supervisor: Yes, we need one foreign teacher here.

Me: But I'm wondering, maybe I can arrange some activities the Chinese teachers can do without me-

Supervisor: But the parents will say where is the foreign teacher.*

*I'm never there when the parents drop the students off. And while many schools do, our school doesn't have webcams so parents can check up on the class online. In other words, the parents would never know.

Supervisor: We need at least one foreign teacher here. And Vancouver has been here a long time and never asked for Christmas off-

Me: Actually Vancouver said the old supervisor always gave them Christmas off.

Supervisor (really irritated): That's not what she told me. We need one person here. So sorry, I know it's important to you.

Me: Thanks. I figured I'd ask.

For all her faults, Vancouver seems like the kind of ultra honest person who can't withhold factual information even to her benefit. Supervisor was flustered at the end of the conversation. I caught her in a lie. That's basically blasphemous here, you're not supposed to call someone on their hooey. Direct communication isn't de rigueur.

Back home this kind of thing would've amounted to a shrug and "tough break kid, you're working." But questioning authority isn't the same here, and Supervisor made it known I'd crossed the line by ignoring me the rest of the week.

Looks like I'm on my way to achieving the mantle of persona non grata among the adults at work. This tension-filled conversation with Supervisor came on the heels of a talk last week I had with Ottawa, a Canadian-born Chinese guy a little older than me who has a management position because his brother owns the school.

Ottawa came into the school last Friday. His talk - which was more of a lecture, really - was about Chinese culture and how problems can't be solved the way they would back home. I couldn't figure out if this talk was or was not related to my altercation with Gambling Wench. Oh hell, it probably was.

I like stinky tofu. I can stomach chicken feet and congealed pork blood. And I have a pretty good ear for Mandarin tones. But I have zero faith in my ability to amend myself to solving problems the Chinese way.

Right now I'm reading Shogun by James Clavell. What these past couple weeks in Taiwan, coupled with the Clavell, have taught me is that I would probably never be a good samurai either.

My emotions are too transparent. I'm not very tricky. And I like to get my way right away. Oh, and I don't have any swords ... yet.

Come Christmas morning, I'm going to be stuck with the brats. But at least they still like me.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Working on Christmas

I'm working on Christmas. My supervisor says I'm working because I'm the bottom dog. But I know the real reason.

The real reason I'm working on Christmas has everything to do with the ruthless machinations of a Canadian. And for this reason I will be petitioning the president elect to add Canada to the axis of evil - something that should've been done long ago.

This is quickly becoming a complain-about-work blog. At least it is until I quit, or get fired dooced for openly trashing my job online, or am terminated for some other, yet undiscovered reason. Presently, all those possibilities sound exciting.

Eventually I will move back to America and have to be prudent about what I write online. That day has not yet arrived, thus I will proceed:

I never thought Vancouver (the other preschool teacher) and I would be close. She's a decent person. But there was this one time she freaked out when I spilled water-soluble paint on a piece of laminated paper. And then there was this other time I was helping a student with a book and she barked, "Don't help him!" and physically yanked my hand from the page. Little things like that have restrained me from buying matching "Best Friends" heart pendants for us.

Then on Monday it got a whole lot worse. She hoodwinked me into working on Christmas. Yes, she has seniority, and yes if someone has to do it, it should be me. But the way she went about it was extra nefarious.

One week ago:

Vancouver: I wonder if we're going to get Christmas off.

Me: Do we usually?

Vancouver: Yes, but that was with the old supervisor. I don't know if the new supervisor will give it to us or not.

Me: Hmm. Guess we should ask.

Vacouver: Actually you shouldn't worry about it. They won't make you work. We'll only be working on the play that week, so there's no reason for them to make you come in.

(She works with the kids for their Christmas skit in the morning before my class starts.)


Vancouver: I'm going to go ask Supervisor for Christmas off, I'm nervous. I hope I get it.

Me: Good luck.

She disappears into the office and reappears minutes later looking guilty. She approaches me and talks into her sleeve.

Vancouver: So I get Christmas off but you have to work.

Me: What? Why?

Vancouver: Because Supervisor said I could have it off but you have to be here because they need one teacher.

*There are actually two Chinese teachers who will be working that day too. One of them speaks fluent English. And all we'll be doing that day is arts and crafts. So what the supervisor really meant was we need at least one white person to oversee the cutting and pasting.

Me: That sucks.

Vancouver: Yeah. You could try and talk to her. Oh I know! I can ask one of the afternoon teachers for you.

Me: Yeah?

Vancouver: Yeah R is a Jehovah's Witness so he doesn't celebrate Christmas.

Great. Problem solved, I figure. Working on Christmas is the opposite of celebrating Christmas, so this should work perfectly for all.


Vancouver: So I don't think I can ask R.

Me: Why?

Vancouver: Because he's a Witness and we're going to have to do Christmas stuff, and he can't do that kind of stuff.

Me: But wont he be teaching in the afternoon anyway-

Vancouver: Yeah, but that's cram school stuff, the kindergartners will have to do Christmas crafts and he can't do those.

Me: Maybe they can do something else...

Vancouver: You can ask management.

Me: Well can you ask him, because I don't want to ask management whether or not he can work for me if he's not willing to.

Vancouver: No. I think you should just talk to them.

When Vancouver let me know she secured her Christmas at my expense and had no intention of helping me get mine too, I ended the conversation. Then I rushed to the nearest phone booth for my costume change. The person who emerged was not Leslie the preschool teacher, but Leslie the malevolent ice queen. Uncalled for? Maybe. But losing Christmas to a Canadian makes me cranky.

Later Vancouver tried to compensate for her snakiness by hovering over my students' art projects making inane comments. Little does she know this only made her seem more overbearing than usual. I succeeded in ignoring her.

After lunch I caught the supervisor who completely shut me down on the Christmas front. I will post about that awkward occasion later.

But! I will continue to hunt for a substitute: If you are a fluent English speaker in the Taipei area who would like to earn a few extra bucks on Christmas, and my eternal friendship, please hit me up. Asian-looking people need not apply. That's what kind of school it is. I know because James applied and they told him so.

To cheer myself up, I went home and rewatched this. If you were recently victimized by Canadian trickery, I recommend it.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Miracle in Danshui

Yesterday we took a Sunday trip to the very end of the Taipei red line. Danshui is a little touristy township that's supposed to be a lover's destination thanks to its gorgeous sunsets.

There were lots of people snacking on sausages and grilled squid waiting for the Sun to sink below the horizon. And no the miracle was not the sunset. I didn't even get to see it.

James and I were too excited by the thought of halfway decent Mexican food to wait. We scrapped the sunset and trekked to Eddy's Cantina.

James: "Is that pepper holding a joint?" Me: "No! That's a burrito."

Last week I read about Eddy's on Hungry Girl's Guide to Taipei. Danshui is pretty far out of our way, but once I found Eddy's online, I knew we'd be going over the weekend. Mexican food is rare in Taipei. And, according to Hungry Girl, edible Mexican food is almost non-existent.

It's been three months since my last burrito. Southern California is arguably the best place in America to eat Mexican food, and I ate it at least weekly up until May of this year. Thus finding a Mexican food restaurant in Taiwan was pretty much the most exciting thing that's happened since I left the States (kidding, that award probably goes to finding good pizza in Taiwan).
Cactus-stem glasses! Adorable!

We started with nachos and margaritas. My margarita tasted like it had more alcohol than the entire amount I've imbibed since arriving, but after a few sips I didn't mind so much.

Your eyes do not deceive, that is squeeze cheese on my nachos. Back home I would only accept such a substance at a ski lodge or a sporting event. But beggars can't be choosers. After nachos we split a burrito and an enchiladas plate.

From Danshui

Three plates! I'm proud of us.

Afterward I managed to walk a straight line to the counter where I paid $990NT (about $30 U.S.) for our experience. It was the most expensive meal for two we've eaten here - funny since Mexican is the cheapest cuisine to eat back home in L.A.

Overall, I'd say the fare would rate as passable for a mid-sized American city Mexican joint. But for Taiwan, it was a godsend. I haven't been that full since I left home. Sure, I've been really full on occasion. But Chinese-food full and Mexican-food full are very different. No amount of rice or dumplings lends itself to that entire-body-feels-heavier sensation that accompanies a gut full of cheese and ground beef. Glorious.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Rose Bowl

I'm not really a sports watching type of person. In high school I would bring a book and a blanket to baseball games, watch my then boyfriend bat, and promptly resume my chapter. In a stunning lack of social awareness, it never occurred to me there was anything wrong with this behavior.

Then I moved on to USC where devoting Fall Saturdays to football is essentially a graduation requirement. But old habits die hard. And once last year I was on my way to the Coliseum with, naturally, the Los Angeles Times tucked under my arm. I managed to drop my paper, and as I scrambled to pick it up amidst the throng of stadium goers, I couldn't understand why some guy was loudly making fun of me for all to hear: "GOTTA HAVE HER PAPER! NEED THAT LA TIMES AT THE GAME!"

In retrospect, I think I get it.

Nevertheless, I am a loyal Trojan. And like any true Trojan would, I awoke at 5:30 (okay, not really until 6) today to try and find a livestream of our guys wiping the field with Bruin entrails. I searched nobly for half an hour. I emailed friends' Blackberrys back home for help. Then James tried. He's the pirating master of the house. He is the Captain Hook of internet piracy to my bumbling Mr. Smee.

Several of my family members read this blog. I worry they may disapprove of my flagrant disregard for intellectual property law. And to this I can only respond that witnessing the destruction of UCLA simply supersedes all moral and ethical considerations.

Unfortunately we never found a feed so we just went back to sleep, but awoke hours later to the sweet smell of victory wafting off of Incidentally, victory smells a lot like stagnant water in the laundry room. The washing machine isn't working properly. And it's winter in the subtropics. And I'm afraid our laundry room is going to become a stinky mosquito hatchery.

But Malaria aside, I'm excited for the Rose Bowl, which will hopefully be easier to stream, and I have high hopes for an NCAA championship next year.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Preschool Hell

I was feeling a little low when I woke up today: It's Christmas season and I'm far away from home, and I've been sick for a week. I miss family and friends, American-style supermarkets and wide open spaces - to quote the Dixie Chicks.

Even stinky old Los Angeles has more open space than Taipei. This morning as I picked my way through an alley mined with dog shit, I thought about how I would be thrilled just to enjoy the openness of a Target parking lot for a couple minutes. Public green space is seriously scarce here. In these parts the "backyard" is, truly, a foreign concept.

I arrived at school thinking my dollface nubbins would pick up my spirits. As I prepared my classroom, I listened to them practice their Christmas play upstairs. They've been practicing every morning for about a month. I could hear them saying their lines interspersed with teachers' voices yowling "STAND PROPERLY" and "DON'T MOVE!" Pretty much an average morning.

Then my boss came downstairs.

"Ok Teacher Leslie, come along. We go to play. Bye bye!" She motioned to follow her down to the first floor. The other two teachers fell in step behind us. One of my students started to cry.

Me: What's going on?
Vancouver: They did really bad this morning with their play.
Boss: So I told them we are going to leave .... BYE BYE STUDENTS!

Ten pairs of big black eyes watched us from the top of the stairwell.

"NNNNNnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnOOOOOOOooooooooOOOOOOOOOOooooooooooooo" Someone wailed.

We got outside and shut the door. Vancouver, my boss, and the other Chinese teacher burst out laughing. Then my boss cracked the door open, there were at least two voices bawling. But that wasn't enough.

Boss: Students! I'm going to call the police. We're leaving! The police will come by later. Bye bye!

The crying got louder.

Vancouver (to me): Calling the police is the ultimate threat in Taiwan to students. I thought it was mean when I first started teaching, but now I do it all the time.

Most people, myself included, would think reducing an entire preschool to sobs would be a disaster. But where I work, I guess it's a ... character building exercise? A motivational experience? I was clearly the only adult present who didn't think it was an awesome idea. Not that I have any problem making little kids cry, my brothers can attest to that. But a whole school?

A couple minutes later we walked back upstairs. Two of my four students were wracked with sobs, snot trickling down their faces. My boss called two more students into her office (one of mine) and yelled at them in Chinese.

By 10:05 a.m. three of my four students were in tears, and the other sat in his chair staring ahead stonily. Wonderful.

Me: So! Who wants to sing Looby Loo?

(We usually sing first.)

They shook their heads solemnly.

Me: Okay well what would you like to do.

What I would've liked to do was hug them. They were pitiful. I wasn't upstairs to see, but they probably were being a little bad during play practice. But ... THEY'RE FOUR. And they're memorizing lines in a foreign language. And they have to remember their stage blocking. And they're supposed to be good. ALL AT THE SAME TIME. The expectations were never so high when I was four.

Ivan: I want draw a picture.
Me: Okay. We can draw pictures.

We drew tomatoes, carrots and celery. This week's unit is vegetables. That's 4.5 hours of English learning centered on veggies. Next week it gets worse: household chores. I don't believe whoever wrote this textbook was ever four years old.

A few minutes later Ivan wiped an impressive booger on the table and everyone giggled and pointed, so then things were pretty much back on an even keel.

But if I ever had any delusions about a future for myself in early Chinese education - and I didn't - they would've been dashed today.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Insufferable Gambling Wench Pt. 2: Desktop Wars

I wrote about her first here. She is my employer's sister and thus feels entitled to use the school's office computer for online gambling at her pleasure. This is the second in what I fear will be an ongoing series of altercations with her.

She walked in just as I finished printing test evaluations for my 4-year-olds.

Test Evaluations. 4-year-olds. Absurd, no? Don't blame me, I just work there.

Anyway, I'd just finished doing what I needed with the computer and was stapling everything together - still seated at the computer - when the haggard old queen walked in. She didn't look at me, didn't address me, didn't say anything. She just sat down across from me and swiped the keyboard out from beneath me.

It was a gesture of stunning rudeness. And I'm fairly sure it was intentional. I think she was attempting to flex her power over the desktop because I dared ask to use it for work while she gambled last week.

Alright, leatherface, it's on. I will gladly test your iron grip on this old, slow, almost-worthless piece of machinery.

She took the mouse and started to close out of the documents I was using. And just as swiftly I planted my thumbs and index fingers on the corners of the keyboard, looked her in the eye, and smiled.

"Could you please give me just one minute?"

She doesn't speak English, but my intentions were clear.

She jumped out of her seat and ran over to the phone. I saved everything I needed and closed all my documents. As I did this, she barked into the receiver in Chinese that I couldn't understand.

I think she lunged for the phone so she wouldn't have to stand around empty handed while I finished my business. By the tone of her voice it crossed my mind she could be tattling on me, but I think the chances of that are slim. The owner is absentee, he lives in Shanghai. What's she going to say? "I was trying to get my gambling done and your employee insisted on finishing her work before I commandeered the computer."

It took under a minute for me to save and close everything. I turned around and smiled, motioning to the computer.

"Okay. All yours."

She didn't smile back.

She's been on the computer every day, morning and afternoon, this week. Sometimes I walk by and catch her using the mouse with one hand and picking her nose with the other, quite the multitasker. Nose picking isn't as taboo here as it is the States. But it's mostly older people that do it. Nose picking and guanxi. She must believe in the old ways.

I understand and admire the importance family connections play here. But no family connection, no nothing should entitle someone to use business equipment for pleasure at the expense of employees (she doesn't work at the school, she only comes to gamble). All my coworkers walk on eggshells around her. I'm not going to.

Lost in Translation: Burned Cheese

Signage for a European fusion restaurant in central Taipei. I think I'll eat elsewhere.