Sunday, January 1, 2012

Getting married... Taiwanese style.

I was up early on Christmas Eve to attend a wedding and all the traditional festivities associated with the marriage of two people in love.  My co-teacher, Pei Pei, was there to be my narrator and translator.  First, I should explain that every aspect of the wedding ceremony is planned out by a fortune teller.  After a man and a woman get engaged, they go to a fortune teller to ensure they are compatible.  The fortune teller then decides the date the couple should get married along with the time each event should occur.  12/24/11 was a prosperous day to get married, so there were many weddings throughout the city!  Everything involved in the wedding was in groups of even numbers... two, six, and eight are lucky numbers, four is avoided because it means death.  The groom chooses six of his friends to drive in a procession of cars to pick up his bride from her parents' house on the day of the wedding.  Each car is adorned with a big red bow!

When the groom arrives, the bridesmaids have planned assorted obstacles for him to complete before he's allowed to see his bride.  He had to name five reasons why he wanted to marry her, do physical exercises to prove his strength as a protector, and answer some personal questions about their relationship.  If he gets any of the answers incorrect he must give the bridesmaids red envelopes full of money to pay them off!  (If I were a bridesmaid, I would definitely try to cash in!)  Once he has been satisfactorily tortured, he is allowed to see his bride.  He must propose to her one more time, and if she says yes he must place her shoes on her feet (Cinderella style) and escort her to the living room where her parents are waiting.

The bride and groom must each make a speech to the brides parents (or parent in this case), thanking them for raising her and saying goodbye, as she is about to leave her own family be accepted as part of the groom's.  There were many tears from both the bride and her mother, understandably so!  I don't think I could make it though a speech like that!

The bride joins the groom in one of the fancy cars in the procession, but must wait until it is the appropriate time to leave, as decided by the fortune teller.  When the bride arrives at the groom's parents' house, a bamboo shade is held over her head when she exits the vehicle if she is not pregnant on the day or a black umbrella if she is pregnant.  No baby here!

Upon arrival, she must step over a fire to ward off evil spirits and break a tile with her heel signifying her arrival.  The tile also represents the bride declaring herself as a respected member of the household.

The groom then takes his bride to a room in the house specifically used for religious purposes where he presents her to his ancestors in a short worshipping ceremony.

After the bride is presented to the groom's ancestors, their entourage waits until the appropriate time (as decided by the fortune teller) to start heading to a restaurant.  The Taiwanese do not have a wedding ceremony that westerners are used to.  There is no church, no vows, no "you may kiss the bride"... everyone in the wedding party simply goes to a restaurant for lunch, then on to a reception.

The entire experience was completely fascinating.  I felt so lucky to have been a part of the couple's special day and to be able to experience such a unique aspect of Taiwanese culture.  The day made me reflect on the age-old traditions that have probably been lost over time to the cultural melting pot in America.  There is something so beautiful about the diverse population in the U.S. but at the same time I think we lack the strong traditions that binds us all together.  (We have a few, but nothing in comparison to what I have witnessed!)  As I have experienced, there is something really incredible about connecting with others in your country by carrying on the same traditions practiced by generations upon generations of ancestors.

Monday, November 21, 2011

For educators... former, current, and future.

I've been somewhat reluctant to address this subject because I wanted to experience it in its entirety before I reported back to my curious American friends, but I think I'm ready.  Education in Taiwan.  (I should warn my readers--this post might be a little bland if you haven't pursued a career in education.)  I've found throughout my travels, a lot can be learned about a culture by taking an analytical look at their education system.  When you think about it, a school does so much more than teach core subjects... it sets the very principles for what is and is not acceptable in a society, instills and supports values that may or may not be enforced at home, and serves as a child's first step outside of their family's cocoon, independently experiencing what the world has to offer.

San-Min Elementary School
It's hard to know where to begin when you tackle such an issue, so let's begin at 7:15 AM... that's when the kiddos are expected to be at school every day to serve as the San-Min Elementary janitorial staff.  That's right... no janitor, only students raking, sweeping, mopping, shining, and dusting every room on campus.  Each homeroom is assigned a different section of the school, with one student from each homeroom named the monitor who is given a master key and a checklist of what needs to be done in each room.  This type of responsibility begins as early as seven years old.  Not surprisingly, there isn't one piece of trash found on campus... no bubble gum stuck underneath desks, no remnants of a sack lunch scattered on the playground, no markings or shoe scuffs on the walls... The kids are responsible for cleaning the school, therefore they learn to take pride in keeping it clean.  Novelty, I know!

Dust pans and brooms in hand, sweeping the front of the school.
The bell had just rung so they're running to class.  Cute, cute.
7:15 AM... sounds a little early for a young child to begin when they have to be productive all day.  TRUE... except that 1st and 2nd graders only attend school half the day except on Tuesdays, when a full schedule is practiced.  (Side note: Students are admitted to Kindergarden when they're four, but stay in Kindergarden until age six.  School is not mandated by the government until the child turns seven and begins the 1st grade.)  Taiwanese children are on a 40/10 schedule.  Forty minutes of work, followed by ten minutes of outdoor, very loosely monitored free play.  That ten minute break is extended once in the morning and once in the afternoon to twenty minutes for more free play, followed by an hour set aside for eating lunch, (and you guessed it) free play!  After lunch the entire period is dedicated to nap time.  Everyone takes a nap... if you're in first grade or sixth grade--it doesn't matter, you're sleeping on top of your desk between the hours of 12:50 and 1:30.  It's mandatory for students, but some teachers partake as well.  Oh, and did I mention the entire school has a half day every Wednesday?  So... how on earth, my 'No Child Left Behind' supporters ask, do the Taiwanese children produce some of the highest test scores in the WORLD, specifically in math and science, when they don't seem to be spending much time in a classroom?!  I'll leave that notion for you to ponder for a few paragraphs.

Nap time!
4th graders taking a midday snooze.
Teachers are held in high regard in Taiwan; the significant role a teacher plays in the lives of young people is recognized and the position is paid as such... tax free.  Teachers are expected to be on campus forty hours per week, but only teach twenty.  (Students begin rotating classes very early, which provides the freedom to implement this type of schedule.)  The remaining twenty hours of a teacher's work week can be used to grade papers, plan the following week's lesson, respond to emails... basically what every American teacher does in their free time is done within the parameters of their paid forty hour work week.  But alas, the tax-free gravy train is coming to a halt at the end of the 2011-2012 school year... but since teachers will have to pay taxes next year, teaching hours will be reduced from twenty to sixteen.  Salary having a correlation to the number of hours being inputted?!  *Gasp!*  It's a crazy concept to American educators, I know.

There is, however, a dark knight esoterically lurking in the shadows of this public education dream world where children magically perform well on tests while being allotted adequate time to enjoy their childhood, as well as teachers being paid well and respected... the buxiban.  (Also known as the cram school or directly translated "make-up class" or "catch up class".)  Roughly half of my little ones attend some sort of tutorial class after public school hours, with that percentage increasing as children get older.  Students may focus on math, science, computer skills, English, other foreign languages, or exam preparation.  This is perpetuated by a meritocratic culture that measures merit through testing, with entrance into high school, college, graduate school, and government service decided entirely on test scores.  These classes are used to supplement their regular education in light of the intense pressure placed on students to achieve.  Students begin taking midterms and final exams beginning in the first grade.  Depending on the number of classes a child's parent deems necessary (or can afford), a student's school day could last until 9:00 or 10:00 at night.  On top of being an arduous schedule for a small child to endure, the system creates an enormous discrepancy in ability when they come together in one public school classroom.  The children from more privileged families (those that are able to afford the best buxiban courses) rising to the top, while the commonality are left playing catch up.

Buxiban in Kaohsiung.
Taiwanese education is constantly developing and changing.  The existing system has been heavily criticized for placing excessive pressure on students and evading creativity in favor of rote memorization.  Debates on these issues continue, as well as public school tuition (no free education here), the implementation of a compulsory twelve-year education program by 2014, extending education to Vietnamese brides and their children, as well as the elimination of Japanese colonial influence and escaping from China-oriented nationalism.  But with a 98.04% literacy rate and 92.6% of students pursuing higher education, it's hard not to take a hard look at what they might be doing right.

Don't get me wrong... I'm not one to sing the praises of Taiwan's education system, nor the current system in the United States.  After all, the state of public education in America is part of the reason why I'm teaching in Taiwan in the first place.  Those who know me well would probably agree that with many issues I could finish the sentence, "Well if I was Queen of the World..." fairly easily.  This is no such case, although I do believe that the basis of some Taiwanese educational ideals can be seen in current reforms in the United States.  With a heavier emphasis placed on testing, and funding plummeting as each American school year passes I can't help but to wonder... are we inching further towards a nation placing emphasis on the private education sector, furthering the separation of the upper and middle/lower classes?  Is the free education provided in the U.S. enough?  Or will we eventually resort to a supplementary "buxiban system" to further pressure children to achieve higher on that ever present, dark cloud lingering over every classroom in America?

I would like to end with a story... when I was in the third grade, I had THE teacher.  Everyone has one... it's that one teacher that has such a profound impact that you carry them in your heart for a lifetime.  She told us stories about growing up on a farm, and she would read aloud the Little House on the Prairie books, which initially sparked my interest in history eventually leading me to pursue it as my major in college.  One day we were learning about the Italian Renaissance and all the fantastic painters during that time.  We learned about the brilliance of Michelangelo and the four years he spent laying on his back on giant scaffolding painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, permanently damaging his eye sight as a consequence to his great achievement.  My teacher distributed pieces of construction paper, and instructed us to tape the paper to the bottom of our desks.  We laid on the floor under our desks for quite some time with a pencil and watercolors attempting to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel just like Michelangelo.  Being one that struggles artistically in general, I found the task compellingly difficult.  After that day, I knew I had to see the Sistine Chapel someday for myself.  At twenty-two as I ascended the steps of the Chapel in Vatican City, finally living my dream created by my eight-year-old self, my third grade teacher, Mrs. Becky Upsahl, was on my mind.  That, my friends, is learning.  In the third grade I couldn't tell you what year he began painting or when he died, but I did experience a piece of his hardships, realizing his unique talents which stayed with me into my adult years.  That type of deep-rooted influence can not be translated on a standardized assessment.

Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel
At the end of the day I think we need to ask ourselves what role we want education to play in our society.  Specifically over the past few years, the United States has placed emphasis on comparing our system to others around the world; analyzing why American children are not performing well on standardized assessments in comparison to children from other countries.  It's hard to deny that the drill and kill method often used in Asian countries is effective in improving test scores, but should test scores be the focal point in determining intelligence and success?  Should being a successful student add up to a seventy-plus hour week?  Where do we draw the line between the importance of a good education and the loss of a childhood?  Should we teach to the masses or the individual child?  Should creativity play a role in education from both the perspective of a teacher as well as a student?  To me, regurgitation of information is not learning and if we continue to drill and kill, measuring intelligence and scholastic success based on that ability I fear the unimaginative leaders of tomorrow that have been conditioned to feel comfortable inside a box, aspiring to be just like everyone else.  What needs to be done?  I'll let you know in 2041 when I retire... I'm hoping I'll have a better idea then.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Little victories from week one.

My little (very little) studio apartment is in the middle of town but down a smaller, residential street.  My first floor apartment is the white building with the two large windows stacked on top of each other.  It was recently renovated so what looks old on the outside is brand new on the inside... I got really lucky.  This is a pretty typical Taiwanese neighborhood... I never realized what a high standard of living Americans are accustomed to until I came to Taiwan.  More on that in later posts.

My street.
A little closer up.
For the first week I lived in Taiwan I could not figure out how to take out my garbage.  I scoured the streets for a dumpster, maybe a trash chute in my building?  Nothing.  I couldn't ask my neighbors because well, you try to explain 'garbage truck' without using words and let me know how that works out... much less in a way that would prompt an answer that could be explained and received without words.  I was beginning to think I was going to have to do something drastic until I was laying in bed one night and heard music that sounded similar to that of an American ice cream truck echoing through the streets.  It was nine thirty at night, so I couldn't imagine an ice cream truck would be out and about after the kids had already gone to bed.  Curious, I got out of bed and made a fantastic discovery...

The garbage truck!  From what I can see, taking the garbage out is a time for women in the neighborhood to gather in the streets, chat, gossip... do what women do.  (I wouldn't doubt that their new American neighbor was a topic of discussion on quite a few occasions.)  All of them must have impeccable hearing because they seem to hear the music from block and blocks away, standing in the streets with trash bags in hand long before necessary.  On Watson Lane, we rarely chat with our neighbors after Allison grew past the age of 13 with the occasional exception of a coincidental run-in at the grocery store... garbage Taiwanese style is actually kind of a nice way to build community, offering time for biweekly neighborly bonding.

A week after moving to a foreign country this was a BIG win for Katy Culley.  It sounds so silly and small, but these baby steps are what keep you going when surrounded by unfamiliar!  Things that seem so mindless are suddenly huge obstacles.  I've lived in Taiwan for almost seven weeks now, so these instances are becoming less frequent... but the day I figured out the trash system and conquered the Chinese washing machine will forever be stamped in my memory.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Sometimes life makes sense at Subway.

I began today with a list of things to do.  (I have turned into quite the procrastinator in my twenties... I usually deny it when my mother points it out, but today I'm feeling honest.)  I decided that my diet needed a taste of familiarity aside from the Ritz Crackers and Special K cereal kept in my apartment, so on the way to my first step towards productivity I stopped at a Subway to grab a sandwich.  As I played meat and vegetable charades with the Subway employee attempting to build my sandwich, my ears perked and my head jolted towards the dining room... English?  Do I hear English being spoken by a native tongue?  As I turned the corner revealing the dining room, I realized the entire room was filled with western faces.  (I usually see a white person once every four or five days, so to see the entire room filled was slightly overwhelming... but when you're living in Taiwan and you have the chance to engage in a fluid conversation in English--you take it.)  The adorable thirty-something couple explained to me that they decided to take a family vacation to Taiwan.  They packed up their four children, a set of grandparents, and a sister-in-law to explore Taiwan for two and a half weeks.  As I watched the lovely couple chase their four children around the Subway, battling issues such as "how many more bites" they have to take of the one meal they'll readily eat that day, my mind couldn't help but wonder what their day had entailed thus far... it was only noon and they looked completely exhausted.  The entire encounter was a huge reminder of why I'm using my twenties to selfishly explore the world.  God bless them for attempting to expose their children to another culture at a young age, but the entire ordeal looked like so much work!  As their platoon moved out the woman gave me a 'I wish I could trade places with you' eye roll and said, "Get it out of your system now.  It isn't the same when you have a family."  I watched them erratically walk, skip, hop and hobble away (depending on the member of the family) and again realized that I am in the right place.  I don't think the internationally curious and adventurous spirit that brought me to Taiwan will ever completely disappear... but cultivating it in my early(ish) twenties will make taking an eventual eighteen year hiatus less shocking.

My small interaction with my fellow countrymen inspired a full day of all things American.  From Subway I stopped for a cup of Baskin Robbins ice cream...

...that I took with me to a movie in it's original Hollywood made and produced format with added Chinese subtitles.  This is such a treat... in Western Europe, American made movies are released, but are voiced over in the country's native language.  In Taiwan, no such case.  I'm not sure why... not many people in Taiwan speak fluent English, but it's awesome for foreigners.  

Followed by an hour spent wandering around the new, and very trendy spot to shop in Taiwan...

So as I wrap up my day with a flighty conversation with my boyfriend via Skype and a glass of wine, I realize that I didn't accomplish anything on my lengthy 'To Do' list.  I may not have been able to gain the incredible satisfaction that I receive from crossing an item off my list, but I did have a day that reminded me to appreciate my current stage in life.  Just as valuable.  Being young, single, and fabulous is something to be appreciated.  It's a time that's short lived... which means it shouldn't be taken for granted.  I'm not scared of the future... I'll welcome the lifestyle of the cute couple in Subway with open arms when the time is right, but until then... cheers.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Burn Baby, Burn.

As I stepped outside my apartment building onto streets of Kaohsiung on my way to school last week, I  was stopped by this in the center of my usual walkway.  The contents of this metal barrel was on fire, smoke billowing into the atmosphere.  (The photo was obviously taken on my walk home after the fire was scorched.)

Life seemed to be carrying on normally around the fire, so I continued down the street still feeling confused that a bustling Wednesday morning was apparently an appropriate time to build a bonfire in the middle of the street.  As I continued down the road I noticed barrel after barrel lining the streets, each contributing to the light scent of sulfur that blanketed the city that morning.  A large majority of these barrels were left unattended as my students ranging in age from five to twelve scurried toward the elementary school to begin Wednesday's educational journey.  My inner junior high teacher wanted to stand patrol beside the scalding hot barrels to ward off hormonal teenagers, unable to foresee the long term effects of their actions, and prevent this law suit waiting to happen!  As I looked around, it was very evident that I was alone in my concerns... it was as if I was the only one that felt the heat radiating off the barrel and burning my ankles as I walked past.  My curiosity was piqued.  After a chat with my new found Taiwanese friends and a bit of research, I learned the following...

33% of the Taiwanese population follow a religion called Taoism (or Daoism).  There are innumerable Tao temples scattered around the city.  The temple pictured below is about a fifteen minute walk from my flat along the Love River that flows through Central Kaohsiung.

The Taoist belief is based on the idea that there is a natural order or a "way of heaven" that one can come to know by living in harmony with nature.  Through an understanding of natural laws, an individual can gain eternal life.  Ancestor worship, a very important aspect of Taoism, is a religious practice based on the belief that deceased family members have continued existence, that the spirits of deceased ancestors will look after the family, take an interest in the affairs of the world, and possess the ability to influence the fortune of the living.  In order to ensure that ancestors have proper items in the afterlife, their relatives send them paper and paper-mache presents through a ceremonial burning.  Money, credit cards, houses, servants, passports, jewelry, cell phones, cars, clothing... all is transferred to specific ancestors and materialize in the afterlife.  These gifts keep the ancestors happy in the spiritual world, who, in return, will bless the family.  (To read more, visit

I found this completely fascinating.  There are so many ancient religious customs still practiced today... there is evidence of this type of ritual dating back to 1000 BC!  I think for many Americans these types of customs are so far outside of our realm that it feels slightly uncomfortable, which is compensated for by labeling the rituals as odd or crazy.  No matter your religious views... Chritsian, Islam, Hinduism, Buddism, Sikhism, Atheism... there is one notion that I will stand by until the bitter end, being that there is something incredibly healthy about opening your eyes and mind to look at the way another lives.  What you'll see is pretty amazing.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

You have eat pig intestine? No?! You must try.

Where to even begin!  I boarded a plane to Kaohsiung, Taiwan on September 15th, 2011 with two suitcases, a teaching contract, and a promise that a Taiwanese man holding a sign with my name on it would meet me at the airport.  Anything beyond that was a mystery... life continues to fall together a little more with each day, as does learning something new and stretching my assumed American norms.  (NOTHING in any of the fifteen European countries I've visited prepared me for this!)  It seems completely impossible to recap my first month spent in Taiwan, so I'll begin with yesterday... which was a complete adventure within itself.

Although relocating to a new foreign country by myself three times in two years seems a little outlandish to some, I've found that with every change comes a renewed confidence in the human spirit.  This world is filled with so many kind people, and my experiences in Taiwan have been no different.  Two of my new Taiwanese friends took me to the Dream Mall yesterday... literally, that's what it's called.  It is the largest mall in East Asia, showcasing twelve floors of shoppers' nirvana with a rooftop carnival-like amusement park.  We rode the ferris wheel, which provided a pretty fantastic view of the Kaohsiung city skyline at dusk.

(Kaohsiung Harbor to the far left)
Note: Taiwan is really humid... don't judge my glistening face!  :)
After our stop at the Dream Mall, we were ready for something to eat!  Next stop: Liouhe Night Market.  There are many night markets in Kaohsiung, each providing a noisy, crowded atmosphere known for food, various forms of entertainment, shopping, and a unique cultural experience.  I was so happy to have my Taiwanese friends at hand to ask innumerable questions about my new and very foreign surroundings.  There is SO much to look at in the market... our mission was food, but oh the choices!  Vendors lined the crowded streets, all selling popular Taiwanese dishes most of which would make an American express an emotion similar to this...

(Thanks Allison.  I love you!)
But nonetheless, an open mind must be kept.  In Western nations, we tend to eat exclusively the meat of the dead animal.  In Asia, none of the animal goes to waste.  Pig is the primary source of meat, followed by chicken and fish, but very rarely beef.  All parts of the animal are consumed... everything.  Eyeballs, heart, testicles, neck, ear, feet, kidney... all of which are (luckily!) sold in the Liouhe Night Market!  

From the far left: pig intestines, pig brain, pig kidney, chicken testicles, with some fun wild cards in between.

More testicles (a popular item), mixed with some sea food, pigs blood cake on the far left, and a pig stomach at the top.

Hearts.  At this vendor, you are given a skewer to stab anything you would like.  The Asian woman throws it on the grill and within minutes, dinner. 
I stepped outside of my "that's gross" American box and tried a pig intestine... not much taste, but not my new favorite food either.  After seriously questioning if I was going to walk away from the market hungry, we decided on a not as shocking option: the dumpling vendor.  A dumpling starts by looking like this...

And ends looking like this!  With a little soy sauce added... delicious.

I could tell Taiwan stories all day long... and I've only been here a month!  But for now, bed.  I have to be rested up to hang out with the coolest people I've met in Taiwan so far...  :)  Gotta love being an educator.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Fear is stupid. So are regrets.

The past two years (yes, TWO years) since college graduation have been some of the most significant years of my life thus far.  I believe your twenties should be used to get to know yourself... to figure out who you are, and who you want to become.  Everyone does that in a different way, with no one RIGHT recipe to follow... my recipe of choice just happens to often add stamps to my passport and involve relocating every six months or so to a new country.

I've posed with some of the most identifiable man-made structures in the world.

Touched the lives of young people.

Drank wine while watching the sun set behind the Italian Dolomites.

Remembered the heroic acts of some...

...and the inhumane actions of others.

I've swam in Caribbean waters.

I've hiked the Austrian Alps.

I've jumped off a cliff in Switzerland.

Ferried through the fjords of Norway.

And yet, when I'm in the United States I am reluctant to tell of the things I've seen, and the experiences I've had that have changed me for the better.  Discussing my life outside of America leaves me an uneasy feeling... as if I'm flaunting a lifestyle that many dream of but is often left as just a dream.  There is definitely something to be said for building a stable, routined life at an early age... believe me, I see the benefits of that often.  But when I am faced with making a life decision, an image of myself enthusiastically telling of my adventures to a classroom of thirty young history students flashes through my head.  I have made many life decisions based on what would make a better story to share with my future students.  But my future students should not be the only special people who know the details of my adventures... and what better place to share but on the internet... telling stories only to those who care to read!  My stint in Europe is over, but with new discoveries and experiences to be had in Asia.  So here we go... in the words of Marilyn Monroe, "We should all start to live before we get too old.  Fear is stupid.  So are regrets."  I don't want either in my life.