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.