[Editor's note.. it's much better with the pictures and formatting, so just leave your email if you'd like me to email you the PDF version so you can view it as intended. that said, i think the text only version is an acceptable second place.]
The Rotten Sweet Potato
Hello! The smell of a forgotten sweet potato and the sounds of my grandmother’s pleas have forced me to return, to attempt an ambitious recollection of my haphazard adventures of late. If you will forgive me, I can promise bold and exciting tales from across the world this month, a whirlwind tour of my trip south to Tainan/Kaoshung, the mind-blowing scene of Chinese New Year and Lantern Festival, and a delicious Christmas Dinner at the only true Italian Bistro in Taiwan, Latinis. Feel free to peruse my new homestead, a place we’ve affectionately named “The Castle,” and relive and some good-times at our inaugural, typical-English, tea party. Meet the characters of my home-away-from-homeland and see a few of the local Western haunts. Let’s get going!
The Trip to Tainan and Kaoshung: 400 Temples Per Minute Sometime in early January, on a bit of a whim, I took our day-off for New Years Day to travel with my close friend and former SPT contributor Megan Klein, temple-guide and partner in crime Alex Gholz, and typical English wonder-woman Dawn Powers down to Kaoshung and Tainan, large cities in the south of Taiwan. While we were all a little hazy from the previous nights’ festivities, and while rolling my suitcase approximately a mile to catch the free shuttle to the super-fast MRT train that runs down south (and public transportation here is phenomenal, take note Barack) was something of a hassle, we arrived in Tainan a couple of hours later to meet my wonderful Chinese teacher and friend, Ho Bobo, and her two smiling children, Jaime and Joyce.
I have to thank my tutor Bobo profusely for putting us up with her family for two nights and driving us down to Kaoshung. Taiwanese hospitality is an amazing, defining part of why I have such a fondness for this place. Not only did Bobo and her friends treat us to some of the most delicious Japanese food I’ve ever encountered, she showed us the sights around Taiwan as only a local could. She took us through some intriguing night-markets and let us help ourselves to some wonderful hot pot in her home. She led us to the “Ai Hugh,” or love river, and sang a little karaoke. Playing with her extremely intelligent children on this trip, speaking Chinese and English with them, brought me an immense joy as a teacher. As a friend, as a mentor, as a host, I couldn’t ask for someone better than Bobo in Taiwan.
Day One: We begin our adventure with some wonderful fried shrimp and something akin to rice-wraps at a famous lunch place in Tainan. If you’re wondering about the child next to Bobo, don’t be alarmed! Bobo’s sister was a welcome addition to our trip, and her son, Kenny, with his penchant for Wall-E, drawing, and computer games, was a shoe-in for my immediate love. In what was a whirl-wind first day. We encountered a ton of temples, scouted, sorted, and shuffled through by Alex, a history buff and a man of action. While at times they seemed to all blend together (incense, statues, writing I can’t understand, television placed in an odd corner, someone throwing moon dice), I was none-the-less impressed at some of the magical things we encountered.
Day Two: After an exciting morning being treated to Breakfast by Bobo’s step-father, we pushed onward into more temples. And more temples. And more temples. Needless to say, I was reaching a breaking point on history and culture, found myself a coffee house and had a delicious coffee. Before I knew what was happening, however, we were being whisked down south to Kaoshung and the promise of a mountain full of monkeys. And if my dream of the monkey mountain did not materialize, well, I did walk around a large lake, find a giant dragon statue placed by the Rotary Club, and get eaten by a dragon.
As day turned to night, Bobo suggested we drive down to the newly cleaned “Ai Hugh,” the river of love and enchantment. I never got the full story behind the Love River, except to say the lights and street vendors, the live music... everything contributed to an ethereal feel for the night. I also got some ice cream! Megan and I got our traditional love-hand pose, per Bobo’s ever-encouraging requests. After belting out a bit of token English for the coffee place live-music girl, we hopped onto the river boat and sailed into love. Or at least a wonderful conclusion to our trip.
Dénouement: All good things must come to an end, as we could barely keep our eyes open or thoughts in line, we all opted for the most comfortable bus line ever to grace mankind: HouShin Lines. Arguably Megan’s favorite part of the trip, these buses were designed for kings and built for titans. With reclining leather seats, vibration message, personal television screens and relatively low cost, we were all passed out within seconds of stepping onto the bus. Ironically, as my roommate Alex Guppy and I gravitate towards each other naturally, he had also mysteriously shown up four hours south with his friend and rode back with us. A picturesque ending to a wonderful trip, a time I will never forget.
Christmas, Chinese New Year, Lantern Festival: Catching Up
Remember Christmas? Well I certainly do! Yes, it’s been just that long since we’ve talked last, but you ought to know Christmas was a great success. I give thanks to my friend Beth for a wonderful party she organized at the local Italian restaurant, Latini’s. There was a great turnout of about fourteen or fifteen people, mostly Gloria teachers with a few family members and locals. We feasted on four turkeys and copious amounts of wine, potatoes, more wine, and though we didn’t all have spoons for some reason, we had wonderful friends and a sense of Christmas spirit unmatched anywhere on Earth. And Christmas Carols.
Latini’s is a favorite haunt for me as it’s the only place to find real cheese and Panini sandwiches with bread that doesn’t taste like cotton-candy. On any given Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday you might find me wolfing down an entire pizza and pumpkin soup, and talking with Danny about gadgets or America. On any given everyday you can find Megan there. One time I got a passion fruit ice cream. There’s always some reason to go.
Remember Chinese New Year? Perhaps you saw a show of dragon dancing and a few fireworks in China town, but until I was being chased by an errant firework that appeared to be heading straight for one of numerous firework trucks, until a giant wooden bull and a billion light-up balloons were everywhere to be seen, until I thought perhaps China had started sending hellfire down on us, no, wait, it’s only five A.M. on a Monday night and someone’s lighting off more fireworks -- I can’t say these two holidays had much weight in my memory.
Chinese New Year lasts for a week and the fireworks go non-stop. This holiday is much more heralded than Christmas, with everyone getting a week off to visit family and eat lots of hot pot. The foreigners who remained in town, myself included, went out to capture some of the sights on sounds. I of course took this opportunity to flex my photography skills with some moderate success. I also escaped with no burns or lesions.
I would later learn that the light-up balloons I had encountered were leading up to an event following the Chinese New Year festivities: Lantern Festival. For some reason I’m not quite sure of, lighting up lanterns with candles and sending them into the sky is a big event on certain days of the year. Lantern Festival here in Taoyuan lasted about a week, with a large construction in a park near our home and some really fascinating lanterns made my school children across Taiwan. This is also the home of the giant wooden bull and a really rank collection of stinky tofu vendors, a gauntlet of smell. I visited the festivities first with Bobo and Megan and saw some wonderfully intricate constructions and, of course, more fireworks. I later visited them again after a Gloria teacher’s banquet with considerable food and beer digesting, and found myself in a dream world of magic.
My New Home: The Castle For those of you who know me well, you can remember the long-period of squalor in which I fought for my four years of college: two years in the dorms, sans carpeting or air-conditioning. A year in a flooding basement apartment with paper-thin walls and the Gatling-gun noise of run-off rain from the gutters hitting a metal spout. A year in another basement, monastic, caved-in, studying French on an all-consuming desk.
I thought that paragraph from SPT 1 bared repeating, as I have since returned to those conditions for a brief period, in a room I like to call “The Coffin.” After Alex’s lease ended on our old apartment, “The Palace,” we found a wonderful new place. The only catch was that we would have to spend a week in the Gloria dorms. For reasons which don’t warrant repeating, that week slowly stretched into two months.
Doomed to indirect light barely supplied, a rice-matt bed, using my yoga matt as floor covering over dirt, and trekking to communal bathrooms, I had returned to my survival roots. Pictures are not necessary here. I was one with the nature, I was the Survivorman, and it was glorious. Still, my time at the dorms was wonderful for reasons that go beyond creature comforts. Spending so much time outside my room brought me closer to my friends there, and led me to many new ones. I invited them all to a tea party. But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
I must say that though new friends were nice, it was time for an upgrade.
After two months, our time had arrived. Here is your introduction to “The Castle,” our new place, a first-floor, completely quiet, furnished, four-bedrooms, flat-screen TVs, gas-burning Italian stove and Alex bought a rice cooker home. For my soul, things have been good. My own room has a king-sized bed, dark furniture and a window... with curtains!
I’m certainly in love with the Castle. Our landlord speaks English and our neighbors are all friendly families. One lady is the regional manager of Fridays and gave us mugs and free appetizers. The security guard always gets the door for us. I learned how to cook pasta sauce, with chicken and vegetables! Take that, dinner of toast and eggs! I owe all this wonder to my awesome roommate, Chinese master, and general genius of a friend, Alex Guppy. He brought to this magical land and brought me to The Palace, and now to the Castle. Today he bought me a pizza. He is the true king of this Castle.
The Tea Party
To celebrate our luck and fortune I hosted a tea party with outstanding turn out. We listened to classical music, sat, and drank jasmine tea for about four hours on a Sunday. I purchased crackers and set out coffee table books including purple book Longman English Book and something called “Photography” I found in Alex’s room, which might have just been a manual for the Nikon. I drank way too much tea and had an amazing afternoon.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: How are you filling up your time? A: Friends and family can rest easy knowing I’m earning my way pretty well here. I’m continuing to increase my hours at Gloria slowly and now also have a private class on Sundays, and I’m still looking for more exciting opportunities around Taiwan. I’m continuing tutoring now three times a week and my conversational Chinese is improving rapidly. I’ve tried my hand at photography and am continuing to write a couple of hours a week. I had a very miniscule poem published in an online journal and earned $1, so I’m considering that a pretty big moral victory. Overall, I’m still learning, earning, making friends, and figuring things out in a very serious manner.
Okay. So what happened to graduate school applications?
I found out this evening, in fact, that my prospects at Michigan and Wisconsin-Madison for a Masters of Fictional Arts program are bleak this year. Quite bleak. So bleak that there are none, as I was rejected. I feel bad for them for rejecting me, and am considering writing a letter of rejection of their rejection, but, that could become an infinite loop and I don’t want to get caught up in that right now. Instead, I’ll be focusing on taking my GRE in August when I stop over for a visit, and diversifying my applications for next year. Public policy, journalist, garbage man... anything could be my fate!
When are you coming home?
August. Aren’t you reading? Ay-O. Officially, I believe I will remain in Taiwan another year, though I won’t have to make any definitive decision on that until June when my contract is up for renewal. I love working for Gloria and I love where I’m at in my life, so I think remaining here and finishing Chinese learning is what’s best for me right now. Though I do miss you all greatly. And burritos.
How's the weather?
I feel bad for you and I for entirely different reasons. While I hear about the snow blockading you inside your home, I’m in shorts most days. On the flipside, there was a rampant mosquito problem for about three months, leaving me tired and paranoid when the bugs attacked my face at three in the morning. Certain solutions to this problem can be found: I moved. This grand move was, unfortunately, timed perfectly with another sad reality of Taiwanese life: Rainy Season. For two months, apparently, we have rain everyday. Or close to it. And I own a scooter. If you do the math, you will find Jerry + Rain / Scooter = Unhappy Teaching. So I’m investing in rain pants. Still, as when I arrived, Mango season cometh, with smoothies and wonderful, tropical weather everyday. And typhoons. So basically, the bi-polar nature of Michigan weather follows me in my life.
I want to thank Megan Klein, Alex Gholz, for a lot of the photographs you find here-in. I have perhaps been a little over-bearing on denouncing over-priced, large DSLR cameras, while simultaneously pouching a lot of pictures taken by them for this newsletter. Laments. I’m sorry it’s taken so long to reach you all with this latest issue, but I hope you had a few laughs and a bit of joy. I’m always reachable by e-mail and remain skypable to your phones. Don’t let the snow bring you down, and until next time...
Gerald A. Gordinier II