It didn’t take long for any of us to realize we weren’t going to learn a whole hell of a lot in our respective high schools. We spoke the equivalent of chinese baby-talk, and with all of the cooing and attention we were receiving from our classmates, they weren’t learning much either. One by one, we removed ourselves from the classroom whenever possible, always aware of where the ‘jiowguan’ or ‘guards’ were, so as not to be reported to the Rotary. I found myself especially frustrated around the 2000 elections, because I expected to be able to open the Taipei Times and find out who the conclusive winner was. Everyone remembers what a giant clusterfuck THAT election was, and it was extremely difficult to find any current information. While the US president may just be a figurehead and a puppet for stronger, hidden political forces, I wanted to know who our figurehead was going to be. It was then that I discovered the tushuguan (library). The library had the regular library things–books, magazines, and current newspapers, but more importantly than that, it had a computer lab with internet access. Ploddingly slow internet access, but internet access nonetheless. From here I was able to find out current news, and contact my boyfriend, whom I’d sorely missed over the past few months. Letters were not an effective form of communication, ESPECIALLY letters with packages. I had more packages seized by customs that year than I actually received. It always infuriated me to think that some postal employee somewhere was rocking out to MY cds. The tushuguan became the place to be–as Jessica stated in our yearbook, “What do I like about Taiwanese high school?? I love the tushuguan!! I love the tushuguan so much. She is my best friend in the world.” It’s hard to read in this picture, but underneath the Chinese, they have written in English, ‘Your good taste has been torn into pieces, too!’ Those administrators, always suspecting the exchange students when it came to tomfoolery. And perhaps they were right to do so. Muli spent her time in the tushuguan pondering ways to torture Hello Kitty. Those of us at 中正高中 were a little more…constructive. Yes. I’m not even sure how it came about, but one day we decided the time had come to start building forts. It’s possible that with all of the babytalk, we had regressed to our 5-year-old selves. It was not a fantastic fort, and we really weren’t sure how we could construct a better one with our limited materials. That was when Raul told us about the abandoned second floor of the tushuguan. Let those words sink in a little bit. Abandoned second floor of the tushuguan. … Lo, we were like unto the gods from that day forth. We immediately set upon building another fort. A bigger, better fort. Oh Raul and Beth, why must you always hurt me so? Lucas got wind of our fort activities and came up to check things out. He was always very high-energy to the point of ADD, and VERY VERY forthcoming, which made him endlessly entertaining and also a tad creepy. I think this photo is an excellent representation of both. We completely took over the second floor of the tushuguan after that day. We’d have ‘girl parties’ upstairs which basically amounted to dancing to Madonna on top of the tables and bitching about things that were going on. We ALL bitched A LOT. But we were also each other’s built-in support system. We listened to each other bitch, and sympathized, because we understood what they were going through. We listened to everyone bitch because we wanted to make sure that someone would listen when WE had to bitch. But our time in the tushuguan was definitely more ‘dance party’ than ‘dear abby’. Eventually, we assembled the materials to make a truly spectacular fort. The three of us came up with a series of songs and dances with which to establish dominance over our new territory. There was a lot of semi-melodic shouting of “TAI-WAN FO-OORT” and some walking like egyptians and some mashing of potatoes. BEST. FORT. EVER. After we built our ‘secret’ lair, we further determined we needed superhero identities. Taiwanese superhero identities. The Taiwanese are very…out there with their bodily functions. No hiding or muffling or holding it in, whatsoever. You’ve got to fart? Let ‘er rip. There was what appeared to be bloody spit all over the sidewalks from the betelnuts (more on this in a future post). The thing that skeeved me out the most (besides the practice of putting used toilet paper in a garbage can next to the toilet instead of flushing it) was the way my host families, my second one ESPECIALLY, would ‘clear their sinuses’ in the shower. The apartments had fairly thin walls. Imagine the sound of someone hawking a loogie. Now imagine it continuously for upwards of ten minutes. NOW imagine being next in line for a shower and what you’re probably stepping on. Yeah, eww. So, henceforth, we were Super Burper (Beth), Super Farter (Emilie), and Super Loogie (me), fighting against the forces of good taste everywhere! Beth and I got into a dramatic argument about the best tactics with which to take out Miss Manners, our arch-nemesis, with our superpowers. Super Farter and I test out our newfound superpowers out the window at the jiowguan. Being a superhero is hard work, so I took a power nap, while Super Farter practiced her patented Death Stare in order to protect our valuable resources of Wheat Thins. Eventually we tired of our tushuguan activities, and were ready to take our superpowers out into the real world. This, my friends, is when Raul taught us to jump the wall and escape. Raul was basically the Jedi Master of school avoidance, but he would only teach us lessons when we were ready to learn them. It was very important to make sure a guard wasn’t watching, as the guard’s station was very near the lower, jumpable, section of wall, but eventually we turned it into an art form. Later, we discovered a hole in the wall surrounding the school back by the track, possibly for drainage, but large enough to fit through, and found ourselves in a rice paddy, which made for a soggier but somewhat easier escape. I had a very Office-Space revelation. “I don’t like school. I don’t think I’m going to go anymore.” I felt I could see and do more things, and absorb more culture, if I wasn’t stuck inside for 8 hours every day. Around January, I stopped attending school altogether.
Food was something we all had to come to terms with fairly quickly. You eat, or you starve. You eat, or in the case of Priscila, you get sent home. Absolutely nothing could have prepared us for what REAL chinese food looks and tastes like. Directly from our yearbook: Name the most memorable food moment in Taiwan, and explain why. (Before you make fun of language or spelling, please remember that English is not their first language! (for the majority, anyway)) “Ok, I remember when I had to eat stinky tofu, century rotten eggs, fish eyes, japonese fish dryed into sugar (yokeee, but you know Natacha like it…), snake (that’s was good!), shark skin (I realy didn’t like it), chicken feet (it was not so bad!)(no really!), shark fin (that’s was good too!), and I am sure I am forgetting so many other strange stuff…” – Mathilde, France “THE GREEN EGG WHO WAS 3 MONTH OLD!!! For those who have already eaten this famous taiwanese egg, I don’t have to explain why it’s a memorable moment. For the other, just try it! It’s delicious, everybody can tell you! Try, try, try and never forget how good this egg was!” – Jerome, Belgium “When I had to eat at school for the first time, because every taiwanese f*cker was looking at me!” – Eduardo, Paraguay (Note: They really do stare at us like zoo animals. I think they expected us to secretly attempt to feed a second head hidden under our shirts.) “When I eat Muli oups…I should not tell you but she is hen hao tche.” – Audrey, France (Note: Referring to Muriel, another student there on exchange. Hen hao tche = very delicious) “The first time I ate tofu ’cause I felt like I have to go throw up.” – Eva, Germany “Probably on my first day here, when I ate one small octopus completely and discovered that one of its eyes stuck between my teeth, damn, that was disgusting!” – Lukas, Germany “Watermelons. I looooove watermelons….hey, I’d love a photograph of someone with a watermelon on their head…hey, I wonder if we can get someone to put this watermelon shell on their head…hey, I wonder who’s drunk and impressionable…hey, *Beth*” – Nina, Australia (Note: Yes, this happened. Yes, it was awesome. No, I don’t have a copy of the picture.) “The fight with chicken feet on michael’s house!” – Priscila, Brazil “There have actually been quite a few considering my eating habits: *Eating a plateful of fried bees because I was told they would make me beautiful. *Cho-Dofu –need I say more? *Eating every imaginable animal and body part. *Having a doctor yell at me because I don’t know the Chinese for ‘I have food poisoning as nobody seems to know the principles of basic hygiene.'” – Natalie, Australia In the US, our food is disguised. Chopped up, de-skinned, de-boned, beheaded…it’s almost as if meat falls onto your plate like magical meaty manna. In Taiwan, food is very in your face. “Look at me, I am a duck. Here are my feet, and here is my beak.” “Look at me, I am a fish, here are my scales and here are my cheeks.” Oftentimes, it’s looking back at you while you are looking at it. The Good
Shabu-Shabu restaurants were absolutely everywhere. (Although, come to think of it, I believe it’s Japanese in origin.) Each person has a pot of boiling water in front of them, and a plate of thinly-sliced meat and tofu and vegetables and fishballs and noodles. These things you dump into your pot, cook as desired, and then consume with various spicy sauces. Delicious. I wish that there were a few Shabu-Shabu restaurants interspersed among the approximately one bazillion teriyaki and pho restaurants in the Redmond area alone. This is one of the only times I think I ever saw Priscila attempt to eat something even remotely Taiwanese. Note that her prawn is still looking at her with sad little eyes. I could never eat my prawn–I couldn’t get past the eyes. Always looking at me. Always looking! “Pwease don’t eat me, look at this sad little tear that I am crying!” Zhen zhou nai chai, or bubble milk tea, was another favorite among exchange students. This comes in many different varieties–pudding milk tea, tea with chopped up bits of fruit in it instead of tapioca balls, tea and mangoes whipped up into some sort of delicious smoothie…it was always awesome. My favorite food memory would be when a large group of us gathered in a park, bought some bubble milk tea (with far far more bubbles than tea, in a very improper ratio) and sat in a circle and started shooting tapioca balls at one another through the giant straws. Raul dared me to try and shoot one in his mouth, from a good ten feet away. I loaded up three bubbles, took aim, and fired them with such deadly accuracy they hit him in the back of the throat, and he choked and fell over. Given one hundred chances, I could probably never pull that off again. Amazing. Dumplings, boiled, fried, juggled on the street…always good. Also good were the candied strawberries and tomatoes sold at night markets. They’d glaze them, impale them on a stick (more on usage of sticks further down), and sell ’em for the equivalent of $1 US.
Not much to say about this noodle advert but I rather like the flower that peeks up to cover his bumhole. Classy!
Dragon-Eye fruit is sold mostly around the time of the Lunar Festival, and you can get huge bunches on the cheap. They sell it here in specialty stores like Uwajimaya, but it’s not as fresh or as good.
Dragon Fruit, on the other hand, is just ok. It looks pretty fancy, but there’s not a whole lot of flavor to it. It’s quite mild. I suspect it’s named more for its appearance than for its taste.
Red bean cakes were surprisingly delicious. The beans are slightly sweetened, and made into a paste of sorts. Red beans are in EVERYTHING. Congee, cakes, popsicles, EVERYTHING. Taiwanese favor a hint of sweetness as opposed to the US’ “I DO NOT THINK WE CAN ADD ANY MORE SUGAR TO THIS WITHOUT YOUR TEETH INSTANTLY DYING, OH WHAT THE HELL, LET’S DO IT ANYWAY” method.
Dragon beard candy has a fluffy sugar outside, and a mixture of ground peanuts on the inside. This has to be eaten immediately, as the fluffy sugar will not be fluffy in a few hours. This is commonly found at night-markets as well.
Green onion pancakes aren’t really…pancakes, per se, more like onion tortillas. Especially delicious with cock sauce. Nio Lo Mien was a favorite of mine in Taiwan. It’s a spicy beef noodle soup, with super thick noodles and loaded with green onion and other veggies. Everything I’ve had in the US by the same name pales in comparison. Hongcouver has some stuff that comes close, but it’s still not exactly right. On days when my host family left me on my own, I’d go order it and bring it back to the apartment, tied up in a plastic baggie much in the same way that one would bring home a goldfish they won at the fair. On our way to a party, Beth and I were transferring aboveground at Taipei Main Station in front of Shin Kong Mitsukoshi where we were stopped by two men in Japanese kimono in front of a camera crew. They asked us to try some noodles that were in a cup, and then tell them what we thought, in Chinese.
The woman in the background was my cram school teacher Jennifer, the leader of Class C, whom we happened to bump into randomly there as well. Noodles were taste-tested, we exclaimed ‘hen hao tche, wo-men hun xiwan zrben ren!’ and voila! we were in a noodle commercial. Every single person in Taiwan saw this noodle commercial but us. I think I used up my 15 minutes of fame just in Taiwanese television appearances alone.
Raul eating his ‘delicious’ lunch. This is his ‘delicious’ face, wherein he attempts to portray that the food he is consuming borders on orgasmic. Beth and I always felt he looked constipated. This picture ALWAYS makes me laugh.
Cho Tofu (literally, ‘smell-bad tofu’) is a soft tofu that has been fermented in a unique vegetable and fish brine. The blocks of tofu smell rotten and fecal, especially when fried. Tracy 伯母 took me to a cho tofu stand once, as she called the taste ‘special’. We call retarded children ‘special’. I feel this terminology is strongly interconnected; possibly because only the retarded could get past the smell in the first place. I tried, OH HOW I TRIED TO PLEASE MY HOST MOTHER AND BE A GOOD EXCHANGE STUDENT AND NOT DISHONOR THE UNITED STATES, but I could not get more than one bite down. My pain, not even Bill Clinton felt it. Instead of an ice cream man, they have a cho tofu man. He walks up and down the streets in the evening with his fryer and his stinky vat of nastiness calling out “CHO! DOFU! CHO! DOFU!” The smell alone is enough to announce his presence. Really, the yelling is like punctuation to the scent. You can smell someone cooking cho tofu from blocks away.
The century egg is a Chinese food made by preserving duck or chicken eggs in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, lime, and rice straw for several weeks to several months, depending on the method of processing. The yolk of the egg is concentrically variegated in pale and dark green colors while the egg white is dark brown and transparent like cola. It can also be made by soaking the egg in a brine of salt and lye for a few weeks (LYE!?!), or with lead oxide (would you like some poison with your food? mmmmm). It has been discovered that, once removed from the ‘white’, the yolk bounces like a rubber ball. Albeit, grosser.
Durian is just plain nasty. Some people think it smells like feces. I believe it smells more like vomit. Or death. Or death while vomiting. It’s the Janis Joplin of fruits. My third host family had durian in the house quite often…the whole place would REEK. Again, to please them, I tried some. It’s slimy. Somewhat vomitous. Bad, bad, bad. I can’t believe people risk their lives picking these things. This was the spread they laid out to us on the first day of the Taiwan Tour we took in March. That stuff along the bottom? Pig fat wrapped around bones. Just the fat. Mmmmmm.
Eva, Brittany, Beth, and Clelia chow down on some pig fat. The Taiwanese love food on sticks. Snacks on sticks, meals on sticks, everything is more delicious when impaled on some wood. Yes, those are starfish on sticks.
So much food on sticks! They’ve got… Grasshoppers on sticks… Fried silkworm pupae on sticks… and squid on sticks! Try your favorite food on a stick tonight, I guarantee it will be much more novel and even taste better! Words cannot describe the lovely lunch that Sylvie had packed for her. It’s a corn…something. Something plus vomit. Horrified by her lunch, Sylvie instead decided to go have a ‘snack’. The Ugly Priscila wasn’t ugly, not by far. Her attitude was, though. She wouldn’t try anything. ANYTHING. She lived at McDonalds, and even there she placed special orders because she would have nothing green on her burger. Her host family needed to make special food for her all the time, and eventually she got sent home because of it. That’s sad AND ugly. Chicken feet. I could never bring myself to try them. They were not nearly disguised enough for me. Far too…footy. Like, “Hi, just nibble around my claw, please!” But Mathilde liked them, so I’m putting them in this category instead of just plain BAD. When going to get dinner with Tracy 伯母 one evening, she explained to me that many stray dogs disappear during the winter as dog-meat is supposed to prevent colds. Strangely enough, only dogs with dark fur are supposed to have this mystical property. That’s UGLY. Not merely a sign advertising goat testicles for consumption, this is also an easy reference guide to check and see if the trendy asian tattoo you were planning on getting really means “Noble Spirit Dragon Warrior” or the far more common “Goat Testicle”. This was in the alley outside my second host family’s apartment. UGLY. Look at that shocked expression on his face. “I can’t believe they chopped my head off!” With as often as heads are left on in the majority of Taiwanese dishes, neither can I, Brother Rooster. Neither can I.
It wasn’t long before language cram school ended and we were all off to high school. Jessica, Emilie, Hannah and I were off to 中正高中, a mixed gender school. Beth, Clelia, Claire, Sylvie and Muriel (correct me if I’m wrong, Beth!) went to 高女山中, an all-girl school. Lucas also went to my school, and there I met Raul and Jorge, two brothers from Paraguay whose parents were diplomats. Their other brother, Eduardo, went to a different school. Along with Lucas, these three brothers pushed us to new levels of exchange student monkeyshines because they had the most important thing of all: diplomatic immunity. They did whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted because it didn’t matter. It wasn’t long before all of us started acting as if we had diplomatic immunity as well. School uniforms were the traditional japanese-hyper-fetished pleated skirt with a button-up shirt on top for regular days, and windpants and polo shirt on gym class days. Additionally, each school had their own bag with the school name printed on it. Wearing skirts to school became particularly awesome on monsoon days, when sheets of rain would hit your legs and tremendous gusts of wind would attempt to blow your skirt up. Add this to the gusts of wind coming from the MRT (subway system) and many of us oftentimes felt like Marilyn Monroe, battling against showing our dingy underwear to the world. Taiwan is tropical, but during the winter with all of the humidity in the air, it doesn’t matter what the thermometer says–it’s FREEZING. Those days the wind just bites into you, and skirts are woeful protection against it. Some schools compensated for this by having school sweaters. My school did not. An umbrella was an IMPORTANT THING to remember every day. In Seattle, we pick out tourists by who’s carrying an umbrella. In Taiwan, they pick out idiots by who’s NOT carrying one. I had at least 10 different umbrellas over the course of the year–you’d lose them, or someone would take yours when you leave it outside of a shop, or it’d simply be destroyed by the wind. They sell umbrellas in such massive quantities there that they run about $3 US. Or, if you happened to be out of money and caught in a freak storm, you’d share umbrella karma by taking someone ELSE’S umbrella from outside a store after yours has been taken. That’s just the way things went. Umbrellas were like community property. I lived fairly far away from my school; over an hour each way, counting walking and buses and transfers. I was more fortunate than students like Maria, however, who had to travel by train out of the mountains to get to a subway station and then go to school–she traveled nearly two hours each way. They don’t do school districts in Taiwan; each student is tested extensively and placed in a school according to their learning ability/aptitude. So where you lived had nothing to do with where you would be going to school. The students who went to the best high schools were the ones most likely to be admitted to university. All exchange students were placed in the highest-ranked schools in order to discourage us from associating with riffraff. My first host family lived nearest to Dingxi, my second was at Yongan Market, my third at Xinpu, and my school was at Mingde. Students in Taiwan work very very hard at their studies; many of them spend six to eight more hours in a cram school after their regular school day is over. This made it very difficult to get to know any of the students; they simply didn’t have time to waste with us. The after-school job is virtually unheard of in Taiwan; extra time is to be spent studying. I don’t know how else to explain this without being deeply offensive, but it keeps them immature longer because they don’t have any life experience outside of school–being with 17 year olds at 中正高中 was like being with 12 or 13 year olds in the states. That also made it really hard to relate to them. Much in the same way that people from the US make generalizations about other countries–“Taiwan is all sweatshops and child labor,” “France is full of stinky, rude, and cowardly people,” the Taiwanese make assumptions about us based on what they see in movies. Therefore, people wanted to know where I kept my gun. Joyce and ‘Sweetie’ brought Beth and I chocolate because they ‘heard we were American’. People assumed that in America, we see gang fights on a regular basis, and when shit blows up, that’s just normal. Hell, I might see three different cars blow up on my way to school and not think twice about it. My first day at school, my classmates surrounded me and started PETTING MY HAIR. All I heard were coos of ‘blond! blond!’ coming from all around me. I felt like a scared baby llama at a petting zoo being poked and prodded by preschoolers. Emilie got the same treatment in her classroom, except they tried to poke her eyes as well. We were both majorly freaked out by this development. Jessica got off fairly easily, being dark-skinned, with dark hair and eyes, and I’m not sure how Hannah fared because she stopped hanging out with us immediately after school started. We were already used to being novelties, but this was a step above and beyond what we’d experienced in the past (people talking about us on the MRT, people pointing us out when we walked by (my Chinese got better as the year went on, but for all I know at the beginning they could’ve been saying “LOOK OUT SHE’S GOT A GUN!”)). After lunch, the notes started landing on my desk. Of course you let them take their picture with you, or you fill out their hello kitty contacts book with your vital info (height, weight, blood type, phone number, favorite color, etc) to be nice, but it really has the tendency to make one feel less like a celebrity and more like a monkey who can read and write that’s escaped from the zoo and making the rounds in a uniform. More about schools later, I think covering the first day was enough for today. A starter for tomorrow’s topic, which I believe will be about food (I’m not always sure what I’m going to write about until I’ve started writing it): Muriel, Beth, and Sylvie pose outside their school with suckers….butter flavored ones. Mmmmmmmmm butter.