Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Drinking Tea

On Saturday, Host Mom Sylvia took us to her friend's tea shop to drink tea in the traditional way. Sylvia has been taking a tea preparation class for over a year, and wanted us to taste the true traditional tea. And taste we did-- I had some caffeine issues after 12 cups!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Leaving Taipei...

Today I left Taipei to join the cast in Taichung for my last week in Taiwan. Its hard when you are working in a city, versus being there on vacation... as I rode the train south I realized how many things in Taipei I didn't get to see!
But it was good to live the life of the local-- I will miss the efficiency and independence of the MRT, the bakeries with the chocolate pastries full of flavored cream, the crazy springtime weather where I need a sweater and an umbrella at all times, even though it could also be 85 degrees!
I will miss texting all the students I met at universities, though I will not miss my sticky phone buttons that made my thumbs work overtime on literally hundreds of text messages.

I will miss hanging out and planning my schedule with Sofie- we had the rare independence of the five days away from the cast, interviewing and giving presentations all over Taipei. It was a joy to work with her, and with our fab advance team support: shout out to Johan and Sean!

So as evidence that I did actually see a few sites, here is me on the rainy day that the cast visited Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall. Behind me is I think the National Theatre building.

I have one more week of adventures in Taiwan before heading back to Minnesota on May 3. Its hard to believe its going so fast.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Happy Earth Day

When your host family day, and only day off in the next two weeks, starts by needing to be in the car with hostmom at 6:45am, you know your life is not your own!

Yui and my hostmom, Sylvia, is a member of a nature club called Society of Wilderness. As today was the big Earth Day Celebration, her club was helping organize a shoreline clean-up along the Taiwan Straight. Yui and I came along. We weren't much help with the organizing part, since we couldn't speak to anyone, and Yui could only read the parts of signs/ characters that are similar to Japanese, but we had a great time in the sunshine, picking up trash along the breakers.

The coast of the Taiwan Straight near Taichung is very rocky, and at this time, very shallow for a long ways out. But there are huge cement breakers, and canal channels to help control flooding during typhoon season, and a lot of trash that washes up in this area. We had tongs and two kinds of gloves and hats and buckets and trash bags, and participated in the most organized beach cleanup I've ever attended. There were even "documenters" wearing arm bands and walking around with clipboards. They were looking at the trash we found and recording the different types.

I've also never seen a society so integrated and active in their recycling programs. Every meal we sort our trash into food scraps, cardboard, plastic, and chopsticks. This is in fast food restaurants, at the MRT, and for the cast on our own, as whatever building we are eating in also requires this sorting system to pick up our trash. There are huge campaigns to use reusable chopsticks, and many people have collapsible sets they carry in their bags/ purses. For our earth day lunch today, everyone at the event brought dishes from home to eat out of, and there was no trash from the event besides the watermelon rinds.

It was a humid, warm sunny day, and really lovely to be near the water. Then we came home for a nap and went to dinner with the boys- we had a dinner that sounds something like yahm-cha in JApanese. Its basically Chinese tapas-- bitesize snacks, spring rolls, fried pork, coconut jello bites, lots of fun and some unidentifiable things. Its a show day tomorrow, so I'm going to get to bed early.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Photo-happy Taiwanese

I have met a LOT of Taiwanese youth in my work as admissions support. As a result, I am on more cell-phone wallpapers than I have ever been in my entire life. This is such a photo-taking culture. And every person needs their own photo with you- individual poses. Some of the girls came to our mini-shows, and then to our big show both nights, and I've taken photos with each of them individually at least five times.

The incredible part is, they have turned the photos into beautiful gifts for the cast. There was a group of girls from the business college we are working with that made two huge poster-sized collages of all the photos they took of them with cast members, as enormous thank you cards. I also received a lot of individual prints from girls who wrote their emails and facebook name on them for me. They were so welcoming and so excited, and at times more than a little overwhelming. For some of the guys it was almost scary- we called it the boy band effect. I even got to reprise my role as a bodyguard, which I haven't done since working for Camp Snoopy! You can imagine the hilarity of the situation- me, hardly five feet and eye-to-eye with Taiwanese teenage girls, telling them to back up as the All-American handsome guys on my team need a bit of breathing room!

Even for adults there is a photo-happy culture; every high profile meeting ends with a group photo in front of the company sign or in the University president's office.

Its a novelty that sometimes is fun, but other times gets tiring. I have never had my picture taken so much, not even on my wedding day.

more English fun!

Today was the cast's big move from Taipei south to Taichung, for our second and last Taiwan city. I am staying with the Cheng family, Sylvia and Jung-Shi, and their twin sons who are eight: Joey and Roy. Of course, except for Jung-Shi, these are their English names, and not their "real" given names.

Jung-Shi said to me as we sat down to dinner, "You need to make a wish?" and he folded his hands to demonstrate to me that he meant if I need to pray before the meal. I love interpretation translations like this.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

host family day!

There's nothing quite like host family day... a chance to catch up on sleep, do laundry, and of course, be up for whatever adventure your host family has in store!

I am very lucky to be hosted with an UWP alumna named Paige here in Taipei. She is Canadian and has been living here for about three years. We had a really lovely day exploring the northern tip of the island.

We drove north out of Taipei and around the most northern point, stopping at a surfing beach, and at a beautiful lookout where we sat outside at a cafe, reading books and listening to the waves. There was a lone fisherman on the rocks below us, and it was a peaceful and gorgeous, if hazy, morning.

We stopped by a bizarre temple up in the mountains where there is a 12-story monument of a dog. Apparently a merchant ship sank offshore and the 18 sailors drowned. The dog attempted to rescue them, and when he was unsuccessful, he sat on the shore and waited for his owner for the rest of his life. The temple is dedicated to the sailors and of course, the dog.

We visited Ju Ming sculpture park and museum, which houses the art of Taiwan's most famous contemporary artist, Ju Ming. His chunky people sculptures were my favorite. The grounds were gorgeous and we enjoyed being outside.

We also stopped by Yehliu Geopark which is a skinny peninsula that has striking rock formations that have been shaped by the ocean crashing over the most northern part of the island.

We drove over the mountain back to Taipei, where we could see fields of calla lilies in full bloom. There were roadside stands and tons of people, as the Festival of the Calla Lily is the full month of April.

We stopped at one of Paige's favorite restaurants, which is named Stone House but everyone just calls it "Jesse's", and ate in the garden. We had kung pao chicken, fried tofu, a shrimp & pineapple dish, and steamed sweet potato leaves. Guava, pineapple, and wax apples for dessert.

It was a full day, but in a relaxing way, which is lucky, as there's another busy week ahead!

more fun English

I try to take note of a fun English phrase every day. Here are some gems from this week:

Sign at our welcome buffet for the cast on the first day said the meat was "lamp".

Bulletin board on the side of the road has cartoon children smiling. Underneath in huge lettering it says: Don't Do Drugs. Don't Drag Race.

I was standing with one of our contacts from Taipei watching the cast perform a mini-show. He turned to me with huge excitement in his voice and said "This group is so high! All your students, so high!" I'm interpreting that to mean high on life.

Saturday, April 4, 2009


When I think of typical Chinese-style food, I never think of bakeries. And yet, they are so popular here-- within a block radius of the office there are at least three bakeries, with delicious flaky breads and pastries. There are spongey cakes, and little custards covered in fruit, and then the occasional Asian flair to remind you that you are in Taipei and not Munich.

Yesterday I tried a roll that had a piece of battered, fried chicken in the middle, was surrounded by lettuce and a mustard/mayonnaise spread in a doughy bread tube, and the whole thing was wrapped in seaweed! An adventurous mid-morning snack.

Taipei 101 tower

The Taipei 101 is the tallest building in the world, (until the new tallest building in Dubai is completed.) It also has the world's fastest elevators, which cost 2.5 million USD each, and include the same ceramic heat-resistant material that is used in the space shuttle. The 84 story ride (which puts you on the 89th floor) takes 37 seconds.

We went up to the observatory last night to see the city lights. Paige recommended going at night because its rare to have a clear enough day to have a good view of the city through the humid haze. When I checked weather.com yesterday for the forecast, it was the first time I had ever seen the graphic for "haze" as the current local weather (rather than something like partly cloudy).

The tower is named the 101 to represent our digital age of ones and zeros, as well as to symbolize being of the highest quality- more than 100%.


My host mom Paige took me for arguably the most popular food in Taiwan, steamed dumpling. Dumpling look like potstickers, but instead of being pan-seared, they are steamed in bamboo racks, and filled with pork and mixtures of other seafood or veggies. The shell is a doughy skin that is very similar to a wonton wrapper, but has a sticky (rather than bubbly) texture when cooked because its steamed instead of fried.

There are dumpling restaurants all over Taipei, and Aoife told me her host family had the leftover dumpling from their dinner the next morning fried for breakfast. I can't imagine how they'd have any leftover at all, because they are SO delicious. Possibly my new favorite food!

Picture a bright, bustling restaurant, full of smiling waitresses in matching black skirts and white blouses, constantly stopping by your table to refill your green tea or give you more shredded ginger. They can clear a table and have it turned around for a new group in about 15 seconds.

You order dumpling like sushi, by filling out a small form of how many orders of each type of dumpling you'd like. To supplement your dumpling you can also get steamed greens, boiled peanuts, or soup.

There's a very specific way to eat dumpling, and the restaurant we went to had a demonstration card to teach us so we wouldn't burn our tongues. You first mix yourself a small bowl of a combination of soy sauce, vinegar, shredded ginger and optional hot sauce. Then you take one dumpling with chopsticks, and put it on your flat spoon. You poke a hole in the dumpling skin with your chopstick to let some of the broth inside out-- this is what would scald your mouth if you just bit straight in. You can pick up the full dumpling with chopsticks and dip it in your soy sauce mixture, or pick up shredded ginger to put on top of the dumpling, and then you eat it in one or two bites from your spoon. The broth is in the pork-based dumplings, which you need to eat from the spoon to get the full flavor. We also had mushroom dumpling, which you could dip and eat with your chopsticks because their filling wasn't as juicy.

The dumpling are handmade in glass kitchens so you can watch the 20+ chefs at work rolling dough, stuffing dumpling, and then swirling it into intricate shapes. The shapes are slightly different in each restaurant, which is part of their signature, and makes each type unique.

When you are finished eating, you leave. There is no lingering over dessert or drinks or to finish a conversation... when your food is gone its time to go, and the smiley waitresses pounce on your table to prepare it for the huge lines of people waiting outside to have their fill.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

coming to Asia

Here's a few things I love about coming to Asia:

Funny signs
there are lots of small grammatical errors in the English translation of signs, that are good for a smile or sometimes a laugh-out-loud. My favorite of the trip so far was the sign that welcomed me on the jetway into the airplane in Japan, with its ironic use of quotations... it said:

We hope you have a "safe" and "comfortable" flight.

Taiwanese people like things neat and organized and very very structured. This was the only time in my life that I have seen two men whose job it was to turn the suitcases as they came up the conveyor belt so they all were laying neatly with the handles turned out for easy pick-up.

The MRT is a very fast, very clean train system, which I will be using to get around Taipei everyday. I was amazed at how clean it was-- its the first metro system I've been in where the stations actually smelled nice. And there are lines painted on the ground at every door entrance. People boarding the trains line up in two neat rows on the left of the doors, so they can load as people simultaneously exit to the right. Some people might find this precision and organization suffocating, but so far I like it! I know what to expect, and don't have to be so aggressive to make it on the train like in other cities.

Trip to Taiwan!

After abandoning this blog when we got off the road, I am ready to revive it for a brief stint as I journey to support Up with People's Cast A 2009 in Taiwan! I am here in Taipei for two weeks, then on to TaiChung for two weeks, returning home May 3.

I am excited to share a bit of my adventures in Taiwan. Stay tuned! --ellen