S.K.S. Attempts to Debunk Misconceptions of Blacks in Taiwan

Taiwan video production group Stop Kidding Studio recently released a video entitled 台灣人對黑人的四大誤解:Things Taiwanese Don’t Know About Black People. In the video, African-American Tiffany tries to explain and debunk some of the common misconceptions Taiwanese have of blacks in Taiwan.

The video was posted to the Facebook group for Teachers Against Discrimination In Taiwan (TADIT). The title caught my attention because it’s something I’ve written and talked about at length since I first moved to Taiwan two years ago when, shortly after arriving in Kaohsiung, I was told–flat out–that finding a teaching gig would be difficult because my skin color didn’t fit the bill. Sadly, Taiwan has some catching up to do in the area of cultural diversity. It’s an issue that baffles me still, but given Stop Kidding Studio’s track record of creating provocative videos aimed at traversing the cultural rifts between Taiwanese and foreigners, I was optimistic about how they would handle the glossed over topic of Taiwanese untruths about black foreigners.

Photo: Facebook/StopKiddingStudio

Photo: Facebook/StopKiddingStudio

Unfortunately, the video falls short of actually addressing some of the nuances of being black in a country where everyone loves Obama and Lebron, but where many can’t fathom the idea of a black native English speaker.

It begins with the common misconception that all blacks in Taiwan are from countries in Africa–a promising start as far as I see it. Indeed blacks hail from many parts of the world and represent a wide array of cultures, but perhaps further explanation is needed about what that means.

It would be helpful, for example, to mention that because “black” as a racial construct has very little (if anything) to do with nationality, there’s no set of cultural or behavioral traits that can appropriately define “being black.” What’s true for a black American is not necessarily true for someone who’s black from the U.K. or Belize or Kenya. It shouldn’t be surprising that we have different traditions, eat different foods, adorn ourselves in different fashions. Taiwan’s incredulous attitudes regarding blacks being from countries other than those in Africa is undeniably absurd, but failure to mention how we are as culturally diverse as the places we come from can be just as damaging as any misconception the video aims to correct. It’s nice that we’re told blacks are a global race, but how about a disclaimer that the views expressed in the video are from the perspective of a black American?

I applaud Tiffany for bringing up the belief that blacks only favor Hip-Hop music and nothing else, but again more is needed beyond listing off the music we’ve had a hand in creating or making popular. As annoying as it can be, it’s not surprising that people in Taiwan feel Hip-Hop is the only music blacks associate themselves with (people think the same thing in countries all over the world). Hip-Hop culture has had a significant influence on the global black community and it’s cultural texts are better traveled than most blacks from the country where Hip-Hop arguably was born. In Taiwan this has given birth to false assumptions about how blacks talk and carry themselves.

It’s probably the reason why, when in public with my white girlfriend, many Taiwanese will greet her with “Hello, how are you?”, while I get “Yo wassup, man!” or “Wassup mu’fucka!” Quite often I respond with a wave and a disappointing shake of the head.

True, it’s not as extreme as crotch grabbing and dropping the N-word, but when the swagger and bravado of Hip-Hop music becomes the outline upon which Taiwanese interactions with blacks are predicated, it takes more than a simple mentioning of our musical taste being eclectic beyond Jay-Z and Lil Wayne to set things right. Music matters but it doesn’t write the script for an entire race.

Still, probably the biggest issue I found with the video’s assessment of things Taiwanese don’t know about black people is the handling of black food tastes. I relate to the idea of “soul food,” but I come from an African American household where recipes for greens, yams, fried chicken, cornbread and the like have been swapped and handed down for several generations. I know this food. I love this food. I highly doubt this is the same food found in black households across Latin America or in the Caribbean or anywhere else that’s not the United States of America. Variations certainly exist (many American soul food dishes have their roots in Africa and the West Indies), but black cuisine is far more than what can be seen in the 1997 film Soul Food (a good movie that explains soul food about as much as Boys n the Hood explains malt liquor). During this segment in particular it would’ve been nice to hear from blacks from countries other than the U.S. to provide a better cross-section of black food opinions. How does traditional black food in the U.S. differ from that in South Africa? Soul Food doesn’t actually address this question or anything similar, so sending a bunch of curious Taiwanese netizens to black Hollywood for answers about what us black folks tend to eat probably isn’t the most culturally aware strategy.

For all it faults, the video does make a good point about the constant touching of black hair and questions about how it’s washed. It happens to me so often that I’ve almost ceased waiting for the question to be asked upon meeting Taiwanese for the first time. There’s usually a long pause right after “nice to meet you” in which my hair is curiously examined. This is usually my cue to say “yes, my hair is real, I wash it just like you’d expect and okay, you can touch it.” I can handle this with grace, but like Tiffany, I find it rude that someone would take it upon themselves to fondle my hair without my permission. No complaints from me on this front.

I appreciate Stop Kidding Studio’s efforts to put down the misconceptions many Taiwanese hold about black people, but because of the lack of opportunities for Taiwanese to interact with actual black people (rap videos, internet news reports and movies don’t count), greater care needs to be given in explaining the varied cultural facets of blacks from around the world.

A single voice speaking for an entire village is bound to piss off few neighbors.

Authors Note: Check out S.K.S.’s 台灣人有種族歧視??Taiwanese Are Racists? for related content.

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Ricky Doesn’t Comb His Hair

I’ve written about some of the issues Taiwan has related to race and ESL eduction and I try to carry the flag in bringing awareness to this problem here in Kaohsiung, but alas there is still work to be done.

I recently came across this in one of the textbooks I teach out of:

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In this particular book the characters are visiting New York and apparently saw fit to visit the Bronx where you can see black kids with afros and cornrows break dancing in the street, every afternoon.

What was probably a guileless attempt by the school (one of the larger chain schools in Taiwan that publishes it’s own curriculum) at introducing students to different English speaking cultures (in this case, black American culture?), comes off as uneducated and offensive. I’m surprised that a company so obsessed with providing a well rounded learning experience could be so off base. This is a wholesale buy-in of the shitty American stereotypes that have made their way across the ocean and found new homes within the Taiwanese global psyche.

I stare at the pages in disbelief before thinking about how I can skip over this part of the dialogue, but the dialogue is an extension of the grammar pattern to be taught in the next section and will need to be memorized and recited. The kids will learn it whether I teach it or not.

I decide to have a quick conversation about what’s on the page. This is a class of eight to ten year-olds so I try to make it as simple as possible. I explain to them that despite what their book says, “Ricky” needs to comb his hair every morning just like they do. This is difficult for them to understand because they know Teacher Jay doesn’t comb his hair and as far as they’re concerned Teacher Jay is the same as Ricky: black and with hair different from their own. For my students there’s nothing separating blacks from other blacks (regardless of where their respective countries); just blacks from Taiwanese. So not combing ones hair becomes a defining feature of all black foreigners. This mistruth is then used to stress the grammar pattern being taught in the textbook:

Does Ricky comb his hair every morning?
No, he doesn’t
Does he dance every afternoon?
Yes, he does.

I see this and immediately think of the experiences I had on arrival while searching for a teaching job. Wrestling with the widely accepted view that blackness is this weird otherness that cannot survive outside of only being “the other.” There’s little difference between this and my difficulties finding teaching work the first few months on the island. In both situations, blanket stereotypes left unchecked have become the common truths from which to hang opinions. The end result is that people are only able to relate with those perceived as “other” through differences instead of through similarities, and in Taiwan, difference is sometimes met with adversity. Inserting these stereotypes into an ESL textbook is dangerous in that they become perpetual, further strengthening faux  truths for Taiwanese students about people who are different from them.

In arguments  conversations with other expats on forums and in person, I’ve fielded the opinion (multiple times) that nothing can be done about this; that there’s no use in trying to change local opinion; that foreigners have it good in Taiwan and I shouldn’t complain. That because most schools are only concerned with maintaining a revolving crop of eager English learners (i.e. maintaing a steady cash flow) they’re reluctant to change anything and reasonable complaints unnecessarily stir the pot.

Fuck that. When I open up a textbook and see something like this,

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I’m more inclined to curse someone out than reluctantly dismiss it as acceptable. I find it hard to believe I’m the only foreign teacher who’s seen this and thought it inappropriate, but it’d be easy to assume that few (if any) teachers actually voiced opinions about it.

That being said, I still believe the best attempt at  combatting these hiccups in intercultural understanding is through added exposure to the cultural facets of foreigners in Taiwan–instead of only the language (that the two are often separated is odd to me). Most of this shit comes from western cultural texts so I feel we shoulder some of the responsibility to help sift through the bullshit. Talk with students and coworkers about why it’s not acceptable to snicker or make snide comments about different types of foreigners, but also take the time to highlight cultural similarities when opportunities present themselves. If there’s an opinion or idea expressed that is based on a cultural untruth, set it straight instead of waiting until later to bring it up when you’re safely entrenched among other expats.

A little cultural respect goes a long way. We can start by speaking out and having more of it for ourselves.

Culinary Cravings

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I’m a big fan of expat living. The challenge of navigating through daily life with little knowledge of the local language combined with the opportunity to see something new everyday is an addiction that, for me at least, is not easily kicked. It’s the reason I came to Taiwan despite having announced at the end of my last stint abroad that I would not be returning to Asia anytime soon. I’m constantly reminding myself to observe as much as I can and be aware of the small, seemingly minute details of what makes living in a foreign country so interesting: The security guard who teaches 15 second Chinese lessons as we pass through the lobby; an elderly Taiwanese exercise group that meets in a small promenade across from our building (Kay came home one evening to them practicing the Macarena); the many brightly dressed couples that congregate at the beach around sunset with a platoon of photographers to take the perfect couple/wedding photos. I take it all in and try not to take it in stride.

Of course, not everything involved with expat living is quirky and enthralling. There’s plenty of things that make it atop my “most–annoying-shit-ever” list and times when I wish for just a modicum of western comforts–most notably, western culinary comforts.

Before I took off to live in Korea several years back the most interesting parting gift I received was a jar of Skippy peanut butter. I didn’t and still don’t eat enough peanut butter to warrant adding the extra luggage weight, but it did remind me that there would be food items that are next to impossible to come by in Asia. Receiving care packages was a common topic amongst my expat friends on Facebook where they’d brag about having gotten vegemite (the brits),  proper gravy for poutine (Canadians) and beef jerky (yours truly).

Some would say that when in a different country one should enjoy the local cuisine as much as possible and while I agree, I also know that there are times when you just want a sandwich with mayo on it and a decent bag of chips, or a steak with legit barbecue sauce or some friggin granola. Damn the arguments abut skipping out on the local food. Sometimes you just want a taste of back home.

Unfortunately there are odd habits that can develop from these cravings if left unchecked…

A recent craving had me pacing up and down the aisles of a high-end grocery store comparing different crackers, cookies, and biscuits searching for the closest thing possible to graham crackers. I found more than enough digestifs and butter cookies, different flavors of wafers–even lady fingers and stroopwaffles, but not a single box of graham crackers. After 20 minutes of searching–just before frustration morphs into rage–I managed to find a bag of what looked like the closest thing to graham crackers. The shape was all wrong and they looked slightly more dense than what I’m used to, but everything else fit the bill. Like an idiot, I tried to gather the scent of the oddly shaped crackers through their plastic wrapping and got a nostril full of dust and cellophane.

I was equally troubled  when I came across a bag of my beloved Flammin’ Hot Cheetos priced at nearly three times the amount of what they go for back home. I passed on buying them that day confident that the Cheetos well would be plentiful. When I returned a week later they were gone. I search in the same spot every time I visit that store and have yet to find them. It’s become somewhat of a ritual: I search for my Cheetos fix,  go find Kay (she’s usually in the sauces aisle searching for Siriacha) and she asks “Did you find them?”

Once when browsing through the foreign foods section of Carrefour Kay let out a gasp like she was choking on something. I turned around to find her cradling a bottle of ranch dressing with a look of joy on her face normally reserved for child births and weddings. Nevermind that it was double the price of what it cost back home. We had to have it.

Recently a friend told me that she managed to find Frank’s brand hot sauce at her local supermarket. An hour later I was still seething in jealousy. Why should SHE be able to enjoy proper hot sauce when I’m stuck mixing random asian brands of chili sauce trying to find the texture and flavor of what I love back home. It took a few beers before I could get over it.

True, Taiwan offers a lot more variety in western comfort foods than other countries, but finding them can be frustrating. Mega-chain Costco holds its own when it comes to many hard to find items (one of the best places to find a decent variety of REAL cheese), but you need to buy items in bulk and some expats are put off by the membership charge.  Jason’s (where I had my graham cracker struggles) is another good option for foreign needs (squid ink pasta, imported wine, maple syrup) but you’ll pay a hefty premium for some of the items they have in stock. I found a small tub of sour cream (for taco night) going for nearly $7 USD. Increasingly there are more grocery stores around the island that are setting up “foreign food” aisles that contain popular fare from North America and Europe as well as food items from countries in Asia and (sometimes) Latin America. Again, finding these gastro-oases can sometimes be difficult, but are well worth seeking out.

It’s also important to realize when your cravings are simply out of reach. There’s nothing wrong with an addiction to organic canned sardines in olive oil, or Coleman’s mustard powder, or southern Quick Grits, but you might be better off having someone back home send  you a hearty supply rather than criss-crossing the country looking for them or constantly badgering members of expat forums for advice on how to track it down. You could also get creative. You may not be able to find tahini, but maybe you can score some sesame seeds and olive oil and throw it together yourself. Can’t find the salsa you want? Look up a simple recipe online then head to the produce market for ingredients. A fellow expat in Kaohsiung enjoys hemp smoothies and was able to track down organic berries (albeit frozen) and even wheatgrass to sort himself out.

Whatever the cravings, try not to let them completely take over your eating habits while living abroad. You might miss out on some tasty local grub.

Stinky tofu, anyone?

Taiwan’s Selfie Latte’s

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Taiwan just stepped it’s coffee game up.

Coffe company Let’s Cafe has made it possible to print your portrait onto a latte, taking foam art to a whole new level. The Company operates it’s coffee kiosks out of Taiwan’s Family Mart convenient stores and are striving to give customers something they can’t get at the more established coffe joints.

How does it work?

Order a latte, upload a selfie from your smartphone and the machine sprinkles the image into the foam using cocoa powder. Boom. You don’t even have to drink it. Just stare at yourself in all your frothy goodness. Of course the point is not just to stare and marvel. You’d be missing out on the moment if you didn’t whip out your phone and take a photo your foam portrait.

Kudos should be given to Let’s Cafe. They’ve found a clever way to capitalize on both Taiwanese photo glut and a ridiculous “selfie” phenomenon gone global (thanks, Instagram). Now, instead of having cell phone photo shoots in your bathroom in fornt of a dirty mirror, you can have them at a local convenient store in front of random customers. As you pay for your latte  you can seek the admiration of the store clerk for haven taken a picture that transferred to milk froth so well.

It’s a quirky idea and I’m sure it’ll be a big hit, but it’s not winning any awards for practicality and there are still a few questions to be answered:

How long will it take to get your latte?

The reason Let’s Cafe has launched its new latte machine is so that it can better compete with larger coffee chains like Starbucks And Taiwan’s own Donutes Cafe. But they’ll do little to knock off  the competition if it takes twice as long to get your order because of hyper stylized foam decorations–which begs another question to be asked: what exactly is an appropriate time value for detailed latte art? A nifty Starbucks barista can drizzle a maple leaf into your morning Cappucino and it only takes a few seconds. Let that same barista take an extra 5 minutes crafting your leaf and there would be a line of  pissed off customers who couldn’t give two shits about the barista’s artistic pursuits.

Of course Let’s Cafe’s foam art is derived from a digital image so you would think it shouldn’t take too long, but I would hate to be stuck waiting for my drink behind a group of Taiwanese middle school girls trying to decide on just the right photo to upload. Inevitably it would happen on your way to work or some other important engagement, but you would be in the wrong let your frustations get the best of you. If all you want is a quick latte you can go somewhere else. Those girls are there for the ultimate experience in Taiwanese coffee consumption; what Let’s Cafe is calling “ridiculously unique and fun.” Never mind that it took half an hour to get it.

Will a photo latte be more expensive than a non-photo latte?

After watching the promotional video it’s clear Let’s Cafe feels their latte photo machine is already a big hit in Taiwan, though I have yet to see one anywhere in Kaohsiung. They mention how their customized latte art became “the talk of the town” and “won over the hearts” of customers. What the video fails to reveal is how much it will cost, but I noticed something that makes me think it’ll cost a lot more that your average convenience store latte .

At one point a guy in the video get’s his customized latte and decides to share it with his lovely female companion. He carefully hands it to her with a subtle but stern glance that says: “if you fuck up and drop this, you’re buying me a new one.”

It seems odd to charge more for something that will most likely disintegrate as soon as you put a lid on the cup which, unless you plan on enjoying your drink inside Family Mart, you will have to do, but not before taking a photo of it to share with others. This of course could create a vicious cycle: take a picture of yourself, have it put on your latte, take a picture of yourself with the latte containing your portrait, then have that put on another latte….I’m probably thinking about this too much.

Are we allowed to put ANY photo on a latte?

If so, we shouldn’t overlook the fun to be had from this in the form of well executed social experiments.

Imagine, for example, how interesting it would be to put a random stranger’s photo on your latte. You’d want to catch someone unexpectedly–either right when they’re entering the store or while waiting in line to check-out:

“Excuse me, sir. Would you like to have your face on my morning latte?”

Better yet, instead of asking permission, just whip out your smart phone and snap a photo of an unsuspecting stranger (happens to me all the time) then head straight for the latte machine. If you’re lucky, you’ll end up next to that same person in the check-out line. They’ll glance down and see their mug shot sprinkled on your drink and you’ll have made a new friend. After posting the photo on Facebook the stranger would arouse the curiosity of your closest friends:

“Say Gary, who’s that person on your latte?”

You can boastfully, “Some guy I met in Family Mart. We’re meeting for drinks and sashimi later tonight.”

Better still, how fun would it be to have a dirty photo dusted atop your latte? Perhaps a set of tightened buttocks or a voluptuous pair of double D’s? Of course doing such a thing would mean putting the store attendant in a rather precarious situation: does he ring up your latte like normal and pretend not to see the pair of protruding orbs afloat in your cup? Does he refuse to sell it to you? On what grounds? Indecent espresso? Does Family Mart have a contingency plan in place if such a thing happens? They should.

Again, maybe I’ve gone too far, but mobile photo glut has the tendency to bring out the worst in people.

I have no information on when these machines will hit Family Mart stores in southern Taiwan (if they haven’t already), but if anyone in Taipei or elsewhere has tried it, I’d love to see the results. Drop a link in the comments or find me on Instagram @jaywoodson.

As for me, I tend to get my coffee from 7-11, but I won’t pass up an opportunity to try it at least once.

*Update: As fellow Taiwan blogger, Taiwanvore so nicely pointed out, Let’s Cafe will not be rolling out it’s photo latte machine in Taiwan after all. The video was shot by a marketing company hired by the makers of the machine itself. Looks like we won’t be able to plaster our faces (or body parts) on our lattes after all.

Licensed to Scoot: How to Get a Scooter License in Kaohsiung

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A few months back I bought a scooter and have been ziping around Kaohsiung ever since. I was initially nervous about making the purchase because of two low-speed, minimal-impact crashes I was I in; one in Indonesia (not my fault) and one in Vietnam (very much my fault).

Many expats told me not to worry about getting a scooter license because in the unlikely event that you get pulled over the cops will almost for sure let you off the hook once they notice you’re a foreigner. I can’t say whether that’s true or not, but I had all but written off getting a license until I was denied a rental scooter on Green Island on the basis that I didn’t have one.

In some ways I find it odd that Taiwan even requires drivers to have a licenses for operating scooters considering what passes for acceptable driving here: blasting through intersections well after the light has turned red; coming to a near complete stop in the middle of the street to ponder the design of a new tea shop; speeding down a busy sidewalk to avoid congestion at a traffic light. All of these are damn-near everyday occurrences and seem to be completely acceptable as normal driving practice.

Still, if a scooter license is needed for foreigners to rent a set of wheels around Taiwan, then getting one makes perfect sense.

To be honest, I tend to handle situations like this as half-assedly as possible. When I took Driver’s Ed. in high school, I completed the whole course then skipped class on the day of the written test to avoid paying for the mandatory behind-the-wheel driving practice. Months later–after turning 18–I strolled into the local DMV, knocked out the written test, had the 6-month permit period cut in half and took the driving test with little to no practice. Yes, I had to wait longer than most of my peers, but I saved more than a hundred bucks doing so. Genius.

I probably would’ve never gotten around to getting a scooter license in Taiwan if the school my girlfriend works for didn’t let me tag a long when they organized it for her and a few other teachers.

Essentially it’s a 3-step process: physical examination, written test and driving test.

Physical Examination:

Before taking to the road Taiwan needs to see that you can physically operate a scooter. On the morning of our physical the obvious assumption is that it will take place at a small pristine health clinic where blood will be drawn, reflexes will be tested, and eyesight will be checked.

Instead we pull up to a dingy run-down building on a sketchy looking narrow street. By outward appearance it seemes as if the place was really a front for some other less-than-legal enterprise.

The room is dimly lit with dusty grey wall and a lone table with a few chairs serve as a waiting area. The only medical looking devices in the room include a weight scale and an optical contraption that is positioned in such a way that allows patients to look into it while seated in front of the table. I begin thinking it’s the type of place where–with a special code word–one can score more than just a physical exam.

“Yes, I’m here for the driving physical and…’bubble tea.'”

The first lady I come to calmly studies my ARC and checks that I have all the correct paper work and the required number of passport photos before taking my weight and sending me to the second nurse. This lady checks my eyesight by first asking what color she’s pointing at on small flashcard and then directing me to look into the aforementioned optical device and spout off the position of a gap in a series of different sized circles. It takes a moment to understand what i’m supposed to do so the nurse holds up a notecard with English instructions printed on it. She does this two more times before I’m able to get it right. eyetest

The next part of the exam involves an elderly Taiwanese gentleman sitting at a desk in the back of the room reading a newspaper. He motions for me to first hold out my hands palms up,  then close them and open them again. We then hold hands for a second and he examines the backs of my hands. I’m not sure what he is looking for, but I’m somehow nervous about what he might find. Can he see that I’ve previously been in a scooter accident? Is he looking for signs of excessive beer consumption? Is he judging me for not having applied enough hand lotion? Does he notice that I bite my fingernails? Does it matter that I bite my fingernails? Am I being scouted to participate in an underground martial arts tournament?

Before letting my hands go he looks into my eyes (into my soul?) and gently asks me where I’m from. The tone of his voice prompts me to answer slowly in a complete sentence.

“I am from the United States of America.”

He smiles, nods approvingly and sends me on my way. I linger for a moment, wondering if I’ve somehow missed a meaningful revelation, then head out.

Written Test

After a visit with the scooter shaman, you’ll need to then pass a written test to demonstrate that you know all the Taiwanese traffic laws that are hardly obeyed and rarely enforced.

The test is made up of 40 questions–half multiple choice and half tue or false. Besides traffic laws and road signs, the test also covers driving ethics. A passing score is 85% or higher.  Fail it and you’ll need to wait a week before you can take it again.

Taiwan has been kind enough to create an English version of the test and even provide study materials and a mock test for practice, but the translation leaves something to be desired. Take this true or fase question, for example:

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The correct answer is True (or “O” on the actual test), leading one to believe that–if nowhere else in the world–at least Taiwan has a safe place for zebras to cross the street.

Still, even with the translation errors, some questions leave no doubt as to the correct answer…

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while others are undoubtedly confusing:

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I have yet to see any slick roads covered with branches, but I’m constantly on the lookout.

Taking the test will set you back $125 NT.

After paying the fee our group is led into a bright room with 3o or so computer terminals. Once again my ARC is checked closely and I’m shown to the terminal where I will take my test. I’m feeling confident about my chances of passing despite having hastily studied the night before over dinner and a few beers. I took the practice test as many times as it took to pass (twice) and was satisfied with my preparation.

The test takes about 15 minutes to complete and I just barely pass with 87%.  On the way out I’m handed a slip of paper that will allow me to take the driving test.

Driving Test

I have no problem fully admitting that taking the driving test was the most difficult part of getting my Taiwanese scooter license. Even with plenty of practice and a clear understanding of the manuevers I needed to execute I still had doubts about my odds of passing.  The test course is nothing special, mind you; a simple U-shaped obstacle course under a sheet metal roof that, if done properly, should take  no more than 45 seconds to complete.

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We arrive before the 10:30 AM test time and are allowed to practice. Most of the course is simple. There’s two places where you need to signal your turns, two places that require making complete stops and a stop light thrown in for good measure. All of these elements need to be properly executed within the confines of a three foot wide track with sensors on either sides. Veer off the track and a loud siren will sound (with lights) signaling your failure.

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The 7-Second Balance Strip

By far the most challenging part of the road test, however, is a 50 foot narrow strip at the beginning of the course. The object is to drive the length of it in no less than seven seconds (there’s a timer right in front of you). Touch the sensors on either side of the strip or touch your feet to the ground and it’s an automatic fail.

I nail the entire course time after time while practicing. At this point our small group are the only people there, but by the time the test is about to start a crowd of test takers and on-lookers has formed and a few people have taken a keen interest in how the foreigners will do.

Before the start of the test an administrator walks us through the course explaining all the elements and possible point deductions in Chinese. I can’t understand what he’s saying, but I stroll with the others anyway, nodding my head every so often to show that I’m paying attention. I don’t notice that there’s English instructions printed on a large board near the beginning of the course until he’s finished.

As the test begins I position myself in the middle of the pack so I can see how the first few people do on the narrow strip portion. Some are wobbly in their method, but most everyone gets through it without any problems. Some people ease their way through it gently twisting the throttle to give the scooter as little thrust as possible while focusing on maintaining balance. Others hit the gas right away and then let off, relying on their break at the end so they don’t finish under seven seconds.

As I approach the start I notice that several people have gathered along the side rail near the 7-second balance strip. I give myself a small peptalk: “Don’t f**k this up, Jay. All of Taiwan is watching.”

I decide to gas it at the beginning and coast the rest of the way. By the time I make it to the end the timer is only at four seconds so I gently squeeze the brake to buy more time. This slows me down too much and my scooter begins to lean to the left. I clip the left corner of the sensor and the sirens wail. The administrator waves me back to the beginning of the course to start over. I have one more chance to pass it then I’ll have to wait a week before I can try again.

On the second attempt I try to ease my way through the strip, twisting the trottle as little as possible, only this time I don’t have enough power and I’m forced to put my feet down to keep from tipping over. I’m once again waived over and given my test sheet with a big red stamp on it.

Out of our small group of foreigners that took the test I’m the only one who fails the driving test, but Im not alone. After everyone is finished,and at the insisting of the test administrator,  I take turns practicing on the course with a with a teenage Taiwanese girl who also didn’t pass. It’s feels like a victory lap for losers.

The next week I return by myself, pay the $125 NT fee to take the test again. When I finally pass the annoying seven-second narrow strip (I fail once more before getting it right) I almost forget that I have to finish the rest of the course. I halfway expect someone to be clapping for me when I approach the booth to get my licence: a small piece of paper laminated on one side with my name and the same shitty pasport photo I used for my diving certificate.

For $200 NT, victory never looked this good.

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Links:
Study guide for written test
Practice test
Extra info from Tealit.com

K.I.F.F. a “Delicious Success”

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These last few days have been rough.

Not only did I have a severe case of F-U-Mondays, but the recovery from my food bender last weekend has taken longer than originally anticipated.

I’ve never been a shining model of self-restraint–even less so when it comes to food, but all hell breaks loose when you subject me to a smorgasbord of culinary crack like what was found at the Kaohsiung International Food Festival.

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I had doubts about the chosen venue, but the Dream Mall worked well, allowing attendees to move though a corridor of food booths before being deposited in front of the main stage or along the side of it pass through and exit the festival altogether.

When we arrived Sunday afternoon I quickly went about the business of snacking on all there was to offer–successfully knocking off Taco Rico’s yellow corn soft shell tacos, roasted pork knuckle and sauerkraut from Deutsche Kuche and New Zealand hard cider from Sarkii alcohol importers. I then moved on to The Bayou’s catfish tacos, and a tasty Portugese egg tart compliments of Cafe de Macau. As promised, most of the food was priced to sell so wallet guilt was nil.

Haxstrong founder Greg Haxton

Haxstrong founder Greg Haxton

The Haxtrong charity crew was also out in full force selling raffle tickets, T-shirts, brownies, banana bread and other goodies to help further their much needed cause, and judging by the constant swarm of people around their booth I’d say their efforts didn’t go unnoticed.

Kaohsiung’s reigning burger champ The Eatery was de-throned by Foster Hewitt’s Pub and Grill for Best Burger accolades and The Bayou took the Best Pizza title, but my personal congrats go to the brave folks that entered into the Burger Eating contest.

Three 2-person teams spent thirty minutes trying to consume a 6-pound burger appropriately named “The Hulk.”

Why anyone would volunteer for such a task is beyond me as I’m sure there are health risks involved in consuming that much meat in one sitting, but I rather enjoyed being a spectator and snapping photos of a scene that looked like something out of The Walking Dead.

At the 15 minute mark the contestants were looking sluggish and I became increasingly concerned about whether or not I was in range of a potential projectile vomit barrage. The foreigner squad was well ahead of the two Taiwanese teams but I still gleefully cheered on, urging them to take one more bite to honor their respective countries.

KIFF Burger Eating Competition.

KIFF Burger Eating Competition.

When it all ended the stage looked like a lamb slaughter had just taken place and the six lethargic contestants smiled at the crowd with ketchup stained lips. The winners were given a couple gift cards, a plaque commemorating their victory and a liter of Coca-Cola.

Feeling inspired, I headed back over to the food booths to see what was left to sample.

Round two included a bratwurst from Cory’s Kitchen, more hard cider and several spoonfuls of frozen yogurt from Hello Berry. I flirted with a bite size sample of panzerotti at the Lulu John booth, but gave the full sized portion a miss in hopes of saving room for St. Louis style ribs from Blue Smoque BBQ. Sadly I had to throw in the towel. Vetti Vetti Vicci.

The food gave way to music towards the end of the night and those who weren’t too stuffed hung out and did their best to provide the bands with a dance crowd. By then my stomach was too full for me to do anything more that sway and bob my head, but I stuck around to hear K-Town’s much loved Liger Attack.

Kudos to Ryan Parsons and the participating vendors for putting together an event that everyone can boast about. I was pleased to see a healthy mixture of foreigners and local Taiwanese vying for positon in the food lines. Perhaps an added benefit to events like KIFF is that they help illustrate how diverse the foreign community is while dispelling the myth that we’re all a bunch of loud drunkards looking to get laid.

When I asked Ryan about next year’s festival he rattled off his process for figuring our how to make it even better.

One suggestion: cots and pillows for the gastro-inebriated.

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Peace.

Insta-Blurb: 5 Tips for Scooter Parking in Taiwan

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Of all the vehicles on the road in Taiwan none is more ubiquitous than the scooter. They’re everywhere, zipping up and down streets and sidewalks alike, sometimes carrying whole families, several puppies, groceries–all at the same time.

It’s estimated there are more than 15 million scooters in Taiwan (Google it) and one needs only to walk down the street  to realize that finding parking for them can be damn near impossible.

A friend of ours recently offered to loan us a scooter (to help me out with my recent job search and because he had nowhere to put it) and we happily accepted, promising not to destroy it. The first night it was in our possession it was towed from in front of our apartment building. We figured it would be fine parked next to a row of other scooters, but were mistaken and shelled out NT $800  (about $27) for a lesson learned.

Hoping to avoid being towed in the future, I decided to enlist the help of my iPhone to compile a short list of tips for choosing a place to stash the ride.

#1. White lines are your friend

As a general rule, when you see parking slots painted white, you’re in the clear to park. In busier areas you might have to pay a small fee for these spots, usually via a small ticket that a meter maid attaches to your ride. Pop into the nearest 711 to pay it.

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Keep in mind that actually finding an open white slot can be easier said than done.

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#2. Sidewalks are for walking, except when they’re for parking.

This is a parking grey area. Technically it’s not legal to park on the sidewalk, but if it’s directly outside outside a business (in this case, a casino) whose patrons have claimed the sidewalk for parking, give it a go, but try to get a spot in the middle of the pack to give you a buffer in case the tow fellas show up. Parking on the sidewalk during the day for short period of time is generally acceptable, but leave it over night and there’s a good chance it’ll end up at the impound lot.

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#3. Be mindful of the yellow “X.”

The yellow “X” is a certified no parking zone. You usually see them in the lone space where one can access the sidewalk to enter a building. This one has the advantage of side-rails for added parking deterrence.

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But every rule has an exceptional asshole who is above it.

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#4. A little wiggle room is helpful.

Don’t be afraid to move the scooters around you for added space. I assure you no one will think twice about moving yours. I’ve come downstairs many times to find that some prick has taken my scooter off the prop-stand a put it on the leaning kickstand so they could squeeze their ride in, scratching my muffler to hell in the process.

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Teamwork is sometimes required to achieve the perfect fit.

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#5. When all else fails, stand guard and wait for something to open up.

Why make loops around the block when you can wait and enjoy the finer things in life?

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Have parking tips of your own? Drop them in the comments section. Find me on Instagram @jaywoodson.

TADIT Fights for Diversity and Fairness in Taiwan

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The Taipei Times recently published a story about a group of foreign English teachers who have  launched an effort to combat discrimination in Taiwan’s ESL market. The group–Teachers Against Discrimination in Taiwan(TADIT)–was started by Annie Chen, a Taiwanese American with dual citizenship who had trouble finding work as an English teacher in Taipei because of her Asian appearance and last name. Her experience echoes that of many other non-white English teachers who have come to Taiwan eager to teach.

I remember sifting through hundreds of threads on Forumosa and Tealit before I left the states that mentioned the discriminatory (and in some cases, racist) attitudes of English cram school operators and Taiwanese citizens. When I arrived almost all the expats I spoke with told me that I would have a harder time finding work due to my skin color. It’s not that I took it in stride per se, but I wasn’t going to let it deter me from from trying. I’d survived living and working in Korea–perhaps one of the most xenophobic nations in Asia–so I didn’t think Taiwan would present me with anything I couldn’t handle. Or so I thought.

For me, reading about TADIT could not have come at a better time.

Last Monday I was called into a school that I had sent a cold email to the previous week. They were in need of a part-time teacher and I was invited to come in for a demo and interview. I arrive to the same surprised expression I’ve been getting when walking into schools; the “oh shit, he’s black” look. No problem. I smile and inform them I’m there for a scheduled lesson demo and interview. I expected to do the demo in front of an actual class, but instead had to do it for one of the managers and a Taiwanese teacher. It doesn’t bother me at all and I feeling like I nailed it. A quick vocabulary activity, some simple sentence structure and I’m done. As I’m leaving the manager tells me that when I come back she’ll show me how to use the special interactive white board. Her choice of the word “when” has me feeling like I got the job.

The next day that same manager gives me a call and explains that there is a “small problem.” I need to come back for another demo–this time for the director of the school and a different manager– because they’ve never had a teacher who was black. The explanation leaves me offended and a conflicted about rather to return for the demo. I contemplate going in and giving a lesson on the importance of diversity in leaning environment instead of anything from the textbooks. During my second demo I’m made to feel as if they were now looking for reasons to not  hire me. The director leaves after only a few minutes and I keep being interrupted with requests to demonstrate how I would teach some minute detail of a lesson I had all but five minutes to prepare. This time when I leave I’m told they will all me if they need anything else. The “if” left no question as to rather I’d be hired or not.

I didn’t plan on sharing this story via Dreadlock Travels, but after reading about Chen and others efforts to fight this type of behavior I felt I needed to share it. Everyone seems to be aware that this is happening, yet until now no one has taken the effort to do anything about it, possibly because of the assumption that nothing can be done.

According to Taiwan law it’s illegal to for schools to discriminate on the basis of race class, religion, etc–something I didn’t know until this morning.

The face of the English speaking world is a muti-ethnic one and I applaud TADIT for understanding that this is not just an employment issue to be fought in schools and courtrooms. There’s also lot to be done in changing a social psyche that perpetuates the myth that a proper English education can only be attained from someone who is caucasian. Schools become reluctant to hire people of color because they’re afraid parents will pull their kids out. No students, no profit.

TADIT has set up a blog and Facebook group urging teachers who have been discriminated against in Taiwan to share their stories. They also have projects in the works that include lobbying politicians and media outlets, as well as hosting a Diversity Day event to show the many cultures of English speaking foreigners.

From the Taipei Times article:

“We think this fear of non-white English teachers comes from a lack of exposure. If we can expose people, especially families, to greater diversity, we can help change things,“ added Hales, who is organizing a soccer tournament, face-painting, live music, yoga classes and an Aboriginal dance performance to feature in the event.

TADIT is also seeking to garner close ties with schools by creating a brochure to encourage them to become equal opportunity employers and there is talk of working with schools to give presentations on diversity awareness to students. All of these projects require help from volunteers. The group is based in Taipei, but the problem is island wide. I encourage anyone who teaching in Taiwan who wants to help to join the Facebook group and help spread awareness. I’m of the mind that this common practice can be stamped out. Chen and her TADIT organization have already taken the first step.

Big shout-out to Byran Harris and the Taipei Times for the feature article on TADIT.

Peace.

Bang Bang–(Surviving)The Yanshui Fireworks Festival

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It’s Saturday night and we have our friends Simon and Tina over for dinner. In between bites of tacos we’re discusing our plans for the rest of the weekend. I have to turn down Simon’s invitation to a pick-up game of ultimate frisbee on Sunday because Kay and I have made tentative plans with some other friends to visit a town north of Kaohsiung in search of a fireworks festival. Tina says she’s been to the festival before, but that she probably doesn’t need to do it again. She also tells us that if we go we’ll need to wear motocycle helmets.

“What for?” I ask. I’d heard very little about the festival and was putting off doing a web search until I knew for sure that we were going, but  certainly didn’t anticipate needing a helmet to attend.

“For protection against the fireworks,” says Tina.

Now I’m confused and thinking about all my previous firework  experiences: numerous Fourth of July celebrations, carnivals, the Minnesota State Fair, the Busan International Fireworks Festival in Korea. I don’t recall needing protective head gear for any of them.

Maybe the Taiwanese have different, more sinister versions of fireworks than what I’m used to. Maybe the festival is a town-wide Roaming Candle war pitting visitors and tourist against the locals. Maybe “fireworks” is an incorrect English translation and the meaning is closer to “gunpowder” or “dynamite.” Who wouldn’t want to visit a Taiwanese dynamite festival?

The next day I do a quick web search and discover that every year on the 15th day after Chinese New Year visitors flock to the town of Yanshui to be repeatedly shot by hundreds of bottle rockets.

The Yanshui Fireworks Festival (widely considered to be one of the most dangerous festivals in the world) stems from a cholera outnreak  in the late 19th century that nearly wiped the small town out. The citizens of Yanshui called upon the Chinese god of war, Guan Dong (also called Guan Di) to help fight the the disease by carrying his statue around town on a palanquin while shooting off  fireworks every step of the way. The epidemic receded and the locals have been paying homage ever since by annually reenacting the pyrotechnic exorcism.

The highlight of the festival revolves around the sporadic lighting of “beehives” –large structures built with wood or steel, laden with thousands of bottle rockets connected to a single intertwined fuse. Once lit, rockets fire in all directions and festival goers donned in motorcycle helmets and coveralls gather around and allow themselves to be pelted.

Positioning the beehive.

Positioning the beehive.

Kay and I decide to visit the festival with some friends, but opt out of being bombarded with fireworks. In fact, of the four people in our group only our friend Jenna (author of the blog Nomad Notions) is brave enough to join the rocket fodder. We hop a train to Tainan City then continue by taxi to Yanshui. We don’t make it more than 5 feet out the car before  hearing the rumble of fireworks in the distance.

The streets are lined with food vendors and local shops have tables set up with scooter helmets, gloves, safety glasses and other rocket protection gear for sale. the air smells like rotten eggs and the entire town is under a heavy blanket of smoke. Dim pulsating lights can be seen flickering through the smoke overhead and groups of people wearing matching coveralls with burn stains are roaming around–no doubt in search of the next beehive explosion.

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We stroll towards the center of town stopping sporadically to sample street food and buy beer. There’s not a lot to do for those uninterested in pyromania, but families still gather for photo ops near a creek littered with glowing ornaments of different sizes, and to send  the occasional prayer lantern floating into the sky. It’s been about two hours since we arrived and we still have yet to witness the lighting of a beehive. We’d gotten word that a large one was set to go off at 10pm, but when that was pushed to 11 (and later, 11:30) we followed others who claimed to have knowledge of one being lit a few blocks away.

Anticipation mounts as the large contraption is rolled into the middle of the street and a fellow who’d clearly been chewing betel-nut all night encourages all the foreigners who want to get blasted by the bottle rockets to be doused with water beforehand to avoid their clothes catching fire. As with many small towns in Asia, the large group of foreigners draw a lot of attention and many of the locals are taking pictures with several expats who have added themes to their protective gear (big shout-out to Captain America).

Waiting for the Beehive to be lit.

Waiting for the Beehive to be lit.

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Participants have water sprayed on them to avoid catching fire.

I snap as many photos as I can then retreat to what Kay and I think is a safe  distance–20-30 yards from the beehive, behind a parked car. They parade the palanquin of Guan Dong around the premises and the crowd quiets as the fuse is lit.

When it starts the first few shoot straight up into the air and rain down sparks onto the entire scene. Then row after row of the rockets fire directly into the crowd, causing those in the front to dance and turn away in an attempt to dampen the force of the barrage. As the fuse travels through the frame the smoke thickens and only long streaks of light left in the wake of the rockets are clearly noticeable. None of them have shot in our direction yet so I rise from the hiding spot (fully exposing my head) to take some photos. By now everyone close to the beehive is hopping around trying to cover the more sensitive areas of their bodies and the entire street looks like an astronaut rave in the middle of a meteor shower.

I whip out my iPhone and begin recording video hoping not to catch a bottle rocket to the face, and a Taiwanese gentleman appears at my side gesturing for me to follow him to a better vantage point. I crouch down and scurry behind him, feeling like a solider scrambling into a foxhole for cover. As he ushers me into a nearby tent (turns out it’s the same tent where they were storing the beehive) two rockets go off near my head and I give up on the recording. I’m way too close. 

 Luckily I end up next to a couple who have gotten ahold of some cardboard and together we hunker down behind it.  After a few minutes the barrage of rockets shifts to a different direction and I’m able to make my way back to the previous shelter behind the car. It’s been ten minutes since they lit the damn thing and it’s still going strong. Some people emerge from the crowd to take a breather and bat out the flames on their clothes before retuning to the onslaught.

When it’s finally over we emerge from our shelter and search for Jenna and some other friends to inspect for injuries. There’s a few burn holes and a mangled umbrella, but no one is hurt and everyone is wearing a wide grin. Beers are drank and we take some time to enjoy the fireworks that are being shot overhead instead of into the crowd.

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Captain America took one for the team.

We watch a couple more beehives explode (one made to look like Sponge Bob and the other shaped like a tea pot) before calling it a night and heading back to Kaohsiung. It’s 1 a.m. but some people are just arriving as the festivities will continue until 4. I’m secure in my decision not to join in on the action, but pledge to partake next year. It’ll be two hours before we make it back home–plenty of time for my ears to stop ringing.

Peace

*Author’s note: If you’d like to read about Jenna’s recount of her experiences on the front lines, you can do so here.

The Search Continues

The last few weeks have brought about a lot of change. Kay and I were able to move out of our temporary housing into a spacious two-bedroom apartment that we both enjoy, we were able to set up internet service (though it wasn’t installed until after Chinese New Year) and we survived copious amounts of time spent at Ikea Carrefore, and the ever helpful Daiso (Japan’s take on the dollar store).

Life in Kaohsiung is slowly creeping toward normalcy except for–despite my sincerest efforts–I haven’t been able to find a teaching gig.

I was more than happy to suspend my job hunt during Chinese New Year. All  schools closed up so that employees could enjoy the holiday and join the hoards of Taiwanese traveling around the island and crowding every shopping mall, movie theater and any other public space to celebrate the year of the snake. Besides taking a break from canvasing the city for job leads, I took advantage of the CNY sales. A family pack of toilet paper was going for less than two bucks.

But now that the holiday is over I’ve returned to my daily routine of searching expat forums and cold-emailing potential schools hoping to find one that is in need of a teacher. I’m kicking myself (a little) because a school that I previously did a lesson demo for called me back; not to offer me a job, but to allow me to provide a second hour-long demo. I turned the “opportunity” down mainly because the atmosphere seemed frantic, with teachers scrambling to prepare for their lessons in between sips of tea. Also there’s a good chance that most of my hours would have fell on a Saturday with the rest being scattered throughout the week. I’m not against working on Saturdays, but a six-day work week isn’t for me.

Other potential job leads include a single conversation before the holiday with a recruiter from one of the bigger chain schools. She sounded confident that she could help me out after Chinese New Year and told me she would email some info regarding the position, but I have yet to hear back from her and all my efforts to contact her have been unsuccessful. I’m beginning to think I’m annoying her somehow. I’ve also walked into schools and handed them my resume with a smile. Maybe there’s a postion about that’s about to open up; if so I’d like to be considered for it. Today I called a school that I recently left a resume at and the manager couldn’t remember if she took a look at it or not. She took my number and promised to get back to me.

Some teachers I’ve talked to have claimed my lack of success with landing a job is because I’m black (one woman all but told me to give up) and employers are nervous about hiring people of color because they don’t want to agitate parents who would rather see their kids taught but someone with less melanin. I did some research on this before I came to Taiwan and found that while it may be true that some cram schools are partial to non-whites, there are still plenty of blacks from all over the English speaking world teaching in Taiwan and enjoying it. I’d be taking the defeatist approach if I were let this deter me from seeking employment at any school, rather it be a small mom-&-pop Buxiban or one of the bigger chain schools.

With frustration mounting, I’m curious as to how others–either here in Kaohsiung or elsewhere in Taiwan–have gone about finding gigs. Subbing is fine to gain some quick cash, but it doesn’t provide an ARC and making visa runs every few months is not a habit I’m looking to get into. I understand the time of  year matters a lot and that lately there are more teachers than jobs available, but I’d still like to hear how those currently employed went about finding their teaching job, particularly when they first arrived. The tips could prove helpful to other newbies like myself.

Peace