Instablurb: Taiwan’s Night Markets

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Rueifeng Night Market, Kaohsiung

Taiwan is often ignored by the dominant forces in travel publishing. It rarely makes the cut on any of the “Top Ten Tropical Getaways” lists that litter the interwebs, and the under abundance of drug induced beach parties largely keep it off the backpacker circuit, but the few glitzy websites that do give Isla Formosa some play almost never forget to include Taiwan’s night markets as must see attractions, and rightly so.

Similar to strip malls in suburban America (only less tacky) and Trattorias in Italy (only more crowded), you’re never too far from a night market in Taiwan. Ask any Taiwanese where their favorite night market is and they’ll probably give you two; mention your favorite night market and they’ll respond with one that’s better. The open air conglomerations of food stalls, clothing shops, carnival games and craft stands are best taken in with all senses–ideal places to smash on local food, try your hand at mahjong bingo, people-watch to your heart’s content and browse for everything from panty hose to house pets.

Labor Park Night Market, Kaohsiung

Labor Park Night Market, Kaohsiung

For expats in Taiwan it’s sometimes easy to ignore the lure of night markets and it might take an argument over just which one is the best before you rediscover why making weekly visits to your neighborhood night market is a part of life for those who call Taiwan home. Fail to check out a few night markets as a visitor and you’ll indeed be missing out on an interesting chunk of Taiwanese culture.

Somewhat driven by a recent visit to the Labor Park Night Market ( 老公夜市) near my apartment in Kaohsiung, I snapped a few photos of night market scenes worth sharing and dug through my iPhone for old ones as well.

Labor Park Night Market, Kaohsiung

Labor Park Night Market, Kaohsiung

Probably the most highlighted aspect of Taiwan’s night markets is the food. The general rule when dining out in night markets ought to be to keep an eye out for stalls that have their food reviews on display or have a line of patrons. These tend to be long-standing tenants with reputations for serving up culinary crack. Of course this doesn’t mean you should pass up stalls without queues and newspaper clippings, but with so much grub competing for your attention, it’s nice to have some local guidance.

Rueifong Night Market. Kaohsiung City.

Rueifeng Night Market. Kaohsiung City.

Eating your way through a night market will also mean coming across some pretty weird shit. Chicken feet, pig blood cake and duck tongues are mainstays and I promise you’ll smell the stinky tofu long before you actually see it. Be as adventurous as you want, but I stop short of animal rectums (no chicken ass, please) and most insects (shoutout to Andrew Zimmern).

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Rueifeng Night Market, Kaohsiung

When I ask my students what they enjoy most about night markets the majority of them mention the games: toss a ring, shoot a bottle, pop a balloon; it’s all there–plenty to choose from if you’re looking for a place to win a stuffed Hello Kitty for your girlfriend or to park the kids for a couple of hours while you try on sunglasses and fish for live shrimp.  I often chuckle when seeing kids go buck wild at a game stall while mom and dad sit nearby scrolling through Facebook, passing money to the game operator every few minutes to keep the party going.

Labor Park Night Market, Kaohsiung

Labor Park Night Market, Kaohsiung

Even more interesting, there’s usually a gaming section devoted to mahjong bingo where for NT$15-$20 a game, you can flip over fifteen mahjong tiles with the hope of landing a straight line on the gaming board. You’d think gambling was involved considering how many people hunker down in front of the tiles, but prizes rarely exceed the normal collection of children’s toys and stuffed animals.

I’ve noticed that while there are common threads that run through almost all night markets, each one still has its own unique vibe. Some are massive and cater to tourists looking to snatch up a few Chinese made souvenirs and pose for photos while holding stinky tofu. Others are more chill and locally driven–narrow lanes where people stop to grab their favorite dumplings or grilled squid on their way home from school or work. Some night markets function better as social hubs: landmarks to meet at with friends and browse but never buy; places where broke teenagers can take their dates.

Labor Park Night Market, Kaohsiung

Labor Park Night Market, Kaohsiung

Some of my favorite night markets are mainly clothing markets selling T-shirts with incorrect English printed on them and wide arrays of clubbing garb, priced to sell and in line with the latest fashion from Korea, Japan and the U.S. Two years ago on my birthday I bought a cap at the New Shinkuchan Night Market in Kaohsiung loaded with so much bling that I felt like a Saudi prince as soon as it touched my skull. There’s no way you’d find that type of swag in SOGO or any other department store chain in Taiwan.

Still, there are some night markets that are unapologetic in their randomness, completely undefinable and seemingly unmatched in their versatility. Meccas of commerce that have no problem catering to those who’d like to pick up a new cell phone case, have a pair of jeans tailored, get a manicure and snack on strawberry glazed penis cakes all at the same place.

Taichung

Fengjia Night Market, Taichung

Find Dreadlock Travels on Instagram: @jaywoodson

Author’s note: If you’re in Kaohsiung, Taiwanvore has done a fine job mapping out a lot of the night markets in the city. Peep his Photo walk through the Labor Park Night Market post as well.

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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.

Eat This: Rice Stuffed Chicken Wings (飯飯雞翅)

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Photo By Kickerjean

Photo By Kickerjean

Sun Moon Lake did very little for me during a short visit last year. Its campground should probably be relocated, a cable car ride to the mountain above the lake wasn’t an option due to crappy weather, I’m not really enticed by butterfly gardens and frilly mountain-top theme parks are, well, creepy. Swimming is not permitted (aside from the annual 10,000 People Sun Moon Lake Traverse) so many visitors opt to take a boat tour or hit up the lakeside hiking/biking trails.

Because of almost constant rain, we were more or less relegated to either visiting the several temples peppered around the lake (yawn) or browsing around the shops and food stalls in Itashao (伊达邵) and Shueishe (水社) villages. We chose the latter, which amounted to buying a slightly perverted phallic-themed keychain and discovering this awesomeness:

Photo used with permission by Fob

Photo used with permission by Fob

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Take a grilled chicken wing, get rid of the bones, jam pack it with seasoned sticky rice, garnish with scallions and red onions and sell it for $NT 60 (not even two bucks).

Yes, please. And thank you.

I’ve since run into these rice stuffed wings (饭饭鸡翅) at night markets around Taiwan, but none have held up to the standard found in Itashao village. Probably because the stall in Itashao uses proper sticky rice (a favorite among Taiwan’s aboriginals) whereas other places use white rice.

There wasn’t much of a line when when we visited, but a row of photos in front of the stall suggests that whoever is involved with this version of the dish is a big deal.

Photo by Kickerjean

Photo by Kickerjean

Find the stall on the main road heading towards the pier in Itashao village, among the other food stalls and knick-knack shops.

K-Town Paparazzi

Photo by Funkypancake CCL 2.0

Photo by Funkypancake CCL 2.0

One of the schools that I work at is next door to a hair salon.  A long while back a co-worker tells me that a stylist at the hair salon saw me in a different part of the city. I tell my co-worker I’m not exactly hard to miss in Kaohsiung and stand there for a moment thinking there’s more to the story. There isn’t; someone saw me somewhere, that person thought my co-worker should know and my co-worker thought I should know.

The whole exchange didn’t make much sense until last week when, after finishing my classes, one of the T.A.s asks me if I have time to stop by the hair salon before I go home for the night.

“They want take picture of your hair.”

I head over and a stylist sits me down in her chair and confusingly eyeballs the small black ropes hanging from my scalp.

She speaks very little English but starts asking me how it’s done.

I grab a tuft of my hair and think of how I might explain dreadlocks in Chinese, but with my limited vocabulary the best I would be able to convey is “head chopsticks,” and I’d probably still screw up the requisite tones. Instead I scribble “dreadlocks” on a piece of paper and tell her to Google it.

Using her cellphone, she begins taking pictures of my hair from every angle imaginable and asks (through the use of Chinese, broken English and hand gestures) what products I use. Not knowing how to convey “organic lock and twist gel” I again consider using my Chinese skills to say something that might vaguely translate to “head glue” before sheepishly pointing to a bottle of shampoo on a nearby shelf.

I get that she probably wants to offer dreadlocks to her clients some day, but I’ve just finished teaching. I’m not really in the mood to explain how it’s done nor why it will take a helluva lot more effort to create the same hairstyle for someone with thinner hair than mine.

I’m just about to leave when she tells me that it was actually her friend who saw me before. The hair stylist knew it was me because of the Facebook message her friend sent with my photo attached. She swipes around on her phone and shows me a grainy zoomed-in photo (a la TMZ) from nearly a year ago of myself and several friends sitting outside a 7-11 drinking beers. I’m not even remotely aware that I’m being photographed.

“Is it strange?” As she asks the question I realize I’m not doing a good job of hiding the stupefied look on my face.

A complete stranger shows you a photo of yourself that looks like it was taken by a stalker? Fuck yes, it’s strange.

I think about it on the way home and it starts to bother me. Isn’t it rude that someone would take an unsuspecting photo of me then share it with someone else as if to say “look what I found?” Wouldn’t it be better to have at least asked my permission first (something that happens frequently) instead of acting like a creepy paparazzo lurking in the shadows of 7-11? Am I being too sensitive?

I’ve since thought that maybe I’m not being fair. The incident was weird and mildly intrusive, but had I not been shown the photo, I would’ve gone about my business ignorant to the fact and thus un-nuanced by it. Effectively, there would be no reason for this blog post.

Thinking about it within the context of unabashed Taiwanese photo glut, one could assume this is business as usual, as many Taiwanese rarely miss an opportunity to whip out their cellphones and click away, regardless of how mundane the subject.

A latte during breakfast–click.
A dog wearing a miniature jacket–click.
Each and every meal consumed at a restaurant–click, click, click.

While I personally question the need to photograph any of the above examples, it doesn’t surprise me when I see others do it. Tis the norm in the R.O.C.

Why then, is it bothersome that someone covertly took a photo of me because of my (scarcely found in Taiwan) appearance? Couldn’t there be a western equivalence of this given the proliferation of a click-share-discuss culture ushered in by Facebook, Instagram, Hipstamatic, Picstich and the like?

A quick scroll through my Instagram posts reveals that I have indeed taken photos of at least five people without their knowledge or consent, but the purpose of these photos is hardly based on a person’s appearance so much as a humorous situation (a toddler riding in a remote controlled miniature sized Audi and a man sleeping next to his scooter) or a t-shirt with a cheeky message printed on it (“COMME des FUCKDOWN”).  Would these be considered on par with my 7-11 portrait?

I’m having a hard time figuring out if this is simply a cultural difference in photo etiquette or if I truly have reason to find fault in what was likely meant as a harmless gesture of curiosity.

Drop a comment below and let me know what you think.

 

Weekend Wanderings: Xiao Liuqiu

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Flower Vase Rock on Xiao Liuqiu

Four-day holiday weekends In Taiwan often mean getting out of the city and finding a nice piece of somewhere to temporarily escape  lesson plans, tests, and cheeky preteens who scoff at the idea of anything being more interesting than K-pop stars and computer games.

For us, this last holiday weekend meant throwing a few things in a bag and loading up my scooter for a trip down to Xiao Liuqiu, a drop of coral island off the southwest coast of Taiwan.

The weather wasn’t perfect, we had yet to eat breakfast and the island was swarming with tourists, but we had a mini cooler, a tent and some snorkel gear. At the very least we could stage a nifty Instagram photo and lie to everyone about having the perfect long weekend on an island paradise.

With a total land mass of just under seven square kilometers, Xiao Liuqiu clearly isn’t the biggest, but it’s the only one of Taiwan’s fourteen islands made completely of coral. Take the twenty-minute ride around the island by scooter and you’ll notice an abundance of cemeteries and solitary grave sites. Apparently island regulations prohibit graves from being in too close to homes so when grandma finally keels over, she’s relegated to a roadside mound to rest in peace. She might also be next to an electric scooter charging station.

We arrive on the island and grab some food then head off to sort out where to sleep for the night. The number of people pouring off the ferry almost certainly means that finding a reasonably priced hotel room will be out of question, but we’d heard that it’s possible–while technically prohibited–to pitch a tent on one of the island’s four beaches.  After meeting  two girls from Tainan who were looking to camp as well, we decide to stash our tent in the brush near Geban Bay and return at sunset to set up camp. The idea being that island officials would be less inclined to boot us off the beach once the sun goes down.

Plenty of tourism websites and blogs will lead you to believe that the attractions on Xiao Liuqiu are “amazing,” “fabulous” and even “captivating.” And why shouldn’t they? Fishing has been on the decline so local islanders have began banking on tourism to make make a living, which means up-selling mediocre (albeit naturally beautiful) highlights:

Black Dwarf Cave
A dark coral crawl space that will make claustrophobics soil their pants; connected to a path the twists between a few boulders and spits you out onto a stairway which leads to a sea facing pavilion. By definition, this may be the only actual “cave” on the island.

Wild Boar Trench
A labyrinth of wooden paths criss crossing a forest of banyan trees and narrow dirt paths that may or may not lead anywhere and several ditch like crevices that I chose not to venture into. It’s a nice place to take a quiet stroll or get some island nookie if you and your boo are feeling frisky. Grab some ice cream across from the entrance when you’re done.

Flower Vase Rock
The symbol of Xiao Liuqiu, Flower Vase Rock looks more like a cheap bouquet of flowers rather than an actual vase. It’s probably among the most crowded places on the island and you might end up fighting for space amongst vacationing families and couples looking to capture the perfect selfie, as well as snorkeling groups donning wet suits and life jackets. I’m not saying the thirty-foot crag isn’t interesting, but I can only be so enthralled by the beauty of sea erosion before my attention is captured by something else, like say, ugly dogs wearing sweater vests.

The list of goes on, but I’ll spare you the details.

Call me picky, but if you come to Xiao Liuqiu for anything, it should be for its snorkeling and the abundance of sea turtles that come to snack on its healthy corals. This was the one thing mentioned by just about every person we asked before deciding to visit ourselves. Doubting that we’d be so lucky as to actually see any turtles, I still made sure to pack my GoPro just in case.

I slip on my fins and hop in the water off ChungAu beach just east of Baisha port. Not anticipating a long swim, I leave the GoPro on the beach and am content with kicking around the corals nearest the shore. Just twenty yards from the beach (and still rather close to where the ferries pull in) , there are plenty of fish and the visibility near perfect.

I return to the beach after fifteen minutes and an expat visiting from Taipei who’d just exited the water asks if I’d seen the turtle swimming just beyond the wave breakers. I tell him no and he points me in the direction of where he and his girlfriend were just swimming, some 30 yards out.

I immediately kick out past the wave breakers, hopeful to catch a glimpse of said turtle and right before I decide to turn back I see the dijon yellow underside of it’s oval shell as it’s scraping for food between two pieces of coral. I let out a “holy shit!” and nearly choke on a mouthful of salt water. I follow it along the coral for ten minutes before spotting another smaller turtle to my right, closer to shore. I decide not to chase the second turtle, opting to float at arm’s length with the first one until it eventually turns and heads out to deeper waters.  Damn my idiotic self to hell for forgetting to bring the GoPro.

That night, the Tainan girls inform us that they also spotted turtles on a different side of the island. Kay and I decide to head out out together the next day. Having stayed on the beach during the first sighting, we’re both anxious for her to catch a glimpse firsthand and I’m hoping to get some quality GoPro footage. We follow the the advice of the Taipei couple and check the waters off the beach at Flower Vase rock (no doubt the tour crowds were amused by the two guide-less foreigners scrambling over coral to safely slip in the water).

We drift east with the current towards the pier before I realize that just below my stomach, a mammoth sized sea turtle more than a meter in length, is feeding on a piece of coral. I stick my head above the surface and yell to Kay and reach for my GoPro.

DCIM100GOPRO

DCIM100GOPRO

I swim in circles above the creature shooting photos and video before diving closer. It seems unalarmed by our presence and continues its snacking for a few moments before treating us to a swim-along: rising towards the surface and slowly drifting in a circular pattern as if–I shit you not– inviting us follow. Eventually the creature  grows tired of us and begins flapping out to sea.

At this point the recurring thought “holy fucking shit I just swam with a giant sea turtle” is bouncing around in my head and I’m keen on making the journey back towards Flower Vase Rock. Enter turtle number two.

This one is a considerably smaller with a shell that looks as if it’s been painted in hi-def. Not as outgoing as its larger sibling, it’s vigilant of our proximity, but doesn’t shy away from the camera as it rotates a few degrees to its side–fins extended– allowing me to capture a shot of of the mural on its back.

DCIM100GOPRO

Four turtle sightings in not even two days. We spent nearly two weeks in Palawan, Philippines and, while the snorkeling was remarkable, I saw only one turtle at a depth where I could barely make out it’s shape, let alone take any pictures.

The abundance of turtles on Xiao Liuqiu is perhaps a testament to a small but vibrant ecosystem that has remained protected and largely untouched (the island is also home to an inter-tidal zone with an equally diverse range of sea life).

On land Xiao Liuqiu probably won’t make anyone’s year-end list of top island destinations, but as far as it’s waters are concerned, you’d expect to drop a good chunk of loot for the opportunity to gawk a sea turtles in many other parts of Asia. Here it’s available to anyone with access to snorkel gear and a willingness to shimmy over some coral if necessary. 

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Getting to Xioa Liuqiu:
If you’re coming from other parts of Taiwan, you’ll need to make it to either the Kaohsiung Main Train Station or the Kaohsiung International Airport. Both locations have buses that can take you to Dongnag. Once in Dongang, hop a taxi to the ferry pier. Just tell the driver Xioa Liuqiu (chow-lee-oh-choh). A round trip ticket will cost you NT$380. You can rent scooters on the Island just across from the ferry terminal. It will cost an extra NT$100 each way to bring a scooter. More ferry info here.

It takes about an hour to get from Central Kaohsiung to Dongang if you decide to drive. Take highway 17 out of the city and turn right when you see a sign for Dongang Township. Stop in a 7-11 or McDonalds and ask them to point you in the direction for the ferry terminal.

Where to eat:
There are plenty of Taiwanese restaurants around the ferry terminal but don’t expect any of them to be English speaking. A Dui’s Tuna Restaurant is a popular, cheap option that has and English menu. We went for the grilled tuna fried rice and an order of sashimi.  If fish isn’t your thing, they also have standard fried rice dishes and typical Taiwanese veggies. If that still doesn’t do it for you, pop into any place near Baisha Port with a line and utilize the point method of ordering.  If all else fails, grab the microwavable curry bowl at 7-11.

Where to sleep:
Most of the hotels and guesthouses are concentrated around Baisha port. It gets crowded on the weekends, so it always safe to book ahead, but one could still show up a secure lodging if it’s not during a holiday.

For camping there are two campgrounds to choose from(Dreamland and Samaji) or you can be a rebel and pitch a tent on the beach. The north end of Geban Bay (Venice Beach) provides a great sunset, plenty of firewood and nice view of Koahsiung’s skyline. There’s more info on eating and accommodation on the Liuqiu Tourism website.

The Powerful Powerless

Superhero-Kid

There’s a thin veil of power and control when teaching those who don’t share your same native language. Sudents might respectfully listen to what you have to say and maybe they can get the gist it, but inevitably there are times when the inability to articulate instructions in an understood manner results in mutiny: the students can’t understand you so they do what they want or nothing at all. This thin veneer of pedagogical influence is even more frail when dealing with toddlers and preschoolers– those cute uncalibrated snot buckets that I liken to miniature uncalibrated robots.

When hiring for teachers of young learners, many buxibans in Taiwan will ask about classroom management skills. This, I feel, is pointless. It’s easy enough to offer up some bullshit about a foul-proof method you’ve contrived to control thirty or so Taiwanese 5-year-olds whose English proficiency stretches little beyond  “Hello how are you? I’m fine, thank you,” but a more honest response might involve explaining how you plan to make an example of the first student who cuts up, no matter how minute the infraction. Answer a question without first raising your hand? Minus 100 stickers. You might send a kid home in tears (it took him all semester to earn those stickers), but the message–this teacher is not to be fucked with– will resonate with the rest of the class, and if you’re lucky, the entire student body.

Regardless of any class management method you employ, at a certain point the kids are so young and the language gap is so wide, that asking a non-Chinese speaking foreigner to brave such a classroom alone is about as useful for teaching English as plopping a group of students down in front of a stereo and cranking up The Very Best of 2 Live Crew.

I teach a very young group of students –we’ll call them the Tangerine class–and luckily I have a Taiwanese co-teacher to help heard them around and fill the lingual gaps during my 2-hour lessons. Eighty percent of the reason I’m able to teach anything is because of her. Among the twelve or so students that I see daily she is both a source for love and trepidation. They turn to her when they’re hurt and cower in front of her when they’ve done something wrong.  Her pet peeves are like draconian laws for preschoolers. Run a foul with her and you run the risk of being taken into the bathroom for “readjustment.” Every kid that enters returns teary eyed.

While my co-teacher is in the room the kids are as responsive and well behaved as you’d hope any preschool class of ESl learners would be. There’s always a few laggards, but my instructions are more or less followed and when I need to bring the class back to attention I can usually do so without strain. That’s when she’s in the room.

Believe me when I tell you that if my co-teacher is absent I’m vulnerable to student rebellion.

Eyes watching.
Ears listening.
Mouth quiet.
Hands nicely.

These are the classroom commands that are most effective on a good day. Beyond that, I got nothing. I know it. The students know it. After five minutes solo they begin testing the limits of my patience: the defiant nose picking, sprawling out on the floor, eating pocket lint. At twenty minutes I’m left shouting the same commands that ceased being useful ten minutes ago.  Eyes watching, ears listening…

Not all is lost, however. They comprehend and execute “put your book away” with lightning efficiency.

Some teachers employ “the look,” that stern face of dissatisfaction meant to scare students into compliance. With the Tangerines, there’s not a shred of logic behind this tactic. They only understand maybe thirty percent of what I say anyways. Instead of the “look” being synonymous with “Teacher Jeremy is serious,” they interpret it as “please keep screaming at the top of your lungs and continue playing with your saliva.” Maybe it’s a cultural thing.

As young as they are, the students are keen enough to understand that the control I wield over them is easily circumvented due to my lack of Chinese and their lack of English.  They agree that as a teacher I have at least a morsel of authoritative power, but beyond that I’m just the facilitator of  English games who is to be repeatedly contested or ignored in the absence of their more fearful lao sieuh.  The Tomatoes’ perception of me is similar to my perception of any substitute teacher I encountered in the seventh grade: You’re not my REAL teacher hence any interest I show in what you’re doing or saying is provided as a courtesy at best. Unless, of course, I start shilling out candy and Sponge Bob stickers.

Before leaning to ask permission to use the bathroom some of my students would get up in the middle of class and stare me down as they trudged slowly to the toilet, ignoring my every protest which helplessly morph from demands (“Kate,  you need to sit down.”), to denial (“Kate, you can’t just get up in the middle of class…”), before finally, acceptance (“Yes, Kate. You may go to the bathroom.”).

With each act of defiance the class grows bolder; my grip on the throne–looser.

This is often accelerated by attention spans that pitter out after about seven seconds. A microscopic dust mite crawling across the floor has the ability to derail a lesson at not even a moment’s notice. Again when my co-teacher is around I have no struggles in getting them refocused. If she’s gone however, and a few students decide to take a mental break (perhaps to admire the wrinkles on their knuckles), it might take ten minutes to get them back on course.

By then it’s snack time and they’ll have successfully orchestrated a thirty minute break from the strange looking teacher whom they can barely understand.

Alas, the struggle continues tomorrow and I’m nearly out of candy and stickers.

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.

Southern Rap Marathon

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The English cram school I work at likes to be thorough in their education methods. Everyday before classes start, while the students are arriving and milling about the front lobby and hallways, they pipe in all English radio via Sky FM. Doing so helps maintain the facade of an all English atmosphere.

It’s a sincere effort that comes up short. The students and the Taiwanese staff dismiss it as background noise. The songs being played overhead won’t be on this week’s homework and it doesn’t appear on a test therefore it’s largely ignored. It’s a shame because there’s regularly times when the music selection is quite good. I suspect that one of the assistants clicks a different station at random when the school opens.

What this means is that I’m able to jam out to the likes of Boys II Men and Mariah Carey on Monday, followed by Cee-Lo Green  and The Roots on Wednesday. It’s long since become a normal occurrence to catch Teacher Jeremy in full sing-a-long mode while lesson planning in the teachers’ office. The playlists are that damn good.

Even with the varied and noteworthy music selection, I’m shocked when I hear Lil Jon and the Eastside Boys’ “Bia Bia” blasting through the speakers as I’m prepping my lessons the other day. The song is halfway finished before I realize  it’s the uncensored version. Naturally I figure someone downstairs will eventually hear the “fucks” and “shits” coming from overhead and change the station, but two songs later when Crime Mob’s “Knuck if You Buck” came on, I decide it wise to mention something to the Taiwanese staff.

“Are you listening to the music?” I asked one of my co-teachers. She seemed confused by the question.

“No. Why?”

I let her know that the music being played contained a heavy dose of naughty words, to which she tells me that it’s fine because the students just tune it out. In other words: disregard the extremely profane language on the loudspeakers even though you’re at an English cram school full of children.

I return to my desk to finish prepping lessons but I can’t help thinking about the possible unseen consequences of an afternoon-long southern rap-a-thon. The students may not be affected, but what about me? I listen to rap music regularly and just about every song being played is also in my iTunes library. Who’s to say I don’t accidentally let one of those explicit lyrics loose in the classroom? I’d hate to be known as the foreign teacher who told a kid to “fuck dat shit!” because he fudged a verb conjugation.

Alternatively, Who’s to say one of the older students (who relish opportunities to learn and incorporate slang and swear words) isn’t able to pick out a few choice words that he’s heard before on TV or the internet? Now I’m forced to explain to my advanced class what  “let the sweat drop down my balls” is referring to.

Normally I might embrace such an opportunity in the classroom to discuss counter-cultural aspects of the English language, but in this case it’s probably more trouble than its worth. Some of my mid-level students sill have problems recognizing present progressive. I’d be skeptical about them being able to wrap their heads around “twerking” or say, “pussy poppin.”

“…but teacher why she standing on her head?”

I also wouldn’t want to deal with the fallout that could come from students incorporating heard rap lyrics into their writing exercises, particularly because I wouldn’t want to sift through the barrage of grammatical errors they’d undoubtedly contain. “Ima throw dis money while you do it wit no hands”  Isn’t exactly proper usage of future tense. It’d take me hours to correct the assignments and I’d be left with the feeling that I’m ultimately tutoring a group of rambunctious Hip Hop artist instead of my normal crop of Taiwanese high schoolers. I didn’t sign up for that.

By eight o’clock someone has switched the station to Top 40 and no one but me notices. No one but me cares. My last class of the night is about to start and no one but me realizes the ESL clusterfuck that was just avoided.

Since that day I’ve become more emboldened by the music at my school. The rap music has toned down a lot, but when its playing I sing along and try to keep a clear conscience.

Taiwanese Animators Take on Black Friday

Without snow or a or a decent turkey dinner Thanksgiving wasn’t quite as good as it could’ve been, but thanks to Facebook and Twitter I was still able to laugh at all the morons who ditched their families (some in the early hours of the morning) to ransack Big Box stores across America on Black Friday.

Despite internet-wide requests to boycott the shopping bonanza when stores slash prices to lure in early Christmas shoppers, people still went out in droves to secure the best deals. There were reports of fights, stampedes and other violence, and as with every year, we sat back and scratched our heads trying to understand how the black Friday phenomenon came about and why we repeatedly come to blows over discounted flat-screen TVs and video game consoles.

I’m no closer to an explanation than I was last year, but I can’t stop laughing at one offered by a group of animators at Taiwan’s Next Media Animation. Why an animation company in Taiwan would take on the debacle of America’s Black Friday is anyone’s guess (maybe they realize how absurd it is), but I commend them for their cheeky interpretation. The less than perfect English subtitles only make it better.

What the Duck?

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Kaohsiung’s massive rubber ducky at night.

Last weekend I wanted to check out a Cafe near Kaohsiung’s Sihziwan bay, but plans had to be aborted.

The streets near our apartment were impassably clogged with vehicles containing people hell bent on seeing the 60 ft. yellow duck floating in Kaohsiung Harbor.

The duck is the work of Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman, who has exhibited different versions of the childhood favorite in several countries around the world. In 2009 it was on display in Osaka Japan and it caught the attention of Kaohsiung city government officials including Mayor Chen Chu who–after hearing the duck would make a showing in Hong Kong–sent Hoffman a letter to persuade him to bring his duck to Kaohsiung.

You needn’t only search to hashtag, #rubberducky to see that the duck has been well received in the countries that it has visited, but Kaohsiung has gone absolutely crazy over this thing.

The duck was officially unveiled on September 19, as Typhoon Usagi was expected to hit southern Taiwan. The typhoon barely dusted Kaohsiung City and more than half a million people showed in the first week to get a glimpse of the floating giant.

500,000 people.

What exactly is the cultural relevance of a rubber duck? Remember Ernie from Sesame Street? He proclaimed his love for a rubber duck while taking a bath and the yellow fowl instantly became the symbol for bath time, but I doubt Hofman is taking his duck around the word in an effort to promote global hygiene. Do they even watch Sesame Street in the Netherlands?

Since the beginning of September everyone’s been looking to get their share of the $30 million in revenue the duck is estimated to bring in. Every 7-11 in Kaohsiung is selling small replica ducks and duck cups and duck hats and duck pens.  Bars and restaurants have put up duck decorations and have begun selling duck memorabilia, and some places have added duck inspired items to their menus.  The city has begun selling taxi tours that take in all of Kaohsiung’s sites before stopping to check out the yellow beast. Vendors near the pier sell  balloons, hats and other duck inspired souvenirs. Even the guy who usually sells peanuts in front of our apartment building has suspended his nut sales and is now offering 4-packs of miniature rubber ducks. It’s not the authorized merchandise you’ll find on the duck’s official website, but it doesn’t seem to have affected his sales.

Duck inspired birthday cake.

Duck inspired birthday cake.

Hoffman says his duck is meant to spread happiness around the world, but a comment he made for the Associated Press makes me question if he has other motives as well:

“This big rubber duck in your harbor, in Kaohsiung in this case, changes Kaohsiung. And it changes also your fantasy and your brain. And it’s a piece of art.”

My hope is that this is nothing more that artist jibberish, otherwise it sounds like Hofman is trying to induce all of Kaohsiung with a psychedelic animal fetish.

Whatever his intentions, some Taiwanese have wasted no time in comparing their duck with one currently on display in Beijing–also created by Hofman. Duck fetish or not, he may have just helped Taiwan stick it to China.

Taiwan’s duck is not only taller than the one in China (and second biggest in the world), but event workers in Kaohsiung have figured out a way to inflate their bird in a fraction of the time that it normally takes. In China visitors must pay to gaze at their duck whereas here in Kaohsiung it’s free of charge 24 hours a day. Both ducks had test runs before their official debuts, but the duck in China had a hard time staying inflated during it’s opening week.  Taiwan: 3. China: 0. Just saying.

It’s easy to poke fun at this for all of it’s whatthefuckery. Having a 60 ft. rubber duck parked in your harbor is certainly newsworthy, but is it really worth the hype? Is it worth battling the crowd and the heat to see a freakishly large piece of pop art? Can this even be considered art, given the amount of commercialism it’s drenched in? Are the aesthetics lost in a sea of cellphone photos and duck balloons?

Honestly I don’t know that any of these questions matter. The duck is a hit in Kaohsiung for the same reason that selfie foam art would’ve been a hit had it came to fruition: Taiwan is fascinated with displays of the quirky and strange, and if i there’s a line to view or partake in an weird spectacle, it only solidifies it’s legitimacy. That’s not a slam. If anything, Kaohsiung has turned it’s love for the odd into real dollars for the city. They can’t sell the official merchandise fast enough. On the duck’s website some items are completely sold out while others are waiting to be restocked. People have come from out of town to see the duck, so Kaohsiung hotels see a surge during it’s run.

Duck crazed tourist have an opportunity to take in other nearby sites as well. Glory Pier–where the duck is stationed–is a short walk or bike ride down one of the city’s bicycle/pedestrian-only paths to the Pier 2 art district. Go a bit further and you’ll reach Sihziwan bay and the beach. Go north along the Love river and there’s plenty of riverside parks and cafes to check out.

Clearly Kaohsiung has gone bonkers over this giant yellow duck, but at least the city has put itself in a position where it can benefit from the craze as much as possible. Really, Typhoon Usagi did nothing but help launch the duck to superstar status when it prompted event officials to suspend the exhibit for two days. A little drama just makes the fans love you even more.

The duck will remain in Kaohsiung until October 20, before heading to Taoyuan (10/26- 11/10) and Keelung (from 12/21). Should you want to see it in Kaohsiung head down to Glory Pier at night when there’s less of a crowd. There’s lights on the duck until midnight so photos are still possible.

Check out the Yellow Duck website for more info (Chinese and English) including a map with the location of Glory Pier.