Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Here We GO!

Tomorrow is the BIG day, the first day of school, and also the very first day of my teaching career here in Taiwan. Excited? Yes. Nervous? Yes. Tired? Most definitely. As tired as I am, I still have some final preparations to do, so this will be a shorter blog.

I have spent the last past couple of days at school with my co-teacher, meeting the staff, cleaning out the classroom, setting up, and preparing our lessons. Long days...but I bet tomorrow will feel even longer. Today is considered a school-wide Prep Day, so all staff and all students are required to show up to help organize everything and clean up the school. Yes, the students do all the labor here, isn't that just brilliant?

After what felt like an eternal wait, I finally got my schedule for my classes today. So in summary, I will be teaching 3rd to 6th grades, a total of 4 days per week (with Wednesday being Mobile English Village, more on that later), and around 4-5 classes per day. I have a total of 20 different classes to teach per week, with an average of 30 students per class. Thankfully, I won't be on my own, since I will always have a local co-teacher in the classroom, to help out with the lesson and translate when necessary.

Oh, and I forgot to mention, our school treated all the staff to a ginormous feast today at a very fancy traditional restaurant, which specialized in using red dates as the key ingredient in many of their food. And once again, there were SO MUCH food! They kept coming and coming until it just felt shameful to be indulged in such abundance of food. We had 8 people at each table, yet there were over 12 dishes total. Every time there was a pause and I thought we were finished, they brought out MORE dishes! Amazing...

Anyway, need to get back to preparing for my first day of teaching. Here are some more pictures around my school for you all to enjoy.

Let me introduce to you: Tongluo Elementary ιŠ…ι‘Όεœ‹ε°

 kindergarten building
 Boy's bathroom that actually opens out to the hallway. No doors. Ehhh...
 My classroom (guess it used to be a language lab)

 View from my classroom window (3rd floor)
 Playground and skating rink, open for public after school hours

 Front of school
 Basketball court, it's also open for public
 students lining up to get ready for dismissal

 The Red Dates Restaurant
 Oh, that's not all. We ended up with about 3 times this much food. They just kept coming!
 Had a great lunch with the teachers and my extremely nice director, Ms. Yang.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Art, Music, and More Night Markets!

My town has yet to be affected by the previous typhoon, so I guess we're pretty lucky (*knock on wood*). However, there's another one heading this way, so still can't let our guards down yet.

School will be officially starting next Thursday, and Wednesday is a school-wide prep day (even students have to come). I went into my school to meet my principal and director for the first time on Thursday, as well as look at one of my classrooms. They seemed very nice, and one teacher even gave me and my co-teacher a bunch of lesson examples and videos to follow. However, I still haven't received my teaching schedule yet; they do things at a pretty different pace here. I have learned that the best way to approach things here is just take it one step at a time, and "go with the flow".

Anyway, after touring the school on Thursday, my co-teacher took me to lunch with several of her best friends in the neighboring city, Miaoli City. We ate at an extremely nice steak house, so delicious! I think I will definitely go back. We also did some shopping before heading back to our town.

 My very delicious sirloin steak w/ mushroom sauce
 I love the decor!

Later that night, I was invited to a guitar lesson by my friend Beta, who takes weekly lessons at a local instrument store in our town. I'm very glad I went, because I had a great time enjoying the music and meeting new friends. Made me miss my guitar though :( The store owner was even nice enough to cook us dinner because all the shops were closed by the time we finished the lesson. I just couldn't believe she would do that for someone she hardly knows. Only in small towns do you find that kind of hospitality.

On Friday, my colleague Shannon and I were taken by our landlady Miranda to Miaoli City again to do some more shopping. I got to see the day market here in Taiwan for the first time. It was very similar to the ones I have been to in Vietnam, so there was a bit of reminiscence for me. We found out that Miaoli City actually hosts a night market every Friday and Saturday night, so I ended up spending the night at the night market with my co-teacher Custa, her boyfriend Jason, and Beta. This one is much bigger than the one in my town Tongluo (though definitely not as big as the ones in Taipei). There was so much to see, do, and eat! Food stalls and vendors filled the place and it was packed with people. It was pretty much a carnival that happens every week here. I really love the atmosphere, the food, and the affordability of everything there!

 Day market in Miaoli City
 Good Froggie drink I tried out today. They had little chewy tapioca balls that resemble frog eggs, I guess.
 I tried stinky tofu! I like it!

 Cute waffle cakes in the shape of cartoon characters

 Some kind of buns that were cooked along the edge of a brick oven. I wonder how they got them to stick there.

Traditional Taiwanese dessert: egg-shaped shaved ice
My landlord's 13-year-old daughter Fanny is actually very talented in sculpting, and takes weekly clay lesson at a crafts store in Miaoli City. We have been to the shop a couple of times, and I absolutely love all the stuff in there! Therefore, I decided to tag along with her today and treat my myself to some art-making by making something for my wall. We took the bus there, and I learned how to ride the bus here, which may come in pretty handy. I spent the majority of the day in the shop with Fanny, working on my Totoro welcome sign (since Totoro is my all time favorite cartoon character). Our teacher was very nice and helped me out a lot, then even drove us home afterward. She also offered to take me places whenever she goes somewhere interesting. Then for dinner, I was invited by my landlord's family to a nice Hakka restaurant in Gongguan town to try some traditional Hakka dishes. They treated me of course. It just never fails to amaze me how hospitable and nice everyone is here! There has not been a day that I wasn't invited somewhere by someone, and everyone is just so caring! I am very grateful for all the good care I have been receiving from everybody.
 Learning to ride the bus
 Cute stuff from the shop, all made by our teacher

 My finished product
 A beautiful bridge we passed by on our way to dinner in Gongguan

Well, it's the weekend before school officially starts, so I really want to have as much fun as I can. So tomorrow, Shannon and I will meet up with Beta in Taichung city and we will be doing more exploring, and will also be catching a movie at a theater there. My first movie experience in Taiwan!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Costco, Train, and Tea

The last two days have been our training for all the Foreign English Teachers in the county of Miaoli. Our training took place at Pantou Elementary in Toufen City, which meant we would have to take the train from where I live to get there. I was all ready for the opportunity to learn how to ride the train here, so that I can utilize the train system to get around. Most cities in Taiwan can be reached by train and it is one of the most efficient ways to travel around the island here.

I got up early, was picked up by our military guy Beta on his scooter bike, and met up with Shannon at the train station. Now, I'm bad enough with directions, but throw in a bunch of Chinese characters and Taiwan geography and I was completely lost, with no clue on how to buy a ticket or what train to get on. But thankfully, Beta showed us the entire process and explained the system to us. I'm still a bit fuzzy on identifying the right train to get on, but that will come with practice, and I'm sure it will all become pretty simple soon enough.

We arrived at our training site, Pantou Elementary, and started our professional development. The elementary is HUGE! Even bigger than my elementary, yet I was told that it is only average in size compared to other elementary in Taiwan. That really amazed me how different it is here. Here in Taiwan, there are less elementary, but they are usually huge. Meanwhile, high schools are generally smaller, but more in quantity. That is completely opposite from the U.S.!

It was very nice meeting some people from our group again, and getting to know more former English teachers. We were provided much information on our upcoming responsibilities, which asides from teaching at our school, will also include participating in Mobile English Village (more info on it later), recording for radio station, and even appearing in a public television program. How fun is that!

After training, they took us to a giant Costco, which felt pretty much just like home. They had everything that we could find at the Costco back home, from apple pie to frozen pizza, everything was in English. For a moment there, I really felt like I was back in the States. Afterward, we also dropped by to shop at the RT Mart, which is a very big supermarket. On our way back to the train station that night, we were able to witness a random firework display from down the road. Not too sure what it was for, but I was informed that it could have been in preparation for the Chinese Valentine's Day this Thursday.
 Tongluo train station

 Pantou Elementary School
 Inside Costco
 Rice burger. Really???

We had training again today and rode the train again. However, our training was cut short, so that our hosts could take us to a super fancy restaurant for lunch as a welcoming party for us. The restaurant was far, hidden away in a desolated mountainside. We were all wondering why they decided to take us to such place, but our questions were answered as soon as we stepped inside. The restaurant was very classy and the view was spectacular! We were all caught breathless by the majestic view of the scenery laid out before us, visible through the glass panels that lined the walls of the restaurant. The food was delicious and the view only made it better. I just feel so fortunate to be where I am, surrounded by all these wonderful things, experiences, and people.

Once we finished our lunch and had our nice little sharing time over desserts, they also took us to the tea house next door, where we all got to try some very traditional tea and preserved fruits, as well as enjoy the traditional ancient architecture of the place. It was such a nice place and I loved it there!

As much fun as we have had the past few days, there are work to be done, as school will be starting in roughly a week. I am supposed to meet up with my school principal and director tomorrow and find out my teaching schedule. However, I don't know if all will go according to planned, considering the typhoon that is supposed to hit Taiwan tomorrow. There's not just 1, but 2 coming back-to-back! This should be first typhoon experience in Taiwan. I have most things ready, food and water stocked up at my place, flashlights and candles in case the power goes out, so we'll see how it goes.

 The view is breathtaking!
What a nice meal

 Traditional tea time!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Meeting Miaoli: from Italian Dinner to Night Market

It has been a few days since I last posted. Sorry for keeping you all waiting, so get ready for a pretty long post. I have been busy getting acquainted with the new life and getting settled down. This is now my third full day in Tongluo town, Miaoli County in Taiwan. Everything is going well so far and I think I'm settling in quite comfortably, but first, let's back track to last Friday, my first day in Miaoli.

Friday morning, we met with our school representatives at NAER in Taipei and together, we went over and signed the contract for my employment. My school sent 2 representatives to pick me up, Mr. Zhen and Custa, my co-teacher for the coming year, who is also the main one in charge of helping me out. Then we all bid our goodbyes and each headed back to our designated town.

Once in Tongluo, Miaoli, I was taken to my apartment to meet my landlord and his wife. They were both very nice and provided me with much assistance to help me settle into my new home. The place is fairly small, pretty much a studio bedroom, with an attached kitchen and a private bathroom. The washers are located outside and are shared with other tenants in the building. While small, it is quite cozy and has everything I need, cable TV, internet and water included in the rent, small refrigerator, stoves, hot water, dressers and cabinets, A/C, and the landlord is even kind enough to provide me with my own bicycle to use, which may take some practicing since I haven't been on a bike since forever. After dropping off my luggage, we went to take a tour of the school where I will be teaching at, Tongluo Elementary. It is fortunately right by my apartment, only about a 1-minute walk away, extremely convenient! The school is huge and looks very nice, though I didn't get to meet many teachers since school hasn't started and many teachers were not there.

 Front door of my apartment and street view

Washers in the front yard, with my bicycle
 Inside my studio bedroom

View of the back of my school, right around the corner of where I live

Another great thing is that another colleague of mine, Shannon, is assigned to the same town as me, and lives only a 20-minute walk away, so we can keep each other company and look out for each other when needed. We also happen to have the same landlord. That night, our gracious landlord and his family treated Shannon and I, as well as our school representatives, to a fancy Japanese dinner in a tatami-styled restaurant in town. There were so much food and it was delicious, one of the most authentic Japanese meals I've had. After dinner, our school representatives took us around town to get our cell phones and pick up daily necessities that we needed for our rooms. What I love most is how friendly and welcoming everyone is here, and how willing they all have been to go out of their ways to help us feel at home in this strange land.
 Tatami room
 Seafood hotpot
 Shrimp tempura

The next day, after being able to do my much needed laundry, my co-teacher Custa picked me up and we met up with Shannon and her school representative Beta to head to Miaoli city, which is roughly a 30-minute drive away from Tongluo, to have lunch and look around. We had some traditional Hakka dumplings and meatballs, and Taiwan's infamous bubble tea. We then walked along a busy shopping strip and visited some of the shops. They also took us to a giant supermarket Carrefour to buy more grocery and things for our rooms. The place was like the equivalent of a mall here, with its own parking garage, had a variety of individual shops, a food court, arcade, and sold practically everything, even many American food. Luckily, the county government provided us with a good amount of allowance to help us settle in, so we were able to freely buy everything we needed. Later that night, Custa and her boyfriend Jason, who lives in Hsinchu city, took me to a nice little Italian restaurant, and we enjoyed a surprisingly good Italian meal, consisting of salad, pine nuts pasta in pesto sauce, and a seafood pizza. Who's to say there's no good Western food here!
 Shopping strip in Miaoli City
 Traditional Hakka meatball, chewy skin with pork and veggie inside
 Yummy wontons!
Taiwan is the homeland of the infamous bubble milk tea

 Sweet soup with a variety of mochi balls, beans and tapioca
 Beautiful bridge we passed by on the way to dinner. It changes colors.
 Italian dinner in Taiwan

Sunday we had all to ourselves, with not much planned, so I spent the morning unpacking my things, then walked out to the main street to learn my way around town. My impression of Tongluo is that it is a fairly small town, only one main street. However, that makes for much convenience since everything is on one street and is within walking distance. Since everything is condensed into one main street, the street is very busy and has a good energy and liveliness to it. There is pretty much a convenient store at every corner, especially 7-Eleven. 7-Eleven is pretty much the dominating store here, and serves so much more functions than just a grocery store. There, you can access the ATM, print and copy, reload money into cell phone, buy phone card, and even buy tickets for train, buses, and special events. They even have a sticker system that lets you collect stickers to exchange for toys and cute Angry Bird mugs. Yup, no lies.

I met up with Shannon later on in the afternoon and we went to have lunch together at a local noodle shop, where we got to try ordering food completely on our own, which was quite an accomplishment since we were still experiencing so much culture shock. For the rest of the day, we just did more shopping and stayed home to organize everything and took it easy.

 Zhongzheng St., main street in Tongluo
 Train Station

 Mail time! Mail men drives scooter here

 Beautiful touches of ancient beauty

Today was much more eventful than yesterday. I got up early this morning and decided to do some more exploring while it was still cool outside. I wandered up a hill behind my apartment to discover a nice path and some steps leading up the hill. I decided to be adventurous and checked it out, following the steps upward. The steps led higher than I thought and I was short of breath by the time I reached the very top of the mountain. However, one look of the scenery below and it was all worth it. The view was breathtaking! There is a patio at the very top where you can see the entire view of the town and the mountains in the backdrop. The path continued onward, leading to more nature trails, scattered with wooden pavilions and benched here and there. It led out to an open park area, with a small playground and some nice landscaping around a big lily pond. What a delightful serendipitous finding it was! The best thing is that I will be able to access this view anytime I want, since it's right behind my place. What a great place to go to watch the sunrise, or for a peaceful nature walk!

 Beautiful view of Tongluo town

 Cows in the park?


For the rest of the day, our school representatives took me and Shannon to have lunch at a shop by the train station, then we headed to the bank to open our bank accounts, which took so long, but I'm glad we finally have our accounts and ATM cards ready.

Custa, Beta, Shannon and I tried out the night market tonight, which I have been looking forward to ever since we arrived in Taiwan. Night market is one of the most famous trademarks of Taiwan and is definitely a must-go here if you want to experience the culture and the food. Here in Tongluo, we have a night market every Monday night, from 6pm to 9pm. It's certainly smaller than those in the larger cities, but still has a lot of unique street food and is nice to visit for some entertainment. There was street food galore, with many alluring and bizarre varieties such as chicken feet, duck's heads and tongues, intestines, pig's blood cakes, snails, and of course, stinky tofu. I got the chance to try many different types and we filled our stomachs strolling down the street. I had a lot of fun, and will definitely be back.

 Takoyaki squid balls, mmm...

 Fried quail eggs
 How fun!
 Oyster omelets, another trademark food of Taiwan

 Buying some fried duck's tongues and necks with my co-teacher Custa and colleague Shannon
 Pig's blood cakes

Alright! That should catch you up with everything!

Tomorrow and Wednesday will be training days for all Foreign English Teachers in Miaoli county. we will have to meet at another town, Toufen, for our training. That means I will get to learn how to ride the train tomorrow. I love trains and it's also an efficient way to travel around Taiwan without a car. It should be fun, can't wait!