Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Taipei personality

On Friday last week, my colleague Susan Kim (the science teacher) and I left school at noon and took off for Taiwan. Inexplicably, this was not so much an elopement as a seminar: the College Board was conducting a two-day workshop on teaching Advanced Placement classes. I taught AP for a couple of years in Florida, but nobody ever gave me any training; they just handed me a Cliffs book and told me to teach from it. So I thought I owed it to my kids to learn how to do it right.

We flew out on Thai Air, which was certainly colorful in the white and purple plane with the gold, magenta, and purple seats and the lovely flight attendants in their jewel-toned cheongsams and sashes. The announcements came on in Thai and English, making me wonder if the other 288 passengers, apparently all Korean or Chinese, would know what to do if the plane had an unauthorized plummet. Fortunately, and against my expectation every time I get on a plane, it didn't.

The surroundings, the announcements, and the attendants (and the fact that the first person to broach this trip to me said the workshop was in Thailand, not Taiwan) somehow got it into my head for a few moments that we would be flying on to Bangkok. But I managed to stumble off the plane in Taipei nonetheless.

What can I say about Taipei? If I'd only ever had vanilla ice cream (representing the USA in my subtle, clever analogy), then maple walnut (Taiwan) would seem pretty exotic. But I've been living up to my neck in butter pecan for three years, so the effect was muted. Still nuts, though.

Compared to Seoul, Taipei has bigger dogs (unlike the Fun-Size [tm] little yappers so popular in Korea), fewer beautiful, stylish women, a thousand fewer coffee shops and a million more motor scooters. I'd be walking down the street and hear a tremendous roaring buzz (or it could have been a buzzing roar), and here would come an enormous swarm of scooters, often a guy and his girl on board, sometimes a family of four, once a man, a woman, and a baby who couldn't have been a year old.

The hotel itself, a small affair with perhaps 30 rooms, was nice enough; my room was small but had a great TV that had six channels of American movies, and the shower: Oh. My. God. (By the way, in both Korea and Taiwan, people say "Ohmygod" in English as an expression of surprise.) So that makes three Chinese words I learned: nihao (hello), shehsheh (thank you) and ohmygod (holy crap). But I digress.

Ah, the shower: a stainless steel marvel, with three huge shower heads directly overhead, a puissant spraying wand (yeah, working on my AP vocabulary here), and, on the vertical pipe, three adjustable nozzles at torso level. They all delivered a very hot, very powerful spray; it was heaven; coming home to my apartment, where the shower spray is provided by three arthritic bullfrogs drooling from above, was a bit of a letdown.

The hotel provided a sumptuous breakfast spread each morning: Chinese soups, salads, fruit, eggs, and an unusual French toast/sponge hybrid topped with honey. At the workshop itself, the organizers had arranged a special vegetarian lunch for me each day, and it was incredible. The "meat" was juicy and marbled with "fat"; I don't know why neither Americans nor Koreans can produce something, like this, so convincing: I Can't Believe it's Not Flesh.

The seminar itself, held at the huge Taipei American School, was terrific; Frank, our leader, is a popular teacher in Hawaii, a high muckety-muck in the AP Exam hierarchy, and, I think, the best teacher I've ever seen. He provided us with hundreds of pages of good material to try out in our classes. He and I hit it off, too... I wonder if there are any openings in Honolulu...

The sessions went from 9 to 4 on Saturday and Sunday. I'm not really big on tourist attractions: Hey, it's a palace. Hey, it's a painting. Hey, it's a statue. Generally, I'd rather walk around and just get a feel for a place. So on Saturday evening I walked, using my GPS watch, in a vaguely westerly direction, hoping I might find the Shillin Night Market without much caring if I did. I didn't; after an hour, I turned around and walked back. But I did get an idea of what life is like in Taipei.

The next evening, I headed in the same general direction, hoping to find the subway, which I'd take to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial, then to the aforementioned Shillin Night Market. After an hour and a bit, I hadn't found the subway, but I did find a fancy department store with a men's room. As I came back out to the street, I said the heck with it and got a cab to the Memorial. (Of course, if I'd walked another three minutes, I would have found the subway.)

The Memorial itself, in function and interior layout, is reminiscent of the Lincoln Memorial, but from the first step to the top of the roof, it's 25 stories high:

The plaza itself is massive, with a massive concert hall and a massive theater to complement the massive memorial. (The square is so massive, in fact, that you can't get a feel in the video for the massive massiveness of the massive buildings.)


After strolling around being all Caucasian, I took the subway to the Night Market, where I found a little building chock-a-block with people buying and eating disquieting things, frog legs  and chicken feet among them. There seems to be a general "foot" theme going on. Ah, the extremities they go to...

...and then strolled around for several blocks outside among the shops and kiosks and a whole bunch of locals, not buying key chains and t-shirts and, well, anything really except for a bottle of ice-cold, freshly squeezed-- or is it wrung out?-- zhu li (bamboo juice), which is supposed to be good for my heart, stomach, and lung meridians. (I may need to lose some weight; I've looked and looked and I can't find my meridians.)

On Sunday and Monday morning, I got out and ran 40 minutes each day in my new "barefoot" shoes. (I love oxymorons!)  I got sharp knee pain from overuse the weekend before and was gingerly trying to get back into training for the marathon on November 6, though I've lost so much conditioning... anyway, my knee didn't hurt. (What's a joint like that doing in a nice guy like me?)

That's about it; we flew back and went to work on Tuesday. It was well worth the trip; I think it will make me a better AP teacher and it was even more interesting than a weekend spent lingering around the Yangjae E-Mart. But it's good to be back home (yeah, I said it) where the women are pretty, the signs are legible-- phonetically, at least-- and the cat cares when I walk in the door. Besides, the shower bullfrogs were getting lonely.

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