Saturday, August 11, 2007

Touchdown in Taiwan

Greetings from the beautiful city of Taichung in Central Taiwan. At least, I guess beautiful is relative, but if smog and heavy traffic and trash on the streets doesn't bother you too much, then Taichung is definitely beautiful! We like it, anyway!

It's hard to believe we've been here less than a week and a half. California seems a whole lifetime ago already! We flew in a week ago Thursday, and the principal and his wife picked us up at the airport. The first thing we noticed (besides all the Chinese writing everywhere) was the humidity. It was great for the first couple of minutes; the air felt so rich and thick you could almost chew it, but the heat got to us before we even got to their van in the parking lot. You just have to get used to sweating a lot here, and then it's fine.

At my request, we stopped by the school (Morrison Academy) to see my classroom before they even took us to our apartment. The school is great! Big, modern, high tech, great facilities. My classroom is huge - almost twice as big as the one I taught in last year in the States. It has almost a living-room area in the back, with carpet and couches, which I'm turning into a reading area. (I've been in there almost every day since we got here, arranging things and working on my lessons.)  Anyway, it's a very nice room, and Floyd has helped a lot with moving desks and bookshelves around for me, as well as re-wiring some stuff and getting the four classroom computers set up and ready to go, in a little "computer center" beside the reading area.

Our apartment is great too. The school has provided us with a four-bedroom, two-bath apartment on the seventh story of a twelve-story building in a typical Taiwanese neighborhood. (The apartment building is known to Morrisonians as the "Pink Towers" due to its color.)  Morrison is lending us some furniture until we have a chance to buy our own, although we bought quite a few things already from the teacher who lived in here before us. There is no central air conditioning, but at least there are window units and ceiling fans in the living room and bedrooms. Even so, it can get pretty warm in here. For the first week or so, we ran the a/c on high every night, with the ceiling fan on high too, and still slept with only a sheet (if that) over us. Things got more comfortable when we discovered the other day that what we had thought was the power level on our window unit was actually the thermostat (in degrees Celsius).  Now we know how to make it cool in there!

We haven't seen too many gross bugs since we've been here. We've only encountered two hideously disgusting gigantic cockroaches, one here at home and one at school, both of which Floyd heroically slew for me. Not many mosquitoes, either, although we hear they will become more of an issue in the winter months. But everyone assures us that living on the seventh floor will keep us out of the range of most creepy-crawlies.

The apartment complex is nice as well. It's huge,with three separate buildings in a "U" shape, and a courtyard in the middle. The courtyard is nicely landscaped with trees and flowers, and it even has signs saying what all the plants are. That might be nice if we could read Chinese. There's a little fish pond in the middle, too, and a swimming pool and tennis courts.

We usually take the elevator up to our floor, although sometimes we use the stairs for exercise. The stairway is narrow and steep and very stuffy, and toward the bottom the ceiling gets really low. We know we're getting close to the bottom when we start having to do the limbo as we walk down the steps! Floyd says it feels like walking into a cave. All our Chinese neighbors seem nice, although we can't talk to them except to say a couple of greetings. Very few people here speak English, and although we've been taking Chinese lessons since the beginning of the week, I'll just say that it's a very difficult language! But at least we've been able to say hello when we meet people around the courtyard or in the elevator.

Almost all of our neighbors in our building have little shelves outside their doors where they take off their shoes before they go inside. I guess they aren't worried about anyone taking them, but we take ours off just inside the doorway, just in case, although I'm sure it would be fine. Some of them also decorate the outside of their doors with red and gold banners, which I'm sure say something meaningful in Chinese. I'm looking forward to being able to read the characters someday.

The view from our apartment is great too. We have a narrow balcony off of our living room which looks out into the courtyard, and another across from it off of the kitchen, which overlooks the city. I've never really lived in the city before, and it's kind of nice, especially at night when all the lights are on. We can see a McDonald's from our place, as well as hundreds and hundreds of Chinese signs that we can't read. There's a building under construction right across the street from our balcony, and it's interesting watching their progress on it every day.

The other day the smog unexpectedly lifted, and we saw that we have quite a nice-looking range of mountains not far away beyond the city. Someday we'll have to go check them out, although without a car that might be hard. We don't want a car, though, because we're within easy walking distance of the school. Besides, traffic is crazy here! Every time we go out with people, it seems like we come within a couple inches of being hit or of hitting another car or a scooter. Nobody else seems phased by it, though.

Scooters are everywhere - more people drive them than cars, and they zip in and out of traffic. Even walking doesn't always seem quite safe (although we are getting used to it). There are sidewalks on a lot of streets, but they're usually full of people selling things from carts or stands; and scooters (and often cars as well) park there a lot.

The weather actually has been fairly comfortable lately, or maybe we're just getting used to it. Probably some of each. Our first few days in the country were incredibly hot and humid, but it's been a lot cooler recently. Or I guess I should say, more warm than hot. Apparently a typhoon has been going by somewhere off the coast, and it's brought cloudy skies and pleasant breezes. Right now it's raining, which is kind of nice.

We just got back from shopping and exploring in our neighborhood, which was a pretty wet experience, but fun. We checked out a stationery store, which has all kinds of interesting things but very little of what you'd expect to find in an American stationery store. We enjoyed stopping by a little "tea shop" that someone had taken us to before, where we bought delicious drinks. Teas are VERY popular here, mostly chilled with various flavors. I'm normally not an iced tea fan, but these are different. I ordered an almond milk tea (last time I had mint milk tea), which tastes a lot more like sweetened flavored milk than like tea. Floyd bought a"funland juice," or something like that, both times; it's tangy and fruit-flavored (a little like an orange julius). They have dozens of interesting-looking flavors, all of which I'd like to try sometime - for example, mango milk tea, wheat sprout green tea, passion fruit black tea, and yogurt tea.

We also bought giant mangoes and other fruit from a sidewalk fruit seller just outside our apartment. And we found a grocery store a few blocks away where we bought canned roasted eel in black pepper sauce, and a few other similar delicacies. :-) We're determined not to be the kind of Americans who stick with their Western diet wherever they go and refuse to try local fare!

Local fare here has turned out to be really tasty (not that we expected otherwise). We both love Chinese food, which is a good thing, since that's most of what's available, especially in restaurants. The staff at the school have all been really nice and welcoming, and many have taken us out to eat already. (We've actually only had to make dinner in our apartment twice since we got here! All the free food has been great!!) The restaurants they've taken us out to have all been as unique from each other as most restaurants in the States are, even though they're almost all Chinese. And none of them have provided silverware, so it's a good thing Floyd and I know how to use chopsticks!

The way it usually works is that everyone orders a different dish, each of which provides a small serving size for three or four people, and we each get a little rice bowl. Then we serve ourselves from the big dishes into our rice bowls or small (saucer-sized) plates, and share everything that way. It's been quite delicious, for the most part, although I'll have to get used to the little cups of hot unsweetened green tea they usually serve with the meal.

We actually went to a "tea restaurant" called Cha for Tea in Tiger City (a large mall) last week, where everything was cooked in tea. Imagine soup with tea as the broth, and beef noodles in a tea sauce. I have to admit that was a little strange. So was the green tea-flavored ice cream that came floating in the chilled, unsweetened tea drink that I ordered with my meal. I don't think we'll be eating there again, but that's probably the only place we've been to that I'd say that about.

Probably the biggest challenge we're dealing with is language learning. Wow, Mandarin is really complicated! Pronouncing the unusual sounds in some of the words is hard enough, but saying them in the right tone (there are four) gets really tricky sometimes.  I hope we'll be able to pick it up quickly, at least enough to make ourselves understood. We really want to make friends with our Taiwanese neighbors, but it isn't easy when all we can say is "good morning, how are you?"

In spite of the challenges, I'm so thankful to the Lord for bringing us here and keeping us safe and healthy so far.  What a blessing to get to live and serve Him in this wonderful place!

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