Friday, October 23, 2009

I Have a Dream

Perhaps the rigors of ICLP have reduced the number of ridiculous adventures in my life, but there is one thing that has increased dramatically in number: naps.  After a full morning of class followed by lunch, it is rather difficult to be mentally functional enough to do homework efficiently.  For this reason, if you enter the ICLP lounge in the mid-afternoon, you are likely to find yourself facing this sort of situation:

(I'm on the left in the middle)

It's true, ICLP students are not only diligent scholars of the Chinese language, but also apparently champion nappers.  Are the "couches" in the ICLP lounge comfortable?  Ha!  Not in the least, but we cannot be deterred.  The unfortunate side effect of afternoon naps is that one has to stay up later to finish homework, necessitating a nap the next day as well.  I wouldn't go so far as to say that it is a vicious cycle...just a sleepy and slightly inconvenient one.  Also it opens one up to the possibility of unconscious photo-ops:

Will falling asleep with my textbooks improve my Chinese?  It might be possible.  This afternoon I apparently took a pretty solid nap at ICLP, because I had a very vivid dream.  In the first part of the dream, I dreamt that I had a purple pool noodle that I set down on the sidewalk, and when I turned my back it disappeared and was replaced by weird old soggy pool noodles.  But that part is not important.  The rest of my dream not only featured several of my classmates, but also in the second part of the dream Sharon and I were walking together, and she used a specific grammatical pattern/vocab word combination that we learned in the last chapter ("感到不安“, which means "to feel uneasy").  When I awoke I felt slightly silly for having so much ICLP on the brain, but also totally proud of myself for dreaming not only in Chinese, but in textbook sentence patterns!  My teacher is going to be so impressed.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

My Thrilling New Life

What's new these days: ICLP is eating my life.  I try to make room for story-generating adventures, but an unfortunately large of my adventuring time is now occupied.  From Sunday evening until Friday afternoon I live in a Chinese haze, fueled more by coffee than sleep.  Napping on the hard wicker "couches" in ICLP is a common occurrence, and not just for me.  This says something about how tired we are, because those things are the least comfortable napping locations possible.  Fan Laoshi, our head teacher, assures me that this is intentional.

But I do occasionally do things that are not either learning or procrastination!  This past Saturday I went to Ximending (a night market) with some lovely ICLP ladies and we took crazy Japanese photo booth pictures and got them made into stickers!

I also am making progress in my quest to develop a more ridiculous wardrobe while living in Taiwan.  Taiwan has such an abundance of silly clothes, and I need to wear them before I have to have a real job or anything, so it is an urgent mission!  My best night market purchase this time around was a pair of black leggings with shiny silver nonsense words (like "theer" and "sbnug"!) written all over them.

Where will I wear these, and with what?  I still have yet to figure it out.

During the week, the one other thing I do besides schoolwork is choir!  I tried out for the TaiDa chorus a couple weeks back, and so far it has been pretty awesome.  Everybody seems to be a sightreading ninja, which is neato.  It's interesting on the language front as well, because I don't really know musical terms in Chinese.  For instance, the word for "measure" sounds an awful lot like the word for "miss" (as in young woman), and at first when the teacher kept saying it I thought it was because she wanted to address the girls.  "Now let's look at Miss 87!" she would say.  Needless to say, I am figuring things out from context.  Fun fact: although we mostly speak Chinese, everybody always refers to the voice parts in English: Bass, Tenor, Alto, and "Soap."  Another fun fact: we are performing, among other things, a medley of Japanese cartoon theme songs.  SO CUTE.  I can't wait until we start learning dance moves!

There are 4 other foreign students in the choir, and last week one of the student leaders called us all to meet with him, informing us that we technically couldn't be in the performance because they sell tickets and we don't have work visas.  He told the Asian-Americans that they could probably perform anyway without anyone noticing.  Then he told me that maybe they could dye my hair black and pretend that I was half-Taiwanese.  Mahaha...somehow I don't think that would be very plausible, no matter how black my hair was.  However, the director of ICLP assured me that this visa rule couldn't possibly apply to me, so I probably won't get deported for singing in the concert.  Here's hoping!

I'll leave you with the only other picture that I have taken so far, from a train bathroom on the High Speed Rail:

There are shavers in the can!!
(apologies to anyone who doesn't get the Uncle Brett reference)

Monday, October 5, 2009

Things Finally Get Started

I thought I'd have a lot of free time before my program started, but as is often the way with free time, it managed to get filled up with who-knows-what.  Right after moving into my apartment, I went down to Kaohsiung for a couple days to fetch the stuff that I left down there and visit old friends and students.  I met some of the sweet new Kaohsiung ETAs, and even went to Yang Ming to introduce their new ETA and see my old coworkers and students.  You wouldn't believe how much they can grow in just a month or two!  (the students, not the coworkers)  I had such a great time seeing old friends and new that I was rather sad to board the train back to Taipei at the end of it.

Back in Taipei, I spent a couple days helping out at Fulbright Orientation for this year's scholars and going out with some excellent new Fulbrighters at night.  You can definitely say one thing about Fulbrighters: they are never boring.  After that orientation was over, I devoted a lot of time to just getting my life in order: doing laundry, finding nearby grocery stores, and other such exciting activities.  And hanging out with Vicky's Taiwanese friend Eggbert, who magically knows all foreign students in Taipei!  (his name alone merits a mention, I feel)

ICLP (International Chinese Language Program, if you were wondering) didn't even quasi-begin until the 17th, when I had my placement test.  I had spent the night before trying to brush up on traditional characters, only to discover that the test had no writing component, plus they let me take it in simplified Chinese.  I ran into a funny kind of situation the next day: it was my birthday, but I didn't really know anyone in the program too well yet.  I ended up having a Very Fulbright Birthday, the highlight of which was when, having no candles to put on my cake, people held up 23 wiggling fingers for me to "blow out."  Yay!  Then we went to the night market and had delicious frozen desserts and I bought a $3 dress that has purple trees and large green and orange cats on it.  Only in Taiwan!

Side note: Can you believe that I am 23?  Five years ago I could have never imagined being that old, haha, but actually in the grand scheme of things it isn't very old at all.  It's merely the oldest I've ever been.

The next week we had ICLP orientation...there were a lot of lectures on various things that I didn't pay a lot of attention to because the room where we had it was FREEZING.  Air-conditioning is a delightful invention, but seriously: too much of a good thing.  The other main thing I did that week was try to get on a morning-class-friendly sleep schedule, but let's not lie: this effort was a total failure.  Also, I tried out (successfully) for the NTU Chorus!  They are super-good, plus there is dancing, and I couldn't be happier about it.  Especially since they let me switch from my original assignment to the soprano section.  Yikes.

The one thing that they impressed upon us during ICLP orientation was how we were going to need to spend a bajillion hours a day studying and doing homework, plus I placed into a decently advanced level, so I was a little bit afraid of what the work would be like when class started.  However, at this point I've been doing it for a week, and although it's been a little bit crazy and some nights are more sleepless than others, it seems to be manageable.  Also, I am learning new stuff at a slightly ridiculous rate, which is awesome.  I keep hearing people using vocab words in my actual life, which is really exciting.  For example, we learned the word for mission or task, and that night I had an icebreaker activity for choir where we broke up into teams and went around playing games at different stations, and at every single station, they'd say, "all right, your task here is to...(whatever)"  I was so psyched about that word.  Then we played a bunch of fast-paced chanting games in Chinese to learn people's names, and I was really afraid but I totally held my own!  Looks like I'll be working real hard this year, but at least I am learning all kinds of stuff.  English is forbidden inside the ICLP building (well, the 2 floors of it that comprise ICLP), and everybody had to create their own punishment for if they get caught speaking it.  Fun!

I Live in Taipei Now: Finding an Apartment

Yes, I've been in Taipei for about a month so far.  Here is the rundown of what has happened:

I arrived in Taipei August 27th and hit the ground running.  Got into the airport at 6 am, was out by 7, at the hostel by 8, and out on the street to begin my apartment search by 9.  Fortunately, during the week I was able to use the Fulbright office as a base of operations.  They let me print out apartment listings and helped me interpret a lot of the Chinese, which was awesome.  I spent mornings looking up new listings and making phone calls, then in the afternoon I'd go around to look at the places.  Although the listings all seemed promising, it became apparent after looking at a few places that most of the reasonably-priced apartments were disgusting/tiny/in a basement/had windows that looked out onto walls, and anything nice was going to be a lot more expensive.  Blah.  After 3 days of searching, I finally made a decision, but when I called the place, it was already rented out.  Frustrated and delirious with jet-lag, I made the rash decision to just call another place that I thought I remembered to be decent and tell them that I'd take it.  They told me to come over right then to sign the lease.

When I arrived, the landlady wasn't there yet, so I had to wait outside for half an hour.  When she finally got there and we went in, the room really wasn't as nice as I had remembered, and from half an hour of observing the outside of the building, I had realized that the window in the room didn't actually face the outdoors, just the hallway.  Moreover, the landlady's two young sons had come down to the room and were jumping on the bed, hiding the keys to the drawers, and apparently breaking the blinds.  It was a slightly stressful environment, and I just wanted to get the lease-signing over with and go home to sleep.  I signed the lease in a hurry and handed over the first month's rent plus a deposit equivalent to 2 months' rent.

As soon as I got in the cab to go home, I realized that I had made a terrible mistake, and started to freak out.  When I got to the hostel, I called the landlady and got her sister-in-law (I think) on the phone.  On the verge of breakdown, I choked out that I realized that I couldn't live there, but I had already signed the lease and put down the deposit, and what was I going to do????  Don't cry, don't cry, she told me, just come back over and we'll fix it.  I hopped back in another cab and headed back.  The landlady met me at the door and asked why I was back.  Apparently the sister-in-law hadn't told her anything (the two ladies seemed to be in the middle of some kind of disagreement), so I had to pour my sob story out all over again.  The landlady was less inclined to be sympathetic.  She offered me the rent money back, but not the deposit.  My sister didn't know we had already signed the lease, she said.  But she did!  I told her on the phone!  I replied.  The landlady didn't look totally convinced.  How old are you, she asked.  I replied sheepishly, twenty-two...

Looking much less than pleased about the situation, the landlady finally took pity on me and let me have my deposit money back.  Shaken, I headed back to the hostel, too exhausted to even think about where I would look the next day.

The next morning, I talked to my parents on Skype, and they talked me down a little bit and promised to put in a prayer request for me at church.  My booking at the hostel had run out, so I moved to a different hostel and made a fresh start on my apartment search, printing out a bajillion new listings at 7-11 (Fulbright is closed on weekends).  I checked my computer one last time before embarking on my new search, and noticed one more listing that looked promising.  I scribbled it down and started making calls.  When I called the agent for that listing, he told me he was there right then and how soon could I be there?  Startled but intrigued, I headed over immediately.

When I walked into the apartment, I was immediately impressed by how much nicer it was than pretty much everything I had looked at so far.  It was clean and spacious, with wood floors and big windows and a couple of balconies, the location was a short walk from my program at NTU, and the price was cheaper than anywhere else I had seen.  Then I walked into a bedroom and found a piano!  I exclaimed my surprise to the agent, who told me not to worry about the things that the landlords had left behind, they could be taken away.  Actually, I play the piano, I told him.  He told me he could ask the landlords, maybe they would leave it for me.  It was beyond what I had dreamed.  I left the apartment singing and practically skipping with glee, and although I looked at a couple more places that afternoon, none of them could compare.  I called the agent back the next morning and went right over to sign the lease.  The landlords turned out to be a sweet older couple who had to move out because they couldn't handle the stairs every day.  We had a pleasant chat, and they told me I could keep the piano there if I liked.  Score!  One lease and a couple hundred bucks later, I had a home!

Next step: Making multiple trips to Ikea in my quest for beautiful curtains.  It took me a couple tries to do the measuring correctly, but now I have the WORLD'S BEST CURTAINS, which, among other things, have mountain goats on them.  LOVE.  And I have a piano, and a room with my own balcony!  Life is good.

Malaysia, in a hurry

But first, a stop at the National Museum in Phnom Penh to see the treasures of Angkor that were stolen by looters and then given back to Cambodia by the Thailand!  Special times.

Our second arrival in Malaysia was a special one: due to a delayed flight out of Phnom Penh, we were forced to make a harrowing (slash asthma-inducing...bleh) sprint through the Kuala Lumpur terminal to catch our flight to Kuala Besut.  But we made it!

Traveling in style, the Asian way!  Unfortunately the in-flight meal was VERY strongly seasoned, and the face mask essentially gives you your own personal breath-smelling chamber.  Awesome.  But it's better than getting H1N1!

We had made our hotel reservation in Kuala Besut on a pay phone in KL, and I had barely managed to give the guy my first name and flight time when the money ran out.  Magically, they still managed to successfully retrieve us, and we spent a night in a hostel whose 2 main qualities were: 1) kittens running around everywhere and 2) chicken sheets!

In the morning, took a taxi to the jetty with another random guest from our hostel, a girl who had been traveling for months and had stopped wearing shoes completely.  Interesting.  A short boat ride later, we were at the beach on Pulau Perhentian Kecil, the idyll marred only by the fact that we were carrying large backpacks and had nowhere to stay.  A little wandering around netted us a rather suspicious-looking tin-roofed hut for the eminently affordable price of $10/night.  There was only electricity at night, and the shared toilets had no seats, plus there were lizards in the stalls.  We looked elsewhere, but all the nice places were full.  Oh well!

It looks nice outside

Our sketchy hut

Next plan of action: do nothing all day.  And by "nothing" I mean "assiduously reapply sunscreen every 15 minutes and hide out under umbrellas."  I had a realization upon our arrival that my skin was pretty much the exact same color as the sand, that is to say: insanely white.  But unlike sand, skin is burnable!

Day 2: Snorkeling!  Soooo many awesome fish, and I jumped off the top of a lighthouse into the water!  (probably about equivalent to jumping off my 4th-floor balcony, and definitely the farthest I've ever fallen)  Unfortunately, we didn't discover until afterwards that you could buy underwater cameras.  Sorry.  Night: go out, make friends with a couple of British guys who ask us to explain the American fraternity system to them.  The more we try to explain, the less they believe us.  Fun times.

Day 3: Despite choppy weather, rent a kayak to try to do some independent snorkeling.  Get around the first point before deciding to give it up.  After a strenuous row back, run into problems getting the kayak out of the water.  Breaking waves near the shore fill the kayak with water and sand, making it too heavy to get out, but the force of the waves coming in to shore makes it difficult to get it back out in the water either.  Vicky goes to get help from the man who rented it to us, but he is nowhere to be found.  After much struggling, finally manage to get kayak back in the water and turn it upside down to get all the sand and water out.  Ditch kayak and decide to go snorkeling on our own beach.  Evening: go back to the place where we've been having breakfast every day (and trying unsuccessfully to move into) to pay back the 50 cents we were short at breakfast.  They invite us to have dinner with the staff.  Discover that Malaysian island dinner consists mainly of whole fish of various sizes and is meant to be eaten with one's hands.  Being as Vicky is vegetarian, I tackle the whole-fish-eating by myself.  I was suspicious, but it was delicious!  Stay and watch a movie with the staff.  We are totally BFF.

Day 4: Early boat back to the mainland, share a taxi to the airport with some other random foreigners.

Goodbye, hut

At airport, the only place open for breakfast is KFC.  Here are their only vegetarian offerings:

Fries and ice cream: the breakfast of (vegetarian) champions.

Fun fact: Malaysia has more candy stores per capita than any other country!*

*Okay, I made up this statistic, but there is NO WAY it is not true, because you can't throw a rock in Malaysia without hitting a candy store.  THEY ARE EVERYWHERE.  The airport alone had like 3 of them.  My feeling is that they should change the national slogan to "Malaysia: Land of Candy!"

Flight to KL is actually shorter than the bus ride from the KL airport into town.  Take monorail to hostel.  Don't know why Kuala Lumpur has a monorail in addition to the subway lines.  Just for fun, I guess.  Make friends with some Swedes, walk to Little India for Indian food.  Apparently Little India is mostly full of textile stores and not restaurants...what??  Go to Indian restaurant by hostel instead.

2 Fun Facts About Sweden That I Learned In Malaysia:
1) traditional Swedish high-school-graduation-day breakfast: strawberries and champagne
2) Ikea is actually pronounced "ee-KEE-ah" (the middle eeee is drawn out)
See what you can learn by traveling???

We were too lazy to go to the Petronas Towers (Taipei 101 is taller, anyway), but we did get to see this guy:

BTW, our KL Hostel (Bedz KL, in case you ever make a visit) was a totally sweet hostel, featuring the most NICEST CLEANEST MOST CIVILIZEDEST SHOWERS that we have experienced in this whole trip.  GLORIOUS.  Leave at an insanely early hour the next morning for airport.

Airport breakfast: seriously, who taught these people how to butter toast?

Spend most of flight back to Taipei watching movie previews, because on Air Asia in-flight movies themselves are not free.  Saddest part: not getting to fly on the Raiders Plane!

This is an unusual feature for a plane

Annnnd that's all!  Sorry for being a slowpoke.  And for this slightly mixed-up post.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Genocide Day

Catching a tuk-tuk early in the morning, we ride a few kilometers outside Phnom Penh to Choeung Ek, finally arriving at a tall white monument surrounded by rippling green grass.  An Asian tour group poses perkily for a group picture in front of the monument, which as we approach it, reveals itself to be filled with shelves and shelves of human skulls.  Nine thousand of them.  The field around it ripples because it is pitted with mass graves.  These are the killing fields.

It's quiet here, and a few other somber tourists meander through the fields.  Matter-of-fact signs posted here and there tell of the horrors that happened here.  "Mass Grave of 450." (unbelievably small)  "Mass Grave of over 100 women and children, majority naked."  "Killing Tree against which executioners beat children."  We are told that the executioners sprinkled DDT over the mass graves, partly to cover the smell, and partly to kill any potential survivors.  To save bullets, victims were beaten to death with shovels, or sometimes suffocated with plastic bags.  How practical.

Wandering around the perimeter of the field, local children sing to us (specifically, Sean Kingston's "Beautiful Girls") and ask us for money, but I am not in the proper state of mind to be charmed.  Our tuk-tuk driver tries to rip us off on the fare to the next place.  I am used to people trying to shake me down for money while traveling in Asia, but it seems disrespectful to do it right here and right now.  He wants us to pay extra to go to a different destination afterwards instead of back to our hotel, except the other destination is actually a much shorter drive than going back to the hotel.  We refuse to pay on principle, returning stubbornly to our hotel and getting a different driver to take us to the next location: Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also known as S-21.

Before it became a museum, S-21 was a prison used by the Khmer Rouge.  More horrifying is the fact that before that, it was a middle school.  Asian schools are built quite differently than what we are used to, so to the Western eye, this place doesn't look very school-like.  If I had come here a year earlier, this fact probably wouldn't have registered much.  However, to a pair of Taiwanese elementary school teachers, the original purpose of this building is painfully clear.  Walking through rooms of cramped cells, I notice the marks where a blackboard used to hang, and automatically picture rows of desks where now there are iron beds and shackles.  Even the playground equipment has been transformed into tools for interrogation and torture. What was once a home for education was transformed into a place where the anti-intellectual Khmer Rouge imprisoned and tortured people for offenses like wearing glasses and speaking another language.  The absolute completeness of this perversion amazes me.

Walking through the complex, we come upon a series of rooms filled entirely with faces.  The Khmer Rouge were chillingly methodical about producing photo documentation of each prisoner that passed through here.  Each picture is a portrait of certain death: of the thousands of people who passed through this prison, only 4 ever survived.  In the walls and walls of pictures, all kinds of people are represented.  There are wrinkled old men, young boys grinning defiantly into the camera, mothers holding babies.  I find an entire wall filled with the faces of children, and my eyes begin to blur.  Vicky articulated it best later on: when there are so many faces, sooner or later some of them are bound to start looking like people you know.  Standing in front of that wall of children, I couldn't help but see in them the faces of my children in Kaohsiung, playing in the halls of a school just like this one.

Leaving the museum, my sadness was mixed with a sense of anger and indignation.  The atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge were so extensive; how is it that nobody had ever told me about them before?  I suppose members of older generations know more because they lived through it, but before going to Cambodia, all I knew were the names Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, and that there had been some kind of genocide.  I didn't know when, or why, or to what extent.  I only knew the names because I had seen them somewhere or heard them offhand (Eddie Izzard does a little bit about Pol Pot); in years of history class we never really touched upon these things.  I know we learned about that time period, because I've definitely studied the Vietnam War, which was at the same time.  I feel so ignorant about Cambodia; was I just not paying attention?  How come nobody ever brought up the fact that while we were trying to beat back communism in Vietnam, the Cambodians were busy slaughtering a third of their country's population right next door, in the name of communism no less?  The genocide in Cambodia took 1.7 million lives, leaving the population decimated (and a whopping 70% female) and the countryside dotted with countless land mines, as well as around 20,000 mass graves.  Children were brainwashed to become killers.  People were executed indiscriminately, for all kinds of seemingly minor offenses.  The question plagues me: how did it get so far?  We learned about the Holocaust multiple times in school, and the motto "Never Again."  Well, genocide happened again, and again, and still happens.  How is this getting swept under the rug?

We were told that even in Cambodia, people aren't really being educated about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge.  At the museum, we ran into a group of Cambodian high schoolers, part of a new program to educate Cambodian youth about the atrocities of their nation's recent history.  Aside from that, however, most visitors to these places are foreigners, and most of what the locals know about the Khmer Rouge era comes from stories they've heard.  In contrast, however, Cambodia is completely plastered with references to its less recent past: bus companies, hostels, and the country's most popular beer all bear the name Angkor.  I can understand why Cambodians are so quick to embrace their Angkorian heritage.  It's not like the recent past has given them too much to be proud of.

Getting Back to Phnom Penh

The night before we left Siem Reap, we had tried to get bus tickets to leave in the morning, but they were already closed by the time we got around to it.  This just meant waking up extra early the next morning to see if we could snag some tickets in the short window between the ticket place opening and the bus departing (it was an early bus).  Being extra fancy, this time we took the $9 bus!  The only noticeable differences between the $5 and the $9 buses were that the $9 bus was full of Westerners, and had a hilarious on-board bathroom.  It was down in the baggage compartment, and the room was only about 4 feet high and just big enough to squat in.  Besides the tight fit, there was nothing to hold onto, so you just had to brace your legs against the wall and hope that the bus didn't do any abrupt braking!  Good times.

In Phnom Penh, we got a hotel in a little nicer part of town than last time, and went off to see the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda.  Unfortunately, you are not allowed to take pictures in these places, so you will just have to trust me when I say that they are pretty sweet, and in some places very very ornate.  The Silver Pagoda is not silver on the outside, but the inside has a silver floor!  Of course it is covered thoroughly with rugs so tourists don't step on it directly, which is a shame, because it would be a pretty amazing sight otherwise.  Later in the day, we moseyed over to the Independence Monument, a striking structure that stands in front of a long grassy park.  We spent hours there just hanging out and people-watching.  At night, there were fireworks by the monument, and a horde of excited young people rode past on motorcycles cheering and celebrating.  The reason for the celebration, which we actually learned from Chaa before leaving Siem Reap, is that UNESCO had ruled a temple on the border with Thailand to be a Cambodian possession.  Booyah, Thailand!

(Another unrelated but interesting fact that we learned from Chaa: the guy at our hostel had told us that Angkor Wat is owned and operated by a Vietnamese company, and Cambodia only gets a smallish percentage of the profits.  Chaa confirmed this when we asked him, but said that people don't mind, because the Cambodian government is so corrupt that giving them more of the profits wouldn't make much of a difference anyway.  Ooch.)