Saturday, December 31, 2005

A Pithy Anecdote

Having successfully celebrated Christmas and New Years in a fitting fashion, I will willfully ignore these two holidays [as well as the eventful timeframe in which they occurred] for the time being and focus on something that has been nagging me for quite some while. Like many countries, students in Taiwan are required to were uniforms throughout the duration of their k-12 education. While high school students occasionally get to wear a tasteful mixture of blazers, sweater-vests or the occasional work shirt [all emblazoned with their highly personal student number], students in the lower levels of education are not quite as lucky. Rather than initiating nation-wide uniform requirements, the government has allowed each school to individuate itself through its particular color pairings. While some schools may opt for traditional pairings, a few have gone out of the way to set themselves apart. Though a poor choice in a school's selection may not seem to be able to have any appreciable effect on the social interactions of Taiwanese youth, I assure that it can. This point is hammered home through the application of the uniform tracksuit. In addition to their daily uniform, students are expected to come to school [at least] once a week wearing a tracksuit for gym class. Though this sounds like a nice change from the everyday uniform, it is actually a cruelly effective means of social control. At the bus stop near my house I am routinely shocked to find a group of teenage males, all at various awkward states of development, waiting decked out in track suits that would make Hype Williams blush and immediately ask the costume designer to tone it down a little. Though they try to look tough and stand up for themselves, the bright, dare I say electric, purple tracksuits with neon green squiggles down the side preclude the notion that anyone can ever mistake them for adults. The saddest fact of the matter is, is that their color combinations represent one of the better [i.e. more conservative] pairings that I run into on a daily basis. How can a teenager possibly begin to grapple with his or her own emerging sexuality while being decked out in a some what poofy aquamarine and pink jumpsuit? I'm not sure that they can. On a positive note on this topic, the school-issued tracksuit just may be the most effective means of birth control in the world. At one of the largest schools in Luodong, it is nearly impossible to wander the streets without running into the taupe herd. Yes, taupe as a school's color. As you walk out into towards the market or the nearest coffee shop, you can't help but implicitly compare the students to a bunch of senior citizens bedecked in taupe terry cloth jumpers. It's wonderfully odd because the school consciously decided not to pair the color with anything else. Nope, taupe is all you get. In this setting the mere idea of two Taiwanese teenagers engaging in any form of sexual behavior seems to be an impossibility. I have yet to overhear [and don't expect to hear] any one of them say something to the effect of "Wow, that taupe really brings out the color of you eyes." No, not a chance in hell. Instead, the students are left to shuffle around like Walter Mathaugh and Jack Lemmon. It may be a little cruel in the scheme of things but I think the Taiwanese government has truly created the most potent form of birth control available.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

My Negligence Explained




Sorry for the lack of posts as of late, the preparations for the half-marathon and some free-lance editing have really eaten up my time. While the details of these activities are unquestionably riveting, I thought that I would spare you all a chronicle of my daily runs and swaths of the red pen. Anyway, this past weekend, Ariel, Anna Lilly and I participated in the monstrosity that was the 2005 ING Marathon, Half-Marathon, 10km..... Taiwan's largest organized race. After registering months ago in the CTRRA's boiler-room mistakenly labeled an office, the day had finally arrived. Getting up at the delightfully refreshing hour of 5ish, we begrudgingly gathered our stuff and headed out towards the Taibei City Hall. Heading towards the MRT station we passed another group of foreigners engaged in one of those 'o so important' five in the morning beer runs. As the last clubs shut their doors we were heading out to run. A short train ride later we emerged at the race's starting point and tried to figure out exactly what was going on and why we were subjecting ourselves to this. To add to our confusion were the sheer number of people involved with the races in some way or another; while there were about 30,000 racers, over 100,000 people came by the starting area throughout the course of the morning. So after continued confusion and mild extortion on the part of the CTRRA [they won't store your belongings without one of their special bags], we were ready to race.

Although the race itself was fairly pleasant, there are plenty of areas that could use some review. First, unlike many other races the full, half and 10K all start at the same time from the same point. The first few kilometers of the race were an aggravating bobbing and weaving through the hoards of runners. To add to the difficult, some running pairs tied ropes to their hands as a means of not getting separated. Though I was frustrated by this, the crowd quickly thinned out and things got underway. Second, there are some really beautiful areas of Taibei, unfortunately, a large portion of this course keeps you from knowing this. Despite getting a better understanding of the highway, I still felt a little dissatisfied with the course design. Third, in a stroke of genius, the last section of the course goes through a 1.5K underpass that still has traffic going on the other side. The result is a delightful mixture of stagnant warm air filled with exhaust, truly ideal in the 20th km. Though this sounds a fairly negative, I genuinely had a good time racing.

The beginning and end of the race were another matter entirely. When I finished the race and looked at my time I felt pretty good, I did not expect to spend the same amount of time waiting in lines. Logistics is an important word when it comes to events involving tens of thousands of people. Sadly, the race planners let this part slide a bit too much. For the 100,000 some odd people, the race officials were kind enough to provide 8 port-o-potties. Really... everyone knows a crowd this size requires at least 11..... To increase the waiting times at other areas, the organizers placed the timing chip return table [manned by two people], between the food tables, the free massage tent and race results tend. The outcome was a line that kept growing and growing without shrinking. While I half-expected to beat Ariel and Anna Lilly home (their race finished at a different point), I realized that I was in for the long haul. After a hour and a half of waiting I finally handed over my chip, grabbed a fairly unappetizing box of mixed breads and headed home. The end may have spoiled the experience a little but I am still glad I did it.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

A Christmas Story

Just a short little post here.

Last night I spent a large portion of my afternoon/evening in what may be Taibei's best coffee shop. If you happen to be in Taibei around the Youth Sports Park, I highly encourage you to stop by this unnamed hole in the wall. Needless to say, I have spent a bit of time here and have gotten to know the owners a little. As is fitting to the holiday season [yes, Taiwan is wrapped up in it as well], the owner and her employee were busily bedecking the tiny shop with countless Christmas decorations. As I sat and worked on some homework they adjusted wreaths, hung ornaments and strung garland all around the shop. By some stroke of luck, they, unlike every other Taiwanese coffee shop, were not playing some ghastly Burl Ives Christmas collection on repeat. While I was a little suspect of their efforts at the outset, the end product was a pleasant Christmas atmosphere that didn't scream out "BOW BEFORE SANTA AND HIS REINDEER!" After they finished decorating the shop, we talked a little and I lamented the fact that the Christmas/holiday season seems to start earlier every year. I imagine that when I have children it will probably be a custom to put poinsettias in jack-o-lanterns to save time or that goblins may begin to play some part in mangers. I'll have to wait and see. As we talked a little more, the owner said that my genuine distain for the trappings of the holiday season is probably due to the fact that I don't have children. After I acknowledged this, she went on to tell me about what her five year old daughter wanted for Christmas. Before going any further I have to tell you that her daughter spends most of her afternoons in the coffee shop working on homework, playing games, causing a little havoc, etc. and I had talked with her on a few very brief occasions. So, back to the Christmas list. When asked what she wanted, she replied that she wanted a sofa.... The mother was puzzled by this. Her apartment didn't have a dearth of sofas; in fact, it probably had more than enough. When the mother pressed why she wanted a sofa, the child said that they seem really comfortable. While I laughed and shrugged this off fairly easily, the implications of this Christmas request began to sink in. I now realize that kid really is the smartest child I have ever met. Think about what you asked for when you were five. Can you remember what it was? If you can, does that item still play any significant role in your daily life? Doubtful at best. But a sofa.....it's a Christmas present for the long term. It makes me wonder why instead of all those toys I didn't ask for large appliances, tools, or furniture. I guess I didn't have the foresight and besides, I don't think any five year old wants to hear the words "Look, Santa brought you a ball pien hammer."

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Kicking Back with the Ex-pats

Despite having planned on going out on numerous occasions since this spring, I never had got up the courage to go hashing. No, this is not some activity that is closely associated with the death penalty or Amsterdam but rather a somewhat obscure tangent of organized running. Originally started in one of the various British colonies as a physical activity that could be used to justify the subsequent pursuit of Epicurean delights, it has evolved into a rather strange assortment of running groups across the world. After a little research I found that there are a few groups in Taiwan and finally sucked it up and went out for a run. In hindsight, I really couldn't have picked a worse day; with blowing winds, constant drizzle and temperatures that rivaled some of the chiller areas on the Mongolian Steppe, I knew this type of evening would really help me determine if I had any desire in doing this. The group met a tiny restaurant by the Taibei 101, comprised of half local Taiwanese and half laowai, I stood decidedly out of place as the only first timer. Milling around and trying to make small talk, I prayed for the running to begin. After 15 minutes of awkward half-introductions one of the ex-pats finally took a little sympathy for my situation and gave me a brief synopsis of the evening. "Well... we're gonna follow a guy for a while and come back...." came out in a thick Kiwi accent. Standing awkwardly in my hot pants ( no, their just running shorts. emphasis on the short) for a few minutes more, I let out a sigh of relief as the group started heading out of the restaurant. Trying to blend as best I could I kept pace with the light jog everyone had broken into. Running in tandem with one of the ex-pats he turned and looked at me saying "Who the feck are you?" Perhaps not the best introduction to the group but I was looking for anything at that point. At some point as we snaked through alleys and traffic in our slow run someone took off and the real race had begun. The way the runs are structured is that one individual [the hare] heads out 10-15 minutes ahead of time and leaves a trail of flour through any number of delightful terrains. Occasionally this method leads to a little trouble e.g. the evacuation of areas of Lincoln Park. No paths are off limits and concerns for personal safety are cast to the wind. Following the hare are any number of runners who tear through intersections, alleyways and public markets following the piles of inert flour. At the end of the race you end up in some restaurant or bar for a few, or few too many, drinks. It's really not a bad way to spend an afternoon or evening. Anyway, I knew I was definitely in for something as the pack headed towards the Tabei 101 and environs. As we neared the world's tallest building and surrounding shopping centers, the path suddenly jumped up a few flights of stairs onto the causeways between the various buildings. The mall security was baffled and bemused by our presence but the shoppers were in for the largest shop. Just imagine a fairly well-to-do business person getting some last minute shopping out of the way one weekday evening when suddenly the first wave of fifteen runners is upon him as he exits the shop. Collecting himself for just long enough to comprehend what passed by and the second and third waves fly by. Even if he is a little perturbed by the use of the gangways as a track [as well as slip and slide on this rather wet evening], at least he's got something interesting to talk about when he gets home. Needless to say, it's a great deal of fun to tear through public places without abandon. Sadly, the hare gradually led us away from the 101 and into a series of parks where I had a chance to be reminded of the subtle nature of Taiwan's geography. There is an unspoken reality in Taiwan and that is that mountains appear out of nowhere. These phantoms will strike at you at any time and you have no way of knowing exactly when this will happen. As we passed through the park into a residential area this stubborn reality brought us all to a crawl. Going up a few hundred feet in the dark, rain and without stairs was no mean task but it did give me the opportunity to talk with a few of the other runners in between pants. Eventually we made it to the top of the mountain only to be sent to another one before head down a path that can only be described as a bona-fide ankle breaker. Thankfully, everyone is still alright. In the end, we arrived at the restaurant and sat down to share a large meal and a few [dozen] bottles of Taiwan Beer which can only be described as barely palatable. By the end of the evening I had gotten to make the rounds and felt like I knew a little bit about a number of the other runners. Though I brought down the average age of the group by a fairly large fraction, it was a nice change to be with a group of people that aren't wrapped up in the process of study. I'm glad I went out for the evening and was finally able to put my apprehensions to rest.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

A Fresh Start in Numerous Keys

So, there has been a great deal of change in the past week. For one, I have a new teacher who is more invested in actually teaching the materials as opposed to coming up with new and creative ways in which to make her life increasingly miserable. It's really amazing how you can get used to something like that. In short, classes have been getting increasingly useful. In another large change, I have had my first experience with the dreaded and potentially lethal Taiwanese winter. Before coming to the island, I was shocked by the number of people that gave me delightful anecdotes like "I would have died if I had spent the winter in that apartment." or "Taiwan, I've never been colder than during winter in Taipei." While I cast off these warnings and reassured myself of my inherent genetic superiority due to my all-season fur coat, I do have to say I was slightly humbled during the first bitterly cold night. Although the temperature probably doesn't ever drop below eight degrees Celsius you wouldn't know it. Due to the tropical nature of the island, the buildings are all constructed with the sweltering summer time in mind. Therefore, double-paned glass, tight seals, and heating are rarely found in most buildings. Compound this with the fact that most buildings are made out of concrete and the humidity stays at the level near 88% all winter and you can being to get the picture of how things are. Although it isn't too cold outside if you are wearing a windbreaker, as soon as you go indoors and stop moving the chills set in and they are nigh impossible to shake. Hence, despite donning numerous layers in my bed, the cavernous qualities of my concrete grotto won out and I was left to curl up in the fetal position and occasionally lash out with strings of obscenities. To add to the overall spirit-crushing nature of the Taiwanese winter, I was dealt a particularly unlucky blow by the fates. When I got up, I quickly hopped into the shower and let the hot water shake off the chill. After a few moments and a considerable lather I was suddenly assaulted by frigid water. Leaping out of the shower and almost killing myself in the process I realized that I had finally run out of gas. Shivering and attempting not to soil too many articles of clothing [due to the soap] and stay alive, I hobbled to the phone and frantically called for more gas, completely forgetting my address in the process. In spite of this mild setback and great discomfort, the gas man promptly arrived and only made a few mild cracks about my situation. In the afternoon, I decided to do my best to winterize my apartment in a manner that would be befitting to the Robert Taylor homes. Attacking my windows with cardboard and packing tape, I have created incredibly unsightly but somewhat useful insulation over many of the windows. Currently, I am still looking for a 55 gallon drum to burn trash and scrap wood in. I know that I'll survive the winter but I can't say that I'll be doing it in style.