Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Thank you, Taiwan!

So it's that time... ode to Taiwan time.  Unfortunately, it's going to be a sleep-deprived last post since this 12-hour time difference has been much harder to adjust to when returning to America and dealing with classes and make-up work.  But still totally worth it!
Well, where-as India was a life-changing experience, Taiwan was an enjoyable trip.  It's definitely a country I could see myself living.  There are definitely aspects of Taiwan that seem more advanced than the US.  I had a slide in my SCALE-UP presentation about how in 1974, about 47% of American high school graduates went to college but in 2007, that fraction grew to 66% immediately enrolling in higher education.  I later learned that Taiwan went from 30% of high school graduates entering college immediately after high school in the 1970s to nearly 100% these days.  Lei Bao explained that the importance of higher education for the Chinese dates back to the Civil Service Examination era, where becoming literate and getting an education could literally raise your social status.  This high higher education rate is introducing some issues from the country because there's been a slight decrease in the birth rate so that means they'll have too many colleges and too many professors.  In the past, they've resisted letting too many foreigners attend school in Taiwan but they are going to have to decide if they want to close universities or let students in mainland China get educated in their country.  Taiwan too is struggling to compete with jobs being sent overseas- much of this trip helped me to realize how similar struggles and successes are, for people of various countries and backgrounds.
Some safety precautions also impressed me- many buildings were equipped with "Fire escape slings" which I had never seen in the US, as a way to propel yourself away from a burning building.  They seemed advanced in safety in this respect, but then I learned seat-belts for every passenger in a car are just becoming mandatory in the coming weeks.
So I'm going to miss a lot of things about Taiwan- from the pedestrian walkways with the animated, moonwalking green man who lets you know its ok to cross to bubble tea shops every block to the random performers outside.  But most of all, I'm going to miss the people I meet.  Such unparalleled generosity, hospitality, friendliness, thoughtfulness... there were multiple times I felt like a long-lost family member.
So, thank you Taiwan!  I'm glad I got to tell you about this all-too-often-overlooked gem of a country.  (My suspicions were confirmed when I returned and was asked "How was Thailand?"  "How was China?").  I'm hoping to get a fellowship to do 2 months of research in Asia this summer- keep your fingers crossed for me- I should find out in Early March.  That would definitely be blog-worthy.  Until next time, may all of you be blessed with health, happiness and opportunities for your own little adventures!

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Fun in an airport?

            I didn’t think it was possible to have fun in an airport, especially for a bleary-eyed who had to wake up before the crack of dawn and is not looking forward to the next 20 hours of travel back to the real world.  But I was wrong!  This airport was filled with amazing surprises.  Not only did they have a prayer room, children’s playground, relaxation lounge with waterfalls but they also had several exhibits.  I learned about the 14 aborigine tribes, in whom Taiwan takes great pride as the cultural center of their country’s heritage.  I learned about Alishan Mountain and enjoyed a calligraphy and painting exhibit.  The Chinese puppetry area was my favorite- they described the stereotypical character roles and how you would know who was who by the costumes.  In addition to describing the origins of this traditional art, they described modern performances that adapted the ancient art in a contemporary twist. 
Chinese Puppet exhibit at Taoyuan Airport

Aborigine exhibit 

So that definitely brightened my morning and I took advantage of the chance to walk around as much as possible before eternity on a plane.
            Japan's airport is fun too!  Why don't they have things like this in the US?  They have daybed type cozy arrangements so people can lie down between flights.  I also checked out the origami museum- absolutely mindblowing!  I'll post pictures of a Cinderella scene made entirely out of paper.  Wow!  Well, I've get ready to hop on my plane to Michigan and re-gain the 11 hours lost in time zone differences as I travel through time and space!  My now-alligator skin is looking forward to coming home to moisturizer- hotels here don't provide it (but they do give you toothbrushing kits!).  And of course, I can’t wait to get back in the pool.
Origami Museum in Tokyo Airport- it's almost all paper!
            I’ll add pictures and post at least one more entry to summarize my experiences but thanks to everyone for reading!  I’ve had fun sharing my travels with you and hearing your feedback along the way.  Almost 1,000 page views! 


I’m staring out my deluxe room, extra-large window, taking advantage of my 11th floor lookout to watch the sporadic fireworks being light off and trying to make out the hard-to-hear voice over some loud speaker.  Taoyuan reminds me of an old school Las Vegas, with LED lights on steroids.  In general, Taiwan has more colorful signs hanging off the sides of shops and stores.  Taoyuan illuminates those signs with unnecessarily obnoxious flashing, whirring and blinking rainbow lights, projecting videos on TVs and billboards.  I’m not sure how much Las Vegas-like activity goes on here but I do know LED arrows for miles lead to an “I do” motel which was followed by an “Oh ya” motel a couple blocks later.  A place called “Forbidden City” had a big window with a living woman, provocatively sprawled on a chair. 
View out of my hotel window
The “traditional Lunar New Year dinner with Professor Pao’s family” turned out slightly different than I expected.  I knew we were going to a restaurant because his mother didn’t want to cook for ten.  I didn’t realize it would be an Italian restaurant!  So it was interesting to see pizzas and pastas advertised on a menu written entirely in Chinese with orders taken by waitresses who didn’t speak English.  Especially when you are surrounded by Italian café décor with menu items written in English as decorations.  It's kind of sad that the whole world seems to be moving away from traditions these days, especially in this instance since food is so important to Asians.  However, the most important part of the tradition is spending time with family.  And the family atmosphere was full of jubilant bantering and lots of laughing, something I could understand and enjoy despite mostly Chinese conversations.
They reminded me the Superbowl is approaching rapidly.  I tried to disguise my complete obliviousness but the Superbowl on my radar is analogous to Chinese New Year on most American’s minds.  If it weren’t for the grocery stores selling chili and chips, I won’t even know it was happening.  Snoopy sister may not speak much English but she loves football and has perfected yelling “touchdown!” (she demonstrated and it was better than I could do, haha).

New Year's Eve dinner with Professor Pao's family
So very nice dinner and it ended in the traditional lucky money distribution.  It was very generous of Professor Pao to include me in this family tradition- so I got “hóngbāo” 討紅包 too!  I guess the Italian dinner should help me transition to a US state of mind.  I’ve already had to struggle not to put “happy new year!” on the bottom of e-mails I’ve been sending to Americans.  I anticipate that some Americans might look at me like I’m crazy if I continue to speak in the exaggerated pantomime that is helpful for communicating here. 
Speaking of a US state of mind, I’ve got to brace myself for a 5:30 AM shuttle tomorrow morning.  I probably should make an effort to contain the explosion of clothes erupting out of my suitcase.  Xīn nián kuài lè! 新年快樂! (Happy New Year!)

Taipei night tour

            Just before dinner, I got picked up from my hotel for a Mongolian dinner and Taipei night tour.  It wasn’t a bad experience by any means but the crowds and cheesier-type attractions made me grateful that my trip was largely personalized tours by locals!  Anyway, first stop was dinner at Mongolian BBQ, aka tourist feeding hole.  Many tour buses came to this large buffet where you could eat unlimited prepared dishes, bring a meat, vegetable & noodle creation for the chefs to cook (like Fire & Ice in the US) or pick out things to cook in the table’s hot pot.  I enjoyed getting to know Felix, the tour guide and a family from the Philippines but this food… had room for improvement especially considering the quality of everything else I ate in this country. 
            After everyone ate, the first stop was the tourist-friendly Hui Xi Night Market.  It was a well-organized hallway of vendors that stood in stark contrast to the chaotic, jumbled, jam-packed Night Market that I went to back in Chia-yi.  As I mentioned in a prior entry, historically, this market was known for killing snakes (drinking their blood was supposed to make you strong) and prostitutes.  Today, there were several snakes in display cases but it was pretty tame.  When I saw all the foot and body massage businesses, suddenly all the rock-hard Taiwanese beds I’ve slept in made sense.  Perhaps the hotels and Universities conspire to support the masseuses!
Entrance to Night Market
Inside the tourist friendly night market

            The Loushan (dragon) Temple was next and actually interesting.  The outside of the temple was completely covered in paper lanterns, which Felix says only happens a couple times of the year.  The main Buddhist figure is famous for surviving a WWII bombing, even though the rest of the temple was destroyed.  There were some tourists but also many people leaving offerings of food or flowers, while lighting incense so the smoke could bring their prayers to the gods (as the Chinese believe they can’t speak to the gods directly).  In the back, there was a Daoist temple with several deities, specialized for various needs- success in commerce, matchmaking, examinations and more.  I loved the offering of Choco-pies in front of this education deity.  In the below picture, you can see two Philippine women and me.  They loved taking pictures with me- I’m in more than a half a dozen of their family photos.  Every time, someone would say “Now we can take you home” and everyone would cheer “souvenir”!   I can’t imagine what they are going to say about me when they share these photos back home.  It’s kind of like the boy who videotaped my whole SCALE-UP talk on his cell-phone- is he going to listen to my talk on active learning as a late night lullaby before he goes to bed?

With Philippine friends at Loushan Temple
            The last stop was the 101 building so I enjoyed exploring that for a second time today.  I didn’t go to the top, because that was an additional charge and it was too foggy to see much anyway.  But it is the fastest elevator in the world (at least until 2014 when a Shanghai skyscraper should be completed and is planned to surpass that record).  They also have an impressive “damper” at the top to absorb extra wind and earthquake jiggles to protect the building.  They sell “damper baby” key chains and stuffed animals as a silly souvenir.   So that was the night tour- the Philippine family was sad to see me go, but they let out a jubilant cheer as I left.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Coming full circle

This trip is coming full circle- I’m spending the last night in the same Taoyaun hotel where Penny and I spent my first night in Taiwan.  Somehow I’ve upgraded to a deluxe room. I’m not really sure when or why I’m enjoying the last day of the Year of the Rabbit, sipping Oolong surrounded by extravagance.  According to Chinese astrologers, the upcoming Year of the Dragon isn’t supposed to be a good year for dragon babies, like me so I’ll live it up today.
Definitely nicer than my room the first night!

            I decided to brave the rain during my last morning in Taipei to see the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, one of the remaining top sites in the city.  As you can tell, the Taiwanese love their memorial halls… and now, I do too!  It’s obvious from these beautiful buildings that the Taiwanese value and treasure the arts.  Unfortunately, the rooms were locked which foiled my plan to find a magnet for Dad’s refrigerator collection.  I rushed out of my hotel this morning to make sure I could see everything and be packed by noon checkout time but I regretted not making time for my rain dance!
Taiwan International Art Festival advertisement- toilets!

However, the ornate architecture and meticulous gardens were well worth getting wet for.  Just past the entrance, there was a glass room with two toilets to advertise the upcoming International Arts Festival hosted by the city.  It didn’t make much sense to me and my new Hong Kong friends were equally confused.  One said that he still hasn’t figured out how to use these Western toilets.  I couldn’t fathom what was so hard to figure out but I told him the Asian hole-in-the-ground potties surpassed my mental capabilities (or maybe my Western sense of hygiene)!  Fortunately, I avoided using pit toilets this trip but more than once, I had to recover from the awkward-peek-into-a-stall-and-run-away when there were no Western options available.
Ok, enough about toilets, I think the pictures for this place pretty much speak for themselves.  You can thank my Hong Kong friends for the excellent photography.  They offered to take more pictures of me when I visit them in Hong Kong (haha, I have no immediate plans but they love their home and really wanted me to see it).  They raved about the world-famous food, if you’re willing to brave the crowds and share tables with strangers.

Afterwards, Professor Pao and his wife meet me at the hotel to take me out to lunch!  That was not the plan- I planning on skipping lunch to make room for tonight’s feast!  But miraculously all my jeans still fit (despite the fact that I look like a marshmallow in all my CKS Memorial Hall photos- that's because I’m wearing three jackets), so I decided to take advantage of their culinary expertise for my last lunch in this country.

They took me to a place in the train station, which is the second location of a very famous, very traditional restaurant.  No forks here!  I’m embarrassed to say, my chopstick skills can be less than elegant and although I try, my not-always-successful steadfast determination pains my Taiwanese friends sometimes and they try to find me flatware. This place is famous for their pan-friend, pork dumplings so we ordered those, a steamed vegetable dumpling,  “small rice” porridge, a mainland China New Year cake (they called it a cake but it’s a main dish with thick noodles), finger pancake and tofu soup.  All of it was delicious- I love how Taiwanese dishes typically are served in smaller, sharable portions so everyone can try things.
I enjoyed one last walk through the train station with all the shops decorated for the holiday and selling specialty dishes.  I was amused by the Hello Kitty bakery and once again dumbfounded by the assortment of options- famous stores from Japan, Hong Kong and Europe.  Jennifier (Dr. Pao’s wife) had gotten a MBA from Ohio State but it currently studying hotel management.  I enjoyed hearing stories from their travels all over the world and stories from past New Years.  Tomorrow, consistent with tradition, they are reuniting with her family- and with an expected attendance of 40-50 people, they have to rent out a special space. I laughed when they told me about a year her family decided to spend the day sightseeing and they rented a whole tour bus for the ultimate family reunion extravaganza!  She wondered if my family did anything to celebrate the Lunar New Year- I said my Asian family from Providence College Asian Am made an attempt at celebrating, but I don’t think the holiday even registers on the average American’s radar.
Professor Pao’s sister picked us up and since her car was completely decked out in Snoopy décor, I asked where her kids were.  I was a little embarrassed when Jennifer told me she has no kids, she just loves Snoopy (but hopefully Jennifer modified my inquiry when she translated it the sister who doesn’t speak English).  But seriously- Snoopy seat covers, Snoopy sunglass holders, assorted Snoopy trinkets, Snoopy clothes hangers, Snoopy steering wheel cover- wowza!  Anyway, I’m going to get ready for dinner!

Occupy Taipei

What a perfect afternoon!  Sally and her sister Emily didn't know me at all before today but everything they showed me, I loved!  It was drizzly this morning so we drove by some sights- Ximengding teenage hangout-and-Japanese-culture-appreciate area, the Presidential Office Building and the City Gate.  
The first stop was Chiang Kai-shek Shilin Residence, a home for a past president built around 1950.  And apparently, my rain dance was successful because the weather cleared up and held out all afternoon.  I learned that Dwight Eisenhower and Roosevelt visited here at some point! Anyway, it didn't look like much from the outside, and the main house was closed for the holiday but there was free admission to the sprawling grounds, probably some of the most gorgeous gardens I have ever visited.  Chinese gardens like this one, Western gardens, fish pond (I found a turtle), with an interesting insect decor theme throughout.
Reminds me of Alice in Wonderland- caterpillar with bunny ears!
I could have stayed there for hours but these ladies were on a mission to show me everything awesome!  So their legs may be little but they sure could move (Sally's going to send me some pictures with them in it to share) and on to the next place!  But not before Emily's son called wanting to speak to me so that was adorable.  He was only fourteen but his English was really good- Emily sends her kids to Australia in the summers to practice and it paid off.
Next stop was the National Dr. Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall.  This is a national level auditorium, symposium site with 20 exhibition halls.  We timed it perfectly to see the changing of the guard in front of the famous Dr. Sun.  My pictures came out terrible but I almost laughed out loud when the new guards settled frozen in place.  They have men who adjust the uniforms on the newly frozen soldiers to make sure they are presentable for the hour they'll be standing guard.
Apparently the random dancing and singing isn't restricted to Chiaya.  The first video is a dizzying take and goofy narration of people who weren't that impressive on camera.  And the second video is a group that's a little more coordinated.  Outside the memorial hall were all these teenagers doing hip hop, next to old people practicing Tai Chi next to middle age people doing martial arts.  Crazy country but I love it!

After that, we went to a Cantonese restaurant for Dim Sum for lunch near the City Center where there's 7 huge department stores and all the fanciest shop.  Lunch was absolutely delicious- everything in the US that claims to be Dim Sum pales in comparison!  I enjoyed chatting with them- they wanted to gossip about boys and they said with my slim figure and beautiful blue eyes, I must have many boyfriends!  They told me stories about their honeymoons and their silly teenagers (their daughters love reading Twilight- I wasn't sure how to describe the book series but as soon as I mimed vampire teeth, they knew exactly what I was talking about).
Then, we explored the Xinyi District, by the City Hall.  It was amazing just to see all the New Year decorations and variety of top shops.  We went to the Taipei 101 building, didn't go up because I'll be there tonight but it was still something to see.  All the malls were connected by above-road walkways and on one, I found "Occupy Wallstreet" has spread to Taipei!
Occupy Taipei
Another one of my favorite stops was Taiwan's largest book store- almost 25,000 square meters and six stories!  Eslite is open twenty-four hours a day and apparently people flock from all countries to see its over a million books, published in Mandarin, English, Japanese and European languages.  They had themed areas throughout and they had a whole floor for children.  On that floor, children could play with clay, paint pots, there were people taking painting classes... I could easily live there!
After some scenic walking on the way back to the MRT station, they delivered me back to my hotel so I have time to relax before my night tour this evening.  I'm just so thankful to all the Taiwanese friends I made for speaking English for me, giving me great tours and general generosity in sharing wisdom and meals.  I'm going to miss all these people but I'm still trying to convince them to come to the US so I can return the favor! 

Friday, 20 January 2012

Rain, rain go away!

I've got about a half an hour before I'm meeting Sally so I have time for a rain dance and an update!  I've lucked out on the weather so far- keep your fingers crossed that today stays on the dry side of the 50% chance of precipitation.
I didn't go too crazy for my friday night in Taipei but I did do some exploring.  I checked out the Shin-Kong Mitsukoshi Department Store just because it was relatively famous for its 9 floors.  It was pretty huge and I was surprised to find its only the largest department store in West Taipei... I can't imagine what else you would sell in a larger store.  At the banquet, the guys I was sitting with told me Taipei becomes abandoned during the Lunar New Year season as people travel South to their hometowns.  That sure hasn't happened yet- at least above ground, there were huge flocks of people, best described by Uncle Bob's term "cattle" which he endearingly named the slow moving Las Vegas masses.

Then I pursued the underground malls connected to the train station.  Lots of people selling clothes, shoes, food... there were video game arcades, massages, some strange medical treatment that Penny has used to increase circulation to keep away colds.  Not too many booths designed for tourists but I was successful in my hunt for postcards.
As you can see from the picture of downtown, American stores are much more common here- I've seen multiple Subways, a Dunkin Donuts (that made me feel right at home), many Body Shops and Pizza Huts.  Watching Pizza Hut commercials on TV, their products weren't even recognizable.  This inclination was verified when I googled the menu.  It highlights the "hot saw" platter" with Germany cheese sausage, pigs in a blanket (but they call them ham rolls) and "French style pizza" (I can't even figure out what that's supposed to mean).  The pizzas are more familiar but they put noodles on them and offer exotic options like Korean Kim Chi BBQ and Japanese Takoyaki.
Speaking of food, the free breakfast in the restaurant upstairs at the hotel revealed similar dishes to the first breakfast at Yaoshen.  They served a variety of dishes- meaty things, eggs, green vegetables, peanuts, rice and toast.  I couldn't really figure out the connection between the random offerings but all the natives created interesting sandwiches and rice bowls by mixing the various things.
Not much else here- speaking of things that boggle my Western mind, my hotel room has so many switches- figuring those out has been a fun side project.  Here's a sign in the elevators that always makes me giggle.  Hopefully I won't get trapped in any elevators and need to use it for reference:
In Chinese class, we learned that Chinese people don't like the number four because the Mandarin word sounds like "death".  Sure enough, there was no fourth floor on this hotel and no fourth room on each floor.  Here it's all about lucky number 8!

Taipei, ni hao!

Time to travel! Kan picked Penny and I up to travel to the high speed train station.  It was a nice drive, past rice patties, pineapple and sugarcane farms and a “banana hamburger” store.  Upon arrival to the station, I had my first hamburger for breakfast!
MOS hamburger for breakfast!
 MOS burger is a Japanese chain that is one of Penny’s favorites.  I tried what she called the “hamburger” and it was on a bun with lettuce but there wasn’t any meat- I think it was an egg and pepper mixture.  They also call the beef patties on a bun hamburgers but she said people don’t eat those for breakfast- that’s more of a lunch and dinner food.  She also brought me some New Years Taro treats to follow up the burgers.  Yum.
Taipei train station- HUGE!
After a surprisingly uncrowded train ride, we were in Taipei before I knew it.  And we arrived in the biggest train station I've ever been in- three layers for subway, high speed rail and regular rail.  But then food court, several underground malls, post office, grocery stores, tourist office... and it goes on and on.  We went to drop my luggage off at my hotel which is centrally located and very close to the metro station.  Sally called (related to my old boss) and she became available tomorrow so I look forward to sightseeing and having lunch with her husband tomorrow.  

Penny and I at the National Palace Museum
Then Penny and I went to the National Palace Museum, which filled with the most beautiful Asian Art.  Calligraphy, long scrolls of Chinese painting pottery, carved rhino horns, teensy scenes carved in ivory, painted fans... Many amazing pieces that I've never seen in the US.  One of my favorite things was "curio boxes" which were boxes filled with ivory trinkets, poetry and random stuff but the boxes unfolded in special ways with multiple secret compartments.  I also was entertained to find several "cricket boxes" because the ancient Chinese engaged in cricket fighting apparently!
I was amused that one of the most famous attractions in the whole museum was a jade piece of cabbage and a jade rock that looked like meat.  We couldn't bring cameras inside but here's a photo just so you can experience the magic of edible things in semi-precious stone:

So that was excellent and there was a whole second exhibition hall, legends of Western mythology, selected works from the Louvre, but we felt cultured enough for the day.  We did some complicated language exchanging- trying to explain "cursive" and "nymph" were pretty epic challenges.  I don't think I ever succeeded with nymph- using "playful" and "otter" to describe the more carefree type goddess just opened up such a can of worms, she's going to ask google about that one.
Temple decked out for the New Year
We walked around a bit and went to get lunch at one of the many Night Markets.  Even though it was daytime and most things weren't open, it was still crazy- people flying down the small streets on their motorcycles, bikes, people cooking, people eating, people trying to get you to try things.  We had noodles for lunch and of course we had to have one last tea together on the way back to my hotel before she had to go back to campus so she can join her family for the holidays.  Random aside about Penny- I asked her where she got her American name and I guess her elementary school teacher just picked it for all the children and they just keep those names!  Forgot being a college physics professors- apparently Taiwanese primary school teachers have all the power!  I can't imagine choosing a permanent name for several dozen students each year.
Anyway, we said our goodbyes and she left me with an awesome Beauty and the Beast thank you note.  Now she's on the train and I'm watching Taiwanese karaoke as I update y'all.  Hmmm... not sure what I'm going to do next- postcard hunt in the underground mall?  I don't want to make the same mistake as India and leave without them.  Bye bye!

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Last Day at Cheng Chung :(

Today was a wonderful way to wrap up my stay at Cheng Chung.  I'm ready for a change of scenery but I'm going to miss the blissful serenity of "leisure walks" around the lake and the nighttime lanterns in the courtyard.  The TEAL team, Lei Bao and I were planning to have lunch together so I was chillin' downstairs at the conference and was suddenly surrounded by these professors chattering away in Chinese.  It was around lunchtime and they were the people I was supposed to meet up with so I packed up my stuff and joined the Asian mob walking to Dr. Kan's white van.  So I hopped in and we drove a bit, parked in a pretty obscure place, piled out as they continued to chat away.  All of a sudden, we enter this back entrance of a warehouse-like space, with no people, no signs.  And I'm thinking to myself "You should have at least made sure you were going to lunch" as we wind through a skinny, grey hallway.  Fortunately, a couple corners later, a nice restaurant, coffee and wine bar  materializes out of nowhere.  
Once I was able to breathe a sigh of relief, that's when they decided to switch to English.   Lunch was lovely- more Western-style food (finally a menu with some English!)- I had a very interesting pine nut salad with apples and raisins and crunchy things.  Lots of nerdy conversations- they are definitely interested in continuing our collaboration in the future.  
Dr. Kan apparently grew comfortable enough around me to ask a burning question he had about Westerners.  In Asia, they usually have slippers by the door for people to wear in the home, hotel and even in the TEAL classroom.  Dr. Kan noticed that using slippers was rare in the US and that many people in the US wear their shoes inside their homes.  So he asked me, "if Americans tend to shower in the morning, wear their shoes to work and wear them when they get back home, when do they take them off?"  I didn't even know how to answer that- "before bed, I guess".  Mysterious cultural differences can inspire some pretty interesting questions. 
Anyway, I went for a walk after lunch and a student happened to be playing the flute.  Between the beautiful music and scenery, I just had to capture it on video.  Excuse my crazy ramblings on the video- by Wednesday, I meant thursday and by dinner, I meant lunch.

After the nice walk, I met up with Penny for a downtown adventure.
Kind of what downtown looks like- Penny thought it was
 funny how many random people said hi to me
Actually, it started out a hunt for tea, which quickly became an adventure when all the close-to-campus tea shops are already closed for the New Year.
Special tea... and free French fries with tea purchase until the New Year!
(Seems like a weird combo but maybe that's me!)
Penny wanted me to try this special tea that they cover with a buttery milk topping- I feel like it is the Asian version of Harry Potter butterbeer.  It's one of the few beverages they don't drink out of a straw (they even drink some hot teas out of straws, which surprised me).  Such an awesome outing- we sometimes used pictionary to overcome the language barrier as we discussed everything from BOOM flowers to BAM factorials to Canadians to boys to research advisors.
"BOOM flowers" and a courtyard decorated for the new year
After she dropped me back at my room, less than an hour later, Professor Pao (the head of the physics department here) and his wife picked me up for dinner.  I was expecting a causal meal close to campus but these people don't let me go a day without eating an 8-course feast.  We went to a classier section of downtown Chiaya (classy except for the bloody, hanging in-the-process-of-being-butchered pigs we walked by) to a restaurant of a chef with nationwide acclaim.
So I sat down in my orange corduroys to the fanciest meal I've ever had.  There's no menus- you just sit down and they bring you 8-10 small dishes, all beautifully decorated and specially paced.  What did we have?  I wish my words could do it justice but to me, it was fancy meat, fancy shrimp, papaya stuffed with cheese and potato, delicious tofu, maybe squid hotpot?  Red bean mochi and guava juice for dessert.  I don't really know the English words but I assure you, it was delicious!
So Taipei tomorrow- Penny and I are taking an early high speed train to the city (she's excited for Japanese MOS hamburgers for breakfast!) and she's going to go to the Palace Museum with me then she has to head home to her family for the New Year.  I'll have Saturday afternoon for personal explorations, a night tour that evening then head Professor Pao's way for New Year's Eve.  Time to pack!

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Snake Soup and Snake Strippers- Taipei Travel Advice

Good morning! It's hard to believe the conference is already winding down but I'm excited for a change of scenery.  There's not too much to report this morning except that I have been relaxing at the conference and enjoying exchanging travel tips with Dr. Chia of National Taiwan Normal University.  He's also considering building a SCALE-UP type room at his university and I was amazed how much cheaper the technology is to buy here in Taiwan.  He was saying how he planned to convert a classroom for 60 with 6 smartboards, a Wii type receiver, projectors and screens for less than 200,000 NT (less than $6,000) but he planned on keeping the lab benches and he would be able to get computers from other places at the University.
As far as travel tips, he recommended Ximending, which a local teenage hangout with shops, movies and of course lots of restaurants!  He's getting ready to go to the hot springs with his family and he thinks I should bring my family there as well (I told him I'm sure they are more than willing!)  Dr. Kan was telling me how the night market I'm planning to visit in Taipei was historically known for having prostitutes.  He says he doesn't know if they do this anymore but they used to dance with snakes, since they symbolized sexuality.  Apparently, they might hang the snakes out in public as well... supposedly snake soup tastes pretty good but I think I'll be steering clear of that one (Assuming I know what they serve me... which is not typically true here).
Unfortunately with the new year, everyone is heading home to the small towns where they originated.  So it doesn't sound like I'll be able to meet up with the high school physics teacher because they are leaving Taipei for a giant family reunion.  Supposedly the city gets pretty quiet this time of year so we'll see what happens.  But it sounds like Taipei can get pretty crazy so I'm excited.
Then a high school teacher who is working on his doctorate who heard my talk yesterday spoke to me for over an hour.  He was very excited about SCALE-UP and has already checked out the resources on-line and he looks forward to e-mailing me.  But it was fun to compare experiences both in grad school and the classroom.  It sounds like Taiwanese high school students are equally as silly as American ones! :P.

Belly bursting banquet!

SO.  MUCH. FOOD.  How do these Taiwanese people stay so skinny?  I sat with the man from Taiwan National Normal University who offered me a job yesterday, his three cute kids, wife and a guy from Czech and Norway... maybe?  Somewhere cold.  On a related side note, if anyone knows someone who would be interested in working in Taipei to develop assessment for the effectiveness of the Taiwan Physics Olympic and International Young Physicists' Tournament training programs for three years, let me know and I can connect you!  Mandarin not required, although you would have to be a charades champion to survive without it in this country.
Anyway, excellent conversation and an endless supply of food- soup with a whole chicken, fish stew, cooked fish, raw fish, shrimp, soft-shell crab, pork chops, fish hot pot... I don't even know.  And five types of real fruit juice (the kiwi-pineapple was delicious).
So that was ridiculous.  Tomorrow's the last day of the conference- my agenda is breakfast with Penny and lunch with the TEAL team before Lei Bao takes off.  Enjoy pictures of maybe... 25-33% of the food that I saw tonight:
An assortment of appetizer-type things and the whole-chicken-soup on the right

Fish! And seafood stew

Preparing the hotpot... and some leftovers of various things- some sweet rice you eat 1 month after having a new baby apparently

Earth-shakingly successful talk!

So I gave my talk and it went well.  It's probably the only talk I'll give in goofy bright blue slippers, twice the size of my feet!  But I didn't trip over myself so life is good.  Lei Bao, from Oregon State was supposed to go first but he wasn't there so I volunteered, since I next up anyway.  People asked me more questions than any other speaker in my section which suggested they were interested and generally understood what I was saying.  A little Asian man ran right up to me before I even unplugged my laptop to say what an excellent lecture he thought I gave and he was wondering if I was a professor.  So that was cute.
Dr. Bao gave his talk in English which made me happy.  I had read his study beforehand (he got a publication in Science and Nature out of that study)- and the charts he presented are absolutely fascinating.  He administered the Force Concept Inventory and Brief Electricity and Magnetism Assessment to American and Chinese high school students.  The Asian students scored dramatically higher on both but the scores for students of both nationalities overlap when they are giving the Lawson's Test of Scientific Reasoning.  The fascinating implication is that content mastery doesn't mean you are developing critical thinking skills.  With traditional lecture physics courses, there's essentially no shift in these skills over the course of the semester- improvements are only seen when you incorporate inquiry based learning.  Here's the link if you're curious because I find it fascinating:
 The other four talks were in Chinese but Dr. Kan translated so I had a good idea of what was going on.  Two people talked about revising the physics labs to incorporate more engaging, real-world, designing, executing and result-presenting type experiments.  One person talked about using Java simulations in class as pre-class assignments to give him feedback about what his students understand or not.  He made all of his codes downloadable and modifiable so people from all around the world use and improve his simulations which is pretty cool.
During the talk, there was a pretty impressive Earthquake rumble- definitely more significant than the one I felt in NC earlier this fall.  So that was interesting but the Taiwan residents barely batted an eyelash.
Yup, so that was today.  It's kind of high pressure to give a talk when you consider how much people paid to get me here.  But they gave me an envelope with more money after the talk.  Even I don't know what's going on half the time, I don't think that's a bad thing.  I've got a short time before dinner- powernap?  I think so!

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Leisurely Morning

I'm having a delightfully relaxing morning- there's birds chirping, a blue sky and a nice breeze.  There was no established plan for this morning so I stunned the Taiwanese people to silence when I walked into the convenience store by myself, order a medium coffee, 1 sugar, no extra milk (even though all you can get here are lattes anyway) asked how much and said thank you.  Taiwanese people are easily impressed.  But I have only found one other white person at this conference- all the other invited speakers from America are originally from here or the mainland.  I was walking past an improv group on my way to the physics building when Penny ran up with the rice roll, as per request of the professor because it's his favorite.  It had peppers, onions, a peanut-ty sweet sauce and maybe some ginger inside.  When he saw me later, he went on a passionate rant about how this was the height of Taiwanese breakfast food and this is what he missed most when he went to graduate school in the US.  However, "people these days", especially those in business, think breakfast sandwiches are the new trendy thing which makes rice rolls harder to find.  So convenance and the allure of the Western world probably contributes to the whole hamburger trend.
Oh, and Penny thinks the random pods of artsy students might be participating in a high school winter session camp.  Although it contextualizes their antics, it doesn't make the random shenanigans any less entertaining!
I speak after lunch but after working on this presentation off and on for a month I can give the whole thing without even looking at my slides so I'm ready and raring to go! Especially considering Lei Bao didn't even remember what he promised to talk about and the professor from CCU has talked about TEAL a lot but never formally, so he's struggling.  I'm currently in his office, visiting with Puppy as the professor hunts down Lei Bao, but trying not to get too friendly to avoid being covered in dog hair.
Yup, so that's the latest with me.  I'll try not to look blissfully snug in my pre-presentation preparedness.  Tonight's the formal conference dinner (not ball-gown-formal, if you are my grandma and reading this worried about my wardrobe), where less than a quarter of participants scored invites.  They have everyone squeezing in the guest hotel for the meal, which looks like it might be snuggly!

Conference Day #1

So after leaving my room, I encountered students randomly breaking out in a dance routine- Cheng Chung University Flash Mob?  I love living here- when I came back this afternoon, there was a pair of students randomly whirring balls on strings.  I feel like High School Musical comes to life at this University- people randomly start singing, dancing or performing for no obvious reason.

It's a beautiful day in Chiaya to start off the conference.  The campus is all geered up and decorated for the event.

Supposedly, they expect 1600-2000 attendees and the TEAL section (which I'm the invited speaker for) is upper picture, as the highlight they advertise.
Penny took me to a nice place for breakfast, an off-campus place popular with the students.  I was amused by the "Guns and Roses" bar next door:

Sure enough Taiwanese people do eat hamburgers for breakfast!  She was surprised to hear that was not common in the US.  She ordered me a chicken sandwich, slightly sweet on a spongy roll that was kind of like a hamburger.  Pretty yummy and fun to sample a college hangout.  Neither of us knew exactly what the plan was for today so we went for a nice long walk around campus.  She told me that twice a year, all the Taiwanese colleges have a huge 2-week sporting event which people train for all year round.  If I understood her correctly, majors for each subject compete against each other.  I feel like the physics sports competition would be fun to watch.  We also bonded over cats- supposedly she has a fat cat she named "Dolphin". I guess Chinese people like to name their pets after English names (often animals).

After the walk, I registered for the conference, exploring the booths and looking at some posters.  We ate lunch outside and Lei Bao, from Ohio State University joined us- he's the other invited speaker for the Physics Education section tomorrow.  I enjoyed talking to him because he's done research on how American and Chinese students approach scientific reasoning which I find fascinating... because he concludes they are quite similar.  Unfortunately, he's Chinese so he'll be probably delivering his talk in Mandarin tomorrow- I'll cross my fingers for English slides at least!  But we'll be spending plenty of time together over the next few days so I'll get the lowdown one way or another.
After lunch, we listened to the first planetary talk on Superconductivity which is one of the few that will be delivered in English, I chatted with someone at a University in Taipei that hosts three major science Olympiad type events.  He said he had an opening for a three-year position for someone in my field to develop assessment to evaluate these various incentives so I've got a job if I want to move here!
Anyway, Professor Lee didn't want to hang around for any more talks so we went to test out my laptop connection so I'll all ready to go for tomorrow.  We walked his puppy to the tea house so I got my first Taiwanese boba then I explored the path around the manmade pond on campus.

They have the funniest fuzzy red flower bushes- its the closest thing to the Dr. Seuss Lorax trees that I've found.  And I got to see some Taiwanese wildlife with black swans and various other birds.  So there's not much on the agenda for the afternoon so I think I'll read in the College of Humanities secret garden (well, it may not be that secretive but it is an adorable gated courtyard).
I'll miss the Taipei lantern festival (that happens 15 days after the lunar New Year) but they light up lanterns on campus so I can experience something similar.
Pictures don't do it justice- it's the most peaceful, serene magical place to walk around!

Monday, 16 January 2012

Pre-Breakfast Update

Quick update before I meet Penny for breakfast.  First of all, Penny's cool points keep growing.  When she picked me up yesterday, she was listening to the "F*** you" song by Lily Allen.  It amazes me that people here are listening to that artist when I don't consider her all that well-known in the United States.  When she and her boyfriend picked me up at the airport, they were listening to Maroon 5 so they are definitely familiar with American music.  That and 7-Eleven's.  There are some 7-Elevens in the US but nowhere near as many as here! I've also seen a couple Starbucks in the train stations, a deluxe McDonalds from a distance, and certainly people wearing American brands (it embarrasses me a bit that "Playboy bunny" brand is one of most frequent American stores I see).
So the conference starts today- hopefully everything runs smoothly for CCU.  Apparently yesterday, they realized the room where they were going to have the poster session had no lights. The last day of exams was yesterday so most students are home for the winter holidays but the physics students were busy working like Santas elves to prepare the folders  and get the space ready for today's meeting.  I have no idea how many people plan to come but they've erected huge posters and a blow-up welcome thing so I anticipate quite a few.
Ok time for me to! It's wet but not raining so it looks like the day is off to a good start.

Touring Cheng Chung University campus

Another action-packed day so I'll give you the brief overview.  I spent all morning with Dr. Kan looking at their TEAL (Technology Enriched Active Learning) classroom which was absolutely gorgeous and made me a little jealous.

They had whiteboards that knew when you were writing on them and projected the information on the TV screens, microphones at each table, the students were slippers to class and so much room to wander between tables!  (It only takes a couple lectures in the NCSU SCALE-UP rooms to treasure not having to squeeze between tables, accidently pushing students into the tables as you hop over a pile of backpacks and jackets.)  It was fascinating to hear about the professors experiences setting up and teaching in these classrooms- the education design specialist stopped by to talk about all the data they are using to track student progress.  She said she is happy to share the videos, test scores, papers and assessment instruments my way- all in Chinese- but I guess that's incentive to speed my language learning along.  All the professors were really excited to talk to me so hopefully my summer project gets funded because they are more than willing to contribute.

Lunch was beef noodles, served sizzling in a hot pot, and a red bean roll.  Yum!  After some more TEAL talk, Professor Lee gave me an extensive tour of campus- he's so busy he said he doesn't get out much so he was seeing some of these places for the first time.  They have the most mammoth buildings here with mazes of staircases (kind of like Harry Potter's Hogwarts but at least they don't move!) with uneven exits to the outdoors due to the hills.  It's such a gorgeous campus with interesting architecture and so much green.

When we hiked along a path that lead to this little hut and it smelled like a campfire in the background, I felt like I was on the set of LOST.  The gym was another highlight- a huge indoor and outdoor pool, bowling alley, gymnastics room, the most ping pong tables I have ever seen in my life and a dance hall.

We explored museum about the history of the University at the top of the library (which was very well hidden away), a secret courtyard and got an excellent view of the campus, as you can see.
After a lot more visiting with people, Professor Lee and one of the grad student friends took me to the night market which is the Taiwanese version of a carnival but it happens every week (almost every day in the cities).  They sell everything from scarves to dishes to tools to underwear, of course have tons of food and have games for the kids.  I tried Stinky Tofu and a bite of a Taiwanese hamburger.  I still can't believe how much these people eat- my stomach is not big enough for this country!

Conference starts tomorrow but I don't present until Wednesday.  I just found out that most of the talks (perhaps all of the talks...) will be given in Chinese so I don't know how much of those I'll be seeing outside the education section.  I guess I assumed that because they wanted me to speak and English is the language they write all of their exams in, the conference would be in English.  Apparently not!  Oh well- free trip to awesome country- I'm not complaining.  Talk to you soon.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

More details about exploring Taiwan's oldest city

Oh dear, it's raining again.  I've already made peace with the fact that my hair is going to be one huge frizz-ball during the duration of my stay.  However, the shampoo they provided has a picture of the Virgin Mary and Jesus on it so maybe by some miracle, divine intervention will keep it under control.  At least today should be mostly indoor activities.
Shrine to the God of education
Anyway, I promised a more in-depth description of some of yesterday's fun so here we go.  As I mentioned, after we got some special tea (which is actually juice even though everyone calls it tea), the first stop was the Chihkan Tower and Kaijilingyou Temple.  The tower was first built by the Dutch to safeguard the city, evolving under the various dynasties to now include a shrine to the God of education (since they used to prepare students to take the Civil Service Examination here) and to the God of the Sea.  Originally, the city was much more island-like and surrounded by water, making it a very strategic location back in the day.  It was surprising to see how dramatically the waters have receded over the decades.  There were gorgeous fish ponds and landscaping and some very-permanent looking granite blocks were used to train military men... I tried to see how I matched up but those granite blocks weren't budging so I don't think I would have made it very far!
In transit, we passed the first to serve bubble tea, which was invented in Taiwan.  I was way too full to stop and buy a beverage but I'm certainly going to have my share of exotic beverages before I leave here!  There's such a wide assortment of delicious liquid treats everywhere you look.

The next stop was Zeeland Fort.  Once again, it was built by the Dutch but today's version retained much of its Japanese character.  They had a nice new museum about the various occupiers of the area (and actual English captions unlike the last place which was a treat!).  I enjoyed a free concert from a band based in Thailand which was comprised of mostly Englishmen but an American drummer.  They were the first white people I saw all day and their jams had a really groovy South Pacific feel.  Outside the fort was a major tourist, market area.  Professor Lee said today's amount of visitors was about a quarter of the typical amount which was pretty amazing- I don't think I'd want to be there on an average day!  I told you these Taiwanese people eat a lot and they were trying to feed me here too (after they ate ice cream at the Fort).  This meal was a tofu oyster pancake- the English description that my buddy googled for me said it was supposed to be a dessert but it wasn't.  I tried it but found it pretty strange.

After the snack, we went to the Rabbit and Bunny Japanese garden which I discussed a bit in the previous entry and then to the harbor.  They were just wrapping up some Sean Lion festival and I was excited to see some of the sweet rice wrapped in bamboo that I made with Ling on one of our Chinese cooking classes back in the day.  Supposedly they used to throw some overseas to appease the dragons or whatever lurked beneath.

I'm going to hunt down some 咖啡 kāfēi (coffee) and investigate the chanting outside.  (Turns out it was martial arts- various students practicing). Talk to you soon- hope all of you Americans are enjoying the three-day weekend!