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Friday, June 26, 2009

Toto the Too Small Toilet or How to Know It's Time to Go Home

We've known it was coming, first, because that was always the plan and then more definitely as McLeod's company began the process. But somehow, until recently, leaving Taiwan for good was just a date on a calendar. Even when our U.S. house went on the market mid-March, it wasn't really sinking in. Afterall, we haven't lived there for three years, so it didn't really feel like our house anymore. But then small things, little "for the last time" moments, started accumulating and bigger things started happening like turning in official school paperwork to withdraw the kids. Then one day, quite suddenly, you make a mental shift, and it's time to go.

My mental shift happened with a cracked toilet. For the last 6 months, we've had an annoying leak in the apartment. Clearly some pipe in the bathroom was leaking beneath the tile and seeping out to the wood flooring in the bedroom. We'd go away for awhile. The engineers would fix something, replace boards and then pretty soon the water stain would show up again. When we came back from our final big trip to Palau, they assured me it was fixed. Yes, I'm happy to report that leak WAS finally fixed. But with the first post-vacation flush, water started seeping out of the porcelain itself and puddling on the tile floor. Someone cracked the toilet. Not a happy day, mostly for poor Mr. Lee, the hardworking, kind-hearted head engineer. How sad he looked to tell me, "No use it. Tomorrow... plumber." The kids and I made a nice out-of-order sign.

Tomorrow came. Two plumbers and an engineer walked into the apartment. It didn't register with me that they had a medium sized cardboard box on a trolley outside my door, so I proceeded to do what I always do when working with repairmen here: go into a kind of interpretive dance to explain the problem. I am suddenly having flashbacks to that day, specifically the point where I got down on all fours in our small bathroom to point out the leak on the toilet. This elicited an embarrassed, "Yes, yes, yes, ok, ok, ok" from the three men who I now realize were getting a view of my rear end. It was soon revealed that they were not there to repair the leak. They were taking away our toilet and replacing it with a smaller version.

Gone is our nice, big (read: wide-seat) Kohler. Sitting in its place is Toto the Too Small. It is narrow, and it is low. Parts of you hurt if you linger too long. Your magazines fall off the back because there is a 6-inch gap between the tank and the wall. Suddenly our castle is without its throne. And so it's time to move to another castle, a Texas-sized castle with well-equipped bathrooms.

Now we are knee-deep in preparations. We sold one house and bought another after a whirlwind trip to the States by McLeod. I have a notebook full of lists and a folder full of paperwork. There are pages in the notebook where I've scribbled things like "Rattan Chairs--cheaper in Taiwan" and "Get instructions for sprinkler system" along with many much more important items. McLeod comes home each day to what he calls the beaver dam at the front door, the fruits of my labor as I clean out every drawer and cabinet. Heaps of stuff sorted to toss, pass along, or donate get distributed and then replenished. And I keep finding things I didn't even know we brought to Taiwan--McLeod's antique pocket watch, a plate that says Chicago on it, candlesticks--and of course, things that don't even belong to me. That thing you thought you lost? Don't worry, I'm sure it's sitting in a bag with your name on it at my front door.

And somehow, perhaps because my brain is so full of lists and plans or maybe because it's starting to become all-American again, I find myself making rookie mistakes. I took the wrong bus twice in 10 days. I tried to make a special order at McDonalds--something I know better than to try to do--and ended up with a sausage egg burger with mayonaise. I took something on a toothpick from a lady passing out samples at the grocery store, and guess what? It was STILL, after three years, a weird, squishy, fried unknown substance from the sea. The only difference was that I actually chewed it up and swallowed it and didn't even stop to think what I'd eaten until I was at least three aisles over.

Most fitting of all, though, McLeod and I recently had a movie night to rival
our very first movie night in Taipei. Out to see Star Trek, our brains bubbling with trivia and critical buzz about the film, we walked up to the counter and asked for tickets to the 9pm showing. (By the way the kiosks for self-serve tickets seem to be permanently broken--perhaps too many big American meat hooks pounded on the screens?) Up, up, up the escalators, checking each floor against our ticket and being ushered ever higher by the helpful staff. At last in our seats, we settled in for the previews, finding them a tad violent but not unusual for Taiwan. At last the movie began. A strange sepia-tinted sequence flickered on the screen with tinny piano playing. Were these the young Kirk's family photos? A death in the family perhaps as the series of stills from a circa 1900 funeral flashed on the screen. Back story to what he will become as captain of the Enterprise? But when the images started to cut away to someone oozing big drops of the red stuff, we grabbed up our tickets and stared at the Chinese characters willing them to make sense. By then the title came up on the screen: The Haunting in Connecticut. We bolted from our seats. Down, down, down the escalators we went to hand off our tickets to a perplexed manager and say, "Wrong Movie! Star Trek? Star Trek?" Turns out there wasn't a 9pm showing of Star Trek so we'd been sold the next best thing. There was, however, a 9:10pm showing of Star Trek, so they traded out the tickets and ushered us immediately into theater 1 on the main floor. Just in time for the previews to start. We had a great night, made all the better by our near-haunting in Conneticut.

But now the credits are rolling on this expat adventure. In a few days we board the plane, bags full of trinkets, hearts full of memories. We've taken time over the last month to see favorite places. Yingge, the pottery town, successfully emptied my wallet as I stocked up on "just a few more" dishes, tea cups and vases. We spent a weekend at McLeod's beloved Green Island with my dive buddy Cathy and her family. While Cathy, McLeod and I were 20 meters under on those fantastic, ancient coral beds, Cathy's husband Wei-Ai drove 4 kids calling themselves the Spriters all over the island in a golf cart now known as the Adventure Truck. The locals would grin, wave and make way for the bunch who would serenade them with "Hey now, you're an All-star! Get your game on. Go Play!" We've also had a few last meals of dumplings, along with more than a few visits to Chili's, and we made a final trip to Taipei 101, the now almost-tallest building in the world. These last weeks have been blessed, too, with time to savor moments with friends. We will be forever grateful for the friendships that changed us from strangers in a strange land into neighbors and friends, living happy lives in a place they became proud to call home.

Zai Jian, Taipei! The Texpats are so very glad they came.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Trips Part II: Palau

For our final big trip in Asia we traded the fresh powder of Nagano for the jungle achipeligo of Palau. Fans of the Survivor series may remember the island chain from a few seasons ago. I never watched it, but hearing that an island was the featured site for a rough and tough adventure left me wondering what to expect. I was pleased to find out I would not be roughing it by any means--Palau Pacific Resort ain't too shabby--but we did get out there and have some once-in-a-lifetime adventures. The shortlist of our activities reads like this:
  • dive coral reef gardens, deep holes, and wrecks

  • kayak archepeligo while marine biologist points out birds, bats, and sea critters

  • visit cave full of bats and do small cliff dives into ocean

  • manoever through a tunnel at low tide to swim in completely hidden lake

  • hike to WWII Japanese bunkers, climb inside and look at old helmets, bottles and an elegy to a fallen soldier (talk about history coming to life!)

  • swim across a lake so full of stingless jellyfish that they bump against your body and face

  • catch 200lbs of yellow fin tuna and have a feast with friends

When people ask what I thought about the trip, I think I must get faraway look in my eye. "Ohhhh, it was goooood." It was a nature- and history-lover's paradise. We spent one complete day on an eco-tour with marine biologist Ron, snorkeling reefs, kayaking into caves, and finding weird creatures like the sand-crunching chiton. He also took us to the barnacled wreckage from a downed WWII plane and to Japanese bunker sites where the soldiers had planned to bombard US amphibious troop carriers with ammo, grenades and homemade molitov cocktails. A favorite moment for all of us that day was when just as the tide was reaching its lowpoint, we paddled up to a small green mountain rising from the sea The lowered water level revealed a tunnel, perhaps 12-15 feet, that opened into a hidden lake. Reclining in our kayaks, we pulled ourselves through the tunnel, careful not to cut our fingers on the jagged limestone above our heads. The salt-water lake sheltered ancient basket corals. Layered on top of each other with no strong winds, waves or currents to disturb them, they had grown to enormous sizes. But what took my breath away was gazing up at the walls of lush primaeval forest around me where white-tailed tropic birds chased one another, swooping and wheeling in the expanse of sky. And each day was pretty much like that, with a new experience bubbling to the top of my favorites list.

Jellyfish Lake was surreal. You don't know whether you are in an episode of Spongebob or Fear Factor. Snorkeling to the middle of the lake you are in a blizzard of jellies. They are pulsing all around you, the grape-fruit sized ones pumping slowly, gracefully, the dime-sized ones fluttering like strange round butterflies. Your kids are picking them up and wanting to adopt them as pets (and my sweet little girl came to me solemn faced later and whispered that she accidently squeezed "hers" too hard...oops). I was surprised that I liked it.

The diving was world-class. For someone with only a dozen dives under her belt at that point, getting to dive Palau was like skipping to the front of the dessert line. If you'd told me 6 months ago that at 50 feet underwater I would attach myself to a coral reef with a metal hook and a piece of rope, I'd have thought, "That's an odd training exercie." If you'd then told me I'd do it on purpose so that I could watch sharks and baracudas swim around me, I'd have laughed in your face. But I did it. And like that little kid on the tricycle from The Incredibles all I can say is, "That was totally wicked!!"

So enjoy some pictures--most courtesy once again of photographer extrodinaire John Heinneman--but even more, if you ever get the chance, GO! It's like no other place on the planet.

Bunkers and Caves

Diving and Fishing

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Trips Part I: Japan

The last few months have been packed with travel. Our first big trip of the winter season was Japan. We prepped for weeks since we didn't have much cold weather clothing and this was to be our first ski trip ever. We ordered two small ski suits and sweet-talked a Taiwan-bound US colleague into shoving them in his suitcases. But for the bulk of the gear, I tapped the Tai Tai network to beg, steal and borrow. My Kiwi friend Nicky leant out two giant Costco bags of jackets, ski pants, gloves, socks and warm base layers. Now, while Nicky would probably say the most precious item she bestowed was her lovely, toasty, trendy ski jacket, I know that in her heart, her grandpa's wool socks and grandma's long underwear were actually the most sacred. And I swear I treated them with all the reverence they deserved and felt warm and fuzzy every time I wore them!

We began our Japan trip with one week visiting Tokyo, Kyoto and Nagoya, and then headed to Nagano for a week of snow skiing at the site of the '98 Winter Olympics. Ah, Kyoto! What amazed me was seeing how the flamboyant Chinese-style architecture we've been used to--and is still evident in some of the Kyoto sites --had morphed into the more somber structures of Japan's temples and palaces. I snapped endless pictures of wood, stone and iron, and I loved the way dark rooflines looked against the cold blue sky. We got there just in time to see the last of the fall leaves, too, and I realized how long it's been since I've breathed in the damp, leafy smell of autumn. Wandering through Gion, the geisha district, plunged me back into the pages of Memoirs of a Geisha, and seeing the Golden Pavillion at Kinkakuji took my breath away.
Below: Grounds at old Imperial Palace, grounds at Ryoanji zen temple complex, Nanzenji zen temple, apprentice geisha in Gion, Kinkakuji (Golden Pavillion)

Nagano was cold, snowy goodness! We were blessed with heavy powder by night, and sunshine on the slopes by day.The kids fell in love with the snow and were champs on the ski slopes. McLeod, ever the natural athlete, went from novice to pretty good in no time. I've blocked out some of the less pleasant moments of me actually trying to ski. I have a blurred memory of saying, "Hey, this isn't so bad!" while on the near-flat training area, followed by a painfully embarrassing series of falls from the moment I exited the lift chair and begin attempting S-turns. Wait, sorry, I think that was some other girl in borrowed woolen socks. I was the rosy-cheeked lady happily snapping pictures of husband and children on the slopes and learning that if you lock eyes with a novice snowboarder, she will come sliding right toward you at increasing speed, apologizing profusely in Japanese and desperately trying to turn away. She will finally wipe out in a snow bank at the last minute and you will pretend you didn't notice. Evenings were bliss in the onsen, the traditional Japanese bath which includes first completely cleansing in the shower area, then dipping into the steamy waters for a long soak. After her first trip to the ladies onsen with me, Caroline had me send a note to her grandmother that read: We just went to the hot tub. We were NAKED. And I LOVED it! McLeod and Barret's onsen experience was a little different - while C and I pretty much had the place to ourselves other than one or two quiet Japanese ladies, the men's side was overrun with mohawk-sporting, snowboard zealots from the Western hemisphere. Every third word was "Dude!" while every other word was an obscenity. McLeod kept Barret engaged in a loud, lively conversation about his day at ski school to mask the Dude-talk on the other side of the hot pool. But what McLeod missed in relaxation at the onsen, he found fireside in the lobby where Joe, the clerk-waiter-driver-handyman-doorman (and son of the owners) turned out to also be the bartender. He produced some glasses and a bottle of Jack Daniels and said, "You pour. All same price." So, toasty inside and out, we'd deal with the mounds of wet things, prep gear for the next day, conk out in our row of small beds and wake up to do it all over again.

Below: The view from the top, courtesy of John Heinemann, videos of the kids

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Art of Tai Tai Living, Part II

It’s Starbucks Wednesday! That’s the day I do “Library Time with Ms. Cassia” at Caroline’s school, and I pop in for a latte just beforehand. The dose of Starbucks makes me a read a tad fast, but the caffeine-induced sense of well-being aids in my recovery from Crazy Tuesday. That’s the day I hot-foot-it around Tienmu, shuffling the kids to activities while hauling most of their stuff on my back.

Today it will most likely be in the high 80’s, but I will still pretend it’s autumn and that I need hot coffee to warm me up. I’ll also pretend to people-watch, but I’ll actually be playing a game called “Spot someone I know on a bus.” No, not in the bus. I like scanning the ads that wrap the buses, looking for the faces of my “famous” friends.

Or rather, my friends’ famous children. Because as my good friend Nicky says, “You know you’re an expat wife when a picture of your kids goes past you on the side of a bus or you see a poster of them on a random building.” And here’s the real Tai Tai twist… You’ve taken pictures of the pictures, especially with your “famous” model kid standing next to himself.

Of course, you can’t let fame go to your head. Tai Tai’s have a constant mental battle to distinguish between what’s real and what’s gone a bit into fantasy land. For instance it is real for an expat to stick out like a sore thumb. But it is just a bit weird that it no longer bothers me when people hand me their cameras and have me take pictures of them with my all-American cuties. Someone stop us if we start signing autographs. It’s also real that we have to improvise to make holidays happen – buying decorations during summer home leave, spending a mint on a frozen imported turkey – but who in the real world has a serious discussion about whether we can post the housekeepers at vacant houses so the kids can have more places to trick-or-treat? Tai Tai is definitely a frame of mind, girls!!

So for a twist this week, we’ll answer the question, "You know you might have been an expat wife too long when…"

You no longer think anything of going to shady run down studios to model for 1000NT ($30) per hour. Ana

You actually start to like having your underwear ironed by the amah (can't speak from experience on this one). - Liisa (It’s the perfectly folded “panty packets” sorted and stacked in rainbow order that sold me.)

You describe your child in a group by saying, "He's the blond." Kerri

You give your 3rd grader a cell phone because it makes life more convenient for you! - Janell

Your kids start singing the refrain to the latest "Bed world" commercial...in Taiwanese. - Liisa

You refer to flagging down a taxi as "hiring a car" and the cabbie as "my driver." – Cassia (Seriously, his name is Enrico and I think all cars should be yellow.)

Although you and your family are Chinese American, your 7 year old looks at you and says, "Mommy, you don't look like you would speak Chinese because you have freckles." - Cathy

You have your own "pearl lady" in the market because you’ve bought jewelry from her so many times. She knows your name and where you live. She tells your friends she saw you today! Karen

You walk to your kid’s school with your helper, and she insists on carrying your purse while shading you from the sun with her umbrella. (I had to tell her to stop really.) Ana

You suspect that the real reason your friend adopted a dog from the Buddhist monks was so her kids will have something to keep them busy while you're all catching up on Facebook. - Cassia

You actually prefer drinking warm water to ice water. Janell (And when the temp drops below 85, you start looking for your jacket.)

You think it's normal to have at least one authentic designer bag - doesn't everyone have a Louis Vitton or Gucci? - Christine (And you bought said bag a mere 50 yards from home because you live next to a high-end shopping mall and pass by it everyday.)

You are so completely mad because you can only get your usual cleaning lady for 2 days this week instead of the usual 3! Janell

You see every other Expat wife wearing the same outfit as you because the one store that caters to normal sizes just got a new shipment in. - Christine

You let your 7th grader take a taxi back home. - Milena

You have the phone number of the Knock Off watch/purse guy on you cell phone. All you do is call and in a few hours a whole load of illegal items is on your Dining room table. - Marsha

You find that storage space is at such a premium that you now store your Christmas tree in your second bathtub (yes Ana that one is for you) :) Christine

Even though you (still) don't speak Chinese and the person you are communicating with doesn't speak English - you both know exactly what the other is talking about. Janell

Aren't we a good looking bunch? A few of the expat faithful celebrating "Tai Tai'" Mary's birthday!

Friday, October 03, 2008

The Art of Tai Tai Living, Part I

No, Tai Tai is not yoga or martial arts (though it does require flexibility, skill and raw survival instinct). It's basically the Chinese term for "Mrs." as in The Lady of the House, and for the (usually) unemployed expat wives, it's become a great way of explaining the weirdness of our life here. The strangely formal social interaction with our husbands' companies. The shortcuts that make life easier. The ways we've recreated home-country customs. The struggle against bone-wearing busyness. The sheepish looks when we admit our dependency on household help. The days of solo-parenting while husbands travel. The sheer pleasures of parties, charity balls, or just catching up over coffee. The realization that girl friends are a necessity to combatting isolation, self-absorption and homesickness.

Tai Tai's are resourceful. They are daring. They are manicured and pedicured.

And despite how much we tease each other for "living the good life" of travel, household help, and shopping jaunts, Tai Tai's give back to Taiwan. These are the ladies that open their homes to stray animals and their hearts to foster children. They coach the sports teams and lead the pack hikes. There's even a touch rugby team called "The Tai Tais" that formed to give the high school girls someone to practice against. But oh, how we do love to tease and joke about our expat life! In their lovely, funny, self-deprecating way, the Tai Tais filled in the answer to "You know you're an expat wife when..." just so I could give you a glimpse of the Art of Tai Tai Living.

Up this week, the battle for food! Who knew that you CAN'T get everything you need from one store no matter how big it is? Unless, that is, you're willing to cook stirfry A LOT, use toilet paper that should be called Sandy Wipe, and believe toothpaste from mainland China might actually be healthy.

Grocery Shopping and Food: You know you're an expat wife when...
  • You grocery shop at 3-4 different stores and still can't find all the ingredients to make your favorite meal. - Liisa
  • Grocery shopping takes a full day. You walk to Wellcome to get fish, eggs and dairy. Then you go home to unload your rolling cart and head back out to the bakery to buy your bread, the fresh market to buy fruits and veggies, that only last a week and finally return home. Oh and..... your children flip coins to see who gets stuck shopping with mom! Grocery shopping used to be so much fun! - Karen
  • Other shoppers at Costco constantly peep into your shopping cart. You threaten to run over the lady who has stopped in front of you and leaned over to get a better look at what you bought. - Gwen and Janell
  • You walk 20 mins from the grocery store with heavy bags, but when you get home, the guard insists on carrying them on the elevator and putting them in the kitchen for you. Where is he when I'm struggling down the road with them? - Elspeth
  • You ask your driver to take your Costco purchases home where your amah is there ready to put it away... meanwhile you head off shopping with your friend! - Mary (Mary has truly embraced the Tai Tai life, I'd say!)
  • You go to the wet market and see all those weird meat cuts hanging on hooks, and it actually starts to look good to you! - maybe that is when you have been in Taiwan too long... - Janell
  • Your week runs the following way....Monday PTA meeting, Tuesday hike the mountain and Costco, Wednesday Coffee morning, lunch at ACC after choir practice, Thursday Ladies Tennis League, Friday - date night, Saturday - TYPA, Sunday - church and dinner at Chili's. - Liisa
  • You have been here less than two years and have probably been to Chili's well over 100 times. Sometimes twice in the same week. - Ana
  • Sometimes you go to Chili's twice in the same DAY. You know of friends who bring Chili's take-out Margaritas into the movie theatre. (You know who you are.) - Cassia
  • You go back to America, walk into a convenience store and do not hear "NIN HUANYING" (Welcome) in a high pitched voice, and you begin to wonder if something is wrong with Americans. - Jennifer
  • You have cookie sheets that are too big for your oven, you have an ancient post-it with temperature conversions on the wall, and you debate with friends whether the oven setting with the chicken picture or the cake picture actually cooks the food more evenly. - Cassia
  • You order McDonald's 24-hour delivery at 5am for pancakes and hot coffee because you are jet lagged and starving and have nothing in your apartment. You convince a taxi to take you through the McDonald's drive-thru for Happy Meals. - Ana (One of my favorite Ana-isms is, "I don't need a driver. I have 10,000 drivers in yellow cars all over Taipei." That's the Tai Tai spirit!)
Coming up next: Tai Tais in the Fast Lane - more "You know you're and expat wife when..."

Friday, September 26, 2008

A-Scouting We Will Go

We have a cub scout! Yes, Boy Scouts of America reaches all the way over to Taiwan via the Far East Council. Barret is loving it, and somehow I ended up a den leader so it's fun working on Tiger Cubs together. Things aren't quite as conventional as I imagine they would be in the US. Somehow I always thought of Scouts as more of a Dad-Son kind of thing, but with so many expat men traveling and working at odd times, it's the Mommas that seem to keep things running. And this Momma even has a badge of her own that says "Trained." I've so wanted something like that since I became a mom! Now it's official. Since I have no uniform other than a bright yellow Pack 91 t-shirt, I usually just stick it to my forehead to remind my family that I now have credentials=) Here are a few pictures of Barret and his fellow Tiger Cubs at our first big Pack meeting. We took a hike at a camp area on Yangming Mountain. I know you are thinking rustic trail through the woods and it was sort of that but with the typical Taiwan Stairmaster event of climbing huge rock steps hewn into the hillside. We also had the typical crossing of a street adventure in this country where drivers never seem to imagine that a crosswalk might have people actually crossing it. Basically, if you're on foot, you better haul it. After the short hike we returned for hotdog roasting. Here I had to laugh since 50% of the time involved trying to start a fire from damp wood, and like the minature men that they are, the cub scouts all stood around and gave advice to the leaders and older scouts who were trying to get the durn thing lighted. Cuz that's what men do.