An Open Letter to the Makers of the Mitsubishi TC-CE5J Clean & Compact Vacuum Cleaner

Dear Sirs and/or Madams:

Your Mitsubishi TC-CE5J Clean & Compact vacuum cleaner does not suck.  Now before you commence a round of high fives, be aware that a vacuum cleaner that does not suck is actually a bad thing.  Your vacuum came to us as standard issue to U.S. State Department homes in Taipei, Taiwan.  As such, we didn’t actually purchase the vacuum with our own money, and I know that beggars can’t be choosers.  But come on!  Your vacuum doesn’t suck dirt, it doesn’t suck lint, it doesn’t suck gigantic dead bug body parts (which, by the way, we get a lot of here in Taipei.)  Your vacuum just doesn’t suck!

Now a word of advice: you could take a lesson from the makers of the Dyson vacuum cleaners.  Now there’s a vacuum that sucks!  The suckage on a Dyson vacuum is incredible!  Not only can a Dyson vacuum suck dirt, lint and bug carcases, it can suck Lego’s, dirty socks and rodents.  That is some major suck!

So kudos to the Dyson vacuum company for your sucky vacuum cleaners.  And Mitsubishi, your vacuums could really use some suck.

Respectfully Yours,

Erin the Foreign Service Blogger

White

I am white.  When I say that I am white, I don’t mean Caucasian (although yes, I am Caucasian.)  Rather, I am referring to the actual color of my skin.  Most Caucasians would be considered more “peachy-pink,” as my six-year-old refers to her skin color.  But unlike my six-year-old, I am not “peachy-pink”  I am white; ghost white (although I prefer the term “pastey”.)

Oddly enough, I don’t come from a family of “pastey” people.  In fact, you’ll be surprised to know that in one of her prouder moments, my older sister was named first runner-up in the Miss Coppertone Suntan Contest.  I remember as a child seeing her laying out in our backyard in the noon-day sun,  in a bikini, slathered in baby oil.  (Apparently skin cancer hadn’t been discovered yet.)

Lest you think I’m exaggerating my pastiness, here is proof:

1.  One time in college, a guy I was dating told me I would have really nice legs if I would only get a tan.

2.  Not long after Jason and I were married, we were out biking.  I was wearing shorts and a tank-top.  As car full of college students drove by, someone yelled, “Get a tan!!!”

3.  In my mid-twenties I was a bridesmaid at a friend’s wedding.  The photographer was constantly moving me around in disgust because he said that I ruining the pictures of the wedding party because my skin was glowing.

4.  Another time, some of Jason’s relatives and I had a white leg contest.  I won.  First runner-up was Jason’s 90-year-old grandfather who died two weeks later.

Even if I try to get a tan, I can’t.  In college, (in one of my dumber moments) I went to a tanning salon with a couple of my roommates.  The workers told me that with the color of my skin it was recommended that I spend only 20 minutes in the bed.  I spent 30.  When I emerged from the tanning bed I was the exact same shade of albino that I was when I went in.  I should have demanded my money back.  That was my first and only time in a tanning bed.

My whole life I have been mocked for my skin color.  BUT NO MORE PEOPLE!!!!  Because apparently Asians consider pastey to be beautiful!  The whiter the better!  Here in Taiwan, many women walk around in the heat of the day carrying umbrellas.  Not to keep dry in the rain, but to keep the sun from beating down on their ivory skin.  Also, many women here wear foundation makeup that is four or five shades lighter than their actual skin color, to make them look paler.

And get this: a few days ago a woman actually said to me (to me, not my Miss Coppertone-winner sister), “You have such lovely skin coloring.”  It took me a moment to realize that she was actually speaking to me. (To me, the pastey one!!!)

So, to all of you Americans who had mocked me and my pastey skin my whole life and have called me “Casper” and “Corpse” and “Albino,” I have three words for you:  Neener!  Neener!   Neener!

Resiliency

My kids have been through a lot in the past ten months.  Last June, Jason was officially accepted into the Foreign Service and our lives have been a whirlwind ever since.

In August, my kids lost their dad for four months while he was in training in Washington, DC.  Plus they had to live with a whiny, frustrated, stressed out mom during that time.  In the midst of that, two of my kids went through periods of transition that are hard and frightening for all kids; Ben started junior high and Elizabeth started 1st grade.

Then in December, just before Christmas, their worlds were completely uprooted.  They said good-bye to their friends, their cat, their bedrooms and left their comfortable home and familiar neighborhood for a foreign country.  They went from being just like everyone else in white-bread Mormon Utah, to a country where they are the minority, they don’t speak the language and they’re stared at whenever they leave the house.

About the time they got over their jet lag, they started attending a private international school.  Whereas, public schools in Utah do their best to prepare kids for college, their private school in Taipei prides itself in preparing students for the Ivy League.  The amount of catchup my kids have had to do has been unbelievably stressful.  My 5th grader spends 1-3 hours a night on homework, while my 7th and 9th graders spend 2-5 hours studying every night.  Their self-esteems have taken enormous hits.  The academic competition they face each day is mind-boggling.

If that weren’t enough, the have faced prejudice for the first time in their lives over their race, their nationality and their religion.  One child has faced a pretty fierce bully.  During the first week of school, three of my kids came to me, independent of each other, expressing shock at the language that students use in the hallways; language that they had never heard in public school in the U.S.  Both of my sons have come to me, asking what words mean; terms that I didn’t know the meaning of until after I was married.

In the four months that we have lived in Taiwan, my kids have been more frightened and more lonely than they have ever been in their lives.  They have all come home from school numerous times in tears.  As a parent, it’s pretty tough to watch.

All of these trials notwithstanding, my kids are making it.  As a parent, I am in awe of their strength.  I don’t know if I could have faced the challenges they are encountering each day when I was their ages.  I am so proud of them.  They are brave, they are smart and they are good.

My book club is currently reading the parenting book Girls Will Be Girls: Raising Confident and Courageous Daughters by JoAnn Deak.  Dr. Deak wrote the following:  The most healthy and successful human being is one who can deal with ambiguity, figure out how to negotiate situations where the path or outcome is not clear.  Probably the worst thing we can do as adults to handicap our girls [and boys, I might add], is to encourage them in any way to want or need things in total order or control.  They’re already inclined that way.  The best thing we can do is to help them learn to grow in a climate where chaos – internal or external – is always in the three-day forecast.

I tell my kids often that one day they will thank us for this experience.  I’m hopeful that they will, but maybe they won’t.  But I have to say that they are learning how to deal with ambiguity and chaos.  They are learning how strong they can really be.  They are learning skills that will make them better adults and more aware as human beings.  They are taking a crash-course in resiliency.

I’m proud to be their mom. (But, man am I stressed out!)

An Admission

Okay, here’s my dirty secret.  I color my hair.  It turns out that I have a few gray hairs, I’m sure more a result of stress than age (I have four children after all.)  I’ve been coloring my hair for a few years now.  Okay, twelve to be exact.  My husband found my first gray hair on my 30th birthday and I’ve been lying to the public regarding my true hair color ever since.

I’m embarrassed to say that when we were applying to the Foreign Service, one of my big concerns was–Would I be able to find someone to color my hair in the outer reaches of Africa or Carjackistan or Abayaland? When we received our assignment to Taiwan I was afraid that the only hair colors I would find would be black and blacker.  And I’m a little pasty to be going brunette.  (I’m a bit old to be sporting Goth.)  So I was hugely relieved when some expats here told me of a great salon that caters to western women.

My first hair appointment in Asia was pure heaven.  The girl who washed my hair must have graduated Summa Cum Laude from hair washing school because she gave me a 20 minute shampoo/scalp massage that was pure genius.  Then she wrapped my hair in a towel and gave me a 10 minute back massage.  I sigh and go doughy eyed just thinking about it.  People often times go in between hair cuts and pay just to get their hair washed.  It’s my new favorite Asian thing.

Anyway, when I asked my hair dresser if she thought she had colors to match my current U.S.-dyed hair she looked at me and said, “Is this your first time in Asia?”

“Yes.”

“I can tell.  Yes, we have your color here.” (I think I may have offended her.)

So my hair color is no longer a concern.  I sleep easier.  Moral of the story:  It’s better to offend an Asian hairdresser than to admit one has gray hair.

Although I couldn’t quite rid myself of my addiction to hair dye, when we joined the Foreign Service, I decided that I needed to scale back a bit on my high maintenance ways.  I tried, I honestly tried to use grocery store shampoo and conditioner, but in the end I shipped ten of the largest bottles of Biolage shampoo and conditioner I could find.  Also, racked with fear that I wouldn’t be able to buy makeup that a pasty white chick could wear, I stocked up on so much makeup that I was given seven free Clinique gift bags.  (I know what you’re thinking, only old ladies use Clinique anymore.  Everyone is now using MAC makeup.  But the swarms of teenagers and young hip moms at the MAC counter scare me and I always find myself back at the Clinique counter with the other old ladies.  Call me old fashion.)

And since I’m on the subject of fashion, back in the U.S. I wear a size 8 pants.  (There, I said it!)  Turns out, there is not a Chinese woman alive who wears a size 8.  The women here range from size 0 to size 2.  The very most obese woman might wear a size 4 pant on her most bloated day and even then she’ll need a belt to keep them up.  Last month I tried on a pair of pants for the first and last time here.  I couldn’t even come close to squeezing my gigantic Anglo-Saxon hips into the largest size they had.  (The humiliation!)

And speaking of large body parts, the other day a woman actually laughed out loud when I told her I wear a size 9 shoe.  Yes women of Asia, I am Gigantor!

So now, like a closet porn-addict, I do my pants and shoe shopping from the privacy of my personal computer when no one is around to catch me in my humiliation.

So much for scaling back on my high maintenance ways.

A Cultural Experience

If by the title of this post you are expecting me to have written about something “cultured”  as in high-brow or sophisticated, you probably want to stop reading now.  There will be nothing high-brow or sophisticated in this post.  Instead, my family and I (more specifically my daughters and I) had a cultural experience today of the slightly baser sort.

This weekend our family went on our first road trip.  We have been in Taiwan now for almost four months and we probably should have ventured out of the city before now.  But frankly, the city has a lot to offer and we have spent the days we have had off exploring Taipei.

So our first road trip was to the city of Hualien.  Taiwan, for those of you geographically inept, like myself (a year ago I didn’t know this either) is about the size of Indiana.  It is shaped roughly like a football.  Taipei, the capital, is on the northern tip of the island and we live in the northern section of Taipei which puts our home on the tippy-top of the football.  The city of Hualien is about half-way down the island on the east side.  We had a great time in Hualien and at Taroko Gorge, but I won’t go into our travel itinerary here because the cultural experience occurred on our way home.

Much of the drive home from Hualien took place on a Pacific coast highway which was high up on winding cliffs.  Every so often we would descend the cliffs into a small city and then ascend the cliffs again as we continued northward.  At one point, as we were driving along the cliffs, Elizabeth said she needed to go to the bathroom (I warned you that this wasn’t going to be high-brow).  So the next time we descended the cliffs, we stopped at the first place we came to, to look for a bathroom.

I wish I could tell you the name of the place where we stopped, but none of the six Chinese characters that I’m able to recognize were on the sign out front.  However, it looked like a sort of very large convenience store.  The place was big and new and as we pulled up I thought to myself, Surely there is something in there that I cannot live one more day without owning! I wasn’t sure what that object was going to be, but I knew it was going to be good.

Unfortunately, after perusing the store for a couple of minutes, I realized that it was full of nothing but garbage!!!  There were rows and rows of bottles of every pickled meat and vegetable you could imagine.  There was one section that I will call “Some Fourth Grader’s Science Fair Experiment in Dehydration.”  Just imagine everything that you would NOT want to see dehydrated and there you have it.

Then there was the mochi section.  This particular part of Taiwan is famous for a delicacy called mochi.  How can I describe mochi?  Well, let’s see … for lack of a better description:  A few years ago, my brother-in-law gave me a pair of silicone breast implants for my birthday.  No … I did not have them surgically implanted, but apparently he thought I might need them someday – or maybe he was just giving me a hint.  So, I am now the proud owner of my own set of breast implants that are tucked away in a drawer and are therefore, NOT fulfilling the measure of their creation.

Again, for lack of a better description, mochi have the texture of silicone breast implants.  And the flavors include (among others) red bean, wasabi and salt.  Now, I know that I don’t speak for all westerners here, and this is probably a huge generalization, but I really don’t see mochi as ever becoming a big hit in the US.

Then there was a big section of super cheap toys (think All-A-Dollar cheap).

So after realizing that, sadly, there was nothing in the store that I needed or wanted, I walked with my two daughters to the back of the store to the restrooms.

Now, for a short explanation.  Most Taiwanese public restrooms include a number of squatty-potties.  There was a variation of these in Italy back in the day, which missionaries fondly called “whizzarias.” (Again, if you are looking for a high-brow cultural experience here, you probably want to look elsewhere.)  Squatty-potties are exactly what they sound like – a potty that you squat over.  Apparently Asians consider them more hygienic than traditional toilets because no body parts actually come in contact with the toilet itself.  However, you must have pretty good balance and thigh muscle control to use them effectively.

As my daughters and I entered the bathroom, we were immediately confronted with the absolute worst bathroom stench I have ever encountered and that includes port-a-potties and campground bathrooms.  (Maybe that’s what happens when you eat wasabi mochi and pickled meat together.  Just sayin’.)  We all held our breath.  Then as I looked down the line of bathrooms stalls, I realized that there were only two traditional toilets, and the rest were squatties.  (My daughters had yet to ever use squatties.  As for me, well let’s just say, I am a user, and my thigh muscles have benefited as a result.)  Upon this realization, my older daughter opted for one of the two traditional toilets.  She walked into the stall and immediately walked out again, white as a ghost and exclaimed, “There is a fish in that toilet!”  No, that was not a typo; there really was a fish in the toilet, undoubtedly contributing to the bathroom odor.  She could see that the other traditional toilet was occupied, so she made a mad dash for a squatty, and in so doing, had an important cultural experience, which she refuses to talk about.  It’s probably just as well.

I then turned to my six-year-old daughter.

“Squatty?”

Folded armed, determined face, shaking of the head back and forth.

A minutes or so later a woman exited the fishless traditional toilet stall.  Now, normally, when you see a person exit a public toilet stall, is it not safe to assume that the stall is now free for the next person to enter?  Apparently not, because when I opened the stall door, there was still a little old lady inside using the toilet!  Riddle me that!  What kind of clown toilet stall was this?!

I then sheepishly exited the bathroom into the store, with Elizabeth in tow and looked in vain for anything chocolate; although I did find pork balls on-a-stick.  And a few minutes later Elizabeth and I returned to the bathroom, held our breath,  and found the fishless traditional toilet stall free of old ladies.  Elizabeth refused to enter the stall alone, so we entered together, completed the business at hand and exited the bathroom and the convenience store having had a great cultural experience.

I have never appreciated 7Eleven more!