The Object of a Point and Laugh

Yes, today I was the object of a classic Point and Laugh. Our children attend the Taipei American School.  TAS is considered one of the most prestigious international schools in the world.  Ironically, over 90% of the 2000 or so students at TAS are Taiwanese.  The Taiwanese, like most Asians, place a heavy emphasis on schooling.  Most Asian kids go to school around 12 hours a day and then go home and study for 3 more hours.  You think I’m exaggerating; I’m not.  As a result, most of the poor American kids are in Resource.  I’ve been told that the only classes that American kids tend to dominate are American History (the Taiwanese don’t really give a crud) and drama (not used the applause and the whole concept of drawing attention to oneself).  Even my straight A child pretty much bombed the placement exams.  You can imagine how well my non-straight A kids did.

I have to take one second and brag about the elementary school playground at TAS.  It has a climbing wall, a butterfly garden, two waterfalls, a really cool spiderweb climbing thingy (Elizabeth’s favorite feature) and a beautiful Buddhist temple next it with singing monks.   I’m told the temple occasionally shoots off fireworks in the middle of the day for no apparent reason.

Back to the Point and Laugh. So today I was at one of the countless new parent orientations that I’ve attended this week.  At one point, the presenter asked the parents of high school students to stand.  Up I went.  Then the presenter asked the parents of middle school students to stand.  Up I went again.  Polite laughter in the background.  Finally, the presenter asked for the parents of elementary students to stand.  Up I went a third time followed by a roaring Point and Laugh. I didn’t volunteer the fact that I have two in elementary.

Afterward, a Taiwanese mother came up and asked if I was Mormon.  Yep.

Christmas, Sunday School and Pinching Myself

Our first major holiday in Taipei has come and gone.  We weren’t sure it would actually come, but grateful it did.  Our air shipment miraculously arrived on December 23rd, just in time to put up the tree, a few decorations and wrap the presents that Santa (using the magic that only Santa can use) added to our shipment.  Luckily I didn’t have to give the speech that I had prepared for Elizabeth explaining that sometimes Santa doesn’t make it as far as Taiwan until a week after U.S. Christmas.  Huge sigh of relief.

We spent the evening of Christmas Eve with our cool new neighbors LeeAnn and George.  They invited us and a few other people from our church ward to a lovely American turkey dinner.  The food was delicious, the company was pleasant but the best part of the evening was spending it with the missionaries that are serving in our ward.  The two elders were trying their best to be positive but were obviously missing home.  My heart went out to them.  I was in their position twenty years ago and I felt their pain.  They were adorable!  I’m grateful that my children will have more contact with missionaries than they had in Utah.

Christmas day was spent much like every other Christmas: opening presents, wrapping paper everywhere, mass chaos.  But in the late morning we got on Skype with the Hale family and felt like we were in Jason’s brother’s livingroom as they reenacted the Nativity.  We sang carols together and knelt together for family prayer.  The miracle of technology is such a blessing!

We also had a scaled-down version of our traditional Italian Christmas dinner.  I was shocked at the number of Italian items I was able to find around town.  I even found Pandoro.  Our taste buds thanked us.

Christmas over, Sunday morning as we were getting ready for church, I got a call from a gentleman in our ward, telling me he was ill and asking if I would teach the gospel doctrine sunday school class for him.  Gulp!  He must have known I’m a sucker and can’t say no to anything church related.  About seven years ago I was the gospel doctrine teacher in our ward and I would spend about 15 hours a week preparing my lessons.  I had 1/2 hour to read through the lesson before we had to leave.  To add to my grief, this was only our second week in this ward and the temple president and former mission president are in the class.  Gulp! Gulp!  I said a quick prayer and winged it.  I somehow muddled through it, unbloodied and hoping I never have to do that again.  Ever.

This morning, I went for a walk in our new neighborhood.  I had no idea where I was going, I just let the wind take me where it wanted.  I ended up quite a ways higher up Yangmingshan mountain from our home.  I found a lookout point with a spectacular view of Taipei.  I could see all the way to the ocean.  It was breathtaking and awesome!  I felt like I needed to pinch myself to make sure it was real.  As I looked out over this spectacular city I couldn’t believe that I actually get to live here.  I honestly feel like the most blessed person on the planet.  I’m loving this new life and I especially love that I get to share it with my favorite people.

First Impressions of Taipei

We have been in Taipei about 40 hours now, not enough to get a huge feel for the place, but enough to form some first impressions.

First of all, it’s colder than I expected.  The last two days have been cold and rainy.  Cold enough that we have had to turn on our heaters.  I was expecting the rain, but not the cold.  I’m told that this is pretty cold, even for winter in Taipei and it should warm up soon.

We live outside of the city a ways on a mountain called Yangmingshan.  We live in a home that has apparently always been occupied by Americans.  This neighborhood was built for American military personnel but has been used as Foreign Service housing for some time now.  Our house is not much to look at on the outside, plain white stucco, but the inside is completely new, clean and roomy.  I love the kitchen!  It’s big and it has two refrigerators–foodies like myself, Rejoice!  We also have a large fenced yard with a big climbing tree out front.  Jason and I are the only ones in the family yet to climb the tree, but I have a feeling we will swing from its branches before this tour is up.

Yesterday I went into the city for the first time.  My neighbor Rosy took me to Costco in Taipei.  The city is surprisingly clean and modern.  The traffic is chaotic and congested but the roads themselves are pristine.  There is some truly beautiful architecture. Taipei is very green and mountainous.  The second tallest building in the world is here.  It’s called Taipei 101 and it is visible from all over the city.  This morning the top was surrounded by clouds, much like the mountains in Utah on rainy spring days.

Going into Costco was a really bizarre experience.  I was the only caucasian person there.  Everyone was speaking Chinese, yet most of the products were the same products I saw in the Costco in American Fork in the US just last week.  It was like I was in a strange dream.   I bought hearts of romaine lettuce from California, Kirkland brand cleaning wipes and that giant container of red grapes.  I bought the same gigantic bottles of shampoo and conditioner I’ve always bought.  Yet oddly enough, there was no Minute Rice.  Apparently the Taiwanese are a bit too high-brow for instant rice.  (Do you blame them?)  The strangest thing though was that the tortillas came in packaging with only Chinese writing.  Riddle me that!  Even the food in the Food Court was the same as one would find in the US: gigantic hotdogs, raspberry smoothies, caesar salad.  It was like two worlds collided in one gigantic warehouse.

Our neighborhood is great!  There is a small grocery store about a two-minute walk from our house; as well as a 7Eleven, McDonald’s and Subway.  In between the American chains are tiny  mom-and-pop eateries with signs only in Chinese, selling heaven only knows what.  I’m looking forward to finding out exactly what they are selling.  My boys have ventured out a few times on their own to the various establishments, coming home with six packs of Coke and liters of Pepsi (to their mother’s dismay.)  I don’t think I would have dared do that at their ages, so even though they bought contraband beverages, I’m pretty proud of them.

Our neighbors have been awesome.  We’re sort of at their mercy since our car won’t arrive until early January, at the soonest.  We’re blessed to be surrounded by good, kind people.

One last thing.  In the movie Dan in Real Life, as Dan’s family is getting to know the Juliette Binoche character, someone asks her what her perfect day would be.  She says that it would start out with her waking up in a totally new culture where she didn’t know the language and she felt completely out of her element.  My perfect day would start the same way, and it has these last two days.  I’m blessed!

 

A Tribute to my State and Community

Yesterday, an unexpected, but inevitable thing happened to me.  For the first time since we started this Foreign Service process I actually teared up.  I ran into an old friend of mine named George Durrant.  We talked for a few minutes about our move.  He asked when we were leaving and I said in just over three weeks.  He put his arms around me and said, “Then this is probably goodbye.  I’ll never forget you Erin.  You’ll always be an angel to me.”  That’s all it took, I was in tears.  Then again today, while preparing our air shipment, I ended up having a good, hard cry.

Please don’t take my tears as tears of regret or second thoughts.  Rather they were tears of gratitude for the people and the community I have lived in and among my entire life.  So, maybe this week before Thanksgiving it’s fitting that I pay tribute to the state and community that I love and call home.

What do I love about the state of Utah?  Here are a few of the countless things:

Soaring mountains that have always been like a protector and comforter to me, four distinct seasons, Lake Powell-aka  The Happiest Place on Earth (no offense Disneyland, but you don’t hold a candle), stunning canyons, the greatest snow on earth (it even says so on our license plates), the red rocks of southern Utah, Pioneer Theater, the Utah Symphony, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Brigham Young University (Go Cougs!), smoke-free public places, Temple Square at Christmas, respected Governors-past and present.

Now a few of the countless things I love about my community:

Good and safe schools with some truly wonderful teachers, a church on practically every corner, Cafe Rio, very low crime, great neighborhood parks, wonderful walking paths, sports and arts programs for my kids that don’t expect kids to play or perform on Sundays, the unwritten law that schools and teams don’t schedule events on Monday nights so that families can spend that evening together, the other unwritten law that Sundays are for families and not a day for kids to play with friends (i.e. We don’t have kids ringing our doorbell to play with our kids on Sundays), caffiene-free Diet Coke available at every gas station, book clubs, not having to worry that my kids are safe when out and about, emphasis on families.

But what I love most about my state and community has to be the people who call this place home.  I have the best neighbors who truly care for the welfare of my family, I have an incredible church community-most of whom I view like family.  I have great friends who are wonderful examples to me-I love them dearly.  I have neighbors who take the time to care-like the two women who came over after my dad died and spent an  hour and a half with me-comforting me as I cried and cried-shedding a few tears of their own for their deceased fathers.  In my community, we bring dinner after the birth of babies and send thank you notes for the tiniest acts of service.  Utahns are generally educated, giving, compassionate, respectful and trustworthy.  Families are the number one priority and we will do almost anything to see families succeed, our own as well as others.  We mourn for each other’s losses and rejoice in each other’s successes.  We care for one another in a unique way.

I am blessed, I am grateful and I am proud to call Utah my home.  So, the good-byes are starting and so are the tears.  In Ecclesiastes, the Preacher wrote: To every thing there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven . . . A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance . . . A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing . . . A time to get, and a time to lose . . . a time to love.

Now is my time to do all of these things, both for what I’m leaving behind and for what lies ahead.

Amish Country

The East coast is beautiful, much more so than I ever thought.  It is so green!  Green!  Green!  Green!  Granted it is crowded, but the trees are able to hide the feeling of urban sprawl except in the downtown areas.

I recently went for a drive with a friend from work through Amish country in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  Fall has taken its toll on the corn fields, but the countryside is still green and beautiful.

 

Lancaster County
Lancaster County, PA

 

Of course the Amish folks were everywhere.  I met a young Amish girl named Linda at a roadside stand selling Whoopie Pies.  She was an engaging young girl whose accent sounded more Australian than German.  I would post a picture, but, “The English are not allowed to take pictures of the Amish.”  I’ve never been called English before.  I did take a few pictures of the famous horse buggies.  I hope I didn’t offend anyone.  I figured I could outrun any trouble.

The Amish country is filled with tourists like me hoping to get a look at the keepers of the 19th Century.  I wonder if they feel like animals in the zoo, on display for strange aliens to look at.

Whatever guilt I felt about invading this peaceful country vanished as soon as I discovered Fry Pies.  I purchased one from a roadside stand and kept it, thinking I would eat it after lunch.  The pie got eaten a few miles away.  After which we returned directly to the stand to purchase 10 more.

 

Fry Pie Stand

 

There was no one attending the stand.  It had a sign with the price and a metal box for the money.  Put your money in and grab your choice of pies.  Mmmmmm, fry pies!  I can feel the real butter coursing through my veins.

This last picture proves I am still in junior high.

 

Intercourse, PA

 

At least I refrained from buying the t-shirt.

Soliciting Advice from Foreign Service Parents

Dear Foreign Service parents (or any parent out their who has moved a child out of the country):

I need your advice.  How have you prepared your children for Foreign Service life?  How do you prepare them each time you change posts?  What has worked for you and what hasn’t?

I would appreciate any and all advice you could give me.

A huge thank you in advance!

Erin

Is My Husband Wise or Just Cheap?

When Jason and I were dating and engaged, he worried that our financial backgrounds may have problems meshing.  His father was a rancher, my father was an attorney.  In his mind, I came from a rich family and he did not.  He worried about what it would mean to marry what he considered a rich girl.  Truth is, I didn’t come from a rich family.  We were comfortably middle-class.  But it’s true that I never worried about family finances growing up and apparently he did.

So Jason and I married and I like to believe that he was pleasantly surprised at how conservative I was with my spending habits.  My philosophy on money is this:  I have never worried about finances, so why would I want to put myself or my family in a situation where I have to start worrying.  No possession on earth is better than a good nights sleep; therefore, I never want to lose sleep over money issues.  So, yes, I try to be careful.

The one financial decision we have always agreed on is that we would NEVER put anything on a credit card that we couldn’t pay off that month.  So far, that’s worked pretty well for us.

Notwithstanding, my self-proclaimed “carefulness” with spending, there have been incidents in our marriage where I have accused my husband of being cheap.  Here is one example:

When I was pregnant with our oldest child, Jason and I went on a campout with our church group.  Jason had a few basic camping supplies from his Boy Scout days; so, with one small exception, we were fine for one night in the mountains.  That exception was that we didn’t have any camping pads on which to sleep.  So as we were loading up the old Jeep Wagoneer I suggested we stop by Wal-Mart on our way to the mountains where I had recently seen camping pads for as little as $5.00.  At this suggestion, Jason basically accused me of being high maintenance and insisted that camping pads were an extravagant luxury.  Needless to say, his pregnant wife spent a pretty miserable night on the hard, cold ground.

If you think that this is the first time I have brought this up since the initial incident, you think way too highly of me. I bring it up all the time.  I think we can all agree, that on that particular day, Jason was CHEAP!

Fast forward to 2004.  We had been living in our second home but felt that we needed something a bit bigger for our growing family.  So we started the search for a new home.  We had a price range in mind and I had seen a number of homes that I felt we could afford, though a new home would stretch us more than we had been stretched previously.  I had basically decided on a home that was at the higher end of our price range.  I knew that Jason was a little uncomfortable with the cost of the house, so I agreed to look at a home that he had found that was well below the cost of the homes I had been looking at; in fact, it was about half the cost of the house I had chosen.  When Jason and I went through the less expensive home, we both felt that this was our home and we immediately put an offer on it.  We moved into our current home six years ago this month and it has been a great home.

When we were doing the financing for our home, Jason felt that we should take out a loan with a five-year arm.  Mortgage companies were really pushing arm loans back in 2004 but we knew that they were a bit controversial.  When I expressed some concern about the loan with Jason he told me not to worry, that he would have the house paid off before the five-year arm expired.  I trusted him.  Well, he didn’t pay off our mortgage in five years.  Instead, he paid it off in three and a half years.

So, my husband may be cheap, but here’s the truth.  His thriftiness has put us in a position where we are able to go into our new life as poor government employees with no debt.  We’ll be able to keep our home in Utah without worrying about a house payment while we’re overseas.  We’re not rich, but we have enough of a nest egg to pay for our kids college, church missions and weddings.  I’ll never drive a Mercedes, but we’ll never have a car payment either.  Had the family finances been left up to me for the 17 years of our marriage, we would probably have multiple car payments and a big mortgage.

So, I pose the question:  Is my husband wise, or just cheap?  Well, today one of our church leaders counselled us to pay off mortgages as fast as possible, and my heart swelled with gratitude for my cheap husband.  Maybe wisdom and cheapness can co-exist in one person.