So far life in the foreign service is very similar to life back in the U.S.. We do all the same things we used to do. Only now each task or event is more… complicated. We’ve done quiet a few things recently that, on the surface, seem routine but doing them is new and challenging.
Take getting the kids to school. The three youngest kids have to be at the neighborhood bus stop by 7:00 a.m. to catch the bus. Their bus is a huge tour bus that barely fits down our streets. Before our family moved in, the school used a small bus just bigger than your standard 15 passenger van. We forced them to bring in the heavy transport. Our oldest gets up even earlier to catch the public bus. She ventures out while it’s still dark with a neighbor friend to ride public transportation in a city of nearly 8 million people. She tells me it is perfectly safe and the bus is full of old people heading to the park to do Tai Chi but I still worry. Luckily she only has to change buses one time on the way to school.
If we drive to school, as parents often do, we have two choices. Route A takes us on a two lane highway down the front of the mountain. Then we have to double back through busy city streets to the school grounds. It takes about 45 minutes during the day. Or, more often, we take route B. This route takes half the time but the road goes off the backside of the mountain on a one and half lane road with switchbacks and, my favorite, The Choke Point. The Choke Point is a stretch of road about 200 meters long that should only fits one car. It just so happens it’s also the steepest part of the road. Two cars can pass each other but it’s a very slow and stressful event. Our brakes will need much more frequent service I can tell already.
Driving in general is an adventure in Taiwan. By and large the driving here is familiar. You drive on the right side of the road and follow most of the same rules you are used to. But picture trying to drive where you can’t read any of the signs. A lot of the signs do have English translations but it seems like all of the important stuff is left out.
Filling up with gas is an adventure as well. Here you do not fill up your own gas. An attendant does it for you. This requires you to speak to the attendant. This requires you to speak Chinese. As soon as the Chinese starts the adventure begins.
Something as basic as eating is more challenging. I can’t identify half the food I’ve eaten here. I rarely venture out on my own for lunch at work. No one one at the restaurants speak enough English to keep me from eating duck entrails, which I hear are quite tasty. Dumplings are really popular here and they are cheap. Chinese dumplings are like big boiled ravioli except with more interesting and mysterious filling. Most of the time the dumplings taste fine but every once in a while you bite into something that makes you question the cook’s intentions. There are terrorists out there you know.
Even Date Night can be different. One Friday night we went out with some neighbors. For dinner we went to the very American restaurant, Chili’s. I’ve never really been much of Chili’s fan, but the ribs tasted really good after weeks of noodles and dumplings. After dinner our new friends suggested we get a foot massage rather than see a movie. I had read about foot massages in Taiwan and learned it is a big part of the local culture. You can find massage spas all over the city. Erin was immediately excited but I was more apprehensive since I had read up on the subject. You see foot massages in Taiwan are viewed as an important part in maintaining good health. The Taiwanese do not get a massage because “it feels good.” It’s more like shoving broccoli down your throat; you do it because it’s good for you. The masseuse/torturer grinds, slaps, squeezes, punches and pushes way, way too hard on all parts of your feet. Even your delicate little toes are not safe. We paid for a 40 minute massage and I’ve got to say it was the longest 40 minutes of my life. My masseuse was this cute little Chinese lady from the mainland who I out-weighed by at least 120 lbs., but she was killing me! My friend told her several times to go easy on me, but either his Chinese isn’t that good or he told her to squeeze harder and lied to me. I was wiggling around in my chair like a fish I was in so much pain. My masseuse just laughed at me and kept telling me to relax. Relax? You have got to me kidding me. I stuck it out because if you are in Rome you do as the Romans, so if you are in Taiwan you pay someone to torture you.
This video can give you a taste: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a-x_YS6sfpE&feature=related
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
At least I refrained from buying the t-shirt.