Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas!

The big day is here, at least in our time zone, so Christmas greetings to one and all and wishes for a very happy new year. Here are some new recipes to keep the holiday cheery, sweet and warm. Lots of Christmas love from Taiwan!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Recipe update

(Because if I'm going to resurrect one blog, I might as well resurrect the other....)

I've been cooking with my students a lot this fall, literally taking my show on the road, so the new recipes I've posted on Wonton Woman are field-tested and Taiwan-approved. Hopefully you'll like them, too.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Show of Hands

One benefit of letting my blog languish for months is that I can come back to favorite topics without fear of wearing them too thin. It is no secret that I like driving here -- I like the organic nature of it, the hierarchy of the moment, the freedom to fill a gap when staying within a set boundary would only cause problems for those in your wake. It's not Western logic, but that doesn't mean it lacks logic. You just have to let go of the known way before you can really embrace the local driving mentality. It took me about a day to figure out that I was going to like driving here. Other people never get to that point. We're all made a little differently, so I don't judge -- I just wish everyone could enjoy the Galatians-like freedom of driving in Taiwan (grace and law being the two major forces battling it out in the foreign driver's heart).

So this brings me to today's Adventures in Licensure, Wherein Two Friends Take the First Step Towards Getting Their Taiwan Drivers Licenses and Are Stymied at Every Point Along the Way. This is not the first time I've considered getting my license but I never got past the at-home practice exam's morbid pronouncement of my skills. I am rope shy. With this attempt, however, I don't have to go it alone, so I am hopeful that I might, in the coming weeks, actually come home one day with a real Taiwan license. This is an illogical hope, really, but I cling to it; if I did not, I would have given up ever accomplishing the first of three steps, the physical exam, at the first sign of trouble today. Or if not the first sign then definitely the second, at the very least the third.

The process seems straightforward enough, albeit a bit drawn out: you first submit to a physical exam at a local hospital, which is equipped to test your abilities and determine if you are fit to sit behind the wheel. If you pass, you proceed to the written exam and driving test when you are ready, but no later than one year on. The physical exam involves checking your weight and height, verifying that you possess two hands (yes, really), checking for colorblindness, performing a vision test and a night-vision test -- which simulates the very real situation of a car suddenly turning its headlights on right in your eyes while you are staring at a sign you can't quite make out (probably the most practical part of the entire three-part testing process) -- and finally, confirming your ability to discern whether a tuning fork is thrumming in your left ear or right. This is useful when trying to balance the speakers, although the buttons on our stereo are so mysterious I leave all adjustments to Tim.

Our adventure started well -- we found the hospital, and even found the parking lot. We got as far as registering (this is called gua hao, the same as when you register a letter. I don't know why I was surprised that it's the same term, considering we use register for both situations, but I was). After paying the registration fee (NT$120, or about US$4.00) we toddled off towards the physical exam wing where we gladly handed over our health cards and registration forms to the nurse. She took them, then asked us for our photos. Screeeech, and... halt. We had no passport-sized photos with us, and the hospital had no photo booth. The nurse told us we could go to the Department of Motor Vehicles a few miles away and get photos done there, then return. Our registration would still be valid if we came back the same day. (Have I mentioned that my M., my friend-turned-licensing sherpa, had left her infant son at home with a sitter, and we were hoping to get back before he woke from his nap?)

We gathered our documents and drove to the DMV; I was pleased because we had spent so little time in the hospital we didn't owe any money for our few minutes of parking. My friend pointed out that the NT$20 we saved on parking would be used up in gas. But no matter! We (meaning I) managed to negotiate the very tricky Nanzih interchange and get us going the right direction on the right road, and within minutes we were there. I knew right where the photo booths were, so, again, our confidence was strong. All went well until suddenly it didn't: after M. got her photos I hopped in the booth, practiced my most natural non-smile, and then waited for my visage (times eight) to drop into the slot. I was told to wait 27 seconds, but after a full minute went by with no photos, I peeked in and saw an error message on the screen. M. went for help, and before long someone came along: she told me to use the other photo booth, the one with the "Out of Order" sign pinned to its curtain. "It's not really out of order, it just won't take bills. You'll have to use coins."

Back at the hospital (after reversing our Nanzih interchange journey), we made our way back to the exam wing, noting the undeniable smell of cigarette smoking wafting through the waiting area. We handed the nurse our papers, again, and our photos. She gestured to a counter and stools behind us, where we were to use the provided scissors and glue to affix our photos to our documents. Hand sanitizer was also provided, thankfully. M. and I enjoyed our brief crafting session before she was called in for her exam; I believe she passed. Mine followed, and while it's likely that the nurse's hao le just meant you're done, I'm hoping that I passed, too. She stamped my health report twelve times -- that has to be a good sign. Right?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Food for Thought

I have been leading an English club for over a year now, one which was started many years ago by a good friend as an outreach ministry. The women who attend are from slightly different social and economic backgrounds, but most fall into the stay-at-home-mom or work-to-keep-busy-wife categories; many of their husbands run businesses in China or Vietnam, and their children are not babies anymore. The women are happy to have something to do on Tuesday mornings that is both social and edifying. We spend the bulk of our time studying English ("Chat Room" is our current textbook), then move on to a shorter study of something Christian in nature, and finally end with prayer. This was the format when I took over, and while I am not a "preach it and teach it" evangelist by nature (preferring the "preach the Gospel; use words when necessary" approach), I was happy enough to keep the discussion going on spiritual matters. I enjoy their questions about my faith and culture as well as the chance to ask about theirs.

Today's lesson was about food, and went particularly well. First, we ran through a list of about forty vocabulary words and then took turns answering questions from the book: What is the most disgusting thing you have ever eaten? When you are nervous or angry does it affect your appetite? Do you have an oven? (Not everyone does here, although toaster ovens are common.) My favorite was, What should a foreigner know about food customs in Taiwan? This opened up quite a conversation on cultural differences related to food. I noted that westerners linger over a meal much longer than locals; when we go out to eat the table next to us might go through several different parties who come in, order, eat, and leave, while we eat and talk and talk and talk. (And maybe ask for the menu again to check out dessert.) I was instructed on how to avoid second helpings of foods I don't care for (don't finish the first helping), how to avoid offense with my chopsticks (don't stick them upright in my rice; don't point with my index finger while holding them, lest I point at the gods or ancestors; and don't bang out a rhythm on the table with them), and how to hold my rice bowl properly (do bring it nearer your face, but not in your open palm, which looks like a beggar holding a bowl; rather, secure it with your thumb, which not only looks less beggarly but also prevents spills).

We talked about congealed blood as an ingredient, about the hidden message in the English phrase, "That's different," and about why foreigners say "congee," a Japanese word, rather than "rice porridge" when speaking about that traditional breakfast food of the Taiwanese. Our time sped by as we compared two cultures and their food beliefs and traditions. Next week we will use our class time to cook -- scones, cheddar crackers, and rice pudding are all on the menu. They are curious to try nutmeg, which was a new word to them (the fact that I happened to have an actual nutmeg in my pocket didn't help, sadly, since a whole nutmeg doesn't have any aroma). I am looking forward to seeing what foods they'll bring to the cooking party. Winter is just around the corner; I'm sure I'll get a lesson on which foods to avoid and why I shouldn't have iced drinks despite the temperatures still being in the low 80s. If they don't volunteer it, I'll ask.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Touching base

I feel guilty whenever my two most loyal readers, my mother and Tim's mother, say that they still check my blog to see if I've written anything lately. I've not posted anything in a very long time, and part of that is due to Facebook. Being far away from friends and family, I like the immediacy and the interaction it provides; in comparison, blogging feels like monologuing in an empty theatre. I have stopped most other kinds of writing, too. No poems, no essays, no progress on the back-burner book that was an active project last year. I am not feeling writerly these days.

Writing about Taiwan is in its own category of non-writing. When you first arrive here you are surrounded by blog material. Everything is noteworthy, intriguing, odd. After more than six years here, though, the novelty is mostly worn off, and what remains is leftover observations and complaints. One of my cardinal blogging rules is No Complaining -- it does no one any good at all -- so in the absence of anything fascinating to share my posts have dried up.

November is here, which historically is one of my least favorite months in Taiwan. It's still hot, the skies are steadily grey, and the holidays lurking around the corner will bring with them too many responsibilities: church programs, school programs, and the need to make Christmas fanciful and lovely despite being nothing like what I'm used to. This is not a problem for Tim and the kids -- this feels like home for them more than it does for me -- so really my issues with feeling untethered and without traditions are pretty contained. I am grateful that they are content with being here; I am conflicted, constantly wanting to be here and somewhere else at the same time, but I appreciate that this place and time in our lives is good. We are safe and fed and enjoy the company of some very good friends. We are healthy and busy and just generally blessed, and therefore able to wail the lament of the well-off: why can't we have all of this, plus more? So maybe now you see why I haven't written much lately. I know I do.

I have been pursuing some new interests this year: I've taken up guitar and I'm really enjoying exploring a different musical side of myself. Improvising on guitar is much more satisfying than doing so on the flute. (It's also easier to sing along to.) I've been accepted into the University of London's divinity program and will commence studies as soon as my materials arrive; I can sit my exams in Taipei, and plan to enter at least two exams this May. I am still tutoring one private student, and I lead a ladies' English club once a week. I have been setting up a new Sunday school program at our church using the Godly Play approach, and love to see the kids really connect with the stories instead of just filling in worksheets and placing stickers on a page. I think children are so close to God; it's a joy to give them the chance to work through the stories in ways that are meaningful to them.

The kids are doing well -- Nora's in kindergarten, Cole is home schooling. They are funny and kind and getting bigger all the time. Nora's reading more and more, and Cole is learning guitar along with me; they're both pretty happy with where they are.

I won't promise to write more often, but I will promise to write again. I know it would be good for my soul, like any discipline. We'll see how it goes.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

I plugged this blog into the wordle machine and this is what I got.  (Click on the image to make it larger.)  I notice I have a lot of time words in my mix.  Go figure.  

Go make your own at

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Numbering my days

I like a bargain.  I especially like a bargain in an otherwise-pricey store.  Last year, in my search for a personal calendar, I found the perfect thing at MUJI: a plain brown blank calendar, with room for notes at the back.  It was less than a dollar, and just what I was looking for.  (MUJI often has just what I'm looking for, but rarely at a price I want to pay.)  It's a 16-month calendar, so come April I'll switch to a new one.  This means before April I'll need to sit down and fill in the dates for the next year and a quarter, so I've put that on my to-do list now (I sometimes require a long lead time).  It was an interesting exercise when I did it last winter: filling in every day of the coming year, thinking about the seasons and holidays that are predictable, wondering where summer would take us and what else the year would bring--a year is full of both the mundane and the unexpected.  Numbering the days made me appreciate how many days there are, and yet how quickly they can be counted and how quickly they will pass.  

Looking ahead, the next few months are getting full, and summer is once again on the horizon and demanding some attention already.  My week is full.  My day is full.  I skipped the farmers market this morning and kept Nora home with me, just to have a quiet morning hanging out together.  She heads off to kindergarten in August, and my days will seem a lot emptier.  No less busy, but emptier.  Today I have lessons to plan, meetings to organize and pray over, lunches to make and dinner to think about; but for now, I can enjoy her company and my tea, and know that those things will wait another hour or two.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

New Year, New Post

It is time to write. Well past time, really, but not much I can do about that (aside from rigging the date I publish this under). 2009 is underway, and the Year of the Ox is upon us. Having just crossed from Saturday night to Sunday morning, it is officially New Year's Eve and the country is on the verge of massive migration. Later today, millions and millions of people will take to the roads and rails as they make their way back to their husbands' and fathers' familial homes for the first night of celebrations. On Monday, New Year's Day, they will move on to the wives' and mothers' families. There will be food, and drinking, and fireworks to frighten away bad spirits (you'd think the karaoke would take care of that, but apparently not). People will clean house to sweep away the old year -- but no sweeping on the first day of the new year, lest you sweep away any good luck inadvertently.

For those of us not obligated to follow this drill -- which just means foreigners, really, because everyone else is expected to go whatever distance to fulfill the New Years duty -- this is a holiday of peace and quiet, and a holiday for staying home. For many of us, living among Taiwanese and Chinese during New Years is akin to how a man must feel when his wife goes into labor: we're next to the action, but we're not really doing it. Sure, we get excited for the holiday, and put up red banners over our doors and greet everyone with "xin nian kwai le!", but we are not ringing in a new year that really registers as such. I'm not going to consider myself a year older tomorrow, I won't don red undergarments for luck, and I have no plans to hand out red envelopes of cash to my own children, let alone someone else's. I hope that doesn't sound Scrooge-like -- it's a rich and colorful holiday, and fun to observe, and I love that the two weeks of celebrations are capped off with the charming Lantern Festival which fills the skies with lights. But there remains that invisible barrier between "mine" and "theirs," and it doesn't seem likely to budge.

Our Christmas holidays were busy, but not terribly so, and before that we had family visiting in October and November. This week off from work and school will be a real pleasure: time to catch up on some projects around the house, and catch up with friends over dinner here and there. So often we say we need a vacation after a vacation; with an early Chinese New Year, that's what we've got.  Happy New Year, everyone!  May the Year of the Ox bring you peace and joy.  And maybe a red envelope or two.