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.