Friday, July 23, 2010

Phoenix Fix

Just a head's up for anyone who wants to see how I see Arizona -- I've got a new photo blog, Phoenix Fix. Enjoy!

Thursday, July 15, 2010


I guess it's time to update the subtitle of this blog, seeing as Taiwan is not my locus anymore. I'm sure it will still play a significant role as I transition from expatriate to repatriate, but the "Life in Kaohsiung (Redux)" chapter is behind me and Phoenix is where the story will next unfold.

Phoenix is beautiful. I don't think I ever would've expected to say that, seeing as I'm fond of green and rainy places generally, but the desert has its own personality and I'm enjoying getting to know the feel of the place. In Taiwan I measured humidity by how clumped up the salt in my salt dish got; I knew a typhoon was coming when leaves fluttered up to our windows on the fourth floor. I haven't been in Arizona long enough to get a sense of when changes are coming, but I am noting how the shadows move, how early in the day the pavement gets hot, what kind of clouds gather at night to reflect the pinks and oranges of the sunset back down to earth. The saguaro were in bloom when we landed, and while those blooms are starting to fade others are taking their turn -- prickly pear bearing plump purple fruit, waxy green round-leafed shrubs dotted with tiny jasmine-scented white stars, and marigold-colored pompons on low dense hedges that feed the white-tailed rabbits that live in this neighborhood.

I visited a ghost town today on my way back from downtown. I went looking to replace something I'd broken, a souvenir I'd gotten last summer. As before, the ceramic wares were set out on tables and shelves in front of the shop and in the shop -- with no shopkeeper in sight. A cashbox stood beside the door, with newspaper and plastic bags laid out so you could wrap up fragile items and get on your way. I like the honor system. I like that even in a tourist destination, where people are free from the constraints that often keep us on our best behavior, this craftsman trusts his creations -- his livelihood -- to strangers.

Taiwan has made me more of an observer and also more of a joiner than I used to be. I'm eager to establish community, to connect with the people in my new church, to meet neighbors and teachers and get to know the fabulous crew at Trader Joe's (because TJ's always has a fabulous crew). This is what settling in feels like. I haven't had to do it this fully since our first move to Taiwan in 2001, when everything was foreign and every day was spent clearing new trails, relationally, culturally, linguistically. Coming back to America after so much time away there are trails to be broken here now, but it's a smoother terrain and the wide open skies make it easier to see where I'm going. It doesn't quite feel like home yet, but it's getting familiar, and that's the first step.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


This has been such an intense month, I'm not even sure where to start....

A friend of mine has this posted on her Facebook profile:
"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes." - Marcel Proust
I have learnt the difference between traveling abroad and living abroad -- I enjoy them both, and can say that the first made the second possible, as tasting other cultures whetted a serious appetite in me. Traveling made me see my home with new eyes: what did I take for granted? what did I like better about other places, and what seemed unnecessarily hard or frustrating? how could I integrate my experiences abroad once I returned to a pretty comfortable existence back on American soil?

At first, living abroad was the same. Every new thing was examined for its comparison, which is really the only way to learn something new, whether a language or skill or culture: "What do I already know? How does it work in this new place? What do I need to do differently now?" I was busy discovering this new landscape. The standard, the referent, was always home, but that word quickly became burdened with two distinct and distant meanings, Washington and Taiwan.

We lived in Taiwan for two years before returning to the States in 2003. I had a baby, started homeschooling our son, and waited for life to get "normal" again, but it was hard -- hard getting back into step financially and culturally as well as personally. After the challenges of life in Asia, America seemed so boring. Not bad, per se, just so lackluster. I felt as if the river, the constant flow of difference, had started to shape me. Then the river changed course and I was out of the stream, missing the rush that was sometimes overwhelming but, apparently, also addicting.

After two years in Washington and not a lot on the horizon, we returned to Taiwan. I was eager to make the move, but it wasn't easy -- I knew we'd be here for a longer commitment, at least five years and probably six. But as hard as it was to leave friends and family again, I was able to jump back into the river with some understanding of what was in store, to appreciate the constant challenges. I made closer friendships, took on more responsibilities, enjoyed the culture and shed a lot of the self-consciousness that had hindered me before. I made myself smile and make eye contact with people who would then ask me questions I couldn't understand, or at least couldn't answer without sounding like an idiot. But I was happier. To say, "Sorry, wo ting bu dong" with an apologetic grin is far more satisfying than to avoid the whole encounter.

This has been home for my children for most of their lives. It has been my home for most of the last decade. It's not an easy place to love, but it does grow on you -- in you -- and now that our time here is coming to an end I am acutely aware of how much my concepts of home, normal, healthy, satisfying, and happy are shaped by this place. Certain people have made my time in Taiwan bearable, some even more than bearable. I will miss my Ladies English Club students, my Bible study group (my sisters!), my private students (who taught me at least as much as I taught them), and all the friends and almost-family who have shared their lives, troubles, hopes, adventures, and accomplishments with me and helped me feel so connected here. Thank you to everyone who made me different, better, shaped into something that I wear proudly. You have given me new eyes, not just for seeing Taiwan but for seeing myself, where we all fit in the order of God's creation, and the beauty that is sometimes hidden in plain sight.

I'm usually pretty good at looking at clouds and seeing silver linings; this move is different, and I am struggling more than I ever have in my life. It's not the move, although the move doesn't help. It's life, and changes, and brokenness, and not knowing how to make better what you can hardly even wrap your brain around. I don't lead with my emotions, so most of this year I've been holed up in my own head, trying to mentally sort through something that defies a cognitive approach. I guess I put that out there so I can then say, No matter what comes next I will be glad I was here. I will be sad I left. And I will always have two homes.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Hohuanshan: check

As our time here winds down it seems to be picking up speed. The list of to-do's, the stack of empty moving boxes, the myriad details that I have managed to avoid confronting full-on are now getting too big to ignore. I tend to work best under pressure, so I say bring it on and let's get this thing going.

My mountain weekend was fabulous -- just what I needed, in fact, and I'd do it again in a heartbeat. Like most popular hikes in Taiwan the terrain was not particularly challenging: clear paths, stairs carved or built into the hillside, and a fair number of other people on the trail. What made Hohuanshan different was the altitude. Three of the four peaks we bagged were over 3,400 m (11,000 ft); coming from sea level I found catching my breath to be much harder than I'd expected. Setting up camp at 2 a.m., I got winded unrolling my sleeping bag and wondered how on earth I was going to climb higher when the sun rose in four short hours.

Thankfully I didn't need to keep up with the others in my group -- I was the lone female, and certainly the least athletic -- and kept my own pace up to the peaks. The point of the trip for me was to make good on a promise (Cole goaded me into making a New Year's resolution this year) and to check something off my dusty old "Do Before Leaving Taiwan" list. It was also a way to tackle something physical when most of the year I have been grappling with intangibles. As one friend said, the great thing about a mountain is that you can kick it. I did not, in fact, kick it, but getting to the top of those peaks brought a great sense of satisfaction every time.

The mountains were socked in almost constantly; there were some moments where the clouds would thin to a wispy mist and part just enough to give you a hint of the vistas beyond, and then they'd roll back in again, thicker than ever. I have seen the views from Cing Jing, have crossed the mountains by car, have taken some lovely pictures of the heights of this island. It would've been nice to capture some pictures from the heights, but I learned some lessons while I was climbing in the fog (see "grappling with intangibles," above) so I will not complain.

I really appreciate how Mark at Blue Skies Adventures organized all the details and took care of us so well. The whiskey was a nice touch. If we were staying longer I'd happily join him on other outings -- I haven't ever been to the outlying islands, and do regret never visiting Penghu (the Pescadores). I have learned over the years, though, that I have no idea what lies in store, so I will wait for another opportunity to come back and see more of this lovely country. For now, though, it's time to move on.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Leave and Learn

As our time in Taiwan draws to a close, I find myself getting sentimental about the small things, the daily or weekly interactions that I know I'll miss: buying magnolia blossoms from the lady on the street, chatting up my tea guy, exchanging pleasantries with folks at the morning market. I have also begun to distance myself from people I'm closer to, not unlike picking away at a bandage in hopes that the eventual ripping-off will be slightly less painful if the edges have already been pried back. I will miss the Taiwanese women I teach on Tuesday mornings, and the expat women I study with every Thursday. When I sit in church now I just want to close my eyes and listen, not sing. I hear about events in the not-too-distant future and realize they are nevertheless too distant for me. I am inching towards the door but still facing the middle of the room.

I'm also having to face my biggest disappointment about my time here: I have not learned Mandarin. I first came to Taiwan, way back in 2001, with a certain linguistic confidence. I had mastered German in school, was working as a sign language interpreter, had dabbled in French and Swedish and could even sing a hymn in Swahili. I liked languages. I could do languages. Since I was the only student in the "survival Chinese" class that year I expected that I'd pick things up fast, but even in that one-on-one environment I struggled -- I couldn't discern the tones, couldn't remember new vocabulary once I walked out the door, sometimes forgetting words as soon as I learned them. My teacher was patient, and commended me for my pronunciation, but my brain would not retain this precise, demanding, homophonic language. The irony was that the grammar of Mandarin, which is a hurdle for many foreigners, was so close to the grammar of ASL that it made perfect sense to me already. I didn't need reminders that time markers came first, or question words came at the end. But could I tell the difference between all those guos and guas, the shis, syes, and shrs? Could I buffalo.

I have learned enough from my intermittent lessons and bursts of solo studying to handle the day-to-day interactions. I can be polite, combining the right words with the right cultural cues for the most common situations. I can ask the time, tell a friendly stranger how old my children are, answer the question "Do you teach English?" with wo bu shr lau shr and an explanation of where my husband works and what he teaches. But I can't say much about my own life, talk about my interests, explain how I spend my days. I can ask, "What's that called?" but not remember the answer five minutes later. I dread asking someone his name, knowing that it will bounce off my ears and land, gently but irretrievably, at my feet.

I should've started with characters. I am a visual learner, not auditory, and love the meaning and images that are wrapped up in characters. This is a late-blooming realization, and not much use to me now that we're leaving, but I will keep it in mind. If Arizona is going to be home for a while I should start working on Spanish now, I suppose. And maybe if it comes too easy I can dabble in Apache.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

It's All Greek to Me

Okay, here are the answers to yesterday's puzzle in no particular order (heh heh). See if you can match them up:

A. Head and shoulders above the rest.
B. If it's Tuesday, this must be Belgium.
C. She's too good for you.
D. Sometimes bravery is just ignorance.
E. Out in the boondocks.
F. Strong start, weak finish.
G. It's Greek to me.
H. Patience is a virtue, OR don't be lazy (depends on context).

Ready... Steady... Go!

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Listening to Thunder

It's Tuesday, one of my busier days: I get the kids out the door with their lunches (instead of waltzing them over to school at the sound of the lunch bell like I usually do), and then I head downtown to teach my ladies' English club. Part of my routine is buying a ring of white fragrant magnolia blooms from the old woman who sells them at the same intersection every week. She sees me coming, and always has a huge smile and Taiwanese thank-yous. I hope to get a picture of her before we go.

Today's class was good. About ten women gathered around the ping-pong table to discuss the second half of our chapter on languages. I was especially looking forward to the section on Chinese proverbs which had been transliterated into English, and which the students were to explain to me. As I looked down the list of these odd (at least odd-as-transliterated) sayings, I tried to guess the meaning. Some were easier than others. I'll let you have a go:

1. A place where birds lay no eggs.
2. Tiger's head, snake's tail.
3. Riding a horse, looking at the flowers.
4. Standing by the tree stump waiting for a rabbit.
5. Ducks listening to thunder.
6. A crane standing among chickens.
7. The newly-born calf does not fear the tiger.
8. Thinking of eating swan's meat.

Let me know if you think you've got them figured out. I'll just be over here, in a place where birds lay no eggs, listening to that distant rumbling sound....

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Easter Update

The Ho Huan Shan hike has been postponed until early May, so my Easter morning will not be spent on a mountain top... this year, at least. In case the May dates fall through, too, I'm looking into another mountain-related challenge for my birthday. I'll keep you posted.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Teacher Potato

I like to find myself in odd situations. It means I'll be different afterwards.

Wednesday night found me in a small white classroom crowded with long narrow tables and metal chairs. I sat quietly in the back while Ray, one of the foreign teachers in this after-school program, taught an English lesson in his crisp, rhotic Guyanese accent. Only two students had shown up for the five o'clock class, and it was already quarter past. Ray led Jimmy and Benny in a children's song, "Frogs Around the Pond," which was rather juvenile for these boys of eleven or twelve, but they repeated the words and sang along when asked. As the lesson went on, another boy, Arthur, came in. Then came a couple of girls who were quiet and compliant, and whose names therefore were never said very loud.

After going through the vocabulary of the song -- "hiking, biking, wishing, fishing" -- Ray turned the class over to me. I walked to the front of the narrow room, set my bag of supplies on the floor and my notebook on the front table, and greeted the children. "It's been a long time," I said. "Do you remember my name?" "Teacher Potato!" the older boys yelled out, and I gave them a grin. Teacher Potato indeed.

This class might be taught by foreigners but it is clearly under the guidance of a thin, large-eyed Taiwanese woman named Christina. She attends a weekly English club I lead, slipping in silently about halfway through my lessons, careful not to interrupt the discussion. About this time last year she asked if I would teach a lesson on the story of Easter to her buxiban students. Native English speakers from around the globe come to Taiwan to teach in these cram schools, yet I had never set foot in one; so out of curiosity -- as well as a desire to encourage my quiet friend -- I agreed to come. Christina asked me to focus on the religious side of the holiday, whose more commercial aspects were appearing in the markets here. The students' English comprehension levels were all over the map, as were their ages, interests, and enthusiasm. I had no idea how I was going to reach across these gaps. I ended up doing a lesson on symbols (this was a new word to them), starting with symbols of spring -- flowers, bunnies, eggs and lambs, all signs of new life -- and juxtaposing them with the cross, not an obvious sign of new life until you hear the whole story. They followed the lesson well, and the older ones were comfortable enough to tease me about my drawings: my Easter egg had come out a bit misshapen, ergo my new nickname.

I have returned to the class several times over the past year to teach lessons on summertime, Thanksgiving, and two cooking classes at Christmas (rice pudding and scones). What the students now know is that I will come with props, I will teach them strange new words, and I will make them do something. When Christina asked me to again teach an Easter lesson, I agreed. After some thought and a very timely suggestion from a friend, I came up with a craft that combined elements of the Easter story. Strands of hot glue trailed across the tables as we attached leafy fronds, coins, twine, thorns, nails and gauze to their papers. It was messy and out of their comfort zone and glorious. As we talked about the women coming to the empty tomb on Easter morning, coming to finish the burial preparations that had been cut short by sundown on Good Friday, I gave them cotton balls spritzed with perfume to symbolize the heavily scented materials they would've carried. The boys coughed and waved away the heady lavender that wafted their way, but the impression was made, the story taking shape in a new way in their minds.

Someone asked me recently if I am in Taiwan as a missionary. Technically yes, as we are one of the staff families at a missionary school. But I don't wear that label easily. I'm not here to win converts. I don't consider myself a missionary in the sense that I have a job to do and numbers of souls to tally. I know many missionaries, actually, and that doesn't describe them, either. But I do value my faith and know that if I were somewhere mundane, somewhere more ostensibly Christian, I would say less about this rather vital subject than I do here. People here are interested. Not easily offended, not easily swayed, but interested. So when I am asked, I share. It grows me as much as it might grow those who hear me speak, and it is only the former that I am in position to measure. As we prepare to return to America I wonder what will grow me there, what odd situations will present themselves, and how I will respond. I find that my faith, like the Easter craft, gets messier the deeper I try to delve into it, the more I try to apply it. I don't know what God has in mind for Jimmy and Benny and the rest, but I know that He made them and loves them. I don't know what God has in mind for me, but the story is the same.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Peaks and valleys

All sorts of titles are coming to mind for this post, many of them film references. Hm. Anyway, I had said in my last post that I had something in the works, and now that all systems are go I'll fill you in. On New Year's Eve, at Cole's behest, I made a resolution -- which makes obsolete my circa-1999 vow to never make another New Year's resolution -- to climb a mountain this year. For years I've wanted to scale one of Taiwan's peaks, so now that our move is looming I've been looking for a way to make good on my recent promise to Cole and the long-standing one to myself.

Thanks to Blue Skies Adventures I'll be hiking Hohuanshan (insert one of many alternate spellings here:_____) the weekend of April 3rd and 4th. At first I thought the timing was terrible. It's Easter! How can I take a solo trip that weekend? But Cole insisted that I should go, Tim is willing to manage the holiday details, and I am now free to watch the sun rise on Easter morning from a height of 34oo meters plus change. It promises to be amazing.

Hohuanshan comprises eight peaks, and on this trip five will be up for grabs. Three are quite mild hikes, two others are a bit more challenging. I'll see how it goes once I'm there. At this point my goal is to do four, but I'm saying that with very little information on the conditions. My own condition is another factor. Must get out the boots and pack and start breaking them -- and me -- in.

If you're on island and want to come along, contact Mark at Blue Skies. And if you want to partake with me in Eucharist Under Special Circumstances on Easter morning, let me know; I'll bring more wine.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Home and Away

Time for an update, or rather, well past time for an update. It's been a crazy year, and not necessarily in a good way -- lots of changes ahead, but as Cat Power would have us believe, "What comes is better than what came before." (Although I hear she needs to lay off the sauce.)

Okay, musical ramblings aside, here's the scoop: We'll be moving to Phoenix this June. Both my parents and Tim's have retired to Arizona, so this is a good place for us to land. The hardest part of living overseas, for me, is not having the kids grow up close to their grandparents. So this is a good thing. [Hey, as I was just writing that "What Comes Is Better" started playing. Spooky.]

Other news... is scarce. At the moment things like renewing passports, packing up the house, getting tickets home, house hunting from 8,000 miles away, and looking for work seem to be more than filling up my time. Well, to be honest, thinking about those things is filling up my time. I'm making slow progress. We have three months yet; plenty of time for panicking later. Not sure how often I will get back to this, but I will try to post occasional updates and maybe some pictures of any farewell jaunts we take. Kenting is certainly on the list of weekend trips, and I am planning a little expedition to make good on a New Year's promise. News at 11:00.