Thursday, August 9, 2007

Typhoon Day in Taipei

Orientation for the past week has been running a little something like this:
8:50: Board the bus by the 7-11 on the corner (you can navigate by 7-11's here, which they call "7's" as in" 你要去7嗎?/You want go 7 ma? - for example, "Turn right at my 7, walk straight down Taishan Lu and turn right into the apartments by the next 7"). The bus is a special education bus, which I hope someone in Taiwan derives amusement from; our group may be more aptly named Foolbrights or Halfbrights (a couple of puns provided by a Vietnamese Fulbrighter back at OU a few months ago).
9:00-12:00: Deal with assorted orientation details. One day was a long discussion about the educational system in Taiwan, certifications for teachers, politics in relation to public schools, etc. We have also been running errands applying for Alien Resident Cards (IDs), Bank Accounts, and SIM Cards for phones.
12:00-1:30: Lunch and emails.
1:30-4:00: More orientation, such as Chinese practice or more errands.
Evenings have been free, but full of tying up loose ends from the orientation bits and returning to destinations pointed out during the day to further explore. Of course, we eat well too.

It's not really as cut and dry as it seems, and this is only for the first week. The next two weeks will involve practice teaching, pedagogical information, and getting to know our co-teachers, with whom we will be paired one-to-one and working exceptionally close with in the following year.

"Be Flexible":
How so not cut and dry? Of course, with any type of program abroad, it is impossible to cover all angles, so there's always some unexpected fun. The immigration office reversed a couple of numbers from my passport, so my ARC is currently invalid and the bank account, not yet acquired. No problem as I have enough cash to float for now and all will come in due time.

The special ed bus also blew out a tire on one bus ride home. Indicative of the great network of relationships that commerce runs on in Taiwan (known as guanxi/relationships), all the driver had to do was wheel it across the road unannounced to the nearest Dunlop place, wait half an hour for the repair, and start her up again. The service industry is infused with cultural attitudes about establishing and maintaining relationships, such that I've heard taking the time to know your scooter salesman creates the opportunity for free repairs on small items in the future.
****Bus at the Dunlop Place pre-op****

The group saw this while purchasing cellphones the other day. The Nokia dealer knew he was about to sell 12 phones. Appreciating past and current business with the Fulbright foundation, and hoping for future sales, he was glad to offer discounted prices on phones, present our Foundation advisor with a gift (some phone accessory from off the wall), and offer us discounted minutes all year. Business like that is logical; you keep your customers coming back. However, the formalities such as initially asking a slightly higher price than both buyer and seller know the item would ultimately go for, the buyer offering profuse thanks for the eventual reduction to the final, fair price, and the exchange of personal name cards/mingpian/名片, all work to further personalize a typical purchase. Straight capitalistic exchange does not require much dialogue nor give berth to much creative interaction between the buyer and seller; a burger's a burger and you're looking for 99cents. However, this exchange is one that builds a relationship/guanxi that works out to everyone's advantage.

****Another example: we all purchased bikes from these lovely men who annually give Fulbrighters a great deal, work efficiently to help out with repairs whenever its needed, and buy them back at the end of the year. I'd say not a friendlier couple of guys on the island, but most I've met have been so.****

So orientation has been a broad process of settling into Taiwanese culture and visiting relevant locations in the new city well beyond the classroom/handout orientation aspect. Our academic advisor, Dr. Timothy Collins, frequently says that to "be flexible" is the best thing you can do to get along in Taiwan. With that lesson in mind I turn to the topic mentioned in the title.

Typhoon Weather
Taiwan was hit by a couple of typhoons recently(Pabuk: Tuesday/Wednesday and Wutip: Thursday) which were more rain than wind intensive (we broke out the window-tape for reinforcement anyway). Truth is, they missed their predicted mark (Yilan, where we are staying) and ended up further South. Pabuk was mostly rain and Wutip, well I didn't see any of it. We were given the day off from orientation today in preparation for it, and it ended up being splendid weather. Fog days in high school don't compare to getting a beautiful day off because of a predicted typhoon while living in Taiwan.

Taking advantage of the Day Off:
So two days ago we ran internet through the apartment; my two roommates and I spent an unnecessarily lengthy amount of time scratching a computer-itch that had been unspokenly neglected, I'm sure, since all of us began traveling. A few hours of writing, emailing, surfing, and so forthing later, I headed off to bed, leaving my computer up and on (Mitcho, the mac/computer whizz in the house set it up as broadcasting wireless hub for the others to feed from until we purchased a router; fascinating thing number 7,231 I didn't know you could do with this computer).

When I woke up in the morning, the computer was frozen; restarting it presented only a gray screen with a flashing file-folder and question mark on it - a sign that the computer could not find a hard-drive or had some sort of corrupt system file. Mitcho tried a variety of alternative start-up methods, such as booting from an install DVD and running the PRAM startup, all with no success. While I was convinced that the neighbors (heavily tattooed young men, who clearly must be gang members suspicious of us moving in and setting up wireless internet) hacked into my computer and stole my system, Mitcho didn't agree and suggested we go to an Apple store in Taipei. His computer was dealing with screen problems as well, and so we considered this our best chance to wrangle a working computer between us.

The trip to Taipei to fix the computers turned out to be quite an informative and efficient adventure. Mitcho and I had the experience of navigating the train station, riding the hour-forty to Taipei, hopping off and quickly onto the MRT Rail system, finding Xinsheng Zhong Rd and the impressive computer district, and entering the trendy Youth Apple Store.

****Myself with the hanging "mice" in the computer district - reminiscent of hanging duck in restaurant windows. Photo courtesy of mitcho****

Harddrive? What's that? Why would I want one of those?
A young Taiwanese named Bryan tried to turn on the computer twice, and announced quietly "your harddrive's dead. we can give you a new one." Really simple; no fuss; just dead. I asked about recovering data, which he said would run 1,800NT and didn't guarantee they were able to recover anything. After diagnosing Mitcho's trouble, I told him I would like to try to make the recovery. He offered to try for free, and only charge me should recovery of any data be successful, which was great because I was torn about the attempted recovery. Most of everything is backed up in the States. All I really lost were photographs from San Francisco (sorry Shelbs :-/ ) and the first few days in Taiwan, and contact info from my address book (of all things to neglect backing up). Also, all the settings that I used over the past 6 months to personalize my interface are gone, going, gone, everything gone, give a damn.

In some ways, this was quite the bummer, but at the same time, it's quite liberating. My new harddrive is stacked with plenty of applications (almost all that I had personally downloaded myself, plus many I've never heard of). Initially, everything was set in traditional Chinese. I have since reverted most to English, though login pages and some applications are in Chinese only. This is actually a good incentive for me to keep studying. Being here for even this brief amount of time has really enhanced my passion for Chinese; I am determined to learn traditional characters, read an entire menu, and listen and speak with fluency. It may take a while, but I'll get there.

****A little tip for anyone else studying Chinese: start studying traditional! They are tougher characters, but it is much easier going from traditional to simplified than the other way around. Also, check out the Taiwanese phonetic system, bopomofo or ㄣㄆㄇㄈ; it will really help with your pronunciation!****

While I left the camera at home, I also left my Taipei MRT card for riding the rails. This meant that I purchased single use chips each time. Jerry (new friend and Fulbright advisor in Taipei) tells me later that these chips are really new, perhaps just a few weeks. It's an interesting system. You pay 20/25/30NT for a blue plastic chip. Apparently it is electronically tagged for just that amount, and it scans as you enter the paid area (past the yellow line where you surely must not chew gum). You just deposit it on your way out and they are reused. Voila. Quite a nifty system.
****Manual for the ultra-new bluechip system; fun-fun****

So, computers taken care of (I walked away with my new harddrive as well as a trendy cover for the keypad that takes care of palmrest smudges - darn white macs - spills and damage, as well as has the bopomofo system written on the keys! ) Mitcho and I enjoyed an excellent dinner at a Korean BBQ restaurant: Seafood Pancake, Kimchi, Steamed Cabbage and Onions, and a plate of lamb and beef. The meat comes out raw and you place it on the grill in front of you, with veggies steaming on the side. Truly one of my favorite ways of eating and a throwback to the Shandong, China trip 3 years ago (a regular staple).

Dinner Gossip
We enjoyed an interesting conversation with Jerry and Ellen from the Fulbright office, learning much about Taiwanese politics (storefront signs can be politicized: stripped down and simple, blue for Kuomintang - Nationalists fled China 1949 post-CCP uprising - and reunification, green for independence - of course, it's never that simple, but you get the gist), Taiwanese friendship (often avoid discussing heavy issues, especially where one could be polarized from your friend, ie, politics, where you can be deep blue, light blue, light green, or deep green), Dr. Wu in the Fulbright office (famous psycholigist - every Taiwanese kid had to read one of his books in middle school - and artist/performer - invented a major dance genre famous in Taiwan), and about where to find the most scantily clad betel nut girls (apparently Yunlin, according to Ellen - why she offered the information, Mitcho and I still are not sure).

****More than likely unintentional, but a lot of green in one place caused me to pull out the camera; I'm seeing color politics in everything now****

So that's the gist of a typhoon day: spectacular weather, good friends, easy travel, excellent food, and so on...I told Mitcho I couldn't imagine being happier to crash a harddrive.

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