Friday, September 29, 2006

Puppets at Ilan

I asked 4 people to tell me about these puppets and I never did get an answer that brought me beyond confusion. As you will see in the photos below the puppets/marionettes, there are actors who dress up in costumes resembling the puppets and stage plays to tell stories of the characters. I would tell the local people about what I saw at Ilan, describe the puppets and the performance and even show photographs. The locals simply nodded their heads and said, "Yes, that's right." I would ask for a "name" or "label" for what I had seen and a look of confusion would come over their faces. They did not understand what I was asking beyond what I already knew. "It's Japanese, right?" I would say. And their response would be, "No. It's just a tradition in Taiwan. Puppets. Like Taiwanese opera. A tale. I don't know the name of this one. Very popular in Taiwan." So I have no information for you. I will keep asking. The shop where these were displayed kept each of the puppets under glass....hence the glare of sunlight off the glass in the photos. While I watched and took photos of these, many Taiwanese came and looked at the puppets. A few also photographed them. What you see here is only an example of the puppets on display. There were many others but the space here is limited and I am not sure how interesting you will find them. I was totally taken in by the beauty and craftsmanship of the puppets and their costumes. I wanted to know more. I wanted to see a puppet show with these puppets, but that was not to be. I wanted to know their stories... what were the tales to be told? My surprise came later in the day when I discovered a live performance by actors dressed in costumes A crowd had gathered and music was playing. Because I arrived at the performance "late" I was unable to get a spot close enough to the performers to see them well or to photograph them without distractions. Hopefully, you will get the general idea of what the performance was like. As you might imagine, even watching the characters acting out the stories, I still walked away without a good idea of what tale was being told beyond the basics. The narration was not given in English. Most likely it was told in Taiwanese. As I have mentioned before, for the first time in my life I understand a little of what it must be like to be illiterate. Additionally, I can't even understand the common language of the country where I am living. I can't read directions on packages at the "grocery" stores here. I can't read instructions for simple things like programming an electronic telephone or using a long distance phone card. I only guess at the windows on the Chinese software computers here and sometimes I guess wrong. I can't tell a taxi driver where I want to go or ask for directions. It took me weeks to get a straight answer on exactly what my address is for mail as even the translations varied from Taiwanese to Mandarin. Even still, communication can be made in most things and it is always a delight to me when I have been able to successfully negotiate a challenge.... such as purchasing the perfect seat at a dance performance of the Taipei Ballet when the ticket seller spoke no English and I spoke only several sentences of Chinese. I have since befriended a Chinese language teacher and we will meet on occasion trying to teach each other our native languages. I WILL learn this language.
UPDATE: Gloria Fung (an English teacher in Penghu) has emailed me and given me information about the performers in the images you see here. She believes these are "cosplay" (costume play, a Japanese term for costume play) as people dress up in costume portraying the characters from anime. Thank you Gloria!

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


At the National Center for Traditional Arts, I stopped in many of the shops where artists and artisans were working on their art. One of the first shops to catch my attention was a shop where ink brushes are made. This shop had at least two artisans in front making brushes by hand. Inside, a calligrapher was demonstration her craft. When you consider that this type f brush has been used for at least 3,000 years along with the belief of Chinese artists to maintain the highest quality workmanship, you know much care and skill goes into their creations. One of the teachers at my school, Pei-Ling (who I will tell you much more about at a later time), told me that it is a recent practice of parents to use the first haircut of their children and have it made into a set of calligraphy brushes, or just a single brush, depending on the amount of hair the baby/toddler is blessed with. These brushes are called fetal or foetal brushes and are treasured by families. Ordinarily, the ink brushes are made from the hair of goats, rabbits or weasels, depending on the purpose of the brush. As you can see, there is quite a variety. These brushes were beautiful to look at and the calligraphy was outstanding. Brushes give the calligrapher much more flexibility than using a pen and ink, but additionally, it takes much more skill and practice to use a brush and ink. I have many regrets that I didn't buy myself a brush or two and some ink and paper... but, it was only several short weeks ago that I was in a mad rush to empty my 14 room house of decades of collecting possessions. Had it not been for four very dear people, I would never have been able to leave the United States in August. I will forever be grateful to those four very important people in my life. Heck, at the very least, I should have bought each of them a set of calligraphy brushes. ;-) Here in Taiwan, I have almost no possessions. I think I can grow to like having the freedom of not owning and worrying about what to do with my belongings should I want to go somewhere new when my stay in Taiwan ends.
Now, on to the sculptor shop a few doors down. What a delight it was to watch the clay work being done here. The man who graciously smiled for the camera worked steadily beside a little girl who was no more than 4 years old. Ordinarily I have no problem photographing children and even though the man here had already given me permission to photograph them, something inside would not allow me to photograph her directly. Perhaps it was because I considered her to be an artist even at that young age and it didn't feel as if her father's permission was quite enough. The sculptures in this show were truly incredible as the tradition was carried down so beautifully. In looking at these sculptures, many were able to transport me back to my perception of ancient days and ancient lives and I was lost in the stories that inspired the creation. Well, either that or my imagination was in high gear that day. ;-) A few of those images are here for you to see. I do not know the stories behind the sculptures as no one was near who could translate them to me.
Next I will show you some puppets from the traditional arts and then I will try to skip to my school and students and let you know my perception of education in Taiwan. After having taught in the United States for around 17 years, Taiwan is a very different look at education.

Monday, September 25, 2006

On to the Traditional Arts Cultural Center

And here I am in Taiwan, working on this blog after a day at work and a walk home, smiling into the mirror as a friend recently suggested. Today's post will show you some of the things I saw in Ilan. You will see that there is a Japanese influence in some of these images. Sadly, I didn't write down the information about the sights I saw, so I can't give the historical background on much, if any of what you will see in the images. As always, "tour" and aways had to run to catch up. The tour didn't last longer than 20 minutes and the rest of the time I mostly wandered the center on my own, looking at everything I could take in.
Ever since I was a teen, I have been fascinated with wood and tried carving a walking stick once when camping at Mohican State Park in Ohio. The wood carving you see here is part of the ceiling in a building at the center. I do remember hearing the guide say that the building reflected both Chinese and Taiwanese architecture and that was due to rebuilding. It's a good thing they didn't give us a test after the tour as I would have been one they would have frowned and shook their heads at in disappointment. Next we visited a temple on the property. Although I wasn't hugely impressed with this temple, it did have some interesting artifacts such as this drum and a beautiful old bell which somehow I managed to overlook in photography, even though I got a couple close up shots of sections of it.
There was also a museum there, which had many artifacts and even some "simulations" of what life might have been like there at that time. Although I took many photographs, there isn't room here to show you all of them. Since the exhibits were all interesting in the museum, the photographs simply document what I saw. Here are a few of the ancient (or at least "quite old") relics on display. I have learned that the Taiwanese considered calligraphy to be one of the highest forms of art at one time. What you see here is likely a log or journal of some sort and not meant to be an art form in itself, but the skill of the calligrapher was always something in which great pride was taken. It looks as if this blog about the Traditional Arts Center will need to be continued another day. As it turns out, I need a break and have an appointment to go out on the town tonight to have something made for my granddaughter Taryn's upcoming birthday. Stay tuned though as you will likely enjoy some of the fascinating things I saw that day in Ilan. There are some incredible puppets coming up and some sculptor's at work as well as craftsmen making calligraphy brushes by hand.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Catching up....

Okay, so I skipped a few months in this blog despite the fact I had promised to show photos of Taiwan to people back home. Now, I will try to quickly get caught up and post more images. It was quite some time before I had Internet in my apartment and it wasn't all that easy to keep up with the blog on the computers in the lab at the apartment building. It seems you can't get Internet in this city until you have a phone or at least cable television. Since I didn't watch television back in Ohio, I didn't think it was the best idea for me to get cable here in Taiwan, although I hear there are a few English speaking channels. After I got a telephone, I had to wait longer for the Internet. Then, discovered that it would require a 2 year contract. Since I am only going to be here until June or July of 2007, a 2 year contract didn't sound like a good idea either. So my Internet is in the name of one of the teacher's at school. It seems this is the way people conduct business around here.... not unusual at all.
One of the truly fascinating experiences I had during the first 2 weeks in Taiwan was when the foreign teachers were taken on a trip to Ilan County on the east coast area of the island. That trip was one delight after another. I began to wish my assignment had been to the east coast. My first impressions were of the beauty I saw as we made our way through the mountains. By the time we headed back to Sansia though, were were along the ocean coast and it was even more astounding than the mountains. Many of these photos were taken from a speeding bus, so keep that in mind as you view them. We had to stop several times as a few of the teachers got violently stricken with car sickness. One of those stops just happened to be beside a huge gold statue in the mountains. There were no towns near by.... just this gold statue standing there in the dense forest of the mountain. Before too long we stopped at a rest area where veteran Taiwanese foreign teachers (ones who had been here for a few years) went and purchased some Chinese herbal remedy for travel sickness as by this time many of the teachers had fallen ill. I was too stimulated by the scenery to think about the single lane curves inches away from steep cliffs. This was all too exciting to me. At that moment, the possibility of our bus rolling over the side of the mountain seemed remote. I didn't travel half way around the world to have my adventure end during the first two weeks. I would have just floated away with a grin on my face and my camera in my hands. It wasn't long before we arrived in Ilan where our destination was the Traditional Arts Cultural Center. As we drove through Ilan, there was no question that we were in an environment very different from Sansia. Here was where I first noticed that many of the buildings are faced with tile. Much more frequently it could be seen that the houses were further apart and some isolated. A lot of the roadside area was used to make shallow pools where some type of fishery might have been conducted. There were flat rafts which constantly kept the water moving in the pools. It was definitely a curiosity for a foreigner. We spent a few hours there but I imagine it would take a few days to see even half of the sights or get a true feel for the lives of the people who worked there and how they came to learn these ancient crafts.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Flora and Fauna

A few weeks ago I walked to the Chiayi Cultural Arts Center to purchase a ticket to an upcoming performance of the Taipei Ballet. On the way, I came across a long row of "tents" selling plants. Some of these were things I had never seen before. Having my camera along, I took some photos. One thing I learned was never to pull out my camera in any place where I intended to make a purchase. It's just a Sony 717 but it looks far more impressive (and expensive) than it is. With camera in hand, I asked the price of a little plant and was given the total f 1,400NT, which is about 50 US dollars. The plant is worth about 200NT dollars, and that's what I ended up paying for it at a greenhouse across the street from my apartment complex. Lesson learned. Lucky for me I learned it before being ripped off. And don't get me wrong.... many of the locals here are honest and would not change the price by the preceived ability of the customer to pay. Oddly enough though, some of the foreigners don't mind paying more. For instance, my apartment complex is a rather large high rise which was high dollar housing at one time. It isn't high dollar these days, but some of the foreigners here have their housing subsidized by companies back home and pay extra just because the money is available. In exchange, they expect (and receive) the royal treatment.
My apartment complex is the large high rise you see off in the distance. My building is the tallest one toward the right. The place is definitely "cool," having a swimming pool, exercise room, library (all Chinese), pool and ping pong tables, computer lab, television room, barbeque area, conference areas, 24 hour trash collection and many more amenities. There are guards at each gate and the elevators require a keychain to operate. My apartment costs roughly $400 US dollars a month, and about 45% of that is subsidized by the Ministry of Education in Taiwan. As you can see, housing in Taiwan is much less expensive than in the US. My apartment has 3 small bedrooms, a bath and a half, a living room and a kitchen. There are 3 balconies, one off my bedroom, on off the living room and a dark, secluded one off the kitchen where there is a washing machine. The place is furnished, although the furniture (except for the beds) I could easily do without.... would not have been my choice. Even the apartment is not one I would have chosen on my own. I would have likely gone for one with different "character"or one where I could have some sort of garden with cool plants and flowers like the ones I saw on the way to the cultural arts center.... maybe some ferns...
These photos were taken in late afternoon after a storm. Ordinarily it is much brighter in the apartment.
And the last photograph is from the balcony, looking down. Yes, it is out of focus. It was taken my first day here and I had my eyes closed. Did I ever tell you I have a fear of heights? I'm getting over that, just as I am my fear of elevators. Although I must admit, sometimes at about the 8th floor of the elevator ride, I wonder where I will be when I experience my first real earthquake (Taiwan has many). It is a relief to see the LED flash 14 and hear the doors start to open.

Friday, September 22, 2006

So much to do, so little time...

Already I have probably taken 250 photographs trying to document this adventure. The ones above are from my bedroom balcony. It seems the photographs can't really capture the experience. They capture "an" experience but somehow something is missing. The sounds, for instance. I don't even know where to begin to describe those sounds that are so closely interwoven with the images I experience. Here I am living in a "small" city of 220,000 plus, and I awake as the sun shines through the door to the balcony in my bedroom. A rooster is crowing each morning as I wake. There is a noise I can't identify that surrounds the city from time to time. My closest guess is that it is some sort of huge generator unlike anything I have ever heard before.

Sometimes on weekends there will be fireworks and music off in the distance....celebrations of one sort or another. Once, to the east a storm raged in with lightening and thunder that would make the average storms in Ohio hide in shame. To the west, the fireworks and celebrations continued... a fascinating panorama.
Construction is rampant in this city and the sounds of that construction are heard 7 days a week from early morning until an hour or so before dark (which comes early here, compared to September in Ohio).

The traffic far below is different from what you might expect. There are whistles being blown... the guards to the apartment complex direct morning traffic to allow tenants to drive into the streets from the parking garages below the complex. Occasionally a horn will beep. Yes, that's right, "beep." Unlike in the states, cars are generally smaller here and "beep" instead of "honk" --- sort of a low key "get the hell out of my way or I'll run you down.
And speaking of traffic..... probably everything you have heard about the highways in China and Taiwan are true. The traffic laws here are simply a formality... nothing to take seriously. Drive on whichever side of the road suits your fancy, or take from the middle. The bigger your vehicle, the more liberties you can take. And that includes making a right hand turn when you are in the far left hand lane, screeching through red lights, and even parking in the street if no parking space is available. Hey, I have driven in New York City, Atlanta, Houston and Columbus. But this is a whole new concept for me in driving skills.
That said, I am buying a scooter as soon as next pay day rolls around. I haven't a clue how I will be able to locate it in the parking lots among the other 80,000 scooters. I'm after that 2 wheeled, 50cc independence, even if it means painting the bike day-glo yellow and attaching South Park bumper sticker to the matching helmet.

From There to Here and In Between

And so... I made my way to Taiwan for a year of adventure. Departing the United States on August 12, 2006, I arrived in Taipei in the early morning hours of August 14, Taiwan time. My first impression upon disembarking the plane was that I had entered a sauna... an exciting and stimulating sauna, but a sauna none the less. At a little after 5 in the morning, I was expecting something a little cooler.
It is now September 23rd and I have learned much about "expectations" and quite a bit about myself. Although only a short 6 weeks have passed since I left my country, it seems light years away from my old Victorian house on the hill in Mansfield, Ohio and my job as a teacher at Treca Digital Academy.
The first 10 days were spent at the National Academy of Educational Research in Sansia, Taiwan. There were 4 teachers sent there by the Ohio Department of Education, myself included. Altogether there were about 50 foreign teachers who arrived during the 10 days of orientation. These teachers came from the United States, Canada, the UK and Australia. We formed fast friendships and have remained in contact since being sent on our separate assignments to various locations in Taiwan, including the islands of Penghu, Mazu, and Jinmen. My assignment is to Chiayi City in the western central area.
While in orientation, the Ministry of Education made sure the new foreign teachers experienced a bit of the culture of Taiwan. One of those cultural forays was a temple within walking distance of the research center where we were staying. It is the Sansia Zushih Temple, an elaborate example of high standards of Taiwanese temple art. Although temples compete with 7-11 convenience stores in abundance in Taiwan, this particular temple is one I am fortunate to have seen. Although it isn't my first temple to experience, as I entered one in Shanghai earlier this year when I visited my daughter in mainland China, it is quite different from what I saw there. Both will help me gain a better understanding of Asian culture as well as an understanding of what I left behind in the United States.
On a particularly hot and humid evening earlier in the month, I met another foreigner in the computer lab of my apartment building. Even I, was surprised at my delight in hearing a native English speaker as I cornered her to chat if only for a few moments. It reminded me of the excited rush I had the time I discovered a convenience store nearby stocked familiar little bags of M&M's. I didn't have to speak slowly or evaluate vocabulary before talking. I didn't have to watch closely for signs of comprehension or listen carefully to make sure I could translate spoken Chin-glish in a way that made sense. The woman is a Christian missionary from Canada, a very decent and friendly sort of person. She's lived here in Taiwan for 9 years. Nine years! With the temperatures soaring that evening and the humidity especially high, "9 years" seemed like a very long time for an adventure in what felt very much like a sauna where people dressed warmly. So I asked her why she had stayed here so long. She explained that there are still a lot of people here in Taiwan who are not yet Christians and it was her mission to try to change that. I didn't know what to say in response. My mind was stuck in a time warp and I thought I heard her say, "There are still Asians here and it is my mission to change that." My image of god must have been a blue eyed, white skin, thin man with a beard and medium brown curly hair. But, at that moment it was very difficult to visualize ripping down the temples in Taiwan and erecting Baptist churches along with the collection plates and shifty eyed preachers with diamond rings on their fingers. Don't get me wrong... I've believed in God all my life and have a strong sense of spirituality...was baptized in my teens and have read the Bible about 3 times. Still, this life has given me enough opportunity to recognize good in people and to evaluate what values make a person an asset to the world. So there I stood, in the presence of an English speaker for a change, and I had nothing to say that could be put into words.