Saturday, 31 December 2011

New Year's Fireworks at Taipei 101

I can quite believe that once Taipei 101 was constructed no one in Taipei ever got lost again. It is Taipei's most famous landmark. For several years it held the title of the world's tallest building and it dominates the skyline in Taipei in a way you can't imagine unless you've been here to see it.

In the daytime it looks like this:

At nighttime, it looks like this:

And a few seconds after midnight on New Year's Eve it looks like this:

Here's a Youtube video posted by someone who was (slightly alarmingly) closer than us:

The video goes wobbly at the end as the person recording swings round to try to catch the other fireworks that started once 101's had finished, so apologies for any seasickness.

You can see that in the moments leading up to the display there was a small light that flew up to and around the top of the building. What was it? A lighted wick? A UFO? Superman? I don't know. You can also hear (readers in other countries) the crowd count down in Mandarin.

I have to admit I'm not a big New Year's Eve person. Usually I get woken up at midnight by fireworks then go back to sleep again. Also, I've been completely spoiled by the fireworks at the 10/10 celebration at Dadaocheng Wharf, and, spectacular though 101's were, I thought the 10/10 ones were better. So, the 101 fireworks were great, but the best thing about the evening for me was being out in the crowd in the moments leading up to the countdown and sharing in the excitement of the evening.

In the minutes before midnight we were all hunkered down on the cold ground in quiet anticipation. (When I say it was cold, I mean cold by Taiwan reckoning, which was about 14 degrees Centigrade.) Then there was an excited 'ooooh' as 101 went dark. As the countdown began, everyone joined in, shouting the numbers. Each bang and light explosion of the ensuing display was met with screams and shouts of appreciation from the crowd. Great fun.

Once the fireworks were over, impromptu sparkler parties started up in the streets.

Street vendors tried to sell the last of their snacks to the dispersing crowd, and sharp-suited men with made-up beauties queued to get into the fashionable nightclub parties. We started our long walk home. No hope of getting a train, bus or taxi for a mile or more from the epicentre. Being amongst crowds of excited teenagers we got more than the usual amount of 'hello!'s with some 'Happy New Year!'s thrown in, and several requests for photos of the Caucasian child. (I should start charging, I really should.) But it was all in good, friendly spirit.

Will we be back? I'd like to go but I may be alone. Eight year olds don't like being up at one o'clock in the morning, walking a long way home in the dark, it turns out. But probably he will have forgotten by next year.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Christmas Dinner from a Tiny Oven

We managed to have a lovely Christmas Day, despite a few minor but predictable difficulties. Our greatest challenge was to cook Christmas dinner despite having a tiny oven and limited access to Christmas goodies.

Taiwanese kitchens don't come with ovens. Not only do most people eat out a lot of the time, Taiwanese and Chinese cooking is based around cooking things quickly on open burners, so most apartments are only equipped with a two-burner hob. This is more than adequate for 90% of our cooking we've found, but Andy missed his roast dinners and bread-making so went out and bought a small worktop oven.

Cooking our Christmas poussin
As you can see, it fits four baby chickens very well.

It's very basic, with two electric bars top and bottom and a small fan on the side. It's badly insulated but now that the weather has cooled down it heats the flat nicely! Amazingly, we've managed to cook anything we've wanted to with very few problems. The main disadvantage is the size and the inevitable effects of cooking things very close to a heat source.

The challenge of cooking Christmas dinner in this oven was met with success I think you'll agree.

Unfortunately we didn't find a Christmas pudding in time for Christmas. I've no doubt they can be found here, it's just that I didn't look very hard. Instead, we had apple crumble, which, after four months of no apple crumble, was a pleasant novelty.

As far as Christmas decorations go, we didn't fare so well. In fact, I relied entirely on things Conrad brought home from school. This isn't because Christmas decorations are difficult to come by here, or because they're very expensive; it's because I'm too lazy to bother. So, the sum total of our decorations were/are: the stocking Conrad decorated in the school library, the Christmas tree he made in class and the Christmas tree kit he was given by one of his additional tutors at school.

Here's the tree he made:

And here's the result of the kit he put together:

This started out as plain cardboard which he slotted together to make the tree. Then he poured a clear solution over it all. After a few hours crystals started to form at the ends of the branches, and after a couple of days this is how it looked. Amazing! I've no idea how it works.

We had a truly lovely Christmas, despite being so far from home. My son Kim arrived from his exchange year stay at Hong Kong University so nearly all the immediate family were here (missed you, Rohan!). Also, so many people made the effort to send cards, messages, presents and letters we were very touched and felt close to all our family and friends in other lands. Many warm thanks to all of you.

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Christmas in Taipei

Taiwan is a Buddhist and Taoist country and so does not celebrate Christmas. Well, no.

As well as there being lots of Christians and lots of churches here, I think the Taiwanese also like any excuse for some decoration, celebration and a bit of fun. Unfortunately, this doesn't stretch to any time off school at Christmas..... but fortunately Christmas is on a Sunday this year!

It all started about four weeks ago when I went into the school library to find a dozen mothers sitting around sewing Christmas stockings. Of course, I wanted to lend a hand so after being reminded how to do blanket stitch, which I had last done about 40 years ago at primary school, I sewed a few stockings myself. They were for the children to decorate in break time (a sneaky ploy devised to encourage even the least literary children to come into the library) and take home just before Christmas.

Many children duly stormed excitedly into the library in the intervening weeks to complete their task and currently the stockings festoon the walls. The children take them home on Friday, and miraculously a few sweets will appear in them in the intervening time.

Then one night we came home after Taikwondo class in the dark, to find the grounds of our apartment block lit up with Christmas lights.

This is the swing seat at the back entrance to the block where Conrad and I sometimes sit and swing at the end of a long day. We don't usually sit for too long because the area is also a mosquito breeding ground. One night I was at the security guard's office talking to him and the cleaner at the same time as constantly batting away the mosquitoes swarming around my head.

"Oh, they aren't big ones," the cleaner remarked, dismissively.

Finally, last night we went to the district around Taipei 101 to pick up some Christmas cards and wrapping paper, and to see the Christmas tree at the Hyatt hotel. The city streets were prettily decorated.

Here's the Christmas tree at the Hyatt:

As we approached, one of the many doormen opened a door for us and bowed politely as we entered. I took a few photos, then as we left the doorman ceremoniously let us out again.

"He knew we were oiks," Andy said, "and was glad to see us go, you know."

"I know," I said.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

The School Fete (and Wedding Day)

Have you ever been to an event where you didn't know quite what was going on, why you were there or what you were supposed to be doing? This happened to me yesterday.

Last week I received two or three notes from school about some kind of event on Saturday, but all I could really understand was the date and the fact that it was something to do with love, judging from the hearts illustrating the messages. So I asked around as to what was going on, and despite two or three different people explaining the event to me, I was still confused.

So, Conrad and I turned up (late and I have to admit quite grumpy about having to go in on a Saturday) to find his classmates and the rest of the school dressed up. Some of the girls looked suspiciously like brides, and some of the boys looked suspiciously like grooms. However, some classes had had other ideas. This class clearly had a hat theme going.

I should say that it had been explained to me that two alumni of the school had married each other, and that they were coming back to the school to celebrate their vows or anniversary, or say hi, or something like that, so that was the reason for the wedding theme. Anyway, of course, not having a clue what was going on, I hadn't got Conrad dressed up or anything. In fact, he was dressed for what promised to be a wet and muddy football practice later that day, so he was wearing tracksuit bottoms that were too short and an old hoody. Not your typical groom.

The children had to line up in pairs, go under the bridal arch to a posing spot in front of the audience, walk up the cat walk, pose at the end, walk back down and pose again, then off the stage. They were all introduced over the background music by two teachers, and the audience applauded them. It was difficult with the lighting conditions but I managed to a few reasonable photos:

Two of Conrad's classmates
I think the girl is in traditional dress - this was another option  for dressing up 
Conrad and his groom
The children seemed to have a great time and they looked gorgeous. Lots of girls especially had really gone to town and many couples had put a lot of thought into the poses they were going to strike on the catwalk. Some children were too cool for words:

The entrance hall to the school had been decorated in keeping with the theme of the event. Hearts abounded. I took photos but of what I wasn't 100% clear at the time.

It was only later I realised that this is actually a Chinese bride and groom.

I had to sign this on the way in. I'm not sure why. Maybe it was a record of people who attended that day for the married couple or the school?

And this was something I realised Conrad should have done for homework last week.

Once the wedding-themed celebrations were over, the children had to go from class to class with a sheet to be stamped as they completed the different activities, with the promise of a prize! Soon children started appearing carrying these:

Yes, this was the prize. No, it isn't a jar of pondweed, as I originally thought. Well, it is, but there's something else in there. The prize was some live freshwater shrimp. As of this morning (the day after) most of Conrad's are still alive.

The rest of the day was a typical school fete. Very like a UK one in fact, including the rain. A parent at the school told me that it always rains on fete day at this school. One year a typhoon was predicted, so they cancelled and rearranged for another day. The day of the supposed typhoon was fine and clear, but on the new date it rained.

I did the obligatory browsing and purchasing of items. Here's my haul. Not bad I think you'll agree.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

A Taiwanese Classroom

Okay, it might not be the most interesting subject in the world, but as that's where I've spent most of my time for the last week, I thought I'd write about what goes on in a Taiwanese classroom.

But before I begin, to all those skeptics and naysayers out there who doubt that Taiwan has the best ice lollies in the world, I say this:

Yes, you are reading that correctly - brandied black cherry ice cream in an ice lolly.

I rest my case.

Anyway, Taiwanese classrooms. Here's one:

This is Conrad's classroom, after all the children have gone out to play.

From what I understand Conrad's school isn't particularly representative of what goes on in the average school in Taipei, so please bear that in mind as you read this post. The classes are much smaller, for example. At this school the class size is about 20, but other parents tell me that in the larger Elementary schools there are usually 30 - 40 children per class. This would suggest to me that children are usually seated in rows rather than groups as they are here, and as they are in the higher grades at Conrad's school, in order to simply fit everyone in the classroom.

You can see the long blackboard at the front of the classroom. Each morning the teacher writes the homework for the day on the right hand side and the children have to copy it down into their 'contact' books. These books are taken home every night by the children and the parents can see what homework the child must complete. Whether they've brought the correct books home to do their homework in is another question! Personally, I struggle to understand what the homework is and which book is needed for what. For Chinese, for example, there are four separate books. Conrad's teacher very kindly helps me with this but there are still some things I don't understand, such as the homework that entails the parent looking at the work the child has done during the day and stamping it with some kind of stamp. I must have had a very confused face as she tried to explain that one to me.

Across the top of the board you can just make out a line of small cards. These have each child's name written on them, and beneath them the teacher places magnetic coloured disks as merit marks. I haven't figured out yet what earns a merit mark or if they're ever taken away again.

The writing on the board is a poem. Poetry and stories seem to figure strongly in Chinese education. The week's set of characters is introduced through a story, and there is usually one poem a week too, in my experience, that the children chant aloud together. I've been told that at later stages of education the children have to learn sets of characters that have specific, non-literal meanings, and that each of these has a story behind them too.

It's really become apparent to me through the time I've spent at Conrad's school just how many thousands of hours children spend simply learning to read and write in Chinese. I'm not talking about learning grammar (which they don't) nor writing in specific formats, such as letters and stories, but simply learning to recognise and write enough Mandarin for a good level of literacy. (It's generally thought that this is roughly 3,000 characters, but this fact is misleading. The characters mean different things according to their juxtaposition with other characters. Most words are two characters in my limited understanding, so learning literacy is not simply a matter of memorising 3,000 characters and their meanings.) It's far harder than learning to read and write a language with a phonetic script (although Chinese characters do have a phonetic component), and the approach here is that you just knuckle down and do it, mostly through rote memorisation.

Back to the photo of the classroom. The steel desk at the front isn't the teacher's desk. That's behind the children and out of view in the shot. The steel desk is where the industrial-size catering containers are put at lunchtime. The children take turns to collect the lunch and serve each other. They take steel tiffin tins to school,  which they queue up with to have filled, then return to their desks to eat their lunch. Just before eating, they with their hands crossed over their hearts and they recite a verse thanking their teacher and their parents, and probably more people but that's all I can understand.

On the left of the photo you might be able to make out some cloths hanging up. These are used for general washing down of desks or anything else that's got dirty, at sweep up time. This is the last 20 minutes of the day, where the children clean, sweep and mop their classrooms and the school. (Isn't that a great idea?!) There are floor mops hanging up outside the classrooms next to the long sinks in the corridors which are used for cleaning up after painting etc. Generally, it's the boys who do the mopping and they manage to have a great time.

You can see bags and coats everywhere, which is due to the fact that there are no cloakrooms. The children put their coats on the backs of their chairs and hang their backpacks by their hooks from the thick blue pegs at the edges of the desks. If you look closely you can just about make them out. The children tend to bring in all kinds of other things too, such as breakfast, which also get hung on the backs of their chairs. Consequently, there is always one or two overloaded chairs constantly toppling backwards when the child stands up, throughout the school day.

As well as the space under the desks and under their chairs, the children also have large drawers at the back of the classroom in which their keep extra books, paints, colouring pencils and cushions etc. The cushions are for the children to rest their heads on when they have a nap on their desk after lunch. Conrad finds it impossible to sleep and manages, through various means, to avoid this requirement. Looking in at the classes at this time, I have to say I don't think anyone else sleeps either! Lots of wide-awake eyes looking around, waiting until they can lift their heads again.

The classrooms are quite well-equipped with audio-visual equipment. The teachers can play cds, show dvds, and project computer presentations onto a retractable projector screen in front of the blackboard. It seems quite a lot of the curriculum is supported with interactive PC software, which the teachers use extensively. It makes the material they have to get through a lot more interesting and accessible, and is quite impressive.

One thing I'd like to include but can't at the moment is the use of music in the school to influence the children's moods and mark the passage of the school day. I'm hoping to make some recordings over the next few days which I'll include in a later post.

If you've made it this far, well done, and I hope you found the Taiwanese classroom as interesting as I do.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Cycling in Taipei

Cycling in Taipei isn't as popular as riding a scooter, but nevertheless many people do it, often confining themselves wisely to the pavements (where they exist). I'm not a very good cyclist and so in the interests of public safety (and my own) I don't plan on cycling in the general roadways, although I do harbour a secret ambition to steer the bike with one hand and hold an umbrella over my head with the other as the locals can.

Fortunately there are extensive pleasure cycling tracks around all the riverways throughout Taipei, as can be seen on this map. Conrad and I have now been out twice to explore our nearest cycle path, each time just cycling a few miles then back again. The river closest to our house is surrounded by high flood barriers, so in order to get to the river you have to find an entrance point, which is basically where they have opened a small section of a massive metal gate.

Once through, you find yourself in a lovely riverside park area. Here are some views taken from the top of the barrier:

The area has lots of community spaces which we've found are used extensively at the weekends (these photos were taken on a weekday when I first discovered these parks). On our last trip there was even a ballroom dancing class going on underneath a bridge over the river. The cycle paths are also busy with cyclists, joggers and walkers.

As you can see, the river is quite large, so I hate to think what it would be like if the flood barriers were ever needed!

Here's a view from the river looking back to the barrier. Above it is the freeway/overpass that eases some of the congestion on local roads.

So I anticipate many enjoyable excursions over the coming weeks. I have a very sedate lady's bike with a basket, in which I'll pack some refreshments for our expeditions. Who knows, maybe one day I'll even take a ballroom dancing class along the way.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

How We're Getting On

In my last few blogs I've been telling you about various aspects of life in Taiwan and the things we've been doing, so I thought this time I'd give an update on our lives here in general.

Our main focus over the last few weeks has been Conrad's school life. As I've already mentioned, we decided to enrol him in a local school so that he could learn to speak Mandarin and also experience the local culture, as it's very easy in our circumstances to live lives isolated from the people around us. One of our main reasons for coming to live here is to learn about another culture so enrolling Conrad at an international school would have defeated our purpose.

Of course, this has been a challenging experience for Conrad and somewhat of a guilt trip for me. After all, he was perfectly content back in England. He had good friends, a school life and extra-curricular activities that he was happily participating in. We've uprooted him from all that for an experience he didn't request and had no real interest in, with the idea that in the long run he would benefit and perhaps even appreciate the time he has here.

Conrad's school experience here has been a mixed bag so far. He's now been attending his school for about 12 weeks. Three weeks ago I went into a meeting to discuss his progress so far and the news wasn't good. He'd got into the habit of leaving lessons he wasn't interested in and disappearing off to the library. He was also reading Harry Potter during the lessons that he was present for. Clearly, he was not going to pick up a lot of Mandarin this way, so we came to a decision that I would stay at the school all the time that he was there to make sure he attended his classes and didn't shut himself off from what was going on around him.

This is what I've been doing and it has worked in the sense that now Conrad participates a lot more in the general class activity and has even, as far as I can tell, found some of the classes he was bunking quite enjoyable. However, just last week I requested that Conrad change classes to a lower grade and they have agreed. The benefits to Conrad are that the Chinese is easier and the children's age ranges are closer to his own, as his birthday is late August. There are some other reasons for this request that unfortunately I cannot state publicly.

Tomorrow I'm going to also ask that I be allowed to stay with Conrad in his class for the first few weeks in order to help him understand what's happening and know which book he should be using for which part of the timetable. Part of his problem, and one of the reasons that he was missing lessons, is that he didn't really have much of a clue what was happening. There are multiple books for each subject and they're all in Chinese, so it is confusing even to me. Amongst other things I'll be labelling his books in English for this next class.

Despite the problems, Conrad is still making headway. His Maths is very good and in some areas he's further on than his grade 3 class. The BBC Bitesize website is fantastic, as is a site we subscribe to, Mathletics. With the aid of these and other resource websites I've been keeping Conrad up to pace with the UK National Curriculum, in Maths, Science and English at least. In Chinese he can count and say and understand some simple words and phrases. It's hard to tell how much he understands because of course he isn't that conscious of it himself. He's started some private tuition in Chinese outside of school now and I'm hopeful this will be very useful for him. His teacher seems very good.

Conrad's also started Taikwando classes, which he really loves. The teachers are very patient with him and he's learning to copy what everyone else does if he isn't sure what to do (when he isn't distracted by his reflection in the mirror, that is!). His piano lessons continue too, though I've had to change teachers as I wasn't really happy with the first one we found. And finally I also take him to soccer practice at his school when I can persuade him to go. He isn't really interested in soccer so he often doesn't want to do it but I find he usually enjoys some part of it once I get him there. Generally speaking, he is settled in here and enjoying many aspects of his life, although he does sometimes miss his life in England and the people he left behind.

Last weekend I bought a secondhand bike. There are some great bike paths running alongside the riverways in Taipei and on a dry day I plan to take Conrad on a cycling trip to explore some new areas of the city we haven't yet visited. It's been more than fifteen years since I last regularly cycled, so I'm a bit wobbly! But with no traffic to fall into I only risk my dignity. I discovered that we can access bike paths quite close to our apartment and that they will literally take us to any part of the city that has a river running through it.

Generally our lives here are very good, concerns over Conrad's schooling aside. Andy's of course working very hard as always but making the most of his placement in Taipei. Last week he was asked to give a presentation on behalf of his company at a conference here, so in many ways he's much better-situated work-wise than he was when we were living in the East Midlands. My working life has necessarily been put completely on hold until we feel Conrad is settled and happy at school. I'd planned on not working for the first few months and that's how it's panned out.

I like apartment living very much. I have far less work to do than was entailed in looking after a four bedroom house with a huge garden in the UK. There is so little noise from our neighbours you'd think their flats were unoccupied (of course the recycling yard makes up for that somewhat). And eating out is much cheaper here, so I have to cook less, and also Andy cooks more too. Yesterday he bought an small oven and plans to bake bread. The nearest Western-style bread vendor is Carrefour, which is three MRT stops and two ten-minute walks away.

The Taiwanese people are incredibly friendly and polite. There's an emphasis on decency and civility that makes day to day living in a large and crowded city very bearable. While we do get stares, we haven't yet had a negative encounter. The only occasional intrusions on going about our daily business come from people who call out 'Hello!' and 'How are you!' to demonstrate their grasp of English. When I fumble through what must be nearly incomprehensible Chinese, people are always patient and polite (though it has to be said they nearly always change to English straightaway!)

So that's it. Our life in Taiwan so far. There so much more to explore of this country. I'm hoping to visit Taroko Gorge in the next few weeks, and also head down to Maolin county to see millions of overwintering purple butterflies in January. But in the meantime our goal is to settle down still further and normalise Conrad's school life. We miss friends and family very much of course, but I console myself with plans to visit the UK and Spain during the long summer break next year, when I will also be reacquainting myself with Green and Blacks' organic dark chocolate, bacon sandwiches and roast dinners too!

Friday, 11 November 2011


First, ice lollies. I've come to the conclusion that Taiwan has the best ice lollies in the world. I have to admit I haven't sampled the ones from every other country but I still think it's a pretty justified conclusion. Do you like creme caramel? Well, here they have the ice lolly version.

Conrad's favourite ice lolly is made from soda water. I know, it sounds strange but he loves it. In some other lollies the thing that makes them so nice is a technique for making the inside soft and creamy, while the outside is frozen. So there are lollies with a frozen chocolate outer shell, frozen chocolate ice cream, then semi-soft chocolate in the centre. Another one high on my list of the nicest ice lollies I've ever had has a vanilla/white chocolate outer shell, soft and creamy inner tip, and strawberry ice cream as the centre.

They're also very cheap. The creme caramel costs the equivalent of about 30p. So, I hope I've adequately conveyed my enthusiasm for ice lollies here. There are also red bean ones but I've steered clear of those so far.

7-11s and other convenience stores abound. I'm not exaggerating to say there are three within five minutes walk of our flat and the same is true throughout Taipei. The merchandise sold is exactly as you would imagine: snack foods and drinks, toiletries, stationery, and all those little things you might have forgotten but find you need as you travel from one place to another, such as, for example, umbrellas (it's been raining for about three days now and we have five umbrellas bewteen three of us).

Here are some snack foods I've sampled. I'll start with my favourite again. These are baozi, or steamed buns with a meat, or sometimes red bean filling. You buy them hot from a cabinet in most 7-11s.

To give an idea of the size, I need both hands to hold them. The larger ones are about the size of a hamburger, so as you can see I took rather a large bite before taking this photo. Something else I've tried for the purpose of scientific enquiry are hot spring eggs. Eggs preserved in various ways are popular here. Some of you may have heard of 1,000 year old and 100 year old eggs, which of course aren't, but have that appearance due to the preservation method. I haven't been brave enough to try those yet, but a hot spring egg just sounded as though it had been cooked in hot spring water, and that was how it tasted too;

Sorry about the blurry picture. I was probably chewing at the time. It had a salty, mineral tang to it. Quite nice.

There are other kinds of egg available that I haven't yet tried. 7-11s sell just-cooked eggs kept warm, along with all the other hot snack foods, and the northern suburb/town of Danshui is famous for these small, black spherical objects about the size of large marbles that are reportedly eggs too, but I haven't tried them. I'll let you know if I ever do.

As well as Western-style sandwiches, wraps and buns, the convenience stores also sell lots of rice-based snacks. I'm sure a lot of you will be familiar with the triangular cakes of rice wrapped in seaweed with various fillings. Andy really likes these. I like these things below better: shaped like a wrap and also covered with seaweed they're filled with things like ham, processed cheese, cucumber and other undefined fillings. Very nice.

Nibbles abound. There are all kinds of nuts, seeds, beans, crisps, and other processed snacks to serve as the things to eat when you aren't really hungry that make you put on weight. Something you don't generally see in the UK but that are actually really nice are tiny dried fish and other dried fish or seafood-based edibles. Andy and I eat a lot of these:

which are slivered almonds and dried fish. I've also seen tuna sweets on sale but haven't sampled them yet.

All of these things are also on sale in supermarkets, as well as other convenience foods. I have to confess that I've got no idea what a lot of these things are, but I thought I'd show you anyway.

Many basic foodstuffs are a mystery to me, in fact. I have no idea what these are either (though I think the top one may be coconuts:

Finally, let me share with you a very nice Thai meal we had at the Very Nice Thai restaurant in Gong Guan.