Wednesday, 31 August 2011

School Hunting

We've had a busy last few days in our search for a school. When we came out to Taiwan last October we visited a few different types of schools, trying to understand the pros and cons of each. One of our main reasons for coming to Taiwan is so that Conrad can experience another culture and learn another language, so it was through this prism that we viewed each school that we visited.

Other important criteria were that the school should be small and should be situated in an area that was relatively pollution-free. Although Taipei's air quality has improved a lot over the last 20 years, there are still many areas that are quite heavily polluted due to the huge numbers of two-stroke engine scooters that are driven. Some schools we discounted immediately because they were situated right next to busy main roads.

We visited an international school first, the Taipei European School. As we suspected, despite this being a very nice school, the language of instruction was English (or French, or German, depending on which section the children attend) and the children only had two hours of Chinese tuition a week, so the school didn't suit our purposes. We also tried a private Taiwanese school with a bilingual programme, but again we felt there was too much English spoken there (Taiwanese parents who can afford it send their children to these schools so that they can learn/maintain English language skills).

There are a few schools in Taipei that cater to the needs of children with Mandarin as a second language. The one we went to see was Xinsheng Elementary School. Like many Taiwanese schools, this school is very large. Most Elementary schools in Taipei have 1000+ enrolments. It's also situated on a main road (in an expensive area!). So, although this school could provide the Mandarin support Conrad needs, we carried on looking.

We finally found a very small school halfway up a mountain in Beitou, Taipei's hot springs district. This school was well-suited to our needs, being very small and set in a beautiful environment. They were a little evasive on the question of Mandarin support but generally it seemed the best choice. Unfortunately, although we had a verbal agreement that Conrad could attend this school, on a later visit they told my husband they no longer had any places. So when we arrived in Taipei last Monday we faced another school hunt.

It's very hard to find an appropriate school for your child when you're in a foreign city, don't know anyone with children and don't speak the language! However, we finally hit upon Gongguan Elementary School. The Director at this school was very happy to have Conrad and said they could help Conrad with Mandarin. They also wanted him to start on the first day of term so that he didn't miss out on that time when children form their school friendships. So, in short, he started school on Tuesday!

Here's a photo of the school:

It looks quite large but there are only 20 to a class, and there are lots of school offices (those are the ones with the airconditioning units outside). Roughly 200 children are enrolled.

This is the view looking out of the back:

Conrad in a classroom waiting for me to finish speaking with the Director on Monday:

Despite this being only the third day Conrad has been to school, we're already getting a taste of Taiwanese culture. The parents are exhorted to bring their children to school by 7.50 a.m. at the latest, but classes don't actually start then. In fact, I don't know when they start. There's nothing happening by the time I leave at 8 o'clock. I think we may be having a longer lie-in!

Also, when I asked what Conrad needs for school I was told just pen and paper. It turns out he also needs a bowl and chopsticks for lunchtime, and a toothbrush, toothpaste and mug for post-lunch teeth-brushing. Just today he told me he also needs a pillow for his desk for the post-lunch nap (poor thing has been trying to sleep on a hard wooden desk lid!). Luckily I thought of the water bottle by myself. I think he may need a cloth too, for cleaning his desk and the classroom windows. This is not a special punishment, by the way, they all have to do it.

Of course it's early days and it's all quite difficult, so I must be honest and say that Conrad isn't the happiest child at the moment. He' a good complainer, so sometimes it's a little hard to tell when he's genuinely unhappy, but I think he's finding this very challenging. I'm trying to be understanding and encouraging but be clear to him that he must go and that things will get easier.

We found a shop selling huge lemonade slush puppies the other day, so at least there are some nice things to take his mind off it all.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

How Conrad Copes with All the Attention

We took a trip today on Taipei's lovely MRT system. There is no smoking, eating or drinking allowed and it is pristine and highly efficient. There are queue lines on the ground before the perspex gates, and, yes, people do stand and queue on them!. Trains arrive every two minutes and people are generally considerate and well-behaved. Here is Conrad on at the Taipei City Hall station:

As we were on the train Conrad commented that in Taiwan people were always looking at him. He's quite right. There aren't a lot of white foreigners in Taipei compared to more typical Western tourist destinations, and even fewer foreign children. Also, blond hair and blue eyes are deemed unusual and attractive. I was concerned that all this attention might be upsetting him.

"How do you feel about that?" I asked.

"I love it," he said.

So that was that.

We were on our way to Gongguan swimming pool, which styles itself an 'aquaculture centre' or something like that. It has a large shallow pool, a couple of water slides and a stream with a current running around the perimeter. In other words, Conrad was set for the day.

In Taiwanese swimming pools all patrons are required to wear a swimming hat; 'for hygiene' is the claim. Baggy swimming shorts are banned, also 'for hygiene'. All men must wear something more closely fitting. Luckily, most had managed to find something a little more demure than Speedos. The rules apply to young and old:

As this is Taipei, it rained. But what do you do in an outdoor swimming pool in a tropical country when it starts raining? Carry on exactly as you were, of course. You're already wet. Actually, that isn't strictly true. Most people left during the really heavy, raindrops bouncing off the water, downpours. Conrad and few others didn't care. The poor lifeguards had to stay and continue to do their job, though they would clearly rather have been somewhere else:

You can hire a big rubber ring for about £1 for two hours. Here is Conrad going around the river current:

As I'm sure you can tell, we had a great time. All that swimming fun left us a little peckish, so we had a snack at the poolside cafe. Until my Chinese improves, we're down to pointing at things that look good to eat when we order. Always willing to try something new, I'll often order things when I have no idea what they are. This is what we chose:

The drinks choices seemed to be tea or tea. I don't drink tea, but the girl serving said that you got a free drink if you ordered two things, so I thought I'd give some green tea a try. That's it on the left. With ice. The chicken wings were nice. I thought the cubic things were some kind of carbohydrate: potato, sweet potato or yam or something like that. They tasted okay but not very carbohydrate-y, so I split one open and it seemed to be chicken skin fried in batter. Oh well, not much different from reconstituted chicken nuggets.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Baked Potato (and Bacon) Sandwiches and Coffee Jelly

These were two of the items on offer at the local Starbucks where we seem to end up every breakfast time. Yes, I know we're not supposed to be on holiday but it's hard to shake that feeling when the temperature's in the thirties and you're in an unfamiliar and interesting city. We don't partake of the baked potato sandwiches but I did have a nice longan and fig muffin the other day. Sometimes I buy breakfast at the local bakery, where again I have to reluctantly turn down the cheese and lemon sandwiches in favour of more familiar fare.

In Asia some people have a habit of photographing their food before eating it when eating out in restaurants. At first this seemed a little strange but I've adopted this habit too. I find those food photos very interesting! So here are some pictures of the things we've been eating over the last few days.

Something comparatively normal. This was Conrad's lunch at the Taipei science museum: a chicken burger with spaghetti bolognese as a side dish and something that was supposed to be chips. Later the same day we had dinner at a Japanese eatery near our apartment.

This was my dinner. Yum yum. It's one of the things I really like about Asian cuisine, lots of different little dishes. This was Conrad's dinner:

He's usually happy with some kind of meat and rice dish, luckily.

We're just about acclimatised and over our jetlag now. It took a few days of adjustment, though, and on one occasion I had to force Conrad to go to bed during the day. This is how he looked five minutes after assuring me that he was not tired and did not need to go to sleep:

Andy has been enjoying his usual sleeping medication. He assured me that just one can was fine.

I've spent some time trying to find a school for Conrad in a nice area to live, but it's quite hard starting from scratch in a foreign country. We've made one or two excursions so far (just Conrad and I, as Andy has to work). One area we checked out was too remote, another too built up and polluted from road traffic. It's still early days, though and we haven't used our 'call a friend' option. I'll leave you with a photo I took to show the contrasts of this city:

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Here We Are!

After an unbelievably busy day on Sunday spent readying our house for tenants and trekking across London with lots of luggage, we arrived in Taiwan on Monday evening. We had all had enough of hefting overweight suitcases around, and we had a deadline before the check-in at our apartment closed, so we got a cab from the airport for the journey into Taipei. Once at the apartment, it was lovely to finally relax and catch up on some sleep after the 14 hour flight. Here a couple of photos of the view from our apartment window I took before going to bed:

I won't show you the apartment a it's too messy at the moment! But here's the clock, which exists in a timezone all of its own:

We've spent the last 24 hours getting over jetlag and finding our feet. I've also been passing the time by having  a major panic. We found out that we needed the birth certificates I'd carefully stored at my parents' warehouse to complete our visa application.The government's seen them once, I didn't think they'd want to see them again! Yes, I am stupid and possibly becoming senile. Many thanks to my wonderful brother Stu for couriering them to us.

We've found the closest supermarket and did a big shop, of course buying some interesting foods to try:

One of those sudden tropical downpours had begun when we left the supermarket. We decided to wait it out under the shelter of the shop's awning. After about ten minutes the supermarket assistant kindly came out with some umbrellas for us to borrow. I was happy to stay and watch the scene. I'm so pleased to be here finally that I even like the rain!

Thursday, 18 August 2011

I Am Nearly Too Old for This

The things to go into storage went yesterday. I'm lucky in that my parents have a company warehouse that they've let me store some things in for our eventual return to Britain. Considering the amount of things that I sent off yesterday, I don't know what I would have done without it. Family photo albums are precious but it makes no sense to transport them around the world, and I'm far too stingy to throw or give away my good quality cake tins that won't be much use in a country that doesn't bake cakes.

I am feeling much more that we're going to Taiwan now, which is handy as we fly out on Sunday. I am still quite worried about it, more than excited, though, because of the uncertainty over Conrad's school. Life would have been so much easier if he had a confirmed place at a school when we arrive. But still, it  can't be helped. Hopefully everyting will work out in the end.

My middle son got his A' level results yesterday and has got a place at Essex University to study Genetics. Well done Rohan! We waited for two hours as the UCAS site repeatedly crashed, until eventually he bit the bullet and went into school. Much relief all around as the question of what he was to do if he didn't get into university had never been properly answered. Now he'll go to stay with my sister until his starting date in October.

On the agenda for today: sort out my clothes for packing or taking to a charity shop; try to surreptitiously put some of Conrad's toys in the skip (yes, I am a terrible mother); relay my washng line area with slate chippings; strim the wild part of my garden; find us some landlord's insurance; change the addresses for all accounts/agencies etc; and probably a few more things I haven't thought of.

Could someone tell me how to convey to two young men that their room will need to be completely empty by Sunday?

Tonight Andy and I are rewarding ourselves by eatng out at a lovely restaurant, paid for with the profit from selling off our books. So there is an upside to shedding your possessions!

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Things Are Hotting Up

As my Skype Chinese teacher pointed out to me last night, we fly out to Taiwan in five days' time. Writing that strikes fear into my heart. I know I'm supposed to be getting excited but currently there don't seem to be enough hours in the day to get everything done.

The shipment went on Monday. My son's piano disappeared into the lorry along with several boxes of books, towels, books, winter clothes, books, kitchen equipment, books, and some more books. Books in English are expensive in Taiwan and as Conrad will be attending a local school we want to make sure he has plenty of reading material to continue improving his literacy in English. I confess I did sneak in a few books of my own.

Yesterday I took a car load of rubbish to the tip. They were delighted to take our old Christmas tree because the lights still worked. That was a bit sad, but it was falling apart and due to be replaced anyway. I shipped Christmas cards and crackers I had bought in the sales. Luckily, Christmas is on a weekend this year so we'll be able to celebrate it well. The big Chinese festival is Chinese New Year, in early February.

August is Ghost Month, and the Chinese pay homage to their ancestors by burning ghost money and anything else they feel would be a nice present - a paper Mercedes for instance. I read recently that they also put on performances of Chinese opera and puppet shows for the ghosts to enjoy. That's what I call really thoughtful.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Moving House Would be a Lot Easier

If you move house you only  have to pack up all your belongings and transfer them to one place. You only have to deal with estate agents and solicitors. I've now lost count of the number of agents I've been dealing with recently but they include shipping agents, insurance companies [travel and landlord's insurance], holiday rentals in Taipei as we don't know where we'll be living yet, accountants, letting agents, the Taipei Reprentative Office in London, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and so on.

Since I last posted, as well as dealing with all these people, we've been continuing to sort through our things and get the house ready to rent out. I have to admit we aren't very house-oriented people, so there is some need for decoration to bring it up to respectable standards. For example, when I started work for the WEA four years ago, I converted our smallest bedroom to an office. That sounds more impressive than it was. I mean I stripped the pretty yellow wallpaper with animal cartoons off the walls and repapered in neutral colours. However the ceiling remained the same, bearing the scars of the inbuilt cupboards we had ripped out years before. So now finally I had to face the fact that tenants would not tolerate staring a ceiling that only had paper and coving across four-fifths of it, and redo the ceiling too........I am never, ever, ever going to paper and paint a ceiling ever, ever again. If you know me, please remind me of this fact every time you see me. That's all. I don't want to talk about it.

The shipping company are coming on Monday to take Conrad's piano and anything else we want to ship to Taiwan. So now it is crunch time and we really have to decide what goes and what doesn't. No doubt there will be things we miss and try to cram into suitcase in a week's time, but for this weekend we're really going to concentrate on going through our things and packing up the essentials. I'm lucky to have a friend in Hong Kong who has given me some tips on what is expensive or difficult to buy.  I know we'll be packing up Conrad's books and some kitchen equipment, and filling the spaces with things like sunscreen, but we're still undecided on some things and it seems every thing we encounter now sparks a 'shall we send this to Taiwan?' conversation.

So, basically, things progress apace. I am making sure to eat lots  of bacon and roast dinners. I probably won't eat enough to stop me missing them, but there's no harm in trying.