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.