Sunday, 29 April 2012

A Dinosaur at School Sports Day

I heard through a trusted friend that the children had to dress up for the forthcoming school sports day, and that the theme for Conrad's class was animals. Conrad decided he wanted to be a dinosaur. Not the easiest costume in the world, and being the last of three children my enthusiasm about these parental duties for him has waned a little. But as my Halloween effort was so pathetic I thought I'd better try a little harder this time.

I'll let you judge for yourselves how accurate the result was, but in my defence I'd like to say no one actually knows what colour dinosaurs were. Here's Conrad being bored waiting to go down onto the sports field:

It was interesting to note that most of the other children seemed to be insects, and Conrad's dinosaur costume was a little anomalous. You can see a bee, a ladybird and a praying mantis. (I think the praying mantis should have got the best costume prize, but unfortunately there wasn't one.) I don't know if that's a coincidence, or it says something deep and meaningful about the Taiwanese psyche, or just that I got the message wrong (probably the latter).

The class also had to make musical instruments to play on the day, so the previous weekend we'd put some rice in an empty water container and papier-mached it. You can see Conrad holding it in his right arm. So that was two art and craft efforts in the space of two weeks. On seeing the other classes it was clear that we'd definitely got the raw end of the deal. Some of them only had to hang a CD around their necks as a fake medal!

This being Taipei, it had been raining for most of the week, with the occasional thunderstorm as light relief. (As testament to Conrad's ability to sleep, he failed to wake up when we had two thunderclaps right overhead which shook our building and set car alarms off in the street below. Personally, I believe he's making up for the first three years of his life where he failed to sleep for more than two hours at a time.) But, contrary to Gong Guan's Guo Xiao's usual luck, the weather for the sports day was fine and dry. In fact, it was so hot that the poor children sweltered a little in the sun while listening to the speeches at the beginning.

As usual, I was interested to compare a UK school sports day with what happens here but also as usual I was a little stymied by my lack of Chinese to be able to tell exactly what was going on. There were some speeches and awards given at the beginning, then the children paraded up and down in their costumes, and then they sang the national anthem. They also did a dance that they do during the school day as a fitness exercise. It's danced to a very funky pop song.

Some boogee-ing

It being a sports day, I was expecting more in the way of races, but the few races that were planned were cancelled as the track was still a little slippery from the week's rain. We did see some very good unicycle displays, though.

Another activity organised was decorating the top of one of the new walls with marbles. Each child had to choose one and embed it in the fresh mortar.

There was a small competition between the classes. Grades one and two had to dribble a football around  a set of cones and kick it into a cardboard box. Then there was a set of fun activities for the children to do. If they completed them all they could enter into a prize draw.

Everyone had a really good time doing these. Then it was time to hand out the prizes and go home.

So, as well as well as the warm temperatures and bright sunshine, the Taiwanese school sports day differed from the UK version in other ways. There was much less emphasis on competitiveness and much more on commemorating people's efforts. The competitions that we did have were team competitions, and contrary to the British parental custom of screaming support for your child from the sidelines, the parents clapped politely at the end. Also, no mums and dads race, which is probably a good thing.

The best thing of all is that, because this was an additional school day, there's no school on Monday! 

Sunday, 22 April 2012


I've suffered from vertigo for a few years now, so the sensation of the world shifting beneath my feet isn't unfamiliar to me, but lately my experience hasn't always been due to defective balance organs. We've experienced three minor shocks since coming to Taiwan, so I've been following this thread on Forumosa with interest.

Taiwan lies on the same fault line as Japan, on the eastern Pacific edge of the Ring of Fire. That is not very reassuring when you're living here, though it does make for some interesting experiences otherwise. Northern Taiwan is, for example, famous for its hot springs. There are a number of resorts where you can bathe in sometimes stinky steam in private and public baths. There are also many undeveloped sites which those in the know can relax in, or swim in the warm water downstream.

Another interesting experience is walking the mountain trails of Yangmingshan national park, situated on the northern edge of Taipei. We went there for the first time when we came here on holiday and had our first sight of volcanic vents letting out sulphuric steam which stained the surrounding rocks yellow. Conrad disliked these 'egg sandwich' spots but, coming from the seismically-inactive UK, they were novel and exotic to me.

But experiencing earthquake tremors regularly really brings home to you the threat of dying before your prime (at 47 I still think the best is yet to come) in a foreign land far from home.

Our earthquake sensor is our door chain. If the door chain is still swinging, the earthquake isn't over. Our escape plan isn't very well formed yet, which is why I was following the Forumosa thread, for tips. The big question is, is it better to stay or try to leave? Being newbies at earthquakes we thought it made sense to get as far away as possible from the thing that might collapse on you, but it turns out we were just being naive. If the tremor is strong enough to bring down the building, you aren't going to be able to walk very well and are as much at risk from buildings falling on you outside as you are inside.

The earthquake pros recount tales of the most recent large-scale deadly earthquake in Taiwan, the 921, which occurred on the 21st September 1999. This took nearly 2,500 lives and injured 11,000 people. As you can see, it was centred in the middle of the country and not, thank goodness, near the most highly populated northern end of Taiwan.

For those living here at the time, it must have been terrifying.

So our escape plans have been modified somewhat. We've decided that we need a 'survival' kit of water and non-perishable food in case of emergencies, plus other things like strong plastic bags, disinfectant and so on. We also thought it would be a good idea to open our apartment door if the shakes are bad enough, just in case it gets jammed. The important documents like passports need to be kept in one easily accessible place and we need to not sleep naked! Then if there is a big shock we'll leave so that we aren't caught by an aftershock.

Does that sound like a plan? I hope so.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Taipei in Springtime

I've decided that April is the best time to be in Taipei, thunderstorms notwithstanding.

I once had a strange experience when I went to take Conrad to Taekwondo. I didn't take anything more with me than my housekeys, which nearly led to a difficult situation. I told the story here. You would think I would have learned my lesson, but why change the habits of a lifetime?

So, I went to collect Conrad from Taekwondo the other day, once more taking nothing but my housekeys. I had learned not to pick random lost mobile phones up off the street - what else could go wrong?

It was a beautiful balmy evening as I left the apartment. I was wearing the light clothes appropriate for the temperature, which had climbed to the high 20s Centigrade. I arrived at the Taekwondo centre in plenty of time. As usual, they were preparing for the switch over between the beginner and the advanced classes. The black belts had arrived, the lower colours were completing their practice. As I sat and watched, I noticed an interesting phenomenon - the sky outside had turned a deep, dark grey.

As the Taekwondo instructor completed the class with the ritual standing to attention, turning away, turning back and bowing, a torrent of water fell from the sky. Well, I waited as long as I could, allowing Conrad all the time in the world to put on his shoes and retrieve his belongings, but our continued presence eventually became too embarrassing; we had to leave.

I broke the news to my youngest child: we had no coats, no umbrellas and no money, a cascade was falling from the heavens, and we were a fifteen minute walk from home. He took it surprisingly well. Dodging the deluge became an adventure, a challenge. We planned our route - which way had the most cover?  Conrad thought of a brilliant strategy. We could use the nearby MRT station to shelter us for part of the way. At times he stood and waited for me in the rain, nobly sacrificing his comparative dryness to ensure I wasn't left behind. Come the apocalypse, I know whose side I'll be sticking to.

We did well. We were still pretty dry as we waited in the shelter of Exit 2 of Wanlong MRT station.  People filed past us, miraculously bearing umbrellas and raincoats that had been invisible until the need for them arose. The rain had abated almost entirely. Finally, we took our chance. We stepped out into the drizzle and hastened home, pleased that we had dealt with the situation so well.

Too soon did we self-congratulate. The respite in the downpour was a mere ruse to lure us from our shelter. Once we were safely nowhere near any possible form of cover the drenching resumed. We ran all the way home. We got very, very wet. It was fun.

I still like spring in Taipei. It has (believe it or not) stopped raining so much. The public parks are full of people enjoying the sunshine, and the flowers and animals have all come out to enjoy the warmer temperatures.

Here are some photos of things that have made me smile:

Flowers on the Route to School

 I'm not sure what these are. Definitely some kind of iris, but I've never seen them before. Their flowering is tantalisingly brief - just a few hours. This photo was taken on the way to school. By the afternoon they would be closed again.

Here's a close-up:

Some more exotics that we pass every day.


Finally, we reach the school, which has orchids planted into the trunks of the trees in the grounds.

Swallows and Lizards and Frogs

As I said, animal life is burgeoning too. The swallows have arrived for the summer. A friend was telling me that they're considered lucky, and evidence of this is seen in little ledges that local shopkeepers have put up under the overhangs outside their shops. These are to encourage the birds to nest, and they definitely have the desired effect. A short walk down our nearest main road revealed more than twenty nests, with the birds easily visible tending to their young.

The most enjoyable thing for us is their hunting habits. We walk along a small road near our apartment that's closed to cars so it's quite quiet, and the birds hunt here, swooping and swerving at nearly ground level, heedless of the pedestrians in their midst.

My photographic skills aren't up to catching them in flight, but here's the closest image I could get;

Lizards and amphibians are enjoying the beautiful spring weather too. The noise of the frogs at night is loud enough to keep Andy awake (we really must move soon). And I've seen so many lizards now I've lost count. Most are geckos, but I also saw this little beast escaping up a nearby trunk the other day:

I'm hoping this lovely spring will last as long as possible, but a friend told me that in May, it really rains, so I really must never go out with just my housekeys again.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

School Life

If you've been following this blog for a while, you're probably aware that my son is attending a public school here in Taipei. He's technically a Third-grade student (or Fourth Year in the UK) but at my request the school moved him down to the grade below, where he's been studying for roughly four months now.

School life here is very different from the UK. The school that he attends is comparatively progressive and more child-friendly than most Taiwanese schools, but it has still been a large adjustment to make.

The school day, for example, is much longer. Most schools start at 7.30 a.m. and finish at 4.00 p.m. (The number of full days increases as the grades go up. First- and Second-grade children finish at 12 every day except Tuesday.) At Conrad's school, arriving at 8.00 a.m. is tolerated (and, in truth, nothing really happens until then) so that's what we aim for. During the school day, the children get approximately 40 minutes in total break time. The longest break is 20 minutes, and often 5 minutes of that is taken up with exercises. The children also have an enforced 'nap time' of 40 minutes after lunch, though I've never seen a child actually asleep during this time. Most of them lie their heads on their desks and stare around, looking bored.

The reason for the nap time is because children generally go to sleep late in the evening, so theoretically need a sleep during the day, but I think sleeping in a classroom full of other children with your head on your desk (albeit with the small pillow most children bring along) is not really a possibility for many children. Conrad really doesn't like this. Sometimes he's lucky and the teacher lets him read. The other day, though, he was so bored he gave himself a haircut! This was alarming for everyone concerned except Conrad, who thinks he did a pretty good job.

The first part of the school day isn't a proper lesson. The children hand in their homework and copy down that day's homework into their diaries. On the day that the teacher has to go to a meeting, a parent volunteer will come in to give a short, fun lesson on an interesting subject, or just keep an eye on the class for the teacher. On the other mornings the children generally just seem to do the things required of them then relax and maybe eat their breakfast if they haven't had time before coming to school.

Proper lessons start around 9.00. At the lower grades, these are confined to very few subject areas. The curriculum is almost entirely concerned with Chinese, Maths and English in the two lowest grades, though the children also do P.E. and a little Taiwanese. In the afternoons on Tuesdays the children will often do Art. It is very much a chalk and talk, paper and pen-based style of teaching, although Conrad's teacher makes a good effort to try to make the classes interesting for the children. There is a strong emphasis on testing. As I understand it, there are four main tests every year, at the middle and end of every semester. And there are also weekly tests in Chinese and Maths.

Compared to a Western education, I'm sure this must sound quite onerous. And yet, despite the fact that it broadly adheres to the typical Taiwanese style of education, Conrad's school is actually far less pressured than most other schools. Conrad's school does not, for example, broadcast a child's name across the school if they've gone missing from classes (a not uncommon occurrence, perhaps unsurprisingly, and something that Conrad is wont to do on occasion too). In many other schools, the child who isn't performing up to scratch or who has problematic behaviour is not tolerated. Corporal punishment was banned only a few years ago, and traditions such as one hit of the switch for every incorrect answer were not uncommon. Conrad's school, on the other hand, has many children on its roll who have 'failed' at a more typical school and in general it has a more understanding and patient attitude.

Education occupies a central position in Taiwanese culture. To get your child into a top university is the ambition of most Taiwanese parents, and understandably so. Having a degree, preferably a Master's is a important status symbol and prerequisite for any kind of job with a future. Consequently, for many Taiwanese children, education doesn't stop at the end of the school day. They will often attend classes in the afternoon and evening too, to bring those test scores up into the 90s. This is one reason children go to bed as late as 11 o'clock: there just isn't time to fit everything in otherwise.

Schools usually offer some kind of after-hours programme, where the children can do their homework, have extra classes or do extra-curricular activities, attend clubs etc. As well as the additional educational opportunities this offers, many parents work long hours and simply need the childcare. Conrad attends the after-hours programme at his school so that he can get help with his homework and, if time allows, play with the other children (this seems to have helped enormously with his Chinese acquisition).

There are a few costs associated with schooling here. While public education is free, the parents are asked to pay for the books, and also make a contribution to their child's class fund. I'm not sure what happens if a parent can't or won't pay these fees, but they aren't high anyway. I think for Conrad's class we were asked to contribute about $NT 500, or £10 for the year. The cost of his books was included in with his school dinners (he eats lunch there Mon-Fri) and after school care, so I'm not sure how much they were. In total, we paid a little less than $NT12,000 for this semester, or roughly £240.

The year is broken into two semesters, each about four months in length, with occasional days off for public holidays. The Chinese New Year holiday in the middle lasts three weeks. That's been another big adjustment for us, coming from the British system where the longest a child will attend school without a break is eight weeks. I'm not sure if the very long school semesters are styled on the American system or due to the intense emphasis on education.

I think it would be fair to say that Conrad copes with his education here, rather than that he enjoys it. He certainly enjoys some of it, some of it he tolerates, and some of it he actively dislikes (such as nap time). However, it's important to understand that this is a child who didn't like school in the UK, and who is very clear about what he's interested in and what he wants to do, which of course doesn't make him the ideal school student. What's interesting is that he's largely forgotten much of his school life in the UK, despite only being here eight months. He can only vaguely remember a few people from his class and a few incidents that happened at school in Britain, so although he grumbles about it sometimes, school life here is just about all he knows.

If Conrad remains at his current school, he can expect to have formal lessons on Monday and Thursday afternoons next academic year, with Friday afternoons added in the final two years of school. Additional subjects, such as Music and Science appear in the curriculum next year too. Hopefully Conrad will stay in Taiwanese education to the end of Elementary School so that he can get a solid grounding in Chinese. The education system beyond this point becomes even more intensive and pressured, so we won't be sending him to Middle School.

I think this year has been a education for all of us. While I thought I had some idea of what school life would be like for Conrad before we came, there was no real way of preparing for or understanding it. Only experience has made us realise what an enormous challenge we were setting our son by putting him in a public school at eight years old. It definitely hasn't been easy for him and I'm very proud of his achievements. As to the future, I think we must never disregard the option of removing him if we feel it's just too much for him. I believe and hope he can succeed, though.

As for Conrad's opinion on it, well, in relation to a few problems we've had with teachers, I said to him the other day:

"You know, I think that deep down some people believe you can't ever learn enough Chinese to catch up with the other children."

"Well, they're WRONG!" he replied.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Boating in Bitan

There are some disadvantages to living in a country where the majority of the population is smaller than you. Luckily for me I'm a small person anyway, so I feel quite at home. (In fact, I quite enjoy feeling normal for a change.) But my husband Andy is an average-sized Westerner, which here means he's sometimes a little too big.

For example, when sitting in a pedalo, boating in Bitan on the Xindian River, he found the seating to be a little inadequate, with too little distance between the pedals and the seat. This caused him to have his legs up too high, which in turn caused his lifejacket to ride up, which well..........

Yesterday we took the MRT to Xindian at the end of the red line, just four or five stops along from us, at the southern tip of  Taipei New City. It's very pleasant there. The river is wide and dreamy, and the mountains are verdant, beautiful and full of sweet, fresh air. There are lots of restaurants, plenty of street food and miles of river walks.

First, we took the aforementioned pedalo excursion. After the general hilarity at Andy's lifejacket predicament had subsided we had a enjoyable hour's pedalling around the river.  The rivalry with other boating enthusiasts was, at times, a little intense. We had several impromptu races with other families out on the river which brought out Andy and Conrad's competitive sides and provided some very good exercise. We explored upriver and down, and had spurts of splashing speed along with some more leisurely, sedate cruises (I was in charge of the latter).

The day tourists were out in force. As well as the many pedalo-users, there were lots of people promenading up and down the banks and families with children out exploring the shoreline. We returned the friendly waves as we drifted past.

There were some other objects of interest along the banks, such as this 'hobbit' house, so named by Andy and Conrad:

Less agreeable moments included nearly running aground when we came too close to the shore, and the sight of a poor fish down on its luck. It was trying to swim belly up on the surface of the river. No doubt it would have been put out of its misery quickly enough by one of the many herons scanning the water.

But all in all, a highly pleasurable hour.

Next, attracted by the views of the mountainside, we headed inland and took one of the many trails there. Spring was clearly on the agenda. Over the last couple of weeks flowers have been appearing all over Taipei; wild, exotic plants that back home would have to be carefully nurtured into bloom are here carelessly, vigorously flowering in the most unlikely and neglected spots. Up in the mountains the native flora were exuberantly doing what comes naturally. Here is, according to the sign, a shellflower, as seen from afar and close to. The open flower is said to resemble a goose in flight:

We walked the trails for over an hour, exploring the mountain. The trails themselves are not tracks as such, but paved or concreted structures a little at odds with the surrounding vegetation. But they make up for the discord with their extreme ease of use. 

The views were marvelous.

At the top we encountered a small mystery. Someone had clearly had intentions of building a retreat at the top of the mountain, but the work had been abandoned. There was a wide concreted area with various construction projects surrounding it. The only thing that had been completed was, bizarrely, a garden pond with ornamental fountain:

That was it. No house, no garden even, just a pond with its little-boy-peeing statue. Maybe someone will come and add the more useful parts of the construction at some point.

To make the day complete, we went back down the mountain to have an early dinner at one of the restaurants on the riverbank. 

To continue the tradition of this blog, here are the food photos. Conrad shared with us and had a little of everything. I had Gong Bao Chicken.

Andy had a lemon bream dish.

And we had tempura.

And chips!