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Blog Contest Entry 2 - Taiwan

Monday, August 29th, 2011

Welcome to Paradise!
The Trip that Changed My Life.

by Jessica Fawley

I’m a graduate now.  Officially, I graduated from UALR in the spring, but our university has that wonderful policy where you can do six more hours after graduation.  I applied to do those six hours in Taiwan, a graduation gift to me paid for by the Taiwanese government.
Every morning, I wake up to electric purple and red sunrises which flash the mountains blue and gold all around us, and stubby trees with thick, rounded leaves twice as large as my head.  Welcome to the tropical island of Taiwan.
Photo 1Here, the people are so friendly that not knowing Chinese is no big deal at all.  Sure, you’ll occasionally think you’re ordering chicken and get handed a green milkshake, but mm, it’s delicious.  And they’ll mime with you and point at things until you’ve found the best food you could’ve imagined.  The choices are endless!  Beef noodle, oyster omelet, squid on a stick, crispy duck, egg “hamburgers,” “thick toast” (half-French toast, half toast with jelly, 100% delicious), hot pot swimming in delicious veggies and more kinds of meat than I’ve ever seen in one place, friend rice of a thousand varieties, bubble tea, boba milk tea, tapioca pearls, and apparently Asia invented the hashbrown square (and adds tasty spices)….Or you could just go for all the exotics: the thousand-year egg which was described to me first as a “rotten duck egg,” but is actually fermented.  It tastes great, if you can get over how it looks black, green, slimy, and really, really rotten!  And then there’s stinky tofu—take the name seriously—and a dozen things made with pig’s blood, snake’s blood, and God only knows what else.  Interested in chicken’s foot, pig’s ankle, or chicken butt?  One of my classmates is crazy about the last one—“So tender!” he laughs.  And try the hot dogs for breakfast wrapped in pastry bread.  So great.  But mind the ketchup; I think they’ve added a pound of sugar to every teaspoon.  The most important words you’ll learn are, “Half sugar please.”  And, yes, drinks and add-ons are often so sweet, they overwhelm the Americans.  I wasn’t sure that was possible.
And, of course, if you’re in this awesome TUSA Program, you’ll be learning Chinese.  Beyond being one of the most marketable languages, Chinese is really fun.  And when you’re surrounded by such friendly people, you never have to feel bad about stumbling your way through a sentence, mispronouncing every last tone.  We laugh about saying “I want sleep” when we’re trying to order a dumpling.  The tones are rather funny.  First tone is the one-note song.  Second tone climbs the mountain.  Third tone dips into the caldera of the volcano and eeks back out.  Fourth tone runs down the mountain.  And neutral tone whispers its little song of relief.
Photo 2Photo 3Photo 18For many people, learning Chinese is why they’ve come to Taiwan.  For me, it’s the culture.  I am on the direct opposite side of the earth from home, and the culture, the world, here reflects that.  Every morning when I walk to class, I pass a bald man in his 30’s wearing brown monk’s robes who repeatedly raises his arms up, turns his hands, and lowers them slowly.  There are usually a few people around him.  One woman rubs her back on a tree a lot, another tries to do what the monk is doing but never turns her hands up, only out.  I watch them every morning, and now we greet each other with smiles.  When I go running, an old woman doing some kind of kung fu tai chi, dipping so low you’d think she was Shakira, smiles so brightly to me her eyes almost disappear.  And then there are the groups, everywhere, doing strange flailing exercises, break-dancing, tai chi, and kung fu.  It’s incredible to see what these people can do, and at any age.
Everywhere you go, there’s someone to smile and excitedly say, “Hello!  How are you?”, which might be the only English they know.  Yes, seriously, people yell “Hello” when they’re passing on their bikes and scooters, just because they see you’re American (or might be).  And if they ask, watch them leap with joy when you say you are American!  我是美國人。 If you’re white, don’t take offense if kids scream when they see you (you’re a “white ghost,” after all, with a pointy nose!), and be sure to wave at them as they sneak around you, trying to get a better look.  You’re probably the first white person they’ve ever seen!
But let’s go back a step, to those scooters.  Everywhere, swarming in-and-out all the time, ten times as plentiful as cars, and they’re so much fun.  Our roommates, study buddies, and even teachers take us around on scooters all the time, zooming with the wind in our faces, all around Pingtung (our city).  It’s a tour every time.  Schools that look like military installations (because all the major government buildings are done in the same style here, including our university) or fun houses (private elementary schools), endless signs with Asians so pale they blend with white backgrounds (did you know Asians try to be whiter than we are?  That’s the style.  Skin whiteners are in most of the skin products, watch out!), and bright primary colors on every store sign. They love their reds and yellows.  Red here means luck.  And the colors are just as bright in the Buddhist and Confucius temples.  Skip off your scooter, pass through the dragon doors, light some incense, and pour over the endless stone etchings of gods and dragon-dog-lions.  They’re so cool-looking.  And don’t forget to toss the half-moons to see what the gods think of your future.Photo 9Photo 8
Tired of the city?  Let’s get out.  Kenting Beach, swimming in the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Taiwan Strait on the other.  Water so crisp and blue, you’ll know it’s a tropical island.  In an hour, off I’ll head back to the beach.  How about Monkey Mountain?  Why do you suppose they named it that?  Hike up, up, surrounded by thick, jungle vegetation.  Keep your eyes open, because guess who is sitting in the tree above your head?  Monkeys!  Thousands and thousands of monkeys!  Just don’t bring any food, and you’ll all get along great.  If you’re calm, they’ll even let you close enough to pet them, but watch the teeth.  From there, let’s spirit off to Taroko Gorge, where the mountains split wide open and the rapids play on boulders so huge you’ll feel like a tiny, Lego person, I guarantee.  The rocks are swirls of color—metamorphic (if you’ve taken your geology).  Oh, yes, and don’t worry when you see the giant spiders in their webs all around you.  They’re not dangerous.  But they do jump.  Five feet at least.  Hike the incredible trails around the gorge, and explore the shrines in the mountains.  There are no words for this place, and no pictures that do it justice.  You have to see it with your own eyes.
Now, go back to the cities.  Explore the night markets with their cheap, beautiful clothes, cool t-shirts, and endless arrays of awesome food.  Get a traditional Chinese or Thai massage—it only hurts for a second, then you feel great.  Try the water park-spa or the hot springs spas, where little fish will nibble on your feet.  It tickles like crazy!  Or head over to one of the many waterfalls.  Yes, you’re still in the cities.
Now take a little trip to the Indigenous People’s Park and shoot a boar with a traditional bow and arrow (like I did!  Okay, it was a picture, but I hit it!) or just pay one of the fourteen tribes a visit.  They love visitors!  Especially the Amis (Ah-mei), who dance and sing their way through every activity, every day, like a perpetual Disney movie.  And they’ll sweep you into their dances.  Their the largest of the tribes, and they live their traditional life so proudly and with such incredible joy, it’s intoxicating.  You’ll want to join the tribe.  And the Amis are especially awesome because they’re matriarchal.  The women are so powerful.
From there, hop over to the opera where warriors spin in kung fu dancing or to a traditional drumming concert, where they spin the drum sticks in fung fu drumming, pounding the drums with such energy and force, the sound radiates through your whole body and spirit.  Fung fu, here, or wushu, is a way of life, the energy of life, that so many people harness doing myriad things.  I like to joke that we Americans want the packaged version: “Cool!  Can we learn that this weekend?”
Before I came to Taiwan, I read in guide books that this is the friendliest country on earth.  Now, I’ve only been to six or nine countries, depending on how you measure it, but there’s no denying that these people are friendly and helpful.  Don’t be surprised when your teacher invites you all over for a traditional dinner.  And if you get lost in Hualien while looking for the school where you’re doing an interview to teach English, like I did, just stop into one of the fancy hotels.  Someone will speak English, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re staying there.  They’ll bring you water, print you maps, and if you still can’t find the place, they’ll swoop in and just take you there themselves.  In America, I think a ritzy hotel would just kick you, the non-paying non-guest out on the street.  Here, everyone wants to help you.Photo 5
Taiwan has definitely changed my life, both through all of these experiences, and more directly in changing the course of these next few years, if not forever.  I decided to look into jobs teaching English, and I’ve been offered an incredible job in Hualien.  I’ll be paid more than I’ve ever made in the United States, living in a country so cheap I can live like royalty, and be in Hualien, where the bike paths expand through the entire city and along the coast of the Pacific Ocean.  Hualien, too, is the city beside Taroko Gorge; I have hundreds more paths there to explore and rope bridges to leap on.  In this economy, America is a difficult place to find a job worth having or at all, but over here, in Taiwan, there are hundreds of jobs just waiting for any native English-speaker with a Bachelor’s degree.  It helps that I have a background in teaching, but anyone who wants a job can find one.  When you’re here, ask around, and before you know it, you’ll be taking a job in paradise.
Photo 7Photo 6Photo 4There are no words that do this place justice, and no pictures either.  No story will tell you what it’s like to wander off on your own and meet the beetle nut girls or run off to KTV for a night of wild, up-scale karaoke with forty of your new friends.  You need to be here, to taste the squid, to try your hand at Chinese art and calligraphy, and get buzzed at and massaged or acupunctured by the traditional Chinese doctor.  The TUSA Program is an ambassadorial program funded by the Taiwanese government.  Check it out, and change your life.  It’s adventure time!

2011 Travel Photo Contest Entries

Monday, August 29th, 2011

Gerolstein, Germany

Photo 1:  Weekend trip to Gerolstein, Germany. Rode bikes out to the local castle. While studying in Spain, I took a weekend trip to visit some friends and explore the German countryside on bikes. It was amazing to be able to ride and see elaborate cathedrals, WWII ruins, and castles like this just nestled on the side of the road.  Submitted by Cheyenne Wilson


Photo 2: Student protest at the University of Jordan. Submitted by Sarah Dunlap


Photo 3: Historic District in Ecuador. Unlike the United States, the way of living for these people are similar to their ancestors. They walk almost everywhere, more than we do here. Their shops and stores are very small and they don’t spend a lot of time socializing in public. Submitted by Tynesha Ivory


Photo 4: This photo from March 2011 was taken in Montmartre, France. It depicts one of the many street artists selling their trade on a cold, windy afternoon. I enjoyed capturing this image because the subjects, the artist, his young female sitter and her father, do not seem affected by the pace of life that surrounds them. All of their eyes are intently locked on the anticipated portrait. Submitted by Courtney Ford

China: Southwest University of Science and Technology (SWUST)

Tuesday, March 8th, 2011

Fall 2010 by Bart Carfagno

Arrival and Settling In:

My experience in China began as I took a train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou after a three day wait for my visa. I spent the night in Guangzhou, my first night in China. The city was incredibly busy with lots of new construction everywhere. I received quite a few looks from the local people. At dinner, I couldn’t understand the menu and ended up getting 3 plates of meatball looking things that were not the best things I had ever tasted.

Bart China Sichuan   Bart China Miayang         Sichuan                                 Mianyang

From Guangzhou I took a flight to Mianyang, about 2 and half hours. Waiting at the airport was Yin Songtao, my liaison from the University. Yin Songtao became my friend and caretaker throughout my trip. We exchanged bilingual greetings as we tested each other’s Chinese/English. Yin, an English teacher, was able to speak English well, though comically skewed at some words like all non-native speakers. It was night as we drove onto the campus of the South West University of Science and Technology. With large buildings and a modern campus, 30,000 students, SWUST is very much like an American University. 

                                  Bart China SWUST


I had been traveling through China for several days at that point and had spoken to few people, most can’t speak English. The country was markedly different from Taiwan, where I spent the summer. Taiwan is low key, relaxed, and more neighborly. China is very busy, loud, and dirty. Not that it is filthy with trash everywhere, but there is a lot of dirt in the air from construction and many of the roads are made of dirt. It was a very foreign place to me.Yin showed me to my room which was much bigger than expected. I later learned a room this size is shared by a teacher’s whole family; I felt ambivalent about that. He introduced me to a Chinese student who would help me with day to day procedures. He gave me my class schedule and a brief explanation of the campus. I went about unpacking and settling in. My class was one on one with a teacher, which was great news. The not so great news was that it was only for 5 hours a week. This is one of the biggest complaints I had with SWUST as I learned that previous semesters foreign students had been going to three hours of class a day. 

Within the first couple of weeks I got really sick with a stomach virus. A girl I had met brought me Chinese medicine and Tylenol. She had previously told me the public drinking water was sanitary. I drank it for about 2 weeks before realizing it was the cause of my illness.

                                  Bart China Pizza hut

                                         Pizza Hut in Mianyang

As I settled into life in Mianyang, I went out and met people mostly right outside the campus where all the restaurants were. The food there was delicious. It was mostly fresh vegetables, lotus root was my favorite, and a little rabbit, chicken, or beef that you put on a bed of rice. Sichuan food is renowned as some of the spiciest in China, and I can say this is well deserved. What makes it so spicy is the small black pepper-like pellets put into the dishes. The numbing “taste” is something I had never encountered and they love it in Sichuan. Celebrations or parties all center around going out and eating a communal meal. This usually involves either hot pot or dry pot. Hot pot is a giant pot that is set into the table with a kerosene stove underneath it and filled with vegetable oil. The party then orders ala carte different vegetable and meat plates. Yin took me to a famous hot pot place when he first picked me up. He ordered us duck kidney, cow stomach, shrimp rolls, lotus root, soy bean skin, and a couple other things I can’t remember. The oil and “la jiao”, I don’t know what it is in English, make the spiciness from hot pot food unquenchable. Dry pot is several pots set on a long table with less vegetable oil. My favorite meal was dry pot with goose wing or rabbit.

                                sichuan cuisine

                                          Sichuan Cuisine

My classes were great. I was transferred to a class of four people after my first teacher began teaching another student. There were two Americans, one from Alaska the other from Florida, as well as a girl from Korea. They had all been studying in China for about 3 years. Not to brag but I caught up with them pretty fast and could soon understand most of what my teacher said. She would speak only Chinese the entire time, but she was very skilled at incorporating new vocabulary we’d already studied into her speech. Chinese is an interesting language, and not as difficult as people make it out to be. Humans naturally have the capacity to learn language. Having said that though, Chinese will make you crazy if you try to speak it every day like I did in China. One day you will speak fluently then the next day your tones will be completely off to where you can’t pronounce “what is your name” correctly. This comes with the territory of studying a language intensely.My travel time in China was limited to several excursions and repeated trips to the capital city of Cheng Du. Cheng Du is an amazing city of about 12 million people. I was amazed at how modernized it is. It has several Universities. It also had all types of different cuisines, all of which I tried because I was sick of rice. I stayed at a couple hostels while I was there and met some really interesting students from Sweden, England, and Germany. My excursions were to Emei Mountain, one of China’s four Buddhist mountains, and the Grand Buddha park. They were both amazing and my pictures speak for themselves.

Bart China Temple      

            China Temple


 Bart China Panda

    Cheng du’s Panda Reservation

I was ready to leave China after about six months in Asia. I genuinely missed Americans, or at least westerners, and their food. We take for granted the smorgasbord of different foods we have in America. As far as the people, there is a big difference in humor. The Chinese are never sarcastic or ironic and their sense of comedy is based around “silly” circumstances and extreme facial expressions. This is far from a fault but it is also far from the kind of humor my friends and I share. My Chinese friends and I exchanged gifts, my mom sent me Razorback paraphernalia to give them. Finally, Yin gave me a ride to Cheng Du airport before I said my final goodbyes to the Middle Kingdom.                                                                                                                  I plan to go again, but next time to a bigger city like Shanghai or Beijing after I graduate.

Bart China Bruc Lee

Bart in front of Bruce Lee statueI