October 8 Journal
How do I begin to tell of this journey? I suppose I will do as the Mad Hatter suggests and "Start at the beginning, and when I reach the end... stop." This is only appropriate because I feel as though I've fallen down the cultural rabbit hole. Saying goodbye to my American parents was much easier than expected (not that it wasn't hard), as was the sixteen hour flight from San Francisco to Tokyo, with the help of my newfound friends from all over the states. After arrival and regular airport protocol I was picked up by my host family, who called my name as I exited baggage claim. We drove home to Shalu to arrive at an apartment building, the entire four stories of which are owned by the Tsai family.
I will now attempt to list all the members of my family. My host mother and father and their children, Alma (the oldest, recently returned from vacationing in Australia), Ann (a college student), Tammy (studies in Tainan city), and Angela (a student at the local high school and rebound from Brazil.) Next is my aunt and her daughters, Jasmine, Joanne, Celia, and Mei Mei. Then my host uncle William and his wife, as well as their two sons and a daughter. On top of all this is Grandma Tsai and the live-in maid from Korea.
And now for the weather. The heat is very similar to Florida, so nothing new there, but thankfully the nights have just begun to cool down. One definitely gets the "tropical island" feel walking down the streets of Shalu. Beautiful flowers and vines growing everywhere on the sidewalks, a strong wind blowing through the trees walking 15 minutes to school in the mornings, and bats and butterflies to keep me company as I walk home at night. Shalu is basically... Hastings to Taichung's Saint Augustine to Taipei's Jacksonville if that makes any sense. Taichung is definitely larger than Saint Augustine, but in comparison to Taipei... it's nothing.
Five days a week I go to Shalu Gao Gong (an industrial vocational school) wearing my uniform of black, blue, and grey, with my yellow Kool Aid sneaks to top it all off, to enjoy time with my new friends, one on one Chinese lessons with the school's Chinese teacher, helping teach English class, and 4 hours of Kung Fu on average everyday (my favorite part). Who would have guessed that I of all people would fall in love with running laps every morning, Kung Fu most of the day in school, lifting weights after school, and swimming laps at the pool after dinner with my host sister? Not I.
Lunch is eaten in the classrooms out of huge pots containing rice and other dishes served as well as a daily soup. I kid you not - I live in the biggest Chinese restaurant I could have ever imagined and I LOVE it. The school requisitions to each student a bowl, a spoon, and a set of chopsticks to use and wash every day. Three days out of the week though, I bike to McDonald's or a local shop to buy lunch with the boys from my kung fu class.
Nothing yet on this exchange trip has felt better than laughing and joking in a new language (I CAN LAUGH AND JOKE IN CHINESE) while riding a bicycle through the streets with my friends from Kung Fu. After lunch is... NAPTIME. Yes it happens here, and I couldn't be happier about it. Whether it's head-on-a-desk style with my classmates, or on awesome mats in Kung Fu, my thirty minute mid-day nap is BEAUTIFUL. This is required by the students and the teachers alike not only due to the heat, but also because of a ten hour school day.
Did I mention that central air is nonexistent everywhere except government buildings, from what I've seen? This took some getting used to, but once I realized that when I'm sweating, everyone else is too, I made my peace. After school I come home and eat delicious meals consisting of (you guessed it) rice, curry, chicken, squid, spinach, and other unknown, unnamed delicacies. After dinner I go to the pool where EVERYONE wears speedos (I'M NO LONGER ALONE!) to swim my laps, chill in the sauna or hot tub, or use the high powered jets to massage my back and shoulders after a hard day of Kung Fu.
On the weekends I meet my friends from school in Taichung city to go to one of four... or maybe five fifteen story shopping malls, eat at fantastic roadside restaurants, and find unbelievable bargains on mind-blowing fashion in the sprawling night markets, or of course I spend time with my fellow inbounds at Rotary meetings where we sing (every meeting), dance (every... single meeting), and have the best times. Considering these meetings are on Friday nights, I'm glad they're so much fun.
December 22 Journal
Things have settled into a pretty decent rhythm since my first journal. I get up, eat breakfast, bike to school (I got a bike!), work out before class, exhaust myself with Kung Fu, delicious lunches, naptime, more Kung Fu, etc. A recent discovery is that the weather in the central portion of Taiwan seems to be literally exactly like that of Saint Augustine, Florida. I watched as the temperature dropped around the same time of year, to the same general temperature, and in the same way I hated it in Florida, it's still unpleasant despite my new surroundings. I wasn't prepared for the cold (only one jacket, so hard to match with everything!), so of course, shopping ensues. Ah god shopping in Taiwan. I could go on for days. The night markets, a hustle and bustle of people buying, selling, hocking, mocking, wearing, and living fashion. Street vendors market their wares directly outside the stores of high end retailers, and it's often so hard to decide between a name brand one knows and loves so well and an obscure but unquestionably stylish garment off a table right down the street. Then there's the 15+ story department stores with everything from Aveda Salons, to Luis Vuitton, from the iStore, to a huge movie theater. They even have a CHILI'S! Highlight of my day. Often times I'll go to a mall with no idea what it is I'm looking for, but simply by watching the shoppers around me and becoming positively green with envy, I know exactly what I want. The style over here is like the stuff of legend in Saint Augustine. And the HAIR. I've watched my Floridian friend strive for hours to achieve what some of these people "wake and shake" to. It's... upsetting to say the least. Jealousy abounds.
I have also recently been putting my talents to work singing with the school rock-cover band. We're performing It's My Life and Every Day by Bon Jovi very soon, and we practice almost every day. Though it can't compare to the daily 45 minutes of Chamber Singers I experienced at Saint Augustine High School, getting in my daily regimen of singing does my soul good. I find myself singing walking to and from class, in class, during lunch, and almost every hour of the day, never more so than now my kind and wondrous mother has been gracious enough to mail me the deluxe edition of Lady Gaga's new cd, The Fame Monster. My classmates seem to be very much enamored with her, as am I, considering all the new found Gaga ringtones I'm hearing in class.
Speaking of Gaga, for the past week, I've been working on translating my absolute favorite song of hers, Paparazzi, into Chinese. After I had the entire song completely translated, my Chinese teacher and I went through it to check for... well whether it made sense or not, and we actually ended up keeping a surprisingly large amount of my original translation, which I could not be happier about. But I didn't RANDOMLY take it upon myself to grace the people of the Chinese speaking world with understanding the beauty and magic of Lady Gaga's writing style, I had purpose. Two weeks ago I received an email informing me that there was to be an Inbound Chinese Free Talking at the District Christmas Party in which all inbounds were expected to give a 3-5 minute presentation using only Chinese. Some chose to sing traditional Chinese songs, still others gave speeches or performed skits or dances. I chose to perform a piano arrangement I had written by ear and sing Gou Zai Duei or Paparazzi for the unsuspecting crowd. I was well received, and everyone seemed not only to understand what I was singing, but also to ENJOY it, which was a huge plus.
After the performances, dinner, a short rest, and the dance competition began. I may not have been acutely aware of a dance competition occurring, but if there is music, I will surely be dancing. I gave the DJ The Fame Monster, and away we rolled. For three straight hours we danced to my CD, other inbounds iPods, and a live band playing a few slow songs on occasion, breaking only to announce that one of the largest earthquakes to date had hit Taiwan. ("We caused an earthquake!? Sweet! Turn the music up!!") We did partner dances, line dances, lap dances, most kinds of dances imaginable, and at the end of it all, my long time dancing partner hailing from Brazil and I were crowned King and Queen of the dance competition, given devil horns instead of crowns, and huge bouquets. We had a final dance to So Happy I Could Die, which you should really look up, as it basically explains how I feel about all these wonderful people. After the dance, we exchanged presents and went on our way. By far the most fun I've had yet.
Because he was so impressed by my performance (only bragging a little), the District Governor has slated me to perform Paparazzi, and anything else I can cook up between now and a meeting of all the districts in Taiwan, in January. That means a select few exchange students including myself will be performing for every inbound, every outbound, and every Rotary member in all of Taiwan. I could not be happier about this development.
All exchange students from Taichung County should be going to Taipei for New Years, though I'm still not exactly clear WHO'S New Years we're talking about, as I do know we're going to Sun Moon Lake in Nantou this weekend for a little outing. Who knows, who cares, I'm with my friends and people who love and care about me.
This exchange has made nothing more clear to me than this: It doesn't matter where you go on this Earth, all that matters is that you're surrounded by people who love and care about you.
February 15 Journal
Life has been pretty intense since my last journal. I'm in a family I'm in love with and it's winter break for Chinese New Year which was three days ago, so the parties and family events have been continuous.
On top of THAT, after hearing my translation of Lady Gaga's Paparazzi into Chinese, the Rotary has collectively decided to make me leader of literally every group, every performance, and... everything until I leave. I have been charged with putting together a performance that must involve all 26 inbound students in my district, teaching them the song (in Chinese, of course), and choreographing a dance for everyone to do for an audience of over 300 Rotary members. All is going very well, and everyone is really working hard.
My Brazilian friend and I have also been doing performances at our family's company's New Year's parties and just about every Rotary event. He plays guitar, and I play piano and sing. Everyone really seems to like it, and it feels amazing to be on stage. Though we only know a few songs between the two of us, we're always very well received.
The Chinese New Year left me with MUCH more money than before, and considering I still have a few more days worth of family visits to conduct, as well as a trip to Taipei, the money shows no sign of stopping. While this is entirely enjoyable, being a member of a family whose parents are as fashion conscious as I like to believe myself to be is absolutely fantastic. My host brothers listen to the same music as me, and every day I am ASTOUNDED by my host mother’s outfits. Oh also, they’re the most kind, caring, and loving people I've yet to meet in this country. I've yet to feel as wanted as I do now, with this family.
To me, this also shows that the host family really makes the exchange. My past few families gave me very good perspective about the aspects of both American and Taiwanese culture I do and do not like, and this family encompasses all of them, and because we love each other so much, I accept things I find odd or frustrating, and they try to ignore me when I'm just a bit too outrageous for them, though it's rare as they seem to be well aware of American idiosyncrasies.