Student Essays Are Kicking my Butt

I’m you-know-what deep in marking student essays. After I finish unraveling about five hundred more pages of inscrutable prose, I’ll be back with an article. The length of time that will take is dependent on whether my head explodes.

In the meantime, checkout some of these articles. They are under-performing and deserve more hits:

Being Taiwanese Means Never Saying Sorry – Opinions on whether I’m right on this one are divided along lines of race and sex; Taiwanese females disagreeing, foreign males agreeing, and everyone else occupying middle ground. What do you think?

Symbolic, Parabolic, Metaphorical, Allegorical … Chinese – Another problem I have understanding Chinese.

Vignette #7: My Favorite Student – I know the title makes it seem like something you don’t care about, but it’s about a thirty second read, and it’s worth it.

Where Have All the Idiots Gone: Professionalization and ESL Instruction – A bit about what ESL teaching is now and was before.

What’s in a Name? – There are some doozers in Asia.

Now I have to get back to marking. I’ll be back with you as soon as possible.

Vignette #15: I Ain’t Famous, I Just Look that Way

I’m around 193 cm. tall with blonde hair, cobalt eyes, pale skin, big shoulders, a barrel chest and majestic midsection. My every feature conspires to make me conspicuous. I’m ostentatiously unChinese and stick out like a sore dick, hovering above the crowd with my freakish pinkness.

People notice me. Less now than in the past, when I was the only foreigner they’d see for weeks. Nowadays you can’t swing a youtiao (油条) in Taipei without smacking a foreigner. Despite that, the sideshow aspects of my appearance conspire with my movie star good looks to ensure I still get lots of stares.

I don’t mind the attention. Some expats have been driven from Asia by that feeling of constantly being under a microscope. It makes me nostalgic for how it was when I first came to Asia, and there weren’t three whiteys [I like that word—I’m trying to restore it to its former glory] on every corner.

“It’s 7:30, do you know where your husband is?” A picture sent to my wife by one of Taipei’s network of concerned citizens.

I can’t go anywhere in Taiwan without being recognized. Partly that’s a function of how much my looks obtrude into the Taiwanese mind. On that level, I assume that all non-swarthy foreigners experience something similar. It’s also because my wife—through her work and personality—knows a stunning percentage of Taiwan’s population, so they know of me. I’m infamous by association.

“I think that’s your husband on his way to TGIFridays. Isn’t he on a diet?” Another concerned citizen heard from.

I can’t get away with anything. Frequently when I’m out and about, my wife will phone me and ask, “Why are you at ____?” How does she know I’m there? Someone has phoned and told her, or thanks to modern technology, sent her a picture of me there. It’s hard to cheat on your diet if you know your wife is likely to end up with an unbecoming photo of you snarfling down that bacon double cheeseburger at the Monkey.

It kind of kills a lot of the adventure and intrigue marriage offers.

A Trip to the Taiwanese Dentist

One of the first queasy expat moments comes when seeking medical care for the first time. Here we’re at our most vulnerable. It is a genuinely uncomfortable needing medical assistance and facing support staff, nurses, and often dentists or doctors who do not speak English, or speak medical jargon and have that confused with English. Seeking medical attention in a system different from what you’re used to tests the mettle of many.

Luckily I’ve not faced major health issues for most of my time abroad, but even insignificant health problems can be a bunghole tightening experience. My first toothache crashed down on me early in my Taiwan stay, twenty two years ago. I had a cavity that was impossible to ignore. I tried. However, eating was an obstacle course of pain and nerve twinges food had to run through my debilitated beerhole. Every morsel I masticated, every sip I supped, had me skittering around like a cat being ambushed by a cucumber [Video]. There was no getting around it, I needed a dentist, but I didn’t know where to turn. I’d seen many dental clinics walking around Taipei. Usually through the office window you could see a straining dentist hunched over an antsy patient. Window shopping for a dentist didn’t ease my mind. My friends were know-nothing newbs—totally unhelpful. So, I did the only thing I could think of, I went to the lone dentist advertised in the English newspaper. He claimed to be Harvard trained—that sounded reassuring.

Like anyone embarking on a dangerous mission, I did a little recon first. The clinic had nice modern looking chairs and cute dental assistants. What do I know about assessing dental competency from a brief walkby? I made an appointment.

At the appointed time and hour I timorously made my way to the clinic.

A little background information is necessary to explain my apprehensions. Before coming to Taiwan I had lived in Korea. While there, I had talked with people who’d gotten dental care. In Korea, at that time, it was common for dental work to be done without anesthesia. My roommate had some cavities filled without freezing. She claimed it was fine. She wore headphones to drowned out the drill’s noise, which according to her made all the difference. She was delighted to save a few won skipping the injections. Color me skeptical. I really don’t think a Walkman is any substitute for the oblivion offered by modern pharmacology. I personally was horrified. I’m pretty sure these dental practices were mentioned in a book of medieval torture I read in school. I belong to the knock me out as much as possible school of thought. If someone is going to be drilling, cutting, yanking, or otherwise messing with my mouth, I don’t want to feel anything—damn the expense. My foremost priority on my Taiwanese dental adventure was to ensure that I got novacaine.

Different from a dental office you might find in the West, the dentist in Taipei had a waiting area that was not really separated from the his workspace. The receptionist’s counter partially obscured the view, but waiting clients were privy to much that was happening in the business end of the clinic.

After waiting, and watching, it was my turn. I made my way to the dental chair. When I sat down in the chair the dentist found I actually had two cavities, one on an upper right side molar, the other on the lower left side.

During the examination I maintained a laser focus on my priorities. Number one: freezing. The dentist grabbed a needle—without prompting—and froze my lower left molar. My stress flew away. I relaxed knowing whatever happened I wouldn’t feel it. The dentist then grabbed his drill, buzzed it menacingly a few times, but I remained nonchalant. Then he proceeded to drill the upper right—unfrozen—molar.

Bastard!

The tension that shot through my spine bowed my body into a banana shape, with only my heels and head touching the dentist’s chair. (I used to have abs). My pelvis and legs were shaking in a pretty decent parody of Josephine Baker’s Banana Dance. I’d have leaped right out of the chair, but with the buzzing drill in my mouth, I was scared of being cut to ribbons. I kept my gaping maw as still as possible, but it was at the end of two hundred pounds of wildly flailing protoplasm, so, you know, accurately drilling out a cavity was probably tough. The dentist gently cooed at me to take it easy. It worked a charm—I calmed right down. Idiot. Despite the power drill screwing into my tooth I managed to make it absolutely clear that the molar was not frozen. He seemed to already be aware of that, and just laughed and told me to calm down. Yeah, right! I don’t know why he was drilling the unfrozen tooth. I think maybe he was conducting an experiment to see if a white patient would put up with the same shit an Asian patient would. Nope.

He continued drilling; I continued reverse twerking.

I have to admit, despite being a freaky sensation, the drilling did not hurt. It was just weird—and then he exposed the root.

My heels and head lost contact with the chair as I basically hovered above it like a yogic flyer, only just descending to the chair long enough for the skin on my back to contract and launch me back into the air. My feet and legs were shooting out in all directions. Eventually the dentist gave up, reached for a syringe, and with a condescending laugh froze my upper jaw…and everything calmed down.

I’m tall, so the receptionist’s counter did little to hide my legs dancing like a criminal’s on the end of the hangman’s rope. The entire waiting area sat enthrall to their every quiver. They also heard my gurgling high pitched moaning. When I left, I was greeted by five very anxious and pale faces. It seems like the layout of Taiwanese dental offices needs reconsidering.

It took an inordinate amount of time for my upper molar to heal. It was a mass of jangling nerves for at least a month. The slow healing was a direct result of the lack of local anesthetic. I left that office feeling physically abused. Over two decades later, I still feel enmity towards the dentist. I must admit that he, apparently, did very good work. Every dentist that I’ve seen since, both in Canada and Taiwan, have complemented his handiwork. All I know is it was too painful. When I told the tale of my tribulations to my Taiwanese girlfriend, expecting a healthy dose of sympathy sex, all I got was laughed at and called a pussy (孬種).

Is this namby-pamby attitude towards dentistry just me, or are all foreigners the same?

 

Taiwanese Delicacies #5: Savoury Rice Pudding

Today we take a deep dive into Taiwanese cuisine. 碗粿 is one of the few Taiwanese foods that does not trace its origins to China. It is a truly native Taiwanese dish.

I couldn’t find any information, in English, about it on the internet so we’re stuck with my own tin-eared transliteration of 碗粿 from Taiwanese into the Roman alphabet—Mwa Guei. That’s the best I could do. The first syllable begins with a nasal “mng” sound, made while puckering the lips together as though about to kiss your aunt. Then the sound expands into a “wa,” while the corners of the mouth pull wide, into a kind of creepy—open-mouthed—grimace. The nasal twang is maintained through the whole syllable. The tone is high and even. If you know some Chinese, it ressembles saying 我 with a really bad head cold. The second syllable, guei or gway, sounds like 鬼. It is pronounced with a falling tone. Yeah, I know, that was useless, but try to order this dish in Taiwanese. Using Chinese to say 碗粿, alludes to 碗糕, which sounds like a childish curse in Taiwanese—and makes you sound like a knob.

If you’ve been in Taiwan a while you’ll undoubtedly have heard how fantastic the food is in Tainan. If you’re like me, you’ve thought, “What the hell are you talking about? It’s the same general stuff as at any night market in Taiwan.” The Tainan version of mwa guei is one of the things Taiwanese people are referencing. The dish is more common in the South. I actually didn’t know it existed for the first decade I lived in Taipei. I never saw it, in person or on a menu; I never heard it talked about. I don’t know how I missed it—it is available in Taipei, but I didn’t get introduced to it until I married a Taiwanese woman. Now every time I go to Tainan, I have to bring back a couple dozen for the wife and in-laws. The northern version is different, whiter, and at least for my family, less desirable.

Mwa guei is made from long-grain Indica rice (在來米) flour. It is made in a similar way to radish cake (蘿蔔糕). Generally, mwa guei contains pork, dried shrimp, shiitake mushrooms, salted duck egg, shallots, soy sauce, rice wine, and sugar. In the southern version the ingredients are sautéed, placed directly in the uncooked rice paste, which is  then steamed, ensuring the savory flavor infuses the entire dish. The sauces leaching into the rice paste give southern mwa guei it’s characteristic brownish color. In the North the rice paste is cooked separately from the other ingredients, preserving its pristine whiteness. The other ingredients are then placed on top. Mwa guei is served with a typical sweetish Taiwanese sauce on top. Hot sauce and minced garlic are provided on the side.

I [inaccurately] associate mwa guei with breakfast. I suppose because it is somewhat commonly served at breakfast in the South. In reality it is a snack served all day, the Taiwanese just begin eating it in the morning.

Be sure to try this true Taiwanese classic.

Women Are from Venus: Men Are Hopeless

This week was final exams week. I’ve been busy and haven’t prepared anything to share with you. However, through last night’s drunken haze, I remembered this little anecdote. Since I’ve been in teaching mode all week, here is a teacherly story.

Have you heard the old adage (I just made up): Women are from Venus; men are clueless. University students, more than other demographics, embody this truism. Most remember university as a time of growing sexual awareness and exploration; a time to test new-found freedoms. As a university instructor I have a bird’s eye view of these mini-dramas unfolding during the most [unintentionally] comedic period of human life. It’s fun.

One of my sophomore classes had a reigning king and queen. The pair were the most popular kids in class. It was easy to see why. Sylvia was on the school’s cheerleading team—a big deal at that school. She was fit, attractive, bubbly, and smart; the class spark plug. If there was anything fun or exciting happening she was at its center, making sure everyone had a good time. She was universally liked. Stan was tall, muscular, ridiculously handsome, charming—dumb as a stump—and super personable. As his teacher I should have found him irritating; he definitely wasn’t the sharpest nut in the candy dish, but it was impossible not to like him. They were LANG-208-47-B5 class’s power couple.

As a teacher, standing at the front of class, you see everyone’s reaction to everything. It gives you a strong sense of what’s going through student’s minds. On this Monday, our hero looked like the goose that swallowed the golden egg. He was the picture of barely contained giddiness. Sitting beside him was Sylvia, and there was definitely something rolling through her head too. I couldn’t quite read her expression, but the wheels were clearly turning.

I gave the class a writing assignment—in one page describe your weekend. Most of the essay’s ranged from “I slept” to “I played online games”. Ho-hum. Then I came to Sylvia’s essay. It was like nothing I’ve ever gotten from a student. It was oddly poetic. Dappled moonlight was gently brushing flower petals. Birds were crying sweet tears of joy and sorrow, while clouds looked on knowingly. It was beautiful, romantic, and totally incomprehensible. I liked it, but couldn’t make heads or tails of it.

Then I read Stan’s essay. He had pressed the definition of a one-page article to its utter limits, and I can quote his entire essay here: “Last night I went to Yangmingshan and touched a boobie. Score!”

Ahhh. I see.

His happiness bounced off the page with every pen stroke. He was a [very] simple young man, with an equally simple dream, a pure dream, a noble dream—to touch a boobie. God bless him, he lived his dream. But, from my perspective at the head of the class, the meaning of Sylvia’s facial expressions became clearer. Sylvia had different, more complex, aspirations. They didn’t end with an inept boob fondle. Sylvia was revving up to turn his existence into a raging hell; and so the dance of life began for Stan. The poor naive bastard had no idea what was coming. On that day, in that class, he sat fully three inches taller than normal, looking left and right with his shit-eating grin, just a happy-go-lucky guy—contentment personified. For that brief moment, before his world came tumbling down, you couldn’t help but want to be Stan.

Being a teacher has its entertainments.