Tour de Fengjia: Night Market Eats

“Food is a central activity of mankind and one of the single most significant trademarks of a culture.”- Mark Kurlansky

As promised, I present you *round two* of Taiwanese food adventures with Kyle. This time, we tackled Taichung’s food capital: Fengjia night market. 逢甲夜市

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Only the finest Harvard gear for our Harvard boy!!

Like I mentioned in my first post, Fengjia (or Feng Chia) is the biggest night market in Taiwan and is conveniently located a quick 10 minute scooter ride from my apartment. The 1 kilometer-wide shopping district is famous for its abundance of trendy clothing, cell phone accessories and, of course, street food, all at unbeatable prices.

 

It is my firm (albeit heavily biased) belief that no trip to Taiwan is complete without an all-out Fengjia ransack. Fortunately, Yuki and her brother Allison are the most seasoned Fengjia foodies in all of Taichung, and were happy to act as Kyle & my tour guides. To avoid the crowds we got a head start at 5:30 on a Wednesday night, and wound up staying until almost 10:00. Yup, it’s THAT good.

You know what comes next. Here’s Kyle’s review of each snack on Yuki and Allison’s carefully curated menu, ranked from worst to best.

16. Stinky Tofu 臭豆腐 (price: $0; we got a free sample)

SCORE: 2

Perhaps Taiwan’s most notorious dish, stinky tofu is fermented tofu that is fried or boiled. It is, indeed, of the utmost stank. While I don’t particularly mind it, Kyle barely forced it down. Fengjia 1, Kyle 0.

15. Pig’s Blood Cake 豬血糕 (40 NT/ $1.33 USD)

SCORE: 5, then 2

Pig’s blood cake is rice mixed with coagulated pig’s blood, steamed, dipped in soy sauce, and then coated with peanut dust. It’s a favorite among locals, including Allison! We decided not to tell Kyle what it was until after he’d taken a bite… resulting in the change in score, as reflected. I’ve gotta say, I’ve taken a nibble on several occasions and it’s really not as bad as it sounds. The trick is to not think too hard about what you’re eating.

14. Shaved Ice 剉冰 (50 NT/ $1.67 USD)

SCORE: 3

DISCLAIMER: I find many of Kyle’s scores to be atrocious, including this one. While shaved ice isn’t my favorite, it’s a classic Taiwanese dessert that is widely enjoyed, despite consisting of flavors unfamiliar to most Western palates. The body of the dish is exactly what it sounds like: a pile of shaved ice. Where things get interesting are the toppings, which include red beans, grass jelly, taro, sweet potato, condensed milk, tapioca balls, or “boba,” and others. Most of the toppings have a chewy texture, which is what turned Kyle off. The name for this texture is “QQ” in Taiwan, and is also what most people love about shaved ice.

13. Peanut Mochi 花生麻糬 (3 flavors for 100 NT/ $3.33 USD)

SCORE: 6

Ah, mochi. We have the Japanese to thank for this sticky, rice-based, delectable dessert. We bought three different types of mochi at Fengjia but Kyle tried the Hakka-style peanut mochi, originating from the Hakka minority ethnic group in Taiwan. The simple sweet consists of plain mochi rolled in peanut dust. While Kyle wasn’t into it (what with it being QQ and all), I would like the record to show that I am a diehard fan. It’s a 10/10 from me. Don’t @ me, Kyle.

12. Lemon Pepper Curry Shrimp  懶人蝦 (13 shrimp for 100 NT/ $3.33 USD)

SCORE: 7

These lil’ shrimps are unique because they’re eaten whole. First you bite the head off and spit it out, then you chomp the rest off the skewer and there you have it– no peeling necessary. The Chinese name is literally “lazy shrimp.” If only everything were so simple…

11. Black Soy Milk Tea 紅茶豆漿 (35 NT/ $1.17 USD)

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SCORE: 7

Tea + soy milk. A tried and true classic.

10. Ji Pai 雞排 (75 NT/ $2.50 USD)

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SCORE: 8

Ji pai, or Taiwanese fried chicken, is a night market classic and an unintimidating entry point into Taiwanese street food. We went to one of the most hyped up ji pai stands in Fengjia, which is saying something. It was a hit!

9. Candied Tomato 糖葫蘆 (90 NT/ $3.00 USD)

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SCORE: 8

Think a candied apple, but SURPRISE it’s not an apple it’s a tomato. Also it’s wrapped in edible rice paper. *mind blown*

8. Cheese Fries 起司薯條  (55 NT/ $1.83 USD)

SCORE: 8

Description self-evident.

7. Papaya Milk, 1/2 Sugar 木瓜牛奶 半糖  (60 NT/ $2.00 USD)

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SCORE: 8.5

This is the only item on this list that I have not personally tasted (lactose intolerant=好), but Kyle promised it’s good. It’s similar to its cousins apple milk and strawberry milk, which are also popular in Taiwan and can be found pretty much anywhere. Pro tip: at tea shops and drink stands in Taiwan, you can specify how much ice and sugar you would like in your beverage. Talk about a ~personalized experience~.

6. Scallion Pancake with Basil and Egg 蔥油餅加蛋 (35 NT/ $1.17 USD)

SCORE: 8.5

These scallion pancakes, or zhua bing, are easily one of my favorite Taiwanese foods. They’re almost identical to their Indian counterpart, roti prata. While they can be eaten at any time, they’re a popular breakfast food when filled with eggs or meat. Flaky, oily, and irresistible.

5. Takoyaki 章魚燒 (6 for 40 NT/ $1.33 USD)

SCORE: 9

Takoyaki is a Japanese snack made of batter filled with octopus, pressed into perfect spheres, and covered with bonito flakes. Bonito flakes are also known as “dancing fish flakes,” because the steam rising from the hot balls makes the super lightweight flakes flutter about like they’re dancing. Science, man.

4. Honey Wasabi Squid 蜂蜜芥末炸花枝 (100 NT/ $3.33 USD)

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SCORE: 9

Unfortunately my absolute favorite squid stand was closed the evening of Kyle’s visit, so we had to swap it’s famous honey mustard squid for this inferior stand’s cheap honey wasabi knockoff. Just kidding, it was still really good. But it just might’ve cost us the difference between a 9 and a 10…

3. Candied Strawberry 糖葫蘆 (Purchased with candied tomatoes for 90 NT/ $3.00 USD)

SCORE: 9.5

The exact same as their tomato counterparts, just strawberries– so therefore, better.

2. 1973 Chicken 繼光香香雞 (medium for 80 NT/ $2.67 USD)

SCORE: 10

J & G 1973 Chicken is a famous Taiwanese fried chicken chain, so of course Kyle loved it. He did admitted that his preference probably stemmed in part from the taste being familiar, as fried chicken isn’t exactly novel. At least he’s honest.

1. Duck Bao 烤鴨夾餅 (50 NT/ $1.67 USD)

SCORE: 10

It’s no surprise to me that this was Kyle’s favorite Fengjia delicacy. The majority of our Fulbright group has been obsessed with this duck sandwich since week one. The shredded meat, pickled veggies, and spicy sauce all wrapped in a steaming pillowy bun– my mouth is watering while typing this. I’ve eaten it at least 10 times, and never gotten sick of it. Maybe Kyle and I can agree on some food after all…

And that’s a wrap! Which of these snacks are you dying to try? Are you surprised by any of Kyle’s scores?


I’ll be logging off for the next few weeks as winter break is (finally) upon us. Cheers to ringing in the Lunar New Year– and 24 — with a trip to Singapore, Thailand, and what promises to be an epic birthday celebration in Hong Kong. See you all in the Year of the Pig!

PS. Peep the slideshow for some other non food-related highlights from Kyle and Kenny’s visit :)))

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CELEB APPEARANCE! Taiwanese Snack Taste Test feat. Teacher Kyle

“And now we welcome the new year. Full of things that have never been.”                       -Rainer Maria Rilke

Like many, I look forward to December bringing its warm and fuzzy holiday feels every year. But this December brought more than just presents, cookies, and Christmas cheer to Taiwan. It brought the moment we’ve all (okay mostly me) been waiting for, the greatest gift of all: my FIRST VISITOR TO TAIWAN!!!

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Pictured, from left to right: Kenny, the happiest girl in the world, Kyle

Ladies and gentleman, the *star* of the show, my dear friend, and Philly’s own: Mr. Kyle Miller. Our favorite Harvard student, former MoviePass enthusiast and future urban planner arrived to Taipei on the evening of New Years Eve, cinching the “2018 MVF (Most Valuable Friend)” title with just hours left to spare.

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Can’t rain on our NYE parade!!! (Spoiler: it did.)

Fun fact: this was the second New Year’s Eve Kyle and I spent together, after a spontaneous decision to drive from Philly to Pittsburgh just hours before the clock struck midnight last year. Keeping with tradition, Kyle didn’t arrive in Taipei until around 10:00 PM on Monday. We managed to meet up with our good friend Kenny (who, by an alignment of the stars, was also here visiting family) at Taipei 101 just 15 minutes before the fireworks started, AND were inside the club by 12:10. ~That 2019 energy tho~

Over Kyle’s six day trip, we packed in tons of adventures: a visit to Feng Chia night market (blog post coming soon), tea tasting after a ride on the Making Gondola, two days of showing Teacher Kyle off at school (unsurprisingly, the students now like him better than me), scooter rides through Taichung (that Kyle CLAIMS were dangerous even though I am an excellent driver thank you), a sweaty hike up Elephant Mountain, a stay in the world’s #1 large hostel… you get the picture.

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A wild Kenny in his natural habitat (Ai Club)

But perhaps the wildest adventure of all was this: taste testing Taiwanese snacks.

In anticipation of Kyle’s arrival, Yuki and I had been stockpiling traditional Taiwanese snacks for a few weeks (mostly from 7-Eleven), and had a surprise for Kyle up our sleeve.

The rules of the game were as follows: During Yuki’s smallest class, we laid out 13 snacks in front of Kyle. Each student could ask him a question. If they asked the question correctly, they were allowed to choose a snack for him to try. Kyle then ranked each snack on a scale of one to 10, with his personal criteria being “anything that doesn’t make me gag automatically gets a five.”

Read on for the full list of Kyle’s rankings, arranged from worst to best.

13. Iron Eggs 鐵蛋 (score: 3)

Coming in dead last is iron eggs, or quail eggs that have been repeatedly stewed and dried until they’re dark and shrunken. Looks like Kyle’s the only good egg here. (lqtm)

12. Peanut Soup 花生湯 (score: 4)

This classic Taiwanese dish is a sweet soup that can be eaten hot or cold. We served it to Kyle cold, straight out of the can, complete with the little plastic spoon that comes with it. He lasted one spoonful.

11. Oyster Chips 蚵仔煎 (score: 5)

Yup, oyster flavored potato chips. Even among all the unusual chip flavors in Taiwan– Boston shrimp, seaweed, chicken fajita– this is one of the oddest.

10. Red Fish Strips 鱈魚片 (score: 6)

Admittedly, I don’t know much more about this snack than the name provides. It’s fishy, it’s red, it comes in strips. Kyle did not go for seconds.

6 (tie). White Fish Strips 鱈魚香絲 (score: 7)

Very similar to their red siblings, yet somehow one point tastier. S/o to Kenny– these were his favorite Taiwanese snack as a kid!

6 (tie). Sun Cake 太陽餅 (score: 7)

Okay, I’m really surprised this famous Taiwanese pastry didn’t score higher. It’s basically a flaky, buttery cake with mildly sweet filling. Being the cutthroat critic he is, Teacher Kyle was only mildly impressed.

6 (tie). Sweet Potato Snack Cakes 芋頭餅 (score: 7)

Admittedly, I picked these up at 7 Eleven thinking they were dried sweet potatoes (a different and, in my opinion, tastier treat). These were more cake-y, and according to the scoreboard, pretty meh.

6 (tie). Seaweed 海苔 (score: 7)

Not dissimilar from the seaweed snacks stateside that all the cool kids are trying these days. One might call them the OG kale chips.

4 (tie). Uncooked Instant Noodles 科學麵 (score: 8)

Sounds kinds weird, but is actually super delicious. Rip open the pack, find the packet of seasoning, pour it in, shake shake shake, and viola! You have a tasty, dry ramen snack on your hands.

4 (tie). Ma-Lao 麻荖 (score: 8)

Ma-Lao are puffed rice rolls. They are a super traditional snack– I’m told they can only be found in Chinese or Taiwanese traditional markets. They’re sweet, but in the understated, Taiwanese way.

3. Sesame Peanut Candy 黑芝麻貢糖 (score: 9)

These peanut candies, or gong tang, come from the little island of Kinmen. Kinmen is technically part of Taiwan, even though it’s so close to China that you can see cars driving there from Kinmen’s coast! *insert Sarah Palin joke here* My friend Angela, a fellow Pittsburgher and Fulbrighter who is placed there, there brought these over when she visited.

1 (tie). Mahua Cookies 黑糖麻花捲 (score: 10)

These fried dough twists come from Pingtung, a county in southern Taiwan. The ones we gave Kyle were brown sugar flavored, although they come in many different flavors, including original, chocolate, and wasabi.

1 (tie). Pineapple Cake 鳳梨酥 (score: 10)

It’s only fitting that pineapple cakes, or feng li su, took the gold. Taiwan’s most famous and beloved delicacy, they’re . Sunny Hills is one of the most popular brands, and is known for having a chunkier, more natural pineapple filling. Last month, a family at school took me to the factory in Changhua!


After Kyle had tried everything, we turned the tables. In his luggage he’d brought Gushers, Fruit Roll-Ups, and Fruit By the Foot; now, it was the students turn to be the taste testers. The same rules applied: if they asked a question correctly, they got to choose a snack for the whole group to try.

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As American as apple pie.

Here are their rankings, averaged amongst the five participants:

2 (tie). Gushers (average score: 7)

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Feelings were all over the board on this one, but most of the kids thought they were too sweet, a common critique of American food here. Ah, the refined Taiwanese palate.

2 (tie). Fruit Roll Ups (average score: 7)

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This snack had the biggest disparity in scores, with two students voting 10 and the other three voting 5. The biggest criticism? Too sour. These children are hard to please! Somebody get them their own cooking channel.

1. Fruit By the Foot (average score: 7.4)

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While still not “wowed,” Fruit By the Foot is the champion for being sweet but not too sweet. Like the Goldilocks of artificial American fruit snacks, they were juuuuust right.

All in all, the game was a hit. What do you think? Did Kyle unfairly crush iron eggs with an iron fist? Should Gushers really be the candy we’re gushing over? Send me your thoughts, and if there’s any other snacks I should have the kids try! (Heads up Mom, I might be sending you a shopping list before you visit…)

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How I imagine my classes will be vs. How they actually are

For more food adventures with Kyle, look out for my next post!

 

Five Things I’m Grateful For

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” -Ernest Hemingway

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Not long ago, I had an “aha” moment.

First, let’s take a step back. Admittedly, for a few weeks I’d been feeling like I wasn’t adjusting to life in Taiwan as well as I should be. Preoccupied by problems back home, frustrated with my slow Mandarin progress, and lacking clarity on how my work here fit with my personal and professional goals, I was having second thoughts about whether joining the program was the right decision.

After some soul-searching, I decided I needed to fully throw myself into my new life here. No more obsessing over post-Taiwan plans or worrying about what’s happening on the other side of the world. I would start taking steps to building a life I love here, one day at a time.

Fast forward a few weeks and several steps later. It was late Sunday afternoon, and I’d just had a weekend filled with freelance assignments, volunteering, climbing, soup dumplings, and general merriment. I was wandering around the bookstore, caught up in reflections on the weekend’s success, when it hit me: I am living my ~best ~Taiwan ~life.

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And to think, all this time, the key to happiness was dim sum 

It took four months, and it wasn’t easy, it but I finally feel like I’ve hit my Taiwan stride.

Moving into the new year and the next seven months here, one of my goals is to spend more time reflecting on what brings me clarity, peace, and serenity*. This is a tribute to a few of the many things I’ve been especially grateful for lately. Each has played a part in making Taiwan feel like home, and in making that aha moment possible.

1. Challenge

As expected, these four months have been full of challenges. From starting a new job, navigating different cultural expectations, learning a new method of transportation (#scootlife), and living in a place where my communication skills amount to almost zero, just about every aspect of my daily life was altered in some way.

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At first, this led me to shy away from added challenge. I often ate at 7-Eleven and other “safe” options. I would go to the same tea shop and order the same thing every time using phrases I’d memorized. I wouldn’t dare take a trip to the post office without a Mandarin-speaking ally. If a restaurant didn’t have an English menu and I wasn’t sure what or how to order in Chinese, I would avoid it entirely. It seemed too stressful to venture into unknown territory and risk a communication failure and the public embarrassment that would ensue.

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To be fair, 7-Eleven has its perks

I’ve since learned that, armed with Google translate, some rudimentary Mandarin, and a bit of confidence, one is almost surely equipped to handle life’s everyday obstacles. Some of my most satisfying moments here have been successfully ordering at a different breakfast stand, having a brief conversation in Mandarin with a shopkeeper, or exploring a new place solo. While the interactions are often clunky and require extra mental exertion, each one has been a small step toward making the uncomfortable comfortable.

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Stumbled upon this little market while out adventuring. Do you know what I found? BAGELS. Do you know what that made me? THE HAPPIEST GIRL

I’m also grateful for these small, everyday challenges because they provide the contrast  necessary for me to appreciate how effortlessly I’m able to move through life back home, a blessing that we so seldom have reason to reflect on.

2. Service

I have long gravitated toward what I will broadly define as “service,” yet I had taken for granted the importance of its role in my life. It wasn’t until I arrived here and had some trouble finding meaningful volunteer opportunities that I fully realized the essentialness of service to my own sense of community and to feeling “on purpose.”

Fortunately, I’ve connected with two awesome volunteer opportunities here. Once a month my co-teachers and I host English storytelling hour for families with young children at a local library. It usually involves lots of counting, dancing, and spirited renditions of beloved classics like “Baby Shark” and “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.” (Embarrassing aside: I actually forgot the words to that one, so the kiddos taught me!)

More recently, I’ve been writing and proofreading English documents for The Garden of Hope, a Taiwanese women’s rights organization. Want to know what my first assignment was? Writing a letter to MALALA. Yes, you read that right. It was awesome. If you see her, please tell her to accept our invitation to speak at next year’s conference!

I’m super grateful for both of these chances to get involved in the community and, hopefully, make a small contribution to the meaningful work that is being done here.

3. Outlets (not the shopping kind)

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It’s all fun and games until you use the auto belay for the first time… talk about trust issues amirite

Another word for these is “hobbies,” but to me that seems a bit shallow and conjures up images of stamp collecting and bird watching (apologies if that’s your thing). I’m talking about the things you pour yourself into as a means of self expression and emotional release. I’m fortunate to have three primary outlets here: running, climbing, and writing. Between training for the Taipei Half Marathon, climbing at two exceptional gyms here and, most recently, writing for Compass Magazine (the travel guide I told you about), I’ve had a ton of opportunities to pursue my interests. Maintaining each of these has been essential to my mental health.

4. FriendshipIMG_2501

This one might seem obvious, but it’s not until it’s Thanksgiving and you’re thousands of miles away from home, family, and the nearest box of Stove Top stuffing that you truly realize just how clutch your friends are. From our epic Friendsgiving feast to our everyday meme sharing, I’m grateful to have the type of friends here who don’t make me want to leave the group chat.

I also have to give a personal shoutout to Yuki, my kween, who does overtime to fulfill the roles of coworker, best friend, cultural guide, Mandarin tutor, armchair psychologist, and sometimes mom. The name Yuki actually means “angel descended from heaven” in Japanese! (Okay fine, it doesn’t, but it SHOULD because that’s what she is.)

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All I need in this life of sin (Yuki and a corn dog)

5. Korean Skincare

You knew I couldn’t resist a curveball. Seriously tho– my roommates introduced me to Innisfree, a Korean skincare brand with mega popularity here. I’d heard of the miraculous powers of K-Beauty products for years, but had never given any a try. After using Innisfree’s toner and face masks, I can confirm that my life has been forever changed. 10/10 recommend.

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I mean, c’mon. This mask is made out of VOLCANOES. Science is cool!!!

That’s a wrap! I hope you take time this holiday season to reflect on the elements of your own life that bring you happiness, peace, and personal growth.

 

*10 points if you caught the Fergie reference


Looking for some good reading? Check out this super interesting article featuring my favorite things: Pittsburgh, soup dumplings, and Taiwan. ❤

 

 

Trick or Treat: Taiwan Edition

HAPPY HALLOWEEN! Did I miss the party?

…Okay, so this Halloween post is a bit belated. All the elementary schools in Taichung had midterms the week of Halloween (yes, I just said elementary school and midterms in the same sentence), so we weren’t able to begin celebrating until Nov. 1. We wrapped up on Nov. 11, after each class had finally had their special Halloween lesson. I was super eager to give my students a break after their exams and let them have some ~spooky~ fun!

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When your favorite student knows the key to your heart :*)

While it’s not a traditional Taiwanese holiday, Halloween has made its way here through Western pop culture over the past few decades. It’s not a giant commercial phenomenon like in the States, but everyone knows what it is, and most schools acknowledge it in some way. Its popularity continues to grow, with larger supermarkets and stationary stores offering a slew of costumes, candy, and decorations.

Without further ado, here’s how we celebrated Halloween at Xin-Xing:

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Me, Yuki, and our principal handing out candy before school :))
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Totoro, my Halloween inspo. Uncanny, right??
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Just another day of bribing my students to like me
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Teaching the sentence of the week! Really got creative with this one.
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English teacher or hype (wo)man??? You decide

To kick off the celebration, Yuki and I dressed up and handed out candy before school started. She went as Pikachu and I as Totoro, a character from the Japanese film “My Neighbor Totoro” by Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki films have a cult following here, and Totoro is super popular with my students. They were VERY surprised to see us in costume, and it gave them a good laugh (aside from a handful of petrified little ones). S/o to Yuki for finding us $6 onesies from an online store in China!

During class, our third and fourth graders had their own costume contest/ “trashion” show. Using leftover classroom materials and recyclables, they had 20 minutes to make a costume. I first tried this activity while teaching in Italy last summer, and was so excited to bring it to Taiwan. Predictably, the kids loved it, and came up with absolutely hilarious stuff. Turning my kids into ~sustainable fashionistas~ one class at a time. See the slideshow below!

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The fifth graders raced to be the first team to complete the Halloween riddles I wrote them. (“I’m big, round, and high in the sky; when I’m full, things can go awry.” See the end of this post for the answer!) One standout moment was when, during our Halloween vocabulary review, I showed my kids a jack-o-lantern with Sirius Black on it and they thought it was JESUS. It was in that moment that I decided to revive “Kids Say the Darndest Things” and produce a Taiwanese edition (just kidding).

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See bottom right for Sirius/Jesus pumpkin. We need to have a lesson on context clues.

Gloria, another one of my co-teachers,  wanted our sixth-graders to learn about some other Halloween festivities in America. I taught them about haunted hayrides, costume contests, and my personal favorite: Mischief Night. I thought they would get riled up at the idea of sneaking out and playing pranks. Instead, when I showed them a picture of a tp’d house, their reaction was “Teacher! So much WASTE!!!,” proving yet again that Taiwanese children are the purest of them all (and that progressive environmental policies, like Taiwan’s, produce environmentally conscious citizens ;)).

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Clever students coming to my desk after class for ANOTHER piece of candy. Did I see right through their trickery? YES. Did I give them the candy anyway? Maybe…

At the end of each class, the students trick-or-treated– i.e. grabbed a piece of candy out of the bucket I held at the door on their way out. Despite stuffing several huge Walmart bags of candy into my luggage, I still didn’t have enough for all 350 of my students, so my mom shipped several additional bags over (thanks, Mom!). That way, every student got a piece of *American* candy. To be honest, I expected them to be really hype about the “American” part, but I think they shoved it into their mouths so quickly that they didn’t even notice the difference. Hey… kids will be kids!

I hope your Halloween was as festive and fun as ours. Wishing you a Happy Thanksgiving!

 

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Riddle answer: full moon (mǎnyuè). Get it right? Congratulations! You’re as smart as a fifth grader using their second language.

Letters to Pittsburgh

“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” —Theodore Roosevelt

Last week, I saw this quote on the steps of the elementary school where our biweekly Fulbright workshop is held. Pittsburgh has been heavy on my mind, overwhelmingly so, and I’d been feeling like even from 8,000 miles away, there was something more I could be doing. Maybe you don’t believe in signs, but I took it as one.

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When I saw that Jewish Family & Community Services was collecting letters of support for the injured and the families of the victims, I thought this was one small way we could show our support from Taiwan. My co-teacher Gloria and I decided to have a conversation with our sixth graders about what had happened, and help them write letters to send to Pittsburgh.

I thought for a long time about how to approach the subject with my young students. How much should we tell them? Will it be too much for them to process? How can we make it a safe space where they feel emotionally supported? Should we even tell them at all?

After a lot of internal debate, I decided that yes, we should tell them. To shield them from the world won’t help their long-term understanding of tragedies like this, and it won’t prevent hate from spreading. We should instead teach them the importance of acceptance and fighting hate, and show them by example how to do so. This held much more weight, and was therefore a much more valuable learning opportunity, than anything one might find in a textbook.

We started the lesson by talking to them about diversity. Taiwan’s population is pretty homogeneous– over 98% of the population is Taiwanese or Chinese– so this was a new topic. We talked to them about acceptance, and why it’s important to love and respect others regardless of their differences. We asked them what hate is, and their feelings on it. Gently, with carefully chosen words, we explained what had happened in Pittsburgh. We showed the names of the 11 victims so that the students could see them, honor them, and realize that they were real lives, not just a meaningless number which media reports so often make them out to be.

It was important to us that they understand that one person’s hate is not stronger than millions of people’s love and acceptance. We spent a lot of time showing them the helpers: pictures of the vigils, a group of monks paying their respects, the Muslim community raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Jewish community. We showed them that Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, tweeted her support, which brought it closer to home for the kids. They thought that was pretty cool.

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“What can we do to help?” we asked our students. They had lots of ideas: send money, send letters, make food for the families of the victims, go to Pittsburgh and attend a vigil or protest (I was very on board with this idea). We agreed with these, and shared with them some other ideas. Above all, we stressed the importance of practicing acceptance and standing up against hate when we see it, not just in the wake of tragedies like this but all the time.

These lessons were incredibly hard. I cried in front of every class, as I knew I would. But that’s okay, and I told them that. To suppress an emotional reaction during this lesson would be disregarding the pain and humanity of it. Most importantly, I was worried about their hearts. I watched them process it, listening intensely and with understanding. At the end of the conversation, they were motivated to show their own support.

We spent the last part of class working on the cards. I had given them a few examples of simple phrases they could use, and Teacher Gloria told them that anything else they wanted to say, she would help translate from Mandarin to English.

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I was incredibly touched by what they came up with. Not wanting to overestimate either their comprehension of the tragedy or their English ability, I had suggested simple things they could write: “thinking of you,” “stronger than hate,” etc. But they had their own ideas. One student then asked how to say, “I support equal religions.” Another wrote “stay strong” with the corresponding Mandarin character next to it. We showed them how to write “rest in peace,” “so sorry to hear the news,” and “we stand with you,” all at their request.

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When the bell rang indicating it was time for lunch, they stayed put, still hard at work on their letters. By their own choice, they worked halfway through their lunch period. I am still so moved by this. I don’t know many things that could keep a group of 6th graders through lunchtime. They really put their hearts into their letters, and I’m so proud of them.

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Things like writing letters and raising money are reactionary and short-lived. They’re not long-term or far-reaching solutions to the hate that continues to spread worldwide. That will require far bigger systemic change. But even making just a small difference, a tiny show of support, is worth it, I think. I hope that the letters do that. I also hope that the discussion, no matter how brief, makes a small difference in my students’ perspectives on hate and acceptance. If it does, that will be just one step closer to a world where we no longer have tragedies like this.


For the Taipei Half Marathon, John and I are raising money for Tree of Life Synagogue. Because there are so many fundraising pages already out there, we’re asking for donations to be made directly to Tree of Life at the top of the page here. If you are able to donate, please let us know so we can thank you personally.

If you would like to write your own letter to the victims’ families and the injured, you can do so electronically here.

Pittsburgh Strong

“I am sorry this world

could not keep you safe

may your journey home

be a soft and peaceful one”

-rupi kaur

On this side of the world, Saturday, Oct. 27 was a day of love.

Fulbright ETAs from every site in Taiwan traveled to Taipei for its annual pride parade, the biggest gay pride event in East Asia. This year’s march was especially important as it foreshadowed next month’s landmark vote, which will decide the fate of marriage equality in Taiwan.

It was a vibrant, over-the-top, joyful celebration of humanity. We spent the day with 127,000 others, dancing in the streets, waving rainbow flags, celebrating life and each other and the ability to be one’s truest self. I went to bed with tired legs and a peaceful heart.

That’s what this blog post was supposed to be about.

A few hours later, I woke up to a text from a friend, warning me to read the news. Saturday, October 27 had started out very differently at home.

“Multiple deaths in shooting at Pittsburgh Synagogue.”

Just like that, my heart shattered. The love and acceptance and humanity that had made it so full just hours before was overshadowed by incredulous grief at this tremendous act of hate.

Eleven Pittsburghers lost their lives yesterday. Countless others lost loved ones, friends, coworkers, neighbors. The Squirrel Hill community waits, with dreadful anticipation, for the names of the victims. I cannot imagine their pain.

Even as I write this I cannot grasp what has happened. I don’t have the emotional bandwidth to process it, let alone the eloquence needed to put it into words. I doubt the right words exist.

My separate trains of thought repeatedly collide and crash. My mind cannot fill the psychological gap between the physical places I call home: Taiwan, a day of joy and freedom and acceptance. Pittsburgh, a day of hate and tragedy. A world apart.

Amidst echoing sentiments of thoughts and prayers, one message stood out to me. It came from writer Jemele Hill. “I was trying to think of something to type, but I couldn’t. More tragedy, more empty words and more inaction. I’m afraid to contemplate what our breaking point will be, but my biggest fear is we don’t have one.”

This is my biggest fear too.

I wonder if it will really take every single community in the entire country suffering unfathomable loss, before we as a nation are motivated to change.

I wonder if, even then, it will be enough.

A friend recently told me that I was lucky to be abroad, away from the stress and trauma that our country is enduring. But even from 8,000 miles away, I mourn with my city. I want nothing more than to be in Pittsburgh, standing with the rest of its resilient, accepting, unbreakable community.

In dark times like this, when hate almost seems to drive out the light, I remind myself that an act of heinous, pure evil committed by one person cannot overshadow the incredible humanity of thousands of others. Thank you to those on the ground planning and attending vigils, raising money for victim’s families, fiercely and firmly holding the community together. You bring so much hope. In the words of Mr. Rogers, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

Pittsburghers truly are the salt of the earth. I am so proud to be one.

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In six weeks I will be running the Taipei Half Marathon with my friend John, a fellow Pennsylvanian who has also called Pittsburgh home. We are looking into the logistics of raising money on behalf of Tree of Life Synagogue. Please keep an eye out for updates.

If you are looking for ways to fight hate in your community, here is a resource from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Above all, please vote on Nov. 6. It has never been more imperative than now. The safety of our communities depends on it.

Finding Home with Compass

“Maybe you had to leave in order to really miss a place; maybe you had to travel to figure out how beloved your starting point was.” -Jodi Picoult

Sometimes, you just don’t realize how badly you need a taco.

Over the past few weeks I’d been battling a mild bout of homesickness. As the blazing hot days slip into chilly evenings, reminders of home (and Pitt’s homecoming) perpetually cycle past on my phone’s screen, and the shiny newness of Taiwan begins to wear off, this was perhaps as inevitable as the change in seasons. My usual home remedies– writing, running, FaceTiming family and friends– seemed to have lost their effectiveness.  Disappointed in my inability to shake the feeling, and desiring a way to feel more connected to the community here, I asked the universe for a pick-me-up.

It came in the form of Compass Food and Music Festival.

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Just a coupla bright-eyed and busy-tailed volunteers at the Compass Magazine booth!!

Compass Magazine is Taichung’s premiere city guide.  Started in 1994 and written in both English and Mandarin, the magazine has a large readership of locals and visitors alike. It’s the leading source for all things Taichung, from dining recommendations to upcoming events.

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We’ve got issues

For the past 15 years, Compass has held a music and food festival to celebrate the Compass community, specifically Taichung’s international artists and businesses. Several thousand people from all over Taiwan come to the city for two days of live music spanning every genre, a plethora of food vendors serving street cuisine from around the world, and a collection of other merchants, from language lessons to fitness training.

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Even Taipei Language Institute (TLI), where I take Mandarin classes, had a booth! Forever reppin’ with Richard

Each year the Taichung Fulbright ETAs are invited to volunteer at the festival, helping with setup, clean up, and general event troubleshooting. When I arrived for my shift on Saturday I was greeted by Doug, Compass’s co-founder. A Taichung local with parents from Pennsylvania (shoutout to Lancaster!) and a diploma from Temple (#215), chatting with Doug was a breath of fresh air. He was happy to share an in-depth history of Compass Magazine, divulge all the best spots around Taichung (he’s been to them all), and give an overview of what we could expect of the two-day festival.

His most profound piece of advice: try the pork and pineapple tacos.

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Fulbright squad with our fearless leader, Iris (above me) and Compass co-founder, Doug (in red)

With my food vouchers in hand (graciously provided to volunteers by Compass), I surveyed the rows of lunch options– everything from Indian curry to Cuban sandwiches– before wisely taking Doug’s advice and making my way to the taco tent. A few seconds and 150 NT ($4.85 USD), I had a huge, warm, wonderfully fragrant taco in my hands.

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I’m in love with the shape of u

It’s strange, what a difference the small comforts of home make. Living without them seems like nothing at first, barely noticeable amidst the chaos of your new adventure. But the strain of their absence builds with each passing day, imperceptibly yet steadily. You don’t realize how much being in an unfamiliar city 8,000 miles from your comfort zone is affecting you until you take a bite of a taco and a wave of giddy, unanticipated, almost startling joy washes over you. A layer of the strain is lifted away as you revel in its familiarity. You have a piece of home in your hands.

(Confession: I don’t even like tacos that much. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-taco. But in a world obsessed with Taco Tuesday and the never-ending hunt for the best taco in town, my taco enthusiasm is average. My point being: it was never really about the taco.)

I felt this feeling over and over again this weekend. With every song being performed that I recognized, every friendly conversation I had with another English speaker, every bite of tiramisu and arepa and chocolate chip cookie and soft pretzel I shoveled into my belly, I felt a sense of comfort that I didn’t know I was missing.

As remarkable as the food and performances were, what struck me most about the festival was how seamlessly it brought together locals and foreigners. Through the air traveled Chinese, English, Spanish, Dutch. A musician named Malta Simon performed a song in Italian while a woman from the International Women’s Association of Taichung ran onto the grass, energetically waving an Italian flag. A Caribbean woman sold her famous cupcakes to a steady stream of customers, while in the booth across from her two local calligraphy teachers taught festival attendees how to write Chinese characters.

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Name a better trio I’LL WAIT (Me, Yuki, and ChungJan <3)

I sat on the grass with my Taiwanese friend and coworker, Yuki, and her brother, ChungJan. Mark and Liam, two fellow Fulbrighters, danced in front of us. A young Taiwanese boy not more than three years old toddled over shyly, wanting to join in on the dance party. A few onlookers cheered him on as we tried enthusiastically to get him to dance. He looked at us, looked back at his mom’s encouraging smile, looked at us again. We all laughed, enjoying the moment together, so wonderfully content.

It was in this hodgepodge mix of foods and sounds and languages and people, that I finally felt at home in Taichung for the first time.

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PS. Stevie, a friend I made early on in the day, happens to be the morning show host for International Community Radio Taipei (ICRT), Taiwan’s leading English radio station (who knew?!). He interviewed me for their Facebook Live coverage of the event. Check out the very short and very smiley interview here.

PS. PS. To keep up the spirit of the festival, Liam and I pledged to create a Taichung restaurant bucket list and try at least one new spot per week. The goal: to get to know our city better, one meal at a time.

Check out more images from the festival below:

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