Sunday, January 30, 2011

Tips for applying for your ARC (alien resident certificate, aka resident visa)

  • Wait until right before the Chinese New Year to process your visa application.  This is when everyone else wants to travel and do their banking, so naturally the people at the consulate will be super inclined to help you. 
  • Feel free to fill out any and all application forms in crayon.  Bonus points if you sprinkle them with glitter.
  • In addition to your supporting documents, draw a picture of yourself holding a heart with a caption that says,  "I love Taiwan!" English.
  • The people working at the consulate deal with foreigners all the time, so feel free to fill in any parts of the application in French, German, Dutch, or Arabic.  This will not bother them in the slightest.
  • Don't be afraid to quiz their English.
  • Sign all the documents with your Elvish name.
  • When you get to the counter to pay for your application, hand in all but 10 NTD.  Take your time looking for it.  The longer the line, the longer you take.
  • While you wait for your application to be processed, distribute red envelopes full of fake money to strangers' children in honor of Chinese New Year to show respect for local culture.  The parents will appreciate you going the extra mile, and it's good karma to get your visa processed faster.

Thank you

"The reason why you are depressed," my mother said, "is because you are not grateful for the things you have in your life."

It was winter of 2008, my freshman year of college.  I was on academic probation and weeks away from taking medical leave.  The way I saw it, I'd been holding in negative emotions for six years due to crappy stuff that had happened to me, and those feelings had finally reached the surface and were ripping me apart.  The way my mother saw it, I was an ungrateful brat who wasn't taking care of herself and didn't want to go to class.  I preferred my version of things.

After taking incompletes for all of my classes, I left college in February 2008 for two semesters of medical leave.  I'd like to say that I spent that entire year getting my act together and everyone else was magically fixed when I returned to college in January of 2009.  That's partially true.  I spent that year in therapy and worked a couple of jobs.  One was as a canvasser for a grassroots political campaign, and the other was at a women's clothing store.  I met a lot of interesting people at both of those jobs, and I learned what it meant to have a real (read: crappy, minimum wage) job.

My grandmother was living with us at the time while she received treatment for cancer.  She passed away in February of 2009, a few weeks after I returned to school.

Sophomore year was substantially better.  I moved to off-campus housing, made some really great friends, and began taking writing (and my studies in general) more seriously.  Still, that year was tinged with two heartbreaks--one small, one massive.  I longed for a new environment, a chance to start over.  I filled out an application for a year-long study abroad program in Taiwan...and the rest as they say, is history.

The last week has been a major perspective shift for me.  I tend to get down on myself easily, and with the frustrations of living in a different culture and the weather (we haven't had any sun in about a month in Taipei) has made being happy a struggle.

The final straw came on Friday, when I spent six hours running around trying to process my visa.  I wanted to give up.  But then I remembered my life.  My mom, my friends here and back home, and my new blog followers.  And I've been reading Tahereh Mafi's blogThe RejectionistSingle Dad Laughing, and my lovely new followers' blogs.  These people (and you all) have inspired and challenged me and forced me to dig deep about myself, this blog, and my life.  And I've realized something:

My writing is not for me.  This blog is not for me.  It's for you.  It's for the visitors and followers who haven't arrived yet.

I've spent this week coming up with a list of things that I really, truly, am grateful for.

There's the obvious ones, like my family, my friends, and my health.

But there are also things like: The Jim Henson Company, The Walt Disney Company, and Pixar Studios.  Kermit the Frog and "The Great Mouse Detective" helped make my childhood magical.
Eggs.  Eggs are delicious.
The internet.  It has allowed me to start this blog, read your lovely blogs, and talk with my mom on Skype.
Oh.  My. God.  BOOKS.  So good.
The understanding that every day is a chance to get it right.

I am grateful for these things, and all of you.

Have an amazing week, everyone!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Holy Cow--New People!

I linked my blog over at T.H. Mafi's Grab a Pen a day or so ago...and now there are some new folks!  Hi, guys!

A few things about me:

  • I'm Marjorie.  I'm 21.  Undergraduate student.  No siblings.
  • Recently come out as a writer.  Am currently working on two writing projects: revising a short story and *just* beginning a novel...we'll see how that goes.
  • Born and raised in a large U. S. city; currently studying abroad in Taipei, Taiwan, Republic of China.  Been here since August.
  • I started this blog reluctantly; I think I'm going to take it more seriously now that more people are, um, reading it.  Yeah...
  • Have been studying Chinese since I was fourteen.
  • Foodie and bookie: I will read anything good and eat anything delicious.  Anything.
  • There's always some Chinese homework I should be doing...
  • I also speak the following languages with varying levels of competence: French, Spanish, International English, International Chinese (trust me, those last two are languages in their own right)
Please introduce yourselves in the comments below.  Don't be shy: I'd love to get to know you!

Welcome to Upwards Over the Mountain!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

I can write short posts, too.

I was feeling a bit gray today, so I decided to do the following:

-Treat myself to a French toast brunch/dinner.

-Buy something to make me smile.  I gave myself one rule:  the thing I was buying in question had to make me happy.  It didn't have to make sense or necessarily be useful.

So after eating said comforting French toast, I bought the following things:

-A purple pig lamp
-A sinister Hello Kitty pin.  (I believe this is the REAL Hello Kitty.  Why else would she have taken over East Asia if she didn't have an agenda of world domination?  My theory: she's stocking up a pile of pink missiles somewhere.  Guantanamo?)
-A Snoopy-themed hanging organizer.  I'm going to add it to the pile of crap on my bed and hope it all sorts itself out.
-A New Year's card that I am going to give to myself.  IT IS PRETTY AND HAS A GOLD FAN ON IT.
-A pair of shiny new headphones that has removable colors that I can mix and match.  Seriously, who wants to wear headphones that are the same color?  (Currently wearing silver and blue.)

It's New Year's next week (they don't call it Chinese New Year here, just New Year) and it's the Year of the Rabbit.  I'm hoping to go to the south of the island if all the train and bus tickets aren't booked (they most likely totally are) and the hotels aren't reserved up the wazoo.  I have a sneaking suspicion I'm going to hear a lot of mei you ban fa, but I'll see what I can come up with.

Happy Rabbit Year, everyone!

Friday, January 7, 2011

It's Not New Year's Until I Say It Is: Part 2

I was amazed at how clean everything was, how nice the people were, and struck by the beauty of the landscape.  But food soon proved to be an issue.  Taiwanese cuisine is very snack-oriented, so if I wanted to eat a meal, it was typically at a Japanese or Korean-style restaurant.  There is one Sichuan-style restaurant near campus, but, if you've been to the Mainland, or Sichuan itself, you can tell in a second it's not the real McCoy.  For "real" Taiwanese food, the word on the street is head to a night market, but the closest one is half an hour away by bus.  And really, they're not much different from New York's Chinatown.  Cheap trinkets and street food.  But I didn't like the street food.  I thought it was bland and its texture amorphous.  My tolerance for spice increased as I added tobasco sauce to remind my taste buds what I was eating.  My thought process when eating Taiwanese went along these lines:

"Hmm...this could be chicken, pork...or even fish...which is it?  Forget it.  I'm doing this for cheap nourishment."

I found myself caving and eating Western-style food.  It was the only way I could feel full.

Then there's the local culture.

From what I've gathered, local Taiwanese students are reluctant to get involved with something that does not concern them.  And communication was really tough.  I can't tell you how many times I've had wide-eyed stares I've gotten, even in a neighborhood with a high population of exchange students.  I felt I was breaking a cultural rule during every encounter, but no one would tell me what it was.  I was left to guess.  I am not a fan of guessing games.

Practicing Mandarin with locals other than my tutors was stressful.  Mandarin is hard enough without someone staring blankly at you, not even trying to guess what you meant.  "Huh?"  That's all the feedback you get.  Try again, foreigner.

It was hard not to take these disappointing experiences personally.  My tutors were very encouraging, and empathized with my difficulties.  But I still felt misunderstood, and I operated in a constant state of low-level frustration.  If my tutors could understand what I was saying, why couldn't anyone else?  Was my Mandarin that bad?

It was around this time I was interviewing Taiwanese students to come to the United Sates to work and travel through the CIEE program.  In so many words, that experience made me want to bang my head on the desk and howl like the Incredible Hulk.

And let's not forget mei you ban fa.  Four words that can render any attempts to communicate null and void.

Mei you ban fa's literal translation is "there is no way", but in practice it is used more like "it can't be done",  "it's impossible," or "you can't".  So I'd spend a solid two minutes trying to clarify that I wanted a certain dish on the menu, only to find it was sold out, or I'd leave to meet a friend or do a job only to have them call and cancel.  Sorry.  Mei you ban fa.

I wasn't the only foreign student who wanted to rip out her hair.  One of my Polish friends blew a fuse one night while working on a group project with some local Taiwanese and other international students.  She too, had had enough of mei you banfa.   I quickly escorted her out of the building before she thumped skulls.

"Mei you ban fa?!?  Mei you ban fa KURWA MAC!" she hollered.  Sometimes, Polish is much better than English at conveying frustration.

But things have gotten easier.  My friends, both local and international, have done wonders to help.  They've listened, offered hugs, sent me packages (thanks Mom), gone out with me.  Because it's sometimes necessary to, well, throw a fit when you're feeling really aggravated.  But it's equally necessary to do so in a healthy way, and then move on.  And with the departure of some of my friends, I've realized that my time here is valuable.  A day is coming when I'm going to pack all of my things and go home.  I don't want to look back on my time here and think about how my quest for authentic lasagna came up short.

A sense of humor doesn't hurt either.  I've learned to say "I'm a foreigner" in Taiwanese.  Except that I always say it wrong, so it comes out "I'm a dead foreinger".

(Also: new Decemberists album on YouTube.  Huzzah.)

It was nice to spend New Years' at a translation retreat where I listened to Mandarin for hours on end.  I realized my Mandarin had improved a lot in four months, and the ladies spent meals explaining Taiwanese culture, filling in gaping holes in my knowledge.  I lapped it up like a dog dying of thirst.  I was deeply grateful to have someone put everything in context for me.

I still run into potentially irritating cultural encounters all the time.  For example, today I went to rent "Salt" from the video store.  I wanted to rent two videos, but it was explained to me there is absolutely no way I could rent two movies.  None whatsoever.  I asked the clerk (nicely, and several times because she did not understand me at first) if I could come back tomorrow and rent another DVD.  I was informed I could do so if and only if I returned the DVD I had borrowed the day before.

But it's cool.  Because I have my bowlful of peace/contentment/acceptance, and the rest of the world can go stuff themselves...with love and happiness and sunshine, of course!*

*except on days when I am PMS-ing.  Then you're on your own.

That's pretty much it.


It's Not New Year's Until I Say It Is: Part 1

Happy New Year Everyone!

I ushered in the New Year in a Buddhist temple in the Northern End of Taipei, high above the city.  I spent the last moments of 2010 meditating, sending myself, you, and all sentient beings love and forgiveness, then went outside and watched a fireworks display from Taipei 101.  I had a great view of the skyline, and while watching explosions of colored fire scatter over the horizon, I felt a fundamental peace that I believe has sprung from practicing being in the moment.

This year is technically Year 100 because in Taiwan the calendar starts from the founding of the Republic of China after the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty in 1911.  (Quiz: what year were you born in, according to the Taiwanese calendar?)

I seem to have hit a sweet spot recently.  The same way at almost exactly two months I skidded into culture shock, at almost exactly four months (as of 12/24) I felt myself relax into my life here.  I've accepted that this is my home now, for all of its annoyances and perks.  My Mandarin has improved, which has made communicating with locals a lot easier, and the meditation practices have helped me take a step back and be more objective about situations that frustrate me.  

I'm not sure if this revelation was the cause of or facilitated by some new discoveries I made.  I've been spending more time near the boys' dorm on top of the mountain, and I found a study center with comfortable couches and a cafeteria next open late that serves my favorite Asian dish: dry noodles with vegetables and meat piled on.  In Beijing I ate a similar dish almost daily, and it is both nourishing and comforting.  In the food court section of Taipei 101, there is a stand that sells beef soup that is incredibly delicious.  The beef is tender and succulent, the broth rich enough to pass for stew.  The slippery noodles are fresh, and the bok choy crunches.  Happiness in a bowl.

It's taken me four months to find food in Taiwan that's both palatable and satisfying, but better late than never I suppose.

I've avoided blogging because I chose not to use this corner of the Internet for negativity.  Culture shock runs the gamut of emotions, not the least of which are bitterness, frustration, angst, self-pity, and depression.  These feelings, particularly self-pity, have a knack for perpetuating themselves ad nauseam.  Now that I've gotten some perspective on my feelings, though, I think it's time for me to elaborate the things I've been dealing with that used to send me spiraling into a Very Frustrating Place that required a combination of Polish vodka, deep breathing, and diaphragmatic sobbing to break me out of.

I emphasized when I began this blog that Taiwan is most absolutely and definitely not China.  I loved China--it was dirty and overcrowded and the Mandarin was sometimes usually incomprehensible, but I didn't care.  I shrugged off the merchants who shouted at me and tried to grab me, largely because the food was sumptuous.  It didn't matter if I had overpaid for a useless trinket.  I had a bowlful of noodles/dumplings/baozi* and everyone else could stuff themselves.  I never ate Western food on the Mainland.  The mere thought of New York Chinatown food made me nauseated.  In fact, when I came back from China it took me a while to acclimate to the Americanized "Chinese" takeout.

Then there were the people.  In my experience, Chinese people love to brag, tell anecdotes, and are generally friendly so it was easy to meet new people.  Sure, they were sometimes brusque...but usually something delicious to eat resulted of my interactions with them, so it was fine.  And in cities like Beijing, there is always something to do.

This lifestyle was not without its drawbacks.  Crime was pervasive; we had to sign a release form that we would never get on the back of a motorcycle.  There were no traffic lights--it was Cross At Your Own Risk.  The pollution was at times unbearable (I went to China in the summertime).  I became extremely homesick (I was fifteen).  But nonetheless, I loved just about every minute of my time there.

Fast forward five years.  Taiwan 2010.

*baozi: similar to a dumpling, baozi is a steamed bun filled with either meat or vegetables.  A particularly delicious variation of baozi is xiaolongbao, which contains hot soup inside (it's basically melted pork fat.  So.  Good.)

...Continued in It's Not New Year's Until I Say It Is: Part 2