Writer's Block

The USA is the place I was born. Canada is the place I was raised. Taiwan is the place in my heart.

Saturday, November 08, 2003

Most mornings, on my way out I ride the elevator down alone, but the other day, the elevator stopped some 10 floors after I had gotten on and a mother and her son got on. The cute, little scrawny boy looked as though he couldn’t have been much older than 6 or 7. He looked like he hadn’t fully emerged from his sleepy state and he moved in a sleep-like fashion with eyes half closed. He propped himself against his backpack against the elevator wall in front of me, slumped over, limp and lifeless like a rag doll, his head nodded and his eyes bulged, heavy with sleep. Closing off the world around him… Looking at this kid, you would really have thought that the weight of the world was on his shoulders. As I stole glances at the little boy, I couldn’t help but empathize. I am a hopelessly incurable night owl and that particular morning was one of those many painful ones I’ve experienced on my way to work, after having gotten less than 5 hours of sleep- it’s too bad I don’t have job that allows me to dictate my working hours, especially the starting hour. This kid personified what I was feeling that morning, so seeing this display just seemed so profoundly striking that morning. I really did pity the poor kid and myself for that matter!

I wonder what keeps kids up late at night these days. I can’t suppose to know what was going on with this little boy, but I wouldn’t find it surprising to learn that most children in Taiwan are for the most part are sleep deprived or have bad sleeping habits. The children in Taiwan have no time for leisure or play. After a full day of school their parents often send them to cram schools for extra study on various subjects (ones that are already taught in school, such as math and especially English) so that their children can “stay ahead” and remain competitive for the entrance exams that they will have to take eventually for high school and university. If you ask me this trend indicates that either the quality of education in schools is substandard or that entrance exam requirements need to be revised. Students should not have to spend so much extra time studying. As a result many students are in school or doing some sort of studying from 7am to 8pm, on average 12 hours a day.

I’ve also seen families out in the night market with their young children at 10 and 11 pm. The Taiwanese take their children everywhere with them. I’ve noticed that there’s no sense of discretion in this matter. I’ve seen parents bring their children with them to smoky bars, or send them out to buy smokes- this is not generally considered inappropriate parenting… or fussy, noisy children- who might be too young for the experience- in restaurants. Family style restaurants haven’t really caught on here. I don’t think that I’ve really figured out the parenting style of people in Taiwan. Sometimes it seems as though anything goes. Especially when I see families of five packed all on one scooter.

Saturday, November 01, 2003

Birthday Surprise

How many surprise birthday celebrations does one get in a lifetime? I think that I’ve definitely gotten more than my share. Okay, if I had to count, I think I’ve had four in total. One thing for sure is that I’ll never get tired of it. I love surprises and spontaneity. It’s the thought and effort that counts. The experience of being surprised is priceless. I might even appreciate that more than most gifts. Not that I don’t appreciate gifts… any of you who are carefully reading my blog- *wink* *wink*…gifts are always nice. But surprises are definitely memorable and each one is unique.

On Friday mornings I teach an adult English conversation class and my students knew it was my birthday. So when I arrived on Friday morning they stalled me in the lobby and surprised me in the dark conference room -where I teach them two times a week- with some birthday candles before class started and sang me Happy Birthday- which was really so thoughtful since I'm not sure this sort of thing is very customary here. Plenty of photos were snapped; they all signed a card that one of the students had made and another student had made me a simple necklace of a few beads strung on a leather strap.

Later that night, I had invited a few close friends over so that I could cook paella for them and my parents in celebration of my birthday. Our building had also organized a Halloween party and trick or treating for children, so I had bought some candy and welcomed the kids over- they came a knocking as I was putting the last touches on dinner- some of them had really had adorable costumes- one kid who was maybe 5 years old or less was dressed in the most adorable full body, green dragon costume. It was a nice to see- I kind of miss the fun of dressing up for Halloween.

Birthdays and age

My birthday happens to fall on a very memorable day so it rarely goes by unnoticed, and I usually do something to mark the occasion- though I nearly forgot about it the first year I was in Taiwan. Birthdays and age are a strange thing, come to think of it. Birthdays are an annual excuse to celebrate one’s self, be remembered by others or perhaps more likely, a test of that certain someone’s thoughtfulness or memory; it can also be a time of reflection, evaluation, anxiety, and insecurity as one takes stock of his or her accomplishments and is reminded of his or her mortality.

Why all the importance and emphasis on birthdays? For many people in the world, birthdays may be of little or no consequence at all because they don’t even know their exact date of birth or age. This always seems to come up in conversations that I’ve had about astrological signs. In Taiwan, I’ve come across several people (all over the age of 30) who have told me that they don’t know their exact date of birth. It may be that they know their date of birth according to the lunar calendar but not according to the Gregorian calendar, or that their parents didn’t keep accurate birth records and/or local government agencies did not keep proper birth records. In some cases, living in rural locations or a family’s literacy level contributed further to this tendency. The fact that these individuals didn’t know their exact date of birth didn’t seem odd at all- that’s just the way it was. I wonder how it changes or influences one’s perspective on life. I was particularly amused by one older gentleman who told me that in his family, his parents simply wrote their children’s birthdates on the wall and that probably one day, when nobody noticed, that particular piece of wall just crumbled down.

My mother’s date of birth was a double digit number that became a single digit number because it was recorded inaccurately by her local birth and records department in Taiwan. This wasn't discovered until she reached the age of 13 and received her official citizenship card. She jokes that she’s entitled to celebrate her birthday twice a year and that we now have two chances to remember her birthday.

Birth dates that were forgotten, lost, or unrecorded would later to be fabricated or approximated, perhaps even for convenience’s sake to meet certain age eligibility requirements for the military, school, marriage, work permits, etc.

Certainly this is not unique to Taiwan… and there are even so more many possible explanations… as is the case for refugees or migrant peoples who had to flee from the war, instability, corruption, and/or poverty of their homeland- and such journeys are often a matter of life and death- so much is sacrificed and put at risk, lost in transit along the way… personal effects and valuables, relics of one’s personal history, identity papers, documents and entire “lives” are left behind and new identities are forged in lands of opportunity and possibility. Or less dramatically, new immigrants may have their birthdates inaccurately transcribed, or numbers transposed, due to clerical errors or a language barriers. Even funnier still I’m sure are stories of how people names have been incorrectly “translated” in to English or romanized. I’m certain that many immigrants have their own stories like this or one a relative to tell.

Even a person’s age may not be universally agreed up on, depending on your beliefs or the calendar used. I was reminded of this with the recent death of Madame Chiang Kai-shek aka Soong May-ling . Chinese languages newspapers reported her age as 106 and English language newspapers reported her age as 105. In Taiwan a baby is considered one year a birth and subsquently another year older on Lunar New Year's day. So by these calculations, a person's "age" in Taiwan might end up being as much as 3 years more than that person’s chronological age!

Then I wonder how seriously I should take my birthday or how much importance I should assign to my specifically assigned date. After all, I was delivered by Caesarian section, so perhaps my date of birth was supposed to be earlier or it could have been later depending on if or when medical intervention was needed or taken.