Confucius said: “The superior man makes the difficulty to be overcome his first interest; success only comes later.”

In the Wild West (and probably in many other rural places ages ago) I think the dentist was like a travelling salesman. You waited till he showed up in the town and then everyone queued to have a turn. That meant he had to bring his ‘stuff’ with him. The ‘stuff’ was only the essentials and what he could comfortably carry. Those essentials probably fitted into a case that was sturdy and could be carried easily. In every town or village someone would kindly offer him the use of a room that is not used daily, like the science classroom at the local school. There would be a table to place the all important case, a stool for him to sit on and a low chair for the patient. There would be two buckets for his use. One would be placed between the legs of the patient for the patient to spit into. The first patient would be the lucky one, all the others would be doing themselves a favour by keeping their eyes closed when they spit. One of the apparatus from the case needs to drain so the drain-tube is then inserted into the other bucket. The tube is secured to the patient’s chair with a piece of string to keep it from slipping out of the bucket when the apparatus is used vigorously by the dentist. With his wagon unload and horses grazing on the common, the dentist was open for business. 

You think this a scene from the Wild West or many small towns about 100 years ago? Yes? You are so wrong!! I have just described my first visit to the dentist in my rural village in Tainan in 2019!! Only difference is a Toyota has replaced the horses.

About two weeks ago at lunch I felt something in my mouth that should not be there. A tooth had broken. 

Initially I panicked and wanted as much information as possible, about what to do now, before the pain set in and turned me into a monster. The school nurse looked at my tooth and asked if there was pain. Then she proceeded to talk to everyone around about my situation, in Chinese. A long discussion followed with everyone giving their opinions and advice – in Chinese. Well by the time the group discussion came to a conclusion I had realised I will be pain-free through this ordeal. So I started to relax. The nurse took me to the English teacher and asked the English teacher to take me to a dentist in the next town, on her way home that afternoon. 

Hours later we walk into the dentist’s room and he takes one look at the foreigner and waves us out before we even said hello. The English teacher says she thinks he does not speak English so does not want to deal with me. I assure the English teacher I will be fine and I take the next bus back to my village. 

Next day, at Nanhua school, where I live on the campus, I ask advice again. The English teacher, a no-nonsense man, says there is a dentist who comes to the school on a Thursday morning and I can see him. I just have to bring along my medical insurance card. Back in my office I tell my tale and plans to the teachers in my office and again a discussion follows with phone calls being made, in Chinese. The conclusion is: avoid the dentist who comes to school because the students say he is not gentle. They tell me wait till next Friday at 9am, go to the local clinic and see the dentists who come from the Medical University, it’s also fee of charge and open to all the locals. So that was my, reluctant, first option. Reluctant, because on a Friday I have a very busy teaching day. So in my mind I make a mental note to talk to my superior about being late for school the following Friday and I totally forget to tell the English teacher in Nanhua about my new decision. 

Thursday morning, at about 10am I get called to the dentist’s station. The English teacher had made all the arrangements on my behalf so there is nothing to do but go to the not-so-gentle-dentist. His verdict leaves me elated: No big deal but come next Thursday morning 7:30 because it is a long process and he had to leave for another school. He spends about three hours at a school per day then he packs up all his stuff and moves to the next school in the district. 

So today was the day. A beautiful sunny day after about a week of rain and grey days. I wake early and immediately pick up the book I’m reading that I had reluctantly put down last night. I loose track of time and next moment I hear someone calling at my door. I open the door still in my pjs and find the dentist’s assistant telling me they are waiting for me. Well, I stripped out of pjs into the first clothes I touched all the while brushing my teeth. Three minutes later I’m in the chair, apologising. 

The procedure was to remove the filling in that tooth, replace it with a the new filling that would form the side of the tooth that had chipped away. No need for an injection and the whole procedure went smoothly and pain free. And the name: ‘not-so-gentle-dentist’ well, that is somebody’s opinion, it’s not a fact.  

Brave little Angela seeing the dentist at her elementary school

The science classroom serves as makeshift dentist room. See the red bucket between the student’s feet.

Botan is the pseudonym of Supa Sirisingh, a Thai author and daughter of a father who immigrated to Thailand from China and a mother, born in Thailand to Chinese parents. Sirisingh’s father was a conservative Chinese and did not believe in education for woman, but this determined girl made it happen for herself. She won her first scholarship at age nine and eventually earned Masters degrees in Thai and English. 

Letters from Thailand was published when Sirisingh was 21 years old and was awarded the SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation) Literary Award the same year. It has been translated into 10 languages and into English by Susan Fulop Kepner. Later it became required reading for schools in Thailand. When it was first published it was a controversial book as the author portrayed the Thai and Chinese cultures in Thailand in an honest way and it offended many people in both cultures. 

Letters from Thailand is completely different from Four Reigns which I read just before this one. This book starts where Four Reigns end and shows that life in Bangkok goes on. This story is told, through poignant and honest letters to his mother in China, by a Chinese man who moved to Bangkok. It  follows his life from a young man through to being a grandfather, in a time who the social history in Thailand is changing. By showing the reader vividly everyday life we see this man’s battle as he can’t accept the Thai culture. We see that changes are unavoidable, for expats as well as natives who have to live in a community with the expats, and that makes this book so relatable. 

The different perspectives are very interesting (how the Chinese see the Thai and vice verse). It also addresses the situation all immigrants find themselves in: do you strictly keep to your own (people, language and culture) or do you embrace your new country’s culture and try to blend in. Where is the line that says you have gone too far or you have not tried hard enough? The different characters in this book experience it differently. 

If you belong to a reading group or bookclub that is made up of expats (in any country) this will be a book that will lead to heated debates as there is just so much to discuss. It’s a delightful book that I enjoyed very much.

Confucius said: “You cannot open a book without learning something.”

The passing of the 102 year old world renowned architect, I M Pei, who also left his mark in Taiwan, has prompted me to write about architecture in Taiwan. People who have landed in Taipei or see the iconic photos of Taipei with the Taipei 101 building centre stage might think all of Taiwan looks like that. That, sadly, is just not true. Once you leave the vibrant cities behind, and even in most areas within cities, the lack of any building or home that is worth a second glance could leave a person quite depressed. 

But if you know where to look Taiwan will show you some very eye pleasing secrets. I’m no architect and have very little knowledge about this creative field, but I know what I like: Concrete and lots of it used in gravity-defying ways. Tall shapely buildings (the Dubai type landscape) impresses me for the time it takes to drive past the building. It is concrete used in striking structures, creating something that feels light, airy, elegant and even delicate that grab my attention.

That juxtaposition will keep me returning to stare and experience again, at different times of the day to see how the light, and even the seasons, changes the atmosphere of the building. 

Wow wow wow!!! What an inspirational book. The Khmer have a saying that women can’t dive deep or go far and the title of this book says that the women of Cambodia are diving deep and are going far. The book is fictional but based on the real life experiences of several Cambodian women. I think women from a developing country will tell you these stories feel so real, they have been lived by many women all over the world. These stories are of courage, determination, of fearing something but doing it anyway, they are also of hope.
I read this book in one sitting…. all of it, right to the acknowledgement page (which I usually skip).
My only problem is why was this book written by a Dutch Guy? He did a very very good job – make no mistake, but I was a bit disappointed when I discovered, in the acknowledgements, that it was written by a man. The author, Menno de Block, is a young man from the Netherlands working with NGO’s in Cambodia. In his dealing with various groups he became spellbound by the dedication and commitment he saw in the young women of Cambodia.
I’m so inspired by this book I want to pack my bags and return to Cambodia to cheer on the women that are changing their own culture and country.
This book is not just about and for Cambodian women. This book will inspire any women who feels stuck in a rut; or who wonders should I / could I take this risk; what will the people say if I do ….
Girls, go read this book, let it inspire you to soar.

Should science stand back for culture?         

I have lived in several countries and not all western. I have lived in Saudi Arabia and that is as far from the average western culture as you can get. I have been in Taiwan for three years and I love the country and the people. I love my students to bits. I have been made to feel part of this rural community I’m living in and I’m always treated with respect. I always see myself as a guest in another country and I do not try to change people or influence them and the way they live their lives at all. In fact I’m the first to ask why my students and fellow teachers do not take part in the many temple ceremonies one often sees in our village. I have never been in a situation where my personal believe (my culture) has had such a clash with the foreign culture in which I live. Here is a totally new experience for me. 

The agency that has employed me has regular training sessions and yesterday about 25 NESTs (native English speaking teachers) from about 10 countries, all deployed around the greater Taiwan area, got together again. Our speaker was a very dynamic Canadian teacher who has been a teacher in Taiwan for 18 years. During the break in our training session he heard me tell a fellow teacher about an incident in my class a few weeks ago.  

Here is the incident: Gary was wearing a T-shirt with the following words on  I can do anything. Gary and his classmates really battle with learning and in particular with English. So I decided to use Gary’s T-shirt to start the lesson. First they had to figure out what it means, then I said to him “you cannot wear something like that if you do not believe the message you are spreading”. The whole class got it and at the end of that lesson I was just amazed at how hard they all tried and the progress we made in that lesson. Then I went on to say that since that day I try to give them little motivational talks to encourage them to believe in their abilities. The fellow teacher I was talking to tells how his students react when he congratulates them on getting more than 90%. He says things like well done and good job. To which his students always react with “No, teacher, not good.” 

After the break when everyone was seated again, the speaker filled the group in on the gist of our conversation and then told the group that we must remember the expression: Praise the deed, not the person. To praise the person is the western way of doing it, it’s not the way it’s done in Taiwan. He said all this in a way that did not encourage any discussion on this topic so it ended there. In my mind it started a debate which I would love to have with some Taiwanese. 

I am not into New Age airy fairy power of positive thinking stuff. Not at all. I have been reading neuroscientist Dr Caroline Leaf’s books about her research and findings about how the mind and brain works. She provides facts and scientific evidence that we can control our minds and that will lead to our brains functioning differently. It can lead to physical changes in our brains. So what our minds tell our brains will have a positive or a negative manifestation in our lives. (This is my version. It’s best if you find her books and read more to get a better grasp on this complex subject.)

I have been putting Leaf’s advice to practice over the past about 10 years and I can see positive changes in my life. I’m not a missionary or an agent for Leaf and I do not go around preaching her knowledge. When I do encounter a friend who is fighting a battle I will share what I know and have experienced with him / her. 

Now, lets go back to the school situation. I would estimate that about 30% of the students I teach are from “a normal” home. That is a home where there are 2 parents, regular and a sufficient income to provide good food and pay for extra lessons at cram schools, where the family encourage the students to work hard. The majority have divorced parents. In Taiwan when parents divorce the courts usually (95%) grants the father custody of the children. There are exceptions to this rule but in many cases the father just dumps the children on his parents while he works and lives in a city, or they do live with him but he could not care less about the kids. There is 1 boy who brings his dirty clothes to school and under the teacher’s supervision he washes it at school or else he would never have clean clothes. Many fathers are heavy drinkers and drug addicts. Some of our student’s fathers are in prison because of drug related issues. I’m sure you get my drift. My students do not have model parents. One little girl who comes from such a home and gets remedial teaching organised by the school to help her and her brother get on par with their classmates recently told a friend that one day she will be president of Taiwan. That was repeated to her teacher and that was a joke going around in the staffroom. I was horrified, thinking we should be encouraging her, not making fun of her. My students also do not have model teachers, but yesterday I discovered it’s a cultural thing: stay humble and do not dream big. 

Now back to my debate. If science tells us we can teach a child from a deprived background (a western concept) skills to help him / her to motivate themselves, skills that will help them believe they can do anything they set their minds to. When they are taking small steps and they can see for themselves how it works in their lives and environment – are we not saving a life here. We will be breaking that poverty cycle of “my grandparents were these small farmers, and so was my dad and that’s what I will be too. I can’t wait for the day us three men, three generations, will be sitting next to each other in our dirty old clothes looking over our rice paddy, chewing bettle nuts and smoking”.  If that same boy who is very good at basketball is encouraged to aim for an MBA team in the USA, he will probably not make it that far, but even if he just reaches the Taiwan National Team as a reserve, it would have changed his life and those of his immediate family for the better. 

Yesterday I was reprimanded, in a nice way, and told to change my thinking and stick with the local culture. Here is an interesting thing. Confucius, although he was Chinese and not Taiwanese, is still revered in Taiwan. We take our students to the temple that was built in his honour and they know about this great man. He said “The man who thinks he can, and the man who thinks he can’t… They are both correct”. Is he not saying what Dr Leaf has given us proof of? And what I want to tell my students: if you think you can, if you believe it, then you can, and you will succeed if you also do the hard work etc etc. 

I’m still left wondering what should take preference here? Culture or science?

How do you stop yourself from grabbing those two in a bear hug and telling them you are so proud of them and that they were amazing in the race they just completed?

Students paying their respects to Confucius at the Confucius Temple in Tainan

The entrance to the Confucius Temple in Tainan

Kahlil Gibran: Trees are poems that earth writes upon the sky. 

How do you describe your feelings when standing in the presence of a living being that is nearly 3 000 years old? And to make it more awe inspiring, not just one, but 36 giants, many 1000 years old and older and most you cannot even see parts? The result of putting that experience into words is going to be cliché upon cliché and long lists of adjectives. 

The photographer, Steve Pearce and his ecologist wife, Dr Jennifer Sanger, founders of the organisation The Tree Projects have the same problem. In an interview with the news channel Focus Taiwan, Pearce and Sanger said (they) “believe that the simple experience of seeing a giant tree for the first time can break down preconceptions and that showing people forests in all their magnificence is more effective in building appreciation for them than telling people about them.” So if the experts say words are not effective, then I’m not even going to try. 

My advice is whether you are a nemophilist, just an average nature lover or a curios tourist, Ali Mount aka Alishan is a must-see when you are in Taiwan. Some of the oldest trees on this planet are growing in this area. The oldest was 3000 years old but collapsed in 1997 after heavy rain. It has been laid down and can still be appreciated. This tree was 53m high with a circumference of 25m and a diameter of 4,66m.  

Down the middle of Taiwan there are several mountain ranges and one of then is named Ali Mount. (Alishan is a Chinese word and translated literally means Ali Mount). Ali was the chief of the Tsou aboriginal tribe that settled here. This area lies 2 500m above sea level. It was a forestry area and logging brought in the money till the 1970’s when it was no longer viable. The Tsou also planted tea and wasabi and those farms against the mountain just adds to the beauty of the area. The Alishan National Scenic Area was established and now tourism has taken over as the generator of income.   

So what can you expect here. There is the narrow-gauge train, that has become the iconic symbol of the area, that can take you on a short trip to the Sacred Tree Station where one giant has been laid down. Walking there is easy too. From the station you just follow a well kept boardwalk that was built to protect the forest floor. This walk takes you to these old trees, most are Red Cypress. Not all are in this area, some stand alone and you have to hike different trails to get to them. All the trails are well marked and the map you get at the entrance is very user-friendly.

When you stand by these trees and you think about Taiwan and the past 3000 years… if these trees could talk they would tell about the first people arriving as farmers and fishermen. They will tell about the Dutch and the Spanish who tried to settle here, the Qing era, the Japanese rule, the Republic of Formosa and now Taiwan. The trees will tell about trees being chopped down to build a simple house and for firewood. They will tell about large scale logging because Red Cypress is resistant to rot and insects and therefore much sought after for furniture, bath tubs and even the torii gates in front of shrines and temples. They will also tell about visitors who came to appreciate their beauty and the majority who come now with their eyes glued to a smart phone screen. 

The park covers an area of 415 square km so there is enough space to explore, enjoy breathtaking views, savour the fresh air and the natural beauty around you. Because the mountain is so high you will regularly be shrouded by clouds floating past, well that was my experience.  In the park you will also find lots of other activities to keep the whole family entertained and fed for as long as you choose to stay here. I was visiting the area when the cherry trees where blooming and what a bonus. 

I will add some photos but they do not do justice to the magnificence of the giants. If you want to see a giant tree captured in a photo then visit The Tree Projects website and read how they take photos of trees. It is a fascinating process.

Just a reminder, I do not do selfies. When I’m alone and there are no other people around to ask to take a photo of me you will see my hat in the picture. That is my version of a selfie. 

I love trees and I will go out of my way to see and spend time near a magnificent one. I’m not a tree-hugger in the literal sense but I do feel relaxed, humbled, and at peace when I’m near big trees. I’m not unique and through the ages others have expressed admiration and have written about the feelings they experienced in the presence of trees too.

Even in religions trees have rooted themselves. The Jews and Christians read about the Tree of Knowledge in the Bible; for the Buddhists and Hindus there is the Sacred Fig or Ficus Religiosa. This is the tree under which Buddha sat when he became enlightened. In many folklores in south-east Asia the Banyan tree plays a big role. 

While I was traveling around in the north of Thailand I could not help but notice some really impressive trees. Many of them with colourful fabric wrapped around them and often with a small shrine alongside. This is the way local Buddhist acknowledge and venerate the tree spirits, Nang Mai. In Thailand there is a Sacred Fig that is 30m high with a circumference of 3m, a Thai Phoa with a circumference of 20m, and another impressive tree in Thailand is a Thai Monkeypod, also called a Raintree, that does not soar high into the sky but it could give shade to a village. It’s branches cover an area of 2 416 square meters and it’s only about 100 years old. I think you get my drift. Thailand has trees that will inspire poets. But not local budding artists, it seems.

I saw a very impressive poster advertising an art exhibition at the Chiang Mai University’s art department. “The Sound of Big Trees”, two of my interest in one go: art and trees. I was very keen to see this art exhibition, first to see big trees and then to see how a younger generation interprets this interesting theme: “The Sound of Big Trees”. I took a taxi and was dropped at the art centre. They knew nothing of this exhibition but phoned around and directed me to another building. When I arrive at the Fine Arts Department this is the poster indicating I am at the right place and already I had a feeling this is not going to be what I was hoping for.

My sister has an expression she uses to in restaurants. When her food arrives she will (usually) look at it and say “Well, there’s the menu and then there’s the meal”, meaning what she saw on the menu and what they have just put down in front of her are two totally different things. That was my first thought when I walked towards the exhibition hall. To start the space or exhibition hall is not very big. I was there in the last week of the exhibition and all the flowers, in vases with dirty old water, that (I assume) were there to dress up the exhibition hall were all dead, dry and dropping petals and leaves on the floor. Nothing in there said “I exhale so that you, humans, can inhale health and life”. At this point I actually went outside again and asked some of the students if I was at the right place and being assured this was the “The Sound of Big Trees” exhibition I went back for another look. So the items on display that had information stickers next to them included about eight badly printed A-5 size photographs in strange blue shades and one in shades of grey. Then there were two constructions on the floor made with cardboard and saw dust, and at a stretch one could have looked like a tree. On one wall there were lots of ‘decorations’ using roses, all dead at this point. And I won’t bore you with the rest. So the menu and the meal. What an inspirational theme: The Sound of Big Trees. I think these students failed miserably. Even if a student did not interpret the theme correctly there was just no creativity and nothing to make me take a second glance. I really was very disappointed.

The British poet and artist, William Blake, said “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity… and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself. Back at my hotel I Googled “the sound of trees” and learned that scientists have found that trees do make sounds. Happy trees produce different sounds from drought stressed trees. According to National Geographic, researchers from the Grenoble University in France “is trying to pick out these cries for help amidst all the normal tree white noise in order to provide better, more targeted aid to trees suffering from drought”. A tree has white noise… wow… and young students could not find any creative inspiration.

Hear what the poet and novelist, Hermann Hesse, said, “Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.” 

P.S. In this blog I mentioned a tree that is only 100 years old. It’s a baby compared to some trees I have met in Taiwan. In my next blog I will share that experience with you

Confucius said: The man who says he can, and the man who says he can not… Are both correct.

I’m a long-lived woman and walking fit. I can cover 20km per day without much effort. This made my fellow-teachers at Yusan school think I can do anything physical and they entered me into a 60km cycling race and gave me seven weeks to train. I like a physical challenge so I did not put up a too big fight.

What they don’t know is that in my entire life I have probably only cycled about 1 km, total, ever. I know nothing about bicycles. None of my three ‘partners in crime’ live near me so all the training I’m going to do is on my own.  But no surprises here: as the word spread about my latest crazy adventure, so the support grew. The P E teacher at Nanhua school offered to be my physical trainer, strengthening my core etc. She got a past-student, one of the most gorgeous boys I have ever seen, to go cycling with me and do that part of the training. The maths teacher lent me his 39-speed racing bike. One of the admin ladies at Nanhua school didn’t offer, but told me she was going to drive me to the event on the day and back home again. This event was about 400km from where we live.

With so many supporters cheering for me I stared training in all seriousness. To ride a bicycle in my area is not easy unless you are either very confident or have a death wish. The Nanhua village where I live is set in a depression at the foot of a 663m high mountain, and surrounded by hills of various sizes. The only way in and out and through the village is by two major roads with four lanes that carry heavy, and often speeding traffic, including very big trucks. These roads were not built for pedestrians and cyclists but for typhoons. There is no shoulder on these roads, instead they have a metre deep and about a 60cm wide gulley on either side to take to typhoon rains off the road surface as quickly as possible. Although two of my schools are on this road, and 6 and 8 km away respectively, there is no way pedestrians and budding cyclists can safely walk and ride here in a state of meditation. The alternative training route is to cross these main roads and ride on the much smaller and very winding roads among the farms. Here the problem is that you immediately start climbing the mountain or one of the hills. The roads take you to the top in about 4km and with many hairpin bends. It’s steep but it does offer breathtaking beautiful views when you rest around every corner. 

So I decide on the steep option for my training. The bicycle and I bond over many kilometres and hours spent together. I cover lots of ground, alone. I think the thought of spending lots of time alone in nature with a fit middle-aged women scared the life out of the gorgeous boy. He never showed up. 

As I said the bicycle and I bonded well but one day it let me down. I’m the only one who rides it and it’s stored at my unit. Nobody ever touches that bike except me. This particular afternoon I took the bike out and when I got on it felt strange. I started riding thinking I’ll figure out the problem as I go along. When I wanted to change gears the first time, I realised it’s not my imagination, something is wrong. The numbers are all upside down. To use the brakes are a mission now, and never before have my shoes scraped against the front wheel. I keep going but slowly, and several times I stopped to see if I can see the problem, but everything looks ok it just feels uncomfortable.  I decide to just ride around the village and call it a day. On returning to school, as I wanted to turn into the school grounds, I find another problem: the front wheel won’t turn to the right. So I get off and push the bike back home. On campus I meet up with the admin lady who said she will drive me to the race and I tell her I don’t understand what happened to the bike, it just won’t work today. Without saying a word, she takes the handle bars from me and swivels them around and just like, that all is where and how it should be. I was flabbergasted and then, thinking what I must have looked like if anyone was watching me ride around, I laughed, so much my stomach hurt. The admin lady probably did not have much hope for me to ever finish a cycling race. She was very gracious and did not even laugh. 

Knowing everyone likes a good laugh I decided to share this moment with the P E teacher the following day. Her English is limited so I take her to a bike to tell the story so I can demonstrate it. I show and tell and she is so totally intrigued. She doesn’t laugh either, in stead she stands there swivelling the handle bars and looking at the bike. She says she did not know a bike can do that. Oh happy day, I’m not alone in my ignorance. 

For the next weeks my training went well. I was doing lots of stair work when all the students had left the campus and on days it was raining. I would cycle, groan, pant, and suffer up those hills and that mountain, but I kept at it. 

It all payed off. On the day I was very nervous, so nervous I was vomiting behind a shrub when the starter-gun went off. I suffered less than other riders up a hill of about 5 km, the rest was ok and I brought home a medal.  

What the heck is wrong with this bike today?

That’s more like the bike I know.

Confucius said: “Without feelings of respect, what is there to distinguish men from beasts?”

The first weekend in April is Tomb Sweeping time  or Qingming Festival in Taiwan and it has been for 2500 years. It takes place 15 days after the spring equinox and is usually around 4-6 April. Now its a public holiday too, to remember the death of Chiang Kai-Shek in 1975. 

In Taiwan filial piety is an important virtue. Respect for your parents, elders and ancestors is a beautiful characteristic of the Taiwanese culture. My personal experience of this was when a boy in the Grade 6 class was called out by my fellow teacher, sent out of the class to go and brush his teeth and mouth, and on his return was made to apologise to me. I accepted his apology and later asked the teacher to explain all of that. She said he had said my name in a disrespectful way while talking about me in the class. 

That incident I applaud but then when a fellow teacher, about 40 years old, tells me about his current problem with his mother, then I frown. His English name is Jay. His siblings have all left Taiwan and he is not married as he cannot afford to keep a wife and care for his parents. Jay told me he has to find a way to sneak a tropical fish tank into his bedroom without his parents seeing it. His mother has forbidden him to keep pets because when he brought a dog home she had to take care of it, the same with the kitten. Now he wants to keep fish and knowing his parents never go into his bedroom he can do it “under the radar” but to get through the living room to his bedroom with all the stuff is the problem. 

Here is another one: This teachers English name is Candy. She is 35 years old. Her older sister left Taiwan soon after finishing her university degree. Candy has no choice but to stay and take care of her parents although they are financially independent and healthy. During the week Candy teaches at a school about 300 km from her parents home. Every weekend she spends at their home which she talks about as “my home”. And here is the part I do not get: her father regularly get very drunk and he beats her and her mom on such occasions. When I ask her why she puts herself in harms way by spending weekends there she says “Its our culture to be there for our parents”. To be there as a punching bag? I would handle the situation differently, but thats me.

Back to the Tomb Sweeping Day. This is the weekend when children and grandchildren visit their parent’s homes and the whole clan go together to the cemeteries and gravesite of the departed ancestors. The graves and area around it is cleaned up. Then fresh flowers are placed there. Incense and joss-paper is burnt, and food, tea, wine and chopsticks are left at the gravesite too.  When this activity is completed the clan gather at the parents home and celebrate being together very much like in the west we would celebrate big family gatherings like at Christmas time and Thanksgiving. Families also go on outings to the many beautiful places around Taiwan. 

My first Tomb Sweeping long weekend in Taiwan was also the last time I travelled over a long weekend in Taiwan. I cannot describe to you the amount of people moving around in this country. You will think I exaggerate grossly but believe me its scary. On one occasion I was running out of trains (having let a few pass because they were so full) and I just had to board this one to get to my destination over such a weekend. The doors opened and I squeezed into it. The people were not moving to make space for me, because they could not, they were so tightly packed in. I was really panicking because I was sure my backpack was going to get squashed when the doors closed. All was ok eventually. At times like these you do not think of train accidents but then again, I do not think anyone would actually get hurt because nobody can get flung around they are so tightly packed in. Its also the time when you can faces because there is no space to hold a mobile phone in front of you. 

So my next Tomb Sweeping weekend was very different as I stayed in my village. I went on my usual walks and at the homes where I usually only see  one or two scooters parked there were now very smart SUV’s and other expensive cars parked. Where I usually greet elderly people sitting outside their homes, I now find younger people chatting in groups and bored teenagers, faces glued to mobile phones. The absence of the elderly people tell me they are in the kitchens preparing food. 

On the Sunday afternoon I saw an old man washing and shining a big motorbike. I think it belongs to his child or even a grandchild. I can imagine the younger one having a nap upstairs before he hits the road back to the city where he lives. The father / grandfather showing his love and appreciation by cleaning this bike, and perhaps wishing he was still young and strong enough to ride a similar bike. 

Another first was to see empty shelves in my local supermarket by the end of the weekend. I also realised I have become part of this community when I sat on the bus and see no familiar faces, just out-of-towners. I can now spot the city people. There was one lady who jumped up after every stop to look at the map on the side of the bus. Eventually I asked her where she was going and I was able to tell her how many stops to her destination. I was getting off before her. She was very surprised that this foreigner knew her way around here. What can I say, I don’t speak the language but it’s still home. 

How do my fellow teachers celebrate this weekend? I asked several of my fellow teachers what they will be doing this weekend. Nancy said she and her family will go to the temple where the ashes of her grandparents are kept to pray. Joan said the men in her family will go to the gravesite to clean up and do the rituals. The women and the small children stay at home and prepare a great feast for when the men return. Jack said he will fly with all his family, a total of 22 people, to China to visit their grandfathers grave there. Aaron said as a Christian he is just relaxing at home. Shirley another Christian says she will be hiking in the mountains with a group from her church. Charles said he is not going to do anything special and no he is not going to clean any graves, for no other reason except that its not something his family does. 

I just enjoyed the lovely springs days because, in my experience, after this weekend our rainy season starts. Oh and worked on my Japanese vocab. I live in Taiwan but I’m learning to speak Japanese? Yip, but thats a story for another day. 

Some graves look like this before April.

After Tomb Sweeping Weekend.