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Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Chicken

My goal each day is to have dinner on the table around the time Chad and Elena get home in the evening.  OK, that's always been my goal, but things have gotten a bit more complicated here in Taiwan.  My real goal is to produce a meal that is edible and I know it will take me most of the day to accomplish that.  Once I get into the swing of things, I'll have a list on my refrigerator of the meals I can find all the ingredients to make.  In the meantime, it's trial and error in the kitchen.

One of the meals we love and find comforting is simply baked chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy.  Chicken is a meat found in most countries, and having been to the market here in Taipei, I knew it was available.  I'm a bit leery of buying the market chicken because I have no idea how long it's been sitting on that table, unchilled.  The last thing I want is for all of us to spend a miserable week running to the bathroom because I bought meat that had been sitting out in the heat and humidity for too long.

On my shopping trip to Carre Four, the grocery store that has a nice balance of local & other products presented in a bit more Western way, I found whole chicken, nicely wrapped in cellophane and packaged in a familiar way.  I examined it an made my purchase then began contemplating opening the package up and beginning the cooking process.  

I wasn't sure exactly what I would find.  I was a bit worried about feet because I could see there was a bit of color variation sort of tucked up inside the cavity.  I tore the plastic and began pulling at the grey part with my knife.  After a bit of effort, the leg slowly began to unbend and out came the leg, foot and claws.  The feet were scaly and just sort of curled up in a witchy sort of way.  The claws looked like long finger nails ready to scratch a groove in my cutting board.  Yuck.  I looked at the knuckle where I would need to make my cut and gave a shudder.  I quickly flipped the bird over with my knife to see if the small legs needed removing as well.  

That's when I saw what I was completely unprepared for.  The head was still attached, smashed into the side of the breast and squashed flat.  I squeaked.  Mind you, it was not a full out scream, but there was some sort of strange sounding noise that came from me.  It took a few minutes of hopping around the kitchen and shaking my hands out before I was able to return to the bird and sort out what to do.  I picked at the head with the knife in an effort to pry it away from the body and considered what to do.

I made a quick trip across the hall to see if my neighbor had ever removed the head from a chicken before.  She had a cleaver but had never cooked a whole chicken, so she had no useful tips for me.  Armed with my weapon, I marched back into the kitchen to get this over with so I could get on with my day.  I'm not really a hacking sort of person, so I gingerly took the cleaver and sawed it back and forth across a leg.  It didn't even break the skin.  I applied a little more pressure but didn't have any more luck.  So, lesson one learned.  You must have sharp kitchen knives in order to de-head a chicken.  I got my good chef's knife out and amazingly enough, with a little bit of pressure, the leg came right off.  The ease was actually a bit frightening.  Leg number two came off quickly before I turned the body around to deal with the head.  

There's just something about cutting a head off that is a bit disconcerting.  The more I looked at it's face, all ugly and smashed, the weaker my knees became.  I finally just sucked it up and in one, smooth slice the head was severed.  I peeked into the cavity.  Fortunately it had been thoroughly cleaned out to make room to tuck the feet.  I rinsed the body out and placed it in a baking dish.  I'm sure a Taiwanese cook would have a fit because the feet are one of their favorite things.  Not sure what they do with the heads, some things are better left unknown.

Dinner was a huge success.  The bird was juicy and tasty.  Another meal down.  1,085 left to go!

First Impressions

I've been here for 10 days now.  You probably think I've been around the town with my camera out, exploring and being a genuine tourist.  Although I've begun to see a lot of things, I've really just been adjusting.  I always forget how lost I feel those first few weeks as I try to find my feet in a brand new country.  Taiwan has been no exception.  So here are a few things that I noticed and have stuck with me that are unique to Taiwan, or at least, Asia.

The language - Chinese characters are everywhere.  Not only can I not understand what is being said, I have no hope of reading either.  In a way, this is relaxing.  I noticed that in Russia I tried reading everything I passed by.  Not that I could speak the language, but I always hoped that exercising my brain to translate the Cyrillic alphabet to the Latin alphabet, then sound out the word, that I would end up with something that sounded sort of like an English word I knew.  This only worked about 1 in 100 times, but none the less, if I saw Старбакс then I knew that a good frappuccino was just around the corner.  But if I see 星巴克, I really have no idea what to expect.  (Both mean Starbucks!)  It was exhausting, really.  I'm working on Chinese.  I've now perfected two words:  Hello and thank you.  Both are useful and make me seem extremely polite.  I plan to learn more words, but if you know me, then you know that two words in ten days is pretty good.

Mopeds - There are a lot around.  It's not quite as busy as I've seen in some other cities and, for the most part, they are very orderly.  I will have to pay extra attention when I begin driving, but even the driving seems relaxed and orderly.

Face masks - I hadn't thought about this prior to arriving, but Asians really like to accessorize by covering half their face with a mask.  I don't find it polluted here like I know it is in cities such as Beijing, so I'm not sure the purpose they hold other than creating a lot of sweat.

Muggy heat - It's hot and rainy here.  I actually really like the muggy heat, but I am going through more than one outfit a day and my hair has gone completely wild.

Food - My sponsor took me to a local market the first day I was here.  Later, the same day, I walked over to Carre Four with the hopes of finding something for dinner.  I realized, at that point, that meal preparation was going to be a huge challenge for me.  Now I've also visited Jason's (the international grocery store where you can find those rare, but extremely expensive items like a can of soup) and Wellman's Market (also an expat store with high prices for to die for items, but not all nice and shiny like Jason's).  Wellman's is really just a hole in the wall with dusty American canned goods. But now I know where I can go to get canned pumpkin at Thanksgiving.  Costco is a staple for every expat in the city.  I crossed several more items off my list there.  So I am left with a short list of items that I just can't find.  Mainly baking ingredients, so next I'll look online.  Honestly, I am a bit disappointed with myself.  I really like the idea of eating like the local people do but I just have no idea what to do with the ingredients and how to make them into something edible.  I guess food expectations in my mind–at least when eating inside my own house–are so ingrained into me.  I'm determined to work at it and get a few new recipes under my belt.

Temples - I hadn't given too much thought to the religion here.  It's the first time we've lived someplace that has a completely different religion than Christianity.  New Zealand had the Anglican church, Colombia the Catholic church and Russia had Orthodoxy.  They all focused on Jesus and the Bible, so the common threads made them easy, comfortable places to be.  Taiwan has a mixture of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.  I really don't know what any of these religions believe.  There are temples and alters and offerings and incense.  I've been taught that idolatry is a sin, but because no one back home had an idol sitting in their family room, I was taught a TV or job was an idol because it took the place of God in one's life.  Here there are real idols and people who worship them.  I can see that I need to spend some time in my Bible and explore idolatry in a very black and white way.

Kind people - I think this is the kindest culture I have lived in.  The kind manner of the local people affects the attitude of expats as well.  Foreigners are happy to be here working.  It feels good to be in a place where people are happy.

Safety - Taiwan is safe.  The security briefing I did at the AIT was a bit of a joke.  Kids can travel on the metro and buses alone.  My neighbor has left her cell phone numerous places and it's been returned every time.  People leave their doors unlocked.  We don't think about safety and how it affects us on a daily basis, but after living in Bogota for two years and constantly concerned about muggings and petty theft, then living in Moscow where you were always looking over your shoulder- wondering if you were being followed, or wondering if someone had been in your apartment while you were away-it is a relief to be safe.

Now that I have mostly recovered from jet lag, I'm excited to be here.  Every day I feel a bit more settled.  I anticipate the next three years to hold some amazing adventures and to build some wonderful friendships.  

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Michigan Touring

Michigan is a great place to call home.  We've lived in several areas of the state and enjoyed each area.  Rivers for kayaking, woods for hiking and of course, Lake Michigan to play in, were all easy to get to from our home in Grand Rapids.  If we felt we needed to get to a big city, Chicago was only a three hour drive.  

Although our girls have traveled the world, they don't remember many of the things that make home such a special place.  With friends visiting the girls from Colombia and Russia, the timing was perfect to explore our own state.

Bright and early (at least in teenage girl time) I loaded four girls into the car and we headed from Grandma's house in Midland, to Mackinac Island.  We had great views of Mackinac Bridge and a lighthouse from the ferry.  The girls were enchanted with the quaint island where no motorized vehicles are allowed, only horses and bicycles.  We rented some tandem bikes and tried to take off.  The next few hours gave me some unique insight into my girls as they tried to navigate staying on a two person bicycle.  I learned that Maddie is more of a leader and take charge person and her friend is laid back and willing to be on for the ride.  Maddie worked best in the front so her friend never even gave it a try.  Elena is very flexible, riding easily in the back but also wanting to try the front.  This is probably the result of being the third born and having to be flexible.  Her friend, on the other hand, is a first born and although she wanted to succeed in the back, she just has too much alf a type A personality.  It was rather fun to watch the girls struggle through the riding a bike experience then hoping on my own single bike and taking off without a care in the world.  We spent the night on the Island, enjoying the quiet after the last tourist boat has floated away.  We spent a rather hazy sunset skipping stones in the Lake then swung on the swings until it was dark.

The girls found Sleeping Bear Dunes fun.  They loved running and jumping in the sand.  It was refreshing to see nature completely captivate the girls.  We could have spent all day hiking and playing but we needed to move on.

Macwood Dune Rides were a bit of a disappointment to the girls.  I think they were envisioning flying over the dunes at neck-breaking speed, but I enjoyed my hair whipping around my face as we flew up and downs the dunes.  The evening found me free to watch the sunset over Lake Michigan with the light house adding to the scene.

We wrapped up our tour with a day at Michigan Adventure.  The girls' third cousin from Finland was visiting America, so she joined us for the day.  It was so fun to watch five girls with international experience connect.  They were simply carefree teenagers for the day.  Laughter and conversation filled the air.  I don't think my girls would have done well in this situation if we didn't lead the life we do.  They would have struggled with small talk and getting to know one another if they hadn't been the new kids so often or had no idea of what the rest of the world was like.  This was clear in a conversation that happened shortly after we arrived.  The girls were busy talking as we were standing in line for a roller coaster.  The girl behind us asked our cousin where she was from.  
"Finland" she replied. 
 "Your accent is so cool.  I love it." 
At this point the stranger's friend tried to jump into the conversation.  "I'm Finish too."  This was met with awkward silence.  She was as Finish as I am–her grandparents probably also immigrated from Finland.
The conversation completely died at this point and my group went back to small talk and joking around as if they had known each other forever.  These five girls saw no difference in one another and just had fun.

I felt so lucky showing my girls and their friends our amazing state.  It was a fast and busy week, but what great memories this will provide when we are split up and in different countries this fall.