Daytrippers #1: Lukang

Yesterday we set off for a day trip to the nearby town of Lukang. It’s a lot smaller than Changhua city, but has much more in the way of history, culture and tourist attractions.

The day got off to a rocky start, as we missed the first bus and almost missed the second, while trying to work out which of the 10 or so bus stops near the train station it would be at. But once we had caught the bus, it was a case of just sitting back and watching the scenery go past. Well, by scenery, we mean rice fields and industrial port town architecture, but it was nice to see something different from Changhua for a change.

We meant to ride the bus to  its last stop: the Taiwan Glass Pavilion. But accidentally got off one stop too early, at the Ribbon King Culture Park. We had read about the place online, but hadn’t been overly enthralled by the idea of a ribbon museum and gallery. However, as we approached the gate, the friendliest security guard in history appeared and presented us with two complimentary packs of ribbon samples of various colours, and invited us to play Pokemon Go, as the museum is a Pokestop. We decided to be polite and stop in briefly, but we were really pleasantly surprised once we got in. As you enter the building there is a long wall of different coloured threads, like a loom. Each colour represents a character trait, like calmness, enthusiasm and pursuit of knowledge. The idea is to use one of the ribbons from your gift pack and weave it into one of colours, but we aren’t entirely sure if we were meant to choose a trait we wished for, or a trait we already have. Either way, it was a hit with us and the many families we saw coming in to have a look.

The museum itself is really just a long corridor, hung with ribbons and spools of silks and beaded fabrics. In other places the walls are decorated with artworks made entirely of lengths of ribbon, alongside windows looking into the ribbon factory, and info boards on the history of ribbons and the textile industry in Taiwan. Through windows set at shoulder height you can peek into a functioning ribbon factory and at some points we could see ribbons being made. At the end of the corridor was a beautiful gift shop, with ribbons, fabrics, beads, silk scarves, leather purses, jewellery and hair accessories, along with the usual tourist doodads like key rings,  postcards, bars of soap and little figurines. The next room is called the DIY Room, where visitors can learn to dye ribbons, make ribbon art and even have a go turning the crank on an old-fashioned ribbon weaving machine. As it was Saturday, the room was really busy, so we decided just to watch other people for a bit and then moved on.

Our second stop was the Glass Pavilion, which is really a temple worshipping Tian Hou Gong Mazu, a goddess who protected the first settlers in Lukang from the dangers of the seas as they fled mainland China. As a result, the whole temple has a water theme, with a beautiful pond in the centre, serving as a wishing well to receive blessings from Mazu. Little glass bowls act as targets for people to toss coins into, which is a lot harder than it sounds! The temple is almost entirely made of glass, except for the pillars supporting the roof. Appropriately, the temple is on the grounds of a glass factory, and next door to it is a huge glass gallery featuring glass art, displays of experimental glass for household and industrial use, and an incredible hall of mirrors, with various themed sections such as the ocean, the jungle, and the Golden Tunnel. The gallery itself is free, but the hall of mirrors requires special slippers and gloves to be worn, which only cost NT$100, and you can take the slippers home with you afterwards! Near the food court area, there are also two gift shops (an expensive one and a not-expensive one) and a stand where you can watch a professional artist making glass sculptures.

The gallery also had English information on almost all its cards, which made some of the pieces stand out a lot more. We got to walk down a glass and mirrors version of the next stop on our itinerary: Moru Lane. After looking at intricate glass spiderwebs and butterflies, and wandering the glass gallery mazes, we caught the bus back into Lukang central and set off on foot for a few of the historical attractions. First on the list was a narrow lane famous for its cheeky name. Down the historical main street of the town, and then a little further, we found the incredibly narrow Moru (“Breast-touch”) Lane. A functional alley that was built to provide a fire escape for long shops, it became famous for being so narrow (only 70 cm wide) that a man and a woman may find it difficult to shuffle past one another without… well, it’s in the name. That said, there are other explanations for the origin, some involving a playful challenge to courting couples, others more implausibly involving homonyms for a prayer for a son. The lane has also been given the less suggestive, or mischievously ironic, nickname “Gentleman’s Lane”.

Having tested our courting resolve shuffling down the lane, we retraced our steps along the old road. It is still paved in old cobblestones, and has inlaid information stones, one of which nearly caused us to be flattened by a scooterist! Along this old road you can see the famous Ai Gate, which is the only remaining gate of the original city’s defensive walls. Although, the plaque states that the gate was built to be wide to welcome traders and ox wagons, it’s surprisingly small, and it stands to show how different it was protecting a city so long ago. Down the many winding cobbled streets in its area you can stumble upon many old buildings and temples, but we were concerned about catching a bus, and managing dwindling cellphone batteries was becoming a drain on our enjoyment. We left historic Lukang buildings for a later visit and set off for the bus stop.

At the information centre we realised we had quite a wait for the next bus. In a tiny spot of shade we debated whether we should hustle to another bus stop, or hide from the heat and wait where we were. Rainbow coloured smoke and the boom of fireworks decided for us as a few minutes later we heard fanfare and music coming up the road towards us. We had, it turned out, prime position to watch a parade through the streets. The parade was a strange mix of tradition drums and two-person dragon costumes, floral floats, symbolic sedan chairs, and souped up cars with blaring sound systems and pleather-clad girls. The most notable figures were four enormous puppet-costumes with fearsome faces and regal clothing. And, just before our bus arrived, we were witness to a massive and quite deafening fireworks display. The smoke trails clouded the street like a scene from an apocalyptic film, an effect added to by the otherworldly blaring of large brass trumpets not unlike the South African vuvuzela.

We suspect that the parade was part of the ongoing celebration of Zhongyuan or Ghost Festival. For the lunar month, the spirits of the dead may walk the earth again, eating and experiencing things like Taiwanese opera as a reprieve from the underworld. These ‘goodbrothers’ are given food and drinks, warm water to wash themselves, and are generally appeased. We’re hoping to figure out if what we saw was part of it. We wondered whether the giant figures were meant to be related to the god Zhong Kui, a divine exorcist who is involved in sending the goodbrothers back before the gates of the underworld close again, or something else entirely. However, with no way to really ask anyone around us we must wait for the week to start again before we can find out what we really saw.

We had a wonderful time in the small town, and are definitely going to go back to see more of the sights we couldn’t squeeze into our first day. The day also showed that sometimes the best laid itinerary can be upset to make space for wonderful surprises!

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Teaching at Neurolink

We’ve been teaching for just over 6 weeks now, so it’s about time we posted something about what our actual reason for coming to Taiwan.

Almost everyone has asked us what the children are like. The short answer is that children are the same everywhere. Some of them are wonderful, some of them are an absolute nightmare. There are students who are excellent at English, some who work very hard, and some who would probably rather put out their own eyes than be in the classroom. Naturally, every teacher has their favourites, and often this is very much due to the teacher’s personality. One teacher in the Changhua school tends to really like the more cocky students, while another finds it rude and disrespectful. Over time, you learn to just accept that everyone has different preferences, and not to get offended when someone says they hate a student you like, or vice versa.

The schools themselves, despite both being Neurolink schools, are quite different. Each school manager expects different things from their teachers, and this creates quite different environments and work ethics. In general, Neurolink has a very good work ethic, and good communication, and the teachers are treated well by the rest of the staff. However, that said, new teachers are expected to fit in with the schools’ systems, and this is often not negotiable. For example, if a lesson is due to finish at 15:50, but you have finished all the work in the course guide by 15:40, the children are not allowed to leave early, and the teacher must fill those remaining 10 minutes with  material. What this material is, is not really important, and teachers have been known to show Youtube videos or play Uno – as long as the students are speaking English, just about anything goes.

Naturally, every school has its problems, and there are definitely days where we have wanted to just throw a course guide at someone and go home early. Some days the admin work is horribly disorganised, and you are only given your classes folder 20 minutes before you are supposed to teach them, and other days you just have something thrust upon you with no explanation or advice, and you are expected to make it happen. The easiest way to deal with the former, is to hover annoyingly in the main office until you get what you need. The latter is something you just accept, and while it has caused more than enough stress and frustration. generally the school staff are equally anxious that everything should go smoothly, so even if you screw it up, someone will pick up the slack. Obviously, not screwing up is ideal, but there is usually a fall-back smoke and mirror show in case of emergencies.

The school system was a little overwhelming at first. There are a lot of aspects to keep track of when planning a lesson: do the students have a spelling test? Which words are being tested? What is the priority for this lesson? Are there flashcards or props you can use to teach the concepts? Worksheets? Reviews? Progress checks? The list goes on. It can be very easy to forget something, or to run out of time and have to rush the book work. This is why lesson plans are strongly encouraged, because they double as a checklist to make sure you get everything done. Once you get into the routine of lesson planning, and wrap your head around the system, it gets easier by the day.

Finally, one of the highlights of teaching at Neurolink is the STEM programme. There has been a pretty speedy move away from the traditional drill school mentality, and the Neurolink schools are introducing an “English in context” approach, using science, technology, engineering and maths (hence, STEM). Unfortunately, this also means more work for the teachers, who have to plan science lessons, experiments, activities, crafts and extra material for the class, but while many teachers seem to dread science lessons, we both really enjoy the variety and the break from the daily routine. Plus, the teachers can learn useful skills while teaching the students – like how to make ice-cream with salt and ice, or how to make jumping origami frogs. Ok, perhaps not the most useful skills, but certainly a lot more fun than verb conjugations!