At the end of the school year, I joined the senior class teachers on a trip to Taiwan. I’ve been meaning to go for a while, but knowing how there was going to be tons of good food, I figure it would be better to go with others. With a small group of teachers traveling within just a couple days, it was more convenient to hire a tour company.  Normally I would plan a trip on a shoestring budget and my own schedule, but I also liked the idea of seeing how the teachers (and perhaps Japanese people, in general) travel.

For one thing, the female teachers who have kids don’t trust their partners enough to leave the kids alone for the weekend, so they opt to spend time with their kids, rather than go on the trip. So it was just me and the other single teacher. It’s noble of the mothers, really, but such a shame. Dads still need stepping up to do here.

I was really excited to get into the flavors of Taiwanese food again, and had the chance to go to Shilin Night Market, Din Tai Fung, and Jiu Feng, which inspired Spirited Away. We were able to see the National Palace Museum, the Chiang Kai Shek memorial and a couple of temples. There were also a couple stops for duty-free shopping and we even went to a fortune-telling street.

My biggest impression of Taipei was how modernity and fashion blended with the sort of old and grungy tackiness that I attribute to Chinatown. The city is dotted with modern buildings, like department stores, Taipei 101, and Taipei Arena. But in between and through the alleyways were grimy old buildings that were offices or apartments. Inside, though, were modern interiors, fit for hipsters.

We went to “the countryside” that is Jiu Feng, a sleepy mountain-side town that attracted a lot of visitors after Spirited Away became global, so its hawker streets began to populate with modern chain shops as well. A lot of the narrow alleyways were preserved, so we took a bit of an adventure and took whatever path that went up. Once we got to the top for a great view, we trekked down again through an extravagant graveyard, and many people’s homes, all shut with few windows, and closely packed together. You would think that with so many small and sharp alleyways, we’d find ourselves at a dead end at some point, but after wandering for a while, you would never expect one. It was surprisingly reassuring to know that there would always be a way out.

In Taipei, people drive cars, scooters, and they ride the train. The scooters reminded me of Vietnam, the cars reminded me of America, and the train reminded me of Japan.

Since our tour was focused towards Japanese tourists, which was evident because none of the shop attendants spoke English at all, we were taken to special tourist shops designed for tourists to pour all their money into gifts and symbols of status that included a 5% discount if you spent over 3000 Taiwan dollars.

The nice thing about going to a shop recommended by the tour is that it assures authenticity of Taiwanese-made products, but I can’t speak for the actual value and whether something is overpriced. However, I find that bargaining in this inflated economy only encourages people to cut even more corners anyway, like cheating workers of a fair wage, so I’m more conscious about what I can and can’t afford, and what I really need.

That aside, the tour also took us to duty-free brand name shops, which was a total waste of time. Our tour guide wisely cut that part of the tour short and took us to a fortune-telling alley that also catered to Japanese tourists. This was definitely a win because the one other female teacher had originally wanted to come to Taiwan to experience its fortune-tellers, but was shot down in a Japanese-esque way by the older male math teacher (who also assumes power because he’s from Aizu and she’s from the other side of the country).

In addition to our amazing tour guide’s sixth sense in knowing what we wanted to do, she explained the circumstances of Taiwanese society, how it’s got the lowest birth rate in the world, not because the people don’t want kids, but because the cost of living is incredibly expensive. Also, as our bus went toward the Japanese embassy, we saw a protest rally getting started, and she had no qualms about explaining the animosity between Taiwanese people of Chinese lineage and indigenous Taiwanese. I can’t say I understand the social situation in Taiwan, but having Taiwanese friends and family who are of Chinese and indigenous descent, as well as glossing over Taiwan’s history through Wikipedia, I realize that I’ve only hit the surface, and that there’s a lot more interesting things to discover.

I took a lot of notes in my Moleskin (whether I go back to review them is another thing…), and the shop attendants noticed that everything I wrote was in English. She assumed I was Japanese, and said, “How smart you are!” I responded by saying, “No no, I’m American (it’s expected).” I had explained I was Vietnamese-American to the tour guide beforehand, so for a minute, I had two aunties chit-chatting about me, and later was told, “You’re going to turn Japanese!”

Không không! Tôi là người góc Việt! Bố tôi lớn lên ở Đà Lạt, mẹ tôi sông ở Sài Gòn! Một trăm phần trăm người Việt!

A few food notes:

  • Fried quail eggs on a stick is AMAZING. I want more!
  • Pig’s blood encrusted with peanuts with hot sauce and cilantro was a bit boring. The hot sauce was overpowering and erased all the other flavors for me.
  • I had chrysanthemum tea and it was soooo good! Really missed that.
  • Taiwan has this “hot dog” where it’s a Chinese-style pork sausage, sweetened by marinating in rice wine that’s wrapped inside another sausage made of sticky rice. We waited in line for 30 minutes watching a middle-aged couple tag team in making them. They offer various kinds of toppings to go with your sausage.
  • Didn’t have time to eat beef noodle soup. Sad.
  • Din Tai Fung! Everyone had their fill of soup dumplings. My fave was the crab roe and pork. Really wanted to try the truffle dumplings, but I didn’t realize I could order my own basket until the social studies teacher had his own. But happiness returned when the sweet hot rice wine soup with dumplings came out. The menu didn’t say that the dumplings contained black sesame, so you can’t imagine how happy I was to take a bite and discover this sweet sweet black sesame oozing out. SO HAPPY.
  • They sell sugar cane drinks! It’s called さとうきび. Noted.
  •  Couldn’t get myself to order stinky tofu with my travel companions. I hate the smell myself, but I love the texture. Now if I could do the same for durian…


I went to my first kyudo reikai today. To my understanding, attending these things, which happens once a month, is good practice for the 審査, advancement test, which I’ll be taking in October.

The reikai was split into 3 parts:

1) 3 rotations of zasshawhich is a movement to the shooting position from a sitting position. This is mainly practice for the careful movements needed for the advancement test.

2) izume, which is like an elimination round, where everyone who was able to hit their target at least once during the rotations gets a turn to shoot one arrow at the target. Successful participants continue to shoot the target until only one is left.

3) Championship round: I think you have to sign up for this, and there are limited spots. The person who hits the most targets wins.

A few things that are different from my usual zassha practice that I learned today:

  • It was the first time I practiced rotations in a line with other participants, so I had to get used to how to lower my bow in a way that would not hit the person in front of me with it, while also bending my arms in a 90 degree fashion to rest on my hips.
  • I had to know when I should stand (after the person in front has prepped their bow on their left thigh, douzukuri) and raise my bow, uchiokoshi
  • I had to carry with me 4 arrows instead of 2*, so I learned that I had to set the arrows down, then pull two by its feathers to my side in order to reach the points without have to reach down in a contorted way.
    *During practice, one round in the zassha position is 2 arrows, and takes about the same time as shooting 4 arrows in the rissha position to complete.
  • At one point, my arrow fell from my aiming hand, but was still attached to the bowstring. I didn’t know what to do at that point, so I collected myself and stepped out because a girl had dropped her arrow earlier before and forfeited the turn. Later I learned that I could have still salvaged the arrow by using my chin/head in order to place it back onto my aiming hand, while still in position. Not sure how that would have worked out, but I’ll remember it for next time.

The club manager had me stand with him at the targets to turn the result blocks. If you missed the target, the block is turned to X, but if you hit the target, the block is turned to O. Each row of blocks is for an arrow, and each column represents the participant. The turns start from the bottom row for the first arrow. Then we’re expected to collect the arrows, which also has its own procedure.

  • Before collecting the arrows, the point keepers step into the target area to confirm the shot results.
  • One collects the arrows by standing perpendicular behind them, and pulling them out with one’s right hand and goes back into one’s left hand, with the head pointed to the back. Use one’s left hand to hold the target while removing arrows from them.
  • Arrow collectors should hold the arrows lightly, rather than grabbing them in a fist to prevent the feathers from rubbing against each other. Then each arrow should be cleaned.

Slowly, but hopefully surely, I can do all of this gracefully, along with knowing when to breathe, and how to help with carrying out a reikai without being told what to do.

I’m starting to find that Japan has a thing for best practice procedures to make everything look good. And if you can’t achieve them them, then you’re just sloppy.

But it’s okay because you have your whole life to train to be perfect.

Silicon Valley childhood

I was born in Oregon where my parents got married and resettled after escaping from Vietnam after the war. My parents got associate’s degrees in electronics and my dad went first to California to look for work. He found a job in Redwood City, and we settled in San Jose. We moved to Silicon Valley when I was 2.

My dad had found a job at Unity Systems, a company that manufactured home security and temperature control systems. As one of the hardware engineering guys, dad would bring home some of his company’s toys for user-testing. I remember him installing a black touchscreen in one of the walls of our house. I loved playing with it: the “beep beep beep” when you touched the screen to turn it on, and all the different menus you could explore. Once, when he pulled the screen cover off to calibrate the touch panel, I noticed the line of light sensors that surrounded and pointed towards the middle of the screen. This was when I discovered how a touchscreen tracked your finger position.

There were nights when dad brought home parts to make temperature sensors that would be installed all around a house and would feed temperature data to the regulating system. I would help him assemble them by sticking rubber adhesives to a plastic disc, and then mom or he would apply some caulk or glue, and stick the small sensor on the rubber adhesive, wrap fiber glass around it, and top it with a plastic cover. We made hundreds of these.

It was a small company, and my family’s garage was like a small wing of the factory. His office was where the software was created, and my dad worked with a female software engineer, whom he highly respected. He used to dream that he and I could start a business together where I would write the software and he would design the hardware.

One time, he had to make a house call in Carmel to diagnose and trouble-shoot a client’s system. Apparently, this place was a mansion, and he brought the entire family to check it out. The owners were a nice elderly couple, and mentioned that Clint Eastwood’s house was around the corner. My sister and I spent most of the day exploring the nooks and crannies of the house, lazing around, and playing billiards at the mini-pool table. I was inspired to use the house as a setting for a Sailor Moon fanfiction. I only managed to finish one chapter.

Dad told me once that the system was installed in Michael Jackson’s house. After seeing the Carmel house, I didn’t think he was lying.

The rest of my family all worked in some capacity with tech hardware. One uncle was also a hardware engineer, and his garage was full of RC toys and gear. Another wrote firmware for a chip-making company. Some of the women in the family did assembly work at one point or another, putting together boards for various electronics and computers.

Mom was actually very restless, and moved to different companies, from Circadian Inc., an electronic medical equipment company, to Mirus Corp., a film-printing company. From Mirus, mom brought home discarded slide machines and film cameras. So it was a treat to play with new toys that we could never actually afford.

Volunteering in Minamisoma

Minamisoma is on the coast of Fukushima, most famous for its annual festival of horse-riding samurai, 相馬野馬追い。

It’s also about 20-30 km from the nuclear power plant, but outside of the exclusion zone.

Parts of the city was affected by the tsunami, and contains many sites for temporary housing for displaced residents from around the power plant.

A friend of mine was assigned as an ALT to the town of Futaba, which is especially close to the power plant, evacuated on 3.11, and found a job in Minamisoma. She does volunteer work in her free time, and would often post to the Fukushima ALT group of volunteer weekends, which is how I heard about the volunteering opportunities.

Minamisoma is a few hours away from Aizu by car. Without one, I ride a couple highway buses, transferring at Fukushima city, and can get there by mid-morning at the earliest. The latest bus home leaves at 6:40. So going to Minamisoma for me is worth going for an entire weekend. Going for an entire weekend is pretty easy, but planning for one on a particular date can be difficult.

I’ve been meaning to go to get a better understanding of the situation and to help with whatever I can. As someone who doesn’t routinely do volunteer work, I didn’t really know what to expect, but I personally wanted to be doing work where it didn’t matter what background, skills, title, or financial status I have. So while I was anxious about how useful I would be, I was also excited to free myself from personal expectations.

So with all of these emotions and time investment at stake, just the scheduling for this weekend in itself is worth telling!

I’d booked this weekend to volunteer a month ago. It was a priority, as I had told my friend so many times that I would participate. Later, I was told that a practice test for the kyudo test was being held in early March. At first, I was told it was on the 15th, but later through some conversation, understood it to be on the 8th. I reconfirmed that it would be on the 8th, and with my plans to take the kyudo test in April, it was recommended that I attend the practice test. It was disappointing to have to bail out on yet another chance to volunteer, but there would be future opportunities.

I decided to prioritize kyudo over volunteering, and was left with a free Saturday. Later, after asking a teacher about soba-making that he had mentioned last year, he invited me to check it out on the Saturday. So I had Saturday and Sunday activities for the weekend.

On the Friday before the weekend, both plans fell through! That morning, I was told that the soba-making uncle had caught a cold, and upon asking for details of the practice test that evening during kyudo practice, the club boss tells me that the club meeting is on the 8th, and the practice test is actually on the 15th…

So at the last minute, I quickly assessed how much time and energy I would need to make sure I had breakfast, and be able to catch which buses in order to get to Minamisoma at the earliest, while at the same time, hitting up my friend to let her know I could come. There was a place to stay at a local temple for the night, so I was set!

About the volunteer work, the two organizations that I appeared for were the Minamisoma Odaka Volunteer Center and Save Minamisoma Project. The volunteer center is an “NPO commissioned by the Minamisoma Council of Welfare,” and SMP was started by August Hergesheimer, who was born in Inawashiro, a town by the lake that I biked around last year, and currently lives in Tokyo.

Both are different in carrying out their work. The volunteer center is run by the local government, where local people can sign-up to help, while SMP is a fundraising volunteer effort that is centered in Tokyo, where a lot of the volunteers came from. Volunteers also came from Sendai.

The volunteer center coordinates clean-up work of Odaka residents who suffered damage from the tsunami, while SMP coordinates food and water deliveries directly to the temporary housing residents.

That support for Minamisoma has continued for this long was confusing for me at first. A man from Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture that also suffered significant damage from the tsunami comes down pretty regularly to volunteer. I tried to ask him which of the two needed the most help, and he managed to understand me somehow and answered that Ishinomaki was able to revitalize itself much faster because residents could come back and rebuild, whereas many in Minamisoma, who worked in agriculture, had nothing to come back to because of the radiation.

Cultural lessons in English usage


“Fathers complain that they can’t have enough time to spend with their families because they are too busy.”

I don’t have the original Japanese with me, so I can’t guarantee the correctness of this sentence, but the keyword is 「できない」= can’t.

Grammatically, the sentence works. But instead of saying “I can’t have enough time”, native speakers would say “I don’t have enough time”.

I’m always at a cross-roads when I run into these sort of translations because I wonder if what I’m seeing is a cultural way of thought rather than an English mistake. Without knowing Japanese, an English teacher might immediately say, “No, that’s wrong,” but I would say, “This isn’t wrong, but Western speakers don’t say this because there is a nuance that there is nothing you can do about your lack of time.” If this is truly how they feel, I think they should be allowed to use it. While it might sound fatalist and dooming, being clear is reaffirming, and would lead to less misunderstanding.

Does this just confuse the students more?  Does it turn them off to English? Am I even qualified to teach this?

Or I could be just interpreting everything wrong, and should encourage putting more power to the speaker by changing the sentence to “can’t find enough time”?