Last night we enjoyed celebrating Lantern Festival, the second-biggest holiday of the year, with the family of one of my students. A number of other teachers and their spouses were invited as well. The evening began with a delicious hot pot dinner at their house, which they had undoubtedly spent hours preparing beforehand (and hours cleaning up after!). There was a large pot of boiling water plugged in on the center of the table, with a few meatball-type things already in it. Around it were ranged a number of other foods waiting to be cooked, such as beef, pork, two kinds of fish, giant shrimp, mushrooms, noodles, etc. As the meal progressed, we each added whatever else we wanted to the pot, let it cook a few minutes, then fished it out and ate it with rice and sauce. Choices for the sauce included soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil, thick barbecue sauce (no relation to the kind we use in the States), scallions, and hot chili peppers. At the beginning of the meal everyone made their own mixture according to their own tastes, then took it to their seat in a little bowl to dip their meats into. Wow, what a tasty way to do a meal!

After lingering over dinner and conversation, our hosts passed out colorful paper lanterns for all who wanted them. These are a traditional style that apparently are hard to find nowadays (not surprising, since they’re highly flammable, being made of paper with a real candle inside. Apparently the stores mostly sell plastic ones now). You fold down the sides, attach the candle to the bottom of the lantern, raise the sides again, then twist the wire handle around the end of a chopstick to carry it with. Watching the kids playing around with each other’s lanterns outside the apartment, I kept praying none of them would burn down the neighborhood. Surprisingly, only one boy caught his lantern on fire, and his older brother stamped it out before it became a problem.

Carefully carrying our lanterns, we strolled down the street to a large public park, which is one of the city’s major Lantern Festival celebration locations. It was basically a big fair, with colored lights and decorations all over, and a giant lit Mickey and Minnie welcoming us in (in honor of the Year of the Rat). There were booths selling colorful lanterns in various creative shapes (all with little bulbs inside, no real fire). The place was absolutely packed, and most of the people were either carrying or wearing or buying some sort of lantern or glowing object (picture the light-up plastic swords, necklaces, devil-horns, etc. that they sell in Disneyland at night). The park had a huge amphitheater where there was a colorful fountain show going on, but it was too crowded for us to get in, so we didn’t see much of it. I think there were to be fireworks at some point, but it was late and we didn’t want to stay all night, especially in crowds so thick we could hardly move. Finally Floyd and I wormed our way out of the throng in the park and found a taxi to take us home. What a memorable evening!

It’s Chinese New Year! There are decorations everywhere, it seems. The above picture is of entryway of our apartment building – notice all the red and gold velvety banners, and the hanging decorations of various kinds with long red tassles. The pictures to the right and below show a big display (from the front and back) just inside our apartment lobby.

Little shops and stands selling decorations have popped up all over the place. The most common kinds are rectangular or diamond-shaped, with a word or phrase in Mandarin in the middle, and elaborate red and/or gold designs around it. Most of the words are about prosperity or good luck for the new year. This is the beginning of the Year of the Rat in the Chinese calendar, and so many of the decorations we’ve seen feature pictures of cute mice.


The funniest thing, in my opinion, is that a lot of them have Mickey Mouse (often with Minnie or other Disney friends), dressed in traditional Chinese clothes! We’ve been told that this is perfectly legal; I guess the company that makes them arranged with Disney to buy the right to use Mickey this year. In any case, it’s fun seeing “East meets West” in the Mickey Chinese New Year banners, which have rapidly become very popular here.

On February 2nd, Floyd and I had the chance to visit an interesting museum with some other expatriates here. It’s on the site of a large junior high school that was totally destroyed in a major earthquake on September 21, 1999. They’ve reinforced the ruins with steel and concrete to keep them stable, but kept them in their original ruined condition for the museum, which is partly indoors (in new buildings) and partly outdoors.
One of the interesting things is the school’s track, which is right on the Chelungpu Fault Line. One end of the track sank down maybe six or eight feet, which apparently helped scientists study the fault. That’s because the lanes were the exact width required by international track and field standards, so scientists can use the lane markings to measure exactly how and how much the ground moved. The track’s polyurethane (or whatever it’s called) surface has remained in great condition,so it’s easy to see the lines twisted, broken and mangled in the two places where the track fell away to lower ground.
“I didn’t mean to!”

Anyway, it was an interesting place, though it was scary to see how totalled the buildings were. Fortunately the quake occurred in the middle of the night, otherwise hundreds of students would undoubtedly have been killed. The three-story classrooms were smashed down to about ten feet high in some places, with the bottom floor only about a foot high throughout.
In one of the indoor exhibits, there were TV screens showing original news coverage of the quake, and it was truly horrifying to see the damage in cities throughout Taiwan. Tall buildings crumbled and burned, with one skyscraper actually toppling sideways to fall full length across a road. (Apparently this earthquake helped inspire better building standards throughout the country, so there would be much less damage now if such a thing were to happen again.) One of the most interesting parts of the museum was the quake simulator room, where we sat on cushions on the floor and felt the room jerk and shake with the exact movements and magnitude of the original quake. That was pretty exciting, though Floyd said it didn’t really feel authentic because there was no sound. The kids in our group said it was their favorite part of the museum!