Sunday, January 31, 2010

The fields are many many

We biked randomly through some of the same countryside, just because. We were invited in by a bunch of nice people having some tea outside their new temple, which is in the process of construction. They all lined up with us and took our picture with our bicycles and gave us snacks, etc. These kind of encounters happen to us fairly frequently. I had a very nice longish chat with a woman my age who was working in some capacity with the temple project. Despite the specificness of the vocabulary she was using to describe the temple and its various gods and rituals, she really tried to explain herself in ways that I could understand. I really appreciate it when a person can tell where I am in my Chinese ability (intermediate, without a lot of specific vocabulary) and is still willing to talk about interesting subjects without scaling it down too much. (How many times have people asked me if I enjoy Taiwanese fruit as a conversation point?) As for me, I can't speak at length about much other than my own life - the facts, feelings, and bare essentials. But I can get a good enough gist of what others are talking about and I can ask questions about what words I don't know. It's whether I can understand the answers to their questions that determines just how long the conversation can last. If they don't have a sense of what I do and don't understand, and they are not willing to help me understand, then the conversation usually doesn't get very far at all. But you don't need to be speaking in a foreign language for this to be the case. In conversation, even in our native language, does it not also come down to finding an awareness of what each other knows and then trying to fill in each other's blanks?

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Another Old Man

With painted-on eyebrows, one good tooth, and a dogged insistence, this old timer attempted to pass on his grievance to us about the way things used to be. As women in long robes circled and chanted around a small altar in front of the large Matzu altar (below), and as another old man played a dingy old synthesizer and a young man banged a drum, this old timer told us that this kind of praying was not the same. Its not the same, not the same, he said over and over. He walked away and came back. He circled around us. I leaned in close to understand his old timer, toothless pronunciation. He pointed at every woman in the ceremony and said, "She's from city A. She's from city B. She's from city C. This prayer is not the same." He eventually came around to the monster-warrior movie projected on the screen behind him. "Do you like this movie," we asked. "This, I like this very much!"


Guo Nian

Friday, January 29, 2010

Most Extraordinary Piece of Fraud

I love a good piece of fraud story. Here's a good one that is tangled up, and apparently partially responsible, for keeping European interest in Taiwan as a potential colonial target in the 17th century. I read about it in the brilliantly entertaining and dense Taiwan history, Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan by Jonathan Manthrope.

George Psalmanazar was born in France around 1680 and not much verifiable information is known about him.

He took on trickery as a trade at and early age. His pompous alias was inspired by the ancient King of Assyria, Shalmaneser. He first pretended to be an Irish catholic on a pilgrimage to Rome. In order to blend in with pilgrimming gypsies he stole a cloak from the church to give himself a bit of plausibility. Once in the company of real pilgrims it wasn't too long before they realized he knows nothing about Ireland. So he went to London and took on a new role and heritage. He became a native "Formosan" an unprecedentedly new ethnic savage from the island of Formosa (Taiwan). Of course, there were no ethnically Taiwanese round about London so there were no jerks to call him out. Instead, he became an exotic gentleman who was showcased in the parlors of high society. John Locke had published Identity and Diversity, which had roused great interests in the ideas of culture and nationhood.

In 1704, Salmanazar wrote his own cultural treaty An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, an Island Subject to the Emperor of Japan, Giving an Account of the Religion, Customs, Manners, etc. of the Inhabitants, Together with a Relation of What Happened to the Author in His Travels. It was a success. He was invited to teach Formosan, a constructed language of his own invention that consisted of gibberish.

Here is an example of one of his religious translations from 1703, the Lord's Prayer:

Amy Pornio dan chin Ornio vicy, Gnayjorhe sai Lory, Eyfodere sai Bagalin, jorhe sai domion apo chin Ornio, kay chin Badi eyen, Amy khatsada nadakchion toye ant nadayi, kay Radonaye ant amy Sochin, apo ant radonern amy Sochiakhin, bagne ant kau chin malaboski, ali abinaye ant tuen Broskacy, kens sai vie Bagalin, kay Fary, kay Barhaniaan chinania sendabey. Amien.

Salmanazar's facts and descriptions were outrageous and mostly patch-worked from other influential cultural accounts, such as those written about the Aztec and Inca civilizations, and by exaggerating descriptions of Japan. Utopia by Thomas Moore may have also been influential.

According to Psalmanazar, Formosa was a prosperous country with a capital city called Xternetsa. Men walked naked except for a gold or silver plate to cover their privates. Their main food was a serpent that they hunted with branches. Formosans were polygamous and husbands had a right to eat their wives for infidelity. They executed murderers by hanging them upside down and shooting them full of arrows. Annually they sacrificed the hearts of 18,000 young boys to gods and priests ate the bodies. They used horses and camels for mass transportation and dwelled underground in circular houses.

When ever his descriptions were challenged Psalmanazar would counter the charge with an ever more outlandish accounts. Eventually he was vetted and wrote another best-selling book about his duplicity. He would have fit in nicely with our age of media attention whores who spin whirl-wind stunts, which are followed by an incredible nose-dive that generates just as much fame and potential TV deals.

Tell me about your favorite movie.

Laundry's daughter gold grass (with benefits of good decoration) is a public high school sophomore swimmer next door is designed for South Korea's daughter and the child rich family who set up the consortium of private high schools "myth college" elite schools.

One day after the incident in a sporadic silk grass lure them away to a "high myth" while there is F4 on the campus known as heir to a family of four major South Korea consortium. Jun table. Yoon Si-thick, Su Yi-ching, Song Yu-Bin, is the myth college summon wind and rain figure, the original looked down on the first wire grass with F4 Jun table, they are gradually just this with the upper class out of tune, optimistic, cheerful, stubborn, persistence or ordinary girls attraction by a Cinderell an the Prince of modern romantic love story began for...

I love this. This is what happens when the best and most eager students in class desperately want to share something more substantial. There is a special feeling when reading what boils down to spam hand-written in a 12 year old's journal...A dawning of a New Age feeling. Despite its nonsense I have a vague idea what's going on, don't you? I gave her a gentle warning against instant translators and a big red check-mark for effort.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Usual Niceties

We have an Indonesian place where we are friendly weekend regulars. It's an open air garage kind of place with her half-Taiwanese young daughter lazying around watching TV in pink princess clothes. The food is great, probably not the best there is, but to us, tempeh coconut curry soups, samosa-like pastries, and cumin fried chicken, is a welcomed change of food scenery from the typically Taiwanese boiled vegetable soups that we eat all week.

It takes about an hour of biking up to the base of the mountains to get there. It's in a coffee producing town called Gukeng. It is our favorite ride by far, the only one that we really ever repeat, actually. We ride through a tree lined "Green Tunnel" for several kilometers with farms flanking both sides, through dinky villages, through orange groves where we often stop and buy fresh orange juice. It's very idyllic really, in spite of the traffic. For the past several weekends our Indonesian lunch place has been re-locating back to the woman's courtyard home. We've biked to Gukeng on two occasions to find her either sweeping and touching up or the shop closed up. In lieu of this there isn't much else in town. So this weekend we spent random change on snacks and sat in the park. A high strung girl with betel nut dripping out of her mouth chatted with me for a bit, asking me if I was happy and various other interrogations, until I eventually came to her stall and bought coffee-flavored crackers. We sat at a picnic table and talked as a group of shy kids debated approaching us for a good 20 minutes. Eventually, one did. She asked us her memorized English conversation invocation, "What's your name?" and then asked me a few questions in Chinese. I had the young girl take our picture, which pleased the group. And soon there after the old woman under the tree in the background had us sit with her as she smiled and squinted into the speckled sunlight and dangled her small sock and sandal-ed feet off the bench's edge.


Saturday, January 16, 2010

The younger man

Michael and I were meandering around some old municipal buildings in the slightly bigger nearby city of Douliou today. We came upon a few surprises, such as a collapsed stone house that contained a jungle, an old Japanese era building in honor of Emperor Hirohito, and behind it, lounging in an outdoor living room, an old man and a young man having some refreshments. The young man pretty much demanded us to sit and have some tea. So we obliged. It is certainly not the first time that I've been in this kind of forced tea drinking situation, and not the first for us undergoing it together either. We chatted for a good half-hour. What made it a little extra-special, though, was the young man. He had the kind of inebriation where every movement was overly deliberate so as not to be disastrous. The old man didn't drink alcohol, but the young man had a soup bowl's worth of rice wine. We watched (beheld) him as he held the large bowl up to his mouth and then gulped it down with accompanying squeals and a bit of squirming. The old man excused himself for dinner and the young jaundiced-looking man started to paint us each a picture for our "happy birthdays," he said, in his only bit of English. When he had finally finished painting the second picture I readied the conversation toward our departure. We left and he said again in Chinese, "Happy Birthday."


Old man, tea party

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Starting New Chapters

I've written a piece on (a photography website) about our time so far here in Taiwan.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Walking through pretty things


Funeral tent, pre-funeral. The tents are set up outside of the home of the deceased. The music and prayer filled ceremony can last for several days, 24 hours a day, until the day on the Chinese calender that the dead can be buried. They are then buried in a shallow grave, until the another special day on the Chinese calender when they can be exhumed. Their remains are placed an urn and set up around an indoor home altar or an outdoor shrine. Our agent's friend volunteers as an exume-er in the Yunlin county cemeteries.



Inside one of the shrine rooms of the oldest Matzu Temple, Tienhou, in Lugang.


Central altar in a huge and newer Beigang temple




Sunday, January 3, 2010

Bingo at the Huwei Nightmarket


The weekend night markets are to small town Taiwan what football games are to Americans- young people posturing or otherwise being themselves, chowing down on bad-for-you treats and buying cheap stuff. If there is anything else going on in the cold Friday darkness of fields of Indiana corn or Texas cows, or Taiwan's rice and ducks, I'd like to see it. The bigger of differences is that we wouldn't ride our bikes home as American trucks gunned down the road, but we do here as throngs of scooters weave ever carelessly toward some Friday night mischief.

a thousand moons on a thousand rivers

On our train to Taipei this weekend, I started reading Hsiao Li-Hung's "A Thousand Moons on a Thousand Rivers." So far its about a young exuberant Taiwanese girl who's bad at school and longs to stay put in her home town, in the Taiwanese countryside (around about where Michael and I are living now). The requisite pressure from her family to exceed in academics and find a well-paying career diverge with her desire to be filial and an attentive good family person, despite the circumstances taking her away from her family. In the slightest of stretches, I feel a little bit like her. There are the folks that stay put and near to their families. They are the ones that keep the heritage ball bouncing, live true to something filial and embedded in local culture, that I, from my far-flung outposts, can only appreciate in the abstract.

In the story, Zhenguan says, "How happy are those that never have to leave their home!" I think it's true. If you never have an existential, egoistic, or otherwise psychic pull away from your home and family, or outside circumstances pushing you out, then I'd say that's at least a good foundation for contentedness.

I learned a little something about Daosim a few years ago on a night bus to a since forgotten southern Chinese town. Consider a hilly and mountainous landscape, whose valleys thrived with villages whose residents rarely encountered one another, so much that over the centuries these isolated areas created a myriad of mutually unintelligible dialects. Such was the historical and geographic context of ancient China from which the Dao De Jing first emerged and continued to evolve for millenia. Now one may ask, in a Daoist perspective, if you hear a dog barking or a rooster crying over the next hill, what makes you curious and driven to cross the hill and enter the village, which is exactly like your own, simply to see what's going on over there? We've got our own barking dogs and cryings roosters. What delusion are you following that you do not have enough where you stand, that you might need to seek something new? Despite it ringing true to me, as I stared out the window of the bus, cutting through the darkness of a place far remote from my home, my adult life at that point and to this day is either a challenge or a doggedly naive rebuke of that idea. I guess I will know which when I am 70.

I've put myself in the path of my interests and big dreams. I've been successful, but I've also achieved a great aloneness. Michael and I both feel this way, though we are not paralyzed by it, but driven by it. And we often justify it as such: We belong to a tradition of humans who don't settle down. That's our tradition. We're led by curiosities and a tendency toward periodic change. Modern lives are characterized by this, and we're no different. We're our own thing like those who stay close to home are theirs. There are pilgrims, nomads, explorers, gypsies, migrants and immigrants, and wanderers. So we are the newfangled variety, adapted and made necessary by our own historical context- this global market, "world is flat", situation that civilization seems to be going through.

In the story, Zhenguan, returns periodically for holidays from her big city college. Her family tip toe around her as she "studies" by candle light under a mosquito net. Having gotten used to her isolation, she takes to reading in the crumbly quiet cottage in the back of her grandparents traditional-style country home. They do not bother her; they are satisfied by her seeming commitment to academics. They call it the "arm's length" cottage. And she stows away in there reading fantasy kung fu comic books, far enough away, but close.



Paper clothes and accessories for the beloved deceased. You burn the gifts and they scatter up to your ancestors in heaven.

Food for the ghosts.

Burning paper money so that you will be rewarded with real money.

Bicycle Places: Beigang, and west toward the sea

Things along my usual figure eights


Picture 472a

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