Writer's Block

The USA is the place I was born. Canada is the place I was raised. Taiwan is the place in my heart.

Sunday, September 21, 2003

In the past two weeks, I’ve witnessed an unusually high number of scooter accidents. On the way to school the taxi driver nearly ran into a scooter that cut him off, coming out of his blind spot. I’ve seen more than a few accidents involving scooters on the side of the road from the window of my taxi on the way to school. Just the other day I was riding a taxi on the way to a department store when again, a scooter driver cut in front of the taxi; this time the taxi hit her and she was thrown from her scooter. Fortunately, we were going very slowly and the taxi had only lightly tapped the scooter and the scooter driver immediately got up, apparently uninjured. A bystander ran into the street and started cursing out the taxi driver, even though it was clearly not his fault. Scooter drivers regularly drive recklessly, expecting other motorists to yield to them and to have their eyes open in all directions. And just as in past semesters I’ve already had students absent from class due to being involved in traffic accidents. It still appalls me the frequency with which people get injured riding around on scooters. Practically every foreigner I know who rides a scooter or motorcycle in Taiwan has been in at least one accident. Is this any way to live?!

Saturday, September 20, 2003

Cocky Rooster

This morning I was on the bus enroute to meet my friend for a day of scuba diving. When I called to check in with her, I was disappointed to learn that our instructor had cancelled due to heavy rain in Kenting the night before. That meant that the visibility today would be poor. Fortunately, the bus had stopped at an intermediate stop just after the main bus station so I slipped away unnoticed, figuring I could perhaps use the fare for another day. As I ran hastily onto the sidewalk, I felt a scrape on my leg- at first I thought that maybe I had stepped into some trash or something in my haste. When I looked behind me, I saw a rooster (!) strutting on the sidewalk. I had been pecked by him! He wasn't yielding any of his territory and seeing that he was hot on my trail I jumped a little and ran back into the street. I couldn't help but laugh at myself since under more "normal" circumstances (like on a farm) the situation would be reversed. Only in Kaohsiung or southern Taiwan...

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Since returning from South-East Asia, I've realized how little of Taiwan I've actually experienced. I have vowed to take the opportunity to explore different parts of the island and to learn more about Taiwan's culture and customs.

So it was very serendipitous today, that my Mother saw an ad in a Chinese language newspaper, for a one day performance of Taiwanese opera (aka Gwa Hee) at the cultural center tonight. Sometimes there's definitely a gap in information around here. Things are not uniformly advertised in English and Chinese language papers. Once I read about an upcoming film festival of Taiwanese documentary films in an English language paper, but when I mentioned it to my parents- because I knew they'd be interested- they hadn't read about it in the Chinese language paper. So we try to keep each other abreast of interesting events and happening around town. Besides, my mother is often my unofficial interpreter in such situations- when there is no proper subtitling or when she explains the historical or mythical context and gives insight into the nuances of the language that I may have missed.

Taiwanese opera or "Gwa Hee", as it's known in Holo Taiwanese, has always seemed to have somewhat of an esoteric cult following, but that's been changing with the democratization of Taiwan. It seems to have a broad entertainment value that appeals to various generations. It is perfomed in Holo Taiwanese, and was banned during the Japanese occupation period of Taiwan and also later by KMT Nationalist government. Because of this, it has come to be regarded as a unique part of Taiwanese culture. This is somewhat ironic since Gwa Hee seems very stylistically similar to Bejing opera. It's not clear whether Taiwanese opera descended from Bejing opera and later became "Taiwanized" or if it originated in Taiwan and later copied certain aspects from Bejing opera. Taiwanese opera distinguishes itself from Beijing opera by being sung exculsively in Holo, featuring more singing than speaking than Beijing opera and most interestingly of all- the characters, most notably, male roles, are almost exclusively played by women. With Beijing opera the opposite is true; the majority of roles are played by men, who also portray the female characters. When, how or why female actors/signers dominate the cast in Taiwanese opera is unclear, but significant and worthy of some investigation. Has this always been the case for Gwa Hee? Is it indicative of Taiwan's comparatively liberal society or was it simply an artistic choice or preference for the female voice? What other practicalities or factors might have prompted this departure from common practice?

By banning Taiwanese opera it came to symbolize a vehicle to preserve the Holo language. When granchildren and grandparents found a common interest in watching Taiwanese opera, it bridged the language gap between the generations... A bridge that was severed when the various foreign regimes prohibited the teaching or speaking of Holo language by strict education reforms and censorship.

As I listened, I reflected on how Holo lends itself so beautifully to song. It has 8 tones, some of which vary by half an octave or so- making the language rather melodic... syllables and sounds take on different meanings and become homonymns facilitating a play on words and witty rhymes. I always find it curious when I hear Japanese words that have been adopted as part of the Holo language and also the English words that have been adopted after being Japanesized.

The storyline was of a playwright and his struggle between managing his artistic expression and the substance of his message while trying to cater the superficial preferences of mass audiences for special effects and flashy sets. So the story goes- the playwright keeps going back to the drawing board in his efforts to meet the demands of the theater owner to boost ticket sales. The experience was of watching several plays within a play. Many of the play themes were based on Chinese mythology or folk tales.

One of the scenes portrayed the birthday celebration for Chinese mythical god, which was attended by 8 mythical fairies. It was light-hearted scene at first celebratory and joyful and ending in comedic drunkenness! Just by coindence, that day I was wearing a handmade necklace with 8 antique jade pieces, each of which had been carved into the likeness of each of the 8 fairies. I never quite knew the exact significance or story of these 8 mythical fairies so it was a most happy coincidence that I learned a little more about each of these mythical beings.

Not only was this a great introduction to Taiwanese opera, but a sampling some of Taiwan's other performance arts, such as ribbon dancing and fan dancing.

In the final scene, the playwright dreamed of Taiwanese opera becoming internationally recognized and portions of the songs were sung in both Holo and English. It was an interesting concept, but rather strange sounding to hear English sung in the Taiwanese opera style. Perhaps this was because the translations were awkward and the syllables of the words didn't seem well matched to the rhythm or melody of the music.

Monday, September 15, 2003

What's wrong with this picture?

The cover photo Siam Sisters and the caption of the Taipei Times on Monday (September 15, 2003) was so absurd and ridiculous that I wondered if I should even bother writing in reaction to it. The photo in question shows women clad in Thai costumes and the caption describes the event as “aimed at reviving a traditional TAIWANESE parade.” Please tell me that this is a misprint- one that simply adds insult to all Taiwanese people around the world who’ve had to clarify that they are Taiwanese from Taiwan not Thai from Thailand. Did the Taipei city government seriously think that this half-baked attempt could even qualify as an attempt to revive Taiwanese traditional culture?

Mid-Autumn Moon Festival 9-11

As I start to write about this year's Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, I can't help but reflect on how different my mood and circumstance were a year ago.

This year's Mid-Autumn Moon Festival Day fell on September 11. In Taiwan, the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival is celebrated by snacking on mooncakes and pomelos. The gifting of and mooncake pastries and pomelo fruit begins days or even weeks before the actual day of the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. On the evening of Mid-Autumn Moon Festival Day, families and friends gather for home-cooked barbecue under the open sky with a view of the full moon.

Last year, I was fortunate to be in the company of a good friend and her family and friends. I had just returned from visiting my terminally ill A-ma (maternal grandmother) in Canada, but sadly, less than a week after I had returned to Taiwan, she passed away. I was without my family because they had returned to Canada for A-ma's funeral. Due to the unfortunate timing and teaching committments, I wasn't able to attend the funeral.

One year ago, I was dressed in somber black, sitting on the roof of my friend's house, surrounded by the comforting chatter of her friends and family. I looked at the full moon, alone in my thoughts and paused for a private moment of silence thinking about my A-ma and all of my relatives who were gathering at about this same time in the morning on the other side of the globe.

So the coming of this year's Mid-Autumn Moon Festival was met with mixed feelings for me as I realized it was almost a year ago that A-ma had passed away and another year had passed since 9-11.

For the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival this year, my family and I went to Tai Chung, (central Taiwan) for the day. There we were met by old family friends (who we knew in Canada)- they now live in Tai Chung. We stopped by Natou, the site that was hit hardest by the 9-21 earthquake of 1999 and visited a wall with hand imprinted bricks; it was a commemoration of the victims of 9-21.

It was a humid, cloudy day with patches of sun, sprinkles of rain and a breeze that just came later in the afternoon, just in time for our visit to the beautiful, serene Sun Moon Lake. We lunched at a beautifully modern hotel (designed by an Australian architect). The open space, clean lines, natural light from the glass windows, with a view of the lake harmoniously exuded an atmosphere of tranquility.

There are quite a few Spa hotels located around Sun Moon Lake and I quickly learned that Taiwan has quite a few luxurious, ultra modern and EXPENSIVE (to the tune of around US$300-500 a night- that's a month's rent for most people in Taiwan!) resort spa hotels like the one we dined in. It's unfortunate that these Spas are priced at such a premium- it's certainly not appealing to local or foreign travelers who could get same type of treatments at a fraction of the cost in a nearby South-East Asian country.

As so often the case, much of our time and socializing centered around eating.

We also had a unique dinner dining experience- we ate at Taiwan Banana New Paradise , a restaurant themed on colonial 1900 Taiwan (the period of Japanese occupation). There's a train waiting at the platform for you right outside of the restaurant... step in onto the cobblestone streets and you will be transported back in time. Everything looks as though it's been frozen in time- there's a corner store selling chewing gum and cigarettes, the local barber, neighborhood coffee shop, a movie theater at the end of the street, a dentist's office across the street and the herbalist/pharmacist next door. Peak into the glass enclosed shop interiors- there's an old barber shop chair and clippers, the dentist's office and equipment, old movie projectors and reels, what's behind the movie ticket counter?, what's on the menu at the local coffee shop? The signage was authentic (one of the signs was in fact for a pharmacy that one of my uncle's families ran!)

I was very impressed with Tai Chung since I saw such a range of impressive things- natural beauty, historical artifacts and interesting modern spaces.

After dinner we stopped by another restaurant, which was basically a cavernous stone structure about 3-4 stories high. The interior reminded me somewhat of the rave dance scene in the Matrix Reloaded, but with more style. It was a sexy, sensual space with abstract, surreal looking stone sculptures fashioned into various representations of the female form. There were female torso wall hangings and oversized female forms arching up into the 3+ story high ceilings. My descriptions couldn't do that place justice. It was truly unique.

Of course this day, 9-11 was a date significant for other reasons that did not go unnoticed. 9-11 did not go unmentioned nor did it escape mention in many of our conversations in Taiwan.

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

The First Day

August 18, 2003

In August/September I traveled to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

August 18, the first official day of my trip. At first dark and overcast, it soon began raining this morning in Bangkok as I walked around the downtown area not far from hotel trying to get my bearings. Ducking under the awnings provided by construction along the road or street vendors and shops, I managed to get back to the hotel before the rain set in, just in time to grab my raincoat and umbrella. It began pouring and the streets immediately flooded with the rain water, putting a damper on my original plans to go straight to the Grand Palace this morning. But amazingly, things started to fall into place. My cell phone rang just as I reached the hotel- it was my friend coming through with the email address of her guide in Siem Reap, Cambodia for the temples of Angkor. I went to plan B- checked my email to confirm the receipt of my Vietnam visa pre-approval letter and to contact the guide for Angkor.

Since I had done quite a bit of research and preparation, I already knew that there was World Travel Agency nearby where I could inquire about various airfares and tour arrangements. I promptly went there next to make arrangements for my next destination- Cambodia. I was in an information gathering mode and had several questions for the travel agent, a middle aged woman with short silver colored hair and black framed glasses. I assumed that she’d have a standard price list of air fares, so I asked her one by one about rates to Phuket, Krabi, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. After each question she picked up the phone, called for the fare, then hung up and started all over again. She soon became exasperated and told me that I should have asked her all my questions upfront so that she wouldn’t have to make 3 separate phone calls. She was definitely peeved.

I quickly decided to take a one day trip to Ayutthaya one of Thailand’s ancient capitals on August 19 and instantly, her attitude changed; I had to get my traveler’s checks changed and she told me where I could go and even cautioned me in a most motherly fashion to be careful of pickpockets and to always conceal my money and passport in my money belt under my clothes as I already had.

Later, I also purchased plane tickets for my next stop Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, Cambodia, slated for August 20. When I returned for my second purchase she told me that she was ethnically Chinese and that she had the same Chinese last name as me. She continued by tipping me off that the best way to bargain was in Chinese if possible, since most of the street merchants were Chinese, and that I could get the best bargains in Chinatown. She also told me that as long as I didn’t speak as I walked around the city, I’d be safe because I could probably pass as a Thai.

I told her that I also planned to visit Vietnam and she asked if I had secured a visa yet. When I told her that I had arranged for a pre-approval visa letter through a Vietnamese travel agency, which would enable me to get a landing visa at the airport, she sternly scolded me saying that that was a risky proposition and that I shouldn’t even consider going to Vietnam with out a visa first. She told me that she knew of overseas Vietnamese who had returned to Vietnam for a visit and had encountered problems entering the country. She shook her head in disapproval and for a moment, I felt like a child being reprimanded for my foolhardiness. But I knew that my arrangements were solid and reliable because I had the assurance of a friend that other Canadians had applied for visas to Vietnam successfully through this very reputable travel agency.

The next order of business was lunch. Back out into the bustling streets, the sounds of city traffic, dodging vehicles of various shapes and sizes to cross the street, the rain had stopped and the sun was out in full force. I eyed the food carts lined along the sidewalks, with the most delicious and authentic looking food, but I didn’t know how or what I’d possibly order from them. I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to identify what was in the dishes since I have so many food allergies. Finally, I found a fast food Thai restaurant called S & P , complete with an English menu. Interestingly enough, they were selling mooncakes which are eaten in honor of the upcoming Mid-Autumn Moon Festival which is celebrated in many Chinese cultures. The wait staff actually spoke Thai to me a few times and quickly realized that I didn’t have a clue what they were saying.

After lunch I haggled with a tuk-tuk driver for a ride to the Grand Palace and tried not to get side tracked from my destination. Tuk-tuks are basically a sort of noisy, open air cheap taxi. They are best described like a high speed cart with a roof but no doors, windows and certainly no seatbelts! The Lonely Planet had warned that tuk-tuk drivers would often take you to government sponsored souvenir shops en route to your destination, thereby delaying your sight seeing plans in an attempt to get you to spend money on souvenirs. I was adamant about not making any stops since I knew that the Grand Palace closed at 3:30pm, but when the tuk-tuk driver explained that he’d get a discount on fuel by bringing customers, I softened my resolve and agreed to go. I originally had no intention of buying anything and wanted to stick to my schedule, but when I arrived to the shop, I saw that it was a jewelry shop and I couldn’t resist.

As I browsed, a saleswoman approached me asked where I was from and I went into my explanation of being born in America, raised in Canada and now living in Taiwan. She asked if I spoke Chinese and I remembered what the travel agent had told me earlier that day. And there it was, the instant connection. Many Thais proudly consider themselves ethnically Chinese and there’s an instant familiarity if they know you are also ethnically Chinese… and even more so if you speak the language. She started speaking to me in Mandarin saying since we were both ethnically Chinese she’d give me a special deal. It was a little surreal as I haggled with her in Mandarin; just a year ago I wouldn’t have been able to do so with such confidence. I felt that I could be bolder in my tactics and drive a hard bargain. It’s just something that people of Chinese ethnicity seem to embrace- the necessity of haggling and bargaining- it’s expected and accepted in Asia. I've become quite a ruthless bargainer since moving to Taiwan; even my mother is sometimes embarassed at my bargaining tactics. Most foreigners that I met during my travels complained of how exhausting having to constantly bargain was, but I just tried to have some fun with it, I had nothing to loose and decided to see how close I could get to the bottom line. I see it as a sort of social exchange- a friendly give and take between buyer and seller. Sometimes a seller might cut you a deal because they really think that necklace is for you, or you stop and think that that last dollar would make more of a difference to the seller than you.

Needless to say, I didn’t make it to the Grand Palace in time. But I did have a chance to visit the Temple of the Reclining(46m) Buddha and time for an amazing 30 minute massage at Wat Pho, Bangkok’s oldest temple for less than 5 dollars.

This was followed by a ride on a long tail boat along the Chao Phraya River at dusk. I had a lovely view of temples, traditional Thai style buildings and the modern skyline lighting up into the evening sky.

I was transported to the Oriental hotel for what turned out to be highlight of my visit in Bangkok- a traditional Thai dinner and dance. It was my first evening out in Bangkok. I was alone and dressed neatly but casually. So I felt a little out of place compared to the other stylish tourists who had made reservations and come in pairs or with family or friends. Although this dinner was on my list of things to see and do, I certainly hadn’t planned for it or dressed the part that day. But it was just so tempting and perfect to stop by after my short cruise along the Chao Phraya.

My self-consciousness melted away as the warm wait staff greeted me and graciously served me. They accommodated all of my special food requests with great attentiveness. I felt completely taken care of. The meal and service was definitely first class and the Thai classical dance performance that followed was unforgettable. During the dance, the staff recognized my enthusiasm and encouraged me to move closer to the stage for a better view and photo opportunities. I was enraptured by the glittering, ornate costumes of the dancers, charmed by the gentle grace of their movements and mesmerized by the back bending curves of their hands and elongated fingers. I couldn’t take my eyes off the curvature of the dancers hands and fingers which were so beautiful, but probably painstakingly achieved through training or some sort of bondage. It’s a strange thing, the juxtaposition of the beauty of art and the pain or physical sacrifice to achieve it.

At the end of the meal one of the waiters, curious about me asked where I was from and if I was traveling alone and I blushed when he unabashedly said, “You’re very charming.”

The flooded streets of Bangkok on my first day there Posted by Hello

A view from the long tail boat ride along the Chao Phraya River
 Posted by Hello

Thai classical dancers