Sunday, November 14, 2010
Behind the Scenes
September 25th, the big day finally arrived. My mandolin troupe performed at the National Concert Hall! The last rehearsal before the concert we had five new players come in from a small group in the south of Taiwan. One of them was a mandocello player!!!!!!!! He told me that he had made his own mandocello because he couldn't find one to buy. I could relate. His 'cello was really beautiful. I saw that he had personalized it with a Christian fish. After chatting some more he handed me a pick. There was a hole in the middle. When I looked closer I realized that he had stamped a cross out of the middle of it.
He told me that Jesus helped him with his tremolo. I suspected it was the increased flexibility of the pick but I didn’t press the point.
I arrived at the Concert Hall at 1PM for the 8PM concert. I had a special pass to get in which the guards carefully scrutinized before letting me in. To prove I really was TaoWeiAn they wanted me to write the Chinese characters. I had to explain that I studied in the Mainland when I wrote the simplified version of Wei instead of the Traditional version, or as they say in Taiwan, the correct version.
Backstage I was impressed with the facilities. We had our own changing room and green room, complete with food table! Everyone was excited but also oddly quiet. I suspected it was nerves. We were sold out.
We ran through the program once and then took a ridiculous amount of photos in every possible combination. The photographer wanted me to move to the back at one point (since in Taiwan I am ridiculously tall) and the way he referenced me brought up his fear of being called a racist. He was calling everyone, “That girl with glasses,” or “The man with the green tie.” When he wanted me to move, he began by saying, “That white. . . uh. . . that foreign xiao pengyou.”
Readers let’s pause for a moment. He called me xiao pengyou or "little friend", a term which teachers use to call their students in elementary schools. Why couldn't he call me the awkward tall kid? Do I really look like an elementary school student? Ok, don't answer that. True, my friend Becky did accuse me of looking exactly like a British lesbian after my haircut, but I liked to think I at least resembled a British lesbian who had mastered her times tables.
Backstage while waiting, one of the stagehands told me that my friends were here. I asked how she knew they were my friends. She told me that an American couple and a Taiwanese guy with green hair had come in and gotten tickets. I repeated my previous question: how did she know they were my friends? Apparently Tree, despite not having a ticket, was trying to get in by inquiring whether the tickets were really sold out and if he knew a certain foreign performer if that would make any difference. The answers were yes and no, respectively. But, in an amazing stroke of luck, a woman passing by told him that one of her friends was sick and he could have her ticket and that ticket was right next to my two less conniving guests, Becky and her boyfriend, Jubjub. For some reason this was interesting to the staff working the event and word had spread backstage. Bizarre.
Backstage there were lots of posters announcing "It's Hogwood!" which I found hilarious at the time but now I'm not sure why. Nevertheless, I have about two dozen photos of the various posters and I feel obligated to share at least one with you.
Before the performance I took a break from pacing anxiously and sat down in an empty chair. Immediately I felt the dynamic of the room shift to utter terror. I looked up from my scores in time to see our conductor/special guest/master Japanese mandolin player storm out. I had sat in HIS CHAIR! The nerve! I immediately lept up and caught him in the hallway where he was shaking with a)nerves b)rage c)embarrassment d) all of the above? I apologized in my atrophied Japanese. Fortunately the surprise that I could speak a little Japanese mollified the situation. To the slack-jawed awe of my fellow mandoliers I returned laughing with our guest of honor, or as I learned to call him from then on Aoyama Sensei.
Two minutes before the performance the woman from Japan in our group politely excused herself. She calmly walked to the hallway, I heard her retch into the garbage can. She returned with a nervous smile, popped a breath mint into her mouth and then we went on stage to raucous applause.
I was only in half of the program so I got to watch from backstage. It was extremely interesting to see the near perfect performances but even more interesting to see the performers come off stage and immediately start apologizing to the Japanese-special-guest-artist-conductor. Their onstage prowess was only rivaled by their backstage professions of inadequacy.
At intermission I attempted to go out and greet my friends but while straddling a red velvet rope I was assaulted by an usher and retreated backstage with my tale between my legs. Fortunately I was in plain sight of my friends during the scolding and my look of fear and confusion and awkwardness in deciding which direction to dismount the rope was far more entertaining for them than I could have been had I made it within earshot.
When I was looking at the program I realized that two of our pieces were not listed. I pointed out the oversight and everyone sighed exasperated. Those were obviously the encore pieces. Sure enough, after our final piece people began shouting, “Encore!” though as Becky and Jubjub pointed out later, with the Chinese accent it sounded an awful lot like, “UNCLE!!!! UNCLE!!!” So for a moment they thought the other audience members wanted us to be merciful and stop our playing.
The next day my posse and I rode the High Speed Rail to the southern city of KaoHsiung. We arrived at the Concert Hall just as the Chopin concert we wanted to see was starting. We hadn’t even bought tickets yet so we resigned ourselves to missing the first piece and opened our wallets in preparation for forking over large wads of cash for our tickets. But just as we got to the ticket booth a girl ran up to us and said, “Don’t buy! I have extras!” And she handed us free tickets, saving us over 200 USD. Sweet. The saved time also allowed us to sneak in before they sealed the doors. Double Sweet!
The concert was interesting. We had front row seats and from where I watched I could see individual beads of sweat form and drip down the pianist’s face. I noticed people were much more dressed up for the Chopin concert than they would be for a Chinese concert (the mandolin concert fell somewhere in between). As you might expect there was no introduction to the pieces from the performer to explain their meaning. There were no anecdotes about the songs' history. Is this a good thing? Should a performer be allowed to shape the listeners’ perspectives so strongly or should the performances speak for themselves? I prefer the folk concert etiquette, but I think there are definitely merits to letting the audience have more freedom in their interpretation of a concert. Let me know what you guys think.
The pianist, Dang Thai Son, was from Vietnam and there is currently a documentary being made about him called The Man Who Loved Chopin. He played the pieces with mechanical precision, but after he played I realized I hadn’t learned anything about him personally. Chopin’s piano pieces are so emotional and the way he played was pretty, but somehow he managed to be completely removed from it. Very strange. Tree made us all laugh when he reviewed the player as having, “. . . physical precision with the emotional depth of a dumpling and musical comprehension of an egg. That’s Mainland style for sure.”
Outside the concert we ran into the most amazing Diablo master. He said he had been playing (Is that the right verb?) for 5 years. It showed. You can watch the video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMt9pqFZXN4
This was possibly more entertaining than the concert we’d just seen.
The next day we bused to the quaint touristy beach town of Kenting. The weather forecast was 30% Typhoon so it wasn’t a great day but it was hot. We rented bicycles and biked 12 miles to a beach famous for its white sand. The landscape and people we saw on the way were so cool! Completely different from the sights of Taipei. We saw some areas considered very poor by Taiwanese standards though not by Mainland standards. At one point we all got stuck in a sort of dead-end quicksand path and several people pulled over to help which I appreciated. But it took them about 15 minutes to stop laughing. That last bit I did not appreciate.
The big difference between beaches in Taiwan and beaches in America is that Taiwanese people are AFRAID OF THE SUN!!! I looked around at the beach and it looked much more like an archaeological dig than Venice Beach. There were white linen tents all along the shore where people were “enjoying” the beach safe from all UV rays. Of course young kids ventured into the water but many wore shirts and hats and looked much more like Brits on Safari than Taiwanese prepping to brave the surf. The thing I wanted to do most at the beach was build a sandcastle but that is apparently forbidden. When I scoffed at this, Tree countered with, “Would you just dig a hole in the middle of the highway?!” Touché???
Interesting fact: 12 mile bike ride=excruciating gluteal pain the next day.
The Flute Maker
The last day before Tree left for Germany, I went with him to see the only bamboo flute maker in Taiwan. All other flutes are imported from the Mainland. Tree was going to order a flute and I was going to try to learn more about instrument production.
I found out while I sipped my tea and listened to the flute maker that most flutes in the Mainland are made by people who are not flute masters like he is. He asserted that he had special secret techniques which made usual intonation issues less severe. The guy had about 5 minutes of information to share but he was on repeat and talked for nearly 90 minutes. Eventually we had to tell him that Tree had to go to the airport. The flute maker seemed almost hurt. What?
Before we left he told us that upstairs he had a special studio and that there would be a concert in a week at the end of October. He said I could come and be the guest of honor if I played some American songs on my mandocello. I was ecstatic though completely clueless how I was to represent all of American music in two songs.
I said goodbye to Tree as he headed to the airport and I went to meet Becky and Jubjub. Also I just found out Jubjub's real name is Chris and apparently I’m the only one who calls him Jubjub. Okay, one more time, Jubjub. Now I'm done, but I really thought that was his name. Huh. We went to an all winds band performance of movie music. They played Schlinder’s List, Avatar, Up, and many others but the highlight for me was the new Star Trek music where they brought out an erhu! The erhu is featured in the score to sound alien and other worldly whenever they show Vulcan. This is also my favorite random fact and I obsessively tell people about this all the time, so when the erhu came out my friends laughed and rolled their eyes.
The next week I opened up the concert at the flute maker’s studio by playing Take Me Home, Country Roads and Desperado. There were about 40 people there but they were all musicians or music students so the pressure was high. I talked a lot about what little I know about music in America and finally they let me sit down and watch the rest of the performances.
There was a rather famous bamboo flute player. He also played the shakuhachi and the xiao. While he played there was a video on loop of rising incense smoke. The pieces were very good. And you could see him disappear within himself before he began playing. He told us that the emotions must be right before such pieces can be played. It reminded me much of the shakuhachi players we saw in Japan.
Next a pipa player, whom I had seen in concert already, played many great pieces.
The really interesting thing about her performance was that a sculptor was carving a block of clay in her image while she played. After 3 musical pieces, the sculptor’s piece was finished. You can check out videos on youtube. I'm having issues uploading but here's one of the pipa player and the sculptor for now.
Random fact: At intermission we were served sweet, dried olives.
I left after taking many photos with people and getting a couple of free DVDs and CDs. While waiting for a taxi, I heard a jarringly familiar accent. Someone from Iowa was talking behind me. I turned to see a Taiwanese woman. I asked her, “You speak English?” She told me she did her PhD at University of Iowa. I wanted to concentrate more on what she was saying but I was racking my brain trying to think of a way to make her say barrrrs. I wanted to hear her dig into one of those word final Midwestern r’s. Instead of bars though, she offered me a free ticket to see another Chinese orchestra concert at the National Concert Hall.
Whenever I go to meet a supposedly new group of musicians in Taipei now, there is inevitably someone there I have already met. I went to a fusion concert the other day and I had already seen all of the members playing in traditional groups. I even have begun to recognize audience members. At 7-11 sometime people say, “Hey, weren’t you at that concert last week?” or “When did you get your haircut?” And I just want to ask, “Who are you and why are you tracking the growth of my follicles?” People add me on Facebook saying that their friends told them about me, and now when I explain my strange situation as not exactly a student, not exactly homeless, people tell me they've heard about me already.
Au Revoir Taipei
Au Revoir Taipei is a cool movie that does a really good job of showing a slice of life in Taipei. Though during one of the chase scenes I noticed several geographical inaccuracies. I mean, come on, Xiaonanmen is not within sprinting distance of DaAn Park!!!! It also features many scenes in Taipei's famous 24-hour bookstores which has been one of my favorite places to go when suffering from insomnia, bested only by McDonalds. I took this photo in Eslite Bookstore because it bothered me that this book was in English Literature.
Leaving is so hard. I really feel like I could live here. The last week in Taiwan I didn’t go to any rehearsals. I didn’t meet with my regular language exchangers, I didn’t even go to my usual 7-11’s or Bubble Tea places. Though cowardly I know, it seemed easier to just disappear from people’s lives than to say goodbye. . I took long jogs in the park to collect my thoughts. Taipei is so safe, even at night. The closest thing I saw to a flasher was a guy jogging with a baseball jersey that read Wang. Taipei has seemed like a home in a surprising number of ways. Leaving is so hard.
Change in Itinerary
Surprise trip to France! I realized that I actually had made many connections to musicians studying in Europe. I thought this would be an incredible opportunity for my project. Paris is sooo different than the other places I'm going. One of my friends asked me why I wasn't going to go visit her and I suddenly couldn't come up with an answer. So, with an offer of a couch for a month and permission from Watson, I bought a ticket to Paris. I packed up my things into my backpack (the CDs and DVDs and newly bought winter clothes literally made it burst at the seams), sealed up my zhongruan and mandocello cases and left my apartment and my neighborhood one last time.
Pictured here is my favorite cafe which makes the bold assertion, "We are not the best, but we are one of the bests." on their store window. The last photo is a dummy wearing a hard hat and he is presumably used to scare away youths during construction workers' lunch breaks. Do scarecrows work on people and if so are they more aptly called scarepersons or is the irregular plural incorporated into the plural as scarepeople(s)? These were the deep thoughts that troubled my mind as I hopped 6 planes to get from Taipei to Paris.
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
The Taipei Mandolin Ensemble is gearing up for the big performance on September 25th. I've finally become proficient at the mando-tremolo and every rehearsal is a blast. The music is really fun. We're playing a medley of famous pieces from around the world and I always start laughing during the Italian Funnicula Funniculi, which only solidifies their suspicions that I am a crazy person. It's just too much fun. Besides my friends at the ensemble, I also have been getting pointers on techniques from various other musicians I bump into or that see me playing in the park. Sometimes I feel like all of Taiwan is conspiring to teach me music.
A Moving Sound
I got an email response from a really amazing group called A Moving Sound. They were founded by a husband and wife; the man is from the US and plays zhongruan and the woman is Taiwanese and sings. Also in the group is another zhongruan/guitar player, an erhu and a percussionist. They practice in a community space and weren't allowed to use drums for the first half of their rehearsal because it bothered the meditation group in the next room.
I chatted with them, but it was difficult to learn much at first because they kept quizzing me on my folk music adventures. I played zhongruan for them and told them about my project. They laughed a little bit when I told them I originally played french horn because their white member also played french horn and then started zhongruan. He said that he was just drawn to the sound of Chinese music. It sounded familiar.
He married his Taiwanese wife and has been living in Taipei for 8 years. However, as I found out during the rehearsal, he doesn't speak a word of Chinese! His wife repeats everything during rehearsals in the language in which the utterance wasn't originally spoken. I admire her patience.
During rehearsal I got to see them compose songs. The erhu player brought in an idea and they jammed together figuring it out. You can watch it here on the youtube link below and enjoy their expressions as they work out a particularly tricky transition:
After the jam, I went with the happy couple to get some breakfast. Yes, it was 10PM but they were musicians and thereby necessarily nocturnal. I learned more about their pasts and how they met in New York. I also learned really interesting things about their views on the differences between the Mainland and Taiwan and Taiwan's slow move away from trying to retake the Mainland. As I learned, there are still ex-soldiers who hold pieces of paper from the Taiwanese government which give them the rights to vast areas of land in the Mainland. These men were promised these plots by the exiled Taiwanese government and were not allowed to marry or have families, but had to remain ready for the triumphant return. It wasn't until the early 90's that the Taiwanese government officially nixed the goal of the government: Retake the Mainland.
Finally, we talked about why people do folk music. They both posited that folk music from all over the world had this amazing ability to just grab you and engulf you. They had both been doing other things with their lives. She was a dancer and he was a classically trained composer, but they decided to dedicate themselves to this music. But they also suggested that folk music was not something that was created but something buoyant which you allow to float to the surface. You have to feel it rise up both from and within you.
Drunk on good music and conversation, I floated home via the MRT and was fast asleep within an hour of eating breakfast.
Secret Mission to Kuala Lumpur
On the second weekend in September I took a "visa run" to Kuala Lumpur. My visa allows me to enter Taiwan as many times as I want until 2015, but I can only stay 60 days at a time. This is to prevent me from illegally teaching English. Why a $60 roundtrip flight to Malaysia would hinder my teaching beats me, but I complied because it was easier, and most surprisingly, cheaper to fly abroad than to reapply for a different visa.
At my GRE study group, I realized to my horror that the GRE is different in Taiwan and a few other places in Asia. In most places, you can take a computer test on any weekday. You just make a reservation and go in. It's just like a more painful trip to the dentist. But because in Taiwan students had a habit of memorizing the answers to the tests and telling their friends, people who were taking the test later in the year were doing significantly better than those who took the test earlier. I really wanted to get the test over with and not take it at the end of October in a giant hall, so I opted to kill two birds with one stone and take the test in Kuala Lumpur. Now I just had to find a place to stay for my 3-day-getaway.
Methodists to the rescue! Most of my friends from church are Malaysian and one of them works at a Hilton Hotel in Taipei. Her cousin works at one in Kuala Lumpur. Before I could even ask they told me they had a plan. I was to pretend to be Pastor Andrew. They asked me if I accepted this mission and I replied solemnly, "Absolutely, I do."
The Sunday before I left I met with my conspiring compadres after church. They gave me a black shirt and a white collar. I couldn't stop laughing. What was going on? How were they pushing me to do this on the church stoop? How could they know that I would absolutely love the chance to do this? They told me that I would have to fly as myself since it is a really serious crime to pretend to be someone else at the airport, but I should change on the train to the hotel into my priest outfit and check in as Mr. Andrew Charles. WHAAT!?!?!?
Apparently the Methodist church and the Hilton have some sort of deal, I still don't understand what it is exactly but clergy stay for cheap. So this 5-star suite was going to cost me only $50 for the weekend instead of the $500 it normally would have. They explained that I needed to be careful because both cousins could lose their jobs for this. My laughter subsided slightly. Could I go to gaol for this? Don't they kill people for possession of marijuana in Malaysia? What would they do for this? Public caning? They told me to relax that it wasn't that big of a deal, it's just that they got caught last time so the cousins would definitely get fired if something went awry a second time. I relaxed comforted by their track record: 0 for 1.
The sign at the airport was in Malay, English, Japanese, Arabic and Chinese. Three for six ain't bad!
Dutifully I changed into my costume on the train. I checked into the hotel and coolly handed over my passport. They didn't ask why there was a "Terwilliger" tacked on to the end of that Andrew Charles and greeted me as "Pastor Charles." I spent my first day locked up in my ridiculous room, equipped with a jacuzzi bathtub and king-sized bed, studying for my impending exam.
The morning of the test, I sneaked downstairs sans-priest-collar and hailed a cab. The cabdriver didn't speak English. I thought, no problem, I wrote down the Malay. Problem: he doesn't read Malay. What??? Luckily I had audited Syntax of an Unfamiliar Language which focused on Malay. This meant that I had a basic idea of how to sound out the words (and the syntactical structure of sentences, but that wasn't going to help me here). I retroflexed my tongue and tried pronouncing the name, "Jalan Sultan Ismail" and he figured it out. I heard a Cantonese song on the radio. I used Mandarin and asked if he could understand me. He beamed, "Hai!" Yes, he answered in Cantonese. "Can you speak Mandarin?" I asked. He shook his head no. We then had a very strange conversation where he asked questions very slowly in Cantonese/Mandarin until I figured it out. I then replied in Mandarin which he understood no problem. He also flexed his linguistic muscles by stating things like, "USA, A-Okay!" I was happy to hear that.
I arrived at the Sheraton Hotel which is where the GRE test is administered in Kuala Lumpur. It's in a really cool area called the Golden Triangle. It features those famous skyscrapers, the Petronas Twin Towers, and all kinds of malls and food stalls. At the test site I met 5 ethnically Chinese Malaysians eagerly waiting, proper identification and registration number at the ready, parents whispering words of encouragement in their ears. I arrived barely on time, breathing heavily, alone, completely disoriented, and unaware that I had been assigned a registration number. Nonetheless, I managed to calm down and find my computer, after being strip searched for electronics and other cheating devices. The strip searcher grimaced at my dampness, but I'd like to see her sprint up 7 flights of stairs in tropical heat and not break a sweat!
I took my 3 hour test. I was allowed one bathroom break, during which I discovered that sometimes students are so fried during the GRE test that they need a reminder on toilet basics. When I was done, the computer said, "Test Complete: Would you like to view your scores?" In my mind it said, "Game Over: Insert coin to continue."
I viewed my scores and skipped down the stairs. I was in such a good mood that I decided to hijack a piano in the fancy "Entry Plaza."
I took the monorail home which was a much better way to travel. I got to see the people and Kuala Lumpur is an amazing array of every kind of Eurasian. I saw native Malays, ethnic Chinese, Japanese businessmen, Middle Eastern business men, Indian families, and sweating, pink-faced European tourists. I grabbed some Indian food on the street, which I hadn't dared try before my test (for fear of bathroom issues), and cruised through the shopping centers on the way back to the hotel. I stopped in a McDonalds and changed into my priest costume before reentering the hotel, just to be safe. A girl behind the reception counter greeted me with a coy, "Good afternoon Pastor Charles," and a wink. I realized that she must be The Cousin. I solemnly bowed back to her the way I'd seen men do here. They dip they heads down and touch a hand to their breast. She giggled, but discreetly.
I wandered over to the Chinatown and other tourist-filled areas. It was fun to just walk around and do some people watching. But I was interrupted by several old men who approached me and half-whispered, "Enjoy pretty lady? Beautiful young girl?" Aaah! Where's Salander when you need her? The later it got, the more frequent the offers for prostitutes became. I decided that meant it was time to go home, ALONE obviously. I thought vaguely of attempting an experiment to see if wearing a priest collar affected the frequency of offers, but decided that the GRE had drained me of any further academic curiosity for the day.
Tree arranged for me to meet with a pipa student, Chen Ying-Chun at TaiNan Conservatory, the best music school in Taiwan. She was really interested in my style of playing zhongruan which uses pipa-influenced finger picking and, as she pointed out, cello arm positioning on my left arm. She also explained that the mandocello was influencing me and making me tilt my zhongruan more to the left than I really should. I thanked her for her instruction and she invited me to go to her campus sometime. Awesome, I thought!
Later Tree called me and asked if I had checked out a note written on Facebook by my new pipa friend. I found it and stared flabbergasted at the screen. She had written about the day with me, but she had included some interesting details.
He has a pair of green eyes, too cute. My first time I have been so close to eyes the color of jade. I may have hurt him with the intensity of my gaze.
The note was followed by 25 comments from her friends ranging from comments about me resembling Lord of the Rings characters to "I wanna meet him!" to the following: 快生混血寶寶.........哈哈哈(也太快了). You'll produce a mixed-blood baby soon. . . Hahaha(too soon?) . I decided to respond with a short message in Chinese about how I thought they were soooo funny. I got a curt and shocked reply, "You can understand Chinese characters?" I didn't think this would come as a surprise since she had bragged that my Chinese was "extremely good" in the note. I made a mental note (not the Facebook kind) to be careful should I venture to TaiNan.
Elementary, My Dear Watson
The next day I headed back to TaiZhong to perform at Tree's old elementary school. He was still good friends with his 3rd grade teacher and after meeting her and the infectious enthusiasm she brings to everyone she encounters, it wasn't hard to understand why. I brought out my trusty mandocello and Tree played the bamboo flute. While he introduced his instrument, I waited backstage at the school with the other performers. There were 3 violinists and 2 hulusi players. The hulusi players were siblings and took lessons from Tree's dizi teacher. They are really funny and love to ask me about the differences between Americans and Taiwanese. When I was laughing at a joke, the boy suddenly shrieked, "FISSSSHTAIL!!!!!" I ducked assuming that a bucket of fish parts was heading for my head. They laughed and then I laughed. And then they both pointed in unison at my face and yelled, "FISSSHTAIL!!!!" again. What? They asked if all Americans have fish tales like mine. Unaware that I had a fishtail until that point I was at a loss to comment on a majority of Americans. The elder sister noticed my confusion and explained that when I smile, my eyes crinkle and it looks like a fishtail. I told her that we call this crow's feet. I suddenly felt very old.
Finally it was my turn to go on stage. I played Take Me Home, Country Roads with Tree and then Snowy Woods a piece I wrote and adapted to a dizi solo accompanied by me on the piano. I finished alone by playing them Old Susannah and Old McDonald. The teachers guffawed when I explained that the American mandocellos, just like Americans are not as good looking as their Italian counterparts. The children nodded stoically, accepting this new factoid. I also explained that the reason that American mandocellos have round backs and not round backs like the Italians is that the Americans need room for their bellies.
On Old McDonald I had the children rolling around on the Gymnatorium floor. I introduced each animal in Chinese first and then EXTREMELY loudly barked, honked, oinked, and elephant called before quite seriously and sweetly singing in my most velvet-smooth voice, "E-I-E-I-O." Fortunately the children enjoyed my schizophrenic performance much more than my cross-cultural jokes.
Next, Tree's old teacher's class played a Taiwanese pop song on recorders, violin, and piano. We finished with Imagine. The kids had learned the song before and it was surprisingly moving to hear 400 children singing along with you, "Imagine all the people, living life in peace..."
Afterwards we met one class of 25 kids. They all had questions for us and we basically told them that they should all play instruments! Then they all wanted us to sign their stuff and the teacher thought this was adorable and so I signed 25 notebooks, folders, and pencil cases. Then they found out I had a Chinese name and the process repeated. Then things got really weird when one of the kids pulled out a hair from my head and a hair from Tree's head and ran away. When we were leaving the school he showed us a tissue he had put our hairs in. I really hope that kid doesn't become a stalker.
Later Tree and I found out that our performance of "Intercultural Exchange" had been documented in the GuoYu RiBao, a newspaper made for kids and foreigners that has all of the pronunciations written out phonetically next to the characters. Unfortunately I can't find a copy, but the picture apparently was quite similar to the one above. My compensation for not getting to see my picture in the newspaper came in the form of the letters the kids wrote to us. It was so sweet to read what they thought of us, what they had learned, and their new aspirations to learn music and become things from opera singers to rock stars.
Monday, October 11, 2010
The Death of the Gehu
On my third Monday, I visited the Taipei Chinese Community Orchestra. It was 50% senior citizens and 50% college-aged students. The former were bored and using the orchestra to fill up free time. The latter, including my friend from the Taipei Mandolin Ensemble, were pressured into playing with the group because either their former teachers or grandparents were playing and needed the youngsters to fill out their ranks. I introduced myself to the players and they welcomed me with applause for some reason. I hadn’t brought my zhongruan, but they found an old one lying around the rehearsal room and told me I could join in. Woot! I was playing with my first, full-sized Chinese orchestra! The only problem was that the scores switched between WuXian Pu, five-line score (the one that Westerners use) and Jian Pu, the Chinese score that uses numbers to represent each pitch. I’d never played zhongruan with Western score so it took awhile for my brain to switch over.
There were tons of erhus and it seemed that they were the problem section. The conductor frequently stopped us to make the erhus go over difficult passages.
Behind me sat both cellos and gehus. Gehus are a dying instrument. In modern Chinese orchestras they have been replaced with the Western cello. All of the Chinese traditional instruments were modified in the early 1900s so that they could play Western music. For example, zhongruans and pipas were both given many more frets in order to be able to play chromatic scales. Somehow though, the gehu did not have as much success being transformed into a Western-music compatible instrument. The issue lies primarily with too many wolfs and pythons. The wolfs are pitches that, for various reasons that I don't understand dealing with physics, just sound nasty on the instrument. The gehu, according to the lady behind me, has 3 or 4. Yikes! The cello only has one. The other practical issue is that you have to kill a lot of pythons to make a gehu. A gehu is really big and like its baby cousin, the erhu, it uses snake skin to resonate. There are artificial alternatives, but they have not caught on and almost every erhu player in the world uses real python skin, which is a problem when going through airports, because python products are on a banned list for international transport.
The very chatty gehu player behind me, who also was extremely aggressive about giving me pieces of chocolate during rehearsal, told me that her gehu was 50 years old and that “Today no one makes them.” I’m not sure that’s accurate, but I do believe that makers are few and fare between. She also mentioned that the skin becomes loose frequently and has to be tightened or even replaced.
The pieces they played included traditional Mainland pieces, Taiwanese folk tunes, and some relatively modern popular songs. I was amazed at myself when I saw their repertoire. I knew every piece. Holy crap, I thought, I’m starting to get a grasp of this thing!
After being force-fed more Dove chocolates, I left the rehearsal in a glow and crossed the street to the Ximen Pedestrian Area, where my favorite street food is. I treated myself to spicy roast corn and a fried chicken steak with Chinese broccoli.
The Day of Pleasant Surprises
The next Saturday I awoke to what I thought was several people kicking me from underneath my bed. After 5 groggy seconds, I realized it was a small earthquake. Wow, my first tremor! The next 20 seconds of shaking would have been fun if I hadn't been afraid that the building was going to collapse. Do people ever get used to these things?
That day I got my first package. I received a slip in my mailbox and spent 2 hours trying to find the right post office to go pick it up from. Eventually I got to the right area with four new facebook friends. It takes me forever to get anywhere when I'm asking for directions because I have to tell my life story to everyone I ask. Even when I order coffee, the questions are usually, "Ni yao he shenme?" What do you want to drink? "Rede, bingde?" Hot or cold? "Ni lai Taiwan dushu ma?" Did you come to Taiwan to study? "Neiyong, daizou?" For here or to go? So after four long conversations and email exchanges, I entered the building.
A lady with unevenly drawn on eyebrows behind the counter marked courtesy took one look at me and barked, "Third floor" in Chinese. I went up the stairs to the third floor and showed the clerk my slip. She laughed and said, "No, you want the third floor." I asked, "Isn't this the third floor?" She thought hard for a moment and then giggled. "Well, yes, BUT you want the third floor." Huh? I was missing something. I asked if she spoke English. She repeated in English the exact same thing she'd been saying in Chinese. What am I missing? I asked her if she could give me directions to the third floor. She told me to go outside and I would see it. Okay. . . what? I went outside and asked a man in a little shed-like building next to the post office if he knew where I should go. He said, "Yes, of course. Go to the third floor!" What! I asked him how I could do that. He told me not to be stupid. I looked around. I was outside on the side walk. How was I supposed to magically ascend to this third floor they all spoke of? Just then I realized that there were English-only signs EVERYWHERE saying "Third Floor This Way." and "International Package Pickup Is On the Third Floor. Please Tread Lightly On the Elevator!" I didn't see the signs because I was only reading the Chinese. DOI! There was no door except an elevator. I walked inside, read the sign pictured here, and pushed 3. 15 minutes later I was home with my care package: a lone GRE prep book fell out of the box. Thanks, Mom. I groaned and began reading about triangles.
That afternoon I ate lunch in my favorite cafe. They have amazing pie! I walked in and there was only one seat open but it was at an occupied table. I hesitated and the waitress/owner say my dilemma. She went up to the young woman at the table and asked in Chinese if I could join her. She replied with, "Uhh. . . sorry I don't speak Chinese." It turns out she was born in Chicago and came to Taiwan to teach English. Her parents are Taiwanese but she doesn't speak her mother's mother tongue. Over coffee and key-lime pie, we swapped funny stories about misunderstanding things in Taipei. I told her about how waiters and waitresses often run away from me in restaurants to find a friend with better English. She told me about how people just can't believe that she doesn't speak Chinese. Ahh, racism.
That night at the National Concert Hall I attended the best concert I've been to in Taiwan. It was the state-sponsored Chinese Orchestra. Not only did they play amazingly well, they brought on soloists that gave me goosebumps. There were erhu and dizi solos. The finale involved a new composition with narrators and a full choir. It was epic! I sneaked these photos before a watchful usher swooped down on me. People shouted encore afterwards but they hadn't prepared anything so they played the classic, "Good Flowers, Round Moon." I was so proud that I knew it!
After the concert, which was only half empty (or I guess I should try to be optimistic and say full) I stepped out into a free outdoor jazz concert. Chang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall Plaza was packed! After enjoying "Fly Me to the Moon" I walked to the MRT station. On my way I noticed out of the corner of my eye that someone was following me. I slowed down to force the would-be thief to pass me, but when I turned back I saw that I was still being followed. I held my hands close to my pockets and hurried toward the station. The culprit got closer and I noticed he had grey hair. This old guy is gonna pick my pocket? I decided to pretend to tie my shoe. When I stood up again I was greeted with, "Hello! Where are you from?! Sprechen sie Deutsch?" But it wasn't an old man. In the dark, and probably because I am colorblind, I thought this young guy's green hair was grey. He was wearing shoes that didn't match and a heavy green chain instead of a belt. But I noticed that he also was carrying a dizi case. I told him in English that I didn't speak German. Not wanting to continue the type of racism Kristine had faced in the cafe today, I asked this Asian in English if that was a bamboo flute case. He didn't understand. I asked in Chinese, "Can you speak Chinese? Is that a dizi case?" I had so many questions. Why did he ask me in English when he doesn't speak English? Why can he speak German? Did he buy those mismatched shoes that way or did he have to buy two pairs or does he just collect spares?
15 minutes later I was digesting food from the night market along with my new friend's life story. His name is Boshu, which means cypress tree, so his English name is Tree. Perhaps this helps to explain his hair color. He went abroad for high school because he hated the memorize and regurgitate teaching style in Taiwan. So, when he was 15, he went to Germany without knowing a word of German. 6 years later he is fluent. So he hasn't had much chance to play bamboo flute in ensembles, but he is incredibly knowledgeable when it comes to Chinese music and has mastered most of the bamboo flute solos. He told me he lives in Taizhong but came to Taipei for a composition lesson. We immediately took out our mp3 players and played each other our compositions. Tree and I decided to meet the following Monday at 6am to play in Great Peace Forest Park and see if we could improv together.
Andrew Terwilliger: Jazz Trivia Master?
On Sunday I went to the second day of the free jazz concert. We all sat on the ground in the plaza between the National Concert Hall and the National Theater. Between jazz ensembles they asked trivia questions to stall while they set up the next group. The first question was "Who sings What a Wonderful World and what instrument is he most famous for playing?" I shot up my hand and a microphone surfed its way through the crowd to me. I hoped saying Louis Armstrong in English was good enough because I sure as hell didn't know his name in Chinese. It was and I won a free CD. Sweet! Then they played a music clip and asked if we knew what the pieces were called. The first one was Route 66. After 2 minutes of noone responding, I put my hand up again and won a free T-shirt. The second listening test was Caravan. What a coincidence. I wouldn't have known that one if I hadn't played it in middle school jazz band. Another awkward pause. I put my hand up for a third time and got another CD. The same thing happened when I knew Benny Goodman's main instrument was clarinet. They stopped the trivia after that. I hope it wasn't my fault. . .
By the second half of August, I was no longer twiddling my thumbs in cafes or taking long walks around the city. My schedule was packed! I had meetings with professors and music students and rehearsals to attend all the time. My one free day was Monday, but now I had to get up at 5 in the morning to make it to the park to see Tree. We found a quiet spot between various groups of senior citizens doing yoga and taiqi. The music we made was really cool. It took me about 3 seconds before I realized that Tree seriously outclassed me musically, but since this was his first time attempting to improvise he felt self-conscious and was apologetically playing amazing music. But soon we both became more confident and amazed at our own abilities to read each others' minds. Soon a large mob of elderly Taiwanese had gathered around us to watch the cross cultural exchange. They applauded loudly every time we took a break.
At 10, I accompanied Tree to his composition lesson. There I met Tree's classmate and composition/recorder major at Tainan Conservatory, Nadine. The teacher's name is Algy; he is ethnically Chinese but from the Philippines. He is a really amazing person and extremely talented. I played him some things I had written on the piano and he gave me some helpful feedback and some good ideas for what to fix. Tree told me that he had composed the music to a Taiwanese movie called When Love Comes Along And I just found out that he has been nominated for a Golden Horse Award, the Chinese language equivalent to an Oscar, for the score. Wow!
Next, Tree's friend Nadine joined us for lunch, which was followed by more chilling with music in the afternoon. I recorded Tree playing flute solos so I could become more familiar with the traditional solos. I made Nadine pretend to play my zhongruan for this picture since she is a musician, but she had left her recorder at home. I think she really sold it. Behind Tree you can see his flute case where he has a bamboo flute in every key!
Eventually we headed out for adventures through the night markets and KTV (karaoke).
There Tree belted out some Taiwanese folk songs and I countered with that KTV's entire English catalogue. There were only 5 English songs: True Colors, Take Me Home Country Roads, I Believe I Can Fly, Alicia Keys' Fallin', and Bad Romance.
I went to a really amazing concert which featured the music of two new composers on the rise. The music was sooooooooo cool! The first half was all music written by a lady composer who went to the Berklee School of Music in Boston. It was spectacular. She didn't shy away from modern pop froufrou but there was also some sort of respect for traditional sound that could be heard. There were yangqin, Chinese hammered dulcimer, piano, drumset, a string quartet, bass and accordion. My favorite was a piece called 1949. It was epic and sweeping and seemed like a more like a movie score than anything else.
The second half was equally as impressive. The ensemble consisted of 6 erhus, a daruan, zhongruan, liuqin, 2 cellos, bass, 2 dizi, 2 sheng (Chinese mouth organ) and tympani. The sound was perfectly represented by the conductor's attire. He wore a Western penguin suite with a traditional blue Chinese shirt underneath. The music was traditional for the most part but would sometimes riff into 1950s rock territory. It sounds bizarre, but somehow it all melted together into a wistful and sentimental sound.
Out of Taipei
I finally left the sanctuary of Taipei and headed to Tree's hometown of Taizhong. I took the Gaotie, or High Speed Rail, to Taizhong. It's this really cool train that zooms across the west side of Taiwan from Taipei in the north to Gaoxiong in the south. Instead of a 3 hour bus ride, it took just 45 minutes. The best thing about riding the Gaotie though is that the stations seem like they are really fancy airports from the future. They are minimalist metal and glass structures and brand new. Also, the signs at the exit declare, "Kiss and Ride," which of course is where you either pick up your loved ones or park and kiss your loved one goodbye. Many foreigners have tried to explain that in English this sounds like a prostitute pick up area, but the Taiwanese have refused to adjust the sign. The stations are all slightly outside of the city to promote development on the city outskirts. This didn't work very well though because everyone immediately walks from the Kiss and Ride area to the free bus to the city. Sadly there is not much kissing or riding in outside the Gaotie station. . .
Tree's mom picked me up in her car. (While there was riding, alas, there was no kissing.) She dropped me off at the Confucius Institute where she works. There I saw a group of senior citizens practicing Nanguan music. Nanguan music is similar to silk and bamboo music except that the instruments are not the standard ones used in the Mainland.
But there is something that resembles the pipa, suona (Chinese oboe), erhu, shao, and something called sikuai four sticks which was four pieces of wood that are held in the hands to create cool rhythms. All the players were relatively new to their instruments, picking them up after they retired, but they played well together and asked me to join them for rehearsal. I played my zhongruan along with them. The parts were divided into plucked, bowed and blown. Tree joined in with the wind players. At the back of the book I found a Chinese pop song "The Moon Represents My Heart" as well as Eidelweiss and You Are My Sunshine. They said they didn't know how the English ones were supposed to sound, so I took out my mandocello and played and sang them for them. After two times through, they were playing along with me. It was soooo much fun!
At lunch, which was both vegetarian and Chinese medicinal, I talked to Tree's mother for a long time about the importance of teaching Confucionist thought to young children and how it can serve as a foundation for their character. She told me that she thinks religions all boil down to one word: forgiveness.
After lunch Tree and I headed to a really cool music store. The clerk was chill and let me try out an erhu that cost about the same as my Watson Fellowship. I also perused music scores and bought some new pieces as well as some Japanese piano scores. I really want to figure out what it is that makes those pieces sound so distinct.
Later we did what everyone does when they come to Taizhong: eat! Taizhong is known for its night market's delicious foods. I had sweet 'n' salty sweet potato fries, bread cakes filled with molten vanilla, red bean, and chocolate, egg cakes, stinky tofu, pizza crepes, and roasted corn. I also sampled a rosemary milk tea because a crazy or perhaps awesome, I haven't decided yet, lady threw a rosemary branch at me. Tree saw what was about to happen and decided to let me handle it on my own. Thanks, Tree.
She decided that she would teach me Chinese. She threw the branch back in my face and repeated slowly in Chinese, "ROOOOOOSEMARRRRRY." I repeated back and she was delighted. Then she sloooowly said, "PLEEEEEASE ENJOOOOOOOOOY OUR ROOOOOOOSE MARRRRY MIIIIIILK TEEEEEEEA!!!" I repeated back, mimicking her slow and extremely loud speech. She looked dangerously happy. It seemed like something was about to burst but I wasn't sure what. I turned around and saw Tree contorted in a fit of laughter. I realized the thing that was about to burst was his bladder.
The next day I rode the Gaotie back to Taipei for a guqin concert. I was very eager to see how it compared to the one I saw by the master in Beijing. Unfortunately I was late because Tree is always late and makes every around him late too. I bitterly thought to myself as I waited outside, Thanks for making me late, Tree. But, this turned out to be an amazing bit of good luck because I waited outside next to a guqin maker and the show's producer and got both of their contact information. The producer told me that the guqin maker doesn't usually talk to people at concerts and that I was very, very lucky! Thanks for making me late, Tree!
Sunday, October 3, 2010
Tuesday, August 24, 2010
Day 1: The Arrival
I landed at Chiang Kai-Shek Airport in the International Terminal, though I left Beijing from the Domestic Flights Terminal. Once I got my luggage and made it through customs, I headed over to the ATM to get some Taiwanese Dollars. Once I had stood in line for 10 minutes and it was finally my turn I realized I had no idea what the exchange rate was. So when the machine asked me if I wanted to take out 1000 or 100,000 NT, I had no idea. Unwilling to stand in line again, I leaned over and spotted the price of a Big Mac at a nearby McDonalds and deduced that it must be around 30 NT to 1 USD. Whew, crisis averted. But this was really pretty indicative of my preparation for Taiwan!
I hopped a bus to 忠孝復興 which I was told was close to where I actually wanted to go, 忠孝新生. I de-bussed and looked around without a clue as to where I was. I was in the middle of a giant shopping area. Signs like Gucci and Prada were everywhere and I was nailed by several Louis Vuitton bags as I stood awkwardly in the middle of the sidewalk, carrying my backpack and 2 giant instruments, and sweating profusely. The sweat was both heat and panic induced. I suddenly felt very alone.
My instructions to my apartment were from the subway stop so I knew I had to find that. I asked someone, "请问，地铁站在哪儿？“ I was greeted with a blank stare. I tried English, "Excuse me, where is the subway?" This time the eyes concentrated hard on me and there was some nodding. "MRT?" the young lady asked me. This time I stared back. MRT, MRT, I'd heard that befire. "YES!" I suddenly responded, remembering Shao Min and Ava talk about the MRT, Mass Rapid Transit, in Singapore.
Once in the MRT I learned that here it's called, 捷運, jieyun and not ditie. One subway stop over and I was on the map that the language associate at Carleton had provided for me. She is from Taiwan and lived in Taipei for one month after she was done teaching at Carleton. She is now in Australia getting a master's in education. But she was kind enough to arrange for me to take over renting her apartment when she left.
I followed the map to a 7/11 across the street from my apartment. There I used the payphones to call my landlord, Shiny, and told her to go downstairs and let me in. I was a sweaty mess, huffing and puffing from carrying my instruments in the 100-plus-degree weather. While I waited, I made my first friend in Taiwan, Chen Ying, who worked at the 7/11. She came up and asked if I needed help. I told her my problems were psychological and we've been friends ever since. Whenever I go into that 7/11, which is often, we have a long chat.
But I digress. Shiny, who literally translated her Chinese name to get her English name, gave me the four keys needed to access my apartment and led me upstairs. I followed her up five flights to the very top of my building. That's where I use the second key to open the balcony. On the balcony, I have a neighbor on either side of me, a laundry machine, a sink for washing dishes, and a spectacular view of the city. Shiny's brother is one of these neighbors. The other is Sandy, a mortgage broker who works 12-hour days and is only home when she is asleep.
I used the third key to open a giant metal door that looked like it belonged on a refrigerator. I saw from the hole in the wall that I should not let this door swing open. After carefully opening the metal door, I was left with one more key and one much more normal looking door. Inside my apartment I have a queen sized bed, two desks, a tv, a wardrobe, INTERNET! my own toilet, shower, sink and most importantly of all: AIR CONDITIONING. Wahoo!
I found a couple of notes around the room from Zoe, the language associate who previously inhabited the room. These are my favorite: "Here is my shampoo. You can use it, but you will smell like girl." "Can you take this stamp back to my friend at the Taipei University of Technology? If not, just throw it away." "Taiwan people don't drink water from faucet, we'll boil water then drink but it's up to you. It is not expensive to go to see the doctor."
It was Sunday, the one day that Sandy doesn't work, so she offered to take me to IKEA to buy some sheets for my bed and then show me the neighborhood a bit. I found out that you can do everything at 7/11. You can reload your SIM card, buy a bus/subway card, and my favorite: pretend to be considering buying a drink when you have no intention of doing so and are actually just absconding from the heat and enjoying free air conditioning.
The neighborhood is really great. The richest man in Taiwan lives the block over in a complex called The Palace. Just a few blocks away, where I got off the bus from the airport, is the shopping center of the entire island. Closer to me, there are lots of coffee shops, food stands, parks, daycare centers, and churches. This is really strange, but seeing the daycare across the street from my apartment gave me a rush, a residual effect from hunting kindergartens in the Mainland last December.
After a dumpling dinner with Sandy, I was ready to hit the hay. Unfortunately, unbearable stomach cramps made this impossible. I laid on my bed moaning in agony for hours. Next came the diarrhea and finally, the vomiting.
A Trip to the Hospital
My second day in Taiwan, I didn't leave my room. I couldn't get off the toilet. By day three in Taiwan I had run out of things to expel from myself so I headed out to walk around a little. After wandering for a bit I went into a 7/11 (there is literally one on every corner in my neighborhood) to buy some juice and instant noodles. I asked the clerk where the "Fangbian mian" was. Blank stare. I tried again in English/Japanese, "Ramen?" Realization dawned on his face. Here it is called "pao mian" or boiled noodle rather than convenient noodle. While browsing the drinks, with intent to purchase, I suddenly, and I imagine, quite dramatically, lost consciousness.
The next thing I remember is being in the hospital with an IV in me that said in English, "BANANA." Why my IV said banana, I still don't understand. I asked while I was still kind of loopy, but it apparently had to do with them thinking that I was drunk. That's all that I could understand of their responses anyway. I'm also not sure how I got to the hospital. I have been too embarrassed to go back to that particular 7/11.
I told the doctor that I had been sick and every time I ate anything, that food would would have a strong desire to leave me very quickly. I was shortly diagnosed with typhoid. Which I got in Beijing from eating something contaminated with feces. But the cure is just 2 shots, so that was simple. I checked out of the hospital after 12 more hours of rest and rehydration via BANANA IV. And when I got the bill and saw that my visit cost only about 30 USD, I realized that Zoe was right, it's not expensive to go see the doctor in Taiwan!
Swedish Chocolates and Cockroach Noodles
Once my tri-hourly need for a toilet had passed, I was free to explore my environs. For three days I just wandered around the city. I enjoyed a novel, GRE math prep, and iced coffees in quirky little coffee shops. I never left a cafe without having a really cool conversation with someone. This was great because I got to work on my Chinese, which has improved both quickly and drastically. I've had language pledges before but never have I been surrounded by native speakers for so long. People are soooo friendly here. I have more amazing conversations than I could ever hope to type up on here or you could ever be expected to endure reading. But just talking to average people and occasionally musicians has been really informative on the music scene.
In the mornings I typically jogged to 大安森林公園 and through the park, scoping out the old people exercising to see if any of them were packing musical instruments. By noon I would be back at my apartment practicing zhongruan and trying to get the single-picked Taiwanese style of strumming down. In the late afternoon I walked around and found a new cafe to enjoy some iced coffee and chill. At night I send out tons of emails to everyone I can find online to see if I can meet with them.
In my recovery time, I did tons of observing in order to adapt to the differences between Taiwan. Lots of words are different here. So when I ask for tomatoes on my sandwich, "Xihongshi" means nothing. Here they say, "Fanqie." The word for potato in the Mainland will bring you peanuts in a Taiwanese restaurant. Lots of people don't really distinguish between s and sh here either. This has resulted in me numerous times mistaking the number 10 for 4. And I have to work hard to get rid of the "rrr" that I relished so much in the Beijing dialect. So now when I say door in Chinese, it sounds like the first syllable of money as opposed to a Midwesterner saying something that begins with m and rhymes with bar (as in what you bring to a potluck).
One day in a cafe, I overheard three students talking to each other. One had a GRE book propped open on the table. They were talking about going to grad schools. Then the one with the GRE book said he wanted to go to Sweden because of their famous chocolates. Mixing up Swiss and Swedish is my pet peeve, so I jumped in with, "你的意思是瑞士的巧克力.瑞典的巧克力不是有名的" You mean Swiss chocolates. Sweden's chocolate ain't famous. They looked at me very shocked and then one of them said, "Which one is next to Germany?" "Switzerland," I replied. And that's how I met my GRE study group.
Later I was having dinner in a noodle shop. I had a mouth full of grey noodles when a cockroach the size of a chicken egg scuttled in. The waitress, who proudly told me, "Today is my first day!" screamed and looked at the chef, an older-than-the-hills woman who looked like she was hiding prison tattoos under her long sleeves. The chef stepped on the monster-bug and its green and yellow guts sprayed a 6 inches across the floor. Then the chef picked up the bug with her bare hands and threw its smitten remains into the garbage. She then turned back to making noodles with those same hands. It took a massive effort to swallow the noodles that were still in my mouth. I looked around. The walls and ceiling were covered with spatter patterns matching the one on the floor. I haven't been back to that particular noodle shop yet.
After my first week, I realized that I LOVE living in Taipei. It feels much more like Japan than China. Everyone is polite and says, "不好意思" Sorry for the inconvenience before talking. Little things make me smile to myself all the time. I bought some really good coffee bread from a stand and the wrapper told me, "Thank for Patronize!" The subway warns me in pleasant English, "When you alight, please mind the gap." This always causes me to burst out laughing on the subway and I'm pretty sure it freaks out my fellow commuters. One day on my walk home, I stopped to admire fireworks in the distance.
It must have been some holiday because earlier that day, I had seen food products set out on tables as offerings and people were burning yellow ghost money in trash cans all over town. Not knowing why the fireworks were being shot off for some reason made me enjoy them more. While I was watching them an old man came up to me and said, "Hello. Go to sleep earlier. Healthier!" I checked my watch. It was 10:15. Little things like this have been making me so happy.
If you ask anyone in Taipei if they can speak English, they will invariably respond with, "A little." This is completely uninformative. Sometimes it is a true statement. Often it is a blatant lie and they are totally fluent in English or, conversely, they don't actually speak any English at all, except the words, "a little."
One day, I walked in to a 7/11 and was greeted in English, "Gewd Eebuhneeng!" I smiled back. Then when I had made my purchase, the clerk asked me, "Do you want a bag?" Usually I would have complemented her English, but for some reason I was sick of this racism. You assume all white people can speak English!? I was mock-offended. And I was especially offended because she was right. I replied in Chinese with, "How embarrassing. I am German and do not speak English." Then I wondered if I too was being racist, assuming that this Asian woman could understand me, so I asked, "Can you speak Chinese?"
Contacting the Professionals
On my second Monday I joined a gym and found the 國家音樂廳, National Concert Hall, right across from it (shown in the photo below). I went in to the ticket office and bought a dozen tickets for about 100 USD. They are all to traditional music except for an intriguing concert called, "Let's Go Traveling With Mandolin" by the Taipei Mandolin Ensemble. I found them on Facebook and messaged them explaining who I was and that I had a mandocello. I thought maybe they would be curious enough to let me meet with them if I offered up a chance to play such a rare instrument. They messaged me back within minutes and told me to be at their rehearsal on Saturday at 7PM. Wahooo!
I also got an email back from the lead erhu player in the Taipei Chinese Orchestra. She told me her English is very lazy, but if I can type her a message in Chinese, then we can probably communicate fine. So meeting number two on my schedule!
On Tuesday as I was leaving, I realized that had I locked myself out of my room, so I went downstairs to find my landlady, Shiny. She told me that she didn't have a spare to my outer door (the metal one) and that I should just try climbing through the window. I explained that actually I realized I didn't have the key before I closed that one. She told me I was very lucky because she had the key to only the inner door. She emphasized that I was in fact extremely (非常非常的）lucky because she is not usually home in the afternoon but her child was sick. I thanked her for the key but she wouldn't release it from her hand. I tugged it a couple of times chuckling. She said that first I had to promise to go to the Keymaker with my key that she doesn't have a copy of and copy it and take the new copy to her. I promised, slightly troubled by the shadow that had passed over her face when she wouldn't let go of the key.
I walked around until I saw a big picture of a key on a shop. Inside, there was a grandmother and five three-year-olds. They were all eating grapes and watching cartoons. When the old lady saw me she jumped up, wiping purple juice on her oil-stained skirt. I asked her for a copy of my key. I watched impressed as her old hands moved deftly, cutting the new key. She made it in 20 seconds while balancing an attention-seeking toddler on one knee, her thousand-lined face furrowing with concentration.
When she was done, she looked at me. Like really stared at me hard and asked if I was superstitious. I told her I was. She nodded as if this all made a lot of sense. She gave me another key; it was small and brass. She told me to keep it on me and it'll protect me. I asked her how much it was. She looked exasperated. "送給你！“ I'm gifting it to you! All in all, it was the strangest afternoon I'd had yet in Taipei. Very spooky actually.
On Wednesday I met Irene at MOS Burger. I had just gotten my food but there was nowhere to sit. Irene, a 50-something woman dressed up too nicely for MOS Burger, said I could sit with her. We struck up a conversation and she invited me to her church to listen to the music there and meet people my own age. I asked what kind it was. The answer: Methodist. Now most people think Christ is Christ, but probably in Lancaster, Wisconsin alone, there is a weird rift between the Congregational Church and the Methodist Church. I remember my mom distinctly saying, "Andrew, you can become a Catholic or even a Muslim, just promise me you won't become a Methodist."
Nonetheless, I triumphed over the prejudices of my childhood and braved the Methodist Church. It turned out to be right next to my apartment. I met Timothy who just had finished the GRE and promised to bring me his study books on Sunday. I also found out that anyone could come in and play the piano which made me EXTREMELY happy because I had been missing the piano a lot. I told Irene I'd see her on Sunday.
Rain + Musicians = Easy Target
On Friday I met some Taiwanese Tennesseans in Starbucks. They were missionary kids and had spent half of their lives in Taiwan and half in America. We chatted a lot about the differences in culture between their two native lands. Just then I noticed someone carrying a zhongruan case walk by. Then erhu, then pipa! What was happening?
I ran outside and discovered a Chinese ensemble setting up in the park right outside the Starbucks. I ran home to get my camera. When I returned it was pouring rain and all of the musicians had retreated under a tarp. Was this a bad thing? NO! They were trapped and easy targets. I interviewed them and found out that they were part of a community group that brought "Music to the Neighborhood." They said that they had a competition on the 28th in the park where I go jogging and that they'd be happy to talk me then, but right now, they were getting wet! I thanked them for their time and marked the concert on my calendar.
I Go Traveling With Mandocello
Finally, on Saturday I got to go meet the Taipei Mandolin Ensemble. I dragged my mandocello all the way across town and followed the sound of mandolins to the third floor of a residential building. Afterward, I recounted my experience to my friend from Middlebury, Becky who is currently teaching English in Taiwan. When she saw me approach the cafe with a stupid grin plastered across my face, she decided to record the conversation, guessing correctly that it would be hilarious and very embarrassing for me. I have transcribed it for you below:
Becky: Wow! What happened? Sit down, order something.
Andrew: Oh. My. God."
Becky: Stop with the dazed look and explain!
Andrew: Okay, so I went in and there were like 10 mandolins. . . oooh! and they are Italian style and look more like they're from the Renaissance than like, you know, like, the ukulele clones we use in America. They have these giant rounded backs.
Becky: Yeah, oh you have to order something here that costs at least 80 dollars.
Andrew: Right, so I go in and they are finishing up a mini traditional music recital. The head of the ensemble also teaches Chinese instruments and plays the liuqin!
Becky: What's the liuqin?
Andrew: It's basically the Chinese mandolin. And this 10 year-old boy plays Yunnan Huiyi, Reminiscences of Yunnan, and that's my absolute favorite zhongruan piece.
[I then showed Becky this clip that I secretly filmed.]
So afterwards I flip and tell him that that was the best version of Yunnan Huiyi I'd ever heard in person. And then they all flip cuz I knew the name of the piece. By the way, none of them could or I guess I should say were willing to speak any English. It's so weird. It seems like musicians here are the only people that won't speak English with me. But anyway, it turns out that the girl playing the mandola next to me is majoring in zhongruan at a conservatory.
Becky: What's a mandola?
Andrew: Huh, oh, it's the viola version of a mandolin, except here instead of being tuned CGDA, an octave higher than a cello and the same tuning as a viola, they're tuned GDAE, an octave lower than a violin, so I guess these are really octave mandolins. Anywho, the girl and I have the exact same b-day, same year too. I told her I play zhongruan so they made me play a solo for them. Then they said I had to do a solo with my mando and I was like SHIT! I usually just play chords so I just played Country Roads and sang along and then this one lady sang along in Japanese and it turns out that she is from Japan, so then I said like a really basic greeting and told her in Japanese that I studied Japanese for one year. Then everyone is just basically in love with me. They're like who are you? You speak Chinese and Japanese, play zhongruan and mandocello and sing. And I was just like, ha, don't ask me to play anything else cuz I just did everything I can. That was the full extent of my talents. Then she told me that if I give her English lessons, she could teach me to play Yunnan Huiyi!
Becky: Wait, the Japanese lady?
Andrew: Sorry, no. The same-b-day girl.
Becky: Oh, gotchya.
Andrew: Oh and then b-day girl helped me majorly with that damn Taiwanese picking style and I think I've almost got it. So the first half hour was all traditional stuff and making me perform, then the ensemble began rehearsing and they had sheet music for me! Some of it even had mandocello written on it. Like, how is that even possible? I doubt there is another mandocello on this island. Well, they say I can play along with them and after the rehearsal, which was awesome, they asked if I wanted to join them on stage for the concert!
Andrew: And I was like, WHAT?! REALLY?! YES! So now I'm gonna play with them at the National Concert Hall! Ahhh! I'm soooo excited.
Becky: Omg, that is fabulous. Do you have lots of rehearsals? What are you playing?
Andrew: We're playing some Italian stuff, Danny Boy, a song from a Japanese cartoon, and a Taiwanese folk song. Umm. . . yeah, there is another rehearsal tomorrow and then about 2 a week until the concert on September 25th.
Becky: How did you do this? How is this possible? You are a ridiculous person!
Andrew: (giggles) Yeah, I know. I think I'm in shock right now. And like, the girl said that on Monday I can go join the Chinese Orchestra that she plays with cuz it's informal and has old people in it. So this morning, I wasn't in any group and hadn't really met any musicians and now I am in two ensembles and getting free lessons.
Becky: Will you buy me a lottery ticket?
Andrew: No but I guess you can have my ticket to the mandolin concert, cuz I don't need it anymore.
My calendar is now full of meetings and rehearsals. People are so shocked that I'm interested in Chinese music and happy to tell me about their experiences with music. The blog entries for weeks 3 and 4 are coming up! Lack of updates just means I'm busy which is way better than being bored! Every week becomes busier than the last as I establish more connections and become more and more familiar with Taipei.
Also, I started a youtube account to post videos from the Freeman trip and the Watson which I will be updating as my internet connection permits. It takes about a day to upload a video! http://www.youtube.com/user/chinesetroubadour