Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Fortnight Three: Conspiracies

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.

Mixed-Race Babies

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.


  1. Yay for The Office and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo references!

    So... I'm assuming you haven't gotten to use a whole lot of the Malay we "learned" in 325? Siti read a book. Who read a book? What did Siti read?

  2. Every time I read your blog I get sad that our Japan trips didn't coincide, because I can only imagine the craziness that would happen if we met up here!