Monday, May 30, 2011

A Week in the Life

Getting My Act Together

Wow, there's so little to tell after just a week. A lot of my time has been spent prepping the last of my Watson plans. I'm incredulous at the idea that there are only two months left and then I'll be back in the US after 13 months of exile.

Unfortunately I waited minutes too long to buy my ticket back to America. The prices suddenly doubled as you can see from the screen capture below. But most fortunately, it looks like I will coast out of the Watson having spent exactly the amount I was allotted. That's good because it would be too painful to be underbudget and have to give the money back.

I'm also working on the back and forth of attempting to go to Tibet. I originally thought I might return to Kyoto. Then the possibility of seeing a new place and the ever-alluring promise of altitude sickness tempted me to move inland. But just today I've discovered that Tibet is closed. There are expected protests in late June/early July and the Chinese government doesn't want foreigners witnessing unrest, so I may end up going back to Japan after all. It's all up in the air. But I'm all for the suspense and random changes in plans. It usually leads to exciting adventures.

A Previous Engagement

Last Saturday I went to two concerts. The first was in the afternoon and featured solos by the "young musicians" of the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra. They were all amazing virtuosos on their instruments and I managed to speak with three of them after the show. Two replied that they did this because they were good at it. It was a job, not who they were. The third, who was the only one who spoke Chinese with me, was very different. The best way I can describe her is "eagerly alive." When she talked about why she played music, an aura of passion radiated from her. I know it sounds all mimsy pimsy to say things like radiating an aura of passion, but even just reminiscing about being in her presence forces me into using such language. It was obvious that she did this because she loves the music, the culture, the history, and her role within it. We were getting along very well and she invited me to go to dinner with her afterward. I winced and she felt badly like she had totally overestimated the level to which we were getting along. I tried to explain, "No, it's just I have a. . a. . a. . a previous engagement." I didn't want to tell her that I was going to see a Maroon 5 concert since she had just bashed popular and rock music, but this covering of the truth came off as just generally deceptive. She thought I was lying to get out of eating with her. I tried to convince her otherwise, but she looked seriously bummed. I took down her email address, promised to arrange a meeting with her later, and headed off to see Maroon 5 with Tree's sister's ex-boyfriend, Jafi.

Jafi studied in England so his English is excellent. He's a classic fool for the ladies. He waited a year between high school and college for a girl. Then they broke up. After graduating university, he waited another year in England for Tree's sister, Mandy. He put his economics degree to good use, making his living performing diablo and Chinese juggling sticks for primary schools. Then he and Mandy too broke up. I asked him what he wanted to do next, and he said go to Japan. Why Japan? Japanese girls. . .

We met his friends (all female, of course) at the concert, the ticket for which cost more than all of my other concert tickets in Asia combined. I justified this by claiming that contrasting Westerner pop concerts in Asia with traditional concerts was necessary to get the full picture. Despite the pain in my wallet we had a blast mocking the crazy antics of the other concert goers juxtaposed with somber-faced security guards wearing red berets. Maybe it was just my sobriety amidst the boozed up fans, but it seemed like everyone else was dancing especially idiotically. I joined in, mocking them at first, but at some point my "dancing" became sincere.

The Marooned 5: Walking After Midnight

After the concert Jafi, his three friends and I went to eat at an area by his house and I tried a few local dishes which were supposedly spicy, but nothing in Hong Kong so far has seemed spicy after Singapore, though I've been told I might be getting the white man treatment. Damn you traveling Minnesotans ruining white-spice-tolerance reputations abroad!

After eating and chatting I tried to head home but the MTR, the subway, was already closed. I talked with an attendant for awhile and tried to figure out how to walk home. Hong Kong is totally walkable. It's a small place, but I keep accidentally taking really circuitous routes everywhere. This doesn't bother me because I have plenty of time and every time I walk from my apartment to the station I encounter new food stands and sights. But when it's after midnight and you are tired and afraid of being attacked by the Triad, it's kind of an issue. I kept walking past groups of Indian men who would silence their talk as I approached, eye me menacingly, and then burst out laughing after I passed. This happened at least 6 times. It was all thoroughly creepy as I thought about how long it would be before anyone realized I had been captured, tortured, and murdered. After 2 hours I finally found my way home and I now finally know the area. I'm saving so much time now! If only I had somewhere to rush off to. . .

Linguistic Barriers

This sign, especially with the picture, makes me think that cars should be afraid of pedestrians with superpowers and not the other way around. But I'm new here. Maybe that's the way they do in HK.

When I get food it's super awkward to guess which language to speak. People usually understand Mandarin, but depending on their age they may have been well educated in English. People educated before the British handover know English well. Then Mandarin became more important in education. Young people typically know English, but the ones who work in restaurants typically aren't very studious. I haven't copped out and gone to McDonalds (although for the first time I'm tempted because a value meal there is sometimes cheaper than food at more authentic places) but if a restaurant is called Tastes of Taiwan, Shanghai, or Beijing then I eat there knowing that they'll speak Mandarin. But this means I'm missing out on Cantonese cuisine!

Hong Kongers are the fattest Asians I've seen. I suppose it's possible they were subject to British rule for too long, But I prefer to think that Cantonese food must be awesome. Delicious things I've tried have included pan-fried noodles, rice noodles (河粉), seafood soups, deep fried fish balls, and congee (rice porridge) with a century egg for protein. All of the flavours [sic] of sauces are all vaguely familiar too, because Cantonese stuff it is usually the authentic variation of the food in American Chinese restaurants. It's like I'm tasting the real food instead of the shadow cast on the cave walls. Pictured above is another odd combo of a traditional junk for tourist in front of very modern skyscrapers.

The Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra: Blown out of Proportion

After getting a taste for the HKCO at the last Chinese concert (figuratively, not literally, I'm not a zombie!), I finally saw the full ensemble. I snapped this bad photo right of the empty stage right before being yelled at. Enjoy. On the floor of the stage, to the left of the blurry person, you can see the gehus. The HKCO instrumentation is very different than the orchestras of Singapore or Taiwan. Each of the three sections is made up of different variations of the same instrument family. This seems to be in an effort to create a theoretically elegant ensemble, but it loses something in the nitty gritty of reality.

For the bowed instruments, they have tried to emulate the string section of a Western orchestra. They use the entire huqin family for this. So for first violin they use gaohu, the screechy, higher-pitched cousin of the erhu which fits better as an occasional solo by the lead erhu player (like a picolo to a flute player) than as an entire section for the strings. The second violins are the erhu. The violas are the zhonghu and the cellos are gehus (an instrument with which I have previously expressed my beef). Finally they use the bigger version of the gehu, the diyingehu(低音革胡) as a double bass.

One interesting thing to note is that the HKCO has gone ecofriendly and no longer allows any of their instuments to be made of snake skin. They say they have found a synthetic substance that is just as good. I think it's great that they no longer have to kill a couple dozen pythons to make gehus, but I did notice that a few of their drums used by the percussionists looked like they were still made of snake skin. And after hearing the result, I think they have let their ideals lead them away from something that creates a better sound.

The plucked section had the entire ruan family. Of course there was the typical zhong ruan and da ruan but they also opted for the seldom used xiao (little) ruan instead of the much superior liuqin. There were also pipas, two guzheng (zithers) and two yangqin (hammered dulcimers), and one of the gaohu players jumped up from her seat for one piece to play a miked guqin.

Their wind section was truly bizarre. There were soprano, alto, tenor, and bass versions of both suona (Chinese oboe/trumpet) and guanzi (a double reed instrument with a short tube body). I'd never seen these variations before.

There were also three different types of flutes: bangdi (which I think should only used in operas because they‘re so shrill), qudi, and the xindi. Sometimes the xindi had problems blending when it played with the other flutes which I guess had something to do with its being the only flute without a bamboo membrane.

Finally there were the typical variations of sheng, which are the uber cool free reed mouth organs, pictured below.

Overall the concert was fine. There were old favorites and new compositions. It was the first time I'd seen gender neutral uniforms for any orchestra. The audience were small and old and nervously tried to help translate things the conductor said before I assured them that I could understand the guy's slow, deliberate speech. But to be honest, the HKCO was not up to the standard I expected. I know they are all excellent musicians, and there were terrific solos on the concertos: erhu, oboe, and violin, but the instrumentation of the orchestra is not as successful as I've seen elsewhere. I think a large amount of this had to do with the synthetic snakeskin instruments. They sounded too smooth, a little Western even, and this upset the balance of the compositions. And when the full, overly bloated wind section played, it totally blocks out the string section.

Walking on Waterfront

Later, while walking along the harbor front and enjoying a fish cake that I hoped wasn't made from a fish caught in the polluted Victoria Harbour whose vistas I was enjoying, I happened upon a middle school wind ensemble playing outdoors. They played stuff I played in high school. They were realllllly good. Way better than the cuddlefish cake.

My daily life in Hong Kong is maybe the best it's been anywhere. With the exception of how expensive everything is, stuff is also convenient. There are beautiful beaches, parks named after dead white people, delicious moderately spicy food, and plenty of concerts to see. I'm even going to suffer through some Chinese operas to see if I can acquire a taste for them.

It turns out that the Avenue of Stars is actually named after the celebrity hand prints in the sidewalk further down the avenue than I originally traveled. Don't tell my granny since it's bad luck, but I copied all of the other tourists and spent a happy hour comparing my hand size to famous celebrities like Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, and Chow Yun Fat. Is this what people do in Hollywood outside of Grauman's Chinese Theater?

Hmm. . . I claimed to have little to report but this blog post has grown so long. Maybe I'm only capable of posting long blog posts and this more frequent method of blogging only waters down the content. Any strong feeling either way, faithful blog readers?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Fragrant Harbour or Stinky Port?

Three Quarter Assessment

This is the first in an experimental weekly blog. Shorter and easier to digest than my former once a month monsters, comment on whether you prefer to consume your blog posts like a mammal or a reptile.

I sent in the final of my three required quarterly reports to Watson last week. It's so weird that the Watson "journey" (as it is always dramatically referred to on the website) is mostly over. But looking back through my photos, journal, and blog entries, so much has happened. It seems to have gone by quite quickly, but at the same time it seems like being in America was a lifetime ago.

The fourth and final report is a 10 minute presentation at the Watson conference which, luckily for me, is at Carleton this year. This makes for all sorts of nice symbolism about beginnings and endings that I can't quite articulate, but I know exists. We even stay at Watson dorm (named after a different Watson) where I stayed as a freshman at Carleton. So many weird symmetries.

Packing up my life again was very interesting (at least to me). I took an inventory of my clothes and after discarding anything with multiple holes, embarrassing food stains on the crotch (from slurping ramen), or that had rust, would spark, and had caused me to bleed (i.e. my electric shaver) I had the following items:

tech: a laptop, an iPhone that only works in America, 3 pairs of headphones all of which have only one functioning earbud, a flip video recorder, a Kindle, and a Buddhist chant playing machine

music: a zhongruan, a mandocello, a bamboo flute, an irish whistle, lots of scores

clothes: 5 shirts, 3 pairs of shorts, 1 pair of jeans, 1 belt, 3 socks (no matching pairs), 4 pairs of underwear, 1 pair of running shoes, 3 baseball caps, and 1 mismatched pair of tennis shoes

misc: 2 pens, 1 notebook, 1 ceramic cup, 1 keyring, 1 wallet, 1 passport, half roll of duct tape

But before I get too proud of myself for traveling light, I must remember that technology makes this notion of traveling light really deceptive. In my computer I have thousands of music and video files and in my Kindle I have another hundred books. Really my possessions are just slowly moving over to the digital world. (Because I said Digital World, this is now stuck in my head.)

My original backpack had burst two packings ago (Singapore to Japan) when I had more cold weather clothes, and was still carrying my kaput clothing. I decided that instead of duct taping my backpack together for a second time I would just buy a smaller everyday pack that I wouldn't feel ridiculous lugging to a rehearsal or a cafe. I hope my new little backpack will last long enough for me to use in real life (the Watson is not real life). Also, I guess before I go to Oxford I'll have to buy some more clothes so I look like a real person, but it's fun to just wear down the clothes I originally brought to rags. Ah, the pretend life of a vagabond who also can afford plane tickets.

Walzing for Sangria

Anywho, after I packed up my shrinking inventory of earthly belongings, I made my way over to Little Europe to perform at a pizzeria. Emily Walz, the former Carl I mentioned in the last post, joined me and we sang outside of the place to an audience of her foreign friends. We did stuff from Fire and Rain to a bluegrass version of TLC's Waterfalls. We only played for a little over half an hour and made the equivalent of 30 US dollars. Sure, it was paid in pizza and sangria, but I decided to calculate this as I made 30 bucks an hour (double for one hour, then divide by two to split with Emily). Suck it, minimum wage! Also the owner liked it and invited us back anytime. Too bad I had a plane to catch in twelve hours.

From Fire and Rain to Hydro and Pyro

After saying a final good bye to Emily and co., I rushed home, mando in tow, to make it back by 10 because Tree's mom said I HAD TO be back by 10. She was dressed in a nice qipao, so I suspected trouble. I was sweaty from carrying my mandocello across town, but before I caught my breath she exclaimed, "Get in the car, we're late!" But then remembered herself and we each chugged two glasses of water before heading to the garage, my stomach audibly sloshing. We parked in a dark alley and entered a wheat packing plant. We went up a rickety ladder into what looked like an empty living room with a soap opera playing on the TV. We went up another ladder and arrived in a (secret?) Daoist temple. It turns out that I was to be baptized into Daoism, specifically a branch that encourages mystical hydrology. They took down important facts like my Chinese name, my birth date and my cell phone number. These digits were calculated and a secret message was written on a piece of parchment. I recited a prayer which I didn't understand and then stared at the flame above a Buddha statue as a priest burned the parchment in my hands. Startled, I tossed the flaming paper at an ash tray and the priest and his assistants nodded their approval. What? Then they told me they would test my faith. They prayed and flicked a lit incense stick between my eyes. I smelled some hair singeing but I decided it was probably best to burn off any unibrowage that was growing there anyway. My lack of reaction, mainly due to shock at where I had ended up, convinced them that I was a very devout Daoist.

Then they gave me the three treasures. The first was a secret hand position that I can use to protect my heart and soul in times of trouble, though I think Kevlar probably works better. The second treasure was the password to heaven which I am NOT ALLOWED TO REPEAT TO ANYONE!!!! In fact I can only say it in my head, never aloud. But when I die, I can be sure that the Gatekeepers will ask for it. The third treasure was a membership card which is actually quite useful because it can get me free housing at any of their associated Daoist temples (now accepted in over 70 countries!).

I sighed on the drive home. This forced, unexplained baptism really wasn't the way to go about things. But I complied to make Tree's mom happy who was now sure that I could now travel the world without fear of harm. I talked to Tree later asking if he had ever been baptized by fire into mystical hydrology. He said, "Yeah, of course." But on the ride home he had tossed his membership card out the window.

I Am Magic

I didn't sleep the night before leaving Taichung so I could cry more easily at the airport to get my zhongruan through. I also purposely bought my ticket last minute from Eva Airlines, despite my previous issues with them, since they have the cheapest tickets to Hong Kong by far. They have flights every 2 hours to Hong Kong and they rarely fill up, so I hoped that I wouldn't encounter their full flight policy issues. I encountered no resistance at the check in desk, but I remained on high alert, all too aware of how one agitated stickler can ruin my airport experience.

At the gate, a recording played on repeat, "Do not line up. We are not boarding at this time. Please have patience." Despite the trilingual transmission, people were cued up around the corner. I was sitting down, trying to comply with the man, when an attendant approached me. "That's a large instrument you have there, sir. . . We are worried it won't fit." I felt tears hit my cheeks. Wow, this response is getting ridiculously automatic, but he wasn't done yet. "Would it be alright if you boarded first so you can look for a place for your musical instrument? Sorry for the inconvenience." I dried my eyes and assured him that I would be fine with this inconvenience. I was guided passed the hoard of hissing Hong Kongers. I could only think one thing as I walked onto the empty plane, I. Am. Magic. I stowed my instrument, fell asleep instantly, and awoke in Hong Kong.

Hit the Ground Running

I wonder if I've taken some of the joy out of traveling by doing too much Google Maps research before going to a place. I like to make it look like I magically know the route to take. I also feel like this helps me avoid people who want to pickpocket me or try to sell me a fake Rolex or prostitute (I'm opposed to prostitutes in general, be they real or fake). But as with many things, making it look effortless takes a lot of work. I spent the whole night before leaving, researching exactly how to get to my destination. When I landed I bypassed all of the lost new arrivals craning their necks looking for signs and walked to the nearest 7/11, bought a SIM card, called my contact and told him I would be at Hung Hom Station in an hour. I walked to the ticket counter, bought my bus ticket and headed for bus A11 with a bored look on my face as if I did this commute every week. I scoffed at some lost looking Australians as they passed by me. Pshh, tourists, I tutted. I was playing the role of a snob, but at what point does it become real? Eek! Maybe it's better to be a victim of crime than have these condescending thoughts. The bus reminded me not to expectorate lest I be fined. Below is a sign which I didn't have to look at in real life since I'd already seen it on Google Maps.

So I got to the station and met Rui's cousin who lives in Hong Kong. His coworker has a son who has a friend who needs a flatmate. Once again for those of you keeping score at home, my former classmate's cousin's coworker's son's friend was to be my new flatmate, so I can definitely trust him, right? I think I may actually be one degree closer to Kevin Bacon.

Emma, Not Sue

Rui's cousin, Jack, led me to the apartment. It would end up costing about half as much as staying in the cheapest hostel, so I wondered how disgusting it might be. It turned out to be by far the best place I've stayed yet. It's on a food street and always smells like dim sum, sushi, or calzones depending on the hour. It has a guard downstairs, an elevator, and upstairs: AC, wi-fi, and a washing machine. I get my own room, but I have a flatmate who is a monolingual speaker of Cantonese. I figured there must some issue with him if he is subletting so cheaply. Using Rui's cousin to translate, he said I would be a fine roommate if I promised to be clean. "Clean is very important!" I know nothing about him except for his compulsive cleanliness. I told him that between 8AM and 10PM I might play instruments. That was fine with him and we shook on it. He washed his hands with a wet nap after the shake.

Since I paid him for the 2 months, I have seen him only once. It was 3AM and I went to use the toilet, which he was scrubbing. I gestured and used Mandarin, which he can kind of understand but not speak, to indicate that I could help clean the apartment too. He understood and then his eyes went wide. "Nooo! I must clean!" Then he mustered a polite, "Thanks though," in Mandarin. I realized from his demeanor that he is a nice guy, but just straight up OCD about cleanliness. This works fine for me. Although I have been experimenting with the towel next to the electric kettle. I move it 45 degrees to the right every time I make tea. When I come back the next time, it is always moved back. As you can see from the photo above of my room, I do not suffer from OCD.

The food street outside has lots of tasty foods. So far I've had sashimi, pineapple fried rice, calzones, fried dumplings, spicy noodles with eggplant, and hot pot. My plan to lose the weight gained in Taiwan = failed. Right next to the International Hot Dogs Cafe is a pet store full of dogs. It's a little disconcerting.


Hong Kong, Xianggang in Mandarin, means fragrant harbor, but to be honest, the harbor kind of stinks these days due to sewage, pollution, and general sea stank. Nonetheless, the skyline is beautiful at night. There is a show every night at 8PM called the Symphony of Lights along the harbor-side walkway called the Avenue of Stars. The light show is possibly the lamest thing I've seen on my time abroad and that includes Germans trying to rap in English. The light show has a 10 minute preamble for all of its sponsors, then it is 3 minutes of half a dozen buildings flashing green lasers to really corny synthesized Chinese music. I think the light show would have been impressive when the first Tron movie came out, but definitely not now. Everyone who had gathered there walked away seeming disappointed. I don't think anyone ever sees this nonevent twice, so I guess you could accurately say it is a once in a lifetime experience.

Coming Up:

I'll report on living in Hong Kong, my first concerts, and the weird influences of English culture here. Earl Grey Milk Tea? Crazy.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

I, Expat


Let me start off this post by apologizing for the last post's incorrect link.

This link will treat your ears to a one minute snippet of an
extremely beautiful chant. And thanks for all of you who brought this to my attention.

Farthest Flung

It turns out that I'm not the only Carl in Taichung! On
Facebook I saw that Emily Walz had entered the Carleton Alumni farthest flung competition with Taichung, Taiwan (although she ultimately lost to someone in Singapore). I apologized for my web creepiness, friended her on Facebook, and we met up at the night markets. She was two years ahead of me but we had both played french horn in band together. She's here on a scholarship from the Taiwanese government to study Chinese language. Her boyfriend accompanied her and found a job teaching English.

I asked Emily what she had been eating, since eating is pretty much the number one (read: only) thing to do in Taichung. She said that she'd mainly been cooking at home since she had a kitchen. Unacceptable! I made it my mission to take her around to my favorite food stands and forced her to eat things like stinky tofu which she attempted to claim to like through a wrinkled nose, teary eyes, and a deliberate gulp. I tried to add more spice to her tofu to cover up the stank, but this only caused her more pain because she is from Minnesota. Pictured here is a more friendly food that stinky toufu, a "French pizza wrap." As the sign boasts on the stand, it is "delicieux."

I was more successful at showing her tea stands. Pictured right I am enjoying/choking on a sip of bubble tea. And you have to try bubble tea here because Taichung is its birthplace. According to unverified legend, way back in the 1980s a store began adding the pearls or bubbles, which are usually tapioca, to cold milk tea. Add a thick straw and you get a delightful gulp of milk tea with some tapioca beads in your mouth to chew over. The first time I had bubble tea, I thought I was going to choke, but now I can't get enough. My other favorite at the tea stands is grapefruit juice mixed with green tea and drinkable yogurt. The shorthand they use to mark the cup is QQ, meaning roughly "cute." I translate this though as "chick drink." I don't care if the drinkable yoghurt items are generally for little kids or hormonal women, I gulp it greedily and gladly. I claim I need more dairy than regular people because I'm from Wisconsin when actually I’m borderline lactose intolerant and must endure gastrointestinal cramps equivalent to those seen in the Alien movies to enjoy the taste of my yoghourt drink. I may have a problem actually.

I took Emily and her boyfriend, Wade, to Taipei to see the Chinese orchestra concert featuring Mongolian artists that I mentioned in the last post. It was good to be back in (I want to say myhometown but that’s not the right word) Taipei. I felt confident and relaxed back in the familiar MRT, to see the Ximen Ding pedestrian walkway where there’s tasty food and cool stuff being sold everywhere. But it was also refreshing to see how little I knew. I showed them my favorite eats in Ximen, but when stinky tofu, wheat noodle soup, roasted corn, and curried egg cakes weren’t to their taste I was at a loss for what else to eat there. Touring other people around forced me to realize what a creature of habit I am. I must make sure I don't get stuck in too many ruts, though that is preferable to being hit by cars.

Ex-Pat on Your Back

Back in Taichung, Emily introduced me to a whole community of expatriots that I had no idea existed. They were English teachers and Nike factory workers. Both groups generally didn’t know any Chinese and function in Taichung by eating in Xiao Ouzhou, Little Europe, a series of streets, which cater Italian, French, and Greek cuisine. Everyone who works at these places is fluent in English to accommodate the typically monolingual clientele. Hiring skilled English speakers is easy because they can be paid more as the food at these places is ridiculously expensive. Meals often cost 10 or even 12 American dollars! And since these are bored Westerners they typically order at least double that much in alcohol. In short, the restaurants make a killing.

I don’t know if you remember this or not loyal readers, but I have a major problem with racism in Asia. When I see other white people I typically become disgusted with them and imagine that they know nothing about the local culture and cannot speak any language but English and their attempts at using chopsticks resembles a myopic nurse's vain search for a vein. This is, of course, frequently untrue. So I was nervous as I entered the Londoner pub to join Emily and Wade for the English language trivia. But when I actually chatted with the other whities I realized, rather reluctantly, that they were people too. Mainly though it has been interesting to see this other way of living abroad. And really it’s the way that many Chinese abroad live in America. They just take their culture to the new country and build their own community to live in. Actually the biggest hypocrasy is that I searched for these Chinese communities in countries like Japan, France, Germany, Austria, and to some extent Singapore, but when I see my own people do it, I felt repulsion.

After trivia we went to an Indian restaurant called Bollywood. The prices here were also too damn high.

Emily and Wade live in a house with other foreigners: a British couple and a South African. There are many white South Africans in Taichung who claim that their native language is English (although it’s really Afrikaans) in order to get the cushy job of English teacher. Taiwan’s standard of living is higher than South Africa, and Afrikaans is super closely related to English, so it’s a good deal for everyone.

One of Emily’s friends goes running/jogging/walking in the countryside every weekend with a group of people. After the exercise they treat themselves to a scenic kegger. Last week though they, for reasons as equally confuddling to me as the hundreds of Taiwanese who witnessed it, all dressed in red dresses and ran from bar to bar, having a beer at each place before sprinting to the next location. Men and women revealed much skin and many donned neon green and purple wigs. There were also piggy-back rides and chicken fights. (Why is it when we carry each other we reference animals?) I followed the group for a bit, but felt awkward since I didn’t have a red dress on. Emily had offered me a red dress but I, surprised at my own prudishness, politely declined. The whole time I saw rampaging red dressed ruffians, I couldn’t help thinking, Westerners are so effing weird.

The Real Nike Wives of Taichung

I mentioned earlier that many of the foreigners in Taichung work at the Nike factory. They are designers and engineers mainly. Many of them are men who brought their purposely unemployed wives with them. These ladies spend their days beautifying their luxurious apartments with stainless steel appliances and being driven (they all have drivers!) around to their various appointments. One of these appointments is a book club which Emily belongs to. She reports back about their lavish lifestyles. The women all ask if she followed her boyfriend here, but she, proclaims as proudly as possible that her man followed her.

Singing for Slices

Wow, I'm blogging about something recent now! Such a weird feeling. It's easy to recall details. Like right now I'm in a bit of pain from being sunburned. I slept in until 10 this morning and was burned by the sunlight coming in through the window. I. Am. Pathetic.

Anywho, last Monday Emily and I were dining in Little Europe and enjoying pizza and an enormous jug of sangria when the owner of Salud, a middle-aged Taiwanese woman who speaks English enthusiastically came out to shoot the breeze with us. She had asked us our ages when we ordered the pitcher (did I mention it was enormous?) of sangria and was shocked at the high numbers we responded with. She came back again and asked us where we were from. We said, "America." She said, "America?! But you look so young!" I didn't follow the semantics of that 'but,' but we assured her that despite our nationality we did appear youthful. When I told her I studied music she asked if I would play in the bar. I agreed to play my mando and sing with Emily. The owner agreed to give us pizza. So Emily and I have a paying gig! Sure it is in slices of pizza and pitchers of beer, but the pizza there is really good! Emily wondered if a world tour need to have multiple stops. Hmm. . . I guess first we need to work out our set list.

Back to the Present and the Future

I leave for Hong Kong on Monday. My time in Taiwan has again been amazing. Before my accident I was playing with a traditional nanguan ensemble. When I couldn't play, I supplemented my Taiwanese friends with a trip to a temple, a glimpse into the lives of expats here in Taichung and got to make a new good friend in Emily.

Now, my hand has finally healed enough to be able to play again. My injury also delayed my departure from Taiwan because I wasn't strong enough to carry both my instruments through the airport. My hand is still numb along the index and middle fingers due to severed nerves, but it moves almost as good (Should I say "well?" That sounds so weird.) as new, so no complaints. I'm looking forward to my month and a half in Hong Kong. The last month may be spent in Tibet. I'll keep everyone updated!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Radioactive Refugee

Up and Atom!

I flew to friendly, familiar Formosa, freshly fled from the ravaged remains of radioactive Japan, jittery, jubilant and jam-packed with alliteration. At the airport I was scanned for radiation. I am clear! Can you prove you're not radioactive? Get tested! There’s just no reason not to.

If You’re Good To Mama. . .

Being back in Taiwan was fantastic. It’s like if America and Japan had a baby and it speaks Chinese. But that really describes Taipei, the modern capitol. This time I decided to stay in Taichung. Taichung has more speakers of Taiwanese, the accent is thicker, and people are generally just a little more distant from the Western world. Since I already spent my rent for the month in Japan, I crashed at Tree’s family's apartment with his mom and sister.

Tree’s mom needs to have a book written about her. My first morning back in Taiwan, I crept out to the bathroom at 6am and was surprised to see that Tree's mom was already awake. She wakes up at 5am everyday to begin drinking water. She is a “Mystical Hydrologist” meaning she believes in the healing and spiritual powers of drinking a shocking amount of water. She’s up to 4 gallons per day now.

Do you have bad skin? Drink a gallon. Do you have a foul temper? Drink a gallon. Do you have liver cancer? Better drink two gallons. Are you barren? Drink this and you’ll be menstruating in no time. I tried to drink one gallon with her (for general health, not to encourage menstruation), but it just caused me to lie on my stomach moaning for an hour. I was an amateur in the presence of a master water drinker. I wondered if there were any competitions for drinking water, like the Golden Camels or something.

By the way, I just call Tree’s mom "Mama" in my head because she only refers to herself as Mama. She doesn’t use her name or pesky first person pronouns. It’s just, “Mama feels hungry.” or, “Mama’s life is so hard right now.” She also refers to Tree’s older sister exclusively as Jiejie, or older sister. I guess she has taken on Tree’s perspective in the family. She calls Tree by his full name every time she calls him. It’s always, “Huang BuoShu! How much water have you drunk today?! Jiejie told Mama that Huang BuoShu isn’t drinking enough water! Mama says drink more water!”

After my hour of moaning on the couch, I had a seven hour lesson from Mama on ancient Buddhist texts. I had to recite two rather long mantras at the end of my lesson and was assigned homework of reciting them 10 times every hour on the hour, but I was happy for the lesson. We had lots of bathroom breaks because our bladders were in overdrive from our water drinking. Listening to Mama talk for so long also helped me understand the local accent better. Every ch, sh, and zh has merged with c, s, and z respectively. Every f has become an h. L’s are so nasalized that they sound just like n’s. R’s are so lateral that they sound just like l’s. And my ears are unable to distinguish between b’s and p’s. It makes things crazy hard to understand.

A Visit From the Monk Squad

After my induction to mystical hyrdrology and the texts of Confucius, I practiced my instruments (and piano since they have one in their house!) and recited my mantras for about a week. Finally it was announced that I would be going to a temple. Mama drove me to Nantou near Sun Moon Lake (which always reminds me of Soleil Moon Frye).

The location is ridiculously beautiful. Unfortunately I only had my flip video on me. I was sort of abducted by Mama right when I woke up and didn't have time to charge my camera, so here's a panoramic video. It’s a giant temple in the middle of nowhere, just surrounded by mountains and grass and a little village. The monks traipsed around in black robes, looking more like Hogwarts students than the monks I usually imagine. We gathered at noon to eat a silent meal of plants that had never cast a shadow. Then we went into the prayer room and began chanting. We finished at 7, just in time for dinner. That was six and a half hours of chanting! The first hour I didn’t know what I was doing, where I should walk (there were many processionals), how I should hold the prayer book, or the tunes of the chants. But after an hour or so, I figured it out. The chants were sooo beautiful and nothing like the ones I had researched last summer. Many were jaunty and fun, and people sang harmonies. It seemed much more like folk music. It was impossible not to join in.

After the first hour I felt I got the hang of it. After the second hour (and a bathroom break since I'm on the mystic hydrology program) I stopped wondering when it was going to end and just enjoyed having this time to reflect, contemplate, and not worry about planning things for the future. The only way I realized that time had passed between the second and sixth hour was when the sun set outside.

After dinner I prayed 100 times to a goddess to change a bottle of water into healing holy water. I turned to Mama to see if she was ready to go. She was, but I would be staying here for a week to continue praying. Umm. . . what?! I told her that I had obligations, concerts I’d already bought tickets to, and after a week of silence, some people possibly would think I was dead.

But I had already been promised to the monks and nuns. The crowd of monks and nuns in all black robes and shaved heads swelled around me. They ushered me away from Mama’s car. I was so freaked out by this Dementor swarm that the cat got my tongue and what little I could articulate was ignored. But just then a monk rushed forward and spoke very good English with me, although he told me his German was better. He had gotten a PhD in engineering in Germany and now was a monk here. He helped me clear up the misunderstanding. I was a little peeved that Mama promised me without telling me. But I managed to escape by promising that I would return. And I really wanted to despite that display of clinginess!

Good Concerts, Bad Karma

The only thing better than the food in Taiwan is the music scene. On the right you can see the night market filled with delicious, cheap, and relatively clean food.

Taiwan has so many concert opportunities it’s impossible to see everything even if you're like me and that's all you really have to do. I went to see traditional performances with full Chinese orchestras, solo recitals for dizi, erhu, and piano. My favorite concert was played by the Taiwanese Chinese Orchestra, not to be confused with the National Chinese Orchestra. They had an amazing suona soloist and the second half they invited a Mongolian group much like Hanggai to play first by themselves and then with the full orchestra. It was fun to have known three of the six pieces they played because Hanggai plays similar versions of the traditional pieces.

At a new compositions concert I was in awe of the world premiere pieces. Usually if you see a new performance for an orchestra in America, it's not really fun to listen to. The composers want to do something inventive and avoid cliche. Unfortunately the audience's ears usually aren't prepared to hear the 25 minutes of random clicking and atonal chords. The audience wants recognizable melody and if there's dissonance we want it to be followed by resolution. But really what an audience wants to hear is something that conveys emotions or a story or some piece of humanity. They generally don't care so much about excessive use of theory that makes the music sound unnatural. And the new composers' pieces gave us what we wanted, they all sounded very much like epic movie music. My favorite piece caused the audience to collectively gasp with sweeping arpeggios played by the full orchestra. Then slowly the players were filtered out until only one yanqin hammered away with one liuqin playing tremelo. The contrast gave me goosebumps.

After the concert I discussed my favorites with 繆儀琳, an albino bamboo flute player. I had seen her around but never talked with her before. She made a joke about us both being the only whities at the concert. I decided we would make good friends. You can see her play an intense concerto here.

I finally made it to a performance of Taiwanese guahee opera and chatted with a bamboo flutist on crutches afterward. He told me about how the pieces are so familiar for the instrumentalists that they generally just improvise new parts to avoid death by boredom. So each performance is the same on stage, with the singers' pitches set in stone and each gesture carefully choreographed, but in the pit, it's more like jazz. I told him I was studying traditional music which I immediately regretted because he made a wild gesture of equal parts surprise and delight. Unfortunately the proportions switched to mainly just surprise as he toppled over backwards off of his crutches. The reason I mention this is that I think it may have caused my bad karma which led to the bad luck in the next section.

A Series of Unfortunate Events

When I first started the Watson I took an unconscious ambulance ride to the hospital after passing out from dehydration. So it seemed fitting that on my return to Taiwan I took another little trip to the hospital.

A morning like any other. I was in the bathroom and attempted to take off my shirt to take a shower. But I was careless as I attempted this dangerous activity of disrobing and my hand was impaled by the jagged, broken remains of a ceramic cover to an exposed light bulb. While I do like how tall I feel in Asia, I now understand that being too large for rooms can be dangerous. I also understand why left-handed people tend not to live as long in this right-handed world.

I withdrew my hand and looked at it. I could see the grey bone of my knuckle. That was surrounded by what looked like raw chicken meat. After staring shocked at my hand for a good 10 seconds, the blood finally seeped in to cover the grossness. But then the blood began spurting in violently powerful spurts. The cool part is that I could see my pulse increase as this freaked me out to a greater and greater extent. I threw my shirt back on, because even in emergencies I'm very modest, and asked Mama if she could give me a ride to the hospital. She was in the kitchen and screamed, "Oh no! It's so deep! Drink water! Drink water!" I calmly told her that I thought that this needed immediate stitching up and then apologized for accidentally squirting her in the face with blood. She made me pour my healing water on the wound but the wound continued to spatter the walls defiantly with my blood. Only then did she agreed to take me to the hospital. As she drove though I noticed we were not heading for the big Western hospital. She was taking me to a Chinese medicine place. Sigh. We went in but they told us to get ourselves to the big hospital because this was too much for herbs and prayers. I was beginning to feel dizzy so I resisted the urge to tell Mama, "Duh!"

I ran in to the emergency room and the receptionists looked terrified. "Can you speak Chinese!?" they asked bizarrely flustered. My linguistic capabilities were apparently more of a concern than the pulsating wound under my blood-soaked towel. They ushered me to a bed and asked me to lie down. I looked at the sheet. There was a very large puddle of blood in the middle. "Umm. . . could I get clean sheets please?" They apologized embarrassed. My confidence in them slipped slightly so I decided to sneak these photos as evidence for my impending malpractice case.

They then put a bucket under my arm for the blood and rinsed the wound with saline for an hour. I wondered how much blood I had left. I felt really dizzy. Finally they began stabbing my hand and fingers with a syringe of morphine until everything below my wrist was numb. Everything was carefully explained to the intern pictured above. Then they put in six stitches and charged me a whopping 30 dollars for the whole thing! But they apologized for the high price.

You should see the other guy. . .

Below is a comparison of the two of us after the fight. On top is my hand and on the bottom is the victorious ceramic that won the fight.

Mama told me she thought it was really lucky that I had been doing so much Buddhist prayer because otherwise the wound would have been much worse. My mom thought that the wound was caused because Jesus was angry that I was cheating on Him. Who was right?

So I lost my ability to play piano and fretted instruments. Typing was also difficult at first. I still had enough mobility to learn to play bamboo flute though, which was good because I had been neglecting it and now it was my only option.

Today I hae the stitches out and have a very handsome scar that aches all the time. Some nerves were severed and I have no feeling along the insides of my index finger and middle finger. All of this from attempting to take a shower.

My next accident occurred when I was late for a concert and chasing after a taxi and carelessly ran into traffic. Luckily another taxi hit me. I had just enough warning to jump so that I landed on the windshield. He screeched to a hault after I rode on his windshield for 10 feet or so and then I rolled onto the ground. The driver got out apologizing profusely, but it was totally my fault. I asked him if he could take me to the train station and he agreed to do it for free. I felt like this was a very fortunate incident until I tried to read my Kindle on the train. The screen was cracked.

When I told Mama I got hit by a taxi she took me to this healing massage place. Basically you lie on a pile of pillows while they place vibrating foot massagers on the part of your body that is sick. Then they leave you in the dark for 30 minutes while the machines shake out the disease. As I was lying in the dark having my bruised thigh and back shaken into health, I couldn't help laughing. I never imagined this would be part of my Watson year. In the picture above you can see the healer carefully placing the foot massagers on Mama's ailing liver.

The third bit of bad luck was when I was hit again by a car as I tried to cross the road. And again my new Kindle broke. Luckily it was under warrantee and Amazon sent me a third one. But this is really getting ridiculous. How many cats can you adopt at the shelter before they start rejecting you?

Light at the End of the Tunnel

After all of this bad luck, I finally got some good news: I've been accepted to Oxford! So next October I'll be heading over to the oldest educational institution in the English-speaking world to read a masters in musicology. It's a huge relief to have plans solidified for next year and as someone mockingly pointed out to me it's a major step forward toward my not real goal of never spending any time in America again.