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.


  1. Oh my god, the Sun Moon Lake! I didn’t visit it when I was in Taiwan because I only stayed in Taipeh. But one time in my life I wanna visit this place <3

    She was in the kitchen and screamed, "Oh no! It's so deep! Drink water! Drink water!" <- LOL. So sorry, but this cracked me up totally XD

    And omg, all your accidents. Gosh, Andrew! You should cross the streets when the light is green :P


  2. yeah, I burst out laughing at that line too. Did she actually say that? I don't care, it's hilarious.

  3. I'm not sure how much of this to believe. But regardless of whether it's semi-autobiographical fiction or non-fiction, it has got entertainment value.

    Also, in Thailand people usually refer to themselves in the third person using their name (i.e.- Julie's going to go to the store now). Is that true in most asian countries or is Mama just eccentric?

  4. lol your blog is so funny!!
    "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."
    is that holy water or something magic? hahaha

    wow! SunMoonLake , I had been there when I was 3 or 4.


  5. lol your blog is so funny!!
    "Do you have bad skin? Drink a gallon. Do you have a foul temper? Drink a gallon......"
    is that holy water or something magic? hahaha

    wow! Sun Moon Lake, I had been there when I was 3 or 4. loooooooong time ago.