Lanterns and other chubby things

February 16, 2003


What, another update so soon? Well, I figured I couldn’t let my parents have all the excitement this week with the house fire….

This weekend marked the opening of the Lantern Festival, and having language partners who are anxious that I should take in a full measure of Taiwanese/Chinese culture, I spent a great deal of time engaged in Lantern-related activities.

Friday night my friend Sharon (her English name; she is Chinese) hauled me off to Pingxi, a country town in Taipei Province, to “fang tian deng,” or “launch heaven-lanterns.” Incidentally, noting that Friday was Valentine’s Day (which has caught on with a vengeance in Taiwan, in spite of the fact that there was already a Chinese Valentines Day in July-August, but I suppose having two such days at different times of the year is still a little better than Japan, where there were advertisements for things relating to “Valentine’s Week”), I asked Sharon if she wouldn’t rather spend the evening with her boyfriend. She replied, “Nah, he’s too clingy anyway. This’ll be good for him.” All right, then.

Heaven-lanterns are, essentially, small hot air balloons about four feet tall with a foot and a half diameter. They are made out of paper – four pieces glued together to make four sides and a reasonably rounded interior – and have a bamboo hoop at the base. A wire grid across the base holds a packet of “ghost money” (special currency for ancestors to use in the afterlife; it is sent to one’s ghost relatives by burning it in special urns at temples and, truth be told, curbside on any street in Taipei, especially on the 1st and 15th of each lunar month); the ghost money is soaked in a special oil to make it burn longer. When you light the money on fire, the heat from the flames fills the inside of the paper balloon, and when it gets hot enough, it rises to the heavens, flames glowing brightly through the thin paper exterior (hence the name). Before you “launch” your heaven-lantern, you write on the sides (using, according to tradition, a magic marker….well, I imagine that in ancient times ink and brushes were involved, but these days convenience is the key) all your wishes for the coming year – your hopes for yourself, your family, and your friends.

On three sides of my balloon, I wrote your standard Chinese slogans for an ideal life, such as Shenti jiankang (good health), Jiaren pingan (peace for my family), Zhu pengyoumen pingan kuaile (peace and happiness for my friends), Zhu fumu, jiejie kuaile pingan (peace and happiness for my parents and sister, especially important since they were busy in Minnesota playing with fire as well, but in an involuntary and less satisfying manner), and added some special hopes like Lunwen jinbu (dissertation progress) and Zhongwen chenggong (success in studying Chinese).

On the fourth side I wrote in large characters, Meiguo Pingan – Peace for America. This one attracted a bit of attention; I mean, there was this one random American launching her hopes on a heaven-lantern, and the most visible hope was for peace. We had asked a man to use my camera to take a few pictures of us launching the balloon, but we noticed an inordinate number of flashes go off as other people milling about decided this was a photo op not to be missed. My dad has expressed some concern that the picture will by picked up on the AP wire and hocked about as an example of Americans around the world protesting the war with Iraq, but no Taiwanese person would allow their picture to be used in a way that could be considered detrimental to American Government policy, I’m sure. After all, the only information I’ve gotten on the situation in Iraq from the local TV news is the daily reiteration that the ROC is 100% behind the effort, the ROC pledges all of its military and other resources to assist America (okay, so this might not exactly turn the tide, but still…), the ROC cheerfully prepares to pay more for oil – anything to show support for America in the Gulf. Anti-American protests? Nope. But I wouldn’t want to be French or German in Taipei right now…. (Actually, some of you might remember my writing once before that ROC support for US policy is so widespread and unwavering that I think they wouldn’t hesitate to sign up if the US decided to invade France. For some of you now, depending on your politics, of course, invading France is sounding like a better and better idea….)

After a fully successful launch (which bodes well for all of you), we prepared to launch Sharon’s lantern. She had covered hers with hopes for success writing her Master’s thesis, progress in English, happiness and wealth in 2003, etc. As we were setting up to launch, I noticed that one of hopes was for her boyfriend to lose 10 kilos. I pointed it out, and she explained that he is “quite fat” (No clue what she means by this. In Chinese, there are few euphemisms for weight – there is no easy way to say “chubby” or “heavy.” There is fat and there is thin, and very little in between. You can say a little fat, but this is still sort of hard on western ears. See below), and since last year she included a hope for him to get into grad school on her lantern, which indeed he did, she figured this one was worth a shot. My big question is whether or not he knows that she’s expecting him to lose more than 20 pounds this year, but she was a little vague on this point.

We launched four heaven-lanterns altogether (though the last one was blank, since we had run out of ideas for new and creative things to write), all without incident, but all around us people were running into trouble. I saw many lanterns tilt to one side and catch fire (which seemed especially sad, as you can honestly say that you watched your dreams go up in smoke), and a few took off without incident but immediately ran into the telephone wires and ignited (causing everyone to quickly back away, uncertain as to whether the wire itself could send off sparks or otherwise experience adverse affects from being lit on fire). Needless to say, the Taipei County police and fire departments were on hand in full force, though mostly they walked around doing helpful things like holding a lantern so you could write on it or taking one side if someone was trying to launch solo instead of patrolling for fire safety issues. In general, they seemed to take the approach that if you screw up and burn or otherwise injure yourself, it is your own fault. If you set a tree on fire, that they’ll deal with.

People started launching lanterns at dusk and were still going when we left around 10. In one part of town, there were timed launches, so that 200 would ascend at once and fill the sky with lights. Proving that sometimes awkward English can be downright poetic, Sharon turned to me and noted, “You see, the sky is filled with desires.” As indeed it was.

The big event celebrating the lantern festival in downtown Taipei was a little less interactive, but still worth a few hours of fun. Last night I went to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial, which is basically an Asian-style clone of the Lincoln Memorial, complete with statue sitting on the throne (OK, a chair, but you get the idea) and the statue’s Wise Sayings engraved on the walls. I went with my language partner Dylan (well, his real name is Ye-Shen, but this was the English name he used to introduce himself to me, so I go with it) to see the display of lanterns built by local schools, organizations and companies, all incorporating the theme of “hopes for the year of the Ram.”

For the sake of the tourists, each lantern had a sign explaining its meaning in both Chinese and English. The Chinese was your standard vernacular, but the English translations can only be called high falutin’. They included such turns of phrases as “the bright and shiny lamb is simply splendid in her luminousness,” and “the three strong rams symbolize the illustrious hopes for wealth and riches in the new year of all who have the privilege to view them.” One of the most common hopes was for the future economic prosperity of Taiwan (now suffering from a fairly harsh “economic downturn”) and “abundant blessings” for the people of Taipei, though the methods of representing these ideals were often, um, not so obvious. One explained that the enigmatic shape before us (unidentifiable, but colorful and brightly lit) was a lantern taking the shape of “the best qualities of both the ram and Harry Potter.” Uh, okay, but both at once? Another showed three rams riding on a motor scooter, though the sign warned that “it is hoped that all who view this lantern will not follow the example of the reckless goats, who do not wear helmets and break many traffic laws.” The signs in general were almost more fun than the lanterns.

Actually, Dylan started out not reading any of the signs, but once I had started giggling (okay, howling) at the English, he wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Instead of standing back and reading the (very large) signs like a normal person, though, he moved up to about 6 inches away from the board and read very closely, following each word with his finger. By the third sign light dawned, and I asked, “Um, Dylan, where are your glasses?” It turns out he had broken them earlier in the weekend. Normally, this would be none of my business, but I had ridden over to the memorial as a passenger on the back of his motor scooter, so I was beginning to understand why he had been driving so slowly…and feeling about as reckless as one of those three goats.

(On a side note, Dylan enters the ROC military as an officer this fall to begin his two years of mandatory military service. I’ve asked many times, without ever receiving an adequate reply, exactly how the ROC functions with what must be the world’s most myopic military. Something like two-thirds of all youth in Taiwan wear glasses – a function of rigorous study requirements, I’m told – which is fine on campus, but when you get all these blind boys into uniform, you begin to feel thankful that at least Taiwan’s biggest threat, the mainland, is a rather wide target….)

In all, the lantern display did a great deal to put me into the Christmas spirit…. a little too late. But all these lit up displays, accompanied by strings of lights (not to mention the fact that one Taipei church’s contribution was a lantern manger scene, complete with Mary, Joseph, a glowing baby Jesus, and, of course, a large number of sheep) made me want to sing carols and put up a tree (I refrained).

Actually, it definitely made me hanker after a good Christmas cookie or two, but even if I’d had one on hand at the moment, I don’t think I could have eaten it. This is the function of an unfortunate culture shock moment at church yesterday. My friend Marcus (like Dylan and Sharon, he likes to go by his English name when talking to me. This is fine but it gets a little confusing at church, since nobody knows each other’s English names) greeted me and then remarked, “Merry, you’ve gotten fatter!”

Ack. I admit that at that moment, I was stumped. No clue how to respond, and certainly I had nothing terribly pleasant to say anyway. The most vital question in my mind, beyond, “how could someone say something so blunt?” was “is it true?” (Of course, I had seen Marcus six days earlier and he had at that time noticed no difference in my appearance, so I don’t think I could have gained that much weight in one week, Valentine’s chocolate aside.) After the service we always eat lunch together (the women at church take turns cooking, and usually have very definite opinions about each other’s dishes. Yesterday Sylvia was poking at her carrot-mushroom-pineapple dish looking doubtful, then commented, “it’s very, uh, special, isn’t it?”), so I mentioned Marcus’s comment to a few people to get a wider range of opinions.

Sylvia, who is from Hong Kong was perfectly shocked by the comment, and agreed that people there would never say something so blunt and impolite. One explained, “We might say ‘it looks like you’re getting fatter,’ or ask, ‘have you gained weight?’ but we’d never just tell you you’re fatter, oh no….” This was of limited comfort to me. I tried to explain that in the US, you’d say someone is thinner or nothing at all, but they all turned to me with wide eyes and asked, “Why?” which I really couldn’t answer.

Unfortunately, instead of being left with the whole question of politeness, the conversation topic quickly turned to a discussion of the accuracy of Marcus’s observation. There I sat, in the midst of a large group of people all discussing my weight. My opinion was unsolicited and unwanted (perhaps they felt I was too close to myself to be truly objective), so I waited it out, turning crimson but becoming sort of interested in the outcome. My new favorite church friend is my pastor’s wife, who felt that if anything I’m too thin, but the rest of the group agreed ultimately that while it was not necessary, I could lose about 3 kilos. Having decided this, everyone immediately forgot that I had not said a word, and accepted as fact that this was my plan, as if I had walked into church and announced a new diet with a 3 kilo target.

The benefit of this – and it is fortunate that there was one, for it did my self-esteem no great or lasting good – was that nobody tried to force me to eat the oily fried pork chops on the menu yesterday, instead nodding knowingly and saying, “Well, she’s trying to lose 3 kilos you know.” The good news is that I think that until they decide the 3 kilos are gone, I’m going to be able to skip the meat without a fight. The bad news is that I think they’ll keep asking me how the (externally imposed) “diet” is coming until I actually do lose 3 kilos. (Better go climb the mountain this afternoon. I’d be more enthusiastic about restricting my lunches to salads if Taiwanese salads were not almost always composed of only carrot shreds and alfalfa sprouts – no lettuce, even.)

The great irony of all this is that at the end of the day, Marcus had been trying to pay me a compliment. He is from a very small town in central Taiwan that continues to embrace a very traditional Chinese mindset, and in traditional China (not to mention Mao’s China), skinny people were usually famine victims. Being just a little bit round, especially about the hips, was a sign of wealth, prosperity, and happiness. Marcus figured that if I put on a few pounds, it’s because I’m doing well, reasonably accustomed to Chinese food, and feeling satisfied. (All true, but I guess I’m gonna have to go with being a little less satisfied until the church ladies are. Of course, don’t feel too sorry for me; if I lose one kilo they’ll probably swear it’s three already and start to over-feed me again. These are, after all, the same people who were concerned that I came back from Japan “too thin” after my involuntary fast.)

So, perhaps when I launched my heaven-lantern, in addition to more generic requests for your peace and happiness, I should have wished that you would all put on a few pounds. Well, I can wish it now, anyway.

Copyright 2004 by Meredith Oyen

So, Tokyo Rose I’m Not….

February 9, 2003


“If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest – in all its ardour and paradoxes – than our travels. They express, however inarticulately, an understanding of what life might be about, outside the constraints of work and the struggle for survival.” Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel

It feels like three years have passed since I’ve written last, though in truth it is only a little more than three weeks. But what weeks….

I had a lovely visit with my friend Holly. I learned straight off just how acclimated I had become to Taiwan life when she got in on a Thursday night and I immediately offered her the best thing I could think of after a long flight: a nice glass of hot water. (She didn’t take me up on this, preferring, oddly, to drink cold water….) It’s the little things that remind me of how far I’ve come in adapting to my Taiwanese lifestyle. In a similar vein, I kept trying to speak Chinese to her, forgetting that she couldn’t understand me. For example, buying bus tickets. Holly asked me how much the total was, and I answered “Wu bai liu.” She said, “huh?” So I repeated myself, enunciating slowly and carefully,” WU…BAI…LIU.” That, I finally discovered, did not do much to clear things up.

One fascinating phenomenon was the tendency of total strangers to go long distances out of their way to compliment Holly, whose curled blond hair offered the Taipei residents a somewhat different look from the more common straight black locks on every head. One woman crossed a street and a long block to tell Holly she was pretty. We thought at first she might simply be waiting at the same bus stop as us, but after I thanked her on Holly’s behalf, she took off again, making it clear that the compliment was the only item on her agenda on our side of the street. Meanwhile, at the same bus stop, I couldn’t even get a bus driver to stop for us; I waved at him to stop, in the standard Taipei-hailing-a-bus manner, but the bus driver waved back and sped by (I guess he thought I was offering a greeting rather than seeking a means of transport). This combination of events was a bit more fun for Holly than for me, but such is life.

Actually, my attempts to prove myself an “insider in the know” failed on several occasions (beyond the bus incident mentioned above). Perhaps the worst was when I took us quite a distance up the wrong road on our way (well, out of our way, really) to Chihnan Temple in Mucha. This temple complex is one of the largest in North Taiwan, and near my school, so I was determined that Holly should see it, but I’d never actually been there myself, so it was especially easy for me to lead her astray. As soon as I realized we were, more or less, lost, I admitted it and went for the handy Lonely Planet guide to try and determine how to correct the situation. I may not always know where I am or where to go, but I pride myself on preparedness and a wealth of reference materials. Holly might have been more impressed by my resourcefulness, however, had I not accidentally brought along my Lonely Planet Tokyo guidebook, instead of Lonely Planet Taiwan (hey, they’re both blue, and both places start with “T”…). Having failed to find ourselves on the Tokyo map, and feeling it of limited utility if we ever did managed to locate our current position in the wrong city, I was forced to call a friend and get him to talk us onto the right road. Well, actually, that was after we paused so Holly could enjoy a good laugh at my expense.

Taipei managed to offer Holly a wealth of others things to marvel at, from perfect weather to lovely vistas. In the Yangmingshan national park, we saw a family wandering around the park with a baby stroller, but when we all stopped at the same spot to sit and rest, we noticed that there was no child in the stroller, but instead one white rabbit. What is most remarkable about this, beyond the idea that anyone would take the family rabbit for a walk in a stroller, which cannot be a common phenomenon anywhere in the world, is the fact that the rabbit stayed put – in fact, sat demurely in the stroller watching the world go by.

We ventured around Taipei, took in a choir concert titled “The Golden Age of Jazz” at the national concert hall (which, aside from including some musical choices I would not have defined as “jazz” – Golden Age or otherwise – like the Beatles’ “I Will,” involved some of the most well-organized scat and least-rhythmic snapping in musical history), embarked on a quick trip to Alishan in South Central Taiwan, and climbed pretty close to every step in Taiwan, give or take a few. I had not intended to take Holly on the “stairmaster tour” of Taiwan, but sometimes things just work out that way…. Anyway, aside from being REALLY homesick when she left, I had a wonderful time hanging out with someone from home and showing off the world I know at the moment.

A few short days after Holly’s return stateside, I took off for my grand adventure in Japan. I armed myself with three vital books: the Lonely Planet Tokyo (for those of you who, reading the above, began to worry, I assure you I did not try to navigate Tokyo with a map of Taipei), a Chinese-Japanese phrasebook (I was feeling very bold and adventurous when I bought this… which was good, since I couldn’t find a pocket-size Japanese-English phrasebook), and Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel (highly recommended – the next time any of you go anywhere I suggest you bring it along — it is a near perfect mix of travelogue, philosophy, and biting sarcastic humor).

My very first act, upon arrival in Japan, was to lie to the customs officials and smuggle contraband into the country. My landlady had insisted I bring a banana with me to the airport in case I got hungry along the way, which I stuffed in my backpack and promptly forgot. I read all the signs and dire warnings about bringing fruit – which could, potentially, carry bugs or pesticides, I gather – across international borders, but failed to note how these regulations applied to me or my banana. I’m only lucky I didn’t get caught; Japan enforces the death penalty for smuggling drugs, but does not post the penalty for illegal fruit. It was not until I began to eat the contraband banana that evening that my crime dawned on me, and let me say the taste of banana soured a bit in my mind at the realization (so much for the forbidden fruit tasting sweeter).

My first priority was to apply for a visitor visa at the Chinese Embassy, which I could have accomplished much faster if I had been able to find the Chinese Embassy. In Taipei, every street has 3 or 4 names – the Chinese Characters, an irrelevant English name for the tourists, and a couple different transliterations of the Chinese just to make things thoroughly confusing. As much as I complain about this embarrassment of riches, which I tend to think is overkill, I’d take it any day over Tokyo, where only a few very large avenues have names at all. To get to the Chinese Embassy, you can take the subway to Roppongi, take the 1st exit, turn left, walk forward, then turn left on “a street” after the Roppongi Hills apartments, and after passing a couple parks, a fire station, and an uncountable number of Happy Marts, the embassy entrance is on the left. The address is a number, referring to the grid number on a map of Tokyo – the street has no name, so there can be no name in the address, which can make it awfully difficult to ask directions, with or without Japanese language skills.

[Incidentally, I did try to use the handy Chinese-Japanese phrasebook to ease my communication woes, but inevitably I would consult the book, then look up and recite the Chinese sentence, rather than the Japanese one. Seeing a confused look, I’d mutter, in English, “Wait, wrong one, sorry….” then try it again in Japanese. Soon I gave this up altogether, and simply started bowing a lot to cover my language limitations. I figured as long as I was demonstrating my determination to be polite by bowing, it didn’t much matter if I could say anything they’d understand.]

After turning left enough times to complete not one but two 360 circles without ever threatening to get close enough to the embassy to find it, I was forced into a Happy Mart to seek assistance. After several failed attempts at inquiry, I finally placed a large map of Tokyo on the counter and put my finger on the Chinese embassy, indicating with sign language and meaningful glances (and a few well-timed bows) that it was my chosen destination. The helpful Happy Mart hirelings finally pointed out their location on the same map, and gave an indication of which direction to walk. I wish I could say that on my second trip to the embassy to pick up the visa I had the knowledge of past experience to guide me, but my left turns quickly revealed the neighborhood to have, inexplicably, several new streets I had not managed to explore the first time around.

I spent much of my first day in Tokyo wandering around Ginza, noting that I’m really not rich enough or, frankly, cool enough to spend much time in Tokyo. (It’s okay, I’ve already come to terms with this and moved on.) I marveled at the black and white art deco signs announcing “West 5th Street” [aha, you might say, so there are street names in Tokyo… to which I might reply, there is only the one named street in Ginza, and it is a pedestrian alley) which reminded me of the art of Alphonso Mucha and conjured up images of turn of the century geishas strolling in Ginza and “acting out modernity,” as we studied the cultural history of modernity in this neighborhood at length in my Japanese history class at Georgetown. I tried to push this from my mind, however, as all my grad school friends out there realize that this was by no means a nostalgic recollection (“I can’t use Japanese sources, I can’t read Japanese”)].

Tokyo is an interesting place, however. The most international city I’ve ever been in, bar none, but this is partly because it has, simultaneously, an Asian frame of reference and lots of European connections. I was completely amused by Tokyo Tower, which is a replica of the Eiffel Tower, but taller and painted with wide red and white stripes (which, frankly, I just don’t think the French would stand for). Tokyo station’s west side is also, inexplicably, an exact replica of Amsterdam’s central station (I’ve never seen the original, but assert this on the strength of a claim in the Lonely Planet). Perhaps my favorite sight was the memorial to fallen war heroes, which had a small sign in English explaining that a mere 1000 yen would buy an offering to those enshrined within. Given the fact that interred at this shine are, among others, several class “A” war criminals from World War II, I thought it rather unlikely that this sign was needed. After all, no matter what the Georgetown undergrads assert in their term papers, there were no Anglophone nations on the side of the axis powers in World War II, and it is hard to imagine an Ally tearing up at the sight of this particular memorial….

I did not spend all of my time in the city center, but instead took a few ventures to points beyond. I was particularly proud of a day trip to Tobo-Nikko, which is a two hour train ride north of Tokyo (proud because the process of buying tickets and getting around was so complicated, I was a little amazed I managed it at all since, after all, I don’t know any Japanese after “sushi,” “kimono,” and “sumo”). Nikko is the home of a number of temples and shrines, mostly built by members of the Tendai sect of Mahayana Buddhism (ack, too much information). The Shrines and temples were pretty enough, but the aesthetic value of the whole scene (to say nothing of the ascetic value) was improved somewhat by a sudden snowstorm. Remember, there is no snow in Taiwan, so this was a bit of a novelty for me this year. The novelty soon wore off, however, when I began to realize just how difficult it was to get around in the snow. First off, I wasn’t really dressed properly for such cold (I know, 30 degrees is not cold, but it feels cold if it’s 55 all winter), and second, not many tourists are crazy enough to embark on outdoor shrine viewing in winter, so the roads were not well-cared for (if, noting that indeed not many tourists would be crazy enough to take this particular day trip in the winter, you are wondering what led me to venture out to Nikko anyway, see Alain de Botton on “the tyranny of travel guidebooks”).

It took what felt like ages to walk up the road between the two largest attractions, not because the road was particularly long, but because I kept falling down. This was a problem for me not so such much because it was painful (though I have some nice bruises even yet on my knees) or because it was embarrassing (pretty much the only people who saw me were monks anyway), but because it took so long to get anywhere. It was this endless cycle of fall down, get up, brush myself off, take a step, fall down, etc. When I came out of the destination shrine and, with deep sighs and a heavy heart, set off back down the road, it had (magically) been sanded: it took me about three minutes to return on the same road that I trekked for 20+ minutes on the way up.

The other major annoyance at Nikko was the fact that in Japan, you frequently have to remove your shoes every time you enter a shrine or temple. In the summertime, I’m sure this is no big deal, but padding around through the snowy entry onto a frozen marble floor in my socks was not altogether pleasant. I did it twice, but when I reached the third temple, I put my frozen foot down, deciding that I could see plenty peeking in from the steps with my shoes on and that there was no reason to suffer further.

I didn’t know it at the time, but that day trip to Tobo-Nikko proved to be my last truly conscious act in Japan. By the next morning, I was sick as a dog. No simple cold, this one; I had an easily discernable fever (aside from symptomatic and third-party-feeling-the-forehead style evidence, I can provide further proof that I was definitely feverish, in that when I landed in Taipei last Monday, my temperature was still high, at 100.6. This was a day I was feeling much better). I kept getting dizzy from being on my feet too long, and was unable to consume anything but tea and the occasional piece of toast for the remainder of my trip. (This was a pretty severe disappointment, in that I hadn’t had any sushi before falling ill, but I’m happy to report that I had squeezed in my visit to the Sapporo Brewery “beer museum and tasting lounge” before the Nikko trip, so all was not lost. This, I might point out, was not so much a question of priorities as one of geography – Sapporo is near the Chinese Embassy.)

Being a tourist’s tourist, becoming deathly ill did not slow me down much, and I still hit museums, shrines, parks, and monuments for eight to twelve hours each day. The unfortunate truth, however, is that I don’t really remember all that much of it. I have oddly blurry recollections of particular sites and places, but it is all a little fuzzy. I have reasonably solid photographic evidence of where I went, though some of the pictures are also blurry from having moved while taking them, and some don’t appear to be pictures of anything. (I’ve got one of a random building and my camera strap, with a construction crane in the middle. What feverish logic led me to capture that image? I’ll never know.)

One sight I do recall vividly, however. On February 1st, the lunar new year, I took off for Yokohama (a coast town just south of Tokyo), which boasts the largest Chinatown in Japan. It was bustling with people shopping, eating, and taking rickshaw rides in celebration of Chinese new year. I was looking around for a tea shop, needing a rest from my 3 block walk from the train station into the heart of the Chinese quarter, when I saw it: nestled in the heart of Chinatown, Japan, was a Norwegian restaurant. All I could think of was my Grandma Kay’s story about eating at a Chinese restaurant in Norway, ordering Chinese food in Norwegian: I wonder if this restaurant takes orders for its “Norwegian food” in Norwegian, Japanese, or Chinese? (And, of course, is there really enough beige food in the world to fill an entire menu?) The Chinese diaspora might have sheer numbers on us, but as a member of the (later generation) “Norwegian diaspora,” I gotta say, they got nothing on us in creativity of geographic positioning.

Anyway, I am back in Taiwan and, naturally (now that my vacation is over), fully recovered. From the extent of the firecrackers still erupting about town in celebration of Chinese New Year, I’m pretty happy I missed the actual thing. The Lantern Festival is next, but that should be much quieter (unless it involves blowing up lanterns and no one has thought to mention it yet).

Happy (Chinese) New Year!

Copyright 2004 by Meredith Oyen