Lanterns and other chubby things

2/16/03

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

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One Response to Lanterns and other chubby things

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