…….Tidings of Comfort and Joy (happy July)

July 27, 2004

I’m in an internet cafe, listening to a sappy Mandarin love song that is, oddly, to the tune of “Good King Wenceslas.” Now I’ll be wandering around all day humming, “oh tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy….”

Last week I went to see “shi mian mai fu” – a moving with the English title, “The House of Flying Daggers,” which is so not a direct translation. It is the latest Zhang Yimou flick to assail East Asia (for the uninitiated, he’s the director of Hero, which he made specifically to please audiences on both sides of straits and the Pacific – Jet Li in a classic Chinese Qin dynasty story – and which was uniformly declared around the world, by everyone except for pretentious US film critics, to be a terrible movie).
I don’t know how many classic mainland Chinese movies everyone has seen, but there are certain conventions. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon sort of explifies these conventions done reasonably well – it begins with a declaration of what dynasty the story is from and a claim that it is all completely true. Then they introduce some sort of martial arts school from somewhere obscure with specific talents that is either working for or against the government (depending on whether the government in question is thought to be good or bad). From there it spirals into a totally ridiculous plot with lots of beautifully correographed fighting, a love story that ends tragically, and at least one sequence that involves a large group of people suspended high in the air in a bamboo grove.
In yet another ill-fated attempt to appeal to all of Greater China, Zhang picked a lead actress from the mainland (Zhang Ziyi, no relation to the director, also star of Crouching Tiger and, of course, Hero), the Cantonese actor par excellence from Hong Kong Andy Lau (whom I loved in “Needing You” and less so in “Magic Kitchen,” – which was not about him, but a showcase for F4 hunk Jerry Yan – but this is a bit of a stretch for him), and seriously handsome Taiwanese actor Takeshi Kaneshiro (whose father is Japanese, hence the name).
I’m told that this time, at least, mainlanders loved this movie – found it (and I quote) “very moving.” Taiwanese, by contrast, laughed themselves silly. Bear in mind, it is a drama. The cross-straits cultural gap widens, it seems, but, I admit, I giggled and snorted right along with Taiwan. My absolute favorite scene was right at the end, when the two men are fighting (literally) over the girl, whom one has already killed with a dagger through the heart. After about ten minutes of fighting during an unexplained summer snow storm (hey, these things happen), this poor girl pops up out of the snow and starts to talk. She’s done for, and we all know it, but it seems that much like the average opera diva, she can’t just die and be done with it. She still has things she needs to say, and, more importantly, a dagger to pull out of her heart and threaten someone else with. Ridiculous? Yup. Unbelievable? Sure, but the movie crossed that line in the first ten minutes. Completely fun? Absolutely – and therefore I recommend it very highly for anyone in the mood for a good time and an entertaining two and a half hours.
On the subject of cultural differences…
I was watching an MTV “behind the music” style documentary on my favorite Taiwanese Rock band, Mayday (the ones who split up for two years to go do their mandatory military service, and are now back, and going strong), and was amused by the section on their farewell concert (the “gee you’re in the army now” send-off concert) from 2001. Chen Shui-bian (the President of Taiwan) attended, and the band’s lead singer commented reflectively that that was the kind of event that he felt would “bring honor to his ancestors.”
And about Taiwanese leaders….
The other day I tried to tell my friend Yu-Wen that I was really in the mood for some potatoes – I don’t know why, but they are very hard to come by in Taiwan and occassionally I get a sort of craving. Chinese is a very direct language, so what I actually needed to say is that I feel like eating some potatoes (ma-ling-shu). Completely accidently, what I said was that I feel like eating Ma Ying-jiu, i.e. the Mayor of Taipei. Now granted, all the girls think he’s dreamy (really!), but I’ve never counted myself among them. Now, of course, I’m in for it for the rest of the summer.
Other plans for the present: every day at the archives, evenings in class, feeling pretty warm generally, off for some hot pot on Friday. Not much else here.

Comfort and Joy to you all.

Copyright 2004 by Meredith Oyen

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The Central Role of Ice Cream in Life

July 18, 2004

Current Favorite Thing About Taipei: The sign on Xinglong Road that says “Pot Plant Auction Today!” (Yes, I know they mean potted plants and not marijuana, but it makes me giggle anyway.)

Current Least Favorite Thing About Taipei: The woman in the Foreign Ministry archives who mops the carpet. Taking a regular rope mop to carpet does nothing to clean it, but it does make an irritating noise and take a ridiculously long time.

It’s funny, normally I wouldn’t think of myself as a terribly dumb person, but this past week has given me some food for thought. I do the most idiotic things sometimes, whether that is wearing three-quarter-length pants (capris) and flip-flops every day and then marveling at the fact that my feet have tanned to a lovely golden brown whereas my knees are still pasty white, or deciding, oddly, to go ahead and eat an overripe mango with my hands on my lunch hour, despite the high winds and the absence of any kind of knife or other necessary “fruit tools.” By the time I finished, I was covered with a thin film of mango juice, running down my arms and dotting my nose, and the sticky sap was streaked through my hair. As I walked back to the archives to wash up, I wondered vaguely if the effect would be to give me highlights, like lemon juice. I’ll let you know.

Really, though, the highlight was Wednesday. In general, I have come to the conclusion that there are really only two kinds of problems or difficulties: the kind that require time and energy to sort out and work through, and the kind that can be solved by ice cream. Sometimes it is difficult to determine which category a particular trial fits into; you might eat several pints of Peppermint Bon Bon before determining that the issue requires more than that, or spend days moping and wailing and feeling low, not realizing that all you really need is a trip to Dairy Queen. As a child, your parents help you divide your problems into their proper categories: this one needs to be talked out, this one requires a scoop of chocolate chip and then early to bed. A huge part of being an adult, I truly believe, is learning to do this for yourself. Learning to ask yourself: “am I really unhappy about this, in some sort of deep all-encompassing way, or is it time to go to the grocery store (or, of course, the local 7-Eleven)?” can be very, very difficult.

Last Wednesday I had an opportunity to put this concept to work. I had a really, really lousy day, by any standards. I’d trekked all the way out to the Academia Historica in Xindian – a trip that involves a bus that rarely comes – only to arrive and discover that I left my passport at home, and the passport was required to enter the building. I caught sight of the bus back to town leaving, but only to miss it; so I began a forced march in the midday heat back to the closest MRT station, about a 40 minute walk. Returning home with mild heatstroke, I had a headache and had to lie down and rest for a while. Then I took off for a library, only to get there all of 15 minutes before they closed (ridiculously early for a university library, summer or not). After my evening class, I walked to Gongguan and hopped the 236 back home – at least, I thought it was the 236. However, as I was soon to discover, simply declaring a 253 bus to be a 236 does not make it so, and I found myself in a brand new neighborhood, lost and a bit bewildered as I jumped off the bus. Had I not panicked and simply stayed on the bus, it would have circled around to my neighborhood, but I didn’t know that then. Vaguely aware of where I was and unaware of any other buses that would take me the direction I wanted to go, I set off (again!) walking home, this time about 30 minutes.

At this point, however, I started to see the humor in the situation – I’ve never taken the wrong bus anywhere in Taiwan, how did I manage it on the one route that I ride every single day? Really, it was impressively stupid. But still, I realized, deserving of ice cream. Without ice cream, I was having a terrible day and walking home against my intentions in the heat, and still suffering a bit of a headache, and you can just add this day to all the other research issues that have come up here in Taiwan…. But with ice cream, the day was over, tomorrow I could try again, everyone in Taiwan would be amused at my 253 bus story, and I was not trudging home so much as out for a pleasant evening walk in the direction of my apartment with a special treat in hand, which I wouldn’t be allowed to eat on the bus anyway, so all’s well that ends (full stop).

For anyone out there with a great deal of time on their hands, or reason to procrastinate, what follows are some of my observations on Singapore. I seem to be working backward through the summer even as time is moving forward…

Copyright 2004 by Meredith Oyen


One Zongzi Too Many

July 8, 2004

So it’s been nearly four weeks since my return to Taipei, and just 10 months after I left. I moved right back into my old room, and the combination of this and the fact that I’d been traveling pretty constantly for more than a month, meant that my first thought when I woke up that first morning in Taiwan was, where am I?? and then, having located myself, found I was unsure whether I had ever actually left, or had simply dreamed the last year. Upon contemplation, I was hoping that I hadn’t dreamed it, because I didn’t want to have to redo all those visits to and research at the National Archives. (editor note, added later in light of subsequent events) Be assured that procedures at the Archives applicable to lowly Georgetown history students are a bit different than they are for Sandy Berger. Our pants aren’t as roomy, for one thing.

In fact, the time has really passed (as I’m sure you’re all aware), and I am really back on my old stomping grounds. I even went back to my old school to register for night classes, two evenings of Chinese a week to supplement my days in the archives. Actually, it was there that I discovered that all is not the same, really: my Chinese has fallen off a bit, and requires some serious attention. You might ask what clued me in. Well, I suppose the moment was when I was about to fill out the school’s registration form, and I looked across the desk and very politely asked the young women behind it if I could please borrow her nose.

The Mandarin word for pen is bi, and the word for nose is bi zi. By sliding that extra zi sound on the end, I turned a simple request into a ridiculous one. After all, everyone in Taiwan thinks I have such a pretty nose – so high – so what on earth would I want hers for?

I’m already pretty settled into a return here: days at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Archives, evenings classes, homework, and roaming around Taipei nostalgically sampling all of my favorite foods. I’ve been back to our favorite Korean place, along with the best Buddhist Vegetarian Cafeteria in Gongguan, the noodle place across from church, and, of course, an all-you-can-eat hot pot restaurant. You gotta love Taiwan – it’s 99 degrees every day, and we’re going out for hot pot.

I arrived, this time, just ahead of Dragon Boat Festival, which means that I was just in time to eat zongzi, sticky rice, meat, and vegetables pressed into large triangular shapes the size of your fist and wrapped in bamboo leaves. To be perfectly honest, at this point I suspect I’ve had one zongzi too many. It is common to give them away to friends and acquaintances, and I’ve received a great many, not only from my friends, but even from the ladies at the archives, who heated them up and gave them to me to eat while reading (so much for document preservation, I guess. Full of festival spirit, they came around the reading room later with chocolates). I brought a zongzi with me for lunch yesterday, but when the moment came, I found I just couldn’t face it.

Just when I got all settled in, however, it was off to Washington for the Fulbright orientation. I’m still just about the most tired I have ever been in my life – I’d just started adjusting to DC time, when suddenly there I was, back on a plane heading west once more. Interestingly, I had the same crew on my Tokyo-NY and NY-Tokyo flights, and they remembered me (not that I’m so interesting one must remember me out of a passenger list of 400… I think the fact that 95% of the people on the plane both ways were Asian worked in my favor) and greeted me like an old friend (well, for New Yorkers anyway. What I actually got was, “What, going back so soon? Don’t you like your country?”) In general I think that the US-based crews of these Northwest trans-Pacific flights much prefer Americans to Asians – some effort at training them in cultural understanding is badly needed – and whenever I fly these routes I’m always uncomfortably made into an insider in all the complaints about the other passengers. As unfortunate as this is, there are perks: on the flight from Tokyo to Taipei, the American flight attendant supplied me (in coach, of course) with a personal DVD player and my pick of movies because I looked so tired, he thought I might want a low-energy way to pass the time.

My biggest complaint about these flights, aside from flight attendants who are mean to everyone but me, is the food. I know that complaining about airline food is, by now, somewhat cliche, but I have my own specific complaint: Northwest (and many other airlines) have no concept of vegetarianism. I always order the lacto-ovo vegetarian meal, and this can have really surprising consequences. On one flight, I was served a meatless pasta and bread – all fine – but was denied the salad given everyone else on the flight. Sometimes they give me the salad, but no dressing – I’m a vegetarian, Ranch is clearly out. For breakfast I am almost always given oatmeal and peaches with a side of rolls and melons – i.e. starch and fruit with some more starch and fruit. At “snack time,” it’s more bread like the rest of the passengers, but unlike everyone else, no Twix bar, which is apparently not vegetarian. On flights in and out of Tokyo I am inevitably denied the standard desert in favor of a Japanese cherry gelatin (which if it really is gelatin, is less vegetarian than the chocolate cookies my neighbor eats while I watch with envy). I once nearly tackled a flight attendant in order to demand that I be given ice cream like everyone else. One of my favorites will always be the British Airways flight on which my vegetarian meal was the exact same cheese sandwhich everyone else got – except it did not come with water and a Kit-Kat. On Northwest, everyone is served a beverage with dinner – but not vegetarians, we apparently do not take in liquids. I’m sure red wine and diet coke are inherently carnivorous anyway.

Once freed from the enforced diet of eating special meals on flights, however, life got better, though I had a genuinely bizarre experience on Wednesday. So bizarre, in fact, that I’m still not sure what to make of it. Wednesday night I left the archives and headed off for my Chinese class. I was dead tired (jet lag times twenty), but the Starbucks was much too far away and I just wasn’t up for sticky sweet Taiwan coffee. I stopped in 7-11 to buy Diet Coke, but discovered they only had regular. No matter, I thought, I’ll just walk up the street in search of the next convenience store. Generally this works – in any Taiwan city, you can throw an NT dollar in any direction and hit a 7-11, Happy Mart, Family Mart, etc. This is why I suspect that for about a half an hour that Wednesday evening, I actually entered the Twilight Zone. I walked and walked and walked – twice as far as the Starbucks and back again – and did not see the familiar lights of any one of these chains. I was apparently too tired to make the rational choice to just buy regular coke and forget it, so I walked and walked, and walked. It took more than a half an hour before I finally saw the familiar red, orange, and green stripes of the 7-11 shining in the distance. A good thing, too, as the situation was starting to freak me out – where did all the 7-11s go?

This was an impossible task – a feat worthy of Hercules – to walk 30 minutes without finding a convenience store, and yet there I was. When I finally happened upon the store, I burst in and dashed throught the aisles, grabbing a diet coke and holding it aloft like the Holy Grail. It was only as I paid for it that the feeling came: that deep, personal embarrassment that comes of having gone to ridiculous lengths for the sake of something utterly unimportant with the sort of single-minded determination that can only be an e arly sign of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Today I’m not going to play around. I’m going to start at the Starbucks – it’s safer.