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Archive for September, 2010|Monthly archive page

Day 44 (Another Reason to Learn Chinese)

In Taipei on September 30, 2010 at 7:42 pm

I may have passed a No Trespassing sign back that way.

But ignorant of ideographs, I blaze my trail farther through the pin-sized rain and along the dirt path. I have already discovered a Buddhist Mecca hidden in the hills of Taipei today, so there may be something even more enticing down this path.

Not so much. From what I think must be another multi-level Buddhist shrine comes a burbling vocalization. No, it’s something else. It’s growling, and now barking. A black flash skips down the tiled staircase. Oh no.

I am already booking it back to the main trail, but in an instant the dog is on my heels. No, wait. It’s three dogs. They’re all indistinct, black, stray looking things, and their teeth are bared.

My mind assimilates knowledge quickly quickly quickly. Dogs like to chase things that run. Stray dogs here are afraid of people because people always kick them and hit them. There’s no way I am going to outrun this thing.

I stop. I turn around, ready to try to strangle one dog while kicking another from my heels and hoping the last one isn’t upon me yet. I put my hands out menacingly and growl—more like scream—at the leader. He barks, but he has stopped.

And now I’m back running again, and they’re back chasing. Too slowly, the leader begins to notice his companions are giving up the chase. Too slowly, he does too, barking ferociously as I sprint my way out of the woods.

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Day 43 (The Buddhist Samaritan)

In Taipei on September 29, 2010 at 11:41 pm

Once again, my bicycle is safely stowed with its front wheel in one of the metal slots. In the morning, I jammed it between a rusty beach cruiser and another cheap Carrefour mountain bike, locking it to itself to prevent theft and walking briskly to the MRT. In the evening, it is still as susceptible to a criminal act as it was earlier, but it resides happily elevated, a few inches above the sidewalk, in the now substantially vacated silver rack.

I wonder, who does this every day? One of the Buddhist monks I see standing peacefully on the train from time to time, turning down seats offered by respectful older women? A city employee whose calling is to prevent the organization of our two-wheeled machines from falling into disarray? Or, as is most likely, a random bicyclist who, upon knocking mine to the side in retrieving his or her own ride, restores it to the place theirs formerly held?

There is this unerringly consistent kindness in this being every day done for me, undoubtedly by different people. This is the way we begin to formulate a sketch of a culture.

Day 42 (Pop Quiz)

In Taipei on September 28, 2010 at 10:32 pm

1. Who the hell is blowing a whistle like a madman in the middle of the street?

Answer: It’s the crossing guard.

2. How is that aiding the movement of traffic?

Answer: It is not aiding the movement of traffic, but rather compensating for a lack of control in other sectors of the guard’s life.

3. Are those high heels?

Answer: Yes. The crossing guard is a woman and she’s wearing high heels.

4. As a police person on the job?

Answer: You got it.

5. Wow.

Answer: I know, right?

Day 41 (Ultra-Makeshift Confetti)

In Taipei on September 27, 2010 at 11:11 pm

As he leaves the classroom, flustered as usual in mental preparation for my next class, Alice raises her voice above the clutter of high-registered voices echoing in the little room.

— You know tomorrow is Teachers’ Day, right?

He nods, perplexed, his arms filled with books. She gives the signal.

— Happy Teachers’ Day! the class screams in unison, throwing ripped folded pieces of paper—ultra-makeshift confetti—in the air at me. Their little faces are enthusiastic at the opportunity to throw trash in the classroom, and to yell at the top of their lungs. The youthful vigor is hard to take most of the time, for the subdued young introvert.

But now, a huge smile comes to his face, which does not happen so often. Maybe teaching isn’t so bad.

Day 40 (Pinglin)

In Hash Runs on September 27, 2010 at 9:39 am

We tromp through the tea fields, terraced rows of bushes on the sides of cleared hills. I can’t imagine the tea farmers are too happy about this. We descend through a gap in the rows down toward a stream, stepping on rocks held into the crumbly ground with metal stakes, or sliding down sideways like skiers.

I skip past the first Italian person I have met here, a Milanese, and then just before the stream I fall on the slippery ground into a tree. It must look disastrous from above, but I’m fine. I wonder how do others do these things with so much grace, how they finish not covered with mud.

Day 39 (Backroom at the Beerhouse)

In Taipei on September 26, 2010 at 11:47 am

Through the beerhouse, past the bathroom, and behind the sliding steel door we sit at a round table, with a revolving Lazy Susan in the center, eating and yelling things to one another and drinking.

It’s all true, these things I have heard. When you toast with someone, you have to empty your beer glass. (Luckily, they’re miniature sized.) One strives to avoid drunkenness, and instead to foist it on other people by proposing toasts with them. (When I first get there, every one of the people I am introduced to toasts with me, initiating the newbie.) And the evening slowly begins to focus entirely around the consumption of beer as other drinking games, featuring rock paper scissors and dice, are played between those who can hold their alcohol and their ever more reluctant competitors.

This night is being held in honor of these civil engineers’ common teacher, laoshi Huang, in anticipation of Confucius’ birthday and, by extension, Teachers’ Day, as nationally declared by Taiwan. The fairly aged teacher Huang is the most red-faced of anyone, but he is still the most avid, holding his glass out to (whew) the person next to me.

Day 38 (Whoosh!)

In Taipei on September 24, 2010 at 10:52 pm

It wasn’t there at first, but now opening up the shoe cabinet unleashes a persistent rankness, an odor with a monotonous but loud personality, a signifier of something gone horribly wrong in the chemistry of one of these students’ feet.

It’s a good idea for everyone to strip off their shoes at the door of the school, I guess. Shoes can be a distraction, and, primarily, the street has lots of dirt on it.

Still, we should get some Febreze in this place. It’s always the details that are neglected.

Day 37 (Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall in the Rain at Night)

In Taipei on September 24, 2010 at 12:20 am

A fugue state, which I always thought was a literary phenomenon, comes upon me as I transport my dwarfed body around the gigantic Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, weaving through the sparse pedestrians and the multitudinous puddles in the sudden, broad expanse of concrete that surrounds the building. Its roof’s corners flare up like snowboard ramps. From within there comes a banging, traditional music.

My legs continue to carry me around this place, in a circle that must be a half-mile long. Drops of rain still fall from the sky. My fugue state is exacerbated by awe, of this place I’ve always heard about but never seen until now, of the open space it commands, in a city where all momentum is interrupted by stoplights and crosswalks.

Day 36 (Having Missed the Trees for the Forest)

In Taipei on September 23, 2010 at 4:39 pm

With all the anonymous scooter riders waiting at stoplights, you usually zone out as you’re waiting to cross the street and think about other things.

But when you do look at one of them, he is wearing a black button-up, black slacks, black socks, and dapper but practical black shoes. His scooter is black, too, and it has a flame decal on its rear, where the engine must be. His helmet, though, is a pastel yellow, and it has Hello Kitty figures and fluffy clouds on it. His jaw juts forward amiably, as if he is not too serious a person, as if he recognizes the stark disruption of his preeminent color scheme.

He knows he’s defined by his outer trappings, but he also knows the really important stuff comes out only on further investigation. At as much peace as the exhaust and engine rumblings let a person be, he’s simply waiting for the light to change, as you are.

Day 35 (Non-Aboriginal Observance of the Taiwanese Moon Festival)

In Taipei on September 23, 2010 at 4:37 pm

On the day of the Moon Festival, foreigners in Taiwan celebrate by congregating at Taipei Country Club, for what is known colloquially as a pool party. They wear traditional garb: plaid, striped, or floral bathing trunks or bikinis; hats (originally meant to shield the face from sunlight but now donned in deference to custom); and flip-flop, or thong, sandals.

Conventional music for the event, played by a sort of shaman called a DJ, includes mash-ups of popular songs from early in their millennium, underground hip-hop from just before that time, and interspersed supplications from the DJ to join the nearby ritual at a long table called a bar. These rituals are focused primarily around the ingestion of liquid, either in the form of a bitter, carbonated beverage called beer or of a broad variety of refreshments known as as mixed drinks. These liquids are said to induce alternate states of being in the foreigners which allow them to better attain their goals of spiritual and physical sublimity which, though given particular credence on the day of the Moon Festival, are pursued year-round.