A Weekday Morning inÉ
ver wonder about the mysteries of the Orient and the historical and philosophical significance of its peopleÕs unique customs? China is a fantastic, foreign universe to us, the Westerners. ItÕs completely beyond our creative and emotional grasp. The beauty and serenity of their life not only appeases but also appeals and intrigues us in the most innocent of ways. Their traditions and beliefs have the maturity only an older civilization can afford after countless spiritual and emotional trials. WeÕve witnessed a glimpse of their way of life by observing them adjust and survive in our own backyard while subjecting themselves to the ultimate cultural experiment. Can we, however, expect to understand them without immersing ourselves in their families and living in their circles? The mediaÕs projection of their life is many times shallow, incomplete, and even twisted. It may show parts of its core, but it never completely reveals its secrets. The following narrative is perhaps another superficial, yet very personal account of a Westerner submerged in foreign waters. It may not solve the riddles of the Orient, but it will expose an insiderÕs perspective of their inner sanctum.
My girlfriend May and I left Dallas, flew to Tokyo, and arrived thirty-six hours later at Chiang Kai-Shek International Airport in Taipei, which is the capital of Taiwan. Taiwan is officially the Republic of China, as opposed to the PeopleÕs Republic of China, which refers to what we simply call China. Both countries are arguably one in the same, as far as culture is concerned. Politics is what differentiates the two, but I leave that for historians and diplomats to explain.
MayÕs sister, nephew, and niece affectionately greeted us at the airport with smiles that went from ear to ear and an eagerness only found in people receiving beloved siblings after a long, heartfelt absence. My handle on Mandarin was – and still is – extremely poor, to say the least, not to mention Taiwanese, which seems to be a fading dialect. I only knew a few phrases in Chinese, and those I only rehearsed a few moments before the plane landed. The expressions I learned were Ōshie-shieĶ for Ōthanks,Ķ Ōbuca chiĶ for ŌyouÕre welcome,Ķ and Ōshi-show gienĶ for Ōbathroom,Ķ which, I should say, was the most useful of all. MayÕs family knew as much English as I knew Mandarin. This barrier served to limit our initial communication to simple nods and very blank smiles.
The sisters conversed freely and no doubt updated each other on their livesÕ happenings, complete with some good old-fashioned family gossip. I didnÕt want to interrupt and opted to keep quiet (what choice did I have?). May translated a few things here and there, especially when her family generated questions for their first American acquaintance.
We jumped into a flesh-tone Camry and drove south to Taichung. I became an outside observer in this interlude, which presented me with the chance of privately watching, listening, and digesting the flying sparks of an oriental gathering. MayÕs chat with Sabrina (her sisterÕs American name) was lively, playful, and intimate. It was comfortable and full of excitement. Sandy (MayÕs niece) was equally bubbly, if not more. She couldnÕt keep still and laughed constantly, and often interjected and added spice to the already tasty dialog. Despite our communication barrier and our very recent acquaintance, my presence didnÕt inhibit them in the least. They expressed themselves freely and with heartfelt emotion, which made me feel comfortable. Strangely, I felt as though I belonged there.
Halfway into the trip, we pulled over to make use of public bathroom facilities. People completely swarmed the rest stop. It was comprised of a large public restroom, a local supermarket, and a fast food restaurant. The washbasins were outdoors in plain view and shared by both men and women. Only after washing my hands did I realize there were no paper towels, napkins, or hand-dryers. I looked at Sandy inquisitively and physically mimicked the act of drying my hands to ask her how I was supposed to dry them. She shrugged her shoulders while slightly tilting her head and raising her eyebrows, as if to politely say that there was nothing available. Resigned to my fate, I turned to my only recourse, which was to wipe my hands dry with my very serviceable pair of denim jeans. The kids laughed and told May I was Ōeasygoing.Ķ I was glad to have made what I considered a good first impression.
We arrived in Taichung late in the afternoon. The building where MayÕs parents lived didnÕt enjoy the luxuries of beauty or distinction. The complex labyrinth of similarly worn gray buildings hid it like an animal hides its prey. Cramped balconies proudly hailed the flags of drying laundry, making the drive a true spectacle of color.
On reaching our building, we climbed four flights of stairs and reached the top floor apartment. Most of the homes on our way up showcased bright red banners. May told me they were Chinese couplets for spring and good luck, which were customary during New YearÕs celebrations. When we reached the fourth floor, following MayÕs lead, I took off my shoes and placed them on the floor next to a shoe closet that was already filled to the rim. Dozens of other shoes enjoyed the same comforts of this loosely regulated resting place. They also exercised their God-given rights to block the entry of the apartment.
As we went inside, MayÕs family bombarded us with hugs and kisses. Her mom, dad, brother, sister-in-law, and other nephews were there. After a few cordial pleasantries and respectful vows, they presented me with a pair of comfortable slippers to wear inside the apartment. We then proceeded to place our bags in a small bedroom next to a mattress lying on the floor and went back out to sit on the sofa. Mom offered us an assortment of snacks. They ranged from brightly colored sweets to extremely spicy treats. The living room was very cozy and felt much like my own, except for the dcor, of course, which included an ominous red Buddhist altar filled with a variety of half-worn candles. The altar sat under the penetrating smoke of Chinese incense.
The kids asked me if I wanted to play basketball and I welcomed the idea. I don't know how long we played, but by the time we were through, I was drenched in sweat. When we got back to the apartment, we took turns using the only available shower. I let the kids go first, not only to be polite but also in the hopes of savoring a long, leisurely shower.
When my turn came, I found another pair of slippers outside the bathroom door; these were impermeable to water. I put on the waterproof footwear and stepped inside when – surprise, surprise! – I saw the bathroom floor was flooded and the white porcelain-on-steel tub was bare, with nothing but a handheld showerhead. The usual utensils were on a corner caddy: liquid soap, shampoo, moisturizer, and some cleaning products. Everything was available except the protection of a shower curtain.
I found it impossible to keep the bathroom from flooding. Celebrating my keen skill for observation, I assumed it was customary to leave the bathroom wetter than a pond and let the water drain and the tiles dry in their own sweet time. I later came to realize, at Sabrina's place, that I was wrong and that it was in fact proper etiquette to sponge and sweep off the tiled floor (not leave the bathroom like a wild savage would). I took this hint after noticing that the bathroom floor was never again wet. A white sponge with a long wooden handle was always leaning against the wall besides the tub. The only reason why I had found the bathroom wet in the first place was because I was the last in a series of many showers, which was nothing but the result of my own well-coordinated plan (arenÕt strategies a hoot!).
For the New Year and the days to follow, Chinese people subscribe to very traditional customs. Married women spend New Year's Eve and New Year's Day with their spouseÕs family. They celebrate the New Year with their own relatives only on the second day, and they have to show up with a gift, which is a custom called poa-chiu. Married daughters who visit their families on the first day bring bad luck to their households. Many folks also leave the house on New Year's Day to spend it at the mall. ItÕs not part of the ritual, per se, but it seems to reward the in-laws and guests with a break from each otherÕs incessant company (reminds me of home). Besides, itÕs an occasion to wear and exhibit brand new clothes and receive the newly born year in fashion.
The family celebrates the third and fourth days of the holiday with grandparents, on the father's side first. Apparently, as the days of the New Year come to pass, family visits trickle down the genealogical tree like a falling autumn leaf. Consequently, on the third day, we were expected to visit MayÕs paternal grandparents, except we couldnÕt because they lived in Mainland China. So we spent that day with her mom's parents at her uncle's house in Nantou, which is a quiet, hilly, and lush little town not far from Taichung. ItÕs also May's hometown. ThatÕs where I savored the best homemade rice noodles IÕve ever had. MayÕs aunt made them from scratch, I think. After the meal, the men and I toasted the New Year for health and happiness with exceptionally potent Chinese rum, or with whatever drink that was. I know it wasnÕt Chinese whiskey because it didnÕt taste like kerosene (or was that another misunderstanding?).
We were celebrating the year of the Golden Snake, which is more commonly known as the year of the Snake. The snake is one of the twelve symbolic animals of the Chinese zodiac. Legend has it that the best year to birth a child is on the year of the Dragon. Special blessings, like good health and fortune, befall the children born on that miraculous year. Many couples consequently engage in family-planning activities six to nine months prior to that year, which is, no doubt, a happy year for loving couples in more ways than one (wink, winkÉ) and a busy year for hospitals. As for yours truly, I was born on the year of the Rat. Cowardice, lack of foresight, and close-mindedness characterize this particular year. This is according to the miserable little pamphlet I read, which I quickly pitched into its rightful home, the dumpster!
Anyway, let me get back to dinner on New YearÕs Eve. Each of the dishes served had a special purpose. Prosperous cake, for instance, brings prosperity throughout the year (a shocker, I know). Much in the same way, but a little less obvious, chicken attracts wealth; fish, shrimp, and meatballs spark success in academics; and mustard greens lead to a long life. MayÕs brother placed the whole meal, or most of it, in front of the Buddhist altar for what I assumed was a blessing. He subsequently carried it to the dining room table and placed it on a large built-in round robin. We all sat around the table holding a pair of chopsticks in one hand and cupping a small bowl of white rice with the other. Dessert consisted of sweetened red beans, which apparently is a singularly popular dish in Taiwan and China. We enjoyed a generous mix of spices and flavors, many of which, if not most, were new to my untrained but eager palette.
As in any family gathering, conversations thrived and flourished in all directions, and we all ate too much. They insisted that I try every dish, and I was a very willing guest, at first, but I ate too much too quickly and soon had to stop. For this, I had to learn how to say ŌI'm fullĶ in Chinese, which is Ōbowla.Ķ Learning this strategic word gave me the license to stop the well intended but tiring feeding frenzy. I also learned to articulate what sounded like Ōhow hewĶ and Ōhow shewĶ to convey how delicious and enticing my drink and meal were – and they were truly delicious.
After dinner, we played card games on the floor until the wee hours of the morning. We laughed and teased each other. As it turns out, staying up late was deliberate. It was in the hopes of prolonging the life of our parents, which is why Chinese call that evening Longevity Night.
Much like on our own Christmas, kids receive gifts during the New Year celebration, except they receive them in the form of red envelopes with money inside for good fortune (not a bad way to welcome a New Year). Interestingly enough, the New Year falls on the twenty-fourth day of the twelfth lunar month, which parallels our own Christmas Eve. Our Holy Night is on the twenty-fourth day of our twelfth calendar month. Unlike our western traditions, though, when people meet after the New Year, they cheerfully congratulate each other for surviving the night. Apparently, a terrible fiend is free to roam the neighborhoods on New Year's Eve, so surviving his visit is obviously a reason to rejoice. Because of that, they hold their hands together at chest-level in a fist-like fashion and say, while simultaneously vowing, Ōgongxi-gongxi,Ķ which literally means congratulations. Absolutely no one dares to quarrel on New Year's Day because it brings dreadful tidings. WhatÕs more, nobody discards any garbage that day, or anything for that matter, out of fear of casting fortune and wealth out the window (IÕm sure itÕs also a blessed day for garbage collectors).
On New Year's Day, May and I met up with Sabrina and Bill (Sabrina's husband) at the mall. As the reader may have noted by now, most people in Taiwan have English names. They have Chinese birth names, of course, but adopt western appellations when they study English, which is evidently a very important subject for them in school. Anyway, we went to drink tea at a coffee shop that looked very much like our own western shops, but a bit more fashionable and exquisite. I especially liked Pearl-Milk Tea. ItÕs a relatively new but trendy drink in Asia and a Taiwanese original. The cold drink is milk white and filled with tasteless flour balls about the size of medium-sized marbles. The purchasing customer drinks the stylish tea with a plastic, wide-circumference straw, which gives him the ability to suction both the tea and the little black flour balls out of the cup simultaneously. Swallowing its contents leaves a refreshingly splendid but odd sensation.
It being the New Year, eight to ten young men performed the Lion Dance just outside the shopping center to bless the building and its businesses. First, a group of women in time-honored red, blue, and yellow Chinese costumes walked through the crowd and around what was to become center stage. Then the performers beat their reverberating drums with vigor and enthusiasm in a well-choreographed and rehearsed manner. Their charisma and charm was intoxicating.
The actual Lion Dance followed. Two men managed the main lion costume: one controlled the back and the other the front of the animal. They started their dance and jumped on gradually ascending posts. The poles were a meter apart, topped with small six-inch circular platforms – like upside-down Frisbees – and ranged in height from three to twelve feet. The lion continued to dance and hopped from post to post on his way to the topmost platform, which boasted a basket full of knick-knacks and groceries. The dexterity, synchronization, confidence, and stability of the men jumping were superb, not to mention the natural-looking animal shapes they achieved while leaping, resting, and standing on one, two, three, and four feet.
When the lion reached the top, his head descended into the basket and picked up some of its contents with his mouth, which he later threw to the crowd – it was candy, for the most part. He also grabbed an orange and other fruits bearing symbolic significance, but their meanings have now escaped my memory. The lion ultimately lifted and unrolled a white scroll while standing on two legs and on the highest two poles. One man held the weight of the other on his shoulders to do this. The dance continued and the lion proceeded to descend to ground level, where other lions joined in the celebration. After the dance blessing, the owner of the mall respectfully acknowledged the lion and presented him with the famous red envelope. May didnÕt have to tell me the envelope had money in it.
By this time, I went by my Mandarin name of Ja Bai Lie, or by uncle. I spent a total of a week and a half with May's family. I slept at her folksÕ, Sabrina's, and Johnson's apartments. Johnson is MayÕs brother and lives in Taipei. I spent lots of time with the whole family. I drank with the men, played Five-in-a-Row with the kids, and chanced a game of Chinese Chess with Bill. I thought the game was very similar to our own version of chess, except the pieces looked and moved differently (itÕs funny to make this seemingly contradictory declaration). The only distinguishable trait in the pieces was a Chinese inscription, which I obviously couldnÕt understand. Keeping track of the pieces without the aid of discernible shapes was difficult and confusing. The part of the game that was similar was the forethought and strategy required to conquer and beat oneÕs opponent.
I wanted to visit the famed Snake Alley in Taipei and I asked May if she wanted to go with me. Well, not only did she go but so did most of the family. The kids had never been there and it was therefore an easy excuse to go as a group. Bill, Johnson, and JohnsonÕs wife couldnÕt join us, unfortunately, but the outing still boasted nine of us, four kids and five grown-ups. We meandered around the streets of the city in a human convoy. We asked directions a couple of times and improvised the rest of the way. We entertained ourselves with lively and playful conversations and made several stops along the way. By now, we had mastered the art of Charade-like conversations.
We eventually got to Snake Alley at dusk and I feasted on my long-awaited snake banquet, which comprised of snake blood, meat, diluted poison, galls, and something else I can't remember. No one else dared to partake in the meal, except for May, and she only drank snake blood. In spite of the renowned popularity of eating snakes, few actually practice the time-honored custom – only Chinese diehards and demented tourists ever dare try.
What a memorable visit! My Chinese family also celebrated my birthday with presents and a delicious western-style cake. JohnsonÕs wife and May cooked my favorite Chinese dish to go along with it. I canÕt recall the name of the dish, but I know IÕve never seen it in any Chinese menu (I should probably say Ōin any translated Chinese menuĶ). Anyway, they showered me with the best gifts of all, those of friendship and family.
In spite of this cultural immersion, I still feel my appreciation of their culture is superficial, at best. If I were to draw something from my experience, though, itÕd be that we are all the same, when it comes right down to it. We live, feel, and grow through our personal relationships with family, friends, and strangers, including those from seemingly alien worlds. These relations sculpt our souls with deeply emotional and life-altering experiences, like the ones I had in Taichung, Nantou, and Taipei. Culture and tradition, as I now view them, are simply codes and rules of conduct. They decorate and spice our gestures, celebrations, and language with beautiful tones, but the core of the canvas remains the same; it remains human. These customs, as delightful and inspiring as they are, only adorn our living spirits – they don't define them.