Monday, January 9, 2012

Double Triple Culture Shock

I've written before about reverse culture shock, something Kath at [insert suitably snappy title here] has described as feeling like "something has grown and it no longer fits like it used to, like a favourite t-shirt you used to wear all the time that accidentally got shrunk in the wash".

I could swear I wrote another post on the topic more recently, where I talked about how going home felt like watching all sorts of once familiar things that I once interacted with, but seeing them through a pane of glass, or Bubble Boy. You're there, you can see, hear and talk to people, but you're somehow separate.

I can't find that post now, but if I do I'll link back to it.

Well, since I've been back in Taiwan from our extended stay in Turkey, I can say that something along the lines of a double reverse culture shock has started to sink in. I'm sure it'll dissipate soon enough; it also only seems to have affected me to the point of me, myself noticing it. Nobody else seems to have.

It doesn't seem like this feeling is terribly common - seems it would be rather rare for someone to move abroad to one country, go through the usual culture shock, and then leave to spend long enough time in another, third country that they'd come back to their second country and culture shock about it all over again, from an entirely different angle. In this way, I'm probably writing about this more for myself and  the perspective that chronicling and describing this brings, but who knows, maybe someone out there in Internetland feels the same way and will stumble across this post.

I also kind of felt that this was strange about my experience in Turkey. I didn't feel  culture shock regarding Turkish ways of life vs. American; I felt it regarding Turkish ways of life vs. Taiwanese.

So of course when I then returned to the USA for a visit I had no fundamental frame of reference for anything at all, and was very confused indeed!

It would be great to be able to articulate exactly why I feel this way, but I can't really. What I can do is give some examples.

 First, I feel that same odd "looking at everything through the skin of a soap bubble" feeling I often get in the US, where I can see just fine, and interact and all that, but there's some barrier there that wasn't there before. I feel I've been relating to my friends differently, but I can't describe exactly how. My values have changed a bit, from being fine with living in a crummy apartment with crummy things but traveling fantastically, to being willing to scale back the travel a little bit and compromise on a nicer apartment and nicer things. I've also become more productive and in some ways, I think more cheerful, even when I'm in one of my fairly common cynical, curmudgeonly, critical moods. The  strict, unending and rapidly-approaching deadlines of our course were such that I've now trained myself - hopefully permanently - to be better with deadlines. I've proven that I can do so, if they're truly important. That's why I always had my class prep done on time but rarely had my reports done on time in the past.

Weather in Taipei is more miserable than I remember it; this is probably due to a month of sunny Turkish skies raising my expectations. Things that either didn't bother me or only nominally annoyed me before - people walking too slowly, especially if they're hogging the sidewalk or dawdling just inside MRT train doors (so nobody can get on quickly behind them! Argh!) or just outside turnstiles or doorways. The habit of pretending to understand something said in English when really, that person doesn't understand. The habit of not just asking when you don't understand - which Turkish students had no problem doing. The tendency to over-adhere to process over usefulness, feeling that keeping with a strict process is enough to feel like one is accomplishing something. I don't see this all the time in Taiwan, but just enough - especially at work - to annoy me. Listening to one's boss as though his or her words are the words of God.  Over-devotion to work: when someone in Turkey says "I have to leave class for a meeting, after that I'll have to go back to the office to finish up a few things", you can assume that once he's done with the meeting he's probably just going to cut out of there and head home if he can. In Taiwan, you can assume that he really is going to go to the meeting then do some work afterwards. Which is fine, doesn't affect me, but it's not how I roll.

I'm not nearly as interested in nightlife, and I don't think that's a function of age. Istanbul reeked of stuff to do at night. Entire neighborhoods were given over to nightlife. The tackiest, but arguably most "lose yourself in the crowd and have fun" of them all was Taksim, walking distance from our apartment. It was as big or bigger than the Xinyi Shopping District and packed bottom floor to top, building-against-building with bars, clubs, restaurants, live music, cafes, lounges, shops and pubs. You quite literally had all the choice in the world, from hippie lounging on beanbags outside among curls of incense with raki and hookahs to hip, red-lit booty-short-tacular dance clubs to fancy dinner at a bistro to coffee with friends in a bookshop. Taipei has most of that, but it's spread out and sometimes hard to find and no one neighborhood has enough of it to have a nightlife vibe.  As a result, I just haven't been going out much: one late night, total, since I've been back (late for me means "out past 2am").

This really isn't hitting the heart of it, though, which shows you that I don't really know where the heart of it is. Taipei is the same; I'm different. I went to Turkey with Brendan, so it feels like we're both just different enough after the trip that we've maintained the same dynamic. I feel different around everyone else, though.

It could be because going to my ancestral homeland of Musa Dagh was an inwardly emotional experience for me, even if it was a relatively quiet trip and quiet day. The full impact of the trip I'd made, the first in my family to do so since the Armenians were killed or forced out of Turkey, has been hitting me in stages. It may well have made me both more sanguine and more maudlin, possibly a bit more phlegmatic than before. I'm more irritated by things I'd previously gotten used to in Taiwan, but my temper flares over it less.

The new apartment could also have something to do with it - I've written before about how it's impacted my life and even my habits and personality a bit. I don't know though; our return from Turkey and our move happened so close together that in terms of emotion, the entirety of November and December is one big, murky pool.

In sum, I just don't know.

Something's shifted. Something's different. I'm definitely feeling that ineffable separation from my surroundings that I get when I culture shock. I can't articulate why in any clear way. I can't even clearly tell if anyone else has noticed the change. All I can say is that it's there and I'm hoping I figure it out or work through it soon.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

2012 Election Posters, Such As They Are

This is one of my favorites - a bus wrap encouraging people to buy their train tickets to go home and vote.
This year's election...well, it's hard to tell there's an election on, not to mention a presidential election. Where are the trucks blaring music? The posters? The fliers? The campaign ads? The candidates shaking hands and giving you tchotchkes? In the last election - which wasn't even a presidential election, I got keychains, pens, notepads, a magnet and so many tissues that, well, I'm still blowing my nose on 張慶忠.

Generally speaking I've seen more campaigning from the DPP than the KMT, which surprises me - not that the DPP seems to be doing more (at least that's my impression - I can't back it up with stats) but that Ma's hold on the presidency is so tenuous that it almost seems lackadaisical, even arrogant, of the KMT not to be stepping it up. I thought it was because I live in Da'an, where a KMT majority is assured, but no, I've left Da'an and not seen much different.      

I'm not lamenting the trucks - they were annoying - but I kind of liked the long lines of drummers pulled on a towing apparatus going down the street and the free stuff. I used to draw devil's horns on the Ma Ying-jiu notepads.

In the past two days there has been a ramping up of campaigning, but still not nearly at the level I'd expect. Tsai has a fighting chance; why not fight harder for it? Ma's incumbency is precarious;  why not fight to preserve it?

My favorite ad so far has been Tsai's bus campaign to encourage people to buy tickets home to go vote. I've discussed before the fact that the lack of absentee balloting seems to hurt the DPP more, as more of them are registered to vote in southern Taiwan but work in Taipei/northern Taiwan than the other way around. Without absentee balloting, fewer people who need to travel to vote will do so.

I can't seem to catch the "Taiwan Geographic" bus ads I've seen - I'd love to feature one here if I could get a shot fast enough. My camera's dead so I have to borrow Brendan's iPod whenever I want to take photos.

I also regret not taking a photo of the election posters in Burmese when I had the chance a few weeks ago. It doesn't look like I'll get another chance to go to Nanshijiao and do that.

Finally, on Hengyang Road near Cha For Tea/Bo'ai Road Intersection/Shanghai Dispensary is a GINORMOUS poster of good ol' Mr. Soong. I mean this thing is huge. It covers a third of a building. If you're eating in Cha For Tea and looking out the window - which is how I noticed it -  you're basically staring at him. His pores are each as big as your face, or at least they would be if he weren't airbrused.

Other than that, here are a few posters and other things I've come across, with a bit of commentary for some.

This is one of the first references in campaign materials I've seen to Tsai being the first female president (if you look at the sticker, it says "Taiwan's First Female President".

Smiling George makes me smile. 
I can't imagine a politician getting away with posters that say "Smiling ________" on them back home. Smiling Mitt? Only if his circuitry misfired. Smiling Barack? Sounds dumb. Smiling Newt Gingrich? Eeeeeeewww.

I hope Smiling George wins. I like him just for this.

A book for sale at "The Taiwan Store"
 A book in Chinese full of political cartoons sympathetic to Tsai and the DPP. I think there's a pun or idiomatic joke in there somewhere regarding Ma's "horse foot"...I mean other than the obvious surname joke. My Chinese isn't good enough to figure out if I'm right, though.

This is one of the few pedestrian bridges in Taipei covered in election posters. I suspect in the next few days we'll see more. So far so good, except...

Really? Does he not realize that this is a little too close to "Heil Hitler"? I mean it's not, but it's just...too...close.

Wait, are these guys Marxists? If my memory is correct, Communist parties are now legal in Taiwan (please, please correct me if I'm wrong. I'll edit this in that case), although that was not always the case in the democracy's infancy. I know 主義 as meaning either "doctrine" (which is far too vague) or "Marxist". Either way their sign is not very exciting.

Let's all go buy more khakis together!
 Seriously, Ma Ying-jiu wearing his mother's pants.

Please vote for me, please please please! Pretty please? Vote for me? Please?

This is some graffiti - possibly far too old to be a reaction to the election, on a mountain in Zhonghe near Yuantong temple. It says "The KMT and the Communists Get Together to Conquer Taiwan". The person who wrote it is probably against that, but according to Joseph the writing is not entirely clear.

Up close, this one says "Taiwan Next, Zhonghe Best" with a view of urban Taipei County...err, Xinbei City.

This kind of Star Wars-esque poster saying "Go Taiwan" (台灣加油, once used almost exclusively by DPP candidates) is on many buses.
Mr. Happy Face wears a Taiwan Next sweatshirt at the Qingshan Wang birthday celebration.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Of Sympathy

Some background for those who don't know: the folks where I live are mostly veterans or veterans' family members, and those who aren't would have bought or rented their apartments from someone who was in the military. Before this complex was built this area was a community where only people who'd served in various branches of the military could live, and after the apartments were built on that site, only they could  get them (I'm not sure if they had to buy them, if there were subsidies or if it was a part of their pension). You can imagine that a community  still largely made up of veterans of the army of the Republic of China would be super deep blue. Once a person had an apartment he could sell it, let a family member live there, rent it out, whatever. That's how I ended up living here. Our landlady is a Buddhist nun. I don't know how she got the apartment  -  either she bought it from a retired officer before she became a nun, or she inherited it from a family member who had been in the military, or something. Now she lives in a monastery in Tainan, and the rent on this place (which is extremely reasonable for 25-30 pings in Da'an - everyone, rent from nuns!) is basically her income. 

Anyway. So y'all know that I would like to see an independent Taiwan. Someday, at least. I wouldn't be opposed to an independent ROC made up of what is now Taiwan and its various outlying islands, but my preferred outcome - not that I get a say in the matter! - would actually be an independent, democratic Taiwan completely divorced from any notions of being a part of China - like how people view the USA today.

My neighbors all fought for something very different in their youth. You could go so far as to say that they devoted their lives to their country, and by extension, their beliefs about what that country should be - which more or less correspond to the KMT's beliefs about what the ROC should be.

As my student said - when you meet someone like that, who literally devoted his entire life and livelihood to his country and beliefs, and you in four short words tell them that they're just plain wrong, that's not something they're going to take lightly. 

Even if you do believe they are wrong.

And I do believe it - I don't feel that there's One China, or rather I do feel that there's One China and it's the PRC, which will hopefully become something else - like a country that's not totally fucked up - someday, and that Taiwan is a different country altogether. I do not believe that the ROC "is" China - even if it "was" China, at least in some sense, for however short a period -  is a part of China, should rule Mainland China or any of that. I don't mind its continued existence, but it's not "China". Neither is Taiwan. This is why I wouldn't have celebrated the 100th anniversary of the ROC. It wasn't Taiwan's birthday. Nothing happened in Taiwan on October 10th, 1911. Well, maybe Old Chen bought a chicken. Or Miss Lin caught the local shopkeeper's eye. But that's about it. Certainly no country was born in Taiwan on that day. The ROC didn't even rule it at the time - the Japanese did.

 For this, I do have some sympathy. No, I don't think they've got a point - although they have just as much a right to their beliefs as the other side does - and no, I don't think they're right, but I can understand how it would feel to make your entire career about building, then saving, then rebuilding, something you believe in, and then having someone casually say that "nope, you're wrong, everything you've given your life for is wrong. Sorry you screwed that one up, Grandpa. Welcome to The Republic of Taiwan!"

Of course, Grandpa's not going to change his beliefs, but  I do understand the sting of "so this person really thinks I wasted my life?" Because that's what it implies.

This is why, while I won't  deny or lie about my beliefs - and I have some leeway being a foreigner and all - I tend to be more gentle about them where I live now. For a lot of them, it's more than just a few opinions.

It goes both ways, of course. People - people I agree with and sympathize with more - spent much of their adult lives in prison and many died for Taiwanese democracy and identity. It would be just as offensive to them to be told "nope, you're wrong". This is easier for me to accept, because I agree with them.

It's just good to remember that it's not always so easy as deciding the other guy is nuts.

I don't really have an American equivalent -  the wars we've fought in living memory can be debated, but  none of them deal with the actual provenance of the country. It's not quite the same: arguing US politics and foreign policy with a soldier returned from Iraq who genuinely believed he was "fighting terror", while testy and full of land mines (terrible pun, sorry), is not the same as telling a soldier of the ROC that he's just plain wrong, or telling an independence activist who spent her best years in jail and whose family was killed in the White Terror that she's wrong and that the KMT has "changed" so she should accept it.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Of Balls

Sure, it only costs NT$250, but for that price it's a pretty decent wine.
While finishing off a bottle of inexpensive but good wine with Brendan last night, I got to thinking about all the usual stuff: you know, how great married life has been for the past year and a half, how lucky we really are to have such a strong relationship, and my doesn't this apartment look awesome, I could actually stay in most nights and not feel bored and hmm, if Tsai wins the election, will she be the sort of women's rights advocate in office that could really benefit Taiwanese women? and I should really read Shantaram, it's been on the shelf for a year and it's too bad that I love my career, really get on with my students, and yet am not happy with my company and it'll be a few months yet before I can make a change.

And then this: it's been five years. I'm applying for permanent residency after Chinese New Year. Would I have stayed this long if I'd been single.

No, probably not. 

Why is that?

Of course, I covered this in Why Are There So Few Expat Women in Asia?, but it kind of got buried deep in the (admittedly long) post, and wasn't very personal. This post is my attempt to personalize that a bit.

I'd said there that a lot of expat women leave after a few years if they're single, because it's just plain harder to date (whereas in some regards it's easier for expat men), even if you like the local guys - which, for the record, I would if I were single.  Married or enrelationshipped women - yes, I made that word up - seem more likely to stick around in the foreign country they've chosen - especially in Asia. It's been my experience in Taiwan that the long-term expat women I know here are all married or in relationships.  In Turkey I noticed that it was quite a different tale: plenty of expat women stuck around, and more than a few married Turkish men, not unlike a lot of the expat men in east Asia.

Clearly, when the dating market opens up to reveal more opportunities, the women tend to stay just as long as the men. I'd like to think that a choice to move abroad or move home is one made individually, for reasons other than romantic prospects but rather for reasons ranging from desire to see the world, to learn a new language, to engage in another culture, for other academic pursuits or because you genuinely enjoy English teaching and the best opportunities for that happen to be in non-English speaking countries.

And it's true that I moved abroad without worrying about romantic prospects, and I happened to get lucky (heh heh). I wasn't here to date - I was here to see more of the world and learn Chinese. I didn't even know yet that I wanted to be a career teacher/trainer/whatever it is that I do because on any given day my job description feels different.

Yet these noble ideas - that one should make these choices without thought to dating - just isn't the case, and it wouldn't have been for me, either.

If Brendan hadn't existed, or we'd never met, or our relationship never worked out, here's what would have likely happened:

Brendan moved to Taiwan about halfway through my first year in Taiwan. I was not planning to leave at the end of that year; at the time my plans were to stay for 2-3 years depending, see if teaching was a good career fit (I'd started to love my evening teaching job back in the USA and hate my corporate desk job, which clued me into the idea that I would do better in a career such as teaching) and then either move home or move to another country.  I knew before Brendan came that I would not stay at Kojen past my initial contract, so I would have still changed jobs. I might not have ended up at the company I did - although who knows? They were looking at just about the right time.

I probably would have stayed in my tiny, slightly crummy room in an otherwise nice apartment in Liuzhangli for awhile longer, until I got a new job and could afford a small studio or at least a better room in a shared apartment.

I probably would have dated a couple of guys, be they expat or local. Those relationships, as most tend to do, probably would not have worked out. Although I'm sociable, I'm not exactly an "every weekend at a different social hangout" girl, so there probably wouldn't have been more than one or two. I think that estimate is accurate because that's about half the number of guys I typically dated in a few years in the DC area.

My social circle wouldn't have been appreciably different, except it would lack some people, including one whom I consider to be a very good friend, because those friends came through opportunities brought about by Brendan.

So I probably would have a social life that involved seeing friends for one outing a weekend, occasionally going out on a weekend night if invited (I love making plans for meals or outings for friends, I make drink plans far less often and mostly go when invited). I would otherwise work, take pictures, go hiking occasionally, hang out at cafes and then come home and be alone. My expat male friends, few as they are, would be dating local women at either a far greater frequency or intensity than any dating opportunities I would have had.

Not too unlike my single life in DC, except I had more dating opportunities and, within my own cultural context, it was easier to make friends. I saw those friends more, because in the USA we seem to place a greater emphasis on time spent with friends vs. at home, with family or working than in Taiwan, where people seem to see friends less.

I would have looked at the expat scene in Taipei - nightlife that I'm mostly not interested in (with some exceptions! Going out occasionally is fun), maybe a few clubs I could have joined, but generally just as I see it now: something I dip my toe into and can enjoy, but never really felt I fit into (although I feel a bit more fitting-inny now that I am friends with a small group of younger married women like myself who also defy the young-guys-here-teaching-at-Hess-for-a-year and the older-family-types-with-kids-at-the-American-school, and I know a few student types - I tend to get on well with the grad school crowd). I would have concluded that, in part, I felt a bit out of it with the expat crowd. Not unwelcome, but a bit like "young single foreign women who aren't particularly pretty have a tougher time socially here than back home".

I'd have looked at local life in Taipei and probably dipped my toes into that more, as well, but likewise still not felt like I fit in: turns out people don't invite you out much when you don't fit into a circle of coworkers, classmates or family.

Then I would have looked back at my social life in DC, and then my dating life. I might not have chosen to move back to DC in particular, but I might have concluded that as a single woman, if I wanted a better shot at having good relationships and having one of those turn permanent, and if I wanted lots of friends to have good times with both in the interim and beyond, that my chances of that were far better back home, or in another country.

Perhaps I would have done the CELTA as I did in Istanbul, had the great fun that I did, made friends on the course, and decided that for a good social life, Istanbul would have been a great bet. And I might well have stayed, despite the fact that it would have left me a bit emotionally torn. Or I might have picked another Mediterranean country.

All through this I'd be a bit angry at myself, thinking what, are you not the nomad and adventurer you thought you were?  Are you really going to go home now because poor widdle Jenna doesn't have enough widdle fwiends and nobody wants to be her boyfwiend? Awww. I thought you were made of stronger stuff, and I thought you knew that traveling the world would come with its share of loneliness. Are you just another Typical Girl, who needs people around her instead of fortifying herself? Are you weak? Do you not have the balls you thought you did?

(I admit I have a mortal fear of being seen as weak. That's a good post for another time, if I ever feel like revealing that much about myself).

And of course the final few sentences of the above are ridiculous, and in their own way, sexist, but it's only honest of me to say I would have thought them.

And I would have felt conflicted and angry and a bit sad, but I probably would have also felt lonely and  lacking social and dating opportunities - even though they exist in Taipei, I would have found them, as a single foreign woman, insufficient - but in the end I probably would have moved on in my predicted 2-3 years.  The fact that I didn't, that I instead married and nested a bit and started to feel a bit settled (and happy about that, which I never thought would happen) and like Taipei was home. But a big part of that is that I do have a family here. I have a husband - and a cat and (for the time being) a sister. I might have never felt that way if the whole marriage thing hadn't happened, or if I had not at least found myself in a serious relationship.

I'll leave it at this: in 2003 I celebrated my birthday in Pakse, Laos. I was in my early twenties and in Laos by myself (not long before I'd seen off Brendan in Beijing, from where he returned to Korea). I spent my birthday alone,  hiking up the crumbled, rocky ruins of a temple carved into a bluff outside of town. It was humid and buggy and I'm sure I looked like hell. I'm also sure as hell that I didn't care. I got to the top and sat at the edge of the bluff, the craggy black building blocks of the temple tumbled down below me, mostly in a scraggy pile, but a few were strewn further out into the verdant landscape.

Nobody had yet sent me birthday wishes in e-mail and this was long before Facebook. My only birthday wish before the time difference made it my birthday on the East Coast was from myself. I was young and I didn't mind being alone. I looked out over the tops of palm trees to lush rice fields dotted with beasts of burden and I thought to myself: this is great - how often can one say that one climbed a ruined temple in Laos on their birthday?

But several years later when I hit Taipei,  this was what my "birthday alone" was like. It was not good. It was not adventurous. It was not ballsy. It was just sad.  I still wanted - and still want - to travel the world and have adventures, but what I realized was that I didn't necessarily want to do it alone.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Of Sleep

I recently came across this post: Ten Photos Proving the Taiwanese Can Sleep Anywhere, Anytime

I'm not surprised.

I'll even say that there's more than a grain of truth to this: I too have noted a higher percentage of people sleeping in all sorts of places at all sorts of times in Taiwan.

It starts in childhood, when as kids they go to school all day, then to cram school, and they're lucky if they get home at 11pm. I used to get on the MRT at Taipei Main at about 10pm twice a week - the person driving me would race to get there before the cram schools let out at  9:45 and the MRT was crammed to the gills with students. Then they've got homework. No free time, of course, not during the week. My estimate is that the average Taiwanese student gets about 3 hours of sleep a night.

OK, seriously, maybe not 3, but not more than 6.

There are exceptions to this rule - I tutor two girls on the weekend (it's not really a "class" - it's English Fun Time and I do it more because I've become attached to the girls and invested in their future than for the money) and they don't attend cram school every night, although they are pushed to do well academically within the bounds of reason.

Then there are the casualties: the nephew of one of my former clients (she's left that company), who had to be out the door at 7am for school, then cram school, home at 11:30pm because he lived out in Taipei County (I believe his parents own a small apartment in Taipei City, allowing him to attend high school here, but don't actually live there - it's actually quite common among the well-off in Taipei). Then homework, which he barely kept up with, if at all, then finally bed. He did all the extra homework on the weekend, as well as taking additional classes. By the time my student told me her concerns about him, what she described in his personality fit the signs of depression quite accurately - although I'm not a psychiatrist, I'll at least say that he should have been screened. It's sad that knowledge and treatment of mental health in Taiwan is so lacking that that'll probably never happen. I can't say, of course, if that was caused by his *ahem* rigorous academic schedule, but I sure can take an educated guess.

Then you get four years of relative freedom in college before you're bounced into the working world (or for men, military service, which might actually be another few years of decent sleep) and are working until long after a healthy person should go home to enjoy their family - usually around  7 or  8, but also fairly often until  9 or 10, and not uncommonly are the newest employees stuck with work on the weekend - unofficial work, of course, so they don't get overtime or comp time for it. They're just given more regular work than they can possibly do in 8 or even 10 hours.

It doesn't get much better as you climb the ladder - my students regularly report getting home at 9pm, 10pm or later - and I tend to teach the higher-ups.

When I ask, the most common answer I hear for how much sleep people actually get in Taiwan is about 6 hours, often less. I don't know about you, but while I can live on 6 hours, after a week or so of that I'm drained. It's all I can do to stay awake no matter where I am. I start to doze off whenever I sit down. I tested the limits of this in the USA, when my natural bedtime (around midnight) clashed with when I needed to be up for work (around 6am, maybe 6:10). I couldn't afford the thing that would have allowed me to wake up later - that being a car - and couldn't force myself to sleep before 11:30pm, maybe 11. I sure could doze off on my lunch hour or on the bus, though!

So is it really any wonder that you see people sleeping in all sorts of contortions in Taiwan?

Maybe if they didn't feel the push to study and work themselves* to exhaustion it wouldn't happen.

*by "themselves" I don't mean everyone, it's one of those general statements that's meant to describe observations of trends, not individuals

Sunday, January 1, 2012


Stairs up Jingling Mountain on a foggy day, our goal forever elusive 

The weather today has inspired me to write about Hailongtun.

In 2002 and 2003 I lived in Zunyi, a small town (which meant that it had less than a million people) in Guizhou, southern central China.

While it got colder there than it does in Taipei – it even snowed twice - the weather, especially in winter, was generally about the same: overcast and dreary for days on end, cold, drizzly.  Although I lived on the refurbished “old street” (which was the newest part of town in terms of building age), the smoke from hundreds of coal stoves would fudge up the air as much as Taipei 101’s fireworks did last night. Leaving the New Old Street, other than the mountain park and the river and one memorable temple, the city became a mostly indistinct blur of white tiled, blue-glass windowed concrete monstrosities stretching down wide roads for miles.  Puncturing this was the train station, some thoroughly horrific public bathrooms, one so-so park, a “night market” that was put to shame by even the most humble Taiwanese night market, and a casino with a giant plastic Sphinx out front, topped off with a generous helping of neon. It wasn’t a classy enough place to warrant LEDs.
The giant medicine gourd in
Dragon Phoenix Park

 I found some escape in the mountainside park, which did have a network of fairly respectable hiking trails, and a giant cement medicine gourd, venturing pretty far out of town in that direction on several occasions – even in winter. Soon, I started to venture further into the countryside, renting a bike towards the end of the New Old Street  and riding out past Gaoqiao (the way I consistently mispronounced that neighborhood made it sound like “gaochao” or “orgasm”) and towards the rice fields to the west of town. Out past there was a park and pagoda where I’d stop to rest, looking at the 8 demigods’ symbols painted above (a medicine gourd, a flute…some other things) before riding back and returning the bike.

 With more than half a year gone by in Zunyi, I was starting to feel like I’d never figure the place out before I left. Not just Zunyi, but China, which I was starting to feel was a more exciting place in Western fantasy than in reality: the name “China”  conjures up temples, pagodas, a rich musical tradition, delicious food,  richly brocaded fabric, or at least some sort  of modern equivalent to these things (seeing as I knew that people generally did not live in pagoda’d and pavilion’d houses anymore, and not everyone sat around all day painting calligraphy or playing the zither). At least you expect scenery, historic sites that look vaguely authentic, food you can trust, maybe a lantern or two, and some adventure.

You’ll get the adventure – if  “ did this bus just drive up a flight of stairs FOR REAL?” is your idea of it (it is for me!) – and the food generally was fantastic, at least when it wasn’t bitter gourd, some other weird roots or things, or mostly bone, fat and sinew…but the food supply was (and is) so untrustworthy that eating was a risk unto itself. I survived…with three fewer teeth than I had going in.

I did learn how to cook some amazing dishes and I was introduced to the life-changing, or at least digestion-changing, concept of 花椒, or flower pepper, though.

But the historic sites are mostly gone or covered in bathroom tile, everything else is basically a concrete box (also covered in bathroom tile) and few really care about any of the traditional, well, anything. There was scenery, but views of it were so gummed up by pollution that even that was a let-down.

And yes, I was starting to wonder what on earth could possibly keep me in China. Wouldn’t I be better off returning to India or exploring some other part of the globe? One not covered in tile? What was I doing in China and was Zunyi a place I could really settle into for longer than my one year contract?

Ruminating on this and marinating in coal smoke, the other two foreigners and I decided to try and find Hailongtun: the ruins of a 13th century fortress with a bloody history about 30km outside of town. It was the site of a battle between Ming dynasty forces and a ruling clan in what is now Guizhou and part of Sichuan – it was build by the regional ruling clan, which by the end of the 16th century was in direct conflict with the Ming court. A bloody battle took place and thousands, if not tens of thousands, were massacred here. The head of the ruling Yang family killed himself along with two concubines. as he was outsmarted by the Ming soldiers.

We also knew that we were in for quite a climb if we attempted to get here, but then doing anything in China felt like quite a climb, if not physically, then mentally. I handled this feeling well in India, but for some reason getting into the groove of it was not working out in China. Where in India my memories  are sunny, colorful, occasionally mud-colored but always warm, when it comes to China my thoughts turn a cold, dingy gray, not unlike the side of a cement wall in winter.

Other than Fragrant Mountain Temple (香山寺) and the buildings in my neighborhood considered historic sites for their significance during the Long March (you could see the roof of the building where Mao Zedong was elected to the Communist Party Central Committee from my window), there wasn’t much of historical significance in Zunyi. I guess having even what it did was a feat: the town was mostly spared destruction of its culture and relics because of that  significance in Communist history. I thought seeing something of genuine historical significance would reaffirm my faith that my year was worth it, that I’d be amazed by something. That maybe I would be brought a little bit closer to the country I was living in by our shared values regarding the importance of history (Cultural Revolution notwithstanding, and leaving most of that history not standing).

It didn’t seem like it would be that hard - it was mentioned in a book published in English, which was a rare thing in itself, to find good tourism information on Guizhou in English. There even seemed to be a bus that would take us close by, followed by a short hike.

The first time Jenny and I tried to go was just before Chinese New Year – we stopped in a random town where the bus route ended, maybe 17 kilometers outside Zunyi. We asked around for “Hailongtun” in piss-poor Chinese, and were led up a street to a hiking trail. We were told it was a 5-hour walk each way. It was already 3pm. We turned back, after snapping some photos of New Year fireworks for sale.  As we were waiting for a bus, a guy with a van stopped and asked us where we were headed. I tried to say that we had wanted to go to Hailongtun. I don’t think he quite understood: he arranged for us to take a bus which we thought was heading back to Zunyi. Instead, the driver said, he’d take us to Hailongtun.


Oh, but from where he would drop us off it was a two-hour hike each way. We tried protesting but it wasn’t working. Finally we just let him drop us off, praying that wherever we ended up there, would be another bus back to Zunyi. He let us off in some other random town with one place to stay, one liquor store, a few street stands and a village atmosphere, and bid us a nice hike. It was already getting a little dark out.

We did catch a bus back to Zunyi, with the promise to try again in a few weeks. This time we brought Julian, whose Chinese was considerably better than ours but who, like me, wasn’t as fast a hiker as Jenny. We took the bus back to the second village and started out again. Villagers said that in fact it was a four hour hike, and to start from Jingling Mountain, “just over that way”.

Pagodas and farms on the way to Jingling Mountain
OK, misinformation was nothing new for me after life in China and India, so we rolled with the ever-changing time estimates of how long it would actually take to get there, and starting points that seemed to float around with no fixed center, as though the goal didn’t even exist. We grabbed some water and food and headed down the dirt road to the Jingling Mountain trailhead, passing rice fields and a few rustic pagodas on small hills.

Then the stairs began, and with them, fog.

“I hope this clears by afternoon,” Julian said dryly, knowing as well as we did that fog in the mountains of northern Guizhou, once settled in, basically never clears.  We trudged up stairs – miles and miles of stairs, not unlike hiking in Taiwan – into ever thicker fog and a bit of drizzle.

“Maybe it’ll look better in the fog, you know, more mysterious and otherworldly,” said Jenny hopefully. Ever the optimist.

More stairs. We passed a temple, and then another. Nobody had told us that Jingling Mountain was dotted all the way to the top with increasingly beautiful temples, many of them untouched by the scourge of white tile. Most appeared to be Dao/Chinese folk religion in affiliation rather than Buddhist, but it is sometimes hard to tell. We stopped at a few to admire the architecture, idols and incense and chat with the shrine-keepers, who walked up these miles of stairs every morning  and down them every evening.

 The stairs led on, sometimes sharp-edged concrete, sometimes rough-hewn stone, sometimes packed dirt, but they didn’t let up. At one point it felt like we were ascending to heaven. We passed a small turn-off with a shack down the way and asked again there if we were going the right way “no, no, don’t go this way, keep going up the mountain,” the woman told us.
Incense burner (photo by Julian) in one of the temples on Jingling Mountain

Well, alright then. I just hoped that we wouldn’t hit the top of Jinglingshan only to discover that we had to descend the whole thing and ascend the next mountain, and then go back and descend, ascend and descend again. We’d started early but there wasn’t enough time in the day for that.

About three quarters of the way up, Jenny got sick of our slow butts and decided to hike at her own pace. “I’ll meet you there,” she said.  It was true that she was reasonably fit while Julian and I sputtered up the stairs like the duo in Absolutely Fabulous.

We really didn’t have a choice, although I was filled with dread, because rather like my gut feeling that I would never really settle into China, I had an instinctive knowledge that we had approximately .00001% of a chance of making it to Hailongtun that day. So if not there, where would we meet her? Julian could speak Chinese, I could get by in Chinese, but Jenny couldn’t, although she could quite literally run circles around us athletically. She might make it to Hailongtun but would she make it back? We two probably wouldn’t make it to Hailongtun but we could get home just by asking nicely.

Julian and I trudged upward, hitting one final temple and being told that Jinglingshan’s summit was only about 10 minutes up some more stairs.

The temple had a dragon fountain into which you could throw tokens – one renminbi for five, or something like that. If the token landed on the dragon sculpture and not in the bowl, you could make a wish.

I bought the tokens and added something to the game – completely made-up, but I felt like a lot of rules of life and even courtesy in China were basically made-up, slapped together ad-hoc or sometimes not even as necessary but for the explicit purpose of being inconvenient, so it wouldn’t really matter if I made up my own fortune telling superstition it wouldn’t matter to anyone, man or god. I  asked a question each time a coin was thrown, and if it hit the dragon, a heads-up would mean “yes” and a tails-up would mean “no” (the heads were Mao Zedong and the tails were some kind of flower, the tokens were cheap aluminum).               

Two of my coins hit the dragon. I’m not using that as a narrative device – it actually happened. Ask Julian. I made two wishes and asked two questions.

It was now mid-afternoon, and the fog hadn’t let up. But we knew that it wouldn’t. We also knew that we had very little time to actually get there, because we absolutely needed to start heading back.

We decided to go for it. I don’t believe that a stone dragon in a fountain on a temple as a magical fortune-telling device, but I knew, I just knew, what was going to happen.

We walked the ten minutes – for once someone was accurate in their assessment of how long it would take – and hit the summit.
Without fog, the view would have been spectacular. You could feel it in the air. We were surrounded immediately by open space and further on by other mountains and valleys. It would have been stunning. Life-altering, even. Maybe enough to make me reconsider my fairly lackluster opinion of China.

There was fog, though. All-encompassing, all-engulfing white out. You couldn’t see past the stone fence surrounding the platform on the summit, not even down the mountain slope beyond. Nothing. I shouted into it. There was an echo, but that also told me nothing. I called Jenny’s name. Nothing. I screamed it. Nothing.

Of course, the trail ended there. There was no descent. There was only back the way we’d come. Dead end, no Hailongtun, not even a trail we could have taken if we’d had more time. I can’t help but see that as metaphorical.

We turned back, stopped partway down at the turn-off and asked again.

“Of course that is the way to Hailongtun”, the woman said.
“Why didn’t you tell us before? Why did you tell us not to go?”
“Because it’s another three hours’ walk from here. You’d never have made it.  If you go the other way at least you can go to the peak of this mountain.”
“Did another foreigner go that way?”
“Yes, but she came back awhile ago.”
“Did she make it to Hailongtun?”
“I don’t know, she couldn’t speak Chinese. Probably not. Are you hungry?”

She fed us some rice, tofu, cauliflower and carrot cooked in basic Sichuan seasoning. I wolfed, Julian, who doesn’t care for Sichuanese flavors, barely ate. We offered to pay her, but she’d have none of it, even after we offered three times.

This was one thing I liked about China – this and the bus that drove up a flight of stairs. Sometimes, when you least expected it, people were kind. Even people who led you down the wrong trail earlier.

We walked back to town and caught a bus back to Zunyi, fog-dampened and exhausted.  We warmed up a bit and then went to Jenny’s apartment, where she was also huddled in front of a space heater and not concerned about us. “I figured you’d make it back.”

“Did you make it to Hailongtun?”
“Nope. You?”
“Oh well…next time?”
“Next time.”

Except I knew, without really knowing, that there wasn’t going to be a next time, not for Hailongtun and not for China. I knew that I wasn’t going to renew my contract, and that I wasn’t going to stay in China. I did not yet know that I’d end up in Taiwan, or that I’d find both the settled happiness and adventure here that I couldn’t find in China. I did not yet know that I was going to marry my best friend, or that despite having a few ugly facades and terrible winter weather that Taiwan would suit me  remarkably well. Not because it is easier – although it is – but because something about life here, the more laid-back attitudes, the fraternity and hospitality, the fact that it’s full of (often) pollution-free scenery and history unencumbered by concrete and tile, sits better with me.

I didn’t know a lot, but I did know, somewhere deep in some internal organ in my gut, that my failure to find Hailongtun represented my failure to feel at home in China, or to be able to say anything more complimentary than “it was an interesting and adventurous experience. You could say it changed my life. It certainly ruined my teeth and my respiratory system.” I will say that while, like not reaching Hailongtun, I never did feel at home in China, that rather like finding all the lovely temples dotting Jingling Mountain, I did have a lot of adventures along the way.

I guess that’s all you can ask of a year abroad, so I don’t feel gypped. My year in Taiwan opened me up to the possibility of Taiwan, and for that I am grateful. I have found many Hailongtuns here.

So as for my questions to the dragon fountain on the highest temple of Jingling Mountain.

For the first question, I asked “Will we ever make it to Hailongtun?”

For the second, “Will I ever see China as more than a brief adventure, a pit stop, a place to explore but not feel at home in?”


And no.

I won’t tell you what I wished for on top of that, but both my questions and my wishes came true.

New Year's in Taipei

Happy New Year everyone! I am sure some of the fantastic photographers blogging from Taiwan got better shots than me, but I thought I'd put this up anyway for friends and family back home.

 We used our  gorgeous tatami tea room to eat dinner (Thai basil chicken with brown rice) make tea (泡福壽山高山烏龍的老人茶) and catch up with our friends Cathy and Alex.

One of the great things about living where we do is that we can walk right up to a good view of 101 with minimal hassle - 10 minutes up Da'an Road, maybe 20 coming back. No muss, no fuss!

It's a bit far, but a good perspective from which to see how far back the crowd stretches every year.

We saw Cathy and Alex off on Xinyi Road, where they caught the train back to their place. We came home and enjoyed a quiet cute-couple moment with glasses of Bailey's. I bought the glasses, which look clear but actually have the slightest hint of Depression glass yellow in them, at Aphrodite: currently my #2 favorite secondhand/antique/thrift/vintage shop in Taipei. The other is near Guting.  (Aphrodite is in Neihu just next to where Minquan Bridge lets off, walkable from Costco).

A blurry shot. I expected more of a show, this being the 101st year of the ROC (not Taiwan!) and Taipei 101 and was pretty average. Still nice though, especially as the view is now walking distance from my place without horrendous crowds.

Happy 2012!