Thursday, April 25, 2013

Drum Majorettes and the Goddess of the Sea

Pilgrimage groups come in and pray at the temple photo 486820_10151630122926202_1406002886_n.jpg

I sincerely apologize for my extended absence - work has been ridiculous, I've had a lot to do, and something had to give. I hope, though, that I'm baaack now that I have a little breathing room during the week. At least for the next few weeks.

About 2 weeks ago (maybe it was 3? Who even knows) I went to Dajia and Lugang for Tomb Sweeping. In Dajia, Tomb Sweeping happened to also be the day that the Matsu Pilgrimage kicked off, thanks to a coincidence in lunar calendar calculations and the results of the ceremony to ask Matsu, via fortune blocks, on which day she'd like her pilgrimage to be (no joke).  So we went down to see the pilgrims off, rather luckily catching a ride with a student of mine from Dajia who was heading down to sweep a tomb with his family. It saved us having to figure out how to get there in the ridiculous traffic on Thursday. The festival really doesn't get going until Friday afternoon and night, and it poured most of the time, but we had fun anyway, and briefly met up with some of the wanderers and short-cut takers joining them in Zhanghua the next day.

Just inside the temple gate photo 377369_10151630120681202_214436727_n.jpg

The pilgrimage starts at  Jenn Lann Temple in Dajia - there isn't much info in English but they post pilgrimage information in Chinese here (if you can't read Chinese, get a friend to help you). The dates are decided on Lantern Festival, 15 days after Chinese New Year. This is also the time, if you want to go, to book hotels as they sell out quickly. Try to stay downtown. We stayed here: Dajia Hotel - old, but clean and friendly, very central, and not skeevy at all. Try the taro pastries that come out fresh in the afternoon from the coffeeshop two doors down (next to the fabric shop).

You can spend two nights in Dajia (get there a night early because on the day the pilgrimage starts, traffic is congested and highly restricted - trust me. Spend your time checking out the temples, eating, drinking coffee, whatever - there's not a lot to do in Dajia but you'll be fine. There is a Starbucks, oddly enough). Or, after the pilgrims leave you can go with them, but be warned: they walk for most of the first night and don't rest much until they get to the outskirts of Zhanghua City. You could easily sleep in Dajia, then catch a local train to Zhanghua the next morning, putter around there and meet up with them when they arrive later.

Schedules pop up online of the plans for the Matsu idol, which is carried around central Taiwan, stopping at various temples, for 9 days - but you won't know what it is until just after Lantern Festival.  That said, once the schedule is up it's fairly easy to head to where you can intercept the pilgrimage and take part in it, even for just a short while.

Noah Buchan has already written plenty on this event, so I won't repeat it here. You can read about it here, and read his own account of participating here.

Awwwwwww photo 391133_10151630123421202_2045863003_n.jpg


These guys are inserted into the plot to basically jump around and amuse the audience. photo 922949_10151630119351202_1545751241_n.jpg

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The night before many festivals, a Taiwanese opera will be put on in the open air for the public (Baosheng Dadi's birthday includes this aspect, as well). These guys, who wear more comfortable clothing and do impressive acrobatics, are basically inserted into the plot as something to entertain the masses.

This kid started out terrified of these short pink god costumes photo 484474_10151630119706202_137964968_n.jpg

Whenever I am in a temple I am very careful, worried I am violating some social or religious taboo. Then I see this and think "maybe I'm just projecting and nobody really cares." photo 401819_10151630119926202_849623475_n.jpg

The chairman of Djen Lann Temple (Zhenlan Temple?) is currently in jail for using government money to visit a brothel. The temple itself is one of the oldest and most influential in Taiwan, and is very deeply connected to the old gangs and brotherhoods not unlike the ones explored in Monga, the film about Wanhua gangs in the 80s that came out several years ago. As old as it is, and as deeply tied to community life as it is, I was afraid of violating some cultural or religious taboo akin to wearing one's hat in church or eating a ham&cheese sandwich in the foyer of a synagogue.

Then I saw this guy on his phone up by the idol and behind Thousand Mile Eyes (Matsu's green demon attendant) and realized I was probably projecting Western taboos and could relax.

Marching bands are popular in temple festivals in the west-central countryside. photo 21156_10151630120336202_1332437610_n.jpg

Marching bands are really popular in west-central Taiwan for such occasions. They usually have a few "sexy" (if that's your taste) bandleaders or drum majorettes.

I really like old buildings. photo 387213_10151630120591202_1972520479_n.jpg

I am a big fan of old buildings.

Preparing talismans photo 58180_10151630120866202_97338223_n.jpg

Then we wandered over to the Wenchang Shrine (built 1886 in a breezier, less ornate, more provincial Qing Dynasty style - Wenchang Dijun is the god of literature and culture) a little ways out of the most crowded part of the town center, where a pilgrimage group was about to set off and getting a pep talk about the journey. There had been a lantern-painting contest not long ago.

A pilgrimage group prepares to depart from the Wenchang (literature god) shrine. photo 47987_10151630121241202_1901574656_n.jpg

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Then back to downtown Dajia where god costumes and fireworks took over the streets and a night-market like carnival atmosphere kept things interesting. It rained a lot, and hard, so we escaped to a nearby coffeeshop several times, running out for food and photos.

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Guido God approves. photo 936483_10151630122296202_673257132_n.jpg

I think this is Jigong, but I decided to call him Guido God. He clearly approves of the smoking.

Hey photo 12485_10151630122476202_358411710_n.jpg

"Sexy" bandleaders.

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Things didn't really get started until nightfall (and the rain also got worse). The temple filled with people and there were so many firecrackers going off that the streets were covered, in many places, with a thick layer of red paper and ash. We had to truck, in the rain, 2km out of town on foot (no taxis would take us although the road was not clogged) to get to our hotel for the 2nd night as everything downtown was booked, including our first hotel (which was just called "Dajia Hotel" and is friendly and has great wifi and cable, and despite its looks is old, but is not a love hotel at all).

Our second hotel was a love hotel. Very much so.

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now things really get started. photo 733864_10151630122806202_1764956373_n.jpg

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Another thing they love at festivals? Glitter cannons. No joke.

This is your brain. This is your brain on glitter cannon. photo 733856_10151630123101202_54380569_n.jpg

massive lion dance photo 385916_10151630123486202_1659432428_n.jpg

Lion dances are common - this one is notable for the sheer number of lions.

Idols in LED-bedecked palanquins. photo 484400_10151630123771202_585583483_n.jpg

And every god loves an LED-bedecked palanquin.

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Kaoliang (a really nasty, but amazing, sorghum liquor that tastes more or less like moonshine) had a float, too! photo 575506_10151630124141202_984134222_n.jpg

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Flags (which pilgrims carry to various temples on the 9-day route) covered in talismans (acquired at each temple) started to appear, this one at a betel nut stand.


Seriously they were really into glitter photo 934143_10151630124431202_1156899923_n.jpg

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Sadly, we did not get any good photos of Matsu coming out of the temple, but I did get a video. There were so many people and I was pushed so far back with rain and umbrellas everywhere that the shots are pointlessly unclear. But as she passed to set out on her 9-day journey, people did begin to pray:

Praying at Matsu passes photo 540702_10151630124481202_80852950_n.jpg

All in all, the Matsu Pilgrimage is different from other temple festivals - it attracts more people, it's not done when the parade departs, it starts officially around midnight (but all the interesting stuff around the temple starts up well before that), and things like marching bands not commonly seen in Taipei and the larger, crazier, more LED-tastic floats make it worthwhile.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Just Checking In

Hi all - so I know I haven't been blogging much lately. Lots of professional obligations and other stuff going on in my life, and I just haven't had a lot of free time. The weekend when I did have free time (this past tomb sweeping), I went to Dajia to see the opening of the Matsu Pilgrimage and then to Lugang for a day of relaxation in that lovely, atmospheric town.

I'm still around though, and going to try to get back to my normal blogging schedule soon. I definitely have a lot of photos from Dajia and Lugang to share, and some videos too!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The White Knight Rises

Just recently I got into a debate with someone online about women traveling in India. The guy said he "wouldn't advise any [woman] (he said "female", I prefer "woman")to travel in India", let alone advise them to go alone.

I felt that statement and its defense by someone else - "it's legitimate to warn women about these issues" - implied a minor case of White Knight Syndrome: the idea that it is necessary to protect, defend, rescue or help someone else, due to a belief that that person needs your protection, defense, rescue or help. It's an assumption that the person (or group - in this case women) is vulnerable, weaker or in distress and unable to handle the situation herself/himself/themselves. In that case, any woman planning to go to India would have almost certainly read the news for herself and be able to assess the dangers herself. She doesn't really need some random guy giving her "advice", well-intentioned though it may be.

Then I got to thinking - do I have White Knight Syndrome? Not towards women, but towards Taiwanese?

If you see it one way, it doesn't look good: I have a lot of opinions, and I like to talk about my ideas for making Taiwan a better country. I'm openly critical of things I don't like, be they political parties, domestic or foreign policy, work culture, sexism or traditional ideas about education. I really do feel I have some "right" ideas, even as I recognize that no one person can have an entirely correct/objective perspective on everything. Obviously, anyone who has an opinion thinks they are right. Otherwise why have one? I do feel it's important to speak out, even if it's just to real-life acquaintances or on this blog - I'm not much of an activist beyond that.

Looking at it that way, you could make a case that I and every other foreigner with strong opinions about Taiwan has this problem. We're not Taiwanese, so who are we to go around spouting off what we think needs to be done in Taiwan? Who are we to criticize certain cultural mores? I care a lot about Taiwan, but it's not really my job to "defend" or "protect" it. Taiwan doesn't need a white knight - a literally white knight - to speak up for it. This country is capable of speaking up for and defending itself. Taiwanese people are perfectly capable of carrying on and disseminating this discourse on their own. They don't need Whitey McWhitegirl to do it for them. "Foreigners Come In And Fix Taiwan" is no good, just as "White People Fixed Racism" and "Men Fixed Sexism" are no good.

On the other hand, I live here too. I'm a permanent resident and I've thrown my lot in with Taiwan. When something happens here, it affects me too. Work culture affects me and racism and sexism certainly affect me. When 天龍 (Hao Lung-bin) makes another stupid decision or fails to take on a vital initiative (or tries and bungles it), it affects me, too. Integration with China, freedom of speech and the press, urban renewal, the nuclear debate, education policy and tradition: they all affect me.

And although I am not Taiwanese, do I not have the right to speak up about things that affect me too, that I care about? I may not fully understand and only be semi-integrated into society (I suspect there is a "sense of distance" - 有距離感 - that I will never overcome). Although my opinion doesn't carry the same weight as someone who was born and raised here - literally doesn't, as I can't vote - that doesn't mean I shouldn't get any say in what goes on in the place where I live.

The conclusion that I've come to is that I probably do have a tendency to be overprotective or defensive regarding Taiwan, and that I should be mindful of my opinions and how I express them. That does not, however, mean I can never express an opinion again. There are ways to be an ally and stand up for what you believe in, especially if you live somewhere and are affected just as much as others by something, without being a White Knight. The same goes for male feminists and straight LGBT allies, to name a few.

This makes it easy when it comes to debates on the economy, China policy, nuclear weapons and laws pertaining to foreigners. It gets murky when you start talking about things like education and women's issues. On one hand, as a woman and educator, these issues do affect me. How children are educated in Taiwan absolutely has some bearing on the thought processes and attitudes of the adults I work with. As a woman, I really believe that "but [this sexist belief] is a part of our traditional culture! You can't criticize OUR CULTURE!" is a load of crap. It is possible to maintain one's culture and also promote equality. It is possible to respect the past and also progress. You don't have to oppress women or any other group just to retain your culture. And yet, a foreigner speaking out about cultural issues pertaining to women could be seen as a White Knight. It's a fine line.

It's murkier still when you start talking about cultural habits (which are not universal, but generally observable) and norms. Am I being a White Knight when I say, for example, "Despite his low popularity and criticisms of his presidency, Ma Ying-jiu was re-elected because people in Taiwan tend to favor stability and pragmatism, and saw him as the 'stable' candidate with the 'pragmatic' view...and that sucks, because he's a terrible president with terrible ideas. I'd really like to see more people in Taiwan stand up for what they really believe in, and what they hold in their hearts, as opposed to sacrificing it for 'stability' and 'pragmatism'"? You might say that I am. I'm not sure I'd disagree with you. And yet, the outcome of elections here also affects me, even though I can't vote in them (which you could argue is unfair...but...). It's one of those things I have to think more deeply about.

Think about it like Zhuangzi and the fish - which someone else in that discussion brought up. How can you know how a fish feels if you are not a fish? How can I know how a Taiwanese person feels if I am not Taiwanese? (I once had a Taiwanese friend say this to me, by the way, a check on my opinions that I appreciated).

I am not Taiwanese, so how can I really know how a Taiwanese person feels? I can't.

And yet, I live here and have a pile of Taiwanese friends and acquaintances who have told me how they feel or what they think is best for their country or culture. So it's not as though I completely lack insight.

It comes down to - sure, if I live in Taiwan and have a blog that discusses issues in Taiwan, I have enough contact with locals to have some idea of how locals feel. This is my blog, and therefore of course, unless there's a guest post (and I'd welcome some, especially from Taiwanese women wanting to talk about women's issues in Taiwan) it has to come from me. But when the discussion includes both me and Taiwanese people, the best individuals to speak out on how Taiwanese people feel are...Taiwanese people themselves. Not me. They're the fish - they know better than I do how a fish feels. They know better than I do what's best for fish.

That doesn't mean I can't say anything. Just that I need to be mindful: I am not a fish.

There are no clear answers - but it is an issue worth discussing and exploring, and definitely worth keeping in mind, especially among foreign expats who opine on their adopted homes.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Sri Lanka: Kandy-land Adventure


I apologize for not posting for two weeks - I took on a crazypants teaching schedule, trying to save money before I make a change in August, and haven't had much time for blogging. I also worked my way through The Forty Days of Musa Dagh after reading a few other things on my list (Hiking Through History and The Oracle of Stamboul), and that took up a lot of my time.

What's more, I've been thinking more seriously of making jewelry to actually sell - although I haven't started yet, just planning what to make and what I'll need - if I decide to do it at all - is taking up time.

And sadly, blogging fell by the wayside.


I believe this is my last batch of Sri Lanka photos (I have to check and see if the Galle photos ever made it up, and later on I'll throw up a few Colombo shots), and I don't have too much to say beyond basic travelogue stuff. But I should note a few things about similarities between Sri Lanka and Taiwan.

I mean, there are the obvious things, like how they're both islands off a major landmass that is also one country, and both independent (although Taiwan is only de facto, Sri Lanka is de jure). They both have monkeys. They are both often overlooked in favor of their larger and more powerful neighbors.


But there's more.

Both have an ethnic minority of another race that has influence over the culture (Tamils in Sri Lanka, aborigines and Hakka here - some will argue that Hakka is not an ethnic minority. OK, you could say that, but they are a cultural and linguistic one).

They both are relatively small players in the world economy (Sri Lanka moreso than Taiwan) next to a major player, but both have higher per capita GDP statistics than their "big, rich" neighbor. Both are more prosperous when you consider individual standard of living than their neighbor. Both are easier to deal with as destinations than traveling in their neighbor (I love India, but Sri Lanka was an easier place to visit).


They both have some unfortunate politics worth discussing. I was not pleased that the LTTE lost the civil war - I was rooting for them to at least win concessions, autonomy or some sort of enforced legislation of equal treatment and opportunity. This is in part because I lived in Tamil Nadu in India and so have something of a connection to Tamil culture although I am not Tamil myself, and in part because they fought back against true discrimination. They didn't deserve to lose, and they're not doing much better now than they were when the war began.

And of course, Taiwan has to deal with all that China bullshit.


They both have monkeys!

But seriously, they both have cultural traditions that involve tiny shrines everywhere. Along the road in Sri Lanka, much like in Taiwan (but not China, in my observation), there are small Buddhist shrines (and a few Hindu ones too), that you can stop and pray at, or are there just to keep farms, fields or property safe and in god's grace. In Taiwan, of course, you'll see Earth God (土地公) shrines everywhere, and a few others (Matsu is popular) scattered around, too.


Their cultures are both too often considered the same or "close enough" to their larger, more well-known neighbors.


They are both influenced strongly not only by their Big Strong Neighbor, but also by other nearby islands - as is the case with island nations in proximity to other ones. Taiwan is deeply influenced by Japan by both proximity, cultural affinity (including post-WWII when Taiwan was one of the only - the only? - Asian nation to not despise or resent Japan) and colonization. Sri Lanka has flavors of Indonesia in its art, traditions, architecture and cooking - you see woodcarving that's more reminiscent of Bali, "tiki" style thatch roofs more commonly seen in Sumatra and Java, food that reminds me of Padang cuisine almost as much as it does Indian curry, greater use of coconut and an affinity for "sambol", which is basically spicy Indonesian sambal with coconut.

Even their art has lines - look at the legs of the carved dancer below - that remind me of Indonesian Hindu/Buddhist art more than Indian.

Some of their dances seem more Indonesian than Indian, but I am hardly an expert in Sri Lankan dance tradition.


Anyway, these photos were taken in Kandy, Sri Lanka's cultural capital (think of it as the Tainan of Sri Lanka, Galle as the Lugang of Sri Lanka, the southern beaches as the Kending of Sri Lanka, Ella/Nuwara Eliya as the Alishan of Sri Lanka...they could all almost be sister cities/sister destinations).


The afternoon we arrived, after a nauseating bus trip, we waited out a rainstorm (common in Kandy in the afternoon) and headed to the Temple of the Tooth (above), where it's said that they keep a tooth of the Buddha. I'm not sure if it's real - it's been absconded with, taken to India and brought back enough times that it could well be a fake - but the temple is lovely.


We went to a fun, but basic, tea museum the next day, taking a rickshaw up the mountain and walking down to enjoy the weather and scenery. And we saw this:



...and passed a Durga shrine. Durga, the embodiment of feminine creative energy and the Optimus Prime/Power Rangers Giant Robot of Hindu gods, carries weapons in her 18 arms and rides a tiger or lion. She killed the demon Mahisha when no other god could. Of course she is my favorite.



Jaya jaya hai, Mahishasura Mardhini!

We hired a rickshaw to take us to the three most well-known temples outside of Kandy (not a lot of public transit), which were all enjoyable, if firmly on the tourist circuit:












...and we saw a super touristy dance show, which was fun, but not as authentic as, say, a Taiwanese temple parade (I'd love to see such dances in an authentic setting, but all the cameras going off kind of ruined it. I'm not against taking photos - I take them, too - but it was downright rude, how people would stand in the audience or hold their cameras up high so those behind them not only couldn't see, but also could watch you take your terrible photos...because most tourists aren't good photographers).




Here's one of the shrines I mentioned:


And the beach we started out from, at Negombo (it was a less stressful option than staying in Colombo). Seems quiet - actually, it was stuffed with tourists.