Sunday, February 2, 2014

Popeye on the Horse

Chinese New Year is a time of long-standing traditions. Family reunions, setting off firecrackers and “congratulating” others for making it through another year creates a festive air. People show off new clothes bought specifically for the holidays, and nary is an ugly Christmas sweater seen. There is great food that often has deeply symbolic meaning to this joyous time of year. “Nian-gao” is a steamed cake made from rice flour and illustrates the common Chinese desire for a prosperous year. Mandarin oranges, especially abundant at this time of year, suggest luck and good fortune. “Long-life vegetable” is a green leafy dish with a slightly bitter taste, seemingly foreshadowing the acerbic temperament that sometimes comes with age. However, this year, I got to experience a few new “practices” that are sure to make the Year of the Horse one of the best.
The miracle of the single fish.
The Chinese word for fish, , is a homophone for “surplus”, thus making it a staple for the New Year’s Eve meal. The fish served must be large enough so that there will be some left over, suggesting that prosperity will overflow in the household. So, according to (the names are being withheld to protect the identities of innocent relatives), an easy way to ensure the riches will pour forth is to cook the fish and place it on the table, but not eat it. Simply gaze at it and perhaps have the head pointing at the head of the household to maximize the effect. That last bit about the fish head was pure speculation on my part and led to a lively debate as to whether to point it at my sister-in-law, at whose house we were eating, or towards the kitchen at the back of the house, thus directing the flow of wealth through the front door and into the house. Fortunately, there was more than enough food at our feast and the fish escaped unscathed, only to be plastic-wrapped and placed in the fridge for the New Year’s Day meal.
All roads might lead to Rome, but only one…
Just before midnight on New Year’s Eve, my wife was waiting for me at the door with a mat and some coins in her hand. She then laid out the money in front of the door, starting with two fifty-dollar coins about a foot (30cm) from the doorway, followed by six ten-dollar coins a few inches (cm) closer to the entrance and finally eight one-dollar coins forming the base of a trapezoid. Once again, some homophonic magic was being produced. The Chinese words for 1, 6 and 8 (yī, liù, bā) are similar to “one road to wealth” (yī lù fā). Having placed two feet on the mat for maximum effect, I only need to sit back and wait for the yellow brick road to come to my door.
My hearing is 20/20.
And to insure that I would be on easy street, I was given a red envelope containing six hundred dollars to place in my pillowcase just before going to bed that night. Apparently, this will multiply over the coming year. To my dismay, I unwittingly flipped the pillow between my second and third sleep cycle and seemingly pierced my ear with the corner of the envelope. Luckily, my medical insurance will pay for any hearing test I may need next week.
I yam what I yam!
At about 11:30 in the morning on New Year’s Day, I asked my wife what she thought we could get for lunch. Such a question is appropriate as most noodle stands or dumpling shops are closed on the first day of the new year, leaving only pricy restaurants serving multiple courses or American fast food. Suddenly, Tina jumped up and said that she forgot to cook up the spinach her sister had given her the night before. The vegetable was to be eaten in the morning of New Year’s Day, though Tina was unable to tell me what benefit would be derived from it. Since it was not noon yet, I pointed out that she still had time to boil it and then throw some soy sauce on it, which she quickly did. That night, back at my sister-in-law’s house, I once again asked the significance of the spinach, and once again, no one was able to provide an answer. My niece made the assumption that it was a health issue, that similar to the above-mentioned “long-life” vegetable, eating the spinach symbolically provided the consumer a good base for a healthy year. However, one of my nephews suggested that perhaps it was something started by the spinach growers to help raise prices.

On a serious note, it is easy for a Westerner to scoff at such practices. Some might even want to call them superstitions. However, when one considers that even only sixty years ago, when the majority of the Chinese, and for that matter, East Asians lived in poverty, subject to the whims of (a.) nature, (b.) dynastic oligarchies, (c.) the gods and/or (d.) dumb luck, the people would try to find any means possible to get out ahead. There’s something to be said about wearing red undies on New Year’s Eve. Especially when they’re comfortable.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Pretzel Logic

About a decade and a half ago, I saw a man doing yoga on some cardboard just outside the Tainan City Culture Center. At least, that’s what the homemade sign on a similar piece of cardboard said, just above the request for donations. At that time, the only thing I knew about yoga was the lotus position, which made sitting like a Native American seem a lot easier than sitting like an Indian. This guy in Tainan must have been a part-time contortionist. He could scratch his left ear with his right big toe after swinging his leg around the back of his head. He assumed positions that made me cringe in intestinal discomfort.
A few years later, my wife was able to get a teacher to come up to Chiayi once a week to give a class at our home. Along with a half dozen friends, we would follow the instructions of a master whose title was Dada. No, it was not an avant-garde painting class, but actual yoga exercises as proffered by Dada’s group, which is a polite, apolitical way of saying religion (sect? cult?). He gave me a book about some of their practices, from which the only thing I remember now was the prohibition of cutting the hair in the pubic region. He also give me some regulation underwear sanctioned by his group, which I tied the wrong way and brought back terrible memories of junior high gym classes.
The exercises were great and I was really proud that I was able to perform most of them with a relatively high degree of proficiency. Dada also showed a few difficult postures that were designed to increase strength, a concept that seemed in direct contrast to what I had always thought yoga was all about. For me, yoga was just a series of different positions used to enhance meditation, with the ultimate goal of calming the mind and thus the body. Dada showed us various exercises that developed the body so that the mind could better control it and find serenity.
Our class disbanded after about a year and I did not stick with the regimen. I was (and still am) too competitive, too Western, too much into organized sports. However, yoga has grown in popularity throughout Taiwan. There is a 24-hour channel that just runs yoga shows, usually with lean, straight-backed artisans leading a small “class” through various routines. A number of centers have opened around Chiayi and apparently flourish. At the front of one of them is a huge advert with a skinny Indian assuming a position that only a man with double jointed knees and lacking muscle mass could possibly hold. The soles of his feet are almost on his chest, with his toes just inches below his chin. This alone shouts “masochist” to me, but this feeling is reinforced by his eyes, which pop out to the size cue balls. His face screams “I know I’m supposed to be loving it, but…”
Which brings me back to the yogic shape shifter back in Tainan. I actually saw him again on a visit to the Culture Center earlier this year. He was still performing on cardboard, wearing only a pair of dark blue pants like last time, and still asking for tips. His hair had flecks of gray, but he was still squirming about assuming different postures that made his small physique appear both fluid and rock hard. I now wonder if he would be a good candidate for the Taiwanese yoga asana, or posture yoga, team when it becomes an Olympic sport. I imagine a woman, her waist twisted like a cleaning rag so that the back of her toned shoulders are facing the front of an uplifted leg, the foot pointing upward like a sword, while her other leg curls underneath and seemingly wraps around her buttocks. She slowly turns her face to the camera and while exhaling slowly whispers, “Just do it.”

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Fashionable Poetry

Speakers of English are constantly harping about “Chinglish”, random, ridiculous writings found all over Taiwan and China, usually created by businessmen and government officials as attempts to appease, entice or instruct foreigners. Obviously, such abuse of the English language is not restricted to East Asia. I am certain that similar examples of inappropriate word usage or incorrect grammar can found in other non-English-speaking countries. However, it is taken to a whole new level in East Asia. Signs on walkways tell pedestrians to “Slip and Fall Down Carefully” or provide the direction “To the Boat(s) for Ticket-holding Fits”. There are scrumptious foods like “grilled chicken ass” in the frozen food section of a supermarket, “selected fresh crapmeats” on the menu of a seafood restaurant or “bottled water” in a can available at a convenience store. A “Don’t Disurb” sign at a hospital makes to plea not to leave any over-populated Chinese cities. My all-time favorite is the grocer with the sign “Spread to Fuck the Fruit”. Apparently, when looking up the translation of the Chinese word for “dry”, he inserted the wrong tone and came up with his own version of strawberries and cream.
Perhaps what irks most English speakers about these incoherent messages is that one would think that whoever came up with them would have a relative in the States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, England or even Scotland with whom they could get a spell check. I could imagine government officials being reluctant due to nationalistic feelings (“Of coulse, we knows what we doing!”) or the knowledge that their superior’s English sucks worse than theirs, but the businessman must realize how such mistakes would hamper their enterprise.
However, the fashion world seems to be immune to any ill-effects of Chinglish. In fact, sayings that appear on various pieces of attire verge on poetry, their meanings clouded in double entendre and multiple layers of understanding approaching the levels of classical poets. The following are examples gleaned from some of my students with my humble attempts at interpreting them.
“Rob a Dub Dub”
Obviously, it is an advocacy of one of China’s important industries, the pirating of western films onto which a new soundtrack can be applied. The repetition of the final two words illustrate one the obstacles many of these entrepreneurs face, that of dubbing and overdubbing a dialogue into not only Mandarin, but also one of the two dozen dialects spoken in the country, thus creating that much beloved theatrical nuance of a voice emanating slightly later than when the actors’ mouths actually move.
LOVE of beauty
creation of
is art
This e.e.cummingsesque selection reflects the Oriental passion for culinary delights. Coming from America, where portion size dominates the presentation of any dish, be it a T-bone steak or a submarine sandwich, I have always been struck by the Taiwanese knack for combining outrageously incongruent foodstuffs to appeal to the eye of the diner. Perfect examples include colorful ice cream sprinkles being placed on pale potato salad, while corn flakes are used as a garnish for an ice cream sundae.
off the
The political message of the passage, an indictment of the American government, would be self-evident if I were able to place the winged red, white and blue shield that appeared between “off the” and “WALLS” on my student’s shirt. However, copyright laws, coupled with my lack of interest to search through Google Images for a reasonable facsimile, make it impossible for me to recreate actual scene. The fervor of the words, though, is still palpable through the next to last line, especially when spoken quickly, as was certainly intended by omitting the spaces between the words.

I hope that the minute selection above has piqued your interest in viewing Chinglish not as an affront to your mother tongue, but as a means of expression, one albeit nonsensical and ridiculous, but also a window into the soul of the inscrutable Asians.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Back to the Future

Last week, two old students visited me at my cram school. They had attended my classes over fifteen years ago and the only way I knew who they were was when I recognized their mother, who, in typical Taiwanese fashion, had not changed much at all. The younger brother was as tall as me and told me how he had already gotten a master’s in computer science and had just finished his military service. At a recent interview, he was asked to have a five-minute conversation in English. He said that it stretched out to almost twenty minutes as they discussed his travels to Japan and the Czech Republic, as well as one of his passions, American sports.
I had actually run into the older sister a few months ago at the Foreign Affairs Office in Chiayi. When I had entered, I first spoke to a young official sitting at the counter nearest the door. Suddenly, I heard my name from the back of the room, but when I looked along the counter and at the rows of empty chairs to the left, all I saw were two female civil servants at their work stations. So, I simply ignored the call, thinking that I must have heard something that sounded like my name.
“You don’t recognize me, do you, Hugo?” asked one of the women. As I walked further into the office, I saw that she looked to be around twenty-five years old, but you know how hard it is to tell with Taiwanese women.
“Sorry, but do I teach one of your children?”
She rolled her eyes and then looked straight at me. “I was one of your students!” She had graduated with an English degree and had been working at the Foreign Affairs Ministry for more than a half dozen years now. Though I must admit that I had no idea who she actually was until I returned home and dug up an old picture of her class, it was great having a conversation with her, hearing how English had helped her at work and boosted her career.
Unlike most English teachers in Taiwan, I often get to see how my teaching has affected my students. Dozens of former students have gone onto study in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand. One former student who had been a liaison between an Italian company and the Taiwan Hi-Speed Rail told me about his new-found appreciation for wine. One day, I ran into another who had attended Wenzao, the premier language university located in Kaohsiung, and we spoke about her semester in Frankfurt mostly in German, her second foreign language at university.
So, to all those teachers out there who look at their job as simply a job, realize that, for better and hopefully not worse, you have a huge impact on individual students that will last their entire lives. What you need to recognize is the atmosphere that you create in your own class goes beyond grammar and proper pronunciation. The one common thread that runs through the successful students I have met over the years is a lack of fear of screwing up coupled with a knack for remembering mistakes and not making them again.

As most of you will be at your current position for a short period of time, realize that you are providing the building blocks, the base on which the next teacher can expand your students’ ability and shape their future, a future that they cannot imagine, but will be upon them in a short time. Hopefully, you will have provided them with advantages that will open the world to them and their dreams.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

A License to Spin the Wheel

The license plate of my car has the numbers 3866. “Eight”, or “bā” in Mandarin, is the luckiest number in Chinese numerology because it sounds like “fā”, the Mandarin word for “generating wealth”. In Cantonese, “six” has a similar homophonic distinction, but also a similar pronunciation to the Mandarin word for “flow” and is considered beneficial in business, i.e. “cash flow” or “customer flow”. Even the “three” sounds like the Chinese word for “birth”, thus rendering it auspicious as well, since birth is part of the three traditional major events of a man’s life (birth, marriage and death).
Numerology is big business in Asia. License plates with all eights are sold for over US$100,000 in different Chinese provinces. Shortly after I came to Taiwan, I remember reading about the lucky winner at an auction held by the Taiwanese DMV for a “super 8” plate, one containing six 8’s. I don’t remember how much was paid, but it was some astronomical amount. Just a few years ago, someone paid NT$ 3.5 million (over US$120,000) for another “super 8” plate. The car to which the plates were registered was worth only NT$600,000, or a little more than a sixth of the cost of the Taiwanese version of a vanity plate. It was intended to be a Father’s Day gift, which, in Taiwan, falls on August eighth, or “bā-bā”.
Since I have never had an accident in my car and it has never given me any major mechanical headaches, I could give credit to the luck of the numbers. The fact that I usually only drive on long trips to bigger cities and rarely around Chiayi doesn’t hurt either. I have also considered how the letters “LT” that precede the numbers may have had any impact on my driving past or future. While the “T” does not have much of a descriptive history, the “L” comes from the ancient hieroglyph for an oxen goad and the Semitic shepherd’s crook. Maybe the “L” metaphorically protects me and any riders, much like a goat-herder’s staff keeps the wolves at bay.
Taiwanese license plates are simply black numbers with a white background, definitely better than the old New Jersey puke-yellow-on-dull-blue that I remember. I saw that the design has been changed and the plates now looks like they have been partially faded by the sun. And, of course, they had to retain the assertion that NJ is the Garden State. If only I had a more favorable attitude towards cranberries, then I wouldn’t snicker every time I hear that nickname.

I must admit though that I do prefer the colorful displays put forth by various American states. However, that may not last for long. I read about an Oklahoma man suing the state because he objected to a picture of a sculpture on his license, arguing that it violated the idea of separation of church and state. The statue, Sacred Rain Arrow, depicts a mythical Native American warrior aiming an arrow straight up in the sky in an attempt to end a drought. Various renderings of the work appeared at the Olympics and the Smithsonian, but apparently, the “Christian” saw the license as a means of endorsing a specific religion. Incidentally, one of his main arguments is his refusal to pay extra for a plate without that small bit of Oklahoma culture. I wonder how he would felt with a white cowboy riding a bucking bronco. Would he have taken the animal rights tack? Somehow I doubt it.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Not So Wild West Comes to Taiwan

Just the other night, I saw a commercial about some breath-freshening agent. As is often typical with memorable TV ads, one remembers the storyline, but forgets the actual product. It might have been toothpaste, maybe mouthwash, possibly breath mints. What stuck in my mind was the warning that appeared at the bottom of the screen, which to me, signaled the final submission of Taiwanese society to the morals of the so-called enlightened West.
A party full of Asians is in progress as the advertisement opens. A man at the bar eyes a pretty woman across the room, who returns the gaze with an alluring grin. Right there, I realized how bogus this set-up was. Western women, who have striven for equality, especially over the last half-century, have arrived at a place where they can stride across a room and walk up to a man, confident in their beauty, personality, sexuality, ability and whatever other “-ty” they want to exhibit. On the other hand, stunningly attractive Taiwanese women, like the one on TV, have perfected that bored look that screams, “Drop dead. I want nothing to do with you,” a look that Western women rarely use. In my opinion, this facial expression stems from centuries of Asian women being forced to cultivate their appearance instead of their minds and thus resulting in an attitude that says, “If you want any of this, you need to show that you’re worth it.”
So when the beauty in the ad glides towards the relative handsome guy, perhaps it is a recognition of the fact that a higher percentage of Taiwanese women enter university than men and a growing percentage of women are entering the Taiwanese workforce and political arena. In the words of an earlier American ad, Taiwanese women have come a long way, baby, and can now confidently approach a man and deal with him as a peer. However, we soon see that the man is not an equal to this Asian Diana because he has bad breath and has nothing to remedy his malady. So, he resorts to drinking the water out of the fish bowl at the end of the bar. Here is where a cautionary notice appears at the bottom of the screen stating that ingesting fish bowl water is not good for one’s health and places the fish’s life in peril.
In Taiwan, there are warning labels on cigarette packs with pictures of rotting teeth and gum disease that remind me of the black lung pics Larry Flynt used to put on the backs of his Hustler mags. In China, I saw poster-size blow-ups of bloody traffic accidents above the urinals at highway rest-stops, condemning drinking and driving. Similar to broadcasts in the States, Japanese wrestling broadcasts lead off with the notice that “trained professionals” perform the stunts and that one should not try them at home. Such warnings I can live with. And admittedly, the wording for the admonishment on the above ad is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it made me wonder if Taiwanese had gotten as ridiculous as Americans who need a warning label on a cup of boiling hot coffee before sipping it to test its temperature. (It’s coffee in a Styrofoam cup, so, of course, it’s hot, stupid.)
Helmets on motorcyclists became required only about a decade ago. Now, middle school students are told to wear helmets if they ride a bike to school. Backseat riders have to buckle up or the fines will be meted out. People still put toddlers in bamboo chairs strapped onto the footboards of scooters, though there is a call to ban such seating. The Chiayi night market no longer wraps around the athletics stadium. Instead, it has been set up next to a department store on Bo-ai Road, where the vendors are provided with safer electric power and cleaner running water for the price of being better regulated by the government. After a legislator had visited the US and was so impressed by our treatment of our pets, he introduced and was able to enact a law prohibiting the sale of dog meat.
Before you know it, the Taiwanese government is going to make medical insurance compulsory. We’ll all have ID’s with dreaded computer chips storing all our info. At the first sign of sickness, we’ll have to pay around NT$100 (or US$3) for a visit to a doctor and not have to pay anything for the prescription. The birth of a baby will cost a few thousand NT$, not US$. Even dental care will be covered.
Wait a minute, that’s right, we already have all that in Taiwan.

Who’s enlightened now?

Saturday, October 12, 2013

A Non-national Day?

Double Ten Day, the national day of Taiwan’s alias, the Republic of China, has come and gone. There was a big parade in Taipei and President Wang gave a speech about all that he has done for the ROC in the past year and will do in the next. Yet, with his dismal approval rating, I wonder how many people actually listened to him. When I explain to new teachers or folks back home that this is the national day of the country, they imagine parades and fireworks that make kids throughout the States, from big cities to small farming towns, “oooh” and “aaah” on the Fourth of July. However, whereas the Fourth of July probably would rank below Christmas and almost tied with Thanksgiving as favorite holidays for Americans, Double Ten Day probably doesn’t even break into the top five for Taiwanese, lagging far behind the big three of the lunar calendar, Chinese New Year, Dragon Boat Festival and Mid-Autumn Festival. Tomb-sweeping Day, as morbid as it may sound to a Westerner, probably ranks higher in importance, while 2-2-8 reaches to the hearts of most Taiwanese more than a holiday commemorating a historical event in mainland China that occurred when Taiwan was a colony of Japan.
When I first arrived to Taiwan, the Double-Ten parade reminded me of the May Day parades in the old Soviet Union. Military hardware, much of it from America, was rumbled through the streets of Taipei. Tanks, SAM batteries, rocket launchers with new missiles developed by the Taiwanese, troop transports and communication trucks were spaced between brigades of marching soldiers, military police on motorcycles, Navy Seals straddling rubber rafts on the backs of trucks, even the women’s auxiliary strutting their stuff. As martial law was still around, it made sense to make this show of strength, especially since the mainlanders had the same kind of show for their national day festivities.
However, with growing democratization, the parade got mellower. High school bands were invited to perform and floats began to appear. Students dressed as ancient warriors performed dance routines in front of the reviewing stand, where fewer uniforms were present and a growing number of politicians got a better view of the procession. In recent years, instead of soldiers in their pressed uniforms and with their precision movements, ordinary citizens in color-coordinated outfits strolled down Ketagalan Boulevard creating the Double-Ten symbol. There were still some exihibits of martial ability, but the parade come off more as a fun-fest, especially when it was capped off with a well-choreographed fireworks and laser-light display.
Unfortunately, we here in Chiayi could only enjoy the proceedings from our sofas. I remember seeing a parade once going down Jung Shan Road, but it consisted of a few elementary school marching bands and some police officers on their personal scooters, all of them staying on the shoulder of the road. Though the government buildings would be decorated with Christmas lights from the beginning of October to Chinese New Year twenty-something years ago, the effort is rarely made anymore. One year, there was an excellent fireworks show, but it has not been repeated due to a lack of funding.

Apparently such fiscal concerns are going to affect the Taipei parade in the near-future, as the Ministry of Education has announced that there is no money in the budget to fund the performing middle school bands. I wonder if that will lead to the parade reverting to a showcase of Taiwan’s military might. It’s quite possible, since cram school classes and the need for catch up on sleep on the weekend would prevent Taiwanese high schoolers trying to raise money for the band with activities like a car wash or a bake sale.