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Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Sky is Falling!: The Day of Restoration of the State of Lithuania

Flags, flags everywhere

Vladimir Putin was once quoted as saying that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. But it's actually the opposite of that observation that's true - the establishment of the USSR in 1917 (formally in 1922) ushered in seven decades of misery that resulted in the deaths of millions of people, from the Red Terror and the Holodomor to the Great Purge and the Gulag Archipelago. Lithuania's experience as an unwilling constituent republic from 1940 to 1990 saw the deaths of thousands from executions, deportations and armed resistance to the Red Army. So it comes as no surprise that Lithuanians treasure their independence and sovereignty. Today is a public holiday, the Day of Restoration of the State of Lithuania (Lietuvos valstybės atkūrimo diena), which, along with March 11 (the Day of Restoration of Independence of Lithuania), serve as important markers in establishing a sense of national self-identity. February 16 was the day in 1918 when the Act of Independence of Lithuania was signed in Vilnius, proclaiming the country as a sovereign state independent of the collapsed Russian Empire. At the time the country was under German occupation, but aspiration became reality later that year with Germany's defeat in the First World War. The 16th of February became an official holiday with the restoration of Lithuanian independence and the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1990-1991, and is celebrated with various ceremonies held throughout the country. I wanted to participate in some of these events, but She Who Must be Obeyed had decreed this Thursday to be the day when new light bulbs must be purchased to replace several that had recently burned out in our kitchen and in one of the bedrooms. Still, I found time in the late morning to take a walk into Old Town and see what was going on.

As with most things in Vilnius, I began at Cathedral Square:

Inside Vilnius Cathedral, preparations were under way for a special commemoration mass:

Outside in the square preparations were under way for the Celebrate Freedom Concert, to be held from 7-9 p.m.:

The House of Signatories (Signatarų Namai) museum on Pilies gatvė. It was here that Lithuania's Declaration of Independence was signed on February 16, 1918. A flower laying ceremony was scheduled to be held there in the middle of the afternoon today:

A group with a guide gathers in front of the Town Hall:

Having a little fun with filters and flags:

With my usual impeccable timing I showed up at the Presidential Palace soon after President Dalia Grybauskaitė had given her speech and the flag raising ceremony had been completed:

Displays of patriotism in the middle of the afternoon as we walked to the lighting fixtures store for the aforementioned light bulbs. The shop turned out to be closed for the holiday, of course:

The Boy with a Big Shoe in His Hands, a statue of 9 year-old boy holding a shoe (a depiction of French novelist Romain Gary, who was born and raised in Vilnius), was also showing some pride this afternoon:

After the sun had set, my daughter and I left the apartment again and walked over to Gediminas Prospektas, to check out a series of sixteen bonfires lining the street from Vincas Kurdika Square to Vilnius Cathedral, enjoying both the atmosphere and the warmth in the -1°C (30°F) evening air:

This group was singing a Lithuanian song:

At one point Amber pointed out a drone flying overhead. A few moments later I heard a loud buzzing noise. I looked up at the drone, and suddenly it dropped out of the sky and crashed onto the road about a meter from where I was standing. In the 21st century you need to be aware of not only what's around you, but what's above you as well:

In Cathedral Square, where preparations were underway for the evening's concert:

The Three Crosses lit up in the national colors (yellow, green and red):

The statue of Gediminas in front of the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania:

Lithuanians are justifiably proud of the hard-fought restoration of their independence, first in 1918 and again in 1990. Uglier expressions of nationalism, like those often seen in places such as China, Russia and, sadly, at times in the United States are largely absent here. If we're in town next year at this same time (we're leaving tomorrow on a weeklong trip to Finland and Estonia), I hope to convince Shu-E to join my daughter and me in going out and taking part in the celebration of Lithuanian statehood.

I don't usually post work-related matters on this blog, but I thought I'd share this image, from the website of the Lithuanian document processing center. We were given a tour of the center last week, and it was fascinating to see the machines in operation producing passports and identity cards.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

In the center of the Lantern Festival

The girls admire a frozen lake

Saturday was the fifteenth day of the first month of the Lunar New Year, meaning it was time for the Lantern Festival 元宵節. You wouldn't have known it in Lithuania, of course, but that's perfectly understandable. What's harder to comprehend is why you wouldn't have known it in our household. True, there isn't much that can be done to observe the occasion here in the Baltics, and even in Taiwan few children these days will carry paper lanterns with riddles written on them to local temples. In this day and age of tourism promotion, many Taiwanese will attend official activities in public parks and plazas; this year's Taiwan Lantern Festival 臺灣燈會 is being held in my wife's home region of Yúnlín County 雲林縣.

If you haven't figured it out already, Shu-E is originally from Taiwan. You would therefore think that she would try and instill in our daughter (who was born in Fēngyuán 豐原 and carries a Republic of China 中華民國 passport) a sense of Taiwanese identity while we're living overseas (or even in the U.S.), but then you would be mistaken. When we were residing in Taiwan, I made sure that we celebrated the main American holidays so Amber could stay in touch with that half of her bi-cultural identity, but my wife doesn't share the same sense of urgency when it comes to other half (the Chinese/Taiwanese one). If it wasn't for me, cultural occasions such as the Lunar New Year would get overlooked. There's an odd sense of irony at play here when the hopeless Japanophile American is the one trying to get his bi-cultural offspring interested in Taiwanese culture, to learn to read and write traditional characters and to be proud of both of her heritages. I should be thankful Shu-E uses Mandarin when conversing with Amber; I'm still trying to have her speak to our daughter in the Taiwanese dialect 臺灣話 as well, but to no avail so far (she won't teach me the language, either).

So how did we observe the Lantern Festival in Vilnius, you might be asking yourself (or not)? First, by visiting the Humanitas bookstore on Dominikonų gatvė, where my daughter used some of her Christmas/birthday cash to purchase a book on how to draw cats (later that afternoon she would buy the next two entries in the Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children series from Akademinė Knyga). Humanitas is a great place to browse books on art, design and travel, and there were a couple of titles on Soviet and Taiwanese architecture that may convince me to let the moths out and use my holiday spending money as well:

Next, we had lunch at Kitchen, a stylish international restaurant off of Didžioji gatvė that didn't feature any Chinese dishes on its menu of contemporary cuisine. I tucked into the homemade sausages with tomatoes and mushrooms, and washed them down with a Raudonų Plytų Bėganti Kopa wheat beer:

Afterward, we strolled through Old Town before heading home. It hasn't snowed in Vilnius in a while, but the temperature has consistently remained below freezing, so there's still a lot of ice and snow around. Amber took some time out to slide down one such mound in the plaza across from the French embassy:

The days are getting noticeably longer, though the weather's still chilly (-4°C/25°F the high on Saturday) and the sun prefers to remain hidden most of the time. Passing through Cathedral Square on Saturday afternoon:

For dinner, as we've been doing on all the major Chinese/Taiwanese cultural occasions, we went to one of Vilnius' mediocre Chinese restaurants, this one a Cantonese place a short walk from our residence. At least the food here is better than at the establishment where we had our Lunar New Year's Eve meal. My daughter brought along a book on Chinese festivals to try and make sense of Yuánxiāojié - three guesses as to who bought it for her:

As they are for many Taiwanese, issues of cultural identity are not easily defined for my spouse, especially as she grew up in a household with a wàishěngrén 外省人 father (who spoke only Mandarin) and a běnshěngrén 本省人 mother (who only can converse in Taiwanese). So it's best if I don't push her too much when it comes to Amber, whom I'm confident will start feeling the need to fully embrace her Taiwanese side around the time she starts her sophomore year at college.

The sixteenth day of the Lunar New Year (aka Sunday) was even colder than the day before, with the temperature never climbing above -7°C (19°F), but by this point in our Vilnius-based life, it doesn't feel that chilly anymore. Which is in stark contrast to the present situation in Taiwan, where a cold snap has resulted in the deaths of over 80 people as temperatures plunged to 4°C (39°F). 4°! It's tempting to be snarky, but Lithuanians are much better prepared (with their central heating) for the cold than Taiwanese (who typically live in apartments consisting of uninsulated concrete walls, bare tiled floors and no heat); no doubt a typically hot and humid East Asian-style summer would take its toll on people in this part of the world.

On this day after the Lantern Festival the three of us drove into the countryside just outside of Vilnius, to a geographical position marked as latitude 54° 54', longitude 25° 19'. What's so special about this bearing? According to the French National Geographical Institute, it's the geographical center of Europe (Geografinis Europos Centras)! The actual midpoint of the continent is debatable, of course, and the French came to this conclusion by stretching Europe's boundaries into the Atlantic Ocean to include the Portuguese-administered Azores to the west and the Spanish-controlled Canary Islands to the south. Still, the Lithuanians were more than happy to erect a white granite obelisk with a crown of gold stars to mark the spot:

There are also 29 different flags, one for each member of the European Union, plus that of the EU itself:

The center of Europe is located about a half-hour drive north from where we live. There was a lot more snow on the ground compared to the streets of the capital. Had we known, we could've brought along Amber's disk sled to take advantage of the hilly terrain. Wait till next year:

On the large frozen lake next to the geographic midpoint a couple of people were enjoying an afternoon of ice fishing:

We returned to Vilnius for a late leisurely lunch at one of Shu-E's favorite restaurants, FORTAS. It's a chain specializing in international cuisine, with special menus devoted to particular countries. By fortuitous chance, the current featured cuisine is that of Belgium. Mussels, frietjes and Leffe beer may not be your typical Lantern Festival fare, but it was a nice way to round off the weekend:

Next up on the cultural calendar is Tomb Sweeping Day. I'm not sure how we're going to observe this one, especially as we never bothered much with it in Taiwan (something to do with my wife marrying out of her family, and therefore not responsible for maintaining their graves). As for the Lantern Festival, here's a link to a short NHK news story on the spectacular but environmentally-unfriendly practice of sending sky lanterns soaring into the atmosphere. I would occasionally see these fly over our building while we were living in Shéngāng 神岡.

Considering my age, job and marital status, a place best avoided

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Feeling delirious

It's been a quiet weekend staying at home (for the most part) as I struggle to contain a cold from getting worse. Which is a shame because the weather has been pretty nice lately. Yesterday, in fact, would've been a great day to have gone for a drive outside of Vilnius, but sometimes timing just doesn't work out for the best. If you've been following the news lately regarding the new administration and a certain executive order, you probably think I've been busy at work dealing with the continually-changing situation. But the actual effect on our operations has been less than expected. If you're wondering about my take on the order, let me just say that despite the disclaimer at the bottom of this blog page, I (along with everybody else) have been advised to be discrete in what we post on social media, so I'll be keeping some opinions to myself.

Inside the Cathedral of the Theotokos

On Thursday, perhaps feeling stifled on some fronts, or maybe just suffering from the ill-effects of the oncoming cold, I turned my attention to much-less important matters. Namely, my curiosity at a Sino-centric comment left on a Facebook post in which I linked an article on an unpleasant aspect of the Japanese language. I was bemused rather than annoyed, but still gave vent to some ideas of mine regarding what transformations expatriates in Taiwan undergo the longer they stay on the island. When I was finished and read it over, I realized what a disjointed mess it was, with no clear point on a topic that doesn't merit that much time and effort. I also almost completely overlooked the hypocritical fact that I've always tended to look at Taiwan through my own experiences living and working in Japan. So I decided to shelve the post and wait and see what would transpire this weekend.

Just having some saturation fun - the actual church interior isn't really this cheerful

Until I read an otherwise excellent blog post this morning on the Longtan Butokuden 龍潭武德殿 martial arts hall in Taoyuan 桃園 and saw it - another irrelevant reference to Tang China written by someone who, by his own admission, doesn't know much about Japan (after all he describes in the article how he needed a Japanese friend's assistance to define 武道). And so, as an excuse to post some photos taken in Old Town this afternoon as I walked my daughter over to a classmate's home for a playdate, I've decided to go ahead and publish the meanderings of a feverish mind. Feel free to ignore them and just enjoy the pictures...

 Exterior of the Cathedral of the Theotokos, Vilnius' main Orthodox house of worship

So the other day, as I'm often wont to do, I linked an article from the Japan Times to my Facebook timeline. It was a story on the surprising number of demeaning and negative words in the Japanese language related to women, and I thought it might be of interest to some of my FB friends, one of whom (one of the most knowledgeable people I know on the subject of Taiwanese culture, history and society) replied not long after I posted the link. His comment chalked it up to Confucianism, which I found a little surprising - while Confucian philosophy has long made its presence felt in Japanese thinking, Neo-Confucianism didn't attain widespread support in Japan until the Tokugawa bakufu 幕府 adopted it at the beginning of the Edo period 江戸時代 in the early 17th century. What struck me about the Facebook comment was how quickly a Chinese agent was assigned to explain what I would've assumed to have been a facet of the Japanese language that has developed over the centuries, reflecting long-held nativist attitudes toward women (and which might be one explanation as to why Neo-Confucianism received state support from the Tokugawa 徳川). Which in turn got me to thinking...

The view of Old Town from near the Artillery Bastion museum

Being a former foreign resident of Taiwan (an ex-expat, if you will), I've noticed that the longer one stays in the country, the more one looks at other countries in the region (think Japan and Korea) through a Chinese cultural prism. The influence of China on its neighbors' cultural development was substantial - from architecture and art to language and religion, Chinese influences shaped much of what we consider today to be quintessentially Japanese (though in the case of Japan many of these foreign ideas went through a Korean filter before being adopted and absorbed). But the Japanese also adapted, added to, altered, revised and reinvented many of these same concepts and techniques, combining them with nativist elements in many cases to produce the vibrant culture that continues to attract and impress outsiders. It isn't as easy as it sounds to say this aspect of the society is the result of this particular Chinese import and leave it at that - the reality (like the culture itself) is much more layered and nuanced.

Looking toward the Three Crosses at the right, with the Bernardine Church & Monastery in the center and the Cathedral of the Theotokos off to the left

From my observations, it would appear many long-term Western residents of Taiwan first approached the country through a general interest in things Chinese. My best friend, for example, first went to Taiwan to learn Mandarin, after having become interested in Chinese art while a college student. Throughout the 1990's and into the early 2000's, it was still easier for the aspiring Sinophile to get themselves set up in Taiwan than in the People's Republic - there were fewer hassles in obtaining visas to study Mandarin, well-paying teaching jobs were still easy to procure and the standard of living was much closer to back home when compared to China. I've met a number of expats who ended up in Taiwan after first living and working in China, and the almost-universal consensus was (and still is) that life on Formosa is much better. Many resident Westerners over time have learned to appreciate that while the Taiwanese may share much in common culturally with their cousins in China, the society has differentiated itself over the course of several centuries as to belie the tiresome refrain that there is only One China, of which Taiwan is an undeniable part. Thus many expats today are very sympathetic of the localization movements that are helping to carve out a separate identity for the Taiwanese people.

Looking at St. Casimir's Church from the rear

And yet, while many Taiwanese are proud to point out the differences between their island and the mainland (no capital "M", please), there's still a widely-held belief that Chinese culture is superior to those of their neighbors', and that China was (and perhaps still is) the Middle Kingdom, culturally-speaking. There was many a time when I was teaching in Taiwan that I would bring up some aspect or another of Japanese or Korean culture in my adult classes, only to have otherwise pro-green, independence-supporting students dismiss them with statements along the lines of "they were just copying us". I remember on one occasion the sheer disbelief among one student group of mine when I brought in an article from the Japan Times on wasei-kango 和製漢語 (made in Japan Chinese-character compounds) - it was hard for some to accept that everyday words such as 百貨店 and 歴史 were not coined in China by Chinese people.

Cat figurines climbing a pole are watched by a bird figurine on a roof, with the campanile of Sts. Johns' Church rising in the background

And so it shouldn't come as a surprise than a Westerner with an abiding interest in Chinese art, history or literature, for example, would settle down in Taiwan and be influenced by what they see all around them, and then transpose these cultural absorptions into their perceptions of Japanese or Korean society, especially if they've never spent any extended periods of time in those countries. Which might explain why, while I was impressed by the sight of Tōen-jinja 桃園神社, Taiwan's best preserved Shintō shrine, a certain well-known long-term resident Western travel writer could only see vestiges of Tang China.

Peering inside the Shrine of Divine Mercy

And then there's the geographical factor to consider. Taiwan is a great place to visit, and has a lot to keep the traveler engaged and entertained, but as an island country smaller than the states of Maryland and Delaware combined there's only a finite number of places to check out and things to do. While the tourist moves on, the resident remains behind and eventually exhausts all the main sights, and then most of the minor ones as well. While I presently live in a small European country, accessible borders and cheap flights mean no end to the possibilities if and when I tire of Lithuania. In Taiwan, longer distances over wide bodies of water and higher airfares make escaping the country a more difficult prospect, especially in an age when local wages have been stagnant for over a decade or more. And so there's a tendency to revisit the same places time and again. In the beginning, the expat is amused to hear a Taiwanese describe a local attraction as being "world famous", knowing that term means "famous in Taiwan only". Somewhere down the road, however, some of these same sightseeing spots or local delicacies take on the same meaning to the foreign resident, as familiarity is assumed to be universal (it still isn't).

A closer view of the image of Jesus that supposedly appeared to St. Faustina Kowalska in 1931

At the same time, there also develops the tendency to assume that what is seen in daily life in Taiwan is somehow unique to the country (low crime rates, hot springs, strange English on T-shirts, all the amazing services available to customers in convenience stores etc.). Well, it ain't. 

Approaching St. Catherine's Church. We have a view of the front of the church (the opposite direction from this angle) from our living-room window

I've lived for roughly equal lengths of time in both Japan and Taiwan, and the outlooks among many foreign residents in the two countries can be very different. While I did know an Englishman who was astounded that people in Taiwan sat in chairs and on sofas in their homes, and not on carpeted or straw mat-covered floors like in Japan, most of the 外人 I knew (and still know) in Japan tend not to look at neighboring countries through a Japanese prism. This might be because many of them may have come to accept the line that Japan is somehow uniquely unique (it isn't, of course), so the similarities may come as pleasant surprises (I'm certainly keen on seeking out the Japanese influence in Taiwan).

A creepy painting in the Church of the Holy Spirit

And there's the rub, for while Taiwan's culture is derived from, and similar in many ways to, that of southern China, there's also a very strong and continuing Japanese influence. Not enough to deserve the "China under Japanese management" tag some Western observers have applied to Taiwan, but enough to amaze some of my colleagues from when I was working in Shanghai 上海. A number of them had studied and/or worked in China before joining the State Department, and many made their first visits to Taiwan while posted in Shanghai. The almost-universal consensus among them was that Taiwan was a very pleasant surprise, in the sense that it wasn't as Chinese as they had imagined, that it really was (is) a different country.

The Church of the Holy Spirit might be a cool place to visit on Halloween

So what does this all mean? Nothing, really, nothing at all. Other than an annoying tendency among some long-term Western residents in Formosa to refer to Shinto shrines 神社 as "temples" 寺 or to read the characters 小 and 大 on the handle of a high-tech toilet in a Japanese hotel room as "xiǎo" and "dà" instead of  as "shō" (or "chīsai") or "dai" (or "ookī"), respectively.

7% pleasure from Kaunas

If you ask me, it's all Confucius' fault.

And now for something completely different. I purchased this from an online second-hand bookshop. It's the first (and would turn out to be the only) edition of Lonely Planet's USSR entry in its Travel Survival Kit series. The guidebook came out in December 1991 and was obsolete as soon as it store shelves.