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Saturday, July 18, 2015

Taiwan, not Thailand

Niúròfàn 牛肉飯, an old favorite

It's been a busy past few weeks as our time here in Shànghăi 上海 winds down. Last week I completed my portion of my performance evaluation report, a highly stressful annual event that could be done in a much more efficient and simpler process were it not for the fact that I'm part of a vast government bureaucracy. The last few days were also spent sorting our possessions into groups of items traveling with us to the U.S.; goods that will be sent ahead to Washington, D.C., waiting for our arrival there in early September; those things (the majority, actually) that will go into storage in Europe, where they will greet us with open arms soon after we touch down in Vilnius, Lithuania next spring (if all goes according to plan, knock on wood etc); and finally the crap we've accumulated here but don't really need, and which can be given away or left behind. For much of this period I've been on my own here as the girls were in Taiwan spending time with the family there; however, over the Fourth of July weekend earlier this month, I did fly over to Formosa as well on what was essentially a quick "Nice to see you again-thanks for everything you've done-you're welcome to come see us in Vilnius anytime" visit. 

It was a short flight on Friday the 3rd from Shanghai Pudong International Airport 上海浦东国际机场 to Taichung Ching Chuan Kang Airport 臺中清泉崗機場 in Taichung 台中, where I was met by Pamela. After taking care of some insurance paperwork in Taichung, we reunited with Amber at her grandmother's home in Fengyuan 豐原. The three of us borrowed my brother-in-law's car and, with Amber's second cousin (and playmate) in tow, drove to Pamela's hometown of Xiluo (Siluo) 西螺 in Yunlin County 雲林縣. The main reason for the trip was to visit a couple of Taoist temples in order to pay respects to my father-in-law, who had died on Christmas Eve last year. I wasn't able to attend his funeral at that time (probably a blessing for all concerned, as Taiwanese funerals are long, elaborate affairs, and an ignorant foreigner would just have gotten in the way), so it was expected that I show some proper filial piety before we leave for the U.S. and (later) the Baltics. The first temple was called something or other, and was founded in 1644 according to a sign on one of the walls inside (though it doesn't appear the building itself is that old):


Amber and I followed Pamela as she made the rounds, incense sticks in hand, of the various altars, mimicking her bowing and praying motions, though my wife wasn't always so sure of the proper way of doing things, either. Like most Taoist temples, the temple was a blend of colors and statues that could hardly be described as subtle, but which here exuded an usually quiet aura of contemplation (Taoist temples can be cacophonous at times, reverberating to the sounds of gongs, firecrackers and chants):




With the first temple out of the way, we stopped by the house of Sister-in-law No. 2 to say hi and to drop off Amber's cousin, who proudly showed me the soap sculpture that Amber had gotten for her while we were in Thailand late last month. The girls later enjoyed a local snack (the name of which escapes me):



Then it was off to Fuxing Temple in Xiluo's "historic" downtown area (there are a couple of blocks of old buildings known as Yanping Old Street 延平老街, dating from the Japanese period, which fortunately haven't been re-branded yet as snack stands and souvenir shops catering to tourists, the sad fate of many other "old streets" throughout Taiwan). Despite all the times I've been to Xiluo, I hadn't really explored this temple, so while we went around with the joss sticks, I also took advantage of the opportunity to take some photos:









Fuxing Temple is one of the stops on the Dajia Mazu pilgrimage that takes place every spring. What was once a ramshackle procession through the central Taiwanese countryside has been elevated by bloggers and guidebook writers in recent years to the point that it has become a major religious "event", and local governments have worked hard to turn it into a sightseeing attraction (aka, the "Dajia Mazu Sightseeing Cultural Festival"). Fuxing Temple had its own souvenir counter to cash in on the devotion to Matsu 媽祖 (and, yes, I did purchase an amulet. Matsu be with you.):


Generally speaking, I'm not impressed with Taoism and Chinese folk religion 中國民間宗教. All religions are essentially amalgamations of rituals and superstitions, based around beliefs that one's fate in life is determined by magical beings, and Taoism is certainly no exception. What makes me especially uncomfortable about Taoism/Chinese folk religion in its modern form is its exclusionary appeal to people of Han Chinese ethnicity (other folks simply don't exist in the Chinese cosmological point of view). The tendency of believers to pray for material success and well-being to the exclusion of almost everything else is also risible; most of the world's other major religions at least pay lip service to the ideals of peace, love and goodwill to all men. On the other hand, you could make a case that Taoist followers are refreshingly honest when it comes to beseeching the gods for good fortune; unlike in certain other houses of worship, there's no certainly no whiff of hypocrisy in the air when you visit a temple. And I've always been impressed with the role that local temples play as community centers in Taiwan; in Fuxing Temple, kids were taking skating lessons in the courtyard, while inside, a group of teenagers paid their respects to Matsu, then stepped to the side, turned on some music and started practicing their dance moves. Try doing that in your local church, mosque or synagogue:



As we left town, we drove across the Xiluo Bridge 西螺大橋, at one time the longest in east Asia and still a great source of local pride. I've lost count of how many times I've visited Siluo, and on each occasion, I can't wait to leave. It's a typically drab Taiwanese town in most respects, with very little to do and a local population that doesn't see many non-Asian visitors and often reacts accordingly. Somehow, it's a popular spot among a small coterie of Western expat cycling enthusiasts. One of my resident American Facebook friends called Xiluo an "amazing place", a statement which I found to be equally amazing (assuming he wasn't being sarcastic). I think I understand the attraction, however: if you've been cycling for several hours in the featureless central Taiwanese countryside, passing a never-ending procession of small factories and the ugly concrete boxes that pass for houses in Taiwan, the red Xiluo Bridge and the town's small section of Japanese-era period buildings can seem wondrous in comparison with the crimes against aesthetics that constitute modern architecture in Taiwan. I'd wager, however, that few, if any, of these Taiwan-based avid cyclists would want (or could stand) to spend more than a weekend there:



Returning to Fengyuan sans my daughter's second cousin (safely back home in Xiluo), we ended my first day back in Taiwan by dining on life-shortening but taste bud-stimulating fried goodies from a favorite street stand:



As this day was primarily about honoring my father-in-law, I should point out that he was a good man who accepted me into his family, and who loved his granddaughter very much. His death late last year at around the age of 90 wasn't unexpected, but my wife still took it hard as she felt very close to him. In many ways, Pamela's family is a microcosm of Taiwan's postwar history: my father-in-law was one of those who had to flee with the Kuomintang 中國國民黨 to Taiwan from China at the end of the civil war, leaving behind a wife and children there. When it became clear that the KMT wasn't going to "retake the mainland" anytime soon, he married a local widow (my mother-in-law, of course) who had three children of her own. My wife was the sole product of their union, and she grew up in a bilingual household, speaking in Mandarin 國語 to her dad and using Taiwanese 台語 with the other members of the family. As a result, Pamela grew up with some serious identity issues, believing in "One China" (no doubt her father's influence), but at the same time (subconsciously) proud to be Taiwanese (she speaks Mandarin with the Taiwanese accent, and refers to herself as being Taiwanese when asked about her background). It's been interesting these past two years in Shanghai to see my wife slowly realize just how different the Taiwanese have become from their cousins in China (a pattern that's also being played out in Hong Kong). I'm looking forward to what effect (if any) living in Eastern Europe will have on the way she identifies herself. 

Full moon in Fengyuan


 








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