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Sunday, June 9, 2019

Rainy Days and Wells


The photo above was taken this Sunday afternoon from the stands of Northwest Federal Field at Pfitzner Stadium in Woodbridge, Virginia. The ballpark is the home of the Carolina League's Potomac Nationals baseball club, the Class A Advanced affiliate of the Washington Nationals. Potomac was scheduled to host the Lynchburg Hillcats (a Cleveland Indians farm team) for an afternoon contest, but due to heavy rain the game was canceled (not postponed). Which was a shame as Amber and I had tickets to see the action. Disappointing, yes, but we'll try again in a couple of weeks (the tickets can be used for another home game). In the meantime, this post will concern itself with a few of the uneventful events that have occured in the week since the blog was last updated, but not before a brief rant. Feel free to scroll past the next four paragraphs...

This rant is brought to you by a post I read yesterday on the Taiwan History Facebook group page. The poster apparently is heading for Lisbon, Portugal for a week on a work-related trip, and wanted to know if there were "(a)ny Taiwan related-history things to check out" there. Finding the question a little odd, I replied that I was sure there were enough Portuguese-related sights in Lisbon to keep our poster occupied during the week h/she will be in the country. Apparently, though, mine was a lone voice, as the thread soon developed into an intense and somewhat bizarre discussion on the influence 16th-century Portuguese traders had on Japanese cuisine and language. Which got me to thinking...

...if you're looking to escape the problematic geopolitical issues of today, you might want to consider relocating to Taiwan. For aside from a few cosmopolitan, English-speaking acquaintances you might make in Taipei 台北, most Taiwanese are largely ignorant of what's going on outside of Greater China (the many competing news channels on cable TV devote precious little time to international affairs unless it involves something scandalous, shocking or just plain weird). Although many Taiwanese travel abroad, a lot of them do so as part of tour groups with little interaction with natives who don't work in hotels, restaurants or souvenir shops. It isn't uncommon to meet travelers who've just returned from Běihǎidào or Hànchéng (now known as Shǒu'ěr) and not realize that the rest of the world calls those places Hokkaidō 北海道 or Seoul.

But this rant really concerns itself (as usual) with the resident Western expat population in Taiwan. For it seems the longer one stays in the country, the more one forgets that there's a larger world beyond the Taiwan Strait 台灣海峽. Some realize this and are fine with it - one acquaintance living in northern Taiwan freely admitted to me he wasn't interested in what was going on elsewhere and was happy with his life on Formosa. And I'm happy for him as well, as unlike some other expats, he doesn't obsess over the minutiae of Taiwanese politics that even most Taiwanese couldn't care less about (he probably wouldn't also want to seek out Taiwanese-related sights should he ever travel to Lisbon!). The risk of staying in Taiwan too long is that local politics in, say, Yunlin County 雲林縣 start to take on a greatly exaggerated importance. Or worse, that certain cultural/social characteristics that are shared with other East Asian countries begin to appear somehow uniquely "Taiwanese" (other than scantily-clad betel nut sellers or funeral strippers, it's hard to think of something that is unique to Formosa*); or that the special qualities of Korean or Japanese society are assigned Chinese qualities (e.g. "That's because of Confucianism!") or are addressed in only the broadest of Orientalist strokes.

I could go on ad nauseum (and I have in the past), but suffice it to say that after two long spells of living in central Taiwan (the first ending with a move to Yokkaichi 四日市 in Japan, and the second with a return to the U.S. and my present line of work), I know how easy it is to become the foreign frog at the bottom of the Taiwanese well. There is nothing wrong with carving out a life for oneself in the country (and Taiwan has a lot going for it - a relatively low cost of living, an excellent national health insurance system, low crime rates, 檳榔西施 etc), but my unsolicited/unwanted advice would be to get out of Taiwan periodically and explore the rest of the neighborhood that isn't China (Hong Kong excepted). And to enjoy Lisbon for what it is (or for that matter Shimonoseki 下関 in Japan, the subject of another similar query in the same FB group). Rant over and onto the week that was...

Often when my daughter goes to her weekly Go 囲碁 / 圍棋 club meeting, the two of us have dinner together beforehand. Amber sometimes chooses expensive hipster diners (she isn't paying, so why not?), and last week was one of those occasions. At least the offerings at True Food Kitchen were pretty good:


My turkey burger:


Her Grass-fed Steak Tacos:


Our Flourless Chocolate Cake:


Amber gets an idea of what interior design was like in the early 1970's at Ballston Quarter. Not coincidentally, she's started asking for a beanbag chair (I had one in my bedroom when I was her age):



The Clarendon War Memorial:


Last Wednesday I had to go to the Department of State building on C Street for a meeting. Afterward, I took some photos with my cell phone. This courtyard statue is imaginatively called Soaring American Eagle. 'Murica...:



The Great Seal of the United States:


Examples of gifts from other countries are displayed near the Great Seal. This circa 1967 brass hand cross comes from Ethiopia...:


...while Japan is represented by a deigo tree デイゴ wood lacquer tray from Okinawa 沖縄 (c. 2001):


"Watergate" was a word that was frequently heard when I was in elementary school, though I was too young to fully comprehend all that was going on at the time. Leaving the State Department, I walked over to the infamous complex (that's a statue of  Mexican president Benito Juárez in the photo below):



Standing in the interior courtyard of the Watergate complex. Unfortunately, it seems casual visitors like ourselves can't visit the "Scandal Room" that housed the 1972 Democratic National Committee headquarters (and was the target of Nixon's rather inept "plumbers"):




Continuing my tour of Washington, D.C. 1960's and early 1970's architectural landmarks (not one of the best periods in the city's history!), I wandered over to the adjacent John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, described by one critic as a structure "Albert Speer would have approved":


The western facade of the Kennedy Center is inscribed with several quotations from JFK related to the arts:



That same side also overlooks the Potomac River, Theodore Roosevelt Island and the Rosslyn, Virginia area. This helicopter flew by at fast speed while I was admiring the view:



And every couple of minutes a jet would fly overhead as this area lies in the flightpath of planes landing at Reagan National Airport:


My daughter and I were talking a walk through Howard E. Herman Park in downtown Falls Church late on Friday afternoon when we passed by this, um, "interesting" work of art called Humongous Fungus. The truly interesting part was that according to the explanatory sign, it was created with the help of local first-graders:


I've been going for strolls through the nearby cemetery after dinner, taking advantage of the later sunlight hours (still nothing compared to how it is in the Pacific Northwest or Lithuania), and after discovering that fireflies have begun to appear among the graves. Alas, while the lightning bugs are plentiful, their population isn't dense enough to capture on video. Also, many of them seem to disappear once the sun has set (unlike the ones I encountered in Taiwan). So move along, folks, there's nothing to see in the photo below:


With a car rented for the weekend, I took the vehicle for a spin on Saturday morning by driving out to Gravelly Point, a patch of green located along the banks of the Potomac within the National Park Service's George Washington Memorial Parkway. There are views across the river to some of Washington, D.C.'s landmarks, including the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial:


The real attraction to Gravelly Point, however, is that it lies north of Ronald Reagan National Airport:


Normally, planes coming in to land at Reagan National descend right over the park. Saturday, however, was windy along the waterfront, which was probably why the jets were descending from the opposite direction. Though not quite as dramatic, this meant planes passed close overhead as they took off for various parts of the United States:


After returning from Gravelly Point, the family and I went out for lunch in the Mosaic District in nearby Merrifield. The Mosaic District is a pleasant outdoor shopping mall which mixes a long shopping street with several blocks of expensive-looking condos. I like the concept of having restaurants and stores within easy walking distance of residences, but at the same time the complex feels like a privileged enclave hidden from the surrounding strip mall and industrial area. In fact, it reminded me of a white suburbanite version of Hong Kong's legendary Kowloon Walled City. Our choice for lunch was a trendy Thai eatery called Sisters Thai:



Kudos to the interior designer(s), who avoided the usual kitschy-Thai trappings typically found in such establishments. And bonus points for including a copy of the Ramones' Road to Ruin album on one of the upper shelves. See if you can spot it below:


Saturday afternoon was spent intensively shopping for Amber's upcoming school trip to Florida. While we were at the Tyson Corner Center mall, my daughter drew my attention to the Superdry outlet there. I'd never heard of this British clothing company (my first reaction upon seeing the name was to wonder what was the connection to a particular Japanese brand of beer); I had to sneer when Amber showed me the Wikipedia entry reading "the company's products include meaningless excerpts of Japanese text generated by machine translation". Who buys this shit? One of those 30 million plus Western hipsters who will travel to Japan this year, wondering how they can go to Kyōto 京都 and have an "authentic" experience getting "off the beaten track" while simultaneously avoiding the "touristy" places filled with visitors exactly like themselves? Don't get me started. And if you're wondering about the meaning of the phrase pictured below, 極度乾燥しなさい is what Google Translate assures you is how to say "extremely dry" in Japanese!:


Sunday afternoon was supposed to have been spent taking in the aforementioned minor league baseball game (see the start of this blog post):



Among those who have played for teams calling Prince William County home are a ballplayer who should be in the Hall of Fame (yes, despite the steroids - like Roger Clemens, he would've been a shoo-in for Cooperstown regardless had he not felt the need to enhance his already stellar performance), and a star who should go in on his first ballot five years after he hangs up his spikes:




And so the week ends on a wet note. It's back to work tomorrow as usual. Until next time...


*Note to the literal-minded: I'm exaggerating, of course


Sunday, June 2, 2019

Chiling Out

My daughter stands beside a mural on a wall outside of Ben's Chili Bowl. She recognized the former president and First Lady, but had no clue as to who Prince and Muhammad Ali were. I blame her international lifestyle for this cultural oversight...

As our current stint in the DMV begins to wind down, we probably won't be making too many more weekend visits to D.C. in the time we have remaining. This Saturday, then, was a chance to tick off a few boxes from the Things Left to Do checklist, as Amber and I took the Metro to U Street to have lunch at one of the city's most famous dining institutions, Ben's Chili Bowl:


I ordered the signature Original Chili Half-Smoke, while my daughter had a chicken sandwich (not pictured) and a small Ben's Famous Chili Bowl. The two of us shared an order of chili cheese fries:


Here's Amber eating that chicken sandwich. The food was good and deserving of its reputation, though eating such meals on a regular basis would probably result in a shorter lifespan:


Having been around since 1958, the restaurant has seen many celebrities pass through its doors, including the previous First Family (Barack, Michelle, Sasha and Malia):


The alley next to the restaurant is named after the diner's founder, the late Ben Ali. One wall of the alley features this baseball-themed mural, featuring the legendary Negro National League club Homestead Grays (though based in Pittsburgh, the team also played a number of its home games at Griffith Stadium, home of the American League's Washington Senators). Because of baseball's notorious color line, Grays stars such as Josh Gibson were denied the opportunity to test their skills in the major leagues:


Next door to the Ben's Chili Bowl is the Lincoln Theatre, founded in 1922. Many legendary African-American performers such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan have graced the theater's stage:



The U Street area is a prime example of gentrification, the uniquely American phenomenon whereby white people move into blighted minority areas to buy up apartments, in the process bringing in trendy clubs, restaurants and shops (while at the same time driving out with higher and higher rents the original inhabitants of the community). One example of the results of gentrification is the bar/bookstore/cafe/event space/restaurant Busboys and Poets. My daughter debated whether or not to jump on the Marie Kondō 近藤麻理恵 bandwagon. Apparently the book didn't spark enough joy because she opted not to buy it:



From Busboys and Poets we made our way through some progressively upscale neighborhoods to Meridian Hill Park, an urban park administered by the National Park Service. While the park is laid out in an attractive terraced arrangement (and seems to be enjoyed by area residents), I was disappointed that the waterfalls and reflecting pool were bereft of water due to a broken pipe:


The park has a small though odd collection of statues (why is there one of James Buchanan, almost universally regarded as the worst president in U.S. history, though the current occupant...never mind). Here I am looking up at Dante Alighieri (of Divine Comedy fame)...:


...while Amber poses with Joan of Arc:


From the park, we rode a bus to McPherson Square. Before getting on the subway, we took a 奶茶 break at Gòng Chá 貢茶, a Taiwanese drink shop franchise founded in Kāohsiúng 高雄 in 2006:



Earlier in the week (on Friday, to be exact), I traveled into Washington to drop off our Ethiopian visa applications. Afterward, I took a walk in the heat and humidity to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (which, in conjunction with the Freer Gallery of Art, is my favorite museum in the District). My most recent visit was in mid-April with Amber. This time, the famous Peacock Room had been restocked with blue and white porcelain pieces:


On the other hand, the fascinating Encountering the Buddha exhibit is closed temporarily. Empresses of China's Forbidden City, however, is still going strong. One can never get enough of lacquerware...:


...and Tibetan Buddhist images:



The exhibition had nothing but positive things to say about the notorious Empress Dowager Cixi 慈禧太后. Despite her conservative resistance to reforms that played a large role in China being dominated by the Western powers and Japan, she's apparently been the object of a sympathetic feminist reassessment in recent years. I tend to agree with one critic's comment that "rewriting Cixi as Catherine the Great or Margaret Thatcher is a poor bargain: the gain of an illusory icon at the expense of historical sense":


With the onset of warm weather, I've been going for walks in the local cemetery after dinner. No matter how often I stroll through, I'm always discovering things I hadn't noticed before, like this trio of gravestones dating from the 1860's:


Which leads one to wonder what walking opportunities will be available in Addis Ababa...

And I'll close this latest post off with a rant. What is it about the current generation of travelers and their (quixotic) quests to get off the "beaten path", avoid "touristy" places and have "authentic" experiences? I used to comment fairly regularly on the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree forum regarding Japan and Taiwan-related queries, but lately it seems (at least in regards to Japan) that posters are only asking about the three topics listed above. As I've pointed out on several occasions (both here and on Thorn Tree), Japan is groaning under the weight of foreign tourism - a record 30 million visited in 2018, with even more expected this year. These people who want to visit places like Kyōto 京都, Kōya-san 高野山 and so on seem to want to have their proverbial ケーキ's and to eat them, too, by avoiding the touristy spots, getting off the beaten path and having authen...ad nauseum. What they don't seem to realize, or what they don't want to face, is that they are the reason why so many famous places in Japan have become "touristy", i.e. full of people from Western countries just like themselves. Because I'm now eligible for senior discounts at some places, I can now reminisce about those days long ago when my presence on the train between Ōtsuki 大月 and Kawaguchi-ko 河口湖 was a source of great excitement to a group of traveling elementary school students; when junior high school students asked for my autograph and to pose for photos with me in Nikkō 日光; when I was invited to join in on the Bon Festival お盆 proceedings in the town of Kanra 甘楽 in Gunma Prefecture 群馬県; when my ex-wife and I practically had the mountain to ourselves one afternoon at Fushimi Inari-Taisha 伏見稲荷大社; when I was virtually the only white person checking out what was on offer at Kyoto's Nishiki Market 錦市場; and so on and so on. The travelers on LP and elsewhere desperate to avoid the hordes of tourists resembling themselves in all of Japan's well-trodden sightseeing spots have only to look into the nearest mirror (or take a selfie) to identify the cause of why it seems so hard these days to have that all-important "authentic" experience.