Saturday, January 24, 2009

Asia Re-Loaded

I learned to curse in Korea. I know, that sounds bad, traveling teacher who prides himself on knowing all the words in the English language, you know, Mr. Shakespeare, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments…” That guy is so quick to rely on his sailor’s tongue? I mean, I can’t tell you how many parents over the years have commented, “I think people who use expletives are ignorant and unable to find more creative ways to explain themselves.” To that I can only ascribe Poppycock! Hogwash! And… Get Bent! Swearing is an art form, and the Korean people are freaking Picasso, Davinci, and Michelangelo all rolled into one nasty, spit spewing, tantrum throwing, tirade of a foul mouthed thesaurus springroll.
And God Bless them for it.
I would say drinking is mostly to blame. On any given moment in Korea, night or day, you’re liable to see two red faced men locking horns and bouncing off one another’s bellies as to who is going to have the privilege of buying lunch or who will leave last in a taxi. You’re even more likely to see young college aged students every night puking on their university gates, getting so drunk they need to be carried home. Yet all the while howling obscenities either directed at the source of their frustration: Taxi cut them off in traffic, junior not bowed low enough in his greeting, customer haggled poorly, or to now one in particular, just ranting and railing at the world on a street corner arms flailing, eyes welling with tears. Even my wife sees it, “Koreans have stressed out lives,” she says, “and with this terrible history, and all those strict Confucian rules, cursing is all we can do.”
It’s funny to me then that I would pick it up. Call it, “American see American do,” but if you were to ask any of my buddies who spent considerable time in South Korea: Steve the investment planner, Joe the reporter, Aaron the Canadian teacher, Rolf the travel writer, you’d see all of us have the same inclination. We hit our thumb with a hammer, stub or toe walking through the house at night, get cut off in the coffee line and here it comes.
“Aye-She-Pal! Nappun, Sae-Ki, Ya!”
It’s just ingrained. Can’t help it. Korea re-programmed my brain.
It is then remarkable to be around the Taiwanese, because for the life of me, they’re just so mellow. In Thailand, I saw a group of orange robed Buddhist monks beating a motorcycle delivery boy with umbrellas. In Southern China, a woman taxi driver almost kung-fu’d my wife when she scribbled her license number after cheating us on a fare. In Hong Kong I saw a police man grab a drunkard by the ear and twist him to the ground. Yet in Taiwan, I haven’t seen so much as one raised voice, a blatant pissed off car horn, or a stressed out motor scooter flipping a careening bus the bird. The Taiwanese are just so laid back and easy going, it’s starting to freak me out.
The question then begs: Why are the Taiwanese so cool?
I decided to keep an eye out for possible answers over a twenty-four hour period as we checked out a couple of places, and as fate would have it, what I found was both interesting and revealing and freaked me out even more.
The first place we went was Costco. Yes, there is a Costco in Taichung City, and it’s an exact replica of every Costco you’ve ever entered. Except for one big difference: EVERYBODY IS CHINESE! Same old guy in red vest and wheel chair checking cards at the door, except he’s Chinese. Same crates of beef jerky and mixed nuts and hanging racks of leather coats and swimwear next to big screen flat panel TV’s, except they’re playing Chinese. Same boxes of 100 AA batteries, casks of motor oil, and apples by the barrel next to the eye wear counter and the assorted muffins packages: poppy seed, chocolate chip, and blueberry, next to displays of birthday cakes that are inscribed, you guessed it, in Chinese.
Oh, and did I forget to mention that the place is literally crawling with people. Yeah, it’s wall to wall. There isn’t a place to stand. It’s fifty people deep per register. I’m banging my cart into sample food tables of gourmet tofu and running over little children in sweat shirts with mixed-matched English expressions like: ”Happiness is my best friend on a leash.” Then at the checkout, the woman behind me is wearing a red surgical mask and a black visor hat and buying prepackaged meat slices and a Kenmore vacuum. The couple in front is purchasing a potted orchid, a recordable DVD player, and a guestimated twenty pounds in Brazilian chocolate. It’s insane.
Then it hit me. Reason Number 1 the Taiwanese are so mellow: Bulk Shopping. This comes to me as I stock up on a year’s supply of oolong and six months worth of frozen wonton next to my daughters vanilla soy milk and Kirkland baby wipes and arrive home just in time for the cable guy to hook up my new Broadband cable. 75 Chinese only speaking channels, CNN, and one HBO station, which he programs in absolute silence.
Taiwan, things just got a whole lot cooler.
That night we visited our second place: Feng Jia Yie She University Night Market. I have to admit, it was the first time SungJoo and I were both excited about the same thing in quite some time. A night out among young people at a university district, are you kidding me? Shades of our younger years singing karaoke and sampling rare street cuisine while soaking in the very best drunken night life in all of Asia had us both ready for adventure. Yet after a long taxi ride, we were somewhat disappointed. Sure there was turtle on a stick and fried pigs blood and silk larva and battered octopus tentacles, but you can get that anywhere. The question was, where was all the action? You know, the mafia boys in silken suits forced to do push-ups in the street by a disgruntled Don? The Go Go girls in leather boots and mini-skirts dancing outside of beer hoffs? The drunken soldier boys on leave in their green fatigues hollering for more rice wine for tomorrow we die? No matter how hard we searched, there were none of our Korean memories to fall back on and re-live. Instead, just wall to wall clothing shops of trucker hats and skinny leg jeans, skateboard stores and tea houses. The Taiwanese were the most well behaved, model citizens you could ever hope NOT to meet on a lame Friday night.
After walking over an hour in circles, SungJoo and I asked a local vendor over fish-spam sticks stuffed with corn and Velveeta, “Hey, where are all the partiers?”
“May-O! (Not exist) In Taiwan, students prefer tea to alcohol.”
“They prefer drinking what?” I looked at SungJoo for not just a literal translation but a philosophical explanation. “On a Friday night?”
“Where are the beer halls?”
“No piju!” The man waved us off, explaining that the local government doesn’t allow liquor licenses a full mile radius from the university gates.
Both our faces fell onto the curb. Dejected at not seeing any real wild night life, we hailed a cab and went back to the apartment to watch our newly installed HBO, but only got Beta movies from the 1980’s, a Gene Hackman film about a surfer who realizes his magical potential with all the curse words dubbed over with blank sounds. Great.
In a flash, date night became lame night.
Conclusion: Reason Number 2 the Taiwanese are so Mellow: Tea.
The third place we visited was Le Cheng Gong Taoist Temple. SungJoo was at Nike and so the girls, Xi’an and little Rebekah and I, ventured out through the streets and out of the town. Near the factories and rice farms, nestled deep among the ginkgo trees in a corner pocket of the world, the 250 year old temple stood its ground. The first thing one notices about Taiwan temples is that they are working monuments not tourists traps. Scattered in shrines and walk-in enclaves throughout the city, the wafting incense sticks can be smelled from the corner street vendors mixing with oodong noodles and the amazing floral street vendors hawking every flower imaginable: daffodils, lilacs, roses, pansies, and the most amazing orchids the Taoist worshippers would buy in bundles and set inside the temple’s inner sanctuary along with boxes of ramen noodles and bushels of oranges on the altar of their favorite deity.
The gates are made of ancient wood with guardian demons painted on glass doors. More ornate in distinct design than Pomosa Temple in Pusan, Le Chen Gong has large statues and figures of traditional people beside their gods. We stroll inside in quiet reverence as worshippers light incense sticks and bow three times in rapid succession before their deity, then place the stick in a golden cauldron of sand to bow, leaving for the next room.
I watch my girls closely as we pass from chamber to inner chamber, past dragons of stone and richly decorated pillars of thousands of miniature Buddhas carved in gold. Inside the inner most sanctuary, we crouch beside a hundred wooden statues and I explain to Xi’an all the different men assembled in the room: Scholar, merchant, soldier, judge, astronomer, king, fisherman, and that Taoism is a religion about finding the correct path. We must strive for balance, and find our one true way.
It is like so many times standing in the hallway with the most troubled students in the school. The aimless, the abused, the defiant, the wretched and most pissed off challenging kids and asking them what they are passionate about, and their answers are always so baffling and insightful as I tell them, “Did you know you could make a living off that? Would you like me to show you how?”
It’s the same thing, find your true path. Yet again, Xi’an and I had to whisper on the street because the temple was just so serenely quiet. Then it hit me, reason number 3 the Taiwanese are so mellow: They’re always praying, man.
It was then I gave up. In the span of twenty four hours, I went from Costco to night market to a temple and came back empty. I found ridiculous excess, wandering, and finally the correct path for the Taiwanese which was quiet and mellow and the complete opposite of my expectation. I realized then I would have to bury my Korean past deep and begin a new life here, if I was ever to survive, I would have to quiet again, re-learn, re-adjust, be patient, and just wait for my time to rise.
This was easier said than done.
On the way home, the girls and I walked through this enormous football field sized park in front of our apartment and I told them to cover their ears as I was going to shout at the top of my lungs for everyone back in Korea to hear and remember that we had once belonged there. But when I opened my mouth, nothing came out. I tried again and again but not even a squeak. It was like literally being struck dumb. Rebekah laughed, “Daddy, you said you were going to yell?””
I tried a third time, but nothing.
“Come one, girls, let’s go inside and have a corndog,” I whispered instead.
“A corndog?” They were instantly so excited, jumping up and down and causing a huge commotion. People turned and stared. Other’s jolted back and smiled. But nothing more.
It was just my daughter’s way.
“Yeah,” I took their hands and led them inside the building, “I picked up a frozen bag at Costco for just this occasion.”


  1. Mr. H,

    I know how you can make people in Taiwan visibly agitated: Next time you go to a night market, refuse to haggle. They'll lower the prices for you, but just insist upon paying the full price.

    Worked for me like a charm. :)


  2. you are you. Don't need to do or change anything to prove that you were existence indeed. I won't say Taiwanese are Mellow, but I think they are tolerationism. They could tolerate many things what are unreasonable. And also not really into fight...the real violence. They don't like to show their emotions obviously---especially old generations and men. They show their feelings ambiguously. They did huged and kissed with their parents and family members when they were little. But many of them can't say 'I love you' to their family members such as parents, sibilings... Most of them don't hug and kiss them anymore. Maybe they are not good talkers but they are good secret keepers and listeners. They are shy but also passionate inside. Taiwan, expect you to stay here but never ever ask you need to belong there. however, when once you love her, you can't leave her...