Saturday, April 25, 2009

"Confusion" Temple

I swindled my girls good today. Thought we were going to the water park with the log rides and swan boats and the kiddy pool with the slip & slide that leads to the big people area with the depth lines on the side that show just how far daddy can walk with both girls on his back until his feet are still on the bottom, but everybody’s head is under water. They had their swimsuits, goggles, even those little inflatable dragon tubes they ride in and that will never go down, even if harpooned. So when we pull up to the big marble ceremonial gates they looked confused.
“Daddy, what is this place?”
“This is the Martyr’s Shrine of the Confucian Memorial Temple.”
Silence. Death Stares. Why does our dad have to be the biggest dork of all time? Not EVERYTHING has to be ‘Educational,’ you know?
“Come on, live a little.”
Now serious death stares. When these girls finally become teenagers I’m in such serious trouble. I’d switched destinations at the last minute. Little Lauren Kinu has been sniffling and screaming and a quick fifteen minute jaunt across town rather than an hour ride to Yamay Water Park just seemed a better executive decision. That’s basically all parenting is anyway, making the right call and sticking with it.
“Oh…” I groan back. “Is it really so terrible you might learn something?”
Xi’an crossed her arms and scowled. Then Rebekah, who always watches Xi’an did the same, except she was laughing.
“Two angry ladies on my hands, I see. Would some ice cream help?”
A dad’s got to have a full arsenal up his sleeve.
“Yay”! My girls are total pushovers.
We tour the grounds. There is a temple with Confucian shrine, some cool old furniture, a big open hall, a fountain and lonely little old pagoda a chugging along in this little garden whispering, “I think I can, I think I can.” All wonderfully symetrical and Asian. Earlier that day Xi’an and SungJoo were going to coffee and my daughter said that she was falling in love.
“What?” SungJoo asked.
“Falling in love, with people, with the world.”
“You sound like your daddy.”
“Oh, I’m falling in love with him too.”
Then Rebekah said, “I love mommy.”
That afternoon I took pictures of the girls, Xi’an jumping from window ledges beneath giant wooden drums and Rebekah sitting in doorways. Then we posed in the sunlight with the front page of the Oregonian my mom had sent along with a copy of Mary Poppins for Rebekah’s birthday. “Come on, we’re going to send this picture to the travel section and see if they put us in the paper.”
“I want to be in the travel section,” Xi’an bounces up. Rebekah comes waddling after. “I want travel too.”
We walk into the main hall with the portraits of Confucius, the great Chinese philosopher. When I explain to my girls who Confucius was, that his real name was Kung Fu Tzu and he was a great teacher, they smile. I tell them he was like Aristotle and wrote nothing down. Instead, his ideas were just passed through to others by his students. His legacy just lived.
“Okay daddy, we get it.”
“Thanks, Xi’an.”
“Yeah,” Rebekah wipes her sweaty brow and jams a thumb in her mouth. It’s her trademark move. “Whew!”
That’s when we split.
The long walk back to the car was rough. The girls began to fight, arguing over trifle stuff, mostly just annoyed by the heat. I promise to take them swimming and to make pancakes that night. Then something amazing happens. Xi’an starts babbling in Chinese. Just, “Garble… Garble… Garble.” And Rebekah garbles back. I’m standing there like a complete ignoramus. The other day I had to send Xi’an to the restaurant counter to bring me a glass of cold water. Daddy, remember it’s easy. Cold water is “Bing Shui”, and warm tea is “Hu Cha”, but water is just “Shui.” Okay?”
So this time I just look at my two daughters who are smiling and turn to SungJoo, “What did they just say?”
SungJoo explains Xi’an said, “Rebekah, I’m stealing your chair,” and Rebekah replied, “Go ahead, steal my chair. I don’t care. I’m going to take yours.”
Now I’m stunned, right. “They said that?”
“In Chinese?”
“Yep. Oh girls, daddy’s so dumb, isn’t he? He can only speak English.”
The whole minivan erupts in laughter at my total lack of discernment, but it feels so good. I may not be the smartest guy, and I’ve blown it on so many occasions, too many to count really, but this one thing I know for certain. When it comes to my girls, I’m doing it right. They are the only thing in my life that makes perfect sense to everyone. These girls, they are so simple. I just pass along all that I know and pray when they find out eventually that I’ve been a fraud all along, they’ll just laugh and throw me into the deep end of the pool with a snorkel.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Mad Ones

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!” - Jack Kerouac
I always cross myself before getting on airplanes. I know, it’s a silly ritual, the plane is not going down. I’m going to see and touch and feel my loved ones again. I will sink my toes in sand, and lay blankets in the middle of wheat fields, and memorize poems with my girls again. I’ll make it. I always do. Still, any time I have a moment that might be considered my last, I have to make it hyper real.
Taking pictures is like that too. There’s something about the feel of a camera in my hands. The click of the shutter, the turning of a lens according to the rising or setting sun, knowing the situation, it’s all about fear. Will I get it right? Because I see it so clearly in my mind already. All the things I dream, every last detail. Can I capture it? Because we all deserve to have the perfect picture, right? We do.
So if we’re ever walking down a boarding ramp and I reach out and grab your arm and say, “You know I love you, right?” You’ll know. What I’m really doing is taking your picture so that it will last forever. And if I ever stick a camera in your face you’ll also know, that’s me saying, "I love you because you're mine."

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Chasing Windmills

We plunge onward in the minivan toward the hidden beaches of Mialoi along the South China Sea. Along the expressway that winds through lush rolling hills with belching factory chimney stacks and radio towers like blocks of castles popping their blinking heads through the trees, there are temple rooftops behind rice fields and stone bridges that skim upon the water’s edge. We seem to fly over them all, gaining speed.
It had been a disastrous morning.
Tantrums and knocked over bowls of cheerios and oatmeal thrown against the tv. There were wet diapers and pee stains on the floor and somebody left an ink pen in the washing machine, and I always thought, you never know how important something is until you reach the point of giving up. I remember that from my days of running cross country at George Fox. Miles away from home, legs pounding against pavement, stopping outside a farmhouse with nothing in the distance just the throbbing, panting breath in my chest thinking, “What am I doing to myself? Why am I trying so hard? Give up. It’s easier.”
That’s when you always know what you’re made of.
We fly past villages and industrial areas. Longshong. Houlong. Dali. The children in the back sing and clap and cry and scream as if they are on fire and SungJoo is groaning, “Why did we come here again? What was the reason for this?” It is as if we are moving toward the end of something. A dangerous edge we will not stop for and just hurl ourselves over into the nothingness below.
At the Daya Interchange we pause. There is an abandoned temple gate covered in weeds and we turn in to let the girls pee in the tall clover patches beside the road. A farmer with oxen stops to watch. The engine is running. I am too late and Rebekah wets herself and is screaming. Xi’an is standing over pointing a finger in my face, “Daddy, I told you so,” and baby Lauren begins what will become a weeklong bout of diarrhea. I walk out toward the farmer who lights a cigarette from his shirt pocket and offers me one.
“No thanks,” I wave, and ask him how far to the ocean.
Ciding Beach?”
He mumbles something in Chinese and laughs. Backing away, I watch him return to his ox.
“What did he say?” I ask SungJoo.
“Nothing, he’s drunk or crazy.”
“No, tell me. What?”
“He said follow the monsters. The water is below their feet.”
Back in the minivan I wrap Rebekah in a towel and produce chocolate from my pocket which suffices for a spell. Here the road narrows to two lanes. All the road signs are in Chinese with strange exit markings we dart past, and SungJoo and I bicker in the way that only married couples can. At each other’s throats in milliseconds over the slightest infraction as if either one of us is to blame for our inability to find joy in these moments. The girls become restless again. They want out of their seats. They want to climb over the head rests and make tunnels beneath our feet. They hit one another and recoil in shrieking wails. I remember reading Sartre’s No Exit in high school and the line, “Hell is other people” comes to mind, but I refuse it. I am a blind man. I am dementia explored. I am senility by self-prescription. I will not turn the minivan around. I am an American father driving his family on a road trip through Taiwan. This air-conditioned nightmare will not defeat me.
It is then I see them.
Appearing on the blue horizon like Titans. Legs rumbling. Arms reaching forward. They are racing along the coast line and fill up our sight. There is no escape. Monsters, and we are headed right for them.
I have always loved stories of Giants. Jack and the Beanstalk, Prometheus Bound, David and Goliath, most recently Dahl’s The BFG, which I have been reading to my girls before bed, asking them on a scale of 1 to 5 how scary they would like my voice. They usually settle on 3. Anything higher and I end up falling asleep on the floor holding their hands. Giants grind bones to make their bread. Giants smell the blood of Englishmen. Fee Fi Foe Fum! Giants are what’s not right about the landscape. Clumsy and unorthodox, they suffer terribly from culture shock, and stick out like gargantuan sore thumbs.
Believe me, I sympathize.
Yet my favorite Giant story has got to be La Man of La Mancha. Don Quixote chasing windmills across the Spanish countryside believing they are monsters. He plunges forward into madness, into a past he can no longer understand, into a future that looks on him and laughs.
These were the monsters along the coast line the farmer was speaking about. Giant wind carbine pinwheels of green energy, spinning slowly over and over and rising out of the sand. They marked our way, leading us to the water. Down a secret gravel path bisecting rice farms, we park the minivan next to a water god shrine. There is an old man burning incense and praying. Through the trees then, the blistering sun on our necks. The sand full of garbage, broken bottles, lighters, cigarette butts, and trash, and I carry both girls on my back so their bare feet won’t cut. Yet as we approach the wet sand the water is clean, and the girls and I strip to our underwear and just walk in to the waves which wash over us, knocking Rebekah down. She pops up with a glowing smile. It’s the ocean. We made it. This is not hell. We are swimming in the East China Sea.
We play for hours, darting in and out of the water. There appears to be no edge, just vast open spaces of cool tide. The girls explode with laughter. It was worth it. I know now. It was all worth it.
“Daddy, look, giants,” Xi’an points to the wild windmills above our heads just as the sun goes down. Ominous. Robotic. They rise into the sky as we drift down the surf. “Don’t worry, I’ll protect you,” she grabs a stick and begins charging toward them. Farther and farther down the sandy beach she roars. I trot along after with Rebekah on my back. They seem to be moving away in the fading sun. As if we are the ones they fear.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Rebekah Turns Three

I never thought that a Panda Cake could cause so much confusion among a class of pre-schoolers. Perhaps if I hadn't stabbed a national symbol of China in the skull with burning candles, you think? Today we had Rebekah's birthday party at Merryland. I read "Clip Clop" and had the students act out animals sounds, then these innocent little cherubs went Lord of the Flies and tore that Panda to shreads. Nice.
Happy Birthday Angel Pie!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Daffodils

I saw a man riding a scooter dragging a mattress along the highway.
I saw a boy on the sidewalk breathing smoke into a plastic bag.
I saw and old woman combing curls and staring in a window
I saw a young man in a surgical mask pushing an old man in a wheelchair.

I was stuck in traffic covered in green diarrhea with a screaming one year old in my lap.
My three-year-old turned to me and said, “Daddy, I don’t feel so good,” then projectile vomited in my face.
It was white and curdled and smelled like vanilla bile
Xi’an rolled her eyes.

Out the Window
I saw a man in robes swaying kung fu like a branch in the wind.
I saw a girl holding a poodle and chatting on a cell phone.
I saw a grandmother strolling beneath a flowered parasol.
I saw two men sitting on newspaper playing chess in the sunlight.

When we returned home
I heated up the spaghetti and meatballs I’d made that afternoon.
The green diarrhea and white vomit had soaked through my t-shirt and was caked in my hair.
I laid Kinu in the crib and threw her soaking diaper the garbage.
I sat at the kitchen table and read Wordsworth to my daughters.

That night after bed time I went for a lazy run.
I saw two men in a metal box lifted skyward by a crane.
I saw lovers in the dark crouching in the shadows.
I saw waltzers under street lights moving without music.
When I returned home, I laid down on the sofa and thought about clouds.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Junk Collector

I finally found a local video store. It only took me three months, but there it was around the corner next to the all night fruit and vegetable stand and across the street from the animal shelter where the sad puppies in the window with dyed pink ears and matching paws go two for ten thousand NTS a pop.
That’s become my new favorite pastime, walking Taichung sidewalks. These narrow strands of covered tile with rows of parked motor bikes and shops crammed together one after another: Eye glass stores, clothing boutiques, lunch diners, kid play areas, convenience marts, stationary kiosks, photo centers, music schools, and repair stations, all about the size of an American university dorm room, one after another, lining the streets stretching out in a never ending labyrinth grid ready for me to explore.
Here also, amid all this name brand merchandizing, I can find little smatterings of Taiwanese culture. The old man hunched over a drill press cutting keys out of copper blocks in a machine shop so oily and dusty my father couldn’t even find a tool. The toothless woman in white gloves standing behind the counter in the Chinese pharmacy filled with formaldehyde jars of coiled snakes, seahorses, scorpions, bear claws, and ginseng roots. Walking inside, the ringing bell atop the door transports you back centuries. There is the wooden stamp maker with his constant stream of customers needing plaster molds of Chinese names to officially sign their bills at the post office or send money at the bank. Then there's the crowd favorite, the roasted duck cafe, with racks of orange, hairless mallards glazed and broiled and stuck on sticks ready to be served with sticky sauce and flat tortilla type bread. The lines for this ancient delicacy circle the block during lunch and especially dinner, when overstressed parents make their way home. These are the places when I feel like Taiwan is real. Where there are true objects and cultural practices of art that will survive no matter how much economic development or demolition comes to the area.
But I’m getting off track.
What I really wanted to talk about was this video store, because for the first time in months, I’m watching movies again.
Now, like most westerners, so many important moments of my life have happened while I sat wide eyed in front of a film screen. James Dean on the verge of a nervous breakdown giving his father a handful of cash in Rebel Without A Cause, or Bud Cort leaping from a flying car in Harold and Maude. We all have them, powerful cinematic images of human emotion that we carry with us. Images created and performed by others that shape and guide us.
Yet when you have children, the theater experience is exchanged for another dark room filled with singing fussy babies to sleep and fretting over 100 degree temperatures, praying that their lives are full and happy, that they grow up to experience the profound and keep the humility to try and understand it.
Lately the movies I’ve been watching have been The Little Mermaid II and Where the Wild Things Are. Pretty cool, actually, but pleasantly at the video store this week, I rented Pixar’s WALL-E. You know the story, set in the disgusting future, little cute robot is sent to clean up Earth, falls in love with hot new robot who packs heat, they save the world. It’s cute enough to make you cry, or so I’ve heard.
But mostly, it got me thinking about junk.
You know, how life is made up of objects we use up and discard, and beyond human emotions like loyalty and friendship and love, should we define ourselves by the things we keep or by those we throw away? Basically, what is our culture both collectively and personally?
This question even further intensified after visiting Lukang Historic Area. From the brochure:

“Lukang is an important town for the cultural tourism site in Taiwan. We have rare heritage, traditional handicrafts and tasty local flavor snacks. The nation’s top township in terms of friendliness, cleanness, taste, distinctive features and sense of happiness, people rated Lukang the highest by Commonwealth Magazine. Look at our hometown with your hearts keenly. Welcome to Lukang, you will realize what a charming town. Enjoy your stay in the beauty of Lukang through gorgeous temples and historical spots.” -Lukang Town Mayor, Wang Hui-Mei

Now, that is one descriptive paragraph.
So, we piled into the minivan and headed out to Lukang and were surprised to find this roughly five city block square area of historic life totally preserved. Tiny alleyways revealing tea shops next to traditional craft displays. Quaint cobblestone streets with rusted bicycles. Open doorways that lead into dusty antique shops, and temples tucked into the scenery next to wooden statues and hidden shrines. My kind of place really, reminds me a lot of myself, hoarding keepsakes, boxing up possessions from previous lives, keeping life’s forgotten items for some future scrap book that I will never create. Throwing nothing away. I always feel a tear when I do, as if the old high school track shoes or a boy scout pocket knife must never be thrown out. As if they wouldn’t forgive me for letting go because they were a part of me at one point and I still feel they are priceless.
Of course, at Lukang everything was for sale.
Colorful opera masks, wooden toys, spinning tops, and Chinese dolls. Rusted cola signs, movie posters, bamboo hats, cheap jade bracelets and trashy trinkets. And there were antiques. All kinds of dingy stuff. A bridal chariot with rice paper walls that could be carried by four men. The head of a dragon boat that could be mounted on a wall. Typewriters with circular keys, opium pipes, and finger cuffs with snake heads at either end. Box kites, Mao hats, and gowns with pearl snaps.
Junk mostly. Junk for sale.
And as we strolled the back alleys, detouring around the large condominium development that will run adjacent, with its massive displays explaining how all this culture can be had just walking distance away from the new yakisoba restaurant, 7-11 convenience mart, and Gorilla’s Gym and Fitness Center, I smiled, because I knew that was inevitable, this selling of nostalgia back to the Taiwanese. At least they were trying to preserve something important, right? An old practice here, an ancient heirloom there. Yet, who says what is worth saving? Is it anything a sucker will pay 1,000 NTS for? Is that what real culture is?
All I know is that I found something here today that I will continue searching for again and again. An attempt to sort and file away yesterday’s treasures. And people will continue to write me and say how my life sounds like I’m in a movie, like they couldn’t imagine walking in my shoes, and I’ll continue to tell them there’s junk everywhere, collect it on your own. The junky memories of life, made of objects and people and observations and passing conversations, whatever can be held onto and given meaning. Keep them. Preserve them. They might be worth something someday, or worse, they actually might be for sale.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Gold Mine Adventure

We also fall back into routines.
I arrive in Taipei at 10:30 p.m. on a Monday and after a two hour drive to Taichung take the elevator up to the 19th floor of the Moon Basin Apartment complex, turn my key in the lock, and step into the lamplight and perfect stillness of my old, current, and new life. My girls are upside down in their beds, blankets tossed, rainbow socks and silver tiaras, water markers and Lego’s spread about the room in earthquake patterns. Rebekah has ballet shoes stuffed under her pillow like a squirrel storing nuts, and Xi’an with a Mother Goose nursery rhyme anthology sprawled across her legs looks like a Chicken Little acorn fallen from the sky. I have two Barbie dolls stuffed in my duffle bag for them I bought in America, something I promised I would never purchase, never push, but they’ve been begging for them and at least for today, this time, after being gone two weeks, I’m spoiling them rotten. I close the door and crouch low at the foot of their beds, the same place I have sat and watched them sleep almost every night of their lives. Total peace. Total tranquility. Not a care or fear in the world.
By Saturday we are back on the road, a steady two hour drive south to the: “Exotic Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village, since 1986.” Billed as: “A Journey to Find the True Taiwan and Touch Your Heart.”
Now who wouldn’t want that?
I mean, we came here to experience a “True” culture, right? And as a parent, to have my daughter’s “heart’s touched” sounds too good to be true. Oh, it was, because the place scared the crap out of me.
Before coming to Taiwan, I didn’t know much as far as this country’s sights to see. If one is going to Asia, Taiwan doesn’t really jump off the map as a big tourist destination. Yet why is that? What is Taiwanese culture? How is it different from the rest of Asia? All good questions to ponder as we pass through the rustic wooden gates, park the minivan, and head onto the grounds. Once inside, we are confronted by a massive sprawling cartoon map ascending into the mountainside. I quickly learn that there’s more to this collection of Aboriginal Taiwanese villages than was advertised.
First we stroll through the European Palace Garden, complete with climbing rose archways, sculpted hedges, and Renaissance fountains embellished with Roman style; a gothic bell tower which, according to the inscription will allow one to, “recall your romantic mood”; and a Ritz Palace designed in the elegant Baroque style that serves, “excellent Chinese cuisine.” Now, one might think this mix of cultures would create an uncertainty about one’s surroundings which would be a bit scary, but no. I assure you, this was not the scary part.
Now, adjacent to this, moving up the mountain toward the aforementioned Aboriginal Village, was Amusement Isle, complete with roller coaster rides including: Space Mountain, a swinging pendulum Pirate Ship, a Waikiki Wave, and a Jurassic Cruise with wooly mammoth, robotic T-Rex, and live erupting volcano. This of course is connected to the 3-Dimensional Space Tour, Venetian Carousel, Love Boat, and Mayan Village with imported cave drawings of ritualistic sacrifice. Now, one might also think this cashing in on different world cultures would create a bankruptcy of morality which would be a bit scary, but no. I promise you, this was not the scary part.
From here we moved to the cable cars, which were absolutely first class. Rising higher and higher into the sky, above the UFO Gyro Drop and treelines, to the Mountain Top’s Observation Tower, we could look down at the Kiddie Train Rides, the circular silver Monorail, and the Gold Mine Adventure with its brown boulders and thrusting water slides.
“Daddy, can I ride that? Can I ride that?”
Xi’an bounced up and down in the cable car like a super ball, causing us to swing in the wind.
“Now Xi’an, I don’t know if you’re big enough for the Gold Mine Adventure. Besides, we came here to see the villages at the top of the mountain, to learn something about history and culture, not just..." I caught myself... "run amuck, Remember?”
Xi’an folded her arms angrily across her chest. “I don’t like culture.” She pouted.
I assured her that whatever lay ahead of us would be worth it, but she just grumbled. “All I wanted was to ride the Gold Mine Adventure.”
“But you didn’t even know it existed until two seconds ago.”
“I don’t care. I’ve still always wanted it.”
Now, one might think this clashing of father and daughter high above the trees ascending a mountain face in a claustophobic cable car with the wind gusting would be scary. One might also think that the wringing out of ancient, historic, and foreign eras would create an unstable collective conscious resulting in mass paranoia, and that would be scary, but no. I entreat you, this was not the scary part.
From the Observation Tower we descended the mountain. Here we finally arrived at the Aboriginal Village. There were perfectly manicured stone huts of mason perfection with geometrically accurate thatched roves next to totem faces etched in rock telling of tribal legends long since forgotten. Here were the Paiwan, with their skill of wood carving, the Rukui, with their excellent cloth weaving, and the Saistat, with traditional bamboo houses, all very impressive. Yet with each stop, there were these incredibly life like wax statues, dressed in traditional clothes and set in action poses of ethnic life:
Five men in a circle playing a game of sky lacrosse.
A woman with haunted grin sweeping a courtyard next to two men sharing a drink from a gourd.
All absolutely life like, muscles taut, facial expressions keen, even down to the dramatic situations of life or death. For example, two men with spears standing over a screaming monkey in a cage, poised to stab the shrieking beast to fill their bellies. A grotesque dentist yanking a rotting tooth out from the blackened gums of a grimacing woman with a long string, a stone shelf of human skulls next to a pagan fire of sacrifice, a pygmy woman suckling a demon-looking child. All again, totally life like. Stumbling down the mountain in a daze was akin to racing through a haunted house. At every turn a new horror, causing us to avert our child’s eyes.
“Daddy, why are the men killing the monkey?”
“Daddy, why don’t the men wear pants?”
I admit, I’m no lightweight, but this place just gives me the creeps, but even so! I implore you, that was not the scary part.
So, was this Taiwanese culture? Was this supposed to “Touch my Heart?” Honestly, there was nothing to do but head down the hill and hit the Aboriginal Restaurant for a Lupit Burger, top that off with some pineapple kabobs from the Hawaiian Bar, and wash that down with some Mexican ice cream before hitting the water slides at the Gold Mine Adventure. Oh, and we got a souvenir too, a $12 framed digital photo taken right atop the water slid before the 100 foot drop into a splashing pool of water. My face said it all, a strange expression. Bug eyes wide, mouth aghast, arms clutching the rails for dear life. I remember thinking, I wonder if I put the traditional yarn woven vest from the Puyuma tribe on lay away will they validate my parking?
Yes, at long last, that was the scary part, because they did.