Saturday, June 14, 2008

My Book, STOKED ON LIFE, Is Now Available!!


Get Your Copy Today!

In addition to many of the most popular sections of the blog (now polished, edited, and hopefully error-free), STOKED ON LIFE also features photographs taken throughout my eight months of adventure. Please visit one of the sites below to learn more:

*Lulu (the publisher):
*Barnes & Noble:

STOKED ON LIFE is also now available in the Washington and Lee Bookstore in Lexington, VA. Additionally, a downloadable PDF version is available from Lulu for just $5.95 and can be read right on your computer screen. Don't miss out...get STOKED ON LIFE today!

Monday, January 22, 2007

Concluding Thoughts

“By the Numbers”

8 months of globetrotting
66,000 kilometers
5 continents
4 languages
6 surfboards
1 world’s most dangerous wave

24 instances of pretending not to understand a language
251 instances of actually not understanding a language
15 times when I began speaking in the wrong language (eg. speaking French in Taiwan)
50,000 Chinese characters
14 variations of the phrase “I hate Chinese” in my Google search function’s history

1 world’s tallest building (1,676 feet tall)
41 earthquakes (over a 4 month period)

1 near-wife
5 sacrificial cows (in exchange for marriage)
1 girlfriend
187 girls who asked if they could touch my “golden” hair

1,568 photos
13.5 minutes on the “big screen”
300 pages of rambling

90 miles per hour top-speed on my motorcycle
87 red-lights completely ignored

31 laws broken
0 times caught

18 people who thought I was French
1 person who thought I was Chinese/Taiwanese (myself)
0 people who thought I was Senegalese

73 instances of being “pretty lost”
16 instances of being “totally lost”
3 instances of being “somebody shoot me, I’m so lost”

4,872 drivers propositioned for hitchhiking
82 drivers who pulled off the road in response
54 drivers who allowed me to get in even after seeing my surfboard (leaving 28 who frowned/scoffed/laughed and drove off)

3 cases of bronchitis
1 case of influenza
1 case of food poisoning
4 cases of traveler’s diarrhea
1 dog bite (Doberman)
2 motorcycle accidents
49 sea urchin spines pulled out of my body with tweezers
4 sea urchin spines pulled out of my body only after first using scissors to cut the skin
33 reef cuts
2 tubes of superglue used to seal those cuts
1 black eye
2 bruised bones
1 damaged eardrum
914 times I’ve been called crazy (over an 8 month period)

15 minutes to learn the Wolof/Arabic greetings
15 days to forget almost everything else

22 times almost used my left hand while eating tieboudienne
153 times forced to use a squat-toilet
151 times remembered to bring toilet paper
2 times reminded why eating with your left hand is forbidden

2 unforgettable host-families
1 unforgettable surf crew
1 ridiculously long list of unforgettable friends

5 times a day the Muslim call-to-prayer startled me
38 instances in Tahiti in which I thought I was dreaming and actually pinched myself to determine whether I were awake

11.5 hours of new music added to my ipod
6,724 people on rooftops who watched me attempt to do an African dance during the Labor Day Parade

3 instances in which I found myself in the midst of a mob/protest
1 instance in which money that had previously been in my pocket was not there afterwards

8 months of living in the tropics
5.5 days per week, on average, spent surfing (for 8 months)
23 typhoons (over a 4 month period)
5 professional surfers who have stayed in the same Tahitian bungalow I called home
1 country in which I am now officially recognized as a professional surfer

40 showers taken with cold water
3 showers taken using a bucket and watering-can

612 mosquito bites
2 friends who acquired malaria

6 feet between me and an 8-foot-long eel while scuba diving
12 feet between me and a wild rhinoceros on an African game reserve
2 sharks spotted while in the water
10 seconds of deliberation before deciding to continue surfing despite the presence of those sharks

12,966 ft. above sea level
97 feet beneath the surface of the water

303 fresh-fruit smoothies/juices drunk (over an 8 month period)
1,220 dumplings eaten (over a 4 month period)
6 Senegalese meals eaten which did not contain fish (over a 1.5 month period)
24 instances of intense craving for lasagna (over an 8 month period)
19 instances of intense craving for eastern NC barbeque (over an 8 month period)

61 times I’ve told girls I surfed Teahupo’o
44 times I’ve told girls I’m friends with the famous Asian band Wu Bai & China Blue
0 times either of these techniques has produced any real results

25 aloha signs waved on an average Tahitian day
15 bows performed on an average Taiwanese day
4.5 minutes of handshaking engaged in on an average Senegalese day

3.5 minutes of exposure before I’d begin to sunburn in any of the places I visited

1 World
1 Life
1 Chance
…to be Stoked…


“With Words”

“This is my pride: that now, thinking of the end, I do not cry like all the men of my age, [who ask] ‘but what was the use and the meaning?’ I was the use and the meaning. That I lived and that I acted.” – Ayn Rand

“What did you learn?” This is, perhaps, the most important question I can ask myself as I look back on my eight months of adventure. To find my answer, one need look no further than the very beginning of my blog and the Ayn Rand quote which has been there from the start – a quote which has, until now, gone unaddressed. The most important thing I learned during my travels is – ironically – something I already knew. But it’s a lesson not easily retained. No, I’ll go even further: it’s one with an inherent tendency to be forgotten – so much so, in fact, that I don’t believe I would be mistaken to say that each and every time I climbed a mountain or surfed a wave or made a new friend or offered a helping hand – each and every time – I was learning this lesson from scratch.

We begin to die the moment we are born. We all know this deep down, whether we wish to admit it to ourselves or not. We’re frightened by how fast life passes, and we’re frightened by our inability to know what lies ahead. We’re frightened by our powerlessness.

We all face the temptation to surrender. To run away. To hide. To fall to our knees and beg for deliverance. We all wish to know more than anything else that our lives have meaning – that, even in the grand scope of the universe, the little specks which are our existences hold significance… that they don’t go unnoticed.

Many people never find meaning. A few find it in others. Some find it in God. But in a world of doubts and uncertainties, there exists in each man’s life only one Being with the power to bring light to what was previously dark, to convey substance to what was previously empty, to transmit meaning to what was previously absurd – himself.

The fact that life has no easily discernible meaning is our saving grace! It’s what makes us free. It’s what makes us human. We’re not powerless – we’re powerful beyond measure! Our existences are living works of art, and we are the creators – no one else. We wield the brush ourselves. We are free to make mistakes; we are free to fail. But so, too, are we free to innovate and explore, to be bold and daring. We are free to conceive beauty, to pursue the aesthetic. We are free to create works of exaltation. Like Icarus, we are free to build wings. We are free to leap. To soar. To fly.


Final Pictures

Final pictures from Taiwan (several hundred) will be uploaded to Webshots in the near future:
Also, information on how to purchase my book STOKED ON LIFE will be posted on this blog soon.

The Currents of Life

“A Bittersweet Goodbye”

Shijian guo de hao kuai…” I say softly – sadly – as I look down at my feet. “Time goes by so quickly.” I immediately decide this was a stupid thing to say and simultaneously tighten my grip on the carry-on luggage I’m holding and shift my weight awkwardly from one foot to the other. My hands are clammy, and my head feels like it’s half-full of helium. I haven’t slept in three days, and I’m still wondering how I managed to pack my entire life as I’ve known it for the past four months into one backpack, one suitcase, and one – albeit enormous – surfboard bag. But as happy as I am to have made it past the check-in counter without being accosted by any power-tripping, tape-measure-toting agents with a hatred for surfers, I’m awash in melancholy. Memories are flashing across the little movie screen in my head, one after another, and I feel myself withdrawing from everything around me and becoming transfixed by my subconscious’ latest creation.

I see myself exiting an airport in the middle of the night, greeting an old friend, and speaking timidly in a language that is not my own. I see myself stumbling across a busy downtown intersection with my friends after class, unable to walk straight I’m laughing so hard. I see myself grinning madly and screaming unintelligible elongated vowel sounds like a chimpanzee in the front seat of a roller coaster while I watch a surfer go flying by me, perched precariously on the nose of his longboard… Then the screen goes black for a moment before slowly fading in, and I lean forward with anticipation in my intra-cranial armchair. I see myself on an almost-deserted beach under a beautiful, star-lit night-sky. A gust of wind born miles away, somewhere out over the dark ocean at which I now stare, sweeps across vast expanses of water as if propelled by fate. Under the cover of darkness, it creeps up on me, tip-toeing weightlessly across the soft white sand. At last, the film begins to zoom in, gradually and deliberately, and I see what I already knew was going to happen. I shiver. It lasts for but a split-second, this shiver – gone in the blink of an eye. But she notices it. Slowly, carefully, she unravels my rolled-up shirtsleeves, one at a time, and rebuttons them around my wrists. I shiver again, but this time not because I’m cold. I seem to be debating whether I’m still staring up at the stars or if they’re staring down at me, having somehow danced their way down from the heavens and into her eyes. Her hand is warm in mine…

Suddenly my movie screen goes black. I blink and look down at my hand. Hers is still there. “Shijian guo de hao kuai,” I think again. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to say good-bye. Then I remember something she had once written – she, the poet, who could capture a lifetime in just a line: “Gei wo yi ge wen / bu yao zaijian.” “Give me a kiss / not a good-bye.” I turn from her and do not look back. I’m swallowed up by the crowd. I know she can no longer see me. It’s not until I’m taking that final and most irreversible step, until I’m crossing that most consequential threshold which separates airport from airplane – one heart from another – that I realize she is still with me. Two stories above the concrete of the runway, straddling a dream-like abyss – my feet in two vastly different worlds – I close my eyes, and time screeches to a halt. I can still taste her bittersweet good-bye.

“Cerulean Dreams”

I’m curled up in the fetal position and gasping for air. As I claw at the dirt in anguish, tiny pebbles trickle off the two-mile vertical cliff in front of me. I need to stand and work-out my cramps, but I don’t dare lift my head above the small bushes that conceal me from the trail. My half-erect tent which looks ready to heave itself off the mountain and the sound of boiling water on my miniature stove both call my attention, but the thought of attending to either sends me into a frenzy of coughing and wheezing. Steam is rising from the stove, though, so I get to my hands and knees and manage to crawl my way over and turn off the gas, cursing my stupidity all the while. “I might as well have shot off a flare!” I think to myself as I peek through the bushes and listen for approaching footsteps. Nothing. I exhale a sigh of relief and refocus my attention. The smell of food alone is making me gag, but I haven’t refueled all day; I need to eat. I can’t spend more than five or ten seconds working on my tent without collapsing in exhaustion, but I need shelter; I need sleep. And as clouds roll into the valley below, I can’t help but cast an apprehensive eye on the ten-foot-tall lightning-rod which towers over me. “What the **** am I doing?” I ask myself. But then I look out at the distant horizon – at the sharp, foreboding mountain peaks all around me – and I feel a jolt of energy. I glance back at the lightning-rod and grin, wondering if it could possibly conduct the kind of electricity powering me now. I’m over 12,000 feet above sea level on the tallest mountain in Northeast Asia, I’ve managed to evade police and park rangers for two days, and I’m just hours from reaching one of the most remote summits in the world. This is life as I love it most. This is what drives me.

I wake up sweating and breathing heavily. “Wow, what a dream,” I think to myself. “Climbing Yushan, the tallest mountain in Asia outside the greater Himalayas…the fourth tallest island peak in the world… and doing it solo no less – without the required guide or permits! How insane!” As I fluff my pillow and roll over in my comfortable bed, I think to myself that maybe – just maybe – my blog readers would enjoy this dream, too. “You can’t be prosecuted for doing something illegal if it’s all just a dream!” I realize triumphantly just before drifting off again…

“God, I hate bureaucracy,” I think to myself. “We’re sorry, but we’re unable to process your request for a permit in time,” they told me. I clench my fists with frustration. “And, even worse, they want to require me to hire a guide!” I think. “As if we need the government to dictate what risks we should and should not take. Do we not have the right to lead our lives as we choose provided we don’t hurt others?!” I ask myself fervently. The answer seems so clear to me; I just can’t understand why people sacrifice their freedom. Then I smile and wonder if Taiwan’s bureaucracy just might prove to be the impetus for one of my greatest and most outlandish adventures. I glace up at the luggage rack above me and mentally catalog all the gear I’ve brought with me. The latest weather reports are calling for freezing temperatures and a chance of ice and snow; I think back to Aorai and reassure myself that I learned my lesson: mountaineering on tropical islands does not necessarily mean warm weather. I pull out my map and guidebook and review my plan for the nth time. I connect the dots of the circle I’ve mentally drawn from my home in northern Taiwan, down the west coast, up into the mountains, and finally back to the North. It’s a wild shot, sure, but I’ve poured over the details for the past week, and I know it’s my only hope for climbing this peak.

The conductor comes by to clip my ticket, and I cringe as he glances – suspiciously, it seems to me – at my backpack and the mountaineering gear hanging off it. I’m barely out of Taipei, and I’m already expecting my cover to be blown at any minute! As he continues down the aisle, I review my modus operandi for at least the tenth time of the morning. No conversations. No talk of Yushan. Minimal Chinese… Low profile, low profile, low profile, I say over and over to myself. I go over the details of my cover story yet again. Just a quick trip up to the mountains… maybe take in a sunrise if it’s possible. I think over my Plan B and Plan C strategies. And I run a few lines of French and Spanish through my head just in case it comes to that. If I really find myself in a jam – cornered by someone with good English, say – I can always pretend I’m from Europe and don’t understand. I stare at my reflection in the train window as the scenery outside flies by with a blur, and I can’t help but chuckle; life is everything it’s cracked up to be and more.

Someone is tapping my shoulder gently and speaking to me. A flashing alert light goes off somewhere in my brain, but my senses are still numb and I can’t think clearly. It’s dark and cold, and I desperately want the shoulder-tapping to stop so I can go back to sleep. At last, I begin to come-to, and I realize that I’ve made a careless mistake. I think back on the day’s events and try to remember how I wound up like this… After riding the train out of Taipei and down the west coast for several hours to Jiayi, the jumping-off-point for almost any excursion into the mountains, I had deboarded and changed trains. I had managed to keep my cool as I waited for the train with all my gear in front of the police station – the police station I knew to be the official overseer of permit applications for Yushan. If anyone knew the rules and regulations for climbing Yushan, it would be the officers inside that station, so I had been on high alert and in no mood for conversation. Fortunately, the xiao huoche had soon arrived, and I was able to embark on the next leg of my journey. This particular xiao huoche – or “little train” – is a technological marvel which uses a highly sophisticated series of switchbacks and hydraulics to ascend the steepest stretch of narrow-gauge train tracks in the world. Originally designed for the Alps, this technology had somehow found its way to Taiwan, and I had been intrigued since I first learned of it. It’s on this xiao huoche that I have made my careless mistake.

I played it cool at first, pretending not to understand much Chinese and listening to my ipod to ensure I wouldn’t have to speak to anyone. As the train made its way out of town, the scenery changed rapidly from coastal to mountainous. Soon, cliffs dropped vertically downwards just feet from the edge of the tracks, and dark, winding tunnels led us through massive granite outcroppings. It wasn’t long before we encountered our first switchback, though, and it proved to be a surprise worth waiting for. The grade of the tracks had been increasing steadily as we traversed steeper and steeper terrain, and I wondered how we could possibly go on. At last, we came to a gradual but complete stop, and, then…we began rolling backwards. First, slowly; then faster; and faster, and faster, and faster. Glancing frantically at the exit door, I did some quick calculations in my head to estimate my chance of survival were I to jump; I had read about this special switchback system, but I just hadn’t expected anything quite like what I was now experiencing. Could this really be safe?! I was careening through a dark, overgrown, seemingly enchanted forest littered with hidden cliffs and precipices on a train better suited for an antique museum than the steepest train tracks in the world…and I was doing it in reverse! I felt as if I were stuck in some wild fantasy novel! Just when I had decided a premature deboarding from this possessed train might be my only option, I realized we were rolling uphill again. Still in reverse, but definitely uphill. The next thing I knew, we had stopped and were moving forward once more. The train was using gravity to propel itself up the mountain, taking one step back for every two steps forward, yet nevertheless making progress! Having been a train enthusiast since I was a little kid, I was pretty impressed and spent the next few minutes thinking about how cool this whole switchback experience was going to be. Gradually, though, I realized I wasn’t feeling so great from all the wild careening through the woods, and I determined that if this most recent bit of insanity were indeed the first switchback and if my guidebook were correct in asserting that there would be over thirty switchbacks altogether…well, by the end of the journey I might not be the same train enthusiast I once had been. So, with this thought, I dug through my med-kit and popped a Dramamine in my mouth…and effectively severed my ties with the conscious world.

I’m finally beginning to feel alert as the Dramamine wears off and I regain my senses. I’m on the back of a motorcycle, riding through a freezing-cold rain in the small mountain village of Alishan. I can’t remember what exactly I said to the people who awakened me at the end of the train journey from Jiayi, but I feel fairly confident I didn’t give away any details about my plans. I’m in the vicinity of Yushan now, and I don’t want to draw attention to myself (“Nice job passing out from a tiny anti-motion sickness pill,” I think to myself). The driver of the motorcycle owns a local inn, and she has agreed to take me there without forcing me to commit to a room. She doesn’t speak English, so I’m forced to play my hand and use Chinese. The inn is quaint and cozy with hardwood floors and ceilings, and I’m happy to see an electric blanket on the bed. There’s no sense in drawing even more attention to myself in this tiny village, so I pay her for a room and settle in with my gear. It’s late in the evening, though, and I still haven’t arranged the most crucial part of my trip. “This could be interesting…” I think to myself.

A somewhat quirky yet nevertheless important component of Chinese culture is a reverence for mountain sunrises. Most likely as the result of Buddhist influences, the number-one priority of almost every Chinese or Taiwanese person who ventures to the mountains is to watch a beautiful sunrise. Because of this, a number of locals in the Alishan area run “sunrise-tour” vans every morning to nearby scenic overlooks. I had done my research long before journeying to Alishan, and I knew that at least one of these overlooks was at the mountain pass of Tatajia, not far from the base of Yushan. The road between Alishan and Tatajia is the highest in Taiwan and often is made impassible due to snow, ice, and landslides; there is no bus service. Therefore, just reaching the trailhead for Yushan is a nearly insurmountable obstacle for the solo mountaineer without an SUV. But I had a plan… “I’d like to watch the sunrise tomorrow morning,” I say to the inn-keeper. “Oh, I can help you arrange that. There is a nice overlook just outside of Alishan,” she responds. “Umm…actually, I was hoping to go to Tatajia to watch the sunrise…would that be possible?” I ask with an all-too-mischievous smile.

“I think our American friend wants to climb Yushan,” the van-driver says in Chinese to everyone. I sink down in my seat and feel my pulse quicken. “Why can’t he just drive and not talk so much?” I mumble to myself. It’s 4:30 AM, and I’m sitting in the front of the sunrise-tour van I had lined up the previous night; seven or eight Taiwanese are sitting in the rows behind me. I’ve told the driver only that I want to get out in Tatajia, but he’s suspicious and suspects my real motive. I was forced to speak Chinese to arrange the early-morning pick-up, so he knows I understand his questions, and I can’t easily deflect them. He has already warned me about the dangers of the mountain, the possibility of snow, and the fact that park rangers inspect climbers’ permits. Until now, my only responses have been a chuckle and a “You’re crazy, man,” but I realize I’m in need of local beta, and I admit to myself that my cover is just about blown anyway. So, at last, I confess, “Yea, I might try to climb Yushan…got any advice?” The back of the van suddenly bursts into life and I’m floored by a symphony of “Yi ge ren?! Yi ge ren?! Yi ge ren?!” “By yourself?! By yourself?! By yourself?!” This phrase will prove to be a recurring leitmotif throughout the climb. I manage to calm the Taiwanese – who, although slightly more independent-minded than the mainland Chinese, rarely do anything more dangerous than tying their shoes without the supervision of a professional and the support of at least fifteen friends – and ask the driver if he can drop me off at the trailhead instead of the scenic overlook. “You don’t care about the sunrise?” he asks with a grin. “Ehh, not really,” I stammer. To my dismay, he tells me his van can’t make it all the way to the trailhead but that he will drop me off as close to it as possible; unfortunately, my DZ happens to be directly in front of the Tatajia police station.

“Hellooo!” the policeman shouts to me for the second time. “Just keep walking. Just keep walking,” I command myself. The van driver had given me little warning before dumping me off in front of the police station. Anxiously watching a nearby group of guides and park rangers in his rear-view mirror, he had urged me to hurry, explaining that I needed to make it past the police station and to the trailhead before the rangers or I’d be in trouble. I’d barely had time to put on my pack – much less stretch or take a drink of water – and I’m already out of breath as the policeman calls to me. I’m wearing sunglasses and a hat pulled down low around my eyes, but I know I’m still recognizable as a foreigner, and the policeman’s greeting confirms this. I fight a sudden urge to dash from the officer at full-speed and focus on controlling my breathing instead. After he calls to me for the second time, I give a quick wave and nod politely, but I make no attempt at conversation. I remind myself that being able to pretend I speak neither Chinese nor English may eventually be my only way of avoiding jail. I can feel his eyes boring into my back as I pass slowly by and continue up the road and towards the peak which calls me.

“Ahhh…” I exhale contentedly as I set my overstuffed backpack against a tree and curl up next to it for a bit of rest. I’ve been hiking for several hours now, and this is the first break I’ve taken. The covert nature of my adventure is taking a toll on me, and I feel physically and mentally drained. I think back to the hike from the police station to the trailhead and shake my head with dismay. Not once, not twice, but three times I had been forced to dive off the road and into the woods! Three separate expedition teams – complete with rangers and guides – had passed me in their SUVs as I was hiking the steep mountain road which connects the police station with the trailhead. By the third time, I was beginning to go delusional. “They’re on to me…they’re out looking for me…they’re gonna find me!” is all I could think. But I kept trudging onwards, knowing full and well I may never even have a chance to step on the trail to Yushan, much less its summit.

Eventually, though, I do find myself at the start of the trail. The sun is just beginning to rise, and the world is awash in a beautiful orange glow. I notice that the climbers and guides who had passed me in the vans are standing around stretching and making final preparations before heading out. A few rangers are on hand, checking permits it appears. I know this is it. I have to act quickly and decisively. I approach the trailhead with my back to the others, pretending to be admiring the sunrise. No one notices me at first, and I move slowly closer. Suddenly, a head turns – no, two! – and I hear someone whisper something about “foreigner.” I can see someone pointing at me in my peripheral vision. My heart is pounding. I know I have to make my move. I think of the possible repercussions of what I’m about to do. A hefty fine. Jail-time. No chance of ever being given a job at the State Department. I tighten the shoulder-straps on my pack, take a deep breath, and set off at a half-jog down the trail. If they want to stop me, they’re going to have to come and get me…

Footsteps. Voices. I curse my bad luck. I’m still sitting against my pack – taking my first break of the day – and someone is coming. I didn’t even get two minutes to relax. I quickly repack my things and prepare for trouble. It’s a large group with a ranger. I realize they must have already summitted; they’re on day two of the climb and are heading down. They don’t notice me, of course, until long after I’ve spotted them, so I think I might be able to squeeze by without having to answer any questions. The ranger is at the back of the group, though, and he seems especially surprised to see me. He at first appears more concerned than suspicious, however, so I explain with simple Chinese that I’m fine and that I was just resting for a moment. This, needless to say, is a mistake. The rest of the group, upon hearing my Chinese, screeches to a stop and begins spewing forth a deafening barrage of questions. Everyone seems to know the question of the day – “Yi ge ren?!” – and everyone desperately wants to know if I’m trying to climb Yushan by myself. I’m watching the ranger carefully, and I can see the gears in his head beginning to grind. I know once again that I must act decisively. I quickly buckle the straps of my pack, mumble some unintelligible Chinese with a big smile, and set off down the trail once more. “I really hope he doesn’t have a radio,” I say aloud a few minutes later, suddenly glancing nervously over my shoulder. But the only reply is a bird’s cackle and the soft rustling of the wind in the trees.

I roll over and take a sip of water from the bottle on my nightstand. “This is an intense dream!” I think. “Some of my readers might even think it’s real. I could get into trouble!” But the more I ponder my dilemma, the more convinced I become that no one could possibly confuse this dream with reality. I mean… camping underneath a lightning-rod?! Please…I’m just not that type… As sleep overtakes me once more, I’m swept away on a wispy mountain cloud, and I find myself floating higher and higher and higher…

“Higher. It’s time to go higher,” I tell myself. It’s 1:30 AM on Day 3, and I’m standing outside my tent a few feet from the two-mile-high cliff that I’ve called my front doorstep for the past eleven hours. I take a deep breath of mountain air and look up at the imposing face of Yushan, silhouetted by the night sky. I feel stronger. My nausea seems to be gone. My legs feel reenergized. The air still seems thin, but at least I can breathe now. I’ve made it through the night without being detected, and I feel thankful for small miracles. My mistake from the previous afternoon is still fresh in my mind, and I think back to how it played out… I found a rhythm after my first ranger encounter and hiked fast, not giving passing hikers (who, having just finished climbing the mountain, were not especially predisposed to talk anyway) much of a chance to ask questions. I began making frequent use of the phrase “Jia you! Jia you!” – a friendly cheer of encouragement which literally translates to “Add fuel! Add fuel!” This phrase falls under one of those categories of quirky Taiwanese behavioral norms I discussed in my last post, and it’s expected that the person being told to “Add fuel” will smile and then reply with the same words of encouragement. Realizing this, I became remarkably polite all of a sudden. If I were passing a group of eight climbers, for instance, I would typically say “Add fuel” sixteen times. They would then say “Add fuel” sixteen times, everyone would exchange big smiles, and by the time the ritual was over, I was out of sight! And you thought that the cultural analysis section of my last post was pointless…

Ah, but my dream digresses (dreams are difficult to control, after all). I’m about to survive my closest call yet. I’m at the end of Yushan’s approach trail, where it leaves the woods and rises above treeline; a steep cirque of cliffs presents a brilliant panorama, and Yushan’s rocky summit soars magnificently above it all. To continue along the trail, however, I’ll have to pass through a bottleneck at this spot, and I’m worried there may be rangers. A Taiwanese flag comes into view, then a ranger cabin and a small shelter I know to be Paiyun Hut. I’ve been dreading this spot since I set out from Taipei, and I don’t know how I’m going to get through undetected. What I see next, though, triggers more cerebral panic alarms than I knew I possessed: “WELCOME TO PAIYUN HUT. PLEASE PRESENT YOUR PERMITS IMMEDIATELY UPON ARRIVAL FOR INSPECTION.” No, that’s not translated. This was in English. And it was printed in huge letters on a giant sign that would be impossible to miss. “Not good…this is not good,” I think as I make my way towards the bottleneck. Another climber is sitting outside the hut when I arrive, and he – like everyone – seems surprised to see a solo mountaineer climbing Yushan. I’m still brainstorming for ideas about how to get through the bottleneck as he tries to start a conversation with me, and I don’t pay him much attention. I’m lost in my thoughts as he rambles on about his climb, and I respond a few times without really thinking. At last, I jolt back to reality and realize with horror that I’ve been talking to this climber in Chinese for several minutes. I’ve told him that I’m climbing alone! I’ve blown it this time for sure! I tune back in and realize he wants to know whether my permit allows me to spend the night in the hut or whether I will have to camp outside next to it with the majority of the other climbers. Suddenly, I realize what I have to do. I think for a moment and then respond in Chinese, “Actually, I hear this hut can get pretty crowded. Maybe I’ll go find somewhere a little more quiet.” He immediately tells me that this is the only bit of flat ground on the upper mountain and that there’s nowhere else to go. I glance around and decide he may be right, but I know I can’t stay here. While trekking through a 15,000-foot-deep gorge near Tibet I had once been forced to sleep on a seven-foot-long by two-and-a-half-foot-wide rectangle of dirt miles above the raging river below. If I could find flat ground there, I could certainly find it here. “Oh, I’m sure I can find something,” I assure him as I shuffle off into the woods before anyone else sees me.

“Man, I’m lucky,” I think to myself as I take one last look at the lightening-rod above me. This had been the spot. My only alternative to camping with the rangers. It was small, it was uncomfortable, and it was definitely high-voltage, but I had grown fond of it over the past day. I’d grown accustomed to moving around on my hands and knees, always staying concealed behind the bushes as if I were playing some elaborate game of hide-and-seek. And I’d dug out a little spot in the dirt where I would curl up in a ball and gasp for air each time my altitude sickness spiked; I would miss that. Most of all, I would miss that crazy lightning-rod, which watched over me like a sentinel throughout the night and resisted what surely must have been a mighty temptation to make me famous: “American Climber Killed While Camping Illegally Beneath Lightning-Rod on Northeast Asia’s Tallest Peak.” “But enough of this,” I tell myself. “It’s time to climb. It’s time to climb higher.”

I’ve loaded the majority of my gear into a trashbag, which I’m planning to stash somewhere near the trail bottleneck at Paiyun Hut. It’s still not even 2 AM, so I’m hoping I’ll be able to pass by the hut under the cover of darkness without being stopped. If all goes as planned, without my heavy gear I’ll be able to move fast and bag the summit before anyone knows what’s going on. Then, provided I make it back into the woods without being caught, I’ll retrieve the trashbag and head for freedom. I finish loading my summit pack and wave goodbye to my friend the lightning rod, bushwacking my way back to Paiyun Hut and the trail. Despite the early hour, people are already up and about; in fact, a number of summit teams appear to be making final preparations before setting out. “I guess alpine starts aren’t just a Western mountaineering strategy,” I think to myself. I’m using the lowest beam on my headlamp to avoid drawing attention to myself as I clamber through the trees with my gear. My adrenaline is pumping, but I feel confident that I can slide past everyone without being noticed. I’m just a hundred feet from the hut now, and everything is coming into view. Suddenly, a terrible ripping sound. I look down and see that my gear-laden trash bag has burst open; the contents are scattered all over the place. An expletive drifts through the still night air like a shooting star. I have no time to lose. I quickly pick my gear up off the ground – praying that I haven’t missed anything I’ll later need – and stash it in some bushes. I don’t care if they find it. I don’t even care if I get caught any more. I just want to reach that summit. After that, they can do with me what they will. Carrying just my lightweight summit pack now, I try to regain my composure. There’s more activity than I had expected at the hut; in fact, it looks like almost everyone is awake and active. Guides are urging climbers to find their groups, headlamps are flashing everywhere, and chaos seems to be reigning supreme. I make a spur-of-the-moment decision to change my strategy. Rather than trying to sneak by, I’ll simply blend in. I’ll go right past the rangers with one of the organized groups. I quickly pick out a group that appears ready to depart and deftly maneuver my way over, falling into line three spots back of the guide. We begin marching towards the bottleneck, and I’m flooded with excitement. Smooth, oh how smooth! Suddenly, the guide tells us to stop, and he turns around. He’s forgotten to do a roll call. The person at the front of the line shouts “Yi!” and the next person follows with “Er!” I realize I may be in trouble now. “Oh, it’s worth a try,” I decide. “San!” I shout out in unison with the person behind me. I feel a half-dozen sets of eyes focus on me at once. “Ughh…nimen hao,” I stammer. “When in doubt, don’t look back,” I think. I take off for the bottleneck. No one stops me. I climb quickly into the woods and am soon hidden in darkness. I feel strong. I feel fast. I’m heading for the summit.

I’m flying. I’m falling. I’m being swallowed up by the beautiful blue which surrounds me. That beautiful blue hue of the stratosphere, of the air which so few people ever have a chance to breathe. Suspended above the masses – suspended above the world – untouched and pure. It’s like a drug to climbers. We risk our lives for just a taste of it. And, now, that same blue surrounds me again – soothing and comforting – and easing my pain. Yushan is but a distant memory; I’m in a new world now. I hover weightless in the blue. I can still see the sun rising out of the ocean, I can still hear the earth’s pre-dawn sigh. I reach out and part the blue with hardly any effort at all; it seems to take shape around my outstretched hand. Life is a dream, and I have control of it. I propel myself upwards through the blue. I breathe. Yushan is but a distant memory. It’s over. It’s finished. I climb back into the small rowboat. She’s been watching me. We stretch out on the bottom of the boat and allow the currents to determine our destiny. Everything seems bathed in blue – even the mountains, bounded by blue sky and bluer water. The Taiwanese call this place Sun Moon Lake, and for good reason; earth and sky meet here, beneath the planets, amidst the cosmos. Yushan is but a distant memory. I stretch out my arm and dip my hand into the icy water. The liquid blue molds around my fingers as we drift along. “Streams and torrents flow into rivers and oceans, just as the world flows into the Way,” I quote to myself.

“But what about mountains?” I suddenly wonder. Such tenacity, such perseverance they exhibit. Such contempt they hold for time – for mortality! They persist for centuries in the face of wind and water, wearing down slowly, never giving in. They defy gravity by their very nature, towering over the earth with pride! Testaments to our spirit – that’s what they are. They invite us to dance, to dance on their highest reaches. They invite us to fulfill our potential as humans, to grasp the power of the human spirit. They lead us to the realization that limits are what we make of them. The world is boundless; it’s ours for the taking. Our own fear is the only thing which holds us down. Free yourself from it. Tear off your shackles. Reach for the heavens!

She strokes my arm, and I awaken abruptly. We’re still drifting in this celestial cerulean lake. The mountains appear even bluer than before. I stare into the hills and remember how my journey ended…

Once past the bottleneck at Paiyun Hut, I began climbing – truly climbing. I was leading the early morning charge on Yushan, and I was out front and on my own. I moved fast, steadily pulling away from the hordes of climbers plodding through the darkness below me. I emerged from the cover of the forest to find myself alone in an extra-terrestrial landscape. No trees, no noise, no life. A vertical world of rock and ice. Foreboding and ominous. And silently drawing me in… I jam my hands into a crack in the cliff and pull myself upwards. I’m no longer on the trail, which detours around this steep and dangerous pitch. The wind is howling at my back, and the straps on my pack whip against me mercilessly. My body is flooded with adrenaline, and I’m riding on a cloud of euphoria. I doublecheck my foothold before committing any more weight to it. I know that if it doesn’t hold me – if I lose my grip on the rock – I’ll plunge to my death. I revel in this simple thought. My existence is so pure in this moment – so liberated from pretense, so free of artificiality. I can feel the ice-coated rocks through my gloves, and I draw pleasure from this connection. The mountain has invited me to dance, and I have accepted. I’m waltzing in the stratosphere, I’m foxtrotting with the stars. I don’t notice the cold. I don’t feel the pull of gravity. I don’t fear what could happen. I climb higher.

I turn off my headlamp and cast my ear to the wind. I hear it once more – a sigh. A soft, sleepy sigh as the earth turns on her axis. A faint orange glow radiates above the horizon; the world is awakening. I tread carefully across a small patch of snow and clamber over a rocky ledge 12,966 feet above sea level. Epochs unfold beneath me. I see mountain after mountain after mountain rising from the earth in grandeur. The Pacific Ocean glistens in the early-morning light a hundred miles away. I can go no higher. I can go no further. I’m on top of the world.

“A blur. This life is but a blur,” I think to myself as I soak in the last rays of daylight. I’m still stretched out at the bottom of the rowboat; she’s still by my side. I try to replay the rest of the day’s events in my mind but can’t see through the blur. I remember turning my back on the sunrise – that brilliant mountain sunrise – as more and more climbers arrived at the summit. For the first time in three days, I had been alone and free and able to take in the beauty of the mountain without fear of persecution. But my reprieve was short-lived, and I’d been forced to take flight once more. I flew by them on the descent, reenergized by the beauty of the morning and feeling more alive with every passing moment. I reached Paiyun Hut and scampered by unnoticed. I felt so light, so fast, as I quickly repacked my gear and left the upper mountain behind. I had climbed this peak like a ghost, dancing in and out of people’s vision but never staying for long… I find a secluded spot down the trail where I cook my breakfast and plan my escape. A static-filled phone call to the number on a business card. A driver willing to meet me at the base of the mountain by lunchtime, willing to drive me across the mountains and away from this place. A remote bus-stop in the alpine village of Dongpu. A dirty downtown bus station in the distant city of Shuili. The pieces of the puzzle fall into place; my plan is working. With each leg of my descent – my descent from the pinnacle of Formosa – the air grows richer in oxygen. I can breathe more easily with every passing minute. I’m nearly there. I’m nearly safe…

At last, I’ve reached it. I’ve reached her. I dive into the blue once more, and the last of my worries vanishes with a sapphire splash. We have just the weekend to spend here together at this heavenly lake. The grays and browns of the real world will soon reclaim us. But for now I’m lost in the dream, and the future does not scare me. I’m lost in the beauty, I’m adrift in time. I close my eyes and take a deep breath. I disappear into the blue.

“Let Me Count the Ways I’ll Miss You, Taiwan”

I’ll miss your garbage trucks, Taiwan. Oh, how empty life seems in the world of twice-a-week pick-up, how lonely it is! And how silent, too! Beethoven’s Für Elise will never sound the same again; your garbage trucks play it so beautifully – with such emotion – never tiring of the melody, not even after four straight months of playing it on repeat while moving slowly and methodically around my apartment building. 2:40 PM will find me forever at my window, straining to hear their beautiful cry, though I know in my heart they will not come. I’ll miss your garbage trucks, Taiwan.

I’ll miss your cat-ladies, Taiwan. Those delightful damsels selling lemonade in the nightmarkets, calling out to passing pedestrians with feline grace: “Meee-owww.” Nevermind that they may actually be saying “Ni-hao.” They think they sound feminine by speaking that way – by squeaking out greetings two octaves higher than normal. But my friends and I – we know the truth. We even renamed one of their streets: “Mao Mi Jie” – “Cat Alley.” I still hold the all-time purr record – five meow’s in one trip down Cat Alley. I’ll miss your cat-ladies, Taiwan.

I’ll miss your girls on motorbikes, Taiwan. My, oh my, how I longed to have a girl ride on the back of my motorbike when I first arrived. Everywhere I looked there were girls on motorbikes. My seat felt so empty. My extra helmet hung off the handlebars with dejection. I was so lonely. At last, I convinced a girl to ride on the back of my motorbike. “Just for ten minutes!” I had pleaded. I pulled up to the first red light and slowly lowered my shades, looking left and then right at the drivers around me. “Oh yea…” I had said to myself while revving the engine and flexing my biceps. I’ll miss your girls on motorbikes, Taiwan.

I’ll miss your trashcan raiders, Taiwan. Those sneaky buggers who stand around the train station pretending to be reading the newspaper when they’re really watching you. Oh, how sneaky they are! They converge the minute you drop that little plastic bag of garbage into the trashcan. If you look carefully out of the corner of your eye, you’ll see them digging and searching for their treasure; but the instant you turn around, of course, they’re reading their newspapers. I never did ask them what makes plastic trashbags so special. But I played along with their game, sometimes depositing my garbage in the bin only to remove it quickly and move on to another location. I’ll miss your trashcan raiders, Taiwan.

I’ll miss your stoplights, Taiwan. Those ingenious devices which seem to bring traffic to a standstill every time the waves are good and I’m in a hurry to beat high tide. Particularly the rural ones, which, for some reason, are always spaced less than a hundred feet apart. My favorites are the stoplights which only stop cars in two directions because there’s not actually an intersecting street. Safety first – I understand. But what I’ll really miss is plowing through those red lights without the slightest bit of guilt. Your own drivers tend to slink by, pretending they’re just pulling off the road (even though everyone knows they’re not) before speeding away at the last moment. I, on the other hand, have always just gone straight through your red lights at full speed. I’ll miss your stoplights, Taiwan.

I’ll miss your manners, Taiwan. Smiling at someone you’d love to punch in the face. Telling the driver who just ran over your foot “No problem – it’s really nothing.” Pretending you want to pay a dinner bill that you couldn’t afford in a million years. What will I do without your manners? I like it when people present things to me ceremoniously, using both hands. I enjoy being treated like royalty in restaurants, not having to pump my own gas at the service station. I need people to bow to me, dagnabbit! I’ll miss your manners, Taiwan.

“Golden Dragon + Little Tiger = Big Trouble”

The following is told from the point of my view of my little brother Harrison, a sixteen-year-old shaggy-haired, pink polo-wearing hooligan who agreed to visit me in Taiwan so he could miss a week of school. It is based on both my recollection of his visit and his personal account, recorded in a journal which he has graciously decided to share after making me wait for a number of weeks. But better late than never, I suppose, particularly in the case of slackers of his stature. The excerpts from his journal included in this narrative were all translated into intelligible English (by myself), though hopefully his voice still comes through.

Day 1:

I’m on the plane somewhere between Detroit and Japan. We have been flying forever! I just ate some chicken. I want to go to sleep, but Dad said I have to write this stupid journal, so I’d better write some more. Nah, I’ll do it later.

Day 1, Later:

I took a nap, and when I woke up they brought me some more chicken. It wasn’t as good as the first time. Then, I watched three movies in a row. I figured we must be getting close, so I just asked the stewardess how much longer. She said we’re only halfway there!! I can’t believe nobody told me Taiwan was so far away, man!

Day 2:

Man, I didn’t think that flight would ever end! Finally, we arrived in Japan, and I changed planes there. I tried to find some food in the airport, but all they had was rice. And chicken. The next flight was shorter, but it was weird because I was like the only white person on it. [I wonder if my brother will tell me that I should say Caucasian instead of white. Oh well, who cares.] I was sitting next to a hot Chinese girl – or Taiwanese, or whatever – and I tried to talk to her but didn’t have much luck. I did impress her by saying hello in Chinese. But I couldn’t think of much else to say after that since she didn’t speak English. Anyway, now I’m in Taiwan with Alex, and it’s late at night. Alex and Jackson, our friend, picked me up at the airport even though I got in pretty late. I was tired, but everything was so crazy and different that I felt really awake. There are scooters and motorcycles everywhere… I mean everywhere – like, I mean, it is seriously crazy. I’m at Alex’s apartment now, in some city called Danshui or something. It’s pretty cool and you can see the mountains lit up with lights across the river. But unfortunately he only has one bed and I have to sleep on the floor tonight. We’ve agreed to take turns sleeping in the bed. He’ll probably try to trick me somehow, but he knows I can take him, so I’m not worried.

Day 3:

Man, we did a bunch of stuff today. First, we got dressed and went out to a little café near Alex’s apartment. I think he usually eats breakfast there. Anyway, he ordered these awesome little dumpling things called xiao long bao or something, and they were amazing! I want to eat those like everyday! After that, he showed me around town and drove me on his motorcycle to the boardwalk area, which is pretty cool. It’s on the river and has lots of shops and restaurants and stuff. I bought an ice cream cone that was seriously like 2 feet tall, no joke. About half of it fell out of the cone, though, and Alex got really mad at me because I didn’t want to clean it up. I mean, yea, it was a pretty big mess right in the middle of the boardwalk, but it’s not like it never rains in Taiwan, right? I found some cool shops that sold really big knives and stuff like that, but Alex wouldn’t let me buy anything dangerous. I’ll probably sneak back later and get something. After we looked around for awhile, Alex took me to a foot-massage place. Apparently, foot massages are really popular in China and Taiwan. Alex said he’d heard it was kind of painful, but this was his first time too, so he didn’t really know. I was like “I dunno, man” but he said I had to try it because it’s a part of the culture, you know. Man, it was crazy! These dudes with canes (Alex told me afterwards they were all blind, I never really thought about it) made me sit down in a big chair and prop up my feet. Then they started pushing on all these pressure points in my feet and asking me stuff in Chinese. Alex was busy talking to a bunch of other people in Chinese and I was just like “Ahhhh, not so hard!” But of course no one understood me so I just sat there squirming around in pain and not really knowing what was going on. Finally, it ended and I got out of that place asap. Next, Alex drove me up to some really sweet mountain roads that didn’t have much traffic. They’re real narrow and weave through rice paddies that are way up above the river. The cool part is that I got to drive! Of course, Alex was afraid to ride with me, but it was still pretty chill and I got going pretty fast a few times. I went back and forth on the same little stretch of road a bunch of times, and the farmers were all just like staring at me. I’d like to drive the motorcycle in town, but I don’t really want to die – it’s definitely scarier than I expected. This evening, Alex and I rode the MRT subway into Taipei, where we met Jackson and his family. Today is Thanksgiving in America, and they wanted to take us out for a nice dinner. We went to this awesome restaurant that had everything from a complete assortment of sushi and sashimi to pasta and steaks. It was like an endless buffet. Plus they had this sweet little chocolate fountain that you could dip fruit into. I really liked that.

Day 4:

We got up pretty early today so we could go surfing. That is, of course, after eating more of those xiao long bao things at the breakfast place. Anyway, the waves were frickin’ huge! Alex took me to one of his favorite reef breaks, and it was just nuts. It was my first time surfing over a reef, and, well… yea, I was pretty scared. I only ended up taking a couple waves, but hopefully next time I’ll feel more comfortable. A couple times I got caught inside and was pretty freaked out. There’s a huge cliff that the waves eventually break against, so if you keep getting pushed in, there’s nowhere to go. You’d just like, get hammered against the cliff and drown. I did watch Alex surf for a long time from the top of the cliff. He’s gotten a lot better since the last time I surfed with him. I wish I could take 8 months off to surf some of the best waves in the world. I mean, give me a break, he’d better be pretty good after all this. What a chump. Anyway, after surfing we went home and changed and then met up with Alex’s girlfriend – Quan –and her twin sister – Xiao Tao – for dinner. That’s right, Alex has a girlfriend, can you believe that? Nope, I couldn’t either, but I think it’s for real. Anyway, she’s hot as [salami] (edited). When I heard she had a twin sister, I was like, “What!? You gotta hook me up man.” So we had dinner together – Alex ordered 50 dumplings just for the two of us – he’s frickin’ crazy – and then we all went down to the boardwalk together. Quan doesn’t speak that much English and Xiao Tao is afraid to try (even though I think she can), so it was a little awkward, but Alex tried to keep a conversation going using Chinese and a little English. They call me Xiao Hu – which means “Little Tiger” – and always giggle and tell me how “ke’ai” I am, which I think means “cute.” There’s some deal about the Little Tiger and the Golden Dragon (my brother), but I don’t really get it – some Chinese thing. Oh, and apparently Quan’s name means “doughnut,” and her sister’s means “peach” or something, but, again, I don’t really understand.

Day 5:

We had to wake up early again today because Jackson and his mom were coming to pick us up and take us to a village in the mountains. I was running late, and Alex got kind of mad, but I think everything calmed down after we bought some xiao long bao for breakfast. The village was called Yingge I think, and it’s famous for its pottery. So, one of the first things we did was make our own pottery, which was pretty fun. I made a vase, and Alex helped me write the Chinese character for “Love” on it. I’m going to give it to Xiao Tao and see if I have any luck. We also did a lot of shopping and played this really fun mini-basketball game. It’s cool because all over Taiwan they have the same exact mini-basketball game with the same rules. So you can keep practicing no matter where you are. I’m hoping to make it to Round 3 by the end of the trip. Anyway, we had a great lunch with the Changs in Yingge and then they took us back to Taipei this evening. They were so nice that they even took us out to dinner. It was my first time eating a real traditional Chinese meal, so I felt kind of weird just sharing all the food with everyone and reaching across the table with my chopsticks. Alex seemed pretty used to it, so I guess it just takes time. After that, Alex and I went to a theatre, where we watched a Chinese puppet show and a Beijing Opera. Chinese puppet shows have been around for like hundreds or thousands of years or something, so I guess it’s kind of a big deal. But it actually was pretty cool; the performers did some really amazing stuff like making the puppets blow fire and have swordfights and bounce things on their heads and stuff. I mean, you’ve gotta remember that the performer is doing like five different, really complicated things with just one hand. After the puppet show there was an intermission, and we got to meet the performers and take pictures with some hot girls all dressed up in costumes who were going to be in the opera. The opera itself was cool too with a bunch of swordfighting and stuff. Beijing Opera is really famous, and the performers have to start training when they’re only like 13 or 14 just to have a chance to be in a show one day. I hadn’t really been looking forward to the shows – I mean, I wouldn’t have to think very hard to come up with something I’d rather be doing – but, in the end, it was actually pretty cool.

Day 6:

We slept in today, which was nice, and then went out to the beach for some more surfing. This time, we surfed a beach break instead of the reef break, so I was a lot more comfortable. The waves were perfect – like head-high and really playful – and I surfed practically all day. There was a surf competition going on too, so that was pretty cool. Alex was a little annoyed that he wasn’t allowed to compete (they told him it was only for amateurs and that he’d been surfing for too long) because there were some really nice prizes, but I’m pretty sure he enjoyed just surfing for fun. Plus, he hurt himself pretty bad on the way out to the beach. We were trying to carry both of our boards at the same time on his motorcycle, and one of them got wedged between the handlebars. Alex couldn’t turn, and we went into a slide. Fortunately, I was able to jump off the back (so I was fine), but he went down with the bike pretty hard and slid along the road. It was kind of funny afterwards, because he was bleeding everywhere and I told him he needed to go in and get some help, but he got real mad and said he was going to go check the waves at the next break (where we’d been heading) no matter what and he didn’t care whether he was hurt. So he drove off really fast, trailing blood all over the road, to look at the waves. Apparently, there weren’t any because he came back pretty soon after that and started washing out the cut in his foot with water. The cut was really deep, like almost to the bone, and it had little pieces of asphalt all in it, but he had his first aid kit and has taken lots of medical classes and stuff, so he knew what to do. We surfed until it was dark and then went to the surf contest awards banquet, which was being held at a nearby seafood restaurant. There was a bunch of mystery food on the table, but it was all pretty good. I learned how to suck the juice out of shrimp heads, too. Once the banquet got going, I didn’t know what was going on (Chinese is such a crazy language!), but Alex’s friend ended up winning first place and everyone was pretty happy. Then, I snuck off and got Alex’s friend to drive me home in his car because it was raining ridiculously hard – I mean, you couldn’t see more than like 10 feet – and I didn’t really feel like riding home on the back of Alex’s motorcycle. I was laughing so hard as I watched him put on his poncho and walk out into the downpour from the inside of the car.

Day 7:

It was still raining today, so we didn’t do as much. We had a hotpot lunch with the girls, which was pretty fun. Hotpot is this crazy style of food where you choose different meats and vegetables and stuff and then cook them yourself in a boiling pot of soup with lots of spices. They also had free ice cream, so I was really happy. We spent the rest of the day with girls, just hanging out and having fun in town. I also tried duck blood and stinky tofu (which smells even worse than it sounds – it literally has to rot for like 3 days before it’s “ready”). It was good to rest a bit after all the surfing.

Day 8:

Alex was still tired, so I got up by myself and managed to take a bus from a nearby stop to the bus station. There, I met Quan and we rode a second bus out to the beach. I surfed the beach break for awhile with one of Alex’s friends, but the waves were really big and choppy, and I got worked pretty hard. Then, someone ran in and said the reef break down the road was starting to go off, so we got ready to leave. Alex came about this time on his motorcycle, and we all surfed the reef break together. The waves were huge and overhead again but perfectly glassy with offshore winds. I was feeling a little less scared this time and definitely got the biggest rides of my life. I also got banged up, though, and now have a bunch of cuts and bruises on my arms and legs. Surfing over reefs is so crazy – I mean, there’s rocks everywhere! Alex had a really close call, too, when he took off on one of the biggest waves of the day. There was someone paddling out in front of him as he went down the line, so he tried to do an air over the guy but lost his balance when he got above the lip. He was probably like 10 or 15 feet right above this guy – with rocks everywhere – and just hanging upside down it seemed. Somehow he came down on his head right next to the guy but nobody got hurt. For dinner tonight, we went with Xiao Tao and Quan to the Shilin Nightmarket, which is like the biggest nightmarket in Taiwan I think. They had everything you could possibly imagine, and there were so many people. I’m still working on Xiao Tao, but she’s a tough egg to crack…

Day 9:

Today was “Cultural Day.” At least, that’s what Alex called it. The waves were gonna be perfect – like double-overhead and glassy – but he said I had to see all this cultural stuff, and today was our last chance. So we got up early and took the subway towards Taipei. First, we took a taxi to the National Palace Museum, which contains the most famous collection of Chinese art in the world. When Chiang Kai Shek and the KMT party fled the communists and moved to Taiwan, they basically stole all the famous artwork and stuff, which is pretty funny actually. They put thousands of pieces of pottery and stuff on ships and brought it over here to Taiwan, and, amazingly, not a single piece was damaged. I’m not really an art buff, of course, but I have to say that it was kind of cool to be looking at stuff that was like thousands of years old. I mean, America is just a little baby compared to China if you’re talking about history. Next we stopped by Alex’s school – the national university – and he showed me the campus. He also took me to see Howard, a security guard at a nearby apartment complex. Over the years, Howard has managed to teach himself English, and Alex says he now regularly quotes Winston Churchill and other people I’ve never heard of. Even crazier, this guy is in the process of writing his own book! Every single day, he sits in his little cubicle and works on his book, which is for Chinese-speakers who want to learn English. Alex edited a section of the book for him, and they became close friends. Alex says this guy represents the spirit of the Taiwanese people or something, and I have to admit that Howard seemed like one of the nicest, most hard-working people I’ve ever met. Our next stop was the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial, a huge structure built to honor Taiwan’s most important historical figure. The memorial takes up several city blocks and is located next to the National Theatre, too. Lots of artists and writers and musicians come to this area to do their work, so it was a nice, relaxing place. At this point, I was getting tired, but Alex said we still had a lot to do. He had a stupid little checklist that he kept pulling out of his pocket to make sure we didn’t forget anything. Ahh, he can be weird sometimes. Anyway, the next thing we did was visit some of his friends from school at a KTV place, which is where you sing karaoke. They were all singing in Chinese, so I felt a little weird, but his friends were nice. We stuck around for a little while and then left to go to our next cultural attraction. Quan met us about this time, and we all went together to Longshan Temple, one of Taiwan’s most famous temples. The temple is built for Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism (wow, I feel really smart; Alex keeps quizzing me on this stuff, and I think I might actually remember some of it), and it’s gigantic. There were lots of candles and people praying and stuff; it was actually a really memorable experience. After that, we went to Snake Alley, a nearby nightmarket where you can watch people tame and play with snakes. After they’re finished, of course, you can eat the snakes if you want. We didn’t eat any snakes, but we did see a lot of them. And Alex made some restaurant owner mad when he asked what the little bunny rabbits were for. I think he may have called her a bunny-killer or something, but I’m not sure. After that, Alex and Quan left in a cab to go to some concert downtown. I took a combination of several trains and busses (yea, I’m starting to figure this whole Taiwan thing out, you know) to get back to Danshui, where I met up with Xiao Tao. This was my big opportunity, of course, but unfortunately nothing much happened. We did have a really good time, though, mainly because she likes to play video games almost as much as I do, and Alex’s friend is letting him borrow an X-Box and about 100 different games. I was in heaven…

Day 10:

Alex slept in again since he was out so late last night, and I got up and went surfing on my own. It was kind of rainy, so I didn’t surf that much and spent more time hanging out with one of Alex’s friends, who owns a surfshop at the beach. After that, I went back to Danshui and had a hotpot lunch with Alex and the girls. We spent the afternoon bowling and playing pool at a really cool place near Alex’s apartment, and then we all drove to Fisherman’s Wharf [at least, I think that’s what it’s called – I originally thought it was “Dwarf,” but Alex laughed at me, so I don’t think that was right] for dinner. This is about 10 minutes from Danshui, and, as opposed to being on the river like the boardwalk area, it’s on the ocean – right where the river meets the ocean. There’s this really pretty bridge called the Bridge of Love and lots of good restaurants. We ate at a fancy place with live music and everything, and I had a wonderful roasted duck. We were all pretty sad and spent a few hours just strolling along the water and looking out at the sea. It was hard to believe how fast the trip had gone by. I honestly didn’t want to leave. I don’t say it often, but Alex was right: Taiwan really is a special place. I’m going to miss it so much.

Day 11:

Jackson volunteered to drive me to the airport today, even though we had to leave at 4:00 in the morning. He is just ridiculously nice. And Xiao Tao and Quan even decided to go with me, which I couldn’t believe. They’ve got to be like the nicest girls ever. They even gave me some gifts this morning before I left. Alex is really lucky to know them. Anyway, not much happened I guess, other than that I got to eat at Burger King at the airport, which was the first time I’d eaten American food in a while. Alex made me promise I wouldn’t turn my hat sideways and listen to my ipod while walking through customs like I’d done when I arrived in Taiwan. I don’t really see the big deal, but maybe that’s just me. I’m on the plane now, and I think I’m gonna go crazy this flight is sooooo long! I ate chicken again. I’m pretty sure I’m already tired of airplane food. Oh, and there’s another hot Taiwanese chick sitting next to me. I’ve actually picked up a good bit of Chinese in the last week, so I’ve got my hopes up. Oh snap, she just woke up! I think I’m gonna make my move now. This is Xiao Hu – Little Tiger – signing out.

“A Farewell to the Crew”

Seasons change. Swells come and go. Good times must eventually end. But friendships formed in the water…friendships formed on surfboards – they’re like set waves on an offshore day. They don’t last forever; they too eventually spit you out with amusement… or maybe slam you on the reef if you pulled in too deep. There are no eternal tube-rides. But they’re so special – so extraordinary – that the impact they make on you is indelible in the fullest sense of the word…and it’s most definitely waterproof.

We may surf in different seas. We may ride different waves. But one man’s hurricane is another man’s typhoon, and no matter which way you look at it, you’re going to have waves. So, with this in mind, I raise my glass (of coke) to you guys and say, “To the good times. To the endless ride. To the Baishawan Crew… and may its memory never fade…”

to the CROW: Because of your antics, half the surfing community in Northern Taiwan thinks I’m your son. Little “Junior.” The resemblance is striking, sure, but do you really look that old? Maybe so. Tell a story or two (or three) in my honor, and try to avoid dancing shirtless in the street too often – it frightens the old ladies driving by. Thanks for loaning me your longboard and expanding my surfing experience to include the realm of the “glide” – I never did fix that ding, but I don’t think anyone will notice. Be careful on the reef, and don’t corrupt your kindergarten students with dirty vocab words. I’ll be back one day, and you’d better be ready. I might even buy you a coke if you promise not to drive.

to the CRANE: Eric the Red with a nipple ring. This was one of my very first thoughts upon arriving in Taiwan, thanks to meeting you so quickly. You introduced me to the Crew, you showed me the ropes. You even took me to a “secret spot” …although, with fifty surfers in the water, I suppose it wasn’t really so secret at that point. But regardless, you were always there – offering advice, doing your crane dance, walking the board with style. Best of luck with all your dreams – spread your wings and fly.

to the RHINO: You knew all along I was using you, yet you still treated me like a VIP fan. The way I’d drop your name with a casual shrug in the presence of attractive women – “Yea, we’re pretty tight. I just had dinner with the band the other night…” – it was so wrong. But you always looked down from your star of fame and smiled. Man, it was cool knowing a legend. I’ve still got your autographed, sweat-stained concert towel – I’m never going to wash that thing. You’re on Wikipedia, dude – how hot is that?

“The Currents of Life”

We’re sitting side-by-side on a deserted beach once more, absorbed by the moment, lost in our thoughts. The ocean has become our outlet, a sort of conduit between us that renders speaking unnecessary. The water simultaneously energizes and calms us, and we both feel intensely connected to it – she being a swimmer and I, of course, a surfer. A full moon casts us into a dream-world – suspended between night and day, its future uncertain. Trailing plumes of spray in the wind, waves rear like snow-white stallions taking their final breath and crash down upon the shore with finality. Our tent sits tucked away in a moonlit cove, reminding us that this life is but a sojourn and tomorrow we’ll be gone…

My eyes follow a sparkling river of moonlight to the horizon, and I remember a star-lit night from long ago. I remember a gust of wind, unforeseen. I remember a shiver that changed the world…

Suddenly, I feel the weight of time. I feel the burden of space. We’re lifetimes removed from that little beach in the North, from that star-lit night of ages past. We’ve fled our fate, if only for now. By train, by bus, by foot we escaped. And here on Taiwan’s southernmost tip we’ve found refuge for a week – nearly surrounded by water, hidden in an aquamarine world. Kenting – its name alone conjures images of paradise. Of a palm-fringed planet with turquoise seas. Sultry, sunshine-filled days. Waves that define perfection. I don’t want any of it to end.

“This is the burden I bear. This is the life I’ve chosen,” I tell myself. My eyes focus on the horizon once more as the sparkling river of moonlight in front of me again draws me in. I can feel its pull. I can feel its power. I’m paddling furiously against its current, trying to stay in place, though I know I’ll soon be swept away. “Alas, it is the Romantic’s destiny to feel the pain and ecstasy of an enchambered soul, a blessed curse that separates him from this world yet allows him to explore, to imagine, to dream.” I know I can’t stay. I know I must leave her.

My life has become a voyage with many new beginnings yet without any end – a journey with rest stops yet without a final destination. To see, to experience, to learn – this is my fuel… this is what drives me. This is what keeps me going, even when it hurts. With every stop on my journey, I lose a part of myself – I leave something behind. The beauty tears at me; there’s simply too much of it to remain unscathed. A mountain-peak soaring upwards into wispy clouds. A glassy wave curling upon itself over an offshore reef. A starry-eyed girl with wind-swept hair taking my hand in hers and offering her heart in return. But it’s my own heart which I suddenly take note of. I can feel it being torn – torn to pieces by the beauty. My burden has grown heavy before, but never like this. I’ll be leaving behind a piece of my heart this time, heaving it into the sea with abandon – with catharsis. Where the currents of life shall take it I do not know.

Monday, January 01, 2007

"Globetrotting '06" In the Bookstore?!

Believe it or not, this is much closer to reality than you might have guessed. …Than I might have guessed, even. As I explained in my introduction to this blog – and have reiterated since – I write primarily for myself and not for others. I write so that I can capture and hold onto my most extraordinary memories, some of which, sadly, may otherwise fade with time. But what exactly is a writer without any readers, I wonder? I have been quite surprised by the number of people who have read at least part, if not all, of this blog; and I have been even more surprised by the feedback they’ve given me. To my astonishment, multiple readers have urged me to publish this blog in book-form; in fact, the strongest encouragement actually came from a couple individuals already highly involved in the publishing industry. So, what else is there to say? You can’t get enough of “Globetrotting ‘06”? Buy your own copy, and you can fall asleep with it every night! More detailed information will be posted in the near future about how you can get your copy, but – for now – look for these upcoming posts:

1. A link to my last batch of pictures, once they have been uploaded to Webshots
2. My final post about Taiwan
3. A short conclusion to my epic

Following this, much of the blog will be taken down in preparation for publication in February. Again, details about this will be posted soon. Until then, enjoy my movie (which includes a promotional segment on the book, whose working title is currently STOKED ON LIFE), have a wonderful holiday season, and cherish these last few weeks in the life of “Globetrotting ’06.”

A Christmas Surprise

Well, I promised you a “special surprise,” and here it is. Over the last couple months, I’ve been working on my first-ever movie – that’s right, “Globetrotting ’06” has taken to the big screen! The final product - LOSING FACE - is about 13 minutes long and combines photos and video from many of my adventures over the past 8 months, with particular focus on the surfing. I will apologize in advance – I lost a lot of video quality when I uploaded to the internet due to file size restrictions. A DVD-quality version is available; if watching that is an option (ie. you live near me) and you’re interested, just let me know – it makes a huge difference. Either way, enjoy the show!

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Ancient Golden Dragon Takes Taiwan By Storm

“This is Formosa”

Warm, tropical, aquamarine seas. Breathtaking, mile-high seaside cliffs. The tallest mountains to be found anywhere in Asia outside the Himalayas. A surfing location so ideal that typhoons face week-long waiting lists before they’re even allowed to visit the island with gifts of swell and long, barreling waves for their kind hosts: the beach, point, and reef breaks of the North Shore. This is Taiwan.

The finest and, very possibly, the most affordable assortment of Asian cuisine to be found anywhere on the planet. A deep-rooted commitment to welcoming visitors with displays of kindness and generosity so unrivaled as to be considered institutions in themselves. A fascinating, hybrid culture in which East meets West and the result is simply spectacular. This is Taiwan.

Ornate, dream-like temples perched on cloud-kissing mountain precipices; state-of-the-art, record-breaking skyscrapers towering over the second most densely populated sprawl in the world. Traditional teahouses tucked away in tranquil back-alleys; glitzy Starbuck’s springing up at every major intersection. A pace of life matched only by high-speed public transportation, super-savvy computer users and the latest in technology, and a convenience store on every corner; indigenous tribes still subsisting off the land and sea and relying on centuries-old tools and techniques. Pollution so horrific that surgical masks are a standard fashion accessory; pristine wilderness so widespread that 58% of the country is covered by forest, 20% is protected by the national park system, and over 1,000 plant species can be found here and nowhere else. This is Taiwan.

A people without a nation yet nevertheless full of energy, full of pride, full of life. A land suspended between tradition and modernity, between the ways of the old world and those of the new, yet nevertheless forging ahead to the tachycardic beat of twenty-two and a half million hearts. A place so unique, so special, so unlike any other I’ve ever visited, that using complete sentences to describe it would be simply too conventional. This is Taiwan. This is Ihla Formosa. This is “The Beautiful Island.”

“200 cm ≠ 200 inches”

To follow up on my earlier recommendation that surfers try, whenever possible, to fly Air France (no extra fees for surfboards!), I’d like to recommend that they avoid Northwest at all costs. The one exception would be if the said surfers are also comedians or screenwriters and happen to be looking for new material:

[Alex approaches the ticket counter with all his documents in hand and his rolling boardboag in tow]
Agent: [eying the boardbag with a malicious grin on his face] Ooh, you’re gonna haf ta pay fer that one, boy…
Alex: [slightly taken aback] Yes, I believe the extra charge, according to your website, is $75.
Agent: [after weighing the boardbag] Haha, ‘fraid not sir, that’s gonna cost ya at least $400.
Alex: [shocked] Excuse me!? I think you need to consult your company’s website.
Agent: [after typing on his keyboard for at least 5 minutes] I’m ‘fraid that’s just how it is, sir. Says right here that baggage as heavy as yours can’t be taken on domestic flights. See, I’m bein’ nice just allowin’ ya to take it.
Alex: What!? First of all, I already told you I’m flying to Taiwan. That’s not domestic. Secondly, you’re looking in the wrong place. Try clicking where it says “Surfboards.”
Agent: [after clicking on “Surfboards” and taking another 5 minutes to read his computer screen] Yep, yep, I see here where it says $75… “regardless of weight” … but yours is just too heavy, see, and I’m gonna haf ta charge ya fer it.
Alex: I’m afraid that’s not your decision, sir. Why don’t you give your superiors a call.
Agent: [feeling challenged] Alrite, Alrite, I can do that…
[proceeds to talk in hushed tones on the phone for approximately 20 minutes]
I know that’s what it says, but this dang surfboard is heavy I tell ya!
[long pause and then more hushed wispers]
Alrite, alrite…[hangs up the phone]
Alex: [looking at watch] Excuse me sir, but I’m really going to miss my flight….
Agent: [with a blank stare] I know you are…
Alex: Can you please just charge me the extra $75 and let me go on my way?
Agent: ‘Fraid not, we’re gonna have to figure this out.
Alex: What is there to figure out!? Your company has a policy on this!
Agent: [excitedly, having just thought of a new idea] I know what we’re gonna do. I’m gonna go get me my tape measure. Accordin’ ta my computer, if this here surfboard is more than 109 inches, it’s an extra fee fer ya ta pay, mister.
Alex [quickly doing the math in his head] It’s not over 109 inches.
Agent: Well, that’s what ya tell me, but I’m gonna see for myself, alrite?
[saunters casually down the aisle to find his tape measure and returns about 5 minutes later]
Agent: [having measured the boardbag] Ahah! This here surfboard is more than 200 inches! Oh, I’m gonna get ya fer this one!
Alex [momentarily baffled] What!?...
Alex [amused, having inspected the tape measure] Um, sir, you just measured in centimenters.
Agent: [haughtily] That’s right. You’re over 109. You’re gonna pay!
Alex: No, the limit was 109 inches. 200 centimeters is less than 109 inches!
Agent: Nope, ‘fraid 200 is more than 109.
Alex: [becoming perturbed] Centimeters, do you understand? It’s not too long!
Agent: [beginning to doubt his reasoning] I’m gonna haf ta discuss dis matta with my col-leagues…
[saunters down the aisle exactly as before, converses with another agent for several minutes, and then slowly makes his way back]
Agent: It a-ppears… that yer surfboard ain’t too long.
Alex: [rather annoyed at this point and looking back at the long line of people waiting anxiously behind him] Sir, I really think you better let me go.
Agent: [appearing to be thinking deeply] How ‘bout this… We’ll just say ya got two surfboards in there, and I’ll charge ya for that…let’s see, $75 times 2…that would be…
Alex: [wondering what the agent would do if he looked inside the boardbag and found that there were actually four boards inside] That’d be $150. Here’s my credit card. Now please let me go.
Agent: [speaking slowly, wondering if he has somehow been duped] Alrite, alrite, I’ll let ya go. But I got yer information right here, and I’m gonna do me some more research on this. I’m not gonna let it go just yet.
Alex: [pocketing his boarding pass and turning to go] Yea, you do that…

“Around the World in 8 Months…Twice”

After a brief stopover in Japan, my plane at last touched down at Chiang Kai Shek International Airport in Taiwan, bringing my air mileage since April to approximately 33,480 miles (the circumference of the earth is 24,900 miles) and my continent count to 5 (if you take the liberty of lumping French Polynesia in with Australia…I mean it’s gotta go somewhere, right?). Long-time readers may remember from my “Adventures in China and Taiwan ’05” blog the absolutely wonderful Chang family, whom I consider to be some of the nicest – if not the nicest – people in the world. Well, they struck again this year, and my first few days in Taiwan were an unending lesson in generosity. My good friend Jackson picked me up at the airport in the middle of the night, hauled me and my crazy boardbag (with four, not two boards inside!) an hour and half into town, and helped me settle into a hotel with all my luggage. The next day, he and his mom helped me begin the search for an apartment so I would be able to settle in as soon as possible. I had done quite a bit of research before I came and had pretty much settled on a general area where I wanted to live, but I never could have achieved alone the kind of slam-dunk success we were able to have working together. In one day, we had driven all the way to the north coast, toured apartments and eventually chosen one, settled on the terms of the lease, written up a contract, paid the rent in-full, arranged to have high-speed internet installed, and completely furnished the place. On day two, I awoke with a vicious case of jet-lag, gathered all my luggage together, and once again loaded up Jackson’s car for the trip north, this time to move into my new place for good. Before we could leave the hotel, though, several employees, having finally gotten up enough courage to ask, timidly inquired as to what might be inside the 8-foot-long monstrosity I had left sitting in the middle of the hotel lobby (as I was told to do) for everyone to gawk at. The most common guess seemed to be some type of boat, which I suppose is closer to the truth than the guesses I heard during my Senegal trip – most of which involved some sort of weapon or missile. If it’s possible for a boardboag to be personified, then I think it must rank as one of the most important characters in my story.

“First Impressions”

It’s always interesting to reexamine first impressions, particularly when they pertain to your new home:

hey mom and dad,
just wanted to let you cool cats know i've made it to taipei okay. jackson met me at the airport and everything, which was great. then, yesterday (my first full day here), he and his mom spent the whole day with me, and we actually found an apartment. they said i got really lucky; they expected it to take a week or so. it's in a brand new building (which is good not only bc/ of its appearance but also bc/ of fire and earthquake standards) in danshui (the place i told you about) which wasn't even available until yesterday. it's in the area of danshui's university (which has over 17,000 students), so mainly students live in the building, which is nice because it should allow me to have a group of friends at that school as well as at Shi Da (NTNU) in downtown Taipei. plus, i'm one of the only foreigners anywhere in the entire area, so it's no english for me! it's a small studio apt. with a TV, refrigerator, etc and is furnished. high speed internet, air conditioning, indoor parking garage (i'm probably getting a motorcycle), security guard, locked entrance (w/ swipe card) to the grounds, laundry facilities, rooftop sitting area. my place is on the top floor (7th) with a view of the mountains. 5-10 minute scooter ride to the MRT subway, then 35 minutes (no need to change trains, and, bc/ danshui is the end of the line, i'll always get a seat) to downtown where NTNU is. 5 minutes from the water; 20-25 minutes to good surfing breaks; 10 minutes to acres and acres of hiking/running trails, hot springs, and mountains in Yangmingshan National Park. danshui itself is a nice place, much more relaxed than downtown taipei but still full of energy, bustling food markets, etc. the large student population gives it a nice feel too, and there's plenty of restaurants and stuff around my apt. there's also a river/ocean-front boardwalk/Old Town area lined with food stalls.

the computer people come on Monday to set up my internet. i'll probably send you another email sometime after that's finished. until then, i'm just trying to get settled in, beat jet lag, resurrect what knowledge of chinese i used to possess, and prepare for a busy sur...ehem, i mean studying schedule. okay talk to you soon, love


Things were going well. They really were. I was starting to get my bearings. Enjoying the food. Meeting people. Then…then, there was the test. Having waited until the last day of the registration period to finally visit the school where I would be studying (I had been having conflicts with my surfing schedule), I showed up just in time to fill out the required forms, take a brief oral exam, and select a class. The school is National Taiwan Normal University, also known as NTNU or Shi-Da, and is the second most prestigious school in all of Taiwan, the first for students studying to be teachers (which is what the “Normal” means, of course); so I was bit surprised when I found that not a single person in the entire registration area could speak anything close to fluent English. In fact, I don’t think I saw a single non-Asian person anywhere in the room. Nevertheless, I squeaked out some Chinese and made my way station-to-station, filling out forms. The oral exam lady seemed to have heard all she needed to hear when I told her I’d studied Chinese at a university for two years at fives hours a week. I guess it didn’t occur to her that Americans, particularly those in the Southeast, don’t typically have a lot of opportunities to practice Chinese; studying for five hours a week in America is quite different than doing it in an Asian country. She signed me up tentatively for an advanced class and told me when to return for my written placement exam. I was a bit annoyed that I was going to have to take a 2 hour placement exam but was feeling pretty decent about my Chinese, so I spent the next few hours reviewing my old materials and psyching myself up to ace this test. Well, the time came, and I sat down to begin working. Um, yea… Let’s just say that by the tenth question, I couldn’t even spell self-esteem. After cursing my way through the vocabulary (“Why can’t it just be matching?”), oral (“Another!?”), and grammar (“Just choose the one that looks the most complicated”) sections, I arrived at the reading section, which constituted a whopping 40% of the exam. Even if I had known more than 20% of the words, it would have taken me days just to translate the five pages of hieroglyphics that were so small my dad wouldn’t have been able to see them with his glasses on…not to mention answer each paragraph-long question (in Chinese, of course). So, without a second thought, I folded up my exam, gave a confident “Oh, yea, baby, I aced it” nod to the other students taking the test, handed it to the proctor, and headed for freedom. And the dénouement, you’re wondering? My self-esteem wavered between the pits and the garbage for the next few weeks, until one day when, mid-conversation, I was asked by an astonished professor, “You took that test!? That’s the most difficult one we offer!”

“A Red-Headed Chinese Person?”

So, admittedly, I have been known to tell a certain, slightly controversial joke to my good friends, who understand that it’s a completely good-natured, innocuous attempt at humor. It goes something along the lines of, “Yea, I’m a hardboiled egg…[feign seriousness]…yep, white on the outside, yellow on the inside…” Unfortunately, this joke doesn’t translate well into Chinese, so my typical response to the near-daily question of “Oh, how long are you staying in Taiwan?” is “What? I live here! I’m Taiwanese.” No, that one doesn’t usually work either, but it does exemplify a certain mindset I’ve come to take during this segment of my globetrotting. Relative to your typical tourist – who backpacks through Europe, spending a few days in each country, or hibernates in a Jamaican or Hawaiian resort for a week – I almost always travel on a more long-term basis. Whether I’m living with local families or backpacking solo, I try to learn as much as I can about the local culture, integrating myself into it in the process. But in Taiwan I want to go a step farther. I really do want to become a red-headed Chinese person.

Perhaps this is a good time to explain the title of this blog entry: “The Ancient Golden Dragon Takes Taiwan by Storm.” I am the Golden Dragon. I am the Ancient Golden Dragon. Hear my name and bow before me. Why? Ok, so you think there’s nothing much to a name, right? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, right? Not in Taiwan. Names are very important in Chinese culture because every Chinese character (every symbol) has a meaning. Therefore, unlike an English name such as Alex, for example, which has no obvious meaning in and of itself, all Chinese names (which are typically comprised of 3 characters, the surname being the first one) have a meaning; this meaning is, in fact, equally or perhaps more important than the sound of the name itself. Thus, obtaining an authentic, appropriate, and hopefully memorable Chinese name is the first step to becoming a Chinese person. I began with the sad, sad, oh-so-sad name of 古艾利, pronounced Gu Aili, which was bestowed upon me without my consent at the beginning of my studies of Chinese. According to my translation, this name means “Ancient Profitable Mugwort.” Yes, “Mugwort”… the weed. Not surprisingly, locals I met in China last year typically appeared puzzled, amused, or both after they heard my name. Fortunately, the family I lived with there helped me to acquire a new name and, thereby, a new identity. With their help, I selected… 古金龙,Gu Jinlong… a classical, an authentic, and – to the people who know – a very powerful name. Best of all, this name holds great meaning: “Ancient Golden Dragon.” Since Chinese-speaking people call “red” hair “golden” hair, the deal was sealed – a simple “…because I have golden hair…see? [playful grin]” follow-up explanation after introducing myself, and the ice is always broken immediately. More importantly, the girls find the golden-hair/golden-dragon “coincidence” charming and delightful. What can I say? Could you resist the Ancient Golden Dragon?

Back to becoming a red-headed Chinese person. The mindset I’ve adopted here in Taiwan centers around doing everything the “local” way. In the past, I’ve made strong efforts to do things this way, but I’ve never been forced to. If I committed a social gaffe and strained my relationship with a local shop owner or never bothered to figure out the local bus system or ended up having to rely on a third-party friend to communicate through a difficult-to-explain problem, it didn’t really matter; I would be leaving in a few more weeks and wouldn’t see the shop owner again, wouldn’t need to use that bus system any longer, and wouldn’t have to bother my friend a second time. But I’m not just visiting Taiwan, I’m really living here for awhile. And, for that reason, I’m going about my daily life as if I planned to live here permanently. I’m developing strong relationships with the locals, supporting the local businesses and getting to know their owners, learning not just how to get from Point A to Point B but also the “shortcut way” from Point A to Point B. I own my own means of transportation, I have a landlord, I have a local cell phone plan, I have bills to take care of, I speak the local language regularly, and I take care of my passport and visa issues with the police on my own. A lot of my American friends are surprised when I tell them these things. They ask, “What program are you doing?” and I always respond, not really sure of what to say, “I’m not doing a ‘program.’ I’m just studying abroad, at another university.” That’s how it should be, I think. I’m not trying to take anything away from study abroad “programs,” but how “abroad” are you really if you’re with a group of students exactly like you – if not from your own university than from one just like it – in a safe, supervised, and structured environment? Undoubtedly, you’re experiencing new things but always with someone holding your hand. That was never what I wanted, and I’m very happy with the amount of freedom I have here. Not only was there no one at NTNU to help me find housing or a motorcycle, to show me how to get around, or to help me renew my visa, but I’d go so far as to venture that, on most days, there’s not even anyone in NTNU’s main office who speaks fluent English. I’m really on my own out here. And I love it.

One final point. Not only have I been trying to do everything the “local” way but also I’ve been trying to do everything the “hard” way. What does this mean? I’m in a part of the city I don’t know, and I need to travel several miles. Empty taxis are waiting in a long line next to me; a bus stop sign displaying at least twenty different numbers, in various colors, stands in front of me. My Chinese is obviously good enough that I would have no problem hopping into a taxi and simply telling the driver my destination. But I choose the hard way. I study the bus route map, hail down the one I think I need to take, dash through traffic to board it, make myself look stupid by trying to pay when I get on instead of waiting until I get off, cringe as the eyes of everyone on the bus bore into my back with curiosity as I sit staring out the window, and finally realize that I’ve gotten on the wrong bus altogether and am heading in the opposite direction I want be going in. Then, I balance in the aisle trying to explain my mistake to the bus driver as he swerves through traffic, attempt to make sense of the directions he gives me in supersonic Chinese, get off the bus – this time forgetting to pay – reboard the bus embarrassed and flustered only to find that my swipe card isn’t working and I don’t have correct change, and finally head off in search of a new bus station. The hard way brings with it anxiety, embarrassment, frequent sweaty palms and headaches… but it also yields extraordinary rewards. The next time I need to travel that route, not only will I be to identify one bus as not the one to take but I’ll remember to wait until I’m getting off to pay, I’ll have correct change, and I won’t feel quite as nervous talking to a bus driver in the middle of rush hour traffic. It’s a slow process, integrating oneself into the local culture. But, for me, it’s the only way. It’s the only way to prove that you truly respect the local people and their customs. It’s the only way to earn their respect. It’s the only way to really learn. The other day, I received in the mail a water bill for my apartment. It totaled a whopping 3.50 USD (I don’t really like to shower, haha), and – get this – like almost all bills in Taiwan, it can be paid in cash at the nearest convenience store (they’re so far ahead of us technologically)! I was so tempted to just walk across the street, pay the bill, and be done with it; but I couldn’t make myself do it. According to our contract, the water bill is supposed to be paid by my landlord. So I took a few deep breaths, wiped the sweat off my palms, and called up my landlord – who speaks no English whatsoever – for the first time. He didn’t remember who I was at first, not even when I explained that I was “the American living in Danshui.” At last, he remembered. Then, I had to figure out how to explain the situation – which required some fairly advanced vocabulary – without offending him or making him think I was upset that I had received the bill. Before I knew it, he was apologizing for the mixup and explaining that he’d be right over to pick up the bill and take care of the whole matter. I had done it. Just as any Chinese-speaking person would have done it. Only…I had done it with red hair.

“Road Rage”

“What’s the most dangerous thing you’ve ever done?” I’m often asked. “Skydiving?” “Bungee jumping?” “Surfing Teahupoo?” Well, I used to think these things were bold and death-defying. I’d mention off-handedly, “Yea…I’ve surfed Teahupoo…” and wait for the girls to flock to me. But, now, I scoff at these sissy sports. I’ve driven a motorcycle through rush hour traffic in the second most densely populated city in the world. Beat that.

Northern Taiwan – and Taipei, in particular – is a claustrophobic person’s worst nightmare. Traffic, pedestrians, and commotion everywhere. The Taiwanese are always in a hurry; they’re always on the move. Taipei has barely been around for a century, and its residents are anxious to make up for lost time. Their answer to the traffic problem? Scooters. Scooters, scooters, and more scooters. Taiwan has more scooters per capita than any other country in the world. Anxious to be more Chinese, of course, I had to buy a scooter. And this is how my “Road Rage” began…

I should clarify: scooters and motorcycles fall under the more general category of motorbikes – bikes with engines. Scooters have smaller engines; motorcycles have larger ones. The bike I ended up purchasing I call a motorcycle for several reasons. First, because if I say “scooter,” most of you will imagine a dinky little 25 cc Vespa for cruising Italy or a little moped for puttering around Bermuda. My bike has a very nice 125 cc engine. In the US, you’re required to pass a motorcycle test and have a motorcycle license to own a bike over 50cc. (Technically, that means my International Driver’s License isn’t really valid here, but I’ll get to the subject of legality later). Secondly, the engine on my bike has been tweaked and modified by some very knowledgeable mechanics. What this means is that it’s capable of exceeding 85-90 mph. Interestingly, I didn’t realize this at first because the speedometer is in kilometers per hour and I was underestimating the conversion. When I finally converted the speeds I’d been traveling at, I was just kind of like “Whoa…cool.”

I found my motorcycle online and ended up buying it from the Canadian who had posted the advertisement, thereby perpetuating the life of yet another “foreigner’s bike.” Here’s how the process works. A foreigner living in Taiwan who already possesses his national identity card buys a bike. He uses it throughout his time in Taiwan but eventually decides to return home and, obviously, wants to sell the bike. He comes across another foreigner, this one not yet possessing a national identity card (and therefore unable to buy any kind of motorbike). Feeling a bit sorry for his compatriot, he sells the bike to him and passes on the registration materials that were made out in his name. The bike has now become an illegal “foreigner’s bike.” When this new owner of the bike decides to leave Taiwan, he has only one option as far as selling it: another foreigner without a national identity card (who else would buy an illegal bike?). And thus the cycle continues until the bike has been passed down generation to generation, still retaining its original, outdated registration information. This is how I came to own an illegal motorcycle (with illegal registration papers), which I drive with an illegal license. But I’m still not quite ready to go into the laws of the road…

I had my super-modified, totally pimped-out ride. But was I content? Of course not. The main reason I wanted a motorcycle in the first place was to give me a way to hit up the coast and go surfing. But can I really weave through traffic at 85 mph with a surfboard under my arm? I think not. This is where the surfboard rack attachment comes in. After much research and investigation, I made contact with a mechanic/welder in Xizhi who could build a surfboard rack on the side of my bike for me. Unfortunately, Xizhi is over an hour and a half away – totally on the other side of the city – and requires driving through the downtown area to get there. At the time I was preparing to drive to Xizhi, I had only driven a motorcycle for two days – and strictly on uncrowded roads. I was repeatedly pressing the horn when I intended to press the indicator button, was having trouble making a u-turn without veering off the road, and was still occasionally hitting the gas when my mind was saying “Brake!” To complicate things further, the mechanic in Xizhi spoke not a word of English and couldn’t give me very detailed directions. Nevertheless, I set out one day on my bike, head bent over the handlebars, trying desperately to hold a straight line in the far-right lane as traffic sped by me. After only six or seven u-turns, a few phone calls, several map consultations, and more close-calls than I’d like to remember, I found myself at the mechanic’s shop in Xizhi. My mind was immediately put at ease when I saw three surfboards mounted on the wall inside the shop; the mechanic’s sketch of what he was planning to build showed me that he knew exactly what I wanted. A few hours later, my ride was more pimped than ever. I mean, I was stylin’! Only problem: it was now 5:30 PM – rush hour. I was still considering the mechanic’s parting words “Be careful! (as he examined how far the surfboard rack jutted out)” when – not five minutes since I’d left the shop – a scooter pulled off the sidewalk and veered into the traffic, the driver not once checking behind her (yes, it was a female driver…need I elaborate?). I immediately swerved to my left – a pretty good reaction, actually – and this allowed most of my bike to get around her. However, the surfboard rack didn’t quite make it, and it just barely clipped the front of her bike. Some plastic came flying off, and we both screeched to a stop. I went into conniving-mode right away. The accident was absolutely, in no way my fault whatsoever, and there was no way I was going to get duped into paying for damages or anything. Most importantly, though, I could not allow the police to be called in, as this would mean my registration papers being examined and possibly my getting into big trouble. So, what did I do? First, I took off my helmet as quickly as possible to show off that brilliant golden hair that only a foreigner could have. Then, “Ohhh, I’m sooo sorry. No, no, I don’t understaaaand. I’m so sorry. [lots of stupid-looking hand gestures] No, you hit me. I’m sooorry. [big grin and continued hand gestures] Nooo, no Chinese! No understandy! I’m so sorry!” You want to know the rules of the road in Taiwan? This is the rule of the road. When in doubt, don’t speak Chinese. The lady finally gave up trying to make me understand that she wanted money and drove off. “Well, getting into my first accident sure didn’t take long. Wish I could have this kind of luck with everything…” is all I could think as I drove off as well.

So, “Road Rage.” Yep, driving in Taiwan is absolutely nuts. I’ve come a long way from those first days and am now a pretty confident (though no less nervous) driver. I’m much better at anticipating the stupid things that Taiwanese drivers do on a regular basis, so I usually have more time to react. Example one: anytime a driver is on the sidewalk and pulling into traffic (into your lane), get out of their way. They will not look. Ever. Example two: Your light is green. Expect someone to run the red light on the intersecting street. Red and green both mean “go” in Taiwan. Example three: You’re driving down the road when, suddenly, you see someone driving directly towards you. No, you’re not crazy. Driving against the traffic is perfectly acceptable in Taiwan. You’re expected to turn either left or right and get out of that person’s way. Seriously, driving in Taiwan is the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done. I’ve had so many close calls. Close calls on motorcycles means inches. Centimeters. Really close. One of Taiwan’s top surfers, an American my age, died just last year in a motorcycle accident. Driving here is something I take very, very seriously.

At the same time, though, driving a motorcycle is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. Almost everyday, before or after class (or sometimes during!), I strap on my backpack, load my surfboard into the rack, and race out of town towards the coast. I have two options – the coastal road and the mountain road – both of which are much, much less crowded than the insane streets of Taipei. This means, especially at off-hours, that I can really test that modified engine – if you know what I mean – leaning into turns and flying through the countryside. There’s one stretch of coastal road that’s way up on a cliff next to several gigantic windmills. I will forever have etched into my memory images of cruising that stretch of road at 85 mph – wind howling in my face; windmills whirling on one side; a gorgeous, tropical blue ocean far beneath me on the other – breathing the fresh air, studying a breaking wave out of the corner of my eye, and cruising, cruising, just cruising into a brilliant golden sunset. The accelerator turned as far as it will go, maxed out, full throttle…living on the edge, living fully, living within a blur of passion and energy. Living at terminal velocity. And enjoying every minute of it.

“Introducing… ‘The Baishawan Crew’”

Even if you know me only through this blog, you have undoubtedly come to realize by this time that I’m a lone-wolf kind of guy. I consider myself a soloist when it comes to adventure, travel, and exploration and carry out most of my extreme antics alone. In Taiwan, however, I have reneged ever so slightly on my commitment to solo adventure. Perhaps my impetus was knowing that I’d get the inside scoop on all the secret-spot surf breaks. Perhaps it was the small bit of rationality still left in me, keeping me alive against all odds. Or perhaps it was my secret desire to be like Bodhi, the quintessential surf figure from Point Break (one of the greatest movies ever). Most likely, though, I reneged on my commitment for the simple reason that I met a group of likeable, interesting, and – most of all – highly eccentric surfers who never allow life to become dull. That’s right, I’m now part of a Taiwanese surf crew. Introducing… THE BAISHAWAN CREW:

* ****** "*-***" *********; a.k.a. THE CROW: A 250+ lb monster by Taiwanese standards, clearly looking the part of the U.S. Marine he used to be. Lays claim to no single place as “home,” having traveled all over the world for most of his life. Speaks a number of languages, including Chinese, Taiwanese, Thai, and Japanese. Served as a Marine officer in East Africa, where he survived direct-hit bullet wounds. Previously a university professor, singer, and actor. Found his niche in the movie world as a gun-toting villain and worked with Steven Seagal multiple times. Currently runs an English language school and owns the beachside coffee shop “My Café,” home-base for the Baishawan Crew. Listen to him talk for five minutes, and you’ll understand why he’s called The Crow.

* Kenn “Q-mo” Loewen; a.k.a. THE CRANE: Like The Crow, a monstrosity of unconventionality compared to the native Taiwanese. At 6’6” with long, curly red hair and a nipple ring, he has little trouble bargaining with local vendors. A free-spirited individual who traded in his previous life in Canada as a marketing analyst for an outdoor gear company for the life of an English teacher and surf instructor in Taiwan. Helped to develop – and now implements – an IQ test hailed as a more practical alternative to many traditional ones. Also uses his background in art to manufacture his own line of skimboards. Watching him noseride his longboard with that clearly identifiable, crane-like posture only he can demonstrate, it’s not hard to see how he got his nickname.

* Dino “Da-li” Zavolta; a.k.a. THE RHINO: Long time drummer for the world-renowned band “Wu Bai and China Blue,” considered the most famous rock group in Asia. When not recording a new album, filming a music video, or playing in Taipei, he lives the life of the rock star-on-tour, playing for stadium-size crowds in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Malaysia, USA, Australia, and Canada. A native Southern California bodyboarder, he powers through the water with rhino-like legs to catch waves with ease and has even been known to pull into a barrel or two.

* And then there’s me, the Golden Dragon. Based on my earlier self-acclaim, one would think that “Golden Dragon” should certainly do as a nickname. It was decided, however, that, being half the age of the oldest member of the crew, I needed something slightly different; and thus I became known as JUNIOR.

Surf crews are all the same. The “Strapped Crew” in Maui (Laird Hamilton’s group), the “Mavericks Crew” in California, the “Ex-Presidents” in Point Break (you have seen this movie, right? Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze as adrenaline junkies… surfing, skydiving, and bank robbing…do plots get any better?)…they all share certain characteristics. First, crew members typically have a nickname which says something about them. The Mavericks crew has “Flea,” for example; as his fellow crew member explains, “He’s a little guy who drops in on really big waves…he’s a flea.” Clearly, the Baishawan Crew has not hesitated to concoct very telling nicknames. Secondly, surf crews are typically at the top of the hierarchy at their local break. For instance, Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) and cohorts don’t hesitate to keep things in line at their break, and they’re both respected and somewhat feared for this. Likewise, the Baishawan Crew pretty much runs Baishawan Beach. We dictate where people are allowed to surf and whether they’re welcomed into the local scene and invited up to the café or given the cold shoulder. We also save more lives than the lifeguards themselves (who do little more than take an occasional stroll down to the water’s edge to retrieve their dogs’ frisbees), which is really saying something considering how dangerous a beach Baishawan is (an average of 8 people die there every summer). Lastly, surf crews illustrate a unique attribute of the sport of surfing – something that is often referred to as its “tribal” nature. Surfers around the world form a closely-knit group, like a tribe, regardless of whether we know each other or whether we have anything in common besides surfing. The simple love of waveriding is so powerful that it’s enough to unite us. Because of this, surfing with friends seems – to me – uncommonly natural compared to engaging other sports with friends. Surfing solo brings with it certain amazing experiences and feelings that you just can’t have if you’re with others – and, for this reason, I still do it often – but, at the same time, surfing with friends creates a certain variation of stoke that you just can’t feel alone. Like two completely different forms of music – each beautiful in its own way – surfing alone and surfing with friends are truly distinct experiences from one another, yet both are infinitely satisfying. The “surf crew” as a recurring archetype in surfing culture clearly illustrates this. Each surfer is his own individual, catching waves for his own pleasure and no one else’s; at the same time, though, his stoke combines with that of his friends’ to form a bizarre, seemingly amplified stoke which permeates the water and becomes as powerful as the liquid energy from which it was born. Oh, sorry, I forgot; members of surf crews also tend to use the word stoke frequently.

So, back to my highly unlikely decision to join a surf crew. Here’s how it played out. Being my typical self, I was spending an inordinate amount of time online researching extreme sports possibilities in Taiwan before I came here. I traced one lead to some Canadian living in Danshui and claiming to be a surf instructor of all things (“I thought all they did was play hockey!”)…the Crane. A few days after I arrived, the Crane took me out for my first session in northern Taiwan, and, afterwards, we stopped by “My Café” and he introduced me to the Crow. The Crow then introduced me to the Rhino. Following that, we took an end-of-summer (metaphorically, at least…it’s always 85 degrees here) road trip to the east coast. Though the waves weren’t stellar, we had fun, and the guys decided that the crew could probably benefit from the additional females surely to be drawn in by adding to it a “hot young shortboard-ripper” (I’m not going to argue with that one). Additionally, they came to the conclusion that I am absolutely, without-a-doubt destined to be the next consulate or head of the embassy (called the AIT for political reasons) here in Taiwan…and that certainly could work to their advantage. So, before I knew it, I’d received my honorary nickname and was heading out to “My Café” for daily surf sessions. The café is the perfect homebase – it’s located not fifty meters from the water with a perfect view of the whole Baishawan (which translates to “White Sand Bay”) coastline, features a surround-sound stereo system for pre-surf pump-up music, has a shower and water hose, is home to a rag-tag crew of awesome dogs (including Barney, Dooby, Halley, and all the rest), and lays claim to the best mango smoothie this side of Keelung. Additionally, its only employee happens to be a charming twenty-one-year-old Taiwanese girl named Quan. Sorry, that’s all the details you get about that… Next-door is the seafood restaurant where we traditionally have lunch after surfing, and two doors down is Baishawan’s surfshop, owned by one of the coolest and most stylin’ surfers in Taiwan, A-Shi. Watch him surf, and you’ll know why we call him AC – cooler than an air conditioner. Last but not least, there’s Coolie, who is perpetuating the “slacker” image surfers have to fight by taking three attempts to finish his Master’s thesis at Tai-Da. I should note, however, that Tai-Da is the most prestigious school in Taiwan and that Coolie is not only of the country’s top students but also one of the nicest surfers on the North Shore.

The last thing I should mention (actually, I probably shouldn’t mention it, depending on who is reading this) in my introduction to the Baishawan Crew is “Surf Day.” That’s right, every Tuesday is officially Surf Day. The Crow doesn’t work until the evening, and the Crane and The Rhino have the day off. I, of course, don’t have the day off, but that doesn’t stop me. See, the first thing I figured out when I arrived in Taiwan was how much class I’m allowed to skip. After reading all the fine print and consulting several sources I concluded that I’m allowed to miss 10 hours of class a month. That means that I can miss one day of class a week, plus two days in one week once every month. Thus, taking Tuesday’s off to surf is no problem! What? Homework? Tests? What does my teacher think? Not a problem! My teacher happens to agree with my philosophy that, provided I do the work and earn the grades, I’m entitled, as a mature, responsible adult (sometimes), to make my own choices. I fully believe that, should I skip class on a test day, I deserve a zero; should I fail to turn in homework for the day I skipped, I deserve a zero; should my grades suffer as a result of skipping, I don’t deserve a curve. That’s always been what I’ve believed, and that’s why, since middle school, I’ve skipped class whenever I’ve felt like it. I do have to be careful here in Taiwan, though. If I miss more than ten hours of class in one month (and they do keep a very detailed record), I am immediately kicked out of the country by the government. So, let’s assume (just hypothetically…), that right now, since it’s the end of October, I’ve already missed my ten hours. That means I absolutely cannot get sick until November 1st. Scary thought considering my track record! The government also gives me the boot if my grades drop below 60%, but – knock on wood – that hasn’t been a problem yet. So, for now, Surf Day remains a weekly tradition. The Crow, The Crane, The Rhino…and Junior…ripping it up – Baishawan style.

“Blowin’ Chunks” [Caution: slightly graphic material ahead]

Getting sick is a fundamental part of world travel. New foods, new smells, new daily routines, new strains of viruses. No matter how hard you try, it really just can’t be avoided. And when it happens, you feel more alone than ever – with no one to take care of you and nowhere to go where you’ll feel truly safe – and all you really want to do is cry for your mommy. Getting sick in foreign countries is definitely not fun. Blowin’ chunks in foreign countries is even less fun. But, in the end, you usually survive, and you roll out of bed to find that the world hasn’t stopped, the sun is still shining, and you will indeed live to see another day. You feel strong, victorious – almost reborn. And then there are the stories. The ones that are as funny as they were once frightening. And they’re always best told in the vernacular:

hey wassup bro. yea I’ve been kinda sick. check this out, here’s how it went down… so i was riding home on my motorcycle from the beach and knew i was gonna blow chunks but thought i could make it home first right? well there's this one section of the highway where you can't pull over and there's lots of traffic. i was like whatever you do, don't get sick there! well, of course, minute i get there i know it's gonna go down. plus, keep in mind that i wear a full face helmet with visor. so it's REALLY not gonna be pretty! [you're laughing now, right?] so, i'm like trying to tug my helmet off as i drive through all this traffic but can't get it off right, and i'm getting all freaked out and thinking if i blow chunks inside this helmet and on my face i'm just gonna go ahead and crash my bike intentionally bc/ i'll be better off that way. but i can't get it off, so i rev and i'm goin like 90 mph trying to get past this section where you can't pull over. finally make it, swerve off the road, tear off my helmet, and just blow everywhere with like 20 cars lined up at a red light and watching me. hahahahahahahahah. i really hope that made you laugh. it's a good story i guess…

“You’re a Student?! I Thought You Were Just a Surfer!”

Let’s see, what did I bring to Taiwan to use during my study abroad experience here? Well, for starters, 4 surfboards (6’0” shortboard, 6’4” Simon Anderson pintail mini-gun, 6’8” epoxy, 7’3” funboard), extra leashes, an extra sets of fins, a wetsuit, wetsuit accessories (definitely not necessary), reef booties, super glue (for reef cuts), boardshorts and rashguards, a ding repair kit, a boardbag, and lots of wax (both the “tropical” and “warm water” varieties). That’s enough to set most people off: “You brought what?!” But I also brought rock climbing gear; SCUBA gear; backpacking and camping gear (including freezedried food and a backcountry stove); water purification systems; 2 Camelbac’s; running apparel and shoes; hiking boots; navigational equipment; and a variety of state-of-the-art, synthetic outdoor wear. If this were all you knew about me, would you assume I came to Taiwan to study?

Unfortunately, I did, and I do. Class two hours a day, Monday to Friday. Well, okay, not including Tuesdays. Two hours a day might not seem like much, but it’s important to remember that I’m speaking Chinese virtually around-the-clock here and I’m surrounded by Chinese culture the minute I step out the door each morning (on second thought, before that even; curse those construction crews building a new high-rise next door!). Further, if I were at W&L, I’d be taking only 3 hours of Chinese class per week, and, more importantly, it would be English-based. Class here is faced-paced, intense, and entirely in Chinese.

I started out in an advanced class called “Xinwen”; its focus: enabling students to read a Chinese newspaper and to understand Chinese news broadcasts. It was the perfect class – extremely practical and highly interesting – and I was (am) in love with the teacher (that’s another story); but it proved to be simply too frustrating. Much of the class was devoted to repetition, so the teacher would spout out complicated, sometimes paragraph-long sentences, and then we would take turns repeating individually what she had said word-for-word. What frequently happened is that I would not understand several or many of the words she used and thus would not really grasp the meaning of the sentence. Therefore, when I began repeating the sentence, I had absolutely no memory aid (not even meaning – the most fundamental of all) on which to rely. Imagine yourself in this position, albeit a condensed version of the one in which I often found myself – someone recites the following sounds to you with rapid-fire speed: “cha women gen mai benlai ta pang ban chang ching qin tu bobo relie canting wan mei baba gubo sanshi xuangzhang ni kan yixiar.” These sounds obviously have no meaning to you. Next, you’re told to repeat them back sound-by-sound; everyone in the class is staring at you attentively. Your mind races back to the beginning of the sentence and you remember “cha women gen mai…,” and then it goes blank. Yea, sounds scary, right? The only thing I haven’t told you is that each of those sounds has one of 5 different tones (variations in pitch); you also have to register and remember the tone of every single one of those sounds or what you say will take on a meaning completely different from its original one. My test grades in the Xinwen class were decent, but I just became too frustrated with the difficulty I was having with day-to-day in-class conversation and drills. Additionally, though I obviously enjoy being around people of other nationalities and backgrounds (and often actually prefer this over being around people like me), the fact that the overwhelming majority of students studying Chinese at NTNU are Asian proved to be rather problematic. Native Japanese speakers are already capable of reading and grasping the general meaning of written Chinese. A Filipino whose parents were born in Taiwan and regularly speak Chinese is going to have much less trouble understanding tones than an American who has never listened to a tonal language in his life. Even the occasional American I do come across at NTNU… almost always huaqiao, “overseas Chinese people,” simply trying to reconnect with their roots and better understand the language they hear their grandparents speak everyday. My point: the playing fields are unequal. An Asian student who says he speaks “intermediate” Chinese is not going to speak the same level of Chinese as an “intermediate” level Caucasian. The way of thinking is completely different, the culture is completely different, even the brain structure – I would so venture (as an ex-neuroscience major) – is completely different. Needless to say, I became extremely frustrated and discouraged. The teacher noticed this (was my daily scowl a give-a-way?) and told me that, though I was doing fine and was welcome to continue with the Xinwen class, I might be happier and more comfortable in a less advanced one. Thus, I began my search for a new class.

The one I ended up in (after a very long and tedious search) and am still in today is perfect. It’s an intermediate level class with no specific focus – covering vocabulary dealing with everything from international business to environmental protection to dating. The teacher – Chen Laoshi – is apparently one of the top professors at the school and has authored one of its textbooks. Her teaching style is very laid-back and casual, and much of the class revolves around conversation not directly related to the textbook. I’m constantly picking up new useful words and expressions and multitask among scribbling a barely legible mix of Chinese, English, and pinyin in my notebook; looking up words; and trying to follow the fast-paced and often joke-laden conversations we have. I also bought a Palm Pilot and installed on it special Chinese language software called PlecoDict that I found online. I can’t even begin to explain how much this has helped me. The software allows me to write any character I want on the Palm with my stylus and then receive instant feedback with the definition, pronunciation, and uses. I will discuss the difficulties of Chinese later (in a section filled with far more hatred, disgust, and self-pity), but for now, I’ll just mention that to look up a single Chinese word in the dictionary takes me an average of 7 minutes; furthermore, about 20% of the words I attempt to look up, I never find. Yea, now you see why PlecoDict has changed my life. This tool literally has the ability to revolutionize the way students learn Chinese – if I had owned it when I began studying, my Chinese would be several levels higher. And, no, I’m not getting paid to plug this company; it’s seriously just that good. Interestingly, I'm not the only one who has figured this out. Matt Worley, a fellow victim of the inadequacies of Chinese pedagogy, came to the conclusion that he could do better and has decided to put his MBA to use. He recently started a school, the Chinese Language Institute in Beijing (, that provides every student with a Palm and the Plecodict software and whose curriculum is actually based around these tools. I wouldn’t be surprised if my frustrated self ends up there one day! Back to my new class, though… Perhaps the most interesting part of it is that I am – for better or worse – most definitely the center of attention. As in my first class, I’m the only non-Asian student. While several nationalities are represented by the six other students (Korea, Japan, and the Philippines), the fact that I’m an American definitely makes me stick out (big surprise, right?). Just as I know more about Mexico and Canada than I do about most Asian countries, the Asian students in my class are already very familiar with their neighboring countries’ cultures; they want to know about mine! So, with almost every topic that arises in our daily conversations, the end result always seems to be “And America…? What about in America? [all eyes turn to me]” Not surprisingly, then, I have ample opportunity to practice my Chinese in class. Explaining subtle cultural differences, controversial political views, and complicated social norms has proven to be one of the most challenging things I’ve encountered in my language studies, and my speaking ability has increased tremendously as a result. Perhaps even more interesting, though, is the fact that I’ve come to represent to the other 6 students and the teacher the “typical American.” Yes, they now believe that the “typical American” prefers sleeping outside to sleeping indoors, likes to hurl himself out of airplanes and off bridges and cliffs, speaks 4 languages, reads Nietzsche in his spare time, doesn’t drink alcohol, and is actually interested in the rest of the world. Um, yea, can you say “deluded”? …The students’ – and especially the teacher’s – most obsessive interest in me, however, actually concerns my “extreme lifestyle.” Ever since they learned what I brought to Taiwan, they have asked me daily, “Will you be going surfing today? Skydiving? Mountain climbing?” Then there are the follow-up questions: “But isn’t the water too cold? Will you go fast? What if you fall?” We often discuss my adventures for a good portion of the class period. I spent almost an entire hour of classtime one day trying to explain why off-shore winds are the most favorable for surfing. Knowing that I skip class regularly to surf, the teacher has come to conclude that American students, though they may be successful, prefer to put “play” on-par-with – if not ahead of – “work.” Once, when we were discussing the high suicide rate among Asian students applying to college – a rather somber subject actually – the teacher suddenly turned to me, paused for a moment with a mischievous grin, and announced to the class, “And then there are the Americans…”

“After-School Activities”

While much of my non-academic life revolves around surfing, of course, a good portion of it is dedicated also to seeing the sights, experiencing the local culture, and – well – just goofing off with friends. Fortunately, I’ve gotten to know several absolutely wonderful people at NTNU, with whom I’ve now shared many memorable experiences. There’s Johnny, a Filipino who speaks at least 5 languages fluently, is destined to become CEO of a major hotel chain, and is as committed to his weightlifting as I am to surfing; Jocelyn, a feisty Singaporean with whom I at first got off to a rough start (she annoyed me by telling the “Xinwen” teacher she was already capable of reading a Chinese newspaper and just needed to fulfill a few more university credits; I annoyed her by asking why the Singaporean police cut off your hands if you litter) but have since become her “well-sculpted, polite young man with great dance moves” (or maybe she was describing someone else…); Kaori, whom I could accurately represent by taking one of those colorful little bouncy-balls that you win in arcades, writing “Cute” and “Made in Japan” all over it, and tossing it into the air while waving both hands at the same time and saying “bye-bye!”; and the ever-popular Thai, Li Jun, who has been ignoring me since I disregarded her daily pleas and went ahead and had my hair cut (function before fashion, sorry ladies). Like the Baishawan Crew, we constitute a motley bunch, overcoming cultural and language differences (bridging even the occasionally difficult Sinaporean-English/American-English divide) to learn about one another’s homes, backgrounds, and life plans. Along the way, we also manage to have way too much fun…

Daily Lunches – I accuse everyone of discrimination against America because they make me eat Asian food every single day and refuse to go to Subway; then, I realize that the choice between Asian food and Subway isn’t really a choice at all, and I lead the debate over whether to visit our favorite Chinese, Taiwanese, Thai, Korean, Cantonese, or Japanese restaurants. Jocelyn makes a comment in English that I find completely incomprehensible, and I ask her if she’s speaking English or Chinese; she proceeds to whack me. Li Jun sees some of her other friends and apologetically ditches us. Johnny and I crack inappropriate jokes in Chinese; fortunately, Kaori doesn’t get the double-entendre. After lunch I buy my first of two fresh-fruit smoothies for the day; the girls ask me for at least the third time of the week how I can possibly not get diarrhea from drinking so many smoothies. Johnny starts laughing for no apparent reason.

Danshui – The girls and some of their other friends join me for a night in Danshui and a ferry-ride across the river to the town of Bali. I laugh at the “Dumb and Dumber” style mini-motorbikes Taiwanese adults are riding around the boardwalk area, but no one else seems to find them amusing. Jocelyn introduces me to the word bimbotic (apparently the adjectival form of bimbo). I drink my third smoothie of the day.

KTV (trip #1) – Kaori almost has a heart-attack when she learns that I’ve never been karaoke-singing at a KTV club; then she actually does have one when I tell her that KTV doesn’t exist in America. I arrive at Partyworld in Ximen (one of the ritziest districts of Taipei) to be escorted to our private room on the twelfth floor by two “attendants” in tuxedos. They bow to me approximately every 8 seconds, refuse to walk ahead of me or look me directly in the eyes, and continuously ask if there’s anything they can do for me. Once in our suite, I’m pretty impressed by the elegant sofa, surround-sound setup, fancy decorations, and private bathroom; but I opt to inspect first the gourmet menu and place a quick food order using our in-room phone. Kaori and Jocelyn are already singing a duet, and it doesn’t take me long to realize that karaoke in the West is definitely not the same as karaoke in Asia. These girls are not drunk, are not acting stupid, and are singing so beautifully that I’m not positive if it’s really them or a recording. I am eventually persuaded to sing a couple songs, including the classic Chinese love-song “Yueliang Daibiao Wo De Xin” (“The Moon Represents My Heart”). Jocelyn tells me “Good attempt,” and I go back to eating my banana split and dim sum.

Tai-Da and Political Rally – The motley bunch makes it way to Tai-Da, Taiwan’s most prestigious university, for a leisurely stroll through its campus. While in the university library, I am attracted by a large sign saying “No telephones” and displaying a picture of a phone with a red slash through it. I immediately whip out my cellphone and pretend to talk on it in front of the sign as Johnny takes pictures; university security kicks us out within 30 seconds. Our next stop is the presidential palace, a hotspot of activity as political tension has reached its highest level in years and tens of thousands of protestors have been taking to the streets daily (more on this later). I manage to navigate through truckloads of newly arrived barbed wire to shoot several good photos but in doing so attract the attention of an undercover cop; we quickly exit the area. Now at the center of the political rally, I work the scene with my Canon 20D DSLR camera pretending to be a professional photojournalist. The rest of the gang dons symbolically red headbands calling for the resignation of the president, but I opt to stick with the white clothes I’m wearing, citing possible political ramifications for the future.

Baishawan – I convince my cohorts, along with the bubbly Korean Jiangmei, to join me for an afternoon of surfing at Baishawan. Jiangmei is particularly excited, telling me how she’s always wanted to try surfing, and then adding as an after-though, “It doesn’t matter that I can’t swim, does it?” After teaching the newbies Surfing 101 on the sand, I help each of them get their first rides (even Jiangmei, albeit in the shorebreak); there’s definite stokage in the air afterwards.

Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall and Taipei 101 – We begin at the memorial dedicated to the “Father of Modern China” and the founder of Taiwan, witnessing an elaborate and fascinating changing-of-the-guards ceremony in the main hall. A tourist from Beijing (you could hear his “narrrrr’s” and “yidiarrrrrr’s” from a mile away) proceeds to engage me with a standard 35 second-long “Look at the chimpanzee in its little cage” stare, but Johnny, already aware of my biggest dislike of mainland-Chinese behavior, comes to my rescue and stares the man down until I’m left alone. Now in the vicinity of Taipei 101, the tallest building in the world, we enjoy what has become known as Taiwan’s “Manhattan,” a sparkling new district that just screams “upscale.” After having lunch in what has been called the best Asian food court in the world and catching a movie at the fabulous Warner Center Village, we take a trip to the top of the world. From the 1,676 ft. high observation deck of Taipei 101, we’re treated to a stunningly beautiful nighttime view of Taipei. I’m even more impressed than the others, as I discover that a mere two guards patrol the observation deck; BASE jumping this landmark is highly feasible (wait, did I really just write that on the internet?!).

Liang Jing Ru Concert – Already amused to learn that one of the most famous singers in Asia chose as her English name “Fish Girl,” I prepare myself for a night of cultural barriers, not the least of which is Asians’ love of everything “Pop.” Girly songs, bubbles, excessive animation, the list goes on and on. At one point, Liang Jing Ru invites a little boy and a little girl up onto the stage; they sit on either side of her, each holding a giant artificial flower (one light orange, one pink), and sway back and forth to the beat of the music. That little boy might one day wish guns weren’t illegal in Taiwan… There is one nice perk to listening to pop music, however; you always know in advance what the songs are about. After one song, Jocelyn asks me if I have understood the lyrics; I respond confidently, “Of course I understood… the girl is upset and heartbroken because the boy she has always loved left her for someone else…she’s singing about how she must find a way to move on and perhaps find love again.” Jocelyn is very impressed and exclaims “Wow! You really did understand!” She doesn’t realize, though, that I would have given this same answer for every single song I’ve heard, and I would have been correct probably 95% of the time!

“Face…and Losing Face”

I mentioned earlier that there is a seemingly endless list of social gaffes contained within Chinese culture. Many of these faux pas exist only in Chinese (or perhaps Asian) culture and are not widely known in the West. Because of this, I’ve found adapting to the Chinese/Taiwanese way of life to be quite challenging, even considering the experiences I had last summer. That’s not to say that I often feel uncomfortable or resented in Taiwan – not in the least! – because the Taiwanese are exceptionally welcoming and forgiving. But, as I’ve already indicated, my goal is to be treated the way any normal Taiwanese person would be treated. I don’t want preferential treatment because I’m an ignorant or unaware “foreigner.” Thus, I must think constantly about the dos and don’ts of Chinese culture. Maybe the following pointers (some of which are adapted from Lonely Planet) will help you too one day; at the very least, I bet you’ll glean something from them that you didn’t already know:

- When beckoning to someone, wave them over to you with your palm down, motioning to yourself (yea, it looks really bizarre).
- If a Taiwanese gives you a gift, put it aside to open later to avoid appearing greedy (and don’t be offended if you give someone a gift and they barely take the time to glance at it).
- When someone presents you with a business card, never put it in your wallet and then put the wallet in your back pocket. To do so implies that you want to sit on that person!
- Be very careful of the symbolic implications of color. Writing in red ink, for example, (other than when correcting an exam) implies protest. Gifts that are white can imply death or mourning.
- Don’t give someone a clock. This implies they will die soon.
- Giving someone a handkerchief implies that they will soon have reason to cry.
- Never, ever, hand anyone anything with just one extended hand. Always grasp the object with both hands and present it with a slight bow of the head. This shows that what you are offering is the fullest extent of yourself.
- Never, ever brag about anything. If someone compliments you, do not say “thank you.” Instead, critique yourself and attempt to change the subject (example: “Wow, this dinner you cooked is wonderful!” “Oh, no, no, I’m really a terrible cook…” Seriously.)
- On the same note, flattery=the Chinese way of life. Regardless of what you really think, always compliment people. Even if their English is terrible, tell them it’s wonderful (hey, they tell me my Chinese is great, so I don’t mind reciprocating).
- Smile. Always smile. Even if you’re upset or angry with someone, do not display your true feelings; this is considered a sign of extreme weakness. Instead, smile, and attempt to resolve your differences diplomatically.
- Use back channels. Because face-to-face confrontation is a major no-no, problems are often resolved with third-party intervention, including aunts, uncles, and close friends.
- When eating, hold your bowl of rice close to your mouth and shovel food in with your chopsticks. Place bones on the tablecloth.
- Never refill your own teacup without first refilling everyone else’s.
- Never, ever suggest “going Dutch.” Never, ever allow someone else to pay the bill without first arguing and protesting. Ultimately, the eldest person will typically pay, but everyone else must first pretend to want to pay (it’s a psychological game of sorts).
- Don’t even think about sticking your chopsticks into your rice so that they stick out vertically or near-vertically. It doesn’t get much worse than this. Doing so resembles the incense sticks stuck into ashes by Buddhists and is an omen of death. Always rest your chopsticks horizontally across the rice bowl.
- At a banquet (considered the “apex of the Chinese dining experience” and the primary venue for clinching important business deals), never ask for rice (this is the one time rice is not offered); this would imply that the food provided is insufficient. Do not drink alone; drinking is conducted by frequent toasts. Raise your glass with both hands in the direction of someone, cry “Gan Bei!” (“Dry the Glass!”), and drain your glass in one hit. Do not clink glasses. If the banquet is being held in your honor, you will be applauded as you enter; you should applaud back.

The four fundamental parts of Chinese culture are harmony, flattery, guangxi, and face. China’s history is one of the most ancient in the world and its culture has come about as the result of centuries and centuries of upheaval and change. As a result, harmony – getting along with others for the sake of society as a whole – is a central concept…and hence, the importance of smiling and avoiding confrontation. Likewise, flattery contributes to this notion of unity. Accepting someone’s compliments and thereby allowing yourself to rise above others is out-of-line (though with Western influences, this is perhaps less rigidly defined than in the past); vehement denials are the best response. Guangxi is the art of giving and receiving favors. Chinese culture is grounded in traditional Confucian concepts of tight family and friend networks. Thus, making “contacts” and helping others (so that they will later be obliged to help you) is paramount. Lastly, the most important aspect of Chinese culture: face. Face is the most crucial, and potentially the most frightening, concept a foreigner must understand in order to fit into Chinese or Taiwanese society. Chinese culture is built upon the notions of appearance and façade (smile even if you’re angry, compliment even if you’re unimpressed, criticize yourself even if you don’t mean it); thus, face – as in “face value” – is how things are judged. Acting in a way that makes others feel embarrassed or uncomfortable (or in any way that detracts from the overall sense of harmony) causes you to “lose face,” the ultimate social gaffe. I’ll never forget how I first learned this principle. In my first year of Chinese studies at W&L, I forgot to turn in a weekly homework assignment on the day it was due. I had completed it on time but had simply forgotten to hand it in. When I handed it in the following day, I explained what had happened to the TA, and she immediately responded “Oh, no problem, don’t worry about it.” I took this to mean that no points would be deducted for turning it in late. However, when she returned it to me, I had nevertheless lost a letter grade. Thinking she must have forgotten my situation, I approached her and asked her why she had taken points off. The situation immediately became awkward and I got the sensation that I was doing something wrong. At the time I was like most Americans and didn’t understand how incredibly powerful this idea of face is in Chinese culture. Looking back now, I understand that my TA’s “No problem” response is what she was supposed to say, not really what she meant – in Chinese culture, appearance is everything; truth is often hidden beneath it. Further, I committed a major faux pax by actually confronting the TA – both an elder and a superior (as a teacher) – about her decision; certainly not expecting this, she simply didn’t know how to respond. This anecdote constitutes one of the clearest and most rewarding cultural revelations I’ve ever had and has served as a constant reminder of how I should act when around Chinese, Taiwanese, or perhaps Asian people in general. Learning about other cultures is difficult, time-consuming, and often embarrassing; at the same time, I find it infinitely rewarding. Changing your behavior or mindset to mimic that of another people’s doesn’t mean sacrificing your values or becoming someone you’re not. I will always be American, and I will always have certain innate tendencies and eccentricities which I simply can’t hide. But by stepping into someone else’s shoes for awhile – even for just a moment! – you open the door to so much discovery. The minute I go into “Chinese mode” or “West African/Muslim” mode… “French/islander mode” or “Latin American” mode…I suddenly begin seeing the world from a completely new perspective. I’m not really African, French, or Latin American – not even really Chinese, as much as I hate to admit it – but face value isn’t everything. As Chinese culture teaches, the truth often lies somewhere beneath it all – cloaked in disguise – and discovering it can be as simple as changing your shoes.

“Formosan Wave-Riding”

I’ve already discussed the Baishawan Crew, but I believe a bit more on Formosan wave-riding in general is in order. So, surfing in Taiwan? You’ve never heard of it, right? “They have waves over there?!” The funny thing is that most people ask that question if you tell them you surf anywhere other than California, Hawaii, or Australia. Here’s a little secret: the vast majority of places that touch large bodies of water…have waves. The East Coast has waves. The Great Lakes have waves. Even non-coastal areas that have major rivers have waves (tidal bores). If a place has waves, it can most likely be surfed. The only question is how often the waves come and how long they stick around.

Here’s another secret. Taiwan is an island. A tropical island. Like, not that far from Indonesia. Moreover, it’s smack dab in the middle of the Pacific typhoon alley (NB: typhoons are exactly the same as hurricanes; they’re just called by a different name in the Eastern Hemisphere). During the late summer and fall months, typhoons brush by (or collide with) Taiwan week after week after week. As of press time, Taiwan had already been affected by 19 (yes, nineteen!) typhoons this year (this summer/fall). If you know anything about surfing, you know that typhoons and hurricanes = waves. Big waves. So it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that the surfing in Taiwan is phenomenal. Nevertheless, as human beings, we are lazy, apathetic, and afraid of new things; and thus very few people have bothered to venture to this beautiful island for the purpose of surfing. In February of 2006 Surfing Magazine became the first major publication of which I’m aware to document surfing in Taiwan…I beat them by a full 7 months with my article on And the really funny thing? They conclude – completely amazed – that Taiwan has some of the best surfing in the world. Nah, ya think?!

One of the best things about surfing in Taiwan, of course, is that there aren’t very many surfers, so if you’re some foreign surfer reading my blog and thinking of using it to plan your next trip here, you can forget about it. I’m not even going to begin to give away the locations of secret spots or anything. If you want to find them, learn Chinese, get to know the locals, and venture out. I will tell you this much: the coastline is still completely unexplored, and there are literally limitless possibilities for surfing world-class waves with not another soul in sight. If that’s not enough impetus for you, then stick to Huntington.

With the constant barrage of typhoons, the surf is consistently large. Sometimes too large for most, in fact (I said most, not all, haha). The one variable, however, is that with the typhoons comes lots and lots of wind. Here on the North Coast, it’s typically onshore, which can turn overhead perfection into a stormy, choppy deathtrap. Baishawan, my home break, has some of the nastiest rips I’ve ever encountered. During one of my first weeks here, I paddled out in huge double-overhead, choppy surf at Baishawan only to get dragged back and forth across the bay in several different rip currents. Just as it was getting dark and I was planning to come in, I got sucked directly out several hundred meters and just pinned in a sort of “hole.” It was a complicated scenario with several rips converging in this one spot, and no matter how hard I paddled I just couldn’t get out of it. With darkness descending quickly and not a single person on the beach (not that they could have seen me or even done anything if they had), I started to panic. I’ve become pretty good at keeping my cool in extremely hairy situations, so when I say I was starting to panic, I mean I was really scared. Fortunately, an outside wave eventually came along and I was just barely able to fight the current long enough to catch it. It was probably the biggest closeout I’ve ever ridden, and I just raced it straight towards the beach, a deafening freight train of whitewater bearing down on my heels. It eventually overtook me and held me down for quite some time, but by then I had moved out of the rip current “hole” and gotten closer to the beach. A new rip grabbed me, though, and before I knew it was headed horizontally across the bay at what seemed like about 20 mph and directly towards the rocks. I angled across the rip and paddled like crazy, not working my way out of this rip until I was a mere 10 meters or so from the rocks, which were being bombarded with huge waves. By this time it was completely dark and I paddled in shaken and stunned, fortunate to have escaped one of the heavier experiences of my surfing career.

We do get glassy, clean conditions, as well – most often in the early morning when 99.9% of the surfers here are asleep. Thus, I’ve made it a sort of tradition to camp out at least once a week at the beach and wake up around 5:00 for the dawn patrol session. Since I don’t live that far from the beach, I also wake up in the early morning darkness sometimes and drive out for my solo session. Yes, it’s always solo, because no else ever cares enough to wake up for the waves. That’s probably my conclusion about the local surfers – yes, there actually are local surfers. In the past couple years, surfing has started to take hold in Taiwan, and now quite a few locals call themselves surfers. The important thing to note, though, is that many of them are far more interested in wearing surf-company clothes, being part of a “surf club,” and hanging out at the beach than actually surfing. That’s not to say that there aren’t good local surfers. A-Shi is one of the most stylin’ longboarders I’ve ever seen, Coolie is always up for a session, and there’s this old guy…get this – this older guy who rides a wooden longboard – and he’s probably one of the most stoked surfers I’ve ever seen. He reminds me so much of the Tahitians. He doesn’t care about the clothes or the hype or the rest of the bs that’s somehow become a part of surfing as most people know it – he’s out there surfing just because he loves it. We always exchange huge smiles when we see each other in the water, because we share this mutual understanding. For lack of a better word, it’s all about the stoke – and words just aren’t necessary.

So, with most of the local surfers being…well, let’s just say that your typical Californian surfer would undoubtedly call them “kooks” (until I’m on the pro tour, I’m not calling anyone a kook)…an interesting contradiction comes into play. When I first arrived in Taiwan this year, it was the end of summer (Taiwan’s flattest months as far as waves), and the more popular North Shore beaches were absolutely packed. Packed with…yes, the “k” word. I’m talking about a hundred people on longboards and funboards paddling for the same 2 inch ripple not ten feet from the beach and all of the ones who actually know how to paddle standing up at the same time and then collapsing in a single heap in the shorebreak. Oh, and, not that it matters, but the style, oh the style! The lack of style, I should say. In Taiwanese culture, being tan is a bad thing. The paler a woman is, the more beautiful she supposedly is (yea – really proves that beauty is in the eye of the beholder). So, even when the temperature is topping 100 degrees and the water temperature is in the upper 80s (I’m not kidding, one day it was so hot I had to repeatedly dive to the bottom to cool off), your typical Taiwanese surfer is wearing a wetsuit. I swear I saw one lady – on a 100+ degree day – wearing a full wetsuit (black); wetsuit booties (black); green boardshorts (over the wetsuit); a pink rashguard (over the wetsuit), pink gloves; sunglasses; and an orange, wide-brimmed hat. The truth is I really don’t care what you wear to surf and I would never call this lady a kook just because of what she was wearing, but this is very likely the most hilarious thing I’ve ever seen on a beach in my entire life. Anyway, despite the absurd conditions when I arrived, everything changed once typhoon season arrived and the waves got bigger. Once the waves reach chest-high or so, everyone literally disappears. The local surfers who “sort-of” know what they are doing tell everyone “Dangerous! Dangerous!” and the Taiwanese – ever afraid of the water (the vast majority can’t swim) – flee back to the city. And, thus, I get the waves all to myself. I’ve also become known as “The Crazy Man” to a number of local surfers because I paddle out pretty much regardless of the conditions. Sometimes the conditions really are dangerous (see above story), but often we’re talking about semi-choppy head-high surf and I’m just like “C’mon guys, do you want to improve or not?” Surfing has the slowest learning curve of any sport in existence (think about it…depending on the conditions, I may only be able to get 3 waves in a single 2 hour session – for a combined surfing time of maybe 12 seconds at best. If you were trying to learn how to play golf and your instructor handed you a bag of balls and said, “Here, you have 12 seconds to learn as much as you can,” do you think you’d improve very quickly?”), and if you want to get better, you have to commit yourself fully. I just don’t understand how so many of these locals are content to stick with longboarding/funboarding and just paddle out into the shorebreak (if they paddle out at all) any time the waves top chest-high. It makes me kind of angry, actually, but who I am to judge others? Ultimately, I always end up just focusing on myself, paddling out, and giving it my all regardless of what the rest of the koo…I mean, surfers are doing.

Baishawan Left, Secret, Baishwan Middle Peak, Arches, Fisherman’s Point, Birth Control Beach, Mary’s Beach, Straight-a-Ways, Jinshan the Point, Qianshuiwan, Baishwan the Point, Jinshan Middle Peak, Jinshan 2, Canting, Chaofan, Activity Center, Atomic, Xiao Yeliu, Green Bay, Spacewalk…there are so many options on the North Shore. Several of these places have been surfed by no one in history besides me (and, if you couldn’t have guessed, a lot of these names are my own creations, as well). No one else knows where they are, either. One of the greatest parts of surfing, in my opinion, is the quest – the quest for waves. Whether it’s wandering through downtown Dakar in the African desert searching for a taxi or riding my motorcycle through rice paddies and tiny coastal villages in Taiwan, the quest for waves is what it’s all about. I’ve also started using the latest in technology to aid me, utilizing satellite photography to study the details of the northern coastline of Taiwan, offshore buoys to monitor changes in swell and wind, and a variety of wave and surf forecasting tools for fisherman and boatmen. The end result – approximately 5 days of surfing a week with enough stoke to get me through my two rest/study days.

“Why Chinese is the Hardest Frickin’ Language in the World” [Caution: Extensive Whining Ahead]

As I mentioned earlier, there was a time not long after I arrived here in Taiwan that I was extremely depressed about my Chinese. What I didn’t say is that I was so depressed I was literally contemplating the thought of throwing in the towel. Of giving up. Of conceding that I’m just not intellectually capable of learning Chinese. If you know me at all, then you know I’m not one to give up easily. In fact, I can’t actually think of any time in my life when I’ve ever given up on something. Chinese is seriously that difficult and that frustrating.

It was during that time that I discovered a certain online article which I suppose helped me cope with my frustration just a little bit better. In a late-night fit of anger, I began performing Google searches for several variations of the phrase “I hate Chinese.” Eventually, I came across an article titled “Why Chinese is So Damn Hard,” published by someone at the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan. I was immediately interested.

Don’t get me wrong – the article wasn’t some heavenly bit of salvation that has since gotten me back on the “Chinese Gung-Ho’!” train – but it did, along with my class change, help convince me not to quit studying Chinese (at this point at least). I would describe my current state as post-depression and stable; I’ve scratched through all the goals I had for my language learning in Taiwan and set aside any dreams of being able to speak fluently in the near future, but I’m still trudging along, slowly but surely. I’m certainly no longer naïve. All the magazine and newspaper articles that you see these days urging people to study Chinese (“It’s the next big thing!”), which report that “…although there are approximately 50,000 Chinese symbols, one needs to know only 2,000-3,000 of these to read a Chinese newspaper”…Hogwash! The faculty at your school showing you videos of foreigners winning Chinese-language contests and filling your head with visions of Chinese fluency…Hogwash! If you are a student considering studying Chinese for the first time, listen to me carefully. Listen to me very carefully. March yourself over to the Romance Languages Department this instant and enroll yourself in Spanish or French. If you’re a hotshot and want to be cool, enroll in German or Russian. Whatever you do…whatever you do…and I don’t care how smart you are or how many languages you already know…do not try to learn Chinese. It is a deathtrap. By the time you realize how impossibly hard it is, you will have already devoted too much effort to it to quit. It’s a sick, sick phenomenon. It draws you in like a Siren with its beautiful script, its promise of job opportunities, its exotic history…as it lures you deeper and deeper into its cavernous bowels you begin to feel disoriented, but you are foolish and in love and you march on and on, deeper and deeper…and then one day you wake up and realize you’re so deep that you could never in a million years find your way out, and what you thought was love was really a sick masochistic desire to torture yourself, to torture yourself forever and ever, and that’s where you suddenly find yourself, a torture chamber with no exit, with no stop button, with no way to escape, a dream, a nightmare, a ghoulish fantasy not even Poe could imagine. And there’s pain. Oh, there’s so much pain…

If you are thinking about studying Chinese, I beg you to consider something else. Anything else. I would not wish my fate to befall even my most despised enemy.

I decided that detailing exactly why Chinese is so hard might make me feel a bit better. So, with a little help from David Moser, the author of “Why Chinese is So Damn Hard,” I’m going to explain to you why Chinese is the hardest language in the world (for a native English-speaker to learn):

1. The Script

Right… Chinese script. Those funky little symbols you see on your placemat at the local Chinese restaurant. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to actually be able to read that stuff? I mean, really study those symbols the next time you eat Chinese food – they’re tiny, extremely complicated, and so involved that your head will probably start to hurt after looking at them for more than a few seconds. That’s Chinese. This is the first thing you must understand. When you meet someone Chinese and he writes his name as Chang Tsien-Tzu or something…that’s not Chinese. Show that to a typical Chinese person, and he’ll have no idea how to pronounce it. The words Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou…these aren’t Chinese either. Go to China and show your cab driver one of these words written down and they’ll have no idea where to take you. Chinese is characters – those crazy little characters (北京,上海,etc.). That’s the only thing most Chinese people can read, and if you want to be able to say you know Chinese, you have to learn them.

Yes, as today’s “Learn Chinese” magazine articles report, there are over 50,000 distinct characters. In fact, there are so many that no one is quite sure how many exist. Chinese is the most ancient script still in use today – characters were originally genuine pictographs, and they evolved over time to become what we now know as Chinese. Despite what some people will tell you, knowing 2,000-3,000 of these characters is not enough to be able to read a Chinese newspaper. In fact, it’s often not even enough to be able to read the headlines of a Chinese newspaper. I supposedly knew 2,000 characters as of the end of last year, and I still need a dictionary and at least an hour of time to read a simple, 3 paragraph-long newspaper column. There are several reasons for this, the most important being that to say you know a character doesn’t really mean you “know” it: “The Chinese script is ridiculous…beautiful, complex, mysterious – but ridiculous. The more you learn about Chinese characters the more intriguing and addicting they become. The study of Chinese characters can become a lifelong obsession, and you soon find yourself engaged in the daily task of accumulating them, drop by drop from the vast sea of characters, in a vain attempt to hoard them in the leaky bucket of long-term memory” (Mosser). I can literally study a new character and write it over a hundred times…and then wake up the next morning and have no clue whatsoever as to how it is written. Characters drain out of my brain the way sand drains out of a clenched fist. The harder I try to hold onto them, the faster they slip away. It’s absolutely sickening. After committing two years of my life to studying Chinese and working harder at it than at anything I’ve ever attempted, I took five months off to work on my French and live in French-speaking countries. Immediately afterwards, I arrived here in Taiwan to find myself struggling to read even basic Chinese. It’s a strange feeling – I can tell that there’s something up there – some remnant of past knowledge – but it just doesn’t want to resurrect itself in the same way that my Spanish or calculus or American history do when I’m forced to draw on those memory banks.

Aside from the obvious “because they’re ridiculously hard to memorize,” there are a number of other reasons why Chinese script is so hard to learn. First, consider that every character fits into a square – what this means is that, while they vary in complexity, they all have exactly the same proportions. Further, no spacing is used when writing Chinese. Thus, all these characters line up next to each other, and it is impossible to tell where one word ends and another begins. Additionally, Chinese can be written left-to-right, right-to-left, top-to-bottom – it doesn’t matter. Half the time, it takes me awhile just to figure out where to start reading. Because Chinese words are typically comprised of more than one character (usually two to four) and there is no spacing, even if I can pronounce every single character in a sentence, I may have no idea what the sentence means. It’s like some bizarre puzzle, trying to figure out which characters combine with which characters and how each of their meanings changes depending on how they are combined.

Next, consider what those little characters really are. They are frickin’ works of art (example: 蘔髊). The next time you go to a Chinese restaurant, see if you can copy just one of those characters. I mean, you won’t even know where to start! And that’s a major problem in and of itself to Chinese learners. English, Spanish, French…even languages like Greek, Hindi, and Russian…these require no more than a couple dozen characters total to be able to write! Further, even the most complicated characters (hmm, is it “E”?) require no more than 4 pen-strokes to write. Now, consider that not only do you have to know thousands of Chinese characters to be able to write Chinese but also that many of these characters have in excess of TWENTY (20) penstrokes! Disregarding the fact that the only way I can fit twenty-plus strokes into a microscopic little box is by writing with the precision of handicapped five-year-old, how am I supposed to remember all those stokes? We’re talking about something in the ballpark of 3,000 times 20…over 60,000 strokes! I must be joking, right!?

No, unfortunately, I’m not. Now add to our steadily-growing list of obstacles the fact that Chinese has not one, but two scripts. That’s right, the “simplified” (“Simplified, my butt…”) and “traditional” versions. Mainland China (PRC) uses simplified; Taiwan (ROC) and Hong Kong still use “traditional.” These two scripts are overlapping, but they are nevertheless distinct from one another, and anyone who really wants to know Chinese has to have at least a general understanding of both. I’ve already been spun around in the confusion-machine a few times. I studied traditional characters during my first year of Chinese. Then, the faculty at W&L decided they should teach simplified, so, during my second year, I learned simplified characters (I had to relearn many of the characters I had learned during the previous year). Now, in my third year, I’m here in Taiwan, where everything is back in traditional characters. This time, I’ve opted to learn every new word in both simplified and traditional characters. Yea, piece of cake, right?

Concluding this diatribe against Chinese characters, I’d like to present a simple scenario and pose a simple question. Moser, the author of “Why Chinese is So Damn Hard,” relates an experience he once had at Peking University (“the Harvard of China”): unable to remember how to write the word for sneeze, he asked his three friends – all native-Chinese, Ph.D. students in the Chinese department – for help. Amazingly, not one of them could remember how to write sneeze in Chinese! What would you think if you asked 3 native-English-speaking Ph.D. candidates in the department of English at Harvard University how to write the word sneeze, and not one of them had even the slightest clue as to how to begin? This instance is not an isolated one. Native Chinese people forget how to write simple, simple words all the time! So my question is this: is it just me, or is there something seriously wrong with the crazy language we call Chinese?

2. The Tones

When you learn a new word in English, all you have to do is remember how it is pronounced (occasionally, a tricky word might necessitate remembering an unusual spelling as well). This is not the case in Chinese. Not only do you have to remember how a word is written (using characters) and how it is pronounced (because the characters themselves are not phonetic; unlike our alphabet, they have no built-in clues as to how they should be pronounced), but you must also remember its tones. Every single sound in the Chinese language has one of five (5!) tones, or variations in pitch. 1st tone is flat and high like you’re singing a high note; 2nd tone is steadily rising; 3rd tone begins slightly higher than average, falls to a low tone, and then climbs back up to a slightly higher than average tone; 4th tone is a sharp falling tone like you’re yelling at someone; 5th tone is a neutral, softer tone. Thus, if I want to memorize a word that has 3 characters, I will have to remember 3 different tones, 3 different sounds, and 3 different characters (for a total of perhaps more than 60 pen-strokes). How is it that shu1xue3 means “blood transfusion” while shu4xue2 means “math”? That guo4jiang3 means “you flatter me,” while guo3jiang4 means “fruit paste”? Oh, the horror!

To complicate matters, native Chinese-speakers don’t really understand the tonal system. Since they’ve grown up speaking Chinese, they simply learned the tones naturally and instinctively change their intonation when speaking. Thus, if I try to tell someone I study shu4xue2 and he hears shu1xue3 (and therefore thinks I’m saying blood transfusion), he won’t think, “Oh, he must have mixed up his tones...he probably means “math”). Instead, the Chinese person will be completely confused and have no idea what I’m talking about. I just can’t tell you how frustrating that is – when you’re actually able to remember the sound… maybe you’re even able to remember the characters as well! – but you simply can’t remember the tones, and because of this simple slip-up, your communication is brought to a screeching halt. Or, perhaps even worse, you can remember the tones, but as a native speaker of a non-tonal language, you’re having trouble saying the right tone and no matter how hard you try, you just can’t hit the right note. You can picture the word as it would be written in Romanization with its pretty little numbers representing the tones, but like a tone-deaf musician, you just can’t make anything happen.

To further complicate matters, even if you do begin to master the tones, an even more involved problem inevitably presents itself. Let’s say you want to tell someone “Hey…that’s my fried rice…get away!” In English you would instinctively stress the word my for emphasis. But in Chinese, doing so would indicate a 4th tone (instead of the proper 3rd tone) and render your sentence meaningless and incomprehensible. Thus, it is extremely difficult to express yourself in Chinese because the tools you’re used to relying on – stress, pitch, meter – are suddenly taken away from you. Your hands are tied behind your back, and its seems impossible to put any real feeling or passion into what you say.

3. The Romanization

It has been said of the different Romanization styles for Chinese that “there are too many of them, and most of them were designed either by committee or by linguists, or – even worse – by a committee of linguists” (Moser)…and this could not be any more accurate. Romanization refers to the rendering of Chinese sounds into “words” using the English alphabet. Thus, you see Chinese people’s names and Chinese cities occasionally written with “words” like Zhong, Chang, Tsien, Tzu, etc. These aren’t really words because they don’t belong to any official language – they’re simply the products of Romanization.

Romanization was developed to aid non-Chinese speakers. If the only way Beijing was ever written was in its true form (北京), most non-Chinese speakers would have no idea how to pronounce the city’s name. Amazingly, though, the creators of most of the Romanization systems in existence today opted to make things as hard as possible for non-Chinese speakers. Consider the capital of Taiwan, for example: Taipei. Ask any Chinese-speaking person how to pronounce the name of Taiwan’s capital, and they will say “Taibei” (tai, as in to tie your shoes; and bei as in to swim in the bay). There is no [p] sound whatsoever. The creators of Taiwan’s most frequently used Romanization system, however, decided to write the [b] sound with a p. Now why would they do this, I wonder? The [b] sound in Taibei already exists in English and is represented perfectly by our own b. Why confuse English speakers by using a p? Consider Beijing, previously known as “Peking.” Mainland China previously used the same Romanization system that Taiwan now uses (the Wade-Giles System); thus the [b] sound was approximated with a p, and the [j] sound was approximated with a k. Thus, English speakers began referring to Beijing as “Peking.” Fortunately, China eventually adopted a slightly more sensible Romanization system (called Pinyin), which calls for Beijing to be written as one would expect it to be written, and Westerners now call the city by its real name. The Romanization chaos is absolutely outrageous and only further contributes to the stress of learning Chinese. In Taiwan many street signs are written in both Chinese and Romanization to aid foreigners. However, several different Romanization systems are used (meaning that even if you do happen to understand all the major ones, you can’t necessarily be sure about which one you should be using), and systems such as the Wade-Giles are so counter-logical that completely mispronouncing a word because of the very tool which is supposed to make its pronunciation easy is extremely common. The city where I’m currently living, for example – Danshui – can be written as “Danshui,” “Tamshui,” “Damshui,” or “Tamshuie.” What a mess.

4. The Dictionary

Mosser hits the nail on the head: “Chinese is not exactly what you would call a user-friendly language, but a Chinese dictionary is positively user-hostile.” I already explained that it takes me about 7 minutes, on average, to look up a single Chinese word. This is ignoring the fact that 1 out of every 5 words I attempt to look up, I never find. So, you want to know why Chinese dictionaries are so complicated? Just think about it.

English-, Spanish-, and French-language dictionaries are all organized by something we call alphabetical order. We have approximately 26 characters and thus an easy method of categorizing every word in our languages. But the Chinese have no alphabet; instead, they have over 50,000 distinct characters, remember? How to organize them, how to organize them…now that’s what you call a dilemma.

The solution most dictionaries rely upon is extremely complicated, and I will not delve into it in detail here. Basically, just know that it requires a fair amount of prior knowledge (a first-year Chinese language student is not really capable of using a dictionary), a ton of patience, and an eye for detail (analyzing the minute differences which distinguish characters from one another). Add to this the fact that the contextual nature of Chinese requires multiple dictionaries (most professors and scholars profess to have 15 to 20 or more; I currently use 4), and you’ve got yourself a real problem. Having to resort to a dictionary in any language is annoying enough (I mean, what it signifies is that you don’t know something you wish you knew), so you want the process to be as painless and fast as possible. But with Chinese, the process is the most painful thing of all, and many times it doesn’t even yield a single result! Lastly, as I’ve mentioned, word boundaries are not defined in Chinese; this wreaks absolute havoc on dictionary users. Consider how difficult it would be for a non-native English speaker to look up words in a dictionary if English were written without word boundaries: “FEAR LESS LY OUT SPOKE N BUT SOME WHAT HUMOR LESS NEW ENG LAND BORN LEAD ACT OR GEORGE MICHAEL SON EX PRESS ED OUT RAGE TO DAY AT THE STALE MATE BE TWEEN MAN AGE MENT AND THE ACT OR 'S UNION BE CAUSE THE STAND OFF HAD SET BACK THE TIME TABLE FOR PRO DUC TION OF HIS PLAY.” Fortunately, I now have PlecoDict, but I still need to use paper dictionaries at times, too, and the process is nearly unbearable.

5. The Culture

“Language and culture cannot be separated, of course, and one of the main reasons Chinese is so difficult for Americans is that our two cultures have been isolated for so long. The reason reading French sentences like ‘Le président Bush assure le peuple koweitien que le gouvernement américain va continuer à défendre le Koweit contre la menace irakienne,’ is about as hard as deciphering pig Latin is not just because of the deep Indo-European family resemblance, but also because the core concepts and cultural assumptions in such utterances stem from the same source. We share the same art history, the same music history, the same history history -- which means that in the head of a French person there is basically the same set of archetypes and the same cultural cast of characters that's in an American's head. We are as familiar with Rimbaud as they are with Rambo. In fact, compared to the difference between China and the U.S., American culture and French culture seem about as different as Peter Pan and Skippy peanut butter.

“Speaking with a Chinese person is usually a different matter. You just can't drop Dickens, Tarzan, Jack the Ripper, Goethe, or the Beatles into a conversation and always expect to be understood. I once had a Chinese friend who had read the first translations of Kafka into Chinese, yet didn't know who Santa Claus was. China has had extensive contact with the West in the last few decades, but there is still a vast sea of knowledge and ideas that is not shared by both cultures.

“Similarly, how many Americans other than sinophiles have even a rough idea of the chronology of China's dynasties? Has the average history major here ever heard of Qin Shi Huangdi and his contribution to Chinese culture? How many American music majors have ever heard a note of Peking Opera, or would recognize a pipa if they tripped over one? How many otherwise literate Americans have heard of Lu Xun, Ba Jin, or even Mozi?

“What this means is that when Americans and Chinese get together, there is often not just a language barrier, but an immense cultural barrier as well. Of course, this is one of the reasons the study of Chinese is so interesting. It is also one of the reasons it is so damn hard.” (Moser)

- Conclusion

Moser says he was once told that learning Chinese is “a five-year lesson in humility.” He reports that “I used to think this meant that at the end of five years you will have mastered Chinese and learned humility along the way. However, now having studied Chinese for over six years, I have concluded that actually the phrase means that after five years your Chinese will still be abysmal, but at least you will have thoroughly learned humility.” As the arrogant scholar I am, I might have assumed previously that our Mr. Moser of the University of Michigan just doesn’t have the right knack for languages. I would have thought, “I can pull it off…Give me four years, and I’ll be speaking fluent Chinese, no problem, dude.” After two and half years of studying Chinese – of “banging my head against the Great Wall of Chinese” (as he puts it) – I’m wiser, less naïve, and more mature. Chinese is really, really hard. The hardest thing I’ve undertaken in my entire life, and I’ve undertaken a lot. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished so far – I mean it’s not like I can’t speak Chinese at all; based on what I’ve already reported in this blog, it should be fairly obvious that my Chinese is not completely abysmal. Even if it were completely abysmal, though, I’d still be proud of myself – I’ve honestly given it a 100% day in and day out. That’s all I can do. And, for now, I’m going to keep going. I’m going to see where it takes me. I still have another year and half in university – maybe I’ll make some great breakthrough; if not, there’s always graduate school or another trip back to Taiwan – both of which sound far more intriguing than entering the workforce. If I’ve learned anything from my studies of Chinese, it’s this – there are some things you just can’t rush. There are some things for which there really are no shortcuts. Hard work, dedication, and perseverance are the only way. It’s not easy, and it’s not fun. And it really isn’t so different from a terrifying Edgar Allen Poe nightmare at times. But I’m pretty sure I can see light at the other end of the tunnel; in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever completely lost sight of it. And if – when – I reach that light, I’m pretty sure I will look back into the darkness and remember my voyage as one of the most rewarding I ever took. The most difficult things in life are always the most rewarding. They’re always the ones we look back on and think “Wow, it’s great to be alive.” Because if life were always easy, what point would there be in growing, in learning, in living fully? Struggling to overcome obstacles is the quintessential antithesis to stagnation; it’s the most fundamental meaning of being alive. Maybe that’s the meaning of it all. Maybe that’s why we have a language which can’t even be remembered by its own native speakers. Chinese…the ultimate in trials and tribulations. The ultimate in hardship. The ultimate test. Take it, if you dare…

“Corruption – Not Just an American Value”

Politics…you just can’t escape it. No matter where you go, there’s always something happening in the world of politics. Living here in Taiwan and being able to follow closely both global and Asian politics has been quite interesting because I’m really forced to view things from a new perspective. A Taiwanese declaration of independence from Mainland China has far more severe ramifications for me personally now than it would if I were living in America (“Bombs-away!”) Whether I like it or not, I am intrinsically bound to the political welfare of Taiwan until the end of December. Thus, the North Korean nuclear crisis…The coup d’etat in Thailand…the Japanese change of leadership …these happenings have all taken on far more significance to me here in Taiwan. And then there’s Taiwan’s own political crisis – and the political tension which has remained an integral part of my Taiwan experience from the beginning.

You probably know the basics of the situation since it has been covered pretty thoroughly by world media, but, in case you don’t, here’s the situation. Chen Shui-Bian, the Taiwanese president (from the Democratic Progressive Party [DPP], Taiwan’s anti-reunification [with China] party) has been accused of massive corruption. First, between the months of May and July his son-and-law was convicted of insider trading. At the same time, allegations surfaced that his wife had been accepting department store vouchers in return for her influence. Lastly, Chen’s use of a secret presidential fund for overseas work came under scrutiny, and officials have recently accused him of misuse of state funds (totaling more than 500,000 USD). Though Chen has ceded some power, the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party is not satisfied, nor are the majority of Taiwanese, many of whom have been taking to the streets for months and calling for his resignation. The “Depose Movement” is being led by Chen’s old friend Shih Ming-Teh, who insists he wants nothing more than a peaceful change of leadership to rid Taiwan of these latest bouts of corruption. In traditional Chinese fashion, the movement has taken the color red as its symbol; so for months images of tens of thousands of protestors clad in matching red shirts and headbands, repeatedly giving the thumbs-down sign, and shouting in unison, “A-Bian…Xia tai!” (“A-Bian [Chen’s nickname]…Step Down!”) have dominated local news. But it’s more than just a breaking news story…I’m living in the middle of it, so it’s actually quite real. During the height of the protests, I had to avoid certain areas of the city, I had to allow extra time to commute to school, and I had to be cognizant of what color clothes I was wearing (the pro-Chen movement has taken green to be its symbolic color). Though the situation has remained mostly peaceful, there have been incidents of violence, and there is most definitely an aura of tension. Barbed wire surrounds the presidential palace, police are everywhere, and leaders of both the anti-Chen and pro-Chen movements have repeatedly pleaded with their followers to remain non-violent.

Political discussion is extremely open in Taiwan (even more so than in America; for instance, it’s perfectly legitimate to ask someone outright, “So who did you vote for?”), and I’m often asked what I think of Chen. My answer is always the same: “Wo shi waiguoren – wo shenme dou bu zhidao” (“I’m a foreigner – what do I know?”). I’ve worn white clothes anytime I’ve visited the protest areas, as well. The fact of the matter is that I don’t have strong feelings about the situation. I think it’s interesting that Chen has received so much condemnation based on several matters which do not even concern him personally (but rather his family). This, to me, illustrates the important Chinese concept of guangxi – as I explained earlier, in Chinese culture, you are intrinsically tied to your family and friend networks. They can help you with favors, but they can also bring you down with misdeeds. Perhaps the most important thing I’ve gleaned from this whole mess is this: Democracy is alive and well in Taiwan. Ironically, some of the anti-Chen protestors have claimed as their slogan “Democracy is dead!” to convey their denunciation of corruption. Here’s what I say to them: “You think democracy is dead in Taiwan? Then go to Mainland China and walk around holding a sign and whining about corruption. See where that gets you.” The very fact that the Taiwanese are able to voice their opinions so openly, whether supporting or condemning the president, is evidence that Taiwan is doing something right. It really is a beautiful thing, freedom – without it, who are we?

“White Dove”

This blog is not the proper forum to discuss China-Taiwan relations, if for no other reason than because there is a fairly decent chance I will one day work in a governmental position dealing with China and Taiwan. With this said, there is one thing I would like to note. I have now lived in both China and Taiwan; I’ve seen both major cities and the most rural of areas; and I’ve met and befriended doctors, teachers, farmers, factory workers, and fishermen alike. I’ve had a lot of time to ponder the similarities and differences between China and Taiwan. And my conclusion? While Taiwanese society undeniably is rooted in China’s history and cultural framework, it has positively developed its own unique identity as well. There’s just a completely different atmosphere in Taiwan. The vibe – the aura – of the place is different. I don’t really know how to describe it, but there’s just a sensation of freedom – of pride – here that China lacks. Taiwan has been back-stabbed by almost every single member of the world community in the last half century (several of its only remaining allies are in the process of switching allegiance to China as I write, in fact). At the same time that the United States was going to incredible lengths to preserve democracy in Vietnam and Korea, Taiwan was left out to dry. It stood up for its democracy, and what was its reward? Losing its seat in the United Nations, increased health problems for its people as a result of being barred from the World Health Organization, and not being able to send its athletes to the Olympics as representatives of their country (they must attend using a different name). I recently came across a Wu Bai piece called Bai Ge (白鸽) – White Dove – that has become one of my all-time favorite songs. The Chinese lyrics are even more powerful, but the English translation, too, truly captures the essence, I believe, of what it means to be Taiwanese in today’s world.

“White Dove”

Straight ahead, without direction, body unclothed,
Blood oozing from my wing, my tears thoroughly soaking my chest,
Soaring in the air, bearing the wound, escaping from the hunter's gun.

Dearest mother, true friend, I can be strong, I will live well;
Silent earth, silent heaven, red blood continuously flows.

My feet have no consciousness, ice-cold snow falls in my heart;
Even though I carry everlasting scars, at least I still have freedom.

Soaring in the air, flying in the sky, against the merciless wind,
I will not be afraid, I don't have to be a coward, roaming everywhere by myself;
That is something to take pride in, carefree sunshine, white clouds sweeping by beneath my feet.

Withered figure, thin and pallid face, flapping my wings, never turning to look back;
Even though I carry everlasting scars, at least I still have freedom.

At least I still have freedom.
At least I still have freedom.

“Formosan Juxtapositions”

I alluded to the paradoxical nature of Taiwanese society in my introductory “This is Formosa” passage, and I’d like to delve a bit deeper now. Taiwan truly is a land of contradiction – of fascinating juxtapositions. Four juxtapositions that have leapt out at me during my stay here involve dichotomous relationships between slow and fast, tradition and modernity, East and West, and truth and façade.

Hop on the ultra-clean and efficient MRT subway on the coast here in Danshui, and you’ll find yourself in downtown Taipei in 35 minutes. There, businessmen will brush by you in a hurry to make their next meeting on time, taxis will screech to a halt as you wander across the street without looking both ways, and vendors will offer you food and merchandise from their carts while simultaneously making change for a previous customer and accepting money from another. As Lonely Planet says, the animated little green men on the “Don’t Walk” signs don’t just begin walking when it’s ok to cross the street – they run. Taiwanese society is always on the move, and it’s always on the run. Life here is most definitely fast-paced. At the same time, though, almost 60% of Taiwan is wilderness. Undeveloped beaches and mountains constitute the vast majority of the country’s land. Escape to these areas, and you’ll find yourself amidst incredible serenity and peace and quiet. But leaving the city to find a slower-paced lifestyle isn’t even necessary, as a matter of fact. Just wander down a back-alley, make a few turns, continue walking away from all the noise…and soon you’ll find yourself in a quaint little residential area with a tiny pond spanned by an ornate, classically Chinese bridge. A traditional teahouse might sit tucked away in a small park, and elderly men and women will be resting in the shade of a sprawling tree and playing mahjong or go. Alternatively, drive to the top of any hill near the coast – prime real estate territory which you would expect to be teeming with resorts or upscale housing developments – and you’ll most likely find nothing more than a mausoleum or a simple grave site. The Taiwanese believe in feng shui – harmony with wind and water – and this remains forever paramount in the development of the island. The spirits of the deceased will only be content if they are left somewhere with a view – somewhere with wind and water. Likewise, no matter how clustered downtown Taipei becomes, harmony must always prevail. Taipei 101, the tallest building in the world, rather than towering above the city like some obscene monstrosity instead rises gently like a stalk of bamboo, loops of ribbon tied around it and rising gracefully towards its pinnacle. Taiwan has its ugliness, its pollution, its crowds…but it simultaneously retains dignity, cleanliness, and beauty. It’s a living, pulsing paradox in the truest sense of the word.

Taiwan is a lesson in reconciling tradition and modernity. Unlike China, which is demolishing its centuries-old traditional hutong neighborhoods in Beijing in favor of new high-rises and destroying Tibet’s culture for the purpose of assimilation, Taiwan is managing to balance a quest to modernize with a desire to preserve the traditional. Everything in Taiwan at first seems modern, fast, efficient, state-of-the-art: the MRT, Taipei 101, Warner Village (“The Manhattan of Taiwan”). Everything is computerized, digital, convenient. You can pay your bills in cash at the nearest convenience store. Busses, the subway, and even parking garages all use the same swipe card, to which money can be added in a mere 10 seconds. Closed-circuit cameras are everywhere you look – in elevators, at intersections, in every corner of every store. Teenagers and grandparents alike talk on the latest and most advanced cellphones, and if you don’t have a computer-camera for real-time video conferencing with your friends you’re definitely out of the loop. At the same time, though, traditional funerals still process down major roads and highways at 10 mph, backing up traffic and congesting cities while musicians ride along in the elaborately decorated trucks banging Chinese gongs and playing brash, ear-splitting traditional melodies. Within one block of even the ritziest Starbucks chances are you’ll find a Buddhist, Daoist, or Confucian temple with locals praying or arranging incense sticks inside. Directly in front of an all-glass, super-modern skyscraper housing a multinational franchise, you might see a group of Taiwanese crouched around a small fire and tossing paper “ghost money” into it for the well-being of their ancestors. Every time you begin to think you’re living in a society ten years ahead of the rest of the world, you see something which takes you back ten centuries, across the Straight of Taiwan, back to ancient China…and you realize that you’re in neither a land of the future nor a land from the past but a land suspended in a fantastic dream-world somewhere between the two.

Nowhere have I seen East meet West with such intensity – the two worlds intermingle, intertwine, and produce a hybrid offspring like no other. The realization begins, of course, with language. Billboards advertising the latest in cosmetic products feature catchy English slogans intermixed with mind-bogglingly complicated Chinese script. “Bye-bye” has overtaken “Zaijian” as the conventional method of saying farewell, and English-teachers are in higher demand and paid better here than in any other country in the world. Nevertheless, hop into a cab in downtown Taipei and tell your driver your destination in English, and he won’t even leave the curb. Don’t even think about trying to leave Taipei if you don’t speak Chinese. Old men still wear their traditional Chinese outfits and slippers and stroll through traditional parks with the help of their canes while the younger generations sport the latest fashion-wear from Abercrombie, Gucci, and American Eagle. Classical Confucian emphasis on family, friends, and respect for ancestors pervades the culture, but so too do American tendencies towards independence, self-interest, and personal freedom. The collectivist practices of China still retain a slight grip on the island, but western capitalism is without a doubt at the helm and in control of its future. Christianity is a noticeable part of modern-day Taiwan, but the real fabric of society is made up of a syncretic, multi-faceted devotion to Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism. Many women still fulfill the roles defined for them by Confucius and stay at home to cook, clean, and nurture, while others attend the most prestigious universities and lead the most powerful corporations; Taiwan’s vice president is currently a woman. Eating traditionally around circular tables in large groups is still common, but ordering dinner “dai zou” (“to go”) is equally normal; even McDonald’s has worked its way into the local dining scene. Cappuccinos and lattés are as common as green and oolong tea, and Jay-Z and the Black Eyed Peas are as well known as Zhou Jie Lun and Tao Zhe. All in all, a Westerner living in Taiwan can’t possibly feel that he’s at home here, but, at the same time, he can’t feel completely estranged from the things with which he’s familiar either. It’s a truly unique thing, this hybrid culture, one which, in many ways, joins the best of both worlds.

Lastly, there is an obvious dichotomy between truth and façade. As I explained in my section on cultural norms, appearance is everything in Taiwan, and truth is often hidden or disguised. Things can’t always be taken for their face value, although that is how they are judged. When someone tells me my Chinese is fantastic, I know there is no real meaning in the compliment; it’s more of a conditioned – or perhaps instinctive – response… not a lie, not an act of deception, simply an extension of who that person is and who he will always be. But when someone tells me that he’s sincerely happy to have met me and to have been able to welcome me to his country, I very well might believe that these words really do carry weight. How can I tell the difference? Truthfully, I suppose I can’t, but herein lies the paradox. Taiwanese culture is the product of both self-serving, artificial hogwash and the most sincere and genuine exhibition of kindness I’ve ever seen. Hospitality in Taiwan is literally unparalleled in today’s world, and foreigners are treated day after day after day as VIP guests who are more important than the Taiwanese themselves. So I ask myself: how can a country which places so much emphasis on meaningless, artificial social norms remain simultaneously so committed to genuineness? To this I must confess that I still have no answer. I go on watching, listening, interacting… and nearly everyday I ponder my paradox as I find myself immersed in the fascinating and idiosyncratic culture of the wonderful people we call the Taiwanese.

“Food, Oh Glorious Food”

Oh. My. Goodness. If you like to eat…If you like to eat Asian food: Come… to… Taiwan. This place has the most ridiculous assortment of Asian food to be found anywhere on the planet. Chinese, Taiwanese, Thai, Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese, Philippine… Hotpot, dim sum, shabu-shabu, teppanyaki, teriyaki, noodes, rice, soup… The list goes on and on. And the best part? You can eat 3 incredibly filling, practically-gourmet meals a day for well under $10. Oh, you’re still hungry? Want another huge plate of rice with a half-chicken and a heaping of vegetables? That’s going to cost you a whopping $1.50. The food here is outrageously cheap and outrageously delicious.

Aside from the standard Asian cuisine I mentioned above, there are several local specialties. Biandang is a lunchbox of sorts that is the perfect to-go meal. It usually cost about $1.25-$2.00 and is enough to fill even me. Inside is a healthy and delicious rice- or noodle-based dish with meat, vegetables, and probably some tofu. People laugh at me about it, but I’m not ashamed to admit that I eat biandang almost everyday. Then, there’s shuijiao. Oh, shuijiao… I fell in love with these little pork dumpling creations last year and eat them all the time here in Taiwan. I will never forget the day I found the shuijiao place near my apartment. I walked through the streets afterwards like I was drunk or in love, simply unable to stop smiling. I truly am in love with these things. I eat 20-30 at a time (completely gorging myself) on a pretty regular basis (yes, I have been known to eat them for 4 or 5 straight nights). Lastly, there are the fruit smoothies which I mentioned earlier. Tell me where else in the world you can buy a fresh-fruit juice or smoothie (I’m talking mango, papaya, guava, banana, watermelon, cantaloupe, anything!) for under a dollar on almost any street corner? I’m completely obsessed with these drinks; life just wouldn’t be the same without my daily post-lunch trip to visit my favorite “smoothie-girl” downtown and then my dinnertime trip to the nearest smoothie stand here in Danshui (which I’m pretty sure I single-handedly keep in business). There’s also the renowned dragon-fruit smoothie – which I tried for the first time here in Taiwan – made from a bizarre fruit that has spines sticking out it in every direction; the resulting drink is an iridescent purple and simply divine.

Taiwan has it all – from tasty breakfast shops serving pork and egg hamburgers and xiaolongbao (basically shuijiao with soup inside…yea, I eat these on regular basis, too) to night markets with everything imaginable…from upscale, fine dining establishments to quaint little family-run chaofandian’s. Chicken, pork, duck, seafood, beef, lamb. Every vegetable you can think of. Fresh fruit galore. Real Asian rice (which I will miss more than anything when I leave this place). Soup with every meal (a relic of the Japanese Occupation period). Ah, life is good, isn’t it?


- First earthquake. Having been studying Chinese intensely for several hours, I was already feeling a bit nauseous. Suddenly, the world started spinning before my eyes, and I felt a strange sense of disorientation. Being on the seventh floor, I even felt as if my building were blowing in the wind or something. Then it hit me: an earthquake. Taiwan has earthquakes almost every week. Sure enough, I checked online, and that’s what it was. A really fascinating experience actually – I could feel the energy pulsing around me in a very similar way that I can feel the increased energy in the ocean when a long-period swell is just off-shore and about to arrive.
- First time eating duck and pig blood. Yea, an interesting delicacy. The blood clots together so it looks a lot like tofu, but when you eat it, you can tell it’s something else. I give it a 5 out of 10.
- First time making a left hand turn on a motorcycle. So, one thing I didn’t mention in my “Road Rage” section is that Taiwan has special rules for making left-hand turns on motorcycles. You can’t just turn through the intersection like all the cars do. Instead, you have to go straight and then circle around and get in line with the motorcycles at the light on the intersecting street. There’s a box painted on the street where you wait for the light to change, and then you proceed straight across the intersection. Anyway, no one told me this at first, and I simply couldn’t figure out how to make a left hand turn. I was terrified of getting into an accident, so, each day before I headed out, I would plot my entire route (particularly if I were planning to run errands and make several stops). This route always moved in a clockwise direction around the city so that I would make nothing but right hand turns. Fortunately, I eventually figured out how to turn left and now save myself a good bit of time.
- First VIP tickets to a major concert. That’s right, Wu Bai and China Blue had an exclusive, private show to debut their latest album, and my surf buddy Dino hooked me and the rest of the Baishawan Crew up with free VIP tickets. We hung out on a special balcony reserved for the media, and, afterwards, Dino came up to chill with us. The crowd was going crazy taking pictures and shouting “Dino, Dino!” so I just stood there on the balcony wearing my Wu Bai t-shirt and acting cool, pretending I was a part of the band or something. I’m in every single one of those pictures that were taken. The crew and I concluded a very late night after the concert by having dinner with the whole band, including Wu Bai (yea, you know you’re jealous).
- First time seeing my Chinese TA’s in a really long time. Yep, I’ve gotten to spend a little time with the TA’s from both my first and second years of studying Chinese in America, and it was great to catch up on life. It was especially rewarding because I was able to converse with them entirely in Chinese, which is how it should be, I think, considering the fact that I’m now in their home country.
- First kiss – Haha, yea right.


- This was an extremely (and I put the extreme in extremely, don’t I) long post…I hope you enjoyed it.
- This really is the last thing I’m going to write.
- There will be at least one more post about Taiwan plus some sort of conclusion to my epic.
- Stay tuned for a special surprise. It’s not a post but something else –something completely different that I think you’ll really enjoy. I’m not sure when I’ll be finished with it, but check in every once and while, and I’ll update the blog with an announcement and a link when my surprise is ready. Until then, I leave you with my best wishes from the Far East – Golden Dragon, signing out.