Thursday, May 28, 2009

"Highest Noon" Festival (aka Dragon Boat Festival)

According to the Lunar calendar, today is the 5th day of the 5th month. And the 5th day of the 5th lunar month is the day when the sun is at its highest and the heat starts to become oppressive. On this day, many people in this part of the world prepare sacrifices to protect themselves against the spirits that allegedly thrive at this time of year.* And on this day, there are lively races in many places around the world where you find Chinese people.

The festival officially started about two weeks ago, when the dragons where "woken up" by having their eyes dotted. And teams (most local teams, but some are international) will have been practicing for a while now. Especially the ones who are serious about winning, not only for the money, but also for the bragging rights.

The team from the Philippines have been competing since 1995 and are one of the favorites. You can see a marked difference between the teams that are serious about winning and those who compete for the fun of it. Look at that teamwork!

I headed down to my old neighborhood (Dazhi, where I lived & worked for almost eight years) and joined a small army of photographers on the bridge, from where we had a bird's eye view of the races. (I'd've loved to get close to the boats to take more photos, but by the time I got to the races, that area was off limits to the public.)

From the bridge, I could see most of the 500-meter stretch of the race. I have no idea how many times each team had to race, but it looked insane! They'd race, then paddle back to the starting line and race again without resting. I'm sure there are many aching bodies tonight... And the races continue this weekend!

The three boats in the center are racing. The two on the left are returning to the starting line. In the background, you can see one of Taipei's landmarks, the Grand Hotel. I'll never forget: The very first day I worked in this area, the top floor of the Grand Hotel burned down!

Backing up into the starting spot. In the background, you can see another one of the city's landmarks: Taipei 101. At 509.2 meters (1,670.2 feet) tall, this is currently still the tallest occupied building in the world. A building in Dubai has surpassed it in height, but it's not yet occupied... The 101 also has the world's fastest elevator. It ascends at almost 17 meters per second, or more than 55 feet per second!

So what do boat races have to do with the start of the hottest time of the year?

The best-known legend concerning this day revolves around a poet named Qu Yuan who lived in China in 340-278 BC. When Qu's talents became the target of slander. So he committed suicide on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month by weighing down his clothes with stones and jumping into a river.

Legend has it that local fishermen raced to help him (hence the boat races today) and threw rice in the river to prevent fish from eating him... Hence, another tradition for this day is to eat zong-zi, sort-of like rice tamales.

We had zong-zi as part of our dinner tonight. Vivian and Keith (whom I live with) had spent the afternoon at Keith's mom's place. Chen mama cooked the rice filling, and Vivian (who is Filipino Chinese) learned from her mother-in-law how to fold, fill and tie the zong-zi.

Inside the glutinous rice stuffing, Chen mama had put chestnuts, mushrooms and pork. You can get all kinds of different zong-zi stuffing. Some are just glutinous rice.

Though the actual races focus on teamwork and competition, there still is a strong spiritual connection with the races, from the dotting of the eyes to teams offering ghost money to the spirits. In fact, some of today's boats had wads of ghost money stuffed in the dragons' mouths. One tradition is for competitors to toss the money into the water before a race, feeding the money to the dragon (and probably burning it after the races for the spirits) would be a different option. There are also specific ceremonies along the shore facilitated by Buddhist and Taoist monks to invoke blessings on the events.

Notice the ghost money hanging out from the dragon's mouth

I continue to be amazed at the intricacies of the Chinese culture. So many of the day-to-day cultural activities go back centuries, and hence helping someone understand the dark side of many of these practices is very difficult.

I wonder how many of our Western cultural practices have very dark roots...

*According to my book, the "five noxious creatures," (the scorpion, centipede, snake, lizard and toad) arrives during the summer and bring with them unseen evil spirits. At this time of year, many people will hand sprigs of calamus and mugwort on their door to protect them against these spirits. I've seen many children specifically wearing protective talismans during this time.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Because I Want to Know

Yesterday was Matsu's birthday, I was told today after asking my Chinese colleagues about the craziness around our neighborhood.

Eight Generals 6, originally uploaded by Boyznberry.

(Click on this photo to see more photos from Matsu's birthday parade.)

Rather than rely on bits and pieces of information I had heard before from Christian colleagues from before, I've decided to ask my Buddhist and Taoist colleagues whenever I have questions. Not that I might always get an accurate answer, I know. Even if you'd ask a handful of Christians about certain practices or beliefs, you might get contradicting answers.

Hence, I ask questions, and I refer to this book I bought called, Private Prayers and Public Parades: Exploring the Religious Life of Taipei, which has been very insightful, to say the least.

I ask, because I want to understand.

And I ask because, in the last three years, I've learned to ask far more questions and listening more.

Not that I don't desperately want to engage in further conversation with some of these friends! Out of respect for the people, and out of a desire to know first what they believe, I will listen.

And so yesterday, I was sitting in an office at school, working on a project for one of the departments. A dozen or so Chinese colleagues sat down for lunch at the table where I was working. During a lull in their conversation, I politely said, "Xing wen..."

In other words, "May I ask..."

And were they keen to tell me all about the day.

"It's Matsu's birthday," the seemingly-most-knowlegable and possibly-most-devout among them explained. She explained that the parade was to honor Matsu, and to pray for the neighborhood.

The ladies continued to talk among themselves about some of the recent events in Taiwan regarding honoring gods. I listened on, trying hard not to let my face show how utterly bizarre I think the practices are. For example, due to the H1N1 epidemic, worshipers at one temple in Taiwan dressed their gods with face masks.

"So, if you don't want H1N1, do you go to pray at that temple?" I asked.

The explained that that was not the case. "We are just protecting our god," one colleague explained proudly.

My eyes must've given away that I thought it's pretty sad when humans have to protect their gods against viruses. "Actually," she said, "our gods protect us, so we also show them respect by protecting them. It's the same as when we take them food."

"So who exactly is Matsu," I asked another colleague later in the afternoon, when the crowd had left and she came to sit down for lunch. I had been told earlier that she was one of the most knowledgable persons about Taoism.

My colleague proceeded to tell me about Lin Mo, a girl who lived long, long ago in China. She was a very good girl, and she didn't get married. One day, her father, a fisherman, drowned, and she tried to help him. "After that, the god said she should be a god."

"Which god?" I asked inquisitively.

"A fortune teller."

"So when did she change from Lin Mo to Matsu?"

"When she became a god. Later, her sisters also became gods. Everyone can pray to them, but fishermen really pray to Matsu and her sisters. In fact, it is said that when the waters are rough and your boat is in danger of capsizing, if you see the ghost of Matsu, you have peace that everything will be fine."


Matsu herself wasn't carried down our streets yesterday, though. Those were other gods, smaller gods. All came out to celebrate Matsu's birthday, because she is considered the queen of heaven.


From my book on Taiwan's religious practices, I also learned that Lin Mo was born around 960. Either way, she died at age 28. The book explains that the incident of saving her father (or it could've been her brothers) didn't really occur, but that it happened during a dream or a trance. Her ghost is said to have saved a high-ranking official in 1122, and hence she was promoted to Queen of Heaven. However, this promotion may have been a political move during the Yuan dynasty to win the allegiance of the coastal peoples. Within the temples that have her statue, she is usually flanked by two demons called "Ears that Hear the Wind" and "Thousand-Mile Eyes," both who were hapless suitors...

What I do not understand yet is how the people here have such a fascination with a religion that has openly-evil components.

Matsu's suitors, for example, are flat-out called demons. And they're in the temples.

And when you look at the photos, the "Eight Generals" in particular are downright scary! As are many of the other rituals which I'm sure I'll get to share about as time goes by.

Last month in China, I gained some invaluable insights on why/when the Chinese switched from a nation called "God's country" to referring to themselves as "Descendants of the Dragon." I'll share more upon completion of my China paper, but for now, the connection with the events surrounding Matsu's birthday is the following. I'll quote it directly from C.K. Thong's excellent text on Chinese history, Faith of Our Fathers: God in Ancient China (p. 267):

"Satan's tactic, ever since his rebellion, has been to try to get to every human being to do his will instead of God's. He is an adversary of the person and the purposes of God and seeks to usurp God's position. His schemes are wonderfully planned and executed; he does not work haphazardly. His ways are subtle. To deceive mankind, he often appears attractive. His aim, however, is to hold us captive to sin and to destroy us. ... The central characteristic of his modus operandi is fear, not love. He uses counterfeits, such as lust instead of love. While God draws people to Himself with His unfailing love, Satan uses deception coupled with fear to gain control over mankind."

I worship this God who sent His Son Jesus to redeem us from the consequences of sin.

I worship Jesus who came to earth as a human, yet was sinless, performed miracles, died on the cross, and conquered death by raising from the dead.*

I worship him for his love and for the hope I find in him. Not out of fear or superstition of what may happen if I don't please him. Nor because of religious bondage. I worship him out of love, because he loved us first.

My desire is to continue sharing this hope, freedom, love, forgiveness and meaning we can find in Christ with my neighbors.

But for now, I'll listen and learn. So that I'll know what my friends believe when I do engage in conversations with them.

* Interestingly, a "major solar and lunar eclipse" was recorded by Chinese imperial astronomers in A.D. 31, the year of the death of Jesus. They also recorded a strange halo in the sky three days later. Fascinating, isn't it??

Friday, May 15, 2009


Last weekend, I was listening to a Mosaic podcast (while lying in a hammock by the beach, having just scuba dived). I had just read a chapter of one of my text books and rewarded myself for doing so by listening to the aforementioned podcast.

In a lesson from a series on the beatitudes, Erwin McManus says, "Joy is not something you find when the circumstances change. It's something that changes the circumstances."

In the past 6 months, I've especially found this to be true. During my time of transition to a completely new world, I could find plenty to grumble about. But that won't change a thing. I'd just be unpleasant to be around.

Hence, I've chosen joy. And bit by bit, I've seen how God's used that to open my eyes to the blessings around me. And more and more, good things happen. Like the jobs I have, and the place I now live. And opportunities that come by that I embrace with both arms wide open. Such as the unexpected diving trip, to name but one of many fun opportunities I have chosen to embrace.

I was skimming some of my friends' blogs this evening, and I've noticed that just like me, my friends choose to look at challenges from a different perspective.

It's worth reading Marcia's experience trying to cook a meal the other night, or Jen's challenges in adjusting to a new life in Bukavu, Congo.

It's all a matter of perspective.

Michael J. Fox says it's a matter of looking up.

I agree.

I choose to look Up to the One who came to give us life in abundance.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Catching Up: China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan

For reasons far beyond my control (i.e. world politics) I couldn't write a whole lot of in depth insights from China. And so, I sort-of lost touch for a little while.

After two weeks packed with lectures, visits to historical and contemporary places of interest, my friends and I parted ways. I was off to the next thing: meetings in Shenzhen, which is in the south of China.

However, I had only been given a 2-week visa, which meant that on the Friday that our trip ended, I had to hop on a plane to Shenzhen and from there on a bus to Hong Kong. I tried my best to get the visa extension over the weekend, but alas, I have a passport that limits my travels quite a bit. Hence, on Saturday afternoon, I hopped on the ferry to Macau. (Taking ferry to Macau and staying with acquaintances is far cheeper than staying in Hong Kong. Plus, in all the years I had lived in Southeast Asia, I had never made it to Macau.)

And so, on Saturday afternoon, I met up with Jana Hoobler, someone who also has strong ties to Cedar Rapids. And thus I saw a bit of Macau through Jana and her friends' eyes on Saturday and Sunday.

An interesting place, that is. Macau used to be a Portuguese colony, so signs are in Portuguese and Chinese. But a few years ago, they reverted back to Chinese rule, as did Hong Kong. So technically, Hong Kong, Macau and China are all one country. But since the former two are called "Special Administrative Regions," they are self-governing, and I have different passport stamps for all three places. (China considers Taiwan to be a similar region, but that's a whole nother can of worms which I won't address.)

After two nights in Macau (and more than two of their famous egg tarts), I hopped on a ferry back to Hong Kong on Monday morning, handed in my visa application, and headed to Sai Kung, a fishing village in the northern suburbs of Hong Kong. There, I spent the night at Sue and Dave Eitemiller's place. I know them from my previous years in Taiwan.

Tuesday morning, back to Wan Chai (on Hong Kong island). Picked up my passport. Hopped on a bus to Shenzhen, China. By late Tuesday afternoon, I was back in China, and started learning all about what was to be a new part of my life--a writing job in the world of baby goods manufacturing.

I spent a week writing press releases about diaper bags and pop-up cots (or pack 'n plays, as Americans call them). I learned a lot. And after a week, I came to the conclusion that if I'm going to be a writer, I'd far rather write about things that I am passionate about, such as travel, or leadership topics. Not diaper bags. I thanked my friends in the baby-goods business for the offer to let me join their world, and moved on, understanding a bit more about the way forward, and a lot more about the manufacturing industry!

Hence I am now marketing myself as a freelance writer/photographer. And a teacher, of course. Since being back in Taiwan, I've been subbing a lot at the school. For two days, I was a swimming couch. Today, I'm a Kindergarten teacher. Later this week, I'll be teaching first grade for two days.

What a love most about this job at the school is the fact that I'm gaining invaluable insights in a WIDE variety of challenges teachers face at different levels. I'm also getting fun face-time with kids, and learning a lot from them, too.

As for my studies, it's going very well. Three classes are done. I'm currently working on my paper for my fourth class. After this, I have three more really intense classes, and then I'll be on to my dissertation. If I can remain focused, I might be able to graduate by next summer... But a lot has to happen before then!

By the way, I've moved. I was offered an opportunity to rent a room from people whom I've known for years. The apartment is right against Yangminshan, (a lush, green mountain), though I can also see the sprawling city of Taipei from my window. I cycle to school every day, which is a good workout, though it's not terribly far.

Since school will be closed for the summer, and since I do not have to be here for any other jobs, I'll be going to the US for June and July.

I'll offer a one-day workshop on "Joy at Work" at House of Hope at the end of July, so if you're in Cedar Rapids area, keep your eyes open for announcements regarding the workshop.

It's time to head home. The kids are back from Chinese class, and I get to walk them to the lobby.

Tomorrow, who knows, I might be teaching high school!