Tuesday, December 30, 2003

To the west and north of my property are bamboo groves. The old path up the mountain goes west beyond the bamboo, within earshot, but out of sight from my house. A couple of years ago, the town hall shored up the path with old railroad ties for the convenience and safety of hikers, but very few people ever use that trail. From time to time, a work crew is dispatched to keep the trail free from undergrowth.

Early this afternoon, I heard someone calling me. I went out to be greeted by the work crew, about eight Tayal. “Yugan, today we are clearing the path. Will your dogs bite us?”

“No, but they will lick you.”

I left them to their work. A few hours later, Batu came by and called. “Yugan! We are taking a break. Come chat with us. Bring your dogs to play with us.”

I went out and sat on the trail chatting with them. Batu circled around, and discovered my poor Giant Bamboo. I have two stands of Giant Bamboo, which, true to their name, grow tall and thick, even though our climate is much cooler than their native Malaysia. Unfortunately, they do not have strong roots, and both stands got knocked flat by Typhoon Dujuan late in the summer. I suppose now I should call them lies of bamboo, not stands.

I had sawed the fallen bamboo into sections and left it there to dry as I figure out if there is any use I could find for it. Batu beat me to it. He came to us with a six foot section over his shoulder, singing and beating out a rhythm with a stick. Everybody joined in, singing and clapping.

Batu lay the bamboo across the path. Hayung chopped off a tree branch to prop up one end of the bamboo, which is about as thick as my thigh. The other end was wedged into the side of the path. Batu and Lmuy started beating rhythms with bamboo sticks, but Batu's sticks were rotten and broke. I picked a soki and chopped two drum sticks from a qesu tree, and gave them to Batu. I sat down and steadied the free end of the bamboo drum. The hollow bamboo sticks played soprano to the tenor qesu sticks, and I provided bass by beating the bamboo with my palms. Work was forgotten. Pretty soon Batu handed his sticks to Hayung and started dancing. His dancing was so burlesque that everybody dissolved into laughter. Sayun joined him. They pretended to be a pair of lovers, hamming it up as we laughed. Somebody shouted, “Belly dance!” We all took up the shout, so Batu started performing a belly dance (This is the first time I have seen two belly dances within one week. Friday on Third Street in Santa Monica, a black lady in a gold costume performed a belly dance to the rhythm of her finger cymbals. Today, Batu. An interesting contrast.) As he danced, he held up his tee shirt, but after half a dozen grinds, Lmuy pulled his shirt up over his head. Batu almost danced off the path, but was pulled back in time. Then Lmuy and Batu performed a waltz: another first for me: the first time I have ever seen anybody waltzing in a bamboo grove. That didn't last long, because Lmuy complained Batu's footwork was off, so she reached down to pull his leg into the right position. That was too much for me: “Are you dancing or wrestling?”

After a few more numbers, everybody decided that it was time to quit work for the day. “Yugan! We have done our work for today, and we are happy. We will come back tomorrow. Will you come play the bamboo drum with us again tomorrow?”

Of course!

Saturday, December 20, 2003

words of wisdom

"I've broken 22 bones. That's something you don't get used to. It hurts."

-Bubba, professional motorcycle jumper

Thursday, December 18, 2003

What miracles we take for granted!

December 18, I set out in a Singapore Airlines 747 on an utterly routine (I hope) flight across the great Pacific Ocean to LA. Almost exactly one hundred years earlier (consider the time difference between Taipei time and Eastern Standard), the Wright Brothers launched their plane off the surface of the earth to make the first powered flight. Their momentous little hop would not have taken them from the fuselage to the wingtip of a 747!

How far we have come in a short one hundred years!

Now, if only morals advanced as quickly.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

How to Get to My Place
I have discovered that I have an excellent line of defense.

People trying to find my place asking at the last house on Huanshan Road before the turnoff to the sideroad leading to my track are apt to encounter Laowa. First, let me state that although she is fluent in Tayal, she is actually an Amis, our only long-term resident Amis, I believe. I forget how she ended up in Wulai, but she is almost always there in her little roadside house to befuddle the passerby with her impenetrable directions.

“Oh, you're looking for the American? You mean Yugan? I've never heard of him. Does he live around here? I don't know. Well, there is a house up there somewhere, but I'm not sure. You're trying to find the American, right? No, I don't know him, I'm not sure where he lives. The one with dogs, right? His name is Yugan, right? No, I've never heard of him. He lives uphill somewhere. You might try the next turnoff, but he doesn't live there. Well, I don't know. He has beautiful dogs. Now he has three of them. The little puppy is named Yumin. My son Bilao loves dogs, but we're right by the road, so it's dangerous for dogs. Look at Tunux next door. She was a beautiful, intelligent little dog, so some sightseer from the city stole her! Isn't that terrible! Stealing a dog from someone! And taking a mountain dog to the city is especially cruel. How can they live in an apartment? Look at Yugan's dogs, they couldn't live in the city, they are mountain dogs. Who? Yugan? An American? Never heard of him. Does he live around here? Really? An American lives around here? Where? You don't know? I don't know, either. Maybe uphill somewhere. I hear there's an American living around here. I don't know him. He teaches English, yes, that's the one. I asked him to teach my son Bilao, but he said, Not yet, Laowa, wait till he's bigger, I don't teach kids, they're uyuq yungay, that means baby monkeys in Tayal, Yugan can speak Tayal. Yes, he's American. Yes, the English teacher. You mean Yugan? An English teacher? Yugan? An American? Never heard of him. You mean the one with dogs? Yes, of course, his place is not by the road, so it's a good place to raise dogs. Every time he comes down with his dogs, he has to tie Yumin on a leash. Yumin is a beagle, he's a puppy, so he doesn't understand cars. My son Bilao loves dogs. Every time he sees Yugan with his dogs, He says, Mama, I want a dog like Yugan's. But I tell him, Bilao, we live too close to the road, these sightseers from the city drive like maniacs. Yugan? Oh yes. Yugan lives near here, but it's very far away. I don't know where his house is. Up near the spring. Which spring? Why, the spring Yutas gets his water from, that spring. He pipes it down from there. So do Meilu and Banzi and Mulang too. No, Mulang lives downhill, and Yugan lives uphill. Not this road, the next one, but it doesn't go there….”

Laowa can go on like that ad infinitum, but after a few minutes, strong men break into tears. All but the hardiest, the most determined, are ready to flee the mountains.

Yeah, so sure, come on up for a visit some day. If you can't find my place, just ask anybody. Especially Laowa.

Monday, December 15, 2003

UPS and downs
Sending parcels by UPS (United Parcel Service) is expensive, but it's worth it for the comic value alone.

Recently I ordered some merchandise, which the company suggested sending by UPS. I have not been happy with UPS service, but I acquiesced. The package was sent December 3. By December 11, I had not received it, so I sent the company an e-letter. They responded immediately with a tracking number, reporting that the UPS website listed that the package had reached Taipei at 1100 December 8. I checked the website and found the same information, so I phoned the UPS office. The lady who answered the phone said there was absolutely no information concerning that tracking number. I assured her I found the number on the UPS website. She did not believe me, and asked me to fax the email with the tracking number. After trying for 15 minutes without success to get through the UPS fax number, I gave up and phoned again. The second lady I got managed to find my number. It turns out that, in my ignorance, I was pronouncing the letter “R” in the tracking number like “are.” The second young lady kindly informed me that that letter should be pronounced “ah,” rising tone. Forgiving me for my ignorance, she said, “Oh, we mailed you your package through the post office.”

I eventually got someone in charge of deliveries. They said that on the 8th, they phoned, but were unable to deal with my answering machine, so they mailed me the package instead of leaving a message. I asked why they didn't phone again, or even attempt to deliver, and they said it was ‘not convenient.’

So now we know that the Post Office service is so much better than UPS, even UPS prefers to send packages that way.

I finally received the package from the postman on the 12th of December, nine days after it left North Carolina, about four days after it would have arrived if it had been sent by regular old air mail.

This morning I got a phone call from UPS, follow-through. When I answered the phone, I heard a young lady say, “Hello-Mr-Tao?-how-are-you-this-is-UPS-last-week-you-had-a-package-you-have-received-it-already-right-so-there-is-no-problem-ok-thank-you-goodbye” *click* lickety-split, all in one breath: “你是陶先生是不是你好這是UPS你上禮拜有個包裹已經收到了吧對不對沒有問題好了謝謝拜拜” From the time I picked up the phone until she slammed down her receiver was at most eight seconds.

Who says UPS isn't efficient?

Sunday, December 14, 2003











“你不知道當司機的苦衷。 車子一定要有油。 每一次加油,加油站就要贈送衛生紙,可是他們從來也不想,人的食慾有限,怎麼用得完這麼多衛生紙?

“只好叫孩子多吃一點,你懂這個利害關係嗎? 偏偏女兒只想她的身材,怕發胖,顧不得做爸爸的困窘,就是拒絕吃那麼多。”


他繼續一盒一盒地在我手上堆。“有甚麼辦法? 只好偷偷給兒子下瀉藥。夏天冷氣開到最大,天氣冷開窗、沒收全家的棉被、外套,目的是要大家流鼻水。 浴室、廚房的毛巾、摸布都丟掉了,叫家人用衛生紙代替,沙發也丟了,放一堆衛生紙,千方百計,可是衛生紙還是有增無減。

“我前幾天打電話給我大甲的表舅,請他吃飯,他居然開口第一句話問我,’你是不是又有衛生紙,要找人幫你用?’ 我自己的表舅跟我講這種話! … 他怎麼知道?”

老鄭熱淚盈眶。“我老闆有多姦詐,你知道嗎? 每一次叫我把他的轎車開去加油,自己怎麼樣不靠近加油站,然後假裝很慷慨,說,‘有贈品你自己留著用。’ 如果喝礦泉水能拉肚子那還好…我該怎麼辦?


“謝了,我家裡喝的就是礦泉水,不用瓶子裝的。”蹐蹐後退,想趁早逃脫,可是講到『水』給了我一個靈感。 “老鄭,你不是有親戚住清水嗎?”

“我太太娘家的。 我不想把關係搞壞。”

“我教你。 你跟他們講,臺大醫院研究出一個秘方,整個房子地板用衛生紙鋪滿,可以預防SARS,可是因為他們怕衛生紙價飆長,所以現在還是保密…”

老鄭眉顏間的愁雲終於放晴了。 他一語不發,跳上車,笑哈哈地開走。 看樣子,他是往清水開的。


Saturday, December 13, 2003

A great shame. I recently saw a wonderful article on the web, and now I can't find it.

It seems that a bus driver in Nigeria had a contract to pick up a load of mental patients and transport them from one hospital to another. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on where you're sitting), when the driver stopped at a gas station to fill up the tank, his passengers departed en masse. To get paid, the driver had to deliver a full load of passengers. Quick thinking: he drove up to a crowded bus stop, got a bus load of passengers, and delivered them to the mental hospital, unobtrusively warning the orderlies that the whole lot of them were delirious liars. Took three days to clear things up.

Last time I took his bus, I told this story to my friend Eban, the bus driver. He sort of smiled, and got a dreamy look in his eyes.

Thursday, December 11, 2003


有一個人在臺灣鄉村遊玩、一對阿公阿媽請他喝茶、遊客發現他們用了幾十年的老茶壺被他們養的茶質滲透、瓦磚老壺竟然日積月累變成了絕倫的妙壺、於是乎出高價求他們割愛、但是因為身上帶的錢不夠、說過兩天再送錢來、結果過兩天送錢來時、 阿公阿媽說、那個茶壺那麼髒、歹勢給你帶回台北給人看、所以我們把它刷乾淨了、那個人一看、絕倫妙壺一刷又變回瓦磚老壺、一文不值、於是乎揮淚、空手回都市、

怎麼樣? 你也聽過很多遍吧。 我記得第一次聽,下鄉的是一個台北年輕人,後來變成高雄的巨富、中央研究院的學者、日本茶道大師、新加坡的政壇要員、外國人… 聽了二十幾年,只有 James Bond 與外星人還沒來買壺。

那一對阿公阿媽的茶壺可真多! 仁人君子若有空,勞駕一下,去跟他們講,不要再刷了!! 學不乖! 就讓那個台北年輕人、高雄巨富、中央研究院學者、日本茶道大師、新加坡政壇要員、外國人開開心心地買回去,讓這個故事就此結束!

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

呂氏春秋 慎大:

Monday, December 08, 2003

There was once in China Duke Yi of Wei. He loved his cranes. When he wasn't engaged in the serious work of drinking and womanizing, Duke Yi spent all his time tending to his beloved cranes, watching them fly, listening to their calls.

In the 9th year of his reign, 660 BC, the 翟Di barbarians came out of the north and attacked Wei. Duke Yi called out the army. The army declined to stir, saying, “Our duke loves cranes. Please order your cranes to attack the barbarians.” The Di barbarians entered Wei and killed Duke Yi.

The moral of this story is, if you're going to go overboard on your pets, raise tigers.


Friday, December 05, 2003

Who Did the Top?

With the topping off of Taipei 101, Taipei now has the world's tallest office building. It's colossal. The effect is magnified by its solitude. This is not New York, with rows and rows of behemoths. Around it are rinky-dink twenty story buildings, and way off at the Train Station is what has become the second tallest building, at about fifty stories. The 101 rears up alone, a giant chopstick in the Taipei sky. You can see its top from back in the mountains.

Agogo was wondering, “How worked on the top half? Who's going to be hanging up there in the middle of the sky building that thing?

”Yugan, I used to do construction work, you know. In Taichung (central Taiwan), I worked on the outside of a 47 storey building. It was terrible! The wind was strong, and I was out alone on the scaffolding.

“Above the 30th floor, there were only aborigine construction workers. None of the Han Chinese dared to come up so high. Above the 30th floor, it was mostly Amis and Bunun, and some of us Tayal. Above the 40th floor, everybody was trembling.

“Yugan, it was frightening. They had iron scaffolding thrown together. The people who made the scaffolding must have been frightened, because they just did a quick job. There is the iron scaffolding, no outside wall, and to walk on, a board about as wide as my shoulders. That is all you had to stand on. You look down, oh, Yugan, you don't want to look down! I had on a safety belt, but I knew that if I fell, who would come rescue me? I knew I would just dangle there, over 40 stories up in the air, until somebody drummed up the courage to come rescue me ~ I would be frightened to death long before any rescuers came.”

“If it was so bad, why did you go up?”

“The day before, an Amis had been bolting the exterior on the top floor, the 47th floor. He bolted on three plates. Then he threw up his lunch and sat down and couldn't stand up again. They had to get another Amis to go out and carry him back.

“I figured, if the Amis are afraid, I will show them what a Tayal can do! There were nine more plates left to bolt. I took the elevator up all the way to the top. I got out and looked at that little board I had to walk on. I looked down. Oh! No, I would not look down. I kept my head up. I had my bolts in my pockets, big bolts the size of my fist.”

“You mean you were alone up there?”

“I was the only one on the top storey. Below me, men were working on the 46th floor. Tsiy was there, you know, Losin's brother-in-law? He was working on the 46th floor, but most of them were Amis and Bunun. Everybody was trembling. Nobody talked.”

“What would have happened if you dropped something?”

“It would have fallen. But my wrench was on a safety line.”

“In the morning, I bolted five plates. Usually I can bolt sixteen plates in a day, but you can't forget how high you are, so you work slowly. The wind is very strong. They may have a good view up that high, but I didn't want to see it!

“I had a quick lunch and went back to work. I wanted to get it over with. I was so frightened I couldn't work very fast, and I was getting tired very quickly.

“When I reached my last bolt, I was so tired I dropped my wrench. When I saw it fall, I was so scared I threw up. Then I sat down on that little board and rested a while. Finally, I pulled it back up to me and put on the last bolt. As soon as I finished that, I crawled back off the scaffolding as fast as I could. I crawled all the way into the elevator! Then when the elevator reached the ground, my legs gave out on me, and I sat down on the ground with my back against the wall. I didn't want to look up to see how high I had been.

“I went to the office and phoned the boss. I said, ‘Boss, this is Agogo, I quit,’ and hung up. He phoned back and said he would give me a reward. He asked me how many plates I bolted, and I said, ‘Nine, I finished the work on the exterior of the 47th floor, and I quit!’ He said he would give me extra pay, but asked me to stay on the job. ‘Work on the third floor, how about that, Agogo?’ ‘Third floor?’ I said. ‘I can do the third floor. But from now on, I am not going higher than the tenth floor!’”

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

No Willpower Whatsoever

Walking past the Tribe on my way to the bus, I heard shrieks and shouts behind me, and turned around just as Ciana was leaping up on me. I have mentioned she is my favorite little kid in the Tribe, have known her since she was a babe in arms, about nine or ten now. She and two other little girls were playing badminton when they saw me go by, and came after me.

“Why aren't you in school?”

“Wednesday afternoon we're off.”

“That's right, today's Wednesday. That's good, I was about to go take you to the principal and have you thrashed for cutting school.”

“You'd never do that, Yugan. Are you going to teach?”

“Yes, I have to go catch my bus”

”Oh, please, play badminton with us first.”

”No can do, I have to go catch my bus.”

”PLEASE, Yugan!” Then they all three looked up at me hopefully with their big eyes. You think Chinese kids are cute, you should see Aborigine kids.

So that's why I spent five minutes leaping about by the side of the road playing badminton with three little girls. I figured, there's another bus twenty minutes later, and it's not the end of the world if I miss this one. You have to have some priorities in life. And say, one of these little girls, Ciana's cousin, is good! She doesn't know how to serve, but she sure can give you your money's worth on a return! This with a drabbled shuttlecock and a racquet that doesn't have a flat face.

(actually, that may be the reason they were so eager for me to play with them. None of them knows how to serve. They'd throw the shuttlecock to me and ask me to serve.)

But then all three of them had had a turn, so they graciously let me go. I hurried, and caught my bus anyway.

Saturday, November 29, 2003

Some of my posts are in Chinese, which some of you poor 洋鬼 out there can't read. It's very easy, actually. You have to remember that Chinese characters are built up from pictographs, so the trick is, look at them real fast, and if you look fast enough, it's like watching a movie.

Friday, November 28, 2003

烏來是山地鄉,但也有平地人住在此。 如果想知道烏來居民是泰雅族人或者漢人,不看五官、不聽鄉音,如何分辨?

談到飛鼠。 如果他馬上說,”我們今晚去打!” 是泰雅。如果說,”肉很硬,不好吃,” 是唐漢。


跟他約明天下午兩點。 如果他三點之前到,是唐漢。如果忘到九霄雲外,跟朋友上山去了,是泰雅。




問他聖誕節怎麼過。 如果反應熱絡,是泰雅。 反之,是唐漢。

問他過年怎麼過。 如果反應熱絡,是唐漢。 反之,是泰雅。


跟他提到部落的某一個人(隨便哪一個)。 如果他說,"他是我親戚! 他表嫂的妹婿娶了我小叔的老婆的姐姐," 是泰雅。如果他說,"他是酒鬼," 是唐漢。

中元普渡拿著香、很虔誠在溪邊拜溺斃幽靈,是唐漢。中元普渡照常在溪裡游泳, 是泰雅。

談到颱風。 如果他說,"上一個颱風很棒,我家正在風口,一個晚上沒睡,因為要看著風呀雨的,很好看!"是泰雅。如果說,"風那麼大,很討厭,只好在家裡睡大頭覺," 是唐漢。


隨便拔一個葉子,問他,這是甚麼? 如果他詳細說這種植物生長在甚麼環境、有哪些特性、哪些作用,是泰雅。 如果他只教你怎麼吃,是唐漢。

跟他說英語。 如果他勉強跟你湊幾句,甚或用流俐的英語交談,是泰雅。如果他羞澀地表示不敢講,,是唐漢。(這條限外國人使用。)

跟他談起狗。 如果興致勃勃,是泰雅。如果興趣淡淡,是唐漢。

如果說閩南人不講信用,是泰雅。 如果說番仔不講信用,是唐漢。

說你想吃山豬肉。 如果他說,"那是保育類,不能吃‧…不過你真的想吃的話,我知道哪邊有,我們去抓," 是泰雅。 如果馬上開個價錢,一斤多少,是唐漢。





稱讚烏來的風景。 如果他抬頭挺胸,一直誇烏來山水之美,是泰雅。 如果用一種很疑惑的眼神看你,完全不知道你在講甚麼,是唐漢。



跟他談起烏來的溫泉業者。 如果破口大罵,是泰雅。如果只有抱怨,是唐漢。


問他煮麻油雞時水與酒的比例。如果他詳談他祖傳的配方,是唐漢。如果他很困惑的問,"麻油雞要加水嗎?" 是泰雅。
The Plain English Campaign has awarded Defense Secretary Rumsfeld its Foot in Mouth Award for this masterpiece:

"Reports that say something hasn't happened are interesting to me, because as we know, there are known unknowns; there things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know."

John Lister, spokesman for the campaign which strives to have public information delivered in clear, straightforward English, said: "We think we know what he means. But we don't know if we really know."


Thursday, November 27, 2003

this is encouraging: I hear that some of the village kids are singing rap in Tayal. There's hope for the language yet.

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Assault on English

Jimmy Carter has written a novel. I will spare you some agony by not providing a link to the online excerpt. It is written by a man who has spent his life trying to understand government writing, bureaucratese, and Washingtonese. Every turgid sentence shows the scars of his struggles.

This dreadful prose is in print for one, and only one, reason: it is written by a President.

A terrifying thought has slammed into mind: will this inspire the Bushes to try their hands?

Actually, it would probably be pretty funny.

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

You think it's just barking, don't you? You hear dogs making a racket, and you think they're just barking. Well, let me tell you, there's more to it than that.

From years of living in the mountains, my ears have opened to the sounds of nature. Suddenly I find I can understand what the dogs are saying.

You might hear Yumin suddenly start yapping, then the dogs downhill chorus, arf arf arooo arf. It's not that simple, let me tell you.

What Yumin said to the evening winds is: “My feeder is trying to teach me how to shake. He says shake and I'm supposed to shake paws with him. Anybody have any opinions on that?”

The dogs downhill frantically advise him, “Yumin, don't do it! Look at him with your big puppy eyes and gnaw on his ankle or something, but don't do it! You get started down that road, there's no turning back! Don't do it, Yumin!”

Hobaq howls out in his mournful voice, "Beware! Beware!"

Hozing down at Yutas’ place tells the night, “I learned how to shake. How stupid I was! Then I had to learn how to lie down, and roll over.”

“You're lucky,” Luqa chimes in. “I knew a fellow once who learned how to sit down, lie down, and heel. Then you know what his feeder did? Made him jump through a hoop!”

“You're kidding!” Yumin replied.

All the dogs join in. “No, no, it's true. So don't do it, Yumin!”

Hobaq howls out in his mournful voice, "Beware! Beware!"

Tlahuy comments, “When I was a puppy, Feeder tried for eight months to teach Bengax and me how to shake. We sat and made big eyes and looked at him and wagged our tails, but no way we would shake paws! He finally learned his lesson, and gave up.”

Bengax said, “Remember the time he told me to shake and I lifted my paw like I was going to shake and scratched his knee instead!”

Tlahuy: “Oh, yeah, his expression was priceless. Achievement, immediately followed by disappointment.”

Bengax said, “You have to be firm, Yumin. Let them know who's in charge. Otherwise, who knows what you'll have to do!”

The Fus' ugly little Pomeranian started yapping from the living room. “At least you all are outside and free. How about me, stuck here indoors when they sing karaoke? Torture, pure torture. And if that isn't enough, they expect me to act happy when they put this little red vest on me in the winter. Oh, to be outside!”

“Ha, ha, ha,” the neighborhood dogs all laughed together. “You come outdoors? The first eagle would make a meal of you, ugly little wretch. If not the eagle, then the first snake!”

Some dog to the north changed the topic. “Say, Tlahux, did I see your feeder out digging the other day?”

“Yes,” Tlahuy replied, “He planted a vine so he'll have fresh vegetables to eat. Isn't he funny?”

”You haven't dug it up yet?”

“No, I thought I'd wait till some of you came over and we could all do it together, you know, put on the baby, make a party kind of ~~” That's when I rushed out and told them to quiet down.

So now you know what's going on when you hear the neighborhood dogs making a racket. They may be plotting death and destruction for your garden. And now you finally know why your dogs just can't learn simple tricks.

Who is training who?

Monday, November 24, 2003

While I was sitting on the subway last night, for some reason an old memory suddenly popped into mind.

Just a little incident that happened when I was 17 or 18. The Tri 9 driver and I had just finished delivering pizzas to Dong Tam, my favorite little fire base on the Mekong Delta. That was our last delivery for the day, so we were heading back to Saigon when we saw some action off the side of the road. It was early afternoon, hours and hours before dark, so we decided, naturally, to stop and watch for a bit.

The plain is crisscrossed by little streams and spattered with patches of jungle amongst the rice paddies. About a hundred meters from the road, we saw two light ARVN helicopters circling above one of those bits of jungle. High above them a HUI hovered, probably directing the action. From time to time somebody on the ground shot a burst at the closer helicopters. Sounded like a machine gun. Then the choppers would circle around, get in position, and whoosh! shoot rockets down into the jungle, then BOOM and clouds of dust, followed by silence. Shortly the machine gun would open fire again, and invite another rocket.

As we watched, an old farmer plodded by, barefoot, pant legs stuffed up into his crotch, carrying a hoe over his shoulder: pretty much your standard issue Mekong Delta peasant. We asked him, “What's going on?” Without breaking stride or showing any interest, he answered, “Viet Cong.”

We watched until the shooting from the ground stopped and the choppers stopped firing rockets. Then we got in the truck and headed back for the bakery.

Mulling over this on the subway, I was thinking, in retrospect, it might not have been so wise to stand there by the road watching. If the men on the ground had made a run for it, they might not have appreciated an audience, or the chopper's rockets might not have been able to distinguish between participants and spectators. Never mind, I survived. God protects fools.

Just about then, my musings were interrupted by the lady sitting next to me. She was on her cell phone, discussing which restaurant to eat at, going on at great length and repetition about how delicious the food is at such and such a restaurant, but the last time they went there was a mistake in the bill, they almost got charged for a bowl of rice they didn't eat. In excruciating detail, she gave a blow by blow account of how she and her friends claimed they did not eat that extra bowl of rice and what the lady in the restaurant said and we said and she said and I said and she said and we said and she said and finally we didn't have to pay for that bowl of rice.

A physicist has pointed out that the name of a tiny little bone in one of your toes goes on for half a dozen syllables, but the name of the event that created the universe is The Big Bang, three simple words. Maybe when you have nothing to say, you need a lot of words.

Or maybe, if I'm going to keep writing this blog, I should delete that last comment.

Sunday, November 23, 2003

useful information

I learned something useful today. We've got these centipedes about 15 centimeters long. Today I learned that their bite is painful, but not fatal.

JFK: Dallas Texas, November 22, 1963

Saturday, November 22, 2003


Friday, November 21, 2003

Background: Tlahux and Bengax are running dogs. Brave, short-legged beagle Yumin will never keep up with them. They have long legs and have grown up racing up and down steep mountains. When they were just a few months old, practically as soon as they were big enough to go outdoors, they amazed me by clambering up and down a sheer drop of over two meters, well over six times their height then.

We were walking down the road the other night when we passed an concrete embankment, taller than me, vertical. A cat was sitting on top of it, probably thinking it was safe. What it neglected to note was that next to it, there was a ladder leaning against the wall, almost vertical. Quick as a flash, Bengax whizzed up the ladder and went after the cat, which recovered from its surprise fast enough to scramble up a tree.

I had never seen a dog climb a ladder before.

My friend Roger, now in Texas, has sent me a very valuable source of news. It is
full of information of which I was previously, grievously, unaware. Of course, I don't watch Fox or CNN, so this may not be news to you people, but by golly, this sure explained things for me. Right there on the front page, there are big headlines:


Now I know it must be true, they can’t be making this up, because right there on the front page, they have a photograph!! Of Osama, Saddam, and the shaved ape baby.

Thanks to Roger. If it weren't for him, I wouldn't even have known that Saddam and Osama got married (who proposed to whom, do you think?). No wonder Mr Bush attacked Iraq! It just goes to show that you shouldn't doubt those in authority, because very often, they have information that we common citizens learn only much later, after the fact. But I'm glad to get that cleared up. I bet they were engaged long before 9/11, which lays responsibility clearly with Iraq. Good thing we spent all that money attacking them!

There are two more important headlines on the first page:


The existence of God has hereby been proven. Now isn't that important? I mean, if they've got DNA tests, they can't be faking. Also, you can tell they're sincere because they use an exclamation point.

And the third vital headline:
Sincerely, friends, I have to express a certain sense of disappointment in some of you. How could you have neglected to inform me of this significant news? All Americans, it says. Do you think they will send a teacher to Wulai? Or will I have to go down to the city?

I'm sure you will all want to rush right out and buy a copy of this invaluable journal for yourselves, because inside it is full of other important news (for example, when the Apollo astronauts went to the moon, before they took photos for us to see, they had to clear up the litter from ET picnics.) Go right to your newsstand and get a copy of Weekly World News. Your eyes too will be opened!!!

Thursday, November 20, 2003

You can learn a lot by observing nature. Of course the Tayal are experts. Tribal elders can tell the time by listening to bird calls! No kidding! Tribal youngsters tell the time by checking their cell phones.

I've lived in Wulai for almost seven years now, and I have developed an almost uncanny ability for predicting the weather, especially in the winter, and in particular in November. Out of the goodness of my heart, I have decided to divulge unto you the secrets of nature I have learned for predicting the winter weather here in Wulai.

If the bird called the tkrat flocks in the qesu tree in the late afternoon, it's going to rain tomorrow.

If the moon has a ring of clouds around it about twice the diameter of the moon, it's going to rain tomorrow.

If a crow flies from east to west, and then turns north, it's going to rain tomorrow.

If the second star in the belt of Orion is shining brightly, it's going to rain tomorrow.

If squirrels gather in high branches of trees to chatter, it's going to rain tomorrow.

If the moon is covered with clouds, it's going to rain tomorrow.

If a crow flies from north to south, and then turns west, it's going to rain tomorrow.

If the wind blows from the south, it's going to rain tomorrow.

If the kind of earthworm called sbisu crawls uphill, it's going to rain tomorrow.

If the temperature drops right after dark, it's going to rain tomorrow.

If the moon is shining brightly, it's going to rain tomorrow.

If flying squirrels race along the bamboo from north to south, it's going to rain tomorrow.

If the temperature rises right after dark, it's going to rain tomorrow.

If the wind blows from the north, it's going to rain tomorrow.

If a rainbow appears around the moon, it's going to rain tomorrow.

If the Seven Sisters constellation is covered with clouds before midnight, it's going to rain tomorrow.

If squirrels gather in low branches of trees to chatter, it's going to rain tomorrow.

If the sun is out, it's going to rain tomorrow.

If the temperature stays steady right after dark, it's going to rain tomorrow.

If the bird called the sibegay flies into the tluy tree before noon, it's going to rain tomorrow.

If the full moon comes up in the east, it's going to rain tomorrow.

Let's see, I think that about covers it. I am sure you are all awed by my amazing powers of observation, but let me remind you that this is the fruit of years' of experience.

Monday, November 17, 2003

In Praise of Bamboo
written in 1998

Bamboo is truly a wonderful material. You can use it for so many things, and it is so easy to prepare. The Chief's friend, about his age, a flatlander (Han Chinese, not aborigine) takes his mountain knife in both hands, plants his feet, and chops down a bamboo thicker than your wrist with one blow. Huicheng's friend in the mountains there north, a sturdy young Han farmer named Ah-tsuan, does it one-handed with one mighty swipe. Yaya (Mother, the Chief's wife) uses one hand and two strikes. The Chief does it with a light flick of the wrist, effortlessly.

One day I heard some sort of noise, and went out to investigate, lest it be bamboo rustlers closing in. It turned out the Chief and Yaya were washing the spare water tower, which is about 25 yards from here, towards their place. The water tower is like a great metal bottle, about eight feet tall, with hoses coming in from the spring, and pipes leading down to the faucets. The two old folks were perched up on top of the tower. I did what I could to help without getting in the way, scrubbing the outside, handing them the hoses. Then Chief told Yaya to get in and scrub the insides, but from the 'bottle cap' it's a drop right down to the bottom, which is, again, about eight feet, and Yaya did not feel like dropping straight down eight feet (these old ladies get so finicky). After some discussion, Chief went and prepared a bamboo pole (this is what inspired the discussion of the utility of bamboo; he had a twenty foot pole cleaned and ready to use within five minutes, including time for walking over and selecting it) and Yaya slid down that, fireman fashion. I hovered around helpfully outside as she scrubbed the inside; Chief wandered off to pluck some bamboo shoots. Then the problem arose: Yaya couldn't. Arise, I mean. She couldn't climb back up the bamboo pole, so she was trapped down there as surely as any genie caught in a bottle. (You may cluck your tongue disapprovingly about the effete younger generation. Only 63 and she can't shinny up a bamboo pole?) I called out encouragement, but I was just as happy the tower walls are opaque so she couldn't see me smiling. It was ludicrous. I felt like calling out, “Yaya, don't worry, we'll feed you three times a day!”

Finally the Chief strolled back with a bag full of bamboo shoots. “Is she finished yet?” he asked.

“Yes,” I answered.

“Where is she?”

A muffled voice issued from the water tower, “I can't get out” and they discussed the topic carefully in Tayal. Eventually, Chief climbed up on top of the tower and dragged her out by the wrist.

Children, do you know what your grandparents are doing while you're in school?

Thursday, November 13, 2003

I wrote this for Nguoi Viet (the Viet Namese newspaper in California)
Gavin Menzies in Taipei

Chinese are so tactful.

Gavin Menzies appeared in Taipei Tuesday (November 11) at the publishing house that is putting out the Chinese translation of his book 1421: The Year China Discovered the World. Menzies served as a submarine captain in the British navy, but has had no training in academic research, so in the writing of this book, his problems are manifold.

First, although he repeats loud and often that he spent fifteen years and traveled through a hundred countries to write his book, he never bothered to learn even rudimentary Chinese, which creates some difficulties for him when he wishes to deal with Chinese records ― not to mention his thorough ignorance of China.

Second, his method is to set up a goal, fasten all possible ‘evidence’ to it, full speed ahead, damn the torpedoes, and one more impertinent word out of you, sailor, and I'll have you keel-hauled. Any stone engraved in any language on any coast is taken as proof that the Chinese fleet visited that spot; never mind that he does not make any attempt to translate what might be written on those stones, or explain why a Chinese imperial fleet was writing in Indian or other languages, rather than Chinese. If somebody's legends say they were visited by people wearing white robes, in Menzies’ eyes that is proof positive that the Chinese visited, because Chinese wear white robes, don't they? (only in mourning). If the legends say they were visited by people wearing red robes, that too is taken as proof positive that the Chinese visited, because in certain ceremonies, Chinese monks wear red robes, don't they? Yes, and it could have been a wedding procession, now that you mention it, because Chinese brides wear red, too. Just goes to show how the evidence mounts up! If a word in a central American Indian language sounds like a similar Japanese word, chalk it up as proof that the Chinese were there (never mind that Chinese and Japanese are not even in the same language family); if the Mayans had a musical instrument similar to something found in Burma and Laos, that too is taken as proof of a Chinese voyage, because any fool knows that Burma, Laos, and China are all in Asia. Further evidence is seen in local legends that tell of visits by people with their hair plaited in long queues, and although Menzies knows the stereotypical Chinaman with a long ponytail, he is oblivious to the fact that the ponytail was forcibly imposed on Han Chinese by conquering Manchus almost 250 years after 1421. Chronology is never a problem that vexes Menzies.

So finally the book has been translated into Chinese, and the author has appeared in Taipei for a book promotion. I was quite curious to see how the book would be dealt with.

The promotion started with about fifty in attendance, at least half of these reporters. The Master of Ceremonies, a well-known scholar named Hu, set the tone for the promotion by assuring us that no matter whether the book makes any sense, it has a certain value because it stimulates our imagination.

The publisher went to some pains to gather leaders in their fields for the panel: a psychologist who had served as Minister of Education and now is Vice President of the great research institute, Academia Sinica; a general who is a noted military scholar; an oceanographer from the US Naval Research Laboratory. All these men have international reputations, and are fluent in English, but, reasonably enough, as this is Taiwan and they were introducing the Chinese translation of a book about China, the promotion was held in Mandarin.

The scholars all went to great lengths to explain that the author is an amateur who is to be commended for his exertions and his romantic imagination. Of course the book is controversial, and of course we don't agree with him, but he earns credit for the temerity of his suppositions. The book may be read as a historical novel, or as science fiction, and maybe it will stimulate someone who knows something to look into these matters more deeply, and with some accuracy. It was pointed out that the man might be allowed a certain leeway, since he does not know a single word of Chinese. The translator very discreetly stated that none of Menzies' evidence would stand up in a court of law. Even the publisher went out of his way to explain that no matter how controversial the book may be, you have to admire Menzies’ gumption.

One of the professors began in English as a courtesy to the author, but apologized and said he would continue in Chinese. At first, Mr Bao, who translated the book, provided Menzies with a running translation, but he soon stopped, so the author did not have the slightest idea of what was being said about his book.

This became extremely obvious when Mr Menzies himself took the lectern and began his remarks by saying, “I am glad there is such little controversy about my book.” The people in the audience who understood English immediately smothered guffaws, and waited eagerly to see how Bao would translate this. He pulled through bravely: “I am glad that so many of you have offered valuable comments on my book.” Bao's translation of the talk was good, but even he had difficulty giving voice to some of the more ludicrous assertions, hemming and hawing for a diplomatic translation.

From his talk, we learned that Menzies is apparently unaware of the difference between New Year on the western and on the Chinese calendars; that one of his sources for research was a talk given by a tour guide; and that in fifteen years’ research on China, he has learned so little about the Chinese language that he cannot even produce reasonable renditions of place names such as Beijing. (It’s not hard; bay, then jing is like the first syllable of jingoism. Close enough: a lot closer than he got!)

He played up records of discoveries of “Chinese villages” across the Atlantic coast during the first European voyages to America. I wanted to ask two questions. What are the aborigines of America called? What were sufferers of Downs’ Syndrome once called? The American aborigines were called Indians because Columbus, an experienced voyager, had no idea what a South Asian Indian looked like, but he had planned to go to India. Even the sailors on the Bounty called the Tahitians ‘Indians.’ Sufferers of Downs’ Syndrome were once called mongoloids because people thought that is what Mongols looked like. In the days before printing and television, people had only vague ideas of what foreigners looked like. The explorers were searching for the Northwest Passage to China, they found a village, so they assumed they were in China. But I kept quiet, as Menzies had the floor.

The floor was later opened to questions. The first question asked was, the Ming fleets went to Africa in search of a giraffe for the emperor, what would have been their motive in going to America? Menzies informed us that first they wanted to spread “Confucian harmony” throughout the world. This answer was greeted with studied silence. Perhaps Menzies has mistaken Confucianism for evangelical Christianity. After all, the Rites (in the 13 Classics) says, “In proper behavior, there is only coming to learn, there is no such thing as going forth to teach.” A ruler's virtue was supposed to attract others from afar: to send ships to spread “Confucian harmony” would be tantamount to announcing to the world that he had no virtue.

The second motive Menzies proposed for this arduous voyage was that they wanted to spread crops, such as taking sweet potatoes from Africa to Asia (I think it was sweet potatoes, anyway. I was busy trying to figure out how transporting crops from Africa to Asia constituted a motive for travel to America). He told us about how much evidence he presented on his website.

Because of that comment, I took the floor next (speaking Chinese like everybody else. The man has a translator.) I explained that I bought the English version of this book on-line as soon as it was available, and read it with great, and then dwindling, hopes. I was so disappointed by his poor respect for facts and slapdash logic that, in March 2003, I went to the discussion area of the 1421 website. There I found that many others had similar doubts. Many participants in the discussion pointed out factual errors, logical fallacies, and utter nonsense in the book. Finally, the participants begged Menzies to come to the discussion area and respond to some of these criticisms. Some time later, he finally did; he said we are all wrong, he is right. Shortly thereafter he deleted all criticisms of his book from the website.

Mr Menzies’ response to this was, “It's my website. I can do as I please.” This brought a laugh. Several voices called out, “Aye aye, captain!” But they spoke Chinese, so this was lost on him. It was only after I went home and decided to take a look at the 1421 website that I realized that not only the refutations had been expunged, but the entire discussion area had been eradicated.

In response to a further question from the floor about his accuracy, Menzies admitted, very humbly, that yes, “I did make mistakes. I made two mistakes. First, I was too conservative, I said they had a hundred ships, but actually they had a thousand ships. Second, I was too conservative, I knew the Chinese fleet visited Europe but I did not say so, but I have proof.”

I was thinking: do you think I could pilot a submarine without training? And you seem to feel that dealing with hundreds of years of Chinese records is easier than piloting a submarine. Much less that his book flies in the face of established conclusions from geology, archeology, linguistics, and half a dozen other disciplines. But by then I knew to hold my tongue.

The master of ceremonies brought the promotion to a close as quickly as possible, saying, It's a good book, but you may want to read it as science fiction. But the man is a naval captain, after all, so he will brook no criticism.

Thursday, November 06, 2003

November 6, 2003
I have thought about writing a blog a while. As it happens, today I have time to set this up. All I lack is inspiration for anything to write, so I will paste in something I wrote in August, about the bus to the city from the mountains: BUS TALK.

On the Wulai bus line, there are several ways to pay your fare. You can put your coins in the box, slide a magnetized bus card through the slot, flash your computerized card in front of the sensor, or let the driver punch your pass. I always hand the drivers my pass; usually they make a gesture like they punched it and hand it back to me unscathed.

The other day when my bus pulled in at Wulai, the driver, Hua, motioned to me. “Come on, Yugan, sit up front so we can chat.” He saved me the first seat on the right row. I settled in. I wanted to ask Hua if his bus was still haunted.

An old lady got on and asked how much a ticket back to Taipei would be: NT$64. She hesitated, torn between putting all those coins in the box, and using up her magnetized bus ticket.

"How's your bus, Hua?” I asked, then realized it might be better to bring the topic up when the bus was less crowded, especially since the Ghost Month just started.

"Which way is cheaper?” the old lady asked Hua, pointing her card at the coin box.

"Grandma, you may as well use up your card, because it's only good until the end of September,” he answered.

"Oh, no, it says right here on my card that it's good until November.”

"Yes, Grandma, but where have you been? For the last six months, they've been telling everybody they're phasing out the magnetized cards, and you can't use them after the end of September.”

"Oh, no, this is the card the government gave me, you know they give bus cards to old folks.”

“Yes, Grandma, but after September 31, you won't be able to use that kind of card anymore. You've got to get a computerized card instead.”

An old man said, “It's been in the papers, on the radio, and on television.” Having said his piece, he went down and sat in the back of the bus.

"But this is the card the government gave me, and it says right here that it's good until November.” She stuck the card in Hua's face as he was trying to pass a motorcycle on a curve.

“Yes, Grandma, but at the end of September, the bus company 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I'm cheating. this continues the story of November 6, Bus Talk

"Yes, Grandma, but at the end of September, the bus company is going to remove these readers from the buses, so you won't be able to use your ticket any more.”

“I don't believe you. You Aborigines are always telling jokes.”
“That's fine, but Grandma, let me tell you, you shouldn't put coins in the box, you should use up your ticket while you can, because after September, I won't have this reader on my bus.”

“But it says right here that this card is good until November.”

“Okay, fine, Grandma, when we get into Taipei, you take a bus number 644, and you go to Mayor Ma's office, and ask him for one of these readers. You can take it home and slide your card through the slot for as long as you please, but after September 31, you aren't going to see these readers on any of the buses, so you'll have to use a computerized card.”

“You mean I won't be able to use my magnetized card on the bus in October?”

“That's right, Grandma.”

“But it says right here that it's good until November.”

An old man from the middle of the bus joined in. “Won't do you any good. If you can't finish off your card, you may as well give it to your neighbor to use.”

“My neighbor? No, they never remember to shut the first floor door, I don't want to give them my card.”

“You may as well give it to somebody, because it won't do you any good.”

“But it says right here that it's good until November.”

Another old lady leaped into the fray. “Yes, the magnetized tickets are being phased out. I think you ought to go protest!”

Hua looked at me and we both rolled our eyes.

“Where do you think I should go protest?”

“Well, Taipei City Government, of course.”

“No, try the Bureau of Transportation.”

“No, I think it should be the Taipei City Government.”

“No, no, you're all wrong, because Wulai is in Taipei County, not Taipei City, so it's the Bureau of Transportation you want, not the City Government.”

“But the bus runs into Taipei City.”

“The bus company is Hsintien Bus Company, right? And Hsintien is Taipei County, not Taipei City, so it's the Bureau of Transportation you want.”

“Well, I certainly am going to do something about it. Why, just last month, I was on a bus with my sister, and I had her ticket and she had my ticket…” Hua had long lost interest in the conversation. We reached Turtle Mountain, where two little sixth grade girls got on the bus, asking, “Hua, when are we going to play basketball again?”

“so she gave the driver my magnetized ticket, but he said it was all used up.”

“I don't have a day off this week, so it'll have to be next week.”

“He said, ‘You can't use that ticket, it's all used up.’”

“Can your daughter come play with us again?”

“My sister said, ‘It can't be all used up, it's my sister's ticket.’”

“Sure, I think so, it's summer vacation, so she doesn't have much to do.”

“He said, ‘I don't care whose ticket it is, it's all used up, so you can't use it, you have to use a new ticket, or put cash in the box.’”

“Where do you think we can play?”

“So I said, ‘That's my ticket, my sister's ticket is right here.’”

“Well, silly, where do you live?”

“The driver said, ‘I don't care whose ticket you use, just so the bus company gets two fares.’”

“Turtle Mountain, you know that.”

“My sister said, ‘So if you don't care whose ticket I use, I'll use my sister's ticket.’”

“And there are no basketball courts in Turtle Mountain?”

“Then the driver got very impatient and said, ‘I told you, you can't use that ticket, and actually, according to government laws and bus company regulations, since it's all used up, I can confiscate it!’”

“We have a perfectly good basketball court. ”

“So I said, ‘There's no need for you to confiscate it, because the government gave me this ticket. You know we old folks get free bus tickets.’”

“Okay, so I'll drive my daughter down and she can play basketball with you in Turtle Mountain.”

“Right, we get twenty free rides a month.”

“What's the old lady bickering about?”

“So I said, ‘It says right here that this ticket is good until November, so you can't confiscate it!’ So he didn't. But you're right, I really do think I should go protest.”

“Don't call her an old lady, call her Grandma, show some respect for your elders.”

“Bureau of Transportation, no doubt about it.”

“How can I show respect, when you've got an intellectual age of a nine year old?”

“No, you have to talk to Mayor Ma about it.”

“Yeah, Hua, when we talk to you, we have to use simple words so you can understand.”

“Mayor Ma may run for President, so he will want to help people so you vote for him in the election.”

“It's not my intellectual age, it's showing respect for Grandma here, who is our elder.”

“How many times do I have to explain, this is the Hsintien Bus Company, and Hsintien is in Taipei County.”

“Okay, but why don't we go play basketball in Wulai?”

“Yes, but the line runs in to Taipei City, doesn't it? Taipei City Government.”

“Who would drive you there?”

“Otherwise, just give your card to your neighbor.”

“We could take a bus.”

“No, I think I can use it all up by November.”

“Whatever. You phone my daughter and make arrangements with her.” By this time, the bus had reached the edge of the city. Hua pulled over his microphone, and with great relief in his voice, announced, “We have reached the Hsintien subway terminal. All who wish to take the subway may transfer here.”

I got off the bus in back of Grandma. As she got off, she showed Hua her card: “See, it says right here that this is good until November.”

“Yes, Grandma, anything you say,” Hua said. Then he looked at me and we both rolled our eyes heavenward. But I never did get to ask about the haunting.

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

I have been teaching mama (uncle) Takyu the letters so he can write Tayal, his native language. When the letters come in order, he is doing okay, but he still has trouble when they are all mixed up. To solve this, I ask him how to spell words, or write words and ask him what they say. We were sitting in the living room working on this at the big table when his son, daughter-in-law, and a couple guests tromped through and stopped to view his progress, learning, like everything else, being a communal effort. I wrote down yutas (grandfather, respected elder) and asked him to read it. He traced the letters with his fingers, frowned, made a few attempts. I started coaching him: “yuh, ooo, duh, ah, ssss.” He squirmed in concentration. Everybody's breath was held. Maybe my dogs, waiting outside the door, felt the tension, because Tlahuy started whining. I turned my head towards the door and said, admonishingly, under my breath, “Tlahuy!” Mama Takyu's face lit up. He pointed at the word, and called out in a victorious shout: TLAHUY!

Monday, October 27, 2003

上禮拜六是烏來的大日子。 幾年前,村長紹也。達可佑的太太在一次車禍中身亡,現在續弦了。婚禮在部落停車場舉行,高朋滿座,熱鬧非凡。因為上課的關係,我沒參加。 等我下課回來,已經十一點半,最後的幾部車才剛走了。 過部落的時候,我發現小商店居然還沒打烊,並發現新郎、新娘在裡面,還穿著禮服。 我高呼,”紹也,你們怎麼還在這裡? 怎麼還沒帶新娘去渡蜜月呢?” 於是乎,他們倆臉上露出尷尬的笑容,給我看他們手上剛選購的泡麵,說,”肚子好餓,買一點泡麵回家吃…”

Sunday, October 26, 2003

My home is not by the road. There are about a hundred steps leading up a ravine from the Chief's lane to my place. It is pretty much jungle around there.

This morning Tasaw's parents came, to visit, to talk to Tasaw on my web camera, to have some tea, to bring great big bags of kibbles for the dogs. They phoned and said they were here, so I went down to meet them. The first thing they said was, You have four dogs now? There was a tiny little puppy by the mailbox which I have affixed by the foot of the steps. It was sheltered under the rain cover of my mailbox. Clever dog. It's been raining for days.

Recently a wild dog gave birth to some puppies in the jungle above that, so I figured this puppy must be hers. That explains why I heard her barking so much last night and this morning. This little puppy must have crawled away. Adventurous little fellow.

When Tasaw's parents left, I took a handful of kibbles and a towel. The puppy is too little to eat the kibbles. I think it's only about six weeks old. Eyes open, strong enough to get into mischief, not strong enough to get back to Mama. The litter seems to be in the grass under the camphor tree outside the ravine, so I suspect the puppy was exploring, slipped down over the edge, and couldn't get back up.

I wrapped it up in the towel (several reasons: it was cold, wet, and dirty; I didn't want to get my smell on it, in case the mother wouldn't accept it; I didn't want to get its smell on me, in case Tlahuy, Bengax, and Yumin wouldn't accept me!), and took it back to its mother. Of course she ran away when we came, but I put the pup there under the camphor tree and called my dogs home with me.

I think they are reunited by now. The mother has stopped barking. You don't want such a spunky little chap to die.

PS (November): several days later, the dog was taken by somebody who wanted him for a pet.

Monday, October 20, 2003

I took the subway, as usual, to the last stop, and walked to my bus stop at about 11 PM. There I found Agogo, a Tayal taxi driver, vaguely bargaining with some guy from the city who wanted to go some place half way to Wulai. I told Agogo, if you need a passenger, I'll go. (in Taiwan it is common for a taxi driver making a long drive to offer lower prices for four passengers, so they will wander around bus stops asking, “Calling for passengers: anybody want to go to XYX?” and offering their price. Or, “I have 3 for XYX, I need one more and we'll leave immediately.”) Agogo thought a bit and told the man, “Okay, I'll take you for one hundred NT since Yugan will go along.” He asked around, but there were only about three other people waiting for buses, and no takers, so we got into the taxi and left.

The guy was talkative. He kept going on and on about how he was going to a bar to sing karaoke, his friends were there already, waiting for him, and that he liked to get out of the city, and that going into the mountains was refreshing, blah blah blah. With slight condescension, he told us that “Wulai is a nice place, too.”

I told him, “If you come to Wulai, don't bring your karaoke. Leave your city pollution in the city.”

"Especially late at night,” Agogo chimed in.

“You get these people with a couple drinks in them, they start singing karaoke, it sounds like forsaken ghosts howling,” I told the guy. “You want to come to the mountains, enjoy the mountains. You can sing in the city.”

“Especially late at night,” Agogo chorused.

“You mean you don't have karaoke in Wulai?” the passenger asked, a bit sadly.

“It's not permitted in the Tribe. Somebody opened one, and we closed it down. Say, Yugan, did you see where they paved that patch of road in front of the church?”

“Yes, they didn't do much.”

“Because they came to do it in the middle of the night! Can you imagine that?”

“In the middle of the night? What for? This is not a busy city street with cars on it during the daytime.”

“They were making a lot of noise, glung glung glung, the heavy trucks and machinery. I went out and asked them, ‘What do you think you are doing?’

“They said, 'We are paving the road.’

“’In the middle of the night?’

“’It's the only time we have.’

“’You have to stop it. Wulai children are not like city children, they need quiet at night, or else they can't sleep. You have to stop right now.’ I told them that, Yugan, but they ignored me. They kept working, with their big trucks and heavy machinery, glung glung glung.

“About fifteen minutes later, I came out and told them, ‘You are disturbing the children. Our children cannot sleep with all that noise. You have to stop right now.’ But they still ignored me.

“So I went back and got my shotgun. I didn't put pellets in, I just put in some gravel. I went back and told them, ‘You have to stop now.’ Then I shot my shotgun into the air. Bang! Then the workmen all ran away and called the police.”

“Called the police?” I asked. “What good will that do? They're all Tayal.”

“Right. Ivi came in his police car and said, ‘Agogo, why did you shoot at the workmen?’ I said, ‘Which workmen did I shoot? I didn't shoot anybody. They were making too much noise, and the children couldn't sleep. Tomorrow they will fall asleep in class, so I told them to stop.’'Agogo, you don't have any kids.' 'I don't have kids myself, but there are a lot of little children in the Tribe. We have to think about them.'"

That explains why only a short patch of road got paved. It also shut up the guy in the back seat. Maybe he was wondering if he would get out of the taxi alive. We delivered him safe and sound to his karaoke bar. I hope that maybe he turned the volume on his karaoke down.

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Here's an ad for a book that makes you want to rush straight to the bookstore and ask, you mean somebody actually published this?

... leads to her first realization that there's more to life than boys and cheerleading ― it's an inspirational tale of personal awakenings.

for 288 pages!!

Sunday, October 12, 2003

On and on about my dogs.

Tlahuy is extremely loyal. He is also extremely powerful, but he is shy. A puppy can pick on him, but when he has had enough, the toughest dogs in Wulai, hunting dogs that attack wild boar, turn tail and run away from him.

Bengax is, I suspect, not really a dog. Too intelligent by half. She loves to prance just outside a fence or another dog's chain reach and bark at them: nya nya nya!

Sometimes when we pass somebody's house, and their dogs come out to see what's going on, Tlahuy will stand his ground and sniff and strut with them. Then suddenly you will see swift Bengax, who you also realize has been mysteriously absent, like a streak of lightning, racing off with the dogs' bone or some tidbit from their dinner. Tlahuy will then break and run, too. Ha ha ha, bye bye suckers!

Little Yumin is very much the alpha male. He knows he is little, so when the big dogs bark and chase some shadow around the house, Yumin stays behind and observes. But when we're out, he will race straight towards the biggest dogs and nonplus them. He is fearless. I was chopping down a tree that was damaged in that typhoon. When it fell, the top landed a foot from where Yumin was lying, but he just watched it fall with utter calm.

Then in the evening if I go outdoors to sit, he is sleepy, so he crawls into my lap, nuzzles his head in under my arm, and totally relaxes, hind legs dangling in midair.

Thursday, October 09, 2003

屈尺 lalu Tayal Qsyuh. 對岸 lalu Pyasamaray, 今移 Tampya.
Bongan yaba Tali Watan.

Friday, October 03, 2003

Something interesting. One of the elders in the Tribe, Takyu, about 65, several times said that he wished he knew how to write Tayal, so I have taken him up on that. Last week I taught him to first five letters ~~ a, b, c, e, g ~~ and Monday the next five ~~ h, i, k, l, m. He is delighted, working hard to get these down. He can write Chinese, but has never learned the western alphabet. Sometimes he will make a note in Chinese, and put down his pencil in wonderment: “I have written almost nothing in the last forty years.” His wife is also learning the alphabet, but quicker. With great pride, he tells me “She went to high school, so she is educated.”

Tonight we will do n, ng, o, p, and q. Now he is asking if maybe I could teach some of the other tribal elders. I told him, nothing would please me more. How often do you get a chance like this?

FYI: Tayal/泰雅語, or Atayal, is one of the oldest languages extant. It dates back at least six thousand years, compared to about a thousand for Russian or Spanish, 1500 for English, say 4000 for Chinese.

FYI: the first five letters are pronounced ah, then sort of a mixture of B + M + V, dj, eh, and a very guttural G. an example of Tayal writing: Lpgan ke’na Tayal (a Tayal Reader).

Technically, Yugan should be spelled Yukal, but I don't want to sound like some sort of diet soda.

Tuesday, September 30, 2003

A reasonable proposal

The United States has a problem. What is to be done with all those suspected terrorists we are holding down in Cuba beyond the reach of legal process? They can never be released now, because if they didn't hate the US before, we have forced them to.

The reasonable solution is to put them to death. You may ask what crime they have been found guilty of. That's simple. If they aren't actual terrorists, we assume they are Muslims, and they were in a country suspected of harboring terrorists. There is a legal precedent. This is the same crime for which the United States bombed Iraqis in our latest display of overkill. People who inhabited the same country as Saddam were punished by legal sanctions which wrecked their economy and their middle class. Then we bombed their city. Makes you proud to be an American, doesn't it? We can whup the Iraqi Army any day of the week. Never mind that some of the people who got killed in Iraq may have been Christians or Kurds ― close enough. They were present at the scene of the crime, weren't they?

Okay, so that's settled. Now, you talk about executions, you're talking about Dubya's home state, The Lone Star Republic. Since this is going to be done, let it be in style. Putting someone to death requires legal witnesses, but a lot of people get all stressed out by that, and we don't want any unpleasantness for red-blooded Americans.

The solution is simple: have these slimy terrorists put to death at selected university fraternity houses, on Friday nights. If we're spending a billion dollars a week in Iraq to breed enemies, surely the budget can be prodded a bit to provide the legal witnesses ― doing their duty for god and country ― with a few kegs of beer. With a deal like that, the Chief Executive himself might show up, delivered by a fighter jet, so he can show off his codpiece again. But if he shows up, you couldn't lay in pretzels.

Performing executions thusly serves two purposes, each as important as the other. You tighten up security, and drum up some votes: make sure all those frat boys are registered for next fall.

If you really want a show to drive up the ratings and send the voters into a frenzy, bring in California gubernatorial candidate Arnold Terminator to perform the executions. He could ask each terrorist, “Have you immigrated to this country legally? Can you show me a valid visa?” As each one answered No, he could snap their necks with his mighty, masculine arms.

All of this will make tremendous sense to all patriotic Americans. If you don't agree, there must be something wrong with your patriotism, and if you're not careful, you might find yourself as the Guest of Honor at a frat house party some night, if you catch my drift. So let's do it!

Monday, September 29, 2003

If you pass under a fruit tree next time you are in Wulai, keep your head up. You never know what ― or who ― may fall on you.

Bsuy, the Chief's wife, who is approaching 70, was about twenty feet up a fruit tree recently, plucking fruit. She reached too far for a fruit, lost her balance, slipped, and plummeted to the ground. Fortunately, she only bumped her head and her collarbone. She spent a week in the hospital recuperating; they probably had to tie her to the bed in order to make her rest. She is fine now, cheerful and hearty.

But next time your grandmother climbs a tree, do make sure she's got a safety net.

Sunday, September 21, 2003

My good friend Qalux has a dog from the same litter as Tlahuy and Bengax. Aborigines do not share naming customs with flat-land Chinese, so he simply turned his own name around and named her Luqa. His wife, Naluwan, from the Lukai tribe, renamed the dog Heiniu, Mandarin for Black Girl. Like Tlahuy, she takes after her father: black all over, with the Dalmatian spots showing only on her tummy. I am not sure if Naluwan renamed her because didn't want to get the dog confused with her husband, or she thought Luqa sounded too much like Lukai.

Whether you call her Luqa or Heiniu, she has never been spayed, and has been busy producing litter after litter of puppies, which people in the Tribe snap up quickly. Good hunting stock.

For some reason, though, one of the dogs has a stubby little tail. Nobody in the Tribe would dock a dog's tail. It was just born that way. Because of this short little tail, he is called Bru ~~ trill that R, please ~~ meaning Short.

And you know what song comes to mind every time I see him?

You and me and a dog named Bru~~~

Saturday, September 20, 2003

烏來一個小店的老闆 ~~ 平地人 ~~ 僱用一位外勞。

前兩個禮拜的某一天,外勞跟老闆說, “撈半! 那個己器loc ten!”

老闆問,”機器loc ten? 甚麼叫做loc ten?” 外勞語言能力已到了極限,只能指著機器說,’ loc ten! loc ten!” 老闆還是想不透,就把機器拿起來看到底是怎麼一會事,很快就發現, loc ten 是 “漏電” 的意思, 享年三十二歲,嗚呼哀哉,尚饗。

Friday, September 12, 2003

Gun control in Taiwan is strict. Besides police and military, the only people who are allowed to own guns are the Aborigines. They are proud of this privilege, and continue their hunting traditions. Most of the hunting guns are a length of pipe attached to a hand-carved stock. They give the game a sporting chance, because you can never be sure which end of the gun the shot is coming out of. In our village, there are two one-eyed men. They both lost their right eyes while aiming home-made guns that exploded.

At least I think the guns are legal. At any rate, the government probably feels taking them away would cause more trouble than allowing the birds and flying squirrels to take a chance. (No self-respecting Tayal would shoot a boar. They stab those with knives.)

The underworld has a certain amount of firepower, although probably not as much as a typical American high school. Most of what they have is homemade. From time to time, there are swordfights when gangsters feel the need to have it out.

Having lived in Taiwan for so long, after I moved to Wulai I was shocked the first time I came across our county councilman, our mayor, and the Presbyterian minister cleaning their shotguns in preparation for an outing. You just don't see guns in Taiwan.

Usually. Yesterday on my way down to catch the bus to work. I came across a party of tribesmen sitting behind a wall by the road, preparing to go hunting. In addition to 3 or 4 shotguns, they had two newly purchased pellet guns, the kind that use pressurized gas to shoot pellets. They look just like assault rifles, only a bit smaller.

“Come on, you guys,” I yelled, “Iraq is over that way.”

“Speak Tayal, not Mandarin,” Bayes immediately admonished me. The men in the tribe are very persistent about my speaking Tayal. On the one hand, they are proud that this 'Brown-haired Long-nose' (Tayal for foreigner) knows their language. When they have guests from outside and see me walking by, they always throw me a couple easy ones they know I can handle: “Yugan, where are you going?” “I'm going to the city to teach.” On the other hand, these are the people on whom the burden of tribal defense traditionally fell, so they like to make sure who is on which side.

Yekliy pointed to the high-power pylon down the slope. “Bunqet hit the strut on the pylon with the pellet gun. Do you think you can do that?” I have always been a good shot, whether with bow and arrow, slingshot, or whatever. I can't throw to save my life. A ball I toss to first base is as apt to hit the pitcher as the third baseman. But give me something to shoot, and I'm okay.

”Well, let me try. Give me one of those.” So they pumped up one of the pellet guns and we all trooped across the street. I aimed carefully, and hit the strut on my first shot. Knowing the feel, I hit it twice more in quick succession, and casually handed the gun back. “Is that enough?” They were highly satisfied. Yekliy started shooting Vogi's papayas, and I went down to catch the bus.

But what was so funny about the whole thing was, when we stepped out into the road, there just happened to be three or four cars full of sightseers up from Taipei approaching. When they saw a cluster of men bristling with rifles suddenly appear from behind a house, they almost drove off the road! Not the sort of sight they expected to see!

Tuesday, September 09, 2003

East and West
 for Ellen
written in September, 2000

My father never wholeheartedly approved of my living abroad. He always wished I would return to the States, get a tie and a briefcase, and settle down into a 9 to 5 job. In the 15 years I lived in Taipei before he died, he visited Taiwan only once.

To commemorate the voyage, we had a tailor make him a suit, a luxury he could (or would) never afford in the US. He meticulously selected some nice dark blue material. We took it to the tailor. The tailor glanced at Dad a few times, thought a bit, looked at his watch, and said, “Come back next Tuesday.”

Dad burst when we left the shop. “He didn't even measure me!”

“Don't worry, Dad, he's got it down.”

“But will he remember? He didn't write anything down.”

“I don't think he knows how to write. Don't worry, Dad.”

But worry Dad did. He was on pins and needles, fretting about that beautiful piece of cloth, the length and the cut, the shoulders and the crotch.

By next Tuesday, Dad was like a kid on Christmas morning. I warned him that these old-style businesses often had old-style notions about time, and not to be too upset if the suit wasn't ready.

But it was ready. Dad dove into the tiny shop's minuscule fitting room and thrashed about for several minutes. He came out beaming, a face as radiant as Christ's emerging from the tomb. The suit fit like skin.

Never an ebullient man, he thanked the tailor effusively. I told the tailor, “He's been a nervous wreck for days. You didn't take any measurements, and that vexed him.”

The tailor pondered that. He addressed his pin cushion: “In the West, you rely on science and measurements. You have all sorts of instruments to gauge and to measure. I don't know how to use those things; my teacher was illiterate, too. Instead, in China we rely on experience and skill. That's the difference between the East and the West.”

Saturday, August 30, 2003

I sat in a restaurant, staring out the window, waiting for my order. At the next table, two young men flipped restlessly through movie star magazines.

In days of old, the written word conveyed vital information. Now reading is often a mind-
numbing escape to free yourself from the burdens of thought and introspection.

Very little of the information in today's print has any bearing on one's own life or decisions. Okay, so you read the paper and see that an Venezuelan politician has been murdered. What behavior of yours could have the slightest influence on this case? A singing star has shown up with a new boyfriend. What relevance does this have to your life? Many of these people are not fit to enter my home; why should I read about their private lives?

We fill our minds with stultifying mounds of useless information. How irrelevant our thoughts become to our own lives! Then who are we living for?

Consider an illiterate tracker of centuries past. At every step he took, he would be vitally aware of his surroundings, and every inch of his surroundings might contain life-and-death information. He had to be intimately aware of his surroundings, and concerned himself very little with events far away.

Today, for your own sake, you had better disregard most of the information in your surroundings. Too often this is noisy pollution, karaoke, ads, or news about politicians (as a diehard democrat ~~ the principle, not the party, I firmly believe that the people should surrender as little power as possible to the government, and none to career politicians.)

Choose carefully, then, what you absorb into your psyche.

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

The West considers its two greatest truth-speakers to be Socrates and Jesus.

Both were put to death by the masses for their views.

O, democracy!

Friday, August 22, 2003

written in August, 1998

Another great day for swimming. When I want to soak, I go upstream from the waterfall. When I want diving and a vigorous swim, I go downstream to the small hydroelectric plant across from the village. This is Punko, the local swim hole. The stream is about 20 meters across here. The current in the center is swift and dangerous, taking several lives every year. On the village bank are hot spring ponds. The far bank is mountainside, with the hydroelectric plant and a huge conduit for excess water. The best rocks for diving into the stream are here, so there is usually a group of kids arrayed at various heights on the rocks, chatting, diving, or swinging on the rope. A trees grows out of the mountainside above these rocks with a conveniently located branch hanging out over a deep part of the stream. A rope hangs from this branch, and people have great fun swinging back and forth.

At irregular intervals, the power plant releases a great plume of water, at which the littler children, weaker swimmers, immediately leap into the water like so many startled frogs, and swim for the village bank with all their might. Aborigine kids are brave, but they're not dumb. The water may flow like that for an hour or more, trapping the kids on the rocks. Even at the best of times, swimming across the current is difficult.

When I dive, I fight to keep close to the mountainside and try to clamber out at another good diving platform not far from the rope. The bottom is studded with rocks that the current will smash you into, so care is required. Sometimes the current drags me away before I can get a grip on the rocks, so it's down I go to the next set of rocks.
Of course, I go swimming only during fair weather. In a typhoon, the water level goes up 3 or 4 meters as the stream fills its bed from side to side, roaring down in a deafening rush. Naturally, there was nothing like that today. The sky was blue, the clouds were white, the sun was strong, the water was cool, and I was submerged. I had dug out my old diving mask and taken it along for a clearer look at the bottom and the fish. The kids took turns with it. We chatted as we swam around. Somebody mentioned the rope. I said, "Whoever put that rope up must really be good at climbing trees."

"Oh, sure, Huiming put it up," said one of the boys, mentioning the junior high school student who happened to be using the mask just at that moment. "He's our best tree climber. That's because his father's a good hunter, and Huiming goes into the mountains with him all the time.”

"I guess so, because that's not an easy climb.”

"When he had tied the rope, he jumped off the branch into the stream.”

"He jumped?" I asked, looking at the branch, estimating the height to be about that of a four story building.

"Yeah, it was so much fun he went right back up and jumped again, too.” Just then Huiming came up for air (finally) and one of the other kids took the mask. I asked Huiming, "Was it really you who put up that rope?”


"They say you jumped down."

"That was fun!”

"I didn't think the water there was deep enough for a jump from so high up.”

"Oh, it isn't, so I waited until there was a typhoon, so there would be plenty of water for me to jump into.” With that, he headed off to the diving rocks. I was so astonished I didn't even ask him how he got across the stream in the first place.

I happened to run into Huiming on a bus a few days after that, so I checked the details of the story to make sure I hadn't gotten confused. Then I asked, “But how on earth did you ever make it across the stream during a typhoon?” He scowled, remembering carefully. Then his face brightened up and he said, “I swam hard.”

Now doesn't that answer everything?

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Overheard at UCLA:
A: "I've got to get my feet up on my back."
B: ".... uh... huh?"

(both A and B appeared to be native speakers of English)

Monday, August 18, 2003

from the summer of 1997

With difficulty, I am recovering from a harrowing experience.

Huicheng has a hut in the mountains north of Taipei. Sometimes Tantric Buddhists (that's the Tibetan school) borrow his place for ceremonies. A rinpoche (three syllables) is a holy man, a lama (one l; Tantric monk, usually Tibetan) who chooses to be reincarnated at a certain place and time, and remembers his past life. Any candidate to be a rinpoche is thoroughly tested about his past life, usually at age 3 or 4, and then rigorously educated if authentic.

A few weeks ago, Huicheng told us that a rinpoche, the secretary to the Teacher of the King of Bhutan, was holding ceremonies at the hut, so we rushed up. (The Teacher himself is indisposed to attend, being between lives at the moment.)

The rinpoche was there with three lamas. All four were Tibetans, two from Bhutan, one from Tibet, and one from Nepal. We had a pleasant chat, bouncing between English, Chinese, and Tibetan. Anything that works.

As they were leaving, the lama from Bhutan asked my name. “Tai Loc,” I said, “and yours?” His answer flattened me: “Sam.”

Oh my shoes and socks! Can you imagine that?! A Tibetan lama from Bhutan named Sam! I almost asked, “And the rinpoche's name is Michael?”

In The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain describes how disappointed he was to discover that the elegant gentleman he engaged as a guide to Paris was named not Armand de la Chartreuse, but A. Billfinger. I commiserate.

I was only slightly mollified to find out that it's actually short for Samtsoung.

Sam indeed!

Sunday, August 17, 2003

I wrote this in August, 1999. Now I have a place to post it. Thank you, Blogger.com!

You know who I really feel sorry for? Laura. Which Laura? Laura of the stock car race. Don't you remember that old song from about 1960? Laura and her boyfriend were in love, so to get money for the wedding ring, her boyfriend rode in a stock car race, crash and burn, and as they dragged him out of the burning wreck they heard him say, Tell Laura I love her, tell Laura not to cry, my love for her, will never die. That Laura.

So there goes the guy, off to the Great Stock Car Race in the Sky, he's all set. But what about Laura? She has to keep living, day after day, month after month. It's been forty years now. She's about sixty. What kind of life has she had?

Of course there's the possibility that her attitude was, “Tough luck, loser,” and she was off on some other fellow's arm before the car had cooled off enough to tow away. But I don't think so. Not Laura. The idea just crossed my mind that she may have emigrated to Russia, there to love again. I recall that several years after the stock car race, we were inundated with Laura's Theme.

There's Laura, bravely not crying, with the love that never dies. Along come the 60s, let it all hang out. Did Laura cry then? Maybe she figured she had mourned long enough, and by the 70s decided it was her right as a free, liberated woman to look after Number One. I bet she's still in therapy.

Maybe Laura is a grandmother by now, with faded memories that come back during the long autumn evenings, a bit dimmer every year, but carrying the bittersweet images of what might have been.

Or maybe Laura stayed with him. Every evening, back to an empty home, night after night, until it seems the years will never pass. But they do pass, and although her heart aches, Laura becomes stronger and stronger. She doesn't know that, she just feels the pain, and doesn't know what a beautiful person she has become, an awe-inspiring beauty that only those close to her feel. Her cold house has become warm, with a love that will never die.

Saturday, August 16, 2003

Even if you ever heard of it, you probably don't remember Cowboy Alley. Cowboy was what people in Saigon called the desperate young robbers on motorcycles, and the little street where they congregated most frequently was called Cowboy Alley. The whole area was so dangerous that the US military authorities declared it all Off Limits. Perhaps my uncle set up his bakery operation there to take advantage of cheap rent. Be that as it may, I lived a few steps from the dreaded Cowboy Alley. Most Westerners who had to pass rode in taxis and jeeps, but never exposed themselves to the vulnerability of walking.

Somewhere in the area lived an anomalous American. Call him Paul. Paul and I were probably the only two Western males in Saigon who did not carry guns. In the super-macho world of Saigon at war, Paul stood out because, with his sandals, blue jeans, long hair, and beard, he looked like a hippie (regardless of the Viet Namese use of ‘hippie’ to denote a thug). I have no idea how he ended up in Saigon, or how he swung a visa; there was, after all, a war going on, so visas were extremely hard to come by.

Paul was about 24, some seven years older than me. Like me, he loved Saigon. Also like me, he dreamed of learning how to write Chinese. I picked up some Viet Namese while I was there, and deferred learning Chinese until I came to Taiwan, but Paul got a book and started learning right there. He showed me his notebook, in which he meticulously practiced writing the characters he was learning, along with their Cantonese pronunciation.

I have not idea how Paul supported himself, but one day, a rumor floated about that he was getting involved in a drug deal to improve his finances. I thought that was a rotten way to make money, but kept my opinions to myself.

I never saw Paul again. The word was that they found his body with 7x7=49 bullet holes, a very clear warning for all busybodies not to impinge on Chinese drug profits.

I can still see Paul, slim, with his light brown hair, short beard, and soft brown eyes, strolling calmly down Cowboy Alley. An idea haunts me -- I may be the only person on earth to remember him, certainly the only person to remember the Paul in Saigon learning how to write Chinese. But for the life of me, even with my good memory, I cannot remember his name. I said, “Call him Paul,” but I am pretty sure that was not his name.

Sometimes when I see a group of teenagers, I would like to tell them about Paul, to pass the memory on a few decades after my death, but I'm afraid what I left would be an impression of some nut rambling on about some incomprehensible tale. Dear reader, I am entrusting this story to you. Please make a little space in your memory for Paul, because I cannot bear for him to fade into oblivion forgotten by all humanity.

壬午八XV 0230

Monday, August 11, 2003

Tallis Scholars
written in August, 2000

For various reasons, I went for a good twenty years without music. I sang and chanted in Buddhist dharma meetings, music that is quintessentially Chinese: just keep the rhythm, and sing in any key you see fit. At times it can sound like monkeys and squirrels squabbling over a tangerine orchard, but when everything meshes, the music is sublime. Towards the end of the period I went to a few superb concerts by talented students, but at home no music was played. My ex-wife had an incredible voice, as resonant as a fine cello, a capello. She sang only Buddhist melodies.

When I got a computer that could handle CD-ROM, Fengchin gave me my first CD, Allegri's Miserere sung by the Tallis Scholars. I have never cared for choir music, but this opened my eyes. If the universe sings, it must sound very much like the Tallis Scholars singing Miserere.

When Allegri composed the Miserere, the Pope declared the Sistine Chapel the only earthly site worthy of such ethereal beauty; taking the score out of the Vatican would be punished by excommunication. At the age of 14, Mozart heard the piece, and wrote the score out from memory.

To understand how technically difficult the work is, you have to hear it sung by someone other than the Tallis Scholars. They perform the piece as easily as an angel floats among the stars; looks easy, but you try it. Other groups sound like the cow trying to jump over the moon.

Strange: sometimes when you don't think of something, it just never enters your mind. Several weeks ago, talking with Wen, I realized that I watched them build the National Concert Hall, ten minutes' walk from my old place, and when it was opened, I never set foot inside. Those were my busy years, anyway.

But now I live in the mountains, half a county away from the Concert Hall. It might be time to venture in.

In the city for class several days later, as I rushed to the subway entrance two words on a poster caught my eye:
Tallis Scholars. Coming to Taipei! My god. Two tickets, center of the third row.

I told Ms Yang not to give me any classes on the 31st.

"What's up?"

"I'm going to a concert.”

"You? A concert? Since when have you gotten cultured?”

On July 31, the appointed day, I headed down the mountain. I was picked up by Abus, being driven by a Han taxi driver.

"Abus! Where's your taxi? What are you doing sitting on the right side?”

"Don't you know that Chen borrowed it? He drove it head on into some other car, and totaled it. I don't have the money to pay for repairs, and he is dodging me. I am on my way to Newstore to talk to the garage.”

"Can you give me a ride to the subway?”


On the way down, I benefited from their refined conversation. "Chen may think he can trick me, just because he's Han Chinese and I'm an aborigine. I'll show him what's what. If he doesn't pay up by the third, like he said he would, I'm going to get some brothers from the tribe and beat him into gravy. Then he'll know that human life is a sea of bitterness.”

"Yeah, but how'll he pay if he's in the hospital?”

"That's his problem.”

"It'd be better to take his taxi. Then if he doesn't pay by the third, you can still drive that to make some money.”

"Three kids, wife, mother, relatives. I'd better do something!” (note: on the third, I saw Abus riding happily along in his newly fixed taxi. I guess Chen did not need to be reminded about the bitterness of human life.)

I met Zoephie, the art historian, for an excellent dinner at Huiliu, one of Taipei's better vegetarian restaurants. We strolled through the grounds of the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial to the Concert Hall, filed in, and took our seats.

Soon the lights dimmed and the stage started filling up with a group dressed in formal black uniforms. Funny, the Tallis Scholars are supposed to be from England, and these people coming in didn't look very English. The program informed us that we would be warmed up by the National Experimental Chorus singing Taiwanese folk songs. Folk songs dressed up for a full chorus is something I dislike: putting makeup, heels, and an evening gown on a country lass. However, I have never liked choral music anyway, and in Taiwan today, this sort of thing is very, very politically correct, so we must forbear. The Chorus really threw themselves into their singing, and they sang very well.

They took their bow and left the stage. The long-awaited Tallis Scholars came in, seven, eight, nine, ten, only ten of them, not including the conductor, Mr Peter Phillips. Unlike the Experimental Chorus, the Scholars were not uniformed. The men wore evening dress, and the five women wore black clothes of their own choosing. They are so good they don't need uniforms, and they are so good they hold their scores, instead of relying on memory. When you are as good as the Tallis Scholars, you do not have to show your competence through side effects.

In about three seconds after they started, the Experimental Chorus was long out of mind, and we all drifted into the Renaissance harmonies of Palestrina's Surge illuminare. Seeing the singers on stage, I realized the obvious. I had spent hours and hours listening to their music on CDs. The sound is so rich and so complete that until you actually see them, you would never think that this is the singing of less than a dozen people. But then it seems obvious.

Imagine glorious palaces built of song. Solid, dependable foundations built on bedrock, to last forever. Intricate design intrigues but never confuses. Lofty spires reach to heaven. This is the singing of the Tallis Scholars.

We had a complaint about the program, which did not give us our performers' names (maybe they travel with backup Scholars, and do not necessarily perform with precisely the same line-up at each concert.) But it seems we came to know them very quickly, from the bass over on the right, total concentration visible on his face, to the lithe lady (lots of blondes on stage) with the astonishing voice probing the stratosphere. One movement began with a male Gloria in excelsis deo that was sung so simply and so eloquently that the one line could stand by itself.

A singer with her hair covering her forehead sang with the imperturbable calm of a pond of deep water. Her right wrist was decorated with the Buddhist rosary that is so common in Taiwan. During intermission, I heard several people commenting affectionately on that rosary.

We loved the Scholars, and tried our best to let them know it. The audience insisted on applauding between movements, which we all know is not done. But how often do we get to applaud performances of the caliber of the Tallis Scholars? I clapped as loud and as long as anybody else. Let the conductor wait. Frankly, I did not observe that the singers were offended. We noted them smiling and laughing among themselves between numbers.

For me, the high point of the evening was Miserere, which, dream come true, I got to hear sung live by the Tallis Scholars. Let Zoephie's comment suffice: “That was so good I have no words to describe it.”

The final piece on the program was Byrd's Tribue Domine, a work of great elegance. When they finished, the house erupted. We clapped until our palms were sore, trying to express our gratitude for the beauty the Scholars had brought into our lives this evening. Chinese people are not particularly expressive. Public displays of emotion are not frowned upon, because frowning would be displaying emotion. (I went to see George of the Jungle because the preview was so hysterically funny that the crowd gathered around the outdoor screen was actually smiling.)

Finally, the Scholars came back on stage and sang an encore, took several more bows, and were called back for a second encore. Just as they took their places, somebody from the peanut gallery shouted something (could have been "encore") that startled smiles from the singers. Then it was their turn: the audience chuckled when we realized they were singing a Chinese folk song, in Mandarin! Well done, very well done, especially when you consider it was probably sight-reading.

But it was getting late, and the singers were probably getting tired, if not from singing then from bowing so many times, so with considerable reluctance we let them go. The audience was uplifted. Smiles were on all faces.

* * * * *

Subway to the end of the line, pick up the bus, to the second stop from the end, Wulai Bridge. I crossed the deserted bridge in silence and headed up the mountain, my ears ringing. Halfway up, the outer silence was broken. A motorcycle pulled up out of the darkness of the mountain road.

"Silan," I climbed onto the pillion, "It's almost midnight. What are you doing out so late?”

"I'm going off to Agiq to hunt flying squirrels.”

"Aren't you heading in the wrong direction? Where's your gun?”

"I came back to borrow Bayes's crossbow. Are you coming back from teaching?”

"No, I've been to a concert.”