Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Sep 07 2020

A gig in Hsinchu

This last Saturday we went down to Hsinchu for a gig. Our van driver was the ever-reliable Mr. Gao, with his hair arranged in a Japanese-style topknot, and traffic was mostly smooth. Cristina had pulled a muscle in her back and was on pain medication. The weather was fine, Hsinchu’s famous breeze kept things cool…fall came with the arrival of September this year, quite punctually. The air has lost its core heat, and suddenly breezes have an actual cooling effect. Being outside without instantly breaking into a sweat feels quite novel. Chenbl predicts that this means the winter will be especially cold. I don’t think anyone is looking forward to Winter 2020 and the threat of recurring virus waves; all we can do is keep our guard up and trust those in charge know what they’re doing. Which is more than a lot of countries seem able to do, unfortunately.

We arrived at Hsinchu Park on time and did our soundcheck, but they hadn’t arranged lunch, so I went across the street to get ice coffee and a cinnamon bun. Just after I’d ordered, David called and said the organizers had moved things up and we had to go back early.

Alas, I was not back early. Which turned out to be fine as we started on time anyway, but it did become a kind of theme for the day. We did a thing where we played while walking up to the stage, bringing back memories of marching band, and then we had three hours to kill before the main show.

The park was becoming crowded, with too few people wearing masks for my comfort, so I went for a walk around town, first over to the railroad tracks, taking photos of scooters and shadows in the underpass, then over to the train station, where the light on the platforms was exquisite. It was too bad that I couldn’t get on them. I mulled using my Easycard to get on the platforms and then just leaving, but I decided against it and kept walking, taking the tunnel under the tracks and back towards the park, passing the corpses of ancient trees by the rear entrance.

I skirted the park again, heading through nearby neighborhoods, happy to be just out and walking on my own for a bit, when I stumbled across a raised canal running through the apartment complexes. It must have been used for irrigation at one point, but now it was a pleasant little river, with hardly any odor. A man was taking pictures of an orange-and-white street cat while a few feet away a rather large pig snuffled through the hedges. I followed the canal towards a pleasant park filled with artificial wetland bogs, elderly people sitting around with caretakers, a dog and another street cat that had appropriated one of the benches. The canal continued into the back of Chiao Tung University’s Boai campus, but I couldn’t follow it much further as I had to get back. I passed through some older one-story house communities and brand-new buildings with wraparound balconies that would surely be closed off. Developers here seem to think Taiwanese people will love balconies and use them for enjoyment, but hardly anyone ever does. People like the idea of balconies, in that they see themselves as the type of people who would enjoy a balcony if they just had one, but that’s not the way it works out in practice. They most often end up enclosed and/or full of boxes and other detritus.

Showtime had been moved up, of course, so it’s good that I got back to the park early. The show went well, or at least I assume it did as the lights were so bright I couldn’t really see the audience. The Thai chicken boxed meals were delicious and the drive back smooth, but it had been a long day; when Mr. Gao dropped us off at Xindian Station nobody thought of hanging out by the river as we often do.

 

posted by Poagao at 11:41 am  
Jul 20 2020

A weekend jaunt

Went travelling for the first time in a while over the weekend. Chenbl and I met up on Saturday morning and caught a bullet train south to Kaohsiung, complete with window seats and breakfast on the train. Drinking ice coffee and looking out the window at the scenery flashing past at 200mph …just the act of getting on a fast train to the south felt wonderful, and I haven’t seen that lovely port city in a minute.

After arriving we descended into the dark, humid depths of the Kaohsiung metro, which doesn’t seem interested in providing air conditioning or light in as generous capacities as its Taipei counterpart, and headed over to Yanchengpu, where our friend Lee Ah-ming was having his exhibition opening. The weather was brilliant, the sun white-hot but with a breeze unfamiliar to those who dwell in the windless Taipei basin, where the streets radiate heat. Kaohsiung is cool enough if you stay out of the sun, and the sparsely populated streets made me think most were avoiding going out during the hottest part of the day.

The exhibition was interesting, good work on the subject of Taiwan’s beleaguered migrant fish workers, and it’s always fun talking with “the other Ah-ming” as well as my painter friend Cheng Kai-hsiang, who was also there. But I never do well in spaces filled with people on the periphery of art-related activities, so I tend to shut up, lurk and listen.

Afterwards we all walked over, across the Love River, which stinks much less these days (and in fact hasn’t for a long time, but the occasional whiff makes me think some of the tributaries still need some work), to a three-story restaurant, also with no air conditioning. Dinner was good, just sweaty, so we had to order some shaved ice afterwards at the lobby of one of the other hotels where some of our students were staying.

And then to our hotel, the Fullon in Yanchengpu; Chenbl had scored some kind of discount, possibly to entice people to travel during these Covidian times, and we had a large, nice room overlooking the harbor in the distance. Oh the joy of a strong hotel shower and fresh hotel bed sheets! It’s been too long, and I enjoyed it, as well as the generous hotel breakfast the next morning. The place has a pool, but we’d neglected to bring swimsuits, and at any rate it was full of kids.

We walked around the area, taking the light rail to Xizhiwan and then down to the docks. The place where I took a photo of a kid playing on a giraffe statue has changed completely and now features a carousel and small merry-go-round.

Then we took the still stifling subway out to a mall, where we waited some time for taxis out to Qijin, where we were meeting Ah-ming for a delicious lunch featuring sashimi fresh off the boat. Then he showed us around the docks for a while, exploring the nooks and crannies of the area, talking with Ah-ming about the publishing industry and his next book, all the while as a line of storm clouds crept up on the horizon. We timed it just right, arriving back at the High Speed Rail station just as the rain began. A doze-filled hour and a half later we were back at Taipei station having dinner upstairs.

It was so good to get away for a bit, I’ve missed it.

posted by Poagao at 11:46 am  
Jun 05 2020

An afternoon

I didn’t get off work until after 1 p.m. today. I took the subway to TaiPower Building and had a quick but delicious lunch at Sababa, where they know what I want before I order as I always order the same thing there. Then it was off to check out a Black Lives Matter Taiwan event held near the NTU dorms. There, in between the large buildings, was a small group of young people, mostly white, several holding small cardboard signs. A Black woman and an Asian woman were leading the group in singing “We Shall Overcome” followed by “Lift Every Voice and Sing”. People stared at their phones, searching for the lyrics. The leaders spoke and took questions, we knelt for five minutes in silence for George Floyd, and some slogans were shouted before they took a group photo and disbanded. I’d gotten there late and apparently missed the start. Most people left, but some broke up into little groups to talk. My friend Casey says there are more activities planned, but he was busy today and wasn’t able to make it. I felt awkward and apart, as I usually do in groups of foreigners, standing off to the side and listening.

After that I walked over to the NTU gates and up through the campus, wishing I could take a dip in the campus swimming pool due to the heat, and then over to the neighborhood where I used to live in the early 90’s after I graduated from college. There, at the old abandoned Military Police station, I saw two women on a scooter looking at one of the basement windows. Inside was a mewing grey-striped kitten with a smudged nose and grey eyes, one of them half open; they were trying to get it to come out through the grate. They had put some nuts on the ledge to entice it, but it wasn’t having it. “They sell tuna in cans at the 7-Eleven over there,” I said, pointing across the intersection. So they went off to buy tuna while I sat with the kitten on the side of the derelict building. So I told it a story:

“You know, little cat,” I said. “I was once in a bit of a fix myself here, long before you were born. It was 1991 or so, and I’d just lost my first job. I had no money and had never lost a job before. I didn’t know what to do. So I walked over to this spot, which was then a fully operational Military Police installations, in the middle of the night. It must have been 3 or 4 in the morning, and there was a single guard on duty outside. He couldn’t have been much older than I was.” The kitten meowed, so I continued.

“I told him I was feeling down, that things weren’t going so great. Here I’d thought things were going pretty well, even though I was struggling to work on a native-level position with less-than-native-level Chinese and even worse Taiwanese. But I’d failed, it was my first big failure, and a disaster in my mind. I would find another job, but I didn’t know that then. But just being able to talk about it with someone was an enormous relief, you know?”

The kitten didn’t say anything.

“So now I see you here in a jam, all alone up here on that ledge. It could be that your family isn’t around any more, and you’re on your own. Maybe you need someone to talk to as well? Oh, I know you need more than that, but it’s all I got for now. I hope you can have a good life, but it’s likely that if you get through this there will be even greater challenges in the future waiting for you. People will try to help you, but you have to accept their help, so please take a few steps and have something to eat, ok?”

The kitten turned around and meowed. I blinked slowly at it, and it slow-blinked back. It seemed drowsy. Maybe it was exhausted. The women on the scooter came back with the tuna, and they placed some on the ledge, but the kitten didn’t move. A young woman walked by and suggested that we were scaring the kitten. “Well, we tried!” the women on the scooter said, and took off. I sat down with the little furball for a while, but it wouldn’t come near the grate, so I pushed the tuna as far as I could towards it. “Good luck, little cat, I wish you well,” I said.

I checked out my old residence nearby, a tiny room I’d rented for NT$3,500 a month, recalling the haphazardly put-together Wolf 125cc motorcycle I’d been riding at the time (the one on which I’d scared my friend and roommate Boogie into never riding another motorcycle again). Walking alongside the school where the old shanty town used to be, an older man hailed me in English. After I responded in Chinese and we’d exchanged a few sentences, he suddenly realized he had someplace else to be.

I walked up to Heping East Road, where I was passing a cafe when a young man stood up and called me over; it seemed he’d seen a recent interview I’d done, and we sat down to chat on the sidewalk for a bit. It was very pleasant. He wore a white Tiananmen baseball cap and seemed well-travelled. But I couldn’t stay long, as I was meeting Chenbl and his parents at the Surviving Eslite near City Hall. Chenbl’d spotted a good deal on some Bluetooth headphones, and as my phone’s port has been annoying me, I needed some.

Later, on my way back across the bridge to the Water Curtain Cave, I spotted the misty full moon, and wondered how people were doing. It pains me to see what’s going on in the U.S. these days. It’s pained me for a long time, the needless slaughter and indifference. I speak up when I can, but it’s hard to cut through the noise. We can’t stop trying, though.

posted by Poagao at 10:39 pm  
Mar 20 2020

The virus

I know, it’s been a minute since I posted on here. A lot, needless to say, has been going on. My sister came out to Taiwan from Oklahoma for a month-long visit encompassing the month of January, my birthday gift to her. We also took a trip to Tokyo in early January for about a week, and I took her around northern Taiwan to see the sights, etc. The Muddy Basin Ramblers even gave her a private show, as we weren’t playing any gigs during that time.

The timing of the trip was a close thing, in retrospect. Even a week later and things would have been different. The day before she left, we went out to Jiufen for the day, spending the cold afternoon sipping tea and eating cakes at an old tea house overlooking the sea. The very next day, after I took her to the airport for an early morning flight, hundreds of passengers from the Diamond Princess (yes, that Diamond Princess) flowed out of the ship docked in Keelung and, yes, some of them visited Jiufen.

You know what has happened in the time since: The world has basically shut down, especially after the virus hit the U.S. and people started to belatedly take it seriously. Having been through SARS, and not being privy to the WHO’s prevarications, Taiwan knew what was up early on, closing down flights from China, which, ironically, had already helped out by limiting tourists from coming here in order to “punish” us for daring to have free and open elections. Most people began to wear masks on subways and buses as well as in crowded environments, and many mass gatherings were cancelled. Schools delayed their opening for a month or more.

Many countries have recently closed their borders; Taiwan did so a couple of days ago when it became blindingly obvious that most of the cases we were seeing were travelers from infected countries all around the world rather than just a few countries. All arrivals now go straight to quarantine…at least that’s what they’re supposed to do; there’s always those selfish, exceptionally unaware individuals who think they know better and effectively ruin it for everyone else. We saw it with SARS, and we’re seeing it now, even though the government has been issuing fines up to a NT1 million to people breaking quarantine.

Hopefully Taiwan will continue its stellar record fighting the virus; international media have mostly been ignoring this fact, instead pointing to other countries like South Korea, but that’s to be expected as most media don’t want to piss off China. In a way it’s somewhat comforting; at least people won’t be seeing Taiwan as a safe haven and trying to escape here. In fact, the border closings are causing a furor among expats who aren’t residents and have been living here on visitor visas, as they’re not allowed to go out and come back in again on a new visa as they’ve been doing, some for many years.

Watching as the virus ravages other countries, however, has been painful, countries such as Italy and Iran, and now even parts of the U.S., which delayed its virus response while Trump pretended it wasn’t a thing, and then just a small thing, easily dealt with. U.S. government officials, we’ve now found, knew about the threat but hid it from people while they sold their stocks, an act that is both illegal and unconscionable. Gun stores are being cleaned out, which is alarming. Jobs are being lost and/or suspended, yet landlords are still demanding rent. People who can’t work from home are bearing the brunt of the impact. Some states are at least trying to take up the slack for the federal government, acting to protect their citizens. I still see people, mostly Americans, pooh-poohing the virus, calling it “just a bad flu” or even a “plot by the democrats to make Trump look bad”, etc. There was one at the Altspace campfire just last night (VR seems to be taking off as more people around the world are on lockdown). Notably, everyone else blocked him, and he disappeared. The looming election looks like it will be a choice between two very old, very white men, both with cognitive problems and questionable records, and has thus been lost in the noise. If this is akin to a “wartime” situation, a narrative Trump seems to pushing now with his insistence on calling Covid19 “the Chinese virus,” his reelection is virtually assured.

For now, things here in Taiwan aren’t bad, relatively speaking. Cases here just passed the 100 mark yesterday, and we have one death so far; community spread has thus far been limited. Most schools and businesses are still open, if sparsely populated. Masks and rubbing alcohol are being rationed, and masks can even be ordered online. Legislation has been passed to deal with the economic and social impacts of the situation. I live on the outskirts of town, and I haven’t been hoarding; indeed my fridge isn’t big enough for more than maybe a week of supplies, but I’ve been buying a little more than I need every time I go shopping. I spend a lot of time at home anyway, more lately as I work on some books I’m in the process of making. I am in a way fortunate that I live alone; Chenbl lives with his elderly parents, and we all need to be especially careful.

When this is over, if it is over, I suspect the world will be changed, at least in view of the fact that the curtains have been torn down from many realities people were hitherto unwilling to face. Whether we go back to our previous state of ignorance remains to be seen.

posted by Poagao at 11:23 am  
Oct 29 2019

Cuba Trip! Part two

Cuba was basically an encapsulation of conservative Americans’ fears of socialism, I wrote in my notebook as we drove on the eastbound road to Matanzas. I’m still not sure what I was thinking when I wrote that. I’d chosen Matanzas basically by looking at it on Google Maps: A sleepy port town, not on the tourist track. It seemed a better choice than touristy Vinales, and I’d always liked port towns; I wasn’t particularly interested in cigar manufacturing or horse-riding. And even Ms. D was with us on this excursion. As we drove, a military convoy consisting of two (2) motorcycles hauled a poorly disguised boat onto the highway, stopping traffic for a short spell before heading back off.

After a couple of hours in a van that apparently had no high gear, we drove through town and up into the hills a little ways to visit the famous caves in the area, supposedly discovered by a Chinese miner by accident. We took the tour, quickly falling behind the rest of the group as everyone was taking selfies. Several other groups passed us, and the local photographer/videographer who’d been tasked with recording our visit with a handicam gave up, going on to shoot other tourists. The caves were, well, caves. The guide mentioned how in the early days there were no restrictions, so a lot of the stalactites and stalagmites had been removed by visitors. I was expecting instructions about not touching anything, but he was pretty much: “Hey, touch anything you want! See that pool of water? That’s lucky water! Go play in it!” When some of the group was posing people leaning on a formation for photos, the guide actually helped.

By the time we were done with the caves it was time for lunch, which we had at a place across from the waterside railroad tracks, at the suggestion of our drivers. It wasn’t bad, but of course with the group it took forever; I didn’t get the impression that they usually had that many customers at once, and we rather caught them unawares.

So by the time we were done with the caves and lunch, it was getting on in the day, the day I’d hoped to spend exploring the city. As a result, we only had a short time for people to walk quickly around for a little bit. I found the other end of the now-defunct Hershey Train, and chatted briefly with some fellows standing next to a lovely vintage green Mercedes-Benz, but I didn’t get a chance to actually see much.

We stopped at Cohimar as the sun set, wandering around that seaside village under the gaze of the Hemingway Statue there for a bit. Some of our group insisted on making a Beatles-style lineup shot on top of a fort. Ms. D was setting up shots, putting her straw hat on small local kids and taking their shots. Dinner was lobster at a touristy place off the Cathedral Square back in Havana, and the ensuing wifi access pretty much ensured that we were sitting there the rest of the evening, me tapping my foot impatiently while the others checked their social media for a few hours.

We got up early the next day. Early morning light in Havana is quite nice, especially in Centro just south of the Malecon. It seemed to be the first day of school for some groups of kids, standing in the street outside their school and singing patriotic songs while proud parents looked on. The group ran around photographing, free of fear of retribution, which made me pause. If you don’t usually take that kind of photo in a Western country, would you do it here? If not, is that a double standard? Even if it’s not a double standard, it’s something I’d think one would want to at least be aware of. I kept seeing scenes that I felt sure I could have photographed with a certain amount of concentration and empathy had I not been flanked by five or six camera-wielding members of our group, none of them actually looking at the people in front of them, eyes rather fixated on their LCD screens. Using the Leica Q’s 28mm didn’t help matters, as that camera rewards getting closer, more personal and more intimate, not sniping away from afar in a group as someone could do with a longer focal length. So I passed over scene after scene, feeling more numb to it all. I’d made a point of promising myself nothing on this trip; I knew it would happen and purposely lowered my expectations. But I was still depressed and tired.

Later in the day, men were offloading dead pigs at a market near the train station, which now seems to be under renovation (it was derelict the last time we passed this way). The area has, since our last trip, always been one of Chenbl’s favorite parts of Havana; he kept wanting to go back there. We stopped to chat with a drum maker, hovered around the scene of one of the many broken-down trucks being repaired, but generally just kept walking.

Eventually, as late afternoon approached, I decided I needed a haircut. Usually I just do it myself, but it had been forever since I’d had a nice cut in a Black barbershop, and Havana has no shortage of these, so while everyone else went back to Las Maletas, Carlos, Chenbl and I stopped into a local place, and I enjoyed having what’s left of my raggedy-ass hairline shaped up by the barber as we were treated to the latest tunes from Kendrick Lamar and Future. Though I didn’t understand most of the Spanish banter going on inside, it was pleasant and a good way to regain my peace of mind. Afterwards we walked through the posh, upgraded hotels near the Capitol, past an upscale camera shop with LEICA emblazoned on the front, to the old city and our hotel.

At dinner (lobster, which explained the cats milling around our legs as we ate), a very blonde teen stopped in front of our table and started sketching on a piece of paper while staring at me. Scam, I thought, and shook my head at him. Undeterred, he presented me with a laughably amateur scribbling. “I am no Picasso,” he said, demanding money for the sketch. That much was true; not only was he no Picasso, he apparently didn’t understand that Picasso was basically creating photo-realistic artwork by his age; only later in life did he go for the more abstract pieces he’s known for. But though I was a jerk and didn’t pay up (I told him he should have at least asked me first), I did watch the kid scam several other tourists in this fashion. I wondered if he’d have dared do the same thing or meet with the same success if he were Black; I doubted it. It was just part of the atmosphere in Cuba, something we didn’t really encounter the last time, before the crackdowns both there and abroad.

I should add here that Carlos was extremely helpful not only by helping us translate and provide context, his thoughtful, measured pronunciation of Spanish helped me realize that I could slow down and get my pronunciation right rather than tripping over my own tongue trying to get phrases out too quickly.

We got up early again the next day, our last full day in Havana, and we told everyone we’re just going to walk around…y’all just do your own thing. We took the ferry to Regla, toured the Black church with actual Black Jesuses (Jesi?) depicted inside, and then walked the streets for a while. People in the group started to get hungry and complain, so Chenbl bought nearly every biscuit a local vendor on a bicycle had on him, and handed them out. Back in Havana, we visited the tourist market, which was another long, achingly long stretch of frustration. Desperate vendors, schpiels, the same merch in every stall…the market had shrunk by about a third since the last time we were there, but it seemed interminable just the same.

Then, as the sun began to set, we set out through town again. I had to visit the park that David Alan Harvey had told me the location of, where at least three well-known Magnum photographs had been taken. The playground has since been renovated, but I could still make out where the Magnum photos had been taken. It seemed that both David and Alex Webb had taken nearly the same shots just at the entrance of the playground, which is interesting. The light was nice there, and I would have liked to have stayed, but we had to go. Again.

We walked through Centro again, making for the National Hotel, which was such a long way that before long only a couple of the group were still with us. Kids were playing baseball in the streets. Beggars followed Chenbl, one so persistently that Carlos and I had to flank him and suggest that he might want to move on. Back at the hotel, as we arranged for vans back to the airport later that night, the landlady told us how she basically had to go to Mexico to get anything, and customs was a nightmare.

My room was unavailable that night, but it was ok as we had to leave at 3:00 a.m. so I just slept in the security room. Our flight was at 7. At one point on the dark drive, I awoke from a nap and realized that we were no longer on the main road, but rather taking a shortcut on backroads, passing near what looked like a incarceration facility. For some reason at that empty hour a sudden fear sprang into my mind, that something had gone horribly wrong, the drivers had set a trap, and we were actually being delivered to prison. But the feeling passed as we drove on and the airport came into view against the glowing horizon.

We bade Carlos farewell; his plane, bound for Honduras and then Guatemala, was parked next to ours, and leaving right after us. It felt a little like Hoth. I didn’t feel sorry to be leaving; unlike the last time we’d gone, this trip had been frustrating and a bit of an ordeal. I don’t know what lies in store for Cuba. Better things than now, I hope. I wish them the best.

Toronto was colder than when we’d left. We arrived way too early to check in to the Comfort Inn, and it was drizzling outside, so at Karl’s suggestion, we spent most of the day at a huge mall. Something -dale…Yorksdale: Massive, but seemingly very repetitive stores. The sun came out for a moment, dazzling everyone, and then hid again. An obviously armed security guard came up to Chenbl and I, asking if we were looking for anything in particular. I assume this had something to do with the fact that I was by far the worst-dressed individual in the mall at the time, and that’s saying something. The next day Karl showed us around the St. Lawrence Market, Eaton Mall, and the fountain made up of happily vomiting dogs, all in between periodic cups of coffee. We also perused the World Press Photo awards.

The sun was out in force the next day, though it was still chilly. We traveled into town via the circuitous bus/subway combination that everyone was convinced took far less time than it actually did. When we exited the station downtown, we were greeted with very lovely light flashing down from many different buildings at once. I wanted to explore this scene, seeing several wondrous possibilities within walking distance, but the group had to make a birthday song video for Carlos first. This took a while, of course, and by the time we were done, the light had moved on, becoming rather mundane. Oh well. It was probably a trap anyway.

We took a ferry out to the islands on the other side of the harbor. Quaint little places, forest paths, docks full of cleverly named sailboats. On the other side was a pleasant little beach with the water of Lake Ontario lapping gently on the sand. A man in a wheelchair rolled up and gazed at the water for a while. We walked along the island through disc-golf courses and waterways filled with swans and other wildlife to the central part, where we had some lunch at the Carousel Cafe, where the salmon salad and mac and cheese we ordered arrived with surprising alacrity. Chenbl was initially dismayed at the sight of mac and cheese, but after a taste was convinced it was a good choice.

Back downtown, the light was becoming quite nice. Karl had told us that he’d be around a certain intersection, but apparently we missed each other. But ducklings gonna duck, and just for fun after noticing them following me I walked in circles for a while before they caught on. Then I spotted a nice series of columns across the street, and quickly crossed over to take a few photos there. Periodically people would walk by, but nobody took any notice of me.

…until the others showed up, having crossed the street at the next intersection and come back. Flanked by several people, all holding their cameras up, I began to notice the people on the sidewalk throwing us annoyed looks, even though I was no longer taking any pictures. I should move on again, I thought…but wait; perhaps they need to know that this kind of thing has consequences, apart from simply the usual bad photos. So I walked up to one of the windows along the wall and took a shot of my reflection. It wasn’t even a shot of any of the people there, but one woman,  unsurprisingly, spoke up. “Hey, could you all stop taking pictures of people here? It’s really rude.”

“My apologies for the inconvenience,” I said, meaning it. “We’ll go.” I just hoped that the people in our group had taken note of what had just happened.

I was pretty much done in any case. Chenbl and I had some dinner at the Eaton Mall before browsing Best Buy, where Chenbl was powerless to resist the call of the big-ass boombox on display (it did sound amazing, I will admit), the price a fraction of what it would be in Taiwan. We lugged the damn thing on the subway as a group of white teens spouted ignorant homophobia and racist nonsense to a younger boy who was obviously in high heaven to be amongst his heroes. Then it was the bus back to the hotel to prepare for yet another late-night flight.

It was a long flight, 15+ hours just to Hong Kong. We flew over the north pole, and it felt like it as the plane was so cold. Back home, it has taken me a minute to get my mind right again. Chenbl’s been asking me where we should go next, but right now I. just. can’t. even. In any case, though it was a bit of an ordeal at times, I hope that you’ve at least enjoyed reading about it.

posted by Poagao at 4:22 pm  
Oct 24 2019

Cuba Trip! Part one

I started this trip in a state of apprehension; too many things going on. I’ve missed that old feeling of just setting off into the world that I used to get; it’s been too long since those days. I keep hoping it might return someday. I got an inkling of it as we took the metro, but at the airport more details pulled me back into limbo. Students began to appear, part of our group, as well as their friends and spouses along for the ride, to get a glimpse of whatever this whole “street photography trip” thang was. But I felt obstructed, like I was in everyone’s way. Our reserved seats were gone? Ok, fine.

Hong Kong airport, when we got there, was awash in the migraine-producing afternoon sun; the students ran around in groups holding their cameras in front of them like filled diapers, succumbing to the trap of “good light”. I looked at the people getting on the plane and wondered how many of them were going into exile. How many were starting new lives elsewhere, never to return?

The ensuing flight to Toronto was one of the longer I’ve taken, worth several movies I hadn’t seen and a few I had. A season of Black-ish. Some Bob’s Burger. Nothing happened outside the plane, or inside for that matter.

In Toronto, we found the old van that was the hotel shuttle, and then for some reason found that our rooms had all been reassigned from the original website booking at the airport Comfort Inn, many double bed rooms were now singles; the woman at the desk said that’s what our reservations were, and when I looked, that was indeed what it said. It’s not us! she said, talk to the booking site. Fortunately Chenbl had made pdfs of the original bookings, and so I had an online chat with the website customer service, who assured me all was well. The desk woman then called up, affronted that I would do exactly what they told me to do when I complained by taking the matter up with the website. The website apparently called the hotel up and said WTF.

I had disliked Vancouver when I was there last, but Toronto felt different, more earnest and less insecure. Or perhaps that was because it wasn’t freezing so I wasn’t in as nasty a mood. We walked around the cloudy grey of downtown, through the recently deserted square where they’d held Nuit Blanche the night before. A huge scarred model of a Pentax K1000 stood in the middle of it. A group of subdued protesters marched through the square, chanting education slogans.

Chenbl and the others wanted to see Niagara Falls, so we hopped on a bus there, stowing our stuff at the Ramada Inn we’d reserved there for the night. The rooms, and the hotel, were much nicer than the Airport Comfort Inn. There was no breakfast, but an iHop downstairs and a Buddhist monastery next door. We hopped on a bus down to the falls and looked at all the water as well as all the people looking at the water. Across the river was the United States, and with all the signage and bars they made sure everyone knew it. The place felt like I imagine a small version of Las Vegas would feel. We walked back towards the hotel after the sun set, bathing the eerily empty town in lovely golden light, and I could think of nothing but a sudden realization of why Alec Soth was so smitten by this place that he made a book of it. I could have wandered, but now everyone was hungry, so: dinner at a steakhouse, looking out the large windows while everyone discussed what meal to have. Next time! Except there is no next time; there never is.

We took another series of buses the next morning up to a little town chock full o’ preciousness called Niagara on the Lake. The-King-stayed-at-the-Inn!-Well-More-Like-Passed-Through kind of place. Lovely houses, tourists everywhere. Chenbl and I walked the precious streets, noting the bees inside the glass cabinets full of cookies and cakes. Bees! So it must be good, Chenbl noted, nodding. We all love bees these days. We used to hate them but now when we see a bee we ask how it’s doing and if it would like some water or something.

Then we took a cable car that went nearly all the way over the river before heading back to the falls. Some of the group wanted to take the boats to under the falls, but I didn’t feel like getting myself and my camera soaking wet, so Chenbl and I decided to take a zipline by the falls instead. It was fun, but too short. We wandered the town some more, from the strip of gaudiness by the falls, neon signs, Ripley Believe it (or Nah), etc. to the quiet motels and empty shops. Beautiful dusk light as we walked to a bar to get burgers for everyone waiting back at the station for our late-night bus back to Toronto.

The next day we met up with Karl Edwards, a local street photographer, and shot for a bit at a salmon jump near Old Mill…groups of kids on field trips scampered around, but precious few salmon were jumping. I didn’t care, but Chenbl perched himself on the edge of the dam and waited for a long time to get some fish shots. Then Karl took us around downtown, which was now brilliant with sunlight. It was difficult to keep everyone together…someone was always complaining about us going either too fast or too slow. Photography in such a state is quite difficult…Oh well. Next time! We took the UP train back to the airport. The UP line is fast and convenient. But people in the group were complaining because they didn’t like to buy tickets each time, but they didn’t feel like buying the Presto card, which would have been cheaper and meant buying tickets every time, which meant everyone waiting around for the group to get their tickets…so…?

Karl walked with us again the next day around Chinatown, and he even suggested dimsum for lunch. The light was very strong, the cable cars running up and down. Chenbl and I walked around a bit on our own, having sent everyone off to do their own thing for a few hours. We stopped at the art museum before heading back to the airport. I still liked Toronto more than Vancouver…it just felt more chill for some reason…though like Vancouver there are far too many hulking blue skyscrapers. I’m sure there’s nowhere I could afford to live in either town.

But we had a redeye flight to Havana to catch, which was mainly why we’d elected to stay by the airport. The terminal was swank, with iPads for everyone and a bar so everyone could get drunk for the party flight down. The fully booked jet waited far out on the tarmac as we were taking the cheap Rouge option with no frills; everything on board cost money, so I drank water and listened to Spotify for entertainment. Both the flight and Customs were smooth, and we met our old friend Carlos, just flown in from Guatemala to join our excursion. Outside the terminal in Havana, our two hotel bus drivers were apparently expecting “LIN” to be a svelte young Asian woman, and were visibly disappointed to find my ugly mug instead. But they took us into town anyway.

At the hotel there was some bullshit when one of the students (a former student, so this was not entirely unexpected behavior) took issue with not all the rooms in the ancient edifice being exactly the same. Ceiling heights were a factor, apparently, as ludicrous as that sounds. It was as if she didn’t know nor care that she was in Cuba, FFS. There was a lot of sighing and drama and accusations, but Chenbl and Carlos and I agreed to switch rooms with Ms. P. Donna and everyone finally got to bed around 3:30 a.m.

The next day we just walked around the area, letting everyone get accustomed to the place. There were lots of difference from the last time we’d been there a year and a half ago; everything in the city seemed to be under construction; mostly old buildings being refurbished, but some new buildings as well. More new cars, restaurants, even new cruise ship terminals, all in preparation for the opening to the world that Obama began and Trump then crushed. Some serious private money had been spent before the Large Orange One pulled the rug from underneath them. Of course the Cuban government also deserves its share of the blame for utter mismanagement and corruption.

We stopped by the mojito bar again; the drinks were better this time, and the band was good. Most of the bands here are good. Our group, many of whom had put on hats, sunglasses and facemasks so that they resembled an Invisible Man Fan Club, ran around holding their cameras out in front of them, fixated on the little screens, and of course taking photos of whatever I was photographing or looking at. I could turn around at any point and see a line of them standing behind me, cameras held out in front of them. It was amusing the first couple of times.

Chenbl found a barber to get a haircut, which is always fun. Then we walked down to the Malecón and then into Centro for some lunch of ham sandwiches on the street as a couple of dogs watched from a barred window across the way. Then we headed back through the square where we’d spent so much time waiting for buses last time, and then to the Chinatown Gate. A man approached Chenbl, wanting to show him his ramshackle house, and of course Chenbl went with him. Sighing, I followed, for there were sure to be shenanigans. Sure enough, the man started going on about feeding his children, etc. Chenbl gave him some money, but he wanted more, so I moved away, towards the exit, and Chenbl followed my lead. It was sad all around. I was sensing a greater desperation in people than the last time we’d been there, which should have come as no surprise. The hawkers were more insistent, more people weren’t even bothering to even pretend to offer anything, simply coming up and asking for money. They’re feeling the squeeze, but of course the government isn’t feeling it, so the wrong people are being squeezed. Needless suffering, i.e., politics. Seeing this, as well as knowing the history of repression of the people, made me more hesitant to take photographs. I knew and they knew that they could get into serious trouble if they messed with tourists.

We made our way back to our hostel, the Las Maletas, which was great; I’d recommend it highly. Located in a lovely old building in old Havana, close to just about everything, the hosts were gracious and understanding, the breakfasts good, and they helped us plan our days as well as they could. I had a room at the top of the stairs in the back, with only a tiny window looking out on the adjacent dance studio, but I loved coming back there after a day of walking around the city, listening the music and voices wafting in from the street as I took a cold shower. The only rain we saw was at night. Like Camelot, but not, because the poor state of drainage on the streets meant nearly constant puddles everywhere. Nice for reflection shots; not so nice for walking.

The next morning Chenbl and some of the others had to go to the bank around the corner to change money…that gave me a little time to walk around on my own taking photos…alas, all too soon we were all together again, moving ducklike through the lively streets. We stopped into a shop to get some cigars, and then went to the old square, where a man straddled a stage he was constructing. I took a few photos, and when he came down I gave him some vitamin water to drink. After lunch we took a glance at the Peter Turnley exhibition, which wasn’t all that impressive. But then I’ve never really been a huge fan of either Turnley. It’s nice that they have that little gallery space, though.

Nearby a school was letting out, the parents waiting for the kids outside. Of course our group stood in a line, surrounding the door, cameras held up and at the ready. Oof. I had to go sit down a little ways down the street until they finished.

We took a ferry across the harbor, something I usually enjoy, and were asked for candy from some of the kids fishing at the dock. Carlos was sitting with a brother-and-sister team who were quite the comedians. A hot walk up the hill later a few of us were looking at the Christ statue. A group of Russians, including a woman in a scarf, was taking selfies while making poses in front of the statue. Then we walked back down to the ferry, as most of the group hadn’t been in the mood to follow.

That night we took vans out to the recently re-opened Factory de Arte, and I spent most of the time watching a fantastic Black trumpeter who shared the stage with a timid but also not bad white saxophonist and a young white woman playing the flute who really had no business being on the stage. There was also an extremely self-indulgent photo/art show upstairs. Everyone who’s anyone in Cuba was there; it was interesting, though I am no one and thus effectively invisible in such places. Which is fine with me.

The next day we (well, most of us…Ms. Donna graced us with neither her august presence nor financial contributions ) took vans out to Fusterlandia, a tiled home that has become a tourist attraction, but the surrounding village turned out to be more interesting than the exhibit. It’s astounding how much potential there is in the people of Cuba, their resourcefulness and ingenuity, I thought as I walked around the area. If they leapfrogged the petroleum industry and went straight to electric, it would be utterly amazing. I walked alone towards the seashore, passing through a junkyard that had been a playground. A trio of young boys played on the broken swing set, and I paused to engage in a short conversation in my broken Spanish with a man who was working on a house. It wasn’t his house, he said, resigned. He could never afford it. Carlos often told me my Spanish was better than I thought it was, but to be honest it’s just not good enough for anything more than basic conversation.

A magic dog bustled around a busy market, but our lunch was to be quite posh, on the water at Hemingway Marina, built for use by foreigners who are allowed to use boats. The waiter tried to add US$50 to our bill, but two of our number are accountants, and they weren’t having it. Chenbl still tipped him. We drove a ways out of town in the afternoon, Universal Studio-esque clouds building up as we walked around a run-down neighborhood. Though everyone was friendly, some of them told Carlos that parts of it might be dangerous, that we should avoid going a certain direction. Everyone seemed to think Carlos was Mexican, and he was constantly correcting them.

On the way back to old Havana, we stopped for a bit at Revolution Square to wonder if the giant heads came alive at night and compared selfie counts (Che always wins, and it drives Cienfuegos CRAZY). It rained hard after dinner as we walked around the old town, filling up the puddles for the next day, so we waited under the eaves of a large government building, ignoring the calls of passing, well-lit cabs.

 

posted by Poagao at 6:13 pm  
Sep 26 2019

This world and that

Everyone at the campfire last night was talking about the upcoming Oculus Connect 6 announcements. People were speculating about new gear, new capabilities, doubting Facebook’s intentions, etc. I’ve met some interesting people there at times…other times there’s not much going on. On occasion, there are idiots. And sometimes shouty kids who have slipped past the cordon, but they are usually kicked out.

None of us were really there, of course. And there’s not even any real “there” there; it’s a virtual reality social space called Altspace. We’re all in our individual locations, living rooms, offices, cars, truck cabs at rest stops…wherever. The portability and ease of the Quest has made it easily the favorite gear to use to access these spaces. I’d been using the Sideload app to gain access a month or so before the official release, but now it seems like just about everyone there is using the Quest; you can tell because they move their hands and heads and walk around in sync with their actual physical selves.

This adds another dimension to communication beyond speech: Headnods, fistbumps, daps and other gestures are now all part of the mix…just seeing someone look away or put their hand behind their head when they say something tells you more than mere speech would. And, generally, just “being” there, with full motion, in the 3D environment that you move about in freely. Even the audio is spatial; you can pretty much tell who around you is talking even without looking to see which Lego figure (which is what most of the avatars resemble at this point; a new system is in the works, however…Altspace people say they’re rebuilding it from the ground up) or robot figure is speaking. Why some people chose more human avatars and others choose robots is a fascinating topic by itself.

I’ve witnessed roast sessions and rap battles, and yes, they were most entertaining. There’s even an amateur improv show every week, stage and all. By early next year, supposedly, our hands will be mapped directly from the headset, rather than using controllers. These are people in all corners of the world, yet somehow standing next to each other, just talking, as if you bumped into them on the street. And since the streets these days are filled with people texting on their phones, it actually feels refreshing to just talk with strangers from literally anywhere, as if you were together. The armor of the keyboard warrior is somewhat thinner; these are your actual words, not text to impress and be impressed by; you hear them as does everyone else in the vicinity. It’s…different. You can still be a jerk, of course, but when doing so, you feel more like a jerk than you would just typing impersonal letters on a keyboard.

It should of course be noted that Facebook itself is launching Horizon, its version of a virtual social environment, though after seeing how Facebook censors certain voices and allows others to voice BS, I can’t say I’m not concerned that that space could end up being similarly toxic.

But it’s strange, the feeling of presence in these places that don’t exist. After greatly enjoying the first episode of Vader Immortal, a canon Star Wars story produced by LucasFilm, I’m looking forward to going back into that world for the newly announced Episode II. And it does feel like actually going back there; the detail and atmosphere of these worlds can be jaw-dropping. When a door opened in front of me in a corridor and a stormtrooper charged out, I literally jumped back and said, “Oh shit!” while my virtual companions actually dealt with the situation. Not the most heroic of actions (I suspect I’d be rather useless in a real Star Wars environment), but honest at least. And at another point when we were edging along a shelf high above Mustafar, I just sat down on the ledge for a minute to enjoy the view of the lava and occasional TIE fighter flying by, even though my droid kept reminding that we were, uh, like, kind of in a hurry, you know? Being chased, threat of imminent capture…any of that ring a bell? The dialog is actually well written, I have to say. And the view was nice (again, I would suck at actual Star-warring).

But the point is that I was there.

Some friends have expressed concern that these virtual environments will cut off our connection with the real world, but, perhaps ironically, I find myself with a renewed appreciation for the details and subtleties of said world, sometimes just letting go and looking around me at all the wonderful things that, if they were part of a simulation (as some argue this world actually is), are so intricate and beautiful. Could it be that virtual reality’s greatest gift is an appreciation for actual reality? That’s not to say I’m not looking forward to meeting up with Monsieur Vader once again. Dude is downright intimidating when he’s standing in front of you, threats in his voice as well as his stance and movements. It’s a good thing there’s no real way to “lose” the game (that I know of), because I suspect one of the smart-ass remarks I make to him would earn me a force-choking.

Whenever I see VR being discussed on “traditional” media such as Facebook or tech sites, many people seem to have long-since dismissed it, especially after Spielberg’s dismal rendition of it in Ready Player One. It’s mostly tech people who are dissatisfied with the specs of the gear involved. “Deal killer” is an oft-mentioned term (then again it’s the same for camera gearheads). But there seems to be a general gulf of awareness between that world and the Internet As We Know It, like using radio to convince people to try television (which eventually worked? I assume?). Will it become impassible, or will it eventually disappear? Time will tell, I guess. When I started this blog in early 2001, even such things as smartphones weren’t even around yet, but after a few first-iteration clunkers, they’re now so commonplace that hardly anyone would entertain the thought of leaving the house without one. Will it be the same with VR? Noted photography critic A.D. Coleman wrote in 2014, “Much of the incunabula in any new medium tends to rely on mere novelty — look, I can do this! I can do that! — because its pioneer practitioners have to concentrate on mastering the toolkit, and the technology is unfamiliar and cumbersome…Once they learn how to control the tools, and the tools become more sophisticated and easier to handle, creative attention gets turned to what the artist has to say.” So it would seem that we are in this first, vital stage of the medium’s development.

What happens next? Maybe we can talk about it at the campfire.

posted by Poagao at 12:44 pm  
Sep 24 2019

Luck

I was on my way to violin class yesterday when I spotted the local locksmith, an elderly man I haven’t seen around in ages, at his tiny corner shop on my street. He was clearing things out.

“I’m retiring,” he told me when I asked him what he was doing. “Clearing out all this old stuff. I’m done.”

When I told him I was having some trouble with the lock I bought from him nearly 15 years ago, however, he said, “Let’s go take a look. That lock shouldn’t be broken this soon. It was built to last.” He remembered exactly what make and model he’d sold me all those years ago, when I’d first moved into the Water Curtain Cave.

We went up, and he borrowed a can of WD40, spraying into the lock at various expert angles, and soon enough it was working like new again. “If you’d gone to any other locksmith they would have told you it was broken beyond repair and made you get a new one,” he told me. “It was lucky you ran into me today! I won’t be answering calls from now on.”

I tried to offer him money, but he refused. “You’re the photographer who took those photos of the fruitseller next door’s kids. It’s on the house!” Cool.

When I first moved in, I thought that that little triangle of illegal, ramshackle houses by the bridge in Bitan was an eyesore, and would be much nicer as a park, as the city government designated it long ago. But over the years I’ve come to know many of the shop owners and people who live and work there, and I’ve come to appreciate the community, although I still wish they could live somewhere without the ever-present threat of eviction, somewhere with a little more security and safety. Still, much of this society works, after a fashion, on the very existence of this grey area in between legal and illegal. The entire nation, in fact, seems to exist here. So without that, we’re all out of luck. And we need all we can get.

 

posted by Poagao at 10:56 am  
Aug 20 2019

East Coast journal ’19

The mood wasn’t quite as ebullient as usual when we met up at our usual spot at Taipei Main Station before heading to Taitung. For one thing, it was too hot to sit outside as we usually do; we instead huddled around one of the entrance hall pillars. All of the convenience stores were boarded up for some reason. It felt like moving day, even more so because of all the travelers with luggage passing through. But mainly it was because we all recalled the last time we’d gone to Taitung.

We made the train easily, though Conor was late and Thumper had to ride a lightning cab down the mountain to make it in time. I’d gotten some lunch at Mosburger and waited until the train emerged from the tunnel to reveal the somewhat distressed landscape of northeast Xinbei to partake of my meal, listening to Thumper describe his life as a hardcore bicycle enthusiast.

Our destination this time wasn’t Taitung but Yuli, where we were picked up by a couple of vehicles driven by organizers to take us to Chenggong where the show was. The guards at the venue originally insisted on guiding us to the parking lot before the sight of the huge orange tub confirmed that we were indeed one of the bands playing on the large grassy slope between the mountains and the sea. I originally thought that we should be playing facing the sea, as that would be the logical fengshui, but as dusk fell and the mountains glowed with clouds, their arrangement began to make sense. As we sat on the marble benches looking out at the sea waiting for our soundcheck, one of the staff tried to shoo us away until we told them we were playing. After such a long hiatus, perhaps we no longer look like a band. It’s been months, after all.

The show went without a hitch, though none of us could see the audience, me especially as I was wearing my usual sunglasses in the glare of the stage lights. We could hear them, though, and what we heard was encouraging. We told them they could dance, but when people tried to dance, the show videographers told them not to block their shots. Oh, well.

The moon rose up through layers of clouds out to sea behind the stage during the next band’s show, which was magical; the audience took out their mobile phones with lights on the screens, today’s version of lighters, I suppose, looking like artificial life had sprung up on the meadow. I wandered around, not really connected with anyone or anything. I tried to sit on the grass and watch the moon, but one of the staff told me it wasn’t allowed. So I went up to the sea waste recycling museum and took in the exhibits. Old flip-flops, nets, PET bottles made into art. And air conditioning.

After the last band, a heavy metal group, it was time to go to our hotel outside of Taitung, though Thumper and Conor decided to go stay with their Swiss friend Urs. Slim, Cristina and I hopped in our ride, which was a tricked-out Japanese car on low-profile wheels, dual sunroofs, an LED light system and a dope sound system whose sub-woofer rattled nearby windows. It was driven by a lithe, tattooed young man who disdained shirts. As we drove along the coastal highway, he mixed and matched and DJ’d, showering our ears with various hip-hop classics. He also took requests, and at various points we were singing along to Snoop Dogg, MC Hammer and even Green Day, rolling down the windows and sinking down in our seats as we proceeded to wake up everyone in the vicinity. When we stopped at a 7-eleven, David, who took another car, stuck his head out the window to stare at us. His ride was quiet and contemplative.

The hotel was out of the city, quiet at that hour. Slim played the piano in the lobby. “It wants to be played quietly,” he said, and then played it so loudly that the lone clerk told him to cut it out. David went to bed, while Cristina, Slim and I were joined by one of the organizers in lounge chairs on the front patio, where we chatted a little. I wasn’t drinking; I’d learned my lesson on the last trip. I was exhausted, though, and soon went up to sleep.

The next day, after the much-appreciated hotel breakfast, we piled in the van that the organizers had hired to take us back to Taipei. This was because they’d failed to procure train tickets back, which meant a long, long ride back up the coast. But first we drove up to Dulan, where David, Conor and Cristina wanted to go swimming. Thumper was out somewhere river tracing with Urs, and Slim settled down on the curb outside our friend Red Eye’s coconut hat stand/LP music factory. I’d been hankering for some coffee, so I walked through the town, eventually ending up at the same place I’d had coffee the last time we were in Dulan. I always like walking through that town.

The last time we were in Dulan, we’d been joined by my old newspaper comrade-in-arms Brian Kennedy. He’d been in fine form then, but not long after he was felled by a stroke and passed away. So a shadow lay over this trip. Even the table by the road where Brian, David and I had sat up talking and drinking had been cleared away, as if they knew what it meant to us and removed it to spare us that particular twist of recollection. But I also think this trip was a kind of way of dealing with the last one, perhaps even a private tribute of sorts. I’d like to think so, anyway.

We managed to set off north early in the afternoon. We wanted to break the long trip up, making plans to have a nice seafood dinner in Ilan, but I had my doubts and filled up on fish and chips before we left. Chenbl had been warning of thunderstorms and landslides on that treacherous route that has claimed many lives over the decades. A safer, smoother bypass route has been hamstrung by politics for years. But the trains and planes were booked, and no one wanted to drive to Kaohsiung to take the bullet train north, so the east coast road it was.

It wasn’t an unpleasant trip. With Thumper staying on in Taitung, it was just the five of us in the large, brand-new VW van. The driver, Mr. Wu, hailed from Ilan and obviously knew his business. We played songs on the portable speaker I’d brought. David and I talked about art, and the similarities between communicating with music and photography, the creative process, etc.

We stopped along the beach in front of the Hualian Air Force base. It was starting to rain. By the time night fell, we were threading the tall cliffs, the downpour lashing the top of the van, and quick glimpses of tiny fishing harbors far below us were the only indication of our height. Chenbl called periodically whenever there was a signal, wondering where we were. I watched the lights outside the rain-streaked window, and put on some old Japanese tunes. Somehow rainy nights call for old Japanese music.

Dinner in Ilan was not to be; the restaurant was closed by the time we made it that far up the coast, so we had some quick snacks at a roadside 7-Eleven before heading to the Xuesui Tunnel and Big Bad Taipei.

Mr. Wu dropped us off at TaiPower Building, and such was the mental space of that journey that I completely forgot my speaker as we piled into a cab that took us back to our respective abodes.

posted by Poagao at 12:32 pm  
Jul 25 2019

The master

I happened to be walking through the CKS Hall station rotunda the other day when I spotted the old blind man who often plays the violin in that particular spot, which amplifies the sound outwards, unfortunately in his case as his intonation is atrocious. On that day, however, he wasn’t sawing away, a fact for which my ears were most grateful. In fact, he was talking with a woman I know from my own violin class, as well as another woman I didn’t know.

Curious, I approached them and greeted my classmate, who is in a wheelchair. She seemed more subdued than usual but said hello. “Who is this? Your classmate?” the old man said.

“We study violin together,” I said, adding, “She’s very good, one of the best students in the class.” I wasn’t being polite; she is very good.

But the old man just said, “She’s terrible; she can barely play.”

I paused for a moment. Had he not heard her play? Though not a professional, she is certainly already a much better player than the old man. My classmate looked even more embarrassed, and it occurred to me that I had no clue just what was going on here. Still, I felt obligated to say something in her defense at this preposterous judgement by a man who was literally unable to play a single song in tune. “Oh, I think she’s quite good, she is diligent and one of the teacher’s favorites as far as I can tell.”

Throughout the conversation, the other woman, an older, somewhat pinched-looking individual, seemed to be getting more and more agitated, and it was at this point that she finally spoke out. “Master, you’re talking to her friend as if he were Taiwanese. I am telling you, he is not!”

“Oh?” said the old man.

“He actually is,” my classmate murmured.

“Why do you say I’m not Taiwanese?” I asked the woman.

“Yes, why do you say that?” the old man said, his brow furrowed.

“It’s obvious from your appearance!” she said, glaring at me malevolently for my obvious deception of the old man.

“Hmm, well, as a Chinese person, are you quite sure you know what a Taiwanese person is supposed to look like?” I said.

“I am not Chinese!” she said, indignant. “I’m Taiwanese!”

“Oh,” I said, shrugging innocently. “Sorry, but from looking at you I feel you must be Chinese.”

I noticed that my classmate seemed to want to disappear into the floor; I was not making any friends here, that much was certain. The “master” asked me to say a few choice words and phrases to him, and, sensing that I should try and play nice for my classmate’s sake at least, I obliged.

“He sounds Taiwanese to me,” he pronounced, as the older woman hovered uncomfortably close to the back of my shaven head. I looked around.

“Uh, just what are you doing?”

“Ah-HA!” she exclaimed. “Master, I can see that his hair on his head isn’t black, it’s brown! He must be a foreigner! He can’t be Taiwanese!”

“Hmm,” said the old man, who seemed already bored by all of this. So was I, to be honest. My classmate hadn’t said a word, and I was obviously unaware how deep this well of weirdness went, but I was pretty sure I did not want to find out.

“This is all very, uh, fascinating, but…I’ve got to meet someone,” I said. This much was true; I was meeting Chenbl for dinner just across the square. I wished he were there; he would have had some fun with the situation. But no, there was something too strange even for Chenbl here; most likely he would have pulled me out of there warning me to keep my mouth shut.

“See you in class!” I waved to my classmate as I walked away. She waved back, hesitantly.

God knows what they said about me after I left.

posted by Poagao at 9:08 pm  
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