All posts by jaezhu

The Grass is Quite Green on this Side

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As I travel, the more I learn about it. Travelling is a great way to take break while learning about different cultures. However, I think it is more than that. For me, travelling is also an all too effective method of escape.

It is one of the main reasons why I embarked on my first exchange to Milan. Unsatisfied with the greenness of Toronto’s pastures I wanted to find a place where I could go to find a more fulfilling and exciting life. Undoubtedly life as an exchange student provides ample opportunities for excitement, and my experience there is one that I will not forget in a while. However, in the last weeks of my stay, tired out by continuous travel, my heart looked forward to my flight back to Toronto. The last week of Italy was spent in Florence, and not even the beauty of that city was able to alleviate the continuous lethargy I felt.

Back in Toronto I felt a great excitement for life in the first few weeks. Everything seemed so fresh and full of opportunities. However the cold January weather of Toronto soon got to me and sent me looking for greener pastures again. I was accepted to Keio University in Tokyo but for various reasons changed my exchange institution to the National Taiwan University in Taipei. Regardless, the whole year in Toronto was marked by dissatisfaction. I disliked the cold and disliked the schoolwork and disliked the humble lifestyle I had to lead in order to save money. I unfairly compared Torontonians with whom I interacted with the people I met abroad. I found Torontonians for the most part dull and uninteresting and remembered the people I met in Italy with great nostalgia. I was unsociable and preferred books to people that one year. Nothing especially memorable seemed to happen as days turned into weeks, weeks into months and months into unconscious repetition. Life was a blurred, dull picture in contrast to the vibrant colours of Italy. It was happening again and I was looking forward to greener pastures in Taipei. I made very unfair comparisons and did not behave stoically in facing my life in Toronto.

I remember my first day in Taiwan, when I got off the plane in the Taoyuan International Airport. There was a slight drizzle but the weather was a pleasant change to the cold winter of Toronto. The air was slightly humid and there was a fresh breeze in the air and an unending smile on my face. Passing by the mountains and the ceaseless green vegetation and watching them slowly change into the old and characteristic city sprawl on the bus ride to Taipei, It seemed that I was successful in finding my greener pastures.

Being a little over halfway through the exchange now, there are things in Toronto that I miss. There are the occasional Facebook newsfeed posts that I read about Toronto, which make me remember it in a different light. I start remembering the cultural diversity there, the downtown area and my friends. The lifestyle I was once hostile towards comes back to me as small bite sized (Timbit sized) nostalgic memories. The weekly work in the bank on Friday evenings followed immediately by outings with my friends followed by a hung over Saturday afternoon selling cheese in my mother’s store remind me of happy times, despite the inconveniences I felt towards the routine. The weekly Korean barbeque we ate at home along with soju make my mouth water. Walking down St. George to get to my classes and seeing the occasional friendly face and even all my hours spent in the peacock shaped Robarts Library are good memories.

Toronto isn’t the only source of greener pastures for me. I look forward to what will come after Taiwan. I can’t wait to visit all of family in Korea and spend precious time with my parents and my sister and my grandmother. I can’t wait to start the great China trip that I have in my head. Thinking of being in cities like Shanghai and Beijing and Chengdu, all which await me, makes me think of the people I will meet and the things I will learn and the experiences I will have. All around me there seem to be greener pastures.

Greener pastures appear to me in different time periods as well. The latest book I have finished is A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, in which he describes the few years he spent in Paris as a poor but happy and married writer. His Paris in the twenties is full of writers and artists that I have read and heard about. To have these almost mythical personalities brought to life by his pen makes me long for this legendary Paris in the twenties, a Paris marked by eccentrics, culture and art spread out through its cafes and worn out streets.

The Paris of the twenties was represented by Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, in which the economically successful but creatively unfulfilled screenplay writer Gil Pender is transported 80-some years into the past to his place of nostalgic yearning. Here he is to meet all his heroes and falls increasingly in love with Adriana, a fictional mistress of Pablo Picasso. Ironically, Adriana longs for the Belle Époque period and thinks of it as the golden age in Paris. Near the end of the story, they are transported to this period in time and find that people there wish they lived during the Renaissance.

Just as what had happened in the film, perhaps it is just too easy for us to romanticize a lifestyle which is different from one which we are living. While we are confronted with daily realities in our current lives, the lifestyle we covet is surrounded by the façade of uninformed idealism. Just as how Gil Pender is able to come to terms with the modern era at the end of the film, perhaps we should come to terms with the lives we live. Instead of looking past our front lawn to feel jealousy for the lawn of a distant neighbour, we should start admiring what we have in front of us right now. You may realize that the grass is quite green on this side.

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(Picture 1 is of my house this winter, not much green though)

Tainan and Reflections on Change

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In order to make effective use of National Taiwan University’s spring break, I went to the city of Tainan. Tainan was the former capital of Taiwan in former times, and I heard that it managed to hold on to a lot of Taiwan’s cultural identity. Although living in Taipei has given me a better understanding of the Taiwanese people and their culture, I felt that going to Tainan would be able to show me perhaps another perspective on Taiwanese culture and help me see its form in an older time period.

In many ways, Tainan did not disappoint my expectations. There was a certain air about it that gave it the impression of a city less affected by the unavoidable transformational qualities of time. The streets were rugged and less ordered and there were no modern looking skyscrapers or apartment buildings. The result was a relatively flat city which was spread across a large area. As Tainan did not have a subway system, I was glad to be able to borrow bicycles from the hostel, as it would have been a lot of distance to cover on foot. So on the chaotic streets of Tainan, I was put under constant anxiety trying to avoid nearly colliding cars, rushing motorcycles and other cyclists. This was worth it in the end, as I was able to see more of the essence of Tainan by cycling through numerous roads and alleyways while going from destination to destination. I felt that I was able to see more than the average tourist.

The most impressionable sight on the trip was a Taiwanese burial rite. Passing by an alleyway I saw many people dressed up in unusual attire and heard the sound of firecrackers. Of course I decided to go through to explore. The alleyway led to a fairly remote, medium sized temple with around 8 people holding onto an elaborately decorated carriage with several more attendants around. I saw several ceremonies, and each was different in its own way, from the attire of the attendants to their activity to the number of attendants. The largest was one which was made of almost a hundred attendants for the procession, and thus filled up the temple courtyard. Each procession was accompanied by loud and abrupt firecrackers, which seemed to welcome to procession and signal their departure. Being a spectator in these unfamiliar rites along with the antiquity of the temple area made the experience seem surreal and transported me to a Taiwan of several decades ago.

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One thing that was noticeable was the age of the attendants to each procession. None of them were young. Even the ones holding to the substantial carriage were wizened. They were the preservers of their failing generation and protectors to their special hue of Taiwanese culture. With their passing the realities of the former present would diminish.

Previously, I always felt a certain animosity to the drivers of this change. This loss of cultural identity and cultural diversity for a more one dimensional Westernized cultural environment seemed to be a great tragedy. All of the rites and ceremonies, the way of thinking and the physical landscape (architecture) were at stake. I felt sorry to see all of the organic growth that took over a time period centuries collapsing in a matter of one or two generations.

The country that reflected this ordeal the most for me is China. Suffering a tumultuous recent history, with several wars, revolutions and movements, there was hardly a moment of repose for the Middle Kingdom. With the rise of Mao came a single political authority in the country, but came the Cultural Revolution which created an upheaval in Chinese thinking. In that age also came the destruction of architecture for the sake of modernization, an example being Mao’s destruction of a large part of old Beijing to create the Tiananmen Square. From my media influenced knowledge, this is a constant reality in China, as older areas are destroyed for the sake of modernization. With this physical destruction comes the loss of the inhabitants’ lifestyles and loss of a direct connection and physical representation with a people’s history. (Note: I am not an expert on Chinese history, as I have only read a few books, please let me know if I wrote any nonsense)

However, there really is no way to deal with change except to accept it. Over a long period of time, as situations change, challenges appear and new generations with new beliefs arise, and change happens. We may be affected and emotionally have a difficult time facing new realities, but objectively, there is little we can do except observe and ride along with the inescapable currents of transformation.

In a way, I am a hypocrite when it comes to this topic of change. Born into a Korean family with specific (and in my opinion, outdated) beliefs about the world, a large part of my late teen years was spent rebelling against my parent’s worldviews and the worldviews of the previous Korean generation. If some sort of cultural purity was retained, and my beliefs were a mirror image of the previous generation, it would be difficult to adapt to a quickly changing globalized world, in which different ideas are continuously pitted against each other. If we were to take this idea a bit further and suppose that there was no change in the Korean culture for the last 100 years, I would have most likely been a farmer or studying to become a scholar and suffering from a much lower quality of life.

The changes that are happening in China may be the same way. China’s rapid modernization and cultural ‘destruction’ is one which I find particularly regretful about because of my plans to do a large, encompassing trip to see with my own eyes the land with the “5000 years of history,” which the Chinese people claim. Personally, I do not want to be late to the party and see a country stripped of its time tested organic cultural growth and diversity. However, if this is the China I see, then it is the China I have to accept. As a traveller it is more exciting to see cultural variety. Perhaps if I was an inhabitant of a modernizing city, it would be better for me if creative destruction led to modern conveniences.

Furthermore, it just may be that our modernizing world will bring new areas for organic cultural diversity. An increasingly globalizing world connecting people from all around the world, who previously would never had the opportunity to meet can create new dimensions of cultural variety. Only the future will tell, and this is the future we will see.

Another Look on Life

In the midst of our day to day routines, it is easy to fall into a myopic perspective on life. One in which every day feels like a mundane reduplication of the ones before it. One in which we see the same faces, go to the same places and do the same things over and over again. As the routine continues without change, we start falling deeper into an unconscious repetition of our actions and lose sight of everything beyond our direct surroundings. Once in a while, if we are able to expand our immediate picture in the attempts to see a larger reality, we may be able to find a refreshing escape from the increasingly deepening hole of our daily routines. Let us do a visualization exercise to see things from a different perspective.

 

To begin, think of the room you are currently in. Try to see and feel the entirety of the room. Pay attention to the people occupying the same space. Close your eyes and visualize, and open your eyes once you have the picture.

 

 

 

 

 

Now expand the picture and see the building you are in front a bird’s eye view. Picture the different activities of the people who are in the same building. Close your eyes and visualize, and open your eyes once you have the picture.

 

 

 

 

 

Now let us expand our picture even more and imagine your neighbourhood from a bird’s eye view. Think of the parks, the stores, the residential buildings, the public buildings and think of the variety of existence that happens in these parts. Close your eyes and visualize, and open your eyes once you feel the picture. As the picture gets bigger, the self gets smaller.

 

 

 

 

 

Now even higher, and we are overlooking your region in the city. It may have distinct features and a certain subculture. Cars and people will look like toys. Close your eyes and visualize, and open your eyes once you feel the picture. As the picture gets bigger, the self gets smaller.

 

 

 

 

 

Higher and higher we go and now picture the city or town you live in. It may have tens of thousands of people, or tens of millions. In the day there may be plenty of activity out on the streets, while at night, the lights from individual homes reaffirm the continual existence of unending possibilities and life. Close your eyes and visualize, and open your eyes once you have the picture. As the picture gets bigger, the self gets smaller.

 

 

 

 

 

Now let us go even further and picture the province that you live in. This may be a large area, or it may be a smaller one. Even so, it will not be an area that you could get to know or traverse every corner of. We may feel a familiarity with this area, but in the end, like the people living inside it, even this relatively tiny piece of land is impossible to fully understand. Close your eyes and visualize, and open your eyes once you have the picture. As the picture gets bigger, the self gets smaller.

 

 

 

 

 

Now we go higher and are able to see the country of our residence. This country is one which you may be a citizen of or perhaps just temporarily live in. This country is one with a distinct identity and history. This country is one which is full of inhabitant who you may feel a distant familiarity. This country is one that you might identify with. Close your eyes and visualize, and open your eyes once you have the picture. As the picture gets bigger, the self gets smaller.

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, we are now seeing the picture of the Earth. At this point, our brains cannot comprehend the enormity of the combined human activity. There will be people who are poor, people who are rich; people who are young, people who are old; people with dreams, people with none; people who are happy, people who are sad; in the end it will be a large number of people who you could not all possibly form individual bonds of understanding with.

It is beautiful planet we live on, with all its vibrant colours. A planet full of life, full of energy, full of possibilities. A planet bigger than anyone of us can hope to imagine. A place full of biodiversity, from the smallest of microbes to the largest and most ancient forms of vegetation. A place with geographical features ranging from dry deserts to wet marshlands, high mountains to vast oceans. A place which still holds innumerable mysteries for the human race.

We have been here for an uncountable number of years and generations. Human history is full of a myriad of tales and stories of prior inhabitants. They are people have gone about their lives, living while holding onto their beliefs and under the conditions in their respective times. Each one of them had a role in shaping history, whether it was big or small, with a shared fate. A constant cycle of life and death, while the Earth continues its mechanical movements around the sun.

And now, let us think back about what our lives may mean in this greater picture. Our individual life stories may be of utmost importance to us. However, how will this once held energy and life be represented? Perhaps a couple of us may be in the history books, some of us may make it on the news, but for most of us, we will only have our beautiful stories told in the form of statistics or wholly forgotten. Perhaps we will be remembered by our friends and families, and have our stories represented through them. Eventually, they too will pass on, and every aspect of our lives will fall out of memory, never to be told again. Close your eyes and visualize, and open your eyes once you have the picture. As the picture gets bigger, the self gets smaller.

 

 

 

 

 

This inevitability is a reality. In the end, our lives are more like lucky accidents and an insignificant part of an objective and immobile reality. What is important to us when we think in terms of individual interests is not important to us when we think in a holistic way. Perhaps what we think is important to us is not really important at all. As we live and fall into the paralysis of our daily routines and work, we may not realize this. We may only be aware of our present surroundings and environment, and never go further into contemplation about the real nature of our existence. But in the end, not thinking does not prevent undeniable reality. We are only a small part of the whole, and the whole is an unimaginably large picture.

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The Plastic Bag of Raw Meat

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This is a true story which happened to me on the night/early morning of March 1(2), 2014. It is a story which still confuses me to this day. I know I shall never have all the pieces to solve the mystery. I suppose this is just life and some things are unexplainable, like the plastic bag of raw meat that is the focus in this tale.

This story takes place in the methodically chaotic city that is Taipei, where I am, at the time of writing, an exchange student. As anyone who has been on an exchange may know, one of the blessings the exchange program grants is the opportunity to party in a foreign city. This story happened at the aftermath of one of those kinds of nights. After being a responsible drinker (one who does not launch particles of half-digested food back out through the same opening it came from) for almost a year, this particular night saw me push past self-set limits in search of a great enjoyment. As those who have experimented with alcohol may know, there is a tipping point with a steep descent. And on this particular night, I fell.

I took a taxi with a newly acquainted French associate to get back to our respective homes. We had been at an unmemorable bar/club after coming from a comparatively lively dorm party. We were two out of the original four that had headed out for grander heights of amusement. Unfortunately, it was in here where I pushed past a little bit too far. Thankfully, falling made me feel a lot better and I was now more lucid in comparison to the state of reckless excitement I felt before.

After arriving at our neighbourhood, he turned right to go eat at Mos Burger, a fast food chain, while I turned left to head home. There was a slight drizzle but it was not unpleasant. After walking a quarter of the way I saw one of the street stalls open, one which specialized in chicken oriented dishes. I suddenly felt like it would be prudent to eat some chicken noodle soup for the stomach and the hangover the next day. Some warm broth always did me good after poisoning myself a little too much.

Behind the stall was the same old woman that had been there last time I came for a late night meal. She was of diminutive stature with a voice of a surprisingly solid tone. She looked as if she was way past a reasonable retirement age, with a thin wrinkly skin surrounding her skeletal features. The thing that caught my eye the most was her hands. It was abnormally large and seemed unusually solid looking for a woman her age. The way the thin layer of skin surrounding the hands pronounced the underlying bone and muscle structure gave it a cruel look. I ordered my chicken noodle soup, and I examined the way her practised hands used a short butcher knife to hack a chicken leg into equal widths, creating a convincing ‘thack’ sound every time the knife went down. There was only one other customer at the stall, an older looking gentleman.

After drinking the broth and eating every edible portion of the chicken and the noodles, I felt satisfied and felt like it was time to go home to rest. During this time, the gentleman had eaten his meal and had already left. The rain changed from a drizzle to the start of an all-night downpour. Listening to the rhythmic tapping of the rain, I was glad that I was sheltered from the rain. However, the lack of an umbrella meant that I was not to be safe from the rain for long. It was at that time when I heard someone shouting at me from behind me, from the direction of the street. I turned around and it was the driver of the taxi. I couldn’t clearly make out what he was saying with my imperfect Mandarin, but I made out some of the words he said:

“一起。。。 送给你。。。” (“Together… Give to you…”)

The old stall keeper went to the taxi driver and soon came back with a plastic bag. With some clarification, it did seem to me that he was saying the person with me in the taxi wanted to give me this bag of unknown contents. It was a nondescript plastic bag with a plain gray colour, like the ones you would get from shopping at an outdoor vegetable market. However, it was clear that the contents of this plastic bag were not vegetables. There was a definite mass to it, and it had the texture I could only describe as a firm squishiness. The taxi driver drove away. I finally looked into the contents of the plastic bag. It contained sizable hunks of raw meat.

At the time, I did not know what to make of the situation. I had been on two rides in the past few hours. One was an alcohol driven roller coaster ride with a steep drop. The other was the change of mood and state from a wild exuberance from the party to a solemn calmness befitting the sounds of rain in an empty street with the occasional sounds of a motorcycle. The whole situation seemed surreal.

Not being used to being given raw meat at 3 am in the morning, I asked the old stall keeper if she wanted it. She looked inside and said no. So I took the 5 minute trip to my room with the steadily pouring rain, accompanied by the definite weight in my right hand, and the occasional contact of the bag of raw meat with my right thigh. One hundred metres from my room, I dropped the bag off in front of the entrance of a neighbouring apartment and did not see it the next day.

 

(picture above is the noodle stall)