Saturday, May 30, 2009

Photo Collage: My Black Ox Prince

My Black Ox Prince:

Family Name: Liu
Given Name: Yuni
English Name: Joshua
Chinese Zodiac Sign: Metal Ox

Fully armed in military (above)
The hut in the woods (left)

With members of work crew having a snack in the hut (the far back bunk bed is the scene of the demise of the female krait)

The swing my prince made for me

The septic tank that won my heart

Weekend visitors to the hut

Gathering a snowball on Yangming Mountain

Preparing to throw shoes at an enemy

Near a mountain stream

In the mountain stream

A naiad (?)

NCO leading the guard

On guard at the general's house

On leave at home

Monday, May 25, 2009

Work Parties and Rescues from Snakes

Now that the foreman had his crew leader, work could begin in earnest the next day. The men and boys sat around the table outside laying out plans for the surveying paths that we would cut, while I used the new kitchen equipment to make dinner for everyone. By this time I was quite proficient at whipping up rice, three dishes and a soup for at least eleven people. The foreman had brought groceries for dinner, so there was plenty to cook with.

Night came early to the mountain. Since we were in the middle of the jungle, there were no city lights, and once the sun went down, it was inky black outside. The cicadas chirped incessantly. Bats flew in the clearing. There were mosquitoes everywhere outside the hut. After dinner, as the sun was setting, Liu Yuni and the foreman took a sack of lime and laid a track around the hut to keep snakes out. As they came in, they noted that several tree branches overhung the roof, so the lime would be no good against snakes dropping down from the trees, but they were fairly confident that we should be safe. No one had mentioned the matter of snakes getting into the cabin to me. I was more than a little perturbed.

The foreman had all the men use the restrooms off the kitchen one last time. Then he gave me a rollaway to set up in the kitchen and showed me the lock on the inside of the door. I was to lock myself in the kitchen all night while the men and boys slept in the other room. Of course, they had the lantern for light, so they stayed up playing cards and talking. I just went to bed, since I was supposed to get up first and make breakfast anyway. At least I knew I would have hot water for my shower because I could keep them all locked out till I was done.

Early the next morning, we ate a full meal of rice, meat and vegetables; by eight in the morning we were divided into two groups along ridges in the jungle. Each of us was armed with a machete or a weed whacker, and we cut paths through the thick vegetation along the contour lines of the hill so the surveyors could take their sights to get the right dimensions and elevations of the property. Liu Yuni took half the college men; the foreman took me and the other half. Most of them did not like the work. It was hot and muggy; we had to wear long sleeves and heavy pants or the jungle grass would cut us. We also had bandanas or towels covering our necks, hats, and heavy work gloves. The foreman and I did about 75% of the work on our team. Around 11, I left the group to make lunch. They came in at 12:30, ate and took a siesta through the hottest part of the day. As he was helping me wash the dishes, Liu Yuni informed me that 85% of his team did nothing all morning. The person who ate the most for lunch was the one who had done the least work. I suggested that he consult with the foreman.

In the afternoon, we switched teams, but to no avail. The college men were mostly city boys, who had not realized how hard it was to do physical labor. They had envisioned a relaxing two weeks of digging bamboo shoots in the jungle, cooking sweet potatoes in earth ovens and having cookouts and barbecues. I think they mistook the words “work party” for “summer camp.” On the third day, General Manager came and told the foreman he was needed every afternoon in Taipei for meetings with the planning commission. Since I was there in the hut, the foreman would have to spend each night there to chaperone, but he would leave at 10 am and not come back until dinner time.

With the foreman gone, the college men mutinied. They did not want to be on my crew because they would get shown up by a girl (or worse, managed by a woman). They did not want to be on Liu Yuni’s crew because he was stronger than they, and they weren’t sure he was non-violent. So they said that Liu Yuni and I were one crew and the rest of them were the other. That was fine with us; we worked well together and got more accomplished that afternoon than we had the previous two days. We did not bother to call the others for dinner. At the appropriate time, we both went to the cabin and cooked together. We were almost finished eating by the time they thought to come home for dinner. (They were never late for another meal afterwards.) And so the week went on.

In the beginning of the second week, I was in the cabin making lunch when I heard a noise on the roof. I went into the men’s sleeping room to investigate and watched horrified as a large Krait worked its way into the cabin through a chink between the eaves and the top of the wall. It was at least four feet long. It then began slithering along the top of the wall toward the beam. All I could think of was that if it got to the beam, it could come into the kitchen and drop down on me while I was cooking or sleeping. I grabbed my machete, stood on the bottom bunk of the bunk bed, leaned across the top bunk and tried to chop its head off. I was shaking so badly that I did not cut it clean. It began twisting and writhing and fell off the wall onto the metal bed frame. It hung there in its death throes dripping blood all over someone’s bedding and the floor. I was convinced it was going to get me.

So I ran outside and watched it through the screen door. It was hanging there twisting its head and body and struggling. Suddenly, it dropped to the floor and went under the bed. Now I was really scared. (Fortunately, I had turned off the flame on the stove before trying to kill it.) I wasn’t quite sure what to do, when I heard the sound of a duck quacking. Liu Yuni was back to get new blades for the weed whackers. I explained to him the problem. He grabbed my machete and went into the cabin. I stayed wisely outside, in case I had to ride his motorcycle into town for help. He saw the snake motionless under the bed and figured it might be already dead. He poked it with the machete and it writhed and hissed. So he took a clothes hangar and made a snake hook. He pulled it out with the hook around the head and swiftly beheaded it. Then he took it out and threw it on the garbage pile. My hero!!

I went back happily into the cabin to finish making lunch. Liu Yuni was still outside scrutinizing the snake. He cleaned the machete and came back into the cabin, handing it to me. He suggested I wear it while I was cooking because Kraits usually mate for life and when one dies the mate will comes looking for it. He thought we had killed the female and that the male would be even longer and larger. He said that folk tradition said these snakes took revenge for the death of the mate. With those cheery words of comfort, he left with the saw blades for the weed cutters. Now I was really scared, but I needed to finish making lunch.

The rest of the day passed without incident. At night, the foreman returned and looked at the dead snake. He agreed that we needed to watch out for the return of the mate, so they poured extra lime all around the cabin. We all went to bed with a certain amount of trepidation. Early the next morning a sound in the bathroom woke me up. I went in, and as I passed through the door, I caught a glimpse of something in a crack in the wall just at eye level. I moved slowly past and looked back. There was a huge snake in the first stall of the restroom. I held my breath and ran past it, rushing into the men’s room shouting “Snake!” The foreman leaped out of bed, put on his boots, grabbed his machete and ran outside. I thought, “That’s really great. He’s running away from it.” Liu Yuni got up more slowly, grabbed his coat hanger snake hook and a machete, and went into the kitchen. I told him where it was. He and Uncle Chou (an elderly man who had come up that week as a chaperone and assistant foreman to keep the boys working) figured out a plan to extract the snake and kill it. By this time, the foreman had discovered his mistake and was back inside working with them. The three of them successfully dislodged the snake and killed it. It was indeed much larger than the one I had killed the previous noon.

For the most part, the boys had stayed huddled in their beds hoping the snake didn’t come bite them. They were afraid to go outside in the dark, too, because there might be whole herds of snakes outside. On the whole, they were a pretty useless bunch. The only project they worked on with gusto was during lunch on the last three days. The foreman said that if they cleared a field we would have a barbecue and sweet potato roast beside the cabin and invite some of the college girls up for the party. He also said that the girls could only come up if the surveying paths in one sector of the property were completely finished. We did get quite a bit of work out of them those last three days.

And so we had our business plan. The college interns came up for two week shifts. Liu Yuni stayed all the rest of the summer. I wound up going back to Taipei at night. (General Manager didn’t like the idea of me sleeping in a place with snakes.) I took a 6 am bus up to the property; the men ate peanut butter sandwiches for breakfast. The foreman brought groceries some time during the late afternoon and stocked the refrigerator daily. I worked from 8 to 11, cooked lunch, worked again from 2 till 5, cooked dinner and then went home after dinner with the foreman. Every evening the foreman laid out the next day’s assignment. If all the work was finished each week, the men hosted a barbecue for college women and other friends on Sunday afternoons. It was a great six weeks. And the more we worked together, the more Liu Yuni and I realized we were pretty compatible. After all, he was the dragon-slaying hero who had saved my life.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Conference Center in the Hills

Sorry for the general lack of posts lately. I had the flu, and now I'm in the middle of finals. I was hoping to upload the pictures for this post, but I have not had the time to sort through all of them. I will do a photo collage next week when I'm on vacation. Enjoy the story!

General Manager felt quite sorry for me. He was sure I must be devastated by my lack of matrimonial prospects and my broken engagement. To take my mind off my sorrows, he suggested that I transfer to the group surveying a newly-purchased site for a conference center in the hills between Taipei and the international airport. I was more than happy for a change of pace. My class broke up at the end of July because everyone had thought I would be getting married, and we all went our separate ways. Teacher’s daughter was married and having children in California, so she left the school to enjoy being a grandmother. Beatrice, Melanie, and Miss Yan were already married to Chinese husbands, and Susanna got a job with an Italian film company doing interpretation for them on location in China. I decided not to start in another class immediately, and I went ahead with the group that would be living on the “mountain.”

Churches around the world had all contributed funds to purchase a sixteen-acre piece of property that encompassed an entire ridge in the hills south of Taipei. There were rice paddies in the valleys on each side of the ridge, but our “mountain” was pretty much wild jungle. There was a paved road to the edge of the property and then a dirt track leading down to a little brick hut midway up the hill in the midst of thick tropical growth. The church had hired workers to install a restroom and a kitchen in one half of the hut. They had also set up five bunk beds in the other half. Our project for the month of August was to cut trails through the jungle and survey the property so the engineers could design a conference and retreat center.

General Manager decided that the publishing company would offer internships to college men in the churches who wanted to learn some practical skills in addition to their book learning. They would go up to the “mountain” in groups of eight with two adult crew leaders and spend a week on the property cutting brush and surveying. At the end of each week, the interns would come home, and a new group would go up for another week. General Manager wanted me to cook for the work crews as well as help cut through brush and survey the site. General Manager had told me about this assignment while I was still in the US after the demise of my engagement, so I had come prepared with overalls and canvas hiking boots. I was quite happy about my new duties and glad to be free of school.

That first morning the foremen and I waited with the vans at the publishing company’s main office in Taipei. The first set of boys came, and most of them looked ready to go on a picnic; several of them were wearing dress shoes. The foremen checked their luggage and sent them back to get rid of shorts and to find heavy work pants and long-sleeved shirts for the jungle. I had to model my overalls, work shirt, and boots as appropriate attire for the project. Two hours later five of the seven people who had been sent back for work clothes reappeared. The others had been scared off by the prospect of snakes in the jungle. The final person on the list, a Liu Yuni, never showed. The foreman was quite upset because he was listed as having construction experience, and the college men had elected him as their crew leader. One of his schoolmates kept telling us that this prodigy had won national Taiwan bricklaying competitions twice in a row and had even been to the US representing Taiwan in a skill competition. The foreman was even more upset to learn that his best prospect had not even bothered to show up. Finally, three hours after we had planned to leave, we set out in two vans for the hill country near the airport.
There were two trails into the property. Most of the time, we came down a dirt road from the top of the ridge, but because we had so many items to carry, the foreman worked out a deal with the rice farmers in the valley. We drove up their paddy roads until we were directly below the small hut and then scrambled up a narrow path that was less than a quarter of the length of the road. It took us all morning to get everything from the vans up to the hut. We had purchased box lunches for our noon time meal because all we had in the kitchen was a sink, a counter, and a refrigerator until we set up the cooking equipment from Taipei. In our clumsiness, we had broken down some of the dikes separating the rice paddies, so that afternoon our first order of business was to repair them for the farmers. No one really knew how to do this job.

As we were standing there wondering what to do, we heard a sound like a duck quacking from the dirt road up to the top of the ridge. The exuberant classmate went running up the road and came back screaming, “We’re saved! It’s Liu Yuni. He will be able to fix it. He can do anything.” I was a little skeptical that such a paragon existed among the population of Chinese college men, but at least we had our crew leader. The foreman started to get upset that he was arriving late, when he told us he had been waiting on top of the ridge since 8:00 that morning. He had come directly from his parents’ home near the airport and had not wanted to waste fuel by riding his motorcycle to Taipei when the property was only twenty minutes from home. He also thought it would be more convenient to have a motorbike on the property because vans and cars often got stuck in the mud on dirt roads.

The foreman offered him a box lunch and asked him what we needed to do to repair the farmers’ dikes. Liu Yuni instructed us to get several buckets of small river stones from the creek at the bottom of the valley. Then he swiftly and deftly fixed the dikes in less than two hours. Most of the boys could only carry half-bucketfuls of river stones, and they gave out after only two or three trips. In the end, only three of us were left doing the dike repair job. The rest went back to the hut because they needed to rest.

The foremen were at the hut setting up the kitchen equipment and storing the tools under the eaves at the back of the hut. When they saw half of the workforce return and root in the refrigerator, they knew they needed to give them more work. They set them to work digging a pit for the septic tank so we would be able to use the newly installed showers and toilets. At first the malingerers were reluctant, but when they were told that they couldn’t take a shower or use a toilet until that job was done, they set to it quickly enough.

By the time the rest of us came back from repairing the dikes, they had a hole dug, and the bottom was lined with bricks. But they didn’t know what else to do. Not even the foreman knew the specifics of how to make a septic tank. His degree was in engineering. The little schoolmate started yelling, “Liu Yuni, we need you. I have to go to the bathroom, but I can’t until the septic tank is finished.” And Liu Yuni went to the pit, looked at their cement and mortar, ordered us all to get four buckets of large stones, and hopped in to begin lining the rest of the pit with bricks.
After the pit was lined, he poured fine sand in the bottom, next a layer of coarse sand and rock, and finally a layer of rock on top. He ran the pipe from the toilets into the top of one side, and he had left a hole out the bottom on the other side. Then he had the rest of the men cover the pit over with dirt. He had pretty much single-handedly done what the foreman had scheduled for our first day’s work.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Year Four, An Unconventional Romance

Teacher’s insistence that I had been ruined for any but a Chinese husband made me very ornery. I decided to show her. First I thought I would go back to America to get a Master’s degree in Chinese at UC Berkeley. I was accepted to the program on the condition that I take the GRE at its February session in Hong Kong. I had my plane ticket and everything, but two days before I was scheduled to leave, a taxi cab going the wrong way down the street ran over my foot as I was stepping off the sidewalk into the crosswalk. I had several greenstick fractures in the tarsal bones of my right foot, and I was told not to walk for three weeks. The next Asian region GRE was not offered until May, and by that time it would be too late for acceptance to UC Berkeley in the fall. So I determined to stick it out in Taiwan for another year.

That year the publishing company where I worked sponsored a number of international events in Taipei, and I was very busy with translation and interpretation. At one of those events, I met a young man from Vancouver, BC, and we began a romance by correspondence. Our thought was that we would meet each others’ families when I went back for the California conference in July, and if we all liked each other, we would get engaged then. At first it seemed that we had so many things in common. But the more we corresponded, the more we both realized how far apart our concepts were. The point that killed the relationship was that I refused to give up speaking foreign languages or having friends who might speak to me in a language that he could not understand. So at our much-awaited meeting in July, I broke the whole thing off.

My friends and classmates were surprised to see me back in Taiwan again. They had been sure things would work out between the two of us and that I would be at home in Seattle planning my wedding. I was twenty-four; I had been living in Taiwan for three whole years. I now knew that my fluency in Chinese had ruined me for a monolingual, typical American relationship, but I did not really hold any great hopes of finding a Chinese husband with whom I could relate well and who was not under a heavy maternal thumb. Even my friends were at a loss for words and matchmaking prospects. Once again I could enjoy life, free of the horrible weight of thoughts about marriage. And then, when I least expected it, lightening struck, and I was head over heels in love.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Matchmaking Madness

As I became more and more Chinese in my language, demeanor, and bearing, my Chinese friends began to worry that I would not find a suitable American husband since I was wasting the “springtime of my life” in Taiwan. I was not terribly worried about marriage; at that point, I didn’t really care if I got married or not. I think the fact that I was not actively seeking a life-partner was like a red cape before a bull to the matchmaking instincts of many of the old grandmothers at church. They began, in earnest, to find me a mate.

Not long into my second year, General Manager started to get a steady trickle of proposals on my behalf. Because no male members of my family were chaperoning me in Taiwan, General Manager stood in loco parentis in his own eyes and in the eyes of most of my Chinese friends. I know he screened out many of the prospects without even telling me about them; nevertheless, he began calling me into his office at least once a month to present me with a photo and biographical sketch of another “top matrimonial catch.”

Even though Teacher had begun teaching us about the Chinese view of marriage and the importance of finding a mate who was from a similar socio-economic and educational background to our own families, it didn’t mean that I was ready to believe it for myself. But nobody asked me what I was looking for in a husband; instead, the matchmaking grannies invited my co-workers at the publishing company to dinner or lunch and pumped them for information about me and my family. They learned that I had graduated with honors from a prestigious American university. They learned that my father in America was academic vice-president of a large private university in Seattle. They learned that my mother had graduated from Harvard. They learned that my maternal grandfather had been prominent in state government and that my paternal grandfather was rich. These were all crucial items to them in deciding which boys’ photos to parade before me. Chinese culture loves and reveres scholars; their ideal man has done no labor, has a pasty white complexion with soft hands, and wears glasses. But in a more American tradition, I was hoping for a tanned hunk. So month after month I turned up my nose at pictures of the scrawny, pimply-faced scions of rich Taiwanese families.

In the beginning, they presented me with pictures of people I was acquainted with from college student outings with the student center the previous year. In addition to being scrawny, pasty-white, and pimple-faced, most of the boys they chose for me were totally helpless at doing practical things. They all got good grades, but they had no clue about life outside of their books. I tried to explain to General Manager that it would be very hard for me to be married to someone I didn’t respect, and I expected anyone I would marry to be at least as able as I was to change a light bulb, hammer a nail, go hiking, or travel without his mother. Most of all, I wanted someone who had actually held a job before. Many disappointed mothers and grandmothers put away the pictures of their sons and grandsons. The matchmaking contingent decided that I needed an older man.

Now things got even worse. I was presented with pictures of men as old as forty-five when I was only twenty-two or three. Finally, General Manager found a person I knew well and worked with and started marriage negotiations with him. He was a nice guy; I think we could have done well together, and all my friends at the publishing company were hearing the sounds of wedding bells, when the talks abruptly stopped. The guy was swiftly engaged to someone else at his mother’s insistence because she did not want white blood in the family. That experience on top of everything else totally turned me off to the matchmaking experience. I tried to get my friends to stop, but their efforts kept increasing in intensity.
Finally, I wrote a story based on the Chinese idiom “四面楚歌” (surrounded on all sides by the enemy singing songs of your homeland). The idiom refers to a story from Chinese history, in which a famous general surrendered and committed suicide because of a ploy used by the attacking army. The attackers learned songs from prisoners of war captured in the defending general’s homeland. During their siege, they sang popular songs of his homeland in his own dialect every night around their campfires. He thought that he had lost his support base and that he and his small band were hopelessly out-numbered. In my story, the hero (of the same name as the hero in Chinese history) walks the streets of Taipei with a small dog named Lai-fu, but every alley he turns into is filled with matchmakers singing about the wonderful marriage prospects they have picked out for him. Eventually, the hero is surrounded in a doorway by hundreds of thousands of matchmakers who will not let him go until he marries one of their suggestions. He commits suicide to escape.
I had my friends at the publishing company edit my story for me. They quickly put the word out that all the matchmaking efforts were making me suicidal. It wasn’t quite the message I had in mind, but it did the trick. Even General Manager agreed that American women are different, and they probably have the savvy and life-experience to pick their own husbands.

After my friends, co-workers, and the old ladies from church had stopped their “marry off Teresa campaign”, I showed my story to Teacher at school. She was completely horrified that I had desecrated Chinese history and that I would even put the words to paper that suicide might be better than an arranged marriage. She asked me what had happened to cause me to write on such a radical theme. I explained to her about the efforts to marry me off to rich, scrawny geeks and how finally the one person I thought would be okay had been rushed by his mother into a hasty marriage with a nice, Chinese girl. I told her that I really could not stand the emotional roller coaster. Teacher sympathized with me, but she said that my bad experience did not mean the whole system was as bad as I had portrayed it to be. She also gave me a very good piece of advice to assist me in my quest for a Chinese husband: marry a man who loves and respects his mother but who has his own ideas and is not entirely ruled by her. I protested that I was NOT in a quest for a Chinese husband. Teacher serenely replied that it was too late. I had already been ruined for any but the best husbands, who were by definition Chinese.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Photo Collage: Company Trips 1983-1986

Sorry this post is late. I'm working on papers for school and got my days mixed up.

Seoul Airport

Doing videography in Seoul
Tokyo Tower Observation Platform

Emperor's Palace Park in Tokyo
(Far Left) Tokyo Tower

Eating Udon on Tatamis in Tokyo

Kimchi vats outside the kitchen of the Bando Youth Hostel near Seoul

Kenting National Park, Taiwan

Pescadores Islands, Inter-island Bridge

Bike Trip (tandem bikes) from Yangming Shan to Neihu, Taipei

Boat ride in the Pescadores

Weekend in the Taiwan countryside

River at the bottom of the Taroko Gorge, Taiwan