Sunday, May 08, 2005

The World's Highest Wedding

"Why do you look so smart?" asked my flatmate. "I always look smart," I said. "Yerright... Why did you iron a shirt? Not seen you use the iron since the day you bought it back aways in nineteen-ought-six." That sounds good in an American accent. "Because I am going, and this sentence will get progressively weirder, to a wedding, of two people I've never met, or seen, in Taipei 101, the world's tallest and least romantic building. My student and her parents are taking me as their guest." "You look rich," he said, noting my rich man's jacket and tie. "I am rich!" I said. "You'd better come home with a chick tonight," he said.

It took me a trifling 30 minutes to get from my house to Taipei 101 – during rush hour – which included 15 minutes of walking to and from the Rapid Transit System (MRT) stations. I thought of a slogan the tourist board could use: 'Taipei - the MRT is good.' Taipei 101 is good too, I suppose, but I wouldn’t want to get married there.
The banqueting room on the 5th floor had been arranged into 40 richly decorated tables. I noticed that there was at least one pretty young woman at each table, and each wore a badge bearing the words 'single and looking.' I sat next to one of them and smiled at her for 5 happy seconds. Then I was moved to another table. The women on my new table were so old that they knew the words to 'Land of Hope and Glory' and remembered canasta. The official photographer seemed fascinated by my existence, and he took many photos of me.

There are 3 main features of a Chinese wedding. First, the food is plentiful and delicious. Second, old men give long speeches. Third, the bride changes dresses three or four times. My student, her parents and I ate food and listened to speeches. I asked my student to translate if anyone told a joke or an amusing story. 40 minutes later I reminded her. "I know," she said, "I will if they do." Later still, I reminded her again. "But there haven't been any!" 2 hours - no jokes. Taiwan.

The first course was lobster. My student's father dumped half the lobster on my dish. I don't like seafood and it makes me die so I ate it slowly hoping some of it would evaporate. It didn't. Then my student's mother noticed how much lobster I had. She seemed angry. "Andrew! Why do you have so much lobster? Ayy!" "But..." I said. My student whispered to me, "Lobster is very expensive." "Well, I don't like lobster very much so maybe you can help me eat it," I said to the mother. She looked offended. "It's very good lobster! Very fresh! Delicious! Eat it!" She picked up another bigspoonful of lobster and dumped it on my dish, and stared at me viciously until I started eating.

The food was good but the most sumptuous, well-presented dish was the bride. She came in three flavours - white, burgundy and blue. While she was wearing the burgundy dress, complete with frilly netty silky gloves and subtle body glitter, we went over to present our respects. I didn't even try to understand what my role was supposed to be, nor did I try to understand any of the conversations. I simply stared at her, enchanted.
As I was admiring her eyelashes she looked at me - oh! - and asked if I could speak Chinese. I replied fluently, "I know how to say 'You look beautiful'." She smiled again. I knew that if she were my wife I'd be happy every day. I spent a few moments fantasizing that she'd remember me when she looked through the wedding photos, and perhaps she'd wish she'd married me instead. I trudged back to the table, stared in envy at the old married couples who sat there mocking me with their lifetimes of contentment, and as soon as I could, made my way down six flights of stairs – and then back up one flight because in my misery I had gone too far – and out into the night.

Then I went home, alone.  It took less than half an hour. Taipei - the MRT is good.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Hot Springs Eternal

Blant, a South African playboy who had more girls on his arm than I had dark orangutanial hairs on mine, nagged me for three weeks until I agreed to go with him to the hot springs in Beitou, north of Taipei.

A hot spring is a series of little pools filled with tap water (in Taiwan tap water is sometimes called 'volcanic spring water').  Some pools are heated, some are chilled. Hot spring resorts are carved into mountains, and fenced in with wood, and a minute spinster charges you sixty dollars to get in. Sixty Taiwanese dollars takes eight minutes to earn. It cost as much to travel to the springs as to get into the springs. I pointed this out to Blant.  "Ah," he said, sagely, "But the spring doesn't have to travel."

Blant told me about a hot springs game he had invented called 'White Lobster'. The game sounded simple. "You go into the hot pool for 3 minutes, then go into the freezing pool for 3 minutes, then repeat 2 more times. If you're lucky your body will go into shock and one of the elderly women in the hot spring will give you mouth-to-mouth. The game is simple but addictive." "Why is it called White Lobster?" I asked him. "Because," he said, "when you get out of the hot pool you are red and when you get out of the cold pool you are white again." "The game would be more accurately called 'Alternately White and Red Lobster'," I said.

Blant warned me as we went to Beitou that a trip to the hot spring is a zen-like experience and that I should behave accordingly. "Don't move too quickly in the water for the waves will disturb the concentration of the other bathers. Don't speak too loudly; control your breathing; try to place yourself at one with nature; be silent and watchful." Blant had also invited Paul Mastiff, a fellow Brit. When we arrived Paul was already in the hot pool. I got changed and ready and dipped a toe into the hot pool, then another, and another, until I felt confident enough to put in my whole foot. By the time I got to my neck, six minutes had passed and it was time for Paul to get out. He charged like a water buffalo attacking a hippo, and bellowed, "HEY I'M GEDDIN OUT NOW ANYONE WANNA COME TO THE COLD POOL MAN ITS HOT HERE HEY YOU SPEAK ENGLISH HOW ARE YOU?"

With Paul attacking other pools, and Taiwanese people taking flight like startled pigeons, I tried to find my Zen. I looked around and saw that the hot spring was carved into the side of a leafy mountain. Hot water trickled along bamboo half-pipes into the hot pool, creating marvellous swish and splash sounds that made me think of the ocean. "Pretty nice," I thought to myself. The place was small and popular but not crowded. The day was a sizzling one, but although the hot spring was outdoors, the air was pleasantly cool. "Very nice," I thought, and closed my eyes.

When I opened them, an American had appeared to my left, and his Taiwanese wife, and her mother and sister were getting in to my right. "Don't talk to me," I said with my eyes. "Hey!" shouted the wife, "We hear you're single!" "What? Who-" I began. "So we thought maybe you'd like to date my sister. Let's all go to lunch!" I glanced at the smiling girl to my right, and, assuming her to be the sister in question, played my get-out-of-jail-free card. "Right, that's.... yeah, but I'm leaving Taiwan in 2 months, so.... you know." They didn't know. "So there's no point," I clarified. "Oh, okay! We just thought you might like to date my sister because she lived in England before and you look kind of cute," said the wife. "Yes, I do," I said, then changed the subject. "So don't you realise it's rude to try to set me up with your sister, who is not a model and doesn't even have long hair, when I'm trying to become one with the universe?" She didn't hear me and I didn't repeat myself. “And how the blazes did you know I’m from England?”

"How did you guys meet?" I asked. She spoke rapidly for thirty seconds. I could only pick out the phrases 'South Carolina', 'MBA' and 'met on the internet'. Then she said, "I'm a financial analyst. I love money. Anything to do with money gets me excited." She quivered as she said the word 'money'. I said, "Well, in that case, I find you reprehensible." I turned to the man. "You said you're from Ohio? What's that, loads of farms?" He didn't understand the word 'farms'. "What? Lots of bombs? No, we don't have many bombs in Ohio."
The wife said, "Have you been to the States?" "No," I said. She said, "By the look on your face I can tell you don't want to go. But you know, they have McDonalds and KFC everywhere". "That's not a good thing," I said. "I know," she said, "I was being sarcastical." The man said, "Yeah, I agree with you, but you can get a burger anytime!" With incredible chivalry I spoke to the sister, who was sitting next to me like we were already married. "So where did you stay in England?" "Bath... and Scotland," she said, "and Boston. Because in England there is a city called Boston, too."

I left the hot springs zenless. Blant walked with me to the metro. He asked me to go with him again the next week. “Paul’s going to bring that girl you hate, Christina.” As much as I hated Christina, she had a great body, perfectly apposite to emerge from a cold pool and the perfect playmate for White Lobster. "Yeah, I'll go," I said. “Hot springs are a great place to meet your next girlfriend.”