At the beginning of isolation the bad days came once a week. They were tinged with a melancholy that, beholden in the right light, had the romantic quality of a Shakespearian play. On one or two particularly melodramatic occasions I even shed a few tears, luxuriating in its cathartic after-effect while shamelessly pity-texting a friend pining for sympathy.
“I hope this email finds you well during these strange and challenging times.”
When I first began using this email greeting, which has replaced standard emailing etiquette across the board, I meant each word wholeheartedly. I truly did hope the email found them well. But like many of the recent changes and upheavals in our daily lives, the things that once felt significant can lose their meaning quickly.
In recent weeks my intermittent sadness has given way to numbness and fatigue. The daily doomsday announcement, which I once tracked religiously, is barely afforded a passing glance. Like many of us I was a fervent amateur epidemiologist at the outset of the pandemic, but the endless debates about lockdown exit strategies that weasel their way into everysingle conversation are beginning to grate.
As of late I’ve noticed that the bad days are coming fast and steady, their recovery periods longer. One bad day spills into two, then three. The novelty of the early days helped absorb the sting of overwhealming loss, but as time crawls on, the sacrifices demanded of us have become harder rather than easier to bear.
My threshold to tolerate human suffering, real or fictionalised, indigenous or exogenous, is diminishing, making it harder to accommodate my affinity towards darker genres of music and films. I had to watch ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ in two sittings to get through the whole thing, which is unlike me, and there have been days where my staple diet of heavy techno has felt too crushing, as though my body, feeling waif-like had to physically receive the impact of the pummelling beats.
I’m not the only one feeling too raw to enjoy dystopian commentary on the fuckuppery that has defined the 20th century. Black Mirror series creator Charlie Brooker has returned to writing comic scripts “aimed at making myself laugh”, claiming he doesn’t think there is much appetite for a new series at the moment.
Like Brooker, I am revisiting artefacts from happier times to help me get through the present tense.
I have found myself gravitating towards uplifting and over-produced pop classics reminiscent of more innocent periods in my life; their plastic, shiny texture feels safe and sanitised, the banality of the lyrics a welcome respite from the all the doom and gloom. Prince, Kyle Minogue, and Britney have all had a look in, but Robyn is the Swedish goddess whose syrupy lyrics and bubbly synths have been my saving grace. At my lowest ebb I played Rebecca Black’s infamous song ‘Friday’, which also served as a handy reminder of which order the days of the fall (and also mostly because Vice made a mini-doc about her infamous rise to fame).
This retroaction of music appreciation has proved a tried and tested coping mechanism during periods of distress throughout my life. I select a song, usually a girlhood pop favourite, and play it obsessively on loop, its repetition simulating a synthetic predictability that counters the loss of control defining reality. I have recently complied these songs into a Spotify playlist, which I have labelled ‘Guilty Pleasures’ in case it should one day be discovered.
For those of us who have been lucky enough to escape loss of employment, illness or the death of a loved one, although we may be growing stagnant through sensory-deprivation, at times it can feel difficult to rationalise that we are in the midst of an unprecedented global crisis. Confined to the familiar domestic setting of our own homes inventing endless chores to distract ourselves, the carnage and devastation typically associated with a crisis is happening elsewhere, quite literally out there. I imagine what it will be like recounting my personal experience to future generations: ‘It was awful, a huge tragedy. I worked from home, couldn’t see my friends or get laid, and basked in the sunshine reading books.’
When the low points do come, (as one friend aptly put it, “Most days are grand, but some days you wake up and feel like you’re in the middle of a pandemic”), I try to remember the frontline healthcare workers. They have borne the brunt of the suffering while tirelessly performing their duties; the first-person stories they tell their grandchildren will be harrowing.
I must have struck an odd figure, a flat-bellied, white girl sitting alone amongst the pregnant Indian ladies and their husbands. Their bellies came in all shapes and sizes, some modest bumps, others round like melons. The woman sitting to my left had a belly swollen to the size of a beach ball. I thought about the little human she had growing inside of her, extending itself, taking up space in this world but insulated from the worst of its suffering.
I wondered what it must feel like to grow a person inside you. I wondered if this was something I would experience in my life time. I wondered how men felt, missing out on this miracle of life. A man might have been the first person on the moon, floating up in space, but he would never experience the wonder of a person growing inside him. I thought about my own mother. I spent the first nine months of my life under the taught skin of her belly but now I live on the other side of the world.
I wondered what it must feel like to grow a person inside you. I wondered if this was something I would experience in my life time. I wondered how men felt, missing out on this miracle of life. A man might have been the first person on the moon, floating up in space, but he would never experience the wonder of a person growing inside him. I thought about my own mother. I spent the first nine months of my life under the taught skin of her belly but now I live on the other side of the world.
Like these women I was waiting for a sonograph. Unlike these women I was (to the best of my knowledge) without child. It was precisely this decision, to remain childless, that brought me here. A year and a half previously I had an IUD inserted. This T-shaped, hormone laden piece of plastic shoved up my cervix was my ticket to pregnancy-free sex for five years, by which time I would be thirty. It was my golden ticket to sexual liberation. No more fumbling with daily alarms. No more pill popping. No more anxious waiting for periods. In fact, no more periods at all.
But even this miraculous invention came with baggage and irregular bleeding brought me to the hospital.
Quizzing me about my medical history, the junior gynecologist asked me why I had gotten the IUD inserted. She was young, just a few years older than me I guessed. Contraception I answered, although I thought the answer was obvious. Nothing to do with periods, she probed, visibly dissatisfied with my answer. Nope, I replied, resolutely.
Was I married? Also, no.
She repeated her earlier question, What was the purpose of my IUD? Contraception, I answered again, knowing full well it was not the answer she wanted to hear.
Her lips pursed.
Are you sexually active?
Obvious questions would receive obvious answers.
I took my underwear off and lay down on the examination table, knees bent, legs spread, and for the first time that day a foreign object entered me, opening me up. The sensation of a foreign object entering me not for the purpose of my own pleasure is one that I decidedly do not enjoy. I tensed involuntarily, making things worse. The doctor told me to relax so I decided to go to my happy place. I closed my eyes and imagined myself floating in the sea surrounded by mountains. The world was blurry, refracted through the shimmering layers of water. I was the foetus, insulated, enveloped, suspended, protected by Mother Earth.
Then came my turn for the ultrasound. I hiked my dress up to above my waist and the assistant fitted a sheet over my bottom half. The gesture was disarmingly tender and I felt safe and taken care of, like a young child being tucked into bed by a parent. The radiographer squeezed lukewarm gel on my belly and rocked the probe back and forth over my stomach. This was a scene I watched on tv countless times. I imagined how exciting yet anxiety ridden this moment must be for expectant mothers. I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to feel, given the circumstances. The radiographer stared at my empty womb on the screen and I stared at her face, examining her facial movements for clues.
Another more senior radiographer arrived and together they peered at the screen, muttering between themselves. A swirl of uninvited thoughts and emotions filled my head. I knew it was probably nothing, but in the no man’s land of ‘what if’s’ and ‘maybes’ my mind likes to tease out the worst possible scenarios. Just that week I had heard about a girl had continuous periods and then it turned out she had cancer. Then words I recognized were directed towards me: ‘ovarian cyst’. I latched onto them, pulling myself back onto safe, familiar territory.
A vaginal probe was the next step but first I had to pass urine. I went to the bathroom and sitting on the edge of the toilet seat and typed ‘ovarian cyst’ into google: “Ovarian cysts are fluid-filled sacs or pockets in an ovary or on its surface.” An image showed a pink ovary with a bulbous, bloated mass pushing angrily from its top.
“Very common”, was printed underneath.
I returned to the sonography room and resumed the now accustomed position. Sensing my tension the radiographer told me to relax as she held the long, thin probe next to her head. “Easy for you to say”, I laughed in reply. For the second time that day a foreign object was inserted between my legs. Holding my breath and then breathing deeply, I thought about immersing myself in deep water bodies surrounded by tall mountains as it pushed its way further and further inside me. I was more relaxed and unclenching this time was easier. The probe was wriggled around inside me, left, right, up, down, the radiographer’s arm between my legs, her eyes staring unblinking at the screen ahead of her.
The senior radiographer’s turn was next. More wiggling, more prodding; more peering, more deep breathing. And like that it was over. With a practised flourish the probe was slid out and I was handed a stack of tissues to wipe myself off. Once clean, I put my underwear back on, a black thong from Penny’s that has seen better days. My report would be ready that afternoon the senior radiographer informed me and without so much of a goodbye she was gone.
The next day I returned to collect my results, which were handed to me in a big white envelope bearing my name. Inside it was a piece of card, with seven black and white pictures affixed by a sheet of sticky plastic. I turned it over in my hands examining the images carefully, not able to make much sense of what I was looking at. Looking at your ultrasound images for the first time is usually a pertinent moment in a woman’s life, one which I had expected to encounter under different circumstances. There was a family waiting beside me, which I guessed to be made up of grandmother, mother, sister and baby. I realised that anyone watching me would assume I was staring at my future baby, and not at a 3.7 cm clear cyst on my right overy as the accompanying report had indicated. I wondered what it must be like to stare at the image of your baby inside you, within you, yet still out of reach. I wondered what it must be like to lose a baby after seeing it alive like that.
The mother and her baby and I were left alone on the bench. It was time for me to leave so I stood up and started packing, returning the images to their abnormally large envelope. As I started off the woman said something to me in Hindi or Marathi, I wasn’t sure which. I didn’t understand and stared helplessly while she repeated the sentence. I couldn’t tell if she was communicating something profound or mundane. Was this a gesture of tenderness on her behalf, having sensed a loneliness in my stolen glances? I felt a discomfort which bordered on guilt, as though I had been caught out doing something I shouldn’t in a place I shouldn’t be, my incomprehension of her words proving my culpability. All I could do was return her gaze with an apologetic shrug, half-smiling, half-wincing, and walk away.
Berlin was apparently ‘the place to be’ summer 2015/16, but its seems this year’s title has gone to Lisbon. Whether I was talking to friends or work colleagues, every time I mentioned I was going there on holiday it elicited first and second hand stories of people who had been. Despite all the hype my trip to Lisbon was purely serendipitous, chosen by my parents (who have an immunity against all that is in vogue) as the destination to stage a family reunion.
From the reports that had reached me, my impression of Lisbon was a slow-moving artists’ city with a speciality for rooftop bars. Lisbon and I were going to get on just fine.
One of the sweetest parts about travelling are those irretrievable seconds when a place reveals itself for the very first time. For the first time, ideas and imaginations are replaced by real, concrete images. As my metro train emerged from the mouth of the underground tunnel Lisbon reveals itself as a city of colours; bulky apartment blocks were disguised in sunny yellows, pinks, purples and greens, colours I was more accustomed to seeing in a children’s playground.
Drained from my 6.45 am flight (a mistake I am destined to repeat – but the cheaper tickets are never worth the exhaustion!) I head straight to my accommodation on the outskirts of the city. My accommodation of choice is an AirBnb flat, eponymously named ‘The Photographer’s Apartment’ by its owner. The apartment is a welcoming haven for a weary traveller. Sparse white walls served a backdrop to stunning photos, and vintage cameras and travellers’ trinkets decorate the apartment. I feel instantly at home.
That evening I wander around the Roma neighbourhood, constantly distracted by the flamboyance of the buildings. Lisbon’s brand is undoubtedly shabby chic. Bright colours of pale pinks, olive greens and baby blues truss up dated architecture, with one lone-standing building exuberantly painted in flamingo pink.
My introduction to Portuguese food hit a speed bump on the first night when it was decided by popular vote that we would eat Chinese for our first meal out. The Portuguese seafood I was so eager to try would have to wait until tomorrow!
Day 2 – Old Town – Grace + Alfama
Bright and early on day two I venture into the old town to do some exploring, beginning my expedition at the edge of the city at Praca de Commerciado. Overlooking the river Tagus, the square is flanked on three sides by traditional government building painted in canary yellow. Set against the backdrop of a blissfully blue sky and fluffy white clouds, the richness of colour has the lavish quality of a fresco
Lisbon’s Great Earthquake (and subsequent fire and tsunami) in 1755 reduced most of the city’s structures to rubble, the rebuilding of which has lent a certain homogenous quality to its architecture dominated by the 18th and 19th century style. Building facades in many places share an identical blueprint, featuring square windows laid out in linear, evenly spaced rows. The monotonous, vaguely Communist design is countered by beautifully intricate geometric azujelous tiles that decorate the front of buildings from top to bottom. The kaleidoscopic colours in bright, neutral tones brighten the city at every turn, bringing art onto the streets and earning Lisbon its reputation as a city of timeless beauty.
I spend most of my time in Graca and Alfama districts where the Old Town are concentrated. Much like Rome, Lisbon is a city built between seven hills, and comfortable shoes and a moderate stamina are a pre-requisite to tackle it by foot. As I weave my way up winding, sloping paths the streets begin to shed its modern characteristics. Cars and traffic thin out to be replaced by Tuk-Tuks and trams, modern brands replaced by speciality local shops.
Halfway up the hill I pause at a viewing point, taking in the sea of ochre tiled roofs and cheerful buildings clamouring for space on top of one another.
With the sun beating down, a visit to the Sé de Lisboa Cathedral offers the perfect restbite from the heat. An imposing building built in the Romanesque architecture style dating back to 1147, it is one of the few structures to survive the Great Earthquake.
One of main points of attraction (according to guidebooks, although not, according to the tour guide), is the Castelo de Sao Jorge. The group jostles to the end of the long queue trailing from the entrance where a rambunctious group of musicians gather to play rhythmic carnival style music and flirt with the crowd. After a brief team huddle we opt to avoid queuing in the midday sun, choosing instead to take the famous 28 Tram which brings its passengers on a scenic route of Lisbon.
Crammed full of tourists, the 28 Tram is not for the faint-hearted as it jolts its way around Lisbon’s steep slopes and bends, emitting a loud hiss each time it comes to a stop.
As the tram chugs its way to the outskirts of the old town and into more residential areas, symptoms of Portugal’s failing economy begin to show. The majority of the residents I spotted were elderly and grey haired, slowly inching their way past graffiti covered abandoned buildings most likely left behind by the disenfranchised youth. The Tram 28 is infamous for its mercurial timekeeping and after half an hour I give up waiting, and make my way back to the centre of the city on foot.
That evening I finally had the chance to try some Portuguese cuisine, opting for fish of the day and washing it down with plenty of sangria.
Day 3 – Belém
Lisbon is not a large city and so its has tourism has spawned into neighbouring port districts that can be reached by train within half an hour. Sintra, Cascais and Belém are the most frequented. On the train journey to Belém I see groups of manual labourers working outdoors digging into the hot and sticky road. They look weary and fatigued as they shovel piles of black, glistening tarmacadam.
I had plans to be back in Lisbon before dark so my list for Belém had to be ticked off expediently. One of the first sites was the Padrão dos Descombrimentos, a fifty meter monument shaped like the prow of a ship standing at the shore. Carved into the bow of the ship are the statues of over thirty male figures deemed to have played an integral role in Portugal’s history of expolaration. The title of the carved ship is translated as ‘Monument of Discovery’, suggesting a biased interpretation of Portugal’s colonial past.
I pay lip service to the Monastery of Jerome and Belém Tower, both UNESCO sites since 1983. The Tower fell short of my expectation. Prior mention conjured fanciful images of a grand and imposing maritime fortress but what materialises is a miniature tower, built on a tiny island in the Tagrus River about a stone’s throw away from the shore. A long queue of dutiful tourists stand in line, but I decide to cut my losses and give it a miss. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from travelling it’s to know when the guidebook should be thrown away!
I devote most of my day to the Botanical Gardens, home to over 600 species of lush trees and plants from all corners of the worlds. Keep with the theme of Belém, the gardens carry the stench of colonialism. Shamelessly still referred to as ‘Colonial Garden’, its initial function was to house plants and trees imported from Portuguese colonies. While the gardens and greenhouses showed signs of having gone into disrepair, the excess and exoticism it once represented is still evident.
Greenhouses in Belém’s Bontanical Garden has seen better days
Walking along the palm tree boulevard it wouldn’t require a stretch of the imagination to picture myself in Hollywood, or somewhere equally as opulent and moneyed. Portugal still carries memorabilia of its past as a wealthy colonial power (or a nation of “discovery” as it prefers to define itself), but today much of it lies neglected, serving as a symbol of its fallen state of grace.
By pure chance the previous evening I had stumbled upon the venue for the Concert de Lago, a daily music festival during the month of July comprising of free classical concerts for the public. Performing that night is a soprano and tenor, accompanied with gusto by the Portuguese National Symphonic Orchestra. The soprano steals the show, singing high notes so powerful yet fragile they hang like icicles in the summer air.
I end the night in the rooftop bar PARK, named in reference to its location on the top floor of a car park. The connection between the name and the location clicks only after I spend minutes scrabbling around alleyways trying to find the entrance. Although it’s a word I shy from using, ‘trendy’ is the most apt description for PARK. The lighting is dim save for chunky candles drowning in a pool of their own dripping wax, the DJ plays feel-good, crowd-pleasing hits, and almost everyone I come across is a tourist.
I don’t hang around for long.
Day 4 – Cascais
No holiday to a hot and sunny climate is complete without a trip to the beach.
On day four I venture to the neighbouring town Cascais, known for its beaches and unusual rock formations. Without the pressure of a list of tourist attractions, it is the ideal place to spend a slow day away from the city.
For those seeking a little adventure, the Boca de Inferno cliff formation is roughly a twenty-minute walk away from the old part of Cascais. The name is a translation of ‘Hell’s Mouth’, with ‘mouth’ referring to a hole in the cave carved out by the ferocious waves of the Atlantic Ocean.
Cascais raison d’etre is relaxation and pleasure, with everyone moving at an andante pace and lots of good options for places to eat. My choice of cuisine is an all-you-can-eat vegetarian menu at the restaurant ‘Garden of Wonder’, whose broad selection of food is creative and delicous. Feeling indulgent I treat myself to a renowned Santini ice-cream for dessert, opting for coconut and hazelnut scoops. I savour the punchy flavours while watching some locals playing beach volleyball, killing time till my train back to Lisbon.
Lisbon has been described as a city to get lost in, which is lucky for me considering I followed the wrong bobbing orange t-shirt halfway through my walking tour. In keeping with the city’s spirit I give into my misadventure, liberating myself from the constraints of maps and tourist attractions. Guided only by the whimsy of curiosity I am free to wander where I please, traipsing up and down alleyways and ducking into whatever shops catch my eye. It is exhilarating.
Around the corner leading up to the entrance of the Castelo del Jorge I come across an encampment, which appears to be a cross between an artist’s enclave and a political statement. The artwork took various forms and was constructed from an assortment of scavenged, recycled material. Brightly painted stones piled on top of one another formed lone-standing installations, and the walls were decorated with love heart motifs in trippy colours. At the edge a colourful mat bore the word ‘welcome’, but no one dares cross periphery.
Lisbon is undoubtedly a beautiful city. Ever the trademark tourist, I found myself constantly reaching for the camera around my neck. While a relaxed long weekend can be spent in Lisbon, something tells me the city’s true magic is locked in its lifestyle, reserved for its locals and creatives seeking artistic refuge.
Who knows, if inspired you might end up staying longer than expected.
It was a full house at last week’s “Someone You Love” pro-choice art exhibition. The fundraising event, which took place on October 11th at the Copper House Gallery on Synge street, was a fundraising event in support of the Abortion Support Network, a UK based charity that supports women from Ireland and Northern Ireland travelling to the UK in order to access abortion services.
Organised and curated by Aifric Ni Chriodain, the pro-choice artworks on display were specially created by an array of Irish artists for the event, with many incorporating the theme of the Repeal Movement into their works. All works of art were on sale to the public in print form with the money raised going to Abortion Support Network.
Graphic and uncompromising in their depiction of the pro-choice theme, the 20 contributing artists were not afraid of raising eyebrows with their work. Their candidness paid off and the collection captured the absurdity of Ireland’s anti-abortion laws, cutting to the core of the political issue with a bluntness only be achieved by art.
One of such pieces was submitted by Larry Dunne and showed a drawing of the female uterus under lock and chain and circled by rosary beads. No doubt it was inspired by the “keep your rosaries off our ovaries” slogan made famous by the pro-choice campaign.
Another controversial piece by Dolce Merda X One Strong Arm was of a silver hanger against a plain black background. Powerful in its simplicity and austerity, it is a remembrance of the gruesome and unsafe procedures carried out by desperate Irish women in the last century.
My favourite piece of the evening was by Bronwyn Andrews. The photo showed everyday items laid out on a bed, the contents of a bag for an overnight stay in England.
Stark in their ordinariness, one visitor noted, they were all items that she herself had at home. It captured the message of the exhibition: abortion could be a necessary option for anyone, even “someone you love.”
Despite the solemnity of the works on display, people were in high-spirits. Rallying speeches given on the night invigorated the crowd, acknowledging the tremendous support in favour of the Repeal Movement, but with a cautionary reminder that there is still a lot more work to go. Proselytizing was completely dispensed with by all speakers. It was, after all, not a protest, nor an attack on the government but an evening shared between people on the same team and a celebration of that fact.
In his speech Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International, touched on some of the challenges and criticisms facing the repeal campaign. Most notable was his contempt towards ‘tone fleecing’, a suggestion that asks women to curb their anger when campaigning, the implication being that their anger would undermine that cogency and efficacy of their argument. He swiftly dismissed this as misogynistic “bullshit” claiming that “Women can be angry and respectful and coherent” and that “Angry women are not the problem…but the absence of anger [is]”. His words evidently touched a nerve and raised a spontaneous applaud from the crowd.
Another of the evening’s speakers was Julie O’Donnell, who bravely told the audience of her own experience travelling to Liverpool to access abortion services upon learning at 26 weeks pregnant that her baby had zero chance of survival.
Although I have heard and read numerous stories of Irish women in such a position this was my first time hearing it first hand. My hairs were standing on end as I listened to Judy recount the horror of her ordeal, her voice trembling as she described the feelings of loneliness, anger and helplessness that she suffered. Six years on, the turmoil she experienced was still evident.
The exhibition attracted a dynamic crowd, with the majority of the audience comprised of women as well members of the gay community. Given the demography of the crowd it could easily have been a rally for last year’s same-sex marriage referendum.
Just as women were the largest group of supporters in favour of same-sex marriage, it was evident on the night that the gay community have allied themselves alongside the women of Ireland. Both groups have been prejudiced and silenced by Irish law in the course of the country’s history, and it is heart-warming to see them continuously stand in solidarity with one another. Although women as a class make up half the population, we are divided on the issue of abortion and so the support of the gay community in the Repeal Campaign is as vital as ever.
Striking was the overwhelming presence of people aged under 25, a rarity at political events in Ireland. This newfound penchant for political-activism amongst the Irish youth is no coincidence.
Invigorated by the positive result of last year’s same-sex referendum, particularly here in Dublin, young people appear to have restored faith in one of democracy’s central theses: political power ultimately flows from the people and it is incumbent on the people to participate actively in the political arena. With the previously politically inert youth on its side, the pro-choice campaign is a force to be reckoned with.
The fundraiser was undoubtedly a success, with some prints so well received on the night they sold out. The buzzing crowd streamed out of the gallery ignited and rejuvenated, aware of the uphill battle yet to go but knowing at least that they had strength in numbers.
Entering into its fifth year, Organik festival has become a fixture of Taiwan’s underground music scene, attracting visitors from all corners the world. Hailed as South East Asia’s best electronic music festival I couldn’t help but arrive with high hopes, always a precarious move, but thankfully I wasn’t disappointed.
Whereas for the majority of festivals the venue plays a mere ancillary role, Organik, held in the local township Huting (Hualien) is one of those rare festivals where the location was as relevant to the experience as the music or the people.
Situated within an inlet where the jungle mountains meet the sea, the stunning views were in their own right worth the train, taxi (and flight for overseas travellers) it took to get there. With lush, leafy mountains encompassing you from all sides, save for the immense dark-sanded beach and the clearest of blue seas, it was both a literal and figurative escape from the real world and its responsibilities. Entering under a canopy of palm trees and low hanging branches, manoeuvring the haphazardly placed piles of wood or climbing three story tree house, it felt like a ready-made, off-the grid playground for adults.
With less than 1000 in attendance another reason Organik stands out from other festivals due its intimacy. Being the only one if its kind in Taiwan it attracted an array of people: music lovers, party lovers, nature lovers and those whose curiosity was piqued by how much it’s actually talked about. Less than two weeks after I arrived in Taiwan, way back when in November, I already found myself regaled with stories from Organik.
Arriving at the entrance I was met by smiling faces that appeared almost abashed at having to perform a routine bag-search, a welcome deviation from the usual invasive procedures at such events. This intimacy was deliberately fostered by the organisers: staff didn’t wear a uniform and interacted with attendees as if they friends; there were little or no rules and people were given free rein to camp where they pleased. This was a welcome relief from the rigidity of Taipei’s trademark paternalism, where rules are adhered to with a solemn reverence and people spontaneously form orderly queues.
This relaxed, languished approach set the tone for the duration of the festival and cultivated an automatic sense of familiarity, more than compensating for the lack of big headliners or charging crowds. Overall, the atmosphere resembled a house party as opposed to a ticketed event, the kind of party thrown by the popular, rich kid in school (and for once, everyone was invited). All your needs were taken care of, everyone knew everyone, and for those new to Taiwan the feeling didn’t last long.
Also contributing to the sense of intimacy was the small scale of the festival site. With everything virtually within five minutes of each other walk people simply meandered from place to place, so leaving your tent didn’t feel like the mission as it tends to at bigger festivals.
There were two dance-floors in total: the first which hosted the main acts was on the beach, a netted enclosure with golden sand and ample space to dance, or just sit and chill out; the second was a mere minutes walk away, an indoor, low-ceilinged wooden cabin that hosted local DJ’s played more chilled out music. The beauty of this was there was no fear of missing your favourite act, and for those indifferent to the line-up they could simply use their ears as their guide.
At some point in the early evening it began to rain, nothing catastrophic but neither could it be shrugged off. Shoes were abandoned, bikinis were layered with translucent, plastic ponchos and while most held their posts bravely outside, there was a sudden influx to the indoor dance-floor. Only hours previously I had changed not once but twice in pursuit of the perfect outfit but after ten minutes of rain I had morphed into a bare-footed, vagrant, jungle creature, any preoccupations with image dissipated by the rain.
Once darkness fell the magical quality of the setting came to life. Sitting around the bonfire, the crackling of the flames mingling with the thud of the music, I took a moment to just look and soak it all in. Clearly a lot of love and care had gone into the decorations, their bewitching effect evoking a sense of otherworldliness. Guiding the way from the beach to the stages were a trickle of fairly lights, tracing the perimeter of the soft sloping hill like icing on a cake. Against the pitch-black backdrop of the night ambient lights emanated from different pockets of the hill, their hazy glow dispersed by foliage and thick billows of smoke. In my moment as a detached spectator it was clear to me that I was part of something special.
Organised by Smoke-machine, the pioneering underground organisation of Taiwan, the heavily German line-up was crafted with utmost care and attention, an imperative given that the festival was a single, uninterrupted thirty-hour flow.
Speaking to one half of the Smokemachine duo, Gregory (aka diskconnected), I asked him what was involved in organising such an event. In his answer he spoke only of the music. Spending over half a year assiduously selecting the line up, each act is chosen with the belief they can bring Organik’s vision to life.
Hearing him talk reminded me of a parent sending their just turned eighteen-year-old child into the adult world: once the line-up and running order is chosen, from the music side of things, Smoke Machine takes a step back and hopes the DJ’s will deliver.
And did they indeed.
All of the acts showed a keen awareness of their position within the line-up and what it required of them, delivering accordingly.
Sidney and Suleiman opened the festival, their soft beats providing a gentle landing for everyone lugging their camping equipment down the hill. Headlining the festival were Dorisburg and Efedemin. While Dorisburg’s set was short and sweet, it left people wanting for more in the good kind of way and his high-energy set got the ball rolling for the night. Guiding the transition from daylight to darkness, Smoke Machine’s diskonnected started off steadily before stepping it up a gear to pave the way for Efdemin.
With the night in full swing Efedemin didn’t hold back, playing techno tracks such as DJ HMC – Marauder and other classics that sated techno lovers such as myself and got everyone moving. Dr. Rubenstein, one of the festival favourites, brought the night to a peak. Using the inky darkness of the night as her muse, she laid down acid upon acid track, her diverse set catching people’s attention as was evident by the heaving dance floor.
Come the early hours of the morning Chris SSG was up by which stage most people had danced themselves to exhaustion. Aware of his timing he led us into a soothing, ambient set, his tinkling melodies healing our tired limbs. His set coming to a close people started drifting towards the mountainside to watch the sunrise, as is responding to some natural instinct. Although clamouring its jagged edges took some effort the breath-taking views were worth it. Most people sat in silence, taking a moment to reflect and cherish the peace.
Unfortunately, this came at the price of missing Sa Pa’s set. According to reports he didn’t disappoint, and the track everyone talked about afterwards was Sam Kidel’s ‘Disruptike Muzak Clip’, a track with shimmering, quivering undertones that after a hedonistic night of partying restores your equilibrium. Listening to it at home I sorely regret not being there.
At this point it was after 8am and my body gave in so I went for a nap which, lasting longer than expected, meant I woke up just in time to hear the last track of Edward’s live set. Bringing the festival to a close was Nd_Baumecker, tasked with defining the final moments of the festival, the feeling that would linger as people made their journey home. His set was near perfect, playing a mix of both modern and classic tracks, and one or twice I actually felt a rush of pure, un-induced happiness. At times his drops were like a physical force, a gravitational pull that brought everyone in sync as if performing a choreographed movement. With his official set over Nd_Baumecker let loose and played a track by Janet feat. Missy Elliot, before launching himself into the crowd to savour those last, delicious moments of euphoria before the party had to eventually end.
Anyone lucky enough to have attended Organik will tell you that it is far more than just a music festival. Although it is still in its early years, Smokemachine has managed to capture the essence that marks a festival in people’s minds : creating a sense of belongingness. The satisfaction of a yearning, so deeply rooted in human nature, to feel a part of something. Because isn’t that ultimately what draws us to a festival and ensures we come back year after year? Maybe even more so, dare I say it, than the music.
There was much speculation and mystery surrounding “Jeff Mills: A man from the Future” performance in Taipei, beginning with the location ambiguously listed as “Taipei Nasa Space Center.” As an artist, Mr. Mill harnesses his obsession with space and his skill as a musician to fuse two entities that have awed and mystified humanity in some shape or form since the beginning of time. Advances in technology have allowed us to explore both previously unknown realms, but just as there are depths of space that will forever remain out of reach, the creation of music is infinite and man’s journey of discovery and creation is never complete.
This obscure vastness has awed musicians and scientists alike. Both devotees spend their entire lives broadening mankind’s understanding of space and music, anticipating and moulding our future in the process. Exploring this co-relation, Jeff Mills adopts space and time travel as his muse in his retro-futuristic inspired performances.
As I ascended the staircase of the ATT 4 FUN building it felt as though I were entering a lair, the rolling sound of the industrial techno settling around me and driving away the outside world. With over an hour to go until Mills was due to play only a smattering of people occupied the space, allowing me to get a good look at the setting. The location was a large room, with tall, high ceilings, and although darkly lit the disguise was evident: cream, patterned wall paper, lingering security guards, and a VIP balcony area above our heads all hinted at the true nature of the room as a exclusive club venue.
The crowd was a healthy mix of local Taiwanese and foreigners, a regular occurrence at techno events given that EDM dominates the mainstream clubs in Taiwan. Nearly everyone in attendance was dressed impeccably, their outfits (predominately black, of course) carefully chosen and exuding a cool fierceness. Certainly no one was there by accident.
Finally Mills emerged on stage and wordlessly, with a single swift gesture whipped back a black cover revealing his machinery, as though he were a magician about to begin his sorcery. Armed with his Roland TR-909, four vinyl players and a synth, Mills squats amongst his machines and the performance began.
Conscious of the futuristic theme (ironic given that the event also announced Mill’s imminent retirement) and I made an active effort to tune into Mill’s vision throughout the performance.
The show seemed to begin in an apocalyptical present, its chaos and urgency evoked through swarming red lights and a jarring piano melody hovering above the beat, the visuals depicting a gaping, flickering chasm.
A nimble, shadowed silhouette on stage, Mills commandeered his equipment to transport us through time and space, the swelling movement of his melodies and acid baselines bringing his vision of time-travel to life. The discordant use of his drum machine contributed to this frantic energy, as it wrapped itself around the multiple layers of tracks producing a single cacophonous sound.
I situated myself near the front of the stage and those surrounding me danced feverishly, utterly submitting themselves to Mills who offered a temporary break from reality. And while this release is subconsciously, if not consciously, the force that drives ravers to dance for hours on end, the urge for release appears more overt for Taiwanese partiers. They dance with a frenziness, slightly forced at times, as if trying to shed a metaphysical burden so that, rejuvenated, they may once again be able to face the stresses of Taiwanese working world.
Paying homage to Detroit classics “The Bells” brought the crowd to attention, but at times the alternate dimension that Mills strove to create flickered and threatened to slip away. When I ventured to the back of the room people appeared somewhat listless. While this can in part be blamed on the venue, its luxury ill-suited to Mill’s concept only further exacerbated as it wasn’t filled to full capacity, Mills and his audience didn’t always appear to be on the same wavelength. Perhaps aware of this Mills occasionally played his drum-pad, as if checking in with his audience, although it wasn’t until the show finale that he revealed his true potential.
For the remaining half hour the evening took a deliberate shift as our perilous journey through time and space had come to end. Having reached our final destination we were greeted by, “the man from the future”, a solitary figure bathed in golden light on a stage plunged in darkness. Abandoning his tracks and moving seamlessly to a performance using solely his drum-machine, synth and touch-pad, Mills showed us why he has earned the reputation as a master of techno. With his trademark, unwavering concentration (apart from the odd flicker towards the audience to gauge their reaction), Mill’s fingers moved deftly and deliberately as he simultaneously manipulated both his machinery and audience.
This instinctively produced, organic sound, as though he were playing an ad lib solo on a drum or guitar, brought a warmth and authenticity to his performance which techno sets often lack. This invigorated just about every person in the room, and as a collective mass we thrashed about for the remainder of “The Wizard’s” set.
While the night ended on a high, the general consensus afterwards was that although Mills played a great set people weren’t blown away. Nonetheless, with an open mind, some imagination and a close ear, listener’s who submit themselves to Mill’s retrofuturistic concept can be taken on a journey, and for a short time at least, experience first-hand the fusion Mills envisions between space, the future and electronic music.
[Bŭ lěi nà is my Chinese name for those who are wondering.]
It is with a good reason that the phrase, “[He] might as well have been speaking Chinese”, is employed in instances where the listener is truly and utterly perplexed. This is a phrase that I have come to hold in a whole new light in the past three months.
Before embarking upon my travels to Taiwan I never actually put much thought into the reality of learning Chinese. This was down to pure laziness because, had I been even slightly bothered, I could have harnessed all the many resources offered by the world wide web and tried my hand at some self-teaching.
But I didn’t.
Instead I languished in my blissful ignorance. So ignorant was my bliss I decided to enrol in the intensive learning class.
I lasted two days before switching to the regular version.
Before Starting Class
This period of “blissful ignorance” enjoyed its short-lived existence before Chinese classes begun. Unbeknownst to me at the time, for that two week span I had the best of both worlds: although locals were burdened with speaking to me entirely through my native tongue, because I had come to Taiwan to learn Chinese I couldn’t be categorised as a haughty, uncultivated foreigner. Should someone misguidedly attempt conversation with me through Chinese, I would simply smile a simpering smile, cock my head to the side, shrug my shoulders and sigh, saying, “Sorry I don’t speak Chinese, I start classes soon.”
On December 1st 2015 this period of bliss came to a shuddering, coughing halt. It was replaced by a daunting realisation of the immensity of the challenge I faced. I knew learning Chinese was going to be difficult, I’d be an idiot not to, but having never attempted to learn it I didn’t have a concrete grasp of the practical difficulties that awaited me. It remained a remained a fanciful idea not quite existing yet in my reality, vague enough not to perturb me so I could easily swat away the frequent comments alluding to my recklessness, politely referred to as bravery.
During the first two weeks of class I sat with a perplexed expression fixed on my face. It was an accurate depiction of what was going on inside my head. Alien words and characters were being thrown and me left, right and centre. Where one word began and the next one ended was a mystery. Characters that I had spent all night scrawling all over my notebook like a love struck teenager in an attempt to memorize them eluded me the following day. I felt hopeless, and honestly, a bit thick.
Three months in I can thankfully say my Chinese has improved. I no longer constantly look nor feel like at total dunce in class (or if I do, I cannot altogether blame it on my lack of Chinese). With hindsight, I can reduce my difficulties to two overarching problems: The first is the difficulty in itself of learning Chinese; the second is the difficulty learning Chinese in an Asian culture. Their combined effect means that my experiences learning Chinese over the past three months have been as much a process that needed to run its course, as a challenge that needed to be overcome. Unexpectedly, I learnt a lot about myself.
The Challenge of Learning Chinese
Initially there is a steep, steep learning curve, the immensity of which I wasn’t prepared for. Just like every other language you need to learn vocabulary and grammar, but learning Chinese also involves learning pingin (the Chinese characters written using alphabetical letters as you would sound them out), memorizing the characters, as well as paying attention to the tones. There are four tones in the Chinese language (mā má mǎ mà), which dictate how the tone of your voice should rise and fall as your pronounce each word. Employing the incorrect tone could be fatal because many of the same words take on an entirely different meaning, depending on what tone accompanies them.
The other major challenge is learning the characters. Each week I am required to learn a list of 40-45 words or phrases. In addition to our weekly end of chapter test, I also have two dictation tests based on the new vocabulary. Considering each word involves learning the pingin, the character and the tones on top of the meaning, this is no mean feat. It requires diligent study, which admittedly was a shock to my system. Having only recently graduated from college, I had grown accustomed to working according to my own schedule towards one major, looming deadline as opposed to a constant, daily grind of work according to the teacher’s plan.
Slacking off is more pain than it’s worth. As each lesson is taught using the new vocabulary, unless you’ve learnt the characters by heart you’ll be lost, something I found out the hard way.
Learning Chinese the Asian Way
It was in the classroom that I experienced the culture shock of moving to a different continent most severely. And the stereotypes are more true than they are false.
The less independent thought the better. Questions are not encouraged. The commonly Western used phrase, “There are no stupid questions,” most definitely does not apply. “Most questions are stupid” would be more accurate. You’ll know by the teacher’s expression how she rates your question. If she finds it exasperating, she won’t conceal the fact.
Another difficulty my classmates and I experienced was the linear quality of the teaching style. Our teacher endeavoured to teach us using as little English as possible, so new vocabulary was often taught through gestures, imitations, and sometimes sound effects. At times it felt like we were in play school or playing a never ending game of charades. Sometimes these attempts just didn’t land, because what was obvious and singular in meaning to her simply wasn’t for us. Our Western trained minds considered things from various angles, leaving room for speculation, so we failed to arrive at the “foolproof” answer she had intended.
Countless times I would sit in class feeling the frustration rise within me because I felt as though I had been propelled back in time to primary school. Despite the low number of people in the class and given we were all adults, there lacked the sense of informality that usually resulted when similar situations arose in college. We were all very aware that she was the teacher and we were the student. This sense of authority was projected through her teaching style, which from what I have gathered, is particular to the school rather than her own personal preference. Obediently we would listen to her reading out sentences in an exaggerated style, and then on command chant them back, our voices colliding in a jumble of incorrect tones.
I remember during my second day of the intensive class (which, by the way, was also my second day learning Chinese ever) the teacher simply listed out a flurry of words, which it turns out were the numbers 1-10 in Chinese. She then turned to us expectantly, awaiting us to recite them back, which somehow everyone but I managed. This was followed by an exercise where we called out our phone numbers out in Chinese and wrote one another’s down. As each word raced past me I desperately tried to connect it to a number, but my brain churned too slowly to keep up with the rapid pace. Luckily I wasn’t desperate to get the number of anyone there, because my efforts were utterly futile and I sat there wearing a dazed expression. Confusion then turned to mild indignation at how much was expected from us mere beginners, and I glanced around the classroom hoping to register similar expressions on the faces of my classmates, but to my dismay I was the only one.
The range of emotions flashing across my face was apparently comical because it caught the teacher’s attention. Not to help me, God forbid, but to launch her career as a comedian. Much to her and everyone’s amusement, she proceeded to mimic my facial expressions, eliciting laughs from my fellow classmates. Luckily I have thick skin and by that stage my fate was sealed: I was switching to the easier class. Having succumbed to the hopelessness of my future in that class I managed to see the funny side.
I talked to one of my classmates after class, wondering how on earth he had managed to keep up with the accelerated pace. It transpired that he and most of the other students had already undertaken Chinese in some shape or form, so I was the only real beginner in the beginner class. To give you an idea of how fast we were working through the material, he said that what we covered in a three-hour class was equivalent to what he had covered in half a semester of college. I left that conversation feeling better, me ego somewhat assuaged.
What I learnt about myself
Anyone who has spent even just five minutes in my company knows I like to ask a lot of questions. Pointless questions, random questions, intuitive questions – they cover a broad range. Similar to an irritating child, it comes from my desire to understand why. I spent four years studying philosophy so it’s understandable. When it comes to studying in a Taiwanese classroom “why” doesn’t often enter the equation. You are presented with information within a specific context, you learn said information within the confines of that context, and then when prompted, regurgitate it back. Compared to my experience learning other languages, there is much less emphasis on learning the mechanics of the language and instead much more is placed upon learning phrases off by heart. I, on the other hand, want to strip a phrase down and understand why those particular words were used and why in that particular order. Memory having never been my strong suit, I find it much easier to learn by understanding the underlying logic.
During the first couple of weeks I could see the teacher getting visibly frustrated by some of our questions, perhaps mine in particular. One day she wanted to talk to me after class, like a naughty child being reprimanded after school. The conversation went like this: she told me she could tell that I was a perfectionist (ding ding full marks there), that I want to understand everything, but in fact this is the wrong approach when it comes to learning Chinese. Instead I should learn as a child would, not worrying about making mistakes. Rather than tripping myself up because I don’t understand one part of a sentence, I should conceive of it it as a whole and elicit from that its’ general meaning. I took her advice on-board, and with good spirit too. In fact, I was grateful. It allowed me to free myself from the questions that had been weighing me down.
Her words echoed in my mind the following days. They brought with them the realisation that my approach to learning Chinese reflected the manner in which I approached tasks, and life in general. Unbeknownst to her during our three-minute conversation she had provided me with life advice. I guess I’m not that mysterious after all.
In some ways learning Chinese is like taking one of those personality tests you find online, revealing the inner workings of you mind. For example, when learning characters some people remember the simple ones easily but forget the complex ones, while others are the opposite. No surprises, the complex characters sit much longer in my head.
The next week I came to class with a totally different approach. Keep it simple. Unless I actually didn’t understand something I would keep my meandering questions to myself. The rest I would find out in due time. That’s not to say I’ve preformed a lobotomy and removed my inquisitive nature. The questions still bubble up inside, but I’ve learnt to recognise that in certain instances they can act as an impediment. While in most situations curiosity should be encouraged, for those two hours each day where my world consisted of Chinese characters in a classroom in Taiwan, it was making my life harder than it needed to be.
It also instilled in me the importance of a strong work ethic. I had almost resigned myself to the fact that learning 20 characters in one night was beyond my ability, but realising that the dictation tests were going to come twice a week whether I liked it or not, I would have to find a way. So instead I turned my attention to figuring out what specifically was causing me problems and adapted my study method to tackle this. It lead to a noticeable improvement.
The objective of this article was not to vent (well, maybe a little), nor moan about having to learn Chinese, nor criticise my teacher. Actually, once I came to terms with everything I’ve mentioned, mainly embracing that I was learning a hard language in an alien culture, things became much easier. I no longer went to class grudgingly, dread oozing out of every pore, but I began to enjoy it. So I guess finally, and maybe most importantly, I learnt the virtue of patience. Rather than working towards an unrealistic and self-imposed deadline, which only adds unnecessary angst, give yourself the time and the space to improve. Things didn’t get better straight away and it still is arduous at the best of times, but eventually they did. I’m not sure at what point it happened exactly, but gradually people started commenting that my Chinese had improved. I reached a turning point.
27 degrees Celsius. Six o’clock on a mid-November evening. I expected it to be hot, but not that hot. As I wrestled with my suitcase, my extra large backpack and my handbag, I made my way from Tayouan airport to Taipei City. Fighting my weariness having left my house over an entire day beforehand I succumbed to the nagging exhaustion that had been trailing me all day and fell asleep on the bus. What felt like only moments later, the welcoming, shining lights of Taipei city awakened me. With my face pressed to the glass like a child I watched the city unfold before my eyes. This was my first time ever in Asia and I was a blank slate, ready to be impressed upon.
The first thing I noticed is that Taipei has a sense of immediacy about it that I have yet to experience to a similar extent in any European city. Neon lights are ubiquitous, lining every street and elbowing one another in an effort to grab your attention. In my first few days I visited the Shilin night market, which to my untrained eye appeared unstructured and chaotic. With no purpose besides exploration I allowed myself to get lost as I ducked into side streets and passages, indulging every whim that struck me and using my instincts and senses as my guide. I can only describe it as an acid trip for your senses, with the dizzying lights reminding me of the merry-go-round scene in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Products were overflowing from the shops and almost spilling onto the footpath, which is commonplace for the shops in Taipei. The relationship between retailer and consumer begins on the street, and in far more proactive and overt manner than is customary in Ireland.
It has struck me that Taipei is a city that embodies numerous traits, simultaneously straddling rich and poor, old and new, ancient and modern. Situated alongside modern motorways are structures constructed from metal corrugated sheets or metal crates stacked upon one another, which would not appear out of place in a shantytown. Modern, sleek shops, departments and restaurants coexist with simple, no frill traditional Taiwanese restaurants that are comparable to rudimentary school canteens. The food is often cooked in front of you, there is no décor and the no frills service is reduced to the bones of its intention: they provide food and you in return provide money. It is a tendency of Irish consumers to use the branding or aesthetic representation of a product or service as a measure of its quality, but that is not always the case here. In Taipei, eating out is often predominantly for the practical purpose of absolving you of your hunger and accordingly Taiwanese restaurants have dispensed with the usual embellishments required to attract customers that are standard, necessary almost, in Ireland.
Geographically, there does not exist a clear divide between wealth and austerity that exists in most European cities that I have visited. Opulence and simplicity, high-end and low-end are curiously inter-dispersed amongst one another. When walking along one of the busy shopping streets one evening I saw a woman who worked for a food vendor washing her dishes in a basin on the pavement, while only a few shops down there were multiple high-end sports outlets, shiny and lustrous.
Car and motorbike repair shops are located like shop fronts along the street with the doors wide open, their workspace, tools and equipment totally on view. From an outsider’s perspective, this transparency of work practises is prevalent in Taiwanese society. Food is often visibly prepared in the front of a restaurant, and as I write this, situated one table away from me two workers are preparing dumplings, sitting amongst customers in full display. There is a sense of informality amongst the interaction between customer and retailer, which is also characteristic of the fluid business purpose. On multiple occasions I saw food vendors active inside the doorways of retail shops. Although a strategic partnership it would never occur in Ireland or certainly not as informally, due to the rigid and fixed business model that prevents utility from transcending formality.
Similarly, there exists an interesting juxtaposition between luxury and modernity on one hand, and simplicity and tradition on the other. Some aspects of the city are extremely advanced such as their primary method of transport the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) metro service. Each station has a gleaming, shining, spacious bathroom that would rival most restaurants in Dublin, as well as multiple electrical socket outlets in order for people to charge their phones. Yet many apartments, such as the apartment of my first host, don’t have kitchens, something that is not uncommon I found out once I embarked upon my search for a flat. In its place there was a sink, a washing machine, and a water dispenser that delivered hot and warm water. My host had a fridge in her room (mostly empty), her delph comprised of two mugs, a plate, a bowl and some cutlery. She ate all three meals a day out, which appears far more economical that renting a flat with a kitchen and paying for groceries. To me it seems strange that a metro station provides expendable facilities while many apartments lack what I have been accustomed to regard as fundamental equipment.
While researching Taiwan prior to coming here many people emphasised the hosting and helpful nature of the Taiwanese people, claiming that as a guest I would be revered within Asian culture. I can certainly say this expectation has been met. The majority of times during which I have found myself hopelessly staring at street signs or Google maps (full disclosure – it has happened quite a few times) people have offered help without being prompting. In fact I experienced this welcoming nature even before arriving while organising a place to stay via the couchsurfing website (a website which links travellers with residents willing to act as a host). My first host said she was honoured that I chose her as a host, and seemed genuinely pleased to open her home for me. Considering she was doing me such a huge favour, her graciousness really took me aback.
People are definitely curious as to why I am here. As a “Westerner” (a term I have yet to grow accustomed to use when referring to myself) I stick out. People stare a lot. And they stare boldly too. Living in Berlin for a year prepared me for this so I’ve grown accustomed to the staring. Sometimes if I’m not flustered or rushed and find myself bothered enough to react, I will stare back self-assuredly. But even this doesn’t always deter them, and suddenly I find myself taking part in a childish staring match.
The stereotypical impression of Asians (yes, I’m aware this is a naïve umbrella term that doesn’t account for the difference between various Asian cultures) is that they are reticent and keep to themselves. That is something I have experienced in various degrees here, and is a stereotype with which I cannot fully concur, nor dispel either. From a foreigners perspective I feel people’s lack of English is a source of embarrassment, which in turn fuels their timidity. Fortunately for me, due to my white privilege, English is the language everyone is expected to know, so often when abroad I automatically speak English to the locals, presumptuously and arrogantly anticipating that they would have the ability to speak my language in their country.
I can most definitely relate to the self-consciousness that overcomes Taiwanese people due to the language barrier. When I was still new to Berlin, although having proficient German I struggled to say the word “Entschuldigung” fluidly or on short notice. It translates to “excuse me” but it is quite a mouthful for a word that one needs to utilise abruptly. So if I bumped into someone I sometimes found myself stumped silent, resulting in uncharacteristically rude behaviour (I’m the kind of person who apologises when I bang into a chair) because I simply couldn’t form the word quickly enough. It used to get stuck in my throat and just stay there.
Similarly, during the early days of college in Berlin I primarily stuck with my Irish friend. Talking to a stranger requires a certain amount of confidence that I can usually muster with ease. Yet combine this with the very realistic possibility that I will falter when speaking and suddenly I found myself meeker than usual. So I get it. Being unable to express yourself clearly impacts a person’s forwardness, and talking to strangers is hard enough as it is.
While in Ireland, I didn’t I come across many Asians that had moved there having had an Asian upbringing, so any opinion elucidated in this article is derived primarily from vague impressions. Nonetheless, impressions count for something and most people with whom I discussed the matter shared my sentiments, both Asians and Europeans alike. One of my Taiwanese couchsurfing hosts had an Irish boyfriend and had travelled extensively in Europe, resulting in a self-confessed mentality that aligned itself more with a European, rather than a Taiwanese mind-set. I broached the topic of my pre-conceived notions of Asians, specifically mentioning that it seemed that when abroad they always stuck to their own. From our conversation I learned that this tendency exists because they are apparently advised by their elderlies not to talk to strangers. This suggests that rather than being an inherent trait, their reticence is rooted in circumstance and my experiences here for the most part serve to further reinforce that.
Said advice was also imparted to me by older relatives every time I’ve moved abroad, but which I largely have chosen to ignore (Sorry Pauline). I always talk to strangers and have met some incredible people and some of my dear friends by doing so. That’s not to say it always ends well. During my first week while starting at the Metro map trying to figure out where I needed to go (a recurring theme during my first few days here) a Taiwanese man, in his early twenties at a guess, struck up a conversation with me. I use the term conversation lightly because it was more like a one-sided game of twenty questions. Being virtually brand new in this city and having no friends apart from my host, I figured I was not in a position to be picky. I let my friendly nature get the better of me and I answered his questions without elaborating too much on the details. This continued until he commented that I looked more like a dancer than a person with a law degree because of my “sexy body”. He then noticed a ring on my wedding finger, a happy coincidence, and perhaps an explanation for why I’ve been single for over two year. When he remarked that I was quite young to be married aged 23, I decided not to correct him. We soon lost each other in the crowd.