Paths of Desire (part 14)

That same year a small group of my friends and I produced a play which one of my friends had written. It was well-received, and this inspired us to work together on additional new productions. Over the next few years we wrote and produced five or six new works, and I came to conclude that there were few things in life that I enjoyed as much as being a part of a team, a small group with a common creative purpose. The exchange of new ideas between us was invigorating, and the process of translating these ideas into a cohesive story that was entertaining and edifying was challenging and purposeful.

One of our productions, I began writing while living oversees in Taiwan. My semester abroad had been organized to take place in Shanghai, China however, several months earlier the Tiananmen Square protests took place, and out of concern for our safety the school administration changed plans and directed us to a language institute in Taichung, Taiwan instead. Each of us were placed with a host family in Taichung for three months while we studied language and culture, and then we moved to the mountains and spent the next three months placed with a different host family in a small village named Luku, which was located in one of the premier green-tea growing regions on the island. My play was loosely autobiographical about my time on the island, within the challenges of living in a new culture and facing conflicting values; but it was primarily about the inner life of the main character and his battle to achieve balance and harmony amidst conflicting forces operating within his soul. These forces were personified predominantly in characters I named ‘Chaos’ and ‘Spirit’ who each fought for preeminence and authority within him and wanted sovereign control and the destruction of the other, but the main character’s struggle was to determine the place each of these forces should play in his life, and create a state of balanced inner peace. I took many of the ideas I was learning that year from Taoism and integrated these concepts into the storyline and the arc of the main character.

This was also the year of the female. This isn’t one of the Chinese zodiac, but it was the overarching, and overwhelming principle of my life in Taiwan. I was the only male in the group that traveled to Taiwan. Our group consisted of six other classmates and our program director, all women, and me. In addition to this I was placed in a host family in Taichung, with three daughters, and all of my professors at the language institute were women.  There were certainly many advantages and enjoyable aspects to this situation but when things got tense and stressful, as they invariably can when traveling for an extended period with others, I was nearly always the odd man out. I was a foreigner in a strange land and a stranger amongst my own people. Being the only male in the group meant that I was unique confidante to my peers one moment, and estranged outcast the next. By the end of the six months in Taiwan, I think I went a little batty.

While living in Taichung I attended a Tai-chi class on the rooftop of a high-rise building downtown. I had bought a scooter from a classmate and braved the streets of this large city, driving it between classes and my host-family’s home near the eastern city limits.  The rides through town were never without some excitement and anxiety since drivers in that city viewed road signs and traffic lights as optional recommendations, and considered sidewalks as an extra lane for traffic. Somehow I managed to survive the months on these city streets without incident, though there were several close misses and narrow escapes. By the time I arrived to my Tai-Chi class, I was in need of the soothing and relaxing effects of this ancient martial art.

One of the touted benefits of Tai-Chi is longevity and youthfulness. Our instructor was the embodiment of these effects since he looked as though he was about eight years old. This comes across as hyperbole, but when I first saw him I thought someone had brought their child along with them to the class. When he walked to the front of the group and began instructing I was completely amazed; by the moonlight I examined him intently, and giving him the benefit of the doubt, I decided he could maybe be as old as twelve. For no other reason than his apparent youthfulness, I was hooked on this class; because I was mesmerized by this man-child and was fascinated to watch him because he defied everything I understood about aging. I didn’t understand him very well since my Mandarin was very basic, but I did learn from others in the class that not only was he an instructor, but he was a master practitioner and an instructor of instructors. So he clearly was an adult, and apparently fully into middle-age, but he was the youngest looking adult I have ever seen. His class was exceptional and the setting was quintessentially exotic. Standing on a rooftop filled with Taiwanese Tai-Chi students, in the middle of their large city, at night, under the silver moonlight was a transcendent and magical experience. Doing so with this age-defying human as our instructor gave it all an air of mystery and fantasy as well.

Luku Township was about an hour scooter ride to the southeast from Taichung. This little village was set amidst deep green mountains and immediately surrounded by verdant terraces lined with rows of Camellia sinensis, from which green tea-leaves are cultivated. We arrived during the harvesting season and the entire town and countryside smelled of green tea. In my new host-family’s home, my bedroom was adjacent to the tea-drying room, in which was a long tumbler with a heater-blower attached, into which leaves were poured and dried. I marinated in the smell of green tea many days and nights, falling asleep to the sound of the tumbler as it rotated, drying the tea leaves; it was a natural and healthy intoxication that I felt throughout the harvest season.

In Luku, laundry was done in the streams which meandered along roadsides. In the center of the town there was an area where most people did their laundry. Laundry was only done by women and by me. In keeping with the Year of the Female, I discovered that I was the only man that did laundry in this stream, and as a by-product of my effort, I also provided the townswomen with new entertainment and cause for hilarity. Seeing me scraping and banging my clothes against the rocks, knee deep in the stream, brought joy to women and children alike, and the fact that I was the only white male in the area, I think added to the peculiarity of it.

It was unadvisable to hike in the countryside here too extensively due to the number of dangerous snakes. Venomous snakes had been bred on the island during WWII and after the war they were released into the wild and they propagated. While I was living in Luku one of the farmers unfortunately encountered one of these snakes while harvesting leaves and he didn’t survive. In addition to venomous snakes you might also encounter a large constrictor which is what happened to me one evening as I was riding my scooter to the town swimming pool. I was riding on a narrow road, flanked on both sides by tall reeds, when I rounded a curve and there, up ahead of me, appeared to be a fallen log across the entire road. As I approached it, a sudden chill went up my spine and I stopped abruptly, as the ‘log’ continued to slither into the reeds. It was a very large snake, perhaps six or seven inches in diameter; I couldn’t see its head, which was somewhere in the reeds to my right, nor could I see its tail which was someplace still back in the reeds to my left. The road had to be at least fourteen feet across, perhaps wider, since two small cars could pass each other on it. This snake continued to slither for quite a while, slowly but steadily before the tail finally came into view. I was completely repulsed, but nevertheless something in me wanted to go up and touch it. I pondered this idea for a moment as I continued to watch it slide off the road to my right, and then I determined it was better to leave this snake alone.

(to be continued…)

~FS

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