Saturday, January 2, 2010

A day of firsts…

It's been a while since I got out of Taichung, but on the first day of the new year, I joined some coworkers for a day trip to Tainan (Taiwan's former capital). After a few hours in Tainan, we drove to Guanziling to enjoy some hot springs (as well as one nippy 13˚C pool!). Afterward we drove down to a grilled chicken restaurant for dinner. It was a day of a few "firsts" for me here, even after six years in Taiwan.

First, I had for the first time some "mala" jerky. "Mala" is the Szechuan (Sichuan) flavor you might know: tingly, sweet, spicy, and numbing, in waves.

Second, I had a kind of plum Fruit Roll Up which I had never seen before. It included not simply the smallest plastic yellow spoon, but the smallest spoon I've ever seen, full stop. (Asia: little, yellow, different.)

Third, I saw a machine that makes flat steamed rice cakes, and it was interesting not just because the (Korean) cakes tasted a bit like Parmesan cheese, but also because of how the machine operated. Two thick steel cylinders clamped shut with grains of rice inside and a few seconds later they sprang open, with a small booming sound, and a rice cake shot out a few inches to land on the vendors table so he could bag a half dozen at a time as they stacked up.

Fourth, I encountered a Chinese character that no one in our group could read, but which I was able to track down later that night online. Nothing like obscure local flavor!

Fifth, while it was not the first time I bought a bokken, it was the first time I saw an all-black, uncurved bokken, with a braided hilt, to boot. It was only $NT250, so I decided to get it, whereupon I became a white shogun strolling among the other tourists with a bokken slung in my belt. As some readers of FCA might know, while I am hardly a serious student of any single art, I have a soft spot for martial arts, especially judo, taiji, and gongfu. For the past couple years I have made bokken drills a part of my fitness regiment. I also like using plain sledge hammer handles for drills. Bokken drills are deceptively challenging, for two reasons. First, the sword is light enough that––as with all martial arts––the exertion lies in the will, in the amount of effort you put into each movement. Second, when the motions are properly executed, they use many muscles and muscle groups in unison, which does wonders both for strengthening tendons and ligaments and for building "core strength" (i.e., in those too easily neglected "inner" muscles around the hips and spine).

Sixth, it was the first time I recall dabbing myself with mud as part of a hot spring experience. As one coworker told me, "It make you become black!"

Seventh, yes, ladies and gentlemen, the first day of 2010 was also the first time I have eaten fried insects. And not just little ants ensconced in batter or small larvae so brittle as to resemble rice, but I mean full Asian giant hornet pupae with heads, legs, and eyes (虎頭蜂蛹). As soon as I saw the dish, I knew it was a matter of eating one of them as quickly and as thoughtlessly as possible or I wouldn't eat any of them once critical reason set in. Even as nearly all my Taiwanese co-eaters announced their refusal and distaste, I pinned one pupa in my chopsticks and pitched it in my mouth. Chew, chew, chew––and I won't delude you by saying "It tastes like chicken." Actually, Asian giant hornet pupae taste rather buttery, which was the hardest thing to get over in the first moments; the texture was not upsetting. Even so, their "tail end" is substantial enough that you can definitely tell when you're biting into that end versus the "head parts." (Ever chew vitamin E caplets?) Only I and our bus driver were willing to eat them, so I ended up eating dozens of them, as well as nearly all the peanuts and scallion rings on the plate. I can't say I regret it, but I also don't expect to order (or to be able to order) the same dish anytime soon.

Eighth, it was the first time I was able to watch the first two-thirds of 2012 three times in one day. Gotta love short bus trips and long movies!

Ninth, it was the first time the thought crystallized in my mind that, regardless how popular and successful Korean entertainment is these days (in Asia, at least), I find the Korean sense of entertainment extremely grim, sadistic, and crude. I know this can't hold for all Korean TV and cinema, but from what I have heard and see, the Korean sense of "humor" invariably involves biting, slapping, pushing, arguing, cursing, weeping, and heavy drinking––sort of like The Three Stooges as directed by Quentin Tarantino.

To get a clearer picture of some of my "firsts," you can see some of the photos I took yesterday at my Flickr Photostream. May you have a happy new year in the Risen Light that makes all things new!

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