31 August 2007

From flying a microwave to driving a piano

Electronic Piano

This is definitely neither a fresh corpse nor a desiccated mummy, but a discontinued Yamaha PF80 (33.5-kg electronic piano equipped with 88 properly weighted resin keys) carefully wrapped in a bed cover and securely loaded in a tiny Renault Twingo.

This photo reached me this morning. It was taken on the 24th of June, the day after my wedding in Stirling, before my best man Yung-Yao, together with guests Arnaud and Livia, started a long journey back to Cambridge. Actually, what is not seen in the photo is a microwave oven, which had just ended its four-and-half-year sojourn in Stirling and was about to return to Cambridge.

I still remember that on 20 January 2003, how this microwave flew Ryan Air with me all the way from Stansted Airport to take its long stay in Scotland. Rather than an item of checked luggage, it was actually treated as an embodied soul and allowed to occupy a seat.

Both frequent flyers and holiday makers should have noticed that since the 9/11 Incident, airport security procedures have become stricter, and sometimes so annoying and trying that it seems to take longer to pass the security point than to acquire a visa to visit the Moon. In all British airports, each passenger is allowed to take only one item of hand baggage through security control with a maximum size of 56cm x 45cm x 25cm. Thus, I guess, those who attempt to board a plane with a microwave today will be considered either absurdly insensible or harebrained.

However, believe it or not, on 20 January 2003, I was asked to bring a microwave into the cabin on my way back to Stirling from library and archive study in London.

Yung-Yao kindly lent me his spare microwave on condition that I took it by myself back to Stirling. Nevertheless, he helped me to transport this heavy machine by his bicycle to the station so that I managed to catch the train to Stansted.

At the check-in counter, scarcely had I queried whether the ground staff could take care of my microwave when a member of the check-in staff declared that the budget airlines Ryan Air could not take any responsibility should this unusual checked-in item be damaged and advised that I might want to take it to the cabin. Confused about the situation, I still walked to the security point with the microwave embraced in my arms, as well as a small rucksack on my back.

I would never forget the faces of the security staff. They probably couldn't figure out what the point was to take such a clumsy metal box when travelling by plane. However, it was true that I had the bona-fide permission to, and actually was required to, board with this bloody hefty hand baggage. Hesitating if they should let me go through the search point, a member phoned the check-in counter to make sure I wasn't stretching the truth. Finally, blessed with their non-stopping chortles and twitches of facial muscles, after the microwave was scanned, I proceeded to the boarding gate with it.

Stopped again before the plane by a member of the cabin crew, I repeated the story and explained what I was asked to do. Of course, a conversation went through the intercom between the cabin and ground staff and it proved that I was totally sane. However, I still heard not only gleeful giggles from the speaker of the intercom but also intermittent sniggers from those flight attendants wracking the whole aircraft. I was advised not to load this radiation-generating machine up to the overhead luggage compartment but, as the plane was not full, place it on the seat next to myself and fasten the belt for it.

In the end, the microwave successfully flew Ryan Air, travelled across the border, landed in Glasgow Prestwick and started its four-and-half-year term of service in Stirling thereafter.

I'm so glad the microwave has returned to its hometown in Cambridge, unexpectedly with a partner, the Yamaha electronic piano. After all, I gather it's the best way to send it back. I don't think Dr Lin Yung-Yao would run the risk of being regarded as a dumbhead because of an attempt to carry a microwave oven on board a plane.


21 August 2007

Cowherd boy and weaver girl reunited last Sunday

Summer triangle
Last Sunday was Qixi (七夕, literally 'the seventh night'), or roughly the Chinese version of St. Valentine's Day. This traditional festival falls on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month of the Chinese calendar, which is the 19th of August this year.

Unlike Western St. Valentine's Day, which is arguably associated with two Christian martyrs, both named Valentine and honoured on the 14th of February, or may have its origin in Lupercalia, an ancient Roman fertility festival, behind Qixi is a love story.

The two protagonists are Niulang (牛郎, 'cowherd boy'), an ordinary mortal, and Zhinü (織女, 'weaver girl'), the youngest of the seven fairy sisters from the Heaven. There may be several variations of the story, but the ending is always the same. The fairy weaver was ordained to return to the Heaven and only allowed to reunite with the human cowherd once a year on Qixi. On this special day all magpies will fly into the sky and form the so-called 'bridge of magpies' (鵲橋, queqiao) so that the two lovers can cross and meet over the Milky Way.

Chinese people are reminded in late summer that the cowherd boy and the weaver girl are reunited when they see in the sky both eponymous stars Niulang (Altair, the brightest star in the Western constellation Aquila) and Zhinü (Vega, the brightest in Lyra), together with Tianjin si (天津四, 'Heaven Ford 4', corresponding to Deneb, the brightest in Cygnus) over which the bridge stretches. These three stars conincidentally form the famous summer triangle in Western astonomy.

When working on my PhD thesis in Scotland, I sometimes associated Fanne and myself with the poor Niulang and Zhinü. Except for the first year during which we lived together in Stirling, throughout the course of my doctoral study, we were usually separated by two continents and some waters and spent most of our time apart. Between October 2003, when we returned to Taiwan after she submitted her master dissertation, and July 2007, when she came over for our wedding and my graduation, we had only seen each other for four times, which were:
  1. Fanne's visit for her gradation, March 2004
  2. Fanne's visit for Christmas, December 2004
  3. My holiday in back Taiwan, August 2005
  4. My holiday in back Taiwan, December 2006
Anyhow, so far it's not too bad compared with the annual reunion of Niulang and Zhinü. I have no idea where I'll end up and whether I have to leave again for overseas academic employment opportunities, but I'm sure Fanne is definitely not certain fairy, or an alien or so, and will surely never be ordained to return to another planet.

15 August 2007

Desperate for a betel nut

I can't really remember when I last had a betel nut (probably the second year at the university) but I really want to go and fetch a pack for myself.

The betel nut (also called as areca nut) is the seed of the betel palm, a kind of palm which grows in Asia, the tropical Pacific and East Africa, and contains mildly intoxicating and slightly addictive alkaloids. It is consumed in different ways from region to region.

For example, whereas in Vietnam a betel nut is ground and chewed along with betel pepper (the leaf of an Asian evergreen climbing plant, which is not botanically related to the betel palm) and lime (the white caustic alkaline substance, not the citrus fruit), in India it is crushed, mixed with tobacco and spices and chewed like a quid of tobacco.

In Taiwan, instead of being ground or crushed, the betel nut is usually consumed whole. There are three major preparations:

  • The nutjingzai (菁仔, 'the nut'): the most popular one, a whole raw betel nut cut half way through down the centre filled in with the inflorescence of betel pepper and red paste (made of lime and herbs and spices).

  • Leaf-wrappedbaoye (包葉, 'leaf-wrapped'): a whole nut wrapped in a betel pepper leaf pasted with lime.

  • laoteng (老藤, 'old-stem'): similar to jingzai, but the stem of betel pepper is used rather than the inflorescence and white paste (only lime, without any spices) instead of red.
As chewing betel nut leads to the copious production of blood-red saliva, in Taiwan, a sobriquet, 'the red-lipped' (紅唇族 hongchunzhu), is given to those who have got hooked on chewing betel nut. In the past, when personal hygiene and public health were disregarded, chewers usually spat the debris together with gobs of red saliva on the street. It was said that unprepared tourists were often shocked when seeing a Taiwanese taxi driver, whom they thought to be suffering from his hard work, or, even worse, at the final stage of pulmonary tuberculosis, vomited up 'blood' straight down on the road.

Certainly, I would never spit out the bloody saliva on the street and I know the bloody fact shown by tons of medical research that chewing betel nut could lead to oral cancer and other oral-related diseases, but I'm still desperate for a jingzai.

07 August 2007

The Day You Love Me

(Video by courtesy of Lucas Bear)

As promised to Fanne's relatives last December after singing a Spanish song at her sister Cindy's engagement reception, I sang a Spanish song El Día Que Me Quieras ('The day you love me') at my own wedding reception in Taipei.

This song was composed in 1935. The music was written by Carlos Gardel, one of the most prominent figures in the history of tango music, and the lyrics by Alfredo Le Pera, a journalist, dramatist and lyricist who was best known for his short but productive collaboration with Gardel.

El Día Que Me Quieras is a romantic and hopeful litany in which a man imagines how inanimate objects come to life and praise 'the day you love me', such as 'the jealous stars will watch us pass by' and 'the bells will tell the wind our love story.'

I came to know this song in 1996 when I boned up on tango (singing, not dancing, because I don't and never dance at all!). Thrilled to pieces when I heard for the first time Gardel's own interpretation in a historical recording, I learnt it immediately.

As most of our friends and relatives knew that I used to sing or play the Baroque recorder to Fanne's accompaniment on the piano in the past, we were particularly delighted to deliver such a performance together in front of our guests at the wedding reception.

Although according to the sheet music and the historical recording, there are some words recited against the piano solo at one point, I don't think there is any point to deliver a long recitation in Spanish at a reception where no one understands any single word.

El Día Que Me Quieras

Acaricia mi ensueño el suave murmullo de tu suspirar,
¡como ríe la vida si tus ojos negros me quieren mirar!
Y si es mío el amparo de tu risa leve que es como un cantar,
ella aquieta mi herida, ¡todo, todo se olvida..!

El día que me quieras la rosa que engalana
se vestirá de fiesta con su mejor color.
Al viento las campanas dirán que ya eres mía
y locas las fontanas me contarán tu amor.

La noche que me quieras desde el azul del cielo,
las estrellas celosas nos mirarán pasar
y un rayo misterioso hará nido en tu pelo,
luciérnaga curiosa que verá... ¡que eres mi consuelo..!

02 August 2007

Shit happens, but not today

The title of this entry has nothing to do with my recent life; it's just about a T-shirt.

It has been two weeks since I married the same bride for the second time, but I'm still moving things and trying to relocate them into more acceptable positions. Last night, I found a T-shirt Inez gave me when she moved to Berlin in winter 2002 for the fieldwork for her doctoral thesis.

It's a black T-shirt with tons of white words on the front, preceded by the title Religions of the World. Although I was warned long time ago that what's on this T-shirt might not be suitable for, probably be offensive to, people who cannot laugh at anything religious, I believe this quasi-joke would at least give all laymen a rough idea of central dogmas of different religions.

Taoism: Shit happens.
Hare Krishna: Shit happens rama rama ding ding.
Hinduism: This shit happened before.
Islam: If shit happens, take a hostage.
Zen: What is the sound of shit happening?
Buddhism: When shit happens, is it really shit?
Confucianism: Confucius say, 'Shit happens.'
7th Day Adventist: Shit happens on Saturdays.
Protestantism: Shit won't happens if I work harder.
Catholicism: If shit happens, I deserve it.
Jehovah's Witness:Knock, knock, 'Shit happens.'
Unitarian: What is this shit?
Mormon: Shit happens again & again & again.
Judaism: Why does this shit always happen to me?
Rastafarianism: Let's smoke this shit.

After patiently copying verbatim those central dogmas onto my blog, I did some googling (I suppose google has become a verb, and therefore it is grammatically correct to do googling. Refer to this article on my blog) and found four more entries:

Pentacostalism: Praise the shit!
New Age: Shit happens and it happens to smell good.
Atheism: There is no shit!
Sunday School student:I gotta go!

Maybe the T-shirt manufacturer would like to add those four entries to the new version in the near future.