A few weeks ago I was invited to a Taiwan temple fair for a banquet. This particular temple was honored for business purposes, for example burning incense and ghost money to certain gods that will help a business prosper and ultimately make more money.
Trisha, a friend I made through Couch Surfing meetups in Kaohsiung, is a member of the business that bought a table at the event to support the temple. As the representative she hosted and invited a few crazy foreigner friends to eat ten courses of food and watch the Chinese opera afterwards.
I have to admit even after almost two years in Taiwan passing by temple gatherings, it was surprising to be part of one. I was also exhausted and possibly hungover on this particular Sunday evening.
To create the venue the temples string together multiple rainbow striped tents like an outdoor wedding, then block off a whole street, like a block party. Then there is the makeshift stage that has a percussionist onstage to the side, and lots of cross-dressing mothers with long wigs holding microphones.
But first, the dinner. They started with some thin noodles served with a haunch of pork, then a brown viscous fish soup, a beautifully steamed whole fish, some boiled shrimp (most beloved by Taiwanese), some small individually wrapped sweet rice dumplings with pork filling, herbal soup made with black chicken, some broccoli covered in another syrupy sauce and something meaty and suspicious, and finally a fruit platter. That’s nine, so somewhere along the way I think they served duck as well.
I tried to talk to the host sitting next to me and my friend Amy on my right, however it was too difficult to communicate seated in front of the speakers blaring traditional squeaky music. Think of music you might consider Chinese, and then think of a polka and it will be close to the 100 Best Taiwan Traditional Hits mix they put on at all they temples.
Luckily, my friend saw the anguish I was feeling over the music and continued to pour me Taiwan Beer into the small glass cups at the table. A group of temple elders walked around doing cheers and “ganbei” with all the tables that were drinking. Afterwards they had a trio of women in pink qipao walk around serenading each table in turn; the live Chinese violin and cello made the recorded music sound less offending and the result was not as loud.
With the dishes being cleared there was time to watch the opera that was happening at the opposite end of the tent. My Chinese comprehension isn’t good enough to translate the play, but what I could infer from the acting was a family drama. The insolent son, the abusive father, the ruined family business, the protective mother and obedient daughter; all the stereotypes were present and accounted for.
There was acting interspersed with long-sleeve gown dancing and music with an exceptionally loud wood block to punctuate certain movements.
Overall, it was enlightening and served as a reminder of the gap between feeling comfortable living abroad, and really understanding the cultural context that is behind so many traditions. I certainly have a long way to go before even partially understanding why some things are acceptable and others are not. For instance this temple gathering was conservative in nature, but some temple gathering have half-dressed women dancing. Of course, what god wouldn’t want to see more women? But in a culture where women are considered slutty for wearing bikinis at the beach, its a serious double standard.
All countries and cultures have their blind spots, and traditions that are inherently contradictory. That’s part of the reason being in the presence of others’ traditions can be so interesting, and sometimes frightening.
Slideshow of some of the photos I took, hopefully next time I try I will figure out how to add audio of my choice.