Random Experiences

Random Experiences:

The Marriage of Music and Meat or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Swine

It’s amazing how the most random experiences in life are often the most memorable. For a 25-year-old American I like to think that I am fairly well traveled. I’ve seen the Roman Coliseum, stood in the shadow of Picasso’s looming “Guernica” in Madrid, smelled the air that flows through the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, and sat on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in D.C., to name a few “must witness” essentials. Still for every monument visited, cathedral climbed, painting seen there are countless captured moments of everyday life.

For as long as I live I’ll never forget driving in a cramped Euro hatchback with four other tall Americans as we headed from Northern Spain to its Southern tip. We survived numerous close-call lane-changes, saw the back roads of Iberia and learned a thing or two about driving in Europe. I still remember approaching Cadiz, driving on fumes and listening to Muse’s appropriately chose song, “Time is Running Out” as we desperately tried to find a filling station.

There was the final night in Warsaw where my friend Paul and I sat outside our youth hostel with the three Polish hostel workers, a guy from Bangladesh, a Frenchman, a brash Texan, and an Aussie card shark, sharing travel stories, drinking Żubrówka and apple juice and eventually singing favorite songs from our individual countries of origin (in their native tongues), eventually culminating in a multi-lingual rendition of “Hakuna Matata” from The Lion King.

I remember being taken off the tourist grid of Rome by the proprietor of the dirty hostel I was staying at to a “mob run” neighborhood and ultimately drinking Peroni with a bunch of hash smokers in the streets, fearless of any police interference due to the confidence of the mob’s rule over the turf.

There was the hostel from hell in Dublin and the Indian family searching for their “lost” son at 4AM in our cramped 16-bed dorm room. “Wheeerrre is my soooon?!??!!”

I can distinctly remember The Proclaimer’s “Sunshine on Leith” being played not once, but twice at a pub after a local football match in Edinburgh and how I remember seeing everyone around me, old and young, singing every lyric and raising their pints into the air, pride for their Scottish heritage and their hometown band’s unofficial city anthem. I also remember the chills that ran down my spine after the occasion had finally soaked in.

Life in Taiwan is full of similar moments impossible to find in a guidebook, real life experiences that are instantly burned into the eternal psyche. Two weekends ago was no exception.

In a previous entry I mentioned a bar called Maybe that I discovered. Summed up for those who know me: this is my kind of place. While not as good as Definitely, Maybe is ten times the bar that Certainly is and for my money it serves a meaner gin and tonic than Perhaps, its rival to the South (I’ve clearly been teaching too much English). The drinks all have promising names like the aforementioned, Baby Sleeps for Three Days, and the proprietor and head DJ, Bruce, is the kind of music fanatic that I could happily spend hours talking to, the kind of fanatic who single handedly spent hours loading the lyrics to every song in his massive iTunes library, thus creating Taipei’s most refined karaoke jukebox. Bruce and I hit it off right away and I now have the luxury of skipping the queue of songs waiting to be played. If I have the sudden urge to belt out Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs” or Petty’s “Straight Into Darkness,” Bruce is there to deliver.

Two weekends ago my buddy and Mandarin school classmate, Michael, invited me to a birthday party at Maybe for his girlfriend’s friend. The invitation basically read: stop by for a BBQ on the roof and some good music. Sure.

BBQ could technically mean anything in this part of the world and to be fair I didn’t plan on eating. When my eyes fixated on what the gang was up to on the roof all bets were off.

Anthony Bourdain, that oh so fortunate foodie and traveler, has often commented that the pig is a magical animal. Even if you look at its contribution of bacon to the world, a global net positive ingredient that might just be the only portion of flesh food that would make vegetarians exclaim, “just when I thought I was out, it pulled me back in.”

Pork, as you might assume, is very big in Taiwan and Mainland China. Like most things eaten regularly or out of habit, pork here can get a bit tired. When a 100LB sacred being is skewered and slowly roasted over an open fire to the delight of a handful of drooling Taiwanese and foreigners, pork (or zhurou) takes on an entirely new face.

I’ll set the stage for you. I enter Maybe, pay my respects to Bruce in the DJ booth and notice a heaping pile of shredded white meat sitting next to his computer control console. Hmm, bit curious but then again it is his bar.

I grab a bottle of Taiwan Beer, find my friends and am eventually led upstairs. A whiff of heavenly smoke has filled the upstairs private party area and it’s the kind of aroma that could make heads spin. I step out onto the porch and see what is at one second grotesque and then suddenly beautiful.

(I’m doubting that any of my vegetarian friends have continued this far but in case you have I am not responsible for any toilet hugging the following prose might instigate. Animal cooked over fire is a primitive thing of beauty and is, if you believe what Michael Pollan, the author of “Omnivore’s Dilemma” has to say, the spark (literally) that started the rise of civilization and the birth of the food culture as we know it.)

Back home I probably wouldn’t know how to go about acquiring a whole pig (though my Bucktown apartment was down the street from a sketchy live chicken shop/coop, which may or may not have doubled as a crack den) but here I’m pretty sure I could get a pig by cocktail hour.

My friends had brought some local Taiwanese (of aboriginal descent) from down South to serve as roast masters. With them they brought a monster of a porker, at least 100lb, maybe more. As I approach the pit master, a burly, sweat soaked man who clearly knows his way around a rotating hog, I tell him (in Chinglish) that this is a without a doubt a thing of beauty. While others are ooing or saying icky, I’m quickly establishing camaraderie with the folks behind the spinning impaled Babe with hopes of some future under the table samples of the best parts. Some skin crackle, a colossal rib, or a piece of loin perhaps. It’s amazing how quickly one can morph from a sophisticated young man who minutes before was discussing the relevance of the modern day David Byrne with a DJ to a full-blown drooling wild dog, focused solely on the possibility of a handout.

The handouts were heavenly. The tender bits were moist without being overly fatty. The pieces cut closer to skin were crispy with just the perfect level of melt-in-your-mouth fat. Then there was the rib, a generous offering that I was privileged enough to receive–you see most others were busy coaxing poor Bruce to spin another Bon Jovi tune.

Ribs back home come in many intriguing incarnations, BBQ being the true “cultural” food of America. I often try to explain to the locals that Americans don’t just eat hot dogs and hamburgers, that, in fact, there is a national culinary movement that we call our own, one that incorporates whole hogs, beef brisket, and countless variations of the same sauce. The rib that was snapped off this particular hog was a taste experience in itself. For starters it hadn’t been rubbed down with any “mama’s special blend” or slathered with a sticky sweet sauce. It was meat, plain and simple, and it was to die for.

The rib was easily as long as a mid-sized-ferret and was covered with perfectly cooked meat–fall off the bone tender with just the perfect amount bite and pull required, the best of both worlds.

By now I assume you, the readers, are either sitting at work with a grumbling stomach and a preamble to the meat sweats or rethinking your relationship with the writer of this carnivorous homage.

H1N1 (formerly swine or oink-oink flu) is no joke over here. There is a national furor going on in this part of the world towards this rapidly spreading illness, however, the swine part of this flu has been completely overlooked (and to be fair, pigs and the country of Mexico got a particularly bad rep during the flu’s initial rise). Pork is a staple part of the Taiwanese diet. Even something as simple as rice or stir fried greens may just have a surprise piece of pork fat thrown in for a trip to flavor country. This is a pleasant part of eating in Taiwan but one aspect that must make being a vegetarian in this country about as easy as asking for a glass of Grüner Veltliner at Milwaukee Brewers game.

In conclusion, the pig roast and the late night festivities that followed will undoubtedly go down as one of my fondest memories of life in Taiwan. Even if this experience were replicated somewhere down the line–and the meat + bonfire possibilities are endless, especially when one of your housemates is from New Zealand–it won’t have the same lasting impact that this evening had on me.

Seeing the flames tickling the burnt red carcass and tasting the results gave me a newfound appreciation for the consumption of animal. There is something very personal about witnessing the time and labor that goes into such an event and observing just how many souls can walk away from the experience content and with full bellies. The experience has also made me rethink the various times over the years I used to poke fun at my Greek friend, Ellen’s many family lamb roasts, which always sounded brutal and unnecessary, but now seem to be the best way to do things. Ellen, if you’re reading, I take back all my smartass gyros spit comments and sacrificial backyard lamb jokes. You can count me in your next Greek lamb orgy!

Until the next psyche-burned experience, this is your faithful rotating meat enthusiast who never quite makes the cut when it comes to candid photography, signing off.

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R.I.P. John Hughes

Sad news from Stateside. John Hughes, the once legendary filmmaker of 1980s teenage angst comedies, is dead. Damn. Just look at this lineup up of classics that he either wrote, directed or both: National Lampoon’s Vacation; Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; The Breakfast Club; Uncle Buck; Home Alone; Sixteen Candles; Pretty in Pink; and the great, great Holiday Travel comedy Planes, Trains and Automobiles. If you come from the Northshore suburbs of Chicago he is also a bit of a local legend, having filmed many of his greats in our backyard. This youtube fan montage pretty much sums it up.

Stray Observations #2

Stray Observations From An Amused Foreigner #2

Coming to a foreign place ensures a certain level of culture shock. While I embrace the hundreds of new sights and sounds I come across on a daily basis here in Taipei, I feel it my duty to share some of the more out-there cultural differences.

On the Weather

–As I’m writing this entry my housemates and I are anxiously awaiting the arrival of Morakot, as in Typhoon Morakot. I’ve always been curious how countries go about naming hurricanes or typhoons. Hurricane Andrew? Katrina? Why not Bob or Steve?

–For the record the summer months constitute as “Typhoon Season” here in Taiwan. Rainy days are plentiful and rather spontaneous. There will be days where I will walk to Chinese class under clear skies and scorching sun. By my third hour of classes menacing clouds and torrential downpour change what was once a pleasant morning into an unpleasant navigation home by way of awning hopping.

–Typhoon days are like snow days, only with the advance notice of a day-off from work, which allows for the planning and execution of various Typhoon Parties–gatherings where foreigners and Taiwanese alike summon the Tropical Storm gods through pints, tequila shots, karaoke renditions of the Beastie Boys and, as I experienced last night, hodge-podge libations with names like Baby Sleeps for Three Days, an unforgiving concoction calling upon nine different hard liquors and Ecto-Cooler-Green beverage dye. It resulted in the inevitable: me and a British bloak singing David Bowie’s “Heroes” to a bar full of unimpressed Taiwanese.

–If you let go of an umbrella during rain and strong winds it will in fact fly far away leaving you satisfied with the success of your little experiment, but ultimately unpleasantly moist and bitter.

–Rain can hit at any moment, sometimes lasting for the remainder of the day, sometimes for ten minutes or so. This will be my first proper Typhoon experience and I’m hoping that unlike the fairly significant earthquake (a six on the Richter scale supposedly) that hit a month ago I will not sleep straight through its fury.

-When it rains, it really does pour.

–Text message received from my boss last night while at a “Typhoon Party” at a local bar: “Hi it’s me Vicky, don’t go outside, there is a typhoon coming, be careful!” ROUGH TRANSLATION: “By all means let your curiosity take you for a stroll down by the river.”

–Mudslides: The messy and truly tragic killer.

–Umbrellas are a lot more complex than you might think.

–Umbrellas may prevent cancer. The Taiwanese do not like the sun. I’ve been told that at the beaches the Taiwanese rarely take off their shirts (or long pants!) when swimming or sun bathing (or sun dodging, really) and umbrellas are utilized for blocking the poisonous rays throughout the day.

–U-U uh uh uh, an U-M-B-R-E-L-L-A, when repeated ten times, will teach Taiwanese students one of many sounds that comes from the twenty-first letter in the English alphabet.

On Racism

–While sometimes easy to pardon due to good old fashion ignorance, there is a level of harmless racism in parts of everyday life here in Taiwan. Be it a casual comment from a co-worker or a bigoted reference made in an English teaching textbook.

–Probably the most fascinating examples of this widely overlooked phenomenon here in this otherwise fairly accepting culture are two everyday consumer products: racist toothpaste and a line of stereotypical iced-coffee beverages.

–Darlie Toothpaste (which in some places is actually printed as Darkie Toothpaste) is Taiwan and Mainland China’s most trusted name in plaque fighting. The toothpaste tastes like your run of the mill paste or gel, with just a smidgen of racism hidden beneath its explosion of peppermint and fluoride. The company’s mascot could be mistaken for Al Jolson, circa The Jazz Singer. The minstrel caricature totes a top hat, bowtie and shit-eating grin.

–Mr. Coffee has a nice little hold on the sweetened-iced-coffee market with its line of mini-cans and bottles. Mr. Coffee himself (or Kafei xiansheng as I call him in Chinese) is a blatant stereotype of an Italian Mafioso gentleman. His perfectly tailored white suit, matching white fedora and oddly shaped upper facial structure are dead giveaways. There are actually only a few degrees of separation between this jovial Signor and the ill-fated Don Fannuci in The Godfather Part II. It should be noted that Mr. Coffee beverages are surprisingly tasty and their tiny snack size cans make them an inexpensive shot of caffeine while on the road. If you can look past the blatant cultural generalizations, sampling the various flavors offered is always a fun part of grocery shopping. SIDE NOTE: Mr. Coffee was involved in a bit of legal debacle back in 2008 after some of its products were tainted with melamine (the wonders of Wikipedia) during the Chinese milk scandal. Two Mr. Coffee executives were subsequently whacked, chopped and buried out in the sticks of Taipei County, which doesn’t help to shed the company’s troublesome stereotypical image.

Man, Youtube comes in handy.

On Sexism

–According to a rather sexist example sited in lesson three of The Step-Ahead Level Five workbook, “dumb blondes” are an actual demographic. (PHOTO OF THIS JAWDROPPING CASE OF UNFORTUNATE BRAINWASHING COMING SOON…)

On Karaoke: A Dissection of KTV

–KTV’s are literally giant hotel like buildings that house private rooms for groups of friends to get together and sing in front of a giant plasma TV. It’s Karaoke, but with style! I’ve been to the Party World KTV twice since coming to Taiwan and both experiences were memorable for the following reasons:

1) KTV’s music selection needs a reboot. Sure for Japanese or Taiwanese Pop, you have all your bases covered. When it comes to Western pop, the masterminds behind KTV’s song selection must be stuck in 1996. On both occasions I took part in the 1984 spooky anthem, “Ghostbusters,” I’ve contributed to a gripping rendition of Prince’s “Kiss” and “When Dove’s Cry” (sadly there wasn’t enough room for my tall ass to do the floor hump dance routine that made Prince squeal, “Baby, I’m a Star”), and lent my pipes TLC’s “Waterfalls,” with an added shout out to the departed, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes that fell flat with the heartless bastards in my company. We miss you girl!

2) Most Karaoke music videos in this part of the world are makeshift films that generally have nothing to do with the songs that they accompany. Generally the videos are shot in parts of Western and Eastern Europe, cheap locales like Ukraine or Romania’s Carpathian Mountains. While a modern hip-hop video will sport the predictable amount of bling, babes and shiny cars, and many feature state of art special effects, a Karaoke video for say, something like Michael Jackson’s “Black Or White” (which I sang days before he departed to his Neverland space ranch on to the moon, I mean, after all, like Elvis, the King of Pop is still alive, right?) will feature a beautiful blonde Moldovan frolicking in the hills or enjoying a the sunshine in a European plaza. A pity since the original “Black or White” video made history back in the day.

3) The makers of KTV songs seem to enjoy the editing (or shall we just say, destruction) of perfectly good songs. Whole verses will be cut out or in some cases altered all together.

4) I discovered that when it comes to KTV it’s best for me to accept my limited Eeyore pipes and aim for more comical song choices such as the aforementioned Ray Parker Jr. ballad, “Ghostbusters Theme,” or say Toto’s mighty anthem, “Rosanna,” which I just happened to video for your enjoyment!

5) Local pop song music videos seem to share a bizarre fascination for food and the forlorn. On one evening three videos were either set in restaurants (one, featured below, set the stage in a fast food restaurant) or involved female singers eating their worries away while singing.

6) While supposedly hush, hush, you can bring your own booze to KTV, thus avoiding the inflated price of their otherwise dirt cheap Taiwan Beer. The caveat when partying with the Taiwanese is you must drink your local brew over ice and with a dried plum dropped into the cup to give the stale beer some sweetness. The Taiwanese truly are the sugar-eating people.

7) When shared, a bottle of cheap Taiwanese whiskey will go fast.

8) The Taiwanese fail to understand the David Lynch reference to the now eerie song “In Dreams” by Roy Orbison.

9) The KTV experience is best described as Lynchian.

On Taiwanese Television

–I don’t get very many opportunities to watch the boob tube here in Taipei, mainly because I’m too busy. On the rare occasion that I do sit down with the housemates there are only a few English language channels to choose from. National Geographic, Discovery, Travel, CNN are all favorite channel surfing stops. As are the four movie channels offered, including an East Asian version of HBO and Cinemax and two random movie channels, Hollywood and one simple called C Movie.

–Open letter to whoever chooses the films screened on the aforementioned Hollywood and Movie channels; I want your job. These two channels broadcast the most random selection of C-Grade films, mainly residing in the horror, action, sci-fi and the “man merged with beast” genres. Case in point is the low-budget 2005 film, Hammerhead (AKA Sharkman), which my housemates and I enjoyed one evening with jaws wide open to the film’s shear stupidity. The plot is a bit complex, you know with the character development and all, but it goes something like this: overly acted mad scientist creates a half-man/half-shark mutant, which then escapes and goes around eating low-paid actors, including females willing to strip and get eaten by a CGI sharkman, possibly as a means to pay off art school loans. Sharkman eventually confronts his maker, has an emotional “Do I eat my master?” moment. Then Sharkman eats his master before biting it in a lame lab explosion. Most of the gory kills that you look for with anticipation when watching films of this caliber are edited out or the channel’s programming bastards deliberately air the commercial break right before said scientist eats it by way of fatal sharkman bite.

–Taiwan: Where bad movies go to die.

–One could spend an entire hour just soaking up Taiwanese commercials.

–You could also spend an hour just soaking up what the Hakka Channel, made for a large group of aboriginal Taiwanese.

–There is a game show here in Taiwan, which, as far as I can tell, consists of young female celebrities eating weird food in front of live giggling studio audience members and a flamboyant host. I’ve found that it’s more fun when you don’t know what the hell they are saying.

–The Japanese have apparently made a lot of Samurai films. Few come even remotely close to anything Kurosawa contributed to the world.

–The Malaysia tourism board’s commercial for traveling in Malaysia, which features the tagline, “Malaysia, Truly Asia” makes me want to travel to Malaysia.

–According to the Internet Movie Database (IMDB.com) Hammerhead’s tagline is: When he began fusing human and shark DNA, his colleagues laughed at him. Now his creation is taking his revenge, and they aren’t laughing anymore.

Now this is how it’s done! The 80s was a magical decade.