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My weekend in Hong Kong marked the half point of my summer trip. I now have less than two weeks left before returning to the United States. It is so hard for me to believe that my two months living in a tropical island off the coast of China are coming to an end, but I have to admit that I am homesick like I've never been before. I cannot wait to return to my normal life at Wellesley! The promise of a New England autumn, with the beautiful weather and leaves changing colors, makes me want to fast forward to September—and still, I am not ready for my time in Taiwan to be over. I could see myself living here if it were not for the heat and humidity I don't think I could ever get used to.
I decided to put more time into studying Chinese after returning from Hong Kong. I really want to take advantage of the possibility of practicing my listening and language skills with native Mandarin Chinese speakers, as well as learn (or sometimes relearn) Chinese characters while I have few other commitments. There were entire days (only a slight exaggeration) spent writing Chinese characters over and over again and testing myself on their pinyin and meaning. I was very proud at myself for holding an entire conversation in Chinese the other day, though I have to admit I am not sure whatever were talking about the same things throughout. I am also very proud to say I have not needed an English menu at all when ordering food lately.
And so, having decided to concentrate more on my studies and daily life in Tainan, I was a little less excited to take activity-filled trips where I would get little rest and have no time to study. Have you ever read a book and thought that if only you had read it under different circumstances you could have loved it? That is how I feel about the last two weekends. Still, I came out with some great experiences.
The week after Hong Kong was exhausting. My body and mind were tired of traveling and getting little sleep. I knew I needed to take it easy, and I happily snuck in a few naps here and there. That weekend we went to 佛光山 (Fo Guang Shan), a Buddhist monastery in the outskirts of 高雄. We had been told we would get to experience life in a monastery for a weekend, but it turned out to be much more touristy than that. Given that I was at this point still exhausted, I thanked the stars that I would not need to do chores or live without AC for a weekend, but I was regardless left wishing I had gotten a more authentic experience.
I had to wake up early on Saturday morning to pack my bags for the weekend. Thankfully, I was able to take a nap on the bus, because however many hours of sleep I had gotten the night before had not been enough. Our first stop was an aboriginal culture village, where we spent a few hours at their dark and cool (if you have ever been to a tropical island you might understand why this is important information) performance center. All 16 tribes recognized by the government were represented in a series of dances and activities whatever were encouraged to take part of. I particularly liked learning how to greet people in each dialect, though I cannot say I still remember any of the phrases.
The way to and from the performance center was beautiful. The landscapes were covered in trees and plants, and there were beautiful murals on some of the walls. On our way back to the bus we stopped at a long suspension footbridge, from which we got a different view of the landscape and even got to feel a sudden breeze (also important). I think most people walked rapidly across it, but I actually enjoyed standing still near the middle and feeling the bridge shift below me as people walked or even jumped their way across it. I felt bad for standing on people's way after a few minutes of that, so I eventually made my way back to solid ground to wait for everyone to be done.
Our stay at the monastery was basically a two-day tour of Fo Guang Shan—we visited museums and temples and learned a little more about Buddhism at each stop. A lot of the pictures above are of pieces from the museum we went to on Saturday. Most of the artwork was beautiful, and obviously held a lot of meaning to those who practice Buddhism. My favorite part of that weekend was Saturday night dinner, probably because it felt like the most authentic experience of the trip.
At arrival to Fo Guang Shan, we all made our way to the conference room where a monk explained the proper way to eat during silent dinners: there's no speaking allowed, which allows you to better appreciate your meal and pay respect to Buddha. Since you are not allowed to speak at all throughout dinnertime, there are specific ways to handle your dishes that let servers know if you want any more food or if you don't want to eat something at all. The bottom left picture above shows how the plates are set before you begin. When you start eating you have to move the left (rice) bowl to the right, the right (soup) bowl to the left, and place the plate in between them. If you don not set your plates in a straight (horizontal) line, a server will approach you and take whatever was on the plates farthest from you. No food is wasted—they place it back into the serving dishes to give to someone else. I quite enjoyed the dinner: it was very simple vegetarian food. I did not even try the vegetables on the right for fear that I would not want to finish them, but I was so happy to eat the tofu. Tofu is more of a side dish than a main dish here in Taiwan, and I am getting tired of eating so much meat. I spent dinnertime reflecting on my trip, my health, and my commitments, all while staring at people's backs. As you can see from the bottom right picture above, all chairs face the Buddha.
The next day we went to the Buddha Memorial Center, which was the more touristy part of Fo Guang Shan. Except for items at the shops, you do not pay for anything at the Center, not even an entrance fee. It was quite an impressive display of the power of Buddhism in this world, as we were explained that most things are funded by private donations. The biggest tourist attraction is the 132 feet-tall statue of Buddha, pictured below. The architecture, both at the monastery and the memorial center, was amazingly beautiful. I didn't take too many pictures, but you can see some of the architecture from the monastery above and some from the memorial center below. My favorite activity on Sunday was the Tea Ceremony, which I thought I would not get to experience before leaving Taiwan. They basically explained the proper way to steep tea, which turned out to be a much more complicated process that I would have thought. It made for some really great photographs.
I cannot finish this post without talking a little about meditation. I was not at all surprised by the amount of times we meditated or were told about the power of meditation. I was also not surprised that, although I tried it several times, I was not once able to empty my mind. Even the number counting would eventually lead to a thought about school or such and would continue to spiral out of control. I have to say, however, that although I did not technically meditate, I did use the time to reflect upon my day and organize my thoughts. It might not have the same results, but it was helpful nonetheless.
I hope to one day get the authentic monastery experience. Until then, a booklet about all things Buddhism will have to suffice. My next blog post will be about Typhoon week in Taiwan. Check back soon!