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It’s Just Cultural Differences

September 5, 2011
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Great Buddha Land Sunrise, photo by Monica Sanford

Clack. Clack.  Clack.  5:20 a.m.  Someone walks down the hall outside our room, beating mallet against wood in the darkness.  False dawn hasn’t even put in an appearance when I roll over on the anorexic mattress.  I stare up at the ceiling for a moment, dim and close from the top bunk.  None of my three roommates, one in each of the lower bunks, stir.  The room is as cool as it ever becomes, which is to say your average American would have complained to management ages ago, with the slight but constant smell of mildew induced by the humid climate despite the air conditioning doggedly humming away.

I’m in Taiwan. The thought passes through my mind, still a little surreal, even on the second day.  I glance at the artificial light seeping past the curtains, cast by the streetlights beyond the window, then with a sigh, heave myself too soon from the scarce comfort of my hard bunk.

My roommates began to stir as I quietly let myself out.  Others were emerging from their rooms and making their way down the five flights of stairs to the entry.  Team leaders in red bandanas and nuns in brown robes were stationed along the way, guiding sleepy newcomers in pink or blue shirts (“You can wear anything you like, so long as it is either the pink or blue shirt.”) out the main entrance to the right.

“Omitofo.  Ji shan,” they greet us with joined palms.

“Omitofo,” I reply, joining palms and bowing slightly back.  I veer left.

“Meditation is in the back garden,” an English-speaking nun gently corrects me, gesturing.

“I know.  I’m going for a walk.”

“You don’t want to meditate?” She looks mildly confused.

“I’m too sleepy.  I need to wake up.”

“Okay,” she smiles.  “Have a nice walk.”

“Thank you.”

This quickly became routine.  Every morning I would run the obstacle course of gently herding monks and nuns, steadfastly heading in exactly the opposite direction as my twelve-hundred fellow International Youth Seminar on Life and Ch’an attendees, away from meditation and towards the vending machine down the lane that sold cold, canned coffee.  From there, I would wander on, discovering the sunrise anew each day from the hill of the Great Buddha Land, the shady edge of a bamboo-ringed pond, sitting on a bench outside the Main Shrine as the morning chants reverberated.  At 6:00 am, I would retrace my steps, arriving in time to line up in silence for breakfast in the main dining hall.

It was the only solitude to be found in a one-week, whirlwind tour of “life and Ch’an” hosted by Fo Guang Shan, one of the largest Buddhist organizations in the world.  As an American with mild antisocial and isolationist tendencies, the solitude was something I greatly needed.  I honestly believe I kept me sane and (mostly) safe for public interaction during that week.

After breakfast that day, the over one-thousand attendees who had already arrived gathered in the second floor of the Cloud Dwelling building, where we also ate and slept, a seven-story, concrete building on one corner of the massive temple grounds.

“Okay, we’re going to play a game.  Find two other people,” the English-language translator spoke in my earpiece.  I looked at the two people closest me, Derek from America and Tomas from Germany.  The emcee continued speaking rapidly in Chinese as the translator scrambled to keep up.

“You’re going to number yourselves one, two, three.”

We looked at each other.  Lacking further instruction, I pointed, “One, two, three.”  Derek and Tomas shrugged in agreement.  I was two.

“Now, number one and two, you’re a tree.  Number three is a squirrel.”

We exchanged skeptical looks as the Chinese-speakers around us began linking hands, obviously ahead of the curve.

“To make a tree numbers one and two hold hands, and then capture the squirrel between you.”

Our looks were no less skeptical as Derek and I held hands, forming a ring with Tomas in the middle, while either kneeling or squatting on the hard tile floor.  The Westerners all looked a little confused, but the Asians seemed to be taking the exercise in stride.

“The typhoon is coming.  All the trees will break apart.  The squirrels will all be blown around and have to find a new tree.  Okay, ready?  Now!  Find a new squirrel!  Find a new tree!”

The entire room became a mad scramble as the groups dissolved.  I looked around wildly until a tiny Chinese girl dived out of the swirling crowd, grabbed my hands, and held on tight.  We were now a tree, but we had to find a squirrel.  Hundreds had already reformed into trios.

“Quickly, find your squirrel!  Squirrels find a new tree!” the emcee exhorted in Chinese, the English translator only slightly less enthusiastic, her accent more noticeable in her haste.  “When you have found your tree and your squirrel, sit down.”  As trios began to drop, our situation became even more dire.  There were only a few squirrels left and they were on the other side of the massive room from us, cut off by a sea of bodies.

We began quickly dashing between groups, the remaining squirrels and trees converging until three squirrels descended on us from three different directions, a slight girl with short, black hair beating out two taller Asian boys to take her place between our linked arms.  We all quickly dropped, leaving the two boys standing alone in a room full of squatting, giggling trios.  Everyone suddenly seemed absurdly young, myself included, a goofy smile stretched across my face.

The “group dynamics” session continued from there, with games that only became more and more ridiculous.

“Is it just me, or does this feel like being back at summer camp?” I asked one of my group-mates (Group 1 Rocks! Woo!) later the next day.

“Yeah, it kinda does, huh?” Jasper agreed.

“Well, it is a young adult conference,” My-Linh added.

“Young adult,” I replied in puzzlement.  “Not youth.”

The age range at the seminar was eighteen to thirty-five, yet I spent the week constantly feeling like a twelve-year-old, in both the good and bad sense.  There was a refreshing energy and cheer that cynical and world-weary Americans just can’t muster.  At the same time, we were herded about like wayward children in a manner that quickly began to irk.

Our days were completely scheduled from the 5:20 a.m. wake up call to the 9:00 p.m. release from the evening lecture.  We lined up to go to every meal, every lecture, every activity, often standing or sitting in line for quite a while before actually heading out.  We were divided into smaller sub-groups, which appeared to necessitate a group photo every five minutes.  And as an American (especially as a tall, white American woman with a funny haircut), I had kids coming up to me at every opportunity and asking in their limited English “Can I take a picture with you?”

I don’t know you from Adam, I would think, but “Yes, you can take a picture with me,” is what I would say, and smile and make the peace sign while their giggling friend snapped a photo and then traded places.  Just who was the tourist and who was the attraction here?

Cultural differences, I told myself.  It’s just cultural differences.  I can handle cultural differences. 

Now, cultural differences is a long way from something being wrong, but that doesn’t make it easy.  To say that I was a wee bit stressed at the end of that week, would have been an understatement, even as interesting and fun as things often were.  I maintained a positive attitude and friendly demeanor mostly by force of will.  The end cap two and a half day bus tour didn’t improve things.  The time on the bus was spent with an ever-rotating seat-mate eager to practice their English, which meant a revolving carousel of the same six questions.

“What’s your name?”

“How old are you?” (Not a rude question, apparently.)

“Where are you from?”

“What do you study?”

“How did you find out about Fo Guang Shan?”

“Do you have a boyfriend?”

My answers quickly became very simple and repetitive.  As much as the one-on-one conversation was a welcome relief from the large groups, it lacked the depth to create any real sense of intimacy.  The questions I was able to ask in turn were equally superficial.  I tried not to see it that way, but it’s the feeling I was increasingly left with.  From time to time I was able to converse with some of the native English-speakers with almost relieved gratitude, but that seemed quickly selfish, as though we were excluding the ultra-friendly Asians from our private clique.

The time off the bus revealed the Taiwanese theory of tourism: quantity over quality.  Particularly frustrating was our visit to the beautiful black-sand Waiao beach in Yilan.  I quickly shed my shoes and barely restrained myself from pelting towards the ocean upon sight of it, instead trying to savor the soft, warm sand between my toes.  In retrospect, I ought not to have bothered with the sedate and mature pace.  I had waded no farther into the Pacific Ocean than my ankles when one of my bus-mates began gesturing.

Waiao Beach in Yilan, Taiwan, photo by Monica Sanford

“What?” I asked, drawing near.  “Is something wrong?”  Everyone else was in the ocean, so it didn’t seem dangerous.

“It’s time to go,” she said.

My jaw literally dropped.  “We just got here!”

“We need to get back on the bus,” she told me, clearly concerned.

No, not this time, I thought and waded resolutely back into the ocean, hiking my pants up as I went.  I had tolerated being herded around like cattle at the temples and viharas and museums, but this was the Buddha-beloved beach!

I was able to play in the waves for a few short minutes, enjoying the warm push and flow, laughing with a few equally rebellious group-mates, before finally giving in to the repeated yelling and gesturing.  We were back on the bus within thirty minutes of stepping off it and I spend the ride back to our last stop, Fo Guang University standing in order to dry my wet butt.  It was totally worth it.

Thus passed my first week in Taiwan – jet-lagged, sleep-deprived, coffee craving, meditation escaping, silent eating, game playing, question fielding, back aching (“You’ve got to be kidding me.  That’s not a bed; that’s a piece of wood.”), and desperately solitude seeking.  I learned a lot and for that I can say it was worth it.  But then, the Buddhists do like to say suffering is a good teacher.

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