Thursday, February 14, 2008

Memory deeper than Ocean

I took last two weeks off to spend the Chinese New Year in Taiwan with my brother. Political calendar wise, it was after the Jan 12th Taiwan legislature election (see my Jan 17th blog for a brief discussion) and before its crucial presidential election on March 22. Luckily because of the Chinese New Year celebrations, I was spared from much of the ocal media bombardments and nonsense. On the other hand, I missed out the Super Bowl and the Super Tuesday primaries in US and their fascinating outcomes.

As I walked down the unusually quiet Taipei streets on Chinese New Year’s eve to have the most important family dinner of the year with my brother and sister-in-law at a crowded restaurant, I realized that I missed so much this old Chinese New Year tradition when the whole family got together to prepare and eat the big meal – an unfortunate collateral damage from the progress of successful industrializations.

I re-visited the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall near my brother’s apartment that was recently renamed to National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall by the DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) government. Carefully placed carnival-like decorations filled in the otherwise serene memorial hall made every attempt to obstruct the views of Chiang’s statue and writings around. I suppose it made some Taiwan Independence extremists feel better as they can finally declare a moral victory? Would Chiang look down from his giant marble seat with pity to these fly-like decorations around him? What was odd is the music played in the hall was none other than the Yellow River Concerto, arguably the most popular and patriotic Chinese music from the Communist China, originally written in 1939 during Japanese invasion. The music used to be banned during Chiang’s reign as it can be construed as a call for patriotism and unification of Chinese people (under the Communist party) – something that the extremists loathe.

While rooted in Chinese culture and immigrants, Taiwan’s history is short and convoluted. When Columbus accidentally reached Americas in 1492, Taiwan was occupied mostly by Austronesian people who have been living on the island for several thousand years or more, similar to the American Indians in Americas. It received no or little attention by the outside world until 1544, few decades before French and British began to colonize North America, when some Portuguese sailors passed by in 1544 while looking for a colonial base in Eastern Asia. The Portuguese called the island Formosa (from Latin formosus, meaning “beautiful”) and became the first colonizer. Competition for the island intensified over the subsequent decades but appeared to be ignored by Chinese Ming emperors as the Dutch pushed out Portuguese, fought off Spanish and dominated the island for almost 40 years since 1624. Many settlers from Southeastern China crossed the Taiwan strait for one reasons or others made it their homes. In 1662, 42 years after Mayflower reached Cape Cod and almost 100 years before the founding of United States, a Chinese governing system was established when the Ming loyalist general Zheng Cheng-Gong drove out the Dutch and used Taiwan as a base for his failed attempt to restore the Ming dynasty. Qing dynasty then ruled the island for the next 200 years as the number of immigrants from the mainland reached several millions. Taiwan’s fortune changed however as Qing dynasty went under siege by the imperial forces and eventually was ceded to Japan in 1895 when Qing dynasty lost the Sino-Japan war. Since then, it has received more than its share of attention since for its size. To this date, Taiwan continues to struggle with its political and international identity and direction.

I visited the wonderful National Museum of Marine Biology & Aquarium at the southern end of Taiwan to escape from the raining, damp and cold winter of Taipei. Like all aquariums, it features, among others, some fishes swimming gracefully, quietly, and endlessly in few cylindrical tanks. Do they know they are being tricked by men with the artificial current? Or do they use it just like a treadmill to keep themselves fit and stay alive?

In the Taiwan Waters exhibit hall, I saw several beautiful but endangered and protected Taiwanese Salmon (Oncorhynchus masou formosanus), the only salmon specie in the world found in a subtropical area. It is one of the rarest fish in the world; a unique specie became land-locked and survived when it was cut off its migration path (to ocean) during the last ice age over 10,000 years ago. At the exit of the exhibit hall, famous poet Yu Guang-Chung 余光中 wrote two poems when he visited the museum. He praised: Ah, Ocean; you are deeper than memory and more magical than dream! Did the Taiwanese Salmon loose its memory? Will it ever be able to explore the vast ocean again like its ancestors? Doesn’t the thought of being land-locked scare you?

In another exhibit hall, white Beluga Whales do their tricks playfully to entertain the crowd standing beneath in the glass tunnel. Or do they think we are entertaining them instead? Could they tell me why they choose to answer the call and returned to the ocean after living on land for so many years?

Every time when I had a chance to visit Taiwan, I strolled down the memory lanes and liked to brows through aisles of bookstores and music shops. I felt like a plant hungrily soaking up the sunlight to photosynthesize and store the free energy. I wonder: are we like salmon and whales that deep in our hearts, we wanted to go back to where we came from?

I can imagine how Chinag Kai-Shek or Zheng Cheng-Gong and their soldiers felt when they moved to Taiwan and believed they would return home triumphantly some day. I can imagine how the Pilgrims felt when they escaped England, sailed through grueling sea and finally reached the New England. I can imagine how Latino-Americans felt when they crossed the border and worked hard to feed their family and build their future. But I can’t imagine how the indigenous people in Taiwan felt when they retreated into the high mountains as waves of Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and for the matter, Hans from Mainland China (who are also ancestors of the Taiwan Independence extremists) invaded. I can’t imagine how American Indians felt when they were settled to the Reservations after being overwhelmed by the whites. Nor can’t I imagine how African slaves felt when they were forced and shipped like animals to the New World to labor the land.

We are all immigrants in one sense or the other - it is the hope and that invisible memory connecting to our roots keep us going. How deep does the memory go? Can we ever be free from our infinite past? Would we reach the deepest of our memory with steady streams of thoughts that cut through the layers of memory like the Colorado River tirelessly carving through Grand Canyon?

Above are fragments of my most recent memory. Talk to you soon!

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