The blogging and travel writing sphere is filled with mostly-male accounts of travelling adventures. Usually it fits in the ‘climb the highest mountain’ realm of racing to go the highest, the farthest, to the rarest or most unusual place in the globe.
So I was intrigued to read an anthology of articles written by ‘expatriate’ women living in Asia. And ‘How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia’ proved to be an exceptionally absorbing read, chronicling the lives of women living overseas as they confront all sorts of challenging and unique circumstances: honeymooning with father-in-law in tow, experiencing a home invasion when heavily pregnant, meeting your husband’s ex-wife, discovering your husband has slept with your maid, meeting the man of your dreams (when you previously dated girls), and moving to a third-world country only to deal with the news that you have a potentially terminal illness.
While there was some mountain climbing here, the stories are more about the journey and the self-discovery on the way, about the reaction to the environment and how the women adjust their lives to their new cultures. This is definitely not a knock-up tally of places visited and things accomplished.
Nor is Taiwan overlooked in this book. The anthology includes an article by Taiwanese-based writer, Jenna Lynn Cody. Cody runs the thought provoking Lao Ren Cha blog, and is never shy about airing her opinions about life and politics in Taiwan. A long-term Taiwan resident, she possesses a sharp-edged, finely attuned political radar and her observations of Taiwanese society are honest and quirky. (Check out this article about the less than conservative side of Taiwan — I loved the pole dancing girls.)
So I was surprised, in a good way, to discover that Cody had written about a personal incident related to a memorable tourist trip to southern Taiwan.
Southern Taiwan is steeped in ancient spiritual traditions, some dark and scary and not well understood. When I lived in Tainan as a student, I was fascinated by the constant temple processions that I bumped into while cycling home. There was always the jarring noise of loud-speaker amplified music, explosion of fire-crackers, stench of smoke and incense, the glaring mix of fluorescent colours, a sea of people, séance-like rituals underpinned by a simple acceptance that conversing with the dead (through either offerings or a medium) was normal and every day.
And I never understood what was happening, or when it was about to happen. And since I did not speak the native Taiwanese dialect (a variant of Hokkien/southern Min), it was often hard to find out. It was a shame that I had not yet read Cody’s short story, which could have provided me with some useful context.
Cody travels to Donggang in an atheistic pilgrimage to attend, for the second time, the triennial King Boat Festival in Donggang. This is one of the most spectacular and famous folk festivals in Taiwan, culminating in the bonfire of a ghost-money stuffed boat that burns for three days. Most visitors go for the bonfire bit; Cody visits a week before to attend temple processions and a bloody self-mutilation rite performed by hundreds of mediums.
Cody has a deep understanding of Taiwanese folk religion, and this is played out in her descriptions of the gods and processions. She has a fascination for the rites, even if she does not believe in them, noting that “such festivals were all but gone in China, and difficult to track down in India.” There is an unexpected authenticity in Taiwan’s folk rites, and I am yet to meet a visitor to Taiwan who has not been fascinated by stumbling across a fire-cracker announced palanquin procession with all of its noise and pageantry.
I found myself being drawn deep into the Donggang ritual as I read her account. I could almost feel myself there, lost amongst the heavy fog of the incense and wailing of the traditional music. The Donggang festival seems to be an integral part of Cody’s journey, code perhaps for how she was drawn to Taiwan and plans to settle also without quite knowing why. Sometimes the mystical and unexplained pulls us all, even if we do not even believe in fate or destiny. Perhaps we are all doubters, and yet at the same time believers. Cody would argue that the distinction does not matter much.
How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia’ will be officially launched on Kindle on 10 June but is available now.
Taiwanxifu was approached by Jenna Cody to write this review, and was more than happy to do so. All images were provided by Jenna Cody.