After 17 months, Taiwan is still able to amaze me.
This morning I went for a bike ride. I rode through Taichung county from Cin Shuei to Shengang, taking the small country roads and narrow lanes. Those of you who have travelled those roads know that often you will suddenly come across a group of buildings among the rice fields and farms, like a small village.
It was on my return journey that I passed through such a village. A group of people was gathered at the side of the lane, in front of one of the houses. I was soon greeted with the all too familiar “Hello” with which the Taiwanese bombard foreigners. A woman motioned for me to stop. Oh great, I thought, you want to amaze your friends with your vast knowledge of the English language. As it turned out, my knowledge of the Chinese language is far greater than their knowledge of English. Unfortunately, my Chinese is limited to numbers and ordering milk tea, not at all helpful in this situation.
The woman who motioned for me to stop pointed to the house, pointed up, and said, “Bai bai. Bai bai.” I knew bai bai means prayer. Looking at all their smiling, hopeful, faces I hadn’t it in me to say no; although in truth I was hesitant as three hours on a bicycle tends to make me rather sweaty.
Having ascended the tall narrow stairway, I found myself on the on the top floor, where the bai bai was to take place. Upon the altar were offerings, inscence, candles, and statues of Buddha. Several stools for kneeling were set out before the altar.
The man officiating the service (whom I shall refer to hereafter as the priest) was dressed in a white robe. They asked me to write my name, which was then dutifully copied onto a sheet of rice paper with Chinese writing on it. This paper was then folded accordion-like and given to the priest.
It was time to begin. We all gathered around the altar. The priest knelt before the altar, on the front centre stool. The other men knelt upon the other stools. I stood at the back. The priest began praying. Hands were clasped, there was much kowtowing, standing and bowing, followed by more kowtowing; during which I was prompted several times to say my name. Then the rice paper bearing my name was burnt.
All the men stood up and bowed. The priest removed himself to the side of the altar, facing Buddha. Another man positioned himself in before the altar, and I was motioned to take the position he had vacated. The priest began praying again. Prayer, response, prayer, response. The man before the altar burnt inscence. More bowing, followed by kowtowing, followed by bowing, followed by kowtowing. Again, several times I was prompted to say my name. Finally everyone stood and bowed. Was the service over? Not quite.
Now it was my turn to kneel before the altar. I was given three sticks of inscense. A man invoked something, I burnt one stick. Same for the second stick, and the third. More kowtowing. The same man got my attention and pointed at his mouth. Ah, I thought, he wants me to repeat what he says. I did the best I could, considering the difficulty I have with tones, and a cold that makes p, b, n, and m all sound alike when I speak. More kowtowing.
The priest motioned for me to repeat what he was about to say. This dialogue was much longer and, it seemed, more difficult to pronounce. Then the priest stood on my right. He invoked something, and pressed his thumb to the top of my nose, between the eyes. He stood behind me, invoked something and made hand gestures around my head. Then he returned to his place at the side of the altar. Prayer, response, and more kowtowing. We all stood and bowed.
The men retired to a discreet distance, and the women held their service, sans priest. One of the women officiated, although she didn’t wear vestments. With the women’s service over, the stools were put away, candles extinguished, email addresses exchanged, and everyone adjourned to the main floor for lunch.
We had a very nice lunch of noodles, fish, tofu, vegetables, and soup. As others started to leave, I took my cue and finished my lunch, thanked my host (it was the priest’s house), and said good-bye. He got up to see me to the door; and smiling, took my hand and shook it vigorously. I hopped back on my bike and resumed my journey.
Back among the farms and rice fields I contemplated this chance meeting, and wondered if I had inadvertantly converted to Buddhism. Kending couldn’t possibly have been as interesting. Just when I begin to think I’ve gotten all I’m going to get out of Taiwan, it surprises me with something completely off the wall.