Taipei being undoubtedly the most westernized Taiwanese city, I decided to head south. There, English is an entirely foreign language, westerners are much rarer and the traditional Chinese culture is more present. Noblesse oblige, my first stage is Tainan, the former southern capital, which hosts many historical buildings, only a couple of hours away from Taipei via the high speed train. Tainan's climate is a subtropical one. When I arrived there (beginning of May), the temperatures were already barely bearable. Coming from the cooler Taipei, I did not have any sunscreen lotion, a must-be accessory for any visit to Tainan. I therefore had to drop by a drugstore. A little problem arises; I was unsure about the English word for suntan lotion and had absolutely no idea about the Chinese one. The pharmacist fortunately understood when I asked for some"藥 給 皮膚反日". As an aside, she told me that her son was a prodigious violinist, due to perform all across Europe next summer.
At my hotel, there are two receptionists, the first one knew 30 English words, the second one 5. Promising. As I am not carrying a watch, I briefly turn the TV on to check out the time. The TV schedule is also revealing: half a dozen channels are concerned with the latest cosmetics and the most efficient diets, another ten are Buddhist-oriented and aim to provide the shortest path to Nirvana.
As I am heading towards the first temple I am planning to visit, an aged lady (over 70) approaches me, her large smile showing her only tooth "Good evening !". I politely greet her back and resume my way. One minute later, she comes back to me "Good afternoon !". I see, as it is 4pm, she is thinking that her first salutation was not proper. Having used all the English words she knew, she suggests me to have some food. No thanks. The first temple I reach seems a bit crowded. I therefore ask, in Chinese, a man standing by with his son whether I may enter. His answer is positive. Eager to educate a Western barbarian, he sets up his mind to give me an impromptu lecture on Taoist spirituality, in Chinese as I first approached him in Mandarin. Having studied Chinese for only three months, I barely understand his explanations. Nevertheless, I manage to catch that this temple hosts a particular symbol that is rather rare (only 4 in Taiwan). Deceived by my lack of response, he tries to shift to English. Unfortunately, he only knows one word «Good ». After a few more minutes, he politely takes his leave, his face full of satisfaction. As ignorant as I was earlier on about Tao, I go on with my touristic activities.
A taxi first takes me to Anping neighborhood, some fifteen minutes away from the city centre. There stands a Dutch fort dating from the XVIth but whose architecture has been remodeled and a fortified barrack build by the French a bit later. The former hosts an interesting exposition about the local life under the Dutch rule. In particular it gives some details about the highly lucrative (400% margin) trade of pepper and other spices. The de rigueur Chinese guide eager to practice his English entertains me a few minutes, albeit I cannot understand his words. The premier materials for the castle walls were oyster shells and glutinous rice. As I was visiting the nearby factory where these special bricks were molded, three local youngsters asked me whether I would mind them taking a picture of me. One of them, an English teacher posing as a model, explains to me that her friends own a camera shop and aim to try their products. After a few shoots, they kindly drive me to a local restaurant for fried shrimps. After lunch, I move to another temple. As I am standing outside to appreciate its decorations, a middle-aged lady gets in my vicinity and says, in Chinese, that she would be grateful if I could speak some English with her teenager daughter. I exchange a few words with the young girl, rather embarrassed by her mother lack of tact.
After a glance at the West gate, I head towards Confucius temple. A concert is taking place there when I arrive. In the audience stands a typical American English teacher, communicating in English with his Chinese girlfriend, too casually dressed, not quite interested in the performance. The musicians, amateur ones, are playing a variety of traditional Chinese instruments, offering a rather interesting range of sonorities. Though, I notice that their instruments are tuned with the Western scale Do-Re-Mi… Driven by my curiosity, I sneaked behind their backs to investigate which notations they use on their notes: they use the numbers 1,2,3,… to denote Do, Re, Mi. A sub- or superscript dash indicates the octave with the usual symbols #,b for sharp and flat. I am not sure I understood how they indicated the rhythmic. Below an example
« | 1 5_ 3__ | 2 4| 45 66 2 »
Do Sol (-1 octave) Mi (+2oct) | Ré (minim) Fa | Sol La Si Si (4 quavers) Ré
A temple devoted to GuoXingYe, the Ming dynasty general who conquered the island in the XVIth and expelled the Dutch, is located nearby. This brilliant strategist, who was hoping to overthrow the Mandchous and restore the Ming emperors (hence, its retreat on the island) was born to a Japanese mother and a Chinese father. Interestingly, he was known for being rather short. On the other hand, on the paintings showing the rendition of the Dutch, he is represented much taller than them.
On my first evening in Tainan, a very pleasant city notwithstanding the tropical weather, I stop in some pub for a drink. A group of laughing high school students offers me to seat at their table. There are 6 of them and they know 3 English words together but are willing to practice. One of them calls a friend to translate his questions and consciously repeats:
1- Where are you from?
2- How old are you?
3- Are you married?
4- Do you have a girl friend?
5- What do you think about Taiwanese girls?
Having answered their inquiries, I ask them how long they studied English: 8 years. Not even able to construct such sentences…