I know I've lived in Taiwan too long when I am apart of the locals in the background of a Fun Taiwan TV shooting. The episode took its foreign guests (4 very attractive 20 somethings) to Erlong, Jiaoxi to experience local dragon boat racing.
Dragon Boats are normally associated with the summer festival, so when my friend's cousin asked us if we wanted to try dragon boat racing (while we began a 10 km mini marathon), my daughter and I chimed a resounding, "YES!" The only warning we got was we had to be there early, it was all day and there was no turning back.
It was only after we agreed that we found out it would be recorded for Discovery Channel. The night before I was informed it would be aired in 80 countries. I was starting to lose my initial enthusiasm. Then after that, we were told it was for Janet Hsieh's Fun Taiwan TV program. Now I really was questioning if we should go, I just wanted to try dragon boat racing. Being a single mom, I watched a little envious of friends throughout the years participating in the summer races, training for them, the teamwork, the experience and memory. Even for just a day, I wanted to be apart of it, and with my daughter which was an added bonus.
In case you didn't know (some of my non TV viewing coworkers don't), Janet's face is plastered everywhere, endorsing absolutely everything. Her show is wildly popular and has won numerous awards. I myself haven't necessarily watched a full episode, its not my cup of tea (and apparently I'm not the only one, haters are so harsh). I prefer culinary inclined travel shows like Bourdain and my kid loves Andrew Zimern.
For a MIT grad, one would expect more substance from her show, "less airheadness" (an act for the Taiwanese viewers). The Taiwanese demographic of her viewers must be housewives, young people with zero travel experience who will hopefully want to travel after watching her show and easily tranquilized by corny jokes and puerile synergy. Yet she must be doing something right (awards and long running show). She was extremely friendly and down to earth and invited me to pose with her when my kid asked her for an autograph for a friend. If it 'aint broke right?
In fact she posed for photographs and autographs all day with a smile. I doubt I could be as gracious despite her show's taste in guests (utterly camera fluff and bubblegum).
My kid Zen would of been a way more interesting guest. Apparently she thought so too, I had to hold her back from photo bombing the shoot several times, eventually I gave up and who knows which shots she's in or not. Zen was in tears in the morning when she found out she wasn't the guest star (we had to hold back our laughter) and then she was annoyed she couldn't meet Janet immediately. Waking at 5:45 am certainly had a lot to do with her mood.
But it was all about the dragon boats right? Erlong is famous for its 200 year old dragon boat races and unique flat bottomed boats without dragon heads. It originates from an aboriginal Kavalan ceremony from the Ping Pu people to pacify the river god. There are also no timers or judges. The shirtless rowers themselves decide when to start by hitting the gong at the same time. It takes practice. It took the men several attempts. But even before the boats grace the waters, there is a detailed ceremony that must be followed.
First the 2 boats had to blessed. They beseeched the spirits of the dragons all morning long with drums, gongs, fireworks, a lion dance. It was quite the detailed invocation. Being a hardcore yang festival, women were not allowed to touch the boats- at all, which really put my ornery kid over the deep end. My friend (who grew up in Erlong) asked if we wanted to help carry the boats and of course we did, just to find out the second before, that females aren't allowed to.
|My hand painted dragon boat adorning my book case.|
A massive lunch was provided for, with sticky rice and loads of fresh cilantro, rice noodle soup, soft boiled eggs and duck meat. After lunch we watched the men race and then finally around 3pm we started to get into the non- sanctified boats. With no instruction we paddled. The girl who was hitting the gong poorly was replaced by my daughter who did a worse job (it was heavy). We lost several races. Our boat bottomed out and my kid sitting on the top front helm, nearly fell out and lost her mind for about 3 seconds. "Titanic!" She yelled half jokingly. We lost twice to Janet's crew. The first attempt we were in the lead, but the man steering in the back totally lost it and my kid was unable to grab the flag. The second time, we were too slow. We were a little wet and possibly a little sun burnt, but it was worth the long wait. My kid wasn't as non-chalant about losing to Janet as I was, especially as Janet was playfully sticking her tongue out at us, which in kid language is a declaration of war. We were followed by a camera crew on a speedboat and a drone hovering loudly like a swarm of raging bees above us.
It was a long day and a totally unexpected December Sunday. I don't think I will ever look at dragon boats at quite the same way. For some, like the folks in Erlong, its more than just a race, but a discipline in summoning primordial solar leviathans.