Last week, I returned to Shanghai after spending almost three weeks in Taiwan. Taiwan is gorgeous, delicious, friendly, and relaxing. China is also those things, but less often and rarely at once. It’s an exciting place to live, but a tough one as well. Still, I’m happy to be back, and to be teaching.
When I first arrived in Taiwan I spent a few days in Taipei, and one of the things I did— when I wasn’t stuffing my face, which I was doing constantly because the food is so good it’s stupid to ever stop eating—was visit Hsing Ting Kong temple with my friend of one day, Mike. Hsing Ting Kong is a Buddhist temple “guided by the divine character of En Chu Kong,” and Mike prays there regularly.
Mike and I had been talking about Taiwanese fortune telling over a lunch of dumplings and dumplings and beef soup and more soup. He told me his sister once visited a fortuneteller who told her to eat less beef, and when she did, her problems, which anyone else would have thought were completely unrelated to her beef consumption, improved. I told Mike I’d love to see a Taiwanese fortuneteller. After an annoying session with a psychic two years ago I swore I’d stop bothering with “that kind of stuff” (shamans don’t count) because I always obsess about whatever I’m told, but I decided visiting a fortune teller in Taiwan was okay because it was a relevant cultural experience, and also because hey, maybe this would be the person who could tell me how to fix my life. What if all of my problems were the result of not eating enough fried chicken and this was the only person who knew it? (Fried chicken from the night markets was one of my favorite things to eat in Taiwan and I’ve craved it every day since I got back to China.)
Mike explained that his sister’s fortuneteller was a friend’s mom, and he didn’t know how to get in touch with her. However, though he couldn’t suggest a reputable fortuneteller, he could bring me to his temple, Hsing Ting Kong, where people regularly participated in a ritual where they asked Juan Sheng Di Chun, the main deity worshipped there, a question and received an answer. He said it was kind of like fortune telling and he figured I’d be into it.
He was right. I wasn’t raised with religion, and possibly as a result, I am a whore for other people’s rituals and beliefs, even when they are a part of a belief system that offends or confounds me. I’m more interested in how people deal with the “mysteries of the universe” than I am with the mysteries themselves. So many aspects of religion and faith are seductive, and I’m as weak for the superficial elements, such as the architecture and the art and the over-the-top aesthetics, as I am for the certainty belief can provide. Just being near religion excites me. When the Islamic call to prayer goes off, or church bells ring, or monks chant, the air changes, becomes charged. I can’t imagine being religious myself, but I envy the structure and comfort most religions provide. I wonder if my helpless attraction to displays of faith means I am on the wrong path and should be looking for different types of answers, or asking completely different questions.
As you can imagine, I was thrilled to be at this large, open-air temple and to participate in one of the rituals practiced there. I understand that my voyeuristic interest in other religions might offend some people. It felt all right here because not only was I with a friend, but because so many people welcomed me with smiles and nods. (This is not always the case in my Adventures with Religion, but it often is—when I was in Istanbul a about twelve years ago, a little boy saw me peeking into an old, tiny mosque during a service, and he snuck me in after making it clear he wasn’t supposed to because it was only for men/Muslims, and when some of the congregants saw me, they smiled, and when I was on Java a decade ago, a young man and his wife invited me to a madrassa and spoke to me at length about how Islam was practiced in the region. Totally different experiences, but both were special, and were really satisfying.)
Before I asked Juan Sheng Di Chun my question, I participated in a traditional soul-healing ritual called Shoujing. I waited in one of many lines winding through the temple courtyard before ending up in front of an elderly woman in blue robes. I gave her my name, closed my eyes, and stood while she recited prayers and moved three sticks of burning incense around my body and lightly touched my forehead and stomach. I didn’t know exactly what was happening at the time, but I learned here that “The purpose of Shoujing is to effect the return of the soul of a frightened person. According to Chinese belief the elements of the soul of a person reside in certain parts of the body. If the soul is deeply disturbed or frightened it will leave the place it is supposed to be, causing the body to become ill. In order to heal the person, the soul must therefore be returned to its former state, which is achieved during the Shoujing ritual.”
I felt calmed after this, though not profoundly different, but it still seems like a smart thing to do on the reg. If I lived near that temple, I’d Shoujing every day.
Mike then handed me three sticks of incense and told me to light them and pray to Juan Sheng Di Chun. At the start of my prayer, Mike told me I had to introduce myself and give the god my address.
The address thing threw me, since I don’t know where I live, and I was worried that unlike Santa Claus, Juan Sheng Di Chun wouldn’t be able to find me when he needed to deliver his gifts. Until very recently, I lived in Brooklyn. I might end up there again in the fall, but I don’t live there now and didn’t want to say I did. I couldn’t remember where I’d been staying in Shanghai, and I didn’t know where I’d be put up when I got back (a Ramada, it turns out. Not so bad). I explained this all to him, and I really hope he’ll be able to find me at the Ramada.
The question-asking ritual was next, but Mike told me that before I asked my question, I had to ask if I could ask my question. So, as I stood about 20 feet from an imposing statue of Juan Sheng Di Chun with a bunch of other people who were also asking him questions or just praying to him, I asked if I could ask. I determined his answer by throwing two Jiaobei, small crescent shaped diving blocks made out of bamboo, on the ground. The blocks have one rounded side (yin) and a flat side (yang), and they are interpreted in one of four ways based on how they land. Once I received permission to ask my question I did: Should I return to New York in September, or should I stay in Asia and try to find a job?
Next, I selected a Kau Cim stick from a bucket. The sticks are numbered from 1-100, and the number corresponds to a written oracle that provides the answer to your question. One I had my stick, I used the divining tools to ask if I’d selected the right oracle. I was told I had not. Mike told me that this happens a lot, and usually because the person asking the question isn’t being clear or specific, so he told me to ask the question in a different way, and to pull another oracle. I did, and I did, and I was told that I’d pulled the wrong oracle. This happened twice more.
Mike kept telling me to ask a question simpler way, and so my question devolved into something that would have sounded incredibly patronizing if I’d been speaking out loud. “So right now I am in Aaaaasia, but I used to live in Broooooooklyn…”
When I finally had the right number, I went into a small room and picked up my oracle and had it interpreted by one of the serene volunteers sitting behind a line of wooden desks. He spoke English pretty well, and he explained my oracle after I told him my question. The one I pulled said it was too soon to give an answer because there wasn’t enough information—essentially the equivalent of The Magic 8 Ball’s “Ask again later.” But, he told me, the answer was “positive.” I wasn’t really sure what that meant. I asked, but I couldn’t make myself understood. I took it to either mean “outlook good,” and things would be okay no matter what, OR that something good was coming. I went with the latter option because the former seemed too trite and cliché in that environment.
I was disappointed not to have received a definitive answer, but maybe I’m not ready for one. I’m not sure where I want to be, and I’m not sure I’m ready to decide, or to know the decision that I’ll end up making. At this point, if I learned whether or not I’d stay in Asia or return to NYC, where I’ve lived for a decade, I’d end up feeling conflicted because I really don’t have enough information to make a decision. I don’t know what’s right or what’s home, at least not right now. Shanghai doesn’t feel like home, and even though New York often does, my life there is too slippery and uncertain for it to be very inviting.
I wish there were obvious and concrete answers, but I might finally old enough to accept that sometimes there aren’t any, or that there are three or eight or ten. Acceptance turns out to be one of the great things about getting older (also, I finally know what to do with my hair). I’ve grown a little calmer, I have perspective, and I realize I probably shouldn’t worry so much about the future because life is happening now, and the life that’s happening is pretty interesting. There are things in my life I would change but most of them are behind me. I’ve learned I can’t obsess my way into a new past.
It was nice to be in Taipei after the chaos of Shanghai because Taipei at level ten is like Shanghai at level four. There were so many things I loved about it. I loved the food, the night markets, the green-as-hell-mountains, and the people. But, more than anything, I loved that there were 7-11’s EVERYWHERE.
I claim I don’t know where my home is, but in Taiwan I realized 7-11’s are basically home for me. I grew up down the block from one, and between the ages of six and eighteen I went there at least once a day, but usually at least twice. When I was young, it’s where I got my candy bars and Slurpees after school or on weekends. When I was older, it was still where I got my candy bars and Slurpees, but I was getting them because I was stoned, or because I needed a mixer that could stand up to my father’s throat-searing vodka that my friends and I called “Ukrainian death.” I think the 7-11 I grew up with is pretty special, maybe the best in America, but I’ll admit the 7-11’s in Taiwan have it beat.
Life in Taiwan is basically run through 7-11. You can pay your bills and parking tickets, use the bathroom, linger in the café, and buy pretty much anything you need. I was in 7-11 at least once a day and usually twice. What I loved about 7-11’s in Taiwan was that, though the sign was an immediate comfort, the things inside were, for lack of a better word, very foreign to me. It felt so familiar, so much like home, and then I’d see this:
Oh, and this:
One thing I didn’t love about Taiwanese 7-11’s was the heavy smell of the tea-eggs that they cook there. Though tea eggs are delicious, they smell like a mixture of chemicals and baby waste. It’s not as bad as Stinky Tofu, but it’s up there.
I’m still looking for home, and for answers, but I accept it might be too soon to know what to do about anything (or so late that it really doesn’t matter). In the meantime I’ll be at 7-11. I hadn’t seen any in Shanghai in June, but there is one close to my hotel, and though it is not as good as the worst one I visited in Taiwan (I’ll be jailed for writing that in 3…2…), it will do. That’s how I feel about a lot of things in my life right now. I’m lucky enough to have all that I have, and to be able to say that it will “do.” (So lucky.) But I know there’s something more. It might not be home, but it might be a deep feeling of pleasure or peace, not unlike the feeling I got when I walked into a Taiwanese 7-11. People worship all kinds of things. Maybe I’m religious after all.