Lima Al-Azzeh

Just Dance

In Foreign Affairs on May 16, 2011 at 9:17 am

Taiwan: The Heart of Asia, logo and slogan by Taiwanese Tourism Bureau. Photo courtesy of Mooi Hsieh, Flickr

My favourite reaction to any post is when people leave a comment, here, on Facbeook, or via Twitter, telling me they identify with the story. It makes the most foreign sounding experience a universal one, and there’s infinite power behind that.

This lead me to want to hear other stories about feeling foreign, or being in a place where you have been culturally misunderstood, or on the flip side, have completely misunderstood another culture. I asked my ridiculously talented friend Monica Hamburg, the master mind behind the blog Your Dose of Lunacy, to submit a guest blog post surrounding this theme. To my delight, she took some time out of her busy schedule to contribute. Without further ado, I present Monica Hamburg in “Just Dance”.

A few years ago, my boyfriend and I were invited by our friend, Tim, to a gathering one of his Taiwanese friends, Ariel, was having. I had met her before a few times and found her friendly and lively – if slightly bossy.  I found it both fascinating and amusing how, at restaurants, she and her other Taiwanese friends seemed to be obsessive about photographing their food.

We arrived at Ariel’s house, and she introduced us to her son, who was about 18, and the rest of the guests.  The group was entirely Taiwanese with the exception of my boyfriend, Chris  and me (so starkly Caucasian, I’ve often had people be impressed by the realism of my eerie white vampire makeup on Halloween. I hadn’t worn any).  And, well Tim, is white too, technically – but he speaks fluent Mandarin, his wife is Taiwanese and he lived in Taiwan for many years.  And so he fits in pretty well.

Ariel was a consummate hostess: very welcoming – and constantly encouraging to eat.  There was no need to encourage, however, as the food was delicious and there was lots of it.  The group was exceptionally kind too: conducting some of the conversation in English. One of the guests, was apparently a very famous poet in Taiwan – and much of the conversation centered around him.

Of course, the conversation topics were fairly foreign to us – and we had little to contribute – but this was perfectly fine.
While there were moments we felt out of place, everything was going reasonably well until the entertainment section of the evening where were informed that everyone was now to perform in some fashion: read poems, do a dance etc.  No one had told us about this.  Perhaps we could just sit it and watch?

No.

A few people read Mandarin poems – written by the poet guests. All stood up in front of the guests to recite.

 They asked Tim to read the English version of one of the poems.

I recall it going something like the following, but I may be paraphrasing:

Tree branches.  Night.
A swan is saddened by the waves.
The sea whispers.  

Waves. Why?
A man touches a snail and walks towards the water. 


“You read now,” the hostess commanded Chris.

“No, it’s OK.  Tim read it nicely.”

“You read it again.”

So Chris stood up and read the poem.

“Not good! When you read poetry you read like this.”  She read a line with her voice lilting up during one part of the sentence and down towards the end.  “And you look up! At people with each line!”

“Oh. OK.” Chris said.

“You read again.  This time better!”

Slightly uncomfortable, and mildly amused, Chris read the poem again.

“OK.” She responded. “Better.  But needs work.”

Chris sat down. I didn’t know we were being graded, I whispered to him. The hostess focused her attention on me. “Now you.  You dance.”

“Uh.”

“Oh! What kind of dance do you do?” One of the other guests asked, excitedly.

I paused.  Uncomfortably, I responded. “Pole dancing.”

“She’s very good,” said Ariel, “You dance for us now!”

Dance? Sensually? In front of a group of Taiwanese intellectuals…? 

I really couldn’t picture anything more awkward. And I am the queen of awkward experiences.

My brain whirled. How do I get out of this? My master plan was to make a desperate plea that I needed to have the “right music”.

“What kind of music?” Her son asked. “I have lots of music.”

Damn.

 “Lil Jon. I, uh, can only dance to Lil Jon.”

“I don’t have that.  Mom doesn’t let me.”

“Oh. Too bad.”

I’d like to be impressed by my quick thinking, but I think there was another element that helped distract the guests from the intended plan: the 104 proof Chinese Rice Whiskey.

All in all, a good night.

And, as per usual, I managed to look like a fool, even sans dancing.

“It’s fascinating,” I remarked to Tim, “that the Taiwanese seem to always want pictures of the food.”

“Uh, Monica… That’s not a Taiwanese habit.  They’re all food columnists.”

Oh.

Presenting Monica Hamburg, photo taken by Erica Hargreave

Monica Hamburg acts, blogs, podcasts, tells true stories, writes, speaks and markets.  In her spare time, she rides public transit.

If you have a story about feeling foreign or know someone who might want to share one, please email me at lima [dot] alazzeh [at] gmail [dot] com

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