Sunday, June 28, 2015

Dragon Boat Racing in Taipei

Hey everybody! So a whole month has gone by since I first got to Taipei. There are so many things to catch you all up on. First a large thank you to the Sigur Center for allowing me to have this life-changing experience!  I’ve been studying at the Taiwan Mandarin Institute in Da’an District and I live near Guting MRT, in an off-campus studio but in a neighborhood that has a lot of scooter repair shops and dogs. My two favorites are below:
大头 on the left and new friend on the right!
So a few weekends ago was 端午节 (Duan Wu Jie), or the Dragon Boat Festival and it was a huge deal in Taipei.  Honestly, the first time I heard about it was my second day at TMI when the front-desk people asked me if I wanted to be a part of a Dragon Boat Race.  I agreed, really not knowing anything but eager to make new friends. That day I went home and did some research.

So 端午节 is a summer solstice festival that commemorates the death of the ancient poet Qu Yuan. The poet lived during the Warring States Period and drowned himself in a river to prove his loyalty to his country. Once citizens heard of his death, they searched the river for his body and beat drums and paddles in the water to ward off evil spirits. Many people believe dragon boating began as a blend of reenacting the search for Qu Yuan, and a way to ward off evil spirits during the Solstice. Another important part of 端午节 is eating zongci, or rice wrapped in leaves. It is believed that during the search for his body, common people threw bits of food in the river in order to keep Qu Yuan alive. They wrapped this food in brightly colored cloth or leaves to deter hungry spirits.

 端午节 is mostly celebrated in East and Southeast Asia but dragon boat racing happens all across the world. There was even a dragon boat race on the Potomac River this past May! After learning about the history, I then set out to learn about the actual sport. After signing up, I would learn just what I had gotten myself into by watching intimidating videos about dragon boat racing and reading how-to instructions online. These resources were provided mostly from emails from our team-captain, a very strong looking, non-nonsense Australian man named Juan.  Like any good team, we had practices. Two of these were at 6am(!). There were just 3 girls on the team including myself, and the rest were pretty buff looking guys. At first I was worried that I would be a liability to the team. I can barely do a push-up and here I am racing with guys who could do 20 maybe 40! But after being reassured that absolutely nobody else knew what they were doing, I felt okay.

Juan giving a paddling demonstration in the top left! I'm right in the middle.

That being said, practices were a bit messy.  Our team had 22 people, most of which had never been in or had even seen a dragon boat before. Compared to the well-seasoned teams around us, we looked like fools. The men officiating the event groaned whenever they saw us approaching the boats, a team full of 外国人 (foreigners) with giddy smiles.  Our first practice was definitely the worst. It took us 10 minutes to figure out how to steer and maneuver the boat away from the dock and out onto the river. The race officials yelled at us so much, but few on the team had enough workable, nautical mandarin to fully understand what it was they were yelling. I just shrugged and smiled and yelled 对不起 (sorry!) as much as I could.  After 5 minutes of fumbling, a large crowd had gathered on the shore, all yelling 加油 (add oil or keep going!) and shouting equally confusing instructions. I think they were mostly laughing at us. It was hilarious juxtaposing the race officials fear stricken faces and their happy cheers. I really thought were gonna have to pay some damage fees for all the other boats we hit but thankfully no boats or bodies were hurt in the process and after we finally got on the river, we commenced practice. 
Angry officials to the right!
Our fearless leader Juan took us through the basics of Dragon Boating. He taught us many things about racing and life in general but most importantly that DBR was about timing not power. Some of us had an easier time than others, and our practices were mostly slowly chugging down the river with little bursts of speed.  But by the end of 4 practices (all of which I attended), I knew the difference between a "power up" and a "race start," so I felt a bit more prepared to race.  

I didn’t think I would be that invested in our team but the week leading up to the race it was all I could talk or think about. Friday came, and we all donned our uniforms and got ready to swim.  But before we could enter a boat, we were given name ID tags with our pictures on them. We lined up next to three other teams on the dock as race officials came around and checked everybody’s ID badge. Then a huge commotion. Apparently, every one on the team next to us had the same guys picture on their nametag and they were automatically disqualified.  It was a Dragon Boat Festival miracle. Suddenly, we were only facing two other teams!

Motivated like never before, we efficiently got into the boat and paddled out to the starting line. Some guy in the back of the boat started whispering the lines from Cool Runnings and then I knew we had a chance. "Feel the rhythm! Feel the rhyme! Get on up, its Dragon Boat time! Cool Runnings!" Suddenly, the buzzer sounded and we were off, 500 yards from the finish. To say I was invested in this team was an understatement, and I didn’t realize that fully until we were paddling down that river. At first we were losing to one team by at least a boat’s length. But we pushed the rhythm AND the rhyme and suddenly we were in the lead…all the way to the finish! We won and I honestly couldn’t believe it. I almost got teary eyed in the boat. Thankfully, the river water masked any real tears. However, like a true underdog team, after winning the race it took us an extra 10 minutes to figure out how to dock the boat. But once ashore we celebrated with some warm sandwiches and merry cheer. The once angry race officials even high fived us! It was a true rags to riches, novice to master story. 

Seconds after we crossed the finish line. Tears or river water??

I have no idea why I was so invested in that dragon Boating Team, but I have to say it has been my favorite experience in Taipei so far. Nothing bonds a group of people like confusion and dragon boating. We could’ve gone farther too! But nobody thought we’d win so we all had plans during the next race on Saturday and couldn’t make it.  Honestly, I preferred it that way— in my mind we won the whole thing.


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