Although my brother and I first arrived in Taiwan on the eve of Dragon Boat Festival, neither of us paid the occasion any mind. I guess at the time it wasn’t a big deal for the foreign community in Hsinchu. At least it wasn’t for my boss and buddy who picked us up at the airport. They didn’t mention anything about the holiday on the drive back to our new home or as we drank beers at Nepal that night. The only thing that was mentioned was the fact that we should try to balance an egg on its end at noon the following day. Apparently any individual who is able to succeed in such a feat is promised a prosperous year filled with luck and good fortune. I unfortunately forgot to raise my egg the next day and have neglected to give it a go every year since. If only intention and retention meant the same thing I might be a very rich man today.
As Dragon Boat Festival approached the following year, I asked my students to explain the significance of the holiday. In fact, I must admit (with embarrassment) that I needed to have it explained to me once a year for the next few years. For some reason my Canadian brain just couldn’t hold on to these new Taiwanese traditions. (What was I saying about retention?) Nevertheless, slowly but surely I have learned that the holiday falls on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese calendar. I also know that the festival originated as a means to commemorate a famous martyr poet who committed suicide thousands of years ago in opposition of the ruling emperor. My students taught me that zongzi (rice dumplings) are eaten and dragon boat races are held to honor his death. It, along with Full Moon Festival and Chinese New Year, is one of the three most celebrated of all Taiwanese festivals.
Or so I was told. I’m not so sure that I believe the hype. Of the fifteen years that I have lived in Taiwan, I have only celebrated Dragon Boat festival four times. Sure I have eaten my mother-in-law’s rice dumplings every year for the past fourteen; however, peeling bamboo leaves away from these sticky delicacies doesn’t carry the same weight as a Passover feast of brisket, potato kugel and matzo ball soup or a Christmas banquet of turkey, potatoes and stuffing. I just can’t seem to get excited over rice and an egg yolk. But that’s just me.
I was, however, brewing with enthusiasm over the prospect of taking part in a dragon boat race. The first time I joined a team was in 1999 – my Nepal days. Looking back on the experience it might be fair to say that our team was a little ill-prepared for the competition. I most definitely was. The first time I had ever seen a dragon boat was on the morning of the race. I left Nepal at about 6:30 after a night of drinking and dancing and rode straight to the harbor to meet my teammates. By 7:30, the first signs of my impending hangover started scratching at my brain. When we finally entered the dragon at about 9:00 the drumbeats seemed to be coming from the inside of my skull rather than the front of the boat. Nevertheless our team won our first race and finished the day by taking home the gold. Our first race was also our last. There were only two teams in the competition. As I said, back then Dragon Boat Festival didn’t have the fanfare that it does today.
After celebrating such a hard fought victory, I took an eleven year hiatus from the sport and didn’t venture back into the belly of the beast until 2010 when a good friend of mine organized her own dragon boat team. By this time, Dragon Boat Festival had become a widely recognized competition attracting many more teams and spectators. It had become a true holiday in which I was ready to participate again.
This time, our team, The Talladega Dragons, had a little more training. We practiced our technique for about an hour on the Saturday before race day; however, our oars didn’t seem to match the rhythm of the drums and we only won a heat or two. The next year, the same woman enlisted a group of eager foreigners to have another reach for the flag. In 2011, The Bamboo Warriors, moved up in ranks and managed to place third.
This year, we were led by the captain of The Foreign Devils. This team seemed to train a bit harder and want the gold a bit more. Unfortunately, however, our dreams of standing highest on the podium were thwarted by our long time nemesis. After a rather controversial call and a number of hard fought races, they proudly took first and we were left standing tall with second.
I was not at all bothered by our defeat in the dragon boat lanes. As I said, our team rowed with the heart of champions. We were just outmatched this time out. What left me choking on a bitter taste of something more than the salty waters of NanLiao Harbor was the fact that the rules of the competition seemed to have been altered to suit the needs of the winning team. Whether or not this was the case, it led me into a couple of rather heated debates with a friend of mine on the opposing team. My argument was that his team shouldn’t have been in the finals at all because their flagman had fallen into the water during a preliminary race. His was that technicalities shouldn’t matter – the better team won. This was a point I just couldn’t concede.
Did the better team win? Is there really such a thing as a better team? I don’t know. And really, I shouldn’t care. My buddy’s team beat us three out of four races and deserved kudos for their accomplishment. I should have let it go at that. Further reflection has allowed me to realize that there is no better team. Only a better man. And the better man wouldn’t have taken part in this debate. I guess I lost again.
Better Man, by Pearl Jam, brings me back to my last years of university. Although the memories and people I have attached to this song have absolutely nothing to do with dragon boating, competition or even Taiwan, the chorus, ‘can’t find a better man’ kept pounding through my mind as I paddled my fingers along my keyboard and anyone who has ever been dragon boating knows that you need to follow the beat of the drums.
Better Man youtube link