Adventures in Taiwan

When I moved to Taiwan and started my new position as a translator of Buddhist texts at a monastery-affiliated research institute, I had decided that I would not maintain my blog. Life in the temple meant spotty access to the internet, and the hustle and bustle of the daily schedule left few moments for leisurely writing. However, as my time on this beautiful island is quickly coming to a close, I realized I need to record these thoughts—if only for my own eyes—lest I end up forgetting these valuable moments.

Spending my gap year in Taiwan was perhaps not the best plan financially, but I am here to finish a decade-long translation project (or rather, I had thought I would finish it during my stay). As it turned out, it would not be feasible to complete this decade-long project during my time in the monastery. Nevertheless, this made it possible for me to return to Asia, where I hoped to be able to travel to neighboring countries (although as I came to realize later on, there were tax-related restrictions to how many days I could spend outside of the islands directly governed by the Republic of China).

In that sense, it feels like my year in Taiwan is turning out to be a failure. I did not finish the project I hoped to finish; I did not get to leave the island as often as I had hoped; and I had not even traveled around the island itself as often as I wanted. I had toiled away for countless hours without much to show for it.

But to make such a conclusion would be an incomplete representation of my time here. Along the way, I’ve had plenty of novel, invaluable experiences and learned lessons I would have not otherwise experienced. At the same time though, there are a lot of private thoughts about my year that I think would be best left in my mind for the time being. In a vein similar to what I started in Fujian, these musings will continue to focus on tea, calligraphy, and guqin. Welcome aboard!


I was invited to a poetry reading tonight featuring a Black poet who earned a law degree from Yale after spending nine years behind bars. The event was presumably about his experiences, ways of changing the current system, and establishing a brighter future for Black citizens. Prior to the event, I met up with a friend at a fast food chain, and we ate as quickly as we could in order to make it to the poetry reading on time. As we ravenously consumed our dinner, a Black man approached our table and asked if I could spare him a meal. I apologized and sent him on his way, as I typically do when people ask me for spare change, some assistance, or in this case, a meal.

The refusal was immediate, instinctive, done as easily as brushing off a pestering child. He left, and I spent the rest of the evening wondering: how hypocritical was this? To discuss broad ideas and rail against an abstract Injustice-with-a-capital-I, to pin blame on CEOs and “the system” while not offering even a penny to actually assist someone immediately in need, what was I actually accomplishing?

Religiously, I hold myself to some stringent standards regarding personal habits and lifestyle, but giving—especially to individuals—has always been an obstacle. Buddhist scriptures often laud the ability to give anything that anybody asks for, but as someone who grew up without very much to give, it has always been difficult to train myself to be more generous towards strangers.

Certainly, many of my peers are in a better position to give than I am. They have far much more wealth than I do, many many times more than what my family has ever earned, and it is easy to relegate responsibility to others. At the same time though, there’s a personal element to generosity. I am frustrated that I didn’t give. Disappointed. I felt ashamed that I had sent him away with nothing and could offer no help to his hunger. I may not be well off, but I was certainly better off than him.

In the grand scheme of things, I believe that making a positive impact on the world must be done on two levels: on an overarching, systemic level; and on an individual, interpersonal level. To dream of changing the system is indeed praiseworthy, but along the way there are many opportunities to help others as well. The impact of these two are certainly not the same. The latter is far more limited in scope than the former, yet to the person giving, it is perhaps the latter which provides a direct experience into generosity, an act of goodness which brings immediate result.

In giving to organizations, I often have trouble deciding which to give to. Do I plant a tree? Restock a food bank? Provide education to students? All of these are worthy causes, and to donate to any of them would be great. But also in all of these cases, the giving is not direct. The money is aggregated, pooled into the salaries of employees, into the rent and overhead for offices, and then used to accomplish a mission. Tonight, I had the opportunity to give directly. My $10 would have undoubtedly fed one man for one meal and given him a full stomach with which to bear the evening chill. And I squandered that opportunity.

One of the lessons I will never forget when I first became a Buddhist was to never waste an opportunity to do a good deed. Thinking about it, I am not asked for help every single day. I am not overly burdened by people asking for food. Over the past year, this is the first time I’ve been asked to provide a meal to someone. Not cash, not change, but just meal. The last time this happened was one summer when I was in high school. That was nearly 10 years ago. At the time, I happened to have an apple and a box of snacks in my backpack. When a man approached me for food, I was able to pull it out and give him by snack for the day without a second thought. Yet today, I faltered and refused a plea for help.

It is easy to rationalize my behavior by saying something like “this isn’t my responsibility” or “I don’t even know him.” However, as someone actively trying to improve this world, there is nothing beyond the bounds of my responsibility. To help a person is to help a person, regardless of who they are.

New Life

While all of my camellia cuttings died without rooting, I found solace in my experiments with chrysanthemum cuttings. I got this obscure variety of Chinese chrysanthemum—supposedly edible, and supposedly the kind used in chrysanthemum tea—but I never got to try it last year because it only produced a measly three blooms. This year, I’ve split it into eight plants, each flourishing in pots and in various places around the garden. New stems are growing, and the leaves are a lush, vibrant green.

Wistfully though, I probably won’t be able to see them bloom. This late-blooming varietal was at its peak just before the November frosts last year, and by the time they unleash their beauty, I will be far away in another land (or so I hope).

In a sense, these plants parallel my current experiences. They grow each day, unsure of what’s to come, but with a sense of natural determination. As I work to prepare my garden to grow independently for years to come, I am also accumulating skills to thrive alone for the next few years. While I certainly haven’t grown professionally in the past year, I’ve picked up many good habits in the kitchen. I’ve rekindled old friendships and delved into many of my hobbies. And yet despite all that, the pressure of professionalism nags at me. Not that I care about a gap in my resume—I consider myself extremely apathetic towards the arcane norms of the business world—but the feeling that I am slowly digging myself into a financial hole is uneasy to say the least.

After doing the math, I’ve concluded that I’m still (mostly) in the black. I worked a decent number of hours last year, despite making a salary that I agreed to out of a charitable mind, and spent virtually no money in 2020. In one sense, this is my time to enjoy the fruits of my labor and have one final blast of a summer before disappearing into the unknown once again.

But then I think about the people I could be meeting if I was working somewhere positive. Perhaps I’d be learning a different skill set. Although come to think of it, I carried the same expectations when I joined my previous workplace and left more disappointed than ever. While money is an easy way to evaluate one’s productivity and literal worth, refining oneself brings an incalculable worth. How much money will I save over the course of my life by learning how to cook delicious and nutritious meals? How much more in earnings will I accrue by refining my foreign languages?

Rather than actually calculate reasonable estimations for this, I figured it’d be smartest to do what works best with the situation. Especially during the onset of the pandemic, the likelihood of getting a decent job was so low that I resigned myself to a year of working with students. Seeing as I wouldn’t be making much anyways, I’d at least be making an impact on the next generation. After my contract ended, I considered jumping into a part-time job of some sort—and I haven’t entirely erased this possibility—but I decided that it’d be more worthwhile for myself to take some time to slow down. However, now that vaccinations are happening and jobs are opening left and right, I do feel like it’s about time for me to jump back into the world, refreshed after my year in personal retreat.

Slowing Down

Over the past few months, I’ve come to approach life with a slower perspective. Although, that isn’t to say that my life itself has slowed down. If anything, I feel like my life is more hectic than ever, but rather than view things evolving day by day, I am noticing how growth occurs over the span of months and years.

Recently, I started playing a computer game called Stardew Valley. This simple, relaxing game tells the tale of a young man who is fed up with his corporate job at Joja (think of a capitalist behemoth crossbred between Walmart and Amazon). He inherits his grandpa’s farm in a small town and the game is essentially focused on growing crops and befriending the villagers.

Everything in this game, despite it’s “slower pace living” is sped up when compared to real life. Each day is maybe 20 minutes in real life, so plants grow to maturity within the hour, skills are developed within minutes, and the entire year is done in a matter of days. As I play this game, I also think about my work in my yard—how painstakingly slow it is to notice any growth whatsoever on my camellias, how slow it is for buds to begin forming on my hydrangeas, and how two months later, my daikon are still measly little roots.

In the rest of my life, my guqin progress is slow yet steady, and the million things I’m trying to read are moving along at a crawl. Many nights, I’ve thought, ah, if only I could speed all of this up. But then I remembered a line from a virtual tea workshop I attended: “If you enjoy it, why rush?”

This year especially, there is no rush. No deadlines to complete for any of this. Just working diligently and continuing is good progress. I can do my work and relish every moment of it. Each time I fumble over a song, I have the chance to practice it again. Each time one of my camellia cuttings die, that is an opportunity to learn from my mistakes. With growth and learning as the goal, it’s not a matter of initial success rate as much as it is developing my skills.

That’s not to say that I enjoy dawdling either. The sooner I learn one song, the sooner I can work on other things. The sooner I figure out how to root my cuttings, the sooner I can plant them and move on to other plants. But in hurrying, I am trying to be extra careful in not rushing. Just like morning dew, each moment is a precious jewel which appears at dawn and disappears by dusk.


For the past few months, I’ve spent my time in between work and graduate school applications practicing tea and guqin, or sometimes preparing my garden for the onset of winter. While I don’t have any particularly strong feelings about my current occupation, I do think that each moment spent in my hobbies is infinitely valuable and ultimately what keeps me on track week by week.

In focusing on learning tea and guqin, I’ve come to appreciate the process and path of practice. In calligraphy and most other skills as well, practice makes perfect. That being said, I have four years’ worth of unpleasant memories from cello practice. There was something wrong there that ended up in me hating the experience despite enjoying the songs we learned.

One obstacle was that 12-year-old me was too focused on the goal. I saw “perfect,” but didn’t take the time to determine how I should get there. Practice felt dull, meaningless, and to be honest I just wanted to play fun-sounding things despite being out of tune most of the time. I lacked the patience to refine and come anywhere near perfecting my skills. I also believed that I was “good enough,” a mentality which coddled my ego at the price of progress.

This time around though, I’ve refrained from doing that in guqin. That isn’t to say I like to insert a bit of fun every now and then. (I definitely spent a week learning the Harry Potter song rather than practicing the songs I was assigned.) However, I’ve come to enjoy the practice. As painful as it might be—grueling in terms of sheer memorization and repetition as well as sore fingers—it’s fun in and of itself.

The process of learning is fun. I am no longer frustrated when I am out of tune. Instead, it’s an opportunity to repeat and familiarize myself with that section until it’s ingrained in my consciousness.

While I could be learning one song after the next, I have come to enjoy learning each one of them and spending quality time with them. As my teacher often emphasized in class, musical skill is one thing, musical temperament is another. Repetition and practice will eventually build skill, as long as the student has enough patience and diligence to work through it. Musical temperament though is a bit trickier.

There are times in practice when I want to breeze through a song, and early on I would. But I soon realized that cheated myself out of practicing it properly and planted unsoundly memories of how to play it in my subconscious. Guqin is an instrument which comes with its own philosophical system. In learning the instrument, classes more often than not focused on Confucian classics, poetry, and mind-boggling Zen koans.

My teacher would go on for entire afternoons ranting about how conflicted he was at the sudden popularization of guqin in China and around the world. It was what he had been working towards for years, but when guqin is taught as merely a musical instrument and sanitized of its philosophy and ideals, it feels hollow.

So to compensate, I think he added double the dose (or more) of philosophy and culture for our class. In learning guqin, we were expected to have a regular meditation practice (fortunately my Buddhist background prepared my legs for this), and discussions often covered ideals that drew confused stares from students.

“We don’t play guqin for fame,” he started off. “We don’t use the instrument to show off, to flaunt. It’s a tool to guide ourselves and others towards awakening.”

Yep. Super duper Buddhist indeed.

Kind of out of place in a mostly-secular modern China, but he called it Qindao 琴道 (the Way of Qin) and insisted this was “culture” rather than “religion.”

When we played songs, memorizing them was always a prerequisite for performance, but at the same time, there’s so much more to guqin than rote memorization. As my teacher explained, memorization comes with time and practice. There’s so much more to learn—and having departed China early, so much I hadn’t had the chance to learn.

I still wish I could go back and learn how to craft my own instrument, how to compose and arrange songs, how to teach coherently, and so much more.

I am here to learn, and I would like to learn for as long as possible.

I once had a conversation with an monk in his 60s who told me that he is disappointed that he has fewer and fewer teachers now. In his youth, he’d be criticized, scolded, taught, retaught, untaught, retaught again, and heckled for almost every task and every lesson. As he grew older and ascended in monastic ranks, he noticed fewer people were comfortable pointing out the times and places where he made mistakes.

As my guqin teacher wanted a year ago (and still messages me about), it would be wonderful if I could become a teacher at some point, preferably sooner rather than later to help revitalize guqin and our almost-extinct school. But I am reluctant teacher. There will come a day when students look to me for answers, a day when people stop correcting me, and perhaps one day my teacher will not be a simple WeChat message away anymore.

When the time comes, I hope I am ready to answer the questions which arise, correct myself in the absence of others, and be a simple email away from my students.

But for now, I am learning, and I enjoy it very much.


I’ve come to appreciate every season, but fall remains the one which simply takes my breath away. This year, I noticed its arrival even while the sun glared harshly on my plants. It had been months since I had driven anywhere far, but in my short grocery trips, I noticed the trees lining the streets faltered from their usual verdure.

It wasn’t long before they became a determine saffron and fell to the ground, and the radiant heat of the sun melted into the pitter-patter of cold rain on pavement. Ah, I sighed to myself. My favorite season.

I sat in my room—now furnished with tatami mats—as the low rumble of my tea kettle murmured a soft dialogue with the rain. The steam escaping from the spout rose and disappeared, but I imagined it traveling up invisibly towards the sky, where it formed the gray clouds which were pouring down.

The twang of my guqin interrupted the rain and kettle conversation, and I smiled at the scene. There is something so relaxing about all of these things. I had been practicing a song titled Geese Landing on a Peaceful Shore 平沙落雁, and the slow, evocative hum of its notes joined the rain and kettle in harmony.

I took a break from my guqin and stared out the ceiling to watch raindrops fall from the pine needles hanging outside my window. They resembled little jewels, crystals adorning a tree, as they reflected each other within their translucent cores.

I got up and poured hot water into a small auburn teapot, releasing the aroma of smoky oolong tea into the air. Against the muted gray skies and darkened room, my teapot was both a splash of color and flavor. It delighted my nose and tickled it with hints of fruitiness which came out after the initial burst of smoke. I poured it into a cup and knelt back down at my desk, feeling the cup warm my hands.

Indeed, autumn is my favorite season.

In Search of a Kettle

Being in quarantine, I have a bit too much time on my hands. But rather than study for graduate school entrance exams or revise my writing samples, I’ve spent hours scouring eBay, Craigslist, and Facebook Marketplace for good deals. Most of these happen to be related to tea, but that’s just because of how things turned out.

I hadn’t planned on purchasing much. I was perfectly content with the improvised tea utensils I had been using until now. But a friend was leaving the US and passed on many tea utensils to me. This came with the responsibility of taking good care of them, and also of using them at some point. I couldn’t bear to accept such a generous gift without making sure these items were used, and so I began my side of the collecting.

I started with a simple bookshelf off of Craigslist, which is now where I store tea bowls and miscellaneous tea equipment. It wasn’t long before I looked around on eBay and noticed an antique dealer in Portland selling furogama: a set which included a kettle (looks more like a pot, or dare I say cauldron) and a brazier underneath. I went to check them out in person, and boy were they rusted.

Upon arriving at their third-floor space, I inspected three sets, all of which were rather rusty. He had some nicer ones which had been restored with a non-toxic oil. Non-toxic or not, the kettles reeked of the volatile solution they were treated with. Coupled with the higher price tag, I skipped them.

After an hour or two of looking around, I decided to go home and think about it some more. In the mean time, I did some more research online, asked around for advice, and eventually returned the next week, dead set on buying one. It was quite a miracle because I spotted one I swear wasn’t there last time. Sure, the shop hadn’t received any new inventory during that week, but this was a kettle which was virtually intact.

Then for the cleaning.

The first round of water which went into the kettle came out dark, murky, and absolutely gross. The second round fared a bit better, and after a while, the water looked clean, but did not seem like anything I would want to drink.

Then came the tea leaves.

Boiling tea leaves releases tannins into the water, which then binds to the rust on the kettle and prevents it from getting worse. The result is again, another pitch-black, opaque, and completely unappealing liquid.

After many days of boiling, dumping, drying, and more boiling, I finally trusted the water enough to drink out of it, and it was very pleasant. Since then, I’ve used my kettle almost every day. Aside from regular tea practice, I also use the water to brew loose-leaf tea, and it really accentuates the flavor.

At the time (this was roughly April or May), I thought this was all that I would acquire. Little did I know that in the coming months, my room was going to undergo a drastic transformation. But that will be a story for another time.

Amacha Adventures

In my quest for a garden of tea-producing plants, I decided to track down a kind of Japanese hydrangea which can produce amacha. In some forms of hydrangea serrata, the leaves contain high levels of phyllodulcin which becomes a natural sweetener after fermentation. Now, this is typically done with a varietal called “koamacha” in Japan, but as far as I can see, that doesn’t exist in the US. Another one, possibly acceptable, is called “oamacha,” which I tracked down as being sold from a farm about an hour away.

Perfect. It’s worth a try and an excuse to get out of the house during month three of quarantine.

After a few late-nights of comparing photos, I developed a hypothesis I wanted to try. I suspect that the cultivar titled “Hokkaido” is actually the “koamacha” I’m looking for. We’ll see.

I started driving, and soon enough my sunny Saturday afternoon was flooded by a downpour. Upon arriving at the farm, I was soaked immediately after stepping out of the car. I quickly ran over to the greenhouses and grabbed the two plants I wanted without much time or patience to meticulously select the finest specimin.

I paid, promptly left, and the skies cleared up again along the way. Upon inspecting my new plants, I could tell there were some things that were a bit off about them. According to Google and a few gardening friends, it seems like my plants suffered from a phosphorous deficiency, but a few weeks in fresh soil and a bit of fertilizer should resolve the issues.

Having been in the ground for few weeks now, that certainly seems to be the case, with new growth being far more vibrant. However, the discoloration on the leaves is still present, and it seems to also be affecting some of the petals. I’m not expecting instant solutions. It will probably take some time for them to get used to the new environment as well.


After getting some opinions from a friend, I realized rather quickly that my ancient raised bed wouldn’t be able to grow much. It received sparse sunlight and was beginning to rot away already. As such, we decided it’d be best as a compost pile.

While I was reluctant to spend much money on my garden at first, plants are actually quite expensive, and I ended up spending about a hundred dollars without too much to show for an end result.

To decide what to plant, I ran through visual memories of my time at the Huntington. What did I miss most? What would be both ornamental and practical in my garden? I wanted something that would brighten up my day while also providing something useful. Vegetables were out of the question, as neither of my parents were eager to tend to them in my absence. I needed to find something that would simply survive without much care after being established, lest I want to return to a wasteland of weeds in a few years’ time. My options were limited to trees and shrubs.

I originally played around with the thought of a new fruit tree. Plum or apricot perhaps? These would be easily preserved and I’d have some use for them besides snacking on them. But I had four pear trees in the yard already. Another fruit tree wouldn’t add much visually. In the meantime, I tossed a garlic bulb into the ground and watched it sprout. At least that was a success.

A few days passed and the chayote I dropped into the ground developed tendrils which strangled its neighbors. I made a mental note to not plant anything around it.

All the while, I did some research online and decided: I’d plant osmanthus. It seemed like a hardy shrub which would produce fragrant blossoms, and I could harvest them to make desserts or osmanthus tea. And with that, I impulsively went to the local nursery to get two of them.

It was only after they were in the ground that I realized I had gotten the wrong kind of osmanthus. While they were osmanthus in English, they weren’t the 桂花 I was expecting. They were 刺桂, a prickly version of osmanthus which—while fragrant—wouldn’t produce an abundance of flowers for me to harvest. But hey, at least the leaves were attractive.

The next day, I went to another nursery and came back with a true osmanthus fragrans as well as a camellia sinensis plant. While I hadn’t planned to plant tea, I decided while browsing that my backyard would be home to various plants which could produce tea, and of course I would have to have the true tea plant to complete the set.

I came up with a list of plants I would want. Now that I had camellia and osmanthus, I would need mountain hydrangea 山紫陽花 and chrysanthemum to finish my preliminary backyard tea garden. Although a few hydrangea had come in, the variety I wanted—prized for its sweet leaves and hardiness—was nowhere to be seen. I’ll have to check back in the coming weeks. Chrysanthemum will have to wait until later in the year, or so an employee told me.

In summary, my garden currently features osmanthus heterophyllus ‘goshiki’, osmanthus fragrans, and a Korean variety of camellia sinensis. By the end of the year, I hope to add hydrangea serrata ‘amagi amacha’, as well as chrysanthemum morifolium.

Quarantine has been an exercise in my ideal lifestyle, aside from my job (which is unlikely to get better any time soon). My days are spent gardening, experimenting with new recipes, and cleaning around the house. Every so often, I remind myself to do a bit of light reading, practice some calligraphy, and slowly prepare my application materials for graduate school. Oh, and of course, I punctuate my day by drinking tea. Sure, there are a few adjustments I could make. I could certainly wake up earlier, or I could be a bit more regimented in my schedule, but in quarantine I feel like my sense of time is looser than it ever has been.

Gardening brought me closer to a personal sense of time as I notice how morning showers give way to afternoon sun, or how every week brings in a new combination of weather and warmth. At the same time, I’ve also jolted awake multiple times in the past week after forgetting which day it was and whether or not I had an early-morning meeting scheduled, which showed me just how much days of the week have blurred and time has faded into abstraction. In this temporal abstraction, I feel that this loss of arbitrarily named days of the week is not necessarily a hindrance. If anything, it has redirected my attention to observing the seasons as a way to tell time. Weather has gone from being a topic of small talk to an everyday consideration because it determines whether or not I should water the plants, or if I need to check on the worm bin, or if I should bring some of the succulents inside.

Life has changed due to coronavirus, and while it has certainly led to social isolation, I am glad it has also given me the opportunity to reconnect with my own backyard.

However, the prospect of a sedentary home-bound life as a new norm looms ahead, and I know I’ll eventually have to reestablish myself and balance the arbitrary cycle of weekdays and weekends with the realities which happen moment by moment.

There are still plenty of side-projects I have yet to start and plenty of things which will keep me busy in the coming months. As strange as it sounds, I feel like I’ve become comfortable in seclusion. It also feels a bit nicer if I romanticize it and envision this as the life of a recluse living in a hermitage on some distant misty mountain range. Powell Butte isn’t particularly misty, and it surely doesn’t have much to offer in terms of elevation, but I can always imagine it as being a picturesque landscape.

Working It Out

The past two weeks have been incredibly challenging.

This is not directly due to life in quarantine, but rather due to life at a less-than-ideal workplace. In the meantime, daily lunch (and sometimes dinner) chats with my Japanese classmates, the steady rhythm of tea classes and discussions, as well as sunny afternoons in my garden have kept me afloat.

Without delving into the nitty gritty details of workplace conflicts, I want to take some time to reflect very broadly on the emotions and lessons that have weathered me recently.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from this ordeal is that my ideal workplace is not defined necessarily by the prestige of the position or company, but rather by the social environment of those around me in the office. And while my current pay grade is embarrassingly low, I wouldn’t mind it quite as much if I had supportive leadership and feasible projects. I’m reminded of my summers interning at various monasteries for the mere exchange of food and shelter.

Working at the temple was no easy feat. It involved early mornings, late nights, barely any time to shower or do laundry in between, and the occasional all-nighter as we prepped for special ceremonies, meticulously arranged fruit on a platter, and finished proofreading extensive translation projects. But despite all of this, I was happy with the work, and I enjoyed the environment.

Thinking back to my time at The Huntington, when I spent a summer researching and translating Chinese poetry, I would say that is still my favorite job. There I worked in an office with people who loved to chat about classical literature, East Asian design and aesthetics, and combined their mastery of niche knowledge with kindness.

And so, as I look for other jobs now, I am not looking for something that pays a lot, nor am I looking for the name of a prestigious company. I am open to anything, and really, what I want to know is everything that happens behind the job ad. What is their office like? How collaborative is the environment? How transparent are different groups towards each other?

Perhaps two years ago, my former college advisor said to me , “Andrew, you could survive with close to nothing.”

And although I know I can always survive with next to nothing, I want to be able to thrive with next to nothing. Financially, I don’t feel particularly burdened, although each time I get paid my mom laughs at how she makes more washing dishes. To thrive though, I know I need to work in a space which is collaborative yet efficient, critical yet kind, ambitious yet realistic.

Without these traits, I simply feel like I would be working to survive, rather than working to grow.

And I sure hope there’s some growth after everything has been worked out.