Thursday, March 10, 2011

Virtual Ethnography 101: A Pilgrimage to St. Christopher's Church in Taipei

As part of the weekly exercises of my graduate students in Anthropology 225: Philippine Society and Culture, I wanted my students to explore places and write ethnography using the method of participation-observation.

I am posting in my blog with the writer's consent selected ethnography penned creatively by my students to contribute to the emerging sub-discipline of anthropology called 'Virtual Ethnography'.

Basically, virtually ethnography is also referred to as Webnography. We cannot deny the fact that with increasing use of technology and the Internet, there is now a demand for online spaces on various ethnographic accounts.

Ethnography by Dolf Cheng (March 6, 2011)

One of the best gathering places for OFWs here in Taipei is St. Christopher’s Church. It has been my solace when I was new in Taipei 20 years ago and today I find myself entering its gates to revisit this old friend. I remember a different scene many years back which consisted of myself kneeling inside this church, the atmosphere almost perfect with only quietness and the sight of “no oneness”. I was one bench away from my sister who was praying deeply. She was always the religious one and I always tagged along her because 20 years back, this was one of the few churches which offered mass in English and had a McDonald nearby – a rare presence of Western influence in Taipei.

Today 20 years later, everything has transformed from stillness to fiesta. As I got off Bus 218 a few meters from the church, I was overwhelmed to find the whole street full of Pinoys and Pinays. The scene is like walking into our local church in Mindanao Avenue. Mass has already started and the gates were filled up. Those who were lucky were comfortably seated inside but the many who were standing outside were bunched up like turtles because of their heavy jackets and wool caps. Temperature had dropped to 13 degrees celcius today and I had nowhere to peer into the ongoing mass. Today is the day of Pinoy trade, Balikbayan boxes, Bingo grocery, LBC remittance and Sunday adobo. Mass started at 9 am but the street was already a busy marketplace attracting churchgoers and the local Taiwanese people. Right beside St. Christopher is Bingo Store which has been in business many years before. Despite the yearly decrease in manpower hiring from the Philippines, business here thrives because Filipinos are very good buyers and so used to our home-grown products. They carry every indispensable brand of canned goods (spam, sausage, sardines), toiletries (close-up, safeguard, green cross) and even fresh pandesal every Sunday. I cannot conceive a Philippine store like this 20 years ago because I used to carry my 555 Sardines, Purefoods Corned beef, Milo and Lily’s Peanut Butter in my luggage every time I flew back to Taipei.

The street outside St. Christopher is always teeming with all kinds of trade during Sundays. 100NTD (New Taiwan dollars) is the new 100 pesos here in Taipei and almost all kinds of wares are sold for 100NTD. This resembles the Daiso Shops we have in Manila were everything is sold for the same price. Here in the streets, there are bags made in China for 100NTD, sleepwear for 100NTD a set, living room centrepieces like a galloping horse in mid-air cast in plastic for 100NTD. Who could resist not spending 100NTD for a trivial item? And on a shopping day like Sunday? There are also the usual Pinoy snack items like ensaymada, kutsinta and Balut! I was totally surprised to find Balut today because I could only imagine how it was flown in. Did these duck eggs come from someone’s luggage the day before? I stopped by a stall and saw that Mr. Ahwa’s International Phone Cards were selling very well. I used to consume 200NTD a week in my pre-Yahoo messenger days to call home. With Facebook, Skype and Yahoo messenger, these phone cards triggered my memory of long-awaited expectations from my family in the Philippines. We have always set a Sunday time to talk over the phone which lasted exactly 20 minutes per card.

It’s 11:30 am and I headed to Won Won where the whole 2nd floor of an adjacent building from St. Christopher was rented out for Filipino and Fil-Chinese business owners. There, more Philippine goods are on display. I came here not for the Yes! Magazines, Adam & Eve’s Beauty Parlor, Phil-internet Cafe but for the Sunday adobo. No matter how much Taiwan food I have had, I always miss adobo. Here in Won Won, a lot of “point-point stores” offer so much Philippine dishes, reminiscent of SM food courts. An order of adobo, half an order of dinuguan and an order of pinakbet will complete my Sunday Pinoy affair. I have almost forgotten that I had missed mass but I will return later to have a short prayer inside St. Christopher. What used to be my initial church visit has become a trip down Bingo, Won Won and adobo. In conclusion, I believe that trade, food and church seem almost unintentionally tied together to our modern church tradition. After all, each of us miss home so much that a Sunday gathering like this at St. Christopher Church almost always refurbishes the longings in every OFW.

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