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Paddling into Taiwanese Culture

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From Push-ups to Paddling

Hi, I’m Tony, the guy on the left in the “Black Tide” shirt – a smile plastered across my face, barely concealing the nerves and excitement bubbling beneath. I’m an American English teacher in Taiwan, about to experience my first Dragon Boat Festival as a competitor! For 8 years, I’ve lived and taught here, sharing the festival’s magic with my students through stories, sticky rice dumplings (zongzi), and even the occasional YouTube clip. But this year, the festival is taking on a whole new meaning. I’ll be trading my spectator seat for a paddle, joining the heart-pounding action of Taipei’s dragon boat races. I’m training hard for the big race, and let me tell you, it’s a whole new world of early mornings, sore muscles, and a whole lot of camaraderie. Ever heard of a festival that honors a poet with boat races and delicious dumplings? Well, buckle up, because I’m about to take you on a wild ride through my Dragon Boat Festival experience – from push-ups to paddling in the heart of Taipei.

Dragon Boat Racing: A Spectacle of Strength and Spirit

I have learned thus far that Dragon boat racing isn’t just a sport; it’s a symphony of strength and spirit, deeply woven into the fabric of Chinese tradition. The electrifying races are the centerpiece of the Dragon Boat Festival (Duanwu Jie), a time to honor the poet and patriot Qu Yuan, whose legacy resonates through every synchronized stroke. These races are a symbolic tribute to Qu Yuan’s story. Legend has it that when he drowned himself, the locals raced out in their boats to try and save him, or at least recover his body. They even threw rice dumplings (zongzi) into the water to distract the fish from eating his body. So, those intense races you see today? They’re a way to honor his memory, a reminder of the frantic search that took place centuries ago. In Taiwan, these races ignite a collective passion, uniting communities and showcasing the remarkable power of teamwork.

Traditional Rituals: Blessings and Rhythms

The culture of the Dragon Boat is unfamiliar to me in my American roots, but very vibrant and exciting! The air crackles with anticipation as the dragon boats, adorned with vibrant colors and fierce dragon heads, are prepared for battle. Priests offer blessings, their chants mingling with the heady scent of incense, as they pray for the paddlers’ safety and success. The rhythmic pounding of drums reverberates through the air, setting the tempo for the race and stirring the paddlers’ souls. It’s a mesmerizing ritual that connects us to centuries of tradition and fills me with a sense of awe and purpose.

Another essential element of this Taiwanese culture during this festival is the consumption of zongzi (粽子). These pyramid-shaped dumplings are made of glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo leaves and filled with various ingredients such as; meat, beans, and egg yolks. Zongzi symbolizes the offerings made to Qu Yuan’s spirit in the river. The Dragon Boat Festival is steeped in cultural traditions. People often hang fragrant herbs, like mugwort and calamus, on their doors to ward off evil spirits. They also wear colorful silk threads to promote good health and fortune. In some regions, realgar wine, a traditional Chinese alcoholic beverage believed to have medicinal properties, is consumed during the festival.

The Races: A Test of Skill and Teamwork

Dragon boat races are a breathtaking ballet of power and precision. Teams of 22 paddlers, a drummer who dictates the pace, and a steersperson who guides the boat, work in perfect harmony. The sleek, dragon-headed boats slice through the water, each stroke a testament to countless hours of training.

Taiwan’s dragon boat calendar is packed with competitions, culminating in the grand spectacle of the Taipei International Dragon Boat Championships. Teams from around the globe, including universities, clubs, and corporations, gather to test their mettle against the best. Qualifying is no easy feat, requiring a proven track record of skill and dedication.

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Training: From Track Practice to Dragon Boat

Our team is Black Tide 黑潮 (Hēi Cháo), a motley crew of teachers, students, expats, and locals, that has been training relentlessly since April, three to four times a week. We sweat and bond on the NTU track, then take to the waters of Bitan and Luzhou, where the real magic happens. But let me tell you, those HIIT workouts (High-Intensity Interval Training) in our track practice aren’t for the faint of heart. At first, I could barely walk the next day, but after a few weeks, something clicked. My body adapted, and the soreness became less intense. It’s like my muscles were saying, “Alright, Tony, we’re getting the hang of this!”

The Challenge: Balancing Life and Dragon Boats

The early mornings (5-6 AM!) and late nights (7:30 PM) have pushed me to my limits. Balancing dragon boat training with my teaching schedule, private lessons, and even the occasional music gig has been a juggling act. There are days when exhaustion threatens to overwhelm me, but the camaraderie of my teammates and the thrill of the upcoming race keep me going. With practices twice a week, on Saturday and Sunday mornings, it’s definitely put a damper on my weekend warrior lifestyle. No more late nights out – gotta be in tip-top shape for those early morning paddles. But our team keeps us motivated through our Line group, sending out videos of stretches and exercises to prevent injuries. They’re even sharing meal plans to help us fuel up properly. Honestly, it’s made a difference – I feel stronger and healthier than ever.

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Paddling Towards Friendship and Connection

Dragon boat racing is one of the most humbling sports I’ve ever encountered. It’s not about individual glory – it’s not about being the fastest or the strongest individual – it’s about the team, and how well you synchronize with your teammates. Our coaches constantly remind us that the boat’s performance is a direct reflection of our ability to work together seamlessly; we’re only as strong as our weakest link. We’re encouraged to work in sync, to support each other, and to prioritize our health and fitness, so that we can all contribute to the boat’s success. It’s a beautiful thing, to realize that your individual efforts are part of something much bigger. While victory is a goal, it’s not the sole focus of our team. Our paddlers come from diverse backgrounds – Taiwan, America, Mongolia, Germany, Russia, and beyond. Dragon boat racing has united us, forging bonds of friendship and cross-cultural understanding. It’s a testament to the power of sport to bridge divides and create shared experiences. As I prepare for my first race, I’m filled with gratitude for the opportunity to immerse myself in Taiwanese culture, connect with my community here, and challenge myself physically and mentally. Regardless of the outcome, I know this will be an unforgettable journey.
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Join the Celebration!

So, feeling inspired to hop on a dragon boat yourself? Whether you’re in Taiwan or just curious from afar, there are ways to get in on the action. Here in Taiwan, you can find dragon boat teams and clubs pretty easily online. Most cities have them, and they’re always welcoming new paddlers. Just be prepared for early mornings and a whole lot of fun! If you can’t make it to a race in person, don’t worry – many of the bigger competitions, like the one in Luzhou on June 10th (my birthday!), are streamed online. You can usually find them on YouTube or local TV channels. Check out the official websites of the race organizers for more details. It’s a great way to soak in the excitement and cheer on the teams from wherever you are.

I’m Tony Quander. By day, I bring the world of language to life for students of all ages in Taiwan. By night, I trade in textbooks for rap, using music to spread messages of love and appreciation for the people and places that inspire me, like the beautiful island of Taiwan, now my adopted home.

新北市 New Taipei City 6/9 – 6/10 微風運河 (近捷運蘆洲站) Breeze Park (MRT Luzhou)

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