A few weeks ago, my family and I visited our local pharmacy in Holland, MI (my hometown), where there was a new book on display about the town. To our surprise, my picture appeared on the cover. Indeed, the photo credit describes me as a marching band member from the 2004 Tulip Time Parade. Duane Haring appears in the background on snare. It comes as a special sort of satisfaction that my photo was selected among the many possibilities, and that this conservative Midwestern town thereby inadvertently chose an LGBTQ activist to appears on the cover. Another photo of my fellow saxophonist, Ryan Gamby, and I, is shown here, as we perform the klompen dance. Come enjoy Tulip Time in May!
- Singing Scientist Podcast
Fellow musician Danny Katz was kind enough to record my entire set with Martin Leroux for Calm Me Maybe at the Crawfish Akasaka in Tokyo. Among the songs we performed were two great originals by Martin Leroux: Crash and Butterskies. You can see the full set below. Additionally, be sure to check out snippets of amazing original performances by Danny Katz and Lensei. We’d love your feedback!
When they said that music soothed the savage beast, they were clearly talking about this lineup! Come enjoy a night of chill music from The Watanabes, Danny Katz, DieByForty, Lensei, and Martin Leroux with touring musician Chase W. Nelson, at the always fantastic Crawfish in Akasaka.
7:30 – 8:00 : DieByForty
8:10 – 8:40 : Danny Katz
8:50 – 9:20 : Lensei
9:30 – 10:00 : Martin Leroux and Chase W. Nelson
10:10 – 10:40 : The Watanabes
Doors open: 7:00 pm
Check out this important hearing held earlier this year on the status of U.S./Taiwan relations. Despite being an important (and democratic) friend, the United States persists in eschewing responsibility for some key agreements, including the provision of technological updates for Taiwan’s military and the defense of Taiwan’s inclusion in international diplomatic meetings. The bottom line seems to be that the United States wishes not to “make Beijing [China] mad.” Well worth watching for those interested in international politics and democracy.
“We bend over backwards to try not to upset the sensitivities of the Beijing regime. And frankly it irks me. Not that I don’t wish to have good relations with Beijing. We should, but not at the expense of our relations with Taiwan, or not at the expense of our friendship with Taiwan.” -Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY)
冰淇淋 (Bīngqílín) Ice Cream
Above the city in a rooftop apartment bereft of air conditioning, a familiar trickle on my neck serves as a constant reminder that it is water I must drink. The water is not chilled and cannot be in this makeshift abode. It is saturated by the heat, like my body, like my mind. But then, through the fan – could it be? – the familiar jingle! Out on the street, the sine waves resonate off the buildings, closer, closer to the foot of my staircase. This truck plays a haunting Beethoven, but my heart leaps for joy as I imagine the goods inside. Mint Chocolate Chip? Klondike Bars? Perhaps a refreshing mango ice? The cold delicacies demand little interest in a cold Michigan, but this, now, is irresistible. The music approaches and, slipping on my sneakers, I move to meet the truck. It is horror – a cruel joke – as I irrupt from the building, met by young, old, short and tall, and an unpleasant stench. All await a deposit as these citizens follow the sound of the garbage truck at the appointed time with their household waste. They hide it well, but they are amused at the American who was expecting something different.
走路 (Zǒulù) Walk
The small walking man that accompanies the countdown at every pedestrian crossing actually speeds up with 6 seconds left. Watch him go.
I have not used a bathroom in Taiwan that kept the toilet paper for the toilet. Each room in the city, it seems, comes equipped with its own small trash can, meant for depositing the tissue and the excess waste it carries. I followed suit once, on my first day, but could hardly fathom the thought: how many days’ shit does this hold? I have flushed henceforth, excepting a few instances in which exorbitant wiping was necessary. No clogging has occurred at the scene, although I do worry I’ve incited an unseen uprising elsewhere. A Taiwanese friend explains, “most people in Taipei just think it will clog the toilet.” Most public restrooms also come supplied with a small bath for infants. Or else a sort of janitorial washing sink for a wet mop – but why do I have access? A squat toilet? An unprepared mind meets a poop hole.
Pulse leaps and stills. A lingering bliss ferments minute by minute into fresh realization and an ache of commensurate agony. The unrequited hope is familiar; the bliss was not. Myriad thoughts vie for consideration; what please was it that turned away your affection? Or did you even mean the words you spoke with such peculiar thrift? Perhaps they were only a part of the tapestry you wove, the hammock like a warm womb that unraveled in minutes above the ice of your absence in a day forever.
Consume nothing and chew no gum on the MRT (mass rapid transit), i.e., subway.
摩托车 (Mótuō chē) Scooters
Scooters like bees swarm the streets and sidewalks, passing the people, weaving amongst the cars. These lawless, helmeted creatures buzz and soar, traveling in large numbers – and no place is beyond their grasp. Walking across an intersection near Taipei City Hall on my first day in the city, I suppress a howl at the sight: sexy twinks in leather pants, waitresses, and mothers in bonnets all wait in a box, looking forward, faces blank, balancing their motorcycles in perfect seriousness. A month’s time and three (terrifying, or else exhilarating) rides later, the surprise has abated. But the memory of delight revisits from time to time, and I want to live here someday, in this place, with a scooter of my own.
冰淇淋 (Bīngqílín) Ice Cream
走路 (Zǒulù) Walk
摩托车 (Mótuō chē) Scooters
I sit at a restaurant whose name I could surely pronounce if only I could read it. The eggs and shrimp are delicious (hǎo chī), a taste aided in no small part by the cost: US$3. Leehom stares at me from an ad outside the window, and a Chinese version of a Les Miserables song filters a unique color over many memories.
Loneliness has taken me here — to Taiwan, to Taipei, and out of my apartment on this warm and breezy evening. I set out at 9:30pm with my Chinese study materials, searching for a place to sit and ingest some protein (I have finally gone to the gym today). Having been turned away at 10:00pm from one Café Gratzie, whose sign boasts its service through midnight, I undertake an exploration of the Guting neighborhood instead.
Roosevelt Street hides many things, especially at night. Most shops close by pulling metal doors over their storefronts, effectively disguising their identities. To me, the occasional Chinese signage above is no help. Daytime landmarks are erased. I find a 24-hour media center, but it is too expensive and the food is too greasy. Green, healthy food can be difficult to find here. I visit a 7-eleven, found on and between even street corner in the city (Starbuck’s reputation in America is a poor contender for this lime green bulwark). I scan every cold section for a protein drink, but find few convincing pictures, and fewer convincing Englishs.
I visit Shida, the night market area, trying to find a place to study. “Kāi dào jǐ diǎn zhōng?” I ask — “open until what time?” It turns out that most cafés and restaurants, including one provocatively named Insomnia, close by 11:00pm. It is even difficult to find a comfortable bench outside, as the smokers here are ubiquitous.
But it is all very well. The attempt to learn Chinese has exhausted me. I have practiced speaking with Pimsleur Mandarin Chinese II recordings on the 45 minute commutes to and from work every day. I have also begun learn to write basic characters, a real challenge for my left-handed self. Adopting a pseudo-authentic style, I maintain stroke order but often reverse direction, especially on horizontal lines. Perhaps no one in the world will write Chinese quite like me. This could explain why I am always tired. Today was my first real vocal practice since arriving on the Beautiful Island — not like me.
The aloneness and loneliness feel much the same. They remind me who I am. I am the same soul in a different place. The same longing for camaraderie persists. It is always the night. The desire at the end of a hard day’s work to lay my weary head on another’s chest. To be seen and known even in the darkness and the quiet. Of course God is there — but everybody knows we need a person in our lives. Surely, some may have little need for such intimacy, and a lack of such desire is perfectly legitimate; but those of us that need, need one another. The only thing “not good” about Adam, even while his relationship with God was untainted, was his nevertheless being “alone.”
Whether what I seek even exists, it is better to see the new day. It is back, back, for showers and sleepers.
Delicious (Hǎo chī)
How late are you open? (Kāi dào jǐ diǎn zhōng?)
San Diego is the only city in which I have felt, upon first visit, instantly at ease and at home. That has changed. Taipei (Táiběi; 台北), Taiwan (Táiwān; 台灣) is perhaps the most extraordinary city I’ve ever visited, and I already dread leaving. Its people are kind, its food exquisite, its culture diverse, and its hospitality impossible to be outdone. In this entry, I will detail some first experiences, which may also be of use to those visiting Taipei for the first time. One might even consider writing out the Chinese words given here, as they will be useful in everyday interactions — I will try to limit each entry to a manageable number of new words or phrases. If this is of no interest to the reader, s/he may simply pass them by.
- NOTE: the Chinese pronunciations used herein are written with pinyin romanization, despite Taiwan’s lack of use; they use zhuyin, or “bopomofo,” instead. Characters are of the Traditional — not mainland China’s Simplified — form, and are correspondingly not simple. It is important to know that each character represents a single spoken syllable, and may either stand for its own word, or be combined with other characters/syllables to form other words. Only context holds the key to a character’s meaning and, like music, only practice and exposure open the spaces in one’s soul that are necessary for comprehension.
Upon waking my first morning in the city, I am overcome in part by ecstasy and in part by dread. I know very little of the spoken language, and can read perhaps 20 characters (that number will balloon to a mere 30 in a few days’ time — here, I am a literary infant). Moreover, I find myself living in a makeshift rooftop apartment (landmarked by an audacious sex shop — I won’t easily lose my quarters). There is no air conditioning or gas. Not that gas is needed; the place is perhaps 5-10 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than my current residence in South Carolina, USA, and its humidity is truly extraordinary. I sweat right through my cold shower.
Passport, phrasebook, and United States dollars (US$) in hand, I set out to the nearest bank hoping to exchange money. I get 28 National Taiwan dollars (NT$) per US$, and am pleased at my ability to take direction when the teller asks for my “míngzì” (name; 名字). My first opportunity also arises to use what will become my favorite phrase: “Wǒ tīng bù dǒng” (“I don’t understand aurally”; 我聽不懂). I use my new money at a nearby Dante’s Coffee, chosen for the copious use of pictures on the menu. The coffee that accompanies my scrambled eggs is good, and I take advantage of the free internet (miǎnfèi shàngwǎng; 免費上網). I listen to ABBA (Super Trouper) to muster the strength to move on to the subway (MRT).
The anonymity of being in a huge new city that speaks a different language is overwhelming. Strange urges present themselves: to scream in the street, to undertake vocal exercises in public, to sit flat in the middle of the sidewalk and face the excruciating sun. My journaling practices and spiritual life keep me centered on the journey. I reach the MRT and an English-speaking woman directs me to a place to purchase a card. Students get a discounted MRT rate, so I present my ID and receive the student card.
I decide to make my first stop Taipei City Hall, where the famous Taipei 101 building resides. It is easy to find, and I pass through the Xinyi shopping district on my way. In this city of approximately 2.8 million, I also chance upon my dear friend Jo-Han, returning to work from his lunch break. The world feels small, and I continue exploring the area.
Taipei (Táiběi; 台北)
Taiwan (Táiwān; 台灣)
Name (míngzì; 名字)
I don’t understand [aurally] (Wǒ tīng bù dǒng; 我聽不懂)
Free internet (miǎnfèi shàngwǎng; 免費上網)
Shortly after Hurricane Sandy demobilized the Eastern United States coast, the National Science Foundation (NSF) experienced problems with a relatively new fellowship program called EAPSI: the East Asian and Pacific Summer Institutes. Meant to build scientific collaboration between scholars in the United States and Far East, this fellowship funds American students for summer travel, research, and living in Australia, China, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Singapore, or Taiwan. Thanksgiving Day 2012, while visiting my dear friends Michelle and David in Virginia, I learned of this program from an NSF deadline extension following the storm. Having recently submitted several national grants to NSF, and also in a search for summer funding, I felt primed for the task, and spent the next two weeks writing feverishly.
Two choices held appeal: Japan for its rich scholarship in molecular evolution, including the great evolutionists Motoo Kimura, Tomoko Ohta, and Masatoshi Nei, or a Chinese-speaking country (I’d been learning Mandarin as a hobby since college). My advisor (Austin L. Hughes) brought Wen-Hsiung Li to my attention, a National Academy of Sciences USA member who holds positions both at the University of Chicago and at Academia Sinica in Taipei, Taiwan. Having literally written the book on molecular evolution, I quickly learned that Dr. Li was engaging in next-generation DNA research that might help to fill in some of my knowledge gaps and thereby further my doctoral studies. After establishing communication with him – contacting his Chicago rather than Taiwan address set us back a few days – I dove into his research and worked with him to craft a meaningful proposal for the summer. The proposed work would combine his lab’s molecular gene expression studies of corn and rice with my advisor’s bioinformatics work elucidating the mechanisms of molecular evolution.
The EAPSI was the first of my grants to reply in 2013, and I felt its acceptance run over me like streams of living water. It had been a parched Fall semester. Now after weeks of ceaseless travel within the United States, I find myself in the air between Tokyo and Taipei, a sleep-deprived Michigander leaving his country for the first time. I this way I begin my blog and website detailing my life: my evolution research at the University of South Carolina, but also my journey through sexuality and faith, music and creativity, travel, and more. I’m sincerely thankful you’re along for the ride.
Check out this interview with me, published on the website of The Graduate School at the University of South Carolina.
“A Presidential Fellow, Oberlin graduate, and the author of software designed to calculate nucleotide diversity from new DNA data formats, Chase W. Nelson is the recipient of two National Science Foundation grants: the coveted Graduate Research Fellowship and an East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes Award, which will allow him to pursue bioinformatics research at Academia Sinica in Taipei, Taiwan this summer.
We met up with Chase to congratulate him, and to ask him a few questions about his research and how he spends his free time in Columbia…”