Thursday, February 26, 2009

Geographically Polyamorous

(This is almost a stream-of-consciousness bit of writing - be warned.)

Me and the Boy at Dukem Ethiopian Restaurant in DC. If I look tired in that photo, it's because I was.

Reverse culture shock is a bitch.

Now that I've been in Taiwan for almost 3 years, it's doubly hard because I feel it on both ends of the plane ride. Both are home; I love them and I feel weird pangs for them. It's like having two boyfriends, Taiwan and the USA, and India as a fling on the side.

When we got off the plane in New York, I saw Brendan off to the SkyTrain and I took the bus into New York. It began with hearing familiar New York accents on cell phones and seeing the city skyline peep above the buildings as we left Queens (or did we skirt through Brooklyn?) and realizing that I am in a country where I am not a minority. Then there was the cold wind as I entered Grand Central Station and waited at the big clock to meet my friend (and former guy-I-dated) Matthew. The big clock isn't very big at all, and it sits atop an information kiosk in the center of the main hall. All around me, people were waiting. An Asian girl who chatted in flawless English on her cell phone until her friends arrived and the language shifted to Japanese. A tough-looking blond in a long red coat . She wore dark sunglasses despite the fact that it was evening and quite overcast, not to mention that we were indoors. A tall man in a yarmulke throwing staccato yelps into a phone when his business partner failed to arrive. And me, a chubby redhead, waiting for a tall, lanky guy in a suit. Without the benefit of a cell phone, I looked the most uncomfortable. I couldn't seem to stay out of the snake-lines unfurling from the kiosk. Kept shifting the bags at my feet - jute bag from India between my ankles, black duffel in front, awkwardly held backpack.

Eating Italian food as we chatted and heard the train announcements for the Harlem Line, the Hudson Line, the New Haven line. Happy in the security of my relationship, knowing that Brendan wasn't worried in the least about my meeting up with Matthew, who is now happily engaged.

The sounds and smells were all too familiar (I'd once waited in this station at midnight with a friend, avoiding a puddle of vomit on the stairs, as a late-night train took its sweet time to arrive). I'm not even from New York City and already I felt it.

The sound of my parents' white Honda as they picked me up in Poughkeepsie. The crisp, Hudson-smelling air around the train station.

The next morning I awoke with a fluffy black coon cat on my legs; Cinders wanted food and figured I wouldn't know that mom had already fed the cuddly little beasts. The same drafts from the circa-1910 windows, the same creaks of my parents' old farmhouse. I came downstairs to the smell of expensive coffee and the pontifications of some guy on Today Now! With Annoying Cute Blonde and Generic Handsome Man or Good Morning America or Morning Joe or one of those typical morning programs I always associate with a visit home. Why? Because thanks to jet lag, I am invariably awake at the unacceptable hour of 7am to watch them.

Side note: Indonesia has the same kind of programs. Imagine my double-culture-shock when, over breakfast in Sumatra, something along the lines of Good Morning Indonesia came on - complete with generically attractive hosts, trite guests, and rattan furniture set in a studio with large windows overlooking tropical ferns and hibiscus flowers.

Then, of course, there was Honey Bunches of Oats. Honey! Bunches! Of! Oats! With that unique farmer's market milk that my parents always buy. It snowed a bit - snow! Ice! Cold weather! Things I haven't felt or seen for years.

After I went shopping with my parents at Adam's Fairacre Farms (we got the usual - olives, Wensleydale cheese, White English Stilton with mango and ginger, goat cheese, truffle mousse pate, table water crackers, three other kinds of cheese, olives and a bunch of other food I can't remember), we came back and watched, of all things, Antiques Roadshow. Antiques Roadshow! Rainbow, the oldest and weirdest of our cats, curled up on mom's neck like a dead fox stole the way she always does.

My adorable cousin Nikola with plastic wineglass. He's training early in the family art of drinking like Europeans (his mother is an actual European, at least. The rest of us pretend with our wine and our cheese and our British comedies on PBS).

Then I thought: all these little things remind me of home far more than the big things. It wasn't seeing my parents - we talk on the phone often enough - or driving up to our house. It wasn't hearing spoken English around me or not having to communicate in a second language. It wasn't any of the major stuff; all of my reverse culture shock stems from 1910 windows, Honey Bunches of Oats, that particular shade of filtered light and blow of cold river wind that defines the Hudson Valley winter, Good Morning America, the announcements at Grand Central Station and Antiques Roadshow.

DC was another gauntlet of reverse culture shock. We used to live in a lovely wood-floored townhouse off Columbia Pike. My closest friend in DC, M. (her name is very unique so if I post it, it'd be too easy to identify her in real life) still lives on the Pike, but a little further up. The sound of Spanish, Amharic, Moroccan Arabic and other languages being spoken around me brought back some memories; the Ethiopian breakfast we enjoyed at Dama brought back others with its dark, jammy coffee and selse - spiced eggs with crusty bread. The Lideta Gebeya where we picked up berbere spice to make my famous Ethiopian chicken satay and the "Esoterico" store next door that sells Peruvian spices, plastic saints, old baskets, fifteen million kinds of dried beans, general religious accoutrements for your home shrine, and trinkets galore. The sushi restaurant next to the Cinema and Drafthouse, which shows second-run movies and cold beer. Mrs. Chen's Kitchen of Delicacies, serving horrific and wonderful American Chinese, Altacatl Salvadorean Restaurant, El Pollo Rey, Rappahannock Coffee, Bob&Edith's, Bangkok 54...and the #16 bus that cuts through it all. I love that neighborhood - the fact that it is not rich and nowhere near gentrified, it's cool but not hip (rather like Taiwan), it's honest and working class, and generally safe - you can tell from its age and diversity that it is very, very real. I can only hope it doesn't become chi-chi. Arlington does not need another Crate&Barrel or Wolfgang Puck, and I don't want to see it turned into a fake-funky U Street.

U Street - I love the place but it's gotten a bit gentrified. Lines of white folks at Ben's Chili Bowl! Overpriced Ethiopian food (whaaa?)! U-Sushi and Mocha Hut. Gah.

Brendan and his cousin David, who is showing off his $2.50 can of Coke. Two-fitty? What?!

We held a dinner party our first night there, with Dana and Ernesto as hosts and M. as the organizer. Whenever someone had a question - "what's this?" "Why is Jenna in the kitchen?" "There sure is a lot of wine, isn't there?", "What is that smell?"- the answer was inevitably "It's a Jenna Party!". These are the parties that have become iconic through the years: foreign food, a guest list that starts at 8 and caps at 15 or so, laughter and dirty jokes, horrendous board games for which we should never be judged in the afterlife, slight but becoming drunkenness that is funny, rather than embarrassing, the next morning. We made Ethiopian Chicken Satay served with injera, hummus, Iranian salad, Iranian rice, olives and a vegetable plate, brie and baguettes, and a chocolate truffle cake (triple the cocoa for any basic chocolate cake recipe, and add some liquor and extra cream. Make two. Brush with alcohol reduced with preserves or sugar. Spread the top of the first cake with a thick layer of truffle batter (chocolate, cream, butter, spices and alcohol), place second cake on top. Pour heated pure chocolate flavored with more alcohol on top. Allow to cool and decorate with confectioner's sugar, cinnamon, cocoa and truffles made with leftover batter. Use only dark chocolate. Any alcohol will do - I usually use Godiva chocolate liqueur and flavor with amaretto, Frangelico or Chambord.)

Me, Judy, Brendan and Beth in Crystal City.

I freaked out in a Target while I was home. It's just so...big. Fifty hundred jabillion kinds of moisturizer. An entire rack of different kinds of licorice. Do you want this kind of toilet paper, that kind, or one of the two hundred other kinds? We ran rings around the store looking for some basic items. Clothes that actually fit! Trying to get anywhere was like doing laps across a football field of merchandise through wide, pearly aisles. Whoa. I thought I might be coming down with Target-induced epilepsophrenia, so we finished up our shopping and left.

American airport security - "Why are you going to Taiwan?" "We work there." "So you both live in Taiwan?" "Yes." "Can you prove it?" we hand over our ARCs, which we are pretty sure the check-in clerk can't even read.

M., her boyfriend Tom and Beth at Dukem on U Street

The problem with traveling is that I like almost everyplace I go. That means I form attachments easily, and maintain them with several places. I'm describing reverse culture shock from visiting the USA, but the truth is I feel it almost everywhere I go for the second time. I spent a semester in India years ago and still feel a little jolt whenever I return; rickshaws and aluminum tumblers filled with foamy coffee, strings of jasmine and marigolds and masala dosa on flat platters or banana leaves. Milk sweets! Charmingly archaic Indian Newspaper English. Long-distance train trips in 3-tier sleeper cars. Shock when I see how things have changed; fewer people on the streets begging, more people looking as though they enjoy three square meals. More paved roads, more ATMs. You can buy train tickets and reserve mid-range hotels online now. More honesty. A glittering shopping center and a few funky bars off MG Road in Bangalore. At least there still seems to be livestock everywhere. I think I'd cry if that went away.

I felt it in Japan - we only spent 45 minutes in the airport, but in that 45 minutes a lot came back. White-gloved security personnel who maintained a brisk pace through the X-ray and baggage screening, and who had painstakingly memorized questions in English ("Are you carrying any riquids or flammable items?"). Bathrooms that smell of mint chocolate and sinks emit a perfectly warm stream of air and freshly cented foamy soap. Duty-free shops chock full of consumer goods - Chivas Regal for the men, Coach and Dolce for the women, and Japanese fans, jackets, kimonos, soaps, tea, shoes, dolls, paper, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. for the foreigners - all staffed by perfectly attentive sales clerks in pristine uniforms who beckon you inside. Signs that say "Welcome to Japan" in English, but "Welcome Home" in Japanese.

And I felt it again in Taiwan - Huanying Guanyiiiiiin! from the duty-free shops. The damp, cool air of midnight as we left the airport. Guo-Guang airport bus. That particular sound of traffic as it burbles around Taipei Main Station at all hours of day or night. The little beepy sounds that the taxis make, and the beaded seatcovers that drivers favor. Roosevelt Road late at night, light wind and the threat of rain. Even at night, you can tell its cloudy. Two quick dinners from 7-11, which is glittering and bright, unlike its ghetto brethren in the USA. Speaking Chinese at the cash register. The particularly whiny meow of Zhao-Zhao and the chicken coop down the street as its doomed inhabitants settle in for the night. The red-and-yellow glow of a Wellcome sign on the wet streets. Waking up to Coughing Old Man, Roosevelt Road traffic, chirping birds and Zhao-Zhao, who wants to catch them. The particular smell of apartments and cement that wafts in our window on the soft dawn breeze. I have jet lag again, and I can't sleep. This time, there is no Today Now! show to wake up to, and only one cat to feed.

It was a great trip, but I'm happy to be back...home? Is it home? I love all of these places and I'd like to call them all home. Is that even allowed? If I spend a month in Vietnam getting my CELTA certificate and love that too, does it qualify as 'cheating'? If we realize our dream (well, my dream but Brendan likes the idea) of volunteering for a few years in an Indian village as teachers, is that a betrayal of Taiwan? If I stay in Taiwan forever and don't move back to the USA, is that a betrayal of my native country? Is geographical polyamory acceptable?


MJ Klein said...

airport security asked you why you're going to Taiwan, and to prove you live there?

wow, i've never been asked anything of the sort, ever. but i've only been to the US two times in the last 5 years. looks like the Police State mentality has really gained ground since.

Jenna said...

They asked us why we were going to Taiwan, and to produce visas. When we did, and showed that the visas we have are multiple entry and valid for one year, they asked why we had such visas. We told them the truth; we live here...and I produced my ARC without being asked. Then the clerk asked Brendan to produce his ARC. "You BOTH live in Taiwan?" she asked, as though she didn't believe us.

Obviously if I had produced a different kind of visa, I wouldn't have been asked that, although I suspect we still would have been asked what our purpose was and possibly to prove it (if we were going on business or as students, for example). I don't know that for sure, of course. She asked some other people in line who did not have our kind of visas if they had return or onward tickets.

Police state, indeed. Maybe Immigration in Taiwan recently refused someone entry and sent them back, and they feared a recurrence. I don't know.

Sasha said...

there's no betrayal of any countries. the point is that you love them and enjoy the time there.we all belong to this lonely planet. sometimes i wonder what life would be if you move back to the states or other country.probably we don't have any chance to meet since your leaving or my leaving.but it's an lovely moment we could spend time here in Taiwan.