Monday, August 15, 2016

A time to break down


I've been working for awhile on a story-like version of this topic: true events told in a narrative about my time away from Taiwan in 2014 and 2015 and subsequent return. But recently two people I know (a friend and a friend-of-a-friend) have taken or will take similar flights, so I felt like writing something more essay-like about it now. Look for the story in a month or two.

Most recently, I returned to the US for one week in order to attend a family reunion, as well as pack up my entire childhood. The reunion and other family visits were especially important as I have two living grandparents, both of which are near 90 and neither of which is in good health. It is a painful fact that every visit I make home could be the last time I see either or both of them.

In 2012, a few years before my mom passed away, she had expressed an interest in the various old and attractive, but not particularly valuable, antique decorative items I'd purchased for my apartment in Taiwan: mostly old carved wooden panels used to decorate the tops of walls and under eaves in houses and temples. So, I bought her a similar panel with carved peaches (symbols of long life) and a stylized 'long life' (壽) character, as we were returning to the US for Christmas that year. It turned out to be our final family holiday together before she passed away in 2014. The irony of this does not escape me.

This past week, after learning that our dad planned to rent out our family home and the house I grew up in for at least a year, and potentially sell it after that time, I asked if I could have the panel rather than see it go into storage. It was an easy request as I'd purchased it to begin with.

With too much in the suitcase, including books, large photo albums and other items, the fragile wood of this panel just couldn't take the pressure. As I was closing the back, I heard a crack. The cut was not a complete severance and could be repaired, but I didn't want it in that suitcase. I put it in my carry-on as gingerly as possible, only for the breakage to complete itself as that bag, too, was overstuffed.

When I took it out of its (inadequate) padding back in Taipei, only to see it completely severed, I was reminded of a favorite song of my mother's which my uncle sang at her memorial service:

A time to build up, a time to break down
A time to dance, a time to mourn
A time to cast away stones
A time to gather stones together
I couldn't help but draw some weird symbolic analogies to my long-term expat life - literally as far away as it is possible to go from my hometown - and that antique wooden panel. Bought in Taiwan, gifted to my mother in the US, only for its hope of long life to be dashed in a few remaining years and to crack on the way back to Taiwan, as I leave the home I grew up in quite possibly for the last time.

As you know if you read this blog even semi-regularly, my flight home in 2014 was sudden: I'd planned on leaving for up to a year, maybe two, but wasn't scheduled to depart on the day I did. I knew as I left for the airport with a few hours' notice that whatever happened would not be good: I didn't know if I'd have a few hours, a few days, a few months or a few years with my mom, but no matter how long I did have, I knew I was flying back to the US to say goodbye. As it turned out, within two days, maman est morte

Less than a year later, just before I was set to return to help my father after his heart surgery, I lost my grandmother somewhat suddenly (we'd known it wouldn't be long but we didn't know it would be quite so soon).

What I've become more aware of in the intervening year and a half is that I am not nearly the only expat or immigrant who has experienced that situation. Many of us who live abroad long-term and likely some of us who don't stay for that long in the grand scheme of things take that same flight. They're lucky in a sense if they do: not everyone can. I could return for my mother but there was no way for me to have done the same for my grandmother, as much as I wanted to.

It's a part of expat life that few talk about: if you choose to live far away long term, there is a chance the next time you see your loved ones 'back home' might be the last time, that you might have to take an unplanned 12-hour flight to say goodbye, or that there is a chance you could be half a planet away knowing there is nothing you can do.

What is even less discussed is the feeling of breakage that comes from this time away. Many of you know I no longer consider the US to be my home. I haven't for awhile but haven't been able to articulate it until recently. We may not stay in Taiwan forever - let's see if this country can get its act together on immigration and labor reform - but if we leave it will be to go forward, to somewhere new. I am married to a Canadian citizen after all. But if you plan to go forward that necessarily means you won't be going 'back', though it feels cruel to put it that way. If you don't go back, a crack forms between your life before and your life ahead. Given time, and despite one's best efforts, the crack will eventually turn into a break. Even if you keep in close touch with people back home, the number of times you will see them again in your life is reduced by your living so far away, and the amount of time you will spend with them before they, too, leave either your life or this world is necessarily less.

Does that 'goodbye' flight make up for such a trade-off? You must go forward, or at least, I must. The answer is not to stay behind, but you must also be aware of the consequences. You do not know when your 'goodbye' flight will come, or if you will be able to take it. You don't know when the crack will form, or when it will turn into a severance. You can pack as carefully as possible, pad yourself against all manner of unfortunate events, but they will find you. None of us living abroad are exempt from the 'goodbye' flight. None of us are exempt from the breakage.

It is easy, while living a relatively charmed existence in Taiwan, where my salary (as much as I complain about it, with reason I think) affords a comfortable lifestyle of downtown living, further education and travel, to pretend that every time is a time to dance. To pretend that I am a 21st century Meursault - that we are all little dancing Meursaults staring at the sky or the sun or whatever - that nothing between humans matters as much as the immediacy of life and nature, that only the constant forward-moving pace of the universe makes sense and nothing else can be explained rationally.

But, whether or not there is truth in such absurdity, human relationships do matter. You make new ones abroad: it's fairly common to write about this positive side of expat life. You meet all sorts of interesting people, not least among them local residents of your new country. And we all know that our relationships back home may cool due to this distance. But we like to pretend that there is no permanent consequence to this moving forward, that good relationships can always renew themselves. Generally, they can, but only if the people you leave behind are still alive when you come back.

This is an acute feeling while you are actually home. Living in the US in 2015 was like functioning with my arm chopped off (left or right, depending on the day). I was still alive, in a great deal of pain but able to get through the day and even keep other peoples' lives together as I planned my mom's memorial service, but something was just missing. I wasn't able to function normally due to this missing thing, this absence where there should be presence. Living in Taiwan, it's easy to forget that it happened at all. Any given day now in Taiwan is no different from any given day before late 2014 when I might not have talked to my parents (we talked frequently, but not on a daily basis).

It would be easy to pick right back up as though life was as before. It's almost eerie how nothing in Taiwan has changed even as I know rationally there is no reason for it to have. That's the other side of the expat life coin: after a monumental change or loss where you come from, the only change you see when you return to your country of residence is in you.

Back 'home', things have changed quite a bit. Others feel your loss, or rather, that loss is also felt by others. Their possessions are still around, in many cases. Whatever they built in their life still is, too. People offer memories or sympathy. The place where they lived, where you come from, has changed, even if just a tiny bit. Return to your new home, and that loss is not felt by most others (in my case, my sister - also in Taiwan - and husband were mourning, too). They can't miss someone they never knew, and a place that person never set foot in obviously wouldn't change because they are gone.

It's tempting and easy to try and avoid returning to a place where you feel your arm has been cut off by staying in a place where you can be whole-bodied if you want to be. To pretend that the breakage you've suffered, the human relationship you've lost, doesn't have as big an impact because it doesn't impact the immediacy of life and sensation in your new home.

I can't do that though. I don't regret moving abroad (it would also be easy, but futile, to wallow in regret). It is natural to move forward. To seek your fortune, in whatever form it takes, wherever it can be found. Go East, young woman. 

In order to atone for all of the time I didn't spend where I grew up, that I didn't see my mother or grandmother, all of the times I wasn't there rolled up into one goodbye flight I could take and one I couldn't, and to acknowledge that the same circumstances will present themselves again at some point in the not-too-distant future, it sometimes helps to spend some meditative time with my arm, figuratively speaking, behind my back.

So, today I broke out my arts and crafts tools, including the appropriate type of glue to repair wooden items, and set about gluing that antique wooden panel back together so I can hang it in my apartment here in Taipei.

The break will always be noticeable: it's my own fault for trying to carry it to the US and back in the first place. But then if I hadn't gone abroad I wouldn't have bought the panel at all. My mom knew that my move abroad was my own move forward and, as hard as it was, supported it.

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