Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A Chacun Son Paradis

 Je suis au septieme ciel
Ma tour est plus belle que celle de Babel
Je vais à l'école buissonnière.
Je gère. Et dans la ville j'erre

You didn't know I spoke French, did you? Hah. That's because I only sort of speak it. I used to be pretty good, though. This song brings me back to the late '90s and early naughts, when I was something more akin to fluent in French, and also has a few lines that add, I dunno, chiaroscuro to how I've been feeling these days.

So I was sitting on the MRT this morning, coming back from my morning class, and WHAM!

It occurred to me that, as much as I might seem alright, and as much as I might have convinced myself that I'm alright, that these days I'm really not. I don't mean I'm depressed - I'm not - or even unhappy. Just that, after five plus years of life in Taiwan, I've convinced myself that I'm totally fine, I basically get it (as much as any foreigner in any country can really "get it"), no problem, and pessimism is for the weak, unless it's something really worth critiquing.

Except I was wrong, and I've been wrong for awhile, stuck up in a tower somewhere.

The truth is, I've succumbed in the time since I've returned from Istanbul to an insidious form of culture shock, where you feel like you've assimilated fairly well and gotten things on track, without realizing that there's still a lot that shocks you, a lot that angers you, a lot that you don't understand and a lot that you're not sure you want to understand lest it upset you further.

Instead of acknowledging that consciously, I've been clinging to the things I think are right, and snarking too much on the things I think are wrong, without stopping to think that maybe, sometimes, what I think is wrong.

It's come out in a weird two-barrels-blazing shoot-em-up where half the time I'm Suzy Sunshine, Queen of Optimism About Expat Life, and the other half I'm totally judgmental and close-minded, when really I should know better. At points it's been situational: when you talk to a bunch of sketchy foreign guys in one week, those skankbags make it all to easy to get a little too judgey about foreign guys in Taiwan generally. When Computex is going on and you're teaching classes of mostly male tech guys (who are great guys, mind you) and reading articles about booth babes (I call them Computer Xiaojies), it can make you uneasy about the entire tech industry and sexism in the country where you live - - which isn't going away soon. But then it's not going away in my own country, either.

At other points it's a generalized, simmering anxiety. For example - watching my students work themselves to death and having very little other than my own opinion when asked for - and sometimes when not - to fight back against this systematized and seemingly intrinsic exploitation. While working yourself to the point of exhaustion is a personal choice on the surface, it stops becoming a choice when almost every office job in Asia requires you to do so. In the USA plenty of people give themselves over to work and suffer the consequences of their own volition - but you have the choice not to. Here, you don't. Or rather you do, but it's much, much harder to come by and not possible for everyone. I don't know what to do about that, and have my own work frustrations (love what I do, hate the office), and it does set me on edge more than it should.

I've realized that, half the time, I have no idea what a lot of my local friends think. (I wrote out a bunch of examples here and then deleted them - I have local friends who read this blog and I don't want to be too specific). The only one whose mood and thoughts I feel I can confidently intuit is the very outspoken one who will always tell you what's on her mind.

Add to that a feeling like no opinion I express can be truly "right", and a feeling that, as disgusted as I am with the USA right now, at least it's my culture and country of citizenship so there are more ways for me to get involved. In Taiwan I have opinions, but not always the full story, and very few ways to get involved (and surprisingly little standing to do so). I don't feel detached totally - I feel a strong connection to my friends, my neighborhood, my students and my familiarity with the city - but it does create a feeling of hanging about like some old bit of cloth that has no real use but still hangs around the house anyway because nobody thinks to throw it away.

I don't know where it came from, when exactly it started and definitely not why. My first thought was that Istanbul, in a way that no other city I've visited recently has managed to accomplish, won my heart in a way. I'm not planning to up and move to Turkey, but it's created a weird duality where I'm happy in Taipei and want to stay, but also, oh, to go back to Istanbul. Can't I live in both? In Istanbul I dreamed of riding my bike down the riverside trail and eating wontons in fiery red chili oil. In Taipei, I'd give my left foot for some Turkish fig pudding and good baklava. Also, yoghurt, olives, Turkish coffee and pekmez that don't cost a fortune.

That said, I felt similarly about Cairo - though I like Istanbul more because it's somewhat less polluted, among other reasons -  and got over it more quickly.

So, while that could be it, I also wondered if maybe it's not my mother's health that's causing this. Her diagnosis is the first incident since moving to Taipei that caused me to seriously consider moving home, and mapping out how that would feel and what it might accomplish. It's the first incident that has really shaken me, reminding me that I will eventually have to move home, even though my life is here (or, if not here, then somewhere outside the USA). It's caused me to re-evaluate my life in Taiwan in a different light: as in, Taipei compared to home, not simply Taipei for Taipei's sake.

I don't know how to get over it - all I can say is that I'm going to try. It'll probably be OK in the end. I love Taiwan enough (perhaps my glasses are too rose-colored?), despite its faults (which perhaps I judge overly harshly or incorrectly?) that I am applying for permanent residency. I've figured it out before - how to be happy in Washington, DC when DC had a vibe that absolutely does not work for me - and getting over far more core-shaking culture shock in India. I can do this too.

Anyway, j'ai plein de tours de magie
Pour faire de l'enfer un paradis.


Pierre said...

A person who quotes MC Solaar as a reference in French has all my respect!

I didn't really understand why you quote this song, until the two last lines of your article. Very clever!

I think it's normal to have ups and downs, especially when living in a country like Taiwan.

Call me weak for being pessimistic all the time, yet after three years in Taiwan I'm still there, and counting. I can blame a lot of things, but in the end I still love living in Taiwan, and I still have a lot to explore!

Au fait, comment ça se fait que tu parles français ? Et pourquoi as-tu arrêté ?

Anonymous said...

You don't get over it; you get through it.

John Scott said...

I think I was happier once I gained enough life experience on several continents to finally see that thinking there is one, perfect place for me was a lot like thinking there was one, perfect woman for me.

I learned that there are probably many more than just one, and that finding happiness with whichever one I chose would undoubtably require adjustments, accomodations, AND (most important of all) the realization that 'frequently wonderful' is pretty darn close to perfect.

The thing to avoid at all costs is the rut that so many people fall into, where they appear to be constantly trying to convince people (especially themselves) that they have made the right decision by choosing a particular place, country, person, or religion, etc. over another.

Jenna Cody said...

John - I couldn't agree more. I'm just going through a rough time these days. I mean I am generally happy. If you were to see me in real life you wouldn't say "there goes a depressed soul". But work is giving me problems, there's that family illness which is forcing me to consider life abroad from another angle - I wrote about this in a very personal blog post awhile back on choosing to stay in Taiwan despite the fact that my mother is fighting cancer, and I feel all of this, rather than cause me to look outwardly depressed, is simply turning me into a bit of a jerk. I've been a more judgmental person than I think I really am lately, and that needs to change.

Jenna Cody said...

Pierre, je parle français (ou plutôt, vous pouvez dire que je parlais français), parce que je l'ai étudié à l'école secondaire et l'université. Je me suis arrêté parce que j'ai commencé à voyager en Asie, et apprendre chinois etait la priorité. Au moment où j'ai réalisé que j'avais oublié le français par le chinois, il était trop tard.