Showing posts with label going_home. Show all posts
Showing posts with label going_home. Show all posts

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Some American Things Are Good (...but only some)

Awhile ago, I wrote a draft blog post about reasons why I'd never move back to the USA. It had stuff on it like "the pervasive gun culture makes me feel unsafe, as much as gun owners yammer on about how it's perfectly safe. Sorry, it's not" and "I LIKE HEALTH INSURANCE and America still sucks for that".

I never published it, having an inkling that something was up with my mom's health and that I may in fact have to move back for awhile - - and lo and behold (and unfortunately), I was right. I didn't want to look at my indefinite move home in a negative light: I wanted, and still want, to think of it in the most positive terms possible even though deep down I don't really want to leave Taipei for that long, at least not for the Hudson Valley (leaving Taipei for a year for an exciting destination like London or Hong Kong would be different) and without Brendan.

Please don't mistake this as not wanting to go home. I am thrilled that I can do this for my mom, and I truly want to be there. But let's be clear: that's for her. The region I'm moving to? Eh. Away from my husband for a year? WAAH.

That said, in wanting to think of this positively, I've compiled a list of reasons why moving back to the USA won't be so bad. Maybe someday I'll publish my more negative list, but not now.

1.) It will be a break from work and something new

I've never lived in the Hudson Valley as an adult, so that will be an experience. And there are college towns and antiquing days (I know, I'm a New York yuppie without the money or the address) and vineyards and hikes and such. And everyone needs a break from work, even when you love your work. That said, I'll be continuing many of my private lessons online. So it won't be so much a break from work as "something new".

2.) Seasons!

I'm not excited about the return of the Polar Vortex (I'm psychologically allergic to cold, which is one reason I moved away), but I am excited about things we don't get in Taipei, like fall foliage (if I'm there long enough), big fluffy sweaters, snow and distinct seasonal changes.

3.) Food

I can get almost everything I want in Taipei, but it will be nice go to back to affordable good cheese, a variety of olives, well-cooked Western food that I didn't make myself or get at Whalen's or Zoca, and a full-size oven. It will be nice to take trips to New York City and DC for food I can't get in Taipei, like South Indian (which I actually can get, but only at one place) and Ethiopian. I'm definitely not complaining about that.

4.) Access to friends

I do miss my friends back in the USA - I have maintained those relationships by visiting once a year, but it will be good to have the chance to hop on a bus or train to go see them a little more frequently (I have just one friend in the Hudson Valley, but I have many more in New York, Boston and DC).

5.) Crappy TV

Taiwan definitely has this, but it's a different sort of TV. One of my darkest secrets (okay not really) is that I have a morbid fascination with shit-tacular television. Think pap-smeared "and today Ellie Goldilocks will be teaching us how to use paper clips - yes, paper clips! - to make perfect Christmas bows. And then, Crumbles the Chimp will talk about his upcoming memoir, 'A Chimp's Life'" - morning shows, horrible reality shows in which eating-disordered women fight to marry a guy they don't even know, local can't get this crap in Taiwan and yet I find it so deeply, well, "entertaining" isn't the word, maybe masochistic schadenfreude-sort-of-entertaining?

6.) Clothes that fit!

Even when I go to plus size stores in Taipei (something I don't actually have to do in the USA, but here I'm like a giantess), nothing fits. It's all made for women less curvy and shorter than me: think older Taiwanese women. Forget underclothes. Just forget them. At least in the US I can shop in regular stores and buy things that fit in more flattering styles, patterns and fabrics.

7.) Being able to deal with things without time zones or international charges

You know who is not very friendly to expats? Student loan organizations. Just try paying them back from abroad: it's almost impossible to get ahold of mine internationally (it can be done but I am usually on hold so long that I give up), and they won't accept payments from foreign bank accounts so I have to send money home frequently. It's a pain in the butt, and other institutions are not much different (just try getting something that needs to be notarized by an American notary to the USA, or getting people to send your mail to the right place, or dealing with anything where they ask you to fax something, which still happens, surprisingly). It will be nice to be able to take care of that stuff from within the USA and without the pressure of time.

8.) Having at least some not-outdated knowledge of American pop culture. 

You know when I found out 'basic' was a thing? Like two weeks ago, after it was brought back into cultural consciousness. Not that I am a better person for knowing what it is, but I find out about everything like six months after it's passe. Which is OK, I don't need to be on-trend, but I at least like to know what trends I'm ignoring!

And yes, I am kind of basic, except not. I do like crap TV and flavored lattes after all.

* * *

Well, that's about it.

Only 8 things.

Better than none, right?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Queens of Kingston

I figure I'll say this now, so I won't have to worry about it later.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post about choosing to stay abroad, as an expat with an established life, despite my mother's battle with cancer (endometrial that, despite a hysterectomy, spread to her lung over a decade later). I can't find that post now, but when I do, I'll link it. With a prognosis of "we have many treatments and it could be several years", it made sense to stay, and to prioritize visiting at least once a year, if not always at the same time of year.

Well, that's changed. The treatments were all successful - for a time. She had proton therapy, and it took care of the cancer in her lung. She felt great. We all were high with hope that she'd be around for another decade or more.

But it came back - this time in her lymphatic system. All treatments with a hope of remission have been exhausted, now there's only palliative/stabilizing treatment. Is there an outside chance it could truly stabilize? Sure. Is it likely? Well...

Anyway the prognosis is "about a year" - maybe a little more, maybe a little...less.

So, I've made the choice to move home. Not permanently, but still, I'm going to have to find work etc. and get used to life in the Hudson Valley. I'll probably end up working in Poughkeepsie, Kingston, White Plains...who knows. I'm going to leave just before Christmas.

At least, everyone else seems to think it's a choice. I have a husband, a career, an apartment and two cats in Taipei: I suppose theoretically I could have made the decision to stay and just visit. But I don't see how that's a viable option - moving home is the best of a raft of choices made under terrible circumstances.

Brendan will stay in Taipei and look after the apartment and cats - he'll probably get a roommate for our lovely, but tiny (and yet surprisingly outfitted with storage) guest room to help with rent. So, uh, if you know someone who needs a furnished room, especially if they don't want to stay very long term but are here to study Chinese or something, send 'em our way.

I'll be back...whenever I'm back. Between the cats, the apartment and the double unemployment, I don't see how we can both make the move right now, when we intend to continue our life in Taipei. We'll try to figure out a way for him to visit a few times, although it's going to be hard, as we're basically draining our savings to send me home, right at a very inopportune time. Well. We started from scratch after Turkey (we needed to take that trip - not only for my lifelong dream of going to my ancestral homeland on Musa Dagh but also to get our CELTA certificates). We can do it again. If there is one thing we are both good at doing, it's finding and pressing the reset button.

My sister will also be moving home - who knows for how long.

So what about me? And, for the purposes of this post, what about any settled expat who finds themselves in this situation?

Well, I find it really helps to:

1.) Look at the one more-or-less good thing to come out of the whole nightmare. If you have more than one thing, great. For me, it's that rather than a hellish surprise, we have a "prognosis". What that prognosis is is a sign saying, "this is literally the worst thing ever, but you get to know in advance so you can spend time with your loved one". At least I have this year. A tragedy like a car accident is horrible in that you just don't know - you'll never know when you say goodbye if that's the last time you'll ever see that person. A prognosis means that you have the time to make a decision and to make the most of the time. I'd much rather that than a phone call in the middle of the night.

2.) Own your decision. I am not doing this for work, and I'm certainly not doing it for my marriage (although that is strong - very strong, probably one of the strongest ones you might come across. If there's one thing I have 110% faith in, it's that Brendan and I will be okay). I have to put my education on hold. My sister and I are doing this so that we can treat our mom like a queen for the next few months, and have family time we would not have otherwise gotten. Knowing that, when I say "own your decision", I really mean it. My job prospects are better in New York, where I could easily get a job in a language center. I wouldn't be any sort of New York elite but I could live on that. But what "own your decision" means isn't "decamp for New York City because the Hudson Valley has terrible job prospects for my qualifications, and I don't want to work in Kingston anyhow", but "I'm doing this for my mom, so I need to be near my mom". And that means the Hudson Valley if at all possible - not New York. That means living at home if I can. If I have to wait tables or scrub floors, I will (although it is a truly unfortunate restauranteur who hires me to wait tables - I'm a terrible waitress). You can't half-ass something like this. To quote the ever-quotable Simpsons, you've got to use your whole ass.

3.) Don't overthink it. It is not possible to "do the math" and think of an optimal time to come home, because that's not how prognoses work. You just have to pick a time and do it, and not think too much about the variables, because you can't predict them. You can't predict if it'll be 8 months or 2 years. You can't predict exactly what kind of work you're going to do or how you're going to get there (my biggest worry is transportation - I'm not a confident driver and we don't have an extra car anyhow. My sister is going to try to source one, and we're going to do our best to carpool). You can't know exactly how much money you'll need - you just have to do what you can and figure out what's possible from the options life hurls at you at any time. I'm lucky - I know my family will give me a roof over my head and food in my stomach, and that my sister and I will stick together through this - which mostly involves my making sure she is financially okay, and her making sure I have transportation as I'm not a confident driver. Not everyone is so lucky, but it really is about accepting a level of ambiguity in how the future will play out, and being ready to re-evaluate at any time from the options at hand.

4.) Don't expect much. This is an offshoot of "don't overthink it". Life hasn't handed you the option of finding a job you like near your family that will allow you to save money, until it does, if it does. It hasn't handed you a graduate school scholarship, nor has it handed you (okay, me) tuition for Delta Module 2 in New York. So it's unproductive to expect that those things will fall from the sky for you, or that you are entitled to them (if someone reading this is ever in my situation, you probably aren't that concerned about Delta Module 2, but I am). As above - if your priority is your loved one, then own that, and everything else can be compromised on.

So, what else?

Well, I will be back. Don't give up on my little blog just yet.

In order to keep some sense of normalcy until I go, I'll keep doing what I usually do, so you can expect updates here.

I'll occasionally blog while I am away, but it might be largely quiet. I do want to maintain some sort of connection to Taiwan.

And, does anyone know where I can confirm for absolute certain that I can leave Taiwan for up to 5 years without losing my APRC? It used to be 6 months. I need to know, as I may well be gone for more than 6 months (I would be heartbroken to be away from Brendan, but overjoyed at getting more time with my mom if so - with emotions like that, it's hard to feel anything other than numb).

Oh yeah, and:

5.) Know that you are making the right decision. If you're an expat with a terminally ill close family member or loved one, what would you regret more: spending the time you have with that person, creating lots of memories, or staying abroad, knowing you may only see them once more, if ever again? Most likely you'll regret the latter more than the former. You could make an argument for staying - I think a lot of people with families, even if they don't have children, might - but, hey, I don't know about you, but I know I'd regret not going.

Oh, hey, and if anyone knows of any good ESL teaching jobs in the Hudson Valley, send 'em my way.

Thursday, January 10, 2013


The wine-prepared crab at Jesse will change your life

I have some heavier topics to write about, but I'm just not feelin' it today. So, what I will say is that while I was away from Taiwan, I spent those weeks eating and drinking very well. Although this post isn't Taiwan related, as a foodie I feel like sharing some of the deliciousness I found abroad.

Jesse - First stop, Shanghai. Our flight was with China Eastern, which is not exactly a fantastic airline to take transpacific flights with - they don't give you individual TVs, the food is mostly OK, somewhat "eh" and a few items were downright inedible (that said, the hot bread rolls were great) and the movie selections on the overhead TVs are terrible. Otherwise it's fine, about the same as flying with any other airline. Because we had to transfer in Shanghai, we decided to plan our trip so as to spend a full day there (if you don't do this, China Eastern gives you a free hotel room, which we got on the way back. If you do, you have to book your own accommodation). I lived in China for a year but never went to Shanghai, so this was a chance to rectify that.

Taro in chive oil

We didn't eat much in the daytime, as our sightseeing made it difficult to get to restaurants during mealtime/opening hours. Our breakfast was Cafe 85, our lunch a snack at Starbucks (I don't really care for Starbucks but it was there and we needed the caffeine). For dinner, someone on Lonely Planet's erstwhile Thorn Tree helped me get reservations at Jesse, one of the best, and most famous, purveyors of Shanghainese cuisine in the city.

Braised pork

It was amazing. We tried gluten-stuffed Chinese red dates, cold salted chicken, braised pork (the fatty kind in the sweet, sticky sauce), eggplant in the same sauce, taro stewed in chive oil, cold-cooked crab (raw crab prepared ceviche-style in shaoxing wine) and the famous braised fish head in fried spring onions with cold Qingdao beer.

Delicious gluten-stuffed red dates in a flavorful glaze

Words cannot express how delicious the food was. The crab was breathtaking - the portion small and meat hard to get to (crab is like that) but the succulent meat you did get was so packed with memorable flavor, it'll make you salivate forevermore every time you think of it after you try it. In fact, I'm drooling right now. They tried to take it away as I was scraping the last of the roe and fat from the shell and my face briefly turned hideous and Gollum-like: you cannot take away MY PRECIOUS. Hiss. The braised pork (紅燒肉) had an undertow of complex flavor beneath the heavy sweet-savory flavor of the red sauce, and the meat was delectably tender. The gluten-stuffed dates were little red gems of delight. Imagine if pearls and rubies had flavors, each flavor delicious in its own way, and someone served you pearl-stuffed rubies for dinner. Like that. The taro was served in small half-rounds and was cooked to perfection: not too hard, not too sticky. It was velvety smooth in a buttery sauce redolent with chive, so rich it was like eating, well, liquefied velvet.

The codfish head in fried spring onions might be the most delicious thing in all of Shanghai

Glamour Bar - Later that evening we decided to have a drink, what with nightlife being the best part of Shanghai, despite our exhaustion and it being a Monday night. Glamour Bar is on the Bund - usually not my style, I'm not a Big Famous Nightspot In A Big Famous Place sort of gal, but rather a quiet pub, cafe or bistro with good drinks and food person - but despite its too-fancy address, it was accessible, well-known and walkable from our hotel. We only had one drink each - we were genuinely too tired for more and had already decided to take a taxi back to our hotel - but what I had was truly memorable: a cardamom mojito. Basically, a mojito with cardamom syrup. It sounds like it wouldn't work, it shouldn't work, it can't work, no way! - but it does. It was sublime. If you're ever in Shanghai I recommend stopping in just to sample that drink.

Also, for the Art Deco decor, including a huge round beveled mirror, the wine bar (which I want to check out someday), and drinks, snacks and water served in Art Deco etched glass.

The Art Deco fun of Glamour Bar

Cafe Gulluoglu New York - Gulluoglu is the famous baklava maker from the baklava and pistachio (fistik) capital of Turkey, Gaziantep. We stayed in their hotel while there and ate their divine baklava several times, and pounced on it when we saw it elsewhere in Turkey. Forget the sweet, sticky, hard-to eat stuff that just tastes of sugar. This manages to be sweet and soft but also flaky, with perfectly turned phyllo dough, pliant and flavorful pistachios (also, try the sour cherry visneli baklava, and grab a can of sour cherry juice. The stuff is addictive). I nearly wept tears of joy when we came upon Gulluoglu's Manhattan branch, not far from Rockefeller Center. We just had to go in, despite not being terrible hungry after lunch. You can get other food at Gulluoglu New York, but I recommend just filling up on baklava and getting a Turkish coffee, or two, or three.

By the way, anyone know where I can get good baklava in Taiwan? I have never been able to find it.

Veselka Bowery - (They have their own website but I can't get it to load) - this well-known Ukrainian establishment has expanded, and they now have branches beyond the original East Village location. The decor in the one on Bowery is simple and modern, with big windows and long, wooden tables. The pierogi are spectacular, with flavors you wouldn't imagine when cooking up the frozen cheese-and-potato basics in most supermarkets. Potato and cheese is there, but so is short rib and beet with goat cheese. We got a sampler, as well as some deviled eggs (two caramelized onion and bacon, two smoked salmon and caviar) and I got borscht. Another friend got potato-leek soup and truffle fries, because she clearly loves a well-done potato. This differs a bit from the menu online, but it was what was available when we were there.

I highly recommend the place - if you want something unique but don't want to go too weirdly ethnic, or have dining mates who aren't into things like tentacles, raw meat and hot sauce, but want a stellar meal, this is a great choice. Also, really nice to get good pierogies and borscht, two more hard-to-find things in Taiwan.

Nocturnem Drafthaus - Belgian beer is all over the place in Taipei, but we still enjoy drinking it and trying brands not as common or not imported to Taiwan. We found this place on New Year's Eve in Bangor and sidled up to the bar for some St. Feuillen Noel and Green Flash Double Stout  (Brendan had cider as he was driving later that evening). Always nice to find good beer places in smaller towns.

Dysart's and Governor's - I include these two because they're Maine culinary staples (we also went to Tim Horton's and got whoopie pies at a gas station, by the way). Dysart's is a truck stop outside Bangor that has turned into a popular restaurant in its own right, with preservative-free breads and desserts and the best corned beef hash, well...ever. Also, don't miss the cinnamon rolls. You can substitute them for toast with your meal, if you want to be super healthy! Governor's has solid, standard American fare - the thing that really recommends it is their desserts. They make a scrumptious graham cracker crust pie, and their mint chocolate chip pie has a similar crust...but in chocolate. Also, the gingerbread looks unforgettable.

Meskerem - (warning - the site plays music) - another thing you can't get in Taiwan is Ethiopian food. Trust me, I looked. We have a little tradition of always going to this restaurant in Adams-Morgan after our friends pick us up at the airport, which they pretty much always do, for a delicious dinner we can't get in Taipei. I recommend the kitfo, and get it super rare, even go raw, tartare-style, if you dare. The Yedoro Wat and Yebeg Alecha are also great. I liked the shurro wat (milled chick peas in berbere sauce) although our friend was less impressed. I strongly recommend getting a bottle of tej - honey wine, like mead - with your meal, and trying to sit at the more traditional low tables on the righthand side of the restaurant.

Another good place for Ethiopian is Dama on Columbia Pike, near the Sheraton. Go in the morning for Ethiopian coffee and pastry, or their range of Ethiopian breakfasts (foulle - fava beans with spices,  onion and tomato - and baguette is my favorite, and there is also a spicy egg dish that's great) - enter in the side through the market, not the main door. Don't worry if you're the only non-Ethiopians there. I often was when I lived nearby and nobody ever made me feel weird or unwelcome. In the same complex is Dama's restaurant, which consistently serves up superb Ethiopian, the best in Arlington if you ask me, and patronized by the local Ethiopian community. It's definitely not on the tourist or yuppie urbanite maps: I found this place because I lived right down the street for a few years.

Tallula - fine southern-inspired cooking with a fantastic brunch in north Arlington (Metro Clarendon) - we had brunch here with relatives. Absolutely get the biscuits and gravy with poached eggs if it's available (the gravy is maple-sweet with a spicy, meaty undertow). They also have scrapple (for real), shrimp & grits, cheesy grits and more, and that's just their brunch menu. Very kid-friendly. Excellent Bloody Marys.

Me Jana - we had dinner with friends at this Lebanese place in Arlington (you can tell our DC life was and is kind of Arlington-centered), moving away from our usual get-together at Lebanese Taverna. The food was fantastic - I can't even recommend one thing. It was all so good! We got the family-style tasting menu: kibbeh, fattoush salad, tabbouleh, falafel, sujok, grape leaves, babaghanoush, hummus, cheese rolls, fassouleh, lebneh and a pile of delicious meats (the lamb chops were especially good) with pilaf, and a great baklava for dessert. I also recommend trying one of their Lebanese wines. This place is also very convenient to the Metro, has free parking and is very accommodating of groups and children (they have a children's menu). For large groups including children it's a great choice.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Reverse Culture Shock

I'm going to try, for the first and perhaps only time, to write a full blog post on my iPad. Lets see how it goes, and let me know if there are any egregious or hilarious autocorrect disasters in there. Also, about halfway through the whole thing clogged up and I'll have to finish on a regular computer.

Reverse culture shock is a common topic. Most people mention longer distances, different food and weather, quieter streets, less pollution, too many consumer options, tipping, high prices, eating at home more, unhealthier food and more directness as well as sarcasm as common reverse culture shock options. I've felt that too - go ahead and ask me how my digestive system is doing - but I've had some other issues too, good and bad.

Among the good (which generally needs little explanation): more variety of food, more diversity, not having to think of how to explain or ask for something in a second language, central heat, clothes that fit and don't look ridiculous on Westerners, Christmas for real, more options, road rules I understand, cooking in a good size kitchen.

But among the bad -

Saying "bless you" - People don't do this in Taiwan, and frankly, it makes sense that they don't. Despite being aware of the origin of this cultural tic, I'm not sure why Westerners still do it. I've stopped, even as I tell students it's something to remember to do when visiting the USA, and I am sure my fellow Americans think I'm quite rude for my utter silence in response to their sneezes.

Dry air, dry nose - I am used to central heat, and we've set up our lovely apartment with heaters in such a way that the effects are not so different from having central heating. What I did not expect was returning to a chronically dry nose and throat, to the point that I frequently wake up with nosebleeds.

Health care battles - My mom is sick, as regular readers know. In Taiwan she'd see her doctors, get chemo and other treatments, and not generally have to worry about how it would be paid for. In the USA, every new treatment, test or drug must be considered along with the question of whether insurance will pay, whether they are close to their annual cap and must wait critical weeks, in terms of health as well as money, for January, and how much will be paid out and when. Even with coverage, which they came close to not getting, their medical bills are in the "mortgage/med school" range, not the car payment range. And this is with "good" insurance! Which they pay for! Which they pay more than I pay for! It's ridiculous! It's inhumane! It's sickening, literally! Why do Americans put up with this bullshit? Why do they fight for their god-given right to keep such a bullshit system? Premiums that take a quarter of your pay, and you're not even guaranteed that sort of coverage, only to not even be sure that you'll be able to get a test - in time or at all - that could save your life, and the only other options if the company you are paying decides not to cover you are death or bankruptcy? Fuck this shit. I'm never coming home if this is what I'd face.

Ridiculous morning shows - The Onion's Today Now, a spoof of typically vapid morning shows, is more accurate than I remember. And yer I can't stop watching, especially when I wake early due to jet lag.

How do people, y'know, do anything? - Let's say you want to go out for a few drinks. Unless you live in a reasonably rural area, you can't go alone. Buses are rare if they exist, taxis cost a mint, and if you drink and can't drive home, and do take a taxi or get a ride, how do you get your car the next day? I don't get at all how this would work. If you go out with a significant other, only one of you can drink. That's no fun. So you go in a group or not at all? Ok, but what if you don't want to? I suppose the answer is "you don't need drinking to have fun", which I guess is true, but even a few glasses of wine at your anniversary dinner? How? Even in cities where public transit networks close early and you don't live close to nightlife hotspots and taxis are so expensive, how do people afford to go out? If your car needs work, how do you get around? How do you even get to the mechanic, or DMV, or driving school if you need your license, when none of it is accesssible by public transit? Does not compute.

Being unable to find what you want in a sea of options - Usually people complain about the opposite bit of reverse culture shock - too many options, too much stuff. But no, the other day we went to Walmart (ugggghhh) to get photos printed, and I thought it wouldn't be contributing too much to poverty-level wages and manipulating hiring hours to avoid paying benefits to buy some super balls for our cat (hard to find in Taiwan). We searched toys, party favors and pet super balls in the whole football stadium of a store. Walking between sections was like going to the gym (other than the gym and Walmart, how do people get exercise when there are no sidewalks?) and there were hundreds of other kinds of balls. There was an entire aisle of party favors, and an entire shelving system of piggy banks, along with a hundred different deodorants and a thousand soaps. But NO SUPERBALLS. Again, does not compute.

People around me actually understanding what I'm saying - "maybe you shouldn't say that in public, people can in fact understand you". Oh.

People around me actually caring about my religious views - what's with the sad looks when I say that no, I did not go to church on Sunday, no I neither wish to nor know how to say grace? How about the liquor laws that allow for no alcohol to be purchased in a store on Sunday, or after midnight and before 9am? Imagine if 7-11 in Taiwan did that - what would it even accomplish? And all that because Sunday is the "day of rest", the day you go to church and pretend you're a better person than you actually are - except not all of us believe that Sunday is a holy day, or that there are any holy days at all. In Taiwan nobody cares, and what I think is irrelevant because it's not an issue. Here, my views are still arguably irrelevant as I don't live in this country (but I do vote, so there's that), but people actually care that I'm a non-believer, and an outspoken one at that.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

So Far Adrift

迢遞三巴路, 羈危萬里身。 

亂山殘雪夜, 孤獨異鄉春。 

漸與骨肉遠, 轉於僮僕親。 

那堪正飄泊, 明日歲華新。

Farther and farther from the three Ba Roads, 
I have come three thousand miles, anxious and watchful, 
Through pale snow-patches in the jagged nightmountains -- 
A stranger with a lonely lantern shaken in the wind. 
...Separation from my kin 
Binds me closer to my servants -- 
Yet how I dread, so far adrift, 
New Year's Day, tomorrow morning!

I've written before about how I tend to get a bit brooding and maudlin around the holidays - especially leading up to Christmas. I do consider this a good thing, or a sign of a good thing: I wouldn't feel this way if holidays with family were not not happy memories for me. I don't feel this as strongly around Chinese New Year, because it's not my holiday, but there is something to be said for being in a country celebrating  a major family holiday, when everything is closed, and you don't have many ways to celebrate (although I try to find a few). I have my husband, who is my most immediate family now, and my sister also lives in Taiwan. She's younger, though, and has her own friends and while we hang out often,  she's definitely in a younger expat contingent than her fuddy-duddy boring old married sister. This doesn't bother me: it's normal. I was that age, too. Once. Years ago! I don't have a big family dinner to attend. As I said, this doesn't bother me as much as it does on Christmas, but it does cause me to brood a bit.

Here's the thing. I've written about how the common misconception that expats move abroad because they can't make it back home is not true. People often believe that there's something wrong with folks that run off to Asia or wherever, there's something about those people that makes it hard for them to fit in back home, that they're too weird for their own countries. This is not true for me: I have a lot of close friends back home and I make an effort to see them at last once a year. One has visited me (two if you count Brendan, who subsequently moved here and became my husband) and two others have indicated their intention to. We keep in fairly close touch even as our lives take different paths. I left an active and happy social life. I left a crap job that nevertheless had the potential to be an, ahem, "real" career (whatever that means). I left a large, loving family and a brilliant townhouse rental in a pretty cool city. I left dating prospects, all to be abroad just because I wanted to study Chinese and I wanted an adventure. I'd never intended to stay, or to get married and continue staying, abroad - but stay I did.

Well. All of that is still true. And yet, while I can say that I did fit in well enough back home, that I never quite fit in - but then who among us has not felt that way at some point, especially the more adventurous, intellectual or creative types?

Despite having a large and diverse group of friends, and making new friends fairly easily and quickly wherever I am, I've always felt as though I exist in a liminal space. I was not quite of mainstream life back home and I am clearly not quite of mainstream life in Taiwan - as evidenced by the fact that I'm not celebrating Chinese New Year the way most people do here. I recently said on Facebook that I have this loneliness: I never felt that I fully fit into American culture -  I'm not interested in living a life that requires car ownership or extensive driving, for one, but there are other things, too. I don't fully fit into Taiwanese or expat culture either, so who am I?  Then I attended a company year-end banquet at the invitation of a student and as I was watching the craziness go down, I thought to myself: I have my friends, I have my family, and I may not really be able to settle into any group or culture but I'm me and that's OK.

I'm not sure which came first - did I start to feel like I existed on edges and thresholds before I started living abroad, all the way back in 2000 when I went to India for a semester, or  did I start living abroad because I fundamentally feel this way? I have to admit it is a lot easier to give leeway to this part of myself while abroad, because people generally expect that you won't quite fit in. It's easy to "not fit in" when you're not living in your native culture or ethnicity (and are not married into it, either). It's very different indeed to "not fit in" when you live where you came from.

These two ideas might seem to be contradictory, but I don't think they are. Neil Stephenson said something in The Diamond Age (brilliant book right up until the end, when it got all "what the hell" and had a thoroughly unsatisfying and  not-thought-through ending) that resonated with me. In my own words to summarize Stephenson: there are some people who will fully embrace a system and refuse to see fault in it, who will rationalize away contradictions and problems. There are those who will see the faults inherent in a system - any given system, including a cultural structure in which they are born or raised - and use those to tear down the entire thing, rebel, run away, renounce everything about that system. Finally, there are those who will see shades of color in a monochrome, who can accept seeming contradictions, who can understand how one thing and its opposite can both be true, who can accept subtlety and and complexity.  These are truly intelligent people.

I don't want to go off and be all "haha, I am one of the intelligent people!" because that's not my point.

My point is that this issue, for me, falls into the last category. Having a great social and family life back home and fitting in insofar as living well, loving and being loved by many can co-exist with a feeling of liminality, a feeling of not quite "matching" what's around you, a feeling of constant weirdness or eccentricity. One can feel comfortable and settled in a new country, have friends, participate in events, sometimes stumble and sometimes swim like a sleek fish in that context - and still feel like they live life on the sidelines of that culture. One can have and be both.

Never is this contradiction more clear to me than around the holidays.

雲母屏風燭影深, 長河漸落曉星沈。 

嫦娥應悔偷靈藥, 碧海青天夜夜心。

Now that a candle-shadow stands on the screen of carven marble 
And the River of Heaven slants and the morning stars are low, 
Are you sorry for having stolen the potion that has set you 
Over purple seas and blue skies, to brood through the long nights?

This poem is supposed to be about regret at doing something one was not supposed to do -  such as Chang-yi, who was left to be lonely after stealing an immortality potion not meant for her and subsequently floating up to the moon and ending up trapped there for eternity.

To me, it reads as what happens to a person when they live for a period abroad, especially if they like and allow themselves to be affected by their new surroundings (to be true, plenty of expats, especially the corporate types, are sent abroad, preserve as much of life at home as they can, and return happily unaffected). As a friend of mine once said, once you live abroad, you can't really say you belong to any one place. You don't feel the same way about where you came from and probably never will again, because you've changed. You've become bigger and you no longer fit the mold you were raised in. And yet, you don't really feel totally at home in any new place. You feel like just you - the way I felt during that annual party - and a little bit apart from wherever you are, even if you are home. 

It's just as though you, like Chang-yi, were handed a potion when you got on that plane. You drank it, and now you have floated off to some other place and can't go back again. You're left to brood. You, to steal a cliched Matrix analogy, swallowed the red pill. I will not go so far as to say that you ate the forbidden apple, but you get the point. 

Expat Women: Confessions deals with this feeling, answering a question from an adult who had a childhood that included moves to foreign countries. The question  poser asks where and how to live - she doesn't feel at home in her "native country", the country of her passport, but neither is she fully of any other country. The book wisely dubs this the "international citizen" condition, and people who feel this way often feel most at home among others like them - other long-term expats or adults with a lot of life experience abroad - no matter what country they find themselves in. Find other "international citizens" and you'll be most at home.

And yes, I did drink the potion. I'm left to brood beyond purple seas and blue skies. I can go home but I'm still off somewhere - I can't really go home ever again. I also can't really be Taiwanese or be of any other country where I choose to live. I am most at home among others like me, and let other aspects of my personality out through local friends or friends back home. Home is where Brendan and I live, wherever that might be, and that's really true for us because it can't be any other way. I can form attachments but I can't be of any given place. Not anymore.

I am still working my way through this realization, but I think it's OK. The poem says that Chang-yi must regret her choice, but do I regret mine? If I had known that this would happen, would I have done what I have done with my life? Would I have drunk that potion?


I would have.

I never felt quite 'in place' anyway, so why not? I'm me, and that's OK.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Notes on Autumn Leaves

I'm currently with Brendan, visiting my in-laws outside Bangor, Maine. Today we walked - I can't rightly say we hiked - several miles of scenic forest trails and an elevated "bog boardwalk".

I grew up in upstate New York, not quite England but culturally not that dissimilar. I am quite obviously very familiar with the concept of changing leaves in autumn. I grew up with Autumns in which the leaves turned every amazing shade of red, orange, yellow, gold, lime, burgundy and brown. I never thought of them as anything special, or anything worth running out with a camera to capture on film - they were just a part of everyday life.

Taiwan does not have leaves that change in autumn, although I guess some parts of the country, up in the mountains, might have it to an extent (I once saw a color-changed tree on Yangmingshan, woohoo!). I haven't been home when the leaves change in years: we usually come home in late summer or late winter and miss it. It's therefore been something like half a decade since I've seen leaves changing color.

Far from being jaded about it, it was like I was a kid, or a tourist from a tropical country - the excitement over the beauty of seeing such vibrant colors in nature, splashed on trees and mottled with bright hues out to the horizon was something I hadn't experienced since early childhood. Like the beauty of the Hudson Valley, it just gets lost on you if you're exposed to it for too long.

I find that interesting - something I hadn't even been able to take for granted because I didn't notice it long enough to dismiss it, like the beauty of autumn leaves, became something new, exciting and to an extent sentimental simply because I hadn't seen it in so long. Now I can appreciate it. In 2006 I didn't even notice, let alone care.

By the way, there are black bears in the woods where we were hiking. Chances of seeing one are basically nil, but I did comment that if we did encounter one and get mauled, the local headlines would read "Former Maine Resident and his Non-Maine Wife Killed in Vicious Bear Attack".

Earlier in our visit we went to downtown Bangor. I've said before that while I don't wish to live in a small town or a cold climate, that I happen to like Bangor and if I changed my mind about both of the above, it would be a lovely place to live (for now I'm content for it to be a lovely place to visit). Not so for my own hometown, which was flooded during Hurricane Irene, to which I snarkily replied that I wish the whole thing had washed away.

I like Bangor for its pre-war architecture (lovin' that understated Art Nouveau type on the McGuire Building) and revived downtown, and compare both it and nearby Orono quite favorably to Highland, NY (where I grew up). Downtown Bangor has a few shops - some hippie-dippy, some cute, some fashionable - a neat bookstore, an awesome antique shop, more than its fair share of pubs and drinking establishments, a Japanese restaurant, two South Asian restaurants and a Thai place, among other things. There's not enough to keep me occupied long-term but there is quite enough for a longer visit.

Basically, I'm not down on all small towns. Just the one I grew up in! (I was one of the few liberals in a town of conservatives, a non-Catholic in a town full of Catholics - or for that matter a secular person in a religious town - and a Polish-Armenian who hated soccer in a town full of athletic Italians).

Over the course of our friendship and relationship, I've exposed Brendan to my cultural heritage, mostly by culinary means. I am still sorely disappointed that he doesn't like olives, even the expensive kind (which are cheap in Turkey). I've made sure he's tried lahmacun, tabbouleh, good kielbasa, fish cookies, hummus, various olives, done the whole "forage for a plate of cheese, bread, olives and other tasty things for a meal", introduced him to ketchup on eggs (a family staple - he didn't take to it) and recently made him latkes with sour cream and applesauce, which may not be my culture (I'm not Jewish), but it is something that reminds me of growing up in New York - even if it was the state, not the city.

So it was finally time for Brendan to introduce me to the food of his cultural heritage...

So we drove out...

...stopped at a convenience store...

...and bought...


...whoopie pies.

At one point before we bought them, I saw them for sale and asked Brendan about them. Another guy at the counter said "you're not from Maine, are you?"

No, no I'm not.

I also made sure we went here:

Which may be a Canadian thing, but there is one in Maine and Brendan was born in Canada so there ya go.