Reasons Why We Haven’t Talked

It’s been a long time. That is totally my fault, I know. There always seems to be a lesson to write or a class to prepare for or a meeting to scurry off to, and when I do get a free moment, I usually just want to sit down and rest, you know?  Of course, this isn’t an excuse, and I am sorry that you feel a little…out of touch with my life here right now. I told you from the beginning that I would make a point of being available, and these past two months, I don’t know. I just haven’t been there like I said I would be.

I wish that I had a valid excuse, something that would make my absence completely forgivable. But the honest truth is this: I am no longer required to write mandatory biweekly cultural reports for my Fulbright advisors, and thus, my incentive to write is at an all-time low. There are two major coping mechanisms that I have devised to combat this issue. One is Pathetic Avoidance. Using this strategy, I skirt around my laptop with sheepish, sideways glances, avoiding eye-screen contact as one avoids a text message left unread for far too long. This method, while effective at pulling me away from the deep, dark rabbit holes of the Internet, is not practical. I have a job here that requires the use of email.

This, then, leads me to my second approach, Productivity Blindside. With Productivity Blindside, I open my laptop with purpose, and before there is any mention of “blog” or “writing,” I am furiously typing away at items on the bulleted list in my agenda book. The clacking of fingers on the keyboard drowns out any unwanted reminders of what I might be putting off or refusing to acknowledge. And while this approach might raise my blood pressure in the frenzy of efficiency, it has allowed me to go almost two months without making any attempt at blogging.

But it is time, now, to face the music. In the best way I know how.

This post will detail the Reasons Why We Haven’t Talked. The things that have pulled me away from the computer these past two months, the things that have kept me from dropping a line or two. And maybe then, oh treasured reader, will this apology suffice.

I guess

Reason #1: FulBoat: A Tale of Ten Practices       

Every time that I have lived in/visited China or Taiwan, I always just miss the biggest summer celebration of the Chinese calendar, the Dragon Boat Festival. Dragon Boat Festival is a time when families come together to eat zongzi, sticky rice dumplings, and watch long, brilliantly painted wooden boats race each other from the riverside. It always seemed like such a grand spectacle, and I was excited to be in Taiwan for the event this year. I did not anticipate, however, that I would have the opportunity to participate in the actual races!

We formed a team with other foreign students who take Chinese classes at Fo Guang University. Six countries were represented on our boat in total, including rowers from Vietnam, South Korea, Germany, the United States, Paraguay, and Ecuador. Fo Guang hired a coach who had serious racing experience and promptly sent us a schedule of practices before the big event. At this point, I think that we eight Fulbrighters were quite happy with ourselves. We were “going native,” integrating into the culture of this country, rowing in their dragon boat races. We were just so cultured, basically Taiwanese.

It was only when I mentioned our grand scheme to Huang Laoshi that I realized what I had signed up to do. We were sitting in the car before school, and I said that I would probably be sore quite soon, because of dragon boat practices. I tried to make it as casual as possible, like I was merely stating something that had just popped into mind out of the blue. But instead of awed surprise, Huang Laoshi’s face curled in on itself a little incredulously. She said, “Huh?” and, even before she had a chance to recompose herself, I knew that I had made a bad decision. Her expression said enough.

After clarifying that we were, indeed, interested in rowing a boat down Yilan River competitively, she switched to English and shrieked, “Dirty! So dirty!” I couldn’t argue with that. Yilan River looked slow-moving, practically stagnant with algae and debris. I nodded in recognition. But this was only the first of many misgivings Laoshi had with FulBoat (clever, no??).

Not only did we have no experience rowing boats, we were also a group of foreigners with six different languages spoken among us, following instructions from a Taiwanese coach with varying degrees of success that directly corresponded to our Chinese fluency. Oftentimes, our coach would deliver his words of wisdom in Mandarin, which would then be translated into English first, then Spanish, and usually Korean before we all came to a sort-of understanding. This meant that our boat often sounded like a floating Tower of Babel, confusing not only to passersby, but to us rowers as well.

We were also scheduled to compete against a team from Yilan University: students, most likely athletes, who have competed in dragon boat races from a young age, therefore with years of experience. This would not be nearly as demoralizing if, during one of our first practices, we hadn’t met a group of high school boys practicing with their team. In all seriousness, these high school boys were some of the buffest Asians I had ever seen in my life. Their thigh muscles looked they had been sculpted by an ancient Greek artist depicting gods. I had never felt that thighs were intimidating until that moment. And these were only the high schoolers. I couldn’t imagine what the college students’ (thighs) would look like.

With all of these odds stacked against us, our rag-tag team of foreigners threw our hearts into learning the basics of rowing and the importance of staying in sync. We pseudo-rowed on land first and then graduated to boats. After the first three or four practices, I was becoming more and more comfortable with an oar in my hand. There was a brief moment of hope, when I decided that the time we had left would be enough to keep us from embarrassing ourselves during the competition at least.

Unfortunately, this would not be the case, as practice after practice after practice was cancelled due to heavy rains and storming. This should come as no surprise to us, having lived in rainy Yilan the past ten months. It did became slightly problematic, however, when I began wishing for the rains to come, to sweep the boats away and give me an excuse for napping on a now-free Friday afternoon.

I realized early on that I didn’t enjoy dragon boat practice. The water splashing up into the boat, the special frustration of relying on team members that were only mere acquaintances at the time, leaving practice smelling of dirty river water and someone else’s sweat from the communal lifejackets. But I stuck it out for the team, only silently wishing that rain would again pelt our quiet county and keep our boat shored. It was a fairly reasonable wish that was granted all too frequently, putting us in a great predicament come race day.

Our team had only completed ten practices, barely scraping by with the absolute minimum number of meetings to qualify us for competition. And we would be competing against teams that had met daily for intense, demanding rowing practices, months before we even thought about forming a team. To my surprise, we won two of the races that we rowed and came in tenth out of fourteen teams.

It isn’t important to mention that a team of middle school girls knocked us out of the competition with their racing times. Personal best.

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Reason #2: I Promise I Don’t Have TB

In previous posts, I have mentioned the efficiency and affordability of Taiwanese healthcare. I spend significantly less time waiting for my appointment here than in an American doctor’s office, and any prescriptions that I need are filled within ten minutes of leaving my appointment. Furthermore, each doctor’s visit cost 150 NTD, which translates to about five American dollars with my Taiwanese health insurance.

It seemed like an obvious decision, then, to complete any medical examinations required for graduate school here in Taiwan. Before my Fulbright grant, I had already received a fairly thorough checkup to make sure that I was fit for travel. The only thing missing was a TB skin test to confirm that I had not contracted tuberculosis while living abroad. I asked Kelly if she knew of a clinic that could perform this test, and she wrote down the address, saying that previous ETAs had received a TB test from the same location in years past. I planned to visit the hospital on my day off, and then ride my bike through a nearby park with the time left over.

It should be stated here that I was not new to TB tests. For the teaching profession, we must provide proof of a negative TB test before we can step foot in any classroom. This meant that I was tested for tuberculosis every year in college for observation hours and then student teaching. And other than the sight of the needle and the slight pinch in my arm, the whole process was fairly painless.

But for this particular tuberculosis-related incident, “painless” wouldn’t necessarily be the descriptor that I would choose. “Tearful frustration” seems more applicable, and I wish I could say that in a strictly figurative sense. I must admit, however, that the ordeal left me crying in a hospital waiting room on not one, but two separate occasions. And, I promise, it is not because I have TB.

The saga begins on a pleasant Monday morning, waking up to sunshine after sleeping in on my off day. I pack myself lunch of leftover pasta and take the train to Luodong, picking up my bike and leisurely pedaling to the nearby hospital. I approach the information desk and have a conversation in Chinese about needing a TB skin test for my university when I return to the United States. The helpful attendant looked up a few things on her computer, and then told me to come back after their lunch break was over, and I would be the second person in line. I strolled confidently out of the waiting area, ate my pasta on a park bench, and read until my appointment time came. I waited only a few minutes in the actual building before I was seen by an English-speaking doctor. A doctor who informed me that this particular hospital no longer performed TB skin tests, and that I would have to try a clinic in Yilan another day, seeing as it was already two o’clock in the afternoon.

Peeved at this sudden bump in the road, I asked that the doctor call and confirm that I could, indeed, receive a skin test at the Yilan clinic before I stopped by. The call was placed and a cheery voice on the other end of the line verified the doctor’s recommendation.

This time, I lacked the confident swagger I had upon exiting the hospital. I called my coordinator, the only thing I can think to do in times of distress, and she offered to meet me at the clinic to smooth over any translation issues that might arise. I welcomed the assistance.

I met Kelly at the Teacher’s Center and together we drove to the clinic. Having an adult with me provided a sense of security, a calm assurance of conflict resolution that effectively popped when the clinic worker shook her head as soon as we came through the door. It turns out that there is no place, hospital, clinic, or otherwise, in the entirety of Yilan County that performs TB skin tests because so few people needed them. This meant that I would have to travel to Taipei for this simple medical procedure.

I contained my disappointment, acknowledging that nothing further could be done. I was told to visit NTU hospital, a place that I knew of after having lived in Taipei previously. And after venting to my roommate, I felt like this was a challenge I could handle. I was capable of making it to Taipei on my own, ordering a TB test in Chinese, and then not crying as the needle went in my skin. I decided to use the afternoon that very next day to put all of this behind me.

Tuesday afternoon came. I got off the bus, trekked through various hospital buildings, got lost in the pediatric ward, and was led to three separate registration counters before I was told that I was ten minutes late for making an appointment and that I would have to come back tomorrow. After wandering around sterilized corridors for two and a half hours and asking for directions in Chinese a few dozen times, this was not what I needed to hear.

Frustration expresses itself in many forms, but it seems the only recognizable mode my body has for reacting to anger, sadness, frustration, and even extreme joy is Seas of Tears. If you are interested in my tendency to cry in most, if not every situation, I direct you to a previous blog entitled “The Good Cry.” My tears did win me the sympathies of every female worker behind Medical Counter Number Five, but it did nothing to relieve me of my present situation, and I was upset with myself for my lack of self-restraint.

There was one option, an assistant explained. I could leave this building at that exact moment, take a taxi to a different hospital that has slightly extended hours, and hope that they accept my watery pleas. And that was how I found myself alone, in the back of a taxi in Taipei, feeling bougie in the saddest way possible.

After finding the correct wing and waiting for 57 minutes, I was seen by a doctor at the second hospital I had visited in one day. In impeccable English, the doctor informed me that she was more than capable of administering the examination, but TB tests were only performed on Mondays and Fridays at this hospital. A thin, shrill cackle ripped itself out of my pursed lips as a fresh set of tears trickled down my cheeks. I remember thinking, what a blog post this is going to be. I thanked the doctor, who promptly informed me which counter I would need to visit to pay for the services rendered. These were the clearest set of instructions I had received throughout the entire ordeal.

I found my way to the bus station and rushed back to Yilan for Chinese class. My roommate, a saint if I have ever known one, brought me take out to eat during class and patted my hand as I recounted the day’s events when we returned home. I would return to Taipei that Friday after English Village for the administration of the TB test, and then again the following Monday to have it read. Including bus fare for three trips to and from Taipei, it would have been cheaper, and probably much, much easier, to have taken the TB test when I returned to the United States. But now, I can officially saw, without a doubt, that I do not have TB.  In case you were worried.

Reason #3: I Got My Hair Cut and Permed Because Change is Good, But I Did Not Realize That Perming Your Hair Takes Seven Hours.

My hair was washed a total of four times, I was tested in my ability to sit still, and I left the salon with springy curls.  Verdict: I am a poodle.

Reason #4: I Have Less Than Forty Days in Taiwan and I am Trying to Make the Most of This Experience Before My Life Changes Again.

I’m not crying, I’m not crying, I’m not crying…

Reason #5: Sleep Is Good.

For all of these reasons, and a few hundred more, I’ve been a little slow on writing back. But you can trust me when I say, it is not because I have been lacking material.

Thanks, Taiwan, for always keeping life interesting. And thank you, treasured reader, for putting up with all of it. Here’s to hoping for many, many more “I should blog about that” moments, and the self-discipline to actually do it.

Yours,

Jess

emial

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Take Me Out to the Ball Game: World Edition

Summer is dripping into our once light and breezy April days here in Taiwan.

The first few nights of kicking off covers, turning over in heated sleep frustration, those are the nights that I waited for as a child. The feverish changing of seasons meant the end of school, the start of summer, and, invariably, the summer heat meant baseball. Remembering those golden summers of years past, I can still feel the grit of sand in my cleats and the sweat pooling in my palm under a leather glove. I reach up to adjust my phantom visor through some ingrained muscle memory.  I smell the Frito pies all the way in the stands.

Some of the fondest memories of my childhood were made in the dugouts of our county park and in the sand of those infields, lights scorching each grain to a dull beige. Crowds of family and friends erupting with every smart play, sing-song cheers meant to distract the opponent, ketchup stains on our jerseys. But, with those RBIs and stolen bases, there were also plenty of thrown gloves, strikeouts, and cap brims pulled low over dusty faces, streaked clean with falling tears.

Baseball (or, more specifically, softball) is a mental game. And at sixteen, I didn’t have the mental fortitude to drown out the insults and fear of failure that came at me from the inside. We are our own worst critics.

But my love for the sport never left. I cheered my brother on through the entirety of his catching career, and I saw the Reds every year for Father’s Day with the most important men in my life: Jacob, Dad, and my two grandfathers.

Seeing a Reds game was a grand affair for my brother and me. We made a packing list that included snacks for the three hour car ride, our own gloves and caps, a rain jacket, our savings for souvenirs, and a poster board sign constructed with the hopes of appearing on the big screen as the cameras swept the crowd. I never did appear on the Jumbotron, but that was not for lack of trying. I woke up hoarse after every, single game, vision blurry from our late night out as I reenacted the best plays from Momma in the sizzling summer air.

This weekend, I saw my first baseball game in Taiwan. As we neared the stadium from the metro, I felt the roar of the crowd in my feet, reverberating through the concrete, and a childish excitement tingled up my limbs. I cannot imagine how overstimulated eleven year-old Jessica would have been at the sight of hordes of Taiwanese fans, clad in either royal blue or burnt orange, causing a ruckus with every strike and balled called.

I had experienced something like this only once before. When studying abroad in Havana, Cuba, I had the opportunity to attend a baseball game with my fellow classmates, only few nights before we were to leave the island and return home. We bought our tickets and were inspected at the gate for alcohol. Every baseball stadium in Cuba is dry, because alcohol and this kind of excitement more often than not ended in a stadium-wide brawl.

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We found our seats, which were more like placeholders than anything else, as we were on our feet much of the game. The time that we did find ourselves seated was instructional in nature. The professor leading our trip, one of the most brilliant minds at my university, did not know the rules of baseball. I was given the extreme privilege of explaining balls and strikes, fair and foul, and I could not help but smile inwardly at the strangeness of our role reversal, when I have revered him from afar for his intellect for so long.

In actuality, it would be surprising if my professor learned anything at all that fine Cuban night.  Though we sat less than two feet apart, I was yelling over the roar the crowds and the thunder of bass drums and bugle horns blaring with no apparent rhyme or reason. The instruments would release ear-splitting peals of sound when something of interest occurred on the ball field, but there was never any set tune, and often times, the sound of chaos whitewashed any organized cheer or chant into a blanket of noise.

When there was order, it was Spanish chanting that made our Cuban guide blush, meant to demoralize the other team and suggest something about their mothers.

I was struck by the way the stadium walls shook with the crowd’s intensity, a fervor that one does not see for baseball in the United States. The crowd jeered and rallied, booed and cheered, a fluid organism winding to and fro with each play. There was a heat in the air that had nothing to do with the weather but was tangible all the same. And we were wrapped up in the glory of it.

Fast forward to last weekend, when Ross, Charlotte and I arrived two innings late for a faceoff between the Fubon Guardians and the Seven Eleven Lions. I refer back to a previous post to encapsulate my feelings about 7/11:

“For those of you who have lived in Taiwan for any length of time, you know that the 7/11 is the emblem of civilization as we know it. It is where everything can be done, from picking up packages and paying your electricity bill, to making late-night milk tea purchases as you type out a blog post and keep an eye on the storm. The last time I was in Taiwan, the local 7/11 continued to run even as the typhoon winds rattled doors and windows and bent palm trees into submissive bows. To remove the 7/11 sign from atop this revered establishment signified to me The End of Times.”

It was clear that I was destined to be a Lions fan. Ross, who had played baseball for many years and has an even greater appreciation for the sport than I do, heartily agreed. Charlotte, who is a loyal customer of our local Seven, saw no reason to deviate from supporting 7/11 now.

Baseball tixs

And that was how we ended up with three third-base line tickets for 450 NTD apiece (roughly 15 AMERICAN DOLLARS, Y’ALL). We visited a 7/11 outside of the stadium to purchase beer and a giant hot dog that I loaded with mustard and relish. Although we were allowed to carry food in with us (American ball parks need to learn a thing or two from Taiwan), the hot dog did not make it into the stadium. I was too hungry and too excited to delay gratification.

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Once we found our seats, Ross purchased noise makers for each of us: maracas for Charlotte, two large orange sticks which I beat together in time with the drums, and some type of amplified plastic horn for himself.  Now armed, we spent every at-bat on our feet, beating and blaring at the instruction of a cheer team. The Guardians, who were hated for their money, had female cheerleaders that stood on top of their dugout and did little dances in time with their music. But the Lions had Ta-Ping, and in my opinion, he was all we needed. His shrill voice carried throughout the entire stadium, and his trusty whistle brought a bit of order to the ruckus the fans caused from the stands.

Charlotte and I spent quite a lot of time trying to pick out the words of the cheers. Though my Chinese is better than my Spanish, it still leaves much to be desired; eventually, Charlotte and I gathered that their chanting was a combination of Chinese and pseudo-English words, like “HIT-O, HIT-O” to encourage the players to make contact with the ball.

After having inhaled my first hot dog, Charlotte and I decided to roam the stadium in search of more food. We found another hot dog stand, from which Charlotte bought a cheese-covered dog. I bought some steamed dumplings, and then Charlotte and I split a bucket of fries loaded with a sweet ketchup sauce. We sipped our drinks and ate fries as Ross and I talked strategy.

For the first few innings, the Lions were ahead by one or two runs, a lead that wasn’t quite comfortable in my opinion. The pitcher, who once played for the Milwaukee Brewers, started to waver in the seventh inning, and his replacement stretched the innings into the night. This development did not deter Ta-Ping, or the entire Lions fan base for that matter, and we chanted and danced our way through five hours of baseball. The excitement was contagious. Though I normally do not appreciate noise makers of any variety, I couldn’t help but beat my plastic bats together with every cheer and every out.

In Taiwan, the baseball is good, but the experience of baseball is even better. Children scampered through the stands calling out the names of their favorite players, and adults cheered with childlike delight for the success of their team. The normally reserved Taiwanese cut loose for each double play. The crowds exploded for every base hit. And it went on in this way for five hours.

Oh yeh. And at some point, Charlotte and I got cotton candy. Living the dream.

Cotton Candy

In the ninth inning, we were all on the edge of our seats. The game had tied up somewhere along the way, and now the Lions had to score if they had any chance of winning the game. We ceremoniously rose to our feet as the first batter stepped up to the plate. Two pop-flys to right field left us in dire straits. The last out came, and with it the home team’s turn at bat. Ross couldn’t keep still, and neither could the crowd, gyrating like leaves fluttering in the breeze.

Base hit means a person is on first. A walk, now there are two. Bases loaded now and…and …and … Walk off to end the game in favor of the Fubon Guardians. The Lions sections dialed down their intensity to a dull roar. In the echoes of Fubon’s jubilee, the 7/11 Lions recognized their defeat. But instead of leaving the field with heads hung low, the entire team filed out of the dugout and lined up to face the stands.  Together, they bowed to their adoring fans, and were met with renewed cheers. They then turned in the direction of their opponent’s dugout and bowed again before trotting off the field, as classy as could be.

Regardless of the outcome, a Taiwanese baseball game is an incredible experience. My own nostalgia notwithstanding, this family-friendly and wallet-friendly event is a must-do for even the shortest trips to Taiwan. It is a beautiful thing to see pure and unadulterated joy ripple through a group of people, united only in their passion for the sport. After the game was over, we all filed out of the stands, threw our trash away, and boarded the metro to return to our normal lives. But in those few moments that we were together, under the stadium lights, we stopped time with our enthusiasm.

There is a Chinese saying: 旅行为了回家。We travel to return home.

No matter how far removed I am from the infields of the Anderson County Park and those sweltering Kentucky summers that I played through, I can find familiar in the most unfamiliar of circumstances. The desire within me to find baseball games is the same desire that pushes me home, to the old definition of normal. And because this definition will no longer satisfy me, soon enough, I will start searching again. It is a cycle of leaving and returning, as if planes carrying me and the “I” that I wish to find were passing each other midair.

My time in Taiwan is drawing to a close. In only a few short months, I will fall once again into the turning of this circle, the cycle that every traveler knows. My bags will be packed, and I will board plane after plane until I see that bluegrass again, gleaming in the sun. I will have only a few weeks until the beginning of my next adventure: graduate school at the University of Georgia.

But even as my circumstances shift and change around me, memories remain.  And on some fine summer evening, as the sun sets over the red Georgia clay, you will find me, cheering on the home team as those stadium lights shine, shine on.

TAIWAN BASEBALL

 

Where the Mountain Meets the Sea

At 6:04 in the morning, we waited for the metro, backpacks slung over our shoulders and steaming plastic bags warming our hands with purchased breakfasts. Rubbing sleep from our eyes, the Yilan ETAs looked a worn lot, already tired before the journey had even begun. We murmured to each other to pass the time, squinting against the harsh artificial light of the subway station and looking up and down the long stretches of hollow track.

Karen, who was recently accepted to a second year as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA), mentioned a few of the questions that she was asked during her interview for the position, upon request from one of our peers. In the blurry haze of morning, I nodded along to the string of inquiries like a familiar melody until one of the questions made me pause.

What advice would you give a first-year ETA new to the program?

I thought for a moment, considering my answer. It would have to be something sweeping and uplifting, like,

Don’t be afraid to try new things, or Take the time to appreciate your surroundings and cultivate relationships in your host city.

It would have to express the struggles of living abroad without overshadowing the triumph of doing something like this on one’s own,  like,

The difference that we make in our students’ lives may be difficult to see at times, but never doubt that it is there.

It would have to articulate the appreciation that I have for this program, not to be confused with thinly veiled flattery for the express purpose of personal gain.

And while I deliberated, the subway came. I alighted, minding the gap between car and platform, but in my mind, I was not travelling through the underground passageways of Taipei. In my mind, I was on a plane. I was returning from a small island, a speck on the map next to the slightly larger speck that is Taiwan, and I was doggedly readdressing everything I thought I knew about this country.

Back in January, the Fulbrighters from around Taiwan congregated in Taipei for our Midyear Conference. At said conference, I was awarded some travel money with a few strings attached. This money was to be spent visiting another Fulbright ETA site, where other ETAs lived and worked, and I was to take this trip before our grant period in Taiwan was up.

Tawni, my friend from the Taichung ETA site, mentioned that she wanted to travel to Kinmen, because it was the most remote of the ETA sites, and we would most likely never have the opportunity to visit the island again. I agreed, and once I returned from Cambodia and Thailand, I set about putting our little plan in motion.

And that is how I found myself busing from Yilan to Taipei, metroing to the Song Shan airport, and waiting in the smallest airport gate imaginable to board a “pond jumper” to Kinmen a month later. The fact that these planes are nicknamed “pond jumpers” should be indicative of their size.

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Tawni and I laughed nervously as I recounted to her what a fellow Yilan ETA had said just that morning, warning me of the turbulence expected on such little planes. But, the 90 minute flight was smooth and our transition into Kinmen life even smoother. We rented a scooter and, after adjusting helmet straps and positioning luggage, we found ourselves flying through the newly-paved Kinmen roadways at 75 km/hr. The sun was setting and everything glowed as we raced toward our friend’s apartment.

Mia, a Kinmen ETA, welcomed us into her home and then ushered us out the door to the only bar on the island, where several ETAs were waiting for us with night market food and pizza. Tawni and I snacked on skewers of our own as we socialized at The White Lion, listening to other ETAs talk about their students and the struggles of smaller island life.

A small band of us branched off in search of shaved ice. Over its sugary goodness, we discussed our plans for the weekend and each ETA generously volunteered their time for every section of our journey. Our night ended with Travis gifting both Tawni and I a bottle of Gaoliang (Kinmen’s sorghum liquor) each and a bag of peanut candies famous on the island.

The next morning, we were up early for baos. Baos are steamed buns that usually contain pork or vegetables encased in a doughy shell. When I studied in Taipei years ago, a pork bao stand near our dorms kept a few of the more food-cautious students satiated during their study abroad experience. However, the Kinmen bao stand put the Taipei one to shame in terms of creativity. There was a pizza bao, which was open-faced and filled with tomatoes, onions, and meat. There were also curry bao and even a bubble tea bao, which was made with the same ingredients used to make the bubble tea pearls.

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After breakfast, Travis took over the babysitting position. We scootered around the island until we reached a place called Where the Mountain Meets the Sea. We hiked up the little mountain that jutted up from the Kinmen coastline, providing us with a superb vantage point of the largest “city” of Jincheng, the mountains beyond, and China in the distance. Perched heroically on a rock near the peak, golden locks whipping away from his face with the wind, Travis confided to us that this was his favorite place on the island, possibly in all of Taiwan. It was the sliver of space where two resolute forces converged, creating beauty out of stark difference.

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Breathing in the sea air and seeing Travis’ passion, I found myself reconsidering every expectation that I previously had about this little island, often forgotten or neglected when we talk about the country of Taiwan. In actuality, there are many islands that make up this nation, although we usually only recognize the main island, which is about the size of Maryland.

I remembered receiving the email notification that I was a finalist for the Fulbright ETA program, and ranking ETA sites in order of preference. Although I deliberated for some time over which city I would rank as my number one site, the bottom of my list was already decided even before receiving the email. I had heard too much from previous alumni of the Fulbright program to take a chance with Kinmen.

Portrayed as a year in remote Taiwanese wilderness, the Kinmen site seemed like Survivor meets M*A*S*H in an otherwise developed nation. The island was only recently cleared of landmines remnant from civil war with China and is also equipped with a series of underground tunnels used to protect its military from Chinese shellings, which occurred every odd numbers day for twenty years. Previous ETAs have complained of feeling “trapped” or “confined” on the island, disconnected from the urban feel of Taipei and other larger Taiwanese cities. Flying is the only way to visit Taiwan, making shorter weekend trips laborious and expensive.

In preparing for my trip, other ETAs warned me of choking pollution flowing over from mainland China, leaving every Kinmen ETA with a hacking cough that sounded like death itself. I was told that some of the ETAs are not allowed to use gas for cooking purposes. This led to hushed concerns about the availability of hot water for showering on the island, since gas is the only way of heating water in Yilan. They joked that it we would waste our time spending a four-day weekend on Kinmen, that two days would be more than enough to see the entire island from top to bottom.

Armed with these ignorant misconceptions, I found myself all the more taken aback by the beauty and quaintness of this little island paradise. We travelled through villages erected using a hodge-podge of Western-influenced architecture, toured the Master Wu factory, which recycles the metal from shells scraps into knifes and shears, and ate Kinmen beef noodles in a restaurant in the heart of the city. We strolled down the beaches of the island, on the lookout for horseshow crabs and the oysters that are a staple for the natives of the island.

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Throughout the journey, Tawni and I could not suppress our genuine surprise at the size of the cities or the accommodations made available to the island’s inhabitants. The Kinmen ETAs were warm and welcoming, and when asked about their placement, each and every Fulbrighter believed that theirs was the best place to be in all of Taiwan. Even though most of them did not choose Kinmen as their top preference, they couldn’t be happier with the end result.

That Kinmen was never anyone’s top consideration didn’t seem odd to me. When it came time for placement selection, Fulbright finalists across the United States were recycling the same information and hearsay, drawing similar conclusions, and thus perpetuating a singular view of Kinmen. Even at the Midyear Conference in previous years, Travis mentioned that the jokes from other sites towards Kinmen ETAs felt mocking, even biting, leaving the Kinmen ETAs asking where was the Kinmen love?

The next day, we took a ferry to an even smaller island, Little Kinmen, to see Travis’ school, eat at the taro restaurant, and see China from the beach. Little Kinmen is close enough to Xiamen that I could see individual people walking on their boats in the harbor. Again, Tawni and I felt warmly welcomed and at home scootering from one end of the island to another, and we found ourselves asking the same question: Where was the Kinmen love?

When it was time to leave for our own cities, Travis made one final request of Tawni and me. He asked that we share our experiences on Kinmen with the other ETAs in the program, as well as any Fulbrighters that we know coming to Taiwan next year. He wanted the rumors of danger and seclusion dispelled, because after teaching English in Kinmen, he couldn’t imagine teaching anywhere else. Tawni and I both assured him that, although we may have had reservations in the beginning, we now understood why so many ETAs are proud to call this little island their home.

My time in Kinmen reminded me just how much I still have to learn about this country and about the world around me. Even after eight months of living in Taiwan, I find something new and breathtaking every time I leave my apartment. It might be easy to assume that, as a cultural ambassador between Taiwan and the United States, I have a profound understanding of these two countries and their cultures. But, the longer I live in Taiwan and the more that I travel throughout this country, the more it surprises me. I find that I am re-writing my preconceptions of this nation with every new experience and every individual that I meet, adding new stands to the multi-faceted narrative that makes up my idea of “Taiwan.”

And as often as I amend my personal idea of Taiwan, I must also redefine my own role within this narrative. I came to Kinmen as a tourist, as an observer. I came to Kinmen aware of my own hesitation to live here for fear of disconnect. But I left Kinmen with a gentle rebuke, a personal scolding for when I am too quick to judge or too timid to try. Kinmen may be a small island with fierce winds and a few less food options, but it is seeped with a rich history of perseverance and survival.  I almost let what I had heard about Kinmen dissuade me from ever experiencing it myself. And that would have been a shame.

So, to answer the question: What advice would you give a first-year ETA new to the program?

I would say that no two ETA experiences are the same. We come from different places, and live in different places, and teach in different places, and have different expectations for ourselves. However, these differences provide us with a continuous learning opportunity, the opportunity to better understand our country, and to better understand ourselves. Come in well-informed, but do not be surprised if what you once thought turns out to be wrong. In fact, it might just be better that way.

Stand strong in your resolve, but be open and ever-expecting of change. Be the place Where the Mountain Meets the Sea.

049

Runner for Funner

Today, I told myself that I was going to the gym.

I have a teaching observation coming up, and I reasoned that there is no better way to remedy slight anxiety than doing a quick 5K before hopping into the gym’s Jacuzzi. I was determined to finish teaching, spend some time greeting my roommate just back from work-related travel, and then take my problems to the treadmill with me.

However, after I was planted in my spot on the couch, I found it difficult to motivate myself to leave. It had been over a week since my last run. I tried using this piece of information to guilt myself to the gym. I reminded myself that I have told multiple people I was losing weight here, so I needed to have something to show for it when I got back to America. I even went so far as to suggest to myself that my body would eventually forget how to run while my butt remained rooted to this seat. My back and posterior would meld with the faux leather of our couch, and I would have to be surgically removed from it, bringing shame upon my family. My feet would turn into tentacle limbs, and no one would want to be friends with me.

The product of an overactive imagination, these hyperbolic assertions did encourage me to leave the couch…and walk straight to the fridge to eat some leftover pasta as a pre-dinner snack.

Seems as if I am shameless.

In truth, I could not use guilt as a motivator in this specific instance. I felt no remorse or misgiving about skipping this week at the gym because it has been an exercise in practiced stillness, in bodily healing, which was much needed after the previous weekend.

On March 12th, I ran a half-marathon.

From reading my previous blogpost about my 13K, you might be able to gather that, before coming to Taiwan, I was not what Eric would call a “Runner for Funner.” I don’t really think that I would assign myself that title even today. But, after having trained for various races during the eight months that I have been living in Taiwan, I have developed a certain appreciation for running. It clears my head, calms my needless worries, and allows me to eat however I wish.

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This is what happy running looks like

However, training for a half-marathon was a new experience altogether. A 5K at the gym did not count as training anymore; a 5K was not even one-fourth of the distance I would travel, on my own two feet, for the half-marathon. I would literally have to quadruple that distance, and that would still not be enough.

This revelation catapulted me into a new relationship phase with my workout routine. Whereas before I felt equal parts soreness and satisfaction after some time at the gym, now these increasing demands created a combination of hopelessness and general distaste that I refer to as Gym Resentment.

Gym Resentment is not the same thing as its close cousin, Gym Avoidance. Oh no, I was committed enough (or my roommate peer pressured me enough) to visit the gym on a somewhat regular basis. Gym Resentment is just the sulky product of wishing it could be Gym Avoidance. Gym Avoidance stays at home and feels justified because it had a “long day,” while Gym Resentment goes through the motions of gym attendance thinking only of all the Sherlock it could be watching instead.

However, I did not have the luxury of skipping gym days. With two weeks left the go before the race, my furthest distance was only 13K. This was crunch time.

Even with that knowledge, Gym Resentment would not be deterred. It dripped into my workout routine like the sweat beads that dripped from my face, pooled on my arms, and trickled into my shoes during a run. Everything in my nature told me to stop running at the 13K mark. My feet were always blistering, and my calves ached pretty continuously.  One of the most disconcerting new developments was the pain that I felt in my hips after every run, a dull throbbing pain that I felt in my joints and would not relent even after taking an ibuprofen.

This really doesn’t sound like a problem I should have at 24.

It was only with two weeks left before the race that I realized: The secret to training for a 21K was to temporarily descend into madness. Our modern human bodies reject running these types of distances, especially not without something predatory and/or monstrous chasing after us. Running for over two and a half hours is nothing short of insanity. When would a prehistoric human ever have to run for that long in the wild? Not even the hungriest of saber-tooth tigers would chase us for that long.

But I willed myself to defy this instinctive logic time and time again, until one day I broke my own record. I ran on the treadmill for 16K. Never mind that my feet became two giant blisters and my hip bones felt as if they would give at any point. I was one step closer to the completion of a half-marathon.  Only 5 more kilometers to go.

After reaching this new milestone, I experienced a flicker of that old satisfaction I had once felt after time at the gym. This was completely shattered, however, by the realization that 16K was only a little over 75% of the race. I still had an entire fourth of the race ahead of me, which would arguably be the most difficult stint in the entire half-marathon. This was not a time for self-congratulation. I couldn’t even feel proud for more than a few minutes, before waves of worry crashed into my small and ever-shrinking pools of optimism.

Eric, my constant cheerleader through the ups and downs of training, even expressed his own concerns. This was when I knew I was in deep water.

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“Are you sure you can do this??” -Eric

It was time to phone a friend.

I calmly decided to ask my running partner, a Taizhong ETA named Tawni, how her training was going. Tawni and I signed up for the half-marathon together, hoping that this would encourage us to devote more time to the gym in preparation.

I confessed to her that I had not trained for as long as I had wished and that my goal would be completion within the time frame of three hours. I waited for her response, and within minutes, I received this reply:

“Oh good, we’re pretty much on the same page…don’t you worry.”

I took that advice to heart. I continued to push myself at the gym, but I never reached the 16K mark again. I had been told not to worry, and for once in my life, I decided to listen. In my mind, the half-marathon was now some vague goal that I would only seriously consider on the day of the race, when my feet were actually hitting the pavement.

Fast forward to the day of the race, my when my feet were actually hitting the pavement.

The super prepared and punctual lot that we are, Ross, Jon, Tawni, Shelby and I rolled up to the course with twenty-seven minutes to spare. We used this time to check our bags, safety pin our numbers to our shirts, and wait in long, long lines for a pre-race pee (and, if I am honest, poo). I took a quick picture with the girls, bent my knees a few times in a poor excuse for stretching, and then the whistle blew.

Off to a great start.

We worked our way through the masses until the runners evened out and the scenery came into view. I have often told Eric that I do not enjoy running outside because the outside world distracts me from the mental clarity I am trying to attain within while running. This is also why I choose to not listen to music during a race. I like to be left alone with my thoughts, allowing my mind to wander from topic to topic without discretion. Even though Tawni and I exchanged a few choppy comments throughout the first half of the race, I would be hard-pressed to find a time when I was completely pulled out of some subterranean corner of my mind to reconvene with reality.

But any Taiwanese person would agree that Taidong, the city hosting this race, is known for its natural beauty. Tawni and I began our race running through what appeared to be orchards, a carefully manicured path in the midst of close-growing trees and various hues of green. We rounded the bend in the road and looked upon the physical manifestation of our impending doom: a mountain, its peak shadowed by clouds, looming over the race. The course would lead us up this mountain until we reached the halfway mark of 10.5K, and from there, it was all, as they say, a downhill battle.

I asked Tawni if she had ever seen The Emperor’s New Groove? When she replied in the affirmative, I asked her if she remembered the moment when the two main characters, Pacha and Kuzco, found themselves tied to a log, floating down a raging river…

Pacha: Uh-oh.

Kuzco: Don’t tell me. We’re about to go over a huge waterfall.

Pacha: Yep.

Kuzco: Sharp rocks at the bottom?

Pacha: Most likely.

Kuzco: Bring it on.

bring it on

 

I told Tawni to look at this mountain like Kuzco looked at the waterfall. Bring it on, baby. Bring it on.

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Here, I will spend a few lines detailing to you, curious readership, the particulars of running a half-marathon in Taiwan:

Water Stations Abound

In true Taiwanese fashion, it would be extremely impolite of the race coordinators to allow their runners to feel thirsty or hungry at any point, at all, whatsoever, during their race. That is why there were approximately 143,832 water stations positioned along the course, where chipper workers handed out water, Taiwanese Gatorade, and a various assortment of Taiwanese snack foods.

While the number of stations might be slightly exaggerated, the smorgasbord of goodies was not. At every station I encountered, I paused to drink a cup of water and eat at least three small crackers before resuming my run. There were also watermelon slices, cherry tomatoes, and pineapple cake bites on display for any runner who needed a quarter-race pick-me-up. I expressed my appreciation for the water and crackers to Tawni, who was keeping pace beside me and was not even fazed when I chose to speak with my mouth full.

But as time passed and the frequency of water stations increased, I remember questioning my decision to stop at every station. The amount of water stations was genuinely excessive, even for Taiwanese standards. However, I was always afraid that I would skip a station and then there wouldn’t be another for miles and miles, in the exact time that I would desperately need something to drink. This was an irrational fear, considering how many stations there actually were and the likelihood that I would be that thirsty so quickly after just drinking. But this fear spurred me to stop at each station nonetheless.

This proved problematic, however, as I continued on my run. After having completed about 15K, I realized that I needed to use the bathroom.

Port-a-Potty: Because Who Takes this Race Seriously?

Visiting every water station meant that I was pretty full of liquid. But, stopping to use the bathroom was quite detrimental to my overall running time; adding three to four minutes when every second counted felt wasteful.

I remember thinking to myself, there is a way. There is a way to relieve myself of this need, ever-increasing in its urgency, without wasting any time. Plenty of cross-country runners, and even NFL football players, admit to peeing on themselves during a race or competition. With the amount of sweat pouring out of the body, pee would hardly be a recognizable addition to the grossness of half-marathon running.

But, in the end, I just could not bring myself to do it. Priding myself on my civility, I chose to pee in a Port-a-Potty instead. These, too, were neatly lined up along the race course, because Taiwan values its civility just as much as I do.

I waited until the last possible second, and then I dashed into the blue, plastic cubicle of a bathroom. I reached for the strings of my shorts, and, in my eagerness, fumbled with the knot that I had tied to hold my pants up. In this moment, it seemed as if entering the Port-a-Potty would be in vain; I would end up peeing myself anyways. But eventually, I untied my pants, used the facilities, and then bolted from the door to catch up with the people I was originally running alongside.

I powered through to regain my spot in the midst of worn-down runners. I forced myself to keep pace with a man wearing a Taipei Marathon shirt, who seemed to understand exactly how running (and life) worked. But just as I reached my place in line behind him, Taiwanese weather gods issued their daily “Poo You” in the form of a steady drizzle.

Taiwan is Spelt R-A-I-N-Y

The rain itself was not an issue. Living in Taiwan had forced me to become comfortable with constant dampness and the integration of the raincoat into my everyday attire. In truth, the rain added a splash of drama, turning my run into a victorious struggle from a sports movie. We all know the scene; the breakthrough point for most sports teams seems to be a rainy practice, where mud slings and friendships are cemented. The rain would have even been refreshing, if I had not been forced to run in my glasses during the race.

A few days before the race, one of the teachers I work with noticed that my right eye was red. She told me to see a doctor, and I told her that, if it was not better by Friday, I would consider getting some eye drops. This is a cultural difference between the Taiwanese and most Americans: I hold off going to the doctor for as long as possible. I wait until I am the most miserable I have ever been in my life, and then I make the appointment. But here in Taiwan, because their insurance makes healthcare so affordable, people tend to see a doctor for even the slightest aches and pains.

When my eye was still red the next day, she expressly drove me to the doctor, and for 150 kuai (about five American dollars), I saw the doctor and received three different eye drops and ointments to treat my “eye strain.” This meant that, instead of wearing my contacts as usual, I was forced to run in my glasses, which do not, unfortunately, come with built-in windshield wipers.

I ran probably two or three kilometers with speckled vision, raindrops obstructing any clear view of the course in front of me. It was only when I was sure that the rain had subsided that I took my glasses off to clean them on my now soaked shirt. I chose to view the rain as just another part of the race, an additional obstacle that I would overcome for the half-marathon. But I am sincerely glad that it was nothing more than a drizzle. I was now running through pain.

After all the water stations, and stopping to pee, and running through the rain, the final and most challenging of obstacles was running with pain. Throughout training, I had experienced blistering, soreness, and even a few cramps. But, race time meant that, even though I was hyperaware of the pain, it was important that I mentally overcome it. The twinges in my side, the persistent blistering on my feet, the ache in my right knee, it was nothing more than a feeling,  a mental barrier between me and the finish line.

Ignore the pain, finish the race.

Ignore the pain, finish the race.

Ignore the pain, finish the race.

I came to my first sign. 3K. Only three kilometers left. I had completed 18K.

Next sign. 2K. I had completed 19K.

Next sign. 1K. A few tears trickled down my face as I realized that I had just completed 20K. It was a beautiful thing, knowing that I could push myself to lengths greater than I had once thought possible.

And then there was only 500 meters left. I picked up speed. I pushed through, rounded the bend, and met Eliza and Celia, waiting there with expectant smiles and words of encouragement. I continued to pick up tempo, when I heard Karen, and saw Eric, and watched the ruckus they made as I neared the end. Neared the finish line.

They screamed words I couldn’t quite make out as I sprinted past a few people at the very end of the race. And then, I was done. I had finished a 21K. I looked around and offered up a quiet prayer of thankfulness. Then, I was engulfed by love and hugs. I held on to Eric in all my sweaty glory, but unlike my 13K, I did not need someone’s presence to momentarily support my weight. I had shed all my tears at the 20K mark.

The last kilometer was my victory lap.

And even though it has taken a full week to recuperate from the race of my lifetime (so far), I recognize that running a half-marathon was a lesson in perseverance. Because goals are attainable partially through preparation, and partially through the belief that you can, and will, be victorious in the end. I realized that I do not have to become a “Runner for Funner” to finish races or feel accomplished in my running. I realized that taking pasta breaks is just as important as a good distance run for being the balanced individual I hope to become here in Taiwan. And, I realized that there are few things more satisfying in this world than running a good race, finishing strong, and having some of the best people in the world meet you at the finish line.

So I will contentedly park myself on this couch and count my blessings, because today, I am not going to the gym.

half marathon

Everything I Did, I Did for My Country

This past summer, the summer of 2016, I was in the United States for the Fourth of July. Because I typically studied abroad in the summer, being in-country for our most patriotic of holidays was most certainly not a guarantee, not even the norm. Yet, on July 4th, 2016, I was grilling out at a friend’s apartment in our nation’s capital, Washington D.C.

Well, technically, Tysons Corner, Fairfax County, Virginia, but close enough.

I was happy to be with people that I loved, in the country of my birth, on this day. Dare I say it, I even felt a little pride for my nation.

We had a lot going for us. In 2015, the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges decision made love the universal language that we were all now free to speak. The United States Treasury Department announced that Harriet Tubman would replace Andrew Jackson on the front of the twenty dollar bill. And Hilary Clinton was the first woman to be a major party’s presumptive nominee for President of the United States of America.

I suppose now is the time for a bit of political PSA: Regardless of how you feel about the current state of our national affairs, it is important that we look to the gains that we have made instead of dwelling on the staggering regressions we are now experiencing.

Because things are changing. The WWF reports that, for the first time in a century, the number of wild tigers that exist in the world has increased. And who doesn’t want to live in a world with more tigers?

As a young, optimistic American, I am choosing to see the positive changes that my country has embraced within the lifetimes of my grandparents, my parents, and me. I can assume that America as a whole no longer wishes to be judged for the mistakes of its past. While those with privilege remember the post-WWII era and what followed as “The Good Ole Days,” rosy retrospect does not paint an accurate picture of the America that brought you the Kent State Massacre and the assassination of Harvey Milk.

This is not to belittle the work that still needs to take place in our nation. I only mean to demonstrate that it is possible to progress from that which once was.

This is why the muffled gasps of horror I hear when I mention travelling to Cambodia are so disconcerting to me. Friends and even Taiwanese co-workers raised immediate questions about my safety and the reasoning for travelling to such a…”developing country” as soon as I broke the news. My boyfriend even lovingly sent me a string of articles relaying past violent crimes committed against tourists in Cambodia for the days leading up to my travels.

I understand their trepidation about malaria. I could even understand their apprehension if it was tied to blood flukes that inhabit the human body after contact with contaminated water (see my previous post about my own slight hypochondria). But it seems as if most of their fears stem from an antiquated version of Cambodia, or of Southeast Asia in general. Back when Southeast Asia was all just a blob on a map called ‘Nam, a hell on earth, where we lost our strapping, young American soldiers to the Viet Cong or PTSD. And, for those more acquainted with history, mention of Cambodia sparked images of killing fields, the Khmer Rouge, and the genocide that left over a quarter of the country’s population dead or wounded from torture at the hands of their own countrymen.

America’s past is remembered as Leave It To Beaver, but Cambodia still cannot get out of the jungle.

With that being said, I want to qualify a few claims in the interest of honesty, and thus, tell the rest of my story.

The Cambodian genocide was an atrocity that the world must remember and learn from if we ever hope to break the cyclical unrest that rips nations and peoples apart at their seams.

While in Phnom Penh, we travelled to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, commonly referred to as S-21, for a better understanding of this tragedy. The S-21 prison was a torture center for those political prisoners suspected of committing treason against the party. The building itself was once a high school, a center of learning for the community. Thousands saw the insides of this facility, but only seven of its prisoners survived.

The beginning of the museum opened up to a nice courtyard, a place for students to recreate and meet up with their friends after a long day of studies. But, for the over 17,000 Cambodians that entered this place as prisoners, this courtyard was their last glimpse of sunshine.

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The museum itself was left mostly intact, providing visitors an accurate picture of daily life in the prison. There were iron beds in the torture rooms, where prisoners were beaten and subjected to unimaginable physical and psychological tortures for information.

One account states that centipedes were placed in the wounds and private parts of the female prisoners in order to make them talk.  Some prisoners were manually emptied of blood, which was then given to the Khmer Rouge troops. For those that lost consciousness while being tortured, “medics” were sent in to pour salt water over wounds. This kept prisoners alive and conscious for as long as possible, so that confessions could be made. Once a prisoner “confessed,” he/she was systematically executed.

I write this because it is important that you know. I write this because it is true.

Interrogators were typically teenaged boys from the countryside, brought in to “smash the enemy.” For the young men employed at camps like S-21, this new and exciting dream of a strong, powerful Cambodia gave them something to believe in. These men were undereducated, predominately illiterate, and angry at the elite class for their urban wealth. Social change occurs when the undervalued, underappreciated and angry are empowered, a change that could be for the better or for the worse.

Pol Pot had a dream for their new Cambodia, a Cambodia of their past. He himself said, “Everything I did, I did for my country.”

But it was a dream of horrors, a deadly, sadistic dream. And in Cambodia, a museum has been erected to ensure that this history will never be allowed to repeat. It stands as a reminder and also as a warning.

In graffiti on one of the back walls of the museum, it is written: “Dear USA, this is what happened when someone tried to ‘Make Cambodia Great Again.’”

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Cambodia is now a nation bent on eradicating its once violent image in the eyes of the rest of the world. But instead of a country in militaristic and political desperation, a new, more subtle desperation seems to lurk.

This desperation seems to hang in the air, with the gusts of dust and grit kicked up from building projects that shoot up like weeds to sunlight. I see it in the eyes of every tuk-tuk driver that asks me, in decent English, where I wish to go.

I spent most of the beach portion of our trip contemplating this.

To appease my roommate, or more to convince him to take this trip with me in the first place, a tropical island beach was a necessary component of our little adventure. While breathtaking, beaches are generally not my favorite place to be, due to the inconceivable amounts of sand I find on my person once I remove my bathing suit in the shower. Magically, I find sand in every crevice and cranny on my body, as well as in every article of clothing and every bag that comes within a two-mile radius of the ocean. It is maddening.

To distract my mind from this granular ambush, I allowed my thoughts to trail off from the book that I was attempting to read. I took some time to evaluate my position here on Koh Rong, in Cambodia, and the reaction that the locals have toward tourists that visit their island and country, seeking one big party that never ends.

I had seen many Cambodian children playing in the glow of the neon signs of bars, of restaurants that serve food they cannot afford. Walking up and down the beach, I saw a building marked “Friends of Koh Rong,” an organization created to assist locals in the transition toward accepting the influx of tourists as an important part of their economy. I realize that this must bolster the revenue of the island considerably, but at what cost?

These children will only see one side of tourism: the party scene. They will watch as young foreigners sprawl out on their beaches, drinking until they make themselves sick, complaining when even the slightest detail varies from their tropical island fantasy.

wow

However, now that they are here, the island relies on these people. The tourists bring in money from the outside world, money that they need to provide a living for their families. So, they are extra polite, and do not complain when they are treated disrespectfully. They learn many languages so that the tourists can get around with ease. They pour the alcohol and clean up at night, and this is how their lives are and will continue to be.

Our tuk-tuk driver in Siem Reap was with us for two full days. We stayed out until after sunset on the first day, and were up for sunrise the following morning. This was part of our two-day tour of the city of Angkor, where Angkor Wat is located. We spent somewhere between seventeen and twenty hours exploring temples in those two days.

It cost fifteen dollars to rent out the tuk tuk driver for an entire day. And that is not fifteen dollars a day per person. That is fifteen dollars total.

We pried a little more into his private affairs the more time we spent with him. He was a new father, his wife having just given birth to a beautiful baby boy three months ago. He needed the money and competition between tuk tuk drivers was fierce. He was overly polite and never accepted the snacks we offered him. And we felt so bad for him that we tipped him almost what he was charging to drive us around.

Similarly, in Battambang, we attended a cooking class taught by a Cambodian chef, something only the most touristy of tourists ever attempted. When Charlotte innocently asked if Khmer food (Cambodian food) could be spicy, a barely repressed storm seemed to cross the face of our instructor. He interrupted the lesson to explain to us that Khmer food is traditionally very spicy. However, when tourists come, they complain about the spice, and complain online about the restaurant itself. Because we all use Internet reviews to seek out places to eat, restaurants lose business for not catering to the Western palate. And this is why, he concluded, the Khmer you know is only a shadow of what it truly is.

These were the first and only traces of outright resentment that I detected from any Cambodian, but it left a cloud hanging over the rest of our lesson.

Almost every foreigner that I met along the trip couldn’t rave enough about the hospitality of the Cambodian people. They would bend over backwards for you, one tourist told me. And if you looked for that sort of thing, you could definitely find it. But I personally could not shake the feeling that this was not the full story here. That behind those pleasantries and group-discount rates is a tale of desperation, of surviving in a country whose economy leans heavily upon being of service to others.

Yet, even as Cambodia struggles in its postcolonial dilemma, the country radiates a resilience and vibrancy unique to its people and culture.

As I scaled the ancient stone steps of a temple in the city of Angkor, a gaggle of Cambodian boys laughed at my hesitancy. I had originally contented myself with watching others climb to the top, not afraid to climb up as much as I worried about getting back down. However, Eric’s mocking incentivized me enough to think only of my ascent, and straighten out the details of my descent later.

It was about halfway through the climb when I started to feel nervous. I perched on a nearby platform to regain my composure. The boys had been running through the temple grounds as if it were a semi-religious parkour, bounding through construction zones and off precarious ledges with ease. They saw my struggle and gave me time enough to make it three-quarters of the way to the top before they scaled the steps as a herd, reaching over and under each other to find footing and hold.

I watched with a maternal concern for their safety, and, when they caught sight of this worried reaction, the boys merrily grinned, as if goading me to finish my climb and give them a piece of my mind.

It wouldn’t have helped. They didn’t understand English.

One boy, sporting a purple athletic shirt, was particularly encouraging, barking at me in Khmer until I pulled my legs over the precipice and looked out to the world around me. But, of course, by that point he and his billy goat friends had already tired of this tiny molehill, and had bounded away in search of newer adventures.

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They came back in time to watch my descent, and it was a real show.

I had to go down the steps backwards, resting my butt on every stair that I had conquered. Not even halfway down, the fear of falling rooted me in my spot, and Charlotte was forced to make all sorts of promises to charm me from the stone to which I clung. Once I was on solid ground again, I managed a small nod towards my worthy competitor, the stairs, only to spot the purple shirt out of the corner of my eye.

He had climbed up and down the stairs while I was wrestling with my overwhelming fear, but once I seemed calm again, the boy’s mouth became a straight line, and his childish features showed a hint of the man he would become as he nodded to me and darted up the ruins of his people’s history.

His somber expression might see him through many of the difficulties he encounters, growing up in Siem Reap, but his smile is distinctly Cambodian. Despite grave setbacks, the Cambodian people have found a way to remain hopeful about the future of their homeland.

I met many people whose diligence was inspiring. Mothers who sold handmade clothing to put their daughters through school. Young women working in hostels to practice their English. And with each conversation, I began to recognize it. A hope that many in my country seem to have lost.

This Fourth of July, who knows where I will be. Taiwan, Japan, or maybe even on a flight, headed home. But, regardless of my physical location, I will take a moment to remember what true belief in one’s country looks like. This hope in the future, this belief that things will, that things must get better, that is what will guide us as we push forward towards our goals. It is the most I can do for my country.

feet-in-cambodia


Inscription of Hope

I believe in the sun

even when it is not shining

and I believe in love

even when there's no one there

and I believe in God

even when he is silent

I believe through any trial

there is always a way

 

but sometimes in this suffering

and hopeless despair

my heart cries for shelter to know somones there

but a voice rises whithin me saying hold on my child

I'll give you strength I'll give you hope just stay a little while

 

I believe in the sun

even when it is not shining

and I believe in love

even when there's no one there

 

but I believe in God

even when he is silent

I believe through any trial there is always a way

 

may there someday be sunshine

may there some day be happiness

may there someday be love

may there someday be peace

 

 

The Crooked Road

“…and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.”

And just like that, I put the novel down.

My literary friends would smile and point it out: how fitting, that I would finish Kerouac’s On the Road just before I began a trip of my own, in every way similar and dissimilar to a Beat cross-country reverie. If you are interested in my opinion of the novel, you can reach me between the hours of 6:00 AM and 11:00 PM for my riveting analysis. But, for the 99.7% of my readership who has no interest in such a tirade, I will spare you.

However, though I was dissatisfied with this literary classic, the divinity of travel is something that Sal and I can agree on.  Because, to quote Kerouac, “Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.”

And where, exactly, would the road be taking us?  I’m glad you asked.

My roommates and I are planning a 16-day excursion through Cambodia and Thailand.

Now, when someone erroneously asks me how my time was in Thailand, I will be able to truthfully answer them.

And although such snark was not the reason behind travelling to these two countries, it would be difficult for me to pinpoint an exact statement of purpose for our little adventure.  Ever since I learned of its existence in AP World History (thanks, Mr. Nolan), I have wanted to see Angkor Wat (or, more correctly, the city of Angkor) in person. We also decided that Japan and South Korea, while nice in their own rights, would be too cold and too expensive. We settled on Cambodia right away, but the second county in our journey was still undecided.

cant-wait-cambodia

I watched what felt like hundreds of YouTube videos on the must-see sights of Southeast Asia, searching for something that I couldn’t live without seeing. We finally agreed that we just could not pass up the beauty of Halong Bay, in Vietnam. And only after that decision had been made did I consider the reality of this trip. The fact that I was really going to be in Cambodia on January 26th. The fact that I was going to walk out of my apartment in Taiwan, without adult supervision, and get on a plane, without adult supervision, and fly to another country using an itinerary that I created, without adult supervision.

It was a lot to take in.

This Fulbright experience makes the sixth time that I have been abroad. Three tours in mainland China, two in Taiwan, and one in Cuba. However, each and every trip was for educational purposes, as a student or a teacher. This trip will be the first time that I am travelling for recreation, for travel’s sake. I could, in theory, wander the streets of Cambodia for ten straight days, and there would be no one to chastise me for missing a planned tour or a scheduled group outing. Cue Invictus.

“I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.”

invictus
I do love Morgan Freeman.

How wonderfully terrifying.

Because, although the first realization was a moment of triumph, the second was a vision of disaster, a swallowing of the wind that had once pushed my sails. Being the master of my own fate didn’t sound as appealing when Doubt tapped me on the shoulder and reminded me that I had no clue what I was doing.  Where would we stay? What cities would we visit? Can I even name two cities in Cambodia at this very moment?

These inner-interrogations prompted frantic productivity. Before long, we had a Google Doc littered with websites, helpful links, traveler’s tips, and potential places of interest. Eric, with a passion for order, created not one, but three tables that are labeled “Trip Itinerary,” “Housing,” and “Transportation” respectively. What was once a scattering of information was transformed into a coherent plan. It looked like we knew what we were doing after all.

But as the trip began to flesh out and take form, I recognized a change in my demeanor that I deemed cause for concern. There were many small, inconsequential nuisances that surely added to my deepened sense of anxiety, but it goes without question that planning a trip of these proportions was wearing on me. I would lie in bed at night, contemplating how we would get from one city to the next with little to no knowledge of the language or the terrain. I felt as if no amount of information would be enough to prepare me for those first few hectic moments of Phnom Penh, and as I delved deeper and deeper into the wells of Internet knowledge, some less-than-pleasant things began to emerge from those depths.

I watched an entire 51:49 documentary on the Khmer Rouge, for example. I needed to be left alone for some time before I was ready to talk to other humans again after that.

But, I also spent a considerable about of time pouring over the CDC’s page entitled “Health Information for Travelers to Cambodia.” I pondered the percentage possibilities of contracting things like Japanese Encephalitis and Dengue Fever. However, nothing chilled my veins more than the section called “Malaria.”

ohhhh-noooooo

“When traveling in Cambodia, you should avoid mosquito bites to prevent malaria. You may need to take prescription medicine before, during, and after your trip to prevent malaria, depending on your travel plans, such as where you are going, when you are traveling, and if you are spending a lot of time outdoors or sleeping outside.”

This triggered some small paranoia that I was previously unaware I had. I envisioned mosquitoes crawling over my shoulders and back, jabbing needle-like mouths into exposed flesh, and then the fits of nausea and delirium that would accompany my new-found friend, the Plasmodium parasite. I remembered my AP Biology days (thanks Mrs. Sutherland, although for less spectacular reasons), when we discussed malaria and the long-term, permanent damage that it can inflict. And, for some reason, I was sure that I was going to get it.

Even before my parents were informed of our travel plans, I had decided on malaria medication. Obtaining said medication and my personal decisions regarding the medication that I was prescribed are another tale. However, my slight bout of Hypochondriasis, coupled with crippling self-doubt, led to a panic attack, a constricting monster that seized hold of my airways while I sat at my desk at school.

It was then that I needed to re-evaluate.

My parents knew about our travel plans and had given us their hesitant blessing. At this point in the planning process, we had purchased every plane ticket and reserved every hostel and bungalow that we would be staying in, and we had even mapped out the bus schedule for travelling from one city to the next (thanks, Eric). I had acquired malaria medication using my broken Chinese, and I had even created a loose packing list with cultural sensitivity in mind (we are visiting many temples in both countries). We hit a slight roadblock when we discovered that the visa process for Vietnam was tedious and would require a trip to the Vietnamese Embassy in Taipei, but this was quickly resolved by deciding to go to Thailand instead. Nothing to cause great concern.

It seems that my excessive worry mostly stemmed from the immensity of the undertaking. In every minute of the planning process, I was forced to recall how I am somewhat incapable when it comes to reading maps, interpreting street signs, determining my left from my right, or even knowing exactly where I am more than 60% of the time. Thinking about how I get lost in my own city was unavoidable, but it started a spiral of self-doubt and fear that led me to question my ability to make this trip at all.

But it was time to break the cycle.

There is a Cambodian proverb that begins, “Don’t reject the crooked road.” My road as a Blundering Enthusiast is definitely not without backtracks and U-turns. At times, it can be quite crooked. But instead of fearing disaster, I am learning to embrace the madness.

I cannot with any amount of certainty say that we will not get lost, get stuck, miss a flight, or get a serious case of the runs. While we have done substantial research on every city that we will visit in these two weeks, we are still entering into places that are foreign to us. And uncertainty scares me.

There will be hiccups. That is a part of life. But if those minor incidents keep me from doing the things that I love, then am I living at all? Kerouac said it best, I suppose: “nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old.”

So, the next time that I am tempted to watch videos detailing the life cycle of the blood fluke, I will instead close my eyes and ask God to bless the crooked road, because courage is only fear that has said its prayers (thanks, Missy).

The planning isn’t over by any stretch of the imagination. But I cannot wait to see how it turns out.

Koh rong.jpg

 

 

 

Home is Where You Can Pee with the Door Open

Regardless of where I find myself in the world, or what temperatures the thermometer reports, the holiday season is always a special time to me. Last year, I celebrated Thanksgiving in Baoding, China, a holiday that goes mostly unnoticed in Chinese culture. But this year, there was no going home mid-December. The entirety of the holidays would be spent in sleepy little Yilan, and although Christmas is certainly celebrated here, the normal Christmas traditions like putting up a tree or making cookies and candies over Christmas break were not feasible. For one thing, we didn’t have a Christmas break. And secondly, we don’t have an oven.

But, on the fourth Sunday of Advent, a week before Christmas Day, our kitchen smelled like mint, mistletoe, and Speculoos Cookie Butter. We were not making Mom’s famous Buckeyes, nor were we stringing Christmas lights (those are permanent decorations in Eric’s room). Our little Guorong apartment family was standing around a lit scented candle with a spoonful of cookie butter each, creating our own Advent service before we separated for the holiday festivities. The fourth Advent candle can represent Faith, but we focused on Reflection and Love as we gathered around our metal countertop, holding the plastic spoon-forks that a past ETA had left in the apartment, coated in sugary goodness.

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I said a few words about the meaning of Advent, a preparation for Christmas. And then we went around the circle, each sharing a reflection to tide us over until we saw each other again. Charlotte, a past ETA, expressed gratitude that Eric and I had included her in our ETA journey and kept her on as a roommate. Eric, who had just recently visited another island on a service project, regretted that we would be split up again so quickly, and required a lazy movie/TV day when we all reunited. And then, I thanked these two wonderful people for being the constant, the consistent when my mother’s cancer shook me to the core. We then clunked our plastic utensils together and ate our cookie butter.

As I put head to pillow that night, I thought about the meaning of “home.” In a very real sense, this apartment on Guorong road is my home. It is where all of my belongings have been stashed since the first of August. It is where my bed is, and my stack of books, and my small collection of scarves that I brought from America, and my toothbrush. It is the place that I worry about forgetting to lock up when I leave for a weekend. It is where I pee with the door open on occasion. And, I also pay rent for this place.

But, at that very moment, a different kind of “home” was on its way to Yilan, strapped into a 747 and praying to Jesus that the plane wouldn’t go down. Someone should have given her drugs, or at the very least sleeping medication, but I suppose she wouldn’t have taken it. That didn’t make the thirteen-hour plane ride any easier on her, however. This type of home is mobile, and willing to travel several thousand miles to be with her only daughter for Christmas.

Yes, my family flew to Taiwan. #BrumleysTakeTaiwan.

love

And that hashtag, in three words, explains why I haven’t blogged in a month. I’ve been busy Taking Taiwan, okay?

I feel like I can joke about it because, even though my parents have come and gone back to America now, the proposition still seems laughable. My mother, cancer-ridden and limping due to degenerative arthritis in her hip, and my father, a 6’2” tower who has trouble bending into cars, let alone airplane seats, came to Taiwan for ten days. Ten days is a long time. In ten days, one eventually has to use a public restroom. With squatty potties. And no anti-bacterial soap. And one cannot eat pasta for ten days straight, in order to avoid trying other foods (although the waitresses at Nu Pasta in Jiaoxi did give my family a rewards card by the fourth day).

What an amazing spectacle! My two “homes,” created out of vastly different circumstances, coming together and merging for the most brief and fleeting of moments. On the first night that my parents were here in Taiwan, I invited them to dinner with my two roommates, to a nice Italian restaurant that was inevitably closed. Being the flexible individuals that we are, we decided to eat at another restaurant, aptly named Go Home. We ordered set meals for everyone, a nice bland chicken leg for my mother and spicy chicken for the rest of the clan. With our patchwork Chinese, my roommates and I explained the very specific food restrictions that my mother followed, a diet set in part by doctors and in part by culture shock. And I watched the drama unfold.

Eric has on his “meet the parents” face, the one where your expressions are just a touch grander than in everyday life. He laughed in the appropriate places. Charlotte told a story about being awkward to make my parents feel less awkward. She spoke with the soft, cooing tones of one who knows how to deal with the jet-lagged and travel-disgruntled. I offered my parents over to them gladly and took my first deep breath since their arrival. Because I had underestimated the effort required to transport four persons from Point A to Point B using a language that the other group members do not understand.

When our food arrived, I watched with baited breath, waiting for my family to sample their meal. But, sampling the meal was a level of skill that my parents had not yet attained. I realized that I had taken for granted my ability to eat with chopsticks. My father speared a piece of chicken and popped it into his mouth with a sort of apologetic grin after trying unsuccessfully to pick it up with two chopsticks. At least he could put sustenance in his body that way, although he did later admit that he had been eating the dried red peppers that came with the chicken as well, until his mouth was the surface of the Sun and he looked up to discover that everyone else was eating around them.

Mom, on the other hand, was picking around her food as if all of it was dried peppers. She was unaccustomed to these flavors, prevalent in all Taiwanese dishes, which made every dish an uncertainty. The noodles that she tasted were made with rice, so those were out of the question. The green beans were too crunchy, and she wanted nothing to do with the scrambled egg, served as one off-white blob in a separate dish. Thankfully, Eric did not let it go to waste. She was, however, a good sport through the entire thing, admitting that she had anticipated some difficulties with the food in another country. That just meant that ice cream would 100% happen after dinner.

Back in the hotel room that first night, I noted just how trying this experience would be for my Kentucky-raised, middle-aged parents. The struggles with food would continue for the length of their stay here, and I was starting to run out ideas for food options fast. At the Luodong Night Market the following evening, my mother ate a hot ham-and-cheese, while I frantically ran from stall to stall in an effort to find something she would be willing to try. My brother and I ate Cong You Bing burritos filled with pork while we waited in line for a Hong Kong pancake with blueberry jam. To hold her over, my mother caved and ate a McDonald’s French fry.

mom-eats-mickey-ds

Mom had predicted her food dilemma even before the talk of visiting me turned into a reality, but that didn’t make her special accommodations any easier to satisfy, nor did it make watching her struggle any less painful. I projected a lot of this onto myself for not being able to provide them with restaurant after restaurant of Yilan delicacies that were pleasing to her palate. I planned, and planned, and over-planned, but a bulleted itinerary cannot save even the most prepared of travel groups from a restaurant’s odd serving hours or a late train. Once, after reading a blog, I metroed my family to a highly-reviewed American restaurant in Taipei, only to find that it was completely vegan and those delicious-looking burgers were made with black bean patties.

Black bean patties and chopsticks definitely pushed my parents out of their comfort zones. But I hadn’t realized until my family’s arrival that I was living in a comfort zone that I myself had created here in Taiwan. From the outside looking in, it might seem as if I am doing something quite daring, living abroad for an entire year. But, after the transitionary phase of moving in and getting our teaching assignments, I have developed a pattern of living that I hardly vary from, a routine that feels comforting to me.

Another crucial definition of “home” is a place that creates the idea of comfort, a safe space where one feels accepted regardless of circumstance. I have found that in Taiwan, for the person that I have become while living here. And while I am very close with my parents and brother, they had yet to see the woman that I have grown into during my time here, the version of me that has evolved from taking on responsibilities in the classroom and from reflecting on herself and others in new and different ways. I was showing them my comfortable, my ordinary, and for my parents, it was exciting and interesting and neat, but also unfamiliar. This home that I had forged was not theirs. It was something that they couldn’t even recognize.

As I led them through the streets and train stations of my world, I had the realization that my home here was something that just wouldn’t translate completely. My parents were vacationers here in my daily life. This meant that not every interaction with my family in this world would stir within me those warm, fuzzy feelings of being home. In fact, many of the moments were somewhat stressful and often tiring. Keeping track of four humans is way more difficult than keeping track of just one (**mental note for when I am thinking about procreating**).

A breakthrough came during our Christmas evening here, when Eric’s host family and mine combined with my real family to create a multi-family feast at a local restaurant outside of the city. The chicken was roasted as a full, intact bird and placed on our table to be divvied out to all those seated around it. Mom took her portion, and ate it contentedly. I watched in awe. My mother was enjoying a Taiwanese meal in Taiwan.

But the Christmas miracles were just getting started. Eric, arriving a little late, made it just in time to hear my mother say, “The fish is good.” I thought Eric was going to keel over on the spot. The fish!?!? Foreigners often struggle the most with fish and seafood in Taiwan and mainland China due to their practice of keeping the bones in fish while serving it. These small bones can be difficult to spot, let alone pick out, often leaving the experience of eating fish more an experience of eating with caution and spitting out things that aren’t edible.

Eric and I exchanged a glance across the table, and I took the second deep breath of my parents being here. My father, mother, and brother ate their fill of various meat and vegetable dishes, passed around the table family-style. My parents asked about how the children were doing in school and laughed along with Eric’s host father, who repeatedly asked for alcohol so that his spoken English would get better through the night. We exchanged presents, told stories, and went out for tea at a local café afterwards.

family

I couldn’t have asked for a better Christmas. This moment, where my families converged and became one, satisfied a desire for cohesion, the mixing and sharing of worlds. I have often felt that I live with one foot in Taiwan and one in America, but in this moment, if only for a night, I was standing two feet together, solidly in the place that I would call home.

P.S. My mom brought my roommates buckeyes from America. You jealous.