It was that time again, the season of leaving. Piles of summer clothing and those few books that can’t be left behind seemed to colonize my bedroom floor and assist in pushing me out of the spaces that I had once occupied, the spaces that I called home. Summer days oozed out their final goodbyes with fresh watermelon and sluggish clouds to accompany lazy pool days. Conversations ended with that recognizable note of insecurity, when the sender and receiver both wonder at the finality of their farewells. A trip to the grocery store became the last time I would walk through its doors. Lunch with a friend became the last meal we would share.
I have accepted the position as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Yilan, Taiwan. I will not be returning to the States for an entire year. This, to me, is a new level of finality.
The greatest contradiction of my life thus far has been my feelings towards this type of leaving. It is true that I do not want to stay in the quaint, slumbering town of my childhood for the rest of my life. It is true that I have been working for five years with this end goal in mind. It is true that every word of my undergraduate thesis, every minute of fretful and trying revision on my application essays, every second of patiently (and not so patiently) waiting for news has led up to this.
But it is also true that traveling the world over could be simultaneously wondrous and immensely isolating. Leaving my family for such an extended amount of time is terrifying. My brother will be 21 before I can see him again. Two of the younger cousins that I watched grow up will start their first year of high school. My mother’s hair will grow back. Life will be different.
About a month before my actual departure, I began to have nightmares. Not nightmares so much as streams of lists, puddling in my REM cycle and clogging brain pores with their endless frustration. Wheels turned endlessly in those wee hours meant for calm rest and escapist oblivion. It stemmed from the constant list-making that comes with an international move. I made lists for my lists. MY LISTS HAD LISTS, OKAY. There were appointments to make and documents to copy, people to inform and services to discontinue. I was scheduling a solid thirteen months in advance for checkups and family reunions. This level of list game could not simply halt after the pen had left my tattered travel notebook. The strongest and most insistent pens, I find, are always in my mind.
This nocturnal cataloguing began to take a toll. The dentist commented that I “wasn’t totally there” as she cleaned my incisors and reminded me to floss, in vain. My body felt the weight of information overload. I even walked to the terminal in a gauzy haze. But the tears streaming down my face most certainly did not help the clarity of my sight.
Haunted. I have never felt the severity of this term more fully than the nights leading up to my journey’s beginning. It was a tangible weight. I looked over my shoulder at the human beings congregated outside my TSA checkpoint, only shadows of the people they would grow to be while I am away. Supernatural tremors rattled the windows of the planes that shuttled me further and further from the life I had carefully constructed. My emotional Richter scale was off the charts as ghostlike whispers of doubt followed me from terminal to terminal, airport to airport. I was haunted by that which I was leaving behind.
And my arrival in Taiwan passed without incident. I was greeted in Taipei by representatives of the program, complete with block-lettered banner, and I found my accommodations comfortable, if not better than expected. We began the tedium of converting our everyday lives like currency, applying for resident visas, acquiring bank accounts. I began cursing myself about the things that I had allowed to fall through the list’s cracks, the forgotten pair of flip flops, the car insurance that I accidently carried across the globe from the car it is insuring. Even the flaws of my lists haunted me.
But the phantoms that I had perched over my now jetlagged shoulders would be no match for the ghosts of the lush paradise that is Taiwan. In truth, the first week of my life in Yilan has been relatively stress-free and without cause for concern. I could talk to my family through the WhatsApp, an amazing advancement in technology that comforted me through the transition. I met seven fellow ETAs who could not be more warm and endearing, not to mention the support staff ready to answer any questions that we might possibly have. But the Taiwanese people were preparing for a different haunt, a mystical typhoon of apparitions, a custom the people refer to as Ghost Month.
I was first initiated to the practices of Ghost Month while studying at National Taiwan University two summers ago. I watched the people of Taiwan burn money in what appeared to be metal trash cans and set up fruits and other goodies as offerings to appease the ghosts that were unleashed upon the world for this month alone. They were hoping that they would be looked upon favorably in the future for the offerings they were making in the present. They were completing a sort of supernatural paying it forward. As ETAs, we took part in a cultural excursion to learn about this festival, making paper lotus flowers to float down the river on the first night of the Ghost Month, a tradition meant to lead wandering ghosts home.
We also discussed the superstitious element of this customary celebration. There are many that take part in the festival because they believe it is better to follow tradition and err on the side of pleasing the ghosts that may or may not exist than to anger the forces that can govern their future. They would rather double and triple-check the arrangement of the auspicious offerings than be haunted by their carelessness when bad luck ambles their way.
But what are the people of Taiwan haunted by? Although it is only my first week here, I have seen what sits on their shoulders. I have noticed the shadows that darken their eyes. The students are haunted by the pressures of exams and testing into the best schools for the best chances of success. Their families pay for cram schools instead of vacations. Performance is a god.
During this month, as I am settling into the place where I will spend an entire year teaching and building relationships with students, I want to pause and think about the ghosts we all have following us. Whether they are ghosts that we try to bribe or the shadows in the corners of our own minds, we all have demons, as they say. This year will be an opportunity to let some of my demons fade in the dust of conscious living. As I assist my students in navigating through the seas of truly high-stakes testing, I am learning to accept with serenity the changes that life brings while remembering to taste the bitter along with the sweet.
For now, as I am settling in to the new place that I will call home, I offer these few words of peace. Let worry rest and keep your shoulders light, my friends. The ghosts are only out for a season. Soon, soon enough, they will be gone.