The produce and vegetable section of my neighborhood grocery store got its fifteen seconds of fame this Monday afternoon. The aisles were packed with Taiwanese customers inspecting eggplant and ginger, making purchases in bulk and without much consideration for shelf life. The bread and baked goods had already been picked through by the time Eric and I got there, a little after five. Milk cartons were evaporating off the shelves, and we had to push our way through to the green onion pancakes before they vanished as well.
Comparing two brands of veggie crackers, I got the vague feeling that I was a part of some Prepper group-cult, diligent in their fear of the world’s imminent destruction. Two jugs of water, a flashlight, some candles and a lighter, plus food to last us for two days. I reviewed the ever-present checklist in my head. We casually pondered questions like, would our gas stove still work without electricity? How long would the eggs keep without refrigeration?
This was the first stage of preparation for Typhoon Megi, a rumored wild child headed straight for the shores of Taiwan. This initial step can be called Detached Preparation. Once we heard that on Tuesday we would be out of school, Eric and I quickly made the decision to fill our fridge. At that moment, its sole occupants included an old mooncake from Moon Festival (something that quickly got thrown out after making questionable stains on a paper napkin) and some leftover tomato sauce from when we cooked a week ago. There was no living off of that.
We calmly collected our grocery items in a shopping basket, paid at the counter, and then walked out into the rain. At the apartment, we unloaded the groceries, and then we were off to the gym. Even a typhoon couldn’t keep us from our Monday night Zumba class.
This is, in fact, the second stage of typhoon prep: Confident Disregard. We sweated our way through Zumba as a hell-raiser tore across the Pacific Ocean, throwing her aquatic tantrum and even upturning a crane or two in her path. Instead of fear, we rationalized; we had just purchased two packs of toilet paper. What is more, those two packs of toilet paper had been on sale. We were prepared for this typhoon.
And these were my thoughts until we left the gym and watched as a crane took down the 7/11 sign. 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. Eric’s assurances did little to calm my fears; I had reached step three: Sure, Let’s Get some Bubble Tea before We Die, because the 7/11 is Closing and there is Nothing Left for Us (kind of a long name for a step, I suppose).
On our drive home, Eric marveled at the lack of pedestrians and cars on the roads. These city streets, normally teeming with life at half past nine, echoed with sudden disuse. It was as if someone had dropped a pen and then walked away before it made contact with the ground. Abandonment reverberated in the pavement. This road that we have taken so many times before felt changed, foreign, and empty. But we were all together, hunkered down in apartment complexes and homes above the rain-soaked asphalt, waiting out the storm.
The Bump I Made in the Road
Typhoons, like humans and chocolate, come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Megi, feeling out her terrible twos, will greet the eastern coast of Taiwan with a sloppy wet kiss, but storm Malakas made his way wobbling and tumbling through southern Taiwan earlier last week, uprooting fruit trees and forcing many to evacuate the area before his blessed arrival. On the day Malakas hit, I was not bunkered into my cozy apartment, surrounded by my jugs of water and provisions. Oh no.
When I encountered Malakas, I was on a small bike in the middle of the Luodong township, pedaling my hardest to the middle school where I teach. Despite the pelting rain and winds, Dong Guang Middle School was still holding classes, which meant a ten-to-fifteen-minute bike ride to the building became a blustery thirty minutes of adventure and utter saturation. Because an umbrella was useless with these wind speeds, the only protection I has was what amounts to a large plastic sheet with arm holes, which only covered the upper half of my body and left my legs to the elements. It was a nice shade of lavender, to add a little cheer to this story. In this plastic armor I rode my bike, dodging cars and debris. But the more perilous aspect of my attire was the flimsy hood attached to my trash-bag-like covering. Wind whipped the hood from one side of my face to another, leaving my head to be drenched in most instances. And this is where this story takes its turn for the even more dismal.
One fateful gust drooped the hood right over my eyes, tinging my vision in an opaque purple that utterly shrouded the metal pole that I would collide with, sending me sprawling into the street. Now, I need to make it clear that I did not fall off my bicycle exactly. The bike, loyal to the end, just went down with me. After taking a few necessary seconds to assess the situation and finding myself well except for what would be some bruising on my right leg, I righted myself and went on my not-so-merry way.
I wish I could somehow write away what happened. That my words could transform an embarrassing and somewhat hazardous experience into an elegant dance of typhoon gust and metal. The crunch of pavement harmonizing with the pounding of rain as the heavens opening up around me and I sprang from my fallen bike, only to jump back on and ride the storm out. Maybe the bike’s impression would still be in the asphalt, and a monument would be erected on that road in my honor, to memorialize the dedication one should have toward learning. The other middle school teachers would be impressed by my determination and I would make it to Chinese class on time to tell my tales and recount my deeds.
But as I trudged up the ramp into my office, the other teachers looked upon me with perplexed expressions, unable to understand why I was so wet in the first place. I fumbled through class, missed my train, was an hour late to Chinese, and an old man in the building where I take classes chastised us on our way out the door for being too loud.
The crying started as I rode on the back of Eric’s scooter home and did not stop until I stepped into a steaming shower and got a grip on myself. My roommates, concerned for my well-being, bought me ice cream from the 7/11 (see how ubiquitous it is), and we sat around listening to soothing music and eating the only meal we seem to cook: pasta. Jessica: 0, Malakas: at least 27, possibly more.
Country Roads: Tear Drops in my Eyes
While falling off my bike in a typhoon was certainly not my favorite thing that has happened in Taiwan, one cannot expect my proverbial will to be broken. I have blundered my way through four countries in the past twenty-three years of existence and, with every mistaken road, wrong turn, blooper, outtake, and botch, I have somehow escaped with only the stories to tell as scars. And from this, I have accepted that my lot in life is not to be the Chic and Mysterious Jetsetter, but the Blundering Enthusiast.
The Chic and Mysterious Jetsetter arranges her flights in a way that is both cost-efficient and allows her to have an amazing, one-day layover in another country, where she takes artistic photos of herself in amazing places that are off the beaten path and only add to her Mysterious character. The Blundering Enthusiast has to run through terminals to make approximately 87.2% of her flights, which leaves her sweaty for her fourteen-hour plane ride. She eats a bag of pretzels that have been squished in her bulky backpack and realizes only two hours before landing that she has worn a long-sleeve shirt to an island of tropical climate. In the hottest month of their year. Good.
I have wasted many moments comparing myself to the Chic and Mysterious Jetsetter. Was she raised in a Jetsetting household? Are her parents a unique blend of Jetsetter that exposed her at a young age to their Jetsetting ways? How many trips will it take for me to resemble her Jetsetting qualities? How can I make myself look better after getting off an airplane? Often these questions circle back to where I was raised and how I was brought up.
I walked barefoot in the heat of summer afternoons on country roads that winded from my little log cabin to my grandmother’s house, from one realm of familiar to another. Every pothole and ridge in that asphalt was known, explored, understood and accepted for what it was. I knew the banks of soft meadow grass from the twisted vines of poison ivy, and I took the shortcut through my grandmother’s yard to avoid the sharp jabs of their gravel drive.
On the very worst of days, the temptation of familiar overtakes me. Like the John Denver song, I yearn for those country roads to take me home, to the place I belong. Where I am comfortable, where I am safe. There are, however, two large holes in this fabricated theory.
The first and more obvious of the two is that I did not necessarily belong in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, even though I lived there all my life. My desire to be the Chic and Mysterious Jetsetter is one that has been incubated in my very heartstrings for as long as I can remember. I asked for a globe at the age of eight so I could better plot out my adventures. My brother and I would spin the globe on its hinges endlessly, stopping its rotation with our stubby fingers to determine the next destination of our fictional travels.
It was only at nineteen years of age that I flew on my first plane. And, in that moment, I felt like I was beginning to understand the concept of belonging. I belonged to the air, and the distant lands that I had never been to, and to the song of leaving.
But sometimes, the air becomes fierce gales of wind that toss me off my bike. And more times than not, I am lost in these distant lands, on streets with potholes and ridges that I have never seen before. I do not know which banks to avoid. I have no eye for the shortcuts that I need to take. The song of leaving makes me cry after I have gone. And yet, it still sings.
And I could tell you how singing “Country Roads” for my host family brought back warm, fuzzy memories of lush bluegrass and pastureland. But, I was more worried about my harmony, and the stage lights were too bright, and I was merely reading the words.
And I could tell you that, while visiting an orphanage this Sunday and meeting a couple from Monroeville, Kentucky who were adopting a child, I was struck by an amazing sense of connection and belongedness with these people from the commonwealth that I call home. The husband’s mother had gone to Western Kentucky University just like me. We spent some time saying the names of places we both knew, and smiling over our shared knowledge. But, our accents were not the same and we supper time came, we didn’t eat the same foods, and when I told them of the places that I had been to here, they had never been. We could not smile our secret smile any more. We ate in mostly silence as I wondered what they would do in the coming storm.
All Roads lead to Romanticism
These rare moments of serendipity have a certain artistic quality to them. Like my bike saga, this story of an unexpected and seemingly unlikely meeting, given the right storyteller, could be spun like gold. In a world quite unlike one’s own, there exists happy reminders of home, of what is known and thus revered as sacred. Here lies the second problem with our theory: there is no forward progression on that road. Because when everything is sacred, nothing is. And when you come home to meet the familiar, you only find yourself missing the unknown that much more. It is the Catch-22 of the Blundering Enthusiast.
On our first journey to the neighborhood supermarket, I led my roommate through the winding and slightly curved streets of Yilan in what I thought was the most direct route. We bought our few required items, and then Eric noted that we had, for a time, been walking away from the market itself to get to a conjoining street. He then led us in a more direct fashion, shaving three to four minutes off our walk. All roads may lead to Rome, he quoted, but this road was faster. And we laughed, for the running joke is that it takes me double the time for us to do the same task. Even my computer runs slower than his.
And I could end this blog post by saying that that was okay. That the time it takes me, the Blundering Enthusiast, to get from point A to point B is filled with adventures and surprises the Jetsetter would overlook. That being drenched in a typhoon was a way of realizing the desire to push forward that I have within myself, something that even a nature disaster cannot abate. That meeting Kentuckians halfway across the globe that I poured over as a child was a way of reminding myself of my roots, of where I come from and the journeys that lie in wait for me along the way. But, if all roads do lead to Rome, then all blog posts lead to Romanticism.
I could say that maybe the comfort that we are looking for comes not in the shared knowledge of the roads that we take, but in the shared blunderings of the journey.
Or I could simply say that sometimes, I need to watch out for poles.