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.

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