The Aboriginal on the Wall
The first time I traveled abroad I was eighteen years old. I had spent two years living away from home at the Mississippi School for Math and Science, and I thought I was prepared for leaving the country for nine months. I viewed myself as a strong, independent person who would easily adjust to life in a new country. I set expectations that I would immediately fit into the new place, and that I would not miss home.
I was wholly unprepared for the experience of moving to a foreign country.
The day I left for New York to meet the other NSLI-Y students, my plane was cancelled on the runway. We were waiting for liftoff when over the pilot announced we would be returning to the terminal, and that everyone would have to get off the flight. The flight attendant, after seeing my devastated expression, leaned over and whispered a phone number to call into my ear. He said they could help me rebook. I did, and I was able to get on a flight a few hours later.
Next I called my parents. We decided since I had a few hours before my flight, they would come over to the airport and pick me up. We would go to McDonald’s and get some breakfast and spend some more time together. Looking back on it, it was a mistake. The only thing harder than saying goodbye is saying goodbye twice.
We went to the McDonald’s on 49, the one the big M out front. I call this brief hour of my life The McDonald’s Incident. Overwhelmed with seeing my parents again and the thought of leaving to a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language, I broke down. I cried and hyperventilated in the McDonald’s. Looking back on it, it’s a little funny. I made a big scene in a temple of American culture right as I was about to set off to Taiwan. Maybe I smoked too many hamburgers. Who knows?
Sometimes I am amazed at how brave my parents are. I was crying and saying how I no longer wanted to go abroad, and they still encouraged me. They comforted me and told me to go and try it for a month. If I hated it, we would work something out. I know it must have been incredibly hard to say those words, to continue to encourage me when I’m sure what they wanted to say was “Don’t go, come back and live at home for a year. Mom can make you your favorite food, and dad can take you swimming. It’ll all be fine.”
We went back to the airport, choked out goodbyes, and I was off. The McDonald’s Incident set the tone for my first month in Taiwan.
When cats are sick, they don’t show it. They hide it away. Maybe it’s because we’ve always had a cat in the house, or maybe I’m naturally like this way, but when I’m sick or sad, I don’t show it. I also hide away my emotions until things get better. When I got to New York to meet the other NSLI-Y students, I wasn’t myself. I was too nervous to eat, and I homesick for a country I hadn’t even left. Despite all this, I acted lively and pretended to be normal.
My last morning in New York, I sat on rusted cast-iron bench underneath the trees in Riverside Park. Neon exercise robots zipped past. Women in black skirts and white shirts clicked the rhythm of the city out on the pavement with their shiny heels. I called my mom to talk for a few minutes and to say a goodbye before I got on the long flight from New York to Japan. After I hung up, I sat on the bench in silence. Sunlight crept through the empty space between leaves. A light breeze brushed my face. I stood up, took one last look around the park, and headed back to the hotel.
When I first arrived in Taiwan, I needed a lot of time alone. Even in my day to day life at college, I spend a lot of time alone. However, I worried that if I spent too much time by myself my host parents would worry. At the same time, spending time with them exhausted me at first. Even simple things like eating had new rules and customs that I didn’t understand. It was a period of intense culture shock, mixed with exhaustion and jet lag.
The first time I Skyped my parents I gave them a tour of my room. I showed them my closet and bed. I took them on the balcony for a glimpse of my new neighborhood. Last, I showed them the clock in my room: an Aboriginal man in tribal dress. The gem of it all is that his penis is very visible. Even now I don’t know this clock’s background story. Maybe it was there when the house was built, or maybe it was a gift. I’ve never asked.
This period of my life is not easy to write about; neither is it easy to share. It wasn’t until recently that I was able to openly talk about it with people. Honestly, I used to feel a lot of shame and embarrassment about my first month in Taiwan. I still feel some shame now. Students who go abroad give this image of adventure and independence. They aren’t supposed to cry in McDonald’s and look to go home. It wasn’t until recently that I realized I have set the standard to high for myself. I have shitty days in America. It’s unreasonable to expect everyday abroad to be perfect.
When I look back on it, I sometimes think starting at a low was a good thing. When you’re at the most emotionally drained you’ve ever been in your life, there’s only room to move up.
The me of three years ago came to Taiwan at about this time. It’s amazing to think that the boy who hid in his room for a week straight is now here on his own free will. Furthermore, that same person is about to embark on a ten month stay in the Mainland.
Taiwan is a place I have missed. Kaohsiung is a city I love.
What has struck me so much about this trip to Taiwan is how much I remember. The money is familiar in my hands. I know what buses go where. The song the garbage trucks sing is familiar. Yes, things have changed. No, they haven’t changed so much that the city is completely foreign.
What has also left a deep impression on me is how much more I have to learn and what knowing more Chinese has allowed me to learn in my short time here. There’s a lot of Taiwanese society I don’t understand. There are a lot of social issues I can only begin to start to grasp. Fortunately, the topics I can discuss now are far different than what I could talk about when I left Taiwan. My life experiences are also different now. When I was younger, I used to hold this belief that I wasn’t changing as a person, and I was proud of that. This trip to Taiwan has shown me that I have changed, and that change isn’t a bad thing.
In my time here, I’ve been doing a mixture of solo travel and meeting friends. I’ve visited a cat village outside of Taipei and the largest reservoir in Taiwan. I’ve eaten with old classmates and talked about our other classmates: the giant German, the pale Australian with the Taiwanese girlfriend, the sweet Vietnamese girl.
Most importantly, I’ve gotten to spend another week with my host family. I’ve gotten to learn about the past two years of their life, and I’ve gotten to share with them my recent life experiences. And it feels like I’ve never left, like I never got on the plane back to Mississippi, like we never said goodbye.
But we do have to say goodbye. Because today I’m leaving for 10-months in Nanjing, China. They’ll return to their normal lives, and I’ll try to establish my normal life in China, and if I’m not happy all the time, that’s okay, because a normal life should have some unhappy days. And all the while, the aboriginal on the wall will hang, his penis will point to the floor, and his eyes will keep watch over the room and the new students how live here.
Until next time, Taiwan.