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“From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.”
The first time I was nudged by God – the first time I was cognizant of the fact that he reached down from his high and holy mountain to enter the hemisphere of my small world occurred when I was living very far from home. It was one of those moves that, in hindsight, you know had to be divinely-inspired. If I hadn’t gone to that party in college, if I hadn’t spoken to that particular person for the first time, if I hadn’t been ready for just such an adventure at that juncture, my whole life would have ended up very differently.
I moved to Taiwan after graduating from college to teach at one of the schools in Taichung, a largish city located in the middle of the country. I suppose I went because I hadn’t finished re-inventing myself, and felt I needed more sophistication. But in any case, I was eager for some adventure after my small taste of it in France, and couldn’t imagine going straight for the job, marriage and white picket-fence. Plus, there wasn’t anyone around who wanted to marry me.
I found out about the opportunity at a year-end party, and followed up on the details until I was able to contact the principal of the small school. He had also graduated from our college and had already spent a year there as the first person specifically brought over from the States to teach. We set up an appointment to meet and I put on my best college clothes, had my meager resumé printed up, and waited for him in the lobby of the college library.
He never came to the interview, which only made me realize to what extent I didn’t want to miss the opportunity. I left him a message insisting on just how interested I was in going, and waited by the phone until he called back, apologizing for having been detained.
The words tumbled out of me before he had a chance to say anything else. “I would be perfect for this position,” I said emphatically. “I’ve already spent a semester in France so I know what it’s like to live in a foreign country; I’ve taught kids swimming and piano, and even English when I was living in France; my mom cooks Chinese food a lot and I grew up with a lot of influence from other cultures . . .” I pulled out anything I could think of, really, to stuff into my basket of competence.
The result was that he hired me on the spot, sight unseen, much to the annoyance of the other teachers when they heard about it. They all had a teaching degree and had gotten grilled during their interviews. But mine was the last spot to fill before he could head back to his easy and peaceful life at the school, and he was ready to drop the standards.
When the school announced that they needed one of the teachers to come a couple weeks earlier to fill a vacancy, I said I would go. In my usual spirit of rashness, I jumped at a chance to begin my adventure without further delay. I was also afraid of the unknown, and wanted to plunge into the very thing that terrified me so that I could conquer the fear.
It was not the best thing to have gone early, I was to soon find out, because we were required to leave the country every two months to fulfill visa obligations, and that meant that I always had to travel alone. The other teachers had a chance to bond on the long flight over and on their subsequent visa trips, and they formed a friendship that I found difficult to break into until the very end of our stay.
Before leaving for Taiwan, I sat on the bed with my brother Mark, the open suitcase between us. We were silent for while as we sat there together, and I think he felt sad that I was going so far away. But he wasn’t much for words, and I was unable to say anything to break the silence. I felt like I was about to embark on something so monumental, it left me nearly breathless.
Finally I turned to him, “This must be what giving birth is like,” I said. “I’m so afraid to go, but there’s no turning back now. I have no choice but to go through with it.” He nodded his head, sagely.
In order to get to my destination I had to fly from Syracuse to Detroit, from Detroit to Tokyo, and then from Tokyo on to Taipei. I think the entire trip took nearly twenty-four hours if you counted all the layover time. I was terrified to be in the air for such a long stretch of time, and terrified of what awaited me when I arrived. I didn’t dare relax my guard for a minute and couldn’t sleep at all during the long trip.
When I walked through Customs and into the dingy, crowded airport in Taipei, I anxiously scanned the hordes of people waiting to welcome the passengers. With relief, I spotted a Chinese woman holding a sign with the school logo and my name on it – she was the teacher I had been told would come to fetch me. I tried to ask her a few questions, but she would pat my hand and say, “It’s okay, it’s okay.” It took me awhile to figure out that she had no idea what I was saying.
I had arrived in Monsoon season. There was no direct bus to get from the airport to Taichung at the time. So we had to take a bus from the airport to Taipei center, which took us about forty-five minutes. And then we had to transfer to a different bus that would take us to our final destination. This bus was located on the other side of a busy expressway.
That was when I found myself wading through knee-deep puddles in a thundering rain, dragging my year’s supply of belongings, up a steep set of stairs and over the bridge to get to the other side. Soaking wet, we arrived at the station just in time to climb into the heavily air-conditioned bus for our nearly three hour ride to Taichung.
I can’t remember this teacher’s name, as solicitous as she was, but she handed me a can of syrupy sweet tea with chunks of seaweed jelly in it. As the exploratory sip assaulted my dehydrated, jet-lagged senses, my first thought was that she was trying to be cruel. This I felt, especially after our foray into the monsoon dragging my luggage up and down stairs, but her sincere demeanor told me otherwise. I handed the can back with a polite smile and shook my head no. Then I leaned my head against the glass window pane of the bus, watching the open scenery and taillights zip by in the dark. I had never felt so exhausted, so alone, and in a world more immense than I could have imagined.
Eventually we arrived in Taichung, and the school bus driver was at the station to bring us to the owner’s house, whose name was Bih Hua. I remember it being very late as I was ushered into her living room, but my sense of timing was disoriented so it may just have been late evening. She directed me to the shower, which revived me somewhat, but I immediately collapsed on the bed in the guest room with the door shut before she could bring me a fan. When I woke up in the middle of the night, I was drenched in sweat, and couldn’t get back to sleep.
Everything was so strange. The smells varied from one street corner to the next, from one footstep to the next – garbage, garlic, exhaust from the motorbikes, powdery incense smoking from a household temple. The air was warm and heavy, and there was a weight to the humidity that made me lethargic.
All around me, I could hear nasal twangs as people spoke in loud voices, in an incomprehensible tongue. I couldn’t understand a single thing that was said around me, or read any of the colored plastic signs hanging over the shop doorways. There was no way to remain anonymous; at the time there were so few Westerners in this part of the city, people pointed at me wherever I went, calling out “foreigner” in Chinese. Even the children being brought by their parents to the school for the first time would see my strange green eyes and turn away in fear, sobbing into the necks of their mothers.
I went to visit the school on Monday. There I met the cook whom the children called Zou-Ni-Ni (Grandmother Zou), and the teachers called Zou-Ma-Ma (Mother Zou). She served the morning and afternoon snack – always varied, but usually a sweet tea with some kind of sweet seaweed cracker or airy, chewy “cloud bread,” and a lunch that promised to be delicious with noodles or rice, and beef with spinach or chicken and peanuts. For someone who had tried a great variety of food in my lifetime, I was constantly surprised.
I had an immediate (albeit brief, since he left) crush on one of the summer teachers – a half American, half-Taiwanese student, who was tall with broad shoulders and an easy-going manner. Just the sound of his motorcycle roaring up to the gate made me want to swoon. But he had more fun joking and flirting with the Chinese teachers, and I felt large and bumbling next to them.
The school had an immersion program where the student body (about eighty three-to-six year olds) attended from eight to four o’clock every day. There was a system of encouragement promoted with red stars and “baby cards,” which children could trade in for treats. I sat down with a group of new students and started teaching them vocabulary, using flash cards. This helped me to get the hang of their ability to comprehend, and also my possibilities for teaching.
The group was large and needed to be split into two classes, so I chose the oldest and brightest students for myself. Here was a benefit of arriving first! Though I had arrived late Sunday night, it was not until Thursday that I finally emerged from a fog of jet lag, and the more serious of the culture shock. I didn’t realize how veiled my five senses had been during those four days until I woke up with bright eyes and a clear head.
After staying with Bih Hua for a few days, I became afraid of wearing out my welcome. She never gave any indication that I was, and was surprised when I insisted on being brought to the house the teachers and I would be renting. But it felt essential for me to be able to survive on my own as quickly as possible – it gave me more control over my situation, or so I thought. So she drove me and my bags to the new house and helped me buy a few groceries to tide me over.
This house was situated on a small alley, in the middle of a series of row houses with the back balconies nearly touching the next row of houses over. There were clothes lines stretched across the railings with people’s laundry hanging to dry. Everywhere around you, you heard the noise of people – a person playing piano, a person’s meat sizzling in a pan, a person talking loudly. People lived on top of one another, and privacy was dear.
I opened the red metal gate, pulling my suitcases in with me and looked around the covered, tiled entranceway. There was a very large brown spider the size of my hand, hanging from one dead leg on the wall. And when I forced the door open, which was stuck with humidity, there seemed to be a flurry of activity, with cockroaches and geckos heading for cover as light forced its way into the dark house.
It was a little frightening to sleep there all alone. I took the large corner room and unpacked all my things as the rain continued to pour outside. For the larger part of the weekend, I hid up there in the air conditioning, not daring to spend any time downstairs or in the kitchen because of the beasts. Only once did I dare to venture out of the house, for no other reason than the fact that I couldn’t bear being holed up any longer. I carried my address written down in Chinese in case I should need to take a taxi home. And sure enough, I got lost in those winding alleys, and hailed an ever-present taxi to take me the two blocks back to my house.
My bedroom had a yellow linoleum floor with a large, firm bed and a pink nylon wardrobe to hang my clothes. The back-board and the chair in the room were made of plywood, painted over with a glossy paint. The downstairs had industrial wall-to-wall carpeting, and the couch set was made of wicker and bamboo. We had dining room chairs and a table made of flimsy black aluminum with flowered plastic cushions. All of these things started to show wear within the year, even though they were new when we arrived, and the interior of the house contained nothing to dispel the notion that “Made in Taiwan” was anything but a mark of quality.
Eventually the sun started to shine again, and the wall of humidity held; that’s when my neighbor came over to visit me and see how I was doing. She came in the spirit of being neighborly, but she also had a vested interest in me because her grandson was going to be attending the school. She chatted away easily, and didn’t seem at all perturbed that I understood nothing of what she said. But just as she was about to leave, I grew desperate for company, and I touched her arm and then touched the door. She didn’t understand what I wanted, so I pointed to the door again and made a sign of talking with my hand.
I saw the understanding switch on in her features, and she told me how to say door: “mun.” I repeated it, “mun,” and then she corrected me, making her voice swing upwards towards the end. I repeated it again and she nodded in satisfaction. Then she looked around to name a few other things in the house, adding as she went to leave, “open door.” “ki mun.” And “shut door” – “gwan mun.” I parroted her and she nodded again as she waved her way out.
When the other teachers finally arrived, I had this perverse need to show them how well-adjusted I was, and I alienated them by shoving fresh litchis into their jetlagged, dehydrated mouths. I hardly noticed – I was so happy and relieved finally to have human company in the small house. I couldn’t refrain from catching them up on everything in one sitting that had taken me a full three weeks to absorb.
Ironically, out of the four teachers that came over, three of us were named Jennifer so all of our students and their parents were convinced that nearly every American carried the same name. At school, we distinguished each other by claiming Jen, Jennie and Jennifer.
My friendship with these three was awkward. I combined a lack of vulnerability with an arrogance that I tried unsuccessfully to use as a cover for how insecure I felt. I threw myself into the things I was good at, like learning Chinese, but pulled away in the more complicated things, like relationships. When the other Americans got together after work to drink and go to the bar, I always stayed home.
At the end of college when the partying had gotten to the stage where I was drinking every night, I grew disgusted with it and was grateful for the clean break that graduation provided. I formed a resolve not to drink anymore, which effectively cut me out of the social scene in Taiwan and reinforced my solitude.
However, in spite of there not being an immediate complicity with the others, we did band together by way of necessity to explore our new country. We went, timidly at first, to the strip of fast-food restaurants near the University, where you could get soup and sweet tea, along with rice and three sides – all for the equivalent of two dollars. We never once thought to cook when there were so many culinary delights to try, and at such low prices: the long, narrow, purple eggplant that was sliced up and fried in a sweet garlicky sauce, the cabbage that was stir-fried with miniscule shrimp, the green beans cooked with calamari, and the mix of vegetables containing bamboo slices and a chewy sort of fungus. Even by the end of my stay I hadn’t managed to try everything that was offered.
We rode our new bicycles, complete with baskets and bells, and giggled at the scene we made as everyone turned to stare at the foreigners. But with this mode of transportation, we were able to explore a good portion of the city independently. In the city center at night, we saw streets of brightly-lit rows of stands selling cheap clothing or wooden trinkets, and vats of bubbling liquid boasting chicken claws, or wooden skewers with congealed pigs blood mixed with sesame. We laughed at the things this country considered edible.
E-mail didn’t yet exist for the public, and phone calls were too expensive. So we relied on writing letters to communicate, and I would eagerly check the mail every day to see what had arrived. Sometimes I was lucky and would receive three or four letters; sometimes I faced crushing disappointment because I had received nothing.
There were a few stationery stores on each block. We visited them all, and started to have our favorites as we discovered the novelty of transparent rice paper, colored pens, stickers and scented paper with some non-sensical phrase written in English. “We meat ‘ere the light of the moon.” When we were ready to post our scented letters, we headed to the nearby post office, paid for our stamps, and glued them on with the help of a paint brush and a small well of rice glue stationed on the table near the entrance.
The people in our neighborhood were friendly and would drop by to visit unannounced. At first this bothered us until we understood that these people weren’t encroaching, they were being kind. One couple in particular brought us to visit all of the touristy places that were found in the surrounding area. We would go walking in the mountains, and climb unsteadily over a rope bridge to cross the rushing river below. Or two of us would pull ourselves in a metal chair, hanging from a rope, to get across a small canyon. No matter how deep into nature we went, it was next to impossible to avoid coming across another soul, as the mass of humanity spilled over every corner of land. And it was utterly impossible to avoid the sight of styrofoam containers littering every bush.
I made friends with the Chinese teacher that assisted my class and she willingly sat down with me to teach me elementary Chinese. I wrote my own phonetic code, and took charge of the lessons by asking questions of all the things I wanted to say, then writing down the new vocabulary in my created code. At home I would memorize what I had learned, but it didn’t take much for it to stick. I would imagine carrying on conversations in Chinese, and then go ask my teacher how to say certain things in order to express a complete thought. After a relatively short time, I needed to ask fewer and fewer words in order to be able to express it.
It was shortly after I arrived in Taiwan that my father called to tell me that he and my mother were getting a divorce, and were selling the house I grew up in. This piece of news revealed just how little I was living in my present world, in spite of the fact that I was actively learning the language and absorbing the culture. It completely de-stabilized me because I still entertained a secret thought that everything at home would go on as it was, while I would come back a new and improved creation. With a past utterly ripped up (as it seemed to me), my present hanging by a few tenacious threads of survival, and my future uncertain, I walked around for months in a state of shock. I felt like a piece of driftwood – I had nothing and no one to lean on, no reserves.
I cried all the time during those months, and although I tried to hide it from my roommates, it was clear to them I was unhappy. Without alcohol, I turned to sugar to escape from my feelings, but that only added to the misery, as I started to gain weight.
I decided to visit Seoul for my first visa trip of the year because that was where my sister was born and I wanted to connect to it. But this was not a particularly tourist-friendly destination at the time, and I ended up spending all four days holed up in my cheap hotel room, eating packages of cookies, and writing a children’s book. I don’t think I had even one hot meal in all that time, although I could have afforded it. I just didn’t dare leave my room, apart from those quick trips to the nearest mini-market.
Three weeks later, I saw my roommates off for their visa trip to Hong Kong. And on my way home, I stopped off at the closest store, even though its shelves were dusty and half-empty. I returned to the house alone with my packages of stale cookies and just ate and ate until I was sick. I couldn’t cry, even though my emotions were raw – I was like a turtle whose shell had been ripped off, whose very essence was exposed and bleeding. I was so physically full and so spiritually empty at the same time, but I had no idea what to do about it.
After my next visa trip to Okinawa with a Chinese friend, I headed to Tokyo, where I stayed with a friend of my brother’s from Cornell. I was impressed by the opulence, the cold (we were in the mountains and there was snow) and the cleanliness compared to Taiwan. It was expensive there, but my brother’s friend was gracious and paid for everything. I remember going out to dinner once with friends of his, and how one of them was complaining that his sister had spurned the advances of a millionaire because he was “too short.”
“He can stand on his money!” the brother retorted, and I laughed along with the rest of them. But I still felt out of place. This crowd seemed to be so much more sophisticated than I was, and I didn’t know how to be at ease.
When Christmas rolled around, I made the monumental decision to fly home, despite the expense and the time it would take. The thought of staying in Taiwan for the holidays seemed too bleak, and I think I was trying to find a way to put my roots down somehow. Once I had struck out on my own, I didn’t seem to belong anywhere with my family scattered and my friends carrying on with their own lives. I had to find my place.
I don’t remember much about that visit home, except that I never did find my place. I was no longer used to the freezing cold of upstate New York, and I couldn’t seem to get warm – ever. The two weeks went by in a blur before I found myself back in Asia – in Seoul, waiting for my final flight to Taiwan. There I met a woman who was returning from her brother’s funeral – her brother who had committed suicide. I sat there as she confided in me, the two of us side by side in the dusk that was starting to settle through the large windows outdoors. I reflected on what a shock it would be to travel so far for such a miserable event, my heart moved by her grief.
Some things changed over time to lessen my loneliness. I had a new Chinese teacher with whom I got along very well, and whose name was Elva. At a time when I was trying to teach the children to pronounce the “v” correctly in English, I would have them chant “Elva, guava, seven, eleven,” putting the focus on the “v” each time. The chant caught on so well, eventually the entire schoolyard (even the other classes) would start chanting, “Elva! Guava!” as soon as she walked in the gate.
She had a great sense of humor, and when I showed up from the market with a huge bag of guava fruit, and said with a grin, “Elva, look what I brought you!” she didn’t miss a beat,
“Oh! My family!”
The other Chinese teachers also took me under their wing. We zipped around on mopeds together, and I insisted that they speak to me at a normal pace because by now I understood nearly everything they said in ordinary conversation. We went to all sorts of themed tea houses, drinking the sweet bubble tea long before it was in vogue anywhere else. And we had serious conversations, along with the playful ones, where I learned who was having a baby out of wedlock, who was not able to marry her sweetheart because she had to care for her family, who was arranged to be married to someone who was not a good man – things like that. I was grateful for these real friendships, and often felt like I belonged with them, more than I did when I was with my roommates.
But my relationship with the other American teachers had started to improve. We went on a trip together towards the end of our stay, to a mountain that was so high up, you could see the sun rise over the clouds when the weather was clear. We were supposed to get up at five o’clock AM to witness this rare sight, but it was freezing cold at such altitude, and it poured rain throughout the weekend. So I ended up staying in bed with the others just to keep warm. (The hotel was in an old train car and the bed stretched from one narrow wall to the other).
As we sat there under the covers, we played the “what if” game. My contribution was spoken in perfect seriousness, “What if you were hand-gliding, and your pants caught on a branch before taking off, and you had to glide all the way down to the ground buck-naked?”
There was a slight pause before everyone erupted in laughter. I had been so serious that year in all the worries that plagued me, I don’t believe they knew I had any silliness in me. Or perhaps it was the extreme circumstances of cold and rain and sharing a bed, that created bonds between us that had not been there before.
Once I let down my guard, I also started to go out more and to accompany them each weekend to the “The Pig-n-Whistle.” There, we drank, danced and connected with the rest of the ex-pat community that was congregated more closely on the other side of the city. It was a relief to let my reserve down, even if that meant taking up drinking again.
One of the other Jennifers decided that she wanted to see Singapore, so she changed her visa trip to be in sync with mine so that I didn’t have to travel alone. This was an incredible luxury for me and proved to be a much happier visa trip than I had yet had. She was also adventurous and took me to places I would not have gone on my own. We took the cable car to Sentosa Island before it was built into the resort it is today. There we lay on the vast, empty beach, looking at the cranes beginning their construction in the distance.
I swam alone in the warm blue, shallow water, and lay dreaming on the pristine, white sand, as I listened to the waves. In that quiet afternoon, I started to feel . . . rooted. Perhaps I had a glimpse at a peace that was not based on comfort and familiarity, but was based on something more solid, something internal. I suppose it also helped that I was lying on a beautiful beach with nothing to do but enjoy it.
Our year abroad was drawing to an end. The four of us decided to go to Hawaii for two weeks, since it was on the way home from Asia. We had been invited to stay with friends of friends – military men based in a residential area of Honolulu. This remains one of the most memorable vacations I’ve ever taken. We set foot back on American soil in time for the fourth of July, and that night we sat on the deserted beach to watch the fireworks exploding in full color over the ocean.
One of the guys we were staying with was a pilot, and he had his own small aircraft. We went flying with him one day, soaring and swooping over the islands, and it was from this bird’s-eye view that I was able to appreciate just how beautiful Hawaii was – how green and blue, how wild.
He also had a convertible, and we drove along the cliffs on the windy roads, as the sound of the surf crashed powerfully to our right. During the day, we lay in the sun on the deserted beach near their house, talked and played games together, and at night we held barbecues. As someone who had gone straight from routine to studies to a worried and unstable young adulthood, I didn’t know it was possible to lead such a carefree existence.
For our first night there, we decided to stay in a hotel on Waikiki beach before heading over to the house where we’d be spending the rest of the vacation. As we were walking back to the hotel after a day of sunbathing, we saw a performance happening on the beach, so we stopped to watch.
They were really good – funny, moving, talented. And it was only at the end of the show that it became clear that the whole performance was about God.
In general, outward expressions of faith offended me, especially outward expressions of christian faith. I’m not sure why this was so – perhaps I just found the religion judgmental in spite of my own connection to it. As a sophomore, when I was Resident Advisor for my dorm, I was furious when some of the freshmen on my floor came back from an off-campus meeting on “God, Satan and the Occult,” crying because the professor hinted that they were not going to heaven. I decided to take matters into my own hands.
I went to the next speech he gave, which was actually rather more reasonable than I expected it to be, and listened to it with a set jaw. When it was over, I followed him and his groupies into the room reserved especially for people who had questions. I barely entered the room before spluttering, “How dare you tell people whether or not they’re saved? Who do you think you are?”
“Come in,” said the professor kindly. But I stayed where I was in the doorway looking at them all. One of the girls, whom I recognized from class was standing next to a guy my friends called “BJ” because he had gotten a blow job on the bus ride during a campus ski trip. The girl said, “You know, it’s like when you believe in God … it’s like, you know, if everyone thinks the sky is blue, but the sky is not blue, it’s green. And …”
I stared at her, my mouth open.
“Why don’t you come in and talk for a bit?” the professor urged again, gently interrupting the girl who was starting to ramble. But I decided to leave right away. There was no way I was going to stick around to be brainwashed by some evangelical Christians. And I had a feeling I was not going to make a dent in their way of thinking. As I was walking home and remembering BJ and that girl with her green sky, I muttered under my breath, “What a bunch of fools you are.”
But these little skits on the beach in Hawaii were different. The people were talented, the dialogue was clever, and they spoke on the innocuous subject of love. The entire performance was professionally done and it was a pleasure to watch. When I realized what it was all about, I was a little impressed that such talented people would talk unashamedly about God.
Just as the applause was dying down, one of the actors jumped off the stage and singled me out in the crowd.
“Would you like to study the Bible?” she asked me with a broad smile.
“Huh?” I blushed, startled. “Um …” I paused as I blinked at her.
“No thank you,” I finished with the ghost of a smile, and threw a glance after my friends who were starting to walk away. I quickly ran to catch up with them.
So in my year of solitude and hopelessness, this was the first time I was invited to learn about God. This was the first time I was called.