Not long after I turned 22, I boarded a flight from New York to Taipei. But unlike the trips of my childhood to the motherland, this was the first time going by myself. I had no idea what to expect, and nothing planned.
It’s been almost four years since that initial trip, and I’ve been living and working here for just over a year. I didn’t think it would take me so long into my time in Taipei to update this blog, but here we are. To say that the past year has slipped through my fingers would be an understatement; sometimes I feel as if I’ve lived here for years yet other times I still feel as lost as the day I got to Taiwan.
People-watching on my morning commute, I notice the man standing next to me watching a talk show on his iPhone enabled by the ubiquity of cell service, even while in an underground subway tunnel. It’s the details about Taipei’s MRT system that illustrate Taiwan’s humanity: the songs that play before the train arrives in the station, the dark-blue colored seats reserved for elderly or pregnant individuals, the numbered subway exits that allow you to navigate the world above, the cleanliness due to prohibition of all food and beverage including water, and the spotless public restrooms found at every single MRT station.
Last month, I started my second job since moving to Taiwan, resurfacing many of the same self-doubts and internal debates on what it means to belong to a community, society, or culture. John Conway’s passing prompted me to listen to his lecture about free will, forcing me to reckon with my own life and the choices that have brought me to where I am. I chose to leave New York for Taipei, leaving a city of flagrant eccentricity for a geopolitical absurdity. Most people I meet in Taiwan ask me why I moved to Taiwan, given that most young professionals are trying to move out of Taiwan.
To say that I don’t frequently feel homesick would be a lie. I often long for a surf and turf taco from Oscar’s with the waves of the Pacific Ocean crashing in the background and the therapeutic strolls through Redwood groves. But while homesickness used to incur a feeling of loss, living in Taiwan has taught me how to turn homesickness into opportunities for learning more about the world around me.
Journalism is, for the most part, full of neurotic, eccentric, and masochistic human beings. These are people that willingly dig through the best and worst of humanity in order to find a story worth sharing. It’s a job in which no two days look exactly the same, and you’re almost always experimenting with a new story, approach, or angle. It’s a job that faces a lot of scrutiny from all sides, and often solicits more negative commentary than positive. How I ended up spending the last three job at news organizations is more serendipity than careful planning, and the same could be said about my move to Taiwan.
Taiwan is an ironic existence. It’s a nation that is safe, friendly, and lacks the frequent American headlines of yet another mass shooting, despite being a country that is still at war and holds frequent military drills in the middle of cities. It’s a democracy that has one of the highest percentage of women in parliament and government, despite a culture of patriarchal social norms. It is a country that has led the world in adoption of functional and sustainable public healthcare, effective recycling and waste management, and electronics manufacturing.
Although by many metrics Taiwan is seen as a success story around the world, Taiwanese know as well as anyone what it means to fight for their place in a world that will exclude and isolate them. It doesn’t matter that Taiwan was a founding member of the United Nations, the past is rarely an arbiter of the future. Taiwan itself, is hardly a unified and collective society. Sure, people are kind and willing to help with almost anything, but there’s hardly ever consensus on political problems and how to define societal progress. Finding solutions is not as simple as bubble tea and beef noodle soup.
My conversations with older generations in Taiwan reveal a yearning for the era in which global economic growth concealed a multitude of wrongdoings and shortcomings. They’ll tell me “Taiwan’s economy is bad because of the DPP” as if it was better to be naive to how manufacturing processes are turning the soil on which we depend into superfund sites. Yes, we need to spend more time learning about what was lost and gained over the past few decades, but we also know that things will never be the way they once were.