*I originally wrote this almost two years ago, when I had moved back home (California) from Taiwan. I obviously struggled with the adjustment and quickly moved to Thailand. Now I have been living in California for a year and the feelings I had when I wrote this have changed. I feel more comfortable with the idea of being comfortable with a place, but old habits die hard and I’ve experienced bouts of fear while trying to decide where I want to move this summer. Trying to get used to a culture where people stay in one place when you’ve been a part of the vagabond culture for around six years is difficult, but I’ve made progress and that’s all I can ask for!
As an American citizen, I expected to be treated with some goddamn reverence. After two years of living in Taiwan, traveling throughout Asia, and spending a disgusting amount of time in airports, I was excited to finally be on American soil, where I would surely be applauded through customs.
“One of our own has returned!”, they would cheer, as freedom rang and bald eagles holding hot dogs in their talons swooped overhead.
The reality was an hour-long wait in line, then a grilling on how many suitcases I’d come with, if I’d ever been to the UK, and what my birthday was. The average-looking customs agent shoved my passport in my hands and then shooed me away. By the time I got to baggage claim, they had pulled all the suitcases off the carousel and bunched them together, making finding my luggage a “Where’s Waldo” game. I was exhausted and afraid I had MERS disease, thanks to the man who had a hacking cough on the twelve-hour flight. As soon as I escaped the frustrating madness of baggage claim into the loving arms of my mom and brother, my mom let me know she had a three-hour-old sandwich for me in her backpack. Welcome home.
Leaving Taiwan had been more difficult than expected. When I’d made the decision to move home in March, I hated my job with a passion. My actual job should have been hating that job because I was so dedicated to my burning disgust. I taught 2nd and 4th graders at a private bilingual school, just outside of the capital city Taipei, and I truly loved my crazy, sweet students. We were on the same level when it came to jokes, music tastes, and love of animals, so I’d say we all got along fairly well. But, the administration was usually a bumbling circus and some of my co-workers had possibly escaped the loony bin, so I wanted nothing more to do with the sinking ship. This is a school where our weekly meetings were full of people yelling at each other and our Taiwanese boss, who spoke like Scooby Doo, pacifying us with his famous, “Don’t worry, why do you ask so many questions? Don’t you trust us?”
This was his answer to any question. I might ask, “Why was my pay less this month?”
“Don’t worry, why you ask so many questions? Don’t you trust us?”
“Why am I finding out there is an all-day event tomorrow, just now?”
“Don’t worry, why you ask so many questions? Don’t you trust us?”
“Will we be paid for this event?”
I had also just made the grand decision of going on a break with my boyfriend/co-worker at the time, which I hoped would make him realize how much he loved me, but it did the exact opposite and we broke up (Ross and Rachel taught me nothing). So, now my horrible job was unbearable as I had to stare at his damn perfect head of hair in the staff meeting every week. People have left countries in less dire situations.
As time passed and my flight in August came along, I felt unsure about my choice. Now that I’d finished my contract for my stressful job and I no longer had to see The Ex, Taiwan seemed much better. The Portuguese named the island of Taiwan, “Formosa”, meaning beautiful, and they weren’t wrong. Taiwan is covered in green mountains and jungle, the west and east coasts are dotted with surfing spots, beaches, gorges, and hiking trails, and the cities are clean and well-run. I’d go all travel agent, trying to explain to my friends why they should visit, saying “Oh, it’s a gem. A real gem.” So, why was I leaving?
I’ve long had a commitment problem with countries. For example, my email password at my school in Taiwan was “Thailand”. Talk about cheating. I made that password after being in Taiwan for one month and I was already planning my next escape. I somehow knew that I would feel stifled in Taiwan and that the daily entering of the word, “Thailand”, would remind me that beaches and neon body paint, were waiting for me, if I so choose.
Once I left America to live abroad, I never lived in one place longer than two years. I studied abroad in Sweden for a year, taught English in South Korea for two years, Spain for ten months, and then, Taiwan for two years. It seems once I hit two years that I start to feel restless. Bored. Afraid that if I stay any longer that this is my life FOREVER.
In South Korea, I lived in a tiny farm town that produced ginseng, or as the Koreans call it “cure for everything”. I was one of a handful of foreigners and the only thing to do around there was drink coffee at a “French” café and eat cheap rice rolls and spicy noodle soups with the locals. I also made the mistake of dating a British redhead, who would text me Amy Winehouse lyrics, as some sort of mind game, after we broke up. I drank my weight in soju, or as the Koreans call it, “ dual alcohol and cleaning product”, and so, I spent most of my time blacked out in clubs, parks, love motels, and sticky bars. I needed to leave before alcoholism took one more victim and the redhead manipulated me into god-knows-what through the use of Arctic Monkey lyrics.
Afterwards, in Northern Spain, I found out that paella, sangria, flamenco, and just about everything stereotype we have of Spain, is only found in the south. And so, I ate octopus, drank coffee liquor, and danced to techno with dreadlocked stoners, while it rained for eight out of the ten months I was there. As a Californian, I have certain rights when it comes to sunshine. I missed the structure of an Asian lifestyle and wanted, nay, needed more Vitamin D, so, I pointed to Taiwan on the map, and we all know what happened there.
After the first year in a new place, I feel suffocated and scared. I’ve seen this place. I’ve done all there is to do. People aren’t being as interesting anymore. What if I stay here another year and IT STAYS THE SAME. This is what it boils down to. What if my life abroad becomes a normal, or as they say “real” life, and I robotically go grocery shopping, exercise, get coffee with friends, work, and then watch TV all evening, just like every American working person does in the life I am trying to avoid. I will be assimilated and that high I’ve been chasing all over the world is done for. I’m aware that it’s not healthy to avoid our society-imposed normalcy and to be afraid of becoming comfortable with a place, but hey, I like to think I’m the George Clooney of places. It may take me awhile to settle down, but once I do, it’s going to be with one hell of a catch.
Therefore, despite all the love I had for Taiwan, I had slunk back to California to plot my next move. Whether I’d be committing fully to my first love or heading back out into the unknown remained to be seen, but the soggy, old backpack sandwich wasn’t selling me on California so far.