Saturday, August 21, 2010


Alone in her native Denmark, an aged woman speaks to her memory. "I had a farm in Africa," she begins. "I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills. The Equator runs across these highlands, a hundred miles to the north, and the farm lay at an altitude of over six thousand feet. In the day-time you felt that you had got high up; near to the sun, but the early mornings and evenings were limpid and restful, and the nights were cold." Karen Blixen gives three hours of memories. Her time in Kenya, her love for the people, her love for the culture, the land, the scents, the flowers, the rains, the wildlife. Her love for Africa. This is Out of Africa. This is one of my favorite films.

Eight months ago, I returned from Taiwan; for the sixteen months prior, I lived on the island to China's east as a missionary. I spent those months learning a language which will take my entire life to master, comprehending a culture so drastically different from that in which I was raised, and eating elements of animals which would induce a gag reflux to any healthy Westerner. I loved every moment.

I remember seeing my home for the first time. On August 4, 2008, I flew into Kaohsiung International Airport. I watched the colored, mismatched tin roofs of the cramped industrial city and knew I was home. (This feeling of home was confirmed with the first gust of humidity.) I spent my time first in Fengshan 鳯山, then Pingtung 屏東, Tainan 台南, and finally Taiping 太平. On December 12, 2009, I boarded another plane. This time in Taipei. This time crying. This time leaving.

I miss Taiwan. Some days I miss it more than others. I miss it today, to say the least. I miss the humid mornings, the humid afternoons, and the humid evenings. I miss nodding a polite 早安 zao an to my neighbors as I go for a morning run. I miss the fish markets in the middle of the street, displaying fresh fish corpses across giant slabs of ice. I miss their smell. I miss the smell of stinky tofu. The first time I smelled it, I nearly vomited and only later did I learn to drink it in. I want to drink it in now. I miss the mangoes, I miss the lychee. I want to cry just thinking about the mangoes. I miss being stared at by old grandmothers and grandfathers. I miss them speaking to me in Taiwanese, which I can't understand and haven't a prayer to ever learn. I miss the incense always burning the air. I miss the temples. Buddhist temples. Taoist temples. Confucian temples. Any temples. The chimes, the gongs, the ceremonial chants and sacrifices. I miss them. I miss the old men doing tai chi in the morning. I miss the music others dance to. I miss the wild dogs who roam the streets and sometimes try to eat me. I miss people staring at me because I don't fit in, blue eyes among a sea of dark almonds, blonde hair among black. I miss the pollution which conceals the mountains, and my surprise at discovering them on clear mornings. I miss the buzz of vespas that usurp the streets. I miss the masks of the vespa riders. I miss that the masks are worn long after the vespas stop as a protective measure against cancer, virus, the plague, and other destructive bodily ills. I miss the mosquitoes. They loved to drink me and wake me and make me itch. I do not miss the mosquitoes. I miss the initial shock on people's faces when I speak Chinese. They always look surprised. I miss talking to them about their families, finding out what matters most to them, hearing of their love for their parents, their grandparents, their children, their hopes for the future, their honor of the past.

I miss Taiwan.

It's nights like these that I find my mind turning to Karen. I lived a time in Taiwan, to the east of the China Sea. I have returned to America, and on nights where I feel it most, I relive the moments I had on my island. I like to think of it as my island. It helps it feel real again.

Perhaps that is why my mind returns again and again to Karen. She wanted it to feel real. After she had left, after Africa was no more to her than a memory, she needed whatever clarity she could claim: "If I know a song of Africa, of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back, of the plows in the fields and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Will the air over the plain quiver with a color that I have had on, or the children invent a game in which my name is, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or will the eagles of the Ngong Hills look out for me?"

I hope that I left some print on my island. It has left mark upon mark on me. It changed me and it taught me. It altered me beyond repair and I will always thank it for that. I will lay awake a bit longer tonight and search for the marks which still remain. Time fades many things, but some marks refuse to wear. I hope Taiwan refuses to wear.

Tomorrow will be spent in America, but tonight I will stay in Formosa.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Understanding nothing, Feeling everything else

I've acquired a taste for French music. No, I do not speak French.

I was raised with a father who was famous for his liberal selection of music. I would climb into the car to be greeted by Native American wooden flutes, traditional Chinese folk melodies, Scottish bagpipes, Italian opera--any branch of music from any region of earth. I loved it. I loved the places the music would take me. I loved the sense of adventure my ignorance seemed to excite. I would listen to the music unaware of literal meaning; I did not comprehend the lyrics but counted it as no great loss.

I am finding myself in the same boat as a matter of personal choice. It began with Carla Bruni and "Quelqu'un M'a Dit." Innocently, I listened again and again and again to the easiness of the guitar, the whispering quality of the voice, the almost conversation-like exchange between the two. The lyrics are purely French and convey absolutely no meaning to me whatsoever. But that's what I love about it. No literary message; no boxed-in meaning; no complacent, categorical, stereotypical forum from whence a calculated measure of opinion finds voice. No solid meaning for me whatsoever. The song becomes what I want it to be; the song adapts with me. Everything becomes less fixed, less determined. With fluidity, it holds my fickle flavors in a day: hope, melancholy, reminiscence, acceptance, easiness, excitement, anticipation, unease, determination . . . .

Sometimes words seem to only get in the way. More French music it is.