“When are you leaving?” and “When are you coming home?” are two questions I’ve been asked a lot especially lately– of which I’ve come to dread. It essentially boils down to friends, family and even relative strangers wanting to know what my plan is next. Which is is a fair enough question, but one I don’t yet know the answer to. I usually manage to mumble something about “sometime early next year”, and “I have a couple of ideas (ie four thousand too many)”, but the truth is I have no proper idea.
It’s been exactly 7 months today since I stepped off the plane and began my new life in Taipei, and I am in a limbo of feeling like I’ve still just freshly arrived, and like I’ve been here a while. It’s bizarre to feel simultaneously settled and that I “understand” how to live here, and yet feel somewhat unable to completely unhinge myself from the fact that this is all temporary and that I do need to decide what’s next.
The original plan was to stay for a year so I could finish up to a pre-advanced level of Mandarin. If I left with such a level, I think I would have something sufficient enough to show in terms of my studies, I guess, to myself. I want to know that this time was productively spent, and that I have something concrete to shown for it along with an innumerable number of treasured memories.
This is the most likely plan that will eventuate, give or take a couple of months.
But truth be told, there’s a strong part of me that feels that another six months here is not enough. More than half a year has flown by, and to think it’ll all be over next February is quite a startling realisation. This small little space I’ve carved out here, and all I’ve done to “be” here- in both a literal and spiritual sense, took some planning, work and sacrifices. Whilst it’s easy to see all the things I have now- the experiences, friends, the house I live in, the memories- they come with the price tag of missing people back at home and abroad, insecurity about my future prospects, and a lingering bit of doubt whether I made, and continue to make the right choice.
The very humbling thing you realise when you live abroad is that sometimes just because you want to stay, you can’t. In order for me to live here I need to either study or work. With limited funds, and also a limited capacity to keep up such an intense study pace, I can already see myself hitting the point I just can’t go on.
At the stage I’m at now- learning 7 grammar points a week, 45 new words (of which sometimes contain three new characters I have to memorise how to read, write and pronounce) a week, daily loads of homework and dictation tests, weekly speeches and biweekly 2 chapter tests, I am starting to feel it. It seemed like only the other day I could get away with cruising along with my studies, and then bam! it became super intense with the start of Book 3 and now I feel exhausted all the time. So to study for more than a year, let alone to make it to the much feared Book 4 with difficult topics like China-Taiwan relations, would be a real feat.
I don’t mean to make it seem like I’m not willing to work hard -I am- but I don’t know if the achievement of studying for more than a year and the stress of needing to keep up with the inevitably increasing work load outshines that incessant itch I have to move onto the next thing- whatever and wherever that is. Whilst seeing how blurry my future looks scares me, there’s something exciting about not knowing what yet what it is.
If I want to stay, another option would be to work. However with the great majority of jobs concentrating on the very work I want to move away from -teaching- that is not a very appealing option to me. Plus, in order to qualify for a working visa, and thus be able to stay here in Taiwan, I’d have to sign a one year contract which is a huge commitment given the risk of me liking it or not, and the fact I am quite positive I don’t want to be a teacher anymore. Realistically, the chances of succeeding in finding another line of work are extremely slim as such jobs are few and far in between, let alone the added tiny hurdle that I don’t have professional experience in another field (except for a number of volunteer jobs and writing for the most coveted gig in town, here at Typing To Taipei).
Another option would be to fly out of Taiwan every other month to get a visitor visa. But that’s not only a costly operation, but also lacks a sense of security. Then there’s always the option of getting married to a Taiwanese man….
Sometimes I wish that I had some sort of commitment in place- something that meant that it was out of my hands and I knew exactly what was next. That the decision was made for me and there was a concrete expiration date on my stay. Like my friends who have to go back home to continue their studies, or move to another country to start new work. As of late, it seems every other get together is a goodbye for a friend. It’s so hard saying goodbye, as I don’t know next when I’ll see this person, who for a period in my life, was there in all the important moments. Knowing they have this life waiting for them to pick up again after this Taiwan experience, or have some structure in place to start anew brings a tinge of envy in me.
I know it seems quite trite for someone living abroad to bemoan how lost they feel, and that they don’t know what the next move is. I know I’m very fortunate to be able to have this experience, and I know many people dream about just packing it all up and living abroad. It’s a horrible cliché I’m willing to admit to being a part of, and I guess it’s a trait often found in those who can’t think of a life without travel- the search for a moment to bring you into awakening, a yearning to understand yourself and your wants and needs that manifests itself as a wanderlust that needs to be constantly fed.
Sometimes I look at my friends back home with their stable jobs, a set of career goals to work through, maybe a long term partner and vision to settle down with a house, 2.4 kids and a white picket fence, and crave their direction. The sense of contentment which thoughts of settling down bring them. The embrace of having some long term plan. Even the love of having someone at my side. It’s something I really admire in my friends because I know how hard they’ve worked to be and get to where they want to be.
I berate myself for thinking so, but sometimes I wish I could just go back to Australia, find a place that feels like home, start teaching again, make it a career and enjoy it. That all that would lead me to that enviable feeling of this is where I’m meant to be. Instead, for the most part, I feel that is the complete antithesis to the way of life I want to, or can live right now. Sure I could physically do that- I could find a steady housing situation, go back to my job, and even find someone who finds me bearable.
But the enjoyment part would not be there. It would be completely forced. I’m not ready to go back and settle down yet. Visiting is another thing, but making my life there and making a commitment to stay scares me shitless. I know I don’t want it, and I know that it would feel so hollow to me to resolve myself to that life too quickly when I don’t want it now. I felt like this when I returned to Australia from Japan for the 7 month period before I moved here . It was undoubtedly incredible to reconnect to family and friends whose company I hadn’t been blessed with for two whole years, but everything else was just me existing in a place I didn’t want to be in at that time.
I felt so disconnected from me– it felt after my time in Japan I was by all appearances the same person, but something fundamentally had changed. Those things I once craved didn’t give me the same high, and had been replaced with a yearning for something less concrete. I felt like on the outside I was untouched, but there was so much going on inside my head and heart that even I couldn’t completely comprehend, but I knew I needed to acknowledge.
It was me, but with different goals, a different outlook, and a different understanding of myself and the world around me. So it was this heavy feeling of just going through the motions because that’s the only option I had at that time. Whilst I’m bearing all, I would say it was actually one of the most difficult times I’ve been through personally, because I felt so guilty for feeling all this when I had so much- friends, family, jobs and a roof over my head. That classic case of having it “all” but to you, there was something missing from the picture for you to feel like it was complete. Within me, it didn’t feel right, so I knew it wasn’t the right time to call that place home again.
Without planning to pay visit, the other day I found myself once again standing before the incredible Longshan Temple in Taipei. As it was already 10pm, only the front section was opened, so I stood there with the temple staring down on me. It was a really touching moment, and I took a couple of seconds to take it in.
Only a year and a half ago, on Christmas Eve 2013, did I stand looking at this temple- admiring its intricate details which whilst grandiose retained a sense of modesty. I remember thinking at that time how stunningly radiant it seemed to be, with the worshippers inside so dedicated to their prayers, the colours on the panes, the swirls in every carving and the relative silence amongst the crowd of people. I remember feeling so at peace and just in awe at it all.
I had no idea at that point that living in Taipei would be in my future. All I knew then was that I would be returning back to Australia the following year with no concrete plans.
I asked my friend to take a photo of me in the same place I did before. I felt like I needed to capture this moment in time, when I was here once again at this place that tapped something inside of me.
Looking at the old photo and looking at the recent one some things are different. It was chilly winter then and now it’s swealtering summer. My hair was a chocolate brown and now it’s midnight black. I was a teacher then and now I’m a student. I was living in Japan then, and now I’m living in Taiwan.
However there’s one thing that stands out to me you can’t see from comparing the photos, or listing facts. Of which is probably the most important thing of all.
That is, in both moments when the photo was captured I had no idea, no grand plan, no vision of what was next.
The last time after I finished my Taiwan trip saw me return to Japan and in some sudden moment of madness come up with some idea to move here and study Mandarin. And now, here I am doing exactly that.
So whilst I can’t give a nice, simple answer to when I’m leaving Taiwan/returning back to Australia, and I can’t even make my mind up about what I’m going to do next, or where it’s going to be, I will try to believe it’ll come to me soon enough.
Maybe sometimes you don’t need a 12 point plan to life, or to have everything in order. Maybe sometimes you need to wade through the chaos in your head, and something will spring out that you know is it. That thing you need to do, even if it doesn’t make a whole heap of sense to others, let alone yourself.
I kind of think of my time here in Taiwan like that. A country I’d never given a second thought to, a language I wouldn’t dream of attempting, and a reality of transitioning from teacher to student which I would have laughed at only years before. All this was once unbelievable to me, and that’s how it worked out.
I have some ideas about the kind of job I want to do (something involving writing!), of the kind of life I want to lead, of the kind of person I want to become, and every time I get a new one it ignites an excitement in me like a kitten with a loose string. However nothing yet that I’ve latched onto, put all my hopes in, and decided to make the leap. When I stumble across that idea, the one that just clicks amongst all the other million and one thoughts buzzing through my head at any given moment, I’ll know that’s the one, and that’s what I have to do next.