Tag Archives: Journal

Sporadic update: Healthcare

Healthcare has been on my mind a lot lately. Over the last couple of months, I’ve had to get surgery. I will likely need another in the next year (then, hopefully, I will be cured knock on wood).  If it weren’t for Obamacare, I wouldn’t have been able to get that surgery. Right now I’d still be in so much pain I can’t walk. In fact, I’d probably need to move back to Taiwan just to have treatment. It would actually be cheaper for me to do that. Wild.

On the metro today, I went through my usual list of podcasts to entertain myself on the hour long commute to DC.  In between the news and the pop science, an interview with Naomi Klein came up. She’d be invited by W.  Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu to appear on their show “Politically Re-Active” which blends comedy, news and cultural analysis. Klein, who gained acclaim for her book “The Shock Doctrine” (though perhaps that’s disingenuous as I believe she was well known before), joined to speak about her new book:  No is Not Enough.

During the interview, she spoke at length about the new shocks we might endure, about how they signal systemic failings and about how we must respond. In the coming days, weeks, months even, god forbid, years we will need to mobilize and respond a lot. We will be saying “No” a lot, but “no” has less motivational power than “yes”, Klein says. No can exhaust you, especially when the red of Nos are drowned out by the stacks of green Yeses. Moreover, Klein says ‘No’ is not enough. We need to identify Yes policies; we need to prepare for them.

The Healthcare bill, which spread like a noxious gas through Capitol Hill, has inspired in me more than dread.  It’s made me curious about what a solution could look like. I feel inspired to better explore my own Yes, and others.

For the duration of my time in DC, I am being housed by a friend’s family.  This morning I heard his father, a doctor, lament what he referred to as changes in the medical system. When I asked him how he might design the ideal healthcare system he did not bring up single-payer or privatization or any of the typical words.  Instead, he said “Education”.

He had noticed a shift in culture within the medical world of his thirty years of practice. “I was trained to believe my duty was to the patient,” he said. “Younger people are trained to worship at the altar” of reducing costs regardless of how it affects the person they are helping. That means prescribing the cheapest medication, regardless of side effect. That means not questioning a CEO “pocketing 22 million” at the expense of broad healthcare coverage.

Not just that, but the average adult lacks basic knowledge of healthcare systems, according to the doctor. They cannot identify what constitutes an injury needing urgent care; they put off visiting and a problem which might have been inexpensive to treat weeks before now incurs high costs to the system and, more importantly, the patient.

After thirty years, this shift has been wearing him down. He’s considering a career change. “Do you know I have to give out dozens of denials a week?” he asked me. “It’s tiring.” Saying No to people who need care, but cannot access it so a wealthier tier can purchase another car, another watch, another thing weighs heavy on his mind.

He’s not sure what Yes looks like for him personally now, but he believes it starts with education and a fundamental shift in the culture. They’re good people, these new doctors, he added at the end. They’ve just been trained wrong.

Yes feels good when it’s identified, but can also be daunting. Klein spoke of how daunting, and a little scary, it was to speak aloud what she’d, and a group of other women, been formulating in their minds. Yes can be risky– not least because you can’t know the effects of a hypothetical completely, but also others might circumscribe your ideas or punish you for having them.

Klein has spent years thinking about and developing her Yeses, and I think she’s worth listening to. As for me, like the doctor, my Yes is guided by my ethics. I can identify pieces of a system which includes intersectionality,  but as for the specifics? Well, I have some work to do. Let’s hope some day I’m brave enough to articulate them aloud with the force of Naomi Klein.


Eight Year Old Fears of Cliffsides

“I stare at this ceaseless, rushing crowd and imagine a time a hundred years from now. In a hundred years everybody here– me included — will have disappeared from the face of the earth and turned into ashes or dust…I spread my hands out in front of me and take a good hard look at them. What am I always so tense about? Why this desperate struggle just to survive? I shake my head, turn from the window, clear my mind of thoughts a hundred years away. I’ll just think about now.”- Kafka  on the shore, Haruki Murakami (56)

I was sitting  on the deep raspberry seats of our Lumina looking back at the decorative knit balls that hung neatly in a row along the edge of the rear-window when I decided to ask my dad what he was most afraid of. I can’t remember what he said; I just remember him turning to look at those little ornaments and the crunching sound as the tires spun against the pebbles in our driveway. Or actually maybe he wasn’t looking back, maybe we had just arrived and he had just parked the car.

The sun washed everything in light, bleaching the green grass and the paint on our garage door, which was actually just created from a variety of abandoned doors from rooms in houses long since renovated. I seem to recall it being summer because of the way the heat permeated from the faux velvet seats. I must have been 7, maybe 8, because we sold the gold Lumina before I enrolled in the Catholic school near my house.  I remember him laughing out of surprise, the strange “hyuk” sound emanating from his throat only manifested when he was either dumbfounded or derisive.

“What are you afraid of Leah?” he asked, grinning at me with red apple cheeks.

Again, I can’t quite recall my exact phrasing, but I can recollect– more than recollect, feel–my fear. This fear had been metastasizing since I’d first really understood death, since I’d learned to question Heaven and Hell. What I said was: Nothing. I’m afraid of nothing or, rather, nothingness. I am terrified that when I die there will be no me, no consciousness. No memories of bleached doors or dangling ornaments or pebbles pulled from my rock collection and thrown in a driveway.

My father laughed and said “Well, don’t worry, if you don’t exist then you won’t be there to know it.”

As I’ve aged, though I’m still quite young, I’ve wrestled with this question, and my father’s response, many times. I can never quite figure out if his response is comforting or disturbing. When he said it, I felt this strange twist in my gut, as if he had confirmed everything I felt afraid of. I didn’t sleep well that night because sleep without remembered dreams seemed a lot like death. Not even convincing myself I was the Red King, who created entire worlds as he gave up his own, could persuade me to turn off my light and sleep willingly.

Later, in high school, I truly confronted what the consequences of my fear’s solution would be. In class we read a short story on the types of people in an immortal world. There were two types, the story asserted: those who did everything because they had all the time in the world, and those who did nothing for the same reason. I wonder what eternity as the same soul would be like. How many decades, centuries, millennia would I enjoy everything or nothing? If life is eternity, and we can do everything or nothing,  will it be what I know now?
Should I give up my life for immortality?

At the end of the story, the author reveals a third group, which siphons off the population of doers and non-doers, who leaves for a mysterious cliff-side. Not much is explained, but the implication could be that they choose to die.

After decades, centuries, millennia of looking at the same hands, they chose dust.

Maybe, at some point, we’ll all want to choose dust; but, since dust comes a little sooner than we’d all like, maybe it’d be better to try doing  what we like, if we can, now.
That way, even if we disappear into a great nothing with no hot summer air or surprised laughs, our great life will have made going to the cliffs a little less terrifying.



Getting personal

I’ve always been an anxious person; I think it might stem from my sensitivity. I take failure really hard. So hard that sometimes the thought of it stops me from even trying.
So, when I spend hours convincing myself to complete a task and the response is negative?  I often surrender too much of my time to obsessive thoughts on how my failure reflects qualities of my character, my intelligence, my likeability, continue ad nauseum.

The more I think about these things, the less I do. They less I do, the more I feel like I am all of these things and they just fester and form a big, self-hating pile of sludge.

As you may have gathered, this is not a pleasant process. My heart clenches and burns and the nervous ticks I sustained throughout my childhood resurface. In elementary, after years of social exclusion and bullying, I started to make small sounds or rub my hands together when I became nervous or stressed. I was embarrassed by this, but I couldn’t stop myself. My throat felt constricted and ticklish at the same time and I felt compelled to make the sounds to stop it. It gave me a small illusion of control.

My family would always tell me to “stop that!” whenever they noticed it. They didn’t know what else to do, or how to help. It didn’t have the intended effect. Instead, the thought of making the noises made me so stressed out that I began picking at my eyelashes. I’d pull at them, twist them and tug them and, for a little while, that’d help. Even so, I knew it wasn’t healthy and soon my new habit began causing stress.

I won’t go into all the reasons I felt stress and anxiety throughout my childhood, that would take too long and I’ve become sick of rehashing all the things that are wrong with me. I really want to make it through this anxiety, and I think I’m at a point where  I can admit I need help.

To this day I feel like a fraud. If something goes successfully it’s because I got lucky or because no one scrutinized my work enough. Any moment, they’ll discover what I really am. I’m not afraid of social situations, at least not initially, because it’s easy to pretend you’re confident when the other person has no way to verify the veracity of your claims, having never seen you react to stress or hardship. It’s later that makes me concerned, because I fear they’ll discover I’m an impostor. I’m not as creative or kind or  interesting as I pretend to be during that first few days, and when they compliment me for being any of those three I feel my heart sink because I’ve mislead them.

Sometimes I manage my anxiety really well and all those self-hating thoughts sink deeper and I forget about them for a time, but they inevitably come back. Today they’ve been really hard to manage and I can’t seem to bite back the vicious idea that I’m a failure.
For now, the simplest thing I can do is take a walk and remind myself that I have a right to happiness and a right to mistakes as a human being.
And like so many out there like me, I’ll work on managing my worries step by step.

Restless nights full of restive thoughts

It’s four a.m. I’m wrapped in soft green sheets and attempting to lull myself to sleep under the muted light leaking through my curtains.
My mind isn’t so much racing as it is attempting to work out several tough knots and snarls I’ve somehow managed  to create through either a lack of concentration or an abundance (also termed obsession). My mental acrobatics leave me sore and frustrated, like the soft pad of my fingers feel after my nails have stabbed them too much in an attempt to make a once straight string straight again. Focusing on one task like that tends to make me impatient and frustrated. I being to wonder if the knot will ever disappear or if I should just give up.

I’ve never been a racer. I’m an endurance runner. I slog through things and re-hash them over, and over and over. Like a five mile runner making a lap around a track I’ve found myself back where I started again, and again, and again.
That’s why I quit track; I tired of the view. I wanted to go somewhere.
Track seems easy to replace in the literal sense. I’ve never had a shortage of potential paths or hobbies. It’s dedicating yourself to one that’s the difficult part.

The metaphorical track in my mind has proven similarly  difficult. Certainly I have a number of options. Some are appealing, but ultimately empty. Like binge watching a Netflix show and convincing yourself it’s some sort of social research, they offer only an education in how to rationalize questionable decisions. Others are rewarding but seem impossible, like running a marathon they require a daily dedication you’re not sure you’re ready to commit to. Then there’s the issue of becoming “the marathon runner”. Aren’t you more than that?! Dedicating yourself single-mindedly to a single goal means you’re defining yourself, perhaps too narrowly.

So where’s the sweet spot in the middle?

If only I knew.  I guess I’ll keep picking at the knot.

“We’ll be ready”: Chinese New Year Part III

Feeling lost? This is part three of a series on my experience hitchhiking through Taiwan over the Chinese New Year.

We continued on our intrepid hitchhiking journey from Taipei through Wushe and finally to Puting. Arriving in a nearby city the night before the music festival we set up camp in a nearby field. The next morning we arose and debated on how we would reach the music festival which, according to L, began later that night. All of us felt renewed by the proximity of the music festival and by visions of open fields with music that wafted from the stage on the wind. Equipped with our optimistic energy and desire for adventure, which had only been fed by other parts of the trip, we decided to walk. In the morning five kilometers didn’t seem so bad and L was a pretty great navigator after all.

We walked down busy main roads for sometime, passing honking cars and businesses. A man stopped us at a crossroads and fed us a mysterious, sweet green plant before offering us– all eight of us– a ride on his motorbike. We respectfully declined and then decided to follow in the footsteps of Robert Frost and take the road less traveled. Past rice paddies, past a river, past trees we walked on a narrow dirt road. It was invigorating, it did not seem to matter that time passed quickly. We didn’t feel tired. As the oft quoted saying: It’s not about the destination, but about the journey. A good portion of the group lived that way. Now that I reflect on it, we were an odd group comprised of  a copywriters aspiring to be yoga instructors, a wayward wanderer and future lawyer, a restless dry humored English teacher,  a imperturbable history buff, a geneticist turned holistic sales person and spiritualist, a driven policy expert and, me, the confused graduate. Who really knows how we found each other, but we were together now. Suddenly, after hundreds of meters of silence we passed a small tea house.

“Shin ni guai la!” Happy new year– the tea drinkers raised their cups and shouted at us as we passed. We didn’t walk much further before deciding to go back to the tea house and sit on the lacquered tree stumps arranged around a small table outside. Thankful to remove our heavy packs, we relaxed under the umbrella and listened to the river gurgling behind us. A man came out carrying a kettle of tea and several glasses. Words were exchanged. He disappeared and returned with whisky, which he insisted we all share. 11043389_10153148903744630_2710500805244973210_oAnother group approached our table, two boys around my age, laughing and shy. One waved his phone at us hesitantly in between giggles. Two minutes later another picture of random foreigners on a facebook page popped into existence.

We tried to pay for the tea, for the whisky. He insisted we not. We debated which would be more culturally appropriate: leaving money on the table or respecting his wishes and not paying at all. Honestly, I’m still not sure which I should do when, but in this instance we settled on leaving a token few hundred. Securing the bills under glasses we continued our journey which lead us through a hiking trail where we met a large family of Taiwanese tourists. We took a small detour with them to visit a paper house but left them later when we saw the daylight weakening. By this time all of us were growing tired, hungry and anxious.

We left, walking back the way we came– past a small noodles shop with the black dog, past the family restaurant and past the police station where we turned left and walked up a hill into the rain forest. The road was eerily quiet and empty save for some abandoned
pieces of metal, wires and furniture.  Finally we came upon a seemingly abandoned shack surrounded by a collection of forgotten things. This wasn’t the open field I’d imagined and I began to wonder if we’d managed to get lost. L, on the other hand, seemed certain.Just then the universe, as if to chide me for my doubt, conjured up a woman  from who approached, grinning from behind the orange car sitting at the apex of the hill.

“Yes, yes, come,” she said vigorously waving us toward her. ”
10854945_10153149302039630_9162752080650808356_oJust around the corner  rows upon rows of doors and windows,  secured by silver metal, shot up from the ground to form a tall rectangular building. A building containing, it seems, every thrown out piece of furniture,  and construction supplies.
“This is the festival?”
“No, ” she said as we continued to trod an uncertain path through the piles. “This is.”

We all stood in front of the large rectangular opening and our visions of giant field and relaxation melted away. This looked less like a music concert and more like an impro10996495_10153149302044630_7520110268691222067_omptu dump. I turned to look at the optimistic, yet stressed, organizer.
“We’re going to be ready by tomorrow,” she assured us. She attempted to delicately step over some wires, but eventually gave up and, in her giant galoshes, stomped over to some ladders. “You’ll be sleeping up there tonight,” she said. “You can help tomorrow?”

That night our exhaustion slunk back toward us and we feel asleep restless and weary. How could we have known that the next day would provide countless stories we’d all certainly remember for years?

Kink in a foreign country: An Introduction

I arrived at the cafe a little out of breath, a little dizzy and a little thirsty from the heat. Tucked into one of Taipei’s branchlike back alleys, the cafe hardly announced itself as the location for a BDSM munch. A munch, for those not involved in the BDSM community, is a  social gathering of people interested in BDSM. Most of the time all people do is talk– and much of that talk isn’t really about kink. While some might envision dark red rooms and people in leather , the cafe featured an open patio, a small bookshelf and a menu written in pastel colored chalk. Inside people sidled past each other and congregated and small, tight circles. I walked around uncertainly, hesitant to approach anyone not least because it can be uncomfortable approaching someone and inquiring if they’re here to meet other people who enjoy bondage or face slapping, but attempting to  break into one of the tightly knit circles without having any idea if they were discussing lint, politics or cross-dressing– that is to say you have no understanding of the language– seemed an insurmountable obstacle.

So, I crept through the circles until I reached the front where  I decided to order something from the cafe’s indecipherable menu. Perhaps if I could brave ordering tea, I could brave introductions. Not to mention, asking the owner of the venue about his knowledge of a kink event seemed much less intimidating than asking one of the strangers sipping tea and laughing at jokes I couldn’t understand. As the nice barista served me some Oolong tea, which he disclosed was his personal favorite, I worked up the courage to ask about the munch.

“Yah,” he said, picking up the money I’d slid onto the counter. “This whole thing is the munch.” He circled the folded paper around.

“Uh. Cool. Thanks.” I  stood awkwardly by the bar for a while, sipping the tea and complimenting the barista on his recommendation before shaming myself in leaving the safety of the serving area. I looked around trying to spot the organizer of the munch, but his profile picture only featured a silhouette which, though flattering, didn’t do much in the way of helping me identify him. As I opened the door I heard the familiar sounds of English. Wonderful! Then I watched them all leave together. Not so wonderful. I forced myself to sit down.  I was here to learn more about BDSM practices in Taiwan, I reminded myself. I just need to be more sociable.

“That’s an interesting camera,” is not the most fascinating conversation starter, but at least it wasn’t “You come here often?”.

“It’s very old,” the man said simply and looked down at the rectangular wooden-paneled contraption hanging around his neck.

We talked for a little while in a stunted, one-sided way. I asked questions, he answered, I asked myself why he hadn’t left yet. He took my picture with the small box, looking down into it from the top and adjusting several knobs on the front. He revealed he was a filmmaker and his ex left him to become a food stylist in New York. I’d been here twenty minutes and all I’d discovered was that some people dream of styling food for commercials.

“So, is this your first, uh, I don’t know what’s the word in English…” “Munch?”

“Yes! Munch. Did you go here before?”

I shook my head. “This is my first one.”

“Oh, so,” he pushed a long strand of hair out of his face. “How did you find out about that?” “Fetlife,” I said simply. “What’s that?” I explained that Fetlife was considered a facebook for Kinky people. It was a way for those interested in BDSM to connect and discuss a variety of topics. He confessed he’d never heard of it and he found out from the organizer of the group, whom he’d known for ten years. Minutes later, the organizer appeared, carrying a Heineken in one hand and wearing a welcoming smile. “Here he is,” my new acquaintance announced.

“She says she knows you.”  Two sets of expectant eyes turned to me as I mumbled an answer. All I’d done was ask him to extend the munch time on Saturdays so I could attend. All he’d done was tell me there was another munch on Sundays. I’d hardly say I knew him.

We spoke for some time, exchanging the usual introductions, before I confessed I’d come here to learn more about how kink developed in Taiwan. Last year I’d met a foreign exchange student from Taiwan who seemed convinced, despite having not attended any kink events in America, that kink in “Asia” was incredibly different from kink in “the West”.

“Yes, it is different,” he spoke impeccably and with the grace only the host of an event can manage. Here kink was much less open, he explained. Later on, when I inquired about how globalization affected kink in Taiwan he explained that the munch I attended was started by the first public BDSM group in Taiwan.

I interrupted the chorus of agreement to clarify that the person I’d met felt less that it had to do with openness and more with mentality. He’d claimed that kink in “Asia” was focused on the mental aspects of kink than in the “West”. The “West”, he felt, was too physical. I asked the group that had gathered around if they’d observed any differences. S tapped his silver ring against the beer can and bounced on his heels.

“No, I don’t think so.” He expounded on different interpretations of kink, deeming individual relationships to  vary more greatly than regional practices.  In short, the “West” was no more physical and “Asia” was no more mental than any other region. I considered that for a moment. For me it’d always been interesting how people had used websites like Fetlife to connect with others interested in kink around the world. On Fetlife they could join forums on specific topics, discussing anything from balloon popping to current events. What was more interesting to me, however, was how even with the mixing, many people felt different cities, different regions practiced kink in unique ways.

I remember once attending a munch in D.C. and talking to someone about this very subject. To them, D.C. has a unique kink identity or culture– one different from, say, Baltimore, San Francisco or Detroit. They were very adamant about maintaining that culture and took pride in D.C.’s uniqueness. I asked S what he thought about that. I mentioned I’d read Taiwan’s BDSMwebsite which claimed that kink had changed a lot thanks to the introduction of foreign terminology and, possibly, the internet. How, I said, has the internet, or globalization, changed kink in Taiwan? How has Taiwan established a unique identity in the global setting of BDSM? Would he argue Taiwan is unique? Is there a sense that it varies from region to region? That is to say, do people in different cities find their practices and BDSM culture unique from others?

He told me that most of the time people communicated via bulletin boards before the internet, putting up posters for various meet ups. Understandably, it it difficult to measure the difference between pre-internet Taiwan to Taiwan now. It’s hard to even say whether the internet had any sort of significant effect at all,  though Taiwan’s BDSM website writers may feel differently. Only recently was a public Taiwan BDSM group established, the first in Taipei. Since then new BDSM groups and gatherings have been organized in Kaohsiung and Tainan.

“We’ve been trying, to have groups in Kaohsiung, but it’s been a little difficult. They are young there and so they are disorganized.” He disclosed that groups in the South seemed to think the BDSM community was better there. To them, it was more friendly, more welcoming and less conservative. “You know,” he said. “The difference between the South and the North.” So, the biases between different BDSM communities stemmed from already established ideas about the Taiwanese North and South and, even though the Southern BDSM community was still in its nascent stages, already people in Kaohsiung had claimed the BDSM culture there was a singular one. To them, the difference between BDSM Taipei and BDSM Kaohsiung was, perhaps, indisputable.

How much do our preconceived notions about culture in our own area and culture in others color our understanding of the individuality of our community? How does our participation in different communities affect our unique identity? If you were to go online now and examine these people’s Fetlife profiles would it be evident that one person was from Kaohsiung and the other from Taipei? Could you predict it from that alone? How much emphasis does our environment deserve in affecting how we practice even those things that are on the margins of our society?

All of these questions are difficult enough to analyze on a regional level, much less a community or individual one. Identity is such a complex ideas– or perhaps, if one considers that many variables that affect it– a near infinite set of interconnected ideas.Even when I try to isolate one aspect of someone’s identity and study it, I find the the ideas I must consider to properly frame it growing ever larger. At the end of the munch, S told me about several other events in Taipei and I expressed my interest in attending. One of these events was an academic conference which was meant to discuss the place of kink in democracy– the advertisement for it mentioned the presence of BDSM practitioners in the Sunflower protests among other topics. Now I wonder, is it possible to connect someone’s motivation to protest the attempted ratification of an economic agreement with China to their interest in kink? If there is a significant correlation there then why does that correlation exist? It is interesting to me that the researchers chose to connect those parts of  certain Taiwanese people’s identities. I can only suppose I will learn more when I attend the conference at the end of May.

Next up: I ask about 50 Shades of Grey in Taiwan and whether 50 Shades is ‘good’ for the community or ‘bad’ for it.

Who am I? Who will I be?

As a child the future was a source of great wonder. Who will I be? I could be anything. I could travel. I could be charming  and well liked ,or incisive and well respected. I could be a recluse who lives with two dogs in the country, or a socialite who knows everyone in town. Future me was a veritable chameleon. Future me was impressive. Future me was someone I could be proud of.

As a I grew older I began to recognize that future me was, in part, a product of present me’s work. The question I asked myself as a child was coupled with another: Who am I now? Now “Who will I be?” is a source of great anxiety for me. At times I find myself laying awake at night, my current successes and failures tumbling around my head like clothes in an old, worn out washing machine. At some point the cycle stops and the water drains, easing the heaviness of my regrets and the concerns that even my successes might not lead me to a place where I feel proud of what I’m doing and who I am.

How exactly do I get to that place? Finding a place without a map, or landmarks, or a name, or the slightest idea of its geography is next to impossible. So what do I do? I often find myself cycling between phases of inspiration and despair. Sometimes I read motivational articles that encourage a if-you-put-your-mind-to-it-you-can-do-it work ethic. Other times I find myself reading an article on Forbes magazine about how many  college graduates are either under-employed or unemployed. If one is to believe those inspirational, happy articles– many of them failed because they didn’t have the motivation or drive to push themselves. Is that enough though? Is that really enough? Can we attribute some people’s overall success to work ethic alone? Of course, part of me finds the argument distasteful because accepting sole credit for failure can be a heavy blow to the ego; I sometimes convince myself that such a sentiment relies heavily on rhetoric and ignores reality. After all, anyone who has attempted to bring to fruition a new idea–whether that be through law or scientific experimentation or through some creative medium– knows that the finished product often deviates from the initial idea. In other words, confounding variables can be a bitch.

I mean, identifying all the variables is hard enough in a controlled environment, but when one considers all of the variables in the world that can affect an individual…well it’s a wonder that statisticians don’t descend into madness. After sinking into fatalism, I pull myself out and back to the beginning by accepting the notion that we must narrow our view to make sense of the utter chaos that surrounds us. We can’t spend forever concerning ourselves with millions of incalculable probabilities. We simply have to do. We have to pick something and do it. If we fail, we have to continue until we find a method that works. Even a failed experiment is valuable, right?

My childhood self resurfaces: I can be anything as long as I put my mind to it. With renewed focus,  I dedicate myself to a project. I look forward instead of back. I ignore the voice that tells me to look forward one must also look back, and focus solely on the future. I bend my head down and push away the voices that tell me I’m not good enough; that urge me to reconsider dedicating myself to this project because ,even after weeks of practice, I’m still not good enough. “Let yourself be a beginner,” one voice, perhaps the angel, on my shoulder, says.

“How long do can you allow yourself to be that way?” another voice rebuts. “At some point you have to cease being a beginner and achieve something worthwhile. Like your mother says ‘Following your bliss is great, but it doesn’t pay the bills.”  It’s not enough to be dedicated, you have to be good too.

I begin thinking of grad school. I envision myself going into public diplomacy; going into writing; into medicine. Which one should I choose, I wonder? Can I prepare myself for all of them? I know I need to choose a direction, but choosing one direction leaves out the others. I ask myself if narrowing my path will increase or decrease my chances of success. My adult side steps in again to remind me that it’s not enough to dream about the future, you need to do things to prepare now. What things are the right things and how do I involve myself in them?

Sometimes I successfully identify the right things– an internship or work with an NGO. I stare at the job posting for a few days, a week even, trying to convince myself I’m good enough to apply. I waver. I pause. I think of my past experiences. My head turns. I look back. I reconsider. I look forward again. Maybe I’m not good enough, I say silently, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try. Still, I’m afraid. I’m afraid of failing. I’m afraid of failing at something I so deeply want to do. So most times I avoid even trying. The sting of not applying and thinking you might have gotten it is much lighter than the feeling you’re being told you’re not good enough (“Rejection doesn’t mean you aren’t good enough, just that you aren’t the right fit.” The generic career counselor line never fully assuages self-doubt).

Right now I’m battling myself during one of the most pivotal moments of my life. Will I challenge myself to become someone I’m proud of being? Can I push myself past my fears? Can I choose one thing without allowing failure to dissuade me from the direction I’ve chosen?

Am I audacious or cautious? Am I determined or apathetic? Am I fearless or fearful?

Who am I?

Who will I be?

A Family Dinner

Reunited with the rest of the group, we set about pitching tents in the dirt parking lot at the edge of Wushe. That night we drank, talked and exchanged stories of out trips since meeting at Taroko Gorger earlier. L floated around, his usual gregarious self, frequently interjecting with an enthusiastic comment or embellishment. An hour or so passed this way, all of us content with sitting on the cardboard we’d carried around for our tents*

Later, I can’t remember what  I was doing, but I looked up to find the others gathering around a man. He stood in the middle of the curious gaggle, a great smile etched permanently on his face, his cheeks puffy and red. I stood at the fringe of the circle anThe house on the hill. d watched as he produced two Chinese apples from a blue bag. He thrust them into two unsuspecting hands, grinned even wider and said a word to L before pivoting on his heel and striding down the hill.

Our eyes followed the man until he disappeared into the building across the street. Then the group turned expectantly to our leader.

“He wants us to have dinner at his place,” L explained to those of us who didn’t understand. “He just needs to ask his wife.” Five minutes of debate on whether the invitation would lead to anything later, he returned and beckoned us over. Giddy, and somewhat amazed by our continued good fortune, we followed him. Inside we were greeted by industrial fluorescent lighting and a large table laden with a variety of food. The man, whose name I later learned was Taybo, produced a motley11020793_10153148646229630_3659414520185067150_o group of plastic stools, styrafoam bowls and a cup holder filled with chopsticks sealed individually in thin plastic.

Behind him sat his mother, looking authoritative but kind. She appraised the room from her wheel chair, clad in knit hat, gloves and jacket. One hand fiddled with the blanket in her lap, the other alternated between a bowl of  sunflower seeds and her mouth. She didn’t speak much but, like her son, laughed readily at our jokes. When she did speak, it was often to chide her son for some comment. Between her bare fingers she held a cigarette, which she’d point at her son whenever he’d ask an innocent, but to her, ignorant question.

The others talked, I listened and observed the room. The room itself was wide and rectangular, bearing only two windows. The front window, if one can call it that for it looked more like an opening attached to a counter where one might order food, bore no glass. Instead, a metal covering hung over it.  The heavy tables we sat at featured two small stoves. In the back corner sat two unused stoves and a small black and brown dachshund. To me the building had many of the trappings of a small restaurant– including an unfinished kitchen in the corner opposite the dachshund, where a woman stood next to a growing plume of steam. Removing a pan from the steam, she walked busily over to the table and added another large plate to it and scooped more food into each of our bowls. The plate quickly became a group favorite.

“What’s in it?” one of us asked through a mouthful. L translated and the woman, Aya, turned red before confessing her family felt bad for catching and cooking them, as there weren’t many in Taiwan. She couldn’t say what the animal was in English, and we couldn’t say in Chinese. One of us grabbed their phone from their pocket and set about trying to translate. After cycling through three potential animals on google images, we finally showed her a picture of a bat. The family, having become equally invested in the game of translation, excitedly bounced and pointed. That’s confirmation enough, I suppose.

Having had my fill, I walked over to the small dog curled up on a dirty, green apron. Plopping down on the rough concrete, I introduced myself before slowly scooping the pup into my lap. She quickly fell asleep. Reluctant to remove her, I attempted to get my groups attention from the floor.

“Is this a restaurant?” I asked, following a successful attempt.28486912

“No, I think it’s just their home– like I think this is their living room,” L steepled his fingers on the table and tapped it twice for emphasis. I looked around again at the exposed piping, and the unused stoves and the green apron and the collection of foreigners they’d  magnanimously invited into their home and wondered what this family’s story was.

*We’d decided early in the trip to carry cardboard boxes with us to line the bottom of our tents, in case of rain. Most tents in Taiwan don’t have the tarp covered bottoms I’d find at home. Naturally, I thought this was a very curious practice considering Taiwan does get quite a lot of rain. As it turns out, most people camp in build wooden structures– think a platform with a slanted roof– so don’t require any of the trappings you might find elsewhere.

Feeling lost? The story starts here.

Through the Mountains

“You guys okay?” he asked, attempting to tie a miniature Taiwanese flag to a stick he’d picked up from the side of the road.
“Yeah, we’ll be fine.”

“Great, see you in Wushe!”, L walked away with his usual cheerful swagger. “Remember,” he called back at us. “Suns up, thumbs up.” That was his shortened way of telling us that cheerful hitchhikers were more likely to be picked up.

We stood on the side of the street leading from the mountains to Taroko Gorge for about five minutes before a red van pulled over. Clambering out of it and setting about moving various items around in the back, the driver asked us where we planned on going.

“Wushe,” I said.She turned around with a grin on her face, her moon earrings swinging to and fro.  “Well, I’m headed that way, so get in.”

We rode in the car with her for half the day. Conscious of the opportunity at hand, I chose to sit in the front so I could learn more about the person kind enough to pick up three strangers. Unfortunately for her, my sitting in front meant she would be subject to a near endless stream of questions.

Her parents were Presbyterian missionaries in Taiwan when she was born. She’s lived in Taiwan for years, though I can’t remember how many. I know she attended a British school and her father, a preacher, worked with different villages. The family left in ’76 shIMG_6390e told us. “We left when it started gettin’ real bad,” she said, referring to the White Terror or the twenty-some year period Taiwan was under martial law. Unfortunately, she didn’t clarify how they became worse. In fact, most think the situation in Taiwan improved following Chiang Kai-Shek’s death in 1975, though one might be inclined to think it could become worse after watching the beginnings of the suppression of the April 5th, 1976 student protests in China. Perhaps they thought the situation in Taiwan would deteriorate after the formation of the  World United Formosans for Independence, a group interested in the liberation of Taiwan and, who, in 1976 sent a letter bomb to then governor Shieh Tung-min[1].
Regardless, the family didn’t feel safe. Her father had been particularly outspoken in the past and now worried his frankness would lead to trouble.
“Y’know they always told my father he could say more because he was a foreigner and, boy, did he take advantage of that– everything they gave him he gave back twice as hard.” Being a rabble-rouser, as she called him, during martial law is not entirely safe, so the family settled in Bangladesh in 1976– this being only five years after Bangladeshi independence. Somehow they felt that would be safer, I guess. “How was that?” I asked her.

Establishing an independent country is difficult on its own, but in the last five years Bangladesh had also endured two cyclones that wiped out half the population. “In Bangladesh there was hardship everywhere,” she paused to lean over and grab an almond snickers from a small cavity on the dashboard. “The main occupation was chipping bricks for roads. The country wasn’t resource rich in stone, so they had to use bricks instead. They threw bricks through the American embassy– and the Russian one when they learned about Afghanistan– they couldn’t throw any stones– there were no stones.”  At this point her dog Snowy, who I had scooped into my lap, attempted to inspect the food his perch on my knees. Unsuccessful, he settled for me petting him instead. She smiled and I took that as a sign to continue asking questions about her life there. The people in Bangladesh were very poor, she told us. “They looked like the street dogs I saw in other countries”. She spent a few minutes describing starved people “in generally bad shape” to us before cutting herself off.

“Y’know, Bangladesh wasn’t always like that. My elementary teacher told me they were rich before the British came. They used to tile their roofs in gold.” She told us this all the while driving up winding mountain roads. Here and there she would pull off. “You gotta see this,” she’d say, pulling the brake of the old red van. We’d all jump out, Snowy included, and walk  around for a time. While we walked she’d tell us more about IMG_6434Taiwan’s geography and  ecology. “Here’s the IMG_6428hiking  trail five hundred meters up,” she said pointing across the ravine to a nearly hidden path between the green foilage growing on the side of vertigo mountain. “We played with knives up there once,” she said laughing.I asked if it had any safety features. “Sure, sure, but some people still fall off, you know.” I looked horrified and stepped back. Judging by the way Snowy was attempting to scramble his way back to the car, I wasn’t the only one in the party afraid of heights. We returned to the car and drove for a time, and we talked about Japanese control of Taiwan. “When Japan left to make way for the KMT, my teacher told me she had to get dressed up in her best clothes and go sing for them. She said she remembered the Japanese all lined up, looking clean cut in their uniforms. They thanked them for the performance and were so polite. They did the same thing for the KMT when they arrived and it was totally different. They had holes in their uniforms, they were dirty. Couldn’t even bothered to say hello or thank you, just where’s the food and get out of our way basically.”

We drove more, the sky darkened and clouds settled over the roads.IMG_6481“I think that’s where my mother got her PTSD,” C had told me earlier about Bangladesh in passing. For a while I let that statement go and we talked about other things– how she found her dog, Snowy; how strange she felt living in Kentucky in middle school; her studies of high elevation animals in Taiwan. Eventually I asked her about it. “My experience was very different from my mother’s experience,” she began, “and my brothers were very different from mine. My mother has nightmares– wakes up thinking people are watching her. Y’know, we had to go to a therapist after getting back from Bangladesh, the church wanted to make sure we were mentally sound and all that, and she told him about how people looked at her. I mean, people look everywhere. People look in Taiwan, too– not positively, not negatively– they just do. But there, there it was hostile.” Her mother, she seemed to believe, bore the brunt of the hostility. Sure, she startled when balloons popped, but her mother had once been swarmed by angry men when her father left her alone in the van to check on a ferry. “They didn’t like women being out alone,” she’d explained to us.Meanwhile, she disguised herself as a boy. “That was the only way I could have the run of the town,” she told us.

By the time we’d reached the apex of the mountain we’d talked about education, history and family. She’d shared favorite memories and I’d shared some of mine. Not long after we’d started our descent she pulled over again– we’d done so twice before to walk across suspension bridges and look for the stars, but she seemed particularly excited this time. She’d hoped to see the milky way at some point in the drive and occasionally, after several loud exclamations and some laughing, she’d pull over and tell us to get out. She’d sidle out as fast as she could, untangling Snowy’s leash and bringing him along with us. This time the car, perhaps indignant with the frequent stops, refused to brake. One of my companions pointed it out uncertainly, causing C to glance at it then decisively pull the car into reverse before adopting a carefree smile, laughing and walking to the side of the road. “That oughta stop it,” she’d said to my companion, who was doing his best to look reassured.

Now I know memory has a way of fooling you, and I’m not sure if it was the company, or the experience, or the knowing that I had pushed myself beyond my boundaries, but I remember that sky containing most brilliant collection of stars I’ve ever seen. On the highest peak in Taiwan, above the trees we stared greedily at the planets, and constellations that nested themselves in innumerable stars and breathing in the cold, crisp air, I suddenly felt completely reinvigorated.

Urban myths, swearing and some revolutionary graffiti

Swearing: A desired part of language for any teen, person who stubbed their toe or, as it turns out, a study abroad student. For some reason, something about learning another language in another country brings out students’ need to explore. Not to mention swear words are among the top five requested parts of language non-speakers or learners ask you to tell them*. Two summers ago, I traveled with several Arabic learners to perfect our language skills and discover more about Egyptian contemporary culture. Over the course of a couple weeks we became fast friends with a group of self-proclaimed rebels.

One night they invited us out into Cairo with them to take part in the social ritual of hashish (hooka) smoking. Giddy and happy to be out in the night, when the air didn’t stick to us like the dusty suffocating heat of the day, we walked down the winding streets of Zamalek with our new found friends.  Walking through the clamor of downtown Cairo, our  friends eventually lead us to a Shai and Hashish business situated in a small square.  We walked down the narrow path, past several segmented outdoor seating areas before stopping at one hidden, behind crowds of people, in the back.  Awkwardly stepping over the dirty red-velvet, chained barriers we found a motley variety of seats. There we quickly sat down and joined the crowds of Egyptians in casual chatter, chess and, of course, tea drinking and smoking.

Perhaps it was the lateness of the night, but we had eventually grown comfortable enough to request the inevitable: teach us some swear words. Our new friends laughed and promptly denied us, but over the course of a few hours we convinced them to teach us at least a few. Some leaned back and said them with a relish that suggested they had only withheld earlier to tease us. There was one word, however, the girl next to me insisted, through a fit of embarrassed giggles, she couldn’t tell us.

When she did she offered a paper thin explanation, her mouth hidden by her hands, her speech riddled with laughter. She only murmured very quietly: “Sometimes, when I am very shocked I say “a7a” (pronounced “Ahi” or “Aha”) but don’t EVER say that. Never ever.”

According to Urban Dictionary, “a7a” is translated very roughly to “f*ck you”, but that wasn’t particularly what she found most embarrassing. As I discovered later from my rather conservative Arabic teacher, who claimed she certainly had no idea what the meaning was, “a7a” also had another taboo part to it. Apparently, the word was said to imitate a woman’s orgasm.

Boy to the left stands up to a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. The text reads at the top”I am the brotherhood” and then “Fuck you, I am the revolution”. Picture taken at Tahrir Square

Knowing my friends were either unwilling to seem salacious while discussing the origins of the word, or uninterested in talking about its usage, I decided to do a little research on my own. While walking through the alleyways of Tahrir Square, I found the above piece of graffiti. “A7a”, a defiant boy exclaims, “I am the revolution.” Here this doesn’t seem like just a swear word; it doesn’t seem taboo or demeaning. If anything, the word is meant to inspire, to galvanize. In fact the word a7a appears to have a history of rebelliousness. In 1967, after then President Nasser suffered a humiliating electoral defeat and refused to step down, crowds of Egyptians responded with this word. “Aha, Aha, la tatanaha!” (Don’t abdicate), they chanted. In  the 2008 film H-Dabbour, Ahmed Mekky  was able to sneak the word past Mubarak’s film censors by spelling it in English**. In 2013, photographer Bashir Wagih opened a exhibit on the word A7a meant to examine the history and meaning of the word. In an interview Wagih said A7a was originally a word to show your right to object. Even today, he said, though Arab linguistics professors say the word has no specific meaning, Wagih found many stories suggesting the word was meant to show people’s right to object, especially in cases where rulers took away rights.

During the interview, Wagih highlighted one origin story where people took to the street after a King declared no one could object to a royal decree. According to Wagih, they said only one thing “Ana 7aq Al-athr”.  I have the right to object. This chant, he says, was soon shortened to A7a, taking the first letter of each word***.

More research needed…
(In which Leah asks some questions)

Interestingly, the word in the painting above is also spelled in English, though I can’t be sure why. Even so,  it’s revolutionary history not withstanding, it seems the most taboo part to, even my most liberal friends, was the myth of its origins. This myth, for me at least, brings about questions on how the culture treats topics involving sexuality. Later, when I asked a male friend about the origins of the word he denied it had anything to do with the word; yet, the myth persists. It seems interesting that everyone knows that the word is meant to imitate the sound of a woman’s orgasm but many seem unwilling to talk about it or mention it. Is that unwillingness an indication of a larger societal issue? What is the place of sex and sexuality in Egyptian culture? Does something as small as an urban myth about a swear word matter? How does  the myth relate to how Egyptians view issues like sexuality, gender,  and sexual harassment?

*No research involved in making this statement.
** If you’d like to know more about the history of the word A7a, I’d recommend reading this article.
*** See the full interview here.

SOMEWHAT UNRELATED FACT TIME: The first King of a united Egypt was named King Aha. Read more about him here.

To those from Egypt and those who speak Arabic: Think I’ve got it wrong? I’d love a correction! I’m always open to learning more.