Are you friends with your exes?

I am not friend with any of my ex-boyfriends. I’m not even still friends with friends I slept with.

I’m not even still friends with all the friends I didn’t sleep with, so I am willing to concede that it might just be me.

I was something of a serial monogamist before I got married. I didn’t have a lot of boyfriends, but I had a couple of pretty lengthy relationships.

I just got caught up in people. I think that’s part of the reason I don’t want to talk to any of these guys. You kind of make a pig of yourself with them, wanting to know everything about them, and eventually, you’re sated. You’re done.

Like that time you had too much tequila, so you never drank tequila again.

(Except I eventually started drinking tequila again and I still don’t talk to my exes.)

Or that time you waited an hour for your food and when it came it wasn’t what you ordered and the beverage service was best described as “negligent” and now you never go back to that restaurant.

And if your friends suggest that restaurant, you’re like, no way! I had a terrible experience there! And so you have to pick another place.

Maybe I don’t have great instincts. I think there are some or a lot of women who will have a gut feeling about someone and avoid getting romantically involved. Historically, I’d be involved huge before I realized that my new boyfriend and I weren’t compatible. But by then I was invested, so I wanted to make it work. I wanted to force it. So you do that for a while, and that is just fucking awful.

(Then you break up and get back together because you are a masochist.)

By the time you are done, you’ve put each other through hell. Emotionally, you are the equivalent of raw, bloody, ground beef. You never want to see each other again.

After all the lying, the cheating (“We were on a break!”), the manipulating, I can’t imagine sitting at a table full of people who witnessed us trying to destroy each other and being like, “We used to date, god, years ago, but we’re great friends now. We’re going on a double date to wine country next weekend, actually.”

Once you’ve seen someone stripped of all their pretensions, or they’ve seen you that raw, it’s really hard to feel like you can pretend to be civilized around them again.

Impossible, really, for me.

I feel like if you never let your feelings get the best of you on the brink of the breakup, if you were always able to keep it civil, then maybe you weren’t passionately in love, and that’s the only way I love. I suspect that’s true of us all!

But some people are friends with their exes. Is it hard? Easy? Healthy? Beneficial?

Supplementary Reading: Science reveals what it may say about your personality if you’re still friends with your ex

 

On turning 35

When I was 27 I reconnected with a friend from middle school. We’d kept in touch for a few years when I was in high school, but lost contact by the time we went to college. When I crashed at his place, he pulled out a box of memorabilia, dug around, and pulled out some letters–actual handwritten letters!–I’d sent him when I was 16. My excitement and amusement were quickly replaced by regret and an existential funkiness when I read those letters.

“I’m different now. I am becoming a better person. I am becoming the person I always wanted to be,” I wrote.

Without having read those letters, I would have probably said the same thing to him at 27. It depressed me because it was irrefutable evidence that I was still struggling to become the person I wanted to be more than a decade later, after a college education and a my debut into adulthood as an English teacher in Taiwan. What was I doing at 16 that was so special? I knew at 27 that I was already starting to feel regrets about opportunities and time wasted. And if at 27 I thought I was becoming the person I always wanted to be, would I find out in ten years that I was lying to myself?

I wanted to share that with you because I wanted you to know that I am constantly checking in with myself–every season, every New Year, every birthday. I usually feel positive. I feel like I’ve devoted a good amount of time to thinking about life’s mysteries and I’ve come to some helpful conclusions. And then I check out my old diary or my old blog or find some letters I wrote when I was 16 and realize I’ve been chasing my own tail the whole time.

This birthday, I am finally starting to feel old.

Cue the chorus of people older and younger than me saying, “You’re not old!”

Thank you. That’s kind of you.

But the reality is I see signs of being old whenever I look in the mirror. I have more crow’s feet and laugh lines than ever. I have stubborn cellulite.

I can’t hold my beer anymore. Wine is fine, but sometimes even one or two beers will keep me out of production til dinner-time the next day. That’s severe, right? I used to party.

I feel old.

When I was 26 or so, I started feeling like I could conjure up the audacity to write. I felt like I had a superpower if I did so much as a draft a story about my first kiss. I eventually started working on my memoir. I was going to have a draft ready to submit to publishers by the time I was 30. Then with 30 looming, I was going to settle for a short story.

Now I’m 35 and I have a hard drive full of unfinished drafts of my memoir, short stories, and essays. I have feeble attempts at poetry in various notebooks.

I do have my own home office, though.

I am starting to suspect that the version of me that gives up gainful employment to live in a shack in the forest and write full-time while subsisting on a diet of handouts from kind strangers and caring family members is not actually a version of myself that I aspire to be.

I have finally admitted to myself that I get excited about getting that thing I needed from IKEA.

When I was 25 I admitted to myself that I liked air-conditioning and hated spiders too much to really join the Peace Corps. I wanted to when I was in college, but I was overwhelmed by my student loan debt and thought it would be better to get a paying job first.

I’m still paying off my student loans. I own three sets of matching linens from IKEA. I have a guest bedroom.

Did my priorities change naturally as I got older? Am I giving up? Or am I finally realizing who I am and what I want?

And if I am only just now realizing who I am and what I want, why has it taken so long? And what am I going to do with this information?

I am tired. I have been treading water for so long. Chasing my tail. When I moved to Taiwan, my friends said they were jealous. They went to grad school and then got married.  When I moved back to the States, my American friends said they regretted not getting out and travelling for a year. By then they had careers. They were having kids. When I moved back to Taiwan, my American friends said it was brave of me to opt out. Now they have families, retirement accounts, and cars. They can watch Game of Thrones on Sunday nights on their big-screen TVs, legally.

My biggest concerns are watching Game of Thrones and going back to America after I’m too old to teach just to be a greeter at Wal-Mart and listening to old people who have never left the country complain about “damn immigrants”.

I don’t want to die alone, and lonely.

I’m 35. I’m old enough to do whatever I want, but the options are dwindling faster than I can figure out what they are. What they were.

(I’m not going to learn how to surf. There’s still time to get into snorkeling.)

I feel like I’m getting old faster than I figured out how to live.

 

Going granola after 30

I’m turning into one of those people who can afford decent cosmetics*, but would prefer to schmear an edible coconut-oil concoction on her pits.

I’m not actually eating my deodorant and I shave all my bits, so I guess that disqualifies me from being a total hippie. But getting older and getting married have made me a lot more afraid of getting cancer or dying in any possibly avoidable way, so I used the easiest version of the recipe from Wellness Mama to make my own deodorant.

How does fear of death tie into your choice of antiperspirant, you ask? It’s the aluminum. It blocks your pores so you don’t sweat, but then your body isn’t releasing the toxins that should come out in your sweat. That’s why sweat is so stinky, especially if you have an unhealthy diet.

The homemade stuff works better than anything I have ever used, no lie. I used conventional antiperspirants until like a year ago without issue, but there were certainly situations in which they quit working (i.e. I would reapply after a good run). The coconut oil-baking soda-arrowroot paste is amazing from sunup til sundown. I didn’t even put any essential oils in it.

I recently went no poo for like three months, but I slaughtered my hair. As in I actually feel kind of guilty about what I did to it. I got a bunch of dead ends cut off six weeks through, but kept at it in case I was just doing it wrong. I gave up when I didn’t even want to brush my hair because it was so tangled and dead; pulling a brush through it brought tears to my eyes. I finally had to message a friend back in the US just to ask for her advice and she got me to look for all-natural, sulfate free shampoo. I got that and some conditioning treatment and my hair is coming back to life, but I need another trim to rid of my split ends. I probably will have lost nearly six inches all told, and it makes me so sad. I’m going to be a bridesmaid this summer and I wish I had hair down to the middle of my back that I could play with.

A picture that is kind of a picture of my hair.
A picture that is kind of a picture of my hair.

Next up is using a cornstarch mix instead of baby powder. I have been a fan of sprinkling talc on my lady parts (underboob, etc), but I read that it might cause cancer, and if I can just put some arrowroot in some cornstarch and use that instead, I don’t see why not.

Beef is no longer what’s for dinner after I read that human allergies to red meat might be why people who eat more red meat are more prone to cancer. Also I am just more and more grossed out by eating any meat or animal products in general. I haven’t committed myself to any kind of restrictive diet because I’ll eat whatever’s on the table at a restaurant, but at home I’m not cooking meat or using milk at home. I’m still eating yogurt and hardboiled eggs, but I’m not comfortable with it and I hope that as my vegan-cooking repertoire expands, they’ll just fall off the end of the shopping list. At restaurants with beer and friends, I’ll eat pork and chicken and whatever, but I can’t think about it too much or it becomes gross to me.

J says I am turning into one of the characters from this skit:

It’s kind of funny because this is probably the only Portlandia skit we have seen.

I’m also really into eating a lot of fiber and am keeping a mental log (ew) about my poops. I don’t really want to talk about them in detail, but I definitely try to make sure I have good ones. I feel like that’s a really granola thing. Like vegan friends of mine are more likely than omnivores to just casually talk about cleansing and fiber. I’m totally down with that.

Bring on the apple cider vinegar, with The Mother! I’m gonna live forever! Bottoms up!

*I could afford nice cosmetics, if I bought fewer books and kitchen gadgets. Just never got into makeup…

Living behind the language barrier

View from our old apartment.
View from our old apartment.

My Chinese isn’t great. The most I can say is that it’s inconsistent. For example, I’ve managed to have a conversation with a woman who explained to me that she met her husband late in life and they were only able to conceive after a few rounds of in vitro fertilization. And then I order “shoes” instead of “shrimp” and the waitress claps her hands at me like I’m a gifted parrot.

However, the most frustrating occasions are when my Chinese is on point and I know what I’m saying and and some silly bitch starts barking, “Hot-tuh, hot-tuh? Cold-duh? Cold-duh?” at me like I’m not only a foreigner but also someone who shouldn’t leave the house without an escort.

I have a friend who’s lived her twenty years and is married to a Taiwanese man. She speaks Chinese to her husband, to his family, to their kids, to all her Taiwanese friends. She knows the language, right? She told me that once when she tried to initiate a conversation with a stranger in Chinese, he said, “I’m sorry, no English.”

She told him in Chinese, “No, but I’m speaking Chinese to you.”

“No English!” he said, turned, and fled. (I like to imagine that he ran down the beach waving his arms above his head while my friend stood there with her mouth open and her eyebrows furrowed.)

I try not to get angry because so many foreigners here really don’t speak Chinese. Stereotypes exist for a reason, and I can’t expect to be treated like a unique special snowflake every time I rock up when 9 times out of 10, some grumpy foreigner is going to stand in front of the counter at 7-11 wagging his index finger and saying “Marlboro Reds” like the clerk is stupid instead of not bilingual. Also, if you’ve never heard your language being botched by someone who isn’t a native speaker, you might not have an ear for my American-accented Chinese. (I’ve seen foreigners struggle to understand Chinese accents. I have a friend with an Australian accent so thick it takes a committee of Westerners to figure out what he’s saying.) Fair enough.

Also, I think a lot of people who reply to me in English know that they studied English for years in public schools here and assume that I didn’t study Chinese until I was an adult, which is true. It’s humbling to have a local person here apologize for his/her poor English without complaining about my bad Chinese.

Can you imagine how that would play out in the US or Canada? Yeah…

My favorite strangers are the ones who listen to what I am saying and toss out predicates like candy at a parade whenever I am struggling to complete a thought. They can get past my accent, they get the gist of what I’m saying, they’ve even figured out that I can understand a lot more than I can say. I love you people. I promise to start studying again because I owe it to people like you to stop being such a lazy dead-weight.

Shout out specifically to the nice lady at the dentist office and the nice lady at the bank who have called me up personally to have me come in and sort something out. It’s not their job to give me one-on-one attention, but they call me, struggle through what usually starts off as a very weird conversation, and get me in there to sign documents or whatever. After the hours I racked up waiting in lines watching customer service employees and government clerks berate immigrants in Small Town, Virginia, I know that Americans won’t always go out of their way to help people who don’t speak the language. (Okay, I knew that already.)

now speak English :(
This is America (Philly). In Taiwan, they just have English menus. Or picture menus. Or a young person who’s been studying English since s/he started school. We’ve even had a whole family of customers come and help us order from a seafood menu when I was struggling.

The 環島: One week in Dulan 都蘭

beach near dulan taidong taiwan
A beach south of Dulan.

Dulan is such a small and unremarkable place at first glance it would be easy to cruise straight through without realizing what you were missing, like this guy apparently did. You can drive right past the one 7-11 and the one gas station in town and without noticing if the ocean here is any more beautiful than the ocean is all along the east coast.

Pro-tip: “Water Running Up” is not really worth stopping for. It’s a place on the side of a road where there’s basically a nice-looking gutter next to the parking lot and the water is crawling–not running–up a gentle slope. Unusual, unless you’ve ever seen a fountain or any other instance of water pressure in action. If you’re in Dulan, yeah, stop. Just don’t try to make a weekend of it.

But the waves here break against warm sand instead of intimidating walls of stone, and they come in fast and high enough to attract surfers from all over the world. There’s actually an international surfing competition held at nearby Jinzun Bay every year since 2011. If you just pass through Dulan without stopping, you’ll miss some of the most awesome beaches in Taiwan–an island blessed with plenty of breathtaking shoreline, but few accommodating spots to lay down a towel for the afternoon.

scenic beach in Dulan
scenic spot in Dulan, or just south of it

We booked a room at a hostel called Wagaligong at the recommendation of a friend, who knew one of the owners because he was also South African and had also lived in Chungli for many years. He and I spent a long time tossing out names of other people we knew who’d lived in Chungli at the same time we had, only to conclude that we didn’t know everyone like we’d thought we did, and that we’d led parallel lives for years. It’s always unsettling to realize your world is bigger than you thought it was.

at the beach in Dulan, Taiwan
On the beach at Dulan, a short walk from where we stayed. The rocks come and go with the tide, and there’s plenty of soft, black sand where you can sit and read or just watch the water.

After a few drinks the first night, none of that mattered. I went to bed early after booking a surfing lesson for the next morning, but Tieney and J stayed up all night drinking with other expats who wandered in and out of Wagaligong. Obviously, J was in rough shape for the surfing lesson the next morning, but our instructor was Irish so it didn’t faze him. In fact, he turned out to be a super friendly and generous guy. For the next few days, we followed him to wherever the local surfers were surfing whenever we weren’t too hungover or lazy to get ourselves out of bed.

The expats we met in Dulan were a loosely-assembled motley crew of teachers, surfers, chefs, businessmen, and fathers. The only expat women I met were guests at the hostel where we were staying, though I saw the same fair-skinned, light-haired family in 7-11 almost every morning. There were dogs and naked kids all over the place; wives, kids, and college students taking orders for expat chefs locked in hot kitchens to cook. In between orders, the men would come out to smoke and chat with the customers until they were chased back to their stoves.

I got the impression that if I sat at the bar at Wagaligong for enough nights in a row, I’d eventually lay eyes on everyone who lived in town, either as they walked by or when they stopped in for a drink and some gossip. I could collect a book’s worth of secondhand stories to share as  they drank and shared stories of past lives already used up before they got to Dulan, where they can live the next thirty years by the beach, swimming and surfing and cooking for tourists. I met so many men and women who spoke two or three languages, who were multiskilled in music and arts. Everyone could surf; asking about the waves served as a greeting. They moved from chair to chair at friends’ houses, dogs and children and instruments and surfboards in tow. In their company, I felt filled up with inspiration and empty, as I have nothing to offer. I wanted to be one of them, people who make the easy yet impossibly bold decision to live lives that will make them happy, even if they have to “sacrifice” being encumbered by the artificial trappings of conventional successes.

sculpture at sculpture park south of Dulan next to Xiaoyeliu Taidong County Taiwan
A head made of driftwood at a park next to Xiaoyeliu, just south of Dulan.

 

xiaoyeliu dulan taidong county taiwan
Interesting rock formations at Xiaoyeliu south of Dulan. They would have been a whole lot more interesting if it weren’t literally 100°F+ the day that we decided to walk around and looking at f$#%ing rocks.

 

twilight at the beach near dulan taidong county taiwan
Twilight at a beach just north of Dulan. That’s Green Island in the distance.
Dulan Beach Taidong County Taiwan
We didn’t take many pictures of the beach at Dulan because we went there to get in the water, so here’s another picture of me carrying a surfboard.

I felt lovesick after leaving Dulan. When I unpacked my bag a few days later and I saw the sand in my bag and the tan lines on my chest, I felt sad because it ended, the same way anyone feels when they find tokens of an old love and regret that a special time in their life was over too quickly. I want to go back and learn how to surf, get a dog or three and walk them on the beach in the mornings and evenings when the sand is cool, walk down the street with a cold six-pack in a plastic bag and see who wants to share it with me. But I don’t want to keep working for a paycheck or open a restaurant where I’ll be locked up cooking food for hours every day, so I still have a long road back to Dulan, or some place like it.

 

6 a.m. reflections

I woke up without an alarm today and I could tell by the light coming in at the edges of the curtains that it was earlier than usual, but I’ve been trying to go to bed by 10 p.m. so I can wake up naturally by 6…so I go out of bed. It was 5:54. My first thought was that I could lay back down and curl up next to my husband. I would probably fall back to sleep for another two hours without even trying. But then I remembered that I’ve been going to bed earlier because I wanted to wake up earlier, and without an alarm, and that it would be the height of stupidity to give up right as I’d reached my goal just because I didn’t expect to reach it this morning.

I think that happens a lot with time, money, and eating healthy. I have heard that lots of people who have won the lottery–being the type of people who thought playing the lottery was a good investment strategy–have blown through their winnings and run themselves back into debt in just a few years. It’s like you finally meet your goal, but you’re so used to running on fumes, having barely enough time or money to get everything done, or eating a little too much garbage food every day, that waking up three hours earlier than usual, having a couple thousand dollars in the bank, or eating five small, sensible meals throughout the day feels excessive. So you hit snooze, you blow through what little savings you have, or you end a healthy day with a beer, cold pizza, and ice cream–because you’ve been good.

treat yoself
If you treat yourself as a reward for having the self-control to say no, I’m not sure how much progress you’ll make toward your goals. Image lifted from G2 Technology Group page

Then you feel normal, then you feel that familiar panic and and you can fall back on the familiar excuses of not having enough time, not having enough money, of being a victim to your impulses.

Even as I write this, I’ve already replied to an e-mail and a series of Line messages, logged onto Twitter and tweeted a few times and read a few articles, and found a recipe for furikake. These are indulgences I don’t allow myself when I wake up at 9 because I know time is limited and I have to write. But I woke up at six, so…what? I can play around until 9, until the familiar urgency kicks in? I need it like I need coffee, I suppose, but I know I’d be happier without needing either caffeine or panic to start my day.

So how to break myself of this habit? I think first I need to continue cultivating the habit of going to bed at 10 p.m. and waking up at 6 a.m. Right now, it’s just a bit of rookie luck that I got out of bed as early as I’ve always wanted to. It took a couple weeks to get into the routine of writing as soon as I wake up, but I feel more and more confident with that habit and I can see how it’s benefited me: I literally get out of bed thinking about writing, and that’s how I want my life to be oriented. I imagine it’ll take a few more weeks of training myself to go to bed at 10 p.m. before that feels more like a natural habit and less like fighting with my inner child who wants to stay up late. However, I think waking up at 6 a.m. writing, working out, cooking, reading, and then teaching from 2 p.m. until 8 p.m. will make going to bed at 10 p.m. a whole lot easier.

It will take some time and experience getting used to having a wealth of time and learning how to manage it, just like it’s taken three decades for me to learn that having a savings account or saving for retirement is not “extra money” that I can spend on frivolous purchases when I go over an imaginary budget. I have wasted some time this morning, but I haven’t totally squandered it: if I work on one of my stories in progress for an hour, which is about what I spend on them every day, then I’ll still be able to get in a big workout before lunch. Now that sounds like a perfect morning.

running through the city in the morning
Image by lululemon athletica, lifted from runaddicts.net

Breakfast in Taiwan

“The only relationship that can make both partners happy is one in which sentimentality has no place and neither partner makes any claim on the life and freedom of the other.”

― Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

There’s a rule I vaguely remember from Tomas in Mila Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, something about sleeping with a woman once and then not contacting her for three weeks, or sleeping with her for three nights in a row and then never speaking to her again. I think the same kind of limits should apply to patronizing Taiwanese breakfast shops.

But…

The first morning we woke up in our new apartment, J and I were eager to explore our new neighborhood. We walked down the main road and found that it was already bustling with people selling breakfast from tiny food trucks (much smaller and more basic operations than the ones that come to mind if you’re from the US) and breakfast shops. We stopped inside the first one that looked friendly and ordered J his first Taiwanese breakfast–a white-bread sandwich with some fried, uncured bacon and limp vegetables, and a cup of coffee. I had warned him that the coffee would be terrible because Taiwanese breakfast shop coffee is usually almost poisonous, it’s so bad, but this place had a nice espresso machine and the owner brewed us a cup, then added cream and sugar just how we like it.

typical breakfast sandwich and coffee in taiwan
Typical breakfast sandwich and coffee from a nice breakfast shop in Taiwan, from findlifevalue.blogspot.tw

J liked it so much he wanted to go back the next day and try some of the other items on the menu. We met the husband of the couple who owned the shop and found out he could not only speak amazing English, but also loved American basketball and baseball. J quickly made a new friend and wanted to go back every day to have a sandwich and talk sports with him.

I warned J–and so did my friends who have been here for a long time–that frequenting the same breakfast shop/coffee shop/fruit vendor/dumpling stall every day can build up a lot of expectations that he might not be ready to meet. I told him about my old Hess co-worker who went to one breakfast shop every day for a year before she finally was bold enough to walk a little further down the street and try out a new place. “It was just like when you break up with someone and then you see them out in public,” she said. “At first, it’s really awkward, and you ignore each other, but eventually you get used to it, and maybe you even say hi when you walk past. It takes a long time, though.”

Our friend Chuck told us that he returned to a favorite spot after six months of going somewhere else for breakfast, and felt so guilty when the owners asked him where he had been that he lied and said his grandmother had died and he had to go back to Canada for a while.

A breakfast shop in Taipei, Taiwan
A breakfast shop in Taipei from In This Brave New World

J didn’t believe us (or he is more cold and heartless than I realized, and I don’t believe that), so he wanted to go back to the shop every day for weeks. We tried every kind of sandwich on the menu, always with a cup of coffee. J told the owner, Richard, about our excursions around the island and Richard gave us a brand-new map. We played peek-a-boo with the little nephew who ran all over the place, made ourselves familiar to Michael, the little Schipperke-type who ferociously guarded his favorite seat, and helped the college-bound daughter with some of her English homework. Richard made up platters with hotdogs, bits of iceberg lettuce, cucumbers sliced at beguiling angles, and little whorls drawn in ketchup.

But slowly, as we settled into our routines, our schedules changed. No longer feeling the effects of jetlag, we started sleeping in past breakfast. At the same time, I wanted healthier options, preferably meatless, but Richard’s shop only offered limp lettuce on white bread under the guise of a “fresh vegetable sandwich.” I found a vegetarian breakfast shop after that and for a few weeks, that was my favorite spot. J went back to skipping breakfast like he’d always done back home. I insisted we still go when we could to keep up our relationship with the friendly family. The last time we went, Richard gave us his phone number and told us to call him if we wanted to join him and his wife on a trip to see the temple in Sanxia.

The last time we ate at Richard’s shop was just before Christmas, but we still pass it every day. Sometimes I see his wife at the grill, frying up meats and eggs. I want to go back and thank them for all the kindness they showed us, and order some coffee and even eat a soggy fried-egg sandwich, but I feel like walking back into their lives would just stir up some kind of resentment and they’d never be able to like and trust us again. And that is why you don’t go to the same fucking breakfast shop every day.

Hello from Taiwan

Why, hello there.

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I apologize for my prolonged absence, but when J and I reached the crest of the tsunami that was getting rid of everything we owned and moving to a different country, I had to jettison responsibilities alongside extra pairs of shoes, extra winter clothes, and that headlamp that I used a couple of times when I went running at night during the winter of 2011. Blogging went, as did reading, eating healthy foods, and eventually, personal hygiene. By the end of it, I was crying while scrubbing the toilet in a house empty except for bags and heaps of nonsense items destined for the dump.

And then we left. Then we got on the airplane and all of that was behind us and so much was ahead of us, and after six (seven? Christ!) months it’s easy to say it was worth it.

I lived in Taiwan for five years four years ago, from 2004-2009. When we decided to come back, I thought it would be easiest on us if we moved back to the same city I lived in for all those five years. Chungli/Zhongli/中壢  never gets a mention in any of the guidebooks, even as a city of 600,000 on an island only 244 miles long.

However, I have a solid network of friends and acquaintances who are still around, many of whom have spent at least a decade teaching English here. I had teaching hours lined up before I even arrived and friends to stay with when we landed. We secured a new apartment the weekend we landed with help from a friend and another one lent us his scooter. Within the first month of our being here, a handful of the old crew had already invited us out for dinners, drinks, and birthday parties. I’m confident that if our tolerance for uncertainty and our budget were greater, we could have relocated to almost any city in Taiwan, but moving home to Chungli has been made a lot easier by the presence of friends and well-wishers.

I was worried that coming back to the same town with some of the same people to take a job at the same school would feel like I was relapsing into an old life, and of course it has felt like that sometimes. But I also made so much progress toward my own goals while I was back home for those three years, that it can’t be totally similar because I’m in such a different place in terms of my own priorities. I spent some valuable time getting to know people with master’s degrees and mortgages, and learned just what it was I was giving up in deciding to be an expat English teacher. Of course, if I hadn’t gone back, I never would have met J, and it doesn’t need to be said that would have been a great loss. He and I are on the same page when it comes to our lifestyle and our goals for the future, and we move in sync. So being back here is eerily familiar–in some ways it feels like I never left–but it’s also very different. I can’t help but think that I somehow rigged the deck and got a second chance at the life I wanted all along: living overseas, living simply and intentionally, working to build a future, alongside someone I love.

Also, I’m 32 now…33 in a hot minute. I can’t drink and party like I used to, even if I wanted to. And trust me, I’ve tried, and paid for it with whole Sundays a few time already. J and I got into wine pretty big when we were back home, and I just can’t enjoy the local Taiwan Beer or my vodka tonics as much as I used to. For the most part, we go to bed sober and early like an old married couple should. It’s also uncomfortable to go back to my local bar and find the same parties going on, but with different people. It takes about three beers before I started missing this one and that one, and then I’m in a funk for the rest of the night.

You can’t step in the same River twice. (wink, wink)

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I have meant to write this post dozens of times already, but between being regularly conflicted about how to best invest my free time between writing, reading, or studying Chinese and actually wasting my free time on social media and imgur, I haven’t had a chance. I’ve been taking a writing course online through The Writers Studio and trying to work on my own short stories and assignments in my free time, and I am very ambivalent about how much time I should spend blogging, or if I should be journaling instead. They’re such different exercises, but even if I botch the schedule, I like the accountability of blogging in terms of the writing and editing process.

10 things to miss about Harrisonburg

I feel like I spent most of my time living in this little town in the Shenandoah Valley looking for things to do, and now I’m looking ahead to things I will miss when I am gone.

harrisonburg
Downtown Harrisonburg early one morning in 2011
  1. That quaint, small-town feel: People here sometimes leave the doors to their houses or cars unlocked. Kids still play in their front yards and run down the street to the neighbor’s house. You can catch up on local gossip at the grocery store and you have to pay cash at the most popular diner in town. The Courthouse is on Court Square, right in the middle of downtown, and everybody you know goes to the same three grocery stores. You’ll probably see someone you know if you sit in the downtown coffee shop long enough. It’s not perfect–I’ve heard that gang activity is increasing here, and there are a couple of neighborhoods I wouldn’t want to walk through at night, but it’s a slower pace of life and a nice change from big-city living.
  2. Cherry blossoms in bloom: Lots of places have cherry blossoms, but it’s nice to live in a town where you can see them as you walk about in the spring.

    Cherry blossoms blooming in downtown Harrisonburg
    Cherry blossoms blooming in downtown Harrisonburg
  3. Little bunnies, groundhogs, skunks, blue jays, cardinals, and ducklings: Guess what you see in cities instead of baby animals? Rats the size of cats, giant cockroaches, and starving dogs. It’s so nice to welcome spring with baby country animals that look like they fell right out of the pages of a wholesome children’s book.
  4. Beautiful Virginia mountains and countryside: I like to joke with everyone that my favorite seasons in Virginia besides autumn are winter, spring, and summer. So far, no one has laughed. But the mountains, the farms, the vineyards, and the rivers are so breathtakingly beautiful here. I’m always grateful I get to call Virginia home from now on.

    Beautiful Virginia mountains as seen on a hike around here somewhere
    Beautiful Virginia mountains as seen on a hike around here somewhere
  5. The drive from Harrisonburg to Pittsburgh: One of my favorite things about going to visit my family is actually the drive itself. The first I went, I used my GPS and programmed it to avoid tolls. I ended up on this winding path through mountains in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. I felt like I was in a sports-car commercial, watching the crops and the cattle as I whizzed by in my little Focus, taking on curves and steep inclines without touching the brakes. It’s beautiful and it makes me feel free.
  6. Virginia wine and wineries: I don’t use this term lightly, but we feel totally blessed to have discovered Virginia wine just as the rest of the world starting getting the news of the world-class wine being made here from respected publications like Forbes and Wine Enthusiast. We’ve learned so much about enjoying, making, and growing wine while we were working on Virginia Wine Nose.
  7. Vintage Wine: I gotta give a shout-out to Downtown Wine and Gourmet because I’ve enjoyed many a free sample on a Friday afternoon in that shop crowded with elderly people who can afford to buy wine by the case yet insist on monopolizing all the space at the counter while they’re getting refills on their free samples and hordes of young people who can’t actually afford a bottle but will guzzle anything they don’t have to pay for, but my heart belongs to Vintage Wine. The owner loves wine and tolerates people, preferably after he’s put them through his extensive tasting list and got them warmed up enough to buy a few bottles. Bruce makes wine accessible without any of the exhausting pomposity that afflicts so many wine nerds.
  8. Kline’s Dairy Bar: When I first moved to Harrisonburg, I found the antiquated signs for places like Kline’s, Glen’s Fair Price (a general store), and the Wetzel Seed Company really charming, but I couldn’t even afford an ice cream at Kline’s. Thankfully, my situ improved and before long I was enjoying giant cones of the monthly flavor with everybody else.

    Kline's Dairy Bar Harrisonburg Virginia
    Kline’s Dairy Bar on Wolf Street in the early morning circa March 2011
  9. The grilled cheese truck: I’m totally faking it because I’ve only been to the grilled cheese truck once (also known by its name, Grilled Cheese Mania), but I am super glad to have lived in a town with a grilled cheese truck. They make gourmet grilled cheese, giant buckets of limeade, and tomato soup. It’s like fancy comfort food, in a truck.
  10. The taco truck: J and I go to the taco truck at least once a month. We go to our favorite dive “truck” on Main Street whenever we want to mark an accomplishment: birthdays, Fridays, Saturdays, paydays, lazy days, hot days, cold days, and movie nights. I don’t even know what it’s called. It’s purple. I do know some people refuse to go because they think it’s dirty, which makes me a total hipster about tacos.

    Taco truck tacos with a messy helping of fried cactus, fried spring onions, and fried jalapenos
    Taco truck tacos with a messy helping of fried cactus, fried spring onions, and fried jalapenos

Packing up my books

pile of books
The number of books I own but haven’t read is too damn high. Picture by nSeika

We’ve been packing up/selling/donating all of our stuff, including our pretty big collection of books. It’s been harder than it should be in some ways. I’ve had some of those books since college and somehow many of them have become intertwined with my sense of self-worth.

I am afraid of who I am without those books. Like what if five years from now we move back to the United States and we are setting up house and I have very few books on my shelf? And what if none of those books are the right books to convey who I am? How will the house guests I resent having know how intellectually curious I am and appreciate how open-minded I am if I don’t have stacks of interesting book titles to show them?

And if I get rid of my philosophy books, what will I have left of my years at college spent getting that BA in philosophy?

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