The Dream of Taiwan

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Today was the first time I felt the feeling of an unmovable helplessness. There was a great dark hole within me, one that could not be filled. It suddenly hit me that I was to leave Taiwan in three days. Biking through the happy and crowded Saturday streets, I felt a desperate need to capture everything around me, for the world in front of me was soon due to vanish. It was like I was biking through a movie, as the scene before my eyes was one that I could no longer participate in. Biking through the void and surrendering my movements to simpler instincts, I rode slowly and observed. I was nearing the end of a dream.

It has already been over four months in this miragelike island of Taiwan. It was at two in the morning on February the fifth when I boarded my plane from Toronto, not knowing what to expect. Over several time zones and nameless countries the plane travelled all through the night, while inside the plane, an unlit and quietly rumbling interior gave me the feeling that I was travelling through a vortex. When I finally landed and stepped outside the airport, a new world greeted me. I left the cold deathly weather of Toronto, one in which an unrelenting snow silently lay ubiquitous, to a land where life existed endlessly unacquainted with the chill of winter. Waiting for the bus, a moist and cool morning breeze greeted me with a slightly drizzling rain, giving the early morning the feeling full of a fresh spring. The existence of the Taoyuan International Airport did not daunt the vivid greens of the trees and plants, which continued from the airport to the view past the windows of my bus to Taipei, as the greenery rose and declined with the whims of the mountains. And thus my dream of Taiwan began.

The next months plunged me further into the world of my dreams. I lived in this new world naively and wholeheartedly, gradually forgetting about the world of reality I came from and would have to return to.

Deep in my dreams I started to become acquainted with the city of a thousand winding alleyways, Taipei. I started biking to move around in my new fantastical surroundings, immersing myself with the unpredictable traffic which followed only unwritten rules. Everyday as I biked, I became used to the unfamiliar laws of these automobiles, who fought for every inch of space available to them. Motorcycles weaved through and about the traffic everywhere, and it was possible to hear their rumbling during the day in any alleyway in Taipei. Often there were one or two riders, but a family of four with a pet dog on one scooter was also not unheard of. Off the road it was a completely different story. Biking through my dream, pedestrians with their languid pace were often a nuisance to me, as they were always taking their sweet time to head to unknown personal destinations. As I passed them by, catching brief glances of these inhabitants of Taipei, it was always the old and feeble men and women that held my attention, the spectres with unwashed dark faces wearing dirty rags riding worn out vehicles from a past generation, going through garbage bag after garbage bag to separate trash for livelihood. There was one such old man who I saw a couple of times in my neighbourhood when I came back home late after a night out. Looking of retirement age, with a mound of garbage spread on the floor and an antiquated automobile beside him, I imagine he laboured all through the night in his work unknown and unseen, while the rest of Taipei faded.

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As I continued to dream, I got to grasp the vast scope of this land. I rode on imaginary trains which took me to different areas in this illusionary reality, with the passing scenery and the trembling train the only things confirming my physical displacement. Outside the windows of the train, sights I had never seen in my waking world revealed themselves to me. Green plains of tall grass and shrubs rushed past, occasionally rotating with sparse forests of green trees that were leafy near the North and turned into palm trees closer to the South. At other times the world outside my window showed imprints of human activity, with wide pastures of crops on flat lands stretching out for long distances, and the lonely plain boxlike houses with roofs in solid colours, sitting wholly weatherworn. But no matter how far the flatlands went, there were always the looming presence of mountains in the distance, full of green trees and looking like mossy rocks when they were close, and changing into bluish waterpainted objects of illusions when further away. Only when beyond the window lay the Pacific Ocean did they disappear. And on the East coast, instead of the bulges of mountains there was a variety of pure blues which grew darker and bluer until they touched the sky at the flat and endless horizon, leading across the Pacific Ocean to the tedious world of reality that I lived in when I was awake.

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In every city of my dreamland there was character. Every building and every street and sidestreet held a story and a community. At first glance, every alleyway looked generic, with short stunted buildings holding family owned businesses on the ground level, while just in front there were badly paved sidewalks under uneven arcades while vehicles motored by. However, as I got to know my area better, and my daily routine brought me into contact with the same people over and over again, whose businesses were an extension of their lives, I felt the existence of a deep personal connection to my area. The 7/11s and Family Marts were not family owned, but they still had a special role to play in every alleyway community. I don’t think Taiwan would be Taiwan for me without them.

Sometimes, these alleyways turned into night markets in the evenings. At these times the sleeping streets burst with life and activity, and completely transformed, as people from beyond the neighbourhood would gather together with friends and family to wander around the streets for tasty treats. There were always so many lights and so many vendors calling out to the interested looking customer. Some were not successful, some got the occasional customer, but there was always the snack stall or diner that for unexplainable reasons always had a long line. Although I was never sure how great the actual quality of the food was at the end of the line, there was a feeling of anticipation and then happiness when you got the snack in the end. With food in the hands and in the mouth, lights and people everywhere, sounds of happy chattering while enjoying a cool evening, I would often get overwhelmed. However, the most overwhelming sensation came while walking to other stalls and suddenly smelling the putrid sour stench of sewer water. This smell would be the stinky tofu. Crispy on the outside, soft tofu inside, served with sauce and pickled cabbage to neutralize the taste of stink, it indeed could be a marvellous treat, despite the idea disgusting me in my first few weeks. And these environments would last often until midnight, slowly losing their dreamlike qualities as groups of walkers gradually vanished out of the collective consciousness of the night market.

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Along the way, I was able to meet other dreamers. Coming from different areas of the real world and finding themselves in the dream of Taiwan, together we explored this world and created a Taiwan with a special meaning for us. We created memories of Taiwan, and formed bonds with this land and its wonderful people. There were many strong relationships fashioned through the adventures and the parties and the unique experiences, but these relationships were temporal in nature. As the dream comes to a close, and as the birds start chirping to signal the start of a new morning, many dreamers have already woken up, travelling back through the vortex to the land they came from and finding themselves in their own familiar bed and outside the window, a familiar sight under the clear morning light. And as the real world drags on and on, and the dream of Taiwan starts to disappear, will we still be such good friends as we once were when we were dreaming? Perhaps we will always have the unbreakable connection of Taiwan.

Or perhaps we will not. After the last among the dreamers awakes, the dreamworld will still hold and continue to exist on its own. And it will rain, for God how it rains in Taiwan. It will rain in light drops as a pleasant hazy shower and it will rain fiercely and suddenly and disappear like a flash of lightning. It will rain for days and nights on end, clouds relieving themselves of their heavy burden, as sleepers in Taiwan hear the pitter patter of the raindrops on the rooftops of their homes. The rain will pitter and patter and wash the streets and buildings of Taiwan, and fall on every single part of the mountains and plains from the North to the South, the East to the West. Still pittering and pattering, the incessant rain will fall and wholly wash Taiwan of the dreamers’ existence, as the flowing rainstreams take with it the slightest imprints until not even the faint memory of once treaded paths remain in Taiwan.

Similarly, the constant rains of forgetfulness will rain upon our hearts, and as time passes, the dream of Taiwan will lose its vividity while a thickening fog will appear when we try to look into our experiences. Friendships made will lose their basis and the characters we met will slowly fade away from our hearts and from our memories, until photos show only smiling strangers with the image of a familiar former self. But I hope that as the rains fall and carry with it these memories, they will transport these memories to a deeper place in the heart, where they will remain and lay pure and undisturbed until the end of our time.

Reflections on Freedom on a Contemplative Day

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Yesterday was a night of great festivities, today was a day of bodily recuperation. After a four hour lunch and coffee with two friends who also experienced the fun, I went walking on roads wet with fresh rain that had flooded the streets a few hours prior. There was a damp smell in the air and the sky was steadily darkening. A pallid greyblue from the sky was ubiquitously waterpainted on the buildings and the roads and the pedestrians. A contemplative mood was awash, perhaps influenced by the caffeine, a steady fatigue and last night’s experience, in which excess waves of liquid poison repeatedly “smashed” into my stubborn ego and broke it into tiny recovering pieces. Walking in the middle of the main road of National Taiwan University, aptly named Palm Tree Boulevard for a row of evenly spaced palm trees on either side, I looked far into the distance to the direction of the main library. I felt as if I was experiencing a movie, and a thin film of nothingness separated me from reality, as passing groups whose voices came to me in murmurs, the slight rhythmic sound of bicycles and the contenting sights of a lazy Saturday quietly reflected and were absorbed into me from beyond the veil of unreality. I felt like the observant protagonist in a Murakami novel.

At that moment, I felt a strong desire to be free, a feeling which came like a flash storm on a summer afternoon, and rapidly flooded my being.

I wanted to be free from parental pressure, the obligations coming from human relationships. I wanted to be free from societal norms, human expectations. I wanted to be free from monetary limitations, free from the limitations of my current living conditions. I wanted to break free from myself. I wanted to be free of earthly desire, bodily responsibility. I wanted to be free from my own habits, my own solidifying personality. I wanted to be free from acquired philosophies, my own selfconceptions. I wanted to be free of irrational fears, free of anxieties and indecision. I wanted to be as free as the moment of my birth, in which virginal newness purifies all perceived reality, and allows reality to be seen as reality, and lived with an honest and true intention, without the fog of developed personal subjectivities.

I wanted to be free from earthly logic. I wanted to be free from Newton, free from Einstein. I wanted to be free from the limits of my puny, weak, unreliable, worthless body so as to express the feeling of freedom with a dance oblivious of physical practicalities. I wanted to be free and let my spirit fly out of my bodily prison and soar past clouds, planets, stars, galaxies, and let my presence envelop the whole universe with an indescribable oneness; and experience an escalating liberation from subjectivity to objectivity, from perception to truth, from experience, from feelings, from concepts, from rationality, from life, from death, from time, from space, from God; to a truly incomprehensible and unfettered state of being, being an emptiness, nothingness, wholeness complete.

Such an idealistic version of reality cannot exist anywhere in physical form on the earthly plane, where ideas touched by the rockhard solid world shatter instantaneously, fragile as it is pure. However, I believe to some extent, freedom is a treasure coveted by all, and one everyone already possesses in different amounts. Unlike perfect freedom, the freedom on the physical plane has a different exterior and form.

I think the latter definition of freedom is close to what Viktor Frankl described in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. He wrote: “that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast should be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.” Furthermore: “Freedom, however, is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness.”

To speak truthfully, I do not understand perfectly the wisdom of his words. I cannot grasp the sturdy bond that connects the concepts of freedom and responsibility together in an unbreakable chain. Perhaps more life experience will be the teacher that will teach me this rope as greater age will bind me closer and closer to freedom and responsibility. For now I can only elaborate on his words from a lower level, although living life may give me opportunities to climb higher and higher to let me see further into new insights from the taller vantage point.

To me, freedom fundamentally means the power of choice. Whether it is freedom of speech or economic freedom, more freedom will mean more power to choose how to let loose one’s spirit in thought or in action and allow it flight to any desired destination. When there is no freedom, the case is the opposite and there is no power of choice. All one’s actions and thoughts are fettered like a bird in a cage. In this way, responsibility is inextricably tied to freedom. The phenomenon of cause and effect will follow a freely chosen action or thought, and the effect will undeniably require a responsibilitytaker. A caged bird will not be free, but it will be fed and cared for. It will not be able to spread its wings in homage to its Godgiven or Darwingiven form, but it will be sheltered from dangers leading to inexistence. The uncaged bird will float at a lofty level across miniature terrains with the honest expression of its soul’s impetus. With such freedom will come the price of risk to its unbroken existence.

On a personal level, I can relate to freedom and responsibility. As I age, I desire more freedom and autonomy. I do not want to be kept on a leash, no matter how comfortable life on a leash may bring me. Confucius driven traditional Korean values serve as the philosophy behind my parental leash, while money brings about its physical form. My parents are always behind me with support and I feel their concerned gaze on my back, like the limelight onto a stage actor. These lights are sometimes suffocating. I suppose that it is unavoidable, the cutting of the umbilical cord in birth and the later metaphorical cutting of the umbilical cord with adulthood. At least for now, I have severed monetary ties to bring a similar severing of the physical leash. Perhaps later on I will look back on leashed days with nostalgic longing, and futilely attempt to reattached the umbilical cord of my youth, as life as a pampered domestic dog becomes preferable to that of a stray. Perhaps I am being immature and not taking responsibility for correct relations with my relations.

Freedom is an oft mentioned word as recent history has brought unprecedented levels of freedom to the lives of the majority. What is the nature of this freedom? Is it the immature and idealistic freedom of the former or the freedom which is justly connected with responsibility? If it is the former, then where does unwanted and untaken responsibility go to? Maybe responsibility piles up like bags full of garbage. If no one accepts responsibility, the stacks will grow higher and will eventually lead to an inescapable stink, an odorous and insufferable reminder of unmet obligations, brought by one individual to be smelt by all.

 

Note: Picture is of Palm Tree Blvd, although it was taken on another day.