Category Archives: Travel

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.

Delusions of Travel

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I might be unqualified to speak about the subject of travel, but since I’ve been on two exchanges and a lot of plane flights and train rides and car rides to different places as a result, I have had some experience and some thoughts which will be reflected in this post.

In this post I want to talk about the unrealistic expectations I think people have about travelling. Now the ‘people’ I speak of are probably individuals in their 20s living in North America, as a lot of my friends and Facebook friends belong to this category, and they are the people I get these impressions of falsehood from.

What I see a lot of the times is travel being presented as some sort of fantastical adventure in which only a few are able to embark on and where an individual will experience magical and romantic things while undertaking a plethora of fun adventures. I see a lot of posts coming on my Facebook Newsfeed about very similar stories reflecting these ideas. Sometimes it will be about some guy who had been travelling for a whole year and made a cool videos during the process, and at other times it will be a quote charged with idealistic notions about ‘how travelling is food for the soul’ or something else cheesy, accompanied with by beautiful instragramed photo of an exotic looking location. Maybe such a quote could be true in a vague way, and personally, I think that the guy who travels for a whole year is quite admirable in his tenacity. The only problem I see is that these things add fuel to the delusions of travel.

In my experience, (and of course, my experiences will not wholly reflect other people’s experiences; I might be a particularly boring guy) when travelling is stripped of all its romanticism, it is quite unremarkable. You have the highs and lows; sometimes you meet nice people, sometimes you feel lonely; sometimes you have a great day of adventure, sometimes you are completely at a loss and don’t know what to do. However, most of the time, you will just be walking a lot to get to from one place to another.

However, the best way to actually get to know what travelling is like is by travelling. It is really not that hard of a process to do so, although the mental preparation could be difficult. However, for the logistical process, it is as simple as buying a plane ticket, booking accommodation and finding activities to do. It would be better if you had some sort of interest in the location’s history or culture to facilitate this process. Language could be a tricky thing, but it is usually not exceedingly difficult to manage. In Italy, not many people speak English, but there were many fellow exchange students who manage without being able to speak at all. Also, I’m sure that the personalities in the stories about the guy who travels for a year don’t speak all the world’s languages either. If you are reading this post, you probably have a certain degree of fluency in English, and often English is enough to get by. Finally, buy travel insurance for emergencies.

In the end, I might have been a little too harsh when describing travel as being unremarkable. If it was so unremarkable, I would not have been doing so much of it. But what I want to do is provide a counterweight to the common perception of travel. You might not have a perfect experience or be doing interesting things every moment or be guaranteed to like your experience. Instead, you might be tired, homesick or bored. Realistically, it will be some combination of the two. But for sure, there will be a lot of walking.

 

Above is one of the five towns in Cinque Terre in Italy

Korean in Paris

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It was mid-November in 2012, and the days were growing colder in Milan. The cold breeze signalled the impending arrival of winter and the encroachment of the day in which I would have to go back to Toronto. Long past seemed the days under the hot Tuscan sun in the month of August in Siena, in which cold weather seemed like a foreign concept in the dry and cloudless weather. At that particular moment, the cold was not foremost in my mind, as I was soon due to leave to majestic Paris.

Paris may seem like an eventual destination for an exchange student in Europe. One of Europe’s great capitals with a worldwide recognition and reputation for culture and beauty, it experiences innumerable tourists annually, who wish to have a taste of a fantasised Parisian life. Cities like Budapest and Shanghai have been given titles like the “Paris of the East” or the “Paris of the Orient” respectively, as if Paris holds the absolute measure of a beautiful city. To contrast, no one would dare call Paris the “Shanghai of West” or compare Paris at all in such a manner. There is a unique romantic mystique associated with the name Paris that prevents the demeaning suggestion of such titles. Perhaps all this is just speaking from a North American point of view, but Paris can only be described as Paris.

Despite Paris being Paris, it was not a location that was originally on my list of places to go to. I was very happy in Italy and enjoyed the culture and the lifestyle. Most of the travelling I did was to Italian cities. It felt like every new Italian city I visited was a puzzle piece which helped me piece together a greater understanding of the country. Ironically, with more pieces came a realization that the picture was exponentially larger than I thought.

However, there was a French friend I wished to visit in Paris. We had met two years prior in the summer of 2010 in Seoul. We were studying in the same Korean language program. He developed an interest in Korean culture due to his Korean girlfriend. Being a relatively cheap and short flight, I took the opportunity to go see him.

There is always an emotion that is part anxiety and part anticipation when seeing a friend that you have not seen for a long time. Change is always happening to people, and you are not certain whether the previous connection you and the friend once shared still holds. Change is particularly prevalent for people in their 20s, who still are going through a period of many decisions. Add the fact that you have also changed as well, and we get a further compounded problem. Maybe it is just the physical features that are the remnants of an old friendship, and the feeling of comfort you get along with the familiar face, which is a solid, physical affirmation of a previous shared connection. Maybe this feeling of ease is the most fundamental glue in a friendship, with the rest being details that are whisked off with the passing of time.

When we met at Crimée Station, it was a relief to find out that the friendship was still there. There was one big difference that I immediately noticed, and it was in the language we used to communicate. Two years prior, we used English due to his insufficient Korean. At this meeting, we used Korean. While acquainting ourselves with each other anew, I started to find out how excellent his Korean grew to be, far surpassing my own abilities in my first language. It was an interesting turn of events. In the month of our friendship in Korea, I had always thought that he was reticent and reserved. I was finding that he was not. I was seeing aspects to his personality that were put behind an opaque wall when we used English to communicate. With Korean, his self was able to shine through. Meanwhile, it was the opposite for me, as my Korean put me behind the opaque wall this time.

For lunch at his place, we were joined by another Frenchman, an acquaintance of my friend who also spoke very good Korean. Together, we ate a nice simple lunch of some bread, potatoes and blood sausages with a cocktail. Afterwards came the drinking of an alcohol made of oranges that was as strong as vodka and reminded me an orange version of the Italian limoncello. Of course, the primary language of our increasingly drunken communications was Korean. Two Frenchmen and a Canadian in Paris, who would have thought.

Continuing through the afternoon fuelled by drinking games involving the Nintendo Wii, we started to think of options for dinner. Naturally, we decided on a Korean Barbeque restaurant, not even discussing any French style bistros. Away in the Parisian subway we went, speeding off in tunnels below the surface to some location in Paris I still do not know to this day, while the orange liquor slowly withdrew to the bottom with each passing of hands.

It was the first Korean restaurant I went to while in Europe, as Italy did not have enough of a substantial Korean population to justify such a luxury. While in the restaurant I remember flashes of merriment; drinking a soju cocktail which involved a loud banging on the table for its creation, which brought the owner up to our table to quiet us down, although afterwards he was appeased with a taste of the cocktail; meeting French-Koreans, some who were ironically not able to speak Korean at all, while the Frenchmen at our table spoke fluently; eating wonderful tasting meat with each bite bringing me a supreme happiness, while the drinks contributed with a bright and dreamy glow. Afterwards, the two Frenchmen and the Canadian walked downstairs to the basement of the Korean barbeque restaurant in Paris to sing karaoke on a Korean karaoke machine, bringing an appropriate end to all festivities.

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After sobering up and reflecting on this experience while walking on Parisian streets, I began to think about language. The use of language is an aspect of communication we do not think too deeply on, for the reasons that it is a part of daily life so basic that it is unnoticeable. We can often be oblivious to the role it plays in our communications with other people.

As a student in the University of Toronto in the Rotman Commerce Bachelor’s program, which holds a 50% international student population, I had the chance to interact and work with many international students. I always believed that they were shy and afraid to express their opinions. I did not like working with them in group projects for this reason. Now in Taiwan as an exchange student, there are times when I am put in the same situation. One of my classes requires group work every lecture, and the class is comprised of all Taiwanese students except me. My group members have been very accommodating and have spoken English so that I can also contribute my opinions. There was one class when they communicated in Mandarin instead, and I was unable to contribute although I had done the work beforehand. I think they probably thought I did not do the work for that class. Just like my French friend when I first met him, just like the international students in the University of Toronto and just like me here, we may find ourselves in situations in which one of the parties involved in a communication is stuck behind the opaque wall of an unfamiliar language. In an increasingly global environment, perhaps patience and understanding is required for better communications, and not unfair judgements.

Languages are also interesting due to the special characteristics each language holds. Korean is a language which has many graduations of formality and respect. There are two main methods of speaking, one which is an informal way a person would use with friends, and an informal method, which one would use with strangers, elders and peoples of higher position. This method carries with it implicit assumptions of respect and formality. Age is an important determinant in creating the context the relationship operates in. If an individual is even one year older than another, the former has an authority over the latter. The younger individual must address the older person with special titles which come with implications of respect and deference, while it is the other way around for older individuals to younger individuals. Furthermore, the informal method of speaking is often used by the younger individual when communicating with an older individual.

As my French friend is 3 years older than me, I did not know how to address him in the correct way when using Korean to speak. I remember avoiding using his name or any title to address him, due to the ambiguous nature of the current relationship. There was a cloud of uncertainty hanging over our interactions, until without thinking I called him “hyung,” the proper address for an older male. After addressing him in this fashion the first time, the once cloudy and ambiguous relationship became as clear as day with this single admission. At the same time, there was a feeling that it signalled the start of a relationship with a slight submission from me to him.

I saw him twice afterwards in Paris, once in a Starbucks completely incidentally while on a guided tour, and finally in another Korean restaurant for lunch, where the waitress commented on his proficiency in the language, and told him that he was so lucky to have a good friend to learn from. She was referring to me, so I kept my mouth shut and smiled so she would not find out the truth about our actual abilities. And thus went my first experience in Paris, city of lights, city of romance, city of beauty. It was an unexpected surprise, finding a culture so close to my heart in a location that was so foreign to me. The five days in Paris ended quickly and I soon found myself boarding the plane back to Milan, my temporary home which held the promise of more adventures to come.

The Grass is Quite Green on this Side

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As I travel, the more I learn about it. Travelling is a great way to take break while learning about different cultures. However, I think it is more than that. For me, travelling is also an all too effective method of escape.

It is one of the main reasons why I embarked on my first exchange to Milan. Unsatisfied with the greenness of Toronto’s pastures I wanted to find a place where I could go to find a more fulfilling and exciting life. Undoubtedly life as an exchange student provides ample opportunities for excitement, and my experience there is one that I will not forget in a while. However, in the last weeks of my stay, tired out by continuous travel, my heart looked forward to my flight back to Toronto. The last week of Italy was spent in Florence, and not even the beauty of that city was able to alleviate the continuous lethargy I felt.

Back in Toronto I felt a great excitement for life in the first few weeks. Everything seemed so fresh and full of opportunities. However the cold January weather of Toronto soon got to me and sent me looking for greener pastures again. I was accepted to Keio University in Tokyo but for various reasons changed my exchange institution to the National Taiwan University in Taipei. Regardless, the whole year in Toronto was marked by dissatisfaction. I disliked the cold and disliked the schoolwork and disliked the humble lifestyle I had to lead in order to save money. I unfairly compared Torontonians with whom I interacted with the people I met abroad. I found Torontonians for the most part dull and uninteresting and remembered the people I met in Italy with great nostalgia. I was unsociable and preferred books to people that one year. Nothing especially memorable seemed to happen as days turned into weeks, weeks into months and months into unconscious repetition. Life was a blurred, dull picture in contrast to the vibrant colours of Italy. It was happening again and I was looking forward to greener pastures in Taipei. I made very unfair comparisons and did not behave stoically in facing my life in Toronto.

I remember my first day in Taiwan, when I got off the plane in the Taoyuan International Airport. There was a slight drizzle but the weather was a pleasant change to the cold winter of Toronto. The air was slightly humid and there was a fresh breeze in the air and an unending smile on my face. Passing by the mountains and the ceaseless green vegetation and watching them slowly change into the old and characteristic city sprawl on the bus ride to Taipei, It seemed that I was successful in finding my greener pastures.

Being a little over halfway through the exchange now, there are things in Toronto that I miss. There are the occasional Facebook newsfeed posts that I read about Toronto, which make me remember it in a different light. I start remembering the cultural diversity there, the downtown area and my friends. The lifestyle I was once hostile towards comes back to me as small bite sized (Timbit sized) nostalgic memories. The weekly work in the bank on Friday evenings followed immediately by outings with my friends followed by a hung over Saturday afternoon selling cheese in my mother’s store remind me of happy times, despite the inconveniences I felt towards the routine. The weekly Korean barbeque we ate at home along with soju make my mouth water. Walking down St. George to get to my classes and seeing the occasional friendly face and even all my hours spent in the peacock shaped Robarts Library are good memories.

Toronto isn’t the only source of greener pastures for me. I look forward to what will come after Taiwan. I can’t wait to visit all of family in Korea and spend precious time with my parents and my sister and my grandmother. I can’t wait to start the great China trip that I have in my head. Thinking of being in cities like Shanghai and Beijing and Chengdu, all which await me, makes me think of the people I will meet and the things I will learn and the experiences I will have. All around me there seem to be greener pastures.

Greener pastures appear to me in different time periods as well. The latest book I have finished is A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, in which he describes the few years he spent in Paris as a poor but happy and married writer. His Paris in the twenties is full of writers and artists that I have read and heard about. To have these almost mythical personalities brought to life by his pen makes me long for this legendary Paris in the twenties, a Paris marked by eccentrics, culture and art spread out through its cafes and worn out streets.

The Paris of the twenties was represented by Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, in which the economically successful but creatively unfulfilled screenplay writer Gil Pender is transported 80-some years into the past to his place of nostalgic yearning. Here he is to meet all his heroes and falls increasingly in love with Adriana, a fictional mistress of Pablo Picasso. Ironically, Adriana longs for the Belle Époque period and thinks of it as the golden age in Paris. Near the end of the story, they are transported to this period in time and find that people there wish they lived during the Renaissance.

Just as what had happened in the film, perhaps it is just too easy for us to romanticize a lifestyle which is different from one which we are living. While we are confronted with daily realities in our current lives, the lifestyle we covet is surrounded by the façade of uninformed idealism. Just as how Gil Pender is able to come to terms with the modern era at the end of the film, perhaps we should come to terms with the lives we live. Instead of looking past our front lawn to feel jealousy for the lawn of a distant neighbour, we should start admiring what we have in front of us right now. You may realize that the grass is quite green on this side.

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(Picture 1 is of my house this winter, not much green though)