A Day in the Life: October 24, 2013

It’s 5 am when I start the day. Dark. Cold. Quiet. Laying there, eyes closed, I already know that it will be overcast today– like every day before. I think about my day: whether I’ve forgotten to do anything, what I need to do at work today, who I need to contact, if I have enough food. When I cannot prolong huddling under the blankets any longer, I slide into my house slippers and tiptoe to the bathroom where my toothbrush and toothpaste are neatly laid inside my clear glass cup. I prepare to start another day at work.

But today is special for me. I’m heading out to my first civil society organization (CSO) meeting with the National Immigration Agency (NIA). I take my time getting dressed. I layer my face: the usual lotion and sunblock with foundation, mascara, eyeliner and SPF 20 lip balm. I layer my clothes: black tights, red dress, black sweater, and grey blazer. I grab my coral flats as I head out of my room, clicking the lock closed and peek into my landlady’s room next door. She is neatly wrapped in colorful swathes of comforters in floral print. She looks fast asleep but I know she’s alert, listening for when I swing the creaking door open to leave. “I’m sixty one. Old already. It’s hard to fall asleep” she tells me in the evenings when we share bits of our lives and laugh over our fumbles.

By the time I head down the elevator to grab breakfast around the corner, it’s 6 am. Light traffic bristles outside and students walk around in their schools’ PE sweats. I go to an “American” restaurant with the usual offerings: milk and coffee sealed in clear plastic cups, congee in all its variations, crustless breakfast sandwiches with everything from fried chicken patties, corn and mayonnaise to pork floss. I grab two with alfalfa sprouts and exchange my bag of goodies for forty Taiwanese Dollars– about $1.33.

I turn on the lights in the hall outside our office to say “we are open, come in” to anyone who might need our services. I’m still not completely sure what that all entails, but it includes everything from deportation and labor exploitation cases to teaching children how to speak and sing and dance in Vietnamese.

I take a couple hours for myself to check emails and Facebook, chat with friends, and read the news– taking bites in between, sipping hot water.

I punch in at 8:30. I try to figure out the video camera in preparation for documenting our students’ musical act at the Carnival of International Migrants Holiday– I think, “What terrible phrasing, are international migrants like a circus act?” I keep these thoughts to myself. I switch to trying to change language settings on the laptops I was asked to bring from the national office in the US. There is no tech department in an office of two. I handle any tech issues with the professional help of my friends Youtube and her mom, Google.

My coworker/director comes in by nine, taking time to set up her space briefly before we head out. We chat as we walk to the train station, as we clutch the overhanging bars in the train, bodies pressing all around us, until the blinking green light reaches our stop. We walk along the long and muggy underground train passageways into City Hall’s outdoor court. As we surface into fresh cool air, I see the streets are cleaner, building taller and shops nicer than Shulin. When we get to the fourteenth floor people are already networking, eating McDonald’s, drinking coffee. The government worker comes to shake my director’s hand. She seems warm and I smile at her. We are directed to sign in and sit. They give me a red stool. I look around at all the plush black chairs and wonder for a bit but I rationalize that it’s because the room is packed and my name was added to the roster late. I think she sees my face. She moves a chair behind me and asks me if I would prefer to sit in the back. My director tactfully cuts in and tells her I need to stay beside her so that she can translate for me.

One official begins the meeting, another introduces all the people, mostly CSO directors and some educators. After the first half hour, I find it hard to focus on the slab of printed presentation slides in front of me. The presentations are very fast, covering everything from specific government services and funding for immigrants and their CSOs, to changes in airport security checkpoints, to discussing the Carnival. The first interruption is a man. He speaks quickly, decisively about the services. Everyone smiles at each other knowingly. My director leans towards me, whispering into my ear. She tells me he always speaks up. He works as a marriage broker between mainland Chinese and Taiwanese couples and sits at these meetings to advocate for mainlanders. I wonder why he’s here, who else is here and what their motives are. The rest is a muddled rush of presentation slides,  bored faces, whispered conversations, cell phones under tables and occasional questions. Towards the end there is an exchange of business cards between folks besides my director. She looks at them for so long I wonder if she had wanted to be part of this. I find them passive aggressive but I don’t know if I’m overreacting or imagining things.

At the end of the meeting, the real work begins. I look on as my director goes to collect contact information. I look over to see the lady who sat next to my director scold her subordinate for forgetting her business cards and not catching a particular government worker before they left. This is a very different woman from the one I saw moments earlier asking questions and interacting with other directors. I smile and look away. My director secures a good location for the carnival, which is as much about enjoying international foods and performances as it is a PR opportunity. She catches a moment to introduce me briefly to the nice government worker I met at the beginning before we head out.

As we step out, the NIA has prepared us a large boxed lunch with a small yogurt drink– the vegetarian options in Taiwan are usually lacto-ovo vegetarian (素) instead of vegan (純素). We head out to the park downstairs. Halloween decorations are up– mummies on the benches, white “cobwebs” hanging above our heads, plastic pumpkins all around. We eat quickly as the wind threatens us with chills. We discuss the day, the meeting, and walk back to the train station. We buy an Easycard (similar to a  SmarTrip card in DC) and– after checking if there’s any urgent business– she turns to me and asks me if I want to go shopping. I try not to look too excited but I’m not very good at hiding my emotions. We haven’t done anything all week but work in the office from morning until night. We shop for three hours in Taipei, in the shops underground in the train station before heading back to the office. We chat so loudly as we wait that people look at us. We try to be good and quiet but laughter bubbles. When we get back, she wraps up work as I prepare dinner for myself. It’s seven and she’s still working. I ask if she’s hungry and we wind up sharing sesame-flavored instant noodle over light conversation about squash and her daughter– not at the same time. At 7:21 we hear a buzz at the door. My landlady and her friend have come to get me. We are all going to a dance session. I drop the bowls in the sink for later.

The four of us wind through the dimly lit streets behind our building. We introduce ourselves to each other. Names and occupations and where we live. We talk about the dance class and whether we have them in the US. I tell them not so many and not so free. The neighbor says, quite proudly, “Taiwan has excellent welfare.” I laugh and think on all of the problems with welfare and healthcare we’ve had in the US. Before my thoughts turn too serious we arrive at the dance studio. It is large, well-lit, and clean. Middle-aged and elder ladies file into the space. They look tame until they start dancing. And then I am utterly lost in a maze of taps and pivots, shuffles and turns. One of the four or five teachers spends time giving my director and I one-on-one direction. The dance class goes through ten different dances by the time the night is through.

It’s a humbling experience on many different levels.

By the time I get back, wash the dishes and close up the office it’s nearly ten. Two hours past my usual jet-lagged bed time. My landlady left the door unlocked, knowing I struggle with the lock. She hands me my pants, hemmed for my petite frame. We talk about the day and I learn more about her kids. I teach her some words in English. “I really like to learn, but I’m so old and stupid. Ah, I can’t!” I tell her she’s really amazing. Chinese is really hard. English is easier and she just needs to give it time. She hustles me to bathe and go to bed. I sneeze once in the bathroom. When I get out she tells me to use warmer water and to blow dry my hair.

I teach her “good night” and “sleep tight.” She tries a few times before giving up and telling me to go to bed already. I tell her I’ll try again tomorrow. She laughs and tells me to go away.

I close my door and sleep to the light hum of the television and the traffic below.

First impressions

It’s 6:44 on a Sunday night and I haven’t showered or done most of the things on my to-do list. I don’t think I should be blogging but I’m afraid my memory will fail me if I leave this task for later. I will do this in short bits, non-edited, uncaring.
Mosquitos really love my face

Last night I forgot to shut the window screen and was gifted with love bites all over my body. It’s like I got a drunk, loving vampire sucking my blood. I imagine it saying, “Woops, missed. Got your chin, sorry.”

High Speed Rail

High speed rail only works if you don’t get lost and go in the opposite direction. I even took a photo in front of the wrong train.

20131018_152017

GMScholar, y’all. Stay proud. 

Housing fiasco

Ideally, the thought of travel should inspire great forethought. Enough so that you have a hostel booked, or opened up a serious line of communication with a landlord.

Taiwan doesn’t allow you to rent an apartment without a Taiwanese ID. They usually require one year leases with two months deposit and don’t let you cook. Hostels were heavily booked by the time I got around to caring. I looked at some apartments, but there was no confirmation.

I could freak out. OR I could wing it…

WINGING IT! WOOOOO!!!

Luckily, in the brief communications I had with my supervisor, she helped me contact folks and– when I raised concerns about maintaining my vegan diet– find a place that would let me use the kitchen* and knocked the price down 500 TWD (16.67 USD) to 4000 TWD (133.33 USD) because internet wasn’t included. Water, electricity and gas was. Sweet.

It’s UPSTAIRS from my workplace. There’s an open air market in the morning out back! Night markets outside with a vegan option, and a ten pm curfew. Ok… that last part is weird, but I can afford Mandarin colleges at a university with this modified budget (originally budgeted 6500 for housing and 1000 transportation costs to commute into work).
*the landlady wound up not letting me use the kitchen except for boiling ramen and steaming veggies. However, my supervisor is letting me use the kitchen at work, which is just downstairs. :__)

It’s 7:12 pm in Taiwan (4:12 am in LA). Going to bed. First day of work tomorrow.

Packing

In my carry-on, I kept items in my small suitcase that would tide me over in case my checked-in baggage got lost or stolen (travel-sized personal hygiene products, a few outfits and a towel, some US cash). I had my contact’s number and address on hand even though I wouldn’t have a phone to .

Clothes and shoes: 

I chose clothes that would be versatile, diverse, and could be layered for warmth. I packed based on the average temperatures (monthly) for Taiwan which should be temperate, humid, and rainy in the upcoming months. Because I am two months late from my scheduled departure date, I have missed their typhoons. I am coping well with this loss.

-one cardigan, my Hendrix hoodie, one blazer, two wool sweaters (one black, one white), one knit sweater, one turtleneck, one light jacket.

-five blouses in solids and prints, three undershirts/tanktops, one exercise top. All handwashable and quick-to-dry (Taiwan is humid and housing options tend to have washers and clotheslines instead of washers and dryers).

-five dresses, casual to evening to business professional, three tights (one gray, two black)

-four pairs of jeans (one light pink, one green, two navy), one pair of khaki shorts.

-three pants for sleeping (one gray sweatpants, one thin pajama pants, one in between), two t-shirts to sleep in, one thermal

– one pair each of red boots, sandals, tennis shoes, and work wedges.

– underwear for two weeks

For personal hygiene products, I packed them in travel and regular sizes.

Personal Hygiene: 

-one small towel for washing, one small towel for my face

-Shampoo and conditioner (Loreal EverStrong and EverPure sulfate-free) in travel size and regular use. This brand isn’t very sudsy, condensed, and minimizes water consumption.

-face wash, face cream, lotion, sunblock

-a pack of pads and panti-liners

– a toothbrush, two sticks of toothpaste, a comb

– Travel sized items: one ziplock bag’s worth of travel-sized face wash, sunblock, shampoo and conditioner, bar soap

– one make-up bag including nail clippers, files, and tweezers, and extra hairbands

Other equipment and supplies: 

-my personal computer and charger

– a book (“The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” by Siddhartha Mukherjee)

– my LEAP bag (for everyday use), reusable grocery bag, an empty duffle bag for weekend trips, a nicer (compact/foldable) purple bag for meetings with government officials.

– two folders to keep important documents, receipts, etc.

– a small first aid kit

– a change purse and a wallet with my credit cards, ID and passport

– BPSOS’s work laptop, charger, carrying case, mouse, etc.

I fit everything in one carry-one (4 kg), my LEAP bag (3 kg), and one checked luggage (22 kg) with room to spare.

Leaving

At this point in typical traveler blogs, there is an unspoken expectation that I will discuss my feelings as I leave home– the surge of emotion and tangled thoughts as I drift off into a new space.

I thought about this traditional narrative trajectory, but I don’t feel like writing it. I’m just going to give you a run-down of how I spent my last days and my packing list (in the next post). Very mundane. But maybe in reading these details you can get a more honest sense of what really occupied my mind as I left. Maybe I did include that emotional stuff. I don’t know.

Don’t feel obligated to read anything I write.

——————

MY LAST DAYS

Phone rang at 2:30 in the Monday morning the day of my GRE exam. My sister’s name burns my eyes. She’s lucky I love her. I pick up.

“Brother called. Open the door for him. He says he’ll be there in five.”

“kjgllkmfmmmmm ok.”

I lay on the cold sofa downstairs in a ball, until I hear footsteps approach the house. I open the door long enough to see him emerge from the shadows. He starts to speak but I’m so desperate to catch my sleep I just leave him standing in the doorway. I wind up staying up until 5:30, so I weave in and out of studying GRE content until I pass out on my bed.

Light comes into my room and with it a hallway full of shrieking children. My nephews and niece are up. As I enter the hall, they immediately quieted. I’m that mean aunt. The one that makes them do their homework, eat their vegetables, stand in corners, and verbalize their wrongdoings. Even though I also take them out to the zoo, teach them to read music and sing, and cook them their favorite foods, that is not what they remember me by.

I send them off to school and head back to the warmth of my bed. I study a handful of GRE flashcards, half-asleep. I dress and shower. I wake my brother and take the test. I talk on the phone with my sister to calm my nerves as I wait for my brother to come pick me up.

“How do you think you did?”

“They already gave me the scores. I think I did well on the verbal, but I ran out of time on the Math. Should I retake it? I should retake it.”

I go home and talk about the test some more with my dad and my mom and my sister. I am in a GRE-centric universe. It’s all I’ve done for two weeks and all I can think about.

Shit. I haven’t packed. 

Do I pack? Nope. Instead I go out to have a green tea soy milk latte and a vegan chocolate chip cookie at Urth Cafe with a friend.

Tuesday comes and I don’t want to get out of bed. So I don’t. I make last minute plans to meet up with friends for dinner. Text everyone that matters. I see seven of them, grabbing tea afterwards in the SGV. Green Tea (Soy) Ice Cream Cooler. Did I mention I really like matcha green tea. I really like matcha green tea.

It’s Wednesday and I really should pack now.

I think I’ll do it later. I tell my sister to tell my brother to take me to the airport at 8 pm for my 11:30 flight. I spend the morning taking care of last minute emails at the local library. When I come back my sister hugs me and says goodbye before she heads to work. I didn’t think and I could have almost missed her. I’m glad I got home.

I finish packing around 4:30 and rush to catch the bus to Little Tokyo.

Shit.

Shit.

Shit.

Forgot to call the bank so that they don’t freeze my account.

“After business hours.”

Shit.

Maybe I can talk to a rep in person? I run to the Little Tokyo branch. It’s past five. They just closed. I see the little guy in the building. Fuck you little man for taunting me through the glass without even seeing me.

Shit.

Ugh. Whatever. No point in being upset. I cal my sister to pretend to be me tomorrow and call the bank. I give her all sorts of personal information as I go through the Japanese Village Plaza [What was I thinking? Was not thinking.] to see my summer internship supervisor. I hesitatingly open the door. I’ve never been sure if he secretly hates me. He smiles and gives me a hug. I feel less scared. I chat with him and his coworker for nearly an hour. Most of the time I’m just thinking. “Just say something so it’s not awkward.” “Ugh, why did you say that?”

I tell them about my plans. About my thoughts on grad school; the fact that I don’t have a place to stay in Taiwan yet. I get called nonchalant. I will spend the rest of the night thinking about this word. I leave when we move onto the topic of marriage and quarter life crises. “You’re old, too, you know.” “Don’t do a PhD, it’s too long.” Too much. Too serious. I get that from my mom, thank you very much. Bye.

I go see my other supervisor and make small talk with a bunch of people I don’t really want to talk to. I should really care. It’s about Asian Americans in the Media. It sponsored by the Asian Jewish Initiative. But I just came to see her. I feel more and more detached from the situation so I leave. I catch the bus back. I swallow a bowl of rice and stir-fried celery, kiss the kiddos and tell them to be good, say goodbye to my dad and run into his car. My mother is waiting in the backseat. My brother is driving.

We drive and talk about stupid things on the way. I forgot what. All I can sense is the smell of fish that my brother ate for dinner. The highway curves in that familiar way, the same lit-up buildings, the exit warning me that LAX is approaching and this is all over soon.  

The international terminal is in front of me. My brother gets out to grab my bags and drag them onto the sidewalk. I get out to help. My mom stays in the car. She won’t even look at me. I stand by the door for a while confused until I remember all the times in the last few weeks I’ve ignored her commentary on how I shouldn’t go and that I should go to graduate school in something that makes money. And she doesn’t even want me to go to graduate school, because “all this education is making you crazy” and “You don’t have to get married yet, but heavens why study for so long. All the good ones will be gone by the time you get out.” I think she’s coping with the reality of having a daughter who could have given her what she wanted but chose not to. Always practical, never emotional. I hug my brother goodbye and stand in line for my flight.

My shoulders heave into a sigh. It’s such a long line for people with baggage. With an even longer ride ahead.

———-

Quote I’ve been thinking about

“We are like a bunch of dogs squirting on fire hydrants. We poison the groundwater with our toxic piss, marking everything MINE in a ridiculous attempt to survive our deaths. I can’t stop pissing on fire hydrants…I am an animal like any other. Hazel is different. she walks lightly, old man. She walks lightly upon the earth. She knows the truth: We’re as likely to hurt the universe as we are to help it, and we’re not likely to do either.

People will say it’s sad that she leaves a lesser scar, that fewer remember her, that she was loved deeply but not widely. But it’s not sad. It’s triumphant. It’s heroic. Isn’t that the real heroism?”

-John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

Bridge

One time I was sitting in my college’s dining hall discussing some of the words my momentary dinner buddy still remembered from his trip to Vietnam. Because Vietnamese is a tonal language and English is “tone-deaf,” his renditions were very amusing. At one point, I wound up differentiating the word for bridge in Vietnamese (cầu) from the (derogatory) word overseas Vietnamese get called in-country: Việt kiều. In the process of teaching him this, I recognized similarities that I didn’t expect: these two Vietnamese words had parallels in Chinese: cầu: and kiều:.

Because I’ve been educated in the United States since pre-school, I have pretty embarrassing native language skills. What I’ve maintained is partially due to my dad, who had the sense to send me to Chinese school every weekend at 8 in the morning instead of letting me watch cartoons. So I recognized these basic words and saw the difference is that the former word is made with the radical for wood (木) and the latter is made with a person (人).

Even though Việt kiều is not something I want to be called, this image of a bridge, especially a human bridge, is very powerful for me. When we talk about building (human) bridges, we may be referring to the potential ties that people build between nations, between cultures, all the way down to the ground level: relationships between individuals and bi-national couples. At an economic level there are human bridges connecting global work/economic relationships, which the new international division of labor depends on, but also everyday people and families through remittances, charity, and (let’s not forget our privileges) the goods that fill our stores. And, like a bridge, these people carry burdens at personal costs, whether as a result of human trafficking, separated families, xenophobia, inadequate labor protections, or immigration policies.

In a different way, I feel like multiple bridges. I may not be Chicana, but I too feel that I am living in the borderlands, the working class within the ivory tower, the immigrant in the heartland. I admit that I’m proud of the advocacy work I’ve done in the past decade, and even more so the people I’ve been blessed to proactively and peacefully fight alongside. I don’t regret any of it, even when I felt like I failed, but as Donna Kate Rushin put it, “I do more translating/Than the Gawdamn U.N.” She ends “The Bridge Poem” with some of my favorite words:

The bridge I must be
Is the bridge to my own power
I must translate
My own fears
Mediate
My own weaknesses

I must be the bridge to nowhere
But my true self
And then
I will be useful

I will begin my Walker Odyssey year with her words translated into my own language. She wrote “The Bridge Poem.” I write a Bridge blog. I have entitled my blog “Việt cầu” as a pun and reclamation of “Việt kiều.” This word choice (wooden bridge rather than human bridge) is not a distancing away from our humanity or a disembodying experience. Rather, it is an opportunity to connect to other beings without feeling burdened. This year is my bridge to a fuller appreciation of the Vietnamese diaspora experience.That said I don’t want to make this a study of the exoticized Other; I’d like to compare my gendered experience to that of the Vietnamese in Taiwanese, and to see how globalization has manifested at the ground level, to understand the interaction as well as the disjuncture,  the structures down to the individuals. I am also considering spending some time in Vietnam and Australia. As for impact, I aim to be useful to the people I interact with, to give as much as I take, and to be conscious of my place and the space I take up. Finally and ultimately I hope this year, this fellowship is a bridge to self: for me to have and take some time for me, to learn about myself and where I want to go next.

I invite you to come along with me.