Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Motherland, Day 10: A homecoming

Words cannot describe the beauty on the coast of my birth place, Hualien. As I type, it is 6 a.m. of Day 11, and the sun is beginning to rise. The ocean's tide, ever consistent, is calming. To my left, shadows of mountains are beginning to emerge. Below them, city lights twinkle. Several photographers are already positioned on the beach. We are all waiting for the sun to illuminate the clouds that rest upon the sea.

I am in awe. I wish to never leave. I cannot stop wondering what might have been.

A buoy flashes. Two walkers pass by. In the distance, trucks are waking up. The horizon begin to pink.

6:15: The ocean is gleaming. A rolling, shimmery skin. Waves roll in, cresting blue-green before crashing to the beach in a white foam. A black, wolfish-looking dog trots by.

What could have been, had I never left Hualien? Would I be working the graveyard shift at the Family Mart, selling vodka juice to American tourists on a Monday night? Would I be serving clam soup in a lonely seaside restaurant? Could I have attended Tung-Wa University just north of the city, a quiet haven with palm trees and mountain views? Could I have become a writer? A wife? A mother? Would I have escaped to Taipei, or ventured beyond Taiwan's shores?

A spry elder walks by, slightly bowlegged, but moving at a brisk pace. Could he be my Taiwanese grandfather?

6:30: The mountains stand proud, firm, unmoving, while the ocean rolls below. It shimmers green against the blue-black mountains; shines blue when contrasted with the lush green of the landscape. Another old man trudges by me with a bicycle. Perhaps he is my grandfather. Or great-uncle. Or really, just a stranger in this land as I am.

7 a.m. The top of the mountain is illuminated, hugged by a wispy cloud. The sun's rays beam through a break in the clouds to the east. Fishing boats make their way to their nets. A bulldozer drops a small boat on the sand - it looks like a raft with curved edges. Is it my imagination, or do the waves crest higher? Rolling, crashing, rolling, foaming. The beauty here is indescribable. As is the loss.

My eyes are hungry. My head is full. The rocks in my pocket are as heavy as my heart, knowing I must depart. Again.


It's taking forever for me to post my writings from Taiwan. I apologize. It's just very emotional for me, and sometimes I just don't want to think ... or feel ... about this.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Motherland, Day 9: She sells sea shells

... and squid and octopus and jumping shrimps and wiggly crabs and creepy eels and red fish and white fish and yellow fish and more.

I tried snail/escargot for the first time today at the Wuchi fishing port and market. I also saw a whole lot of sea creatures I've never seen before. We walked around the back and were able to see a little of the processing. Customers were choosing big fish, and the workers would use a saw to slice them.

After the fish market, we headed toward some windmills we'd seen in the distance. It turned out there was a little walking park along the shore, so we stopped and walked a bit. Fresh air, waves crashing, a little rain spray. It was calming.

I made it on the right train this time, transferred to the MRT (subway) and got off at the correct station. I even followed the signs to the right exit. But my most proud moment was orienting once I emerged from the station. I could see the signs for my street, but I didn't know which direction to turn. It's been overcast most days, and without the sun, my sense of direction is handicapped. I was about to head left, when I noticed a slight difference between the street signs: One had an "E" after it, and the other had a "W." I knew my destination was east, so I turned right instead and as I walked, started seeing familiar landmarks.

Tomorrow we head to Hualien, city of my birth. Part of me feels a little numb to my adoption process right now; part of me recognizes this is a pretty momentous homecoming. This weekend I luxuriated in "tourist" mode. Tomorrow, will I feel Taiwanese?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Motherland, Day 7-8: Down the coast, up the mountain

Yesterday, I made my way to the MRT station, rode up to Taipei main station, and got on the high speed rail to Taichung. The high-speed rail is really fast! Apparently, the drive to Taichung would normally take 3 hours. My ride was about 40 minutes.

Today started with a Taiwanese breakfast (pancake rolled up with ham and vegetables). Then we drove into the mountains, where the views were incredible. Lush like Jamaica, clouded and mysterious like a scene from Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, open and delightful like a scene from the Sound of Music -- unique to Taiwan. We ended up at a park called Sun Link Sea (Sun Lin Xi) and took a $40 NT bus ride as far as it would go. Then we hiked up the rest of the way on our own. My Canon battery started to crap out, so thank goodness I had both that and my iPhone. Words can't describe it. And pictures cannot capture the depth of texture, the fresh smell, the cool dampness, the sounds of water falling and frogs calling.

I thought we might never get out of the park because every minute, I felt compelled to take more pictures! But finally we headed down the mountain to make our dinner reservation: a hot pot restaurant called Shabu Shabu. Seriously, I cannot believe we do not have one of these where I live -- someone could make a lot of money off it. It's like Hu Hot meets Chinese buffet meets teppanyaki dinner. You order your broth of choice, and it fits into a burner on the table. Meanwhile, you choose whatever you want to put in your hot pot -- vegetables, tofu, meat, dumplings. While you're waiting for your hot pot to cook, you can enjoy a variety of buffet dishes. Fruits, vegetables, sushi, dim sum, dumplings, soup, hot cooked food ... the choices seem endless. Like any good Chinese buffet, ice cream is included. This one also had a chocolate fountain and display case of fancy desserts. Simply overwhelming.

Originally we planned to go to an outdoor concert, but it seemed awfully chilly for that. So instead, we headed back to my buddy's house, and she took me on my first Taiwanese motorbike ride! It was so fun! We stopped at a fruit market and then a pet store ("fish middle fish" was the literal translation of the characters, but I think it means something like the best fish of the best). Now I know where all the Taiwanese get their dog sweaters. And dog strollers. And fish. And shrimp. And frogs. And turtles. And hampsters. And ferrets. Yes, ferrets.

Of course, on the way home, we stopped for bubble tea. Any weight I gain on this trip is totally in bubble tea. I mostly get it without milk to cut some calories, but I just cannot resist. It's soooooooooooooo good!

Tomorrow, we are headed to some fishing area. It will be neat to see the coast. Then back to Taipei. I am having an amazing time. Conquering so many fears -- of heights, of strange foods, of new people and experiences. It's exhilarating.


Friday, February 15, 2013

Motherland, Day 6: Solace in solitude

I've been trying to figure out why I react the way I do to learning information I have actively sought out. Yesterday, sitting in the adoption information center's waiting room trying to absorb all the new information, I felt a mix of numbness and sadness. This morning I cried in the shower.

Some have compared the adoption emotional journey as one of grief and loss. Just yesterday I asked someone, "How do you grieve what you don't know?" And this morning it hit me. Every piece of the puzzle that I find -- every detail I didn't know that I now know -- is one I must grieve. Learning of new, or more vividly described, family members makes me wonder what might have been. It makes the loss of family and culture more acute. It makes me sad to think of people with whom I will probably never have a relationship. Uncles Miss M may never know. Grandparents I never knew.

Understanding how I feel is also what prevents me from pulling out all the stops to find these family members. Just as I grieve to learn of them, surely learning of me could cause them some sadness. Or maybe not. Maybe they will assume I am so lucky, they did me a favor, I should be grateful, or -- worse -- I owe them. Yet another reason to be cautious in my search. I have a family of my own to protect.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Motherland, Day 5: Thankful and thought-full

Today was intense.

It started with a provoking process session that focused around inequity and privilege and the guilt that some of us feel about it. It is clear in Taiwan that many (but not all!) people idealize, and even idolize, America. For example, the field of counseling psychology in Taiwan is modeled after American programs and studies. "Indigenous" research is an emerging area. It is important to build a body of research that reflects Taiwan's cultural perspective.

Another example: I stopped in a night market shop this evening that looked cheaper than a dollar general but had American clothes: AE, random university-branded attire, etc. I saw a pair of infant Jumping Beans sweatpants for the equivalent of $8 USD, twice what they would cost at Kohls! And all of the attire looked like rejects from a 75% off sales bin.

For me, while I can say that I understand I am privileged, I don't always know if I feel or believe it, because I never felt privileged growing up. However, when I am here, I cannot disregard or be ignorant of the fact that many Taiwanese perceive me as coming from a place of privilege. So for me to complain about my struggles may seem ungrateful.

After process time, I listened to a presentation from a professor on gender issues and career counseling. The most interesting part was that she shared her personal experience building a career, becoming a mother and juggling work and life. While I admire her accomplishments, maybe even envy her a bit, I couldn't overlook the sacrifices that she and her family have made because of her career. Her husband worked two hours away for awhile, leaving her in Taipei with two sons. She also spent two years in the U.S. with her sons, while her husband remained in Taiwan. Yes, it was hard for her, but I couldn't help wondering how it affected her sons to be without a father for so long ... and how her husband felt about it.

After lunch, I met my two new Taiwanese friends, and they accompanied me to the Child and Juvenile Adoption Information Center. At first, it seemed like the intermediary didn't have any new information. But then it all started tumbling out. It's crazy how small details -- like my birth mother's birth date -- can fill in blanks in my history, such as how old she was when she had me. I need to time absorb all the new information, but it includes learning I have not one, but two half brothers.

There was also more today: the reflexologist and dinner at a place famous for beef noodles. All good stuff, but my head is full, and I need to just think awhile. I will try to write about the other stuff tomorrow.

My final thought is one of gratitude for the new Taiwanese friends I have met. It helps me feel connected, even though I don't quite fit in. I hope one day to be able to repay their kindness and generosity.

Child and Juvenile Adoption Center
Retail therapy

Comfort food: Beef noodle soup. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Motherland, Day 4: Drama and a 10-course dinner

Well, you can't stick a group of women together without some drama, especially when they are crammed three to a room. I think because I am somewhat an outsider, some people have felt more comfortable confiding in me. It's flattering but also frustrating because I am anti-drama in my own life.

Anyway, everything worked out. We got a new room and now I only have one roommate (woo-hoo!). It was just a lot to take care of today.

The reflexologist came and presented to our class this morning. I have an individual appointment with him tomorrow evening, and now I'm freaked out. They call it foot "massage," which might be a stretch. There is a three-pronged tool involved and a lot of poking and knuckles pushing into spots in the foot.

Tonight, we were treated to dinner at a Japanese restaurant, Ichiro. It was the fanciest, most beautiful and amazing dinner I have ever had. The hospitality and generosity of our Taiwanese hosts is humbling.

I also had a chance to talk to the woman who organized our trip. She asked my story, and I shared. She seemed particularly interested when she learned I was descended of native Taiwanese; specifically the Amis. She said I should be proud of my Amis heritage. She said the culture is matrilineal -- run by women :) So it is unlikely, she thought, that I would have been placed for adoption because of being a girl. She did mention that back in that period, sometimes young Amis girls were sold into prostitution by family members. That could jive with information someone told me long ago that my birth mother may have been a prostitute.

Tomorrow, before I visit the foot doctor, I am headed to meet the intermediary who works for the Child and Juvenile Adoption Information Center. I feel so spoiled and flattered at the same time -- two new Taiwanese friends are going to accompany me to this meeting. I don't know if there will be any new information, but maybe she will give me names or something.

All in all, another good day.

Motherland, Day 3: Solo exploration

Yesterday was so draining, I opted to indulge in alone time today. The architecture in Taipei is an eclectic mix. Slums next to condos that look like they could belong on the Champs Elysee, art deco here and there, along with sleek high rise businesses.

Wandering on foot, I ended up on a main roadway that had mechanics shops and even a gas station. Eventually, I ran right into Dongmen Station, which happened to be featured on the cover of my tourist map. It abuts the Yongkang Street commercial district. I stopped in a tea store and an antique store and a little snack market. The best find, though, was a bookstore. I enjoyed browsing the magazine section.

A funny thing happened when I stopped to order bubble tea. The sales person, upon figuring out I didn't speak Mandarin, began to speak English to me. He raised his voice and exaggerated the sounds -- like you might do for a hearing impaired person. I have observed that in the U.S., for example, when people speak to individuals for whom English is a second language. Not sure how yelling improves comprehension, though .... especially when you're yelling in my language.

I tried to get a phone today. Huge disappointment. Long story short -- AT&T and Apple blow. My iPhone is locked and won't work with a pay-as-you-go Taiwan SIM card.

I walked off my disappointment, heading east and then turning south down a main thoroughfare with wide, tree lined sidewalks. I saw rows and rows of bicycles that turned out to be in front of two schools. The bikes got progressively smaller in front of the elementary school. Then I realized there was a huge beautiful park across the street. Even though I was getting pretty tired, I really wanted to check it out. I'm glad I did. It was such a peaceful oasis in the middle of the city. No rushing. People just strolling or sitting on benches. I saw several professional-looking photographers; I wonder if it's a popular spot for shoots.

At our "process time" this evening, we talked about sticking out. Today I made tremendous progress in feeling comfortable here. When I wanted to blend in, I would simply respond to the sales people with "hi," which is common here. When I wanted to avoid the awkward one-sided Mandarin exchanges, I would say "hello" when I entered a store. That is not common, and let them know immediately I did not speak their language. This helped me feel more in control of my identity -- at least helping to manage people's expectations of me.

Today I stretched my legs -- literally and figuratively -- and it felt good.

Yongkang Street

Children at Da'an Park

Motherland, Day 2: Making friends

Today started kind of slow for me. Even on the other side of the world, I am still not a morning person. And being a non-morning person in a group of 20 up-and-at-em types was pretty overwhelming. We went to the National Palace Museum. The museum was crowded. The artifacts were interesting, but it was hard being part of a group tour and not being able to browse like I would prefer. The crowds were not as bad as Versailles, but it was enough to discourage me from staying the rest of the afternoon.

Instead, I joined a group headed to Tamsui. Best decision I could have made! We had five Taiwanese student escorts -- they were delightful. I didn't catch all of their names, but their accompaniment was so comforting -- and entertaining!

My first impression of Tamsui was that it was beautiful -- perhaps even more because of the misty day. The river runs along one side. The mountains on across the river were capped by clouds. On the other side is a huge market! I tried so many new foods today. I had quail eggs, fried squid, candied tomatoes, fried mushrooms, and a couple of Tamsui specialties: Ah Gei and iron eggs.

On the train from Tamsui back to Gutang, I ended up standing with all the Taiwanese students. It was interesting to learn about their families -- how many kids, what their parents did, where they grew up. Somehow the discussion evolved to gender roles and cultural expectations in Taiwan. It was really fascinating to dig a little deeper, to find out what their hopes were -- particularly the female students.

Walking back to our lodgings, someone pointed out a chops shop. The next thing I knew, I was whisked into the shop and five people were helping me choose a name and chop for Miss M! I chose a name that sounds like Mei Rei. Mei is "plum," literally, but it means resilience -- it's the national plant for the country and is apparently able to grow in many conditions. The particular Rei I chose means "heart of the flower." My daughter completes my heart, and I look forward to seeing how she blossoms.

I thought choosing a name would be the hardest part; I didn't realize how many other choices go into selecting a chop. I could not have done it without the guidance of my new Taiwanese friends. If only I could remember their names! Tomorrow I will have to ask them to write them down for me. I just cannot remember things I hear, particularly in a different language!

Candied strawberries and tomatoes

Tamsui market

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Motherland, Day 1: Foreign and familiar

We landed at midnight after 30 hours of travel. In the dark, Taipei didn't seem too different from other cities, except that the signage was in English and Mandarin. It's interesting that my eye was drawn to the English, which made the Mandarin characters seem like decorative graphic elements, instead of the primary navigation they were intended.

We awoke to an overcast, rainy day. More mist than rain. It is damp here.

I couldn't be traveling with kinder people. All of these counselors-in-training are so attentive to other people's feelings. I feel selfish whenever I share; like I should be drawing them out instead. The journalist in me wants to get everyone else's story, but I can't deny how powerful my feelings about this trip are.

This morning was so exciting. Something about big cities invigorates me. We walked several blocks trying to find a bank to exchange money, but they were closed because it was Saturday. People try to talk to me in Mandarin, and I don't understand it. I feel out of place and nerdy and fat ... very uncool. I have never seen so many hip Asians!

All my life I've felt like I stuck out. Browner, shorter, rounder-faced ... Finally I am in a place where I blend in. But I still don't fit in. It's a strange feeling.

I had a lovely conversation with a young man at the CD store this morning. As soon as he realized I didn't speak Mandarin, he said he would try to speak English with me. It was clear he was a little nervous about his English, but we both soon relaxed, and I really enjoyed chatting with him about his studies (which included reading about FLSA in English!). He picked out four CDs for me. The first was his favorite, the second was what was playing at the time, the third was an aboriginal singer from Hualien County, and the fourth is for Miss M.

I left the CD store feeling invigorated and excited about Taiwan. But I started wearing down that afternoon. I walked down Shi Da and stopped in a few stores. Each time the salesperson tried to speak Mandarin to me. When I indicated I didn't quite understand, they would repeat themselves. I tried smiling and nodding, but it only seemed to encourage them to keep going! I felt so dumb. I don't know why I felt ashamed to tell them I was American and didn't understand what they were saying. So many people here speak English, and I couldn't even remember how to say "excuse me" in Mandarin.

This evening, we encountered a housekeeper. She informed us she is Venezuelan and has been in Taiwan 25 years. I felt a surge of elation, and said "hola!" It was so exciting to be able to communicate -- minimally! -- with someone. Then she was talking to me more, and I couldn't understand a word of what she was saying. There was a lot of background noise, and I thought she was speaking Spanish. I just smiled and nodded. She leaned closer and repeated it. I smiled and nodded, even though I still couldn't understand. It was only later, when she said "Chinese OK?" that I figured out she had been speaking Mandarin, and she realized I didn't know the language. It was embarrassing to have to explain.

Walking around, I was surprised to see so many American brands. I knew Starbucks was everywhere, but I didn't expect to see a Pizza Hut with insulated cases on the backs of delivery scooters. I also didn't expect to see so many stores selling Converse, Eccos and even Clarks.

Tonight in our group therapy (aka "process time") we talked about wanting to fit in/not wanting to stand out, and accessibility (i.e. finding a restaurant with pictures you can point to). It's nice to know I'm not the only one who wants to be cool in a foreign place. It's something to think about when I return home -- how can I make visitors, especially international ones, feel welcome in my world?