Sky is the Limit

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“But it’s also sometimes said the people who work quietly behind the scenes are the most important people. They really do the work and not the noisy ones.”

A quote from a beautiful song called ‘Pushy’ by the musician Lemon Jelly sampling from Harold Williamson’s 1968 BBC series “Children Talking Part 1: Ambition.” It got me thinking about my friend Sky.

She reminds me of my mother a lot, in that she is amazingly productive in her workload, and she took on a great deal of responsibility at a young age. Now, she satisfies this problem-solving fix by acting as an unofficial champion for the Taiwan newcomers.

She isn’t a saint of course, she gets frustrated, as someone who gives far more than she gets back. But her work ethic and selflessness is legendary. In turn she has adopted and acted as a mother figure for more than one of my guy friends. To the point of possessing the title of Sky’s Guys.

She makes them food, bails them out of sticky jail situations and defends these friends with a fierce loyalty, almost blind to their shortcomings. I admire her greatly, but I haven’t been a direct benefactor of Sky’s rescue because it demands a submissive act of admitting ‘my life is falling apart.’

That and the fact I’m a girl, and she only has room in her heart for a few close girlfriends and I am not one of them. I lack the drinking stamina for one, and I cannot spend every hour of the day with people. I am an introvert at heart, and teaching leaves me with no time to myself or the privacy that I crave.

After years of experience in the kitchen she has a natural ease while entertaining and making food. But will occasionally lash out at those she considers outside her sphere, or those she feels are attacking her tribe. Her travel buddies and contacts are her most valuable resource.

It’s easy to pick apart someone else’s character instead of turning around the microscope to examine myself. But I write about Sky, out of a deep respect for someone who I believe possesses a striking ability to include and love many people at one time. Spreading the love around to a great variety of friends.

I, on the other hand, select a few people for my limited time slots and dedicate myself to giving abundantly to these few, and somewhat sparingly, almost stingily to the rest of the general public.

aboveIt’s a challenge to be an all-encompassing introvert. Drinking alcohol certainly helps introverts become more extrovert. I still feel after spending two hours around most groups I am ready to go somewhere new or find a cozy corner to talk to just a few people at a time.

So I salute Sky and her sandwich shop of friends, her aptitude for tempting old friends to visit her in a foreign country. Few people could do what she has done, and what she will do.

Seashells and Friend Collecting

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I am not very good at holding on to things or people for that matter. For this reason, I think if that person wants to know me or if I want to know them one of us will eventually make an effort.

Yes, I am willfully independent. Yet another reason I don’t just go jogging lustfully after old friends and lovers. But, I also think, “Hey, don’t force it.” If it works out, great and if it doesn’t also great there are bound to be some people around here that enjoy my company.

My waning correspondence with a handful of high school and college friends reminds me that maybe I am a bit cold. A bit quick to forget people, or vice versa easily forgotten. When in a prideful mood it bothers me that I can be so easily overlooked, but it has its perks.

I was reading an article about intimacy in the New York Times the other day. It gave a long list of questions two people can ask each other to encourage a feeling of love. One question in particular made me think about my friends, “What do you value most in a friendship?”

I met one of my good friends right after moving to Taiwan in August 2013 and he became one of my roommates. Eventually he became my party buddy, drinking buddy, dancing buddy and confidant. Basically he was a stand in for my own brother and sister who were both living 6,222 miles away from me.

This friend strives to better himself, he tries to understand everyone’s point of view and get along with them. He truly has one of the most diverse sampling of friends I have ever witnessed. He makes his hippie mom proud.

I am amazed because he gets along with and even enjoys so many people that can’t get along with each other. When anyone moves somewhere new of course they might hang out with a group in which they don’t like everyone. But after a while I thought everyone pruned down their friend groups to include only the people that added to the experience of life in a positive way. Not true for him.

As I expressed one day to a restaurateur friend, my friendship is not always a renewable resource I have limited amounts of patience and love to dole out over the course of a seven day week. Sometimes my tolerance is high and I am social, sometimes it is low and I am a loner. So when I make plans with people they know I want to see them. My free time means a lot to me. If those people don’t make me feel happy or enlightened I don’t give them my time again. Also if I get a strange feeling they are trying to pursue something romantic I run the other way.

For the small group of individuals I invite into my hulahoop of “anything” I have high respect and high expectations. The hulahoop means they can ask me for anything and if it is within my power I will do it for them as long if it is in their best interest.

My immediate family is always in the hulahoop, and I always have room for maybe two or three other selfless individuals who inspire my trust. This is where I am confused, my friend keeps old friends and continues to make new friends in every social encounter because hey, he’s an accepting guy. However you can only really be close to 150 individuals at once according to Robin Dunbar.

This is my problem, I ultimately want to have maybe ten people that I can have reciprocal friendships with. I send them an email, they send me an email. I don’t want to suffocate them with love or let them freeze dry from inattention like carrots in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator. I want most of those people to be in my day to day life because sometimes I need a hug in person.

How can my good friend be a reciprocal friend with me when his entourage includes the whole neighborhood. There is no way he can have that much time and energy to give. This realization made me really sad. Like I said, he’s my brother from another mother and I felt somehow orphaned by my own logic.

This week we made plans to take a train to Taipei on Friday and then a bus on Saturday to the more isolated Yilan county. He canceled on me the next day, it seems he had already committed to a birthday party. “I don’t have an excuse,” he wrote me. Sigh, it’s always someone’s birthday on this island. If you don’t watch out you can get locked into birthdays for a whole month of weekends.

Its sad to be right, but I knew we wouldn’t be able to make plans without the proximity of being roommates. How lovely for me to be able to sort through people like seashells at the beach, each year becoming more forgiving of flaws, but also less likely to take any home. It would be tedious for me to be everyone’s friend. I have the utmost respect and wonder for those individuals that go to the beach repeatedly and still stuff their pockets to the brim, what optimism, what a capacity for love!

Lovelocked Twenties

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Most of my friends are in their twenties, some early and some late pushing into their thirties.

In Taiwan I have Taiwanese and western friends, but most of my friends have western sensibilities because of their interest in English speakers and their culture. Therefore I only meet the cross-section of Taiwanese society that is willing to endure my stinted Chinese or speak with me in English. Everyone has a limit to their reach into all venues of society, as a woman I will never be welcomed into the men’s bathhouse.

My Taiwanese associates are more frequently in serious relationships, or pursuing one earlier in their lives than their western counterparts. I think part of this has to do with the innate communalism of their culture, “I can never do anything alone” mentality. Also Taiwan parents encourage children to settle down by the end of their twenties, the partying and ‘finding yourself’ era prevalent in the west is unacceptable.

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Relationships, friendships and otherwise are a keystone to being twenty-somethings. Despite our ages and backgrounds the nesting instinct hits hard in the twenties and for those expats attempting to flee responsibilities it can create a conflict. I want to be part of something, but I also want to be free.

I have a short list of couples in which I respect both parties. One American couple in particular has become my standard for a functional traveler relationship. They coexist well as a unit and as individuals; they have shared interests and independent interests. One of them might be at one party, while the other is in another country. Solid.

With that exception acknowledged I have to admit most relationships I witness feel forced. They want it to work so badly, and they don’t want to be alone. Relationships can be formed out of necessity, a need for intimacy and comfort. Creature comfort is important to all of us. Compromises can be expected.

I classic case is my Taiwanese girl biking friend. I spent most of spring and summer going on night bike rides with her, seeing her at many social events. Boom – enter vague Australian boyfriend. I haven’t seen her on purpose in six months, maybe because she seems dumber and I can’t respect her anymore because so much of her self worth is tied up in her relationship.

Nothing remains in her for me to relate to, she doesn’t bike anymore, she no longer goes on solo adventures, and I have ceased to invite her to parties because I know she will bring him. I will say she is still one of the sweetest girls you can find, and she is making an effort despite my radio silence. Too little, too late I’m afraid because when I don’t communicate with people frequently I lose belief in their existence. Especially, in the cases that I feel disappointed and want to forget people. Why dwell on past disappointments?

My third example is a tragic non-couple, forgive me for waxing poetic in my ambiguities. These two individuals are veteran travelers, friends, but with one-sided romantic love in the case of the man.

He told me about going from loving her at home, and then reuniting and loving her abroad. “Sometimes she wants to give me all I want,” and so it continues, strung along over decades of friendship. The free spirit and loving friend, both are independent, but incapable of the collaborative effort required in relationships. He sees someone else, his placeholder girlfriend and she parties on in a different city with other men. Then they are drawn back together magnetically by their shared history and friendship.

This is the mess we navigate in our twenties, abroad or at home. My hope is not that everything is perfect, but that I can learn something and be left with a lasting impression. This works, and this doesn’t. Try on the next shoe.

Sweet Nothings: around the island

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I recently read NPR’s show This American Life is the most listened to radio show on the air in the United States. Consequently, I believe at least a few people have heard the show about having someone’s back and what it means to have a support network.

Last weekend celebrated Mid-Autumn Festival in Taiwan, known as 中秋節 or Moon Festival. If you are Taiwanese this three-day weekend  means traveling back to celebrate eating with your family, and if you are an English teacher it means going on a longer trip that wouldn’t be possible on a normal two-day weekend.

I loved Moon Festival last year. I was invited to a Taiwanese BBQ by a new friend and spent the afternoon and evening eating myself silly on all sorts of grilled delicacies with her family. The night was spent staring at the full moon from the road, and playing with fireworks that were purchased in the general store down the road.

My Chinese teacher told me the Taiwanese tradition of barbecuing over this festival is based upon the success of a soy sauce advertising campaign in the 1980s. I found it fascinating that over the past thirty years a brand of soy sauce could change the way a population celebrates a traditional Chinese holiday.

This year, since I had experienced the family celebrations of Taiwanese Moon Festival I thought I would head out of town and go camping as an homage to the classic American Labor Day camping trip. I wanted my two closest friends to accompany me in this venture, the idea was to take a train to an ecological park near mountains and scooter around to find the best camping spot.

As you may have guessed this didn’t happen, my friends didn’t have my back in this case. One told me reticently she had already agreed to go with her yoga group and invited me along. The other made plans weeks in advance with me looking at train time tables and hostels, and then on the Friday night we were supposed to leave town unexpectedly backed out. 

I was surprised how much that hurt. As Barry Schwartz from TED talks will tell you, “The key to happiness is low expectations.” But these are my best friends I am talking about, my inner circle so maybe I am doing this friendship thing wrong. I understand it was mostly logistical misunderstandings, but it stung because I got this impression I had been overlooked in favor of a better offer.

It is one thing to be stood up by a prospective love interest, it is another thing to be stood up by close friends. My point being, if I can’t have expectations of close friends then I can’t have expectations of anyone. I can only expect them to act selfishly, which is a saddening thought. I don’t expect everyone to be there all the time; I do expect someone to be there sometimes.

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Beidawu Shan (北大武山) and lots of rain on all our scooters, my sleeping bag was soaked!

So, what did I do after my dear friends left me for dead? I joined another group of friends of course, a group that planned to climb a mountain with only a few acquaintances and many strangers. It was an interesting mix of crazy Eastern European men and Taiwanese women cram school teachers. We set off late to the mountain on Sunday morning and as soon as we arrived it started pouring rain, this continued for another two hours as we huddled in an aboriginal village near the trailhead.

The good news was my biking friend who had invited me to bike to Beidawu Shan 北大武山 was also discovered huddling in the same village so I got to spend a few hours catching up with him about his impending trip to Brazil. As the rain thundered down monsoon-style, the aboriginal lady at the open air restaurant offered to let us sit in her living room until the rain stopped and we spent some time talking and looking at wedding photos in her home. A touching example of Taiwanese hospitality, not only towards foreigners but to each other. (See photo at the top.)

It was getting dark and it was looking unpromising as a damp destination to spend the night, so the travel group improvised by heading to a nearby Sihjhongsi Hot Springs. We ate a banquet of food in town and then camped out in a park near the public pools. The next morning after very little sleep, the group was looking a bit ragged and we had to pick between visiting a waterfall or the beaches of Kenting that were not far from the hot springs.

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Celebrating at the hot springs with a few sparklers, who knew they would still light after being soaked.

 

So we once more got on our scooters and rode to the beach to relax for the afternoon. On the way home Monday evening we stopped by a Buddhist restaurant and were served seven courses of delicious vegetarian food while overlooking the water during the sunset. It was an ideal ending to a weekend of improvisation.