Listening to the Unheard / Writing Double Jeopardy, and the Premiere by Ensemble Proton Bern

Spider and its shadow

I flipped from side to side on the single bed dressed in cold bed linens stiff from laundering. Coated in the Alpine mists, Bern felt chillier than Paris. Where I stayed was up high in the mountain area, a place called Bremgarten. The kind gentleman of this house lived a tranquil life with very limited technology, so I let my angst twirl around me after I got back, unable to reach my distant friends on Skype or the like for relief therapy. I was on my own, yes, with my angst.

Always, I relived my existential crisis as a composer at and after the First Rehearsals, my Achilles’ heel. This day was one of those days. I took a train from Paris to Bern the day before, and on this day I attended my first rehearsal with Ensemble Proton Bern for the piece they commissioned from me, Double Jeopardy (2013) for eight instruments. And my existential angst surfaced and – Au bon Dieu! – everyone could see it and was suffering from it! What could I do? I wanted to hide myself under the bed linens and never come out again, never attend the second rehearsal, the dress, the performance….

By training of a composer, before bed I had studied my own score, and from my memory of the rehearsal marked the spots in the music that required special attentions. I made a long list of things for which I would need to communicate with Matthias, the conductor, the next day. However, I flipped from side to side in the bed, unable to sleep. Why were these bed linens so dry and coarse? Why did I put so many god damn details in my score? Why did I talk so much in the rehearsal? God this bed is hard! Would this piece be a failure? …um, cold… I wish there is internet so I can talk with someone. What would happen if they still are not ready tomorrow? I must be the most hated composer in the world. Ah, I really need to sleep NOW – there’s a long day to come tomorrow! Oh god, it’s three already…

I survived, more than survived. The bright spring sunshine quivered with morning dew; the descend from the picturesque uptown to the old town down by the river was rejuvenating. The Dampfzentrale, a performance space converted from a former factory, was quaint. I showed up to the remaining rehearsals more or less calm and collected, and things progressed. The talent and energy of the Proton musicians were beyond admirable. Each one of us Protonwerk N.3 commission award winners received about five hours for one’s piece within a week’s frame. We became friends as well. Not once before in my life had I experienced such amicability and support within a group of young composers who arrived together through way of competition. We had coffee together next to Aare River, chatted, and ate very little – the food there is very expensive. We appreciated each others’ music very much; we cultivated this sincere respect for each others rare in the field of contemporary music. We listened, and we communicated.

To listen and to communicate, these are simple human things yet are so difficult to do, at least for us contemporary Homo sapiens.

Monday, 24th of February, dress rehearsal. I left the score at Bremgarten. Sky was clear except for few silky strips of cloud, and the air was high with cold warmth. I bought a little cup of Bunder Gerstensuppe (Swiss barley soup) on the street with a heel of baguette, and lunched sitting on the stone balustrades of the Bundesterrasse, overlooking the distant Alpes topped and veined with chalk-white snow. They looked gigantic and formidable. Day was bright, and I had to wear sunglasses. After lunch I descended and went inside the dark hall of Dampfzentrale with its black window sills, black structural beams, black floors, black decks of chairs, black curtains, black space ready for spectacles. Dress rehearsal of Double Jeopardy, me without my score. Religiously I closed my eyes. Now I wanted to listen – to what was conceived, to what was being realized, to what was eventually performed. This would be the first time for me to listen to Double Jeopardy, not only as a piece being performed, but also as a Being as I first searched for, discovered, and moment-by-moment revealed and confirmed which’s existence.

I was listening to a Quest. The Quest of Searching. A search for how to listen.

*           *            *           *           *           *

   [To listen, I am]

In search of the hidden, the concealed, the obscured.

In search of a woman.

A woman can be an open book, yet the mystery and secrecy lay unseen in plain sight, throbbing and baffled. Red would not be intense enough without the right mixture of yellow and blue. If one looks close enough, one can see that yellow and blue without actually seeing them.

The desire to activate your phantom limb is stronger than that of moving an arm. (We call that an “itch”, don’t we?) Real silence is not a rest, a pause, a relief from the action of sound. It is an absolute abstraction charged with various forms and possibilities of energy. Silence — it moves.

Treating sounds as objects, as some platonic utterances of the universal truth has recently disinterested me. The projection of sounds that takes less effort than farting has bored me to death. In a world where the production of sounds has become unnaturally easy, we have long forgotten that the sounds embrace physicality, and it is not merely in the physical effort of a performer to produce a sound, but also in the potential intention of a sound itself to give birth to itself. Sound – it thinks.

At certain point in the recent years I started to develop a certain repulsion – a repulsion toward a way of using sounds as objects only able to perform one-dimensional, singular functions within a musical piece that are not altered over time. Between these sounds applied in the piece there is no humane connections – no audible humane connections. The relation between such composer and his musical materials is like that of a factory owner and his low-level workers, or of a whorehouse and its whores.

In a piece of music where there are only factory workers and whores, there exists only the dichotomy of sounds and not-sounds; either there is productivity or there is not. The consideration of silence is conveniently absent. The sounds, oh tired, tired whores used again and again and again, mechanically perform their functions with muscles flaccid and pale as dead fish. Not that I am against this kind of musical production – as there are effective, famous, important compositions that were built upon such diligent and organized capitalistic enterprise – but I am simply not going to buy it. I have become physically allergic to such artistic conduct, and have simply decided that I would build a (different kind of) relationship with my own music.

It is a relationship.

And it is a relationship between what is called Sound and what is called Silence. Both notions are physical yet abstract. Sound of Sound is so concrete as a result. How about Silence? Did not our musical forebears tell us that Silence is not only the absence of Sound? Of course it is much more; it does not even have to appear in the form of the sound of Silence. It is the womb of Sound; every sound is born from Silence. There is no exception. Silence is not an empty void; quite a contrary, it is everything besides. Phantoms, ghosts of music past, Janus with fingers pointing at every direction, unspeakable sins, premonitions of what will happen, prohibition of what is to happen, concealment of what is happening, scintillations of what will not happen….

Therefore, Sound and Silence realize each other, each another’s negative or shadow. Sound became less certain, less definite, as it belongs to the creations of Silence. It is a relationship, and a relationship activates movements and exchanges. One witnesses an object being born, developing and gaining agency, and ascertaining its subjectivity — constant movements. I turned toward this relationship, peering into the core of Silence, listening in the Unheard to the becoming-Heard.

*           *          *           *           *           *

   Double Jeopardy (2013) was coming alive. Proton musicians’ intelligence helped it so. One recognized everything. The brief moment right before a body pushes out a shoot of air. A deep inhalation beyond what a physical body can exercise. The shallow breathing preparing one to sleep. The palpitation that had being hammering all this time but only shockingly revealed at this moment. The double sides d’une geste qui sont puissantes et faibles simultanément….

I opened my eyes.

One day after the premiere I woke up late. My dream night was drugged headily with a sense of elation. The concert went beautifully. The 400-seat hall looked deliciously populated. Earlier in the afternoon a young man stood on a 40-feet high stage ladder to adjust a spotlight, and the radio station engineer listened harder than I did. My pregnant friend and her husband traveled from Genève, and my dear, elderly host traveled from up Bremgarten, to the Dampfzentrale. The flutist, elegant in physique and hardcore in performance technique, prior to the concert looked, in dismay, into the dressing area dominated by fellas in different stages of dressing and undressing and napping amidst their instruments. After the concert beer was half-priced, a token to our work. I remembered our Dutch composer said something very intelligent about his work. And, when being spoken to, the harpist pattered in such endearing, twangy Swiss German – I wish I could write a piece with that music!

Before my train, my host and, by now, a dear friend, cook for us a pot of slothy, soupy risotto with mushrooms. I had two servings. Afterward we drank tea and watched his two Finnish Lapphunds ventilating the back garden.

I caught my train from Bern to Genève. Switzerland is so beautiful! German regions it’s the well-maintained architectures and green moors, and French regions it’s the lakes. I sat stretching my legs over two seats, watching the sun setting across the Lac Léman and the Alpes, now close as giants.

I did not sleep – how could I sleep? All I could do was to think about what happened in the past few days in Bern. I relived every memory, be it my First Rehearsal angst or be it the audacious happiness post-concert. I then recalled a conversation I had with one of my new friends, a young, talented Swiss composer, after one of our rehearsals. We were talking about our rehearsals and our pieces. Then, I received the most beautiful complement.

He said to me, “You really love your sounds!”

I was happy. I knew I was starting to hear music.

 

To listen to the Protonwerk N.3 concert on air, tune your radio/internet radio site to SRF2 kultur at Central European Time July 9th, 2014, 22H35. Protonwerk N.3 features music by Yasutaki Inamori (JP/DE), Nicolas von Ritter (CH), Mu-Xuan Lin (TW/USA), Aram Hovhannisyan (AM), and Jesse Broekman (NL).

 Acknowledgment: Ensemble Proton Bern —  Bettina Berger (flute), Martin Bliggenstorfer (lupophon), Richard Haynes (clarinet), Lucas A. Rössner (kontraforte), Maximilian Haft  (violin), Jan-Filip Tupa (violoncello), Samuel Fried (piano), Vera Schnider (harp), Matthias Kuhn (conductor).

P.S. This essay is dedicated to the loving memory of Hans Rudolf Burger, an esteemed author, friend, and individual. He left this world nine days after my visit at his residence in Bremgarten, surrounded by his best friends Freija and Tassu — his Lapphunds.

Cover photography by Dominique Schafer, 2013.

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Double Jeopardy (2013) world premiere, Monday 24th February

protonwerk3-digi

  As one of the five Protonwerk 3 winners, I am honored to have had the opportunity to compose a piece for ensemble proton bern.  Next Monday, Double Jeopardy (2013) for eight instruments (flute, clarinet, lupophon, kontraforte, violin, violoncello, piano, and harp) will receive its world premiere at the Dampfzentrale Bern in Berne, Switzerland.  Please see poster for information and tickets.

protonwerk3-digi2

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News, New Base, New Destination(s)

The headline of this update should be : Mu-Xuan Will be an Artist-in-Residence at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris, France in Spring, 2014

Nevertheless, a mildly detailed and decorous report is perhaps called for, for there has been a couple of fundamental changes in my life in the past few months.

Last April, I was chosen as one of the five composers for the Protonwerk 3 award for which I was commissioned to write a ten-minute piece for the Swiss ensemble Ensemble Proton Bern.  My new work, Double Jeopardy (2013) for flute, clarinet, lupophon, kontraforte, violin, violoncello, harp, and piano, was completed late last November, and will be premiered by the exuberant talents of das ensemble proton bern on Monday, February 24th (19:30) in the Dampfzentrale, Berne, Switzerland.

After living in Boston for ten years, I finally uprooted myself again and relocated to Los Angeles last September.  This season (2013-14) has proven itself to be an eventful year in my young career as a composer and an advanced composition and theory student.  In the new flat in Long Beach, California — ten-minute walk to the beach and surrounded by a small Mediterranean garden – shared by me and my partner, I undertake my research and analysis of Fausto Romitelli’s music, composed Double Jeopardy (2013) for das ensemble proton bern, work on Peinture, I (2013-14) – a duet piece commissioned by Transient Canvas, and my first chamber opera.

On November 13th last year, my string quartet movement Petits Quatuors : I. petite chambre (2012) was featured on composer Peter Fahey‘s “Mixtape” broadcast by New York City’s WQXR.  I was honored by such inclusion as my little piece was broadcast alongside works by some of the most talented young composers whose music I respect.  To hear the replay of this tape please click http://www.wqxr.org/#!/story/peter-fahey/

Late last year I received an invitation from la Cité Internationale des Arts for a four-month residency in spring, 2014.  Early next month – February – I will pack up my manuscript papers, favorite books, hand-me-down computer, my foot duvet and that faithful blanket which accompanied me through many frost-dusted, heart-wrenching composing nights, and again wiggle my way through numerous terminals and gasoline-smelling airplane gates.  I will move into one of the dozen Paris city owned studios on 18 Rue de l’Hôtel de ville in Paris equipped with an upright, overlooking the Seine and neighboring the Notre Dame and the Marais.  My substantial yet not too lengthy residency will allow me to conduct my research on Romitelli, and to continue working on my chamber opera for soprano, mezzo-soprano, baritone, flute, horn, violin, violoncello, double bass, piano, percussion, and electronics, while spending the rest of the time being a flâneur.  In late February, I will take the train to attend the premiere of Double Jeopardy (2013) in Berne, Switzerland, hopefully with a detour to Genève to visit a dear friend of mine.  I will work hard, get in touch with my acquaintances in Europe, think about my friends and colleagues and enemies in Boston, miss my partner in Los Angeles, and Skype chat with my brother in Washington D.C. and with my parents in Taipei, Taiwan.  All of these – work, my music, living, and the inspirations and knowledge they bring forth – all in the City of Light and in the transitions preceding and following it.  I am looking forward to my new adventure!

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Two Premieres: Metamorphosis Part I (2013) and My Father Joins the Fire Brigade (2013)

Meta Collage 4Meta Collage 2Meta Collage 3

“As I awoke from the furtive scribbling one morning, I discovered that my music, along the trace of pencil and atop the pedestal of a desk, had transformed into a shell-less, shape-shifting, gastric, monstrous vermin.”  — Metamorphosis, Part I (2013) by Mu-Xuan Lin

My Father Joins the Fire Brigade (2013)  for soprano voice and clarinet (written for Tony Arnold and Michael Norsworthy)

premiere, Friday, May 3rd, 2013 in Slosberg Hall of Brandeis University, Waltham (USA)

Metamorphosis, Part I (2013)  for flute, clarinet, violin, violoncello, and piano

premiere, Saturday, May 4th, 2013 in Slosberg Hall of Brandeis University, Waltham (USA) as part of the New Music Brandeis Concert  (Jessica Fulkerson, flute; Gleb Kanasevich, clarinet; Yohannan Chendler, violin; Bryan Hayslett, violoncello; Yoko Hagino, piano; and Jeffrey Means, conductor)

Admission Free of Charge

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Petits Quatuors (2012), narrow road to the interior [Oku-no-hosomichi] (first movement I. petite chambre premiered on December 1st, 2012 — recording…)

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    Over several months after the completion and the premiere of my percussion quartet Melancholia (2012) I have been hatching on the idea of an organic musical formation.  Time and brain energy were spent involuntarily and subconsciously on the working of solving such aesthetical, formal problem while the mind and the physical being were conducting activities like attending to chores, traveling, translating, apartment hunting, getting upset over lost causes, teaching, and starting and sketching a piece of music.  It was through the activity of the last that the juncture of my thinking process and of my musical practice was forged.  (This does not always happen.)

Trained in two American conservatories and one graduate program which takes pride in its education of young composers on traditional craftsmanship and musicality, I am familiar with the compositional considerations of pitches, voice-leading, linear unfolding, pacing in terms of up- and down-beat, phraseology, and thinking with a regard to momentum, an over-arching form, and climaxes.  Over years I have learned how to “reach a goal” and “think ahead” in a piece of music I am writing.  Working on Melancholia was an experience of revelation and of a revolution for me as my mind was being suddenly, convincingly opened to new possibilities for formal design.  Such possibilities include that of how a minuscule component of music – a single gesture, for instance – can become an maximized and self-contained form for a fifteen-minute long composition, and that of how one or several small and seemingly surface (in a Schenkerian sense) musical details can progress, evolve, interact, and push forward the music in their very own singular and neurotic fashion which is out of the composer’s master hand control.  The latter became the sole concern in my aesthetical and formal thinking over the previous months.

I realized that to succumb Imageto the execution and performance of such formal construction the composer would have to become semi-vulnerable, unknowing, and “blank”.  This formal construction is the tranquilized reflection of a formal deconstruction; music happens in debt to each smallest musical material’s domestic or communal concerns with each other only moment to moment.  Nothing is overseen or led, yet spectacles and dramas are suscitated and formulated through a logic that is of both reality and dream.  I was then reminded of the idea of “flight of forms.”  In his first manifesto of The Theatre of Cruelty Antonin Artaud spoke of the “imagination” in theatre:

[T]he theater must pursue by all its means a reassertion not only of all the aspects of the objective and descriptive external world, but of the internal world, that is, of man considered metaphysically…. Neither humor, nor poetry, nor imagination means anything unless, by an anarchistic destruction generating a prodigious flight of forms which will constitute the whole spectacle, they succeed in organically reinvolving man, his ideas about reality, and his poetic place in reality.  (The Theater and its Double, Grove Press pg. 92)

By surrendering oneself to such seemingly fragmentary and foreground formal construction the composer allows herself to be placed on the same fluid plane with the music she is writing and thus allows an absolute organic unfolding of the form.  The only violence the composer imposes on herself is that of self-laceration in devotion to achieve true imagination – she looks no further than her feet and lets the form(s) “take prodigious flight.”  Yet, recollection and recognition (of music happened and happening) enable the composer to concentrate on and understand the moment at hand which has a ferocious energy of its own to move, or stay, or transform.  The relation between the music and the composer becomes very intimate; the process of forging a piece of music in this way has a sweet quality of journal writing.  While I was pondering upon this idea it so happened that at the same time I had to start composing a piece for a concert in December featuring the Lydian String Quartet, therefore I embarked on an intimate journey of writing Petits Quatuors – a selection of miniature movements for two violins, viola, and violoncello.

As the traditional setting for string quartet has always implied a certain intimacy – intimacy of the space, of a sonic flux inevitably produced by four homogeneous instruments, of a communicational engagement of four people facing each other closely in a circle – I was encouraged to contemplate on ideas and personal memories that are breathing and crawling on a conscious plane in the back of my head, an infrequently visited territory.  Such contemplation is neurotic, convoluted, evolutional yet obsessive, and so are the ideas and memories upon which it inhabits.  These miniatures are to be the expressions and verbalizations of various “locales” and “things” which provoke various manifestations and qualities of intimacy: the small cove of a room, an unidentifiable passion, a secret, an orgasme.

My meditation on the disintegration and flight of form and on the moment-by-moment progression (appearing as logical in both dream and empirical reality) allows the music (and me along with it) to pave and walk the narrow road to the interior — the very core of the musical materials, the interior of Time.  Dramas and spectacles are produced in the most unexpected manner at the most unexpected places.  The same materials – Imagegestures or pitch clouds – are incessantly and thoroughly used and spent; they whisper to, inbreed with, quarrel with, defy, and boycott each others, thus a most organic, charmingly asymmetrical picture emerges among all discordances.  This is a formal picture I could not have imagined if I were to willfully sculpt the music into a pre-desired shape.  The ways the materials were to become at the end are also out of my control yet I will (and have had) exult over the beauty resulted in such evolutionary process.  I sit down at my desk and write in my “musical diary”, obsessively over hours at a time.  The pleasure is immense; the outcomes are delightfully surprising.  By the end of October I finished the first two-and-a-half minute of the entire selection – I. petite chamber, the first miniature of the series – and on December 1st it was premiered by the Lydian Quartet in Slosberg Hall of Brandeis University as part of the New Music Brandeis 2012-13 season.

For Petits Quatuors I summon three images:

  1. a horizontal Chinese scroll painting
  2. a dark pool of stagnant water at the brim of a lake buried under autumn leaves
  3. an Ori Gersht’s exploding bouquet

ImageMy formal construction of Petits Quatuors takes refuge in the metaphors created by all three images.  The materials, and the logics and manners the materials pursue and react to, are suggested by the constructs and movements of these images.  A horizontal Chinese scroll (ink) painting can sometimes extend several meters’ long, and one has to view the picture from right to left by visually following through the details (often time narrative) one by one.  An Ori Gersht video from the Blow Up series is a documentation of an unexpected and violent outcome caused by changing the essence of a material’s substance; a bouquet of flowers was fast-frozen after treated with liquid-nitrogen and then was smashed to ruin while the petals and leaves flew all over the air as millions of fragile, porcelain-like shards.  The acoustic and musical façade of I. petite chambre resembles the second image — you see a still puddle of water encrusted with fallen leaves; you finger the surface and gently brush away the leaves then a mildly rippling reflection on water reveals; finally you wade your hand into the black mass and muddy the water so all you can see is a fast-moving procession of mingled soil and leaves until when all is calm a clear mirage is formed layering atop a swirling downfall of the dust beneath.

      I. petite chambre received its premiere last Saturday concluded with a live recording (here).

Petits Quatuors (2012) project is to continue.  I am writing on.

ImageImages: 1. Toxic by Irina Souiki (her shop on Etsy);  2. Ori Gersht Blow Up series;  3. Ori Gersht Blow Up series;  4. Li Chi-Mao (李奇茂) painting;  5. photography by Sandra Proudman (sandraproudman.com & joeproudman.com)

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premiere on COMPOSERS UNLEASHED! New Music Brandeis first concert of the 2012-13 season

My new piece for female vocalist, female choir (or subset), piano, and melodica Clancularia (2012) is to be premiered on Saturday, October 27th in the Slosberg Hall of Brandeis University as part of the COMPOSERS UNLEASHED! (NMB first concert of the 2012-13 season).  This short piece is written and customized especially for this concert and my colleagues at Brandeis, and will be performed by Victoria Cheah, Emily Koh, Tina Tallon, and yours truly.

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an expatriation (the unbearable lightness of)

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    I have recently become interested in the idea of “expatriate.”  The enlightenment came as if an apple from the Garden of Eden was tasted; the term “expatriate” – the idea of “expatriate” — was introduced to me upon several incidents in the course of this summer.  First, I had read the word over and over again in Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer; second, I heard the word uttered by a new acquaintance from France in Boston; and last, I was twice refrying the memory of my trip back home to Taiwan couple months ago when this word emerged out of the froth of so many embedded codes and meanings surrounding my long awaited homecoming.

Now, how I came upon the word as it got thick in the air around me like some seasonal allergen is not what I am to elaborate in writing.  Those incidents I mentioned above are merely a “reminder” to me of a wing-flapping, shadow-like existence – my existence – on the solid ground of a world sodden with symbols.

I have been living in the states for more than nine years, and the longer I dwell on this land the more “expatriate-ness” I acquire for myself.  It must have all gone wrong since the beginning, wouldn’t you say?  Perhaps it was the “approach”, the shore where I weighed my anchor that designated to me the winding path to the ultimate expatriation, the extra-Americana.

It was all wrong since the beginning, since the moment I stepped out of the airport into a balmy New England summer night from where embarked a two-month apprenticeship at an eco-village which would mark the beginning of my college-hood.  Through the whole summer I waded through the kind of dense woods Thoreau wrote about in his Backwoods and Along the Seashore by day and by night, sometimes bare-footed.  I was badly influenced by our fellow apprentice, a girl whose name starts with E, who bared her bosom standing right outside the communal kitchen crying her heart out for a lost love.  I was wide-eyed and had a superbly acute sensitivity for new information, ergo I was sucking in everything happening in this first America I tasted — a paradise where little Eve’s ran around naked, where one learned to casually drop “cool” here and there by the corner of the mouth like the western-Massachusettsians, and where people lived on meditation and cars ran on leftover cooking oil.  When I started college in the city I brought with me the education received from the ImageParadise.  All except for the Veganism as I, for the first time of my life, tasted Thai and Indian food and Boston is yet another paradise specializing in delicatessen like those.  And it took me at least few years to realize that I was on the “wrong” side, I was on the subversive, the marginal, the anti-occident side starting when I chose that eco-village as my first American experience.  I was technically, virtually, yes, came from and came to be Oriental (in an Edward Said sense).  I was and became an expatriate from the start.  When I heard from my best friend at the time (who’s an Israeli!) that our RA in the dormitory had called me “an Oriental girl” I was pissed; I thought what on earth could she liken me to the cheap Chinese noodle dish sold at the corner of a suburban street?  How ignorant to the history and culture could she be if she used that term to address me?  How dare!  But later I realized that she was not incorrect – perhaps incorrect in what she understood to be correct, but not incorrect in what she called me.  I was Oriental, indeed.  I belonged to that Others, from the place I came from, the subject I came to study, the things I chose to learn when I live here, to the very abandoning of my own identity as a Taiwanese or as Anything whatsoever.

I chose a city in America that is made of expatriates.  Boston is not real without the population and traffic of the expatriates; the city would only become a mirage of itself, a mere idea of itself, if without the come-and-go of millions of international students, scholars, and young professionals.  People here, even the Americans, transform and become expatriates after a while.  My expatriate-ness was however seeded through a different channel; while my other expatriate friends who had more dignity than me faithfully nurtured their expatriate-ness by holding fast to their native culture and lifestyle, I decided to shed myself clean and self-recreate, from ground-zero, within this womb of a complex culture.  My naïveté blinded me from the realization that to become fully integrated into a city like Boston equates to to completely disintegrate and succumb to an ultimate expatriation.  The America in a place like this, demonstrated within the very particular society I have been in, is in fact that other America opposed to the mainstream, officially approved America exulted, celebrated, lived, and talked about in other parts of the country.

Nevertheless, I lived in the states long enough for me to see and experience many things.  Couldn’t it be that there was hope for me to be conformed to the orthodox vision of American dream?  I chose to be open, perceptive, and morbidly curious.  With an insatiable hunger I gulped in everything around me that is American or essentially foreign to me, and then like my theater and dancer classmates I dissolved myself into the ambiance and role-played.  My capability of learning cognitively like an infant channeled me to absorb information without judgment.  I was a slut, a whore, a spineless jellyfish incongruously aroused, infinitely inflamed, by new thoughts and new imageries that stirred my mind and soul.  Studying and living in two conservatories indulged me.  Conservatories are like eternally damned paradise; ecclesiae of young artists – Imageunderage martyrs who already knew what they wanted to do for the future since they were ten or fifteen — came here, practicing and composing and improvising and acting and singing and dancing until their life is morphed into the shapes of practicing and composing and improvising and acting and singing and dancing.  These young souls see visions – beautiful visions – in the grime on a nickel, subway rides, and well-to-do citizens’ despising glares.  These people, we, survive on a self-imposed exile from a culture and society we spend our whole life serving.  We lifted the stagnant inertia and made a neighborhood hip and attractive with well-frequented bookstores, cafes, gallery-bars, and air and sounds of culture until a new class of respectable citizens moved in and wiped us out of the face of the street with a rent we could not pay.

My conservatory education is unorthodox in every way.  Plato it was Symposium.  American literature it was Ginsberg.  Cultural study it was Angels in America and Wide Sargasso Sea.  Queer take on Aristotle and queer take on Homer.  I wrote my term papers on Zen haiku and Marque de Sade.  Like Henry Miller my fervent study concerning the very Western cultural canon was bursting with the effervescence of an obscure decadence.  My tastes led me to not just Dickens, Woolf, and Proust but also Bruno Schulz, Sarah Water, Selma Lagerlöf, Iris Murdoch, and Alice in Wonderland.  I took great delight in the many roles I played.  Entering a five-year relationship with a Virginian I learned to celebrate the sentiment – his and many Americans’ childhood sentiment – for baseball, Taco Bell, church community, road trip with fast food, lawn neatly mowed, undying love for teen-years, mall shopping, and roast beef over dinner.  Upon my departure I gained few more pounds, but I was relieved that I could be excused from the most difficult role I had played in my life.  I could fit in yet I could not.  I burned with restlessness and an unsatisfied nomadic mobility, for I had been bathed in lives and cultures so vastly different and contrasting that my very existence has become translucent, sinuous, and fluid.  As a true expatriate I could not settle in a role, for I observe clearly and insouciantly and my compassion and empathy are in generous amount which forbids me to exclude any experience, any life I encounter.

My fate was deemed since the beginning, since I decided to step out of my home country or — God forbid I should think it was since I conceived the idea of traveling away from home when I was an itty-bitty thing!  ImageI went home to Taiwan for the first time in four years this summer and what?  I was riding a taxi with my parents and mon petit ami in Taipei when the driver spoke to us,

“Mademoiselle must be a foreigner.”

I answered, “No, I am Taiwanese.  These are my parents.”

“Then you must have had grown up abroad.”

“No, I grew up here, in Taipei.”

“My sixth-sense is superb and can tell me the truth about a person all the time.  Mademoiselle is definitely not Taiwanese.”

“No, I told you I was born here and grew up here.  I am hundred-percent Taiwanese from head to toe.”

“Your English is too good and you don’t have an accent.”

“Oh no I definitely have a strange accent when speaking English and people can hear.”

“Well you have a strange accent in Chinese as well.”

A long pause.  Then he muttered, for us to hear or not,

“No Taiwanese loses his Taiwanese accent.”

Image    What can I say?  I still shopped with a shrewd, middle-class Taiwanese mind in the 90s – counting every coin in my pocket, trying to bargain for a ten-NTW-dollar decrease in price, and turning my back to department stores while my compatriots already grew used to calculate in another currency.  I still loved to take air at the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Plaza and the National Theatre and Concert Hall at night, watching highschool students practiced street dance with a stereo on the terrasse, reading out their names and class numbers embroidered on their uniform shirts like two straight, neon-colored eyebrows.  I still loved to hunt down the best beef noodle shops and the greasiest scallion pancake stands, feasting on numerous different demonically dirty street foods in one night until I grew sick.  I still loved to visit the National Palace Museum where I used to frequent as a kid, even when the interiors were completely renovated and changed and the Japanese tourists were replaced by hordes of Chinese tourists.  I still felt present and at home in the Botanic Garden of Taipei, and in the Buddhist and Taoist temples grown on the soil of southern Formosa.  At home, I still felt Taiwanese when shower, when take a bus, when hike on a mountain, when visit a bookstore, but I could not pronounce my Taiwan-ness any more.  What my compatriots consider to be Taiwan today is in great measure different from what I considered to be Taiwan a decade or two ago.  The enjoyment of certain food and landscapes has not altered, but too much memory – the memory of certain intangible, indescribable experiences – has sailed out of sea years ago with me and double billed my expatriation.  I am an expatriate not just in America, but also in my own country.

Expatriation in context of economy, of sex, of politics, of value, of geography – alas, what could have been more fantastical, phenomenal, horrible, insufferable as an experience as this!  Expatriation doesn’t illustrate our condition and ailment but only suggests an existence – an inevitable yet chosen fate – that we live on by.  It’s the confusion yet meanwhile the certainty of an individual’s identity which give birth to an expatriation.  The world is growing fast and the breeding of expatriates is on high probability, but on the other hand the obsession of symbols and identities has heightened in service to people’s vague idea of a “race,” of a “nation,” and of a “class.”  The name “expatriate,” therefore, was given to us as we become that Others in opposite to that clean, clear, picture book image of a People identified.

I breathe and swim Imageecstatically, exhilaratingly, sometimes painfully in the lonesome yet richly colored suspense shared by all expatriates.  We belong everywhere yet we belong nowhere.  Staple on our forehead a sign written “farm fresh egg, Bob Dylan, Leaves of Grass” we walk out with five piercings on one ear, bellyful of Borscht, shouting gibberish in Korean accented German and swinging a pink Hello Kitty umbrella.  You ask me if I ever encountered “cultural shock” let me tell you that I drink digestif like a Frenchman and enjoy the beach like a true Latina.  You test me on my understanding of America you will find unexpected holes in my patch-work styled knowledge which might exclude the name of the nation’s founding father to save space for the information of that Norfolk should be pronounced Norfick.  You accused me of my ignorance over the whole Marilyn Monroe legend I should sniff and shrug and tell you that I’d watched all-thing Hitchcock at the same time when I spoke Tintin.  I – we – expatriates, are identity-free and label-free, and are blissfully homeless.  I can be spending my whole life questioning my very existence, seeking company, and looking for a home, and I will be happy to find out that I am confused, disturbed, and remaining essentially lonely until the day I become oblivious in my Sarcophagus.

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