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 Paradise. 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 – underage 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! I 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.”
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 ecstatically, 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.
copyright © Mu-Xuan Lin 2012