Being There

Being There

During a post-college gap year, a young Potomac man gets some valuable life lessons in Taiwan

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Last year, I lived in Taiwan and studied Buddhism at a monastery for a month.

When I arrived, one of the monks explained to me that a Zen master never lets his emotions overtake him, even if a mountain were to collapse in front of him. During the week of silent meditation that followed, I tried so hard to “let go” that another American there told me she was afraid I’d turned into a zombie.

In meditation, as in other matters, I tend to go all out.

The irony behind craving not to crave only emphasized just how un-Zen my approach is to life. If a mountain were to collapse in front of me, I’d most likely Instagram and then Tweet about it.

Those of us who grew up in Potomac were taught never to shy away from expressing our opinions. The problem, as one of my German professors once jokingly pointed out, is that “American students start blabbing on about their thoughts and opinions before they have any fundamental understanding of the topic!”  

We opinionated Americans also were taught not to back down from what we stand for. I recently witnessed the negative side of this American virtue when two drivers decided to conduct a cold war on Glen Road’s one-lane bridge.  

By contrast, Taipei is a city in which students always do the background reading but rarely ask questions, a place where a girl will politely gesture “excuse me” to the taxi driver who ran a red light and splashed her with rainwater.

During my year in Taiwan, I occasionally gave gender equality lectures at rural public schools. At the end of one of my lectures, the principal told all of the teachers at the school to change a phrase in their textbooks from “Help Mom sweep the floor” to “Help our parents sweep the floor.” It’s little shifts like these that I hope (and believe) will empower Taiwanese girls to determine their own futures.

But I also slowly came to realize—out of both cultural sensitivity and necessity—that sometimes the most effective response to a differing viewpoint is silence.

My last week there, I worked on an organic farm with an avuncular septuagenarian named Mr. Chen. As we were digging up taro roots one day, our conversation turned to marriage.

“The only reason to break up with a woman,” Mr. Chen advised me, “is if she disrespects you, if she tells you what to do—or worse, makes more money.” My instincts prompted me to correct Mr. Chen’s apparent sexism, but I decided to hold my tongue. I was, after all, a guest listening to personal details about his past, and any lecture about women’s rights would seem insensitive and accusatory. I could see in his eyes a genuine fear of having his patriarchal role challenged, as well as concern for his wife’s well-being.

By sidestepping a confrontation about gender roles, I stayed quiet long enough to hear him share this gem of relationship advice: “Everyone’s personality is different and there’s nothing couples can’t work out,” he said, “as long as you don’t try to change the other person to be more like the way you want them to be.”

Perhaps if Madame Bovary and Jay Gatsby had heeded this advice, their story lines wouldn’t have ended in such disappointment. But imagine how boring their two tales would be without their viscerally stimulating romanticism.

Over the past several years, I’ve found myself craving the extreme, the ideal, the Instagramable. Perhaps that’s why I decided to take a gap year between college and graduate school and live in Taiwan; it was part of my own scheme to romanticize my life.  

Patience was ultimately the key to learning how to see the world through a Taiwanese lens. As I learned to be silent and hold back, I found myself becoming increasingly aware of how my Gatsby-Bovary craving for the romantic can be a double-edged sword that makes my life both more colorful and more dissatisfying.

On my first boat ride to Green Island off the eastern coast of Taiwan, I sat up front while the Taiwanese passengers crowded in the center. The other passengers are all missing out on the excitement, I thought to myself, giddily riding the big waves and laughing with excitement. Ten minutes into the hourlong ride, I stopped laughing and yielded to seasickness. On future trips to the small island, I obediently sat where they advised me to sit.

Since returning to the United States and to Potomac, I’ve found myself again surrounded by people like me who can’t sit still for more than an hour without feeling guiltily unproductive. In these moments, I remind myself that sometimes it’s in keeping still—even in the face of a collapsing mountain—that we finally get to where we want to be.

Allister Chang grew up in Potomac and is currently attending the Master’s in Public Policy program at Harvard.

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