by Tracey dela Cruz
Even as a child, I liked moving around. I remember taking long walks around the neighborhood, which I suppose people found odd because five-year-olds don’t usually have that much on their plates to warrant a contemplative stroll to be alone with their thoughts. But it has always been this way for me. There is a restlessness that cannot be stilled, that beckons for motion. Even when stuck at home and forbidden to go out, I would pace around the house or else read and let my mind travel instead.
So when the opportunity of traveling alone presented itself, I didn’t hesitate. That is how I ended up here, living for almost five months in Taipei, taking classes as an exchange student. It is a place close to home, a good starting point for my first time traveling out of the country.
Settle, Settling In
In all honesty, Taipei was not the place I was gunning for when I applied for the exchange program. However, considering that it is my first time to go abroad, and it would have been difficult to afford a place with higher cost of living, Taipei was good choice. Its proximity to home also made it easier to contact my family and friends, no need to overcome different time zones. What I needed to overcome, though, was the language barrier.
One of my apprehensions about Taiwan was that I did not know how to speak Mandarin at all. As in not even a little bit. Zero. Zilch. Nada. No better way to feel alienated than to see almost each sign written in Chinese, hear everyone speaking a language so foreign to you. I learned, slowly, through my classmates and the free Mandarin classes and tutorials that the school offered to exchange students. It is a difficult language, but beautiful. I eventually learned enough to scrape by. It was not easy, but it was fun and fascinating to discover more about a culture through its language.
We had a weeklong spring break just before our midterm exams. I used this time to visit some places outside of Taipei. It was pretty exciting for me, traveling alone. I’ve never done that before. If I were going out of town in the Philippines, I had to be surrounded by friends, I had to be with my family.
Getting around Taiwan is pretty easy: trains, buses, and the bikes that you can rent for 10 NTD per hour. Cabs can be expensive so I avoided riding them as much as I could. Traveling for me is always more fun than arriving to my destination. I love motion. It is so easy for me to fall asleep when the engine starts humming under my feet. I like the quiet drone of machinery taking me someplace else, the screech of wheels on rails as it halts in a new city, listening to conversations of strangers speaking in alien tongues. Beyond the window, I catch glimpses of the country, fields of rice, urban jungles, mountains, sunsets, distant city lights that disappear into the horizon that it’s hard to tell where they end and where stars begin.
The problem posed for me, as always, was the difficulty of understanding street signs. It could be fun, at times, getting lost. On more than one occasion I rode the wrong bus, or went down the wrong stop. Who knows how much time I would have saved if I did not get lost so much! Then again, it was my horrible sense of direction that allowed me to fully learn the kindness of strangers. Imagine me with my minimal Mandarin skills, asking for directions, and the people around me, ever so patient, telling me where to go – the old lady who sold me incense at a temple I stumbled upon when I was really looking for a museum, the bus driver who wrote the name of the town (in Mandarin) I needed to go to and instructed me to hand it over to the next bus I rode, the high school students who practically shoved me through the doors of the train I narrowly missed to get to the next city.
More than the sceneries and tourist spots, my travels were filled with attempts to scale the barriers of language through gestures and nods, scribbled notes thrust into open palms to be handed over to next bus, and the next bus, and the next stranger kind enough to point the way even as I fumbled for the right words. I have learned the power of smiles and nods, gesticulations, nervous laughter, fingers pointed to the right direction. In every new city I went to – and will go to – I carried with me my clumsy gratitude for the strangers who helped me get there.
Manila, Manila, Dilemma
When finding oneself in a new place, it is almost automatic to draw comparisons. Taipei’s streets are cleaner, the people are more polite, kinder even perhaps, so disciplined in following traffic rules, and – the best thing about Taipei – the public transportation is so convenient. (Transportation is so convenient that it is truly the thing I will lament when I return home.)
Once, my roommate asked me, “What is the Philippines like?” She was wondering where to go for her graduation trip next year, and was considering going to the Philippines but knew little about it. So I enumerated the places that I thought will attract her, beaches I said, listing down Palawan, Boracay, Cebu; festivals, next, Pahiyas, MassKara, Sinulog; then I mention the old streets of Vigan, the perfect cone of Mayon, the churches that house holiness in their ancient walls. “But do not go to Manila,” I said. To which she replied, “But isn’t that the capital?”
I was a little embarrassed, not of Manila but of how I warned someone against going there. I am not ashamed of where I come from but it can be hard to defend it. How do I explain why the transportation is terrible despite the large sum of taxes we pay, what to say about the congested streets, the ubiquity of the destitute, the dangers of walking on the sidewalk even in broad daylight? How do I explain why people are how they are, why the city is how it is, without being apologetic? How do I paint the picture of the Manila that I know which can be beautiful in its own way but only if one recognizes it as home?
And what to take from all this, then? What to learn from seeing the many ways in which one’s home falls short, or succeeds? I am still unsure. The thing about leaving home is that you need to go back. I don’t think any journey is ever complete without taking a moment to return to where you started and see what has changed, how you have grown, how different things are, how differently you see what appear to have remained undisturbed. So maybe I will know more when I get back to Manila. Only a couple of weeks left now. Many things about Taipei will be missed – the friends I have made, the teachers I have met, the excitement of being on my own and careening through a new city. But there is nothing like coming home to familiar streets and faces, a language one is accustomed to, the beauty of the recognizable, which, at times, resists articulation.
Tracey is currently in her fourth year at Ateneo de Manila University, majoring in BS Psychology and AB Literature (English). She was a fellow for fiction in the 52nd Silliman University National Writers Workshop. Still trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life, she spends most of her time reading and wishing for cool weather.