80 Days in Taiwan
carpe diem, memento mori
If there is one thing I still remember about my high school physics classroom, it is an inspirational poster I enjoyed looking at every so often. Displaying nice, colorful illustrations, the poster was about making the best use of our “eleven lifetimes.” Sounds confusing? Let me explain. Taken from SMBC Comics, the poster says that while it is true that all of us will die one day, it is false that we only have one life.
In fact, we have multiple lives — eleven, according to the comic. The reasoning comes from the fact the average time it takes to master a skill is seven years. Therefore, if you live to the age of 88, after you turn 11, you have 11 lifetimes to master something. The comic suggests various skills one can learn in each life, from writing poetry to building things. The comic ends by encouraging readers to use the many lives they have.
Although it has been quite a while since I last saw this poster, I recently thought about its concept of having many lifetimes. It felt somewhat odd to have an old thought bubble up to the surface of my consciousness as if it had come out of nowhere. These sorts of things happen to me when I have random thoughts and think about the past, but this time the thought didn’t drift away. It stuck.
The thought stuck in my head because I noticed that my limited time in Taiwan forced me to live with intention, as I viewed my summer in Taiwan as a mini life in and of itself. After staying here for more than two months, I thought about how I could loosely apply the poster’s concept of eleven lifetimes by viewing my life as x number of lives, with each life having a start and an end. For instance, my summer in Taiwan this year is a life on its own: I was “born” on the day I arrived, and “died” the day I left the island. A more general example would be defining my time at MIT as a life lasting four years (five if I do the MEng).
The concept of dividing life into many small lives may sound morbid, as if I am constantly reminding myself of the Latin phrase memento mori (remember that you will die) when I don’t need to. But how else am I going to live life to its fullest if I don’t think about the fact that in my life, there are many stages, with each stage being finite?
If I view life as a continuous period with only one start and one end, then I will fail to grasp the idea that my time is quite limited, whether it is at a place or with a person. By the time I want to do things I always wanted to do, it will already be too late because of poor timing or other constraints. I don’t want to have too many regrets at the end of my life. I am not going to be a young adult forever. My time in Boston is not guaranteed to last beyond graduation, depending on where the future will take me.
Having this mindset while living in Taiwan this summer has made my perception of time quite different from life at MIT. I live my life by counting down each day and week in both places. The major difference, however, is that the amount of time I had in Taiwan was a lot shorter than my time at MIT. Approaching my last days in Taiwan felt a lot more evident compared to college, as the passage of time in college is broken down into many semesters, a period that’s much longer than a single summer.
Knowing that I only had 80 days in Taiwan, I tried to make the best use of my time by going to places I had always wanted to go to, visiting where I’d once lived, meeting people from my past life, eating everything I’d wanted to try before I left, and so on. As strange as it may sound, I felt like an old person approaching their last years, doing everything one could before it was time to say goodbye. Perhaps this feeling of being at a later stage in life came from the fact that I spent a part of my childhood in Taiwan, and one of the main reasons I did MISTI Taiwan this summer was to revisit my past.
Coming back to Taiwan seven years after I left during middle school encouraged me to reconnect with people that I hadn’t talked to for so long, from elementary school friends to middle school teachers. It wasn’t until I had less than a month left in Taiwan that I realized I didn’t have much time. There were teachers to meet, cards to write, gifts to buy, and so much more. Given this fact, I emailed many friends and teachers I had when I lived in Taiwan, asking them what they were up to these days and whether they wanted to meet up. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to catch up with some friends and teachers before I left, from recounting random memories to expressing my thanks.
Part of my motivation for reaching out was to feel some sense of closure before I left Taiwan, as the process of writing these emails helped me come full circle by revisiting my past while embracing the present. Although I felt reluctant to reconnect with some because of how much I had drifted away, ultimately, I decided to reconnect because I asked myself this question: If this were my last chance, would I want to see them one last time?
The way I posed this question to myself may sound overly dramatic, but I truly don’t know when I can come back to Taiwan again. Who knows if it will be when I am 25 or 30 or whatever. By that point, the many people that I know here will be gone. I couldn’t say no to this question. I must admit, it was easy to let the fear of awkwardness hold me back at first. In the end, however, I decided to simply go for it. While I can see both sides of the argument when it comes to reconnecting with someone from the past, ultimately, I did not see a real disadvantage.
Even though it may feel daunting and uncomfortable at first, reconnecting with someone from the past was pleasant because it made me reminisce about simpler times and reflect upon what I was like in the past. Not only that, but also it was fulfilling to see that my emails brought a smile to their faces, as most were surprised to receive an email from me. While it was a lot of work to email nearly twenty people over a few days, I am glad that I let them know that I still thought of them despite being far away. In fact, I regret not reconnecting with people earlier as one of my childhood friends happened to be in Taiwan at the same time I was, but I wasn’t aware.
This feeling of reaching my “last days” reminds me of the summer before I left for college, a transition period wherein I cherished my last moments with high school friends and spent time exploring the Bay Area. I wonder if other students shared similar sentiments before going to college. I will probably feel this again when I reach my last semester at MIT, doing everything in my reach such that I can leave a place at peace, with an ending in which nothing is left unresolved: forgiving others, apologizing for past mistakes, ticking off the last few items on my bucket list, etc.
In the beginning, I had the assumption that coming back to Taiwan this summer would end all the nostalgia and longing for this place. I thought visiting the places where I lived and often frequented would be enough. I thought eating the foods I ate a lot as a kid would give me all the comfort that I desired so much. But this longing will never end. Yes, it’s the same place that I remembered as a child, but coming back at a different stage of life provided new angles that I never expected to experience, whether it was learning new things about the local culture or talking to people from various walks of life.
I am happy to be back on campus, running along the Charles River and seeing my friends again, but I still think about Taiwan from time to time. The nostalgia persists, a quiet sound that constantly hums in the background. Taiwan is like a person that entered my life and left and then came back again, but I don’t want to let go of them. Personifying my relationship with Taiwan sounds like an unhealthy one, as if I am emotionally attached or dependent. But what can I do about it? I want to experience both worlds (Taiwan and the U.S.), but I simply can’t be in both places at the same time.
As my summer housemate said, “You love Taiwan by experiencing the place. You eat the local food, explore local attractions, immerse yourself in the culture, etc.” What she said was so simple, yet so poetic. How do I show love for a place that I am thousands of miles away from? Maybe it’s writing articles like this one, listening to Taiwanese artists, watching random videos about Taiwan on YouTube, etc. The indirect ways I express my love for Taiwan here vaguely remind me of what people do in long-distance relationships: sending words of appreciation, making Spotify blend playlists, sharing videos and pictures via text, the list goes on. As much as I would like to experience Taiwan using all my five senses, this is the best I can do here.
Although I believe that time heals, these feelings of nostalgia and longing will come back time after time. This year, I came back to Taiwan to revisit my childhood. The next time, I will come back to Taiwan to visit where I lived this summer, walking around the neighborhood I lived in and Academia Sinica, the place where I did research. And I will go back to visit where I lived even though I already did this year. And I will visit other places that hold meaning to me, from my early childhood home in Colorado to my adolescent home in California. While it is true that some of my lifetimes are already gone, each one ending faster than I would like, I still can revisit these past lives in the future, turning my head back to catch glimpses of my past self.