A few weeks before our class set off for Taiwan, I was asked, Why teach in Taiwan? I come back to this question after three weeks of living here and return to the puzzle put forward by Elizabeth Bishop in her poem “Questions of Travel.”
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theatres?
I bring a stranger’s eye to this place and puzzle about a plethora of differences—from the organization of the street lined with vendors offering up noodles, oyster omelets, shoes, bedding, and betel nuts, to the nervewracking, daily roar of F16s passing overhead, to the broad, rough, and barren river beds with rocks as big as erratics seemingly tossed here and there in the last typhoon, to the mist-encircled sacred mountain of Dulan, where the sounds are as quiet as flitting butterflies, to the noisier foraging of macaques.
Teaching here is not the search for these new experiences, but an opportunity to reflect on the remarkable ways we have made meaning in our place on this single earth—how people have weathered change with conflict, innovation, or perhaps migration, how the possession of mediums in the Taoist temple persists with such hair-raising power, and how I and the Taiwanese see my home, America, which they call Mei Guo, the beautiful country.
Coming here to teach is to ponder the surprising answers to the question of how to live life in relation to land, ocean, and people. Coming here is to relearn not only the inevitability of death, but also the particularities of a lived life.
I have spent the last year reading about Taiwan: politics, botany, ethnobotany, indigenous cultures, trade, colonialism, martial law, night market foods, history, China’s great famine, the Green Revolution, and more. Slowly, a platform emerged for asking questions about meaning-making through food and place and the ever-changing lifeways on this island over the past four hundred years.
Reading is not enough. As I stood by rice paddies in Taitung, I was overwhelmed by the colossal communal energy required to grow rice intensively, and how the steep mountains and typhoons provide the remarkable fertility and longevity of these systems. Having returned to Maine, I am left pondering how these communal feats of water engineering for rice production and systems of water sharing might lead to different social norms of helpfulness, even to “minding each other’s business.”
From afar, I am led to reconsider California and the levees of the Central Valley upon which I have traveled my entire lifetime. I more palpably see the skill and backbreaking labor of Chinese immigrants who built the first intricate network of embankments there, levees first imagined in the 1850s that today protect the vast tracts of rice, wheat, orchards, pasture, and row crops in one of the most fertile places on earth.
In bringing the poem “Questions of Travel” to a close, Elizabeth Bishop asks,
Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?
I think our imagination is boundless, but we can never know a place without our feet on the ground, our face in water, our fingers feeling the strange, black, silty soil, our spirits shaken in confusion and conversation. We weave together the imagined and the real. We correct our path, and the world is as rich as the tales told by Italo Calvino.
This travel speaks to each of us differently; for some, it can feel like a coming home and to others a sense of loss or displacement. Teaching while traveling asks even more of me: it commands discipline and accountability to both home and away. In the best of circumstances, we deepen our understanding of human ecologies, and with these new perspectives we have the chance to step into our fractured and shared futures, refreshed and willing.