All travel is fiction, you told yourself, as you walked around Ximending that cold morning. You’ve been too obsessed with getting the details right that you forgot that the experience is more important, the feelings you will take away from this whole trip.
Because what is really different, anyway? You can go as reductive as saying that countries are just soil, people, trees, animals, organic and inorganic matter assembled together in a way to create this fantasy. All these illusions of differences that never barely go beyond the surface, but yet are the illusions that we long for so badly.
The truth is exhausting.
You go deep into the root of things and everything becomes a tired rehash, histories repeating itself, patterns recycled and repeated. This is how you’ve become blasé to the whole situation, this acknowledgment that all of us are but reconfigurations of DNA, carbon and nitrogen and oxygen, minerals, elements, atoms.
You remember that time in Amsterdam when you had salvia and everything sped up, and you swore you could see fictions being stripped out of reality. You don’t know how that worked, but it felt like time and space had dissolved. The details were like a blur. We were all one.
But you’re rambling.
You are ruining the fun of this, you told myself. The details matter. Be excited! Have fun! The nippy weather was wonderful, you had to admit. Just perfect for walking around, not freezing like Beijing where your skin began to feel like sandpaper. There were more things to discover, places to see.
Like: the first day, when you wolfed down the NT$60 meal at a vegan-friendly hole-in-the-wall restaurant near the Red House, which was quite a bargain—four dishes and a cup of rice. You think that was the cheapest and most delicious one you’ve had here ever, a good start for the trip. How could you have missed this place the two times you’ve been here?
The third time’s a charm, they said, but your third time in Taiwan was an exercise in overthinking. You can’t help but feel a sense of dread, seeing people around you wearing surgical masks, like you were in the ICU and they will announce something horrible, something like: “You have cancer, it’s stage 4, you’re dying!”
But seriously, are these the thoughts you’re having right now?! You should be enjoying this!
There are two of you in your head, battling it out, one trying to twist the arm of the other, screaming: have fun, you prick! Have fun!
No, no, no, the other says. That’s impossible. You shake off these two selves in your head dueling it out. Give the fuckers knives and let them shank each other, for crying out loud, your brain is a ghetto anyway, so might as well.
Next scene: you’re in the Museum of Contemporary Art. There’s a video documentary of an earthquake. A collapsed building. The rescuers were looking for survivors. Resilience, something something. There’s a lesson here somewhere. We’ve heard it all before, that’s the narrative they always pump into our screens whenever there’s a calamity in the Philippines. Ho-hum.
You walk around and see a huge heart, Pakavulay’s “Sarapung”. You wanted to scream, “Have you seen a human heart? It looks like a fist, wrapped in blood! Go fuck yourself! You artist! You liar!” Yes, you know that line is a rip-off from Patrick Marber’s “Closer”.
Ai Weiwei’s works were also on exhibit at the event, his political commentary on immigration and the diaspora. How timely, you tell yourself. A few days after this, at the last day when you are supposed to fly back to Manila, the Philippines will announce a Taiwan travel ban, and you’ll be stranded in this country for two more days, panicking about your situation as governments scramble to figure out what this means. Taiwan will push back, of course.
What you know is this: there’s nothing you can do but hope your leaders knew better. This is how learned helplessness begins, to feel that there are things bigger than you that control your destiny.
So what is the fiction that you wish to write from this whole thing? What is the lesson that you wish to come out? That you’ve grown as a person, that exposure to other cultures have opened your worldview about things, that it is a magical thing to experience something beyond yourself? Did you really need to travel to do that?
You think about Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wind in the Door”, the whole deal about deepening, and learning how to kythe–to move without moving, to be everywhere but also rooted. You also think about how the internet, which once held the promise of connecting all peoples, have only fractured the world even further. People are not ready to transcend their little bubbles. There is the safety of our small tribes, and no amount of cultural exposure will swing open an unready mind.
And so you sigh. We’re all going to die because of a virus, and we’re still as disconnected like how we began. An existential threat is not enough.
“I love you, but please stay away from my breathing space.”