from the archives – July 18, 2007

If I ever forget that I have been living a charmed life, all I have to do is look around me at the things I have collected over the years. The walls and shelves and corners of my home are covered with objects that have meaning to me and carry with them memories of the people and places I have known. I pride myself on the fact that just about everything I have displayed in my home has a story behind it. I bought these things to remember these incredible places I have seen.

When I am at home I take great joy in being able to look around at my things and remember particular moments in time. I think, “That carved wooden turtle is from the vacation to St. Lucia I took with my dad. The jade Chinese zodiac chain is from my last visit to the Weekend Flower/ Jade Market in Taipei. Those sandalwood prayer beads are from a little shop near the vegetable market in Mysore, India and that long, painted wooden mask is from a shop on Koh San Road in Bangkok.”

I have stuff from India, of course, and Thailand, the Philippines, Hong Kong… but these things from exotic places mean no more or less than the lovely paintings and pieces of art from places closer to home. They are all a part of my history and thus a part of me.

Last weekend I worked doing my summer promotions job, handing out coupons for free pizza and pasta at events and parks around the city. My uniform is simple—black pants, a white branded tank top, black branded military style hat and running shoes. In the final stage of getting dressed, I reached into my sock drawer and pulled out the first pair of white ankle socks I found. As I put them on, I noticed how worn, over-bleached and stretched out they were and a thousand memories flooded over me. You would never know it by looking at them, but these socks hold a dozen stories from Taiwan to India and back home again. As I put them on, I thought about memory and nostalgia and homesickness for places that are no longer home.

It is strange, now that I am back here in Canada after 3 years of living overseas and traveling to places I never imagined I’d visit, what triggers me to remember snippets in time and the feelings associated with them.

My very first pang of missing Taiwan came 2 months ago– a full 10 months after leaving that country under a cloud of such frustration and impatience with Chinese people and culture that I never thought I would miss it. I thought I would look back on my days there as an amazing adventure that had run its course and that any nostalgia I felt would be tempered with the understanding that I left when it was time to leave and not a moment too soon.

I remember sitting in the immigration officer’s cramped office at the airport, paying my 2000NT fine for overstaying my visa by a week and listening to him explain that I was not permitted to re-enter the country for a whole year because of my transgression. I wanted to laugh in his face at the idea of coming back, but refrained and feigned a look of proper contrition as a last measure of cultural sensitivity. I was so done with that place, those people and the strangeness that never made sense even after more than two years.

Ironically enough, I was assaulted by my first pangs of missing Taiwan when I walked through the automatic sliding doors of my local Ikea. I know it seems incongruous, but upon retrospect, it makes a lot of sense and reflects the way I always held myself slightly apart from the country and culture I was living in. Ikea was a safe haven of familiarity in the tumult of my time in Taipei.

The reason we associate memory and smell so strongly is because the olfactory system in the brain is located right next to the limbic system, which is responsible for emotion and memory. And it doesn’t matter where you are in the world, every Ikea smells the same—that mix of cheap wood, scented candles, over-cooked hot dogs and cardboard.

That smell and the sameness of Ikea’s products and displays was such a comfort to me in those first few weeks when I was trying to adjust and make a home for myself in the midst of my overwhelming culture shock and total uncertainty about myself and my life. I didn’t have a job, I didn’t speak the language and I was too afraid to order food or take a taxi or ask for help. But I had a home and a bedroom and I wanted my space to be a sanctuary where I could hide from the insanity of my life as a stranger in a very, very strange land. I knew that in Ikea I could get the same shoe rack I had at home in my bedroom in Vancouver and if I needed pillow cases or a can opener I could find them exactly where I expected them to be and they would look exactly as I expected them to look. Ikea was something I understood.

I was surprised at how powerfully the longing hit me when I walked into my hometown Ikea store. I felt for a moment like I needed to sit down or bend over at the waist to catch my breath. This sounds like an exaggeration, I know, but when I am unprepared for emotion, it barrels into me like a Pamplona bull and I did not expect my curtain shopping expedition to bring about such a tsunami of feelings.

So there I stood, stock still in the kitchen wares section as I was transported back to an evening more than 3 years ago, just 4 days after I arrived in Taipei, fresh-faced and freaked out. I had just taken the MRT (subway) for the very first time on my own and I was quietly proud of myself for the small victory of managing to meet my new friend on time at the correct spot.

But I was also distressed because just before I flew to Taiwan, I had received an acceptance letter to grad school for a program that would start in less than 2 months. I had to decide very soon if I would stay in Asia for 5 months as I had originally planned or pack up, turn around and go back to school. I shopped and talked and my friend patiently listened, offering some advice and plenty of understanding. It was one of those conversations that becomes a turning point in your life—and after talking myself in circles I realized that the only one who could decide my life for me was me.

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I am more prepared now for these unexpected moments of nostalgia, although the word nostalgia seems wrong somehow. If I was not so repulsed by the word, I would call it yearning because as overwrought as that word is, it captures the ache I feel in my chest when I remember how good it felt to drive my scooter down a busy Taipei street with the wind drying the thick layer of sweat from the back of my neck on a humid summer night. Or that evening when some new friends came over and we sat on my rooftop, drinking beer from the local Nikko Mart, playing guitar, smoking spliffs and watching the sun set against the mirrored double towers of the Far Eastern Hotel. I was acutely conscious that night that I was making memories that I would keep forever and that nothing back home would compare to those times with those friends in that place. I was feeling nostalgia already for the moment that I was experiencing, knowing that I would be here in this moment remembering that night then.

In the two and a half years that I lived in Taipei, I made countless trips to the Tong Hua Night Market to do some shopping or to grab a quick bite to eat from Baked Potato Guy or Meat Stick Guy or Papaya Salad Lady. On one of those evenings, I bought some plain white ankle socks, including the pair that I grabbed out of my drawer last weekend when I was getting ready for work. I wore those socks or a pair just like them whenever I went to work out at Gold’s Gym near the Daan MRT station, just a few blocks from my apartment in Taipei. I wore them when my friends and I took the train to the North Coast where we climbed up ten thousand stairs to a pagoda at the top of a mountain overlooking the black sand beach of Daxi and the endless expanse of the East China Sea.

I brought those socks home to Canada and then packed them right up again and brought them to India—the only pair of socks I took with me on that 6 month adventure. I wore them inside my runners as I trudged through the predawn darkness of the Delhi train station, trying to ignore the putrid smell of the slime under my feet and the blank stares of the beggars who lived beside the tracks.

When I stayed for a month in an ashram outside of Bangalore, I wore those socks with my Birkenstocks every morning. I didn’t care that socks and sandals together looked silly because it was so cold in the meditation hall before the sun rose. After 3 days they were filthy– you never would have known that once they were white beneath the brown dirt stains. I remember borrowing a laundry brush and some bleach so I could try to make them somewhat white again, and after 20 minutes of determined scrubbing and rinsing, declaring success—they were as white as any article of clothing can hope to be in India.

I left my running shoes somewhere behind in India but I brought those socks home with me, tucking them into my carry-on bag to wear on the airplane because my feet always get so cold when I fly.

The stories woven into that nondescript pair of socks are not particularly exciting or remarkable. They mark the simple, everyday moments of an extraordinary time. They are the moments that make up the Real Life part of the amazing adventure that was my life for 3 years. And these ordinary moments of going to the gym or doing laundry make me feel a kind of reverse homesickness for a place that is no longer home, but was the best home I could make for myself at that time.

The lovely pieces of art and souvenirs from exotic places that decorate my home have stories, too. But they are stories I knew that I would remember. They are much more beautiful than that grungy pair of socks, but somehow, surprisingly, they are less powerful to me, partly because they are not surprising and partly because of what those socks represent. I look around my home and remember the extraordinary moments, the incredible places and the lovely people I met on my travels. But those socks bring me back to the rest of the time– the ordinary and the mundane moments that are not much different than this moment right now. The moments that make up the life behind the adventures.