August 13, 2009

L.A. To Taipei: Why We Say Goodbye

At 3:00 in the morning the South Texas air is wet and heavy against my skin. The departure was a hasty one, a groggy goodbye from Dad and a granola bar for breakfast. Katherine and I load my bags into the backseat and leave quietly, speeding down the desolate highway toward George Bush Intercontinental Airport. We don't talk much, and the silence is punctuated by the occasional yawn and the low background music of country radio. The drive goes smoothly, and as I park the car in front of my terminal and remove my bags, Katherine says "usually I say something like 'see you at Christmas!' as consolation, but it doesn't really apply here". I have often been without plans in my life, but have always taken comfort in the closeness of my family or friends to fall back on. Now for the first time, I will truly be on my own, with no definite plans of return. Its a strange feeling, not knowing when you will see someone you love again, if ever. This must be a little like what dying feels like.

As I wait in the terminal for my flight to LAX to begin boarding, I realize how truly mentally unprepared for this moment I am. I'm not exactly sure why; I have been talking about doing this, playing out how it would happen in my head for the last two years. I guess part of me second-guessed myself, didn't actually believe I'd ever go through with it. "Well", I think to myself, "called your bluff you bastard". I feel as if I'm on a roller coaster, the part right at the beginning where the safety harness closes down on you and your instinct for self-preservation wants to scream "NO! Wait! I'm not ready for this!!!" But you won't, because even though you're terrified of what is going to happen, you're also too excited for what waits ahead to allow the air to escape from your lungs and through your vocal chords. So here I am, holding my breath as the car inches at a painfully slow pace toward the precipice. "No going back now" I say to myself as I hand the attractive middle-aged flight attendant lady my boarding pass and walk down the tunnel. I am both petrified and exhilarated, hopelessly lost and overwhelmingly optimistic.

The flight to LAX is uneventful. I fall asleep before take off and only awake to the offer of breakfast - gluten-free Honey Chex and the best banana I have ever eaten - and to look out the window as we fly over the Salton Sea. The landscape is desolate and beautiful, the black mountains rising abruptly out of the desert to the north. Suddenly, the barren landscape explodes with evidence of human life, and in minutes we land in Los Angeles. The sky is grey and the weather warm as I step out of the terminal into the muted sunlight. My first time in California. What a day for firsts. LAX is shaped like a horseshoe with a crazy-looking spaceship shaped restaurant at its center. Although the giant sign on the side of the spaceship announces the restaurant is, in fact, still open, the cranes and various construction equipment clinging to its walls cause me to lose confidence in this claim. I choose to walk around the horseshoe instead of take the shuttle, and as I make the 20 minute trek to my next terminal I witness a thousand hugs, kisses, tears and goodbyes. Leaving is a part of life. Leaving is the only way we grow, the only way we become strong. We must leave so we know how it feels to come home again.

I arrive at Tom Bradley International Terminal a full five hours before my flight is scheduled to leave, and therefore cannot check in until noon. I set up shop in the food court, denying myself lunch to save money, and watch the people moving around me. The majority of the flights are to Asian or Pacific Island Nations, thus the majority of the people populating the terminal are of various Asian descent. I study their motions, listen to their language, smile when they smile. I try to imagine what it will feel like to be immersed in a foreign peoples, to be the obvious minority in a sea of homogenous faces. I cannot, but I suppose soon I will not have to. I finally check in and make my way to my gate, where I wait and make last minute phone calls before I leave.

Finally, my number is called and I once again walk through the tunnel, this time more deliberately and with more purpose in my steps. I try and remember small details; the blue carpet with red diamonds arranged in patterns, the smell of sterilized air, the hollow sound of my feet as they ascend the pathway leading to uncertainty and adventure. As I step through the main hatch I notice the stewardesses are all very pretty, much more so than their American counterparts, and their young smiling faces greet me and welcome me aboard. It is the largest plane I have ever been on, with three rows of seats, each row containing three seats. I find my seat near the back of the plane, row 57, window seat. As I'm maneuvering my way to my seat I somehow manage to pummel an elderly Chinese woman in the face with my backpack. I quickly lean down to apologize, but she winces out "it's okay" in broken english and fends me off with the hand not clutching her face, hoping I won't inflict anymore damage. I look up to see one of the pretty stewardesses trying to smile through a cringing face, obviously feeling the poor old woman's pain. "Way to go jackass" I mutter to myself. Not a good start to my adventure, but I smile back at the stewardess and try and play it off as if I'm a stupid American. It seems to do the trick.

I take my seat and anxiously await our takeoff, hoping to see L.A. for the first time through my small porthole window to the world. However, immediately after takeoff we are over the Great Ocean, and in no time the California coastline disappears from my vision. It is my first time seeing the Pacific, and as we fly over its epic expanse, I feel as if I have traveled to some other world. Nothing but blue; no money, no stress, no jobs, no love; just blue forever. I let it sink into me, let the idea of it cover me, and soon I am asleep against the plastic window. When I awake again it is 7:00 p.m. by my watch, but the sun hasn't even began to dip low in the horizon. We have been traveling with the sun, racing it to the edge of the world. We will lose this race eventually, but the valiant effort has rewarded us with 18 hours of daylight. The longest day of my life. What a day to be alive.

The rest of the flight, like my first leg, is uneventful. I couldn't tell you how I passed the hours, but it comes in some combination of sleeping, eating, reading, watching bad movies and listening to bad music. We are served two meals, one a traditional Chinese chicken and rice dish which is very good, and for breakfast we are given a more western meal of eggs, sausage, and fruit. The seat in front of me conveniently has an interactive video screen built into the headrest, and using a small remote I am able to do a variety of interactive functions. I browse the limited selection of new movie releases and settle on "Fast and Furious" because I don't want to do much thinking and was told that the movie "isn't unbearably awful". The review is about right, not good, not bad. I then turn to the interactive music section, where one can listen to a number of full-length albums. After listening to random tracks from Fall Out Boy's newest and Kings of Leon, I decide to step out of my comfort zone and browse the "Mandarin Artists" section. Awesome. Seriously. Every female vocalist is an Asian Britney Spears, sugary pop. The male artists are a little more accessible, and I find myself grooving to 90's-esque rockers Mayday (from Taiwan) and some LFO-sounding tracks by a guy named Alan Kuo. I'm really jamming to this song called "One Day" when I look over and realize the elderly Asian woman who (somehow) managed to escape receiving a black eye is looking at me as if I'm insane. I decide to tone it down, and spend the next couple of hours watching the Soloist. Somewhere I fall asleep, and when I wake up the pretty stewardess is telling me to return my seat-back to its full upright position. Almost there. I have now reached the precipice, the coaster has paused to ensure the suspense has swelled to its full potential. I look over the edge and feel the brakes let go...

I have arrived. I am here. There is no turning back now.

The plane rolls past a large sign proclaiming "Taipei International AIrport", which I'm told used to read "Chiang Kai Shek International Airport" but was changed to promote a national moving away from ties to the old regime. We reach our terminal and I try and prepare myself for whatever awaits me at the end of the tunnel. Neon signs flashing Mandarin? Dirty looks from locals? Asian hookers? No, as I walk out into the terminal, everything is surprisingly calm and straightforward. Earlier I had read that the Taiwanese Tourism Bureau had taken great steps in the last decade to make Taiwan more friendly to foreigners, and this is very evident. All of the airport staff are bilingual, and every sign has English subtitles. I wait in line and change $400 US to NTW (New Taiwanese Dollar), quickly stuffing the bills into my wallet so as not to draw any unwanted attention to the American kid with a bunch of money and no friends. Immigration is easy, and I glow with pride as the Immigration lady stamps my first official stamp into my passport. "I am a world traveler now" I think. This is what I'd been dreaming of since I realized that Farmington was too small, that Missouri was too small, that everything I knew was too small. Now I had the world. The world will never be too small, there is just too much in it. I quickly grab my bags at carousel #1 and follow the English subtitles to the Taxi dock, where I immediately hail a cab and give him the directions that Connie Soong, my only contact in this hemisphere, has given me. I lean back and smile, allowing myself to relax and take everything in. Soon we are on the highway heading toward Hsinchu.

The drive is relatively boring, without much to see save for a few brightly lit hotels and a lot of industrial-looking factories. After about 40 minutes I begin to see lights exploding out of the highway in the distance, like a snake spitting neon blood into the cloudy night sky. For whatever reason, I expected Hsinchu to be small and quiet, with suburbs and maybe a few tall buildings. However, I soon realize that this is definitely a city, situated in the heart of Taiwan's industrial landscape. We find the main strip (or at least, I assume that's what it is) quickly and speed past giant neon signs, thousands of them, all almost entirely in Mandarin. The streets are still busy for a Thursday night at 11:00 p.m. and hundreds of scooters race all around the cab, The cab driver does not seem to see them, and he swerves carelessly from one lane to the next, nearly bumping into the scooters several times. I make up my mind never to drive a scooter. We drive under what is either a highway or a L-train and the lights grow brighter, encouraged by the lack of sky to swallow them up. This is not New York or Chicago or Memphis or Austin or any of city I've seen. This is new and surges with unapologetic electric self-promotion. Every storefront begs for my attention, every billboard screams. By the time we reach our destination my eyes are dry from forgetting to blink. The cab driver totals my fare: $1600 NT, or about $50 US. In the states that would've cost twice that much. I thank him and ring Connie's room, crossing my fingers that the cabbie did not make some terrible mistake. Her voice comes across the speaker, she sounds as relieved as I am. I am buzzed in and make my way to the 7th floor of the small apartment building.

Upstairs I meet Connie for the first time as well as her boyfriend, David. They are both Americans, both from Texas, and therefore I feel comfortable instantly. In Taiwan, as in other Asian countries, it is customary to remove one's shoes, so I do at the door. Their apartment is nice, not too big but not too small. We talk for a while about my teaching demonstration tomorrow which ultimately determines whether I'll be working part time or full-time. We talk about their lives, my life, what brought each of us to this seemingly odd choice of life. I like them. They seem to be like me, looking for something but in a kind of passive way. Not sinking their teeth in enough to break the skin and cause discomfort, but willing to nibble on the tail of something altogether unknown and different. We are not pioneers, but still feel like we are treading off the beaten path. I believe it is important for everyone to do this at some point, to venture into the thicket if only to say that they have done it, that they have made it back alive. I believe that if a person doesn't do this adventuring when they are young, the need to escape the "road more traveled" may arise at inconvenient times, which is why so many men feel the need to explore other women's bodies outside of marriage and explore the limits of their financial ceilings and so on. The only thing separating the Adventurer from the Asshole is 20 years of suppression.

After a couple of hours of small talk we retire, Connie and David to their room and me to the guest room, where I quietly type these words and try to imagine what tomorrow will be like. I hope to write as much of this experience down as possible, and in doing so convey the reason why I had to go and what I hope to find. I truth, I'm not exactly certain myself. But maybe that is the point entirely. If we knew what we wanted or what we were searching for, then the need to search would be irrelevant. Maybe someday I will read these words with a warm heart and fondly remember my childish ignorance, my total cluelessness. Maybe this search of mine will never end, and this is just a chapter. If this is so, then let this be the first chapter. The beginning of my adventure.


  1. How thrilled I was to see your new blog. Wow,
    I was in LA on Monday staring at the same spaceship. I spent the night in Hermosa Beach. Wish I had known and I could have had a friend give you a quick tour.
    I missed my plane in Denver to DFW and Mark came and took me home to his apartment. We had only a few fabulous hours, mostly on the road.
    I read every word of your blog and will hang on until the next chapter. Katherine sent me a text when you left. She asked to pray for you and your adventure. I am so blessed to be connected to you Tommy,made in Taiwan. I am thrilled that you are documenting the adventure for us all to experience with you. Your writing is very compelling.
    Jeremiah 29:11.
    Love and prayers.

  2. Hit on it?

    Is "hit on it" an appropriate response? No?

    Hmm...I'm working on something for you, for me, for us. Maybe it will be an adequate response.

    Godspeed Mr. Johnson

  3. Glad you made it there without a hitch, Tommy. I am buzzing with excitement, hoping these words, our only real medium and view into your trek, aren't put too far on the back burner.

    On a side note, I had a weird feeling when you left my house on Monday. It wasn't a bad feeling, or even a good one -- Just one of those that make you take inventory of your life. I always knew we had eachother's backs if all hell broke loose here, but I think I discovered a certain strength that was buried deep after you left. I have always been an independent person, but now that's the only option.


  4. Tommy - I loved reading your blog about the beginning of your big adventure. This is going to be amazing for you! You have great insight into life and I feel very blessed that you are part of Levi's life. I will be praying for you.

  5. Brother. I'm so happy for you to start your adventure. I got nervous for you while I was reading this, but excited as well. You make me want to start a new journey as well. You are really an inspiration to me and so many others. Please write as much as possible. I love you and good luck Brother.

  6. Hey, buddy. I'm really excited that you were able to make it without any hitches. You are in for an amazing experience, and I am extremely happy for you.

    Not only will your blog be a great way to express to others your journeys, but it will also be a great way for you reflect... for you discover and uncover.

    Do your thing.

    I have only one other comment. You wrote, "I find myself standing at the beginning of something incredible, something defining, something that will make me into someone you will want to know." I don't like your last phrase... do this for you... no one else.

    Love you and miss you lots.

  7. Alex - of course I'm doing this for me! BUT, as part of my growth, I want to become someone that others can look up to, that others can learn from and respect. I feel like I've always measured myself, at least in part, by how others view me. I want to be able to take myself out of my body, look down on myself and think "THATS who I want to be". I want to be a leader, and to be a leader, I feel like you must take other people into consideration. But i think I know what youre getting at...and don't worry, I'm doing this for the right reasons. Thanks for reading buddy.

    To everyone else: Thank you so much for your comments and for reading, for your support and your love and prayers. I promise the posts will be shorter in the future. This is all so new, I just have a LOT to write about. Keep checking back, more to come soon!

  8. Not shorter!!!!!!! So what could be more valuable than reading a greater adventure novel from our own Jommy, (Made in Taiwan)

  9. I too have enjoyed reading about your adventures in Taiwan. You are an incredibly gifted writer, one that takes us, the reader, and suddenly, we are there, with you, experiencing the same feelings of fear and excitement. I never got to meet you in person. But, yes, heard lots about you from Kelly. I do want to thank you for praying for me. I hope to meet you in person some day.