Everything and Nothing (Part 3: On Purpose Series*)

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*My purpose-driven journey, at least geographically, is taking a brief detour. A bit of context:

Everything.

Everything here is at least 3x trickier. At least.

But if I push past the frustration, it’s also 3x more captivating. It’s the double-edged sword all strangers wield in strange lands.

Each time I set foot outside our flat, nestled on a sleepy Taipei side-street, I’m propelled . . . into a medley of retro video games.

Here’s what my daily commute feels like:

Frogger.

Just crossing the streets in Taipei should trigger steep hikes in insurance rates. I slink out among a barrage of buses, bikes, scooters and cars, lamenting my lack of mad Frogger skills. Cortisol levels skyrocket when my kids are also playing. (Luckily, I possess an heir and a spare.)

If we make it across the street alive, the city bus awaits.

Pole Position.

“Must be on the leader board by age ten.”

This has to be the first line of bus driver job descriptions in this city. I know this because when I climb into the bus, I can see the black-and-white checkered flags glistening in the drivers’ eyes. If you manage to snag a seat, you have a fighting chance of reaching your destination. If not, you cling on to a strap handle dangling from the ceiling, and pray. My daughter and I suspect that drivers have a running pool going for passenger spills. Like maybe high man wins a Taiwan Beer.

Centipede.

I’ve come to Taipei (to visit family) for almost two decades, and it’s taken that long to feel comfortable navigating the subway system. It’s not that it isn’t user friendly. It’s just intimidating for a small-town girl, whose experience with underground things are limited to earthworms. I’ve jumped on the wrong train more than once: Adrenalin surges, and my head morphs into the arcade game, Centipede. Red line, green line, blue line, yellow line. . . If I’m lucky, maybe I’ll end up at the airport, or the zoo – where I can re-center next to the panda’s – and the on-site McDonald’s.

Ms. Pac Man

A satellite view of my trek through the city mimics this lady of the eighty’s. After about forty minutes of zigzags, forward progress, and a lion’s share of backtracking, I limp across the finish line to my favorite coffee shop. I want to hug everyone inside, but I suspect it is not the other way around. Every pore in my skin is an active fire hydrant.

The coffee shop is my oasis here – complete with caffeine and air-conditioning. Here, I can leave the unfamiliar ghosts outside. Most of them, at least . . .

Asteroid Fail.

The women’s restroom is the one big exception: Affectionately christened by foreigners as a “squaty potty”- this toilet is common in Taiwan. Think: Urinal, but on the floor. It’s a constant reminder of my bad aim (even after two pregnancies worth of urine samples). Asteroid gamers make easy work of moving targets. Me? I can’t even hit large, stationary ones.

Typically, I sneak into the men’s restroom, where I can rendezvous with a mainstream toilet (at least for me). To arrive, I first must navigate past an adjacent urinal, because I guess men actually get a choice. It’s temperamental, however – often flushing without warning. My favorite part is the refreshing mist I feel from its porcelain waterfall. (This is nothing compared to the toilets in Japan, where a college education is required to flush.)

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Subway Sign: Umbrella/Backpack Self-Defense & Fire Tackling. At least, three times trickier.

Level-Up?

All of this reminds me why my ten-year-old self could tolerate the arcade only in small doses. Unlike the more amiable ones today, 80’s video games constantly toss us back to the starting line. When Mario disintegrates, the frog flattens or Ms. Pac Man is devoured by ghosts, it’s “Please deposit 25 cents” and back to level one. Often, that’s how I feel here. Progress gained and capital invested is quickly lost:

  • We finally survive the commute home, but I can’t unlock our front door. (This love-hate relationship is years in the making.)
  • My child finally remembers to offer up his seat to someone who needs it more (a beautiful practice here), and subsequently makes his mark on the subway. (Read: The number two mark – on the floor, in all of its glory.)
  • A toddler finally makes eye contact with me, but it’s followed by screams of terror as he clings to his mother.

Nothing.

Cultural stumbles aside, life anywhere can just feel like we’re locked inside an eighty’s arcade, in a never-ending quest to achieve. Here, all we can do is react: We make headway – perhaps for a moment. But even if we level-up, the next one looms a screen blip away. We keep striving for everything, and end with nothing but an empty bag of quarters.

Living in this space makes me ponder purpose anew. There will always, always be the next level, street crossing or conquest ahead. And for a few moments, I’ll feel I’ve arrived – as if I have purpose in my cross-hairs. But I’m starting to realize that in this game, purpose is ever-elusive.

Perhaps it’s not where I should look . . .

Chasing purpose is at least 3x harder than I expected. But I’m hedging my bets that finding it will be 3x more captivating – than Frogger, at least.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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