I have a somewhat problematic aunt who, whenever I manage to achieve something important, and she knows it is important, like a publication, for instance, feels the need to point out that what I have achieved, since I have achieved it, cannot have been that difficult to achieve. She does not say it in so many words, naturally, but this is exactly what she implies. Every time I get something, it was because it was something easy to get.
I cannot tell you how frustrating I find this kind of response. It makes me want to climb a high place and ask the busy people below, the thousands of people running around to meet deadlines and pick children up from school: “Does anyone remember the last time anyone did something easy?” Childish answers aside: eating ice-cream is easy, peeing is easy, I know, but what else is easy, really? Nothing is. Is looking for a job easy? Living abroad? Having children? Not having children? Being single? Getting older? Not being there while your parents grow old? Getting your point across? Writing a poem? Being gentle to yourself? Being productive every day? Keeping up self-assurance? Keeping up a jogging routine? Keeping up anything, really? Even locking yourself up and giving up on your life almost entirely (just what my aunt has been doing for the last few years) is not easy. I have not seen easy for a long time, and I am, undoubtedly and in many respects, a privileged and very fortunate person.
In the academic year 2014-2015 I won a fellowship at Academia Sinica, a research institution in Taiwan that has hosted, since the 1950s until now, 7 scientists awarded with the Nobel Prize. Of course, my aunt pointed out the fact that winning a Nobel Prize must be easy, since it had been awarded to just about anyone, including President Obama. Be that as it may, I was getting paid to finish my Ph.D. thesis, I had been selected with 35 more postgraduate students among approximately 250 applications, I had free access to a nice gym and a swimming pool, and I was spending the last of my difficult but rewarding 6 years in Taiwan at the best place I could be.
This fellowship came after 13 years or so of improbable jobs in support of my studies, trips to the other side of the world, extreme decisions made to build a CV that could stand-out and make up for my late arrival to the academic world, a tunnel of constant effort which had lasted longer than a decade and contributed, I am certain of it, to making my thyroid spin out of control, bringing out my until then latent autoimmune disease on to the surface and beyond it (my eyes were trying to get out of their orbits, after all).
I have accepted the fellowship at Academia Sinica with sincere gratitude, as a reward for all those restless years, and I think I used it sensibly, as I wrote a good part of my thesis. I remember I was so happy to know I had won the fellowship that during my usual forty-minute bus ride from home to my Bikram yoga school in Taipei I could not stop crying, without sniffing noises, only tears kept coming out of my eyes. At the beginning of the fellowship, the secretaries at the Academia insisted much about attendance, asking me to go to my office at least three times a week. Also, since I was not allowed to keep my teaching jobs, I left both of them, the one at the private school and the one at National Taiwan University. I ended up sitting alone in my office for the whole summer, writing, and waiting for my supervisor to contact me.
Not having anywhere else to run to at the end of the day was a novel sensation; I had the impression I was doing nothing, even if I had spent the whole morning and afternoon writing. After the summer, however, it was clear to me that nothing much would have happened during that year. I had lunch with my supervisor once, in September, and he explained that he did not have any time for me and my work, and that as far as he was concerned, I could have worked from anywhere I wished. At that point, it became obvious that that year free of commitments would have been a parting gift, marking the end of my stay in Taiwan. After the fellowship, I could have gone back to my teaching jobs, perhaps, but they were not paying enough to support myself and invest in them in the long run.
My husband had moved to Singapore from Taipei by then, for his Ph.D., so that I did not even feel that small pressure of having to return home in time for dinner. I was studying all day, going to yoga, home: soothing, restful, and boring. Months were passing by, my supervisor was perpetually abroad for conferences, and I was so invisible, so unimportant to that extended and empty campus.
The news of more change in my family reached me that summer: my youngest brother had a daughter in Wellington. Now there was a piece of my family I had not seen for some time, and a piece of it I had never met: my niece of New Zealand and her English mother. I put the picture of the baby on my desktop and I would smile at her several times a day: she is yellow-haired and blue-eyed, like the beginning of a new family chapter.
However proud I was of how much I had achieved in the course of my six years in Taiwan, I have never really loved Taipei. The city is too hot for too long, summers last easily seven to eight months a year; it is too crowded, too noisy, too prone to earthquakes, and the island has too many nuclear plants. This last combination of earthquakes and nuclear plants has made me particularly apprehensive in the last few years I spent there, especially after Fukushima, when I was already tired of the place and wanted to leave. Taiwanese cockroaches (Blatta Orientalis) also used to get very much on my nerves, as big as small mobile phones, as fast as bad dreams turning on you, able to fly for a few meters.
On the positive side, Taipei is unpretentious: it does not require you to wear a uniform of coolness at all times, to always make a statement with your clothes, hairstyle and pets. People proudly carry around sick and ugly dogs wearing pyjamas and rollers. Some old people bring their birds to the park and hang the cages to the trees, while chatting with neighbours. Once, my husband even saw an old lady carrying a tortoise by a leash. Taipei is cheap: a good salary buys you a comfortable lifestyle, complete with baths and massages at the hot springs, and delicious meals in expensive restaurants. Taipei is a landmass of cement surrounded by stunning tea plantations; it is extended, visually rich, and very safe. Taipei has the best working and cleanest underground service in the world, and a greatly efficient health system. Taipei is millions of people living on top of each other and no one seems to make a big deal out of it. Taipei has the ugliest architecture I have ever seen, neglected and random, but it’s not squalid. In Taipei, life is definitely not easy, but it can be, as it has been for me, intense without being alienating. Taipei has taught me that urban beauty does not naturally complement every-day life, and it has also taught me that I couldn’t live in a city where the brand of coffee I drink is made to be a defining element of my personality.
One summer I returned to Italy for my holidays, I went to Urbino to meet a professor who was potentially interested in starting an exchange programme between his university and National Taiwan University. His office was near the Ducal Palace, and he offered me lunch in a small restaurant where the waiters seemed to know him well. He was complaining about the political situation in Italy, about how difficult things are for everyone in the academic world while the waiters were busying themselves around our table suggesting rabbit stew or freshly baked lemon tart. I told the professor my true impressions, including the one that in Taiwan intellectual work was valued, and while I said this and other things on the island I had been living for the previous few years, I fully realized that it had changed my perspective on many things. Life is not easy for anyone, I believe this firmly, but an ounce of awareness, on the professor’s part, of his privileged condition, would have made the meeting easier to endure.
I was savouring flawlessly made lemon curd in Urbino, a town re-invented to perfection in the Renaissance, surrounded by the green hills of Raphael’s paintings, and suspended above sparse clouds. The air was fresh and crisp, and so was the custard. In Taipei, I used to get the impression that the dirt and smog of the streets incessantly travelled to the shops, especially when the weather was hot and humid, staining the pastries and meats hung in the windows for too long. After lunch, the professor and I took a short walk back to the Palace. The professor showed me the website of the language school he was managing. Some of the teachers’ profiles on the website presented pictures of people with a tan, some were sharing a surname, and some listed, among their hobbies and pastimes, ‘long walks on the beach.’ None of these facts proved the fact that they were not working, not working much, or not working well, this is not what I am trying to say. But that was one of those days in which my usual feeling of not belonging assumed the cumbersome shape and dimension of a 24-month pregnant belly: it was just heavy to carry around and too difficult to hide.
I know that in Italy the economic crisis has been brutal, that many of the people lucky enough to have a job commute every day from ugly suburbs to ugly offices. But the aspect I find difficult to deal with is the fact that a certain class of people has enjoyed, for a long time, the advantages of the Western world from a position of privilege. Without the minimum awareness of this state and status, many people in Italy think it is normal, the indispensable minimum to make life sufferable in fact, to live in a few centuries old house with a terrace big enough to eat ham and melon on summer evenings and drink chilled white wine locally produced. The quality of the food, of the air, of the architecture, of the wine, of the frescoes in private houses, of the white focaccia with rosemary, of the falling stars on summer evenings, of the breeze that carries within it the smell of the sea, in Italy, can be so high to be hurtful, moving, unfair, and enraging. My parents live like this, on two average pensions, in a tiny village in the province of Rieti. And there is more gracefulness and architectural refinement in the main and only square of the town than in the whole of Taipei.
Therefore, when I hear the remarks I usually hear only in Italy from privileged middle-class people (statements such as ‘this year I only went to the beach for a month,’ or ‘if I don’t go every week-end to Santa Marinella from June to September; for me it’s not really summer’ all the way down to, ‘are you sure this ham is thinly sliced?’ ‘Is this wine dry? Not sweet…dry!’’), my thoughts go back to Taipei, its bright and hard-working students, all of them wearing glasses, its hyper-cute children, its grey vivacity and its smelly night-markets, its foul pizza with sweet cheese on top, and sweet croissants dusted with a powder made of pork meat; and I realize what I already know so well: that belonging to one place, for me at least, is not easy.