The Trouble with Paradise
Back when I was growing up in Seattle, my dad had a poster of a tropical beach on his office wall. This poster was about as generic as you can imagine, with a white sand beach sitting beneath lazy palm trees. Just beyond that beach was a blue, blue ocean, and somewhere off to the side there were huts constructed out of palm leaves.
I'm sure you've seen dozens of such pictures in your lifetime. You might even have one on your computer desktop. Or you might have one on the wall in the form of a calendar. There are such pictures of paradise wherever we go.
Over the years I've drawn a lot of strength from such pictures. This was particularly true growing up in Seattle, where I found the long, dark winters especially difficult. When I was struggling through the short winter days I found a lot of hope in pictures of paradise, and from the idea that somewhere, far away, the sun was out and it was very warm. Somewhere, in a place that wasn't Seattle, it was a good day for swimming.
It wasn't until after I visited Taiwan that I actually stepped inside one of those pictures. This was off the coast of Malaysia, on an island I'd rather not name. Looking down into the ocean there was like looking down into a well-stocked aquarium, and next to the beach were the lazy palm trees, the sunshine, and the white sand beaches. That island even had huts like the ones in my dad's poster, and we stayed in one of these huts while we were there.
But what they don't tell you about those huts is that when night falls all kinds of insects come calling. I have a particularly strong memory of a GIANT praying mantis found in our hut's bathroom, staring back at me from the toilet. Another, similar thing happened on another island in Thailand. Paradise looks amazing in a poster, but in the poster you can't see all the bugs that live there.
Yet aside from encounters with insects we had a great time on both islands. We walked the beaches, we got sunburns, and we ate a lot of good food. Both of those trips were moments when I realized how amazing life is, and how silly most of the things I worry about really are. Paradise will always do that for you, if you let it.
I see the same effect on the faces of tourists who come to Taitung. They emerge from cars and trains wearing those straw hats which for many people signify "vacation," and along with the straw hats they wear the flip-flops, tie-dyed dresses, and of course that expression that says: "I'm here. I've arrived in paradise." Soon after they're on their way up the coast, doing their damnedest to visit every tourist site between here and Hualien County.
Many of them, I'm sure, think it must be wonderful to live here. But I wonder, have they thought about the times when paradise isn't paradise? Have they thought about the times when living in that picture isn't all it's cracked up to be?
Because Taitung, for all its natural beauty, isn't perfect. We have problems with garbage. We have traffic jams on holiday weekends. Our local government is at times corrupt, and at other times inefficient. Those of us who farm sometimes contend with those of us who care about the environment. Those of us after tourist dollars often contend with those of us who want to keep Taitung the way it is. You'll find the same issues in any other version of paradise, and if you don't you probably just haven't stayed there long enough. No place is perfect, no place is without its problems, and paradise is no exception.
I'm also reminded of the reason I left that island off the coast of Malaysia, many years ago. The reason? I was bored. After several days of swimming and staring into the ocean I started to miss the markets and noise of Kuala Lumpur. I started to miss the crowds and convenience. Often when visiting paradise you'll find that you've brought the city there with you, and the hold any city exercises upon its residents is hard to break.
Any place - even paradise - will never satisfy you in and of itself. You bring to that place your own insecurities, your own worries, and your own predilections. If you're worried about your mother today, going to paradise tomorrow won't help. If you obsess over hockey, a tropical island - however beautiful - probably isn't the place you want to be. Paradise isn't one-size-fits-all, and for the wrong person paradise can even become a kind of hell. I've seen it happen where I live many times.
All of which implies that paradise isn't the same for every person, and that sometimes the picture of the tropical island can be deceptive. For a place to truly be paradise it has to have at least some of the things you already enjoy. For some people New York City is paradise. For other people the Gobi Desert is paradise. For still other people sitting in a dark room playing Minecraft is paradise. And who am I to tell them otherwise? If that's what makes them happy it's fine with me.
In the end its up to each of us to find our own paradise, and in seeking out that paradise we have to understand that at least some modification is in order. Either we change ourselves to suit paradise, or we try to change paradise to suit ourselves. I think most would agree that the former is much easier than the latter, but I suppose that if any place had just one or two small things that bothered you, it would be worthwhile to try to change them. You'd just have to ask yourself how close to paradise that place really is, and whether or not you're being realistic in your expectations. It's an argument between pragmatism and idealism wherever you find yourself, and one should always ask oneself if they can be happy where they are, or if they'd be happier somewhere else.
Paradise. Do I live in paradise? I suppose that on certain days, when I'm sitting on the beach in my folding chair and drinking a beer on a sunny day, yes I do. On other days my answer will be different. On those other days I sometimes think that the city where I first glimpsed paradise, the city where I stared at that poster in my dad's office, was also paradise, if for a completely different set of reasons.
Maybe the whole world is - or could be - paradise. Maybe we just need to open ourselves up to it a little more. Or maybe we just need to start working to make it better.
The Big Inside the Small (and Vice Versa) 小事中的大事 2
Guide to Taiwan for the Phobic 給恐懼症人的旅行指南
Ramen and Asahi, Sushi and Tempura 拉麵跟Asahi, 壽司跟天婦羅
Assorted Thoughts at the End of the Semester 2