How I learned to breathe fire and some other dumb stories

Megan Sousa/Staff

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While sailing through the Pacific Ocean in 1542, Portuguese sailors found an uncharted island so impressive, they named it Ilha Formosa, Beautiful Island. Sitting to the north of the Philippines and the southeast of China is the highly urbanized island of Taiwan. Officially known as the Republic of China and with a current population of more than 23.7 million inhabitants, Taiwan has one of the biggest economies outside of the United Nations.

Taiwanese indigenous people arrived about 6,000 years ago, probably from mainland China. Starting in the 1600s, multiple foreign nations have held control of Taiwan including the Netherlands, Japan and China. Today, Taiwan is a natural paradise with monsoon summers, incredible local cuisine and some of the kindest people in the world. It also happens to be a place that helped shape me into the person I am now.

On my bedroom wall back home there is a pamphlet titled “College Preparation Checklist” that I affixed there in the fourth grade. Plans. From elementary to high school, I adored plans. My childhood calendar was filled with scheduled activities, from reading to plotting inventions in my sketchbook. 

In high school, equipped with a variety of highlighters, to-do lists, and an overstuffed planner, nothing was left unscheduled. But as I grew up, I began to realize that my regimental way of living might be holding me back, so I decided to try on spontaneity.

My journey into spontaneous living began in the misty and tropical mountains of Northern Taiwan when I was 17. Having arrived on the tail end of a typhoon, with about two months of Mandarin Chinese to my name, I found myself in the frigidly air-conditioned car of a Taiwanese family. For the first time, I had absolutely no plan.

I was 6,000 miles away from familiarity and everything was green, soaking wet, terrifying and yet fascinating. I understood 5% of what was going on at any given time as my Chinese skills struggled to keep up. I learned to be my own best friend in rough times, and how to rely on others even when pride told me to forge on alone.

I learned to be my own best friend in rough times, and how to rely on others even when pride told me to forge on alone.

I towered over the crowds at an imposing 5 feet, 6 inches and met people I treasure above all because, together, we survived a year of marvelous surrendering, of aging 20 years in just one, of being so awestruck and humbled that we never quite caught our breath. As the best year of my life and the worst, this was such a profound experience; I sometimes find myself wondering whether it happened at all.

My first month was a muggy blur, filled with the screech of cicadas and the overwhelming exhaustion of having the language skills of a toddler. Each morning I would get up at 5 a.m. to catch a bus to Yang Ming High School where I sat, wide-eyed and totally lost, listening to my Taiwanese science teachers describe incredible things in Mandarin.

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One day in my attempt to get home I hopped on the bus and ended up in a completely unfamiliar area of the city. With panic beginning to set in, I got off at the next stop  and frantically called my Taiwanese host mom.

“What’s around you?” she asked me, and I told her I was outside a 7-Eleven, not an uncommon occurrence in the convenient urban setting of Taoyuan.

“Okay, go inside and give the cashier the phone.” I paused at this, I knew we were on a small island, but there was no way she’d know the cashier, was there? In I went, however, having surrendered myself to the wild experience of daily life abroad at least a week before. I handed the woman in the 7-Eleven my phone and waited patiently as they chatted.

Soon the phone was up back against my ear and I was instructed to wait for the cashier to get off from work; she’d be taking me home that night. At 8 p.m. the woman handed me a child’s helmet, put me on the back of her scooter, and raced me all the way home through neighborhoods that would eventually be deeply familiar. 

As it turned out, she did not know my host mother whatsoever. Similar moments of inexplicable kindness — and unexpected adventure — showed up again and again during my time in Taiwan.

Four months later I took a train with a group of exchange students to a Brazilian street festival where dancers in traditional Carnival costumes danced on metal scaffolding, feathers flapping as the music filled the crowded city streets. Led by our Brazilian friends, our little team of students danced together and gorged ourselves on delicious cheese bread and coxinha.

I was approached by a feathered man carrying a clear plastic water bottle and a torch — our conversation used a creative mixture of English, Mandarin, Portuguese and vague hand motions that eventually led to him offering to teach me how to breathe fire. As it happened, the plastic water bottle was in fact filled with some mixture of fuel, a flavor that would haunt the back of my throat for the next several days. I was surprisingly successful, and many future parties we’d throw would sport a similar bottle of fuel as we honed a skill my mother wouldn’t hear about until much, much later.

Our conversation used a creative mixture of English, Mandarin, Portuguese and vague hand motions that eventually led to him offering to teach me how to breathe fire.

Another ill-advised adventure left me shoulders-deep in a river, entirely lost, as the sun set and it began to rain. What had begun as a hike to a secret waterfall was ending as a first-class introduction to Taiwanese wildlife: my own puffed ego versus the reality of my inexperience and a comical measure of unforeseen natural adversity. The waterfall, of which legend had begun to circulate among the exchange students, and whose existence was questionable at best, was supposedly across this river.

A river would not have been that big of a challenge, or a time commitment, if it hadn’t also been accompanied by a glaring red sign: 水域危險!禁止進入!— Dangerous water area! Do not enter! Looking back, I’m simply glad I lived to have the chance to be disappointed by my failure to reach the secret falls, but as I emerged, unsuccessful, I was a lot more preoccupied by the dozen leeches that had suctioned on to my body during my floundering.

After 20 or so minutes of unflattering panic, reminiscent of the scene in “Stand by Me,” I was left feeling an odd mix of humbled and rather triumphant. I was offered ample opportunity to grow accustomed to bugs. Even arriving as I did, with a decent level of insect-comfort, Taiwan had more than enough material to test my pride and my bravery.

The very last family that I lived with, the third of three, was a family of bakers. They owned a shop front in town and lived with the grandmother in her home in the rice fields on the outskirts. The house was a much more traditional experience than the other apartment homes I had lived in. Doors and windows were left open in an inviting way, thick plastic covered the furniture and the bathrooms were big tiled spaces where the shower took up one side of the room without curtains or partitions.

One evening while showering I saw something out of the corner of my eye. With the arrogance that came with 10 months of full cultural immersion (not to mention those leeches), I had assumed I’d seen all the wildest bugs, eaten a few, and was more or less used to the worst that Taiwan could provide. Besides, in the wet fields where our house sat it wasn’t uncommon to see a lovely little gecko, and so with Icarus-like hubris I turned to meet my new friend.

When I say, “big spider”, I’m concerned that the true presence this small dog-sized arachnid had will be lost. It sat on a 6-by-6 inch tile and its legs reached the grout on all four sides. After I had run, naked, terrified and possibly screaming through the house, my Taiwanese mother and I stood at the entrance of the bathroom while she chuckled. She smacked the spider with a Scottex sponge, which it didn’t even fit under, and tossed it back outside the perpetually open door.

“That was a very normal spider,” she told me, and I decided that I could use another 10 months before I was anywhere near as cool as she was.

Now, even years later, I’m still working toward her level of calm in the face of the big scary things in life. Taiwan, a place I still consider home, taught me the most important skills that I have: kindness, cooperation and bravery.

The deep connections I forged during my exchange opened many doors and allowed me to live in two more countries in the following two years. There are a lot of different reasons to live abroad, but I think I kept working so hard to continue my travels because even in all that discomfort of the unknown, I grew to appreciate that you often learn the most when you feel like a giant idiot all the time. This happens to be a lesson that continues to serve me well as a UC Berkeley student and has so far been shockingly successful.

Contact Megan Sousa at [email protected].