03 Aug '16
Posted in Articles, Blog by Eric Shaw
After I turned 30, I drove across the Southwest with my outrageous buddy, Brian, in 1993.
B’s social skills were retrograde—just as mine were.
The little Mazda stationwagon that shepherded our crumbling friendship along, stuttered forward indestructibly while we quibbled over radio stations, eating arrangements or whatever else caught our fancy.
We had an emotional detente when we met our buddy, Kurt, in Gallup, New Mexico.
He glowed with good health and good feeling as he told us about his elementary-school teaching gig there.
And I fell in love with his small town life.
I had a job like Kurt’s back in Minneapolis, but couldn’t conceive of living outside of a big city.
Be that as it may, I steered my little station-wagon south the following year to interview at Gallup’s Juan de Onate Elementary School for a job.
Winning the position, I shot back to Minnesota to stuff my Mazda full of personal effects.
I arrived in Gallup the following week for four years of exciting exertions in education and desert exploration.
I found a room in a house on Mesa Ave.
I lived above the basement where local writer Ernie Bulow did his famous scribbling.
I loved imitating my friend, Kurt’s, life.
As I tell those who ask, Navajo Indian lands feel like their own world—their own small country.
My fourth year in Gallup, I offered a class at the University of New Mexico called “Christ, Krishna and Hero Twins.”
It looked at the Hindu, Christian and South Asian traditions.
Only a few folks registered, so they dropped the class, but—years later—I returned to another university–this one in California–to study Krishna and India intensely. I followed my time with the Indians of Gallup with a Masters Degree in the traditions of India—and I became a writer, imitating the life of Bulow.
Since then, I’ve gotten around the world with those skills, lecturing and writing on India’s traditions while teaching yoga.
Most recently, a tour of Asia and an an email interview led me to a teaching job in the tiny nation of Taiwan, just off China’s coast.
When I got here, my old buddy and the publisher of this magazine, Jason Arsenault, invited me to write this essay, comparing my Taiwan months to my years in the Navajo Nation.
Travel writing gives wanderers like me an opportunity to haul out our hoard of revelations and images, backfiled among our piled-up transits and destinations year after year.
I’ve been a traveler ever since I was a kid, and my four years in Gallup were another stop where I found new ways of life.
Taipei—the biggest city in Taiwan, a country off the coast of China—is my newest home.
I’ve been here just three months.
A huge yoga studio chain invited me to join their staff in this great town.
A free-lancer for 16 years, I had massive doubts about getting mixed up with a corporation—even a seemingly trustworthy one like this powerhouse, Pure Yoga.
But, truth to tell, I was tired of wandering.
I thought this might be an opportunity to settle—a chance to find a home, stability and peace.
And being here, I found Taipei to be quiet, so peaceful and terribly efficient.
It is a city without litter, homelessness, or constant fear in the streets.
It might be hard to think a metropolis like this exists outside some sci-fi flick.
It’s not paradise, and it’s not necessarily our future, but it is a very easy place to live and it does give me peace.
As in Gallup, there’s not a lot of white people here.
Taipei ‘s citizenry is mostly ethnic Chinese, and—like the Navajos—they transferred to this area only a short time before white people like me came on the scene.
The Navajos are of the same ethnicity of the Chinese, and ethnologists say they got to their current Southwest lands in 1400, just shortly before Europeans stumbled toward the Four Corners.
Some historians have suggested Navajos were part of a Chinese migration that fled the hordes of Genghis Khan, the great Mongolian conqueror.
Taipei is populated by Chinese who fled Mao Tse Tung and the Chinese civil war that finished its shooting days in 1949.
The “Great White Father”—America—has been their ally and protecting power since they first made landfall on this island. Taiwan was originally called Formosa—“Beautiful Island”–by the discovering Portuguese.
I fled from America to for the beauty of Australia a few the days before my birthday in 2015.
I’d been living in Berkeley five years, but I had became tired of the turbulence of cities and went to a 5000-person town in Australia to live.
After 6 months, I left to travel to Hong Kong, Bali, Texas and San Francisco, and then settled in Taipei.
When I got to Taiwan, despite being in the city, I experienced something of the calm, small-town life I knew in Gallup.
I’ve fallen in love with this city’s beauty, safety and calm—and the people here who mind their own business!
It is much like experiencing the Dine People in the Southwest.
The crispness of the desert air in Gallup is compelling, and the capacity to see sky 100 miles from the city’s edge never failed to provoke my awe.
It’s as hot as Gallup–but it’s got the humid lushness of an equatorial jungle.
Taipei is home to the world’s third tallest building, Taipei 101.
When I got to its 80th floor observation deck, the view was spectacular, but limited.
In Gallup you see far-off mountains from ground level. In Taipei, 1400 feet in the sky, you saw skyscrapers for miles, and hills in the middle distance, but—beyond that—great, grey humidity swallowed up the everything.
Vista-wise, it’s not like the desert at all.
I first hit Taipei on March 1st—my 55th birthday.
And what do you see on the streets of Taiwan?
You don’t see white people, but you see people who cultivate paleness of face.
The Balinese people—and most of the ex-pat Europeans, South Americans and North Americans I met while in Asia—were brown from the sun.
All my decades in desert landscapes, on beaches and in high mountains—have given this White Boy a permanent tan.
So, when I saw the Taiwanese under their umbrellas on dry, hot days shunning sunlight, it was strange to my eye.
It was strange to my ears to hear students complain about getting tans.
Most people are whiter than we Whites in Taipei
I didn’t get it.
I told one of my most devoted pupils, Jao-Ling, to dump her pasty white skin, sweat her pores out in a hot yoga class, and get outdoors for some color.
Like I pushed Jao-Ling, another Chinese woman pushed me.
After 4 years in Gallup, this gal (we’ll call here Lily) pushed me away from Gallup toward the overcast Northwest.
We’d connected in Portland, Oregon (my home town) and I returned there to be with her.
Her family had fled the Communist Chinese, but they didn’t go to Taiwan, they went to Los Angeles—where her Dad got a job for an aerospace company.
When I went to live with her in Portland, the open sky, desert and red rocks I was used to in Gallup were replaced by constant rain and thick, jungley pine forests.
Oregon’s Willamette Valley landscape was carpeted with forest green.
Portland’s also had that sense of safety that is rare for an American city.
It was an across-the-Pacific echo my life here in Taipei.
If I can steal a term from the Navajos, my “Way” through life has been the Beauty Way.
I was a painter till I was 40, and had two art shows at Milan Sklenar’s Crashing Thunder Gallery in downtown Gallup during my years in New Mexico: 1994-1998.
Like President Clinton in those days, I had my share of trouble with gorgeous women.
Beautiful people are compelling to humans the world over, but maybe—because of my “artistic tendencies” (as one of my Minnesota students identified it)—my eye is more susceptible than most.
The Chinese American girl who I met in Portland in ’98 was easy on the eyes.
Dudes would stop in traffic to approach her.
I had to compete with a former NBA superstar to get her to look at me.
Still, we hooked up—and I asked her to marry me four months after a short run of Gallup-Portland dates.
On one visit, we were two-stepping at the Gallup’s (now-closed) Cowboy Saloon.
The locals thought I was lying when told them I lived on Mesa Street.
Lily was California-born, and her skin was Chinese-American brown.
The bar folk said we were lying again when we denied she was Navajo.
Finally, I really did lie, saying, “OK! We’re from New York!”
Our little circle then shouted back at us: “Our friends from New York!” and started a bar-wide celebration.
Lily, turned out to be a nemesis, screaming and angry and unpredictable. We parted after three years.
On the other hand, Jao-Ling, my pasty-white girl from Taipei turned out to be my greatest advocate and friend. She taught me many things about respect and gentleness and kindness to everyone.
When I left Taipei last week to travel, she organized a yoga get-together with my students, where I gave a lecture on the life of the wandering yogis—alone in the mountains, desert, or jungle–doing their strange practices.
When I look back over my decades of wandering, those four years I in Gallup, New Mexico are among the sweetest memories in my backfiles.
With all of Asia’s breadth and strangeness, this part of the world has still given me no landscape I’ve loved as much, nor—hard as it may be to believe—a social experience so culturally new to my wandering, ever-writing eye.
The special of Gallup in my heart persists, even after adding 20 years of seeing other worlds that are new.