You’re turning it up, and I’m breaking it down. The sounds. The sights. The smells. And even after all the laughter, the celebrations, the petals that gather in the wind, the sun angling down in slants, striking the chords of the water, the breeze on the waves, the way all your eyes sparkle, the little hands and tiny curling fingers, I am only here–a world away from home, a place that has existed in the depths of dreams and the recesses of imagination, and I can’t ever see myself going back to where everyone I know exists, not to the same home, not as the same me.
I remember. From the large bed in an empty room, in the stifling heat of Penang, on the tenth day (or maybe it was the eleventh), I laid there, sick from the heat or maybe it was some street food that had been in the sun too long, realizing that I have comforted myself (and my stomach) with the familiar–I have been only to cities–and that the point of this trip isn’t to be somewhere familiar, but to go some place different, some place other. It’s not that I wanted an escape from reality or that I was even running, but I wanted to enter a different world. Whatever world San Francisco was when I boarded that plane to Vancouver, I needed it to not be the same when I boarded the plane homeward in Taiwan.
Each year I age. I see the skin on the back of my hand becoming more textured, the wiry grays punching through my black hair, how my cheeks appear more angular and sharper through my sagging skin. I know. This is part of the process and there is beauty in becoming better. While everyone around me seems to be having children, moving on in their careers, getting married, I feel–what? Not stale. Not stagnant. Like I have yet to begin. Like my whole life has yet to unfold. I am only starting. This is only the beginning.
In a smoky tattoo studio, talking to Robinson and Ernesto, about the Iban, about the local people, about Borneo, about skipping out on days of work to go fishing in the wilds of the jungle, not caring about money or fame, my heart raced and my skin burned from the ink, feeling kindred. A dragon dog. Transformation. Bejalai. At 15, the Iban mark their shoulders with the terung kuning, twin aubergine flowers tattooed on the shoulders. To gain them strength and power (the straps of their backpacks go over these flowers) as they leave their longhouse and go out into the known world, into the depth of the jungle, away from the comfortable and familiar. They seek their fortune, their future, their growth. Each place they visit, each new skill they acquire, they further mark their bodies in commemoration, as tokens. Tattoos on skin like stamps in a passport. I had always said, if I ever end up in Borneo, this is where I will get tattooed. So begins the transformation: the journey is the destination; this is mine.
Oh the sounds, that first night in the jungle, listening to the toads creak, the bats streaming by the millions out of the mouth of the cave, the birdsongs in the morning–I jumped the first time I heard the call of a baby hornbill because it sounded like a dying person’s laughter–and the plunk plunk of my feet on the wet wooden plank walk. All of my life I had believed that I would end up a certain way, that I would have a certain kind of life, but as I got older and I started to live more, I fought my way through it all. The truth is, I’m not ready for that kind of life. I’m not ready to have that career, the perfect marriage, or beautiful children. I envy my gorgeous sister for her lovely boys. I covet the feeling of satisfaction from that job my friend has in which she has risen to a position of prominence. I feel that I am still languishing somewhere in the shadow, waiting leagues and miles behind everyone else, trying to get my bearings, trying to fathom who I am in this world, trying to just understand. What is this place? Who am I in this world?
The electric wings beat back sunlight. Raja Brooke butterflies are huge and can live for a year. There aren’t just butterflies or giant moths, but also wood nymphs, in paler colors, but still in vibrant blues, cornflower, lilac, mint green, daffodil yellow. In my heart I can still see this place as real as it was in front of me when I wandered on my own, alone, just me and the rhythm of my blood flowing through my veins. The sounds, the sights. I thought about my life. Cities I have known and islands I have seen and through backstreets I have wandered and I have even been graced by the dancing northern lights in the frozen field of Alaska, but I had yet to see a fuzzy caterpillar wearing orange yellow boots walk in front of me. Lion hunts I have witnessed and I have felt the vibration of the humpback whale’s call, but I had never heard the sound of the jungle– not the separate things but as an entity. As a whole. A symphony.
This is my journey. This is my bejalai. This is the true start of where I will cast off what has been safe for me, and go after the kind of life I want. Without shame and without fear. Because this is my life and it’s okay that it’s not the perfect one I had envisioned, that I have yet to write that novel, that I have yet anything to show what I have done. If it scares me, if it frightens me, I will push myself to do it. Chin up, back straight, eyes ahead. Like crossing the street in Phnom Penh or Hanoi. Walk right in.
A while ago I had a dream where my reflection said to me, “You have to go darker, you have to go deeper.” I started with the jungle. No, that’s not true. I started by buying that plane ticket. It was just that Borneo was so unlike anything I had ever seen, but still everything I had imagined and more. And though I have been back a few weeks now, I don’t feel that the journey has ended. When I wrote about my visit to the refugee camp, I feared that things wouldn’t change, that I wouldn’t change. There had been nothing to fear. Everything has changed; I am different–I am made of fire.