Just a little more than eight years ago, I sat on my bed in the narrow confines of the tiny single I lived in during my sophomore year at Sarah Lawrence and filled in my absentee ballot from California. I remember what I was wearing (red plaid flannel pajamas) and the dim golden light that the one lonely light bulb in the room cast onto my ballot, which was the color of cardstock.
A few weeks later, I woke up early one chilly morning and walked into the bathroom to wash my face. One of my housemates was fixing her hair. Looking at me in the mirror, she said, “Bush didn’t win. They’re still counting ballots.” “You’re kidding!” I said. “No I’m not,” she replied. I hurried back to my room to log onto the Internet.
Four years after that, I walked into the lobby of a building a few blocks away from my apartment on the corner of 104th St. and Manhattan Ave. in New York City. I was wearing a vintage coat made of itchy white wool and black leather gloves, which I remember because I noticed that the tips of the fingers were becoming worn and gray when I handed my ID to the woman sitting at a school desk near the door. I cast my vote at a small makeshift booth and then hurried to my beat reporting class at Columbia with an “I Voted” sticker stuck to my lapel. I kept it there until it finally peeled off, with bits of lint stuck to its frayed edges, three weeks later. It was a long day; I was out all morning and afternoon walking from poll to poll in the Northeast Bronx, interviewing voters, and in the evening my reporting partner and I had to finish an article on deadline.
About two weeks ago, Ron and I filled out our absentee ballots while sitting in our living room. They came with an instruction sheet that told us to completely fill out the circle next to our candidate with a blue or black pen or pencil. The sample choices were Thomas Edison and Amelia Earhart, with Thomas Edison’s bubble filled in. I asked Ron what they had against Amelia Earhart. Later that afternoon, I walked over to the post office, sealed both ballots in an EMS envelope and paid NT$300 to make sure they would get to New York City in time. The lady helping me asked if I was voting in the U.S. election and when I said yes, she and the man sitting next to her started murmuring about how amazing it was that I could cast a vote from overseas. I remembered that Taiwan doesn’t have absentee ballots.
Today a feeling of loneliness enveloped me. I had thought keeping up-to-date on the presidential election and sending in my absentee ballot on time would allow me to feel connected with my countrymen in the States. But instead it only made me feel more homesick than I have been in the entire time that I have been here. I wanted to be somewhere American, hopefully among other Americans. So I walked to the Burger King on Shida Rd (yes, I know I am totally going to hell for writing that). But I only saw Shida students there, eating fries and working on their homework.
I think living abroad makes me realize exactly what I had been taking for granted in the States. Back home, I feel a sense of belonging that I do not feel in Taiwan, even though I look the same as most everyone else (well, not literally, but you get what I mean). That is a surprise for me because growing up I often felt like a square peg for many different reasons, and I now realize that a lot of them were connected to being Asian-American and how I choose to deal with being a minority. I have always protected the little streak of contrariness that I have in me, because I have no illusions about how susceptible I am to the influences of others.
In college I had a professor who told us that he didn’t vote. As I remember, he said this was because he knew that his one ballot would not make an iota of a difference in election results, and he did not need the sense of belonging and power that voting gives other people. He got a whole lot of crap for this from other faculty members, but I understood his reasoning. I wondered if I could be like him and let presidential elections pass by without voting. Would it be my own declaration of independence?
I don’t think it would. I was raised by parents who have voted in every presidential election since they became U.S. citizens, so it is something that has been ingrained in me for the last twenty years. And I think living here and seeing how passionately involved many people are in politics in Taiwan, a still-young democracy, makes me even more grateful that I can part of something like that, even if it is something that would not miss me if I were absent.
I miss being home, especially at times like this. I miss the sense of community that many of my friends in NYC and California reported feeling today. I wonder if all the things I can now only experience from afar will accumulate and leave me feeling somewhat alienated from my peers when we move back to the States. I worry about it, and then I wonder if it’s even worth worrying about until I get to that step.