Autobiography – Liya Wu (July 21 2009)
I was born in Taipei County, near the coast.
I grew up in Kaohsiung City, near the harbor.
I was the third of four children: two boys & two girls.
Being near water in my childhood has nurtured my attachment and longing for the ocean. We kids would run off to the beach and splash around on all summer holidays. The first time I taught myself how to float in water was such a big deal that being able to swim didn’t seem that important all of a sudden. Living by the beach with a few Labradors is now my shortcut to happiness.
Besides spending time on the beach, one other favourite childhood memory of mine involved us all kids being herded into the family study room to do homework or write accounts of daily happenings into our journals.
My parents would then reward us with some surprise treats like watermelons or candy floss. Once my eldest brother got the idea that writing a poem would seem so much easier than writing lengthy entries of daily events, as poems in our naïve understanding required fewer words by default, hence less effort. So we started writing silly make-shift half-cooked poems as kids and our dad didn’t object it as a form of daily journals. Our flair for imaginative and creative verbal wandering started then. Maybe that explained why my siblings and I to this day are still constantly amused, attacked or ambushed by each other’s witticism and sarcasm, all a bit random and unintentional. What I really cherished was that camaraderie spirits between us four kids. What happened was that two parents summoning their kids to come indoors and do some mindless writing as a way of keeping them off the streets, and what the children felt was this warmth and protectiveness, with a discipline and reward system built in, plus a few jovial sibling bickering and shouting in between.
In the early years of my elementary school, I demonstrated no special talents in academic studies. I remembered one particular teacher’s stern stare and endless complaint that I was paying her no attention. I had no idea what she was on about. I felt wrongly accused. And before I knew it, all the classes went by like a haze. In retrospect, it felt almost like there was a glass wall between me and the world; nothing came in and nothing went out – that was my adult interpretation of the childhood event. But at the time, I genuinely felt I was paying the teacher all the due respect and attention. “Why were the teachers picking on me?” I remember asking my mum once.
Then in the fourth elementary school year, out of the blue, and much to my own bewilderment, my grades shot to the top of the class and stayed there till I graduated. I have no explanation why or how that sudden breakthrough occurred. It felt like I was being possessed by someone with a lucid mind who simply could sit exams. I went from being at the bottom of the class much ignored or hated by teachers to suddenly getting the highest marks in all exams -- practically overnight. This quantum leap in my primary school years would continue onto my high school. Studying and re-organizing facts from the textbooks seemed as easy as playing games with complex rules. You just need to develop your own systems of absorbing the rules as your second reflex.
I looked at all the high-flying adults around me. Suddenly it dawned on me: it is through education that I will get to do what I want in life. Although I had no faintest idea what I wanted for when I grew up. But at least education would provide me with opportunities and allow me to choose. I remember thinking to myself: ‘Being able to choose was already cool. So I will just keep studying till I know what I want.’ It was with quite some stubborn single-mindedness that I held on to that idea, and that idea somehow brought me to where I am today. Education opens doors and has given me many options on what life path to take. I was simply dreading the idea of being backed to the wall and be told: you have no choice.
No. There is always more than one choice.
I have an aunt that lived with her family in South America. On her rare visits to Taiwan, she would tell us anecdotes of how her maid tried to steal from her and other fun wicked stories involving one local or another. I was so filled with this overwhelming sense of wonder and sense of adventure that I secretly hoped for foreign adventures one day. ‘Travel. Go West, Young Woman,’ was itched into my mind ever since.
From the age of 16 onwards, I retreated to my own world a little bit. Or maybe more than a little bit. I felt the world somehow existed outside my little confinement of school, family and the daily commute of buses. I desperately wanted to get in touch with the outside world, and by what, I was not sure. I wanted to know what people think and how they live their lives in other parts of the world, especially people of my age. Then I thought perhaps through the medium of the international language: English. I found pen friends from all over the world. That was before the advent of emails and Internet. I would look for interesting things in my life to report to my pen friends; I saw myself as their foreign correspondent from Taiwan. Subsequently my observation was sharpened and so was my ability to make a swimming pool out of a few rain drops. I would write pages and pages of letters and my pen friends would reciprocate. Getting foreign-stamped letters was the biggest highlight of the week. I had this insatiable curiosity for other cultures and for the daily routines and thoughts of the 16-year-olds that live in them. Gradually my obsession began to zoom in to how other adults have lived their lives when they were 16. I wanted to hear about their dreams and fears and regrets when they were 16. The school teachers that I trusted as good people all received some mild grilling from me, started with the first question: what were you like when you were 16?
This odd obsession then spurred me on to study harder and have good qualifications so that I can have means of my own to visit these countries myself one day. Such was how one’s wishes and objectives in life got spawned off. It was all borne out of a little teenage curiosity and stemmed from my aunt’s travel stories.
Then came a period of time between age 18 and 20, when I questioned life for its bare essence. I went to a much revered national university in Taipei, studying English and American Language and Literature. The world of literature! Books provide a portal to a bigger world than my little existence. I noticed that all writers at the turn of a century were consumed by this enormous sense of doom and gloom, all because an era, a century was coming to an end.
I had a gnawing question throughout the four years at the University: how could the likes of William Wordsworth afford to roam about in the Lake District admiring daffodils and writing poetry without having to worry where his next meal was coming from?
On the eve of graduation, one professor asked us: what is the single one lesson you got out of the four years’ reading of literature? The class burst into a fit of silly giggles, especially those who had been skipping classes. My answer was – someone as legendary and all-mighty as Alexander the Great could still suffer from life’s mishaps and hiccups and die of a sudden fever on the eve of his further advance to the East, who am I to lament over the ups and downs that is the constitution of life? Even Alexander the Great had his down times, too.
After that I went to study MA in American and English Literature and Film in Newcastle University. That one year helped me reach one conclusion – literature is for appreciation not for analysis; film is for… Then I realized I still knew very little about the world of cinema to comment on it.
What followed was 5.5 years of working in Taiwan as an event coordinator-cum-translator in British Trade and Cultural Office in Taipei which allowed me a glimpse of the life of certain English diplomat wannabes, and as an industry reporter for Global Sources that honed my interview and journalist writing skills, and got me to acquire a copious amount of knowledge on Taiwan’s Telecom, Electronics and Security industries, very useful as a conversation stopper.
While I worked during the week, I also started three new obsessions in my spare time: running in the outdoor terrains, learning how to make documentaries, and acting with an English-speaking theatre group. The contrast of the before-show nerves and exhilaration that builds up during the rehearsals gave me such fun and thrill that was completely unprecedented. And ‘fun’ is not a concept that sits well with the mainstream or traditional collective psyche in this little island called Taiwan. When you are having fun, people think you are not taking things seriously. When you are suffering for your work or for your study, people think you must be on the right track to success and all that suffering will translate to your targets one day. Pain equates result deliveries; fun equates non-committal half-mindedness. Really, we are a nation that drive ourselves up the wall and squeeze ourselves dry often with a big slap across the face.
A few theatre performances and two documentaries later, theatre and film became more than a source of fun and an outlet for my creative expression. I want it to be the reason why I get out of bed every morning. I was hatching plans of receiving further training in London. After some financial planning and research, I first spent one year in Exeter doing what community theatre I could be involved in, followed by two years’ performer training in LISPA, a Lecoq-based drama school in London.
The LISPA years were both challenging and transformative. For starters the teacher spoke in such a coded language, almost in a Zen monk fashion, I felt right at home yet without being able to pinpoint exactly what I have learned after the first term. For two years in LISPA, I felt I was living in a veiled world where knowledge was swishing around me but was also out of my grasp. Finally something shifted. For my graduation project, I wrote and directed my first play ever. I was, and so was everyone else, so surprised that I could achieve such a feat of writing and directing a play of 25 minutes all in 2 weeks.
I concluded to my teacher: I am such a late bloomer. Two years in LISPA felt like a submersion under the water; everything was relayed to me through my oxygen-filled mask, a bit muffled, a bit light-deflectingly blurry. Then something happened; suddenly I was able to surge to the surface, stick out my head and make a splash, with all the teaching ingrained in me without my conscious awareness of it. This reminded me of my elementary school years and that sudden shot to the top marks. What a déjà vu.
The school director had such a presence that every time I returned to school after a term break, I always immediately felt I have come ‘home’. During the two years, a sense of theatre aesthetics was instilled in us, as well as a philosophy of life. What we are learning regarding theatre creation was in parallel to being a member of our community. It sounds trite or corny, but these gems of wisdom have to be learned first-hand not by third-party transference such as this alumni account. Whenever I am in a transitional stage in my life (like now), I would remember not to panic, but to embrace uncertainties. Uncertainty is a friend not a foe, for life is about ‘staying within the flux of movement and achieving the ever-shifting balance. And that will require staying grounded and accepting uncertainties’; these are the parting advice from Thomas, my school director.
Come this September I will have been in England for six years. I have done some stage performing, play writing and directing, filming, plus a decent string of part time jobs such as waitressing, bar tending, drama teaching, Chinese teaching & translating, massaging, and even a short stint as a butcher’s assistant, which inspired a few lines for my first play, Mr Whippendale. I have achieved more than I set out to do when I first left Taiwan. Now it’s time to go. And this time, it won’t be sentimental.
Looking back, I have a great deal to thank my parents (a retired policeman and a seamstress) for: they never deliberately tried to shape us into the people they wanted us to be. We were given free range to do whatever we want in life. Perhaps I should continue with that spirits of freedom and see where my imagination will take me in all my endeavors, yet operating within a system of self-imposed challenges and rewards. Be the inquisitive person that I was when I was 16, live life with as much zest and enthusiasm as my Labrador takes to the sea and chases after the waves, and be as giving and generous as my parents have shown us in their relationships with people around them.
Oh, yes, I will have a good earnest life. I will continue to operate on the 'experiment/challenge and reward system', live by humour and courage, and strive to radiate warmth and peace within myself and for people that I will come into contact with.
Sacredness and peace within.