Diary of a Reverse Immigrant In Taiwan, Running Led Me to My Community—and to Myself
A place doesn’t begin to feel like a home until it contains people you care for.
This is Diary of a Reverse Immigrant , a column by Karissa Chen about moving back to Taiwan.
Two weeks after breaking up with my partner of five years, I laced up my neglected Nikes and headed to Chiang Kai-shek Memorial.
It was mid-April 2017, and the temperature in Taipei hadn’t spiked yet. April feels like one of the most enjoyable months in Taipei for this reason—low humidity, breezy temperatures, more sun than rain. The memorial was designed like a Chinese courtyard, reminiscent of the back courtyards I’d seen in the Forbidden City, with rock sculptures and a storybook bridge arching over a man-made pond. There were cherry and peach blossoms, exercise and playground areas. I ran under the eaves of the long corridors that outlined the perimeter, passing a man practicing his saxophone, a choral group of retirees, teenagers rehearsing dance moves, aunties doing calisthenics. I made a turn and came across several Southeast Asian women pulling out evening gowns from a bag exploding with tulle and sequins, while others applied makeup. Nearby, a man fiddled with his camera—a fashion shoot.
My lungs burned. My calves ached. I struggled to breathe. I was not a runner. Still I went on.
I suffered through the wooded area, passing two birdwatchers pointing their binoculars at something I couldn’t see, through to the wide expanse of Liberty Square, where tourists posed for photos to post on their social media channels. I forced my legs to keep moving forward, back to the other side of the square, up past posters for future performances at the National Concert Hall and Theater, all the way back around to where I’d started. Then I began my second loop.
I was not an athletic person, nor one who particularly enjoyed punishing herself through physical exploits. As a kid, I’d suffered from asthma and had never completed the PE mile-run fitness test in fewer than eleven and a half minutes. I hated the gym. Now, I was content to sit on my ass most days of the week. Running, as far as I was concerned, was torture.
But I missed my ex. I wasn’t sure I had done the right thing by breaking it off, though I suspected I had. He wanted to marry me; I wasn’t sure. I wanted children; he wasn’t sure. The whole time I’d been in Taiwan, he had stayed back in the States, waiting for me to go home to him. For some reason, even though I had promised him I would, I had yet to book a flight for my return. Our fights left me feeling like the earth was trying to swallow me whole. And yet. He was my best friend, my creative confidant, my travel buddy, my book club, my dance partner, my playmate, my future, my family. I had willingly left all of that behind, and it felt like someone had died. It felt like he had died, and I’d been the one to kill him.
My lungs burned. My calves ached. I struggled to breathe. I was not a runner. Still I went on.
I’d been in Taiwan for almost a year and a half by that point. I had finished my Fulbright fellowship months earlier, had said goodbye to many of my friends—other Fulbright research fellows—and, after a visit to the States to see my friends and family, had begun teaching writing and composition at a local university. My ex had expected me to return home in the summer, and that seemed to make sense—my semester would be over; most of my remaining friends would also be leaving the country. But I hadn’t felt ready to leave Taiwan yet; my understanding of this place seemed to have only just begun. I had yet to feel truly enmeshed in life here, and I still felt like an outsider. But now, I wasn’t sure what I had wanted to stay on for. Without him in my life, I felt unmoored. Despite being an ocean away, he had been the home base I could always return to.
Now I was alone.
That day, I ran and ran and ran, because if I didn’t, I would only lie in bed with my lights off, my uncertainties and grief cycling endlessly. I wanted to feel the sadness melt away, or at least be masked by the burn, the sweat, the pain. I don’t know if I was punishing myself or trying to flee from myself. I don’t even know why I turned to running—it was an instinct, not a conscious choice. All I know is that it was the only thing that helped.
I ran every day for two weeks. I learned to match my breathing with the rhythm of my shoes pounding the pavement, learned how not to spend myself too quickly. I would never be a fast runner, but I noted some pace improvements with halfhearted satisfaction. While I ran, I tried to appreciate who and what I passed—the changing dancers, birdwatchers, cherry-blossom enthusiasts, musicians. I was a stranger to them, and they to me, but it helped, a bit, to be out in the world among them, to not give myself over to depression.
A few weeks later, I sat in a piano bar around the corner from my apartment with a fairly new friend. I’d come to this same bar the evening I’d broken up with my ex. It was an old-school joint with swinging saloon doors and Christmas decor, a lesbian bartender, and a man in track pants who played backup on an electric keyboard while middle-aged patrons crooned ballads on a small stage. It was my first evening as a single woman in five years, and I spent it nursing a gin and tonic and a slice of honey cake from Jessie the bartender, leaving my seat only to get onstage and share a grief-streaked rendition of Adele’s “Someone Like You” (cliché, I know). I was the only person under fifty in the place.
But on this night, over a month later, our numbers had doubled. Fredy was around my age, a Mexican American whose Chinese was much better than mine. He had arrived in Taiwan on Fulbright the year after me, a scholar researching histories of diasporic Chinese communities. We had met late in his time here—while many Fulbright fellows opted to hang out with each other, Fredy, we had heard, had his own group of friends unrelated to Fulbright. As we watched a bald man in a tux belt out “My Way” on stage, Fredy explained that most of these friends were local Taiwanese he’d met through a running club. He hadn’t wanted to come all this way and only spend time with other Americans.
I nodded. I had tried to find Taiwanese friends too and had even picked up a few here and there, but they were friendships that flared and then dimmed over time. I had never seemed to be able to truly embed myself into their lives.
“I’ve recently begun running too,” I told him. “But only in the last couple of weeks.”
“Oh, you should join us,” Fredy said.
“I’m so slow. I’m not that serious of a runner.”
“It’s an easygoing group,” he assured me. “Come; it’ll be fun.”
On a Thursday evening a week later, I arrived at Yuanshan Park and headed toward the perimeter of Maji Square. I passed young men practicing breakdancing and Chinese yo-yo and a large group of people practicing something that I thought was wushu. Beyond that, a group of people were doing warm-up exercises. Fredy caught sight of me and waved me over with a smile. He introduced me to his friends, some of whom I’d met a few days earlier at his birthday party. One of the girls, Jessie, unexpectedly gave me a big hug.
Nerves and self-doubt coursed through me for more than one reason. I had never run with a group before, never had to worry about being embarrassed by my pace or slowing others down. But also, I had never hung out with this many Taiwanese locals before, people who didn’t speak any English. The difference between us seemed impossibly vast.
After warm-ups, Fredy led me through the route the group usually took, which primarily followed a riverside path for cyclists and pedestrians. It was a mild night, but I struggled to keep up with Fredy, who had slowed down his pace considerably for me. I tried valiantly to maintain conversation as we ran. Fredy was seemingly unaffected, but I was barely able to think about the words I huffed through my lips. Other members of the group ran ahead of us, some of them so speedy that they had already finished the first half of their 10K and were now looping back, jogging past us with a wave and a “Jiayou!” (which in this context means something like “Keep it up!”). After what felt like hundreds of years, we made it to a bridge rimmed with rainbow-colored lights and turned back. When we returned to Yuanshan, we had clocked seven and a half kilometers, the furthest I had ever run in my life.
After a member-led cooldown, we took a group photo holding a big flag emblazoned with the group’s logo: Taipei Run . As soon as we broke, to my surprise, people began to pass out snacks. One person handed out grapes and cut guava; another had packets of chocolate cookies. Someone brought unsweetened soy milk and paper cups. There was an air of camaraderie as people shared food and joked.
People introduced themselves to me, but my brain couldn’t hold on to Chinese names, and I promptly forgot them (I was further confused later, when they added me on Facebook and Line, the messaging app popular in Taiwan, and I discovered that the names they called themselves weren’t necessarily the names they went by on either app). Afterward, a small group of us went to a nearby night market and had shaved ice, a sweet treat after all the running. “This group likes eating more than running,” Fredy joked.
Our group was large enough that we occupied two long tables outside. The other runners were raucous, teasing each other and sharing funny stories in Mandarin too quick for me to catch, often interspersed with what I would later learn was Taiwanese slang. I tried desperately and unsuccessfully to keep up, but after a while I gave up in favor of eating my lemon aiyu ice, smiling only because everyone else was. Fredy did his best to explain things for me, like who was laughing at whom and why. We chatted in English, and I felt grateful for his presence.
At one point, I realized that Jessie was looking at me expectantly. A question had been asked, but I hadn’t heard or understood. She repeated the question, and I could tell that she was asking me if I wanted to join them in something—but the something was elusive.
“River tracing,” Fredy explained. It was a popular summertime activity in Taiwan, when the heat made hiking unbearable, so people instead followed cool streams up mountains. Jessie was organizing a group to go.
“Um, sure,” I said. I’d only ever attempted river tracing once the year before, following a friend who sort of knew a route, wearing Keens that were so ill-equipped for slippery river stones that I had to use my arms to scramble over. But this would be a proper outing, with wet suits and felt-bottomed shoes and helmets and an expert we paid to lead us. I didn’t know it yet, but the route included scaling down three waterfalls. In two weeks, I’d be rappelling down the ten-story waterfall I’d gaped up at when I’d gone the year before.
By the end of the evening, I had been added to the runners’ Line group, which had over 250 members. I had exchanged contact info with Jessie and a few other friends, including two of the group leaders—Meihuan and her boyfriend, Ken. The three of them would come to my thirty-fifth birthday party the following week and bring me presents and take pictures, despite barely knowing me. Months after that I would go on a trip to the Philippines with Fredy, Jessie, and her boyfriend. In the winter, I would be a bridesmaid at Meihuan and Ken’s wedding, and, eventually, I’d be their daughter’s godmother.
For a couple of years, I told everyone that my Thursday evenings were blocked off, a fixed appointment I could not miss. I still didn’t love running, and, in fact, I didn’t train hard enough on my non–running group days to really see much of an improvement in my pace. That’s not to say I didn’t try: I aimed to run every other day, doing the same loop I did on that very first day when I was struggling with depression, sometimes clocking only four kilometers, other times running as much as ten kilometers. As many people before me had discovered, running helped me burn off my frustrations and anxieties, the rhythm of my breath somehow bringing me peace. But while I sometimes pushed myself to run a bit faster, I inevitably always reverted back to an easy, comfortable pace. I saw some incremental improvements in my condition, but unlike many of the people in my group, I knew I would never be a speed runner, and I had no desire to be one. Finishing the distance goal I had set myself was enough of a challenge. While I ran, I cursed inwardly, hating every moment, and focused on simply not giving up or slowing to a walk, but when I was finished, with endorphins coursing through my body, euphoria set in. It was that moment, once it was all over, that I loved running the most.
It was a community—one where we got together not only to run, but to hike, to eat, to sing karaoke.
What I returned for was the camaraderie. The beauty of the group was the diversity of the folks it brought in—there was a nurse, a tech office worker, a math professor, an Uber Eats delivery guy, a chef, and then me, the American writer who didn’t always understand what they were saying. Over time, my Chinese speaking, listening, and reading (from all the texts that flew back and forth in the group) improved. I began to remember people’s names and understand inside jokes. I picked up Taiwanese slang. I got invited to potlucks and barbecues. It was a community—one where we got together not only to run, but to hike, to eat, to sing karaoke.
My ex kept the broadside of a favorite poem of mine, “Love After Love” by Derek Walcott, slotted into the frame of his mirror. In the first few weeks after I left him, I thought of the poem often but could not bear to read it because it made me too sad. Still, its opening lines stuck with me:
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
In the months that followed my breakup, I slowly tried to figure out who I was without my ex. I’d wager that nearly every breakup involves relearning the contours of one’s life without a partner to give it shape. But I found it stranger than usual. Although my life in Taiwan had been separate from my ex’s for so long, and the specter of his memory didn’t loom over places the way it might have if I’d been back in the States, I realized that I had never been able to fully ground myself in this country because part of me had always been tethered to a love across the sea. Now, with that tie severed, I was acquainting myself with the me who lived in Taiwan. Perhaps this was a person who enjoyed being physically active, a person with a body and physicality that surprised her. Perhaps she didn’t need all the perfect words to develop authentic relationships with people, could fumble through conversations but still find connections meaningful. It was strange to discover these facets of myself I hadn’t known before, and integral to this discovery was my running community.
It might be tempting to see a sense of identity wish-fulfillment in my enthusiasm for my newfound friends—they offered me access to a Taiwaneseness that I never had growing up in America. And to be sure, that was part of it. But it was also more than that: They gave me a community, a place to return to every week where I was welcomed with open arms. Their friendships didn’t have expiry dates, and that promise of permanence nudged me away from thinking of my stay as a temporary one; after all, a place doesn’t begin to feel like a home until it contains people you care for. They didn’t know who I was back home and it was irrelevant to them; it was who I was in front of them that mattered. In their eyes, I was someone who liked to run and enjoyed hikes and put in English ballads at karaoke. They had no expectations for who I should be. This, in turn, allowed me to unlock a version of myself I hadn’t even known existed.
Almost exactly a year later, I ran my first race, a stifling 5.2K leg of a relay marathon where the bulk of my route went through a tunnel that cut out reception of the Spotify playlist I had prepared. I ran with a flagpole on my shoulder, the Taipei Run flag flowing behind me, and I thought to myself, I hate this, I regret this, why did I agree to this. But after it was over, I got swept up in cheering for my teammates and the other runners who streamed by. When my team glimpsed our last runner approaching the end, we ran alongside him and crossed the finish line together. It’s a relay race I’ve now run every year for the past three years.
Since then, I’ve run my first 9K race, then my first 10K race. Late last year, I ran my first 13K, and as I crossed the ten-kilometer mark, I felt so emotional I almost cried—I knew I had just crossed over into a distance that was more than I had ever run in my life, more than I had ever thought was possible. No matter what, even if I didn’t finish that race, I could point to that as an achievement. The last three kilometers of the race flew by, despite my aching calves and feet—every photo from those last kilometers shows me with a grin on my face, elated.
I don’t go to the running group regularly anymore. Even before Covid, life had begun to creep in—work deadlines, a new relationship. The friends I cared about the most had also stopped appearing as often: Fredy returned to the States after his Fulbright was up; Jessie started a new job that had shifts in the evenings; Ken and Meihuan had a baby, which made it difficult for them to come regularly. When I sprained my ankle on a hike, it took me nearly six months to recover, and by the time I returned to the group, I realized I hardly recognized anyone—it seemed that most people now went there to participate in the Pilates mat class one of the members led. The runners were few. I showed up a few more times after that, but soon, I became focused on revising my novel and on a rediscovered passion for aerial silks classes, and even those monthly appearances stopped. Despite this, I still feel a sense of loyalty to Taipei Run, and I know it’s a home base I can return to. I think all of the friends I made there—friends I still see regularly—feel this way.
I don’t run as often as I used to—for a while I still did my loops around Chiang Kai-shek Memorial, but now that we’re required to run in Taiwan’s stifling heat with masks, I can’t bring myself to do even that. Still, I know eventually I’ll lace up my running shoes again, especially now that it’s fall and the temperatures are dropping. I will never truly love it. I will never be fast. But I know it’s something my body is capable of doing, something that alleviates stress and gives me comfort on days that feel untenable, that brings me energy on days when I’m already feeling good.
Running is a solitary activity in many ways—you focus on your own pace, your own breathing, set your own goals and achieve your own personal bests. Coming to it so late in life allowed me to also come to myself in a new way, to feel muscles I hadn’t known could ache, to become strong in ways I didn’t know how to. But for me, running will always be connected to community. The friends who made space for me in their midst, who cheered me on when I was suffering and flailing and felt I could not go on. They helped transform Taiwan from a place I lived into a home. That, too, was part of my journey into rediscovering myself.