New to the Parish: ‘Being an outsider bothers me less in Ireland’

A Taiwanese-American artist moved to the Burren because of a dream she had about a stone tower, but she struggled at first to get to grips with the isolation

Melanie Lan with her work at the Burren College of Art, Ballyvaughan. Photograph: Eamon Ward

Melanie Lan with her work at the Burren College of Art, Ballyvaughan. Photograph: Eamon Ward

 

Melanie Lan was preparing to move to San Francisco. After three years of working with a natural food company, she needed a change from life in Seattle and applied for a master’s programme in California. But a few weeks before the move, she got cold feet.

“Suddenly I felt there was something wrong with the plan and I had endless sleepless nights over it. Late one night I had a dream I was in a stone tower. I just remember thinking, This is it, this is where I have to be. You know that kind of ineffable dream feeling that you can’t really translate when you’re awake? That’s what I had.”

For a long time she didn’t tell friends or family the real reason why she moved to Ireland. “I hesitate to tell people, because when you talk about dreams, you never quite trust they’re going to understand the feeling.”

The morning after the dream, she searched online for “master’s in fine art, stone tower”.

“For some reason I knew it had to be Ireland. Google showed up the Burren College of Art. I looked at the photo and I was like: that’s the place I was dreaming of. It was an overwhelming feeling of this is right and also, this is crazy. Some people would say it’s just a coincidence, but I definitely felt like it was a mixture of instinct and chance.”

Lan applied to the school, was offered a scholarship and in August 2014 arrived in Co Clare. Having grown up around the bustling city of Seattle, life in the Burren was a shock to the system.

“The Burren is so isolated. It has been like an artistic hermitage the past two years. I’m really glad I did it. I feel like I would have gotten distracted in San Francisco. It’s definitely a place of soul searching. There’s literally no place to hide, there aren’t even any trees.”

Lan’s Taiwanese grandfather, a painter, has played an important role in her creativity. “Art is the language I’m familiar with. It’s in my family but I feel like it’s really strong with my paternal grandfather. I actually think of him all the time when I’m painting. He was definitely a big influence. I wish I had gotten to know him better.”

‘Brutal’ American accent

Lan’s parents left Taiwan for the US before she was born. They divorced shortly after they arrived in Seattle, and Lan was brought up by her mother. “She really wanted me to learn English because that’s the ticket to success. She would speak Mandarin when she didn’t want me to understand what she was saying. But as a kid, you pick things up. I can totally understand it, but when I speak Mandarin I have a brutal American accent.”

Lan says she often dreamed of having a baby brother or sister. “I’m an only child and it’s the saddest thing in the world. But being a single parent is rough, I don’t think my mother wanted another one.”

When Lan told her parents about her decision to move to Ireland to continue her artistic development, they struggled to understand. “My father was living in San Francisco, and I was like, I’d love to spend more time with him. I spent my whole life with my mother, so this was my chance to get to know him.”

“Family is everything. In a way I kind of felt like I was letting them down coming to Ireland. It was definitely a selfish move on my part, but I don’t regret it. They thought I was losing out on opportunities, but I really felt like this was where I had to be. I trusted that despite how crazy it seemed.”

Lan was suffering from depression before leaving for Ireland. Moving to the isolation of the Burren only magnified those emotions. “I was in a really dark place for years. When I got here, that depression was magnified because there’s nothing to distract you. There aren’t many places you can go and there’s nowhere to hide. You can’t be anonymous: everyone knows you. It’s a very introspective place to be so I think that darkness became really apparent all of a sudden and it consumed me.”

She began volunteering at the Burren Birds of Prey centre as a method of coping with her depression. “I really had to hold on to things that made me happy, and working with animals is one of them. I know it sounds dramatic but I think in some ways working there really saved my life. Animals are so innately in tune to nature. There’s something beautiful about that.”

Birds play a central role in her graduation art exhibition, which is currently on show at the Burren College of Art in Ballyvaughan. The exhibition, Keep in Touch, features 1,000 coloured origami cranes hanging from a net.

“On one level it’s about keeping in touch with people as an immigrant, but on another level it’s about keeping in touch with your inner voice and following your heart and your instincts.”

She has always felt like “a perpetual outsider”, even in Seattle, where the Taiwanese-American community is quite small. “Being an outsider bothers me less in Ireland because I clearly don’t belong here. There’s no confusion that this isn’t my home, whereas in Seattle, and even in Taiwan when I visit my family, I don’t feel I belong.”

Most of her friends in Ireland are also immigrants. “I don’t know if it’s culturally Irish or if it’s just Co Clare, but it’s really hard to get to know people on a personal level. The people I’ve connected with are also immigrants. I relate most to people that also feel displaced.”

She plans to move to Dublin after she graduates. “I don’t know if I can comfortably go back to a country where the possibility of Donald Trump being president is a reality. It’s both terrifying and embarrassing.”

“I kind of wanna stay here, I don’t think the journey is over yet. My life would have been so different if I had decided not to act on that dream. It’s amazing how one dream can change your life.”

  • We would like to hear from people who have moved to Ireland in the past five years. To get involved, email newtotheparish@irishtimes.com. @newtotheparish
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