If Taiwanese drama ToGetHer could be compared to a dish, it would likely be a hearty cheese and tomato sandwich topped with a soft and silky sunny-side up egg—nothing profound or elegant, but enviably more efficient than a typical philosophical tome at brightening up a wintry morning. All the same, this is not an ordinary sandwich, but one which yolk carries a small dash of the flavor of the sublime sun worshiped by the silence of a tiny flower’s purity under Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore’s pen.
The “Her” in the title refers to Chen Momo, an introverted and ostracized comic geek with a child-like appearance. Compared to the two taller misfits around her, though, Momo (i.e. “quietly”) turns out to be quite an adult. Her childhood friend, Wei Jiasen, is a 20-year-old swimming champion with the mentality of an eight-year-old who sees her as an angel and tries to be her guardian angel in return. His affection for her is not unwarranted, because she alone defends him as being suspended in time rather than dim. Living with her as a tenant is the arrogant and ignorant country-boy-turned-superstar MARS, whose agency banishes to their college now that his career is on the rocks. Momo is the rare person who neither kisses the ground he walks on nor tramples on him. She points out that he is no fool either—what truly keeps him from resolving problems successfully is his woeful lack of emotional maturity. Tagore’s poem anthology Stray Birds becomes a stimulus for character growth as MARS pushes his limits while mastering its lines for an intracollegiate oratorical competition under Momo’s guidance.
Growth is, in fact, the main theme of the drama to one of its writers, Lin Xinhui. The challenge is, this oddball ensemble has to undergo the trying experiences necessary for it without losing the artless simplicity common to their characters or the endearing lightness of the tone of the story. Then again, simplicity may actually be the key to true growth. Remarking on how the flippant-seeming MARS has acquired a habit of forgetting unhappy events very fast after spending time in the nerve-rackingly volatile entertainment industry, Lin noted that one has to learn to let go so that his wounds will not sap away the energy to embrace new possibilities in the future. That may be the deeper connection ToGetHer shares with Stray Birds.
In the anthology, a collection of 326 short verses translated into English by himself, Tagore saw rhythm, love and wonder in various aspects of Nature. Its opening, recited over and over by Momo and MARS, sounds forlorn:
“STRAY birds of summer come to my window to sing and fly away.
And yellow leaves of autumn, which have no songs, flutter and fall there with a sigh.”
Yet, over the course of the book, Tagore philosophized (possibly to the agony of literature lovers who scorn this term) that loss and emptiness serve vital and even beautiful purposes in the universe. Darkness and invisibility can be noble sacrifices, as when the shadow lovingly gives way to light (verse 47) and the night “opens the flowers in secret and allows the day to get thanks” (verse 157). Silence carries profound meaning (verse 122); it also offers rest and peace (verse 208). Likewise, death can be beautiful like autumn leaves, just as life may have been like summer flowers (verse 82). The dark, the silent and the dead have not led their existence in vain. They are actually marks of what once blossomed in glory, bearing, for instance, the beauty of “the loved woman when she has put out the lamp” (verse 120). Ultimately, they may be the gateway to new beginnings. Therefore, Tagore urged the reader not to despair at a loss,
“IF you shed tears when you miss the sun, you also miss the stars.” (Verse 6)
His advice is not easy to follow. The compulsion to win is deeply ingrained in many societies. That is what many self-help books and entire education systems have been designed for. Notably, too, loss can occur in more subtle ways than relationship or professional failure and death. Pride seems to lie at the heart of human existence. German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer commented that no person would ever change his mind, however absurd his beliefs are, in an argument. If someone claims to, he probably has misrepresented his stand now or then and desperately wants something from the other party. Numerous psychological biases and reflexes also appear to exist to safeguard our sense of self-supremacy. These include the tendency to think of oneself as more gifted or moral than average, rationalization of personal decisions after they have been made and confirmation bias (i.e. bias towards evidence supporting one’s preconceptions). Alongside them are defense mechanisms like denial of reality and attribution of failure to factors outside personal control. The discomfort at relinquishing self-control may well be the primary reason why work feels unpleasant to many employees, some of whom have likely tried to offset the loss of control by tightening their grip on those in lower positions or family members. Those successful at the latter may still lose overall, since a small part of themselves sometimes know very well that they are not the moral beings they prefer to be.
There is probably an evolutionary advantage to such instincts. Perhaps, a mind that is too manipulatable would risk turning its host into some sacrificial lamb in the schemes of others. Nonetheless, total rejection of subjugation may be too crude a weapon to ensure survival. For rational understanding and debates to take place effectively and for just behavior to prevail, too, there are times we need to learn how to lose and teach that to our children. Fortunately, it may be possible to turn the instincts to our cognitive and ethical advantages as well. Keeping in mind how losses may feed into gains, we can start to take pride in not only direct gains in dignity, but also any manifestation of our ability to resist baser impulses and accept immediate losses with magnanimity. This more intellectual approach to self-esteem may simplify our emotional and social lives.
ToGetHer is certainly a wish-fulfillment narrative. Its targets, however, are not just fangirls and ah zhai (Taiwanese term for geeky homebodies like Momo). No matter your age and gender, it expresses the ideal that everyone can gain strength without robbing that from anybody. That is its modest yet delectable brand of taste.