Taiwan Journal: The Firecracker Gauntlet

Here is the diary entry from my first Chinese New Year’s in Taipei.  The experience stayed in my mind and became the inspiration for the first few pages of my novel, Southern Rain, now available for pre-order on Kindle. You can click on the link on the sidebar of this blog.

February 7, 1989                                                 Taipei, Taiwan, ROC

This town is crazy with fireworks. Small children employ every conceivable sort of artillery, turning every thoroughfare into a gauntlet of bouncing fireballs and air-shattering explosions.  The missiles ricochet off storefronts, apartment buildings, parked cars, speeding taxis, motorcyclists, and pedestrians. Traffic moves nonchalantly through the minefield, zigzagging around the volcanoes, which burst in their grand finales, right when a car passes alongside. I’ll never forget the sight of this old pedicab salesman, hawking his wares as he pedaled down the street, bottle rockets snaking along the pavement to explode directly beneath him or bouncing off of his torso. He kept idiotically crooning his sales tune, a living fountain of sparks. A lovely vignette!

Taiwan Journal: Youth in the Rain

August 23, 1989                                Taipei, Taiwan, ROC

An interesting set of people at the bus stop shared the thirty minute wait for the 0-East. One, of course, was a very poised woman. She smoked a cigarette, and once, when our eyes met, she smiled naturally and pleasantly. There was also this guy who I’d seen before. He had thick glasses and was kind of fish-eyed and muckle-mouthed, probably not very popular at school. I found myself trying to avoid looking in his direction, for some reason, until I noticed something unusual about his t-shirt. It was a political shirt, bearing the slogan, “You have the right to reject this Taipei.” Suddenly, I seemed to understand him, as though I recognized the same pattern in his life that I’ve seen in the States: Cast out of the crowd by forces not in anyone’s control, the outcast studies alienation itself, turning inward and moving out, trying to return to the scene armed with the ideas of exile. I lent him my umbrella.

The ensuing rain blossomed into a true thunderstorm while I sat in the front of the bus watching. It was a heaven-sent washing. Raindrops on the puddles in the street seemed to suggest a soft meadow. There was a mellowing of light and sound, under the auspices of a friendly patter of droplets, the splashing of tires, and the creaking of wipers. The rain tames us.

 

August 28, 1989                                Taipei, Taiwan, ROC

I had an interesting experience today worthy of a French movie. As I hopped off the 0-East at the Nanchang Street stop, I noticed a high school girl in the green blouse of the elite First Northern Girls School, braving the first drops of a downpour. After the usual hesitation, I offered her my umbrella, and I found her to be both easygoing and serious. She said right away that she too had not eaten, and we soon found ourselves in a noodle shop, under the leering gazes of the cheap girlie posters that papered the walls, discussing history, Taipei, the USA, the mainland. There wasn’t any tension at all. I didn’t get her name.

Taiwan Journal: Really Beginning to See the Light

Background: When I lived in Taiwan as a youth (1988-92), I worked at a local shipping company, and “Susie” was in the sales department – outside sales (calling on clients, not just handling the paperwork in the office), an unusual job for a woman. She had an untamed, Amazonian beauty (how surprised I was, seeing her years later [as narrated below], to find her shorter than I am). Back in the day, I had feebly hit on her a couple of times, unaware or uninterested in the fact that she was living with a guy; but then I actually started to hang out with her and her boyfriend, “Joe,” at their bar, named Joe’s Place. He was a lot of fun. By the time I left Taiwan, they were married, and she was pregnant. During my 2010 research trip to Taiwan, I got in touch with her again. She explained that she was divorced from Joe, who’d become a journalist on the Mainland. Her son, whom she’d raised alone, had recently been killed in a car accident. What follows is the last diary entry of my 2010 trip.

 

Friday, April 16, 2010 – Taipei, Taiwan, ROC

The plan today was to have lunch with Susie, but she’d cheesed on me, fanged my gezi [‘released my pigeon,’ i.e., stood me up], by eleven, after I’d spent two days relishing the fantasy of being her hero, her shoulder to cry on, her saving ray of warmth.

There was a vague fallback position of my hanging around until fiveish and trying her again. So I ran downtown for a fast Mos Burger (the 五彩 burger I wanted was apparently a seasonal thing, available only through last Sunday, when I’d decided I loved it). I read in my Times a review of Kick Ass, and the old Spontaneity kicked in. I began playing the game of Taipei one last time. I feinted toward Taida Hospital; then I doubled back to the Station, buying a shirt and a 方大同 CD in record time and then taking the [Taipei Metro] to magnetic 西門町, where I checked out all five theatres and finally bought a ticket at the old 絕色, with only an hour to kill. I was enjoying myself and also enjoying childish revenge on Susie (ditching her back, in other words), while feeling a little guilty about it at the same time.

I loved the film.

I called her from the stairwell on the way out. She invited me to Neihu, where I would have enough time to be with her for five minutes before having to rush off to keep my dinner date with [another couple of friends]. Rockpile’s ‘Girls Talk,’ recently my manic soundtrack, began to play in my head again, and I raced off to the Ximending station [of the Metro], out the Ban/Nan [line], transferring to the Wen/Hu [line], up those long escalators (where I saw the best leg effect ever: transparent black stockings over long anorexic legs, coming up well above the knee and terminating in a fancy pattern just an inch or two below the hem of the young lady’s short shorts, leaving an thin band of exposed flesh between the shorts and the darker pattern at the top of the stockings) since you’re not supposed to see the fancy pattern at all, it was like she was wearing her underwear around her calves)

The little car curved and sped, and I ran down the escalator, and soon there was Susie, and all was forgiven, and we hugged, and we walked back to her yingchou [social meeting with clients], and she observed that I wasn’t a boy anymore, and she smelled of drink, and we reached the yingchou, where I worked the group for a while in the customary manner.

Five minutes passed, and Susie said she’d drive me all the way to Nangang for my big dinner. We got in her Toyota, and she began telling me about how she’d raised her son alone – raised him to be her ex-husband’s son, even sending him to the mainland to spend Chinese New Year’s with his dad. She soon realized that (but could not understand why) her ex-husband wasn’t acting like a father; so she stopped sending the boy to him. When Joe took five days to return to Taiwan to see his body, she gave up trying to understand.

But she didn’t give up trying to return her son to her ex-husband’s family, where Chinese Culture deemed he belonged. I listened with no clear idea what this meant, whether he would take their name or be interred among their graves. No one, not her ex, nor anyone from his family, has come to claim the boy and take him from her. And yet she thinks she must return him to them.

She was crying.

Her Singaporean boyfriend called and at the end of their conversation she said ‘I love you’ to him three times. I’d never heard a Chinese woman say it to her man, not even once.

Susie said I should go home and raise my daughter, and that’s what I’m going to do tomorrow.

Taiwan Journal: Beginning to See the Light

This entry is from my third trip to Taiwan, the loneliest and saddest, for, this time, I had left a family behind. I was trying as best I could to do academic research, but, as the following account reveals, I was mostly just making a fool of myself. The only bright side was that I gradually came to realize what was important to me and to act my age.

Wednesday, March 30, 2010 – Taipei, Taiwan, ROC

Yesterday, I got super mad at [a certain academic institution], because I’d asked them to write me a letter of introduction [for use during an upcoming side trip to mainland China], and they never did.

I had rushed, by taxi, to [said academic institution], and then I rushed to Taiwan University to meet [scholar] Peter Wang. We chatted on the terrace of the Starbucks overlooking Roosevelt Road.

He left at around five. I wasn’t ready to go home yet, being in need of female conversation. I just can’t stand being alone.

There was a girl to my left with a short, untucked shirt and red panties. She had an English language reader, and I considered asking her if I could help with it, but that would have been too much, so I just sat there, waiting for someone to come to me.

Someone did: a Taiwanese-Canadian and her Siberian friend. They wanted to interview me for a documentary they were doing about temporary expats. They didn’t say they wanted to talk to me, but something about my aura convinced them that I would be a willing subject.

The ensuing conversation was very intense and exhausting, though not very articulate. I just spewed and spewed my life story and felt very accomplished and important.

As to importance, I said that my time living in Taiwan [1988-92] was “absolutely the most important thing I’ve ever done.” At this declaration, my interlocutors, instead of beaming at me with awe, seemed to roll their eyes. Maybe they were wondering why I didn’t say that marrying my wife and raising my daughter were the most important things.

I sure thought that living in Taiwan was the most important thing I’d ever done, but that was when I was a youth, when marriage and having children seemed contemptibly ordinary, and when crafting an extraordinary life was the do-or-die objective.

Now I just feel like a schmuck.

China Journal: The Hunan Condition

Tuesday, August 24, 1999 – Beijing

Recently, I found myself in Hunan Province for a Ming dynasty history conference. I believe the conference took place in the otherwise insignificant Shimen County because of its proximity to the reputed final resting place of Li Zicheng [the rebel who destroyed the Ming dynasty].

In any case, the event was hovered over by a cohort of culture cadres anxious to soak up some gravitas from the luminous personages now gracing their satrapy. It was also swarming with reporters trying to do the same thing, although the latter group had special plans for me, the sole gringo, namely: making me appear to be some kind of benighted barbarian seeking Chinese wisdom. I did not comply with their request for an interview, nor did I confirm the rumor that I’d been seen carrying a loaf of bread to my hotel room because I couldn’t eat Chinese food. It intrigues me how opposite assumptions operate on the same plane: Foreigners are expected to be attracted to Chinese culture, but they are not expected to be able to absorb it (not in the form of Chinese food, anyway), due to congenital differences.

The conference proper was inspiring if a little overly formal. All the intellectuals participating identified with their Ming dynasty antecedents. They railed against arbitrary rule and implied that, if only government would recognize true talent, then all under heaven would be pacified. Their class allegiance prompted me to spout off a little about historical objectivity (I remarked that righteous scholars failed to save the Ming dynasty and even had the effrontery to suggest that they might have killed it). I also ventured to observe that their brand of opposition to the government was based on elitism, not democracy. As I pontificated to someone later (boy, was I getting full of myself), democracy, by giving everyone the ballot, neutralizes the power of the Ph.D.

The academic portion of the retreat completed, touring commenced. We visited what was said to be the Peach Blossom Spring immortalized by Tao Yuanming, and I soon found myself having a perfect experience. It was a relatively unspoiled place, and the weather was cool and misty, calling up various Daoist feelings of being one with nature and making me seek to emulate Tao’s fisherman by doing a little enthusiastic exploring. At what was represented to be the actual spring, a pool under a waterfall, I quickly disrobed and took a little dip with the stone turtle they have there. I felt greatly refreshed, and I admit I also enjoyed the notoriety I earned as the crazy young American. It started to rain, which made me even happier, and I got my fortune told at a nearby Daoist temple, which seemed to provide a certain religious meaning to the whole thing.

The next day, our group of scholars moved to Zhangjiajie. We toured the Chinese version of Luray Caverns. This time, I was not quite as alone as I’d been: In standard eunuch fashion, I fell in with a group of four young ladies from Taiwan, hovering on the periphery of their approach-avoidance gravitational pull; and I actually had a pretty good time with the impressive cave and the lovely company. When the ladies slowed down in the shopping area outside the cave, though, I became aware that I was reverting to the role of hungry dog, hanging around, waiting for whatever table scraps of attention they might throw down to me; and so I took my leave of them, bought a dress for Yuka [then my fiancée, now my wife], and escorted [senior scholar] Wei Qingyuan back to the waiting bus.

That night at the hotel, after dinner, I developed a headache and began asking females for aspirin. One of the Taiwanese ladies said she had some in her room. On the way thither, we passed the hotel’s massage parlor, where the pubescent hostesses were scantily clad and the light chaser framing the doorway had already been turned on. Upon reaching the Taiwanese ladies’ room (where the other three waited; it seemed they always stuck together for protection), I received the promised pills, and an awkward moment ensued, as my canine tendency began to reassert itself; but they sent me on my way rather decisively, with a final “Goodnight,” while closing and locking the door behind me.

In spite of the less than voluntary mode of my departure, I was still glad on the whole to be away from their debilitating presence. The problem now, as I returned to my room, was how to spend the rest of the evening in the very uncomfortable hotel. I decided to write a letter to Yuka.

The phone rang. It was one of the young hostesses from the massage parlor, asking if I required any servicing. I demurred. I said I had a girlfriend. She said it didn’t matter. I twisted in the wind for another minute or so, the tenacious young lady refusing to let me off the hook. Finally, I blurted one last “Sorry” and hung up the phone over her protests. Then, I sat down on the bed and repeated, as a mantra, the phrase “Nerves of steel.”

The phone rang every fifteen minutes or so, until around eleven. I didn’t answer.

The following day, we took a nature walk, along a path following a river in the woods. I was very impressed with the park, though the lack of any literary or religious significance kept my happiness from overflowing into euphoria. Also, I made it a point to escape from the group, especially the four Formosan ladies, and to enjoy the place with the peace of mind enabled by solitude. I did bump into the Formosan Four upon emerging from the woods at the end of the trail, and they said they missed my company. Whether they were trying to be polite or cruel, I really can’t say.

China Journal: A Barren Source of Amusement

This diary entry is from my second excursion to Asia, in 1998-1999, for the purpose of conducting research for my dissertation. Unlike my first visit, this time, the internet was available, and I sometimes used it to combat loneliness, with mixed results.

Sunday, August 29, 1999 – Beijing

The computer has been a barren source of amusement lately. I’d been frequenting the chat rooms and had actually managed to have a friendly chat once in a while. Very recently, though, the chat rooms were transformed by avatars, little pictures designed to represent each chatter in a glitzy environment; and now all anyone ever talks about are the stupid I.D. pictures. I began to fear that nobody would notice me at all without an avatar; so I dutifully downloaded the new software. I find the chat room’s revised look to be as conformist as it is distracting, the women having all chosen similar “naughty” representations of themselves, and the men, likewise, having selected boilerplate, shirtless hunks.

I spent the entire morning in an unsuccessful attempt to download a photo of Richard Nixon (the Norman Rockwell painting from the Portrait Gallery) to use as my avatar, before I decided that I’d passed an invisible line separating passing the time and wasting time. I went out on my bike all day.

1968 - Pres. Nixon - by Norman Rockwell by x-ray delta one, via Flickr

Taiwan Journal: Taipei Dog and Fountain Girl

July 19, 1989 – Taipei, Taiwan, ROC

Today, I witnessed two events of the first importance. Both were viewed from public buses. The first was religious in nature, the second more artistic.

Sometime after noon, I was riding in the left rearmost seat of the 0-East. After crossing the Fudan Bridge, I noticed a medium-sized, white Taipei dog in the middle of Dunhua South Road, stealthily negotiating its way across the street by edging up on left-turning traffic. It seemed to advance with the same stamina and alertness as most human pedestrians, but alas it ignored the possibility (as we all do) of an unexpected minor pulse in the metallic river of traffic. A taxicab swung out to the left a little bit farther than the other cars. It sideswiped the dog, which shrieked as though it were going to be for the last time.

Actually, I cannot say for certain, but it seemed as though the scream of despair, coming so suddenly and unexpectedly during the course of the dog’s intrepid crossing, filled the entire amphitheater of the intersection, echoing off the steel walls of the surrounding office buildings, penetrating to me in my mobile box seat. As I remember it now, I sensed a death cry but did not necessarily hear the dog itself; either the dog cried loud enough for everyone in the intersection to hear, or everyone in the intersection cried loud enough for me to feel.

At any rate, the dog was brushed aside from its destiny by the hubcaps and body of the taxicab. So with the scream still hanging in the air, the cab had passed; the dog regained its footing and went on about its business as though absolutely nothing had happened.

 

July 20, 1989 – Neil Armstrong

Later in the day, I found myself looking out the window of the 15 as it crawled eastbound on Heping Rd. I glanced up to see a 10 year old girl throwing up in the shade of the Science Exhibition Building. A fine, consistent arc of liquid, yellow as desert sand, took an astonishingly long amount of time to span its way to the ground. The flow remained constant for at least five seconds. It was like a fountain: the stream of vomitus, if stretched into a straight line, would have been taller than the girl.

She was standing, as I said, under the eaves of the Science Exhibition Building, throwing up on the marble tile that covers that part of the ground. She might just as easily have stepped one yard out and onto the common red square brick of the Taipei sidewalk (but then again, that option might have inconvenienced pedestrian movement). Her younger brother, standing beside her, seemed indifferent to the display. He absently looked toward the entrance of the building, apparently seeking for someone (perhaps the individual charged with cleaning the abovementioned and well-chosen tile) to arrive on the scene and assume responsibility.

A few fellow spectators on the bus appeared also to be silently appreciating the vignette. They watched with a certain detachment , the realization that they weren’t embarrassed yielding a type of childlike wonder, a relief that such marvels still exist to chase away the tedium of a long day.