Hammered by Kindness

Sharing my diary entries detailing my “long way home” return from Taiwan via Europe in 1992, and reliving my decision to switch from flophouses to luxury hotels, I’m reminded also of how my sudden reintroduction to attentive restaurant service, after weeks of Chinese and Russian shabbiness, produced literally intoxicating results.

It was in the Xx Restaurant in Budapest (or was it Munich?) that the waiter, on bringing me my menu, asked if I would like to have an aperitif, while I looked it over. What a considerate question! This was more like it, I enthused, someone who knows how to treat a guest. Not wishing to profane the moment with a “No, thank you,” I asked the nice man to bring me a gin and tonic, which I remembered was customary for summer, even though I wasn’t really thirsty.

I sipped at the fizzy drink while perusing the bill of fare, and when the tuxedoed veteran returned to take my order for dinner, he asked me what sort of wine I would like with it. Of course! I remembered. One drinks wine with dinner at civilized establishments such as this one. I told my man that I would rely on him to provide the most appropriate ambrosia to match the veal I’d selected; and he brought the excellent white Burgundy for me to begin enjoying well in advance of my entrée. Naturally, I was careful also to finish off the gin and tonic, to avoid being rude.

The veal, balanced perfectly with the wine, melted in my mouth, and I leaned back in bliss, recalling how one week prior, I had considered myself lucky to be given a cold bowl of borscht, assuming I found the dining car of the Trans-Siberian open. When my hovering host cleared away my plate and asked me what I wanted for dessert, I started to cry, it had been so long since I’d been so well taken care of. I requested the chocolate mousse, and when he inquired, off-handedly, as to what sort of cordial I should like to go with it, accepted his recommendation of some sort of cherry liqueur.

A good half hour later, at the close of my repast, I wiped my mouth with the cloth napkin, paid the bill, took a deep breath of the fullest contentment and gratitude, rose to leave, and found that I could not walk.

Travel Journal: No More Roughing It; Arrival in Budapest (1992)

After the two [Ukrainian oil field workers] had both detrained, I had a very sublime conversation with my remaining compartment-mate. He was a Hungarian physicist who was “hanging up” whatever job he had in Moscow and returning home with his cat. For most of the conversation, it was this reserved gentleman who was asking me questions about Taiwan and other aspects of my life. Much as it happened during the Trans-Siberian conversation with the Australian woman, the relating of my exploits was quite therapeutic, but on this second train, this gentleman was the older-generation figure whose occasional encouragement and understanding I greatly appreciate, nay, crave. His questions also were aimed right at the point, the main idea, of each aspect we were talking about; he was [always] asking, “What was your purpose” for doing such-and-such? I was happy to have a purpose that guided me [and] that I could tell him. I think I meant that he was one of the few people who could understand my lofty life goals, as I expressed them; most folks simply smirked at how impractically I’d lived, “wasting” all that time in Taiwan, with little to show for it but weird experiences.

He also confirmed my observations re the Trans-Siberian, i.e., that trains in this part of the world were dangerous. Furthermore, it might have been a self-aggrandizing remark I’d made in Taiwan, that now was the last opportunity I had to adventure in Eurasia (before disunity and war, etc.) ; but my Hungarian companion seconded the emotion, explaining that the trains were daily witness to robbery and murder, and that he was leaving Moscow, in fact, on the strength of the sense of growing instability there.

True enough, our conversation had been initiated by the abrupt, uninvited entrance of two Ukrainian youths who had barged in for shock value (it sure shocked me as I looked and saw one of them sitting next to me and the other one blocking the door) but who finally didn’t seem to want anything other than to whine at the Hungarian before they got off. My companion later said that they were generally confused and specifically a bit drunk but at heart nice boys.

The effect of this gentleman’s descriptions of train-borne chaos was to put me on my guard during the crossing of the Hungarian border, in the early morning after my friend left, during a sunrise trip to the w.c., and upon arrival in Budapest, but after reaching that place, I saw that I’d definitely arrived in affluent, touristy, Europe and soon turned my thoughts from flight to food and other indulgences.

The first need-turned-indulgence, that of lodging, achieved its more luxurious state by the following means: The [homestay] hostess recommended by the [Moscow travel agency] turned out (after begging for change to use the pay phone) to be in Italy on holiday. I next was compelled by residual greenhorn desperation to book a guest room at a hostel through the services of a travel agency. Said travel agency gave me an address and a trolley number, but after riding the trolley all the way out to the burbs to where the room chanced to be, I found the host not at home. His absence was actually a blessing in disguise, for I opted on the spot to return to the center of town (before the host came back) and try my luck with a hotel.

I was not the only backpacker wandering the streets that morning, and after a while, I found the experience degrading. The prospect of carrying my belongings through city streets, looking for a room, I mean looking for a cheap room, was not inspiring. I therefore resolved to inquire for rooms at the first hotel I came across, which chanced to be the Astoria Hotel.

Rooms were US$100 a night, and I humiliated myself one last time by asking after cheaper flops in the area before I decided to reward myself for surviving a month on trains in the PRC and Russia. “You know what? Just put me up,” I said. My backpack and I were very happy for the pampering.

Taiwan Journal: Inner vs. Outer Peace?

Yonghe, Taiwan, ROC                         October 25, 1990

It’s been several weeks since I’ve had the occasion to awaken to the sounds of a pleasant morning shower. The patter of the rain greeted my waking ears like the voice of some old friend, missed but not forgotten, and now that nature has returned to her friendly post and benignly discouraged us from our desperate enterprises, I can once more be sated with my own place, this little room, with only a gentle heartbeat audible outside, and the clamorous exertions of the organism thus muted.

Perhaps it is necessary to be reminded that we can be serene. I’ve always loved the heaven-sent power outage or even the tropical storm; it keeps one’s perspective natural, manageable, under one’s own roof. I know I can trust myself in that shelter to keep myself dry, safe, and enheartened.

But hark, across the airway, not far at all, even in the rain, I can still hear the unpacified and oblivious father, coarsely ordering things about in his own little world, just as on any other day. For him, I imagine, there is not even the briefest repose from his contrived vicissitudes — or relationships. Owing to this man’s command or frown, the child’s forced piano playing now comes plodding across, right on schedule. Venomous parental commentary forms the background score.

And alas, there are a few crying babies, families who bring the street noise in with them, and motorcyclists keeping their dates. Yet as for me, the clouds suffice to block out the illusion of time, and, liberated from the unnatural schedule of the sun, my heart beats in relaxed tempo with the patter of the rain, constant, though often picking up and tapering off, following the currents of my interest.

Taiwan Journal: Typhoon Day

Taipei, Taiwan, ROC                                    August 30, 1990

Hearkening back to the treasured, yearned-for “snow days” of grade school, today’s typhoon day seems now to be even a greater surprise and pleasure, simply because it was so unexpected as to be not yearned for at all. The day has been passed amiably here in Yonghe, with the first house meal cooked by housers from the ground up, as well as a great deal of newspaper reading and a three hour nap.

Looking out the window, I’m amazed that there can be so much water anywhere in the world, let alone falling out of the sky. Scores of aerial funnels run off of the corrugated fiberglass roofs and window-covers of the buildings across the alley, as though the apartments were sweating profusely or otherwise manufacturing the unbelievable quantities of the stuff in some interior factory or workshop.The rain is as a curtain, or rather an endless series of curtains (hanging across, parallel, perpendicular, at every conceivable angle to me) when in the atmosphere, before it touches or piles up against anything. In contact with the earth (or under the circumstances, itself), it is a pulsating, translucent force that laps and spits through gutters and drains, or slides off rocks. Reclining in bed after my 3-hour nap, I wondered about the one (or two or three) drops in this vast world of rain that would somehow be blown horizontally by the occasional gust of wind, blown through my window garden, penetrating my screen and flying underneath the billowing curtain, to land, or to touch, as a soft waft of moisture, my legs, arms, and face.

I was stirred to attempt a poem, following the above line of verbal reasoning. My thoughts turned to a sonnet tempo and then began to examine different questions of perspective: Should I be lying down, feeling the moisture coming through the window under the billowing curtain, or should I be kneeling at the window, observing the deluge outside. Although I’d been doing both all day (as well as walking in it and ignoring it), it seemed too dynamic to include both postures in a poem that would have best been a static vignette. Fumbling with the moral of the poem (one referring to poetry itself, preferably) proved to be my ultimate undoing.

I suppose poetic states of mind should accommodate the flow of words and feelings, though not necessarily of stimuli. It seems I’m better at describing natural events with a natural [illegible].

Taiwan Journal: How Not To Flirt

Taipei, Taiwan, ROC                                                    Nov. 3, 1989

A flirting accomplice at the office — everyone knows her as Nancy — shared a few moments with me in the copy room. She suggested the two of us save up some bread and then go to South Africa together. When I proposed a mere movie instead, she laughed with embarrassment and was unable to say another word.

My Dream

Here is a description of a dream I had in the early 90s in Taiwan. It is the most intricate dream I have ever experienced and can be broken down into four phases:

Phase I. I am around six years old and am standing in a desolate, Middle Eastern landscape, devoid of any man-made structure, that feels like the “Holy Land.” Nearby is a small pond, and two bearded and robed young men are fishing in it. They are fussing in a primitive way, and I am rather put off by them; looking closely, however, I see that their fishing tackle consists of long blades of grass, with neither hooks nor bait, which they are swishing through the water.

Although no one speaks, the knowledge comes echoing over the hills that God is approaching. I notice a figure emerging through waves of pulsating heat, walking down an incline toward me, as I continue to stand near the pond with the two grass-fishing men. At the wordless realization “It’s Her,” I see that God is a Native American woman, apparently in her mid-twenties. She comes to stand slightly upslope from the pond, and I follow her eyes as she regards the two fishermen: They have both landed healthy-looking, silver-skinned fish, which seem willingly to have threaded themselves through the jaw on the hookless, baitless blades of grass. The men pull their catches out of the water and begin wrapping the blades of grass around their necks, with the fish held in place at the backs of their necks, above their shoulder blades. They tie the grass around their throats, climb the few paces uphill to where God is standing, and fall to their knees before Her in devotion. I fixate on the fish: They are baking in the sun on the backs of the men’s necks, curling their tails upward as they die.

God senses my distress. Turning Her attention to me, she calms me telepathically:

“You must not feel bad for the fish, nor must you think ill of these men for their ritual. They are simple, but their hearts are pure.”

She smiles. “If this ritual is upsetting to you, you do not have to follow it. You do not have to do anything that upsets you.”

She opens Her arms and hugs me to her bare chest, stroking my shoulders, neck, and the back of my head.

I enjoy perhaps five seconds of bliss in Her embrace, but then I hear a clamor to my left, like the clanging of pots and pans. I turn in that direction, and when I do so, I become part of a changed scene; I never see the pond, the fishermen, nor God again.

Phase II. I am in the same Middle Eastern barrenness, but temples and altars now dot the slope. My age is now about fifteen or sixteen.

A portly man is shuffling up to the altar nearest me. He is dressed in a khaki military uniform and seems to be a British soldier of intermediate rank, perhaps a sergeant. He is in a fretful haste and his mess kit and canteen bang together, producing the racket that had seized my attention.

I intuit that the British army is being evicted from the Holy Land and that the sergeant wants to “grab a quick prayer” before leaving. Kneeling at the altar, he begins to pray, but his vexation remains throughout, so that he is praying and cursing at the same time.

A different sort of noise, like the clattering of dishes, rolls in from the right, and I turn in that direction.

Phase III. The landscape is unchanged, but I am now twenty.

I am looking at the Last Supper, as seen in the painting by da Vinci, except that dinner is alfresco. I advance toward the central seat, where Jesus is supposed to be, and find that he is Mark Twain. The disciples to the left and right are behaving like a pack of unruly children, elbowing each other and knocking over their drinks; and Mr. Twain wears an expression of the most grudging indulgence, brimming with sarcasm, rolling his eyes as if to say, “You’d better have mercy on these clowns, Father, because I just want to strangle them.”

I sit opposite Mr. Twain, and we begin sharing the same dish, passing the plate back and forth, helping ourselves to a little at a time. After a few rounds of this exchange, Mr. Twain scrapes off the last morsel and returns the empty plate to me. He produces another supernaturally ironic smile.

An electronic beeping from my right distracts me, and I turn to look.

Phase IV. I am twenty-four (the age at which I had the dream) and in Taiwan (where I lived when I dreamt it).

I am in a cavernous big-box warehouse store. Merchandise-laden shelves tower heavenward, reaching almost to the bare rafters, eclipsing the light. I’m standing in the checkout line, along the conveyor belt, just behind my American roommate, waiting for him to complete his purchases. However, he begins hitting on the cashier, a Taiwanese girl barely twenty. She is unresponsive and unamused. She reaches under the counter, pressing a button, at which the whole scene becomes an image on a TV screen, a video recording now serving as evidence at my roommate’s trial for sexual harassment. The End.

My interpretation: Each phase of the dream seems to correspond to a moment in world history and in the development of religion. Phase I is the Primitive phase, showing the hopeful moment when a religion of ritual evolves into a religion of love. Phase II is the British or imperialist phase, in which religion has been corrupted by power, significantly an unsustainable power. Phase III is the American phase, based on a parody of a painting, populated by quarrelsome chosen ones, and devoted to the worship of Irony, which proves an unfulfilling dish. Finally, Phase IV depicts the post-historical age in which we live: materialist, litigious, godless, and loveless.

Book Review: The Stolen Bicycle, by Wu Ming-yi

Here is a passage from toward the end of the book:

I rode around [Taipei] but felt I didn’t know her anymore. She keeps on getting renewed, over and over again, as if in a rush to shed some sort of shell, the grotesque, mournful, scandalous past. With each renewal, so many things that shine with an incredible radiance in many people’s memories disappear. I felt a bit sorry and lonely. ‘Yes, this is gone, and that too!’ I could say that on practically every street. (p. 334)

Here is another passage, from more toward the end of the book:

I rode circles around the city, ring upon ring. As the slowest vehicle on the road, I was able to appreciate scenes the others left behind. (p. 359)

These two passages suggest the purpose of The Stolen Bicycle: to recapture, before it’s too late, the “grotesque, mournful, scandalous past,” which has already been erased from view but which yet lingers in memory. Using the protagonist’s father’s lost and found bicycle as a device, Wu Ming-yi embarks on an odyssey through a hundred years of Taiwanese history. His footsteps take us through the provinces of culture, including material culture, language, psychology, and family. The subtle implication of his narrative is that Taiwan is no mere subset of China but a unique mélange of aboriginal, Fujianese, Japanese, postwar Chinese, and Western influences.

Despite the overarching melancholic nostalgia, the tone of The Stolen Bicycle is actually rather positive.  Absent is the entitled, cosmic angst of Western literature, and the element of conflict is likewise missing. Instead, Wu’s narrator copes with bleak reality by cultivating private enthusiasms such as antique collecting and bicycle restoration. Often this sort of occupation leads to camaraderie (say, with fellow junk collectors), creating a sense of fellow travelers if not intimate friendship. Obviously, the attention given to junk collecting in the story points to the larger task of the writer, as he forages through Taiwan’s past; but the feeling  of wandering souls coming together stands in contrast to the strife for its own sake that one often finds in Western novels. (I wonder if some generalizations along these lines might be food for thought.) The passage describing a somewhat paranormal scuba dive in the basement of an old building made it especially difficult not to think of Haruki Murakami. Perhaps Wu’s Taiwan, like Murakami’s Japan, is an outwardly peaceful but historically troubled land, compelling its literary types to become detectives of the past, as a sort of therapy.

I have made a study of Taiwanese literature in recent months and can report that The Stolen Bicycle may be the most accessible recent work to have been translated into English and therefore the most pleasant to read. Many other recent Taiwanese books have been written using experimental methods, like stream of consciousness. The Stolen Bicycle, by contrast, follows a straightforward first person narration, and it is, again, a lot like a detective story. I previewed this book in electronic form, which I don’t generally enjoy, but I found it nearly impossible to stop reading, even on a computer screen. It is jarring, about two-thirds of the way through, when the narrative device switches briefly from bicycles to elephants; but that is a minor complaint. The Stolen Bicycle is a fascinating book about a very special place.