Lost and Found

By some miracle, a bookmark that I acquired in Taiwan in 1989 has remained in my possession, showing very little wear and tear, in spite of my indifference to it. I always thought it was cool – Its character style and the fact that it contains a quotation from Socrates are very evocative of Taiwan – but I never took any care of it. (After all, it’s just a bookmark.) Over the years, I occasionally employed it in its intended capacity, paying it no more mind than if it had been a shop receipt or piece of Kleenex, and then, the book read, I would leave it lying around for the next time. I don’t know how many places I’ve lived since 1989, but the bookmark survived them all.

Recently, while reading Jonathan Manthorpe’s Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan, I remembered the bookmark and decided that it would complete my experience. Then, after enjoying both book and bookmark, I resolved to make the latter a mandatory accompaniment to my upcoming immersion in Taiwanese fiction. With my determination fixed, I sought for the bookmark, to make sure everything was prepared; but I could not locate it. It was on no dusty nightstand or bookshelf, where it always was, where all the other bookmarks were. I checked my office, my car, and even less likely places, in increasing despair.  I realized that it was an irreplaceable antique, of tremendous personal value, the central artifact of my youth. I felt bereft and aggrieved, like a man missing a limb. I slept very little.

The following morning, I dashed to my car and arrived at the library, well before opening. As soon as the door was unlocked, I charged inside and implored the young man at the circulation desk to search every cart where a book returned the previous day might be. Finding the Manthorpe on the fourth or fifth cart, I flipped through the pages and there found the object of my quest, preserved as though in amber. I returned home and, at the foot of my bed, wept tears of gratitude.

Here is what it says:

HELP WANTED

“The most promising successful people are not those who possess uncommon talent but are, rather, the ones who are most adept at exploiting every opportunity for self-development and discovery.”

— Su-ge-la-ti

1989 Campus Career Fair

Tales of Old Taipei: The Fake Rolex Man

My Taiwanese employer would frequently open its doors to a variety of hustling salesmen and invite them to peddle their wares to the staff. By far the most popular of these characters was the fake Rolex man, who graced our workplace every couple of months.

The rapturous tidings “The fake Rolex man is here! The fake Rolex man is here!” accompanied by eager foot beats, would herald his arrival. The honored huckster would set up shop in the conference room next to my boss’s office, and I was able to observe the stream of breathless coworkers, arriving singly or in groups, carefully appreciating the counterfeit treasures and, more often than not, emerging with small handfuls of them, grinning proudly. Returned to their desks, they enjoyed much celebrity, as others of their departments gathered around to marvel at the loot before succumbing to envy and hurrying over to see what bargains remained. It was all very amusing to me and broke the monotony of long afternoons poring over telexes.

One afternoon, on the day after a visit from the fake Rolex man, my boss, whose English name was William, took me aside.  He put his arm around my shoulder.

“You know, ah, we’re very concerned about you,” he said.

“Oh?”

“Is everything all right?”

“Yes, William. Everything’s fine.”

“Are you homesick? You’ve been away from your own country for a long time.”

“I’m not homesick…  Have I made some kind of mistake on the job?”

“No, that’s not it. You just don’t seem to be fitting in very well.”

“I don’t?”

“No,” William said, and then he grew even more serious. “For example: Yesterday, the fake Rolex man was here, and you didn’t buy anything. You didn’t even take a look.”

“Well, I don’t need a watch. I already have one.”

William tisk-tisked. “But surely you sometimes need to give presents. Don’t you have a friend who would like a nice fake Rolex?”

“Why would I give a friend a fake Rolex?”

“Harry, Harry.” He looked around to ensure that no one had overheard my sacrilege. “The fake Rolex man is here to help,” he said. “You should take advantage of every opportunity to obtain good fake merchandise. If you don’t, you’re just… It’s just not healthy.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“Promise me you’ll take a look next time,” he implored. “You really owe it to yourself.”

I promised, but I was bummed. The watch I wore every day was an art-deco knockoff I’d picked up in Gongguan for twenty-five cents, and it kept perfect time; but did anyone notice? Did anyone give me any credit?

Everyone always assumed I was the maladjusted foreigner. I was tired of it.

 

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.

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.