AATA: Kaohsiung (Part Two)

Asian American Takes AsiaThis post is part of the Asian American Takes Asia series, in which I chronicle my three-weeks-long journey to the motherland (Taiwan) and the fatherland (China). Hilarity ensues. 

As we zipped through the city, passing countless shops and restaurants, I wondered where we were headed. It was still relatively early in the evening, around 6:30 pm, so perhaps we would meet my cousin’s friends at a restaurant. Finally, we stopped at a corner. Looking up at the sky, I saw that the sun was setting. We hopped off the moped, but Da Mao didn’t take off his helmet. After a few minutes, two boys showed up on their respective mopeds, who I assumed to be the said friends. If this were America, Da Mao would’ve introduced us and I would’ve shook their hands and said, “Nice to meet you”. If this were Paris, Da Mao would’ve introduced us and I would’ve kissed their cheeks (once to the left and once to the right) and said, “Enchantée”. But this was the streets of Taiwan, so we did neither.

The two of them ignored me and began to speak with my cousin, so I took the opportunity to observe these Taiwanese gangsters. They certainly looked the part, with their shaggy bleached hair and stained teeth. The boys had a too-cool-for-school attitude and they appeared apathetic to whatever Da Mao was saying. I could only pick up parts of their conversation (my gangster Mandarin was not up to speed). Before I knew it, we were back on the bikes and we set off into the sunset. My thoughtful cousin asked his friends to drive slowly, since I was a moped newbie, but they didn’t listen. Through the busy streets of Kaohsiung, we tried to keep up, squeezing in between cars and gunning the accelerator.

Finally, we arrived at our destination. It was a beautiful area, with a couple of touristy plazas and the open sea. In the distance, I spotted large ships and a lighthouse on a cliff. We parked the bikes and walked along the pier. Being the American that I was, I was beginning to get slightly unnerved at being left out of the conversation. I couldn’t tell if they were nervous to speak to me or if they weren’t sure if I could understand them. My cousin mentioned me a couple of times in passing, telling them that I played League of Legends from time to time. This was interesting to them, since they were avid LoL players and they’d never heard of a girl who played. I explained that it was my boyfriend who introduced it to me.

The water was calm.

The water was calm.

It was the one with glasses who first spoke to me directly. Let’s call him Bruce. “Is America fun?” he asked with curious eyes.

We’d sat down on the concrete wall, our legs dangling precariously above the crashing waves. “Well, it depends,” I explained. “It’s a big country, so there’s a lot of variety. You can eat food from different countries, see really beautiful state parks, do any kind of sport. But it’s not like Taiwan. I think it’s a lot more fun here, because of how convenient everything is. And you can find small things to eat for really cheap.”

After that, they began to warm up to me. Excitedly, I tried to explain the American concepts of Greek Life and hipsterdom with the limited vocabulary I had. As it turns out, it’s quite difficult to define “hipster”. As I told them about the rampant alcoholism that characterized our universities, I wondered if they thought I was a drunk. Quickly, I realized that these Taiwanese gangsters were not so badass after all. Besides chain-smoking, they stayed away from particularly dangerous activities. They only drank when one of them had just suffered heartbreak and they rarely went to clubs or bars. My cousin was the only one who had even smoked a joint. A quick round of ten fingers revealed that, while they weren’t virgins, they certainly weren’t sexually experienced. Despite their rough exterior and dark reputations, these boys were teddy bears at heart.

Chuckling to myself at how I’d misjudged them, I asked them about Asian women. In my experience of Asian culture, Asian men were notoriously attracted to cute, girly girls that were either underage or acted like it. I didn’t get the charm at all, another consequence of my Americanism. I thought that girls should be independent, strong, and sassy. They could be feminine, but they should also be able to swing an axe if need be. I had to explain the concept of “girly” to them. When they finally understood, they asked me if guys could be girly. I replied yes, and elaborated that gay men were often seen as girly.

At that, Da Mao laughed and raised his hand. “That’s me,” he said. “I’m girly.” His friends slapped his back and exchanged knowing glances with him.

Squinting my eyes at him, I went over his words and wondered if he’d meant what I thought he meant. I’d spent the whole night trying to figure out if Da Mao was gay. Growing up, I’d always heard stories of his latest female conquest, and he was the last person I’d expect to come out of the closet. But a few days ago, his mother had confided to me that her son had informed her that he like boys. She didn’t know whether or not she should be concerned. Watching my cousin banter with his friends and tease them with homoerotic gestures, I was on the fence.

The conversation about girls continued, and we established that Bruce liked what we referred to as kittens — girls that batted their big, wide eyes at you and dressed as if they were in preschool. The other guy (we’ll call him Sandy) said he preferred tall women, which were a rare commodity in Taiwan. Finally, my cousin said that he liked older women. “I don’t know, I feel like they have more…flavor.”

It was my chance to ask. “Are you…gay?”

“What?”

“Your mother told me that you told her you were gay.”

He laughed in half-shock and half-annoyance. “She believed me? It was a joke. I didn’t think she’d take it seriously. Hold on, I need to do something.” Da Mao proceeded to pick up his phone and dial his mother’s number. “Ma, you thought I was gay? Well, I’m not.” With that, he hung up. Turning to me, he asked, “You didn’t think I was, did you?”

“No,” I shook my head as I smiled. “Of course not.”

That concludes my adventures in Taiwan. Stick around for my tales of Taiwan’s longtime nemesis, the People’s Republic of China.

Salut,

R

Soul-searching

Sometimes, I wish I could put my brain through the juicer.

Sometimes, I wish I could put my brain through the juicer.

I’ve never understood how people sleep in contacts. Even when I close my eyes for an hour — and no, I don’t mean nap, because I’m physically incapable of the siesta — my contact lens become super-glued to my eyeballs and peeling them off stings like a Brazilian wax. I still remember when I was 12 years old and thought that I was a daredevil because I rarely washed my hands before handling my contact lens and, gasp, even wore them to the shower. My mind was blown when a slightly older girlfriend flippantly informed me that she removed her contacts once a month. My eyes wanted to bleed at the thought.

The other day, I watched an ad for Air Optix Night and Day lenses, which it claimed was approved for 30 days of continuous wear. Although I’ve developed a more progressive tolerance of various persons’ contact habits in the past 9 years, I immediately turned to Phineas and ranted, “That’s bullshit! Complete marketing scam. Last time I went to get my eyes checked, my doctor wanted to switch me over to a bi-weekly lens. I declined, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer and tried to convince me that I could wear the bi-weekly’s as monthly’s. You see? Those people say whatever they want to sell things to stupid, lazy people who will go blind in a few decades.”

I’m usually not such a conspiracy theorist. In fact, I am generally gullible and utopian to a flaw. A few days ago, Phineas managed to convince me that Gilligan’s Island was a land mass located in Hollywood. On a more serious note, my idealism has turned my college career into a roller coaster. By that, I don’t mean that my three years of college have created highs and lows. By that, I mean that after all the twists, turns, and loops, I always end up exactly where I started.

In high school, I wanted to be a lawyer. Then, I attended my first murder trial, watched a 30-minute video of the blood-splattered crime scene, and changed my mind.

At the beginning of my freshman year of college, I wanted to be an entrepreneur. Technically, I still am an entrepreneur, though my co-founders and I will be disincorporating our startup in the next month. After failing my mid-term in Econ 101, I decided that business was definitely not my life’s passion. In the spring, I fell back on something I’d always loved but had never took seriously — languages. Of course, though, I couldn’t just pursue language without a clear and defined purpose. I decided I’d become a translator for the UN, drafted life plan v. 1.0, and enrolled in Intensive French. Over the summer, I declared my first concentration, Romance Languages and Literatures.

In the fall, I started to get that itch, the one all too familiar to chronic perfectionists. Everything was just going too well in my life, my courses were too easy, I clearly wasn’t challenging myself enough. Languages? That couldn’t compare to Phineas’ mechanical engineering degree. Promptly, I got myself hired as an ACT instructor at the Princeton Review, joined MIISP, and declared a double major in International Studies.

When I received notice of my State Department internship in December, I screamed so loudly the entire hall at my dormitory thought I was being bludgeoned to death. This was completely unexpected, to say the least, and my world suddenly changed. You see, the worst thing you can give to perfectionists is success, because it raises their standards and they’ll never be satisfied again. Essentially, perfectionism is an addiction to success, which — like any addiction — stems from low self-esteem and lack of self-worth. But that’s a topic for another day.

After this monumental shift in my college career, I drafted life plan after life plan, each carrying loftier ambitions than the last. These plans were further complicated by Luc, who challenged that I’d never write a book (everyone knows you don’t challenge a perfectionist). This culminated in a sort of quarter-life identity crisis in which I alternately wanted to be 1) a best-selling author and 2) a foreign service officer. One particularly feverish day, I typed out a monstrous email to my loved ones. Here’s a sample:

Life Plan v. 165.7

Life Plan v. 165.7

Yeah…

When I returned to campus for my junior year, I plunged headfirst into one of the hardest few months of my life. Last semester, I juggled 19 credits, my Princeton Review job, and volunteering while holding myself to a strict writing schedule of 900+ words a day.

This semester, another career-altering event occurred when I became an agented writer. Although my novel is still far from being published, I’ve been seriously considering MFA programs. For those of you who aren’t writers, a MFA is a Masters in Fine Arts and usually involves a two-year writing workshop that culminates in a thesis — usually a novel for Fiction MFA’s. Coincidentally, the University of Michigan is home to one of the country’s best MFA programs. But there’s no way in hell I’m staying in Ann Arbor after graduation. I figure that focusing on my writing for a while would do it some good, but I’m also concerned that it may not be so good for my mental health.

Since my languages have been my bread and butter, I looked into Harvard’s Romance Languages and Literatures graduate program, which is absolutely amazing. After five years, you get a Masters and a PhD. Not only is tuition/board covered, you’re even provided a stipend. There’s no doubt that I’d enjoy the program, and Boston is cool, but I looked at a list of recent graduates and everyone is a professor somewhere. I’m really not cut out to be a professor — I don’t want to do linguistic research; I want to learn how to speak argot AKA slang like a French rapper.

So now I’m back to one of my earlier life plans, which is a masters in International Relations. I would love to do Johns Hopkins’ SAIS and spend a year in Nanking, China. I wish they had a campus in Paris. Looks like I’ll end up keeping some parts of that ridiculous email life plan, as I recently accepted an offer to be a 2013 Honors Summer Fellow. Ironically, this spring I’ll be enrolling in Econ 102 to make my potential application to SAIS more competitive. This time, I’ll be sure to get an A.

Au revoir,

R

Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Part Three)

Dali Mountains

Click here for Part Two. Click here for Part One

My life story. Where to begin? I could tell him about my parents’ separation and the way it impacted me. How I would introduce myself in first grade with, “My name is Rebecca. My parents are divorced.” I have no idea why this seemed like a good idea to me at the time; clearly, my social skills were stunted. I could tell him about the Pistol Lady. How I once indirectly broke her foot and how she had a penchant for animal abuse. I could tell him about my father. How I had always worshipped him and now was finding it difficult to reconcile his heroism with his deep flaws.

Instead, I told him about me. “I’m a writer,” I said. “And a reader. My Chinese name translates literally as Book Love and I have more than lived up to my namesake. At school, I used to whip out my book every time the teacher looked away, as if I were a meth addict trying to get her last fix before the cops busted down the door. I actually started writing a novel, but it’s not really going anywhere.”

“Why?”

“Because, well, I’m busy. And my skill level constantly improves, so by the time I’m on chapter five of a book, I look back and chapter one absolutely sucks.”

He nodded as if he believed me. “You are afraid.”

Then, because I was an immature 18-year-old who thought I was in love, I talked about Jonathan. “I’m not sure about him. Sometimes, I think he’s perfect for me and we’ll spend the rest of our lives together. But I have so much doubt.”

He nodded again. “A good man need three thing. One, duty. Two, sacrifice. And three, honor.”

Slightly impatient, I said, “Jonathan does have those things. He’s a really good person. That’s not the problem.”

This time, he shook his head. “Then I know problem. Problem is, he do not capture your heart.” When I had no response, he continued, “Let me see picture of him.”

Pulling out my camera, I showed Knight my prom photos. As he studied them carefully, he remarked that I looked very beautiful. Finally, he gave his conclusion as if he were a fortune teller who had just looked into a crystal ball. “He is shy man. He have problem past. He try hard to please parent. But he love you very much.”

Rebecca's Prom

Me on prom day.

Awed, I told him that he was right. I couldn’t help but try to defend Jonathan, to praise the progress he’d made and to reaffirm my commitment to our relationship. In my heart, though, I knew it was over. Like Knight had said, Jonathan could never capture me. When I asked Knight what I should do about the relationship, though, he refused to give me an answer. He told me that if I couldn’t break up with him, then I shouldn’t. One day, when I really wanted to leave, then I would be able to end the relationship.

Then, Knight asked if he could show me his Taekwondo moves. He had rarely encountered anyone who was respectful of his art, and he told me that it would mean a lot to him to show me. Only his girlfriend, Mei, had witnessed him performing martial arts. In order to show me, however, he would need to get his uniform from his home. Eagerly, I agreed and didn’t think twice before following him into the now-dark night. Perhaps I was naïve, but I trusted him with my life.

I wasn’t expecting a glamorous penthouse, but the condition of his “flat” shocked me. There were no lights in the staircase, so Knight lit the steps with his cell phone and told me to be careful. When we finally reached his floor, I was immediately hit by the scent of human waste. It was as bad as the worst outhouses I’d ever been to. He was probably so used to it that he couldn’t even smell it anymore. However, he apologized and explained that the “restroom” was right by his room. And his home was just that — it consisted of a space the size of a college dorm room. There was a modest twin-sized bed to the right and a small desk to the left. His clothes were strewn all over the place. The walls were bare except for where his soiled white uniform hung.

While I attempted to hide my surprise, Knight was too excited to be embarrassed. Like a small boy on Christmas morning, he sent me back downstairs to the “courtyard” and instructed me to wait for him. He would come down and join me after he’d changed. Obeying, I made it back down the stairs and stood under the only light source in the vicinity. As I waited, I wondered if someone would kidnap, kill, or rape me. After a few minutes, he was there. Bouncing lightly from foot to foot, he proceeded to demonstrate a kick. Forgive my ignorance of martial arts terminology. Proudly, he explained that he turned 720 degrees in the air.

Although the move itself was well-executed and elegant, to me the most beautiful part of the night was Knight’s face. It was so absolutely ecstatic, the expression of someone who — for a brief moment in time — possessed everything that he could have wanted. I wished I could have his simple desires. I didn’t mean that insultingly; I truly believed that this man understood life much better than me. Whereas I was upset over stupid football tickets, here was a man who just wanted to do what he loved, for people who appreciated it.

Since Knight had promised to return me to my father within half an hour, we scrambled to make it back to the tea shop in time. Then, as we prepared to part ways, we promised each other that we would meet again. I told him that I would use the profits of my tea company to help him come to America. He told me that even though we’d only known each other for a day, I was his best friend. Laughing, I said that he, too, was my best friend.

Then, with my father eyeing me suspiciously, I bid farewell to my friend Knight. With his contact information clutched closely to my chest, I knew that I would never forget him. Unfortunately, our communication would be sparse and difficult once I left Dali. Knight didn’t own a computer and he could only access his email once every few months at the local Internet café. Upon my return to the United States, I was preoccupied with founding my company and with breaking up with my boyfriend. I decided to name the business after Knight, but he became a faint memory as the months passed.

This September was the first time I’d heard from Knight in more than a year. He emailed to let me know he was trying to start a family school in Dali and use his skills to teach Taekwondo, boxing, judo, Chinese government and much more. I told him that I’d spent the summer in Paris and loved it, and he was happy for me. As our communication ceased again, I realized that as we grow older and jaded, the magical moments in our past are so easily forgotten. Someday, I wouldn’t remember anything about Knight except that I’d met him in Dali. This thought was incredibly sad, so I did what any writer would do — I wrote it all down.

Here’s to Knight, the greatest man that ever lived. I hope with all my heart that we meet again.

Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Part Two)

A café Knight showed me when he offered to give me a tour of Dali.

Click here for Part One.

In a long series of surprises, the first one was this: Knight was only 27 years old. As he spoke to me animatedly, the innocence in his eyes was the only indicator of his youth. The ridges in his skin, the wrinkles around his eyes, and the weathered skin of his hands all belied long years of suffering. His unique story began with an unusual pairing — a Chinese merchant and the daughter of a Korean client. The two were married in Beijing against the wishes of both sets of parents. By the time Knight was born, his father was already caught in the destructive power of alcoholism. After a few more years of enduring her husband’s neglect and infidelity, Knight’s mother packed her belongings and took Knight back to Korea with her.

The moment five-year-old Knight set foot in Seoul, he felt like an outsider. Even at a precocious age, Knight had an uncanny insight into the motives and judgments of others. To the Koreans, he was fatherless, poor, illegitimate. Worst of all, he was impure, a half-breed, a mutt. While Knight’s mother was welcomed back to Korea by her family, Knight was treated as a mistake — an accidental B on a report card of As. Knight’s grandparents encouraged their daughter to find a suitable Korean husband and advised her not to tell anyone Knight was her son. By the time Knight was an official adult, he had lost his father, his mother, and his identity. By then, Knight had learned that the only way he would survive was by fighting.

And fight he did. Instead of a university education, Knight enrolled in a school of martial arts and graduated with a black belt. While the external release was gratifying for him, his internal battle had just begun. In search of a deeper meaning in life, he left his home that never was and flew to Thailand. Not speaking a word of Thai, he began to pick up English to converse with natives. From there, he traveled to Vietnam, Indonesia, and finally India. Most of the time, he relied on the goodwill of people to feed him and shelter him. By the end of his voyage, he had developed a longing for America. There, people told him, was where he would find what he’d been looking for all his life — a place in which he’d be accepted.

Unfortunately, traveling to America was neither feasible economically or legally for Knight. In his last days in India, as he wondered where he should head next, his father gave him a phone call. It was the first time in years Knight had heard from him. His father explained that he’d bought a small apartment complex in the heart of Dali and offered Knight a room to stay in. Hoping that he and his father would be able to reconnect, Knight took the next flight out of Mumbai and returned to his birthplace. Upon his arrival, his father showed him to his apartment and told him that rent would be 150 RMB per month. Then, he turned around and left. Knight wouldn’t hear from him again.

Soon, Knight discovered that China hated him as much as Korea had. When he attempted to establish a career as a martial arts instructor, the few that hired him were the same people that had excluded him from their society — Chinese, rich, and pretentious. For the most part, the Chinese turned a blind eye to Knight’s physical mastery. They were jealous, Knight explained to me. They didn’t want me to be successful at anything. They wanted me to remain at the very bottom of the totem pole, where I belonged.

She was what saved him. Although I don’t recall her name, for the purpose of this post, I’m going to call her Mei. At the time, Knight was working as a janitor in her high school. Although she was only 16, she was mature in a way that bridged their seven-year age gap. For the first time, Knight had found someone who accepted him for who he was and who loved him unconditionally. Unfortunately, their relationship was taboo in the eyes of the high school administration. The principal threatened to expel Mei and her parents begged Knight to stay away from their daughter. For the next two years, the two maintained their love for each other in their hearts and eagerly awaited the day they could be together.

After Mei graduated from high school, she and Knight spent long hours together speaking of their future and of possibility. Unfortunately, when fall came, Mei had to leave Dali to attend university in a town an hour away. For the next two years, they continued a long distance relationship. When Mei would visit him, she would clean his room and cook him food. Finally, Knight had a motive to get his life together — he wanted a family, a child. He began to take on clients he would have previously rejected and tolerated their demeaning attitudes. When he met me that day in John Li’s tea shop, he was preparing to get certified as a teacher so he could get a fulltime job.

At last, he had finished his story. For a moment, neither of us spoke. I felt so honored to be a witness to this great man’s life. My mind felt like it was being physically stretched to new limits of comprehension. Then, Knight smiled sheepishly and said, “You is first know my story for the girl. Nobody know this; only you do. So in fact I would say thanks you!”

Awed, I shook my head in disagreement. “No, thank you, Knight.”

When he spoke again, he was grinning mischievously. “So now I want know your life story.”

Although I would never be able to match Knight’s perseverance, vivacity, and love for living, I was happy to outline the first 18 years of my life for him. While I was already impressed by Knight’s history, it was his reaction to my words that cemented him in my mind as the wisest man I’d ever met.

To be continued…

Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Part One)

Dali, Yunnan

The famed Three Pagodas.

On this Fall (back) morning, I’m going to tell a story — a story of the greatest man that ever lived. Whose name would come up on your lips if someone asked you who was the greatest man you’d ever met? According to Rivers Cuomo, it’d be himself.

While I have to agree that Cuomo is one of the most creative songwriters out there, he’s not my Greatest Man. I knew my Greatest Man for only 30 hours, but he is and will always be a better man than me.

When I met him, I was freshly 18 and angry. I’d just graduated high school and been shipped off to China to spend time with my father. My mother kept sending me passive-aggressive emails asking me to negotiate my finances with my father for the upcoming college semester. I understand now that she was worried about the sudden end of child support, but at the time I was just annoyed. I wished I didn’t have to spend another penny of my parents. Then, there was my father. After I’d finally gotten used to Pistol Lady, now there was Squash Lady. My father and I play squash together — it’s always been our ritual. Then, one day he invited 25-year-old Squash Lady along and told me she was his colleague from work. Halfway through the session, he tapped her ass with his racquet a mere foot from my face. I wanted her to go to hell.

A few weeks later, my father arranged for us to take a trip to Dali in the west of China. I’d loved Lijiang (also in Western China) when I’d visited, so I was fairly excited to go. The night before we flew out, however, I was lucky enough to receive 15 golf ball-sized mosquito bites. When we arrived, I was cranky and the city did not impress me much. Dali didn’t compare to Lijiang’s old town, where hotel rooms were locked with chains and candle-lit paper lotuses floated down the stream. Instead, I saw natives living out of garage-like structures and rickshaws constructed of metal scraps. There wasn’t a place to go horseback riding (my activity of choice no matter where in the world I go) and we had to walk a mile uphill to make it to our hotel.

My dad took me to the most famous tourist attraction in Dali, the Three Pagodas. The whole time, though, I was crying behind my new Ray-Bans. My mother had just harassed me for weeks to buy season football tickets. When I finally did, she emailed to clarify that she had wanted my father to buy them and now I would have to ask him to reimburse her. Asking my father for anything was like death to me, so I climbed the Pagodas and cried. Then my dad got pissed because I wasn’t interested in anything, and our trip was a waste of time. On top of all this, I knew in the back of my heart that I was going to break up with my high school boyfriend soon.

It was in this context that I met him. In the afternoon, my dad went on a walk by himself while I stayed behind at the hotel. When he returned, he announced excitedly that he’d made friends with the owner of a tea shop. He had told them that I was his business partner (my dad is weird like that), and perhaps we’d be interested in exporting their tea to the United States. His good spirits lifted mine, and we began to build on each other’s ideas. The owner, whose name was John Li, had insisted that my father bring me to the shop. It was raining as we navigated Dali’s winding streets and found the tea shop.

For the next few hours, my dad and John discussed Pu-erh tea’s unique properties. As a side note, I was surprised that I knew this tea — my father had bought a cake a few years back and we’d always called it “horseshit tea”, after its particular scent. John explained the process of fermentation and showed us the difference between high-quality and low-quality Pu-erh. He constantly refilled our tea cups; we must have drank a gallon that night. As my interest in their conversation waned (my Mandarin fails me at a certain point), I noticed the other man seated at the table. He was reading a book and he’d make a comment to John every once in a while. He appeared middle-aged, like the other two men.

The first thing he said to me was that my dad had a great life — a wife and family in the States and a good job back in China. This statement was so absurd that I had to roll my eyes. In my characteristic naïveté, I began to explain the Pistol Lady situation to this stranger. To my surprise, he seemed to understand perfectly. He introduced himself to me as “Knight” and before I knew it, he was telling me his life story. The most peculiar part was that he spoke in very broken English, the kind of English one picked up through speaking with others who also spoke broken English, yet we neither resorted to Mandarin nor had problems of communication.

It seemed as if I could say nothing, and this man would understand me. What he proceeded to tell me, though, was beyond the understanding of my inexperienced mind.

To be continued…