In late October 1999 I was living in a beautiful ocean adjacent city that was rapidly becoming unaffordable. One morning after a party at the house of the person with whom I was living I had the good fortune to speak with a couple who worked for a large philanthropic organization. They were set to get on their sail boat and spend the next four to eight years sailing around the south pacific and South America because at that point the Gore/Bush election was too close to call but they had a bad feeling about it. We had a fairly brief conversation but the idea of fleeing a neoconservative/project for a new american century/heritage foundation take over of the american political landscape seemed like an excellent idea.
A few weeks later the unthinkable happened: the supreme court appointed a president. Disaster and “best laid plans” of the aforementioned think tanks would not be far behind. First I applied to the peace corps but since I was amidst a fairly deep depression the peace corp job interview did not go so very well. I had been asking them to send me to Africa and they were also not very keen on sending someone where they wanted to go. In addition to that, the interviewer really did not like me very much and I was never able to figure out why exactly. He asked me what I would do, if for any variety of reasons, I could not leave a certain area. I told him I’d sleep, read, make art, meditate. Any number of things really, that could be done in a confined area. He was not amused. I still to this day have no idea what that guy was fishing for in his questions. Maybe it was because I was too old? It was a big issue to me, at the time. I ended up moving to Seattle and working in a grocery store while my girlfriend, A., and I planned our escape to Taiwan.
It turned out to be a fantastic situation. In 2002 we both got jobs with the McDonald’s of bushiban (after school school) teaching english. The massive company had good relations with the government so I didn’t have to get an ARC (alien residency certificate) on my own. They hurdled that particular bureaucratic nightmare time suck. She went over first, found a place to live and started working. A couple months later I made the 6,440 mile flight and landed in Taipei with a back pack. She met me at the airport and we bussed it to our new apartment. I hadn’t built up unreasonable expectations and fantasies about what I thought I would find. The experience took me and I let it.
We walked from the bus stop to our apartment and on the way I got to see an enormous construction project, which I would later discover was actually relatively small scale. A teacher friend I later met told me he tried explaining the population density and size of urban buildings to his relations back home this way: “The upstate New York college town where I (he) went had a population of 20,000 people. The first apartment I (he) moved into had more people living in the building than that.” The structures dwarfed mountains and there were hundreds of them. Taipei was only a year or so away from finishing its tallest building, Taipei 101.
We started working, including commute, 8 -12 hours per day. I loved my new school. The people were so friendly and helpful. One night, about 3 a.m. I awoke to A. standing in the doorway of the bedroom to our apartment, arms akimbo, silhouetted by the illuminated living room light. “How can you sleep right now?” she demanded.
“Um. Just like this. Let me show you.” Still underneath the mosquito netting, I rolled over and attempted to go back to sleep.
“There’s a dog barking outside. It’s just a little puppy.”
“Don’t touch it.” I replied, “It’s probably got fleas or parasites.” A few minutes later she returned from outside the apartment with something wrapped in a towel. I reluctantly got out of bed and looked into the happy blue eyes of a small black and brown terrier looking thing. At that moment I knew it was over. “Fuck. We have a dog now.” I whined. We named him 小狼, Xiao Lang or Little Wolf.
After several days we talked about it and realized that it wasn’t great leaving the puppy in our apartment every day. We needed to get another dog.
Kuai Le 快樂
With the generous help of our roommate, without which we would not have been able to find such a place. We moved into our own apartment. A tiny kitchen, bathroom, living room and bedroom. The bedroom was triangular at one end. It was on the 4th floor which is the unlucky floor in buildings. The Mandarin for 4 is a very similar word for death. As foreigners living on the 4th floor was not a problem for us because, apparently, superstition does not translate.
A. found a woman who had recently rescued a dog and was looking for someone to adopt it. We arranged to meet at a nearby restaurant. I was under the impression we were just going to meet the dog and, in typical over-privileged western thinking, be able to decide if we wanted it or not. I met the kind woman outside the restaurant. She had a small pink bird cage with a nearly hairless pink animal that looked like a large rat. As I stood on the patio, it became apparent that I could not refuse to take this animal. She had no room for it and no where else to take it. Fortunately she had found an excellent Veterinarian who was able to give us medication and cleanser for the worms, scabies and skin fungus. The dog was emaciated and did not seem as if it would survive for long. When I got her back to our rooftop where we had set up a small quarantine I felt very certain the dog would not survive. Then I set some food down in front of her and she ferociously began devouring it. At that moment I realized we were keeping this animal and she was going to survive. We named her 快樂, Kuai Le, Mandarin for Happy. She was quarantined for 2 months and never lost her appetite.
When we finally brought her down into the apartment the two dogs got along famously. Xiao Lang ever the extroverted attention whore zipped around the small apartment while Kuai Le sat on a chair observing his antics with bemused detachment. He played fetch without any training and she wouldn’t chase anything other than food but was fiercely protective and had an intimidating bark. When taking them for walks no chicken bone discarded on the sidewalk was safe from her. She actually chewed them and there was no chance of getting any food away from her once it was in biting range. I called her chicken-bone-magnet. After every walk, especially in the riverside park, we would sit down on the couch and pull 5 -10 ticks out of each paw with a pair of tweezers that were dedicated to this task that simply became a rote chore and lost any trace of the disgustingness with which it was first imbued.
Aside from teaching English, taking care of the dogs, smoking vast quantities of hash and watching movies on the computer (VCDs!) I took an occasional trip to the beach to go surfing. This was the amazing thing that blew my mind, taking public transportation to the beach. I walked the few blocks to the MRT station and boarded the light rail, got off at the train station, bought a ticket, boarded a train and an hour or so later got off the train within half a mile of a tropical paradise with an excellent surf spot of which there were several. It really sealed my desire to never return to the United States. But fate was not to be so kind.
There was one other past-time that took all my focus and that was music. We had found an ex-pat bar with an open mic and I had found people, ex-pats mostly, to play music with about once a week. Funny thing about English teachers in Taiwan: most of them are Canadian. And so were most of the musicians that I met at the bar. I had my brother’s old 4 track that I used to record a lot of jams and also used to record my own songs. At one point I rented a music studio that had a p.a., drum kit, keyboard, amplifiers, and bass guitar where I threw together a dozen songs with all the parts improvised by myself alone. The folks in the studio just laughed at the foreigner playing music all by himself. I didn’t mind, it was just something I had wanted to do for several months and had finally summoned the courage and found the time to do knowing it would never amount to much.
Things with A. were coming to ahead as we were steadily growing older and approaching a critical point. She wanted to get married and have a baby, not an unreasonable expectation. I just wanted to never return to the USA, smoke hash, surf and play music for the rest of my time on earth. Also I wanted to learn to translate text from Mandarin to English so I could have a job working from anywhere with an internet connection. There was also the issue of my then undiagnosed bipolar disorder which would not become full blown until after the subsequent traumatic event of a death in my immediate family.
In June of 2004 I had a plane ticket to fly back to my family in California for a visit. One week before my flight was scheduled to take off I got a call from my brother telling my there had been an accident and our father was in critical condition in the hospital and was on life support, probably brain dead already. I had been very eager to see my family again, especially my father with whom I’d had fairly rocky relationship with, to say the least. I had yearned to talk with him about currency trading, of all things. Something I had been obsessed with every since earning money in NT dollars. There were many other things we needed to talk about too, conversations that had been put off too long. One thing I had done before I left for Taiwan the first time, knowing that I might not return, was interview my father. I asked him questions about his history about his parents about growing up and what the world was like sixty years ago. He did not disappoint and the hour we had barely scratched the surface of what I wanted him to talk about. Then he took me to the airport and I did not know that I would never see him alive again.
I flew home immediately and made it to the hospital before they turned off his pacemaker, unplugged him and let him die. When they allowed me in the room with him by myself, to say goodbye, I cried so loudly that my mother and siblings came in to tell me that I was disturbing the entire ward and that they would not leave me alone with him any longer. It was painful and I was jet lagged. We still had to wait what seemed like an interminable wait for a technician to come by and turn off his battery powered pacemaker that he had installed long before the silly accident that had cost him his life. He was diabetic and as a septuagenarian had been suffering from neuropathy and poor circulation. So it was something of a surprise that he had decided to get a massage before a big fundraiser that he and my mom had been planning for months. But she let him go and felt guilty about it for a long time because that is the sort of irrationality that humans are subjected to for caring. After the massage he was left alone in the room to dress himself and upon attempting to do so he had fallen and hit his head on the table and had a large gash in his forehead. The paramedics had broken his front teeth while trying to intubate him, something not uncommon with emergency western medical interventions. The large gash on his head had been cleaned and stitched up by the time I found myself wailing at his hospital bed. There had been speculation that he may have had an aneurysm due to plaques released into the blood stream during the massage, the reason massage can be dangerous for persons suffering from neuropathy and poor circulation. No one every will know because he was cremated without an autopsy at the behest of one of his closest friends who felt and autopsy would be disrespectful and unbecoming of such an beloved and respected figure. In my grief I delude myself with all manner of speculative causes of his death. Everything from the mafia to karmic punishment for me to foul play by business rivals. Eventually I chalked it up to something akin to the death of the Dr. Juvenal Urbino in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera”, an absurd and pointless death by accident.
Having already cleared out of what had been our little apartment in Taiwan, shipped all my belongings home and now found myself in California. I was utterly miserable and lost. All sense of purpose and vision seemed to have left me and I was experiencing the worst culture shock, having lost my “western bubble” that Americans tend to spend most of their time in. My language had become tonally unmoored and people were repelled by the way I sounded when I spoke to them. They were afraid and did not understand and neither did I. My habits and tolerances had all changed in ways that I also didn’t fully understand. One time I walked into an ice cream shop. There was a clerk behind the counter and a couple standing there looking at the ice cream flavors trying to figure out what they wanted. Since I had lost the custom of standing in line and waiting for the person next in line, I walked right up to the clerk and ordered a single scoop of chocolate ice cream in a waffle cone. The clerk was appalled and could not fathom why I thought it was my turn to order. The couple was also highly offended. Then I remembered I was in California and people waited in line for everything.
For years I was wretched and hated being back in the States where people were so boring and static, with their puny little alphabet and lack of tonality. Though I longed for the excitement of living in a far away place, learning to think in another so different language, I knew I could never go back. It would not be the same, could not be the same. So I resigned myself to make the best of this second new life in a shockingly bizarre land to which I had been born.