On Writing: How to Write (?)

 Greetings from Hualien (花蓮), Taiwan.

I’m sitting at a small desk in our hotel in Hualien, blogging for the first time in 2015. Continue reading “On Writing: How to Write (?)”

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Grandma Learns Gmail, Writes Back Months Later

When I’d lived in New York for three months I did something I rarely do. I wrote an email in Chinese to my grandmother in Taiwan. This was November 2013. I kept it short, giving a brief overview of my studies, life in New York and POI. I paused a moment before clicking “send,” mostly because things were going well for me, a young woman who (at least on her Instagram) seemed to be having too much fun while dipping her toes into her first romance (here, POI rolls his eyes and shudders violently). By then, my grandmother, a breast cancer survivor, had been widowed four years and was living alone.

My grandfather had passed away the summer before I graduated from Berkeley in 2010. Immediately following the funeral, my mother, anticipating a period of vast loneliness and depression for my grandmother, invited my grandmother to spend winter with us in California. Grandma said yes and traveled happily up and down the California coast and to Las Vegas as well, snapping close to a thousand photos with a shiny pink Canon my mother won at a casino. She celebrated Christmas and New Years with us before heading back to Taipei to start life in anew in her own apartment some twenty minutes away from the house she lived in for twenty years, at my grandfather’s side. 
When she returned, it seemed as though the good times – all good times – had come to an end. She felt an odd lump in her breast. The doctors confirmed it was cancer. A few months later, her best friend passed away from a ten-year battle with the same disease. And closely after that, a few of my grandfather’s friends, with whom she’d grown quite close, passed away as well. 
We worried about her, but she has always been resourceful, resilient. She married an eighty-year old man when she was thirty, after all. They were married for twenty years. Anyone who knows my grandpa will understand that it’s the woman who made it work. 
She ended up having one breast removed and through it all, made new friends both at the hospital and through a Tai Chi class she had taken up just a few weeks before she came to California. When she was recovering, the Tai Chi class began to consume much of her time. She worked up her strength and flexibility so that by the time I saw her next, she was transformed. She cut her hair short and stopped dying it. She adopted a primarily vegetarian diet and as a result, lost the weight she’d gained while being married to my grandfather, who could eat foie gras, butter and sugar by the kilo and not gain an ounce. She stopped wearing makeup but there was more color in her face. Her eyes and skin were brighter. She turned once again into a spritely woman, not young, but with a young spirit. 
She also got a Gmail account. 
I helped her set it up some time ago – I forget which year, which visit – but it was time to upgrade her from the cooling Hotmail. 
I showed her around the easy interface, feeling smugly “techie,” and told her to start telling her friends to email her there. She nodded, always thirsty for cutting edge technology but never quite mastering it. She took pages of notes from my “Gmail lecture” despite my counseling her to just play around with it. This was how she learned, or so she thought, but some people can study and study and not absorb a thing. 
Grandma was smart in other, more important ways. How to appease a hundred-year old man on a hourly basis for twenty years, for one. How to make a huge, disparate family love and rely on you, for another. How to make friends with old and young, Chinese-speaking or not. How to love and love, give and give, and expect very little if nothing in return. The list goes on. I know how to use Gmail but comparatively, my skills pale.  
In the end, I would wander into the kitchen and see her poring over her hotmail account, which she would leave unattended for months at a time. It was a treasure trove of spam. 
“I need to get through all these before I start using my gmail,” she would say. 
I wondered, “By when?”  
When I moved to New York, the promises I’d made to call my grandma fell away – it was hard enough to remember to call my own mother. But I thought about her from time to time, and wondered how she was getting on. I talked more regularly with my cousin Karen, who despite living in the same city, did not see grandma as often as I assumed. 
“She’s pretty busy,” my cousin said, “She’s got like a whole other life outside of us.” 
I’m not sure what compelled me to write to her that day in November – I guess it had been a while. I guess too, that I was continuing a faint tradition of sorts. My grandfather, her husband, had been a steady corresponder – until he was ninety-eight, he wrote letters on a daily basis. Sometimes with a fountain pen, sometimes with a Chinese calligraphy brush. Always in a shaky, but elegant hand. My brother and I wrote to him from time to time, more often when we were children and three weeks later, almost to the date of our last letter to him, there would be a reply in the mail, written on thin, nearly translucent paper. 
The date. 
Dear Howard and/or Betty
A brief message responding to our polite inquiries of how is your health? We accomplished such and such. We are looking forward to our next trip to Taipei… 
Love, Grand Pa. 
Always two words. Grand Pa. 
In any case, I clicked “send,” and my words, the gushing toned down, traveled electronically to my grandmother’s gmail inbox. 
I didn’t hear back from her and did not think anything of it. Had it been anyone else, I would have been irked. Thought them rude. A callous penpal. But it was grandma and I wondered if she was taking the time to digest my email or didn’t know what to say in reply. 
I should have known. 
A few days ago I opened my inbox and saw a message from her. The subject line said simply, “Reply,” in Chinese. 
Zhen (my Chinese name): 
I’m very sorry I’m replying to your message now. Half the year has gone by. 
My inbox has two to three thousand messages. Recently, I have started to go through them one by one, which is how I came across your message. 
I’m very happy you have a boyfriend now. Take the time to understand one another. Your cousin Larry is getting married next year. If you have time, come back for the wedding. 
I will go to America at the end of the year. When the time comes, I will see you. 
Grandma   

Photo Diary of a 2013, Part 2

At the beginning of April, I left the bustle of Asia and came home to this:

The road. 

I flew to New York to attend Columbia’s admitted student’s night and stayed with Albert, an architectural student from Taiwan whom I’d met many years ago through my cousin. He never slept and smoked like a chimney and was constantly complaining about his monumental workload, but ask him if he’d prefer to be studying anywhere else and he’d shake his head. “New York is where I want to be.” His apartment was my temporary home and despite it being dark, with critical windows facing brick walls, I could see how when life is full and you’re doing what you love (and hardly ever come home because you’re at studio), things like that matter just a little less.

“I haven’t slept in three days,” says Albert, “But I’ll sleep when I’m dead (or when I run out of cigarettes).”
I was, obviously leaning towards Columbia but two things helped seal the deal: 1. They gave me more money. 2. I found my dream studio, minus the nightmare of five flights of stairs and no elevator. Also, the passionate urging of others helped. “It’s New York! What the hell are you going to do in the middle of butt-fuck nowhere North Carolina or West Virginia! New York, Betty! New York!!! Every writer’s dream!”  
I have yet to set foot inside that building. 
With the minor detail of where I was to spend the next two years of my life out of the way, it was time to settle into a peculiar routine: three days a week I lunched with my grandfather. I would get to his house around 11AM, read for a half hour, then put together a simple meal while he watched TV or read the paper. We’d eat, chat about things – sometimes he would tell me stories, sometimes he would be quiet and shake his head, wondering what was to become of me. All the time he would think about his old half, my grandmother. Lunch was always short, a thirty minute affair at the end of which I would clear the dishes and ask him if he wanted dessert. 
“None for me,” he would say. But I would push and push and eventually he would share a pineapple cake or have a bite or two of ice cream. We would read for a half hour more and he would retire to take a nap. I would move to the couch and try to continue reading, but eventually, the whirr of the water pump in the fish tank, the breeze from outside and the warming afternoon sun would cause me to nod off and for an hour Grandpa’s house would be silent but for the slow, even breath of an old man and a young woman, an anchor and a sail. 
Because sometimes glasses just don’t cut it. 
And around these afternoons I saw friends… 
Coworkers who turned into great friends, Grace and Enny. 

 …family….

Babies galore at Lucas’s (on the right!) One Month Celebration held, where else? At Sam Woo’s in Irvine. 
May rolled around and I turned twenty-seven. A damn good age, if you ask me. 


I took a trip to Charleston to see Grace, a cellist who was playing in the Spoleto Orchestra (longer post to come). I fell in love with the south and southern food, but that was expected. I went to my first southern beach and wondered what the hell southern Californians were so proud of. We wore summer dresses. I let my hair down and played bingo and drank with classical musicians who were surprisingly raunchy when they weren’t playing classical music. We walked a lot, ate a ton, and I pretended to understand the opera she got me tickets to.

Woohoo, culture! 
Grace walking at Sullivan’s Beach. 
When we weren’t stuffing our faces with fried everything we were trying to walk it off.  
Like that one ride at Disneyland. 

And immediately after that, my mother suggested an impromptu trip to Kauai. She popped into my room one evening and asked, “How much are tickets to Kauai at the end of May?”

I looked for her, then asked, “Who are you thinking about going with?”

She seemed surprised, “Oh, you! Do you want to go?”

This is what’s called a no-brainer. So we went, just the two of us.

My mother thinks about her mother. 

On our last day there, we went swimming in the hotel pool, then my mother took a nap while I wrote a letter to my brother. When she woke, I asked her how she felt about barbecue. She said fine. I ordered it by phone and drove to pick it up. My mother stayed in the kitchen, peeling papaya and when I returned, I saw that she’d been crying.

“Mom, what’s wrong?”

She started crying again.

“I was just thinking about grandma.”

“What were you thinking about that made you think of grandma?”

In hindsight, it was a stupid and insensitive question, but I think my mother understood what I meant.

“I am so lucky that my daughter can travel with me and we can spend time like this, but I can’t do that anymore with grandma.”

I hugged her, because you can’t really do anything or say anything but hug a person who misses their dead mother.

“Let’s eat outside on the balcony,” I said, and she agreed.

I poured us each half of the small bottle of wine we’d gotten from the airline and when everything was served, she raised her glass to me, something I’ve never seen her do. My mother is not a big drinker.

“I wish you a good happy life in New York,” she said. Her voice broke and her face crumpled and I choked up too, but did not cry. I said thank you. I said, “I already have a good and happy life.”

My mother thinks about me. 

At the end of June, it was time to return to Taipei. This trip was much shorter than the first, but no less fun. For starters, my cousin Karen and I returned to Hong Kong:

Traveling for business, obviously.  
Before our feet started to hurt. 
Do this panorama some justice and click on it. 
My brother got married (again, to the same Cathy), at the W Hotel in Taipei. He cried the whole time and Cathy, was like, “What is wrong with you.” It was very touching. 
Bubbles and my brother’s tears. 
Some Ho’s and then some. 
I spent some quality time with family in Taiwan, and it felt a little different this time because I wasn’t sure when I’d next be back. 
My uncle at the office. He looks at numbers, then reads Buddhist scripture, and is in bed by 9PM. Every. Single. Day. 
My cousin Melody was also home from Boston over the summer, taking a break from breaking hearts. Over Din Tai Fung, we talked about the elusive Mr. Right and the ubiquitous Mr. Wrongs.  
I ate Chinese food as though my life depended on it, unsure of what awaited me in New York. Pasta, it turns out. 
And a lot of the time, marveled at the fact that this guy was in a relationship with a girl who really really likes him. “I don’t know why either,” he says. 

I returned to California in the middle of July, hoping to return to a somewhat normal schedule, but it was crunch time. There was another trip to Vegas with the girls I go most often and have the best time with: 

Elevator selfie. 

A short trip to SF. First stop, two nights at Erica and Carson’s:

TPE – HKG – SF! Taxicab selfies are now a thing. 
I had lunch with Emily from Pearl’s wedding. She lived in SF and was trying to convince all her single girlfriends to move out there. 
“The odds are so much better for women in SF,” she said, “I heard it’s hard to meet someone in New York.” 
I nodded; I had heard the same thing. But a month later Emily would make it very easy for me to meet someone in New York. 
“What about POI? He’s offensive and so is Betty.” 

And the main event: Jaime’s Bachelorette party, which was supposed to be tame but ended up like this:

The bachelorette and a very drunk man who liked very much to “back it up.”  

My cousin Wendy’s baby shower:

Remember earlier in the year she was in Vegas! 
And a quick succession of hangouts before I had to leave town: 
I watched a lot of movies with this girl, equally as obsessed with Benedict Cumberbatch as I was until we realized he was probably gay. But we still really like him. 

With cousin Michelle in Venice, aping an ape. 
At plate by plate with Enny, whose outfit was pretty much the talk of the town. 
Billy’s dad salting seasoning their salmon during a random weekend at their mansion in Upland.  
With Angie and Lynn at a Phoenix International event. 
Getting In n’Out with Grandpa. 
With Auntie Linda, a few days before leaving. 
Pint-sized houseguests from Taipei. 
An impromptu mexican feast at Grace’s.  
Then, on August 17, 2013, I moved to New York. 
Well. Sort of. 
The early days. 
Grace and Charlene were there to help make things better. We went to HomeGoods and bought mirrors and lamps, you know, essential things. They helped me haul three giant boxes filled with Forever 21 crap up five flights, something the UPS guy failed to do. 
Best moving service ever 🙂 Way better than UPS. 
Then in my giant mess of an unfurnished room, we got ready for my first girls’ night out in New York. 
And it was never this messy again. 
Cleaned up and celebrating Charlene’s birthday belatedly, at Robert in Columbus Circle. 
And it was back to California for Jaime and Alvin’s beautiful wedding in San Clemente. I’ve known Jaime since middle school, when we met in science class and giggled together at the teacher’s giant armpit sweat stains. Four months later, she and her husband would fly through a snow storm and battle massive flight delays to visit me in New York. 
With bridesmaid Emy, also an old friend from high school and Jaime, one of the most low-maintenance brides in the history of brides. Emy and I always look like her bodyguards.  
I like to think that some of my photos were better than the wedding photographer’s. 
At the wedding, just as I was sitting down to dinner, Emily texted me. 
“Hey! I want to set you up with someone.” 
“I’m game,” I said, taking a bite of fish. 
A few minutes later POI texted, asking me to dinner sometime the following week. I’d let him know tomorrow, I said. First I had to eat cake and dance. I was at a wedding, after all. 
The next evening, I boarded a red-eye flight from Long Beach to JFK. And just like that, it was back to New York. For longer, for real. 

Mosquito Bites

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I have – and this may not be the medical term for it but it’s a direct translation from what doctors say in Chinese – an allergy-prone composition. Which means my eyes itch and run quite easily, and I’m prone to bouts of rapid-fire sneezing. When it comes to skin, mine reacts badly to the saliva of jerk-off Taiwanese mosquitoes who apparently prefer American-raised blood as my Taiwanese cousin never gets bitten if she walks with me. Continue reading “Mosquito Bites”

Travel, Love

All this traveling is messing with my emotions. I’m a disappointing three hours into my flight home, sitting next to an elderly Taiwanese couple from Santa Monica who seem so at peace with the journey. Their expressions say, “Oh these long flights are just a part of life,” and they’re right. 

The woman ate her meal with modulated gusto, then after fidgeting with the entertainment system, decided to put her energy towards blowing up one of those inflating neck pillows. She is quite thin and, I’m guessing, on the cusp of seventy so the process strained what weak neck muscles she had. I wanted to help her out but it didn’t seem sanitary. My eyes darted back and forth between the small screen in front of me and the slowly inflating neck pillow until it reached a fullness she was happy with. She secured it around her frail neck and promptly fell asleep, leaning slightly forward so that the neck pillow seemed moot. Her husband is watching “Django Unchained,” which I just finished. It was a little too bloody for me, but that’s Quentin Tarantino for you. I thought, this is a love story in disguise.

Also a (creepy) love story in disguise. 

On the escalator in Eslite bookstore yesterday, I turned to my cousin. 

“This is so weird.”

“What’s weird,” she asked. We were going down to the food court to buy my uncle a salad for his lunch tomorrow.

“It’s weird that today, right now, I am in The basement of Eslite buying a salad, eating a green tea ice cream…”

My cousin turned to look at me, “So?”

“And tomorrow, I’ll be back in my room in California, going through my mail and reading my magazines.”

We stepped off the escalator and turned left to the food court, walking past the little stands of trinkets and then Bonjour Bakery, one of my aunt’s favorite bakeries in Taipei. Parisian taste, but I associate it with Taipei. 

“You need to thank the people who invented the airplane,” my cousin said. 

Indeed.

Travel is in my blood. I recall my grandfather’s photo albums in which he is pictured standing in front of every known tourist destination: Disneyland, the Singapore mer-lion, safari in South Africa, the Sydney Opera House, the list goes on and the photos fill dozens of albums, some in which he is photographed alone, others with his fourth wife, others with his fifth, and others, as a much older but no less robust man, with us, his blithe smiling grandchildren who are only faintly aware but will soon give into their growing appetite to see the world. 

2.5 months of traveling.

Does anyone remember that episode of “Sex in the City” when Carrie says that she’s dating more than one guy and her friends go, “What for?” And she says, wiggling into some couture, “I’m trying them on.”

It’s kind of like that, except instead of men they are cities and each one I visit I not only try on for size but also size them up: Could I happily live here? Do I like the air and the taste of the water; do the flora and fauna appeal to me? Do I like these roads and this public transportation system? And the people, could I love them? Is it strange that I smile at strangers in the street? (In most cities I find the answer is “Yes, but don’t stop smiling.”)

At this point the question is not yet ripe – or perhaps my experiences do not warrant the question. I don’t deserve it yet, just as I don’t deserve citizenship aside from the citizenship I currently possess because I haven’t given any city a fair chance.

A week each in London, Paris, and Berlin, and more recently, four days in Hong Kong, three in Seoul, just two in Shanghai (spent doubled over in bed), and even less than that in Singapore. And not just abroad but at home in the larger national sense of the word “home” – Berkeley, San Francisco, New York, Boston, Ann Arbor, and yes, even that glittering place of excess (for millions it is home!), Las Vegas. I am beginning to feel the roots of my current home begin to unwrap themselves from the ground and slide out, however slowly, like a giant taking off an old pair of shoes and on the hunt for some new kicks. 

I do it intentionally, so as not to get attached – what if I fall in love? Like really in love, head over heels – I’d have to stay longer than that to really learn about a place, wouldn’t I? 

Too attached? A violent vine in Taipei. 

Isn’t that the most terrifying thing about falling in love? That the object of your affection could absorb you or swallow you whole then melt and dissolve your flesh and bones with its saliva, a potent mix of smog and trees and foreign but friendly looking children in strollers or prams, depending where you are? Like a Venus Flytrap but on a much larger scale. And by then you’re no longer a tourst – strictly speaking, you’re not necessarily a citizen, but you see yourself as such because you understand the ways and the roads and the tongues; you accept the weather because that’s how it is. 

I accept you, oh beautiful, blooming bougainvillea!

I have such a relationship with Orange County and Taipei, but at the same time these places are two faces of one mother: familiar, loving, taken for granted. Unless the earth swallows them whole.  

Back to my question. Not just “where?” but also “what if, if the ‘where’ is found?” The long answer is the one I’m still writing. The short? It’s a mystery. 

To Market, To Market, Again

It’s funny the images we’re destined to take over and over again. My brother likes taking photos of scenery – I do too, but above all I prefer people. People at work, especially in Asia, since in the States I’m too afraid of being chased down and sued. I love my street vendors and sweepers, my old men playing chess, and butchers hacking away at curious animal parts on thick wooden blocks. Two years ago I accompanied my aunt to the market right before Chinese New Year and posted about it here, and this year, I did the same, taking very similar photos. I didn’t mean to, but it was just the same images that I felt worth sharing.

Faces have changed – who knows what happened to the pink ladies I shot on my first visit to the market – but the roles and the loud voices, the bustle and the atmosphere have not. The world, the photographs say, changes yet does not change.

All photos taken with iPhone and enhanced with Camera+ app. 

The Pink Ladies. Famous ready made eats. 

Tired Pink Ladies (and a man!) taking an extremely late lunch break (3PM). 

“Extremely extremely hot,” the young man calls out, “Please make way!”

A patient fish monger explains to my aunt how best to cook the fish skin. 

A young man wonders why he did not study harder in school, but what can he do now it’s  nearly
Chinese New Year and his mother needs an extra hand at her vegetable stand and look, there is a
strange girl taking a photo of him with her iPhone. Damned tourist who knows nothing of hard work. 

After seeing stalls like this, I vow to become vegetarian, which lasts for about two hours. 

I liked my first caption on Instagram so much I shall employ it again: Like a boss. 

Happy Grandma. Who needs teeth? She sells soft little wontons. 

A sausage and fish ball vendor. As you can tell, some flavors of fish do better than others.
My aunt, hauling the day’s haul up the stairs, out of the market. 

Little New Year charms vendor. 

And it’s not Chinese New Year until your entire family spends more money than necessary buying lottery tickets for a lottery you will never win. 

For those of you planning to visit Nanmen (South Gate) Market 南門市場 check out this link.

Red Lanterns

Last night my aunt pulled two red paper lanterns out of a plastic shopping bag. My cousin and I were sprawled on the couch, she watching “Moneyball” on HBO and I reading a British Vogue I had rented from a small magazine rental shop around the corner. It was more economical to rent foreign magazines for 1USD a week rather than buy the latest issue for 20USD. We both turned to look at my aunt as she pulled the lanterns open with a loud “Braaaap.”

“When’d you get those?” My cousin asked.

“Yesterday,” my aunt said, inspecting the lanterns for any rips. “I watched a news story about lobby decoration.”

My cousin turned to give me a smirk that said, “There she goes again” but my aunt did not see.

“I don’t think the firecrackers are enough. I want to hang these from the lights. The lobby will seem more festive.”

A week ago, my friends and I had come home to find the small Christmas wreath my aunt had hung in the lobby replaced by a giant strand of bright red firecrackers. Merely decorative, of course, to signal the impending Lunar New Year. It was a nice touch, a bit of vibrancy in our otherwise spare and understated lobby. If one can call it even that. Other buildings had doormen, twenty-four hour surveillance systems, sitting areas for guests to wait in and accompanying association fees, but our building was tall and narrow, one unit per floor, the living areas of which were maximized by doing away with all frivolities one associates with “fancy” buildings.  One walked in and in two steps was in front of the elevator. There was no ceremony, no association fees.

My aunt rearranged the tangle tassels that hung below the lanterns and tied gold string to the hooks.

“I’m going down to hang them now,” she said, and dumbly, we nodded.

“I’ll need your help,” she said, “I’m not tall enough.”

Of course not. My aunt is barely 5’1″. I lept up while Karen remained seated, her eyes glued to Brad Pitt’s aging but still handsome face. He looked frustrated.

“I’ll come help you,” I said, and it was my aunt’s turn to give her daughter a smirk.

“Of course you will, Karen will just sit here with her legs crossed like a queen. How useful.”

My cousin protested half-heartedly, “Well it’s not like you need two of us.”

I laughed and grabbed one of the lanterns, “She has to work overtime, all the time,” I said, “I’ll help you hang these up.”

My aunt picked up a little foot stool from her entrance way, the one we sat on to put on our shoes.

“This should be tall enough,” she said.

It wasn’t. I could barely reach the top of the light casing and was feeling oddly…imperiled. The stool shifted a bit with my every breath and I wondered if I would break my neck trying to hang these cheap paper lanterns to liven up our lobby in which no one ever spent more than two minutes, which was how long the elevator usually took to go all the way down. My aunt must have felt my unspoken alarm and after watching a few more of my futile attempts asked me to step down.

“We need a step ladder,” I said, out of breath. I realized how out of shape I was.

“I think we have one on the 8th floor,” my aunt said, “In the stairwell. I’ll go check.”

I waited in the lobby, wondering if I should have gone to get the stepladder instead. The elevator stopped at the 7th floor and the 8th was accessible only by stairs which were dark and dusty. We stored things we didn’t often use in the stairwell, but still it was no place for a woman of my aunt’s age to go poking around. Last I checked there were plenty of heavy things leftover from our building’s remodeling that could topple over and cause serious injury. The minutes dragged by as I waited for my aunt to return. Perhaps the stepladder was very heavy and she could not move it, or perhaps she would fall and clatter with it down the stairs. My aunt was getting older, but not so old that she couldn’t carry a stepladder, but still – it didn’t feel right, even if just an hour earlier at dinner we had shared a good laugh about just how hardy she was.

“When I was pregnant with your cousin Larry your grandpa asked me to hang a picture up in the stairwell of the old house.”

“When you were pregnant?” I said? “How pregnant?”

“Six or seven months,” my aunt said.

“That’s messed up.”

“Yes, well, your grandpa would rather have me get up on the high chair than his beloved son.”

“I would have gotten in a fight with grandpa,” Karen said.

“I would have told my husband to go up there in my place,” I said, giving my uncle a look. He did not seem to be paying attention to our conversation and was instead, looking at his watch wondering when us women would stop jabbering and head home. He liked to be in bed by 9PM.

“You were seven months pregnant!” we both said.

My aunt shrugged, no big deal. She was the definition of hardy. She could do whatever her husband couldn’t or wouldn’t and more too, like take initiative and put up Chinese New Year decorations in an otherwise mausoleum like lobby. But still, my cousin Larry was nearly thirty now and she shouldn’t be the one fetching step ladders from dark stairwells. I watched the elevator stay on the 7th floor and was just about to run up when it slowly began its descent. I felt like a useless twenty-seven year old who could barely stretch without losing her breath.

The elevator doors slid open and my aunt came out with the ricketiest looking stepladder I had ever seen. It wasn’t even a stepladder, but a wooden painter’s ladder, hand-made, it seemed, by a blind carpenter who had a very rudimentary idea of what ladders looked like and who had only the shittiest bits of wood, the rustiest screws, and the oldest, crustiest bits of rope to work with.

“That looks… decrepit,” I said, “I doubt it can hold my weight.” I suddenly regretted eating the green tea ice cream and the donut I had for dessert.

My aunt waved impatiently at my consternation, “Nonsense, if it can hold all those construction workers it can definitely support you.”

I thought about the wiry Taiwanese construction workers I’d often passed by on the streets, none of whom seemed to weigh more than half of what I weighed. They were always perched lightly upon these same rickety ladders like chimpanzees, working as carefree as though the ladders were extension of their own bodies. I was not so skilled. I studied the ladder and wondered how it even stayed standing – it was haphazardly slapped together with just a single bolt on either side of the “rungs” and with a simple dirty grey rope in between to hold the two sides together.

“You have to lean on it to stabilize it,” my aunt instructed.

I hesitated, and before I could step up my aunt said, “It’s okay, I’ll go up.”

Whoa whoa whoa, auntie, calm down. Sure, she was not pregnant, but she was nearing sixty and I was…not about to let my aunt climb up the world’s oldest hand-made ladder and let her fall and break her hip. Where had my courage gone? I was, at one point in my life, obsessed with climbing trees and doing cartwheels and swimming in icy cold rivers. Now, I was fearful of breaking my neck in the entrance of my home which was just a stone’s throw away from the hospital.

“No,” I said, “I’ll do it. I’ve seen the workers use these ladders and I know how it works.”

Sometimes, lying out loud makes it easier to believe. I climbed the ladder as solidly as I could, feeling the ominous creaking of old wood pressing into rusty screws and realized I wouldn’t just break my neck but also possibly endure the pain of a trillion splinters.

“Steady?” my aunt asked.

Not really, but I nodded and my aunt handed me a lantern and a push pin, which, after much difficulty I pressed into the wood of the light casing.

Gingerly, I hung the lantern up and willed the push pin to hold. It did.

“Okay,” I said.

“Next one,” my aunt said.

Up again, a long, stressful reach and applied pressure to the small head of the pushpin. Another red lantern up. I climbed down from the step ladder one last time and breathed a huge sigh of relief.

The tassels of one of the lanterns was tangled again, but it was low enough for me to adjust it from the ground.

“Now it looks like Chinese New Year,” my aunt said, gazing at our work.

Welcome home. 

It was a simple enough job, and though the minutes up on the step ladder felt interminable, had taken altogether less than ten minutes. I looked at the red lanterns swaying slightly from what, I wasn’t sure – the door was closed and I could feel no draft, but perhaps they were just happy to be out and about, on display for all of ten tenants to enjoy. It did look good, those two simple lanterns in a beige marbled lobby.

My aunt folded the ladder and made to haul it back upstairs.

I grabbed it from her, “I’ll take it back up,” I said. Her work was done, at least for tonight.

Decompression

It must have been something I ate. I had planned to accompany my cousin Larry, who graciously offered to drive E and C to the airport today, but barely five minutes into the drive my stomach began to rumble in that ominous way and a few embarrassed apologies later, I found myself hugging Erica and Carson goodbye in front of a twenty-four hour MacDonald’s in Shilin, clutching a box of Kleenex just in case there were none in the public restroom I was about to grace with my presence.

“This is not exactly how I wanted to say goodbye,” I said.

“Don’t even worry about it,” Erica said.

“When you gotta go, you gotta go,” Carson said.

We hugged in front of the MacDonald’s, several of its patrons watching us from the windows and wondering, no doubt, why the tall lanky caucasians were saying goodbye to a young, seemingly local woman who was holding nothing but a cellphone and a box of Kleenex. I was wearing a shirt I had bought at the Shiling Night Market as a joke – a long sleeved screen shirt with a giant pair of sunglasses and underneath: “Worst. Hangover. Ever.” I planned to wear it after raucous nights out, such as last night, when my cousin and I gave Erica and Carson one last taste of Taipei’s nightlife, hitting up a speakeasy, lounge in the span of a few short hours, but rather than feeling hungover, just felt the beginnings of flulike symptoms that got worse and worse as the day wore on. Erica and Carson packed after our last meal together at Din Tai Fung. I slept.

And just like that, they were gone, back in the car and on the road to Tao Yuan airport, where just two weeks ago I had happily met them at 10PM with my cousin Karen, who had graciously offered to pick them up from the airport. VIP treatment for their American guests, she said, and I laughed. How quickly those two weeks went by.

It was one of the less busy Macdonald’s I had seen, but also seemed to cater to truck and taxi drivers. I think it had a drive through, but I can’t be sure, because I was focused on finding a restroom. I did, and everything turned out fine – didn’t suffer a Charlotte-in-Mexico moment (people who have seen SATC the Movie will know what I’m talking about) as I had feared, and instead found myself feeling slightly better in a strange part of town, and still, clutching a large box of Kleenex.

A slight person wearing a motorcycle helmet stood in front of the MacDonald’s readying to mount a scuffed scooter and it was only I came closer that I dared to follow my “Excuse me” with a “Miss.” She could have been a teenager, she could have been in her mid-thirties – with women here, it’s hard to tell sometimes – but she was holding a soft serve cone and seemed friendly.

“Where’s the closest MRT station?” I asked. She told me that I was unfortunately, standing exactly equidistant from two and would either have to cross a freeway bridge to get to one or walk a long way in a motorcycle underpass to get to the other.

“Motorcycle underpass,” I said. Patiently, between unhurried, dainty licks of her ice cream cone, she showed me how to go.

It was one of the stranger walks I’ve taken solo, anywhere, not just in Taipei, and not simply because I was holding a box of Kleenex. Erica and Carson were lucky with the weather – before their arrival it had rained nonstop for nearly two months and even the day I landed, just two days ahead of them, the weather had turned startlingly cold.

“A cold front,” my aunt said, shivering, and then contrarily opened all the windows wider.

I wondered if I would stay in Taipei so long if the weather would be this harsh, but Erica and Carson arrived, a smiling, happy-go-lucky couple with wide eyes and large appetites and it was as though Taiwan wanted nothing more than to impress her new visitors, and so put on her atmospheric best. We were blessed with sun and cooling yet balmy breezes. It was almost miraculous, until this afternoon when everything changed. A cold wind began to blow and a misty drizzle began to fall and as I hailed one last bus for us, my hair sweeping every which way except back, I wondered if it would start raining again now that the two whole Californians were leaving.

But as I began my walk home, the winds died down and the clouds began to thin a bit, so that the colors from the setting sun could be seen in the west. I was heading west, so I walked towards those colors: pale pinks and oranges, a blinding grey-white in some areas where the clouds were more stubborn, and all around it a feathery, dusty blue. In that area, Shilin, the streets seemed narrower, were certainly older (or perhaps just less moneyed and shiny), and every now and then I turned to find a small, quiet, leafy park with rudimentary exercise equipment and a small, low temple in the middle of it with children playing before it just as children should play on weekend evenings, with nothing to do but shout childish, imaginative commands at each other. “You run here and tag her there! I told you not to run that way! That way! Not that way!” An elderly man sat alone under the awning of the temple, looking on, and I did not notice him until one of the young boys sprinted across the paved ground. He seemed, like me, to be enjoying the youth in action before him.

A park in Shilin at dusk. 

I saw mothers pushing their toddlers on swings and a few small clusters of old men sitting on stone benches talking about the past, or perhaps those young children playing and shouting around them. One of them looked up to see me as I walked past and I smiled. He smiled back at this stranger in his town, on her way back to more familier parts.

And right as I left the border of the park and turned into the dark, exhaust filled motorcycle underpass, I felt that paradoxical sensation I feel only rarely now, because I hardly ever, despite all my “traveling,” take new roads and see new faces. For the past two weeks I played tour guide to E, who had never been to Asia and to C, who had only been to Southeast Asia. For two weeks, I looked, without realizing, for things that I knew and felt familiar to show them. And now, they had gone and I was a traveler again in the truest sense – one who had forgotten what it was like to really slow down and see something.

I felt very much at home in this paradox, if only because I was heading home from this strangeness. I clutched the kleenex box, feeling the soft cardboard folding in underneath my arm, and tucked my phone into my back left pocket, reminding myself that perhaps having 3G was not so much a blessing as a condemnation: I had unwittingly stomped on my role of flaneur and kept my eyes lowered to the little screen. What sights I have missed, I cringe to think. I have joined the ranks of Taipei’s “lowered head crowd”. Remember to look up, to see.

The sun was setting and the air was cooling again. The exhaust from hundreds of scooters rushing off to here and there lingered in the tunnel and on any other day, it would have seemed acrid and unbearable. I would have shelled out for a taxi to take me home as soon as possible. But what I smelled, I realized, had nothing to do with me. They were the remnants of urgency, of other’s urgency to go somewhere, see someone, be something.

Did I feel it too? Yes, most of the time I can relate. But not today. Not in the underpass, not with the park and its low temple temple behind me, its faded red paper lanterns watching over the old men, the small children, their young mothers. Not today.

The Return

In two, no – three days, I will see this view again though less sunny and less filtered (I am challenging myself to both take more photos and to use less filters, except for on Instagram, in which case filters are the only way to go.)

My aunt sunning the blankets on the balcony, at the start of 2010. 

For now, my brain is mush. (Partly, this is a result of my last trip to Vegas. “Balls to the walls!” my cousin instructed, and I nodded in heady assent, thinking it necessary to buy my first – and likely last – set of shot glasses from the most opulent Walgreen’s I’d ever set foot in. It wasn’t until the next morning when I realized it was actually just the balls of my feet that went to the walls while the rest of me wanted nothing more than to slide to the floor. Hello, 2013, ye harbinger of my late twenties!)

My closet has been gutted so its innards now lay strewn about the bed and carpet. Collared shirts, wool sweaters, short and long skirts, pants that may or may not fit lay anxiously on my duvet, wondering if they’ll make the cut. I always overpack when I go to Taipei because I always think I’ll transform into the best version of myself – stylish and purposeful, places to go, people to see – but without fail I turn into a creature who spends entire days in pajamas lounging around her aunt’s sixth floor living room without purpose, without agenda. Before my cousin Karen was my partner in sloth, but now she works like any respectable, able brain and bodied, twenty-seven year old. So Mondays through Fridays I sloth alone.

On more ambitious days I stroll around the well-maintained track at the nearby middle school while uniformed students with sallow faces and greasy hair keep their heads bent low in fluorescent lighted classrooms. Sometimes I go to the department store and touch things, accept samples from pale, slender girls around my age who think I could probably benefit a whole lot by using the same beauty products they do. Why are all the American girls so big boned? I shrug; I wish I knew.

In the afternoons my aunt cooks dinner while I watch. She tells me stories; I put down my book and sit down on a small stool, staring at the ties of her gingham apron and listen. The afternoon sun shines softly down on my aunt’s short hair – only a few strands of which are grey – and there is something bucolic about the scene except we are on the sixth floor of a building in a bustling city. Outside, far below the balcony a car horn honks. A cellphone rings with a Taiwanese pop song.

My uncle comes home from the office, puts his frayed nylon laptop bag on the low mahogany cabinet behind the couch and goes to wash up. The slender cat jumps atop the bag. He will likely stay there until his dinner.

We humans take our seats around the rectangular dining table upon which my aunt has assembled the night’s simple dishes. Always white and brown rice with two or three vegetable stir fries. A pan-fried fish with scallions and soy sauce. The fat, older cat paws our knees and hoists himself up on the empty chair to get a taste. That is the fat cat at his most productive. If they make it home in time for dinner (which since 2010 has been rare), my cousins talk about their day. A pretty fresh faced female anchor reports the same news that was reported in the morning.

At night the city comes alive and I find a reason to change out of my pajamas just as my uncle changes into his.

“He will sleep at nine even if the Empress of China herself were to call at 9:15,” my aunt has said drily for her entire marriage.

Sometimes my cousin Karen and I revisit the same department stores, though now they are bursting at the seams. The young, sallow-faced high school and college students and office workers are now fresh-faced and energized. They milk the night, or the few precious hours left of it. I see the lights of a million billboards and shop windows, smell the exhaust of thousands of scooters, cabs and buses, hear the chattering of a million souls packed into two square kilometres, perhaps less. I see, smell and hear precisely what I miss most about Taipei when I am in Orange County.

Sometimes, I stay in my pajamas and we watch an American movie or TV show with Chinese subtitles. Or a Chinese show with Chinese subtitles. We discuss her coworkers and her friends. The night is long, but so is the next day, and at 12 or 1AM Karen is fast asleep. Taipei does not; this energy wakes us all the next morning, and the next and the next.

Sometimes, in between all of this, I write.

For now, two massive, aspirational suitcases wait to be filled, just as I do, though with different nourishment.

100 Years of Vanity, Part V

She was a terrible cook, but nobody could peel shrimp, crack open a crab or a lobster, a mussel or a clam, or disassemble a German pork knuckle as adroitly as my grandmother could and to her liking. No one else could make friends with servers and maitre’ds and managers alike despite being with the most difficult customer many of them had ever known. She knew his appetites better almost, than she knew her own, and it was at the table that we learned how little we knew how to communicate with him – the least we could do was follow her lead. But it was too obvious, to both ourselves as well as to the rest of the world, that the family was at a loss on how to appease my grandfather should grandma step out for a moment.
But these moments were rare – for twenty years she was unfailingly by his side, always there to cater to his vanity, and on the morning of his one-hundredth birthday, she was there as well.
God knows what he dreamed during the night, but at four am his eyes shot open with an all-consuming hate for his aged complexion. Perhaps it was the thought of appearing before four hundred guests under bright ballroom lights, but being an innately vain man, he decided to take extra precautions. He shuffled resolutely into the bathroom and turned on the lights. A few feet away, my grandmother stirred in bed. Having spent the last twenty-years sharing his biological clock (one that wakes often at odd hours of the night to use the bathroom or read the paper-or both), she simply turned the other way and pulled the blanket up to her chin. My grandfather ran his fingers along the shelves, silently reading the minute labels until he found what he was looking for. He began his work.
The balcony, where my grandpa usually stood doing his morning exercises was empty. The bathroom door was closed, a strange phenomenon, for in his old age, the fear of an unheard fall led him to bathe with an open door. She was worried – aside from the hundred ticking clocks of my grandfather’s collection, it was oddly silent. No running water, no brushing of teeth or wringing of frayed undershirts. She went to the door and knocked. Nothing. She knocked again but not before hearing the distinctive click of a compact being closed.
“Can I open the door?” She asked.
“Hmm.”
“What are you doing in there?”
When my grandfather failed to respond she held her breath and turned the knob, bracing herself for what she was not sure, but certainly not to find her husband, a distinguished gentleman to all who knew him, with his face done up like a retired geisha who had failed to remove the makeup from her last night at the teahouse. He turned slowly, a crazy, hunched wax man, and had he the humor to give her a devilish grin she might have died of fright. Instead he said nothing, nodding subtly as though using up an entire bottle of foundation on one’s one-hundredth birthday was de rigueur, and went back to work.
My grandmother rubbed her eyes, not sure if she was dreaming. Why the mask? Why the rosy cheeks? Did he intend to celebrate his one-hundredth year as a lunatic? A transvestite? But the man had laid out his suit and shoes the night before, pairing a red-silk vest with a red-silk handkerchief and now, he apparently wanted his cheeks to match. Between gnarled fingers he held, gingerly, the blush compact in one hand and the brush in the other. Round and round he went on his left cheek, seeing only the perfection of perfection- he was merely enhancing what he always had. He was a handsome actor preparing for his greatest role ever.
Grandma, now fully awake, stepped in.
“You look…” she considered his one hundred year old ego, then thinking about the four hundred guests and her seat next to him, she considered her own, “You look ridiculous.”
I was getting my own beauty rest two floors above, but I imagine a small tussle took place in the master bath that morning as wife tried to wrestle away blush compact from husband.
But he said nothing. Chuckling softly at his handiwork, he handed the compact to her.
An hour later grandma had exhausted an entire box of Kleenex and half a bottle of makeup remover. Her husband’s skin glistened once again in its natural beauty and his cheeks glowed with the faintest pink, from having been rubbed with tissues.
“See,” my grandmother told him, tossing the final Kleenex into the wastebasket with its makeup-laden siblings, “You don’t need any of that makeup – you are handsome enough as is.”
He looked in the mirror and agreed, touching his face and enjoying the softness. Then he looked at her, his patient, adoring wife who had always known best. He looked at her tired face, the dark circles under her eyes, her fuzzy hair – she looked that way because of him, because of all the energy and love she spent on him. He loved her for that.
Still, it was his birthday and she would be sitting next to him.
“We haven’t much time,” he said, handing her the compact, “you’d better get started.”

The End