Are you with me? Remember, first, that this was the summer before Typhoon Nari.
We all had aluminum baseball bats, boys and girls alike. We rode on salvaged Sanyang mopeds, wind sloshing in our ears, down Ren-Ai Road’s four empty lanes at night. Our mouths spouted store-bought ironies. We exalted them, paid them big shuddering laughs. To passing observers, we looked like students rushing to a mountain shrimping excursion or riverside barbecue, but to ourselves we were janissaries of high fuckery on rusted domestic steeds.
The man out at our helm was my brother. The purplish crescent scars where his ears should be, the color of raw fish gills. His friends called him Doraemon, after the earless Japanese cyborg cat, his shaved pate gleaming with blue stubble.
We didn’t know where we were driving off to. I was riding one of the mopeds in the back, being whisked away from a punishing hair salon shift, clinging onto the waist of my then-boyfriend, or what passed as a boyfriend in my stunted imagination. It was my first relationship and I was twenty-two.
There was no goal to our driving—we simply stopped whenever we saw one of those neon lights on the roadside. It was the beginning of the millennium and Taipei was, under the new mayor, slowly transforming itself into a giant brothel furniture expo. Enormous glowsticks of rainbow LED lights sprouted on every road corner for no apparent reason, each pillar more expensive than our mopeds. Someone with in-laws in Shenzhen must have made killings from building them. This was the affront, the rage. We were not particularly smart—we were young and certain who the enemies were, and the enemy had bad taste. Whenever we passed these neon light pillars, out came the bats, and we’d swing away.
The next day’s tabloids polarized, irrelevantly, by partisan lines. DPP VANDALS CAUSE MA MAYORSHIP NT$200,000 IN DAMAGES, ROCKS NEIHU BEDROOM COMMUNITY, one paper would read. Another would assume, equally hilariously, that BAMBOO TRIAD COLLUDES WITH KMT CITY GOV’T IN RAINBOW LIGHT INCIDENTS.
I was very good at smashing these lights, some anger bubbling through me. Who doesn’t like watching a quiet girl wreck shit? I would be the stuff of stifled office giggles, video-embedded Internet empires. My brother’s friends cheered, spat froth and crinkled beer cans excitedly on my behalf. There was a persistent woooh! that trailed us in our twenties. How grateful I was, to just be with them at all. This was just part of the many lame romances that we squandered our self-regard on. We had a lot of time. No one took any particular note of our names.
For months, we all lived in a village of pillboxes and sheet-metal sheds built on Taipei’s southern fringes. Further up the hill, Nationalist army widows planted cilantro and cursed at us. We shared one outhouse among a dozen friends, brushing our teeth along one long concrete trough like we were back in elementary school. Sneaky dabs of guano dotted our furniture. It was Kai-shien’s idea, to have all of us encamped in the hills for a few seasons. It took innocence to squat there, and tremendous will to pretend we didn’t all want to rent rooftop shacks in Yonghe instead.
We sat around all day, telling each other we were not jerks.
My window looked out onto the Shindian River, past the giant dandelion of a yellow windmill. We sat around all day, telling each other we were not jerks. Finally we got to be reviled by the poses we struck rather than the flaws we were born into. At finding each other, our gratitude was violent. There was still the tearful sense of having met the life-drunk fops we feared we’d never find.
I had other reasons to be grateful for being there. The university district was then flushed with Jordanian bartenders, Nigerian exchange students, Pakistani IT interns, people other than the default Han. For once, I did not stick out. No one cared, for instance, if my hair ran reddish and curly, that my eye’s greenish gray showed under the summer sun. No one assumed insulting family biographies or R&R dalliances behind my mixed blood. I was often mistaken for a Saudi exchange student in my new neighborhood, and for the first time, I stopped dying my hair black.
Had my brother not found Kai-shien, had I not followed brother north—I would still be learning something pale and useful, like Business English. I would still be succumbing to dates with helium-voiced MBA candidates arranged by my aunts, nodding as these men talked about Taiwan’s tech losing to Korea’s. Photos of my old babydoll self whip me into a murderous rage. I once said sorry instead of thanks, babbled sugared pedomorphic hellos into phones. This island did not need another old me.
Growing up, everyone noticed that I looked nothing like my brother. My mother didn’t allow us to mention that in front of anyone because she loathed pity more than gossip. My father only ever came up in the context of my supposed foreign witlessness.
“My poor baby daughter, aiy, what bad genes I chose for you,” she said in the voice of a wardrobe appraiser. “You definitely did not take after me. You’d be twenty IQ points smarter if I picked a better father.”
So I was raised. Every glance called my life story into question. I was always the humdrum little sister to my brother’s cherished weirdness. I remembered relatives’ birthdays, excelled at byzantine board games, and eavesdropped on the adults’ conversations while the other kids mined their nostrils and nibbled at their bounty. My brother enjoyed a childhood of blessed naïf loserdom anointed by future magazine soft profiles (“I never fit in—I was the gangly sensitive kid who—in sixth grade I sat home reading Sartre—”). I didn’t buy into his preciousness, and wanted to point out the vulgarity of our upbringing at every chance.
I corrected my brother’s manners often and with extreme prejudice. I was chatty and responsible because I wanted adults to like me. But our aunts always praised my brother for brooding, for keeping quiet. “Like a wise little old man,” they said in hushed tones of adoration, “so very guai.” Still water runs deep, etc. Still water is also boring as shit.
I was a solid dowdy fact, counted on to stay by mother’s side while my brother roamed far from home, doing whatever he liked.
Few people passed my mother’s high bar for friendship, so my brother and I bore the brunt of her violent affection. On a hairdresser’s salary, she’d shower us with rubber putty erasers, hinged pencil boxes with secret compartments, pogs with glinty foil, the latest Japanese comics—just so she could raise us like old Taipei gentry, the way she was raised. Then she’d later decide that her indulgence spoiled us, did us no good, so in fits of anger she’d stomp our toys into pieces before our eyes, like a mini playhouse execution. On bad nights when I gave her lip, talked back to her, she’d sweep an entire shelf of my most beloved comics to the floor and stomp on them, and when I shielded the books with my back, she’d stomp on me instead. Sometimes, when I hid behind the locked door of my bedroom with my brother, she’d kick the doors till the plywood splintered like a broken mouth, or stab kitchen knives through the doors after—I sincerely hoped—she made sure that I wasn’t directly leaning against them.
Jing YEN! You will not lock MY door in MY own house!
Then, frantic with regret, she’d apologize, sobbing, coaching us on how to explain our bruises and the damages in our home to hypothetical visitors, relatives, and friends. To her enduring relief, no one ever wanted to have dinner at a widow’s house. It was bad luck, supposedly, and bad luck on this island was contagious.
While we did homework at her hair salon, the other hairdressers would bait us with sly questions—“Is your mom finally seeing a boyfriend?” “You two kids are so precious—can you do us a favor? And find her a nice gentleman?” “Tainan men are just too lazy for her, aren’t they? Maybe a northern computer CEO for your mom?”
Our mother. She announced her own farts. She haggled well. She peed without closing the door. For someone so contemptuous of the world, she seemed indecently at home in it.
Between us two, I inherited all of my mother’s talent for anger, and practiced it to my regret.
I hated how my brother disappeared into his own little obsessions as if our family didn’t exist at all, as if it wasn’t his responsibility to fix it. He spent a year elaborating on a LEGO castle, for instance, adding annexes, mezzanines, libraries, mazes of little yellow LEGO men fighting, dining, partying. LEGO men languishing in soul-killing LEGO cubicles, or toasting to assembled LEGO dignitaries. He wanted that LEGO set for half a year until he finally saved enough allowance for it. I admired his handiwork and asked often to see it. When he felt generous, he would allow me to peel open a few hinged doors and peek into the little men’s worlds.
“Everyone marries everyone here,” he said.
“Even the cats?”
“Especially the cats,” he said.
“That’s ridiculous,” I said, lifting a plastic calico from its cradle. “Cats do not believe in marriage.”
Once, after my mother blamed and smacked me for a mess Tao-ren didn’t own up to, I hid in my brother’s room and meticulously smashed his castle. The moment my foot crunched through his favorite throne room I began to weep. The treasure chests sprayed glittering plastic-crystals in my fists, legal tender to his pretend-kingdom. He came home eager to play with me. Then, through fistfuls of his beloved work reduced to wreckage, I saw him at the door, a face I’ll never forget. Right then, I understood why my mother apologized for everything.
Then high school came, and my brother and I didn’t talk. I was some bitch-majesty in the schoolyard, and whoever said all tomboys are loved has never been a tomboy. Tao-ren, meanwhile, hunched over our living room computer in glum dudgeon, a kid chuckling at the screen by himself, writing strange songs, reading god knows what.
Finally, with what I hope was a minimum of cruelty, we both moved to Taipei on scholarships, promising to send money back home.
As we slogged through high school, our mother grew jealous of our few friends. She imagined that we confided into their ears, and if we passed a weekend mindlessly playing games or reading comics without talking to her, she’d sob and fall to pieces, asking us what was wrong. My diary was my mind’s landfill, solace—though an entry titled MOM, THIS IS CREEPY found her holding my journal at the breakfast table, begging for elaboration. “Privacy” was an obscure loan word in Taiwanese. Finally, with what I hope was a minimum of cruelty, we both moved to Taipei on scholarships, promising to send money back home, to do things to make her proud. In rare moods I slipped her postcards. They featured Taipei professionals gasping into their salads, or laughing into their phones and milk teas.
By the time I joined my brother in Taipei, breathless and starting college at Shih Hsin, I was plunked amidst a cohort that frightened me. Backwater creeps came here to be groomed into charming eccentrics—the difference between those two was how many books they’d read. They read issues of Der Spiegel stolen from Eslite, said English words like “Valter Ben-ya-meen” and “urban mo-dare-ni-ties.” They sat across each other’s laps on dirty couches, sighing through smoke, and they couldn’t keep their mouths off each other. For them it was not just horndog fumblings between salads of pills, but some sort of civic duty against Confucianism as well.
They tolerated me when I was drunk. I learned to get drunk often, to spare them the tedium of my sober politesse. It took me a long time to be sure that no one had any particular interest in insulting me.
Every night found me slipping away, buying greasy bagfuls of chicken wings from street hawkers, suckling on fowl knuckles on my bed. I spent sleepless nights lying on my grease-welted mattress, sending out hundreds of résumés to job listings that used words like “passion” or “hit the ground running” or “passion for hitting the ground running.” My candor was rewarded with an email inbox cluttered by matchmaking and mole removal surgery ads, promotions of Chinese herbal cures for halitosis and body odor. I held the days’ ends at bay by reading film critics’ blogs, riling pointless arguments on NTU’s movie BBS forums. I longed to mansplain to a man. There was much freedom waiting to be squandered here—in Internet cafés, or alone on your bed. No one took adulthood very seriously in southern Taipei. You baked the raw dung of your loneliness into bricks to throw at other people’s windows, then felt monstrous about yourself. Embarrassment at being alive marked you as one of life’s sophisticates. When every trend, band, city, or politician is affixed between a good deal and a rip-off, any emotion other than anger or despair or self-sadness is for stupid people, or so it seemed.
This was not the city I wanted, not the company I wished to keep. I was already cowardly enough, a girl easily frightened into irony. What I needed was a strong ruddy person to tell me: it’s alright to enjoy, to adore, to forget the low-hearted filth behind everything.
In the daytime, I apprenticed at a Ximending hair salon.