Taipei Times – Book review: Haunted hotels, typing dogs and the expat experience

http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/feat/archives/2018/04/12/2003691146

Taiwan Tales Volume Two, by Taipei Writers Group

Taiwanese ghosts abound in the second edition of ‘Taiwan Tales’ by the Taipei Writers Group, but the writers don’t stop there, digging deep into the nuances and fine details of life in Taiwan 

By Han Cheung  /  Staff Reporter

One might expect a collection of short stories written by expats in Taiwan to largely tell of the experiences of, well, expats in Taiwan, but the first three stories of Taiwan Tales Volume Two feature a Taiwanese businesswoman, a well-read and verbose red poodle (a popular breed) and a shy Taiwanese old computer game shop vendor in the underground malls of Taipei Main Station

Such a book wouldn’t be as rich, however, if it there were no foreigners involved at all — after all, they have unique experiences that are usually not featured in mainstream Taiwanese media or literature. Out of the seven stories, three of them speak from the quintessential “expat experience” in Taiwan, making this collection a bit more rounded given that the majority of writers hail from the US.

Representation is always tricky with anthologies like these because there’s always something to nitpick, but it’s understandable that there’s not a large pool of English fiction writers living in Taiwan to solicit quality stories from. For what this book is, it’s an enjoyable and well-edited read that anyone who has spent significant time in Taiwan can identify with and chuckle at the “only in Taiwan” references sprinkled throughout the book.

From the very first story, Room 602 by Pat Woods, it’s clear that the authors are deliberately writing from a Taiwanese perspective, or at least consciously featuring local nuances and elements that only someone who has lived here for a while will catch. Woods speaks of the freezing air conditioning that makes you bring a coat to work in the sweltering summer, the feel of shame, or “losing face,” after losing one’s cool in a public setting and giving very specific details, such as exact dates, when speaking to ghosts.

The plot for Woods’ story follows a pretty standard ghost story formula, but it is perhaps the most ambitious out of this collection, as he tries to write from the first-person perspective of a Taiwanese woman — and pulls it off fairly well. This is what makes the stories fun to read. While they are all well-crafted and the prose is lively and well-edited, the creative use of Taiwanese elements is what sets them apart.

In the same vein, the second tale, Mark Will’s Notes From the Underfoot, written from the perspective of a slightly snobby but very well-read and pensive toy poodle, is a rambling monologue that hits many points spot on to the Taiwanese dog experience — from the practice of dressing one’s canine in baby clothes and wheeling it around in a stroller to people who abandon dogs after they stop being cute.

Will also comments on Taiwanese politics through the dog’s perspective — Lulu the corgi feels that it’s linguistically oppressive to refer to Taiwan as “Formosa,” while Baobao the poodle is fine with the term but not okay with “Chinese Taipei.”

The remainder of the book is just as entertaining, including a trippy ghost adventure, an urban fantasy that features all kinds of strange creatures from the folklore of various countries, and a hilarious account of an obsessive expat on Tinder, hoping for a last hurrah before he leaves Taiwan while things go completely awry.

Taiwanese (and other Asian) folk religion and beliefs, especially the belief in evil spirits, feature prominently in the book, since, after all, that’s the most easily recognizable element of Taiwanese culture that completely differs from Western beliefs. But that’s just scratching the surface, and the writers do a good job in digging deeper.

As a result of this fascination with the occult, only three of the tales are completely rooted in reality. These provide the reader with temporary relief (otherwise the would have to be called “Taiwan Ghost Tales”), from Taipei Underground’s sketch of an ordinary man looking for love while working for his demanding cousin, to an unexpected friendship between two expat English teachers running away from their origins and eventually facing their demons.

Also worth looking at is the vastly different “expat experience” between male and female Western residents of Taipei. The two female writers almost exclusively focus on expat characters in their stories, as Bob, the Unfriendly Ghost vs The Mother Plant by Laurel Bucholz features an expat teacher and the only Taiwanese characters are the children she teaches (who discuss with her how to get rid of the unfriendly ghost).

There is, of course, a reason for this. The Western female role is made clear in the beginning of the story, when the author writes that “white girls in Asia, living in obscure towns, get very little love. They are bottom of the list for the pickings,” and the protagonist is companionless until she returns to the US to snag a guy to bring back to Taiwan. As a result they are less integrated into Taiwanese society, whereas the men tend to date and marry local woman.

While this is largely a stereotype of female expats in Asia, stereotypes are based on truths, and again it’s a good thing that the author doesn’t shy away from tackling the issue directly. It only paints a more complete picture of expat life in Taiwan, and makes this book a more complete anthology.

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Asian Review of Books – “Taiwan Tales Volume 2: An Anthology” from the Taiwan Writers Group

 

taiwan3

There aren’t that many English-language books about Taiwan, especially fiction. This is a pity because despite being wedged between much larger neighbors such as China, Japan and the Philippines, there is a lot to Taiwan that often gets overlooked. There are many good stories that are still waiting to be told and the Taiwan Writers Group, a collective of local and expat writers, tries to tell a few in their latest collection.

This second volume of Taiwan Tales is compact, but its seven short stories are diverse, ranging from ghost stories to mystery. As the writers are all expats, most of the stories feature expats as protagonists. This obviously presents mostly an outsider’s view, but their fondness for and knowledge of Taiwan is evident in their descriptions of contemporary Taiwan life and culture. But there are also local protagonists, including that is an animal.

In what might be the story with the most Taiwanese twist, “Room 602” by Pat Woods sees a local woman face unusual problems in her hotel room during a business trip in Kaohsiung, falling back on childhood memories involving superstition and the appeasing of ghosts.

Mark Will’s “Notes from Underfoot” is an amusing story of Taipei life from a dog’s perspective. Baobao, a literate poodle owned by an expat and his local girlfriend, provides a witty narrative that includes cross-strait politics, the frequent neglect of pet dogs by Taiwanese, and buxibans or local tutoring centers for students. In Laurel Bucholz’s “Bob the Unfriendly Ghost vs The Mother Plant”, an expat finds herself under assault from a tormented ghost in her apartment right after taking Ayahuasca, a medicinal herb from South America. The combination of local superstition and hallucinatory visions from the herb produces a potent tale.In what might be the story with the most Taiwanese twist, “Room 602” by Pat Woods sees a local woman face unusual problems in her hotel room during a business trip in Kaohsiung, falling back on childhood memories involving superstition and the appeasing of ghosts.

JJ Goodwin’s “Underground” takes readers on a wild ride through an underground universe populated with deities and creatures from Taiwanese and other Asian folklore. This Taiwanese Odyssey features an unsuspecting hero who must complete quests and brave dangerous creatures to find his way back to the real world. Connor Bixby’s “A Completely Normal Male Expat”, the most humorous story in the collection, pokes fun at a stereotypical randy male expat while also parodying online dating. The story sees an American expat who becomes fixated on a local Tinder match, only to become increasingly neurotic as things go awry with the ensuing date.

Ray Hecht’s “The Taipei Underground” features a blossoming romance between two Taiwanese youngsters working in an underground electronics goods arcade in Taipei. It is a good take on work and social anxieties faced by young Taiwanese, in a setting that might not be well-known but is one of Taipei’s many distinctive facets.

Last but certainly not least, “Onus” by Ellyna Ford Phelps is an intriguing story about two female English teachers who form a close bond, but whose backgrounds suggest mysterious, tragic pasts. The story takes a dark turn midway but it blends expat friendship tale and mystery thriller in a poignant and suspenseful way that works very well.

It is no coincidence that there are two stories in the collection that feature ghosts, for  Taiwanese society has a strong superstitious nature due to the influence of traditional religion. Ghosts do feature regularly in modern Taiwanese life. For example, “Ghost Month” in the lunar calendar is widely observed by many Taiwanese who worship the ghosts of their ancestors by burning paper in urns outside their homes or businesses.

The anthology is a good reflection of Taiwan: small, calm on the surface but belying a fascinating, quirky, and pulsating character.


Hilton Yip is a writer currently based in Hong Kong and former book editor of Taiwan’s The China Post.

Causal Gamer 3: Wii U

As I’ve sporadically shared from time to time, I am something of a casual gamer (rather, a retro gamer), and I am mainly a Nintendo man.

This is partly due to it being a nostalgic holdover from childhood, partly because I don’t have enough free time to further embrace the wider gaming world, and also possibly a  genuine love of the innocent fun of hopping and bopping about with Mario and friends.

Yeah, maybe it’s mostly the nostalgia as much as anything but nothing wrong with that.

Since my last post, I got not only the mini NES classic but also the mini Super NES classic which has been that much exponentially better. I immediately played Super Mario World for the nth time all the way to the Special Zone, plus Yoshi’s Island and Mario Kart and so many others.

Actual serious gaming consisted of the classic RPG Secret of Mana which I have now officially beat (again).

Goodbye, #SecretofMana… #Nintendo #SNES #90s

A post shared by Ray (@raelianautopsy) on

 

Next on the list is finishing up Mario RPG, almost done, and then I may put this away for a little while.

Not to mention on my 3DS I’ve been enjoying Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, which happens to be a spiritual sequel to the original Mario RPG. Those games are always very very fun.

 

But in fact this post is not about that, this post is about my new Wii U!

 

See, it was recently my birthday and I received the greatest gift a boy could ask for… And yes I know, I am still behind the times. I’ll get a Switch next year or so. Mario Odyssey is supposed to be a masterpiece and everything, but I’ll be patient and wait. Generally, I seem to be one generation behind and I am okay with that.

I had a Wii for a while in a previous era and it was great fun, but I sold it last time I moved. I’ve been waiting patiently to upgrade and catch up. Nothing like playing Mario Party with friends.

The Wii U came with Nintendo Land which is cool, but I have much more to do. It’s a particularly good system in that I can also purchase older games to download from the Nintendo archives, and those classic ones aren’t expensive at all.

Mario Party 2 from the Nintendo 64 for example is high on the list:

 

However, am I too focused on Nintendo? One game I absolutely must geek out on is Lego Marvel. To be honest, Lego Marvel 2 is the top game I want to play when I do eventually get a Switch. I adore those Lego games, and I played lot of the 3DS. All the Batman DC Super Heroes, Lego Avengers, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Sadly, Lego Marvel for the 3DS was the weakest transition to a handheld console, and so I must redeem it by finally playing the real one.

 

Ah, who am I kidding? Legos and super-heroes are great, but I’m mostly in it for the Mario.

The totally absolute number one game I have been extremely waiting to play is Super Mario 3D World. The first smaller Mario 3D Land for was one of the funnest experiences I have ever had. The perfect blend of old school aesthetic and multi-dimensionally jumping around. There’s a lot on my growing list, but this is the very next one I intend to get. And once I do, I may not go outdoors for a little while…

 

This is my plan.

What do you think? Any other recommended games I should get soon? There’s the side-scrolling New Mario Bros U, there’s Mario Kart 2 and/or Mario Kart 8. Sadly, please note that I am not very good at Zelda games.

So, tell me what should be next!

Taiwan Tales 2 free promotion!

Taiwan Tales Volume Two is free to download for the Kindle app on Amazon, for this week only! Get yours today to read my short story “The Taipei Underground” – a tale of two souls trying to figure out love beneath the shady caverns of the city – as well as many other excellent works by talented Taipei-based authors.

The stories include a mix of genres, from high fantasy with mythical beasts to ghost stories, and even one from the point of view of a small dog! 

From TWG Press:

 

 

https://www.amazon.com/Taiwan-Tales-Anthology-Connor-Bixby-ebook/dp/B078XPDQDM

 

“Room 602” by Pat Woods, a Taiwanese ghost story inspired by an unusual local superstition about knocking on hotel doors.

“Notes from Underfoot” by Mark Will, a humorous and erudite story that gives a dog’s-eye-view of life in Taipei.

“The Taipei Underground” by Ray Hecht, a glimpse of the lives of two young people in Taipei Main Station’s cavernous underground.

“Bob the Unfriendly Ghost vs. The Mother Planet” by Laurel Bucholz, dealing a sometimes funny, sometimes terrifying experience of local spirits and Ayahuasca.

“Underworld” by J.J Goodwin, an epic odyssey through a strange world beneath Taipei where local and foreign mythology is alive and kicking.

“A Completely Normal Male Expat” by Connor Bixby, which, in the author’s own brand of neurotic fiction, checks out communication and the dating game in Taipei.

“Onus” by Ellyna Ford Phelps, a story of friendship, dark pasts, and goodbyes as two expats share an all-too-brief connection.

Taiwan Tales: The Taipei Underground

Excerpt from the short story collection Taiwan Tales Volume Two, now available on Amazon:

 

The Taipei Underground
by Ray Hecht

 

Jerry Lee, also known as Li Shi-huang or merely Xiao Shi to his friends, stared across the cash register station to gaze longingly at the cute girl at the shop across the hallway. She had short hair, glasses, a well-fitting T-shirt. As she carefully stocked a shelf, for a split-second their lines of sight crossed over.

Suddenly, Jerry turned away and looked at a passerby eating a sausage, all the while exaggerating the movement of his neck as he pretended that was what he was looking at all along. He immediately regretted the embarrassing instinct, but it was too late and he had no choice but to go along with the ruse.

He continued to gaze rightward, pushing himself to ignore the girl from across the hall, and found himself making a 180-degree U-turn. The motion was interrupted by a shout from his cousin, whom he usually semi-affectionately referred to as Cousin Lee.

“Jerry! Come here.”

He walked to the back of their shop, squeezing between narrow passageways of obsolete computer equipment. The gray plastic was full of dust and wonder, hiding away computer chips decades old. All of it was close to his heart, and he never tired of working in such a magical place.

“Check this out,” Cousin Lee said as he plugged a replica of a 1981 console into a 40-inch widescreen HD monitor. He was tall and gangly, taller and ganglier than even Jerry, but spoke with an obnoxious confidence. Within the confines of these walls, he was in his element. “Pretty cool, right?”

A tune began to ring through the halls, a somehow familiar but simplified melody of an animated television theme song adapted and skewered through the primitive digital ringer of 8-bit glory.

The sounds brought everyone comfort, reminding them of a time before time, that pre-millennial age that was somehow part of their ancestral genetic memory or collective unconscious.

Jerry couldn’t help but bob his head.

The menu screen was in Japanese, a language Jerry knew only vaguely, but he grabbed the controller and played along through sheer muscle memory. Before he knew it, the little trademarked sprite had hopped and bopped its way through three whole levels.

“He’s good, isn’t he?” Cousin Lee said to a browsing customer.

Jerry, in the zone, felt distracted and content.

After a quick win, he returned to the register and stole more glances. He couldn’t help wondering about the girl. With no information about her other than that she was new at the workplace, his imagination had many gaps to fill. She’d been there about a month. What had she done before? Where was she from? The boss, was he her father? Uncle?

Why was she here?

The shop across the aisle was a different kind than that of the second-hand computer game variety. It was altogether low tech, specializing in cute toys of plastic and plush. It was located between one model robot dispensary and a knockoff handbag boutique, alongside a deep chasm of specialty stores that stretched infinitely in both directions underneath the streets of the city. Not unlike cave grottos at certain Biblical archeological sites, each one carved its own unique religious iconography onto the walls of the contemporary cultural landscape.

Several hours later, Jerry was ordered to close up shop. He counted the cash, put aside receipts, and jotted down inventory.

“Make sure you go to the bank in the morning,” his cousin said and then zipped up the cash bag tight.

“I know.”

“Good.” As they lowered the railing to lock up the family business, both saw the shop across the aisle doing the same.

“I hate that shop,” Cousin Lee said, spitting fire and saliva. “Ever since they opened, they do all they can to steal our customers. Those video game toys, all the same characters I advertise. I spend the marketing money, and they try to reap the benefits.”

“Yeah,” Jerry muttered.

“Do they think I’m stupid? What a shame. Nobody wants to buy the originals anymore; people just steal everything online and then only buy some cheap dolls.”

“It is a shame,” Jerry added in a weak attempt at consolation.

“I know those people just make the toys themselves. I can see them sewing in the back. That’s theft of intellectual property! I ought to report them.”

“But don’t we sell emulator rigs?” Jerry asked, giving the matter some thought. “Like, the software is all downloaded online for free. And then we sell it. Isn’t that basically the same thing?”

“It’s not the same!”

Jerry offered no retort. He simply watched his cousin go in one direction and the girl go in another. If only he could ditch him and find a way to talk to her alone. He sighed slowly as he followed behind, and resigned himself to his fate.

Xiao Shi,” Cousin Lee said with an air of closure, “I will see you tomorrow. I think I ate something rotten, so I’m going to go to the bathroom in the mall. Don’t wait up.” It was a reasonable request, considering the caliber of restaurants available for dinners in the tunnel.

“Oh. Okay.”

His cousin turned a corner with a slight moan, and disappeared.

With a nervous trot, Jerry made his way to the subway station.

It was a day like any other. He planned to scan his card and wait at the platform of the subway train in order to transfer once over the course of ten stations so that he could arrive at his small apartment in the outer district, and then at last go to sleep and do it all over again tomorrow.

This day, however, was slightly different. A minute before the train was due to arrive, he noticed she happened to be waiting two cars down. All alone, tapping away at her mobile phone. Heart thumping at a reckless pace, he cautiously approached her.

“Um, hello.”

She half-looked up. “Hello?”

“I work across the hall from you.”

“You do?” She tore her eyes away from the phone stuffed it in her purse, and inspected him closely. A flash of recognition abruptly lit up her eyes. “Oh, it’s you. I’ve seen you around. What’s your name?”

Li Shi-huang. Or, you can call me Jerry.”

“Everyone calls me Sha Sha,” she said. “So, uh, how do you like working in the tunnel?”

“It’s pretty good, I guess. Usually there are a lot of people window-shopping and not enough sales.”

“I know exactly what you mean.”

“Yeah.” A pause. “Where are you going now?” he asked.

“Home,” she answered, with a bluntness that he regretted hearing.

He didn’t know what to say next. “I hope you have a good night.”

“You too. I’ll see you next time.”

He smiled and was about to turn away, even finding himself on the cusp of formulating an apology for bothering her. But before he could react she interrupted his transition with a: “Hey, do you want to hang out some time?”

“That would be cool,” he blurted out.

“Let me see your phone,” she said.

They each procured their mobile devices, turned to the appropriate application, and she scanned his personalized digital code.

Silently, they both smiled and entered separate trains and waved goodbye.

Nice to meet you, he later texted in bed, along with an accompanying image of a smiling bunny rabbit.

She replied with a blobby wink.

The next day there was much back-and-forth. Instead of glances from across the chasm, the two pairs of eyes stooped downwards as the gravity of a glass screen pulled them all in to a small private world of written letters and animated pets.

I loved this character as a kid, she said, after a link to a humorous GIF of a cartoon pocket-sized monster in fierce battle.

This is my favorite one, he said as they simultaneously livestreamed a showing of a popular action-adventure strategic game.

Look at that!

I love it!!

Awesome!!!

We shall have to get together soon to eat some delicious food and listen to music

I like strawberry ice cream, but no hamburgers.

Slowly through intermittent conversations they learned more about each other. Dreams, passions, personal histories, dietary restrictions, and various other preferences and peeves.

She learned that he was new to the city after moving the previous year, and he still spent many weekends exploring tourist spots. He learned that she was a part-time student, full of visions of design and creativity and financial independence.

They made plans to meet at a night market—one that he had never been to but had researched and assured her was vegetarian-friendly.

Not to mention, he wrote, the further away the better.

No one said it aloud, nor typed it up, but they both felt relief that there was slim chance of bumping into any family members or mutual acquaintances.

I cant wait to be there with you. Only you.

In person, they ignored each other. Work was one world, and there they had their own separate reality. There was no need to actually speak.

It didn’t need to be spelled out.

The families wouldn’t approve.

They met in secret two weekends in a row, waiting in line at crowded food stalls shrouded in moonlight and then watching movies in dark rooms lit up by vast screens. Never in daylight, never with risk of discovery. In person they kept their words at a minimum, in contrast to the essays written by thumb.

Eventually, the power of skin touching against skin proved to be the most powerful—yet most dangerous—communication of all.

On the third date, Jerry and Sha Sha decided to risk everything by staying at a small love hotel a mere six metro stations away. It was for the most part a natural progression.

In bed, after said communication had completed, Jerry held her in his arms and felt compelled to take a dare by suggesting the logical next step. “You should come to my apartment next time. I’ll cook you some dumplings. It will be great.”

“At your home?”

“I do have to warn you that it’s a bit far, and it’s small,” he joked. “And it’s messy. But I promise I’ll clean up.”

“Well, it sounds nice, that is, but you know I live with my father, and he’s very strict.”

“Just say you’ll be visiting a friend. Or not. Come on, Sha Sha, you are old enough to do whatever you want to do.”

“Don’t pressure me. I mean, I wish I could, but just don’t think I can’t stay the night like that.”

“But, I got a new console and we could play—”

“I can’t!”

“Fine,” Jerry conceded, hopes dashed. “I understand.”

“This is happening too fast. I’m very busy with the afternoon classes and work and I barely have enough time to spend with you already,” she said, her voice shaking and quick.

“I get it. Fine then.”

“To tell you the truth…” she went on, “I don’t even know if this arrangement is really working out for me. I simply don’t know.”

“I said I understand!” Jerry shouted, surprised at his own anger.

She rolled over in the bed, turning away from him, and shut her eyes.

He said nothing.

Soon after, they got dressed and left for home.

The next day, Cousin Lee suggested that Jerry should accompany him on one of his bimonthly trips abroad. He needed new inventory. Jerry agreed.

As a last ditch effort, he later reached out to Sha Sha to see if she wanted to see him again before leaving.

Just go, she wrote, in simple and unadorned prose.

OK, he jotted.

His heart lost, he clicked send.

There was no reply.

****

Continue reading

Current Flow Language Learning: The Evolution of Language

A fascinating guest post from Current Flow Language Learning, a language learning platform which I’m happy to promote. Links below: 

“Survival of the fittest” is a term that refers to the survival of organisms best adapted to an environment. Languages follow a similar pattern, changing over time and adjusting to new circumstances. Just as many organisms have had to make necessary adaptations to survive, people make adjustments to languages in order to make them more efficient.

As an English language teacher, one of the challenges I face when teaching is explaining the difference between the way English works in theory and the way English works in practice. We always must differentiate formal English from informal English. For example, you probably won’t find the word “gonna” in a textbook (in fact my spell check just marked the word red). ‘Gonna’ is a contracted, informal way of saying “going to.” ‘Gonna’ is also a commonly spoken word in American English, despite the fact that it is not proper English. If you were to read an article in the New York Times or listen to a lecturer at Harvard, you might not see or hear this form of my native language. However, in a regular conversation with the average English speaker, it is likely that you will hear words such as ‘woulda’ ‘go head’ and ‘y’all.’ None of these commonly used words are new, in fact, they have been parts of the English lexicon for decades now, yet these words remain improper and informal English. Why is that despite what people are taught, words and phrases go through various evolutions?

According to the Linguistic Society of America, every language is “always changing, adapting, and adapting to the needs of its users.” The problem with these constant evolutions and adaptations is that English language textbooks, dictionaries, classes, and curriculums do not keep pace.  It is not realistic for English language resources to keep up with every minor adjustment to the English language but in my opinion, the average English language resource is well behind the current state if the English language. For example, despite its common usage, ‘kinda’ is not even listed in the Merriam Webster dictionary. ‘Gonna’ however was able to gain admission into this prestigious institution. The criterion for induction into “official” English resources is a topic I’ll go more into detail in another post. The question I want to focus on now is whether or not it’s ‘wrong’ to use improper or informal English?

To answer this question, context plays an important part. It is definitely wrong to use words like ‘y’all’ and ‘woulda’ when writing a paper for an English composition class. The truth is that two people having a casual conversation will not speak perfect ‘textbook’ English. The average person most likely won’t nitpick over grammar errors as long as they can understand what is being said. Despite what some people may think, informal English has its own set of unspoken rules. For example, ‘ain’t’ is a contraction that means am not, are not, or is not. “I ain’t goin to school.” (I am not going to school). The improper word can also mean have not or has not. “I ain’t been to school all week” (I haven’t been to school all week.) What’s important to notice here is that whether you consider the word to be ‘real’ English or not, it’s usage is generally used within a specific set of parameters. People who regularly use the word ‘ain’t’ know when and how to use it, but they also know when it is being misused. ‘Ain’t’ would never be used as a noun or an adjective. This disputed word can best be described as a contraction of various auxiliary verbs and the word not. Likewise, in the unwritten rules of informal English, ‘kinda’ is an adverb that shares the same meaning as its counterpart ‘kind of.’ To be clear, ‘kind of’ itself may be considered informal by some English speakers. Standard English can be understood as one of the many dialects of the English language. Every dialect has a set of rules that are followed whether proper or improper.

The most important factor in determining whether an alternate English dialect is wrong or not is whether or not the speaker or writer can be understood. At the end of the day, languages are primarily used for communication. The standard I use for casual conversations, text messages and non-commercial social media posts, is, “Does what you just said make sense?” I know that my friends and family understand English well, so if wife sends me a text message that says, “I forgot the diapers, can you bring em to the daycare?”, I would not admonish her for improper grammar. “Em” is a shortened version of the word “them” and is commonly used by American English speakers. Most English resources will tell you it’s not a word despite the fact that it’s a word people use. When my wife sends me that text, I know exactly what she means, the communication is clear, and she used the word in the correct context. My wife’s English is not wrong in that scenario. However, if one of my students used a word like this, I would just check to make sure they were aware the word is not standardized English. Otherwise, I have no problems with people using a word that may or may not be considered ‘proper’ English.

Words don’t just get contracted and shortened, in some cases of language evolution, the meaning of a word changes slightly or entirely. The etymological fallacy means that a word “need not mean exactly what its Greek and Latin roots once literally meant.” For example, the word persona used to mean a literal mask rather than a figurative one. Another example is the word “decimate” which originally meant to “destroy every tenth of.” The etymological fallacy doesn’t only apply to the Latin roots of the English language. Over time, due to various factors and experiences, the meanings of words may change. Technological advances have been major factors in the evolution of words. The phrasal verb, ‘hang up,’ used to literally mean hanging up the telephone handset on the part of the telephone mounted to the wall. Today ‘hang up’ means pushing a button on a cellular phone to end a phone call.

Nikhil Swaminathan, a former reporter for Scientific American, wrote that the most commonly used words are the least likely to evolve. There is more the evolution of language than that. The experiences of collective groups of people sculpt and molds a language over time. The English of a person born in raised in South Africa will sound a bit different from the English of a man born and raised in Wales. Likewise, The French in France is noticeably different to a francophone from the French in Quebec. The way we perceive, understand, interpret, and use our tongues is heavily influenced by our experiences, friends, family, perceptions, technological advances and geography. Because of this, the way we communicate will constantly change and in some cases, improve.

 

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Fire and Fury review, or Too Much F*cking Tr*mp

Although it’s not my primary focus, I do write about politics on occasion (it has been a while). I try to stay informed, and as an American I hope I have well-thought out opinions worth sharing. And, of course, these days how can one not pay attention!

Coupling that with my propensity to write book reviews, I would like to go outside of my lane a bit and do an extensive review of the explosive new book Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff.

No doubt you’ve heard of it, as well as all the fallout. This is my take.

Overall I think the book is excellent and damn what a fascinating read, but there is a certain challenge in it. Not that I think criticisms of the accuracy are what’s wrong—I will defend them below. But the problem is that that living in this age and rehashing the past year has been very mentally stressful. And at the same time to read, there’s keeping up with the endless barrage of new scandals which threatens to overwhelm my feeble mind.

Simply put, too much fucking Tr*mp. I get conflicted because this is important and worth paying attention to. Yet the sad fact of it is that he is the history’s all-time greatest attention whore and good or bad press he no doubt relishes in all the constant fretting. Note that in my small way I try to rebel against this by hereafter only referring to Prez you-know-who as 45.

As to the merits of the book, here I go: I genuinely think it is excellent and everyone should read it. It came at the right time, just when one may worry that we are getting used to it and normalization has set in, this amazing story was suddenly published to usher in more fresh outrages. And fatigue or not, outrages is the sensible reaction. Michael Wolff has done a great service.

Starting from the scene of election night at the campaign when they shockingly won, the premise from the get-go that no one expected him to win. The campaign was a terrible mess, as was reported on at the time, thought the one guy who believed he could make it happen was Bannon. From beginning to end, Bannon is certainly the protagonist of the book.

Wolff lays out the insanity of recent history in a readable and dare I say entertaining manner. It’s not only the dry facts, but a narrative arc that somehow all makes sense. Some may criticize that but I think it is a perfectly fair way engage the reader. There is even commentary on the reality show nature of the current presidency to create this sort of drama, which we’ve all been witnessing. Usually history is made sense of and turned into story long after the fact, but this is the new postmodern age isn’t it? Wolff is simply transcribing in the most appropriate way possible.

Some may think it grossly irresponsible for Wolff to relay rumors, but so far there isn’t anything specific which has turned out not to be true. No one has denied any quotes. Wolff is upfront in the book when the same events often have competing interpretations from different camps. I find the author’s judgment to always be fair. If there are later corrections made then so be it.

If one can just call a spade a spade, we know it’s all basically true. Like, the way the book states that 45 hated his own inauguration and was visibly fighting with Melania. Anyone can watch the videos to know this is truth. Another example that comes to mind is when Bannon gave the speech at CPAC which was a dig at Jared, it’s obvious! All the behind the scenes footage is valid and America knows it. Above all, the glaringly open secret that 45 is an idiot and everyone who works for him constantly talks about it.

Moreover, the rumory nature of the book is what has gotten headlines but for the most part it’s about Michael Wolff’s analysis of public happenings than just the gossip. Wolff, in omniscient narrator fashion, gives thorough critical examination to the firings and the scandals and panic, and without the lame partisanship in so much punditry. Although the central theme that 45 is shallow and empty and doesn’t read and constantly watches TV (an interesting term, he’s “post-literate”) and he can’t control his worst impulses and who refuses to even know that he doesn’t know, barring that overall important point the other characters are indeed analyzed with respect. There’s still more to learn about 45 beyond his mere stupidity, like the way he prefers loyalty of women. There are the the occasional pop psychological riffs on his motivations to just be liked, paternal-related and otherwise.

In any case, 45 and his defenders have rather had an enormous problem with the concept of objective truth… So why listen to their attacks on Wolff? I for one trust the leaks.

Michael Wolff is clearly talented at writing about politics in surprising ways. For example, he does repeatedly criticize the so-called liberal media. Makes it all the more poignant when he explains the world of right-wing media with its far lower standards of entry. And after all the due respect given to the original core members of the cabinet, it can’t be denied that the unqualified Hope Hicks and Stephen Miller’s promotions towards the end show an absolute problem with finding professional staff. Wolff simply, as they say, tells it like it is. 

One of the most haunting analyses that come to mind is when white supremacist Richard Spencer is declared to be the intellectual base of “Trumpism”, which is all the more a horrifying concept because the more one thinks about it the more it can’t be denied to be true.

Overall, the book is about the disastrous and chaotic infighting which took place in the White House. From chiefs of staff Preibus to Kelly, when it all settles we find ourselves nearly caught up in the low morale present. There’s the Scaramucci affair, which turns out to be yet worse knowing the backstory. Often it’s 45’s own family, Jared and Ivanka, who are the worst of the worst.

If Bannon is the main character, then the utterly incompetent “Jarvanka” family faction proves to be the antagonist. Spoiler: They win in the end. It’s hard to say if that’s a happy or sad ending.

In satisfying faction, by the time of the infamous Charlottesville “many sides” comment, absolutely everybody knows that 45 is a lost cause who cannot do this job. Not to mention the tweets. Then there’s the growing Russian scandal, which initially is given a lot of skepticism but grows worse and worse veering into that incredibly inept Comey firing and then revelations of inexplicable meetings and subsequent coverups and obstruction of justice allegations and Rosenstein’s revenge in the form of the Mueller Special Counsel. By the conclusion no less an authority than Bannon himself has to admit that eventually this will bring the administration down.

Because we are living this, the story goes on.

The odds indeed are very high that scandal is going to take this administration down, perhaps even soon, but for a reader who has learned so much I am left wondering why the hell it is taking so long.

At last, Bannon loses his job but remains hopeful for the future of his outsider revolution, and the book ends with as much feeling of closure that can be expected. Yet, now we know that due to the fallout of the book Bannon has even been let go from his Breitbart, which does seem just. I just hope to read in the paperback updated edition of Michael Wolff’s take on the latest.

A recurring motif is that 45 as such an anomaly to everyone in Washington, with everyone who doubted the loud-mouthed reality show host having to reluctantly work with what they have. Sadly, as true as the strangeness of this strange chapter of American history is, Wolff does leave something out after all that focus on 45 and his ilk. The question still remains on how America—even if not due to the majority of voters—could let this happen. How can this train wreck of a government have happened and so many citizens supporting such chaos and bigotry and corruption? Those questions may have to be answered by future historians after far more time passes.

Meanwhile, Wolff did his best to explain the inner workings withing Fire and Fury and America must wait and see to further understand and reflect.

Taipei International Book Exhibition

Soon begins the Taipei International Book Exhibition! TWG Press will have a booth at A711 and I will be there, selling the new Taiwan Tales Volume Two book as well as some of my other works from February 6th to 11th…

There will even be a free event on Friday, February 9th @ 8:30 p.m. in which the authors of the anthology will read excerpts and interact with the audience (at the Yellow Salon in the World Trade Convention Center Hall 1).

I am honored to be a part of it and it’s my first book expo in Taiwan. Can’t wait to meet more readers and authors and embrace the 台灣 literati! 😀

 

See more information here: http://www.tibe.org.tw/en/

Taiwan Tales Volume Two – short story anthology

 

https://www.amazon.com/Taiwan-Tales-Anthology-Connor-Bixby-ebook/dp/B078XPDQDM

 

Since coming to Taiwan, I have become a part of the Taipei Writers’ Group and I am now honored to be a part of their new anthology sequel Taiwan Tales Volume Two. My short story “The Taipei Underground” is included among many other works by excellent and talented writers whom I’ve been humbled to share writings with.

Please give it a read, via the Kindle or even order a hard copy. In fact, as always I’m happy to share an complimentary advance edition for reviewers! Also, stay tuned for updates including free promotions and other events coming up soon…

The book will also be on sale at the Taipei International Book Exhibition from February 6th to 11th, featuring yours truly. Do come say hi to me if in the area 🙂

 

Brief synopses of the short stories herein:

“Room 602” by Pat Woods, a Taiwanese ghost story inspired by an unusual local superstition about knocking on hotel doors.

“Notes from Underfoot” by Mark Will, a humorous and erudite story that gives a dog’s-eye-view of life in Taipei.

“The Taipei Underground” by Ray Hecht, a glimpse of the lives of two young people in Taipei Main Station’s cavernous underground.

“Bob the Unfriendly Ghost vs. The Mother Planet” by Laurel Bucholz, dealing a sometimes funny, sometimes terrifying experience of local spirits and Ayahuasca.

“Underworld” by J.J Goodwin, an epic odyssey through a strange world beneath Taipei where local and foreign mythology is alive and kicking.

“A Completely Normal Male Expat” by Connor Bixby, which, in the author’s own brand of neurotic fiction, checks out communication and the dating game in Taipei.

“Onus” by Ellyna Ford Phelps, a story of friendship, dark pasts, and goodbyes as two expats share an all-too-brief connection.

The collection was edited by Pat Woods and L.L. Phelps, and the gorgeous cover image was provided by TWG member Brian Q. Webb.

Taiwan Tales Volume Two Released!

Presenting my latest short story

Taipei Writers Group

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2017 was, in some ways, a transitional year for the Taipei Writers’ Group.

We had a great time at the 2017 Taipei International Book Expo (TIBE), sold plenty of books, made contacts and plenty of new friends, and did well enough so we’ll be back again in 2018 (February 6-11, more details to follow).

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Japan: the trip

Honestly, still my favorite things about Japan

As some may know, I recently went to Japan with my lovely partner during the New Year holiday. It was a great opportunity to check out one of my favorite countries (and proximity is better than ever now living in Taiwan). Not to knock any other of the fascinating Eastern lands out there, but for my inner geek Japan will always be my first love…

It was my third time visiting, and Bronwen’s very first! In the month beforehand I brushed up on my old collegiate 日本語 studies, listening to audio lessons and dusting off the old phrasebooks. It turned out I can still surprisingly get by in survival Japanese at least, and I’ll never forget hiragana/katakana. Nowadays my Chinese is obviously much better, but I do know a lot of kanji even if I pronounce it wrong. Hence, I like to think I make for a decent Nihon guide.

In our planning stages we decided to forego the overwhelmingness of Tokyo, and instead opted for the more traditional city of Kyoto in the Kansai region. Sure enough it was a great place to explore, low-key and relaxed, and with a temple or shrine on every corner. Nijo Castle in particular stood out. And the Gion District was a cool place full of geisha stylings, and look how good she looks in a rented kimono!

(Note these Instagram links below are albums to flip through, so scroll all)

 

Later we went to Nara, which proved to be the first of our ‘animal friends’ series of photo ops. Nara is famous for it’s roaming deer, as you can see! Hundreds of them everywhere, what a sight. They are quite tame for the most part, except for a few selfish ones harassing tourists with bags of oranges, but basically one buys crackers from street vendors and all day they will safely feed from the humans. Lucky beasts.

It’s even advertised that they are polite and bow, but later I looked it up and they only “bow” because they think humans are about the head-butt them. Interesting facts.

Our Animal Friends, Part 1: #Nara #Deer #Park

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The other main animal friends adventure consisted of going to the central shopping district of Kyoto for an amazing time at the hedgehog cafe!! Yes, the latest of the cafe trends is to play with super-cute hedgehogs. It was very popular and we had to reserve to get a seat.

I felt a bit bad, because our hedgehog was rather not into it. The workers there explained well how to treat the animals right, and it wasn’t uncomfortably exploitative or anything. Just slightly problematic what with the way the little guy kept wanting to run away into corners.

There was also an owl cafe in the area, but I can only handle so much cuteness.

 

New Year’s Eve was had partying, as it should be, at the rocker nightclub known as Metro. It was an excellent showing rotating live bands and DJs, with an almost retro 80s vibe to it. One band blew us away, they were dressed like boy scouts and absolutely insane. Made for a long night of ringing in 2018, and I hope I can maintain some optimism for the year…

I shouted out many a times: “明けましておめでとうございます!”

#明けましておめでとうございます!

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After going to the famous and beautiful Inari Shrine, and then the Toei Studios Park–which was somewhat of a lame tourist attraction and the anime section was pitiful but the samurai village was kind of cool and had horses–on the last day we were off to the nation’s second-biggest city of Osaka to absorb the whole futuristic Japan thing. Which is what I ultimately love about it there the most, though it did get very crowded. A city I visited over ten years previous, so nostalgic.

The bathhouses, the pretty light snow and the cold weather, the majestic mountains in the distance, calculating yen, the bullet trains, the heated seats, the soba noodles, the tempura, the lux toilets, the manga figurines, and the epic video game arcades. Experienced so much on this all too brief eight-day trip. And, she seemed to like it.

Until next time, Rising Sun land…

Bye, Japan! Last set: #InariShrine #NewYears #ToeiPark #Osaka #大阪

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Engrish not Chinglish, because in Japan – also Happy New Year!

Because I am currently in Japan, not China, this is technically an ‘Engrish’ post not a Chinglish post. That’s how it works.

More on my Japan trip in more detail next week, so please be patient…

 

Also, HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!! Wishing everyone a creative and productive and happy and wondrous 2018. Let us hope that things turn out a bit better for the world already, and not just hope but work at it 🙂

 

Without further ado, two brief pics:

(Hey, it is not exactly easy to find funny mistranslations in near-perfect Japan!)

 

#Engrish not #Chinglish, because guess where I am!

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Butt kinda #Engrish/#Chinglish

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Figure Drawing

A couple of weekends ago, I had my first proper nude figure drawing class since college. I must say it was a very inspiring session. It was a great atmosphere, with the classroom environment really pushing me to do my best. The three-dimensionality of a live model does make for much more wholy-realized sketches than practicing on say youtube, doesn’t it?

The resources were also superior to my usual set. Instead of a no. 2 pencil and simple sketchpad at home, I could utilize charcoal pencils and white chalk and large off-color paper and an easel, etc.

All in all it took three hours which went by before I knew it. The model was very professional and able to make striking poses while staying perfectly still for extended periods of time, which is far more difficult than it seems.

First, there were the many quick 30-second to one-minute to two-minute poses:

 

It was very good for getting back into the spirit of drawing. Then, came the poses at about 15-minutes length and I used a tan paper stock so I could highlight the contrasts of light and shadow. After getting the hang of sketching the body, I wanted to challenge myself by drawing a recognizable face as well:

 

The second-half of the class with thirty-minute plus poses made for more fully-finalized pieces, which I think turned out surprisingly well!

Thinking about the anatomy as a whole and the shoulders-to-waist and forced perspective of the legs, and the shine in the hair and the cloth draped over the chair…

 

I moved my easel station around to get different perspectives, and found that the backside can be a very beautiful angle. Grey paper, by the way, may be my new favorite medium.

 

In the final work, I took my time and even did some layouts of the background so the picture could look as complete as possible. My attempt to bring all the elements together: The sense of movement of the body, and the smudged charcoal shading alongside the white oil lighting and here it is–

 

 

So, thanks for allowing me to share. I hope these turned out well, and I perhaps I’ll now have the opportunity to sketch more soon!