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

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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.

 

For more, please like the Facebook page here– https://www.facebook.com/currentflow22, and also follow on Instagram for daily content! https://www.instagram.com/currentflowlanguage

 

 

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/