What Da Cover Says: Ray Hecht recaps how he spent the year 2020 in Taiwan in the form of a short comic following on from his comic biography Always Goodbye.
What I Says: I loved this and I want more, a fantastic way to look back on the past, ya know when they do those specials on TV where they look back on events for a particular year? Well this is like that but with a much better narrator. The illustrations are great, it’s the style I like, pencil drawings and all writing is hand written, being a little rough around the edges gives it a bit of character.
2020 was an epic year (yeah I know 2021 is trying to top it) and Ray shares with us all the big events, some of which I had forgotten (the shock death of the black panther for one) and he…
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To celebrate my birthday, I am making all eight of my ebooks free to download for the Kindle app!
Please read and enjoy some comic memoirs, science fiction short stories, novels and travelogues on living in China and Taiwan:
2020: A Year in Taiwan, my autobiographical comic about experiencing the pandemic next door to China, is now free to download for the week!
Please take a look, and let me know what you think. If you even feel so inclined, share and perhaps write a review…
My autobiographical comic 2020: A Year in Taiwan is now available for the Kindle app on Amazon:
Turtle Burn, Taiwan’s spinoff of the avant-garde art festival Burning Man, will take place over the Tomb Sweeping holiday
In the mountains of Yilan, far from the confines of everyday life, people gather during the holidays to celebrate. Outlandish costumes are the norm. The fashion styles run from Mad Max-inspired outfits, to anime cosplay, along with colorful makeup and dresses for both men and women.
It’s time for the Turtle Burn, the official “regional Burn” of Taiwan. This is a spinoff of Burning Man, the world’s largest art and music festival held annually in Nevada. For one week a year, over 70,000 people camp out in Black Rock Desert to attend this seminal countercultural event. All over the world, there are also smaller regional Burns, and the Turtle Burn will be a more intimate affair, capping at 150 people.
Although the main Burning Man event was canceled last year due to COVID-19, the Turtle Burn did have a successful opening in 2019 and plans to continue annually. The latest will be from April 2 to April 5, over the Tomb-Sweeping Festival holiday weekend, at Shanlinciji campsite.
The site is filled with several “theme camps,” which groups organize in order to spend time with likeminded friends and to pool resources together. One is the Tavern of Truth, headed by Kate Panzica, which holds a free bar to give drinks to everyone who strolls by.
“Educating both foreigners and locals on the Ten Principles is a net positive,” Panzica says. “I think it’s great for folks to explore themselves and what they want to be in the ‘default world’ as well as a Burn.”
The Ten Principles of Burning Man, written by late founder Larry Harvey in 2004, are: Radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation, and immediacy.
These guidelines help to make the event stay as ethical as possible, and people are encouraged to clean up after themselves and promote sustainable living. Radical self-reliance refers to how attendees must bring their own food, cookware, tents and other camping supplies. People are encouraged to contribute to the culture by building their own artistic creations, whether individually or as part of a group. And after the event is over, they must make sure to leave no trace by cleaning up all “MOOP” — matter out of place.
For four days the Turtle Burn will hold a variety of workshops and activities. The gifting principle doesn’t just refer to handing out free drinks or personalized jewelry, although that is also common. It can also be expressed by giving one’s time by hosting workshops.
In the past, these workshops have included improv comedy sessions, where participants learn to play and practice their comedic skills, yoga classes for keeping fit, lip-singing performances, fashion shows on a makeshift runway and even impromptu puppet shows. Some camps contribute at meal-times, cooking pancakes or grilled cheese sandwiches to share with the entire community. At night, fire-dancers are a particular attraction of any Burn, dancing to the beat of electronic music and entertaining others as they express their craft.
“I was part of the Queen of Hearts camp,” said Michi Fu, sharing her experiences. “We had a shared costume closet with a full-length mirror to encourage radical self-expression through costuming. I sang with my furry, lavender bunny ears and turquoise silk robe and we all had hand-cranked ice cream.”
On the final night, tradition dictates that a wooden effigy is to burn. This started in 1986 at the very first Burning Man in San Francisco, as a symbol of how to keep the creative “fire” burning on even after the event concludes. At the Turtle Burn, a two-meter wide wooden turtle sculpture is scheduled to be set aflame. Dale Albanese, Taiwan’s official Burning Man contact, said of the installation: “There’s a sense of buildup and tension, and this sudden quietness and a collective shared spirit. You hear the oohs and the aahs at similar times. There’s a kind of shared attention. We’ve all been busy doing our own thing, and then there’s a pause. A reset. It’s also a moment to open up and say it wasn’t just about me.”
As 150 artists and performers gather their community together to continue the Turtle Burn tradition, they are also planning for next year and beyond. Tickets for this year’s event have already sold out but there is a waiting list. For more information, visit: turtleburn.com.
Traveling by motorbike from Chiayi city (嘉義) up to Alishan Mountain (阿里山) and surrounding villages in central Taiwan, during the Lunar New Year holiday
Well, looks like we made it. A whole new year.
What an accomplishment!
Feels like the time for one of those particularly reflective end-of-the-year retrospectives, doesn’t it?
Much has already been said about how unique a time it has been, without getting into the morbidity of the topic. Perhaps I cannot add so much. Suffice to say it’s been hard times for a hell of a lot of people. No doubt about that.
Just hope it’s not terribly naïve to be cautiously optimistic now that we will soon enter a new era…
Life is never easy, and there will be a lot of challenges ahead. That said, it simply has to get better.
Things seemed to have truly turned around, or at least started to turn around, just at the very end. Politically speaking, that is. Yes, things are by no means all better just yet. That will take a lot of work, but the worst is seriously over with back in the home country and that makes for some real reason to feel hope.
Anyways, personally life is good here in Taiwan and I am grateful to be here. I get to be part of a positive community, I get to work for a living (though I don’t love that part), and I even get to be creative and then share my creativity from time to time. This current year started out with a cancellation of a book fair, and then we all had to wear masks. Blech. I would have liked to promote my own books a bit more, make some progress in that field instead of hit pause. Yet I did get to do a book fair last month so that was cool.
I changed jobs this year, I participated in an unlicensed regional Burn event, and I only traveled in-island. I even voted.
I survived the holidays, and now there’s only one more all-night party to go to with which to ring in the new year and that’s gonna be a lot of fun 😄
Like everybody else out there, I have many goals for 2021. I need to catch up on my own prose writing and share a new novel when the time comes. Exercise, studying, I generally need to get it together personal growth-wise on so many fronts.
I also look forward to watching many movies after we’re all vaccinated and pop cultural life goes back to normal. I have much to read and series to binge.
So much to do indeed….
At least we have a chance.
Here’s to the rest of the world, maybe just maybe we’ll make it ~
I don’t know how to feel about the rush of current events.
There is obviously some very good news. It was long dragged out, but seems to be coming to a close, and celebrations are indeed in order. That feeling of relief as a dead weight is assuredly going to go, sooner or later. Incredible times, especially after so much uncertainty.
But it’s still a lot to process. I’ll spare any readers from all my obnoxious political opinions, well-thought as I’d like to think them to be, and just express how this state of affairs still leaves me anxious.
I’m no pundit. I have my perspective, and I like to read and review and share my thoughts, but there’s not really any reason people should listen to me.
That said, I simply cannot escape this terrible sense that tens of millions of my fellow countrymen are undeniably bad people. I had no idea it could get this bad. It’s not worth it anymore debating and talking about fake news and racial bias and social hierarchies and brainwashing etc. It’s a fact and here we are. They are bad people and there so many of them.
What is my country and the world going to do?
Well, turns out in the end, the good guys (or at least the moderate-not-that-evil guys) have won/will win. The fight for so many issues goes on, for healthcare and peace and freedom, no doubt about it, and at the very least there’s still a chance now… perhaps state of the world can actually survive at this rate and progress…
I voted from afar. Funny thing, as a matter of fact, it’s the first time I have voted for the winning team. It seemed an emergency so I had to. But I remain an American abroad, a privileged expat, incredibly lucky to live in the only country on earth to have defeated the pandemic. I do have to wear a mask everywhere, slightly annoying, and there’s danger from the mainland, but above all I am in the greatest social democracy in Asia and I am grateful to be here.
Been weird staying on the island for an entire year. No travel, no airplanes. No visiting relatives, no exploring new cultures. And yet right now I am far luckier than the vast majority of the planet.
To feel hope for the environment of this world, for the climate, for the very air, and to have so much reason to worry at the same time. It’s all come to ahead, and 2020 isn’t even over. It looks like the danger to democracy isn’t going anywhere in the next couple of months, plenty of anxiety is going to continue. At the same time, hope exists. Humans may, believe it or not, make it through this.
Going back to ‘normal’ or not, there is a future. If we can survive the grueling present.
This damn year. Let’s try to make it through this, everyone.
A review of the graphic novel
Ray Hecht’s autobiographical graphic novel starts with his birth in Israel, where his parents were immigrants, and ends up with him working in Asia. Moving to America as a small child he has an unstable upbringing, thanks to his Ukrainian mother and American father divorcing. The drawings and the layout here obviously took a lot of work and I dare say it may have been easier just to write the narrative, however, this was a more interesting way to tell his story. Each year is introduced with a picture of a key event and I laughed when I saw OJ’s Bronco being chased by police down the highway for 1994.
Things start out well for the family in America, but after a few years the cracks begin to show and his parents get divorced in the early nineties. His mother remarries a none-too trustworthy Israeli man and Ray stays with his Dad, who trains to be a nurse. Ray does recognise his father’s efforts to better himself. His sister is academic and as she grows up gets sucked into a conservative Israeli world that Hecht wants no part of. She learns Russian and presumably Hebrew too — as she moves to Israel and gets married there. Ray’s trips to Israel don’t work out well, it’s not a place he connects with. With this in mind, it’s not surprising that he prefers to study Japanese and later Chinese.
A self-confessed nerdy child, Hecht struggles socially and finds solace in comic books. (I was waiting for his reading to break out from the pure escapism of comics and this does eventually happen.) A convincing portrayal of how America can be a lonely place for a teenager, a lot of this must have been hard to bring to the surface again. One major problem for him is always moving from school to school, as the title indicates it is “Always Goodbye”. Probably the most painful incident is when he gets kicked out of school for something he says about a mass shooting. Despite being an introvert, he makes various efforts to improve his social life, investigating subcultures — punk, Goth, arty-type, straight edge, hippie — looking for something to hold onto. His friends do the same thing and he falls in and out with them depending on what phase they are in — a problem of a fractured society: you can join many different tribes but a sense of belonging is not guaranteed. He does some hallucinogenic drugs, but the answer doesn’t lie there.
In his early twenties Ray moves out of his Dad’s place and back again several times, in a non-linear surge towards independence common in his generation. He has a string of dead-end jobs in various States and then vaguely commits to life in California. Salvation comes in the form of China, recommended to him by a random character at the Burning Man Festival 2008. Like many young Westerners who go to work in Asia (me included), it’s the first time he has the luxury of living alone in a decent apartment. He begins teaching at a kindergarten in Shenzhen, the huge city over the border from Hong Kong where everything is new and exciting. He mentions the bootleg markets and this reminded me that one of the pleasures (and even social activities) of living in China back then was shopping for pirated DVDs; now of course we just download movies without leaving the house. He survives the kindergarten, moves onto a Korean owned school in Guangzhou, and escapes the English teaching world to become a copy editor.
Ray realises that a lot of the expat life is about drinking and tries to find meaning through writing and dating. The dating doesn’t go so well, but gives him material to write about. While many say it’s easy to get an Asian girlfriend, it doesn’t work out most of the time because of different expectations and, sure enough, Hecht takes us through a few awkward flings. The world of online dating also turns out to be a wash-out. Despite these romantic failures, he publishes a novel and eventually gets involved in a serious relationship with a creative South African woman— i.e. finally he has some good luck. I was interested to read that he initially went down to Hong Kong every six months to get visas, but later got a ten year China visa. Surely long term visas like this are not on the table anymore?
The text isn’t that polished and there are still a few mistakes to be ironed out, or perhaps they were left in the on purpose to emphasize the DIY nature of this work? His analysis of society is usually spot on and you can see a narrow view of the world broadening as he travels more — this gives the story a nice arc. As a thirty-something he ends up in Taiwan, looking at current events it was probably a wise decision to leave China and move there.
In this midst of this worldwide pandemic, I’ve found myself passing on those dystopian novels I used to adore and instead seeking out a little more “comfort food” in the books I’ve read this year. Lighthearted, humorous and even self-deprecating stories of people grappling with everyday problems that you wouldn’t find in a disaster film have offered me much-needed refuge in these unusual and challenging times for all. Bonus if they touch on experiences I’ve had living here in China and Asia, including cross-cultural dating and relationships.
Thank goodness Ray Hecht sent me his new graphic novel Always Goodbye, which really hit the spot on all fronts.
The graphic novel spans Ray’s life from birth up to 2019, and it makes for a pleasant read, thanks to its honesty. As much as it charts the highs in his life, the novel also delves into those lows and failures too as he pursues a variety of different careers, not always with success. Ray approaches even difficult topics and moments with a refreshing sense of humor, and we could all use a laugh these days. And Ray’s experiences in moving to China and dating locals will resonate with those of us who have visited or lived here.
I’m honored to feature this interview with Ray Hecht about Always Goodbye.
Here’s Ray’s bio from Amazon:
Author Ray Hecht was born in Israel and raised in the American Midwest. He currently lives in Taiwan.
Why did you decide to create this graphic novel?
I’ve always loved the comics medium. I worry I”m not quite good enough at drawing, and that’s why I’ve been focusing on prose writing for most of my creative career, but after a bit of a dry spell in book publishing I decided to return to my first love…
The decision was partly due to me just trying to practice the art of cartooning again. Focusing on myself has worked well with my writing before, so why not? Autobiography/memoir has been an indie comics tradition for many years, and it simply felt right for me to share my perspective that way. When I sat down and thought about the whole of my life, with the second half focused on being an expat in China until in the “climax” finale I moved to Taiwan, it seemed like a story worth telling.
What’s the story behind the title?
To be honest, I struggled to come up with a title. At last, it came to me.
Perhaps it’s a somewhat dark interpretation, but the one constant in my life seems to be that I always move. I moved from Israel to Indiana to Ohio to California to Ohio again to California again to China to Taiwan.
That’s a lot of goodbyes. So what else could I call this, other than “Always Goodbye”?
In your graphic novel, you chose to organize it chronologically, through your entire life. Why did you choose this approach?
Good question. Indeed, such a narrative doesn’t necessarily need to be chronological. Nor must it start at the beginning. Authors more clever than me may have taken a non-linear approach, but I went with being direct.
Back when I first thought about how to explain my life in a way that made sense, taking notes and interviewing my mom, I realized I didn’t just need to start with my birth; I actually needed to start with my parents. So the first years covered were 1954 and 1956, in Chicago and in the Ukraine of the former Soviet Union. From there, naturally it led to the year that I was born, and so on.
Plus, it was fun to map out a pop cultural or technological marker. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. 1982 to 2019, every year needed at least it’s own little chapter.
What was your favorite year to detail and why?
That would probably be 2008. A seminal year for me.
It was of course the year I risked it all and moved to Shenzhen, China to do the expat thing. If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t be in the China blog scene at all! But even before I moved, over in Southern California, a lot changed in my life. Maybe in a way that was the year I finally grew up. The crazy Burning Man festival part of that story was pretty interesting as well.
Your graphic novel gets very personal, including in how it portrays people close to you, such as family and friends. How have family and friends responded to your book?
I’ve been very fortunate to so far have almost no negative criticism from anyone portrayed in the book. I feel extremely lucky and grateful for that, otherwise it could have gone awkward.
Even if someone did respond negatively: My philosophy is that they were my experiences and I have a right to express what happened as long as I was involved (so long as I don’t literally libel someone, or expose some deep dark secret or anything). There was a common sense balance to the portrayals. I also didn’t include any last names for obvious reasons.
I needn’t have worried. For the most part, I have found that a lot of people are flattered to be caricatured in a graphic novel by me!
What do you hope people come away with from reading your graphic novel?
I suppose the main hope is to increase readers’ empathy.
If you’ve met me in person, please read to get a better understanding of who I am and where I come from. If you haven’t met me in person, I do hope that my life stories around the world are interesting and entertaining, and can also give some sort of deeper window into a different person’s perspective.
After all, isn’t that ultimately what all art is all about?
Many thanks to Ray Hecht for this interview! You can learn more about Always Goodbye on Ray’s website. The graphic novel Always Goodbye is available on Amazon, where your purchase helps support this blog.
Always Goodbye is an excellent title for your book. It really captures the bitter-sweet emotions of constantly moving on, whether that be leaving relationships or physical locations. I could relate to the semi-nomadic upbringing you describe as I’m a first-generation Kiwi with few roots in my home country. On balance do you find that rootlessness liberating?
Why thank you. It’s different for everybody, but I guess I’m just used to being rootless and that helped me to first move to California and then to China. It’s the way I happened to be raised. Not recommended for everyone. Perhaps people who still visit the childhood home they grew up in aren’t my best audience, who knows.
In this increasingly globalist world that we now find ourselves in, more and more might relate to my lack of a homeland…
I know I’m old-fashioned but I find it remarkable that an adult has such an interest in superhero comic books. Aren’t they just for kids?
Ha, this is an old take. Weren’t comics pretty much proven to be a valid literary medium in the 1980s when Watchmen won a Hugo award? Even last year the graphic novel Sabrina was a contender to win the Booker prize.
By that logic Bob Dylan’s winning the Nobel Prize for Literature would make pop songs a literary medium.
There was controversy about that wasn’t there, but I think an argument can be made that some songwriting is literary for sure. Well, maybe I can’t convince everybody. To me it seems self-evident to me that comics have writers and it is a medium of literature. They do have graphic novels at bookstores, right?
The superhero genre is as big as it’s ever been due to the phenomenal success of Marvel movies, although they are worthy of criticism. However, that criticism – as Scorsese might say – is about the corporate vs. art argument. There’s certainly nothing wrong with adults being entertaining by Superman or whatever.
That said, those black & white indie comics tend to be more literary. Superheroes are just a pop culture fun thing for me, serious or not. And yes, childhood nostalgia is a factor.
While superheroes (or fantasy, or science fiction) may not be for everyone, and that’s fine. My point is I’d passionately argue that everyone should give comics a chance as a broader medium.
Any kind of story can be told with both words and pictures.
You’re only 37 years old. Isn’t it rather a young age to be writing an autobiography?
Perhaps I am too young and haven’t accomplished enough to be able to write a valid memoir. But it is what it is. I start Always Goodbye with an immediate admission that I was creatively spent at the time, and just wanted to practice the comic medium. Perhaps my personal experiment makes for a good read, perhaps it doesn’t.
There is a long tradition of autobiographical comics which can work very well in a slice-of-life type way, and I hope at best I tap into those sorts of stories in my work. If I can be 1% of Harvey Pekar, I’ll take it.
And I’m not claiming that my humble travels through Asia are that terribly special, but still some people may enjoy a window into my personal experiences.
I’m still not sure what to make of your book. It’s different from anything I’ve ever read. However, a friend whose judgment on literary matters I greatly respect was raving about it to me the other day. He said it was a work of historical importance, that it was “a Diary of Samuel Pepys for our times.” What kind of response have you had to Always Goodbye?
I’m honored to have such a comparison! I’ve been lucky to have a lot of positive reviews, even though some people certainly don’t know what to make of my book. Usually, those already into comics more “get it.” I’m still very pleased that others who are new to to the medium have found some things to enjoy about Always Goodbye.
Of course, I’ve had some fair criticism as well from both comics aficionados and novices. Usually concerning the work being overly wordy and rushed. The whole thing is an experiment, and those don’t always work.
The drawings work really well, and are consistent throughout the book. Over what period of time did you draw them (I have vague memories of reading a blog post from years back about you working on the memoir)?
The entire word took me a bit less than a year, about ten months. I did post early drafts of the pages online. For anyone on a budget who doesn’t want to buy a book, check out my blog!
Basically, from mid-2018 to 2019 I drew two pages a week. I interviewed my parents for the early portions, I sorted old photos, I reread my journals, dug through ancient social media. Then day after day I wrote a script, penciled, inked, and lettered.
It was honestly the hardest I’ve ever worked on anything in my life.
One of the things that comes through Always Goodbye is the importance of pop culture in your life. What do you think provides the backdrop to one’s life – is it the big moments of history, the likes of Operation Desert Storm, 9/11, the Olympics, or is it the television, music and movies we consume?
I find that these images of the big thing of each year are a good way to anchor a moment in time. It can be personal, like when Jurassic Park came out. Or tragic, like 9/11. Sometimes they didn’t have much to do with me, like say the fall of the Berlin Wall. I suppose everything indirectly affects us all if it was sufficiently impactful, especially the political ones or even the technologies of the ages. Both are valid, but the music and movie portions do tend to have more of a personal spark even if it’s more arbitrary objectively-speaking.
As you’re flying to China to take up a teaching position in Shenzhen, you reflect on how it all started: “I’d been interested in China ever since I saw Farewell My Concubines. Anime –> Kurosawa –>Fifth-Generation Chinese cinema, that was my journey.” Can you say more about the attraction to East Asian culture and also why you chose China over Japan?
Well, obviously Japanese popular culture has been more open to the West for a longer time. And with regards to my nerdy youth, I did love me some manga and anime. But as I got older I was also more interested in “serious” film as well and then Chinese cinema was my entry-point.
And I’m not even into martial arts.
Maybe the real reason I liked Asia was because it was as far from my homelands as possible. I always did want to get away.
Japan is a great place I love to visit, by the way, but how Rising China is both developed and undeveloped suited me better. It’s been quite the adventure learning about this massive part of the world, even considering the negative factors of living in a communist dictatorship. I was lucky I happened to end up with a job in China after that momentous Burning Man conversation…
You went to China in 2008 to teach English. Those days were pretty good going for a young Westerner. What’s it like now?
From what I understand, the standards are much higher today. More expenses, less breaking of the rules. Not quite as worth it.
To be frank China isn’t so desperate for random white teachers anymore, and a lot of unqualified people are getting kicked out. Fair enough on that. I wouldn’t recommend others to movie the mainland anymore, at least not to teach, but for a real professional it’s not a bad deal to live in places like Shanghai or Shenzhen. I do still like visiting on occasion, even if it is less wild.
As well as teaching English you also worked for the Shenzhen Daily, first writing articles part-time and then full-time as a copy editor. How were those experiences?
I enjoy a bit of journalism, writing little restaurant reviews and the like. I still do full-on film and book reviews all the time basically for free. Overall it wasn’t my particular dream or anything.
As for working as a copy editor in the office, I absolutely loathed it. Eight hours a day drained me of all my creativity. It was a good day job for a while, and I gained valuable experience (I still work as a freelance editor on occasion), but most of all that time in my life taught me that office jobs are not for me. Chinese offices in particular are so boring.
How are enjoying Taiwan so far?
Taiwan is perfect for me! A mix of Japan and China, but not crowded and very chill – in particular, the literary scene in Taiwan has been good. Most of all, I’m happy to live in a free country that speaks Mandarin. No more VPNs for this guy.
Yep, a mix of Japan and China – that’s the short-hand I often use for describing Taiwan to people back home. Hopefully, you’ll stay here a while and write something about the country.
I hope so. My current goal is to stay here for at least five more years and then get a permanent residency status. After that, shall see what’s next.
Indeed, one day I hope to write something important about Taiwan and it’s precarious position in the world…
Always Goodbye is published by TWG Press and is available from Amazon.com for a very reasonable $5.99 for the paperback and half that for the ebook.
You can find out more about the Ray Hecht and his writing at rayhecht.com.