Author Interview: Ray Hecht – Bookish Asia

http://bookish.asia/author-interview-ray-hecht

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.

About the Author:

John Grant Ross is the author of You Don’t Know China and Formosan Odyssey.

PROFESSIONAL EDITING SERVICES

As a longtime author and editor, I’d like to offer my services in the fields editing, copyediting, and proofreading. A detailed summary of my experience and rates are below. Feel free to click on the links for further information.

For journalism writing samples, I have worked extensively at the Shenzhen Daily, South China’s only daily English-language newspaper. I have also been published a number of times by the reputable Wall Street Journal.

In 2016, my novel South China Morning Blues was released by Hong Kong-based publisher Blacksmith Books. I have also had fiction published by TWG Press in Taiwan.

As for my credentials, I have enrolled in the University of California San Diego’s advanced Copyediting Certificate program.

I have since worked with a number of high-profile clients on a regular basis, including China-based translation companies CEPIEC (China Educational Publications Import & Export Corporation Ltd.) as well as Grouphorse. I have also contributed education material for Taiwan’s AMC.

My most notable editing work may be the novel Death Notice by Zhou Haohui, which was published in the United States by Penguin Random House.

My starting rates are as follows for these currencies:

.03 USD per word (United States)
.25 CNY per word (China, PRC)
1 NTD per word (Taiwan, ROC)

Please contact me via email at rayhecht@gmail.com for any inquiries.

2016 – 2019: Goodbye China, Hello Taiwan! THE END

Previous: 2014 – 2015: Love and Publishing

Read all at Webtoons.com

2016 – 2019: Terrible politics, book tour, leaving China and coming to Taiwan! Various family trips from Israel to South Africa and California. Art and comics and Burning herein. At last, we catch up to now (so meta) and I reflect… Thus, an ending. 

Thanks so much to you all for reading this, my humble life story!

 

2014 – 2015: Love and Publishing

Previous: 2013: My epic clusterfuck drama year

Read all at Webtoons.com

2014 – 2015: After recovering from some heartache, I reinvent myself yet again (tattoos, grey hair). Then family, family, and more family; meeting the next generation.
And at long last the love of my life, and we meet each others’ parents *shudder* … Africa!
Lastly, novel published. 

2011 – 2012: Growing up, turning 30, weddings, and the end of the world

Previous: 2009 to 2010  The Expat Life: A new decade living it up in Shenzhen, China 

Read all at Webtoons.com

2011 and 2012, beginning with my Guangzhou year. Didn’t work out well, so I returned to Shenzhen. Meanwhile so much travel, all over Southeast Asia and returns to Israel and Japan. Plus foreshadowing in Taiwan, and Hipster Pacific Northwest too. And I go to both my sister’s wedding and my best friend’s wedding. Growing up!

 

Taiwan’s very own Burning Man!

I was recently lucky enough to be involved in a regional Burning Man festival, a precompression in fact, here in Taiwan.

I haven’t been since 2008, and I can hardly believe an entire decade has passed. The epic art festival out in Black Rock Desert was a pivotal experience in my life, and I’d always wanted to go again. Or, at least, go to a regional Burn somewhere else in the word.

Luckily, there’s the Turtle Burn!

It was technically called the Spark event which I went to last week, a sort of dry-run rehearsal for the larger burn coming up this June. Over the past few months, I’d met up with the organizers a number of times as we discussed the values and plans for this local Burner community in Taipei.

(And what synchronicity that I just did some comics about my Burn years as well…)

At last, during the Tomb-Sweeping holiday weekend, all was set up. Bronwen and I bought some costumes, reserved a tent and other camping supplies, and volunteered to set up a figure drawing workshop.

Our journey began with a bus to the east-coast country of Yilan, and then we negotiated a taxi to take us up the mountain to the remote 杉林奇蹟 camping ground. Absolutely stunning scenery overlooking the ocean. The family that ran the site were totally supportive, and they even had the cutest beagle. Partying times or not, I definitely recommend the place to everyone.

With only about forty people, it was amazing how much of the true Burning vibe they recreated. There was a free bar to hang out at, only rule is to bring your own cup. And of course, other party favors. There was a dome with pillows for chilling out and massage, a mutant art car, and an outdoor dancefloor complete DJ set as projections lit up the forest. And at last, a bonfire for the final night.

The performances were excellent, with burlesque shows and drag queen lip-singing as well as an impromptu puppet show. Some of the workshops included sign-making for your own camp (we chose to be called Elf Camp as you can see), improv comedy, a modeling lesson, and more.

As per the whole gifting economy, we gave away popcorn and sparklers. Plus, our own contribution to the workshops was in the form of two figure drawing workshops. I’ve been drawing quite a bit of late, so I tried my best to teach the fundamentals of the human form while using various materials to create some hopefully quality sketches… And, it only seemed fair that I modeled myself!

On Sunday we all took down our stuff and cleaned up thoroughly. Leave no trace behind, as they say. A bus was organized to go back down the perilous mountain, and I must admit I was rather tired when I got home that evening.

I was so happy to share the Burning Man experience with Bronwen, and I think most of the “Burgins” there had a great time and valuable introduction to the ethos that make these the best festivals on Earth. I heartily thank all those who helped made this happen, truly the best crowd.

Now, I can’t wait ‘till June!

Check out the website for more information if you’d like to participate in the Turtle Burn:
https://turtleburn.com/

Wishing a Happy 2019! And may this all be over with soon…

Happy New Year!

So at this time of reflection, I think back on 2018 and all that’s happened. It was yet another great personal year, while the world around seemed to fall apart…

Obviously, if you’ve been paying attention, my own big news is that I’ve been working on my autobiographical comic Always Goodbye. Stay tuned for more. Eventually, a completed book. (Guess this is replacing my ‘career’ as a prose author, huh)

This past year I moved to the more central part of Taipei, and I’m continuing to enjoy living in Taiwan. As more and more news develops from the bamboo curtain–like that social credit score everyone is talking about but I’m not even going to get into–I’m quite glad to have escaped the People’s Republic.

I kind of did a ridiculous amount of travel in ’18. I started out last New Year’s in Japan,  then went to Africa,  and in the summer I returned to America to sadly sell my entire comics collection. For 2019, I plan to not get into an airplane even once.

And there were a whole lot of superhero movies.

As for the rest of the world. Well, politics. It was an exhausting year in which most things seem to have gotten worse, but there was also a bit of hope. Personally, I’m so very over it. Perhaps it’s all finally coming to a head. This chapter of history needs to close already, doesn’t it?

It’s been a while since I felt like writing an entire overt political post, and I’m sure you all know by now how I truly feel. American has learned some dark things about itself, and the time has come to get better. Consequences may be in the coming. And once it’s over with, I hope to never ever say the T-word for the rest of my life because that guy has gotten enough of my bloody attention and I’d just rather focus on other things.

Well, here’s hoping!

Please have yourselves a great 2019, everyone 😀

 

Ray

 

more not chinglish

So here are some funny English-language things I’ve seen, that are not Chinglish strictly speaking. It’s just not as easy to find in Taiwan but I hope they’re still enjoyable:

 

First, this sex toy egg spotted around Shilin market. I did buy the cheapest 100 NT one, which was just some cheap jewelry, but I can’t help wondering what other masturbegg products there could be…

 

Next up, at the Urban Nomad music festival in Taipei. a fellow wore this T-shirt and was kind enough to let me photography him. It wasn’t one of those silly T-shirts that people wear without knowing what it means, he was fully into the message. And an important peaceful message it is these days, seriously.

View this post on Instagram

Seen on T-shirt at festival. A lovely sentiment, sir! ✊

A post shared by Ray (@raelianautopsy) on

 

 

While I’m at it, here are some photos and a video of the music festival because why not!

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#UrbanNomad Music Festival #Taipei

A post shared by Ray (@raelianautopsy) on

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Sounds of the #UrbanNomad fest

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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.

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.

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.

****

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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/