Always Goodbye: a review of the graphic novel by Frank E Beyer

https://medium.com/@frank.e.beyer/always-goodbye-b46c36a9d202

Always Goodbye

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.

Speaking of China: ‘Always Goodbye’ Ups, Downs in China, US and Beyond in Graphic Novel by Ray Hecht

https://www.speakingofchina.com/bookreviews/always-goodbye-graphic-novel-ray-hecht

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.

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.


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.

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.

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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

 

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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.