By Mary Weathers
The Wild East
Here I am in a far away, foreign land. Here I am, or at least part of me. Here I am with a dismembered body and soul. Heart and mind are still at home fighting each other in a bloody battle of courage and wit. I am hoping they will drop their weapons and catch up with those parts of me, which have driven me to this place. Here I am and here I will stay for an undisclosed amount of time.
Staring out of my hostel window at the hot pavement in the cockroach-infested alley way, I ask myself: why have I come? Why am I here? I am here to write, to teach, to live, and to learn. Why here I ask myself again? Because, dear friend, truth be told, you feel more comfortable standing naked in front of strangers than you do your own friends and kin. Love has nothing to do with it, the question is will they recognize you once the cloak has fallen, and their notions of who you should be and what you should want for yourself cave in?
I am here to pursue something. Truth in life? Truth in self? Yah right! That’s a load of garbage! I’ve come to find glorious freedom. I am here to flee conventions and society; obligation I now only have to myself. I am certainly not here simply to find happiness. Oh no, fat happiness is what I fled. I am here to be painfully uncomfortable because it is this painful discomfort, this heart-wrenching anxiety that is the only thing that lets me know I am alive and well.
Smalltown girl under big city lights. I grin mockingly at myself in the mirror. I have become a cliché in a bad country western song. But this I hope I am not. I am a twenty-two-year-old young woman in Asia for the first time and everything scares me — the smells, the people, the sounds, my very shadow. The fact that I fear all these simple things frightens me most of all because it discloses that I possess a narrow mind. I want to be rid of it all for a moment’s peace but this city screams and screeches like a banshee out of hell, refusing to be forgotten for even a second. Feeling alienated and anxious since I landed, that Doors song “People are Strange” has been on repeat inside my brain for roughly forty-eight hours now. It’s starting to get to me.
I tear off my shirt and put a fresh one on, amazed at how quickly my clothing becomes soaked through in this country. Money? Check. Keys? Check. It’s time to hit the hard pavement again. Maybe this city will look prettier at night, in a mask of darkness. I am off to meet Maurice to go to a rock and roll show. What that means in this country I will be soon to find out.
Maurice is the fifty-odd something year old Taiwanese man I met earlier in the day. In the afternoon I had gotten off at the Shilin MRT stop to wander Taipei aimlessly pondering and puttering about. When I grew tired of looking at the myriad of shops that all blurred into one tacky outfit I will never be able to fit into, I decided to find a safe haven to grab a stool, a beer, and to read some Twain. I was lured into a hole-in-the-wall bar playing the Stones, like a moth to a flame. When I came inside I was distracted by the mishmash of Kiss and Elvis paraphernalia plastered all over the walls and on top the tables. Though the streets were buzzing with scooters and people, this place was vacant. It resembled an eerie shrine dedicated to the gods of ancient pop culture past. When I turned to face the bar I was relieved to find taps and was contemplating reaching over and helping myself when a Taiwanese man came to my rescue who spoke very moderate engrish. While pouring my beer and trying his damnedest to avoid any sort of eye contact with me he informed me that he didn’t work here but that this was his friend’s bar so it was okay. I didn’t care. I wanted my beer. I took it to a table and started to read.
This was not Maurice. Maurice was to enter the scene in a ponytail and a leather jacket about 40 minutes and three pints later (I needed lots of liquid courage during my first few weeks in Taipei). Maurice spoke very fluent English and had a great sense of humor. He was very interested in me and I in he. Maurice told me he had lots of “foreign friends” and “loved foreign music.” What this meant at this point I could not say. For all the bizarre stories I had already heard about Taipei he could be pimp ringmaster to a string of Russian whores. I hadn’t a clue until we dived deeper into conversation.
Maurice wanted to know my story, where I was from and why I was here. My story was rather short and boring. I wanted to know about his paraphernalia and Taipei. We talked mostly music and then he invited me with him and a few of his friends to a “real rock concert.” A Korean band was playing near Grand Palace Hotel and Maurice assured me it would be a show I’d be stupid to miss. I told him I’d meet him back at the bar at 8 o’clock with bells on. He didn’t understand the idiom. It was already 5:30, I needed to make haste so I gulped my last gulp, gathered my things and scurried back to my hostel which was all the way on the other side of town. Changed clothes, got out more money, here we go back on the MRT.
The MRT stops, one glance at the clock I realize I am 40 minutes late. I feel light-headed. I should have kept an afternoon beer to an afternoon beer. I should have eaten dinner. That would have been easier to do were I not afraid of talking to the people. That would have been a lot easier to do were I not so afraid of eating the food. That would have been easier to do were I not a vegetarian who becomes skirmish when she’s confronted by too much meat on a stick. I’ll be fine…I tell myself coolly. Some sugar will do the trick, I’ll order a coke once I get to the bar…with a shot of whisky in it, of course. Run, run, run to Maurice’s. I get there and the man who served me beer is hidden behind his computer screen. His head is barely popping out of his turtleneck and down jacket. I do wonder how the Taiwanese survive wearing such heavy garments during the summer’s heat.
“Is Maurice here?” I ask.
“He’s gone to get his girlfriend’s scooter.”
“Okay…will he be back soon?”
“Sure…he gone only minute. Be back go to concert.” I chat with this man for awhile. Find out his name is Wang. Our conversation takes on a primitive tone as his English is poor and my Chinese is nonexistent. Communication is further frustrated by his inability to engage in any body language. He sits like a statue behind his computer screen. His eyes dart around like a rabbit about to be hit by a car. There is something oddly intriguing about his nervousness. He may have weapons of mass destruction hidden inside his jacket or secrets behind those rabbit eyes.
When Maurice arrives, he comes with company. Though he’s left his girlfriend at home he’s brought two other foreigners. Guiltily I’m happy to see them and that they are white. I’m not the only cracker in town. Hooray!
I’m introduced to Gaz and Charles, two 30-year-old somethings from England, all chuckles and charms. They tell me I am the luckiest girl in Taiwan to have stumbled into this bar on my first day in Taipei and to have met the infamous Maurice. We don’t waste time with any chitchat but quickly helmet up and hop on scooters. Gaz hops onto Maurice’s motoche and I’m told to hop on with Wang. Wang and I speed to the closest 7 11 and pick up a couple sixpacks of Taiwan beer. He opens every door for me and insists on paying for the beer. When we get to the Grand Palace we rush to meet up with the other boys. More of Maurice’s older Taiwanese friends meet us in the parking lot. We’re informed that the show has not yet started and that we have a few moments for some drinks outside. Maurice pulls out two half-finished bottles of whisky he took from the bar. We pass the liquor around; it’s harsh and warm but I put on a happy face. Wang offers out the beers then I put the rest into my purse to sneak into the show. It’s time!
We make our way to the concert area which is inside some sort of auditorium. Already I have my misgivings. There are about fifty people up by the stage and ten more sitting near the back where there are chairs placed. My notion of a rock concert has always been chairs are for smashing not so much for sitting; however, I look over at Maurice and his charming gap-tooth smile. His eyes are sparkling like those of a pirate who’s found buried treasure beneath the sand. I put on a happy face. Wang comes up by my side and asks me for another beer so I pass him one and get one out for myself. The band comes on with heads full of hair and the fifty people do indeed go wild.
Wang asks me if I’d like to find a better place to watch the show and get closer to the stage. I nod my head. He puts out his hand. I take it. This I will learn later on was a fatal mistake.
The band begins to play and I’m astonished by the bizarre instrumentals that ensue. They sound like a combination of Dracula’s orchestra and Kermit the frog’s blues band. When one of the fellows pulls out a keytar and begins to play it with his tongue I can’t contain myself but burst out into hysterics. Gaz and Charles are up front and center. They’ve created a two-man moshpit and are flailing about like bacon cooking in a hot pan. The whole scene reeks of cheese but I’m having an amazing time. What must be said about this strange group of musicians is that they were thoroughly entertaining. When the music ends our group gathers outside the doors. Maurice invites us all back to his bar for a lockdown.
Hop back on the scooter with Wang. My head is buzzing as we jet through the city. It definitely looks more beautiful at night. The lights chase me like schizophrenic fairies of the night. Perhaps I’m holding onto Wang a little too tight. This would be my second mistake. We get back to Maurice’s. Gaz and Charles park themselves up at the bar, they are playing some sort of drink your stink game. I’m sitting at a booth with Wang and Maurice is busily rushing around filling up our drinks and dancing by himself. Wang’s trying to engage me in discussion but his conversational skills are again lacking… he’s caught up in small talk and I’m too buzzed and disinterested to answer coherently. Maurice has put on a great track and I’m drifting off into the music now. It’s some sort of Chinese punk rock band I’ve never heard. The guitar is raw and vicious. The drummer is banging intricate beats, every fourth hit is like a delicious punch to the face.
“Maurice, who is this band?” I ask. Maurice looks over to me with a big all-knowing smile. “You’re sitting next to him my dear. That’s Wang’s old band. He’s a very talented drummer you know?’ I’m shocked as all hell that this fine music was produced by the turtle in a shell I’m sitting across from. I look over at Wang with big surprised eyes and he stares back at me with the same rabbit look he had on when I first came into the bar. “Wang, that’s you? That’s your band? You guys sound awesome! That’s incredible.” “Thanks,” he says shyly. His modesty is all the more intriguing; he did have secrets hidden behind those eyes.
Maurice on the other hand waltzes over to claim all bragging rights. “Yes my Wang is a very talented musician you know. You know where this song was recorded.” “No, where?” I ask. “Right here! At Maurice’s bar.” Maurice’s cheeks have turned red from the booze. I look around the bar. It’s about the size of a shoebox. There’s enough room only for two tables and three barstools.
“How on earth did you record anything in this place?” I ask Maurice but Wang speaks up to answer the question. “There is a recording studio downstairs. Do you want to see it?” “Sure,” I get up and follow Wang over to a door behind the bar. This would be my third and greatest mistake. He leads me down the dark stairs into a dingy basement recording studio. There is a huge drumkit over in the corner and guitars covering an entire wall, records line the other.
Perhaps it was the magic of the night, perhaps it was the ambiance of that dingy bar, perhaps it was because I wanted to get closer to the rhythm of that amazing song but I jumped on Wang and started to kiss him. What can I say? I wanted to feel the beat he could produce on the drums on my tongue. We knocked over guitars and banged around on the drums. He was just as good of a kisser as he was a musician. Then the cold hard facts of the situation hit me like a hot ton of bricks. I was in a foreign unfamiliar country, heavily intoxicated, in a basement of some hole-in-the-wall bar, locked in with several strange men.
It was time to go home. I pulled myself off Wang and told him that it was time for me to get going. He told me he would walk me to the door which turned into him waltzing right into my cab. I passed the cabbie my hostel card and on the way back Wang asked me for my number. I had gotten the phone earlier that day and he was the first contact I made. He asked me if he could come back to the hostel with me. I told him NO! But that I was sorry if I had given him the wrong impression. I stumbled all the way back up to my hostel room, feeling sketchy and fuzzy-headed, ran into bed and deservedly passed out.
Ching chongy chingy chong pingy pingy pong pong.
What the fuck is that annoying melody? It was my phone. It had never gone off before and the Chinese tune which served as the ringer woke me up at 8 the next morning.
“Hallo. Meaghan?” “Hello. Who is this?” I had completely forgotten I left my number with Wang. “It’s Wang, would you like to go to breakfast with me this morning?” “Wang it’s 8 o’clock in the morning. Are you crazy? I’m still in bed!” The taxi had only dropped me off a few hours ago after all. “Oh sorry… maybe lunch then?” “Wang… I’m going back to bed now.” Click. I’m thoroughly convinced that hangovers are worse in Taiwan then anywhere else in the world. The combination of the chemicals they put into the beer and the scorching heat make for terrible headaches that squeeze all the juice right out of your brain. It took me much twisting, turning to get myself back to sleep and when I did…
Ching chongy chingy chong pingy pingy pong pong. “Hello, what is it?” “Hello Meaghan it’s Wang…Would you like to have lunch together?” “Wang it’s11:00 in the morning. I’m still in bed!” “Oh sorry sorry sorry…” “I’ll catch up with you later.” Toss. Turn. Belch. Twist. Bang bang goes my head. Toss. Turn. Belch. Then, at 2:30 ching chongy chingy chong pingy pingy pong pong. It was Wang, of course, no one else had my number. I put my phone on silence and managed to get another few hours of sleep.
When I finally emerged from my cave it was about 7:30 at night. I gathered my things and put them into my purse refusing to look at my phone. Then I walked down to the communal area of my hostel to see if anyone there would take pity on me and join me for dinner. As dinner ended at 8:30, ching chongy chingy chong pingy pingy pong pong. It was Wang again. I let it ring until he hung up. Then looking at my phone I realized between 2:30 and 8:30 he had called me five times.
Being from the West, I’m used to guys playing it cool and ignoring you in a dickish way when they like you. This I feel great about. This sort of intense attention I was very unaccustomed to. Any paranoia I had about being in a foreign country quickly turned into a deep-seated fear for my life. I was too afraid to call back so I opted to deal with the situation with a pathetic text message. I wrote: “Wang thank you for a lovely evening. I am not interested. Please stop calling me.” Straightforward, yes, and polite enough for a psychomaniac I thought. What a mistake the text message was, for it made him realize he could text me back. The next three weeks of my life I was harassed by phone call after phone call which could be easily ignored. But I was also being bedraggled by slews of text messages which were not so easily ignored but which contributed to a growing fear that I was being followed and that I would eventually be killed in some grotesque manner and left to rot in the streets of Taipei.
Collectively taken into consideration, these text messages took on the tone of a psychotic, maniac killer. They ranged from friendly “hey how yah doings?” to “I love you I broke up with my girlfriend so that we could be together,” to “Will you please just contact me so I know you all right I am afraid something bad has happened to you,” to “You are a mean person. I thought you were a nice girl” to: “I’m sorry that was stupid. Please call me.” They were sporadic and incoherent at times. The whole time I decided it was best and safest to ignore. I had told him I was not interested what more was there to say without encouraging him any further. But they didn’t stop coming so I decided to confide in a friend I had made at the hostel. He could speak Chinese and would help me talk to the police about this very serious situation. When I told him my story my friend burst into laughter. I was appalled! What an anus. I had no idea how he could find my current turmoil so hilarious. I scorned him and when he gathered himself he explained to me the reason why it was so funny.
This he explained is part of the mating habits of young Taiwanese males. In Wang’s mind, my friend explained, we were engaged to be married. He had proposed the moment he held out his hand to lead me to the front of the stage and I had accepted his proposal when I took his hand and allowed him to lead. Jumping on him in Maurice’s basement studio made a clear statement that I wanted to have his babies. Our future plans had been made that night. The situation was my fault… I had taken advantage of a poor naïve Taiwanese boy (even if he was thirty he was still very much a boy). My friend also told me it was common for Taiwanese girls to play hard to get. It was like a fun game for them to see how far they could push men. So the fact that he was being so persistent came as no surprise. My mouth remained agape during this spiel. I could not believe what I was hearing. I felt ridiculous… and since then I have guarded myself appropriately around Taiwanese men.
Little did I know I should have reveled in the affection for that would be the most male attention I would receive in Taipei for some time to come. My friend was too kind to tell it to me straight, that being a foreign woman in Taipei city made you about as desirable and appealing as a hemorrhoid to the opposite sex. The foreign men typically want the tiny, feminine, cute, and compliant Chinese girlfriend, and who can blame them really? I often catch myself staring at their adorable babydoll faces. Eventually, Wang stopped harassing me and I was very relieved though I’m still apprehensive to answer any phone call from an unknown number. What I regret about this situation most of all is that I have not since been back to that bar in Shilin nor have I seen Maurice for fear of running into Wang. This is unfortunate because that hole-in-the-wall bar was the first place that I felt at home in this foreign land.