--------------Excerpted chapters from my stray dog tale THE TAIPEI ZOO
may be found below on this page.--------------

--------------LETTERS FROM THE TAIPEI ZOO is not exactly proud
to be sponsored by
Idyllic Oriental Brain Fuck Airlines--------------


Education is linked to eros by a golden thread. --Plato.


These are Letters from the Taipei Zoo. The meaning of this title will become apparent as you read. My letters cover the first eighteen months after my arrival here in Taipei, the capital city of Taiwan.

What should anyone read this book? Isn't a collection of letters likely to be too much bound to the daily lives of the correspondents to make worthwhile reading for people not connected to those lives? This might be so.  I post these letters well aware they may be of little interest.

My correspondent H. still lives in the States. He’s a friend of mine from graduate school still working in the French Department where I was a student before coming to Taiwan. H. is a serious student of literature, and I've often sent him my writing in hopes of some critical response. As he’s now struggling to finish a doctorate, this has usually been in vain.

I'll begin the collection with a fragment from my comic novella, which I sent to H. in a mood of provocation. H., whose research focuses on poetry, had written me about his general indifference to novels and narrative. I'd been questioning him about his reading of Dostoyevsky, whose work I suspected he hadn't quite read. His response:

Now it is too late for me to be reading such things as [Dostoyevsky]. I have more and more faith that poetry is the truest articulation of what it means to be human, and this only because I have less and less faith in the capacity of narrative, as a device, to disclose anything at all.... I have gotten locked into a struggle to wrestle everything away from narrative, convinced that narrative is what we talk about when we cannot talk about anything else.

These are the words of my friend H. the devotee of poetry, the professional scholar of poetry. As you'll see in my letters, I’m in the opposite literary camp. Even in graduate school I was always far more interested in the novel and narrative traditions, while H. was moving closer and closer to the modern poets. Reading H.'s response on Dostoyevsky, I decided to send him the first chapters of my own narrative, a novella I was working on entitled The Taipei Zoo.

Did H. take the trouble to read these chapters? I believe he didn't. He was writing a dissertation on Ponge and Bonnefoy and another poet whose name begins with "G"--I forget the name just now. That he didn’t read my draft chapters didn’t much irk me however: probably I won’t be reading his dissertation either, so how could I complain? 

But will you take the trouble to read the things collected here? If they seize your interest, you’ll read them. If they don’t, then there’s nothing can be done. That's how it always is.

Eric Mader-Lin



Dear H.:

I have nothing in me of your dislike of narrative. In this as well we are on opposite sides of the world. In fact, I myself am now writing a novel, or novella to be precise. It’s entitled The Taipei Zoo. I've enclosed the first few chapters in the current draft. Let me know what you think.




I.--I'm ashamed to acknowledge how badly I've loused things up. I should have done much better than this. I'm in Taipei after all, one of Asia's little El Doradoes.

But things here aren't quite what they used to be. Just look at what's happened. Hong Kong, Seoul, Tokyo--they've all fallen to their knees. Faces everywhere have the stunned look of someone who's been slapped good and hard by a hand out of nowhere. Given all that's gone down, I shouldn't be so hard on myself. Maybe I should give myself a break.

But really, global economic factors don't matter much in my case. They don't matter in any direct way at least. I can't mention the declining opportunities in Asia as an excuse for what's happened to me. Declining opportunities--that's just a constant of the world economy. If Taipei isn't the gold mine it used to be, what does that have to do with my doggy fate? My failure, I'm saying, should be chalked up to my own account.

It all goes back to my leaving a red paper folder on a chair at the airport. I'm talking about the Chiang Kai-Shek International Airport just outside of Taipei. I left a red paper folder there. That was a pretty simple mistake, wasn't it? Any of you may have done it, and you've probably made even worse mistakes in your lives. Yes, I'm even willing to bet you've made worse mistakes than any of mine, if you want the truth.

But really--how can I say things like this, right in the first chapter? Here I was just admitting my guilt, so how can I hint at your failures too?

I do it because I know what you readers of contemporary novels are like. I'm getting older as a writer now, and I've had many of you readers as friends. I know you've pulled some pretty pathetic stunts in your day. I've heard about most of those stunts from your own lips, in fact. So you can't deny it, at least not to my face. You're a gabby bunch, always running at the mouth. I'm tired of listening to you.

There's something I don't understand, though. Even with all the irresponsible, crackpot things you've done, even with all that, you've always managed to get by in life without much trouble. You've always managed to slip through things unscathed. I still don't quite understand it--how you do it, I mean. But that's how it usually is with you readers--you're a lucky bunch. And you know very well, you've known it all along, that we writers, writers like myself, we're never as lucky as you. But you just take that for granted, don't you? "It's the way the world is set up," you say. "Anyone who spends so much time scribbling in notebooks deserves what they get." This attitude makes you more than willing to get your laughs at our expense too, doesn't it? You watch us stumble, and you laugh. That's how I see it now; that's how I understand it. You laugh at me or at anyone else who's foolish enough to work so many months at something and make not a dime off of it in the end. You take us writers for idiots, obsessives. Your every remark proves it.

Maybe it's true what you're saying about us though. Some of us go about the world as if fate were out to teach us one hard lesson after another. Who is it put the curse on us here? I wonder sometimes. Isn't writing an honest job like any other? I know from experience that it's harder than most jobs. I've had most jobs, you know, and writing is harder than any of them.

But I have to return to my story, even in the state I'm in. Even now I have this job to do. And why? I don't know why myself.

My mistake, I was saying, was initially a pretty innocent one. If I hadn't left that red folder behind at the Chiang Kai-Shek International Airport, everything could have been different for me. I wouldn't now be telling you such a sad story, for one thing. And the story I'm telling you here--it's one of the saddest stories I've ever heard. That you can bet on. It's certainly the saddest story I'll ever manage to tell. After telling it my heart will be too broken ever to tell such a sad story again.

I remember my first day in Taiwan very clearly because in a certain sense it was my last day. I was on the north side of Taipei, while the night school that had hired me to teach English was in the downtown. I was supposed to be at the school announcing my arrival. As it turned out, I knew neither that I was on the north side of Taipei nor that the place I was looking for was in the downtown. I didn't know Taipei at all, my Chinese was minimal, and I was already completely lost.

Yes, I'd been hired to teach English. It's the way many of us Americans first arrive in Taipei. In the folder at the airport was the number and address of the institute that had hired me. Stupidly, that was the only place I'd written it down. I'd decided to come to Taipei almost on the spur of the moment, and I hadn't prepared my arrival very well. In the cab from the airport, I realized I didn't have the folder, but I didn't ask the cabby to turn back, because I thought I could easily find the school through the phonebook once I got into the city. But of course I learned upon arriving in the city that I couldn't figure out the first thing about the phonebook as it was all in Chinese. That I knew a little spoken Chinese didn't mean I could use something as complicated as a Chinese phonebook. A Chinese phonebook isn't even in alphabetical order, you know. In Chinese, there isn't even an alphabet to speak of. I hadn't thought of this problem in the cab. How do these people organize their phonebooks? It's a mystery to anyone who isn't fluent in Chinese, and I was nowhere near fluent. Though I knew the English name of the school, I had no way of finding the Chinese name. I was hoping to run into someone who could help me. It was around noon, I think.

Near where the cab dropped me off was a cheap hotel. The desk person had no English phonebook, neither could she quite figure out what I wanted. I decided to check in if only to park my bags somewhere while I tried to get oriented. It was obvious the one thing I could do was walk around until I found a foreigner who looked like they knew the place or a local whose English was good enough to help me.

Leaving the hotel, I decided to get something to drink. And here I should tell you a bit about my character, something that needs to be explained before I get any further. It's only when you know something about me that you'll understand how I got into the scrape I got into, and how I got into it so quickly.

I am easygoing by nature. As I'd already traveled more than most people in my thirty years of life, I was even feeling rather cavalier about being lost in a big Asian city. I knew that statistically speaking Taipei was a much safer place than New York or Chicago, so I wasn't really in a rush to find out where I was. I actually had no reason to report to work that morning, and I thought I might as well revel a bit in the fact of being lost. Strange as it may sound, I even found something pleasurable in my situation. I took pleasure in the fact that I could be at ease while lost in a foreign capital. Although I was certainly tired out on that first day--the flight from New York was nearly twenty hours--the fact is that I was in a good mood.

Forty minutes after leaving my bags at the cheap hotel, I was sitting in a little street-side cafe drinking an odd sort of sweet milk tea. I picked the cafe randomly, walked in, and sat down. When the waitress came up, I ordered the tea by pointing at the drink sitting in front of another customer and gesturing to indicate that I wanted one too. What had I ordered? I had no idea. At the bottom of the drink there were little round chewy things that reminded me of something I had eaten long ago. But I couldn't quite remember what it was, or where I'd eaten it. There was something strange about those chewy things, something unsettling about the memory they were prodding to the foreground of my mind. What was it? Taking another one of the chewy things into my mouth, I pressed it between my tongue and lower lip, trying to remember. Then, in the dim light of the cafe, it all came back to me. *Combray*... I was at a birthday party in a large hall. There was a fat man in the corner playing an organ. A clown was going from table to table doing tricks. I didn't like that clown. Everyone wanted to avoid the clown because if the clown came to your table you might have to sing. There were many birthday parties happening at once in the large hall. It was a kind of special restaurant for birthday parties, a kind of birthday parlor. The round chewy things were at the bottom of the bowl in front of me; they were floating in a kind of watery syrup which had been poured around a scoop of violet ice cream. They were mixed in with the ice cream and syrup.

That was it! I had remembered!

But was it my birthday there, or was it someone else's? I thought it wasn't mine. No, I knew it wasn't my birthday party. But whose party was it? Somehow I remembered that I didn't like the person, whoever he was. No, I never liked that Birthday Boy.

Or maybe it was my birthday after all. It's possible I was just afraid of the clown, and this accounted for the negative feeling of the memory. I couldn't really be sure.

Here, in short, is the sort of thick nonsense that was going through my head that day because of the strange chewy things at the bottom of my tea drink, and probably also because of the long flight I'd just completed. My brain had started to swim, as brains will often do after a transoceanic flight.

I remember then using my spoon to fish two more of the chewy things out of my drink. They were round, partially translucent. They looked like frog eggs. I started to imagine a customer complaining because the frog eggs in his drink had started to hatch. Then another customer: her eggs were hatching too! Here and there around the cafe an uproar was beginning, one customer at a time. People holding up glasses to the light, watching the tails of tadpoles beginning to twitch. I imagined a man slamming his fist down on the bar counter: "Your product is not fresh here, Monsieur! From now on, we will go elsewhere for our frog tea!"

I was tired, mouthing the words to myself: *We will go elsewhere for our frog tea! We will go elsewhere...* It was just then that I noticed a small Chinese boy looking at me, watching me nervously. He was maybe three years old. He was with his mother at a table nearby, and his mother was busy talking with another woman. He seemed to be afraid of me, but he couldn't stop looking: his curiosity was too much for him. I remember thinking that maybe the boy had never seen a foreign man up close. He had brought four of his fingers up into his mouth for security, and his brow was knit in confusion and fear. It was an expression defined by tension: rapt curiosity struggling against an obvious urge to flee the sight of the strange monster before him. The boy's other hand, the one that wasn't stuck in his mouth, had meanwhile reached up behind him and wrapped itself in his mother's skirt. Apparently he'd keep on staring at the strange animal as long as his hand could assure him, by clinging to the skirt, that his mother hadn't left him.

I smiled at the boy and began to lean slowly forward, reaching out with the spoon to offer him the two frog eggs. Instantly, and with a loud whimper of terror, he leapt round to the other side of his mother and began to wail raucously, gaining the attention of the few other people in the cafe. The mother turned quickly and looked questioningly at me as I sat there holding out the spoon. The other woman too turned and looked at me with a mild frown. But the man behind the counter, the man who mixed the frog eggs with the cold, creamy liquid, at least he began to laugh aloud.

I got up from my seat and went to the man behind the counter. I handed him one of the big blue bills with Chiang Kai-Shek's smiling face on it. I got my change, a lot of smaller red bills, and left the cafe.

II.-- All of this seems ridiculous so far, granted. What is interesting about this character--*me*? Why should you follow him any further into what is, after all, not an exotic fantasy land, but instead just another sweltering Asian capital, one you can read about any day in *The Economist* or *Time*? I hope you will bear with me. My protagonist is just suffering from a nascent jetlag. He is not normally so flippant. And perhaps it will help you overcome the weight of this crankish beginning if you put yourself in my shoes. I know this isn't easy for readers. But still just do it. Just try to imagine you were me that first day in Taiwan. What is your situation? What do you expect from the place? What are you doing there anyhow? You have a PhD. in Classics from a good American university. You are 29 now. You wrote your dissertation on Lucian and the Russian critic Bakhtin. Regardless of your academic credentials, you couldn't land a university job in the States, and you didn't want to be a taxi driver, bartender, hotel desk flunky, drug dealer, or waiter. Going abroad to teach English for a while seemed like a good idea. And you'd heard good things about Taiwan. Everything would have been fine that first day in Taipei, but you left your contact numbers in a folder on a chair in the airport. You felt stupid about that, but you knew it was a simple enough mistake, and probably within an hour or two you'd solve the problem of finding your school.

But then the drink with the frog eggs had reminded you of a scene from your early childhood--a period you'd prefer never to be reminded of--and your fatigue from the long flight, your easygoing nature, and the involuntary memory from childhood had all combined to provoke you into a harmless but ridiculous act: offering some of your drink, two bits of candy as it were, to a child who was terrified of you.

Then you were on the street. There was sweat running off your head, down your neck, and down your back. It was around 1:30 p.m., and your good mood was giving way slowly to confusion and giddy fatigue. You had, after all, just crossed the planet, you were in the wrong time zone, and you were lost. All the signs around you were a blur of Chinese characters, and the people seemed completely taken up by the bustle of their day, paying you no attention at all.

Imagine you were me that first day. The situation wasn't very serious, but it would be soon enough.

III.--The traffic was three times that of New York and the air was stifling. There was sweat running off my head, down my neck, and down my back. Noticing a bank across the street, I decided to change some more money. At least there'd be air conditioning in the bank, and maybe even a city map with romanized names.

In the bank there were two lines. The teller for the long line was an older lady who looked very relaxed: she was wearing a wig, and her makeup was poorly done. The teller for the other line was a nervous-looking little man with grey hair. I decided the nervous man's line would be faster. That was in fact a mistake.

As I was waiting, I noticed a woman in the line next to mine. She kept looking at me. Very attractive and rather tall. About 35. She would look at me, and then smile. She was probably Japanese, I thought. She had a Japanese nose. My spoken Chinese was good enough to say to her: "Your nose is very Japanese, isn't it?" The woman laughed at me. So this Japanese could understand Chinese too, or at least a little.

We got our money from the tellers at the same time. How I wish now that we hadn't! As we left the bank, we both paused a moment at the door, as if deciding which way to go. I asked the Japanese woman, first through my very faulty Chinese and then through hand gestures, where she was going. She laughed again and smiled and pointed down the sidewalk. I decided to walk along next to her.

I couldn't say much to her, so I didn't.

Her car was a very nice silver-green Mercedes. She played a CD of Spanish flamenco music. During the ride--and thanks to the flimsy seashell-pink summer dress she was wearing--I was able to consider her more carefully: her fine, milk-white Asian skin; her long black hair that draped over her bare ivory shoulders. Her legs under the steering wheel looked as smooth as polished jade. Given the glint of promise in her playful smile, I had a hard time refraining from touching her as we waited at our first stoplight. She looked delicious.

What is it about some Asian eyes that is so impossibly desirable? I've often wondered about this. I think most Western men look at an Asian woman's eyes and feel they are somehow defective in relation to his own tribe's eyes. He feels they are somehow *aberrant*. But why does that make them so sexy? There is something that seems weaker about Asian eyes, as if the skin of the eyelids enfolding them were a bit too taut, a bit too delicate. As if the eyelids were not as they should be, and thus could be easily torn. And there behind the narrow slits of the Asian woman's eyes, one glimpses two jet-black pools of ink. The eyes are often so dark that the pupil is indistinguishable from the iris. The impression given is one of impassive solidity; such dark eyes have a kind of strong inscrutability that contrasts with the weakness of the delicate skin enclosing and hiding them.

Certainly these different elements--the feeling that the eyes are somehow defective; the impression that they are also somehow weaker; the unreadability of eyes so perfectly black--certainly all these elements have something to do with the erotic charge an Asian woman's eyes have in the Westerner's mind. Or at least in my mind. I suppose I can't speak for others. But I have to admit I was looking forward to exchanging glances with just such eyes when I accepted the job in Taipei. And already on Day One I'd caught a beautiful woman's glance in a bank, and here already she was driving me somewhere where we could be alone. I may have been tired out from the flight across a dozen time zones, I may have been literally lost, but such an event nonetheless boded well for the coming year in Taipei. Or so I thought as her car wove its way through the maddening Taipei traffic.

She parked the Benz in her garage. We got out, and she opened a side door onto a large courtyard. The sight that greeted me there made my eyes widen in astonishment and my mouth drop open in surprise. There were about two-hundred dogs there in the courtyard, and they all started crowding around us, greeting her. What a bizarre sight in the middle of a big city! Why in the hell would a woman who drives a Mercedes have so many dogs? I stood there unsure what to make of it, the dogs nervously pawing at my calves and licking my hands. They certainly were a friendly bunch. They all looked like mutts and street dogs saved from the gutter. There was an orange plastic kiddy pool in the shade with a hose running into it. That was for their water. When she led me back into the garage, I noticed three tall stacks of huge bags of dog food. She was smiling as she led me up the stairs to her flat. I was surprised by all the dogs, but I figured it was a good sign that the woman I was picking up was a serious dog lover. I too loved dogs.

IV.-- There were dogs in her apartment too. Two of them were lap dogs, and the third was very big and friendly.

Motioning me to sit down, she went into another room herself. I played with the dogs while I waited. When she returned, she was wearing a blue silk robe. Then she was with me on the couch and our mouths were pressed together, our tongues playing against each other. It was all very casual, like in a French movie. Even more casual than that. I was kind of thirsty, but she didn't offer me anything to drink. I remember I felt it was kind of bad manners.

Soon I'm on top of her on the floor. Me, who'd only been in the city two hours. There is a large, fine bamboo mat under us. She is very hot. But her dogs are right there next to us, wagging their tails and smiling in that doggy way. They seem to know this game. I don't bother to try to complain about it.

But as we are making love, and as she is getting more and more aroused, the dogs are getting more and more excited too. The little ones are running around her head and feet, and one has even tried licking her face. How can I concentrate on this with these dogs around? But now she is groaning and writhing against me, and there is no question of stopping to go to another room.

She has her hands down around my ass. She is pulling me into her according to a slow and precise rhythm, masturbating herself with my body. As she gets hotter and hotter, her voice breaks into a kind of breathless whimpering, then retreats again into the more relaxed groaning. And then whimpering again.

I would be enjoying this myself, but the big dog has meanwhile started barking. He is barking rather loudly too, right next to us. It is making me uneasy. I am wearing nothing, moving in and out of this big dog's mistress, and he is right there, standing behind me and over me as it were, barking in a manner more and more worrisome as his mistress gets more and more excited. This is really too much! Does he think I'm hurting her? What if he decides to take my balls off with those teeth I've glimpsed now a few times over my shoulder? He sounds almost angry, that dog, and it has started making me uneasy.

I'm moving faster now, but I'm not enjoying it one bit. The big dog is barking at the ceiling, and has even growled a few times. This woman beneath me has been close to coming for quite a while now: why can't I get her over the edge? I never should have come to this place.

She has wound the fingers of her right hand into the long golden hair that drapes down from the belly of one of the two lap dogs. I think this dog is called a Llasa. She is finally about to come, the big dog is still barking at us, and now she has her fingers wound into this little dog's belly hair. The little dog is right there next to my face, and it keeps trying to walk away. But her eyes are closed and she's holding onto its fur for dear life. I can't help thinking of brave Ulysses and how he wound his hands into the belly hair of that big sheep so that he could escape the cave of the Cyclops.

Damn this! The little dog is licking her face, then mine, and then trying to get away again. She is on the very edge of ecstasy and I am still holding up even though I'm afraid her big dog will lose it and attack me just as she starts coming. I'm hoping she doesn't cry out too much.

As she comes, she winds her fingers furiously in the Llasa's belly hair and he is yelping and screaming along with her. The big dog is barking at us vengefully, just as a dog barks before it's going to attack an intruder. Damn this!

But the big dog never attacks. Then she releases the Llasa, which retreats immediately over to the sofa.

As she begins to wind down, before she's even gotten her breathing back, I realize what a boil my blood is in, just how annoying all of this is. My cock starts to come back to full power. She may have a cute nose, this bitch, but this was really too much! I'm taking her into the other room and fucking her properly. This is no way to treat a guest.

I get her up from the floor and begin to pull her by the arm to the bedroom. She goes along, smiling and almost playful. I close the door behind us before the dogs get in. I pull her down onto the bed. She is smiling seductively now. But then she holds up her index finger as if to say "Just one second!" and she hops up from the bed toward what looks like a large and elaborate dark wood dresser. The light in the room is dim and bluish. What does she want to get on the dresser? Then I see it is not a dresser actually, but a kind of shrine or altar. I can make out a golden disk and above it two wolves' heads carved in relief and facing each other. She is praying before it! What nonsense is this now! I feel like pouncing on her. She comes back to the bed as I'm getting up and leads me by the cock to the altar. I really shouldn't put up with this. Taking a little black canister from the altar, she rubs a kind of ointment on my cock and then begins kissing me passionately on the neck and on my chest. The ointment stings a bit. She is working her way slowly down me with her tongue. The ointment is potent stuff. It is making me so hot I almost can't stand still. Her lips are finally down around it, sucking softly. There is a kind of spinning and whispering and then suddenly an awful noise of howling. Then I am in a bolt of lightning that doesn't stop striking. I begin to scream as I feel myself getting smaller, my shoulderblades drawing tightly up around the back of my head as if my sinews were the strings on a mandolin being tightened to breaking point. Then my arms are shortening palpably and my legs are shortening and hunching out behind me. I feel my jaw and face tightening and pushing out forward, and I am still shrinking. Then I am below her standing on my hands and feet, looking up, and she is laughing. What is this? My nose is way out before me, and my hands.... I look at my hands.... They are paws! They are dog's paws! I am a dog's body! I am a dog! I start running round the room, I'm yelling, or barking, I have to get out of here, I have to escape! She has done something to me! I run and jump up against the doorknob, I run on the bed, I growl at her. I am a *dog*. I plead with her, barking. But she is huge, above me, she is laughing all the while. The crazy bitch! I am a dog! Everywhere I run the dog's body goes with me. I don't have a body to shake it off. Where is my real body? I am a dog! What kind of drug is this? I have to escape!

"Stop running!" she cried in English, laughing. "Stop running! Listen!"

So she could speak English. So the bitch even cheated me on that. She hadn't said a word from the bank until now, and now she starts speaking to me in English!

She pointed to where I should sit. I tried to sit still. I wanted to bite her. Why I didn't bite her I'm not sure. Perhaps I couldn't believe it was all for real. Perhaps, being a dog, I felt naturally obedient. I was so confused. Me--who'd only been in the city two hours!

"If you are a good boy," she said with a Chinese accent, "I will make you a man again. But if you are bad--if you bite or pee-pee on my floor--I will drive you in my car and put you in a village far away from here. Then I'll never make you into a man. You'll never find either me or the zoo. Will you be good then?"

I was shaking all over. I wanted to escape. What was going on? How could this be happening?

She motioned me to come to her, and I did. She started petting me. I was growling at her--I couldn't help it I really wanted to be good, but I also felt like biting her. So I couldn't stop growling while she petted me. She had experience with this, it seems. She tried to calm me down.

"To be a dog is not very bad," she said. "Quiet, you. You will soon be a man again."

V.-- I was a kind of Scotch terrier mutt, grey and black and brown. I saw myself in a full-length mirror on one of her closet doors.

I was in the living room with the other dogs. They were all muttering to me in Chinese. So they were men too! It was strange, their Chinese. I could hear it as if it came from the back of their throats or from their minds: almost as if by telepathy. I responded in the same way with my own very bad Chinese.

"Are you American?" they asked.

"Yes, I am American," I said.

"Too bad for you to come to this place," said the big dog.

"We are not happy here," said one of the lap dogs.

"I also am not happy," I said.

Being that my Chinese was so bad, this was about all I could manage to communicate. I didn't understand a lot of what they were asking me.

The apartment had very strong smells everywhere around it, and the Mistress' body itself smelled like Heaven. I wanted to crawl into her skin with her and die in her smell. I almost pee-peed on the floor when she was sitting next to me. She smelled so good! But I'm lucky I didn't.

And the bamboo mat we made love on--what an ecstatic smell that had! Delightful! I immediately made plans to sleep on it that night. I rubbed my muzzle on it and rolled around on it awhile.

There were roaches in her kitchen cabinets. Roaches are terrible creatures. They stink like chemicals or corroding metal. It made the kitchen very unpleasant even though there was the smell of meat in there too.

Finally a man came home in a suit: a businessman. He was about ten years older than the Mistress. When he saw me, he pursed his lips. He wasn't happy there was another dog, I guess. I believe he didn't know where his wife or girlfriend got all the dogs from in the first place. But there was a kind of resigned look about him: even if he knew, he probably wouldn't have done anything about it. He would only be scared she would one day turn him into a dog too.

The man smells like a locker room. His feet especially are awful. But he is, in a way, handsome, and he is probably the one who bought the Mercedes and the flat. I understand why the Mistress is with him.

The Mistress made two bowls of shrimp noodle soup and he and she ate them while the Mistress watched *Those Amazing Animals* on the Discovery Channel. Loretta Switt hosted the show, and I sat at the foot of the couch trying to remember what show she was in when I was a kid. I kept coming up with *Police Woman*, but I knew that was Angie Dickinson. *What was Loretta Switt in?* I never watched TV after I got to university, and I now remember very little about all the shows other Americans my age remember episode by episode. Was she in *Beretta*? No, it wasn't *Beretta*.

I probably only thought of *Beretta* because it rhymes with Loretta, and because Loretta Switt was holding a white cockatoo in the opening section of *Those Amazing Animals*, and there is a white bird in the show *Beretta* too. There is a white bird and some illiterate cop. Does the bird help him solve crimes? I don't remember. *Starsky and Hutch*. *The Bionic Man*. *Hawaii Five-O*. "Book 'em, Dano." "Yabba Dabba Doo!" "Gee, Wally, that Eddie sure is a wise guy." "And *my* name is Charlie." So many stupid names and phrases started coming back to me as soon as I tried to remember what Loretta Switt was in. It made me kind of angry. Why didn't she just dry up along with all the rest of it? Why did she have to go stirring all that crud around and bringing it to the surface anyway?

All the animals in *Those Amazing Animals* were very interesting to me. I wanted to smell some of them or bite others. That I could only see pictures of them seemed really dull. There was no sound and no smell. I immediately thought of something like speakers that would emit the scent of what one was watching. When I saw the rhino, I wanted to smell the compacted hair I knew made up his horn. I didn't much care about seeing him from twenty feet away, which is all I could do with the TV screen. And same with the giraffes. When I saw the giraffes, I wanted to smell their hooves after they had tromped around in the dust for a day. Giraffes made up of little flecks of light are nothing but a kind of tease. Do giraffes urinate on trees or do they just urinate where they're standing like elephants do? You don't mess with those elephants. I knew that as if by instinct. They are faster and smarter than they look.

All those animals had dung and genitals and sweat, a whole library of sweat and skin oils, with matted hair that gathered the best of it. I knew they all stunk, and I couldn't wait to get at them. And they all had their own way of making noise when you came near them. I knew they did. I yearned to hear those noises, to provoke those noises. But you could sense none of the real thing on a flat screen. It made me feel like a cretin to sit there watching those animal images, however interesting the thought of the real animals may be.

Do you think I could I catch those gazelles? It would be a blast to chase them and then chew on a leg for a while. I wouldn't want to hurt the gazelle, just nibble on its leg. It wouldn't let me, but I would nibble and gnaw until I was done, and then I'd let him go. I'm a humane dog. I'm not some hyena.

Those hyena's look like shit. I want nothing to do with them. They look like they're all a little mad. And worst of all: they're bigger than me. I know as soon as they saw me they wouldn't leave me alone until I was harried into the ground. They'd chew off my hair and eat my intestines; they'd suck the marrow out of my bones. They'd bite each other and shed their own blood fighting over my carcass. They look hyper, those hyenas, like they always get the worst of everything. They look like revolutionaries destined to fail.

Already after fifteen minutes I was getting seriously bored. Television is no good for dogs. It is only one frustration after another. You can smell nothing, and you can only hear what they want you to hear. Television is entirely disconnected from what matters. I realized that afternoon why dogs never watch it. It's not because dogs are too stupid to recognize and interpret the images. It's because images alone are the worst kind of boredom. I was watching *Those Amazing Animals*, but the other dogs in the living room scarcely glanced at the screen. The very knowledge that the television was on made them listless and indifferent. They had been dogs for a while now, and they already knew what a hoax television was.

VI.-- So the Mistress put me outside in the courtyard with the two-hundred other dogs. The bitch! And I didn't even pee on her floor. Why did she do it then? Wasn't I as playful and obedient as those other lucky dogs up there in the apartment? What did they have that I didn't have?

Next time that bitch comes in here I'm going right for her calf. I'm not wasting any more time on this nonsense.

But maybe it's true that she changes us back eventually. Prudence is the safer course.

VII.-- How long was I stuck in that pen? I was too heartbroken to count the days. No carving of notches like in *Robinson Crusoe*. A dog's days follow no calendar. There was the long hot period of sunlight, during which I moped in the shade by the orange plastic pool, and there was the cooler night with its mosquitoes. Wasn't I special in some way? Wasn't she soon going to take me back up to her flat and change me back?

I was in fact special. I was the only American dog in the kennel. The rest were all Chinese, and one was a German. The bitch changed him into a German shepherd. Was that her sense of humor? How do you say German shepherd in Chinese? *Duh guo go*...

The German shepherd and I soon became friends. His name was Jurgen. He was from Hannover, which is in the north. He worked for a trade company, and he met the bitch when he was in a copy shop making photocopies of refrigerators. He had been in Taipei about eight months when she nabbed him. She seduced him in pretty much the same way she seduced me. And she had run him through the same rigmarole too, the same fuck in the living room, followed by the black altar and the cream, followed by the promises she would change him back. Jurgen figured he'd been there about two months, and though he had never been back up into her apartment, he said she had taken one dog back up there and he hadn't been seen again. Maybe she changed him back to a man? We were hopeful.

My German was pretty rusty, and though it started to come back with practice, Jurgen and I ended up speaking mostly in English.

As it turned out, I was lucky Jurgen was a shepherd, and I was lucky he was my friend. Some of the other dogs, and some of the bigger ones especially, would pass the time by humping on each other. I guess men in prison are the same everywhere, even when they're not men any more. Being that I wasn't at all interested in their games, and being that I was a smaller dog than average in the kennel, I would have been in pretty bad shape if it hadn't been for Jurgen defending me. Those bad boys were already onto me during my first day, and I really almost did get it good. But Jurgen barked twice and rushed at them, and they scattered. So my friend Jurgen was top dog, and I was grateful for it.

But really I wasn't at all happy in that fenced-in little yard. I could work on my German, and I could learn a lot of dirty words in Chinese, but I was in despair at the thought I'd never be a man again. But also: I never in my life had much liked being in all-male company, and the fact that all these men were dogs scarcely made things better. Even Jurgen was a typical man in one respect: all he did was talk shop. He talked about what companies he had worked for, different pain-in-the-ass bosses he'd had, and how he thought Asia was where the future was. All of this was tedious as usual, even if it had the novelty of coming from the mouth of a handsome German shepherd more than twice as tall as I. Oh, yes: he also talked about American movies, which was another subject that interested me hardly at all. He told me he had once wanted to be a special effects man and try to get into Hollywood, but how it was almost impossible for Europeans.

"It was just a youthful dream," he said. "Everyone dreams of some nonsense when they're young."

And then: "What did you dream when you were young? What did you dream of doing?"

I really should have told him. It was an honest question, after all. But of course he wouldn't have understood, so I lied.

"I wanted to be an astronaut," I said.

"An astronaut?" he exclaimed, his shepherd ears pointing up more sharply than usual. "An astronaut? Really?"

"Yes. Why not? I wanted to work on space stations."

"Hah! That's even more ridiculous than my dream. That's really a winner!"

If he'd had hands and if I'd had a proper shoulder, he'd probably have reached over at that instant and patted me on it with warmth and comradeship. As it was, he just stood there next to me with his doggy jaws widened in a kind of smile, looking as if he were taking a pause in a happy game of fetch. We'd had our ridiculous dreams, both of us. Somehow that touched his heart, so that I was glad I didn't tell him about my real dreams, which would only have confused him. He was a warmhearted guy, Jurgen. I wonder where he is today.

VIII.-- The food she gave us was in small, dry, brownish pebbles. It wasn't too bad, though, and there was enough of it. It kind of tasted like ground-up bones mixed with cardboard mixed with gravy. But she did feed us well, the bitch.

IX.-- What is that awful hemming and hawing? What is it? It's like the music of Headache itself. It comes and retreats, and then comes on again, up there in the darkness. It's starting to get on my nerves. It sounds like a hundred sci-fi ladies running metallic fingernails on chalkboards. What in hell is it? I've never heard anything like it, and it's up there, up in the sky.

Am I sick? Someone put their hand on my forehead. Their paw. Oh, it's no use. If I'm sick here, I'll die for sure. It must be two in the morning. Why aren't the others awake? The noise is driving me nuts!

I remember lying there for nearly an hour, suffering a cranial annoyance like nothing I'd ever known before. It seemed like sound, but it seemed also like a kind of electrical wavelength. It tickled the nerves at the root of my teeth.

In exasperation, I decided finally to wake Jurgen and ask him if he heard it.

"*Es gibt hier zuviele Menschen*," he said. "*Es gibt auch zuviele Pfledermausen*."

But what did *Pfledermausen* mean? What was that? I couldn't remember that word. *Pfledermausen*. *Pfleder* is flying. I knew that part. And *Mausen* is mice. Flying mice. Bats. So they were *bats!* What Jurgen had said was: "There are too many people here in Taiwan. There are also too many bats."

So there were bats careening around in the darkness above us. I could hear their squeaking because as a dog I had high-frequency hearing. And really it was an awful noise they made.

Dogs in the tropics have a rough time of it if they have to put up with such a racket every night. Crickets are endearing, nightingales are the stuff of secret trysts, but those bats sounded like nails on chalkboards and nothing more. I felt I'd go mad if I had to listen to it much longer. But there was something I didn't get.

"Why weren't there bats here last night?" I asked Jurgen in English. "I mean, I've been here a few weeks now, and I've never heard these bats before."

"The people who live on the roof must be having a party on their patio," he said. "That's what I thought last time the bats came. I've heard the bats once before. The people up there probably turn on a lot of lights for the party, and the bats come for the insects. Can you see it's a little lighter over on that side?"

Jurgen gestured with his muzzle.

Looking up to the tops of the buildings hemming us in, I could see it was in fact a little bit brighter on one side.

"You are one smart dog," I said to him. "I think you figured it out."

"I am German," he replied. "We can figure out anything."

"Yeah!" I laughed. "A German shepherd! Hah!"

But Jurgen wasn't laughing.

"Are you an East German shepherd or a West German shepherd?" I continued, hoping to get a smile from him.

"Germany is united," he said. "All German shepherds and all German people are one."

I looked to the ground. Was he serious? He still wasn't laughing. And now I wonder: Could Jurgen have been serious about that? I'm still not sure. I decided then not to pursue it any further. After all, he was my only real friend in the kennel, and I didn't want to make him angry. But that idea: "All German shepherds are one"--that was really a bit balmy, wasn't it? I mean, you wouldn't hear me railing against the English just because I was a Scotch terrier. But it was true that Jurgen really was German, and that he really ended up being a *German* shepherd. But that was only ironic, I thought. That was probably just a joke on the Mistress' part. But still, maybe Jurgen saw more in it. Maybe he saw it as a sign of the strength of German blood. Who knows? Maybe he believed a witch could change his species, but could never efface his essential Germanness. Maybe Jurgen thought if he were changed into food he would end up being a knockwurst or Wiener schnitzel and certainly not pasta or wonton soup.

I could have joked with him about all of this--sometimes we joked about different things--but I never did. I felt there was something rather literal and straightforward in Jurgen, and I didn't want to let my humor cause a row between us.

I never got to sleep that night. The bats never went away. Those people on the roof probably partied all night. But there were no bats the following night.

X.-- I must have been in the kennel about three weeks when the bulldozer came. It started in the morning with men putting up big fluorescent stickers on the high fence that bordered....

[The following excerpt is a chapter from much later in the novel.]

XXX.--My name is Louis Kemp. I don't know why I haven't told you that already. Louis Kemp. Try to remember it. Names are important for men. I suppose I am lucky I can still remember it at all, given what I'm going through.

I should be a classicist by now. I know Latin and Greek, the latter quite well, and my German and French are quite strong too. This is something I keep harping on, I know, but I can't help it. The fact of my education contrasts so painfully with what has become of me. Even among the graduate students I knew with an education similar to mine, my learning usually managed to distinguish itself, particularly my linguistic learning. At the time of my dissertation defense, my Greek was much better than that of any of the classicists I knew who'd recently been hired out of grad school. My scholarship showed nothing amiss either. I'd already published four papers before finishing my dissertation. So why wasn't there a position out there for me? I was considered the strongest recent candidate from the department where I did my PhD., and that department was ranked third best in the U.S. So rightfully I should have found something. And I should now be a new faculty member in one of the betters Classics departments, writing papers on speech genres in Aristophanes and organizing conferences. But what am I instead? I'm a street dog in Taipei. I am down and out. I have gone to the dogs. This isn't just a metaphor in my case either. *Metaphor* is a Greek word, you know, from the verb *metaphorein*. I could go on and on about Greek words. I could talk about Greek until you were ready to pay me to shut up. The verb *metaphorein* means: to move something from one place to another; to transport something. I have been literally transported to the dogs here, carried over to the dogs. And dogginess has started to reveal itself in me. I have begun to suffer. I am suffering worse every day.

Is it the summer heat? What is happening to me? Though it still rains often enough, on many days the hot wind blows the dust around in little whirling storms. The grit and dust from all the traffic blows in my eyes, it gets compacted in my fur. The pavement is hot under my paws, and even the cement in the shade seems laced with an intractable heat. All of it has begun to boil my blood. Everywhere I find nothing but the maddening pain of my lust.

Is it the summer heat? It is too fucking hot in this city! It's intolerable! And I am all covered with this damned fur. My tears themselves seem to sting in my eyes as if they were semen. My blood simmers. I find myself chewing on everything that comes along.

No amount of Milkbones could assuage the burning lust that has taken hold of me. What's happening? There is no rawhide chew that could take the edge off of the curse I've fallen under. My long, lipstick-shaped shlong swells out of its foreskin a thousand times a day. It is getting me down. I need a woman. Finally. I *need* a woman. Or do I?

The dirt of this city has infected my dreams. This terrible heat, this dirt! I know that the sooty surfaces only make me randier with their filth. The filth has gotten under my skin, and I want to dash myself into it, to tear myself in two so that my very heart is pumping with filth. I want to see my blood mixed with the black grime of the alleys.

I crave an apotheosis of soot and semen, my doggy teeth digging into the back of some bitch's neck, my canines (as it were) clenched around her loose leather collar, holding her in place under me as I thump and thump my doggy dick against the knob of her cervix.

What I really desire is to mount the stewardess. I've seen her pass the cafe four times now: always walking swiftly, always dragging her little flight bag on wheels. But how can I go about it? If I jump as high as I can, I could just manage to bite her ass. My teeth would pierce right through the purple fabric of her Air China skirt, right into the unseen white flesh of her lovely thigh. But how would that be enough? It wouldn't be nearly enough for this cursed wave of lust I'm under.

I've had it with this! Something must be done, and it must be done soon. I'm about ready to go to a vet and get myself neutered. This is no life!

What is the species I need? My dreams are rent by the confusion of my being. I dream of sleek wolf-ladies bent over on curb-sides, everything done doggy style, their chins scraping against the cement as I do them from behind, their fangs flashing forth from their lips with every thrust. I dream of girls with five-inch red leather leashes fixing them firmly to fire hydrants, the ground but a puddle of reeking urine. I bang furiously against their little haunches, that quick, no-nonsense thrust of dogs, and they snarl at me in pleasure mingled with pain. They have women's bodies, but dog's souls: they are inarticulate.

This can't go on! My dreams have recycled everything of my human past: it all comes forward in line--my high school teachers, old loves, neighbors--it all comes forward and I lift my leg on it. I mark it with the dog's world. My memory is being caninized!

Everything is awash in urine and lust, the urine a kind of propaganda, the signifying thrust of a politics, the lust being the heart of the matter, the real agenda of this quest to mark the territory that is my past.

I dreamt I was at my high school prom again, dancing with my date. The urine began to run down my leg and onto the floor, slowly making a puddle. The boys began to notice my puddle; they fled the room in fear. That's just how I wanted it. Then all the girls, abandoned by their dates, fixed me with their eyes. They began to strip off their clothes, piece by piece, in admiration of the great puddle I had made.

What kind of a doggy dream is that! Through the medium of my dreams, my new physiology is beginning to recast my memories, so that I fear I will no longer have anything left of them. They will finally become just so many scenes of kennel love, the girls who were my obsessions in high school taking on ever more canine qualities: Karen K. becoming a sleek, blond poodle trimmed in all the right places; Amy T. becoming a gaunt little miniature greyhound with a hungry look in her eyes; Julie R.--her Angora sweater!--a chubby lapdog that can't stop licking your ears, down your neck, your hands and wrists, and on and on.

If this continues, I will certainly forget that I was ever human. My human identity will be washed away by these waves of canine lust as thoroughly as poodle piss is washed away by a hurricane.


----[The Taipei Zoo was finished and retitled A Taipei Mutt.  It was published in 2002 by Cheng Shang Publishing.  Some links to reviews can be found at: DRAFT.]----



There are street dogs everywhere in Taipei. One sees them always and everywhere, and they are a dirty, hunkering bunch.

I feel for the street dogs. Many of them limp from having been hit by cars. Others have little hair left on their bodies: it’s been eaten off by the skin rashes they develop from splashing through puddles laced with oil, from sleeping on soot-covered pavement, from the humidity and heat of this sub-tropical city. Some look as if they were nothing but one big itch, their skin appearing almost to boil with scabs and open sores.

Street dogs here live off garbage and the detritus of night markets. There are occasional dear souls--women usually--who make a point of feeding the dogs of their neighborhood. My neighborhood has one such woman: she lives across the street from me. The dogs, however, far outnumber the people trying to help them.

Street dogs are necessarily street smart. I notice them waiting for walk lights to turn before they cross the street. I'm not sure if they’re responding to the changing light itself, or if they are just watching the traffic. It’s interesting, though, that some dogs make a point of walking to a crosswalk before they’ll venture off the sidewalk. For their own safety, they know to avoid jaywalking. Once at the crosswalk, they stand waiting for the light to turn. And they do this whether or not there are human pedestrians standing there with them. The point is that these dogs are not simply taking their cue from crowds of humans: they themselves know the best way to cross the street. When the walk light turns, they’ll glance at the traffic to be sure it's safe, then they’ll cross. Some dogs, it is true, aren’t so smart as this, but I’ve watched this doggy crosswalk routine more than once, and know it is something many street dogs have mastered.

I feel for these Taipei dogs. I’ve seen too many of them broken down with injury and disease, on their last leg. Sometimes I buy dog food for the dogs in my neighborhood. I’ve done this only rarely though. I admit I’m not as faithful as the woman across the street.

The biggest of our neighborhood's dogs--he is like a large, greying black bear--has taken to following me from my bus stop to the door of my apartment building.


[The rest of Letters from the Taipei Zoo deals with my own arrival in Taipei, rather than with the fictional arrival of Louis Kemp. The letters are in chronological order, beginning with one of my first letters to H.]


Letter 1


Dear H.:

The sentence came to me the other day, and I thought I would perhaps write that

I have died and gone to Paradise.

But this is to exaggerate things a bit, isn't it? For in fact as I write this letter I'm sticky with sweat, the streets outside are locked in a traffic jam, and I'm already working a forty-hour week in a country whose language I don't understand. What kind of paradise is that? Is that Paradise? Nonetheless, the sentence did come to me, and there’s something to it. But what?

I love to ride the bus and watch the crowded shop signs, banners, and marquees pass by. I’m at the point where I can identify a character here and there, but still the general effect is opacity. I pass slowly through a sea of incomprehensible signs. I don’t even have a phoneme to cling to, for what can you do with this:

[here find three Chinese characters]

Or this:

[here find four Chinese characters]

Were I were riding the bus through Warsaw and watching the signs pass by, at least I'd be whispering sounds in my head:

"podrodnoretz . . . neprisk . . . kino . . ."

If I were only a beginning student of Arabic, I could do the same in Damascus or Cairo. But Chinese characters are different. Chinese characters don't give forth even a whisper until one has fully learned them. And there is something stark in this silence of theirs, something both striking and paradoxical. There seems so much movement in the manner they're written, and so much strength in the way they stand forth, each one jumping from its sign and all of them stepping forward at once as I ride by. Nonetheless, they are silent. They all mean to catch my attention, and they do, but they still signify nothing. Or rather: they boldly, more than any other writing, signify the fact that I don't understand them.

I somehow love the opacity of this city. But I also love this city because I want so badly to be able to read all of it, and perhaps because I'm confident that I have time before me and that I thus can go about my deciphering one character at a time. And the character system means that it is deciphering, for the complexity of any one word means I must write it at least a dozen times before I have a good chance of recognizing it when I see it here or there. And given that my idea of writing and my love for writing are both founded essentially in the fact of writing as the act of making marks--writing as an act of inscription that every step of the way involves the decision not to inscribe something else--the Chinese character is bound to become dear to me if it doesn't become maddening. Probably my only saving virtue here is that I am patient.

But if the sentence "I have died and gone to Paradise" came to me, it was certainly not only a matter of graphology. I also love being surrounded by Asian people--by all the trappings of Asian people--by all the trappings of Asian culture--but mostly by Asian people themselves. If there is a pack of kids on the sidewalk, I want them to be Asian kids in powder green school uniforms. If there is a handful of old men in stained tee-shirts playing cards in the park, I want them to be old Chinese men. And more important than these others, of course, are the Asian women bound to be everywhere in a major Asian capital. Paris and New York don't hold a candle to this place.

Why I am so struck by Asian women I’m not quite sure. Maybe it’s a matter of reading, in a way. The fact remains that woman is to me first of all an Asian woman. This is to say that a woman has black hair, ivory skin, and eyes black like two pools of ink.

But you are probably smirking by this point, and saying to yourself: "Here's the heart of the matter, what is meant by Paradise." And you are probably more or less correct. Nevertheless, it is not only the presence of Chinese women, but the whole constellation of things hinted at above that makes this polluted city something of a terrestrial paradise.

Here in a place whose words I don't understand I feel I am at home. How can this be so?

* * *

It takes a little daring to come out with this letter, because, you know, one doesn't like to talk about "dying and going to Paradise" just after one has arrived in a foreign place, if only for the fact that things might always turn around and one may even be prodding them to do so by such open enthusiasm. Knock on wood. When I contemplate living here indefinitely, I immediately feel that I am a foreigner and wonder how welcome Westerners will be here in the future. It's an unknown, of course. Things could change. It will depend on how all the geo-political cards fall as the world becomes more and more cramped. Different groups predict that the 21st century will be "the Chinese century." As of right now, that could mean a lot of different things for a sinophile like myself. And it could mean a lot of different things for an American in Taipei. On verra.

* * *

On different fronts-- I happened to meet a Frenchman who works in the Language Institute several floors below my office. I thought that maybe I'd get to know him, and my spoken French would get some exercise. But it doesn't seem like that will be the case. These Frenchmen are all the same guy with slightly different hair color. The same flat personality, the same tone, the same narrow understanding of the world. It’s as if all their perception and imagination were stretched taught along a single rubberband, the same rubberband for the lot of them, the same French rubberband. I rode the bus with this guy, and he went through the usual tough mec act, the usual tedious cynicisms and expressions of superiority (here directed at Taipei), and I decided I wouldn't be giving my ear to one of these conversations again. These guys are fated to be what they are, yes, but I feel like adding: They deserve what they get: they deserve to be themselves.

How would Sartrian existentialism interpret this latter remark?

I don't know if you will get this before your exam. If you do, best of luck.



Letter 2


Dear H.:

The strip that runs along the edge of our counter had come loose. I'm riding the bus to work when out from under the awnings on the sidewalk runs a lovely woman in a very classy little black dress. She is running to get on the bus, and suddenly she nearly falls, but then catches herself. The heel on her right shoe is broken, and she looks down in desperation because she is obviously in a hurry to get somewhere. The bus has stopped, and she gets on and sits three seats ahead of me.

I had remembered to buy the fast-drying epoxy to fix the loose strip on our kitchen counter. It was in my bag. The woman's long, ivory legs are crossed neatly on top of one another, and she is looking down considering the shoe. There are a number of men on the bus, among them two helots sitting together, and one of these two makes a rough remark directed at the woman. The other men break into grins, and the woman's annoyance increases to the point that she turns toward the front of the bus and swings her legs under the seat.

Standing next to her seat, I begin to open the epoxy. I point down to her foot, and she flushes and laughs. She turns toward the window in defiance, but soon I'm kneeling in the aisle next to her, holding out my hand submissively, waiting for her to extend her foot to me. Will she do so?

She could have punished me by staying just as she was, for then I’d have been stuck there kneeling next to her with nothing to be done. In that case I’d have become either a fool or a clown, and the difference between the two, in my life at least, is slight. As it turned out, she didn't punish me. I will tell you just how it happened.

She first moved as if to take the shoe off, but then--with a slight smile!--she thought better of it and extended her leg to me. There was a smile of playful triumph in her eyes as she did so, and I can only understand it as triumph over the remark made by the helot four seats back as well as triumph over the modesty that would have insisted she remain gazing out the window. It was a triumph in which we could share.

When it was obvious to all that the foreigner had her foot in his hand and was kneeling on a moving city bus fixing her broken heel with epoxy, a whooping went up. The woman was laughing, and even the older woman in a seat across the aisle was grinning at the unexpected entertainment.

Meanwhile I was in transport in my own Roman de la rose. Everything could go wrong in such a scene, but nothing did. The woman crossed her one leg over the other so as to hold the glued shoe above the floor of the bus.

Did the glue stick? I don't know. I had to get off before she did. In fact, my stop was upon us almost as soon as the work was done.

She did have time to thank me in Chinese (a nice touch, for most people are eager to show they can thank you in English) and to offer me her hand to squeeze.

I could have kissed the hand, sure, but that would have been clowning. I could have asked her phone number--why not?--but that would have ruined the scene forever (whether I got the number or not). I really was to do nothing but step off the bus, don't you think?

* * *

I had a student named Peter, about age 12. He was more shy than the others, and was at first afraid of me. At our institute all the students begin the class with a brief recitation to the teacher. You call them up one by one, and those not reciting are writing the quiz. When Peter first gave his recitation, sweat would begin to run down from his sideburns and his voice would pile words randomly one atop another. Of course I saw right away that he was one of the smartest students in the class. After his second class with me, he realized I was on his side, and now he is much more at ease. He even tries telling me things in English outside class, which is quite a rarity for students at his level.

One day as I was calling out role, I noticed that Peter's name was crossed out and the name "Richard" was written next to it. But Peter was in class. Peter had changed his name to Richard. I was told the reason for this later on by a Chinese teacher. It seems Peter's father learned somewhere that Peter meant rock. Chinese are very sensitive to this kind of thing. The father decided that rock was too lowly a thing for a name, and insisted his son become Richard instead.

This event bothered me, strange as it may seem. Perhaps I too am sensitive to this kind of thing. I was thrown right up against my inability to communicate. I wanted to explain to them that Peter was rock in the sense of

On this rock I will build my church.

and not in the sense of a rock, or a stone, one would kick across a parking lot before getting into one's car. But I had no way of explaining this.

It’s true that an explanation may have had no positive effect on them in any case. It may even have had a negative effect. Though Christianity means that a certain spectrum of names will take hold wherever English does, these names in themselves do not mean that the Christian keys to their meaning will be accepted. There is another text:

The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.

The rock that has been kicked across the parking lot, the stone that the builders rejected: they may well be the same. But what of the name that has been rejected? It is not nearly as substantial as a rock, and in Chinese I don't even have the words with which to defend it.

* * *

A book is a wonderful thing. I've been thinking about why it is that I love the book so much. It has always seemed to me wondrous that such things actually exist, and I have to admit--even though this is so much out of keeping with what deconstruction has supposedly done--I have to admit that placed next to the world the book is quite a substantial thing. Probably the book weighs even more than the world--but if this is true, it weighs only a bit more. That books are there at hand is thus almost unheard of: it is an incredible privilege.

There is an economic element to my fascination with the book, or at least one can talk about it in terms of economics. How is it that merely with the money in one's wallet one can walk into a store and get hold of the life's work of some major human spirit? The monetary value is so small, yet what one has, in terms of potential, is entirely other. So much of that mind, of what made that mind, is there to be grasped, and what has one had to pay to have things thus laid before one? $12.00?

One could answer this fascination of mine by saying that I’m simply "enthusiastic about literature." If I were enthusiastic about music, wouldn't I say the same thing about CDs? I don't think I would, or that I could. The main reason for this is that reading and writing are closer to each other than are composing and listening. This too is arguable, of course. I won't try to defend it here. I will say only that the closeness of reading to writing becomes of supreme importance when one recognizes the fact that language is both the most fundamental and the most intimate human faculty. Though just as universal, it is more fundamental than either the faculty that creates and appreciates music or the faculty that creates and appreciates pictorial art.  The book is somehow the crux of the matter in a way that a CD or an image cannot be.

The book has a virtue another virtue that none of the other arts can equal. It is small. The smallness of the book adds tremendously to its power, for nowhere else can the life's labor of a major human spirit be laid out in such compact confines. If one has a book, one needs nothing else but light to begin reading it. This smallness and self-identity (a CD needs a very elaborate machinery, after all, to be heard) is part of the wonder of the book.

It is a traditional part of Muslim piety to copy the Koran in minuscule letters on minuscule leaves of paper. And everyone has heard of the Chinese who copied Confucian analects on a grain of rice. Both of these practices demonstrate an understanding of the importance of the book's smallness as well as an attempt to heighten that smallness in an act of knowing piety.

* * *

If you are in the library, and you think of it, would you photocopy a few pages of English tongue-twisters for me? I’m going to trade training in English tongue-twisters for training in Chinese tongue-twisters with some of the Chinese teachers at my branch. I'd appreciate it.

Also-- You shouldn't believe all the stories I tell you. What I wonder is at what point you think the above story begins to be a story. Is it untrue because I was not daring enough to come forward with the epoxy? Or is it merely untrue because the epoxy didn't work? Or was I made a fool of? Or is it even untrue because our counter is all of a piece and there aren't any strips to come loose? Is it the case that no woman in a black dress ran out that day and broke her heel? Give me your best surmise.

All my best.



Letter 3


Dear H.:

If you remember correctly--I am sure you do--Lily Briscoe's love for Mrs. Ramsay extended itself--(we are in Virginia Woolf)--even to the point of admiring Mr. Ramsay for his rather tyrannical sense of self-importance. They were before the house, and Lily was liking Ramsay all the better for the fact that if his little finger hurt the whole world would be at an end. Mr. Bankes parried by wondering aloud if Ramsay were not "a bit of a hypocrite."

Now I am not like Mr. Ramsay at all--I must come out and say it--for I had kept quiet about the whole thing. Not a whimper from me, much less the world coming to an end.

But now I can speak, for I have good news. It is even with a feeling of great dexterity that I write this letter.

The swelling of my right index finger has finally gone down, and I can grasp my pen and maneuver it over the page without pain. Almost three months ago a pink cockatoo in Florida latched onto the end of my finger with its beak and wouldn’t let it go, but instead slowly ground its way down to the bone. That cockatoo, though smart, didn't know how close it was then to the end of its life, but because I didn't throttle it on the spot, the bird now has a good chance of outliving both you and me. My finger has been swelled up ever since, and I was convinced it was permanently damaged. Now I see that might not be so.

But I’m not like Mr. Ramsay at all--for I’ve kept quiet about the whole thing. And it wasn't even my little finger that ached, but my very pointer!

My finger is back, and I feel I could pen a novel.

* * *

[The following few paragraphs will only make sense to those who have read Gospels from the Last Man, being volume II of THE CLAY TESTAMENT.]

I have found a place here that actually reminds me of Steep 'n Brew. It’s in a crowded and older part of town that I like very much. I’m not sure why it reminds me of Steep 'n Brew, and it may be in part just the colors of the interior and the style of the tables and chairs. The coffee there is cheap, and not very good, and the place is full of old men yelling at each other. I would say that the old men gabbing, boasting, and waving their arms about somehow hold the place in this caf(c) that the derelicts and maniacs held in the old Steep 'n Brew.

But there’s even more evidence that Caf(c) D. is a Taipei Steep 'n Brew--more evidence than just an unleashed mania in the atmosphere. One day I sat there reading for an hour and a half, and different people started talking to me. Out of the blue. This doesn't happen often at Taipei’s more chic caf(c)s. I was glad to have some sociability, of course, but I was a little apprehensive as well. I was afraid I might be picking up new chumps. Nevertheless, it’s a good sign to find a place where people will talk to each other.

I should mention what I think is the final proof of Caf(c) D's affinity to Steep 'n Brew. While reading my novel I noticed someone twitching and moving about across the room. I looked up and saw that it was a thin man of about 30. He was writing on little scraps of paper, and reading other little scraps of paper, and he was talking to himself and laughing. His face twisted here and there. He was obviously excited about something.

Was it Cosmo di Madison, or was it me? I am afraid that in Caf(c) D. we have combined into one person.

Taipei is a very crowded city, H., and the Chinese are known to be a practical and frugal people. Not having space enough for both Cosmo and his scribe, they’ve decided to combine us into one. I can’t really complain. At least we have a foothold.

You will say I am boasting and gabbing myself even to suggest that Taipei has a need for its own version of us. You will say I am waving my arms. But I did see him. I don't know, however, what his scraps of paper said, being that I didn't see them. What's more, had I seen them, they would have grinned back at me in Chinese.

* * *

This week I taught extra classes to cover for a foreign teacher off on a two-week vacation. I ended up with an exhausting schedule, and I'm still behind on correcting homework.

I like the children very much, and they have drawn pictures and cartoons for me for Teacher's Day, which is celebrated on Confucius' birthday. The Chinese have a far greater respect for teachers than Westerners do, though their attitudes are probably being steadily westernized in this regard too. Some of the children's cartoons are quite funny, and if I figure out a way to photocopy them, I may send you copies. Some of the older girls (13-14) seem to have a crush on me. It is very sweet.

* * *

Taipei is occasionally swept by a cool breeze now, and I'm told fall is the best season. You can’t imagine the delight I take in the thought of having both Taipei and a tolerable temperature with which to walk about in it. Based on having only been here in summer, I had come to think of this city as inseparable from tropical sun and humidity.

* * *

I’ve enclosed a "translation" of a poem by the Taiwanese poet Lo-Ch'ing, as well as a copy of the letter to him concerning my translation. I may write you about this man some time, as he is certainly the best host I've had over here. I know him because he used to be Hui-Ling's professor. His personality and position in things is somehow classic, or at least represents what I have picked up about Chinese literati here and there. He and his wife are great collectors of Chinese art, and their possessions lean toward the eccentric, which of course makes visiting them particularly attractive to me.

* * *

As for the reason the story was untrue, it’s not because she didn't pick up the heel. The heel didn’t break off completely, but hung from the shoe. The reason it was untrue was simply that she got on the bus in front of mine. I was riding 18, and she got on 292. My epoxy could do nothing for us.

The story becomes existential then--in the sense that a French film of it would be existential. The space between 18 and 292 becomes the very stuff of drama, and the rest of the film continues as a dwelling on the missed bus.

You've got the glue, but Catherine Deneuve got on 292.

You may want to translate this in another direction--also French--and say that these paragraphs--from the last letter and this one--are preludes to an American Exercises de style à la Queneau. I still do want to read that book.



* * *

The Demiurge in Taipei

Although Taipei is crammed full
with many many cars
with many many people
with many many animals

Still I can't help myself:
I must create
one tiny little car
one tiny little man
one tiny little animal

On the sly
I take up these tiny things
and set them loose in the big city;
I set them loose in Taipei

The car's lights turn on, but it never starts.
The man has one hand and tries to clap.
And there's the tiny animal that has no shadow:
a kind of armadillo that can imitate bird songs.

So if you are out and about in Taipei,
and if you see my little car,
or meet my little man,
or hear the singing of my animal,
there is one thing I'd ask you to do:

Please close one eye immediately, and smile.

* * *

September 15, 1996


I translated this poem about a month ago. Hui-Ling taught me each of the characters one at a time. The delay in getting it to you is explained by the fact that we’ve only just recently gotten our computer desk and equipment set up.

Why Demiurge? I mentioned this in your office. The word demiurge comes from Western religious history, specifically from Gnosticism. The essential point is that the Demiurge is a kind of upstart creator god who can't hold himself back. In this case, I used it to refer to a creator who engages in a kind of unauthorized creation, or extraneous creative activity.

The terms Demiurge or demiurgic creation often come up in discussions of modern Western poetics. For example, Rimbaud is often considered "the poet as Demiurge": the poet who seeks to rival God in his creative autonomy. Rimbaud struggled to breathe fire into his creations so that they could stand on their own; he would have his poems march forth and overturn the world. Pious Western thinking is always out to demonstrate that such overweening faith in one's own creation is bound to lead to aberrations and monsters, for in the tradition it is only God that truly creates. We have the Hebrew legend of the Golem, we have the Frankenstein story, and recently in the same mode the common assertion that Rimbaud's own poetic career was a "stunning disaster." All of this ties in with the mythos of the Demiurge and demiurgic creation. Your poem seemed to me, as you translated it in your office, to be calling out for a comparison with this particular Western tradition of understanding creation and the creator. That your poem is in a more playful mode doesn't in my mind change the essential facts that 1) you evoke your creation as unauthorized or surreptitious, and 2) the beings your creation brings forth are, in a very light vein, monsters.

You notice I've changed one of your lines. Don't complain about this. Monsters, after all, are bound to beget further aberrations.

A one-handed man trying in vain to applaud. Is he trying to applaud his own creator?

Also: Why "Please close one eye immediately, and smile"? I understand it as follows--

Taipei is so crammed with beings that there isn't room for any more. Nonetheless, the poet in Taipei can't help but create. He creates tiny beings, half-complete beings as it were. One must close one eye upon seeing these half-beings, for it is only with one eye closed that they appear full. Close one eye--"Please close one eye"--is an indulgence to the poet, who is not after all a god and whose creations only trace out parts of the fullness of phenomena. Parts though they be, one should take time to see them. Thus closing one eye is also a metaphor for being able to appreciate the particularities of what the poet brings forth: not full beings, but creations nevertheless, whose tininess is a virtue in a city so crammed full.

But why do you write "smile"? For several reasons, yes? First, one should smile because there is still at least some room left for such creations to move about. Second, one should smile because these tiny things have a kind of sad humor about them. And finally, one smiles in indulgence at the vice of the poet, who can't hold himself back from creating, regardless of the crammed fullness of the city around him.


Letter 4



Dear H.:

An American humorist I'd previously only read snatches of--but, to tell the truth, he is all made up of snatches--is Donald Barthelme. I've picked up a collection called 60 Stories, and I can't resist telling you to find it in Memorial Library and read, say, "Miss Mandible and Me" and "Daumier." These are brief tales, H. You certainly would have time to read a few.

Probably Barthelme is to high modernism what comic books are to the quattrocento--there is some truth in this--yet I think you will laugh aloud. He writes down only the sap of American English.

"Possibly you will laugh, no? One will see, yes?"

* * *

We get around sixty channels on our cable TV. Two of the channels, however, are blocked. They are 5 and 6. If we want them, we need to subscribe. Channel 5 offers 24-hour sumo wrestling. Channel 6 is the 24-hour porn channel.

There would be nothing notable in this except for the fact that the scrambling used to block these channels doesn't quite block them, but just drapes the image with grey fuzz. You can see more or less what you will be able to see clearly if you pay.

Channels 5 and 6 have a very special effect when you’re first getting used to watching cable TV here. For instance, if one is surfing up the band ("1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - ...") trying to find something to watch, one will click over 5--getting a quick glimpse of a sumo match--followed by 6--getting a quick glimpse of two or three people fucking--followed by 7 and then 8. Coasting over 5 and 6 has a particular aftershock to it. One has the impression of having seen a "Before" and "After" commercial for a weight-loss clinic: 5 being what it's like before you attend, 6 being what it's like after you attend. I had clicked through these channels a couple of times before I finally laughed out loud at the absurdity of their being right next to each other.

If, on the other hand, you are surfing down the band, and you click 7 - 6 - 5 - 4 - 3, the effect is very different. What you see first is the heady seriousness of the erotic. What you see next, as if hidden just behind it, is an absurd parody of the erotic. To click down the band is to get a kind of subliminal Morality Play. One feels a bit annoyed at this. For someone, it seems, is out to expose our desires in all their ridiculous absurdity. Who could they be? Someone, it seems, is trying to point out how ugly the whole game of love really is. The bastards.

(Note: I write these remarks with no ill will to the Japanese, for whom sumo wrestling is sacred. In fact, I even respect the Japanese particularly in that they probably wouldn't be much bothered by the porno station being so near the sumo wrestling station, lovemaking itself being charged with so much of the sacred in Japanese life.)

* * *

There’s a series of stages the Westerner goes through learning Chinese, and they can all be classified under the heading wonder. The Westerner wonders that; he also wonders how.

At the very beginning, when the Westerner considers the Chinese and their language, he is struck that such a thing can exist as a modern civilization based on a logographic writing system. The logographic writing system, for the Westerner, is somehow most closely associated with the Egyptians or the Maya. That such a system is currently holding together more than a billion people--and a nuclear power at that--is something that seems somehow incongruous. This first stage provides an instance of wondering that. Coming second is the initial stage of study, when one begins learning the first few hundred characters. At this stage, one suspects that each character is unique, that all of them are separate pictures, and one wonders how any human being can hold several thousands of these little pictures in their head. Here one begins to feel physiologically incapacitated, as if one had gotten off the boat in a country where everyone could walk either on the ceiling or the floor, depending on their will. You yourself, the Westerner, are stuck with the usual laws of gravity, and cannot even get your feet to stick on the walls: witness the scuff marks all over the plaster.

The shock of this second stage is mitigated when one realizes just how important radicals are in the composition of characters. Radicals mean that the Chinese written vocabulary is not so much thousands of utterly different pictures as it is thousands of different combinations of a few hundred simpler pictures.

The third stage of wonder--where I am suffering mostly now--has to do with the spoken language. I have mentioned the difficulty of the tones before. This difficulty takes particular forms, one of which is hallucination. One has the recurring impression--extremely annoying it is--that Chinese use the same seven words for everything. Everything is either shou, jie, shi, chu, or wan. Some other things are shui, ma, or xiao. The Westerner is tenaciously, doggedly, deaf to the tones. I am confident this applies to everyone, though there may be some prodigies.

We Westerners have places prepared in our brains to register phonetic differences. Learning a new set of phonemes is no big deal for us. We also, of course, have places prepared to register tonal differences. But tonal differences for us typically define the emotional intention of the utterance, or, say, whether it is a question or statement. Tonal differences in Chinese define the very word one is using, and so the Chinese speaker's mental registers for tone are of an entirely different order. One is quickly tired by the mental effort of trying to hear the tones in one's own and others' speech, and one is never long into a conversation before one feels like a bird in a straightjacket trying to sing along with other birds who have grown long used to their straightjackets and even, it seems, mistake their straightjackets for feathers.

Such, of course, is the nature of all languages. We mistake our own for feathers.

I don't imagine the annoyance of tone will go away soon--only that my experience of the troubles of a tonal language will refocus somewhere else. I’ve already mostly overcome that most confusing Western mistake: changing a statement to a question by using rising intonation. We have the sentence: You want some coffee. We change it to a question through rising intonation: You want some coffee? You can't do this in Chinese, but you do do it, all the time. The foreigner asks: "You want to dance with me?" The woman hears: "You want to dance with me."

* * *

There is a new teacher at our branch, a New Zealander. Because all the women teachers are rather traditional, they immediately begin pestering him.

"Michael, do you have a girlfriend back in New Zealand?"

"Michael, what kind of women do you like?"

"Michael, when are you going to get married?"

Now I ask you: what sort of man is it whose presence provokes such questions--questions that repeat because they are never answered?

Michael says: "I decided long ago that I would never get married." He says with bluster--very unconvincing--: "Nope. Women are trouble."

The questions continue: "Michael, what do you do on the weekend?"

"Michael, tell us about your girlfriends."

And on and on. The persecution increases by the week. I think some of the women have figured out the obvious. I know that at least one has. They say things to me calculated to provoke me into acknowledging that I too think Michael is gay. They seem to want it confirmed aloud by another Westerner. But I am evasive. They can ask him themselves, if they choose.

One day I was teaching in one room and I could hear Michael's class going on in the next. It seemed to me they were repeating something ridiculous, but I wasn't sure I was hearing it right. About a week later I thought I heard the same thing from a different class of his, so I decided to listen outside the room. Choral repetition is an important element in teaching language to children, even more important than it is in teaching language to adults. Michael was saying:

"Okay. Michael has a beautiful bottom. Repeat."

The class: "Michael has a beautiful bottom."

Michael: "Michael has a beautiful bottom."

Class: "Michael has a beautiful bottom."

Michael: "Who has a beautiful bottom?"

Class: "Michael has a beautiful bottom."

Michael: "What does Michael have?"

Class: "He has a beautiful bottom."

Michael: "Very good. Does Tom have a beautiful bottom?"

Class: "No, he doesn't have a beautiful bottom."

Michael: "Who has a beautiful bottom?"

And so on. It seems this a standard sentence he teaches to each class.

* * *

All across Asia the Western businessmen are dragging about their huge, bloated corpses. At any moment of daylight they are on the move, slowly on the move, conducting their massive bellies here and there over an endless maze of sunbaked streets and sidewalks. How many hands per minute reach up with tissues or handkerchief to blot the sweat from flabby necks or reddish foreheads? These men are huge compared to the tight, crowded little sidewalks they must negotiate. Waiting on a corner for a walk light to change, they look like oil tankers run aground in some faulty lock of the Panama Canal, their Asian hosts no bigger than tugboats trying to drag them free. The tugboats smile and try to be hammy--hammy the way the weaker-witted Western men like it--but as they tug their guest through factory and bar and restaurant, as they drag their sweating charge over all the little stretches of heated pavement, their Asian eyes glance to each other on the sly, they mutter words I can only guess at--words in languages the Westerners will never take the trouble to learn--:

"Finally, tomorrow, we'll be rid of this flabby fuck!"

Frequently the Asian businessmen will take the Western businessmen to hostess clubs or brothels. Then the physical incongruity between the Asian men and the western men must give way to the more striking, yet more comic incongruity between the western men and the usually petite Asian women. It is true that Chinese women, on the average, are not really all that small, and in other Asian countries the incongruity must be greater. But even here the girls have an idiom for taking on one of these tubby western businessmen. They refer to it as "doing the circus ride." I can think of different ways in which this idiom may be apt, but the one I prefer to think of, the one that most touches my imagination, is that the "circus ride" meant is an elephant ride. I suppose it is not actually at circuses proper but rather at carnivals where a father can pay to have his children walked round a dirt track on the neck of an elephant. I've seen these rides at carnivals. But even so, this is what I think of as the bar girls' "circus ride."

"Uh, oh!" says one to another. "It looks like he wants you, Coco! You'll have to do the circus ride tonight."

And when svelte little Coco is riding the huge businessman's waist, Herr Kaiser from Siemans AG, what does it look like if not an eleven-year-old girl astride the back of an elephant?

* * *

A dream this morning. I’m on the third or fourth floor of a large Taipei hotel, looking down onto the pavilion below me. More than a hundred fold-out chairs are arranged for journalists, and there are TV stations there too. On the platform before the journalists, the Spice Girls are giving a press conference. All the Taipei press is there as the Spice Girls proclaim their philosophy in English. The Spice Girls don't bother to stand. Rather they are slouched on the fold-out chairs placed on the platform. The blond Spice Girl, as I can see, is wearing skin-tight lime green leotards, and she slouches back with her legs spread indifferently, her snatch thrust in the most provocative manner at the audience.

One of the Spice Girls has a book open and is reading a vitriolic essay by an American feminist theorist. While she reads on in the usual righteous tone, the journalists make jokes to each other about the theatrically bored blond Spice Girl with her legs spread. She herself is too transcendent to meet their eyes.

I begin to urinate on the Spice Girls from three floors above. According to some kind of dream logic, neither the journalists nor the Spice Girls realize what is happening.

A man is standing next to me at the balustrade. He’s in his fifties, and his face is covered with a kind of thick yellowish make-up. The make-up is almost pasty in consistency, like I've always imagined the make-up to look on Queen Elizabeth's face when she died. I remember in high school being told that Elizabeth I wore a quarter inch of pale-colored make-up on her face during her last years. I've always thought that one could have made a death mask of her simply by spraying her face with gloss, letting it dry, and lifting it off. The man next to me wears a similar make-up, and his hair is pommaded back. He is wearing a heavy, maroon velvet suit in Renaissance cut. The suit looks like it’s been mended in places. I know the man is Michel de Montaigne, but I am not to say anything about it.

"A fine place you've chosen to leak," says Montaigne with the soft old voice of one who has seen the world. And he unbuttons his cumbersome coat and trousers and begins to leak with me.

So Montaigne and I are pissing on the Spice Girls while they do their news conference. Both the conference and our urine go on and on. I must have drunk a lot of something.

Finally some of the Spice Girls are getting bothered by whatever it is that's falling on them from above. One of them starts shaking her hair like dogs do when they get out of the water. They’re getting frustrated, and their faces express their annoyance, as if to say, "What is that, damnit?" A journalist stands up and apologetically informs them that there is a lot of rain in Taiwan.

"We must celebrate the rain too!" cries the blond Spice Girl, gesturing dogmatically to the journalists. "We must celebrate the rain as the creative female force of otherness that it is!" she insists.

"The rain is our Mother," chimes in the cafe au lait Spice Girl, standing up and adopting a theatrical pose. "The rain is the otherness from which we all come. It is our Mother! We must celebrate the rain!"

Montaigne is snickering at this.

"What a lot of rubbish," he says.

I remember that Montaigne winces occasionally from the pain of urinating.

"It's the stone," he says. "It's terrible."

Even so, he continues heroically, draining himself steadily as the press conference goes on.

The dream ends here, or rather this is all of it that I remembered.



Letter 5


Dear H.:

I have seen the Chinese albino. He is not as ugly as people say. He is, I am told, a gangster, and is rather high up in the Bamboo Tong Triad.

He was leaving a restaurant with two other men when I saw him. I dared to stare at him long enough to develop a complete impression of his appearance.

An aura of calm power and the slightest bit of a swagger in his movement struggle with the pale weakness and delicacy he emanates as an albino. His eyes are not red, but seem more a dull amber shot through with grey. His appearance is more singular than any other.

The thing about the Chinese albino is that you cannot on any account picture him in your mind before you’ve seen him, for the hair of the average Chinese is so very black and the complexion so ivory-yellow that replacing them respectively with white and pale rose is impossible in the mind. Others who’d seen him before had tried to describe him to me, but to no avail.

Try to picture the Chinese albino in your mind, and you will get glimpses of parts of a man who never comes into focus. If you pin down the snow-white eyebrows, the rest of the Chinese face disappears. When you see the white hair, you cannot see the white complexion, which in any case is unimaginable on the full, rounded face of a Chinese man.

Had he become a gangster in protest against his fated weakness? Had his potential in the Triad been tripled by his almost frightful difference from the others? For who is less suited to be a thug than the anemic, hot-house plant that is the albino? One can imagine him protected by his very myth. It would not be surprising if the crime world had developed the notion that the man who killed him would bring a terrible curse down upon his head. The Chinese are far more superstitious than Westerners. And who is more superstitious than gangsters?

I saw him for only a moment, but it was long enough to make up the whole of an image that can't be imagined. Is he as high up in the Triad as people say? If so, he is already a character in fantastic literature.

* * *

Follows the text of an article I wrote a couple months ago. There’s an English-Chinese bilingual magazine called Sinorama that has agreed to publish it, but I'm still waiting for it to show up. Two issues have passed since they agreed. They have to translate the article into Chinese, though, and maybe that's taking some time. I thought I'd send you the original version.


My wife and I married in the U.S. some seven years ago. She is from Taiwan, and I am American. Soon before our engagement, she showed me the photo-album she had brought with her to the States from Taiwan. Among the photographs were a handful from her childhood, and among these there was a small black-and-white photo that had been torn into several pieces and then taped back together.

In this reconstituted picture, my wife's family stood before their home. Her parents were obviously very young, and I could see my wife in her mother's arms as an infant. At the very center of the photograph, where all of the tears intersected, was the hardly recognizable face of a Western man. The tears were obviously intended to destroy precisely his image.

My wife told me of this picture that she herself tore it into pieces when she was five. She had no memories of the earlier visit of the Western man--she was only one at the time--but she clearly remembered tearing the picture into pieces because, she said, she couldn't stand the image of this strange intruder standing in the midst of her family. Apparently her parents discovered the ripped-up photo and taped it back together. Thus it still survives.

All of this was particularly amusing to me because of the many implications I could take from it. This was my future wife's first recorded reaction to the sight of a Western man. Of course there was a very intentional irony in her manner of telling me the story of the destroyed photo.

Some months ago we moved here to Taipei. For the first time I am experiencing life in a city where I am not merely a foreigner, but a foreigner racially marked as such.

I look very different from the Chinese, and everywhere I go I am aware of myself as visibly foreign. I know that when I step on the bus the people who see me have a voice that whispers faintly in their minds, "The foreigner is stepping on the bus." If I am walking through a food court in a mall, I am visible as "the foreigner is walking through the food court." Not that I suppose I am the center of attention, but rather simply the following: merely to glimpse me is to glimpse me as a foreigner.

In a big city like Taipei, there is no reason for my passing to cause heads to turn. They don't turn, and I am only slightly more noticeable than anyone else. There is an exception to this, however. The exception is children.

I have realized since I've been here that most small children, when they come in close proximity to me, are amazed and shocked by my appearance. Let me note, for the record, that my appearance is not out of the ordinary for a western man. I have learned, however, that my appearance is enough out of the ordinary in the daily life of the average child here in Taiwan to cause a kind of rapt amazement. The reactions show a striking consistency from one child to the next, and have set me thinking about the question of just how children may perceive the foreigner. What do Chinese children perceive when they encounter a foreigner close up?

After considering the different age groups, and taking notes on what I've noticed, I've come to certain conclusions which, if they are not really the stuff of anthropology, are nonetheless rather amusing.

Let me begin with the two-year-olds. I run across them all the time. If they notice me, they almost always have the same reaction. Their eyes widen in fright, their brows knit in dismay, and they stare at me as if dumbfounded. The two-year-old who has noticed me cannot stop looking at me; neither can he or she figure out what sort of being I am supposed to be. Soon after they begin staring they will often lift one of their hands up to their face and insert four fingers in their mouth for security. For already, by then, their mouth has dropped open in astonishment.

It is obvious by the reactions of these children that they notice before them a creature quite different from the humans they recognize as fully human (i.e., the Chinese adults that fill up their daily lives). The creature before them is strange enough to provoke dismay, but similar enough to provoke intense curiosity. They are apparently so shocked by my presence that they can't bring themselves to stop looking at me.

This scenario has happened to me numerous times: in malls, at street-side food stands, on buses, in the park. What is striking is seeing the same exact expression take over the faces of so many different children in different corners of the city.

What is it they see in me?

I will say with confidence that children of this age do not have the concept foreigner at their disposal. That seems obvious enough. Thus they do not think foreigner when they are looking at me. I would guess that what they see is fundamentally deformity, for this is what their faces express. As they stare at me with their worried little eyes, something like the following is running through their heads:

There is something wrong with this one. Many things are wrong at once. The skin, the hair, the shape is wrong. Does it hurt?

The spell they are under as they stand there before me frozen in place is the spell of fascination. And fascination is a powerful spell. I would even say they experience the same feeling as someone considering a two-headed calf at a carnival grounds. The difference is that these children did not pay the price to enter the tent and so did not have any intention of seeing a monster. Suddenly it happens that there is a monster before them, on the loose, and they don't know what to do. Often it happens as they're gazing at me that the hand they are not sucking will reach back to grab their mother's skirt. This is also a gesture toward security, as is the hand in their mouth.

I am writing here of the two-year-olds, those who have just learned to walk and are still learning to speak. The reaction of these children is of course a far more primal one than the reaction of children a bit older, who when they see me can immediately conjure up the category foreigner. Children ages four to seven can thus put me into a category the instant they see me. And by recognizing me as a foreigner, they make me in some respects less strange. For the foreigner is not a monster like the two-headed calf, but is merely an exotic species. When one sees a foreigner, one knows that there are other foreigners of the same type in the world: one does not imagine that the creature before one is a singularity of nature.

The reaction of four- to seven-year-olds to me is thus completely different from that of younger children. They will spot me, look at me for an instant, and then they will retreat. If they catch me getting on the same elevator as them, they will try to stand behind the Chinese adult they are with. Their reaction indicates that I am to a certain extent a known quantity: they do not stare at me in amazement like the two-year-olds; they know me well enough to know that I am one of those; and they sense instinctively that those are pariah.

These older children perceive me as a being about whom everything is problematic and thus dangerous. My presence is the presence of a renegade. They know ahead of time that I am likely to break all the codes of behavior, and particularly the most basic code of behavior, which is the language. These children are painfully aware that the sounds coming out of my mouth are inappropriate: even if the adults may understand me, my Chinese is impossibly incorrect from a child's point of view. Thus they do not want to be trapped into any kind of verbal exchange with me, for such an exchange is impossible. I sound far too strange. It is better for them to step away before our eye contact leads to an attempt at speech on my part.

Maybe these children wonder, at some level, why the adults themselves tolerate such renegades in their city. Maybe these children are aware, at some level, that the adults themselves have difficulty tolerating them.

It is obvious that they do not want to hear me say things to them in Chinese, because they will then be compelled to respond, and they will not be able to respond, because their mind will be fully occupied by my foreignness, to which there is after all no iterable response. And what if it should happen that I take the opportunity offered by their frozen silence to snatch them up and carry them away to some foreign world? What if I kidnapped them to the incomprehensible foreign world they know from western video images? The world of foreign films is after all quite close to them in a certain way--in the sense that it gets inside their living rooms--and thus it is not really unreasonable for them to fear that mere verbal contact with me could lead to their being implicated in that video world.

The four- to seven-year-olds are clearly not as interested in my appearance as are younger children. They are interested only in avoiding contact with me. When they see me in their proximity, they generally give themselves just enough time to glimpse and look away. Their reactions indicate that they are to have nothing to do with me, and it is not uncommon for them to skip around corners or shuffle quickly out of sight so as not to be in my immediate field of vision. Here is the paradox: whereas the two-year-olds, who know nothing about foreigners, cannot stop looking at me, the seven-year-olds, who recognize me as a foreigner, cannot bear to look at me. For to look at me is to risk that I will look back, and then anything could happen.

In the States, I worked for a short time as a French teacher. For this reason and also because I love teaching language, I have taken up work here as an English teacher. The students of the institute where I teach English are from nine to fourteen; thus they represent an age group just senior to the four- to seven-year-olds. Most of them who enter my classroom are coming in sustained contact with a foreigner for the first time in their lives. What is interesting to me here is not so much how they behave in the classroom--classroom behavior is after all dictated by rather strict norms and expectations--but rather how they behave just before and after the first few classes. How do they behave during that period of ten minutes or so when everyone is mulling around the entrance to the classroom waiting to go in?

I should point out that before a class ever has me as a teacher they have already been together as a class for around eight months. During that eight months, they learn the rudiments of English from a Taiwanese-born English teacher. One fine day, however, they notice that it is me standing outside their classroom door and not their Taiwanese teacher. Their glances shift around nervously. They see what looks like their class folder in my hands. For one reason or another, their Taiwanese teacher neglected to tell them that the rough times would begin today. When they finally confirm that it is indeed their class folder in my hands, there is a general uproar of fear and excitement.

Once all the students have seen me and verified just where I will stand while I wait for the previous class to finish with the classroom, they will usually form up into groups and begin squealing and pushing each other. On several occasions the game has been to push your classmate over by the foreign teacher. This game is best played against a classmate who has just arrived and hasn't yet noticed me standing there. This in itself is not so amusing, and is rather predictable. What is more amusing is a different game, a game I've seen played only once since I've been a foreign teacher, but one that through its very uniqueness defines all the other reactions of all the other Chinese children who've met up with me.

The game was played by a girl named Cindy. I believe she is around 9. It was just before the first day I was to teach her English class, thus the first day she would have a foreign teacher. I was standing and reading through my lesson outline while waiting for the classroom to open up. Suddenly Cindy's face was right next to me, jostling the notebook I was holding. Her lips were pressed firmly together and her fists were clenched against her sides. She stood stiffly to her full height and glared defiantly right into my face, refusing to turn away. She was even blocking me from seeing my notes.

Cindy was obviously trying to "stare me down." It was an outrageously daring move, and it appeared to me even more daring when I compared it to the fearful behavior of other students in front of their first foreign teacher.

Because my mere presence as a foreigner was in itself a kind of provocation, Cindy had to demonstrate that she was not afraid. Far from afraid, she was in the attack mode.

Cindy managed to keep up this game for about twenty seconds, after which she could hold out no longer. She burst out laughing. She stood there a few seconds more, trying to regain her composure and return to her serious stare. But this second time the stare was even more strained, and she couldn't hold it as long, but burst into laughter again and ran back to join the other students.

Cindy was in part laughing at me, at the strangeness of my presence up close, at just how foreign indeed I must look at such close quarters. But even more than this I would guess that she was laughing at herself, at her own unique situation. She was laughing as it were in celebration of her daring. Cindy's laughter was the burst of pleasure she got in payment for holding her ground so firmly--for a full twenty seconds--in the face of a being as foreign as myself.

While demonstrating to her whole class that she was by far the most daring, Cindy demonstrated to herself that the boundary between her and the foreigner could be played as a game, and that in fact the struggle to get close to the foreigner was the very stuff of giddy hilarity.

I must admit that Cindy's little game made me think of her as a sister, and that the look on her face as she broke into laughter was immediately familiar to me as something of my own. I myself am attracted to foreignness as a challenge to my sense of balance. What's more, I am likely to break into laughter and joking when the seriousness of the other's presence begins to seem dull and heavy. As an expatriate here, I see Taipei as a provocation to be played out as a game. The fact that I am still a beginner at Chinese means that I have a long way to go in this game, and this in itself is enough to cheer me on.

The foreigner new to a city is often shuffled between a nagging desire to retreat and a firm intention to hold his ground. These two rub most harshly against each other in those everyday situations where communication doesn't work, where it is obvious that one has made a mess of what one is trying to get across. But these situations in themselves are attractive to a certain kind of person. This person, given the chance, is likely to become a traveler. Where many would see endless hassles or even danger, the traveler is likely to see the most attractive kind of engagement.

Cindy's daring in staring me down was in some respect the antitype of all the reactions I had gotten from children so far. That it ended in hilarity had an irresistible effect on me. I am not ashamed to admit that the actions of a child can be important to my happiness--in this case, my happiness as an expatriate in a foreign city. Cindy's laughter in some way redeemed the fifty or so farcical encounters I had had with children since my arrival: all those ridiculous little dramas that occurred between myself as image and the Chinese children of Taipei. It was after Cindy stared me down that I first thought consciously about what children's reactions to a foreigner might mean. How may these reactions, so consistent and predictable from child to child, relate to the general problem of foreignness as we think of it in the adult world?

Whether there is more wisdom in engaging the foreigner or more wisdom in hiding around the corner is up to everyone to decide for themselves. I am of the race that opts for engagement and play, but I can also see good reasons for maintaining one's balance. Nevertheless, it seems obvious that learning is more likely to result from engagement than from balance. In my own case, it was my student Cindy's courageous little game that illuminated for me the importance of the other children's behavior in my understanding of the world. By walking boldly up to me, she reminded me that fear of the foreigner also has as its secret concomitant a desire to overcome that fear. This recognition returned me to thinking about that tension experienced by the expatriate between the nagging desire to retreat back to one's own country and the dogged intention to stay where one is. And it suggested some common ground between the fear and fascination I see written on the face of the two-year-old who comes upon me in the mall and my own fascination with the specter, every day repeated, of sidewalks all around me filled with foreign Asian faces.

[This article was finally published, with a Chinese translation, in the March, 1998 issue of Sinorama magazine.]

* * *

I've been reading now and then an anthology of Paul Bowles' writing. Here is a writer still living who has some of the grace and power of traditional literature. I had been misled in the past by finding his name mentioned along with William Burroughs and clan. This is a disservice to Bowles.

Almost all readable living American writers find their power in being funny. Paul Bowles generally isn't. That other noteworthy living American writer, Thomas Pynchon, is very American in this regard. Bowles has managed to write in the twentieth century without being terminally ironic. Or rather, when Bowles is ironic, it is usually in the sense of tragic irony. There is a story of his, "A Distant Episode," that I believe to be a rewriting of Camus' story in L'Exil et le royaume about the missionary who goes to convert the City of Salt. (I don't remember Camus' title.) If you set the two tales side by side, Bowles' superiority becomes obvious. Bowles' sense of tragic irony is classical in its hardness; Camus' is plodding and unconvincing.

Another sign of the great writer is the following: what I've read of Bowles is etched in my memory. There is a power and inevitability in his tales that impresses them immediately upon the mind.

* * *

Now it is six months since I've been here. Nothing like homesickness has made itself felt. Not even a trace. I am even surprised by the extent to which I do not miss anything of life in America. Not a single taste or atmosphere. Only very few people.

* * *

I'm also reading Claude Pichois' biography of Charles Baudelaire. And I'm rereading Northrop Frye's book on the Bible: The Great Code. I'm always reading the Bible itself in various translations. I'm reading a book on the history of writing by Henri-Jean Martin. I'm reading Les Fleurs du Mal.

How do I have time for all this reading? I've had a week off from work for the Chinese New Year. I was going to go to the beaches at the south of the island, but my friends decided they didn't have enough money, so the trip fell through. Hui-Ling is busy writing, and I didn't really want to go alone. I have stayed here, going out occasionally, and reading every day.

* * *

I'm also enclosing some materials from my classes. The most interesting of these is Vlad in Taipei, a vampire tale being written by my most advanced class. Each chapter is the result of about four class periods, which is to say that each chapter took about a month to complete. I begin by teaching and working on the grammatical structures necessary for the envisioned chapter. Then, after giving them a few introductory paragraphs and some vocabulary I imagine they might need, I ask them to write what happens next in the vampire story. Reading the homework they hand in, I select the best things I find in different students' writing and edit them into a coherent chapter, which is printed up and photocopied for the whole class. We read it together as a class, and they thus can encounter their own writing corrected and woven into the story. I'm sending you the four chapters I have so far. [Vlad in Taipei was completed some six months after this letter was sent. The complete text is on a separate file: VLAD IN TAIPEI.]



Letter 6


Dear H.:

I haven't read Lolita since I was twenty. That's quite a long time now.

My job often leads me to think about the erotic status, or stature, of children. Children may not be the right word. Actually most of my students are on the borderline of adolescence; thus they are not really children. They are of the most interesting age. What are they? I don't know. When I ask them to create, and I always do, they produce things at once childlike and perversely adult. I have several times thought how I am lucky to have ended up teaching this particular age group.

But the erotic stature of children. Since Freud we have acknowledged that children are erotic beings. They have an erotic life and erotic fantasies. Freud may have been wrong in what he posited their erotic life to be, but of course he was right in what Adorno called an allegorical manner. Children have an erotic life, and the no-longer-children I teach most certainly have an erotic life.

What does it mean for me to be always working with these erotic beings? I have always to touch their imaginations, to keep them alive by playing off their relations with each other and with myself. This has had an effect on the seriousness with which I take their imaginations. Because I love the game of language teaching, the relations between the class and me are real: they are not mechanical and professional. I am interested in the outcome and in what will come up.

I realized a couple months ago to what extent my relations with these adolescents were gendered: the boys and I and the girls and I do not relate in the same ways. Though I'm not unfair to the boys, though I don't ignore them, there is a spark between the girls and I that cannot be there between the boys and I. This relationship is something I determine myself, but it is also something they determine.

After class last night some of the girls came up to my desk with a ruler. They were giggling and trying to explain that they wanted to pull some hairs from my chest and measure them. This is a class of almost all girls, and so girls set the tone of the class. They are lively and chattering; they gossip in Chinese about things they hear I did in other classes; they are concerned with my hair and clothes: they always have suggestions about both; they want to know about my wife. They draw me on the board as a giant goldfish and draw around me a school of smaller goldfish with thick red lips. The fish of the school are labeled Wife 1, Wife 2, Wife 3, Diana, Candy (some of the girls in the class). Two weeks ago, after class, they asked for one of my markers so they could put something on the board. They wrote the following:

Morning nine nine how how one.

Amy said: "Read the sentence to me." I did. They all burst out laughing. "Read it to Candy!" Candy: "No! No! No!" I read it to Candy. Hysterical laughter and applause. Of course the sentence means something in Chinese. Finally I started listening in Chinese to what I was saying in English words: "Morning nine nine how how one." After a few repetitions, I figured it out: "Caressing your breasts is a lot of fun." Then I realized I shouldn't be in the classroom after class repeating this sentence since, after all, there are always parents mulling about around the school and the walls are thin.

After I got to my desk, I decided they had done a good job with their very brief erotic poem. I think OULIPO would have been pleased. They used the English words they knew. I tried to improve upon it, though. I wrote the following:


Morning nigh nigh
how how wan

(Or: Look, the pale morn approaches! We must part.)

This version is closer to the Chinese pronunciation, and it has an English meaning as well. Is this version better than theirs? No, it couldn't be by virtue of the very fact that it wasn't written by a twelve-year-old Chinese girl. Even so, I really would like to teach this poem to them, tell them what an alba is, and take up a good ten minutes of class with laughter and examples of other such erotic poems they may know or be able to create. But of course I hesitate. Though healthy as second-language pedagogy, teaching them this poem is perhaps not a good idea from the point of view of job security.

The erotic relations between teachers and their pupils. What a dangerous subject on the American scene! Taiwan hasn't become so progressively paranoid yet. It is odd how our office is more open recently about the idea of pupils having an erotic importance. The women in the office, all Chinese, have taken a fancy to a twelve-year-old boy named Jason. Jason is tall and dark for his age: he is a hot number. I haven't seen him yet. The women are bantering in Chinese about how they will "molest" him. Natasha suggests a come-on technique, and narrates it with actions. The very idea of Natasha's come-on repulses Grace, who squints and exclaims, "Ahh! How vile!" in Chinese. But then Grace suggests an approach to which Natasha and the others burst out with the same words: "How vile! How vile!" They are laughing and twisting about in pleasure mingled with revulsion. They don't know I'm listening. Finally, when I know they've gotten graphic enough in their narratives, I ask Grace to explain their plans to me, because I missed some of it in Chinese. She refuses. Grace: "It's too much. It's like a porno film." Natasha: "Ask Vicky when she comes back. Vicky will tell you." But Vicky wasn't there while this little discussion was unwinding. That means they've gone through these Jason plans before! Later on, Vicky tells me that Grace imagined walking Jason into the corner and practicing the phoneme [l] with him. By this detail I figure out that Jason is in the beginning stages as a student: he is still learning the alphabet and the phonemes. Grace had her approach worked out in stages. After the boy had been sufficiently moved by the repetition of these [l]'s--about which more presently--Grace would reach down and begin caressing him with the following words: "C'mon, Jason. Let's see if you can use a woman like me."

What about this [l]? Grace was going to articulate it in a manner which would slowly bring her tongue out of her mouth. The boy was to imitate her. Soon both of their tongues would be sliding out of their mouths. This is nothing if not perverted. We know the phoneme [l] is a voiced apico-palatal. What Grace wanted to do was to model [l] for the boy in a manner that would convince him that [l] was in fact a voiced apico-palatal that slid slowly and luxuriously into the position of a voiced lamino-dental. Now [l] cannot on any account be construed as a voiced lamino-dental. In the close proximity envisioned by Grace--she has the boy pushed up against the wall--practicing the consonant in this way would result in the teacher's and the student's tongues coming together and mingling. What would be the result? It is not easy to grasp in phonetic terms. In fact, the [l] would become a phoneme wholly new, something we could only call a haltingly voiced bi-glottal--something like: "[l] l ...[ll] lll lllll..." Now bi-glottals are not part of our phonetic spectrum--But please, God, take me to the country where they are--and so Grace would be perverting this young boy's phonetic development. Perversion is the only proper word for it. One can see him struggling with the [l], dwelling on it overlong, in every English class for the rest of his life. Thus in level 2 Jason answers a question: "Yes, I l-llike baseball-l mole than basketballll." Notice how he's even substituted an [l] for the [r] in the word more. Lamentable perversion. In level 4: "I wall-lked home alfter I lll lll-left the store." It's sad to see this happening. The twisted fruits of premature sexual experience. In level 6: "I woul-ll-lldn't move to New Zeal-ll-land even if I coull--llld." The teacher can't get him to stop pronouncing the silent l's: bad scores, extra homework, calls to his parents--nothing works. And why? It's all Grace's fault. Finally, in level 8, when the boy is in the full swing of puberty, he takes up the [l] as a banner of revolt! No matter what the teacher asks him, his response is always the same: "lll-lll... ll...llll...ll-lll-l...lll." He's even affected a little drool to accompany his phoneme because he thinks it looks cool. It doesn't. His parents are wringing their hands; they don't know what to do. Then follows the adolescent counselors, the adolescent psychiatrists, the tuning in to talk shows, and finally psychoanalysis. It is a credit to Rand's discourse that it is only the latter that finally reveals the cause of the boy's problem: her name was Grace; she was his teacher in level 1. Then follows the scandal: the hysterical parents on TV; newspaper articles; the Institutes' self-distancing from the culprit--"We had no idea. We only knew Grace as a dedicated teacher. There was never anything that would lead us to suspect...."--the drop in enrollments; the tense, humorless classrooms; even I lose my job because my branch of the Institute becomes tainted: "Sure, send your kids to Ho-Ping Rd. and they'll learn how to llll-llll-lllllll--if you know what I mean." But all of this is as nothing compared to the damaged psyche of poor Jason. For his parents wanted him to be lawyer, to defend the company's interests in Seattle and Los Angeles, and now all he can say in English is:

I coulll-lld have been solmeone. I coull llld have been a lll-llawyer!

No, H. It isn't worth it. The fragile glosso-dental relations must develop in a boy or girl without interference. If Grace wants to stick her tongue in someone's mouth, let her go out to one of Taipei's 10,000 nightclubs and stick her tongue in the mouth of some twenty-year-old party-boy who never had a chance of being a lawyer in the first place. I'm going to tell her this tomorrow, H. And I won't show my Alba to class 414 either. The stakes are too high. The children must be saved from eros at all costs.



Letter 7


Dear H.:

Hui-Ling works late. She does her best writing between midnight and 3:00 a.m. I can usually hear her in the other room typing at the computer as I fall asleep. This sound is something I've gotten used to in our small apartment. And as I know it's the sound of her best work, it gives me a feeling of contentment as I drift off. Last night I woke from my half-sleep to write two lines:

The patter of her keystrokes as I fall asleep:
Fat drops of summer rain on a canvas tent.

* * *

In the morning, as I prepare my coffee and oats, I often hear the periodic muttering of a mina bird that's kept by one of our neighbors. For a while I was convinced it was the babbling of a toddler--it sounded so human--but then I realized it was a bird. The voice of a mina bird is closer to a human voice than a parrot's voice is, so I was fooled.

In fact I've now learned I was wrong on both counts. The muttering in my neighbor’s apartment is neither a toddler nor a mina bird, but is actually a toddler, then a mina bird, then a toddler again. The toddler and the mina bird are muttering interchangeably; they are exchanging influences.

Their voices of the two are very close, but now I think I can tell which is which. What do they say? There are a few patterns I recognize, but I'm not sure if it's language yet or if it's mostly just mutual imitation. If it's language, it’s most certainly Taiwanese, for Taiwanese is a language made for mina birds. And if it's language, I am certain I don't understand it, and am confident besides that the mina bird doesn't understand it, but as for the toddler--who can tell? The bird's repertoire may have been picked up from adults, and the toddler may not really understand some of what the bird says. But the toddler knows how to imitate too. With this interesting result: by mere dint of the mina bird's repetition, the toddler will learn some of its first phrases--and will learn them well. The toddler will learn some of its first language from a source that doesn't understand language. There’s beauty in this, don't you think? This is also how I think of the Western literary tradition and the universities that currently teach it.


Letter 8


Dear H.:

Since I have been here there has been a shift in my understanding of youth. Youth to me is ages seventeen to twenty-four. In America, at least since 1986 or 1987, I felt little solidarity with young people and their dreams or desires: their fantasies were repugnant; their righteousness ridiculous; their erotic lives increasing suffocated by the resentocracy of the politically correct. This American youth movement--or lack of movement--didn't show any signs of turning down another path even up until last year when I left. And so I’ll always think of the American culture of my generation as the MTV culture. There are individual exceptions, of course, but if one considers their collective gestures, the meaning of their styles, their music, their films (Slacker is the epitome of these films), then one can only say something like the following: American youth culture of the 80's and early 90's represents one of the most noteworthy cultural garbage heaps yet piled up by Liberal society.

Whereas in America I felt only alienation and disgust, here I am feeling something I haven't felt since I was seventeen. I feel solidarity with the young generation and their dreams. I feel I stand on their side against the self-righteous stodginess of their elders. I haven't yet figured out why this shift has taken place in me, but I have some ideas. For one thing, the stodginess of the Chinese elders is a particularly craven and money-centered stodginess. To the conservatives among the older generation in Taiwan, if it isn't good for the cash register, it doesn't exist. Youth standing up against this kind of stodginess is quintessentially youth: it is the youth of Shakespearean comedy. It is the youth that stands for love and passion.

Youth here is heavily influenced by American culture, of course, but there’s a level of intelligence and a lust for life that’s lacking on the American side. I find in high school students here a basic sophistication and reasonableness about the world that is rare in American university students. Young people in Taiwan aren't (yet) mouthing self-righteous soundbites like their American counterparts. They’re neither politically correct nor apocalyptically nihilistic.

Jefferson and Voltaire, Paine and Rousseau--when I was in America I thought of American youth as so much vomit I’d have liked to dump before these founders as something arisen from their own guts, something they were called upon to clean up. But now I'm not so certain of this critique of Enlightenment. Now I wonder: to what extent is American youth predicted in the Enlightenment project, and to what extent is it something merely American--something resulting from historical bad luck, from a coming together of the Vietnam disaster and traditional American anti-intellectualism? Add to these two elements a third, namely American technophilia, and you maybe have all the cultural bases you need for our “MTV culture.” The Liberal project then perhaps does not necessarily culminate in the American present.

The status and meaning of the Liberal project in Asia is something as yet hard to trace out.


Letter 9


Dear H.:

It is rare that I understand all of a conversation I overhear. The following, in fact, may be the first time that I understood every single word of a conversation of some duration. I was on bus 285. After getting off, in a mood of triumph, I decided to translate it as best I could. It was a father, a three-year-old boy and his two-year-old sister.

BOY: Is this 285?


SISTER: 285. 285. 285.

BOY: 285.

SISTER: Bus. Bus.

BOY (singing): 285. 285. 285. 285.

SISTER: Your head is a child's head.

BOY: 285. 285....

SISTER: Your head. Ha ha ha! Your head is a child's head!

BOY: It isn't! YOUR head is a child's head!

SISTER: Carrot head!

BOY: Banana.

SISTER: Banana head! Your head is a banana head! Ha ha ha!

BOY: Grape head!

SISTER: Your head is a child grape head!

FATHER: Quiet now.

SISTER: Fruit! Ha ha ha ha!


BOY: Your head is a banana head!

SISTER: Melon head. Melon melon head! Ha ha ha!

BOY: Butt head!

SISTER: Ha ha! Butt! Butt! Ha ha ha! Your head is a butt head!

BOY: Shit!

FATHER: Quiet now.

SISTER: Shit Shit Shit. Ha ha ha ha!

FATHER: C'mon, quiet. Sit here.

[There’s about thirty seconds of silence. The boy begins humming to himself, then:]

SISTER: Lychee! Your head is a lychee head!

BOY: Shit!

[Sister laughs loudly.]

FATHER: Sit here. C'mon. We're almost getting off.

SISTER: Shit shit shit! Shit! Ha ha ha ha!

[And here I had to get off the bus.]

Language really is a wonderful thing, don’t you think?




Letter 11


Dear H.:

One can usually understand the relations between a man and a woman simply by looking to their table. I assume most people have this ability, though they might remain unconscious of it.

I’m in a restaurant and look across the room to a table where a man and a woman are eating lunch. That they aren’t married is evident to me even as I see them: it’s an evidence as instantaneous as sight. The man's posture of cordial attentiveness--he leans forward in his seat; his face is slightly taught in expectation of her every next word--makes it clear they are not a couple. No, they aren’t married, and they aren’t lovers either--though this latter is something the man wants, and it’s something the woman (I can see this by her obvious delight in her own speech) would certainly consider. The woman is taking pleasure in her own words and gestures.

The man is courting the woman in the wisest possible way: he is directing his own part in the meeting so as to make the meeting more than anything a stage upon which the woman can delight in herself. After this delight reaches a certain pitch--perhaps after another meeting, and then after yet another meeting in the evening--the man will reach out to touch the woman and so "take possession" of the whole spectacle. The woman in turn will allow him onto the stage with her, and the two of them together will tear down in an act of expenditure all the delightful talk and all the delicate gestures and eye movements and poises that have made up the spectacle so far. This is one kind of seduction only, but it is the most classic seduction both East and West. It is the one the table I’m watching is engaged in now.

They are having their first meeting: this is evident by the man's posture of cordial attentiveness. He leans slightly forward, his facial muscles taught with attention. His aura is a silver color shot through with flashes of dark green: the color of expectant desire.


Letter 12


Dear H.:

The old Chinese men here. Many of them spent their childhood and youth in war-torn China. They came over in 1949 with Chiang Kai-Shek. Their speech is rough, indescribably guttural. They speak to each other in a kind of barking or yelling. When two of them are on a bus together, the whole bus can hear their every syllable. In a restaurant, whether for lunch or dinner, one often sees next to them, either on the table or the floor, a clear glass bottle of some infernal liquor or other: sorghum liquor or sake or western whisky. They almost always speak Mandarin, but often I can hear their strong regional accents: Mandarin wasn't their first language. Soon they will all be gone, and there won't be a trace of them left.

Many of these old men came over as soldiers in the Nationalist army. There is a confidence in their speech, a dogmatic confidence, for even when they are being jovial they sound as if they were lecturing one another. Their sons, the boys in their forties and fifties, sound nothing like these old men: their sons are smooth talkers rather: businessmen.


Letter 13


Dear H.:

For a Westerner to land here is rather something of a historical displacement. It is as if one were put down suddenly in the world of pagan Rome. This is an analogy, and I can get at it by a more precise analogy. Imagine a Baroque humanist suddenly picked up out of his own century and moved back to Republican Rome. He wakes up in the household where he will stay, with Roman garb, servants, and a Latin speech that is very rusty. He is given a cover of sorts in that he is given a name, the means to live, and a place to stay. What would his life be like? As a humanist, he is delighted to be there: to have Rome within his grasp. As a Christian, however, he would soon discover himself to be in a world of a different temporal and spatial shape. He wouldn't be able to bring himself to approve of this shape. Though delighted to be in Rome, he everywhere feels that he is not quite of Rome. He knows also that he will not become a Roman by staying there, for the world from which he comes is not something that can be effaced. That world will always have for him more reality than the one he has landed in.

I am living in a Chinese capital in the 1990s. Regardless of Buddhism--which has not in any case been compelling enough to change Chinese experience the way Christianity has changed the West--this city is somehow part of the old pagan world. The world here is a world that had died in the West by the 5th century.

How strange it is to be living again in the pagan world! For the world here--not even a century after the demise of the Ching Dynasty--is one that has grown out of a China that had much more in common with pagan antiquity than with anything from the Christian West. And regardless of the recent "westernization" that has come with Western political and economic institutions, Taipei remains a fundamentally Chinese capital.

Some would say: "Look at Los Angeles if you want to see paganism! Go to a chic club in New York. Look at London and Berlin: aren't these also now pagan again?"

Such people of course don't understand the basic differences between the modern West and ancient paganism. They don't understand how deep these differences lie, and where. Of course these Western capitals aren't "pagan again." The West is now more under the aegis of the Apocalypse of St. John than it is under the aegis of any kind of renascent paganism. The chic club in New York is a place where history is fundamentally understood in the Biblical typological mode: the revelers understand themselves to be in "Decadence" or "Babylon" or the "End Time"; some of them perhaps feel themselves to be in the throws of the Marxist movement of history--for some still believe in this. And this Marxist understanding of history: how very Christian and Western it is! For it is Hegelianism and thus one of the great traditions of Romanticism. These different historical visions put our New York revelers solidly in the West. Such visions are not at all paganism: they are rather the visions of a wandering Judeo-Christian historical thinking.

The people here in Taipei, on the other hand, are not living in the End Times. They don't suspect they are living in the terminal stages of the world, and don't comprehend what the "End Times" could possibly mean. The coming year 1999 means very little to them. Their cultural background, in the conservative register, has more in common with Roman Stoicism than with anything Christian. Their thought arises from a mixture of Taoism and Confucianism. For them historical time is the unfolding phenomenality of a continuum: they are not heading to some historical Elsewhere or Telos.

The phenomenality of the world here--the very touch of objects; the way people encounter each other; the ethical imperatives felt--is palpable to the Westerner as paganism. I recognize it as something the West once knew, but as something the West rejected. I do not, however, recognize it as "primitive" in the Hegelian sense.

The Baroque humanist in pagan Rome--he feels his foreignness, yes, but perhaps this foreignness does not cause a feeling of exile or despair, but rather a kind of delight.


Letter 14


Dear H.:

Returning home late from work, a man in his fatigue enters his building's elevator and presses the button for the fifth floor rather than the button for the third floor where his apartment is. The building is tall and narrow, so each floor has only two apartments on it, the doors being to one's left after one steps out of the elevator. Two floors above his real apartment, then, the man steps out of the elevator with his key already in hand and turns to the door. He is standing in front of 5A with his key, but as there are no numbers on the doors in his building he has no idea it is 5A. He thinks it is 3A. But something is different. He notices that the neighbors in the apartment next to his are making more noise than usual, for he had never before heard more than a peep from them. And look: for some reason or other his wife has tossed the mat that used to be in front of his door. He inserts his key, which works, and steps into the dim foyer where a woman who looks exactly like his wife steps forward with a smile and kisses him. He puts his keys down on the foyer table and steps into the living room. The green leather couch seems of a darker hue this evening--though not, it is true, dark enough to make him start wondering--and the apartment has been cleaned up a bit, so that everything has a slightly new feeling about it. This is good to see, because in fact the disorder in the apartment was starting to get out of hand.

After showering, he takes up the Dostoyevsky novel on the table before the couch and intends to continue reading where he left off that morning. But the bookmark is missing, and he must find the page. His wife must have been reading the novel, and didn't put the bookmark back.

I won't continue with the events of that night or the following morning. Suffice it to say that the next night the man returns to his apartment on the third floor, that his wife seems put out but doesn’t insist on finding out where he’d been, that because she doesn’t insist he of course never learns that he didn't actually come home the previous night. Meanwhile the woman upstairs, who’d had her eye on him for some time, is angry that he never returns. She had recognized him here and there in the neighborhood, but knew neither that he actually lived in her building nor that he was already married. When he showed up in her apartment that night, she assumed that he’d followed her home, that he was adept at picking locks and very daring, and that he was beginning their love affair with a gesture both coolly offhand and outrageously aggressive. He broke into her apartment, said not a word, and began to kiss her as if there was nothing out of the ordinary in doing so. Then he took a shower and even read the novel on her coffee table before paying any further attention to her. There was something exciting about such strained indifference, but now he did not bother to come back. With such a promising beginning--wasn't it like something from a European film--how could he not come back? What had she done wrong? Had she somehow misunderstood the game he was playing that night? Had she too much betrayed her anxiety at his visit and so made any further relations uninteresting to him?

What is this story about? Because my own apartment is 3F-1, the reader may guess that this story is partly autobiographical and disapprove of it as a fantasy. Or rather: the feminist reader may disapprove. For aren't I projecting a submissive lover and then abandoning her in the coldest possible way, without even, in fact, acknowledging the abandonment? And aren't I abandoning my wife as well? As for the "guilt" of projecting lovers, I would never acknowledge it as such. Oh, well. And as for "abandoning" my wife, I’d never think of it. The inadvertence of this story is humorous, of course. It is written not so much in the realm of fantasy as in the realm of comic somnabulism. But no matter.

The story is autobiographical. For one night I came home late from work. In my fatigue, I entered my building's elevator and pressed the button for the fifth floor rather than the button for the third floor. My building is tall and narrow, so each floor has only two apartments on it, the doors being to one's left after one steps out of the elevator. Two floors above my real apartment, then, I stepped out of the elevator with my key already in hand and turned to the door. I was standing in front of 5F-1 with my key, but as there are no numbers on the doors in my building I had no idea it was 5F-1. I thought it was 3F-1. But something was different. I noticed that the neighbors in the apartment next to mine were making more noise than usual, for I’d never before heard more than a peep from them. And look: for some reason or other my wife had tossed the mat that used to be in front of our door. I put the key in the lock but the lock didn't open. That was when I realized I was on a different floor. I smiled and then realized I was lucky no one was home in the apartment I was trying to break into. For the chances are they wouldn't recognize me as their neighbor--I’ve yet to so much as see the faces of most of the residents in this building--and at my own surprise at seeing a strange man open my apartment's door to me and start questioning me, blocking me, in fact, from entering, I may begin to push my way in and fight back, supposing that this man, whoever he was, was up to something in my apartment. Perhaps I’d make it into the living room. Then finally seeing that it was not in fact my apartment and realizing I was on the wrong floor it really wouldn't be easy to explain myself in Chinese. And if the guy were playing poker with his friends I may even end up getting a good thrashing before the escapade was finished.

The American feminist reader: I mentioned her above. She would probably call this latter paragraph a fantasy of "male bonding."


Letter 15


Dear H.:

All that simply means that something is there, something which Barnabas has the chance of using, something or other at the very least; and that it is Barnabas' own fault if he can't get any farther than doubt and anxiety and despair. --Kafka's The Castle, K. to Olga

The way you and I think about things is fundamentally different. In this letter, in a summary fashion, I will take this up. You must know these differences yourself. I think it is curious that we haven't fallen out by now, that we have managed to continue communicating. Of course I will take up only my side of the bargain, because your side I can only get at secondhand.

* * *

For one thing, I am a Christian. This is something you must have already recognized, though at what level you recognized it I am not sure. But in fact I have been a Christian since before the time I met you.

I ought to make clear at least something about how I believe, since the fact of this belief is something you--I know this much--find hard to accept.

First of all, you should know that I am not a Christian merely out of some kind of "conservative" cultural solidarity. These kind of non-believing Christians exist by the churchful, but I am not one of them. They have been taken in by the Enlightenment; I have not. I actually do believe in God and in the soul and in revelation.

I am not of the fundamentalist mindset either. My understanding of things is quite different from the fundamentalists. The revelation, as given in Scripture and elsewhere, is not a kind of literal transcription of the truths of the Divine, but is rather oblique: it points to an Otherness that couldn't be represented in language in any case. This is not to say, however, that I think there is nothing fundamentally true about the specificity of the Scriptures. The opposite is the case. I am not a believer in cultural relativism when it comes to such things. Rather, there is a specificity in revelation. The texts of Buddhism, for example, are not part of it, or are only so in a very weak manner. The poems of the Mayans, whatever they may have been, were not part of it, or only in some weak and tentative manner. The revelation given in the Bible is not that of a particular culture, but is rather the revelation as given to man as such. This is to say it concerns the destiny of man as such, the meaning of man as such.

These few remarks begin to define what I believe, what I mean by saying I am a Christian.

* * *

The reason you and I know each other is to be found in our mutual concern with literature. But of course here again our thinking is fundamentally different. I have some idea of your thinking of literature from being in classes with you and from reading your dissertation proposal. My own understanding of literature has little in common with yours. I may get at my understanding of literature by beginning with what I could call the literary absolute.

For me, the texts of the Bible are literature's highest meaning. Literature's ultimate meaning is to be the textual medium of revelation. It is a matter of text, and revelation. Literature is that which descends from the meeting of these two things. Even the manner in which many of the most important Biblical texts came to be written--as a choosing, an editing, a kind of layering one could indicate by the metaphor of a heavily beleaguered palimpsest--even this for me makes the texts of revelation more compelling as the examples of Literature. They define from then on what the word literature is to mean.

Literature for me is a question of canons even more than it is a question of rhetorical tropes. The Biblical texts are the Primary Canon and the great texts of Western literature are what I would call the Secondary Canon. They are a secondary canon because they are written after the fact of and under the dispensation of the Revelation. Following this understanding, the literature of classical antiquity must then constitute a Third Canon, being neither the Primary Canon nor the literature of the culture of the Revelation, but being important to the formation (mainly the generic formation) of that latter literature. These remarks indicate how literature is arranged according to my understanding, and if I continue reading and studying literature it is partly in the hope of an ever-greater understanding of the relationships holding between the major canons. This is not to say, however, that literature is a scholar's game. If I read Shakespeare or Dostoyevsky with a particular delight, it is because these canonical writers articulate parts of a world whose general structure and meaning is founded in the revelation given in the Bible. And this is to say, for one who believes, that they articulate parts of the world as such. Thus it is that those who are not interested in the world are not interested in literature.

This is not an apology for the West. Of course I am writing of the world as such in a manner that would make cultural anthropologists and the politically correct cringe. That doesn't concern me. There is in fact much offered by the West (such as the cultural anthropologists themselves) that doesn't concern the world as such. I mention the current academic intellectual culture, but I could choose the West's "literary" culture as well. I could take up the American Thomas Pynchon as an example.

As for the world represented in a Western writer like Pynchon, it is amusing, to be sure. It is full of interesting gags and twists; it is a very colorful and subtly modulated world; the reader enjoys moving about in this world as one enjoys being taken into a film. I have once or twice suggested you read Pynchon because there is something unique in his writing, something entrancing. He is, or at least for a time was, a major American writer. Ultimately, however, I do not find Pynchon's writing to be serious literature. It is not Literature. His is a flimsy world that does not recognize the bases of its being. It is one that is becoming quickly a world of mere surfaces, a dumb show of empirical data: nothingness. This is why many who seriously take up Pynchon as a subject of study will read his books five or six times, read much of the criticism, and then suddenly feel a total lack of interest fall upon them. Diversion is not the stuff of life: it is rather something to keep one from taking up the stuff of life. One's need for reality will make one tire of such writing. But the readers around us, what do they do when they tire of a writer like Pynchon? Since so many of them are only willing to read contemporary writers, they put down Pynchon only to pick up another contemporary with similar strengths. Such writing as Pynchon's--and the West offers much of it now--shows a soul impoverished, a soul that has been seduced into believing that the dumb shows of science and technology are all there is. Intuition shut down, the soul's hearing shut down, language's revelatory power curtailed, the data of the senses organized by a logical machinery much smaller than language itself. Of course the literature that arises from this general program is comic. It is merely comic. This is to say that it is not even humorous in that stronger manner in which much of the great European literature is humorous. Don Quixote, the story of Jacob and Laban, Prince Myshkin. This latter strong humor, the possibility of this humor in man, is one of the mainstays of my understanding of man's place in the world. The critics of literature that most interest me have all understood this humor to some degree: Bakhtin, for instance, or Benjamin.

* * *

I am a Catholic in most things, but I am not certain if I am a Catholic, or if I am accepted as a Catholic. At least many Catholics would probably not recognize me as one of them. There are things about which I know the Catholic Church is wrong. In any case, I am more a Christian than I am a Catholic. My solidarity is with the Christian Church as a whole.

The Catholic Church is most crucially right in its understanding of the Mass. The Mass is the ritual that defines the destiny of man: it is the central sacrament. The Mass is the gathering around which men can eventually gather. Perhaps they will eventually gather around it. This is something the Catholic Church knows better than the other branches of the Christian Church.

* * *

I know you must disagree with these things, and I can live with such disagreement. I am not of the school that dreams of compelling agreement in belief. I am not enthusiastic about those horrid scenes from the Catholic hierarchy's past, for example. Who would be? Is there anything Christian about them?

* * *

We are both concerned with the question of how language reveals presence, but the register of the presence that language most essentially reveals--that is one basis of our difference.

* * *

That you are a secularized Jew makes you even further from me than if you were a believer in Judaism. For regardless of the gripes Jews may have with Christians, I don't have as much gripe with Jews as I do with the secular. The fact that you are a secularized Jew means to me that I have no reason to consider you other than, say, the secularized Christians all over America. This is to say, in part, that I don't know in what you consider your Jewishness resides. I know this is an infinitely discussed question, one that receives much of its immediate importance from the nightmares of the twentieth century.

The Jews as a religion are very close to the truth that I follow, and their understanding of the truth of revelation is of concern to me, more, say, than the Zen Buddhist understanding of the truth. I would never step on a Menorah, though I would certainly step on Diderot's Encyclopedia, or even Voltaire's hand. So you should know where I stand.

* * *

That you and I have managed to communicate. Perhaps it will continue. It is like Origen maintaining a correspondence with Lucretius.

* * *


I had read most of Kafka before, but it was only recently that I've read The Castle.

Some readers find in Kafka an apparent restatement of the universe projected by the Jewish Kabbalists. Benjamin is the great exponent of this reading. Benjamin's Kafka wrote allegories of a kind of Kabbalist faith or hope. Other critics disagree with this by leaning on the fact that Kafka was not a "religious writer," that he was an atheist, that he was not a scholar of Kabbalism, etc. I am one of those who think that Kafka needn't have been a "religious writer" or a Kabbalist to write the kind of allegories he writes. These allegories are Kabbalist allegories, if you will. Kafka was a Prague Jew, after all.

The dichotomy set up between a "religious writer" and a "secular writer": what does it amount to unless we are considering precisely weak writers or journalists or, again, cultural anthropologists?

The Castle seems to me, after this first reading, a kind of allegorical romance. K.'s quest is nearly fruitless--that is apparently the case--and yet K.'s life in the shadow of the Castle seems more a life than that, say, of Kafka's father in the shadow of a cash register.

Kafka's K. shows a certain daring in his quest. He is not struck with the same kind of unreasonable awe that strikes the people of the village. Threatening or not, he would be there where the Castle's power is manifested. He would know its workings and sees such knowledge as the only thing worth struggling for. Any other activity--cobbling, tanning, running an inn--is a species of biding time that concerns him not.

Does Kafka, despite his atheism, make it into what I have called the Secondary Canon? Evidently so.

Was Chretien de Troyes a "religious writer"?


Letter 16


Dear H.:

One has to boil the water here before drinking it, or at least one should. They've specially designed water boilers for the purpose, something like a large thermos. I'm used to boiling the water, but there’s an annoying catch: a species of tiny red ant that loves to get into the boiler, right in there with the water. What can the attraction be? I’ve no idea. They die immediately, of course, and there’s nothing sweet in the boiler so far as I know, and the boiler is used daily. So why do they keep trying to occupy it?  I often end up drinking a kind of ant tea, or soup.

I'm going to call the Discovery Channel and have them send a team here to observe and do a report. I know just how they'll do it. There will be lots of scenes of my kitchen, mysterious music, close-ups of the boiler, interviews with different scientists at Berkeley and elsewhere (some of them short-haired, greying and chubby, some of them post-hippy scientists with that kind of "I'm a primate and I know it" expression so many of them now wear). There will be one scientist who figures it out, and the last scene will either have me sipping a cup of ant tea--resigned to the fact or even delighted that I’m being thusly integrated into the biosphere--or sipping a cup of clean water--delighted that the man from the U. of Minnesota figured out I need only put a certain colored night-light near my boiler to keep the ants away.

The discovery about the ants will, moreover, be linked to more important questions of our place in the universe. It will be presented in a very upbeat way. And why shouldn't it? For after all, we really are getting a grip on things here, we’ll have everything under control any day now. The ants in my boiler, the mystery of the ants solved--these are only a metaphor for our general conquering of the universe, which is really coming along very well, H.


Letter 17


Dear H.:

My sister Kristin, a beautician in Florida, suggested that I let her remove all the hair from my back.

"You really ought to get rid of that," she said.

What do you think? Should I?


I don't know if you know it, but for some time now there’s been a left ear tattooed in black on the left side of my back.

"Let me get rid of all that hair.  You'll be able to hear better," said my sister.

In fact I do have a lot of hair on my arms, chest, shoulders, and back. I am a brute. I am one of those hairy Northerners who eventually gave such trouble to the Romans.



According to Orthodox Judaism, a man with a tattoo cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery. This caused some consternation to the young Israeli soldiers who, proud of their creed and their people, had Stars of David tattooed on their right shoulderblades.


I am like those Israeli soldiers, like a Maccabee, in that I have faith in signs seen in the sky, in words heard.

In hoc signo vinces. Is my Latin correct? In hoc signo vinces--"In this sign be victorious": the words the Emperor Constantine saw written in the sky next to a cross before the Battle of... But my history is weak.  The Battle of the Milvian Bridge?


The Emperor Constantine won the battle and converted to Christianity.


Letter 18


Dear H.:

September 28th is Confucius' birthday. Being that Confucius is the most honored teacher of Chinese civilization, this day has been set aside in modern times as Teacher's Day, a national holiday under the government of the Republic of China. Since it falls on a Sunday this year, the country will get a day off work on Monday just to be fair. Confucius was the very spirit of fairness.

And my students too: they are eminently fair. There is balance in their judgments. For the approaching Teacher's Day, my school has an essay contest in which students are invited to write about their teachers. The students who write these essays give them to their Chinese English teachers, so when they choose to write about their foreign English teacher they can be confident the teacher will never see what they write. This means they’re likely to be more honest. But when an essay stands out here and there, the Chinese teachers will usually come to us foreign teachers to show us.

I’ve decided to send you two examples. Only the grammar mistakes have been corrected. The first is from a girl in class 510 named Annie. I think she is 11 or 12.


My teacher is Eric. He looks like a vampire because his teeth are long. He drinks blood every night. His home is in a castle in Germany. A lot of snakes, germs and ghosts are in his home. He greets the people by biting the people's necks. His home is very dirty and little. He likes to do CPR to all the girls.

Oh, he is sick.

This is my teacher.


The next essay is from a girl in class 517 named Pauline. I would guess she is 14 or 15.


I have studied English for two years at the Golden Thread Language Institute. I recognize three English teachers. They are Ed, David and Eric. Eric is the best teacher in my heart.

He is a handsome, humorous, smart, young, thin and conscientious teacher. He is from America, so he usually goes to America. He likes to joke in the classroom. For instance: if he sees a police patrol car outside, he always says, "Paul, here comes your bus! Go out! Go out!" Then, everybody was laughing. Everybody likes him very much because he is the funniest teacher.

His homework is little and easy and his scores are high. He can draw a beautiful picture. For example: the shark, virtual pet and a lot of things. His writings are beautiful. Maybe he will be the best English teacher at Golden Thread school.

I like him very much. I hope he is my teacher forever. I hope he will be healthy and happy.


I noted that there was balance in the students' judgments. And so it is. The truth about me is somewhere between these two essays. My canines are rather long, and I am humorous and conscientious. My house is in fact small. I do harass Paul all the time in class 517, and I did draw sharks on the board several times during my lessons.

Also: I do sometimes greet people by biting their necks, but not, it is true, when I’m at work.


Letter 19


Dear H.:

Since Hui-Ling took the job in Taichung, and since I still have my contract to fulfill in Taipei, we are compelled to rent two apartments. This is quite a financial strain, as rents are high, especially here in Taipei. Anyhow, the situation is that we are now renting two smaller apartments rather than one larger one.

I myself could have cut our expenses by moving out of the downtown and commuting by bus every day. I thought about it for a time. But as I hate the idea of commuting, I decided instead to choose a little neighborhood right down here on the edge of the center of town. I initially thought it was the right decision, but now I'm starting to wonder.

The new place is small, very small. It is, however, the most I can afford if I insist on living down here. And for now I insist. So what can I do? But you really can't imagine how small the place is. Especially given the number of books I have, and my computer. The place is really far too small.

"How small is it?" you’re probably wondering.

Let me tell you. This new apartment is so small that when I brush my teeth in the bathroom my elbow bangs against the bookcase in the study. It isn't really so much a study as a sort of partially separated section of the living room. The bookcase doesn't quite fit in it, and my elbow bangs on it when I brush my teeth.

Perhaps I didn't make the right decision in choosing this place. Perhaps it really is too small.

"How small is it?" you wonder.

This apartment is so small, H., that I don't have enough room for all the channels on my TV. So far I can only watch three of them. There’s not enough space for the full band of channels to function. How else explain it?

This thing with the TV sounds ridiculous, I know, but I was actually starting to get used to it. I almost never watch TV anyhow. Three channels I could accept. Three channels is better than four, two is better yet--know what I mean? But then I learned that I can only watch certain programs. I can't watch just anything I want, not even on my measly three channels. I figured this out the hard way when Hui-Ling was here last weekend. We were watching a Chinese-subtitled French documentary on Chartres cathedral. Suddenly there was a horrible scraping and crashing noise. We quick switched off the TV, but it was too late. Plaster flakes all over the floor, a big gouge right down the center of the ceiling. I think it was Chartres' western spire, the taller one, that did it.

I really don't know how to explain this scratch to the landlord. But maybe this kind of thing has happened before in the other shoe-box apartments he rents. And when I think of what I'm going to be paying him for rent, it really kind of pisses me off, having to live like this.

Then, as if I hadn't learned my lesson with the Chartres cathedral, the very next day I went and left a Japanese news program on long enough to allow them to run a few clips from a recent sumo championship. So now there's a huge crack down the wall facing the TV set, and my refrigerator was pushed up and through the kitchen window and fell crashing down onto the sidewalk below. There's glass all over the place, and now I have to buy a new refrigerator. I'm just lucky there was no one on the sidewalk.

This place is too small, H. I'm telling you. Perhaps it really wasn't the right decision. You can't imagine how small it is.

"How small is it?" you ask.

It is so small that I have to sleep with my legs hanging out the bedroom window. I was too embarrassed to admit this at first, but now that you know about the TV situation, I feel I can tell you. My legs hang out the window as I sleep. Can you imagine it? Meanwhile my pillow is resting against the door, the main entrance door to the apartment. That's how small the place is.

There are perhaps some advantages though. At least when I go to bed at night, I can just reach up if I want to check if I remembered to lock the door.  But to have your torso cover basically the whole apartment--that's really too small.

"How small is it?" you wonder.

It is so small that I had to saw one of the blades off the electric fan I bought. There wasn't enough room for all three of them to spin. Having to do this made me really feel that this place is perhaps too small, that I really shouldn't have signed for it. The two remaining blades of the fan can spin about 160 degrees, and then I have to switch the fan off, turn the blades back manually, and then switch the fan back on so the blades can spin again. I have to do this over and over: it’s an arduous and tiresome process, and frankly I'm not sure it is really worth it in terms of the wind it generates. Maybe the place is just too small.

But it's true running the fan gives me some exercise. And there’s really no question of doing aerobics here, or even sit-ups. I’d keep banging into the walls and ceilings, and my neighbors would hate me.

The neighbors--feel for them, H.--live in similarly small apartments. I just learned yesterday of an accident that happened here a few months before I moved in. A guy on the fifth floor (the fifth floor, you know, is about a meter above street level) spilled half a glass of iced tea in his kitchen, and four people were drowned on the floors below him, seven others suffering from varying degrees of hypothermia.

I'm telling you, H., this place is small, and I mean small.

"How small is it?" you ask me.

Let me give you some idea. One of the guys on my floor has decided to recarpet his living room. I saw them bringing in the new carpet the other day: three inch-long pieces of orange yarn with a tiny stub of frayed canvas glued to the end.

I wonder if this landlord can track me down should I decide to break the lease. I never should have given him my real work address. The place is just too small.

"But how small is it?"

Let me tell you.  We used to have one of those mail slots in our door so the mailman could slide letters in. We had to bolt it up. Every time he slid a letter in he'd knock down all the furniture.

Pitiful, H. It’s really pitiful what people go through. And it isn't just our building either. Let me tell you. Our whole neighborhood is small. Very small.

"Really?" you ask. "How small is your neighborhood?"

I've always known you to be an inquisitive correspondent. Our neighborhood is so small that our building shares a welcome mat with the two adjacent buildings. The first building gets the "WE-," the second one usually gets the "-LCO-," and we usually get the "-ME." I say usually because there have been scuffles over the mat, both buildings situated on the outside envying the relative luxury of the three letters enjoyed by the middle building. So the residents of the first building once pulled the mat further in their direction, thus getting "WEL-" to themselves, giving "-COM-" to the middle building, and leaving just "-E" for us. This wasn't fair to us, of course, but I'm told there has been shifting of the mat in our direction in the past, and in fact the mat is shifted back and forth periodically. Apparently, if I understand correctly, there have even been at least two street brawls resulting from this ongoing neighborhood crisis. I suggested Hui-Ling tell the landlords to just toss the English-language WELCOME mat and buy something different: something, say, with a large Chinese dragon pattern on it. Since there are all kinds of welcome mats available, why stick with something that causes trouble? But she told me that, being as I'm a newcomer in this neighborhood, and what's more a foreigner, I shouldn't just yet offer my opinions regarding a situation that has obviously become a sore spot in the local consciousness. Same thing with the One China policy.

But the WELCOME mat is not the only community problem we have here. The small scale of our neighborhood has now made us the center of a local scandal that just hit the papers last week. This scandal has especially been a shock to me, for reasons you will soon understand.

When I leave my building for work every day, I must walk past the fire station to get to my bus stop. And every day as I walk past, rain or shine, I can see the shiny fire trucks parked in the station and the cheerful firemen standing next to them. I was always impressed by those firemen, always smiling as they were, looking ready for action; and I was always impressed by their trucks as well, which they obviously kept in tip-top condition, the cleanest, shiniest fire trucks I'd ever seen. Well, as it turns out, the local fire station is a sham, a betrayal of public trust. It’s recently been discovered that city administrators on the Public Safety Commission have been diverting funds from their proper use and using them, instead, to back gangster-run hostess clubs and pachinko arcades. Some of the details of the scam are still unclear, but what is clear is that in relation to these corrupt politicians our neighborhood has played the biggest chumps in the whole of Taipei city. For in our neighborhood, rather than set up an actual fire station with real trucks and firemen, it has been revealed that the Public Safety Commission has done nothing other than buy three shiny new Mattel toy fire trucks, parking these three toys not it an actual garage--which would, of course, have revealed the miniature size of the trucks through contrast with the high ceiling and the large chromed handles on the doors--but rather parking them in a slightly modified lizard terrarium acquired at a pet shop in one of the larger Taipei neighborhoods, one of those neighborhoods, it is to be presumed, where people have room enough to own pets. So this, H., it is the sad truth about the fire station I had so admired, the fire station that was the only endearing thing so far about my miniature neighborhood.

And those smiling firemen? you ask. What about the smiling firemen who seemed so ready for action, always appearing to shift slightly from one leg to another as if they were just itching to jump into their trucks and go to fight fires? Let me tell you, H. The firemen were really Weebles.


Letter 20


Dear H.:

Lines to teach a parrot--

I'm not a bird.

Change me back.

My name is Louis Kemp.

I'm a lawyer.

You bastards. Change me back.


These people are witches.

Can't you see what's happened?

My name is Louis Kemp.

I'm not a bird.

I graduated from the University of Chicago.

Change me back.

And then he will also learn people’s response: "Quiet, Louis!" This making him seem troubled, schizophrenic, as if the frustration of being a bird had finally become too much. And why not?  Nobody believes his story. All they do is laugh when he says “I’m not a bird.  Change me back.”


Letter 21


Dear H.:

I've always been annoyed by the new James Bonds. None of them, I think, could so much as make breakfast for Sean Connery. The last two in particular were weak fellows, and this Pierce Bronson is but a scrawny mannequin of a weakling. He looks like he should be doing commercials for some British sock manufacturer rather than playing Ian Fleming's Bond.

A few days ago I read in the paper that Bronson was staying in a Taipei hotel just down the street from me. He and his Asian costar were in town to promote Tomorrow Never Dies. I put down the paper and my fancy started to roam.

I toyed with the idea of sneaking into the hotel, somehow sneaking onto the floor they’d reserved, and once there (Bond theme music starts up in the background) getting myself into "Bond's" room and murdering him.

"Your champagne, Mr. Bronson."  Then I’d murder "Bond" in his Taipei hotel.

Killing this flimsy new Bond would be a fine way to become famous, don't you think, H.?

That day I told my colleague Wade of my plan. I pointed out that I'd try get off on an insanity plea.

"You'll take the obvious tack, won't you, mate?" said Wade. (Wade is Australian, so he often calls me "mate.")

"What's that?" I wondered.

"When they ask you who you are on the stand, you just say: Bond. James Bond. You claim you're the real Bond, and you had to kill Bronson as an enemy agent and impostor."

"That's an excellent idea!" I agreed.

"It's the only way to go."

"And if I get off on an insanity plea,” I said, “my next step would be to take some acting classes, go to Hollywood with Michelle Yeoh, and try to get myself in the next Bond movie. I’d be the new Bond."

"Well," Wade said, "if you really think you’d get into Hollywood after killing Pierce Bronson, well then you probably really are insane, mate. You're probably actually nuts. So why not just go and do it? Get over there before he leaves town."

Wade is probably right about not being able to get into Hollywood after killing Bond. It's a pity, though. Really this kind of thing would add a little spice to Hollywood, don't you think? All the controversy of casting a murderer and possible schizophrenic as the new Bond. It would liven things up. And more than that. It would set in motion a certain cultic machinery, the kind of thing Hollywood needs, as follows: I myself would make two movies as the new Bond and then be murdered in turn. My murderer would claim to be "the real Bond," and so would become my replacement.  Then a couple years later he himself would be murdered by "the real Bond," and on and on.

This succession of Bonds, each murdered in turn by his successor, would do two things.  First, it would add a ritual element to the cult of this particular genre of Hollywood film, thus bringing at least one branch of the modern Silver Screen "religion" in line with certain more heroic ancient religion.  Second, it would add an element of manliness to the hopelessly sterile and wimpy character(s) of Bond: since each new Bond would have to kill the Bond he was replacing, he’d at least gain some authenticity as a killer.

Playing Bond would be the most dangerous game around. Bond movies would become worth seeing again. And sooner or later the following would most certainly occur: Bond would be murdered by his successor while on set; and the successor, "the real Bond," would have to finish the movie. The film in which this occurred would of course then become the classic Bond flick, the very peak of the genre.

It would be left to the lawyers to work out the legal precedent of establishing a kind of permanent "insanity rap" for anyone interested in playing Bond.


Letter 22

[The following letter is the one that brought about H's remarks concerning his growing indifference to narrative, which in turn provoked me into sending him the draft of The Taipei Zoo that is printed at the beginning of this collection.]


Dear H.:

Over my break I managed to finish rereading Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. Have you ever read him to any extent? Of all writers, he is the one, I realize it again, who is closest to my heart. When I don't read him for a year or so, I begin to forget to just what extent his understanding of things seems to be a well-orchestrated echo of my own soul. This is not to put myself on a level with this great European spirit, but merely to say that I feel the world and the meaning of the world in the same registers. And Dostoyevsky's humor, that humor which many current readers would not recognize as such, it is my humor in a more profound cast.

I read Dostoyevsky in David Magarshack's translations. I know there’s another, more recent English translation, but I cannot trust it. I cannot trust it simply because it is more recent. The further we get in time from the vibrant European tradition in which Dostoyevsky wrote, the less likely it is that our language will be able to do justice to the original.

The question of languages. I tell myself that if I ever master Chinese (twenty or so years from now) I may want to take up another language. (It’s a kind of disorder, isn't it, this grasping after foreign tongues?) I tell myself that it should be Hebrew I take up next: I would take up Hebrew both for the sake of the Bible and for the sake of an ancient language that I can also practice with living speakers. That is an interesting phenomenon: the question of the relations between biblical Hebrew and modern Israeli Hebrew. But then I think of Russian, the language which, with Japanese, I find the most beautiful to listen to. And if I learned Russian, it would be in order to read Dostoyevsky.

Crime and Punishment is one of the less interesting of Dostoyevsky's major novels. And yet if students read one novel, that is the one they are assigned. I believe that is because it is on the shorter side, and its plot runs the most like clockwork.



Appendix: Errata

Since beginning work for the Golden Thread Language Institute, I have been carefully recording the more interesting mistakes found in my students' homework. The mistakes I've collected are of all kinds: grammatical mistakes, mistakes in usage, suggestive spelling mistakes. As any second-language teacher knows, students, and especially young students, are liable to bend grammar and usage in ways that couldn't so much as be imagined by the native speaker. Thus it is that some of the mistake I quote here are not only humorous, but they go so far as to be brain teasers: they warp reality in ways that remind one of classical paradoxes. All of the following mistakes are quoted word for word, letter for letter.

NOTE: Homework assignments are usually in the form of "Write 7 questions and 7 answers using the new vocabulary." Thus the "Q and A" form of most of these examples. --E.M.-L.


Are you flowing out of the speakers? --Yes, I'm flowing out of the speakers.

[This, from a lesson on music and stereos, suggests a rather 60's experience of music.]


Is your dog wilted? --Yes, my dog is wilted.


Have you always been smart? --No, I've been smart since 20 years ago. Before that, I was a dumb.


Is that glass empty with juice? --No, that glass is full with juice.


Are you smoke? --Yes, I'm smoke.

[Students often mix up the verbs to do and to be.]


Do you clumsy? --Yes, I clumsy.


Then, what does Luke do? --Then, he picks up his toothbrush with her right hand and brushes his teeth.

Next, what does she do? --Next, he rinses her mouth with water.

Finally, what does she do? --Finally, she stares at himself in the mirror.

[Mixing up the gender of pronouns is an ever-recurring Chinese mistake because Chinese uses the same word for he and she. Every student makes this mistake, and every Chinese adult I know, even those fluent in English, frequently make the mistake. Distinguishing rigorously between he and she and him and her is apparently nearly impossible for those whose native language is Chinese. It is an interesting linguistic phenomenon, and it leads to many interesting misunderstandings.]


Certain problematic words seem to be misspelled over and over, by both good students and bad, often suggesting either 1) a perpetual invasion from neighboring words or 2) a kind of neurotic inability to deal with the reality conjured by the word. In the former category, I would place the word mother, which, week after week, month after month, in upper levels and lower, is frequently misspelled monther. I wondered about this for a while--Where are they getting it?--when I realized that the word was being invaded by the word month. In the second category, I would place the words boyfriend and girlfriend. My students, young adolescents, are just on the crux of finding their own first boyfriends and girlfriends. Their uneasiness about this prospect seems to be reflected in their inability to pin down the spellings of the English words. I often correct a student's homework to find that everything is correct except the single dangerous word boyfriend. That will be misspelled as any of the following:

boy friend;
boy frend
boy fried
and so on, including, of course-- boyfiend.

All of these, and more, have shown up in students' homework. In fact, I am certain that the words boyfriend and girlfriend are more often misspelled than not. I'm guessing I have to mark them wrong around 70 % of the time, this regardless of the fact that I use the words in my lessons at least a couple times a month. As for girlfriend, I have the following:

girl friend
gril friend
and so on, including, of course-- girlfiend.

There is also the word first, which is repeatedly misspelled, though I frequently use it, and often make students write it fifteen times when they misspell it. It is always misspelled as frist. I don't know what is invading this word, unless perhaps it is the fr in friend.

Consider the following:

How often do you wash your moth? --I wash my moth twice a day.

[I showed my colleague David, who remarked that moths usually don't like to be washed that often: "It ruins their powder."]


What does Gloria cut her heir with? --She cuts her heir with scissors.


A: What are you going to do this weekend? B: I'm going to cut my hare. Will you join me? A: Sorry--I just cut my hare last weekend. I will stay at home.


When Jay is angry, what does he do? --When Jay is angry, he says "fusk."


Is the Eniglsh complica? --No, Eniglsh isn't complica.


Is she a peautiful horsewife? --Yes, she is a very peautiful horsewife.

[This example has more resonance in French.]


Is Eric single? --No, he isn't single. He's marring.


In this category, I will include assorted perversities, nastiness, conundrums, blatant misunderstandings, and examples of plain laziness.

Did he have a dog last night? --Yes, he had a dog last night.


Peter is bored. What does he do? --He is bored, so he puts on a coat.


What did Sarah do last Monday? --She fought her dolls last Monday.


How long does it take you to do my homework? --It takes me thirty minutes to do your homework.


David is taller than his mother. David is younger than his mother.


What is your name? --My name is Mainland China.


What do you dry your hands with? --I dry my hands with money.


Before you get up, what do you do? --Before I get up, I go to Golden Thread.

[Given the student who wrote this, I must admit this statement to have some chance of being correct.]


Who does Tim's homework? --His mother does his homework.

[Tim and Ben, two nine-year-old students, use up their homework insulting each other. I get things like: "What does Ben do while he waits for the bus? --He winks at ugly girls while he waits for the bus." Or: "When Tim falls down, what does he do? --When Tim falls down, he cries and his mother hugs him."]


While you wait for the bus, what do you do? --While I wait for the bus, I talk to the bus stop.


After you go to your grandmother's house, what do you do? –

After I go to my grandmother's house, I take a cash gift.


How do you like your coffee? --I like my coffee with milk.

How do you like your lawyer? --I like my lawyer with engineer.


A: Eric looks upset. B: He had a bad day today. A: Why? What happened? B: His girlfriend threw him away while they were walking in the rain. A: I'm sorry to hear that.


A: You look upset. B: I had a bad day today. A: Why? What happened? B: I fell out of the pool while I was swimming. B: I'm sorry to hear that.


A: You look upset. B: I had a bad day today. A: Why? What happened? B: I murdered people while I was going to the drugstore. A: I'm sorry to hear that.


[On a quiz:] Do you lie to your mother? --Well, yes.

When you are angry, what do you do? --When I am angry, I hit my pens.

Who is he who salts his ice cream? --Eric is he who salts his ice cream.

Does she butter her brother and laugh? --Yes, she butters her brother and laughs.

Before he swallows the sandwich, what does he do? --Before he swallows the sandwich, I chew it.

Does she eat her dinner one after another? --Yes, she eats her dinner one after another.

Does Mayor Chen think there is such a thing as vampires? --No, Mayor Chen thinks there is no such thing as vampires.

Who is there such a thing as? --There is such a thing as perverts.


Then, what does Eric do? --Then, he spreads make-up on his fingers.

Next, what does Eric do? --Next, he spreads shit on his shoes.

Finally, what does everybody say? --Finally, everybody says that Eric is a girl and that she is very disgusting.

[This was in the homework of an eleven-year-old girl who likes to tease me.]


What is Nick doing? --He is hitting each other.


[the following from a quiz:] Have you ever seen an alien? --Yes, I have seen an alien at Golden Thread. He is my English teacher Eric.


How many times have you flown in a plane? --I have flown in a plane many times.

Have you ever flown in economy class? --No, I have never flown in economy class.

[I only taught fly/flew/flown, not the different classes.]


Does Ebony talk to each other every day? --Yes, she talks to each other every day.


Have you ever seen a bee and watched it carefully? --No, I have never seen a bee and watched it carefully.


What do you do when you are angry? --I take out the fork to stab fruit when I am angry.


How long do you think it will be before Eric is fluent in Chinese? [A quiz question, to which I got the following responses:]

--I think it will be 6 days before Eric is fluent in Chinese.

--I think it will be 16 years before Eric is fluent in Chinese.

--I think it will be 2,000 years before Eric is fluent in Chinese.

[Hopefully, if all goes well, the second one will be just about on the mark.]





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