Last Friday night

When February second became February third, I was at River with an old friend drinking vodka tonics. We met in 2004, a couple of wild English teachers getting into boy trouble. Now we’re both married, and she has a six-year-old daughter. Her daughter is one of the coolest little people I’ve ever met, but nobody gets wilder after they have a kid.

Chinese New Year sparklers

A photo posted by Keili Rae Gunden (@amateur_vagrant) on

She claims that she lost her groove somewhere along the line, but she found it that night. “Usually I feel drunk after one or two drinks anymore, but tonight I feel great!”

“Go back towards the light!” I wanted to say. “Don’t follow me down this dark path!” But it’s always best to let friends do what they want. Don’t stop them from jumping; just tell them you’ll be there if they fall.

I’ve caught up with enough old friends now that the initial conversations have become familiar, like so many others scripts in our relationships. Remember when we used to be wilder than we are now? Remember when we never had hangovers? Remember when nothing ever hurt? When we hadn’t gained any weight? When nothing had consequences? It’s like the years want to chain you down as much as anything else. Even out here, doing our damnedest to opt out, we still feel the drag of time.

I didn’t get to sleep until 4:30 in the morning, but I didn’t have to work until 1:00, so that was fine. It wasn’t great: I didn’t read or write, I didn’t play the guitar or practice with the hula hoop. I passed out and got up with an alarm at 11:00 a.m. But I made it to work on time, with lunch, coffee, a liter of water, and loads of little snacks. Sometimes you can’t expect much more from me.

A third-grader wanted me to tell her what she had got stuck in her hair, and help her get it out. It was most definitely a booger, and it had gone all hard. Nope. Wordlessly, I handed her a tissue, and when she said she couldn’t get it out herself, I asked my pet to help her. “It’s not a booger!” I heard her say, but I pretended not to. My pet followed suit and returned to her chair, unmoved.

I take the trash out every Friday after work when the garbage truck comes round at 6:10. The new elderly neighbor woman from the third-floor accosted me: Where were we when she came to knock on our door during the vacation? She came twice! (One of those times I was home, but I had thought she was knocking on the neighbor’s door, though even when I realized she was looking for me, I remained quiet until she went away.) This is the stuff of nightmares, old ladies trying to enter my sanctuary without warning, without invitation. Worse yet, she asked us to dinner, specifically on Saturday, February 18. Now we have to move.

Only about half my friends understand why we can’t live here anymore. The other half are friendly, generous, and tolerant, which is why they have a friend like me when they could do so much better.

After work I went to dinner with old friends and new. They didn’t mix so well–was it because some of us hadn’t seen each other for so long and meeting new friends and catching up with old ones was too much for one meal? Was it because a gaggle of Western women was too much for a Western guys who are used to not having to fight for the floor? Was it too much for people facing big life transitions to chat about recent vacations and the pleasures of a drunk weekend?

Friends come in flavors and even if you like them all, they don’t always meld well together. Roasted garlic ice cream might be a lovely surprise, but chocolate-covered pickles are not.

I lost everyone I’d started off with along the way, but I made it to the bar eventually and immediately made new friends.  One was stumbling into a taxi, but invited us to any and all future barbecues he had, and for drinks the next night. We exchanged Line IDs, and then on Sunday exchanged pictures of our dinner. He grilled pork belly; J made a tray of seaweed chicken wings.

My friends and I spent the night smoking, drinking, and racing each other to the bar to pay for drinks. We were 23, 24 years old again, and we didn’t have husbands or kids, or even shitty boyfriends or Saturday classes. I told the bartender “I need four drinks” and she said, “A vodka soda, rum and coke, gin and tonic, and a Taiwan draft.” I was so impressed. You can’t just tell somebody how to be a good bartender. Some people are just smart and personable and attentive. I would be a terrible bartender.

Around 3 o’clock, we started racing across the crosswalk. You’re only allowed to touch the white stripes. I don’t remember who won, only that drunk and on a street in the dark, I felt like a kid on the playground in the spring sun.

Despite being such excellent customers, they kicked us out at 4 a.m. My friend inexplicably had a bottle of red wine in her purse, so we popped the cork and took it to the park. Her husband passed out in the grass and we listened to music on YouTube with a Canadian friend and his brother. The brother had a smile so sweet I would have liked to bottle it up and spray it on myself like perfume. When the sun came up and revealed a circle of early-morning walkers and dogs spinning around us, the guys and I watched my friend kick her husband awake on the grass. We didn’t think it would work, so when he stood up it was like seeing Lazarus come back to life. The brothers and I went to the breakfast shop. I realized I was crashing the last few hours my buddy had with his brother before the latter returned to Canada, so I took my leave and stumbled home in the soft, enthusiastic early-morning light, still listening to Justin Bieber’s Love Yourself on my phone, no headphones.

It’s still the good old days, maybe even a little better.

Signing up for Chinese class

Am now enrolled and attending Chinese classes at CYCU here in Zhongli, and it’s awesome and I am having a great time. I was so glad that I was able to get into a class studying nearly the same chapter of the same book I was using when I stopped working with my tutor like…a year ago? Almost two years? I can’t quite remember….

Anyway! Before I joined the class, I had to meet with the head of the Mandarin Learning Center, and she had to assess me. We were grooving, no English necessary, sorting out the details. She asked me to read from the textbook, and I did, and I sounded like a semi-literate adult, which I am in Chinese, but it was all good. Definitely gonna get into the class. Then she drops this on me:

請問,大概幾歲?

And I have no idea what she said, so I asked her to repeat the question, and she did, and I still didn’t catch it. And then she’s like, “幾歲? How old are you?” and I realize now this woman has to decide whether to admit me to this class of people who can speak Chinese and I can’t understand her when she tries to politely ask my age.

So that’s my Chinese level: I can have a fifteen-minute chat about my life experiences and goals, but I can’t answer the question, “How old are you?”

That was embarrassing, but I outdid myself the next day. I sat in on the class for an hour and loved it. The other students were like oh my god, your Chinese is awesome, there’s a competition in February for foreigners who speak Chinese, you should totally join, you could win, you’re so great, and I’m like no, no, teehee. But secretly I am like, “I AM THE QUEEN OF THE WORLD!”

So I wasn’t sure that morning how it would go, and I wasn’t sure what they would charge me entering mid-semester, so I had decided not to bring a pile of cash. But I went immediately to the director to confirm that I wanted to join the class asap. I asked her if it was okay if I paid tomorrow, “我今天可以付錢嗎?” which if you know Chinese you will see the problem right away, but let’s keep going.

So I asked her if I could pay tomorrow, and she said it was okay. And she had me fill out a registration form, and she photocopied my passport and my ARC. I was feeling kinda stupid for bringing all that, but no money, so I asked again if I could pay the next day, “我今天可以付錢嗎?” and she smiled and said that was no problem. She calculated how much it was going to be and I wrote it down. We went to the registrar’s office and they put all my info in the computer and then told me that I needed to pay, NT$7000.

“現在嗎?可是我要今天付錢…” And then when they looked at me like I was an alien, I realized that after having living in Taiwan for eight years, after having studied Chinese off and on for ten years, after having a few chats with this director, and getting praised by my new classmates, I still confuse “今天” and “明天”, “today” and “tomorrow.”

I had asked this woman multiple times if it was cool if I paid “today”, and she had confirmed it was very cool, and then when she asked me for the money, I had said, “Now? But I want to pay today,” which made them look at me like I was nuts. Obviously. That is a ridiculous thing to say.

And then I said, “Oh my god, no, sorry, 明天, 明天!” the director and the clerk looked at me like I was a piece of shit, but only for a second, and then they recovered, smiled very gracefully, and said there was no problem, I could certainly come and pay the next morning, and then they nodded their heads and went away.

I will never, ever stop cringing when I think about this day. With any luck, I will also remember how to say “today” and “tomorrow” from now on. But that’s it, that’s my Chinese level: I can converse, I can read and write some, I can order a meal, but don’t ask me how old I am or whether anything is happening today or tomorrow because I will disappoint you.

The old man and the cab

The time I took an off-license cab from the airport

I’d been living in Taiwan for two years already. I knew the drill. I knew it was NT$400 to get a tab from my house to the airport. It was NT$600 to take an official airport taxi home. I wasn’t going to give anybody NT$200 (US$6) extra for the same trip.

this little piggy went to market and was never heard from again
this little piggy went to market and was never heard from again

On my way to the official taxi stand, a few men furtively approached me, whispering “Taxi? Taxi?” I pointed my chin at an old man, the least-dangerous looking one. He gestured for me to follow him into an elevator. I figured we were getting into his taxi parked in the basement. Instead, we got out and hailed a bus. The whole time the old man, kept chattering that I should continue going with him, but I couldn’t speak enough Chinese to ask for the details. He grabbed up one of my big suitcases himself and pulled it onto the bus.

I looked at everyone on the bus and looked at the old man. I didn’t know what was going on, but the old man had a friendly face. This is how stupid girls like you die, I told myself. At the same time, I was annoyed about being on a bus. The whole point of taking a taxi was the comfort and convenience of being in a car without having to stand and hold a greasy pole in a smelly bus full of other people. But before I could decide what to think, whether to be scared or angry, the old man was shooing me off the bus.

Now we were at a gas station in the middle of nowhere. In Taiwan, you rarely ever have the luxury of feeling like you are in the middle of nowhere with no other people around as far as you can see. But on this dark night about ten years ago, I felt like I was alone with that old man at a brightly lit gas station in the middle of empty lots or rice paddies, but no houses or night markets or police stations or parks full of nosy old grandmothers and noisy children to mark my presence or my imminent disappearance. Now I was alone with this old man, me and my baggage, at a lonely gas station on a dark night. I was going to die trying to save NT$200, the price of a beer or a 12-inch sub sandwich.

The old man gestured for me to wait a moment at the edge of the gas station, on the border between light and dark. He disappeared down the road. My heart jumped and my mind twirled. Was I standing there waiting to die? How could I get away? Where could I go? Did he have a weapon? Was he going to bring me somewhere and rape me first? Did he have friends? I imagined the headlines my mother would read. Who would notify her that I was dead? How long would it be before they would find my body? Surely they would find my body. What if they didn’t even find my body and my poor mother never knew what happened to me?

The man came back in a beat-up Camry, an old brown, boxy thing. I had thought at least I would be riding in a yellow taxi, just not an airport taxi. This was just some old guy’s car. I was about to get in some strange old man’s car.

I helped him put my suitcases in the trunk and the backseat. I took the passenger seat in the front. There was no headrest, though. If he didn’t try to rape and kill me, but we got in an accident, I would certainly die from whiplash. He asked my to repeat my address, and I did, explaining that I lived by the new Sogo in Zhongli. He was familiar with the area. I took it as a good sign that he wanted to confirm our destination, an indication that he actually wanted to take me there and not to some abandoned country shack where a bunch of gangsters would assault me to death.

My breathe was fast and shallow. I carefully read every sign on the higway, desperate for to confirm that we were definitely going to Zhongli. We passed the first exit, and I wanted him to take it, even though I knew my house was closer to the second exit. When he took the second exit, I felt like I could afford to stop imagining myself jumping out of the moving car.

I looked at the old man, and he did have a friendly face. Grandfatherly. I imagined he had a grandson, a little boy too young to be awake at this hour. A little boy who needed money for food, clothes, tuition, etc. A little boy who wanted a bicycle. Obviously, Grandpa wasn’t rich, or he would be driving around in this beat-up old Camry missing a headrest, driving strange women home from the airport for NT$400. He was taking a big risk: he could be charged a lot of money if he got caught. He did what he could to minimize it, though, parking his car a bus ride away from the airport. He wasn’t technically picking up passengers from the airport. I bet he was already counting the money in his head, NT$400. Not much, but a start. A few trips like this, and before you know it, Didi would have his new bicycle, a red one with a bell and a flag. There’d be enough money to pay his school bills for the next semester.

He turned and turned and I recognized my neighborhood. We were on Yanping; there was Carrefour, now the Ring Road, and yes, that’s right, this is my street, and just left here, this is my building. What a nice old man, I thought. Poor guy with his old car, just trying to make a buck. I’m not rich, but I don’t have to work that hard for my money, and nobody else needs it but me. When he put both my suitcases on the sidewalk, I gave him the full NT$600 fare, imagining he’d put the extra money toward the imaginary bicycle for his imaginary grandson.

amateur vagrant story time taxi from taoyuan airport to zhongli taiwan

The ant and the grasshopper

amateur vagrant eating a grasshopper

The Ant and the Grasshopper

IN a field one summer’s day a Grasshopper was hopping about, chirping and singing to its heart’s content. An Ant passed by, bearing along with great toil an ear of corn he was taking to the nest.

“Why not come and chat with me,” said the Grasshopper, “instead of toiling and moiling in that way?”

“I am helping to lay up food for the winter,” said the Ant, “and recommend you to do the same.”

“Why bother about winter?” said the Grasshopper; “we have got plenty of food at present. What we don’t have is a guarantee of good weather like this.”

But the Ant went on its way and continued its toil. When the winter came the Grasshopper had no food, and found itself dying of hunger, while it saw the ants distributing every day corn and grain from the stores they had collected in the summer.

He begged food from the ants, but they refused to give him any because he had not worked for it.

The Grasshopper died alone, in the cold. He remembered his days spent fishing on lakes so big they reached all the way to where the sun rose. He thought of his friends who had died already, even while summer’s sun still shone. They had shared what food and beer they had, when they had it, and added their music to his own. At the last, he did not regret spending his all his life that way, but only that winter had come and brought death with it.

The ants waited until he had drawn his last breathe and then added his cold body to their stores. Some ants died of cold or old age or sickness–in any case, grateful for the rest–and their bodies, too, were eaten.

That winter lasted longer than any other previous winter and the ants’ stores grew smaller and smaller.

“We will eat less,” said the leaders of the ants. “Everyone will eat less and keep working, and this way we will survive until the spring.”

“What will we do in the spring?” asked the newest ant. She had only known the cold of winter and hunger in the hours she had been alive.

“In the spring, we will work harder than ever so that we have more to eat and more to store,” said an ambitious ant.

“In this way, will we live forever?” she asked.

“No, child,” said the hardworking ant. “But we will live longer and we will not die of hunger. Now get back to work.”

The young ant repeated what she had learned to her friends. The ambitious ant’s words were repeated and debated until there was a rift in the colony between the ants who wished to spend their days in toil and moil in order to survive until the spring and through the winters to come, and the ants who believed that hard work only generated more hard work and a life spent carrying crumbs and carcasses and organizing stores of food was not a life that needed to continue indefinitely.

“We’re here for a good time, not a long time,” said the latter. The next morning, they left the dark warmth of the anthill in time to watch the sun rise bright over the clean white snow.

“This is the most beauty I have ever seen,” said the young ant. Everyone agreed with her. As the sun traveled overhead, some ants in their leisure were inspired to lift their voices up in song and move their bodies as though they intended to dance. The boldest among them challenged each other to dive headfirst into the freezing water from higher and higher heights.

But by the time the sun was setting, some of the ants had tired of the cold and being hungry. Many decided to return to the colony.

“I have seen and learned many things today,” said one. “But it is better to work for food than die of hunger in the snow at night.”

“I don’t think you will be happy there anymore,” said the young ant.

“Perhaps you are right,” the other ant said. “But I would rather be full and dry.”

The ants who elected to stay outside said farewell to their brothers and sisters. When they arrived back at the anthill, they were allowed back in, but only grudgingly, by those who had never abandoned their posts.

The remaining ants walked with the idea of finding some kind of shelter even if they did not have anything to eat. After everything had become dark and quiet all around them, they heard cheerful noises and saw a flicker of light ahead. They approached it and found many bugs dancing in the light of a fire, which they had never seen before. Grasshoppers and crickets made music with their legs. Spiders beat out a rhythm on snails’ shells. Tantalizingly close to the many tongues of the fire, butterflies and moths whirled and twirled.

A corpulent beetle with a pearly green shell waved the ants toward the party.

“Don’t remember ever seeing ants at one of these things, but everyone’s welcome!” he bellowed. “Get yourself some mead while it lasts! That’s the last of it, and when it’s gone, that’ll be the last of us!”

“What do you mean?” asked the young ant.

“Well, the food’s gone, isn’t it?” said the beetle. “And we’ve made it this far, but this winter isn’t going to end before we do. Well, we’re not going to starve in the cold, either.”

“Just the opposite,”  said a dragonfly who had stumbled over to the ants. “We’re going to get hot, hot, hot!”

“Before this night is over, we’re all gonna join the moths in the flames,” said the beetle. “Tonight we celebrate all we’ve had in the life, and then we say goodbye!”

“Die?” whispered the ants among themselves.

“Look, little ones, without food and shelter, you’re gonna die out here anyway. This way, we go out when we want, the way we want, in an explosion of light and beauty. I can’t see a better way.”

The ants talked it over and many decided to try to find their way back to the anthill even though they were weak with hunger and it was dark and cold.

“It is better to try to live,” they said. “Even if we die trying. Even if we succeed and we are unhappy for the rest of our lives.”

“I would never presume to tell you what is best,” said the young ant. “But for me, not every life is worth living, and no matter what, we will all die, sooner or later. If there is no hope, I will not wait for death to come and drag me away when I am too weak to fight him off. I will go to him, on my feet.”

The ants embraced their brothers and sisters, and with the tears in their eyes freezing on their cheeks, walked into the darkness away from the light of the fire.

The young ant and the ants who remained with her rejoined the party. They drank mead until they were wildly drunk and full of love and kindness for everyone there.

When they heard shouting and laughing and frenzied yelps, they knew the mead was gone. It was time for everyone to be united together with the flame.

“I don’t know if we’re crazy or brave,” said the beetle. “We’re just doing the best we can.”

The beetles, the butterflies, the moths, the snails, the spiders, the dragonflies, the worms, the centipedes, and the last of the ants all joined hands. On the count of three, they ran into the flames.