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“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you, I will give men in exchange for you, and people in exchange for your life.”
Isaiah 43:2 & 4
I was more confident when I went back to Taiwan. I felt like I could hold my own, having lived in two foreign countries and in Manhattan, being able to speak two languages and having a French boyfriend to write letters to. I was also confident because I knew the ropes. I took the bus straight from the airport to Taichung on my own, and directed the taxi driver in Chinese to where I would be staying. I exited the cab in the small alley with the red metal gates, and rang the bell of my old home.
The new team of teachers greeted me warmly and joked about my shoes, which were still polished, and about my ability to speak English in complete sentences. I remembered how everything grew dusty over time – those new shoes and the ability to speak English naturally instead of eliminating all the particles in order to be better understood.
I was perhaps stuck in my old routine because I insisted on taking the house down the street from where I used to live, even though you could get a more modern apartment with less cockroaches, all for the same price. But I liked that old alley and the fact that it was so close to Taichung University where you could walk in the fresh air early morning or evening. There were a lot of trees in the large campus, and it was closed off to cars, giving it the feeling of entering a different realm from the noisy, polluted city. I shared the house with two American teachers – Matt and Katie.
I was never very confident being friends with men. Either they were my conquest, or they were unattainable, or I was afraid that I might accidentally fall in love with them – and who can live the rest of their life with a man that has ears that stick out? Or who dresses like that? Or who has nose hair? It’s only going to grow longer!!! So I generally kept my distance with men, either out of insecurity or to protect my heart from a fatal mistake.
But I was comfortable with Matt because he was as vulnerable as a girlfriend, while still appreciating all the things guys do. And I knew I could be his friend because the boundaries had been set ahead of time; it was very clear that I had a boyfriend, so there was no ambiguity to our relationship.
We shared a love of reading and learning, had a lot to talk about, and we became very good friends. I didn’t feel quite as close to Katie, who was going through her first experience of living overseas. She wanted to cling to what was familiar, like eating McDonalds every day instead of trying the local food, and that made me disdain her in some way. I should have had more compassion – she was also trying to reinvent herself, and was not so very different than I was. She changed a lot over the course of the year.
I began my classes at the school. Some of the students had been there two years earlier when I was teaching and we were delighted to find each other again. One of the most advanced pupils had left the school, and when she came back to visit while her aunt was minding the reception area, she proudly showed me the new song her Chinese class had learned in English. I was dismayed to see that she could no longer communicate with me in English, and that the song she demonstrated for me was sung in a deplorable accent with little comprehension as to its meaning. That one year could completely remove all traces of a child’s fluency in a language shocked me.
When I came to observe the class I would be taking over, I was turned off by the current teacher’s method of running things. The class was disorderly, and the students came and went as they pleased. In a bastardized Montessouri method, they ate at their own pace, some of them leisurely finishing up their work, and others tucking into their food straight away. There was a lot of fighting and discord among them. Watching this teacher’s style, and the resulting chaos that ensued, made me realize with satisfaction that teaching was something I was good at, even if I didn’t want to make a life’s work out of it.
As soon as it was my turn to take over, I stripped the classroom bare, then decorated it with colorful images and a star chart to encourage good behavior. I organized the desks in a U-shape so that everyone would have assigned seats facing me. On my first day, when they came in with their usual loud bustle and arguing, I ordered them strictly to take their assigned seats. Then I waited for them to be completely quiet before starting.
As soon as the children understood how serious I was about order, they fell into line. It even got so that they would peer out of the classroom in the mornings to see when I was coming, and as soon as they saw me, they would jump to their seats, where they sat, still as a statue and their hands folded on their desks. I would raise my eyebrow at them silently for a moment before we all dissolved into laughter.
This class was very close to my heart. Their English was so good after having gone to school all day for a couple of years, I could even teach them other subjects using English. Apart from their Chinese classes over lunch, the entire school day was in English. This was the under-five set so they said all sorts of cute things like “Teacher, I like your smell. I like your body.” That was from a little girl who would come to get hugs from me.
And then little Joey said, “Teacher when I grow up, I fink I marry you.” When I laughed and said I was much too old for him, he looked at me seriously and said, “I grow big and I marry you.”
Joanne was constantly fighting with Sally, and was never able come out of it the winner. She just wasn’t confident, despite coming from a very loving home, and she was always doing her work as fast as she could without any regard for how well the job was done, which was frustrating to watch. And she frequently burst into tears with very little provocation. I was perplexed by her behavior until one day she colored so fast after I told her to put the crayon down, she ended up scribbling all over the picture.
“Joanne,” I said, a bit exasperated, “You can finish it at home.”
“I caan’t,” she wailed. “I never have time to color. I always have to go to lessons!”
When I found out her schedule – that at age four she was going to school full time until 3:30 and then attending piano, art, math and dance lessons every day after school until she would collapse over dinner, I waited for her mother after school with a set jaw.
I was only a kid myself in some ways, and not yet a mother, but even I could see this was not good for the poor child. I scolded her mother and told her how miserable her daughter was until her mom started to cry. Miraculously she listened to me! She took her child out of every after-school program except for Math one day a week, and allowed her to play at home. From that day forward Joanne did a complete about-face. Suddenly she was the most happy, confident student who seldom lost her battles. Even the other teachers couldn’t believe the difference in her.
During my first year in Taiwan, I had identical twins in my class that the former teacher had named Holly and Polly. I shook my head to those ridiculous monikers and changed their names to Catherine and Elaine – Catherine for my mom, and Elaine for one of my friends who was a sorority sister in college.
These two were very sober, but I could see they were bright. After about two months of teaching them in my playful style, I sat down for story hour one day, and suddenly saw them dart to the places at my right side and my left with a deftness that surprised me. I arched my eyebrows at each of them and was rewarded with the most beautiful grins. It was the first time I had ever seen them smile.
When I was leaving Taiwan after that first year, their mother told me that I had given her twins a precious gift. They had been born in a raging monsoon, with one baby needing to be pushed out quickly because the cord was entangled around her neck, and the other one being delivered by the mother, alone, after the staff had rushed out with the first. She gave them the Chinese names “Wind” and “Rain.” But since they were girls, they were not given the same special treatment that her son was given. So the only ones who loved them and paid any attention to them were their own mother and their maternal grandmother. The girls sensed this and hardly ever lit up with joy.
And then these two came into my class and I just thought they were the brightest, most adorable creatures. They blossomed under my smiling encouragement and the special names they were given to distinguish them. So I became very close to that family and remained so during my second year there.
When I had these kinds of success through teaching, I was very satisfied with my life and what I was doing. But it was not enough. I always felt like I was just biding my time until I could be with Olivier, even though he insisted I could only come to Paris if there was no talk of marriage. How easily those of us desperate for love can settle for such meager crumbs.
In spite of my heart being elsewhere, Catherine and Elaine’s family provided me with the pleasure of visiting places all around the island. I learned so much – she was a history teacher, and never wasted an opportunity to teach her children, or me when I happened to be with them. She taught me things about feng shui, about the five elements that were represented on the rooftop architecture, about Buddhist temples and the stories of the various gods, about jade, about Chinese empires – I filled a whole notebook with the things I learned from her.
I remember going to the farm of someone she knew, where the owner brought us into the field to visit his green room, or at least what I called his “green room.” It was a semi-enclosed space in the open air, where you had to walk down a couple of steps into the sunken earth, and where you found yourself shaded by a canopy of vines woven through a bamboo trellis ceiling. It was like being in a fairy’s house, because whether you looked up, down, or to the side of you, everything was green and leafy. The grass was long at our feet, and the farmer walked ahead of us, carrying a big stick to ward off the pythons.
So I lived that sort of half-life in Taiwan, a mixture of satisfaction and longing. I spent time with the other teachers, went out with my Chinese friends, and wrote long letters to Olivier who was finishing up half his year studying in New York, and the other half trying to get an internship before performing his military service. And I went on my one obligatory visa trip to Hong Kong. I had wizened up by this time and knew that if I were to go alone, I had better go someplace that was tourist-friendly.
I was familiar with Hong Kong, and I stayed in the infamous, now condemned, Chung-King Mansions. This place was an absolute fire trap. It was a building that extended an entire block, comprising hundreds of tiny rooms, and housing thousands. There were few exits, and most of them were by elevator alone so that if a fire broke out, there was no chance for escape. I was nervously concerned for my safety the entire time I stayed there.
But it was cheap. The windowless room I stayed in was so small, there was only space for a single bed and a path to walk alongside it. The bathroom had a toilet and you had to take a shower standing over it, remembering to remove the toilet paper before you did so. I wanted to put all my money into purchases instead of housing so I compromised on the luxury and safety factor. Then I went to Stanley Market and bought all the GAP and Banana Republic cast-offs, before hitting every other shopping area. I remember sitting on a park bench, having spent all my money with two more days to kill, and with nothing to do. How wretched I was.
I had more than enough time to reflect on my mixed feelings. I wanted to be with Olivier, but knew that he didn’t particularly want me there. He was young and completely focused on his career. I was living out the determination to have my own life, convinced that it was a necessity if I was ever going to be desirable to him.
One morning back in Taiwan, I got up early to walk in the university, something I liked to do to clear my head. I waved to the group of older people that were practicing Tai Chi, the group I sometimes joined even though the teacher spoke Taiwanese so we couldn’t communicate very well. I remember musing about strange things, thinking that if something were to happen to a family member of Olivier, I would rush to be there for him, even if it meant breaking my contract in Taiwan. I think I just wanted to be wherever he was and was looking for an excuse to go.
When I returned home at seven AM, my roommate told me that there had been an urgent call from my father and I needed to call him back right away. My heart sank and I picked up the phone with trembling fingers. I knew nothing good could come out of this call.
“It’s me,” I said.
My father also wasted no words. “Mark committed suicide,” he said, speaking of my brother.
“He shot himself with my hunting gun,” he continued. “He had been accused of stealing the neighbor’s heirloom rings, and was brought into the police station and booked. They let him come home because they had no solid evidence to keep him.”
My father’s voice was choked with emotion as he continued. “I could see that he was really upset and I told him that no matter what happened I would be there for him. I told him that I loved him.” He cleared his throat and then went on, “But when I came home from running errands, I found him.”
I was silent. My face was hot and my hands were cold. My heart was beating very fast and I couldn’t process the reality because of the roaring in my ears. “How is Mom? How are Jeff and Stephanie?” I asked. I couldn’t ask myself, “How are you?”
We said other meaningless words, words that could only dance around the tragedy and not address it. I said I would try to think about coming home, but the thought of planning a trip was so monumental to me I didn’t know how to proceed. When I opened the door, Matt was standing there, his face stricken.
“My brother committed suicide,” I said. He wanted to fold me into his arms, but I moved forward like a ghost, my face betraying nothing.
“I’m not going to binge,” I said, a strange concession to make. “Don’t think I’m going to binge.” When I went to Overeaters Anonymous in New York, I gained some awareness of my tendency to use food to deal with emotions.
“I don’t think you will,” he replied, his face full of compassion. He knew better than I did just how shocked I was.
I didn’t think about going home straight away. I simply sat in my bedroom in shock, but after a day or two I had made my decision. It was all so sudden and fell right after the New Year. (Mark died on January third, but my father waited to call me until it was morning where I was, so I heard the news on January fourth, and this remains the anniversary of his death for me). It was still holiday season for travel, and not easy to get a plane ticket.
But when I did – what a trip! It was as long and twisted as my desolate grieving soul. I wasn’t able to get a city bus ticket to the airport, but a friend found one for me through a private company. So before dawn, my friend Jill took me on her moped with my huge suitcase at her feet, to a place about forty-five minutes away. From there I took the private van to the airport, cramped tightly next to people I did not know.
The first leg of the flight was to Tokyo, which was about four and a half hours away. After we were in the air just two hours, the pilot announced that there was engine trouble and that it was closer to turn back, so we were flying back to Taipei. We waited a couple of hours on the tarmac while they ascertained that the problem was minor and fixed before taking off again.
When we arrived in Tokyo, those of us taking the connecting flight had to rush to get it. They had held the plane since it was the same airline company as the one we were on, and many of us were taking that flight. I had gotten my ticket last minute so I was in the middle seat of the middle section in the very back against the toilets. My seat did not recline.
I was also the very last one to board and there was no more room for my carry-on so I had to shove a small suitcase in between my legs, which prevented me from moving them. On one side of me sat a very pregnant woman, and on the other side of me an older, somewhat loud Cantonese-speaking couple. I sat unmoving, without sleeping, staring straight ahead for thirteen hours.
When I got to Detroit, they announced that the baggage conveyor belt was broken so we needed to wait while they brought our luggage out by hand so that we could carry it through customs. I stood for over an hour, with exhaustion, grief and shock all vying for domination over my psyche, and finally headed over to another terminal for the last leg of the journey to Syracuse.
When I got to the gate, they announced that they might not take off at all, or might have to land in Rochester because there was a blizzard in Syracuse. So in the end I wasn’t sure if I would actually be able to complete my journey – this, after everything else that had happened. Eventually the plane did take off and touched down in the right city, but with a very hair-raising landing, skidding to the right and the left, the wings almost scraping the runway, as we bounced to a stop.
My mother was there to pick me up with her husband, Ned, and we drove to his friends’ house to spend the night. But our car broke down on the way home and we had to stop at a repair shop to wait in the cold for it to be fixed. I finally fell asleep in a strange bed over forty hours after I had first started my journey, my heart troubled to the point of death.
The funeral was grisly. Symphony friends of ours played Albinoni “Adagio for Strings.” My father spoke, and I spoke. I don’t remember what I said, but I remember feeling like I didn’t take a single breath throughout the entire speech. Afterwards, I hugged my brother’s ex-girlfriend, whose name was Jenny, and whose birthday fell on the same day as me, and I walked around in a trance and made small talk with all the people who came.
Two friends from high school – Rachel and Galyn, came to the funeral, even though I hadn’t told anyone what had happened. They heard about it and they showed up to be there for me. And at some point during my stay in Syracuse they had me over to Galyn’s house and filled me with hot chocolate, rubbed my feet, hugged me and cried with me. My father’s girlfriend and now wife, Treese, also wrapped me in blankets from head to toe when I came to her house because I had a chill inside that wouldn’t go away. I will never forget these acts of kindness.
Right after the funeral my dad and I went to the place where it happened. It was a record-breaking cold spell in upstate NY. It is hard to fathom how bitterly cold it was, even colder for me having come from tropical Taiwan. The cold settled in my bones and chilled my heart as if the spirit world had been unleashed and was winding its tentacles around me.
I followed my father into his apartment; he had rented the bottom floor of the house next to the one I grew up in so I could see someone else’s Christmas decorations still sitting on the porch. Inside the apartment where we were, the walls were painted white, lending a clinical air to the barren desolation. The heat was off and it was white, sterile and nearly as cold as the outdoors. As I stood looking around at the bare walls, my father described to me what happened:
“I came into the kitchen and immediately noticed a strange smell. I turned the corner into the pantry and saw something on the wall in the living room, but I didn’t know what it was. I stood there shocked, looking around, thinking—‘the place has been vandalized.’ And then I thought, ‘could Mark have done this since he had been so be upset!’—because there were dark stains all over the living room wall, and at my feet there was what looked like a piece of melted candle.”
“Then I saw his feet extended from the edge of the bed in my bedroom, and it dawned on me that what I saw on the floor was part of his skull. It was at that moment that I realized that he must have shot himself. I wanted to hug him but I knew that he was gone and there was nothing I could do. I called 911 and sat down on the sofa, crying while I waited for help to come.”
After I heard this, I went numbly into the bathroom. I lay down on the tiled floor, curled up in a ball next to the toilet. The pipes underneath leaked brown rust onto the white porcelain. I remember being so cold and so dead inside as I thought, “I will never feel joy again. I will never feel love again.”
“I won’t feel anything at all.”