There was someone I wanted to go see: Chen Yu-cheng, an
author whom my mother, a writer herself, secretly admired.
I hatched a plan to leave home during winter vacation.
Fooling my family that I was going winter camping with the Girl
Scouts, I furtively boarded a train. I wanted to travel alone, to
see how well I could get along by myself away from home.
I knew Chen wouldn’t refuse me—that the greater the challenge
to prevailing social mores, the more his interest would be
piqued. A young girl coming on her own would appeal to his
iconoclastic streak. I was sure of it.
He lived on Taiwan’s East Coast, on the shores of the Pacific. . . . You, Chen, were the lusty, elegant savage that I
longed to track down and turn into; I wanted you to tell me the
secrets of traveling great distances alone, to teach me how to
leave home safely and survive.
The Pacific’s surf was up and rough. Inside, I wanted to
scream across the ocean toward the opposite bank, believing that
only by so doing could I release my power, push myself across
the sea, and find the strength to climb up and walk across the
Hualien. Time’s mysteries hold dreams in the waves of the
When I was a child, my whole family came here to whalewatch.
When I was younger still, the four of us went on a trip to
Australia and New Zealand. Over time, the only images of that
trip I could recall were of dolphins and whales—and sheep, getting
branded and waiting to be sheared. Or perhaps they were
lambs, sacrificial substitutes, bowing their heads and grazing in
their pastures, always eating grass or staring dumbly off into the
distance, gentle sheep, so easily startled, unaware of the danger
so close at hand.
When the dolphins appeared, the water in my range of
vision was stained purple by their blood. The whales, their bodies
bearing red blooms from the whalers’ strikes, would make
deep calls. The way to get a mother was to get her child first.
Mothers feel a natural duty to protect their children. But when it
comes to humans, nature’s maternal instinct must be learned.
Take my mother: there she was in a Dior suit and high-heeled
Valentinos that cost NT$30,000. Crammed into a small boat
with us, her visage wore the expression of a person suffering.
When we went diving, my father, older brother and I were
decked out like frogmen—or maybe frog children. My mother, meanwhile, stood on shore, clutching her Chanel bag and worrying
that we couldn’t see the little diamonds on her red shoes
catching the sunlight. She made an effort to shake her head.
She was not going in the water.
Her sense of maternal duty had long been wavering. If a
whaler had caught me, her trendy clothes, which limited her
freedom of movement and desperately required protection,
would surely have restrained her. Still a child, I looked at her
and suddenly felt hurt: In her eyes I was not nearly so attractive
as her tightly clutched purse or the finery she feared would get
splashed. I was not the equal of the clothes on her back. Her
name-brand possessions had come between us.
Poor Mommy’s emotional world had been shattered, but
she still had her fashion empire. I believe that my father was
just her ATM, and that we were just the happy family photo she
could show to the outside world.
I suppose I’m being too harsh. But I can’t restrain that
attitude, that side of me prone to mockery. I want to join the circus.
This life of mine that I’d like so much to avoid is well suited
to the clownish prankster.
Once, when we were traveling in Australia, we went for a
walk along a riverbed near our hotel and came across a circus
camp. A woman, still half asleep, came out of one of the big circus
trucks. The early morning sun lit up her disheveled blond
hair. She held a steel cup and brushed her teeth as she walked
down to the river. Alongside the truck were lions, tigers and elephants.
To me it looked like a marvelous life.
I tugged at my father’s hand to convey my desire to go over
and talk to the blond woman. Perhaps she thought it amusing to
come across an oriental child. She splashed some cold water on
her face and then turned to speak to me. The strange language struck me as funny, and I laughed and laughed. My father told
me that she said she was a tightrope walker.
When we walked to the side of the truck, we saw a poster
in which she was wearing white angel wings and perched on
swing. In another poster she walked the high wire as tigers and
lions paced below.
It was in the midst of this memory that my train pulled into
After I got off, I phoned Chen Yu-cheng. My name was
Lin Tang-shuang, I said, describing myself as that nu-jen (literally
“female person”) who had asked for your autograph and
phone number. Perhaps you remember? I put special emphasis
on the word nu-jen, thinking that it didn’t refer to any specific
age. He said he remembered me but responded with a question
of his own: What do you want, kid?
I said that I had taken the train to Hualien and was at the
Uh, could I come and see you. I don’t have anywhere else
to go. I came especially for you.
O.K. . . . in that case get on a bus in front of the train station
and tell the driver that you want to get off at Jingpu Elementary
No, Jingpu. It’s the jing in “peaceful” and the pu that’s the
first Chinese character in Urashima Taro, the Japanese fairy tale.
Oh, all right, I’ll call you when I get there.
That was the extent of our phone conversation. It was like
we were old friends and there was no need for explanations.
Why had I come? Why was I alone? Why did I want to see
him? There weren’t any whys. I think he must have known that starting sans questions would be a marvelous beginning for me.
Or perhaps his cool nonchalance was a disguise,....