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How to make the moon disappear

Days after the festival, Fulong had all the sleepy, boarded-up eeriness of a midwestern farm town when the traveling circus unicycles away. Alighting on the train platform at night, I whistled through the station’s ghostly corridors to fill the air with something other than brine that fogged over my glasses. Not even an agent stood around to punch tickets. The night was for stowaways. Outside, the sober streets had a Sunday night’s hush, the cicadas were mum and the half moon in the sky was — missing?

"But the moon was so big last night in Taipei," my friend perplexed later as we gathered bamboo and driftwood near the seawall.

It was the galumphing size of the last-seen moon that gave the disappearing act its flourish, on a scale so grand as making the pyramids vanish from behind a scrim.

Huddled around a crisp, orange campfire, whose smoke billowed northwestward out to sea and the shores of Aodi village (澳底), we lay on our backs determined to debunk the slight of hand and searched for the moon among the sky’s swirling clutter.

A picture book of myths, an old seafarer’s map, a farmer’s almanac, a fortuneteller’s crystal ball, loose pages from an unfinished absurdist play and a two-way mirror were all found hidden in the stars, but not the moon.

On such a clear night with the world at summer’s far aphelion, the tideless ocean became a reflecting pool. Rolling over the surface came a lone, dissident wave that unfurled a watery scroll onto shore.

"A speck in the sky," the ebbing wave whispered, "we are."

Then the water mirrored over, reticent as before. Only campfire sputters and wisps of the smokey wind sounded.

Road closed (道路封閉).

Road closed (道路封閉).

A parade of clouds puffed through a sunburned sky — a mouse, a fox, even a great white shark that darkened the sunset with an ominous eclipse.

It’s Sunday evening on a crowded Monday-bound platform at the Fulong train station. At that perfect summer hour just before the mosquitos swarm, when the world is all shadows with a blood-orange backlight and the cool air riffles through sundresses, we slump against pillars watching the west through sunglasses for the approach of the 6:40 train. The 6:40 comes and the faraway stress of time and tomorrows comes seeping back inside the chatty, florescent-lit car crammed with people, elbows, knees, stuff, freaked-out dogs in zippered carry-ons and battle-worn balloon animals that resemble nothing anymore. After clobbering an old woman in the face with my errant elbow and having my toes ground into paste by passengers barreling for nearly missed stops, we arrive back in the city at night.

"Sleep over?" I ask, as the thought of being alone on a Sunday night wades through my mind again like a great white shark in the shallows.

Still snickering to myself about a night that wasn’t long ago, I slip into taut sheets in the guest room. Sleep comes easily. Dreamlessness. Then dreams of nothingness. Then a parade of clouds sailing though a dark and moonless sky unseen.

A parade of clouds puffed through a sunburned sky — a mouse, a fox, even a great white shark that darkened the sunset with an ominous eclipse.

It’s Sunday evening on a crowded Monday-bound platform at the Fulong train station. At that perfect summer hour just before the mosquitos swarm, when the world is all shadows with a blood-orange backlight and the cool air riffles through sundresses, we slump against pillars watching the west through sunglasses for the approach of the 6:40 train. The 6:40 comes and the faraway stress of time and tomorrows comes seeping back inside the chatty, florescent-lit car crammed with people, elbows, knees, stuff, freaked-out dogs in zippered carry-ons and battle-worn balloon animals that resemble nothing anymore. After clobbering an old woman in the face with my errant elbow and having my toes ground into paste by passengers barreling for nearly missed stops, we arrive back in the city at night.

"Sleep over?" I ask, as the thought of being alone on a Sunday night wades through my mind again like a great white shark in the shallows.

Still snickering to myself about a night that wasn’t long ago, I slip into taut sheets in the guest room. Sleep comes easily. Dreamlessness. Then dreams of nothingness. Then a parade of clouds sailing though a dark and moonless sky unseen.

Mrs. Hsieh’s secret

It was mid-afternoon on Tiger Head Mountain and a gray sky was being swept blue by a strong northeasterly wind. Along a steep incline of an old hillside cemetery, Mrs. Hsieh, a happily graying Taiwanese woman, was clutching her sunhat for dear life while trying to sturdy the wind-blown tarpaulin that covered her mother’s mausoleum. She had hitched the canopy over the resting site earlier that day with the help of her happily grayed husband, so that they could work, rain or shine, on some put-off repairs brought on by typhoons and procrastination.

There was always a roaming peacefulness to that valley. And therein lies Mrs. Hsieh’s great secret: she never once felt sadness there among the hallowed shrines because she didn’t think her mother resided there: “Just a pile of bones,” she thought. Unmoved by the sweeping of tombs nor the inhaling of spiced incense, not even bowed-head prayer could stir her to fervor, but still she honored the traditions. Devoutly. For their own sake. Mourning was something else entirely, something that came to her on less pious occasions: in her kitchen at dusk while she fixed tea or washed dishes. It was a monstrous thing that snuck up from behind and gripped her throat like the hands of a skilled burglar. A muffled gasp for mercy; the tea spills, a dish shatters, her husband calls her name from the other room; but before he arrives to avenge her, she hears a whisper in her ear, a foul promise that has never been broken in all these years. Then it slips away into the night, disappearing in the opposite direction of the sun.

Weather-worn posters depicting a Daoist god and a dragon hang outside a pocket temple along a pedestrian lane near Fuxing Road in Taoyuan.

Weather-worn posters depicting a Daoist god and a dragon hang outside a pocket temple along a pedestrian lane near Fuxing Road in Taoyuan.

Earthquake proof

Living on the 17th floor of a tall apartment tower in Taiwan, I feel every seismic quiver, rumble and sway that might otherwise go undetected down below. I know what earthquakes are, owing to a public school education, but there isn’t a chapter in science textbooks about finding your footing in a foreign city where the earth is shaking underneath you.

When I first arrived here and lived in a low-rise building, I hardly even noticed earthquakes. I might feel a dizzy spell come on, and subside; later someone would inform of me of its magnitude.

"Oh," I’d reply.

My current building is 24 stories tall and — according to my friend, a former tenant — earthquake proof.

"It moves," he said.

"It moves?" I replied.

The last superquake to hit Taiwan, which floats over a nexus of fault lines near the Tolkien-sounding Ring of Fire, happened in 1999, killing 2,415 people and dredging up a 23-foot-tall waterfall in Dongshih where none previously existed.

I’m not an engineer, just a renter. The location was central, the rent cheap and the landlord was the friend of a friend of that friend, so, along with the assurance that it very likely wouldn’t fall over, I said yes. Ten miles away, meanwhile, one of the world’s tallest skyscrapers stands in Taipei, a testament to the island’s advancements in earthquake-proof design — which is the sort of thing you tell yourself on the first night you’re falling asleep in what you hope is not a human-scale Jenga tower.

But then a big one came. Shortly after moving in and dreaming that I was dangling from a bed sheet out of my window, I was awoken by violent thrashing. My impulse was to jump out of bed, but I couldn’t gain my footing. Amid the swaying light fixtures, and the cracks slithering in real time up the walls and on countertops, I could tell that the tower was moving and I thought, for a brief moment, that the absurd dream was coming true.

Shaken by the encounter, I thought about moving to a new place for a while, somewhere closer to ground level. While most seismic activity is mere twitters, I didn’t need daily reminders of the subterranean forces that cavalierly rip continents apart over millennia and occasionally level cities along the way. For days, my heart would leap at the slightest vibration — the rumbling of a truck, or K-pop blasting from a school kid’s earbud like tectonic techno.

But I stayed. Because to my surprise, there came a rash of events soon after that left me wanting to be shaken. A job that was wearing on me, a fizzled romance, a betrayal that blindsided me — a nexus of emotional fault lines tested how strongly I was built, and what forces I could withstand, which for a long stretch left a disquieting hollow.

In the stillness of those hours, I found myself, while sprawled on my bed, wishing to feel tremors. And the tremors, as if beckoned, came.

Just as election season begins to heat up, KMT County Councilman Lin Cheng-yin (林政賢) oversees the daring rescue of a sofa pulled from the Taoyuan sewers.

Just as election season begins to heat up, KMT County Councilman Lin Cheng-yin (林政賢) oversees the daring rescue of a sofa pulled from the Taoyuan sewers.

It was a crayon-drawn Sunday afternoon in Taipei, like a picture hung up in a kindergarten classroom, with streaks of sky blue filling every inch of the page to the edges of the crayon-green grass and bare brown trees. White propeller planes grazed the yellow sunflower sun. Orange rays zapped winter blues into pink summer reveries. 

It was my last weekend at the school. I was a little scared about what lay beneath — the big black pit of irrational fears — but there was something about the present, with its colors and metropolitan noises — buzzing, screeching, zooming — that rolled out before me a blank loose-leaf page and a box of pastels. (Photo: Letters I Wrote)

It was a crayon-drawn Sunday afternoon in Taipei, like a picture hung up in a kindergarten classroom, with streaks of sky blue filling every inch of the page to the edges of the crayon-green grass and bare brown trees. White propeller planes grazed the yellow sunflower sun. Orange rays zapped winter blues into pink summer reveries.

It was my last weekend at the school. I was a little scared about what lay beneath — the big black pit of irrational fears — but there was something about the present, with its colors and metropolitan noises — buzzing, screeching, zooming — that rolled out before me a blank loose-leaf page and a box of pastels.

(Photo: Letters I Wrote)
When my friend suggested going to a “mammoth exhibit” at Taipei’s National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall last Sunday, I just thought the gallery she had in mind was really big.

When my friend suggested going to a “mammoth exhibit” at Taipei’s National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall last Sunday, I just thought the gallery she had in mind was really big.

Rushing to go nowhere

If you spend enough time in a foreign country, even the most stark cultural differences have a way of melting away like a bad mood in the summer sun.

Sure, every country comes with a set of cultural ticks that can be irksome. Argentines really do arrive late or not at all to appointments, and it’s not personal somehow. Random Taiwanese shop owners have a loving penchant for interrogating foreign strangers like in-laws, extracting marital status and salary range quicker than a credit-rating agency.

But living abroad isn’t only about the outward observations. The real gems are directed inwards when you start considering how you are perceived by local people. In Southeast Asia, Western foreigners often vent about being stared at and scrutinized. But the stares, I’ve found, are often fixed on the thing being done, not who’s doing it. Remembering this has brought about worthy self-examination as it did on my recent stroll through Taipei with a friend.

In Taipei, easily the most orderly city I’ve ever spent much time in, the social code that governs how a proper pedestrian should behave are followed strictly to the letter: jaywalking is unheard of, people unanimously walk on sidewalks and risks are averted by dutiful observance to traffic signals — unremarkable stuff unless you’ve lived in South America. One surefire way to spot a Westerner here is that we’re the only ones ever seen sprinting Jackie Joyner-Kersee-style across the street to beat the crosswalk signal before it turns red: nine times out of 10, we’re not even running late for anything.

As my friend and I approached an intersection along Taipei’s Roosevelt Road, I glanced at the pedestrian signal — the kind that doesn’t simply blink the red “stop” hand or the green “go” stick figure, but counts down how much time you have to cross. Four seconds flashed on the screen, which to us, was the visual equivalent of an Olympic starting gun being fired, prompting a mad dash across a ten-lane boulevard. Our gold-medal-winning stupidity revealed itself at the midway point of the boulevard, when the crosswalk’s clock expired, and growling cars kicked up dust and began racing hell-bent on all sides of us.

Adrenaline, apologies, prayers to dead relatives and an amateur bob-and-weave strategy learned from playing video games like Mario Kart, ushered us to the other side miraculously intact, as my friend and I keeled over, huffing.

We hadn’t yet noticed the crowd of deservedly horrified onlookers pooled around us, until the wordless reaction of one woman seemed to speak on their behalves.

"Where the hell are you going in such a rush?" she asked through a confused glare.

We paused, considered, locked eyes for support, then replied through an oh-well shrug of our shoulders.

"Nowhere."

"The modernization of Europe and the USA took some two centuries, but in Taiwan ‘that span has been compressed into a few decades, dating back to the late decades of Japanese colonization.’" — In Search of Criminological Tradition: the Development of Criminology in Taiwan. 

The photo shows a northwest view of Taipei from Taipei 101’s observation deck. (Credit: Letters I Wrote)

"The modernization of Europe and the USA took some two centuries, but in Taiwan ‘that span has been compressed into a few decades, dating back to the late decades of Japanese colonization.’" — In Search of Criminological Tradition: the Development of Criminology in Taiwan.

The photo shows a northwest view of Taipei from Taipei 101’s observation deck. (Credit: Letters I Wrote)

The lost necklace

One step beyond your imagined limitation is a secret place of revelry without morning.

"Keep walking," I say to myself as I brave a dark walk through an overgrown forest. I went in search of a lost necklace, whose value was only revealed the moment it went missing. I feel cold, tormented by my failure to cherish a gift. Now, as a redeeming test, I press forward into a place were fears are written in the ink of night — and conjured.

A patter of footsteps rustles leaves on all sides at once, impossibly. A screech sounding both distant and near, canine and avian, rings out.

"What was that?" My thoughts turn to the killer stray dogs of Tiger Head Mountain that run ruffianly on the hills, hunting scarce food in whatever shape it comes in.

I whip around.

Through the beam of my flashlight something flashes into sight, then disappears into darkness. The exact form of its body is hazy in my memory. It was black, four-legged and agile. But its eyes, I remember … eyes of solid gold. Surely they were only reflecting the orange din of my battery-powered torch.

Fearing its return, not knowing where it fled to, I pause and survey the area. Where am I? … There is a clearing up ahead that I don’t remember seeing by day, a crossroads. I walk closer and there at the fork is a clue: this is a cemetery. Carved into a shoulder-high block of stone is the laughing face of a gargoyle with red-stained lips. In Asia, the mythical beast is meant to ward off evil spirits, but I’m suspicious about which side it plays for, maybe just its own.

"I’ll come back in daylight," I say to myself, knuckled by defeat, and dart up the footpath as the beam of my flashlight slices wildly through the air.

Perched on a nearby hill, the woodland beast with golden eyes watches over the spectacle. Coiled at its foot is a certain shimmering strand.

A man giving a thumbs up holds a banner that reads “We the people want to establish a new and independent state,” in Taipei’s Ximen District, on Sunday, Nov. 17. Protesters marched near a busy pedestrian mall to advocate independence from mainland China two days after The Gambian government announced it would break diplomatic ties with Taiwan. The mainland Chinese government denies having any prior knowledge of the decision. (Credit: Letters I Wrote)

A man giving a thumbs up holds a banner that reads “We the people want to establish a new and independent state,” in Taipei’s Ximen District, on Sunday, Nov. 17. Protesters marched near a busy pedestrian mall to advocate independence from mainland China two days after The Gambian government announced it would break diplomatic ties with Taiwan. The mainland Chinese government denies having any prior knowledge of the decision. (Credit: Letters I Wrote)