Tuesday, June 17, 2003

You wonder what the commotion's about?
written in 1999

Here is a story told me one night as I stopped on my way home to say hello to a group of men gathered in a circle chatting around a small fire. As the speaker told me the story, he kept gnawing on the skull of a small deer, a protected species that someone had managed to poach.

“One day when I was about 6 or 7 —that would have been in the early 60s —I saw a man who looked like nobody I had ever seen before. His eyes weren't black or brown, they were blue, and you could see circles in them. His hair wasn't black, either, it was yellow. I had never seen anybody like that before. I ran home and told my father, 'Father, you told me that gold is very valuable. I have seen a man with gold on his head. Come quickly and cut off his head, and we can be rich and you won't have to work so hard.' My father got his laraw (head-hunting knife) and ran with me to where this person was. When he saw him, my father said, 'That's not gold, that's his hair. That's the color of his hair. That kind of person is called Ah-mwi-ri-kan.' That was the first foreigner I ever saw.”

Thursday, June 12, 2003

written in 1999

Abus made me a slingshot for stray dog control; his brother's geese got eaten by strays. Slingshots are fun, and people are ambitious, so when I saw one on the Web that advertised a range of 225 yards, I ordered it. I had it sent to Merica, where I picked it up. When I got off the bus in Wulai, I pulled it out of my pack, found a rock, and shot it way out over the stream. Then I realized there was a car behind me: police. Police: "What are you shooting into the stream for?”

"Just trying out my new slingshot.”

"Those are illegal. Get in the car." Slam. "I could confiscate that."

"So take it. I'll tell your mother-in-law if you do."

"Taway, taway (easy, easy), Yugan. But come on, let me try… hey, this thing has a good pull on it."

"Hey, Ivi, don't try to steer with your elbows!” We were veering off the road. (I should mention that the policeman told me to get in the patrol car so he could give me a ride home.)

The next day I went out after the dogs. I ran into Sakay and Zing, who is one of the tribe's best hunters: kind of sneered at a grown man carrying a slingshot. (The aborigines are proud that they are allowed to own guns, to carry on their hunting traditions. These are all handmade shotguns, as dangerous to the hunter as to the hunted. The only other legal guns are in the hands of the police and the military. This is why it is safe to wander around the city at night.) Just then I saw the worst dog, and shot at it. It took off up the road, so I timed it to the curve, and pulled off a long shot, probably close to 200 yards. An expression flitted across Zing's face, like he'd just seen a hoppy-toad leap over a four story building. He very casually asked, “What kind of stones are you shooting?”

Monday, June 09, 2003

written about ten years ago

Yu Hao-Wei wanted to improve his English. The first step was to choose an English name, as the pronunciation and subtleties of Chinese names don't translate. His given name Hao-Wei (roughly, 'heroic grandeur') suggested the English name Howard, and for days he practiced reciting his name in much the same way a gunfighter practices his draw.

The next step was to get some friends together, find a native foreigner to teach English, and then start a class.

First, he enlisted his girlfriend Miss Mi, which means 'uncooked rice,' and then a friend from work named Hsi, 'mat,' and to round things out, Hsi brought his cousin Hu, which originally meant 'goiter,' but has generally been used as the name for the Turkic tribes of western China. (Hsi's maternal great-grandfather had eight sons. In addition to half a dozen daughters, he had five sons by his first wife, and three more by a second after the first wife died, probably from exhaustion. Hsi's grandfather was the fourth son of the first wife. The second son of the second wife was given to childless neighbors, the Shus, to carry out rituals on their ancestors' behalf, and had so many children that he gave a daughter, Ah-Wat, to a friend named Tu who had only sons, and that was Hu's mother. This is rather simple, as Chinese cousins go.)

Howard had an uncle, his father's second cousin, whose grade school classmate had just rented out an apartment to an American, Joe Waterman (God only knows what that might mean!). On being asked, Joe expressed his willingness to teach English, and the grade school classmate arranged class times and tuition to everybody's satisfaction, class to be held, as customary, in Joe's living room. Joe had just come to Taiwan, and had no knowledge of Chinese language or customs, and less of teaching. He was about to learn.

Howard, Miss Mi, Hsi, and Hu had, in the distant past, studied English in school, but time had mercifully erased from mind the vagaries of a language that permits itself to say 1 book, 2 books, 1 table, 2 tables, but 1 hippopotamus 2 hippopotami. Plurals and tenses and verb conjugations! What possible use could these do anybody? Hasn't Chinese gotten along just fine without them, these past five thousand years and more? But now, inspired by Howard, they decided to take English by frontal assault, and thereby advance their careers, though none ever considered what earthly good the language might do in the paper towel company where they worked. And so, with little more of their studies left than Hello and Goodbye and The Grin Grin Grass of Home, they gathered promptly at 7:15 to begin their seven o'clock class.

* * *
Joe stopped pacing back and forth when he heard the doorbell ring. He recited, “Ask their names, and engage them in conversation,” put down his Guide to Teaching English, and opened the door, to find three men and a lady hopping back and forth, struggling to take off their shoes—Chinese never enter a home shod. One of the men straightened up and smiled.

“Hello,” he said.

“Hi, how are you?” Joe asked, remembering to smile sincerely, as the guide recommended.



“Yes, sir.”

“Yes, sir, what? How are you?” persisted Joe.

“Yes, sir, my name.”

“What's your name?”

“Howard Yu.”

“Fine, thanks.”

Howard beamed. He had chosen a fine name. So fine that this foreigner even
thanked him for choosing it.

“But your name?” Joe queried.

“Howard Yu.”

“Fine, thanks. How are you?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Uhh, yes, that's good. My name is Joe, Joe Waterman.”

“Jio?” Hsi was startled. “His name is Urine?” he asked in Chinese.

“No, idiot, Jio means Urine only in Taiwanese. Joe is an English name. All Big-Noses are named Joe, or Ronald, or Englebert,” Howard reproved.

“But he said something about water.”

“Shut up!” Then in English. “Hello, Joe Teacher.”

“Hello. Are these the other students?”

Hu struck an extravagant pose and rasped out, “Yo, dude!” He airily explained to his startled compatriots, “That's how they do it in the movies.”

“Yes, umm, hi, what's your name?” Joe asked, when he had recovered his wits.

“She is my cousin,” Hsi volunteered: Chinese has only one pronoun for both He and She, leading to endless confusion when beginners venture into English.



“Who is she?” Joe asked.

“I am Hsi,” said Hsi.


“I am Yu,” put in Howard.

“What? Is he a she?” Joe asked, pointing to Hu.

“He is Hu, not Hsi,” Howard explained.

“Who is not she? Oh, my lord. Well,” Joe turned to Miss Mi, “What is your

“I am Mi.”

“Well, yes, I am me, too.”

“Really?” Miss Mi peered at Joe carefully. “Maybe you be cousin?”


“Yes,” Hu said, “Cousin, like Hsi and me, we cousin.”

“You two?”

“No, but my ma is,” said Hu, somewhat surprised.


“Yes, yes, how you know? My ma is Tu Ah-Wat.”

“Yes, she name Tu,” Hu clarified.

“Who?” Joe pointed to the young lady. “Her name? She has two names?”

“No, she is Mi, I Hu, my pa Hu, but my ma Tu, Tu Ah-Wat.”

“What? Who?”

“No, not Hu, my ma name Tu, his name Ah-Wat.”

“How should I know what his name is?” Joe replied.

“Yes, yes, my ma, he name Wat, Ah-Wat. I so surprised you know!”

Howard was pleased that Joe was getting to know his students. And it seemed that he even knew old Hu Mama! Chinese simply love to dig up old family connections. He decided to make everything crystal clear for Joe Teacher.

“I am Yu. He is Hsi and she is Mi and he is Hu.”

“What do you mean, Who?”

Hsi pitched in. “Hu's grandfather really Shu.”

“Somebody's grandfather's shoe?” Joe asked.

“Yes, he Shu, but he give daughter to Tu.”

“He got his daughter a tutu? She studied ballet?” To clarify, Joe stood up and spun on his tiptoes. His students tactfully examined the tablecloth.

Without looking Joe in the eye, Mi said, “Tu marry Hu.”

“To marry who? What do you mean, Who?”

Hu, after careful consideration of the question, pretended to wrap a turban around his head and ride a camel (first carefully describing the humps with graceful waves of his hand in the air), to signify that Hu means “Turkish tribesman.”

“What is that?” cried Joe.

Yu quickly drew a rough oblong, representing the Chinese mainland, with a dot near the southeastern corner, representing Taiwan, which he jabbed with his pen, and said, “We here.” He pointed to his makeshift map and said, “China,” and then to the left side of his oblong, and said, “Hu here.”

Joe, a native of a country in which almost half of the high school students cannot find the United States on a map, was totally mystified. “On the table?”

“No, no, China.”

Joe was still perplexed. He tried another angle. “You mean china like porcelain China?”

Howard was overjoyed. “Yes, yes, here we have Po-ssu-ren (Men of Persia), is Porcelain? Man here Porcelain, but now is say I-lang-ren (Men of Iran), no say Porcelain. They Hu, too.”


“Yes!” Vaguely remembering something about plurals, he tentatively augmented, “Hus here.”

“I'm here,” ventured Joe.

“I thought you said this guy was an American,” Hsi complained in Chinese. “Why did you get us an Iranian?”

Howard protested, “Uncle's classmate said he was American.” He turned to Joe. “Are you come from American?”

“Yes,” he answered cautiously, not even aware that he had been discussing geography.

“You no Po-ssu-ren?”

“Well, yes, I know a little about porcelain, but I've never really studied much about it. I guess my mother would be more familiar with it.”

“What did he say?”

“He said his mother's family comes from Iran.”

Mi took up the dialogue. “Your ma is Porcelain, so you… you half-half, you like Mai-ke Jie-Ke-Sen, no?”

“Well, yes, I do like Michael Jackson.”

His students were pleased with this latest information. “So he's half American!” said Hu.

“Maybe we can get a 50% discount on the tuition, then,” said Hsi.

In a sudden burst of inspiration, Howard dragged up a phrase from the depths of his memory, and placed it before Joe with all the delicacy of one handling a priceless heirloom:
“Are you a native American?” meaning, as is obvious from the term, one who was born and raised in the United States.

However, in his naïveté, Howard had not anticipated the obfuscation by which a new, liberated generation hides plain meanings behind euphemisms. Joe replied, “Funny thing you ask. I'm not a real Native American myself, but my great grandmother was a Pottawatomi.

Hsi grumbled, “I told you he's not a real American.”

Hu took a more cautious approach. “You crate grim mother is a pot of what?”


“Pot of what to me?”

“Right, a Pottawatomi, from Michigan.”

Miss Mi said in Chinese, “This is discouraging. I simply don't know what this man is talking about.”

“Neither do I,” admitted the crestfallen Howard.

The tone of the Mandarin prompted Joe Teacher to realize that all was not good cheer and lightheartedness among his protéges. He realized that the name of the Pottawatomi tribe, prominently though it figured in his family tree, might not be found in junior high school English texts worldwide. He clarified, “My great grandmother was a Native American.”

Hu immediately asked, “You grit cram mutter native American?”

“Yes, sure, that's what I said.” Joe decided that he really did have some natural teaching ability after all.

“You no native American?”

“No. Yes. No! I'm a native of America, but I'm not a Native American, I'm just American—" Joe realized what the problem was. But how to remedy it? Joe braced himself. For the sake of education, certain sacrifices are sometimes necessary. That's what the guide said. Joe took a breath: “My great grandmother was an, an, an Indian!” he blurted out the distasteful word.

“Oh, I know!” Hsi and Howard blurted out simultaneously.

“Yes, yes,” Miss Mi cried, with renewed hope.

“So it is,” said Hu, “You clay grammar ma is a Hindoo!”

“No, no, no,” protested Joe, “not a Hindu Indian, an American Indian!” To illustrate his point, he plucked an imaginary bow and shot an invisible arrow.

“Oh yes, yes, the In-di-an-ren!” the four students chorused.

“A red man,” Miss Mi added gleefully.

Hsi, Hu, and Howard sobered immediately. “Red?” asked Hu.

“We don't call them that anymore,” Joe said righteously.

“There have commies in U-Night Skates?” Hsi asked.

“No, idiot, red skin, red barbarian! Fool!” Miss Mi spat out in Chinese.

Howard smiled sheepishly. “Oh, I understand, I is yellow, you gray clam ma red, is not?”

“Well, yes, but at the current time we no longer utilize such ethnocentric terminology. You might say that you are Asian-Pacific, and my great grandmother was Native American, but of course, we are all equal members of the human species, irregardless of ethnic background, education, religious preference, hair color or lack of hair, gender orientation, height, physical attributes, blood group, right- or left-handedness, or criminal record, implying of course no disrespect whatsoever for other primates or indeed any of the wonderful species that coinhabit with us this great Spaceship Earth,” said Joe, bestowing a smile on his student—something his teaching guide called emission of a positive reinforcer. He had practiced to make it sincere.

His students reeled. Howard calmed down first. “You American?”

“Well, of course, that depends on how you define the term American. Our country is, after all, a great melting pot. Generation after generation of immigrants have come to our shores, seeking freedom and a new life, with liberty and justice for all, regardless of race, religion, previous work experience, or gender orientation. They have come from all countries, but predominantly from Europe, I'm afraid. Take me, for instance. In addition to my smattering of Native American blood, I have a rich multicultural background, with ancestors from Ireland, Sweden, Germany, Denmark, and France.” Candor is the mark of a good teacher. That's what the book said. Don't be afraid to bare your soul to your students. They recognize and appreciate sincerity.

“My heaven! I didn't understand a word of that!” Miss Mi wailed.

Hsi just shook his head sadly. Hu looked to Howard.

Howard hesitated. “I didn't quite understand it all, either, but I think he said he finally got a big pot to melt things in from two gentlemen in America. It was free, for sure, but when he got a new wife, he had to run a race for his church to find a job. A lot of gentlemen came from all of the countries of the Orient, but there was this dumb European that scared Joe Teacher. I think that European was trying to kidnap him. Then there was something the matter with his blood, so to get rich, he went back to his native land, Ireland, to buy something sweet, but he found he couldn't buy anything, because he had only ten German marks and some francs.”

Hsi looked at Joe quizzically. “Is this guy all right?” He broke into English again. “You, you, you…” What was the English adjective for Ai-er-lan?

Encouraged by his success, Joe became frisky. “Yes, me, me, me!”

“Here!” Miss Mi responded at once, holding up her hand.

“Hear what?” Joe queried.

“Here Mi.”

“Well, go ahead, then.”

“I think he wants us to go,” Hu said. In deference to their teacher's wishes, all four students stood up instantly.

“I know!” Hsi cried, suddenly remembering a word that seemed to fit right in with disparity/disparate, precipitation/precipitate, and other useful noun-adjective combinations his junior high school English teacher had taught along with bigness/big, tallness/tall, smallness/small, and closeness/close. This must be the right adjective for Ireland, so he asked, “You Irate, no?”

“Good heavens, no, not at all, why should I be? Really, you don't have to leave so suddenly.”

Hu was putting on his shoes already. “Who said these Big-Noses aren't civilized? At least he had the courtesy to ask us to stay longer.”

The four students stood respectfully around the door and beamed at their teacher. “Good night, Sir! Joe Teacher, Goodbye! Bye bye!”

Joe, still somewhat taken aback by their lightning withdrawal, remembered to smile sincerely and say, “Uh-huh, umm, goodbye?” He watched in a daze as they entered the elevator, Hsi hopping along tying the other shoe.

Downstairs, Howard installed Miss Mi on the back seat of his motorcycle. “See you all tomorrow at work!” They putted off into the night.

Before getting on their motorcycles, Hu and Hsi engaged in the ritual of forcing cigarets on each other, and singeing each others’ noses with overly enthusiastically proffered lighters.

“So actually Joe Teacher was born in Ireland,” Hsi said.

“Even though he tried to deny it.”

“And his mother's Iranian. An Indian Iranian Irishman. What a strange combination,” mused Hsi.

“I wonder how old he was when he went to the States.”

“Maybe we can ask him the next time.”

“Good, let's do that. I just hope he gives us more time. He cut us forty minutes short tonight.”

“That's okay, we can make it up some other time. But what on earth did he say his great grandmother was a pot of?”

“I didn't get that, either. Western people are all so exotic and mysterious. Also, if he's Irish, why didn't he have any Irish money when he went back?” asked Hu.

“He probably exchanged it all into Deutschemarks to hedge against inflation.”

“I wonder if those were French francs, or Swiss francs?”

“Swiss, definitely Swiss. What would anybody want with French francs?” Hsi threw his cigaret butt into the gutter, and listened to it sizzle when it hit the water. “Give my regards to Aunt and Uncle. Bye bye.” and they rode off in different directions, leaving the alley silent.

Upstairs, straightening the chairs, Joe was horrified to realize that he had neglected one of his first duties as a teacher: “I forgot to get their names!”