Year Abroad

by Serena Crawford

Appears in Other Voices #39

When Iím twenty, I live in Taiwan and I have a boyfriend who teaches me how to live. I donít know any better. I honestly donít.

Here is me at age twenty: Iím an insomniac. My hormones are raging. Iíve failed out of college in the States, and I donít know if Iíll ever go back. Iím not sure what Iím doing with my life, or whether I want to live. Being in Taiwan is supposed to help me sort this out.

I have sores on my legsósome sort of skin disorder that no one can pinpointóand I canít stop scratching them. These scabs get infected in the heat and rip off and bleed. I go to bars like theyíre going out of style. I smoke so much I donít notice the pollution, even when the newspaper warns against doing any physical activity outside. The insides of my forefinger and middle finger are stained a reddish brown. Iím teaching English as a Second Language to a class of six-year-olds obsessed with drawing penises because of a popular Japanese cartoon called la bi xiao xin, a boy who pulls down his pants every chance he gets.

For some reason, I think Iíve messed up my life and I want to start over, but the fact of the matter is Iím too young to have done anything that terrible. Besides failing out of school all thatís happened is this: Iíve been living in the basement of my motherís house because she remarried and the step kids, who are still in grade school, live upstairs. I sit around and listen to loud music because I donít go to class. I donít have a job. My mother tells me sheís afraid that because of me sheíll get another divorce. All I do is mope around and put a damper on the whole house. Sheís right. I agree to leave.

The third day in Taiwan, I wake up in the morning to find a Chinese character tattooed on the side of my upper arm. It looks like a crying face wearing a party hat. I donít know how it got there. I donít know what it means.

How do you get by when you feel like your whole life is a mistake? Whatís it like to be normal?

At twenty, I donít know these things.

I first meet my boyfriend in an expat bar where the stools and tables are painted a thick and bubbly black. There are cockroaches and silver graffiti on the walls. Iím drunk, pathetically so, but Iím on an emotional high. This is the thing about me, though. When Iím like this I canít remember ever feeling down.

ďFate,Ē he says, sitting down next to me.

ďYeah, right,Ē I say.

ďNo, your arm.Ē He points to my tattoo. The area around it is still a bit red.

We establish that my name is Kate, his Derrick. Weíre both from the States. Heís been in Taiwan for two years, me for two weeks. Before that he lived in Nepal and India. This is my first time out of the U.S. We both teach kids. He teaches at a place called Big Bird, and says that when heís in a bad mood all he has to do is pretend heís Oscar the Grouch. In between classes he exhales smoke out one of the school windows into an alley full of drying laundry. Once, when one of his students wouldnít stop playing with a musical pencil case, he threw it out that very same window and still heard the music coming from down below.

I teach phonics at the International Language Center and am required to wear a white blouse and a nametag to work. When I teach, I put on aviator sunglasses. The principal doesnít mind because she thinks itís American-cool. If my students knew how to say freak of nature, in English, thatís what theyíd call me. Instead, they say my eyes are purpleóprobably because they never see themóand my nose is fat.

Derrick is ten years older than me. We live only four streets away from each other, each on the other side of a tunnel the expats call Toxic Tunnel because of the way the fumes swirl in the middle like artificial smoke at a magic show. People drive through on scooters as quickly as possible, wearing surgical masks and holding their breath.

Heís a loner, but admits lately heís been feeling like he could use the company. I have a vague sense heís chosen me because he thinks heís finally found someone more lost than himself.

ďWhy so grave?Ē he asks, twisting a cocktail napkin around his finger.

I shrug my shoulders. I realize Iíve been frowning. Iím weird that way. I already have worry lines. People either think Iím forty or fourteen.

He tries to make me laugh; Iíll give him that. Heís had quite a bit to drink himself.

He says: ďYou know what my favorite part about tonight is? When I asked you if I had bad breath and you didnít answer.Ē

He also says: ďEver notice the proverbs on all the notebooks here? ĎHe who fiddles all day shall seldom lead the orchestra.í ĎHe who rises late shall trot all day and seldom overtake his work at night.íĒ

ďSo thatís where Iíve gone wrong,Ē I say. ďIf only Iíd known.Ē

He offers to show me around over the weekend, help me settle in. He says he knows how overwhelming a new country can be. Heís traveled quite a bit. But that night, since Iím feeling cocky, I tell him I can figure it out myself.

ďWant to take a ride out to Anping beach?Ē he says. ďMy motorcycle drives better with the extra weight on back.Ē Late night, Anping beach is where the expats go. It has a small amusement park with a monkey on a chain.

I look at him sideways and then get up from my stool to leave. I scan the top of the bar and gather my things carefullyóa pack of cigarettes and a key. I donít want anyone or anything to bring me down. I donít want to crash, not now. So I say no.

The next morning, depressed and hungover, I wade through Toxic Tunnel on foot and knock on Derrickís door, which is inside a gated yard containing one scraggly, sorry-looking chicken. The morning after Iím always crawling over my steps from the night before wondering, Did I actually say that? Did I actually do that? Iím going through a stage where Iíll say something and then kick myself over it for the next week. Iím extremely hard on myself. I think, If only I could be like other twenty-year-olds, but frankly I wouldnít even know where to start. Iím lucky this time, that other than a couple of wise-ass remarks to Derrick, there isnít too much to regret. My scabs are throbbing. I can feel acne cysts growing on my neck. Everything about me feels heavy even though I only weigh a hundred and fifteen pounds. My eyelids are swollenóI think from the heat. I canít open them all the way.

Why do I choose him? Heís the only other foreigner I know.

I must look like hell because he just stands there in bleach-white boxer shorts and says, ďJesus, take it easy.Ē Iím glad he doesnít ask me why Iíve come. I donít have a reason for why I feel the way I do, why everything in me seems loose, as if Iíve been split open and hastily sewed back up. He hands me a tissue and I wipe the dirt off my face. Five minutes outside and the tissue is black.

I tell him straight out then: ďYou see, Iíve developed this annoying habit of taking too many sleeping pills at one time.Ē

Actually, Iíve only done this twice before.

I say: ďAll my life, I thought I was going to die young. Now that Iím twenty and still alive, I donít know what to do.Ē

Itís true. I have this feeling of a vast, empty space looming out before me. I donít know how people get through thirty, sixty years. The idea seems cruel.

ďThose sleeping pills,Ē he says. ďDid you take them now?Ē

ďI donít know how to say them in Chinese.Ē

ďMaybe itís good you donít learn.Ē

In the light of day, he looks older than I ever hope to be. His eyes are bloodshot. His room is exactly like mineóit has a speckled green linoleum floor and reminds me of a kitchenette. Itís bare except for a red paper lantern heís hung over the ceiling light and an oilpaper umbrella propped up in the corner. His clothes are stacked in a plastic armoire with wheels. He makes tea for me, first filling a brown pot with boiling water and tossing the water out, and then filling the pot with tea leaves and boiling water. He dumps that out too. He puts more tea and boiling water in the pot, and we both wait. He explains to me that making tea in Taiwan involves care and time. He paces the room, and I notice he has flat, pink scars on his legs. His legs are shiny and hairless and the scars are a little darker than the splotches of regular skin. He sees me looking and tells me he was caught in a fire when he was six years old. He doesnít remember the fire that well, but he does remember being alone in a closet, coughing. Heís a typical expatóamazingly candid and forthright. When he finally gives me the small, steaming cup, he encloses it in both hands as if to show me a small animal. I donít hesitate to drink it down.

He takes me out and feeds me a bowl of watery rice for breakfast. He sets me up with a bike and a fan. He buys me a yellow poncho from the Big Egg and tells me Polly is the name of the next typhoon coming through. He writes down the address of my school so I can have people send me letters thereóin the small alleys where we live mail tends to get lost. He introduces me to do hua, Chinese pudding, which I then eat every evening until I leave. In the days that follow, I learn there is a routine: teach classes, go to Barfly. I listen for the rumble of the night train, or the early morning music the garbage trucks play. These sounds help me sleep. My favorite drink is milk tea with tapioca balls. I canít go a day without rice.

When we have free time, we go on motorcycle rides past salt-evaporating fields, or examine the different sidewalks in front of each shop. He shows me parking lots built for mopeds, the white painted slots only a third of the usual size. We go to an arcade in Chinatown and play a video game where you punch a red bag three times as hard as you can and try to get a knockout. If you do, there is a bell that rings and people stare. We go to shrimping ponds on the outskirts of Tainan and hook shrimp as large as rats and then grill them. We drive out to Anping beach every night and inhale the salty air. When we get there, we chew betelnut and I can feel my heart rate speed up. Derrick claims itís better than jogging. Sometimes, we tee off at the nearest golf range, which is covered in something that reminds me of a fish net. We joke that we are caught. Derrick has a tape of Taiwanese folk music he calls the Sounds of Taiwan. In the mornings, he puts it in a cassette player and we take it to the park. At first he shows me tai chi, but at the end of the lesson we almost always break out into exaggerated song and dance. Derrick looks like heís trying to flag down a plane. I pretend to shovel something over my shoulder. It becomes the Sounds of Us.

I find this comforting. It seems life doesnít have to be so serious, so hard.

If weíre bored, Derrick takes out his moonblocks. We sit around and throw them like weíve seen people do in temples, except for us itís a game. The moonblocks are two small wooden crescent moons, about the size of your knuckles. Each one has a side thatís round and a side thatís flat. In Chinese theyíre called jiao.

We play them like this: Say a statement. Drop the blocks. If both flat sides land down, the gods are frowning. If both flat sides land up, the gods are laughing. If one flat surface faces up and the other down, then the gods approve. We usually play two out of three.

When we canít decide what movie we want to see, we throw the moonblocks. If we donít know where to go, we throw them as well. Sometimes we use them to predict the exchange rate before we go to the jewelry store to change money. We also use them to tell us what time to go to the jewelry store so we donít run into copsóchanging money there is illegal but the rates are good. The moonblocks confirm the red mailboxes are for overseas mail, the green ones for domestic. They tell us an old woman weíve seen sitting in the middle of a dusty convenience store, wearing woven shoes on her bound feet, is ninety-seven years old.

Derrick carries the blocks in the pocket of his pants or the inside pocket of his Windbreaker. He keeps them in a drawstring sac, like heís carrying a gigantic diamond ring. What delights us is that they are almost always right.

Most of the expatsí conversations tend to take place at night in Barfly, as if we are in a play and this is our stage. Barfly is air-conditioned and no one feels like talking or moving in the heat of the day.

On one of these nights, Derrick is drunker than usual. I can tell because he holds his glass crooked, spills a little Taiwan beer on himself.

ďThen do you know what happened?Ē he says, turning to me. The side of his face is flickering white, the reflection from a TV screen above the bar.

Iím screwing and unscrewing the top off a tiny red jar of tiger balm. I love to dab this stuff on my temples. I love the smell.

ďNo, what happened?Ē Iím used to Derrick coming out of nowhere, his zigzagging train of thought.

ďAfter I realized nobody was coming, I ran out of the closet. Six years old and Iím jumping through fire, practically playing fucking hopscotch through flames to get to the door.Ē

By then, these revelations donít surprise me. All the expats have them, especially when drunk. There is always the past that returns to haunt. There is a former stripper who claimed he used to be a pilot until one night he got drunk and did his old routine on top of the bar. Thereís the lead singer in a band who likes to wear his old missionary nametag, Elder John, during shows just for kicks.

ďNobody came to get me,Ē Derrick says, wiping the corner of his mouth.

I know by now itís best to keep silent and not draw the story out.

ďWould you have?Ē He dabs at a fallen eyelash on my cheek and blows it off the tip of his finger into the air.

I shrug my shoulders. Iím not even sure yet if I would save myself.

That night when we ride out to Anping beach the shop signs make the town look like the cardboard set of a movie. The trucks are miniature and remind me of Tonka toys. I notice the different smellsófirst like glue, then perfume. Every once in a while a raindrop flies in my eye making the traffic lights bleary. The roads are glossy. There are street shops selling standing lamps set up on the side of the road, as if to light our way.

When we crash, I hit the wheel of a parked car with my shoulder and fall down onto the cement, and Derrick rolls over the hood of the same car and onto the other side. Thereís dirt and gravel in my mouth, and at first Iím scared itís all smashed up bits of teeth. I think, Next time youíre in an accident keep your mouth shut. The front of the motorcycle is crumpled like a tin can.

Iíve never had a literal crash before. Iím stunned.

On the other side of the car Derrick gets up, limb by limb. He sidesteps around the car and over to me. He looks at the motorcycle, lying gnarled against the pavement. He runs his hands over his face, then mine, the same way I imagine a blind person would. We roll our pants up over our calves and check our knees. We look at each otherís elbows. Derrick takes off his Windbreaker and then his shirt, a striped one he bought in Nepal. He unties his rope belt and drops his pants. ďSee anything?Ē he says, his voice shaking. I look him up and down and say, ďNope.Ē Weíre both clean. Neither one of us has a scratch.

He picks up his Windbreaker and takes the moonblocks out of the pocket. He holds them over his head, up into the sky. ďHoly mother of.ÖĒ he says. ďDo you realize what just happened?Ē He kisses the blocks and touches one handlebar of the bike, which is bent back like the horn of a ram. Itís as though he all of a sudden believes in God.

I try to, but what really comes to mind is my bum luck. If I tried to jump off a bridge, Iíd probably land on a cushioned raft.

We start using the moonblocks for everything. Once, they tell us not to teach, so we drive past Derrickís school with yellow trim around the front and go to MTV to watch movies instead. On our way back, we see three police cars parked in front of Big Bird. It turns out there was a raid, and two illegal teachers were caught. Derrick whistles a sigh of relief. Heís overstayed his visa by three weeks. Another time the blocks tell us to go to a pachinko parlor, and I win two thousand Taiwan dollars. I take us both to a seafood restaurant and Derrick looks into a tank and points out a fish with big lips to the waiter. Ten minutes later, the waiter returns with that fish cooked and puts it on a lazy Susan. He brings more dishes and we wheel them back and forth between us. Derrick gives me the cheek of the fish to eat, picking it out with his chopstick. We shovel down our food like we havenít eaten in weeks, and because itís a fancy restaurant, we donít eat any rice. On the drive home we go slow, laughing at the way all the other scooters pass us, people wearing masks like highway bandits. Derrick says a full belly is one of the greatest feelings in life.

If his motorcycle gets a flat tire, heíll take the sac out and say, ďDo you think one of these will work as a spare?Ē He still jokes around, although maybe not as much.

We go to Luerhman temple for Chinese New Year, but the fireworks display is cancelled. Instead, everyone stands in the parking lot and shoots off firecrackers. People are shooting firecrackers any way but up. They fly over our heads. A lot of them blow up before they take off or after they land back on the ground. A boy is crying and holding a hand over his eye. Derrick wraps his jacket around me and shouts, ďCease fire!Ē Of course, no one can hear. We make our way to the side of the parking lot. He has me put on a yellow poncho and tie the drawstring of the hood tight under my chin. He holds my things while I crawl under a bench. I say, ďJust give me a sparkler back here and Iíll be fine.Ē Derrick walks out into the middle of the parking lot, and I see firecrackers whiz past him. He twirls around and stops. He sticks one foot out as if heís about to break out into a tap dance. It looks like heís smiling in a flurry of shooting stars.

Or we go out to a night market and push our way through the crowd, through oncoming scooters and around a man crawling on the pavement with his legs chained together and a bag over his head. People toss him money. The exhaust rises up from the scooters, and I hold my breath. We pass stalls selling clothes, pastries, medicine, and music. A drunken man bumps into me and Derrick glares at him. Someone is singing karaoke and the sound of video games and beeping alarm clocks wafts through the air. We buy an oyster omelet and sit down at one of the plastic tables. Derrick takes a couple of bites and tells me not to eat any because it tastes strange. It turns out heís right. When we get home, he canít stop throwing up. I think, Now what? What the hell do I do? Derrick is lying on his side, limbs straight out in front of him like a dog. I begin to panic because I donít think I know enough Chinese to call the hospital. I hear a click and turn around to see the blocks splayed at my feet.

ďThrow them,Ē Derrick tells me, so I do. This is the thing I love about the blocks. I donít take the blame for one single thing. I donít have to make decisions. Itís like betting with Monopoly money instead of real cash.

The Gods say no, Derrick shouldnít go to the doctor.

Two days later, heís a little weaker and five pounds thinner, but heís fine. He has a white crust on his lips, but it washes off.

I watch him get out of bed. At first he sits up and blinks his eyes, the blood rushing from his head. Then he tiptoes around the room, taking tentative steps. Finally he sets his heels down on the floor and holds his arms up in the air like a victorious boxer.

He tells me as long as he can depend on the blocks he will never be hurt again.

Towards the end of one year, I need to renew my visa. I need to leave the country, so Iím flying back to the States.

Derrick wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, refuses to look me in the eye.

He throws the blocks and says this is the end of us.

I fight him on this. I say Iím coming back. I show him my return ticket with the date stamped across the front. Iíll only be away for two weeks. Iím more adamant than Iíve ever been. I cross my heart, swear to God. ďDo you remember what I was like when I came?Ē I say. ďI canít do that to myself.Ē I look at the green linoleum floor of his room and tell him this is my life. ďIíve come so far,Ē I say. ďI refuse to go back to hell.Ē I think about the checkered curtains in my motherís basement and I cringe.

Derrick slides his back down the wall until heís sitting on the floor. He pinches his stomach and examines his skin.

Back in the States, my sores clear up the fifth day Iím there. On the sixth day, I turn twenty-one. People say Iíve grown taller and blonder over the year. Iím more confident. I notice I donít have those big hills and valleys anymore- no more whopping ups and downs. Itís like a curse has been lifted. The dean calls and it turns out my college is willing to take me back as long as I get a C+ or higher in every class. I can live in the dorms with other students my age.

It only takes about a week for memories of Taiwan to become distant. I substitute Dannon yogurt for do hua and realize things can be easy in the States too. I learn there is a replacement for almost everything in life, and when there isnít, I can usually take a five-hour bus ride to the nearest Chinatown and find something close enough. For example, there isnít a chained monkey, but there is a white chicken that plays tick-tack-toe in a glass cage.

I feel more settled and peaceful, as if Iíve realized thereís no use swimming against the current and instead I lie on my back and float along with it.

I cruise the mall and sip soda through a blue and white striped straw. I brush my teeth with a toothpaste that sparkles. I watch sitcoms on TV and understand the jokes. I jog around the park wearing sweatpants with rips over the knees and a Walkman, just like Iíve seen a girl from my grade school do. We end up jogging together and she wants to trade tapes. She tells me sheís been listening to James Taylor all summer long and shakes the tape so I can hear the sand rattle inside. I tell her I only have the Sounds of Taiwan. She shrugs her shoulders and takes it.

Is it the moonblocks? Is it fate? Two weeks pass and I never got on that plane.

I finally feel like I have a shot at being normal.

I feel guilty, although maybe not as guilty as I used to feel. There is a stinging in my throat. I ask myself, How do you live having done something like this? But Iíve grown stronger over the year, so I can answer. You do because you have to. You made the choice.

A month later, when Iím struggling in the middle of chemistry labs and the leaves on the trees are starting to circle and fall, I get some drawings from students and mail forwarded to me from my school in Taiwan. The kids have drawn P as in Pig and I have to laugh, because below the area where they have traced Ps and PIGs, theyíve drawn tiny pigs with gigantic penises. Why not just make it P as in Penis?

Underneath, I find a postcard of a temple sent from Thailand. Itís from Derrick. It begins, Please forgive me. I can only imagine your shock returning here to find me gone.