Thursday, January 21, 2010

Taiwan Expat Culture: John’s Break from Reality I

I have already touched on the theme of how we lose touch with reality when we are here. All pretty obvious as we do the same in our own country when we go to university and we should know better.
Anyway, one of the ways we do so is in blatant character misjudgment. Gangsters behaving like stereotypes of gangsters in Asian films don't seem that scary. Similarly, psychos, train-wrecks, spoilt bitches and bastards, selfish controlling freaks – and, I guess, on the positive side, just plain old nice people, are redefined under the pressure of alienation. Your instinct probably told you to run a mile or marry them at the first opportunity, but in the interests of cultural understanding you decided to over analyze, rationalize the irrational and put yourself in a world of hurt.
As I have mentioned before John was trying his best to lead a quiet respectable life after a hell-raising past. He had done so successfully for several years. On this occasion he had decided to treat himself. I guess he regrets it, but I doubt it.
He had introduced us to his new girlfriend, Hsiao Lo, with a smug look on his face. She had sat down at the table and for the last two hours ran the show: made us buy jugs of beer and drink out of half pint glasses, filled our glasses with beer as soon as they were empty, made us cheers and down in one; made us play drinking games which we lost apart from Pierre who from his previous career had plenty of experience. It wasn't just her ability to drink or her looks that had us guessing pretty early on what her job was: the slight heavy makeup to cover a lack of sleep, the Louis Vitton bags and the Prada this and that; the two mobiles that kept ringing and the receptionist way she answered them as if she was in an office not answering her personal phone. For me it wasn't any of those things that had bothered me most, it was the way she had reacted when Pierre started beating her at paper, scissors, stone. The tension had got unbearable and you could tell inside her there was a volcano trying to erupt.
At this point she went off for a particularly long call.
“Where did you meet her?” I asked. “Doesn't seem the type who's off to do an MBA next year.”
“Usual place,” he replied. “Yeah, it has been an odd few weeks – I am missing the usual teashops and conversation about how university in the west is going to free her trapped independent spirit.”
“I think her spirit needs a bit of traditional Chinese crushing,” said Pierre whose hands were still stinging from the slapping and pulling.
“And she has never set foot in the west,” answered John. “So, so much for that bullshit argument.”
Eric broke out of his drunken haze as his favorite topic reared itself. “Obviously, she is an exception, but in the general case the education system in the west produces people who are more -”
“Shut up,” we all shouted.
“Anyway, Rosbif, I know you are not stupid. You know what she does for a living...”
At this point she arrived back and we all sheepishly pretended not to be talking about her.
“Of course, what do you do me dear?” said John.
“Oh, I work in a KTV. Don’t tell anyone,” she said with a conspiratorial nudge and wink. Even though we had guessed so it still an effect to have it confirmed. This was the first time Eric, Josh and I had met a girl who worked in a KTV; mystery surrounded it, like with soldiers, executioners, gangsters, thieves and prostitutes it was one of those professions for which we, middle-class boys, were eternally curious how they dealt with the responsibilities of their trade - They had to cry themselves to slept every night or be secret alcoholics.
“Don’t worry it is a high-class one. I only talk to customers,” she continued.
We believed her and knew the only downside was having to drink with lots of guys she didn’t know, but still we were dubious.
“So how long have you done this?” asked Josh.
“Three years. I started during university, and sort of couldn’t stop because of the money. I lived out of home for many years, kept bad company, I drink and I smoke, but I am not a bad girl,” she said without pausing for confirmation. Like everyone we are drawn to the excitement of the illegal and so we listened intently for signs to convince ourselves it was possible to do this and still be a happy, normal person. It was the good gangster with the heart of gold, who goes out and kills during the day but looks after his family, that the movies tended to enforce - I’m not all bad therefore I am not bad.
“I have to go,” she said and then filled our glasses again. “Everyone down in one.”
She obviously hadn't forgotten losing the games with Pierre and was preparing to make a point. She got a fresh bottle of Heineken and put a straw in it. “Look. How can you guys possibly lose?”
As we chugged our beer we guessed we were in for a surprise so we kept one eye on her. Before we had got half way she had sucked the bottle empty and placed it on the table triumphantly. A bottle of fizzy Heineken through a straw in a couple of seconds. It remains one of the most amazing feats of drinking I have ever seen.
A few minutes later she had gone and we were sat questioning our manhood.
John was the first to speak. “Boys don’t listen to that about her not being a bad girl, of course she is, but let the tart say what she wants.”
Eric, never one to let his engrained PC sensibilities give him the open mind they were supposed to, was the first to speak. “Maybe she doesn't get her clothes off, but she works in a KTV. It is illegal, man. It is going to be trouble.”
“John replied, “Yes, she is trouble but that isn't entirely to do with her KTV work. I mean maybe it is illegal...I am not sure actually, but that doesn't make it bad? She ain't a gangster. She doesn't steal things. She works for her money and is paid. It is just a frowned upon profession.”
Josh interrupted, “I agree, dude. But working in such a transaction based environment it is bound to have an effect. She sees herself as a price for guys.”
“What do you think Pierre?” asked John. “As you know first hand.”
“Of course you middle class liberals...Uh, what is the term? - Oh, yes, bleeding-heart are wrong again. Most of the girls love money, but are proud they are earning it. Most still want love and a boyfriend and do the opposite and actually pay for the boyfriend. They get money off some rich guy to support the guy they like...And, as John has cheap ass loser English teacher with no prospects stamped on his forehead, I doubt she fancied she had found the needle in the haystack – the one white guy with some cash in Taipei. Am I right?”
“Uh, half I guess. I haven't had to up my spending. In fact, she has paid for most things.”
“Ok,” I asked. “So why is she trouble?”
“Isn't it fucking obvious?” said John. “You saw her when she started losing the drinking game. In the three weeks I have known her she has jumped off the back of my motorbike twice because she didn't like something I said – on a busy street. She - like tonight - drinks on her night off – which obviously makes her a borderline alcoholic. She earns about five times what I do, but she has spent it all by mid-month. Her brother is in jail. She is late for work every day when she starts at 9pm. She is compulsive, addictive, psycho who would be rejected by Jerry Springer for being too hard to handle. I ought to run a mile but as you bleeding hearters would say she should be given a chance – I might just be misinterpreting the situation because of my cultural ignorance...”
He of course said the last part with a nod and a wink and we sat thinking how to get our own back.
He continued, “This you will like if you want me to be truthful – I have spent years driving past betel nut stands and looking longingly at the girls entering the KTVs. Last week, I dropped her off at work and the pseudo gangster guys at the door in their black suits give me that look and I give them a smug one back and a mental middle finger. I have been dying to do that for years.”
“Wonderful,” said Pierre. “I am glad the age of the neanderthal is not dead.”
“Hey, don't knock it – Remember why your left hand doesn't function too well? You didn't mind the help of the neanderthal then.”
At the time we dropped the subject because John seemed to know what he was doing. However, it soon occurred to me that awareness you are having a break from reality is just that wrapped up in another form.
Still, he was better equipped to handle it than most of us. I suppose in the end he did handle it better we would have....

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