The meanderings of a recovering ex-expat with the occasional identity crisis
I know for a sorry fact that, if my Dad were to pass away tomorrow, his greatest regret would not be that 1000+ item Vegas Strip buffet he never tried, nor the unmarked graves of his parents that he, the only male heir, never got to visit. His greatest regret would be that he never hurled me down that rice-covered aisle into the trembling arms of my terrified Chinese husband.
In the mid-90s, when I was teaching English in Taiwan, my Dad put a personal ad in a national Taiwanese newspaper without my knowledge. This was before the days of online dating and the time when taking out a personal ad meant you were as ugly and as socially-inept as expired Spam.
My Dad one day sat me down, gave me a stack of mail, then showed me a blurb in the newspaper, which read:
Well-educated, slim, bilingual English/Chinese girl, 22 years old. Quiet and thoughtful, seeking a single, university-educated male 25-35 years old. Buddhist and enjoys playing the piano and the guzheng, reading books, and going for long walks. Those who are interested, please reply in writing with your contact information to item#38719.
“Wow…Dad, WHO is this girl? She sounds like a big, nerdy loser! Ahhh ha, ha, ha!”
After I realized that *I* was the big nerdy loser I ranted at my Dad for the rest of the day. I wasn’t Buddhist nor quiet. Are Buddhists supposed to be quiet, anyway? I hated taking long walks in polluted Taipei and took only three months of guzheng classes, till one of the strings on my instrument broke. The personal ad was misleading and represented Chinese women in a manner I most despised – as helpless, delicate lotus blossoms (which they are usually not). I then threw the stack of mail into the garbage and tore up the newspaper ad.
But several days later, I calmed down. And then, I became intrigued… then dangerously curious. Because besides describing me as a “quiet and thoughtful” girl, my Dad conveniently left out “who is a complete danger to herself and others”. I’m sure I’ll one day die by either activating the trap door underneath my feet, or walking down that dark alley to see what all the blood-curdling screams and gunshots are about. That stack of letters from the newspaper ad, like that red button labeled, “Activate only by the explicit order of the President of the United States of America”, were just too tempting to pass up.
Now, I may have been a big, nerdy loser, but boy, was I a popular one. I got about thirty letters from one measly newspaper ad that ran only one day – and I hadn’t even posted a picture! Never mind the fact that the respondents might have been one pineapple slice away from being total fruitcakes. Undeserved drooling devotion from anonymous Chinese men was a great ego booster.
Then I got to work. First, I weeded out the very obvious form letters, the Hey, I’d like to know you more. Here’s my number, which showed absolutely no creativity.
Gone also were the extremes – a yahoo who had written his letter on the back of a flyer for breast augmentation, or the schlub whose letter was a greasy piece of paper with a large corner missing – presumably to wrap the betel nut pulp he was spitting out.
Everyone had written in Chinese, except for one guy who was brave enough to write in what I assumed was English:
Dear Miss Item#37819:
I am very nice to meet you here today for the (
illegible) of your knowing.
To say I am for not of (
illegible) the news paper ( illegible) much lucky to me. And my family two bigger sister and only I am man. Man.
Mother Father Grandmother in YongHo. Two room up stair down. (
Illegible) nobody myself.
Hope to make your good acquaintance by (
illegible) lovely nice. Or next weeks.
My phone number: XXXXX. Hope to hear your soon!
This letter was intriguing for several reasons, the most obvious being the guy’s name – Woody. It’s rare to find a Chinese man named Woody, especially in Taiwan during the mid-90s. Woody also reminded me of Woody Woodpecker, which was one of my favorite childhood cartoons. Woody also had the balls to write in English.
Another guy wrote on heavily-scented paper (ie. Women’s perfume) and said that he liked needlework, performing Broadway shows, and playing the guzheng. This was a little weird and I had checked several times to see whether the letter was misdirected to me when it was meant for a guy. Even the writing was fancy and flowery. But the letter was from a man and intended for a woman (me). The last letter writer had included several pictures and he was H-O-T. I can’t remember his name, how old he was and what his interests were. I can’t even remember if he wrote in complete sentences or knew how to spell his name, but he was short listed.
To ease myself into the process, I first called the Gender in Question guy, out of curiosity, to find out his story. His Mother – or someone I assumed was his Mother figure – answered. His/her voice was deep and husky, but he/she spoke like a formal, sixty-year old grandmother.
“Are you the girl from the personal ad? Aiya…my little Ah Hua (Flower) has been talking about you non-stop, since he responded to your ad two weeks ago! He is at choir practice now. What a pity, oh! Miss, why don’t you leave me your phone number, ah?”
I didn’t leave my phone number, I’d gotten my answer: Little Flower was a guy who used women’s perfume, went to choir practice and had a she-male for a Mother.
Being new to Taiwan and new to personal-ad dating, I had naively assumed that Chinese men were far less interested in sex than their Caucasian counterparts, and that Chinese men wanted to know the broad and not the boobs. I thought my dates would be awkward, but innocuous – a funny story to tell friends later over a beer. This was some misguided Confucian stereotype I had growing up in Canada with no Chinese friends. Confucius seemed too busy with philosophizing to have time for sex. My parents were not openly affectionate and had never appeared to have sex, even though I have a younger sister. My Chinese relatives were always more interested in Mahjong than sex, and probably made more noise during Mahjong than sex. Besides, I didn’t think that guys who answered newspaper ads placed by potentially ugly women with the personalities of refried beans would have sex on their minds.
But I was wrong.
After Gender in Question Guy, I called Hot Guy, who was at the top of the list. He had a heavy Taiwanese accent and spoke very fast, like a guy hustling fake LV bags on a busy street corner in Hong Kong. He had many unrelated thoughts at once. His sentences were like mismatched puzzle pieces that came out of different boxes and didn’t fit together to form anything.
“You’re a Buddhist? Once I went to Yangmingshan and we had a barbeque, but my buddy, Niao (Bird), got drunk and nearly fell off his bike. The music was terrible.”
“Uh, well, I’m not really a Buddhist –”
“– I think you should be a pretty smart girl. Lao Er (Number 2, or second-born son) got a business importing sea cucumbers, so I thought I’d help him out. I’ve never been to Thailand, have you?”
“Hey, if you’re good in English, maybe you can teach me sometime. What are you wearing?’
“Women look sexy in summer dresses with the thin straps, my Xiao Di (Little Brother) likes the high heels. You like your food spicy?”
I didn’t realize it at the time, but Hot Guy was sending me very sexual messages – Lao Er (Second Son), Xiao Di (Little Brother) and Niao (Bird) are slang terms for the male penis. Sea cucumbers – that’s probably globally understood. But of course only a mental moron like me would let the analogies go right over her head.
“Actually, I like sea cucumbers in soup. They are firm, but chewy and are actually quite tasty, especially with a little pork meat and Chinese mushrooms….”
English-letter-writer Woody Chou took the train for two hours to meet me at the Taipei Main Train Station. I purposely dressed down and frumpy – an ill-fitting black, button-down shirt (my Mom’s cast-off) and too-loose jeans with an old belt I had to tie in a knot at the end – so that there would be no chance for Woody to request a second date. I dressed like the Auntie garbage collectors who roamed the streets of Taipei with the big straw hats, straw brooms and bamboo baskets. My freshly-washed hair looked like a nuclear mushroom bomb, as I didn’t use any hair products. At the last minute, I realized I was wearing mismatched socks, which was excellent. It would further emphasize what an utter mistake I was. I imagined Woody and I having a brief coffee, then going our separate ways, with Woody sprinting towards the nearest exit.
But I was even more terribly wrong.
Woody Chou spoke in the same manner that he wrote. Substitute the (
illegible ) with a ( hiccup) and now you get the picture. It’s the nerves, Woody said. Apparently, Woody was so nervous that it caused him to hiccup. Just when I thought the hiccups were gone, they’d come roaring back again, like an atrocious fashion fad – 1980s shoulder-pads or 1970s polyester bell bottoms with the paisley shirts.
The date could have been condensed into five minutes, except Woody kept getting sidetracked by his hiccups and forgot what he was talking about, then spent another ten minutes trying to remember. Several times Woody had to run to the bathroom, as the hiccups became so severe he couldn’t breathe properly and needed to go to the bathroom to…I didn’t know what…but on one occasion he was gone for more than five minutes. Just as I was about to sneak out, Woody came running back, as hiccuppy as ever. I stammered out an excuse about my Mother needing me to go back home before…um, 3pm on a Sunday…so that we could…read the…BIBLE…no, no – BUDDHIST BIBLE…together, and chant Buddhist things….
Little did I know, most Chinese men who respond to personal ads placed in national Taiwanese newspapers find filial piety and good morals to be attractive traits in a woman. If she is dutiful and kind-hearted, she should not object to the idea of giving her future paraplegic in-laws sponge baths. Some Chinese men of your nightmares may also think that a woman who dresses in clothes she found in the garbage to be frugal, another admirable quality. I was looking better and better to Woody.
hiccup) time, you wanna ( hiccup) go ( hiccup) to the MTV, or ( hiccup) something? I know ( hiccup) a place where we ( hiccup) can be alone ( hiccup).”*
*MTVs were popular in the 1990s in Taiwan as a place where young people could rent a room and watch movies, MTV, sing kareoke. It’s typically known as a place to make out, because kids – even as adults – live with their parents till they get married and can’t have dates stay overnight at home. It’s the equivalent of renting a motel room.
How to Succeed at Landing ANY MAN of Your Nightmares: