Pearl watched the door, but Dean didn’t walk through it. The other teachers milled about the room, and snacked on the European cheeses and American junk food arranged on platters and in bowls. They all worked at the Happy Smile English Academy. The hosts were the lead teachers—a couple—and had lived in Taiwan the longest out of all of them, not counting the two native Taiwanese teachers who sat next to one another on the couch warily eyeing the cubes of cheese that sweated in the heat.
It was a potluck supper and Pearl was the only American who brought Chinese food. Her aunt had prepared soy sauce pork and tea eggs while Pearl’s mother supervised, adding her own special dose of anxiety like a secret spice. Pearl’s food sat, unopened, on a corner of the crowded coffee table. The hosts hadn’t even cooked rice.
Philip, an Irishman, brought three foot-long sandwiches from Subway, the American chain. When he saw the cheese platters he stopped before the table. “Bless my heart, is that Gouda?”
Jane, a Canadian, speared a cube and handed it to him. “Someone better eat it. This cost a fortune at the Tiger Mall.”
Philip closed his eyes as he swallowed, and then buried his hands in a bowl of potato chips. These were plain salted chips, not one of the fanciful flavors, like seaweed, or fried chicken, invented for the Taiwanese market.
Pearl watched the door. Dean was the reason she had come to the party. The other teachers made her uncomfortable. Between classes they complained about things like the foreignness of the food—which was nothing like the Chinese food they had eaten at home. They longed for delicacies like a real French baguette, or a good cup of coffee. Once they found out that she was half-Taiwanese, they became more self-conscious about their complaints. It didn’t matter that she was from New York; she was just enough of a ‘native’ to make them aware of their pettiness. They faulted Taiwan for not being home, for having unfamiliar social cues that made it difficult to distinguish sincerity from politeness. Even though Pearl felt many of the same frustrations, when she was around the other English teachers, she felt defensive of the very cultural differences they criticized.
Dean was the only other teacher as young as she was. The other ex-pat teachers were a good ten years older than Pearl. They were making the best of a bad economy back home by teaching in Taiwan and saving money by living frugally.
Pearl and Dean met at the Happy Smile offices when he was covering a shift for another teacher he described as the Angry Lesbian from Detroit. (Pearl later learned that the Angry Lesbian from Detroit had earned her nickname when she turned down Dean’s advances.) Pearl and Dean chatted between classes and he invited her to have lunch with him the next Sunday, which was their only day off, just like the Taiwanese.
Though she often couldn’t understand him through his New Zealander’s accent they went on six very chaste dates on their days off from the Academy. He asked her joking questions about New York. Like, “Is the Bronx really up, while the Battery is down?” Then his expression would change and he’d ask more earnestly, “If I visited you back home, would you have me? Would you show me the places only true New York girls know?”
Still, he also said, “Taiwan’s a country full of virgins.” She hadn’t been sure how to take that. Was she supposed to prove him wrong? They were on their second date when he’d said that to her, in his mean teasing way. To sass him back she pointed at a closed-up-looking building that had no windows. It was a love hotel, with a lobby that led to the type of two-way glass window used in police interrogation rooms. The customer walked up to the mirrored glass and spoke into an intercom. The entire transaction was anonymous. There was a sign in Chinese, and then in English the legend—“City is in concealment in the love space.”
“That’s where people go to screw if they can’t do it at home.” Pearl watched Dean from the corner of her eye. He reappraised her, and she blushed, not able to fake the attitude as her own.
Pearl herself had just finished school. Taiwan had always been a vexing place to her, somewhere she felt drawn to but repelled by at the same time. She thought that if she lived in Taiwan she’d finally learn Mandarin. She’d studied the language in college but usually read novels instead of practicing her vocabulary. She couldn’t articulate what she hoped to gain by mastering her mother’s tongue, but she imagined it was a key of sorts. Surely all daughters feel misunderstood by their mothers, perhaps not as literally as Pearl felt misunderstood by her own.
Pearl’s mother thought it was strange that she would even consider living in Taiwan on her own, instead of with her aunt.
“You don’t speak Chinese. You can’t read. You’ll get lost.”
Pearl slapped her hand on the table. “Exactly! How else do you think I’ll learn?”
Her mother cut her eyes away, and sucked her teeth. “You don’t know how hard it is. You don’t know how lost I am. How scared I am when I first come here.”
Pearl straightened up in her seat to emphasize the nearly half-foot difference in their heights. “I’m not scared.”
“You’re too stupid to be scared.”
So, Pearl lived with her aunt. She signed a yearlong contract with Happy Smile English Academy and immediately regretted it.
Pearl’s mother came with her to Taiwan, intending to stay for a month, long enough for her to get set up, but it was going on two months and she was still there.
Pearl’s mother and aunt almost made a sport out of imagining all the horrific things that could happen to her if allowed to navigate the city without a chaperone. They convinced themselves that Pearl would be abducted, raped, and killed if they didn’t protect her. It didn’t matter to either of them that she had lived in her own apartment with three other girls during her last year of college. Nor that Feng Yuan was far safer than New York, where Pearl regularly went to parties or rock concerts in dirty industrial neighborhoods and took the subway home alone, late at night. Her aunt was terrified to even let her take a city bus to work and harangued her son to ferry Pearl about. He was a student and kept hours that fit her schedule, but she could feel his resentment radiating from his back as they rode across the city on his motor scooter.
Besides Dean, the only friend Pearl had at Happy Smile English Academy was Lan, a Taiwanese woman. She wasn’t a teacher, but a secretary. She was taking night classes so she might one day teach English. Until then, she used every opportunity to practice her English with Pearl. Lan liked to bring Pearl food. She brought dumplings and pork buns every day until Pearl complained that Lan was trying to make her fat.
Lan pinched Pearl’s arm, “Are you trying to reduce your size?”
Pearl shook her head. “No, I just can’t eat this rich food everyday.”
Lan smiled. “It’s because your father is American. If you were Taiwanese you would be like this.” Lan held up her slim pinky.
Sometimes Lan irritated Pearl. She liked to put things into neat categories and say, “We Taiwanese believe this…” or “Americans always think that…” Pearl wanted to shout, “How would you know if you’ve never been to America?” but she held her tongue.
They sat next to one another on the couch. Lan opened up the plastic container with the pork and eggs Pearl’s aunt had spent three hours simmering. Without asking her if she wanted any, Lan picked up a piece of pork with chopsticks and held it toward Pearl’s mouth. Before she could stop herself Pearl opened her mouth to be fed. When Lan tried to guide another piece to her mouth, Pearl stopped her. “I can feed myself.”
Pearl stood up and walked out onto the balcony to watch for Dean. He was often very funny, and they spoke for hours the way young people do in order to make themselves understood, as if their pasts are deep veins to be mined for treasure and insight. She often felt Dean was the only person in the entire country she could really talk to.
Sometimes, though, he was just mean. He’d told her that when parents picked up their children and smiled shyly at him he’d pretend to praise their children in a cheerful tone. He knew that they didn’t speak English so he said things like, “Your child is astonishingly thick!” in a way that made the parents think he was just tickled with their genius.
She asked him, “What if they understand you?”
He waved his hand in dismissal. “They never do.”
She’d had notions of having flings while she was in Taiwan but she was so cloistered living with her aunt, there was little chance of that. Even though Pearl studied Mandarin everyday, and was even starting to dream in Chinese, she felt awkward around Taiwanese men her own age. She knew they saw her, because even going to Circle K or 7-11 caused people to stare at her, but she felt like an exhibit—for display—not for use.
In turn, she was fascinated by the betel nut girls who sat in glass cubicles dressed in lingerie, spandex, or sexy schoolgirl costumes and sold boxes of betel nuts or cigarettes. The way so many Taiwanese couldn’t help staring at her, she studied those girls whenever she passed a betel nut stand, and wondered if their lives matched their outfits.
On one of their Sundays, Pearl waited for Dean and stood with her hip cocked, one foot in front of the other. A young Taiwanese woman stopped in front of her and said something, but Pearl couldn’t understand her so the woman reached down and pushed her knees together. Pearl could only stare at the woman with her mouth open in protest. The woman smiled at her and said in English, “Now you look like nice girl.” The woman wore blue contact lenses that made her look Siberian. Pearl felt immediate scorn—another Taiwanese girl trying to look Western. Pearl’s father had blue eyes, but of course Pearl’s eyes were brown.
Pearl’s own cousin told her that she was too strong headed after he’d heard her argue with her mother. He’d asked her, “Does all American girls talk like you, so loud?” Pearl just shook her head and walked out of the room.
One evening, when Pearl was grading student papers, her cousin invited her to eat shaved ice. Her aunt smiled and waved at them as they rode away on his motor scooter. They drove through the city and then they stopped in front of a storefront, except it wasn’t a shaved ice stall. It was an Internet café. Her cousin motioned for her to step down off the scooter.
“What are we doing here?”
He pushed up the shield on his helmet so she could see his eyes. “Wait.”
He walked into the Internet café, and handed a young man a few hundred NT. He motioned for her to enter. When she stepped inside, the young man pointed to a computer terminal.
Pearl gestured with her hands. “What’s going on?”
Her cousin stammered. “Wait. Wait. I go see my nu you. My sweetheart.” He’d learned that outdated phrase in his English class.
At the mention of his girlfriend Pearl thought about Dean and wondered what he was doing at that moment. She sighed loudly to show her annoyance, but then waved her cousin off.
Lan opened the sliding glass door and joined Pearl on the balcony. She stood close to Pearl and they watched the street below. She pointed to a small ground floor entrance that was the same width as a double-car garage back in the United States, but had the kind of rolling metal gate only seen on storefronts. It was Lan’s mother’s house.
“In Taiwan people believe a woman should live at home until she marries.”
Pearl nodded her head. She had a cousin who was thirty and still lived at home. “What if you never marry?”
“Then you never leave your mother.”
“Why not? Why not just move?”
Lan sighed and shook her head with impatience. “Not possible. Maybe in Taipei, but not here.”
Pearl thought she was being kind when she said, “You’re smart and pretty. I’m sure you’ll meet someone.”
Lan laughed, and then frowned. “I meet many people. Still, it doesn’t help.”
“Maybe you’re just picky?”
Lan cocked her head. “Picky? What does this mean?”
Pearl searched for an explanation. “It means you don’t like many things so you can’t make a choice. Nothing makes you happy.”
Lan nodded slowly. “My mother thinks I am picky. She always talks about this friend’s son, or that young man, but I always shake my head. She shouts at me. She says I will grow old and alone and deprive her of grandchildren.”
“Why don’t you like any of those men?”
“I cannot explain.” Lan picked up Pearl’s hand from the balcony. She held it between her hands as if to warm it. Then she brought it up to her mouth and kissed Pearl’s palm. The air around them was moist, and even though neon business signs lighted up the street, the balcony was dark and shadowy. “This is why my mother thinks I am picky.”
Even when Lan released Pearl’s hand she felt herself frozen in place. Though she couldn’t return Lan’s feelings, she could see herself going along to break up the monotony of her life, to see how it felt, to have something she could call experience. This made her distrust herself, knowing that boredom and loneliness weren’t reasons to give someone else hope.
Lan took her hesitance as encouragement and she leaned in to kiss Pearl, but just as Lan’s hair brushed her face, Pearl backed away and shook her head. “Don’t.”
Pearl turned and tugged at the sliding glass door. Embarrassed, and sorry for Lan, confused because she was curious what might have happened.
When Pearl re-entered the apartment she heard Philip inviting Jane to an art exhibit in Taipei. They would go during the weeklong Chinese New Year holiday. It was an exhibit of Chinese fashion through history. Jane mentioned that there was a large display of “lotus shoes”—tiny slippers for bound feet.
“My great-grandmother had bound feet.”
Jane looked at Pearl as if she’d announced she was actually descended from an alien race. “That’s horrible! Chinese women must have been the most oppressed women in the world.”
Pearl rolled her eyes. “Right, because corsets were so enlightened.”
Philip smirked but when he saw Jane’s expression he frowned. “Hardly the same thing.”
“Oh, what do you know? You’re a man.” Then Pearl walked out the door.
She ran down the steps and when she hit the street she walked down the block to the 7-11 on the corner. A spot at the window counter gave her a view of the street. If Dean walked past she meant to stop him and lead him to the love hotel around the corner. Pearl and her cousin had an agreement that he would get her at midnight. Her aunt thought he was at the party, mingling with the foreigners and practicing his English, but his girlfriend’s parents were visiting a sick relative and wouldn’t be back until very late. If Dean finally showed up, that would give them just enough time. He’d be grateful.
Pearl sat at the sticky counter eating a tea egg she’d fished out of the large rice pot filled with salty brown broth. Her aunt’s tasted much better.
As she waited for Dean to walk past, she thought of their hike in the mountains the week before. He’d taken the bus to her aunt’s house and they meant to walk several miles up to a temple that had been cracked and ruined by the earthquake earlier in the year. As they walked up the road a man puttered behind them on a motor scooter. He shouted at them, “Hello!” She and Dean stopped and said hello.
The man asked them if they were going up to the temple. Pearl was about to shake her head, no, when Dean said, “That’s right, man.”
The man beamed and patted the back of his scooter. “I take you.”
“No, that’s okay,” said Pearl.
The man waved his hand. He wouldn’t listen to her protests so she climbed on the back. She told Dean that he would come back for him. He let her go, not concerned at all. It wasn’t until they had already reached the temple that Pearl thought of her safety. She pictured her mother back down at the foot of the mountain, thinking she was safe with Dean. The man smiled and waved after he dropped her off and went back for Dean.
When they returned, the man lifted his seat and pulled out a bag of snacks. “We eat, okay?”
After they finished eating, the man waved them in front of the temple and said, “I take picture, okay?”
Unhappy with the distance between them, the man pushed Dean and Pearl closer together. “One, two, three. Okay?”
It seemed wrong to stand smiling for photographs in front of a destroyed temple but the man gave them a thumbs-up and placed his camera away carefully to preserve the evidence of his new foreign friends.
The man chatted with Dean and Pearl became irritated, their afternoon alone ruined by this encounter. Also, the man didn’t seem to know that Dean was teasing him.
“Do you think I am handsome boy?” The man’s fat cheeks pressed against his glasses as he smiled, waiting for an answer.
“You’re fucking gorgeous, man.” Dean winked at Pearl.
Pearl kicked Dean. “I think you’re handsome.”
“Good. I think I go to Hong Kong and be big movie star.”
Pearl raised her eyebrows in surprise.
“I just joke. I study eco-no-mics. I make hen duo qian.” He held his arms wide apart to show how much money he expected to make.
When they were back in front of her aunt’s house Dean leaned in to kiss her. This was what Pearl had wanted—an hour or two alone with Dean, his breath on her neck, her hand on his back. Then her mother opened the sliding door and said, “Good. You’re back. Dinner’s ready.”
When her mother walked back into the house Dean pulled her close, but when Pearl invited him inside he pulled away and said, “I couldn’t stand another bite of Chinese food today.” He kissed her, but soon broke off. “Anyway, what’s the point? We can’t do anything. It’ll just drive me mad.”
She blushed, pleased. She tugged at his arm, and tried to pull him toward the door but he stood his ground. “I wasn’t joking Pearl. I’ll die if I don’t find some relief.”
Pearl pouted. Dean traced a finger down her face and her mind went frantic as desire surged through her. She tried to think of a place, any place, for just five minutes. His frustration was hers, but before she could find a solution Dean moved away.
“Right. See you tomorrow.”
Pearl watched him walk down the road toward the bus stop and took a step to follow him, but the houses were so close together, the only privacy was further up the mountain amid bamboo groves and the threat of mosquitoes—not suitable at all.
She joined her family but ate quickly so she could lie on her bed and relive his finger tracing regret on her skin.
Before she and Dean met, he’d spent all his money traveling in South East Asia. Pearl pictured him sleeping with carefree expat girls in humid hostels and was jealous. Since he was trying to save money he lived in an all-male dormitory where guests weren’t allowed. It was true. They were never alone.
Then Dean walked past the 7-11. Pearl knocked back her stool and ran outside. She grabbed him from behind and reached up to cover his eyes with her hands. “Guess who?”
He stood still, as if this happened to him all the time. “It can only be my dear precious Pearl. You’ve got at least three stone on most of the girls around here.”
That wasn’t what she’d wanted to hear, always conscious of her weight compared to Taiwanese women. Still, she told herself that he was joking, and when he turned to look at her they kissed.
Pearl’s cousin rode past on his scooter. He was early. Pearl wanted to turn and run down the street. If Dean chose to follow her, all the better, but she was tired of being tied to someone else’s schedule.
Pearl saw her cousin park his scooter in front of her co-teacher’s building about twenty feet away. Lan was standing there. Pearl wished she would go away. She felt responsible for Lan’s desire and would rather pretend that nothing had happened. It was different here. Girls walked arm-in-arm down the street, or held hands, and it didn’t mean anything. What happened with Lan didn’t have to mean anything.
Pearl’s cousin turned around after Lan pointed toward her and Dean.
She knew she wasn’t going to take Dean to the love hotel. Even if her cousin had stuck to their plan, she would have only hinted at it, hoping that Dean would suggest the love hotel himself. They would just go to the party like a normal couple.
Her cousin motioned for her to hurry. Instead, Pearl shouted, “You’re early. You can wait for me this time.”
Her cousin didn’t understand her so he turned to Lan to ask her to translate for him. Pearl couldn’t hear them, but she saw the sneer on Lan’s face, and her cousin’s exasperation.
He walked over to her. “We go home.”
Pearl shook her head. “No. You can wait for me like I waited for you.” She looked at Dean, who had an amused expression on his face. “We want to stay.”
Lan walked over. “Your cousin wants to study. You should go home.” Lan looked Dean up and down, clearly unimpressed with him. This made Dean laugh.
Pearl blew out a breath. “Not that it’s any of your business, but he didn’t care about studying when he was with his girlfriend. We’re going to stay.”
Lan flinched. “American girls are very selfish.”
Pearl’s cousin was confused. He stepped forward as if to keep them apart.
Dean shook his head and caught Pearl’s eye. He gestured with his chin toward Lan. “What did I tell you? A country full of virgins.”
Pearl looked at Dean. His eyes were small and watery gray; they often danced with amusement, but she’d had enough of his laughing contempt.
“You always say the wrong fucking thing, Dean.”
“It’s the truth, isn’t it?” When Pearl looked away he said, “You don’t have to listen to them. You don’t have to be a good girl for once in your life.”
Pearl bit her lower lip. She wanted to stay and sit next to Dean and speak English without having to think so hard the way she did when she tried to speak Mandarin with her cousin or strangers. But how would she get home?
Dean looked down his long nose at her. “Suit yourself. I’ve had enough of this.”
Pearl threw her hands up in the air, and said to her cousin. “Let’s go. I’m sick of everybody.”
Pearl followed him to his motor scooter and strapped the heavy helmet to her head. She turned to see if Dean was still behind them, holding out hope that he would beg her to stay. Dean wasn’t there. He’d gone to join the party without her.
Lan stood in the street, hunched over. She hugged herself as if she was cold, or had a stomachache. Her eyes tracked Pearl’s every move. Pearl shook her head.
She turned to climb up behind her cousin. When they motored away the air felt good and cool on her hot cheeks. Her chest was tight, ready to burst with everything she wanted to shout but couldn’t. Who would understand her, anyway?